Archive for the ‘Other People’s Stories’ Category

TT: A Wizard of Change

February 15, 2018

JANE: Last time you mentioned that the first of Ursula K. Le Guin’s  novels you read was A Wizard of Earthsea.  That was certainly the first of her novels I read.  By the time I read it, all three of the first books in the sequence were out, so I don’t so much think of “Earthsea” as consisting of three novels as one.   I was probably in my early double digits at the time, the exact target audience for the series.

Ged’s Story

It worked for me very well.  I was swept up not only by the mythic feeling of the story, but because Ged’s grand journey is so deeply rooted in reality.  For all its dragons and wizards, Earthsea felt distinctly real.  This ability to make unreal places real is something that I would continue to admire in Le Guin’s work.

ALAN: I had much the same reaction as you, though I was older than you (in my twenties) when I first read the books. It’s probably worth mentioning that fantasy novels were few and far between in those days, and any new addition to the canon was always met with glad cries of glee, no matter how good or bad it was – but the Earthsea books were clearly something special and, in later years when sprawling, derivative fantasy doorstop novels seemed to be everywhere, it became more and more obvious just how special and how well-crafted Le Guin’s fantasies were.

My copies of the books were published by Puffin, which was an imprint that Penguin used for children’s books. So officially, I suppose, I was far too old to be reading that childish rubbish. But I couldn’t see that it mattered. A good book is a good book, and there was a depth and a maturity to the Earthsea stories, as there is to all the best “Young Adult” fiction, which transcended categories.

JANE: I agree!  What’s great about the Earthsea books is that they grow with the reader.  A kid might be caught up in Ged’s quest.  An older reader starts wondering about the consequences of impulsive actions.  And so on…

The Earthsea books also contributed to an element of my mental landscape as a writer.  This happened when LeGuin’s fourth novel in the sequence, Tehanu: The Last Book of Earthsea was published in 1990.  Tehanu was published with much fanfare as a work in which the writer who – by then – had become a feminist icon made amends for having been so sexist in her earlier works.

ALAN: If I remember rightly, Le Guin’s protagonists up to that point had mostly been male. But I’m not sure that’s inherently sexist in and of itself. Can you elaborate?

JANE: I agree with you that male protagonists alone were not enough to make Le Guin’s books sexist.  Indeed, “male as protagonist” was still a major part of the landscape in the late 1960’s.  Even when I started writing many years later, I automatically envisioned my protagonists as male.

For example, Sarah in Brother to Dragons, Companion to Owls started out as Sam.  I made a conscious choice to write women – and women as I know them to be – which has led to me being identified as a writer of “strong female characters.”

ALAN: Perhaps I’m in a minority here, but I have no problem identifying with the protagonist of a story, be they men or be they women. So I consider both you and Ursula Le Guin to be writers of “strong characters”. For me, the adjective is not necessary.

JANE: I’m like you in that.  No one was more surprised than I to be praised for creating “strong female characters.”  I just wanted to include more characters who were female.

But the problem Le Guin created in Earthsea was more complicated than having her protagonist be male.

Le Guin’s lack of respect for the feminine went further than putting her women in the background.  Phrases such as “Weak as a woman’s magic” and/or “Wicked as a woman’s magic” occur in the Earthsea books.   Ged’s first teacher is a woman, and she leads him and his considerable magical talent astray by her manner of teaching.

Le Guin’s admission that she had basically been blind to her own cultural biases had a huge impact on me.  I’d already begun to write more female characters.  (Once again, I must remind our readers that publication date and writing date are not the same; although my first novel would not come out until 1994, I was already absorbed in writing.)  Le Guin’s admission made me wonder what my own blind spots might be.

ALAN: A question that worries me as well. I’m sure I must have them, but I don’t know what they are…

I do remember the fanfare that greeted the publication of Tehanu but I never wholly agreed with it. Certainly Le Guin’s view of women in the world of Earthsea did perhaps leave something to be desired, but she didn’t impose that point of view on her other literary worlds.

In 1969, only a year after the publication of A Wizard of Earthsea, she published The Left Hand of Darkness, a novel that was deeply preoccupied with gender issues and the societal roles played by men and women.  So in light of that, the claims made for Tehanu were perhaps a little disingenuous.

