View From a Hotel Window 4/21/22: Los Angeles

Not the most scenic of views — I daresay it feels kind of like a view you might get at a hotel in New York — but the hotel is lovely and I will be busy with meetings and events regardless. I’m here for film/TV stuff during the week and for Los Angeles Times Festival of Books doings on the weekend. Keeping myself busy, that’s me.

— JS

The Big Idea: Nicola Griffith

Knights and legends and the dream of the British Isles… but for author Nicola Griffith, something was missing. What was it, and how does Spear offer it to reader? Griffith explains in this Big Idea.

NICOLA GRIFFITH:

I’ve loved the Matter of Britain since I got my first library card. I dragged home every bit of Arthuriana I could find. What I loved most about books like Mary Stewart’s The Crystal Cave and Rosemary Sutcliff’s Sword at Sunset was the setting, the landscape of Long Ago: the scent of the forest, mist on the moors.

What I didn’t love was never seeing people like me moving through that landscape: no crips and no queer people, no women who weren’t tropes, and zero people of colour.

There’s a reason we’re not in these stories: the Matter of Britain is at heart a national origin story. Its nativist, class-ridden, ableist, manifest destiny is pretty much baked in. So in late 2019 when I was asked to write a story for a ‘race-bent, queer-inclusive’ Arthurian anthology, I said no; I didn’t think it could be done and still feel Arthurian. I went back to researching Menewood, the sequel to Hild. Then I got a second email about the anthology.

I opened the email intending to say no—my fingers were poised over the keyboard—when into my head dropped an image: half hidden by trees an exhausted figure in mended armour sitting on a bony gelding and holding a red spear. And I knew how to combine Arthurian legend with Welsh history and Irish myth—and lose all the nativist baggage. More to the point I knew it would be fun—something silvery and quick. So I set Menewood aside, opened a new document titled “Red,” and began.

Words roared out, a torrent leaping and tumbling with sheer joy. In just 17 days “Red” had become Spear.

Think of Spear as a cousin of Hild, but with magic—not just Hild’s wild magic of the landscape, and the magic of love and the human heart, but the sword-swinging, monster-killing magic of myth and demigods. It’s set a hundred years earlier than Hild, in Wales rather than England, so instead of Hild’s sturdy Anglo-Saxon sentences I let the language off the leash, let it run as it wanted, and what it wanted was to be throughly Celtic: rhythmic and rippling and periphrastic. Which makes sense because after all Peretur, the character at the centre of Spear, is Welsh.

Written mention of the Arthurian hero most people know as Sir Percival begins in Old Welsh of the sixth century. But the figure in my vision was not nobly born or a person of privilege. That bony gelding, for example, spelled poverty, or at least a sense of mend-and-make-do. And though their armour was red—like the fifteenth century Sir Percival’s armour—it wasn’t medieval plate but leather sewn with horn panels: something from a much earlier era. It had to be Peretur, from sixth-century Wales. Which was perfect—not only because it’s my favourite period but because I wanted Wales specifically. In the fifth century, after Roman legions withdrew, the Irish raided west Wales repeatedly, and eventually ruled it. So now I could link the story to legends of the Tuath Dé and their Four Treasures: the cauldron, the sword, the stone, and the spear.

The first three treasures, in the guise of the Grail, Excalibur, and the stone Excalibur is pulled from, fit very neatly into Arthurian legend. The spear, though? Not so much. But on one of those philological deep dives researching  Menewood I’d learned that the name Peretur could plausibly stem from two Welsh words, bêr (hard or enduring) and hyddur (spear). Bêr-hyddur: Peretur.

If you’ve read Hild you know I’m a big fan of historical accuracy. Spear though, is stuffed with magic and demigods, so I approached historical realism from a different perspective. Queer people, disabled people, people of colour, poor people, women and the gender non-conforming are an integral part of the history of Britain—we are here now; we were there then. So we are in this story.

My Peretur, then, is born in a cave to a traumatised mother who has fled into hiding with almost nothing, who’s barely able to look after herself, never mind her child. Peretur learns to provide for them both, without being seen, via a kind of involuntary barter: she steals what she needs from isolated farmsteads and, in exchange, gives the farmers something they need. Although Peretur’s poor in material goods, she’s rich in experience: she revels in her physical strength, she loves roaming her valley, and she delights in protecting these people—who she thinks of as her responsibility—even though they have no idea she exists. And later, when she leaves home, her stance to the world isn’t wary and folded-in but wide-open and full-throated. There’s danger, yes, and loss and fear, but this isn’t a story of stress or angst. It’s a story of love, and lust, and fights to the death: Peretur lives large because Peretur’s a hero.

Having said that she’s not like the heroes in the Campbellian tradition, who are relentless in pursuit of their goal—which is to crush their enemies, heedless of the suffering they cause, and move on, unaffected by the wreckage and weeping in their wake. Peretur’s goal is not just to win fights and slay monsters—which she does, with great élan—but to find her people and a place to call home. And that’s what I want for this book: to find its people.

To me, it doesn’t matter whether Arthur or Camelot ever existed—because to me Camelot isn’t really a place. It’s a state of mind, a condition outside reality whose heroes fight not for power over others but the power to fight in service of a dream, a dream of justice and inclusion, a dream of belonging. Camelot could have existed, yes, and maybe some of us wish it had existed, but what makes it enduringly attractive is that it might yet exist. So this book is for people like me who want to be immersed in a time and place we’ve never seen—a past we’ve been told doesn’t belong to us. Spear is for those of us who long not only to see ourselves in that heroic past but to be the heroes—to not just exist, but to live large and to thrive.


Spear: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|IndieBound|Powell’s

Listen to an audio excerpt. Visit the author’s site. Twitter|Instagram|Facebook

A Month of The Kaiju Preservation Society

The Hungarian Cover of The Kaiju Preservation Society

It’s now been a month (and change) of The Kaiju Preservation Society being out in the world, so I thought this would be a nice moment to catch up with the book and answer some questions I’ve been asked about it, and also talk (very briefly) about what’s next for me. Because that’s what having a personal site is all about, yes?

So how did Kaiju do commercially in its first month? Pretty well, and honestly, better than I had hoped for. The book is a light romp, and I’d not put out a novel in 2021 (Kaiju was originally slotted for October ’21 and then Tor moved it, sensibly as it turned out, due to Omicron and paper shortages), and other publishers put out a number of heavy-hitting titles in the week of, and in the weeks immediately previous to, its release. I would have been content with it just being out in the world and selling to the usual crowd (hello!). So having it chart on two separate New York Times Best Seller lists (Combined Print/eBook; Audio Fiction), as well as a healthy number of other national and regional bestseller lists, was gratifying. The book has also hung in there through the month in terms of sales (doing the book tour helped), and the raw number of sales in this first month across all formats is encouraging in terms of the book having “legs” from here on out.

In short, it outperformed my expectations, and has made my publishers pretty happy. Hooray!

Okay, but how did it do with readers? Also pretty well as far as I can tell. I’ve gotten more fan mail about Kaiju than I’ve gotten for any of my books since Redshirts, so as an anecdotal barometer, that’s pretty encouraging. In terms of both the press and regular readers leaving reviews, it seems like the sort out has been 85%-90% positive and 10%-15% less so. The ones that have been positive have generally bought into the idea of Kaiju being a “pop song” of a book, i.e., light and fast moving and leaving you with a smile on your face and a spring in your step; the negative reviews seem to be of two varieties, with some overlap: Irritation with the tone and style of the book, and annoyance that a book that takes place during the height of the COVID pandemic might have a bit of contemporary political/social commentary to it.

Valid criticisms? Sure, for the person for whom these things are an annoyance. No one likes everything! My personal thought toward both these criticisms is: fine, this book isn’t for you, and that’s okay. Also, given your specific criticisms, you might skip the rest of my books, because, as Mike Wazowski might say, these are the jokes, kid. I like my schtick, and also it does well for me financially, so I’m inclined to continue it, for both personal and professional reasons. It’s not for everyone! However, clearly, it’s for enough people that I’m going to keep at it.

Can you talk about the thing you did with your protagonist? What thing?

You know, the thing. I’m sure I have no idea what you’re talking about.

(Exasperated sigh) Jamie doesn’t have an obvious gender! I mean, sometimes people don’t have obvious genders.

But you know, right? I don’t! Also, I think it’s fine for people to decide for themselves what gender if any Jaime is; what they decide brings an interesting and personal spin to the book, and I like that. It’s also fun for people to interrogate their own defaults and what they mean for them as a reader and human. As a caveat, I’ll note that since the audiobook is read by Wil Wheaton, people encountering the book in audio may assume Jaime is the same gender as Wil; I would only remind them that Wil also narrated my Interdependency series of audiobooks, where two of the three main characters were women (as was the primary antagonist). Audible pairs Wil with me because, from a sales point of view, people seem to like the match; it’s not a hand tip to the character’s gender.

You also have clearly trans and/or non-binary characters in Kaiju. Yup, because I know trans and non-binary people, so I’m reflecting the world I know. Also, given the context of the characters — theater folks, academics, scientists — it makes sense to me for there to be trans and non-binary folks in the story, and for the cis people they know and work with to consider their presence non-controversial and commonplace.

Not everyone is cool with trans and/or non-binary folks. They wouldn’t last long in the Kaiju Preservation Society, then. Nor would any other type of obvious bigot, as KPS is clearly a diverse, international organization with no time for that sort of bullshit. It’s my world, I get to write it the way I want it.

