Gena Showalter is joining us today with her novel Lifeblood. Here’s the publisher’s description:
“My Firstlife is over, but my Everlife is only now beginning.”
With her last living breath, Tenley “Ten” Lockwood made her choice and picked her realm in the Everlife. Now, as the war between Troika and Myriad rages, she must face the consequences.
Because Ten possesses a rare supernatural ability to absorb and share light, the Powers That Be have the highest expectations for her future—and the enemy wants her neutralized. Fighting to save her Secondlife, she must learn about her realm from the ground up while launching her first mission: convincing a select group of humans to join her side before they die. No pressure, right?
But Ten’s competition is Killian, the boy she can’t forget—the one who gave up everything for her happiness. He has only one shot at redemption: beating Ten at a game she’s never even played. As their throw-downs heat up, so do their undeniable feelings, and soon, Ten will have to make another choice. Love…or victory.
What’s Gena’s favorite bit?
In the Everlife series, the heroine—Ten Lockwood—is obsessed with numbers. So, when I assigned every character in the after life realms (Troika and Myriad) an “email” address, I wanted every number to mean something—like a code within the book—even if no one understood what those numbers meant. First up, I had to select a key.
Since scripture inspired the entire series—there are numerous scriptures about kingdoms not of this earth, kingdom vs. kingdom, a war between spiritual forces, the power of choice, life and death, blessing and cursing, light and dark, good and evil—I decided to use the Bible as the key.
T_L is her name: Tenley Lockwood. 2 is her rank within the realm (Conduit). 23 is the 23rd book in the Bible (Isaiah), 43 is the 43rd chapter, and 2 is the 2nd verse. “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze.”
K_F: Killian Flynn. 5 is his rank (5 = Laborer). Just as for Ten, 23 is for Isaiah, the 23rd book in the Bible. 53rd chapter, 6th verse. “All of us, like sheep, have strayed away. We have left God’s paths to follow our own. Yet the Lord laid on him the sins of us all.” I selected this verse for Killian because, in the beginning, he is so lost. His choices have hurt so many, and yet deep down, he wants to do better—to be better. He wants to be loved.
A_P: Archer Prince. I selected the same verse for Archer that I selected for Tenley. Because, in book one –MAJOR SPOILER ALERT…STOP HERE IF YOU HAVEN’T READ FIRSTLIFE—
–NOW IS THE TIME TO STOP–
He dies. Ten loved him and claimed the address for herself.
Levi Nanne. 3 is his rank (General). The 19th book of the Bible is Psalms. Chapter 1, verse 1. “Oh, the joys of those who do not follow the advice of the wicked…” I selected this passage for Levi because, to Ten, he offers the wise counsel she has so needed—the counsel she never received from her own parents.
Every numbered address has a meaning specific to the character, and I totally geeked out as I selected the right scripture for each and every one.
Gena Showalter is the New York Times and USA TODAY bestselling author of the Intertwined Novels, the White Rabbit Chronicles, and the Everlife Novels, among numerous novels for an adult audience as well. Her stories have been praised as “unputdownable.” Gena lives in Oklahoma with her family and a menagerie of dogs. Follow her on twitter @genashowalter and visit her website at genashowalter.com.
Mishell Baker is joining us today with her novel Phantom Pains. Here’s the publisher’s description:
In the second book to the “exciting, inventive, and brilliantly plotted” (Seanan McGuire, New York Times bestselling author) Borderline, Millie unwillingly returns to the Arcadia Project when an impossible and deadly situation pulls her back in.
Four months ago, Millie left the Arcadia Project after losing her partner Teo to the lethal magic of an Unseelie fey countess. Now, in a final visit to the scene of the crime, Millie and her former boss Caryl encounter Teo’s tormented ghost. But there’s one problem: according to Caryl, ghosts don’t exist.
Millie has a new life, a stressful job, and no time to get pulled back into the Project, but she agrees to tell her side of the ghost story to the agents from the Project’s National Headquarters. During her visit though, tragedy strikes when one of the agents is gruesomely murdered in a way only Caryl could have achieved. Millie knows Caryl is innocent, but the only way to save her from the Project’s severe, off-the-books justice is to find the mysterious culprits that can only be seen when they want to be seen. Millie must solve the mystery not only to save Caryl, but also to foil an insidious, arcane terrorist plot that would leave two worlds in ruins.
What’s Mishell’s favorite bit?
It’s hard to talk about my favorite bit of Phantom Pains, as my true favorite bits are those lovely little twists that are only fun if you get there the hard way. Since the first twist happens pretty early on, it’s almost impossible to find a section of Phantom Pains other than transition scenes that are safe to quote without spoilers!
In a more general sense, my favorite bit about writing Phantom Pains was getting to finally explore at least a little of the history, politics, and culture of Arcadia: the alternate universe that is the secret source of all human inspiration. In particular, the story behind what the Arcadia Project has named the Unseelie and Seelie Courts—why the “Unseelie Court” has only a King, and the “Seelie Court” only a Queen—is fascinating to me, particularly because different versions of it have filtered down through the different factions. I wasn’t able to explore it as deeply as I wanted to, because priority goes to things that move the story along, but I’ve always been fascinated by revisionist history and the way that the victors always get to decide how the story goes.
The Arcadia Project is very much a case of “history written by those in power,” and Phantom Pains is the first book in the series where we even start to ask these questions, where we start to realize that the way everything is named, the way all the rules have been set up, are based on the mental filters of the people who do the educating and policy-making.
Arcadia is populated by what the Project calls “fey,” sometimes colloquially referred to by the London-centered organization as faeries, but more literally an entire ecosystem of aliens in a parallel world that operates by different laws of logic and physics. The most human-like race of fey have been dubbed the sidhe by the Project, and the relationship between the sidhe and humans has been the reason for profound growth and development in both worlds. Both the Unseelie King and the Seelie Queen are sidhe, the two “Courts” separated by a binary system of emotion-based magic, with the Unseelie representing emotions like fear and anger, the Seelie emotions like joy and love. In Arcadia, never the twain shall meet; they’re polar forces in a sense, and both are necessary to the ecosystem.
But of course from a human perspective, the Unseelie are the “bad guys” and the Seelie are the “good guys.” And of course the sidhe, being human analogues, are obviously head and shoulders above the other species of Arcadia. But are they really? How have human perspectives and baggage shaped the policy in Arcadia, and could both worlds benefit from reexamining the situation?
Phantom Pains is the first book in the series to open up this line of questioning, and that’s my favorite thing about it. I can’t wait to find out what readers think, and what sort of theories they start to come up with as the tip of the iceberg finally starts to suggest more beneath the surface.
Mishell Baker is a 2009 graduate of the Clarion Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers’ Workshop, and her short stories have appeared in Daily Science Fiction, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Redstone Science Fiction, and Electric Velocipede. She has a website at MishellBaker.com and frequently tweets about writing, parenthood, mental health, and assorted geekery at @MishellBaker. When she’s not attending conventions or going on wild research adventures, she lives in Los Angeles with her husband and children. Her debut novel, Borderline is currently a Nebula award finalist. Its sequel, Phantom Pains, will be available on March 21.
Erika Lewis is joining us today with her novel Game of Shadows. Here’s the publisher’s description:
A young man plagued by the ability to see ghosts races to save the mythological land of Tara from a terrible fate in Erika Lewis’s stunning debut, Game of Shadows.
Thousands of years ago in Ireland, an ancient race fought a world-changing battle—and lost. Their land overrun, the Celtic gods and goddesses fled, while the mythical races and magical druids sailed to an uncharted continent, cloaked so mankind could never find it. This new homeland was named Tara.
