The Big Idea: Jean Marie Bauhaus

First books in a series are often easy to write — fresh ideas, new characters, cool situations. What about the second books, where you have to continue with the rules you already set out? How do you keep it fresh for the readers, and the author? It’s a question Jean Marie Bauhaus confronts in her new novel, Kindred Spirits.

JEAN MARIE BAUHAUS:

Sometimes ideas come easy. For example, walking out of a movie theater many moons ago after having seen The Grudge, I had the thought that if being violently murdered can turn someone into a murderous vengeful spirit, then what about the spirits of the people murdered by said vengeful spirit? Wouldn’t they want vengeance, too? What if instead of taking their anger out on innocent people they instead turned on the ghost that killed them in the first place? That idea stuck with me and eventually grew into the plot of my debut novel, Restless Spirits.

When it came to writing a sequel, however, nothing was so easy or clear cut. Kindred Spirits actually took me years to write because although there were a few things I knew for certain, none of those things added up to a story. I knew, for instance, that the spotlight would shift from the first book’s ghostly protagonist to her living sister, medium Chris Wilson. I knew that Chris would purchase and move into the haunted house featured in the first book, where her sister’s spirit still resides. And I knew that living with her overprotective big sister’s ghost would prove to be complicated, and also pretty annoying.

I also knew that I wanted the second book to stand on its own two legs, to be a self-contained story that could be understood and enjoyed without needing to have read its predecessor. This seemed like a tall order.

Despite knowing these details, a story didn’t start to take shape until I conceived of an antagonist who not only didn’t believe in Chris’s abilities but also had the power to seriously complicate her life. That character became Derek Brandt, a cynical TV crime reporter who believes he has a duty to expose Chris as a fraud. Which leads to the question: what would Big Sis do to someone who went after Chris in such a way?

The answer: haunt him, of course. At which point hijinks would ensue.

But that still wasn’t a story. It was only a starting point. Things didn’t really start to come together until I sat myself down and asked myself, what is the central idea of this story?

Restless Spirits developed along the theme that love is a powerful force that gives good people the strength to do what’s necessary to overcome evil, so powerful that it outlasts even death.

It occurred to me that here I had an opportunity to explore the flip side of that idea–that love can be twisted into a destructive force by twisted, broken people, used as both an impetus and an excuse for evil actions. With that central idea in place, other characters quickly came into being and their motivations and goals became clear. Derek Brandt, as it turned out, had good reason for his cynicism and distrust of Chris Wilson and her ilk. He also had a brother, whose unsolved murder became the central plot.

Finally, I had a story to tell.

That story turned out to be quite the mashup. One part ghost story, one part romantic comedy and one part murder mystery with a dash of thriller, served with a liberal sprinkling of a Gilmore Girls-esque relationship between sisters who won’t even let death come between them.

The romance and comedy came naturally, as did the darker supernatural and suspense aspects of the book. As someone who grew up bouncing back and forth between the likes of Lucy Maude Montgomery and Stephen King, I tend to have a wide range of sensibilities that creeps into my writing.

The mystery part, however, challenged me and took me places that as a writer I never expected to go. It turns out that writing a mystery doesn’t simply involve deciding who the killer is and then planting clues for your protagonist to follow like bread crumbs. You also have to do so in such a way that doesn’t make the killer’s identity completely obvious to the reader–which is harder to do than it sounds. Giving the killer layers, with sympathetic motives that make him or her seem like a human being and not a Disney villain, was also a concern.

I think I managed to pull it off, but that’s up to the reader to decide. At any rate, whereas the first book is a love story at its core, so too is this one, but it’s as much a story about how love can become corrupted as it is about its power to heal wounds, overcome darkness and make forgiveness possible. Whether it does one or the other ultimately comes down to the condition of the soul who’s driven by it.

—-

Kindred Spirits: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Kobo

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s blog. Follow her on Twitter.

The Big Idea: Desirina Boskovich

Memory and language: Two concepts that Desirinia Boskovich had in mind for her novella Never Now Always. And now, here she is, to remember to you, in words, why they were important to her story.

DESIRINA BOSKOVICH:

There are key moments and motifs in fiction that we latch onto as readers, and as writers. Symbolic scenes that loom large for us because they connect in some deeper way with our own buried nightmares and past traumas.

For me one of those moments is in C.S. Lewis’ The Silver Chair, where every single day, bound to that chair, the prince remembers how much he’s forgotten. Fleetingly, he understands he’s a prisoner and also that he can do nothing about it, imprisoned equally by his own enchanted brain.

I was just six or seven when I read this and the horror of it simply overwhelmed me and then infiltrated me: that moment when you know, and simultaneously know the knowledge won’t last.

I think it terrifies me because the vulnerability and powerlessness of that moment is so crushing and absolute.

In Never Now Always, I set out to explore the terror of that moment. And also to face it and conquer it, putting my characters in the same predicament, yet giving them tools to fight.

So the story centers on Lolo, a child who finds herself trapped in a mysterious labyrinth under the supervision of a horde of voiceless alien Caretakers. She is surrounded by many other children, but none of them know how they ended up there, or what happened before. And as the Caretakers subject the children to psychological experiments focused on trauma and memory, their ability to form short-term memories is limited, too. Everything they learn, or think they learn, just slips between their fingers like water.

Then Lolo hits on the concept of writing — scrawling drawings and pictographs as simply as possible, designed to represent these fleeting pieces of story to her future self. Hoping that she stays the same, that her perception persists enough from day to day that when she sees those scribblings later, she’ll still know what they mean.

For me, as the writer of the novella, it was more complicated. The deeper I got into the story, the more I realized how truly challenging it would be to tell a story where the mechanics of narrative are broken, where one thing doesn’t always lead to another and pieces of story don’t necessarily add up.

In some ways every scene felt like a first scene. There are gaps in this story, and continuity errors.

But I also realized that while I wanted my reader to feel somewhat disoriented, I could not let them remain as disoriented as the characters, because that would really not be an enjoyable story to read.

So I also ended up depending heavily on language to do the work — I tried to anchor everything in touch and taste and feelings, always in the present tense, a language reinvented for children whose sense of time is confined to a narrow slice of perpetual now. Everything that’s happening to them is happening in the immediate, and the present is the only moment that matters.

And in that perpetual now is where I think my characters — and I, myself — find redemption and solace. Because love is deeper than language. Because my dog doesn’t need to remember all the days of his life with me to know that with me he’s loved and safe and home; “yesterday” and “tomorrow” don’t actually mean anything. As always, my dog is wiser than I am. So I gave Lolo a dog, too, to help her figure it out.

In the end, the story returns to the one idea I find most comforting: that in this world and the next, life after life, we always make our way back to protect those who’ve protected us, and to be reunited with the souls we’ve loved.

I hope it’s true.

—-

Never Now Always: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s site. Follow her on Twitter.

The Big Idea: Laura Lam

Big Ideas are great for a book (I mean, that’s kind of the whole point of the “Big Idea” pieces). But as Laura Lam explains about her novel Shattered Minds, sometimes the Big Idea is just the jumping off point.

LAURA LAM:

Sometimes you get the big idea for the story. Sometimes that’s not enough, even when you’ve written the damn thing.

My first idea excited me and got that fire of creativity going. I wanted to play with the Dexter notion—the serial killer who feels conflicted about it. A character who loves killing in rather inventive ways, who thrives off violence, but has enough of a glimmer of a conscious to want to change. A serial killer who doesn’t want to kill innocents is sort of like a vampire who doesn’t want to drink human blood—can they suppress that thirst or will they succumb? We as humans love staring into that darkness. It’s why we read about serial killers, about mythological creatures who prey on humans, or it’s why we watch horror. Carina, the protagonist of Shattered Minds, is a serial killer who becomes deliberately addicted to a dream drug called Zeal so she’s only killing people in her imagination.

The first big idea: serial killer lost in dream drugs. I knew this book would be more violent than my other work and have some cool, trippy dream sequences. I also wanted to build on the world I created in False Hearts, which came out last year (the Pacifica novels are a series of standalones set on the West Coast of the formerly United States). This book is set in Los Angeles instead of San Francisco. The series blends psychological thriller and near future tech, with a big nod at 80s and 90s cyberpunk. Shattered Minds has hover cars, floating skyscrapers and mansions, bright moving ads against the sides of buildings. People can change their appearance at will thanks to flesh parlours. Moving tattoos are etched on their skin, and their eyes might glimmer in the dark from extra implants. Pacifica is a shiny ecotopia that’s an ugly dystopia once you scratch the surface.

I wrote Shattered Minds, and the plot worked, for the most part. Carina scared me, but not quite as much as the villain, Roz (if you watch Orphan Black, Rachel is a big inspiration for her). I did a lot of research on serial killers, especially female ones, and neuroscience, hacking, corporate espionage, and more. But something was missing. All the pieces were there, made sense, but it was just . . . lacking. The puzzle pieces had the right images but they weren’t slotting together. And that was terrifying. This was going to be my fifth published book. Shouldn’t I have a better handle on this by now? I’d put in all this work, and I could tell something was wrong. This is where good editors are worth their weight in gold. Together, we found the second big idea to bring the project back to life.

It became a Frankenstein retelling. I struck the thing with lightning, basically (har, har). In the first draft, Carina was a serial killer just because . . . she was. There wasn’t much explanation or reason. No purpose (to use the most overused word said in lectures on the MA in Creative Writing I help teach at Napier in Edinburgh). In the next draft, Roz experimented on Carina when she was a teen, reprogramming her brain to be cool and collected—the perfect unbiased scientist, unbothered by things like empathy or ethics. (Note: this isn’t a spoiler—you find all this out in chapter three after the third murder in a row). However, Roz’s experiment went wrong. Carina started feeling things again, with the side effect of her also wanting to kill everything around her. Now Roz has a much stronger reason to want to take down Carina rather than just greed. Carina is the broken experiment that much be eradicated. The one who got under her skin. The one she couldn’t let go.

The next draft just worked. I loved editing Shattered Minds as much as I had hated writing the first draft. Scenes slotted into place, Carina and Roz finally worked, circling each other like sharks. It was glorious fun to make my dark, bloody book even darker and more twisted.

Sometimes, maybe a book needs more than one big idea. More than just “what if” question. Maybe something is missing in the first draft and you just need to add a little lightning to revitalise the corpse.

—-

Shattered Minds: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s site. Follow her on Twitter.

The Big Idea: Curtis C. Chen

When the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie… well, if you’re Curtis C. Chen, maybe you think about setting a novel there. Here’s Chen now to explain Kangaroo Too’s lunar connection.

CURTIS C. CHEN:

It is very likely that I set Kangaroo Too on the moon because of The Fifth Element.

In that movie, there’s a throwaway line of dialogue when Korben Dallas’ mother telephones him and complains that he never visits her on the moon. I had totally forgotten this until I went to see a 20th anniversary screening this year (yes, we really are that old), but it must have been stewing in my subconscious all that time.

Because why wouldn’t you put a retirement community on the moon? Gravity there is only one-sixth of Earth’s, so elders with mobility issues will find it easier to get around. Every habitat needs to be pressurized and climate-controlled anyway, so it can be as tropical as residents want. The only downside is that your family will have even more excuses for not visiting. Q.E.D.

Using the moon as a setting also let me put characters in a wider variety of awkward situations. Most of the first novel took place in a single location—a cruise spaceship traveling from Earth to Mars—but each hemisphere of the moon is roughly as wide across as the entire continental United States. Add a futuristic high-speed subway connecting population centers, and a reckless secret agent can get into plenty of trouble all over the place.

