More New Music: “9/18/22 (Calm O’er the Campus)”

My high school’s reunion weekend is coming up — in exactly a month, as it happens — and it’ll also be the centennial of my school, and Webb is exactly the sort of place where reunions and centennials are a big deal. I was thinking about the school and the people I know from there today, and I felt a little nostalgic; perhaps not entirely coincidentally, then, the piece of music I was putting together today kind of fits that mood. So this one goes out to all my Webb friends. Wherever you are, I hope you’re well and I hope I get to see you soon.

(As ever, this piece will be up on the streaming services in the next few days, but for now, this is the place to hear it.)

— JS

Universal Yums: September 2022 Review

Hey, everyone! Welcome back to another installment of me eating snacks. More specifically, the snacks I’m eating are from the Universal Yums September box! This month is South Korea, and here’s the lineup:

All ten snacks from the box laid out into three rows. There's a variety of different chip bag type packages, cardboard box type packages, and foil wrapped confections.

Athena ScalziToday, I had the pleasure of sharing these snacks with my friend that is visiting from Columbus, so her input will be accounted for, as well.

Oh, before we begin, on all my snack box posts I keep getting the question, “do you eat all the snacks in one sitting?” Yes! This has been true for every snack box I’ve ever had, I try each snack all in one go. I don’t finish everything in one sitting, usually, but I sample everything at one time. A few chips, one piece of the candy, split the smaller cakes in half, that’s usually how it goes. Though, occasionally, I do totally smash a box and eat it all.

Anyways, let’s just get right into it with this Bulgogi Flavored Noodle Snack!

A square, yellow ramen package. There's a mascot on the front that looks like a boy in a red superhero costume. There's also a little art of a bowl of bulgogi.

The package and the booklet both made sure to let you know you’re not supposed to boil this ramen block. The instructions said to open the package very slightly, pull out the seasoning packet, smash the block of noodles, pour the seasoning packet in, close it up, and shake it. This was the result:

A glass bowl full of what looks like uncooked ramen noodles broken up into smaller pieces.

As you can imagine if you’ve ever tried uncooked ramen, these little bites were super crunchy! My friend and I were pleasantly surprised at how well the seasoning stuck to the noodles. We figured the seasoning would just kind of sift to the bottom, but each bite was super flavorful, some more so than others depending on how much seasoning had stuck to that piece. It was really tasty, and we ate the whole bowl. If you like extra crunchy savory items, these are totally for you. We both gave it an 8/10!

Following the strong, savory start, we switched to these Cinnamon Sugar Churroz:

A yellow package of

Several bite size churro pieces falling out of the bag onto the table.

Another incredibly crunchy snack! And another total banger. These were perfectly sweet, perfectly cinnamon-y, and just a little bit maple-y. Texturally impeccable, super addicting fun bite size, and way tastier than I would’ve ever expected. I would totally buy these again and again. These earned a 9/10 from both of us.

Switching back to savory, we’ve got these Shrimp Chips:

A off-white chip package. It reads

Several of the white shrimp chips spilling out of the bag onto the table.

I don’t know that many people that like shrimp chips, but I’m actually a big fan! They always smell terrible, but taste great. These ones were super airy and crispy, definitely a lighter snack. The shrimp flavor punches you in the face, so if you like shrimp, great! If you don’t, you probably wouldn’t be a big fan of these chips because literally the only flavor they convey is SHROMP. They were definitely good, and we finished the bag. I gave them an 8.5/10. My friend is an even bigger fan of shrimp chips than I am, and gave these bad boys a 10/10!

Next up was this Marshmallow Choco Pie:

A small package that reads

I tried to break it in half to share with my friend, but the marshmallow made it difficult and I ended up just kind of smushing/breaking it:

The choco pie, deformed and broken from trying to be split in half.

Of course, our first thoughts when seeing this is that it’s basically just a Moon Pie. And we were right! And we love Moon Pies! So this ended up being a good snack. It was simple. Yummy chocolate and gooey marshmallow and sweet goodness all around. No complaints here. It was an 8/10 for me, and my friend gave it an 8.5/10.

Fifthly, we have these Mascarpone Filled Shortbread Cookies:

A red rectangular package with the words

A rectangular shortbread cookie with a chocolate drizzle down the middle.

Though there were only nine of these in the box, I could’ve eaten a hundred, they were so good. This snack absolutely smacked. The shortbread was the perfect level of softness, and it kind of tasted almost like a s’more. My friend said they tasted like a Golden Oreo but less processed/chemically. I ended up having a second one of these because it was so damn good. Total 10/10 from me, and a 9/10 from my friend.

I had to try the spicy snack sooner or later, so I decided to go ahead and get it over with. Here is the Spicy Chicken Flavored Corn Puffs:

An orange package with the words

The tiny orange chicken puffs spilling out of the bag onto the table.

These were MAD crunchy, y’all. I totally loved the crunch, so the first half second of eating these was great. And then came the HEAT. These bites were spicy, and they weren’t shy about it. There’s no like “heat on the back” of it. It’s all heat. Heat in the front, heat on the back, hot through and through. The worst part about these is that the flavor is actually good, and I am capable of recognizing that through the heat. So while I did like the flavor, and wanted to eat more of them, the heat was too much for me. Of course, I am a baby about spice, and my friend is not, so she totally loved these. I dubbed these a 7/10, while my friend went with a 9/10.

After a palette cleanser, we dove into these Peach Flavored Gummies:

A pink package with pink peaches on the front.

Several of the pink peach gummies. They're almost heart shaped.

As someone who is both a gummy lover and a peach lover, these were pretty meh. Largely unimpressive, but not bad. There’s better peach candy in the world, but again these were fine. They had a subtle peach flavor, and the texture of the gummy felt more like a gummy vitamin than a candy. Cute presentation, though. It was a 6/10 from both of us.

Next up, we had what I immediately deemed as Pocky, but is actually Cookies and Cream Pepero:

A white rectangular box with the words

Several of the sticks in the package, covered in chocolate cookie bits.

Okay, these were painfully disappointing. The sticks weren’t crunchy, the coating was waxy, and honestly they fell short in both flavor and texture. These were mid. 5/10 from both of us.

A silver and brown foil package with a small snack cake inside.

Upon opening this package, the cake completely fell apart and spilled everywhere. That’s partially on me, but also the cake was just super duper crumbly.

A totally destroyed chocolate snack cake, crumbled apart all over the table.

Okay, so, obviously it’s a huge mess, but as you can see, it’s basically just a Hostess snack cake. It was just like a Ding Dong, but worse. As my friend put it, it was a “Hostess without the mostest”. It was just a sad, disappointing little cake. I gave it a 4/10, and my friend settled on a 3/10.

Finally, we finished with these Sweet and Sour Grape Flavored Chews:

A rectangular purple package. It looks like a bubblegum package. It says

A small, pinkish colored square of candy sitting atop its purple wrapper.

