The OF Blog: 2006

Sunday, December 31, 2006

Larry's choices for the Best of 2006

A few days ago, I posted the "finalists" in a couple of the categories from which I would be choosing my favorites. It literally went up to the last hours of 2006 before I could decide which stories were my #1 favs for the year, especially for the Best Book Released in the US in 2006 category. Many fine books. Anyways, here are my Top 3/5 Choices:

Best Book Released in 2006:

1. Jeff VanderMeer, Shriek: An Afterword - Perhaps this book being the last one I completed in 2006 helped influence the one-man jury here, but what stood out about this novel was how personal it felt. This story about Duncan and Janice Shriek felt so real, which helped make all the other elements about the story feel more vibrant than they otherwise would have been. This was one of those rare examples of fantasy novels that have all the layers of emotional depth that the "mainstream" novels do. I just cannot recall a book released this year in the US that comes close to that.

2. Hal Duncan, Vellum - This was one of the most impressive debut novels that I've ever read in the field. Duncan told a very complex story in a fashion that often felt lyrical, while at the same time making this reader feel like he had some at stake by continuing to read this volume. I am eagerly awaiting the release of Ink in a couple of months, just to see if the promise of Vellum is fulfilled. If it is, then Ink might become the early favorite to snag a Best of 2007 award.

3 (tie) Catherynne M. Valente, The Orphan's Tale: In the Night Garden - I will admit to enjoying a well-told fairy tale. I also will admit to loving daringly original takes on traditional Western fairy tale motifs, especially if they are well-written. Add all of these up with a very compelling frame stories and this book served to convince me that I better listen to Jay and a few others on the blogosphere and buy the rest of her work pronto.

3. (tie) Gene Wolfe, Soldier of Sidon - Wolfe is a master of utilizing an unreliable narrator to tell a story that requires a lot of careful attention on the reader's part to catch all the nuances and possibilities that underlie the words that aren't printed. In Soldier of Sidon, the third volume in the Latro/Soldier series, Wolfe has returned to the classical world of the mercenary Latro, who has suffered an injury which causes him to forget the previous day's experiences if he doesn't write them down. In this volume, he matches the work he did with the first two volumes (written in the 1980s), thus earning a tie for the third spot.

Honorable mentions: Scott Lynch, The Lies of Locke Lamora; Sergei Lukyanenko, Night Watch (English translation); Mark Danielewski, Only Revolutions.

Best Book Read in 2006 (but released in prior year):

For this and the other categories, I'm not going to be elaborating as much, mostly because that would take the rest of the year for me to complete. Suffice to say that these are older books that I enjoyed a lot.

1. Milorad Pavić, Dictionary of the Khazars

2. José Saramago, Las intermitencias de la muerte

3. Ben Okri, The Famished Road

4. Salman Rushdie, Midnight's Children

5. Ivo Andrić, The Bridge on the Drina

Honorable mentions: Walter M. Miller, Jr., A Canticle for Leibowitz; Edward Whittemore, Sinai Tapestry; Hope Mirrlees, Lud-in-the-Mist

Best Short Story Collection Read in 2006:

I read three collections that were so good that I felt like I needed to note each of these here. So here they are, different in some aspects, but very similar in quality and in how individual stories moved me:

1. Flannery O'Connor, A Good Man is Hard to Find

2. Kelly Link, Magic for Beginners

3. Zoran Živković, Seven Touches of Music (English translation)

Most Disappointing Book Read in 2006

I generally am very careful with the books I read, but occasionally there'll be some that just dissatisfy me in some fashion. That is not to say that all of the books that appear below are bad, merely disappointing in respect to expectations.

1. Brandon Sanderson, Elantris

2. Dan Simmons, Olympos

Oddly enough, those are the only two I can think of that fit the criteria for this category.

Best Debut Novel of 2006

This is for American release or for first time in English translation:

1. Hal Duncan, Vellum

2. Scott Lynch, The Lies of Locke Lamora

3. Tobias Buckell, Crystal Rain

Best Spanish-Language Novel Read in 2006:

This is meant to recognize the books that I read in Spanish this year and since they make up the majority of my 2006 reads (64 out of 117), I thought it would be fitting to list three favorites here:

1. José Saramago, Las intermitencias de la muerte

2. Alberto Fuguet, Cortos

3. Manuel Vincent, Son de Mar

And there are my 2006 "awards." Let the discussion begin, either here or elsewhere, as to how inspired/deranged these picks were!

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Thoughts on some of my favorite reads in 2006

It's around that time of year again, the moment where people on the blogosphere stop and post about some of the books that "connected" with them. Although I'm going to be posting in a ranked format my favorite reads of 2006 on Sunday as part of the Admin Choices for the 2007 OF Awards held at wotmania, I thought I would take the time to post in no particular order the top reads out of books released in 2006, those released in previous years, and those I read in Spanish this year. So without further ado, the "finalists" for My Favorite Reads of 2006:

Best Books Released in 2006:

Here are the books released in the US for the first time in 2006 that I found to be the most enjoyable (as of 12/26):

Hal Duncan, Vellum - This finalist for the 2006 World Fantasy Award was released in the US in April. I am one of those readers who believe that a good, consistent style is an essential element of making a story work and in Vellum, Duncan does a masterful job in using word tone and pitch to craft a story that spans 3D time/space but yet in the end boils down to a very personal struggle of a small group of Unkin who are trying desperately to live their own lives. A very moving work and one of the more challenging ones that I've read in English this year, so no award ballot would be complete to me without mentioning Vellum here.

Gene Wolfe, Soldier of Sidon - Gene Wolfe is one of my favorite authors, not just in the speculative fiction realm, but in all of late 20th/early 21st century literature. His stories have layers upon layers of meaning and possibility to them, but out of all his creations (with the possible exception of Severian from The Book of the New Sun), none are as conflicted and intriguing as that of Latro, the partially amnesiac mercenary who "sees" the gods of the classical world and has been directed to find a certain temple so he can regain his memory. Wolfe utilizes the unreliable narrator trope to full effect here and this book, the third in the Latro series, is just as strong as the first two, despite being written almost twenty years afterwards.

Catherynne M. Valente, The Orphan's Tales: In the Night Garden - This was a remarkable undertaking. Now I have yet to read her other works (such an oversight I'll correct soon), but in this book, she takes the traditional fairy tale format and weaves a complex interaction between the stories that not only fascinates the framework story's young boy (in a mode similar to that of The Arabian Nights), but also the reader. As "traditional" as the stories feel (and I found myself drifting back in memory to my first encounters with written versions of fairy tales, 25+ years ago), there are a great many surprises to them, surprises that serve to build interest and anticipation among the reader. Valente did more than just utilize the form of the fairy tale - she recreated the emotion behind those. For that alone, she has earned a spot on this "finalist" list.

Sergei Lukyanenko, Night Watch (English Translation) - For many, including myself, one of the hallmarks of a good fantasy is the sense of something other interacting with the familiar. In this excellent translation of the bestselling Russian urban fantasy, Lukyanenko has established a world in which witches, wizards, vampires, werewolves, and shapeshifters move among us, unseen, checked only by a Cold War-like pact between the Light and the Dark, with said pact being managed by the Day and Night Watches. There are three connected stories within this 450 page book and the questions raised by the actions perpetrated by both sides make this book much more than just a simple good/evil morality play. I eagerly await the 2007 translated publications of the sequels Day Watch and Twilight Watch.

Scott Lynch, The Lies of Locke Lamora - A lot of electronic ink has been used elsewhere to describe the joys that other readers have had in reading this opening volume to The Gentleman Bastards series. Suffice to say, I found this book living up to its hype and being one of the more enjoyable books of the year. Lynch writes very well, the dialogue is crisp and often funny, and the action flows very well from stage to stage, with few transition problems. The second volume, Red Seas under Red Skies, is due out in the Summer of 2007.

Jeff VanderMeer, Shriek: An Afterword - This Ambergris book (VanderMeer's first true novel) might be the most emotional read out of the books I've read this year. VanderMeer uses very evocative images that seem to come straight from his own experiences (whether that's true or not, it certainly feels authentic). If this book isn't up for the major 2007 awards, then I want to know what books out there are better than this.

Mark Danielewski, Only Revolutions - This is not House of Leaves Part II. Thank God for that, as the style and the way the story (stories) are told show that Danielewski is not content to revisit what worked for him in the past. While the story isn't what I'd call "accessible", it certainly is breaking new ground. For that alone, it merits mention here.

