A Stained Glass Moment

Since we purchased the church last week, I’ve noticed that one feature of the building that people seem really interested in is the stained glass. People want to know if we’re going to keep it, replace it, do [insert whatever thing they think we should do with it here], and so on. They also want to know its provenance.

So, to answer: The stained glass windows appear to have been variously donated by various parishioners, either individually or in groups; at the bottom of each window is a name either of the person or group who donated the window, or a person in whose honor the window was donated. It seems disrespectful to get rid of those windows, and also, I have no interest in trying to plan out how to (slowly and expensively) replace them. Also, I happen to think they’re pretty. So they’re staying put. They’re mostly in good repair, which is nice, although there are a couple places where we’ll have to fix things. Those will go onto a list for the contractors we’re hiring, for the general refurb of the building.

If I were ever going to replace the windows, I should note, I would probably choose to do them in a very different style. One artist whose stained glass work I’ve long admired is James Hubbell, whose work I became familiar with because he did several stained glass windows for the chapel of the Webb Schools of California, the high school I attended. I’m not sure I could afford James Hubbell stained glass windows of the size I would need to replace the ones I already have in the church, but if money were no object, that’s the direction I’d go.

But! The stained glass windows we already have are great! And they’re already here and don’t need to be replaced! And they’re part of the history of the building and the community in which they reside! So why get rid of them? The answer is: Why indeed. They stay, and I’m glad to have them and have them be a part of the character of the building. We’ll be doing enough to upgrade the church. This is one part that’s worth keeping as is.

— JS

The Big Idea: Alex Thomson

Language is aural, and in the case of sign language, visual — but are these the only ways a true language could exist? Maybe not! In Spidertouch, author Alex Thomson posits another way, and he touches on it in this Big Idea.

ALEX THOMSON:

The idea for Spidertouch started with a Wikipedia rabbit-hole of nostalgia. I found myself reading about Smell-O-Vision, and reminiscing about the ill-fated attempt of Noel’s House Party to bring Scratch and Sniff cards to the British population in 1995. I remembered it well, watching and sniffing as a fifteen year-old boy – I thought we were about to embark on a golden new era of television, like the invention of the “talkies”. Alas, it never came to pass. But it did remind me that a “smell language” was theoretically possible – other members of the animal kingdom do it all the time, passing on information with scent. The difficulty for humans is creating a variety of specific smells on command: apart from parfumiers and chemists, we’ve never got the hang of it.

If smell is problematic for us on a practical level, what about the other senses? Taste fulfils some of the criteria of a language – the tongue has thousands of taste receptors and is capable of distinguishing between a huge number of different foods. As anyone who has listened to a wine bore knows, even a sip of fermented grapes can apparently be decoded into a fascinating message. But the senses of hearing and sight are, of course, where humans really come into our own. Obviously, we communicate with speech all the time. And even when the world is silent, we have created a whole host of visual languages. The written form of speech – yes, fine, though that loses points for the lack of immediacy. More impressively, sign language, which for my money is one of the most underrated human inventions in terms of utility and originality. We also use semaphore and all sorts of expressive gestures, without forgetting the body language that we subconsciously communicate with.     

Which leaves us with touch. It got me thinking: why have humans never developed a fully functional touch language? We’ve flirted with the idea, with the invention of Braille (“touch reading”). You can certainly make broad communicatory brushstrokes with touch: think of the tap on the shoulder, the handshake, the poke in the chest. Not a nuanced language, though. I’m sure an evolutionary biologist will pipe up with a few reasons why, but that feels a bit Captain Hindsight for my liking. After all, consider the tone and range of emotion our fingers are capable of creating with the piano, the guitar, or hand drums. You can immediately create a whole range of effects with your hands, and it is an outrage that we have never properly learned to converse with them. We sometimes act as though oral communication is the most natural thing in the world, but is it, really? All that vibrating, that contortion of our tongues and lips, the non-stop expulsion of air – it is an astonishingly complex procedure, and open to all kinds of misinterpretation, whether that be a result of mumbling, gabbling or different accents. 

This was my big idea then, and I knew a fantasy novel was in there somewhere – an alien society that communicated via the medium of touch. And it made sense to have a narrator who could speak both orally and digitally (i.e. with his fingers – not new-fangled “digital communication”) – an interpreter, then, who spent his time translating for the race that spoke with their fingers. In addition, something that had always fascinated me was the potential of translator as the ultimate unreliable narrator – when they are the only person who knows both languages, how do the two other parties know they are translating accurately? Especially with a touch language, when you cannot even eavesdrop on the message or lipread. The story of Spidertouch flowed fairly quickly from that idea; I ended up with a revolutionary cult attempting to recruit the interpreter, with the goal of overthrowing their “fingerspeaking” oppressors.

The linguistics geek in me wanted to Tolkien the hell out of the idea, and construct an entire grammar, syntax and vocabulary for this language; a glossary for the reader, as in A Clockwork Orange, and perhaps an appendix like Orwell did with Newspeak. Fortunately, better sense prevailed, and I contented myself with sketching the essentials of the language, and not allowing it to take over the plot of what was evolving into a city-under-siege thriller with a dash of slave-uprising thrown in – a tale of parenthood, sacrifice and loss. One idea I could not shake off, though – what kind of people would we be, if we did speak with our fingers, and not our mouths? What impact would it have on our relationships with each other? For language forms an essential part of who we are, how we define our identity – and the medium can be just as important as the message. Part of me wants to take the concept of a touch language further, if only for the glory of being the next Samuel Morse or Louis Braille. But right now, I’m more focussed on research for a sequel, with a language based on Smell-O-Vision…


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

Follow the author on Twitter.

Pet Break, 12/13/21

Sugar and Charlie, together in the hall.

I’ve had a long and vaguely irritating day, and figure you might have, too, so, here, please enjoy Charlie and Sugar lounging about together. And before you note that Sugar doesn’t look that happy about it, I’ll note she always looks a little irritated; that’s how her face works. But she’s the one who decided to lay next to Charlie, not the other way around. Secretly, Sugar is a sweetheart. Enjoy.

