Dispatches from the Desk: Books for the Bad Times

A conversation on Ellen Kushner’s Twitter a while ago, to which I had added that one of the reasons for writing was “To do for someone else what someone once did for you in a bad time,” got me thinking about those books we turn to in the bad times, not only the ordinary ‘having a lousy day’ bad times, which just about any book you enjoy can redeem, or the times when the cumulative stresses of life, endurable when they come at you one at a time, gather in a horde to swamp you. It was books for the deep ones I really got thinking about, the ones where the world seems to be falling apart and you have to keep going on, somehow — illness, heartbreak, grief, depression, death — books for the inescapable that must be endured. Why do we return to those particular books? It’s not so simple as seeking mere escape or the comfort of the familiar.

Escape, as I wrote over a decade ago in Quests and Kingdoms, “. . . is important. . . . Escape is not denial of reality, nor an inability to cope with the real world. Healthy escape does not confuse fiction and reality. To remain healthy and balanced, the spirit needs to refresh itself: the mind needs to play, the imagination to stretch. Recreation implies restoration, renewal” (13). I was talking about the accusation that fantasy literature is ‘mere’ escape, but that accusation was levelled against all novels at one time, when poetry was the serious form for literature. Novels were escape, a weakness, a retreat. But retreat is not surrender. It is not a giving up. It can be the only feasible tactical move. Retreat, regroup, gather strength, set out again. It’s likely everyone has particular books that give them that space, that nourishment they need in such a time. It’s hard to define what it is that makes those the right books for the worst of times, though; I suspect a lot of it, when it’s particular books for the very worst, has to do with what that book gave someone the first time they read it (which they might not even have been aware of at the time), and how familiar it is now. It can be a falling back into that place, like turning to an old friend, who will say, ‘Maybe I can’t do anything — but I’m here, even at three in the morning.’ It’s not just one type of book, either — my own reading for seriously bad times has ranged from Tolkien through Ransome, Sutcliff, Farjeon, McKinley, Bujold, Cherryh’s Fortress series and Diana Wynne Jones to Glen Cook and Donald Jack.

I retreated to books a lot as a child, and I had very particular tastes. Fantasy, historical fiction, adventures in other times and places. That was what books were for. They took you away, and away, when you are the weird kid, is good. They also made the world a whole hell of a lot bigger. As a storyteller, a writer, I want to write books that will take readers out of themselves, give them someplace else to be, whether that’s for adventure, contemplation, exploration, or to get away from other things for a while. When I write now, whether for children or adults, I want to give readers emotionally mature or maturing people with integrity — some of them — and passion, and honour — or a notable lack thereof. Both protagonists and antagonists with layers and shadows all the way down. Horizons, with intimations of mountains even out of sight. Forests and darkness and sudden shafts of light. People on the edges of things doing what those in the centre will not or can not. Tragedy hovering, some people who can look at themselves and their world ironically. I want it to be exciting, entertaining, emotionally moving, perilous on both the physical and — let’s metaphorically call it the spiritual — levels for the characters, thought-provoking . . . . Those are all elements of a story that will suit my taste at any time, but for that one person who finds their own shadows in it at a time of need, echoed and acknowledged and perhaps, driven into the light, I can hope that it might be something more.

I wrote the first draft of what would become my first published book, Torrie and the Dragon, during the last summer of my father’s life. He was very ill and it was a time of desperate pretending all round that somehow this was going to get better, papered over knowing it would not. It ended up a light, funny quest story of the kind I would have wanted to read when I was nine; it was shallow, I recognized, shallow, and when (many revisions later) it was published, the enforced short length of a Canadian children’s novel in those days meant that the things I wanted to develop further, I couldn’t. I was not completely happy with it but had moved on to work on other things. But it had shadows of searing loss in it, even if only I could see them, and the things that had comforted me as a lonely child reading — friendship and honour and anger under the surface, distances to be travelled, wilderness, and mountains on the horizon — as well as the things I had sought in my own reading as a young woman facing a parent’s death, which I think were very similar. Then rather more years later I met someone who said they had loved that book as a child (you know you’re getting old when …) and that they had gone back and reread it more than once, found it a place of comfort and retreat during a family member’s final illness. They told me that at a time when I was particularly discouraged, and I just about ended up crying, because of that connection between their return to that first Torrie book* and the period of my life in which I had written it. I’d got something right, offered something that was needed. That mattered.

It’s not the only reason for writing, but it’s one of them.

*A greatly revised and expanded version of that book, which does more of what I had always meant it to do, is still in print today under a slightly different title, Torrie and the Dragonslayers.

