Monthly Archives: May 2017
When I was a wee sprogget of 16, I went to tour a university. They had a creative writing undergrad, you see, and I’d somehow wrangled a one-on-one with one of the instructors. She seemed distant, impervious to my earnest charm.
Until I asked brightly, “So, do you teach genre fiction as well, or is it all literary?”
She recoiled like I’d slapped her. “Oh, no,” she hissed. “We only teach literary fiction.”
And so I did not attend that university.Through my late teens and undergrad, I similarly avoided anything smacking of “literary fiction.” Meandering vignettes of people sitting on park benches, pondering the banality of existence? Dysfunctional families in the woods? Giants of the literary canon deriding my chosen genre as nothing more than space-faring octopi?
To hell with all that. I was a speculative fiction writer. I was interested in telling good stories.
Have I mentioned that I was incredibly arrogant through my late teens and undergrad?
In any case, I took a half-credit Science Fiction course, which is probably one of the best moves I’ve made. We started with Darko Suvin, forged ahead from Weinbaum to Gibson, and highlighted LeGuin and Tiptree along the way. My final paper contrasted notions of bodily autonomy in “Boojum” (Sarah Monette and Elizabeth Bear) and “Bloodchild” (Octavia Butler).
Quite a literary analysis, if you think about it.
Then I did my Stonecoast MFA. We’ve talked about it before – that was when my authorial voice started to change. And there—I learned that perhaps “literary” didn’t mean what I’d thought. Perhaps it wasn’t just “the opposite of genre fiction.” So what was it?
It was introspective. It was character-driven. It was devastating. It was lyrical and elegant.
Literary was an approach.
And literary could still have magic and spaceships.So I’ve been undergoing another reading regimen. In some ways, I still feel like an interloper: scuttling across the border to see what I scavenge and bring back to my fantasy. But startlingly, I sometimes recognize myself in the small villages, the bitter-dark humour, the pervasive loss, the tension between things beautiful and grotesque…
Of course, humans like to classify things. We like to label ourselves. That’s what we do. And genre markers are a useful common language for markets, authors, and readers.
But I’m feeling my way towards a strange, interstitial space. Not terribly surprising: I’ve always been fascinated by the liminal. It’s the place betwixt-and-between, where we gleefully borrow principles, turn them inside-out, and blur the lines as we cross them.
That’s what I’m writing towards, I think. It feels right.
What I’m Listening to this Week
Have I done Carmina Burana before? I guess it doesn’t matter; it’s what I was listening to this week.
It’s an Orff cantata, using poems from a medieval manuscript called – appropriately – Carmina Burana, or, “Songs from Beuern.” The “O Fortuna” movement is the one everyone knows.
Two main things. 1) I love the contrast between driving whispers and orchestral cataclysm. It’s the Wheel of Fortune going up and down, you know? And 2) Those lyrics. They are. The most. Metal. Lyrics. EVER.
I almost didn’t go to the Nebulas. In total, I flip-flopped three or four times. First, I was reluctant to skip work over the Victoria Day weekend. Then, no one knew how the political landscape would look by May. Then my novel wouldn’t be ready to query in time. Then it would be ready, but I had a crisis of self-esteem.
In the end, I am very, very glad I went.
For those unfamiliar with the term, the Nebula Awards are a series of awards for outstanding fiction nominated and voted upon by members of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA). In recent years, a conference has developed around them.
When I go to cons, you can assume that I learned lots, saw stellar programming, met amazing people, and caught up with old friends. That was certainly the case this time, so I want to zero in on a few particular moments.
Moment the First
I met Connie Willis during the mass autograph session on Friday night. I absolutely adore her fiction. Plus, I’ve been putting together playlists of all the SFWA Grandmasters—and hers was one of my favourites to curate. The woman is just so incredibly lovely and smart.
To set the scene a little: the hotel’s massive ballroom was opened up. Tables seating an author or two each filled the room—like a maze of books and tablecloths. People strolled through with drinks and ice cream, chatting and signing and snapping photos. It was basically a cocktail party with 2/3 of the guests seated.
I’m always loath to interrupt conversations, so I waited until there was a gap in the stream of people around Ms. Willis’ table. Then I cautiously approached, stuttered something about loving her fiction, and stammered something further about how much I’d enjoyed listening through all her interviews and readings.
I frequently claim that I no longer get star-struck. I lie like a lying McLiarPants.
