My column at Tor.com is back, this time with a re-read of Patricia McKillip’s gorgeous short story, “The Snow Queen,” which I first discovered in the collection Snow White, Blood Red edited by Terri Windling and Ellen Datlow.
I wrote about Helen Oyeyemi’s latest, What is Not Yours is Not Yours, at the Los Angeles Review of Books: https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/a-trickster-imagination/
In November 2013 I was in Paris, a brief stopover on the way to visiting family. I had a plan: I would begin my next novel, the sequel to Last Song Before Night, in a cafe there. A lot of trepidation had led up to this moment–putting aside all the research I’d done, including a visit to the Louvre’s exhibition on Islamic art–and making a start of the story. The best way to overcome that trepidation, I thought, was by means of a psychological trick. I thought: “Even if the first pages are bad, they’ll at least have been written in a cafe in Paris!”
So on a cold autumn day I took advantage of the generosity of a cafe on Rue Cler, where they didn’t mind my staying from morning until evening–or at least, didn’t show it if they did. The scribbled ideas in my notebooks, with their asterisks and exclamation points and underlining and question marks…these began to take shape as fiction. Which is, I believe, the most naked and uncompromising form there is. (Hence, the trepidation.)
That was 2013. While the novel I handed in to my editor a few days ago bears little resemblance to the story I began in Paris that day, the heart of the novel remains the same. One scene–a fateful one–that I wrote in Cafe Eclair on Rue Cler remains in the final draft. I am glad some part of that day–a cherished memory–is preserved in the book.
This next book required a great deal of research because I was determined not to do the same thing, or even a similar thing, again. I wanted to expand the frontiers of the world in Last Song Before Night, in all ways–in terms of geography, societies, magic, and cast of characters. Most important was to do justice to the character arcs of the first book. No matter how far afield we might go into enchantments and epic battles in fantasy, the human heart is–it seems to me–where it all ends up, and must begin.
No idea of a release date yet. Revisions, copyediting, and proofreading are still ahead. This post is just to mark the occasion: a work of nearly three years is done.
I’ve been keeping this under my hat for awhile. Very excited to announce that Japanese rights to Last Song Before Night have sold to Tokyo Sogensha. Other authors on their roster include Diana Wynne Jones, Patricia McKillip, and Cassandra Clare.
Obviously, we’ll be going out for sushi to celebrate!
On March 8th, Queens Library is hosting an event with me and authors Alex Shvartsman and Rob Dircks, in a restaurant in Long Island City. Details are here.
It’s safe to say that I owe nearly everything to the Queens Library, the public library system with which I grew up. Until the age of 12, this library system nurtured my love of reading. After the age of 12, I no longer had access to a library and in some ways, I’m still working to make up for the lost years. There is simply no way to overestimate the value of a library system to a community and in the lives of emerging readers. For the gift of childhood access to books, I’ll always be grateful to the Queens Library, and that gives this event a significance beyond the ordinary.
Last Song Before Night, which came out in 2015, was my first fiction publication. I had no short stories or even poetry published prior to that, mostly because I tend to write short fiction on average every 10 years. Anyway, this means I’m eligible for the Campbell Award for Best New Writer. I would be appreciative of your consideration.
I am not against self-promotion (obviously), but awards are a gray area and I feel odd about campaigning for them, for my own personal reasons (which probably have nothing to do with the reasons that might come to mind–I don’t think it’s bragging, I’m not shy because I’m a woman, I don’t judge other writers for campaigning because they are not me, etc.). There are several awards coming up and I won’t be discussing them here. But because the window of eligibility for the Campbell is narrow (two years), I thought I’d make an exception this time.
I am grateful that while my book didn’t come out with a big bang, readers are gradually discovering it and finding that it resonates–sometimes even in the ways I’d hoped. If you are one of those readers, your support is appreciated.
In writing the sequel to Last Song Before Night, I’ve been contemplating the challenge of writing about lands at war, which is a theme in the next two books. Most epic fantasies are about sweeping and, well, epic battles. This is also true of many of the books I loved growing up. Now that I’m venturing into that territory myself, it’s occurred to me that there are two very different approaches to writing about war in fantasy, based on two essential elements: the high stakes of war, and the logistics.
I’ll give the most basic examples to make my case. Tolkien’s Return of the King is focused on the high stakes of war. Maybe he talks about supply lines and army locations, but I certainly don’t remember because it’s not a central interest for him. He certainly doesn’t talk about taxes, as George R. R. Martin has pointed out. There is talk of strategies, but this is in a manner similar to the Bible which also includes narratives of battle strategies–it’s done in a way that dovetails so seamlessly with the storytelling that you are not going to learn much technical information about battles from reading it. That information is beside the point.
If these logistics are not central to Tolkien’s interest, then what is? To me it seems clear that a religious perspective made the conflict between good and evil of central concern to Tolkien. In the end he is far more interested in the moral defection of Denethor and the internal rot of Saruman–and conversely, the blindingly white resurgence of Gandalf as Mithrandir–than he is in questions of food supply.
