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.
Tyler Hayes is joining us with his debut novel The Imaginary Corpse. Here’s the publisher’s description:
A dinosaur detective in the land of unwanted ideas battles trauma, anxiety, and the first serial killer of imaginary friends.
Most ideas fade away when we’re done with them. Some we love enough to become Real. But what about the ones we love, and walk away from?
Tippy the triceratops was once a little girl’s imaginary friend, a dinosaur detective who could help her make sense of the world. But when her father died, Tippy fell into the Stillreal, the underbelly of the Imagination, where discarded ideas go when they’re too Real to disappear. Now, he passes time doing detective work for other unwanted ideas – until Tippy runs into The Man in the Coat, a nightmare monster who can do the impossible: kill an idea permanently. Now Tippy must overcome his own trauma and solve the case, before there’s nothing left but imaginary corpses.
What’s Tyler’s favorite bit?
My Favorite Bit is Wrrbrr, space-knight of the Space Kingdom.
Wrrbrr, like several of the characters in The Imaginary Corpse, is an imaginary friend who was beloved by the person who created her, but rejected after said person experienced a traumatic event that would be spoileriffic to discuss here.
What makes Wrrbrr stand out for me is the age group she’s from. Unlike Detective Tippy, whose creator spent several years with him before the death of her father, or Miss Mighty, whose creator turned away from her in high school, Wrrbrr’s creator was extremely young, not even out of kindergarten. Because of that, Wrrbrr was by far the hardest character to write. I knew she needed to feel unfinished: strange, oversimplified, recognizably sentient but also operating on a logic that is entirely internal to her, just like so many things little kids have tried to explain to their parents. (Thank you, Twitter, for giving me access to so many bizarre and unsettling declarations by children!) But at the same time, she needed to feel like she was unfinished on purpose, not like I just didn’t try very hard to finish her.
Part of my answer was making her literally mutable: a morphing pink jelly, not a solid, developed body. Something a little kid could easily scrawl with one or two crayons in the corner of a coloring book. The name “Wrrbrr” jumped right out at me, something that could be pronounced but is also itself an incomplete word, the kind of nonsense syllables someone still figuring out language might utter when asked to name their creation. I picture the name being written somewhere in half-incoherent crayon that’s mostly invented letters.
When the time came to fill in the details, I went stream of consciousness. I dug back into games of Let’s Pretend and cartoons I watched pre-first grade, and just sort of doodled them all together and boiled them down without worrying too much about how much sense they made when combined. It resulted in a mix of disconnected elements: Wrrbrr’s status as a “space knight,” protecting the “Space Kingdom” (which, spoilers, has very little connection to space). Her “Star Power,” which allows her to summon up various implements of defense and destruction, and which puts her near the top of the charts in terms of most powerful characters in the Stillreal — little kids so often lack a sense of scale that of course she’s been invested with enormous power, the same way kids playfighting on the playground might just off-the-cuff declare that a character can fire a magical star cannon that can bust through their friend’s invincible force field.
Wrrbrr’s personality was the easiest part. I tried to marry “incomplete” and “young” and got “questioning.” Wrrbrr is full of uncertainty about the world around her, big and scary and unknown, but she’s also perfectly willing to admit her ignorance and ask questions without any self-consciousness, unmarred by the bullying and insults that silence too many older children. She’s also exceedingly polite, dropping “please” into her sentences seemingly at random, because that’s the kind of word that gets taught to children as something magical and important. Any word over two syllables I write her as sounding out, unless I know she’d had cause to use it a lot. And because of the trauma in her background, I made her soft-spoken, tentative in conversations with strangers.
Looking back, Wrrbrr feels as real as the rest of the cast of The Imaginary Corpse, but I am more aware of the process involved in dreaming her up because she has such a specific and hard-to-produce feel. She only plays a small (but very important) part in the book, but she looms large for me because of everything that went into those couple scenes. And that’s what makes her my favorite bit.
