Kameron Hurley joins us today to talk about Rapture, book three in her Bel Dame Apocrypha series.
After years in exile, Nyxnissa so Dasheem is back in action in service to the bel dames, a sisterhood of elite government assassins tasked with eliminating deserters and traitors. The end of a centuries-long holy war between her country, Nasheen, and neighboring Chenja has flooded the streets of Nasheen with unemployed – and unemployable – soldiers whose frustrations have brought the nation to the brink of civil war.
Not everyone likes this tenuous and unpredictable “peace,” however, and somebody has kidnapped a key politician whose death could trigger a bloody government takeover. With aliens in the sky and revolution on the ground, Nyx assembles a team of mad magicians, torturers,and mutant shape-shifters for an epic journey across a flesh-eating desert in search of a man she’s not actually supposed to kill.
Trouble is, killing is the only thing Nyx is good at. And she already left this man to die…
Folks often ask writers where ideas come from, because when we finally set them down in an iconic way, it looks like magic, like it came from nowhere, and we look like super-brilliant people who just tumble over Great Ideas all the time.
But when I took my former government assassin-turned-bounty-hunter, Nyx, out of exile in my new novel, RAPTURE, and gave her the unenviable task of retrieving a politician on the other side of a blood-sucking wasteland, it wasn’t something that just tipped out of my brain over brunch one morning. That flesh-eating desert and I have been friends for a long, long time.
I have loved this bit of bloody desert craziness for years… but had no clue what to do with it.
Twelve years ago, I wrote a short story about a rebel leader who sacrificed her people to a red desert. It made the rounds at all the major magazines, but just never worked for anybody. I couldn’t believe it, because, hey, rebel leaders and bloody deserts! But nobody liked it. So I trunked the story, and held onto the idea of this world-weary woman trekking across a blood-eating desert.
A few years later, I wrote about half a novel about a nomadic warrior named Nalah. She bled all over the desert to satisfy it, and aligned herself with some nefarious foreign men who sought to conquer the churning wasteland. Surely this was such a cool thing that everybody would love it, right?
But nobody wanted that novel, either.
So I took out the desert bit and hung onto it. For later. I was sure I had something here, and was just failing to employ it properly.
The bloody desert sat there on the backburner for a good long while. Right up until the end of my second book, INFIDEL, when I realized I could do some cool stuff with flesh-eating sand. Sand… sand… where would one find flesh-eating sand?
Why, in a flesh-eating desert, of course.
When I sat down and started writing RAPTURE, I realized I finally had the perfect story for that flesh-eating desert. And the perfect heroine to cross it.
Instead of simply setting the desert down as a single set piece, it was actually just one part of a much larger world and much bigger story, one I’d already created for the first two books. It just so happened that this idea was a seamless fit for the sort of story I was telling. Now the “cool” factor of the story didn’t *rely* on the desert. It was part of a greater whole. That was the key. The concept itself wasn’t strong enough to build a compelling story around. It had to be just one part of something greater than itself.
When my characters finally cross over the Wall that separates their country from the contaminated desert, I got to write – finally, after more than a decade – my favorite bit of bloody nastiness: a seething, hungry desert that lives on the blood of the people that inhabit it.
In this world, in this novel, it finally works. And it was bloody fun to write.
Kameron Hurley is an award-winning, Nebula nominated author. Her personal and professional exploits have taken her all around the world. Visit kameronhurley.com for details on upcoming projects, short fiction, and meditations on the writing life.
When I met Lee Moyer, I was fairly new to the convention circuit and he was delightful and helped me meet people. He also showed me his portfolio which was staggering and made me drool just a little. At some point, he showed me his Literary Pinup calendar, which didn’t have a home at that time. I adored it. His new project is an updated calendar that subverts the old meme of pinups to make literature being smart look undeniably sexy.
It’s also a fundraiser for Worldbuilder’s.
In 2010, I was a Guest of Honor at Baycon with author Peter S. Beagle. By the end of that Memorial Day weekend, I had showed him my collection of recently completed literary pin-ups. I had been working on them for several years as a side project, but had been repeatedly informed that calendars were a dead market. Deader than the authors I was representing. I sent Peter home with one of those pin-ups and by the time you read this, I hope I will have presented him with another pin-up, one that is truly his.
But it was a meal with author and charity founder Patrick Rothfuss (and his beautiful assistants) that proved to be the breakthrough. Last year, his brilliant charity Worldbuilders published my first Literary Pin-up Calendar: CHECK THESE OUT! The calendar made it’s debut at the 2011 World Fantasy Convention where it was espied by Neil Gaiman’s glamourous and alert assistant, Cat Mihos. (Take note: assistants are powerful and magical creatures.) The calendar made it’s way into the hands of Neil Gaiman, who was our first volunteer to be pinned up, and from him back to Peter S. Beagle, then on to Ray Bradbury, Patricia Briggs, Jim Butcher, Jacqueline Carey, Charlaine Harris, Robin Hobb, N.K. Jemisin, George R. R. Martin, and Sir Terry Pratchett.
I’ve been holding off on writing about my favorite bit because it is simply so hard to pick. Was it doing a pin-up for my hero, Ray Bradbury? Painting a character for Robin Hobb that there isn’t even fan-art of? Doing a proper garage calendar for Mercy Thompson? But for all that, and for all my dealings with splendid authors and their amazing assistants, my favorite thing surprises me a little. It’s the month of November. Not the pin-up of the beautiful Clare Grant caught infiltrating the Unseen University, but the page of dates below it. Dates. What’s wrong with me?
The line-up was so spectacular that alphabetical order was the only solution to pairing authors with months. This led to many happy coincidences in the designs of the date pages: Nora Jemisin got her pin-up of Oree on the month of her birth, Neil Gaiman ended up with a month that accommodates a 6 panel comic strip, and Sookie Stackhouse has that perfect quote for July – all to the good. But above all there is the accident of Sir Terry Pratchett ending up with the month of November…. well, Ember.
As every impatient child of the Discworld, waiting endlessly for the Hogfather knows, Ember comes before December and Ick. This not-quite penultimate month is like the other months on Discworld in that it features weeks of eight days in duration, Sunday through Octday.
On Pratchett’s spectacular and wildly-entertaining Discworld, science and magic are the same thing. Or maybe they’re different things. No, yes. Whatever they case, they’re two great tastes that taste great together. To solve the problem of Ember, I knew I needed a solution in the style of Pratchett, the wily old Arch-Chancellor himself. Having tried and discarded several unworkable approaches and having consultated with brighter practitioners, I hit upon the notion of detailing the month on the sides of a double-helix, allowing me to show the full week while hiding Octday as the spiral turns. And if a helix, why not show it draped around the Tower of Art itself? And drape it across the rooftops of the Unseen University? I tried it and it worked!
But what then for the dates? Since the days didn’t line up, I couldn’t expect a reader to guess whether the 21st was a Wednesday or Thursday. I’d have to fill each date with a designation of its day. Tricky. But what if I only used 2 letters for the day? Like a periodic table….
It took some 14 major revisions before it truly worked, but it all seems so simple and obvious in retrospect. And for all I hope it doesn’t drive anyone else to distraction, I was delighted by the challenge and the solution.
Lee Moyer is a Chesley Award-winning Illustrator, Designer, and Art Director from Portland, Oregon whose curious penchant for bizarre Kickstarter projects has, of late, been much remarked upon (and indeed quoted in Forbes and elsewhere). His work has been featured in many annuals and compendia (Spectrum, Sci-Fi Art Now, et al.), magazines (Communication Arts, Design Graphics, et al.), and institutions (Society of Illustrators, and the Natural History Museum of the Smithsonian, where he was a docent for a decade). His work is found on many a book cover (Michael Swanwick, Caitlin R. Kiernan, et al.), DVD (Laurel & Hardy, HP Lovecraft -Fear of the Unknown, et al.), Poster (Call of Cthulhu, Stephen Sondheim, et al.), and Game: (13th AGE, The Doom That Came to Atlantic City,et al.). Examples of his work are at www.leemoyer.com. He has recently joined the throng of tweeters @LccMoyer.
