The Big Idea: Charlie Jane Anders

Comedy! The Internet! Incipient fascism! Charlie Jane Anders has got it all in her latest, Rock Manning Goes For Broke. She’s here to explain it. There are footnotes!

CHARLIE JANE ANDERS:

What happens when Comedy goes TOO FAR (and then just keeps going)?

Supposedly some famous dude said on his death bed, “Dying is easy. Comedy is hard.”* Nobody seems to agree on who actually said this, and whether anyone actually ever said those exact words. But in any case, this is a crock of shit. I’d way rather write comedy than be dead, and I think dying will probably be pretty fricking difficult. I fully expect that after I finish dying, I’ll have no energy left for anything else.

And I know you’re not supposed to admit this, but comedy has always come kind of easy to me. I love coming up with the most ridiculous thing that can happen in any situation, and the silliest thing someone can say or do. I grew up reading Henry Fielding and Douglas Adams and PG Wodehouse, but also watching everything from the Keystone Kops films to reruns of the Mary Tyler Moore Show. I love the moment when everything just spins out of control and vehicles are sailing off cliffs and people are throwing mashed potatoes in each other’s faces and the world is just spiraling into chaos.

Partly, I feel like those demented moments of out-of-control physical comedy are when we come closest to glimpsing the true nature of reality. In real life, everything is chaos**, nothing is ever really under control, and we’re all one banana peel away from hilarious disaster. And partly, those moments are just really, really fun to write.

So back when I started writing Rock Manning Goes For Broke, I was obsessed with physical comedy in particular, and just seeing how far I could take it on paper. And here’s what I found out: the more you take physical comedy to its furthest extreme, the more you start blurring the lines between “hilarious” and “terrifying.” Because when slapstick hijinks go really to enough of an extreme, they start to look more and more like regular violence and mayhem.

This wasn’t really that much of a surprise, to be honest. There’s a reason why Jackie Chan breaks several irreplaceable bones in every other movie he makes. And anyone who’s ever dipped into “splatstick” or the burgeoning genre of horror-comedy knows that slippery gory monstrosities can easily cross over into being hilarious. (See Peter Jackson’s Dead Alive, Brian Yuzna’s Society, or dozens of other bizarro funny horror films.)

The main character of my novella, Rock Manning, is an aspiring comedy performer who wants to follow in the stumbling footsteps of Chan, along with Harold Lloyd, Buster Keaton, the Three Stooges, Charlie Chaplin, that dude from The Tall Blonde Man With One Brown Shoe, and countless others. And luckily, Rock’s best friend Sally Hamster has a video camera, an eye for great set pieces, and an almost limited reservoir of sadism. Soon, they become Famous On The Internet—just as society is crumbling and the United States is teetering on the brink of a fascist takeover.

A lot of the energy in Rock Manning Goes For Broke comes from the increasingly bizarre and high concept films that Rock and Sally are creating and posting online. Including things that honestly ought to be their own genres, like “Vacuum Cleaner Salesman vs. Roman Gladiator,” or “making an ice cream sundae on top of a hearse going 90 miles per hour.” These kids view danger and narrative consistency with equal measures of steely disdain.

But also, I got a lot of juice, storytelling-wise, from the collision between off-the-chain physical comedy and the brutality of incipient fascism. Rock and Sally’s high-school classmate, Ricky Artesian, becomes part of a brand new “militia” called the Red Bandanas, who aim to “clean up” America with a mixture of fearmongering, manipulation and extreme violence—and they want Rock to star in some propaganda films promoting their movement.

I know I started this essay by saying that comedy is way easier than that dying guy thought***, but the ugly flowering of fascism is surprisingly hard to make light of. Everyone from Chaplin (in The Great Dicatator) to Mel Brooks (in The Producers) to the makers of Hogan’s Heroes has lampooned the Nazis, but they’re still terrifying and abhorrent monsters. All the things that make a pie fight**** hilarious are also what make a swarm of real-life brownshirts pants-wettingly scary: the chaos, the indignity, the loss of control.

But when comedy goes Too Far, it not only gets closer to being a warped version of our worst night terrors—it also lets us start to ask questions about our propensity for organized violence. And that moment when the mayhem stops being funny and turns ghastly is a good preparation for the real-life moments when we witness atrocities right in our backyard, and it’s on us to do something to stop them.

 

* This whole fetish for saying pithy things on your deathbed always perplexes me. Why would you want to waste a clever line on a moment when nobody can possibly appreciate it? Plus to be honest, my last words are probably going to be something along the lines of “ow, this fucking hurts, you fuckers,” or possibly, “I want a discount on my hospital bill because these goddamn peas were still frozen on the inside. Let me speak to a manager. Yes, I will hold.”

** The difference between fictional chaos and real-life chaos is that you can at least sometimes enjoy fictional chaos, because it’s a lot harder to giggle with abandon when actual reality is getting torn to bits by flying doll-heads and exploding chickens and stuff. Actually living through a huge screaming mess is surprisingly not that much fun at all.

*** I feel very comfortable picking on that guy, because he’s dead, and also he could be any one of a number of dead guys, none of whom know where I live.

**** I actually organized a Ballerina Pie Fight in real life. Ask me about it sometime.

—-

Rock Manning Goes For Broke: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Subterranean Press

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

 

 

 

The Big Idea: Ashley and Leslie Saunders

They say write what you know, and thus twins Ashley and Leslie Saunders and have written The Rule of One, a novel about twins. But there’s so much more to writing than writing what you know. Here’s how the Saunders imagined in stereo.

ASHLEY AND LESLIE SAUNDERS:

What would make a country like the United States adopt a one-child policy?

That’s the central question we asked ourselves when we started brainstorming The Rule of One. We knew we wanted to tell a story about twin sisters and we wanted it to be an adventure with high stakes. What’s higher stakes than twins being born into a world where their very existence is a crime?

Using China’s former one-child policy as inspiration, soon our minds were swimming with a future that included a planet that has reached well beyond its carrying capacity, bloated metropolises, crippling limited resources that drives the U.S.’s class system to a dangerous breaking point, and constant government surveillance with microchips implanted inside every citizen’s wrist.

We had our dystopian setting, now we needed our central theme: identity.

Our Big Idea: twins who have to pretend to be one person in order to survive.

 

Ashley: Our story is told from dual perspectives; being the eldest twin, I wrote all of Ava’s chapters, who is also the older sister. Ava is the one who gets the life-validating microchip implanted into her right wrist at birth. She is the identity that both sisters build their entire lives around– Ava is the only one to truly exist in a Rule of One America.

In real life as children, Leslie and I would come home from school and tell one another every single tiny detail of our days. We became such experts on each other’s lives that we could sub in for each other if someone got us confused. Pulling this from our own lives, we amplified our nightly ritual with Ava and Mira. If they aren’t perfect when it’s their “turn” above ground (the other sister must stay hidden in the basement), they will lose everything. As the first born, Ava sees it as her duty to ensure the safety of her sister– a large portion of her identity is tied up in being the designated guardian.

Writing Ava’s chapters, I always held foremost in my mind how I would react if it was me who was branded a traitor and forced to leave my childhood home, fleeing into the unknown, all while trying to protect my twin sister, the person whom I love more than anyone else in the world.

Halfway through writing the novel, Leslie and I took a pause and decided to travel the exact cross-country journey our characters take in the book. While researching a location in Palo Duro Canyon, we were stalked by a bobcat and those thought-experiments suddenly became reality. Isolated in the wilderness, I felt sheer terror, and on instinct we decided to run. I had no weapons, just like Ava, and the entire three-mile sprint back to our car the bobcat was growling, and I envisioned the animal attacking my sister. We made it (or else I wouldn’t be writing this) and drenched in sweat, I immediately wrote down every emotion I was feeling. I’ve never felt more connected to Ava as I did in that moment, because the terrifying experience revealed to me that just like Ava, I would do anything to protect my sister. And just like Ava, in that life-threatening ordeal I saw myself as the leader, the one needing to do the saving. But when I looked over, Leslie had a razor-sharp rock in her hand, ready to do her own protecting.

I knew then why it was so important for Mira to step out of Ava’s shadow to become her own woman. Free from the necessity of mirroring Ava’s identity, Mira could be the hero of her own story.

 

Leslie: Like Mira in our story, I am the youngest twin. I therefore took the reins writing all of her chapters, using my experience growing up as the second born, infusing my own personal experience into Mira’s desires, arguments and character arcs.

Have I ever been jealous of my twin sister, Ashley? Yes. Have I ever thought that she was better at something than me? Sure. Do I ever grow tired of being compared to her? It depends what kind of day I’m having, but let’s go ahead and say absolutely. To imagine these questions in a future world where my very existence was illegal, and I was forced to share an actual identity with my twin sister really got the wheels in my mind turning. Like at top speed.

What if I not only shared clothes, the same interests, and most importantly, identical features with my twin, but in order to have any life at all, I had to be my sister. We had to share a name, a personality. An existence. The love I have for my twin knows no words- like Ava and Mira, we are inseparable. But I am a fierce individual and I have my own identity. To infuse a character study of twin sisters with my love of high-stakes adventure was really a dream project for me. Writing the POV of a youngest twin who goes on a journey of self-discovery was both exciting and cathartic.  I don’t think I’ll ever write something more personal. Yes, it’s set in a near-fi America about twins being chased by the government. But Mira feels like me: a young woman trying to discover who she is.

As Ava and Mira’s story expands beyond the first book, it’s been a fun ride shaping their individual identities while still remaining true to their inseverable bond. No matter how much they change, they will always be identical twin sisters. Two bodies, one soul.

Fighting to survive in a world they don’t belong.

