Archive for June, 2017

TT: A Question of Identity

June 8, 2017

JANE: Last time you said you had an obvious question for me.

ALAN: Yes – I have three, actually.

JANE: Three?  I begin to feel as if we’re entering a fairytale – or at least a Monty Python sketch.

A Character in Amber

Prithee, sir knight, what is your first question?

ALAN:  The first concerns Roger Zelazny. I hope I’m not betraying a confidence, but you told me once that Roger had put himself into one of the Amber books. Can you tell me about that?

JANE: Oh…  Roger’s cameo is hardly a secret.  It happens in The Hand of Oberon, the fourth Amber novel.  In it, Corwin, one of the Nine Princes of Amber whose tale is told in these novels, ventures into the dungeons and has a short chat with one of the guards.

Is this ringing a bell for you?

ALAN: No, not at all. It’s many years since I last read the book and my memories of it are very hazy.

JANE: The scene is short, so let me quote it in full:

“Good evening, Lord Corwin,” said the lean, cadaverous figure who rested against a storage rack, smoking his pipe, grinning around it.

“Good evening, Roger. How are things in the nether world?”

“A rat, a bat, a spider. Nothing much else astir. Peaceful.”

“You enjoy this duty?”

He nodded.

“I am writing a philosophical romance shot through with elements of horror and morbidity. I work on those parts down here.”

“Fitting, fitting,” I said. “I’ll be needing a lantern.”

He took one from the rack, brought it to flame from his candle.

“Will it have a happy ending?” I inquired.

He shrugged.

“I’ll be happy.”

“I mean, does good triumph and hero bed heroine? Or do you kill everybody off?”

“That’s hardly fair,” he said.

“Never mind. Maybe I’ll read it one day.”

“Maybe,” he said.

 ALAN: Oh, that’s nice. As you know, I’ve met Roger and I had several conversations with him. The dialogue in that piece is pure Roger. I can so easily imagine him saying those things. He captured his own wry, sardonic humour perfectly.

Alfred Hitchcock and Peter Jackson always have a cameo in their own films. How good to see a writer following that tradition in prose.

JANE: Yes.  But it really doesn’t capture Roger…  He wasn’t only wry and sardonic.  He could also be ridiculously silly.  When we lived together, he used to sing nonsense songs to the cats.  He could be sweetly sentimental.  When our guinea pig had babies, he was the one who wanted to keep all of them.  (We did.)

You don’t need to take my word for these aspects of his personality.  The forthcoming anthology Shadows and Reflections includes a final, non-fiction piece by his daughter, Shannon, who was a high school student when she lost her dad.  It’s very moving and, of the many tributes to Roger that I’ve read, it comes closest to capturing the man I knew and loved.

ALAN: I’ll definitely have to buy that when it comes out. I only saw Roger’s public face, of course, but I can easily imagine him being all those things.

JANE: What gets me is how many people want Roger not to be Roger but to be one of his characters.  The most common are Sam (from Lord of Light) or Corwin (from the Amber novels); a runner-up seems to be Conrad from This Immortal.  These people support the contention that these characters “were” him by showing similarities in skills or life experiences, creating the false syllogism that “if this is true, then so must the rest be.”

It’s a long-standing issue, going back to some of the earliest literary criticism written about Roger’s works (interestingly enough, his childhood friend, and literary biographer Carl Yoke is the least likely to make the equation), but one that persists to the diminishment of the multi-dimensional human he was.  I’ll stop there lest I begin to rant…

ALAN: That’s actually a very good rant. It generally makes no sense to go that far. You might just as well say that David Copperfield (the hero of the novel, not the stage magician) is Charles Dickens – after all, they are both novelists!

Have any other writers of your acquaintance put themselves into their books?

JANE: Well, yes and no.  I can’t think of examples off the cuff, but I certainly know writers who perpetually return to the same themes because they are working out their personal issues.  I don’t want to go further than that.

ALAN: Perhaps that’s wise.

