Archive for the ‘Thursday Tangents’ Category

TT: Typing the Stereo

December 7, 2017

JANE: Last week you teased me with the promise of a tale about something that happened to you at a party many years ago.  Ready to tell?

Ursula Vernon: Stereotypical Writer?

ALAN: Yes indeed. A group of us were gathered together chatting. After a while it dawned on us that:

  1. We were all men
  2.  We were standing in the kitchen
  3.  We were swapping recipes

We discussed this for a time, and the only logical conclusion we could reach was that clearly all the women must be in the lounge watching rugby on the television. No other explanation was possible.

This story still makes me smile because really it’s a joke about stereotypes, and I enjoy the irony.

JANE: When did this happen?

ALAN: Probably about thirty years ago.

JANE: So, roughly 1987.  Hmm…  Yeah.  That would still have been a time when women watching rugby (or here American football) and men discussing recipes would have been a violation of the stereotypes.

I think that – at least here – the situation has changed.  Among my male writer friends, many are excellent cooks.  Steve (S.M.) Stirling makes wonderful bread and ebullient salads.  Walter Jon Williams is a gourmet chef.  When time permits, David Weber does much of his family’s cooking.  George R.R. Martin and I once competed over who makes the best meatloaf.  And so on…  No one would find it all odd to find the men in the kitchen and the women not.

That’s one of the things that’s fascinating about stereotypes – how they change over the course of time.

ALAN: But that change, while it is a very real thing, is not always accepted by some groups, sometimes to the extent that invocations of the stereotype can start to seem eccentric or perhaps even offensive.

For example, I get quite irritated when Mother’s Day rolls around and the television is overwhelmed with adverts for kitchen gifts. And on Father’s Day we get wall to wall adverts for power tools. Advertisers seem to be locked in to models of society (and gender behaviour) that haven’t been true for a generation or more – if indeed they were ever completely true in the first place.

It seems to me that sometimes the movers and shakers are quite blind to what is going on all around them.

JANE: Too true!  I like to tease Jim about those Father’s Day ads, ask him if he needs beer can cozies or a new item of grilling paraphernalia.  For some reason he always turns me down.

ALAN: But what about our own areas of expertise? I spent my working life playing with computers, a field that is rife with stereotypical assumptions. You have been closely involved with writers and writing. Let’s start with you. Are there any stereotypes about writers?

JANE: There absolutely are.

Many years ago, a common author photo featured the author either holding or smoking a pipe, with a dog sitting nearby.  Roger told me about an author – I wish I could remember who – who posed for his photo with the dog “smoking” the pipe.

That wouldn’t be as funny without the stereotype.

ALAN: Are there any special expectations for women writers?

JANE: Cats and tea…  As a devoted black coffee drinker, I sometimes feel ostracized.  (Not really.)  At least I have the cats.

I had an odd insight into wardrobe expectations for authors when Ursula Vernon – author of many books, including Castle Hangnail, as well as the “Hamster Princess” and “Dragonbreath” series – was here for Bubonicon.   I complimented her on a top she was wearing.  She said that it was part of her “kid’s book author wardrobe.”  I asked her what she meant and she explained that authors of books for kids are assigned uniforms.  In her case this meant:

“Flowing batik and large chunky necklaces. Colorful scarves. Teachers and organizers usually expect that a children’s book author looks like a well-heeled hippie or a high school art teacher.”

ALAN: Even the men?

JANE: Let me ask her.  Hang on…

Ursula said: “Male children’s book authors are allowed to dress like all other authors–i.e. sport coat over jeans.”

ALAN: That’s a relief.

JANE: There’s an interesting reason why Ursula Vernon adopted the “well-heeled hippie” look.   Apparently, her mother, whom she strongly resembles, already was using the high school art teacher wardrobe, so it was go hippie or be taken for her mom.

So, you see, authors do face stereotypes in many areas.

ALAN: And don’t forget that you have to starve in a garret…

JANE: That last isn’t as funny as it may sound.  I’ve known many an author who has refused to learn how to manage money or live on a budget – or even do something as sensible as learn how to understand a contract before signing it.  “Real” authors are supposed to be above such mundane considerations.

Stereotypes can be very damaging when they give people the excuse to be dumb.

