Posts Tagged ‘dark fantasy’
The other week I was asked to contribute to the popular science fiction and fantasy website SF Signal. They have a series called “Mind Meld” where they ask authors and bloggers to answer one question posed to them by the moderator. I participated once before and what I’ve found is that like contributing to the series because I start off unsure if I’ll be able to come up with an answer. Being asked to come up with a short post about something I never would have thought of on my own allows me to stretch my brain. Luckily, both times I’ve been able to come up with a few hundred words.
You can read the entry in full here. There are tons of book suggestions from others and well worth a look. Below is my answer.
Q: What are your favorite “road trips” in science fiction and fantasy? What makes a good road trip in a genre story?
With summer in full swing travel is on the minds of many. Even if you’re staying put, the season conjures up of visions–and perhaps memories–of long car rides to beachfront locations, hours spent with family in close quarters, and days or weeks with only the most necessary amenities. It’s now mid-July and time for the outdoors, open space, and new adventures; a break from the tedium and habits of the day-to-day.
Whether you’re staying home this season or currently packing up your things, all of this makes summer the perfect time for stories featuring road trips. The protagonist is usually shaking off the constraints of everyday life and seeking something new. A good travel story creates a certain suspense that is inevitably propelled forward by the sheer momentum of whatever vehicle is used–a horse, a car, a spaceship. The circumstances set the pace: Is the character in a hurry? are they lost? do they have direction or is it simply an escape?
Growing up in the 90s I was a huge fan of 1960s counterculture. I was into the Grateful Dead and devoured the literature of the time period. With the amount of drugs everyone did, and then wrote about, their books might as well have been categorized as fantasy. From Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas to Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test to Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, these were tales of misadventure and chaos. However entertaining these stories were to me in my teen years, true fantasy and science fiction offers something more than reality is able to provide.
Three books immediately come to mind that, if you haven’t read already, you should pick up before the fall is here. The first is Neil Gaiman’s American Gods. The story begins with a character named Shadow, a man newly released from a three year stint in prison. With his wife recently killed in a car crash he no longer has a reason to go home. Aimless and heartbroken, he accepts a job from a stranger and sets off on a quest across America. What follows is a familiar landscape set slightly askew by fantastically eerie characters based on Norse mythology and a haunting mystery to be uncovered.
Blackbirds by Chuck Wendig is another book that came to mind as I thought about road trips. The protagonist, Miriam Black, has an unfortunate power: she can see the way people will die just by touching them. When Miriam, also an aimless wanderer, hitches a ride with trucker Louis Darling and shakes his hand she sees that they will be together for the next thirty days, for better or worse.
Finally, there’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, undoubtedly the lighter of the three. Hitchhiker’s is the story of Arthur Dent, an unwitting Earthling who is taken away from his planet moments before it’s destroyed. Dent and his saviour, Ford Prefect, travel through the universe encountering dangerous aliens, inhospitable climates, and bad poetry. It’s a true comedy of errors. This unintended exploration of space will make you think twice when you start to complain about your summer vacation.
While realist road trips take you on a ride through lands you might never travel to, their science fiction and fantasy counterparts take you worlds beyond your imagination.
Here are just a few paperbacks coming out in February that have my attention. Tell me what I’ve missed in the comments section.
Why We Write: 20 Acclaimed Authors on How and Why They Do What They Do edited by Meredith Maran
Twenty of America’s bestselling authors share tricks, tips, and secrets of the successful writing life.
Anyone who’s ever sat down to write a novel or even a story knows how exhilarating and heartbreaking writing can be. So what makes writers stick with it? In Why We Write, twenty well-known authors candidly share what keeps them going and what they love most—and least—about their vocation. Read Jennifer Egan’s essay.
18% Gray by Zachary Karabashliev
Distraught over the sudden disappearance of his wife, Zack tries to drown his grief in Tijuana, then returns to the U.S. with a stolen stash of marijuana. Using this as an impetus to change his life, Zack sets off for New York with the weed and a vintage Nikon. Through the lens of the old camera, he starts rediscovering himself by photographing an America we rarely see. His journey unleashes a series of erratic, hilarious, and life-threatening events interspersed with flashbacks to his relationship with Stella and life in Eastern Europe at the end of the 1980s.
