Interview: Amy Sterling Casil, Ron Collins, Michael Libling Part Four

Welcome to the final part of the interview. It’s been a  great ride, and I shall miss it. The first question is short and the answers are brief, and the second question is amazing and immense: my guests give some excellent book recommendations, just in time for summer reading. (Or, for those of you who live on the other side of the Equator, winter reading.) This is what I saved most of the pictures for. The books of these writers are each and every one of the suitable to be on lists of reading and rather handy if you give presents at this time of year.

Keep an eye out for more interviews, next year.

Gillian

 

Gillian

Let me ask a less-askable question. I am actually part-academic (my new scholarly tome is this https://www.hpb.com/products/story-matrices-9781913387914) so even my non-academic questions can sound a bit pretentious. Over the years I’ve noticed that writers make choices about how much to include that kind of technical analysis in our work. How we focus on story, what story we choose. I’m not going to ask about that, though I’m happy if you want to talk about it.

I’m going to ask – how do you handle people like me, who read your work using such a different set  of lenses? Do you feed us chocolate and pacify us? Engage in heated argument? Run away screaming? Read everything we write that might relate to your work and remind us when you have new books that fit our interests? Or something else entirely?

I experience the first four most frequently. So many writers are happy with me as a fiction writer until they discover this other side to me and then… they metamorphose and I make Kafka jokes to a friend.

It’s less-askable because we don’t often talk about the relationship between those of us who write and those of us who sped our lives studying that writing.

 

Ron:

Hmmm. I don’t know how I “handle” people who read or talk about my work.  I can say with certainty that I don’t generally think a lot about the reader when I’m writing. I probably used to, but I’ve come to embrace the idea that I can’t let anyone else decide what I’m going to write or to say. I’m me. I need to write stories that matter to me, and if I do that then I figure I’ll make something that will hit a few folks where they live. Now, that said, the idea of being academically analyzed as a writer just kind of flummoxes me. I mean, good luck with that.

 

Mike:

I know there are writers who say not to look at reviews and whatnot, but I do spend a little time reading what readers and reviewers say about my work. I can’t say that reviews or other commentary have ever obviously influenced my writing going forward, but I find the process interesting and as long as I’m in the right headspace it’s kind of entertaining. Not that reviews don’t also disappoint and frustrate on occasion.

So, yeah, people are weird, including me. At the end of the day, critical or not, I try to just be happy someone spent their time with me. Of course, I stress the “try.”

 

Gillian:

One last question – can you tell us about five books we should read?

Amy Sterling Casil Femal Science Fiction Writer

 

Amy:

As to five books I think people should read, let me rephrase that. Most of these books are ones that I personally enjoyed, and which I found to be engaging with students while teaching.

1. An Anthropologist on Mars, by Dr. Oliver Sacks (1995) – This is probably the best collection of Dr. Sacks’ essays and I believe, was one of the his collections, if not the first. Our publishing industry is bad, and I’m sure you have all been following the news about the merger process with Penguin Random House and S & S – well, someone, somewhere, somehow picked up Oliver Sacks – I know most of these essays were originally in the New Yorker. This book covers stories ranging from Dr. Carl Bennett (in reality, Dr. Mort Doran), a Canadian SURGEON with severe Tourette’s Syndrome, to the final chapter, which is a case history of Temple Grandin, who is today, one of the world’s most famous people with autism (full autism, not Asperger’s). I can’t overestimate the influence that this book had not only on me, but on many students. It opens a window to the life of the mind for diverse minds – and his writing and approach is the exact approach I want to take: empathetic, and using Rogerian argument/methods.

2. Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History (1989) by Stephen Jay Gould – Stephen Jay Gould wrote countless books, and many of them are collections of his essays in Natural History. To me, this book is special because it opened a window into the world of the pre-Cambrian Burgess Shale animals, including Wiwaxia and Hallucinogenia. I loved this book so much and it’s still in my one “box of books” which contains signed first editions (to me) – that I brought from California to Florida when we moved. Some of the descriptions of the animals are dated because of subsequent research. But it’s still an amazing glimpse into one of the earliest times of natural prehistory. And, I have a cool story about it – when I was in grad school at Chapman University, one of the full professors was a great enthusiast of the well-known UK novelist John Fowles. This professor (Mark Axelrod, rhymes with total prick) had established the “John Fowles Center” which was literally just words on paper. Our 10-student seminar was able to meet with Fowles, who traveled to Southern California – straight from Canada where he’d been able to view the Burgess Shale and study some of the animal fossils. Fowles was a great natural historian himself and so here we are in this 10-student seminar room and students are asking him questions. He mentioned having visited the Burgess Shale and I asked if he’d read Gould’s book. Fowles’ face immediately lit up and he said, “Yes, I have, it’s one of my favorite books.” It turned out that Fowles’ favorite of the animals was “Wiwaxia” – I said I also liked Hallucigenia. No one else in the room including  ̶p̶r̶i̶c̶k̶  Axelrod could participate, not knowing Gould’s book, the Burgess Shale, or the animals. This was further compounded by  ̶Ax-p̶r̶i̶c̶k̶-lerod having a mini-stroke when Fowles asked about the numerous blooming Jacaranda trees outside the second-floor conference room window and I said, “they’re Jacarandas, my aunt loves their pods but most people love the lavender flowers.” – Auuugggh! Ax-p̶r̶i̶c̶k̶-lerod totally hit the roof. And then Fowles and I went for a walk around the campus with him asking about plants he didn’t know and explaining the many he did – ha ha, much later Axelrod threw a book at my head in another seminar and gave me the most horrific “recommendation” letter anyone could ever receive and one which I could not, and never did use, featuring a comment like, “She will present a very appealing appearance in the classroom.”

3. Wide Sargasso Sea (1966) by Jean Rhys – I was not assigned this book to read in undergraduate or graduate school, but I believe I did use it in some academic contexts. This book tells the story of Bertha Rochester, the “crazy lady” in the attic from Jane Eyre that terrorizes Jane and ultimately sets the house on fire, leading to Mr. Rochester’s blindness. I can’t praise this book highly enough. It’s a compelling story, masterfully-created, and it tells exactly how Bertha, a beautiful Creole heiress, becomes the “Crazy Lady in the Attic.” This features multiple voices throughout the book; it’s just amazing.

