Archive for October, 2010

Sky City

October 27, 2010

Can you believe a city could be cursed by its windows?Some of the Treasures of Acoma

Well, that’s what happened to the Pueblo Indian city of Acoma.

Acoma is located about an hour and a half west of Albuquerque. A couple of weekends ago, Jim, myself, and our friend Michael Wester drove out to tour Acoma.

Research I had done for my alternate history novella, “Like the Rain,” (which will appear in the forthcoming anthology, Golden Reflections, edited by Joan Saberhagen and Robert Vardeman) had transformed my vague thought that I’d like to visit Acoma “one of these days” into a burning desire. We’d tried to make a date to go in the spring, but my extensive travel schedule had made that impossible. Summer is not a time I’d choose to go visit an adobe village built up on a mesa top, so we’d postponed until autumn.

We had perfect weather for our visit. When we arrived at around eleven in the morning, the skies were clear. There was the slightest of breezes and the temperatures were in the short- sleeved shirt range. A friendly young woman took our entry fees (which included camera permits that extended to the entire reservation) and informed us that the next tour would be leaving in about fifteen minutes.

The city of Acoma is built on a mesa overlooking lands ornamented with the twisted, wind-sculpted stone formations commonly known as “hoodoos.” The surrounding vista is also embellished with buttes and other mesas, including the poetically (and perfectly) named “Enchanted Mesa.”

We rode a tour bus for the short but steep climb up to the village of Acoma. This road is a relatively recent addition. When the village was founded in the 1100’s, it was isolated except for some very challenging trails. Most water and food was carried up these trails, often on top of the heads of the climbers. (We went down the “stone stair” – one of the easier trails, and it was still pretty steep at points).

Our tour guide was an Acoma resident named Conran. (He also gave us his Acoman name, but I didn’t make a note of it; I do remember he was affiliated with the Pumpkin Clan).

I know Conran must have been a man of mature years, because he mentioned a son who is in the military, but based on appearance I would have thought him in his late twenties or early thirties. Like many Pueblo Indians, Conran is not overly tall, but powerfully built, with very dark black hair and dark brown eyes. He was quite serious as he began the tour, but when he saw he had an interested audience, he often departed from his formal tour information to add personal information and introductions.

(“That’s my aunt with the oven bread.” “This is my nephew. He’s a firefighter in Albuquerque. He also runs marathons.” “These are my family’s houses.”)

Conran’s willingness to share such details transformed the village into what it is – a living, breathing community, not a mere tourist destination. He seemed to take for granted that we would already know that this is one of the longest continuously lived-in communities in the United States.

Today, many of the tribal members have more modern homes in the nearby communities of Acomita and McCarty’s, as well as in Albuquerque. However, the religious leaders annually nominate some who will take up residence in the traditional village. To these are assigned the task of praying – not only for the members of the tribe but, as Conran assured us, for all the world.

That’s very generous coming from a people whose contacts with the world beyond their own group have not always been kind. You don’t think they chose to live up on a mesa because their neighbors were all friendly, do you? No. I didn’t think so.

Additionally, the Acomans came in for a lot of attention – not all of it nice – from the Spanish. Remember what I said about those windows? The story goes like this…

When the Spanish were new to the area, a priest traveling through the region caught a glimpse of Acoma from a distance. The sunlight caught the windows and gave back the warm glitter of gold. Immediately, he turned around and reported that he had found one of the legendary Seven Cities of Cibola, where even the streets were said to be made of gold.

One problem. The Acomans didn’t have any gold. Gold is actually relatively uncommon in New Mexico. However, the Acomans had made their windows from thick sheets of mica (often called isinglass), a material that – when it catches the sun – glitters like gold.

The Spanish conquistadores arrived. Not only didn’t they find a city made from gold, they found a city up on a mesa top whose residents couldn’t understand why someone down below was shouting at them that they were now subject to a king of whom they’d never heard. The situation only got worse from there.

I’m not going to give a long history lesson here, but the material does make fascinating reading. However, I’d suggest you read a more modern, balanced account. The older Spanish ones contain a certain degree of what must be called self-justification.