Tyler Hayes is a science fiction and fantasy writer from Northern California. He writes stories he hopes will show people that not only are they not alone in this terrifying world, but we might just make things better. His fiction has appeared online in Anotherealm, Nossa Morte, and The Edge of Propinquity, and in print in anthologies from Alliteration Ink, Graveside Tales, and Aetherwatch. Tyler’s debut novel, The Imaginary Corpse, is coming from Angry Robot Books in fall 2019.
Alexandra Rowland is joining us today to talk about their novel A Choir of Lies. Here’s the publisher’s description:
A young storyteller must embrace his own skills—and the power of stories—to save a nation from economic ruin, in the standalone sequel to A Conspiracy of Truths.
Three years ago, Ylfing watched his master-Chant tear a nation apart with nothing but the words on his tongue. Now Ylfing is all alone in a new realm, brokenhearted and grieving—but a Chant in his own right, employed as a translator to a wealthy merchant of luxury goods, Sterre de Waeyer. But Ylfing has been struggling to come to terms with what his master did, with the audiences he’s been alienated from, and with the stories he can no longer trust himself to tell.
That is, until Ylfing’s employer finds out what he is, what he does, and what he knows. At Sterre’s command, Ylfing begins telling stories once more, fanning the city into a mania for a few shipments of an exotic flower. The prices skyrocket, but when disaster looms, Ylfing must face what he has done and decide who he wants to be: a man who walks away and lets the city shatter, as his master did? Or will he embrace the power of story to save ten thousand lives?
With a memorable cast of characters, starring a fan-favorite from A Conspiracy of Truths, and a timely message, Choir of Lies reminds us that the words we wield can bring destruction—or salvation.
What is Alexandra’s favorite bit?
The world kind of sucks right now. So many of us—millions of us—feel left behind by our society, our communities, even our families. We see governments prioritizing the vanity of the few and the wealthy over the basic welfare of the many and the poor. We see corporations exploiting their workers and their customers for the sake of profit.
It was with these thoughts in mind that I wrote my favorite bit of A CHOIR OF LIES, and because of spoilers I’m going to have to describe it vaguely:
There is a character. They have the opportunity to choose between supporting their community (at great personal cost) or turning away and protecting themselves and what they have already gained. It is not an easy choice. They are very, very afraid.
I was afraid too, writing that scene. I knew what choice I wanted the character to make—of course I wanted them to choose in favor of their community. But I had dreadful fantasies of people reading that scene and telling me it wasn’t realistic. After all, why would anyone choose sacrifice?
“But,” I said, stomping my feet like a child in a tantrum, “I WANT them to make the right and moral choice, even though it’s hard. I want to live in a world where more people do that. But they won’t unless someone shows them that it’s possible, and what else are stories FOR but to show us extraordinary possibility?”
We are told, in ways sometimes fear-mongering and sometimes well-meaning, to put on our own oxygen masks before helping the person next to us. In many contexts, this is a prudent and sensible way to sort out our priorities. We can take care of other people better if we have taken care of ourselves first—making sure our basic needs are met, making sure that we have the emotional and physical energy to do the work, and so on.
But sometimes we encounter a terrifying version of the Trolley Problem. You know the basic one, of course: Pick whether the trolley runs over one person tied up on Track A, or five people tied up on Track B. The logical choice is, of course, to sacrifice one life to save five. But what if you’re the one person on Track A? What do you choose then? Save your own life or save five strangers?
Fortunately, real life doesn’t work like an ethics homework problem most of the time. Being kind and helping the person next to you doesn’t usually have an impossibly-high price tag on it. The thing about kindness is that it pays for itself—if you do enough of it, eventually it starts coming back to you. As it turns out, you can save the five people on Track B, and then there’s a chance that they’ll turn around and save you too. It doesn’t have to come at a high cost to one person. Quite the opposite—sometimes it can enrich everyone.