In modern day Los Angeles, Ethan Makkai struggles with an overprotective mother who never lets him out of her sight, and a terrifying secret: he can see ghosts. Desperate for a taste of freedom, he leaves his apartment by himself for the first time—only to find his life changed forever. After being attacked by dive-bombing birds, he races home to find the place trashed and his mother gone.
With the help of a captain from Tara who has been secretly watching the Makkais for a long time, Ethan sets out to save his mother; a journey that leads him to the hidden lands, and straight into the arms of a vicious sorcerer who will stop at nothing until he controls Tara.With new-found allies including Christian, the cousin he never knew he had, and Lily, the sword-slinging healer who’d rather fight than mend bones, Ethan travels an arduous road—dodging imprisonment, battling beasts he thought only existed in nightmares, and accepting help from the beings he’s always sought to avoid: ghosts. This L.A. teen must garner strength from his gift and embrace his destiny if he’s going to save his mother, the fearless girl he’s fallen for, and all the people of Tara.
What’s Erika’s favorite bit?
Writing a fantasy novel set in a hidden continent filled with mythical Celtic races and magical Druids means world building. A lot of world building. But it also means putting my “real world” protagonist through some fantastically cruel, yet sadistically funny paces. Tempting fate every time Ethan has to get on a horse. He doesn’t like them, and they don’t like him. Stuck in the middle ages, Tara doesn’t have a single modern amenity. Tarisian’s seems to have ignored the technological march forward the rest of the world has taken. Although Ethan’s accommodations are more luxurious, the fact that so many are trying to kill him pretty much negates that positive. He doesn’t spend a single night in his room until the end of the book.
They’re many new faces, some human, some not. Some courageous and loyal, others scheming and dangerous, not that Ethan hadn’t experienced those personality types in Los Angeles. On the contrary, his high school classmates could’ve been the stars of a highly rated reality show without having the producers having to feed them a single line! But then he meets Lily Niles, a gal best described in Ethan’s own words, “fatally attractive.”
From the moment they meet, she’s literally trying to lop his head off with her sword. Ethan doesn’t understand why she hates him so much. It usually takes a while for someone to build up that kind of animosity toward him, at least a few days! But is it animosity? Or something else?
You know that thing that happens when young adults realize that men and women speak different languages (for some of us it takes way much longer than that—raising hand.) A shocking truth that dawns on us as we find “the one,” and try to date “the one.” From the second Ethan and Lily accidently touch, tensions rise. Insults swing back and forth, but the attraction is there, and growing.
Writing the glorious battle scenes, sword lessons for Ethan when he realizes his heart and compassion get in the way of using it, and the reunion between folks I can’t mention without spoilers…I loved writing all that. But it’s these little moments, like the one below that make me smile.
Set up, Ethan and Lily are locked in the dungeon:
“Let’s scour the cell. You go left. I’ll go right.
They split up, venturing into the darkness in the rear. It was impossible to see anything. Ethan ran his hands along the wall, using it as a guide, touching everything he could reach, but the place was sealed shut. There wasn’t so much as a loose brick.
“Lily?” Ethan called in the darkness.
“Right here,” she answered, then whacked him in the face.
“Ooh,” Ethan moaned. She’d hit him in the nose in the exact same place Alastair had head-butted him.
“I’m so sorry!” She reached out again, nearly poking him in the eye.
“Ow! I know you hate me, but honestly, there are better ways to finish me off!”
Without a word, Lily made her way back to the front of the cell, setting her back against the bars. Ethan came next to her, pinching his nose, hoping it wasn’t bleeding.
“Why do you think I hate you?” Lily asked with a furrowed brow.
“The first time you saw me, you waved your sword in my face,” Ethan said, “even after your father told you who I was.”
Lily tried hard not to smile. “My father embarrassed me. To have him speak to me the way he did in front of you…of all people. I wanted to kill him for that. I took it out on you. I’m sorry.”
The apology was completely unexpected, and Ethan wasn’t sure what to say. His eyes met her, then his gaze drifted to her soft lips and his mouth watered. God, she’s beautiful…Here they were, caged like animals in an abandoned zoo, and all he could think about was kissing her.
His eyes drifted back to hers and he found her staring at him with the same intensity he was at her. He contemplated giving in to the impulse. His mouth hovered mere inches from hers. His head dipped, her breath warming his cheeks, when a sharp warning chill ran up his spine, distracting him.
Oh yeah, smoochus-interruptus… ghosts have a very “chilling” effect after all. Don’t worry, there’s much more in store for Ethan and Lily than this. Will they kiss? Won’t they kiss? Well, Lily is one strong-willed female who is used to taking what she wants!
ERIKA LEWIS graduated from Vanderbilt University, and went on to earn an Advanced Certificate in Creative Writing from Stony Brook University. She has had a successful career in television production for the past fifteen years, working with Sony (V.I.P, Strong Medicine), with Fireworks Television (La Femme Nikita, Andromeda, Mutant X, Strange Days at Blake Holsey High), with Fox (On Air with Ryan Seacrest, Ambush Makeover) and with G4 (Attack of the Show, X-Play). Erika is the author of The 49th Key, currently running in Heavy Metal Magazine, with the trade out soon, and the recently released Firebrand with Legendary Comics. Game of Shadows is Erika’s debut novel. Find out more at: http://www.erikalewis.com/
Maurice Broaddus is joining us today with his collection The Voices of Martyrs. Here’s the publisher’s description:
We are a collection of voices, the assembled history of the many voices that have spoken into our lives and shaped us. Voices of the past, voices of the present, and voices of the future. There is an African proverb, “Se wo were fi na wosankofa a yenkyi,” which translates as “It is not wrong to go back for that which you have forgotten.” This is why we continue to remember the tales of struggle and tales of perseverance, even as we look to tales of hope. What a people choose to remember about its past, the stories they pass down, informs who they are and sets the boundaries of their identity. We remember the pain of our past to mourn, to heal, and to learn. Only in that way can we ensure the same mistakes are not repeated. The voices make up our stories. The stories make up who we are. A collected voice.
What’s Maurice’s favorite bit?
My collection, The Voices of Martyrs, represents nearly a ten year span of my writing career. I wanted to wait until I had enough stories published before I began to choose stories for a collection. I noticed that my stories could be very easily grouped into tales from the Past, tales from the Present, and tales from the Future. It opens with a story set in ancient Africa and closes with one set on a colony in the far reaches of space. It’s a little known fact that for a long time my working title for this collection was “Black to the Future.”
But my absolute favorite bit is the inclusion of two “orphaned” stories: “Shadow Boxing” and “The Volunteer.” These two stories were previously unpublished, orphaned because they were originally written for hyper-specific anthologies that either never came out or had to be cut after solicitation. This is the “Cockroach Vampires” lesson all over again: once there was a call for stories for an anthology about cockroach vampires *don’t ask: it started as a joke on a message board and then a publisher jumped in) that a lot of writers ended up writing for. The anthology (shocker!) never came out, so a lot of writers were left with stories about, well, you know, which they then flooded all of the markets with. And oddly enough, not a lot of editors were looking for such stories.
This actually happens quite a bit. There’s an open call for a theme anthology or writers get invited to submit to some niche project. Those invitations, much less the submissions, aren’t guaranteed acceptances. The story may not fit with the others or for some reason out of everyone’s control has to be cut. It’s the chance you take when choosing to write for them. You learn to either make the story not so specific that you can’t sell it elsewhere or say to yourself early on, should you get rejected, “I guess I’ll save it for my collection.” And these are two of them, a fact that tickles me to no end.