4. Sally Hemings (1979) by Barbara Chase-Riboud – I read this book from the library as a “book about a woman.” It tells the story of Thomas Jefferson’s slave and mistress, Sally Hemings and her relationship with him. This book influenced me powerfully and similarly to Wide Sargasso Sea, is a story of a woman’s life subsumed by being involved with a much more powerful man. I also recommend another book by Barbara Chase-Riboud, called Valide, which is the story of Abdulhamid, a French-Creole woman who was captured as a young teen and made part of the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire’s harem – and ultimately becomes the ruler of the Ottoman empire through her survival skills and raw intelligence.

5.  Freakonomics (2005), by Stephen J. Dubner and Steven Levitt – I assigned this book in second-semester composition and rhetoric classes, and while it didn’t inspire the engagement and transformation of Dr. Oliver Sacks’ An Anthropologist on Mars, it did make an impression and inspire students to look more closely at “commonly-held” wisdom. The original Freakonomics features Venkatesh, a U Chicago grad student who discovered the same business structure in streetcorner drug dealing as occurs in major corporations like McDonalds. Another “highlight” (or shall we say “lowlight”) of the Freakonomics universe is the phenomenon of Bagel Man, whose 20+ years of delivering bagels to large corporate and using an honor system for payment showed him that the higher up he went in the floors, i.e. up to the VP and C-suites, the more people cheated on paying – for example, paying $1 and taking 5 bagels. And then there was the Chicago Teachers cheating scandal (they were paid bonuses for better test results in their classrooms and the tests from their classrooms showed mathematical proof that the teachers were erasing wrong answers and coloring in the correct ones… This has been made into an entertaining movie with a feature by Morgan Spurlock and a much, much better and more fascinating one about Sumo wrestling cheating (yaocho) by the amazing Alex Gibney. Here is a link to the Alex Gibney portion of the film (how could I forget that? – Steven Levitt, the U Chicago microeconomist – is probably most famous for using math to expose the Chicago teacher standardized test cheating and in Japan – showing that Sumo was rigged which destroyed everyone’s minds along with revealing that the Sumo schools are so cruel and tough, young wrestlers have died). Dr. Levitt lost his infant son to meningitis – I corresponded with him  about that and about student responses to Freakonomics.

Of course there are many books of fiction which have influenced me – from Ray Bradbury and Harlan Ellison’s collected stories to… wait for it… the book that connects me and Bruce, the Instrumentality of Man by Cordwainer Smith.

For my own book, I would recommend Female Science Fiction Writer – and the audiobook version especially. There is a review from a harasser on the eBook right now. Amazon would never remove, as they won’t even remove reviews made by neo-Nazi white supremacists.

 

Libling Hollywood North

Mike:

Sheesh, get me gabbing and the floodgates open. (What was that baloney I said about me being more of a “listener?”) I get the feeling I’ve gone a wee bit overboard here…

I’m a sucker for author biographies and autobiographies, and many come immediately to mind. Act One by Moss Hart. Philip Roth: The Biography by Blake Bailey. Mordecai: The Life & Times by Charles Foran, and Salinger by David Shields. Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and The Golden Age Of Science Fiction by Alec Nevala-Lee. …All have inspired to one extent or another. All have informed. And most have also proven disheartening, revealing a side to a much-admired author I not only never knew, but probably never wanted to know. While the aforementioned deliver in each of these ways, none has hit harder or stayed with me longer than And So It Goes: Kurt Vonnegut: A Life by Charles Shields. I loved the Vonnegut surrogates of his novels and the Vonnegut of commencement address fame, but the real-life Vonnegut is not quite so warm and fuzzy a character. As flawed as Vonnegut was, however—like who isn’t?—this beautifully researched and fast-paced bio brings him to life with a style and verve you won’t forget, no matter how painful or distressing the content. This is a perfect example of the need to separate author from art, a rule of thumb that applies to Salinger and Roth, as well.

The first two science fiction novels I read were Winston Juveniles culled from my grade school library: Find the Feathered Serpent by Evan Hunter and Danger: Dinosaurs! by Richard Marsten. In fact, the author of both was Evan Hunter, whose most famous pen name was Ed McBain of 87th Precinct series fame, and whose real name was Salvatore Albert Lombino. These were the books that introduced me to the possibilities of time travel and I was hooked from the get-go. To this day, the sub-category remains my favorite type of SF. Again, it’s tough to single out one. Robert Silverberg’s Up the Line, Jane Yolen’s The Devil’s Arithmetic, and the more recent All Our Wrong Todays by Elan Mastai are memorable reads. But I don’t think any time-travel novel covers off all possible paradoxes better than David Gerrold’s The Man Who Folded Himself. If time travel stories appeal, this is a must-read.

Most of my stories bring some element from my own life into play, hardly unusual for most writers of fiction. And no author in or out of the speculative field does this better than Bruce McAllister. His recent collection, Stealing God and Other Stories, is a Master Class in the craft of short fiction. And in many of these stories you’ll find the seeds of what would become his masterwork—The Village Sang to the Sea. Set in a small coastal village in Italy during the early 1950s, McAllister touches upon his life as a navy brat living in a world far removed from what most of us have ever known. A stunning mix of memoir and fantasy, I defy anyone to read this and not come away deeply moved. Wistful. Nostalgic. Eerily beautiful. Frankly, I could have listed this book five times.

Among my non-fiction recommendations are Hollywood Under Siege by Thomas R Lindlof, High Noon: The Hollywood Blacklist and the Making of an American Classic by Glenn Frankel, Naming Names by Victor Navasky, Shadow Divers by Robert Kurson, and The Accidental Terrorist by William Shunn—the history of the Mormon church interwoven with the author’s own experiences as an LDS missionary in Canada and the terrorist act his mission precipitated. But if I were to name only one, it would have to be The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson—the story of the architects behind Chicago’s World Columbian Exhibition in 1893 and how H.H. Holmes used it to his homicidal delight. No piece of horror fiction can touch this non-fiction masterpiece for the dread it instils.

While my fiction tends to be cross-genre, incorporating quirky mainstream, fantasy, horror, and mystery, the novels I’ve enjoyed most over the years are westerns. Yeah, westerns! Not sure why this is, other than the fact I grew up attending Saturday matinees in the 1950s and 1960s, and western movies ran neck and neck with science fiction as top attractions. Yup, the spirits of Roy Rogers, Hopalong Cassidy, and Johnny Mack Brown reside forever within. And recapturing that time, place, not to mention unrivalled sense of awe and adventure, are Cormac McCarthy’s All The Pretty Horses, Patrick deWitt’s The Sisters Brothers, and my all-time favorite single novel in any genre, Larry McMurtry’s epic Lonesome Dove. Yup, Lonesome Dove! It took a dozen tries before I got into it, but there was no looking back from that point on. The characters. The narrative and intertwining storylines. The unpredictability. The sweep. Forget it’s a western! Pure and simple, Lonesome Dove is everything great fiction should be. A few years back, in another interview, I quoted a blurb from the back cover of the 1985 paperback edition. Forgive me for doing the same here.  Lonesome Dove is “a love story, an adventure, an epic of the frontier … the grandest novel ever written about the last defiant wilderness of America.” As I said then, I still say now: This pretty much nails it. Lonesome Dove does not disappoint.

