Springtime in New York

John Scalzi

It’s pretty all right, I guess. I’m in town for an event tomorrow (4/7) at the City Winery (details here, if you haven’t seen me write about it here already), and I got in a day early to get situated and to visit around the town.

As some of you may know, certain politicians from elsewhere have been saying mean things about the place, due to certain ex-president being charged with certain felonies, 34 of them to be exact. These certain politicians suggested the place was an urban hellscape and also smelled bad. Naturally I had to have a bit of fun with that on Twitter. It went a little something like this:


A picture of the Little Island Park


" jump ropes and hula hoops, every day 2:30 p.m. through 4:30 p.m."




The Empire State Building


Originally tweeted by John Scalzi (@scalzi) on April 6, 2023.

Also, for the record, it smells fine here.

In short, New York is lovely. I’m glad I’m visiting.

— JS

Working Through the Suck, Musically Speaking

John Scalzi

I’ve mentioned before that when it comes to making music and using the stuff for doing that on the computer, I am still at a stage that I would consider “enthusiastic amateur.” This is to say, I like playing with all the toys that I’ve accrued, but my knowledge of how they all work is still somewhat surface level. In order to get better, recently I’ve taken to making little projects for myself that have a single task at hand: Learning how to use a specific audio plug-in, for example, or how to do a particular task in the digital audio workstation.

The current “you have one job” task: Learning how to fiddle with vocals to make them better, by using various tools that either come with Logic Pro X (the DAW I use the most), or that I’ve bought as plug-ins and add-ons. The idea here is to see how much fiddling with the raw vocals can iron out a performance without sounding like, you know, a robot.

To engage in this attempt, I picked a song that is, uhhh, slightly out of my usual range: “The Scientist,” which is originally by Coldplay, but the arrangement I’m doing is based off Aimee Mann’s cover of it (here that is; if you’ve never heard it, it is lovely). As I’m working off that arrangement, I’m singing higher than I usually do, which means I’m pitchy as hell — not great if you have to listen to it live, but perfect for this particular task. Having recorded a pass through of the song in a single take, I set myself the task to see what I could do with it in the software.

Here’s the result:


1. In fact, the software can do a lot, and can do it so the result sounds reasonably natural. Logic Pro X has a built in “Flex” tool that can let you specify a key and then tracks a vocal performance to that key (you can adjust it to humanize), and then also lets you control things like vibrato (i.e., make yourself less pitchy), and more esoteric aspects like formant (this is the computer’s attempt to model your voicebox). This got me 70% – 80% of where I wanted to go, and the rest I was able to cover with other plug-ins (including, yes, Auto-Tune, which can be set not to sound like an android). The result of the fiddling sounds (mostly) pretty good and reasonably natural.

To be clear, I was actually singing in (well, around) the key of G# minor, so the issue was not wholesale yanking of my voice from the wrong key into the right one, but more of sticking my voice to a note it was otherwise hovering near to. Photoshopping my voice, as it were.

2. There is only so much the software can do. There’s a bit where I attempted falsetto, and the result was, shall we say, not great. I fiddled with it as much as possible, but there was only so much lipstick that pig could take. I then took the whole falsetto phrase and dropped it an octave, which made it sound better, but also clearly not natural. I decided to lean into that and make that bit sound even more robotic. You’ll know it when you get to it.

Likewise, while I think the vocal performance in the first half of the song is decent, the second half has me straining at notes and timing, and again, there’s only so much software can do with that (or that I can do, with my knowledge of the software). For better or worse, the human singing is going to come through, no matter how much one fiddles with computers. Which is actually good to know! Software can improve a decent-to-good vocal performance, but it’s not going to save a genuinely poor performance.

3. Aside from software and plug-ins that are directly meant for vocals, other software that address things like compression and reverb can do a fair amount to tweak a performance, but again, there’s only so much that can do, and also, too much of it begins to make one’s track sound muddy. One of the things I know about myself is that I like a good reverb as much as kids like cake, so as a result the tracks I’m putting out sound overly busy. Part of my learning curve is learning what things to leave out.

4. This track was also educational as to why most recorded songs are not a single vocal performance but assembled out of a bunch of takes. As noted, in the second half of my single long take I was all over the place, and some subsequent takes were poor enough that I left them out of the final mix entirely (the final vocal is the first vocal take, triple-tracked, with each track having some different effects on it). Which means one of my next projects will be to figure out “comping” (doing alternate vocal takes) on Logic Pro X. It’s apparently one of the easiest DAWs to do comping on, but that doesn’t mean it’s all that easy. But then, this is why I’m doing all this recording: To figure out how to actually work the program.

5. This recording isn’t good (well, it’s about 35% good and 65% “he tried”), but I like it, because I learned a whole of stuff about how to operate Logic Pro X, and because I feel reasonably competent that the next time I record myself slightly out of my vocal comfort zone, I’m going to be able to get a better version of it out of the software. This, I think, will be useful in eventually helping me get a good performance outside of the software as well, since now I will have a reasonable simulacrum of my voice hitting notes, which I can use as a guide vocal. Practice makes perfect, on the computer and off of it.

Also, of course, it’s just fun to learn things. This is why I don’t mind working through the suck here; yes, I may suck, but I’m figuring things out, and next time I will suck slightly less. Sucking slightly less each time is how you get better, and then, one day, maybe, actually good. What a day that will be!

— JS

The Big Idea: Courtney LeBlanc

While strong emotions like sadness or grief can be powerful motivators for writing, author Courtney LeBlanc was determined not to let the heaviness of her poems overwhelm her reader, and turned to a fellow poet for help. Come along in her Big Idea to see how she solved her problem, and structured Her Whole Bright Life.


I’ve been writing poetry since I was a teenager, using this medium to work through whatever I’m dealing with. In my teen years it was angsty, emo poetry—which is perfectly acceptable and appropriate for a teenager, no matter how cringe-worthy it is when you read it twenty years later… As I matured, both emotionally and in my writing, poetry began to take a more prominent role in my life and in how I dealt with emotional situations. My newest collection, Her Whole Bright Life, proved no different. 

When I’m pulling together a poetry collection the themes usually become apparent pretty quickly and this was true for Her Whole Bright Life, winner of the Jack McCarthy Book Prize, published by Write Bloody. But with two heavy topics—my father’s death and my disordered eating—the challenge was how to not drown the reader. Even if these are topics many people deal with at some point in their lives, how to keep the collection from dragging down into the Mariana Trench of emotions? Enter Aimee Nezhukumatathil. 