I was afraid that like all “chewy” candy, this piece would be tooth-breakingly hard, but it was actually soft and chewy! So chewy that it was almost gum-like. Normally, I hate grape flavored stuff, but this was pretty decent. It wasn’t overly sweet, and it was actually a little tart. It reminded me of a Starburst. I would like to try other flavors of this candy, because again, grape isn’t a stellar choice for me. I gave it a 6/10, and my friend gave it a 7/10.

Overall, this box was totally awesome! I really enjoyed this one. And it was my friend’s first time ever trying a snack box like this, so I’m glad I could introduce her to my shenanigans of eating foreign snacks. I definitely want to see if I can order some of these snacks in bulk because they were so good. Others, not so much.

Which snack looks the best to you? If you got this box, what was your favorite item? Let me know in the comments, and have a great day!

(Oh. also, I replied to more comments on my last post! Two for two so far! Well, more like two out of the past five hundred, but who’s counting?)

-AMS

Making the Greatest Bread I’ve Ever Made

I was looking for something to accompany the salad I was making for dinner, and I stumbled upon Half Baked Harvest’s “Soft Garlic Herb Cheddar Cheese Bread”. Savory bread?! I could definitely do that. I prefer baking over cooking, anyway, so this recipe seemed like the perfect thing to make.

I had to gather some ingredients, though.

Ingredients laid out on the counter. There's Sargento shredded whole milk mozzarella, Frederik's grated parmesan cheese, Kerrygold aged cheddar, three brown eggs, a package of active dry yeast, whole milk, all purpose flour, honey, sage, oregano, and thyme.

Athena ScalziI had to buy all three cheeses for this bread, as well as all three herbs. I had the other ingredients on hand. The herb packages were two dollars each. I would’ve just bought regular but they only had organic in stock. As for the cheese, the recipe calls for mozzarella, parmesan, and cheddar, so you can pick whatever brands you like or whatever type of cheddar you want. I went with Kerrygold aged cheddar (which I didn’t know was a thing until now) because I absolutely love their butter, and each block was a little over five dollars.

The parmesan was just something I grabbed because it was grated, I didn’t really care about the brand for that one, and it was also over five dollars. As for the mozzarella, it called for shredded but I don’t like pre-shredded mozzarella (or really any pre-shredded cheese in a bag), but I managed to find whole milk shredded mozzarella, so I picked that. I don’t like when mozzarella is made with skim-milk. Anyways, it was less than four dollars. So it probably cost me about thirty dollars to make this bread.

Also, not pictured in the ingredients is two cloves of garlic, because I forgot that it was in the recipe until it came time to add it.

Moving on, the first thing I did was add the yeast to warm milk with honey, and let it sit for five minutes.

A beige milky mixture at the bottom of the silver stand mixer bowl.

The recipe said it should look bubbly on top, but it didn’t really look super bubbly to me. I went ahead and added the eggs and flour anyway, and got this insanely sticky dough.

A ball of sticky light beige dough sitting at the bottom of the silver stand mixer bowl.

It was totally unworkable, it was so sticky. The recipe said if it was too sticky you can add more flour a half cup at a time, so I went ahead and added half a cup.

The ball of dough wrapped around the dough hook of the stand mixer. Literally all of the dough is just sticking to the hook.

It was still super sticky! So I dumped in another half cup of flour.

A less sticky, smoother ball of dough sitting at the bottom of the silver stand mixer.

Finally, I got a semi-smooth ball of dough. It was still kind of sticky, but not unworkable, at least. I knew I’d have to flour the heck out of my surface when it came time to roll it out, though.

So, it was time to let it sit for an hour. But it ended up being two hours because I took my grandma dinner. Ah, well, better over than under probably, right?

And rise it did!

A huge smooth mound of dough in the silver mixing bowl.

The recipe says to punch the dough down, so I did:

The dough with a fist imprint in it. I punched the hell out of it.

And to roll the dough out into a 12 by 18 rectangle, but the dough was so elastic-y and did not want to roll out the way I wanted it to. It was fighting me. So I just did my best and let it be, really. I ended up with like a 14 by 14 square.

For the filling, I shredded the cheddar and mixed all the cheese together, then grated the garlic cloves into the mix. Then I PAINSTAKINGLY tore off thyme, oregano, and sage leaves. Enough to fill a third of a cup. DO YOU KNOW HOW SMALL THYME LEAVES ARE. I absolutely hate making anything that calls for thyme, it is my LEAST FAVORITE ACTIVITY.

(Also I did add a few leaves of basil, but they were from my sad little plant in the windowsill.)

Anyways, after like twenty fucking minutes, I finally threw the herbs into the mix and got this:

A bowl of shredded cheeses and herbs. It's mostly white and green and in a glass bowl.

So I sprinkled that bitch on the dough:

The rounded square of dough covered in the cheesy herb mixture. It looks like an unbaked pizza.

Now came the hard part. First, I rolled it up into a log. Then, I cut that log in half lengthwise. Weird, I know, but it gets weirder! You have to turn the halves outward, and then twist them over each other again and again until you end up with a long, twisted rope of cheesy bread. And then coil the long twist into a circle! It was messy, to be certain.

A big ball of dough totally covered in herbs and cheese.

And then I popped that bad boy in the oven, and thirty minutes later I had this:

The fully baked cheesy herb bread, in all its golden brown melty cheesy glory.

Lord have mercy. That was one hell of a glow-up.

Let me just say, this shit was BANGIN’. Suddenly all the money and effort was worth it. I would, and will, make it again. And probably again. And even again after that because wow. But don’t just take my word for it, my parents said it was super good, too! And we all ate way too much of it in too short an amount of time.

So, yeah, if you are a cheesy bread fan, you need this recipe in your life. If you are having friends over and want to impress them with minimal effort, make this bread. Or if you want to eat an entire loaf of cheesy bread by yourself, live your truth, and make this bread. I really can’t stress enough how tasty this is.

Would you give it a try? What cheese blend would you go for? What would you serve with this bread? Let me know in the comments, and have a great day!

(Also, I replied to some comments on my last post! Make sure you check to see if I replied to you.)

-AMS

Is Your Ministry Insured?

John Scalzi

One of the interesting side effects of owning a church building is the volume of unsolicited mail that one gets from companies that specialize in church-and-ministry-oriented businesses; for example, see the above closeup of a postcard sent to us from a company that specializes in insuring ministries. It’s not a surprise that there are church/ministry-oriented businesses, of course; our building contractor is one of those and we went with them specifically because they understood the quirky needs of church buildings. There’s definitely a place for them. But one does not, I think, truly grasp the depth and breadth of the field until one is in possession of a church itself. Insurance is, shall we say, the tip of the iceberg.

That said, we’re unlikely to follow up on this insurer because as it happens, we are not intending a ministry to be housed in our church. We do have insurance on the building, of course, and as we develop our further plans for it, we’ll tweak our coverage to fit our needs. Those need probably won’t coincide with the needs of an actual ministry. I could be wrong, though. Maybe I’ll keep the postcard just in case.

— JS

The Big Idea: Gemma Amor

Author Gemma Amor was in a different state of mind when she was writing Full Immersion, and that state of mind made a mark on what she wrote… and how she wrote it.