A suspenseful, darkly funny love story, 18% Gray won both the Bulgarian Novel of the Year Award and the Flower of the Readers Award when it was first published in 2008, and received the praise of critics everywhere.
Finding Merlin: The Truth Behind the Legend of the Great Arthurian Mage by Adam Ardrey
Merlin: the very name summons up images of the wizard of Camelot — magician, prophet, and counselor to Arthur. The legend is famous but the truth is less well known: Merlin was a real historical figure, a champion of the old way of the Druids, a British man who hailed not from England or Wales, as traditional wisdom would have it, but from Scotland.
Adam Ardrey, who stumbled upon some of the hidden sources of Merlin’s life while researching the history of a Scottish clan, offers compelling evidence that links a very real Merlin figure into the histories of other real and prominent sixth century figures. “Finding Merlin” uncovers new evidence and reexamines the old. The places where Merlin was born, lived, died, and was buried are identified, as are the people surrounding him — his nemesis, the fanatic Mungo, and his friend, the hero Arthur. In this impressively researched and accessibly written book, Merlin leaps from the pages of legend into history.
Exercises in Style by Raymond Queneau; Barbara Wright
Contributors: Ben Marcus, Blake Butler, Amelia Gray, Jesse Ball, Harry Mathews, Lynne Tillman, Shane Jones, Jonathan Lethem, Enrique Vila-Matas, Frederic Tuten.
Exercises in Style — Queneau’s experimental masterpiece and a hallmark book of the Oulipo literary group — retells this unexceptional tale ninety-nine times, employing the sonnet and the alexandrine, onomatopoeia and Cockney. An “Abusive” chapter heartily deplores the events; “Opera English” lends them grandeur. Queneau once said that of all his books, this was the one he most wished to see translated. He offered Barbara Wright his “heartiest congratulations,” adding: “I have always thought that nothing is untranslatable.Here is new proof.”
A new edition of the famous modernist story told ninety-nine different ways — with newly translated exercises by Queneau and contributions by some of today’s most acclaimed stylists.
Hat tip to Sarah Gerard, writer and bookslinger, for bringing this one to my attention.
How to Not Write Bad: The Most Common Writing Problems and the Best Ways to Avoid Them by Ben Yagoda
How to Not Write Bad uses this basic tenet — what Ben Yagoda calls “not-writing-badly” — to illustrate how we can all write better, clearer, and for a wider readership. Yagoda offers advice on crafting sentences that are correct in terms of spelling, diction, punctuation, and grammar and that display clarity, precision, and grace. He then moves on to the art of constructing whole paragraphs—focusing on cadence, consistency of tone, word repetition, sentence transitions, and length.
In a fun, comprehensive guide, Yagoda lays out the simple steps that we all can take to make our writing more effective, more interesting—and just plain better. As “lolspeak” and texts take over our linguistic consciousness, Yagoda emphasizes the lost art of grammar and the well-constructed sentence. He provides clear grammatical rules to help students and writers everywhere write better; this is a book for anyone who wants to improve his or her writing.
There Once Lived a Girl Who Seduced Her Sister’s Husband, and He Hanged Himself: Love Stories by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya
Love stories, with a twist: the eagerly awaited follow-up to the great Russian writer’s New York Times bestselling scary fairy tales
By turns sly and sweet, burlesque and heartbreaking, these realist fables of women looking for love are the stories that Ludmilla Petrushevskaya—who has been compared to Chekhov, Tolstoy, Beckett, Poe, Angela Carter, and even Stephen King—is best known for in Russia.Here are attempts at human connection, both depraved and sublime, by people across the life span: one-night stands in communal apartments, poignantly awkward couplings, office trysts, schoolgirl crushes, elopements, tentative courtships, and rampant infidelity, shot through with lurid violence, romantic illusion, and surprising tenderness. With the satirical eye of Cindy Sherman, Petrushevskaya blends macabre spectacle with transformative moments of grace and shows just why she is Russia’s preeminent contemporary fiction writer.