THE YEAR IS 1910. Eighteen-year-old Will Edwards has landed a prestigious apprenticeship at Detroit’s Tesla Industries, the most advanced scientific research center in the United States. It’s a plum prize for a young man who dreams of a career in the new science of Otherwhere Engineering.
But his father doesn’t want him to go. And he won’t tell him why.
Determined to get there by any means necessary, Will finds unexpected support along the way. His old friend Jenny Hansen—daughter of a San Francisco timber baron—is eager to help him for reasons of her own. And so is his estranged brother Ben, who he hasn’t seen in over ten years.
But running away turns out to be the easy part. On the first full moon after his eighteenth birthday, Will is stricken by a powerful magic—a devastating curse laid upon his ancestors by the malevolent sangrimancer Aebedel Cowdray. Will must find a way to control the magic that possesses him—or the vengeful warlock’s spirit will destroy everything and everyone he loves.
M. K. HOBSON:
One of my pet fascinations is money. In my office I have a whole bookshelf of tomes on the history of currency and monetary theory, interspersed with several exceptionally ripe volumes of conspiracy literature on the Federal Reserve, fiat money, and Roosevelt’s gold grab of 1933. I was even an Economics major in college … that is, before I decided I could never be happy in a career that involved actual math and switched my major to that wretched refuge of scoundrels and slackers: Marketing.
But, despite having thus consigned myself to such an ignominious fate, I never lost my fascination with topics economical. And in The Warlock’s Curse I was able to put much of this fascination into the character of Jenny Hansen, a budding entrepreneur. Which leads me to my favorite bit in the b00k. Through Jenny, I was able to shoehorn in a disquisition on particular bit of wonkery that has always intrigued me—Gresham’s law. Here’s how Jenny explains it to Will Edwards, the book’s protagonist, when he hands her a silver dollar from 1876:
“Don’t you know what this is?”
Will shrugged. “It’s just an old silver dollar.”
“No, it’s more than that. It’s more than just what a dollar can buy, or the silver in it, or the beautiful engraving of Liberty enthroned beneath thirteen stars. It’s a trade dollar.”
She tilted her head and looked at him. “Haven’t you ever heard of Gresham’s law, William?” It was a purely rhetorical question, for she continued on immediately: “It refers to the tendency for bad money to drive good money out of circulation. Gold and silver fluctuate in value depending on how much of them are on the market at any given time. In the 1870s, we had all those big silver strikes in Nevada, and silver flooded the market. That made silver into bad money … because there was more supply than there was demand. Because there was less gold and more silver, people spent silver and kept gold. Do you follow me?”
“Sure,” said Will, though he wasn’t entirely sure why they were taking the journey in the first place.
“Now this coin,” Jenny continued, holding it up to the light, “was created by a man named John Jay Knox—a San Francisco banker. He knew that there was a great demand for silver coins in Asia, especially China. So Mr. Knox created these—purely for export, mind you. Trade dollars.”
“But they started to show up in circulation here in the States, because silver producers—who still had far too much silver on their hands—could have their silver minted into trade dollars. And they didn’t bother sending them overseas, they just dumped them into the market. Over time, as more and more silver was found, and the price of silver decreased, their value just kept going down. At one point, the value had fallen so far you couldn’t get even eighty-six cents for this dollar! And employers, wise to this opportunity for arbitrage, began buying them at a discount and using them to pay their workers—Gresham’s law at work!”
After this, she fell into a silent contemplation of the coin, so entranced that Will finally had to snap his fingers in front of her face to get her attention. When her blue eyes rose to meet his, they were sharp and bright.
“So the point of your story,” he summarized, with a wry smile, “is that I should like this coin because it was created out of greed and became less and less valuable over time?”
“No,” she said. “I’m saying that you should respect it because it is fascinating. Because it makes you think about everything money really is. Money is the ability to do things—but only if you believe in it. And more importantly, if other people believe in it. What makes a silver dollar with eighty-six cents of silver in it worth eighty-six cents … when a pennyworth of paper printed by the United States Treasury is worth an actual dollar? Why will one give you more power to do things than the other?”
“I have no idea,” Will said. “Hey, weren’t we going to go find a hotel or something? Or are we going to spend our wedding night talking about John Jay Knox and the price of silver in China?”
There you have it! Not only did I get to explain Gresham’s law, I got to use the word “arbitrage.” Now, the only thing that stands between me and dying happy is writing scene explaining how the Bretton-Woods agreement of 1944 was an Illuminati conspiracy. But living that dream will just have to wait until my ongoing historical fantasy series finally gets to the 1940s, I guess.
M.K. Hobson’s debut novel, The Native Star—the first book in her Veneficas Americana series—was nominated for a Nebula award in 2010. She lives in the first city in the United States incorporated west of the Rockies. Her favorite writers are Theodore Dreiser, Sinclair Lewis, Booth Tarkington, Gore Vidal, and William S. Burroughs. The Warlock’s Curse is her third novel. You can find out more at her website, www.demimonde.com
Sometimes I feel like I’m introducing you to My Favorite People, as is the case with Monte Cook. His writing reflects all the things that I like about him as a person, smart, sly, and makes you think. He is an amazing worldbuilder and creates landscapes and cultures that seem real. Best of all he is a storyteller and thinks about the way that stories intersect with our everyday lives and shape us as people. So the fact that he has a short fiction collection out? So much excitement.
And what’s his Favorite Bit?
Small Matters is a brand-new collection of some of my short fiction. A few stories saw publication elsewhere, but most of them are brand new. I like them all the way a father loves all his children, so it’s difficult to choose a favorite bit. I’m sure that’s likely true for all writers. But since Mary’s going to force me to make a choice, I will.
My favorite bit is the protagonist of the first story in the collection, Familiar Things. The story is fantasy tale about a wizard duel, but the entire thing is told from the point of view of the familiar of one of the duelists. Our point of view character, then, is a raven–or at least, that’s the form that she has chosen to take this go-around, for she’s been the familiar of many spell casters. Our raven has been saddled with the embarrassing name, Maven, by her kind but uncreative wizard. This is how Familiar Things begins:
I’m not a bird. I know, I look like a bird. Yellow beak. Black feathers. The wings, it might seem, are a dead giveaway. I understand. Still, you have to trust me. I’m not a bird.
For one thing, I’m telling you a story. Have any in-depth conversations with a sparrow lately? Hear the latest gossip from a duck?
I didn’t think so.
So let’s just accept that I’m not a bird, and move on.
Maven then relates the events of the story, but as she does we encounter a surprisingly deep conflict. The conflict–the real conflict–lies not in the magic battle that the wizards fight, but within Maven. Being a magical creature, she has many rules she must follow, but as events unfold, she must also make choices that may change the outcome of the duel–and what she wants to do lies in direct conflict with what she must do. To explain the seeds of this inner turmoil, or its outcome, would be to spoil the story, so let me just say that I’m extremely happy with how it was able to resolve itself. Many of the stories in this collection are the result of me painting myself into corners with dilemmas that I (and the characters involved) had to think their way out of. Small Matters also provides a number of experiments that I made with points of view and in particular narrative voice. Of all the voices, I think Maven’s voice is perhaps my favorite bit.
Monte Cook is an award-winning author and game designer who has written two novels, a comic book series, and hundreds of roleplaying game products as well as numerous short stories. He attended the Clarion Science Fiction and Fantasy Workshop in 1999, and the Launchpad Workshop in 2010. He recently published a collection of short fiction called Small Matters, from Stone Box Press. He is currently at work on a new roleplaying game, Numenera, to be released in 2013.
When I was living in New York, I was invited to join the writing group Altered Fluid. E.C. Myers is one of the members and is smart, articulate, and just a nice guy. He’s also a darn fine writer. Today he’s going to tell you about his Favorite Bit of his new novel, Quantum Coin.
There were plenty of good reasons not to write Quantum Coin when I did. I figured it wasn’t practical to write a sequel to a book that might never get published, let alone encourage representation from an agent. And I had always planned Fair Coin as a standalone novel, so I didn’t need to extend the story.