—-

The Rule of One: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Visit the authors’ site. Follow them on Twitter.

The Big Idea: Ryan North

I am not saying I am a time traveler. For all most of you know, I am not. But if I were, and remember I am not saying I am, then I would be very interested in Ryan North’s new book How To Invent Everything. Very, very interested. Theoretically.

RYAN NORTH:

I wanted to write the most dangerous book in the world.  Assuming time travel exists, I think I’ve succeeded.

The big idea in How To Invent Everything is this: is it possible to collapse our modern civilization into a single text which anyone, regardless of experience or education – or the time period in which they’re stranded – could use to rebuild our world from scratch?  I wasn’t at all certain that it was, but if it were, it sounded exactly like the sort of book I wanted to read.  And the more I thought it, the more it excited me, because this would be a book which – once you’ve gone back in time with it – would absolutely make you the most influential, powerful, and decisive person in history.

So, all I had to do was write it.

***

I’m probably not the person you’d choose to write a book like this.  Up to now, all of my writing has been fiction: comic books about a girl with squirrel powers, short story anthologies about a machine that knows how you’re going to die, and choose-your-own-path versions of Shakespeare.  This was obviously something different, and I had no idea where to start.  So I began with what I knew: fiction.

I made up a future in which time travel existed and was practiced routinely.  It was a world in which time machines are rented like cars: generally painlessly, though sometimes with the risk that your too-good-to-be-true deal of a vehicle breaks down.  It was a way to ease myself (and readers) into the concept, and it helped me set up some ground rules: you, as a reader, are a temporal tourist.  You are trapped in the past in a broken rental-market time machine.  There is a repair guide, but it very quickly reveals a unfortunate truth: that time machines are for sure the most complicated pieces of machinery humans have ever produced, and that there aren’t any user-serviceable parts inside.  Time machines are so complicated, in fact, that it’s actually easier to tell you how to rebuild all of civilization than it is to explain how a 45.3EHz chrotonic flux inverter works.  So that’s what this time machine repair guide does.

With that, I had my in.  The “corporate repair guide” angle gave me an absurd tone to play with, and it let me keep things funny, light, and entertaining, while still sharing actual (useful!) information.  The only challenge now was to fill the rest of the book.  No problem, right??

I began by researching the inventions I knew I wanted to include.  I’d always wanted to have computers in there – because come on, how awesome would it be to go through life knowing you can build a computational engine from scratch in any time period you care to name? – so that’s where I started.  And I discovered something fascinating: once we’d invented electrical logic gates – the things modern computers are based on – we started seeing them everywhere.  You don’t actually need electricity.  You can build logic gates out of ropes and pulleys.  You can build them out of water.  Heck, you can even build them out of living crabs.  And this meant that there was lots of potential there for a knowledgeable time traveller to invent computers centuries – if not millennia – ahead of schedule.

I soon found that it wasn’t just computers that could’ve shown up much sooner in history than they actually did.  I was honestly shocked to discover how many inventions fit into this category.  An example: we had the raw materials for compasses in 200 BCE: that’s when we noticed that some rocks stick together, or in other words, discovered magnets.  But it wasn’t until 1000 CE that we actually invented compasses.  And here’s the kicker: to get a basic compass (which, I remind you, unlocks navigating the entire world), you don’t need the “tiny sliver of metal balanced on a pin wrapped in plastic” fancy compasses we have today.  You just need to tie your magnetic material to a string.  The string lets the rock rotate freely, the rock points towards magnetic north, and hey presto: that’s your compass.

Figuring out how to tie a rock to a string took us over 1000 years. 

You might think that’s embarrassing (and, you know – you’re not wrong) but I actually found it really inspiring.  And the more examples I found of low-hanging fruit throughout history, of inventions that could’ve been invented at any point in time but which for one reason or another we only figured out relatively recently, the more inspired I got.  Sure, it meant there was tons of room for a time traveller to optimize our timeline (great for my book!) but also meant that it was – and is – very likely there’s still things like that in our own time that we ourselves haven’t yet figured out.  What are we missing today, right now?

That last one is actually the one question How To Invent Everything doesn’t answer.  What fundamentally world-changing invention are we not seeing, even though we’ve already got all the parts we need?  What will people 1000 years from now laugh at us for not figuring out already?

What’s the equivalent of tying a rock to a string, for those of us living here at the end of 2018 CE?

I probably won’t be the one to figure it out, but I can’t wait to see who does.

—-

How To Invent Everything: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s 

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

The Big Idea: Cheryl Low

In Detox in Letters, author Cheryl Low thinks about magic, down the grimy, dusty details — and also gauges the limits of what magic can do.

CHERYL LOW:

The Crowns & Ash series began as an exploration of magic. Or maybe just a love letter to it.

All my life I have loved magical worlds. Embedded in the first fairy tales we heard growing up were the promises of wonder—that anything could be possible with a little bit of magic.

In the streets of the Realm, around the Queen’s Tower, people play out their long lives with boundless fashion, cake and tea for every meal, and elaborate duels, on a carousel of romance and intrigue. But none of it would be possible without magic.

Everything in the city is fueled by magic, from the lamps lining the streets to the cars driving down them. Factories take in barrels of raw magic to churn out a variety of charms, power sources, and drugs for the residents of the Realm. They’ve turned something once natural to them into a commodity—forgetting its origin and purpose.

Even the drug of choice, dust, is rooted in magic. The carnivorous pixies, a dangerous pest in the city kept back by the constant glow of street lamps, are lured into the dust factories and fed raw magic until they’re so full that their frail wings can no longer lift them off the ground. Then the pixies are strung up, roasted, and ground down into the fine, glittering powder known throughout the city as dust. It is rolled into cigarettes, sprinkled on cakes, and steeped in tea, keeping most of the residents lulled in a constant high.

But magic is one of those elements in a fantasy world that is as exciting as it is difficult. There must be rules.

As the creator, I spent some serious time figuring out how a city of magic-wielding, spoiled socialites could function without constant war in the streets. Even before the current Queen took the throne, the Realm was far from utopian. If anything, the residents of the fantastical city could always be described as passionate, not exactly good or evil, but something in between that tips daily from side to side. So, how do I keep them from snapping their fingers and destroying their rude dinner guests?

Limits. All power must have a limit, as well as a cost. It can make the impossible possible, but it can’t solve every problem. Limitations and real consequences make stories truly exciting. Even immortal creatures must have a weakness. Vampires and the sun. Werewolves and silver. Dragons and that one, fate-blessed hero.

In the Realm, magic causes just as many problems as it solves—maybe more. It has become their poison, clouding their minds just as their Queen has clouded the sky above. And as the people of the Crowns & Ash series relearn their history and their powers, they are forced to realize the dark source and inevitable boundaries of that magic. There are some things that can’t be changed with charms and spells.

I set out to make a world literally high on magic—breathing it and eating it and bleeding it—and I absolutely love this world. It is a thrill to write and a delight to share.

—-

Detox in Letters: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|iBooks|Kobo

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

The Big Idea: Myke Cole

What is a hero? For Myke Cole, the answer to this question is not exactly the one that usually applies. It’s a thing that helped to fuel the writing for his latest, The Queen of Crows.

MYKE COLE:

Five years ago, I wrote about a singular experience. I know we live in the age of TLDR, so I’ll sum it up for those of you who won’t bother to click on the link – After my 2nd tour, the love of my life took a long look at the man she’d fallen in love with, compared him to the guy who came back from Iraq, and split. That’ll make you do some out-of-character stuff, and in my case, it resulted in my going to the on-post chapel at Naval Air Station, Pensacola in the hopes that something, anything, might break me free of the singular compulsion to suck-start a Glock.

It was the low-point of my life, and I was desperate for any human connection, so I was thrilled when one of the parishioners approached me, noting my tactical pack (which still had my blood type scrawled across it in black sharpie) and asked if I’d been down range. When I told him that I had, he turned to his son, and said “See? That’s a hero.” Then, he walked away.

Guess I was wrong about losing my fiancé being the low-point. This was lower. This utter isolation. Look, I know the guy meant well, that he was trying to honor what he viewed as a burden I had taken on so he wouldn’t have to. But by affixing a label, even a complimentary one, he’d severed all human connection. There was no need to get to know me, no need to understand my humanity. I was a “hero.”

Dark story, I know. But things got better for me. I moved on. I got my feet under me, put my life back together again, but I never forgot that singular moment, that intense powerlessness, when someone else had defined me. I looked at the world differently after that, suddenly awake to the way we use labels and the weight of institutions to define others, to rob them of their chance to do it for themselves. Worse, we cling to these definitions when the people we foist them upon resist, we fight them tooth and nail. This person is a “patriot,” this one a “coward.” This is what “good people” do. A “Christian” behaves in one way, but not another.

Labels, and the institutional membership they convey, don’t square with the complexity of human existence. They bound life in sharp lines that cut a bloody swath through the reality of the way people are actually in the world. And yet we need them, we will fight to uphold them. In 2018, we are witnessing a singular contest, a cold civil war with the sole objective of defining what sort of person may call themselves an “American.”

In a perfect world, we define who we are moment to moment, at complete liberty to live our true selves in all their complicated glory.

But we don’t live in a perfect world.

And that’s the big idea behind The Queen of Crows.

Heloise Factor, the hero of The Armored Saint, ends things on . . . let’s just say (without spoiling anything for those of you who haven’t read the book) a high note – an act of singular heroism. Unfortunately for her, it is an act steeped in meaning to the members of her religion, and anyone who achieves it is – according to the scriptures of their faith – rendered divine.