As for selecting a novel of my own, it’s easy, since I currently have only one available, though a second is coming next year. Hollywood North: A Novel in Six Reels is set in my old hometown of Trenton, Ontario and is inspired by true events, including the town’s little known and frequently bizarre history. Like Bruce McAllister’s work, mentioned above, Hollywood North combines fiction and memoir. While the publisher(s) classified it as horror, I prefer how Sheila Williams, editor of Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, described it:A beautifully deceptive mystery and fantasy noir novel. The book is filled with humor and heartbreak and great homages to classic films.” My second novel, The Serial Killer’s Son Takes a Wife is an unsettling, off-kilter thriller. Character-driven, with sharp streaks of horror and dark humor, it’s coming from WordFire Press in fall 2023. But I think I’ve already mentioned this once or twice or twenty times.

 

 

Ron:

Five book recommendations…hmmm…

I’ve recently read three books that I’ve really enjoyed.

Duramen Rose, by Andrew L. Roberts is a stunning work of free prose fiction centered on World War I. I couldn’t let go of this story for days afterward.

I thought The Page Turners, a novella by DeAnna Knippling was a fun real-world fantasy with a touch of time travel in it—set on a train in the 1920. Wonderful.

I liked Detransition Baby by Torrey Peters for its dive into the transgender world. It’s stuck with me. Interesting story. Strong characters.

I very much enjoy N. K. Jemisin’s short fiction collection How Long ’til Black Future Month? Like most collections, some of its stories hit me more strongly than others, but it’s one of those collections I go back to and pick a story at semi-random to reread.

And I always like to recommend Mike Resnick’s Kirinyaga, which I find great because it’s essentially a novel told in a bunch of short stories. Every story itself is fantastic (most of them were award winners, after all). But then together then combine to a whole that can transcend itself. So I love it for it’s technical merits as well as its science fictional artistry.

 

Gillian:

Last but certainly not least, something about my guests! (I asked them for brief bios, just in case any of you are terribly curious.)

Amy Sterling Casil is a science fiction, fantasy, and nonfiction writer. She is a 5th-generation Southern California native and recent emigre to Florida’s Gulf Coast. Amy is a Nebula Award nominee who has published 48 books. Find her essays on Medium and visit her website at www.amysterlingcasil.com.

 

Michael Libling is a World Fantasy Award finalist whose short fiction has appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Asimov’s Science Fiction, Realms of Fantasy, The Year’s Best Fantasy & Horror, The Year’s Best Science Fiction & Fantasy, and many others. His first novel, Hollywood North: A Novel in Six Reels, was published by ChiZine and Open Road Media in 2019. His second novel, The Serial Killer’s Son Takes a Wife, is forthcoming from WordFire Press in 2023. Creator and former host of the long-running CJAD Trivia Show in Montreal, Michael is the father of three daughters and lives on Montreal’s West Island with his wife, Pat, and a big black dog named Piper. Among other things, he claims to be one of only a handful of North American authors who has never owned a cat. You can find out more about him at www.michaellibling.com, where he has been known to blog on occasion.

Website: http://www.michaellibling.com

 

Ron Collins is a best-selling Science Fiction and Dark Fantasy author who writes across the spectrum of speculative fiction.

His SF series Stealing the Sun has topped Amazon’s Hard Science Fiction charts. His fantasy series Saga of the God-Touched Mage reached #1 on Amazon’s bestselling dark fantasy list in the UK and #2 in the US. His short fiction has received a Writers of the Future prize and a CompuServe HOMer Award, and his short story “The White Game” was nominated for the Short Mystery Fiction Society’s 2016 Derringer Award.

He has contributed a hundred or so short stories to Analog, Asimov’s, Fiction River Anthology Series, and several other professional magazines and anthologies.

He holds a degree in Mechanical Engineering, and has worked to develop avionics systems, electronics, and information technology before chucking it all to write full-time.

Ron’s website is: www.typosphere.com.

Follow Ron on Twitter: @roncollins13

 

 

 

 

 

 

Interview: Amy Sterling Casil, Ron Collins, Michael Libling Part Two

Welcome back! If you missed the first part of this interview, you can find it here:  https://treehousewriters.com/wp53/2022/11/07/interview-amy-sterling-casil-ron-collins-michel-libling-part-one/

Now, on with the today’s question…

Gillian

 

Gillian:

Such interesting answers! Thank you.

The different paths you all took to answer the first set of questions fascinates me. You all told stories, in quite different ways. Can you tell me something about the differences between the stories you weave into explanations and the stories you write for books? This is not an academic question – it’s more about your personal approach than your theories about Tolkien’s cauldron of story, for instance. My life is full of theory, and I’d rather it were full of story!

 

Ron:

I’m struck to ask the question: what qualifies a person to be called an academic?

 

Amy:

I think it varies from field to field but in literature, it would be “do you teach literature courses” and “do you publish academic writing in journals or texts.”

 

Ron:

I ask because you were kind of playing around with that idea of who was an academic and who wasn’t, and I’m thinking about my dad – who was a professor of Mechanical Engineering and a researcher. And then I started thinking about Gillian’s question and focusing on what happens when academics start digging into our stuff. I don’t think I have that experience. Commentary on my work has been through social review structures, meaning classic science fiction reviewers, as through direct reader feedback on web stores (Amazon and Kobo and…). I also get the occasional commentary on my own website or email from folks that range from nice to inquisitive.

So, I dunno. I don’t really qualify to answer the question, maybe?

Regardless, all I know to do regarding the commentary my work has gotten – positive or negative – is to try not to pay much attention to it and move forward doing my own thing. That’s easier said than done sometimes.

 

Amy:

It sure is, Ron – but it’s really important, too. I am doing something with Medium that I think differs from our traditional novel or short story publishing. I get feedback right away and I get metrics (not good ones, but some) directly. I can’t really see and can only guess at comparisons with others. That’s a whole different thing than publishing, having the audience basically be your editor with short fiction, or with even indy publishing – we don’t hear from the majority of readers so ???