But once I had the idea for another adventure with my characters, I was far too excited about the possibilities to ignore it for long. Besides, I needed a distraction during the long wait for responses from agents. So as soon as I sent Fair Coin off to them, I began writing Quantum Coin, knowing there was a good chance it would never leave my hard drive.
With the fate of the first book still in question, I felt free to simply play around and have fun with the next one. There was less pressure to prove that I could finish a novel and less concern about getting it published, and I had done most of the heavy lifting in developing the world and characters already. It was even easier to write; while it had been challenging to blur the lines between fantasy and science fiction in Fair Coin, Quantum Coin is a straight-up SF adventure involving two of my favorite topics—parallel universes and time travel.
Quantum Coin revolves around a major threat to the multiverse and how Ephraim and his friends from multiple realities work together once again (and sometimes against each other) to save it. To prevent the end of the multiverse, I decided I had to go back to its beginning.
When people think of alternate realities, many will remember Spock with a goatee or the TV show Sliders. Stories like these are increasingly popular these days, notably in the television show Fringe and films like Looper. But where did it all originate? Who came up with the idea that there could be other worlds out there just like ours?
The SFnal premise appeared as early as the late 1930s, but the scientific basis for parallel universes dates back to 1956, when a graduate student in physics at Princeton University, Hugh Everett III, wrote a thesis titled Wave Mechanics Without Probability. His paper was tweaked and published a year later as The Theory of the Universal Wave Function, commonly referred to as the “many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics.” It was not well received.
I first encountered Everett’s name while researching parallel universes for Fair Coin. He was sometimes credited in fiction, but not as often as you’d think. Why is a scientist that made a discovery so important to quantum physics, and even more influential on SF and popular culture, virtually unknown to most people?
It turns out that when Everett proposed his thesis on “relative states,” it was almost universally derided by the scientific community. Most physicists supported the so-called Copenhagen interpretation of quantum wave functions, in which there is only one universe, defined by an observer a la Schrödinger’s famed feline—as opposed to splitting the observer and his universe into many universes every time an event can have more than one outcome, as Everett proposed.
It wasn’t until the late sixties and seventies that Everett’s theories were dusted off, embraced by a few young physicists, and built on. His work was even highlighted in Analog. But it was too little too late. Discouraged, he had abandoned his work in physics and become an accomplished applied mathematician and computer specialist, doing contract work for the Pentagon and eventually creating his own consulting company. He made important contributions in weapons data analysis—in fact, in some ways, his theories may have helped avert a worldwide nuclear holocaust—but he had lived with disappointment for too long.
He was also in poor health, due to his vices of drinking, smoking, and eating extravagantly; he died in 1982 of a heart attack at the age of 51. His daughter committed suicide in 1996 with the hope of joining him in a parallel universe. His wife succumbed to cancer a short while later. Everett is survived only by a son who barely knew him, Mark Oliver Everett of the band the Eels.
Fair Coin owes much to Everett’s work and that of the colleagues who followed him, so I wanted to honor the father of the many worlds theory in Quantum Coin. I wanted to give him and his family a better, happier ending—and doing it through parallel literary universes seemed only appropriate. So early on I decided not to simply acknowledge his genius, but to make him one of the book’s main characters, enjoying some of the success and adulation he never achieved in life.
I had some reservations about fictionalizing a historical figure, particularly one who was alive not too long ago. My first stumbling block was a lack of information about him outside of a few Scientific American articles, a PBS special, and brief biographical sketches online, requiring me to just make up most of his character.
But happily, two years after completing the first, rough draft of Quantum Coin, I discovered that Peter Byrne had recently published a comprehensive biography of Everett, The Many Worlds of Hugh Everett III, which offered a wealth of information about his life and work. It was an essential resource in revising Quantum Coin for publication… but in the end I made up most of it anyway. I’m a fiction writer, after all, and who knows what Everett would have been like if his life had gone another way?
I did my best to come up with the answer, as respectfully as possible. I have many favorite bits in Quantum Coin—including nods to Star Trek and Back to the Future, epic time travel to the 1950s, complicated relationships and awkward romance—but near the heart of it all is the rarely-told story of one person. I hope I succeeded in doing his memory justice.
E.C. Myers was assembled in the U.S. from Korean and German parts and raised by a single mother and a public library in Yonkers, New York. He has published short fiction in a variety of print and online magazines and anthologies, and his young adult novels, Fair Coin and Quantum Coin, are available now from Pyr Books. He currently lives with his wife and a doofy cat in Philadelphia and shares way too much information about his personal life at ecmyers.net and on Twitter @ecmyers.
This week, we have Maurice Broaddus to talk about his series The Knights of Breton Court, which is sort of “The Wire meets Excalibur.” So much love for these. Now, for full disclosure, Maurice is a friend and has edited my short fiction, which means that it was a relief that the man can write. Oh, boy, can he.
Here’s Maurice to tell you about his Favorite Bit:
There are two things you need to know about me:
1) I love crime novels. They’re what I read when I’m not doing research or keeping up with what’s going on in spec fic. They’re my literary comfort food. The Knights of Breton Court series in a lot of ways are crime novels masquerading as a fantasy trilogy (my love letter to George Pelecanos). The pacing of my books have more in common with a crime novel than they do typical urban fantasy, which frustrates some readers (but that’s part of my quiet squee-ing, writing for my own amusement).
2) I’m a huge nerd. No, seriously. I consume more television in a month than entire families do in a year. I had to quit collecting comics when I hit the 20,000 mark because my wife refused to dedicate rooms of the house to piles of funny books. If you read my series, you’ll find nods to all sorts of things:
–Mage. One of my favorite comics of all time, I’m still waiting for Matt Wagner to pen the final installment series, The Hero Denied. If I could have squeezed in a reference to a magic bat, I would have (instead, I have my twin Caliburns as modern day stand in for Excalibur). On the other hand, it explains the appearance of red caps in book two.
–Camelot 3000. FTR, I never read the series when it debuted in the 80s, but finally got around to it while working on King’s War. This deflated my writerly balloon that I’d done something new with Tristan and Isoude, thinking I was doing something new by making them a lesbian couple.
–The Wire. I pitched the Knights of Breton Court series as “The Wire meets Excalibur” so you can imagine how happy the cover of my omnibus makes me. And, yes, I did a not very subtle tribute to one of the characters in The Wire (Omar says what?), making her my lady of the lake.
–Excalibur. I would have said Merlin (aka, Smallville in King Arthur’s Court), but I wasn’t a fan of the series. However, my brother and I were huge fans of the movie Excalibur. My brother enjoyed befuddling teachers, Sunday School as well as high school ones, by answering questions by reciting Merlin’s spell from the movie. It was the inspiration of the “dragon’s breath” sequence in King Maker.
But my truly favorite bit comes down to the characters. When people ask me who my favorite character is, folks expect me to cop to a love of my “magical redneck” Merle (and his non-stop argument with his squirrel companion, Sir Rupert). But I’d have to say Green and then Lott. Each of the books features a key knight: The Green Knight (King Maker), the Red Knight (King’s Justice), and the Black Knight (King’s War). Green is my variation on the tale of the Green Knight, except here he’s a street soldier. He’s not interested in rising in the ranks or leading his own crew, he simply loves “the game.” I have no idea why I loved writing him so much, only that he made me smile whenever I wrote him (even during “the razor blade” scene).
But the character at the heart of the book is Lott. Starting in Book II, King’s Justice, he became the character I punished the most and rooted for the most. Ultimately, that’s my favorite bit: re-creating the folks and life in my neighborhood. Each page of the book is soaked with characters and lives and situations I know. Tragic and funny and hopeful, that’s what the Knights of Breton Court is for me.
Maurice Broaddus has written hundreds of short stories, essays, novellas, and articles. His dark fiction has been published in numerous magazines, anthologies, and web sites, including Cemetery Dance, Apex Magazine, Black Static, and Weird Tales Magazine. He is the co-editor of the Dark Faith anthology series (Apex Books) and the author of the urban fantasy trilogy, Knights of Breton Court (Angry Robot Books). He has been a teaching artist for over five years, teaching creative writing to elementary, middle, and high school students, as well as adults. Visit his site at www.MauriceBroaddus.com.