I had the fortune of spending two glorious weeks on the island of Crete, Greece in summer 2022, where I went for runs through the olive grove each morning, laid by the infinity pool in the afternoon soaking up the sun, and spent hours writing and editing under the mulberry trees in the courtyard of Dalabelos Estate. There I worked with Aimee Nezhukumatathil, a poet and essayist whose books have won countless awards and honors. I presented my problem to her: how to structure the manuscript?

Already the manuscript was divided into two groups of poems: the ones about my father’s death and my disordered eating, which wove together and couldn’t easily be parsed apart, and poems about other, perhaps lighter, and happier topics. Aimee made a simple suggestion that was the breakthrough I needed: break the poems into three sections, with the middle section being the “lighter” poems. This will allow the reader a chance to pause, to breathe, to come up for air. With this advice I printed every poem in the collection and set about rearranging them. 

Aimee’s advice was perfect, of course, and this structure became the framework for the collection. Broken into three sections, the middle section is a break from the heartache, grief, and trauma of sections one and three. The end result is an emotional collection that doesn’t overwhelm the reader. And, I hope, it’s a collection that speaks to readers, that people connect with the poems and see themselves in the words. After all, connection is, for me, what poetry is all about. 

Her Whole Bright Life: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Bookshop|Powell’s

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

Wanted: Researcher. Details Below.

John Scalzi

I’m looking for a freelance researcher to help me generate some data for my upcoming novel. The data I require will be (to put it mildly) somewhat esoteric but absolutely needs to be rooted in physics and other scientific knowledge that we already know today. The researcher will need some experience in, be able to contact those who might have knowledge regarding, or be able to get quickly up to speed to produce credible speculations about:

  • Planetary astronomy
  • Selenology (generally, not necessarily relating to the Earth’s moon)
  • Orbital physics
  • Geology (generally, not necessarily relating to the Earth)
  • Chemistry (particularly organic chemistry)
  • Math involving planet-sized objects
  • Other general science knowledge with particular emphasis on physics and astronomy

The gig will require some intensive research at the outset (I suspect about ten hours worth of work) and I would like the researcher to remain on call for the remainder of the writing process (I usually take 3 to 4 months to write a novel) to field questions as they might come up. 

A masters or PhD in astronomy, astrophysics or physics, and work, academic and/or professional, is strongly preferred but I would be willing to consider an experienced science journalist with a working knowledge of these general fields. The ability to collaborate and quickly produce results is a must; I have to get writing on this soon. References and CV useful. Facility with the English language required; it’s the only language I am fluent in. We will be in contact primarily through email. 

The job will need to be confidential (until the book is completed and/or announced by the publisher, whichever is later). I don’t need you to sign an NDA, just, you know, don’t be a jerk. Aside from the pay (listed below), you will receive acknowledgement and thanks in the back matter of the book. Work is to begin immediately after hire. 

Pay is $75/hr, with 10 hours minimum (20 hours max). This is a freelance, not staff, position. 

To apply, please send an email with “RESEARCH POSITION” and your name in the email header to john@scalzi.com by 5pm Eastern on April 11. Please include your relevant experience (see: references and CV request above). I will make a selection by the end of April so if you have not heard from me by then, assume you have not been hired. 

Thank you!

— JS

The Big Idea: Ness Brown

If you’ve ever wondered if aliens are out there, author Ness Brown is right there with you. In their new novel, The Scourge Between Stars, aliens might be a lot closer than the characters think. Follow along in Brown’s Big Idea to see if we’re really alone in the universe.


Astronomy is sometimes called humanity’s oldest science. Given our species’ long history of stargazing, I believe humanity’s oldest question might be “are we alone?”.

As an astrophysicist, I am part of a long lineage of people dedicated to deciphering the mysteries of the sky. Though my research interests orbit around extreme objects like the first stars and supermassive black holes, I share that ancestral curiosity about whether one of the thousands of stars visible on a clear night is home to a giant rock populated with beings wondering the same thing.

For six years I taught a course on astrobiology, a subject that investigates the conditions needed for and the possibility of discovering extraterrestrial life. My students and I discussed everything from habitable worlds beyond our own, interstellar travel, and even the search for intelligent life elsewhere in the universe. While studying the prospect of life emerging on other worlds, however, we also looked at the morbid possibility of life one day ending here on our own.

Since human irresponsibility is slowly deteriorating the conditions on Earth that gave birth to our species, we listed what next steps humanity could take if and when the degradation of our mother planet is complete. Among these, we considered the solution proposed by countless films and fiction stories: can’t we just find another planet to call home?

Our conclusion—and that of my sci-fi horror novella The Scourge Between Stars—is that it won’t be nearly that easy.

The story follows a decaying generation spaceship limping back home to Earth after failing to colonize a nearby exoplanet. Just as the perils of interstellar space, starvation, and unrest threaten to tear the ship apart, the crew begin to realize that there’s something else onboard with them.

Space horror is one of my favorite genres because few things are scarier than the hostility of the cosmos itself. Being confronted with the dangers that lurk beyond the boundaries of Earth can make us rethink our place in the universe.

Humans tend to idealize space colonization as an inevitability, the next step in our evolutionary journey. This arises from a deep misunderstanding of our current technological capabilities, an ignorance of the precious coincidences that led to our evolution, and a sad tendency to take the Earth—the only world of its kind out of thousands that we know of—for granted.

Even if we could take to the stars, realistically not every human will be granted a ticket off this sinking ship. The technologic aids that we may conscript into service—artificial intelligences, droids, and other common robotic visions of the future—will be exploited for those lucky few. And there’s always the possibility that the next planet we try to colonize could already be host to someone or something else. Can we really say that humans take priority over all other forms of life or awareness?

Like many space horror stories, The Scourge Between Stars challenges the reckless assumption that humans will find another welcoming world so easily after trashing our own. Beneath the jump-scares, spooky corridors, and alien menace, the story questions whether our species alone has a right to survival, and how we might deal with other lifeforms equally committed to finding better prospects elsewhere in the galaxy.

Humanity has wondered whether we are alone in the universe for thousands of years. The Scourge Between Stars looks at a future where we discover the answer the hard way, and maybe end up wishing for a different truth entirely.

The Scourge Between StarsAmazon|Barnes & Noble|Bookshop|Powell’s

Visit the author’s website. Follow them on Twitter.

Reminder: I’m in New York This Friday for the Cabinet of Wonders

I’m going to be performing at Wesley Stace’s Cabinet of Wonders alongside Chris Collingwood (Fountains of Wayne), Dave Hill, Bill Janovitz (Buffalo Tom), Vicki Peterson (The Bangles), Queen Esther, Kim Richey and of course Wesley Stace himself. Most of them will be performing music; I will be doing a reading of something funny. We’ll be at the City Winery in NYC; doors open at 6pm and the fun begins at 8. I am told that tickets are still available, so if you want to spend the evening with us — and why would you not? — here’s where to get tickets. Hope to see you there!