A CHOIR OF LIES has a theme running through it of the “one little thing”—the thing you do for someone that is utterly inconsequential to you but which, to them, means the world. It is the hand offered to help them up when they’ve tripped, or a moment of love and commiseration on a day when they were sad and lonely, or the loud belly-laugh at a joke they thought no one would notice. Opportunities to make big, costly sacrifices for the greater good might come along once in a lifetime, and I guarantee you that if you ever face one, it is going to seem like an impossible choice. You might turn away. You might have to put on your own oxygen mask first. But in between all those rare, earth-shattering opportunities for choice are the hundreds and thousands of moments of the one-little-thing.
So maybe my favorite bit of this book—this character’s moment of uncertainty, teetering on the cusp of possibility—is unrealistic. Maybe no one in real life is good or strong enough to face the Trolley Problem when they’re the one on the tracks.
But… if it’s unrealistic, I’m okay with it. Kindness doesn’t always come easily or naturally to me. It’s something that I have to work at, an active choice that I have to make when the prospect of being catty or dismissive or mean is sitting right in front of me like a big slice of chocolate cake. But with every story I hear of someone doing a great act of kindness, and every time I see someone holding firm to their honor and goodness because it matters more to them than their stupid pride, it gets a little easier for me to do the same. Witnessing the extraordinary, even in fiction, brings the ordinary into much easier reach. That’s what I tried to do with my favorite bit of CHOIR OF LIES. That scene was as much to save my own soul as it was for any other purpose. I needed it. Maybe you need it too.
Alexandra Rowland grew up on a sailboat in the Bahamas and then in a house in Florida. Sick to death of the tropics, they attended Truman State University in northern Missouri, where they studied world literature, mythology, and folklore. They now live in western Massachusetts where they work as an (occasional) bespoke seamstress and writer under the stern supervision of their feline quality control manager. They can be found on Twitter as @_alexrowland.
They are represented by Britt Siess of Martin Literary Management.
Wendy Trimboli and Alicia Zaloga are joining us to talk about their novel The Resurrectionist of Caligo. Here’s the publisher’s description:
With a murderer on the loose, it’s up to an enlightened bodysnatcher and a rebellious princess to save the city, in this wonderfully inventive Victorian-tinged fantasy noir.
“Man of Science” Roger Weathersby scrapes out a risky living digging up corpses for medical schools. When he’s framed for the murder of one of his cadavers, he’s forced to trust in the superstitions he’s always rejected: his former friend, princess Sibylla, offers to commute Roger’s execution in a blood magic ritual which will bind him to her forever. With little choice, he finds himself indentured to Sibylla and propelled into an investigation. There’s a murderer loose in the city of Caligo, and the duo must navigate science and sorcery, palace intrigue and dank boneyards to catch the butcher before the killings tear their whole country apart.
What is Alicia’s favorite bit?
As coauthors of a book, it’s difficult to pinpoint the utmost favorite bit. Wendy’s favorite bit is not necessarily my favorite bit and vice versa. However, during the whirlwind creation phase of throwing everything and anything into The Resurrectionist of Caligo and then some, there is one scene that sticks out as magic—a synergistic place in book time when two authors, with two competing headspaces, had to deal with the natural fall out of a slow burn relationship between our two main characters taking place on a stairwell.
At the start of our novel, Sibylla the Wayward Princess and Roger the Vagabond Resurrectionist have already had their youthful love affair, and to say it did not end well would be an understatement. Many books begin with two characters and their fated meeting with one another. We wanted to begin ours with two characters who’d already been through the relationship cycle—cute childhood meeting, kissing beneath the boughs in adolescence, and inevitable painful teenage breakup. Feelings one has for an ex are complicated. Between Roger and Sibylla, there are two broken hearts (one of which has mostly moved on) made worse by differing worldviews, past misunderstandings, and a murder or three. There’s pining and anger and the crossover of both these emotions. Now as adults, they want to see one another again, but there’s also a desire to give the other person a dressing down while they’re at it.
The fruition of this thorny emotional landscape between former friends turned paramours turned exes takes place in a dark and dingy—one of the two might even say rancid—stairwell that leads to the garret where Roger resides above the butcher’s shop, barely scraping together his back rent. Their meeting is a long time coming. It became a favorite because of the variety of logistical and emotional complexities inherent to the scene, including an interested onlooker, the tiredness that comes from the end of a long workday, and all the past and present fuzzy and not-so-fuzzy emotions they have for one another.