Kaiju seems thinner than your other novels. It doesn’t just seem thinner, it is thinner! It’s 280ish pages where my novels are usually 300+ pages. And yet, the book has the same number of words, more or less, as the last several of my books. The thing is, there’s been a worldwide printing paper shortage, so Tor made the decision to design the pages to have the same number of words on slightly fewer pages. This is how the global supply chain issues of the last couple of years affected this particular book. I assure you, however, you have not lost word count. I am as wordy as I have ever been.

What’s the current status of the Kaiju TV option? It’s active and I’m happy with the choices that are being made so far, and other than that I can’t say anything, partly because it’s not the time or place, and partly because there’s not all that much to say at this point. I’m optimistic! But then, I always am.

Have you given any thought to a Kaiju sequel? Not at the moment, because I have other things I’m working on, and also, a sequel is not accounted for in my current contract. Which is not to say that a sequel is impossible, if there’s reader interest and if Tor wants another. I never say never about this stuff. But I’m also happy if this is a “one and done.” Standalones are fun too, you know?

What are you writing next, then? The thing I am currently writing is a) another standalone, b) not dissimilar to Kaiju in tone and feel and the fact that it’s a “high concept” idea whose gist will be easily grasped by the title alone. So if you liked Kaiju, you’ll hopefully like the one I’m working on now. That’s tentatively scheduled for next year (assuming I finish it in the next couple of months, which I am supposed to).

What else do we get from you in 2022? Well, has it happens, the third volume of Love Death & Robots was announced just yesterday. It will be on Netflix on May 20, and it’s already been long established that a sequel episode of “Three Robots” is part of that line-up, so: that’s one thing. Also, Dispatcher 3 has been written for a while, so depending on other factors a 2022 release is possible. You’ll know when I know. Beyond that, well. We’ll all just have to wait, won’t we?

Final thoughts (for this piece) on Kaiju?

First, at this point what’s really going to keep the book finding new readers is word of mouth, so if you liked Kaiju, please consider suggesting it to friends who are looking for new, fun things to read. I would very much appreciate it.

Second, and as I’ve mentioned elsewhere, Kaiju has a special place in my heart. It was such an unexpected book, coming out of the wreckage of a difficult year and writing process. It was a joy to write, and reminded me why I like being a writer. Is it a great book? Probably not, but is a really good book, and the book I needed to write for myself. So to see it succeed and become a joy to others is something that has brought me contentment in the last month. This book has my affection in a real and specific way. I’m grateful it has earned affection from others, too. Thank you for that, folks.

— JS

The Big Idea: Steven Kotler

Some famous musicians once said that all you need is love. It’s a nice sentiment, but in this Big Idea for The Devil’s Dictionary, author Steven Kotler might instead recommend a different-yet-related emotional state as the one we all need.

STEVEN KOTLER:

I stopped trying to categorize my writing a long time ago. Still, if I wanted to slot my latest book, The Devil’s Dictionary, into a recognizable genre of literature, I’d call it two parts cyberpunk to one part climate fiction—with a twist.

The twist is this: The Devil’s Dictionary is not a dystopian novel. As a rule, cyberpunk and climate fiction are set in dark, post-eco disaster worlds. Now, for certain, the world I built is dark. There are menacing shadow corporations, creepy genetics experiments, and the occasional Blade Runner reference—it is a cyberpunk thriller, after all. There are also plenty of ecological nightmares with which to contend. Yet, the most familiar nightmare—impending climate disaster—has been avoided.

I wrote The Devil’s Dictionary to provide an alternative vision of our environmental future. If we can’t imagine this possibility, we’ll never create this future. I wanted to bridge that gap, but had no interest in creating a perfect utopian world. I wanted a near-term version of our world where we’ve battled back the worst parts of species die-off and climate change.

Yet my desire to create a non-dystopian future raised the question: How could this eco-friendly world come into existence? What changes in ourselves and society would be needed to create a greener tomorrow? And this brings us to “Empathy-for-All,” which is the big idea at the center of The Devil’s Dictionary.

“Empathy-for-all” is the ability to feel empathy for all beings. Sure, it means feeling empathy for humans. Really, it means feeling for plants, animals, and eco-systems—or what scientists call “cross-species empathy.”

To rise above our environmental challenges, we need a massive shift in consciousness. Technically-speaking, we need to expand what psychologists call “our sphere of caring.” We need to feel about forests the way we now feel about family. We need to love the planet like we love our children. We need empathy-for-all.

There’s no choice really, not if we want this better future. The problem lives in our brain. It’s an information-processing bottleneck.

Every second of every day, our senses gather millions of bits of information. Yet, the conscious mind can only process a few thousand bits at once. As a result, filtration is the first order of business for brains. We constantly sift and sort data, trying to tease apart the crucial from the casual.

So what gets filtered out? Anything not critical to our survival. Anything that doesn’t align with our goals and needs.

And this is an issue in the modern world. Today, we live in boxes. We spend our days staring at other boxes. Sometimes, we live in boxes while staring at inboxes. So the brain believes box-world is what’s most important and filters out all the rest.  The natural world gets erased from our field of attention. Plants, animals and eco-systems become mostly invisible. Our values and lifestyles blind us to the web of life. This is to say, if you ask psychologists why we’re in the middle of a giant biodiversity crisis, one common answer: we can no longer see the very things we’re trying to save.

How do we reboot “ecological perception”? Simple. Empathy. This is the tool evolution designed for exactly this challenge. Empathy is perceptual bridge building. Empathy both tells the brain to pay attention and widens our sphere of caring.

If our species is interested in solving the ecological challenges we now face, empathy-for-all is the critical next step. And if you’re interested in what this world might look like, The Devil’s Dictionary is one glimpse of that future.

Also, there are killer robotic polar bears in the book. And, seriously, who doesn’t love a good killer robotic polar bear tale…


The Devil’s Dictionary: Amazon|Barnes & Noble| Indiebound |Powell’s

Visit the author’s website. Follow Steven on Twitter , Facebook and Instagram.

Happy Birthday Krissy

This seems to happen every April 18: It’s Krissy’s birthday again! And, as ever, she’s just fabulous, and I love her tons. For her birthday I bought her a rice cooker (this one) and will be taking her to dinner. If you were to wish her a happy birthday in the comments, that would be lovely. No pressure, however, she’s fine either way.

— JS

The Big Idea: Chris Panatier

How do we know what we know? In Stringers, author Chris Panatier posits a wild premise… and an even wilder way of getting that knowledge out into the world.

CHRIS PANATIER:

Stringers features individuals who have knowledge they can’t explain called, well…“Stringers”. Our main character Ben’s knowledge centers on three distinct areas: nitty-gritty of animal reproduction in eyeball-exploding detail, antique watches, and also something called The Chime, but he doesn’t know what it is. There are others in the galaxy, and presumably the Universe, who are like Ben.

Another POV, a pipefitter from the planet Scella named Naecia HyRope, is tormented by an algorithm and plans for a mysterious machine that she feels compelled to build. Oush-Sadicet Ciksever, a side-character, is possessed of information on theoretical weapons systems as well as the ins and outs of Boblet farming (“small, roundish, six-legged oinkers, bred in order to guard livestock”). Again, none of these people know why they have this extra gunk in their brains, but unfortunately, there are people do (it’s bounty hunters). And sometimes, that information can be valuable.

*Teeny* spoiler: Stringers are people who have limited access to consciousness of the dead. Ew. Oh, and consciousness is a ubiquitous type of particle matter called the “Oblivion Fray”.

The problem for bounty hunters is that Stringers usually aren’t super keen on giving up their secrets…and sometimes those secrets are buried so deeply in the subconscious mind that they aren’t readily accessible anyway. How then to get them out?

I wanted to get creative here, while hopefully not overshooting my audience’s patience. Some of the obvious methods for extracting information I considered were interrogation, torture, drugging, downloading a subject’s brain to a thumb drive—you know, the usual. I wanted to push the boundaries beyond what I’d seen before. Our main protagonist, Ben, is a big fly-fisherman. So, I thought, let’s treat his brain like a body of water. How do you find things at the bottom of a river in a really dramatic and devastating way? You dredge it.

Enter the Neural Dredge, a super-computer “videogame coffin” with an interactive glass lid. It works by creating a link between machine and subject by “baiting” the subject’s brain with flashing images projected on the glass that the person sees from inside. These images are simple shapes, presented in a variety of Tron colors, and it’s implied in the story that these shapes, together with their sequence and color are a sort of “language” of deep subconsciousness.

Eventually, the person being dredged learns that if they blink the afterimage of one shape over a subsequent shape, they begin to make sense. The subject’s progress in building these larger structures allows the machine to go deeper, churning up visual packets of “glimmers” dredged from the consciousnesses of others residing in the Stringer’s brain. Glimmers present as small vignettes of the life of another as seen through their eyes.

Could a Stringer just shut their eyes? Sure, but then they get a drug called anxiolysin; and its side effects are usually enough to force cooperation.

Is dredging good for you? It’s not advisable. It induces nausea (Ben lets fly during his first session), headache, fatigue, and malaise. And the more a Stringer is dredged, the more coherence they lose; coherence being a measure of how much a person is themself. The deeper one goes into their subconscious, the more they lose. If they go too deep, their own consciousness unravels into the Oblivion Fray like a ball of yarn. The Universe takes you back.

That’s the big idea for gaining access to potentially valuable secrets from those with the Stringer’s curse. Now, if you suspect that you may be a Stringer, the best way to avoid being picked up by a bounty hunter and ending up in a neural dredge is to never, ever, do internet research about your condition. So long as you aren’t sending signals into space at the speed of light, no one lurking in the void will be the wiser.