ALAN: There’s a stereotype about the readers of blogs that says the audience won’t read anything longer than 800 words.  Since we’ve already exceeded that, perhaps I should talk about stereotypical computer people next time?


TT: Cooking Disasters!

November 30, 2017

JANE: We’ve been cheerfully chattering about cooking for several weeks now.  Your mention last week of your friend Ian and his companion stew, Albert, reminded me that we haven’t discussed a very important aspect of cooking…

When It All Goes Bad!

That is those times when Things Go Wrong.  By this, I don’t mean the sort of routine problems every cook has to deal with – a kettle boiling over or something burning – but those mishaps that you remember long after they’re over.

ALAN: There used to be a TV cooking show called Floyd on Food which I enjoyed watching. One day the host, Keith Floyd, cooked some dish or other and the programme closed with him and his guests noshing away on the result. The next programme opened with him saying what a failure the dish had been and how horrible it tasted and weren’t his guests nice and polite to put on such a brave face as they ate it. He explained all the things he’d done wrong, and then he cooked it again, properly this time! I admired his bravery. We’ve all had dishes that failed, but very few of us have failed in front of a worldwide audience of umpteen million people…

JANE: That’s a great story!  Here’s one of mine.

Many years ago, my mom decided we were going to learn to make donuts.  This went very well.  We made cake donuts and fluffy yeast donuts and even filled donuts.  In fact, our excursion into making donuts went so well that, sometime later, my sister Ann and I decided we’d make donuts without Mom’s supervision.

Because we’d liked the filled donuts, we decided on these.  I’m not sure what we did wrong but instead of magically puffing out after being dunked in the hot oil, our jelly donuts sunk to the bottom and lurked there. We fished them out and set them to drain.  Then, because they smelled good, we dusted them with powdered sugar and tried them.

They weren’t bad, so we dubbed them “Strangelings,”because they certainly weren’t donuts. They were small, so we ate quite a few of them.  This then led to a sugar rush of cosmic proportions.  I still remember feeling slightly out-of-body.

Your turn!

ALAN: The choice of ingredients has a lot to do with the success or failure of a dish. After I left university and got my first job I was, to put it mildly, very poor. I chose the food I bought purely on the basis of price. One day the supermarket was selling something called pig melts and the price was so low that they were practically paying me to take it away! I had no idea what a melt was, but the price was right.

I had a melt for tea that evening. Never have I experienced anything quite so foul. My teeth rebounded off the rubbery meat and an indescribable nastiness filled the whole of my head. Pig melts failed both the taste and texture tests, and I threw the whole lot away.

After a lot of research, I finally tracked melts down in (I think) Larousse Gastronomique. A melt is a spleen… I have no idea what function a spleen performs in a body. But whatever it spends its day doing definitely leaves a nasty aftertaste.

JANE: Urrgh…

Not all cooking disasters come from ingredients or cooking techniques.  Sometimes familiarity breeds disaster.

A dish I make regularly is a version of nasi goreng.  The recipe came to me via Kathy, one of my college roommates,  who had it in turn via her best friend from high school whose family was, if I remember correctly, from India.  Over time, I discovered that not only does this version of nasi goreng make a good meal, it both freezes well and travels well.  That means it’s a natural both for making meals in advance, and for bringing to potluck dinners.

One time when I was going to take some to a potluck, I looked at my recipe and worried there wouldn’t be enough, so I decided to double it.  I set it to cook.  The rice absorbed broth and expanded, and I suddenly realized that my Dutch oven (which holds five quarts) wasn’t going to be large enough.

Happily, I have a truly enormous soup kettle that was Jim’s grandmother’s.  I managed to transfer the whole bubbling mass over.  I then added a note to my recipe saying “Do NOT double!  Already doubled.”

Later, after I made nasi goreng for a dinner party at my own home and it was a hit, someone asked if she could copy the recipe.  She started giggling madly when she saw my note.

What other sorts of cooking disasters have you had?