— JS

The Big Idea: Stark Holborn

Thinking about the potential change your choices carry can be paralyzing in the decision-making process. Such is the case in author Stark Holborn’s newest novel, Hel’s Eight, and in Stark’s own journey for writing it. Follow along in the Big Idea to see how overcoming this led Stark to the writing of this novel.


When I think about this novel, I’m haunted by the ghosts of all the books it could have been. I’m the only person who can see them, though I sometimes wonder whether readers might sense their presence in chapter transitions or lines of dialogue; the places where the papering over between drafts is thinnest.

This is a book that – at times – I thought would never happen. During the worst moments I considered giving up and handing back the (modest, but necessary to my livelihood) advance to my publisher. 

It’s like John says in the guidelines for these posts: ideas are easy, writing is hard. And I had ideas; a great, jumbled pile of them. Ideas for conversations and fight scenes, locations and worldbuilding trinkets. What I couldn’t seem to do was choose a path, the path the novel should take.  

The great irony is that this is a book all about chance and choices; about being cognisant of the way reality can branch every time we make a decision, without allowing ourselves to become paralysed by it. My main character, Ten, (her name is her prison sentence) is haunted by a choice she made in her past, so much so that she becomes a conduit for the novel’s “aliens”: incorporeal beings known as the Ifs who are drawn to moments of doubt, and feed on the energy of potential worlds. 

Even here, I hesitate to call them aliens. Some people on Factus – the desert moon where the novel is set – see them as demons, or gods, or manifestations of fate. Some say they don’t exist at all and are simply the children of an idle brain and an oxygen starved mind. 

But real or not, when under the influence of the Ifs, Ten can sense the presence of countless possible worlds in every choice she makes. She’s driven by her own guilt and trapped by it, carrying a tally of lives she will never be able atone for; trying to walk a road of redemption and stumbling off into chaos. 

Another theme of the novel is how decision making becomes harder under duress. I’ve been writing full time for nearly ten years now. Seven published novels and two novellas and I am chagrined to find that – for me – the process hasn’t become easier. Where I might once have plunged in unquestioningly, now I question everything. The old catch-22: I know enough to know I know nothing. 

So, when it came to writing Hel’s Eight I pulled together my glittering collection of ideas and tried to weave them together into a novel. It didn’t work. It had no core, was all threads and no pattern. I took my (patient) editors’ notes and tried again. I lost count of how many paths I started down, how many versions of this manuscript I began and ditched. The plot varied wildly. Characters came and went. I wrote and deleted tens of thousands of words and pulled together a draft that… didn’t work again. 

By now, I was close to panic. We had a cover, we had a publication date, and I’d yet to hand in a decent manuscript. I felt lost, knowing I had to act but unable to see my way through the mess of possible paths to find the right road. 

In the end, the answer was simple. Like Ten, to go forwards I had to look back. 

Back past all the failed attempts and fears and doubts: I retraced my steps to the moment when I first sat down to write Ten Low – a book I wrote purely for me, driven by anger and defiance in a rush of creative freedom. 

I went back to my old notes. I repeated the process that gave me the G’hals, the Augur, the Pit, the Air Line Road and came up with new characters, new places, new weird and twisted elements of world building that brought an almost visceral delight. I remembered why I loved it, and then it finally happened: I saw the shape of the novel, the road Ten had to walk. I disentangled myself from obsessing over everything the book could be, and focused on what it had been since the beginning. 

Some of the ideas remained, set-dressing as the plot sped towards its conclusion, gathering up threads as it went. The choices I had to make felt clear now. Inevitable. Driven almost purely by character. Ten had an arc that I had been ignoring; she had set out on a road at the start of Ten Low and hadn’t reached its end. In many ways, it was a simple path. A promise made and not fulfilled. And in the end I skidded under the deadline in a cloud of relief and elation with a draft that I knew worked. 

It’s taken me a while, but I can say I’m proud of this novel. I’ve done what I set out to: woven together those story threads into a cohesive, satisfying whole and created a vivid world for readers to lose themselves in. 

Of course, I still see the ghosts of the novels it could have been. But ultimately, I’m happy that this book exists, despite – and because of – the choices I made. 

Hel’s Eight: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Powell’s|Titan Books

Visit the author’s website. Follow Stark on Twitter.

Trump Indicted and What That Means

John Scalzi

(Photo by Gage Skidmore (see original), used under Creative Commons license (CC BY-SA 2.0). Additional editing and typography by me.)

The question has never been whether Donald Trump is a criminal. Everyone knows exactly what he is. The question has always been whether he would ever be called to account for any of his crimes. He’s managed to avoid it so far in his life, because he was born rich, was given much, and today has both a phalanx of lawyers, and an entire political party, at his disposal, in order to obfuscate and frustrate the gears of law and of justice. Donald Trump was and is a criminal. The idea that he should ever be called into account for it has never entered his mind, not even before he became President, and his crimes were merely of the “white collar” variety, rather than the sort that existentially threaten an entire nation.

So, what a surprise — for him! And everyone else! — that he, Donald J. Trump, rich guy and former president, has been indicted, likely on dozens of counts, relating to how he paid off a woman he categorically denies having an affair with. These (alleged) crimes are, to be sure, the absolute very least things Donald Trump could have been indicted for. But in the grand tradition of Al Capone getting rung up on tax evasion charges, Trump could get indicted for them. A grand jury decided he should be indicted for them, and here we are.

It is extraordinary for a former president to be indicted on anything; indeed, it’s never happened before. Then again, we have never had a former president like Donald Trump, an unrepentant twice-impeached seditionist grifter who would have rather plunged the country into chaos than accept he lost an election fair and square, who is running for president again largely to outrun this indictment and other possible criminal indictments, rather more serious than hush money to a sex partner, that are waiting for him in the wings. Other former presidents, shall we say, have not presented the same target-rich field of indictment opportunity that Trump offers.

Trump’s defenders, who are now hauling themselves out of the woodwork, groaning at the imposition, will tell you that this is a political thing. Sure, in the sense that one political party is willing to hold Trump accountable for his actions, and one political party absolutely is not. In the perfect world that yet still managed to have Trump, as he is, elected to the office of president, people of good will and a strong sense of justice in both parties would be pursuing criminal indictments of the man, as there are manifestly so many things he could be indicted for. I understand the modern GOP is long past that moment of clarity, however, and continues to purge from its ranks anyone who might suggest such things are possible. So, again, here we are. This is political because the Republican party wants you to think this is political. They have worked long and hard to make it so, and will continue to do so.

