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.
Marie Brennan is joining us today to talk about her novel Turning Darkness Into Light. Here’s the publishers description:
Marie Brennan’s Turning Darkness Into Light is a delightful fantasy of manners, the heir to the award-winning Natural History of Dragons series, a perfect stepping stone into an alternate Victorian-esque fantasy landscape.
As the renowned granddaughter of Isabella Camherst (Lady Trent, of the riveting and daring Draconic adventure memoirs) Audrey Camherst has always known she, too, would want to make her scholarly mark upon a chosen field of study.
When Lord Gleinheigh recruits Audrey to decipher a series of ancient tablets holding the secrets of the ancient Draconean civilization, she has no idea that her research will plunge her into an intricate conspiracy, one meant to incite rebellion and invoke war. Alongside dearest childhood friend and fellow archeologist Kudshayn, Audrey must find proof of the conspiracy before it’s too late.
What’s Marie’s favorite bit?
My favorite bit of this novel is a character I don’t like very much.
Which is a reminder to me that a likeable character and an interesting character are not the same thing. I forget that sometimes — because as a reader, I tend to check out of stories where I don’t like the main characters, even if I know the author intended it to be that way. I almost always need somebody whose company I enjoy; hanging out with a bunch of bastards is not my idea of a good time.
This guy is kind of a bastard . . . but when he walked onstage in this novel, utterly without me having planned for him, he brought a whole new dimension of the story to life. I knew, going into Turning Darkness Into Light, that the main character Audrey would be struggling in a lot of ways to establish herself in her chosen field, the study of the ancient Draconean language. She’s smart, but also young; she’s done some meaningful work, but she’s the granddaughter of Lady Trent, whose exploits were the subject of my previous five novels. Her grandfather, father, and mother are all well-respected scholars of one sort or another, and so I knew Audrey would be wrestling with the weight of her family’s reputation and the general public’s expectation that she ought to have done something amazing already.
But that’s mostly an internal thing. Which is why, partway into drafting the novel, I thought to myself, Audrey needs a rival. Lady Trent never really had one; apart from a short-story length spat with somebody who barely deserved the name of “scholar,” her challenges were of a different sort. So okay, I would give Audrey a rival.
Hard on the heels of that came a second thought: Audrey should have a romantic history with that rival.
Enter Aaron Mornett.
Some characters get built. Others spring fully-formed out of my imagination like Athena from the head of Zeus. The moment he appeared, Mornett was handsome, brilliant, hailed for his achievements from a young age . . . and, in the most scathing condemnation Lady Trent is capable of delivering, not a reputable scholar. He’s Belloq to Audrey’s Indiana Jones.
Their romance is a thing of the past; it shows up in one of the novel’s three flashbacks. But oh, has it left its mark. Audrey has incredibly complicated feelings toward Mornett: respect for his intelligence, disgust for the ends to which he puts it, regret over his wasted potential, fury over what he did to her. She’s not over him, though she tries to pretend she is. She spends quite a bit of time and energy on trying to figure out what he’s up to — with regards to both the plot and herself personally.
We have so many stories that either focus on a romantic relationship or work one in alongside the rest of the plot. But we have relatively few about this kind of thing: a romance that failed, and the process of dealing with its aftermath (where “dealing” doesn’t mean “finding Mr. Right and being happy with him instead”). The ambiguity of it was fascinating to explore, and took the story in directions I had not planned for at all when I set out.
And in the end . . . I empathize with Aaron Mornett. That’s not the same thing as sympathizing; while I see where he’s coming from, ultimately I want to smack him for it. But I can understand why Audrey fell for him, and why it’s so hard for her to come to terms with having fallen out with him. I want to write the AU fanfic where things went differently.
Which is why he’s my favorite bit. He hooked my emotions from a completely unexpected angle, and brought fascinating kinds of tension to some of the novel’s key scenes — all without me having planned for him at all.
Marie Brennan is a former anthropologist and folklorist who shamelessly pillages her academic fields for material. She recently misapplied her professors’ hard work to Turning Darkness Into Light, a sequel to the Hugo Award-nominated Victorian adventure series The Memoirs of Lady Trent. She is the author of the Doppelganger duology of Warrior and Witch, the urban fantasies Lies and Prophecy and Chains and Memory, the Onyx Court historical fantasy series, the Varekai novellas, and nearly sixty short stories, as well as the New Worlds series of worldbuilding guides.
On Sunday, my novel The Calculating Stars won the Hugo award for best novel. I have been told that this is only the 17th book to win the Nebula, Locus, and Hugo awards. I had to sit down for a bit when I realized that.
I was so fortunate to be nominated in a year when the finalists were all amazing. I was rooting for every one of them because the books were solid and the writers are delightful people. I encourage you to pick up one of the other finalists for your next read. They are all worthy of a Hugo.