— JS

RIP, Anne Rice

To the above tweet I’ll add that, because early on I wanted to know more about the amazing woman who I hoped to marry, I went ahead and read several of Rice’s books, specifically from her vampire and “Witching Hour” series. In those books it was obvious that very few people could set a scene or mood like Rice could — her vision of New Orleans in each series was immediate and heady, and I could feel the humidity and the heat, sitting in a small air-conditioned apartment in California. She pioneered a subgenre that I supposed could only be described as pop gothic, which aside from the books was gloriously realized in the 1994 film directed by Neil Jordan (which Rice was at first skeptical of, and then publicly delighted by).

She had style, in other words, of a sort not many had. She’ll be missed.

This song by Sting, inspired by Interview With the Vampire

— JS

The Big Idea: Katharine Coldiron

What does it take to make a famously bad movie? Katharine Coldiron, who here writes a book-length monograph on one of the most famous bad films of all time, Plan 9 From Outer Space, suggests that it’s not just what shows up on the screen.

KATHARINE COLDIRON:

One version of the story of my monograph on Plan 9 from Outer Space is that the format preceded the idea. Learning about PS Publishing’s line of Midnight Movie Monographs made me wonder, idly, what single film I could write about for 100 pages. The answer that almost immediately appeared in my head was Plan 9. Once I had that answer, I had to write the book.

Another version of the story is that I’d been thinking about the value of bad film for some years before I even considered writing about Plan 9, and the monograph is my first adventure into explaining that value.

The truth is probably somewhere in the middle, where the idea of Neil Snowdon’s book line mingled, brainwise, with my own ideas about film. It’s definitely true that writing on Plan 9 was so much fun that once I’d finished the monograph, I decided to keep writing about bad movies until I was tired of it.

I’m not tired of it yet. Writing the Plan 9 monograph was its own reward, but the reward I’m really after is to get more scholars and critics to consider bad movies as a meaningful spoke of film studies. For two years I’ve been studying this subject, writing about Cop Rock and Attack of the 50 Ft. Woman and Death Bed: The Bed that Eats and a series of meaningless 1940s movies starring “the Teen Agers.” I’ve watched hundreds of bad movies from nine decades of cinema, read books about exploitation films and Ed Wood and Manos: The Hands of Fate, had conversations with podcasters and fans and writers about this topic. Nothing has dimmed my passion for explaining why bad film matters.

It does! Bad art of all kinds matters, as ballast and cautionary tale, as practical counterexample and philosophical mystery. It matters as unintentional influence, as background noise, as starting point. Bad art can even inform us about the artmaker and the cultural context more fully than good art can. I know a hell of a lot more about Neil Breen’s private concerns than about Peter Weir’s, for example, and I know more accurately how kids in the 1940s dressed from watching Monogram’s films than from watching MGM’s. There’s plenty more to say about this, but that’s why I’ve written about it in such detail.

With the Plan 9 book, I wanted to prove the value of bad art as a teaching tool and to share my enthusiasm for the form as professionally as possible. Since delivering the manuscript, I’ve written most of another, longer book about bad movies. It’s a collection that explores and analyzes some of my favorite (and least favorite) bad films, contextualizing them and arguing for their importance as objects of study.

Recently, that project took a turn. I’d written most of the essays as a critic, working on how each film presents itself and what that presentation means. Thinking about the baffling After Last Season and the sleazy Girl in Gold Boots made me want to focus on the other end of the projector: how the audience receives bad movies.

The main thing almost all bad movies seem to have in common, I’ve found, is unintentional comedy. This quality doesn’t exist until the audience interacts with the film. That the filmmaker didn’t intend to be funny is built into the term, and yet who can help but laugh at The Room? Without the audience, there is no unintentional comedy. But all along I’ve been focusing only on the bad film as a semi-inert artifact: how it fails to cast the common spell of cinema and instead reveals an incompetent attempt to make a movie. When I think about the audience, I have a whole new batch of questions: whose standards make a film incoherent, why enjoyable bad movies must be “reclaimed” instead of just enjoyed, what it means that I can tolerate certain kinds of cinematic abominations and my friends can’t.

There’s always more to say about bad movies. The field evolves constantly, as every day a new aspiring director picks up a cheap little DV camera and pirates a copy of Final Cut Pro. Now that I’ve stretched out into considering not just what they mean, but what they mean to us, I don’t know if I’ll ever be finished writing about them.


Plan 9 From Outer Space: Amazon|PS Publishing (ebook)

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

“Kaiju” Starred Review in Publishers Weekly

Well, here is some welcome news this evening: The Kaiju Preservation Society gets its second starred review from the publishing trades, this time from Publishers Weekly, which says it is “equally lighthearted and grounded—and sure to delight.” I will happily take that! And also I continue to be really happy that reviewers are connecting with this book. Here’s the full review (it comes with some mild spoilers, but nothing too bad).

This a fine time to remind folks to pre-order Kaiju from whatever bookseller you like (but especially your local booksellers), because it helps them and helps Tor figure out how many books to print up. That said, also a reminder that I’m doing a thing with Subterranean Press where if you pre-order through them, I will sign (and if desired, personalize) your book for you. Here’s the link for that.

It’s a good day!

— JS

Rainier, Coming and Going

I got two nice views of Mt. Rainier last week, the first as I was coming in on the plane, and the second as I got off the train at the airport to catch a flight home. In both cases, there was a cool lenticular cloud cap on the mountain. It was a nice bit of symmetry to my visit to the Pacific Northwest, so I thought I would share those views with you here.

— JS

The Big Idea: Femi Fadugba

In creating The Upper World, author Femi Fadugba decided he needed more than the usual levels of inspiration — he needed collaboration. And that collaboration was to come in a most unusual way. It all starts with headphones.