This week my guest is Erec Stebbins to talk about his debut novel from Seventh Street Books. The publisher’s description is:
An American bin Laden. An FBI agent. Connected by a terrible loss on 9/11, they now confront each other over acts of vengeance so horrific, the world is brought to the brink of war.
As Muslims around the world are being targeted in a series of devastating attacks, Agent John Savas is drawn into a web of international intrigue. He must put aside his personal pain and work with a man who symbolizes all he has come to hate. Both are drawn into a race against time to prevent a plot so terrible that it could shatter civilization itself.
In a thriller that spans the globe in an ever-widening arc of intrigue, violence, and personal conflict, the stability of the world hangs in the balance. Only by transcending his own devastating loss can Savas hope to prevent the ultimate calamity unleashed by the Ragnarök conspiracy.
And now here is Erec to talk about his Favorite Bit
“Thriller Homage: The Hobo Hitman”
I’m a child of the 80’s. Literally, and literarily.
As a young man I grew up reading a wide variety of books. There were the obligatory classics in school, science fiction as a deep love for someone who would himself become a scientist, and my own personal obsession with Tolkien and his mad genius legendarium. But it wasn’t all deep past or far future for me. One of the genres I enjoyed the most was very contemporary: I devoured many a book from the golden age of global thrillers.
Robert Ludlum – the REAL Robert Ludlum and not this Ghost Industry they now having using his name – was for me the high point of the period’s thrillers. He brought together several narrative and stylistic approaches that resonated with me, not the least of which was a liberal leaning in a genre dominated by more politically conservative writers.
Second only to Jason Bourne, one of the most memorable characters from this thriller golden age was one created by Tom Clancy: Agent Clark from the Jack Ryan universe of novels. And nothing beat the 1993 Clark prequel “Without Remorse.” For me, some of the most enjoyable scenes in the novel involve the main character’s disguising himself as a drunken bum and wreaking havoc in that form on the bad guys. There was just something disturbingly satisfying about a drunk derelict springing to life and gutting a nasty criminal with a K-BAR knife, or unloading a shotgun from his tramp-coat and eviscerating cruel members of the underworld.
Fast-forward twenty years, and my first thriller, “The Ragnarök Conspiracy”, is published, complete with an homage to the (definitely) underused archetype of “killer hobo”. It’s a reference that only the most die-hard thriller fan is likely to pick up on. I’m not sure if this is my “favorite bit”, but no other favored-bit beats it for an idiosyncratic enjoyment while writing.
“Pants” is a character partly inspired by a local vagrant in my NYC neighborhood, but given a life in words as a tribute to the wonderful Wino-of-Death scenes in Clancy’s book. While writing “The Ragnarök Conspiracy”, I was planning a scene which leads to a major terrorist attack, the first of many devastating events that drive the narrative forward. Without giving away too much, there is a chapter foreshadowing the bombing that involves an unusual terrorist organization setting up the attack.
Enter the hitman hobo.
As his nefarious colleagues are planting explosives, he is one of several lookouts, stationed in a strategic location (a small New York City park). He has taken on the identity of a well-known local, “Pants Henry”, an alcoholic beggar who is distinguished by his unique choice of wardrobe: every day, without fail, he sports a different pair of pants with one pants leg missing. In the novel, this false Pants Henry lies on a bench, seemingly inebriated, but all the while watchful and in radio communications with the terrorists.
Unknowingly, members of a hardened gang blunder into the operation that is underway, and “Pants” must act to prevent them from interfering with their plans or drawing the attention of law enforcement. Mirroring some of the deadly interactions in Clancy’s novel, it was a blast (literally) to have my bum surprise the gang and kick some hoodlum ass, even as his actions set the stage for crimes far more horrible than any his victims could have imagined committing.
It’s a short scene, primarily setting the stage for what is to come and to give a sense of the ruthlessness of the antagonists in the story. It really could have been written in many different ways. But the disguise was apropos for the location. Before I knew it, my memory reached back two decades to a similar image of the most powerless, uncoordinated, and dependent citizens of our society – those broken souls that we at best ignore, but often scorn and abuse – suddenly transforming into the most deadly of assassins.
It’s no rival to Clancy’s epic imagery, but I did my best to give the “vengeful vagabond” a tribute with a bang!”
Erec Stebbins (New York, NY) is associate professor and head of the Laboratory of Structural Microbiology at the Rockefeller University in New York. The Ragnarök Conspiracy is his first novel. For more about the book and Erec Stebbins, visit www.ragnarokconspiracy.com andwww.erecstebbins.com.
Sandra Tayler is one of my favorite people. She has an utterly charming children’s book out called Hold on to Your Horses. I’m not going to say too much, because when Sandra explains why she wrote the book, you’ll understand why I think it is so wonderful.
Here’s her Favorite Bit.
The moment which inspired me to write Hold on to Your Horses was the antithesis of a favorite bit, yet out of that hard moment the best bits were born. It began as my five-year-old daughter curled into a little ball in my lap and wailed, “Why am I always the problem?” She seemed so small, different from her normal blur of energy. She lived her life on the run, no time to stop or snuggle, but when she was sad, she huddled in my lap. Sadness happened a lot during the fall when she collided with kindergarten. She loved kindergarten with a passion that knew no boundaries. Unfortunately boundaries exist for reasons and my enthusiastic girl had to be disciplined. Often. As the months progressed I watched her beginning to draw the conclusion that perhaps she was just a bad person, doomed forever to visit in the principal’s office. I hugged her tight and knew that she needed a story, one that would give her an option other than being a bad person. I decided to write one.
That decision launched me into a marathon self-publishing adventure. In an effort to give my daughter the story she needed, with pictures, I contracted with an artist I’d never met, learned how to use professional design tools, and scrambled to figure out a publishing process that fit the project. It was terrifying. Then there was the day when my artist, Angela, mailed me the original artwork to be scanned. I’d seen the images before via electronic means. Her images were so evocative that I’d been able to pare away some of my words, letting the pictures carry extra depth and meaning. I knew I was lucky to have found Angela. Yet holding the papers in my hands was entirely different. Colored pencil has iridescence in person that can’t be replicated in a scan or a print. The pages caught the light and refracted it at me as I carefully leafed through, touching only the corners of the pages. Angela had given me thirty gorgeous pictures to illustrate my words. I was awed by the gift. Holding those pictures would be my favorite bit of Hold on to Your Horses, except for the bit that came later.
I watched as the truck backed into my driveway to drop off two pallets of books, weighing just over a ton. Two thousand books were coming into my house and I’d only pre-sold one hundred of them. I felt the weight of all those books as is if they were pressing on my shoulders. So many hours of my work and Angela’s were represented there, and it was now my job to figure out how to sell enough to pay Angela for the three months she gave to the project. It was overwhelming. But I cut open the first pallet and pulled a book out of the box. It was real and solid in my hands. I carried it to my kitchen and signed it to my daughter. Then I presented it to her. By that time it was a full year and a half since the day she’d cried in my lap. She’d survived kindergarten and gone on to have a much better first grade. She’d listened to the story, revision after revision. She’d seen the pictures as they arrived in my email. The basic metaphor of the story helped her to picture her ideas and impulses as separate from herself, things to be managed. The story, which had already helped her, was finally a book in her hands. My eyes leaked a little bit as I handed it over. Whatever else Hold on to Your Horse smanaged to do out in the world, it had accomplished its first purpose, and that was my favorite bit.
Although it is also possible that my favorite bit came years later when I watched my eleven-year-old daughter carefully shelve her copy of Hold on to Your Horses among her most precious things, saying reverently “This is the book you made for me.” Or maybe my favorite bit is when someone whom I’ve never met tells me that Hold on to Your Horses was exactly what they needed. Maybe the best bit is taking that hard moment and transforming it into something that makes the world better, which is why the writing of stories is so powerful. A good story keeps adding favorite bits to the world for as long as it exists. I’m looking forward to the favorite bits that Hold on to Your Horses has yet to bring me.