GEMMA AMOR:

How much is a woman’s life worth? Not only to others, but to herself? How far would one go to save one’s own sanity?

It’s a question that frequently nips at my heels, for what I suppose must be obvious reasons for anyone who has or is about to read Full Immersion. I wanted to examine the notion in depth. We talk a lot about how hard it is to reach out for help in relation to mental health discourse, and I have had first hand experience of this: of just how difficult it can be to communicate your needs when you are broken.

Also, how hard it is to communicate to yourself that you need help. To identify your own needs. It’s all well and good to say ‘Why didn’t you ask for help? Why didn’t you just reach out?’ But this displays a gross misunderstanding of the very nature of depression, trauma, and other conditions that completely shut down your sense of self and your definition of worth. Particularly when it comes to motherhood, perhaps especially if it’s your first time. 

So the big idea behind my novel was one of survival, plain and simple. I should state: I never made a conscious decision to write a novel about post-natal depression. It just fell out of me. I wrote it when I was unemployed, having been made redundant from two jobs in a row, and I was extremely unwell, mentally speaking. Luckily, my son had started school. I developed a routine that rather saved my life: I would drop him off each day and then wander to my favourite cafe, where I would write non-stop until lunchtime. I didn’t know what I was writing, or why.

At this stage in my author career, I had not learned how to finish a novel, only short stories. I had tried, many times. I had a collection of half-written novels spanning back fifteen years. I’d simply never had the time to complete anything before. Now, I did. I wrote and wrote like a woman possessed, and what I wrote was my pain, and my experience, and my thoughts, feelings, hopes, fears…it certainly wasn’t a structured or particularly conscious writing exercise. It was therapy, I suppose. Sit down, order coffee, let the fingers fly until there are words on the page, and then more, and then more, and more still. Eventually, I had a lot of words. 

For context, I was suffering with a delayed and profoundly painful type of postnatal depression, or trauma, or quite possibly both. I’d been through a hellish pregnancy, carried an unusually large baby to fourteen days over my due date, and endured a protracted and painful induction that didn’t end in the best of ways. My baby was taken from me moments after birth and whisked off for special care- this brutal (if necessary) separation quite literally broke my brain, and I suffered for years in silence afterwards before I fully understood what was happening to me. So the early genesis of Full Immersion was a simple, straightforward series of diary-entries, an outpouring of experience, incoherent in the large part- just a collection of things I struggled with. 

But then, I started thinking about it with a wider lens. The idea of self worth. The idea of a collection of stories, and what those represented. I started to think: what if one could display them in an almost curated fashion? What would that look like, a display of your own hurt? I decided that for me, personally, it would look like a Gallery, like a collection of exhibits. 

As I started to improve, healthwise, I began to see what I had written (which was never intended to go beyond my personal files, certainly something I had never written with the intention of being published one day) as something more than a brain-dump of trauma. I started to see that I could do more with it, even if it was initially for my eyes only. So I went back, and I reworked those feelings into a more coherent structure. I introduced the concept of the Gallery that features so heavily in the book. And in that Gallery, there resided a series of objects. Those objects were unique and personal to me. Around them, I wove the sum of my experiences. The novel evolved, but it still wasn’t right. It felt too abstract, too roughly conceptual. 

What happened next sealed the book’s fate. I was approached by Angry Robot and asked if I had anything that was novel-length that I could submit. My mind went to the Gallery, to the novel provisionally titled ‘Collection.’ I wondered if I could coax more out of it still. I wondered if I could maybe even present it in a way that other people might find accessible, readable, perhaps even enjoyable. 

I started to think beyond the Gallery. In what way could such a place exist in the real world? I realised that in theory, it could be programmed. Video games do this sort of thing all the time. I’m not a huge gamer, but I do love puzzles and games that involve wandering through beautiful, immersive, empty, intriguing environments. Think Myst, Cyan Worlds. I realised I could work with that here.

Concurrently- in part why I was recovering so well- I was also in therapy. I became fascinated by the power of simply sitting in a room with another person and talking, sharing in an unrestrained fashion, without judgement, without repercussions. In many ways this helped me to begin to extrapolate some sense out of the question of self worth. Talking in a safe manner allows you to explore thoughts and feelings you didn’t know you had, not until you hear them said out loud. This idea of actualisation was incredibly empowering and I wanted that to become a central premise in the novel. 

As the various iterations of the book began to evolve into something much more fleshy, something living and breathing, I realised that I finally felt, as I tweaked and edited and tweaked some more, as if this novel was becoming exactly what it was supposed to be, much like the person writing it was. Something weird, and illogical, something deeply personal, something that had a growing sense of purpose and conviction and a highly developed sense of truth, that was yet still fictional in many ways- although I would say the balance of truth to fiction in this one is about 70% to 30%.

Anyone who knows me will recognise the real bits, which terrifies me, and is partly why I am so very nervous about this one making its way out into the world. It exposes me, but maybe that is what art and creation should be about, sometimes. And nothing will ever compare to the bare, naked reality of giving birth, so in that respect, I am prepared to be exposed. I had everything stripped away in those moments in a delivery suite, and I think that’s okay. It has prepared me, in many ways, for this new act of giving birth: releasing a book child into the world. 

Anyway. How much is a woman’s life worth? That is the big idea behind Full Immersion, which probably has a few other big ideas jostling for attention in there, but the kernel that started it all was the idea of worth. Of value. And how that translated to a life that could be lived and enjoyed and celebrated and appreciated. 


Full Immersion: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

I Asked Midjourney To Imagine Me In KISS Makeup and the Results Are Not Flattering

Me, in KISS makeup

As I believe I’ve noted before, it’s kind of cool that most of the major AI art generators have at least a vague idea of who I am and what I look like. On the other hand, they never really portray me in the most flattering of lights — and this time even less so. Heavy Metal Makeup Me just looks tired. I do like how they’ve cropped my hairline. Other variations were not so kind.

Needless to say, I kind of love this image. Also, I think it’s just as well I did not go down the rock and roll path. At the very least, I don’t have to take off makeup every night. I’m lazy. I would probably just sleep in it.

— JS

The Big Idea: Max Brallier

The third time’s the charm! Or the fifth. Or perhaps the twelfth? Or maybe, just maybe, the first time was the charm all along? Follow along in author Max Brallier’s Big Idea as he tells you about his journey to crafting the series he truly wanted to, and its newest installment, The Last Kids On Earth and the Forbidden Fortress.

MAX BRALLIER:

I never planned to write for kids. I was gonna write the sorta stuff I liked: tough, gritty, apocalyptic fun. Roger Zelazny’s Damnation Alley, The Road Warrior, John Carpenter movies, Antony Johnston and Chris Mitten’s Wasteland.

In 2010, I was working in marketing at St. Martin’s Press. Nights and weekends, I wrote – excitedly starting then frustratedly scrapping dozens of lousy novels. 

I started taking editor friends out for happy hour drinks – then begging them for work-for-hire assignments. A children’s editor kindly tossed jobs my way: sticker journals and activity books.

