I am in New Hampshire at the moment, with a short break hanging out at Matt Cheney’s house before driving on to Newport and then to Richmond, Virginia, with the goal of winding up in Spartanburg, South Carolina, by Friday—in preparation for teaching at the Shared Worlds teen SF/F writing camp for two weeks.
Stonecoast: Memory and Fantasy
It’s been an eventful and fun time on the road thus far. I started out in Maine, giving a presentation at the Stonecoast MFA program and then doing a reading that night. I had a wonderful time. The Stonecoast house is near the water and the grounds are lovely. I stepped out of the car and all of the stress in my body just left me…and then came back as I came to realize we wouldn’t be able to print the notes to my presentation. But someone—someone miraculous whose name I’ve lost—managed to do a kind of split screen thing where the slides showed up for the audience and my notes, on the same computer, just showed up for me…
The presentation was on Memory, History, and Fantasy: Urban Landscapes and Characterization, focusing on my novel Finch—basically swooping down from an eagle-eye view to a street-level view to talk about the ways in which characterization and settings interact. It’s not presented like Finch is the be-all and end-all, as that would be presumptuous, and indeed I told the audience that what I was about to show them was predicated on an ideal of the novel, including thoughts I’d had about it since publication. Since it was an MFA group, I thought I’d just bring it re the complexity and have the visual element and some bullet point lists strewn throughout help make it not too dense.
One of the central ideas of the presentation is that spaces and buildings are not neutral, inert things in novels—or shouldn’t always been seen as such. That in fact structures are important opportunities in fiction, related to characterization. I tie this into the following idea, a note from the presentation: “Everything we see around us, whether functional or decorative, once existed in someone’s imagination. Every building, every fixture, every chair, every table, every vase, every road, every toaster. The world we live in is largely a manifestation of many individual and collective imaginations applied to the task of altering reality.” I like to pull back to the abstract level here because it helps the audience to envision these elements as not inert but as kinetic and alive at the level of idea and metaphor.
Related to all of this is memory not just as a basic tool for characterization but as an act of defiance or survival—to hold the past in your head so it is not entirely replaced by an oppressive present. And how history manifests in the layering of contexts with regard to buildings and other spaces in a city. And then how this affects characterization. In the context of Finch, this relates to the Occupiers of a failed city/state trying to impose their version of events on the populace through: Re/Construction, Renovation, and Transformation. All of which are tied to specific types of technique and effect in fiction. What I try to get at in this section is that fantasy has a huge capacity to encompass literalized metaphor in interesting ways, and to show the layering of time not just as a physical manifestation but as a mental one.
I then show this slide, with the title The Perfection of Imperfect Comprehension.
Which comes with the following thoughts:
A renovation can imply an augmentation or improvement, and it is one of the Occupier’s failures in Finch to provide “enhancements” for the police force and the general populace that don’t, in fact, augment or improve. For example, in the police station, the Occupiers have supplemented telephones with “memory holes,” which are the ends of living pneumatic tubes leading to the underground. The dynamic here is another common one. Either through cultural, religious, or technological differences, Occupiers sometimes often provide what they think are benign objects, or renovations to the populace, only to find out later that they have made a massive, almost inexplicable mistake. It’s a very dark joke, peeking out through the surface of the text: the gray caps’ find this method of communication ordinary, standard, non-threatening—it is a non-issue. But to Finch and the others who have to use these enhancements, the experience is horrific and alien, and causes extreme discomfort.
–I call this slide the “Perfection of Imperfect Comprehension” because that is exactly the goal. To find those opportunities to show and exploit for fictional gain the ways in which different operational realities slide off of each other—the ways in which they do not connect.
–When in fiction we match up too perfectly the meeting points between cultures or differing world-views, we make assumptions that can degrade the quality of our fiction—and we miss opportunities for further complexity. The kind of complexity that organically creates conflict, characterization, and more specificity of detail.
–Said another way, a seamless landscape and a seamless harmony of ideas intertwined as the backdrop to the events in a novel can be a sign that not enough thought has been put into the elements of the setting/milieu. Surely if there is conflict in the foreground, between characters, then it is possible that elements of the setting may also be conflict in some way?
This ties in, eventually, to another idea about fiction: that it can do a lot at the cellular level if the writer is aware of the opportunities:
What I mean is that many of these elements are creating miniature explosions of action-and-reaction at the paragraph and sentence level because our not-hero Finch must reaction to them, have an opinion about them—they are not abstractions, but, given flesh, things that must be dealt with in some way.
