Books and Stories

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!

What They’re Saying

“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

Please join me virtually for the official book launch and conversation with Patrice Sarath, 7 p.m., August 28, via Malvern Books and Zoom! You may pre-order a paperback from Malvern Books and an eBook from Amazon

What is the book about?

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.

1960s Déjà Vu

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.

 

Not Blogging

“Gifts”

Wow. My last blog post was in October of last year!

I really shouldn’t let myself get “too busy” to blog. But apparently that is what has happened to me over the past four months. What have I been busy doing? Writing, editing, synopsizing… and for the past two months looking after my precious baby granddaughter every weekday.

My next book, tentatively titled Song of All Songs, is finally feeling ready to query. I’ve incorporated advice from a professional editor and three specialized (and very helpful) beta readers. (Thank you Teresa, Claire, and Cheryl!) I’ve also rejiggered a few things in the story after realizing that it is really book one in a series that I’m calling the Earthcycles Trilogy. I’ve already written about a third of book two and settled on a primary plot arc for book three. I’d tell you more, but I’d rather not until I see where this might go in the traditional publishing world.

Then there’s been the baby-tending, which is both exhausting and exhilarating. Physically exhausting because she’s not quite 16 months old. But exhilarating because this is such an intriguing time of discovery for her. How tiny humans learn language (verbal and gestural) and figure out how to coordinate bodies that don’t come pre-programmed as other mammalians’ bodies do is amazing! Of course, this particular little human goes about it in her own way that is different from the way her big brother did it, which also differs from the path taken by her dad (my son) or aunt (my daughter). I’d show you pictures of her, but her parents have decided that until she is old enough to consent (or object), her image will not be shared on social media. And I respect their respect for their children. So the image I selected to accompany this post shows the gifts the little girl gave me one day when we went walking…  

In March, baby girl will be starting preschool. (I’ll miss her hugs!) And I will be back to full-throttle writing and blogging!

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.)

Writers’ Conference Takeaway

"Overwhelmed" 18 x 18

“Overwhelmed” 18 x 18

I spent the past weekend immersed in a rather wonderful “agents and editors conference” put on by   Writers’ League of Texas   in Austin.  I’m a newcomer to this whole writing and publishing game, so I was eager to learn, excited about pitching to an agent face-to-face, curious to see what other writers are up to and what they have to say about what we do. I was looking for insight on how to plot my course forward as I nurture my first self-published novel and ready the next one for its eventual debut in print.

Here is what I think I learned from my colleagues and the gatekeepers of our profession:

Although there are many paths forward, there seem to be two disparate directions the novice writer might take. One I would call the “path of honor”. This path is pursued by submitting material for contests and literary journals, striving to accrue accolades from the anointed and an eventual place within a “big house”. The other is the “path of material reward” – marketing the hell out of deliberately marketable stories and raking in the dollars from an adoring public, keeping them salivating for more. However much we wish to believe in a convergence of these paths, it’s rare. Exceptionally rare. I met successful and talented writers on both trajectories and I maintain deep respect for their personal choices, diligence, artistry, and generosity in sharing stories from their respective paths.

I’m not sure either of these distinct directions is for me. I’m an independent at heart, happiest when I’m doing my own thing. I don’t care much for either accolades or material reward. I want readers. I want to reach people who want to think about and talk about the things my stories are about. And I believe stories always have to be about more than a sequence of events. As an artist, I finally had to accept the label of “conceptual artist”, however uncool that may be. I’m also a conceptual writer.

I come away from the conference still uncertain of my path forward. If I found the “right” agent, could I be happy on that path? If I could tap into and inspire the “right” audience, would I be willing to market to them in order to keep them as fans?

TO BE CONTINUED…