My last real “writer journey” was in March of 2016, when I traveled through New Mexico, Arizona, and west Texas collecting interviews and images and impressions for FLIGHT OF THE OWL, book 3 of my Recall Chronicles series. I took a wonderful journey to Ubud, Bali, in June 2019 as I prepared to release my one stand-alone contemporary fiction book—NOT KNOWING. A draft of the first book of my EarthCycles series (SONG OF ALL SONGS) was already in the hands of beta readers at that time, so my trip to Bali was not about researching or writing anything in particular, but rather about settling into a better understanding of who I am as a writer.
Writing got placed on the back burner at the beginning of 2020 as I temporarily took on a more active role as caregiver for my young granddaughter.
And then COVID happened. I found that I had lots of time for writing and kept moving ahead slowly despite the daily distractions of politics and pandemic. In the last three years I’ve published three more books: SONG OF ALL SONGS in 2020, BOOK OF ALL TIME in 2021, and BEYOND THE ENDLESS this year.
Now I’m returning to the Recall Chronicles to write a book four: FINAL RECALL. This story begins exactly where book three—FLIGHT OF THE OWL—left off, with Dextra and Jonathan and Gavin on a plane departing Costa Rica. But whereas Jonathan was the main character in FLIGHT, Gavin is the main character in this one. Major reorientation! They land in Santa Fe, New Mexico. So that’s where I’m going this week. And from there I will trace out the journey Gavin subsequently takes, going south from Santa Fe toward White Sands and then east into Texas. I can’t wait to take my imagination out on the open road!
One of the joys of being a self-published author is that you can price your books however you like and if the notion strikes you to offer your readers a bit of a gift, you can do it without consulting anyone.
So here you go, dear readers: For a limited time, the ebook of Book of All Time (EarthCycles Book Two) is only $2.99. A whole adventure for less than the price of a latte! And you know Book Three is coming soon..!
I know you’ve heard over and over that you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. It’s a way of telling us not to judge people or situations on appearance. But with respect to actual books, people judge them by their covers every single day! The cover is how an author begins to tell their story, instantly setting up the reader to expect romance, thriller, cozy mystery, science fiction, fantasy, etc. The cover is a promise to the reader.
I reached the painful conclusion that the original cover for Song of All Songspromised too much “fantasy” and not enough “science fiction.” So I’ve changed it—commissioned a new cover that more faithfully promises what the story can fulfill.
Sometimes an author doesn’t fully understand what genre they’re writing until they’ve finished the story. This is especially problematic for anything within the category often termed “SFF”—science fiction/fantasy. When the author is an anthropologist, it gets even more fraught!
In many nonwestern cultures, there is neither “science” nor “magic,” and neither of those terms is especially relevant to the cultures I write in my EarthCycles books. There’s only what is. What works. When you write a story set in such a world, what genre does it belong to?
As I delved more deeply into the question of genres and sub-genres, I realized that all of my favorite books and writers can be encompassed within one (or both) of the sub-genres called “soft science fiction” or “science fantasy”—1984, The Handmaid’s Tale, N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy, almost everything Ursula LeGuin wrote, and my latest favorite—Remnant Population by Elizabeth Moon.
I’m hopeful that my new cover—and in fact the entire set of covers for the EarthCycles trilogy—will more faithfully communicate to readers what kind of story they can expect to find inside.
It’s not pure fantasy (as the original cover may have signaled), although it checks many of the boxes of what constitutes fantasy literature. The story’s setting in Earth’s far, far future is a critical departure from most fantasy tales, which tend to take place in the distant past. Most importantly—there’s no magic! There’s more than a touch of mysticism, but those who engage in it don’t call it magic. Of course…all of this depends on how you define magic.
The story is also not classic science fiction—there are no spaceships or extraterrestrials, no super-duper technology. The story is firmly grounded on a post-apocalyptic planet Earth, where much of our familiar 21st-century technology has been lost. The fact that some of the operational principles aren’t what purists might classify as science makes no difference—within the context of the story, these things are facts of life. Reality. Not magic. The focus on social evolution and social relations places the story in the sub-genre of “soft science fiction,” so called because of its reliance on the “soft sciences” such as psychology, sociology, political science…and anthropology? Well, there’s another conundrum: Anthropology studies culture, society, political systems, language, religion, but also genetics and evolution and technology. You did know I have a PhD in anthropology, right?
