The Book Exchange in Amsterdam

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(Bookstore owner Jeff)

On our last full day in Amsterdam, Ann and I wound up buying more books than we’d planned on—and it was almost entirely the fault of The Book Exchange, a great used bookstore on Kloveniersburgwal. We didn’t have much time, so I immediately went downstairs to the SF/F section to see if they had any out-of-print fiction anthologies. Even if you’re in a rush, it’s easy enough to go through anthos. Sure enough, they did. Photos below the cut.

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Finnish Fiction: Viivi Hyvonen on “The Monkey and the New Moon”

Viivi Hyvonen’s latest novel, the title of which translates as “The Monkey and the New Moon,” has gotten a lot of critical praise in the author’s native Finland. It was also talked up to us during our recent trip to Finland by, among others, Jukka Halme, who called it an excellent example of New Weird fiction. I’ve now read the 18,000 words of the novel that exist in an English translation, and I have to say I find the story fascinating. It’s energetic, intelligent, and at times darkly funny. What’s the novel about? I’ll let Hyvonen describe it, to kick off a short interview with her…

In the permanently quarantined city of Dystopolis between an unnavigable, poisonous ocean and an impassable dump inhabited by frenzied monkeys, a suspiciously monkey-like baby boy is found on a doorstep and adopted by a former jazz singer, who names him Hanuman after a monkey god. Confined to her attic apartment during the days, in the nights he roams the rooftops, while down on the streets tango and jazz gangs rule and listening to the wrong kind of music can get you killed. After a restless and violent youth in a city run by organized crime and a foreign police force, Hanuman manages to carve himself a niche and make a living as a private detective, until one day he receives three interconnected commissions. One is from three trench-coated strangers who claim to come from the outside, one from a hunted scientist who claims to have returned from the outside, and one from a tango singer called Luna who bears a disturbing resemblance to Hanuman’s now deceased grandmother. While Dystopolis is on the verge of a civil war as the children of several criminal leaders are found murdered, Hanuman sets out to solve some mysteries of his own in addition to those of his commissioners, and in so doing joins a dangerous game where his own life and Luna’s are not the highest stakes.

You’ve translated part of your latest novel into English. What was that process like? Did the book seem to change as a result?

The process was painstaking at best. I’ve read mostly in English since my early teens but haven’t actively used the language since high school. Even though I have a reasonably large passive vocabulary, it can get rather frustrating when I’m absolutely positive there’s a certain word or expression that I’m looking for but can’t find it in a dictionary. I’ve always gotten there in the end, though. I don’t think the book changed as a result, or at least hope it didn’t. One of the things about translating into or writing in a language other than your native one is that you can’t trust your sense of style entirely. I hate that.

What has the reader response been like to your most recent novel? How has it affected how you view your book?

This question in actually related to the previous one, because I’ve got a lot of positive feedback on my Finnish. Once a professional linguist complemented me and asked if I put a lot of effort into the language. I do, and am flattered that someone takes notice—and a little humiliated as I find my English skills lacking. Another response I’ve heard repeatedly is that people have read or intend to read it a second time, which is what I do if I truly love a book (for me the best of books are those that both withstand and demand several reads). All in all, the response has been very rewarding, since I had a hard time getting the novel published in the first place and, I have to admit, almost lost faith at times.

Who are your main influences?

Concerning my most recent novel, the two books I was most influence by were probably Dracula by Bram Stoker and Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow by Peter Hoeg. While still in high school, I had seen the film Dracula by Fancis Ford Coppola and been very impressed. When I went on to read the book, though, I was surprised to discover it to be an epistolary novel. The form intrigued me and I decided that I wanted to write a book consisting of diary entries, letters and so forth—and make it absorbing. Hoeg’s book, on the other hand, is a thriller and very exiting even though it isn’t chronological, another structural aspect I wanted to try out.

I was also influenced by several movies with artificial realities that their inhabitants are unaware of: Matrix (world as a computer program), Dark City (world as an alien experiment) and Truman Show (world as a TV-series). I realized this hadn’t been done with books, i.e. a world, or in my case a city, as a milieu for literature. As a matter of fact, the world of my novel could be seen as a landscape of my own mind, as it contains allusions to a number of things that were important to me while growing up: classical mythology, such children’s classics as Peter Pan, Alice in Wonderland and The Wizard of Oz, graphic novels like Corto Maltese etc.