Orphaned stories included, Publishers Weekly says of The Voices of Martyrs that “the lush, descriptive prose tantalizes all the senses, drawing the reader into a rich world spanning both miles and centuries. Hints of magic in both the past and present, as well as the science fiction elements of the future stories, make this an exciting exploration of genre as well as culture.” Writing short stories is my first love and finding them good homes is always my favorite bit.
With nearly one hundred stories published, Maurice Broaddus’ work has appeared in Lightspeed Magazine, Weird Tales, Apex Magazine, Asimov’s, Cemetery Dance, Black Static, and many more. Some of his stories have been collected in The Voices of Martyrs. He is the author of the urban fantasy trilogy, The Knights of Breton Court trilogy. He co-authored the play Finding Home: Indiana at 200. His novellas include Buffalo Soldier, I Can Transform You, Orgy of Souls, Bleed with Me, and Devil’s Marionette. He is the co-editor of Dark Faith, Dark Faith: Invocations, Streets of Shadows, and People of Colo(u)r Destroy Horror. Learn more about him at MauriceBroaddus.com.
Meg Elison is joining us today with her novel The Book of Etta. Here’s the publisher’s description:
In the gripping sequel to the Philip K. Dick Award-winning novel The Book of the Unnamed Midwife, one woman undertakes a desperate journey to rescue the future.
Etta comes from Nowhere, a village of survivors of the great plague that wiped away the world that was. In the world that is, women are scarce and childbearing is dangerous…yet desperately necessary for humankind’s future. Mothers and midwives are sacred, but Etta has a different calling. As a scavenger. Loyal to the village but living on her own terms, Etta roams the desolate territory beyond: salvaging useful relics of the ruined past and braving the threat of brutal slave traders, who are seeking women and girls to sell and subjugate.
When slavers seize those she loves, Etta vows to release and avenge them. But her mission will lead her to the stronghold of the Lion—a tyrant who dominates the innocent with terror and violence. There, with no allies and few weapons besides her wits and will, she will risk both body and spirit not only to save lives but also to liberate a new world’s destiny.
What’s Meg’s favorite bit?
Most dualities are garbage. They’re an imposed system that people use to separate and order things that are neither separate nor orderly. We try to make order out of chaos because we want some control in a capricious universe that offers us precious little relief from confusion and terror.
My favorite bits in The Book of Etta are the ones where the characters and the world blur the binary.
This is a bit of a reveal, but Etta is a protagonist of fluid and changeable gender. They were assigned female at birth by a civilization that values female-bodied people for their ability to bear children. Etta is a descendant of our own world, a century after a plague has wiped out most of the women on earth and made childbirth a deadly dangerous undertaking. Although their life is privileged and protected because of their physical sex, they struggle to fit in. They don’t want to be a Mother or a Midwife: the duality presented to them as the only possible choices in how to live as a woman. Etta chooses neither.
Raised in a tradition that venerates a traveler who was a woman but passed as a man on the dangerous roads between the few strongholds of safety in a world decayed almost beyond repair, Etta takes to the road in the same fashion as their hero. They become Eddy: a young man with breast bound and head shaved who is free to go wherever he likes. Eddy is free and safe where Etta was stuck choosing in one of those false dualities. Eddy is not outside of that binary, but he is outside of hers.
Etta/Eddy confronts endless dualities in the other cities they visit. A world with such a stark lack of gender parity encourages the construction of unusual rules and roles. In some towns, hunting is viewed as strictly women’s work, since it takes patience and endurance. Sewing needs a sharp eye and a strong hand, which puts quilting in the laps of men. Superstitions about pregnancy and childbirth abound, and in some places a sexual lottery decides who will father and who will not. There are all-white towns that Etta/Eddy has marked on a map, but as a black person cannot enter. There are religions that bar the door against nonbelievers and towns that have something no one else does: a little electricity, weapons, drugs, crops.
Etta takes all of this in, just as we do. They have a chance to evaluate the binaries of life within first: are they Etta or Eddy? Male or female? Mother or Midwife? Once these are rejected as false dilemmas, they are capable of looking outside themselves and rejecting the dualities life has to offer. Life is messy. Death is messier. And the mess between the two defies any kind of description or categorization.
That mess is the central dilemma that Etta/Eddy must confront. In a world where living means killing, where slavers come to the gates of the city every day with mutilated slave children and ask them to buy, Etta/Eddy has to decide whether killing is the only way to live, or the only way to be free. They have to live every day with the question of whether or not people can change. Can they be just Eddy or just Etta? Can they forgive a slaver, or help them to become something else? Can they change a world run by tinpot dictators with harems full of children with anything but a bullet?
In most stories, there is a choice, there is a road that diverges in a wood and the main character must choose one and take it without knowing where it will lead.
Etta/Eddy realizes that the two paths in the wood are an illusion. People say there are two paths, but there is just the woods. Just trees to find their way through, and occasionally some footsteps to follow from someone who came this way before.
Sometimes, a person has to blaze their own trail. My favorite bit is setting up a character to go where no one has gone before.
Meg Elison is a high school dropout and a graduate of UC Berkeley. Her debut novel, The Book of the Unnamed Midwife, won the 2014 Philip K. Dick Award. Its companion, The Book of Etta, will be released on February 21. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area and writes like she’s running out of time.
This is not my cat. I’m in Utah to record Writing Excuses, to speak at the Utah Valley Writers Association, and to attend LTUE. It’s a busy week, because I’m also working on a novel. Fortunately, there’s a cat.
Patricia Burroughs is joining us today with her short story anthology Debris & Detritus: The Lesser Greek Gods Running Amok. Here’s the publisher’s description:
“Debris and Detritus, the lesser-known Greek gods…*
These words launched over a dozen alternate realities and histories, invaded existing universes, and even inspired a book or two with Debris and Detritus running amok through every world they touch.
With nothing else to go on, writers from various genres created deities that might or might not actually be Greek, might or might not be of any particular gender, might or might not be of this Earth but they always wreak havoc in ways that range from darkly horrific to brightly comedic.
Join in the fun, but be forewarned about reading at night. Some of these compulsively readable tales will give you nightmares, while others will have you startling the parakeet by hooting with laughter.
*Writer Rhonda Eudaly cannot be held responsible for the results of those blithely spoken words. Editor Patricia Burroughs, however, might.
What’s Patricia’s favorite bit?
In retrospect, it’s as if I was in Charlie Brown’s world.
“Wah wah wah Debris and Detritus, the lesser known Greek gods wah wah wah.”
Rhonda Eudaly was reading her short story with Debris and Detritus serving as “Queer Eye for the Dead Guy” decorators who have been assigned Hades—both god and domain—to make over.
But even though I listened to her reading that night in Dallas and laughed along with everyone else in the room, I was assaulted by images of D&D, my own personal gods of rubble and refuse. The pair had taken up a somewhat malevolent residence in my office, moving boxes or flinging books into my path as I’m carefully traversing the minefield otherwise known as The Floor.
It was divinely instigated, the way the idea sizzled through the air from her lips to my brain.
“This ought to be an anthology,” I enthused. “With lots of writers, each writing their own version of Debris and Detritus.”
She seemed startled.
I got more enthusiastic. “Seriously! It could be amazing! You should do this!”
Smart woman that she is, she said “I’m not doing it, but if you want it, it’s yours. As long as my story is in the book.”
And that, dear friends, is how it began.
I, who had never published a short story, who am the least likely person to actually plan, organize, and perpetrate just about anything and have it actually happen … I had a “Mickey and Judy, let’s put on a show!” moment.
I was going to edit an anthology.