FEMI FADUGBA:

There’s a scene in The Upper World where my 16-year-old South London protagonist, Esso, is running to catch the #36 bus and sees a boy about to get run over. In a split second, he decides to save him. But in the act of pushing the boy out of the way of the oncoming Range Rover, Esso is hit and knocked out. And not just out of consciousness… out of reality as we know it. And into a place called The Upper World. It’s a realm where time appears the way physics describes it. A place where he can see his whole life laid out on a string – from the moment he was born to the moment he’ll die.

I wrote that entire scene with headphones on. And I’m 100% certain that my playlist found its way (at least spiritually) into my prose. So, when it came time to making the audiobook for The Upper World, I was adamant that the same music that inspired the writing should feature in the listening.

What I’m about to share isn’t your typical story about overcoming writer’s block or writerly adversity. It’s a fun story about a time I decided to take a punt on a risky idea that actually worked out. It’s also about how collaboration spawns creativity and the role community can play in it all.

I’ve heard very few audiobooks with musical scores… let alone sick musical scores… let alone drill or afrobeats musical scores (two genres playing heavy in my headphones while I was writing The Upper World). I knew the right sound could add emotional punch to a scene like the one I described above, and maybe even a new dimension to the genre of science-fiction altogether.

There was one tiny problem, though: I can’t play any instruments (well) and have never produced music before. The only way to bring my audio-literary vision to life was by getting help. And as any of my fellow writers who spend their days locked alone in a dusty room will confirm, collaboration feels daunting.

My first call was to Peckham rapper C.S (who went to high school with my cousin). He shared a link to an instrumental by a 19-year-old beatmaker (and Econ major) named Lazzro. A quick listen convinced me that this kid was making better beats than anything I’d heard lately on Spotify. So, I called Lazzro to introduce myself and to pitch the vision.

I was quite nervous: Lazzro didn’t know me or owe me his time. Plus, we creatives are notorious for giving less than our best when we’re not excited by a project. So, when sharing my vision for the audiobook with Lazzro – who was also based in South London – I tried summarising what I thought made the story special in one line.

‘The Upper World,’ I said into the phone, ‘is a story about love, violence and the physics of time travel… that just so happens to take place in Peckham.’

He laughed. Then, (thankfully), said he was keen to help.

One down. But I needed a second collaborator; someone who could put the music into a theatrical format and make sure it ‘multiplied the mood’. On a whim, I posted on Instagram that I was looking for a musical composer and a friend suggested James Maloney (who was two years below me at Uni and, as I soon discovered, now Music Director at The Globe!). We caught up and, to my surprise, what excited James most about the project was exactly what I’d been fearing most: the opportunity to collaborate.

We set up in a dimly lit studio in South London to record. I had my doubts on whether we’d make anything decent. After all, James and Lazzro had never even met each other. And I was asking them to magic up something that wasn’t only useable, but – hopefully – beautiful. In two days.

I’d prepared a detailed ‘Studio Schedule’ which was broken down into 15-minute intervals. But halfway through, my friend pulled me aside and suggested I chill out and just let Lazzro and James do their thing solo for a while. Needless to say, everyone was more productive after that, and we used the extra time to make a third ‘post-classical’ instrumental by James Maloney which went on to become the emotional centrepiece of the audiobook.

The best thing about the whole process was how fun it was. It’s easy as a writer (especially in COVID times) to become isolated in our own thoughts and forget about all that’s out there, waiting to reshape our expectations and outlook. Connection it turns out, isn’t just crucial for life, but for art too. And like young Esso, we must sometimes abandon our fear of colliding for our love of engaging.


The Upper World: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

Church Acquisition Follow-Up

Me at the altar.

After I announced that Krissy and I had purchased a church, many of you had, well, questions. Today I am going to answer some of those questions, and also add some further observations about being the sort of people who now own a whole damn church.

1. To begin, yes, two days in, it continues to feel surreal that we now own a church. It’s one thing to think about it and to make the offer and jump through the various hoops required to purchase real estate these days, and it’s another to actually be handed the keys and be told “congratulations on your new purchase.” It still hasn’t entirely sunk in; I went to the church this afternoon and rattled around in it a bit just to get used to it and I was half-expecting a minister to show up and politely but firmly ask me to step away from the altar. But none did, and if one had, they would be trespassing, not me.

I’ll note that our purchase of the church was slightly precipitate — we have long-term business plans that require office and storage space (which the church provides for, amply), but our original plan was looking a couple years down the line. But when this space went on the market, it was too good for our purposes (and too well-priced) to pass up. We’ve gotten it well in advance of our intended plans for it. This is not a bad thing; it gives us more time to refurb and renovate before we use it on a regular basis. But it was one of those “move fast” opportunities, and we are fortunate we were able to move fast.

But, yeah. Us getting a church was very nearly as much of a surprise to us as it was for the rest of you. It’s very cool! We will do cool things with it! And also, wow, it’s a church and it’s ours now.

Panorama of the church, from the altar.

2. Some of you were curious as to what conveyed with the church, and the answer to that is: Apparently, everything. It’s not just the space. The former owners (the regional United Methodist conference) left the pews and the chairs and the chandeliers and the church bell and the organ (which used to be a pipe organ but currently is not, although we may correct that in time) and two pianos and two stoves and cups and plates and cutlery and vestments and flags and crosses and big puffy couches from the 70s and, of course, so many bibles. I literally own dozens of bibles now, y’all, along with an equal number of hymn books. One really does get the sense that the former owners were happy to let us deal with getting rid of anything we decided we don’t want. In the short term we will indeed be doing an inventory of the things we want to keep and the things we want to get rid of. On the other hand, hey, I own two pianos and an organ now, to add to my collection of musical instruments. Go me.

3. As to the question of whether the church has been deconsecrated: I have no idea whatsoever. There’s nothing in the legal documents transferring the building over to us that suggests that it has been, and honestly at this point I’m not going to trouble the Methodists to ask. I assume it was? The building stopped being in regular use a couple of years back, and the parishioners transferred to a different church a couple miles down the road. But maybe it wasn’t! We’ll know if vampires try to come into the place, I guess. On a day-to-day basis I don’t suppose it matters. It’s not our intent to use it as a church. As previously promised, we have no plans to start our own religion.

