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Review: All the Birds, Singing by Evie Wyld

Jeff VanderMeer • July 2nd, 2014 • Book Reviews

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I picked up Evie Wyld’s All the Birds, Singing on a whim, because I liked the cover design and the tone of the review quotes on the back. I didn’t know anything about the author, and it wasn’t until I was about three-fourths of the way through that I discovered she’d won a lot of literary prizes for the novel. All I knew by then is that Wyld deserved all of those prizes.

I can count on one hand the number of novels I’ve read in the last couple of years where the prose is truly exceptional and the author’s vision has both clarity and substance. In All the Birds, Singing Wyld creates an unforgettable character in Jake Whyte, a woman with a troubled past who, in the present, lives on a farm she owns on a remote British island. The story of her encounters with a strange beast and neighbors she wants nothing to do with is interwoven with a narrative about the past that gradually delves farther and farther back in time.

We learn that Whyte knows a lot about how to shear and care for sheep, a job she’s taken up again by choice in her isolation on the island. We learn that she grew up in Australia and in fleeing her past she got a job at a sheep station in Australia. The scenes in which she is navigating a landscape full of men, many of whom don’t trust her, are riveting and contain brilliant moments of character insight. All of the secondary characters come to life with deft, economical precision, and the bustling sheep station provides a great early contrast to the isolation of Whyte’s life on the island.

But the contrast between these scenes and the ones in the present isn’t just expressed through a shift in tense—the past cleverly presented in present tense—it’s also in the atmosphere. Whyte’s subtle but adept in how the island scenes are slowed by cold and mud while those in Australia are alive with heat; the syntax shifts and adjusts to fit the setting. This is in part a function of conscious thought about style by the author and in part due to first-hand knowledge of both landscapes…or at least this is my impression; perhaps Wyld’s just a really good liar about details of setting.

Wyld’s also not afraid to just give the reader the blunt, brutal truth. There are aspects of Whyte’s past—because of what’s been done to her and what she herself has done—that you get full-on, in detail. To describe them here would be spoilery, in that the life of the novel is in the moment and in the particulars of sometimes fairly brief scenes. But my point is that we begin the novel with a mystery about Whyte—who she is and why she’s now on the island— and on some level the rest of All the Birds, Singing is nothing but exploration of her character, a kind of clear-seeing that creates empathy even through the most disturbing sequences.

The writing in the novel is muscular without being lush or overly descriptive; Wyld knows how to pick her spots so that everything we get counts. A bicep on a scrawny man bulges like “a new potato” during an arm-wrestling contest. Recalling a horrible encounter, Whyte feels like “wax is coating me from the inside.” Trees in a moment of tension “appeared to swell and shrink with the rhythm of breath,” which is perfectly placed after a description of birds rising out of the trees and then settling back in that reinforces the illusion.

As All the Birds, Singing progresses, it’s true that the evocations of the past aren’t always as fresh or new as at the novel’s start—and the conclusion feels much more like stopping than ending, perhaps in part because no matter whether a mystery is about a dead body or a living one the reveal can’t be as compelling as the set-up.

But the clear-eyed self-appraisal present throughout, the evocations of island life and Whyte’s interactions with a mysterious man who shows up at her farm, the utterly stunning set-piece involving her home town and a tragedy…all of these elements have softened my slight disappointment at the end to the point where all I remember are the brilliant things about this novel. Especially in a context where Wyld gives the reader such a memorable, unique, strong-yet-flawed woman as her viewpoint character.

In short, All the Birds, Singing now makes me want to read everything Wyld has ever written.

Southern Reach Spanish Book Covers: An Interview with Pablo Delcán

Jeff VanderMeer • June 9th, 2014 • Culture, Uncategorized

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(Finished covers)

One of the great pleasures of seeing the Southern Reach trilogy in print has been the ingenuity and sophistication of the foreign language editions. Among the absolute best of the many versions are Destino’s covers for the Spanish editions. Destino commissioned artist and designer Pablo Delcan to create these covers, which capture the surreal vibe of the novels as well as the theme of transformation running through the narrative.

I caught up with Delcan via email this month to ask him about how he created these striking images, and to share with readers some early versions. You can experience more of his amazing work at his website. Spanish readers can also check out the Destino Southern Reach webpage and also check out updates on twitter @_SouthernReach.

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Tactile Interlude: Salt

Jeff VanderMeer • May 30th, 2014 • Fiction

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From a work in progress…

Pink Rose Salt (Andes) is too delicate to be mournful, yet presented as a defiant rock, so that you must work to break off its plaintiveness and in that struggle realize you were wrong all along.