One lunar feature I latched onto early in my research was a “crater of eternal darkness.” The moon is tidally locked to the Earth (i.e., one hemisphere always faces toward us), and there are places along the day/night terminator that either always or never see sunlight. If you want continuous free electricity to power a transportation network, put solar panels on mountaintops near the north pole; if you want to keep something hidden, bury it under the deepest crater at the south pole.

And, of course, I had to include visits to at least a couple of Apollo landing sites, which are preserved as historical museums in this future. I’m sure the same thing will happen in reality. As soon as people can affordably travel to other planets, there’s going to be a booming space tourism industry. Everybody wants to stand on the Lunar surface, see the Earth rise over the horizon, and cover that blue marble with their thumb.

But back to aging on the moon. NASA recently conducted a Twins Study in which they followed identical twin astronauts Scott and Mark Kelly for one year, while Scott lived aboard the International Space Station and Mark remained on Earth. The final report isn’t out yet, but researchers are already seeing unexpected results (e.g., telomere lengthening) which raise many interesting questions. It seems possible that humans could naturally live longer in low gravity environments.

Of course, the most important scientific question raised in Kangaroo Too is: could we actually keep chickens on the moon, and therefore have fresh eggs? The only way to know for sure is to establish a Lunar base and start breeding livestock up there. Make me a liar, Fish!

—-

Kangaroo Too: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s blog. Follow him on Twitter.

The Big Idea: Linda Nagata

For The Last Good Man, author Linda Nagata decided to take a risk with one of her characters, who is not the usual sort for the literary milieu Nagata has her story inhabit. Who is this character? And what were the repercussions of that risk?

LINDA NAGATA:

For most of my career, I’ve written novels based only on what was intensely interesting to me at the time. In the early days it was nanotechnology, cryonics, the vastness and wonder of space, biotech, and artificial worlds. My settings would regularly shift between near future and far.

And then, abruptly, I abandoned science fiction and took a turn into pure fantasy.

“With magic?” one hard SF writer asked me in dismay.

“Yes, actually.”

So much for author branding. Clearly, market savvy was not part of my process.

But older and wiser, right?

Not exactly. I made another abrupt turn and dove into military science fiction with the Red trilogy—high-tech thrillers published by Saga Press in 2015. The books were well-reviewed. The first volume was a Nebula-award nominee and named as a Publishers Weekly best book.

It seemed logical to follow up on that seeming success so I resolved that for the first time I would approach my next book with a little market savvy. I would write another military-themed story, again with a near-future, high-tech setting. That way, I told myself, I’d have a better chance of holding on to the readers I’d gained with the trilogy because I’d be giving them something similar-but-different.

Next, it occurred to me that if I set the new book even closer to the present time, I might have a chance of pushing beyond the science fiction genre and making inroads into the military thriller market.

Hey, we can all dream.

The Red trilogy was written around a unit of US Army soldiers. Following that similar-but-different philosophy, I decided the new novel would involve a private military company, because that would allow for more freedom with the plot.

Even with the benefit of hindsight, this all still makes sense to me. But in selecting my protagonist, I embarked on a major gamble.

My version of brainstorming is to engage in swiftly typed stream-of-consciousness question-and-answer sessions. It’s the best way I know to develop ideas. I was brainstorming the possible identity of my main protagonist when I typed this:

Hey. Maybe she’s middle aged. (How to kill a novel in one bad move.)

Generally speaking, middle-aged women are not considered to be cool main characters of the sort that commonly inhabit techno-thrillers. So this was a perfect example of the creative and logical parts of my mind contending with one another. The logical part immediately recognized the risk, but the obstinate, defiant, creative part turned out to be in charge. Later on, in the same session, I typed:

Man, I like the retired-army-woman character.

I liked her—at that stage it was just the idea of her—because she was an atypical protagonist for the sort of book I wanted to write.

On Twitter there has often been talk of how middle-aged women don’t exist in science fiction. That’s an exaggeration, of course. Looking back at my own work, the protagonist of the second novel I ever had published was a woman of “mature years.” Still. I felt as if a gauntlet had been thrown down and I wanted to pick it up, accept the challenge, and write a riveting but realistic story about a can-do, older woman. I knew it was a market risk. Nevertheless, I thought I might persuade at least a few readers to go along with me, and besides, it’s fun to kick clichés to the side of the road.

So my “retired-army-woman character” stayed, becoming the Big Idea behind The Last Good Man.

Of course there is a lot more going on in this novel. The Last Good Man is a fast-paced, high-tech, military thriller that deals with autonomous weapons, big data, A.I., surveillance, remote warfare—and their effects on human relationships. But from the first day that the story truly started to take shape, I knew it would be centered on a woman. Specifically, True Brighton, retired US Army soldier, former helicopter pilot with frontline experience, a forty-nine-year-old mother of three who’s been happily married for three decades, and who is not at all ready to retire.

True works for a private military company and despite her husband’s misgivings, she is a valued part of the company’s hostage rescue team. She’s also realistic about the limits that aging will place on her. I’m reasonably athletic, so it was fun to foreshadow those limits, working from my own experience.

Middle age is an interesting time. There can be more freedom as children reach adulthood, but there is also a sense that time is getting short and that old age with all its limitations is just around the corner.

True feels the pressure of time, and she also carries an extra burden. She is haunted by the death of her oldest son, a soldier too, who was brutally killed in the line of duty. When a chance discovery during a hostage rescue mission indicates there is more to his death than she’s been told, a mother’s resolve comes over her to uncover the truth, regardless of the cost.

This was a challenging novel to write, I think in part because deep down, I doubted the marketability of it from the start. Somewhere along the way though, it became a novel I needed to write.

Still, my doubts were not misplaced. New York publishing houses didn’t know what to make of it. No one said specifically, Middle-aged mom? No way! But it was implied that marketing The Last Good Man would be a challenge that no one quite knew how to handle.

So The Last Good Man went out under my own imprint—and I’ll admit to sweet satisfaction when it earned a starred review from Publishers Weekly.

I hope you’ll give it a try. After all, it’s readers who ultimately decide if a Big Idea is “market savvy.”

—-

The Last Good Man: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s blog. Follow her on Twitter.

The Big Idea: Theodora Goss

In her Big Idea piece for The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter, author Theodora Goss makes an observation about classic monster stories that I, personally, never picked up on, but now that she’s pointed it out, seems obvious. It says something about me that I missed it, and something about her that she’s used it as a cornerstone for her novel.

THEODORA GOSS:

“The remains of the half-finished creature, whom I had destroyed, lay scattered on the floor, and I almost felt as if I had mangled the living flesh of a human being.” –Victor Frankenstein

It’s hard to identify where a novel comes from, but if The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter comes from anyplace specifically, it’s that moment when Frankenstein, having created a female counterpart for his creature, disassembles her. Then, not wanting to leave her remains for the peasants to find, he puts them in a basket, weighs it down with stones, and throws it into the sea. There goes the Bride of Frankenstein…

I was studying Frankenstein and his creature because I was writing a doctoral dissertation on late Victorian gothic monsters–Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Count Dracula, the Beast Men on the Island of Dr. Moreau. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein isn’t late Victorian, of course, but I wanted to understand this iconic monster narrative so I could apply some of what I learned to those later works. Well, one thing I learned is that there’s almost always a female monster, and she’s almost always destroyed.

Let’s take some examples from the later works I was studying. Some of these you’ll recognized, but some may be obscure enough that you won’t know what I’m talking about. That’s all right! Late Victorian gothic is like a wonderfully fearsome labyrinth. The fun is in exploring . . . So let’s start with Sheridan Le Fanu’s Camilla, in which the titular vampire is destroyed according to standard vampire protocols for the crime of seducing the innocent Laura and trying to turn her into a vampire as well. (Bonus: lots of sexual subtext from an era when books about same-sex romantic relationships were still banned.)

In Bram Stoker’s Dracula, which was deeply influenced by Carmilla, both vampire Lucy and Dracula’s brides are staked and beheaded. In H.G. Wells’s The Island of Dr. Moreau, the Puma Woman escapes from Moreau’s terrible House of Pain and kills him, but is herself shot. In Arthur Machen’s The Great God Pan, the mysterious Helen, who has the power to summon Pan and his minions, is forced to hang herself. You don’t even have to be a technical monster: in H. Rider Haggard’s She, the irresistibly beautiful Ayesha burns in the fire of immortality–which is a good thing, because she was thinking of claiming the British throne. And where would that leave Queen Victoria, I ask you? Ayesha isn’t a monster, but she is monstrous–a woman who has the power to kill with a gesture, and whom no man can resist. No wonder the novel has to get rid of her.

We find the same thing earlier in the century and across the pond with Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Rappaccini’s Daughter,” the beautiful but poisonous Beatrice, who kills herself so that her lover may live. Beatrice gets more sympathetic treatment than other monstrous women–she is, at least, a romantic heroine. Like Ayesha, she gets to tell part of her own story, although the focus of the narrative is not, finally, on her, despite Hawthorne’s title. But she too dies in the end. They all do. One exception is Queen Tera in Stoker’s less-known novel The Jewel of Seven Stars, where the resurrected Egyptian queen triumphs at the end–but guess what? In the second edition, the ending was rewritten (perhaps by Stoker, perhaps by his editor), and she too is exterminated.

(Perhaps most strangely, women creep into these works even when not officially present . . . In Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, which contains almost no women at all, Hyde himself is feminized, suffering from “hysteria,” and Jekyll tells us that he finds turning into his alter ego “unmanning.” Of course, Hyde has to die, taking Jekyll with him.)

The field of monster literature is strewn with female bodies. Why? Well, monsters die just in general, so it’s not all about being female. But female monsters are presented as particularly dangerous. Frankenstein does not complete his creation because she might breed with the male monster, and their progeny might outcompete man. Beyond that concrete biological danger, a female monster does not fit the cultural category “female” as it was conceived in the nineteenth century (or earlier: we have a fearsome female monster who must be destroyed in the classical figure of Medusa). Carmilla must be destroyed specifically because she threatens the good women. She might–gasp–turn them into monsters like herself!

So the big idea behind my novel is really very simple: the female monsters did not die. They’re alive, and they’re telling their own stories. That doesn’t mean all the female characters in the novel are good–villainesses are too delicious to dispense with, and anyway, I wanted to make sure that in my narrative, female characters got to be all sorts of things, both good and evil.

But it started with the idea that female monsters have served, throughout literary history, as supporting characters for primarily male stories. They have been the sirens or harpies at the edge of the hero’s journey, the sphinx posing riddles . . . The late nineteenth century was particularly obsessed with monstrous women, as we can see from the many pre-Raphaelite and Aesthetic paintings of these mythical figures. (It’s probably not a coincidence that this was also the era of the New Woman and the suffrage movement, when “unnatural” females were agitating for such shocking things as the right to vote or attend university.)

In my novel, the women talk–a lot, sometimes over each other. But hey, they’ve been silent (and silenced) for so long that once I let them start, they had an awful lot to say. They tell us their stories as they really happened. (Jekyll had a daughter! The Puma Woman survived! Frankenstein’s female creature was not disassembled after all!) I wrote The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter because I love the older novels–I can’t imagine a better afternoon than one spent with nineteenth-century monsters, with tea and cookies on a nearby table, while outside the mist and rain create a suitably gothic atmosphere. But this time, I wanted the women to have their say . . .

—-

The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s site. Follow her on Twitter.

