Virtual Life

Today’s post is brought to you live. I’m in Canberra at my computer and at a conference in the UK, both at once. This is not my first conference this week, and won’t be my last.

The first was Boskone. I felt very privileged to be able to meet old friends, make new ones, meet authors and readers and all kinds of fascinating people. The focus was on science fiction.

Today and tomorrow is all about Jewish history. I’m not on any panels, I’m not helping run any events, and it’s not even related to my current research. My first PhD was in Medieval History and I attend events whenever I can, to keep my knowledge up to date and to keep in touch. It’s so cool. Right now I’m catching up on Jewish Medieval England in what I’m listening to now is a discussion of whether or not Jews were actually permitted to own land. It’s complicated and one of those questions that can’t be answered easily. It sounds simple and is not. However… freehold agricultural land was unlikely to be able to be owned by Jews, but earlier… it may have been possible. One of the scholars pointed out that there may not have been a lot of interest in Jews owning land in the transactions on record. Canon law in the 1190s had a gloss concerning land belonging to a church being owned by Jews. This was documented because of possible problems in swearing fealty.

This is my Middle Ages. Not something simple. Complicated and tangled and absolutely wonderful. Not, however, something that is easy to write into fiction. Fiction has to give clear claims.

This leads me neatly to my third conference in a week. I’m in this for my current research, and I’m moderating a session and delivering a paper between 4.30 am and 6 am my time. Mind you, the UK conference finishes at 6 am my time and I don’t think I’ll manage to make the final session. Australia is not close to the UK or the US.

Why is the last conference of the week so important to my research and to my fiction writing self? It’s all about popular culture. Popular culture is totally critical for novelists. We use it to bring stories to life. My paper is on foodways in modern Australian fantasy novels.

My current conference has a tea break. I need to stretch. I also need to wash dishes. Last break I hung washing up to dry. Housework fits into gaps.

I may never get to do so much in a single week in my life again. This is a side-effect of all of us being closed into small environments due to COVID. In a few months time my night will be night and my day will be day and life will return to normal. This week, however, is a lot of fun and I am treasuring every moment.

Where Gillian meanders, intellectually

I’m in the middle of summer and, no matter how much work I do, some escapes me. This is not such a bad thing as long as I don’t miss my deadlines. Summer is a time for meandering, however, so I’m guilty of detours.

Deadlines can be horrid things, but this week they all include cool stuff. One set of deadlines includes its own intrinsic meander. The book I need to finish re-reading today, for example, is Robert Darnton’s The Great Cat Massacre. It’s an early (1984) foray into French cultural history. Darnton is one of my favourite cultural historians and French history is very much part of my historical background. He talks about sermon literature as sources and how there was a wildly huge collection of French peasant fairy tales for about 50 years in the 18th to 19th centuries.

I’m reading Darnton’s study because I need to be more grounded in the way I interpret fairy tales and also because my life needs more safe places. The re-reading began, however, as a reminder to myself that even the best scholars are capable of filling into stuff they can’t find out about with explanations that are fun but not reliable.

Right now I’m making a mental list of sources Darnton refers to and one of those he doesn’t even think of adding in. He includes collected stories by peasants and traces the relationship between French literary fairy tales and those later popular ones. He doesn’t talk enough about chapbooks and broadsides and forbidden books as sources for popular literature here, however (he does elsewhere). He also leaves the Maase Book and the whole realm of Jewish women’s literature and other equivalent narratives by Jews out of his overview.

It’s as if a society only contains one religion. I need to remember that I only really understand Jewish and Christian Europe and that I myself have to explore beyond my boundaries. Other scholars skip Jewish culture, but they also skip gendered culture. Jack Zipes is my go-to author for gender in fairy tales, however, not Darnton.

I am a person who looks at their own intellectual path and questions it. That’s why I need to finish the Darnton book. Darnton and Greg Dening and Emmanuel le Roy Ladurie and Claude Levi-Strauss started me on this journey, decades ago. Right now I’m discovering that every single scholar who questions stuff still accepts a truckload of cultural values and assumptions.

We all privilege culture. Even those of us who are working hard to break down that privilege and to understand what comes from where and why. I need to understand how I’ve been influenced.

This is not for my fiction. Or maybe not only for my fiction. It’s my research side. It’s going to affect my fiction. I can already see changes in how I think about my own writing.

I was thinking, the other day, that I need to write a novel that looks at how a person create safe spaces for themselves and uses those safe spaces to get through impossible times.

What I’m doing right now is saying, “We all create safe spaces. Even intellectually, we are more contented in safe spaces.” I can’t write this novel until I understand how my favourite scholars create the safe spaces for their ground-breaking work. Why is it safe to talk about this subject or that? Why can one talk about the Middle Ages in popular culture and skip straight to the 18th century?