Best Books Read in 2006 but Released in Previous Years:

I won't elaborate as much here as I did above, but this is an unranked listing of my favorites that I read in English this past year that were released at some prior point:

Consuelo de Saint-Exupéry, The Tale of the Rose

John Steinbeck, The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights

Flannery O'Connor, A Good Man is Hard to Find

Umberto Eco, The Island of the Day Before

Salman Rushdie, Midnight's Children

Ben Okri, The Famished Road

Thomas Wolfe, The Web and the Rock

Hope Mirrlees, Lud-in-the-Mist

Walter M. Miller, Jr., A Canticle for Leibowitz

Milorad Pavić, Dictionary of the Khazars

Edward Whittemore, Sinai Tapestry

V.S. Naipaul, A Way in the World

Danilo Kiš, A Tomb for Boris Davidovich

Ivo Andrić, The Bridge on the Drina

Kelly Link, Magic for Beginners

Libros en español que leí en 2006:

José Sarmago, Las intermitencias de la muerte; Ensayo sobre la lucídez; Todos los nombres

Gabriel García Márquez, El otoño del Patriarca

Rubén Darío, Azul.../Cantos de la vida y esperanza

Manuel Vincent, Son de mar

Manuel Mujica Lainez, Misteriosa Buenos Aires

Alejo Carpentier, El siglo de las luces

Alberto Fuguet, Cortos

José Eustasio Rivera, La vorágine

Hopefully, some of these books will appeal to readers here. On the 31st, I'll try to sit down and choose which books will be in my Top 3 in each of these categories, as well as listing the remaining books that I have read in 2006. It has been a quiet year for me, but also a year full of quality reads. Thanks again to those whom I've heard about your favs, as sometimes they have influenced me in my purchases. It would be an honor to return the pleasure.

Friday, December 22, 2006

2006 Reads: August-October

Since it's been way too long since I've updated this, there won't be much more than a Recommended/Not Recommended comment for most of these. Sorry about that - I'll try harder in 2007 to have blurbs written for each and every book. But starting with my notes for August, here are the books read since then, in order:

67. José Saramago, Todos los Nombres - It's freakin' Saramago and if you don't my admiration for his stories by now...Most Highly Recommended.

68. Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five - Re-read from my grad school days a decade ago. It somehow managed to improve with age. Most Highly Recommended.

69. Ernest Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea - As big of a fan of Hemingway's that I am, somehow I managed to avoid reading this until now. My loss then and my gain now. Of course, Most Highly Recommended.

70. Umberto Eco, Il Pendolo di Foucault - As much as I enjoyed reading this in English translation, it was a nice challenge to attempt to read it in Italian (first book read in that language for me). It had a different magic to it and my familiarity with the translation helped me through the rough patches. Most Highly Recommended (in your native language, if you aren't fluent in Italian).

71. Robert Jordan, Crossroads of Twilight - I read this book almost solely to do a MST-3000 treatment to it. If you think I'm going to recommend this book...Not Recommended.

72. Ernesto Sabato, Sobre héroes y tumbas - Re-read from late 2004. Very moving story, one that I enjoyed greatly. Highly Recommended for those who read Spanish (or just search for it in translation, as it has been translated).

73. Subcommandante Marcos, La historia de las colores - Only in Mexico could a guerrilla leader write a children's book based on Chiapas-region mythology and have it be a decent read. Recommended for those who like children's stories. Bilingual edition.

74. John Lukacs, The Hitler of History - As a general rule of thumb, I have avoided reading non-fiction (and especially that of the Hitler era) after my grad school burnout on academic histories almost a decade ago. This is a historiographical look at how Hitler research has evolved over the past 50 years. Lukacs does a fine job here, but this isn't a book for the casual history buff, but instead a nice primer for majors and those beginning an in-depth exploration of the National Socialist era. Recommended for those "experts" and lukewarm rec for the informed history buff.

75. Jorge Volpi, En busca de Klingsor - Re-read from late 2004. Very enjoyable thriller-type novel about the search for this mysterious advisor to Hitler named Klingsor. Has been translated into English and other languages. Highly recommended.

76. Rumi, The Essential Rumi - Nice intro to the works of the medieval Sufi poet, Rumi. The translations are adequate, but I wished for more. Lukewarm rec for those who enjoy mystical poetry, but with the caveat that a more complete edition would be better.

77. Alejandro Dolina, Crónicas del Ángel Gris - Re-read from August 2005. Very enjoyable collection of short stories that make the Flores neighborhood of Buenos Aires, Argentina a mysterious and fascinating world. Highly recommended for those fluent in Spanish, but unfortunately there are no known translations into other languages.

78. José Saramago, Ensayo sobre la ceguera - Re-read from 2004. See above comment about Saramago. Most Highly Recommended.

79. Alberto Fuguet, Mala Onda - Re-read from March 2004. While this work (available in English as Bad Vibes) might ultimately fail to match the overall power of Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye (to which this book has often been compared), it comes mighty damn close, plus it shows disillusioned Chilean life under Pinochet. Highly Recommended.

80. Carlos Ruiz Zafón, La sombra del viento - Re-read from July 2005. A story set in post-WWII Barcelona around a book, a mysterious author, and a lurking figure who seems set to burn all the remaining copies of this obscure novel...while something else is happening beneath the surface. Very well-written story. Most Highly Recommended.

81. Edmundo Paz Soldán, Sueños digitales - Interesting story about the manipulation of images to bolster a South American president's status. Recommended for those fluent in Spanish, no known English translation.

82. José Saramago, Ensayo sobre la lucídez - Again, it's Saramago. One of my most favorite reads of 2006, now available in English as Seeing. Most Highly Recommended.

83. Alberto Fuguet, Las películas de mi vida - Interesting concept of telling how one's life developed and spanned over two continents and countries via the connection between contemporary movies and the events in one's life. Available in English as The Movies of my Life. Highly Recommended.

84. Harry Mulisch, The Discovery of Heaven - While it was certainly thought-provoking, ultimately I found it to be too drab and cynical for even my tastes, although I recognize that many others would enjoy it. Lukewarm Recommendation.

85. Alejo Carpentier, El siglo de las luces - Historical novel about a Frenchman, Victor Hugues, in the Caribbean during the 1790s and his role in spreading the ideals of the French Revolution among the ancien regime's strongholds in the Caribbean. Highly Recommended for Spanish readers, as I do not know of any translation, which is a shame.

86. Gabriel García Márquez, Del amor y otros demonios - Re-read from August 2005. While not as well-known as Cien años de soledad or El amor en los tiempos de cólera, this novel about love and cultural differences (and much, much else) set in colonial New Granada (Colombia) is quite powerful in its own right. Highly Recommended, available in English as Of Love and Other Demons.

87. Gabriel García Márquez, Crónica de una muerte anunciada - This account of the "honor killing" of a young man is extremely moving. Highly Recommended, also available in English as Chronicle of a Death Foretold.

88. Jorge Luis Borges, Ficciónes (Spanish) - As I've said with Saramago, I'll say here with Borges. It's Borges, enough said. Most Highly Recommended.

89. Milorad Pavić, Dictionary of the Khazars: A Lexicon Novel - Wow, just wow. The concepts and the execution here were superb. Most Highly Recommended.

90. Guillermo Cabrera Infante, Vista del amanecer en el trópico - A fictionalized "history" of Cuba as told in very short but powerful vignettes. Highly Recommended.


In the next week or so, I'll have the November-December entries done, likely around the 31st. Hope some of these books sparks curiosity on your part, as it's usually some form of communication between people that lead to book borrowings/purchases.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Ricardo Pinto Interview

What are you working on at the moment, and how satisfied are you with it?

Currently I am working on the third book of my trilogy The Stone Dance of the Chameleon which has taken me roughly four years so far. Of course I could wish that it was not taking so long, but I am pursuing my vision to its conclusion... and things are going well...

Can you tell us a few words about The Stone Dance of the Chameleon? How would you entice somebody who has never read your work to them?

I would say that, driven by inner forces, I started upon this story, with no notion of where it would take me. In a time where so much is throwaway, or dances to a commercial tune, I have ended up spending the best part of 12 years of my life - so far - giving birth to this monster, crafting it, with no goal other than making it true to itself. The result is a near-mythological evocation of what it takes to turn from a child into an adult; an epic set in a strange, but living world; a love story of suffering and redemption...

How did you come to an idea to write The Stone Dance of the Chameleon? What was your inspiration?

The journey towards the Stone Dance started a long time ago, one summer, when I was still at university, when I typed up an early version of the story. Some of the ideas were there, but really very few and they were very undeveloped. Tolkien's world creation had captivated me and there were other writers who produced rich worlds, Moorcock, Herbert, Le Guin but I wanted more... my own vision...

How come the main character in the Stone Dance is homosexual?

I'm not sure that he is. This category is really a rather recent invention. In the past, Ancient Greece for example, people were defined not by whom they slept with, but what they did with their sexual partners... The world that the Masters inhabit is one in which access to women is narrowly constrained. In such societies it is often the case that males develop love relationships with each other...

Who is your favorite character in Stone Dance? Why?

That's a very difficult question... I love/hate all of them one way or another... but I suppose if I had to go for one it would be Carnelian, because he's the one I'm most in the head of and who, in many ways, is me...

How did the years working on video games help you as an author, if they did?

If we put aside the characters that populate my books, much of the rest of the writing process is, for me, hardly distinguishable from creating a computer game. As I built my computer games from the ground up to achieve fully realized 3D environments, so I did the same with the world in which my story is set. Perhaps, at first, too obsessively so... the rigour essential for computer games is almost certainly overkill in books... primarily because in a book the reader 'timeline' is determined by the author, whereas in a computer game it is generally determined by the player. Of course, what computer games lack and what I discovered increasingly is the very centre of a book - are the characters. When it came to them, my computer experiences were of no help at all...

