Publication in the time of COVID – another anecdote

I want to introduce you to Poison and Light, but I have no idea how to do this. It was released during the first year of COVID and so most bookshops have not been interested in it: it’s available from online stores, mainly. It was a finalist for an award, but there was no ceremony for that award, so no-one noticed it there, either.

This is all ironic, because it’s the book I wrote for people who wanted this history with the panoply and the danger. It has a Code Duello, and costume drama, and hot air balloons, and tentacled aliens, and secretive printers, and evil conspiracies, and the main protagonist is the last refugee from old Earth.

There’s one special character in it who was going to get their own novel if this took off, because they are just so very cool. I say ‘they,’ because even though they publicly identified as male, they didn’t always privately identify as male. It’s their idealism and their amazing clothes’ sense and their even more amazing rapier skills that made me want to know more.

I’m not the only person to want more of Fabian. Instead of summarising my novel, then, I’m going to send you to a review of it. That way you can see what both the novel and Fabian look like to someone other than me: https://performativeutterance.wordpress.com/2021/03/03/poison-and-light-gillian-polack-shooting-star-press-2020/

Me, I wrote Poison and Light because I wanted to explore a world that wanted to hide its head in the sand by pretending it was in the eighteenth century. Some residents of New Ceres thought they were in a world where nobles ruled, gloriously. Others thought they were in a world with decadence they could enjoy. Still others are planning a revolution. You get some of all of this in the novel, but it was going to be a series if it sold well enough, and there was far more excitement in store in those later volumes that will now never happen. There are issues that would have emerged concerning failed terraforming, for instance (we need more novels about failed terraforming, given what we’re doing to our own planet right now), and of slavery, and of how much New Ceres could remain its independent and dangerous quirky self when the rest of the galaxy had recovered from the war. How does the dream of history hold up against reality?

The novel I’m working on now is set in that same universe, but back on Earth. Only one character overlaps. I’m sorry, but that character is not Fabian.

I used actual 18th century texts and ideas and stories to build the world of the novel. That novel was part of the research project into how fiction writers use history, and testing the concepts other fiction writers presented me with gave me far more insight into what they did than if I’d simply collated my interview notes. It doesn’t come up in History and Fiction, and nor should it. When I use novels to test ideas, those ideas become part of the novel. I still have to check those ideas against my research for my academic side.

This means you can read Poison and Light without caring a jot about Gillian-the-researcher. You can enter it for the strange future world and for the people. In a perfect world, my readers do this. They look at my characters and pick the actors they would love to be playing them. Which leaves my second last thought as, “I have no idea who would play Fabian.”

My last thought is that I need to write more about Poison and Light. It deserves to be seen.

So Much of a Good Thing

Map of California indicating drought status as of January 13, 2023
Image from U.S. Drought Monitor https://droughtmonitor.unl.edu/Current Map/StateDroughtMonitor.aspx?CA

I have rain fatigue.

This is the rainy season in San Francisco. We know to expect that December through February will be wet–although this year the procession of atmospheric rivers, cyclone bombs (WTF?) and their accompanying sequelae–floods, mudslides, property damage, even loss of life–seems to be overdoing it. The mantra, in California, is “We need the rain.” And we do. The unrelenting rain of the last month has been a soggy, cold, disastrous blessing. If you’ll look at the map, you’ll note that there is no where in the state that isn’t “abnormally dry.” Currently a little less than half the state (46%) is in a state of severe drought,. Sounds pretty awful. But wait, what about all that heavy rainfall in the last month? Hasn’t that helped at all?

In fact, it has. A lot. Three months ago 94% of the state was in a state of severe drought (41% was actually in extreme drought). Three months ago 16% of the state was in a state of exceptional drought–and exceptional, in this situation, is not a good thing. So that last month of rain has been a godsend. And given how far the state still has to go in order to be out of a state of drought, I should not complain if we get another month or two of deluge.

Sadly, I almost certainly will. Continue reading “So Much of a Good Thing”

Work in summer

I had very fine intentions this week. I was going to say something Wise. Then I was going to say something Important. Then I was going to move back to my introductions to my own books, and talk about a novel.

It’s summer here, however, and the heat has melted my brain. This is why I normally write in the wee hours of my morning at this time of year: there is less heat then.