I know you quite well, and I’ve read most of your published fiction, but there is nobody in any of your novels that I could point to and say “That’s Jane.” How much of that is deliberate?

JANE: Probably quite a lot.  I was very influenced as a Lit student by how some of my professors seemed to want to dwell less on the literary work of an author and more on his or her life.  Yeats’s obsession with Maud Gonne.  T.S. Eliot’s nervous breakdown.  D.H. Lawrence’s various entanglements.  On and on…  Sure, some of that was in the work, but there was always more, a whole lot more, but much of that was treated as if it had only been created as a disguise for the author “really” writing autobiography.

At the same time, I read T.S. Eliot’s essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent” and was very hit by his discussion of how the artist transmutes life experiences into art.   It’s in the second section, if you want to read all of it, but the final sentence captures some of his argument.

“…but the more perfect the artist, the more completely separate in him will be the man who suffers and the mind which creates; the more perfectly will the mind digest and transmute the passions which are its material.”

ALAN: I think natural human curiosity makes a reader want to know more about a writer that they admire, if only to try and understand what makes the writer approach their art in the way that they do.

I think I told you that I used to live in Eastwood, the Nottinghamshire village where Lawrence was brought up. There were still people in the village who remembered him and I’m sure that if he’d ever come back to the village they’d have hanged, drawn and quartered him. Even forty years after Lawrence’s death, there was still a lot of residual anger about the way he’d portrayed them. I’m sure that says something about the literary choices he made, though I confess I’m not sure exactly what.

Cases as blatant as Kingsley Amis, who we discussed last time, are actually quite rare. But nevertheless there’s a very famous SF writer who some people think put a lot of himself into his books. Shall we talk about him next time?

JANE: Absolutely!

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When the Gods Are Silent E-book Now Available!

June 7, 2017

Back in January, I promised you there would be lots going on in 2017.  The release of When the Gods Are Silent as an e-book – following on March’s e-book release of Smoke and Mirrors – is only part of my keeping that promise.  Let me start with When the Gods Are Silent.  Then I’ll drop a few hints about other projects I’m working on.

When the Gods Are Silent

When the Gods Are Silent is my 1997 mythic sword and sorcery novel.  It was my first attempt at writing what is often termed “imaginary world fiction” at novel length – that is, fiction where I created the entire world, as well as the characters and story.  My earlier novels: Brother to Dragons, Companion to Owls; Marks of Our Brothers; The Pipes of Orpheus, and Smoke and Mirrors had all used some variation on our world or at least the mythic history of our world or a futuristic extrapolation.

So, in a way, When the Gods Are Silent is an older cousin of the Firekeeper novels which are set in a very complex imaginary world.

For those of you who already have When the Gods Are Silent, I will add that the e-book contains a bonus afterpiece talking about some of the things that influenced me when I was writing the book.

When the Gods Are Silent is available DRM free from Kindle, Nook, Google Play, iTunes, and Kobo.

Want to know more about When the Gods Are Silent?  Here’s the cover blurb.

Sharp-tempered, dangerous, yet fiercely loyal, Rabble is a skilled warrior who knows both too much and too little of her past.

Discovered unconscious at the side of the road by the Travelling Spectacular, Rabble willingly becomes a member of this eclectic band of wandering entertainers.  But her life and theirs are about to be disrupted by Hulhc, a prosperous farmer who is obsessed with finding the magic that vanished without warning over fifty years before.

Will any of them survive their search for the answer to a question about which the gods themselves are silent?

If you prefer print books, a limited number of the original mass market paperback are still available on my website bookstore.

 Prices include shipping and handling.  As always, signing and personalization are free!

Now…  How about what’s coming?

The other day, someone asked me if all I’m doing is working with getting my older material out.  The answer is “Absolutely not!”  I’m currently writing a new novel, which takes place in an entirely new setting.  The story will stand on its own but, already, the characters are hinting they have other stories to tell.