4. Vaguely related to this subject, those of you hoping we’ll do, like, a black mass, or at least something aggressively atheistic at the altar of our new church, should probably settle down a tick. Most of you know I’m not religious in any sense, but I’m not particularly aggressive about that with others, and even if I were, I have no intention of antagonizing my neighbors in this small, rural, conservative and fairly religious little town of ours, which even with this church (literally) out of commission still has eight active churches for a population of just over 1,800 people. To the extent that the building and what we do in it will be outwardly facing to the community, we want to be welcoming, and welcomed. It’s not difficult to be good neighbors.

5. For everyone asking whether I’m going to use the sanctuary area as a music studio, I’ll say the thought had occurred to me, and today as I was visiting I stood on the altar and sang to check out the acoustics, which as it happens are quite nice. However, it’s not likely I will use the sanctuary area as a music studio exclusively, since I just set up a music room in my basement, and also, I need to become far more competent in playing my instruments generally. Guess what’s high on my list of things to do in 2022?

6. Again, we’re still wrapping our heads around the fact this church is ours now — and now that we have it, it’s fun to think of all the possibilities it offers. This is definitely a work in progress, and one that will be in progress probably for a couple of years at least. If you’re wondering if I’m taking up any hobbies, well. This is it. Let’s see where it takes us.

"Under new management"

— JS

The Big Idea: Don Handfield and Joshua Malkin

In today’s Big Idea, authors and filmmakers Don Handfield and Joshua Malkin reveal a simple and possibly universal truth: No matter who you are, or what you do, or how you do it, there’s always room in your life for the power of unicorns. And thus, their graphic novel, Unikorn.

DON HANDFIELD and JOSHUA MALKIN:

Needless to say, neither of us necessarily imagined ourselves writing a book about unicorns. In fact, over the two and a half years it took to steadily, lovingly piece the project together, we found ourselves routinely pausing to ask one another: “Have we lost our minds?”

That surprise is to some extent silly. After all, we’re both lifelong fans of fantasy. Deeply entrenched nerds, all of our literary or film collaborations have revolved around magic in one way or another. (An aside, there is a scene in the book in which Maeve, our protagonist, ventures beneath the school bleachers to find the school nerds, who use the hiding spot as a safe haven to play Dungeons & Dragons. The fact that two of those characters are named Don & Josh is no coincidence…)

As fathers of young girls, we’d become steadily aware how few superhero books there are aimed at them. Each year at Comic-Con, we’d patrol the floor for gifts – finding plenty of Deadpool, Wolverine and Batman stuff for our little boys, but not much for little girls. In many ways, our initial goal was to write a book with a hero specifically for our own daughters. Both of them had loved unicorns, briefly, but grew out of the “phase” surprisingly quickly. “Unicorns are for little kids, dad.”

Why? We wondered. How could we resurrect and re-approach the legend and mythology so that it seemed fresh? How could we leap-frog past resistance to embrace the underlying magic? And that’s how we stumbled upon the first of our “Big Ideas”: what if Unicorns are real… but dwindling, and need to be hidden for their safety and protection?

We read stories of conservationists removing elephant tusks and rhino horns to protect the animals from ivory hunters and were immediately inspired. To have a unicorn hide in plain sight would, of course, require removal of its horn. This would make it blend in – but would also diminish its powers, making it more vulnerable. We dubbed these de-horned animals ‘unikorns’ and found the title for our tale.

Every good story needs a powerful antagonist and we found that inside this central idea. Legends of the power of unicorn horns are numerous and ancient. One regards how their blood can make humans younger and miraculously extend their lives. So our antagonist is a man who has been alive since the 1800s tracking and exploiting the creatures for that very selfish purpose. Our hero unravels the truth – that he will kill the animal to prolong his own life – so she tries to find the animals horn and help it escape. This forms the central conflict of the narrative.

In the middle of this creative journey, both of our families lost beloved grandparents and parents.  It was in the midst of trying to help our own kids both comprehend and process this grief in a healthy way that our plot found its purpose. Yes, this would be a book about unicorns but it would be more than that too. It would aspire to help kids and parents communicate about loss more effectively and intimately. The challenge was to do so in a way that was entertaining, not heavy handed, and that didn’t wallow in negative emotions.

Ultimately, we believe story can be a panacea for the chaos life throws at us, a way to approach the incomprehensible. We hope we have created a tale appropriate for all genders and all ages; a story not just about magic but also about the unbreakable and healing power of love.


Unikorn: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Bookshop|Indiebound

Read an excerpt (click on the “look” button)

The Big Idea: M.A. Carrick

Lies and trust, trust and lies… two sides of the same coin, right? As M.A. Carrick explains in this Big Idea for The Liar’s Knot, it can actually be far more complicated than that.

M.A. CARRICK:

In the Big Idea post we wrote for The Mask of Mirrors, the first book of the Rook and Rose trilogy, we admitted we were going to lie to you.

Now we’re going to do something absurd: we’re going to ask you to trust us anyway.

Since before we even started writing this series, it’s had a theme song: “The Riddle” from the musical The Scarlet Pimpernel. It’s a trio about the characters all lying to and manipulating each other, and we love to sing it at karaoke. The final lines are so apropos, they might as well have been written for our story:

For we all are caught in the middle

Of one long treacherous riddle

Of who trusts who

Maybe I’ll trust you

But can you trust me?

Wait and see!

That riddle is at the heart of what our characters are grappling with in the second book of our series. Trusting someone is like handing them a knife, knowing full well they could sink it between your ribs. When you’re our protagonists, carrying whole rafts of secrets, trusting someone means handing them an entire bandolier of knives, and an anatomical diagram of where each might best be applied. Unsurprisingly, our main character Ren has a hard time doing that — especially since she got burned last book, putting her faith in someone she shouldn’t have.