So what was I doing in the wee hours of my Monday morning? Why was I not writing to you? I finished my monthly Patreon newsletter, and sent it out. What you get from me today, then, is a pause. If you want to know more about my Patreon, you can find it here: https://www.patreon.com/GillianPolack

This month my patrons asked me to talk about antisemitism. There’s a short story where I tried (and failed) to find a way of explaining the cultural loss it incurs. There is non-fiction that gives some explanation. There’s some (very personal) advice for writers who come from mainstream culture. It explains the first big step they can take to write about people who come from different backgrounds to themselves. Without this first step, other understanding can be shallow, and so the writing is less than it should be.  And, for my top tier of patrons, I talked about what’s happening in the publishing industry. I pointed to the need to support writers in these very, very difficult times. My estimate is that the next three years is going to lose us many favourite writers: support from readers is the biggest factor in many of us staying the distance.

All this boils down to the appearance of my once-a-policy-wonk self. It’s talking to my historian self. I’m looking at the shape of publishing and its internal dynamics and patterns of change over time… it’s all a bit too exciting.

If you want to know more about any of the subjects I talk about on Patreon, I can talk about them here, on Mondays. My patrons get first look, though, so it won’t be instant. And since I’m no longer paid for my insights, writing about the big subjects that tax my brain is a low priority. I’ll still work at understanding everything (we all have our obsessions – I have this one and I have chocolate), but I can’t take it further. Income matters.

My highest priority right now is writing about my research. (I get paid for it!) This month and next I’m focused on food and foodways and history and genre. A curious side-effect of this research is that I think I finally understand what makes certain writers popular. I can trace the critical aspects of their fiction and have linked them clearly to things of cultural importance in the outside world. This fit with all my earlier work, but it means I understand far, far better what makes a work a best-seller when an equally good work dies in a ditch. (I love my research so very much!)

I’m gradually working through the physical morass I’ve been in for the last few months. When I’m out of it, I’ll return to interviewing writers. I have so many amazing writers to interview!

In the meantime – including next week – I’ll keep introducing my own work.

If you want to see me at a conference, I’ll be at the virtual side of Boskone in February.

And now, if you’ll excuse me, I go to ponder food in fiction.

Dealing with Tough Times

We’re living in a tough time, where bigots and bullies are being accepted and where a lot of people are hurting. My personal indication that I needed to reassess what less-bigoted folks do around me (what they accept, whether they understand the implications of their acceptance) is hate mail, which is a lot better than when it was mob threats and Molotov cocktails twenty years ago. Back then I became a kind of go-to person for a bunch of people including government folk and community organisations who wanted advice on how to stop things spiralling down. This is because of my life experience, but also because of my academic specialisations. I won’t go into that here. I’ve talked about it a lot at conferences and published books and papers, so it’s easy enough to find out about.

Last time, I was a leader in the Jewish community. This time, I’m a writer and an academic. I suspect that’s the cause of the difference in how I’m being treated on a number of fronts. For the last decade I’ve had to begin afresh every single time I’m in a new environment. Sometimes it’s because I’m Australian: when I did my MA in Canada nearly 40 years ago, a heap of people assumed I’d left school early because my accent didn’t sound posh enough to them. The didn’t ask “What’s your background?” They ‘knew’ it from my accent. This is happening again. My entire specialist knowledge and life suddenly don’t exist, because Australians are not associated with these things in that person’s mind.

This is a minor version of one of the side effects of cultural bias. We don’t tend to accept the skills and knowledge of people we see as different to ourselves unless they prove it. My CV and forty years of work are not enough when people feel culturally threatened and don’t see that they feel this. They want me to go the apprenticeship route and they want to give me advice and if I follow the advice, then they might let me speak. This time, I’m not being asked advice. In fact, the opposite is happening. I’m being excluded far more, and reproached far more. Instead of the children and grandchildren of Nazis talking to me about how they can avoid repeating what their parents did, I find myself alone. This is a constant in my life and it can be very educational, but right now, it’s silencing me.

If I can be silenced, with all those years of helping people and giving workshops and speaking up… then a lot of other people are worse than silenced.

In quite a few ways, the problem is not with the bigots right now – it’s with those who accept the side effects of that bigotry, or who take what they see as neutral action that is less uncomfortable for them, personally. Silencing me is more comfortable for people who don’t want to learn about the cultural basis of prejudice, for instance, because these people may be setting up white-only or Christian-only or ‘folks I can drink at the pub with’ groups.