In any case, she was super gracious and somehow turned the conversation to politics. And politics and fiction. And then somehow, I was having a real conversation with Connie Willis, all stammering and trembling forgotten.
But wait, there’s more.
The next day, I found myself on an elevator with her. “Oh, hello again!” she said. “How was the rest of your evening? Are you enjoying the weekend?”
Part of being a writer is that you learn from everyone around you. With Connie Willis, I look at her graciousness and kindness and say, “I want to be like that when I grow up.” It’s modelling behaviour, really, and she sets a prime example. I was so incredibly touched—I just hope that when I’m in her position, I leave half as good an impression.
Moment the Second
Part of the Nebulas involves celebrating the latest SFWA Grandmaster. For 2016, it’s Jane Yolen. Like Connie Willis, I love her fiction and thoroughly enjoyed creating her playlist.
Same ballroom, but now filled with banquet tables and rows of chairs. People glide around in suits, tuxes, dresses, and gowns. The main lights are lowered, bright purple accent lights shining around the stage. Anticipation hums through the air.
And when Jane Yolen is presented—
Standing ovation. As President Cat Rambo said, Ms. Yolen writes “those” books—the ones which probably steered many of us in the room towards writing and fiction.
Writing can be such a lonely art. Jealousy bites sans warning or logic. It can feel like a zero-sum game (it isn’t—but sometimes, in our darkest hours, it feels like one). But here—the anticipation richened into a blur of pride and goodwill. We were all there because we love stories. We were all there because of a certain commitment to them. Ms. Yolen exemplifies a life dedicated to them.
And in that moment, I realized something:
As writers, we need to constantly check in with ourselves. “Is this what I really want?” Writing is hard. It’s lonely. It doesn’t pay well. It comes with LOTS of rejection. It takes a long time.
“Is this what I really want?”
Do I want a life of strange airports and con hotels? Do I want a life of uncertainty and no guarantees, ever? Do I want a life that pretty much has to run on faith and love?
Feeling that swell of good feeling, I answer as always, “Yes.”
Moment the Third
This isn’t a particular moment, so much as it is an observation.
During the post-award parties, I noticed something interesting. My imposter syndrome is worse when I have a safety net. In a room with people I know really well, I found myself getting quieter and increasingly uncomfortable.
Recognizing this pattern, I struck out alone.
Very quickly, I met a whole bunch of new people, got to know other people better, and had a lot of excellent conversation (and alcohol, but that’s beside the point).
This makes no sense, so what’s going on? I think that subconsciously, I assume the people I know REALLY well will spot my social fakery, and so I get too nervous to try.
But—if you can do it, it’s not really faking, is it? I mean, the thing about “fake it ‘til you make it” is that, eventually, you make it….
Of course, recognizing the pattern is Step One. Now, I’m trying to figure out how to change it.
There are many, many people I need to thank—more than can fit here. So, please know that if you attended, you made my weekend special. That said, an extra-special thanks to Derek Künsken and Brandon Crilly for letting me room/hang with them through the weekend. Next stop: CanCon!
Happy sighs, and back to work.
What I’m Listening to This Week
Shortly before I left for the Nebulas, I saw new vocal ensemble Vocalis give their inaugural concert. While the program was incredibly strong, this one’s stuck with me. It’s got the relentless, driven choral lines I find so fascinating. Much like my beloved polyphony, the parts all fit together like pieces of a well-made clock…
I’ve been looking for this video for years:
If you’re not keen to watch the whole thing—this is a film about the HMS Speedy, a schooner that sank in 1804 carrying many prominent members of Upper Canada. She wrecked attempting to enter the Newcastle Harbour, near modern-day Brighton, Ontario. The surrounding peninsula is now a provincial park where I spent many idyllic childhood summers.
Plus, The Wreck of the Speedy was the first piece of museum theatre I ever encountered.
From ages 2-16-ish, Presqu’ile Provincial Park was the happiest place in my world. It wasn’t backwoods camping, but there were outhouses and forest trails and fossils to find in the bluffs.
But my favourite thing was the Lighthouse. Sure, the Nature Centre was pretty cool with its live turtles, taxidermy birds, and light-up map of Lake Ontario. But I was always impatient to get back on my bike (left unlocked, obvi) and keep cycling down the road to the Lighthouse and its Interpretive Centre.
History, man. History.
The Interpretive Centre is attached to the 1848 lighthouse keeper’s cottage. It houses artifacts dredged up from the lake; there’s a documentary about the 1920s entertainment scene; you can Go for a Dive! at a series of video monitors.