The Big Idea: Nicky Drayden

Coincidence: Random events that merely give the appearance of being connected, or… something more? Not so coincidentially, Nicky Drayden is thinking about coincidence, and how it plays into her debut novel The Prey of Gods. What are the odds that she will tell you about it here? Pretty good!

NICKY DRAYDEN:

Have you ever been out running errands about town, start thinking about a friend, only to look up and see them standing right in front of you? Is it coincidence, or is there something greater at play? Fate? A master weaver, tangling and entwining our lives together? Maybe there’s someone who’s watching me from above, saying “Hey, Nicky’s been laying on the couch watching Netflix Originals for six hours straight. Clearly, she needs a few threads crossed…”

I often feel like a pawn in my own life. When I was a kid, my parents took me and my brother to the Houston Zoo. We both got silver helium balloons, and my little brother let go of his and cried as it floated away. Later that day, back at home (exactly 26 miles away, I just checked) we’re playing outside in a neighbor’s yard, and I look up and see a balloon floating high over our house. I am not lying when I say that balloon came directly down towards me, right to where I was standing, and all I had to do was reach up and grab it. A silver Mylar balloon with “Houston Zoo” written on it in colorful block lettering. Of course, I kept it rather than giving it back to my brother, since I was kind of a jerky big sis, but still. It happened.

Coincidence? Fate? Maybe it wasn’t even the same balloon, but does that make it less weird, or weirder? This kind of thing happens to me practically every other week, but unfortunately, writing fiction, you can’t rely on coincidence too many times before a reader throws your book across the room. After all, real life doesn’t have to make sense. Fiction kinda does.

So enter the master weaver—me, your mostly humble debut author–here to regale you with my Big Idea, the story behind the threads that make up the tapestry that is The Prey of Gods. When I set about writing this novel, all I had were six random character sketches, most of whom have nothing to do with one another, and a setting, South Africa, because during a college summer break I’d traveled there as a peer counselor for a group of teenagers, and I thought it’d be cool to see how the experiences I had there would translate into a work of speculative fiction set 50 years into the future.

There are of course, the big, bold threads that tie the six point-of-view characters together, moving them all towards the epic battle scenes involving giant robots and angry demigoddesses. (Fun fact, easiest way to upset a demigoddess, have someone show up to the world’s destruction in the same exact dress she’s wearing.) But the true joy of character weaving is tying the tiny, nearly microscopic threads together, and having the characters cross paths in ways they might not even notice.

For example, Riya Natrajan, the sultry pop diva in the book, has attitude for days, and finds herself stuck sharing a robot taxi with a business exec who’s late to a meeting. She’s trying to be incognito, but the guy is onto her—suspecting she’s a celebrity lookalike, but maybe…just maybe it’s really her. Riya denies it of course, but now the guy is jabbering on, practically beside himself with excitement. She commands the robot taxi to play some music for a distraction, and as the master weaver would have it, one of the tracks from her latest album blasts over the speakers.

Small coincidences like this work fine, and even add a little comic relief to tense situations, because the plot isn’t hinging on such minor occurrences. But then the guy tells Riya that he’d just bought tickets to her concert for his brother-in-law, and the careful reader will realize that he’s related to Muzi, the slightly wayward teen, who after a trippy afternoon dabbling with a new hallucinogenic drug, discovers he’s able to control people’s minds. Muzi inadvertently (maybe) uses his new powers to make his best friend Elkin forget the most intimate moment of both their lives. Oh, and Elkin’s drug dealing cousin, the one who bullied them into this whole mess, is in a secret relationship with pop star super sensation Riya Natrajan. Bigger coincidences, threads are crossing, and the weaving is just getting started.

These little knots gain significance as the story moves on, putting more and more tension upon already taut threads. Do the threads pop, or do they hold? Are these chance encounters unrealistic? That’s ultimately up to the reader to decide, but maybe we enjoy these twists of fate in fiction so much because they give us a mechanism to process the absurd coincidences in our own lives.

I owe a lot of people credit for the development of this book, but first and foremost, there is Dr. Joshua Hill to thank, the director of the Renewable Energy and Environmental Protection program who organized and lead our trip to South Africa. Many (many) summers ago, I left my college home of Austin, Texas, leaving my country for the first time as well. I worked nearly all of my amazing experiences I had abroad into the novel, like the mouthwatering beer bread, the intricately carved wood sculptures, and of course the plague of dik-diks.

While in South Africa, I received a letter from my college boyfriend, informing me that he’d had lunch with a random guy up at his summer internship in Virginia, who knew someone who went to the University of Texas (a school of 50,000 students, mind you.) The guy asked my boyfriend if he knew a girl named Nicky. My boyfriend said that he was dating a girl named Nicky, and from a short exchange, they concluded that I was in fact that same Nicky. A coincidence in itself, but the guy who my boyfriend was having lunch with—Dr. Joshua Hill’s son.

Master Weaver, I see you up there. You’re doing a bang-up job. Keep those threads crossing.

—-

The Prey of Gods: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read Muzi’s excerpt. Read Sydney’s excerpt. Visit the author’s site. Follow her on Twitter.

The Big Idea: Michael Johnston

What does it take for a civilization to be “too big to fail” — and can any civilization in fact make it to that particular point? In writing his novel Soleri, author Michael Johnston had reason to consider this particular question, and came to a civilization near the Nile River for inspiration.

MICHAEL JOHNSTON:

I got my big idea for my novel, Soleri, back when I was an undergraduate, sitting in an art history class. The professor was talking about ancient Egypt and how the people of the New Kingdom visited the pyramids, which were constructed during the Old Kingdom (thousands of years earlier) as tourists. Those giant pyramids in the sand carried as much mystery and wonder for the Egyptians of 10 BCE as they do for any tourist today.

Egyptian society was ancient in a way that we can’t even imagine. For roughly three thousand years they built a civilization in and around the Nile river. Academics theorize that the Egyptians could not imagine the possibility of their civilization ever coming to an end. The Persians had come and gone and when the Greeks appeared, they simply integrated themselves into the fabric of Egypt. Cleopatra was of Greek origin. There was something potent about Egypt. It simply could not be dominated. Of course Julius Caesar put an end to that notion, but it had a good run. Three thousand years is nothing to sneeze at! So I think it’s worth standing back and considering the idea of a civilization that had always existed and believes that it always will. That idea stuck with me.

In fact, it stuck with me for fifteen years. I grew up in rural Ohio and was a constant reader of science fiction and history, and I loved architecture as well. I never thought I could be an author, so I went with the practical choice and studied architecture. I’ve taught architecture and practiced in New York and Los Angeles. I did a lot things between that art history lecture and the time when I started writing speculative fiction.

But I wouldn’t call it a break. Soleri is as much about history as it is about architecture (although I did have to tone down the descriptions of ancient buildings. They went on for pages in the early drafts). See, my big idea was to take what I knew about architecture and history and to meld it with everything I loved about speculative fiction. To do that, I went back to that idea about ancient Egypt. Suddenly that old idea had a fresh meaning, I saw it as the bridge between my old profession and my new one.

Skeptical? Hold on for a moment. Here’s how it worked.

I wanted to write about architecture and history, but I didn’t want to write non-fiction. I wanted to use my imagination and besides, there are already many wonderful histories of Egypt and Rome on the shelves. So I decided to look at ancient Egypt as a concept, a speculation, and not a place in history. Egypt represented the eternal civilization. Even the Roman Empire was short by comparison. So I decided to write about a civilization that was so ancient, that every part of its history had been obscured by time, that its origin had been written and rewritten so many times that the truth behind it had been lost a hundred times over.

My novel is about a civilization ruled by a family of gods, but no one has seen these gods, the Soleri, in centuries. They are shrouded like their history–the wall they live behind is even called the Shroud Wall. In Soleri, the empire is so old that its people have stopped questioning its legitimacy. Everything is ritual, but no one recalls the purpose behind these rituals. The empire of the Soleri is still going through the motions, pretending it is virulent and strong when all the life has already poured out of it (if you are starting to think the Soleri empire might be a metaphor for our own, you are on the right track but that’s a different essay).

There is a place in the novel when one of my characters thinks: This city (the Soleri capital) has forgotten more history than I can recall. It has witnessed the lives of more men, great and small, than I could ever hold in my head.

That lines sums up a lot of the book. Everything we first learn about the Soleri and their empire is inverted as the novel progresses. Like peeling away the skin of an onion, we have to strip away all the layers of history, all the lies that were placed one on top of the other to form the empire we encounter in the prologue. One of the lines in that piece sums up the idea perfectly, Before time was the Soleri, and after time the Soleri will be. They are eternal, their existence unquestionable, or so the story goes.

In Soleri, we learn the secrets behind each of those lies. We take apart the history and find something entirely unexpected inside, which takes me back to my big idea. The eternal civilization. It doesn’t exist. It is itself a fiction. Soleri is about a society that has become its own fiction, a civilization that has come to believe their own lies. At least until a few people start to find out the truth behind the empire. That’s what happens in the novel. That’s the moment when things get interesting, but I’ll leave it to the reader to discover what actually hides behind the Shroud Wall and what secrets lie behind the history of the Soleri.

—-

Soleri: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s site. Follow him on Twitter.

The Big Idea: Steven R. Boyett

A World War II bomber gets sucked through time and space — and that’s the easy part of Fata Morgana. What was the harder part? As Steven R. Boyett explains, it’s everything else that he and co-writer Ken Mitchroney had to build up around that initial big idea.

(Disclosure: As you can see from the image, I blurbed this book.)

STEVEN R. BOYETT:

When one creative person and another creative person love each other very very much, sometimes they get together and make a Special Thing that’s a combination of both of them, but that’s also its own unique thing.

It’s an educational and wonderful thing to write a novel with someone you’ve been friends with for a very long time, especially when you are two very different people, with very different sensibilities, collaborating on a book whose core idea is essentially a fusion of those two sensibilities.

Our novel Fata Morgana is basically a mashup. It’s an intensively researched WWII historical novel about a B-17 Flying Fortress crew on a harrowing mission over Germany in 1943. It’s also a post-apocalyptic fish-out-of-water story, in the tradition of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court or The Time Machine. That fusion of sensibilities caused our agent to market it as “Band of Brothers meets Lost Horizon” — a bit marketspeak, but totally fair.

Ken is primarily a movie guy. He’s been a storyboarder, head of story departments, and director for Hollywood studios for decades. He’s a cartoonist and animator, published & illustrated comic books (Space Ark, Myth Conceptions, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Ren & Stimpy), raced NASCAR modified sportsman cars, and rebuilt and run locomotives. He pinstripes cars and did artwork with Ed “Big Daddy” Roth, of Rat Fink fame. The Baltimore Orioles wore his artwork. He’s the voice of Zurg on the Toy Story ride.

He’s also weirdly steeped in Forties American culture: swing music, movies, slang, fashion, cars – and B-17 bombers. Ken is an Old Soul. You talk to him and you realize he’s been around before. He’s the single funniest guy I’ve ever met.

I write fiction. I’ve published books almost literally since I was a kid. I’m a lifelong martial artist. I once made a living as a paper marbler. Through a fairly strange series of events, learning overtone singing led me to playing the didgeridoo, to recording electronic music, to being a club DJ with two very popular music podcasts (Podrunner and Groovelectric). As a DJ I’m enamored of the mashup, and as a writer I’m enamored of the idea of putting music into words. Music has had a huge influence on my writing – the rhythm of the prose, the symphonic structure of a larger work, sometimes the subject matter itself. My fiction is often steeped in postapocalyptic imagery, what Salvador Dalí and Tears for Fears called “the beauty of decay.” Road trips are a big theme with me. Imagine Jack Kerouac writing The Lord of the Rings.