The mantle of a saint is heavy. It comes with reverence and honor. Saints are worshipped, are even obeyed. But saints are also chained down by the weight of expectations. There are things saints must do, things saints must not do. A saint is a living symbol, their every word and action a kind of theater, a passion play that affirms the faith of a watching body of the faithful.

And Heloise is most certainly a saint. But she is also a young woman of sixteen winters, who loves, who desires, who is frightened, who is unsure. The moment of her heroism was quick and dramatic, but the consequences are far beyond anything she could ever have imagined. Thrust into the role of symbol and leader of a rebellion against authority, her humanity comes into conflict with the title she never asked to hold.

In The Queen of Crows, Heloise is pitted against the most powerful army in her nation, with only a fractious mob of peasants behind her. And even they will not follow her if she casts aside the title of sacred icon, refusing to act the part of the divinely-inspired holy warrior her people have decided she must be.

How will Heloise hold up? Who will she choose to be? And most importantly, can she win the contest to come?

Only one way to find out. Come along, and I’ll show you.

—-

The Queen of Crows: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Edward Willett

For his novel Worldshaper, author Edward Willett posits another type of authorship entirely… one with literally global implications.

EDWARD WILLETT:

Authors sometimes talk of their fictional worlds as though they lived in them. They’ll speak of characters taking on lives of their own, unexpected plot twists, settings that complexify beyond what was intended.

In reality, of course, all of this happens inside our heads…but what if, in reality, it happened in reality—or, at least, in a version of reality? What if we authors could immerse ourselves in our fictional worlds physically, rather than intellectually, and occasionally even rewrite them while we’re living within them?

That’s the “big idea” behind Worldshaper, my ninth novel for DAW Books, start of a brand-new series, called (you’ll never guess) Worldshapers.

The series will take place within the many worlds of the Labyrinth, an extra-dimensional realm in which people with sufficient will and imagination, called Shapers, can give the worlds of their imaginations physical form, and then take up residence within them.

Each of these worlds is populated with millions or even billions of humans, for whom those worlds are the real world, as ancient and solid and eternal as our own world seems to us—even though none of them have existed for more than a few decades.

The Shapers, having taken up physical residence in their Shaped worlds, can no more leave them of their own volition than a fictional character can exit a novel. The fortunate ones made good choice in Shaping their worlds. Others, alas, embody Psalm 7:15: “Whoever digs a hole and scoops it out falls into the pit they have made.”

A single powerful Shaper, Ygrair, discovered the possibilities of the Labyrinth and opened it to the Shapers. But Ygrair has been weakened by the attack of an enemy, the Adversary (he has his reasons) who has found his way into the Labyrinth. He seeks to execute Ygrair and destroy the Labyrinth. Along the way, he’s turning every world he can get his hands on into a copy of the “perfect” authoritarian realm he Shaped for himself.

As Worldshaper begins, Ygrair’s lieutenant, Karl Yatsar, arrives in yet another in a long string of worlds, seeking a Shaper strong enough to gather and hold the knowledge of as many Shaped worlds as possible and deliver that knowledge to Ygrair, who will be able to use it to secure the Labyrinth against the depredations of her Adversary.

Shawna Keys, an aspiring potter in a small Montana city, turns out to be the Shaper of the world Yatsar has just entered, closely pursued by the Adversary, who, during a brutal attack, successfully collects Shawna’s Shaping knowledge. The adversary is about to kill her to cement his control of her world when, to Yatsar’s astonishment, she apparently resets time by three hours.

Everything goes back to the way it was. The attack never happened—but everyone killed, including Shawna’s best friend, has not only vanished, they’ve been utterly forgotten.

Shawna’s amazing display makes Yatsar think she may the one he seeks…but when he approaches her, he’s shocked to discover that Shawna Keys has forgotten she’s a Shaper: she’s the author of the book of her world, but she doesn’t remember writing it.

With the Adversary after her, though, she has no choice but to trust Karl. They flee to the one place Karl can form a Portal into the next world, with the Adversary in pursuit and working steadily to turn every aspect of Shawna’s world against her.

As the series continues, I look forward to exploring all kinds of questions raised by the big idea of authors living in the worlds they shape.

For example: authors do horrible things to characters all the time. Remorse is fleeting because, after all, the characters aren’t real.

But in the Shaped Worlds, they are. So, if you were an author living inside a world you’d written, would you continue to rewrite the living, breathing “characters” around you for your own selfish ends?

Dystopias, alien invasions, war, plague, and supernatural horrors all make exciting stories. Would we be so willing to create worlds that contain these things if we had to live in them? No? What if we could live in them but be immune to their dangers? Would we still choose to make such worlds, at the expense of those we force to live there?

Shawna’s Shaped world is very close to ours, with a few minor changes: for example, lacrosse is the big professional sport, she once saw The Da Vinci Code: The Musical on Broadway (Hugh Jackman did his best in the Robert Langdon role, but the show sucked), there are colonies on the moon, and the president lives, not in the White House, but in the Emerald Palace.

But as the series continues, Shawna will enter worlds belonging to Shapers with imaginations far different from her own. Like an adventurous reader, she will encounter ideas, characters, and situations she may find abhorrent. Yet, to fulfil Ygrair’s task, she must attempt to save all of the Shaped worlds, even those she hates. Her commitment to the quest, her commitment to what you might call “Freedom of Shaping,” and her own confidence in her ability to Shape things for the better may all erode in the process.

Lest this sound too grim, let me hasten to add that, since Shawna is written in first-person, she has my sense of humour. The result (according to one pleased reviewer) is a “sarcastic wiseass smart-mouthed main female character.”

I can’t live in my fictional world physically like the Shapers can, but in Shawna (and the other characters) you’ll still find bits of me, as you will in the ideas infusing the series, both small…and big.

—-

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

Read an excerptVisit Willett’s site and follow him on Twitter. Check out his podcast, The Worldshapers, featuring conversations with science fiction and fantasy authors about the creative process.

 

The Big Idea: Susan Forest and Lucas K. Law

Today’s Big Idea is a two-fer: editors Susan Forest and Lucas K. Law bring your their own — and their highly divergent — paths to co-editing Shades Within Us, a collection of short stories about migration.

SUSAN FOREST:

I am a fraud.

I’ve never had the guts to move away from my hometown; yet as a writer of science fiction and fantasy, I scribble constantly about journeys: space exploration, interplanetary colonization, fantasy kinship groups displaced by war, climate refugees. So what do I know?

But migration is a huge idea in speculative fiction. Whether borders be physical or internal; whether the voyage is forced or embraced; whether people move for political, economic, climate-related, or other reasons, speculative fiction is a fiction about crossing boundaries and becoming immigrants to a new way of living or thinking. So the exploration of this body of fiction through reading, writing—and yes, editing—requires an acquisition of knowledge. Research.

My research has probed limited experience (through travel), primary sources, secondary texts, and personal imagination. When Mars One was announced in 2012, I asked a group of science fiction writer friends, “Seriously: would you go on a one-way voyage to Mars?” OMG, YES! some of them responded. This was a tough concept for me to get my head around. Let alone the fear I would have of all the risks and loneliness and cultural disorientation, contemplating leaving my family and everything I know behind is a non-starter.

But then, I suppose it would be for many people who find themselves crossing these borders. My mother’s mother, at the age of 23, came to Canada with her husband and two small daughters just after World War I to a distant cousin’s prairie homestead, knowing full well she would never see her birth home or family again. And unlike Mars, Western Canada at least has air.

But I may well have to get my head around my own migration. In my dedication to this book, I wrote: “To Heather, who helped me to see how the concerns of migration are close to home,” because we can no longer depend on the assumption that our safe, known worlds will always be with us. Tipping points come suddenly. Though we can all see the collapse of worldwide systems coming—humans have been living far beyond the means of this planet to support our species for a long time—like death, it will come abruptly, and as a surprise. No one will be prepared. Not me.

I think seriously about this. It informs my writing. So when the chance came for me to edit Shades Within Us, the proposal offered me a perfect opportunity for research. These stories of crossing borders, both literal and metaphorical, were not only a joy for me to read and to work with to bring closer to fruition, they offer an incredible range of experiences of moving across, through and within our fractured world. Because these stories brought me into the thinking, experiences, and lives of the characters choosing—or forced—to make those transitions.

 

LUCAS K LAW:

The Big Idea for Shades Within Us was conceived five years ago—along with the themes for the other anthologies we did for Laksa Media. We did not have the current migrant crisis or anti-immigration events in mind at the time. It never occurred to us because the seed for this anthology came from my own history and interest. “Migration” comes from the Latin word migrāre, which means “to move from one place to another.” Unfortunately, these days, there is a quick tendency to associate migrations with refugees and illegal immigrants. There lies the danger.

My maternal grandfather and his brother left China with his father in 1916. They left their sister and family behind to gain opportunities in Malaysia. Later, during the Chinese civil war in the late 1940s, he lost all family ties in China. My grandfather spent most of his life in rural plantations and fishing villages, as a shopkeeper, a farmer, and a small business owner, before he retired. When he could no longer care for himself, he moved again, to the city to live with his son and family.

So often, physical movement is the focus of a migration story when it first unfolds. But each move is more than a simple relocation. It is a transformation of time, place, and being. Each decision affects a multiplicity of others.

It is difficult for those who have never faced such decisions to truly comprehend the complexity and conflict that takes place in body, mind, and spirit—what my grandfather and so many others have gone through in such transitions, responding to economic challenges, employment and new opportunities, and finally, to failing health. And these are only a few of the myriad factors affecting the reasons people migrate or relocate.

With such complexity, what are the commonalities? Transition and change. Boundaries, visible or invisible, voluntary or involuntary, internal or external. And the attainment of a new life, a new world, a new reality, for good or ill, for better or worse.