 

Ron:

Yeah, what you’re doing on Medium is definitely a different thing. You’re doing social commentary, which feels almost more like old-school blogging in a lot of ways. It’s very much editorial work rather than fiction.

I would expect the commentary to that form of writing to be considerably more personal in a political – though obviously there’s always a political nature to all fiction. When my dad read the first couple books of my SF series, Stealing the Sun, he commented that they were really political. Which they are, but they aren’t. I told him that essentially all SF has political aspects to it simply because we’re almost always playing with what it means to be human. I admit I find the conversation that such social commentary should stay out of fiction to be anywhere from irksome to hilarious, depending on my mood of the day. A difference is that the reader brings themselves into our stories, and will often read their own viewpoint into it (my dad is a right-leaning person…I didn’t ask how he interpreted the politics in those two books, but I could see people deciding they went whatever way they personally thought). When you’re doing social commentary, though, as your work on Medium, for example, you’re directly pointing at people and how they think, and thereby stripping that ability to misinterpret (or purposefully pretend about?) your viewpoint. Raw social commentary can get quite personal real quicklike.

I’m not sure exactly how that applies to the question Gillian asked regarding academic slicing and dicing of work, but I’m sure it does.

Amy Sterling Casil Femal Science Fiction Writer

Amy:

>>I would expect the commentary to that form of writing to be considerably more personal in a political… [quotation snipped]>>

This is why I’m struggling so much with deciding how to plot or direct or even to do more sci fi, Ron. I work with all of these startups so I see the issues up front. Like I didn’t really write the “political commentary” in this one this a.m. because it’s such a dead deal – but the social media aspect is very much alive. I think *maybe* what I’m doing on Medium is like blogging but I have an audience there. I now put prose (creative) and have put poetry and I will re-circulate that among readers who think I’m just an anti-Clinton person or a pro-women person.

And, I do things with what I do there that are unlike blogging – I include screenshots, the captions I put on images are part of the article, I use the features of it to create different emphases (italics, bold, pullquotes). If we look at different legacy publications, particularly the big newspapers or news magazines, they have various “tools” they can use, like maps, data visualization, etc. I can and do sometimes include that.

Like with the one I just wrote, the software startup CooWe that I’ve been working with for about a year – they are seeking to bring people together in real life in a way that social media and the older programs like Meetup do not. It’s literally dealing with the very basic level of how people decide to get together and interact, and it’s based on NSF-funded research. It’s very easy to use, and less stressful than the traditional efforts. And most of all, it has a not-very-obvious democratization effect that’s super hard for many of us in “our age group” to accept or deal with.

Once I got over that barrier in the classroom (I was the teacher, I *had* to be in charge or I was *supposed to* be in charge) then suddenly, perfect attendance, kids who were supposedly struggling started to excel… it’s people’s attitudes. It’s how they feel about each other, and with each other, and with themselves.

I promised my last group of students, among whom were these just amazing, beautiful, brilliant young women, all unique, all so special – I was like “girls, I love you so much, I want to put you in a story.”

But I see or feel a more corporate future, much like what A.J. wrote about. I don’t want to see that. But I’m not sure I have the capacity to understand or envision the way I should.

YOUR BOOKS ARE GREAT, you are my guy!!

Re: “In our age group,” we’re not quite where Mr. Pettigrew put Bruce. That really was his name – Pettigrew! Stock photo: I so wish I had a shot of him, he was 1000x better/funnier than the fake Kentucky Colonel.

 

Ron:

There’s a lot to dissect there, but I think I’ll focus on the … um … medium of blogging itself. I mean, really, all the journalistic movements of today (moving to Medium or Substack or Patreon or…) are to my view not a particular big leap from longform blogs which were happening in even the mid-90s. You point out the more modern use of images and pull-quotes and whatnot, but the very first bloggers—who were hardcore html/design wizards—were doing that all over the place. I was learning from them at the time, and the requirement to do it via hand-coding limited the contributor pool. Simpler tools (Word Press and whatnot) opened the field to almost anyone who could type and click.

That was so early in the social media landscape, though. Their audience (and my audience) was considerably limited because most people read newspapers and watched TV. But I followed several of them because I was so intrigued. Their examples led me to build my own presence, which grew into what I do now. I can probably pick out 50 or 100 posts I’ve made that are deep social commentary and that sometimes include various magazine-type aesthetics.

My point is that we’ve used all those techniques in the blogspace for a very long time. And into the 2000s several were growing very large followings. Scalzi’s “Whatever” is one that comes to mind—and much of what he was (and is) doing is social commentary.

So, in reality, blogging has never been anything but self-publishing your own magazine—though the quality of anything, once made available to everyone, will begin to vary widely. Modern platforms like Medium and so forth, paired with everything else, allow one to find, hold, and maybe monetize their audience, though—which was always difficult with a blog.

So, yeah, I love you like a sister, but there’s not a lot new under the sun when it comes to the raw mechanics of content presentation.

The decision to write fiction (vs. non-fiction/commentary/whatever) is a deeply personal one for which there is only your own answer. But I’ll say that, for me, the formats are so different as to be impossible to set side-by-side and compare. I think there are things a narrative story can do that an essay cannot. It goes both ways, though. Story is often indirect in its approach, social commentary cannot generally afford to be anything but fairly direct and to the point.

How story vs. essay get absorbed is perhaps an interesting question—and one at least tangentially related to the idea of external analysis as well as related to your comment that says you’re debating how to or whether to write speculative fiction again (stretching from sci-fi). Is it even worth it, one can read you as saying.

Well.

Maybe it is and maybe it isn’t. It’s hard to call.

I love, for example, all the commentary about how Star Trek (to pick the most obvious example) has suddenly gone “woke.” Star Trek has been “woke” since the day it was envisioned. But when an analyst digs into what the impact of Star Trek has been on the culture of the world, it’s literally impossible to get it right. I mean, has it done anything at all? The existence of the blowback from these anti-woke commentators says there are still a whole boatload of oblivious people who missed the entire point of Star Trek to begin with—but to focus on them is akin to dealing with the survivor bias. The only way you could truly identify the impact of its “wokeness” on the population would be to go back intime and remove it from the timeline.

Replace “Star Trek” with “Science Fiction” (or any story) in that conversation, and you can say the same thing.

Has anyone’s art ever changed the world? I have no idea. But I know it makes my world better.

So, anyway. From a selfish standpoint, I hope you write more speculative fiction simply because I love to read your stuff. But it’s frustrating. Or it can be. To write fiction is to put your heart into this piece of art, and then to be either criticized for it—or perhaps worse, ignored—is sometimes hard to deal with.

