The OF Blog: October 2009

Saturday, October 31, 2009

New award announced to honor the best works translated into English

I've known about this for over a month now, but was asked to be mum about it until it was announced at the World Fantasy Convention.  Friday, a series of people, including the University of California at Riverside (who are the planned hosts for this award) announced the creation of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Translation Awards, which aims to do for non-English SF/F translated into English that awards such as the Seiun Awards, Premio Ignotus, Utopiales, and other awards from Asia and Europe do to honor foreign translations of SF/F works into their native languages.

About damn time.  Between this and the expansion of the Best American Fantasy anthology series (starting in 2011) to cover translated fictions from Latin America, there will be much greater coverage and hopefully awareness of excellent works being produced outside the Anglophone regions.  Expect more coverage of these matters here at this blog (and obviously at the blogs/sites of those contributing to the founding of these translation awards) in the coming months and years, as this is something that appeals to me for obvious reasons.

September 27-October 30 reads

Been over a month since I've updated my 2009 reading list, so here are the books I've read over the past five weeks or so, with tiny commentaries:

369  Jaime Martínez Tolentino, Cuentos Fantásticos (Spanish) (decent)

370  Hayo Miyazaki, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, vol. I (good)

371  Italo Calvino, The Path to the Spiders' Nest (very good)

372  Scott Mills, Big Clay Pot (good)

373  Don DeLillo, Cosmopolis (very good for much of the way, but too short)

374  Maurice Sendak, Where the Wild Things Are (re-read) (classic)

375  Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, Poesías de Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (Spanish) (OK)

376  Zoran Živković, Impossible Stories II (very good collection)

377 Zoran Živković, Amarkord (Serbian) (very good)

378  Nick Tapalansky and Alex Eckman-Lawn, Awakening:  Volume I (good to very good)

379  Angela Carter, The Magic Toyshop (excellent)

380  Pat Barker, The Man Who Wasn't There (very good)

381  Walter Moers, The City of Dreaming Books (outstanding)

382  J.M. Coetzee, Elizabeth Costello (decent)

383  Salman Rushdie, Haroun and the Sea of Stories (very good)

384  Maya Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (very good)

385  Amanda Downum, The Drowning City (meh)

386  Eoin Colfer, Artemis Fowl (good to very good)

387  Peter Straub (ed.), American Fantastic Tales:  Terror and the Uncanny:  From Poe to the Pulps (excellent)

388   Peter Straub (ed.), American Fantastic Tales:  Terror and the Uncanny: From the 1940s to Now (outstanding)

389  Sergio Toppi, Sparrow:  Volume 12 (artbook) (very good)

390  John Watkiss, Sparrow:  Volume 11 (artbook) (very good)

391  Angela Carter, Nights at the Circus (re-read) (excellent)

392  Gail Carriger, Soulless (very good debut novel)

393  Ashley Wood, Sparrow:  Volume 0  (artbook) (very good)

394  Ashley Wood, Sparrow:  Volume 1 (artbook) (very good)

395  Phil Hale, Sparrow:  Volume 2 (artbook) (very good)

396  Kent Williams, Sparrow:  Volume 3 (artbook) (very good)

397  Shane Glines, Sparrow:  Volume 4 (artbook) (very good)

398  Phil Hale, Sparrow:  Volume 5 (artbook) (very good)

399  Vladimir Nabokov, Novels and Memoirs 1941-1951 (Library of America omnibus) (excellent to outstanding)

400  Kristin Cashore, Fire (excellent)

401  Vladimir Nabokov, Invitation to a Beheading (excellent to outstanding)

402  Eoin Colfer, And Another Thing... (already reviewed, but very good)

403  David Ratte, Toxic Planet (very good)

404  Camilla d'Errico, Sparrow:  Volume 13 (artbook) (very good)

405  Jeff VanderMeer, Shriek:  An Afterword (re-read) (excellent)

406  Vladimir Nabokov, Glory (excellent)

407  Dave Eggers, The Wild Things (excellent)

408  Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse (very good)

409  William S. Burroughs, Naked Lunch (good)

410  Clive Barker, The Books of Blood (very good)

411  Olga Dugina and Andrej Dugin, The Brave Little Tailor (very good to excellent)

412  Sergio Toppi, Sharaz-De:  Volume 1 (excellent to outstanding)

413  Sergio Toppi, Sharaz-De:  Volume 2 (excellent)

414  Jeff VanderMeer, Booklife (review forthcoming; very good to excellent; non-fiction)

415  Scott Mills, Trenches (good)

416  Dr. Seuss, Green Eggs and Ham (re-read) (classic)

417  Robert Jordan, Knife of Dreams (good to very good)

418  Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson, The Gathering Storm (already reviewed; very good)

419  H.P. Lovecraft, Tales (Library of America omnibus) (excellent)

420  Philip K. Dick, Four Novels of the 1960s (Library of America omnibus) (very good)

421  Gustavo Arellano, ¡Ask a Mexican! (very good; non-fiction)

422  Jonathan Strahan (ed.), Eclipse Three (very good)

423  Italo Calvino, The Castle of Crossed Destinies (excellent)

424  Jeff Lemire, The Nobody (excellent to outstanding)

425  Denis Diderot and D'Alembert, L'Encyclopédie:  Art de L'Escrime (French) (good; non-fiction)

426  J.M. Coetzee, Youth (good)

427  Rick Berry, Sparrow:  Volume 6 (artbook) (very good)

In Progress:

Jeff Lemire, Essex County (omnibus, with new material, outstanding so far, 2/3 in)

Ellen Datlow (ed.), Lovecraft Unbound

William Faulkner, Novels 1926-1929 (Library of America omnibus)

Philip K. Dick, Five Novels of the 1960s and 1970s (Library of America omnibus)

William Jansen, Beginner's Basque

Stephen King, The Dark Tower:  The Gunslinger Born (graphic novel adaptation)

Future Plans:

N.K. Jemisin, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms

Don DeLillo, Underworld 

Thursday, October 29, 2009

All you need is love?

Pat has written an interesting column about the "hate" he's been noticing recently, in the context of the comments posted to his blog and those posted elsewhere.  While I often have differences of opinion with him, I think he raises some interesting points.  That doesn't mean, however, that I agree wholeheartedly with what he says.  Far from it, actually.

Pat's contention that "SFF fandom" seems "to be fragmented beyond repair" left me thinking, "well, duh, since there never really was a single, unified entity as such in the first place!"  There have always been people with diverse interests who interact more as tangents or secants than as anything more intertwined.  I would be quite worried if there were a more homogenized "fandom" out there, as the literature that the authors, some of whom come from fandom ranks, might be a bit more staid as a result.  But this hypothetical concern detracts from the real thrust of Pat's article.

What really seems to be in play here is the notion of there being a sort of hierarchy of taste and disdain.  Every reader (and essayists/critics such as myself) has his/her "sweet spots" and blind spots.  That is understandable, as there really is no accounting for taste in so many of these matters.  In writing his article, Pat seems to have unwittingly done what he accuses others of having done, which made for a rather odd reading earlier this evening for myself.   I guess diff'rent strokes for diff'rent folks is more of an ideal than a reality?

But what I found to be most intriguing is Pat's writing about his readers and those vociferous few who want him to review X but not Y.  I'm sure much of that comes with the territory of having a relatively large blog readership, but some of it is rather odd.  Not saying that Pat can't choose what he wants to focus on, but rather that he feels compelled to write about it in such detail.  I know there have been shifts here when I decided to blog more about what interested me than blogging about the "next big thing" almost exclusively.  Doubtless, some readers stopped visiting regularly.  But new readers discovered what I was doing and liked it.  I suspect much the same is going on over there at his place and perhaps all he needs to do is just keep at it and stop worrying about the wannabe cooks trying to add to the stew?

Since I'm still absorbed in trying to do work-work, I guess I could just ask people here to weigh in on the "positivity" elements in that article and perhaps also things liked/disliked about blogs such as mine or his?  Not that I'm going to pay much heed to anyone who hates what I'm doing now, of course, but I think it'll be amusing to see what would happen if I started to review almost-all non-spec fic works for a while, just for a change of pace...would you follow that?

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Interview with David Anthony Durham, Part I

Due to the growing length of this interview, David and I decided it would be best to divide it into two parts, with the second part appearing in the next few days.  

A couple of years ago, you were interviewed by several bloggers at Pat's site, including myself.  What important things have happened in your professional and personal life between the publication of Acacia: The War with the Mein and The Other Lands?

Lots of stuff, mostly good. Acacia: The War With The Mein performed rather nicely. I was very happy with the reviews it received and with the overseas attention and publications. It got me nominated for the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer twice, and the second time I won it!

As important as any of that is that I’ve been overwhelmingly pleased by my acceptance into the community of science fiction and fantasy writers. When I walk into a convention now I know I’m among friends. Also, I’m part of a group of sff writers from around the world that daily shares information and exchanges ideas and stories about publishing. I’ve been asked to do several anthologies and collaborations – most of which I’ve had to turn down – and I’ve had the pleasure of accepting George RR Martin’s invitation to write for his Wild Cards series, which I’m doing right now.

All things considered, it’s been a good couple of years professionally.

Very cool news!  I’m curious about this group of sff writers of which you are a member.  Can you divulge any information on what that group does - is it more of an informal manuscript peer review, support group, or all that and a bag of chips more?

