My two-week stint as a guest blogger on the Borders SF site Babel Clash begins today. The topic: Apocalypse in fiction & film. They definitely went to the right boy for this one (though I’m gonna lean more toward post-apocalypse, cuz how civilization goes into the crapper doesn’t interest me anywhere near as much as what happens afterward).
After well over thirty years of learning, growing, and fond affection, it pains me to say that I believe our relationship must end. We have grown apart, and must go our separate ways. I will always treasure the heyday of our youth, when the world stood in mute awe at the glaring olympian light The Stand cast across publishing and the heady subgenre of postapocalyptic fiction. I stood by you in the Bachman days when you tried to see how much of what made you you was your style or your name, when The Long Walk could stand right up there with S.E. Hinton. I started getting nervous with Misery, not just because it was at least your third novel whose central character was a writer, but because of its murky undercurrents of resentment toward an audience that attained a nearly Pink Floyd level of directed anger toward the people who like you but who just don’t get it.
Perhaps most painful of all you followed Misery with The Dark Half, about a writer whose nemesis is literally himself. I stuck with you because I could see you trying to work it out, trying to find a way out of the corner that fame had painted you into, and even resenting it. Lately you’ve tried to disguise it in books such as Duma Key, by having a protagonist who is a painter and not a writer. I stuck with you because I’m quite aware I’ll never have the slightest idea what that level of fame must be like across every facet of daily life, and I simply admired that you continued to write prodigiously in the spotlight’s glare. Because you’re a writer in your very marrow.
With the challenge of publication itself well behind you, I could see you trying to challenge yourself. Deliberately hamstringing yourself in order to see how much story you could still tell. So you released Misery, which takes place in a house, and Gerald’s Game, which takes place in a room, and Rose Madder, which barely takes place anywhere at all. I hung in there even while I felt as confined by these self-imposed limitations as your characters were.
You lost me a few times, but I’d invested in this relationship and I was rooting for you. You have been a startling phenomenon, our age’s Dickens, a one-man hurricane. People read you who don’t normally read much at all. I’d feel we needed a break and I got fine with not reading you (it was hard to watch the Gunslinger series slot into formula after the open-ended jazz of the first book; I think I can spot the moment you started reading not just Cormac McCarthy but All the Pretty Horses, and I couldn’t get past that). But inevitably I’d hear something that piqued my interest and pulled me back. And I would enjoy what it is I so like about you (your timing is the best in the business, your characters — with the exception of your writer protagonists, who interestingly are often depicted in a harsh light — are people we see in everyday life, not Everyman Symbols or invulnerable and unaffected comic-book heroes). But there would always be that gnawing familiarity of formula, predictability (I think I must be the only person in the world who called giant spider to predict the climax of It), contrived folksiness.
But I’m sorry to say that I think you have finally jumped the shark, and that, as of page 37 of the hardcover edition of Under the Dome, it is truly over between us.
I’d heard good things about this one, and any book that separates an entire town from the rest of the world (it’s been done before, necessarily more obscurely [cf. David Wiltshire, Genesis II]) and deals with the prevailing anarchy has a warm place in my heart before I’ve even cracked the cover. I hit page 34 where a character on a tractor hits the invisible wall, flies off, and breaks his neck while the tractor idles beside him, and tried to regard the end-of-section line “Nothing, you know, runs like a Deere” as just a speedbump, something I could put behind me. A cuteness that should have been resisted because it detracts from the scene, reminds the reader that, after all, this is being written by somebody. It’s the kind of thing any writer could put in an early draft, and that any seasoned writer should remove on revision.
Then I hit section 5 on page 37.
We have toured the sock-shape that is Chester’s Mill and arrived back at Route 119. And, thanks to the magic of narration, not an instant has passed since the sixtyish fellow from the Toyota slammed face-first into something invisible but very hard and broke his nose.
Ignoring the fatty writing (wouldn’t “broke his nose against something invisible but very hard” have been a more [ahem] active voice and less redundant [we can figure out “face-first” from the broken nose, dude]?), could you give any louder, clearer indication than “thanks to the magic of narration” that you just don’t care about our relationship anymore? That you’re making it all up, and that you no longer care if I know that you’re faking it? Don’t you have enough consideration and professionalism anymore to feel obliged not to yank me completely out of the one-step-removed collusion that is reading? I feel I have paid my twelve bucks for a major studio summer movie and seen bad models dangling on wires, shadows of boom mics, actors glancing off-set. I can practically hear the typing.
Before you accuse me of being unfair, let me take pains to say that I’m fully aware that James Joyce, in Finnegan’s Wake, “brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs.” But he does it in the first line of the book, and by so doing lets us know what we’re in for. You pull this bait & switch on page 37, well after establishing your standard omniscient, third-person voice, so that this line just sits there like a turd in a punchbowl. This is the moment in the movie where I leave because I understand that I’m better off getting on with my life than getting angrier in a dark room as a lot of money is expended on the assumption that I am an idiot. This is the point, Stephen, where I walked out of your book. Walked out of all your books.
The truth is I’m not mad at you but disappointed in myself for coming back in the first place. Some relationships are about understanding that you will be manipulated. But when the manipulator takes great pains to remind the manipulated that he is not only being manipulated, but shoddily so, anyone with more spine than a gummi worm knows that it’s time to leave. That, from that point on, it’s his own damn fault if he lets it continue. Fool me twice, shame on me.
I realize that I am not really entitled to feel disappointed, because disappointment implies some expectation on my part that you shouldn’t necessarily feel obligated to fulfill. In that sense, then the horrible “dear john letter” cliche holds true: it isn’t you, Stephen, it’s me. You’ll be pefectly fine without me, of course, and I will always treasure the experiences you have given me and the lessons you have taught me, and of course I wish you all the very best in your life and in your future endeavors. And of course I hope that your millions of other relationships continue to flourish.
Having fun on the second day of Podcamp! I got to meet Mignon Fogarty (aka Grammar Girl) in person for the first time (previously we’ve traded emails and nodded in passing at hectic conventions), and I found her an utter delight — charming, personable, and very comfortable in front of a crowd. Her presentation on advertising products in podcasts was fantastic.
I’m recording my presentations and will make them available online after I’m back. Meantime, here are some video interviews I did yesterday.
Watching people gesture and pose as they talk on cell phones as if the person they’re speaking with can see them, it’s clear to me that areas of the visual cortex come into play when people use the phone. Put simplistically, you’ve got X amount of gray-matter RAM, and a certain portion of it is given over to visualization (real and imagined). As people seem to imagine the person they’re speaking to on the phone (there are probably good evolutionary reasons for this), some of the space given over to direct visual perception is being occupied.
Now put that in a car and watch it go all over the road. We’re good at registering motion, but when things aren’t moving we tend to regard the situation as static. The visual input is cached (I’m still being metaphorical, okay?). The brain feels it’s okay not to pay attention too closely right now because nothing’s moving toward it, nothing’s threatening.
In a nutshell this is why I think talking on the phone while driving is a Bad Idea. It’s also why I think that “hands-free” laws for talking on the phone while driving don’t address the underlying hazard: It isn’t the hands being occupied that’s dangerous (though certainly it comes into play); what’s dangeous is the mind being occupied. It doesn’t happen when a passenger’s in the car because you don’t have to picture him; he’s right there beside you, gesturing back at you.
I’d be interested to see the results of brain scans of people talking on phones (of course, god knows what happens when you introduce a cell phone into that — surely there’s some way to get around it). I think the results would bear out my wacky little pet theory that the visual cortex is engaged. Then I’d have sound, scientific reasons why people should hang the hell up and pay attention.
If someone wants to wrap himself around a lightpole, that’s his business, and we can at least be thankful if it happens before he can pee in the gene pool. But when someone’s distraction threatens to put me into a lightpole, I take it personally. I’m funny like that.
I’m off to Podcamp in Phoenix tomorrow morning. Looking forward to presenting and attending some presentations as well! After I’m back I can’t wait to write about last week’s La Jolla Writer’s Conference, which was simply amazing.
I watched the documentary Genghis Blues the other night for the first time in a long time, and it freaked me out a bit to realize that there was an entire chapter of my life that I have hardly shared with anybody, that has influenced me greatly, that I count as one of the happiest stretches I’ve ever been through, and that exists as a strangely self-enclosed parenthetical in my life. I’ve met a surprising number of the people who appeared in that movie.
Like a lot of Americans who know anything at all about the country of Tuva and Tuvan throat singing, I was first exposed to this method of producing and modulating several notes at once when I saw an old episode of Nova called “Tuva or Bust,” concerning physicist Richard Feynman’s efforts to get to a Shangri-La-seeming country called Tuva in northern Mongolia.
On the Nova episode they played some excerpts of Tuvan throat singing and I was hooked. It sounded like a human being imitating a didgeridoo but singing flute-like melody above the fundamental drone. I’d never heard anything like it. At the time I was interested in the didgeridoo but had not yet learned to play it. I hunted down some CDs (this was just as the Internet was making things easily trackdownable), familiarized myself with some of the styles, and started teaching myself how to do it.
One day soon afterward I learned that Paul Pena would be playing a show at the central library. Pena had been the subject of an incredible documentary called Genghis Blues. He was a blind blues musician who heard Tuvan throat singing on his shortwave radio, taught himself Tuvan, taught himself throat singing, met Ondar in San Francisco at a show, and ended up traveling to Tuva to compete in an annual contest.