Whew…I certainly didn’t think I’d be chatting about these topics when we started!

 

Mike:

Ah, yes, there are waters into which I will not wade. Several years ago, I allowed myself to become involved in what developed into a flame war with a Canadian listserv/writing group, and I have made a point of never doing so again. While I admire people, like Amy, who boldly put themselves out there, I just don’t have the stomach for the inevitable blowback. And despite being an “old, white male”—the designated, collective source of all evil on this planet of choice and a descriptor I hate as much as I do the generalization of any group, racial, religious or otherwise, my Jewishness has made me a target on more than one occasion. I might feel inclined to write a reply, as I’m doing now, but I have also disciplined myself to delete before posting or sending. Walk away, Michael. Simply turn your back and walk away. You can’t reason here. You can’t employ facts or logic. Just shut your mouth and walk away. You cannot convince, you cannot win. 

I won’t try to define academic, though there is a story that comes to mind, for what it’s worth. I have a friend who taught literature and creative writing for a number of years in some well known American universities. (He was also my first creative writing prof in Montreal.) During one of his tenures, he became friends with another professor—a writer of a many popular thrillers and mysteries, a bunch of which have made their way to film and TV. My friend, whose fiction is dense and literary, decided to try his hand at a genre thriller, in the same vein as his colleague. When done, he gave it to his author pal to read, and the guy could only shake his head and sigh. While the underlying concept had merit as genre, the writing, pacing, and structure remained highly literary despite my friend’s best effort. The verdict was that he simply couldn’t let his hair down, remove himself from the literary trappings. In effect, he wasn’t able to stray too far from his roots. Perhaps, too, there was a basic lack of understanding the target audience outside of academia.

 

Mike:

Um…uh…ugh…um… here goes nothing!!!???

After reading Ron’s and Amy’s replies, I am beginning to feel like a pale shadow here. While I’ve supported myself with my writing since the late 1970s, I’ve never seen myself as an intellectual or a particularly deep thinker. No one would ever call me the analytical type. Indeed, in my university days, my creative writing teacher, the great Canadian author Mordecai Richler, said something along the lines of, “If anyone in the class is going to make it as a writer, Michael has the best chance because he doesn’t have an academic approach to anything.” Some might have taken this as an insult, but not me. I saw it as a badge of honour. In fact, I still do. So please keep this in mind as I struggle to interpret both the question and construct the jumble that is my response.

I also disagree with you, Gillian. If this isn’t an academic question, it certainly borders on the territory. I’m not trying to be contentious here, but I’m not sure anyone who wasn’t academically inclined would pose such a question.

Anyhow, here’s the short answer: “The stories I weave into explanations” come with a certain amount of pressure. I don’t want to embarrass myself or come off like a doofus, so I tend to pussyfoot, striving to provide an answer that sounds reasonable, but would likely fail to make any real sense should anyone scratch beneath the surface. In other words, I’m a bluffer. As for the stories I write for my fiction, they are mine to approach as I please, and I like to think of them as genuine. I sit. I think. I write. And my brain fills with joy as the story builds and the pieces fall into place. The only pressure is that which I put on myself to get the thing done, without fear of judgement. Here, the keys for me are the opening sentence and voice. When I land both, I land the story.

Now for the long answer: Starting in the late 1970s, I worked full time in advertising as both a copywriter and a creative director, while writing fiction in my spare time. Meanwhile, I also wrote and hosted a Sunday-morning talkshow on Montreal radio, a side gig I maintained for twenty years. The program’s subject matter was trivia. Movies. TV. Golden Age radio. Sports. Science. Geography. Nature. History. You name it!

As a result of the show’s popularity, I was often invited to perform an interactive, non-broadcast version of the program for various groups and charitable organizations in the city. After one of these events, a friend in the audience came up to me and said, “Who are you? That wasn’t the Michael I know up there.” She went on to say that I was like a different person on stage, the transformation occurring from the get-go and right before her eyes. I recalled how my wife had said something similar to me when I first started in radio. Similarly, an art director at the agency had mentioned to me that I was one person when we were brainstorming an ad campaign and a totally different person when pitching to a client. To this I’d have to add that I’m someone else yet again when it comes to questions such as the one you have posed, and yet another personality when I approach my fiction.

My brain and personality adapt to the situation I’m in at any given time. With family and friends, I’m generally quiet and laid-back, prone to quips, though occasionally perceived as angry or glum. For the most part, I think I listen more than I talk. But put me in front of a microphone or before an audience of any size, and it’s as if this other Michael bursts through, entertaining and informing. Truth be told, in such situations, my favourite topics of conversation are ME AND MY WRITING. ME. ME. ME. Strange thing is, I suffer tremendous anxiety in advance of whatever it is I’m going to be doing or presenting. I guess you might say I live with the fear of bombing. For the first nine years of my time on radio, for instance, a queasy gut preceded every show, dissipating only thirty seconds or so after hitting the air. In this same vein, fresh and cleverly constructed interviews such as yours also raise the anxiety level.

And yeah, as mentioned, I’m a different person yet again when I sit to write my stories. Of all the Michaels, I like this one best. First off, the anxiety is absent. And while that outgoing guy from radio and advertising is still present, this personality is expressed in the stories that prevail on the page.  As corny and cliched as it might sound, I truly do experience a natural and joyful high as my characters reveal themselves and the plot, as they say, thickens.

I’m not sure that I’ve come anywhere close to answering the question. Heck, I’m still not sure I understand the question. But there you have it to make of it what you will.

 

A last word (for now) from Gillian. Signing off for today. These were interesting waters and next week’s section of the interview is even better. Watch this space!

 

Enough Books

Ulysses by James JoyceMany years ago — long before the Internet and delivery services that could find you anywhere — I did an internship in South Dakota.

I spent the summer in an old farmhouse ten miles north of the nearest wide place in the road, ten miles south of a town of enough size to have a real grocery store, and twenty-five miles from work at the legal services office on the Crow Creek Reservation in Fort Thompson.

For foolish reasons probably related to intellectual pretensions, I only took two books with me: Sartre’s Being and Nothingness and Joyce’s Ulysses.

It probably goes without saying that I didn’t manage to finish either one.

I remain profoundly grateful that the grocery store in Highmore included several novels by Kurt Vonnegut among the mass market paperbacks featured on its racks. I’m not sure how Vonnegut ended up with that sort of distribution, but I read several of his novels that summer.

I also lacked a television — which I didn’t miss — and the only radio was in my car. For the first month or so, I lived alone.Being and Nothingness by Jean-Paul Sartre

Looking back, I really wish I had taken a large pile of books with me. I’m not sure any town (none of them, not even the state capital Pierre, came close to being a city) I went to over the summer had a bookstore.