Oh, the group isn’t exactly a secret, but we don’t really advertize ourselves either. It’s sort of quiet, self-regulating group. Every now and then we invite new folks in, not as if we’re trying to be elite or something, but just with an eye toward keeping the group supportive and diverse and low-key. Once in, we’re just sort of an extended group of friends and peers to call on when we need to. We talk publishing biz stuff. We ask questions as we make publishing decisions or just want to get other perspectives. It’s great to see what other writer’s experiences are, and to have folks to talk to other than our editors and agents. For me in particular it’s eye opening in terms of issues specific to sf genres. It’s a good group.

Interesting.  So this is as much of a social support group as it is a writing workshop one?  Also, have you been involved in such groups for all of your professional writing career or have there been shifts in how you approach the writing craft and the sharing of written material with other writers?

It's not really a writing workshop group at all. I'd say social support group describes it.

I've not been involved in anything remotely like it before. This genre nurtures more networking and interaction than the "literary" genre does. There's certainly plenty of friction between factions in sf, but there's supportive communication too.

In terms of sharing work with other writers… I still don't do that much. I had a few people read Acacia: The War With The Mein during the revision period, and a few read The Other Lands. Mostly I work alone, and then bring my wife, agent and editor in.

That said, I have floated my stories for Wild Cards out to a few of the other people working on the series, and I've read pieces from others as well. And one prominent author recently asked me to read an early draft of the first novel of in a new series. So I guess sharing is becoming more and more a part of my writing life.

Whenever I read your blog, one of the things I notice most is how close-knit your family is.  How much of an influence has your family been on the characters and settings of your novels?

Quite a bit, actually. It would be hard for me to explain just how, though, since they get into my writing in bits and pieces, in fragments that probably only make sense to me. For example, the Akaran children are based on the template of my wife’s family, but once the template was set the characters began to evolve different. Sometimes Mena is my wife; sometimes she’s more inspired by my daughter; much of the time she’s neither. A character like Melio is named after one of our cats, a fact that brings my kids fits of laughter every time I mention something heroic the character did.

Other things I only understand afterwards, like that in writing about the relationship between Mena and Elya in the second book I was sort of writing about the relationship between my daughter and another one of our cats, Dolphin. Go figure.

My family affects everything I write. How could they not?

Since your family takes such an active role in influencing the characters, have there ever been times that one of them has been tempted to throw something at you because they saw themselves reflected in one of the characters?

For a while I lived in fear of that. It’s most obvious with the Akarans. Aliver was based on my brother in law, and look what happened to him! And Corinn began as my sister in law, and you know how she turned out… I’m happy to say they took it all in good humor, though. The truth is that from the moment the characters first open their mouths and start moving around the Acacia stage they become something different than any of the real life people that inspired them. My family understands that. Lucky for me.

Every now and then, there's some comment or assertion on some blog or article about how there's some discernable difference between "mainstream," "literary," or "mimetic" fiction and "speculative" or "SF/Fantasy" fiction.  As an author who has had stories marketed in both categories, what differences, if any, do you believe exist between these perceived narrative modes?

There are differences. Sure. There are commonalities too. I tend to think we make too big a fuss over differences, though. People stake out their turf and take too much self-righteous glee in lobbing insults onto other people’s turf. To me this is kinda silly. Kinda childish.

Here’s what I believe about “literary” and “mainstream” fiction – just today’s selection of thoughts.

I believe that there is value in writing and reading purely for entertainment, but I also believe fiction can offer more than that and that when it does it’s often harder to access without effort.

I believe that literary fiction by its nature intends to speak meaningfully about the human experience, but I also believe literary writers have no monopoly on this and that they often wear blinders that stop them from seeing quality work in other genres.

I believe that genre fiction has its roots deeply in long-standing traditions of storytelling, sometimes reaching right back to the classics, but I also believe a lot genre writing is uninventive and boring.

I believe that literary fiction’s goals are admirable, but that it’s often… uninventive, boring, safe and lacking ambition.

Looking at my own work, I’ve heard many responses that make it clear genre readers have appreciated my literary attention to character psychology, language, complexity of detail in social and political landscape, but I’m also aware that my writing seems to short circus some readers that don’t connect with any of those things at all.

Some genre readers seem to choose not to like a book when the book fails to be what they expected it to be, when the story or characters aren’t just like the last book that they really loved. That’s a perfectly valid reaction, but I don’t think it should necessarily lead one to conclude that a book is bad – or that literary is just boring. That book may just be different. The author’s interests may be different. Not all readers may share those interests, but some readers give up before they’ve engaged enough to know.

And that’s where I think there is a difference between mainstream and literary that matters. Mainstream writing by its very nature should be easy to swallow. It should go down smooth, without challenging a reader too much – or by challenging them in the ways they expect to be challenged. To take another example, McDonald’s isn’t a massive chain because they make the best tasting hamburgers in the world. They’re massive because they’ve managed to find the right formula for delivering consistently familiar food, food that never surprises and… never fails to be what you expect when you walk in the door. That’s a rather remarkable achievement, and I do think similar impulses drive book buying in the genres as well. Why not return to authors, stories, plot twists that have worked before, rendered in language that doesn’t get in the way?

Literary fiction often begins with a different premise. It may require that a reader learn to read it. Even if you’ve bought a hamburger of a novel, it’s hopefully a different cut of meat. Your first bite isn’t just like the first bite of every Big Mac you’ve ever tasted. You might have to chew for a while to know what it actually tastes like – and then to figure out if you like it.

That’s probably a lot easier an experience to go through with a hamburger than with a novel, but I think there’s a parallel. Some genre readers are turned off by literary fiction before they’ve chewed on it long enough. And, to be fair, I think that many literary readers ignore that the genres do have lots of complexity within them, many titles that they’d love if only they had the sense to give them a try. I’d say one has to learn to read Octavia Butler or Neil Gaiman or Kelly Lynch. They’re literary. They’re also fun to read regardless, but I think they get better the more you digest them.

I’ll never forget an early review of my first novel, Gabriel’s Story, in the San Francisco Chronicle. The reviewer found the language of the first part strange, convoluted and a bit hard to figure out. But then he wrote that by the second part the language had started to work to “greater effect”, and by the end he loved the book! He seems to have walked away thinking that the first part wasn’t as good as the following three parts. But I’d argue that the writing was consistent. What changed was that it took him that first part to get into the rhythm of my writing. After he did, everything got smoother and smoother for him.

Now, if I’d started the book with simpler language he might have been happier from the start, but if I’d done that I wouldn’t have been using the language that he’d learned to love by the end. I think that’s often the case with good literary fiction. (And I do mean the “good” stuff; I’m not saying that all literary fiction is.) Hopefully, it holds you from the start, but in a great many ways full appreciation of it comes gradually.

Nice presentation of the literary/genre presumed divide there.  You raise an interesting point about how your first novel was received.  Would it be fair to say that for those who read Acacia: The War with the Mein and struggled with the first section before finding themselves enjoying the rest of the book might have had a similar experience to that review of Gabriel’s Story?

Before I delve into that, I should make it clear that I don’t believe a writer has an elevated authority in terms of judging how readers respond to them. We think about it and can have opinions, but I don’t think we can determine exactly what any reader is or isn’t experiencing. The whole process is about offering stories to people. It’s the offering that counts, and once you do that you loose control over how others interact with your stories. That’s the way it should be.

With that caveat out there, do I imagine that some Acacia readers had the same experience as that Gabriel’s Story reviewer? Sure. And I thank them for sticking with it! I hope my novels are enjoyable to many people, but they do require some effort on the reader’s part. Most of the people that read Acacia were new to my work. It makes sense that some would need to get used to my approach. I’m just thankful they did.

When someone comes up to me and says they were hooked right from page one I’m always a little surprised. Really? From page one, huh? I’m proud of everything I’ve written, but I don’t think that hooking readers quickly is one of my strengths. I try to get readers chewing on an entire mouthful of baited hooks without really feeling any of those hooks too obviously. I don’t rush to yank too soon, either. I’d like to think it happens gradually, that it grows on readers so that they never know the exact moment when the hooks start sinking in.

Anyway, that’s my approach. It must be natural to me because even in novels that begin in mid-action, like Walk Through Darkness, I still don’t reveal the main hooks controlling the story until near the end.

Have there ever been times that a reader or reviewer comment has led you to reevaluate your approach, perhaps even add an element or two in order to “clarify” a point that may have been more confusing for readers (I’m particularly thinking of Acacia here) who were not used to your narrative approach?

Things that readers/reviewers say may plant seeds that effect decisions I make in the next book, but I’m not sure I’d be able to pinpoint what comment effected things I did a year later. It just gets in the mix somehow. On one hand, I make decisions consciously and I believe in them, but I also know that the whole thing is about communicating stories and ideas with people. I'd be a fool if I didn't keep an ear open and stay willing to respond to readers.

Multiculturalism in literature of all sorts has become more prevalent in the past two decades.  However, in certain fields, epic fantasy being one of them, there seems to be some controversy over how certain characters are portrayed and if the imagined secondary worlds are a bit too homogenous.  What is your take on the arguments on this issue, including the so-called “Racefail ‘09" debates online?

I can’t speak about Racefail ’09 specifically. I didn’t participate in it, and, though I know some of the details, I’m no expert on what went on. What’s my take on this issue in general? Again, I offer the thoughts as I have them today…

I think it’s part of the record that a lot of fantasy and sf has been laughably white.

