What Not To Read When the World is Falling Apart

Let me tell you about what I’ve been reading recently. First of all, over the past week, I’ve been reading a lot of news about the horrors in El Paso and Dayton. As well as the continuing horrors in Washington, D.C., and most of the rest of the world.

Just before El Paso and Dayton, I had finished reading Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower, a beautifully written dystopia filled with all the horrors that people of color already face in many of our cities every day. It ends on a hopeful note, but on the way takes the reader through a lot of violence and terror and despair.

Last weekend I attended ArmadilloCon, Austin’s convention for readers and writers of science fiction and fantasy. One panel was about what has recently been dubbed #hopepunk fiction. Panelists asked whether readers were becoming weary of a steady diet of dystopia. I’m pretty sure our answer was “Yes. Now what?”

At the convention, I bought two books from an up-and-coming Native American author, Rebecca Roanhorse, and found myself with plenty of time on my hands to read them this week after I fell victim to the latest virus traveling through the social circles my grandkids travel in.

Roanhorse’s Trail of Lightning and Storm of Locusts are skillfully crafted stories with larger-than-life characters in a post-apocalyptic world in which the gods and heroes of the Diné (Navajo) nation manifest in some stunningly impressive ways. Great stories. Very violent. Every character morally gray (which is fine). Many of them a very dark gray. And of course, since Roanhorse is writing a trilogy, book two ends with some sense of resolution followed by one of those “OH MY GOD, NO!!” moments that are the mark of the great writer who knows how to get you to buy her third book.

So there I am–sick, depressed, steeped in the eerily parallel violence of dystopian fiction and breaking news. What to do? I thought I needed a break, a different book that would pull me out of my funk. Maybe something contemporary. So I went to my bookshelf and found a nice hardback I’d picked up sometime back and carried it upstairs with me last night for a good restorative bedtime read. I was only a few pages into the book when I remembered what it was about. This was Elizabeth Crook’s Monday, Monday, which begins with the 1966 tower shooting at the University of Texas. Her description is slow-motion and elegant as a dagger. I broke down in tears as I laid the book aside.

I didn’t sleep well.

This morning I woke a bit late and scurried around in order to make my breakfast date with my son and his family. If anything could pull me out of my funk, the grandkids could.

Tacos and donuts and grandbabies. I was definitely feeling better. Well enough to share with my daughter-in-law what I’ve been going through. She confessed that she’d just finished re-reading Pollyanna. Maybe I’d like to borrow it? Tempting, but…no.

You see, I don’t want to just hide from the violence and hatred. I don’t want to cover it over with prettily-painted, trompe-l’oiel wallpaper and pretend it’s not there. I just want to see something in our world, something in us, that can reassure me that we’re more than this, better than this.

Show me some hope.

Driving home I remembered something from my college days that I had worked into the second book of my Recall Chronicles. Malia, the main character in Shadow of the Hare, is alone in a little hotel in India, struggling to cope in a post-apocalyptic world.

“I read for a while, [she says] struggling through a short story in French that Simone had shared with me. It was about a little blind girl whose parents, with collusion from the village priest, had conjured a beautiful and perfect world for her, never let­ting her encounter anything ugly or sad. She was so angry when she discovered what they’d done, what the world was really like. “Je ne veux pas etre heureuse,” she cried. “Je veux savoir!” I liked the story. I don’t want to be happy—I want to know. I made a cup of tea and read it again.”

That story has stayed with me all these years and it has kept me asking questions, never content to rest in my privilege or comfort, always wanting… to know.

Here’s what I know now: I want both. Yes, I want to know. But I also want to be happy. I DO want to be happy, dammit. And I want you to be happy, too.

My job as a writer, especially as a writer of speculative fiction, is not to write #grimdark, violence-filled dystopian and apocalyptic stories devoid of hope; nor is my job to write pretty #noblebright fiction in which saviors magically come to our rescue. No, my job is to face the reality of #grimdark and somehow dig out of it… some shred of hope. Some deeply human determination to hope in spite of everything.

They say we have to write the stories we want to read. Okay, then. If all goes well, my book will be out early next year.

(A version of this essay was read earlier today at Austin Writers’ Roulette, hosted by Teresa Y. Roberson at Malvern Books.)

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Writers & Anthropologists

“Writers are even worse than anthropologists when it comes to taking notes on human behavior,” Meg thinks, as she watches Seth surreptitiously photographing people and making notes on his phone as they travel on an overcrowded bus from Belmopan to Belize City.

I am both a writer and an anthropologist, and creating characters I’d like to know in real life is one of the great pleasures of writing. I love my characters in my new book, NOT KNOWING. Yes, even the difficult ones.

Meg Fitzellen is a troubled but dedicated archaeologist, firmly committed to science but pursued by things she can’t explain. Magic? Surely not! Her husband, Seth, is a science fiction writer, wrestling with questions of time as his own fictional characters, the Timecrypters, shuttle from past to future and back again. Meg’s best friend Indra is a mycologist whose dissertation research focused on the psilocybin mushroom. And then there’s Pacál, the troublesome undergraduate who is the son of famous archaeologists and who may know more about Meg’s past than she would like to believe. There are also two parrots that really ought to be included in the cast of characters…

You can meet all of these and a few more when NOT KNOWING is released on July 20. Pre-order the Kindle version now, or come get a copy of the paperback at my release party at Malvern Books!