Moreover, I’m planning to bring out Asphodel, an extremely strange novel I wrote last year.  I’m reading the manuscript  of Asphodel to a group of friends.  When I’m done with that, I’ll give it a final polish and start getting it ready for the press.

Finally, I’m beginning to lay the groundwork for some projects that will take me back to some familiar settings and audience-favorite characters.  Since I want to finish a rough draft of my current novel first, you won’t see what I’m working on for a while.  So, let’s just leave it at “You asked and I’m listening.”

Consider going to my website and signing up for my mailing list, so you don’t miss any of the new releases, updates, contests, and promotions I have planned for the year to come!

FF: Gardens and Games

June 2, 2017

The long weekend didn’t give me quite as much reading time as I’d hoped, but I managed some.

Reading Among the Flowers

For those of you just discovering this feature, the Friday Fragments lists what I’ve read over the past week.  Most of the time I don’t include details of either short fiction (unless part of a book-length collection) or magazines.

The Fragments are not meant to be a recommendation list.  If you’re interested in a not-at-all-inclusive recommendation list, you can look on my website under Neat Stuff.

Once again, this is not a book review column.  It’s just a list with, maybe, a bit of description or a few opinions tossed in.

Recently Completed:

Quartered Safe Out Here by George MacDonald Fraser.  Audiobook.   A look at the campaign in Burma during WWII, from the infantry, non-officer level – very intimate.    I think it could be subtitled: George MacDonald Fraser is not Flashman and wants you to know it.

In Progress:

Gardens of New Spain: How Mediterranean Plants and Foods Changed America by William W. Dunmire.  This is really excellent because in addition to the subject in the title, it talks about how plants spread, why, and their cultural impact.  Additional bonus: histories – going back to earliest cultivation – of various key plants.

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline.  Audiobook.  Re-listen.

Also:

Reading back issues of Smithsonian.  I’d gotten amazingly behind.  Now reading about the Liberty Bell’s coast-to-coast tour.

TT: Is That the Author?

June 1, 2017

ALAN: When we were talking about Cordwainer Smith, I remarked in passing that one of his characters was possibly a representation of Smith himself. That seemed to strike a chord with you and you disagreed strongly. So how about we take a closer look at the idea of writers appearing in their own stories? And perhaps as we examine the idea, we might pin down the reasons why you believe that it is less common than some people think.

Kel Untangles the Issue

JANE: I’m all for that.  However, I’d like to clarify what it is that makes me uncomfortable:  That’s when readers assume that a character is “really” the author.  Certainly some authors deliberately fictionalize themselves, but even the specifics of how that is handled are worthy of discussion.

Do you have any examples to start us off?

ALAN: As it happens, I do. Kingsley Amis is a writer I admire enormously. Amis was, shall we say, rather plump and he was also well known to enjoy extramarital affairs. Lots of them. Once when he and his wife were on holiday Amis fell asleep on the beach. His wife took her lipstick and wrote “One Fat Englishman – I fuck anything” on his back. Then she took a photo of what she’d done and sent it to everybody she knew. Amis was apparently much amused (and a little appalled).

His next novel was called One Fat Englishman and the viewpoint character was a serial fornicator. I find it really hard to avoid seeing the author as the protagonist of that novel!

JANE: Since I haven’t read One Fat Englishman, I’m a little crippled in my ability to respond.  However, I have read (and really loved) Amis’s Lucky Jim, so I’m with you on admiring his writing.

But let’s look at your contention that “the author” is the protagonist.  I’d be inclined to say that Amis used his own experiences and even tried to turn his wife’s indignation to his own advantage, but that’s as far as I’d go.

Why?  Because there’s a big difference between autobiography – which itself is fraught with issues as I’ve noted in one of my Wanderings – and fiction.  In fiction, the author is free to change events to fit the fictional model.  Therefore, before I’d say a character “is” the author, I’d want to read something (essay, comment in interview) saying “Yep.  That’s me.”