JANE: I agree with you – and I felt so at the time.  Nonetheless, I’m grateful to Le Guin’s admission because it set me questing for what I might be blind to and led me to write more varied characters and situations as a result.

ALAN: And it seems to me that the quest was successful – a lot of your characters and situations have stuck in my mind for years. If that’s the result of Le Guin’s influence on your writing, then good on her!

But there is another aspect of her work that I think we ought to talk about. Next week, perhaps?

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Chatting With Walter Jon Williams

January 17, 2018

JANE: This week I’m interviewing Walter Jon Williams, the award-winning author of numerous science fiction and historical novels, about his latest release: Quillifer.

Walter and Quillifer!

So, Walter, I always start interviews with this question: In my experience, writers fall into two general categories: those who have been writing stories since before they could actually write and those who came to writing somewhat later.

Which sort are you?

WALTER:  I decided I wanted to be a writer as soon as I knew there were such things as writers, which was before I had learned to read or write.  I would dictate stories to my parents, who would write them down for me.  Fortunately, none of these efforts have survived.

JANE: Your latest release is Quillifer.  To the best of my knowledge, this is your first Fantasy novel.  What drew you – who are best known for cyberpunk (Hardwired) and space opera (the Praxis series) – to trying your hand at Fantasy?

WALTER: Sometimes the universe just gives you a story and tells you to write it.  I took a 90-minute walk while listening to an audiobook of Peter Ackroyd’s biography of Shakespeare, and by the time I came home I had six books plotted and the name of my character.

That happened a number of years ago actually, but I hesitated since I knew that I’d have to give up my SF career to write a six-volume fantasy.  Then I managed to sell Quillifer to one publisher and a continuation of my Praxis SF series to another, so I ended up living in the best of both worlds.

But the main reason I’m working on the series is that I find Quillifer an irresistible character.  I hope readers find him likewise.

JANE: Quillifer (who insists on being called only by his surname) is very much the “charming rogue” type of character.  In this, he’s definitely a first cousin to one of my favorite of your characters – Drake Magistral whose story is told in the three “Divertimenti” novels: The Crown Jewels, House of Shards, and Rock of Ages.

What is the appeal of this sort of character for you?

WALTER: Rogues see through pretense.  Han Solo punctures the solemn nonsense of the Star Wars movies, Flashman exposes the hypocrisies of the Victorian era, Rhett Butler laughs at the South’s code of chivalry, and Loki is the one you watch in the Thor movies.

Rogues tell the truth.  And of course rogues are very charming, which they have to be if they’re going to go around telling the truth all the time.

And one note: Quillifer isn’t Q’s surname, exactly, it’s the only name he’s got.   He doesn’t need another one.

JANE: Thanks for the correction.  I’d missed that!

Although Quillifer is definitely a Fantasy, in many ways it reads like a historical novel.  The world-building – from architecture to commerce to religions and style of dress are all very solidly grounded.  I assume your travels about the world had a definite influence on this.  Is that correct?  Did any specific countries influence this book?  What else did you draw upon?

WALTER: I was aiming to make the world as real as I could, and I did my best to build it brick by brick.  Many of the settings in the novel are based on places I’ve been, though of course they’re all mixed together, so you end up with buildings from Gdansk in a setting from Turkey, and inhabited by people from Dorset.

Once I started doing research I kept finding out absolutely factual stuff that was far more fascinating than anything I could invent.  Turnspit dogs, for example— a now-extinct breed of dog trained to run in oversize hamster wheels, turning the spits before a fire.

And King Arthur’s Court, which is in Gdansk, Poland.  You might have thought that King Arthur had his court in Britain somewhere, but you’d be wrong!  King Arthur’s Court was a high-gothic clubhouse for rich bourgeoisie, who dressed up as knights and held feasts and jousting and other entertainments.  They were cosplaying the Middle Ages in the actual Middle Ages.  I just couldn’t make up something like that.

JANE: I agree!  I knew about turnspit dogs, but not about the cosplaying.  Very cool…

Happily, Quiliifer has its own plot and a very satisfying conclusion.  Earlier, you said you have plans for other novels in the series.  How many can we look for?

WALTER: I’ve contracted for two more, which will appear at approximate two-year intervals, Quillifer the Knight in 2019, and the third in 2021.   If the first three books do well, I’ll write the next three, and take Quillifer from the age of eighteen into old age.

