On Real Conversations

One of the wonderful things about East Bay Booksellers is that the books they put on display by the cash register tend to be small press gems rather than those books you buy as a gift because they’re “cute” that no one ever reads.

Case in point: a book called Anarchy—In a Manner of Speaking, which is a set of conversations by the late (and great) David Graeber with Mehdi Belhaj Kacem, Nika Dubrovsky, and Assia Turquier-Zauberman.

I was in the store picking up something else, saw it for the third time, and decided I needed to have it. I came home and started reading and bam! There on the second page was something that I needed to know, even though I hadn’t realized it: the importance of dialogue — real dialogue — among people in both understanding the world and creating better systems.

Graeber ties anarchist practice to dialogue, in particular “a certain principle of dialogue.” He explains:

[T]here’s a lot of attention paid to learning how to make pragmatic, cooperative decisions with people who have fundamentally different understandings of the world, without actually trying to convert them to your particular point of view.

That alone connected two discrete parts of my life: developing co-ops and training in Aikido. In both of those activities, it is vital to have that kind of dialogue to accomplish anything.

In Aikido, of course, we have that dialogue physically, but it is the same thing. Your partner attacks and you have an exchange that will resolve the situation. If you handle it well, the situation shifts without harm to either party.

I’ve found over the years that bullying people until they agree to your point of view never works. Even if you get agreement in the short term, there’s a good chance of losing it. In Aikido, if you try to force a solution, you’re not going to get anywhere.

Continue reading “On Real Conversations”

Roe, Russ, and The Baby on the Fire Escape

I have never been pregnant. I have no children. I do not regret either of these things, but both of them are things that could have happened.

They didn’t happen because I came of age not only when birth control pills were available, but also at the time when it became easier for single women to get prescriptions for the pill or other forms of contraception.

Since I’ve never been pregnant, I’ve never had an abortion. However, I know that I would not have hesitated to have an abortion if I had become pregnant at many times in my life.

I can imagine more possible regrets to having a child than I can to having an abortion. Is that shocking? Perhaps it is. But I have watched the struggle of single mothers.

On the basic biological level, the purpose of our existence may well be to reproduce, but despite the many failures of human beings, I do think our current purpose is far beyond the biological. People have dreams and goals, things they want to accomplish in their short period of time on Earth. I object to people sacrificing what matters to them for their children or their partner or their parents or even the good of the world.

I was in law school when Roe v. Wade made abortion legal in the United States. It was certainly something to celebrate.

I think the biggest mistake we made back then was to be queasy about supporting abortion. These days we say it is health care, but in the past all too often people said it should be “rare.”

We tiptoed around it. We should have claimed abortion a long time ago.

No one should be forced to carry a pregnancy to term. Period. (No one should be forced to end one, either, but that’s part of the point.)

That brings me to two books. Continue reading Roe, Russ, and The Baby on the Fire Escape

Russ and the Russians

I have a week with more deadlines than capacity to fill them. A tried and true way to meet these deadlines is to make them just a little easier. When I came across a short piece I wrote 11 years ago (30 April 2011) I re-read it for memory’s sake and then I thought, “This is perfect for the Treehouse series on books.” I also thought, “Next Monday is impossible. Will it help?” And it does and it’s very appropriate for this year. We all need more tools to help us deal with this dangerously-developing world, after all. Not all books we read at this time need to be comforting.

I originally posted this to Even in a Little Thing, my blog at LiveJournal.

“This morning I can’t stop thinking about Joanna Russ. I am one of the many who was deeply influenced by her without actually really enjoying her fiction.

It’s funny, but I had been reading Russian writers for several years before I discovered Russ. This doesn’t mean I was at all old when I discovered Russ’ writing. What it means is that Dostoievsky and Chekhov were easier reading for a fourteen year old than Russ was for a nineteen year old. Dostoievsky and Chekhov matched my assumptions of person and of narrative and of who benefited by what behaviour far more closely. They still do. Chekhov writes about my family, I think.

I didn’t have any guidance in reading any feminist writer. Some don’t need it, but Russ is really not one of those. Her works stand alone, but, in standing alone, they’re not easy. I discovered her by chance and have never had a proper conversation about her writing with anyone. They made me angry and edgy and I wanted to talk about this and find out why. No-one around me was reading her. No-one was interested in a conversation. In my late teens, my friends’ idea of intellectual freedom was Isaac Asimov and Gene Wolfe and Ursula le Guin. This was the Le Guin of the late seventies and early eighties, before she realised that women could be wizards.