These tight little very supportive friendships, that exclude those who don’t quite fit (and that help so many of us through the impossible times we keep facing due to the pandemic and due to climate change and due to extreme politics) create a better environment for bigotry to flourish. Many good folks we know are not bigots, but they unintentionally create environments where bigots prosper and their victims are hurt. I look around at groups when I am verbally attacked. I look at the cultural composition of that group, and the personal background of those doing the attacking. How conformist are they? How narrow is their social circle? Could I be threatening simply by being myself?

Right now, when someone says “I’m not prejudiced,” it should be regarded as a red flag unless their environment demonstrates clearly that their actions reflect these words. Who is in their close social groups ie who can they talk to honestly? Is it people from the same background as them, or do they accept people from different backgrounds? How far are the people from different backgrounds forced to conform to be accepted? For instance, if there is anyone Jewish in a mainly Christian group, are they pressured to sacrifice their holy days for any reason and told that Christmas is standard? In another group, are lunch parties organised during Ramadan, excluding anyone who observes it? Are get-togethers organised without any consideration of friends who have mobility issues? I could give six pages of examples of this kind and not reach an end of them.

The bottom line, in all of these cases, is whether that close group contains anyone who has significant differences and if those differences are accepted as everyday and in need of respect, or if they are trodden on. How much does the individual from the not-quite-normative background have to sacrifice to be part of the group if they’re accepted into it at all?

There is a curious aspect of this sacrifice that demonstrates when there is a culture that’s dominant in a particular group. How much does someone speak for their friends? If something is wrong, do they sit down and nut it out, as equals, or do they explain how a problem can be solved without this nutting out? Who takes the intellectual high ground and why?

While we often recognise this approach when it’s clearly religious conversion, it’s can also be cultural conversion, directly from a person with a privileged majority background to someone who comes from outside this space. It can also be attempted gender conversion, or health conversion from those who believe firmly that invisible disability is a product of a poor approach to health and well-being.

This approach can stop the mutuality of conversation instantly, because it’s hard to explain why one’s life is so very different to the way that person is perceiving it. This isolates those who face any kind of prejudice.

The irony is that the person telling them how they can be a better person, or fit into the social side of things more easily is often genuinely trying to help the person from the minority background deal with problems. If this is the case, then a handy solution might be to research before suggesting answers, and accept that we all have specialist knowledge of our own lives and that we should be part of the research that feeds into advice about our lives.

People from non-majority backgrounds are often treated as less equal. That need for me to prove I can research and think, despite my two PhDs, or the need for others to explain Judaism to me, as if I’ve never thought about my own religion, are just a couple of the issues I face, personally. However, the range of ways these actions can be brought into conversations are huge, because cultural differences are huge and focusing on the needs of the privileged means we never learn how to see variations and to handle them. The skill we all need is how to see cultural variations and physical and intellectual and gender and… any part of humankind, and not to feel threatened, not to need to act to change the person to make ourselves feel safe.

These conversations are not equal because most of us lack the capacity to enter equally into conversation with someone we see as different to ourselves. I’m one of these people – I learn and I learn and I will never stop learning. The book I’m reading this week is Khyati Y Joshi’s White Christian Privilege, because if I falter on my commitment to learning then I am just as guilty as the people who have tried to give me ‘help’ these last three months. Every time someone has criticised me, I’ve asked around and done some serious research to find out why I was perceived the way I was, what I ought to be doing, and only feel as if maybe it isn’t all my fault when I discover that the person’s voice is not reflected in the voices of those I trust. Then I take the issue to the next step, which, currently is Joshi’s book: I need to see how everything looks from a range of views. I need to widen my own understanding of different cultures.

Then I make my own mind up about whether I myself am problematic, or whether someone is handling me in a way I need to be concerned about. These last three months, seven people have handled me in ways that, when I checked into it, I need to be concerned about.

A lot of people are silent when life becomes worrying due to this kind of issue. They might say to themselves “These two can sort it out” or “I don’t know anything about hate mail – I’ll just leave this one alone.” Silence may look supportive (and on occasion, it actually can be supportive) but it can also exclude someone who has been pushed to the periphery.

Declarations of ally-ship do the same when they’re not backed up with everyday action. Everyday action might be as simple as the friend who said to me “When is it OK for us to meet? How can I do this without hurting you?” A cup of tea and a good discussion is a very good first step, when silence can leave a person alone when facing vast problems.

So many allies say, “I am an ally because I’m leaving the solution to you.” For me, this is a red flag. I’ve heard it from too many people recently, relating to far too many different situations. Some involved me. Some involved people from other minority backgrounds and from other people with other disabilities.