Migrants are much more than just refugees and illegal immigrants.

In Shades Within Us, twenty-one authors explore the struggles and sacrifices, survival and redemption, losses and gains in their Tales of Migrations and Fractured Borders. These are not stories of despair, anger, and revenge; these are stories of facing those adversities and challenges with equal determination, resiliency, and humility.

Their stories ask us to open our eyes to see, our ears to hear, and our hearts to understand that each of us may be impacted somewhere along the journeys. Only by sharing our own stories of relocation and by listening to others about their stories, then we might reach a deeper understanding of the word “migration” and its history—its role, impact, and potential opportunity for us and the future generations.

—-

Shades Within Us: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit Forest’s site and follow her on Twitter. Vist Law’s site and follow him on Twitter.

The Big Idea: Jaine Fenn

Autho Jaine Fenn starts this Big Idea piece with an admission — and then explains how she got around it for her new novel, Hidden Sun.

JAINE FENN:

Don’t tell anyone, but I’m a fraud. Most writers have bouts of imposter syndrome, but when it comes to writing scientifically rigorous fiction, I live in special fear of being found out. The gaps in my science education mean I have been known to, shall we say, err on the side of vagueness in my science fiction. Or invoke Clarke’s Third Law. Or ask a grown-up for help.

However, Hidden Sun isn’t science fiction. It’s science fantasy. In my teens, while my teachers were telling me that nice girls don’t do science – early 80s rural England, what can I say? – my reading was moving from fantasy to science fiction, via writers like Anne McCaffrey, Gene Wolfe and Ursula Le Guin. I still liked the feel of classic fantasy – being able to retreat to Middle Earth got me through some difficult times ­– but found myself looking for something more in a story, some shadow of logic and learning, an underpinning of esoteric knowledge of a slightly different flavour to that usually labelled ‘magic’.

Then I went to college (or ‘uni’ as we Brits call it). I did an arts course – like a nice girl – but when I found the ‘astronomy for arts students’ additional module, I was right in there. The course delivered: heaps of cosmology, minimal maths. And it turned out my lecturer was a geek; he’d actually devised the astrophysics Brian Aldiss used in the Helliconia trilogy. My mind was duly blown.

This positive early experience left me with a yen to one day write a book whose protagonist driven to discover how the universe works without the tools or support of a scientific establishment. That half buried desire resurfaced a few years ago and the result is the Shadowlands duology, of which Hidden Sun is the first book.

Rhia is a natural enquirer, part of a diffuse and informal network of proto-scientists living at a renaissance level of technology in isolated pockets of shade – the shadowlands – dotted across a bright, hot, alien world, known as the skyland. The skyland beyond her land’s borders interests Rhia, but the sky overhead fascinates her. She just wants to spend her time observing the stars and coming up with cosmological theories. Unfortunately she has to contend with the politics of a squabbling nobility, the assumption that women don’t have enquiring minds and, most recently, the shocking disappearance of her feckless younger brother.

I loved it when elements of Hidden Sun – the court intrigue, the murder mystery, the skyland with its alien/human symbiotes – came together in a logical yet organic way, accreting like a solar system round a star. And at the heart of the Shadowlands duology is that unconscious desire, building for years, to spend time with a character far smarter than me but without the mentor I had, who is fired up with the desire to unlock the secrets of the universe. And for her to succeed.

I’ve no idea if my old astronomy lecturer will read this post. But I remain indebted to him for the grounding he gave me in the most cosmic of the sciences, which is why it seemed only fitting to dedicate Hidden Sun to him.

—-

Hidden Sun: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Michael J. Martinez

In today’s Big Idea, Michael J. Martinez reminisces back on his college days, and how an offhand comment back then informs MJ-12: Endgame, the finale of his supernatural spy series.

MICHAEL J. MARTINEZ:

I went to a university with a heavy fraternity/sorority presence; the Greek houses were a major hub of campus social life. During my freshman year, a couple of upperclassmen asked me to consider joining their houses. Heady stuff for a newbie from the sticks, right?

Of course, once I delved into the whole process, the hazing thing reared its ugly head. Now, the frat brothers I knew swore up and down it wasn’t hazing per se, but rather simply testing a pledge’s resolve and fitness to join the fraternity.

Even at 18, I wasn’t that stupid. “Look, you’re telling me you want me to join the club,” I remember saying to one of them. “If you want me, why should I then have to go through hell to get in?”

His answer: “Because we’re better than you, until you prove otherwise. I want to give you that chance.”

We’re better than you.

What a terrible sentence, those four little words. Arguably, that single sentiment has caused humanity more pain than any other. It is, I would argue, a fundamental part of human nature and the most dangerous flaw humans have.

How many wars started with that sentiment at the very core? We deserve your territory more than you. Our gods are better than yours. Our color people are superior to your color people. Our economic or political systems are better than yours. We are more, you are less. Submit or we’ll destroy you.

How many interpersonal relationships burn out because of this? At work, at school, at home, you can hear it echo in every little office conflict, every academic rivalry, every little resentment in a relationship. It’s insidious.

And by what measure do you make the claim? Some of it is objectively measurable, sure – wealth, experience, success in careers or relationships. But the problem with that, of course, is that after you measure that, what do you measure it against? What’s wealth to someone who simply doesn’t want it? Is the Wall Street executive better than the artist because of the relative size of their bank accounts? Every religion of the world says it’s the one true way, but nobody’s come down from on high to provide arbitration.

(And wouldn’t it be a cosmic joke if that did happen, and the answer was, like, “It was Marduk all along. You guys have been off for three millennia.” Oops.)

“Better” is a highly subjective measure, and that’s why people fight over it, because everyone is convinced it’s actually objective.

But what if it were, if not exactly measurable, but at least obvious?

What if you had someone who really could say I’m better than you and had something that nobody else had – an ability beyond human measure, one that was demonstrably superior to everyone else?

Ultimately, that entire debate is at the crux of MJ-12: Endgame and, really, the entire MAJESTIC-12 series. On the surface, it’s a cool spies-with-superpowers thriller set during the early days of the Cold War, with teams of Enhanced agents from the Soviet Union and America’s MAJESTIC-12 program facing off against each other around the world.

And yet, the Cold War was also, at its core, all about we’re better than you. And what happens when your superpowered covert agents take a look around at the masses of humanity and start thinking the same thing?

The comic books I grew up with never did a great job with showing that sentiment in their heroes. Superman is actually a pretty great guy. He could rule the world with an iron fist inside of a week, but he doesn’t. He’s nice! He’s arguably the most noble character in pop culture simply because he quashes that innate drive for superiority and control, knowing full well he could act with impunity.

How would you react if you were granted a superpower, though? Would you be altruistic? Would you kick back and let that ability make bank for you so you could be super comfortable? Or would you try to “make things right” because, at the end of the day, you’re better?

That question is at the heart of MJ-12: Endgame, which closes out my MAJESTIC-12 super-powered Cold War series. Even if what you can do is superhuman, does it make you a better person? Are the other people fighting for their beliefs lesser people simple because they don’t share your beliefs? If you have the ability to impose your will on others, should you?

Today, we see so much of this in our daily civil discourse. Some of it is truly horrifying. We’re better than you is the worst impulse of human nature, and the most common, and it’s being fed every single day with more and more fuel.

We’re better than you leads to conflict, war, catastrophe. In MJ-12: Endgame, it brings the world to the very brink. The book is, of course, primarily a fun spy thriller with all sorts of twists and turns and cool powers and stuff. But I hope it also gets people thinking about that sentiment, those four little words full of poison. I hope it gets them to think twice, because no matter who we are and what we do, we are not better than anyone else. Different, sure. But not better.

And for the record, I never joined a frat.

—-

MJ-12: Endgame: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Indiebound | Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Greg Van Eekhout

Yeah, okay, Greg Van Eekhout’s Big Idea piece for Voyage of the Dogs got me genuinely choked up. Read it and you’ll figure out why.

GREG VAN EEKHOUT:

Spoiler: I don’t kill off any of the dogs in this book.  Why not? Because I’m not a monster, that’s why not.

Voyage of the Dogs is a middle-grade novel, meaning it’s marketed to readers aged seven to twelve. It’s about four dogs on a starship. When they wake up from cryosleep, they discover that the ship is badly damaged and the human crew has taken the escape pod and left them behind. The barkonauts struggle with dwindling supplies, cascading disasters, pack dynamics, and the feelings any uplifted, abandoned dog would grapple with. There’s adventure, there’s humor, there’s emotion. There’s also butt sniffing, because dogs.

So, that’s basically the pitch I’ll be using with most audiences, and if you stop reading here you’ll have a good idea what this book is about. But this is Scalzi’s blog, and I know you are a special and sophisticated audience, and I want to go a little deeper and tell you why I wrote this particular book at this particular time. I want to tell you why, after six previous novels, this was the only book I could write.

Life can be really hard sometimes. A few years ago, I went through one of those really hard times. My elderly parents’ health had been wobbly for a while, but it became clear that the wheels were really coming off the cart. If you’ve been through this rite of passage, you know what can be involved: ER visits. Fighting with doctors and insurance companies. Finding caregivers. Finding money to pay for said caregivers. Maintaining your own life while maintaining the lives of other adults. It’s a sad, stressful, laborious bunch of stuff. But I was lucky that I wasn’t alone in this. I had my wife. I had friends. And I had my dog.