Thank you all for sharing this nomination with me and being wonderful, supportive people.
Here’s the text of my speech, although there was some ad-libbing at the beginning because Dr. Jeannette Epps, who is an actual lady astronaut, was the presenter for my category and handed me the award. I was a little overwhelmed and don’t actually remember what I said except that I was a wee bit excited.
There are so many people to thank, that I won’t be able to thank them all in the detail that they deserve. I know how many words that takes because the acknowledgments of my books are looooooong. But I do want to recognize Alyshondra Meacham, Liz Gorinsky, Seth Fishman, Robert Kowal, Mom and Dad, my niece Katherine Harrison who is here with me tonight, Andrew Twiss (my amazing audio engineer), Kjell Lindgren and Cady Coleman (who are actual astronauts), Chanie Beckman, Sheyna Gifford, Derek Benkoski, Stephen Grenade and all my beta readers. Writing Excuses gang.
Over 500 people have been in space. 64 of them have been women.
One of the things that I do when I start writing is that I look in history for the women, People of color, LGBTQ, people with disabilities… I assume that they were present and erased from the narrative. These are stories that aren’t told and are often more interesting than the ones that have been focused on over the years.
For instance, knowing that I was coming here to Dublin, I was curious about who the first Irish woman pilot was. Lilian Bland. Not only was she the first Irish woman pilot, but she was also the first woman in the world to design, build and fly an airplane. In 1910.
She’s amazing. I’d never heard of her. And I’d be willing to bet that most of the people in this room have never heard her name.
I try to bring the people who were actually there back into focus.
Calculating Stars led me to the FLATS. The First Lady Astronaut Trainees also known as the Mercury 13. These were women who went through the same testing as the Mercury astronauts and in most cases scored better than the men. The program was started by Dr. Lovelace, who was interested in women in space because if we were going to have a long term presence in space, we would need…secretaries and receptionists.
We are so much more. We are pilots and scientists and writers and authors and astronauts.
This award is for the FLATs Jerrie Cobb, Bernice Steadman, Janey Hart, Jerri Truhill, Rhea Woltman, Sarah Ratley, Jan and Marion Dietrich, Myrtle Cagle, Irene Leverton, Gene Nora Jessen, Jean Hixson, and Wally Funk
And everyone who has been pushed to the margins.
I promise you that I know you were there. I know you still are. I see you. I promise that you will have a place in my fiction and in my life.
(And I just want to say that receptionists and secretaries rule the world, and I realized afterward that my “No” could be read to put those jobs down, when what I meant was that relegating us to a tiny box was objectionable.)
After the ceremony, I took some of the new Hugo recipients with me to the convention bar so we could let the people who voted for us see the Hugos and hold them. I learned to do this from Jay Lake and John Scalzi when I won the Campbell award. It is a joyful evening because they are as happy for you as you are.
My niece, Katherine, and me right after the Hugo awards ceremony.
May I tell you a thing about my gown? It was designed by Tadashi Shoji, who had a collection that was all space themed. This dress is called the “Whitson” and named after Peggy Whitson, the American astronaut who holds the record for the most number of days. So this is a literal lady astronaut dress. Also, it’s made of knit and basically feels like wearing a nightgown with sequins.
I need to thank Sarah and Colleen who helped me with the hem after I got here!
There are so many people that I need to thank that I could write about the people who supported me for days. I told you my acknowledgments are long. So thank you. Thank you all.
Keren Landsman is joining us today to talk about her novel The Heart of the Circle. Here is the publisher’s description:
Sorcerers fight for the right to exist and fall in love, in this extraordinary alternate world fantasy thriller by award-winning Israeli author Keren Landsman.
Throughout human history there have always been sorcerers, once idolized and now exploited for their powers. In Israel, the Sons of Simeon, a group of religious extremists, persecute sorcerers while the government turns a blind eye. After a march for equal rights ends in brutal murder, empath, moodifier and reluctant waiter Reed becomes the next target. While his sorcerous and normie friends seek out his future killers, Reed complicates everything by falling hopelessly in love. As the battle for survival grows ever more personal, can Reed protect himself and his friends as the Sons of Simeon close in around them?
What’s Keren’s favorite bit?
Choosing my favorite bit from THE HEART OF THE CIRCLE feels a little like choosing my favorite child. Of course I love all of you! It’s just that the thing that jumps to my mind when asked is not the sorcerers fights, the romance or the powers but the relationships. Specifically, the relationships between Reed and his family.
It’s quite common to give the hero a terrible family. A distant father, a neglecting mother, an obnoxious brother, and when the hero has a normal family, someone has to die. It’s usually done to give a motive for the hero. Without the dead parents, Stark would have never gone into the avenging business, Harry Potter would never have become the center of attention, Elsa would never have run away and discovered her true powers, and don’t even get me started about Superman whose entire planet had to be destroyed in order to give him his life’s mission.