It’s becoming easier not to take responsibility for what happens in our circles, I suspect, or to put that responsibility clearly on the shoulder of the person who is already burdened by bigotry. This is why the US, UK, Australia and a bunch of other countries have problems with increased racist abuse: we accept that far more than we accept our own responsibilities.

This post doesn’t have a clear ending, because it’s not that kind of subject. We need to talk.

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”

To mask or not to mask, fandom is the question

Today’s post will be a bit acerbic. I was at my first face to face SF convention yesterday, and am home and still puzzled. Also disappointed.

First, some background. The convention didn’t have a strong policy about masks and etc, and most people chose not to wear masks, especially on the first day. Australians don’t have quite the same personal space as people in the US and Canada (we stand more closely together, quite simply), so whenever I would step back from the maskless, that person would follow me to close the uncomfortable gap and our conversation would turn into a dance. I have taught writers about this dance, but normally to illustrate how different cultures see space differently (my internal ethnohistorian is handy for writers). This dance was about some individuals seeing safety differently, and about different individuals thinking “This thing that affects this person doesn’t apply to me.”

I couldn’t safely go to most of the convention events, because of the COVID policy: I’m one of the COVID-vulnerable. I may not be happy at missing book launches and panels and a whiskey tasting and… everything except the panels I was on and the workshop I gave (I couldn’t even give a reading). I’m not complaining about this, though I missed so many things, because the lack of safety had always been a possibility and I had arranged to help at my writing group’s table whenever I needed space between me and the world. I spent a lot of time at that table.

I was absurdly pleased when one of my old friends stopped for a few minutes to have a chat, because I haven’t seen most of them for so long. I was less pleased when some people, who have been able to pick up their normal social life as soon as lockdown was over, did nothing more than wave as they passed. It felt as if they don’t want me back in their lives. I didn’t have as many people to apologise to as I used to, because of old friends walking right past. The walking stick and the mask taught me who sees disability as a Thing, and who cares about the person, regardless of their physical health.

I explained this to various folks as I sat in my safeish place, because I had to miss lunches and evening programme and… so much. I even had to skip the panels I’d normally go to for research. I’ve sorted the research thing by finding another way to get that material, and I joked about the situation. I didn’t tell everyone I was missing doing research. What I commented on was that panellists who were friends didn’t have an academic expert staring evilly at them when they talked about certain subjects.

If all this was expected (not joyous, but expected) what’s troubling me, then?

Someone I’ve known for years told me that, if I wanted to have things set up differently, I should do the work and be on the committee. For eight years I was on the committee and did the work. Illness intervened, and so did the need to earn income despite that illness. I do committee work these days, but I frame it around my capacity. The person who told me that I needed to provide the solution knew I’m not well. His implication was that if I don’t provide a solution, then I should either be silent or get out.

I’m going to take this to Accessible Arts (a body for making the Arts more accessible, obviously) because its advisory body is one of the committees I’m on, and the COVID-vulnerable present a new group of accessibility  issues that need to be addressed.  The problem is a deep one and needs addressing at a number of levels. Should events in our COVID-shaped world be accessible to people with impaired immune systems and who are COVID-vulnerable in other ways? If they should, is it up to the person who can’t do the things to do all the work to transform the difficult into the possible, or does the wider community have an obligation to let us share events with them?

This problem is related to other issues in Australian fandom. How do our fandoms deal with minorities? I know the Jewish side and have been on committees (how many committees should I be be on, anyhow?) to try to get the calendars of non-Christian Australians consulted before the dates for events have been picked. This was triggered by things that happened to Australian Jews at SF conventions. I missed going to the award ceremony for my own book because it was on Rosh Hashanah (a friend had to take a screen shot of my name on the projection screen), and a convention once had a Jewish guest of honour who was on programme (in the initial draft) on Day of Atonement. Jewish SF folks are all different in our observance levels, and how she spent her Day of Atonement wasn’t my decision to make – it was hers, so she was taken off programme items that day and asked if she needed anything to support whatever she decided to do.

What I’m saying with these examples is that every accessibility need is unique to that person, but there are some things any orgasising committee should be considering in advance. Calendars, food, transport – these are some things are not hard to factor into early decisions that will work wonderfully at the convention later on. All the work for Yom Kippur could have been avoided if the committee had asked that guest the year before or after, or changed the date of the convention, or, simply, explained the situation to the guest when she was invited and worked with her on suitable progamming from that point.