I hope you love the new covers as much as I do. If you want a sneak peek at the cover for book two—Book of All Time—click HERE. It’s coming in August!
And just in case you haven’t read Song of All Songsyet (what are you waiting for??) watch Goodreads for a special giveaway, going on the entire month of June!
I woke up a couple of days ago dreaming of a burning house. I was inside the house, but I wasn’t trying to get out. I wasn’t even particularly disturbed. I had closed the door to my room, trying to ignore the growing conflagration in the rest of the structure, apparently worried only about the collection of books on my shelves.
My first waking thought was: “My house is burning down with me in it.”
And I knew the dream wasn’t really about a house. It was about me, my aging body, and the fact that there truly is no way to escape. It’s burning down with me in it, and I just ignore it. I close the door and try not to think about it.
The dream may also be about the state of our world. Now that there’s no Donald Trump shenanigans to fixate on and now that COVID-19 is becoming something that is no longer an immediate threat to my life (Yay, vaccine!), I’m seeing more clearly the generally disastrous state of things—the racism and the misogyny and the poverty and the precarious climate and the probability of further pandemics and the belligerent ignorance and all the myriad manifestations of inequality and injustice that cluster on our borders and fester in our cities and towns. Our house is burning down with us in it. And we close the doors and try to pretend it isn’t happening. When some of us shout “fire,” others just look around inside their own rooms and shrug, ignoring the rising heat and all the closed doors.
What to do?
As for my aging body, I intend to pay more attention to exercise and other forms of self-care.
As for the world, I intend to emerge from my COVID isolation and keep saying what I see and what I know and writing stories about it. I may even occasionally shout, “Fire!”
A persistent trope among readers and writers on social media is the debate between those who prefer digital reading devices and those who prefer “real” books. In the last few years, devotees of audio books have also waded into the fray. It amuses me how partisans of each type seem convinced that their preferred format really is the best as they seek to convert or disparage the rest.
The question came up in my novel, Shadow of the Hare. The main character, Malia, is a dissident in the Recall movement and adamant in her devotion to the physically printed word. Her preference emerged in childhood:
“I spent hours not only reading but arranging and rearranging my books on the shelves in my bedroom, finding sensual pleasure in the feel and smell and weight of them, the hard squaredness of their corners, the colors and images on their covers, the textures of their papers. The occasional, inevitable paper cut was a blood bond.”
She and other partisans of Recall became fearful of how digital media could be too easily revised and manipulated to suit the politics of the moment. In her world, printed books had become a resource hoarded by dissidents.
They may be onto something there.
Nevertheless, I understand that digital books are much more convenient for travelers and may also have some appeal to those advocating for the trees. You don’t have to cut down any trees to produce and access books on Kindle or Apple. People of a certain age also point out the convenience of being able to create their own LARGE PRINT VERSION of whatever book they like.
My latest book, Song of All Songs, features a main character who can’t read. She belongs to a future version of humanity, people who process the world in such a way that strings of figures printed on pages resist translation into anything meaningful. (They have other remarkable capabilities that far outweigh this seeming disability.) There are people in our own time and place who share this characteristic to some extent, of course. Books read aloud definitely appeal to such individuals. Audio books also appeal to people who want to read on the fly, on the run, on the commute, or while they’re doing other things like cooking dinner or cleaning the house.
All three formats have their place. The question of what constitutes a “real” book disappears when we focus on the stories themselves. Real stories can be written down and printed on paper. They can be composed digitally and accessed through cyberspace. They can be told aloud and listened to. Stories can also be acted out in plays and movies. The stories are what matter. However you choose to produce them and consume them is up to you. Just keep enjoying the stories!
NOTE: Song of All Songs is currently available as either a paperback or digital book. The process of producing the audio version begins next week!
“When anthropologist Donna Dechen Birdwell turns her keen sense of how societies evolved in the past toward imagining a post-apocalyptic future, the result is a thoughtful, nuanced, intelligent thriller.” — Robert J. Sawyer, Hugo Award-winning author of The Oppenheimer Alternative
“Song of All Songs is a beautifully written and richly realized vision of the future, informed by a deep understanding of humanity.” — Christopher Brown, Campbell and World Fantasy Award-nominated author of Tropic of Kansas and Failed State
“Song of All Songs is a lovely book. It is sad and hopeful both, and I thought about it long after I read the last page.” –Patrice Sarath, author of The Sisters Mederos and The Unexpected Miss Bennet
Long after the apocalypse, Earth has repeopled itself. Twice.