Maldon Sea Salt is deceptive in its raucous and rowdy shouting–it wants to punch you in the shoulder and gift you with a golden retriever and kick the ball around, and yet has a hidden core of vulnerability.

Sel Au Vin (Cotignac) carries memories of some long-ago cabernet sauvignon cut through by a bitterness that dissolves into a bold and assertive independence, before, finally, revealing at its core a remote and eviscerating solitude.

Oak Smoked Chardonnay Salt juxtaposes accents of delicate charcoal with the ancient and wise puzzles released from the wood, creating a kind of laid-back tall tale on the palate.

Yet Hickory Smoked Sea Salt has a swagger that makes the Oak Smoked seem stodgy and provincial–like a novelist who’s only good at describing one particular wooded lot in Pennsylvania. Hickory Smoked is lurching solid on the deck of a boat and reeling in the nets and then going out drinking late at bars. Rinse. Repeat.

Polish Rock Salt is quarry-sound, practical and trust-worthy, with not a hint of deviousness right through to the clean aftertaste.

Hawaiian Pink is the aftermath of a dive into the sea around noon, punctuated by seeing a parrot fish, then crawling back onto the beach, lounging under a hat, hoping for a f—ing beer not seen in commercials but not getting it.

Pinot Noir Flake Salt sits like coral on the tongue, cuts to the back of the throat, recedes into a delicate froth and memories of a short story by Boris Vian.

Black Truffle Sea Salt has a richness that begs to be tasted grain by grain, descending to the tongue by way of a golden set of tweezers, perhaps crafted during the early Renaissance and acquired by Catherine the Great; too much and you’ll be lost forever.

Oh for the love of god I need water.

Finnish Weird: It’s the Hot New Thing from the Cold Place

Jeff VanderMeer • May 28th, 2014 • Book Reviews, Culture

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(Oh–there it is. Finnish Weird. Popping up amongst the ‘shrooms.)

Finnish Weird now has a fruiting body: a one-off magazine that allows you to sample some of the best examples of this delectably strange Nordic truffle. Download these infectious spores or enjoy them right there online.

In addition to iconic Finnish writer Johanna Sinisalo’s editorial, “Rare Exports,” Finnish Weird includes an essay “Finnish Weird From the Land of the North” by Jussi K. Niemela and features Emmi Itaranta, Jenny Kangasvuo, and Tiina Raevaara. Fiction and interviews and essays all come with a great visual presentation, too.

Mentioned in the nonfiction is It Came From the North, an anthology of the Finnish fantastic edited by Desirina Boskovich from our own Cheeky Frawg Books. In honor of Finnish weird, we’ve discounted it for Kindle to $2.99 for one week only. If you’d prefer a different seller, we recommend Weightless (although we can’t discount that version).

So go read Finnish Weird and check out It Came From the North if you’re so inclined.

It Came from the North--Finnish Fiction

Annihilation: The Questions a Translator Asks

Jeff VanderMeer • May 25th, 2014 • Writing Tips

Having been involved as a publisher and as an editor in commissioning translations, I know what a difficult job it can be—and how the best translators are seeking a kind of truth about the words and the work so that they can convey it properly.

Every once in a while I’ll get questions about my novels from a translator commissioned by a foreign language publisher. I value these interactions because translators have to be careful readers. I tend to learn something about my own work. Sometimes, too, a translator will find an error, which I can then correct in the English-language editions.

Recently, Cristiana Mennella, the translator for the Italian edition of Annihilation, emailed me a series of questions. She needed, she said, to “make sure that I got everything right to do justice” to the book. While completing translations “all sorts of doubts come to mind…I don’t know if other translators do the same as me (meaning: are a nuisance like me), but I really need to get attuned to your writing as much as I can, also in anticipation of Authority…”

It’s not a nuisance at all, but a blessing—as it is any time you get to correspond with someone immersed in something you’ve written.

But I did think it might be interesting to readers to have a sense of what questions translators ask. So, with Mennella’s permission, you’ll find the bulk of her questions and my replies set out below.

Mennella has previously translated works by Edgar Allan Poe, Kathy Acker, William Vollman, George Saunders, Doris Lessing, and many more, so I believe I’m in good hands.

Annihilation and the rest of the Southern Reach trilogy will be published by Einaudi in Italy.