–They also have a kind of autonomy, in that they are meant to stand out from the text surrounding them. Some of these elements can even be said in some small, sentence-level way to be inhabiting the novel as characters. What do I mean by that?
–Remember how I’ve talked about objects and buildings and cities can be thought of as merely the physical manifestations of thought—of our imaginations? Well, in an allied way, it is useful to think of objects and things embedded in your narrative as characters, too. Which is to say, that they have their own stories and agendas at the abstract level of narrative. Paying attention to the possibility in these stories is closely allied to characterization generally.
–Even just in the very crude sense of the conflict I’ve already mentioned—that the character can’t consider these elements just part of a flat tapestry of a backdrop, but must react.
–This kind of energy can be said to create motion at the micro level in fiction—and this kind of motion is important because it generates interest and can compensate for lack of motion at the macro level, in places where lack of motion is important.
–I use the term “charged” to describe images sometimes, to encapsulate that sense of motion and of spark or energy. A “charged image” is an image that at base may some psychological or symbolic resonance, but in general it has a kind of odd life beyond its presence as part of the setting or part of the character’s possessions. Most times, these images come from our subconscious, and it is our job once we see them on the page in a rough draft to sculpt them so they reach their full potential.
And so on and so forth. I think it went pretty well, but that assessment is really in the eye of the beholder. This is the beginning of a process, too, in that presentations like this accrete and change for me over time. I did then reward the students for having to experience such a dire place as Ambergris while being in such a beautiful setting by giving them a brief preview of the Wonderbook writing book, showing them some of Jeremy Zerfoss’s amazing layouts.
Then it was off to talk to the students and to have dinner by the lake with the always wonderful David Anthony Durham and more students, before going off to the reading. It was a packed house at the Brunswick Inn, as I think a lot of Stonecoast alumni were in town. There were some fine readings, and Erin Underwood (who also read) then gave a really kind and glowing intro, after which I read a section from my novel in progress “Borne.” As always, I got choked up reading the last part of the selection, but the audience was forgiving, and I had a lot of people excited to read the whole thing. All of this then followed by joining some students and faculty/admin at an Irish pub playing karaoke…and experienced one of the most awesome things ever: Mur Lafferty and student Karen Bovenmyer going up to do an amazing version of Weird Al’s Amish Paradise. I just about fell out of my chair.
Anyway, Stonecoast was great, and I’d go back in a heartbeat if they’d have me.
Interlude: The Maine Coast
So, the next day, Friday, I was due at ReaderCon by around 5pm, and thus decided going up and then back down the coast of Maine was possible before entering the feverish confines of a convention. Adam Mills was with me—a Stonecoast alum and Weird Fiction Review’s managing editor—and it was nice to get a chance to know him better. We drove up to Belfast and then came down through (I think) Lincolnville, before stopping for lunch at the nice little town of Camden. We chose a bayside seafood restaurant and I thought what the heck: I’ll have a full-on boiled lobster for the first time. I’m in Maine, let me get the clichéd tourist experience out of the way…since often those experiences are cliché for a reason. Well, let me tell you, that was like some kind of horror show playing out on my plate. It was like getting up to your elbows in some insane bug. Cracking things open and green stuff oozing out, and just basically trying to dismember this effin’ alien before the gross factor won out and terminated the attempt. All in all, a shudder-inducing experience. And I was so bad at trying to deal with it, that the waitress finally lost patience and came over and expertly finished the dissection/autopsy. (As far as I can tell, it died from looking in the mirror.) Yes, it was delicious, and I agree: it is all my fault…
All in all the drive was very nice—the area reminded me in some ways of the British Columbia coastline, especially on Vancouver Island, and I spotted several areas I’d like to return to with Ann.
We arrived at ReaderCon about half an hour before my reading—just enough time to check in and for me to get my ass over to the reading room. I read from Annihilation, my just-finished novel, and I just want to thank everyone who came. I had a packed house, and when you’re going to read from new material, that you’ve never read from before, or even read aloud to yourself, that’s a huge plus. Sometimes, I think that preparation is a bad idea, if that makes sense, which it might not. For some reason, I wanted to experience Annihilation without any rehearsal beforehand. So I just lit into it, and was really happy—and somewhat surprised—to find that the style of the novel works very well read aloud. The audience reacted in the right ways throughout, and I just had a great time with it. I was pleased when Elizabeth Hand and several others told me much later how much she’d liked it. Since I write a novel about every three or four years, I always re-emerge with the new one and the publishing landscape has changed and the audience has changed somewhat, and you’re not sure if you’re still relevant or even doing something interesting, so there’s some uncertainty. And at the end, some of the great people working on Booklifenow were kind enough to give me this flask with the booklifenow logo on it—very thoughtful.