I was shocked to discover I loved writing kids’ stuff. It felt natural. Honest.

I wondered… this tough, gritty, apocalyptic stuff I’d been failing at – could I do that… for kids? I mean, a monster-filled apocalypse was my dream playground when I was 10 years old.

My Big Idea had arrived: a FUNpocalypse! A suburban wasteland overrun with zombies and kaiju-sized monsters – but funny, not-too-heavy, and starring kids. (The quickest way to write a kids’ adventure without needing to deal with meddling, texting parents is to —y’know – kill off those meddling, texting parents.)

Like some mafioso thug, I grabbed my childhood by the pantlegs, held it up, and shook. Out tumbled daydreamed adventures and saving-my-classmates-from-doom fantasies. I milked my adolescence for all it was worth…

My rickety backyard treehouse became a Tree Fortress. My little league bat became a baseball bat blade: the Louisville Slicer. I recalled elementary school years living in George Romero’s hometown of Pittsburgh – and the Dawn of the Dead, mall-madness daydreams that followed.

For the next month, I pretty much lived at my local writing spot – Think Coffee in New York’s East Village. I skipped my usual outlining, ditched character worksheets, and just wrote.

My hero and narrator was foster kid Jack Sullivan – and his voice flowed with ease. Largely because Jack was – along with some Fletch and a bit of Psych’s Shaun Spencer – me. He said the funny things I’d say if I had hours at a laptop to polish my life’s dialogue. 

I wrote three chapters of my Big Idea – and it was the best thing I’d ever written. Holy hell, I thought, this was IT! I wanted to call Mastercard and tell them all those late-payment “miscommunications” were a thing of the past, ‘cause my ship was coming in!

I shared those chapters with colleagues whose opinions I valued. Then I kicked back, waiting for praise, waiting to hear, “My god! What brilliance have you created!?” 

Zero brilliance, it seemed. Conversations that followed went something like this — 

COLLEAGUE WHOSE OPINION I WAS VALUEING LESS AND LESS BY THE SECOND: So these kids — they eventually figure out the world didn’t actually end or something? And fix everything back to the way it was?

MAX: Nope. Think I Am Legend. Think The Road. But goofy and fun! 

CWOIWVLALBTS: Okay… And the kids’ parents?

MAX: Missing and presumed undead! Or possibly for real dead. And one kid – he doesn’t care either way ‘cause his dad’s a bum.

CWOIWVLALBTS: That sounds neither goofy nor fun…

One literary agent, who I desperately wanted to represent me, put it best: “This is dystopian. The world is gone, the hero’s parents are gone, and something about the whole world feels dark and serious and, well, pretty sad. It’s not quite working.”

And he wasn’t wrong. The tone didn’t match the world. 

Now, every writer I know – and I know at least four – possesses these qualities: 1) they consider themselves principled artists, and 2) they like paying their rent – on time, when possible.

I was newly married. My wife had developed a habit of pointing at random babies and noting how huggable they were. I, in turn, had developed a habit of agreeing that random babies were huggable.

Paying the rent on time suddenly seemed very principled. I had this agent’s attention – now I wanted to deliver something, anything, that he could sell. 

But I would not throw the baby out with the bath water – certainly not after my recent realization that babies were huggable. 

So, I came up with a fix – my Big Fix. I turned the story into a portal fantasy. The tree house now contained a magic door leading to an alternate dimension, identical, except that the apocalypse had apocalpysed. (I was watching a lot of Fringe back then.)

Jack and his friends would visit this apocalyptic world, battle evil and eat stale junk food, then hurry back through that magic doorway in time for dinner. There were middle school hijinks and embarrassing parents and jokes about cafeteria lunches. 

The agent liked my new approach! Penguin Young Readers acquired my proposal! 

And… the next 18 months were a joyless slog, full of hair-pulling and eyebrow-plucking — but zero hair-standing-on-end creative fun.

I hated my Big Fix. 

I had sold a novel… and I was miserable! I felt like an astronaut finally picked for a space mission – only to blastoff and discover they’re allergic to zero-gravity. Or something else. I’m not great with metaphors.

Worse: The only person I had to blame for this mess was myself – and that’s the person I least like blaming for things. 

Everything I write, ever, is saved on my laptop, out of fear that one dumb idea was actually a smart idea and might need to be summoned up a decade later. (Has never happened.) But it has turned my computer into a time-capsule, documenting my manuscript’s timeline…

February 2013: 1st draft

June 2013: 5th draft

January 2014: 12th draft 

Things only deteriorate from there. Draft names full of forced optimism and you-can-do-it reassurance: “Manuscript – Now You’re on the Right Track Max!” and “Manuscript – THIS WILL BE THE ONE THAT WORKS.” 

Finally, I delivered the book – completed through sheer force of “will today be the day Random House lawyers knock on my door and demand I pay back my advance?” 

That night, I didn’t sleep. I was sweaty and nauseous and panicky – even moreso than usual. My wife, Alyse, is a book editor. I gave her a little nudge.

MAX: Wake up. Are you awake? Wake up.

ALYSE: Is it a burglar?

MAX: No.

ALYSE: So it’s your book?

I explained – through real tears – how this pickle I’d gotten myself into, much like a real pickle, was not sitting well with me. I had this shot – maybe this one shot – and I blew it. I wanted to write the story that got me excited at the start: a true end of the world adventure — my FUNpocalypse. But I just delivered a book with magic doorways and parents and teachers and a rhyming gnome and holy geez the whole thing had gone off the rails.

Alyse, to paraphrase: “Max, you twit. Call your editor. Be honest. Tell her you want to take a stab at writing the book you really want to write.”

I spewed forth all the reasons I couldn’t do that: “She’ll be mad! She’ll know I’m a fraud! She’ll tell the publisher they never should have bought my book! The publisher will tell my agent he never should have brought me on as a client! Everyone will hate me! I’ll never write anything again!”

“Max… Just call your editor! And after that – maybe call a therapist.”

So I called my editor. And she did understand. Completely. 

I promised her a new manuscript – my original Big Idea – in a month.  

An enormous weight had been lifted from my shoulders – much like someone wearing a concrete scarf might feel when they finally remove it and…. something. Again, not a metaphor guy.

I wrote happy. Those failed drafts were not wasted – they’d allowed me to find the right tone. My trusted colleagues hadn’t been wrong; it was my Big Fix that was wrong.  

In May of 2014, my completed Big Idea – now titled The Last Kids on Earth – was sent to illustrator Doug Holgate. He made magic. And then it went out into the world as a book I felt okay about.

I’m tempted, now, to draw parallels between the journey I set my characters on and my writing journey. But that’d all be too neat and buttoned up and not quite honest. 

And really, that time spent hopelessly wandering through a wilderness I’ll call “I’m Lucky Enough to Have Sold a Book But Now It Isn’t the Book I Want to Write!” is a miniscule amount of hopeless wandering compared to most author’s paths to publication. 