What’s less expected, perhaps, is that she also has a hard time being trusted. Ren is a con artist, lying to people more or less every waking minute. But she’s done the one thing a con artist should never do: she’s started to care about her marks. So every time they express their confidence in her, it cuts a little bit deeper. She doesn’t deserve that from them, and she knows it.

And yet . . . trust is exactly what Ren needs. Partway through The Mask of Mirrors, another character managed to get an honest answer from her about what she wanted. The answer was: she wanted to feel safe. She used to think money would give that to her, because many of the disasters that have befallen her could have been solved, or at least made better, if she’d had money. We the authors posit, what she needs even more than that is trust: more people she can trust, and more trustworthy behavior on her own end.

The path there isn’t easy, though. Usually you start by trusting someone with small things, and if those go well, maybe some bigger ones, like easing into a swimming pool from the shallow end. But there’s still a point at which you have to decide whether to continue, past the point where your feet can touch the bottom. And sometimes . . . sometimes you don’t get the option of the shallow end. If you’re going in, it’s a headfirst dive into the deep end, or nothing at all. There comes a point in this book when Ren has to decide whether to dive or not — and then deal with the consequences of her choice.

The Mask of Mirrors was titled after the card of secrets and lies, in the divinatory pattern deck that plays a huge role in our story. That card was easy to name; in fact, it was one of the first we settled on. But the card for trust — which, when dealt in the veiled position, is the card of mistrust and betrayal — was much harder. When The Mask of Mirrors went to print, that one had the very unsatisfactory name of “Constant Ivan’s Oath,” with us shrugging and figuring we’d make up a folktale someday to explain why it’s called that.

Fortunately for us, we never actually mention that card by name in the first book. Because when we realized that was the one we wanted to name this book after, we knew an unsatisfactory placeholder with a nonexistent folktale behind it was not going to work. But one day Marie’s sleeping brain woke her up at seven thirty in the morning (a good three hours before her alarm) and proclaimed “The Liar’s Knot!

For a story full of liars, in a city full of metaphors built around threads and fabric and knots, when we’d already written the line “Trust is the thread that binds us, and the rope that hangs us” . . . it wound up being absolutely perfect.


The Liar’s Knot: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Bookshop|Indiebound|Powell’s

Visit the author’s site. Follow M.A. Carrack on Twitter.

And Now, the Latest Scalzi Acquisition

And to help us along with this, I am calling on your friend and mine, Whatever’s favorite recurring gimmick, the Fictional Interlocutor!

For the record, I’m not comfortable being called a gimmick.

I understand that entirely, and yet.

Hmmmph. Why are you bothering me now?

Because I want you to help me introduce the latest Scalzi acquisition!

(Rolls eyes) You know, there are only so many multi-necked guitars you can buy before the schtick gets old.

I understand that. Are you ready?

(Sighs) Fine, let’s get this over with.

Okay! Here’s the new thing:

Wow, what a surprise, you bought a new guitar.

Well, yes, but —

And it’s a three-string cigar box guitar with a silk-screened American flag! How very patriotic of you.

Thank you, but —

Only one neck, though. You’re slipping.

Well, look, one, not every guitar needs more than one neck. And two, the guitar isn’t actually the latest acquisition.

Come again?

The guitar isn’t the latest acquisition.

So… you’re showing off what, then? New shoes? Is this kindergarten show and tell?

Not the shoes.

(Impatient) Then what? The jacket? The pants? That clearly obvious neck wattle?

It’s not a wattle.

All right, it’s new, it needs time to grow into a wattle. It’s a wattlette.

That’s not even a word, and no to all of those.

I give up. What is it?

Here, let me reframe the photo. Maybe that will help.

Okay, so, your latest acquisition is a court summons for trespassing at a local church.

Well, see, that’s the thing. I’m not trespassing.

What do you mean?

That’s the latest Scalzi acquisition.

You… bought a church?!?

Yes.

A church.

Yes.

You.

Yes.

A whole church.

I mean, who buys a fraction of a church?

I… you… just… Dude. A church.

Come on. Yes. I bought it. Actually, we bought it, since Krissy is on the title as well.

… why?

I need an excuse?

Yes, you really do.

Fine. For a while now, Krissy and I have been talking about how we wanted to get some additional space for long-term business plans that we have. We had looked at other property in Bradford, but it didn’t fit for what we wanted to do. So were thinking of buying some land locally and building some office and storage space on it. I opened up a real estate site to see what land parcels might be available nearby, and as it happened this church had literally come onto the market that day, a couple hours earlier. In terms of what we needed a space for, this building offered it, along with a fair number of other options as well.

We set up an appointment to see it, were convinced it was worth pursuing, and made an offer. They accepted it. And if people are reading this, it means we’ve actually closed on the deal, and we’re now officially the owners of the building. We own a church.

You’re not planning to, like, start a religion or anything.

Well, as it happens, Krissy and I are both ordained ministers.

What.

It’s true. It’s useful to officiate weddings. But to be clear, no, we have no plans to start a religion. The track record of science fiction authors starting their own religions is, shall we say, spotty at best.

You say that now. But you have a church

You’ll just have to trust me on this one.

We’ll see.

Fair enough.

And anyway, now you’re one of those people.

What do you mean?

Look, not everyone can just wake up, eat a donut and then buy a church on a whim.

I mean, it wasn’t a whim. As noted, we have practical reasons for wanting more space, and it just so happens that the space that best suited our needs locally came in the form of a church.

With that said, okay, sure. I’m now in that tier of authors with idiosyncratic real estate purchases. Some of these authors buy old movie theaters. Some buy Masonic temples. Some buy small islands. I’m getting a church. I’m not going to pretend it’s not a little eccentric. I actually like that. I will probably lean into it as we go along. 

So, how much are churches going for these days, anyway?

A bit more than a six-necked guitar, but inasmuch as this is a church in a small rural community, possibly less than you might suspect. Suffice to say we wouldn’t have gotten it if we did not believe it was within our means. The odd musical purchase aside, Krissy and I are fairly conservative in how we spend our money. This is a long-term project and investment and we’ve budgeted for it as such. 