(Oh, God. Now I really want to write that. So in the Shire when the sun goes down and I sit by the Water watching the long skies over Middle Earth, and that road going ever on and on, and in Gondor I know by now the children must be crying just before the night that blesses Mirkwood cups the Misty Mountains and nobody, nobody knows what’s going to happen besides the forlorn rags of Gandalf growing old, I think of Frodo Baggins, I even think of old Bilbo who in some way was the father of us all, but I think of Frodo Baggins.)

Unlike Ken, I am not an Old Soul. I’m a new soul. This is clearly my first time around; I’m still in my shrinkwrap. I have a naive idealist’s outrage at the ways that people and societies can behave toward one another, as if it’s a surprise every time.

So: Old friends. A witch’s caldron of sensibilities, talents, interests. Apply heat and stir. Does it blend, gel, combust? (The truth is, if you saw Toy Story 2, you probably already know what we’re like when we work together. Ken was Senior Story Artist on that movie, and I wrote the second draft of the screenplay. And at this point I won’t exactly be burning any bridges when I opine that most of what’s good about that movie is me and Ken.)

Ken had this mental image of two warring, Braveheart-ish factions about to collide when something stops them. A roaring from the sky. A B-17 bomber smoking in on failing Wright Cyclone engines, crashlanding out of frame. He’d encapsulated our different sensibilities in one image — I was so in.

The next four years came from that single image.

I’m a firm believer in a fantasy or SF novel’s feet being planted on real ground, and I did a ton of research on bombers (including buzzing my neighborhood in one, woo hoo!), the US wartime economy, the European theater, the Biosphere 2 experiment in Arizona, and self-sustaining ecologies in general). Ken loves ensemble movies & shows, from Jack Benny to Frazier, and put our bomber crew together. We logicked the living crap out of the storyline. It has a ton of twists and surprises, and judging from the responses so far, they seem to have worked. It has sections written in bullet time and dialogue you’d expect to hear on a Philco Cathedral radio.

The surprising thing was how seriously we began to take the whole endeavor. We’d started out wanting a rollercoaster ride, a summer tentpole movie. But in the wake of Band of Brothers and Saving Private Ryan it seems a disservice now to look back on that war as an excuse to tell a Ripping Adventure Story. What those frighteningly young men went through was simply unbelievable, and the more we learned and the more the book took shape, the more we felt the awful weight of duty thrust upon an entire generation. Such that the book became about the price of duty over desire.

I think no matter what you write about it’s good to take your subject matter seriously. I think it makes you go the extra mile, do your due diligence to your characters and your world. It was just as true for the post-apocalyptic aspects of the novel: They went from plot device to holy crap, this is what it’d be like to live like this.

I jokingly describe Fata Morgana as a novel about a WWII bomber crew who fly into another novel. But we didn’t treat it as a joke at all.

And when all is said and done we have before this creature that combines our creative DNA to become its own unique self. Ken and I have done our best to comb its hair and make it overall presentable, and now we’ve sent it out into the world all on its own. We hope you’ll find it a valuable member of the good society it has entered, and that it does us proud. They grow so quickly, you know.

—-

Fata Morgana: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Powell’s

Read an excerpt (pdf link). Visit Boyett’s site. Visit Mitchroney’s site.

The Big Idea: Catherynne M. Valente

Catherynne M. Valente is one of the most interesting writers in speculative fiction today, not in the least because when she gets worked up about something, she doesn’t just yell about it — she creates art about it. This explains her latest, The Refrigerator Monologues, and now Cat is here to explain it to you.

CATHERYNNE M. VALENTE:

Hello, my name is Cat Valente. You may remember me from such things as: fairy tales, girl stuff, books with too many fancy words in them, books with too many fancy feelings in them, and titles that are way too long and/or unpronounceable.

Well…I’ll be honest, I’m still doing several of those things. But now with LOTS more punching and swearing and yelling!

My latest book is called The Refrigerator Monologues and you can see its big red and blue mug right up there. It’s more or less The Vagina Monologues for superheroes’ girlfriends. If you’re familiar with the phrase “girls in refrigerators,”coined by the amazing Gail Simone in the mid 90s, that elevator pitch/title will make instant sense. If not, come with me on a journey through time, space, and feminist theory: named for the fate of one of Green Lantern’s poor girlfriends who ended her run dismembered and stuffed into an actual refrigerator, it refers to a long-term trend in superhero comics in which women (not just girlfriends and wives, female heroes, too) are variously murdered, raped, mutilated, driven crazy, had their powers, both super and otherwise, taken away, and other sundry completely horrific ways to spend a Saturday night, not because those things featured heavily in their own stories, but simply to further the male hero’s narrative, give him something to shake his fist at the villain about, eventually avenge, or grit his teeth over.

I wanted to write about these women, give them the microphone, re-center the superhero tale on the characters that are so often used up and tossed aside by it, and give them a chance to get in some primal scream therapy. It all takes place in Deadtown, an underworld where it’s always autumn, always dusk, you can only eat extinct plants and animals and read remaindered books and listen to the house band of late, great rockers and hope someone up in the world of the living decides to bring you back with a revivification ray so you can see the end of your own story. And in Deadtown, the refrigerated girls get together every night to get mad, get drunk, and get their own back.

SOUNDS LIKE A ROLLICKING ROMP THROUGH UPLIFTING AND HILARIOUS ADVENTURES, RIGHT?

Except it kind of is. The Refrigerator Monologues is quite possibly the funniest thing I’ve written, and it’s not even all gallows humor! It’s a very new voice for me—a lot less of that elegant stuff I’m known for, and a lot more raw, stripped-down, punch-to-the-gut, straight-forward truth-bombs. And f-bombs. And actual bombs. This is a story with a lot of heroes and villains and battles and blown-up cities and blown-up people, after all.

Which leads to the catch. Because of course, I don’t have, and will never be given, the rights to Gwen Stacy and Karen Page and Alexandra DeWitt and all the others, all those refrigerated girls of the long four-color history of the world. When I first had the idea for this book, borne of white-hot blinding rage at Gwen Stacy’s final words in the last Amazing Spiderman movie having “Nobody makes my decisions for me, nobody! This is my choice!” before flouncing off to get her neck promptly snapped by the entire concept of having an ounce of agency, this presented a problem. For about five minutes.

Because the truth is, I’ve been doing this kind of thing for years. I just usually do it with Snow White and Gretel and Rapunzel and Marya Morevna and Red Riding Hood. I know how to dance this dance. I know how to strip an archetype down for parts and build up something strange and new. And I am also a glutton for punishment who has put off buying a lawnmower for literally a decade because it’s too much effort but thinks nothing of uttering the phrase “Oh, I’ll just create a complete, analogous, Marvel/DC crossover-style, cohesive, referential yet original superhero universe. For a novella. It’s fine. By the way, these mai tais are amazing where is the waiter?”

Which is what I did. I’m not being coy about anything—if you know your superhero comics, you’ll be able to name my tune in six notes. If you don’t, it might just seem like a familiar little earworm you can groove to on its own merits. It’s not even about avoiding copyright. I wanted to do it this way. I wanted to fashion this universe out of the starstuff our culture has become so obsessed with over the last 15 or 20 years. These women aren’t meant to be X-Men with the VIN numbers filed off. They’re meant to be their own complicated, gnarly, beautiful, angry people with the kind of familiarity and resonance all archetypes have. I wanted to do what I’ve done with folklore and fairy tales my whole career, only this time, I never reached for Grimm. I examined each of the stories that pissed me off the most, drew out what I felt were the core, defining, archetypical elements of each character, threw the rest away, and banged up a brand new cast of thousands, with new adventures, new twists on the old tales, new costumes, new powers, new obsessions, new endings. Think of it as a chop shop for mythology—hot new body, same classic engine.

Because superhero stories have become for us what fairy tales were for the pre-industrial world. They’re morality plays we encourage children to devour by the fistful—but they’re not really for children. They’re so much darker and stranger and sexier and more political than almost anything else we’d give to a child. Comics and fairy tales are short, but put together create a long tradition with some continuity issues. They light up the brain with epic battles and romances and bright costumes and magic while communicating the truth about the universe as told by the dominant culture. They’re focused on heroes going out into the wild and struggling against the unknown for the sake of the village. It’s just that now the unknown is the fringes of science, while then it was what to do if you meet someone in the forest who doesn’t live like you do. Though maybe it’s still that too, a little. There’s not so much difference, in the end, between “happily ever after” and “Truth, Justice, and the American Way.” There’s not so much difference between writing Snow White set in the old west and writing that awful refrigerator waiting at the end of too many stories like a spindle in a tower.

I’m terribly proud of The Refrigerator Monologues in an entirely uncool way—you’re not supposed to like your own books this much, I know. But I spent a long time living with my girls, and I love them all so much. I hope you love them a little, too. In some ways, I suppose you could think of this as my Pulp Fiction—violent, funny, weird, loud stories that seem unconnected at first but are totally entangled, jam packed with pop culture references, homages, pastiches, and mysterious unexplained lights. Only mine come from doomsday devices and mutant powers.

And old refrigerators left open just a little too wide in a big, dark room.

—-

The Refrigerator Monologues: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound

Read an excerpt (scroll down). Visit the author’s site. Follow her on Twitter.

The Big Idea: A. J. Hartley

In today’s Big Idea for Firebrand, author A. J. Hartley explains that when it comes to worldbuilding, like Ringo in the Beatles, he gets by with a little help from his friends.

A. J. HARTLEY:

The core of the Steeplejack series, the idea at its heart, came out of the collision of two smaller ideas that I had assumed would be separate books. One was a fantasy adventure set in a world which looked like Africa. The other was a Victorian steam punk mystery centering on a character who worked on the city’s tall factory chimneys. When I realized that the two stories might be combined, creating a unique, 19th-century metropolis within an African context, the series came together. The result was not just a world that had all the smoggy trappings of a Sherlock Holmes mystery surrounded by a wilderness full of strange and potentially dangerous creatures, the story was also necessarily defined by the racial dynamics of the population.

Bar-Selehm, the city which is the home for the books, is based very loosely on Durban in South Africa, a city with a substantial Indian population in addition to the minority white and indigenous blacks. Since I imagined a conquest of the region which took place several centuries earlier than did the British subjugation of South Africa, however, the imaginary city is a steam-driven industrial power house living according to a political system resembling apartheid.

The protagonist of the series is Anglet Sutonga, a brown skinned Lani steeplejack who, in book one was recruited by a powerful local politician to investigate the events surrounding the murder of her apprentice. In book 2, Firebrand, she has acquired greater autonomy and agency, and is now attempting to unravel the theft of some secret government plans against a backdrop of rising political tension. This latter is driven by the rise of a right wing populist politician who is seeking to return the city to older ideas of racial segregation in response to the recent immigration of foreign refugees fleeing their war-torn homeland.

I should say here that I’m a white guy, and that with the best will in the world, there are certain things I’m never going to be able to evoke as well as a someone who has actually lived the experience. That’s worrying for a writer. We’re told to write what we know, and limited though that injunction might be, it’s solid advice if only because when readers can tell you don’t know what you’re talking about, you’re screwed. At best they are momentarily knocked out of the story. At worst you lose them completely and you look like an imposter.