Are you still working on computer games?

No, I've been doing nothing but writing for quite some time... though a few years back I created a sci-fi world for a friend of mine who is developing it into a wargaming business and which might, one day, find its way into a computer game...

What is the weirdest experience you ever had with a fan?

There was one who offered to send me computer pictures of buildings which he made himself... For no reason I could fathom...

If you were to own several monkeys and/or midgets, how many would you own, and what would you name them?

Hmmm... Three - Prime, Artaxerxes and Blue...

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Interview with Tobias S. Buckell

Did you always want to be a writer, or did you experiment with other jobs?

I've always wanted to be a writer, but it's not automatic that you can make a living doing something like that. Until recently I did tech support to pay the bills. Now I'm a freelance writer and blogger as well as author.

Aside from writing, what occupies your time?

As I mentioned above, I've gotten into blogging and freelancing. Writing about random interesting subjects is a lot of fun. I still read a great deal, and with the recent purchase of an Xbox 360, I've been spending some time playing video games if I can find the spare time. I really enjoy the Call of Duty series.

Why should we read fiction? Why is literature important?

Fiction does a lot of things. I really enjoy fiction, particularly genre fiction, because I find fiction to be somewhat subversive if done right. In the guise of 'just telling a tale' writers are given a longer lead to explore humanity before people's preconceptions and existing psychological baggage halts the process. Fiction allows us to live another persons life. Walking in someone else's shoes is the best way to learn about the world, grow our empathy, and become better people.

That said, I don't we SHOULD read fiction as a forceful declarative statement. I don't like the hint of 'good for you' type insistence when some people say things like that. You SHOULD take cod liver oil as well, but that doesn't mean its fun. A lot of literature can be fun, and forgetting that might happen if people think we should be reading fiction for x and y reason. I fundamentally think reading literature is fun, and that's why people might opt to do it. Education, empathy, insight, personal growth, all those are just bonuses!

Do you know what you are going to write ahead of time?

I usually plan ahead, enough so that I don't hit any roadblocks and have some outline set up for myself to follow. But I also leave myself enough room in the outline to play around as I see fit, and I also give myself permission to change big enough elements if a cool enough idea comes along.

How do you get your ideas?

Research. It sounds so dull, but it's not research like high school or college where you sit and read boring texts. Research is flipping through books about stuff you're psyched about, then finding something further you need information about, and then getting so obsessed about finding that little fact, you happily flip through the dry and dusty texts to snag that info, and feel completely fired up when you get that fact. Once I get enough cool ideas and things I feel I can't not use, I begin assembling them and wondering if they might all fit together.

Which of your characters is the most like you and why?

Now there's an interesting question I don't think I've been asked. My characters have adventures the likes of which I don't think I've ever really seen. I think Jerome, though, the young kid in Crystal Rain who's life gets swept away by the invasion that comes through his town is the closest. He isn't a great hero, or adventurer, just someone whose life is getting turned upside down by external events and trying to keep his head down.

Which is the most different and why?

I think Pepper is the most different character. He's a bit of a psychopath in the name of what he thinks is good. That's what makes him my favorite to write and play around with.

Have you had any significant disappointments?

My writing career so far has just been a journey of awesome things, and everything keeps happening faster than I expected. I sold my first short story to an SF magazine when I was 19, and I won a quarter of the Writers of the Future contest, which I'd wanted to do since I was 15. I keep expecting something horrible to happen any second.

Would you ever consider getting involved in the movie business?

If LA came knocking I wouldn't turn anything down!

What advice do you have for other writers?

The biggest part of the word writer is the word write. Writers must write and write often. Like a musician practicing scales, or a painter learning how to mix colors, we have to practice our craft over and over again.

And the last question in this interview is the traditional question of the OF:
If you were to own several monkeys and/or midgets, how many would you own, and what would you name them?

Well, if I could have an infinite number of monkeys working on typewriters in my basement, theoretically as well as producing Shakespeare, they'd also write my next novel for me, and I could beat my deadline and turn the next novel in early.

That would be nice, but I don't think I'd be able to name them all. I'd have to call them Monkey #1, #2, #3 and so on...

Thank you for your time and patience, Mr. Buckell. We wish you the best of luck with your work.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Interview with Herbie Brennan

You are working with books for a long time, and surely had bad times. What gives you energy and will to continue after failures?

I don't really write in the hope of large sales or critical acclaim (although both are very nice when they happen.) I write because I love writing. The down side of this is that I get nervous and irritated when I find for any reason that I can't write at least a little every day. But the upside is that I don't get terribly upset if a book is panned by the critics or sells only a few copies then dies. I just forget it and go on to something else.

Why fantasy books?

Good question. The funny thing is I've never been much of a fantasy reader -- I could never get into Lord of the Rings, for example -- and spent much of my younger days reading science fiction. I know books like Faerie Wars and The Purple Emperor are sold as fantasy, but I'm not sure they shouldn't be classified as science fiction themselves. I think there is a massive amount of scientific and anecdotal evidence for parallel realities and the fact that they can (sometimes) be visited by ordinary people. I've even gone into the evidence in a non-fiction book called Parallel Worlds, which is part of my Forbidden Truths series in the U.K. Once you accept the idea of different realities, then books like Faerie Wars, while certainly fiction, are no longer fantasy.

How did you begin writing?

I desperately wanted to be a writer since I was a very young child. I dreamed of getting up in the morning, going into my study and writing books. By the time I left school, I thought the way to get started as an author was to become a journalist, which I did. I had the fancy that I could be a reporter by day and write my great novel by night. But that never worked out. By night I was too tired (and sometimes too drunk) to write anything and while journalism itself was fun, it wasn't the sort of writing I really wanted to do. It took me quite a while to figure out what I was doing wrong. I moved from reporting to feature writing, then to magazine journalism, then to writing advertising copy before I realized around the age of thirty that I'd never actually done what I set out to do. So I packed in my job and decided to find out if I could survive by getting up in the morning, going into my study and writing books. Fortunately it turned out that I could.

Were you into books as a child? What were your favorites?

I was a huge reader as a child. So much so that adults were quite worried about me and I needed spectacles by the age of 12. I read just about anything I could get my hands on. As a very young boy my great favorites were books on hypnosis and yoga (which seems weird to me now.) A little later I discovered science fiction via H. G. Wells and went on to devour writers like Asimov, Poul and Kornbluth, Blish and so on. I've expanded my range a bit now, but I still love good science fiction when I can find it. Ideas excite me.

How do you approach writing for a younger audience as opposed to an adult audience?

I can't see any difference at all in the way I write for children and for adults. I have a bee in my bonnet about clarity in writing and work really hard to make sure the reader understands what I'm trying to say: but that goes for adults, teenagers and young children equally. Very often I publish a book that's meant for kids (sometimes even young kids) and find I'm getting emails about it from adults. With a few of my younger books, especially those for teenagers, I actually get more emails from adults.

Who are your influences and why?

If you decide to produce fiction, there are two aspects to the work -- the writing and the story. Surprisingly often you'll find that popular books aren't well written, but tell a great story. Even more often you'll find there are books that are wonderfully well written, but sell very few copies because they don't tell an good story. I've become increasingly interested in trying to combine good writing with good story telling and the one author who does this extraordinarily well (most of the time) is the horror writer Stephen King. I've enjoyed almost every book he's written and poured over most of them trying to figure out how he does it. More recently I've discovered a less well known writer who has the same talent. His name is Michel Faber. Critics think of him as a more serious writer than King and while his books sell well, they aren't the multi-million blockbusters that King routinely produces. He's younger than King (and a lot younger than me) but he writes like a dream, creates memorable characters and draws you into his stories with extraordinary skill.

What do you think your largest professional success is?

As a single title, Faerie Wars has been my greatest success to date, both critically and in terms of sales. But my GrailQuest game-book series, which was first published in the 1980s was, and still is, by far my biggest international seller. More than twenty years later it's still going strong in France, it's been republished in Japan and it's now being published for the first time throughout Eastern Europe. If Faerie Wars does anything like as well, I will be a very happy man.

What do you think the key of your success is?

I think GrailQuest was successful because people liked my silly sense of humour. I think Faerie Wars and Purple Emperor are successful because people like the characters.

What is your advice for young and ambitious writers?

Stop talking about writing and worrying about writing and planning what you're going to write tomorrow. Sit down and start.

If you were to own several monkeys and/or midgets, how many would you own, and what would you name them?

I'm not sure you're allowed to own midgets in these politically correct days, but I'd certainly prefer midgets to monkeys around the house. I'd have ten and would name them after my cats: Wug-wug, Shortass, Mouse, Diddler, Brocolli Midget One, Wobbler, Cutemidget Rex, Vampire Banana, Fluzball and Brenda.