Exodus by Lars Iyer
A wickedly funny and satisfyingly highbrow black comedy about the collapse of Western academic institutions under the weight of neoliberal economics and crushing, widespread idiocy.
Lars and W., the two preposterous philosophical anti-heroes of Spurious and Dogma—called “Uproarious” by the New York Times Book Review—return and face a political, intellectual, and economic landscape in a state of total ruination.
With philosophy professors being moved to badminton departments and gin in short supply—although not short enough—the two hapless intellectuals embark on a relentless mission. Well, several relentless missions. For one, they must help gear a guerilla philosophy movement—conducted outside the academy, perhaps under bridges—that will save the study of philosophy after the long, miserable decades of intellectual desert known as the early 21st-century.
Granta 122: Betrayal
Without love there can be no betrayal – love of a country, a brother, a wife, a platoon mate, a family. In this issue of Granta, Janine di Giovanni witnesses a nation, Syria, betraying its people; Karen Russell imagines a soldier inscribing the memory of a fellow soldier on his back; and Colin Robinson writes about ancient brotherly friction resurfacing in a game of paddleball. From the playgrounds of New York City to the alleyways of Damascus, here is the theatre of betrayal.
Let’s be honest, a roundup of horror and dark fantasy books around Halloween is pretty obvious but such occasions are good opportunities to read books otherwise forgotten or overlooked the rest of the year. There’s a mood in the air during the fall season that lends itself to this sort of reading–the weather is colder, the nights are darker, and, at least in October, the neighborhoods are awash in plastic skeletons and jack o’ lanterns. This year, I’m making an effort to drag some seasonally suitable short story collections off my shelf.
If you’ve been putting off reading masters of the genre, if there are new authors who have caught your eye, or if you have a few neglected scary books currently on your own shelf, be obvious, pick them up, dig them out, and embrace seasonal reading.
The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories by Angela Carter
Recalling a dinner party he and Angela Carter had attended, Salman Rushdie, in his eulogy for Carter, called her “the most brilliant writer in England.” Her writing, known to have a feminist streak, was dark and fantastical. There is no better place where all three are on display than in her short story “The Bloody Chamber,” and the collection in which it appears The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories. More than a retelling of fairy tales, they are a complete rewriting, some vaguely recognizable only because of the makeup of the characters.
The title story, based on the French folktale Bluebeard, opens with a young woman, age seventeen, on her wedding day. She is to leave her family house and live in a castle with her new husband, a French Marquis. Their first night together she is entrusted with a ring of keys by her new husband as he is called away on business to New York. The palace is hers to explore–cabinets and safes and all–except for one room, which she is told never to enter. But, as is often the case with stories, both real and imagined, temptation takes hold and the girl finds her way to the west tower and into the forbidden space. Naturally, as one would expect, it was a setup, a trap, and the new bride must face the consequences.
In “The Tiger’s Bride” a young, Russian girl is a mere chip in her father’s gambling habit. After a losing hand she is given over to a beast as part of his winnings. While not a direct interpretation of The Beauty and the Beast, one can see the architecture in place. Meanwhile, the final three stories–”The Werewolf,” “The Company of Wolves,” and “Wolf-Alice”–are reimaginings, often grotesque, and cringe inducing, of Little Red Riding Hood.
Wolves, werewolves, and feral children populate The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories. These short gothic tales, with their twists and turns, are subversive, unsentimental, often erotic, and champion women as the masters of their own destinies–the heroine of their own stories. If you’re looking for a classic of the genre, one that stands outside all the others, look no further than Angela Carter.
Opening paragraph of The Bloody Chamber
I remember, how that night, I lay awake in the wagon-lit in a tender, delicious ecstasy of excitement, my burning cheek pressed against the impeccable linen of the pillow and the pounding of my heart mimicking that of the great pistons ceaselessly thrusting the train that bore me through the night, away from Paris, away from girlhood, away from the white, enclosed quietude of my mother’s apartment, into the unguessable country of marriage.