I went and saw Ondar & Pena and it was startling to realize the varieties of human ability. The show was incredible.
Yahoo Groups were a big new thing then, and I formed a group for Tuvan Throat Singing. It gradually got about 500 members, as I recall. Through this network I learned that a Tuvan group called Huun Huur Tu was going to be playing at McCabe’s in Santa Monica; one of the Yahoo grop members was associated with the tour. I met Huun Huur Tu and was invited backstage, and then was invited to their hotel.
Where we all got roaring drunk.
Tuva is a part of the Russian Federation, and Tuvans tend to speak fluent Russian. So when guests complained about the noise and the security guard showed up to tell us to keep it down, then turned out to be a Russian immigrant, he ended up staying and getting drunk with us. Then a group of ridiculously attractive girls from Russia who were staying at the hotel just showed up out of nowhere and flirted like crazy. (Could I make this up?)
At one point the band members asked to hear me sing. After hearing them, that was about the last thing I wanted to do, but I gave it a shot. Bopa kept putting his hand on my chest and saying “From here! From here!” I kept trying to figure out what muscles I had to use to make the sound come from lower in my chest. Finally he said, “No, no — too much here.” And tapped his head. “More here,” he said. And tapped his chest. Not more chest, Steve. More heart.
I learned more about art with those guys in one drunken night than I’d learned in all the previous decades.
I played the didgeridoo while the band huddled around me and sang. That was amazing. A musical earthquake. They freaked out when I began playing “Arte Sayir,” a famous Tuvan melody, as overtones on the didge. I’ve never heard anyone modulate overtones on a didgeridoo in a melodic way, but throat singing had taught me how.
The Yahoo Group grew stoopidly mystical and I pulled the plug on it. I saw Huun Huur Tu a few more times (and was delighted that my wife, an amazing composer, got to meet them), but after I got into DJing and dance music I kind of drifted from overtone singing and that community. That one, planetary-alignment night all came back in one unalloyed rush while I was watching Genghis Blues. Drunken huddling and delicate melodies over beautiful earthquakes. A hand on my chest: More heart.
The signing at Mysterious Galaxy went quite nicely. Besides signing copies of Elegy Beach and Ariel (old and new), I blathered endlessly about the writing of the books and my approaches to writing in general, and answered some great questions (my friend Tom Morgan showed up and grilled me mercilessly — I can’t wait till the tables are turned).
The staff at Mysterious Galaxy Books were wonderful and the store is the kind of specialty bookshop I’m sad to say you just don’t see that often anymore. If you live in the San Diego area, I can’t recommend them enough. We hadn’t even gotten underway and I was talking to MG employee Samantha Wynn about Burning Man and DJ gigs as if we’d known each other forever.
I’ll be seeing some of the MG crew again in a few days when I teach at the La Jolla Writers Conference, as MG is the book supplier for the conference. Woo hoo!
One really great surprise: Greg van Eekhout, whom I’d run into at World Fantasy Con, showed up. Greg was a talented student of mine when I used to teach at UCLA Extension, and now he has published a bunch of stuff, including his most recent YA novel, Norse Code. It’s been wonderful to watch his career develop and his star rise. He’s also a great guy. I just wish he’d have the consideration to age along with the rest of us. He doesn’t look a day older than when he was in my classes, and I think that’s extremely rude of him.
I was also delighted that Ken Mitchroney, my buddy pal since the Early Impecunious Period, showed up with a crew of animators and ne’er do wells (if that isn’t redundant). I’ll blog about Ken one day but it’ll be tough: he’s had such a full life, and has accomplished so many things in so many different fields, that he deserves a book, not a blog post. (Director, storyboard artist, comic book artist, race-car driver, pinstriper, custom car & trike builder, artist & advisor to Ed “Big Daddy” Roth, railfan & antique train restorer, official cartoonist and logo designer for the Oakland As & the Baltimore Orioles — and that’s just on Mondays. He also took a great shot of me for the author’s pic on the recent books — and a good shot of me is a bigger accomplishment than all the other stuff put together.)
Ken dragged along his friends & Omation Studios coworkers Woody Woodman, Hayley Kohler, Tom Morgan, and Paul Claerhout. The latter two I met when I wrote interstitials for The Ant Bully at DNA Studios in Dallas. One-man peanut gallery and curmudgeon-in-arms John Field, whom I’ve known since the Late Salacious Epoch, threw zingers from the seats.
It was the first such event I’ve had in a long time, and it felt great to have old friends there.
I promised myself this blog was going to be an ongoing series of essays and conversations on a variety of topics — writing, science fiction & fantasy, authorship & intellectual property in the 21st Century, the remix as metaphor for the art of our age, occasional reports on events and the status of books & various projects. What I promised myself it would not be is a billboard for me and my work. We already get more than enough spam in our lives without me adding to the heap, I think.
But. I just didn’t anticipate was how crazy the week of Elegy Beach’s release was going to be. I hope you will forgive me if I just yield to the inevitable this week and report on what’s going on with Elegy Beach. (I have no report on World Fantasy Con because there’s simply nothing to report about it.) I’ll get back to our regularly scheduled programming after the weekend, I promise.
I’m madly scrambling to get ready for the World Fantasy Convention this weekend. We leave Thursday morning & I’m so not ready.
The day after I get back I have my Elegy Beach launch party & signing at Mysterious Books in San Diego (Nov. 3). I’m almost ready for that. I’ll be bringing schwag and some mix CDs to give away, too.
“The More Things Change,” the second of several essays appearing in conjunction with the Elegy Beach release, is now online. This one addresses the disparity in depiction of the Change between Ariel and Elegy Beach. I think it provides some interesting info, and I hope it will answer some reader questions in lieu of me having to answer them a whole lot of times.
Several websites have asked for essays from me in conjunction with the release of Elegy Beach. Naturally I’m only too happy to oblige! But even though I’m perfectly comfortable promoting my work, rather than just write some long commercial for my new book I think it’s fun to use these as opportunities to talk about my approach to my work — how I do what I do. (Or, at least, how I think I do what I think I do.)
The first of these, “The One True Thing,” is online at BSC Review. It’s about my insidious methods of using concrete, real-world details to sell outright impossible fantasy. Naturally the examples I use are from the books that are out now. Fiendishly clever of me, innit?
It’s funny, when I write, the decisions I make and the methods I use feel very instinctive to me. I don’t often question them. “I trust my process,” as the painters say. (I need to remember to say that in interviews. It sounds so confident and artistic. So if you read an interview where I say that, you can know that I’ve set out to be confident and artistic.)
After it’s all done, though, I get asked about methods, reasons, etc. My mom finished Elegy Beach the other day and asked me a terrific question about why something was in the book that I hadn’t really thought about. (A question I also realized no interviewer will ever ask me. Shame. It was a great question.)
I was somewhat surprised that I had an answer for her. I’m surprised when I write these essays and realize I have some idea why I handle this stuff the way I do. It turns out that some part of my brain does all this on purpose. He just doesn’t bother emailing the rest of me about it. For all I know he leaves Writer Steve off the list, too. Maybe he doesn’t want him to get too self conscious.
See, now I’m getting all existential on yer ass and wondering who’s really pulling the strings. I mean, if one part of me knows how I do it but doesn’t tell the part of me that actually does it, and the rest of me stays the hell out of the fray, then who’s running this clown car?
So with one book coming out and another one just sent off to the agent, even though I’m fairly busy with promotion-related stuff (November is gonna be nuts), my attention immediately turned to DJing and designing my wife’s music website. I mean at around 4 a.m. on Sunday I literally packed up the new novel to mail off to my agent the next morning and then did a new Podrunner mix. The next day I began the laborious and detail-intensive nonsense involved in upgrading my DJ rig and getting new controllers.
Clearly something in me just doesn’t know how not to have a new project going on. I’m the worst person in the world to go on vacation with. I have no idea how to sit by a pool and read.
I gave an interview the other day, and I was talking about how I didn’t write an ARIEL sequel right away because I simply didn’t have a story to tell and I didn’t want to do it unless there was a story that needed to be said. The interviewer said, “It sounds like you really like to be challenged.” I told her that, well, the truth is that I get bored easily.
I’ve thought about that a bunch this week. I mean, literally minutes after the new book was put away I shifted focus to a new challenge in my DJ life, because I’ve felt fairly stagnant there. I’m not sure how I feel about that. It’s fun, but good lord, could I be more Type A?
I finished the massive revision of my next novel over the weekend and sent it off to my agent yesterday. Now maybe I can go back to some kind of normal schedule (one that involves more than three hours’ sleep a day) and actually do some useful things around the house. My wife deserves some kind of medal. Mo’s been running interference between me and the world whhile I dig through this mountain. But I’m through and the book is off.
I get anxious about these things. Bitter experience (largely of my own devising, I hasten to add) has taught me that having a book out is no guarantee of someone buying the next one. I’m afraid that despte being a fairly different person from what I was when I was publishing more regularly Lo These Many Years Ago, and despite clearly having a much-improved approach to publishing (and to the world in general), I still drag my past around like a boat anchor.
This is the first time I can recall being able to be anxious/eager/impatient about waiting for a book to be published at the same time I’m anxious/eager/imaptient about a book I’ve sent off.
