Wednesday, June 24, 2015

An Author Who Blogs about Real Sex, Writes Novels about Fictional Magic, and is Named after a Rodent

One of the most surprising things I learned during my interview with Ferrett Steinmetz is that the blogger who writes candidly about his most intimate experiences--including his polyamory and struggles with depression--is also socially anxious. He predicted that after our conversation, he'd need a few hours of Clone Wars and solitude to recover.

Of course, I shouldn't be surprised that a writer is quirky. After all, I'm a writer and I'm kinda quirky. And I can be socially anxious too. But enough about me. Here's my summary of our conversation that I posted on New Books in Science Fiction and Fantasy:

Ferrett Steinmetz first built an audience as a blogger, penning provocative essays about "puns, politics and polyamory" (among other things) with titles like "Dear Daughter: I Hope You Have Awesome Sex" and "How Kids React To My Pretty Princess Nails."

In recent years, he has drawn accolades as an author of speculative fiction, writing short stories and earning a Nebula nomination in 2011 for his novelette Sauerkraut Station.

And now he is exploring new waters with the publication of his first novel, Flex (Angry Robot, 2015), which tells the story of a father desperate enough to use illegal magic to heal his badly burned daughter.

The title refers to crystalized magic that, when snorted, gives the user the power to manipulate objects for which he or she has a particular affinity. Cat ladies become felinemancers. Weightlifters become musclemancers. Graphic artists become illustromancers. And the protagonist, a paper-pushing bureaucrat by the name of Paul Tsabo, becomes a bureaucromancer, able to turn paperwork (with the help of flex) into a magical beast.

The only problem is that with flex comes flux--a pushback from the universe that re-balances any magic act with disaster.

Below are highlights from Steinmetz's New Books interview.

On what he learned at Clarion Writers' Workshop:

"Bit by bit they kind of stripped away my illusions and showed me how lazy I'd been and how much more effort I had to put to make my stories top notch. ... I thought I was a one and a half draft person, but realistically I have to put in 5 drafts before the story starts to get good."

On how paperwork can become magical in Paul Tsabo's hands:

"He's basically useless in a firefight but can send a SWAT team through your door by dropping a magically completed warrant for your arrest on a cop's desk."

On why he why a world with flex also needs flux:

"Flux evens out the odds of magic.... I really hate novels where magic is this thing you can do ... without any kind of cost.... Frequently what I see is, 'Oh, I'm a magician. I'll raise an army of the dead and make my castle out of magic,' and where is any challenge in that for your characters? Where do they have any stopping points to what they can do?... A big tension in the book as to whether the mancers should even use their magic."

On his approach to writing:

"I'm what's called a gardener writer in the business. There are plotters who basically sit down and plot out all their books beat by beat and know their ending the minute they start their first sentence. And Flex, like every story I've ever written-- basically I wrote an interesting first paragraph and followed it randomly until the end of the book."

On 9/11 as an inspiration for Flex:

"To a large extent the magic system in Flex is driven by a reaction to 9/11, where something really bad happened--and yes it really was bad... but we really overreacted that wasn't helpful at all and in fact may have made it entirely worse for us."

Related links:

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Meg Elison explores power and gender in Book of the Unnamed Midwife

I spoke with this year's winner of the Philip K. Dick Award, Meg Elison, for my 18th podcast on New Books in Science Fiction and Fantasy. She was easy breezy to talk to, with smart quick answers that, in my humble opinion, made for a great interview. Of course, it helps that her book tackles all kinds of rich subjects: gender inequality (exacerbated by an epidemic that kills far more women than men), reproductive rights, and a need for meaningful emotional and intellectual stimulation in a world sorely lacking both. Below is what I wrote to introduce the podcast.

Despite the odds, Meg Elison did it.

First, she finished the book she wanted to write. Second, she found a publisher--without an agent. Third, she won the Philip K. Dick Award for Distinguished Science Fiction, a stunning achievement for a first-time author with a small, independent press.

The Book of the Unnamed Midwife is set in the American West after an epidemic has killed all but a fraction of humanity. Among the survivors, men vastly outnumber women, setting in motion a desperate journey of survival for the eponymous midwife. To avoid the serial rape and enslavement that threatens all females in this male-dominated landscape, the midwife sheds her name and even her sexuality, presenting herself as a man and continuously changing her moniker to suit the circumstance.