That’s one end of the spectrum. At the opposite end is K.J. Parker’s Fencer Trilogy, in which logistics is everything. The only evil is within the heart of the protagonist Bardas Loredan and his brother, Gorgas. Everything else can be coldly boiled down to the machine of war and how it interconnects with the equally impersonal machine of politics.
Most fantasy novels fall within this spectrum, being neither as consumed by conflicts of the soul as Tolkien, nor as preoccupied with logistics as Parker. And nowadays fantasy readers are savvy; they want their battles realistic or not at all.
For my forthcoming novel, I’ve been doing loads of research in order to be as realistic as possible–and to get ideas, too. There is often nothing so inspiring as a bizarre factoid from history, or even just an unexpected one. At the same time, I’m aware that my inclination is toward the Tolkien end of the spectrum–ultimately what I care most about is the larger contours of the conflict and how it shapes or destroys the hearts of people. The task, then, is to pull that off while simultaneously making sure technical-minded readers are happy.
It’s an unseemly amount of work. Good thing I’m excited about this story and where it’s going.
- I’ve started a monthly column at Tor.com, The Great Classic Fantasy Reread! (Yes, I chose the name, why?) First up is The Hero and the Crown by Robin McKinley. Spoiler: I love this book.
- Last Song Before Night made the Locus Recommended Reading List under First Novels! I’m truly honored: Locus is an essential SF/F institution. Being on the list is not only an honor, it also means the book is included in the Locus Poll, where readers have the option to nominate it for the Locus Award. If you enjoyed Last Song Before Night and think it deserves a nomination, the Locus Poll is here. The book is listed in the category of First Novels.
- Fantasy Book Critic lists Last Song Before Night as a Top Read of 2015! (Under debuts.)
- I’ve made Brooklyn! That is, author and poet Nancy Hightower interviewed me on the Brooklyn Rail. We talked of many things including poetry, the costs of being a writer, and the dark side of art.
I’ve been thinking lately about how the way we present ourselves and our work can have enormous consequences for the way it is received. This has always been something I’ve had to think about–when interviewing for jobs, introducing myself at conferences–but it’s become all the more compelling now that I have a novel out.
My upbringing, in tandem with inborn personality traits, resulted in a habit of self-deprecation. Maybe it’s because it was instilled in me in religious classes that humility is a praiseworthy character trait and bragging is bad; or maybe it’s because when women speak up, the rewards are few, whereas there might be short-term rewards for self-deprecation–people might be nice and reach out to help you, for example. But the long-term effects, as I’ve been learning, are deeply damaging, and the reason is simple. When you put yourself down, people believe you.
This runs contrary to an unconscious fantasy that I’ve had, that has only recently become conscious. That fantasy is of people seeing through the self-deprecation to the person underneath. I’ve been trying to understand where such an illusion came from, and I think it might have roots in a fairy tale. Now, I am a huge proponent of fairy tales and they inspire my writing. But just as stories can illuminate, they can also create a smokescreen of destructive fantasies. (Last Song Before Night is, at least in part, about just this idea.) And I think Cinderella has worked like that on me. Cinderella is in rags, but a prince sees through to her value. Her worth shines through the grime. The idea that you can present someone with a facade of rags and they will still see through to your true worth is a powerful one.
But of course, if I’d known I was processing the story that way, I would have turned it around, examined it, and found the obvious problem with my interpretation. Cinderella doesn’t enchant the prince until she’s decked out in a ballgown that is not only fabulous, it is actually magic. If anything, it is a fairy tale that underscores the value of presenting oneself to one’s fullest advantage. But we can’t always control how a story is processed in the psyche, not until we become aware of its effect on us.
I’m probably never going to be someone who is great at trumpeting my accomplishments. That in itself is a self-deprecating remark, but it’s hard to see a lifelong impediment melting away in a flash of self-awareness! But I’ll keep reminding myself: If you wear rags, that’s what people see. If you array yourself in a fabulous ballgown–well, some will be resentful, but that’s a risk of moving through the world. The best part of putting on the ballgown is that its cut and color are your choice. You’re not waiting for someone else to discover you–you’ve already made that discovery for yourself.
Wednesday, January 20th signifies another of many firsts for me: My first reading at KGB! The bar has a venerable (or at least widely-known) tradition for literary reading series, and the Fantastic Fiction series hosted by Ellen Datlow and Matthew Kressel is a staple of the New York science fiction and fantasy scene. I’ll be reading together with the very accomplished and brilliant Delia Sherman, an honor in itself.
Another first: I plan to read from the novel-in-progress, the sequel to Last Song Before Night. Though it is very much in progress, after years of work I am starting to feel as if it is coming together.
Someday I may talk about the grim battle that went into the first year of shaping this book, and how our health is something for which we–and especially women–must be vigilant and proactive advocates in the medical system, but really…that is all too grim to talk about now and perhaps ever. Suffice to say that the book is starting to feel like a real book, drawing me to it late at night just to re-read and edit passages again, keeping me awake in bed plotting out new ideas, and that’s pretty much the most marvelous state of mind for a writer that I know of. I’m excited to share a little piece of it on Wednesday for the first time.