Monday, October 02, 2006

2006 Readings, Mid-May Through July

It's been a few months since I've last listed the reads/re-reads I've done in 2006, so here's just the listings, with very little to no commentary on the books:

51. Julio Cortázar, La autopista del sur y otros cuentos - Re-read from 2005, this is a collection of his short stories taken from many of the original edition collections. Good, strong collection from the author of Rayuela.

52. Hope Mirrlees, Lud-in-the-Mist. - 1926 novel that stands the test of time well. Neil Gaiman mentioned this book by name when he praised Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell and it was indeed a delightful read.

53. Carlos Fuentes, Inquieta compañía - Re-read from the beginning of 2005, this was an enjoyable set of stories dealing with the supernatural from one of the finest authors of the Boom Generation.

54. Oliverio Girondo, Scarecrow and Other Anomalies (bilingual edition) - Very avant-garde, this collection of works from the Argentine writer/poet. Almost too weird/surreal for me, but yet his originality in prosery (in Spanish - the translation couldn't hold up well) ultimately made this an enjoyable re-read from 2003.

55. Gabriel García Márquez, Memoria de mis putas tristes - Re-read from October 2004. This was Gabo's first short novel in 10 years and it was a good read on the reflections of a life lived and wishes unfulfilled, among a great many other things.

56. Walter M. Miller, Jr., A Canticle for Leibowitz - Reviewed at wotmania. Enjoyed this book a lot, thought it held up well, almost 50 years after publication.

57. R. Scott Bakker, The Warrior-Prophet - Re-read from June 2004. Enjoyed it a lot, thought it was one of the more intelligently crafted and written epic fantasies available in English.

58. R. Scott Bakker, The Thousandfold Thought - Re-read from October 2005 (ARC). On the second read, I enjoyed this one even more than the other two books in the volume, so it improved on a re-read. Highly recommend this series to readers.

59. Xavier Velasco, El materialsimo hísterico - This young Mexican author has a lot of talent and this re-read from Summer 2005 reminded me of this. This is a collection of fables set in a true material girl world. Well worth the read for those who can read Spanish (hopefully, this will be translated into English in the near future).

60. Mario Vargas Llosa, La fiesta del Chivo - Re-read from June 2004. This historical novel about the last days of the Trujillo dictatorship in the Dominican Republic is a fascinating account, one that was told well by a master storyteller. I enjoyed re-reading this and shall soon re-read La guerra del fin del mundo.

61. Torquato Tasso, Jerusalem Delivered - Re-read from 2003. This is an excellent poetic translation of Tasso's epic poem on the First Crusade and the siege of Jerusalem. I cannot recommend this work enough to those that enjoy heroic poetry in the epic style.

62. José Herández, Martín Fierro - This Argentine gaucho epic revolves around the exploits of Martín Fierro, as he exists between the white and native societies on the pampas in the 19th century. Although I had some difficulties with the localisms employed, I did enjoy this story quite a bit in original Spanish.

63. Manuel Mujica Lainez, La misteriosa Buenos Aires - This is a collection of story, perhaps based on actual people/events, perhaps figments of the author's imagination, that stretch from the city's first founding in the early 16th century to the beginning of the 20th century. A story collection that I shall read and re-read many times in the future, I do believe, as it just seemed to be full of that je ne sais quoi that made the characters/scenes seem so real.

64. Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird - I've re-read this story multiple times since my high school days back in the early 90s and each time, the story impacts me more and more, being a native Southerner who still has had to ask the basic questions that little Scout Lynch asks throughout this moving story.

65. Neil Gaiman, Anansi Boys - Reviewed at wotmania. It ended up being a decent Gaiman story, but I'm still convinced that he's a better short fiction author than he is a novelist.

66. Hal Duncan, Vellum - Reviewed at wotmania. Title of the review there should tell you how much I enjoyed it when I read it for the first time this past July.

I'll make another post about my reads from August-early October later this week.

Friday, September 29, 2006

Free the Mind

It is fun living in the fishbowl called spec fic blogging. Articles written months or even years before can be brought up in some backwater (or prominent, depending on one's perspective, I suppose) site, perhaps a blog such as this or even on a messageboard, and points can be argued that go well out of the bounds of that original article. It has taken some time, but I see that my words are generating discussion elsewhere.

Oddly enough, it began back in June 2006 with a little "rant" that I wrote at wotmania in response to the commentaries inside the Quickpoll for that day. I wrote a little bit about how I believed fantasy was much more than the epic form, that it was not just literature, but an essential part of our material culture. The rant, written in a few minutes, generated over 50 responses in its original form on the OF Messageboard and as is my custom when I write pieces that I think might be worth reading for people outside of wotmania, I posted it here on my blog. Just a nice record of my thoughts at the time on the genre and on the connections between people's lives and the forms of stories that they tell each other.

So it was of interest to me today when I was browsing through a few sites that I haven't had time to glance at for weeks due to my new job to see this. At first I just shrugged it off as being just merely an attempt to cause me to make an angry reply, but then I read some of the responses. Interesting to see how illuminating responses sometimes (not always, though, but merely sometimes) can be. So I shall now, as an apologia, take some of the comments contained within that thread and discuss them here.

In the end, I think dylanfanitac/Larry fails to convert his valid observations to a viable conclusion. Though he attempts to separate fantasy from literature, the distinction rings false.

Literature, be it fantasy or not, does engage those issues. Some books and stories do a good job of it, others not so much.

Fantasy is a subset of literature. Like horror, historical fiction, romance, "mainstream" fiction, or any other, there are good examples and poor examples.

Cutting through it all, where I suspect this is coming from is his perception of Terry Goodkind's comments about fantasy. This really needs to be put to bed. He has talked and continues to talk openly about using fantasy to write about human themes, as recently as the podcast mystar posted this morning. To Terry, it is no different than using romance or anything else; it is one element of many. What he rejects as invalid is precisely what dylanfantic says he is railing against: empty-headed fantasy for the sake of fantasy.
This is from a longer response that did agree with some of my comments. First off, I wasn't stating that fantasy was separate from literature or needed to be, but rather the opposite: fantasy (and literature as a whole) is in the end but merely a subset of material culture, those tangible, visible artifacts of a society that enable the cultural historian/cultural anthropologist to make some presumptions as to what were the values/ethos of that particular society. How we use our imagination, how we construct our "fantasies," is a very key part of understanding how we have come to develop the societies that we've held. I was not railing against "empty-headed fantasy for the sake of fantasy," but instead against the narrow view that only X is "fantasy" and not A-W or Y and Z as well.

As for the comments on Goodkind, that shall be addressed later on. Now for another excerpt:

That blog is pure crap. Yes, there are a couple of factual statements included. Mostly, however, it is a rambling monologue about the disconnect between what is termed 'the fantasy genre' and fantasy itself. The genre of fantasy is defined historically by what is traditionally in fantasy novels. Period. That does not mean that there is no fantasy involved in other writings. It does not mean that a fantasy novel cannot have a deeper meaning. It simply means that classic fantasy has certain elements inherent in it and that the purpose is escapism. That is why Goodkind says that he does not write fantasy; his books do not fit into the rigid mold that has historically defined fantasy. So Larry is unhappy with this rigid definition of fantasy. So what?
Ignoring the subjective commentary on the quality of the discourse, there is something interesting here. The commentator seems to be making the argument that my post was about the "disconnect between what is termed 'the fantasy genre' and fantasy itself." There is a bit of truth to that in that I do see differences between the two, but I believe that the commentator goes a bit too far afield in arguing that "classic fantasy has certain elements inherent in it and that the purpose is escapism." While I certainly am not denying that escapism is an important element in a great many fantasy (especially epic fantasy) works (and in what leads a great many readers to read secondary world fantasies set in mileau different from their own), that is simply too simplistic of an answer. Take Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings or even moreso his Silmarillion writings. There are quite a few messages embedded within those texts. One of which is that of Loss and the "passing over the sea," never to return. From the Three Silmarils to the Three Rings of Power, from the Fading of the Elves to the decay of the Númenoréans in exile on Middle-Earth, there is a sense of melancholy that pervades Tolkien's writings. I could talk at much greater length on this (and many others before me have done so, including Tolkien himself in his published letters), but for now it suffices to say that this "purpose" that the commentator perceives to be true is but incomplete, if not misleading for some works within the field. Furthermore, there is the fallacy of presuming that there is indeed a "rigid" definition of "fantasy." There is not. If that were indeed to be the case, then there would not be the number of debates that there have been in recent years over how to perceive this work or that work in regards to their inclusion in this nebuleous thing called "fantasy."

Fantasy for fantasy sake is a dying genera.
Not true, very far from true. Ignoring even the gains in sales within the marketing area called "Fantasy literature," a subset of human material culture that deals with the utilization of the imagination to confront or to describe elements that are pervasive in human cultures just cannot be written off in such a fashion. Considering that was what I was addressing and that I had a concern about those who defined "fantasy" too narrowly (i.e. as being that late 20th century alteration of a prose epic form to display certain idealized forms, such as the "proto-Fascist whiteboy whooping up on Dark Lord Satan/Suge Knight in his crib" form that I did mock in my earlier Blog entry), it is a bit much to make bald statements such as that without having a clearer definition of what the genre entails.