It was hard for Russ to deliver her message in that environment, and it was hard for me to see what she was saying. This is why I didn’t enjoy her writing, even as I read every word. It pushed me far beyond places I knew and showed me that the world didn’t have to look that way. It’s easier for feminist readers these days, I think, but that challenge and the wonder when I realised what she was doing and that it was possible to change paradigms when writing fiction, and the loneliness when there was no-one I could talk to about it – all that was the good fortune of my growing years.

Since then, I’ve always put the challenges Joanna Russ taught me into my fiction, my non-fiction, my teaching, my life. I’m not her, however, and I try to make them unobtrusive. I believe that it’s possible to change paradigms without it hurting so much.

I must be very naive, because I also believe (thanks to Russ) that it’s possible to change paradigms without forever going back to the simple: feminism #101, cross-cultural understanding #101, crowing about being clever for getting something that should be understood rather than saying “Right, I know that – time for the next step”. I don’t expect rewards for it because of that silence in my late teens – that emptiness alerted me to the effects of writing change. The presentation of the simple and the crowing of how clever one is attracts more notice, but it doesn’t do the job.

Joanna Russ didn’t present me with the lure of material rewards. She taught me about living in a world which is different.

Her writing made me uncomfortable because it touched so closely on what hurts.

I’m not at the stage yet where that discomfort can leave me. We still accept the gender bias in novels and in the book industry almost unthinkingly. Some of our assumptions have been eroded or have crumbled or have been torn down, but our Berlin Wall is still standing, for the most part. Russ carefully cut a door in that wall, however, and it’s possible to walk through that door and see the universe differently.

I really have to revisit Russ, as an adult. The world is a lesser place without her.”

 

Children’s books can play mind games

I’m writing late today, because it’s my birthday. In fact, I’m writing so late that my birthday is already finished in Australia. My birthday is on a public holiday. In a normal year, I’d probably introduce you to a book that tells the history of that public holiday, but the history of that public holiday is very military and there is enough of that in our everyday right now. If you’re curious, the day is ANZAC Day and the history is the landing at Gallipoli in 1915.

‘ANZAC’ stands for the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps, so I’ll give you one of my favourite Australian novels written by a New Zealand writer, as a compromise. Ruth Park moved to Sydney in 1942, where she married another writer of classic Australian books, D’Arcy Niland. I’ll introduce his The Shiralee one day.

I have several favourite books by Park: The Harp in the South, Poor Man’s Orange, and, of course all the stories of the Muddle-Headed Wombat. I suspect The Muddle-Headed Wombat was one of the first books I read outside school textbooks, in fact. I obtained my own copy of it in my teens and have never let anyone borrow it. My copy of The Muddle-Headed Wombat is pristine, however, compared to my copy of Playing Beatie Bow. I have maybe half a dozen books read so often that they cannot hold together, and this is one of them.

It’s set in Sydney, and is a time slip novel and… it’s almost impossible for me to describe. It’s been filmed and the film is charming but slight and the book is far more haunting and simply one of the best time slip novels out there.

Some books I read and re-read because they remind me of things I ought never forget. Playing Beatie Bow came out when I was an undergraduate, studying history. It became an instant reminder to me that history can happen as a narrative, as a spiral, as layers in time and more: history is not a simple thing.

I had only been to Sydney very briefly when I first read the novel. It suggested a society that was very different to the one I knew. More poor and urban and complex than the suburban I knew. Park’s two Sydneys brought the place to life in a way that made me rethink my own Melbourne. I wasn’t specialising in Australian history, but I attended every public lecture about Marvellous Melbourne by John Lack and I started to shape the stories of the streets I knew and I began to see the relationship between the stories we tell, the stories we lead.

When I myself moved to Sydney, in 1983, I walked down George Street and ventured down to The Rocks and found that the district was nothing like the novel. I had to learn another kind of history, or maybe another layer. Since then, The Rocks has been rebuilt and a museum established and it’s easier to see how the different moments of the past link, but then, I studied a street corner and tried to work out how it fitted and failed. I stopped trying and instead learned about the influenza pandemic and how it changed that tiny corner of Australia.

