Walking Among the Jacarandas With John Fowles

For the privilege of sharing a common favorite book and an interest in natural history with the noted British author John Fowles, I earned a book hurled at my head.

Not by Fowles!

It began with Wiwaxia and ended with the jacarandas and a cup of tea.

My aunt, I told Fowles as we walked among the beautiful jacarandas in bloom on the Chapman University campus, always had loved these trees. Although their purple flowers always draw comment and interest, their pods were what she had loved so.

The pods are like purses, or perhaps herbaceous oysters. They’re strong and durable.

Fowles’ voice was soft and he spoke carefully, with a bit of sibilant whistle with some of his “esses.” I’m sure this is a British mark of something … but he wasn’t the least bit “crusty” (as in upper-crust). He was down-to-earth and courteous.

He was curious, almost relentlessly so.

He asked about the many rabbits on campus — escaped from labs ages before.

He asked about the large flock of green parrots — escaped pets, now breeding in large numbers (as did the rabbits).

He asked about the jacarandas. I had always thought this tree was from Australia, as were the many varieties of gum and eucalyptus we see everywhere around Southern California. But it turns out that jacarandas are from Argentina and in the wild, they are regarded as a threatened species.

But they are planted as landscape trees around the world and their purple flowers rival cherry blossoms for beauty.

I’ve been going over my work today and thinking, “Fowles treated me as an equal.”

Because he was egalitarian? Perhaps. Fowles is the author of one of the least-objectionable of the “man kidnaps, rapes, and tortures young woman” books, his first bestseller, The Collector. At the time I was walking with this man on the Chapman University campus, it hadn’t yet dawned on me that this type of literary subject might represent an extreme form of toxic patriarchy and that sane people might not regard such a tale as a subject for light reading prior to bedtime.

That issue was never raised at the time, not in any seminar where I was present, and not between Fowles and me.

We talked about Wonderful Life, a mutual book favorite of ours, written by the late (both men dead, now) Stephen Jay Gould. This book tells the story of the discovery and interpretation of the Burgess Shale animals, and Fowles had just returned from a trip to Canada to see the Burgess Shale with his own eyes. He wrote about other fossils, those found on the beach at Lyme-Regis. Collecting and studying these fossils formed a significant part of the story of The French Lieutenant’s Woman, which was made into a well-received film in the 80s starting Jeremy Irons and Meryl Streep.

I insisted that Hallucigenia was groovier than Wiwaxia, although now, I’m no longer sure. What do you think?

Hallucigenia (l) Wiwaxia (r)

Fowles read some of my work and pronounced it good.

He spoke with me some about being a writer.

He said, “You must always do what you do for yourself first and only. Never do what others want or demand.”

He signed one of several of his first editions, and a few not-first, to me. I took those with me in my single box of books when we moved to Florida.

I’m reading something of mine today, preparing it for publication.

In book form.

And I saw something else, as well.

Via social media, a young woman asked, “Are you proud of your skin color?”

I understand the reason why the question was asked, and though my answer to that question is “No,” I ask myself the question, “Are you proud of your work?”

The work I’ve done for a lifetime.

And to this, my answer, is “Yes.”

And I think, now that I am ten years younger than the 70-year-old Fowles was when he walked with me on that long-ago day on that far-away campus,

He was right.

I’ll never know why Fowles wrote The Collector. I see some material online that says he wrote it to “Fulfill a boyish fantasy of imprisoning a woman.” I hope that’s not really the case; certainly there was little to nothing of this left in the kind, thoughtful, gentle older man I walked and talked with.

He seemed to me to have been a man who had grown tremendously throughout his life. A thoughtful man, interested in the world around him and all of its creatures. All of life.

“You must always do what you do for yourself first and only. Never do what others want or demand.”

It seems like such simple, easy advice to follow.

So it seems.

The truth, would be quite the opposite.