I think it’s a bit silly when depictions of humanity in the future 1) are basically white, or 2) are diverse in ways that mirror our contemporary notions of what diversity is. The first is embarrassing because the majority of the human population isn’t white (not even right now), and unless all these folks have been killed off in some way they’re going to be in the future in ever larger numbers. The second is embarrassing because it’s so limited and shortsighted. I think it’s much more reasonable to imagine a browning of humanity that means it will be harder and harder to find people that have kept the bloodlines undiluted (and lacking the benefits of genetic diversity).

I believe that in fantasy there is something insidious about creating an entire world peopled only with variations of white people: humans, elves, dwarves, etc. I’m not moaning about it. I’m just saying that intentionally or not writers that have done that are revealing things about they way the perceive – or don’t perceive – people of color.

But I also see growing diversity in fantasy. I think it’s always been there in the readership – although not necessarily visible in the folks that make up fandom – and I see it in people’s work and in the small, growing population of writers of color that are striving to get into the field. That’s progress. It should be acknowledged and encouraged – partially because it’s just a good thing, and partially because it can only make the genre more interesting. It doesn’t mean the issue is resolved, though.

There are layers upon layers of issues built into our racial perceptions and interactions. This is one thing I think white people often view differently than people of color. (I’m very aware that I’m speaking in generalities. Such things aren’t perfect, I know.) I think it’s easier for a white person to point at a few authors or books and say, “Look, there’s proof that there’s diversity. Case closed. Can we please stop talking about it?” Whereas a person of color is more likely to say, “Yeah, you can name five black sf authors now, but let’s look at what they’ve written, how they’ve been marketed and received, how that compares to how white writers of similar material were treated, etc. And, yes, there may be other races in lots of new fantasy series, but let’s look at how they’re depicted, how central their roles are, how much they embody earthly stereotypes, and let’s consider that there’s something wrong when the people in the book are all brown and the people on the cover are all white, etc. And perhaps you can stop talking about it, but that’s because it doesn’t matter to you the same way it does to me. I have no choice but to keep talking, because stopping would mean I was failing to acknowledge and express things that I think, feel, experience every day.”

As with everything to do with race and culture and social history, there aren’t any easy answers. And when there are advances it doesn’t close the matter; it just opens up further avenues that need exploring/debating. I do wish the debating didn’t get so hostile so quickly, though. From a distance, that’s one of the things that seem problematic with episodes like Racefail ’09.

In general, we can all do better. I had a friend over from Scotland a few weeks back. White guy. He’d been talking about how much he liked District 9, which I haven’t seen. As I looked up stuff about it online I came across Tananarive Due and some other writers of color talking about depictions of race in it. Some were highly critical; others supportive of the film, etc. I showed them to my friend. He came away from reading them and said, “Well, I don’t exactly agree that it’s racist in the ways some of these authors think it is, but, still, it does get me thinking about some things I hadn’t before.”

To me, that’s perfect. Couldn’t ask for more. I wish more folks could listen to people they don’t agree with like that – with a mind open enough so that the dialogue broadens their perspective in some way, even if it’s in ways lateral to the point being argued. 

Good points.  Correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t part of the problem many PoC writers and readers have is with “diversity” in writing that consists of having a shallow, token non-caucasian appear in a limited, or rather limiting roles?  In what ways have your stories shown a substantive difference in approach toward addressing the issue of representing PoC characters, concerns, and situations that might differ from how a caucasian writer might represent them?

Yes to the first question. Often when white writers included PoC they're there as part of the gang around the main characters, in support roles. I'm sure those writers feel that they've been inclusive by doing that, but being on the margins of the story doesn't help if the PoC characters are always at the margins. That's not true engagement.

White writers having true engagement with non-white protagonists is rare. Richard K Morgan does it. I love it that Neil Gaiman has had lots of diverse characters in supporting roles in his books and stories, and that he made a black Caribbean character the primary in Anansi Boys. Neil delivers. He also made the decision to have Lenny Henry read the audio version of that book. You could say that's just because the main character has a different personality than Neil, but that's only part of it. We all know Neil's an awesome reader. I'm sure he chose Lenny because he wanted a black voice narrating his story about a black character. If he'd tried that with his own voice the identity would've blended with Neil's, and that would be diluting the effect of his narrative choices.

And that happens a lot too. Writers like Ursula K LeGuin have explicitly written about worlds filled with brown skinned characters, only to then see their publishers or filmmakers present those characters as white on the covers of their books. This is partially a subconscious thing – the ones making the artistic decisions kinda forget that the characters were described as brown-skinned. And I know it's partially intentional – that publishers believe they're more likely to sell less books with a PoC on the cover.

Readers may scoff at that. "I don't think about the color of the person on the book!" I can't argue with an individual on what they do or don’t consider. I'll just say that it's a fact that publishers consider race and prejudice as they make marketing decisions in which race and prejudice may play a part. You may not think you think about it; they're sure that at some level – even subconscious – you do.

In terms of my own writing, the most direct ways I've approached race differently can be seen in my earlier novels. Gabriel’s Story was a response to Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian. I loved that book, but I hated the way the one black character in it was called "the nigger". He was as much a part of the group as any of them, but his marginalization had it's own nasty character to it. So I wrote a Western that began with a solid historical fact – that there were many black settlers in the West, especially after the Civil War – and ran with it. I made the black characters the central focus. I’m not aware of a white writer ever having done that.

Walk Through Darkness is as a runaway slave story, but an entire half of the book is focused on a white character, the one who I'd argue is the real main character of the book. It was an exploration of how intermingled the American bloodline is, how much that's been subverted, and how freeing it can/could be to acknowledge it more directly. I choose to include it because I think it's an important aspect of the American experience and because the story is in my blood, in my family history.

In my Hannibal novel, Pride of Carthage, I wanted to translate what ancient sources and what modern historians tell us about the Second Punic War into fiction. That meant making decisions, choosing between alternative possibilities, condensing and splicing things, but it was all in an effort to get that epic conflict on the page. I also wanted to pay tribute to the diversity that was the ancient Mediterranean. That's part of why there was such a wide cast of characters: Carthaginians and Romans, Greeks and Macedonians, Gauls and Celts, and Libyans and Numidian. They all featured in the war; they all feature in my novel – not just as walk on characters in the background, but with devoted scenes specifically telling their stories. I’ve read a few fictional takes on the Second Punic War, but none of them made central characters out of North Africans other than the Carthaginians. I did. It felt important – and natural – to do that.

With Acacia: The War With The Mein I just wanted to write a large fantasy story set in a racially diverse world. I didn't center the story around Northern European-like cultures or around sub-Saharan African ones. I went for placing it in between, and then casting a wide net around that. Once that was in place I just proceeded with the story I wanted to tell.

 How have reader reactions been to your decisions in your novels, especially in Acacia: The War with the Mein, to include so many different ethnic groups that have their traditions and which aren’t shallow riffs on the dwarves/elves/orcs that you noted above?

Nobody's complained about it. Nobody’s said, “I’m so disappointed. Where are the elves?”

Readers of color and folks interested in PoC have quite welcomed it, who seem to feel that the combination of a writer of color creating a multi-cultural world is a very good thing. I’m happy about that. On the other hand other readers have said, "What's the big deal? It doesn't feel that different." Different readers; different reactions.

I believe that only part of the way an individual perceives a story is shaped by the written words themselves. Those words mix with whatever perceptions/perspectives/prejudices the reader carries with them. That’s the magic of it, but it means that not everyone reads the same thing the same way, especially when ethnicity is one of the issues at hand. When I read Earthsea I’m jolted each time Ged and most other people are physically described as dark, coppered, brown. Each time that rings in my head like a little bell, reminding me that this is a world of PoC characters. It’s so very there in the text, and I think readers who match those descriptions themselves latch on to the ethnicity of the characters – as LeGuin wants us to do. But I’ve also spoken with a lot of white readers that look at me funny when I point this out. They don’t notice it the same way. To them those descriptions don’t stick, or don’t seem to mean the same things.

The same is true in Acacia. Again and again, I mention that the Acacian’s are of a light brown complexion, that they tend to have brown eyes and dark hair, that feminine beauty is typically round featured in the face. By contrast, the Meins are the ones that have really blond hair and fair skin and sharp features. The Talayans are very dark-skinned.

Still, though, a lot of readers sort of slide the Acacians to the European realm. I’ve seen this in the artwork for some of my European covers. I’ve certainly seen it in the names of actors people come up with to fit roles in the film. I think the tricky thing is that secondary world fantasy has been Euro-centric for so long that it’s become the default picture people have in their minds. Subtle changes to that template don’t always register.

On the other hand, complete shifts, like what Charles R. Saunders attempted with Imaro, truly resets the template. He wrote African-based sword and sorcery. No mistaken that. Problem is that few people read it. Sales dove. The series got cancelled. They tried this twice, by the way, and the same thing happened both times.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson, The Gathering Storm

The Wheel of Time turns, and Ages come and pass, leaving memories that become legend.  Legend fades to myth, and even myth is long forgotten when the Age that gave it birth comes again.  In one Age, called the Third Age by some, an Age yet to come, an Age long past, a wind rose around the alabaster spire known as the White Tower.  The wind was not the beginning.  There are neither beginnings nor endings to the turning of the Wheel of Time.  But it was a beginning.