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

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

Reader Request Week 2022 #10: Short Bits, Part Two

And now, as promised, the final installment of this year’s Reader Request Week, zooming through some of the remaining questions:

Michael Fuss:

How much do you think your readers from other countries (actually, in my case, other language areas) should read authors from their countries (language areas) over authors from, for example, the United States?
Another point that is related to that questions and that is hard to estimate from a perspective in Europe: How much are authors from oversea a part of the American SFF market? How much would you advice SFF fans from your country to also consider reading SFF authors from other parts of the world? 

In a general sense, I think it’s both laudable and useful to support local authors — “local” in this sense meaning writers in one’s own country and/or language — because, like any local creative scene, whether it’s in your city, state or country, if you don’t support local efforts, they go away and then you’re left with a top-down culture which doesn’t necessarily reflect one’s own circumstances and interests, and that’s boring as hell. I don’t want to get into whether you should read them over writing from the US/UK, since that’s a matter of personal taste, but they should definitely read them, too, and decide the ratio for themselves over time.

I do think it’s also worth reading outside of one’s culture/language, because it’s good and useful to see how people do things differently around the world. In the US, for the longest time it was difficult to get science fiction and fantasy in translation, but that has been (slowly) beginning to change in the last decade or so, as mainstream and smaller SF/F publishers have started looking at overseas authors — and, equally importantly, been springing for translators. Translated SF/F work in the US is still rare, to be sure, but less rare than it used to be.

For those in the US looking for a place to start with translated SF/F, here’s a handy resource: Speculative Fiction in Translation.

Kristi:

You mentioned Dayton in your travel post. What do you think of Dayton? What are some of your favorite things in Dayton?

I like Dayton pretty well! It’s just big enough to have interesting things to do, and just close enough that I can get there and back when I feel like doing them. I enjoy the Dayton Art Institute, going to watch the Dayton Dragons every now and then, and there’s a Peruvian restaurant I like, called Salar.

Sedna:

How do you feel about spoilers? There was a recent Washington Post article advocating for them. I’m personally on team No Spoilers (unless I explicitly ask for them because I won’t ever read/watch/play the thing).

I’m not a huge fan of spoilers but I don’t lose my shit when I see one, because as a general rule the success of a creative work isn’t just about a surprise twist or significant plot point, but everything that leads up to it and comes after it as well. If those are done well, you can know the “big twist” ahead of time and still enjoy it when it happens.

John Galvin:

I’ve noticed in most of your novels you very rarely give physical descriptions of characters (height, hair color, etc…). Is that intentional, or is it more like Linus not drawing hands?

I mostly don’t write description because description usually bores me to read, and to write. So unless it’s relevant to the plot, I tend to leave it out. I suspect if I started putting in description, my books would be ten to twenty percent thicker. I do understand this creative tic of mine annoys and/or frustrates some readers, and I think that’s a fair criticism for them to make. I am, however, unlikely to change my ways at this late date.

A:

How do you find construction contractors you’re happy with and how do you maintain a good collaborative working relationship with them? Do you have a strategy to get things way you want them without micromanaging?

My strategy is to let Krissy handle almost every part of the contracting discussion, since, a) with her work she deals with contractors all the time, and is thus familiar with how they do things and what’s reasonable and what’s not, b) it better fits her temperament. When I have something specific I want I tell her, and when she needs input from me specifically, she’ll ask. Otherwise she’s in charge. She avoids micromanaging by having a very clear idea of what we want and communicating it to the contractors early enough that’s there’s no ambiguity when the work starts. Krissy is awesome.

ubikuberalles:

What is your methodology (or thoughts or philosophy) on world-building for your novels? Just enough to get the story done or do you get all J.R.R Tolkien and invent languages and draw maps and so on? Do you enjoy the process or is it a necessary part of the process?

It depends from project to project, but mostly I just make things up as I go along. Sometimes I do more pre-writing worldbuilding than usual (I did that for the Lock In novels, for example, because I needed to know more about epidemiology and the then-current state of brain prostheses), but mostly I start and fill in background as needed, and adjust in the text via editing as I go.

Nelson Lamourex:

I often read or hear about “American Exceptionalism” and as a Canadian, I’m always perplexed by such a statement. What do you think of it?

I think less of it the older I get and the more it becomes evident to me that the US is not particularly exceptional, it’s just powerful. It might be more useful for the planet if the strain of “American Exceptionalism” that was predominant was the one that models Peter Parker (“with great power comes great responsibility”) than Veruca Salt (“I want it NOW,” for whatever value of “it” applies at the moment). Perhaps it would be even more useful if the US just got over itself. But I do suppose a hallmark of super powerful nations, to which the US is ironically not an exception, is that they believe certain rules don’t have to apply to it.

Red:

When you, as a reader, are reading a series you are attached to (perhaps the characters are having their own adventures in your imagination) and the author does something completely out of left field and out of character with the characters and story how do you go about detaching from that series and moving on? (For example 8 books in swerving wildly)

I’ve never had too much of a problem with this, because as a reader I am quickly and easily bored, so if a series starts going in a direction that does not interest me, for whatever reason, I can put it down and go on to the next thing. I don’t owe anything to the writer, and the characters are, well, fictional, so they’re not hurt by my lack of readership. I understand that other people do not have the same sanguine approach to dropping series (I understand a fair amount of fan fiction comes from readers wanting the story to go differently than the canonical version), and that is of course fine; we all process this sort of stuff differently. My way is: Oh, look, here are literally hundreds of thousands of other things I could read, I think I’ll try them out.

Niles:

Have you ever acted in a Shakespeare play? If so, which one, and if not, which one would you want to be in?

I was in Hamlet once (as an emissary from the King of Norway), and then for a class where I was required to do a monologue from Shakespeare I played Puck (and peroxided my hair to look more punk, which went terribly). I also played Guildenstern in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead in college, which is not Shakespeare, but is heavily Shakespeare adjacent. My acting skills are probably best described as “unimpressive but takes direction adequately,” and I’m not especially magnetic to look at, so it seems unlikely I will be essaying the Bard on stage or screen anytime soon. That said, if I were 20 years younger I would be happy to play either Benedict or Henry V in a deeply mediocre but enthusiastically-mounted community theater presentation.

Just Good Sense:

Given the thousands of movies you’ve seen—and having written a book on them and whatnot—is there a “big one” that’s eluded you? What great, classic movie have you never seen, whether because you and it have never been together in the same place at the same time, or because you just know it’s not for you? For me, I’m a middle-aged American man who’s never seen any part of The Godfather, nor have I ever seen a Martin Scorsese movie except for Hugo.

As a former professional film critic there are not many “Big Ones” that have eluded me, especially since I went out of my way to watch a lot of them, so that I could speak about them from a place of knowledge rather than ignorance. But now that you mention it, while I have seen large segments of it over the years, probably enough to have seen the whole thing in aggregate, I don’t believe I’ve ever sat down to watch Gone With the Wind from start to finish, and at this late date it seems unlikely that I will.

M. H. Lee:

Why do publishers seem to hate mass market paperbacks so much? For me as a reader if I have the choice between trying out a new-to-me author in a $7.99 paperback or a $16.99 paperback, I’m going to choose the $7.99 paperback every single time. There are multiple authors I would have tried in a mass market edition but just can’t get excited enough to try at a trade paperback cost. And I don’t read ebook because my e-reader always seems to be dead when I want to read. Why don’t publishers understand that they’re missing a whole group of readers by not having mass market paperback editions?

The short answer is that while you may love it, by and large readers have abandoned the mass market paperback medium for ebooks; ebooks have not really cannibalized hardcover or trade paperback sales, but they absolutely did so for mass market. So publishers have gone to where the money is, which is trade paperback, with ebooks mostly filling the mass market niche.

You will still find mass market books: Most of my books in a series are in mass market, for example, and mass market is still a thing in other genre fields, particularly mysteries and thrillers, which are the sort of thing that move in the airport “news shops.” And it will continue to fill that niche. But it is definitely a niche, and publishers will send things to trade paperback when they can, so: Maybe charge your ebook reader more often (or download the ebook reader of your choice onto your phone, which you probably do charge regularly).

William Pepper:

I just finished reading Katie Mack’s book “The End of Everything”, which delves into the cosmology and astrophysics theories of how the universe – all of it, not just humans – will end. Scientists agree it will happen, just not necessarily how. Does knowing this end of all things is a certainty bother you?

Nah. One, my end will come a lot sooner than that (probably in the next thirty years! Get ready!) and after I’m gone it’ll all officially be Someone Else’s Problem. Two, the Earth and Sun will both be long gone by then, the Earth likely swallowed by the sun in its red giant phase and the sun itself a slowly cooling cinder of its former self, so again, locally, we’ll have more immediate problems. Third, all of these things (except my death, probably) are on timescales so incomprehensively vast that worrying about something that happens trillions of years from now (or alternately will happen suddenly, instantaneously and undetectably so I won’t even know) seems like a waste of brain cycles.

So: Yes! Everything will end! But between now and then we’re most likely to have lots of time, and can probably have a lot of fun. Or figure a way out. As ee cummings once said: “listen: there’s a hell of a good universe next door; let’s go”.

And on that note, here’s the end of Reader Request Week 2022. Thank you everyone who sent in questions. Let’s do it again! More or less a year from now!

— JS

Reader Request Week 2022 #9: Short Bits, Part One

On the weekends of Reader Request Weeks, I gather up a bunch of the questions I didn’t get to during the week and try to address them briefly. I often part them out between writing questions and general questions, but this time I don’t feel like doing that. That’s right! I’m very minimally shaking up the formula! Come with me on this wild journey, won’t you?

Rick:

Did you ever want to change the world?

Not in a science-fictional way, but here and now, in the present time and place where you are, using whatever is available to you.

If you’re trying, or have tried, how did it work out?

We change the world just by existing in it; if we never existed, the world would be different. In my case: No Old Man’s War or any other book I’ve written, which is a measurable difference. No Athena, which would be sad for the rest of you. Krissy would probably be married to someone else, and so on. I change the world every day! So do you.