But — and here is the important thing — it is not only political, nor, at its heart, primarily so. Trump is and has always been the sort of person who believes that laws are for the little people, and has acted accordingly. If he had been smarter, he would have listened to his lawyers and advisors more than he did, especially once he became president. But he’s not particularly smart, and (again), inasmuch as he’s so rarely ever been called into account for his actions, nor could he conceive of a world where he might have consequences for his actions. He’s a criminal because he’s a bad person; he’s also a criminal because he doesn’t get told “no.” Both of these things are why he kept adding to his criminal ledger, literally into and at every step of his presidency. He could have been cannier and given any hypothetical district attorneys so much less to work with. He did not. That’s on him.

“If they can do this to Trump, they can do this to you” — well, yes. If I were, say, running for township representative here in Darke County, Ohio and paid hush money to an inconvenient sex partner in a way that invited legal scrutiny, and the local DA (whose politics, I assure you, largely run counter to mine) found out, I would 100% not be surprised to be hauled up under an indictment. Because that’s actually how the law is meant to work. You either believe no one is above the law, or you don’t. Former presidents of the United States are no more above the law then I am, or you are, or any of us is.

Trump is indicted now, and it’s important to note that an indictment is all that it is at this point, and perhaps all it will be. Recall that Trump was impeached twice, and relieved of the consequences of his actions by his political party. It’s entirely possible that Trump will wriggle out of consequences here as well. Perhaps the DA’s case is not as strong as he thinks it is and a jury finds Trump, if not exactly innocent, at least not guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. Perhaps there is a mistrial for one of several reasons. Perhaps Trump’s lawyers string things along for years. Perhaps Trump, who, let’s remember, has announced his candidacy for president, wins the election and is thus shielded from consequence for another four years. He could die; he is 77 years old and not, shall we say, as hale as his fans’ hagiographic meme portrayals suggest. And perhaps — extremely unlikely to be sure, but we must allow for its possibility — Trump is genuinely innocent. Indictment is not conviction, and as a matter of law, Trump enjoys the presumption of innocence until proven guilty.

I am not the legal system, however, and also I know my own rights with respect to the First Amendment. So: Trump is a criminal, has been for a long time now, and has escaped responsibility for his criminal actions. Yesterday’s news of his indictment doesn’t change those facts. But if he ever is going to have consequences for his actions — any of them — indictments are where we have to start. At least we have started.

— JS

Universal Yums: March 2023 Review

Athena ScalziWelcome, everyone, to another Universal Yums review! The last one I did was in November, and then I paused my membership because the holidays were coming up and I knew I was going to be too busy/too full of holiday goodies to be able to focus on snack boxes. But the pause-period is over, and I got to try March’s box, which was the Netherlands.

All the snacks from the box laid out on the table. There's an assortment of bags, packages, and a map of the Netherlands.

The Netherlands is actually somewhere I’m very interested in traveling to, so I was excited to see what type of snacks they have over there. And of course I had a tasting helper, whose ratings I will be including throughout! After perusing through our options, I decided to start with these Cheddar & Onion Crispies:

A yellow rectangular package with blue lettering. It shows a picture of a rectangular crisp on the front, with red onion rings around it.

I had expected them to look like the rectangles portrayed on the front of the box, but these crispies were all completely irregular sizes. Some were much wider rectangles than others that were just like slim little sticks.

A bunch of irregular shaped crispies laying in rows in a plastic container.

Aside from their sizing inconsistencies, they were super fragrant, definitely oniony! They were crispy, which was to be expected given the name, and reminded me a lot of a Cheez-It in both flavor and texture. Basically just a baked cheese flavored cracker that are really addicting for some reason. Solid 8/10 from me, and a 7.5/10 from my tasting partner.

Switching over to something sweet, we tried these Speculoos Spice Cookies:

A small red bag with gingerbread men on the front.

Look how cute! They’re just little guys!

A bunch of little gingerbread dudes chilling on the table. One is slightly dismembered.

These dudes were nice and crunchy, perfectly cinnamon-y, a super adorable little snack, and would be so good with some tea or coffee. I could’ve eaten 100 of these broskis. Honestly they tasted just like a Biscoff cookie, which is like my favorite kind of cookie, so I gave them a 10/10. My tasting buddy was less enthused, as he said they were just like any other gingerbread cookie and weren’t anything special. Still, he gave them an 8/10.

Swinging back into savory, we’ve got these Organic Sea Salt & Pepper Chips:

Potato chips spilling out of a black bag onto the table.

These were definitely more like kettle chips than regular potato chips, as they were extra crunchy. Personally, I love kettle chips so this wasn’t a problem for me. What was a problem for me, though, was how bland these were. I like a good salt and pepper chip, and in fact my favorite flavor of chips we sell at my work is black pepper. But these tasted like they were perhaps very lightly salted, with no pepper. Maybe it’s to do with every flavor in America being extreme, or maybe there really just wasn’t much on this batch. My helper said they reminded him of when you try to make healthier potato chips at home but they just end up not being even close to as good as store bought. All that being said, they weren’t bad or anything, just kind of bland, so they earned at 6/10 from me, and a 5/10 from him.

Coconut-lovers rejoice! We’ve got Milk Chocolate Coconut Cookies:

A white and green squarish package of chocolate covered coconut cookies.

A shot of the cookies, covered in chocolate and coconut. They're very long and laying in rows.

I was super excited to try these because I love cookies, chocolate, and coconut, so these seemed like they’d be a winner for me. And they totally were! The cookie part is really more like a crispy wafer, the chocolate is soft and sweet, and there’s a perfect amount of coconut to compliment the other elements. Plus, look how big they are, and how many come in the package! These were like an Almond Joy, but without the almonds, and also a cookie. But same vibe, at least. These earned a 9.5/10 from me, and a 9/10 from my snack helper.

By the same brand as the Cheddar & Onion Crispies, we have these Gouda Cheese Crispies:

A small white and blue package of Gouda crackers.

Unlike the other crispies, these ones had a much more subtle flavor. The most flavor you got from them was actually in the aftertaste, strangely enough. They have the same crispy texture as the other ones, but aren’t as good as the onion ones because they’re just really lacking. It’s unfortunate because Gouda is such an amazing cheese. These were a 7/10 from both of us.

A familiar face, Salted Caramel Popcorn:

A big orange bag of salted caramel popcorn.

Puffed balls of caramel covered popcorn spilling out of the bag onto the table.

Caramel corn has always been my favorite way to eat popcorn. This popcorn in particular was interesting, though, because it’s air popped, so it was much lighter than what I’m used to. It was very much like kettle corn, which is my second preferred type of popcorn, so honestly I got the best of both worlds here. I could totally smash this whole bag if I’m not careful. Solid 8/10 from me, and a 7/10 from my helper.