The wind twisted around the magnificent Tower, brushing perfectly fitted stones and flapping majestic banners.  The structure was somehow both graceful and powerful at the same time; a metaphor, perhaps, for those who had inhabited it for over three thousand years.  Few looking upon the Tower would guess that at its heart, it had been both broken and corrupted.  Separately.  (p. 49)

Robert Jordan's The Wheel of Time series has been one of the most sprawling, character-intensive epic fantasies of the past twenty years.  Spanning millions of words, this series, now reaching its twelfth volume out of a planned fourteen, has spawned dozens of fansites over the years, as well as engendering heated debates over matters ranging from how well (or not) the author managed to portray female characters to questions of character identities and motivations to even a fictional murder-mystery that still remains unresolved seven volumes after its occurrence.  Some view passages, such as the (in)famous "wind passage" that opens the first chapter of each book, as being hallmarks of a great talent.  Others read the same lines and wonder how the story ever managed to become even more turgid and bloated than the previous volume.

Debates such as these point to some intrinsic quality of the series that barely allows for there to be a middle ground.  There is something for almost everyone, depending if one likes an action/adventure tale, political intrigue, social commentary, or even elements of a puzzle novel.  Sometimes, there is too much of it all, and readers who enjoyed the earlier volumes might end up finding the past few volumes to be rather plodding, tedious affairs.  After reading the eighth and ninth volumes, The Path of Daggers and Winter's Heart, I found myself going years before even thinking of picking up the tenth volume, Crossroads of Twilight, which was perhaps the most difficult book to complete reading of them all at the time.

But then a tragic event happened.  Jim Rigney, the person behind the Robert Jordan pseudonym, contracted a rare blood disorder, amyloidosis.  Rigney spent the final eighteen months of his life battling the disease, while attempting to complete the conclusion to the series.  Sadly, he succumbed to the disease on September 16, 2007.  Fans were devastated, as for nearly three months, the matter of who would complete the series, or even if the series would be completed, was up in the air.  Toward the end of the year, Rigney's wife, Harriet McDougal, announced that she had chosen young author Brandon Sanderson, whose work to date had been three adult fantasies (Elantris and the first two Mistborn novels) and two young adult novels.  From the end of 2007 to now, Wheel of Time fans have been probing for information, trying to decide if Sanderson was the "right" choice, if he would manage to capture Jordan's narrative "voice," warts and all, and if the conclusion (now announced to comprise of three volumes spread out over three years) would be worthy of the time invested in the series.

Depending on what you enjoy most about the series, Sanderson largely succeeds in this thankless task.  For those wanting to know if Sanderson would manage to capture the essence of the late Jordan's writing style or if his passages would integrate well with the ones Jordan had completed before his death, it will be difficult for most of the time to discern which author wrote which passage.  Sanderson's interpretations of the two main characters of this story, Rand al'Thor, the Dragon Reborn, and Egwene al'Vere, the rebel Amyrlin, are almost pitch-perfect.  What I found interesting about Sanderson's treatment of the characters is just how well they are integrated with Jordan's earlier development of them.

Rand in particular has a very good character development arc in The Gathering Storm.  Hurting from his myriad mental, emotional, and physical wounds, he is a near-complete wreck.  Increasingly paranoid and worried that he is not "hard enough" to face the Dark One in the prophesied Last Battle, Rand's character displays many traits in common with soldiers suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder during the Vietnam War.  This is no accident, as before his death, Rigney discussed how he himself faced a decision in Vietnam if he was to desensitize himself to the horrors happening around him or if he would fight to keep from becoming a sociopathic killer.  Rand's development from the first chapter, "Tears from Steel," to the last, "Veins of Gold," is one of the more intriguing in the entire series.  It is perhaps for me the most personal of all the mini-plots in this mammoth series and the authors do such a good job of showing Rand's descent into darkness, both figurative and literal, as well as setting up the decision he makes at the end of this book that is in many ways as important thematically as the cleansing of saidin was in Winter's Heart.

Paralleling Rand's development and his struggles to integrate his past and present memories is that of his childhood sweetheart, Egwene.  Captured at the end of Crossroads of Twilight and forced to undergo numerous punishments at the hand of her rival for the head of the Aes Sedai organization, Elaida, Egwene presents a clear contrast to Rand's choices early in the novel.  Instead of trying to harden herself by means of shutting out friends and even one's own emotions, Egwene comes to accept her situation, viewing matters such as hurt and grief not as something to avoid or to manipulate, but rather as things to accept and to use to improve one's self.  This change from the rather ambitious, self-righteous girl of the earlier volumes into a leader who realizes the importance behind the very name of "Aes Sedai," stands in sharp opposition to that of Elaida, as the authors go to great lengths to make clear in the second chapter, "The Nature of Pain."

There are even more parallels between the characters along the lines of examining the choices people make in regards to themselves and others.  It is debatable whether or not Jordan would have been quite as direct as the final draft came to be, but several times over the course of the novel, characters ranging from the two mentioned above, Perrin, Mat, and members of the Black Ajah and the Forsaken are shown via the choices they have made.  The selflessness of one clashes with the self-centered greed of another.  The desire to be viewed as being important contrasts with one who humbles herself, placing her own soul in risk of eternal perdition so the machinations of others can be revealed to others.  These parallels, which were either lacking or were not adroitly done in the past several volumes, helped make The Gathering Storm one of the better WoT volumes I have read in the past twelve years.

Despite this, there were several problems that I had with the text.  Although Sanderson eschewed the character "blocks" that Jordan used in the past few volumes, there were times that the pacing of the plot still suffered.  While Rand and Egwene's subplots were developed well and each concluded within narrative minutes of one another, Perrin and Mat's were underdeveloped and appear to be days or even weeks behind the first two.  In addition, their characters were not as well developed as were Rand's and Egwene's.  Perhaps this is in part due to the limited number of chapters each appears, but Mat's chapters, despite a near-horrific chapter occurring in a backwoods town near the kingdom of Andor, felt rather sketchy, as if Sanderson had not decided what to do with the character in the allotted space.  Perrin's arc was rather anti-climatic and it is hard to guess where he will be heading in the next volume.  Despite the near-certain protests from fans of those characters, The Gathering Storm might have been better served if those arcs had been withheld until the next volume, even though that alternative certainly would have risked backlash from those burned by the eighth and tenth volumes of the series.

The pacing was mostly good, although there were times that events long foretold in the series unfolded so quickly that there was a sense of a letdown.  But perhaps reader expectations had been built up too much from the narrative molehills, so it is hard to say particularly which events (ranging from what occurred outside a castle in Arad Doman to the use of a certain item discovered in The Shadow Rising) were done too hastily and which events were done purposely at such a breakneck pace in order to set up future character development.  For myself, the two events I allude to above served to develop Rand's character in ways that were at once surprising and logical in hindsight (especially as it relates to how he parallels Moridin more and more now in thought and action).  But others might view these scenes differently, wishing that Sanderson had spent more time setting up the events so that there would be a stronger emotional reaction.  There is something to be said for this argument, but I suspect if there had been further development of these two set scenes, the pace of the narrative would have slowed to the near-glacial creep of the previous novels.

Prose is something I value highly in a novel.  The previous eleven volumes of the WoT series were uneven to me, as powerful scenes would be offset by descriptions of clothing, of how to wash silk, and even lengthy scenes set in a bathtub.  Sanderson's prose in his novels tends to be rather too sparse at times, attempting to be too "invisible" when the occasional use of more florid language might serve to vary the prose enough to make it more interesting.  Thankfully, for most of The Gathering Storm, Sanderson managed to achieve a happy medium between his own preferred style and that employed by Jordan.  There are places where the narrative still feels clunky or choppy, but these are fewer than what I recall being present in Sanderson's own work.  The too-long descriptions of places and dress still occur on occasion, but thankfully they are reduced.  The male characters' self-conscious thoughts about their abilities with women is also much reduced, doubtless to the delight of numerous readers.  While certainly not written in a style that would lend itself to being studied by writing students, the prose here was at least acceptable and at several times, very well-written.

The Gathering Storm certainly is not an ideal beginning place for readers curious about the Wheel of Time universe, but for those who were disenchanted by the perceived lack of plot and character development over the past few volumes, it certainly is one of the faster-paced, better-written volumes.  While I would not consider it to be among the best works released in 2009, it certainly is one of the best epic fantasies that I have read.  The Wheel continues to turn and thankfully it appears to be cranking a bit faster and toward a more intriguing conclusion than I had suspected when I had suspended my reading of the series back in 2000. Highly recommended for WoT fans and recommended for those who might have become disillusioned by the previous four volumes.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

October 25 Used Book Porn

Here are 16 out of the 23 books I bought today at my favorite local used bookstore (well, actually I traded in about 35 hardcovers, tradebacks, and MMPBs of books I had no interest in reading and which I had had in my possession for about a year or two for almost $200), with the other seven being a second copy of a book I own (for a gift to another), five grammars (Basque, Romanian, French, German, American Sign Language) and one mathematics book for my students.  Still have almost $80 in store credit remaining.  I love McKay's Used Books and CDs, obviously.

It is little accident that I have fewer works of speculative fiction pictured here than what some might expect.  Oftentimes, when I'm purchasing books, I spend much more time in the "General Fiction" or "Literature" sections than I do in the "Fantasy" or "Science Fiction" sections.  My interests are much broader than I sometimes reveal here (and sometimes I wonder if I need to establish contacts with the publishing firms' non-SF imprints, so I can be broader in my coverage of newer books).  Perhaps one day I'll update my pictures of my non-English languages books (nearing 300 books now, not counting the grammars, which must be near two dozen).