The weird thing? I still get lost. Every book, every time. And it doesn’t require some fear-driven force like paying rent or an editorial note that sends me spiraling. It just happens. I have a Big Idea – and I’m instantly amped up; I see all the bits that will be fun and so good. But then I start writing and everything just gets confused and messy and lost. But I find my way back (usually…), by returning to what first excited me – that Big Idea.


The Last Kids On Earth and the Forbidden Fortress: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|IndieBound|Powell’s

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

Trying Out A New Recipe: Justine Doiron’s “Best Pumpkin Chocolate Chip Cookies”

Athena ScalziI’ve stated this before in a post from a few months ago, but I have a bad habit of following a ton of cooking/baking people on Tik Tok and then never actually trying out their recipes. Yesterday, however, I saw one of my favorite foodie Tik Tokers, Justine Doiron (@justine_snacks) post a recipe for pumpkin chocolate chip cookies. I thought, well I could just do that right now! So I got up and did it! That almost never happens, but I’m glad it did, because these turned out really well.

First things first, the ingredients:

Ingredients laid out on a counter. There's a stick of salted Kerrygold butter, a can of pumpkin, flour, sugar, dark brown sugar, ground ginger, ground cinnamon, ground cloves, ground nutmeg, baking powder, cornstarch, and Ghirardelli semi-sweet chocolate chips.

This recipe is actually a vegan recipe, but it says you can also just use regular butter, so I did! I also used salted because it didn’t specify salted or unsalted, it did say (in bold) to not skimp on salt, because it aids with gluten formation! So I figured it couldn’t hurt to use salted instead of unsalted.

The recipe also says to use 2 tsp of pumpkin pie spice, but I didn’t have any on hand, so I googled how to make pumpkin pie spice, and used this recipe that came up! And I did end up halving it because I knew I only needed 2 tsp of the mixture. Also, I didn’t have allspice, so I omitted it. Sometimes you have to work with whatcha got.

Moving on, this recipe is pretty simple in terms of ingredients, the only thing you probably won’t have on hand (like me) is the pumpkin pie spice and the canned pumpkin. And maybe the chocolate chips. Other than that, it’s pretty standard stuff!

Here’s what my pumpkin pie spice mix ended up looking like:

A black bowl containing a brown spice mix. It mostly just looks like ground cinnamon in a bowl.

I’m not sure why my ginger was clumpy since it was a new bottle, but whatever.

I whisked together all the dry ingredients in a bowl, and then creamed the sugar and butter together in a stand mixer:

A silver stand mixer bowl with the butter and sugar mixture in it. It is light brown in color from the brown sugar.

It said to add the pumpkin on a slow speed, so I did just that:

A silver stand mixer bowl with the butter, sugar, and pumpkin mixture in it. It is slightly more of an orangish beige now than a brown.

Then I added the dry ingredient mixture in all at once, but the recipe says to mix it in by hand instead of using the stand mixer. I’d assume it has something to do with gluten development and not overworking it, so I just folded them in nicely:

A silver stand mixer bowl with the pumpkin cookie dough in it.

And of course, the chocolate chips:

A silver stand mixer bowl with the completed pumpkin chocolate chip cookie dough in it.

Wow! That was really simple! It was a relief to bake something with no issues.

I let the dough chill in the fridge for about thirty minutes while I preheated the oven, and then I made the dough into 75g balls. The recipe says that you should get eight balls, but I got nine! I’m not sure how since they were all 75g.

Nine circular lumps of pumpkin chocolate chip cookie dough on a parchment lined baking sheet.

And after fifteen minutes, I got these bad boys!

A close up of one of the fully baked cookies. It looks like a normal chocolate chip cookie except it's slightly tinted orange and has tons of cracks on the surface.

And the cross-section:

The pumpkin cookie broken in half, revealing the middle full of melty chocolate chips.

Hell yeah! Successful cookies! I’m pretty happy with these all things considered.

They were quick and easy as far as homemade cookies go, and the fact you can easily make them vegan is neat, too! I liked that these were small batch because I get tired of putting batch after batch of cookies in the oven and setting tons of timers. This was one and done, which was nice.

As far as taste goes, they’re not super heavy on the pumpkin since they only have a quarter cup in them, they’re more cinnamon-y flavored than anything, really. So if you like warm spice flavors in a soft cookie with melty chocolate chips, this is the cookie for you!

I will definitely be trying out more of her recipes in the future. I think I’d like to try her blueberry cookies at some point.

Also! My mom told me that some of y’all came up to her at WorldCon and told her to tell me that you like my posts (especially the food ones!) Thank you so so much to all of you that told her to tell me that! Hearing it really brightened my day, and it sticks with me whenever I do end up writing food posts like this. The fact that y’all enjoy them brings me so much joy!

Do these cookies strike your fancy? Would you use semi-sweet chocolate chips or a different kind? Are you a pumpkin fan? Let me know in the comments, and have a great day!

-AMS

24 Years

Another year! Another post noting today is the anniversary of Whatever! Today is anniversary number twenty four, which is quite a feat. Once again I am slightly amazed that I have done anything for two dozen years, much less a more-or-less daily repository, on which I record thoughts and opinions and sunsets and pet photos. Next year at this time will I’ll have been doing this for a quarter of a century. We’ll have to do something big then.

In the meantime, one of the things I would like to note is just how much a part of my life Whatever has become. If I don’t update on any particular date, I feel it; I wouldn’t say it makes me anxious not to update, but it is definitely something I note (“damn it, forgot to update.”). If I miss several days in a row without informing readers in advance I’ll get emails from people asking if I’m okay. This is less of a problem these days because Athena and/or the Big Ideas pop up to keep the site populated (I increased the general number of Big Ideas posts during the pandemic to help out writers and have kept the number up since), but it still happens. It’s nice to know people care, still.

Overall, however, I’d say it’s been a quiet year in terms of Whatever, with the exception of the announcement of the church purchase, and the “Personal History of Music” series, which I posted not only for fun, but to keep the site busy for a month. I will suggest that once the church renovation is done and we can actually start to do things there, we might see an uptick in posts about/from there. We do have plans! We’re not quite there yet, however. This is seemingly a recurring theme for me in 2022, both personally and professionally: a whole lot of hanging tight, waiting for certain things to be done so I can move forward on them. On one hand, I want things to move forward. On the other hand, having a little bit of a breather has not been horrible, either.

With each of these annual anniversary check-ins, I ask myself if I still want to go on with Whatever. The answer is always “yes” (so far), although some years the “yes” is more enthusiastic than others. This year, the “yes” is a pretty mellow one. Yes, I want to keep writing and posting here; why wouldn’t I? There are still things I want to write and say and do here, and still things I want to do with the site in the future. There is a future for Whatever, so far as I can see, and so I want to keep it going to get there. It won’t happen all at once, or might even be immediately noticeable when it happens; the future is like that. It’ll still be good when it happens.

So, yes: Whatever! It’s gonna keep going. Come along, if you like. It’s good to have you here.