But specifically, the thing I helped to change in the world that I think was useful was me saying I wouldn’t attend a science fiction convention without a robust harassment policy, to which hundreds of other industry pros co-signed, which helped to fast-track policies at a lot of conventions. Lots of people more directly affected by harassment had been asking for those for fucking years, but I was a white dude famous in the industry, so, uh, yeah. On the other hand, harassment policies are now standard, so putting my shoulder to that wheel did its part.

Jason:

What is your experience with TTRPGs? Are they something you’ve sought out actively, and if so what do you look for in them when (if) you get to play them? Any particularly poignant memories from a gaming session?

I play RPGs (table top or otherwise) occasionally and I enjoy them, but it’s not something that’s a huge part of my life, simply and solely because I already have enough hobbies and amusements, and only so much time. I play them when friends who like them ask me to play with them, and then I play because they enjoy them, and I like spending time with my friends. That said, when I play them, I usually enjoy them! I’m occasionally asked to turn my books into RPGs, and it’s something I may consider doing, and if I do, I would probably delve deeper into them.

Efrat:

Question with spoiler for The Last Colony:

Both the humans and the alien coalition just ignore the planet’s native population’s rights.

Considering your stated views on native American history, this feels like a large plot hole. Would you care to explain?

It’s not a plot hole, it’s just not on plot, i.e., not something I delve in to in the course of the book because I have other things I want to get to. But it’s certainly a question worth asking! I will say it’s approached more directly in Zoe’s Tale.

Also, remember that the Colonial Union is not necessarily a benign governmental entity, as the course of the series makes reasonably clear. Finally, remember that I as an author may have opinions and thoughts different from the ones I give my characters (or fictional governments in the books). That said, I as a creator am open for examination and criticism about I handle stuff like this, so: fire away in your master’s thesis!

Kinnison:

Care to comment on your lack of hair on your head? Both on top of your cranium and your face?

The lack of hair up top I can’t do much about, short of medical intervention, which I’m unlikely to pursue. The current lack of hair on my face is simply because after a few years I got bored with having a beard and decided to switch things up. I may change my mind again, probably when I get bored with shaving.

Mo Pie:

How likely do you think it is that we’re living in a computer simulation? If you found out for certain that we were, would it change anything about the way you live your life?

It seems unlikely to me, but then, I might be programmed to think it’s unlikely, mightn’t I? If I knew for certain that we were living in a simulation, I’m not sure that my life would change much, not the least because I’m not sure there’s much I could do about it, and this specific simulation requires me to do things to exist within it. Also, ultimately existence within a simulation seems unlikely to be different than one outside of it; one lives, seeks activity and enlightenment, and then ceases to exist. Although I suppose in a simulation my data can be saved and rerun! Hey! Reincarnation!

Shelia O’Shea:

I’ve followed you for a long time and when I first did you still had a day job of sorts as a freelance writer. I’m making my first steps in establishing myself as such (people are paying me money! To write words! I may never get over this!) and I was wondering if you had any advice in that realm.

Honestly at this point I’m doing so much less freelance work, and what work I’m doing comes to me rather than me seeking it out, that I am hesitant to offer advice to someone starting out in the field because I just don’t know what it’s like to have to do it on the daily anymore. The only advice I can offer is very broad, which is try to have as many income streams as you can, and also, develop a reputation of not being a pain in the ass, because “not being a pain in the ass” and competent will get you further than being a genius and a real pain in the ass.

Andy Vermillion:

Understanding that you are invested in your present home and other properties (such as the once and future church), have you ever considered living in any other state/region? Our winters are a lot more tolerable here in Texas (barring the outlier Feb 2021 icepocalypse).

Lol, nice attempt to elide the whole state losing power there, but otherwise: I think we’re likely to stay put. That said, if I we were likely to move anywhere I suspect the two places most likely for us to go are California, which is where both Krissy and I spent the majority of our childhoods, or Chicago, because I have a history there and am very fond of the city.

Matt Budke:

Food: Is there anything your younger self is surprised to see you eating? Or that your younger self is shocked you no longer eat? 

I think my younger self would be surprised at the brussels sprouts that I happily eat now, because younger me only ever had them boiled and sulfurous, not crispy and fried up in bacon fat and dressed with a vinaigrette like current me has, and also, today’s sprouts are actually different from the sprouts of yore, bred to cut back on the bitterness and sulfur taste. I still eat most of the stuff younger me ate. I mean, you’ve seen the burritos. I eat like kid.

Granny Roberta:

Do any of your neighbors keep honey bees?

I don’t know! I don’t think so? I think the winery across the street might? But I’m not sure. We have thought about it, but if we do it’ll be part of a plan to commit a big chunk of our yard to rewilding, and we’re not there yet.

Rick M:

What (or whom) would the hypothetical John Scalzi Award honour? Would the award itself be burrito shaped?

It’s not hypothetical, it exists. It’s an award named after a notable masonry scientist and honors the best contribution to masonry science. It is not, to my knowledge, burrito-shaped.

Tune in tomorrow for Short Bits, Part 2!

— JS

Reader Request Week 2022 #8: Whatever, Changing

David S (not the same David as from earlier in the week) asks:

Has success spoiled John Scalzi?

I recently re-read Your Hate Mail Will Be Graded, which is full of what my grandfather would have called “piss and vinegar”. Whatever used to be biting and savage. Now it’s all “look at what I bought”, and “here are new books I got for free”, and “The Big Idea”. Aside from The Big Idea, it’s less interesting.

Well, I think you’re kind of comparing different things, here: a day-to-day blog experience (Whatever) and a “Best Of” book collection (Hate Mail). Remember that Your Hate Mail Will Be Graded is a curated selection of ten whole years of Whatever posts (1998 – 2008). You’re seeing the several dozen posts I thought were the punchiest and most interesting from that decade. You’re not seeing the literally thousands of other posts that went up in the same timeframe, which I deemed not worthy of inclusion because they were pedestrian, or repetitive, or fragmentary, or a picture of a cat or whatever. You’re also not seeing the gaps in posting, when Whatever was rather less than mostly daily. For example, in November of 2002, I posted five entries for the entire month, because I was taking time to do other things. One of those entries was talking about something I bought (a pen drive). One of them was a “hey, I’m taking a hiatus” housekeeping note. That was not in an interesting month on Whatever for its readers!

To flip this: 2023 is the 25th anniversary of Whatever, and in that year it’s not out of the question that I will release another essay collection from here, spanning the five years since Virtue Signaling, my last essay collection. I strongly suspect that you will find that collection (like Virtue Signaling and The Mallet of Loving Correction, the other essay compendium taken from here) will have comparable amounts of piss and vinegar as you found in Hate Mail, because five years of writing here will offer a lot of my opinions to distill down into a concentrated package.

In a larger sense, the current iteration of Whatever has nearly 13,000 individual entries to it, which doesn’t include at least a couple thousand entries from 1998 to 2003 that didn’t cross over because I wrote them with handrolled HTML code and it would have been a pain in my ass to port them over. Since 1998, however, there’s probably at least 15,000 entries here. They are not all pure gold, shall we say, even the ones in which I was in high dudgeon about some topic or another. Year to year, and day-to-day, quite a lot of them are space fillers: Sunsets and YouTube embeds of songs and housekeeping notes and brief updates of the sort like “ugh I am sick why even are viruses” and so on. This is the nature of a more-or-less daily blog, and particularly one called “Whatever,” where the remit literally is “whatever I feel like writing about today.”

Also, Whatever has always existed as an add-on. Which is to say, it’s always gotten done around however I was making a living at the time. The first half of its existence, that was largely freelance work, and some book writing; in the second half of its existence, it’s largely been book writing, and some freelance work (the nature of that freelance work having changed over the years). Success, I should note, has not necessarily made me busier than I was when I was mostly freelancing, nor more shy in expressing my opinions about things. I’m an imperfect observer of myself, but my own estimation of things is that I spend roughly the same amount of time doing work as I ever have, and have roughly the same size mouth as it’s ever been.

So, no. My success hasn’t spoiled Whatever; it’s always been spoiled this particular way.

Which is not to say some things haven’t changed over the years! Here are some of them, as far as I can see:

1. I’m writing fewer political posts over the last few years, because honestly there are only so many times I can say “The modern GOP is an authoritarian white supremacist party that has no other ethos than a will to power” without boring myself and others, and what I do have to say about it usually fits better on Twitter than here, so that’s where it tends to go these days. Not always (see posts from earlier this week), but often.

2. I have less interest in and energy for moderating comment threads, which have always been the real time-intensive aspect of the site. So sometimes I will put off writing about a topic I know will generate a lot of comments until I’ll be able to babysit a thread, and when I do that, some of those topics just don’t get written, because time passes and they’re not relevant anymore and/or I just plain forget.

(By the way, this is not blaming any of you who comment here; the comment threads have not gotten unruly or anything in the last few years, and by and large the commentariat here has interesting and insightful things to say. Please keep commenting! This is a me issue, not a you issue.)

3. In the last few years in particular, I’ve bumped up the number of Big Idea posts here, not to fill space, but because we’ve been living through a plague and lots of authors couldn’t do events and appearances, and the Big Idea was and still is a reasonably good way to introduce authors to readers. It does mean that on average more posts here have been Big Idea posts than they have been in previous years, and that’s probably noticeable.

4. I have changed over the years. The size of my mouth hasn’t changed, but I do tend to think more about what comes out of that big mouth, and whether what I have to offer has value or just adds noise. I’m less inclined to just add noise these days. Also, I’m aware that, particularly in my community of writers and in science fiction and fantasy in general, when I open my mouth I have the potential to wreck things, whether I intend to or not. I think that’s less about self-censorship, or being less “interesting” in what I write about, as it is simply being aware of what I say before I say it, because it has consequence beyond just me. Which maybe I should have thought about before!