Of course, the best part of making posts like these are not just letting people who are curious know what I buy when in a physical bookstore, but also in perhaps sparking curiosity to the point where others go and investigate books such as these.

So, out of these books, which look the most interesting and why?

New poll on predicting the World Fantasy Award winner for Best Novel

I guess if I want to get more reader participation (well, outside of those where a few delete their cookies and vote multiple times in order to sway a choice), I'll have to run more polls in the future featuring rabid squirrels, since that poll was among the most-participated of any that I've run over the past year or so.

Still extremely busy with lots of things in my personal and professional life (much more so than I thought I'd be at this point, but the former seems to be resolving itself somewhat at least and the latter is apparently always going to be in flux), so not as many updates and reviews as I would have wished.  But since this week will see the World Fantasy Convention begin in San Jose, California, I thought at the very least I could run a speculative poll as to which novel will win the Best Novel award (the other categories are stacked, but I suspect those don't hold as much interest for many readers here).

So, for those of you who only read this blog via RSS feeds, you might want to visit here directly and make your voice heard...or something.

Friday, October 23, 2009

It's that time of the year

Need I say more?  I have a feeling I'll be saying it quite a bit on Saturday...

Thursday, October 22, 2009

I just finished reading The Gathering Storm and some vague impressions

Going to be writing a formal review of this on the 27th that will be quite a bit more substantive than this, with quite a bit of discussion of thematic elements, characterization issues, plot development, how well Brandon Sanderson managed to integrate his writing style with the WoT story, and so forth.  I think it'll be an interesting review, but sadly, some will only want to know things that I won't reveal until after the 27th, since I did agree to not give out spoilers until after the release date.

However, I will note that my general impressions differ in several regards from those seen over here at Pat's blog, for example.  Pat, it seems (based on general impressions of having read several dozen of his reviews over the past four years) prefers more plot-based development.  I, on the other hand, prefer to focus on thematic development and prose.  Therefore, there have been several times that he and I have differed quite a bit in our interpretations of stories.  Figures that this would be the case here.

I will note that there is more of an emphasis on the development of the characters than there is on overt action, although several important plot "prophecies," are fulfilled, some in surprising ways.  There are those who will argue that certain ones of those were not developed fully and in a few cases, I could see that point of view, although I'd suspect it's more a matter of the reader having built up one's own imagination to the point of making most anything that was designed to occur to be a letdown.

It probably helps that I have not been all that huge of a "fan" of the WoT series since the 9th installment. I thought then (and still do, to an extent) that the writing was a bit laborious in places, the pacing was glacial, certain character arcs were not developed well, and so forth.  So when reading over the course of nearly 800 pages not just plots developing in a decent pace, but character traits being developed more concisely and with a greater emphasis (perhaps too great, some might argue) on thematic parallels between various characters.

The Gathering Storm is in many ways, a "dark" novel.  The main characters featured are tested; some prove to be brittle.  I am reminded of the late Robert Jordan's blog entry from several years ago, talking about his experiences in Vietnam and a choice made there.  There are certain parallels between that and what takes place in this novel.  What that situation/choice is will have to be a matter of conjecture until the next week.

Did I enjoy it?  Yes.  It was better, for the reasons I hinted at above, than several of the more recent entries in the novel.  It is not a perfect novel (reasons I'll explore on Tuesday), but it reminded me of the elements of the series that I did enjoy when I began reading it in 1997.  While not likely to be considered for the best 2009 novel that I've read, I do think it is one of the best epic fantasies novels that I've read this year.

But if you want to know anything more specific than this, then read and find out...on October 27.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Jeff VanderMeer, Finch

Wyte stopped walking, faced him.  Finch had his back to a crumbling wall veined through with fungus so blue it looked black.  An overlay of scattered bullet holes.  Across the street, a laughing pack of Partials shoved a couple of prisoners ahead of them.  A middle-aged bearded man with a bandage across his forehead and angry rips in a shirt discolored pink.  A woman who could have been the man's wife, her long black hair being used as a leash by one of the Partials.  Just a jaunt around the block before getting down to business. (p. 85)

History, or rather its root of "story," can be a cruel, deceitful monster.  People inspired by one telling of the past may go forth and butcher their neighbors, just because of stories that may not ultimately be "true."  Memories can be haunting by themselves, but when infused with stories from the past that are tinged to place might and right on one's side, who can fathom the depths to which one may be self-deluded or, ultimately, betrayed?  What may seem insignificant in the present may have antecedents that were considered to be momentous, or perhaps the mundane present can give birth to unimaginable futures.  History's treacheries may inspire or crush societies, but no society ever truly remains static or totally free of being enslavement to (false?) memories of the past.

In Jeff VanderMeer's Ambergris Cycle, the various false faces that history and memory can wear are interwoven into the fabric of these tales.  From the myths surrounding the razing of the gray cap city of Cinsorium to the fates of Samuel Tonsure, Voss Bender, and Duncan Shriek, there are layers upon layers of shaded meaning.  What is happening between the lines?  Which writers, if any, manage to follow that old deceiving adage of historians, wie es eigentlich gewesen?  In my recent re-reading of VanderMeer's first two Ambergris books, City of Saints and Madmen and Shriek:  An Afterword, I found myself referring back to this adage of Ranke's.  How can one even hope to believe that "how it actually has been" can be found in narratives like that of Janice and Duncan Shriek?  Who is "lying," and who merely is self-deceived?

In the concluding book to the Ambergris Cycle, Finch, the issues surrounding the relationships between past and present are brought to the fore in VanderMeer's apparently most straightforward narrative yet.  Set around 100 years after the events in Shriek:  An Afterword, Finch is on the surface a noir-like murder mystery.  Ambergris, after decades of internecine warfare between two leading trading companies, fell under the control of the gray caps in the Rising six years before the present story.  The city, always in a fragile state, has become a brutal occupation zone.  Passages such as the one quoted above pepper the narrative.  Humans are herded into quasi-concentration camps or they are subdued by the gray caps by means of hallucinogenic mushrooms that provide euphoria and substance to the addicts.  Bands of altered human quislings, called Partials, spy on the population, trying to stamp out the last vestiges of revolutionary activity inspired by the enigmatic Lady in Blue.  Ambergris is rotting on both the inside and out, or perhaps being on the verge of a transformation may be a more apt description.

In this chaos, just as the gray caps are nearing the end of a momentous building project, two bodies (one human, the other half of a gray cap) suddenly appear, dead.  The gray caps coerce the human detective, John Finch, to investigate.  Over the course of several days, Finch follows leads provided through the gray cap's strange abilities to draw memories from the dead bodies, but ultimately each clue leads Finch further down into a rabbit hole in which reader assumptions about Finch, Ambergris, and even the stories told about various characters' pasts are challenged. 

Finch is written in the style of a hard-hitting noir mystery.  Finch speaks in clipped sentences, often fragmented.  He is introspective, but not overly so.  He has a deadly mystery to solve, while all the while trying to stay alive while some truly horrific events happen.  Since much of the impact of the story comes from its excellent use of the mystery model, nothing much will be said about the plot.  Instead, as already noted above, it is the thematic elements of Finch that make this perhaps VanderMeer's best novel in one of my favorite fiction series. 

Readers who are new to the Ambergris setting certainly can read Finch first.  After all, it is akin to reading a historical novel about the 16th century Tudors before reading a story about the split of the Plantagenet ruling family near the end of the 14th century.  Sure, the prior events, as detailed in City of Saints and Madmen and Shriek:  An Afterword will provide extra context (and contextual mysteries) for the reader.  However, a major strength of Finch is that the "present-day" story is so strong that prior knowledge of the Ambergris setting is not necessary. 

As with any hard-hitting mystery novel, there are several twists and turns, several of them surprising at the onset but logical when considered in relation to the story as a whole.  Finch as a character changes dynamically, at least how the reader interprets him.  What was fascinating to me was how VanderMeer manages to show this to the reader, while still having Finch attempt to deny this for most of the novel.  This narrative tension between what the reader "knows" and what the protagonist refuses to admit to himself made for an intriguing read for me.  Add to that the parallels between occupied Ambergris and what is transpiring in the world today and the story takes on several layers of meaning, many of which I am certain that I am not detailing here.

The narrative, as noted above, is crisp and fast-paced.  VanderMeer does not embellish much here, an interesting contrast to the styles he chose for the previous two Ambergris books.  If anything, there are times that it feels too fast, as though I were missing something even after a re-read.  This feeling was strongest toward the final scene, when so much is happening that it was hard to keep track of everything.  But I suspect that might have been the point of it - to show that there are certain events whose significance may be beyond our ken.

Finch is certainly one of the best novels that I have read this year.  Despite the minor quibbles that I noted above, there is so much that VanderMeer did "right" in terms of balancing narrative, characterization, and themes that I have found myself thinking about some of the issues related to this novel (and to the series as a whole - see the recent interview I conducted with VanderMeer)  for several days now.  Finch is a novel that I believe would appeal to a wide range of readers, from mystery fans to lovers of surreal fiction to those readers who want to "think" and "feel" simultaneously.  It's just a damn good book and I suspect future re-readings will only strengthen my appreciation for what VanderMeer managed to accomplish in this novel.  Most highly recommended.