Thirty years after technology ceased to work and magic returned to Earth, Fred and his friend Yan discover how to reverse “The Change” and set off a chain of events that includes a pursuit up the broken interior of California to stop a madman from destroying the world. The long-awaited sequel to the 1983 cult classic Ariel captures the reader’s attention from its first sentence (much like its predecessor), building in both intensity and intrigue until its unexpected but entirely appropriate conclusion. VERDICT Laced with humor in odd places, this postapocalyptic fantasy ranks with classics such as Walter M. Miller Jr.’s A Canticle for Leibowitz as an example of first-rate storytelling that serves up both a cautionary tale for the 21st century and an author’s masterwork. Highly recommended.
This came in today. It’s the final publication hardcover of Elegy Beach.
It’s funny, I’ve been Mister Matter-of-Fact ever since my agent sold the book almost exactly a year ago. I’ve been happy, grateful, anxious, appreciative, responsible, cooperative, parental, all kinds of emotions. Not to mention busy as hell.
What I haven’t been is hugely excited. I’ve written elsewhere (mainly in the Elegy Beach Afterword) that I had to compartmentalize myself in order to write this book at all. To get out of the way and let Writer Steve do it, but only let him to that, and leave the rest of my life alone. I think that necessary distancing may be why I haven’t gone all schoolgirly on everyone about the novel’s imminent publication.
Then the book showed up today. And I got excited as hell. I mean I was giddy all day long. Stoopid giddy. Making silly noises and laughing at my own jokes kind of giddy. Playing with a new puppydog kind of giddy. Because the book is gorgeous.* And because no amount of immersion or envisioning or daily attending to the tiny details that go into putting something like this together, prepared me for the unexpected, unalloyed joy I felt on holding the thing in my hands. I didn’t feel that way when I got copies of my first novel. I dunno why not. But this. This.
And now I’m horribly excited. It’s been a long time coming, folks.
*Bless jacket designer Judith Lagerman, the art director at Penguin, and everyone who had anything to do with the production end of this book.
Samuel R. Delany’s DHALGREN remains my favorite novel, though I no longer think it’s the best novel I’ve read (it’s still up there, though). I must have read it 10 or 12 times. It came out when I was in seventh grade. I bought it for the cover, the wonderful and misleading jacket copy, and the fact that the book was huge.
The front cover reads:
Stranger in a Strange Land,
Then Dune and now,
The Major Novel of Love
And Terror at the End of Time
Well, sign my ass up! “The major novel of love and terror at the end of time” — I would kill to have a line that good on a cover. And I’m in seventh grade and nuts about postapocalyptic stories (back then we just called them “end of the world books”), and comparing something to Stranger in a Strange Land and Dune was pretty much a guarantee to get me to shell out my $1.95 (Wow! 1975! Wow!)
The back cover reads:
The sun has grown deadly… The world has gone mad, society has perished, savagery rules over all. All that was known is over. All that was familiar is strange and terrible. Today and yesterday collide with tomorrow. In these dying days of earth, a young drifter enters the city…
And the catchpage (first page you see) reads:
In the crippled city
where time has lost its meaning
and violence is swift and sudden,
a nameless young man with no memory appears…
He shares his great strength
in a loving trinity with a young boy
and a haunted, beautiful woman
in that time before the end of time…
Good lord! All of it off the mark but not untrue, exactly, and all of it just gorgeous.
The book begins in midsentence and ends midsentence. There in the bookstore I looked to see if they joined up, and they did: the book looped. (Though now I would offer that there’s a halftwist in the narrative that makes the book a Mobius strip.) At the time I had not read FINNEGAN’S WAKE, so the idea that an author could reach out through a page and make me do that and by implication serve me notice that I was in for a deeper, more involving experience than I might be accustomed to, had me from the first line. It opened up the idea of fiction for me, something like the way 2001: A Space Odyssey opened up the idea of movie when it was released. And the rest of the novel only continued unfolding and subverting the conventions of the novel. This guy was using fiction to write about language. Holy shit.
I’d been writing fiction since I was about five, but I clearly remember the moment I realized I wanted to write for a living. I was in the school cafeteria about to be late to class because I couldn’t stop reading this book. Everyone had picked up their trays and gone to class and I was almost alone in the big room and totally absorbed. And it hit me: I want to do this. I want to write something that does for someone somewhere what this book is doing to me. I’m thirteen years old, and I want to do this for a living.
The only time I have ever been starstruck was when I briefly met Delany in the con suite at some convention. I was too tongue-tied to tell him any of the above. Which maybe he’s heard a thousand times, I dunno, but I can’t imagine getting tired of it. My friends were astonished. Boyett? Tonguetied? Starstruck? Are you freaking kidding me?
I return to DHALGREN every few years and find it a different novel every time. What I bring to it is different, what I glean from it is different. To me this is a hallmark of a book that stands the test of time: it is not the same book always. What it even seems to be about transforms. In seventh grade that spoke to my very marrow. That height was where I set my sights. It speaks to me still.
How about you? Do you have a watershed moment associated with a favorite novel? I hope you do.
Chapter 13 of ELEGY BEACH is now available on elegybeach.com. You can read it directly on the website or as a downloadable PDF.
This chapter begins a gradual change in the novel’s writing style as well as an increasingly serious tone to the book itself. Despite being a lengthy chapter that occurs well on into the novel (around 1/4 of the way in), it’s relatively self contained and manages to have a lot going on without giving too much away and being a potential spoiler (I hope).
Chapters 1 and 2 are already available on the site.
I hope to be able to offer excerpts from the audiobook around the time the print and e-book versions are released (November 3). I’ll definitely announce it here when I do!
I can’t write a story or novel unless I have a title. In fact I have a folder with a list of titles that have come to me (“The Placebo Plague” — c’mon, don’t you want to know what that’s about? I do). There’s nothing mysterious about it. In many ways the title is simply my perspective on the work. It lets me know how I see it. How I want it seen.
To me a title is a kind of lens that colors what follows. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that works I’ve written first and titled later are inevitably my weakest stuff (”Bridge” is one of my worst published, I think, and didn’t have a title till it was done, whereas “Drifting off the Coast of New Mexico” and “Emerald City Blues” are two of my best [I think], and had a title from the start).
Rene Magritte used to randomly pick titles for his paintings, or have friends title them. Not because he didn’t care, but because there was an enormous tissue of implied yet totally subjective meaning generated by the relationship between painting and title. In many ways that’s exactly what Magritte was all about; it’s why semiologists and grammatologists love him. A painting of a giant rose filling up an ordinary room, entitled “The Tomb of the Wrestler.” That engages me. Maybe it doesn’t mean anything, but the fact that I try to supply information to connect those two signs, painting and title, speaks to how the human brain can’t help but work. I have titles I want to write stories about just so I can expand on them, or understand that initial image (”The Weatherman Cringes at the Storm’s Approach” is an extreme example; “The Ghost of Her Reply” is a more compelling one).
Which brings me to science fiction and fantasy.
One of the ways genres define themselves is by developing so many conventions that they unintentionally caricature themselves. I mean, who outside the genre is gonna read a book called The Dragonriders of Pern or The Sword of Shannara? Partly it’s that Ludlum-esque titling formula (The Personal-Pronoun Noun) acting on readers to let them know what they’re in for; it’s not a huge leap from The Dragonriders of Pern to The Slime Devils of Gralfnab 9. In this way (among many others) F&SF aren’t just ghettoized; they ghettoize themselves. The Wyvvern, The Integral Trees (try saying that one out loud), The Architects of Hyperspace — who are we talking to here? No wonder we (sure, I’ll say “we”) band into paradoxically self-congratulatory and commiserative conventions that sneer at “mundanes” and “muggles” when they cock their head like Victor the RCA dog as they watch us reading God Emperor of Dune or RenSime on the bus and smile condescendingly.
Here’s an opportunity — damn near a billboard — that lets you be intriguing and appealing (Stranger in a Strange Land, Lest Darkness Fall, Voice of the Whirlwind), that lets you pimp yer ride, and instead most of us are chugging around in lumpy primer gray Bondo and thinking we’re all made of awesome.
I’m trying to post consistently but lately it’s been difficult because my sleep schedule is completely wacked. I’m cranking away to finish revising my next novel to get it out to my agent by November. To do that I’m working at night, going to bed around 5 or 6 a.m., and waking up in the afternoon.
At least, ideally that’s what I’m doing. I thought it would be a good idea because my phone doesn’t ring at 3 a.m., I don’t get dragged down by quotidian distractions. A pure focused stretch of creative time, just like the old days.
What makes this not at all ideal is that we own parrots. Plural. A vosmaeri eclectus and a severe macaw. I love them dearly and often want to drown them. (I won’t go on about the birds themselves because whothehell wants to read yet another blog entry about someone’s pet?) You think only roosters crow at dawn, right? Nossir, all birds just love to celebrate every sunrise like they’re starring in some Cat Stevens ballad.
So an hour or two after I go to bed the birds start their own sunrise serenade. Then Murdoc, the macaw, who is a crazy old broken rescue who has bonded with me, has to preen me. Which means I spend the next several hours trying to sleep while a parrot tries to chew through my arm.
These are things you never thought you’d have to deal with later on in life.