I was going to handpick writers — my mind was already gleefully building a list—and then sit back while they did all the work!
What could possibly go wrong?
Fortunately, I did enlist Diane Tarbuck of Story Spring Publishing via a quick call to her from the corridor outside the room, and she said okay, if I put it together, she’d publish it. So I knew I had ‘real editors’ who would, you know, edit.
Wait. I haven’t told you my favorite thing, you say?
This is it.
Choosing the writers to invite.
Some were screenwriters and comedy writers. Others were multi-published, newly published or never published.
The gods they created were male, female, twins, not related at all, youngsters or even made of stone. But whether they were set in London or New Orleans, on Mt. Olympus or on a faraway planet named Celta, the stories amused me, entertained me, and gave me chills.
Max Adams is a professional screenwriter and not an obvious choice to invite, some might say. But her story leads off the havoc, just so her first page will be the one to show up in the sample.
People don’t suspect sweet, blond Michelle Muenzler of hiding such darkness within. It only took her 700 words to tell her chilling tale.
Antioch Grey brings a British wit, edge, and attitude that I could wallow in all day.
I anticipated a mystery from Claire M. Johnson. The only mystery was this other side of herself she’d hidden; she gave us wretched little brats as Debris and Detritus.
Robin D. Owens has been writing romances set in her SFF Celta universe for a couple of decades. Here, she wrote a tale of rebirth and redemption (not a romance) from the point of view of a house. Yes, a house. And a guy who will end up being the hero of one of her fantasy romances down the line.
ChandaElaine Spurlock delivered exactly what I’d hoped—another London setting and more British snark. I thought this would be her first published credit. But then she turned in her bio. She’s been ghostwriting fiction for years. This is her first credit under her own name, though, and it’s clearly time to keep going.
I absolutely knew that Toni McGee Causey’s story would involve Bobbie Faye Summrall, Cajun beauty queen and walking Natural Disaster. A match made in heaven for these gods! No. Toni’s tale is set in the French Quarter and just might have… a dragon?
Irene Radford, one of my Book View Café colleagues who is multi-published in short stories and novels, gave me a downtrodden brother and sister, used and abused by their father and siblings in the pantheon. But oh, how things change…
Mark Finn returned to San Cibola, the magical city in California he co-invented in the 90s. All you fans who have been waiting for more San Cibola tales for years? You’re welcome.
MJ Butler is an award-winning comedy writer but had never been published in fiction. And yet I was certain that with his trademark humor—sometimes-absurdist, sometimes logical in the most illogical ways—he’d write a story I wanted to read. I said, “Will you?” He said, “Yes.” And he did. There are cows.
Jeanne Lyet Gassman is known for her literary novel and short stories. Wait. Romance? Romance! She wrote romance! I did not see that one coming, and what a delight it is!
Melanie Fletcher writes erotic romance with Greek gods under the pen name Nicola Cameron [Yes, really.] I might be excused for thinking I knew what to expect. Wrong! But her story in an old folk’s home in Florida was oh, so right.
I hoped that Weyodi, an enrolled member of the Comanche Nation, would fling Debris and Detritus into the middle of her. Her mind boggled. It boggled off in an entirely different direction. Her vision of deity past, present, and future is not only is provocative but also suggested a sequel, Debris & Detritus, The Lesser Greek Gods Provoking Jesus. [Well, you never know; it could happen.]
And finally… what can I say about Beth Teliho’s story that wraps up the anthology? Rhonda Eudaly quotes Ice-T, who said, “Women writers write the sickest stuff.” I’m thinking the blonder and more innocent looking the woman, the darker the story.
You know, this is where I should say something elevated like, “I strove for eclecticism in voice and idea.” But I didn’t.
I handpicked some writers who would take the concept and go in unexpected directions, the likes of which promised to amuse me.
And these writers whose voices, backgrounds, and off-kilter way of looking at the world rewarded me—and you–with an array of different tellings with nothing more than the seven simple words I gave them to work with:
Award-winning screenwriter & novelist Patricia Burroughs loves Pratchett, Aaronovitch, Dunnett, and Heyer. Continuing her epic YA fantasy, The Dead Shall Live, Volume Two of The Fury Triad will come out later this year. She and her husband live in Dallas, Texas.
Jacqueline Carey is joining us today with her novel Miranda and Caliban. Here’s the publisher’s description:
A lovely girl grows up in isolation where her father, a powerful magus, has spirited them to in order to keep them safe.
We all know the tale of Prospero’s quest for revenge, but what of Miranda? Or Caliban, the so-called savage Prospero chained to his will?
In this incredible retelling of the fantastical tale, Jacqueline Carey shows readers the other side of the coin—the dutiful and tenderhearted Miranda, who loves her father but is terribly lonely. And Caliban, the strange and feral boy Prospero has bewitched to serve him. The two find solace and companionship in each other as Prospero weaves his magic and dreams of revenge.
Always under Prospero’s jealous eye, Miranda and Caliban battle the dark, unknowable forces that bind them to the island even as the pangs of adolescence create a new awareness of each other and their doomed relationship.
Miranda and Caliban is bestselling fantasy author Jacqueline Carey’s gorgeous retelling of The Tempest. With hypnotic prose and a wild imagination, Carey explores the themes of twisted love and unchecked power that lie at the heart of Shakespeare’s masterpiece, while serving up a fresh take on the play’s iconic characters.
What’s Jacqueline’s favorite bit?
How do you describe the presence of absence? Because that’s my favorite bit in this book.
I’m a big art aficionado, and one of my favorite paintings is Caravaggio’s “Conversion of St. Paul.” It depicts St. Paul’s revelation on the road to Damascus, a moment of intense and profound personal transformation; and yet, the image of Paul is confined to the lowest third of the canvas. The sturdy horse from which the apostle has fallen occupies the majority of the canvas, a looming visual element that first confronts the viewer, a depiction at once beautiful, homely and mundane.
It’s an image that never ceases to inspire me, this juxtaposition of the transcendent and the commonplace.
In Shakespeare’s The Tempest, all of the magician Prospero’s plans, twelve long years in the making, lead to a moment of confrontation with the brother and liege lord who betrayed him long ago.
I chose not to depict it.
I chose not to do so because the story I’m telling isn’t Prospero’s. It’s the story of his daughter Miranda, kept in ignorance; it’s the story of Caliban, pressed into reluctant servitude. And in Shakespeare’s play, neither character has the slightest bit of agency in this situation, nor ability to affect the outcome, nor any true understanding of the circumstances that have shaped their lives.
Choosing not to portray that moment felt like a bold and risky decision to me, but the longer I considered it, the more right it felt. It happens off-stage, as it were. It exerts an inexorable pull on the fates of my protagonists; but I wanted to work within the confines of the structure of the play, and the fact of the matter is that they weren’t there. At the moment their destinies were defined, they were elsewhere.
By virtue of the medium, juxtapositions in a text narrative have to play out in a different way than in the visual arts. Time is involved, for while a viewer may take in a painting at a single glance, a reader must process what is written in a linear sequence.
The presence of absence is implied, made concrete by the contrast between what is and isn’t described.
And so while Prospero’s deep-laid plans are coming to their apotheosis, in my book, our focus is on Miranda and Caliban; the latter desperately seeking to entice allies born of happenstance to his cause, the former immersed in the mundane logistics that her father’s complicated plans engender.
Elsewhere, fates hang in the balance and are decided. Here, in the presence of a strange spell-bound prince, a dead goat sizzles and roasts on a spit, a skeptical live goat cocks its head and scratches its ear with one rear hoof, while nameless chickens mutter and peck in the dirt.