I should probably explain here that our writing process is sometimes incredibly, ridiculously, collaborative. On occasion, sentences can be minutely examined, rewritten (and rewritten and rewritten), and comments given until the narration becomes a torn apart and glued, sewed, and duct taped back together again monster of collective thought and choice. A sample sentence might read: Three words Wendy wrote followed by two words I wrote, another Wendy verb, and finally four words I chose before that punctuating period. Despite this process, the one thing we agreed on in the revision partnership stage was that we had to respect the other person’s final say on whether or not our main characters would, or would not, say or do something.
That’s why a scene, such as that which takes place in the stairwell of the building where Roger lives, is so impactful, not only for the characters but for us as co-creators. While I’m “the” Sibylla authority, Wendy is “the” Roger authority. When our main characters share the page, so too do we authors. This one little scene went in a direction neither of us had originally intended.
In the very original draft, it ended rather comically with Sibylla saying something to the effect of, “I’ve got things to do, ta-ta.” Of course, this was never going to be enough, but at the time neither of us had fully discovered the emotional weight of this encounter. When we finally did, it became, in many ways, a scene of personal declarations for our main characters, one that explored how their respective pasts and presents collided to terrific and horrible result. Sibylla ended up saying a bit more than “ta-ta” and so did Roger. No matter how many drafts, no matter how many nuances were added or changes to the story made, the stairwell scene always remained this crystallized moment between Roger and Sibylla, and by extension between us as their creators.
It may only encompass a few pages of the whole book, but it is representative of that time our characters provoked one another into saying and doing things they never would have said or done had we not been co-authors. For Wendy and me, it was the perfect example of what we could accomplish when we allowed each other the freedom to express our characters on the page, and I can’t think of a better favorite bit to act as our creative beacon.
ALICIA ZALOGA grew up in Virginia Beach not liking the beach, and now moves every few years, sometimes to places near beaches. She has a writing degree from Columbia College Chicago, and when she’s not dealing with life’s chores, she collects hobbies: plucking the E string on the bass, producing an alarming number of artistic doodles, and French beading floral bouquets
WENDY TRIMBOLI grew up in England, Germany and the United States, and learned to speak two languages well enough that most people can understand her. Determined to ignore her preference for liberal arts, she attended the US Air Force Academy then worked as an intelligence officer, which was less exciting than it sounds. These days she has a creative writing MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts, and lives in Colorado with her family, border collie, and far too many books.
Grant Price is joining us to talk about his novel By the Feet of Men. Here’s the publisher’s description:
WANTED: Men and women willing to drive through the valley of the shadow of death.
The world’s population has been decimated by the Change, a chain reaction of events triggered by global warming. In Europe, governments have fallen, cities have crumbled and the wheels of production have ground to a halt. The Alps region, containing most of the continent’s remaining fresh water, has become a closed state with heavily fortified borders. Survivors cling on by trading through the Runners, truck drivers who deliver cargo and take a percentage.
Amid the ruins of central Germany, two Runners, Cassady and Ghazi, are called on to deliver medical supplies to a research base deep in the Italian desert, where scientists claim to be building a machine that could reverse the effects of the Change. Joining the pair are a ragtag collection of drivers, all of whom have something to prove. Standing in their way are starving nomads, crumbling cities, hostile weather and a rogue state hell-bent on the convoy’s destruction. And there’s another problem: Cassady is close to losing his nerve.
What’s Grant’s favorite bit?
Flashbacks are a risky tool to use in any novel, let alone one as relentlessly linear as By the Feet of Men. I generally see it as cheating: they’re a way to flesh out a character or build a world without doing the heavy lifting in the narrative in which we’re spending the majority of our time. The worst are the ones involving a ham-fisted segue: “The radio. Green Bakelite, just like the one she had in her box room near the Champs-Élysées. So many years ago now…”. After that, we’re treated to an entire chapter about a girl with a green Bakelite radio who won’t appear in the novel again, all so we can learn the protagonist is a hopeless romantic. Not especially efficient, and a test of patience for the reader.