All this sounds theoretical. When I write something on the academic side, it is. It has some extraordinary practical applications, however. I’m applying the theory to fairy stories and folk tales right now, for that’s what my research is in, but last time I did this same type of questioning, I applied it to my cooking. I worked out that I only use a small part of my kitchen for actual cooking. The rest of it helps reassure me I can cook, or it gives me the stories of my past cooking. Anything that doesn’t fit my kitchen is hidden or not there at all. You could understand a lot about my cultural background and my financial position and even my friendships by exploring my pantry and refrigerator and freezer. Sweet foods are rare, pork and its equivalents are non-existent. Since the bushfires were followed by the pandemic, I’m set up so that if I can’t shop for a month I will still eat healthily. All of this and more is there for anyone who cares to look.

In short, the way my kitchen is set up makes it comfortable for me to cook, now, when life is a bit difficult. The way any book is set up tells me what the writer finds comfortable and helps me understand what the limits of their research are. Understanding those limits means I can push my own scholarship in ways I never will do with my cooking. It also means I understand the choices I myself make.

My New Year’s resolution is to create more safe spaces for myself, so that I can grow despite the dangers the external world shoves in my face. This style of reading is step one in that resolution. I’m not the kind of person who walks out boldly. I’m the kind of person who lays a path and walks it with others. I begin with reading books by experts and dissecting those books.

This particular path is a very fine one to walk. If anyone wants to walk it with me, you’re welcome.

Meanderings: parties and work and dealing with life

I’m sorry I’m a bit late with this fortnight’s post. By ‘a bit’ I mean it’s the right day in the US and a day later in Australia.

I’ve been working on two big things (more about them in a moment) and also discovering that the social life this season is a bit bigger than I expected. Every other year I am excluded from most social events, due to being from the wrong background, not being able to drive, not having children: the usual. I get just enough friends in my life for two weeks so that I know I exist.

This year, everyone else has movement restrictions and we’re meeting online and.. there are still events I don’t get invited to, because people forget that I can come, but every day (every single day) there are other events.

I appreciate this so very much that a friend is setting me up a meeting place on 25 December (that’s 24 December in the US, for I am UTC+11) so that I can return the favour and any friend who is alone that day can drop in and we can chat. It’s only a few hours, for that’s a work day for me, but it’s happening.

I have one thing to finish before then. In fact, I need to finish it today. The other thing is ongoing. Two friends and I are designing a world for gaming and for writing in. One friend is an artist, the other is a writer with military background and me, I’m an ethnohistorian when I’m not a writer. The ethnohistory is the thing: our cultures hold together and are sexy and we all want to venture into this world we’re creating. My current role is to work out how our fairy tales would work in these countries. I’ve already done a Cinderella. There is no handsome prince in this one: Cinders has to find her own way out using her specific background. This Cinders bears grudges…

The other thing (‘thing’ is a technical word for me, which is my only excuse for overusing it, and it’s a very bad excuse) is my non-fiction. The book I finished in winter is being thoroughly edited in summer. This book makes a lot more sense now, and I’m not unhappy with it.

Today I’ll be finishing it and then it wends its way and I shall worry for its journey. Publication takes forever, and even an interested publisher may not want a book, when they read it again.

I love telling people what this book is about. I’m looking at how science fiction and fantasy novels communicate culture and operate as cultural objects. I’ve developed a bunch of tools for the analysis and those tools are so handy that the talk I gave about a few of them at this year’s European Science Fiction Convention had people chasing me to get the talk published. I needed a home for it that was a place these same readers knew, but the editors were slow to answer (or, in one case, has just let it slide without even an acknowledgement) so I’ve had to give up looking. At least one of my regular publishers was willing to help, but I need to be careful how I overlap my academic self and my fictional self. Unless I hear back from the silent publisher (which has a history of not answering emails from me, so I wouldn’t hold my breath) everyone can wait for the book.

With essays in general and with short stories, I won’t chase beyond a certain point, because if I do, then I won’t have time to write anything else. I’m not alone in this, but my disabilities/chronic health problems do have an effect on my time and energy. If I want to see any of my work in print, I assess it for how much time and energy it will take to get it there.

This applies to most aspects of my life. If I don’t have a copy of a book of mine, for example, or a bookshop has said they want me to visit and I have not turned up, it’s because I’ve chased it a certain number of times and can’t chase it any more without it eating into core things. ‘Eating into core things’ means physical pain which affects absolutely everything.

When people chase me up or answer emails or fill all their promises without reminders, my life is better. It’s the work equivalent of those end of year/Christmas/other parties I have to miss most years.

This wasn’t really a post about parties or the work I’m doing. I wanted to show you how I balance my particular physical limitations. The other thing that delayed me yesterday, you see, was a visit to the hospital, where I found out why typing hurts so much when I do the hard yards of reminding everything of all the things they forget.