— JS

The Big Idea: Stacey McEwan

Humans can make a life in almost any circumstance, but when things get really rough, what sort of life can it be? Stacey McEwan has been thinking about this a lot, and in Ledge, she’s got a few answers, at least as they will apply to the folks in her book.

STACEY McEWAN:

How would humankind fare in a hostile climate, where the objective is not escape?

I have read a pile of stories about lone survivors dragging their half-dead bodies through deserts, or hanging on to boat scraps, floating resolutely in storm-tossed seas. If a hero or heroine finds themselves on frozen wasteland, the story will inevitably follow their harrowing journey to safety. Always thrilling. Always thought-provoking. What is the character willing to do to survive an environment designed to kill them? What would we be willing to do? I could juice this question all day, wring every possible ‘what if’ from it. It’s one of my favourite plot lines. The conclusion to a story like that – man vs. wilderness – always seems to be predicated on time. How much time left until the food runs out, until dehydration sets in? How long until the survivor finds his sanctuary, or will time run out before he can? This led me to a thought – what if the objective wasn’t escape? What if escape wasn’t possible? What then?

So, the boat is set to bob on an endless sea. The man in the desert must wander forever. I rather thought it would change the trajectory of the story. A conclusion seeking not just survival at all costs, but a worthwhile life in unimaginable conditions. When we remove the lure of escape, you would have to assume that a human would next seek contentment, and not just survival.

Let’s take a woman, and place her in such an environment. In my book Ledge I envisioned a treacherous mountain scape – snow and ice and blizzards. But how to entrap her there? Fortunately, the fantasy genre allowed me the privilege of suspended belief. I could create a setting in which it was entirely possible a woman could live on an inescapable mountain. I put her on a mountain shelf, added some steep, unclimbable rock face on one side, a vast uncrossable chasm on the other; done.

But how could she stay alive on that mountain shelf? That question was the mortar between bricks. The first brick is shelter – she would need to escape the elements for a sustained period of time. This led to the existence of pine trees on the Ledge. A grove of precious resource that the people could use to build their homes. It gave them wood to burn. Later, it occurred to me that trees and wood would inevitably become currency.

The next brick was food and water. The water is simple enough; snow plus fire. As for food, it would be a reasonable assumption that the pine grove would attract small game. Presumedly birds who could cross the chasm. Other than that, the potential for hunting, gathering or farming seemed limited. It was a problem to fix. Luckily, I had already added some stakes.

The question of how people could have found themselves in a place so unreachable was always going to add tinder to the story, and I had my answer. Winged creatures of the mountain – Glacians, had raided a village in the valley, and herded its humans up the mountain, flown them across the chasm and dumped them on the Ledge, much like cattle behind a fence. The Glacians became my solution to the food problem. If the Glacians needed live humans, they would need to keep them alive. The idea of ‘the drop’ was that the Glacians would dump meagre supplies on the Ledge. I thought about what an act like that would lead to, and could only imagine incited violence.

Brutality was the next brick in my story’s skeletal build. A setting so hostile, with stakes so high, does not seem the place for peaceful community. The people would likely scratch, claw and kill for food, for the trees, for their family – if family exists.

In a place of such despair, desperation, hostility, how would one seek contentment? My last brick – human nature. Our species simply doesn’t have the capacity for things like love and self-actualisation when fight or flight is their baseline. It would make for a complicated, messy main character. A hard axe-wielding woman. A calculating, distrustful, mercenary creature. My most favourite brick – Dawsyn Sabar. The rest of the story follows her journey to stay alive, find answers and justice and seek actual contentment despite herself. But the walls of the story were built on the foundation of one idea. Not a new idea, by any means. But an idea with endless potential.


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

Visit the author’s Instagram and TikTok.

The Post-Travel Malaise Day

When I travel back home from the West Coast, I essentially have two choices available to me: Take an overnight flight, on which I will not rest well, and then get home early(ish) and then spend the rest of the day a bit dazed, or leave on a morning flight, which will eat up the entire useful part of the day and get me home usually in the early evening. These days I tend to pick the overnight, on the basis that if I’m going to lose a useful day, at least I will get to be home for it.

So, that’s what I did coming back from Portland and Rose City Comic Con: Overnight flight, got home before noon, a useless brain for the rest of the day, but also, Krissy and Athena and the pets and just the general relief of being home. I think I made the right choice. Also, I’ll probably go to bed at, like, eight. Travel. It takes it out of me these days.

— JS

The Big Idea: Victor Manibo

The grind never stops. Except for sleep, of course, but what would our world look like if you could remove that part of the equation? Author Victor Manibo had this same question, and decided to create a whole world to answer it in his newest novel, The Sleepless.

VICTOR MANIBO:

The story seed for The Sleepless came to me during a particularly busy time in my life, so you could say that the book is a sort of wish fulfillment. On a train ride home after a weekend out of town, I was hit with a bad case of the Sunday scaries because I had so much work to do in the week ahead. There were the demands of my nine-to-five office job, familial and social obligations, and the seemingly endless tedium that comes with being an adult. I fantasized, not for the first time, what it would be like if I didn’t need to sleep.

I’d get to do a lot more things, that’s for sure. I wouldn’t have to worry about having enough time to cross off my ever-growing to-do list. As it were, I didn’t need a full extra eight hours to finish it off; if I didn’t need to sleep, I’d likely have time left over for a side gig. The idea of rest of self-care didn’t come to me right away, and when it did dawn on me, it made me realize how much I’d been caught up in this mindset that every moment has to be productive, somehow. It’s so pervasive and insidious in American culture–this drive to strive, to keep improving one’s self or one’s station, to hustle–that I then began to wonder what it would be like if everyone didn’t need sleep. Would it be something that people would welcome? How would individuals adapt? How would society?

Every new answer I had for myself opened up more questions, and after a couple of days of expanding on this thought experiment, I started typing the opening lines to The Sleepless.

One of the first things that I had to decide was how to present the origin and spread of what the book calls hyperinsomnia. Because I knew that capitalism and its toll would be one of the central themes, the condition had to be one that was global, one that spread across borders, and that affected everyone regardless of their background. 

A pandemic was a natural narrative device for what I wanted to do. Little did I know that as I revised and began to market the book, the real world would be mired in a virulent pandemic of its own. Thankfully, the story choices I had made before 2020 allowed me much-needed distance from current events. I had decided that, in order to focus on the story I wanted to tell, the events of The Sleepless would occur a decade after the initial spread of hyperinsomnia. That way, I could better explore how the characters in this world have ordered their lives following such a seismic shift, instead of the emotional and logistical issues that come with the early days of a pandemic. The focus isn’t “What is happening and how do we stop it?” but rather “This is the new normal–what do we do now?”

Ten years into the spread of hyperinsomnia, the world of The Sleepless wasn’t concerned with containment, or even finding a cure. Many learned to be ambivalent about their condition, and even more have begun to embrace it, realizing the advantages that extra time afforded them. That desire to become Sleepless underlies the conflicts of the book, and is a predominant factor in the choices made by our protagonist, Jamie Vega.