ALAN: Sometimes even when the dish is perfect, the social situation can deteriorate rapidly if you serve it thoughtlessly… I rather enjoy both rabbit meat and venison and, on the grounds that what people don’t know won’t hurt them, I have sometimes served these at dinner parties, usually with great success. But I learned the hard way that when someone asks you what the yummy meat is, it is counterproductive to say “Fluffy bunny” or “Bambi”. The atmosphere grows chill, people aren’t hungry anymore and they sometimes leave early. So these days I’m much more literal.

JANE: As in what?  Saying venison and rabbit?  Or more general “game.”

ALAN: Rabbit and venison, though I have been known to say cervena instead of venison when I’m feeling pompous. I like to be specific.

JANE: My mother never hid what we were eating behind fancy names.  We didn’t eat “escargot,” we ate “snails.”  We didn’t eat “calamari,” we ate squid.  However, despite this, I’ll admit finding it off-putting when my great-uncle proudly declared we’d be eating “Moo-Cow” – the pet calf we’d met and patted earlier that summer.

ALAN: Shades of Alice Through the Looking Glass when the Red Queen refused to let Alice carve the leg of mutton she’d just been introduced to.

You know, our discussion about cooking has reminded me of something that happened to me at a party many years ago. How about I tell you about it next time?

TT: Favouring Curry

November 23, 2017

Alan and I would both like to wish you all a Happy Thanksgiving…  Now, a discussion that may inspire you (as it already has Jim) as to a way to deal with your leftover turkey!

A Few Curries

JANE: Last time you promised to tell me about Terry Pratchett’s Jingo curries which were described as “Containing yellow curry powder, big lumps of swede, green peas, and soggy sultanas the… size of eggs.”

ALAN: So I did… But in order to do so, I’m going to need to give you some history about curry.

JANE: That’s great!  I know nothing about curry, except that I like it.

ALAN: Curry powder was invented by an anonymous employee of the East India Company sometime around 1747 (that’s when it was first advertised for sale). I imagine that it was designed to make the cooking of curries less complex for the average English cook who often found the idea of selecting a range of spices for adding different flavours to their dishes to be rather frightening. Many of the cheaper curry powders contained an over-abundance of turmeric and were therefore very yellow in appearance. If you didn’t like the taste of final dish that you cooked with it, you could use the meal to dye your underpants and socks a fetching shade of yellow instead. Very economical.

JANE: Indeed!  And now that turmeric is being touted as a health food, you could add medicinal value to your list of reasons for using yellow curry powder.

As a small aside, I’d say most American cooks also start with pre-blended yellow curry powder which is what you’d find in most grocery stores.  Specialty stores will carry other types.  Jim and I bought a book that contains recipes for various curry powders, and sometimes we blend our own.

But back to your discussion of British curry.   I can sense something ominous building.  Go on…

ALAN: The British took to curry powder with great enthusiasm and invented kedgeree and mulligatawny soup, both of which can actually be quite nice when properly prepared (though I make my kedgeree without eggs, for obvious reasons). But they also invented the dreaded British curry…

JANE: Oops…  I don’t know what kedgeree or mulligatawny soup are.  Remind me to ask you.

ALAN: There’s no time like the present – kedgeree consists of boiled rice cooked with curry powder. Flakes of fish (generally haddock and often smoked) which has been cooked in milk and hard boiled eggs are stirred in to the cooked rice. If you are feeling adventurous, you might sprinkle it with parsley. Kedgeree is only ever eaten at breakfast time.

JANE: Urrgh…  I’ve never been a fan of sweet breakfast foods, but maybe this tastes better than it sounds.  Do you like it?

ALAN: Yes I do – as long as it doesn’t have eggs, of course. Kedgeree is really a sort of risotto or biryani, so it’s quite a respectable dish with an impeccable pedigree. I have no idea why the British restrict its consumption to breakfast. I’d happily eat it at any meal.

JANE: Very well!  If I’m given the opportunity, I will try it!  Now, how about the soup with the long name?

ALAN: Mulligatawny soup is made by frying onions, garlic, carrot and celery in butter. When the vegetables are softened, add pieces of apple and a couple of teaspoons of curry powder. Stir, add stock, tomato puree and mango chutney. Simmer until the veges are cooked. Stir in a cup of cup cooked rice. Serve with a dollop of yoghurt or cream. If you aren’t a purist, you might want to add some cooked chicken.

JANE: This sounds better.  I might look up a recipe, and try it sometime.