That said, the world is full of books about white people and I didn’t want to merely add to the pile. I’ll go further and say that I think I have a moral obligation to at least try to write stories which reflect the diversity I see around me.

But the road to hell is paved with good intentions and it’s not enough to mean well. Now, I’m on safer ground with fantasy. The world of the Steeplejack books is made up. It’s a place and time that has never existed, so I’m as well qualified to write it as anyone else, but to do it well requires me to draw on other people’s experience. I’ve been to places, for instance, where I knew I could not trust the police, that if anything happened to me—or even if it didn’t—they would be as likely to treat me criminally as they were to help. But I haven’t lived the bulk of my life in such a condition, so to imagine it I needed to listen to those who had. I shared my work as it developed with friends of color and asked them to flag any moment, any idea, any assumption which felt wrong, off, or stereotypical.

Because one of the hardest things about writing people who aren’t you is the tendency—usually one you can’t see—to rely on what you think you know but which is actually coming from impressions shaped by your own difference. This is especially true when you are representing minorities who, perhaps, you don’t have much close personal contact with, so that your impressions of them are absorbed largely through, say, TV and film.

Writers live by their voice; the sound they make in a reader’s head through the arrangement of words. I like words and I like to use them to build stories. What I learned from this series, however, was that I was likely to be most successful if I shut up and listened. I’m not talking about writing dialect (a nightmarish trap for white people trying to write people of color), I’m talking about story. I’m talking about events and situations and how characters other than me might perceive them. And it’s hard, because you really do have to pay attention when people call you out for an assumption or something that looks prejudicial. You can’t say ‘But that’s not what I meant!’ Intent doesn’t matter. Effect does. So for all my writerly scribbling there comes a point (or points, plural) where I have to share my stuff and ask other people how it reads to them.

Does it work? I’m not certain. The result is better than me working alone, that’s for sure, and I think there’s value in any good faith attempt to talk across racial lines because we, as a culture, seem to be so bad at it. I know I can’t please everyone—from either end of the political spectrum—but that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t do everything in my power to get it as close to right as I can.

It’s probably self-evident that I wanted to use the fantasy frame to explore current social and political issues, mixing adventure, mystery and wonder with some fairly hard truths from our own world, but I don’t think I had realized just how topical it would feel. The novel was completed long before the last presidential election, and though there are flashes of campaign rhetoric in the mouth of Anglet’s principal political antagonist, Nathan Richter, the extent to which the book now seems to reflect our own country is a little unnerving.

In fact, in spite of the unfamiliarity of the world and its occasional deviations from conventional reality, it barely feels to me like fantasy at all. All of which makes me wonder if the real ‘big idea’ has to do with the book’s generic hybridity; it’s a mystery, a thriller, and a fantasy adventure, but it’s also a kind of alternate history with an edge of social commentary. I like to think that it’s both fun and serious, both a diversion from reality, and a story about political resistance in a world which seems rather more familiar than I would like.

—-

Firebrand: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s site. Follow him on Twitter.

The Big Idea: Dan Moren

Travel expands the mind — or so they say. What would Dan Moren, author of The Caledonian Gambit, have to say about that particular truism? As it happens, he has a story on the topic, one that has bearing on the story he tells in his novel.

DAN MOREN:

In January 2001, during my junior year of college, I got on a plane for Scotland. This was significant for a few reasons. For one thing, I’d never left the country before. For another, it was only the second plane flight I’d ever taken, and the previous one had been nearly a decade earlier. And even more to the point, I wasn’t just going for a week’s vacation—I was moving there for an entire semester.

I was terrified, and had a minor anxiety attack in the car on the way to the airport. But I got on that damn plane anyway.

Hours later, jet-lagged and haggard, I hopped into a cab in Edinburgh that would take me to my home for the next six months. I tried not to feel like too much of an idiot when my addled brain at first couldn’t parse the thick brogue of the driver, but I eventually realized he was asking where I was from. “America,” I replied, in a daze, only to have him fix with me a bit of a look and say, “Yes, I know that. Which part?”

Looking back on those months now, I tend to view them fondly. The years have dimmed the intense feelings of isolation and loneliness incurred by the several-hours time difference, not to mention the ocean, that separated me from my friends and family back home. My floormates were welcoming enough, but I was so overwhelmed with everything that was new and different that I retreated into myself, spending most of the time that I wasn’t in class exploring the city on my own.

From the vantage point of a decade and a half later, I still wouldn’t trade that experience for anything. For one thing, it gave me a real taste of leaving home. It made me more self-reliant and resilient, and taught me that I am capable of handling whatever life throws my way. I made friends with my floormates eventually, and I got to travel not only around Scotland and England, but also around a host of countries in Europe, an opportunity I probably wouldn’t have had otherwise.

But for all of that, I have never been quite so glad to come home at the end of the semester. If I’d felt a little more assured about the cleanliness of the airport floor, I would have dropped to my knees and planted a big fat kiss on it.

It was only a year after my time in Scotland that I first started sketching out the idea for a big sprawling space opera—a series of books inspired by the likes of Timothy’s Thrawn trilogy and Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga. I wanted to create a universe that felt real, felt lived in, because that was what I loved about those stories.

But as I started writing the first draft of what would eventually, many years later, become The Caledonian Gambit, I realized that the story of a washed-up pilot and the squad of covert operatives with whom he teams up didn’t really feel like those stories. Instead it felt hollow—like it had no sense of place. Even set as it was against the backdrop of a galactic cold war between two human factions—the bellicose Illyrican Empire and the ad hoc Commonwealth assembled to oppose it—it needed a more concrete anchor, a sense of what these sides, and the characters that served them, were fighting for.

It wasn’t until several years afterward that I finally found the heart of the story, and it came from looking back at my time in Scotland. I realized that this wasn’t just a story about big galactic conflicts, but about the smaller challenges that we all face.

It was a story about going home.

Eli Brody, the protagonist of The Caledonian Gambit has been away from home a lot more than six months—try nearly ten years. He couldn’t leave his homeworld of Caledonia fast enough, even if escaping that dirtball meant joining up with the very forces that had invaded and occupied it. And he would have been plenty happy—or, at least, so he told himself—never to set foot on that planet again. Until covert operative Simon Kovalic shows up and asks him to do just that.

Kovalic’s a man without a home, too. He’s from Earth, which, like Caledonia, has been under the thumb of the Illyrican Empire for two decades. Unlike Eli, Kovalic’s dedicated his life to fighting back, trying to reclaim the home that he had to flee when the Imperium came.

In fact, everybody in The Caledonian Gambit is fighting for their home in one way or another. Both Eli and Kovalic’s homes exert a gravitational pull on them, as if keeping them in a long, irregular orbit. Ultimately, they’ll swing back around and have to come to terms with the homes that they left behind. And neither of their homecomings is likely to be as much of a relief as mine was.

As much anxiety as I had about moving to Scotland, the years have shown me that leaving home is an integral part of figuring out who we are. Even if we ultimately end up returning, well, you have to leave in order to come back. In stories, the hero’s journey is predicated on this idea, but it’s no less true for our own lives. Whether our home is as small as a patch of dirt, or as big as an entire planet, there is—as they say—no place like it.

—-

The Caledonian Gambit: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|iBooks

Visit the author’s site. Follow him on Twitter.

The Big Idea: Alan Smale

Creating alternate histories are no small matter, especially when your series of books features a different version of the Roman Empire landing in North America. Now in Eagle and Empire, the third book of his Clash of Eagles series, Alan Smale talks about the challenges of writing different past — and making more history as one goes along.

ALAN SMALE:

I’ve long had a fascination for books that tear up the world and patch it back together differently, for really large alternate histories; not picking my way gently forward as changes begin to ripple from a point of departure deep in the Napoleonic Wars, say, but witnessing the far-downstream effects of a giant splash. Those are the tides I’m riding with the Clash of Eagles trilogy, in which the Roman Empire survives in its more-or-less classical form through to the thirteenth century, and is now trying to open up Nova Hesperia – North America – with substantial assistance from the seafaring Norse who “discovered” it first.

The point of departure for my alternate timeline is way the heck back in 211 A.D., with Geta defeating his malevolent brother Caracalla after a decade-long firestorm of a civil war that nearly splits the Empire. As Emperor, Geta then ushers in extensive reforms. His actions unwittingly ward off the Crisis of the Third Century while strengthening the Empire against “barbarian” invasions, and, sure, I have Appendixes in the Clash of Eagles books laying out the details. But my characters don’t spend a whole lot of time rehashing the dusty events of a thousand years past – they’re much too busy running around and dodging pointy missiles and trying to stay alive.

So, let’s review: in Clash of Eagles, Gaius Marcellinus and his legion march in from the Chesapeake Bay and get their rear ends handed to them, first by the Iroquois, and then by the warriors of the great mound-builder city of Cahokia, on the banks of the Mississippi where St. Louis is now. For Book One, the Big Idea was: “Ancient Rome invades North America when the Mississippian Culture is at its height.” In the second book, Eagle in Exile, Marcellinus is – as you might guess – largely separated from Rome and from his new Cahokian home base. There’s a coup in Cahokia, and a vicious despot replaces the more measured and even-keel Great Sun Man who originally kept Marcellinus alive.

Before you know it, Marcellinus is cast out with a handful of friends, navigating the untamed Mizipi River on a Norse longship, fighting off threats from all sides. The Book Two Big Idea: “wild adventure in an ancient North America, in the process standing that comfy Dances with Wolves trope on its ear.” (Suffice to say that Marcellinus’s attempts to help always have unforeseen consequences, and also that his loyalty to Rome is not so easily tossed aside.)

Okay, so welcome to Book Three, Eagle and Empire. More legions have marched into Nova Hesperia by way of the Chesapeake and the Gulf of Mexico, commanded by the Emperor Hadrianus III himself. But meanwhile, meanwhile, the Mongol Horde is landing on the west coast and crossing the Rockies. Having had his plundering ambitions in Asia thwarted by the solid power of Rome, Genghis Khan has set his sights on the brave New World, and so one aspect of the Eagle and Empire Big Idea is “a titanic confrontation between the Mongol Horde and the legions of Rome on the Great Plains of North America,” a terrain which naturally benefits the nomad horsemen of the Khan.

Needless to say, the various nations and tribes who were already living on the Hesperian continent have their own very strong opinions about all this, and have continued to take independent action. Cahokia is now first among equals of a great Hesperian League, an alliance between disparate tribes that in the past sometimes made war with each other and sometimes simply ignored one another, but who are now forced to work together to resist the dual (and dueling) forces stomping all over their various territories. Other tribes cast their lot with Genghis, for various reasons, and so the stage is set for all manner of internecine carnage.

But now let’s home in on the human element, the soul of the story, behind all the cut and thrust and steel and shine.

Geopolitics aside, Marcellinus has a basic and central conflict between his old life as a Roman general , and his new life of family and community in Cahokia. He has friends and loved ones, duties and responsibilities, and many of these people and factors are at odds with one another. He has sworn several oaths he can never break, but even some of those oaths collide.

The three Cahokian children who were tasked with learning the outsider’s language back in Clash of Eagles have grown up to become influential in Cahokian society by the time Eagle and Empire begins. Tahtay is now War Chief of Cahokia, and a leading figure in the Hesperian League. Kimimela is a warrior and budding clan chief; she’s Marcellinus’s adopted daughter, but spends more time opposing him and working around him than chatting cheerfully with him by the camp fire. And then there’s young Enopay, not at all martial but empathic about people and an all-around smartypants: as a sometime-admirer and sometime-manipulator of key Romans, he also has his part to play in how this all resolves.