What happened to the former owners? Did you defenestrate them or something?

There was no defenestration. The building was formerly owned by the Methodist Church, and as I understand it over time the congregation shrank and was merged with another congregation a bit down the road. When that happened, the Methodists didn’t need this building any more, and while they kept it in reasonably good repair (otherwise we wouldn’t have bought it), it wasn’t doing what it was intended to do for them, which was to be a place of worship and community. So they let it go to be useful to someone else, in this case, us.

How old is it?

It’s a little over eighty years old.

Is it haunted?

When word got out locally that we were buying the place, some former members of the congregation assured us that it was. However, if it is, they are Methodist ghosts, and I suspect that means they are reasonably friendly and that the haunting will be somewhat polite. 

You should start a bookstore/goth club/restaurant/[insert some other idea here] in that space.

When you buy your own church, you can do any of those things you like! As for us, be assured that we do have plans, and that we will work toward them over time. Again, this is a long-term project for us. I will say that one thing that Krissy and I have talked about is the desire to have the building continue to be part of the community, rather than entirely removed from it. Bradford has been good to us over the years, and we would like to return the favor. How best to do that is something we still have to think about. But it’s very much part of our planning for the place. 

What are you going to name it? Church of the Scalzi?

There’s already at least one of those, in Venice (right by the Scalzi Bridge!). But we might call it that, simply for convenience. I’m sure there will be other possible names: Church of the Infinite Burrito, First Assembly of the Bacon Cat, The Sacred Order of the Six-Necked Beast, and so on. If people have suggestions, they can leave them in the comments, along with any other questions they might have about the church, and us, and the fact that it’s our place now.

And I think that’s it for you today, fictional interlocutor.

I suppose so. But, dude.

What?

You own a church.

I know. I know. 

— JS

(Update: A follow-up post.)

View From a Hotel Window, 12/4/21: Seattle

The corner there is of the convention center in town, this weekend housing the Emerald City Comic Con. For me, at least, it’s going pretty well so far — people have been lovely, everyone’s masked and vaxxed, and the panels I’ve done have been fun. I’ve even gotten “off campus” to see friends, which is great. One more panel and signing today, and then I’m on my own recognizance until I get home very early indeed on Monday morning. There are worse ways to spend a weekend.

How is your weekend coming along?

Whatever Holiday Gift Guide 2021, Day Five: Charities

For the last four days, the Whatever Gift Guide 2021 has been about helping you find the perfect gifts for friends and loved ones. But today I’d like to remind folks that the season is also about helping those in need. So this final day is for charities. If you’re looking for a place to make a donation — or know of a charitable organization that would gladly accept a donation — this is the place for it.

How to contribute to this thread:

1. Anyone can contribute. If you are associated with or work for a charity, tell us about the charity. If there’s a charity you regularly contribute to or like for philosophical reasons, share with the crowd. This is open to everyone.

2. Focus on non-political charities, please. Which is to say, charities whose primary mission is not political — so, for example, an advocacy group whose primary thrust is education but who also lobbies lawmakers would be fine, but a candidate or political party or political action committee is not. The idea here is charities that exist to help people and/or make the world a better place for all of us.

3. It’s okay to note personal fundraising (Indiegogo and GoFundMe campaigns, etc) for people in need. Also, other informal charities and fundraisers are fine, but please do your part to make sure you’re pointing people to a legitimate fundraiser and not a scam. I would suggest only suggesting campaigns that you can vouch for personally.

3. One post per person. In that post, you can list whatever charities you like, and more than one charity. Note also that the majority of Whatever’s readership is in the US/Canada, so I suggest focusing on charities available in North America.

4. Keep your description of the charity brief (there will be a lot of posts, I’m guessing) and entertaining. Imagine the person is in front of you as you tell them about the charity and is interested but easily distracted.

5. You may include a link to a charity site if you like by using standard HTML link scripting. Be warned that if you include too many links (typically three or more) your post may get sent to the moderating queue. If this happens, don’t panic: I’ll be going in through the day to release moderated posts. Note that posts will occasionally go into the moderation queue semi-randomly; Don’t panic about that either.

6. Comment posts that are not about people promoting charities they like will be deleted, in order to keep the comment thread useful for people looking to find charities to contribute to.

All right, then: It’s the season of giving. Tell us where to give to make this a better place.

The Big Idea: Janice L. Newman

Author Janice L. Newman is thinking about love, what it means, and how it manifests… and not in the ways we always expect. In the Big Idea for her collection At First Contact, Newman explains why all these various looks of love matter to her.

JANICE L. NEWMAN:

It might seem tricky at first to identify a single “big idea” that runs throughout At First Contact. That’s because At First Contact isn’t one story – it’s three! Though they are all romances and all more or less queer, they are also quite different. They’re grounded in different genres (science fiction, paranormal, modern fantasy) and take place in different worlds.

And yet common threads do run throughout the volume. Themes of loneliness, isolation, and alienation are visible in the weave, complementary colors that draw the three disparate pieces together into a coherent whole.

Looking back, it’s hard to believe that I started writing the first story, the eponymous “At First Contact”, before the pandemic. The main character’s disgust and fear of germs seemed exaggerated back then, a phobia that people could sympathize with, but not really identify with at a gut level. The isolation wrought by such a phobia, to the point where a lonely mission to an unknown planet actually brings a kind of freedom, seemed even more extraordinary… back then.

Now, it’s impossible for me to read the story through anything but the lens of the pandemic. The revulsion at the idea of touching the same doorknob or elevator button as another person, the horror of breathing someone else’s air, these became visceral. Then, too, the mingled feelings of safety and alienation born of nearly complete isolation are now familiar and real.

“Ghosted”, on the other hand, was written at the height of the pandemic. It doesn’t get much more isolated than being a ghost who can only interact with one other person. Yet the story is not from Will’s point of view – it’s from Leo’s. Leo, who walked down the beaches of Southern California in the afternoon sunshine, maskless, as I longed to do. Leo, who searched for the human connection he was missing after the disappearance of his ironically incorporeal friend.