So for about the last month I’ve been a shuffling stumbling holloweyed thing who looks like he wants nothing more than to eat your brain. Other work is piling up. Daily chores are neglected. The rest of my life is piling up. But something in me insists on doing it this way.
I know what it is, of course: this book wants to be written at night. It’s unbelievably dark and funny as shit, and I have worked obsessively to make every dark disturbing word of it as beautiful as I can. It’s the best thing I’ve ever written and the hardest. I could write a book about what I went through to write this book (but don’t worry, I won’t). I don’t like to talk about it in any detail because I’ve learned that just because I’m working on a book doesn’t mean that it will ever see the light of day. What I will say about it is that it’s the first thing I’ve ever written that I’ve felt certain that, had it been written by another writer, I would count among my favorite novels. That’s a weird feeling.
With any luck I’ll be talking about it in more detail come November. Meantime it’s shuffle, stumble, type, sleep, repeat as needed.
I think science fiction (and to some extent fantasy) writers tend to fall into one of two camps: Wellsians or Vernians. Both men were seminal figures in the development of modern science fiction. Both enjoyed enormous popularity in their time. Both created landmark works that staked out iconic images and themes. Lunar exploration, extreme terrestrial exploration, genetic experimentation and controlled evolution, mechanized global warfare and weapons of mass destruction, and even the “mad scientist” are just a few of the contributions they have in common.
Wells (1866 – 1946) wrote the time-travel and alien-invasion novels by which all subsequent would be measured. Verne (1828 – 1905) wrote the “lost world” and undersea-travel books that cast a shadow over any that might follow.
Both men were often compared to one another, and it’s clear that neither was crazy about it. Nowadays we’d call Verne a “hard SF writer,” meaning that he’s more focused on the technology and plausibility of his stories. Wells was definitely a “what-if” guy. He once wrote that he liked to “put an impossible thing into the world” and then step back and see what happens. His bent was more sociological than that of Verne, who considered himself more of a predictor. Verne wanted to extrapolate what future technologies could emege from present ones. Wells wanted to extrapolate what impacts such developments might have on their developers.
Wells was often taken to task for not being as plausible as Verne, for not being a predictor. He said flat out he had no interest in predicting the future; he was writing about the present, in the Heinlein sense of “If this goes on….” Verne was often criticized for being more interested in his engineering than in his characters.
It’s not often discussed, but also not surprising, that a rivalry existed between the two men. They weren’t just competitors, they fundamentally disagreed with each other’s approach. Verne was in no way a fantasist, and once said about Wells, “I sent my characters to the moon with gunpowder, a thing one may see every day. Where does M. Wells find his cavorite? Let him show it to me!” (Cavorite being a gravity-proof substance invented by Wells to effect travel in First Men in the Moon.)
I’ll say flat out that I fall on the side of Wells. I don’t care about the submarine. I don’t care about the gunpowder. I care about the characters and the impact of the submarine and the gunpowder on the characters’ world. When Star Trek becomes more about the Enterprise than the people in it, I’m gone. (At some point I should blog about pitching to Gene Roddenberry when ST:TNG was in preproduction. What a laff fest that was.) I don’t care if cavorite is real. When you bring on the guy in the white coat and start explaining cavorite to me, your story becomes about cavorite. For Wells cavorite was literally a launching point for his story. The guy wanted to get to the moon to see what was there. Verne wants to write big cannon porn more than actually get where he’s going. He’s all about the stuff.
I don’t remember Verne’s characters. The only standouts are Phileas Fogg and Captain Nemo, and Fogg is a cipher (largely a parody of British colonialism; it’s worth remembering that Verne was French) and Nemo is a rationalization (Verne really loved his way-kewl ship-sinking war machine submarine but understood that he couldn’t just go putting the whammy on sea trade, so he made Nemo an antiwar activist who was one of the first embodiments of the “destroy villages in order to save them”/”war to end war” school of thought. Do you buy this? Me neither. It’s hardly remembered because the most developed character in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is really the Nautilus.)
I remember Wells’ journalist from War of the Worlds. I remember his narrator from The Time Machine. The fact that they go unnamed is all the more remarkable. I remember virtually everyone they meet. Verne strikes me as little more than a tour guide, walking characters through scenes so he can point out the Really Neat Details of his Really Kool Ideas. You can almost hear the narrative pauses so that we can ooh and ahh.
While I’ll grant you Wells could get bogged down in a didactic agenda (see Things to Come), his main concern is depicting what happens when the extraordinary invades ordinary lives. I’ll take that any day, even if I never discover where the extraordinary comes from. Linear thinkers trying to chart the world on graph paper have to let that go. They’ve forgotten, or perhaps never understood, that it doesn’t matter how the goddamned warp drive works. That the warp drive is bullshit. That the people who thought it up thought it was bullshit. That it was just a way of getting somewhere so that they could tell stories. That it’s cavorite.
Mysterious Galaxy will hold the first official book signing for ELEGY BEACH on November 3, the day of release. I’ll see what kinds of schwag I can bring along as well (mix CDs, flyers, bookmarks, whatever else I can think of). If you live in the San Diego area, swing by & say hi!
Mysterious Galaxy Books
Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2009, 7:00 PM
7051 Clairemont Mesa Blvd., Suite #302
San Diego, CA 92111
Tel: 858.268.4747 Map
When I practiced martial arts (which I did for 25 years) and yoga (which I did for about 7 years) I was focused, intent, and lost in the moment. In fact yoga felt like slow-motion martial arts. Outside of these things, I am the second-clumsiest person I have ever seen. I bang into doorways, stub my toes, and find ingenious, unique, Rube Goldbergesque ways to engineer personal injury. You could follow me around for a couple of days and have material for three more Final Destination movies.
I’ve never understood it. I’m not uncoordinated. I have reflexes, if I may say so, like a cat hockey goalie on speed. But let me spend an hour in your house (or, hell, my house) and you’ll want to redecorate in bubblewrap.
The clumsiest person I have ever met is my mother. She could trip over a hole on an ice skating rink. She’d find a way to cut herself in a Nerf factory. I used to wonder how she lived long enough to have children, then wonder if I got my clumsiness from her. This made me wonder if clumsiness could be hereditary, and how that could possibly be. I mean, how can you naturally select for traits that seem unlikely to let an organism live long enough to reproduce? It’s like saying there’s a suicide gene. Scuse me?
One thing I have not inherited from my mother is a tendency to panic in emergencies. If she cuts herself she runs around flapping the bleeding appendage and spraying blood everywhere and yelling “Somebody! Somebody!” She does the funky chicken and her ears go flat to her head and she yells incoherently.
I once ran over my foot with a lawnmower. I was pull-starting it and the knot caught and the mower lifted just as the engine started and it landed on my foot. I looked down at my shredded shoe and shut off the lawnmower and walked into the house and into the bathroom and took off my shoe and my sock and put my foot in the bathtub and ran water, and only then did I realize I’d only cut off the top of my shoe. I’ve got a hundred of these stories. I used to take a certain warped pride that I remain calm in emergencies, which is good when you’re someone who tends to create emergencies.
Then I met Maureen. At the time she’d been an ICU nurse for about 13 years. Let me tell you right now that it sucks to go out with an ICU nurse. You can’t come home and bitch about your day. When we were going out I was working at an ad agency. I’d come home and say, “I got yelled at today for correcting an ad headline. How was your day” And she’d say, “Well, I had a cardiac patient break his straps and tear out his IVs and code on me. I had to crack his chest while his tubes bled everywhere.” However bad your day is, your ICU nurse wins.
Being married to an ICU nurse means that when you, as a carrier of the Clumsy Gene, inevitably gack yourself on something, you will receive rapid expert medical attention. What it doesn’t mean is that you’ll get an ounce of sympathy. They just ain’t wired like that.
What all this has to do with writing
“A writer in a canoe in the rain,” someone once said (or more likely wrote), “should be able to write about what it’s like to be on the Titanic.” Man, do I relate to that. Someone else wrote (about journalism) that “all life is copy.” I relate to that, too.
Long ago when I lived in Gainesville, Florida, I was helping my friend Kerry move to a new place. It was a crazyhot day and I pulled a sixpack of Pepsis from the back seat of my car. This was back when Pepsis came in tall 16-oz glass bottles in thin cardboard carry cases. I pick up the case, two bottles hit, one of them explodes, and a glass sliver flies off to open up an artery in my calf. I look down and it’s spurt spurt spurt. I clamp it and I yell out I need a tourniquet. (Which I didn’t. Being calm doesn’t mean being right.) We clamp the wound and figure out what to do. I’ve just moved to Gainesville and I work graveyard at a convenience store and I have no money and no insurance. Kerry works at a chem-testing lab. He says, fuggit, let’s go see Randall.
Randall is Kerry’s boss. Randall works with lab rats. Randall can sew my dumb ass up.
Randall looks at the wound and says “Hold on” (his tone exactly the tone Maureen used 26 years later). He comes back with a bottle of brandy, a bottle of hydrogen peroxide, a spool of thread, and a suturing needle. He tells me, look, you don’t have a lot of nerves in your leg, really. His way of reassuring me is to take the needle and shove it through the back of his hand. “See?” he says. “If I hit a nerve just tell me and I’ll move the needle.” He asks me if I want a shot of brandy.