Jacqueline Carey is the author of the New York Times bestselling Kushiel’s Legacy series of historical fantasy novels, The Sundering epic fantasy duology, postmodern fables “Santa Olivia” and “Saints Astray,” and the Agent of Hel contemporary fantasy series. Carey lives in western Michigan. Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s page. Follow her on Twitter and Facebook. View the book trailer here.
Kameron Hurley is joining us today with her novel The Stars are Legion. Here’s the publisher’s description:
Somewhere on the outer rim of the universe, a mass of decaying world-ships known as the Legion is traveling in the seams between the stars. For generations, a war for control of the Legion has been waged, with no clear resolution. As worlds continue to die, a desperate plan is put into motion.
Zan wakes with no memory, prisoner of a people who say they are her family. She is told she is their salvation – the only person capable of boarding the Mokshi, a world-ship with the power to leave the Legion. But Zan’s new family is not the only one desperate to gain control of the prized ship. Zan finds that she must choose sides in a genocidal campaign that will take her from the edges of the Legion’s gravity well to the very belly of the world.
Zan will soon learn that she carries the seeds of the Legion’s destruction – and its possible salvation. But can she and her ragtag band of followers survive the horrors of the Legion and its people long enough to deliver it?
In the tradition of The Fall of Hyperion and Dune, The Stars are Legion is an epic and thrilling tale about tragic love, revenge, and war as imagined by one of the genre’s most celebrated new writers.
What’s Kameron’s favorite bit?
I’ve always been a sucker for old-school science fiction “sense of wonder” stories. I love both Golden Age and New Wave science fiction that throws caution to the wind and takes you to gooey, gory, wondrous, mad, incredible new places tucked into the furthest corners of the universe. I love science fiction that is so imaginatively far in the future that it swings back around to fantasy again. The future I’m living is certainly fantastic to someone a thousand years ago. I better be similarly wowed when reading about a world set a thousand years in the future.
In my space opera, The Stars are Legion, I created a legion full of organic starships as large as worlds that lived and reproduced. I envisioned them as great creatures, and the humans inside of them – with their petty wars and civil strife and personal betrayals and love affairs and politics – were simply one part of a larger ecosystem, battling it out there the same way we do here. They are as blinded to their original purpose as humanity is here on earth, scrounging about seeking purpose while we cruise through the universe on our own world ship.
For me, the most exciting part of writing this epic standalone novel was writing the middle section, when everything we know about the worldships flips upside down, and we get to the gory and glorious part where we find out what’s been living beneath its skin. My agent initially wanted the opening to be longer. She wanted more politics from the families on the surface of the world. But for me, all that existed primarily so I could explore what was happening beneath those levels, and how different societies were battling it out for survival while the ship itself literally rotted around them. How would they survive? What would these cultures be like? And what about the vistas of the rotting ship itself?
Readers so far seem to agree that you get to the middle section of The Stars are Legion, which is when one of our characters finds themselves in the belly of the world, and you either go, “Wow! What the hell is this! It’s AMAZING!” or “What? What the hell is this? This is so weird.” I look forward to finding out how the book works for various readers, and how many get as psyched as I did to explore an organic world on the verge of revolution.
The worldbuilding in many of my novels tends to get a lot of attention. Folks wonder how it is I come up with these wild places. But for me, creating new and different environments, and seeing what parts of us are different and what parts are the same, is intensely satisfying. It’s the wonder of discovery that keeps me writing, and reading. I want to write about places I’ve never seen before, with a wild cast of characters who are both relatable and wholly alien.
I write to discover new worlds. I hope you’ll all come along for the ride.
Kameron Hurley is the author of The Stars are Legion and the essay collection The Geek Feminist Revolution, as well as the award-winning God’s War Trilogy and The Worldbreaker Saga. Hurley has won the Hugo Award, Kitschy Award, and Sydney J. Bounds Award for Best Newcomer. She was also a finalist for the Arthur C. Clarke Award, the Nebula Award, and the Gemmell Morningstar Award. Her short fiction has appeared in Popular Science Magazine, Lightspeed Magazine, and many anthologies. Hurley has also written for The Atlantic, Entertainment Weekly, The Village Voice, Bitch Magazine, and Locus Magazine. She posts regularly at KameronHurley.com.
Actually, I have two party favors for you. One of the things that fascinates me is the way you can tell the same story and, depending on the audience, it will differ wildly. Back in 2013, I wrote a story specifically for audio called Forest of Memory. I used the audio medium not just as a component of the story, but as a plot element.
The idea was that Katya Gould was telling you this story, and you were hearing her tell you and just you the story.
When Lee Harris at Tor.com asked about publishing it, I looked at the story, and it wasn’t going to work. A key component was that this story was a unique artifact. So I rewrote the entire thing, focusing on typewriters. This involved adding scenes, inserting typos and changing the diction of the piece. (By the way, intentional typos in a story make the copy-editors job oooooh so interesting. A couple of places she actually flagged that, stylistically, I should add some errors to a section.)
While I was struggling with this story, I tried a technique in which you write the synopsis as if you are writing a children’s story. So, here’s the children’s story version of a Forest of Memories. (You can download the Forest of Memory children‘s thingie as a pdf.)
Forest of Memory as a children’s story
The day Katya went offline, she had only planned to buy a typewriter, a paperback book, and a stapler.
But when she rode her bicycle, with the typewriter, the paperback book, and the stapler, into the woods she saw a deer on the road. The deer saw her and stopped.
Katya thought it would be a very nice idea to take a picture of the deer, so she did. She asked her imaginary friend Lizzie to hold the picture for her, and Lizzie said she would.
While she watched the deer there was a bang and a pow and the deer fell down. Katya was not alone. She was not alone at all. There was a man on the road, with a gun. She told Lizzie to call for help.
But Lizzie didn’t answer.
All Katya had to fight the man with were the typewriter, the paperback book, and the stapler. And her bicycle. She tried to ride away, but her bicycle was too slow with the typewriter, the paperback book, and the stapler.
She left them all behind and ran into the woods, but the man found her anyway.
He shot her, the same way he shot the deear with a bang and a pow.
But Katya wasn’t dead and neither, it turned out, was the deer. The man had just put them both to sleep for a little while. He kept Katya close by his side while he hunted other deer. She wanted to run away, but didn’t know where she was. She didn’t even have the stapler.
She stayed with the man for three days. She thought he might keep her forever, but one of the deer gored the man with its horns. He was hurt very badly, and told her that she would need to call for help.
Finally, she could reach Lizzie who had been very worried about her. The police had found her bicycle, with the typewriter, the paperback book, and the stapler, but they couldn’t find Katya. She told them where she was and tried to lead them back to the man, but he was gone.
Lara Elena Donnelly is joining us today with her novel Amberlough. Here’s the publisher’s description:
From author Lara Elena Donnelly, a debut spy thriller as a gay double-agent schemes to protect his smuggler lover during the rise of a fascist government coup
Trust no one with anything – especially in Amberlough City.
Covert agent Cyril DePaul thinks he’s good at keeping secrets, especially from Aristide Makricosta. They suit each other: Aristide turns a blind eye to Cyril’s clandestine affairs, and Cyril keeps his lover’s moonlighting job as a smuggler under wraps.
Cyril participates on a mission that leads to disastrous results, leaving smoke from various political fires smoldering throughout the city. Shielding Aristide from the expected fallout isn’t easy, though, for he refuses to let anything – not the crooked city police or the mounting rage from radical conservatives – dictate his life.