It’s a process thing. Because of this, anyone should be able to handle it. Someone with a particular vulnerability shouldn’t have to serve on all the committees related to every single function they might want possibly to to ever go to.

Also, the person telling me this had just spent 2 ½ days in close proximity to many others, in a weekend where there were sporting grand finals and people were travelling a lot, where there are the annual tourist-driven flower festivals in this region and more. Whether he wore a mask or not is his choice, just as how the guest of honour spent her Yom Kippur was hers. But if he put his own opinion above my safety when he said this while leaning in towards me, maskless, he wasn’t just saying that I had to serve on all the committees if I wanted to attend panels or meet favourite author or even join a queue for signing (I have a hardback of Shelley Parker-Chan’s book and I bought the hardback at the convention thinking I could get it signed – but I never saw her without a crowd of people so my hardback is signature-free and one day I will meet Parker-Chan and talk about history with her, but none of those days were at Conflux), he was saying that he, himself, thought I was making a mountain out of a molehill.

Other people took the situation seriously. They had masks with them and put them on whenever they came close to someone wearing one. People like me became a “time to put the mask on for a bit” sign. This was such a good approach.  They wouldn’t play that COVID minuet. They would stand at a safe distance. This includes the organisers. The organisers also put a pile of masks on the front desk, for anyone who hadn’t thought about COVID. Most other people who wanted to talk with me (not the one who said that her doctor would be angry with her for not wearing a mask) or attend my workshop put one on. At the workshop, I explained that I couldn’t take the mask off unless the participants wore one, and only one person rebelled and it was my my decision to take my mask off for those who needed to see my face. We had the door open, because of that, however, and the maskless participant sat next to the door and about 2 metres away from me. Compromises are part of living in a community, and many people at Conflux were clever and kind and paid attention to what could be done to keep everyone safe and still have the freedom of mostly chatting maskless. (I didn’t take the mask off for panels, which was a problem for those who needed to lipread, but the rooms were not well ventilated and most people didn’t wear masks and… it wasn’t safe. This is one of the times when there is no good decision.

Working together to ensure everyone’s safety is what the committee was doing and it was our first time back together since the bushfires (so since 2019) and… I’m as responsible for COVID-safety as anyone else. The thing is… the thing is…. (this is hard to say) there is a bit of an Australian attitude that people who hurt are the ones responsible for making sure that no-one else hurts. This causes so much pain for people who are trapped by domestic violence, or the women who were molested in Parliament House, or those who are ill or those who have to deal with racists. “You’re the one who sees the problem, you’re the one who should resolve it” is not a kind approach to life. Nor is it viable. It was why I had to leave the public service when the antisemitism made my life untenable: it wasn’t me who needed to change behaviour to get rid of the antisemitism, it was the bigots.

If a bridge is falling down, you don’t ask the person who lets people know that there is a problem to fix it, you find an engineer. The engineer in this case is the guidance from the government about masks, about safe distance, and that certain behaviours will spread COVID.

Australia is a wonderful country in many ways, but the attitude that the person who most experiences the problem is the one who should fix it is not one of them.

July and books

I tell people far too frequently that some places have a bad month. I’m in the middle of Canberra’ bad month. I can’t escape it, either, and have not been able to since COVID first hit. This is one of the charming side-effects of being one of those who are vulnerable. This July is particularly nasty. It just is. It’s not the wind from the snow or the cold nights. It’s not lack of sunlight, though it might be the weak excuse for bright sunshine. It’s only partly drafts and open doors and friends forgetting promises to help. In fact, two friends are actually helping later in the week and I shall be that much less uncomfortable and I shall see them and July won’t be nearly as bad, that one day. Other friends have, these last few years, responded to my July-depression with “I can do this thing and it will help” and two thirds of them have succumbed to July before they could. This is the nature of July in Canberra. (I strongly recommend that if you have any friends who are confined for all these years, don’t make promises. It’s better not to promise than to give someone hope and then not follow through.)

What gets me through July, every year, but this horrid year in particular, is story. Only I’m grumpy and don’t want to talk about what I’ve been reading. I don’t want to drag you into my morass. Instead of telling you what I’m reading, then, I’m going to give you the names of three books that make me smile when I think of them. I’ve read them so often and I suggest them to everyone all the time. Just talking about them pulls me out of the winter gloom.