Fantasy like any other genre should be a tool for conveing ideas, struggles, convictions, and political views... An exceptional fantasy can become a classic like any other genre. People change and all genres evolve to reflect what will satisfy the audience, fantasy is no different and authors new to the genra seem to reflect this.
I agree. There is indeed plenty of room for fantasists of all political/social persuasions to write stories utilizing the fantasy form to address issues that are near and dear to them. Now some seem to think that the point of my earlier post was to attack one Terry Goodkind. yes, I did mention him and Robert Newcombe in passing as writing what I consider to be "shit." That is my opinion and I have never denied it. However, it is a bit much to go from there and to presume that the point of my earlier wotmania post/Blog entry was to attack Goodkind. If you go to the wotmania link inside this article, you'll see an opening paragraph that I edited out of the Blog entry for readability issues (as in the context changed a bit when further removed from the wotmania Quickpoll that started the original post that in edited form became the Blog entry). That opening paragraph states quite clearly why I wrote the rant back then.

You might notice that the blog is almost 4 months old, and hasn't a single comment. Which tells me he either doesn't know anyone from the site (or guests, if they're allowed to post) who agrees with him, and/or the only responses were in disagreement and he deleted those responses.

Or, he's just a pathetic loser with no friends trying to prop himself up by knocking others down.
This made me smile and wonder if this moderator was projecting here. The only features I have turned on this site is a verification box to keep 'bots from spamming the posts, like what happened a few months ago. If he had bothered to go to the link embedded at the top of the original article (and which is also first in this article), he would have seen over 50 comments to my original post. But nope, this blog isn't heavily advertised. Actually, considering that it mostly exists as a repository of posts/interviews from wotmania's OF section, it is quite interesting to see how a certain someone came to read that article in the first place. But I must admit that I'm amused by the final line there, considering the reality of my situation now. Keep trying!

Maybe I am reading too much into your particular choice of words, but my interpretation is that you are suggesting that these attacks on Terry are a minor issue. I do not agree with that at all. WFR is going to be made into a mini-series by a well-known producer. As a result, I am thrilled: 1) for Terry; 2) that more people will become conversant with the SOT series and I will be able to discuss my favorite books with more people; 3) most importantly, that many more people will be exposed to Terry's philosophy. Call me crazy, but I believe that this is an opportunity for Terry to have a major impact on America. Ayn Rand started the movement of objectivism, a major element of which is personal responsibility, but it still has languished in our society. Her books take too much effort for most people to read and, despite large numbers of sales, objectivism remains a relatively obscure philosophy as far as mainstream America is concerned. Terry can change all of that that. His writing is much more accessible to everyday people. This exposure is going to be HUGE. Let the naysayers like Larry enjoy their last few moments of fun. When mainstream America, particularly the younger generation, really starts to understand what Terry is saying, expect a sea change in American politics. Maybe this is why Larry and his ilk badmouth Terry; they are afraid of these changes.
Ummm....ummm....did someone just drink the purple Kool-Aid? I don't deny thinking that Objectivism is no more than just a daft pseudophilosophical viewpoint, but the main reason people have fun at Goodkind's "expense" (and sadly, I have to devote time to this topic, since my original post dealt with fantasy as being more than just this marketing tool for a limited number of books that shared a few superficial features in common) is because of what is perceived to be his shoddy writing, illogical plot developments, and yes, hyperbolic statements such as the one I quote above. Oh yes, I'm quaking in my boots (err...sneakers) right now over this impending Objectivist Revolution. And some wonder why Objectivists aren't taken any more seriously than they are now...QED.

Those that would seek to tear down someone like Terry, simply because such an action makes that person feel better about himself, is someone that I consider evil.

For quite some time, mystar has attempted to mobilize us against these "enemy forces." Speaking about these issues amongst ourselves, or debating individual enemy combatants when they come to this board, don't seem to be particularly effective. Going to other sites, either singly or in groups, and defending Terry only seems to get us labeled as "Goodkind fanatics." There has to be a better way. Darned if I know what it is.
And therein lies the biggest problem that some at this one site have had with my post and perhaps with other writings of mine. I don't devoting my waking hours to badmouthing Goodkind - I spend much more time talking about how much the New York Yankees suck than I do about an author that I consider to have ideas that are the opposite of my own. But when I am talking about one thing and it seems that some have interpreted it in such a way as to turn into an "attack" on Goodkind (who was mentioned specifically as much as Newcombe was), it is rather telling as to how certain people (not all the ones that I cited, but just merely certain ones) view the world.

Now excuse me while I return to dividing my reading attention between Roberto Bolaños's Los detectives salvajes and Harry Mulisch's The Discovery of Heaven. There are things still left to be learned, things to be remembered, and still other things to be forgotten for a time before they reappear as if new in my imagination. There be dragons over there, ahí, y los buscaré. And that is the spirit of Fantasy, that quest to find what is around the corner or over the hill, not just what is written about some "heroic" character. Free the mind.

Free the mind.

Monday, September 04, 2006

Tales Told by Idiots

To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of record time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow; a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
signifying nothing.

There have certainly been quite a few tales told by idiots lately. Sometimes the sound and fury that they create influences our actions, so perhaps the part about it "signifying nothing" is false or at least misleading. It has been a while since I've written a thought piece here, but a couple of articles that I've read recently have compelled me to state my piece. Of course, I'm nobody special, nobody all that influential (on a good day, this blog won't attract more than a few dozen views, many of them for the Spanish-language literature that I review), but I have no problems in stating (and in some senses, restating) my opinions.

The first casus belli for me is a discussion of a post-Hugo rant found at William Lexner's blog. Although the matter appears to be resolved now, I couldn't read the developing "discussion" without feeling a ton of disconnect. I'm at that weird stage where I'm neither "old" nor "young," being 32 and having been involved in the running of wotmania's Other Fantasy section for virtually five years now. For some people in "fandom," however, I'd be little more than a mere pup, I suppose. Which is fine, because whether it's right or wrong, over the years, I've been developing this feeling (based on reading quite a few blog exchanges, anecdotes from various conventions, etc.) that the powers that be in WSFS and elsewhere are little more than bourgeois types, more focused on parliamentary procedures and how to protect the "purity" of their awards than about how to recognize the wide diversity of spec fic writings that abound. Oh, sure, some will argue against this, stating things such as: 1) It's their game, so play by their rules if you want to win their awards; 2) OK, smartypants, how would you define which awards should be awarded and how would you go about establishing procedures and protocols; 3) Do you have anything constructive to offer in all this?

For the hypothetical first point, my answer would simply be a shrug of the shoulders and the acknowledgement that the middle-aged, well-to-do, aspiring Grammy set can have their party with their awards that won't mean jackshit the vast majority of the spec fic reading public anyways. I'm just having fun here commenting on the amusing snipe fire when some just think that there are things that need to be corrected with the WSFS and related agencies. It's not like I'm a Big and Important person anyways, just a lowly schmuck who's bored of all this roundabout talk about how to tinker with a process that is already guaranteed by the nature of its balloting system of producing finalists that are going to be middle of the road, "safe" novels. Novels usually (not always, but usually, going by the finalists for the past few years) written by WASPs, with forms and stories that usually tend to harken back to the so-called "Golden Age" of SF. Which of course for some such as myself, it harkens back to an age of shitty, wooden dialogue, with this notion of a Big Idea dominating the plot/theme, and with furries/almost humans apparently symbolizing either humanity's corruption or its hope. While all nice and good I suppose, it really doesn't excite me and apparently not a lot of others. Sounds like something more befitting to the 1950s than to the dawn of the 21st century. At least those damn robots are fading out of the stories...somewhat.

Now as for what I'd do, I'd simply break shit up. No need for a single award or even a set of awards. There has been so much specialization of sub-genres and now cross-genre hybrids that to define works as being "the best" of a single field is kinda difficult to do. I would say either drop the pretense of 500-600 voting members deciding which bourgeois-leaning story is going to win, or just divide things up into a variety of categories - SF, Epic/Multi-Volume Fantasy, Magic Realism/Urban Fantasy, etc. That way, there's a better chance for more recognition of quality works that aren't feeling like they've been pausterized or which have the imprint of a previous work stamped all over them.

And as for the third point, of course not! I'm just a relatively small-time blogger/reviewer/moderator at a website devoted to some epic fantasist's work who is just only out to spread the glories of socialist writings, avant-garde writings that include works from outside the UK/US axis of SFdom, and who thinks that some of the best spec fic works in recent times weren't written in English or if they were, many were written by women and people whose skin color doesn't shine like a computer monitor on during the night. I guess it's good there are other awards for people writing in other traditions, because it's hard to recognize any of this in the "bigtime" awards like the Hugos. Ho-hum. I guess I'll have to read juried award finalists like the WFAs or the Spanish-language Alfaguara (technically mainstream, but not always) for some variety in the types of books up for consideration.