Hellno. I want two shots of brandy. I drink ’em double plus quick too. Kerry holds my hand and Randall kneels before me and dips the thread in hydrogen peroxide and sews up my wound. To this day I remember being fascinated by the thick layer of skin yielding to the layer of fat above the artery. On time it hurt and I said so and Randall moved the needle a little and it didn’t hurt. But I remember that the feeling of the thread sliding through the skin made me want to fwow up.
When we’re done Randall gives me some antibiotics and says, The stitches’ll probably get infected. If they turn bright red take these.
I won’t go into what it feels like to recover from an artery-deep cut with homemade stitches. Or to go back to Tae Kwon Do practice waaaay before it’s healed.
The wound turns bright red around the stitches. I take the antibiotics. The infection goes away. Some time later it’s time to remove the stitches. I sterilize an Xacto knife with alcool and cut them and pull them out with tweezers. One stitch is stubborn and I apply some pressure and the Xacto knife pops through and slices into my thumb. I look at it bleeding and think, No way. No goddamn way. I am not going to anyone about this.
Eventually it healed. To this day I can’t feel anything from the top of my right shin down to across my right instep. That is, I can feel pressure but not much more. If I hit the wound itself I get pins & needles. The nerves never really reconnected.
Almost all of this incident got transmuted into my novel The Architect of Sleep. Bentley gashes a leg and gets an infection and is delirious and bedridden. It’s important to the plot so he can have time to learn about the culture he finds himself immersed in. But the details came straight out of my life.
If you’re a writer, when something horrible happens, something just as horrible inside you stands aloof recording and reporting and thinking, Oh, I can use this. You gash yourself and something in your brain hits “record.” Your father has a stroke and part of you becomes a journalist. It sucks — and it’s also necessary. All people hurt themselves. All fathers die. Capture that. Find the way of looking at it no one else has seen. Else you have no business being in this business. Else what you say rings false. Especially in fantasy and science fiction, where you have to make the reader believe impossible things. The truth of details and feelings like these acts as an anchor for the rest.
So tonight I wash dishes because our dishwasher’s broken, and I’m a good little doobie and I clean up afterward, and I carry the dirty strainer to the trashcan to bang it clean. Only, being me, I’ve left a cabinet door open, and when I bend to bang the strainer I gack my head doubleplus good on a corner of the cabinet door.
You know those moments where you really hurt yourself? I’m not talking stubbing your toe and imitating Fred Flintstone for all the neighborhood to hear. I mean when you really seriously Fuck Shit Up. Things get quiet for a second. You have a moment of astonishing clarity in which the Times Square Scroller in your brain parades bright lights that say Wow You Just Fucked Shit Up. Yessir. I made a little owie noise and went down to my knees and grabbed my head and felt warmth on my hand and took a look. Oh yeah. Scalps are heavily vascular and bleeding often seems worse than the injury really is. I know this. I apply pressure and say, “Maureen. Can you come here? I’ve hurt myself.” I say this really calmly while I watch blood rain down on the kitchen floor.
One thing about large quantities of real blood, it looks really fake.
Mo comes in and takes a look and rolls her eyes and says, “Hold on.” I hold on. Literally. She comes back with a compress and takes a look and swabs and compresses. When we’re sure we’ve got it contained enough that I won’t go bleeding all over the carpet we go to the bathroom and she fills a hypo with something I’m sure an average citizen can’t get hold of and she irrigates the wound and swabs it and appliess a fresh gauze pad and bandages it. I look like a gunshot victim. “Don’t scratch it,” my wife says. “I’m going back to bed.”
Half an hour later she comes into my office for a status check. “Feeling disconnected?” she asks. “Tingly fingers? Dizzy?” That’s right for a thousand, Alex.
What does all this have to do with writing? Well, I’ll get to it. I promise.
ZOMBIES, edited by the incomparable John Skipp, has just been published, and holy cannoli, this thing is gorgeous. I’ve been looking forward to the book coming out, but I had no idea it was going to be such a very cool thing.
Some background: In the late 80s John and his then-writing partner Craig Spector published the landmark anthology Book of the Dead, a shared-world collection that took place in George Romero’s zombie universe. Besides having an intro by (and blessing of) Romero himself, the book was a veritable Who’s Who of horror at a time when amazing things were happening in the genre. We’re talking Stephen King, Robert McCammon, Ramsey Campbell, Dave Schow, Doug Winter, Joe Lansdale — the goosh factor alone was off the charts. BotD became a landmark in the field, and likely one of the instigators of the current zombie phenom.
My novella “Like Pavlov’s Dogs” was included in BotD, and I was delighted and flattered to share company with some of the squishiest guys around. I knew there was no way I could outgross these guys, no way I could slam my prose beyond the pale the way these people did for a living. Instead I opted for a widescale, kaleidoscopic narrative that used a lot of tricks and had a lot of narrative presence even while it dove into people’s minds as those very minds were shutting down (were being shut down, really). It marked the beginning of a more liberating narrative approach for me and encouraged me to work on honing similar takes on other narratives.
Flash forward 20 years. Zombies are everywhere in pop culture and Black Dog Press has come out with what has to be the definitive anthology of zombie stories — 699 pages of shambling blueskinned braineating goodness starring the top of the pops in the field again. And who better to put this wieghty tome (literally; my car leaned to one side when I drove home with the thing) than the past master of the gnoshing dead himself, John Skipp?
John has run the gamut in this megamonster — from “Lazarus,” originally published in 1906, to stories from Neil Gaiman, Stephen King, Ray Bradbury (now there’s a name I just don’t conjure when I think of zombie stories), Robert Bloch, Poppy Z. Brite — the list goes on & on. “Like Pavlov’s Dogs” gets between the covers with this stellar bunch, and I couldn’t be more delighted. When John asked about reprinting it I was flattered but not a lot more, to be honest. Wow, cool, “Pavlov’s” will be back in print, that’s great. I didn’t think much more about it.
Then I saw the thing at Barnes & Noble yesterday and went flubbedy flubbedy gimme gimme. Good lord it’s impressive. Black Dog did a great job with everything from art direction to interior illustration. John’s selections are incomparable, and he reprints several stories (“On the Far Side of the Cadillac Desert with Dead Folks,” by Joe Lansdale, “Jerry’s Kids Meet Wormboy,” by Dave Schow) that raised the bar on going too damned far. Read these aloud in a group. I dare you. I’m usually kinda hard on my earlier self (as I should be on the arrogant ignorant bastard), but I was happy to re-read “Like Pavlov’s Dogs” and find it not that dated and a lot of fun.
Besides John’s terrific intros (he writes exactly like he talks, and it’s always great to hear John talk) and about five kerjillion stories, there are also two appendices: a historical perspective on zombies, and an essay on the zombie in pop culture.
If you want your fiction to be some kind of literary Prozac, this definitely ain’t the book for you. It pushes, it bites, it’s filmed in Hemoscope. It’s chunky, gooshy, gross, hilariously funny, upsetting as all get out, unforgettable, and sure to be a landmark in the field. Bless you for once more asking me to play in your sandbox, John. This time I know why the sand is red.
Because a couple of other giveaways & contest are occurring at the same time, and because an odd number of you have inexplicably pristine copies, I’ve extended the deadline on the Ganked-Out ARIEL contest to Sept. 25.
The Rules: The owner of the most nasty, gnarly, beatup dogeared puppychewed copy will win an autographed copy of the bright shiny new purty purty paperback edition of ARIEL, courtesy of Yrs. Truly. Send your pix to . Good luck and get mangling!
It’s standard when an audiobook is about to go into production for the author to provide a list of pronunciations for words and names the narrator may not be clear on. This is especially true of fantasy & science fiction, where even the title can be something likeThe Gloffnokkrz of Grlfnib 9 (whothehell wants to be seen on the bus reading this, I don’t want to know). I turned in my list for ARIEL & ELEGY BEACH and then spoke to the audiobook’s director, Bob Deyan, owner of Deyan Audio. They’ve been in this business a long time and have produced more Grammy winners than Joe & Katherine Jackson (check out this roster!).
Bob was professional, diplomatic, and very enthused about the project. We had a discussion about narrators and tone for both books, and he auditioned several voice artists he uses often and let me listen to their recordings and select the one I thought most appropriate. When he found out I live about 20 minutes from his studio he immediately invited me to come down to record my brief Author’s Intro to the book and listen to a recording session. Since this kind of opportunity is about as rare as final-cut rights on a director’s contract, I jumped at the chance.
Deyan Audio is a repurposed two-story house in Tarzana (yes, it’s named after Tarzan; Edgar Rice Burroughs used to live here), California. The Deyans have kept the house’s homey and inviting feel while putting a great deal of effort and expense into creating a modern, top-flight recording studio. You can walk into the spacious kitchen and munch out to your heart’s content, then head upstairs to one of the three studios (Tarzan, Jane, and Boy) that use Pro Tools and Genelec monitors (this was hardcore porn for DJ & Composer Steve), and wonderful anechoic little vocal booths that made me want to go home and kick my ghetto-ass home studio. (I’m just kidding, little ghetto studio. I wuv you. Don’t be mad.)
Bob introduced me to his wife Deb and the three of us became instant old friends. That happens rarely and I cherish it when it does. Bob gave me a studio tour and then took me upstairs, where Ramon de Ocampo, ARIEL’s narrator, was in session, and I listened in for a while.