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

I’m late because things are interesting weatherwise, and I’m full of reactions to it. I postponed the dentist and will be going to bed the moment I finish here. This means not only am I late, but there will be no pictures. All the remaining pictures will be crammed into next week’s conclusion. Thankfully, Amy and Ron and Mike are way entertaining and call each other names towards the end and so today’s interview more than makes up for me being late and there being no pictures. Last time, if you remember, we finished on Mike explaining what kind of person he is when he sits down to write, and wondering if that answered my question. Let me hand you over to Amy’s reply.

 

Amy:

Mike, I do what I do because I have to keep writing somehow and this is the easiest way for me right now. Ron and I were talking about the need to write, do we write for others at all, or is it something that comes from inside of us. I “write in order to know” what I feel, or what I think. To explore my knowledge and to reach some type of understanding. Because this is honest and I am proceeding honestly, just as do both of you – that’s why I know this type of blowback can occur. And it’s why I am now inured to it. I certainly did not start out that way, nor do I think you should do any differently than you are. You are a wonderful writer and “online flame wars” are hardly a productive use of anyone’s time.

And, I would like to share what I think the true nature and face is of online “political correctness” and keyboard “social justice warriors.” Most of the time, when such people are looked at in detail, they turn out to be anything but effective advocates for whatever injustice they purport to stand for. The recent case regarding Mercedes Lackey and the Grand Master award – where she supposedly said something objectionable about Chip Delany, who I think is over 80 by now – it was absolutely absurd. I am reading Chip’s social media reminisces about growing up, childhood experiences, many different plays, different writers and books—very fascinating. He’s been a preternaturally thoughtful man his whole life. I freely admit I couldn’t finish his very dense, intense books. I’m just plain not smart enough.

That said, I will absolutely step in for any man who is being attacked simply on the basis of his gender or racial/ethnic background. The powers-that-be, having noticed that many people who have been and continue to be oppressed, from Black Americans to Indigenous people in Canada to the cotton farmers in India who are committing suicide because they can’t afford to buy seeds and are in ever greater debt dooming their families—these are all real wrongs and real injustices.

But what they did to Misty Lackey? Helps NO ONE. It merely attracts attention to the complainants. It certainly angered the right wing out there. And it was sad, shameful, and completely non-productive. They actually took the award away from one awardee for addressing her peer in age and generation and fellow awardee as “colored.” It’s not a racial slur. It’s just an outdated term. I read the literally insane comments of the complainant and her small group of followers via Twitter. They called that lady’s old-fashioned statement “violence.” As someone who has directly experienced violence and who was also taught how to fight by my streetfighting and boxer Olympic athlete JEWISH father: I would be happy to show that fat bitch (I hope you appreciate these words, I do mean them) “violence.” Violence is direct violence. Not Mercedes Lackey saying “colored.” I’m just saying this my way but my Black friends would say something similar. They are as aware as I am that every time something like this happens, it further hardens white people who do NOT have a lot of Black friends against getting to know, working with, or establishing close relationships with Black people.

And as I mentioned to Ron, though it might have been sent only to Ron – my bad – my patience is absolutely done with those people. I have people with “Black” appearing profile pictures appearing on things I write and harassing me. But the words they use? Same words as used by white supremacists. I’m not making the “I have Black friends” argument. I am making the “If you give a rat’s a$$ about other humans you will treat them the way you want to be treated” and work with them, spend time with them, do business with them. I do that. These people don’t do much productive at all which is why they are this infernally assholish I live online 24-7 way.

This is because this particular type of political correctness serves corrupt, bad, and evil power structures. The enemies to the cotton farmers in India, the Black Americans who continue to experience daily real-world wrongs, from greater rates of imprisonment to less ability to get home or business loans or even to get decently-priced health or home insurance… they aren’t Mercedes Lackey, are they? They are billionaires from around the world who benefit from these practices. They’ve benefited for many, many years – for all I know, maybe forever. So the keyboard warriors are indeed “useful idiots” who serve the overarching purpose of keeping normal and decent people apart and at odds with each other as they enrich themselves and continue to pursue their destructive, immoral and heinously abusive lifestyles that are keeping all of us back.

That being said, Ron and I were chatting about Kevin Anderson’s anthology announcement about mermaids … I confessed to Ron that the whole “Gotta make money” thing has really pushed me toward fulfilling guaranteed contracts and the only “me” writing I do is Medium which is not exactly short fiction or novels. I noticed my Wikipedia has been changed to reflect that I am now living in SW Florida.

So I am starting to wonder about writing a short story with a mermaid. I was like “Tiki Bar mermaid” or “Calusa Indian mermaid” and this a.m., decided – why not both? And of course where we live is where Ponce De Leon landed. It is thought that an “Old Florida” tourist location, Warm Mineral Springs, which is very near where we live, was perhaps his “Fountain of Youth.”

Some of my favorite TV shows growing up were “Gentle Ben” and “Flipper.” This isn’t quite where I live – we are about 90 miles north of the Everglades and 10,000 Islands. BUT – we are on the Gulf – and they are starting to develop here just like happened in So Cal when I was growing up. I don’t know if we can do anything in real life about this but maybe my fictional mermaid could help a little. There are so many creatures here who could quickly dispose of a body.

 

Mike:

I don’t know why, Amy, but it always surprises me when I find myself on the same page as you, because I cannot recall reading anything you’ve written that I didn’t agree with, including what you’ve sent us here. And yes, you have nailed it—your useful idiots comment. Greed drives this planet—Planet Stupid as I now call it. While I am no fan of conspiracy theories, I do feel we are being manipulated on a daily basis, by leaders, by corporations, by news, and by entertainment media which continue to either inflame or numb, the common, singular goal to further fill the coffers of the already ridiculously wealthy.

I naively thought when the Berlin Wall fell, we were closer to an enduring peace and prosperity than ever before. I feel like a jackass now for even allowing myself to consider such a possibility, as if human nature and human history had somehow evolved beyond the age-old hatreds and passions. It never will. Hope is a fool’s game, no matter what the well-meaning might claim. Left or Right, I hate them all with equal vigour. Even in Canada, I no longer vote for a person or party I believe in, because there is no one to believe in; I vote for the party that maintains, at least on the surface, some degree of social conscience, that looks to broaden the social safety net rather than tear it down.

Political correctness. Cultural appropriation. The Mercedes Lackey incident, along with Isabel Fall’s “I Sexually Identify as an Attack Helicopter” and the intolerance surrounding it. Any perceived slight. Any perceived slip. And the person is dead meat. Oh, man, if I hear one more freaking apology from anyone about anything

I follow a few writing groups on social media. Here, you’ll find writers asking if it’s okay for them to write about certain topics and others seriously telling them yes or no or how to do it so no one is offended. Here, they post lists of everyday words that writers should no longer use. The Left and Right are equally guilty, whether banning words, limiting creativity, or burning books. But these days, the Left frighten me more. I always knew where the Right was coming from and they have yet to let me down. But the Left disappoints in that they are a moving target, forever seeking new avenues of outrage, never hesitating to eat their own. On a very personal level, they also make it increasingly difficult for a Jew to remain progressive, and that is tough to take.

I could go on, address all of what you say here, but I really need to get back to my fiction. Heck, I’m not even going to re-read the above. So if I’ve offended anyone, feel free to cancel me and I’ll apologize immediately.

 

Ron:

I think that so much about having any real long-term success in this field, for me anyway, is about keeping myself in the right emotional frame of mind to keep doing good work. The social aspect of everything (including the political environments around me) play a big part of this. For example: I totally get the white male thing, which I am one, of course. I don’t feel threatened by the current world’s conversation about that—probably because I mostly agree with a particular bent that says I’ve been advantaged all my life. I do not feel attacked, or otherwise being pressed down because of it. This world is what it is. It’s all good. I d my best. I vote to help others. I attempt to advocate for those who are disadvantaged in as many ways as I can. I try to spend real time stretching my personal boundaries. Again, it’s all good.

But I also find that if I spend all my time railing against the man, my brain gets twisted into loops so tight that I can’t write.

So—for me—it’s a balance. If I get too angry, I can’t work.

That said, I acknowledge that simply being in a position that I’m able to push for that balance (which really means, stepping away from the fires) is an advantage I have. Unlike other people I know, no one is out trying to kill me for simply existing. No one is actively trying to take away my rights. Blah, blah, blah.

Regardless, that’s an aspect of being “analyzed” that does play on the edge of my the question Gillian asked. As a related aside, the first story I appeared in Writers of the Future with dealt with babies being artificially birthed. Shortly after it was published, I went to a convention, during which I was approached by two different women, one who gushed over it saying it was a powerful pro-choice statement, and the other who equally gushed the other way, noting how strong it’s pro-life position was.

I don’t know what to make of that, but I think it says something about people.

 

Ron:

That is kind of interesting, isn’t it.

I don’t know how to really respond to the accusation that I (we) answer these kinds of questions in stories. It’s just how I talk. That said, I’m an engineer by degree so when you say your life is full of theory rather than story I can relate to that, too. So. Yeah. I dunno.

When I was younger I know friends and other folks often commented on how I worked my way through describing funny events of the day or whatever, and when I started writing with full passion I don’t think it surprised a lot of them.

Since you’ve made me think about it, I suppose what I’m saying is that “story” is a way of thinking. We grow up learning to think in stories even when we don’t realize it. We get it all as kids, and it does carry through in all of our conversations – or at least all of them when we’re just sitting around chatting. Your question makes me wonder if there’s a tendency among writers, especially those who have done it for a long time, to make general conversation in the forms of min-stories, or at least using elements of story structure more naturally than others. I’m sure someone has had to have studied that somehow.

Of course, there are lots of obvious differences. Personal responses are just that– personal (about me!). Fiction is not about me. I mean, yes, it is, but it’s not!

Books and short stories and whatnot have cleaner structures than responses that are more off-the-cuff. Or at least more important structures. As writers we need to understand those structures lest we break them accidently and cause our work to fall apart, so I think writers work hard to slip the feeling of those structures under their skins. Eventually, we just kind of get them. For example, Amy and I once collaborated on a story in rapid-fire, back-and-forth way that essentially relied on us to both have an instinctive understanding of the structure we were building.  It was great fun, and the story works. But, among other things, it’s fair to say that it worked because we both spoke “story.”

And you get a more focused few moments to grab attention on the page, but those few moments are probably more precious. Readers give you only so much free rope before they leave the page, whereas personal conversations and interview answers and whatnot tend to happen in freeform fashions that can be interesting in their own way. It’s easier to be entertaining I guess when you’re just having fun in short bursts, and I think we give people more freedom to wander in shorter bursts, too.

All that said, though, I’d guess most of my best writing happens when I’m in that same state of just saying things that seem to fit on the page – you know, letting the creative brain run free and cutting off the critical parts of me that can get in the way.

Did that answer the question?

I feel like I drifted. But, well, that’s life.

 

Amy:

I never answered Gillian’s question, I do not think –

I thought about this. First, I experience some things that I think Ron and Michael have experienced less, because they are men. I experience direct attacks and 1-star reviews from what appear to be mostly white older men who cannot stand the thought that a woman would write anything. I guess. I don’t know. Writers of color get the same and worse, whether they are male or female.

That said, I was a college teacher for over 20 years. I wrote some critical introductions for classic literature. Studying literature did influence my writing. I learned things I would never have learned or thought about if I had not read the great Russian novelists, or if I had not read classics of Latin American literature in Spanish.

There are two academics with whom I’ve corresponded, and who have read my work, who I felt very close to, and appreciated their questions, commentary, and discussions very much. One of them is no longer with us: Sylvan Barnet, who was a major editor of academic texts for high school and college literature programs. Sylvan edited many books for W.W. Norton and BDSM (Bedford-St Martins). I was teaching out of one of his books, Current Issues & Enduring Questions – this remains the most-adopted/used college rhetoric text. It included “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas,” by Ursula K. LeGuin. As you know, Gillian, we were so fortunate to have Ursula as part of our SF-FFW’s women’s sci fi/fantasy writer group, and she also helped us so greatly during the early days of Book View Cafe, to help us publish more of our work. So I “cheekily” wrote Sylvan and told him I’d written a story called “Perfect Stranger” (inspired after my baby Anthony was born with Down Syndrome).

I felt like I had achieved everything I wanted to do with short fiction after I wrote that story. I wanted to emulate the spare style of Raymond Carver. I had already written about the dad, Gary, before. Gary was my all-purpose “Dad” or guy throughout several stories, a thoughtful man, an architect. And it was not difficult to base the misguided wife in the story, who wants to give their son Denny any gene therapy treatment possible to “improve” his chances in life, school performance, and “popularity,” on a lady I had known – several such ladies, actually.

Sylvan read the story and wrote back with his thoughts. He believed that it indeed asked questions about current issues (gene therapy) and enduring questions (fatherhood). So, this story is now in college and high school literature texts and medical ethics textbooks.

I also have had and continue to have a friendship and correspondence with Dana Gioia, the former chair of the National Endowment of the Arts (NEA) and an Aspen Institute Fellow. A lot of people in the field do not know (nor care lol) that I write poetry. Dana is a poet and was a poor kid from the working class So Cal community of Lawndale. When Ursula Le Guin was still alive, a few of us (Vonda included) thought she really should be considered for a Nobel Prize in Literature. I knew that Dana was a “sci fi fan” so I wrote him about it. It turned out that not only was he a major sci fi fan, he was also one of the group of Nobel Prize academic recommenders. So, he wrote on her behalf, I recruited others on her behalf and of course… nothing happened. But we got to know each other better through that process. I have enjoyed corresponding with Dana about his poetry and vice-versa.

When I think about these two men, our interactions remind me very much of what I think I am saying in this article that I just read this morning.

There is reality and daily experience. I just saw this on my “social media” this morning – a little thing I wrote two years ago in August – so we were in Punta Gorda, and would be moving here to our house in about two months. Probably I had been looking out over the canal and seen our teenaged fishing dolphin at work in the morning.

There is a wordless joy in nature, a feeling of ecstasy and overwhelming vibrancy present in places where the din of obsession with unimportant things grows quiet and the beauty of life breaks through and envelops us with life and love.

So, we were playing music at our local coffee shop Friday night and I had a semi-philosophical chat with our friend Tony, who is about 25-26 and his girlfriend Kelsey. I’ve recently had a social media interaction with John Kessel, a university professor who believes the world is going to Hell, and my old friend Jim Blaylock chimed in to agree with me with “The young people aren’t like that and aren’t going to be like that….” Jim started the OC Performing Arts High School. I would never call myself or Blaylock an “academic” though both of us have taught.

And I thought about what Tony had said – “Social media is dead” – and I think art is personal. I don’t want to write for money or fame and I really appreciate the conversations I’ve had with academicians in a positive way. What I write now is almost 100% for myself. How strange, how selfish. How???

Ron:

Michael – Given the background I can see, I’d say you’re the shining beacon rather than the pale shadow. 🙂

 

Mike:

How dare you! No one calls me a beacon, Ron. No one. I think it’s time we stepped outside and sorted this out, once and for all. My God, such language!

 

Ron:

If I edit it to “bacon” would that be better? I mean, everyone loves bacon, am I right?

And the great thing about being a writer is you don’t really have to be cool in first draft.

 

Amy:

>>If I edit it to “bacon” would that be better? I mean, everyone loves bacon, am I right?>>

I’m ham!!! Omg, ham!!

 

Ron:

If Michael is bacon, and Amy is ham, I guess that makes me toast.

 

Amy:

And now you see the trouble with these stories Ron + I wrote together …

Ron, you’re sausage

 

Ron:

True enough, I suppose. I mean, you really don’t want to see me made.

 

Mike:

All right, you guys have convinced me. The writing life is not for me. I’m moving to Utica, NY and becoming a professional bowler. Clearly, this entire experience has been revelatory. I apologize for bailing on you, Pancakes, but Toast and Ham have opened my eyes to my true calling.

 

With gratitude…

SBOAH

 

Ron:

Utica. Hah.

The problem with fiction writers is that you can’t believe a thing they say.

 

Mike:

At the very least, Gillian is sure to appreciate the extraordinarily mature direction this literary discussion has taken. If only we could replicate this on a panel somewhere.

 

Gillian:

It’s Tuesday and I’m catching up. I love the way you were so serious and now you’re… not. It says all the things I hoped you would say.

 

And so Part Three finishes on a Tuesday in interview time and, for me (since Australia is ahead of the US by many, many hours) on Tuesday in my local time.

Snaking a Path to Enlightenment

I discovered Anna Sanner’s book of teachings from Aikido and Zen master Katsuyuki Shimamoto, Dance With Heaven and Earth, after a Facebook friend posted a story from it on his page and I found I couldn’t stop thinking about it.

Here’s the story that obsessed me:

Miyamoto Musashi was a famous Japanese swordsman who lived about 400 years ago. He did everything in order to win. When he sat in zazen meditation, he always had the possibility in mind that at any minute, somebody might attack him. He did zazen in order to clear his mind of distracting thoughts and always be ready to react to any kind of attack. His zazen was a kind of strategic weapon.

One day Musashi was sitting next to a professional monk in the mountains. Both of them were meditating, sitting in zazen, with correct leg position, good posture, and calm breathing. From the outside it looked like they were doing exactly the same thing. You couldn’t tell the difference.

As they were sitting there meditating, a snake came along. When the snake saw Musashi, it stopped dead in its tracks and pulled back its head in a startled swan neck pose. Even its constantly moving tongue got stuck in its mouth for a second. The snake caught itself, cautiously made a U-turn around Musashi and slithered swiftly across the monk’s legs to disappear back into the mountains.

So even though to us there seemed to be no difference between Musashi and the monk, the snake could not be fooled. It clearly felt that Musashi was ready to cut any attacker at any moment. The monk on the other hand, who was doing zazen in the sense of true Zen meditation, was in a state of 空ku (emptiness). To the snake he was the same as the grass, the stones and the earth it slithered across daily, and slithering across his legs did not make the slightest difference.

One of key elements of good training in martial arts is learning how to be aware of what is happening around you at all times. In Aikido, we emphasize this by reminding people to continue to be aware of their partner even when they have thrown or pinned them. When we train on a crowded mat, we must pay attention to everyone around us so that no one gets hurt.

Awareness is inherent in our practice.

When I teach self defense, I emphasize the importance of paying attention to everything going on around you. But the specifics of learning how to do that are more complex than just the barked words “pay attention,” which I’m sure all of us heard from parents or teachers or coaches at various parts of our lives.

In both cases, practice opens the door to awareness. Continue reading “Snaking a Path to Enlightenment”

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.

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.

The Day the Shuttle Didn’t Fly

In 1990, when I was 4+ months pregnant with my older daughter, my husband and I went to Disney World. Our reasoning was that this might be our last opportunity to act like the irresponsible kids we were (even in our 30s) rather than the responsible parental figures we were about to become. This showed how much we knew about parenthood, but it was still a good trip. While we were there, we learned that there was going to be a shuttle launch from the Kennedy Space Center at Oh-God-Too-Early AM the next day, and immediately decided we had to drive there from Orlando and see the launch.

The drive seemed to take forever, although it’s only about 60 miles. I think we left Orlando at 4am, and got to Cape Canaveral closer to 6am than our planned 5am. Then we had to find out where to go. Fortunately, there were signs–most of them hand-drawn by other people who were as weird about this stuff as we are. We were deep in unknown territory, and while you can’t drive through Orlando without being pointed to every possible entertainment, Port Canaveral–or the town on the far side of the Banana River from which your basic drop-in-tourists viewed launches–provided a lot less guidance for your wandering NASA fan. But we found a place where many cars were parked, and pulled over and walked across what I remember as a fairly long, slightly swampy trail to a field where there were perhaps 60 or 70 other people standing around, attention on the distance, where the shuttle and gantry gleamed fitfully in the morning light.

Then what?

We waited. For a while. And another while. Continue reading “The Day the Shuttle Didn’t Fly”