(Mennella)

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Star Wars: The Crazed Gruntbark Nesting Dolls Version

Jeff VanderMeer • May 25th, 2014 • Nonfiction

Popular Mechanics asked a number of writers, including me, for our thoughts on what the next Stars Wars movie should be–and you can read their thoughts here.

Mine, on the other hand, were too revolutionary and way too subversive to make it into the feature. As a practicing curmudgeon, and someone fairly ambivalent about the Star Wars franchise in general, I wasn’t too surprised or at all concerned about this development. BUT the truth must be told. So, here’s my idea for the next Star Wars movie in all of its amazing glory…GRUNTBARK MUST HAVE HIS DAY!

***

A worm-hole in time opens up and the actions of the resistance result in Ewoks never existing. Meanwhile, a resurrected Darth Vader, cloned from a ham hock and a piece of loose scrotal skin, becomes obsessed with mazes and builds a death star around another death star, and then puts a death star around the outside of that, replicating this action until it threatens to encompass the known universe. The resistance must stop Scrotal Ham Vader from surrounding them with a death star from which they can never get out. This leads to a huge battle that features dozens of Vader replicants that have been deployed on the various death stars in place of the ineffectual storm-troopers. Only Chewbacca’s great-great grandson Gruntbark can find the secret celestial sentient light saber foretold of old, the knowledge obtained from a message sent from the past by Yoda on an ancient un-hackable 8-track cassette. As a new horror concocted by Vader—mobile, roving garbage compacters—crushes rebels left and right as they try to delay the expansion of the death stars, the fate of the universe hangs in the balance.

Haunted by Rabbits: the Southern Reach and Authority–What’s the Big Idea?

Jeff VanderMeer • May 8th, 2014 • Writing Tips

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Over at John Scalzi’s blog, I’ve got a Big Idea post talking about how you haunt a novel. Apparently, it involves Stanley Kubrick, thousands of white rabbits, and you. You can also eyeball a great original piece commissioned for the feature: a bunny experiment diagram by Jeremy Zerfoss of Wonderbook fame.

The conspiracy theorists in Room 237 so firmly believed their version of the truth that I began to think at times that their ideas might have merit. But my own personal obsession with the documentary mostly concerned perception and technique. For example, in Kubrick’s slow fades as he cuts away to the next scene you often see characters and places coming into contact for a brief moment…hauntings created by juxtaposition. There’s also a scene in the movie with a television playing in the middle of a room…but the television has no cord, impossible for the time period. Watching The Shining, you may not consciously notice the lack of a cord, but your subconscious goes on red alert. Something is wrong, even if you can’t put your finger on it.

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Eric Nyquist and the Southern Reach Series

Jeff VanderMeer • May 2nd, 2014 • Nonfiction

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One of the great joys of having the Southern Reach novels out from FSG has been their commissioning art from Eric Nyquist, with great design work by Charlotte Strick. This week that joy was amplified by getting a kind gift from Eric of one of his original prints and a journal with the interior art from my novel Acceptance on the outside; I’ll be writing my next piece of fiction in this journal, for sure.

The same day, I received from FSG advance reader copies of Acceptance, with his wonderful art. The fresh, clean, crisp, and yet complex nature of this art and the interior front-back cover illustrations has, I think, played a major role in how readers perceive the series. It gives them an entry point that is intriguing and different, but not off-putting.

Two of the interior pieces, pictured below, have been chosen by the best-of anthology American Illustration, as well. And to my mind, the cover of Authority (here as animated gif) is a thing of inspired absurd beauty that perfectly undermines the title, as intended. Authority is out May 6, riding some momentum from being on best-of-month and week lists (like PW’s) and I’m glad that Eric’s art will help readers connect with the novel. While also having its own separate integrity.

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Michael Cisco Novels–Now Available as Cheeky Frawg Summer Reading E-Books

Jeff VanderMeer • September 10th, 2013 • Culture, News

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This month our Cheeky Frawg press released our 2013 Weird Summer Beach Reading E-books…all four of them by the American Kafka, Michael Cisco.

You can buy them at Amazon, or through either of these two preferred vendors (direct links):

Weightless Books

Wizard’s Tower (which is also offering all four at a special rate)

And if you go over to Weirdfictionreview.com, you’ll find we’re serializing The Divinity Student and generally having a celebration of Cisco. Part 1 of the Divinity Student and Ann VanderMeer’s appreciation as well as a general editorial.