But enough sound and fury on that topic. Another blog exchange that I read about recently (thanks to Hal Duncan's blog) is yet another tired rehash of the Literary/SF issue, except this time it deals with Young Adult fiction as well. Scrolling through it, you'll see the usual stances about why "literary" fiction is this, while "genre" fiction has to be that, while others point out that no, they aren't necessarily mutually exclusive terms. I must say that I agreed mostly with Duncan's responses and his general attitude toward this farce of an argument, but I would add one little point here: most of the time, those arguing for/against the merits of spec fic in comparison to "literary" fiction fail to address adequately the social/cultural issue here. There is a lot of merit to either "side" in terms of reading them (although again, the limited-perspective, societal-confirming narrative tends to bore me personally, as it just reeks of a smugness that truly can be called "bourgeois" in its 19th century sense; it's as if Madame Bovary has come to dominate the story telling), but frankly, I've seen little to no focus on the world-views that are involved in these novels. Sometimes, what is not stated explicitly in a novel is of interest to the cultural historian, even if for the literary reviewer it would only be of limited value.

I guess I better elaborate more here: What do the pulps of the 40s and 50s have to say about our views of the world back then? What do novels such as The Tin Drum and Night have to say? Why the hell did The Lord of the Rings become so popular in the first place? To answer those questions, you have to step outside the literary debates and go to the sociological/historical epistomologies for possible explanations. But do these ever really come up in the usual herpes-like outbreaks of literary vs. genre fiction arguments? Apparently not.

But it really would be refreshing for someone to explore why and how 'sacred texts' such as that of the Gilgamesh legenda and the Flood 'switched' to being "fantasies." Now that is a prize-winning Ph.D. dissertation in the making, if one dares to travel down that road and to question everything. Until then, we just get a bunch of sound and fury, signifying nothing, including this half-hearted 'rant' from a bored individual such as myself.

Saturday, August 26, 2006

Interview with Eric Garcia

How did you become a writer?

Well, that's sort of a multi-part question, isn't it? It all pretty much started when I was 12 years old and my parents bought me my first computer (a Texas Instruments "Professional" -- wow!), which I used to start typing out my very first stories. So, in a sense, I've been a "writer" since I was 12. I don't know exactly what made me into a writer, what made me want to tell stories or gave me the ability to do so...

But the question you're probably asking is "how did I become a published writer?" and the answer to that is a little easier. As a child, I wrote short stories, and attempted my first novel when I was 16. Let's just say it did not go well.

After that, I went to college and majored in English, then in Psychology, then in film, then transferred colleges and majored in film again, then back to English where I stayed, thank God. All the while, I kept writing, mainly because it's something that I love to do. Some folks shoot hoops or do the crossword puzzle for fun; I write. Many writers, I know, practice their craft from a place of pain and/or difficulty, and I applaud their ability to do something day in and day out that tortures them. Me, I'm an instant-gratification kinda guy. If I didn't enjoy what I was doing right then and there, I'd probably stop and go do something more fun...

A year after I graduated from college, I wrote a manuscript, my first full-length completed novel, and it sat in my house for a couple of years before a friend convinced me to send it to agents. I was very fortunate in terms of timing; I got an agent inside a month and she sold the book inside the next couple of weeks. I realize now that this is *highly* unusual, and I can only blame/thank the stars and good timing for my success thus far. That manuscript was ANONYMOUS REX, and Random House/Villard bought it in fall of '98 and published it in Summer/Fall of '99, and just like that, I was a published writer.

Who were your influences? What kind of books were you reading as a kid?

I read a lot of fantasy and sci-fi as a kid, though I was open to mystery, suspense, pretty much anything that didn't make me wade through 100 pages of description. I didn't get into Faulkner until high school, so strong plotting was important to me as a child.

Naturally, I read the Lord Of The Rings series; in fact, The Hobbit was the first "adult" book I read, when I was 6, and from there I went into the usual suspects: C.S. Lewis, Madeline L'Engle, eventually bumping to Stephen King and then some light fantasy with Terry Brooks and Piers Anthony and those folks. Even back then, I wasn't all that interested in exploring Our World And The Normal Everyday Things That Happen In It. For a book to capture me, it needed to be slightly twisted. That's still the case today...

These days, I count some of my favorite authors as friends, and that tickles me something wild. Bill Fitzhugh writes some hysterically funny mysteries, Christopher Moore is a wonderfully twisted individual. My college professor and mentor was T.C. Boyle, and I cherish all the time I spent with him; it's nice to know I can still ring him up if I'm having a crisis. I've only gone to that well once or twice, though -- I mean, c'mon, I don't want to wear the man out. I've always enjoyed John Irving (just twisted enough) and Tom Robbins. If I'm looking for a total mind-screw, I re-read some Philip K. Dick...

Where you really into dinosaurs as a child?

Man, I wish I was, because then I could wax on about how my childhood obsession became a career obsession... but, no. Wasn't, really. No more than any other kid, I guess. The dinosaurs were just a way into the story for me, something that sparked my imagination and let it all take off... Of course, I know a lot about 'em *now*

Did you read a lot growing up and does it play into your writing now?

I read a ton growing up. As a kid, we used to take family vacations, and I was fortunate to get to go to Europe and Asia with my parents, and, as a result, spent a lot of time in the back seats of a lot of rental cars driving through countryside which, as an adult, would be fascinating, but as a child is not much more than field after windmill after sunset. So I read. And I read. And... I read.

Does it play into my writing? I don't see how it can't, but I couldn't give any specific examples. I've read thousands and thousands of books over my lifetime, and I'm sure each one, in its own way, left its mark on me. You'd think that some of it's got to come out in my writing...

How did you come up with the idea for Anonymous Rex? Detective stories are cool, dinosaurs are even cooler, but I never would have thought about combining the two.

Neither would I! The actual story isn't all that interesting, sadly. In the summer of '96, a year after I graduated from USC, I told my wife that if I was going to seriously make a run at becoming a writer, she'd have to crack the whip and make sure I got work done every day. One weekend, I wanted us to go to Las Vegas with friends, and she insisted that I get my 15 pages written that day. On a lark, I wrote this weird bit about dinosaurs yelling at each other in some guy's basement and then coming up to street level and putting on their human costumes... and promptly forgot about it. Months later, I came back to the story, re-read it, thought it interesting, and then took a shower -- where the rest of the idea exploded in my head. I sat down, started writing, and a couple months later, ANONYMOUS REX was born. Weird, I know, but the shower has worked countless times for me; if I'm stuck on a story point or character, I take a shower, and more often than not, I'll get past the block. Probably explains why I'm so very, very clean and fresh-smelling.

What's your favorite herb (people that have read the Rex books will get the reference)?

Cilantro! (I know, some people simply can't stand it, but mmmmm I loves me some cilantro!)

When you were writing Anonymous Rex, did you ever expect it to get translated as much as it did?

I barely even thought about publishing it in the U.S., let alone in as many countries as it's in right now. I simply just wanted to tell this story the best way I could, have some fun with it, and see what happened from there. Of course, the end goal is always publication, but foreign territories hadn't even occurred to me. Now I'm fortunate to have all 5 of my books published in something like 14 different countries, which is beyond wonderful. The more I can do to warp the minds of, say, Costa Ricans, the better.

The first two rex books were set in the west coast and the third was in Florida. Did you work any of your past into the settings since you live/lived in this area?

Anonymous Rex is set half in L.A. and half in NYC, and of course my L.A. experiences played into the settings and tone of the book. L.A.'s a great place for noir -really, the *only* place for American noir - and it just seemed a perfect fit.

Casual Rex is half L.A., half Hawaii, and again, a little Hawaiian reconnaissance
visit or two doesn't hurt anyone...

Hot And Sweaty Rex is barely L.A., and mostly South Florida, and since I spent the first 18 years of my life in the Miami area, it definitely plays into the novel. H&S Rex is, in a way, my love/hate letter to South Florida. I was born there, my family is
still there, and though I've physically escaped it by moving to California, I think mentally, I'll always have a part of me that's moist, chaotic, and a bit sultry.


Did you ever expect Matchstick Men to be made into a movie? Were you satisfied with it?

Unlike Anonymous Rex, which was written when I was as-yet unpublished and just starting out, I wrote Matchstick Men when I'd already had a degree of success. So I'd be lying if I said that I never expected it to be bought for film --

But let's look at that closely. I expected it to be *bought* for film --

But never to actually be made. Why? Because nearly nothing gets made. The odds are so incredibly against any property getting turned into a film that to assume my book would get that treatment would have been the height of hubris (not to say I'm short on hubris)...

And to imagine it would be directed by a man like Ridley Scott and star two of my favorite actors in the world (Cage and Rockwell)... very dream-come-true sort of stuff for me. I was incredibly pleased with the end result, and I'm thankful every day that a lot of people enjoyed the film. Even more so that it turned a bunch o' folks onto my books.

What TV/Movie writings are you credited with?