The closest movie theater was fifty miles away. If there was a night club anywhere, I never saw it.

I’m not sure how I got by without a newspaper. Probably we got one at the office. And fortunately, at the end of the summer when the most important US news happened — Nixon’s resignation — I had a roommate and TV.

I mean, I wouldn’t have wanted to miss Nixon’s resignation.

But the real point of this story is that even when you don’t have anything to read or watch or anyplace to go, you will still not read that important book that you don’t really want to read.

Continue reading “Enough Books”

Something new

This Monday, today, October 31 (if I say it often enough, I’ll believe it – where I am it is a blowy November day and a famous horse race is in the offing) is the introduction to something new. Starting next week, as they come to hand, I’ll be posting long interviews with writers. By ‘long’ I mean that the first one will extend over four weeks.

My other Monday posts will appear in between interviews and interviews may follow each other rapidly or be months apart. But there will be interviews.

Why?

Around me, so many readers are asking “Why haven’t we heard of this writer?” One of the reasons is because fewer writers are given as much time by bloggers and podcasts and critics. I was looking at my own visibility in the US and realised how little of me is known to readers of Locus, which is the leading magazine for science fiction and fantasy – I don’t fit their profile for an author. Many, may writers don’t fit these profiles. Because so many of us are less visible, writers don’t develop as many profound loyalties to writers who fit the profile of important magazines and critics, or who are not on the right lists and win the right prizes. It’s harder to discover those unique voices and to seek out writers who are not in our own country or published by our favourite imprints. It’s harder, to be honest, to see writers. I want to see writers. Who they are, how they talk, and I want to enjoy time with them. That’s what these interviews are about: time. Time to argue, to be fascinated, to chase to find a book, to stop and think, to laugh. Time to see just how interesting writers can be.

Years ago I did group interviews for BiblioBuffet, a literary e-journal. These interviews among my most popular work from those days and are still discovered by new readers. Those readers occasionally report back to me about them. They tell me how good the interviews are, because of their length and their substance.  I looked at my early interviews again recently, to determine their persistent appeal. I think it’s because when a group of writers get together, we have conversations. We go in unexpected directions and give readers insights into work. There is no PR template.  It’s exciting to not know where an interview is headed, or how a writer responds to questions and how the whole thing can become immensely wise or devolve into silliness on the same page.

The first interview will appear, magically, throughout November and maybe into early December After that, it will be as they’re finished. I don’t restrict length, or push for a given novel to be publicised. This isn’t about publicity, after all. It’s about writers. These writers. About how fascinating writers can be and how not a single one of us thinks the way we expect they will.

The first interview is from Amy Sterling Casil (one of the members of this Treehouse) with Ron Collins and Mike Libling. It’s all ready to go, which means I can tell you with the power of advance knowledge… it’s so much fun! Such a good start to this new series.

The Downhill Path to Understanding

I’m waiting for mail. I blame conversations. I also blame virtual and hybrid science fiction conventions. This last month, I’ve been to a couple, and one of them worked out how people could get that casual chat that’s such a part of face to face conventions. And all this is good… except…. Except… when one is sitting at one’s computer (notice how I distance myself from something I’ve done) it is the work of but an instant to buy that book that the group is talking about.

A group of prize-winning Korean writers talked about influences on their work, for instance, at VICFA (the Virtual meeting for the International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts) and one of them threw casually into the conversation that the most important writer was finally in translation. Reader, I now own Kim Bo-Young’s I’m Waiting for You.

Most books are still heading my way.

Only one has arrived, and it’s related to me trying to understand why the popular view of Jewish history in central and eastern Europe is so very wrong (mostly) for anything prior to the 1770s. What happened in and around the 1770s, was the partitioning of Poland. A vast country (the whole of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth) went, to describe it a bit simplistically, from being dominant, to being under the rule of others. Most of the sense of Jewish history we have came from places under Russian rule, which is currently very topical. So many lives were changed so profoundly and for such a long period, that we still think of Tevye the Milkman as being a kind of Universal Nice Jew and Anatevka as being the classic stetl and stetls being the only place Jews could live in all those vast regions.

I know more of the history of the region now, and understand both why the change happened, and why a lot of people take the position of Jews in the late Russian Empire as typical and push it back to the seventeenth and sixteenth centuries. I need to know more about how people actually lived. Polish SFF fandom is helping me in this endeavour, but I also have to help myself. I helped myself to much reading. Some I’ve borrowed, some I’ve read online, but very occasionally there is something I must buy because I live in a city with too small a Jewish population to obtain it locally. A book by Yohanan Petrovsky-Shtern is the most recent ‘must-buy.’ It’s called The Golden Age Shtetl. A New History of Jewish Life in East Europe.

My little library of Jewish history is slowly growing, as is my knowledge. This book covers the transition period, when Jewish life changed so dramatically. Before the book begins, there was the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, where Jews could work in almost any trade and lived in cities and towns. At the end of it, we have that dream of a small town or even village Jew, being thrown out of their home by an uncaring Tsar.

The reality is complex, but if I can understand those changes, I’ll know my own heritage but I’ll also be able to write more about it, whether using it as a setting for fiction, or writing critical essays. The immediate reason I bought the book is partly because someone mentioned it and I checked it out, but mostly because I had a conference paper on Jewishness in a couple of works of fiction accepted and I need to know this book to write it. Right now, my subject knowledge is cumbersome. One day, learning about this subject will tip down the artificial mound of rubble made by ill-digested information. As I roll down that hill, everything will suddenly be clear.

And now I must watch for mail. I’m still missing eleven books. They’re all work-related, just as these two are, and every single one of them is likely to upend things I thought I knew and maybe, just maybe, push me off that hillside and start on the real learning.

Comfort and the Lack of It

The Mirro Crack'd book coverMy comfort books of choice are mysteries.

This is in part because a good mystery can engage your mind while being separate from the real troubles of your life. But it’s also because when I was around 10 or 11 I graduated from reading Nancy Drew to diving into my mother’s extensive pile of Agatha Christie books.

That is, I associate those books with the somewhat simpler time of childhood.

As a kid, I vastly preferred the Poirot novels to the ones featuring Miss Marple, and I continued in that preference until after my mother died and I ended up with a bunch of her books. I picked up a Marple and discovered I liked those stories much better than I had as a kid.