Then it was off to a panel on estrangement versus recognition in fiction (based on something China Mieville said awhile back and has probably already recanted), which turned out to be really good—in part because the moderator, Lila Garret, knew what she was doing—and because the other panelists, Chris Nakashima-Brown, Anil Menon, Greer Gilman, and Paul Witcover, all had interesting ways of interpreting the idea of the panel. Honestly, it was the panel I thought had the most possibility to fall flat on its face, and it didn’t happen. My own contributions were fairly random: suggesting M. John Harrison rewrite the novelization of E.T., using an example from Finch and then later from The Weird to talk about what estrangement means and why it is wedded to recognition, sometimes in the same paragraph and sentence, talking about how Tiptree is a good example of an author that starts with the reader out there, and then by story’s end leaves you out there, an anecdote about being preconditioned to experience a flash of brown in the wilderness as a deer and having my mind blown when on a first hike in Australia that flash was a kangaroo instead…The general consensus at the end was that the terms didn’t work in opposition, for what it’s worth, but it’s really the journey to get there that was interesting.
An interlude followed for an impromptu Thai meal in Michael Cisco’s room, engineered by Sonya Taaffe & Co., for which I was very thankful given the small amount of time I and others had for dinner. Not much time to talk, but to begin to get a sense of people I hadn’t met before or had only spoken to in passing before.
Then I had a panel on Nigerian writer Amos Tutuola with Michael Swanwick (the moderator), John H. Stevens, Michael Cisco, and Sarah Smith. It was mostly a loving appreciation of why we all liked Tutuola’s work, along with some valuable insight from the audience in the form of Matthew Cheney’s comments about the reception to Tutuola’s work initially and how much editing was done on it, etc. I asked Cheney, too, if he thought that at least some of the controversy over Tutuola in Nigeria at the start was one of those more insidious effects of colonialism: it makes the colonized second-guess legitimate expressions of their own culture. (You can read an excerpt from his most famous work here.)
My own contribution was just to talk about the collection our own Cheeky Frawg has coming out on Tutuola (Don’t Pay Bad for Bad), my interactions with the estate, aspects of the interview I did with Tutuola’s son for Weirdfictionreview.com, and what I would call “the literature of acceleration” that Tutuola represents, as well as how he fits into the weird canon, and what that means in terms of recontextualization. (I also got to talk about a great story in the collection, which is basically about this baby entering someone’s home and beating the crap out of everybody and trashing the place!) It went well enough, although I was getting a little tired of one panelist going on about the mystical properties of the African bush, especially also given that Tutuola’s images and themes don’t seem beholden to some love-song to the wilderness and he liked to hang out with academics and, you know, his son is an engineer. Etc. Et al. You know what I’m saying. But all in all, it was good to see this one-off phantasmagorical writer get some attention at ReaderCon.
The Meet the Pros party occurred right thereafter, and despite being hard of hearing in large groups, I managed to have a conversation with the excellent writer Ben Loorey, a brief minute or two with Stephen Graham Jones, and a few others, including my first time meeting Caitlin R. Kiernan. But in general, it was just too hard to have a conversation in there, so after giving out my story quotes—writers were asked for a phrase from their work to put on a sheet of stickers—I got out of there. The rest of the night was uneventful from a long-view perspective, despite some ripples in the localized temporal plane, and I wound up having a wonderful conversation about weird fiction and literature generally with Matthew Cheney, Eric Schaller, and Michael Cisco in Cisco’s hotel room, to the accompaniment of some smooth scotch. The only discouraging news was to hear that Clarkesworld’s Neil Clarke had had a heart-attack the prior day—really unexpected and horrible—but was glad to hear he was apparently already recovering.
Saturday I had breakfast with Anil Menon, which was great since I’d never had a chance to talk to him before—I love his nonfiction, and he’s finishing up a novel he’s planning on selling to a publisher in India. I thought it was interesting that in India a science fiction novel will be marketed just as fiction, not in a special category.
Saturday was also a kaffeelatch (or however you spell it) opposite Samuel Delany, so I brought props to even things out: the alien baby, copies of Jagannath, and images from Wonderbook from my computer—as well as a squid anecdote or two. It was actually a fun hour of conversation, although you always feel like you talked too much at these things, although that’s part of the point. (On the elevator up I finally spoke more than two words to Gary Wolfe, the start of a promising conversation ended by our needing to be in different places immediately thereafter.)