But the best thing—the best thing—was this movie.
I’m not sure when it went in. Maybe when I was seven or eight? Anyway, I was entranced. Like, hanging-over-the-railing entranced. Like, I knew the history better than the interpreters. Like, I totally had the entire script memorized at one point.
First of all, a sunken ship that’s never been found is pretty cool. (Although I learned in adulthood that they found it ages ago.) But also – that video made it real. It turned names into people, dates into tragedy.
For those late to the party, my dayjob is thus: my co-creator and I use theatre and its associated techniques to educate people in museum settings.
Explained badly: I pretend to be dead people to teach you a lesson.
So here was this…this play. Filmed, yeah, but still a play, smack dab in the middle of the artifacts, maps, and dive footage. And it punched me in a way nothing else did. Of course, as a wee one, I couldn’t articulate why. But having worked as a museum theatre professional for a few years—sure. Let’s take a look.
We start with a chaotic opening. Storms! Shouting! Ship going down! It grabs one’s attention right away—it’s a bold choice to start with something this distressing, though some details escape if you don’t have background context.
Then it’s an interesting format: monologues from various crewmembers and passengers interwoven with our guide/host—Captain Charles Selleck, the one sort-of-witness. Selleck’s character makes this video work: we need an anchor, an emotional hook to hang our hats on.
Now, whoever wrote the script does a decent job weaving historical facts with human drama. Name-dropping runs rampant (who’s Richard Formaldi?), but there are some gems of interpretation:
“Never enough money. Never enough material. Never enough men!”
Succinct, informative, and charged with emotion. BAM.
A wide range of characters speak their piece: the low-class seaman, the beleaguered captain, the officials and judges. This all predicts the 21st century emphasis on diversity of voices and perspective.
But I realize now, one voice is missing.
The whole reason for this voyage was to transport a prisoner and attendant court participants to Newcastle for trial. A Chippewa man named Ogetonicut was accused of murdering fur trader John Sharpe. Ogetonicut’s brother had been killed by a white fur trader a year prior, and Ogetonicut had been promised a trial…that never happened. This all gets rather glossed-over in the video.
And Ogetonicut never gets a monologue of his own. We never hear the prisoner’s perspective: his rationale for his actions, what he thought of the Speedy’s dilapidated condition, how he felt as the water closed in. It’s a glaring weakness in an otherwise strong piece.
Because it is strong, otherwise. For a tiny interpretive centre in a relatively small provincial park, this was insanely well done. It showed me what museum theatre could be, long before I even knew what museum theatre was.
This is how I know it worked. After the video—after the display cases and gift shop—I’d go to the Lighthouse itself. And I’d stand on the point and stare hungrily at Lake Ontario, imagining the Speedy lying on the cold lake bed. There, I would promise myself that I’d find it someday. I’d finish the story begun in the interpretive centre.
Obviously, I didn’t find the Speedy. But in a strange way, I am finishing the story begun at Presqu’ile. Too often, I say that I never envisioned myself in museums—that it was all a very happy accident.
Then I remember this video, and realize—no, no.
It was all inevitable.
PS. I’m at the SFWA Nebula Conference this week. Find me. Frolic. Come to my Beer Talk on Friday evening.
What I’m Listening to This Week
I finished the final (for now) edits on Sing to the Bones. To set the mood, I listened to a lot of Western/cowboy music while editing. I stumbled across this piece entirely by accident, but it is very beautiful.
So I’ve seen Moulin Rouge! three times over the last week. Partly it’s because the music got well and truly stuck in my head (as we’ll see in What I’m Listening to this Week), but also, I feel like a little kid with their favourite story.
“Tell it again!”
“Um…they still fall in love. It still doesn’t end well.”
And it got me thinking. In a funny way, I feel like I imprinted on this particular story very young. Not just Moulin Rouge! per se, though that was the first variant I encountered. Moulin Rouge! is itself mostly a riff on La Traviata with some strains of La Bohème. La Traviata, of course, is the operatic adaptation of a mid-Victorian play called La Dame aux Camélias. In turn, that play was adapted from Alexandre Dumas fils’ novel of the same name.
Lots of variations, all essentially the same story: a courtesan and an earnest young man; impossible love; self-sacrifice through deception; and of course, consumption.