Smoke and Mirrors: Short Fictions and Illusions by Neil Gaiman
Bestselling author Neil Gaiman is not in danger of being forgotten anytime soon. One of the most in-demand fantasy authors writing today, he’s often asked to contribute work to various anthologies and publications. People love his writing–and for good reason. His stories are well-crafted, the language rich, rhythmic, and vivid. Collected in Smoke and Mirrors are 29 short stories and poems, many previously published in magazines and included multi-authored collections.
In his thorough introduction, an annotated guide of what’s to follow, Gaiman begins by defining what stories are:
Stories are, in one way or another, mirrors. We use them to explain to ourselves how the world works or how it doesn’t work. Like mirrors, stories prepare us for the day to come. They distract us from the things in the darkness.
Fantasy–and all fiction is fantasy of one kind or another–is a mirror. A distorting mirror, to be sure, and a concealing mirror, set at forty-five degrees to reality, but it’s a mirror nonetheless, which we can use to tell ourselves things we might not otherwise see.
He continues, explaining how each story came about, why he wrote it, and for whom. One was an outgrowth of an idea his agent had mentioned one year when angels were all the rage. “Troll Bridge,” one of my favorites, written for an anthology of fairy tales for adults edited by Ellen Datlow, is about a boy who encounters a troll on a walk and puts off the creatures demands over the years. It.
“Looking for the Girl,” narrated by a man mesmerized over the years by a girl he once saw in a copy of Penthouse, was written for, self-referentially, the magazine mentioned in the story. Another tale, written in 1983 and about haggling with assassins, came about when Gaiman fell asleep to a radio program discussing buying products in bulk.
Smoke and Mirrors features many nuggets of Gaiman greatness. If you’re a fan, chances are you already own this one. But if not, or if it’s hanging around on your shelf like mine was, grab it now, don’t wait, you won’t want to move until it’s finished.
In Sixty-One Nails, Mike Shevdon’s first book in his Courts of the Feyre series, Londoner Niall Petersen learns of special powers previously dormant inside him. His abilities, awakened on the Underground platform during rush hour, altered the course of his life in moments.
Dragged into a generations-old world of magic and danger, Niall must embrace his Feyre lineage, learn to move in the shadows, and save the world from the Seventh Court. He succeeds by the end of the book–and finds Blackbird, a female companion for his new life, in the process.
Now, in Shevdon’s follow up, The Road to Bedlam, Niall’s daughter from his previous marriage is involved in a tragic accident at school and the wrong people have noticed. Only when Niall hears her calling for his help through a mirror does he realize she’s not dead, as the doctors had led him to believe. With Niall on the hunt for his kidnapped daughter, Blackbird in her final months of pregnancy, and an unwanted houseguest at headquarters, The Road to Bedlam is just as packed with action, mystery, and suspense as its predecessor.
The contemporary landscape in which The Courts of the Feyre takes place and the fast-paced storytelling are two strong elements in the series but what strikes me most while reading is the way Shevdon makes you care about the characters. Niall’s a good-hearted guy–thoughtful and sensitive–and Blackbird is a feisty, independent woman who would much rather protect herself than rely on others You read compulsively–to find out what happens next, to know they’ll be okay.
The Road to Bedlam balances the tricky question of how much background to give: just enough for a newcomer to enjoy the current story but, at the same time, well-short of annoying those who come to it informed. Off to a strong start, The Courts of the Feyre series is an excellent example of modern, dark fantasy. Now that North America is heading into fall, this is the perfect set of books for those dark and chilly nights.
From chapter one:
The pool of light was no more than twelve feet across and, for this critical moment, defined my world. Beyond its boundary circled my attackers. They would not kill me, at least not on purpose, but they would hurt me if they could.
The blade in my hand was heavy, a training blade made of dark wood, the handle worn smooth by calloused hands and burnished with sweat. I held it level, two-handed, keeping my grip light but firm, giving it the potential for movement in any direction and leaving my assailants no clue as to how I would react.
It had been a long day, both physically and mentally. I was already aching and sore from earlier sessions and I was unlikely to leave this circle without further bruises to add to my collection.
I took a slow breath, rejecting the distraction of consequences. I had to stay in the moment and not let my mind wander. I had to deny them an opening, an opportunity to step into my circle and attack.