Dozer is some kind of small terrier mix. He looks much like Lopside, the dog on the cover of the book. (That’s not an accident.) He eats poop and a few months ago he swallowed an entire dead ground squirrel. He’s obnoxious, scrappy, yearning, earnest, gross, and perfect. He is a very good boy. Petting him lowers my blood pressure. It calms my heart. It loosens my knots and releases the vice squeezing my brain. In fact, Dozer was so helpful during this time that we decided to get another dog, Amelia. Amelia is a mix of corgi, rat terrier, and whatever the heck. She’s yappy. She pees when she gets excited. She growls at me when I dance. She is kind of awful. And she is perfect. A couple of weeks before my mom died I took the dogs to her care facility and put Amelia in bed with her for a cuddle. At this point my mom was usually too weak to talk, but she managed the last words I ever heard her utter. “Sweet. Soft.”

On the day my mom finally passed away, the hospice coordinator asked if I needed anything. I told her I needed a dog, so she brought over the care facility’s house dog, a hairy little thing named Winston. Winston eats entire cups of sour cream, plastic and all. He likes to go into residents’ rooms and knock over their trash bins. I have a picture of me carrying Winston around less than an hour after I lost my mom, and there’s a genuinely happy smile on my face. Winston was my wingman that day.

So, skip ahead a few months. Both my parents are gone. During this whole period of care giving, I’d been working, writing, traveling to book events, fulfilling contractual obligations, but now I was out of contract, no books in the publishing pipeline, no books in any state of completion, and also without an agent because I’d parted ways with mine during all this stuff. I had to work.

I looked at my list of ideas, and I considered the headspace I’d have to occupy for months or more to turn one of those ideas into a completed book. They were all cool, chewy, fun ideas, but all of them dark. And I could not bear occupying a dark space. So, what then, could I bear to write? Something fun but not frivolous. Something hopeful but not packed with sweet lies. Something that could break a reader’s heart but also promised to mend it.

The answer was obvious. I could only write a book fueled by the strength and comfort given to me by Dozer and Amelia and Winston and all the dogs in my neighborhood and all the dogs on the Internet.

We often ask if people deserve dogs? The barkonauts in Voyage of the Dogs ask themselves the same question. I don’t have the answer. But I know I need dogs, and I needed to write this book. I could not have written a different one. I’m grateful for the chance to share it with you.

—-

Voyage of the Dogs: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Michael Mammay

Trust in your friend, colleagues and superiors is a good thing… mostly. In Planetside, author Michael Mammay considers the price of loyalty and the cost of trust, and how both can end up being different than one might expect.

MICHAEL MAMMAY:

The big idea that became Planetside started with a conversation I had with another officer while deployed to Afghanistan. It was early in 2014 and we’d been there six or eight months on that particular tour, and for whatever reason we were sitting in his office one morning and talking about people we’d worked for before, and our list of generals who we’d work for again if they called, no questions asked, no matter the job.

I feel like I need to explain that.

As a relatively senior officer (I had 24 years experience at the time) I’d had the chance to work for some amazing people. Forget the television stereotypes of the uptight or inflexible leader. I’m talking about generals who are so smart, so charismatic, and so driven that you’d literally do anything for them. Leaders who know people, and how they tick. They give an order, and you want to follow. They get the most out of everybody around them, and get everybody moving toward the same goal.

That might sound like a problem, that kind of personal loyalty, but it’s not. The reason that these particular leaders are so good is that you trust them. If they were the type of person who would abuse that trust, then they wouldn’t be on the list in the first place. You trust that they’ll put you in situations where you’re going to be successful, because they know you, your strengths, and your limitations. You trust that they would never ask you to do something that went outside the morals or standards of the organization.

But what if they did?

That was the idea that came to me later that day. It’s not based on any real situation where I saw it happen, but rather the idea that it could happen. What if somebody that you trusted, that you’d do anything for, asked you to do something messed up?

That’s the big idea at the center of Planetside. In the first chapter, Colonel Carl Butler answers a summons from General Serata, one of the generals on his list of people he’d follow anywhere. They’re more than leader/subordinate. They’re friends. So even though he doesn’t understand the details of the mission at the time, when Serata tells him that he’s the right guy to handle it, Butler trusts that. It’s not a job he wants, but he signs on because it’s Serata asking. And he is asking. He could have simply ordered it, but he’s got too much respect for Butler to do that. Butler, while subordinate, is a senior officer who has earned that kind of deference. At the same time, Serata knows him well enough to know that he’ll say yes.

Of course there’s more to the mission than initially meets the eye. I mean, it wouldn’t be much of a book if there wasn’t. As he gets deeper into his investigation and the difficulties present themselves, Butler starts to understand more clearly why Serata chose him for the job. To get to the bottom of things, he needs to be able to maneuver in both the political landscape of the base and in the war-ravaged landscape of the planet itself. He has both skill sets, which is rare. Most people have one or the other. Both locations hold secrets. It’s debatable which is more dangerous.

—-

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

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

The Big Idea: Claire O’Dell

A dash of fan fiction, a smidge of authorial inspiration and a dollop of a world-famous investigator adds up to a brand-new concoction in Claire O’Dell’s novel A Study in Honor. How did this all come about? As O’Dell will tell you, it was elementary.

CLAIRE O’DELL:

A Study in Honor is all Jim Hines’s fault. (Except for the parts that are all my fault.)

Back in 2014, Jim wrote a blog post about his experience writing fanfic. I’d never felt the tug of fanfic before, but after reading about how satisfying and involving it was for him, I decided to take a stab at writing some myself. After all, fiction is a conversation with itself, and what else is fanfic but a very intimate conversation?

Right away, I knew I’d want to write a Watson and Holmes story, but with a few changes. For one thing, I wanted to make them both black women. Why? Several reasons. Most (though not all) of the pastiches I’ve come across show Watson and Holmes as two straight men, or one man and a woman. And in those same stories, Holmes is always a white man.

So, Dr. John Watson became Dr. Janet Watson; Sherlock Holmes became special agent Sara Holmes. Both black. Both queer. One wealthy, and one who needed all her stubbornness to achieve a medical degree.

But the top reason is because of the other changes I made in the story. It’s the mid-twenty-first century when Dr. Janet Watson steps off the train in Union Station in Washington, DC. She’s newly discharged from the war–not the war in Afghanistan, though that would be plausible, but the New Civil War–a New Civil War that came about because the alt-right rebelled against equal rights for people of color, for gays, for women. The right viewpoint for such a war and its consequences logically belongs to a black queer woman.

I also wanted to do a deep dive in Janet Watson’s character, to make her more than an accessory to Holmes. This is a woman who has lost nearly everything in the war. Her parents died in a terrorist bombing. Her beloved abandons her. A sniper’s bullet shattered her arm when the enemy overran her medical unit, and the replacement prosthetic is unreliable.

A surgeon needs two reliable hands, she thinks. Not one of flesh and one of metal and false memories.

Her plan is to argue with the VA for a more modern device, so she can resume her career as a surgeon. She expects to stay in DC only a few days, a week at the most.

Her plans get upended the next day. The war has wreaked havoc with the economy on both sides, the VA tells her, and prosthetic devices such as Janet needs are scarce. She will have to wait her turn. Jobs aren’t easy to come by, however, and housing costs more than she can afford. When a friend tells her about someone who needs a partner to share the rent, Janet reluctantly agrees to meet the person.

That person turns out to be special agent Sara Holmes, a quirky, brilliant woman somewhat given to ignoring boundaries. The apartment in question is #2B at 2809Q Street, in an upscale neighborhood. Janet has reservations, but oh, the apartment would make a lovely refuge.

All of that poured out of me as fast as I could type. By the time I had three chapters written, I knew Janet would not let go of my imagination until I finished her story. She is stubborn and smart and defiant. The war might have left her wounded in body and mind, but she’s not going to give up. As she writes in her journal:

I will have my victory. I will have my life back. I swear it.

—-

A Study In Honor: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Theodora Goss

For European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman, author Theodora Goss considers a famous Victorian book, character and author for an extended thought on who and what can truly be called a monster. Grab your stakes and let’s hammer this one home, shall we?

THEODORA GOSS:

In The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter, I brought together a collection of female monsters: Mary Jekyll, Diana Hyde, Beatrice Rappaccini, Catherine Moreau, and Justine Frankenstein. They found each other, told each other their stories, and ultimately moved in together, into Mary’s residence at 11 Park Terrace, also known as the Athena Club. There, they live and get along as you would expect five women to: often bickering, sometimes fighting, but supporting each other when it counts.

It’s a good life in a comfortable home, decorated by Beatrice in the latest aesthetic fashion, to the extent a group of women who have to work for their living can afford it, presided over by the redoubtable Mrs. Poole. Right across Regent’s Park are Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. I could have left them there, to live happily in late nineteenth-century London: Justine could have continued her painting career, Catherine could have continued to write pot-boilers about spider gods and dangerous femmes fatales, Mary could have gone to work each morning for Mr. Holmes, filing his cases and helping solve the occasional mystery. Diana could have continued to be a pain in the arse. But as a writer, I did not want to leave my characters in such peaceful circumstances! I had to make life harder for them . . .

And so, in European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman, I send them off to the Austro-Hungarian Empire to rescue Lucinda Van Helsing.

To be perfectly honest, there wasn’t a single big idea behind this second adventure of the Athena Club—just a collection of smaller ideas that added up to a big, long book. As you may know if you read my Big Idea post for the first book, it started with my doctoral dissertation on late nineteenth-century gothic fiction. While writing that dissertation, I realized that around the turn of the century, mad scientists kept creating female monsters . . . and destroying them. I thought that was not fair, not fair at all. Those female monsters deserved to live and tell their own stories, so I brought them to life in my book. But there was one late nineteenth-century novel that I could not include in my dissertation because it was so long, so complicated, that it would have taken another hundred pages (in addition to the four hundred I had already written) to discuss. That novel was Dracula.