Doomed love and unabashed romanticism—what can I say? It’s my catnip. La Traviata remains my favourite opera, and I’ve never survived Act Three dry-eyed.
And looking at my fiction, I can see echoes here and there. Not necessarily in courtesans and consumption, but in some of the themes, the feel…the motif of impossible love.
I think that some stories do leave their mark on us quite deeply. They find touchstones within us, and so resonate through our own works. Asking why is kind of like asking why we have recurring dreams. There is something deep in our subconscious that sings the same song back, and so it makes sense that these are the stories we return to again and again—even if we’re not entirely sure why.
Sometimes, they’re wholly unexpected. Honestly, I find myself returning to Neuromancer more than people might expect. I wouldn’t say it’s one of my favourite books—not like La Traviata is my favourite opera; not like East o’ the Sun and West o’ the Moon is my favourite fairy tale. But there’s a bit towards the end that’s never left me.
Beyond ego, beyond personality, beyond awareness, he moved, Kuang moving with him, evading his attackers with an ancient dance, Hideo’s dance, grace of the mind-body interface granted him, in that second, by the clarity and singleness of his wish to die.
And one step in that dance was the lightest touch on the switch, barely enough to flip—
and his voice the cry of a bird
3Jane answering in song, three
notes, high and pure.
A true name.
Neon forest, rain sizzling across hot pavement. The smell of frying food… But all of this receding, as the cityscape recedes…as the roads and crossroads scribed on the face of a microchip, the sweat-stained pattern on a folded, knotted scarf.
William Gibson, Neuromancer
Fantasy author can’t get over the climax of a seminal cyberpunk work? Say what?
It’s the moment of transcendence, you see. That’s what I keep trying to answer, in my own way. And that’s really it: some stories, you keep trying to write back to, subconsciously or not.
For me, this all gets back to the idea that we write what we don’t understand. We write what confounds us, perplexes us, what the mind cannot quite work through. I’m not sure that it always does, of course. Some stories echo in us forever.
And so we keep singing back to them.
What stories resonate in you?
PS. A reminder that Lauren Harris’s YA novel UNLEASH released last week! Do you like gritty urban fantasy and kickass heroines? You can get your copy here!
What I’m Listening to This Week
Really, all of Moulin Rouge! but let’s just say, “One Day I’ll Fly Away,” which is a song to which I never really paid attention before this week. SPOILERS, it shows up as a devastating motif later, but I like it here as a way to show another side of Satine’s personality. It’s really the only time in the film we see her in (assumed) privacy, not performing for other people.
Okay, pals, let’s have some real talk. I wasn’t going to post this, but I think I need to get it out, and I can’t think of a better forum.
I doubt it caused any ripples, but I have been spending the last two weeks sitting quietly by myself. Basically, I got overwhelmed, and my response to being overwhelmed is to withdraw and shut up. The root wasn’t deadlines or workloads or anything. It was this immense pressure that I put on myself:
WRITE ALL THE THINGS. APPLY FOR ALL THE THINGS. LAUNCH ALL THE THINGS.
For obvious reasons (chiefly, I’m not a perpetual motion machine), I couldn’t.
And then I felt awful.
And then I went away to sit by myself.
Honestly, the worst part has been feeling like I’ve been letting people down. My creative partner. My mentors. My friends. I’ve joked that my creative ventures are predicated on making certain people proud…but deep down, it’s not really a joke, is it?
Rationally, I know—I know—the need for external validation is deadly. The drive has to come from inside. At the end of the day, the internal engine is the only one upon which you can rely.
But it’s hard. Giving this some good, solid thought, I don’t have a problem with motivation. I’ll write ‘til the cows come home, because that’s all I know how to do.
But the fear of disappointing people is my Achilles’ heel. Not living up to potential. Being a flash in the pan. “That’s nice, but what have you done lately?” is both my inspiration and my nightmare.
Yes, I know. This is an insane amount of pressure to put on one’s self.
What does one do?
I’ve been trying to ease the pressure by reminding myself that this isn’t a race. If I keep working, then when it’s time, things will happen in their course.
That’s the most important thing, I think. To keep working. To set aside the expectation and the pressure and the fear of disappointment and just keep going.
In many ways, to keep working is an act of faith. With no idea where the road goes, we set off.
I’m slowly venturing back into the world. And rest assured—I’m still working.
What I’m Listening To This Week
One night this past week, I had beer and watched Moulin Rouge! and it was just what I needed. This song has been stuck in my head since.