JANE: You mentioned you have other projects you’re working on.  Can you tell us more about these?

WALTER: I’m also working on the Praxis, the Science Fiction Series That Wouldn’t Die.  The publisher tried to put an end to the series after the third book, but couldn’t stop the public from buying them.  All three of the first books have been through many printings, and have never been out of print, and it’s been fifteen years!  So now I have a new editor, and he’s acquired three more.  Right now I’m dealing with the editor’s notes for The Accidental War, which should appear in September of this year.

I’d like to thank my editors Joe Monti and David Pomerico for agreeing to let me alternate books.  Working alternately on Quillifer and the Praxis will keep me from getting stale on either project.

So I’ll be busy for the next several years, and I hope readers will enjoy the books if they can find them, which in these days of collapsing bookstore chains is beginning to be a problem.

JANE: Thanks for taking time out of what sounds like a very busy schedule to chat.  Now I shall release you to go write.  I, for one, will definitely be reading The Accidental War when it comes out.

FF: Holiday Competition

December 15, 2017

I haven’t been able to read – especially print – as much as I like.  When I’m not writing Wolf’s Search or proofing the final stages of Asphodel, I’m writing Christmas cards, wrapping presents, and fantasizing about baking cookies.  (Maybe this weekend…)

The Desert Willow Outside My Office

For those of you just discovering this part of my blog, 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:

Quillifer by Walter Jon Williams.

The Sword of Summer: Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard, Book One by Rick Riordan.  Audiobook.  A re-listen.

In Progress:

The Long Sunset by Jack McDevitt.  Advanced review copy of the April 2018 release.

All the Crooked Saints by Maggie Stiefvater.  Audiobook.

Also:

Not much!

Shining Legacy

December 13, 2017

On Saturday, Jim and I drove up to Santa Fe to have dinner at the invitation of Warren Lapine who, along with Trent Zelazny, co-edited the tribute anthology to Roger Zelazny, Shadows and Reflections.  Jim and I arrived early enough to walk around the plaza and enjoy the glittering lights.  As we were turning to head toward the restaurant, we encountered our dear friends, Steve (S.M.) and Jan Stirling, and learned they were going our way.

The Santa Fe Plaza

Several other contributors to the anthology were part of Warren’s dinner party.  These included  Trent Zelazny, Gerry Hausman (and his wife, Lorry), and Shannon Zelazny.  Rounding out the festive board were Warren’s wife (and frequent partner in things editorial), Angela Kessler, and the aforementioned bonus guests: Steve and Jan Stirling.

We met at the San Francisco Street Bar and Grill, which, in an earlier incarnation, was a place that Roger very much enjoyed, so this seemed like a nicely appropriate setting.

Chat was lively and general, one of those lovely occasions where everyone – even people who hadn’t met before – quickly arrived at the conclusion that we were all friends.

A few words about the Shadows and Reflections anthology, for those of you who are curious.  It includes both fiction and non-fiction.  The introduction by George R.R. Martin is a reprint of a piece he wrote in 2009.  The final piece, by Shannon Zelazny, who was in high school when her father died, is probably my favorite bit in the entire book.  Of all the many biographical remembrances of Roger that I have read, Shannon’s comes closest to capturing the man I knew, loved, and lived with.

There’s also a little known short story by Roger, “There Shall Be No Moon!”

The other fiction draws on a wide variety of Roger’s universes, from the science fiction Isle of the Dead (Steve Brust’s “Playing God”) to the sword and sorcery Jack of Shadows (Lawrence Watt-Evans’ “The Lady of Shadow Guard”).  Gerry Hausman (who co-wrote the novel Wilderness with Roger) contributed “Nights in the Garden of Blue Harbor,” based on a story idea Roger gave him.  One thing that’s nice about the collection is that both Roger’s short and long fiction are represented as sources of inspiration.

My own piece, “The Headless Flute Player” is set in the same universe as Lord Demon, one of the two novels that, at Roger’s request, I completed for him after his death.  It’s a prequel to the novel, and incorporates a few ideas Roger casually mentioned that someday he’d like to use in a story.