Enter streetwise Cordelia Lehane, a top dancer at the Bumble Bee Cabaret and Aristide’s runner, who could be the key to Cyril’s plans—if she can be trusted. As the twinkling lights of nightclub marquees yield to the rising flames of a fascist revolution, these three will struggle to survive using whatever means — and people — necessary. Including each other.
Combining the espionage thrills of le Carré with the allure of an alternate vintage era, Amberlough will thoroughly seduce and enthrall you.
“James Bond by way of Oscar Wilde.” —Holly Black
“Sparkling with slang, full of riotous characters, and dripping with intrigue, Amberlough is a dazzling romp through a tumultuous, ravishing world.” —Robert Jackson Bennett, winner of the Shirley Jackson Award and the Edgar Award
“An astonishing first novel!” —World Fantasy Award-winning author Ellen Kushner
What’s Lara’s favorite bit?
LARA ELENA DONNELLY
A lot of early reviews of Amberlough are calling it “shockingly timely,” pointing out the unfortunate resemblance to our current political climate, drawing comparisons to 1930s Germany. And yes, it is a political novel. It is about the dangers of fascism. It is tense and violent and dangerous, filled with amoral people making desperate decisions.
It’s also really hot.
I’m not here to talk to you about the scary parallels between my novel and the rising global influence of xenophobic populism. I’m here to talk to you about sex.
Or rather, the subtleties of writing explicit sex. Too often, these scenes reduce sex to two particular sets of parts in a straightforward mechanical act. But that’s boring, and good sex is anything but. Good sex is the whole mind and body engaged in something—anything—that brings intense pleasure. Whether that’s the whisper of breath on skin, the anticipation of a tryst or a touch, the sting of knotted hair tangled in a fist, the confidence imparted by a partner’s regard…it’s so much more than a rote specific physical act. And it’s more fun to write, the further you move from the prescribed.
I first started forming my sex scene philosophy at a Galentine’s Day party during which guests read aloud the steamy scenes from dollar store paperback romances. After a few of these, I started to notice the pacing was nearly identical. The same three acts of the same sexual encounter. The language varied (barely), but the step-by-step process and the body parts involved were exactly the same from book to book.
Ugh, mix it up! Am I right?
In reality, sex can mean and be so many different things between all kinds of different people, and still be really hot. In fiction, it should be the same. There’s the oft-repeated aphorism that sex scenes should move the story forward. People often interpret this literally–if there is fellatio, it must be plot-relevant!—but making the pivotal act of your five-act structure a carnal one isn’t quite how I interpret this advice.
Given all the things that sex can be—a power play, a drunk mistake, an expression of intense emotion, an act of desperation, a bonding experience, something to do when you’re bored, or when you think that you’re going to die—it’s almost impossible to write sex that doesn’t move the story forward. When the characters are lying there afterward, sweaty and satisfied—or not, because do not get me started on the simultaneous orgasm trope—the readers should understand something new about them and their situation.
I hope I manage that with Amberlough. There’s even plot-relevant fellatio, to satisfy the pedants.
The all-singing, all-dancing Lara Elena Donnelly is a graduate of the Alpha and Clarion writers’ workshops. Her work has appeared in venues including Strange Horizons, Escape Pod, Nightmare, and Mythic Delirium. Her debut novel, vintage-glam spy thriller Amberlough, drops on February 7, 2017 from Tor Books. A veteran of small town Ohio and the Derby City, Lara now lives in Manhattan. You can also find her online at @larazontally or laradonnelly.com.
Mur Lafferty is joining us today to talk about Bookburners. Here’s the publisher’s description:
The critically acclaimed urban fantasy about a secret team of agents that hunts down dangerous books containing deadly magic—previously released serially online by Serial Box, now available in print for the first time!
Magic is real, and hungry. It’s trapped in ancient texts and artifacts, and only a few who discover it survive to fight back. Detective Sal Brooks is a survivor. She joins a Vatican-backed black-ops anti-magic squad—Team Three of the Societas Librorum Occultorum—and together they stand between humanity and the magical apocalypse. Some call them the Bookburners. They don’t like the label.
Supernatural meets The Da Vinci Code in a fast-paced, kickass character driven novel chock-full of magic, mystery, and mayhem, written collaboratively by a team of some of the best writers working in fantasy.
What’s Mur’s favorite bit?
Bookburners was tons of fun to work on. I’d never collaborated before, and now I was thrown into a writing room, working with three very talented authors. Once we had hashed out what each episode would be about, we politely discussed and sometimes passionately claimed the episodes we wanted to write.
I’d love to tell you about all of my episodes, but one bit that I really liked crafting was the restaurant scene in Episode 4: A Sorcerer’s Apprentice. (Spoilers below.)
A bit of backstory; my dungeon master in college refused to let us play Evil characters, which I thought was unfair. I loved the concept of Lawful Evil: having a strict code you abide by, but your movements within that code can be evil. The vigilante murderer Dexter is lawful evil. He kills people with no remorse, but onlycertain kindsof people. Dwight Schrute from The Office is Lawful … he’s not evil, but definitely Annoying: he will make life hard for others, but he backs down without question when someone of a higher rank tells him to.
When I came up with the answer of how to fix the problem of Episode 4, how Sal and her team would handle the gluttony demon and the kitchen made of meat, at first I thought it was too simple. But kitchens run on a strange kind of “lawful” code (I called it “chaotic order” in the story) that most non-restaurant people can’t follow. It looks chaotic to an outsider, but the dishes all get out. If chaos reigns, then dishes go out with raw meat, or without sauce, or the wrong dish goes to the wrong table. Kitchens abide by rules, and over time they’ve developed their own language.
The menu is holy. The list of specials is law. Communication is vital. Break any one of these things, and the core machine that is a working kitchen begins to fall apart.
I realized that a lawful demon working with a strict setting like a kitchen would have to abide by its rules. So the commands to “86” (we’ve run out of that food, or it’s no longer on the menu) something will be obeyed. How can you disobey an 86? “I don’t care that we’re out of salmon, I’m going to make it anyway?” Nope. Everyone must abide by a call of 86.
Grace was distracting the demon and keeping it busy, but she wasn’t defeating it. Sal needed to sever the demon’s connection with the book, so she 86’d the specials list.
This episode was meant to illustrate a few things in the developing group dynamic: Sal proves her loyalty to Asanti, as does the rest of the team, eventually. Sal also shows herself to be a quick thinker among the team. Since this is an ensemble cast, people have asked me, half-joking, who the “thief” or the “brains” are – referencing the television show Leverage or a basic D&D party. But those roles don’t quite fit our characters.
I like that a lot of our characters do double-duty. Grace is the muscle, but Sal and Liam can hold their own. Intelligence-wise, Menchu is the brilliant leader, and Asanti is the researcher (alongside Liam, while one does books and the other does the Internet), but Sal takes this season to forge her own place as an innovator, the quick thinker.
Each character is layered with several skills and weaknesses. There isn’t one “hitter” or “tank” or “cleric.” As you’ll see in future episodes, the team will not always be the five of them together, and two or three people may go off and do a mission.
Sal and her background, plus her detective’s mind, keep her and the team alive in this adventure, even though it was Asanti’s reluctance to involve the team that put them in danger in the first place.
And let’s touch on Asanti. This character gets a slow introduction, seeming to be the one sitting at home in a lot of situations. I wanted to take her out on her own mission with this episode, reveal some of her past, and show her problematic view of magic and how it conflicts with the rest of the team.
Essentially, if you haven’t been stabbed with a sword, you’re more likely to consider it beautiful. Even if you know someone with missing fingers.
For the record, I don’t classify all of my characters with D&D alignments. But I’d definitely classify Asanti as Neutral Good. You’ll see why later.