A much less familiar face, Candy Cars:

A super pink little bag of candy cars.

As interesting as these Cadillacs look, they did not taste all that great. There was strawberry, cherry, and black currant Cadillacs, and none of them were a winner. The strawberry was alright, the cherry was medicinal in flavor and tasted like old lady perfume, and the black currant was just generally strange. And all of them were hard and stale instead of soft and gummy. They were unpleasant and earned a 3/10 from both of us.

You know ’em, you love ’em, you’ve probably had them on an airplane, Stroopwafels!

A Stroopwafel sitting on the table.

I love Stroopwafels! They’re something I’ve had semi-regularly over the years, usually in airports, but I think they’re pretty good! Definitely a great addition to coffee, or just nice to have as a treat by itself. They’re sweet, caramel-y, and a nice size. 9/10 from both of us!

Finally, we have the two candies from the Yum Bag! Up first is this Cappuccino Praline:

A small chocolate wrapped in a gold foil wrapper.

The chocolate ball broken in half to reveal a slightly softer/creamier chocolate interior.

I really wanted to like these, because chocolate and coffee is such a good, classic combo, but these tasted like old coffee and honestly hurt my teeth with how sugary they are, which probably says more about the state of my teeth than anything else. I ended up giving these a 4/10 because they were pretty icky, but my snack partner gave them a 5/10.

Lastly (and also leastly), we have Salty Licorice Balls:

A small brown ball wrapped in clear plastic.

I got two syllables for this licorice ball: NAS-TY. I don’t think I have ever hated a “candy” as much as I did this gross little salt ball. This is coming from someone who doesn’t even mind black licorice! This literally just tasted like those salt wheels you give to hamsters. Salty and unpleasant and gross, and a total 1/10 from me. I’m not sure how or why, but my snack buddy gave them a 3/10 and said it wasn’t the worst thing ever, even though it clearly was!

Another snack box in the book! What looked the best to you? Have you ever been to the Netherlands? Would you dare to try the Salty Ball?! Let me know in the comments, and have a great day!


The Big Idea: Tiffani Angus & Val Nolan

Have you always wanted to give speculative fiction writing a go, but felt like you could use a hand, or two, or five? Authors Tiffani Angus and Val Nolan are here to lend you all the hands you might need with their new guidebook, Spec Fic For Newbies.


A Short History of How Spec Fic for Newbies Happened:

Writing guides are too often stuffy rulebooks. Worse still, we find that they rarely contain what we were looking for when we started out: an unapologetic love of Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror in all their brilliant, weird, super-meaningful glory! It was that love of genre fiction and a desire to write it better that led us to the Clarion Writers’ Workshop in 2009 where, over endless squid patties in the canteen (seriously!), we met and first began to hone our own voices.

In the decade that followed, we both finished PhDs, shared convention panels, and published short and long fiction, as well as academic work, but we never forgot how amazing it felt to find our SFF/H creative community and learn our craft from instructors who genuinely loved and understood the challenges of genre writing. It’s an energy we’ve tried to bring to our own teaching ever since.

Snap cut to the COVID-19 pandemic, when everything went online, including the UK’s annual Eastercon, during which Tiffani ran a workshop about writing Historical Fantasy that (spoiler!) became the structure of the sections of this book. Francesca T. Barbini, Luna Press’s Managing Editor, caught the workshop and offered Tiffani the opportunity to produce a SFF/H writing guide.

Tiffani’s first response was to rope in Val because together, with their focus on different subgenres, they could come up with something really fun, helpful, and super nerdy for newbies and even more established writers. And so Spec Fic for Newbies took shape as a guidebook for writers who maybe think, “I’ve always wanted to try my hand at a new genre,” or maybe realize “Uh-oh, this story is apocalyptic and maybe dystopian but I feel a bit stuck.” The idea was to distil our classroom teaching into something portable and accessible. Less a textbook than a treasure map. We’re kinda excited to find out what you’ll discover when you explore it!

Things That Are Cool About Spec Fic for Newbies:

  • It’s based on our combined twenty years (yikes!) of experience teaching creative writing, especially SFF/H writing: Maybe you never got to go to college or maybe you did but never had the opportunity to study SFF/H writing with a sympathetic instructor? This book is our effort to help you put that right. When you’ve spent as long teaching and offering feedback to novice writers as we have, you get a real sense of what students want (and a solid perspective on what universities aren’t providing when they try to jam centuries of SFF/H tradition and evolution into a single session!). The experience we accrued along the way drips off every page of Spec Fic for Newbies like sticky protoplasmic goop. The result is a celebration of writing about the androids, swordplay, and monsters we all love rather than the divorces and minimalist kitchen interiors that LitFic-y professors tell us that we’re supposed to write about. Because this isn’t a book about gatekeeping, it’s a book about blowing the gates wide open! 
  • We come at this project as published authors: We know what it’s like out there in the slush-piles: that writing is hard and it’s easy to get discouraged. So, part of our goal with this book is to offer support and encouragement, because even though we’re snarky as hell with each other, we’ve had the chance to grow thick skins, which we know takes time for a newbie. We were conscious of just how much we’d been helped by authors and teachers who’d come before us (Scalzi at Viable Paradise included!), and we wanted to pay that fellowship forward. Spec Fic for Newbies is us lowering the starship gangway to welcome you aboard.
  • It’s organized to make it easy to dip into and out of: The three main chapters (SF, Fantasy, Horror) are each divided into 10 subgenres or major tropes. Each section is organized along the same lines: a brief history of the subgenre looks at its origins and development, along with a quick précis (ooh, fancy!) of key authors and texts; a “spotter’s guide” to typical manifestations of the subgenre (types of Big Dumb Objects, for example); a look at what makes it cool; a list of things writers ought to watch out for; an occasional extra element spotlight (such as character motivation); and, finally, a pair of activities to get you started. Each section sort of looks like this blog post (you can’t blame us for doing that, we’re teachers! #ObjectLesson!).

Things to Watch Out for in Spec Fic for Newbies:

  • Check out our specific nerddoms leaking through! We love cheesy 1980s genre movies and sprawling multi-book fictional epics, current short fiction and genre classics. Val tends toward Science Fiction, especially Star Trek or Battlestar Galactica, so he brings a love of characters at the heart of big interstellar tales to his discussion of Aliens, Utopias, and big honkin’ space lasers. Tiffani often writes fantasy with a historical flavour, loves a good paradox, and so brings a depth of knowledge to discussions of Time Travel, costume porn, and Steampunk. Honestly, we have so much to nerd out about that we’re already working on Volume 2: Subgenre Boogaloo!
  • Further reading: Spec Fic for Newbies doesn’t cosplay as the final word on its subject. Instead, we provide an extensive bibliography to point you deeper and deeper down the rabbitholes of each subgenre. 
  • Clowns: Just, you know, something to watch out for in general.