Despite their less than ideal encounters with the outside world, we only met with friendliness from the Acoma residents with whom we spoke. After the tour, Jim, Michael, and I had an excellent lunch in the visitor’s center café. We then toured the museum. Our final stop was a stroll around the outer portal where some vendors sat with their wares.

Jim had already bought a beautiful hand-made plate: a bear-paw design in black on a red-brown micaceous-glaze background. Therefore, we weren’t exactly in the market for souvenirs. I did pretty well until we fell into conversation with a very nice woman named Carolyn Concho.

All of the vendors had been completely up-front about which of their work was handmade and which was merely hand-painting on commercial green ware. Therefore, I was fascinated when Ms. Concho proudly presented the brightly colored paints on her pieces as all-natural mineral paints.

I asked how this could be and was treated to a wonderful discussion of how Ms. Concho and her sisters (she referred to them as “the Lewis sisters”) have gone out of their way to explore the possibilities of various minerals they encounter in their travels. They then experiment with these (grinding, mixing, heat-treating) to see what they come up with. She was particularly delighted to show us a greenish-yellow paint that they’d mixed up in hopes of finding a bright yellow. Instead, what they ended up with was a bright red.

Well, after that, I really wanted a piece of her work. I purchased a tiny pot (see the photo above) on which a lizard was painted in a fashion that displayed Ms. Concho’s colors. Note the detailed black-line patterns surrounding the lizard. Then note the size of the piece – it’s resting on a pedestal made of United States quarters! Much of the painting was done with a single hair.

My wallet was pretty empty after this, but we stopped to chat with a vendor named Karen Miller.

(By the way, most Indians in the southwest have at least two names, one of which will sound very “un-Indian” to those who expect all Indians to be named things like Sunset Warrior or Little Flower).

Ms. Miller was eating her lunch, but came over to chat when she saw us admiring her work. One piece in particular caught my attention. It was about the size of a gum ball (in the photo above, it’s resting on a stack of pennies). Ms. Miller told us it was hand-coiled and that the designs (four bands of them) were etched on with a needle. She even brought out the needle to show us.

I crouched down to eye-level so I could better admire and fell completely in love. Not only was the second band made up of miniature bear-paws (Ms. Miller is affiliated with the Bear Clan), but the third band contained eight individual depictions of various symbolic animals or figures from legend.

I guess Ms. Miller saw the glow in my eyes, because she knocked a third off her price. Jim and I dug in our wallets and managed to come up with the amount. (By the way, lest you think all this friendliness was mere effort to make a sale, not one vendor mentioned there was an ATM in the Visitor’s Center)

So we left with some of the true treasures of Acoma. Not only the pottery, but our joy in the friendliness of the people, the wealth of their history, and the curious comfort that, in this world where competition rules, someone is taking time out to pray for everyone and everything.

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Magic Circles in the Sidewalk

October 20, 2010

A couple of weeks back, in response to my wandering “Friends of a Rainless

Changer and Legends Walking

 Year,” several of you were kind enough to mention how much you liked my novel Child of a Rainless Year (published May 2005 and still available).

A number of you then went on to mention how much you had liked one of my much earlier novels, Changer (published in December 1998 and currently unavailable).

Today’s wandering is a two-parter. First, I’m going to take you behind the curtain and show the circumstances that led to Changer being written. Then I’m going to address a question asked by Alan Robson of New Zealand, namely, why I’ve apparently “given up on the story.”

So freshen your coffee or tea, and travel back with me through time and space to Summer 1994, Santa Fe, New Mexico.

At this point, I’ve been living in Santa Fe with Roger Zelazny for a month or two. We’ve decided to take a break and go for a stroll, window-shop, grab some lunch. We’ve parked the car on a side street and are walking toward the plaza along a very narrow sidewalk.

I notice that someone had inscribed an elaborate pattern into the concrete when it was wet. I stop, astonished at what I see.

“It’s a magic circle, a pentagram, complete with crystals!”

Roger nods, keeps walking, not in the least surprised.

That was the moment my novel Changer was born. I don’t mean in its final form – like Athene from the head of Zeus, full-grown and in armor – just that at that moment I resolved to write a novel set in New Mexico soon, before the shine wore off the place, before I, too, took magic circles in the sidewalk for granted.