ALAN: Now, getting back to curry… I don’t know how it happened, but generations of British housewives, none of whom had ever seen or tasted an authentic curry, somehow got it into their heads that all you had to do to make a curry was toss some curry powder into a stew and then boil it to bits.

And the stew had to have sultanas in it. The more the merrier. Presumably that made the dish more exotic (it certainly made the thing sweeter). Such a “curry” was a staple of school lunches and suburban dinner tables, probably until the late 1950s when Indian restaurants started to flourish and the British finally found out what a real curry tasted like and realised that they’d been doing it wrong for two hundred years.

JANE: Ah-hah!  Now I understand what sort of curry Pratchett was alluding to in Jingo.  I must ask, although I fear I will find the answer unsettling…  When you say “stew,” what do you mean?  To me (and I’d hazard to most Americans) a stew is usually built around chunks of beef, potatoes, carrots, onions.  This is slowly cooked until there’s a nice brown gravy, the meat is tender but has not cooked to shreds, nor have the vegetables become mush.

Did they add curry powder and sultanas to this?

ALAN: In a word, yes. In two words, yes but…

The stew you describe is an ideal stew and, properly prepared, is a gastronomic delight. British versions are often less than ideal and, particularly when prepared by indifferent cooks, are thin and watery. The mystery meat in them is generally tough and gristly, particularly when mass produced for serving to institutional hordes such as schoolchildren or prisoners. Curry powder and sultanas can only be an improvement to such a dish.

JANE: I agree!

ALAN: But not all British stews are necessarily bad. My friend Ian lived with a stew called Albert. Albert sat in a large pot on the back of the stove and grumbled away to himself day and night on a very low heat. When Ian was hungry he’d eat a bowl of Albert. When Albert started to get a bit low in the pot, Ian would throw in whatever was selling cheaply in the market and Albert would slowly assimilate it. He was one of the tastiest stews I’ve ever eaten. Adding curry powder to Albert would have been an insult.

JANE: Ian clearly knew what to feed Albert to maintain his health.

ALAN: Indeed he did.

Ian too was a curry fan and in 1976 he gave me The Complete Book of Curries by Harvey Day as a housewarming present. At the time, it was the definitive curry book, and had been since the mid-1960s. It has now been somewhat superseded by Madhur Jaffrey’s books and unfortunately it appears to have gone out of print. I think that’s a shame.

JANE: Thanks for the titles!

There’s an ominous aspect to cooking we haven’t addressed, but I’ll save asking you about it for next time.

TT: Jane Bakes, Roasts, and…

November 16, 2017

ALAN: So tell me about the things you like to cook.

JANE: Oh, heavens!  As I said last week, I’ve been cooking since I was a small child.  Listing what sort of things I don’t cook would be easier than what I do.  Let’s see.  I don’t really like sweet entrees.  So if I cook yams, they won’t be doused in marshmallows.  If I make a ham, no pineapple rings and brown sugar glaze.  You get the picture…

Home Baked Apple Cake

ALAN: But, wait.  From other discussions, I’ve gathered you like to make baked goods.  How does that fit in with your distaste for sweets?

JANE: Easily.  Even though I’m not excited by sweet entrees, I do like a well-made cookie, pie, or cake.  The emphasis is on “well-made.”  I can easily pass by most cakes, for example, although if my sister, Ann, is doing the baking, all bets are off.  She is pure magic with cakes.  I’m more likely to make cookies, brownies, or pies.

When I make fruit pies, I incline toward slightly tart fillings.  I bought some quinces when Jim and I visited Silver City some weeks ago and combined them with Granny Smith apples for the best apple pie I’ve ever made.

ALAN: I prefer the tart tastes as well. There’s a pun in there somewhere since the word tart has at least three quite different meanings, one of which is slightly rude. But let’s not go there…

JANE: Hmm…  The tart tasted a tart tart?  Sounds like a piece of flash fiction.  But lest I tangent from our tangent…

Encouraging my liking for baking is that I seem to get into relationships with men who like sweets.  Roger was known to order more than one dessert – and this after having a milkshake with his meal.  Jim definitely has a sweet tooth, but over the years he has moderated his consumption.  Therefore, if I’m in the mood to bake, I usually do so when we’re expecting guests.