So another Biggish Idea that threads through Eagle and Empire is the complex interaction-space between all these different people (and peoples), their differing beliefs and motivations, and the irresistible-force-meets-immovable-object nature of Marcellinus’s challenges as a somewhat loyal Roman and eventually-decent human being, deep in the midst of this continent-wide upheaval.

And if you do read the books, and we meet up in the bar at a con sometime, maybe we’ll talk about what the world of the Clash series might look like after another thousand years has gone by and the events of Eagle and Empire are, in their turn, buried in the distant past. I have a few ideas about that too, of course…

—-

Eagle and Empire: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s site. Follow him on Twitter.

The Big Idea: James Kakalios

Physics happens — today and every day. But how much do you think about the physics of your ordinary day? James Kakalios thinks about it a lot, and after this Big Idea piece for his latest book The Physics of Everyday Things, you might think about it more often, too.

JAMES KAKALIOS:

My motivation to write The Physics of Everyday Things derived from comments from people like my cab driver father, who would ask me, back when I was a physics major in college and would describe to him some recent discovery in particle physics or astrophysics: “That’s nice – but how does this change my life?” Breakthroughs such as the discovery of the Higgs Boson or ripples in spacetime (gravity waves) generated by the collision of two super-massive black holes warrant all the attention (and Nobel Prizes) they receive.

But equally deserving of notice is research on the human scale, the domain of solid-state physics and materials science, which is my particular field of study. More physicists work in these fields than in any other. They address fundamental problems involving the quantum nature of matter—that might sound abstract, but those questions can often lead to practical applications, such as the transistor and the laser. From high energy-storage batteries that power hybrid and all-electric cars, to the EZ-Pass device that lets us zip through toll booths, to the self-parking feature we might use to maneuver into a tight spot, my father, if he were still with us, would likely agree that scientists and engineers have certainly changed automobiles—and thus, would have changed his life.

All of our lives have indeed been changed thanks to scientific research (and much of it supported by the federal government, so to all you taxpayers reading this, take a bow). The technology we take for granted, from the smartphones in our pockets, to touch screens to MRI’s, can sometimes seem like magic. As a physics professor, I feel it is very important that I emphasize to the general public that these devices really are magic!

Of course, I don’t mean anything mystical or supernatural like you’d find in Marvel’s Dr. Strange, but rather the magic in a Penn and Teller show in Las Vegas. In the latter, physics principles are not violated but are exploited in order to create dazzling effects. Similarly, the amazing and indispensable devices that we use every day are only possible due to our understanding, gained over the past hundred and fifty years, of the rules by which the natural world operates. While professional magicians are bound to not divulge their secrets, in The Physics of Everyday Things I reveal how the “magic” of the technology we routinely employ is accomplished.

However, I did not want this book to be simply an encyclopedia of technology, with listings from alarm clocks and batteries to x-rays. How to tell a story that also explained the physics underlying the devices that surround us? My first (unsuccessful) attempt used the history of technology to introduce the concepts that underlie modern devices. This draft sucked. For those interested in the history of science, there wasn’t enough of it, and readers who didn’t care about history had to slog through too much of it before they got to the parts they wanted.

The Big Idea for the book came from my editor at Crown (the talented Domenica Alioto) who suggested that we drop the history, and begin the story by examining the devices people employ at the start of the day. I instantly realized that this would be structure of the book (which would turn out to be the subtitle): the extraordinary science of an ordinary day. The book would follow “you” through a busy day, from moments before you awake to when you drift off to sleep at night. You start your day, drive into the city, go to a doctor’s appointment, then on to the airport. Passing through the TSA checkpoint, you take a flight to another city, where you give a business presentation, and finally check into a hotel.

Whenever you interact or employ modern technology—from your toaster while making breakfast, to withdrawing money from an ATM, to making a photocopy, to watching the flat-screen television in your hotel room—I would interrupt the story and explain the physics principles underlying these devices. Domenica’s suggestion of a “narrative physics” was the Big Idea the book needed. This way we would get straight to the good stuff, and in describing the story of your day, I could write a popular science book in the second person singular.

While writing this book, I found myself observing my day with fresh eyes, noticing technology that I previously took for granted. For example, I paid attention when the motion sensors turned on the lights as I walked down a darkened hotel hallway. This gave me an excuse to research how these sensors worked. I previously had assumed that they all operated as a version of “radar,” where a signal was sent out and the device noted if a moving object interfered with the reflected wave. While some motion sensors do indeed use this “active process,” many lower power sensors are “passive” and instead use pyroelectric detectors to register the infra-red radiation you emit. I was excited to learn this because (a) I did not know this and thought it was cool; (b) it would give me a reason to explain what a pyroelectric material is; and (c) I could then show the connection between these materials and piezoelectrics such as quartz crystals used to keep time in your smartphone and computer.

Writing this book led to a new appreciation of how only a handful of physics principles are necessary to understand the broad array of technology that has changed our lives. This is, in fact, not just a Big Idea but the Giant Idea of the book. The universality of physics means that insights into nature that enable infra-red light emitting diodes and photoreceptors (the basic elements of a television remote control) also apply to pyroelectric-based motion sensors and account for the heat trapping properties of greenhouse gases. The physics is the physics. By the end of this short book, I hope the reader will develop a “physicist’s intuition” (“I totally knew it was going to be capacitors!”) and can anticipate the explanations of how everyday things work.

—-

The Physics of Everyday Things: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s site.

The Big Idea: Megan Whalen Turner

Sometimes the Big Ideas for books have their origin in other books, and how those books inspire us when we write our own. For her new book Thick as Thieves, Megan Whalen Turner reaches back to a favorite author and how that writer’s big idea laid the groundwork for hers.

MEGAN WHALEN TURNER:

Back in the last century, authors only knew what their readers were thinking if their readers sent them fan mail—written on the bodies of dead trees—or if their readers were reviewers for print outlets like the New York Times or Kirkus. And then, around the time my first novel, The Thief, was published, Amazon introduced online reviews and bloggers started putting up posts about what they were reading. Suddenly ordinary people had a voice in a much larger conversation about books.

As a newbie author, I was self-Googling like mad and just before The King of Attolia was published. I found a livejournal site dedicated to my books. I lurked. I did tell them I was lurking, but I knew right from the start that having authors around is a great, wonderful, exciting thing—right up until they make it impossible to have an honest conversation about their books, so I was careful not too lurk too often. In return, I got to watch these smart, funny people pick through everything I’d written and I became more and more convinced that they didn’t need my input, anyway. Everything in my books that I hoped they’d see, they were pointing out to one another. Watching them, I decided I should probably probably keep my mouth shut and leave readers to figure things out for themselves. That’s why when they got around to sending me a community fan letter, I’m afraid that my answer to most of their questions was, “I’m not telling.” Over the years, it’s hardened into a pretty firm policy.

That doesn’t mean I don’t talk about the books, about writing, about what’s hard or easy, or about where my inspiration comes from. I just try not to add information about the stories that’s not already on the page or offer my opinion on what anything in particular means. Sometimes I blow it, because I like to talk too much, but I try not to. Making up your own mind about a story, or sharing stuff with other readers, is the part of the fun of reading.  I never want anything I say to short circuit that process.

This does make writing a Big Idea piece tricky.

Fortunately, our host has a pretty wide definition of what constitutes a Big Idea and even whose Big Idea we need to talk about anyway. So, instead of starting with my book, I’d first like to talk about The Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliff. Sutcliff was a British author. She suffered from juvenile rheumatoid arthritis and she wrote the kind of books that she wanted to read during the long hospital stays of her youth. Back then, the boys’ ward had the “boy” books and the girls’ ward had the “girl” books and Sutcliff had to rely on sympathetic nurses to sneak the boys’ books over to her.

In The Eagle of the Ninth, a new centurion comes to Britain with big plans: serve the empire, get his veteran’s pension, and buy back his family’s farm. And then, in his first battle, all his plans go up in smoke. His leg is broken and he has to face the fact that he might walk, but he will never fight again.  Seeking some new purpose for his life, in a journey both physical and psychological, he travels north of Hadrian’s Wall to retrieve the lost Eagle of the Ninth Roman Legion. His new slave, Esca, goes with him and, of course, they both come back free men.

Sometimes when a light bulb comes on in our head, it’s not because we had a Big Idea, it’s because someone else reached in and flipped a switch. When I was about fifteen, Rosemary Sutcliff did that for me. The term “plot armor” hadn’t been invented when I watched Sutcliff destroy a writing convention in her very first chapter. Serious injuries and death were only supposed to happened to red shirts. The Eagle of the Ninth made me wonder for the first time, just who gets to be the main character in stories of heroism and adventure.

I knew that when I wrote Thick as Thieves, I wanted to revisit Sutcliff’s story, and I knew that I wanted to focus on Kamet, the enslaved secretary to Nahuseresh, a prince of the Mede Empire. Kamet is educated, he’s entrusted with the management of his master’s entire household, and he’s ambitious.  He may not see freedom in his future, but he sees power. When an Attolian soldier first offers to help him escape from his master, he laughs it off—until a friend warns him that his master has been poisoned and Kamet will be blamed for the murder.

Initially reluctant, Kamet takes up the Attolian’s offer and flees the Empire. For the soldier, this story is a quest. He’s been given a task by his king and he means to carry it out. For Kamet, the trip is a means to an end, and it doesn’t have anything to do with the Attolian king. He has his own agenda and this is his story.

As Alexis de Tocqueville once observed, “The evil one suffered patiently as inevitable seems intolerable as soon as one conceives the idea of escaping from it.”

—-

Thick as Thieves: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s site. Follow her on Tumblr.

The Big Idea: Michele Tracy Berger

Hair matters, in a lots of ways we (or, well, I, a balding middle-aged white dude) don’t often think about. But Michele Tracy Berger has, and has made it central to her novella, Reenu-You. She’s here now to talk a little about hair, about culture, and about her work featuring both.

MICHELE TRACY BERGER:

What if a visit to the salon could kill you? What if a hair product harbored a deadly virus? My Big Idea is about viruses, the politics of beauty and unlikely female heroes.

Hair and hair culture is often unexplored territory for many speculative fiction writers. Despite the wonderful world-building of the genre, the social economy of hair maintenance, styling and product manufacturing is rarely discussed. This is a shame as there is a rich story in conversations of hair and haircare, as they often embody the complexities of the U.S.’s racial legacies. In Reenu-You, hair is the catalyst which sets the stage for conflict, friendship, desire, misunderstanding and an epidemic.

We follow two characters, Kat and Constancia. While different in many ways, these women share an experience of haircare; they both use a new product called “Reenu-You”. Within days they find themselves, along with other women of color, covered in purple scab-like legions— a rash that pulses, oozes, and spreads in spiral patterns. They are at the epicenter of a mysterious virus spreading throughout the city.

I’ve been interested in hair and what people make of it since I was a little girl. Beauty practices reveal a lot about what is acceptable and encouraged in a culture. There’s pain and joy in how many African Americans (and other people of color) experience their hair.

Let’s start with joy. Black people experience the aesthetics of hair as a space of creativity and innovation (e.g. ‘the Afro’, ‘the fade’, ‘cornrows’, ‘braids’, ‘the weave’, etc.). Growing up in an urban African American community, talking about, reflecting on and styling hair was a particularly important and fun aspect of my young adulthood. Beauticians held high status in my neighborhood. They nimbly moved from therapist to healer in a blink of an eye. I thought they were magical. They were like modern day shamans whose tools were metal hot combs, big pink rollers, slippery, translucent gels, and hair oils that smelled like exotic fruits from faraway lands.