Now those of you with methodical minds are checking copyright dates, noting that the book wasn’t published until December of 1998. You’re thinking, “What happened? I’ve heard that publishing can be slow, but four and a half years?”

To be honest, Changer had a more troubled birth than most of my novels. I started it soon after the events recounted above. I had a strong image of what Changer himself looked like, that he was an immortal, associated with a community of immortals. The revenge theme was also firmly in place. If I recall properly, Changer was the first of my novels that I sold before it was fully completed.

But life got in the way of writing. After Roger died in June 1995, I was deeply depressed and overwhelmed. Suddenly, not only was my beloved dead, I had to find a new place to live, figure out what I was going to do, deal with all sorts of fallout.

However, at that point, I was also working on the computer game Chronomaster. That project had to be finished. I don’t program, but I wrote the storyline, based on some ideas of Roger’s. Later, I wrote the dialogue that went into the game itself.

(Scot Noel, my contact for the Chronomaster project, was astonishingly and amazingly kind and supportive. I met with a lot of kindness in those black days.)

When Chronomaster was done, I went back to work on Changer. I have a note in the daily writing journal I keep that by early September I had a hundred pages written.

A little later, I was approached by Prima Publications and asked to write both a novelization of Chronomaster and the player’s guide. I was also beta-testing the game. I worked on all of these projects simultaneously. I find a note in the writing journal: “Thank God for work.”

While all of this was going on, I was also house-hunting, moving, doing edits for my novel, When the Gods Are Silent. I finished the Chronomaster projects. By this time, the contracts had been finalized to let me fulfill one of Roger’s final requests – that I finish his two uncompleted novels: Donnerjack and Lord Demon.

I also signed a contract for Changer at this time.

The manuscript for Donnerjack had to be completed before I could write anything else, so I immersed myself in it. By mid-June of 1996, Donnerjack was written and mailed off.

Now that I had some time to myself, I wrote some short fiction and tried to get back into Changer. I found myself writing more slowly, unable to make any significant progress. Finally, I figured out why. Changer had been begun during one of the most difficult periods of my life. I couldn’t go back there, but neither did I want to abandon a story and characters that meant a lot to me.

I consulted with Jim (who by then I was dating), then made a tough decision. I would discard the whole of what I had written – roughly two hundred pages at that point – and start over fresh. On September 16, 1996, I began again with a somewhat different approach, using what I’d learned about employing multiple points of view when writing Chronomaster and Donnerjack. This enabled me both to “open up” the novel and explore a more complex storyline.

That version of Changer is the novel that came out in December 1998 – a book that started many years before with a magic circle inscribed on a sidewalk in Santa Fe.

Whew… Deep breath. Go refill your coffee. Then I’ll answer Alan’s question. (Warning or reassurance: I don’t plan to always wander at such length).

So, obviously I cared a lot about Changer. Why then have I, to borrow Alan’s words, “given up on the story”?

The short answer is, I didn’t. The publisher did and the publisher would say that the readers did.

There was a sequel to Changer. My title for it was Changer’s Daughter, a title which, like most of my titles, usually seems to mean one thing and, if you think about it when you finish the book, means something beyond the obvious by the end.

However, for reasons I’ve never understood, some higher-up at Avon books decided Changer’s Daughter was a bad title. My editor and I literally went through dozens of alternatives before settling on Legends Walking. (I was never happy with this; I kept envisioning Legends Hopping, Legends Leaping, whatever).

Avon also completely changed the style of the book jacket. Where the cover of Changer had been stark, stylized, and brightly southwestern in flavor, this jacket was busy, dark, and semi-photorealistic. So, between the altered title and altered jacket style, I’ve since learned that many fans of Changer had no idea that in December of 1999 a sequel, Legends Walking, was released.

The booksellers noticed. Avon ordered a reprinting almost immediately, but their action was too little, too late.

(I find this ironic, since the same group of people would be behind Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, a book that I’ve always thought was as much like Changer as two completely different novels could be).

When my agent and I proposed a third book in the athanor series, we were turned down. End of the road. Dead.

