Cynthia Hand is joining us today to talk about The How and the Why. Here’s the publisher’s description:
Today Melly had us writing letters to our babies. I can’t imagine you as an actual baby, let alone an eighteen-year-old person reading this letter. I’m not even eighteen yet, myself. -S
Cassandra McMurtrey has a family. One with a loving mother and a father too full of cheesy dad jokes for his own good. They’re the best parents a girl could ask for, and they’ve given Cass a life she wouldn’t trade for the world. She has everything she needs—except maybe the one thing she wants.
Like to know who she is. Where she came from. Questions that her adoptive parents, no matter how much they love her, can’t answer. Mysteries she feels she must solve.
Cass can’t stand the thought of hurting the family she has by searching for a woman she’s never met. But eighteen years ago, a teenage girl wrote Cass a series of letters. Letters that have been sealed up in the Idaho Bureau of Vital Records since the day she was born. Letters that might just hold the answers Cass has been searching for. Clues, waiting to be found.
What’s Cynthia’s favorite bit?
I was a theatre nerd in high school. Over the four years that I spent at Bonneville High School, (in Idaho Falls, Idaho) I acted in fifteen plays, and helped with dozens more. Theatre was my life. It was a way for me for explore who I wanted to be through playing other people. I was (and still am) an introvert, but being on the stage allowed me to come out of my shell. There was no better feeling for me than being up there under the lights.
I kept doing theatre in college, but once I graduated that part of my life abruptly ended. I poured all of my creative energy into writing. So at the point when I started working on The How & The Why, my eighth novel, I hadn’t been in a play for (gulp) almost twenty years.
The How & The Why is primarily a story about adoption. Half of it is told from the point of view of a pregnant teenager writing letters to the unborn baby she intends to place for adoption. The other half of the story is told by Cass, the eighteen-year-old girl that adopted child grows up to become.
Cass is a senior at Bonneville High School, in Idaho Falls, Idaho. She’s also a theatre nerd.
Getting to write about the theatre again was definitely one of my favorite parts of working on this novel, and the best part was that Cass gets to try out for, rehearse, and perform one of my all-time favorite musicals: Into The Woods. There was a movie version a few years ago that was pretty good, but the play itself, live on the stage is absolutely magical.
I’ve always wanted to be in Into the Woods, but never got the chance back in the day. So, in a way, I got to live vicariously through Cass. I watched as many different versions of the musical as I could get my hands on: the movie version, the Broadway version (which is the best one, in my opinion—Bernadette Peters is the best!) and a half dozen student versions. I figured out what character Cass would be best cast as, along with her best friend, Nyla, and her new love interest, Bastian (who obviously had to play Prince Charming). I designed the set that Cass would perform on, and chose the costume she would wear. I thought about how she would feel, rehearsing song after tricky Sondheim song. I waited in the wings with her, while she was waiting to go on stage for her big solo.
And finally her “Moment In The Woods” arrived. Cass stood on the stage, under the lights, feeling the eyes of the audience, her heart pounding, her nerves zinging, and she sang.
And for just a fleeting moment, I got to go back and be up there with her.
Cynthia Hand is the New York Times bestselling author of several books for teens, including the UNEARTHLY trilogy, THE LAST TIME WE SAY GOODBYE, MY LADY JANE and MY PLAIN JANE (with fellow authors Brodi Ashton and Jodi Meadows), THE AFTERLIFE OF HOLLY CHASE, and the upcoming novels THE HOW & THE WHY (November 5, 2019) and MY CALAMITY JANE (June 2, 2020). Before turning to writing for young adults, she studied literary fiction and earned both an M.F.A. and a Ph.D. in fiction writing. She currently resides in Boise, Idaho, with a husband who’s addicted to buying typewriters, two kids, two cats, one crazy dog, and a mountain of books. Find her online at www.cynthiahandbooks.com
Andi C. Buchanan is joining us to talk about their novel From a Shadow Grave. Here’s the publisher’s description:
This is no ordinary ghost story
Wellington, 1931. Seventeen-year-old Phyllis Symons’ body is discovered in the Mt Victoria tunnel construction site.
Eighty years later, Aroha Brooke is determined to save her life.
Urban legend meets urban fantasy in this compelling alternate history by award-winning author Andi C. Buchanan.
What’s Andi’s favorite bit?
ANDI C. BUCHANAN
“In this story, you save yourself.”
This sentence begins the fourth and final part of From A Shadow Grave. It was the point at which my whole messy first draft came together, and is a sentence that for me still encapsulates not just the story I was trying to tell, but the person I wished I could bring back to life.
From A Shadow Grave is based on a true story: a murder that took place in my home city of Wellington. The murdered teenager, Phyllis Symons, the protagonist of the story, was buried – likely still alive at that stage – in a road tunnel construction site. To this day, almost ninety years later, motorists toot as they drive through the tunnel, and while some say it’s just because of the acoustics, plenty others will tell you it’s to ward off her ghost.
The fact people were trying to ward off a young woman who died in such tragic circumstances seemed so casually cruel. Not that they had malicious intent, of course (except possibly to the unfortunate pedestrians who share the tunnel) but it seemed to be such a sad way for someone to be remembered. I wanted to instead ask the question: what if things had been different? What if Phyllis Symons had been saved – or if she had saved herself? What were the lives she could have lived, the lives that were taken from her?
“In this story, you save yourself.”
It’s my favourite line of the book, but it’s also one I realised I had to handle with care. In opening up alternative futures I did not want to pass judgement or victim blame. To suggest that if only she had made different decisions, if only she had tried harder, things would have been different, is a long way from the message I wanted to send.
And yet the more I developed the character – a characterisation I have to add is a fictionalisation, and perhaps I have gleaned her personality accurately, perhaps not – I wanted to give her the opportunity to save herself. To rescue as well as be rescued.
I went back. I realised that giving her autonomy wasn’t about whether she survived this attack and why. It was about the whole life she had, the life she should have had, the myriad of relationships and decisions and choices and events in the decades she had ahead of her.
Phyllis Symons saving herself was not the story. It was just one possible start.
Andi C. Buchanan lives among streams and faultlines, just north of Wellington, Aotearoa New Zealand. Winner of a 2019 Sir Julius Vogel Award in the Best Short Story category, their fiction has been published in Apex, Kaleidotrope, Glittership, and more. You can find Andi on Twitter @andicbuchanan or at www.andicbuchanan.org.
Wendy Nikel is joining us today to talk about the final novella in this series, The Causality Loop. Here’s the publisher’s description:
Dodge Greenley is tired of being the go-between for his time-traveling family. All he wants is for them all to be able to live together peacefully in one era—is that too much to ask? But after breaking all the Rules of time travel in a desperate attempt to retroactively free his parents from the threat of the secret organization his father worked for a hundred years earlier, Dodge makes a startling discovery. It turns out there’s someone else stalking his family up and down the timeline, and this time, the menace may be coming from within the Place in Time Travel Agency itself.
Enlisting the help of his 22nd century coworker, Dodge sets off to the year 1915 to rescue his sister from a threat that might have originated at any point in their past, present, or future, proving once again that the greatest threat to time travelers is other time travelers.
What’s Wendy’s favorite bit?
THE CAUSALITY LOOP is the fourth book in the Place in Time novella series, which wraps up the stories in the threepreviousbooks about a multi-generational family that gets tangled up with a travel agency specializing in trips through time. The protagonist, Dodge Greenley, was initially introduced as a young boy, and now, we get to see the man he becomes and how the events of THE CONTINUUM changed him, which was an exciting challenge.