It might have been because I had reached the age that Jane Marple is in some of the early books. Christie wisely never quite specifies her age, but at a guess she’s in her late 50s in the early ones and maybe pushing 90 by the end. I was ready for stories about a smart old woman.

And Miss Marple is very smart, a reminder that the misogyny of the 20th century wrote off a large number of intelligent women with a lot to offer society. Christie’s plots are always absurd, but that doesn’t take away from Miss Marple’s powers of observation and detection.

I recently discovered that one of the ebook providers through my library has the Miss Marple books and, in need of some comfort reading, I’ve been going through them. Last week I finally decided to try The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side, one of the later books, published in 1962 when Christie herself would have been in her 70s.

As a rule, when I re-read a mystery, I’ve forgotten who actually “done it,” though pieces of the story come back to me. (This rule does not apply to books I’ve read multiple times, such as Gaudy Night.) But in this case, I not only remembered who the murderer was, I also remembered that I really hadn’t liked the book when I was young. So I wasn’t sure what I’d think.

I did like it better this time, though I was also much more aware of the ableism, racism, and issues of social class that permeate the story.

On the other hand, it wasn’t ageist. One key subplot involves the companion who now lives with Miss Marple because of her health. This companion is the sort of person who talks to her charges as “we” and ignores their preferences because she doesn’t believe they are mentally competent. Since we see her from Miss Marple’s POV, we understand just how grating that behavior is for an old person, even one who needs some assistance.

But the real reason I’m writing about this book is that it slipped out of the comfort reading category because of a key element of the plot that feels all too relevant in a time of ongoing pandemic.

Discussing that requires a major spoiler for the book, which I might not do except for the fact that it was first published 60 years ago and I suspect that very few people who really want to read it and be surprised have not already read it.

If you fall into that small class, don’t keep reading. Continue reading “Comfort and the Lack of It”

Love and Death: Would You Like a Little Romance with Your Action?

Crossing genres is hot business these days: science fiction mysteries, paranormal romance, romantic thrillers, Jane Austen with horror, steampunk love stories, you name it. A certain amount of this mixing-and-matching is marketing. Publishers are always looking for something that is both new and “just like the last bestseller.” An easy way to do this is to take standard elements from successful genres and combine them.

As a reader, I’ve always enjoyed a little tenderness and a tantalizing hint of erotic attraction in even the most technologically-based space fiction. For me, fantasy cries out for a love story, a meeting of hearts as well as passion. As a writer, however, it behooves me to understand why romance enhances the overall story so that I can use it to its best advantage.

By romance, I mean a plot thread that involves two (or sometimes more) characters coming to understand and care deeply about one another, usually but not necessarily with some degree of sexual attraction. This is in distinction to Romance, which (a) involves a structured formula of plot elements — attraction, misunderstanding and division, reconciliation; (b) must be the central element of the story; (c) has rules about gender, exclusivity, and, depending on the market, the necessity or limitations on sexual interactions. These expectations create a specific, consistent reader experience, which is a good thing in that it is reliable. However, the themes of love and connection, of affection and loyalty, of understanding, acceptance and sacrifice, are far bigger.

In my own reading and writing, I prefer the widest definition of “love story.” After all, people can love one another without sexual attraction and people can love more than one other person, usually in different ways and to different degrees. (For an example of what I’m talking about here, see my Darkover novels, Hastur Lord and The Alton Gift, which involve a three-way love triad in which each character must deal with the others with honesty and compassion.) With the addition of non-human characters — aliens, angels/demons/vampires/werewolves, faeries and other magical creatures, sentient computers, and the like — the possibilities multiply enormously.

I believe that action/adventure, regardless of the genre, is deepened and enhanced by romance, and also that love stories work better when the level of peril is intensified. For one thing, both adventures and falling in love (or growing in love, or discovering that love has always been there) both involve a character taking a risk. Whether the character goes after the evil Empire, battles a dragon, lands on an unexplored planet — or opens her own heart — there is always the possibility that something may go terribly wrong. All too often, safe stories are boring stories. Something must be at stake, and the higher the stakes, the more reasons we have to care about what happens.

I’ve never subscribed to the cliche of the hero and heroine falling into one another’s arms, consumed with lust, in the middle of a frenzied life-or-death conflict. (My libido certainly doesn’t work that way, which might be the explanation.) Such a moment might be the occasion for realizing how much one character cares for the other when at any moment the beloved might be killed/captured/brainwashed/turned into baby-alien fodder. That moment of inner honesty escalates the stakes for the character (and, hopefully, the reader). I like to see that realization played out and savored, not exposed and consummated in wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am style.

Love stories are not just about connecting with another person; they are about connecting with ourselves. In good love stories, the character struggles with internal obstacles — memories, ideologies, character flaws — as well as external ones. In romantic adventure, the two types of conflict mirror one another. Neither is resolvable without the other. The heroine cannot defeat the dragon until she masters herself. (Or, in a tragedy, the hero’s own nature becomes his undoing; for example, Orpheus.)

Both love and crisis can force a character to re-examine her priorities. What’s really important — the way her hair looks or the thousand Bug-Eyed Monsters about to invade her home town? Who does she want to be — the social butterfly or the executioner? Rambo or Mother Teresa? Miss Marple or Indiana Jones? Buffy or Albert Einstein?

Who does she love? What is she willing to do to protect those she loves? What will she do when faced with a choice between her own happiness and the fate of a stranger — or a planet — or a race of magical beings?

Romance allows us to “ratchet up the stakes” in these decisions, pitting personal concerns against altruism, what is right against what is self-serving. Adventure allows us to play out the journeys of the heart in the outer world, exploring more deeply the transformative and healing nature of love itself.

The Pleasant Art of Finding the Right Reading

I’ve vast lists of books to read, because I keep going to science fiction conferences and academic conferences and I always end up with loads of exciting reading. I ought to dissect these lists and ell you all the best reading in them, but I can’t, because I still have to read the books myself. Also, most of them are still in the mail.

That got me thinking abut how we decide what to read when there are too many choices. I’m the sort of person who can’t deal with choices. Give me too many choices and I will walk away in frustration rather than buying the thing I came into the shop for. Except with books. It’s much easier to know which book to read at any given time. This is because, for me, each book is surrounded by information that helps me choose.

When I travel to Sydney, for instance, and go to one of my favourite bookshops there, the folks behind the counter are always knowledgeable. Every time I visit, I buy a book specially for the bus trip home. It has to be something special, I tell them, and something new. It has to be something that’s not being seen quite enough and that I absolutely need to know about. We talk about my favourite writers and they always, always find me something. I’ve only ever given one of those books away, too. Booksellers know books. It’s as simple as that. If I am in a bookshop where the bookseller doesn’t know more than me about the books in their shop, then I walk straight out. This is why I have favourite bookshops: because the people who run them choose with care and thought and understand their work so very wonderfully.