[These next paragraphs are the kind of personal aside that may make your eyes glaze over, so skip ahead as necessary.]
Following that, I had to make a foray into the wider world because of my shirt situation, having bled over three shirts in the past couple of days. I cut myself on the thumb while waiting to disembark from the plane in Maine, in a weird place—it wasn’t a huge cut, but it geysered up a bit, and having nothing to stanch it, I wound up drinking my own blood for a bit, before the woman next to me on the airplane offered her airline blanket. “No,” I replied, a little tired, and not thinking about what I was saying, “that would be gross.” Given we hadn’t spoken before that, the context wasn’t quite right and she misunderstood me. I’d meant it would be gross to bleed all over an airline blanket. Once we got that sorted, someone behind me offered up some Kleenex, which I applied before realizing they were sopping wet with something. And something I hoped was inherent to the Kleenex or was just water. Oh well, whatever it was, it didn’t kill me. But the cut kept bleeding and by the time I reached Stonecoast I’d destroyed two shirts by accident. At Stonecoast, I stupidly swatted at mosquitoes landed on my shirt, which is more or less like smashing little bloodbags onto your clothes.
So it was now time to go visit the mall and get some new clothes (no time to wash out blood, alas), and I wound up spending a horrible time in Macy’s and outside of Macy’s. As it turned out, I’d entered through a smaller door that was not visible from inside of Macy’s, so I wound up going out the wrong way and then wandering the parking lot like some kind of moron in the blazing heat for the better part of an hour, looking for my car. There were a few surreal moments when I thought for sure that I was just going to never find my car, and I would die and at some point some child would see my sun-burnished skeleton sticking out from under a fender.
Returned to the con, I did an interview for Hour of the Wolf and then just frankly slept in my room from the effects of the parking lot heat, before prepping for the Wold Newton Reading Extravaganza that evening, which was hosted by Eric Rosenfeld, and consisted of me, Jo Walton, Jaym Gates, Matthew Kressel, Veronica Schanoes, and Daniel José Older reading our work for six minutes each to the accompaniment of music by Brian Slattery and his band—their goal to match the mood of our readings. It’s actually a pretty difficult assignment, and having been told of the six minute deadline, I was frantically chopping bits from my reading selection to make sure I’d have enough time. I wound up reading the bit in Finch where Wyte pulls a Hulk and then the kind of dying fall of the aftermath. The effect of the music was really interesting, because it made me start to fall into a kind of syncopated, almost beat-poet style, although to be honest that particular section is already in a style that lends itself to a kind of clipped, muscular reading style. So I just went up and gave it my all, and I have no idea if it was interesting, entertaining, or ridiculous. But in such situations, the only rule is: you must commit, and keep committing, and not falter. Better to look stupid than uncertain, frankly. I enjoyed the other readings, and what Slattery’s band did with them.
After that, some of us went out to dinner at an Indian restaurant, including the band members and rising star John Chu (who has a story out in the Boston Review and another one scheduled for Asimov’s) and then came back to go to the bar and see what was going on. I was lucky enough to have a short chance to talk to Brit Mandelo and James Patrick Kelly, among others, before then having a great opportunity to talk with Caitlin Kiernan away from the noise and confusion of parties and bars—along with that scamp Nick Mamatas, Molly Tanzer, Michael Cisco, Geoffrey Goodwin, and more. I didn’t get much of a chance to talk to Sonya Taaffe and Greer Gilman, but I really enjoyed my interactions with both of them and hope to see them more in future. Also, I want to say someone named Andrew Fuller (I’m so bad with names) had some very good stout with him. Conversations Saturday went on until around two in the morning for me, and included many revelations, surprises, and just stuff that was fun.
I was left with a kind of surreal feel about the entire night, but in a good way—surrounded by very genuine, interesting, intelligent people who I was in many cases just happy to just sit back and enjoy. It was nice to not feel I had to be on that much. And I felt very blessed by the end of Saturday at ReaderCon, because the energy was positive and that just energized me more. (As did, frankly, getting enough sleep most nights, not drinking more than an ounce of anything alcoholic, and exercising every morning. I’m just getting too old not to be careful.)