I have a great family, and It’s hard for me to find myself in those books. Most of my friends have a somewhat functioning family. Just a normal, living, loving family with frictions sometimes, where anger is another expression to love, and caring sometimes manifests as prying.
I used my mother to model Reed’s mom: over-protectiive even though her son left home ten years earlier, pouring her worries into cooking and trying really really hard to respect his privacy whilst failing miserably. I might have also used some of my experiences as a mother to create her. Specifically, the first time my son brought his “not girlfriend” home and I had to keep my mouth shut even though I had SO MANY QUESTIONS!
Reed’s brother is based more on my kids’ relationships than my own. They are extremely close, closed than I was to my brother and sister at their age, and they care so much for one another. I know they fight, but whenever I’m mad at one of them they cover for each other and sometimes even provide fake alibis for each other. I love that about them and I tried to catch that feeling when I wrote Reed and Mathew.
The last part of Reed’s family is, of course, the non-genetic one. From Daphne, his best friend and roommate, to Aurora, who is the reason for his volunteering, his non-genetic family is freely based on mine. You can find their real names in the acknowledgement part of the book. Just imagine many sparkling hearts floating over the words.
KEREN LANDSMAN is a mother, a writer, a medical doctor who specializes in Epidemiology and Public health, and a blogger. She is one of the founders of Mida’at, an NGO dedicated to promoting public health in Israel. She works in the Levinski clinic in Tel Aviv. She has won the Geffen Award three times, most recently for the short story collection Broken Skies.
Reese Hogan is joining us today to talk about her novel Shrouded Loyalties. Here’s the publisher’s description:
A soldier returns home with a dangerous secret from an alternate realm, unaware that she is surrounded by spies and collaborators, in this intense military science fiction novel.
Naval officer Mila Blackwood is determined to keep her country’s most powerful secret – shrouding, the ability to traverse their planet in seconds through an alternate realm – out of enemy hands. But spies are everywhere: her submarine has been infiltrated by a Dhavnak agent, and her teenage brother has been seduced by an enemy soldier. When Blackwood’s submarine is attacked by a monster, she and fellow sailor, Holland, are marked with special abilities, whose manifestations could end the war – but in whose favor? Forced to submit to military scientists in her paranoid and war-torn home, Blackwood soon learns that the only people she can trust might also be the enemy.
What’s Reese’s favorite bit?
The very first line of my biography reads, “Reese Hogan loves nothing more than creating broken relationships in broken worlds.” No matter how many explosions or monsters or worldbuilding thrills I put in my books, it’s the massively screwed-up relationships that I really thrive on. That’s why my favorite bit in Shrouded Loyalties was giving points of view to three very different protagonists who not only didn’t get along, but were actively working against one another during wartime.
This is a distinctly different process than writing from the point of view of a villain. We’ve all read those books—the ones with antagonists who are so well-rounded that we know exactly why they’re doing their evil deeds. Maybe we even sympathize with them. But it’s not often that we root for them. It’s not normal for us to prefer the villain’s point of view, or for them to actively cross the line into becoming our favorite character.
There are exceptions. Of course there are exceptions. But the key word here is protagonist, usually defined as the leading character or point of view in a literary work. No matter how well-rounded that villain is, you’re not likely to walk away confused about who should have triumphed. However, when the antagonist of your novel is not only a point of view, but a protagonist with their own antagonist and involved character arc, suddenly it’s not so easy anymore.
You won’t see these intricate pairings written as a hero and a complex villain. That would be too simple. You’ll see them in the flawed relationships of intimate acquaintances. College roommates Victor and Eli in Vicious. Tamas and his son Taniel in A Promise of Blood. Siblings Mokoya and Akeha in The Black Tides of Heaven. They oftentimes both have fully developed points of view, and in many cases, you can’t definitively say one or the other is the villain – but there is no question that they are antagonists actively working against each other’s agendas.
I approach this by coming up with the most broken relationships I can think of, then writing both sides. I wasn’t just interested in why Blackwood needed so badly to keep her secrets safe; I wanted to know that the spy taking those secrets had just as much at stake for completely different reasons. I wanted the success of one character to be the dismal downfall of the other, and I wanted either of those failures to bite equally deeply to the reader. I wanted to show why Blackwood’s relationship with her brother was so difficult, and for the reader to see how impossible it was to fix from either end. It’s these places in relationships – these all too-human judgments we pass, these assumptions we make, these conclusions we jump to, and these wedges that our lack of communication drives between us – that I’m most interested in exploring. You don’t need some distant planet or fancy magic system to know what I’m talking about. Whether a story leaves you satisfied by the time you read the last word depends more on what those characters went through with each other and where they ended up than on how big the explosion was at the end. And I should know. I have yet to write a book without a big explosion at the end.