This was my circle. It had been made for me to define the space I could defend. Every day the circle got smaller, sometimes by a little, sometimes a lot. I’d given up trying to predict how it would change, only acknowledging that it would not grow in size, only shrink.
A shift in the air brought me round as a dark figure danced into the light, blade arcing down at my head. I stepped forward and around, sliding my own blade diagonally upwards so that his slice glanced off my blade with a clack and swished down over my shoulder. I spun and sliced my blade where the shadow had been but it just whistled through empty air, the figure once again merging with the shadows.
“Too slow,” chuckled Tate, his deep voice rumbling from the darkness.
I stepped back into the centre only to have a figure leap in front of me launching a series of short diagonal strikes. I used my own blade to deflect each one, slowly giving ground, only to realise that her intent was not to strike me, but to drive me backwards out of the circle. Once outside the pool of light I would be at the mercy of anyone already accustomed to the shadow. I deflected the next slice and pushed the attacking sword away, using its momentum to break my attacker’s balance and letting my own point drop. I reversed my grip and punched the pommel hard into the attacker’s midriff.
There was an answering grunt as my blow sank home and the figure folded over, at the same time trying to tangle my wrist in her grip. I wrenched the sword away, lowering my stance to give me posture and drawing the blade up in a long slice. It found only shadows.
“Can there really exist a world in such close proximity to our own, one that seethes with such strange life, one that was possibly here before our own city and yet we know absolutely nothing about it?” So asks Michal Ajvaz in his short novel The Other City. Set in Prague, the story opens on a snowy night in a rare bookstore. A man finds a book bound in dark-purple velvet without a title or author’s name. On closer look, the alphabet appears to be “not of this world.” By the time he leaves the store, the book purchased and in his pocket, the night has grown dark.
Soon, this mysterious book with its indecipherable language leads the protagonist to an alternate world, appearing at night and its inhabitants mixing with his days. This new landscape features ordinary creatures out of place: weasels pulling television sets strapped to sleds and stingrays gliding through snow. There is even an established religion with its own mythology, temples, and martyr.
The Other City presents readers with a series of impossible events and loosely charted plot; a surrealistic adventure through a parallel world that probes at physics and stretches the mind. In the Czech tradition, Ajvaz creates a philosophical novel, deeply internal and contemplative. While it’s a smart, fun read, it is most certainly not for everyone. The Other City takes patience to settle into and tolerance for the highly experimental. For those who can suspend disbelief and let wandering tales take them where they command, they will be rewarded.
In Chuck Wendig’s debut novel, Blackbirds, a mix of gritty fantasy and noir, death and torture wait in the wings. Miriam Black, a broken-down, take-no-shit, young woman, has a terrible affliction: she can see the future. At the slightest touch, skin on skin, the other person’s death flashes before her eyes. She’s seen horrible things, fates she’s tried to alter but whose warnings have had no effect.
Now, while hitching a ride with Louis Darling, a lone trucker going her way, Miriam shakes his hand and witnesses his end. In just thirty days he’ll die a torturous death … while calling out her name.
In a fight to outwit a seemingly unalterable outcome, a battle between free will and determinism forces Miriam out of complacency and into the role of fierce heroine.
Wendig is the man behind the website Terrible Minds, a site where he offers weekly writing tips in his column “25 Things You Should Know About Writing.” Not your average instructor, Wendig’s advice has included “25 Reasons I Hate Your Main Character,” “25 Ways to Unfuck Your Story,” and “25 Things I Want to Say to ‘Aspiring’ Writers.” In one of his recent lists, “25 Things I Learned While Writing Blackbirds,” under the second tip, “Your First Novel Usually Ain’t,” Wendig writes, “Blackbirds is my debut original novel, but it damn sure isn’t the first one I wrote. It’s just the first one that mattered. It’s the first one that deserved to live.”
Author, screenwriter, and all around “penmonkey,” Wendig took some time out of his busy schedule to discuss his difficulty with plot, the importance of reading nonfiction, and what self-publishing and traditional publishing can learn from each other. After reading what he has to say, I urge you to follow Chuck on Twitter.
THE CONTEXTUAL LIFE: What made you start your “25 Things You Should Know About Writing” series?