But there’s pain, too. Black and brown kids often encounter the words nappy, kinky, and wooly, as pejoratives. Faced with this judgement, many internalize the belief that their hair is bad, or unmanageable. Most Black people have had to think critically about their hair, how they feel about it, how their community feels about it, and how dominant culture feels about it. I did.

I understood at an early age that there were unspoken rules about hair. “Good hair” was straight and bouncy, like the women in commercials.

I was usually in the camp of having “good hair”, frequently getting stopped on the street by people telling me I had pretty hair. These comments made me deeply uncomfortable, but, gave me a kind of social power, too.

What’s the origin of these ideas? Beauty standards, in this country, have historically favored long, straight hair stemming from dominant norms. Slave owners often referred to enslaved people’s hair as “wool”, like that of an animal.

These dominant norms were imposed on enslaved people and over time inculcated long-standing ideas about social status and worth. Straight hair (and lighter skin) over time became intertwined with a rigid definition of beauty. These societal standards and individuals’ experiences shape the complicated factors that play into why some minority women use relaxers.

In my novella, the product Reenu You seductively promises an all-natural, healthy chemical-free fix to its customers –it’s billed as a hair tonic.

Although no viruses have popped up yet in women’s hair products, there’s a long and troubling history about the safety of hair relaxers. At the turn of the 20th century, the African American press reported that white-owned companies were perhaps not producing high quality hair products for their primarily Black clients.

The idea for Reenu-You developed as I watched the 1990s ‘Rio’ scandal unfold. The World Rio Corporation released a product known as Rio, billed as a natural hair relaxer. Rio was marketed almost exclusively to Black women, as an alternative to traditional relaxers.

Soon women around the country were reporting horrible reactions to Rio including itchy scalps, oozing blisters and significant hair loss. A class action lawsuit revealed that there was nothing natural, at all, about Rio. At a closer look, Rio contained a number of highly acidic chemicals!

These lawsuits continue to pop up. Presently, L’Oréal is facing a class action law suit that claims several of its hair relaxers produce harmful conditions. Also a new report by the Environmental Working Group (EWG), a nonprofit and nonpartisan organization, documents that many beauty products “targeted toward Black women are less healthy”.  Hair relaxers are at the top the list. In fact, researchers are investigating the possible connections between hair relaxers and occurrences of lupus and fibroid tumors.

Currently the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) doesn’t regulate the hair care or cosmetics industry.

Reenu-You digs into the uncomfortable space of hair and identity, leaning into all of its potential for joy and pain. I wanted to play with the trust we have as consumers about the safety of our most intimate products and raise questions about who is valued as a consumer and patient.

The stakes are higher in the novella than in the Rio case. I’m hoping Reenu-You will create more awareness about these real-life beauty horror stories.

I hope readers will carry the characters and their stories with them. The next time they visit a salon or are about to use a favorite conditioner, hair gel or dye, they might consider, what’s really in these products?

—-

Visit Berger’s blog. Follow her on Twitter.

The Big Idea: Gregory Benford

For author and scientist Gregory Benford, his new novel The Berlin Project isn’t just a matter of speculative fiction — Benford has some very real connections to the people and characters that play a role in his alternate history. Benford’s here to lay out where fact meets fiction meets friends and family in this tome.

GREGORY BENFORD:

I got the idea for this novel when I was working on nuclear matters as a postdoc for Edward Teller. Then decades later, heard it from the guy who was at its center, and who became my father in law, Karl Cohen. All that came together when I decided to go back to writing novels in 2012.

The year 1967 seems so distant now. I was finishing my PhD thesis in theoretical physics when two of my thesis advisors took me aside and said that, just to be safe, I should apply for two postdoc positions, not just one. It was that long ago. I turned down UC Berkeley, a professorship at Royal Holloway College, London (which had read a published paper and wanted someone in that area; I’d never heard of them).

So I decided to work with Teller. In the course of many calculations and conversations, he told me of a turning point in World War Two that few knew. I heard it later from Karl Cohen:

When Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, the effect on the US atomic program (Manhattan Project) was a one-year delay. The US Army was preoccupied with the new war in the Pacific; they failed to appoint a person to head the Manhattan Project with enough power.  In 1941 the people in charge favored Urey’s centrifuge approach to producing the fuel instead of gaseous diffusion. 

By 1942, General Groves was in and Urey was out of favor.  Building the gaseous diffusion plant took longer than expected, and the result was a one-year delay in the project. The delay meant that the target changed away from Germany. The object of dropping an A-bomb over Germany was to prevent an invasion.

How many more concentration camp victims would have survived if the war had ended one year earlier?  For one, Anne Frank. Most CC victims succumbed eventually to the rugged conditions… The difference between 1944 and 1945 as the end of the war is probably quite significant in terms of lives.

The central context for this novel came from the protagonist I chose to follow through it, Karl Cohen. I also folded in my experience of living in the US occupation of Germany in 1955-57, where my father commanded combat units.

Karl’s words made me think, because in the last year of war, whole societies collapsed. A million died each month, the Soviet Union captured many countries into subjugation, and the devastation of the Axis powers took decades to repair.

Alternative histories are ways of thinking. The entire history of nuclear weapons is interlaced with scientists considering the future, often using science fiction as a prompt. The 1913 “atomic bombs” of H. G. Wells and the Robert Heinlein and Cleve Cartmill stories in Astounding Science Fiction were indeed broadly discussed at Los Alamos –as told to me in detail by Teller.

The wartime investigation into the Astounding stories, as I depict from documents I found, now seems odd indeed. The fiction writers had no classified information at all, just good guesses. Still, this possibility was viewed as very important by the security agencies, including the FBI. As Robert Silverberg has wryly remarked, “Turning war secrets into second-rate SF stories might seem, to the dispassionate eye, a very odd way indeed of betraying one’s country.”

Karl Cohen was my father in law. In 2000 he was voted to be among the 50 most prominent American chemists of the 20th Century. But he was haunted by what he felt was his personal failure to convince the U.S. government to pursue the centrifuge approach during the war. He died in 2012 at age 99. Alas, I had only begun on the novel.

I chose to portray that era through the people I knew who were embedded in the science side of the conflict. Any portrayal of real people in fiction is an interpretation, but knowing them certainly helps.

I knew personally many figures in this novel: Harold Urey, a Nobelist who first greeted me and my twin brother at the grad students reception at UCSD in 1963; Karl Cohen, my father in law; Edward Teller, my mentor as his postdoc at Livermore Lab; Maria Goeppert Mayer, for whom I graded the homework and exams in her graduate nuclear physics course at UCSD; Freeman Dyson, whom I met at the UCSD daily coffee in 1963; Leo Szilard, another coffee break savant; Luis Alvarez, whom I invited to give a colloquium at UCI, because I wanted to meet such a fabulous character, and whose account of the Hiroshima bombing I used here; Richard Feynman, an idol to all of us; Sam Goudsmit, raconteur extraordinaire; Paul A. M. Dirac, Nobelist; John W. Campbell, editor of Astounding; Fred Reines of UC Irvine, Manhattan Project physicist and winner of a Nobel in 1995; Arthur C. Clarke, who was a radar officer in the war and then a science fiction writer. Plus many others. I have tried to echo their manner of speaking and thinking. Indeed, I included my own father, James Benford, who went into Normandy on the fifth day of the invasion and fought across France, Luxemburg, Germany and Austria.

Further, every document quoted in the novel is authentic, though some have dates altered to conform to the plot.

#

WWII is the drama that keeps on giving, for it touches on many problems we have today, especially the role of all-powerful weapons like nuclear, biological and chemical ones.

One of the major characters is still alive: Freeman Dyson, now 93. I gave him an advance copy recently, as the photo shows. He liked the novel’s “specific premise,” as he put it: that the errors in judgment at the beginning years of the Manhattan project might well have gone differently, yielding a very different World War II. At the end of The Berlin Project we get to see that world in 1963, the year I began graduate school.

There are plenty of wars since, but none like WWII, which killed 29 million Soviets alone, and over 60 million in total, about 3% of the world population (over 80% of them among the Allies).

Such a mixed nuclear and tactical war could lie in our future, so this thought experiment has implications for our real world in the 21st Century. The next war that sees nuclear weapons used will probably also involve substantial ground forces. Think of Pakistan-India and the deep angers of the Middle East, where resort to nuclear weapons seems inevitable among demons posing as religious purists.

But my major reason for writing The Berlin Project came from the sheer fun of it. The physics I knew already; I helped design tactical warheads while a staff member at Livermore, after my postdoc, and before I became a professor at UC Irvine. The intricate interplay of great minds in pursuit of a desperate goal, the Manhattan Project, I did not know well.

But I learned, pouring through much history buried in obscure documents. I found the ID badges for the Manhattan Project and put them in the novel, along with dozens of pictures from that era. In an historical novel, show the reality as much as you can.

My sense of the story gathering momentum as the war changes its flavor drove the writing. The battles change, the possibilities blossom. This has been perhaps my most enjoyable project, ever.

—-

The Berlin Project: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound

Listen to an audio excerpt. Visit the author’s site. Visit him on Facebook.

The Big Idea: Carrie Patel

During the thinking about and writing of The Song of the Dead, author Carrie Patel came to appreciate traffic jams. Why is that? And how did it help in the construction of her novel? Patel is here to tell you.

CARRIE PATEL:

One of my most vivid memories from grad school is of a negotiation exercise my first year. My classmates and I were divided into two teams in which we played researchers competing for a limited supply of a rare coconut. The premise was that we each needed it—and as much as we could get—in order to cure different diseases, and that winning meant having as much of the stuff as possible.

Game on, I thought.

For a half hour, we debated. We discussed the urgency of our research, the number of people we could save, and the benefits we could provide to society. After a civil and well-reasoned discussion, we divided up the coconut supply, and we all stepped back feeling like we’d won.

We’d all lost.

The catch was that one group only needed the fibers, and the other only needed the meat. We could have all gotten the maximum use of our coconuts if we’d only shared our full stories with one another. Instead, we made assumptions and went to battle because the story running through our minds was one of conflict.

If there’s one thing this exercise taught me, it’s that the stories we tell ourselves shape our goals, relationships, and outcomes. And that’s the Big Idea of The Song of the Dead.

A little background. The Recoletta trilogy is about underground cities that rise from the ashes of the Catastrophe, an unspecified historical disaster. To the people who live in the buried cities—Recoletta, Madina, and their neighbors—history is a thing to be feared. It’s a Pandora’s box of human evils, a story about how the wicked nature and dangerous technologies of ancient peoples led to their near-total destruction. Understandably, perhaps, the people of these cities see this history as a dangerous virus, and most of them want nothing to do with whatever story corrupted their ancestors.

For the third novel, I wanted to explore this idea about stories—how they shape people and how they create conflict—on a big, plot-wide scale and on a small, character-focused scale.

Zoomed out, The Song of the Dead was always going to be about societies that had built themselves up around different stories of the Catastrophe and about the conflict that those stories would inevitably rope them into.

That idea felt fresh, relevant, and compelling to me as a writer. There was just one problem: I didn’t even know the story of the Catastrophe. I just knew that it had to be massive. It had to explain the buried cities’ isolation and idiosyncrasies. It had to mean something to the characters in the present of the book.

And it couldn’t be the first thing that came to mind.

So, how do you develop a backstory that simultaneously pays off a mystery, contextualizes your world building, and motivates your current conflict?