As much as hyperinsomnia has similarities to capitalism, the book doesn’t treat them as analogues. The machinery of capitalism is a separate thing, one that looms over the Sleepless world that I’ve created. Whenever I talk to people about the book, the question posed by the premise inevitably comes up. If there were no downsides, would you give up sleep? The answers vary, but one constant is mention of work as a consideration: the need or desire to work more, or to have time to recover from having to work, or to fulfill one’s needs by making more money. It’s true to how characters in The Sleepless approach the question, and the reasons that some of them provide. The underlying consideration isn’t solely the extra time, but the way that extra time can be used to be a fuller participant in capitalism.

Given that prevalent mindset, corporate exploitation was inevitable. If people wanted more time, let’s give it to them. At a price, of course. Writing this part of the book during an actual pandemic was yet another sobering reminder of how we live in dystopic times. Corporate interests and economic considerations affect vaccine development and distribution, as well as quarantine and isolation policies. As guiding principles, science and equity seemed to be on par with profit in deciding how we should order our lives around this public health threat. Seeing this play out all over the world provided me with much inspiration, for lack of a better term.

I wrote The Sleepless mostly to satisfy my curiosity. Yet what started out as a highly individual and context-specific what-if question has become this journey of examining of my relationship with time, with work, and with the systems we all live under. Though the book might not provide neat answers, in the end I hope the book raises the same questions for the reader, and encourages them to go on the same journey I did.


The Sleepless: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|IndieBound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt here. Visit the author’s site. Follow them on Twitter or Instagram

Two Bits of Book News

John Scalzi

Book News Bit #1: The Art of Love Death + Robots, which features the art of some immensely talented people, and also a foreword by me, is now on sale in the US (it’s been out in the UK for a couple of weeks). If you dig incredible art from amazing talents, you’ll want to check it out. Here’s the information on the publisher’s site.

Book News Bit #2: Tor/Macmillan have revealed the title of my upcoming book, and have included a little blurb on what it might be about. Click here to find out! And as always, for any question you might have at this early stage (very early indeed, as I am still writing it), there’s the New Book FAQ, your question will probably be answered there. If it’s not answered there, it’s very likely my answer at the moment is “dunno, we’ll see.”

In all, a pretty decent day for Scalzi-related book news!

— JS

The Big Idea: Katherine Cowley

Napoleon is many things: Emperor, exile, enemy. And in Katherine Cowley’s newest novel, The Lady’s Guide to Death and Deception, he is one other thing: Inspiration. Although, as Cowley explains in this Big Idea, not exactly in the way one might think.

KATHERINE COWLEY:

After Napoleon Bonaparte escaped from his confinement on the Isle of Elba, it took several weeks for the news to spread across Europe. As I combed through 1815 newspapers while researching for my novel, I observed many reactions to the event: fear, anger, resignation, speculation, warmongering, and celebration, depending on the country and the political leaning. None of these surprised me. What did surprise me was the existence of Elba-inspired poetry.

Three British newspapers—The Morning Post, The Star, and The Lancaster Gazette—published a poem credited to J.M. titled “Adieu to Elba.” The poem adopts Napoleon Bonaparte’s perspective and reads as the antithesis of an ode—it’s an invective, attacking Elba. It’s also rather satirical, and in my opinion, quite delightful.

Adieu! lonely Elba! thou eye-sore to me!
Thou cold stony prison, firm-fix’d in the sea!
The moss-cover’d rocks on thy wave-beaten shore!
Shall echo my imperial footsteps no more!

I hate thee, thou ill-boding island of woe!
With pleasure I leave thee—enraptur’d I go!
Glory calls me from Elba, her voice I obey,
And Austerlitz’ sun shall again cheer the day!

Thou check to ambition, thou bar to my fame,
Thou blast to my fortune, thou slur to my name,
I hate thee, thou rock! by ill fortune I’m driven
A wreck on thy shore, by the mandate of HEAVEN!

Those fools who could dream I would dwell on thy shore,
Shall be wak’d from their dream by their folly once more;
My hatred to them and to thee I proclaim,
And raise on their ruin my footsteps to fame!

I don’t think I’ve ever felt as strongly about a rock as the character of Napoleon feels in this poem.

Napoleon Bonaparte is one of those historical figures who had a mythos around him even when he was alive. Over two hundred years later, he continues to capture hearts and minds: adoring fans still venerate him. The facts of his legacy, though, paint a stark picture. Historians generally agree that his actions led to the deaths of both millions of soldiers and millions of civilians through battle, displacement, and famine.

In many ways, despite never personally interacting with any of my other characters, Napoleon Bonaparte is the most important character in my Mary Bennet spy trilogy. He impacts every single character. He influences the mystery and the unravelling of the mystery in the first two novels. All of my chapters include epigraphs that are excerpts from newspapers, and a number of them trace the influence of Napoleon Bonaparte.

The third book in the trilogy, The Lady’s Guide to Death and Deception, begins with the characters finding out that Bonaparte has escaped from Elba. My main character, Mary Bennet, heads to Brussels, where the Allied forces are preparing to fight against Bonaparte’s forces.

While everything revolves around Napoleon Bonaparte, as a reader you only physically see him once on the page, and when you see him, it’s from a distance, through a telescope. I considered creating a scene where Mary actually interacts with Napoleon Bonaparte but decided against it, both for historical reasons and because I wanted him to remain a force apart.

In 1815, you didn’t need to personally know Bonaparte for him to make or ruin your life.

Individuals, organizations, and governments constantly made choices that derived from their perceived relationships to Napoleon Bonaparte. The Duke of Wellington had affairs not with one, but with two of Napoleon’s former mistresses, which makes these relationships seem like rather deliberate conquests. A whole British newspaper (The Anti-Gallican Monitor) arose that was dedicated to being anti-French and rallying the forces against the French, while the Liverpool Mercury asked, “With infinite risk and trouble you at last succeeded in catching a royal tiger and shutting him up in a cage. Q. Why did you not keep him there?….Q. What right had you, in the first instance, to lock him up in the said cage?”

Across Britain, “aliens” (aka foreigners) had to register themselves with their local magistrates and receive licenses and provisional licenses, or risk being thrown in jail. There was rampant speculation that James Madison would try to conquer Canada because of the United States’ friendship with Napoleon. And finally, we have the Battle of Waterloo. According to some estimates, over 190,000 people fought in the Battle of Waterloo; around 20,000 were killed, around 20,000 went missing, and tens of thousands were injured.

For this novel, the big idea is what individuals and groups were willing to do—for good and for bad—because of their imagined, constructed, and often conflicting views of Bonaparte. My heroine must decide how much she is willing to do for her country: what lines is she willing to cross in assisting Britain to stop Napoleon? And what consequences will arise from her choices? As she attempts to solve a series of murders, she must figure out each of the suspects’ metaphorical relationships to Bonaparte and how that is impacting their decisions.

The Lady’s Guide to Death and Deception was my favorite book in the series to write because there is no easy answer for Mary and her fellow characters. There are no clear paths when our imagined, constructed, and conflicting views have such real-world consequences.