Full disclosure.  I haven’t read the entire anthology yet, so I can’t tell you much about the stories.  What I hope is that this anthology inspires readers to go back and read the original works that have inspired such devotion and enthusiasm over twenty years after their author’s death – and in many cases, several decades after they were originally written.

One wonderful thing about Roger’s writing is how well it has held up to the test of time and how it can still stir the heart and imagination.  Not a bad legacy at all…

FF: Not Quite Killing

November 3, 2017

Last week a killing frost was announced.  When Jim and I returned home from Denver and MileHiCon, we discovered that there had been frost, but not quite killing.  And that a rogue pomegranate evaded being picked…

Persephone In Mythic Mode

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:

Fairy Tail, manga, volume 12 by Hiro Mashima.

Another Fine Myth by Robert Asprin. 

Myth Directions by Robert Asprin.

Fer-de-lance by Rex Stout.  Audiobook.  Interesting not only as a story, but to see how the characters of Nero, Archie, Fritz, and Theodore started out before Stout solidified their personalities.

In Progress:

Myth Directions by Robert Asprin.

Down Among the Sticks and Bones by Seanan McGuire.  Audiobook.

 Also:

Much background reading as I ease myself back into the Firekeeper universe after ten years away.

TT: Blendings

October 26, 2017

ALAN: Last time we discussed how Roger developed a meta-style that allowed him to complete a novel that Philip K. Dick had been unable to finish.

A Few More Mixes

I recall that when you were both here in New Zealand, Roger said that he was trying to do something similar in order to complete a novel fragment that Alfred Bester had left behind when he died. This collaboration was eventually published as Psychoshop.

When I read it, I was again impressed by the skill with which Roger blended his and Bester’s voices together. However, I was less than impressed with the novel itself. I felt that Psychoshop was a rather weak novel probably, I suspect, because the fragment that Bester left behind was itself very weak – a shaky foundation on which to build.

JANE: What I remember about that project is that Roger was incredibly excited by the idea of completing something by Bester.  He was a great admirer of Bester’s work, and this was a chance to try to slide into Bester’s style and mindset.  I don’t recall at this point how much of Bester’s work Roger had to go on, but the concept of a store that sells what you need…

Well, interesting as it is, it’s loaded with potential problems from the start.

ALAN: Indeed it is, and of course Bester wasn’t there for Roger to bounce ideas off. That must have made things difficult.

Roger went on to write two novels in collaboration with Fred Saberhagen. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I seem to remember that Fred and Roger were close friends, so of course nothing could be more natural than to write stories together.

Rather like the collaborations with Thomas T. Thomas, they wrote one SF novel (Coils, 1982) and one fantasy novel (The Black Throne, 1990).

JANE: You’re absolutely right.  They were good friends.  Of the two novels they co-wrote, I’m particularly fond of Coils, but I couldn’t recall Roger ever telling me how he and Fred came to write it.  I asked Joan Saberhagen, and she said:

“In 1982, Fred and I were involved in creating computer games through our company Berserker Works Ltd. Seems likely to me that during  one of our social meetings, the guys would start discussing gaming and computers and such.  Can’t remember any specific instances though. Do remember our being up at Roger’s place and trying to talk him into using one of the early Apple computers for writing. Well, I believe, he always preferred his trusted typewriter.” (e-mail, 10-05-2017)

ALAN: Was she right about Roger and computers?

JANE: Oh, absolutely.  Fascinated in the abstract, but he never used one in practice.  Fred always claimed not to trust computers – and that was why he created the Berserkers – but he was definitely computer literate.  Roger would have enjoyed asking him questions, and I’m sure the seed of Coils were planted in that way.

ALAN: I’m mildly surprised at Roger’s lack of computer knowledge. His impressive fix-up novel My Name is Legion makes use of some very sophisticated computer ideas…

Anyway – back to Roger and Fred. How did they come to write The Black Throne?

JANE: What I recall Roger telling me is that The Black Throne began because of the Poe Parties Joan and Fred used to hold.  After a chat with Fred at one such party, Roger wandered off to Fred’s office, borrowed a typewriter, and wrote a rough treatment that they later built on.