  • We’d love it if you’d buy or borrow the book and try out some of the activities we suggest. Hopefully you’ll dip your toes into subgenres you’ve never tried before and, tentacles crossed, you’ll discover some cool stories and characters along the way. We look forward to reading some of your results in genre magazines and websites in the near future!

Spec Fic For Newbies: Linktree

Visit the authors’ blogs (Tiffani and Val). Follow Tiffani and Val on Twitter.

Reader Participation Thread: Music That Made You Stop

I’m thinking a lot about music these days, in no small part because of my own fiddling with the form, so I’m curious: Can you think of a song that so affected you that the first time you heard it, you stopped everything else you were doing to listen to it all the way through?

Here’s mine:

John Scalzi

It’s the live version of “Bad” from the Wide Awake in America EP by U2, and I vividly remember where I was and what I was doing when I heard it: I was in my dorm room in high school, and this version came on the radio, from tiny station with the call letter KOLA, which I liked because it was so cheap it didn’t have DJs, just bumpers with the song title and artist, which meant I didn’t have to listen to inane morning DJ chatter, I could just listen to the music. The song came on as I was getting dressed for chapel service, and I ended up being late because I had to listen to the whole thing, and this live version is eight minutes long. Worth the demerit, in my opinion.

I had been aware of U2 before this song, of course, but I can say this is the song that made me a fan, and the one that sent me diving into their (then much smaller) discography. If it’s not still my favorite performance of theirs, it’s in the top five. There are other songs that have captured me on first listen since then, but this one a genuine moment in time for me.

And you? What song just plain stopped you in your tracks? Talk about it in the comments.

— JS

The Big Idea: J. L. Worrad

What is an urban legend without people to tell their tale, and spread fear into the hearts of others? Luckily, author J. L. Worrad is here with a new novel to keep the legend of his hometown monster alive. Read on to see how he utilizes this boogeyman in The Keep Within.


Have you ever heard of Black Annis? On the internet she’s something of a niche folk-monster. Nowhere near the level of Slenderman, granted, but certainly the recipient of much gruesome fan art and fiction. The hipster’s choice of bogeywoman. 

Black Annis hails from my home city of Leicester, England, and so I’m perversely fond of her as I am my local and ever-struggling soccer team. Everyone’s heard of Black Annis around Leicester and, secretly, they hope she hasn’t heard of them.

Of late there has been attempts to rehabilitate mythical witches, with authors reclaiming the likes of Circe or Morgan LaFaye as feminist symbols. Not Black Annis. Black Annis is just fucking creepy. Vast talons foul with human flesh, there grew in place of hands, says one Georgian ode to her, whilst her obscene waist/ warm skins of human victims close embraced. She drains the blood of victims, preferably children, and hangs their tanned hides from an ancient oak outside her cave. Leicester cottages had tiny windows, it is alleged, because people feared her getting in.

The Keep Within, my latest fantasy novel, shamelessly steals Black Annis. Set in the same world as previous novel Pennyblade, the decaying city of Becken is stalked by Red Marie (beautifully rendered on the book’s cover by Julia Lloyd), a creature of ancient fable. The poor live in terror of her. The rich could not care. 

This was a realisation that writing The Keep Within soon led me to: bogeymen are the peasant’s fear, never the noble’s, never the priest’s. Folk monsters represent the ever-ready talons of a precarious life: hunger, want, disease, landlords. But the legend of Black Annis takes the metaphor further. Annis lives in her self-carved cave, yes, but the cave is home to a tunnel that leads some two miles (Leicester’s folklore boasts several absurdly long tunnels) to the cellars of Leicester castle. How poetic is that? The commoner was shrewd indeed to imagine the very seat of power gave succour and respite to their worst nightmare.

The Keep Within is about power. Fear’s power, physical and fiscal power, the desire to have power over others and the desire to be controlled in turn, to be a cog in a machine. It’s perhaps the oddest and most awkward part of the human soul to have to consider. Power—and the allure of power—is also utterly and unforgivably absurd. Thus The Keep Within soon became a black comedy. Most humans, the vast majority in fact, have been serf and slave, sweating out their lives and hopes and true potential beneath another’s yoke. Just thinking about that breaks me out in a cold sweat, as it should any half decent person. Thus one must laugh in the face of Black Annis because it’s either that or weep.

Naturally it’s my protagonist who does much of the laughing. Sir Harrance ‘Harry’ Larksdale, proprietor of the Wreath Theatre and bastard brother of the king. A kind and hearty soul, a man with a foot in both the streets of Becken and the halls of the Keep, the brutish citadel that looms above the city. Larksdale is duality itself, an aristocrat and bawd; a lover of both men and women; the procurer of the king’s delights and the bane of his queen, with whom Larksdale shares a best forgotten past. Like Red Marie he roams freely through a regimented world. Unlike Red Marie he uses that gift, or tries to use it, for his idea of the good. 

The Keep Within was the hardest book I’ve ever worked on but the end result pleases me beyond measure. If nothing else I survived a long walk in the dark with Black Annis.

This time around.

The Keep Within: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|IndieBound|Bookshop

Visit J.L. Worrad’s website. Follow him on Twitter.

New Music: City At Night

One of the synthesizer plugins I have has a preset called “Los Angeles 2019,” and if you’re nerd enough to get that this label is meant to evoke Blade Runner, then you’ll understand why I had to play with it. This is what came out. Dark, clattery and slightly spooky. Enjoy.

— JS

The Big Idea: Lavanya Lakshminarayan

Coming up with one main character can be hard enough, but author Lavanya Lakshminarayan came up with over twenty in her debut novel, The Ten Percent Thief. Read on to see how all these individual stories took form and shaped into one book.


I first met my arch-nemesis burnout when I worked in videogames. We took to each other like a house on fire. I was a woman game designer working in a predominantly male-dominated industry, hellbent on proving myself, and willing to put in the extra hours to do so. Burnout was my shadow, lurking in my flight path all the way to its inevitable conclusion—splattered against a glass ceiling, blood, feathers, and objective lack of glory.

Unyielding sixty-odd-hour work weeks with high pressure stakes never end well. Six years into my gaming career, I hit the end of the road when I found myself having a panic attack in a grocery store. I was overwhelmed by the fact that tomatoes were, in fact, 3D objects and not jpegs on the screen of a door-delivery app.

The experience prompted me to reassess my life. It also sparked the first story I wrote in my debut novel, The Ten Percent Thief. 