Despised by her mother’s people and demeaned by her absent father’s legacy, Meridia has one friend—Damon, an eccentric photologist. When Damon shows Meridia a stone he discovered in an old photo bag purchased from a vagrant peddler, she is transfixed. There’s a woman, she says, a dancing woman. And a song. Can a rock hold a song? Can a song contain worlds? Oblivious of mounting political turmoil, the two set out to find the old peddler, to find out what he knows about the stone, the woman, and the song. But marauding zealots attack and take Damon captive, leaving Meridia alone. Desolate. Terrified. Yet determined to carry on, to pursue the stone’s extraordinary song, even as it lures her into a journey that will transform her world.
Today I was looking at this newest piece of fiction I’ve written and I asked myself, “Where did that even come from? How did I get to a place where I would think such a story into existence?” And then I remembered this poem that I wrote back in 2003.
When I look back
And try to see how I’ve come
To where I am today
I recognize a few landmarks
But there is
I have slipped through the forest
Glimpses of the mountaintop
The slant of the sun
The moon between the branches
I have crossed a few paths
Maybe walked at the edges
Of some fairly well-trodden roads
From time to time.
But it is impossible to tell
Where I’ve come from or
How I’ve gotten here from
Wherever I began.
No path. (4/18/03)
I struggle most days, in the midst of this pandemic, to edit my next book, to prepare it for publication, to write the next story after this one. I rarely turn out more than a few hundred words a day and sometimes none at all. I have to ask myself: Why am I doing this? Why does it matter that I write? Why does it matter that I write this particular story?
For one thing…if I should die of this damn coronavirus thing, I don’t want to leave behind an unfinished manuscript.
But that’s not enough. Why is this story something I want to finish?
What is it about?
It’s about humanity. About all the things that may or may not be “human nature.” About our diversity and how diversity is the bedrock of survival.
It’s about a woman who thinks, because she is biracial, that she is nothing. And then discovers that she is everything.
It’s about people who hate and distrust and misunderstand one another and then end up needing one another to survive.
It’s about us.
I’m ready to launch Song of All Songson August 28. I’m ready to tell you a story I believe in.
A protester carries a U.S. flag upside, a sign of distress, next to a burning building Thursday, May 28, 2020, in Minneapolis. Protests over the death of George Floyd, a black man who died in police custody Monday, broke out in Minneapolis for a third straight night. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)
I got up this morning experiencing a sense of déjà vu that sent me looking for my bound volume of all the campus newspapers from my senior year in college—1969-1970. I was editor-in-chief that year, so there’s a lot of me on those pages, from editorial decisions about what got covered and what went on the front page to editorial statements (many, in retrospect, rather outrageous!) about everything that was going on that year.
There was a lot going on. There was a Moratorium declared in opposition to the Vietnam War. On December 2, 1969, there was the infamous draft lottery. We put out a special issue on the environment in March of 1970. There was also the Texas Pop Festival and skinny dippers in Turtle Creek. But I think what prompted my déjà vu was the memory of our black students’ association (yes, we had one at SMU) and the list of demands they drew up and how meticulously we tried to cover them in the student newspaper. We got criticism for that.
The previous year, in May of 1968, I had submitted a term paper in which I cited numerous political theorists and a few black activists. The paper concluded that white America had long since declared war on black Americans and that black people had every right to fight back, including with violence. I quoted extensively from James Baldwin and even included one citation of Stokely Carmichael’s writings.
There had been repeated riots through the 1960s. We may have thought that the Civil Rights Act and school integration and a few other achievements would fix things. More recently, we may have thought that having a black President would fix things.
Nothing has been fixed. The past decade has seen a vicious resurgence of (never dormant) white supremacy with its constant toxic handmaiden, white privilege. And black people and other people of color have had enough. The current pandemic has revealed the deadly extent of existing economic and healthcare inequalities. The murder of George Floyd forced us to see what we haven’t wanted to see: The heritage of slavery and Jim Crow are with us still.
When people time after time are pushed to the brink, when they ask for and then beg for and then demand change and nothing changes, eventually something explodes.
When it’s a gas fire, you don’t just spray water. You turn off the gas. And until we address the very real structural inequalities that exist within our society, we’re going to keep having explosions. Maybe even some big ones.