Sandra Tayler is a writer of essays, speculative fiction, children’s books and blog entries. She has sold stories to anthology markets, including DAW. In February 2009 her blog, onecobble.com, won an AML award for online writing. A sampler of blog entries is now available in printed format under the title Cobble Stones. Sandra spends much of her time as the publication and distribution half of the Schlock Mercenary comic business. Sandra’s publication work and her writing are frequently pre-empted by the needs of her four kids, who alternate between being incredibly helpful and incredibly distracting. Some day in the future Sandra hopes to experience this free time that she has heard so much about.
My guest this week is Steve Bein to talk about his debut novel, Daughter of the Sword. The publisher’s description of the novel is:
Mariko Oshiro is not your average Tokyo cop. As the only female detective in the city’s most elite police unit, she has to fight for every ounce of respect, especially from her new boss. While she wants to track down a rumored cocaine shipment, he gives her the least promising case possible. But the case—the attempted theft of an old samurai sword—proves more dangerous than anyone on the force could have imagined.
The owner of the sword, Professor Yasuo Yamada, says it was crafted by the legendary Master Inazuma, a sword smith whose blades are rumored to have magical qualities. The man trying to steal it already owns another Inazuma—one whose deadly power eventually comes to control all who wield it. Or so says Yamada, and though he has studied swords and swordsmanship all his life, Mariko isn’t convinced.
But Mariko’s skepticism hardly matters. Her investigation has put her on a collision course with a curse centuries old and as bloodthirsty as ever. She is only the latest in a long line of warriors and soldiers to confront this power, and even the sword she learns to wield could turn against her.
So what’s his Favorite Bit?
First, many thanks to Mary for having me as a guest! I’m a recent arrival in the blogosphere, so it’s incredibly cool to be included in a series that has included so many terrific authors already.
My Favorite Bit in Daughter of the Sword is one that only a small cult fandom of classic samurai flicks is likely to pick up on, and it centers on Daigoro Okuma. He’s my favorite character to write because his moral compass is so strong, and because in following it he’s frustrated at every turn. Daigoro is the youngest son of House Okuma, a samurai clan clinging on to its dominance in a region soon to be swept up and swallowed by warfare. The year is 1587 and the warlords fighting to rule Japan would never notice little House Okuma were it not for Daigoro’s father, a warrior and statesman par excellence, the very epitome of the bushido code that defines the samurai.
Daigoro never really had a shot at living up to his father. He was born a runt with a lame right leg, which makes it all but impossible for him to be a good samurai. The right leg is the lead leg in Japanese swordsmanship. In archery it is the root leg, the source of stability. In horsemanship if one leg outweighs the other it’s a challenge just to stay in the saddle. His physical shortcomings are metaphorical too: literally and figuratively, he cannot fill his father’s shoes.
This, of course, is exactly what he needs to do. That’s his whole story: attempting the impossible, trying to be everything people expect him to be.
There’s this classic series of samurai movies called Lone Wolf and Cub, which follows the exploits of Ogami Itt? and his little son, Daigoro. The Daigoro of the films is only a baby when his father, the greatest of swordsmen and the most honorable of samurai, sees his wife murdered and his honor torn to shreds. Ogami Itt? swears vengeance and goes on an ultraviolent rampage, and he takes little Daigoro with him. (Yes, this does require the baddest samurai in the land to walk around pushing a stroller. One of the films is called Baby Cart to Hades.)
I won’t say Lone Wolf and Cub is great art, but few cult classics are, and in any case we don’t need great art to inspire provocative philosophical questions. On one of my (many) viewings of the films, I found myself wondering what it would be like to grow up in a stroller that was perpetually swamped in bloodshed. Here are the facts of baby Daigoro’s existence: 1) Dad runs around killing hundreds of people. 2) Dad is universally held in awe for his dedication to the bushido code. If this is your moral role model, what happens to you when you grow up?
The name Ogami sounds like ookami, the Japanese word for “wolf.” (Hence Lone Wolf, Daigoro being the Cub.) So I chose Okuma, which evokes both Ogami and kumo, or “bear.” I named my Daigoro after the one from the series, which makes him the Bear Cub. His father, the Red Bear of Izu, is an even higher paragon of samurai virtue than Ogami Itt?. The Lone Wolf is a bloodthirsty killer hell-bent on revenge. The Red Bear is just as fearsome, but he also knows the merits of forethought and restraint. In his most famous victory no swords were drawn; he is such a master tactician that the enemy surrendered without a fight.
Now how can my Daigoro, an undersized boy of fifteen with a withered leg, possibly live up to that? A grown man’s wisdom and an able-bodied man’s strength? He can’t, and that’s why I love him. He’s got his father’s strong moral compass. He triesso hard to go where it leads him, to walk his father’s path, but he can only stumble along the way. To make his life worse, I give him his father’s signature weapon, an enormous cavalry sword far too big for Daigoro to wield. (Ogami Itt? had a trademark sword as well.) Burdened by his oversized sword and hobbled by his emaciated leg, Daigoro still tries—and never forgives himself for failing—to live up to his father’s name.
Like I said, the Lone Wolf and Cub films aren’t high art, and they certainly don’t explore the question of what it means for a boy to measure himself by his father’s image. But I don’t think meaningful questions care what inspires them, so long as we ask the questions. Daigoro’s whole life is a series of tough questions. I give him a couple of kick-ass fight scenes too—what can I say? I’m a fan of the source material—but My Favorite Secret Bit of Daughter of the Sword is that a crazy, campy, ultraviolent cult classic from the 70s can inspire a tough-yet-scared young boy who tests his mettle against his own morality, his duty and honor, his disability, and his sense of self.
Steve Bein (pronounced “Bine”) is an author, philosophy professor and world traveler. His short fiction has appeared inAsimov’s, Interzone, Writers of the Future, and in international translation. Daughter of the Sword, his first novel, has met with critical acclaim and was released last week.
I’m reading Tina Connolly’s debut novel Ironskinand loving it. It’s been described as Jane Eyre with fairies, and I can see why, but that doesn’t do justice to the fascinating world building that she’s done in creating a world where the Great War was fought against the Fae.
Here’s Tina to talk about her Favorite Bit.
The great thing about “My Favorite Bit” is that you always have these sentences where you stop halfway through writing them, and gaze out into space for twenty minutes, coming up with the entire corner of the world necessary to finish the thought. (Or is that just me? I wouldn’t mind having a slightly quicker writing process. . . .)
Ironskin is a secondary-world fantasy, although I read lots of books about post WWI Britain to aid me in giving it a solid sense of place. It takes place five years after a devasting human-fey war—and worse, humans have become largely reliant on clean, cheap fey technology—which is now gone. So, many things loosely parallel our world, but the technological levels end up being quite different—both better and worse.
One of my spin-out-and-ponder moments was over fashion. I wanted to cue the reader that though this is a gothic novel with elements of Jane Eyre, we are not in an alternate 1840’s. I focused on late interwar styling to try to evoke the more modernish times that Jane is living through. There’s a scene where she finds a bunch of stored dresses in the attic, and again, I used dress styles that would hopefully be familiar to the readers to give a sense of history to the novel. For example, Jane puts a “cream muslin with green flowers and an empire waist” at about 150 years old. I spent a long time thinking over what to use for “pre-war” styling and ended up describing dresses with more of a flapper feel—handkerchief hems and dropped waists.
Another favorite worldbuilding bit was thinking over the history of the dwarvven. They are engineers and designers—but they are also poets, readers, and writers (particularly things of the blood-soaked gothic variety). They used to be more-closely allied with the humans, but 200 years ago, after the sudden death of Queen Maud, her nephew declared them “immoral and possibly regicidal” and connections were severed. Jane bonds with one of them over books—which meant I got to come up with a synopsis for a dramatic tale of adventure that involves alchemy, sea dragons, and pirates. I’ve been working on the sequel to Ironskin this year and I suddenly realized that one of the key dwarvven locations was clearly going to have to be a used bookshop.