Joan recalls something similar: “Yes, that seems quite likely. I was pretty busy being hostess at the parties, but, perhaps because the situation was somewhat unusual,  I do have a vague memory of Roger coming down from Fred’s office when the party was breaking up. Of course, I had no idea why he had been up in the office. I do know that both fellas were avid Poe fans. And, shortly after the Party, work on the book began.” (e-mail 10-05-17)

ALAN: Do you know how they handled the writing process?

JANE: Funny you’d ask that, because I asked Joan the same question.  Here’s what she said:

“As I recall, Fred wrote the first draft, Roger the second. Can’t remember how many passes they went through. I know they both felt the collaboration went exceptionally smoothly. I’m reasonably sure Roger did the final clean-up as to my mind Roger’s beautiful word play is all over that manuscript.“ (e-mail 10-05-17)

ALAN: I find the mechanics of collaboration endlessly fascinating…

Roger also wrote three novels with Robert Sheckley. Sheckley is one of my favourite writers. He wrote some brilliantly funny (and often very odd) stories. And of course I’m a huge fan of Roger’s writing as well. But I must confess that I felt their collaborative novels did neither of them any favours.

JANE: I will admit, they aren’t my favorites either.  I liked If At Faust You Don’t Succeed, but then I have a weakness for Faust stories.  The others were okay, but not really my flavor.

ALAN: The terrible pun in the title put me off the book straight away. And reading the book did nothing to correct that first impression.

Roger also collaborated on a novel with Gerald Hausman. We discussed this in detail as part of another Tangent.

JANE: We definitely did.  Rather than repeating ourselves, if anyone’s curious, they can look here.

ALAN: And finally, Roger collaborated on a short story with Harlan Ellison. This was part of a project that was eventually published as Partners in Wonder, a collection of fourteen short stories, each of which was an Ellisonian collaboration with another writer. Of his collaboration with Roger Zelazny, Ellison has this to say:

“…in a career lifetime of writing violent and frequently loveless fictions, this is one of the few times I feel my work has reached toward gentleness and compassion, and I don’t think I would have been able to do anything even remotely like it, had it not been for Roger.”

And that, I think, speaks volumes about the benefits of collaborative writing.

JANE: I agree… I certainly feel that way about our collaborations.  I enjoy how our chats lead me into areas I never would have gone on my own.

ALAN: That reminds me.  I have a question for you about a different sort of blending.  I’ll save it for next time.

TT: The Sum of the Parts

October 19, 2017

ALAN: Last time I mentioned the symmetrical Thomas T. Thomas who collaborated on a novel with Frederik Pohl. It occurs to me that he also collaborated with Roger Zelazny on a couple of novels, Flare and The Mask of Loki.

Collaboration and Inspiration

Indeed, now that I think about it, Roger actually wrote quite a lot of collaborative novels with a large number of different authors. Shall we talk about these?

JANE: Absolutely!  I believe I’ve read all of them and, now that I consider it, written a couple as well, although those were…  Well, we can get to that later, if we want.

Roger’s collaborative works were mostly novels.  He wrote one with Philip K. Dick, two with Fred Saberhagen, two with Thomas T. Thomas, three with Robert Sheckley, and one with Gerald Hausman.  In addition, he wrote a short story with Harlan Ellison.  Oh!  And he completed a work that Alfred Bester left unfinished.

Where would you like to start?

ALAN: Well, since I’ve already mentioned Thomas T. Thomas, let’s start with him. The two novels he and Roger wrote together are almost at opposite ends of the literary spectrum – Flare is science fiction and The Mask of Loki is fantasy (though with some science fictional elements), which says something about both their talents, I think.

It’s been many years since I read these books, so I’m a little vague about the details. Flare, if I recall correctly, has almost no plot as such. It deals with the effects of a huge solar flare on a disparate group of people – really it’s just a series of vignettes. But I found the technique to be very effective and I remember enjoying the book a lot. The Mask of Loki is a much more traditional fantasy about an eternal battle between the avatars of Loki and Ahriman and outside of that I remember nothing at all about it, so clearly it didn’t make much of an impression on me.

JANE: I haven’t read either in a long while, but I vaguely recall that I preferred The Mask of Loki, because it was more of a story with plot and characters, although I will admit it had few surprises.  Flare was definitely the more ambitious book.

By the way, Flare was meant to be episodic.  I believe the influence was a book by George R. Stewart called Storm, in which the main character is a storm.