5. Finally (for the purposes of this essay, anyway): I’ve been writing on this site for twenty-three-and-a-half years, which means a lot of what I have to say now, I’ve already said before, several times, here on Whatever. If I’m going to say a thing I’ve largely already said, often, whether it’s about politics or writing or life or whatever, I want to make sure it has a good and useful wrinkle to it, so I, at least, won’t be bored bringing the topic around again. This is another me problem, since the Whatever audience slowly changes over the years, and people who read here today aren’t necessarily going to be the ones who read me opine about something ten or fifteen years ago (some of you will be. But not all of you). But it is something I think about.

All of which has changed the tenor of Whatever, I suspect, since its earliest days. That’s okay by me. Whatever is intentionally a work forever in progress, and it is intentionally about me writing what is interesting to me at any particular point of time. Any year, month, week, day or entry is a snapshot, and (hopefully) not meant to be definitive. When I finally stop writing here, however many years into the future, what I hope it helps show is my progression in life: What was important to me and when (or what I wrote about, in any event).

That to me will be the measure of the success of this site, and my success in writing it.

— JS

The Big Idea: John Dodd

As writers, we all have the Story The Got Away From Us. For John Dodd, however, that story was the one he came around to once more. Here he is to talk about Ocean of Stars, and how it was written, when the time was right.

JOHN DODD:

It started with a book that couldn’t be finished.

Way back in 2014, I wrote a million words in a year, got six novels done that year and one that wouldn’t go the way I wanted it to. That book was Ocean of Stars. I had an idea of a young engineer wanting to find her way in the stars, finding more than she thought she would along the way, and how she dealt with what she found out there.

Except this story wouldn’t play ball, the first draft went off on a roller coaster, till I stopped and looked at the story and wondered how I’d ever managed to get where I was. There was time travel, and ships that travelled the solar winds on sails of light, there were dragons that swum within the stars, and world eating beasts that were only slightly less dangerous than the humans on the ship, and I was only a hundred pages in.

I put it aside, you can lose fingers trying to get a wild horse to trot nicely, and so it was with this. 

I finished it in the following year, wasn’t entirely happy with it, but then what writer is every happy with what they’ve done, and submitted it a few years later, then went to Ytterbium, the 2019 Eastercon. I’d spoken to the convention’s guest of honor earlier that day, and he’d said that the enthusiasm for the story was everything. When you love a story, you can talk about it for hours, and that was how you won people over. I didn’t think that I loved Ocean of Stars, it had caused me nothing but difficulty.

Francesca at Luna however, had loved the story, but at fifty five thousand words, it was too short. 

And so I talked about the rest of the story, the other ideas, the way I’d seen the rest of it going, and by the end of the conversations, Francesca asked me to finish it, not just the first book, but the whole story.

And I found that all the years spent working through the problems on Ocean had given me a vast universe and a wide pantheon of threats and dangers, and that the story running away from itself had not been because I hated it but because I loved it enough to hang on to the reins and try to bring it safe back to the stables.

Ocean of Stars is the story of the Martian people, from the catastrophe of Olympus Mons detonating when greedy corporations dug too deep and too fast, to the rebuilding of Mars in another solar system, millennia later. Still ruled over by corporations and now with more problems than Old Mars had ever had. 

I wanted to tell the story of how life changes us, how we start out wanting to change the world and being ready to do it, but how few of us manage to do that, and how you look year on year as the world goes on changing, but sometimes you haven’t made the difference that you wanted to.  If you could look back on what you did, if you could look forwards on what you’re going to do, would you approve of what you would do.

What if you had the chance to see the mistakes of yesteryear, repeated thousands of years later, and know that the world had not changed, that what had always been, always would be, unless someone took that bold step into the darkness and said no, this will not go on.

This was the big idea.

Catarina is bold, she wants to change the universe, but she’s seen enough of it to know that very often, the universe kicks back when people try and change it. The first line of the book is watching her captain murder someone who dared to speak up against them, then she finds herself in the employ of another captain who holds no regard for any life, and as the book goes on, she sees at every turn that there will always be something in the way of making the changes that you want to make, that you need to make, that you were supposed to make. She realises that it’s not enough to want to make a change, you must be willing to put yourself in harms way to make a change, just as it is in this world, but on a far larger scale.

Most of all I wanted hope, this book was finished in the first stages of the lockdowns, when there was no hope and death was all around us, I wanted the possibility that life was going to be better one day, and that’s the spirit that found its way to the page.   It was still a wild spirit, the third part of the book was completely different from the ending that I’d pitched, but when it came back to the stable at last, exhausted and covered in dirt, it was happy.

And so was I.

What I found in writing Ocean was that the universe I’d created was one that I could play in forever, my first novella, Just Add Water was written in the same universe, after Catarina went out into the stars, but before she started really adventuring.  Got to love time travel.

Speaking of Time Travel and better tomorrows, I couldn’t have imagined three years ago that I’d be here, but when you believe you can do it, you find a way to do it. That’s not just Catarina’s story.

That’s all of our stories.


Ocean of Stars: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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Reader Request Week 2022 #7: Space Exploration

Joseph asks:

What is your relationship to and opinion of, as a science fiction author and just as a person, the present-day effort of space exploration? (Human astronauts, robotic probes, astronomy with ground-based telescopes, or any other aspect of it.)

I don’t think it’s going to be a surprise when I say that I am an unabashed geek for all of it. I love all the whole gamut of exploration, and happily consume whatever news pops up about astronomy, astrophysics, planetary exploration, and crewed missions. I know astronauts and people who have landed probes on Mars! They’re all super cool people! My enthusiasm for it existed prior to my becoming a science fiction writer, and I suspect, in the worst case scenario that sees my science fiction career coming to a grinding halt, I’ll still enjoy our space exploration endeavors. This is all a no-brainer to me.

With that said, some subtle wrinkles to my enthusiasm:

One, in general I lean toward robotic missions over crewed missions, because I think at this point they offer more value, in terms of what we learn about our universe, than crewed missions do. Please note this is a lean, not a “do only one kind of exploration,” and I think we as a nation and as a species are perfectly capable of doing both robotic and crewed missions. And should! If I were the one planning missions for NASA (or whomever), however, I would probably prioritize telescopes and planetary missions and such over putting human footprints back on the moon, or on Mars.

Two, on the subject of crewed missions, I’m reasonably optimistic about the upcoming Artemis missions to the moon, but I’m deeply skeptical that we’ll actually land humans on Mars before I shuffle off this mortal coil (presuming a reasonable lifespan). This is because, in nautical terms, going to the moon is like leaving England and traveling to Ireland in gentle seas; going to Mars is leaving England and traveling to the Antarctic Peninsula, with gale force winds and five-story waves the whole way. Boasts by administrators and oligarchs aside, it’s gonna be a whole project, and I suspect whoever goes first should be planning on it being a one-way trip for them. People would still go! But, yeah.

Three, more than a few of the private crewed space missions seem little more than expensive press releases for billionaires, which I don’t love; again, I would like space missions to be about science more than anything else. But also, no one is asking me, and also, with regard to the incipient wave of space tourism, if millionaires want to give ridiculous sums to billionaires just to go into the upper reaches of the atmosphere to experience microgravity for a few minutes, well, it’s their money, I suppose. In their place I would spend that money elsewhere.

Four, what I really want are probes to the moons that we are reasonably sure have bodies of liquid water on them. If we’re going to find extraterrestrial life anytime soon, this is going to be the one of the most likely ways, and I think finding that life should be one of the priorities of our space missions.

(The other was we’re going to find extraterrestrial life? Super massive telescopes that can image the atmospheres (or at least, the spectral absorption of atmospheres) of planets around other stars. Atmospheric oxygen (probably) doesn’t just happen, folks!)

But again, I’m happy with what I get, which is good because it’s not like I’m making the policy or building the spaceships. Space! It’s my jam.

— JS

The Big Idea: EC Ambrose

Footnotes, side comments, errata, vague asides — sometimes these don’t matter much. But sometimes, as E.C. Ambrose discovered, they do. And sometimes, as in the case of Drakemaster, you get a book out it!

E.C. AMBROSE:

Sometimes, the big ideas come from very small places…

I was happily reading along for no particular purpose, in a non-fiction book about the Antikythera Mechanism, when I came upon the most intriguing footnote in the history of superscript numerals. The chapter covered other advances in clockworks and gears, and the author clearly loved the material, but knew that it must be somehow restrained lest it take over the main document. The tantalizing footnote referred to a medieval Chinese astronomical clock, and “the vermillion pens of the ladies’ secretarial.”

Such a tasty detail that I pounced like a cat on the vermillion dot of a distant laser, pointing my way to a novel—not that I knew it at the time. The quote turns out to be from Cambridge historian and Sinophile Joseph Needham, who, during the 1950’s, proposed to compile a volume for Cambridge University Press called Science and Civilisation in China. 

(I thought I went down rabbit holes! His single proposed volume now consists of an entire library of Chinese historical documents which has produced 27 reference books so far…)

That’s how I discovered the subject of the quote, Su Song’s astronomical clock of about 1090 CE. Polymath Su Song, in the employ of the Northern Song emperor, devised his extraordinary technological wonder to track celestial phenomenon using the finest astronomical instruments of the day, and display the information on a series of dials (complete with moving figures and music) for the purpose of generating highly accurate and detailed horoscopes for the emperor’s children. The “ladies secretarial” recorded this information in red (because of course imperial children are very auspicious, and red must therefore be employed) for future reference.