The Divinity Student
The International Horror Guild Award-winning novel that launched the career of a writer sometimes described as “the American Kafka.” Struck by lightning, resurrected, cut open, and stuffed full of arcane documents, the Divinity Student is sent to the desert city of San Veneficio to reconstruct the Lost Catalog of Unknown Words. He learns to pick the brains of corpses and gradually sacrifices his sanity on the altar of a dubious mission of espionage. The divinity student’s strange adventures will haunt the reader long after finishing this unique and exciting novel. As Publishers Weekly wrote, “Cisco wields words in sweeping, sensual waves, skillfully evoking multiple layers of image and metaphor. Though his novel is brief, it is a gem of literate dark fantasy, concisely illustrating the power, both light and dark, of words and meaning.” Recommended for fans of Clive Barker, Thomas Ligotti, Gemma Files, Kafka, Leonora Carrington and other masters of weird fiction. With an introduction by Hugo and World Fantasy Award winner Ann VanderMeer.

The Golem
Struck by lightning, resurrected, cut open, and stuffed full of arcane documents, the Divinity Student constructs a golem replacement to pursue his love underground, with lyrical consequences. As Publishers Weekly wrote, “Cisco wields words in sweeping, sensual waves, skillfully evoking multiple layers of image and metaphor.” Recommended for fans of Clive Barker, Thomas Ligotti, Gemma Files, Kafka, Leonora Carrington and other masters of weird fiction. With an introduction by Paul Tremblay.

The Tyrant
From the author of the award-winning The Divinity Student comes an audacious dark novel detailing a battle in a phantasmagorical hell. Full of amazing scenes and images, The Tyrant has become a cult classic of weird fiction. Recommended for fans of Clive Barker, Thomas Ligotti, Kafka, Leonora Carrington and other surreal masters. “Michael Cisco’s works immerse the reader in worlds that are not simply dreamlike in the quality of their imagination but somehow manage to capture and convey the power of the dream itself. The Tyrant is his masterpiece.” — Thomas Ligotti. With an introduction by Rhys Hughes.

The Traitor
As Publishers Weekly writes, “Cisco (The Tyrant) ups the ante for provocative dark fantasy by giving this coming-of-age tale a subtle metaphysical edge. While still a boy, sensitive Nophtha realizes that he’s uncommonly empathetic and able to see the world from the perspective of others. Tutored by his uncle, Nophtha apprentices as an itinerant spirit eater, or someone who absorbs lingering ghosts that congest the surrounding atmosphere and converts their essence into formidable healing powers. One day, Nophtha crosses paths with his alter ego, Wite, a soul burner who hopes to evolve to a higher level of being by gorging himself on the souls of the living.” Things get worse from there. Recommended for fans of Clive Barker, Thomas Ligotti, Gemma Files, Kafka, Leonora Carrington and other masters of weird fiction. With an introduction by Jeffrey Ford.

Resurrection House and Night Shade

Jeff VanderMeer • September 10th, 2013 • Culture

Writer Beware just posted something about Resurrection House. This is a kind of supplementary post. Writer Beware has a lot of the relevant Night Shade links. I would preface my remarks with the statement that I have nothing but love and respect for my fellow writers and editors. I am proud to be a part of a vibrant and lively publishing ecosystem.

Recently Mark Teppo created Resurrection House, a new publishing company aimed at recruiting new, up-and-coming authors. What isn’t as clear from the website, although it is in a private post that Teppo put on the Night Shade message boards, is that Jason Williams, one of the founders and operators of Night Shade has been hired as an editor there. Now, Teppo says Williams is not an investor in the company—although he won’t say who the investors are—and that Resurrection House was not created while Night Shade was imploding and authors were having to decide on taking lesser terms and in general suffering a lot of stress because of Night Shade’s poor planning and decision-making. (Teppo, meanwhile, was a Night Shade author.) What is also clear is that Williams is no longer with Skyhorse, the company that acquired Night Shade; I have no information on why. (And this post is *not* about Skyhorse—I do not know much about them and have only had communication with them that I would consider professional and courteous.)