Flare had another bonus in that it gave Roger a chance to delve into writing poetry again.  He wrote an entire poetic imitation of Iknaton’s “Hymn to the Son,” small portions of which were used as chapter breaks.  Some years ago, Warren Lapine’s DNA Publications published a chapbook that includes the entire poem, as well as an essay by Roger about his writing.  There’s also an essay by me…

ALAN: How did Roger and Thomas get together? Were they friends? Thomas is a rather obscure writer, so it seems odd that the two of them would collaborate, particularly on more than one book. Do you know anything about the background?

JANE: Oddly enough, you’ve chosen to start with one of the few of Roger’s collaborations that didn’t begin out of Roger having a previous relationship with the author.  Roger had met Thomas T. Thomas before they started writing together, but the collaborations were encouraged by editor Jim Baen.

That said, Roger did enjoy working with Thomas.  (Heh, you can guess if I’m referring to him by his first or last name).  So overall, it was a good experience for him.  Actually, I hope it was for them both.

ALAN: When you and Roger were here in New Zealand, I recall Roger talking about Deus Irae, his collaboration with Philip K. Dick. Apparently Dick had a fragment of a novel that he was stuck on and somehow (I’m not sure how) Roger had been persuaded to complete it. Dick’s title for the novel fragment was The Kneeling Legless Man (which may well explain why he got stuck!). Do you have any idea how Roger got involved in the project?

JANE: That was well before my time, so I can only say that Roger heard – I think from Ted White – that Dick had a novel he couldn’t finish and needed to.  White had been approached, but had not been able to get into the project.

Roger knew Dick and was interested in his work, so he offered to step in.  They worked on the project in a somewhat dilatory fashion until the publisher pressed Dick either for the book or a return of the advance.

ALAN: Roger said that he’d tried very hard to emulate Dick’s writing style and tone of voice. I thought Roger did a marvellous job of chanelling Philip K. Dick. The joins didn’t show at all.

JANE: Actually, what Roger did was more clever than merely emulating Dick’s style.  Let me quote from a letter Roger wrote to me about the process:

“Before I’d started on it, I read or re-read sufficient of his material to teach myself how to mimic his style.  I didn’t do it though, but chose a style between his & mine, a kind of meta Phil Dick style which blended well [with] his own & made the thing come out sounding like something reminiscent of both of us but not exactly like either.” (August 3, 1989)

ALAN: That’s interesting – and you’re right, it’s a much more clever and more subtle approach than I remembered. And there’s another writer whose style Roger adopted (and possibly adapted) in order to complete an unfinished work. Perhaps we can talk about that literary experiment next time?

JANE: Sounds good!

FF: Sitting and Waiting

October 13, 2017

News Flash: Today at 4:30 p.m. on KURU 89.1, GMCR radio, I’ll be doing a half-hour interview. The show is called Use Your Words: Writers Speak.  If you can’t get that station, the interview should be archived, at some point, at http://gmcr.org/category/use-your-words/.

Ogapoge Approves of Greebo

This week I’ve done a lot sitting in waiting rooms, so I’ve also done a lot of reading.

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:

Explosive Eighteen by Janet Evanovich.  Audiobook.  We finally finished this driving back and forth from Santa Fe on Tuesday.  Not the strongest plot – in fact, there was a strong sense of “Oops!  I forgot to tie up that loose end!” but good enough as a distraction on the road.

Wyrd Sisters by Terry Pratchett.  Fun and thoughtful enough that the next book I chose to read was…

Witches Abroad by Terry Pratchett.  New Orleans heavily seasoned with fairytale motifs.

Nine Tailors by Dorothy L. Sayers.  Audiobook.  Re-read.

In Progress:

Death of a Doxy by Rex Stout.  Audiobook.

The Compleat Enchanger by L. Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Pratt.  At MiHiCon at the end of October, I’m on a panel on humor in SF/F and this is an interesting way to prepare.

Also:

Still working on the most recent Smithsonian.  Almost done with the article on Russia.

What’s Good About Stereotypes?

October 11, 2017

These last couple of weeks my pleasure reading has largely centered around rereading some of the works Dorothy L. Sayers and Terry Pratchett.

This Will Make Sense. Honest!

Last Sunday, as I was cutting up apples for an apple/quince pie, it occurred to me that both of these authors get a lot of mileage out of using stereotypes to develop creative three-dimensional characters.