I said Ironskin was a secondary world fantasy, but it’s also in many ways a world that parallels ours. So I did tweak some things from our world—turn them at right angles and slip them in. Mostly the literature. Twelfth Night becomes Thirteenth Night when Jane quotes it, for example, and then I realized that if Shakespeare wrote A Midsummer Night’s Dream in this world, it would certainly not be one of his comedies, or even his romances. . .but one of the tragedies.
Oh yeah, and one last favorite bit that has nothing to do with worldbuilding. . .but I have to mention it here because it’s something I had to delete. There’s a character (Martha, the maid), who is described as speaking in words of one syllable. (This was fun to write, as you can imagine—a nice challenge to make this factually true and yet not sound contrived.) Well, at one point Martha leads Jane into the attic, and she mentions to watch out for the mousetraps. Except, when I looked down at my screen, what I had subconsciously written was “mouse traps”. Naturally, Jane (and I) immediately said to Martha, “Mousetraps is one word with two syllables.” Of course this was highly distracting, and although Ironskin engages with the Jane Eyre text, it doesn’t do so on any meta level where Jane should be copyediting Martha’s speech. But it was greatly amusing to me, and I was sorry to axe it.
But really, the great thing about worldbuilding is that nothing’s wasted, even if it’s never seen. It’s like the iceberg, you know? To get the top 10% to act like an iceberg, you have to at least sketch out the 90% that’s beneath the ocean. . . .
Tina Connolly lives with her family in Portland, Oregon. Her stories have appeared in places including Strange Horizons, Lightspeed, and Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and she reads stories for Podcastle, BCS, and her flash fiction podcast Toasted Cake. She works seasonally as a face painter, and she kind of wants to write that book about the pirate who kidnaps the Court Alchemist’s daughter.
I got to talk to Janci Patterson about her new YA novel Chasing the Skip when we recorded a Writing Excuses episode with her. The way she approached writing this book was completely fascinating and I so much enjoyed talking to her. While that episode isn’t up yet, you can listen to her talk to the guys back in Season 4 when she had just signed the deal. I’m delighted to be able to host her today so that you can hear about her Favorite Bit.
I once was talking to a friend who worked as a programmer. He was telling me about how he loved his job, because of the thrill he got when all the pieces of code he wrote came together and actually worked. Another friend of ours said that was a lot like writing–when all the words and sentences and pages of a story actually work together to create the intended effect, it’s a beautiful and thrilling thing.
For me, this is what the mid-novel blues are all about, because for most of the process of writing a novel, things don’t work together. Drafts, in fact, do the opposite of working together to achieve of cohesive effect. When I was a kid, we had a box of iron ore and a strong magnet, and my sister and I used to run the magnet over the top of the box, and watch all the unruly little ore shavings line themselves up like hairs on a cat. My first drafts always look like that unruly box, and it takes more than one (or two or seven) passes with the revision magnet to get all the disparate pieces to line up and work.
Every book has its own challenges, and for me the most challenging thing about writing Chasing the Skip was my main character Ricki. The beginning of the novel finds her in a tough situation–her mom has walked out on her, leaving her to live in a travel trailer with a Dad she barely knows, far from her boyfriend and her friends. Yes, Dad is a bounty hunter and she’s riding along as he chases fugitives, which can be exciting, but it can also involve long stretches of driving in which Ricki has nothing to do but worry about her mom. In short, Ricki’s life kind of sucks.
But while it might not be fun to live, my job as the writer is to make sure it’s fun to read.–that Ricki’s misery (and then hope! And then triumph!) are always engaging. Ricki is allowed to be confused, but the reader must never be. Ricki can be miserable, but the reader must never be. Ricki can make stupid decisions, but the reader must never think she is stupid.
It was a balancing act. And 90% of the revision I did on the novel focused on getting that balancing act to work. I tweaked dialogue. I deleted interior monologue. I rewrote scenes. And the result of all that work is a character I’m proud of more than anything else in that book. By the time I was done, I really loved Ricki, in all her imperfection. Her journey to figure out her life mirrored my own journey to figure her out, and we grew together.
I know not everyone will love Ricki the way that I do. In fact, probably no one will love her quite the way that I do after spending so many hours getting to know her, and dealing with so many versions of her that didn’t work. I’m sure her character won’t work for everyone. But I got her to the place where she works for me, and for my editor, and for some early reviewers at least. The highest compliment I’ve had on the book is from people who say that they don’t always like Ricki’s decisions, but that they were right there with her as she made them. As it goes out to more readers, I hope that you’re right there with her, too. Because when you can really be in the head of a character and follow their decisions through to the conclusion in your own heart–that’s when the magic of reading happens. That’s what happens when fiction works. I hope with Chasing the Skip that magic happens for you.
Janci Patterson writes fantasy, science fiction, and contemporary young adult novels. Her first book, CHASING THE SKIP will be released from Henry Holt on October 2nd. Janci lives in Orem, Utah, with her husband. When she’s not writing, she manages Drew’s painting business and plays geek games of all kinds.
This week, we have Chris Holm talking about his newest book from Angry Robot, The Wrong Goodbye. It is described as recasting the battle between heaven and hell as Golden Era crime pulp. Sounds cool, eh?
So what is Chris Holm’s Favorite Bit?
My main character, Sam Thornton, is a Collector – a reaper of sorts, damned by a devil’s bargain he struck to save his dying wife to an eternity of ferrying the souls of the condemned to hell. In my second Collector novel, THE WRONG GOODBYE, Sam’s forced to dive down the rabbit-hole of the demon drug-trade when the soul he’s tasked with collecting is stolen – destined to be processed into skim.
Which leads me to my favorite bit: namely, world-building a demon drug culture. I didn’t want to go the cheap, tacky route of “it’s like heroin, but, you know, for demons!” I wanted something at once plausible, horrific, and intriguing. Something I hadn’t seen done before. And so I cooked up skim:
The skim-trade is big business in the demon world. It’s sort of a black market for happy memories. Demons like to play all big and scary and superior, but the truth is, when it comes to humankind, the Fallen are jealous as all get-out. See, when they fell, they were removed from the light of God’s grace, and doomed to an eternity of darkness and despair. Skimming’s their way of reversing that – for a time, anyway. If a demon with the proper set of skills can get his hands on a human soul before it’s interred, he can shave off tiny fragments of life experience. This process is, of course, forbidden in the underworld, and it’s dangerous as hell – word is, one slip of the hand and the soul could crack, releasing enough raw energy to level a city block. But done properly, those skimmed fragments provide a high no demon could attain on their own: the high of love, of life; the warm embrace of a moment in God’s grace.
But where on earth could a demon go to imbibe in such a substance? In my world, demons are capable of passing among us, but maintaining human form requires great effort on their part. So a skim-joint would have to be remote enough for them to let their guard down without attracting undue attention. Say, for example, the ruins of an abandoned sanitarium nestled deep in the wilds of New Mexico. It’s past midnight when Sam arrives, hoping to retrieve the stolen soul. He enters through the basement under the cover of a rare desert storm, and after tangling with its somewhat Lovecraftian tenant – all beak and tentacles – he emerges into the skim-joint proper:
Upstairs, a quiet cacophony, like a nightmare cocktail party heard through a shared wall. Myriad drips, drops, and plinks as the torrent outside found its way into the decrepit structure – pooling in depressions, leaking through cracks, pouring off of jagged ledges where the first-floor ceiling had caved in. Dozens of voices, some raised, some quiet, talking all at once in tongues both foreign and familiar. The thud of heavy footsteps above – shuffling, skipping about, and unless I was mistaken, dancing. The crackle of a warped and timeworn record from somewhere far away, playing Patsy Cline at half the speed and twice the warble. And the snap and hiss of candles in the damp.
Navigating the structure he encounters demons of all shapes and sizes – some nearly human:
His shirt-sleeve was rolled up to the elbow, and the tender flesh of his forearm was pocked with track marks – though no needle could mark a demon’s flesh for long; the injury would heal itself before any scarring could occur. And indeed, these marks weren’t from a needle at all, but from countless shards of skim. One such shard was in there now, like a jagged bit of colored glass inserted just beneath the skin – I could see it flickering below the surface like lightning contained within a cloud.