(Shall I be pathetic and admit that this was the same week that I learned my father was dying of Lou Gehrig’s disease? Why not? I think it’s crucial that readers realize writers face life challenges outside of the marketplace).

Despite Avon’s viewing the books as not worth following up on, Changer has continued to have readers. It also won the Zia Award in 2000, the first time ever that an SF/F novel has been so honored. So why hasn’t it been reprinted?

Simply, Changer is now considered too long. In 2006, at the American Library Association conference, I was wandering the show floor with my then-editor, Patrick Nielsen Hayden of Tor Books. A librarian who obviously knew him from elsewhere came up to him to chat. Patrick politely made introductions. The librarian raved about how much she loved my books.

Then she looked Patrick in the eye, all but grabbed him by the collar and shook him, and said: “Changer! I want Changer!”

Patrick blinked and said: “Next contract.” I was thrilled. But the offer wasn’t made. When my agent and I later pursued the matter (by then I was working more closely with Melissa Singer, also of Tor), Melissa read Changer, said she loved it, but also said that it was too long to be cost-effective as a reprint.

Dead again.

So will Changer ever come out again? Will the legends ever walk? I don’t really know. However, I do know this. The likelihood of my being able to sell a third book in a series where the first two books are out-of-print is about as likely as rain falling up. (It happens occasionally, but not very often).

Did I give up on the story? No. Would I go back if opportunity came? I might. I’d need to sit down and re-read the first two novels, see what new stories occurred to me. I’m a different person this decade and more later. I can play at time travel, but I can’t go back to who I was.

Just Wasn’t Happening

October 13, 2010

Well, for this week, since several of those of you who check in on this weekly

The Cute Little Train

 extravagance had expressed an interest in one of my novels, Changer, I was planning on writing a thoughtful piece about the strange circumstances that led up to the novel being written, and the even stranger circumstances that led to it not being completed for several years.

However, the week sped by and there I was on Friday, busily absorbed in my current writing project right up until and after Jim had quit for the day. (I hope you don’t mind, but I really don’t like talking about works-in-progress).

Saturday morning, Jim and I took off relatively early to meet our friend Michael Wester at a coin show. I don’t collect, but the fellows both do. I wander around and talk to people, like Barry, the UNM Geology Professor. I’ve struck up a bi-annual friendship with Patricia, a great-grandmother from Rio Rancho, whose husband is a coin dealer. I also chat with complete strangers.

This time, because I was wearing a tee-shirt adorned with a pack of wolves, I learned the origin of the word “cantaloupe.” Yes. Like the melon. Seems that when the first melon seeds were brought into Italy (from Armenia, according to my OED), the pope decided to try growing them on the fringes of a country estate he owned. The estate was named for the wolves that howled (or sang) in the area.

Yes. “Canta-loup” – wolf song. The name of the estate was given to the melon , making it possible for us to dine on “wolf song” melon for breakfast.

Anyhow, the coin show was not the end of the day’s activities. From there, Jim, Michael, and I went out and ate far too much Indian food. Then we went over to the home of some friends of Michael’s, so Jim and I could tour their garden. This proved to be a lovely Mediterranean-style plot, complete with exotic fruit trees like fig, quince, and pomegranate. We also were honored with a chance to see their “other garden” – the salt water tanks where they grow live coral, as well as tropical fish.

Then Jim and I split from Michael. We headed over to our friends Mike and Yvonne’s house. There we picked a huge amount of grapes from the vines in their front yard. The majority of these were pulled off of their stems that evening and are now spread out on a drying rack on our sun porch transforming into raisins.

After all of that, writing thoughtful pieces about the evolution of a novel just wasn’t happening.

It didn’t happen on Sunday, either. Relatively early, Jim and I picked up our friend Chip and then the three of us spent the day at the BioPark. We started at the Botanical Gardens, rode the cute little train over to the Zoo, toured the Zoo, then rode the train back. We finished off by walking around the Japanese Garden and then touring the aquarium.

After all of that, writing thoughtful pieces about the evolution of a novel just wasn’t happening.

And then Monday. Well, this may have been a three-day weekend for Columbus Day, but somewhere in there we had errands to run and (I know this may amaze those of you who think writers are above this sort of thing) housework to do.