I suspect that this is the other reason I’m thinking of Playing Beatie Bow. The Rocks are indelibly linked in my mind with that pandemic, and, of course, now we are living through our own pandemic.

I can’t review Playing Beatie Bow. I can’t even analyse its history. This is unlike me. There is another timeslip novel whose history I analyse perfectly well, and that has an even more battered cover, Allison Uttley’s A Traveller in Time. I suspect that Park’s novel is too linked to that big change in my life, becoming an historian and, in order to do so, moving from Melbourne to Sydney. I may never be able to pull it to pieces in the same I way I pull most novels to pieces. All I can suggest, then, is that you read it for yourself.

Memories and Ruth M Arthur

Yesterday my new book was launched in the UK. There won’t be any launches elsewhere I suspect, because our lives are still vastly influenced by this interesting world we live in, but Story Matrices is out and I will talk about it whenever I have the chance. Except right now. I could spend an hour writing about my new book, but tonight I feel a little haunted, so I want to talk about the book that helped me find words for such things when I was still in primary school.

Ruth M Arthur was one of my favourite authors when I was under ten. I managed to find several of her books when libraries replaced old books with new ones in the 1990s. This means I have on my desk, reminding me of my childhood, the same edition I borrowed from the Hawthorn City Library time after time. The book is A Candle in Her Room, which was my return-to-over-and-over of Arthur’s mainly because it creeped me out, every time I read it. The illustrator was Margery Gill, and her pictures are definitely part of my memories. From the moment I could read, I read the illustrations along with the story and they were part of a whole. They still are, and I still have favourite artists. If they illustrate the internal pages of a book, then I will try to find a copy of that book for my bookshelf. When one of those artists, Kathleen Jennings, illustrated one of my own books I melted into a puddle of sparkling joy.

A Candle in Her Room is a children’s book, from the days before there were Young Adult books. I’m not sure it would be published today. It’s too dark for a children’s book these days. This is a loss for any child who sees that life has dark places and needs words to identify those feelings. A Candle in Her Room and a story about a ghost that lured children away with the promise of happiness (I don’t remember the author, which is probably a good thing – and I’ve never been able to find the book it was in – all I remember is that it was a Penguin paperback from the sixties, with a blue cover) helped me more than I can say when I discovered that the Shoah was not that far removed from me. Two of the characters join the Polish Resistance. This was the link between the book and the Shoah survivors I knew as a child. I never articulated that link, but the book was there for me, nonetheless. I want to say that it taught me that there was a way out of darkness, but it did no such thing. It let me know that other people experienced that feeling I had when I saw the picture from the day a death camp was liberated. When I knew, age 6, that not everyone survives and that the adults who knew all the answers were the ones I could not ask about the picture. When folks talk about children asking the damnedest questions they ignore the fact that some need fiction to fill the emotional holes for the questions that the child cannot ask.

A Candle in Her Room didn’t help at all with my next door neighbour, Doris. I played with her until she was eight. I was the only other child in the street that she was happy to play with. One day she had tonsillitis and went to hospital for it and never came back. I still miss her. It also didn’t help with Charles, who lived across the road and went to school with me, died in a car accident in Tasmania. Nor when… I will become a very different kind of puddle if I remember these friends.

The simple fact is that stories helped me find words to start handling the death of strangers who might be relatives and whose bodies I saw in a big pile in a picture when I was six. This was only step one in learning words and stories that helped me with the other losses and let me eventually reach the stage where I could find my own words and tell my own stories.

I tell people that I’m a sarcastic Pollyanna and the amount of loss in the first twenty years of my very ordinary suburban existence is what triggered the sarcasm. Ruth M. Arthur’s was important to me, then, and probably always will be.

I never want to own a doll called ‘Dido’. Reading Joan Aiken’s books at the same time meant that the name ‘Dido’ was totally fine. When my Pre-Classical Antiquity lecturer tried to explain what he termed a rare name when we learned about Carthage, I went to my local library and borrowed all the books that had anyone or anything called ‘Dido’ – I didn’t tell him I had disproved his ‘rare name’ theory, but I thought it, forcibly. His few thoughtless words couldn’t obliterate my childhood while I had access to books.