Publication Date:  November 3, 2009 (US; some copies shipping currently from Amazon).  Tradeback.  UK edition forthcoming from Atlantic's Corvus imprint.

Publisher:  Underland Press 

Disclaimer:  I was sent a PDF of this book by the author back in April 2009.  However, this has had no real impact on my take on the series, as I've been a fan of VanderMeer's writing for over five years now.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Thirteenth Depository and the soon-to-be-released Wheel of Time book, The Gathering Storm

Before I ever started this blog, I was associated with wotmania, one of the largest Wheel of Time fansites before its demise back on August 31, 2009.  During my time there as a member and Administrator, I came to know several wonderful people, including two of the people most responsible for making wotmania's FAQ one of the best resources for the WoT series online, Linda and Dominic.  Earlier this year, they created The Thirteenth Depository, which quickly has become one of the places to go for anything concerning the Wheel of Time.  Since the 12th WoT book (and the first to be published after its author Robert Jordan/Jim Rigney's death in September 2007), The Gathering Storm, debuts on October 27, I thought I would ask Linda and Dominic to share a few thoughts about what they are planning for this event.

On the Thirteenth Depository we are running an extensive recap series on where we left all the characters as part of our preparations for The Gathering Storm. Some beautiful maps accompany these. This week the focus is on the complex situation in Altara, where Mat and Perrin, and a large supporting cast, have been active for two books now.

Linda's and Dominic's dialogue on The Gathering Storm Prologue will commence mid-week. On our forum, much discussion has already occurred on the chapters released so far (and on the older books too of course); and we are running a Predictions Competition for The Gathering Storm.

A study of the three Red Amyrlins is planned to conincide with the release of the final two articles of an extensive series on the Aes Sedai: one on the early history of the Aes Sedai and another on the extremist view of male channellers as unbelievers. Finally, essays in preparation include Wheel of Time
shipping and Perrin and Faile parallels. 

If you have any further questions, be sure to visit the blog linked above or the related discussion boards.  I plan on having a review of The Gathering Storm go live just after midnight my time on the 27th, as the publishers, Tor, have been gracious enough to send me a review copy a week before the official release date.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Interview with Jeff VanderMeer

Jeff VanderMeer is a multiple award-winning author of several books, including one of my favorite fantasy settings, Ambergris.  The Ambergris Cycle is composed of City of Saints and Madmen (2002; rev. 2004, 2006), Shriek:  An Afterword (2006), and the just-released Finch (2009; review forthcoming).  In addition, VanderMeer has edited several anthologies, with recent ones being New Weird (2008); Steampunk (2008); Best American Fantasy (vol. 1, 2007; vol. 2, 2009); and the soon-to-be-released charity anthology of flash fiction, Last Drink Bird Head (2009).  Finally, VanderMeer also just had a non-fiction guide for writers, Booklife, released this past week.  

This interview was conducted via email from October 14, 2009 to October 18, 2009. 

The past year has seen quite a bit of activity from you. What are some of the projects that you have completed or are in the process of completing that will be out soon?

It's such a muddle in my brain right now, I'm just going to list them in no particular order: The Kosher Guide to Imaginary Animals, Last Drink Bird Head (antho), The Leonardo Variations, setting up Best American Fantasy with Underland, working on the Shared Worlds writing camp, tweaking The Best of Leviathan, starting research for the Steampunk Bible and pre-prep on Steampunk Reloaded (a second Steampunk reprint antho), continuing work on the graphic novel version of The Situation for, and others. Booklife, Finch, are out in the next week or two and represent the two central, major projects I've had since Shriek came out in 2006. You may remember more than I do, frankly. There are too many. I need a break.

That pretty much is all that I can recall off-hand, with the addition of your upcoming 2010 story collection, The Third Bear. Correct me if I’m wrong, but aren’t most of these projects due for a 2010 release, or are some slated for 2011?

Oh, also Monstrous Creatures, my nonfiction collection, although I haven't turned that in yet--I'm generating so many essays and articles related to Finch and Booklife due to requests that I want to wait and turn it in the end of the year, so I have the largest pool of material to choose from. Last Drink comes out in 2009, in a couple of weeks. Most of the rest are 2010 or 2011. Ann and I are still working out the schedule so that we don't have too much out in 2010. I need a good five months to finish off the Steampunk Bible starting the beginning of 2010. I also need time to recharge.

You have worn many hats over the past few years, from anthology editor, short fiction writer, novelist, columnist for Amazon’s Omnivoracious blog, and now the writer of Booklife, a strategy guide for writers. Which one (or ones) of these roles has been the greatest challenge for you and how have you adapted to the demands of these diverse jobs?

I was and am a fiction writer first, a book editor and nonfiction writer second, and everything else third, although I really enjoy the challenges and rewards of teaching. I always thought, growing up, that writers always wore lots of hats and did many different jobs within that rough description of "connected to writing". I never thought of it as the idea of being a "man of letters" or anything pretentious like that, but it was an idea that to do so was to be well-rounded. I also knew early on that I had the kind of talent that could be flexible and multi-various if I developed it properly. I've also never shied away from a challenge--forced myself to jump head-first into scary writing situations. I love the diversity of it, in part because it all feeds into everything else. My editing gives me insight into writing fiction and vice versa. The business end gives me insight into editing, etc. The main challenge as a full-time writer is learning how to take time off, because without time to recharge, writing and editing all the time, you can easily burn out. Part of that, too, is playing to that idea of variety. It was a relief after Finch not to have to do a major fiction project for awhile and turn to other writing--even better to have the next major fiction project be so different: a collaboration with Australian writer Tessa Kum on a Halo novella for Halo: Evolutions. (Which means the next fiction project I'm taking on, a long story called "Komodo" is, of course, like something William Burroughs would write after getting drunk with Philip K. Dick and Angela Carter. I hope. )

The greatest challenge wasn't actually Finch, because even if I've never written a novel like it, I have written short fiction a bit like it, and although the Predator novel was completely different, I used Predator to experiment with different approaches to pacing that worked great for Finch. Booklife turned out to be the greatest challenge because half-way in I suddenly realized: Oh, yeah--I've never written a nonfiction book before. This is going to be more work than I thought. Since the deadlines for Finch and Booklife were almost identical, juggling two such major projects was also difficult. I'm happy to say that they both came out as I wanted them to , though .

But in terms of pivoting left and then pivoting again and moving amongst a great diversity of things--I thrive on that so long as the workload isn't insane. I jump into that willingly without a safety net. Just in the last few months I've plunged headlong into new challenges. It's important because it makes it difficult to get stuck in ruts. And there's still a connected narrative thread that runs through a lot of my projects, so there's still a sense, for me at least, of an overall structure that's consistent.

You mention that you enjoy the challenges and rewards of teaching and you have detailed on your blog and elsewhere the experiences you’ve had the past two years teaching at the Shared Worlds program offered by Wofford College each summer. In what ways has teaching in that program and at Clarion and Clarion South helped you develop as a writer and communicator?

I think the Clarion and Shared Worlds gigs have crystalized for people that Ann and I are also teachers, but we'd been teaching workshops and doing public speaking for years before that, all over the world. My first guest lecture was given to a writer's group in Orlando when I was sixteen, and I've done critiques and whatnot since that time as well. I think the difference with Clarion and Shared Worlds is just that they're longer, which is an important difference. It's one thing to come in and do a day-long workshop. It's another thing to be immersed in a teaching situation for one or two weeks. First of all, you wind up deploying most of your "material" and thus have to plan out what makes the most sense timing-wise. You also have to have an overall plan and sequence that takes into account, at Clarion, the efforts of the teachers from the weeks before you, and, at Shared Worlds, how to best use all of the visiting writers. Shared Worlds is the most intense. First, it's two weeks, second I'm not just teaching I'm also part of the planning/management/administration as the assistant director. And while you want to have a plan in place, you also have to be adaptive to the situation and to each student. To that end we added individual one-on-one sessions where each student got to sit down with me and Ann or one of the guest writers and talk about what they wanted to get out of their writing, how they were enjoying the camp, etc. I'd say that Shared Worlds has given me more opportunities to be involved in planning something large-scale, whereas teaching at Clarion helps me by reminding me of the basics of creative writing and by seeing the sometimes new approaches used by the next-gen of SF/Fantasy writers. It's not as pronounced at Shared Worlds, this learning from their writing, just because they're so much younger, 14 to 17, that they're still finding their voices and dealing with basic technical issues , but in having to communicate effectively to them I do rediscover hidden truths about even the most basic subjects . They have a lot more energy, too , and, man, it is tough work keeping up with that pace for two weeks.

 Bob Dylan released an album several years ago called "Love and Theft," devoted to honoring the musicians that had an influence on him. What writers or other people have had a profound influence on what you write and how you write?

Influence is a strange thing. I see it in terms of acquiring technique, because acquiring technique is the process of acquiring a kind of mastery. But that's all it is. You cannot teach yourself voice and imagination from other writers--you either have that or you don't. You can draw it out and develop it, true, but not spontaneously create it through mimicry. So those I acquired technique from include Thomas Pynchon, Edward Whittemore, Vladimir Nabokov, Angela Carter, Stepan Chapman, and quite a few others I'm probably not remembering. I quite clearly recall reading a passage in Perfume, for example, that did something unusual, and wholesale transferring it to the story I was working on. I took it out later, but in the meantime that helped me see how it worked. At another time I copied passages from Proust and from Joyce for similar reasons. To copy is to inhabit the ghosts of the decision-making processes, and from that comes understanding. And with understanding comes the ability to internalize, and then you are simply applying an ever-growing variety of technique and approaches to accentuate and strengthen your own natural voice and imagination.