Posted in Dispatches from the desk, Life, Torrie, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Dispatches from the Desk: A Long and Wandering Road, But Progress

Well, it’s been a while since I posted anything on the blog, and March being the start of a new year (at least it feels that way to me once the snow starts melting and the sap starts running — an important psychological year-mark even though I only own one sugar maple and don’t tap it), be it hereby resolved, I am going to post on the blog more often. I’m aiming for once a month. Go ahead and subscribe by email or the RSS feed thingummy [technical term] to get notifications of posts, if you will, and/or follow me on Twitter. I tend to be on Twitter a lot; it’s my home for virtual Marakander coffee-house socialization and I enjoy it, so why not try to bring some of the same approach to the blog, I said to myself this morning. Rather than feeling guiltily that I need to somehow scrounge time from writing whatever book it is I am presently writing in order to compose a long and thoughtful essay, I’m going to aim for some sort of monthly blog post of news and progress and reflections.

So here I am, and here we are, and what have I been up to lately? Well, The Lady came out in December. It’s the second volume of Marakand, completing the story begun in The Leopard. Marakand can be read as a sequel to Blackdog, or as a standalone, since although the histories are connected, the focus of the two is different. With that out and launched upon the seas of fate (go buy it, go read it, and give it lots of love in reviews . . . I, like every author, beg you — because that really helps), I’ve carried on with my current project, which is another book set in the same world.

How’s it going? Well . . . it’s been a long and wandering road. There was one element of the story, a very difficult psychological journey for a character, that took much thought and revision to get right. I couldn’t seem to get on with the external plot and the main characters’ external struggles, until I (and that one character) had mastered the internal one. You remember the old “themes” we were taught back in elementary school? In those days all stories were labelled as either “man against man”, “man against nature”, or “man against himself”? This one is definitely having two parallel stories happening, and one of them is “man against himself”. Those over-simplified “themes” are found in varying proportions in most stories, but in this case, getting right this story of a man struggling to survive the aftermath of great psychological trauma — shellshock, PTSD . . . in his world they would say he has been wounded in his soul — really dominated my work on this book for many months, to the point where in the end I concentrated on writing that one character’s story (and that of his partner which is necessarily closely entwined with his own and is in fact the warp thread of the book, the spine of the story), while leaving the strands of three other important people and the larger plot of external enemies, civil war, and stuff you’re going to have to wait for the book to learn about, for later.

But now, having finally written that strand of this polyphonic plot to my satisfaction, I am at the stage of going back to write the parallel-and-interwoven external story. “Man against . . .” what was that conversation Ahjvar and Ghu had in The Lady?

“Who are we fighting?”
“You and I? Mostly everyone . . .”

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Assorted guest blogs and interviews

I decided I’d done so many of these that it was time to list them all in one place. Here’s a directory of my interviews and guest blogs — ones that still exist at time of making this page! (And I’m updating as new things are posted.)

April 2015
Here’s a piece on on the late Sir Terry Pratchett for SF Signal’s Mind Meld.

December 2014

Sample: First chapter of The Lady at Civilian Reader. (Not technically a guest blog!)

The Lady at the Page 69 Test. You can also see it at America Reads.

Something I put together for Marshal Zeringue’s “What are Writers Reading?” blog. And again, it’s also here at America Reads.

All four published stories of Moth's world. (Three covers by Swanland, one by Artemisia.) Aren't they handsome? The contents are pretty damn fine, too.

All four published stories of Moth’s world. (Three covers by Swanland, one by Artemisia.) Aren’t they handsome? The contents are pretty damn fine, too.

The Draumr Kopa Blog did an interview with me about The Lady and other things.

And here is an author interview at The Book Plank.

The Book Plank also asked me to do a guest post about influences on my writing of The Leopard and The Lady.

November 2014

Here’s an interview about Blackdog at Beyond the Words.

February 2013

At Fantastist Enterprises, Magic on the Edges.

November 2013
Ah, and the guest blog on “out-brutalling the last guy” over at Skiffy and Fanty.

June 2012

On world-building, for Clarkesworld Magazine.

June 2012

An interview on the ArtsEast blog.

July 2011

Clarkesworld Magazine — part one of a multi-author interview on Epic Fantasy.

August 2011

Why Shapeshifters? at SF Signal.

And part two of the Clarkesworld Epic Fantasy interview.

October 2011
Five Things You Should Never Do in Epic Fantasy, ’cause people like rules. (Take all rules with a grain of salt!) This one’s at Adventures ini SciFi Publishing.

November 2011

An interview at the Functional Nerds podcast.

October 2011

An interview at the Adventures in SciFi Publishing podcast.

Posted in Blackdog, Marakand, News, The Lady, The Leopard, Uncategorized, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

First Chapter of The Lady is Online …

Today is the launch day for The Lady, the second half of Marakand, continuing the story where The Leopard left off.