Naturally, I was hooked! If the footnote was the laser pointer, now I had found the catnip. But a clock, in spite of its ticking, is not a plot.

(Footnote to the footnote discussion: clocks at the time did not tick, actually, because what makes them tick is the escapment mechanism, a newer innovation. One thing that made Su Song’s clock remarkable was his mechanical escapment employing a chain and water buckets to maintain regular intervals.) 

One large obstacle to writing into Chinese history is that the region is vast, and its history is extremely deep. Just beginning the research was daunting, and organizing what I found perhaps more so. I needed to learn enough to discover characters and conflicts, and zoom in on the particular experience of a milieu that makes fiction so compelling. The clock, my centerpiece, had been erected in Kaifeng—then the capital of the empire—only to be taken apart again when the imperial family moved south in the face of incursions by nomads from the Steppes. The Jurchen people claimed the region, and the emperor made one of the great blunders in the history of the world. He invited another nomadic tribe sick of living under Jurchen rule to ride south and rout the invaders. This second nation was, of course, the Mongols who would eventually conquer the world’s largest contiguous land empire.

Right. Looks like my quest to define a small niche of history to write into has, instead, expanded exponentially. I found myself overwhelmed again by the scale of the project. When that happens, I know I need to return to the source, the nugget that originally excited me to take on a writing project. In this case, the clock. I stopped broadly exploring the area, and instead began to learn all I could about this very specific place, Kaifeng, the city of the clock. When I learned that the city had rebelled against its Mongol conquerors in 1257, I knew I had my milieu, both time and place, and a several layers of conflict to explore, not only the large, external problem of the occupying army, but also the way that the region’s history would influence the characters. The Mongols, while possessing a well-deserved reputation for desctruction, also recognized talent when they found it, recruiting skilled engineers, craftsmen and bureaucrats into their army.

I developed my cast of characters from several of the cultural groups and classes coming into conflict, looking for a variety of perspectives to illuminate the narrative, and my beloved footnote grew into a historical fantasy novel of epic proportions: Drakemaster.  A team of rivals in a desperate race across medieval China to locate a clockwork doomsday device. The rest, in this case, isn’t history—it’s the future.


Drakemaster: Amazon|Barnes and Noble|Apple|Kobo

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Reader Request Week 2022 #6: High School Reunions

Laura S asks:

My 50 year high school reunion was last fall. Actually 50+1 because of COVID. Have you attended any high school reunions? Or have you kept in touch with childhood friends post high school?

I’ve been to several high school reunions: Specifically the 5th, the 10th, the 20th and the 30th, and I have plans to attend my 35th, which as it happens falls on the centennial celebration of the founding of my high school, so it will be a big ol’ to-do. That said, most of the class reunions are an at-least-medium-sized to-do, since the way my school does it is to group alumni by five-year anniversaries, so when we went back for the 30th, others were there for their 10th, 20th, 40th, 50th and also their 5th, 15th, 25th and so on. My experience is that the reunions that end with “0” get more people at them than the ones that end with “5” (see my own attendance), but regardless the attendance is pretty solid, because many alumni live within driving distance of the school, and because it’s Just That Sort of School.

And why are The Webb Schools of California (my high school alma mater) Just That Kind of School? Lots of reasons, including small class sizes, so you know everyone and everyone knows you in a way that a school with a thousand kids per class can’t provide, and because it was a boarding school, which means that for four years everyone was up in everyone else’s business; even the “day students” spent far more time on campus than most kids at non-boarding schools. Also, as a college prep school, regardless of our backgrounds coming into the school, as alumni most of us inhabit a largely homogeneous social class, which aids in class cohesion. Finally, Webb goes out of its way to develop and encourage alumni outreach, between it and between alumni, for its benefit and ours — we get a useful and congenial alumni network, and Webb (among other things) gets alumni giving. The result is admirable alumni connectivity, both within graduating classes and among the alumni in general.

Given all that, I don’t suppose it’s surprising for me to say that I kept in touch with a pretty large number of friends from high school. Even now, a large number of my friend cohort is from that time in my life, including several of the people I would class into the “best friend” category. In the before times, we would keep in touch through phone and things like alumni notes; these days Facebook and other social media do the trick. On one hand, the persistence of our alumni connections mean that there are very few surprises at reunions; we all know what each other have been up to, in an at least basic sense. But on the other hand it’s nice to have those connections be a constant.

Indeed, one of the things I would say that has been a pleasant surprise over time is that these days, on average, I am probably closer to more of the classmates I went to school with (and other alumni from my school) than I was when we attended Webb together. When you’re in high school, you’re a teenager, with the attendant teenage angst and drama and everything else. I’m not snarking on teenage angst and drama — that’s part of what being a teenager is for — but it does generate alienation and conflict even within a small cohort of people. Everyone I went to high school with is now rather more settled, generally, and most of the conflicts we might have had in high school are either resolved, or at the very least so far in the past that we can’t remember what they were, so why bother hauling them up to the present day.

But beyond that, well, I just mostly like the people I went to school with. They’re pretty excellent folks, by and large, and the sort of people I would probably want to know even if I had not gone to high school with them and had that shared history. Inasmuch as we did share that history, however, I suppose one of the things that does incline me to like them is that the school did actually attempt to instill values in us: Service, and community feeling, and trying to be a just and decent person even when other people aren’t looking or you will see an immediate benefit from doing so. If you like who I am as a person, a non-trivial part of my ethical make-up comes from the values Webb tried to instill in us. I suspect I’m not the only one for whom those values still resonate and matter.

(That said, allow me to be the first to admit that my generally very positive experience with Webb is not universal. I know people who had not great experiences there, and also, aside from any purported values the school would instill, it was still high school in the 80s, with the inequities and questionable behaviors, from students and staff, of that era. It wasn’t a perfect place, filled with perfect people, he said, in an understatement. It was, however, good for me, and I believe the foundation for much of my future successes in life, personally and professionally, was laid there.)

I’m happy to know today the people I went to high school with, and expect I will be happy to know them all of our respective lives. I’m looking forward to seeing some of them at our 35th reunion this year. We’ll laugh and hug and talk and be glad we still get to have the connections we do. I like who we all got to be. I like that we get to be those people together.

— JS

(It’s not too late to get a question in for this week’s Reader Request Week! Go here to find out how to do so.)

Reader Request Week 2022 #5: The Clawback of Rights in the USA

Nellie asks:

I’d love to get your perspective specifically on the rash of anti-trans legislation getting pushed all over the US right now – Alabama just today passed their version, making it a felony to help someone transition under the age of 19, and there are a LOT of bills under consideration in other states as well.

Not to mention, we’re already starting to see the pivot from focusing specifically on transgender people to more broadly targeting LGBTQ+ people in general…

Well, mind you, it’s not just trans people or LGBTQ+ folks; let’s not forget that Republican-led states are actively passing laws to take away the ability of women (and other folks who can get pregnant) to have abortions, up to and including criminalizing having one, and the whole of the Republican Party has been making hay about “Critical Race Theory,” which very few of them understand, or at the very least, will admit to understanding. We have GOP senators blithely saying out loud that fundamental Supreme Court decisions establishing nationwide rights for women, minorities and LGBTQ+ folks were wrongly decided. It’s very clear that here in 2022 the GOP sees curtailing the rights of everyone who is not a straight white cis Christian man as a winning strategy, and in the short run is seeing some success with it. If the Supreme Court does not in fact overturn Roe v. Wade, as it is almost certain to do, it will at the very least whittle down its efficacy to the point where it will be entirely useless.

In fact the Supreme Court is why all these horrible laws are being passed: because the GOP, for the first time in 60 years, is confident that the highest court in the land is more than willing to overturn decades of court precedent on the flimsiest and most-poorly reasoned of legal arguments, thereby clawing back the rights of hundreds of millions of Americans, and in doing so, subject them to legal and social harassment for trying to live their lives with the same sort of liberties that the GOP arrogates solely to straight white cis Christian men. The GOP probably doesn’t expect all of these laws to pass constitutional muster, but at least some of them will, according to this current court.

Every one of those laws that does, establishes a precedent and means that every group that is not comprised primarily of straight white cis Christian men will have to expend their time and energy fighting these fights again. Which is one of the goals: If you have to spend your time fighting the laws favoring straight white cis Christian men, you can’t spend time competing with straight white cis Christian men on equal standing.

(Hashtag NotAllStraightWhiteCisChristianMen, and also hashtag SomePeopleInRightsThreatenedGroupsDontCare, but let’s not pretend who is the primary beneficiary of this hobbling of the established rights of others, please and thank you.)

That said, why the anti-trans legislation, right now? The short answer is: Because trans people are one of the groups least understood and sympathized with, not only by straight white cis Christian folks, but by other folks as well; because they are a very small group, relative to others, and easier to push around; because their ability to exercise the same rights as others has only recently been established and thus is easier to take away; because decades of political and media portrayal of them as deviants and mentally ill makes them vulnerable to attack.

And also: the GOP understands that the best way to start the clawback of rights of people who are not straight white cis Christian men is to pretend it cares about children. Why keep people from having abortions? Because they are saving the babies! Why ban books about, and the teaching of, race or sexuality? Because it’s not age appropriate for children, and white kids are having their feelings hurt, and also gay people are groomers! Why pass legislation targeting trans people — and trans children in particular? Because gender-affirming therapies are child abuse and also what if your child went to the bathroom and there was a trans person in there and also what if your child had to compete against a trans athlete it isn’t fair!