So let’s talk about Night Shade a bit…Depending on which Night Shade author you talk to, NS was guilty of lesser or greater sins. Some didn’t get paid. Some didn’t get paid and suffered a lot of passive-aggressive behavior. Some didn’t get paid and had to threaten lawsuits and received crappy, unprofessional behavior. And yet others got paid, didn’t suffer any or hardly any unprofessional behavior. With the result that a whole bunch of writers, none of whom had everyone else’s story at hand, projected in tweets, facebook messages, and blog entries varied impressions of why Night Shade was in trouble and what should be done about it. Some defended Night Shade and others did not based on their own experience. Ann and I, for example, decided never again to deal with Night Shade after doing our pirate anthology with them—despite getting paid. Ann was treated at best rudely by Night Shade and at worst in a sexist way—that project became a living hell for her. Basic things that should be done with a book, like sending out ARCs, were not done and we wound up publishing ARCs ourselves to try to salvage the situation. The book tanked in part because of Night Shade’s negligence—although Ann says “Night Shade didn’t really neglect the pirate anthology as much as they made a conscious decision to not promote it. This was their MO, to not promote certain books they bought.” When we heard about other people’s experiences with NS, some of which were much worse, this solidified our opinion. (We’d had a prior negative experience with Night Shade when they published our Ministry of Whimsy books for a while, but at the time we had been willing to put it down to personality clash and two book cultures that were not compatible.)

Next, let’s talk about SFWA…What does seem clear is that SFWA probably didn’t follow best practices in trying to monitor and correct Night Shade’s behavior. They put Night Shade on probation, then took them off in part based on information received from Night Shade that may not have been correct—or at least needed to be better researched and not taken on face value. At the very least, for example, if you poke around on the inside of the publishing industry you’ll find varying accounts of why Night Shade lost a key distributor. Writers were still owed money at that point, too. Meanwhile, writers like myself didn’t post about our experiences because we assumed (and were relieved to assume) that SFWA was on top of it all…although the fact it got to such a crisis point seems to indicate they weren’t really on top of it in a meaningful way. But I am not privy to the inner workings of SFWA so I can’t know their deliberation process—and that, perhaps, is a bit of a problem: transparency levels seem to need to shift a bit or be thought about more fully. Otherwise, individual writers take the brunt of “whistle-blowing” and don’t benefit from the umbrella protection of an organization like SFWA.

My point in writing this post, which I did not want to have to write because it would be useful if an organization existed out there that could provide transparency in these kinds of situations…my point is simply to say: a founder of Night Shade is now an editor at Resurrection House. And that writers should know this, should look around the internet for information on Night Shade, and then should form their own opinion on whether Resurrection House is a publisher they want to send their manuscripts to. Without knowing the history, and the debate, and with it not being clear from Resurrection House’s website at this time that Jason Williams is on board with this press, it seems like there needs to be some public note about this.

But a larger point cropped up while talking about this on twitter. Steven Gould, president of SFWA, tweeted on his personal twitter account that rumors were false that Resurrection House had been raising funds while Night Shade was imploding and writers were suffering a lot of stress and financial difficulties because of it—i.e., the possibility that a Night Shade founder had been actively involved in a new company while the old one had become so dysfunctional. When I asked him how he knew this, he replied that he had asked Teppo and Teppo had told him it wasn’t true. And then Gould had tweeted, without sourcing the info until I asked him to. (Gould wasn’t SFWA president during the Night Shade debacle, btw.)

I hope it’s clear why it is problematic that Gould simply received information from Teppo and then retweeted it, without any attempt at a fact check. It’s not that I have any opinion on whether Teppo provided accurate information or not. I really don’t, and I’m *not* saying Teppo provided inaccurate info. It’s that no documentation was asked for. Now, could Teppo reasonably be expected to provide such documentation? There might be reasons why he might not, but Gould’s approach, to me, just reflects that SFWA does not have best practices in place when it comes to these kinds of situations. Let me say also that if Gould thought he was acting not as president but just as a writer, you should still apply best practices to such situations.

I think any reasonable person would hope the best for a new publisher, so long as they treat their writers well. I think one would also think that SFWA could be a better watchdog in all of this as well. I do not know if they conducted any kind of internal review of their practices and made adjustments afterwards because, again, just about everything related to these kinds of issues is done either privately or through the SFWA messageboards, which are restricted to SFWA members. But when SFWA backs a plan, like the one that made the shift to Skyhorse, it affects more than just SFWA members. Which is another reason secrecy becomes an issue.

The point here is not to blame anyone for this situation. The point is that in these kinds of situations organizations *must* have best practices in place so that individuals do not have to come up with proper procedures or to exhibit individual heroics to get to the desired result. Which is always: to protect writers, to nurture writers, to make sure writers don’t bear the brunt of things like this…


For the record, I was a member of SFWA for a year over a decade ago, but did not renew my membership. I have no plans to become a member.

Also, we have nothing but good things to say about every other publisher we have worked with over the last 20 years.
Comments are closed because I have a novel to finish and not enough time to moderate, etc.