And some pretty far from:
The demon was maybe ten feet across, and standing no doubt would’ve been twice that high. Its skin was the sickly, glistening white of a creature raised belowground; its body was segmented and striated, like that of a grub. Thick horns of yellow-white protruded from its head on either side, stretching for several feet before curving slightly downward and terminating in two nasty-looking points that scratched the rain-soaked walls. Two rows of six eyes each, milky white in the absence of that trademark demon fire, were wet from rain and tears both. The creature sat with its legs hugged to its chest, rocking back and forth like a child. Its ropy neck flickered like the man-demon’s arm had flickered, indicating skim. In one hand it held a wildflower, brilliant purple in the candlelight.
As it turned its gaze toward me, its awful face broke into a smile.
It extended an arm toward me – an arm that nearly spanned the length of the room – and offered me the flower.
And with a voice as terrible as damnation itself, it said, “Daddy?”
To me – and to Sam – the most chilling aspect of skim is that I can understand its appeal, and even empathize with those seduced by it:
I couldn’t help but wonder what it was like: these fallen angels, these creatures of the Depths, subjecting themselves to human experiences, sensations, emotions, all in the name of feeling closer for a moment to the God that had forsaken them. And I wondered what it must feel like to come down from that, and realize you were once more removed from the light of God’s grace. It must be horrible – a shock akin to their initial fall. It wasn’t hard to see why they – or for that matter, Danny – might get hooked. Why they might keep on coming back.
Call it sympathy for the devil, if you like. I call it my favorite bit.
Chris F. Holm’s work has appeared in such publications as Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, and THE BEST AMERICAN MYSTERY STORIES 2011. He’s been an Anthony Award nominee, a Derringer Award finalist, and a Spinetingler Award winner. HisCollector novels, DEAD HARVEST and THE WRONG GOODBYE, recast the battle between heaven and hell as Golden Era crime pulp. You can visit him on the web at www.chrisfholm.com.
Michael Cassutt and David Goyer’s first collaboration Heaven’s Shadow was a combination of a mystery and an action thriller set in space, but with our current levels of technology. Thanks to Michael’s work in non-fiction dealing spaceflight, there is a gritty reality to these books. The new one, Heaven’s Warpromises to do that boldly going thing we are so fond of.
So what’s his Favorite Bit?
When David Goyer approached me about working with him on an SF project that would involve human spaceflight, he thought he was getting a partner who was familiar with NASA vehicles, methods, personalities and jargon. Well, yes. But he was also getting a partner who was fascinated by the grim realities of travel in space. What does it feel like? What do you see and here? What does it do to your body?
(If you have any interest in the subject, please find Mary Roach’s fascinating 2010 book PACKING FOR MARS.)
We had very few disagreements in writing HEAVEN’S SHADOW and its sequel, HEAVEN’S WAR, but those we had clustered in these moments, with me wanting to push the envelope a bit, and David offering a more tempered and nuanced perspective frequently found in the phrase, “That’s gross and I don’t think we want to say that in those words.”
For those of you who came in late, HEAVEN’S SHADOW is a near-future SF thriller in which two teams of competing astronauts land on a Near-Earth Object named “Keanu” and discover that this 100-kilometer wide planetoid is actually a starship that is inhabited by at least two alien races – and by a third set of creatures.
Now the obligatory SPOILER ALERT – avert your eyes, if necessary: these other creatures are re-born human beings who had ties to one or more of the visiting astronauts. How? Why? Check out HEAVEN’S SHADOW.
At the end of that book, some of our astronauts have escaped back to Earth, while one has been left to his fate.
But he is not alone. The great minds behind Keanu have launched space probes of their own targeting the Houston and Bangalore control centers for the competing exploration craft.
These probes, like NASA sample-returns, have scooped up soil, atmosphere AND DOZENS OF PEOPLE, returning them to Keanu.
In the early chapters of HEAVEN’S WAR, we see this voyage through the eyes of Xavier Toutant, a teenaged fry cook and pot dealer from Houston.
(One of My Other Favorite Bits about these books is the chance to populate a spacecraft with people who aren’t astronauts.)
For me, My Favorite Bit of HEAVEN’S WAR was living with Xavier as, terrified and ill, he flew from Earth to NEO in a giant bubble filled with unhappy people from Houston. Eventually he learned to make use of this time, looting the wreckage of an R.V. that was also scooped up, discovering a new life for himself as a scrounger.
Xavier Toutant was startled by the harsh voice behind him. After an hour of tugging and sweating, he had managed to pry open one of the jammed cabinets inside the back two-thirds of the big diesel Fleetwood Freightliner 2020 – not that he would have known the name, but it was plastered on the side of the recreational vehicle.
Now there was some other fool floating in here . . . white, thin, balding, midthirties, wearing a pair of slacks and a dress shirt that suffered some major distressing. Even in the shadowy interior, Xavier could see that this guy’s face was red and his eyes small and mean. “Ass eyes” was what his uncle Clare would have called them.
“I said, what are you doing in here?”
There were several possible responses, ranging from None of your fucking business to his usual noncommittal shrug. But Xavier had been upside down and dizzy and hungry for two days.
And he had watched this particular cracker lurking the RV for the better part of a day. So he said, “Same thing you are.”
“Oh, really. And what’s that?”
“Checking things out.”
“Like, what, you’re in a goddamned library?”
A 19-tear-old wheeler-dealer goes to space and behaves badly. That’s my kind of SF.
In addition to considerable numbers of scripts for such television series as THE TWILIGHT ZONE, MAX HEADROOM, EERIE, INDIANA, THE DEAD ZONE and others, Michael Cassutt is the author of three dozen SF short stories and five solo novels: THE STAR COUNTRY (1986), DRAGON SEASON (1991), MISSING MAN (1998), RED MOON (2001) and TANGO MIDNIGHT (2003). He has also published several works of non-fiction dealing with human spaceflight, including the astronaut autobiographies DEKE! (Mercury astronaut Deke Slayton) and WE HAVE CAPTURE (with Gemini and Apollo astronaut Tom Stafford).
David S. Goyer is a screenwriter and director whose primary credits include the BLADE movies (1998-2004), DARK CITY (1998), BATMAN BEGINS (2005), JUMPER (2008), THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS (2008) and DARK KNIGHT RISES (2012), the forthcoming MAN OF STEEL (2013), among many others. His new Starz TV series is DA VINCI’S DEMONS. He has also written for comics, notably DC’s JSA.
He and Michael Cassutt are collaborating on HEAVEN’S SHADOW (2011), HEAVEN’S WAR (2012) and the forthcoming HEAVEN’S FALL (2013). All three books have been sold to Warner as possible feature films, with Goyer scripting.
Today we have a middle reader for your consideration, The Sword of Six Worlds, by Matt Mikalatos. Here’s how the book is described.
Validus Smith has three goals. Stay alive. Save the world. Finish her homework.
For centuries the paladins protected the Earth from a creeping darkness known as the Blight. That all changed when a new enemy destroyed the paladins, plunging the free worlds into danger. Validus Smith—an ordinary girl in an ordinary town—is next in line to become the paladin. Untrained, unsure of her destiny, and hunted by monstrous forces, she must recover the fabled Sword of Six Worlds, the only weapon capable of defeating the Blight. But in an unfamiliar world of monsters, talking animals and living rocks, can an ordinary girl like Validus survive?
And what is Matt’s Favorite Bit?
I love the moral simplicity of many fantasy novels, especially children’s novels. Heroes on white horses battle villains in black armor, and though there are frightening moments when all appears lost, the hero triumphs and justice prevails. All of my favorite childhood stories, from Tolkien to Star Wars, happily drew a line between good and evil and I never questioned who was on which side.
As I started writing my own children’s fantasy novel, I drew similar lines. On one side I had a normal human girl named Validus Smith who was chosen to protect the Six Worlds, an alliance of fantasy realms. Validus is only a middle schooler, but she is kind, brave and honest. On the other side I had Silverback, a violent, power-hungry creature bent on destroying the entire world. In my first draft, however, as Validus moved toward her final confrontation with Silverback, I felt increasingly uncomfortable with setting her up as as judge, jury and executioner. The message of violence as a solution to violence didn’t sit right in the context of the greater story.