Generally speaking, I’ve been most influenced by authors like Ursula K. Le Guin, Robert Holdstock, William Gibson, Neil Gaiman, Salman Rushdie and Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

What issue or issues are you grappling with right now as a writer, either about craft or being a writer, or anything else?

Because I started out so young, I effectively built my identity around writing—not surprisingly, themes of identity are central in all my work. As writing was something everyone has expected me to do with my life, I’ve needed to take distance from it at various points. The first one must have been when I realized Finnish is a language with only 5 million speakers (and potential readers) and in Finland speculative fiction is as marginal a genre as anywhere else. As it didn’t seem feasible for me to make a living out of writing what and how I wanted to, I decided I needed a day job where I wouldn’t have to worry too much about money or employment and might be able to work part time. Thus I went to study medicine and wrote my most recent novel over the time of several years—one of the issues I’m grappling right now is trying to be creative on a regular basis instead of whenever I feel like it, as I am working as a doctor only three days a week in order be able to write more.

When I started I was too young to be interested in authors instead of just books. (I was twelve when I began my first novel, fourteen when it was released.) For me writing didn’t use to be a social hobby but originally a way to channel ideas and emotions I found difficult to otherwise express. At times the attention I get for my writing can be confusing for me, and I’m still surprised whenever I get together with other authors, that, hey, there’s actually other people doing this, too. A certain yearning for attention and approval is typical of me but not a characteristic that I’m particularly proud of, so over the years I’ve tended to question my own motives to write. I’ve come to understand, however, that even though the attention part isn’t something I really need, I do need to write in order to thrive, and if somebody else is getting something out of it, I’m glad. This might seem like a rather painstaking way to decide to be a writer after all, but that’s the way my mind works: the pressure needs to build up and the discomfort grows until I finally reach a decision–and commit myself to it

Joanna Russ and The Weird

I was thinking the other day about Joanna Russ, both because of her passing and because Ann and I had read so much of her short fiction while making decisions on stories for our The Weird anthology (Atlantic, November). I’d been absolutely stunned by the sheer quantity of the quality, because certain stories get reprinted over and over and this had created an assumption in my mind of why the others might not have reprinted…Wrong. And someone needs to do an omnibus. Right. Now. These stories are by turns horrifying, hilarious, eccentric, dangerous, comforting, and riotously good fun…and, yes, serious. They need to be returned, en masse, to the mainstream of SF and Fantasy reading, in the most accessible formats possible.

As importantly, in the rest of our reading for The Weird, Russ’s work helped me to appreciate other authors, both in the context of a general tradition of strange fiction and also a tradition of women’s fiction, especially from the 1970s and 1980s. In that latter vein, for example, Russ in combination with Shirley Jackson made me appreciate Kelly Link even more. (Although I’d not presume to claim those influences on Link’s behalf.)

I don’t have anything that profound to say about Russ—I think a lot of people have said much more interesting and personal thiings already. But I was happy to have a chance to engage with her fiction again, and happy it was in the context of The Weird and so many other fine authors–and that even reading so many stories (probably about four to five million words of fiction to get to our 750,000 words), her work stood out.

We’re not quite ready to reveal the entire 100-plus stories in The Weird, but I thought I’d give a sneak peek of a brief selection of the fiction by women in our anthology from before and after our Russ selection. This is only one context in which Russ or any of these writers can be seen, of course—in the anthology as a whole they and their stories tie in to many different themes and traditions, communicating with, and sometimes correcting, stories by male writers as well. (Nor are these selections all explicitly feminist stories.)

Shirley Jackson, “The Summer People,” 1950
Merce Rodoreda, “The Salamander,” 1967 (translation, Catalan)
James Tiptree Jr., “The Psychologist Who Wouldn’t Do Terrible Things to Rats,” 1976
Jamaica Kincaid, “Mother,” 1978
Joanna Russ, “The Little Dirty Girl,” 1982
Octavia Butler, “Bloodchild,” 1984
Elizabeth Hand, “The Boy in the Tree,” 1989
Karen Joy Fowler, “The Dark,” 1991
Kathe Koja, “Angels in Love,” 1991
Lisa Tuttle, “Replacements,” 1992
Angela Carter, “The Snow Pavilion,” 1995
Kelly Link, “The Specialist’s Hat,” 1998