CHUCK WENDIG: The writing advice in general is there for me above all else. I like to yell at myself. Whenever I run into problems with my writing or see funny things about the writing life, it feels a good place to both vent the steam and mine the “cray-cray.” That’s what the kids are saying these days, right? Cray-cray? Whew.
The “25 Things” in particular are my attempt to pare down the advice – which sounds, er, strange because those lists are pretty huge. But I pack a lot into ‘em, with each of the 25 items ideally being a weird Zen nugget of dubious writer wisdom.
This sounds like a good writing routine.
It helps me focus. Helps me tackle problems. Helps me help other authors, which in turn helps me by inflating my ego and making me feel like I actually know what I’m doing (and I most assuredly do not). Plus, on the barest, most simplest level, I’m writing. Any writing I do helps me to write better.
Plot is your trouble area. What have you done to overcome it?
Who told you that? Do you have cameras in my house? Is my computer bugged? Are you some kind of publishing witch?
Ahem. Yes. Plot is my biggest stumbling block. I countermand my own weakness by planning, plotting, scheming. I am a pantser by heart, but a plotter by necessity. If I don’t outline, then the book is lost in the woods for 5,000 pages. Covered in briar scratches and hunted by bears.
How was it to plot the first book in a series?
I did not know that Blackbirds would be the first in a series, necessarily. It was written to stand on its own, with the hope that it would one day earn a second in its series (which Angry Robot Books was good enough to grant me at the outset).
The trick in plotting was again outlining. I wrote an epic – and frankly unfinished – first and second draft that was meandering, unfocused, so blurry that as an artist I must’ve been considered legally blind. I found the first draft recently and read some of it. The core of the story and character are there, but it’s almost painful to read the way it stumbles around, zombie-like.
The way I focused the book was… erm, unorthodox, and just goes to show that every writer digs his own tunnel into this practice and business. I won a screenwriting mentorship with screenwriter Stephen Susco, selfishly thinking to use it to help develop Blackbirds both as a film property and then as a revived novel. First thing Stephen told me was to outline, and I laughed. “Ha ha ha, ohh, silly-man-from-Hollywood, I don’t do that. That would steal my thunder. It would wound my creative spirit!”
But he kept on me. And grudgingly, I tried it. Suddenly, I had a story that was gaining focus – and by the second outline, had a laser-like focus. So my fumbly bumbly book suddenly had a spine and a place to go. It was a zombie no more. So, I write the script, then used the outline and the script to rebuild the novel. The book that will be published is almost no different than that first post-outline draft.
What I find interesting is that Blackbirds is both the start of a series but can be read as a standalone. I find that refreshing, why did you set it up that way?
It was important in consideration of selling it. I didn’t want myself or my potential publisher to be pinned down in either a single or a series book. Plus, from a reader’s perspective, I didn’t want them to pick this up expecting it just to be a part of a story. It’s a whole story. A real boy. Nothing missing. All fingers and toes attached.
The next book in the series, Mockingbird, will it also be written as a standalone?
Well, it’s not precisely standalone – I mean, it helps if you read the first one. But I don’t think that’s precisely critical, either. You could pick up Mockingbird and it still gives you the information you need to move forward into the story. Further, the concept surrounding Miriam is, I think, relatively simple to understand: she touches you, sees your death, and then the question becomes, can she do anything about that and how hard must she fight fate to achieve it?
You’re also a screenwriter. The draft of Blackbirds was massive — about 90,000 words. Did your screenwriting background help you pare it down?
The screenwriting thing is all about brevity and focus. Each page of the script matters – in screenwriting terms, a single page equals a minute of screentime, and a minute of screentime is like, in Hollywood money, a bajillion-fajitallion dollars. So, you can’t blow up your script to 150 pages and expect to sell it. You have to compress. You have to possess an elegance of language – only including the dialogue that matters and the most critical descriptions.
Though there’s a lesson for screenwriters, too – the script still needs to be readable. I don’t mean legible, I mean, write to be read. Write to entertain even at the script level.