Oh!  And when I have a local book signing, if the venue will permit me to do so, I’ll often bring home-baked cookies or brownies.

ALAN: A friend of mine has a very sweet tooth. Once, as a special treat for his birthday, his wife took him to a restaurant where she bought him sticky chocolate pudding for starters, then he had a normal main course followed by sticky chocolate pudding again for dessert. He remembers that birthday very fondly, but he’s never been allowed to repeat the experience.

I must confess that I quite fail to understand why he enjoyed it so much – I seldom order desserts in restaurants. So because I’m really not very interested in eating the end result, I don’t do baking. It all seems a little pointless to me.

JANE: That’s a pity, really, because your kitchen chemistry would get a workout when baking.  When my mom taught us to bake, she cautioned us to be very careful with measuring the leavening agent (baking soda or baking powder or sometimes both) because that had to be precise in relation to the other ingredients.  To this day, when I alter a recipe that involves leavening, I’m very careful to keep that in mind.

Is there anything else you don’t make?

ALAN: Well, because of my egg intolerance I have absolutely no idea how to boil, poach, fry or scramble an egg. And I’ve never made an omelet in my life.

JANE: Well, that still leaves a lot.  What’s your favorite type of dish to build a menu around?

ALAN: My meals generally consist of stews of one sort or another – or at least, dishes that depend on gravies or sauces of some kind. I also use a lot of herbs and spices to vary the flavours.

My chronic hay fever has almost destroyed my sense of smell and as a result of that my sense of taste is now much duller than it used to be. Foods which I remember as having an overwhelming taste in my childhood now barely register at all on my taste buds. Celery is a particularly good example. I simply couldn’t eat it when I was young because the taste was so powerful, but now I find the taste quite mild…

So I tend to cook a lot of curries.

JANE: What sort of curries?  Green?  Yellow?  Red?  Chinese style?  Thai?  Indian?

ALAN: Oh, Indian, of course. In my opinion, other types of curry are just a pale imitation of the real thing. After all, Indian curries are the British national dish. The recipe for Chicken Tikka Masala was developed in Glasgow, and many people claim that the Balti style of cooking curries was actually invented in Birmingham! The movie Victoria & Abdul suggests that Queen Victoria’s friendship with the young Indian Abdul Karim was what made curry fashionable in the first place…

JANE: What’s a Balti style curry?

ALAN: Most Indian curries are rather stew-like, and the long, slow simmering contributes greatly to the flavour. Balti curries are cooked quickly, rather like a stir fry, with the minimum of simmering, just enough to ensure that the meat (generally chicken) is cooked all the way through.

JANE:  Both sound great.  Are the curries you cook anything like the ones described in Terry Pratchett’s Jingo?

Let’s see, they’re described as “Containing yellow curry powder, big lumps of swede, green peas, and soggy sultanas the… size of eggs.”

I believe a sultana is what we’d call a golden raisin, but what’s a swede?

ALAN: That’s two questions – the question about the identity of a swede is quite easy to answer. A swede, believe it or not, is the bastard offspring of a turnip and a cabbage. It’s rather yellow (unlike turnips which are white). Some people call a swede a neep, others call it a rutabaga.

JANE: Urrgh…

ALAN: But the question about the curries in Jingo is far too complex to answer without going off on a tangent, so I think we should talk about it next time. For the moment, let’s just say that my curries are nothing at all like those described in Jingo.

JANE: Whew!  That really didn’t sound very appetizing.

TT: Hot Stuff!

November 9, 2017

ALAN: Last time you promised to tell me how you learned to cook.

JANE: Unlike you and Jim, who had to learn to cook when you were adults, I learned to cook when I was a kid – all of us did, including my brother, so this wasn’t part of preparing a girl to function as a future wife and mother.

Well Used but Very Useful

To be completely honest, both my parents enjoyed cooking, so cooking was a routine part of life.

ALAN: Last time I mentioned that I learned to cook by reading recipe books and following them step by step, using practical skills that I’d picked up from my studies of chemistry.  But I would imagine that your learning experience was quite different from mine.