Every single one of us is balancing a lot of things this year. We all have to put our needs and other peoples’ needs into some kind of order to get as much done as possible. And me, I need to remind myself that I can share the joy with an online party, but when a delivery doesn’t come because someone has slipped up or if emails have not been answered, I am not always capable of being the responsible soul who chases everything for everybody and keeps whole communities of work together.

We all have to prioritise this season. I’m using that need to find ways of handling the impossible workload writers often have. In all the lists I have, reminders are, oddly, the hardest to handle. Everyone with illness/disability is different. I’m lucky I can still write books and design worlds and research. Very, very lucky. Where I need support, it turns out, is getting them out into the world.

My lesson of the week (for I’m in learning mode, being a student again) is to apply this same equation to everyone around me and to let things go when I can’t solve problems. I get told “You should’ve reminded me” or “I thought I did that” or “Oops – maybe next week” and every time, it creates physical hurt for me, and I want to be angry at the person who causes the pain. My resolution is to get through this more lightly than I have. I need less pain and less judgement and more understanding. And I need to work out for every person around me what difficult decisions they’ve had to make in this difficult time and give them the space they need to deal with it. Until now, I’d be the one helping them get through. I’d take on work for them and sacrifice.

Sacrifices are more difficult now and parties are easier.

I need to return to my book and to stop letting my thoughts become complicated. Or maybe I need coffee.

If you want to find me on 25 December, let me know and I’ll share the link when it goes live.

Reading and Writing – an update on my book problem

I have so many piles of books in my living area (which is also my work area) that even I feel the clutter. The reason this post’s title includes the words ‘book problem’ is because occasionally they topple and I tripped over one yesterday and…

I love them all. It’s not a problem in any sense except the clutter. I’m not reading just one good book this month, I’m reading dozens. They are my building blocks for a three-year research project (1), and I’m already having fun. Gradually, the piles will diminish.

One pile is for putting away. “I’ve finished this – it was fun but not terribly useful. I’ve taken the notes I need from it but they’re not relevant to anything I’ll be writing. It can go away. No need to put it in the bibliography.”

Another pile is carefully marked up. Not the books themselves – I have special sticky paper that doesn’t harm books and I write on that. When I’m ready to write that book up, I go straight to the notes and lo, it’s ready to go. I know what page to refer to in my footnotes and I have my thoughts on the sticky paper. Then I put the details of the book in the bibliography, and then that book goes on the putting-away pile.

The third pile consists of one book right now, called Putting the Science into Fiction. It’s not a scrap of use for my research project, but has some stuff in it I want to use as a reminder for world building. The world building has nothing to do with the research project. Until last Wednesday I did it full-time, but now I’m doing it as a leisure activity. The book will be put away when I talk through what it contains with my co-conspirators in world building, which could be next Monday, or it could be in three months.

The three largest piles relate to three of the core focal points of the research project. One is on fairy tales, one is on own voices, and the third is on writing about cultures that are a bit alien or foreign.

The piles I’m working through right now, however, are none of those things. Some are on writing technique, some are on genre, and some are on what makes narrative, and some are on rhetoric or critical theory. These are my reminder piles: it’s no use launching into research without checking that you know what you’re doing. It’s not enough to know this stuff as an expert or generally. I have to know exactly what elements I need for this precise project.

That’s all for this project, for now.

A proposal I put in for an academic paper was accepted yesterday. I’m about to start an extra pile (which will link into the project, but is right now just for the paper) will be about food in speculative fiction. This one is quite dangerous. Whenever I write about food, I have to cook things.

When people ask me what I love about research I am stumped. What’s not to love about reading fiction and inventing recipes to fit the food mentioned in the story? Although in this case I’ll be doing a critical analysis. Mouthfeel has to play a part. Maybe I’ll have recipes as the slides that illustrate the paper? After all, I have a nice collection of cookbooks that I can match to the foodways in the fiction. The most mouth-watering paper at an academic conference. It sounds good to me.

Writing long fiction is on the backburner for a bit, obviously, but my reasons are impeccable, as are my piles of books. Also, I did that thing that chefs do on cooking shows. There are three objects I prepared earlier, one that is out in paperback and now affordable (earlier research!) , one that is out already and the other is coming in a very, very short time. The same applies to next year – work finished a while back means that I shall research away and books will appear and everyone will think that I work 36 hours a day.

I don’t. But I do have impressive piles of books stacked everywhere they fit.

 

  1. For all of you, a footnote. For anyone wondering, yes, this research project is for a PhD. It’s not my first PhD, however, and Australian PhDs are only three years long and we start the research on Day One. Also, I’m more interested in the research itself and in working with two tremendous supervisors than I am with shouting, “Hey, I’m doing a PhD.” Because it’s all about writers and what they put in their fiction, I shall talk about the cool stuff here, from time to time. Ivory towers are a fiction, and research relates to the real world. This research relates to culture in fiction. And I am one of those people who write stuff into footnotes that people need to read. I did it for my first novel and I refuse to stop doing it unless I’m writing an academic piece. This is due to a certain warped element in my personality.