Sunday was the usual dying fall of conventions, starting with a nice breakfast with the multi-talented Nancy Hightower (her fiction is just as awesome as her nonfiction—check it out). Then came the bleary 10 a.m. panel on genre classifications with Daniel Abraham, Kiernan, John Langan, and Ellen Datlow. Considering the hour and the potential snooze-inducing topic, it was fairly interesting. Kiernan talked about having had uncanny things happen like blood fall out of the sky, talking about the distinction between fantasy and reality. I didn’t have a chance to say it, but I’ve had my own uncanny experiences that do in fact affect the perspective in the writing, although I don’t really attribute them to a supernatural element. We didn’t quite get into the similarities between the fantastical and the ecstatic, but did enter into a dialogue similar to that in invoking some aspects of religion. There were vast entanglements of the perspectives we each have as reader as opposed to writer, and then in my case also being an anthology editor, which is a different point of view entirely re classifications. Although some on the panel were against talking about marketing, I tried to point out that in certain situations the marketing begins to drive some interesting creative experiments, although admittedly it doesn’t do so often. And I think I didn’t do the moderator, Abraham, any favors by kind of not answering his questions about what I think I express through my work. To be honest, the experience of writing Annihilation was so completely organic—waking in an almost trance or dream state and writing thousands of words that trying to break down what I write about and how that pertains to genre classifications seemed almost impossible at that point. (If I’m not quoting other panelists, it’s only because I had enough trouble remembering what I said, let alone others.)
Immediately after the panel, the Shirley Jackson Awards were announced, and I really enjoyed the speeches by both guests of honor—Straub and Kiernan—and also by Jackson’s daughter. Unfortunately, I had to duck out almost right after losing in the anthology category to check out of the hotel, which was a very laborious process, and only just made it back to the dealer’s room for my autograph session at Sunday. Gemma Files was also signing, and I was very happy about that, since we had a chance to talk and I hadn’t seen her otherwise at the con, except briefly on Friday. She’s a great writer and along with someone who came up to talk about Shriek, there was also an interesting discussion about horror and dark fantasy in the form of plays, and the constraints of what you can do in that format, along with the opportunities. I wound up stealing Files’ pen at the end—Canadian postal service—but promise to return it at World Fantasy.
Then it was the last round of hello-and-goodbye in the dealer’s room, and had a chance to talk to Jaym Gates, Paula Guran, the folks at ChiZine, among others. Along with all-too-briefly meeting Margaret Ronald, whose work I like a lot. Afterwards, Adam and I hit the road so I could drop him off at his airport hotel and I could go on Matt Cheney’s house to do some research for the feminist SF anthology Ann and I are doing.
I have to say: I hadn’t been to ReaderCon for more than a decade for various reasons, and I enjoyed the heck out of it. Although Ann was at a family reunion and couldn’t make it, I think she agrees that we should try to make it to ReaderCon every year if we possibly can. The panels were interesting and well-moderated, the staff friendly and helpful, the whole thing run with efficiency—even to the point of one of the organizers, Rose Fox, pointing out at the Wold Newton thing that if we didn’t move our chairs back, later readers would be tripping over things (much appreciated)—and it was good to see a lot of people I’ve not seen in a while, and to make new friends. My only regret was that my frenetic schedule meant I didn’t get a chance to go to anyone else’s panels. (One thing you learn early on is to pace yourself, too, so…)
Since then, I’ve been hanging out with that rogue Matthew Cheney and his erstwhile accomplice in flash-mob reckonings and Fluff(tm) procurement Eric Schaller, working on various projects, and finding some interesting things of use for the Feminist SF anthology we’re doing, one of which is this really great anthology entitled Secret Weavers: Stories of the Fantastic by Women of Argentina and Chile. Here’s an excerpt that particularly caught my eye. I have a feeling that this antho will help with some other projects we’re working on, too.
Some mushrooms are born stealthily; some are born in silence; others, with a bit of a shriek, a touch of thunder. Some are white, others pink, that one’s gray and looks like a pigeon, the statue of a pigeon; others can be golden or purple. Each one carries—and this is the awful part—the initial of the dead person it comes from. I don’t dare devour them; that delicate flesh is a relative. But in the afternoon, the mushroom buyer comes along and starts harvesting. My mother gives her permission. He chooses like an eagle. That one, white as sugar, another pink, yet another gray. Mother doesn’t realize she is betraying her race. – from Excerpts from the Wild Papers by Marosa Di Giorgio
I have also been gifted with some bags by Eric Schaller. I expected to be underwhelmed when I heard about this, but they are actually The Bags I Was Always Meant to Carry!, as you can see…
Stay tuned for another update for the road in a few days….