A Candle in Her Room now provokes nightmares, even without me reading it. This is odd, because it’s not really horrific. It’s spiced with darkness. For me it carries all that baggage and is more than the sum of its parts.

I wanted to know if anyone knew of it. It’s not, after all, a new novel. I looked it up just now online and it’s still being read and still provoking emotions. I’ve known this book since it was first released in Australia. The edition I read and now own was the London one, from 1968, which tells you a lot about my early reading habits. And I’m devolving into dullness because I just realise that I’m writing this at bedtime. I need to find something to refresh my mind, otherwise I will have nightmares about malevolent dolls. I know this for a fact, because I have nightmares about Dido whenever I think about A Candle in Her Room late at night.

The books we read as children are important. And I shall defeat those nightmares by finding another book with that musty scent and this book shall be one that brings me good dreams.

Ways of Making Progress

I am not one of those people who pines for the way things used to be.

I mean, I grew up before there was a vaccine for measles and related diseases, which means that I had every version of measles possible regularly from the time I was five to the time I was ten.

I am fortunate that I had no lasting effects from those bouts, but it wouldn’t have been a bad thing to have missed out on measles.

So I’m a huge fan of vaccines and of other treatments and preventative measures for contagious disease. (I can rant about this at length, and have, but that’s not my goal in this post.)

In general, I’m in favor of many of the changes that have occurred in my lifetime, the mechanical and the digital as well as the medical. For example, as soon as I learned to type, I began writing on a typewriter.

I jumped to correcting typewriters as soon as I could afford one and I got my first computer in 1983 primarily as a writing device.

I also love the communication options. Email is great. Texting is great. Having a phone with you so you can coordinate meeting up in person is fantastic.

What I don’t love are the constant changes and updates. While security updates are important and some changes do provide an improved product, there are way more updates than need to happen.

And of course, if you don’t want to change all those things, sooner or later your computer won’t be able to use the tools it needs.

Here’s the other problem — and it might be the one that bugs me the most — these changes are sent along willy-nilly, with no regard to your reasons for using the device or what you might be doing at the time.

It’s not like you get a message — email would work for this nicely — that says these updates are available and recommended and here is where you go to get them when you’ve set aside some time for tech maintenance. Nor is it like you get a choice when, say, you don’t really want to change your word processing program.

No, they assume that the most important thing in your life is tech maintenance and interrupt whatever you’re doing, when in fact the most important things are the projects that you’re using the tech devices to do.

Writing, analyzing data, meeting people via Zoom — those are the important things, not keeping up the computer. Continue reading “Ways of Making Progress”

Story Matrices – the story behind Gillian Polack’s research

Today I’m wildly busy, but also celebrating. The research I’ve talked about at science fiction conventions for years is finally in print. Thanks to Luna Press, a Scottish SF publisher with an academic branch. The book is Story matrices: Cultural Encoding and Cultural Baggage in Science Fiction and Fantasy. The reason I’m so tired and so very delighted is because this book was almost lost to the world because Canberra had bushfires and the bushfires made me ill. I had a week of doing normal everyday things before COVD hit Canberra and since then I’ve not been able to go to libraries, to attend face to face meetings and so much more. I’m not entirely a well person and so I’m one of those who have spent most of COVID seeing people only online. Occasionally I get out and pretend life is normal, but I’m always wearing a mask and it’s always risky.

Despite all this, my little study of how science fiction and fantasy is important in cultural transfer and explanation is officially available. It’s not the mega-study that I had intended, but, as someone earnestly said to me a couple of months ago “it’s much easier to read than it would have been if you’d written it the way you told me you would.”

There are so many things I want to tell you about this book.

I want to talk about how hard it is to write any book through brainfog and with lungs that don’t fully work. I want to explain that air should be breathable, not riddled with particles.

I also want to talk about how difficult it was to avoid the usual explanations of writers we no longer trust. Aided by the brainfog, my first draft kept falling into bad explanations of the changing relationships between Marion Zimmer Bradley, JK Rowling and their readers. I then looked at what I wrote and realised that I was doing exactly what my book explains: I was telling stories about them that explained who they were and their life choices. But my book isn’t about their life choices nor how we react to them. That I dislike a whole bunch of things about MZB’s private life and get angry about JK Rowling’s opinions about my friends is, to be honest, not useful. These are my emotions and my ethics and my personal opinions.