Apparently with lots of brainstorming, pages of outlining, and some thoughtful car ride conversations with the husband.

At least there’s one reason to appreciate California traffic.

I won’t spoil anything except to say that I did finally discover the story my story needed, and after dusting my hands off over dozens of Scrivener files, pages of notes, and more than a few false starts, all I had to do was write the novel.

Fortunately, there were characters to help with that.

I wanted to give my series protagonists, Jane Lin and Liesl Malone, the same thorough treatment. Ever since I’d written the outline for Cities and Thrones, I’d wanted to bring these two women into conflict with one another. The challenge was to do that while maintaining them both as reasonable and well-intentioned people.

Fortunately, by the events of The Song of the Dead, they’ve been shaped (hammered, more like) by two very different stories. Each has a different version of the events that have pushed them to the edge, and they begin the novel glaring at each other across the gulf that has grown between them.

The question is, will they be able to step back from that conflict far enough to tell each other those stories, and will they be able to find peace enough for their world?

—-

The Song of the Dead: Amazon | B&N | Indiebound | Powell’s

Visit Patel’s site. Follow her on Twitter.

The Big Idea: Gwenda Bond and Christopher Rowe

Gwenda Bond and Christopher Rowe are writers, spouses and collaborators on the middle grade detective novel The Supernormal Sleuthing Service: The Lost Legacy. So it’s only natural — and indeed perhaps inevitable — that they would collaborate on this Big Idea as well!

GWENDA BOND and CHRISTOPHER ROWE:

Gwenda: We decided to write our Big Idea essay in the same way we wrote this book–handing it back and forth–so you’re going to hear from both of us. I have always loved detective stories, and have a particular soft spot for that random being known as the Hotel Detective. People will tell you book ideas can’t come from procrastinating on Twitter, but I’m here to tell you they are dead wrong. This one did, in a roundabout way. I got a piece of luxury hotel email spam, which turned into a half-hour of twitter jokes about wanting an army of hotel detectives. In truth, I always had wanted to write a story about them, but how to do that for YA or kids (which is what I write)? Tough.

Cut to a couple of weeks later, when I woke up late on a Saturday and said to Christopher: There are kid hotel detectives because it’s a hotel for monsters! He immediately jumped in with ideas about a bigfoot stealing a kid’s breakfast and how the main character would be a new kid moving to town who’s the hotel chef’s kid and then by the end of our own breakfast we’d agreed to try writing the book together and that it would definitely be a book for middle grade readers. I joke that I knew this was a good idea because Christopher’s inner 12-year-old is very close to the surface, but the truth is both of ours are. Don’t tell him I admitted that, though.

Christopher: Hah! She admits it!

Kids solving mysteries in a hotel for monsters–or as they call themselves in our world, supernormals–turned out to be an enormously fruitful idea for spinning off other ideas: plots, characters, set pieces, even recipes (yes, recipes!). Sometimes, writing a story full of adventure and mystery can be quite a challenge in terms of, well, coming up with stuff. If anything, once we had our basic concept, we had too much stuff. The process of writing this novel was a ton of fun, and consisted of conversation, ideation, and a lot of basic sitting down and typing.

People have often asked us what the particulars of our collaborative process were, and really, it was very simple. We would talk–on walks, over meals, all the time–about the story and characters and cool new concepts we were each coming up with. We knew the larger plot arc from early on, so the writing became a daily exercise in asking one another “what happens in the book tomorrow?” and then, the next morning, putting what we’d come up with in the page. Gwenda would get up and write a thousand words, then I would get up, read what she’d written, and write a thousand words more. Do that for enough days in a row and hey presto, you’ve got a novel manuscript.

Gwenda: He left out the best part! Which is that when I’d get home from the office, he’d read aloud everything we had from that day. And do funny voices for the characters! A big part of what was so enjoyable about writing this book together (and revising it later) was the fun of collaboration coupled with writing a book that has quite a bit of humor. It was always a bonus if we could make the other person laugh with delight. I remember hearing every great Cindermass or Elevator moment Christopher wrote for the first time, because they made me crack up.

On a process level, we’re about as different as two writers can be with our own individual work. I like to talk out stories and love edits; my work only ever becomes anything in revision. Christopher, on the other hand, is much better at drafting. So it was also kind of great to have complementary strengths and weaknesses to draw on. And, of course, the best part of collaboration is you only do half the work, but get ALL the results. (This is probably not actually true, since you still have to do all the planning Christopher mentioned above.) What was most surprising about this process to you? Besides the fact we’re still married after writing this book and now having finished and turned in a draft of the second in the series.

Christopher: Most surprising? Probably the stuff that kind of just popped up in the writing process that we didn’t plan on. For example, speaking of the Elevator, one day it was my turn to write and I had to get the characters from the lobby to the roof. So they all troop onto the hotel’s sole elevator and I decided that, since elevator rides in real life are notoriously boring and people rarely talk among themselves once the doors have shut, to spice things up a bit. So I put in a sign with some stuff about what kind of supernormal creatures are allowed aboard (up to eighty pixies or three ogres) and aren’t (“our larger guests”). And then, for some reason, at the bottom of the sign I added “Do not engage the Elevator in conversation.” I had no idea what that meant, but since I’d written it, obviously somebody was going to engage the Elevator in conversation, and once the Elevator started talking back, we couldn’t shut it up. And it’s proven to be one of the most popular characters in the book. So, that’s both one of the most surprising moments and one of my favorite moments in the composition process.

Gwenda: You were supposed to say the joy of working with me. You can make dinner later. Or plot the next book in the series. ;)

—-

The Supernormal Sleuthing Service: The Lost Legacy: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit Bond’s site. Follow her on Twitter. Visit Rowe’s site. Follow him on Twitter.

The Big Idea: Malinda Lo and Alaya Dawn Johnson

After reading this Big Idea piece by Malinda Lo and Alaya Dawn Johnson about Tremontaine, the serial novel written by them and a host of others, based on the Swordpoint novels by Ellen Kushner, I guarantee you won’t think the same way about… chocolate.

MALINDA LO:

I first read Ellen Kushner’s Swordspoint after I had already published a couple of fantasy novels in which same-sex relationships are normal, and I’d heard that Swordspoint did the same thing. I was astonished to learn that Ellen published this novel back in 1987, a full twenty years before I even sold my first book.

I soon learned that the Swordspoint novels, which are set in a City full of swordsmen and nobles, sumptuous Hillside mansions and murky Riverside taverns, are iconic among many queer fantasy readers. So when Ellen asked me if I was interested in joining the writing staff on a serialized prequel to Swordspoint, the chance was too good to pass up.

Even better, the story for Tremontaine would include a whole new cast of characters: the traders who brought chocolate, the favorite drink of the nobles, to the City. I immediately knew that meant the story was going to delve into food and cross-cultural trade (be still my beating heart).

You see, I wrote my master’s thesis on Chinese food, and later dropped out of a Ph.D. program in anthropology. (I often like to say that good training for writing fantasy is dropping out of an anthropology graduate program.) The chance to explain how the nobles of the Hill came to drink their chocolate—imported by traders from across the seas—scratched a particular world-building itch that I’ve always had. When people in fantasy novels eat foods spiced with cinnamon or cardamom, or drink wines that must be grown in regions far from the evergreen-covered forests they’re questing in, or hell—drink tea—I always want to know how did they get that food in the first place?

Global trade is the answer. And it turned out that the idea for introducing these chocolate traders into the City arose from a discussion that Ellen had with another author, Alaya Dawn Johnson.

ALAYA DAWN JOHNSON:

What I remember is that I was having tea with Ellen at her house before I even had any idea she was discussing Tremontaine as an idea—I think she mentioned that she had some project going on, but I didn’t know what it might be. And as she was pouring me the tea, she was talking about how people assume the Riverside world is just a straight-up 18th century England pastiche, but that actually she had deliberately moved a bunch of cultural aspects around so that it wouldn’t be. And one of her examples was that the good people of the City don’t ever drink tea. The rich people sit down to drink chocolate.

And since I was just thinking of applying to this master’s program in Mesoamerican Studies at the Universidad Autónoma Nacional de México and had been doing a ton of research on Mesoamerican history, and food in particular (my thesis is all about fermented food in the Mexica empire), this really made me sit up and get excited.

So I started telling her about how the very fact that everyone drank chocolate implied trade with some of the peoples of central or south America (or corresponding Riverside versions thereof). The Columbian exchange is just one of those geeky things that I adore learning about, because of the extent to which the exchange of foodstuffs changed culinary traditions all over the world. The idea that certain plants had to be brought over from one continent to the other in a very specific cultural moment in order for, say Indian and Chinese food to have chili peppers or Irish food to have potatoes, or Mexican food to have cilantro and limes really changes the way we think about the past, I think.

So, to me, the fact that Ellen was casually mentioning the importance of chocolate in her very European fantasy world immediately inspired me to imagine who might have brought it over and why.

Of course, the actual historical circumstances of the Columbian exchange were colonialism, gross exploitation, death and cultural genocide. But one of the benefits of historical fantasy is that you don’t actually have to follow the course of history. You can imagine another way for chocolate and chilis and vanilla to have reached Europe—and why not through the very traders who were so powerful and resourceful throughout Mesoamerica?

Anyway, I must have gotten vastly over-excited about this idea, but luckily Ellen was just as excited by it as I was. I think that was when she mentioned that the project was a prequel and I just said, “If there’s chocolate, there are chocolate traders, and if there are chocolate traders there’s a whole other world of powerful people of color in the City that we have to know about.” Of course I was at this point already half in love and when the tea-drinking brainstorm turned into a real chocolate-drinking Tremontaine retreat, I was incredibly excited to be a part of it.

MALINDA LO:

As I worked with Alaya and the other writers on Tremontaine, I dusted off my anthropological research skills and dug up some academic papers on the process of making chocolate in Mesoamerica. (I’m sure I over-researched.) It was wonderful fun to layer in economics and agriculture and even celestial navigation (the traders’ ships had to get to the City somehow) with the politics, drama, and love affairs that characterize the Swordspoint world.

I think that taking the time to root a culture in the ground—practically literally, at least when it comes to agriculture—brings a much richer world into being. And having that deeply layered background gives the characters’ motivations weight. Ixkaab Balam, the trader whose family controls a monopoly over the chocolate imports in the City, has real stakes when it comes to the family business.

ALAYA DAWN JOHNSON:

The best part of working on this collaborative project was how much the other writers ran with that original inspiration and contributed so much more than any of us could have done alone. Malinda’s chocolate research was so intense that it gave me ideas for different elements that I could bring into my master’s thesis!

A few months ago I had the opportunity to make chocolate in a small town in Oaxaca, starting from plucking the fruit from the tree and ending with grinding up the cured and toasted seeds with sugar. Drinking the fruit of our labors, I felt this undeniable sense of completion and kinship with Kaab and her family. The story had gone full circle: the traders had commanded their own destiny to bring chocolate to the world of Riverside, and here I was, an immigrant in Mexico, drinking chocolate in the very territory where it was first developed probably more than a thousand years ago.

Chocolate was already present in the world of Riverside that Ellen had created. We were tasked with writing a prequel, whose particular challenge was to create something new while maintaining the continuity with the old. Chocolate was the key that opened up whole new worlds that were already present, but unexplored; it gave us the chance to change the point of view and see how the City looked from across the northern sea.

—-

Tremontaine: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit Lo’s site. Follow her on Twitter. Visit Johnson’s site. Follow her on Twitter.