Yep.  You read that right.

I know, this seems a complete contradiction.  One of the worst things critics can say about a book is that the characters are stereotypes.  Yet both Sayers and Pratchett are repeatedly praised for their thoughtful and well-developed characters.  How can they be both?

What exactly is a stereotype?  Well, to oversimplify, a stereotype is when something – I’m talking about characters in this Wandering, but this can apply to plots or settings or nationalities and many other things – is oversimplified down to a few highly recognizable details.  The thing is, the reason stereotypes work is that there’s usually a grain of truth at the heart of them.

The first time I attended an archeological conference with Jim, I was bemused to find my weathered, long-haired, bearded husband fit in very well in the company of his tribe.  The fact is,  many male archeologist do wear their hair longer and are often bearded.  Why?  More hair protects the neck and face from exposure.  Also, if you’re living somewhere without running water, shaving is a real nuisance.  Weathered skin comes with working outdoors in all sorts of conditions.  Sunblock can only do so much.

I can already hear the “buts…”  Hold onto them.  I’m getting there.

Stereotypes certainly have a negative side.  However, the negative reaction to stereotypes has become more pronounced in recent years both as a very justifiable reaction to profiling and a cultural obsession with individuality.   The reality is that, not so long ago, people delighted in wearing the badge of their particular tribe.  And, no, I’m not talking about the traditional peasant dress of European cultures or Native American tribes.  When I was in college, the “preppie” look was all the rage.  Before that there were hippies, beatniks, and red necks.  These days we have Goths and so on…

I’m sure you can think of others.

The trick with using stereotypes effectively is knowing when and how to give the stereotype the twist that turns the character into a three-dimensional person.  An added bonus is the fun that comes when the stereotype acts out of type – or when another character judges the supposedly stereotypical character on appearances alone.

Remember I said I’d come back to your “buts”?  There are always exceptions to the stereotype – so much so that the phrasing for reacting to such has become standard in and of  itself.   “I never would have imagined you were a…” Fill in the blank: librarian, soldier, police officer, kindergarten teacher.  Or, by contrast, “He was so typically a fill in the blank that it was a surprise to find out that he fill in the blank.”

Terry Pratchett so often uses stereotypes as the building blocks of both his characters and plots that I could write an entire book on how cleverly he subverts, inverts, and probably even coverts expectations.  I’ll restrain myself to just one example here.

The classic “Mother, Maiden, Crone” triad is at the heart of his three original witch characters: Granny Weatherwax, Nanny Ogg, and Magrat Garlick.  However, right from the start he starts playing with the stereotypes.

Granny Weatherwax is not just the wisest because she’s the oldest – the crone (though never call her that to her face, not if you want to keep on having a face).  She’s the wisest because she’s what you might call an intellectual witch with a specialization in “headology.”

Nanny is definitely a mother…  In all senses of the word.   She’s matriarch of an impossibly large clan, deliverer of numerous babies, and definitely an “earth” mother type.  In fact, the word “earthy” was probably invented for hard-drinking, gluttonous, highly sexual Nanny.

Margrat is the modern witch.  Let her speak for herself:

“Witches just aren’t like that… We live in harmony with the great cycles of Nature, and don’t do no harm to anyone, and it’s wicked to say we don’t.”

The next line is the kicker that swerves the stereotype around into reality:

“We ought to fill their bones with lead.”  (Wyrd Sisters)

Dorothy Sayers often carries her use of stereotypes  as far as giving her characters names that reflect some aspect of their character – although even there, she’s often being sly.  Lord Peter Wimsey is thought by most who meet him to be the stereotypical British peer: idle, drawling, “a bit of an ass.”  Even his family motto “As my Whimsy takes me” seems to support this view.

But Sayers swerves this hard to one side because it turns out that where Peter’s whimsy takes him is in on unflinching quest for discovering the truth.  Those who judge him on stereotypical surface traits are in for a shock.  Is the rest a lie or pose?  Not at all.  It’s just another part of a complex human being.

I could go on at greater length, but I shall restrain myself.  After all, I might fall into the stereotype of the author, former professor of English, who cannot restrain herself from pedantic exposition.  Instead I’ll go off and paint a horse…

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!