Not everywhere in Australia has winter gloom, by the way. An hour and a bit from here and you have the best snowfields in the world in July, but I cannot reach them and I cannot ski. I don’t want to ski. I want to make snow angels and drink mulled wine and eat hot chips and talk half the night with friends. This is not something that’s achievable. What is achievable is to think of novels set in that part of Australia. Elyne Mitchell’s Silver Brumby series are those novels. They have been with me since I was a child, and one of the joys of moving to Canberra, 30+ years ago, was knowing that, if I looked carefully outside in a drive towards the deep mountains, past Cooma, I might see Thowra.

One of my favourite scenes in the Silver Brumby itself, has wattle, and the early, early wattle has just come out around the corner from me. A cold wattle, pale yellow and, just this once (because we missed autumn storms) concentrating wildly with the glowing leaves of the maple next to it. I wanted to take a picture, but it was dusk and it was the first time I’d walked anywhere in a month and I simply could not carry my camera. My phone doesn’t like pictures in the half-light. Still, the red maple and the pale golden wattle shone, and I thought of the Silver Brumby, and I smiled.

While I’m thinking of my childhood, let me dream of the Scotland of Peter Dickinson. I was supposed to be in Scotland this week, in Glasgow, attending a conference on fantasy. My paper had been accepted and I was wildly exciting. Then COVID had its say, and I’m stuck at home.

Dreaming of Emma Tupper’s Diary is not a bad way to think of Scotland. Submarines and dinosaurs and a girl who wrote a diary I wished I could have written, when I was her age.

My third novel is not as distant. I read it for the first time quite recently. Lisa Fuller’s Ghost Bird is for slightly older children. It has darkness and family culture and it’s dynamic and wonderful. Sometimes a dark novel takes one by the hand and offers a way out of despair. Lisa’s novel is that one. I know where she’s coming from for some of the novel, and we’ve talked about it and so, for me, it’s not the novel alone that makes me smile, it’s knowing that I have friends who are writers who write work that’s so moving. I start thinking of all my other writer-friends, including those who hang around this Treehouse. And I realise that it doesn’t matter how bleak Canberra is in July and how alone COVID can leave me (I haven’t seen my mother since January 2019, when the bushfires caused me to evacuate to her place), I live in a rich world.

The Power of Story

Last night (your Sunday night) I was putting together some material for my patrons. It includes an interview I did years ago with Carrie Vaughn, Seanan McGuire and Daniel Abraham. I was looking into what made the suddenly-very-trendy preternatural romance and adventure novels and going straight to three excellent writers on the topic seemed like a good idea.

It still does. I’m considering picking up my old habit of interviewing writers in groups, to find out what they think and who they are. If you think that’s a good idea, please let me know. In the interim, it may be years since the first novels of these three writers came out, but I made such an excellent choice of interview subject: they’re still all perfect for this difficult year. Good writing trumps tough times, I find.

These days using ‘trumps’ like that makes us think of politicians who lead people astray and make the hard, harder, but I want us to return to the pre-Donald use of the word. It comes from playing card games. Card games, like good light fiction, help when the emotions are really not up to heavy lifting. Still, I’d rather read Carrie or Seanan than play cards this month. Cards may be fun, but COVID is still with us and far too many of my friends are down with it. I want to step into a delightfully frothy werewolf tale or dream of sarcasm in fairyland.

My present to you for the Fourth of July then, is a reminder of the power of books to keep us sane when life goes awry.

The End (I Hope) of an Era

More than two years ago (around the Ides of March) and exactly like everyone else in the US, I was at home sheltering-in-place, dealing with both sudden too-much-time and the anxiety of a rapidly-spreading pandemic. My own way of dealing was to start sewing.

Remember those far-off days when getting N95 masks was a near impossibility, hand sanitizer and toilet paper were impossible to find, and it felt a little like the beginning of a long, uncertain siege? When things are uncertain or scary, I need to do something, and I settled on sewing masks. At the time I was hearing from medical professionals about the lack of PPE–not just masks, but scrub hats and scrub bags (for putting your scrubs in to take to and from work). I asked what was the best pattern… and was besieged with information. And yards of fabric (some of it was autoclaveable Halyard 600 medical fabric sent by a physician friend, but a lot of it was just delightful cotton prints). I started a Facebook group for people who wanted to sew masks etc. (“Coronavirus Hand-Sewist* Mask Makers”), and it took on its own life: patterns for masks, advice, commiseration, and of course, memes about sewing. Continue reading “The End (I Hope) of an Era”