So, from screenwriting I borrowed that level of focus, particularly in descriptions. Dialogue, less so – and even still, Blackbirds still has to feel like a novel, still deserves to dig deeper than what you get in a script and on screen. I didn’t want to abandon what makes novels awesome, but I wanted to take some of the beauty and potency of scriptwriting and jack that into the novel mold.
As such, the novel is pretty mean and lean, I think.
I think so, too. It really moves along. It’s also a visual story. Is this because of your screenwriting experience? What are some things you’ve carried over into your novel writing?
I do write more visually. Some novels spend a lot of time in character heads or dally in scenes that, on-screen, would never work – oh, how often you see scenes of dialogue where it’s like puppet theater, just two characters standing there as mouthpieces for their respective ideas. Over-sharing, too. “Let me tell you my evil plan!” Blah blah blah. An expositional karate punch to the reader’s mouth.
I try to keep things moving. Try to show instead of tell – though there’s certainly a place and a way to “tell” the audience things, and that’s okay, but even there you kind of need to nest it in a process of showing. The way a character tells something or demonstrates a thing is powerful and meaningful. Or can be, at least.
You consider the author Robert McCammon a major influence on your writing. You first read him in your teens and would still read him today. What’s made you stick with him? How has he affected the way you approach your writing, and writing as a career?
McCammon’s Stinger was not the first horror book put into my hand, but it was the first I read and relished. My sister tried to get me to read some Stephen King and, as a young teen, wasn’t into it. But then she put Stinger on my desk and it was like – BOOSH, mind blown. Next came Swan Song, and that book blew even Stinger away. Epic 1000-page post-apocalyptic nuclear America. Powerful and horrific and with a spate of incredibly strong and damaged characters.
That book alone is plump with writing lessons if you care to find them.
But at that point I was reading McCammon – or, rather, devouring his entire back catalog – as a reader, not a writer. I knew I liked writing and telling stories but I wasn’t really sure it was a thing I could do. (Though I certainly wanted to.)
It was his book Boy’s Life that clinched it. It’s a coming of age book, not strictly horror, but it’s also very strongly about storytelling. And that told me: this is what I want to do. I want to write. I want to tell stories.
Interesting note is that, not long after, McCammon retired – despite being a bestselling author he had troubles selling non-horror work and he was moving away from that genre. So he dropped off the map for years, which was troubling to me: and it was my first glimpse of how being a writer was as much a business concern as a crafty, artistic one. It showed me that this would be a tricky industry.
You read nonfiction as well as fiction and consider it something all fiction writers should do. What kind of nonfiction do you read and how does it help you with your writing? What are the benefits of stepping away from fiction?
I do think that’s important! Reading fiction is reiterative. You’re reading other people’s creative pursuits and the best you can do with that as inspiration and research is remix and regurgitate (and you can see in Hollywood how much of it is a remix culture – some of that is fun and clever, but the lack of original ideas can be troubling).
Non-fiction can still be creatively delivered but is not itself reiterative or regurgitative. You read non-fiction and you get ideas that cannot come out of reading someone else’s story. It’s a far more fertile seed-bed in terms of both idea-farming and bringing pre-existing ideas forward through research and pleasure reading.
You read fiction, you can learn the craft and pick apart what XYZ writer is doing. Which is good, and essential. But it’s also an act of diminishing returns. Non-fiction doesn’t suffer from that.
As to what I read?
I’ll read anything. My non-fiction shelves are 75% of my total bookshelf space, with fiction only taking up 25% of it. Right now I’m reading a book about ants. Specifically: Adventures Among Ants by Mark Moffett. But I’ve got books on mythology and symbols and gun repair and Medieval weapons and warfare and the NSA and sex and culture and death and… well. The list goes on and on. And on.
In Blackbirds, your main character, Miriam, if she touches them, can see how people eventually die. What was it like to imagine peoples’ deaths? How did you come up with the idea?
Coming up with deaths are both fun and horrible. Some based in things I’d heard and seen. Others just straight up plucked from the twisted folds of my parasite-ridden brain.
The idea for Miriam comes out of that helplessness of death – both the helplessness you feel when your loved ones die and when you realize your own death is fast incoming.