The Lady: Marakand Part Two, cover art by Raymond Swanland

The Lady: Marakand Part Two, cover art by Raymond Swanland

My publisher, Pyr, has given permission to the Civilian Reader book blog to post an extract of it — the whole first chapter, in fact! So, if you want to get started while you wait for your copy to be delivered, head on over here to see how it begins.


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Coming Soon . . . The Lady (concluding second volume of Marakand)




Yes, it's the obligatory photo of the tower of books to show off the author-copies. The Lady is supposed to be out December 9th.

Yes, it’s the obligatory photo of the tower of books to show off the author-copies. The Lady is supposed to be out December 9th.

Marakand as it is meant to be read: one long novel in two volumes.

Marakand as it is meant to be read: one long novel in two volumes.

All four published stories of Moth's world. (Three covers by Swanland, one by Artemisia.) Aren't they handsome? The contents are pretty damn fine, too.

All four published stories of Moth’s world. (Three covers by Swanland, one by Artemisia.) Aren’t they handsome? The contents are pretty damn fine, too.


Posted in Blackdog, Dispatches from the desk, dogs, Marakand, Moth, News, The Lady, The Leopard | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Dispatches from the desk: Dreams in Fantasy

Last night I had the strangest dream — to abuse an Ed McCurdy song — and it started me thinking about how dreams are used in writing fantasy. More so than in other genres, the presentation of dreams in fantasy is an inheritance from antecedents in myth, legend, and folk-tale, where the act of dreaming is always of significance, and where the dream warns, foreshadows, or parallels the action of the story in some metaphorical way. In modern fantasy a character may dream in a realistic, primary world way — disjointed images of the day, anxieties, nonsense, codfish lying on the feet because the blankets have fallen off — but very often, authors will use dream in a way that is consistent with the reality of the fantasy, but which would seem over-artful if presented in a ‘realistic’ novel set in the primary world. If magic — the interconnection of things through unseen forces, the sympathetic bond between ‘soul’ and matter, or however the story presents it — is allowed, then dream is allowed to become more as well, and that is — useful.

Dreams become a device for flashbacks, for rapid switches from action (recalled in dream) to contemplation on the meaning or of the aftermath of the action, for recapping or reminding of a crucial moment for those whose memory of the event in the first book needs refreshed. They function to foretell and create suspense. They warn, ominously, and provide clues the characters cannot decode but which the reader, with the benefit of hindsight several chapters later, can enjoy interpreting. They can be used as metaphor, to explore a character’s state of mind or stir up hidden depths the author doesn’t yet want to lay out in the waking world, but which need to begin stirring, to emerge in due course.

Like all literary devices, it’s possible to overuse dreams. I like dreams and do find them very useful, so I worry, of course, that sometimes I’m overdoing it. I’ve been writing a character suffering from a great burden of psychological trauma — something akin to PTSD, shellshock. There’s no equivalent term used in a pre-psychology world for that aftermath of horrors. The modern psychological understanding of PTSD needs to have a more metaphoric terminology to sit comfortably with the cosmology here. Nightmares are only one of his symptoms, and his nightmares are pretty much just that, flashbacks in the psychological rather than the narrative sense, though they can function usefully as those too. I’d written several versions of a scene where this person, in discussion with another who knows something of dreams in the context of this world, in both their realistic, ‘psychological’, and their magical aspects, did begin to find a way to grapple with some of his various problems (so as to have some energy to deal with the external side of the plot, which was not hanging about twiddling its thumbs — I wanted the two things running in parallel). The problem I kept running up against was that I could not believe in this person ever baring his soul to the extent that he would discuss — what I needed him to discuss — with this other character. Or with anyone, but she’s the one he ought to talk to.

This brings me back to my strange dream, in which (amidst some interesting but irrelevant set dressing involving a barn, a 1930’s passenger plane, and a grey rainstorm), I had a long conversation with a friend about something that has been preying on my waking mind for a while now. In my dream, I was definitely playing myself; I said all the things and made all the arguments and excuses I know I would have made had the conversation been taking place in real life. My friend pointed out things and made arguments that were deeply perceptive, pertinent, occasionally angering and upsetting, and persuasive. I woke up feeling I had gotten to the truth of the matter and that my friend was right and had shed a great deal of light on things, except of course, that I had been writing both halves of the dialogue, putting the words in their mouth.