The Finnish SF/Fantasy Community: An Interview with Tero Ykspetäjä

If you wander over to Omnivoracious, the Amazon book blog, you’ll find the first of two posts on Finnish SF/Fantasy, the second to run next week. Part of the first post, based on our recent trip to Finland, talks about the strength and unity of the Finnish SF/Fantasy community. So I thought I’d run an interview with Tero Ykspetäjä here. Tero, who lives in Turku, has been involved in Finnish fandom for quite some time and currently runs the informative blog Partial Recall. Also, please do check out the Omnivoracious feature—it’s great to have such a high-profile place for these kinds of pieces, so please signal boost it. Thanks!


(Tero Ykspetäjä)

Tero, How did you get involved in Finnish SF/F fandom?

I was a regular visitor at my local library as a teenager, and most of the books I borrowed were either sf/f or mysteries. One day sometime in the latter half of the 1980s I found a Finnish sf zine Aikakone (“The Time Machine”) at the magazine section. It was at the time published by Ursa Astronomical Association, and, in addition to articles about sf and science, as well as short stories, contained reports of fandom activity in Finland. I started reading those.

Near the end of the 80s, a friend who worked in a comic book store I visited regularly in the neighboring city told me he was coming to my local town library to talk about comics, and a friend of his would accompany him to talk about the local sf club. This was Someone I Had Read About (in the aforementioned fanzine) and almost felt I already knew, so naturally I went. The event wasn’t an unqualified success—in addition to the speakers, there was a reporter from the local newspaper present, and me. So the Famous Guy (who lived in the same town) invited us over to his place (So. Many. Books.) and we had a nice evening chatting about sf.

He told me about the local sf club pub meetings that had just recently started. As I was just old enough to be let into pubs, I naturally started going. The first or second time I attended the meeting, there was a delegation of fans from Helsinki visiting. First contact with aliens! I got to talking to this guy who looked more like a rock musician than a typical sf fan in his long, black hair, mirror shades, black leather pants, studded belts, and a Jim Morrison t-shirt. We had a long and interesting conversation about sf, and he told me he edited this really cool fanzine called Tähtivaeltaja (which was quite different from the astrological society’s zine that the library carried). [But] Toni Jerrman was just one of the interesting characters I met at the pub meeting, and I felt I’d found “my tribe”. So I kept going and meeting more people (including a very nice and cute girl who would later become my wife). Next autumn I attended my first Finncon (Finland’s national sf convention) and have attended those ever since as well.

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Service Announcements: e-Weird Tales, Beyond Victoriana, Poland, and e-Ephemera

A few things to mention that’ve slipped away from me a bit. SF Signal recently ran my interview with Polish editor-writer Konrad Walewski, and I’ve reproduced it above in case you missed it.

Jan Zeranski, an editor and writer in Poland, also sent me these additional links: Katedra and Esensja (both in Polish and, as Jan says, containing “huge database of reviews, interviews and excerpts. Esensja is a monthly semi-pro zine about modern popculture (apart from books they review movies, music and so on) and Katedra focuses on literature.” In English, the Book Institute is mostly about mainstream literature and of definite interest. “As for essays or articles I have found only one so far—at Words Without Borders. It’s a good text written by Tomasz Kolodziejczak, award-nominee science fiction author and a comic book publisher.”

AND, in other news, you can now get Weird Tales electronically!

Also, Beyond Victoriana has a very cool fund-raiser for Japan. Go check it out and donate!

Finally, Neil Williamson, who I interviewed in Warsaw about his projects and about Scottish SF (see below), has an e-book out of his great collection Ephemera. Check it out!

Shared Worlds Teen SF/Fantasy Writing Camp: You Can Still Apply!

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Just a reminder for teens interested in SF/Fantasy writing–you can still sign up for the two-week summer camp Shared Worlds. It’s pretty unique. You get one-on-one and group instruction with professional writers, get to build fantasy and science fiction worlds, and write fiction. Along with a lot of other fun stuff. What could be better?

In support of the camp, SF Signal was kind enough to run a MindMeld with a ton of great writers, including Michael Moorcock, Carrie Vaughn, Patrick Rothfuss, and more.

ALSO—the “What’s the Craziest or Most Experimental Book You’ve Ever Read?” post has gotten red-hot after a shout-out from io9, so go check it out again—lots of great, recent recommendations.