Communication falls apart too quickly for anyone to even know the name or nature of the illness that's destroyed civilization and made childbirth a fatal event for female survivors. The midwife's focus is on giving the few women she meets the hard-won power to prevent pregnancy. "I think the thing I wanted to come across most strongly was to explode notions of gender... And to really think about what your options would be like if you, like your grandmother, had no control over when you had children or how or by whom," Elison says in her New Books interview.

Elison was raised on stories about the apocalypse--the fire and brimstone kind. "I grew up in some pretty crazy evangelical churches, and they hammered on us about the end of days and the Book of Revelation, and it gave me nightmares, and it made always think about the fact that the end was nigh and that it was going to be bad, and I think that stuck with me my whole life even though I shed the ideological parts of it."

For the midwife, the apocalypse poses threats both dramatic and mundane. When not searching for food and a safe place to spend the night, she must negotiate the frustrating reality of spending time with people she doesn't like. "I started thinking about what it would be like if the only people you could find were people you couldn't stand, if they just irritated in you every way," Elison says. "There's nothing wrong with them and they're not unsafe, you just don't like being there. So I wanted to make a character who had to make choices between feeling safe in a group of people and feeling pissed off all the time."

Elison is grateful for the editors at Sybaritic Press, who published her unagented manuscript. "They're very good editors and publishers," she says. But inevitably, she's had to do a lot of marketing herself. "It's good because I've learned a lot about the business doing that and it's not good because no one listens to a writer on her own."

Fortunately, the Philip K. Dick Award has made finding readers a whole lot easier. The award "has opened a lot of doors," she says.

Related links:
  • An article in the Los Angeles Review of Books explores the book's treatment of "Gender and the Apocalypse." [Note: the article has spoilers].
  • Meg Elison shares her thoughts on her blog.
  • You can follow New Books in Science Fiction and Fantasy on Twitter and Facebook
  • and host Rob Wolf on Twitter

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Multi-tasking is Ken Liu's Middle Name

I loved talking to Ken Liu on New Books in Science Fiction and Fantasy about two very different projects. One was his translation of Cixin Liu's THE THREE-BODY PROBLEM and the other was his new (and first) novel THE GRACE OF KINGS. Below is my post describing the interview (my 17th!) on the New Books Network.

Short story writing, novel writing, and translating require a variety of skills and strengths that are hardly ever found in a single person. Ken Liu is one of those rare individuals who has them all.

He is perhaps best known for short stories like The Paper Menagerie, which (according to his Wikipedia entry) was the first work of fiction to earn Nebula, Hugo, and World Fantasy Awards.

But this year he's making waves with two longer projects, which are the focus of his New Books interview: his translation of Cixin Liu's The Three-Body Problem and his debut novel The Grace of Kings.

The Three-Body Problem has been a break-out success in China for Cixin Liu, who has won China's Galaxy Award for science fiction nine times. The Three-Body Problem is also the first hard science-fiction novel by an author from the People's Republic of China to be translated into English.

Ken Liu (who is not related to Cixin Liu) says sales numbers for science fiction in China would be the envy of American publishers, but Chinese publishers have traditionally considered it a niche market. That is, until The Three-Body Problem and its two sequels came along. Officially, Chinese readers have bought about 400,000 copies of the three-volume series but Liu says the actual number of readers is far larger as books get passed among friends and family.

Liu anticipated it would be difficult to translate the language of science, but the cultural references proved more challenging. Ultimately, he decided to add concise footnotes to fill in some gaps without overwhelming readers with too much information. The success of his translation is reflected in the The Three-Body Problem's Nebula and Hugo nominations for best novel.

The Grace of Kings, the first book in Liu's projected Dandelion Dynasty, is a very different project--an epic fantasy/science-fiction mashup that Liu calls "silkpunk." Liu grew up in a Chinese speaking household. "Every culture has its own set of foundational narratives that are echoed and dialogued with and re-imagined over and over again... They're stories about how a people embody their own values and see themselves as having meaning in the universe." In the case of The Grace of Kings, Liu drew from an ancient historical struggle known as the Chu-Han Contention but reimagines it in a secondary world, using both classic Western and Chinese storytelling techniques.

"The result is this melding of everything into this fantastical universe that I call silkpunk," Liu says. "So there are battle kites and mechanical contraptions of various sorts, underwater boats and airships that propel themselves with giant feathered oars that represent the kinds of things you see in Chinese block prints and historical romances [but] sort of blown up and extended into a new technology vocabulary that I had a lot fun playing with."