ALAN: You are correct when you say that “…Amis used his own experiences and even tried to turn his wife’s indignation to his own advantage” and in the absence of any further evidence that’s probably as far as anyone can legitimately go.

But I have information that you don’t have. I’ve read Amis’ delightfully gossipy autobiography Memoirs and I’ve read several reminiscences of him by other writers – notably Colin Wilson’s The Angry Years – and while I don’t think Amis ever specifically said that he was the protagonist of One Fat Englishman, the character and the man himself are so alike in thought, word and deed that trying to tell them apart becomes something of a futile exercise.

JANE: Ah… But then autobiography itself can be an exercise in fictionalizing the self.  That’s why reading an autobiography is not always preferable to a well-researched biography if you want to learn about someone.  However, I do find it interesting that the person recalled in other people’s reminiscences and Amis’s portrayal of himself seem to be in sync.

ALAN: I won’t ask you to take what I say completely on trust, so let me give you another opinion.

Ever since the Great Library Purge of 2014 I’ve slowly been re-buying old favourites as ebooks. My recently purchased ebook of One Fat Englishman has an introduction by David Lodge, himself a respected novelist and academic. If I may quote:

[The protagonist] is rude, arrogant, snobbish, lecherous, treacherous, greedy and totally selfish… His thoughts, and often his speech, are crammed with offensive observations about Jews, Negroes, women, homosexuals and Americans in general. He eats like a pig and drinks like a fish. He is quite conscious of these traits and habits, and perversely proud of them…

In 1963, knowing little about Kingsley Amis except through his writings, I was puzzled to know why he had taken such pains to create this vividly unpleasant character. In my memory, many other fans of his work were equally baffled and disappointed. But in the light of Amis’s subsequent literary development, and all the biographical information that has emerged since his death, One Fat Englishman seems a much more comprehensible and interesting novel – also funnier, in its black way – than I remembered. It now seems obvious that [the protagonist] was, in many respects, a devastating and prophetic self-portrait.

JANE: Ouch!  Talk about using one’s own writing as catharsis.  That’s amazing, and really very sad.

ALAN: There’s a very delicate, and hard to pin down, line in the sand here. I think we need to distinguish carefully between characters who are presented as experiencing aspects of the author’s life (because those aspects are important to the novel) and characters who are so close to the author that separating the two turns into rather pointless hairsplitting.

JANE: Elegantly put!  Last week, you commented that you felt that Lord Jestacost was, to some extent, Cordwainer Smith putting himself into his own book.  Maybe you could examine that contention within the parameters you’ve established in the statement above.

ALAN: I’ll try – Jestacost appears in several of Smith’s stories. As I recall he is generally benevolent (something that is not typical of the Lords of the Instrumentality). Jestacost is politically aware, not afraid to take sides, and very adept at maneuvering his political opponents. Paul Linebarger (aka Smith) was himself all of these things. He was a political and military advisor in China, Malaya and Korea and he (literally!) wrote the book on brainwashing: Psychological Warfare. Jestacost’s role in the Rediscovery of Man has many correspondences with Linebarger’s real life preoccupations.

I’m not completely sure on which side of the line that I drew in the sand Jestacost/Linebarger stands. Perhaps he straddles it. Smith didn’t write enough fiction for us to have any degree of certainty about the question. But there are parallels…

JANE: I see why you would want to say Jestacost “is” Linebarger.  I would place the line in the sand by saying that Linebarger used his own experiences to make Jestacost a believable and complex character.

“Write what you know,” after all, is something that would-be writers are often told.

One thing just came to me…  In a sense, Paul Linebarger always wrote at one remove from himself.  I believe all his work was published under pseudonyms.   So, even Cordwainer Smith can be considered a character…

ALAN: Good point! I hadn’t thought of that. Meanwhile it occurs to me that you are a writer and you know many other writers, so I have an obvious question to ask you. Perhaps we can investigate that next time?