What’s Your Favorite SF/F Award, and Why?

Just posted to Omnivoracious, the Amazon book blog, my short analysis of various awards during our current Silly Season. Go forth. Signal boost. Answer my questions. Agree with me. Call me fool, idjut, misinformed, prophet—I care not. Just go forth. Have fun. Feeeeeed.

Bosch Museum, Netherlands

jeff and jetse
(Me ‘n’ DeVries)

A couple of weeks ago editor/writer Jetse DeVries was kind enough to show us around the Bosch museum in Den Bosch, in the Netherlands. Here are a couple photos and a few (at times shaky) videos from within the museum, which occupies a former church and features physical models of creatures from Bosch’s paintings, in addition to replicas of his paintings (the originals are in Spain).

bosch museum--outside

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Ann VanderMeer Reads from Michael Cisco’s “The Divinity Student”

In Finland, we participated on the last day in a contest at a con that was about convincing an audience to like a book. Most contestants read outrageously or read outrageous texts. Ann, wearing a Tallahassee Tentacles hockey shirt (a surprise from Finnish fandom), chose to read seriously from Michael Cisco’s amazing The Divinity Student.

As a bonus of sorts, Juha Tupasela reading the numbers story, “The Man Who Had No Eyes,” from City of Saints & Madmen:

Sigh

*Wakes up, looks at email, reads through SF Crow’s Nest–spits coffee.*

Whoa. Okay. Soooo, just barely a month after a titanic whine from SF Crow’s Nest founder Stephen Hunt about the BBC not taking genre seriously and not showing any respect, resulting in a petition and more whining…under Hunt’s auspices SF Crow’s Nest posts this review of Best American Fantasy 3, edited by Kevin Brockmeier, which includes this snark about Thomas Glave’s “The Torturer’s Wife”:

“If I was a casual reader I would have given it up after four paragraphs but as a dutiful reviewer I finished all thirty-three pages of this rambling, disjointed mish-mash (Oh so arty, with lots of things in brackets) that is not really a fantasy. It’s a psychological story about the wife of a high placed state torturer in a totalitarian regime cracking up with guilt. I highly recommend you avoid it like the plague.”

And then concludes with these beautiful paragraphs:

Most of the other stories were okay but they lacked a certain something and, after some consideration, I think I know what. Firstly, they did not lack fine writing. Finer writing has never been more evident and this is hardly surprising because nine of the contributors have creative writing degrees and five of those teach it. The list of contributing magazines at the back has many that are published by universities.

Also lacking was the classic notion of a story as commonly understood, namely a protagonist facing a series of challenges which he overcomes by dint of his character and which changes him in some way, usually for the better. In too many of these stories something happens to someone and that’s it. This being modern urban fantasy the thing that happens is sometimes quite daft, like coughing up a little Bach who grows to full size, but never mind that. Many of the stories are mildly depressing. Perhaps they are meant to send you off to your analyst.

I find it all too arty, too academic and too refined. I also fear that a bright young Jewish chemistry student (Asimov) or a navy midshipman retired with tuberculosis (Heinlein) or even an English graduate working in a laundry and writing in his spare time (Stephen King back in the day) would find it hard to break into this cosy world of writing professionals, polishing their prose to a high gloss, publishing each other in their little journals and awarding each other prizes. Writers used to have some life apart from writing or at least had one before success. They had been doctors or biology professors or secret agents. If you go from school to writing degree to teaching writing might you not be too immersed in the stuff of fiction rather than the stuff of life? The other thing is that the general public don’t buy this sort of thing. They buy the three volume fantasy novels with swords and elves and a hero who overcomes obstacles and gets changed by his troubles. I fear the fantasy short story has left the general reader behind, perhaps forever. Too bad.

A negative review is a perfectly normal and natural thing in the publishing world. And I don’t really need to defend Thomas Glave—one of our finest writers, and someone whose stories that address political repression and prejudice are incredibly brave and unique. Nor do I have the time, because it would take a whole day, to unravel the stupid in these paragraphs.

But I do have to point out that when you promote a mentality of “us against them” this is the kind of bullshit you are going to get in your reviews. A disgustingly simple binary that negates all of the complexity and beauty of fiction and of individual writers from vastly different traditions.