Another route I take is to think carefully about the genre and even sub-genre of the book I want to read. I fit the type of book to my mood, in other words. To do this successfully, I need a vast TBR (to be read) pile. Choice helps me where usually it perplexes me. It’s so much fun finding the perfect book through this method, because I take each book out, one by one, and hold a kind of inner conversation with it.

Other days I need comfort reading. I have maybe 3 dozen authors I turn to for this and which writer I turn to depends so much on what my comfort needs are. When I need much comfort over a few weeks, I’ll haul down a series by a favourite author. By ‘haul down’ I mean that I actually climb onto a chair and take a whole pile of books down. Series of comfort reading are on my high shelf, you see, and reach to the ceiling.

Sometimes I am a butterfly, and stand in my library reading a bit of this book here or that there until I find the one I want. Sometimes I’m a carnivore and eat the content of cookbooks except, these days, all my cookbooks are finally in my kitchen or loungeroom, so I stand by the kitchen counter or sit in a chair near the door. I’ll make a stack of books I want to use recipes from, and read bits and pieces from half a dozen more. It takes several days for the books to all be returned to their place. Sometimes I cook all the recipes. Sometimes I don’t. Sometimes I sit down and read a whole book (or two) but mostly I use the books in my food collection as a trampoline for research and for thinking about what I will be eating.

Speaking about research, finding the right book for researching (whether for scholarly purposes or for a novel) is another method entirely, and even thinking about it makes me tired. I think I might stop this piece right here and go to bed. Time to dream of books.

Books and business and a weekend in Ireland

I’m still in my impossibly-busy time. I wanted to write you a proper post, but I also need to sleep. I’ve spent all my spare money on books this week. Four I have already, and the rest are to come. What I might do until I have the book or can reclaim real time (whichever comes first) is introduce you to some of the new volumes in my library. Two each week, I think, so that you’re not overwhelmed.

I caught up with the authors of this week’s books in my first face-to-face science fiction convention since August 2019. One I saw briefly and she was wearing a t-shirt for the world science fiction in Glasgow in 2024, which made the world feel less big than it has recently. The other dropped in and we had a couple of hours to catch up. By ‘dropped in’ I mean he was willing to take a RAT to see me. We all have different names for the quick COVID tests and Australians call the RATs. This is, of course, because it opens up the potential for very silly jokes. Especially since at least two of my friends have pet rats. I will save you from the jokes and return you to the new books.

Jason Franks’ new volume is X-Dimensional Assassin Zai. Through the Folded Earth. Cross-dimensional assassination…

The other is Thoraiya Dyer’s Tides of the Titans. It’s been a long while since I read a new novel by Thoraiya – they simply have not come my way.

I’m looking forward to both these books so much. I have to wait before I can read them, however. Until the middle of November, my life is on fast forward. The northern hemisphere is in peak conference time and I’m in my silly season and handling health issues. This opens an opportunity. If any of you buy one of the books and wants to read and discuss it with me, you have time. Much time. We could have a discussion here, in the Treehouse. Or not. Maybe you’re as impossibly busy as I am.

If my life were quieter I could read them both next weekend, but next weekend I’m online in Ireland. In fact, I’m staying up late every night this week to get the most Irish day possible during the Australian night. I go to Irish conventions whenever I possibly can (which is about a fifth as often as I’d like to, which is the sad truth for me and most of the conferences and the conventions I love), but this year is special: I’m one of the guests of the Irish National Convention. I’m giving talks, am on panels, and giving a reading. I’m also spending as much time as I can chatting with people – Octocon attracts fascinating folks. It’s a lovely place to meet people and does the virtual side of things with much care and thought, which means even from the other side of the world (while ill – this is like dancing backwards in heels) Dublin is a good place to visit.

If you also join in the virtual side of Octocon, find me and we can chat about books, about writing, about overwork, about the odd shape of our current world…

Books and food and science fiction/fantasy

My mind is buzzing with food stories again. I’m on a panel in a few minutes, you see. The panel is described in my last post, and is the final one for me for this convention. I’ve been battling my heath these last few days, so I haven’t done all the exciting social things and watching the many panels I had intended to do. But still, I got to catch up with some friends and to talk about subjects I love.

Given I have just a few minutes to write, and given I want to talk about books, and given… all the things, why don’t I introduce you to the stash of books I have by my side to keep me company during the panel?

The first book is a volume I’m suing for my research. It’s Michael Owen Jones’ Frankenstein was a Vegetarian: Essays on Food Choice, Identity, and Symbolism. I love it that there’s now enough research on related subjects so that when I analyse food in fiction, I don’t have to throw my hands up in despair and wail. This book is actually part of my non-convention work this week, so, right now, it’s filling three functions.

The CSFG Gastronomicon ed Stuart Barrow. This is a science fiction anthology with recipes. My story was sent to Stu to test the system, and was not the one I intended to suggest for it. On the front cover there is a dinner table, created by the inimitable Les Petersen. Every time I see this art, since it first appeared in 2005, I have wondered about my picture. Les made us look real, but from fantasy stories. I need to ponder why I never see myself the way artists and photographers see me.

The next book is by me, but has wonderful line drawings by Kathleen Jennings on the cover. It’s the book of the banquets (Five Historical Feasts: The Banquets of Conflux). I tell the story of the years we created these events, and how we researched the food history and added a few extras. There are stories by some very well known authors, and an article on Richard III’s coronation feast. There is also a record of the committee meeting where we tested all the drinks for the Prohibition dinner. This fits nicely in with Anne McCaffrey’s Cooking Out of this World.

Nanny Ogg’s Cookbook, Dining on Babylon 5 (Human Edition), and two quite different versions of the Doctor Who cookbook represent my (very small) collection of books representing science fiction and fantasy worlds. Cooking with Asterix also (sorta) fits into this and is mostly in the pile for the cartoons.

The second last book in my pile is the book I recommend to anyone who wants to cook English food from the Middle Ages. Pleyn Delit: Medieval Cookery for Modern Cooks is so handy as a springboard into talking about food in fantasy fiction, because it helps even those who don’t know what a medieval kitchen looked like understand what sort of cooking is possible.

The final book is the place where the fantastical meets the historical meets the foodie: it’s a translation of Nostradamus recipe book.

And now that you know what is on one side of me (on the other is washing, drying on an airer) I shall go be part of this panel!