The Lady’s Guide to Death and Deception: Amazon|Barnes and Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

Back From Chicago

Where I was in town for the Worldcon, at which I did panels, hung out with friends, and DJ’d a dance. Aside from the fact I gave myself a sore ankle from walking so much, it was a lovely time. And no, I didn’t win any Hugos; you have to be a finalist first for that, and I wasn’t this year. But there were some excellent winners! Here’s the list if you’ve not seen it.

For me, however, this year was about seeing friends, some of whom I have no seen since before COVID, and also, getting to take a vacation with Krissy, because I dig spending time with her. Friends and Krissy made for a great Labor Day weekend in Chicago. Hope your weekend was also lovely, wherever you spent it, and whomever you spent it with.

— JS

“Travel By Bullet,” the Third Installment of The Dispatcher Series, Is Out!

John Scalzi

I’m running around Chicago at Worldcon right now, so allow me to copy and paste the Twitter thread I used to announce it:

Happy September! “Travel By Bullet” the 3rd installment of the “Dispatcher” series, is now live on @audible_com, read as always by the incomparable @ZacharyQuinto. I’m so excited you can hear this story now, and dive back into this world I love writing.

"Travel By Bullet," as with the other two installments of the Dispatcher series, is part of @audible_com's "Audible Plus" catalogue: if you have the standard Audible subscription, you can listen to it at no additional cost. So if you're new to the series, it's easy to catch up.

The Dispatcher series takes place in a world where intentionally killed people come back, which give rise to a new class of pro killers, like our protagonist, Tony Valdez. This time, Tony's friend accidentally draws him into a world of deception and corruption and crime.

The Dispatcher series is also my love letter to Chicago, one of my favorite places in the US (and where I am right now for @chicagoworldcon). I went to school here and it's always fun to fictionally walk its streets in these stories.

I'm grateful @audible_com found a place for these stories, and gave them to @ZacharyQuinto to read. He's the perfect Tony Valdez, and hearing him tell the tale gives me a way to listen to my own story as if for the first time. I'm a fan of the series through him.

So, enjoy "Travel By Bullet"! It may be the most fun you can have with your ears today.

Originally tweeted by John Scalzi (@scalzi) on September 1, 2022.

— JS

The Big Idea: Jody Keiser

Author Jody Keisner comes to us today with some classic advice: face your fears. Or at least, don’t ignore them. Open up about them! Explore them. That’s exactly what she does in her memoir, Under My Bed.

JODY KEISNER:

My Big Idea started as My Big Humiliation.

“What is your greatest fear?” I asked the room of college students on the first day of a creative writing class. The question was from the Proust Questionnaire, named after the French essayist and novelist Marcel Proust. I used the questionnaire to break-the-ice and create a sense of intimacy, which was crucial since we’d be reading about each other’s personal lives for most of the semester. Composed of questions ranging from “What is your idea of perfect happiness?” to “What is the trait you most deplore in others?”, it was thought to uncover someone’s true self. 

Though I’d been answering the questions along with my students for as many years as I’d been teaching, I’d never revealed my true self, at least concerning fear. My greatest fear was also what I then perceived as my greatest humiliation. And so, I kept this part of myself hidden: I was a thirty-something woman living in the quiet, middle-class suburbs, who was afraid of being alone in her home at night. In other areas of my life, I felt daring, tough, and a little wild, just not in my own house. Only my husband and sister knew my secret.

One year, without forethought, instead of my usual vague answer, I blurted the truth:

My fear arrives out of nowhere. I’m reading a book or drinking a glass of wine, supposedly enjoying “me time,” when I’m startled by the creak of a floorboard or a doorknob rattling. The normal sounds of a normal house settling—or unsettling. The feeling that I’m not alone overwhelms me. There’s only one way to be sure. I have to check.

I saw my absurdity through my students’ eyes as I stood before them in my Ann Taylor skirt and coordinating blouse and told them how I opened closets, tugged back shower curtains, looked behind the couches and chairs, checked every latch on every window and door, and finally got down on my hands and knees and peered under my bed. I was looking for a prowler, a man waiting to rape or murder me. I felt childish and exposed. Why did I tell them? 

After a moment of silence that felt like years, the unexpected happened. Well, first the expected happened and they laughed. But then a handful of young women admitted experiencing a similar anxiety on occasion. Most of my students didn’t think I was absurd—though, as one student said, perhaps I was a touch obsessive-compulsive—and one student approached me after class to discuss her own under-the-bed checking. The male students in the room were more apt to confess humorous fears, like being frightened of boogers or death-by-zombies, though one acknowledged being “spooked” after watching horror movies. My students and I talked about how although girls and woman are assaulted—and murdered—every day in this country, I was greatly overestimating the probability of it happening to me. 

Still, my being vulnerable and open with them about my odd behavior invited them to be more vulnerable in their writing, flaws and all, which made their work more compelling. Which, of course, was exactly what I needed to do with the memoir I was writing, too.

Under My Bed and Other Essays was born out of a need to understand this anxious, hidden part of myself and the origin stories of all my greatest fears. From there it grew into an exploration of how fear carried on in my life and, more broadly and universally, the lives of all of us and especially women and mothers. Through my research and writing, I came to understand that my fears weren’t entirely illogical and didn’t really “arrive out of nowhere.” They came—as many fears and anxieties do—from a whole host of interconnected places, such as:

  • media and film portrayals of horror and tragedy (“the chest chomp” scene in John Carpenter’s The Thing makes a cameo appearance in my memoir)
  • proximity to danger (John Joubert, aka the Nebraska Boy Snatcher, lived within ten minutes of my childhood home)
  • brain changes during pregnancy (scientists say that when a woman is pregnant, the part of the brain responsible for anxiety and fear increases in activity)
  • family trauma (I grew up with a father who had an explosive temper, though he has mellowed over the years)
  • mothering young girls (what do we teach our daughters about living in a society that teaches them to ignore their anger and rebellion and instead to always be accommodating and polite?)
  • the cultural objectification and sexualization of the female body (the nationally covered murder of solo runner Mollie Tibbetts, as but one example of thousands)

I was, for once, revealing my authentic self, searching out the darkest corridors of my mind, and in doing so, I uncovered an opportunity to connect with readers as they, too, struggled to keep their greatest fears from getting close to them. 

In a recent post on this blog, Patrick O’Leary writes: “As the shrink says in my Door Number Three, ‘The only terror that heals. The terror of being yourself.’” The act of writing this book and being myself helped me to overcome fear. I will, however, never live completely without it. Does anyone? Should we even want to? Fear compels us to act and make change.

Naming my fears was ultimately empowering for me, as I hope it will be for readers. I didn’t neglect the flip side of the coin in my memoir-in-essays: stories of hope, triumph, and love. Ultimately, it wasn’t only fear that propelled my writing—it was also fear’s antidote: curiosity. My beloved grandmother used to say, “Don’t be afraid. Try everything once.”

In memoir writing, the courage to be vulnerable is everything.

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Under My Bed and Other Essays: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|IndieBound|Powell’s|University of Nebraska Press|The Bookworm

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