“A Touch of Magic” was written late in the pandemic. I was more than ready to go back out to the real world. Yet physical issues made it hard for me. I’d spent so much time sitting, constantly hunched over my desk, and it took a toll on my body that affects me still. Chronic pain and physical difficulties thus wove their way into the background of the third story whether I wanted them to or not.

But while isolation, alienation, and loneliness exist as common themes across all three stories, there are also counterpoint themes: those of finding love, hope, and acceptance, especially in surprising people and unexpected places.

At least one character in each of the three novellas that make up At First Contact is alienated in some way. For some, the alienation is mental, perhaps a phobia of germs or simply a fear of people. For others there are physical reasons that they cannot participate in ‘normal’ social activities. In one case, an android experienced deep trauma during his initial programming. These characters are shaped, but not defined, by their phobias, traumas, and chronic pain.

At First Contact is not about ‘fixing’ these issues. Nor is it really about learning to work around them. All of the characters so affected have been dealing with these difficulties for most or all of their lives. They already have coping strategies in place. In some cases, the very things that have kept them apart from society even prove to be advantages.

Whether a character is ultimately ‘healed’ or not is never the point of a story. And when love develops between one character with difficulties and another, it’s neither ‘despite’ nor ‘because of’ their issues.

Alienation doesn’t just happen between a person and society. It can exist between a person and their own body. It can affect their view of themselves and make them feel unworthy of love, of care, of happiness.

It may not take a shape we expect. We may think ourselves unworthy of it. But The Big Idea underpinning all three stories in At First Contact comes down to this: no matter how isolated or alienated we are – from society, from each other, or from ourselves – love is possible for all of us.


At First Contact: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Bookshop|Powell’s

Follow the author on Twitter.

Whatever Holiday Gift Guide 2021, Day Four: Fan Favorites!

For the first three days of the Whatever Gift Guide 2021, I’ve let authors and creators tell you about their work. Today is different: Today is Fan Favorites day, in which fans, admirers and satisfied customers share with you a few of their favorite things — and you can share some of your favorite things as well. This is a way to discover some cool stuff from folks like you, and to spread the word about some of the things you love.

Fans: Here’s how to post in this thread. Please follow these directions!

1. Fans only: That means that authors and creators may not post about their own work in this thread (they may post about other people’s work, if they are fans). There are already existing threads for traditionally-published authorsnon-traditionally published authors, and for other creators. Those are the places to post about your own work, not here.

2. Individually created and completed works only, please. Which is to say, don’t promote things like a piece of hardware you can find at Home Depot, shoes from Foot Locker, or a TV you got at Wal-Mart. Focus on things created by one person or a small group: Music, books, crafts and such. Things that you’ve discovered and think other people should know about, basically. Do not post about works in progress, even if they’re posted publicly elsewhere. Remember that this is supposed to be a gift guide, and that these are things meant to be given to other people. So focus on things that are completed and able to be sold of shared.

3. One post per fan. In that post, you can list whatever creations you like, from more than one person if you like, but allow me to suggest you focus on newer stuff. Note also that the majority of Whatever’s readership is in the US/Canada, so I suggest focusing on things available in North America. If they are from or available in other countries, please note that!

4. Keep your description of the work brief (there will be a lot of posts, I’m guessing) and entertaining. Imagine the person is in front of you as you tell them about the work and is interested but easily distracted.

5. You may include a link to a sales site if you like by using standard HTML link scripting. Be warned that if you include too many links (typically three or more) your post may get sent to the moderating queue. If this happens, don’t panic: I’ll be going in through the day to release moderated posts. Note that posts will occasionally go into the moderation queue semi-randomly; Don’t panic about that either.

6. Comment posts that are not about fans promoting work they like will be deleted, in order to keep the comment thread useful for people looking to find interesting gifts.

Got it? Excellent. Now: Geek out and tell us about cool stuff you love — and where we can get it too.

The Big Idea: Shannon Fay

Location, location, location: Often where an author is can inform the stories that they eventually choose to tell. Location mattered for Shannon Fay for her novel Innate Magic… and not just because of the landmarks.

SHANNON FAY:

A big inspiration for Innate Magic came from London itself. I wanted to show what it is like to be cash-poor and time-rich in a place that has so much to offer but costs so much to live in.

I moved to London in the spring of 2015 with nothing but a suitcase and backpack. About a month into this grand adventure, my suitcase was stolen. I had no clothes but what I was wearing, no job lined up, and nothing but a cache of weak Canadian dollars which were dwindling by the day. But I was ecstatic. So what if I couldn’t afford to take the tube and had to bus everywhere—the top flight of a double decker offered the best view of the city anyway. So what if my job was a zero-hours contract café gig—I got free food. So what if most of my pay cheque went to the exorbitant rent I was shelling out for half a room in an overcrowded house—the museums and galleries were free.   

Eventually I got a job at the National Portrait Gallery, which was a godsend—I was much better at giving talks about paintings than I was at making lattes (to everyone whose order I got wrong, I’m sorry. I had no clue what I was doing). At the NPG, I learned so much about British history, which inspired me to set my historical fantasy novel in 1950s England. In the UK, the post-war years were a time of scarcity. Rationing was still in place late into the 1950s, and many cities were still rebuilding after the damage done by the blitz. Even though it was over fifty years ago, I felt many of the same issues were still resonant with present-day London—the concern about smog and pollution, constant construction, the friction that comes from so many people living so closely together.

At the gallery, one portrait that caught my eye was Cecil Beaton’s oil painting of a man called John Vassall. John Vassall was a gay man who, in the 1950s-1960s, was blackmailed by the KGB into handing over British naval secrets. At the time gay men were very much prosecuted in England, another example of this being when the codebreaker/mathematician Alan Turing was convicted of indecency after it came out that he slept with other men. For myself, a white cis woman living in the year 2015, London was one of the first places where I felt comfortable enough to be out as a queer person—I have a lot of happy memories of the talks and events I did with the gallery’s LGBT+ Employees Network.  But even today gay people are still harassed in the city, and transgender people in particular have to deal daily with being vilified by the media. 