The solution to this problem, which came in the second draft, is my favorite bit. Validus has a magic sword (of course!) called the Sword of Six Worlds. The sword has a variety of magical properties, but I added a new one in the second draft. If the Sword of Six Worlds is used in anger, or to get revenge or even out of necessity, it will break into a thousand pieces. It can only be used on a living being in a moment of compassion.
By compassion, I mean the ancient Greek concept. The Greek word (which sounds like someone sneezing and is σπλαγχν?ζομαι for the curious among you) means, “I feel compassion” but could be literally translated as “I am moved in my inward parts.” Let’s say, for instance, that you see an orphaned child. The Greeks would have said that compassion is when you see that child, alone and destitute, and you feel a sudden pain in your guts, the sort of pain that won’t go away until you do something to help. It’s not just sadness or pity, it’s a compelling desire to solve other people’s problems, to take care of them when they can’t take care of themselves.
This means that Validus can’t just find Silverback, break into his camp and murder him. To be victorious she needs to understand him. She might even need to learn to care for him. It doesn’t alter the moral simplicity: Validus is still the good guy, and Silverback is still evil. Validus still needs to stop him if she’s going to save the world. But she can only use the sword on Silverback if she uses it with compassion. That’s a little twist in the writing that pleased me.
It brought in new emotional weight, as well: here’s Validus, face-to-face with her enemy, and she knows that she needs to have compassion for him. But he has hurt her friends and has every intention of killing her family and destroying her world. How is that possible? How can she have compassion for someone like that?
I won’t give away the ending, but I will say this: Validus is a better person than I am. And that was one of my favorite bits as well.
For full disclosure, Brent is a friend of mine and I beta-read The Blinding Knife. I liked it so much that I’m re-reading the published version. This, my friends, is what epic fantasy can be when a writer is on. You’ve heard me geek about The Black Prism which was book 1. It has a moment that is so astounding that my brother called me to say, “I can’t believe he just did that.”
The Blinding Knife is better. So, if you haven’t read book 1, start there but go ahead and order Book 2. Trust me on this.
Meanwhile, let’s see what Brent’s Favorite Bit is.
Every writer reaches a point where writing isn’t fun anymore. Often, it’s in the 23rd edit or during a creative dry spell. Sometimes, we can get caught up in worrying about what an–often imaginary!–critic is going to say. When I made the transition from wannabe writer to pro, I thought maybe I would never write with the innocent joy I had when I wrote my Night Angel trilogy in obscurity.
I’m so glad I was wrong! The first thing my editor said when I turned in The Blinding Knife (Book 2 of the Lightbringer Series) was that she could tell I was having fun again. Don’t get me wrong, writing The Black Prism (Book 1) was still better than working at a real job. But when writing that book, I was cognizant of fan and critic expectations for the first time, and I was trying harder things than I’d ever tried before. There is a pleasure in acquiring new skills, and The Black Prism was the best thing I’d written to that point in my life. But satisfaction isn’t the same as joy.
So my favorite bit of writing The Blinding Knife is actually hard to nail down. I’ve talked elsewhere about how cool it’s been to use real science regarding light and perception as the basis for the magic system of The Lightbringer Series, so today I want to talk about games-within-novels.
Warning: Here be geekery.
In The Blinding Knife I needed a reason for the outcast, bastard son Kip to meet his shut-in grandfather repeatedly. That grandfather thinks Kip’s mere existence shames the family, so these meetings weren’t something Kip would choose to endure, and given that his grandfather was a shut-in, they couldn’t be random crossings-of-paths. The idea for a game immediately appealed to me: a shut-in needs to pass the time, and he simply wouldn’t give Kip the option of not playing. A game puts two characters in direct conflict, and can easily be used to show sides of that character that are illustrative. Does someone curse and swear when they experience bad luck? Do they bet recklessly? Are they smarter than you realized? Will they cheat when vexed? And over the course of a series of games, you easily show a characters’ growth. When you add in the ability to gamble–which I did–you add another level of tension, especially when you opt for stakes that are more interesting than money. Money is interesting in the real world, but not in fiction. Instead, I had a character who desperately wants to learn, so one of the games is played over whether he gets to practice magic. He desperately wants friends, so another game is played over whether a new friend will be expelled.
I thought of chess, but it’s been done. I thought of poker, but nothing says This World in 2005 like Texas Hold ’em.
So then I did something really dumb. I decided to make up my own game. Now, I like games, especially the subset sometimes referred as the German Games (so many of the great designers are German): Carcassonne and all five expansions, Catan and two or three expansions, and even games made or ported to iOS like Ticket To Ride, Shadow Era, and the Risk-inspired Lux DLX 2. After Black Prism with its color magic came out, I had a math professor friend introduce me to Magic the Gathering, which–while at the height of geekery–is a game of superb mathematical balance. It’s really a thing of beauty if you can get past the steep learning curve and your own bias.
Upon beginning to make up my own game, I quickly realized that a reasonably good game player designing a game is like someone reading a few books and deciding they could do better, or a poet deciding that they’ve pretty much mastered words, so why not write for Hollywood and get rich? It’s so simple, right? Good thing writers don’t have to be good at stuff–we just have to be good at making it seem we’re good at stuff: I didn’t need to make a real game, I just had to draw the outlines. Now, I still did the best I could to make a game that makes sense. I don’t like to think about writer-as-brand, but when I have to bust my brain, I like to hold out little hopes to myself. In this case, I held a hope that someday I would make a real game out of this. (Partly because sure, it would be nice to make money from something I’ve spent a ton of time working on–while trying to also write a book. But also partly just because it would be so cool!)
Because one of the principle problems of writing a secondary world fantasy is that there’s just so much exposition necessary to flesh out the world, I had the idea to kill two birds with one stone: the characters on the cards would be historical figures. As Kip was learning to play the game, he’d also be learning about his world–and we would be, too.
Of course, part of good world building is giving readers a sense that the world is bigger than what they see directly on the page, so I called the game Nine Kings. Kings? This world doesn’t have kings, it has satraps and satrapahs. And why Nine? There are only seven satrapies. (This will tie in to later world building that I’ll do in following books, and leave me with nice foundations to build on, while giving readers fun things to wonder about.)
My last innovation took me a while to figure out: What if the cards are true? What if, rather than the card maker arbitrarily saying, “Abraham Lincoln, clearly a 10 in rhetoric and a -2 in Luck”, what if instead the cards were completely accurate? What if, instead of learning about the character, you lived as the character? Limits were necessary: most cards in the world are non-magical copies, but the originals are true. Also, only people who can use magic can use those original cards. Further, each color of magic is tied to a sense. So, if like most magic users, you can only use one color, you only see part of the truth of the card. Blue? You can touch that card and see what the character saw at some pivotal moment in her life. This allows some fun trickery where someone might get a partial truth and think they know the whole truth: You see a woman’s husband attacking her, and you think he’s the monster. But if you can use two colors, maybe you hear her husband asking her how she could murder both of their children, and then attack her. Who’s the monster now?
If the cards are true, then they become not just fascinating, they become frighteningly powerful. Maybe some cards are banned, because what they show isn’t what those in power want shown. This could be from good motives (think gun control) or from bad (think censorship). Or maybe how good those motives are depend on where you’re standing.
Then I thought, what if someone is making cards now? What person in power would be comfortable with someone finding out their darkest secret? Even if they didn’t know the card would be unflattering, they would fear that it would be. And if they couldn’t use the right colors, they would never know. What would they do? Ask someone else to look at it and tell them if it was dangerous? Who would they trust to do that?
Further, what wouldn’t they give to learn the darkest secrets of their enemies? Suddenly, the old cards control the past, and the new cards could control the future.
Ah, these cards have become very, very dangerous indeed.
Especially in the hands of a sixteen year old boy who just wants to win a damn card game.
Brent Weeks is the New York Times Bestselling author of The Night Angel Trilogy and The Lightbringer Series. Lightbringer #2, The Blinding Knife is out today. The exciting new trading card game Nine Kings will be out… someday. He hopes.
(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, […]