Making fertiliser

The other day I noticed that I wasn’t the only person who was tired. We’re all emotionally exhausted. If life were the same as it usually is, this is when we’d take time off and maybe even go on holiday.

I wrote those sentences then my thoughts led me into talking about how holidays are affected even for those who can still take them and I realised… one of the reasons we’re so tired is because there’s no escape form the pandemic. I’m in iso. As long as I am in iso, I’m safe. It should be simple, really. I should be shut off from the emotional fatigue. But it isn’t. And I’m not.

This is the moment I need to call forth my promise to myself.

Life has been challenging for me for a few years now, and I told myself that if I was going to continue to have garbage thrown at me, I was going to turn it into fertiliser and grow the best garden. When I remember this, the exhaustion takes a step back. Let me make some fertiliser right now.

I like lists of ten, so I’m going to list ten things that make life that much easier when one is Gillian in a pandemic.

1. Soft material. I use an amazingly soft blanket to snuggle in, and every time I do this I fight the long time alone.

2. Basic dance exercise. Keeps my body capable, even when I can’t go outside for weeks on end and things hurt. Also means I can fling my arms around flambuoyantly.

3. Chocolate. I don’t need to explain chocolate.

4. Other peoples’ stories. Books and TV and streaming services – when things get too much I can dig a hole in someone else’s world and only emerge when I want to. I choose to call this fairy tale groundhogging, for I found a Cinderella film last night and it took me right back to the days when there were solutions to problems. Now… not so many solutions, but I’m still allowed to dream.

5. World building. I finished writing a novel and the next one is a while off for I have to build a world. This gives me so many excuses to delve into intellectual places I normally don’t have enough time for. Six months I have, to delve. Maybe a year. To imagine a different world. Then I find a few people in that world and I write about them, but this deep level of world building is such a good place to be. I have a giant piece of paper on the back of the door, I have two notebooks… and this time I’m auctioning off place names to raise money for SF fans to meet each other. The geography of my three new countries will give a bunch of people what the world building does me: a feeling of being in contact with others at a time when… we aren’t so much.

6. Cooking. Today I intend to cook enough curries to last me one meal a day until after the weekend. Cooing calms me right down. I also talk to myself. When I’m in the middle of a novel, I might talk to my characters or argue with my plot. While other writers pen more drafts… I cook.

7. Online conferences. I can turn the vision off (so no-one sees me in my PJs) and listen to academics talk about their fascinating research while I do those stretches and gentle exercise and fling my arms around. A university professor says something that changes my own research or is important to my writing, so I stop in the middle of a paper and race to my desk and take notes. Free online academic conferences are the best form of academic training or updating for writers. I can break down stereotypes and I can learn how coin hoards change the way we see a place and its coinage and I can be reminded of the Welsh triads. Right now my world building is dominated by what I recently learned about Celtic Law because the experts in that law were handily on my computer.

8. The capacity to lose my temper without hurting anyone. Let’s face it, to only see two or three people in real life over a period of months is not an emotionally good place to be in. Chronic illness and iso leave me ready to snap when someone tells me off for being ill, or who thinks it’s a privilege to be single and of my age and alone. I lose my temper to myself, privately, then turned the garbage into fertiliser and asked everyone to think about chatting with me on Zoom. And now I have friends around me from a distance and I’d love to say I never lost my temper directly at anyone in achieving this, I’d love it if that side of things was very private… but I only lost that temper once in anyone else’s presence. Things are not easy for any of us. We often only see the good things in the lives of others because it’s so important to get through things. Having space to lose my temper and to curse the world and to move past it and regain civilisation is a lovely luxury.

9. I own the shell of an emu egg. It looks like a large, speckled avocado, but it’s an emu egg and it’s mine. My next dream is cook with the other parts of an emu egg, but that’s harder to achieve. Another dream is to paint emu eggs, but I’m not good at painting and the egg shells are not cheap. Painting is easier to achieve in the US, where emus are farmed. My egg comes from an emu that was never constrained and constricted and (given emus) quite possibly bullied children. I was bullied by emus as a child. And now I have an egg.

10. I can take moments to ponder the important questions. My important question at this precise moment is whether other places have birds that bully in the way emus do. We also have cassowaries, but I’ve never met one because they’re far more dangerous than emus. And we have magpies that swoop. It’s swooping season right now, in fact, and I’m safe inside and cannot be got. I wish I could see a person on a bike, with a mask to protect from COVID-19 and a helmet studded with spines to protect against magpies. In fact, I wish I had a picture and could make postcards with funny comments.

This post was brought to you by a way-too-early swooping season and by an emu’s egg.