The main character of Innate Magic, Paul Gallagher, is queer—specifically, bi, like I am. Growing up I had so rarely seen people like me in the books I read, so I wanted to put that into the world. Paul might live in a time and place that is hostile to him, but being an optimist, he weathers it the best he can, focusing on the people he loves rather than the people who hate him.

In Innate Magic, the main character Paul deals with many of the same things I went through while living in London. Like I did, he shares a room with his best mate. Every jaunt across the city comes with the calculation of how much it will cost. Food is precious. But despite his meagre living, Paul loves London. For him it is a city full of opportunity, a place where a Liverpool lad like him can learn magic and maybe even rise up in the world.

But it’s not as easy as just showing up. For all it has going for it, London does take a toll on you, and by the time my two-year visa was up, I was ready to leave. But London will always by one of my favorite places in the world. In Innate Magic, I tried to do justice to it, both its good and bad, what it offers and what it asks of you in return.     


Innate Magic: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound

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

Whatever Holiday Gift Guide 2021, Day Three: Arts, Crafts, Music and More

The Whatever Holiday Gift Guide 2021 continues, and today we move away from books and focus on other gifts and crafts — which you can take to mean just about any other sort of thing a creative person might make: Music, art, knitting, jewelry, artisan foodstuffs and so on. These can be great, unique gifts for special folks in your life, and things you can’t just get down at the mall. I hope you see some cool stuff here.

Please note that the comment thread today is only for creators to post about their gifts for sale; please do not leave other comments, as they will be snipped out to keep the thread from getting cluttered. Thanks!

Creators: Here’s how to post in this thread. Please follow these directions!

1. Creators (of things other than books) only. This is an intentionally expansive category, so if you’ve made something and have it available for the public to try or buy, you can probably post about in this thread. The exception to this is books (including comics and graphic novels), which have two previously existing threads, one for traditionally-published works and one for non-traditionally published works (Note: if you are an author and also create other stuff, you may promote that other stuff today). Don’t post if you are not the creator of the thing you want to promote, please.

2. Personally-created and completed works only. This thread is specifically for artists and creators who are making their own unique works. Mass-producible things like CDs, buttons or T-shirts are acceptable if you’ve personally created what’s on it. But please don’t use this thread for things that were created by others, which you happen to sell. Likewise, do not post about works in progress, even if you’re posting them publicly elsewhere. Remember that this is supposed to be a gift guide, and that these are things meant to be given to other people. Also, don’t just promote yourself unless you have something to sell or provide, that others may give as a gift.

3. One post per creator. In that post, you can list whatever creations of yours you like, but allow me to suggest you focus on your most recent creation. Note also that the majority of Whatever’s readership is in the US/Canada, so I suggest focusing on things available in North America. If you are elsewhere and your work is available there, please note it.

4. Keep your description of your work brief (there will be a lot of posts, I’m guessing) and entertaining. Imagine the person is in front of you as you tell them about your work and is interested but easily distracted.

5. You may include a link to a sales site if you like by using standard HTML link scripting. Be warned that if you include too many links (typically three or more) your post may get sent to the moderating queue. If this happens, don’t panic: I’ll be going in through the day to release moderated posts. Note that posts will occasionally go into the moderation queue semi-randomly; Don’t panic about that either.

6. As noted above, comment posts that are not from creators promoting their work as specified above will be deleted, in order to keep the comment thread useful for people looking to find interesting work.

Now: Tell us about your stuff!

Tomorrow: Fan Favorites!

Whatever Holiday Gift Guide 2021, Day Two: Non-Traditionally Published Books

Today is Day Two of the Whatever Holiday Gift Guide 2021, and today the focus is on Non-Traditionally Published Books: Self-published works, electronically-exclusive books, books from micro presses, books released outside the usual environs of the publishing world, and so on. Hey, I put my first novel up on this very Web site years ago and told people to send me a dollar if they liked it. Look where it got me. I hope you find some good stuff today.

Please note that the comment thread today is only for non-traditional authors and editors to post about their books; please do not leave other comments, as they will be snipped out to keep the thread from getting cluttered. Thanks!

Authors/editors: Here’s how to post in this thread. Please follow these directions!

1. Authors and editors of non-traditionally published books only. This includes comics and graphic novels, as well as non-fiction books and audiobooks. If your book has been traditionally published — available in bookstores on a returnable basis — post about your book in the thread that went up yesterday (if you are in doubt, assume you are non-traditionally published and post here). If you are a creator in another form or medium, your thread is coming tomorrow. Don’t post if you are not the author or editor, please.

2. Completed works only. Do not post about works in progress, even if you’re posting them publicly. Remember that this is supposed to be a gift guide, and that these are things meant to be given to other people. Likewise, don’t just promote yourself unless you have something to sell or provide, that others may give as a gift.

3. One post per author. In that post, you can list whatever books of yours you like, but allow me to suggest you focus on your most recent book. Note also that the majority of Whatever’s readership is in the US/Canada, so I suggest focusing on books available in North America. If your book is only available in the UK or some other country, please let people know!

4. Keep your description of your book brief (there will be a lot of posts, I’m guessing) and entertaining. Imagine the person is in front of you as you tell them about your book and is interested but easily distracted.

5. You may include a link to a bookseller if you like by using standard HTML link scripting or URL. Be warned that if you include too many links (typically three or more) your post may get sent to the moderating queue. If this happens, don’t panic: I’ll be going in through the day to release moderated posts. Note that posts will occasionally go into the moderation queue semi-randomly; Don’t panic about that either.

6. As noted above, comment posts that are not from authors/editors promoting their books as specified above will be deleted, in order to keep the comment thread useful for people looking to find interesting books.

Now: Tell us about your book!

Tomorrow (12/1): Other creators (musicians, artists, crafters, etc!)

%d bloggers like this: