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 Four

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

Keep an eye out for more interviews, next year.

Gillian

 

Gillian

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

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

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

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

 

Ron:

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

 

Mike:

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

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

 

Gillian:

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

Amy Sterling Casil Femal Science Fiction Writer

 

Amy:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Libling Hollywood North

Mike:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Ron:

Five book recommendations…hmmm…

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Gillian:

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

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

 

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

Website: http://www.michaellibling.com

 

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

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

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

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

Ron’s website is: www.typosphere.com.

Follow Ron on Twitter: @roncollins13

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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!

 

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

Welcome to the first set of interviews. Three writers met with me (via email) and talked about many things. The interview will be posted every Monday for the next few weeks. I (Gillian Polack) am the interviewer, which largely meant throwing in a question and standing well back. The three writers (Amy Sterling Casil, Ron Collins and Michael Libling) are all pretty amazing, but I’ll let them speak for themselves. Let me throw the first of the questions in, to get them started.

Gillian Polack (henceforth, Gillian)

A stranger once asked me to tell them three things about myself. I’ve thought about this often since then, and have discovered that asking writers to tell me three things gives much more interesting replies than asking for a short life history.

1. If you had to explain what you write to that stranger, what would you tell them? (The stranger was French, if it helps.)

2. Imagine a game show (not Squid Game, a poor answer won’t kill you) where you have to describe your writing using five adjectives. The audience buzzes boring words, or predictable words. You don’t want to hear that buzzer. What are your five words?

3. What’s your favourite question about your work, the one you’re always happy for people to ask?

 

Ron Collins (Ron):

As Mike said in his answer to the first question, “Zut alors! Or, as we say in Quebec, “tabernac!” …Both of which roughly describe my feelings about the answers below…” I keep hearing ‘Tabernac!’ when I read these answers, but, as a response, it doesn’t fit them all. Read on…

 

1. What do you write?

Amy Sterling Casil (Amy): I’m a female science fiction writer and I now write stories featuring women, girls, and non-human creatures (animals, others, machine life). I also write factual books for children and teens. They’re often about medical, science, or tech topics. And, I write creative nonfiction online via the Medium service. It’s a different type of writing via online. Topics are current and the format is very different from traditional books or short fiction.

Michael Libling (Mike): Most likely, I would pretend I didn’t hear the question and move on to a topic with which I was more at ease. If forced to answer, however, I’d likely blather on like this…

I write stories about everyday life and everyday people, and then drop some freakish element into the mix, which tends to lay waste to the “everyday.” In terms of specifics, I try to avoid the obvious in my pursuit of the “freakish,” thus avoiding vampires, zombies, ghosts, wizards, dragons, and the like. The more unassuming the menace, the more frightening it is to me.

Some editors have told me I write mainstream fiction with a genre sensibility, while others insist my writing is genre fiction with a mainstream sensibility. One long-ago, former agent of mine lamented the fact my work was neither literary nor genre, which made his job too difficult. The way I see it, my fiction tends to cross categories, blending any number of the following at any given time: mainstream, fantasy, horror, mystery, thriller, and science fiction. If there is a unifying factor in my work, it would be the recurrent strains of dark humour.

My upcoming novel (Autumn 2023 from WordFire Press), THE SERIAL KILLER’S SON TAKES A WIFE, was described by one reader as “a breezy spin on horrible things.” Looking back, I think this same description could apply to most of my work.

Ron:

I used to say that I write speculative fiction, and just left it at that.

Unfortunately, or fortunately I suppose, that’s not really true now. I’ve written twenty or so novels, and nearly 200 short stories, and when I look at them, I see the fact is that I write across pretty much every genre. I’ll chuckle at myself here and admit that I was tempted to end that sentence with “except horror,” but then had to chastise myself because I’ve done several things with at least some elements of horror in them. Bad writer!

Here’s the thing, though. I’ve come to the conclusion that I don’t like the default feeling of talking about genre anymore. Yes, I still focus on speculative fiction—science fiction and fantasy and things that go in strange directions—but the reality is that I love story, and that’s what I’m trying to do. Tell stories—hopefully stories that matter to me, filled with characters I can relate to.

I can’t control how people react to those stories, of course. The world is full of opininated people, and I can’t please them all. But these days I figure that if I tell stories that matter to me, I’ll be speaking to an audience that will care about them, too. And if someone doesn’t find them relevant, well, that’s fine. They just aren’t my audience.

So, what matters to me?

That, unfortunately, you’ll need to read some of my work to decide.

 

2. What are your five words?

Amy:

Emotional, easy-to-read, eclectic, exciting, and electric

Ron: Hmmm. I think I’m going to get buzzed.

Honestly, I don’t know. I sit down, and whatever comes out comes out. Last week, for example, I went to the writing desk totally intent on writing a science fiction story for a publication I often contribute to, but my brain wouldn’t do that. Instead, it wanted to work on a psychological thriller of a short story that bordered on, yes, horror.

That said, I’m a while male of a certain age, so I’m sure that comes out in ways I couldn’t even begin to describe. To generalize, I guess … hmmm … well, let me at least try to answer the question.

·         Hopeful.

·         Honest

·         Wide-ranging

·         Entertaining.

·         Compassionate

See what I mean? I’m totally getting buzzed.

 

Mike: With apologies to Amy for my failure to emulate her alliterative triumph.

Off-the-wall.

Menacing.

Digressive.

Wistful.

Unpredictable.

 

3. What’s your favourite question about your work, the one you’re always happy for people to ask?

Amy:
What inspired you to write story ________________ [or essay/article ____________]?

Ron:

“I love your work, can I give you a check?”

(grin)

Seriously, in this world where attention spans can be measured in picoseconds, I’m just happy for any attention my writing gets at all. It’s nice when people have read something of mine and ask about where it came from, and it’s nice when people ask where they can get my work—though I admit that since I am so all over the place (and write that way under my one and only name) I often wonder if I send people the right direction.

Most of my email questions seem to center around when the next book in my SF series is coming out, which is good news/bad news since I’ve done a mini-Martin and had a gap. The good news, though, is that the wait is over and the series is back in production.

That’s a problem with being an independent publisher, though. There’s only just me, so when life happens, if I can’t get my feet to the pedals for a period of time, everything grinds to a halt.

 

Mike:

Every writer likes to hear, “Where can I buy a copy?” But I also enjoy when a reader asks me, “Did this actually happen? Is that real?” Since much of my writing is grounded in reality and often strays into the autobiographical, I get this a lot. Likewise, I prefer to leave the answer to the question as ambiguous as possible, leading to further speculation.

 

Gillian:

Three questions is enough for one week! Next week there will be more questions, more answers… and some picture.

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.

Final Friday: And We’re Away…..

Last month I blogged about the weeks leading up to the launch of my most recent book, Uncanny Times.  But now we’re a ten days post-launch, and it’s time to check in, and do a reality check.

I’d been doing pre-release publicity up to the day or release: blogposts and podcasts and interviews and social media all over the place until even my mom would have been tired of seeing my face.  Does it actually move any books?  God only knows, and They’re not telling. You do what you can to the best of your ability and spoons, and hope something sticks. 

But even with all that, even with the positive reviews the book was getting and the publicity, and the very successful Goodreads giveaway, and everything else we were able to do… come October 18th, it was all in the hands of the bitch-goddess of Retail.

Take a deep breath.  Wait.

Everything up until now has been Possibility and Expectation. Shit’s real now.

Some people like doing a Big Event on the day-of.  I’ve done that before, and, honestly… the stress of planning always overwhelmed any actual benefit, either emotionally or sales-wise.  I think everyone should do it at least once, but after that…. unless your publisher is doing all the work, go with what you, personally, enjoy.  If that’s a big party, great! If it’s staying home on your couch and ignoring everything, also great!a "congrats!" balloon and a copy of UNCANNY TIMES on a wooden bartop.

Since we had events lined up for that weekend, I chose to meet friends for drinks after work, to properly toast Uncanny Times on its way.  (I showed up to find one friend already there, hand-selling the book to her fellow drinkers at the bar.  That’s the kind of friend every writer should have).

While I’d love to say that the next morning I woke up and simply went back to work, focused on the next project, that would be an utter and absolute lie.  I checked the Amazon rankings. And googled my name + title. Promoted the book signings I was going to do that weekend. Rinse and repeat every few hours for the next three days.

And then I made myself stop.  Not entirely – I’m only human, after all.  But the every hour nonsense, yeah.  I should note here that I do not take Amazon “bestseller” status with any particular seriousness. I watch how the ratings fluctuate, and note dips or peaks rather than any particular number.  And, of course, I anxiously read the early reader reviews. But my focus shifted from “what will critics say/how can I get the word out?” to “how can I expand my reach?”

Because, and this is a truth it took me a few books to learn, Launch Day is a day to celebrate, to enjoy, to stand on a chair and shout out to the world THIS IS MY BOOK ! IT’S HERE! But it’s also just one day in a long march of days, and the weeks after launch matter just as much as the days before.

And then, sooner than you think, but honestly also not soon enough, you have to let the book do what it will do, and go back to work on the next.

I’m looking forward to that.

 

and remember….

image of one person handing another a book, with the text: If you love a book...tell one friend!

The Downhill Path to Understanding

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

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

Most books are still heading my way.

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

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

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

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

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

And the Award-Winning Author Is…

I’m amazed and thrilled to announce that my story “Eight Mile and the City” from When Worlds Collide has won the WSFA small press award for short fiction.

Check it!

This year, the committee got more than 260 stories for initial consideration. They whittled it down to ten finalists, including my story. The finalist list has some heavy-hitters in the SF writing community on it, and there were so many stories anyway, so I wasn’t expecting to win. I had a “It would be great, but no need to get your hopes up” frame of mind. I was in the audience at the award ceremony in Washington DC, and when they announced my story had won, I was floored. I was so surprised, I couldn’t do anything for a moment but stare at the announcer. Joshua Palmatier, one of the editors for the anthology, was sitting next to me, and I could see he was thrilled. In a fit of exuberance, I hugged him, then went up to the podium to get the award. I also gave a short speech. This is what I said:

Thank you, everyone! This is amazing!

This story means a lot to me. Not just because I wrote it, but because of what it means. The main character in “Eight Mile and the City” from When Worlds Collide is gay, but that’s not what the story is about. The story is about a hardboiled detective trying to solve a kidnapping and uncovering his own past as well.

Not that long ago, this story would only have appeared in an anthology of gay fiction and “only”
gotten the attention of the Gaylactic Spectrum Award. This story appears in a fantastic anthology
of wonderful stories that are geared toward all SF readers. It’s not a specialty. It’s not an odd outlier. Instead, it’s one of the family.

We still have further to go, of course, but every step forward gets us one step closer to full inclusion and acceptance. I’m thrilled that my story has become one of those steps.

I do want to thank the committee members for choosing “Eight Mile and the City.” It means so very much! I also need to thank the members of the Untitled Writers Group of Ann Arbor, Michigan–Sarah, MaryBeth, Jonathan, Christian, Diana, Cindy, Ted, Christine P-K, and Christine D–for commentary that improved every line of this story. I want to thank S.C. Butler and Joshua Palmatier for editing When Worlds Collide and buying my story. And I want to thank my husband Darwin McClary for the inspiration I needed to write this piece.

I’m back home now and coasting on euphoria!

The story “Eight Mile and the City” appears in the anthology When Worlds Collide. We have an excerpt below:

 

We knew she was opportunity because she knocked once and came in. She had a swagger and a set of dagger heels you only see in women south of Eight Mile. A thin line of dark showed at the roots of her carefully golden hair and her lipstick was a strawberry scarlet. She shut the office door behind her and sat in the client chair across from me without asking, her red leather purse perched on her knees like a sleek little lapdog. Seb exchanged a glance with me from his section of the shared Ikea desk we’d salvaged from a burned-out building down on Cass.

“Is this the Eight Mile Detective Agency?” she asked.

Seb leaned back and his chair squeaked. “That’s what it says on the door. You need a detective?”

“Or maybe two.” Her posture hummed with live-wire tension. “I want to hire you to find my son. His name is Samuel Flagg.”

From her purse she removed a paper photograph and passed it over to me. It landed on my desk and I looked down at it without touching. A boy with brown hair, maybe three years old, gazed back up at me with brown eyes. I flipped the photo over to Seb with my fingertips. It was a hell of a flip. My part of the desk looks like the universe a half-second after the Big Bang. But if you stand on it and look down from a distance, you’d see that the chaos makes a wider pattern—these papers sorted by date, those by urgency, others by category.  Seb’s desk, on the other hand, is rigid as a general’s asshole. The few objects on his desk look like they’re nailed there. So it was a feat to flip the photo over my chaos to his order.

While Seb examined the photo, I made myself say, “Your name is?” Talking to strangers is the hardest part of my day. Not because I don’t know what to say. I just have to find a way to say it.

“Candace Flagg.” She reached across the desk. “Pleased to meet you.”

I managed not to grimace when I leaned in to shake. Her hand was cool and thin, and when the sleeve of her blue silk coat pulled back, I noticed the scars.

“Andy Faust,” I said, giving my standard opener. “This is my partner in crime prevention, Sebastian. How long has your son been missing?”

She hesitated. “Next week, it’ll be two years.”

Seb’s eyebrows went up. “Have you called the cops about him?”

“Of course. They told me he isn’t missing.”

Now my eyebrows went up. “You got more to say than that?”

“Look. There’s a reason I’m here.” She leaned in again and lowered her voice. “Word out there—” she made a vague gesture at the door and its pebbled glass window that read Eight Mile Detective Agency: We Push the Boundary “—is that you boys have an in with the NokSinn.”

A silence fell over the little office, but it took me a while to notice. Seb sat stone-faced. I looked away from him and swallowed a throatful of nerves.

Choices in Reading

I am not familiar with the work of  Annie Ernaux, the French author who just won the Nobel Prize for literature. It used to bother me when I hadn’t heard of a writer whose work was well-enough known to be considered for a prestigious award, especially if that writer was a woman.

But I no longer expect to have read everything of note that’s published in the world. It’s not just the obvious fact that writers who don’t work in English are not translated and published in the U.S. as often as they should be, especially since I have read some complex works in French and probably could do it again with the help of a good dictionary.

It’s mostly that there are just a lot of books out there, many of them by writers who should be better known than they are. I find it hard to keep up even with writers whose work I love.

And of course, there’s a great deal of nonfiction to read, not to mention the need to read “comfort” books, most of which will never be nominated for big awards even though they are often better than that label might imply.

It is clearly impossible to read everything and when you know that a great deal of excellent work isn’t even noticed by those who purport to define the literary canon, it’s obvious that one will miss a lot of very good books.

As the French say, “C’est la vie.” Continue reading “Choices in Reading”