Let me backtrack a little here and mention that for a while it wasn’t certain that my publisher was going to pick up the audiobook option on ARIEL. I had actually begun recording it myself in my little home studio. Having been a podcaster for the last 3-1/2 years and a DJ for the last 10, I’m fairly well set up for it, and have learned enough postproduction skills to make a perfectly acceptable recording, at least in a technical sense. I’d recorded the first two chapters, but I found it extremely difficult for a couple of reasons.
First of all, even after three or four hundred podcasts, I remain quite mic conscious. You can put me in a room with a thousand people and I will have no trouble at all talking to them and being fast and funny and aphoristic and all like that, but give me an empty room with a mic and I just choke. I can’t pretend the damned thing is a person. I ain’t no actor.
The second reason is somewhat paradoxical: I’m too close to the material and too far away from it. I have no doubt I have read ARIEL at least 50 times. I revised and proofed it as I wrote it, after it was written, for publication, for e-book publication, and for reprint. I know vast stretches of it by heart and it’s so familiar to me that I ain’t sure what the words mean anymore. But by the same token, ARIEL was written nearly 30 years ago and I’m not only not the same writer I was then, I’m not the same person. And this different person had just completed a sequel that was markedly different in style, tone, and depth. I simply didn’t know how to approach an ARIEL narration.
So Ramon De Ocampo’s voice comes from a pair of dreamywonderfulkewl Genelec speakers in a little studio in Tarzana, California, and his voice isn’t my voice, and his take isn’t mine but is the take of a professional storyteller who isn’t overly familiar with the material, and by god he sounds like my protagonist to me.
It was an odd and wonderful moment.
Ramon came out of the booth and was enthusiastic as a puppy. The guy practically is Pete: we talked martial arts and movies and books and such, and we hit it off so well that Bob threw us into the tiny booth together and hit “record” and Ramon interviewed me for 20 minutes. (It’s included on the ARIEL audiobook; here’s a sample:
Bob’s all, I dunno why you say you’re mic-conscious, you’re fine, you’re too hard on youself. I tell him Just wait.
Then voice artist JD Jackson shows up to audition for ELEGY BEACH. Bob had suggested him and I immediately took to his voice and his style. Bob, Ramon, and JD asked me questions authors can only dream of when it comes time to adapt their work to audio: tone, voices, accents, delivery, rhythm. Good lord, I was in control freak heaven. I gave them suggestions (and later even recorded scratch vocal for JD, because ELEGY BEACH’s often-quirky style and even narrative layout presents spoken-word problems not present in ARIEL). I had opinions, of course, but the fun for me was in telling them I really wanted to be open to interpretations, that my take isn’t by any means the only one or even an authoritative one. I certainly didn’t want to try to direct over Bob’s shoulder, and it’s a credit to his confidence in his own work that he was so open to ideas. (On ELEGY BEACH we later mutually agreed to chuck several of my brilliant, artsy, and totally unworkable suggestions.)
Ramon and JD (who, I should mention, are also offensively good-looking men) took off, and Bob went into the studio with me to record the Intro. Take 1: you choked on that one a little, Steve. Take two: Just relax. Take three: Stop moving around so much, okay? Take four: wow, you really suck major hose at this, don’t you, Boyett? (Bob never actually said any of those; he’s way too nice. )
To anyone who thinks that voiceover work is just someone talking to a mic, I highly recommend reading up on plosives, sibilants, mic dynamics, diaphragm projection, pop screens, flat space, and about a thousand other details. I know all this and I still suck. These people have trained to use their voices as instruments with every bit the effort, technique, and
professionalism of a studio sax player. And audiobook recording is a highly competitive industry struggling with a limping economy, transforming business models in the face of New Media, and working very hard (and for significant material investment) in a field in which even their major successes are mostly unrecognized (what, you think Bob actually brought home any of those Grammys and Audies his productions won? Think again). I came away with an enormous appreciation for what they do at Deyan Audio, and for the efforts they took to include me as a collaborator in the translation of one medium to another.
My day at Deyan Audio was simply terrific, and I left excited about the audiobooks for both novels and delighted at having made new friends.
–Production just completed on the ELEGY BEACH audiobook. I’ll be writing a post on the audio production for both novels because my level of involvement was so unusual.
–My novella “Like Pavlov’s Dogs” has been reprinted in John Skipp’s Zombies: Encounters with the Hungry Dead. It’s at Amazon & should be in bookstores in a few days. I’m really glad it’s available again; it was written in a fevered couple of weeks and marked a change in my style in which I discovered the joys of indirect discourse through an omniscient narrator and began to employ a more kaleidoscopic approach.
–I’ve promised myself that today is the day I get back to finishing the revisions for my next novel. Believe it or not the book is actually finished and revised. The poor thing has been sitting there collecting piles of other work to be finished on top of it for the last six months while it waits for me to enter the on-paper revisions into the computer. Only a couple of months away from being finished and turned in to my agent, and then I get so busy I can’t get to it. This sure sounds familiar.
An excerpt from the 20-minute interview included with the ARIEL audiobook is now up on the ARIEL website. This was a totally impromptu interview conducted with Ramon De Ocampo, ARIEL’s narrator, the first time I visited Deyan Audio during the audio production. We hit it off right away and the interview came out great. Good thing, cuz we was way squeezed into that widdle booth.
Cory Doctorow’s review of the ARIEL reissue linked to a pic of his ganked-out copy of the original paperback, which he has read possibly more times than I have read A Wrinkle in Time (which I think I’ve read more times than any other novel). Curiously, over the years readers have sent me a few other pics of ganked-out copies of ARIEL.
Clearly these ARIEL-retentives need a nice shiny brandspankingnew copy.
Clearly the thing to do is to hold a contest.
So here’s the deal. Send me a picture of your own ganked-out copy of the original edition of ARIEL. The owner of the most nasty, gnarly, beatup dogeared puppychewed copy will win an autographed copy of the bright shiny new purty purty paperback edition of ARIEL, courtesy of Yrs. Truly.
Send your pix to . Deadline is noon, Sept. 17. I will be the sole arbiter of gankiness (no photoshopping, you clever devils you), and I’ll post the pic when I announce the winner.
It’s worth mentioning that the original edition in good condition is worth a bit nowadays, so you might want to think hard before you ganking-out that pristine copy just to win a new one.
So I’m out in the middle of shit nowhere in the northern Nevada desert exploring art projects on the playa one night at Burning Man with my friend Scott. We’re looking at this yurt that someone has set up. There’s nothing around it. Scott tells me he wishes he had a map of the Black Rock City so he could mark locations of some theme camps and art installations. (For a week the temporary Black Rock City that houses Burning Man is the fourth-largest city in Nevada, dontcha know.)
Through the oval doorway of the yurt I can see a nice soft floor, cushions, soft lighting, a comfy space in the middle of the hostile environment. I take some pix because it’s an inviting little oasis here. I duck my head and step into the oval. There’s a guy sitting inside the yurt right beside the door. He looks up at me as I come in and says, “Steve Boyett? I just met you at WorldCon!” In fact it’s Ryan Alexander, whom I clearly remember meeting at the dance I DJ’d at WorldCon in Montreal a month earlier.
Ryan has made postcards as gifts for people he meets on the playa. He gives one to my friend Scott.
The postcards are a map of Black Rock City.
And people ask me why I go to this.
I’m just back from Burning Man and playing catchup. I’ll put up a real post in a few days, and soon my Burning Man 2009 photo/video album. Meantime, if your’re so inclined, have a look at the albums for 2007 and 2008.
I’m off to Burning Man in two days. Am I ready? Yukkity yuk yuk. I still have to Playa-proof my laptop, pack, make a sign for my friend Scott’s brilliant Karma Box art project, launch two podcasts (one of which begins an ad campaign), take our parrots to be boarded (a line I can only imagine my younger self hearing my older self say), pick up the RV (what, you think I camp out there in a tent? Hellwiddat! I paid those dues a looong time ago, thank you veddy much), load the RV, and a lot of other things I’m sure I’m forgetting (oh, yeah: finish painting the hula hoops I made for my wife to bring along).
A couple of scattered things before I take off till Sept. 8:
–ARIEL launched on Tuesday and shot up to #1 on Amazon’s “Movers & Shakers” list, and to #185 on the overall best sellers. It didn’t stay there long and I didn’t expect it to — this is a reprint of a book published 25 years ago, ferchrissake. That it got up there at all is simply amazing (and I owe Cory Doctorow cappuccino for the rest of his life for the JATO units he stuck onto the book’s launch). And apparently Barnes & Noble has a LOT of ARIEL floor stands (known in the biz as “dumps”). I’m WaY sTOkEd!
–Audible.com is currently sponsoring my Podrunner podcast. Choose a free audiobook from any of 60,000 titles (including, ahem, ARIEL) when you sign up for a free trial membership.
–I’m hooked on The Colony on Discovery Channel. Big surprise, Mister Postapocalypse likes a fake postapocalypse show. It’s contrived but it’s still fascinating. I get all anthropological around this stuff. FWIW, I’m also hooked on Mythbusters (how could anyone not be?) and Deadliest Catch.
–I visited Deyan Audio yesterday to go over potential issues in translating ELEGY BEACH into an audio medium. ELEGY has a lot of — well, let’s call ’em quirks. And since I’m going to be out of town while they’re recording, they won’t be able to call me up to ask wotthehell some of my weirdness is supposed to mean, and howthehell it’s supposed to be spoken. The fact that they would call if I were around, and that I’m able to visit them and go over these things (and record scratch dialogue for the book’s narrator, and record my Afterword) is nearly miraculous. I’m doing a future blog post about my experiences at Deyan; it’s been wonderful.
–I tried to add several “What I’m Reading Now” plugins to my WordPress blog and couldn’t get any of them to work. Yeesh! Does anyone know of a decent one? Cuz, you know, the problem couldn’t be me.
–Everything around Los Angeles is on fire right now. I mean biblical, pillar-of-smoke-by-day, pillar-of-fire-by-night stuff. Smoky skies. The sunsets are nice, though. See, every silver lining is obscured by clouds.
Have a great week, everybody, & I’ll be back in about 10 days!
ARIEL is officially released today. Cory Doctorow, bless him, released a Boingboing piece on it this morning. Weirdly, I went to Barnes & Noble yesterday to pick up a copy of Cory’s short story collection OVERCLOCKED, because I’ve been reading his essays on intellectual property in the digital age for a while now, and after meeting him at Worldcon I was definitely intrigued to see what his fiction is like.
The B&N had a bunch of copies of ARIEL in two different locations. I was a bit surprised, because they’re usually pretty strict about not displaying until the official release date. Guess I ain’t J K Rowling. Am I complaining? Hellno!
At first it just seemed kinda cool. Oh, look, my book’s out already. Swell! Then I thought about how long it had been since I had a book out on a bookstore shelf somewhere (at least, a non-used-book store). I’ve published (and not published) a decent amount since ARIEL in various media and categories (though to read the reactions & PR you’d think I went to a Himalayan retreat for decades, what’s up with that?). But even so, it’s been a long time since I had a book out (and with my name spelled correctly, Sooper Bonus Points fer that!). And it hit me oddly. A sort of glad melancholy. It feels good.
But I’ll be honest: it’s ELEGY BEACH I’m really waiting for.
I know there’s a ton of stuff I ought to mention about my time at Worldcon that will go by the wayside here. The truth is that I’m not a very good documetarian. I’m usually so involved in what I’m doing that I forget to record it. I forget to take pictures (so that later on I can view them and say, Oh, so that’s what my trip was like). I don’t take notes or tweet about what I’m doing while I’m in the middle of doing it (nothing like watering down your personal experience as it happens). So I rely on my memory, and while I have a pretty good memory, I have also noticed that I go into an odd present-tense kind of mentality in experience-rich environments. Things go into short-term memory. Conversations, names, sequence: poof, gone.
So with that in mind:
Sunday I have only one panel but I’m also supposed to DJ the con dance, and John Scalzi has asked if I will crash a panel he is on about Michael Jackson. Since I find myself with surprisingly much to say about Michael Jackson, I happily agree. The panel centered on “Thriller” as a genre work, and the panelists (Nora K. Jemisin, John Scalzi, Stephen H. Segal) all had great anecdotes and information about Michael Jackson’s importance and relevance. I live in Los Angeles and was astonished at the city’s reaction not only when Jackson died but when the ad hoc memorial service was performed. I was on the road and saw the motorcade assembling at Forest Lawn. The city had put “Closed for Construction” signs on the Forest Lawn exits off the 5 Freeway, and when the motorcade set out for Staples Center about 10 miles away, CHP shut down the freeway for it. It made a lot of sense: everyone stops for 10 minutes and then goes about their day vs. a three-hour traffic jam as a line of cars full of celebrities makes its way to downtown LA.
But here’s the thing that really got me: in a city where drivers happily attempt vehicular homicide by passing you on the right in a breakdown lane so they can get two cars ahead of you to get to their double decaf no foam latté at Starbucks, I heard not one word of complaint about the freeway closure (unless you count bombastic Republican radio commentators, but who does?). Everyone just respectfully acknowledged it and went on. I was astounded. And I think the memorial itself, along with the endless broadcast of Jackson videos, served to remind people that they had allowed a man’s eccentricity to occlude his genius and innovation. You don’t don’t have to like Michael Jackson, but there’s no denying he was a game-changer in music, video, distribution, live concerts, choreography, and many other respects.
So it was really great to be on that panel and say some of these things and hear other people’s anecdotes and thoughts.
Immediately after this I was on a panel with John Scalzi and Jason Bourget called “Is Privacy a Thing of the Past?” I sat down and learned that in fact I was the moderator. Ah. Well, who knew. I’m expecting your typical 15-20 people in the audience kinda panel. Nope. Big room. Packed. Privacy a big deal to early adopter science fiction-type peepz. All righty, then. Grab the mic and say, “In my high school debate days they taught us to define our terms before we start arguing about them. So let’s talk about what we mean by the word privacy, and whether that very idea has undergone cultural change.” And we’re off. Whew.
I was told it was a very interesting and informative panel. My memory of it is somewhat jumbled, because it was a 90-minute panel, I’d just finished an hourlong panel, I’d had two ginormous cups of coffee, and I had to pee so bad I was seeing yellow. (Except I clearly remember being chock full o’ malaproposims early on. Faulty wiring, I guess.) I fled the thing the second it was done. There’s business, there’s PR, and there’s having a bladder the size of a walnut.
After that I went to to the Convention Ops and asked if I could get a look at the room where I was supposed to be DJing that night. Someone else leads me to where they’ve sectioned-off the back part of the ballroom to form a long narrow rectangle. Against one wall is a platform with some tables pushed together. On this is a Mackie mixer and an amp. These are connected to four two-way speakers on tripod stands at each corner of a 25 x 25 portable wood parquet dance floor. The speakers are set about chest-high. There are no subwoofers.
All righty then. I believe that if you find yourself in a fully stocked gourmet kitchen, you don’t have to be much of a cook to put together a decent meal. But a great chef can do things with Hamburger Helper and make you think, damn, this is a great meal.
So I go back to the Palais four hours before my gig. They’re setting up for the Hugo Awards in the main room, separated from me by a folding partition. I spend an hour hanging banners with paracord. Then I set up my rig. Turn on amp & mixer and play something really low. Tour the speakers and be sure we’re getting sound. Do some fiddling until I do get sound. Check.
Then I take apart their entire setup. I take the cables off the speakers and take the speakers off the stands and set the stands a yard higher and reposition them and put the speakers back on. Now the bodies on the dance floor won’t act as baffles for the sound waves. I hook the cables back up and line them along the wall as much as possible (it’s hard to trip over cables against a wall) and duct tape what’s exposed in traffic areas. I replace the PA’s three-dollar power strip with my cable squid.
There’s no way I’m going to wait until after the Hugo Awards to sound check & EQ this room, so I go over to the sound guys setting up for the Hugo and let them know that it’s gonna get loud in the other room for a minute. Then I go and make it loud in the other room for a minute.
There’s no booth monitor. The sound that reaches me will be lagging behind the audio in my headphones. If I beatmatch to it, I’ll be matching to something that actually happened a quarter-second ago. If I do that the result will sound like a bag of clocks. Or sneakers in a dryer. No, I will beatmatch by putting on my headphones and sticking my head under the table to isolate the deck cue.
The Hugo ceremony starts. I crawl under the table and take a nap. The Hugos end and I start up immediately. My goal here is not to pack the room — that ain’t gonna happen; you know that the second you see a setup like this. My goal instead is to make people sorry that they didn’t show up. And to make the people who did show up think, Damn, I’m really glad I showed up. Damn, this is a great meal.
I only played for a couple of hours. I recorded the gig and you can hear the results on my post of August 19. Though the gig went great, clearly everyone was tired (they all danced pretty much nonstop, too, which is what a DJ wants to see). Then a group of them helped me break down and carry my stuff back to my hotel. Bless their hearts!
There are parties. I skip them. The con is effectively over for me and I’m tired. I go to my room and set up my laptop and try to check my email. But my laptop, which just helped kick some serious ass for hours at the gig, is now pretty much a boat anchor. DOA. Okay. I know better than to argue with the weather. Beddy bye time.
Monday The planets aligned and I got to say goodbye to my new friends John Scalzi & Cory Doctorow on the way out, got to see most of da crew who helped me break down the night before, say goodbyes to people I met throughout the weekend, etc.
I headed out of the con and into the stepped-on anthill of the Montreal airport. Weather out of New Jersey was diverting, delaying, and canceling flights everywhere. Mine was an hour late and my connector in Cleveland wasn’t held. Me and three other stranded travelers stayed at a Ramada Inn. We went to the hotel bar, which looked remarkably like a woodpaneled mobile home with a pool table, got a pizza parlor to deliver us a pizza (apparently no one in Cleveland eats after 9:00 PM), drank margaritas, and traded stories for hours. Erica, Matthew, Rachel — hope the rest of your lives are as lively. What a great time that ended up being.
Two panels on podcasting and a panel called “Textbooks of the Future.” The podcasting panels were interesting. Mostly attended by people seeking technical and strategic information, of which there was a wealth to draw upon from the panelists. But it was a bit odd for me because most people were concerned with podcasting their fiction or some SF-related talk show, and the general understanding was that this isn’t a primary occupation, you won’t make any money, it’s a supplement to your main career goals, etc. Which is an entirely true and realistic expectation. But here I am with not one, not two, but three of the most popular podcasts in the world, from which I have indeed earned a living and which are a main career goal (along with writing — two full-time careers in one full-time life, am I dumb or what), but which have nothing to do with audio fiction of SF. So I ended up contradicting a lot of what’s said and looking all mega-diva, when I only meant to say Look, don’t rule out success and revenue; I’m proof it’s possible.
The “Textbooks of the Future” panel ended up being just me and Geoffrey A. Landis. He and I didn’t agree on much. The underlying question of the panel was whether textbooks can prepare you for, or in some way mitigate, future shock. My contention is that, first of all, textbooks don’t adequately prepare you for the present, and second of all, “future shock” (an alarmist sound bite coined by Alvin Toffler in his 1970 book of the same name to describe the whack on the noggin all of this information saturation and multitasking and ensuing cultural lag is supposed to give us) not only hasn’t come to pass, apparently something in our brains in fact gets off on all this information saturation like a dog rolling in something dead. Future shock has as its corollary the endless litany of SF novels that are essentially Frankenstein: By Thine Own Hubris Shalt Thou Be Undone. For a field that floats on a bubble of technological prognostication, science fiction is actually surprisingly alarmist.
For me the highlight on Saturday was meeting John Scalzi and crashing his dinner with Cory Doctorow, Anne Murphy, and John’s wife Krissy (FWIW I tried to politely beg off and Scalzi insisted, which was actually fine with me because they were all such good company that dinner was bound to be a blast). Cory has a truly exceptional mind and is admirably adept at expressing himself. John ain’t no slouch, either, and he’s also a pugnacious curmudgeon who goes for the jugular when he’s cornered, which I doubt happens very often, and which I confess reminds me enough of me to make me like him, which actually is unusual because whenever I meet someone who reminds me of me I usually can’t stand him or her. But John & I were instant old friends, and I look forward to the two of us getting in a variety of kinds of trouble together.
After dinner we set up shop at the hotel bar for the rest of the night, and it became evident that Scalzi knows EVERYBODY. And Doctorow knows EVERYBODY. Whereas I have (wholly voluntarily, you understand) lived under a rock, as far as the genre is concerned, for quite some time now. Even more fun, though, John & Cory know the kinds of people you like to get into trouble with, which are usually my kind of people.
John & Cory were up for Hugo awards and it was fun to be around their excitement over it. John ended up winning and is having a blast on his blog megaphoning about it. Cory didn’t win, and I have to say that if there were a Hugo award for most gracious Hugo nonwinner, he’d win it hands-down.
I get back to my hotel room late that night and find that Neil Gaiman has mentioned the New Media panel on his blog, and in the course of that he mentioned my name. Gaimin is an insanely popular writer with an insanely devoted following. People who read his blog click its links and Google people he mentions. People such as Steven R. Boyett.
I learn that my website account has been suspended because of the traffic.
That account hosts my writer site, my DJ/podcast site, the Ariel website, the Elegy Beach website, and my forum. Gone. Pfft. But here’s the staggering part: my podcasts generate over 40 terabytes of transfer a month. Now, most of that isn’t direct bandwidth; my podcasts’ mp3 files are hosted elsewhere. But I get about 2.5 million hits a month or so, and most of the traffic is people calling up the podcast feeds. My website doesn’t even hiccup at this.
But Neil Gaimin just mentions my name and ka-pow.
Neil, if you’re listening: You Must Use Your Powers Only for Good.
So that was a Real Fun Night of begging my site host to cut me some slack and reactivate my account, which they would only do if I would relocate the podcast feeds cuz that’s what was causing all the trouble. So I did. Type type type, beg beg beg, upload upload upload. And thank god I’ve learned to travel with all my necessary internet-related info onhand. Cuz there’s no better feeling than staggering into your hotel room in Montreal really late and half buzzed and dealing with technical support after learning that your entire online presence has been made an unperson.
Part One: Friday
It was a series of close calls even getting to Montreal; someone T-boned a CHP on the 405 Freeway and one of the busiest stretches of road in the world got shut down to one lane. A normally 45-minute trip to LAX took nearly two hours, and I was grateful it wasn’t longer. Barely made the flight, barely made the connecting flight, got to my hotel in Montreal 30 minutes before my panel started. Found out my room wasn’t ready. Checked luggage, hurried to the Palais d’Congres, registered with the con, got to my first panel about two minutes before it started.
So I’m at around 30 hours with no sleep, I’ve been in Montreal for about 38 seconds, and I’m about to start my first panel at Worldcon — the New Media panel with Cory Doctorow, Neil Gaiman, Ellen Kushner, Melissa auf der Maur, and Tobias Buckell in a very packed room. It was a delight to meet Cory, whom I’ve enjoyed reading for years (though I’ve yet to read his fiction; almost entirely I’ve followed his wonderful writings on intellectual property in the 21st Century). I had only recently learned he was a fan of my first novel, Ariel, and I was enormously flattered by his quotes for the reprint and on the upcoming Elegy Beach.
I’ve been in books with Neil Gaiman (Midnight Graffiti) and know people who know him but had never met him before, and to be honest we only met briefly a few times at the con. I found him to be charming and gracious. I’ve been between the covers with Ellen Kushner before, too (Borderland), though I haven’t seen her in yadda-yadda years (as I said, I haven’t been to cons in a long time). Melissa auf der Maur, former bass player with Hole & Smashing Pumpkins, was an absolute delight and we hit it off immediately. The fact that she’s a babe and a half, and a redhead to boot (not that I would boot a redhead, but a booted redhead is a thing of beauty, but I digress; as you can see I’m rendered dirt-stupid by redheadedness) was an Added Bonus Attraction. She was also a welcome non-writerly voice on the panel (I kinda switch-hit between my writerly & my DJ self). I’ve always loved musicians. Hell, I married one.
A lot of people reported this was one of the better panels of the con, so in a certain sense the con was over for me about the time I showed up. My goal wasn’t to be a Rock Star Love God (which, I’ll admit, was my goal at cons a kerjillion years ago), but just to promote my upcoming books & the podcasts. From that standpoint the con was a great success.
After the panel I had time to check in to my hotel, get a shower, and run back to the Palais for my reading (on the same hour slot with James Alan Gardner and Peadar O Guilin), which naturally I had not had time to practice, but which I managed to (mostly) ace because I tend to do better under pressure. Hot water used to be my natural element. If pressured I’ll admit to occasionally making the water hot myself in order to gear up. I’m not so much like that anymore; life provides enough pressure as it is, thank you very much, and self-imposed drama sure takes up a lot of energy.
But the reading went well, and I got some very nice & much-appreciated compliments, and some bloggers reported wanting to buy Elegy Beach after hearing me read from it, so what more could you ask? Later on someone told me, “You didn’t read that story, you performed it.” Which made me feel great. I’ll admit I’ve spent a lot of time learning exactly that: how to perform instead of merely read. It helps that I am something of a ham.
I hear that Friday night was the best night for parties. I dunno. I went to the party floor, looked around, realized I was running on fumes, and went to my room and into a coma.
Sci Fi Hi Fi
Recorded live at the World Science Fiction Convention Montreal where I DJ’d the Sunday night dance on August 9. 90 minutes long. You can play it here on the site or download & play wherever you like. Sorry, no set list yet.
Mignon Fogarty (better known as Grammar Girl) conducted an hour-long interview with me for her “Behind the Grammar” podcast. We talked about my upcoming books and the ways podcasting has influenced how I’ve tried to use new media to make the expeience of the books more inclusive and connective for readers, and about the state of intellectual property in the 21st Century. The interview will be out in a few months. I’ll link to it on my website’s News page, but meantime I highly recommend “Behind the Grammar” for anyone interested in books, publishing, and new media.
Things are starting to heat up as publication time approaches, and I’m sure I’ll have even more news to report beginning in September. The buzz surrounding ELEGY BEACH is a bit startling to me (at ComiCon the excitement from buyers for some of the major booksellers totally freaked me out). ‘ll post a report about the World Science Fiction Convention in Montreal as soon as I’m able to. Right now I need to dial in this WordPress installation. 🙂
Meantime, thank you so much for reading, and for your support!
Chapters 1, 2, and 7 are now available on the ARIEL website, You can read them on the site, download PDFs, or download ePub format for e-book readers (MobiPocket, Stanza, etc.) The first Audiobook chapter should be available on the “Listen” page of the website by the end of the week. I’m over the moon about the quality of the production from Deyan Audio (with wonderful music composed especially for the audiobook by Maureen Halderson). We’ll try to add a new audio section every week after the first one’s up.
The ARIEL audiobook will also contain an interview with me conducted by Ramon De Ocampo, the book’s narrator (whose reading is terrific). We’ll put up an excerpt on the ARIEL website as well.
ARIEL will also be published as an e-book from eReads about the same time the paperback and unabridged audiobook are released (August 25).
Elegy Beach will also be available as an e-book. Scheduled publication date is the same as for the hardcover and unabridged audiobook, November 3.
So far we have received wonderful quotes from Cory Doctorow, Patricia Briggs, Ilona Andrews, and more. The covers for both books have been getting great reviews on blogs, and we’re very excited about the reception both books are getting.