Recently, I struggled through The Night Manager by John Le Carré, the first few chapters of which are spent introducing the undersexed protagonist, Jonathan Pine. Instead of learning who he is in the present, though, the reader is treated to flashback after flashback of Pine’s time in Cairo and a certain *no spoilers* incident that establishes a shaky motive for him to go gallivanting around the Caribbean in pursuit of a shady businessmen. Now, as everybody loves Le Carré and he’s light-years ahead of me in terms of ability, this is both sacrilegious and cheeky, but I couldn’t help viewing his use of flashbacks in the novel as lazy. The first third of a book should be reserved for setting the scene, building the world, establishing subtext, developing the characters, making them consistent, and encouraging the reader to love, tolerate or despise them. By contrast, the flashbacks in The Night Manager tell us immediately who Pine is and exactly who we can expect him to be over the next 400-odd pages. No reveal, no build-up, no effort to earn the reader’s affection.
All this to say that when I wrote my own barely-three-page flashback chapter, I wasn’t sure if I was doing the right thing. As I said, By the Feet of Men is nothing if not linear. A to B, start to finish, no side quests or tangents or baggage to slow things down. I wanted it to be high octane like Neuromancer or The Death of Grass, flying from devastated location to devastated location, fresh horror to fresh horror, a dystopian road novel right down to the book binding. Even so, at the point in the story where the flashback appears, I felt like everybody needed a breather—me, the reader and the characters. After all, ecological collapse takes its toll on everyone. And seeing as I’d already had the drivers of the convoy sit around in drosscapes and dust bowls waxing lyrical about how nature had finally turned its back on humanity, I needed something different. Like, for example, the bleakest flashback I could think of.
Without getting into specifics, my flashback fills in a bit of backstory, in this case about how the ‘Change’ instigated widespread civil unrest, mass migration, lawlessness and a breakdown of basic human values, leading people to do despicable things to one another in the name of survival. So far, so standard. But here’s the twist (if you can call it that): it’s written from the perspective of a character who is already dead. Their story is being remembered by another driver in a moment of monotony out on the road, just as we might find ourselves thinking of something a loved one told us before they passed away. What I like about the flashback’s appearance at this point in the narrative is that we’ve already learned—over the course of half the book—who that character was and what they represented. We formed a bond with them and we felt something when they perished. Afterwards, we think that’s it. The character is gone, the narrative pushes on and the sense of loss starts to fade into the background. My idea, though, was to use the flashback as a kind of aftershock of misery. Just as we have readied ourselves to move on, that sense of loss is sprung on us again and the wound is forced open once more.
How often do we experience a traumatic event and then squirrel it away in the back of our mind, never to be touched again? Rarely-to-never, would be my guess. We can be reminded of it at any time. The most banal sight, sound or smell can trigger a fresh wave of emotion that overwhelms us before we have the chance to get a grip on it. It’s something we can never truly prepare for. I wanted to capture that feeling through the flashback and, in doing so, bring the reader closer to the surviving drivers and hopefully make the world they inhabit slightly more real.
As far as actual readers’ responses to the flashback is concerned, the jury is still out. One reviewer told me that it doesn’t work at all and that the editor should have wielded her red pen like a rapier and slashed it to ribbons. Fair enough. But another said the flashback resonated with them, all the more so because of how unexpected it was. I appreciate both responses. Whether it works or not, it’s something that—for me, at least—is a little different and takes a bit of a risk. It allowed me, just for a moment, to step away from the convoy as it races into the heart of darkness and view the story from a new angle. At the same time, it maintains enough of a link between ‘past’ and ‘present’ to land an emotional sucker punch.
In social situations, Grant Price introduces himself as “Grant, like Hugh Grant, only it’s my first name”. As well as writing novels and short stories, he is a translator of German and Dutch and does the kind of copywriting that Bill Hicks would have hated him for. By the Feet of Men is his first published novel.
(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, […]