Bram Stoker’s most famous novel is so difficult to write about because it takes all the themes of late nineteenth-century gothic fiction and incorporates them into one very long book. It’s about immigration, the British Empire, the power and importance of wealth, the New Woman and reversed gender roles, evolution and degeneration, the English gentleman, the criminal anthropology of Cesare Lombroso, the emerging field of psychoanalysis . . . even, obliquely, the Irish question. It’s a strange, ambiguous novel. The closer you look at it, the more its multiple narrations collapse, and the more you begin to question who is the monster.

My choice is one of its most complex characters, Abraham Van Helsing, the Dutch vampire-hunter whose first name is Stoker’s own, and whose last name is an anagram for English. He’s the hero of the story, right? After all, he saves civilization and Victorian womanhood by telling his group of male followers to stake and decapitate Lucy Westenra when she has turned into a vampire. That staking scene, which takes place on the night Lucy was supposed to marry her financé Arthur Holmwood, is described in all the lurid detail of a Hammer film, with orgiastic cries and splashing blood.

The problem with a straightforward reading of Dracula is that Stoker was a more complicated writer than he’s given credit for. You can see that in his short stories and less well-known novels, such as The Jewel of Seven Stars and Lair of the White Worm. He may not have been a Henry James stylistically, but he shared James’s tendency to turn stories inside out, so that you’re not entirely sure what you’ve read. The closer my students look at the final scene of Dracula, in which the vampire’s throat is sheared through with a kukri knife while the sun sets over his Transylvanian castle, the less sure they are that he’s been destroyed in the proper, prescribed vampire fashion. Although the Count disintegrates into dust, he’s done that before, on several occasions. And can we really trust the eyewitness account of Mina Murray, who is in Dracula’s power?

Here’s what I think: Van Helsing is a villain, the worst of them all. Dracula and Mina are in league together from the moment he first sucks her blood. And the book, compiled by Mina herself, is fundamentally untrustworthy.

So one of the ideas behind the second book was that I needed to write about the characters and events of Dracula. You simply can’t write about monsters at the end of the nineteenth century without discussing Mina, Van Helsing, his vampire-hunting groupies, and the Count himself. And where would they be, after the events of Dracula? Why, in Budapest of course!

The second idea was to take my characters from the British Empire, which was about to fall apart, to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, also about to fall apart. If I was going to write pulp metafiction about the late nineteenth-century, I had to pull out all the stops, and two of those stops are Vienna and Budapest. I particularly wanted to write about Budapest, the city where I was born, which seemed to be the logical place for the headquarters of a secret society of alchemists. After all, Budapest has been associated with both magic and science for centuries—and it is, itself, a beautiful, magical city.

The third idea was that once I had introduced these five young women to one another, they should go have adventures together. It was so much fun writing about Mary, Diana, Beatrice, Catherine, and Justine, not when they had just met, but when they had known each other for a while and were forced to work together under circumstance that were sometimes exciting, sometimes difficult, and sometimes just plain tedious, as travel can be. I had a lot of fun writing this book, going to Vienna and Budapest to imagine what those cities would have been like in the late nineteenth century.

But in the end, it was all about the central characters. Have they become friends? What do they think about each other and the Athena Club? Has anyone strangled Diana yet? Out of all these ideas came a novel that I hope will be a fun read for anyone who enjoyed The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter and its cast of monstrous gentlewomen.

—-

European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Craig DiLouie

One of the great questions in literature, genre or otherwise, is: What makes a person a monster? In One of Us, author Craig DiLouie takes a crack at the question… and the answer.

CRAIG DiLOUIE:

My novel One of Us began as a misunderstood monster novel and ended up a much more ambitious examination of prejudice.

What if monsters lived among us, but were only monstrous in appearance? If they had extraordinary capabilities, would they be admired or feared? If they were abused enough and responded with violence, would that violence be justified?

In One of Us, a disease in the 1970s produced a generation of monstrous children that years later are living as teenagers in orphanages throughout the rural South. Rejected and scorned, they are coming of age without rights or opportunity, while those exhibiting extraordinary powers are exploited by the government.

When they’re pushed too far, they finally react, with horrifying consequences.

The result is a visceral dark fantasy about human monsters and monstrous humans told as a Southern Gothic. Violent, dark, and excessive, this type of lit features prejudice, the grotesque, and a society in decay, making it ripe for this novel.

What I wanted to do with the story was pull the reader into a world where a fantastical, sympathetic group is victimized by extreme prejudice, and then let the reader process it with their gut, not their heads.

The idea behind using monsters was to create an extreme example of a group the reader might find threatening but otherwise have no preconceived notions about, allowing greater empathy as we get to know them as individuals.

Unlike typical monster stories in which the monster is innately evil, in One of Us the monsters turn out to be just like you and me. The story therefore becomes an examination of what makes a monster a monster, and what it means to be human.

One of Us had many inspirations, among them To Kill a Mockingbird, with its theme of prejudice making good people do bad things; The Island of Dr. Moreau, with its questions about what it means to be human or a beast; and Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, with its violent, cathartic uprising against slavery. One of the things that makes these works great is a striking question lies at the heart of their big idea.

While the novel has several strong themes that include prejudice, the idea here wasn’t to preach or even put theme in front of the story. There are few clear-cut “good guys” and villains. Like the stories that inspired it, it doesn’t claim to have the answers. These will ultimately come from the reader.

In my view, a novel’s chief purpose is to entertain. But by the end of One of Us, I hope readers will ask: Where does prejudice come from? How does it affect my life? If I feel prejudice, is it based on reality or self-reinforcing myths? Is violence ever justified—either by a group oppressing another, or by that group pushing back? And then apply what they think and feel, with fresh eyes, to their lives and today’s America.

—-

One Of Us: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Kali Wallace

City of Islands is author Kali Wallace’s first children’s book, and in writing it, she was thinking about where the balances were in telling a story for children, and still telling a story with some complexity. For her Big Idea, she’s here to talk about finding that balance, especially in today’s times.

KALI WALLACE:

Adults ruin everything.

It’s an abiding theme of children’s stories: to have an adventure, you’ve got to ditch the parents and guardians. It might be a trope, but it’s one I’ve always rather liked. It’s always seemed to me the closest a story can come to capturing the moments a uninhibited, unsupervised make-believe of my 1980s go-play-in-the-ditch-behind-the-house childhood.

Mara, the main character of City of Islands, is a plucky orphan in a children’s fantasy novel. She lives in an archipelago city where magic is sung in music, and she dreams of learning magic herself. But being an orphan doesn’t give her freedom. It means she has to take care of herself, in a world that does not spare a whole lot of compassion for struggling children.

You see, too much supervision is not the only way adults can ruin a child’s story. There is also literally everything else adults do.

This is the first children’s book I’ve written, and I wasn’t quite sure how to balance the lightness and the dark. My agent had to tell me that perhaps opening a children’s novel with a giant pile of corpses did not quite strike the right tone. On a bigger scale, I wasn’t quite sure what kind of villain I needed. I didn’t want an evil overlord. All I wanted was somebody who could get away with his schemes because the other adults were too obsessed with their own status to see a monster among them. But I worried about how monstrous was too monstrous. I worried that a power-hungry villain who tore families apart and locked children in cages might be a little bit over the top. A little too mustache-twirling. A little unbelievable.

I know. I know.

When fantasy writers talk about world-building, we talk about histories, political systems, belief systems, cultural mores, economies, geography. As I was writing, I made many world-building decisions to ensure the story would be welcoming to all kinds of children. The City of Islands is a multicultural port city filled with people from all over the world. There are a variety of skin colors, backgrounds, languages, and economic statuses among the primary characters; same-sex marriage is accepted and normal. There are no kings or gods, but there are imbalances of wealth and power. I wanted the world to feel wondrous and magical and strange, but I also wanted young readers to be able to imagine themselves going along for Mara’s adventures.

But there’s another aspect of this invented society that kept creeping into the story. I didn’t even realize I was doing it until the revision process, because I wasn’t used to thinking about it as a specific aspect of world-building.

I’m talking about the way a society treats its children.

The concept of childhood is neither universal nor static; it’s not even universal or static in the same place and time or in the same person. (Witness: people who demand their children be protected from harm at all costs while at the same time arguing that other children deserve the harm inflicted upon them.) The treatment of children in a society, contradictions and all, is always revelatory and rarely flattering. Through the process of writing and revising, it evolved into one of the central ideas around which I wove my story.

Twelve-year-old Mara must work to survive. She knows that parents and friends can vanish in the blink of an eye. She knows that adults lie, scheme, and betray. She wants to learn but education is largely out of reach for children like her. Experience has taught her there is little room for dreams in a world that considers children to be a cheap, easily replaceable labor force. She dreams anyway.

When I started City of Islands, I thought I was writing the kind of children’s story that can’t be told if there are responsible adults around to ruin the fun. A little dark, yes, and a little rough on its characters, but still a magical, exciting adventure. But it turns out I was actually writing the kind of children’s story that illuminates the ways in which adults fail children. That’s what I had been writing all along. It just took me a while to figure it out.

This is a surreal time to be launching a children’s book. Our world is dark and frightening, and children know that as well as anyone–or better, because they are too often treated as props in the grandstanding of cowardly, dishonest, venal adults. I wrote City of Islands to be a fun, exciting, and enjoyable story for kids, but I also want the darkness in the story to resonate with the children reading it in this very dark world in which we live. It seems like such a small hope, when the problems facing the world’s children are so huge, but I do hope they find a bit of courage and comfort in Mara’s story.

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City of Islands: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Jason Denzel

Someone once said that life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans. Jason Denzel can relate to that — life certainly happened to him between writing his previous book on his new one, Mystic Dragon. Here’s how he incorporated what was going in his life into the writing.

JASON DENZEL:

There’s that old saying writers hear all the time, “write what you know”, and I never really bought into it until I wrote my second novel, Mystic Dragon. To understand the Big Idea behind this book, you have to first go back to Mystic, the first book in the series.

I wrote Mystic during a secure, happy, and prosperous time of my life, and for the most part, the book reflected that. It showcased a young, bright-eyed protagonist named Pomella who, despite being dealt a rough hand in her culture’s caste system, uses her unrelenting tenacity, talent,  and enthusiasm to achieve her goals. (Sort of).

Before 2015, I could relate to Pomella’s youthful spirit. As a debut author, having an opportunity to be published with Tor was a dream come true. I’d been connected to them, and the entire fantasy community for a long time due to my work on Dragonmount, the ginormous Wheel of Time website, and for a while everything went beautifully. My publisher was excited for the book, there was positive buzz, a tour was planned, and early reviews were positive. Life was good, man.

Then a life-sized mystical dragon, breathing red-hot-fuck-it-all fire, burned my life down.

Mystic Dragon was written during a period in my life in which I went through a painful divorce after 15 years of marriage, was laid off from my tech job I’d been at for the same length, and unexpectedly lost my father to a heart condition. I had to sell my house, rebuild my life, find a new job, deal with a multitude of relationship issues, keep it together for my kids, and still find time to write the next book. A book which had to, in my mind, surpass the first one and also not buckle under the weight of being a middle book in a trilogy.

When life sucked the most, I channeled my pain and sadness into my story. I’d decided years before that I would set Mystic Dragon seven years after the events of the first book. This decision didn’t necessarily follow the standard advice given to writers in this genre, but it felt even more right when I began drafting the manuscript in earnest. Pomella and her childhood friend Sim aren’t teeangers anymore. In this second book, each of them have their own version of a mystical dragon breathing red-hot-fuck-it-all fire onto their lives. While they don’t deal with divorce and unemployment, they deal with their own versions of their worlds burning down around them. (Literally, at some points). And there’s a new character, Shevia, who’s centrally featured on the cover, who coalesced into existence during those inevitable days where I wanted to scream and smash and cry. If Pomella represented my last loss of innocence, then Sim was my sadness and perseverance, and Shevia was my anger at having to deal with it all.

Simply put, all of the characters in Mystic Dragon had to grow with me. We had to find our way out of the smoldering ashes of our old lives in order to find a new sun.

Now, several years removed from that difficult time of my life, and with the book finally complete and on shelves, I’m glad I had it as an outlet for my emotions. For better or worse, Mystic Dragon echoes what I went through during that time in my life. And as I write the concluding volume in the trilogy, Mystic Skies, I can already see that the events of the second book will stay with the characters in a similar way. The wounds might mostly heal, but the experience of it stays with you forever.

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Mystic Dragon: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Indiebound | Powell’s

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The Big Idea: Nicole Kornher-Stace

Nicole Kornher-Stace has some esoteric random influences for her novel Latchkey, which include a classic philosophical work, a popular video game… and a disease. Well, sort of for the last one. Here she is to sort it all out.

NICOLE KORNHER-STACE:

When I was eight years old, I had a teacher with advanced chronic Lyme disease. We knew this because she couldn’t keep our names straight — even by the end of the year — and she kept apologizing for it. She was, I don’t know, early forties at most, and yet her memory was eroding in a way that we, as kids, assumed was the eventual destiny of really really old people, not somebody just a few years the senior of my mom. I remember thinking: this is the most terrifying thing. Having your memory eaten by something you can’t even see. It immediately bumped whatever topped my 8-year-old fear-list down to number two. Tornadoes, maybe.

But I live in upstate New York, where you get Lyme disease like most people get colds. (I just read that a solid 50-something percent of tested ticks from 2017 around here were infected, so THAT’S FUN.) The first time I got Lyme was in my early twenties. I didn’t have the bullseye rash, so in my eternal optimism — the kind that only rears its head when you’re trying to get out of doing something deep down you know you need to — I convinced myself it was a particularly long-lasting nightmare flu, so I didn’t go to the doctor until at some point I emerged from my month-long fever haze and went you know, this probably isn’t normal. Nobody seems to be able to tell me if I still have it or if the antibiotics killed it in time. (Go to the doctor with unexplainable month-long fevers, people! Don’t be me!)

The first thing I thought when I was diagnosed is: oh shit, I’m going to turn out like Ms. ——. Unable to keep twenty names attached to faces anymore even after looking at them six hours a day, five days a week, for ten months. Surely I was too young to forget everything. Then again, so was she. Then again, so is everyone. I don’t care how old you are. That shit is scary.

So for a few years I’d tentatively probe the situation, the way you poke a painful tooth with your tongue. Is my memory crashing and burning or am I just tired? Or is it just because I’m pregnant? Or because I’m chasing a toddler around all day? Or am I too overworked? And so forth.

It entered the mixed bag of random unintentional influences that made up the world and characters of my 2015 YA debut Archivist Wasp and its 2018 sequel, Latchkey. And I do mean random. The most succinctly I can make this point is probably to say: the framework of the protagonist’s world landed in my head of a piece one day while I was reading The Golden Bough and playing Fallout 3 concurrently.

I say the protagonist’s world specifically because in these books there are three worlds in total. One is the Golden Bough-meets-Fallout-3 world in which Wasp, ghosthunter priestess, lives. In Archivist Wasp, she ends up going on a buddy quest into the underworld with a ghost she was supposed to capture and exploit, but instead cuts a deal with; the second world is the one this ghost comes from, a near-future society collapsing into high-tech all-out civil war. The underworld is the third setting in the books, and this underworld — along with the ghosts in it — is literally constructed of memory. Think personalized pocket afterlives sort-of like What Dreams May Come, except more crowdsourced, more interconnected, and you can travel between them easily, if you can find the doors. The memories that shape you as a person acquire physical form in the underworld. An area that’s richly realized, full of detail, is that way because it is built and rebuilt and reinforced out of the memories of many dead together. There are entire buildings, entire cities, based on these communal memories.

But ghosts, too, are made of memory. Here, think of residual self-image as in The Matrix. Except that the longer you stay dead, the longer you wander the underworld, the hazier and more fallible your memories of your life — and yourself — become. Eventually you lose your sense of self, your image of yourself, and you revert to a faceless silvery cutout, like a paper doll the approximate size of you. There are ways of regaining those lost details of your life, but it’s difficult, and almost impossible to do alone. The ghost that Wasp cuts her deal with has forgotten vast swathes of his life and has spent centuries making half-assed guesses at all those lost details, rebuilding the constellation of his past around a few bright remembered stars.

Without spoiling anything, memory plays an even bigger role in the sequel, Latchkey. And, hilariously, it took me until after I drafted the sequel to pinpoint where these books’ fixation on memory, and loss of memory, came from. I still mentally interrogate myself sometimes, giving my own memory little pokes to make sure it’s still running. I don’t really know how I’d know if it wasn’t. My memory seems to be as selective as my kid’s, which retains where you were and what you were doing when you said such-and-such thing, verbatim, but blanks entirely on what he did earlier that school day. For now, mine still has a stranglehold on: story notes, grudges, song lyrics I last heard when I was twelve, way more high school Spanish than I give it credit for, quotes from cartoons that I can insert into conversations at opportune moments of maximum obnoxiousness, etc. and completely drops the ball on: names, dates, what I went into a room for five seconds after entering it, etc. I say this to people and they shrug and go meh, sounds normal to me.

So maybe eight-year-old me was freaking out over nothing. Maybe all our memories are just weird jumbled messes, the mental equivalent of desk clutter or a crowdsourced underworld. For now, mine can hold its shit together long enough to write the exact books I want to be writing, and they’re getting out there and finding their readers, and honestly, that’s all I’d ever want to ask of it.

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

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

 

The Big Idea: James Patrick Kelly

Today, Hugo and Nebula Award winner James Patrick Kelly is here to tell you why you need more short stories in your reading diet. And coincidentally, The Promise of Space and Other Stories, his latest collection of short stories, just happens to be out!

JAMES PATRICK KELLY:

I rise in defense of the humble short story. My Big Idea is that you should be reading more of them. My Other Idea is that my new short story collection, The Promise of Space and Other Stories, might be a place to start. So here’s my case for upping your short fiction intake:

First: this is the Golden Age of short stories. There are more markets and more writers writing at top form than ever before. Yes, ever before. Of course, I know all about that Other Golden Age, which the Science Fiction Encyclopedia puts at roughly 1937 to around 1950. I grew up with a headful of Clarke, Asimov, Heinlein, Bradbury, Sturgeon, Williamson and Pohl. Hell, I even met some of them! I’m not saying that these writers were not some of the greatest of All-Stars. But I’d argue that we can easily match that lineup with a much more diverse roster of writers publishing today. Not only that, but our bench is way, way deeper. In addition to the skill of the current crop of writers, consider the accessibility of their fiction. Lots and lots of it is free. And it comes to you in multiple formats: print, print online and in the last few years, audio. Every month there are upwards of a hundred new stories published, wonderful stories that you may be missing.

Second: Stories are not short novels. Rather they are a different art form altogether. Look, have you ever skipped over a lyrical passage of landscapery in a novel because you wanted to get back to the plot?  Doesn’t happen in a story. Or how about that supporting character in an otherwise enjoyable novel who annoys you but whom the novelist can’t get enough of? No time for that in a story, because the clock runs too fast. Things have to happen ASAP in Storyland. In my revenge story “Soulcatcher,” in which a desperate clone hatches a plot to rescue her kidnapped clone sister, everything goes terribly wrong in about a half an hour of story time. And here’s the thing:  the more stories you read, the better a story reader you become ….