But a lot has changed since the first book (which is bound to happen when you travel a hundred years into the future). For one thing, the employees that were at the Place in Time Travel Agency (PITTA) in THE CONTINUUM are long gone, and the office is now populated with completely new Jump Specialists, Retrievers, Researchers, Technicians, and a new boss. One of these new characters – a receptionist in her late twenties, named Nell – surprised me by becoming my favorite bit of this story.
Whereas our main character, Dodge, has grown up with time travel being a “normal” part of his family’s life and heritage, one reason Nell was so fun to write was because for her, it’s still a completely new experience. She’s worked for PITTA for longer than Dodge, but keeping track of the administrative side of a time travel agency is… well… not as exciting as you’d think. For years, she’s been hearing about other people’s adventures, scheduling their jumps, and watching amazing things happen all around her, without an opportunity to experience any of it for herself. But she’s smart and observant and isn’t afraid to say what she thinks – even when it gets her into sticky situations. So when Dodge approaches her to ask for her help with a task that he doesn’t want their boss to find out about, Nell knows just what to demand in return: her own chance to travel into the past.
She embarks on this adventure with great enthusiasm, her anachronistically dyed hair tucked hastily under her hat. But Nell lacks the training, the knowledge, or the caution that most of PITTA’s professional time travelers usually have, which makes her an interesting foil for Dodge and presents him with a unique outsider perspective as he attempts to untangle his family’s messed-up chronology. In return, he finds in her an unlikely ally and friend – something we all can appreciate, no matter the time or place.
Wendy Nikel is a speculative fiction author with a degree in elementary education, a fondness for road trips, and a terrible habit of forgetting where she’s left her cup of tea. Her short fiction has been published by Analog, Nature: Futures, Podcastle, and elsewhere. Her time travel novella series, beginning with The Continuum, is available from World Weaver Press. For more info, visit wendynikel.com
Dawn Vogel is joining us today to talk about The Boiling Sea, the final book in the Brass and Glass series. Here’s the publisher’s description:
In the turbulent skies of the Republic, it’s not always easy to outrace the storm …
With their destination determined, Captain Svetlana Tereshchenko and the crew of The Silent Monsoon are in pursuit of the Last Emperor’s Hoard and the fabled Gem of the Seas. Or they will be, once they rescue their pilot, make a deal with a notorious scoundrel, and outfit themselves for their plunge into the Boiling Sea. When they realize what the Gem of the Seas is capable of, they must struggle with their loyalties, morality, and unforeseen complications to choose the right path. With alliances tested and rivalries resurfacing, Svetlana must lead her crew and associates on their most dangerous mission yet!
What’s Dawn’s favorite bit?
When I wrote the short story that inspired the Brass and Glass series, I had no idea that I would someday be poking at old patent drawings and other sketches as I tried to figure out how to send my protagonists to the bottom of a superheated ocean in search of a lost treasure.
I’m a historian by training, so research is in my blood. I love getting to dig up obscure facts and weird occurrences and work those into my writing. When it comes to my steampunk stories, I often find myself checking to see if there’s something close to the technology I want that existed in the late nineteenth century. Even if I’m writing a piece that isn’t set on our Earth, I can still use realistic technologies with a slightly different flavor to suit my purposes.
My research started with diving bells, which could be used to explore the ocean, but only from within the confines of a tiny amount of space. Diving bells were in use by the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, so it absolutely made sense to have my characters have access to one of those. They had to rig up a system for air exchange, of course, so they could breathe inside the diving bell as they descended. I also needed to give them some way to communicate with their ship, which I accomplished with a bell and a length of string that ran through the tubing for the air.
However, I quickly realized that not only were my protagonists going to have to reach the bottom of the ocean, they were going to have to leave the diving bell. Diving suits, too, were in existence prior to the nineteenth century, so those were also viable for my story. This meant I got to dress two of my protagonists in horribly awkward and clumsy canvas suits with giant fish-bowl style helmets, and then throw all sorts of problems at them because of their suits, like a lack of weaponry that the stiff and oversized gloves could handle. Coupled with the fact that my main character, Captain Svetlana Tereshchenko, is blind in one eye, the diving suits provided a wealth of complications.
While there are certainly aspects of the science that I glossed over heavily in writing Brass and Glass 3: The Boiling Sea (like: how does a planet survive if the sea is literally boiling? And how deep are these oceans, exactly?), I loved getting to figure out the details of how characters with the equivalent of nineteenth century Earth technology could engage in deep sea diving and survive the experience. It scratched just the right amount of research itch for concluding my steampunk series.
Dawn Vogel’s academic background is in history, so it’s not surprising that much of her fiction is set in earlier times. By day, she edits reports for historians and archaeologists. In her alleged spare time, she runs a craft business, co-edits Mad Scientist Journal, and tries to find time for writing. Her steampunk adventure series, Brass and Glass, is available from DefCon One Publishing. She is a member of Broad Universe, SFWA, and Codex Writers. She lives in Seattle with her husband, author Jeremy Zimmerman, and their herd of cats. Visit her at http://historythatneverwas.com or find her on Twitter @historyneverwas.
Tim Pratt is joining us today to talk about his novel The Forbidden Stars, the conclusion of this Axiom trilogy. Here’s the publisher’s description:
The ancient alien gods are waking up, and there’s only one spaceship crew ready to stop them, in this dazzling space opera sequel to The Wrong Stars and The Dreaming Stars.
Aliens known as the Liars gave humanity access to the stars through twenty-nine wormholes. They didn’t mention that other aliens, the ancient, tyrannical – but thankfully sleeping – Axiom occupied all the other systems. When the twenty-ninth fell silent, humanity chalked it up to radical separatists and moved on. But now, on board the White Raven, Captain Callie and her crew of Axiom-hunters receive word that the twenty-ninth colony may have met a very different fate. With their bridge generator they skip past the wormhole, and discover another Axiom project, fully awake, and poised to pour through the wormhole gate into all the worlds of humanity…
What’s Tim’s favorite bit?
The Forbidden Stars is the third in my space opera Axiom trilogy about a crew of human, posthuman, and alien do-gooders trying to stop a species of ancient slumbering malevolent might-as-well-be-gods from waking up and murdering all other intelligent life in the galaxy.
But really, the series is about the characters. In the first book I focused on the love story between the captain of the White Raven, Callie Machedo, and biologist Elena Oh, awakened from centuries of cryo-sleep (timeslip romance! Sort of). Book two dug deeper into the character of the ship’s XO and doctor, Stephen Baros, and his membership in the Church of the Ecstatic Divine (devoted to community-building and experiencing the presence of god by taking really good psychedelic drugs).
For the third book, I wanted to highlight two characters who were more enigmatic in the first volumes: Drake and Janice, the pilot and navigator/comms specialist. Drake is easygoing and optimistic, while Janice is acerbic and believes in preparing for the worst, and while they provide a lot of enjoyable commentary, their histories were a bit mysterious. In earlier volumes I revealed that Drake and Janice were in a terrible shipwreck in an asteroid field years before the series began. They were horrifically injured, and would have certainly died in the bleakness of space… but they were discovered by a group of unknown aliens, who picked them up and put them back together again. In a way.
The aliens saved their lives… but Drake and Janice were so badly hurt there weren’t enough viable body parts left for one body, let alone two. As a result, Drake and Janice were combined into a single body, pieced together from bits of their former forms and augmented with technology far beyond anything humans understood. The result doesn’t look much like other humans do. The aliens, who couldn’t (or wouldn’t) communicate with Drake and Janice in any meaningful way, put them a ship and sent them on their way once the procedures were done.
Drake and Janice disagree about the intent of the aliens: Janice thinks they were mad scientists, sadistic butchers who decided to play with the nearly-dead humans they found like toys. Drake thinks they were benevolent healers, their good intentions hampered by the fact that they’d never seen a human before, and had no idea how to repair them properly — he thinks the aliens didn’t even realize Drake and Janice started out as two individuals.