Titled ‘Analog/Virtual’, and set in a performance-obsessed world, a woman in her late-twenties grows reliant on running all her errands using apps, so she can maximize her productivity at work. But she underperforms at her job, is denied access to her tech as a consequence, and is forced to navigate a grocery store IRL. Her fear of real-world tomatoes echoes my own. And yet, the novel that emerged isn’t about her—or about me. We are a microcosm in our fragile worlds. 

The Ten Percent Thief spills over with my concerns about the future. It’s equal parts urgent warning and social satire, examining the impact of technocapitalism and the climate crisis in near-future Bangalore, now rebranded Apex City. It also happens to be a mosaic novel, made from the jagged threads of over twenty protagonists, all struggling to find meaning in a ruthless, relentless reality.

As the voice of my first character hammered its way through my keyboard, it dawned on me that there was no other way this novel could be. She wasn’t a hero; she was just a woman trying to survive. And she was never going to be free—she was too entrenched in the system of social hierarchies, values and philosophies that framed the city around her. She wanted to belong, no matter the cost. She got me thinking about others like her, trapped in in invisible city-cages, unable to see the bars. And others unlike her, outsiders trying to redefine what the city could be.

Apex City is governed by a corporation, and its citizens are mapped onto the Bell Curve. Productivity and the right social persona can catapult individuals to the top twenty percent of society. As the Virtual elite, there’s limitless access to privilege—everything from climate control solutions to olfactory simulations. Fail to perform, and risk falling to the bottom ten percent—routinely deported from the city and branded Analogs, with no access to running water, electricity, or their humanity.

Visions of everyday people going about their lives under the all-too-real burden of the Bell Curve popped into my head, faster than I could put pen to paper, a kaleidoscopic image of this new reality. Millions of shimmering threads wove together into a city reflecting the sum of its parts, yet disregarding the brightness of the individual skeins for the greater whole; a vision straining towards perfection, continually mending any rips and tears or knots gone wrong, through any means possible. I wanted to shine a light on those individual skeins—its people—and follow their paths through the weave. 

Over twenty different voices, their threads running in parallel, crossing over each other, cutting each other off, lending texture and color to each other, emerged on the page, one story at a time, knitting themselves into the narrative of a city. A city pushed to its breaking point and losing control. A city pummeled into submission by the climate crisis, struggling to prove its worth to its corporate overlords, its foundations crumbling beneath the burden of survival, trying to save itself. A city on the knife edge of something remarkable, teetering between evolution and annihilation. 

Rebel, conformist, puppet master, pawn… each person unspooling before my eyes was made and unmade by the city that empowered them, liberated them, inspired them, oppressed them, judged them, broke them. And they all had the choice to build the city or tear it down. My mind held an infinity mirror, my heart a song of hope for this dark future.

The Ten Percent Thief first made its debut in South Asia as Analog/ Virtual, titled after the story where it began. It resonated with readers, who saw themselves—and the cities they came from—in its pages. Apex City is a futuristic projection of my hometown, and it retains some of its history, but it’s also a city on fire that could be anywhere in the world. Some of its people are like me, but they could also be you. All of them are stuck in a moment. Some will burn out; some will burn the future to the ground. If they could only come together, they might be able to save themselves, and build a better future. And so could we.

The Ten Percent Thief: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Bookshop|Powells|Waterstones|Forbidden Planet

Follow the author on Twitter and Instagram.

And Now, Me Singing “Just Can’t Get Enough” at the 2023 JoCo Cruise Final Concert

John Scalzi

There’s a story here. Every year on the JoCo Cruise (the nerd extravaganza cruise I participate in annually, on which I act as head of its literary track, moderate panels, do readings and DJ a nerd prom), there’s a final concert on the last full day of the cruise. The musical performers for the year come out and sing songs, with a large segment of the show putting the spotlight on the songs of musicians and songwriters who have passed in since the last cruise. This year’s segment, for example, included songs by or made famous by Burt Bacharach, Olivia Newton John, David Crosby and Christine McVie.

Also, Depeche Mode. As fans are aware, last year Andy Fletcher, a founding member of that band, passed away suddenly at the age of 60. In the run-up to the cruise and in the initial planning of the final concert, I reminded Paul Sabourin (one of the quadumvirate who run the cruise) of his passing and suggested they put a Depeche Mode song into the tribute segment. I also mentioned that if they did put a song in and no one else wanted to tackle the vocals, I’d be willing to give it a shot.

This is a bit of a shot in the dark for me. There are many excellent musicians and singers on the cruise, starting with Jonathan Coulton, the cruise’s namesake, as well as his house band, and continuing on with the aforementioned Paul Sabourin, his musical partner Storm DiCostanzo (otherwise known as Paul and Storm), Aimee Mann, Jim Boggia (and his band), guests like the Rainbow Girls, Open Mike Eagle, Puddles Pity Party and Janet Varney, among others. They didn’t need me for the final concert, for sure, and I wasn’t really expecting that I would end up there singing.

Joke’s on me, because I was told that, okay, sure, I could sing a Depeche Mode song in the final concert.

Which both delighted and mildly terrified me. Delighted, because the final JoCo Concert is the big extravaganza concert of the cruise and me getting to sing a song in it, after ten years of being part of the JoCo Cruise, felt a little bit like Lucy being told by Ricky that yes, she could finally be part of the show (kids, that’s an I Love Lucy reference, have your grandparents explain it to you). Mildly terrified, because, well. See the musician lineup above. There are Oscar, Tony and Grammy nominees in there, along with people with top ten hits, gold and platinum albums, cult and/or popular fanbases and years of professional musical experience. I very much didn’t want to go out there and faceplant.

I’m happy to say I didn’t. We picked a song I could sing (“Just Can’t Get Enough” which also has the virtue of being one of Depeche Mode’s few happy songs), and I practiced it more or less constantly during the course of the cruise, accompanying myself on ukulele as I did so. Some of the musicians noted above performed the song with me (Coulton, Boggia, DiCostanzo, keyboardist Jon Spurney and drummer Christian Cassan) so I was surrounded by friends who actually knew what they were doing. I also decided that whatever I lacked in musical ability I would try to make up in sheer, ridiculous enthusiasm.

Finally there was the JoCo Cruise audience, which is, frankly, amazing. I always tell performers we’re trying to get for the boat that they will never have a more receptive audience than the one they will find on the JoCo Cruise. They are the complete opposite of snobs; they want to be entertained, and they want you to succeed in entertaining them. The second I stepped from behind the curtains to sing the song, I could feel their excitement and affection for me flowing onto the stage. That sort of support was huge, and made feel like I was supposed to be where I was.