Let’s be clear: As a matter of policy, the modern Republican party doesn’t give a damn about children in the United States except as a way to weaponize parental fears into restricting the rights of others. If the modern GOP actually cared about children, their policy portfolio would be rather different than it is today. When a GOP politician publicly grouses about the well-being of children, it usually either means they want to take away the rights of some group, or they want to make public education in the United States worse (because the children of the groups they want to take rights benefit from public schools).

Also, very specifically, if the GOP cared about children, then they would care about trans children and their well-being. They have made it clear they do not, just as they have made it clear with “don’t say gay” bills that they don’t care about other LGBTQ+ children, and as they have made it very clear with the anti-CRT nonsense and book banning that they don’t care about black children or the children in other racial groups. Children are not just straight white cis Christian children — or more accurately just some of them, since the GOP will make a minor carry a baby to term, even the straight white cis Christian ones, which is not about the need of the child in question.

But even then, they don’t care about the straight white cis Christian kids, either. Here’s a news flash: There’s a very good chance that at least some of those straight white cis Christian kids are friends with the kids the GOP is currently actively legislating against. They like them, and may even love them, and may consider them part of their family. They know the GOP isn’t doing these horrible things for them, even if they are using them as the excuse to do them. And they’ll remember: who was doing it, and to whom, and for what reasons. In the long run — too long, unfortunately, for all the children whose lives they are working to ruin in the interim — I suspect that’s not going to be great for the GOP.

But for now, that’s why the anti-trans (and anti-other LGBTQ+, and anti-minority, and anti-woman) laws are being passed: because the GOP has a Supreme Court that is very likely anti-everything-not-straight-white-cis-Christian-male, and it needs to get this stuff on the books while it can. They’re not doing it for the children. The GOP spent decades working toward this moment. The rest of us have to decide how long we’re willing to have this moment last.

That, we can do for the children. And for us.

— JS

(It’s not too late to get a question in for this week’s Reader Request Week! Go here to find out how to do so.)

The Big Idea: Nancy Werlin

Hey, do you remember the 90s? Nancy Werlin does, and one of the reasons she does involves her latest novel, Healer & Witch. Her latest novel… but perhaps not her most recent novel. Werlin is here now to explain how that works, and why she’s delighted this novel is now out in the world.

NANCY WERLIN:

Healer & Witch is being published now, but I wrote it in 1996. I had a clandestine love affair with it when I was supposed to be monogamously involved with a contemporary young adult thriller. Healer & Witch is a historical fantasy set in 16th century France for ages 9-12—in other words, it wasn’t remotely a YA thriller.

I didn’t care.

I was in love with Sylvie, a teenage village healer who with a touch of her hands could locate and destroy pieces of a person’s memories—only her own power terrifies her and she needs to learn how to restore what she can take away—and with her barefoot companion, eight-year-old Martin, a headstrong farrier’s child who wants to see the world. Could they trust the bastard caste-climbing young merchant, Monsieur Chouinard? What was Ceciline the wisewoman planning for Sylvie, and why? What about the fanatic inquisitor newly come to Lyon? Also, how was I going to work Italian double-entry bookkeeping into the plot? The underground tunnels of Lyon?

I wrote longhand, which was not my usual method, at a breathless pace and finished a draft in months. Overcome with joy, I showed it to my editor, who’d been waiting patiently, years, for that thriller. Surprise!

Heartbreak was gently delivered unto me; Healer & Witch was too much like another middle-grade historical novel they had recently published. (It wasn’t!) But what about that thriller? Wouldn’t it be a more appropriate follow-up to my first YA, and shouldn’t I think about building a career, and not just about following my whims? (Oh.)

To the young writer that I was, that all made sense. It makes sense still . . . except in the ways that it doesn’t. But I was then too inexperienced to fully understand how to work with my creative needs.  

And so, Healer & Witch went into my file cabinet. Just for now, I thought. And it turned out that the break had done me good; I finally found my way into The Killer’s Cousin and loved it too, and it eventually won an Edgar award. My editor and publisher then wanted another thriller.

Time passed, a great deal of it. I wrote and published YA novels, 11 of them, and I loved each one.

But at the same time, I buried the Nancy Werlin who wrote longhand on yellow legal pads, with a book of herbs and poisons by her side for ready reference, and her French dictionary, and her historian college roommate on speed dial. The Nancy who’d pinned up a map of France to track the course of Monsieur Chouinard’s caravan, and another map of the underground tunnels of Lyon (which, sadly, I did not end up able to incorporate into the plot).

I had also set aside the Nancy who was inspired by the adult historical fiction of Dorothy Dunnett and wanted to engage with it as writers do. Dunnett’s invisible hand is on the shoulder of the writer that I was and am. I can’t speak of her work without awe. Her books have it all: Unforgettable characters. Twisty plotting that makes your head hurt. Meticulous yet creatively inspired use of historical detail. Action scenes to give you a heart attack. Prose at once beautiful and precise, and dense with multiple meanings that reward close attention and re-reads.

In Healer & Witch, I had tried to evoke for younger readers what Dunnett had for me as an adult reader: intellectual and emotional absorption in another time and place, with life and death stakes, and accurate attention to the political, religious, and economic realities of the period. Only feminist, too, and also with a bit of magic, for I play looser than she, and for a younger audience.

That Nancy spent 25 years in a file cabinet.

Then, as the pandemic dawned in 2020, I was homebound. I was scared. I sought comfort, diving deep into reading old, beloved books. One day, I looked in that file cabinet and saw a paper manuscript. It was the only copy I had of Healer & Witch.

I read it. I had no expectations. I remembered being the Nancy who’d written this story, but I had no certainty about her passion or reliability. I felt the way you might when, after many years, you meet your teenage love. You don’t know if intense emotions will reignite, or if you will smile and shake your head.

But as I read, my breath caught; heart beat faster. It was 25 years later, but I was still in love with courageous, desperate Sylvie. I still cared about her predicament, and her friends and enemies, and her world. And I thought I had told her story very well indeed.

And so, I retyped. I needed another opinion; one I trusted. I sent the manuscript to my new editor at my new publisher. She had minored in medieval history at college.  Within a week, she emailed me with a few exciting suggestions for revision.

And an offer.

Publishing Healer & Witch makes me feel as if my character Sylvie has touched me with her healing hands, and restored my past self to me.


Healer & Witch: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s|Audible

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

Reader Request Week 2022 #4: Rogue One

David asks:

Ranked from worst to best, the Star Wars movies, and why is Rogue One the best?

Rogue One isn’t the best — that’s still, and is likely to remain, The Empire Strikes Back — but at this point I would rank it a solid #3.

Before I get into why, here’s that ranking of the Star Wars movies (best to worst):

  1. The Empire Strikes Back
  2. Star Wars (aka A New Hope)
  3. Rogue One
  4. The Force Awakens
  5. The Last Jedi
  6. Solo
  7. Return of the Jedi
  8. Revenge of the Sith
  9. The Rise of Skywalker
  10. Attack of the Clones
  11. The Phantom Menace

Not ranked here: The various live-action and animated Star Wars properties, because I was asked about the movies, not the series, and anyway I haven’t watched all the animated stuff. I will say if I were ranking the two live-action series (so far), The Mandalorian would slot in after The Last Jedi and The Book of Boba Fett after Sith. I’ll also say that Sith and Skywalker swap around in the ranking depending on my mood for the day; I think Skywalker is more competent overall (notwithstanding the absolute loss of nerve by Disney in its story construction), but Sith has more operatic scope. Both are flawed and it’s a matter of which flaws annoy me the most at any particular moment.

Additionally, I’ll note that while I rank Star Wars/New Hope at #2, it’s not actually all that well-scripted or directed or acted, it’s “merely” epochal and a sea change in how films were made, released, distributed and marketed, and can’t be ranked any lower than #2 thereby. As a film, Star Wars is far more important than it is good, and George Lucas is an absolutely brilliant filmmaker as long as he’s not writing words for humans to speak, or directing them in how to speak them. Yes, there is irony in the fact that his Oscar nominations are for screen writing and directing. I said what I said. I have spoken.

Coming back round to Rogue One, I wrote a review of it when it came out, and by and large I stand by what I wrote there, with the acknowledgment that my opinion regarding the Disneyfication of the Star Wars universe has changed a bit since I wrote the review. Indeed, in the further consideration of time, Rogue One stands out as the true outlier in the entire canon of Star Wars films — the one fully adult Star Wars film, which is to say, the one that engages with the idea that not everything is “light side” and “dark side,” and that even the good guys do not great things, and that sometimes your heroes do not get a happy ending. There is irony in the idea that of all Star Wars films, this is the one that best lives up to the morally ambiguous storytelling ethos of the class of 70s auteurs that George Lucas was himself spawned out of; Rogue One is closer to The Conversation or The French Connection (or, shit, THX 1138) than any Star Wars film Lucas himself ever made.

(Not that much closer, let’s not overegg the pudding. But still.)

What Rogue One has over any other Star Wars film is that is it almost certainly the best acted film in that canon, thanks to a very fine cast which has a script that gives them more than merely declamatory things to say about a story with at least moderate complexity, and direction that allows them a full(er) range of human emotions on screen. If I were ranking Star Wars films in terms of proficiency of acting, it would be Rogue, then Empire and then Force, with each offering some interesting things to discuss (with Empire, it would be how the workmanlike competence of Irwin Kershner got so much better performances out of the cast than Lucas’ disinterested auteurism; with Force, it would be how JJ Abrams’ facility with pastiche made the Star Wars franchise feel fresh again… but only once). But Rogue has consistently better acting than either of those two films.