From what I understand, based on your comments in other interviews and on your blog, Ecstatic Days, your Ambergris stories have had a long gestation period. Looking back on these stories, how much of the stories were envisioned beforehand and how much came to develop unplanned/unexpected branches and dimensions?

By 1998 I had a clear idea in my head of the entirety of the Ambergris Cycle. Which is to say, that there would be three or four books, ending at a certain point. It became three books because Shriek ate parts of the fourth and then the third ate the rest of the fourth, and the end point changed because it always does when you actually write the material. The overall underlying reason for things, the mysteries behind the city, have been pretty consistently unchanged since 1998--which is important, because otherwise the three books wouldn't actually form a cycle, the cause-and-effect would be off. Many, many details changed, though. Many characters went away and new ones came to the fore. So basically those things that had to stay the same stayed the same and the rest changed as I changed. Also, the details of Ambergrisian's surface history were always meant to change as our own world changed. So in Shriek you see the beginnings of war and global warming, albeit possibly caused by the gray caps. In Finch, in terms of the occupation and torture and interrogation, it's the internalization of the whole sorry eight years of American foreign policy. I let these things wash over me and then they come out in the fiction in an organic, non-didactic way.

But with some very key differences between the real-world inspirations and your writings, right? Is it safe to presume that an allegorical reading of the Ambergris Cycle would distort quite a few of the stories’ thematic and structural elements?

Changing the context to a fantasy setting gives me the distance to let that kind of thing come into the writing without it being a point-to-point allegory. I find this process replaces the specificity of situation from the real world with the specificity of the fantasy setting while retaining the universal elements of the situation, if that makes sense. The essential questions remain the same. But I am always disappointed when a reviewer or critic focuses on, for example, squid or fungus, without seeing the core of the work. I think I was most disappointed in reviewers of Shriek who, even though it got many good reviews, didn't even try to "unwrap" the novel so to speak. There's a ton of stuff woven into the surface of the story that takes on various ideas about history and how we process information. Among other things. I'll shut up now.

Interesting point about Shriek. When I re-read it recently, I thought about how personal prejudices and fears (especially as personified by Mary’s later treatment of Duncan) often shape societal views of past history. Furthermore, there seems to be connection between this and what you raised above about Finch and its internalization of actual history. To what degree would you agree with the argument that each of the books in the Ambergris Cycle deals with different facets of memory and the manipulation of interpretations of both the past and present? Or is there even more to the overall picture than that?

Shriek was always meant to encompass as much of the world, personal and public, as possible, and meant to be read from and interpreted from several different angles. It's also meant to be one of those novels that changes each time you read it, depending on where you are in your own life. Those are the novels I read that I love the most, and if I was going to write a sixty-year chronicle about fucked up artists, historians, and art gallery owners, I thought I might as well do it right.

I'm fascinated by those very issues you raise--the fact that most of history and historical theory is so shaped by individual neuroses and prejudices and the need by those interpreting history for us to put their own spin on it, bring in even their most personal hang-ups. Growing up, you take classes and are told that certain things happened this way or that way, and then when you start reading on your own, outside of class, you find that even the supposedly most factual accounts are full of liberties taken by the writer. We live in a reality we continue to spin every day, every minute. We're each of us telling stories all the time, but trying to present them as fact.

Regarding your point about memory and manipulation of interpretations--sometimes that's the point of a section of one of the books, sometimes its a strategy to build either characterization or view of the city. I'd say it's one point among many, that Ambergris has always been, on one level, about having a setting malleable enough to do several things at once with it. For example, here's one of my favorite reviews of Shriek because it looks at the novel from the viewpoint of environmental history: . Another one I'm fond of, at Pinocchio Theory, that emphasizes the element of absurdism and rejection of institutions in my work that is essential to who I am as a human being and comes out most perfectly in Shriek: .

I'm curious about reviews of Finch, because I've set up a few traps in there, but unlike the previous two books, the traps are less obvious because of the approach to narrative and pacing I've chosen. Although I'm somewhat gleeful about having pulled off several experimental techniques essential to the story that no one has pointed out because they don't call attention to themselves in the normal way we think of when we encounter the word "experimental".

Traps, huh?  Guess I’ll have to be careful when I review Finch then.  But going back to what you said about the liberties that history writers took when recording information, wouldn’t it be fair to say that history (whose etymology just means “story”) is perhaps the closest brethren to fictional storytelling, since it seems there are many goals and elements in common?

I'm kidding. There aren't any traps. (Yes, there are.) I just wanted to see how you'd respond, so I could include that in the next novel. (Yes, there are traps.) But, no, there aren't any traps. Why would I do that? Regarding histories...yes, I'd agree with that statement. For most history books for a general audience, you have to find that narrative thread that will bind it all together, and thus you're already weaving story. It's impossible not to, and we all know, stories are full of lies. Some lies are just lies and some lies are actually a kind of truth, though. It's also interesting that historical novelists face some of the same challenges as SF/fantasy writers, in terms of having to create a place that does exist (any more).

Hrmm...I’m beginning to wonder if Duncan Shriek has managed to make his own commentaries to your responses to my question, Jeff ;) Which I guess might in turn serve to further reinforce the need not just to question what is going on within the stories, but also what has been going on with our recorded histories?

History is rife with texts not written or not written entirely by whomever gets the byline. You should just be glad that I didn't let Evil Monkey anywhere near the computer...

In the "About the Book" section at the end of Finch, you note how each of the three books in the Ambergris Cycle vary in structure and approach, but with each ultimately building upon and developing a greater understanding of the other books in the Cycle. Ambergris itself emerges as a sort of quasi-character in these books, seen from various vantage points, leading to a place that to me seems to resemble in some aspects what M. John Harrison did with his Viriconium stories. Was there an intent to create a sort of meta-narrative revolving around the city and how it exists in so many places and yet does not seem to be of any particular time/place at all?

The publisher put the "About the Book" section together, but I did provide them with that description of the three books. I don't think a city exists without the people who live in it, so when you say the city is a character I think you mean "the city looks different from different characters' points of view." I think City was meta enough to take care of all of that, and Shriek and Finch were actually getting out from under the meta aspects of the first book. Which isn't to say I don't love all three equally, but that the second and third books couldn't be meta because that would just be repeating, for diminishing returns, what I'd already done. Shriek: An Afterword is written as it is, sees Ambergris as it does, because of who the narrator is--it comes completely from the character, and the same for Finch. I'm also not sure that it's all that meta to think of a city existing in so many places, because that's the nature of cities anyway, that's how people perceive them. As for Harrison, he's going for something even more metaphorical.

So in other words, while each of the three stories complement each other, there is never a retreading of structural elements? What about thematic elements in common?

Structurally, yes, the books are completely different. But in terms of characters often seeking something they're obsessed with but might be dangerous if they found it...that's a commonality. A sense of the absurdity and contradictions of the world. The subjectivity of anything approaching "truth" or a common reality. The way that the events of history shape character, and how character can rise above history, if with a monumental effort. Finch is trapped by history, in a sense, and yet literally fighting his way out of it. Janice Shriek is trapped by a sense of her own mortality, and struggles against that. Voss Bender creates his own history but then falls victim to his own myth, history eating itself. Institutions, standard modes of thought, critics trying to interpret the personal from the public all come in for a heavy beating in these novels. Imagination--our ability to perceive something beyond our situation--is often paramount, and characters live or die, succeed or fail, based in part on how imaginative they are, except in cases where an imagination is so profound, like Duncan Shriek's (despite his other faults), that the popular conception of reality in the form of the mass opinions of other people will not support it--in fact, actively punishes it.

So in part, the characters’ conflicts are rooted in a larger conflict revolving around different interpretations of the past and how myths are created?  Also, just how subversive would “imagination” (or creation) be viewed by the authorities who are in charge in each of the books?

Everyone wants their story to be the dominant one, even if it only dominates their own mind; when this happens, we call the person "crazy". As for authorities, I think the gray caps are the harshest toward those with good imaginations, because their own imagination is so different from a human imagination. This is what creates the (deeply) darkly humorous bits in Finch, where they just cannot understand humans and the manifestations of human imagination--when they try to lock in on that, they produce things for their detectives like disgusting fungal guns that leak (and, in an early draft, actually bleated and chirped).

Finch combines elements of noir, thrillers, and surreal-like fantasy. After writing Shriek: An Afterword, how difficult was it for you to create a story that differs as much in narrative tone and characterization from its predecessor as Shriek did from City of Saints and Madmen?

Luckily, I had the Predator novel as a palate-cleanser. But I don't think it would've been difficult anyway. It's always just a matter of finding your way to a particular tone and way of thinking about the character as cross-hatched to story/style. I guess it doesn't strike me as difficult to do precisely because I rarely repeat myself, especially at the longer lengths. So I am used to having to start from scratch, so to speak. But in a larger sense, I see something "difficult" as something that isn't fun to do. I love finding the right approach, so the stops-and-starts involved were a joy to me. I love facing a problem in fiction and having to solve it.