I need to get past the ethical questions and the personal. My research explains that how we tell stories is damned important. I needed to understand how we include our ethics and our thoughts about others into our work, often without knowing we’re doing this. I needed to write it out clearly. That was surprisingly difficult. Now that the book is out and people can read it, I’ll find out if I’ve succeeded.

It’s urgent that we understand why harmful stereotypes keep being updated and complex understanding of human beings is only appropriate for certain kinds of novels. This is why, instead of describing my own personal reactions of this author or the other, I needed to explain how novels give us tools that support one interpretation or another. I had to explore what some of those tools are and explain how they work.

My original plan was for a comprehensive explanation that changed the world. Life reduced this to an introduction, with lots of different entry points for readers and writers, so that they can explore for themselves the bits of the world they want to change. I looked at unique culture and shared culture, at what story space is for a reader and what it is for a writer, at how we build worlds for fiction and to play in. Understanding how Rowling and MZB’s work fits into this, helps us understand how their life choices creep into their fiction and gives us the capacity to understand which parts of that fiction are good and which are worrying. It takes us past stereotyping and into how that stereotyping plays out in novels.

This book is the next step after my History and Fiction work. It’s the precursor of a deeper exploration. Right now, I’m looking at how fairy tale retellings and fantasy world building operate in certain novels. Now that Story Matrices is out, I need to deepen my understanding of how we do what we do and what that means for our writing. I especially need to understand how the nicest people can use racist and bigoted cultural elements in their work, and how the most terrible people can write immensely popular and well-written novels. I need to do this non-judgmentally, because I am also capable, as a writer, of doing all these things. Instead of saying “What a terrible thing this writer has done”, I want to look at works and say “These are the techniques the writer has used.” Readers can make their own decisions about ethics and are perfectly capable of judging for themselves, but it really helps to have useful tools.

How culture is encoded into fiction and the cultural baggage fiction carries is not a simple matter. It’s a mosaic sparkling with colour and with outlines that move and perspectives that change. It’s easier to give simple descriptions and to announce, “I understand this.” It’s so simple to hate a book without understanding what the writer has actually done, what we’re reacting to with such force. There is a price for choosing the easy route. Our everyday lives become riddled with material we read in our fiction or watch on TV or in movies, or in comics or… in any narrative.

With the best intentions in the world, we can spread prejudice and support hate. That’s the extreme case, the one that’s right now playing out in a war in Eastern Europe, in the collapse of politics in Pakistan, in the Middle East, in Sri Lanka, in Myanmar and in may other places. I can see those stories in the convoy folk who descended on Canberra in February and have been giving us a hard time ever since.

So much of the things we do in our lives is influenced by the stories we love. Story Matrices is one step on my journey to understanding this. In a perfect world, it will help readers and writers see what we put into novels and what we take out of them. It will give us back choices about the aspects of culture we want to accept.

Memories again

Last year, I read Liz Williams’ lovely novel, Comet Weather. It reminded me of one of my favourite books from my childhood, John Masefield’s The Midnight Folk. It had that same sense of a rural life where history can emerge unexpectedly and where life is not predictable. A little sharp, a little edgy, but very comforting. The Midnight Folk and Comet Weather both fit this description.

Then there’s another book by John Masefield that I love to hate. A Book of Discoveries. I adored everything by him at that point. I went to my favourite secondhand bookshop with Masefield’s work in my mind. The shop was just down the road from where my grandfather’s offices had been in my early childhood. Every time I visited the bookshop, I carefully walked past the old office and waved a little ‘hello.’ This little walk was my favourite form of history emerging (my life experience related to the books I read): I could call on the emotions and remember a decade before whenever I wanted. I could leave out all the sharp edges. My childhood had more sharp edges than I enjoyed, and I had decided that books were the best place to encounter them.

In Berry’s I found my dream copy of Sheridan’s plays. I may introduce you to them one day, along with their erstwhile owner. I also found A Book of Discoveries. I don’t know anything about previous owners of A Book of Discoveries, except that one of them was called Mathieson. Given the date of the volume and the style of the handwriting, Mathieson might have owned the novel when it was new, but they didn’t give a first name, or a date. There were only sixty years between my purchase and the edition (it was from 1910) and it’s a gilded illustrated hardback edition. The book even has the protective paper on its frontispiece and I’ve owned it for about forty-five years: I don’t think it’s had many owners. I nearly gave it away, decades ago, when I felt impossibly guilty about it.

I loved the book when I first read it. It was a prized possession. It feels substantial and adventurous and contained safe adventures for young boys. It wasn’t anything like The Midnight Folk, but it had a certain feel in common with Rudyard Kipling’s Rewards and Fairies. In my mind, I classified it alongside Puck of Pook’s Hill. (That all these books were favourites, and that I read every work of Arthur Ransome I could find over and over again says a lot about my childhood, I suspect.) I spent every cent I had on buying the book, because it fitted so well into my deep desires of what books should be at that point.

A few years later, I studied first year archaeology at university. That was when I discovered the horrid truth: these adventures consisted of private destruction of landscapes. Landscapes and I have a very long association. I myself contributed to the destruction of a tiny bit of 1920s market garden when I did a test archaeological dig in my backyard. When I was eleven, you see, I wanted to be a museum curator, and for that, I needed to understand archaeology. I found some china and a child’s shoe. I was the only member of my family who was excited.

This was just before I read A Book of Discoveries. With that first reading, Masefield validated my personal exploration. I was worried about what the characters did in the novel (my mother taught geology when I was a child and rocks and where they came from coloured so much of my childhood – I was very surprised when none of the other children at school could read landscapes and when only my BFF wanted to) but it wasn’t until I was given concepts to describe how ownership works that I began to worry about the stories I read.

One day I’ll find a new home for The Book of Discoveries. It deserves an owner who covets it as much as I covet my 1967 paperback of The Midnight Folk. I bought The Midnight Folk for 60c, probably in 1969 or 1970. Since my pocket money back then was my age plus 2c, it was quite a big buy. I have never regretted owning it and it’s surprisingly untattered considering how many times I’ve read it. Just looking at the cover takes me into the world. I wouldn’t be surprised if there weren’t hints of The Midnight Folk in my own writing, just as there are in Williams’. My suspicion is that these hints are in Ms Cellophane or The Art of Effective Dreaming, but that they are half-memories, nothing more.

Prophets and their Gifts

Right now, a lot of my research is about food. Not recipes, nor food history, but how food and foodways creep into fiction. It’ll be a long time before I have research results that I’m willing to share. Right now, I change my mind from day to day as I discover new things. Still, it’s not at all fair to leave you out of my foodways entirely, so I’m going to share with you an old favourite of mine.

In 1552, two little books appeared in the French marketplace. In my perfect world, I would own an original copy of each, but they’re rare and the author is so famous that any copies that appeared would be snapped up for an impossible sum. I own a translation of the books, into English. I could read the original (historians have some handy language tools) but haven’t ever found a modern edition. I was in France in 1995 and found the English translation there. It’s not a big book, even though it rudely fits two old books into one.

Who is this well-known author? Michel Nostradamus, who is more known as a prophet and as a physician than as a cook. Whenever I’ve encountered people who get excited when they hear his name it’s because they want to argue about prophecy. Right now, though, his background as a plague doctor is more appropriate. He was one of the best known and possibly one of the most competent plague doctors in sixteenth century France.

I considered this when I was in the emergency department of the medical side of the university at Montpellier, for he studied there and I had a mysterious disease. I didn’t have plague. But I dreamed of my favourite recipe from Nostradamus’ cookbook as I rested after the appointment and slowly recovered from what turned out to be the side effects of being bitten by a tick. The doctor laughed merrily with his assistant, when they worked out I was Australian and yet had been infected by something in England. They looked up Australia on the computer and noted all the dangerous spiders here and all the snakes and then said “And she went to England for this. York, in the rain.” The actual diagnosis took maybe a minute, and they wrote out prescriptions and descriptions for treatment when they’d finished laughing. At that precise moment I wished I had less French because I could understand every joke they made at my expense.

Nostradamus’ quince recipe was my safe hiding place, I think.

I was in Montpellier researching Langue[dot]doc 1305, but I didn’t call on that incident at all for it. The illness meant I only had a few hours of research a day, because I really wasn’t that well.

I managed to complete all my work thanks to the kind help of people at desks. Two were the senior curators of museums, masquerading as sellers-of-tickets. I asked each of them where I could go in their museum to answer a couple of questions I had. We chatted a minute and they decided to talk me through everything I needed. Two hours, in each case, with people who knew more about the precise material I needed than were in any book. One also sold me a hard-to-find book I desperately needed, so I read that during my many hours of enforced rest.

Hearing the medical jokes at my expense was the downside of having enough French, but being able to talk the Middle Ages with experts was definitely the upside. It might also have helped that I knew a fair amount already: I was asking as an SF writer, but had a PhD in Medieval History backing it.

The third desk person was at the tourist office in the town I was setting the novel in. She had copies of unusual material hiding behind the desk and brought them out for me. In return, I told her how to make Nostradamus’ version of quince jelly.

I wish I had been able to go back one more time after I had digested all that material, because there are some questions I really wanted more answers to. I live on the other side of the world, and a return visit wasn’t possible. Still, Nostradamus and his recipes have an indelible link with Langue[dot]doc 1305.

I didn’t put even a single recipe for quince jelly in the novel. I regard this as neglectful, but I can tell you now, even my mother thinks that he had a very fine recipe. She tested it, some years back.

Guest Blog: B.A. Williamson on Being a Bipolar Writer

On Being a Bipolar Writer

By B.A. Williamson

It’s pretty hard to write this right now. Each sentence is taking a conscious effort. Why? Well, I’m depressed. Unsurprisingly, given the current circumstances. Cancelling all my book launch events and conference panels didn’t help.

There’s not always a reason. Occasionally this just happens. But I can say this depression is “just a phase” without any hint of condescension, because for me, it’s true. I’m bipolar.

Sometimes I just want to lay on the couch and escape. Hours of video games are good for this, though not exactly healthy. I suffer from the emptiness and lethargy that is familiar to millions of sufferers of depression.

What’s less familiar is the other side of the coin—my manic episodes. I have unlimited energy and focus, and can dive into projects for hours on end, and the words just flow. Everything I write is the best thing anyone has ever written. (Impaired judgment is another symptom.)

Manic energy can be a superpower, if harnessed correctly. I can hit any deadline, tackle any obstacle, and breeze through it with the confidence of a narcissistic tiger owner. But as I said, it’s a double-edged sword. The crushing writer’s despair is even worse, and can wipe out all the progress I’ve made.

Writing helps. Getting things out on the page helps. During a depressive episode, it takes a monumental effort to sit down and get moving. But even as I type this, it has become easier. I do feel better. I’m not agonizing over every punctuation mark, and hey, I’ve produced about 250 words so far! Halfway there.

Routines help, too. And outlines. The less you have to think, the lower the energy it takes to get started. I don’t have to think, just check the outline, do what it says, and follow the routine. They also keep me moving at those times when I’m balanced, and don’t have that supply of manic energy to rely on.

Whenever I want to give up before I’ve even started, I tell myself to write three sentences. That’s the rule—three sentences, then you can quit. Anyone can write three sentences. My seven-year-old can write three sentences. And to this day, I’ve never stopped at three sentences. I may only get a few paragraphs, but that’s still overshooting my goal by quite a bit.

So when my precious (fictional) girl Gwendolyn Gray started showing the same symptoms, I was hardly surprised. In fact, it fit my story very well, and I had a compelling and unique character arc. I work with middle schoolers, and they suffer from depression and anxiety at alarming rates. Anyone shocked? Think back to middle school. It’s a terrifying, stressful, horrific experience for many of us. Now we have the awareness and language to properly describe the toll it takes on our kids. But conversations about mental health are all-too-often relegated to the land of Young Adult, while our adolescents are talked down to or treated as if their problems couldn’t possibly be all that bad.

I felt it was really important to show a story where a character grows up, and kids could see a reflection of their own struggles. As Gwendolyn struggles with larger-than-life monsters, readers can see a reflection of their own struggles that can feel so much bigger than themselves. And as her external struggles are a metaphorical mirror for their own, her internal struggles create a much more literal parallel. Her internal reactions give them something to relate to, and see themselves taken seriously. Continue reading “Guest Blog: B.A. Williamson on Being a Bipolar Writer”