The Writer’s Journey

It was just four years ago—June 5, 2015—that I published my first novel, Way of the Serpent. I didn’t know at the time that it was the first volume of the Recall Chronicles. I only knew it felt absolutely amazing to hold in my hands, between actual covers, a story that I had conceived and written.

Now I’m on the verge of publishing my fourth novel, the first one that is a stand-alone, not part of the series. And I’m as excited about it as I was about my first. I feel like I’ve finally made a commitment to be that self-published writer, resolutely embracing the tedium and responsibility of editing and marketing that goes along with the artistic freedom of writing whatever kind of story I damn well please. Maybe part of the struggle to reach this point comes out in the new novel, in the character of Seth Abbott, my main character’s husband, the science fiction writer doing battle with his agent and publisher over his time-travel stories:

“Seth paused and while his expression darkened, his eyes seemed to light up. ‘You know, sometimes I think these Timecrypters are about to break through to another dimension of the multiverse. Into another order of time and space altogether.’ Then his voice went flat. ‘But I don’t think that’s where my agent and my publisher think our market is. So I keep bringing them back into more ordinary three-phase time, our famil­iar universe. Past, present, future.’”

Of course I do hire editors along the way and they’ve been immensely helpful. And I have some amazing readers who willingly give me feedback on my work in progress. I tried hiring a publicist for a while, but I was still trying to figure out who I am as a writer and that didn’t work out so well.

The new novel is called Not Knowing. The main character is an archaeologist working in Belize, where I worked as a cultural anthropologist for many years. She’s got some heavy stuff weighing her down and the story is about how she eventually digs through it all (well, most of it) to find… Oh, come on, just read the book! (Don’t tell, but the Kindle version is already available for pre-order on Amazon.)

The Encounter

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Way of the Serpent opens with Jenda Swain’s encounter with an old woman, a woman Jenda doesn’t remember. “Of course you don’t remember,” the woman says. “Nobody remembers much of anything anymore.”

Shadow of the Hare begins with the same scene, but this time the reader is seeing it from the viewpoint of the old woman, Malia Poole, a dissident author and bibliophile. Here is what happens as Malia leaves the cafe where the encounter occurred:

Tears began to fall as soon as I was out on the street. I felt betrayed. Damn these disconnected memories! I have more memories than most people these days, but there’s that one year from high school—the period when I knew Jenda best—that’s always been a blank. At least until recently. It’s cruelly ironic that now I’ve reached an age when normal memories start to fade, these submerged ones begin to wash up like shards of sea glass on a beach. I write them down, cataloging them like curios of uncertain provenance, although sometimes I wish I could hurl them back into the ocean of forgetfulness from which they came.

After I left the café, I couldn’t stop thinking about Jenda. She felt like a key to something. I may not remember a lot about her, but I do know that up-tight little prude with the pressed lapels isn’t the girl I knew in high school. I’m pretty sure that back then she was a passionate Vintagonist. Something had happened to her, something very different from what has happened to me.

Preorder Shadow of the Hare.

You haven’t read Way of the Serpent? Free download continues through April 9.

Respect

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As I prepare to set off on a journey to Arizona to contextualize the Hopi character of Dextra Honanie (Recall Chronicles, Vol. III – Flight of the Owl), I must take heed of J.K. Rowling’s current tribulations in Pottermore.

Rowling is in process of attempting to construct a bridge between the world of Harry Potter and “magic in North America”.  Adrienne Keene, in her blog “Native Appropriations”, takes Rowling to task for several transgressions, beginning with the reification of something called “Native Americans”. Keene rightfully points out that this is a broad and diverse cultural category, encompassing as it does Inuit, Apache, Hopi, Iroquois, Navaho, Cherokee, and many other equally distinctive societies.

Rowling also gets into some awkward attempts to intertwine the fictional world of wizardry with some real events in American history. I fully understand the temptation of providing a Potteresque slant on the Salem witch trials, but I’m mystified by Rowling’s statement that the Magical Congress of the United States of America (MACUSA) was founded in 1693, a full 83 years before the founding of the United States of America itself. Magic, I guess.

One of the most charming features of Rowling’s marvelous world of wizardry has always been its existence as a world apart from specific time and place, a world exemplified – to my mind at least – by Platform Nine and Three-Quarters. Trying to link up with history and a named continent full of real people with complex, still vibrant cultures kind of messes with the magic.

My own fictional world in The Recall Chronicles is clearly linked to real places and potentially real times. And that is why I want very much to get my Hopi character right, or at least plausible enough to be acceptable to Hopi readers. I’m looking forward to my adventures in Arizona!

(More musings on fiction, fantasy, and the real world are in the works.)

Way of the Serpent is speculative fiction.