MUR LAFFERTY is the author of The Shambling Guides series from Orbit, including the Netfix-optioned The Shambling Guide to New York City and Ghost Train to New Orleans. She has been a podcaster for over 10 years, running award-winning shows such as I Should Be Writing and novellas published via podcast. She has written for RPGs, video games, and short animation. She lives in Durham, NC where she attends Durham Bulls baseball games and regularly pets two dogs. Her family regrets her Dragon Age addiction and wishes for her to get help. She tweets as @mightymur. Bookburners, which she wrote with Max Gladstone, Margaret Dunlap, and Brian Francis Slattery, is available from Saga Press in February.
Fonda Lee is joining us today with her novel Exo. Here’s the publisher’s description:
It’s been a century of peace since Earth became a colony of an alien race with far reaches into the galaxy. Some die-hard extremists still oppose alien rule on Earth, but Donovan Reyes isn’t one of them. His dad holds the prestigious position of Prime Liaison in the collaborationist government, and Donovan’s high social standing along with his exocel (a remarkable alien technology fused to his body) guarantee him a bright future in the security forces. That is, until a routine patrol goes awry and Donovan’s abducted by the human revolutionary group Sapience, determined to end alien control.
When Sapience realizes whose son Donovan is, they think they’ve found the ultimate bargaining chip . But the Prime Liaison doesn’t negotiate with terrorists, not even for his own son. Left in the hands of terrorists who have more uses for him dead than alive, the fate of Earth rests on Donovan’s survival. Because if Sapience kills him, it could spark another galactic war. And Earth didn’t win the last one . . .
What’s Fonda’s favorite bit?
One of the things I enjoy the most about writing science fiction and fantasy is inventing words for things that don’t exist in real life. My YA sci-fi novel, Exo releases from Scholastic Press this week and my favorite word in the entire book is one that I made up: panotin.
In the world of Exo, certain humans have adopted alien biotechnology that gives them an organic body armor that they can manipulate at will. I imagined this super tough but pliable alien material would have a woven texture made out of many threads of some substance stronger than spider silk. I needed to give a name to this stuff that made it sound like a pseudo-natural part of the human body and evoked the image and ideas I was going for.
I took inspiration from an existing word: keratin. Keratin is the fibrous structural protein found widely in many living creatures. It makes up the outer layer of human skin and is the key component of hair and nails. It forms the horns, claws, and hooves of mammals, the scales and shells of reptiles, the beaks and claws of birds. The word keratin is derived from the Greek word kéras meaning horn, and the –in suffix, denoting a chemical compound.
From there, it wasn’t a far leap for me to come up with my own Greek-derived word to serve my story needs. The special substance I’d imagined would function as built-in body armor, so I turned to Google Translate and found that the Greek word for armor is panoplía. A little more Internet searching told me that the Greek name Panos means ‘rock.’ Perfect!
“Panotin” was exactly the made-up term I needed for my story. There was one final thing I had to do: Google it make sure it wasn’t already a real word in another language or the brand name of some company or product I’d never heard of. Thankfully, a Google search turned up only a few Facebook and Tumblr accounts from people with unusual surnames. I was good to go!
Like most SFF writers, I’ve made up plenty of words and names for my futuristic and fantasy worlds, and it’s a part of the process that seems small in the grand scheme of storytelling but that I find both vital and incredibly fun. In Exo, the actual armor system (comprised of panotin) is called an “exocel,” a word that sounds like “exoskeleton” but also “cellular.” I imagined the alien race in my story having a musical language with many strumming and whistling sounds, so I named them the “zhree,” and their key unit of social structure is the “erze.” I wanted to create more distinguishing differences between the humans who collaborate with the zhree and those that don’t, so I decided the aliens would prefer unique human names that they could translate into longer, more easily remembered strings of notes in their own language, hence: Donovan, Thaddus, Tamaravick, Leonidas, and my favorite, Vercingetorix. The humans who weren’t part of this system, the ones who oppose alien governance, had names like Saul, Kevin, and Max.
(I must pause to mention my favorite word from my first novel, Zeroboxer. It’s “brandhelm.” I love this word. It conveys the precise meaning I intended, and is so much more elegant a title than something like, “personal marketing manager.” In fact, why isn’t it a word already?)
Creating words is a creative exercise that must nevertheless grounded in logic. Words and names have origins and their sounds evoke connotations. When done properly, the reader accepts these skillfully invented words into story usage with barely a second thought and little reflection upon the work and deliberation the author invested in their creation. I’m quite certain that no one (or very few people) will ever question me about the origin or logic behind the “panotin” but the word makes me smile every time I see it in the pages of my book.
Fonda Leeis the award-winning author of young adult science fiction novels Zeroboxer (Flux), which was an Andre Norton finalist, and Exo (Scholastic), a 2017 Junior Library Guild Selection. She is a recovering corporate strategist, a black belt martial artist, and an action movie aficionado. She loves a good Eggs Benedict. Born and raised in Calgary, Fonda now lives in Portland, Oregon with her family. She can be found online at www.fondalee.com and on Twitter @fondajlee.
Watts Martin is joining us today with his novel Kismet. Here’s the publisher’s description:
The River: a hodgepodge of arcologies and platforms in a band around Ceres full of dreamers, utopians, corporatists and transformed humans, from those with simple biomods to the exotic alien xenos and the totemics, remade with animal aspects. Gail Simmons, an itinerant salvor living aboard her ship Kismet, has docked everywhere totemics like her are welcome…and a few places they’re not.
But when she’s accused of stealing a databox from a mysterious wreck, Gail lands in the crosshairs of corporations, governments and anti-totemic terrorists. Finding the real thieves is the easy part. To get her life back, Gail will have to face her past and what’s at stake may be more than just her future.
What’s Watts’s favorite bit?
A few years back, I didn’t have a novel. I had a muddle of ideas, a main character I was in love with, and a disjointed plot that could maybe stretch into a novella. Even so, it got me into an intensive SF novel writing workshop at the University of Kansas.
Among the notes I scribbled during sessions was this suggestion: one of my story’s motifs was “embodiment.” It wasn’t until I got home that I stopped, read that a few times, and thought: wait, what the hell does that mean?
In the future of Kismet, some humans are “transform,” visibly bioengineered in some fashion. A subset are “totemics,” adapting animal aspects ranging from (relatively) subtle tweaks like ears and tails to full-body makeovers. Totemics are a minority even on “The River,” a section of frontier space around Ceres. But in a solar system with a population of ten or eleven billion, that’s still in the millions.
Okay: so what do totemics embody? Animal and human. Technology and nature. A radical, extreme statement that the future lies in unification rather than dominion. At least, that’s the answer Mara, the original totemic, would give. But someone else might have a different answer: spiritual belief, xenophiliac aesthetics, a sense you’re more you when your nature isn’t the one you came into the world with. Gail, the book’s protagonist, would wryly add, “Because your transform parents wanted a transform kid.” She’s comfortable looking like a rat, but it’s not like she aspired to it.
There’s a scene near the middle of Kismet when two side characters discuss Mara’s dream—and the dream of many totemics, including Gail’s mother and sister—of transformations becoming inheritable, a goal that’s always stayed just out of reach. Gail’s adopted (and estranged) sister Sky, like their mother, remains deeply committed to that hope. But her friend Ansel, another totemic, shocks Sky by taking a fierce stand against it. On the surface, their disagreement is political, the more libertarian Ansel offended by Sky’s socialism. But there’s more to it than that. “Totemics have gotten along fine since before The River existed,” he argues. “We’ll keep getting along just fine choosing whether to transform ourselves or our children.”