A few years ago, there was a lot of death around you. At one point a few of your family members had passed away. I’ve heard it said before that much of fiction is working out personal problems. Do you think Blackbirds, specifically Miriam’s ability, which leads her to question free will, was a way of working out your thoughts on immortality? Maybe as a way to take control of it or maybe to face it head on?
Morality more than immortality – but yes, this is definitely me ripping off the scabs and letting the blood flow in an issue like this. Blackbirds in that way represents a harsh dose of reality (hey, holy shit, people die, you’re going to die, your dog will die, we’re all going to die) and also the fantasy (what does it take to move the seemingly immovable boulder of fate and force one’s free will by turning away the Grim Reaper’s hand?).
You’ve self-published in the past and were almost considering self-publishing Blackbirds before Angry Robot picked it up. What aspect of traditional publishing have you enjoyed so far and what are you looking forward to as your book goes out into the world?
I do think that writers these days – especially writers looking to make a living solely on their rampant penmonkeying – need to have a diverse publishing strategy which means taking advantage of all the publishing options that exist for us.
But while I do self-publish some work, I’m certainly enjoying traditional publishing, too. Listen, self-pub is tough stuff. You have to do a lot of stuff which is not writing – cover design and e-book formatting and needling self-promo. Admittedly, some of that is there with traditional publishing, but it’s amazing to me how much of what I do with self-pub just… magically gets done with traditional.
It’s like, out of nowhere reviews for Blackbirds started popping up like spring-time daffodils and I had nothing to do with it. And I see blogs talking about this kick-ass cover from Joey Hi-Fi, a cover I wouldn’t have earned by my lonesome, a cover that is most certainly a book-seller all by itself. (I cannot stress enough how lucky I got on the Kick-Ass Cover Artist lottery. I may not have won the Mega-Millions, but I won that one, for sure.)
I’m having a Blackbirds launch at Mysterious Galaxy in LA – also not an easy option for self-published authors. Sold German rights for it – not an easy option for self-pub. Talking to agents and filmmakers about film and TV rights – repeat after me, not an easy option for self-pub.
What are you working on now?
Eating some waffles.
Oh, wait, you mean creatively? Oh. Ahh. That makes more sense.
Well. I’ve got a lot of irons in the fire. I’ve got the third Miriam Black book outlined and ready to roll. I’ve got the start of a new series with Abaddon (tentative series title: Gods & Monsters). Got the next two of the Dinocalypse trilogy to finish now that the Kickstarter for that has gone through the roof. Plus, the Kickstarter for my Atlanta Burns novel, Bait Dog, went over 200% funded, so I’ve got that going on, too. I am, it turns out, a busy little ink-slinger.
Plus I do work with my writing partner, so there will be films and other digital endeavors. Fingers crossed on those!
Fingers crossed here. Thanks so much for speaking with me.
Thanks for having me, Gabrielle!
In The Graveyard Book, with it’s sparse language and eight concise chapters, Neil Gaiman shines as a master storyteller. Although written for children, the story, winning the 2009 Newbery Medal winner, follows the Gothic fairy tale tradition, assuring it a satisfied adult audience.
The Graveyard Book is the story of Nobody Owens, a boy whose family meets a brutal end when he is just a baby. Unnoticed by the murderer, he escapes from the house and finds his way to the nearby graveyard. There he’s raised by ghosts, given to the Owens’ as a son, to Silas as a charge, and renamed “Nobody,” or “Bod” for short.
In true Gaiman fashion, the usual ghost story is flipped on its head, with the ghosts as protectors and humans (mostly) as villains. The boy has “The Freedom of the Graveyard,” the ability to go places inaccessible by the average living person, and a few ghost-like attributes, such as fading and remaining unnoticed—not to mention the ability to see and communicate with the graveyard’s dead inhabitants.
Trite as it is to say, this book is a coming of age tale. For years, Bod is kept inside the grounds for safety, watched over by the numerous ghosts, all of whom know there will come a time when he’s no longer a boy and must go out into the world to live among the living. As Bod grows older, the years neatly chronicled in separate chapters, he becomes curious, asks more questions, and takes more risks.
The Graveyard Book is a heartwarming story for all ages. Read it and pass it along to the younger ones in your life.