Most of my TV/Movie gigs have been rewrites or polishes that, fortunately, pay nicely, but unfortunately don't result in credits. I've sold a number of scripts that haven't yet been produced (see earlier question on near-impossibility of movies getting made), acting as producer on a few different film projects, and I'm in the middle of adapting my most recent book, CASSANDRA FRENCH'S FINISHING SCHOOL FOR BOYS with a great actress named Jordana Brewster to play the role of Cassandra. If you must know *everything*, I'll point out that I was the Co-Exec Producer of the Anonymous Rex TV movie for the SciFi Channel... but let's move on.

What are your hopes for the future?

I'm just interested in continuing to write the stories that interest me, and hope that they interest other folks as well. Books, movies, TV, stage, internet -- whatever the format, I'm there.

Oh, and world peace. Let's add that in.

Have you ever thought about expanding more upon your musical side?

I have, and I'm doing that right now, actually (well, not right *now*, but you get the point). I've been hired to write book & lyrics for a musical theater piece that the producers want to put on Broadway, and just lyrics for a second show (I'm working with my good friend and wonderful composer Brian Feinstein on both). I'm a huge musical theater geek, and though that business is possibly even more insane than Hollywood, the creative joy I get out of it is worth all the loopiness.

If you were to own several monkeys and/or midgets, how many would you own, and what would you name them?

I'd never own any midgets, because slavery is so 1860's. I might *hire* some midgets though, as part of an agreed-upon employee-employer relationship, and in that case, I would contract out for three midgets and name them Huey, Duey, and Louie.

As for monkeys, I've heard they throw a lot of feces, and I live in a strict no-feces development. Sorry, monkeys, you'll have to find another place to hang out. You don't have to go home, but you can't stay here.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Interview with Hal Duncan, Part II

In reading Vellum, I was struck with the sense that at times, this was a very personal book. Which scenes would you say stood out the most to you in an emotional sense as you wrote them?

In some respects the most personal and the most emotional scenes are two different things. Although, as I said, there's a fair amount of personal experience underlying the inner narrative of Jack Flash, his childhood in the schemes, I deliberately kept a certain detachment there, and sort of placed it all in inverted commas as an unreliable narrative. As much as I think fiction should be written in blood, sweat and tears autobiography, especially of the miserable-childhood sort, is just tedious and self-absorbed. That stuff is partly there to be stomped on.

The really important scenes, the ones that meant the most emotionally to me in writing, were those scenes in the faerie chapter where I parallel the crucifixion of Matthew Shepard with the murder of Puck. I was actually trying to absent myself from the writing there as much as possible, to put as little of me as possible into the story, to let the event speak for itself without any cheap sentimentalism. I suppose it's still quite personal, because the narrator at that point, Jack, his grief and rage are sort of expressed by the very fact that they're not expressed, if that makes sense -- and this is the form of grief I remember from my brother's death. A total lock-down of affect. A heart like a clenched fist. A sorrow and fury so fucking intense that any voicing of it would be so... banal as to be an insult. I still remember that feeling and, with that scene describing, basically, the murder of Matthew Shepard in all its cold brutality, well, that scene was written straight from the heart. The image in the Errata which follows that chapter, the self-mutilated Jack -- that's that grief let out.

The other scene that stood out most, and it's probably the scene I'm proudest of in the book, is one of those with Seamus Finnan. There's a few of the Seamus scenes that really mean a lot to me actually, because the soldiers of WW1, the Red Clydesiders, the International Brigades, with all of those I was deeply moved by the stories of the individuals I came across in my research, so when I came to write these sections I couldn't help but think of the reality underneath the fiction; but there it's as much the truth that makes it emotional as the fiction, so it's the scene where Seamus tells Anna the Prometheus story that really stands out for me. That's the thematic core of the book. That's my humanism in a nutshell.

The stories contained within Vellum appear to be reflections of human crises, not just the war between the Covenant and the Sovereigns, but also between humans and their emotions. Is it fair to say that a focus of the story is on human conflicts and discontinuities?

Absolutely. There's the political and religious aspects to the conflict between the Covenant and the Sovereigns, but even that can be seen on a human level as a sort of conflict of reason and passion, the rationalism of the Covenant who want everything neat and ordered versus the romanticism of the Sovereigns who want their old power and glory back. And really the whole war is more of a backdrop for the human stories of Phreedom and Thomas, Seamus and Jack. I'm not interested in just telling the darling-of-destiny story, where the hero comes from obscurity to save the princess and lead the rebels to victory -- not straight anyway. VELLUM is far more about the death of Thomas and how that changes everyone involved, the tensions it creates between Phreedom and Seamus, Seamus and Jack, the internal conflicts it creates within those characters, the way those conflicts are resolved -- or not, as the case may be.

And "discontinuity" is the right word. The characters are quite literally changed in the course of the novel. Identities are shattered and remade. Literally, in some cases.

Thomas, Phreedom, Jack, and Seamus (among others) each appear throughout the various stories contained within the Vellum. What would be the overall 'message/s' (pardon the pun) that these archetypical characters have? I'm particularly curious about Seamus and his roles as Prometheus and Sammael in the second half of the book.

I don't see them as having messages per se. I don't think you can't tie true archetypes down to a simple, singular significance. Instead, I think, they function as unmoored signifiers, metaphors for identity but where the meaning is not so much in what they are as it is in how they relate to each other -- as sister, brother, killer, lover, and so on. The way I see it, archetypes are the psyche's way of interacting with itself. I riff off Jung (and the ancient Egyptian idea of us each having seven souls) in breaking it down into seven major archetypes -- Self, Anima, Id, Persona, Shadow, Mana, and Ego -- but I don't see these as essential components, more as... perspectives, filters.

Anyway, the characters aren't meant as straightfoward allegorical ciphers, but that model is not bad if you want to understand the book as, in one respect, a study of grief: Thomas is the Self as puer aeternus -- not the sentimentalised Inner Child you hear about on Oprah, but Shakespeare's Puck, Barrie's Pan, an impish, irresponsible little bastard with nipping teeth and nicking horns; Phreedom is the Anima -- maiden and mother, guardian angel and avenging fury; Jack is the Id -- the chaotic vitality of our passions, repressed or unleashed; Reynard is the Persona or Superego -- the inner conscience, the self-editor; Joey is the Shadow -- the cold-hearted bastard inside us all; Don, is a Mana figure, as I see it -- the old soldier, a man of age and experience; and Seamus is the Ego -- the psyche as social being, the individual defined by their relationship to society.

That's why Seamus becomes such a focus for the ideological conflicts, because a humanist, socialist, pacifist outlook leads inevitably to such conflicts. Do you fight the fascists as a socialist, or refuse to fight them as a pacifist? Do you steal fire for humanity even if you know they'll hate you for it? Where the others have clear roles, he's the Everyman who has to make the hard choices of real life, and who has to deal with the consequences. He's the battleground between social mores and individual ethics, the tyrant Zeus and the rebel Prometheus. Personally, I've always seen Lucifer, the Lightbringer, as a Promethean hero on the side of humanity against a deity defined by his might. The "laws of God" are just society's mores. The fire, the enlightenment, given by Prometheus, the knowledge of good and evil offered by Lucifer -- that's individual ethics, and if it's a choice between the two I know whose side I'm on.

One of the reactions that I’ve heard from others reading Vellum is a wry observation that they could not believe that one of their favorite characters turns out to be Satan, or rather the Lucifer part. Have you heard similar reactions from other readers and if so, how did you respond to such comments?

I haven't really had that comment, to be honest, but then those who know me well wouldn't find it at all surprising that I turn one of the good guys into Lucifer -- or, more to the point, turn Lucifer into one of the good guys. At the risk of starting book-burnings all across the Bible Belt I'll hold my hand up and say I've always been pretty Antichristian. Don't get me wrong: I like the whole Sermon on the Mount thing -- lovely piece of pacifist socialism -- but this "washed clean in the blood of the Lamb" malarky? Jesus Christ died for your sins? No, I'll die for my own sins, thank you very much, and if I go to Hell (not that I actually believe in Hell), I'll be signing on for the next assault on the Pearly Gates, even if it's only as a stretcher-bearer.

I mean, there's two things to bear in mind here. One is a practical matter of what actually happens in the story. You have to remember that the unkin's identities are defined by their gravings and that Seamus is being royally fucked over by Metatron during the second half of the book. He's being turned into Prometheus because Metatron wants access to the knowledge only Prometheus possesses, who or what is capable of bringing down the Covenant. I can't say too much without giving away spoilers for INK, but it's not as simple as Seamus "turning out" to be Sammael; in the same way that Phreedom and Thomas have their own identities, their own gravings, overwritten with those of Inanna and Tammuz, Seamus's history is tweaked and twiddled so that Sammael is made flesh again in him.