Drake and Janice share a body, but maintain their own separate personalities and ability to communicate as individuals (they do experience a little bit of bleed-through in terms of emotional states, though). The trauma of their experience has, of course, changed them immensely.
In The Forbidden Stars, I decided to reveal how much it changed them. When my crew encounters the same aliens who rescued/tortured Drake and Janice, I took the opportunity to write an extended flashback that almost works as a self-contained story, revealing Drake and Janice as they once were. We get to see them bantering as friends, surveying an asteroid field, encountering tragedy, and even get to see their experiences (as garbled and fragmented as they were) on the alien ship. In so doing, I got to reveal some pretty cool things about their history and how their experiences transformed them, beside the obvious physical changes… and I answered the question once and for all about whether the aliens they encountered were sadists or saints. That section is my favorite part of the book — it’s story I waited three years to tell, and one I hope my readers will find moving and illuminating.
TimPratt is a Hugo Award-winning SF and fantasy author, and has been a finalist for World Fantasy, Sturgeon, Stoker, Mythopoeic, and Nebula Awards, among others. He is the author of over twenty novels, most The Forbidden Stars, and scores of short stories. His work has been reprinted in The Best American Short Stories, The Year’s Best Fantasy, The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror, and other nice places. Since 2001 he has worked for Locus, the magazine of the science fiction and fantasy field, where he currently serves as senior editor. He lives in Berkeley, CA with his wife and son.
Lisa Goldstein is joining us today to talk about her novel Ivory Apples. Here’s the publisher’s description:
Ivy and her sisters have a secret: their reclusive Great-Aunt is actually Adela Martin, inspired author of the fantasy classic, Ivory Apples. Generations of obsessive fans have searched for Adela, poring over her letters, sharing their theories online, and gathering at book conventions. It is just a matter of time before one fan gets too close.
So when the seemingly-perfect Kate Burden appears at the local park, Ivy knows that something isn’t right. Kate has charmed the entire family, but she is suspiciously curious about Ivory Apples. And Ivy must protect what she and her Great-Aunt share: magic that is real, untamable, and—despite anyone’s desire—always prefers choosing its own vessel.
What’s Lisa’s favorite bit?
A long time ago I wrote a story about a man whose mother died. Like a lot of people, my own mother had trouble with the difference between fiction and non-fiction, and she was worried that the story meant that I wanted her to die. I spent a lot of time trying to explain to her that of course that wasn’t true, that stories didn’t work that way. I told her that the man and his mother were made up, not based on anyone I knew. I told her that the point of the story — the point of every story — was to give the main character a problem to deal with, and that the man’s problem was so terrible because he had loved his mother very much. Even after all of that, though, she wasn’t convinced.
It was only years later that I realized I had never written about a problematic mother, and that part of the reason was that I worried about what she would think. (She read everything I wrote. Well, everything I showed her, anyway.) After she died, though, I started a novel about the worst mother figure you could imagine.
That sounds bad, doesn’t it? I didn’t run to the computer the day we buried her, really. I started the book several years later, and even then I didn’t completely understand why I felt free to write it.
It’s true that this person, Kate Burden, shared some characteristics with my mother, but she was far, far worse, something out of nightmare. She was based on other scary people in my life as well: an ex-boyfriend, a particularly bad baby-sitter, liars and hypocrites I’d known, people who enjoyed inflicting emotional pain. She was the product of something that had bothered me all my life, that if someone is charming and delightful, at least superficially, they can get away with a lot, especially if they prey on the marginalized, on people who aren’t as popular as they are. That even if you point out their lies — that they said one thing yesterday and the exact opposite today — most people will shrug and say that you must have misunderstood, or that it isn’t important anyway.
It turned out that I flat-out loved writing this character. I had a great time coming up with malicious things for her to do. A lot of people have pointed out that evil characters are more interesting than good ones, that, for example, Paradise Lost moves faster when Lucifer shows up, and slows down in the scenes with that boring God character. What I didn’t know was that they’re a lot of fun to write, too, maybe because your subconscious is let off the leash and can come out to play. When I described the book to a friend of mine he called the her “evil Mary Poppins,” which is a perfect description of what I wanted to do.
Another reason I liked writing this part is that I got to tell these shadowy figures from my past that I’d understood what they’d been up to. I’d lost track of most of them and there’s no chance they’ll ever hear of the book, let alone read it, but I still enjoyed getting it all down. That boyfriend I mentioned earlier, who had once said that he couldn’t see me because his grandfather was dying, and then a month later told me about the great day he’d had with his grandfather — did he really think he’d gotten away with it? It wasn’t the lie that offended me as much as the fact that he couldn’t even keep his story straight.
Ms. Burden seduces her way into a family and gains more and more control over the four children, especially the oldest, Ivy. To write this part I had to go back to the helplessness I felt at that age, the sense that the adults around you have outsized power, that you have to trust them because you have no choice. I thought about the things that would have angered or upset or embarrassed me, and I had Ms. Burden visit them on Ivy and her younger sisters. She buys Ivy new clothes, but they’re just slightly too small. She drops Ivy off at a dentist in a decaying, unfamiliar neighborhood, and then leaves her there with no way to get home, and only comes to pick her up after they close, after Ivy has almost given up hope.
Ms. Burden also uses magic to help her, but what she doesn’t know that Ivy has her own magic. And here, using fantasy, I got to take old childhood traumas and rewrite them. I didn’t make them “better” — Ivy still goes through horrors before the end — but I gave them the shape of a story. I made more sense of them, for myself and I hope for the reader. So it was — well, I wouldn’t say “fun,” but there was even something helpful about this part as well.
LisaGoldstein’s latest novel, Ivory Apples, has just come out from Tachyon Press. Her other novels include The Red Magician, which won the American Book Award for Best Paperback, and The Uncertain Places, which won the Mythopoeic Award. She has also won the Sidewise Award for her short story “Paradise Is a Walled Garden.” Her stories have appeared in Ms., Asimov’s Science Fiction, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, and The Year’s Best Fantasy, among other places, and her novels and short stories have been finalists for the Hugo, Nebula, and World Fantasy awards. She lives with her husband and their irrepressible Labrador retriever, Bonnie, in Oakland, California. Her web site is www.brazenhussies.net/Goldstein.
E. L. Chen is joining us today to talk about her novel Summerwood/Winterwood. Here’s the publisher’s description:
Pray you never find your Summerwood, Grandfather had said. I’d found something worse. I’d found his.
In Summerwood, twelve-year old Rosalind Hero Cheung can’t wait to spend the summer in Toronto with her teenaged sister Julie and their famous author grandfather. Years ago Walter Denison wrote a series of bestselling children’s novels about a magical land called the Summerwood. But to Hero’s dismay, Walter is cold toward his granddaughters and Julie derides Hero’s hope that the Summerwood is real.
Nevertheless, one day she and Julie stumble into the Summerwood. Ruled by the beautiful and enigmatic Lady of Summer, it is the idyllic fantasy land out of Walter’s books, complete with quaintly dressed talking animals. However, Hero discovers the Summerwood is far more sinister than Walter had ever let on. Julie is abducted and, to save her life, Hero must find the Summerwood’s sacred winter stag. Hero quickly learns that setting out on a fantasy quest is far more prosaic—and terrifying—than she’d ever imagined, and there is a steep and bloody price to pay for being the hero.
In Winterwood, three years have passed since Lindy Cheung went into the Summerwood and emerged changed and broken. Now she’s getting into trouble—starting fights, skipping school, dating unsuitable boys. After her mother grounds her—again—she runs off to Toronto to her sister, the only person who knows what really happened three years ago. But Juliet has moved on from the trauma, and Lindy finds herself back in the Summerwood, where an old enemy tells her: The stag must die again.
What’s E.L.’s favorite bit?
Anyone who knows me personally will be able to pick out my favorite bit from Summerwood/Winterwood right away: the rabbits. The first characters that Hero, the protagonist, meets when she stumbles into the magical Summerwood are a family of anthropomorphic rabbits, and Thaddeus Cottontail quickly becomes her best friend.
Some people are dog people, others are cat people. I’m a rabbit person. Do you remember that Twitter meme in which people listed everything they could talk about for 30 minutes without prep? I only had one thing on my list: rabbits.
It all started when I volunteered at the Toronto Humane Society in my twenties. They didn’t need any more cat groomers, but would I like to start as a Bunny Cuddler? I said yes, and soon adopted two rabbits of my own. Lenny was a surly Dutch mix, and Otis was a beautiful fawn rex who was full of beans. Easy to litter-train, they had free rein of my apartment although Lenny’s distrust of hardwood floors kept him confined to a rug. They both lived over 10 years. I didn’t adopt any more after they passed away because I’d just had my son. (He was born in the Year of the Rabbit, so he’s my bunny now.)
Rabbits are not the docile children’s “starter pets” you see in pet shop cages beside the hamsters and gerbils. Those are often babies, and like us when they hit puberty they develop major attitude–or rabbitude, as we bunnyhuggers say. (Sadly a lot of pet bunnies are abandoned at this point.) They’re social creatures that observe hierarchies, like dogs, and if they think they’re the alpha rabbit they will boss you around, head-butting your shins for food and nose rubs.
If you’re lucky enough to be favored by one of these lordly lagomorphs, they’ll rub you with their chin, marking you as theirs with the scent gland beneath it. Piss them off and they’ll run away from you, flicking up a back foot. “It’s the pet that can give you the finger,” an ex-boyfriend once observed when he’d inexplicably offended Otis.
Friends think I love Easter because of all the bunny knickknacks that show up in stores. I don’t. Those rabbits are often wearing homespun outfits–like Thaddeus Cottontail in his overalls–and holding carrots. A rabbit would claw your eyes out before you could get a costume on it–as a prey animal, anything clinging to the body will slow it down–and contrary to popular belief, carrots are actually bad for rabbits.
I could go on and on.
So it was natural that in Summerwood/Winterwood I build in real domestic rabbit behavior into Thaddeus Cottontail and his family. Fellow bunnyhuggers will recognize the binkies, the angry ears, and yes, the eating of poop and the mounting. Behavior incongruous with a child’s fantasy of adorable animals that walk and talk and dress like people. To me, rabbits in clothes implies a terrible dystopia, not a twee pastoral paradise. The rabbits’ repressed natural behavior is the first clue that the Summerwood is not what it seems.
Of course this meant I got to invent some creative rabbit cursing too. “Cecals and celery!” is the most common expression the Cottontails use, cecals being the kind of poop they eat, and celery because it was the vegetable Otis would grudgingly accept if there wasn’t anything better available. And my favourite: “What in the name of Great-Aunt Clementine’s dewlap…?”
If you’d like to learn more about Summerwood/Winterwood, visit the ChiZine site. If you’d like to learn more about how awesome rabbits are, visit the House Rabbit Society website. Always adopt from a shelter, and in the name of Great-Aunt Clementine’s dewlap, please don’t give your young child a pet rabbit for Easter.
E. L. Chen’s short fiction has been published in anthologies such as The Dragon and the Stars and Tesseracts Fifteen, and in magazines such as Strange Horizons and On Spec. Her first novel, The Good Brother, was published by ChiZine in 2015 and her next, Summerwood/Winterwood, is out now. She lives in Toronto, Canada with her son.
Luanne G. Smith is joining us today with her novel The Vine Witch. Here’s the publisher’s description:
A young witch emerges from a curse to find her world upended in this gripping fantasy set in turn-of-the-century France.
For centuries, the vineyards at Château Renard have depended on the talent of their vine witches, whose spells help create the world-renowned wine of the Chanceaux Valley. Then the skill of divining harvests fell into ruin when sorcière Elena Boureanu was blindsided by a curse. Now, after breaking the spell that confined her to the shallows of a marshland and weakened her magic, Elena is struggling to return to her former life. And the vineyard she was destined to inherit is now in the possession of a handsome stranger.
Vigneron Jean-Paul Martel naively favors science over superstition, and he certainly doesn’t endorse the locals’ belief in witches. But Elena knows a hex when she sees one, and the vineyard is covered in them. To stay on and help the vines recover, she’ll have to hide her true identity, along with her plans for revenge against whoever stole seven winters of her life. And she won’t rest until she can defy the evil powers that are still a threat to herself, Jean-Paul, and the ancient vine-witch legacy in the rolling hills of the Chanceaux Valley.
What’s Luanne’s favorite bit?
LUANNE G. SMITH
Toad skins, a sprig of dried rosemary, a glass of full-bodied red wine—only in my witch’s world would these three things go together. Or perhaps, too, in the mind of a writer.
Unlike other stories I’ve written, The Vine Witch ended up being a repository for some favorite, quirky expertise I’ve been carrying around in my head for years. Toad skin isn’t something I’m particularly fond of on its own, but I do have an affinity for frogs and toads and reptiles in general. The interest comes from my time working as a naturalist at a state park in Colorado. The nature center where I worked kept a bull snake, painted turtle, and Woodhouse’s toad on display for educational purposes. Part of my job included feeding and cleaning up after the animals. You learn quickly (while controlling that gagging reflex) that toads do shed and eat their own skin on a regular basis. Why? No idea. Could be for the protein. Or a way to cover their tracks so a predator doesn’t hunt them down after sniffing their shed skin. But that little fact stayed with me for years. Same with the peculiar way they sink their eyes down into their head to put pressure on their gullet to swallow. They’re weird but fascinating creatures. So, when a witch story popped into my head two decades later, one involving a curse, I knew just what to do.
Another assignment I was given when I began working at the nature center was to organize color slides taken of all the plants and flowers in the park. Yes, slides. That’s how long ago that was. And while I inwardly groaned at having to shuffle a thousand slides on a light table for a week, organizing them by genus and species (Argemone albiflora, Linaria vulgaris, Melilotus officinalis!) until I was dreaming in Latin, in retrospect it spurred a life-long interest in plants and their properties. Like a lot of writers, I’m curious about everything. At times it feels like an affliction, but my antidote is to buy books on whatever subject I’m interested in. Which is why I still have a shelf full of field guides on weeds, flowers, trees, herbs, etc. More than once, I returned to those shelves while writing about my witch who practices nature-based magic.
My most recent interest is the wine. I’m not nearly as proficient in my merlots, cabernets, and pinot noirs as I am at identifying flora and fauna, but I find I enjoy collecting the specimens for study a great deal more. In a glass. With a soft cheese on the side. A good sommelier can sort out the individual aromas of a wine—florals, berries, a bit of tobacco, a hint of chocolate, cherry, or vanilla. I’m still (and probably always will be) at the, “Oh, that’s good. I’ll have more of that,” stage.
Writers are fortunate to have stories to deposit the results of a lifetime of curiosity in. For me, the writing process is a bit like spell casting over a cauldron, figuring out if I should use a drop of this information or a pinch of that odd fact to conjure a scene. In the end just toss it in the pot. You never know what the odd combination might result in.
Luanne G. Smith lives in Colorado at the base of the beautiful Rocky Mountains, where she enjoys hiking, gardening, and a glass of good wine at the end of the day. The Vine Witch is her debut novel. For more information, visit www.luannegsmith.com.
Ginn Hale is joining us today to talk about her novel Master of Restless Shadows. Here’s the publisher’s description:
Freshly graduated Master Physician Narsi Lif-Tahm has left his home in Anacleto and journeyed to the imposing royal capitol of Cieloalta intent upon keeping the youthful oath he made to a troubled writer. But in the decade since Narsi gave his pledge, Atreau Vediya, has grown from an anonymous delinquent to a man renowned for penning bawdy operas and engaging in scandalous affairs.
What Narsi―and most of the larger world―cannot know is the secret role Atreau plays as spymaster for the Duke of Rauma.
After the Cadeleonian royal bishop launches an unprovoked attack against the witches in neighboring Labara, Atreau will require every resource he can lay his hands upon to avert a war. A physician is exactly what he needs. But with a relentless assassin hunting the city and ancient magic waking, Atreau fears that his actions could cost more than his own honor. The price of peace could be his friends’ lives
What’s Ginn’s favorite bit?
Like most authors and readers I’m exceedingly fond of books. For me, there’s just something magical about the experience of encountering strings of words and having them come to life in my mind as images, sounds, sensations and new ideas. It’s not hard to understand why there are so many stories that revolve around people literally entering the worlds of books, from Michael Ende’s The Never Ending Story to Jasper Fforde’s The Eyre Affair. The love of escaping into a story seems nearly universal.
So when it came to writing my own Cadeleonians fantasy series (Lord of the White Hell, Champion of the Scarlet Wolf and Master of Restless Shadows) it seemed natural and fun to invent various publications within the world. Of course some of the books also served as little pieces of exposition. In Champion of the Scarlet Wolf when the swordsman, Elezar flees to the northlands of Labara he takes a history book with him, which informs him—and by extension readers— about the wilds and witches that he’ll encounter. But most other books appear for less functional reasons.
For example, in Lord of the White Hell the bookshelf belonging to youthful engineering prodigy Kiram reveals his private, romanticized longing for adventure and travel. But there’s also a joke hidden in the titles. Among the Untamed Men of Mirogoth, foreshadows the fact that Kiram will eventually spend five years in those wilds, battling to survive arctic storms and mordwolves.
(Poor Kiram, he probably would have been better served by reading Elezar’s dry history tome but if he had he might just have stayed home instead of going out into the world, destroying a curse, finding love and inventing a steam engine.)
But with the final installment, Master of Restless Shadows, I had the opportunity to do something entirely new.
Much of the story is told from the point of view of author and spymaster Atreau. As a side character in the Lord of the White Hell and Champion of the Scarlet Wolf we’ve seen him writing plays and poems and publishing scandalous memoirs. So in effect he’s created alternate, in-world versions of the previous books in my fantasy series.
This means that other characters in the world—the physician Narsi, in particular— can have read versions of the previous books in a series that they are now becoming part of. Just like a reader of the series, Narsi can pull out his weathered volume of a previous book and look up some detail which makes for a rather different take on the ‘story within a story’ trope.
Though obviously Atreau—or perhaps his publishers—have chosen slightly different titles than I did. His books are called In the Company of the Lord of the White Hell and Five Hundred Nights in the Court of the Scarlet Wolf. And, being Atreau, he’s included much more sex and existential poetry in his versions. Though he’s glossed over any mention of how poorly a diet of cabbage stew sat with him at boarding school as it would hardly be in keeping with his image as a charming rogue. He’d be mortified if he knew how much my books reveal about him. Not least because I’ve blown his cover by depicting him as the spymaster that he is, showing him recruiting agents and taking on assassins instead of spending all day lounging around drunk and naked—as he always portrays himself.
Privately envisioning Atreau’s disapproval of my versions of his books never fails to crack me up. It’s got to be my personal favorite part of Master of Restless Shadows. Never mind all the plots for control of the nation, magic and assassins—it’s Atreau taking offense at how I’ve written it all down that’s my favorite bit.
Ginn Hale lives with her lovely wife in the Pacific Northwest. She spends the many cloudy days observing plants and fungi. She whiles away the rainy evenings writing fantasy and science-fiction featuring LGBTQ+ protagonists. Her first novel, Wicked Gentlemen, won the Spectrum Award for best novel. She is also a Lambda Literary Award finalist and Rainbow Award winner.
Her most recent publications include the Lord of the White Hell, Champion of the Scarlet Wolf and The Rifter Trilogy: The Shattered Gates, The Holy Road, His Sacred Bones.
She can be reached through her website: www.ginnhale.com as well as on Facebook and Twitter. Her Instagram account, however, is largely a collection of botanical photos…so, be warned.
R J Theodore is joining us today with her novel Salvage, sequel to Flotsam. Here’s the publisher’s description:
Peridot is headed for its second cataclysm. War has broken ancient alliances, sealed borders, and locked down the skies. The Five, Peridot’s alchemist gods, have seen one of their number die and another fall in their efforts to protect their world from invaders beyond the stars. Defeated and diminished, they have ceased to answer the prayers of their people and have left the rapidly unraveling world to fend for itself.
Talis and the orphaned crew of the lost airship Wind Sabre have a plan to set things to rights, but they’re stranded on a rock far from the heart of the conflict. When an old enemy comes and offers them a ship and a path forward, it comes with strings that will pull them further from the home they are so desperate to save.
Can Talis and her crew chart a course through hostile skies, shifting allegiances, and subverted governments before the true enemies of Peridot claim a power that can destroy the world once and for all?
What’s R J’s favorite bit?
R J THEODORE
Chanteys are ubiquitous to tall ships and sailing. For SALVAGE, the second novel in my Peridot Shift series, I wanted a chantey to provide rhythm for my airship crews and a dose of social commentary. Easy! Fun! I could add this in and move on, right?
But my self-assigned challenge became a grand obstacle. Dear reader, I began to overthink it.
I analyzed Earth chantey themes from top to bottom, hoping to translate them into Peridotian versions that would be both familiar and unique. But the idioms of Earth and language of maritime lyrics I thought would inform my work… simply didn’t apply.
And soon we’ll see old Holyhead
No more salt beef, no more salt bread
I catch my Jinny and off to bed
Jinny get your ring-tail warm1
I knew the song I wanted came from my Cutter culture, in which a ship feel more like home than land. Songs about eagerly returning to shore didn’t ring true. Likewise, outbound songs about the ocean and water didn’t suit my aeronautical industries.
You’ve got your advance, and to sea you’ll go
Go down, ye blood red roses, Go down.
To chase them whales through the frost and snow.
Go down, ye blood red roses, Go down.2
We’re far enough removed from their origins that chanteys often seem like fun maritime nonsense, but chanteys communicate an astounding amount of information about class, race, economy, and mental health. For example, one of the most famous chanteys is “Blow the Man Down.” It’s such fun to sing that they picked up the tune for the Spongebob Squarepants theme, but the song itself speaks of abuses sailors were subjected to on the Black Ball line, a particularly capitalist endeavor.
It’s starboard and larboard on deck you will sprawl
Way, aye, blow the man down
For Kicking Jack Williams commands the Black Ball.
Give me some time to blow the man down!3
A startling number of oceanic chanteys were written about specific people and were not shy about saying so. This was universal and could work on my novels’ airships, but my song would be used in the middle of a Hudson Hawk-esque heist. Tossing in the name of some hitherto unknown Cutter Imperial captain might distract the reader even if the concept fit. The same goes for locations. There were a few choice ports whose names would be familiar to the reader, but referencing places already introduced might shrink the world rather than expand it (akin to seeing Jack Sparrow receive his captaincy, signature pistol, hat, AND scarf in a single origin story moment).
Also, and here’s the kicker, I dislike lyrics in written works. I enjoy screen adaptations where an in-world song is performed (as in Lord of the Rings or The Hunger Games), but on the page, I skim inset stanzas for details I might need and move on without lingering in the lyricism.
So, in addition to creating cultural weight and situational parallels to my story, I challenged myself to write lyrics even I would read. That meant conveying the tune through the repetition of syllables and solid meter, even on the first read-through.
This little plot detail, meant to flesh out my world, was growing into a senior thesis project. The easiest thing would have been to drop it and finish my book, but now I was sold on the concept and determined to rise to the challenge.
Mind you, I didn’t just need one song. There are catalogs of songs sung by tall ship crews during their work and after. I wanted this song to feel like one of many. In my narrative, I’d already named a few tunes as characters hum or sing and now my brain was so steeped in thinking about chanteys that I realized I needed at least two full songs.
Really, three would be better.
Yet I still hadn’t written one that I liked. I had expansive notes, a Spotify playlist, bookmarks of lyric archives, and links to historical recordings on YouTube.
I banged my head against this challenge before I finally came to a realization: the songs I was trying to pay homage to were complex in their steeped culture, but not so much the lyrics. Yes, they felt complex to me because I recognized the significance of the terms and the meaning, and that took work.
But these were composed by sailors, with simple rhythms to pass the time and coordinate crews’ work. The word choice at the time would have been invented in a moment of inspiration and, over more, easy to memorize. Not a historical study, they were crafted from the vernacular with just a touch of cheek. And maybe make a joke or two at their employers’ or officers’ expense.
In fact, that latter was the purpose one song I wanted. In my third book, I knew a crew would change the lyrics to mock a certain character. How would the reader know the lyrics had been changed and not written on the spot about that person? If I used the same chantey, with its ‘original’ lyrics, in SALVAGE!
With that realization, my brain gained some traction on the concept.
The song came together as a call-and-response format, starting with a caller’s single voice, and a response from the rest of the team consisting of one or two variations on a single phrase. It forced me to keep it simple and, in that simplicity, all the subtext I wanted appeared without me overloading the text.
Once I got the first one down, it was as if a stopper had been pulled. The second sky chantey came to me in the shower (I still really need to get one of those waterproof notepads), and a third was birthed somewhere between the computer and the coffee pot.
The daunting task that kept me up at night, haunted by the tunes of reference material that would not get out of my head, suddenly became my favorite bit of the novel.
My earliest attempts read exactly like the very struggle to repurpose existing songs that they were. The final songs that made it into the novels are birthed from the Cutter traditions of Peridot and natural to the cultures from which they would have come.
And on top of that, if you get a group of people together, the songs are one hundred percent sing-able without much help. That alone would be worth all the effort!
Shiny Bright Captain
(from SALVAGE by R J Theodore)
Well our captain is a high-born type;
Proper man, captain! Shiny bright captain!
You should see his palecoat catch the light;
Proper man, captain! Shiny bright captain!
He’ll polish his buttons straight through the night.
Toast to our captain! Proper man, captain!
The captain ain’t a bastard like you an’ me;
Proper man, captain! Shiny bright captain!
No, the Captain’s got a pretty little ancestry;
Proper man, captain! Shiny bright captain!
You could fall to your death from his fam’ly tree.
R J Theodore lives in New England with her family, where she enjoys reading, design, illustration, video games (she will take you down in Super Puzzle Fighter II Turbo), napping with her cats, and cooking. She is passionate about art and coffee.
Theodore made her publishing debut in 2018 with her self-published novella THE BANTAM and her novel FLOTSAM, Book One of the Peridot Shift series.
Read about her writing process, find her on social media, and subscribe to her newsletter at rjtheodore.com.
Rebecca Schaeffer is joining us today to talk about her novel Only Ashes Remain. Here’s the publisher’s description:
Dexter meets Victoria Schwab in this dark and compelling fantasy about a girl who seeks revenge on the boy who betrayed her, a sequel to the critically-acclaimed Not Even Bones.
After escaping her kidnappers and destroying the black market where she was held captive, all Nita wants is to find a way to live her life without looking over her shoulder. But with a video of her ability to self-heal all over the dark web, Nita knows she’s still a prime target on the black market. There’s only one way to keep herself safe. Nita must make herself so feared that no one would ever dare come after her again. And the best way to start building her reputation? Take her revenge on Fabricio, the boy who sold Nita to her kidnappers. But killing Fabricio is harder than Nita thought it would be, even with Kovit by her side. Now caught in a game of kill or be killed, Nita will do whatever it takes to win.
What’s Rebecca’s favorite bit?
Body parts are a staple of fantasy novels, so much so that most of us don’t even question it anymore. Witches use eye of newt and unicorn horn in their potions, while bottles of dragon scales and pixie dust clutter their shelves.
But where did all those body parts come from? I don’t know about you, but I’ve never gone into a Wal-Mart and found newt eyeballs in the kitchen aisle. And if I did, I’d have to wonder why PETA and Greenpeace weren’t all over Wal-Mart for mass newt eye theft. Where are the eyeless newt bodies littering the dirt and who are the people that spend their days popping those eyes out and putting them in a jar?
When I created the Market of Monsters series, I wanted to show that other side, explore the world of magical creature body part trafficking, and all the various ugly pieces of it. It’s been my favorite part of the series, because it’s something that I do on both a small scale, weaving tiny details into the fabric of the world, as well as addressing it on a broad scale thematic level, asking questions about humanity and monstrousness and what that even means when you’re murdering ‘monsters’ to sell for parts.
The world of Not Even Bones and Only Ashes Remain is our world, but populated by unnaturals. Some look human, some don’t. Some are dangerous, some aren’t. Many are based on various mythological creatures, like Unicorns, Kappa, Kelpies, Vampires, and Krasue.
The one thing that all these species have in common is that there is a thriving black market for their body parts.
The main character, Nita, and her mother hunt down unnaturals and sell pieces of them on the internet. They grind up unicorn bones into powder so that drug addicts can buy it and snort it to get high. They drain vampire blood and sell it as an anti-aging cream. Sometimes they pass off human body parts as monster ones, and lie about what they can do.
When Nita ends up on the other side of the black market, as a product rather than a seller, we get to experience the story from a different angle. She’s been merchant and merchandise, abuser and victim, monster and human, allowing the book to explore all those complicated angles of unnatural body parts trafficking.
And they are complicated—this world is a funhouse mirror of out own, and just like our own, black markets exist and will continue to, because people profit. Not just the sellers of unnatural body parts, but the politicians and police who are bribed to turn away. And of course, the day-to-day ‘normal’ consumers of these products, the arthritic elderly who want to use zannie blood as a painkiller, the women who rub vampire blood infused anti-aging cream on their faces.
From corporations claiming chinchillas are unnaturals so they can skirt animal cruelty laws, to a unicorn bone drug epidemic in middle America, there’s so many interesting ways to explore the ugly side of the magical body parts business. I think it’s the details that truly bring a world like this to life, the nitty gritty pieces that make the black market body parts industry feel all the more real.
Not all unnaturals are monsters. Not all monsters are unnatural – humans can be just as terrible. Exploring the ugly side of a world where magical body parts are a big industry, picking apart the questions of where they come from, how these industries are maintained – and who profits from them – is one of my favorite parts of this series.
RebeccaSchaeffer was born and raised in the Canadian prairies. Her itchy feet took her far from home. You can find her sitting in a cafe on the other side of the world, writing about villains, antiheroes, and morally ambiguous characters. She is the author of Not Even Bones, the first in a dark YA fantasy trilogy.
Alison Wilgus is joining us today to talk about Chronin Vol 2: The Sword At Your Back. Here’s the publisher’s description:
Samurai Jack meets Back to the Future in Alison Wilgus’s Chronin Volume 2: The Sword in Your Hand, a thrilling conclusion to a time-bending graphic novel duology
Japan’s history will never be the same. The timeline has veered off course with the abrupt deaths of prominent players in the nation’s past, influencers who were supposed to start the Meiji Restoration. Now Mirai Yoshida, former Japanese-American undergrad turned samurai on the lam, may never find her way back to where she belongs.
Unless a high-stakes plan is enacted. With help from her newfound friends, Mirai must instigate a peasant uprising to correct the course of history. But in order to succeed, she faces a dangerous and powerful fellow time traveler, an enemy who accidentally glimpsed his country’s destiny and didn’t like what he saw.
Chronin, Volume 2: The Sword in Your Hand concludes the adrenaline-fueled adventure that asks: when time is of the essence, is it more important to save yourself or the future?
What’s Alison’s favorite bit?
My favorite bit of Chronin — of the whole duology, really, but in particular this second half — isn’t something that’s in the book. The detail I hold dearest to my heart isn’t a character, or a scene, or a clever piece of worldbuilding. It’s an absence. An exorcism, maybe, of narrative ghosts that’ve haunted me for a long while.
Like many a queerball 90s teen, the path of my life was forever altered by Mulan, Disney’s 1998 animated musical about a woman who disguises herself as a man and takes her father’s place when he’s called to war.
I profoundly related to Mulan’s discomfort in the opening scenes, watching her flounder in the hyper-feminine packaging of a prospective bride. I, too, had been told that my future happiness was tied to a specific performance of womanhood; that in order to be content I would have to be desired by a man, and that men would want me to be soft and small and delicate. Men wouldn’t be interested in a tall, loud, heavyset weirdo who drew gargoyles fanart instead of doing her homework.
I adored Li Shang, Mulan’s handsome commander. I loved that he gravitated toward “Ping” even before learning his secret — before he knew that Ping was a costume, a second suit of armor which Mulan had constructed to survive amongst soldiers. And I also adored Ping in his own right, as he struggled through awkwardness and inexperience to become a heroic leader of armies, admired by his peers and respected by his superiors. I deeply envied Mulan’s successful transition into this alternate self.
Other things, however, didn’t sit so well with me.
I hated when Mulan’s new soldier friends dragged her through a sexist musical number about what made a girl “worth fighting for.” I hated that the discovery of her secret was immediately followed by hateful rejection — that she was literally cast out into the snow for daring to smuggle her womanhood into men’s business. The framework to understand transphobia wasn’t available to me as a teen, but I hated the talk of “ugly concubines” and everything surrounding it.
Mulan was my favorite film, but every rewatch took its toll. I dreaded another journey through melodramatic misogyny, enacted on-screen by a mostly male cast as part of their arcs of reform.
I’ve long been attracted to “crossdressing” stories, or to media which plays with gender. But this trope is a hell of a thing to love; it’s so often wrapped up tightly with one sort of awfulness or another. Themes of misogyny, homophobia and transphobia pop up again and again, either because the work in question is addressing those things intentionally, or because thoughtless execution results in brutal splash damage.
It’s not really surprising, looking back, that when I sat down to plan out my first ambitious solo endeavor, the main character at the heart of it was a woman who chooses to dress as a man.
Like Mulan, Mirai crossdresses in part for reasons of safety and utility — she’s concerned about her ability to “pass” as a nineteenth century Japanese woman, and worries that she’ll draw a bad kind of attention from period-natives if she tries. But also, she’s just more comfortable! She dresses in a unisex style in her own context, and when presented with two more divided options for navigating the past, she opts for the masculine one because it feels like a better fit.
Perhaps more importantly, while Mirai’s crossdressing story does involve eventual discovery, the tensions this causes have little to do with gender. Her traveling companion, for example, doesn’t care whether or not Mirai is a man — she cares that Mirai is a commoner posing as samurai, a criminal deception which puts both of them in danger.
Chronin is largely an adventure story, and so involves a dramatic confrontation — Mirai has to face down the antagonist at the root of her problems, and defend her own choices in the face of his ire. But there’s no dramatic reveal of her gender in this scene; it’s only mentioned incidentally. Mirai and her opponent are at odds because they disagree about the future of Japan, not because of who she “really” is.
Throughout both volumes, Mirai’s experience of gender is important to her personally. But it has little bearing on the plot, and is of no real concern to anyone else.
My cohort of queer cartoonists spend a lot of time talking about how we’re making the books we wish we could have read when we were younger, and while Chronin is for adults and older teens rather than kids, my own past self is very much on my mind. I built this book around Mirai, and she comfortably inhabits a trope that’s often done me wrong.
My favorite bit of Chronin is that Mirai reaches the end of it without being thrown in the snow; without being scolded and shamed for daring to conceal her “true” self. It feels good to be putting this story out into the world. I hope it finds the people who need it.
Alison Wilgus is a Brooklyn-based bestselling writer, editor and cartoonist who’s been working in comics for over a decade. Most of her professional work has been writing for comics, including two works of graphic non-fiction with First Second Books about aviation history and human spaceflight. Her short prose fiction has been published by Interzone, Analog and Strange Horizons. Her latest work is Chronin, a science-fiction duology from Tor books and her solo graphic novel debut. In her spare time, she co-hosts a podcast about comics publishing called “Graphic Novel TK” with Gina Gagliano.
Sarah Pinsker is joining us today to talk about her debut novel, A Song for a New Day. Here’s the publisher’s description:
In this captivating science fiction novel from an award-winning author, public gatherings are illegal making concerts impossible, except for those willing to break the law for the love of music, and for one chance at human connection.
In the Before, when the government didn’t prohibit large public gatherings, Luce Cannon was on top of the world. One of her songs had just taken off and she was on her way to becoming a star. Now, in the After, terror attacks and deadly viruses have led the government to ban concerts, and Luce’s connection to the world–her music, her purpose–is closed off forever. She does what she has to do: she performs in illegal concerts to a small but passionate community, always evading the law.
Rosemary Laws barely remembers the Before times. She spends her days in Hoodspace, helping customers order all of their goods online for drone delivery–no physical contact with humans needed. By lucky chance, she finds a new job and a new calling: discover amazing musicians and bring their concerts to everyone via virtual reality. The only catch is that she’ll have to do something she’s never done before and go out in public. Find the illegal concerts and bring musicians into the limelight they deserve. But when she sees how the world could actually be, that won’t be enough.
What’s Sarah’s favorite bit?
I had all these ideas for talking about my favorite bit for a particular character, like when Rosemary rejected all my plans for what she should do next and took over writing herself, or about the joy and challenge of making people feel live music in prose, which truly is one of my favorite things. Then I realized that I had a different favorite bit that I wanted to talk about that I don’t know if anyone will actually notice: the playlist hidden in the table of contents.
I’ve always loved books with soundtracks. That includes books that reference songs or bands, or books where the author later publishes a list of music they listened to while working on the book. That didn’t feel like enough for this book. Sure, it’s dystopic, but it’s also a love letter to live music, and to musicians who inspire, and to the feeling of inspiration that a song can bring. It needed all the songs I could seed into it.
When I started writing A Song For A New Day, it helped me to envision it in song format. Song format is usually written as something like ABACAB or ABABCBA or AAAAAAAAAA if you’re Bob Dylan, where A is a verse and B is a chorus and C is a bridge. So this was basically a game I played with myself: one character’s parts were the A parts, and then the other had the B parts. Then I got really meta and made C, the bridge, take place on an actual bridge. I wrote a chapter labelled 16 bar solo where Luce traveled to sixteen bars on her own. I originally wrote that chapter in verse. I knew it would have to change, but entertaining myself was what counted in that particular draft. (Also, within those sections I had 33 chapters and one labelled A Minor Third, for a total of 33 1/3. I AM A DORK.)
At a certain point, my editor, Rebecca Brewer, pointed out the big A and B part sections took the reader away from the other character for way too long. She was right. It didn’t work to carry narrative momentum, so I sadly broke it up until it didn’t really resemble a song anymore…except that some of the parts still remain, as chapters titled Bridge, 16 Bar Solo, and Coda.
A couple of chapters are named after venues in the book, and one is an inspirational poster, when Rosemary isn’t yet thinking much about music. But then my real fun began in naming the rest.
The rules for the other game I created for myself:
1) The song title –and preferably the lyrics too — had to be relevant to the chapter.
2) It had to make sense on some level for a reader who didn’t notice the reference.
3) It had to be relevant to the character who was the focus of that chapter.
4) It was okay to alter the title a little bit.
So, in the chapters narrated by Luce Cannon, the musician whose upward trajectory was halted by big societal changes, the song titles are taken from bands that she might have heard and been influenced by, or else from her own songs. The name of the first chapter, “172 Ways,” seems to come fairly obviously from the first scene, but later Luce writes a song of the same name, thinking about the same incident. Her other chapters come from songs I think she would have liked, or songs she wrote herself. Songs by Bikini Kill, Frightwig, the Rock*A*Teens, Thunderbitch, L7, the Pixies, Amy Ray, Disappear Fear, the Shondes. Songs a young queer musician might have discovered and claimed for herself.
Rosemary Laws, who grew up isolated in a country changed by the same events, starts out with an inspirational poster instead of a song. After that she gets chapters with titles taken from fictional bands more contemporary to her, or songs that her parents might have played for her, or songs that she discovered as she researched music and got into bands and then the bands that influenced those bands. Her first chapter named after a song is a song that’s fictional to us but meaningful to her. Her next songs after that are by the Clash and Malvina Reynolds and Joan Jett, stuff that could still be pretty ubiquitous. Then, as she starts doing research and learning more about music that had previously just been background in her life, she gets some stuff she might have had to look to find, like The Selecter, X-Ray Spex, the Slits, the Cliks, the Distillers, Thalia Zedek, the Butchies, Team Dresch, and some stuff she might have found when she started broadening her tastes a little bit. Since she spends a lot of time researching Baltimore bands I got to hide a couple of my local favorites in there, too, like the Degenerettes and Manners Manners.
When their songs are woven into one playlist, we’re back to my love letter to music, but also the ongoing love letters that I get from music. Ninety minutes of music that fueled and continues to fuel my writing, along with a million bands I couldn’t fit narratively, from the Raincoats to Alabama Shakes to Santa Librada to Big Joanie, and a handful more that I hid in other easter eggs within the narrative. A ninety minute sashay through a selection of narratively relevant girl punk, queer punk, punk punk, folk, rock, and ska that inspires me, incites me, and sets me on fire.
Steven S. Drachman is joining us today to talk about his novel Watt O’Hugh and the Innocent Dead. Here’s the publisher’s description:
On the morning of Wednesday, September 24, 1879, I awoke in a prison in Montana. I did not imagine that evening might find me sprawled beneath a great and ferocious sand crab on a rancid beach, deep in the Hell of the Innocent Dead. But that is indeed where I wound up. The moral, if there is one: never plan your day too inflexibly.
THE WAIT IS OVER: THE CLASSIC ADVENTURE CONCLUDES….
In this, the final book of the trilogy, Watt O’Hugh, the dead/not-dead, Time Roaming Western gunman, travels the length and breadth of the sixth level of Hell, recruiting a shadowy army that might storm the borders of the Underworld, free humanity and the inscapes from the clutches of the Falsturm and his Sidonian hordes, and stave off the Coming Storm.
He’ll need a little luck.
What’s Steven’s favorite bit?
STEVEN S. DRACHMAN
In my new novel, Watt O’Hugh and the Innocent Dead, my eponymous 19th century Western gunslinger and time roamer battles a demon army in a Hell out of ancient Chinese myth.
He also battles a band of escaped convicts in Yuma alongside his old friend Oscar Wilde. (“While I understand him to have been skilled with your ‘comedy of manners,’ ” Watt notes, “the guy was also pretty tough when he wanted to be.”)
A huge and ferocious sand crab nearly swallows him whole.
Watt shadows the faux-Utopian American secessionist movement known as the Sidonians, who are responsible for much of the pain in Watt’s life, led by one Allen Jerome, mathematician, former financier, outlaw and false messianic cult leader.
He visits the Sharon Springs resort town in New York, where he takes the cure in their magical waters. Watt is still a youngish man, but he’s lived a distinctly unhealthy life, and, on the best of days, he probably suffers from about half the ailments the Sharon Springs waters were said to cure.
Sharon Springs, a once-glamorous and once-renowned former-resort, where my grandfather vacationed every summer as a little boy, as the 20th century just dawned, is a place I’ve always wanted to go. I wish I could visit it in its former glory, and I am envious that Watt does.
But as fond as I am of Watt — I pretty much agree with everything he says, after all — I wanted to call the second book in the series, A Princess of Sidonia (with apologies to Edgar Rice Burroughs, whose A Princess of Mars began the John Carter series). That was not a particularly popular choice around the office, and we went with Watt O’Hugh Underground instead. Still, I suggested it again as the title for Book 3.
I guess these are not really “princess books,” but you can see that there is something on my mind.
In Underground, the evil Allen Jerome muses that his movement would benefit from a strong and fearsome princess, with red hair, long legs, a terrifying battle cry and a hawk on her right shoulder, whom the people “might yearn for, to love from afar.”
And, Allen Jerome adds, “she must of course be beautiful.”
A queen, he explains, can be loved; but a princess can be loved in an entirely different fashion.
“You are allowed to gaze upon your princess,” he says, “and wish that you could marry her, and to think about what such a thing might be like. That is what drives your loyalty in battle.”
Soon Sidonia has its princess.
She is not precisely real; she is a simulacrum, or “skimmy” for short. It’s not so hard to conjure a skimmy if you have a heart and head full of evil and greed, as well the assistance of an Otherworld Fabricator, both of which Allen Jerome has.
At first, she is content to incite her troops to battle, and to be fearsome, as advertised. But by the start of the most recent novel, she has begun to change, and to wonder.
“You cannot know,” she tells Watt, “what it was like for me to awaken one day, filled with a personality that someone else had created for me, but no memory. No memory, just someone else’s purpose.”
As she and Watt sit down to a game of chess in a little shop in the Grey City, a looming future-metropolis that portends the world’s demise, she says, “I know that I will win. And I have never played this before. I don’t even know what this is. I won’t even think about it while I am doing it. It will be like yawning, like blinking. It will just happen. And I will win.”
Like Allen Jerome, I imagined her one way, I set her up just so, a visually interesting figure with brutal and violent exhortations to battle. And then she became something else. And she wishes to become something else again, something entirely unlike the creature that Allen Jerome, and I, imagined her to be.
I wanted to name the book after this villain, a killer skimmy with so much death behind her, who suddenly awakens and wonders whether it is even possible to understand what she is, and what she could be.
At one point, she says to Watt, “Did you know that an octopus has three hearts, and that its blood is blue-green?”
Watt knows just why she thinks that this is important to know.
She is saying, Like an octopus, I am different, yet alive.
STEVEN S. DRACHMAN is a writer and critic whose work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Entertainment Weekly, The Village Voice and The Chicago Sun-Times. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife and two daughters.
(Tor Books — August 21, 2018) Continuing the grand sweep of alternate history laid out in The Calculating Stars, The Fated Sky looks forward to 1961, when mankind is well-established on the moon and looking forward to its next step: journeying to, and eventually colonizing, Mars. Of course, the noted Lady Astronaut Elma York would like to go, […]