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.

How I Got Here

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
No path.

I have slipped through the forest
Sans machete
With only
Glimpses of the mountaintop
The slant of the sun
The moon between the branches
For guidance.

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.
There is
No path.   (4/18/03)

Get your signed copy of Song of All Songs from Malvern Books and join my book launch on Friday, August 28!

Also available on Kindle!

It’s About Us

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 Songs on August 28. I’m ready to tell you a story I believe in.

 

 

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!

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…

How Do You Feel About Emotion?

"Communication" (Side One) 18 x 14

“Communication” (Side One) 18 x 14

Yesterday I attended a Writers’ League of Texas workshop on “More Than a Feeling: Writing with Emotion” conducted by author Greg Garrett. He shared with us a whole heap of wisdom he said he acquired from his own writing guru Robert Olen Butler at U. Iowa. It was clear that he had verified all of this wisdom personally. Perhaps most importantly, he told us that each of us has within ourselves a “compost heap” of forgotten things that contains every emotion we will ever need to access in our writing. This morning I found his message reinforced by a quote from Brene Brown about vulnerability and the difference between sympathy (a disconnect) and empathy (connection): “Vulnerability isn’t good or bad. It’s not what we call a dark emotion, nor is it always a light, positive experience. Vulnerability is the core of all emotions and feelings. To feel is to be vulnerable. To believe vulnerability is weakness is to believe that feeling is weakness.” And then I started to remember what my Buddhist gurus were trying to teach me about compassion and the necessity of going to “the places that scare you”…

So now I know I need to shed my armor and jump into my own redolent, simmering compost heap and return to my manuscript for one last heart-wrenching revision. Thank you, Greg!

Blog Redux

Just Passing Through, 8 x 10

A year ago, I had just returned from travels abroad, during which I had diligently blogged and sketched my way through Spain, France and Nepal. Realizing that my journey is not just about travel, I am declaring a resumption of the blog, to include at least occasional sketches and artworks. The new blog title – “Simulacrum” – is meant to convey something about my intention to write and draw and paint in ways that will evoke, however imperfectly, something nearly true about this world we share.

The novel I have recently completed – Way of the Serpent – is a work of “speculative fiction”, akin to science fiction but without the space aliens and mutant beasts. It takes place barely more than 100 years in the future, and my protagonist and friends are only too human. I say the novel is “completed”, but hesitate to use the word “finished,” as that would imply it has reached a state of such perfection that no further tinkering is permitted. I reserve the right to tinker.

There is a second novel in the works – The Fourth Time. It takes place in the here and now… sort of. My protagonist in this one is an archaeologist married to an author who writes about time travel, and much of the action takes place in Belize, a country I have known since my earliest anthropological fieldwork in the 1970s. This one is about 30,000 words to date.

And then there is the germination of a sequel to Way of the Serpent, which I am provisionally calling Flight of the Owl. It will follow the experiences of one of the survivors of Serpent. This one frightens me a little bit, but I’ll get over it and get into it soon enough.

(NOTE: I have just reposted some of my sketches from last year that I was unable to properly blog from Nepal due to technical difficulties.)