The second thing -- and I can imagine some readers may well have problems with this -- is that if you look at it from a comparative mythology standpoint, I think there's a fair argument that the Lucifer/Sammael of the Apocrypha can be seen as another version of the Prometheus myth. He's the Godfather's right-hand-man. In some Gnostic or apocryphal legends it's actually Sammael who created the world and humanity, just like Prometheus. The Garden of Eden, with the serpent offering humanity wisdom, is a close parallel to Prometheus's gift of fire. Both tyrants, Deus and Zeus, are afraid of being usurped. Read Genesis without the Sunday School blinkers on and you'll find that God exiles Adam and Eve not for being disobedient but because he fears them eating the fruit of the tree of life and becoming as powerful as him. Explicitly. It's there in black and white. Prometheus is credited with bringing medicine and magic, all the arcane sciences to humanity. So are the fallen angels of the apocrypha. God turns against humanity and sends the Flood to wipe them out directly after the fallen angels start cavorting with them. Similarly, Zeus can't stand to see humanity thriving with these wonders gifted to them by Prometheus, so he sends the Greek version of the Deluge to destroy them all. If you look through the propaganda, Lucifer is the rebel hero of the story. He's just been given a bad press. Myth is written by the victors just as much as history is.

To me it seems self-evident, to be honest: if Seamus is Prometheus, then he's also Lucifer.

Two of the characters are gay. What has been the range of reactions that you have heard from people in regards to this, especially considering how these characters are portrayed throughout the novel? Also, how would you say the overall climate among readers is in regards to receptivity for homosexual characters?

The reaction's been overwhelmingly positive. I can't think of any responses I've seen that reacted against the homosexuality, and there's been plenty that have picked up on it as a good thing. The nearest thing to a negative reaction was a passing remark in John Clute's review, but that was because he saw the sex as self-indulgent, I think, a bit too redolent of authorial wish-fulfilment for his liking; it certainly wasn't about being uncomfortable with the characters being gay. Instead, where reviews or comments have mentioned the homosexuality it's largely been to praise the characters as rounded individuals; readers, gay and straight alike, seem to have felt that I've succeeded in elevating Jack and Puck out of the realm of stereotypes and tokenism -- which is truly gratifying. I really wanted to drive a big monster truck over the cliches, to blithely ignore any idea of what can or can't be done with gay characters, most of all for their sexuality not to be the be-all and end-all of their purpose in the narrative. I mean, yes, there's an element of the classic Gay Victim in Puck, and of the eternal Repressed Gay in Jack, but those cliches are set-up in order to be soundly thrashed, smashed apart. Yes, there's a part of the book which is about homophobia and its victims, but that's only part of a wider story about persecution in all its forms. And readers -- especially gay readers -- seem to have recognised the straightforwardness of this approach -- they're gay; big deal -- and found it... refreshing.

So, I'd have to say the climate seems pretty receptive. The field of strange fiction has always been pretty accepting of difference, I think. You do see a tendency to exoticise, fetishise, infantilise or demonise these differences -- to render them Other -- and a market for those works which is therefore receptive to gay characters as long as they fit into certain roles. The fetishisation of homosexuality in certain types of vampire fiction -- all those mooning sensitive poseurs in shirts with frilly cuffs, making doe-eyes at each other's luscious lips -- is something that particularly irks me; it's fricking softcore porn for Goth girls as far as I'm concerned, no better than having a faggot flouncing about for a few cheap laughs. But that Othering isn't the whole story. In a field of fiction largely written by geeks for geeks, I think, as often as not we identify with those outsiders. We write and/or read those works and see ourselves in the characters -- strangers in a strange land. That's me, we think, and I ain't no Other. Many of the most popular writers in this field, gay or straight -- Samuel R. Delany or China Miéville, Clive Barker or Neil Gaiman -- have quite happily placed gay characters right at the heart of their works, and nobody bats an eye.

Speaking of other authors, what changes have you seen in recent literature of the weird or fantastic? I’m wondering if there could be a strong case made for today’s SF reflecting the conflicts of the so-called Culture Wars of the 1980s-1990s.

Possibly so, though I'm not sure I'm the best person to ask here as I'm pretty out-of-date in my reading. As cyberpunk, after the initial boom in the Reagan/Thatcher era -- when it was so pertinent, so relevant, to the nascent culture of consumerism and global capitalism -- seemed to gradually become genrefied and formulated into a set of noirish tropes and stylisms, co-opted into a superficial style which was all mirrorshades and technotoys, I have to admit I drifted away from the field for awhile, lost touch with what was happening. I spent a long time reading more realist or non-fiction works, ancient classics or marginal contemporaries, than I did reading within the field, so I'm not really in a position to pontifcate on the changing face of SF. I'd be liable, I think, to unfairly neglect writers from the not-quite-so-recent past simply because I haven't gotten around to them yet.

What I will say, kicking off your question is that there definitely seems to be an engagment with large-scale political and cultural issues in a lot of the work that's coming out now, which really interests me. In SF, you have writers like Geoff Ryman and Iain Macdonald looking to developing countries -- India, Cambodia, Brazil -- for stories of the future, which strikes me as an admirable sense of perspective, looking beyond the narrow Anglo-American worldview, focusing on something beyond one's own backyard and the same old junk scattered around it. My fellow GSFWC member, Gary Gibson, has a few timely things to say about religious zealotry and military prisoners in both his novels, ANGEL STATIONS and AGAINST GRAVITY, and I'm sure he's not alone in picking up on the current climate -- Richard Morgan being a case in point. Then in Fantasy, you have China Miéville and Jeff VanderMeer, both of whose work deals with political issues far more complex than how the poor dispossesed prince needs to be restored to his throne. VanderMeer's SHRIEK, in particular, with the pointless war that blasts right through the centre of it, strikes me as pretty pointedly relevant -- though it's by no means a cipher for the War on Terror.

But as I say, I'm not sure I'm the best person to ask about this. It could be a shift towards greater political engagement, but it could equally well be that I'm not up to speed on a lot of what's been going on.

And finally a couple of not-so-serious questions:

Although I didn’t get to attend the last WFC in Wisconsin last year, I heard vague rumors about a lot of drinking and good times that occurred. Are there any funny stories to share of that time, such as which authors could best handle their liquor?

Unfortunately, I'm not sure I can answer that... on the grounds I may incriminate myself. No, my favourite story from last year's WFC can only be told in person, at the bar, with no recording devices or members of the law enforcement agencies present. I'd quite like to return to the US at some point, you see.

I will say that at Wiscon this year, having previously discovered the joys of the Governor's Club in the Madison Concourse at WFC (Brian, the barman mixes a mean White Russian), I managed to pretty much eradicate all memory of the Thursday night and had to spend the next three days asking anyone and everyone I ran across if they knew what I'd been up to. Having woken up in bed bright and early on the Friday morning around 9:00, I assumed I'd wigged out early when the Governor's Club shut ,and toddled off to my room. Oh, no. First I find out that my editor nearly tripped over me when he made it back to the room we were sharing at 3:00 in the morning to find me out cold, fully dressed on the (quite comfortable) floor. I have no memory of this. Next I find out that at least an hour after the Governor's Club closed John Scalzi walked into the elevator to find me swaying there with a White Russian in my hand (with ice unmelted and therefore clearly recent). Scalzi to Duncan: Hey, Hal. How ya doing? Duncan to Scalzi: I'm fucked. I have no memory of this either. Then there's the report of me sitting on the smoker's bench outside the hotel at 1:00 -- this from a worried bystander who, after seeing me stagger off through the lobby in a determined Z, responded to the revelation that I'd made breakfast with "He's still alive?!" Again, I have no memory of this. And I'm not going into the rumours that I finally heard, and had confirmed to my excruciating embarassment, of me hitting on another writer (albeit politely). All I'll say is that, as with the rest, I have no memory of this whatsoever.

Let that be a lesson to you: drinking is not big, it's not clever, and it doesn't make you look cool. Even if it is a lot of fun.

This last question is our version of the Rorschach Test for authors, to help us better gauge their personalities behind the quill/pen/keyboard: If you were to own several monkeys and/or midgets, how many would you own, and what would you name them?

Could I have Mexicans instead? I know you can't own Mexicans -- that's what we call slavery -- but then strictly speaking you can't own midgets either, and ethically speaking, monkey minions could also be considered rather dubious. No matter how well you treat them, you know, it's not their natural habitat. Unless, you're actually living with them in the trees, eating bananas and having mutual grooming sessions, of course, but then the whole ownership thing rather becomes a moot point.

No, I'd rather have Mexicans, or at least midget monkeys dressed as Mexicans, not so much real-life Mexicans but like the peasant kid in The Magnificent Seven. Come to think of it, seven would probably be a good number for these midget monkey Mexicans -- not too many, not too few. I'd have them all wear white linen and little red neckerchiefs, and every one of them would be called Pedro. That way, when I had some errand for them to run, I'd simply lean out the window of my villa and shout, Pedro! Scampering out of the trees they'd come, and the first one there would catch a shiny gold coin flipped through the air. To town, Pedro, I'd say. Quick, fetch the doctor! Or at least some very powerful painkillers. Si, Don Loco, Pedro would chitter, and be off like a flash.

One can but dream.

Once again, a great many thanks to Hal Duncan here. And for those curious, his next book, Ink, is due out in February. It was a real pleasure getting to do this interview.
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