Speaking of tone and character, you have stated on your website and elsewhere that Finch, both the character and narrative style, changed quite a bit from the original plan. Did these changes take place because of external influences (such as reading other authors’ ways of dealing with similar characters or situations) or through internal shifts based on your own experimentations with the text?

In part because the original Finch was entirely too enamored of Alexander Theroux's Darconville's Cat, and although I could've eventually digested and assimilated that influence, I think in the process the novel would've become something I've always feared in working with fantasy: too removed from the real, flesh-and-blood world. Also because I workshopped (at Turkey City) an early draft of my new approach to Finch after wrenching it totally out of the Theroux mode and found that oddly enough the delivery system not the content was the problem. People weren't buying things that made perfectly logical sense because their perception of the idea of "detective" and the idea of "murder case" didn't include a Shriek-like approach to style. Once I changed the delivery system, too, I had a much, much better idea of both character and story. It's a bit like being an actor and picking up the right nuance and inflection that then opens up the character they're playing. I never ever see style as separate from character and story, so before I get too far into a piece of fiction, I have to have those things correct. And one reason I think I had only gotten 60 pages into the new Finch when I workshopped it wasn't because there was necessarily anything wrong with the plot or the situations, but that the tone was just wrong--it was the wrong delivery system, the wrong entry point for the reader--and thus I needed to rethink that. The great thing is that in addition to a terse style being right for the novel, writing in that mode has given me a whole new arsenal of approaches to fiction. I feel a certain flexibility gathering, even as flexibility flees my joints and bones in anticipation of encroaching old age and senility.

The gray caps, or fanaarcensitii as they call themselves, are a cipher throughout the Ambergris Cycle to date. What do you make of reader interpretations of the gray caps as being representations of "the Other," of our own tendency to misunderstand our own selves, or of them being a possibly "damned" species? Are there any clues in Finch about their origins, goals, and societal characteristics?

I think there are more clues in City of Saints to their way of life and organization and society. In Finch, as is often the way, being actually confronted by them, having them speak, puts them at a remove. In a sense, you are so close to them you can't really have the perspective to see them. You're living with them and with the consequences of them being in control, but that's a different thing. I always thought the gray caps could be interpreted in many different ways, but I have always first and foremost seen them as somewhat alien living, sentient creatures. I haven't seen them as representing anything. In "An Early History of Ambergris" I did allow commentary on their society to create a sense of "the Other." But as you may have noticed in Finch, there's another "Other", and one I've been waiting for readers to pick up on: the actual indigenous tribes living in the area, displaced in part by the gray caps and then totally disenfranchised by the original founders of Ambergris, in a sense. Their path through the history of Ambergris has not been well-documented, but it begins to take shape in Finch, as they're one of the players in the political and military fabric of the city. If I were to write more books set in Ambergris, that is one strand that I would explore more fully.

I did notice that and how it was embodied within an important secondary character.  Is the near-silence on those indigenous tribes before Finch itself a commentary on the self-delusions and quasi-imperialistic views of the invading settlers who razed the land to create Ambergris?  Or does their relative silence reflect even more upon certain real-world situations today?

I think it's there in the "Early History of Ambergris," but the main reason it's not front-and-center is that I've been focused on the gray caps and it's too much to cram into one story arc. But it's clear from the start that the inhabitants of Ambergris have committed crimes against not only the gray caps but the original inhabitants of the area. I have had characters like Sybel in Shriek who were from the indigenous tribes, but those characters have been integrated with the mainstream of Ambergrisian life. In Finch, readers discover that some of the narrators they've had in previous stories/novels set in Ambergris may well have been telling history by leaving out the inconvenient or the disenfranchised. My feeling is that in the future after this third novel, it's this group, the dogghe and nimblytod who have joined forces, who not only adapt best to the changing cityscape of Ambergris but begin to re-assert their primacy. So, perhaps, in a way, what you're saying is correct.

So instead of readers worrying about whether or not they need to read City of Saints and Madmen and Shriek before Finch, perhaps it might benefit readers more to (re)read those novels after reading Finch?

I see them as self-contained stories, with the history of the city running through them. If you only take away the history of the city from the series, then I guess you could say Finch might take away a few surprises in the previous two books. But all of these stories are about human beings and only work if you believe in the characters. In that respect, going back would only deepen an understanding of the city. Also, despite some of the central mysteries about the city posed by the first two books are answered in Finch, there are many subsidiary mysteries and many other pleasures that are given short shrift in Finch. At least, that's my perspective. I'm genuinely curious as to how it actually plays out. I think Shriek: An Afterword, for example, actually gains pathos after reading Finch. Certain stories in City of Saints gain a different texture, too. But the writer is not the person to ask--readers will decide. There will also be readers who loved Shriek who hate the noir style of Finch, and then those who read Finch and find Shriek a pretentious mess. That's their right as readers. It's also my right as a writer to want to do something different, and to let the demands of character and story determine the style. I'm at peace with that.

In addition to Finch, you just had your guide to writers, Booklife, come out. In what ways has the writing market changed that makes a book such as Booklife worth reading, compared to other books for writers that came out say ten or twenty years ago?

We're completely and utterly enamored of and often enslaved by new media and opportunities on the internet. These opportunities have also been of great benefit--they've leveled the playing field for the disenfranchised quite a bit, given a voice to the voiceless--but they come with a lot of risk. Most writers do not think strategically, which wasn't a problem pre-internet when there were just a few opportunities and more support from publishers for books. It was pretty hard, I think, to really risk fragmentation of your mind in that paradigm. Now you most definitely can over-extend your brain in a sense--you can have so many open channels that I'd argue it's like having a thousand extra voices in your head, with a direct conduit to your brain. Also, people think they can just get on Twitter and Facebook and start talking about their book and that that constitutes a plan. It doesn't. So Booklife is in part an argument about (1) knowing what you're getting into and the possible good and bad permutations of that, (2) being more organized so that you can actually be less stressed and have more time for your writing, and (3) making the kinds of decisions that support the health of your creativity while also acknowledging that if you want to build a career you have to find some time for that as well.

When I read Booklife recently, I was struck by how much the focus was not on prescriptive, authoritative “solutions” that are self-based, but by how much time was devoted to presenting others’ perspectives that seemed to underscore the “networking” aspects of writing.  When you began writing Booklife, did you have this focus in mind, or did it come gradually to you as you wrote?

As a teacher, I know that you must check your ego at the door. Often, what you're trying to do is find the best way to communicate information to a beginning or intermediate writer, and also figure out what they want to do with their writing and their career, and just try to be a conduit to help them achieve that. This means adapting to the student while not abdicating your authority, which you've won primarily through experience: encountering so many contexts and situations in your writing and career that you have this databank of information you retrieve in the right combinations to be of use for the individual person.

In writing Booklife I wanted to apply the same philosophy. The book has to have a single author that the readers believe is being honest and accurate and transparent--and in control of the narrative. But at the same time, every writer is different and there are many different solutions to the same problems. So I have the other voices in there not just to lend support to my ideas, but to express different points of view. In some cases, they directly contradict me, and that's perfectly okay. Sometimes they just present a slightly different point of view. What I wanted Booklife to be was coherent on a macro level but to be full of other voices on a micro level. A good example is that I think many computer tools to help with writing are just distractions or actively a hindrance to writing. But I know many writers who swear by them. Would I be doing a service to writers by just stating my opinion? No. So in those cases, I very firmly make my argument for my position but also provide the other side's position.

On another level, besides Ann, my friend and publicist Matt Staggs and my friend and Australian writer Tessa Kum were perhaps most influential on the narrative. Matt is gung-ho for new media and has a high tolerance for open channels and seeking out allies. Tessa is introverted and has no tolerance for open channels. Their very different reactions to the material not only helped me to test it--they also helped to then shape it by including elements of both extremes (although I hesitate to use the word "extreme" because it's not a spectrum--there's no "normal" position; there are only individuals with their own individual, very valid needs).

You’ve had two novels, a non-fiction guide for writers, several short stories and novellas, a handful of anthologies, and a few podcasts here and there released in the past couple of years.  What do you plan to do to recharge your creative batteries if you begin to feel drained?

Oddly enough, this five-week book tour for Finch and Booklife will help quite a bit, since I won't be multi-tasking, and I always get energy from seeing new places. But, also, the schedule gets easier after the tour. Most of my focus will be on the Steampunk Bible while Ann will be handling the other projects. And then starting in September of 2010, our schedule really opens up. We definitely need to slow down. I'm quite frankly surprised I've managed to do the books so far to the standard of quality I expect from them. But I don't think that would hold true if we continued at this pace. It's taken a lot out of both of us.

I remember reading in Booklife where you touch upon the writer’s need for balance in his/her everyday life.  Are there any non-writing/publishing pursuits that you have contemplated (or are currently doing) that helps maintain this balance?  I know you’re an avid sports fan, but are there other hobbies or activities that help keep the writing aspects from overwhelming you?

Hiking and weightlifting are the major ones. Also going to movies with Ann and things like that. Reading itself--hours of uninterrupted reading for myself--are also highly recommended. As I say in Booklife, if you lack the ability to concentrate on a book, especially a serious book and especially if you used to have that ability...something's wrong in your life.

Thanks again Jeff for agreeing to do this interview.  For those wanting more information about the author, one can visit his personal site, Ecstatic Days, or the recently-opened companion website to Booklife, called Booklife Now.
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