That, I thought almost at once, is how I need to handle some aspects of this character’s problem. Not a real discussion with the character who might help him, the one it just doesn’t seem plausible he’d ever unburden himself to, but a dream, in which his dreaming subconscious can use the other character to put into words what he is coming to understand but can’t get out where he can see it. (And no, my dream wasn’t about anything half so serious, or I would not be prattling about it here!) The thing is, if I had just had the notion to do this, have my character dream his discussion, I’m pretty sure I would have then discarded the idea as unrealistic and too contrived: too artificial as primary-world dream, and too unsuited to this secondary world’s understanding of psychology. Now, having had a dream myself where I wrote, as it were, the whole thing, and yet surprised and unsettled myself by what was being dragged out into the light, I can’t deny it is realistic. Having granted that such a dream is realistic, it’s simply a matter of casting it into correct form for my character’s world, and for his understanding of that world. Which, I suppose, means he might feel he did discuss things, in his dream, with this other character or some aspect of her that had a separate existence from himself, rather than in the complexity of his own subconscious — and that he might be right. I read Don Camillo at an early age, and now I recall that all of Don Camillo’s arguments with his crucified Christ above the altar are doing the same thing, though they aren’t usually cast as dreams. Is Don Camillo’s Christ real within the story, or merely the priest’s own conscience or subconscious? One can read it both ways, and either interpretation is valid within the reality of those stories, which is why the device works so well.

So there’s another use of dreams that I’m likely going to resort to, the almost Socratic self-analysis with the dreamer’s own unconscious playing the role of the interrogator/mentor/counsellor/analyst; looked at from a certain angle, it actually seems a lot more probable in my character’s world than mine, and since I now know the mind really can work that way, I can do it with a clear conscience. Unless, of course, my friend shows up tonight to argue me out of it. #SFWApro

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DragonCon 2014

It’s a bit difficult to keep up with things this fall. We’ve moved house and I’m still not unpacked, with so many things looming that Must Be Done in the next month or so — making insulating curtains, getting my poor migrated perennials out of their pots and into the ground before the frost, making an insulated trapdoor for the attic to forestall the escape of most of our heat upwards … the laws of thermodynamics have become a significant concern. Meanwhile, such minor matters as unpacking my clothes and the boxes of books which occupy every square foot of the study not claimed by my desk get put on hold, and the kitchen cupboards still have labels to tell us where to look for the plates. It’s been a week since DragonCon, though; time to get something up.

Me and the big poster for The Leopard. That Swanland cover looks gorgeous blown up to this size. Wish I could have smuggled this away for my wall at home.

Me and the big poster for The Leopard. That Swanland cover looks gorgeous blown up to this size. Wish I could have smuggled this away for my wall at home.

So what did I think of my first DragonCon? There was a lot standing in queues in the scorching sun, and that was just to pick up my badge. I’m not sure that combining people needing to pick up prepaid badges into a many-blocks-long line with people who wanted to buy a day pass is an idea that will win the organizers any friends, though. Printing the map very, very small, on newsprint, in pale grey, is likewise not really the best notion anyone ever had. However, once I finally was permitted to be admitted, and had found the Pyr Books booth, my home away from home for the duration, I greatly enjoyed the chance to meet people and talk books with them. It was particularly great to connect with some longtime fans face to face. (Jay, that means you!)

Signing books at the Pyr Booth at DragonCon 2014. All photos in this post are by Lou Anders - the silly expression is his fault.

Signing books at the Pyr Booth at DragonCon 2014. All photos in this post are by Lou Anders – the silly expression is his fault.

Signing books again (still!)

Signing books again (still!)

Jon Sprunk, Joel Shepherd, Clay and Susan Griffith, E.C. Myers, J.F. Lewis, and I pretty much moved into the booth for the duration, to hang out with our editor Lou Anders and Meghan Quinn and Mariel Bard, the pool-playing publicists, while Mike Resnick dropped by a couple of times. We did a lot of people-watching as well as bookselling, as you can imagine. Quite a lot of that involved me saying to Jon or his wife Jenny, “Um, so what’s that one?” since I’m not really that up on recent TV. I did see a very well-executed Moist von Lipwig in Postmaster regalia, although I didn’t get a photo as I hadn’t brought my camera. I met up with Rob Sawyer on the flight home, so it was a chance to renew old acquaintances too.

K.V. Johansen and Jon Sprunk, hanging out at the Pyr Books booth.

K.V. Johansen and Jon Sprunk, hanging out at the Pyr Books booth.

I staggered into my house at about 2:30 in the morning, home at last, to be met by a very excited dog, who, after the obligatory greeting, headed straight for my backpack. He was somewhat disappointed to find it a) zippered and b) devoid of exotic foreign biscuits, after the Marks and Spencer Almond Biscuit Incident of the prior week. (Those who follow on Twitter will recall that I brought home my long-remembered favourite M&S biscuits from London, since M&S abandoned the Canadian market some time ago, only to have Mr Wicked discover them in my backpack and devour half the package before I had been home ten minutes.)

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