Third: … because a short story puts you to work as a worldbuilder. Because there isn’t time to spend (waste) describing the barren landscape of the desert world, or explaining the wizard’s necromantic rule book, the best short story writers leave hints and point at clues which encourage the reader to make up parts of the story for themselves. Of course, a story has to succeed at its most superficial level and the naïve reader should be able to get 80-90% of it on the first read. But as you improve your story reading skills, working through these subtextual prompts gives you a kind of ownership over the content you’ve added.  In my novelette “One Sister, Two Sisters, Three” set among the inscrutable ruins of a long dead alien civilization, the sisters of the title practice a religion based on recognizing Fibonacci sequence patterns in the universe. I’m trying to get you to start thinking about all those Golden Ratio coincidences too.

Fourth: Short stories are the most nimble kind of fiction. It’s possible for story writers to reflect late-breaking developments in our culture in near real time. Suppose there was some horrendous political anomaly and know-nothings found themselves in our seats of power. Story writers would be the first to publish If-This-Goes-On pieces of the literary resistance. What, that couldn’t ever happen? Okay then consider that if aliens land in Ohio next week, short form writers would be submitting work that reflected our new status in the universe while novelists were still sending proposals to their agents. Over the past year or so, I’ve read a lot of hyperventilating journalism about the coming of sexbots. Not that the idea is new, but now that the reality is around the corner, people are paying closer attention. Sean Wallace, my editor at Prime, required that my collection include an original story, so I decided to tiptoe into the minefield of gender politics with “Yukui.”

Fifth:  The best stories will have an unique and visceral impact. It’s not that novels can’t make you bleed, or cry or shout with joy.  They can generate all those amazing reactions, but in a more diffuse way. Every time you look away from a novel and rejoin your life, the dream dissipates. Because a story is most often a continuous and complete experience, you only emerge from it when the writer is done with you, for better or worse. But a good story doesn’t end at the last line. One thing I strive for are stories that resonate after you put them down. Maybe you’re still filling in the world that I sketched, maybe you can’t believe my protagonist would do that thing. Or else something in the denouement, that ending just past the plot’s climax, turns the story on its head. I teach writing and I love it when my students toss a reinterpretation bomb (imprecisely known as a twist ending) in the last paragraph. One of my personal favorite reinterpretation bombs comes at the last line of “Happy Ending 2.0,” a fantasy in which a formerly happily married couple get a chance at a do-over. Hijinks do not ensue.

Understand that I write novels too – six of ‘em, including last year’s Mother Go – but nothing saddens me more as a writer than to hear a reader say that she reads only novels. Don’t be that person, if only because your favorite writer more often than not writes amazing stories too. My Big Idea is that there are many, many strange and wonderful reading experiences that are shorter than 40,000 words. My Other Idea is that The Promise of Space is my sixth collection and that maybe I’m finally getting the hang of writing short.

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The Promise of Space: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read a story. Visit the author’s site. Follow him on Twitter.

The Big Idea: Wendy Nikel

People with a familiarity with time travel tropes may have heard of the “grandfather paradox.” But now, author Wendy Nikel proposes a corollary for her newest, The Grandmother Paradox.

WENDY NIKEL:

As an author, I struggle with titles, and I don’t normally settle on one until a story is completely written, usually borrowing from bits of description or dialogue I’ve written within the text. Not so with The Grandmother Paradox. This title was the inspiration and starting point for this second time travel novella in the Place in Time series as I delved deeper within the world I’d created in The Continuum.

A “grandfather paradox” is an event in time travel where altering elements of the past causes inconsistencies in the present. Returning from the past, a traveler may discover that things aren’t as they left them; something they’ve done has caused a ripple of change. The paradox gets its title from the most frequently cited example: A time traveler visits the past, kills their grandfather before their parent was conceived, and thus prevents their own birth.

Some of my favorite time travel stories play with this trope. Think of the original Back to the Future, where Marty must help his parents get together to fix the timeline before he and his siblings fade out of existence. Or the Doctor Who “Father’s Day” episode in the Ninth Doctor’s era, where Rose rescues her father from a car accident, causing all sorts of damage to the timestream.

In The Continuum, professional time traveler Elise Morley travels forward in time and has to face a situation where history seems doomed to repeat itself, but I knew that with the second book in this series, I wanted to send a character into the past and force them to confront another time travel conundrum: whether it’s possible to change the past and – if it is possible – whether they should. Thus, the title of The Grandmother Paradox felt like the perfect fit, and I built the story around that premise, though with the slight alteration that it’s not the protagonist’s ancestor who’s in danger, but the ancestor of someone important to him.

So when Dr. Wells, the head of the Place in Time Travel Agency (PITTA) suspects that someone’s trying to use the concept of the grandfather paradox to eliminate the family line of our first book’s heroine in order to prevent her existence (and thus prevent the events of the previous book from taking place), he’s unable to turn to her for help. Instead, he recruits the very man whose life she saved and who thus has just as much to lose if she ceases to exist.

Former secret agent Chandler, the protagonist of this novella, travels back to the year 1893, where Juliette Argent, Elise’s great-great-grandmother is working as the assistant to a traveling magician. But she’s not an easy person to protect. With her bold and fearless attitude and her fascination with time travel (of all things!), Chandler finds it more and more difficult to keep her safe and keep his purpose there secret.

In The Grandmother Paradox, I was able to explore a fascinating time in history, more deeply examine some of my favorite characters from the first book, and even dabble in a bit of romance. But most of all, like the first book in the series, I enjoyed being able to play around with the twists and turns of time travel, the logic puzzlers and paradoxes that make this subgenre so much fun.

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The Grandmother Paradox: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound | World Weaver Press

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

 

The Big Idea: Raz Greenberg

My first personal awareness of Hayao Miyazaki didn’t occur until I was well into adulthood, but for Raz Greenberg, his journey with the great animator started much earlier, and led him to write a book on the filmmaker, Hayao Miyazaki: Exploring the Early Work of Japan’s Greatest Animator.

RAZ GREENBERG:

The roots of the big idea behind my book, Hayao Miyazaki Exploring the Early Work of Japan’s Greatest Animator, go back to a childhood experience I share with many other members of my generation – that is, kids who grew up in Israel of the 1980s. We only had one television channel back then, the national broadcast channel, and it had a very strict, pedagogic agenda about what kids are supposed to be watching. One show that fell into this category, which the channel broadcasted many, many times during that decade (almost every other summer vacation), was known in Hebrew as Halev (“Heart”). It was an animated adaptation of a short story included in Edmondo de Amicis’ classic 1886 children’s novel of the same name, and it followed a courageous boy named Marco on his journey from Italy to Argentina to find his mother, after letters from her stopped coming.

The original novel, with its deep patriotic themes, was already considered a classic in Israel; many young Israeli parents who read it in their childhood were overjoyed to discover it again and watch the show with their children, following Marco’s weekly adventures all the way to the happy end. But there was one element in the show that left both its young Israeli viewers and their parents puzzled: why would a show about an Italian boy travelling to Argentina have Japanese end credits?

Yes, that was my generation’s first major exposure to anime. We’ve had a couple of science fiction shows to watch as well (Star Blazers and Battle of the Planets), but for the most part, we were raised on a healthy diet of Japanese-produced adaptations of classic children’s literature, with Halev being the one show that all the ‘80s children remember.

Flash forward to the end of the ‘90s: my interest in comics led me to the discovery of the world of anime and manga, which in turn led me to major in Asian studies during my BA. It wasn’t long before I became acquainted with the works of Hayao Miyazaki, first through his incredible manga epic Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind and later through his films. This was a few years after Princess Mononoke made a lot of noise in the Japanese box office, and a few years before Spirited Away made Miyazaki a household name all over the world, a time when little of Miyazaki’s work was actually available in translation, but even the very few items I could get my hands on made me fall completely in love with what I saw. The more I got into Miyazaki’s work, the more I realized that something in his design style feels very familiar. A few searches through the internet revealed that indeed, Miyazaki was one of the animators who worked on Halev.

My initial reaction was “cool!” and that was pretty much it. But when I started working on my MA thesis about childhood in Miyazaki’s films, by which time most of his cinematic filmography became available for the non-Japanese audience, I realized that this filmography actually tells only part of the story. Miyazaki directed his first feature-length film in 1979; during the 16 years that preceded this movie, he worked as an animator in other people’s films and television shows, and also as a director in various televisions projects. There was an entire Miyazaki filmography here to be discovered beyond his familiar cinematic work. At some point, I realized that I want to write a book about it.

I started collecting materials – relevant films, television episodes, comics, books, articles and interviews. As often happens, other stuff got in the way: I was struggling with my PhD thesis (my academic focus now being animation theory in general, rather than Japanese animation), work, other stuff… but when I finally set down, and started writing, I began to understand that it was no coincidence that the animator who worked on a Halev is also responsible for classics like My Neighbor Totoro, other than the very obvious elements of the former that echo in the latter.

Like all great storytellers, Miyazaki’s works are about people – and whether these people come from Japan, Italy or anywhere else, he always takes his audience in an unforgettable journey as they watch his protagonists grow emotionally. Exploring Miyazaki’s early works and seeing how they inspired (as explained in the book’s concluding chapters) his later acclaimed works gave me a fascinating perspective on how Miyazaki himself grew as an artist. I hope readers will find it equally fascinating.

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Hayao Miyazaki: Exploring the Early Work of Japan’s Greatest Animator: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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