The one disadvantage that Rogue One has over the other top-rankers (Empire, Star Wars, Force) is that it is both interstitial and dependent; it’s an aside to the main thrust of the film canon, and it’s so contingent on the viewers’ knowledge of films that came 40 years before it that really can’t be understood on its own terms. The conflict of the film falls flat if you don’t come in with an innate understanding of what’s at stake with the Death Star plans, and the moment that Darth Vader shows up to try to grab those plans from the rebels doesn’t have the same sort of visceral chill if you haven’t already gotten the scope of his evil. To be fair to Rogue, the number of people on the planet who have no clue regarding the Death Star or Darth Vader is miniscule at this point, and the number of people who went to Rogue One without that information is even smaller. But that doesn’t change the fact.

A final thing I will say in praise of Rogue One is that is the one Star Wars film that makes almost no missteps in telling its story; there is almost nothing that is put on the mantlepiece in act one that is not used in act three, there is very little unnecessary faffing about in the name of fan service, there is nothing to my memory presented in the story that becomes another director’s or screenwriter’s problem in a future film. Rogue One understood its assignment, as the kids say, and executed it nearly flawlessly. Nearly — hello, dodgy CGI and a pointless brain-scrambling slime monster in a dungeon — but in Star Wars, like in horseshoes and hand grenades, “nearly” counts.

If you like Rogue One, I would suggest enjoying it for what it is and as a true one-off, because it seems unlikely to me the film segment of the Star Wars universe will come ’round to its more adult-leaning pleasures any time soon. Solo’s box office made Disney rethink some of its film plans, and Disney+ has convinced the company that television is the way to backfill the Star Wars universe mythos; as far as I can see all the Star Wars series take place before the sequel trilogy, with nothing after it. This is what it is, but it also means that Rogue One seems likely to remain its own thing (and before you say it, yes, I know about the scheduled “Andor” series, and it proves my point: it’s on TV, and in the “past” of the Star Wars universe; it’s even in the past of Rogue One, come to think of it).

But cry not that there will (probably) be no more Star Wars films like Rogue One, smile that it happened. It’s a really good Star Wars film. Let’s hope there are more that are almost as good. It could happen, if Disney ever finds its nerve again with the films. We’ll see.

— JS

(It’s not too late to get a question in for this week’s Reader Request Week! Go here to find out how to do so.)

Reader Request Week 2022 #3: Travel in the New Age

Transiting through ORD. Note the mask on the dinosaur.

James asks:

I’m curious about your experience with travel. How has your experience of travel changed now that you are able to travel again after a year or two of break? Are there things you do to maintain normalcy during heavy book tour travel? Do you try to get other things done while traveling, or is your attention mostly just focused on touring?

Having just come back from touring, and having several more trips to book festivals to go before the end of May, I have to say that the dynamic of touring this time was pretty much the same as it was before: I showed up, did my schtick, signed books and chatted with people as I did so, went back to the hotel to sleep, went to the airport, wash, rinse and repeat. When I tour I’m focused on touring, and not on doing other stuff, and that didn’t change this tour; aside from the occasional business email which couldn’t be ignored, I was in a tour bubble, and happily so.

What was different this time, and will continue to be different with the festivals I’m attending, is that a lot of my things were “back at it again” events. At several of the bookstores I went to on the tour, my event was the first live event that they had hosted in two years or more. When I go to the LA Times Festival of Books in a couple of weeks, that will be the first time they have done that festival — the largest book festival in the US — in a live setting since 2020. And so on.

None of it is new, but all of it is happening again after long enough of a pause that in a sense there was an uncertainty about it all. As in: Will people show up at all, or are they still staying at home? Alternately, if people show up, will they throw a fit if they are asked to wear a mask (as many if not most of the bookstores on my tours asked people to do)? Will people remember how to be people in front of other people, or will we revert to grasping savagery? And so on. And as it turns out, the answers have been: They will show up, albeit maybe not at completely full capacity yet — my events were running at about 80% of the attendance of my last live tour — the people who show up will have no problems wearing a mask (one assumes if they had a problem with it, they just didn’t show up, which may explain the 80% thing), and the people who showed up seemed to be able to people just fine, or at least, as well as they ever did.

In a larger sense, my feelings about travel now are roughly what they were before; with the exception of currently still having to wear a mask at the airport and on planes (to which I have no objection, and fortunately haven’t had to share airport or plane space with anyone who does), it feels about the same. Bear in mind that I didn’t take a plane trip for 18 months, during the time when air traffic was severely curtailed, so by the time I did get back to it, in September of ’21, most of the rough edges of COVID-era travel had been smoothed down, and most major airports were no longer ghost towns (smaller airports are a different story, still — my local airport in Dayton lost a huge amount of its activity, both in terms of its shops, and where planes go. Now, if you’re not going to Atlanta, Chicago, Charlotte or Dallas/Ft. Worth, you’re taking a connecting flight).

But certainly there was a moment of adjustment. The first trip Krissy and I took together after more than a year of lockdown at home was last July, when we took a (belated) anniversary trip to the far and exotic city of… Indianapolis, to which we drove. It was at the point where friends of ours who lived there had all had their second shots, so it felt safe(r) to hang out and enjoy each other’s company. It was a modest trip, in terms of travel, but it was also the proof of concept: It could be done. Our next trip was to Dragon Con in Atlanta, and that was a bit of a cannonball into the deep end, since it was 40K+ people. It was an enjoyable time! And not a super spreader event! And another proof of concept: As long as people weren’t complete dicks, and followed some basic hygienic guidelines, travel could be a thing.

At this point I have done several conventions, a Caribbean cruise, and, of course, a book tour. I have not caught COVID, and thanks to two shots and two boosters (and other factors), I’m am not too worried that if I do, that I will end up in a hospital (I would of course still quarantine if I caught it; I’m not going to give to others if I can avoid it). It’s fine. Everything is mostly fine.

Which is to say, again, with the exception of masking still being a thing, travel no longer feels strange or odd or a new wrinkle into the life routine. It’s just… part of what we do again. Which is nice. I hope it lasts.

— JS

(It’s not too late to get a question in for this week’s Reader Request Week! Go here to find out how to do so.)

The Big Idea: Wil Wheaton

For most of the readers here, the name Wil Wheaton is a familiar and even beloved one: Actor, television host, famous nerd, and award-winning, best-selling audiobook narrator. And also, in case you didn’t know, an accomplished writer and essayist. In Wil’s new book, Still Just a Geek, he revisits an earlier work, revises and expands it, and in doing so, opens himself of to the truths within it, good and bad. And, as he explains in this Big Idea, finds a way through all of it, using his own voice.

WIL WHEATON:

When I narrated the audiobook of Redshirts, and got to the codas, I emotionally faced what it would feel like to lose my wife, and live the rest of my life without her. The story called for a very different set of emotions than I was feeling, and after a bunch of runs at the scene, the director and I decided that I needed to take a break, process all that emotion, and then come back to the booth.

About an hour later, we recorded what’s in the book.

Until I narrated the audiobook for Still Just A Geek, that was the only time I’d had that experience. It turns out that writing about and then narrating the single most traumatic event of my life was even more emotionally challenging, because it wasn’t a story. It was my life.

I never talk about how much I was abused when I worked on this movie called The Curse, after Stand By Me. It was such a traumatic experience, I’ve done everything I can to forget it. But it’s a big part of who I am, and when I did Still Just A Geek, it was part of my story that I needed to tell.

It was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done. I was afraid that the emotion was too raw, too intense, just too much for the listener. I didn’t want to do it again, but I asked Gabrielle, who directed me (and who I’ve known forever) if it any of those things I feared were true.

She assured me that it was all honest, and all the emotions I experienced as I read it were entirely appropriate. I’ve known her long enough and done enough books with her to trust her judgment.

This is where I reveal that the director for Redshirts and the director for Still Just A Geek are the same person. She’s been there on the other side of the glass for both of these intense, emotional experiences.

That scene, from Redshirts, was tough, but absolutely worth it. I believe the performance is solid, and I’m proud of it. When I was done, though, I completely left it all in the booth. I told Anne about it when I got home, hugged her until she was like “okay that’s really enough” and we went on with our lives.

Put a pin in that for a second.

In Still Just A Geek, I write a lot about the child abuse, neglect, and exploitation I survived and still struggle with. It was incredibly challenging to revisit (and in the case of The Curse, relive) all of it. In the afterword, I wrote that I expected that doing that work would lead to a catharsis, but all it did was retraumatize me.

That was true, until I narrated the audiobook. Over the course of six or seven days, I said everything I wrote in the book out loud. I gave a voice to the child who was put to work against his wishes at seven years old. I gave a voice to the teenager who was abused by his father. I gave a voice to the young father and husband who was struggling to provide for his family while he also struggled to figure out what he was going to do with the rest of his life.

And in so doing, in speaking these words out loud, feeling the emotion that went with them, and defiantly saying, “This is my story. This is my truth. This is what happened to me, and here’s how I survived it,” I found the catharsis that the writing didn’t provide.

In the infamous William Fucking Shatner story that’s part of Just A Geek and now Still Just A Geek, I remember that, when my costumer asked me how my meeting with him went, I didn’t want to say out loud that he was a dick to me, because that would make it real. But saying it out loud set in motion the most incredible series of events, as the adults in my life on the set of Next Generation all stood up for me, protected me, defended me, and made sure I knew that I was loved. That’s something I never got at home, or ever, from either of my parents.

When I did the narration for Still Just A Geek, saying what I wrote out loud made it all real. I’d been hoping my whole life that I’d hear from my parents that my experiences were real, were valid, and that I was enough. I have had to accept that I’m never going to hear that from them, but I have heard it from myself.

It turns out that the voice I always needed to listen to was my own, and doing that audiobook narration allowed me to hear it for the first time in my life. I didn’t leave it in the booth. I have it now, in my memory, and I’ll keep listening to it as long as I need to, until my healing is complete.


Still Just a Geek: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s site.

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