The results are in the video above (shot by “Oscar Arr”). I show off my Crocs (which is a whole other JoCo Cruise subplot I’ll explain some other time, just be assured it was a thing), hop around like a caffeinated bunny (see relevant photo, taken by Steve Petrucelli), and mostly hit my notes. I’m pretty sure you can tell I’m having a grand time, and I think everyone else is too. “Just Can’t Get Enough” was the opening song of the tribute segment, so we needed to set the tone for everything else, and I think we managed that. I was thrilled.

Maybe more than thrilled. I’m having a pretty good 2023 so far; I’ve won a couple of neat awards, have some really nice film/TV things going on I can’t tell you anything about yet, and have some other big news that’s going to be announced soon. Honestly, 2023 is going great. So you now have some perspective when I tell you that getting to sing “Just Can’t Get Enough” at the JoCo Final Concert, up there with my friends, belting it out to other friends, just might the best thing that happens to me for the whole year. It just made me so damn happy.

And it made me happy to remember Andy Fletcher in such a celebratory way, with people that I like. I think he would like being remembered as joyously as this. With lots of bouncing, and bright green Crocs.

— JS

Smudge Watching Spice, Spice Watching Birds

You know Spring has sprung when the cats station themselves by the windows and chitter, apparently trying to convince the newly-active birds to come closer, for reasons. The birds, it must be said, are generally not convinced, and even if they were the cats still have a pane of glass between them and their feathered would-be friends. That’s best for everyone involved, I suspect.

— JS

The Big Idea: Leopoldo Gout

A beloved part of childhood celebrations has a darker past than most people realize — and for author Leopoldo Gout, this is only one secret that the past holds, which came to be part and parcel of how his novel Piñata came to be.


Piñatas can be seen as a symbol of hiding joy in plain sight. As kids we sang the piñata song and banged those colorful objects in anger and violence to access that joy. To have that rush of joy in that moment that the candy cascades and everyone jumps to grab it like a bizarre wrestling match. How can this object of pure adrenaline and joy have such a dark history?

That is the origin for the big idea behind Piñata. I literally peeled things about its history of where the piñata tradition comes from and how the rituals became what they are today. In this research the truth came far more horrifying than I could ever imagine…

Let me first frame a little about my personal journey. Years ago, I was around ten years old on a trip to Chiapas in the south of Mexico, to visit a banged up old hacienda where my father had been born. This broken-down old property in the mountains of Chiapas was being swallowed by the surrounding tropical forests of the area. They crept in from the property lines, inching forward to retake the land. But even on the crumbling walls there were the memories of rage left by the Mexican Revolution of 1910. Bullets peppered the walls from the battles which tore Chiapas apart. This abandoned hacienda was near to some of the most ancient pyramids in Mexico. All these abandoned buildings dancing through a give and take with nature. Again, echoing this rage and love. When I started Piñata I went to these memories of Chiapas and where I grew up: Mexico City.

I was always aware of the history under the city built on top of the Aztec capitol of Tenochtitlan. As a kid I often went on visits to ancient ruins under the main square. I thought of the Aztec sculptures trying to break through the pavement of Mexico City to escape their tombs. The city of the underground crying to swallow that above, to free itself from a tortured history. Some of the buildings of modern-day Mexico City are now quite literally sinking back into the earth as the massive metropolis reacts to an ancient forgotten lake where it was built.

But that Chiapas trip was a truly stunning moment because who we had really gone to see in Tuxtla Gutierrez was my great-aunt, Hellen Gout. As a kid I thought she must be 115 years old. In her house, smelling like leather tacky with old honey and dusty bottles of rum, old Hellen showed us a document which changed my perception of myself and my family.

All my life, my father’s family talked about their “French ancestry,” but what great-aunt Hellen showed us was an illustrated genealogical history, our whole family tree with every ancestor drawn and painted. Following the line up from my father with his French ancestry, straight up from his place on the tree, we saw her: an indigenous Zapotec woman. It was incredible. To this day I refuse to take any of those DNA tests because I don’t want to have any chance that its wrong.

According to that document, I have Zapotec blood, the blood of one of the great architect and sculptor indigenous nations. There is a line between myself and all of those ruins and art I adored.

I was struck. My curiosity for pre-invasion Mexico grew as I visited every temple and museum I could and never stopped. The indigenous art of Mexico has always had a deep impact on my work in all mediums. My first novel, Ghost Radio, was directly inspired by that connection as my first attempt to call on those memories to tell a story. Those stories and ideas have matured and evolved through my other projects and into Piñata. I have countless more stories about my lifelong search for further connection with the original ways of Mexico.

 I was lucky enough that my late mother, Andrea Valeria, was an avid supporter and great friend to many indigenous artists and families. Every year they would come to our house, bringing with them intricate and beautiful masks they had carved. One of the greatest and most fascinating differences between our cultures that I gleaned from those days was the attribution of value. We might appraise the value of a mask by the intricacy of its design, how much labor it would have taken, the vibrance and skillful application of paint, or the simple beauty of them. They, however attributed value to each mask only by how “danced” they were, quite literally how much one had been worn during the act of dancing determined its value. It was a value determined by the amount of energy which had been poured into an object after its creation, how much life the empty eyes of the mask had seen.

These are just some glimpses into my upbringing which fostered a deep connection with and curiosity for ancient Mexico. These were some of the memories and feelings which drive the pistons in Piñata’s engine. The real crystalized big idea for which came when, during my research, I found that Catholic friars introduced piñatas to Mexico. The Aztecs had something mildly similar, but they had different purposes which is explained in the book. But, what these Spanish friars would do is paint them with images of indigenous gods, what they deemed idolatry, and fill them with food. Then the children, taken from their culture and hungry, would be forced to destroy the image of their gods if they were to get the food within. The image and idea were so extraordinarily horrific I didn’t sleep for days thinking about it. I wrote the beginning story right away and felt transported, like I had been a witness to such horror.

I use all my senses in my work, both as visual artist and writer, and my scent and sensory memory really drive the cathartic horror in Piñata as it focuses so heavily on the memory of the indigenous people of Mexico both past and present. I sought to express the rage inherent in that tortured history, to explore it like the ruins of that old Chiapas hacienda. At the same time though, while trying to dive into that historical anger, I had a young talented daughter growing before my eyes. I ended up in my daily life balancing that immense love and promise of the future with a rage I conjured from the past.

That clash led to the story that is Piñata. It focuses on a family but takes place in a country inextricably linked to a violent past and facing a violent present. It is personal and political, external and internal. It was my attempt to pull these binary oppositions into something cathartic for myself and hopefully for everyone who reads it. So my big idea that catapulted me into Piñata is inside that space between rage and love.

Piñata: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Bookshop|Powells

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

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