Broken relationships filled with betrayal, guilt, resentment, and lies are not just part of Shrouded Loyalties; they are the framework that built the book. So which of my three points of view are protagonists and which are antagonists? Well, when my first three readers each chose a different character as their favorite, I knew that was as easy to answer as it is in real life. They are all protagonists. And they are all antagonists. Just like the rest of us.
Mary Robinette will be at Dublin WorldCon and the Hugo Awards from Aug 15 to 18, 2019, in Dublin, Ireland. The Calculating Stars has also been nominated for a Hugo Award for Best Novel. Get memberships here.
Here’s where to find Mary Robinette at the con:
Thursday, August 15 Dragons and Debutantes: Fantasy Set in the Regency 2:00pm
Wicklow Room – 1 (CCD)
The Regency period in the UK, the time of the Napoleonic wars in most of Europe, has long been a rich source of inspiration for fantasy novels – including Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series and Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. How has the Regency been used as an inspiration for fantasy writing? Why does this period in particular have such an abiding appeal?
Heather Rose Jones, Zen Cho, Susan de Guardiola, David D. Levine, Mary Robinette Kowal (M)
What is SFWA and What Can It Do For You? 4:30pm
Stratocaster BC (Point Square Dublin)
Join past and present SFWA volunteers, board members, and staff to learn about the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America and what it has to offer genre writers – including model contracts, its grants programme, its Emergency Medical Fund, the Writer Beware website, the Nebula Awards Conference, the SFWA blog, and more.
Mary Robinette Kowal, Kate Baker (SFWA, Inc. & Clarkesworld Magazine) (M),, Jeffe Kennedy (SFWA, Kelly Robson (SFWA)
Friday August 16
Apollo at 50 10:00am
Stage (Liffey B) (CCD)
Getting men on the Moon was certainly an achievement, but it is nearly 50 years since anyone was there and the Apollo launchers, unlike Soyuz, have been abandoned for years. Beyond the obvious spectacle, was Apollo all for nothing? Was the spectacle itself enough? Panelists consider the legacy of Apollo.
Jeanette Epps (NASA), Ian Sales (M), Dr David Stephenson, Geoffrey A. Landis, Mary Robinette Kowal
Level 4 Foyer (CCD)
Mary Robinette Kowal, Juliet E McKenna, Kelly Robson, P C Hodgell, David Demchuk, Laura Lam
Level 3 Foyer (CCD)
Mary Robinette Kowal
Saturday, August 17
Creating from Different Disciplines 10:00am
Wicklow Room – 1 (CCD)
ow creatives from different disciplines take a common concept and explain how they would approach from their respective fields.
Afua Richardson, Jim Fitzpatrick, Mary Robinette Kowal (M), Taiyo Fujii, Ben Hennessy
Authors and Their Pets 3:00pm
Wicklow Hall – 2B (CCD)
Join our panel of authors to discuss the ups and downs of writing with an animal companion. Do dogs or cats make better familiars for authors? What do you do when your pet is more popular on social media than you are? There will be pet pictures!
Jon Courtenay Grimwood, Mary Robinette Kowal (M), Elizabeth Bear, Melissa Caruso
Watch Mary Robinette ad lib to a set of slides she has never seen before!
Sunday, August 18
What I Read When I Was Young (Panel) 10:00am
Second Stage (Liffey B) (CCD)
The books we read in childhood often have a lasting influence. In this panel, finalists for the Hugo Award for Best Novel discuss the books that had a profound effect on the people they became. How did these works change them? Was this influence a good or a bad one? Is there a book they think everyone should read at least once in their life?
Mur Lafferty (M), Mary Robinette Kowal, Catherynne Valente (firstname.lastname@example.org), Rebecca Roanhorse, Becky Chambers, Naomi Novik, Yoon Ha Lee
Hugo Awards Ceremony 8:00-10:00pm
The Hugo Awards are the most prestigious award in the science fiction genre, honouring literature and media as well as fan activities. Dublin 2019 administers the 2019 Hugo Awards and the 1944 Retro Hugos. This also includes the Lodestar Award for Best Young Adult Book, and the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer.
Mary Robinette’s The Calculating Stars (Tor) has been nominated for Best Novel.
Monday, August 19
Liffey – 2 (CCD)
Mary Robinette Kowal
Producing Puppetry 1:30pm
Odeon 2 (Point Square)
Puppetry crosses genres and media, bringing together physical art, storytelling, and live action from a small cardboard production stage to the silver screen. So, what are the nuts and bolts of puppetry production? From original concept to final performance,our panel of experts share their advice, experiences, and stories about bringing puppetry to life – no strings attached.
(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, […]