And after all of that… Yeah. Repeat refrain.

Then Tuesday starts up the work week again. My novel was calling to me. I gave in to its siren song. Next thing I knew, I was trying to figure out what to post for Wednesday.

Since I didn’t really have the time to gather up all the dates and facts about Changer’s genesis, and since, to be honest, I’m never quite certain what folks who drop in to read my wanderings are hoping to read about, I ended up writing about nothing much at all.

I had fun doing it. I hope you were at least a little amused by the end result.

Friends From A Rainless Year

October 6, 2010

I’d just given my name at the authors’ check-in tent at the New Mexico

Child of a Rainless Year with Kaleidoscopes

Women Authors’ Book Festival when a tall, slim woman with brown hair impulsively turned and embraced me: “Jane!” she said. “I love your books! I read Child of a Rainless Year two or three times a year. It’s such a spiritual book.”

Looking back, I’m more surprised that I wasn’t more surprised, if that makes any sense. This lady was so warm and so spontaneous that, even though I wasn’t certain if we’d met before, it didn’t really matter. We had met. We both liked the same book and apparently for the same reasons. The fact that I’d written the book didn’t really seem to matter. It belonged to both of us.

We chatted a little and I discovered her name was Natalie Reid and that she was a non-fiction author presenting in the Spirit/Health pavilion. She also is an English language skills teacher. Her most recent book (which I haven’t read yet) is The Spiritual Alchemist: Working with the Voice of Your Soul.

However, it wasn’t similarities of profession that drew us together. It was our mutual fondness for some fictional people in a fictionalized version of a very strange, very odd town in New Mexico.

(I’m fond of noting that, while Child of a Rainless Year is indeed a fantasy, all the really weird stuff is true history. Okay. Everything but the house. And the silent women. But everything else).

Later that day, after I’d given my talk (which was titled “How Not To Get Your Novel Published”), two women (Kayt and Maggie) came up to talk to me. They live in Las Vegas, New Mexico, and Child of a Rainless Year is one of their favorite books. They cheerfully detailed how they’d both read it repeatedly, given copies to friends, and bought new copies when friends had walked off with their copy.

I was delighted. I told them the story of the really strange thing that happened when I went to Las Vegas (New Mexico) to sign Child of a Rainless Year shortly after its release. Shall I tell you? Why not?

Las Vegas is a good two hours drive from Albuquerque. We were heading there in spring – which, I must stress, is not a rainy season in northern New Mexico. The skies were bright and clear as we drove north. They remained bright and clear when we arrived in Las Vegas and walked around a bit. They were clear when I settled in at the bookstore and did my reading.

We were reaching the question and answer stage of things when I realized that the sky outside was now dark and lowering. I was answering a question when, without much warning, the skies opened and rain began to fall. Hard. Sheets and streams coming down and overflowing the gutters.

Now this is a book in which rain is rather symbolic. The first section I wrote for the book (later moved at my editor’s excellent suggestion to the second section) began, “My mother said there was no rain the year she carried me, the year I was born.”

Drought and rain provide pulse points throughout Child of a Rainless Year. And here the rain came, pouring down when all should have been bright and sunny. It was as if the resident spirits of Las Vegas, New Mexico, were putting in their applause.

True story. Good memory. Sharing it with those two nice ladies so long after it happened (Child of a Rainless Year was released in 2005) made me smile.

The experience of meeting them, of meeting Natalie, gave me a real insight into how stories connect us. We all liked the same book. We must have something in common.

I understood how early SF/F fandom must have felt, everyone having read the same books, knowing the same characters and situations, having fun discussing them. It also made me understand – a little sadly, I’ll admit – why certain media fandoms thrive when print fandoms seem to be fading.

After all, a media production is – especially at first – a closed unit. There are too many books for all of us to be certain we’ve read the same ones. We may like the same genre, but I may be a huge fan of McKillip and Powers, say, while you prefer Weber and Heinlein. (Actually, I like Weber and Heinlein, too).

But this Sunday, for a few short moments, I talked to friends who’d been introduced to each other by friends – friends who just happened to be characters I had created.

Very cool, huh?