What I love about this exchange is that their debate is both universal and unique to a science fiction context. There are parallels to our world and time, but transform and cisform don’t quite map to transgender and cisgender, let alone race, orientation or religion. Yet that debate in their society hinges on what makes identity so complicated. It’s a mix of what we’re assigned through the circumstances of our birth and what we choose. We embrace parts of the identity we came into the world with and reject others. We choose new elements for our identity, adding new bits, filling holes, and when we must, making drastic changes. If the goal of inheritable transformation arrives for the totemics, they’ll gain something immeasurable—at the cost of shifting a core part of their identity from choice to assignment.
I hadn’t realized their exchange was about the story’s underlying theme until well after I’d written it. But your characters often know more about your story than you do, don’t they? I didn’t know what “embodiment” meant at first. Ansel and Sky—and Gail—got it immediately.
A small confession: it’s tough to point to this one exchange and say it’s my absolute favorite bit from the story. The novel is, after all, about Gail, not Ansel or Sky. But this moment turns out not to only be a reflection of the story’s theme, but a signpost for Gail’s own journey. Until the morning this conversation takes place, her real interest had been getting back to a life of minimal responsibility. But as she comes to terms with her mother’s death—and her complicated relationship with Sky—she’s realizing she has big choices to make. And, even though she doesn’t see it yet, she’s already started making them.
Watts Martin is the author of several fantasy novellas including Cóyotl Award winner Indigo Rain and nominee Going Concerns, and a host of short stories in small press anthologies including Inhuman Acts, Five Fortunes and The Furry Future. Watts grew up around Tampa Bay, Florida, and now lives in Silicon Valley, primarily working as a technical writer.
Tim Lees is joining us today with his novel Steal the Lightning. Here’s the publisher’s description:
In the newest Field Ops adventure, god hunter Chris Copeland must track down an enigmatic figure distributing shards of deities to unwitting citizens across the country
Chris Copeland has a bizarre job, seeking out gods to convert into energy, but when he’s tasked with retrieving a deity from an elderly woman in New York, he’s truly out of his element. Before he can learn who sold her the dangerous object, she swallows a piece of it and goes into painful convulsions in front of his eyes.
Calling himself Johnny Appleseed, an elusive man has stolen fragments of gods and is traversing the country, peddling the contraband as a miracle cure to anyone desperate enough to believe him. With the help of his colleague, Angel, and a documentary filmmaker intent on exposing the Registry’s secrets, Chris must chase down the culprit and recover the stolen gods before all hell breaks loose.
What’s Tim’s favorite bit?
I have a new book out from HarperVoyager. It’s called Steal the Lightning, and it’s set in a world a lot like this one, except that there, the ancient gods remain, buried at sacred sites around the globe. Given the right equipment, you can dig them up, break them down, and use their energy to power anything from heavy industry to a household toaster. Chances are, in that world, you’d be reading this on a god-powered screen – which means that maybe, just maybe, the gods would be reading you, in turn.
To most people, they’re a fuel resource, a substitute for coal, oil, and nuclear power. But gods are gods, and in their raw form, have a powerful pull upon the human mind. They’re dangerous. They change the way we see the world. Sometimes, they change the world itself. So when someone starts dispensing chunks of pure god-stuff in towns across the USA, professional god hunter Chris Copeland is called in to track down the perpetrator – and try, if he can, to minimize the damage.
Now, I’m a Brit, and the prospect of an American odyssey has always excited me. I never fully recovered from reading On the Road, and even a trip to the shops can assume an almost Kerouacian dimension when I’m in the mood. In this novel, I’m mostly taking back roads, from New York, through the Midwest, ending up in Vegas. Which is where my problems really began – as a writer, anyway.
The gods make places strange. Simply the presence of a god will generate all kinds of bizarre phenomena – and how do you make a place like Vegas any weirder?
Well, it took a while, but I did it. (Let’s just say, if you’re ever on the Strip and somebody suggests a spot named Second Eden, you should walk very, very quickly in the opposite direction, OK?)
So there, amid ghosts, gods, and a gambling hall that, win or lose, will literally suck you dry, I came to my favorite bit. The hero meets the bad guy. I love these scenes, and I don’t do them as confrontations. I think I’ve met a few genuinely bad people in my time, and there’s a common theme running through all of them: the bad guy doesn’t think that he’s the bad guy. Forget the trail of casualties lying in his wake. He’ll tell you, that’s not his fault. They deserved it. Or they knew the risks. Or even, he tried to warn them. He’ll tell you how he’s the victim here, not them. He’ll tell you how he’s suffered, but he had to take control, since no-one else would do it. He might be sad, self-pitying. He might be boastful, describe himself as “strong”, “entrepreneurial”, or whatever current buzz-word fits the bill, when actually he’s ruthless, self-centered, solipsistic and destructive. If he’s socially respectable, he’ll cast himself as a philanthropist, a wolf in saints’ clothing, furiously staking out the moral high ground while chasing his own gains. There’s a tremendous sense of privilege about it all, an exceptionalism that justifies whatever he does: “I’m allowed to act like this because…” Picture a small boy trying to talk his way out of trouble, then age him by twenty, thirty, forty years. That’s our guy.
In this instance, his name is Johnny Appleseed, and for a notion what he’s up to, imagine your local crack dealer telling you he’s really doing vital scientific work, for which he expects great acclaim and reward in the near future. And yes, true, there might have been a few deaths here and there – he doesn’t quite remember who, but he’s sure they knew what they were getting into, and it was nobody important, anyway. And the benefits are going to be amazing. And it’s his achievement! Far from being the villain, he’s actually a pretty great guy, isn’t he?
Well, my job as a writer is to get inside this man’s head, give him some really good arguments, make him sympathetic, plausible – even likeable, for a while. Then show that, despite all that, he’s still a scumbag, through and through.
So I wrote the scenes. I liked them. It’s probably some horrible, perverse streak in my character, but I enjoy trying to see the world through the bad guy’s eyes, a world in which he’s invariably the center, the only person anywhere who really counts.
Then I realized: I had a problem.
There needs to be a rhythm to a book like this. It’s a thriller, after all, and quiet scenes have to be broken up with action, and plenty of it. Here, though, I’d let myself get carried away: chapter after chapter of dialog, argument, and just a few small, creepy things going on around the edges.
That wasn’t going to work.
So I went back, to the point where the hero is sitting in a casino bar, waiting for the bad guy to appear.
I’ve had times like this before, when I know where a story has to go but not how to get it there; when the present scene feels flat and ordinary, and needs a good kick to get it moving. And I always ask myself, “What’s the last thing you’d expect to happen here?”
And that, I think, is my second favorite bit: throwing in a wild card, sending the whole book off in a completely unanticipated direction, so that even I don’t know where we’re going to end up.
Tim Lees is a British author living in Chicago. His short fiction has appeared in Interzone, Black Static, Great Jones Street and elsewhere. He is the author of Frankenstein’s Prescription (Tartarus Press), and the Field Ops novels, The God Hunter and Devil in the Wires (HarperVoyager). All books can be read as stand-alones. When not writing, he has held a variety of jobs, including film extra, teacher, conference organizer, and worker in a psychiatric hospital. He has a website at www.timlees.wordpress.com (when he has time to update it), tweets as @TimLees2, and holds an Instagram account as tim.c.lees.
Ginger Stuyvesant, an American heiress living in London during World War I, is engaged to Captain Benjamin Harford, an intelligence officer. Ginger is a medium for the Spirit Corps, a special Spiritualist force. Each soldier heading for the front is conditioned to report to the mediums of the Spirit Corps when they die so the Corps […]