JANE: Not as different as you might imagine.  Mom taught us a lot of the basics, but she was determined to have us learn how to follow recipes.  I remember a slim cookbook of recipes for kids that we used.

ALAN: What sort of recipes did this include?

JANE: It’s been a long, long time, but I still remember two.  One was for cinnamon toast, and the other was for hotdogs stuffed with cheese.  Both of these involved multiple steps, as well as using the broiler setting on the oven, so they were real cooking.

Later on, my sister and I learned to make cookies and such.  We also made candy and donuts.  I can’t remember if my brother got into this, beyond the eating part.

ALAN: That’s the best part… Were you expected to help with preparing family meals as well?

JANE: Absolutely.  Each of us started with basics like making the salad, then graduated to more complicated things.  My mom wanted to go back to work and school when she had us all in school full-time, and she started planning in advance to make it possible for us to prepare some of the meals.

The first step was basic spaghetti and meat balls.  She would make the sauce in advance, but we’d make the meatballs ourselves.  This meant seasoning the meat, shaping it, browning the meatballs to the sauce, cooking the pasta, making a salad and having everything ready on time.

It says something about my mom that she thought of this as a “simple and easy” cooking job, since she’d already made the sauce (from scratch, of course).

ALAN: You said “first step.”  What about the second and subsequent steps? What were some of the other meals you learned to make?

JANE: Mom’s idea was that she would teach each of us three older kids to cook one meal.  That way, we could cover three nights if she couldn’t be home.

I was assigned pot roast.

ALAN: I use a crockpot to cook pot roasts. They take about 7 hours but boy are they yummy.

JANE: Honestly, I hate pot roast.  I like my meat at least medium rare and with texture.  Apparently, I made a great pot roast, but I always wanted to pull my share of the meat out early, before it got “ruined.”

My sister, Ann, was assigned chicken pot pie.

ALAN: I just went and looked that up because I wasn’t familiar with the term “pot pie.” I’d just call it a chicken pie… Did you make the pastry from scratch?

JANE: A while back we discussed how Brits think of pie as a savory, Americans as a sweet.  I’d guess the varied terms reflect that.

To answer your questions, yep!  Pie crust from scratch.  My mom’s idea of basic, easy cooking for kids did not involve pre-made short cuts.  But you need to understand, all of this was going on in the context of us already knowing a lot about cooking.  I made my first roast by myself when I was seven.

ALAN: A proper roast as opposed to a pot roast? At only seven years old? I’m impressed, particularly if you did all the trimmings as well.

JANE: Yep, I did.  My uncle was in town on business and my mom had invited him to dinner.  Then she twisted her ankle and needed to lie down with it elevated.  So I was directed to cook dinner.  I still remember trotting up and down the stairs to Mom’s room, to get each stage of the directions for seasoning, preparing the potatoes, and all the rest.

I liked that dinner!  Roast beef has rare parts.

ALAN: I regard roasts as simply an excuse to make lots of stock (I never buy stock, I always make my own) so I tend only to cook them when my stock of stock runs low. So to speak…

JANE: Ouch…  I make my own stock, too, and soups.   No matter how demanding her expectations were, I think Mom did things right.  All four of her kids enjoy cooking – including my brother, who is quite a good cook.  Jim and I have gone out of our way to learn a bunch of Mom’s recipes, including my great-grandmother’s spaghetti sauce, two kinds of sausage, ravioli, stuffed squid, clam and lobster sauce, and green tomato relish (my grandmother’s recipe).  And whenever we get together, we always end up cooking – sometimes traditional stuff, sometimes experiments.

ALAN: What about styles of cooking? What kind of things do you like to cook? Are there any dishes that you won’t touch with a bargepole?

JANE: Oh…  That could get complicated.  How about we leave it for next time?

TT: Men in the Kitchen

November 2, 2017

ALAN: The other night Robin said that one of the reasons she stays with me is because I feed her. I pointed out that feeding her was merely a side effect of feeding me, and she had to admit the justice of that statement. As I’ve proved times without number, when she’s away visiting her mum, I still cook tasty meals for myself. It just so happens that when she’s here, she can share them with me.

Let’s Get Cooking!

JANE: Robin’s comment is interesting.  I’ve been known to say that one of the advantages of being married to Jim is that he can cook.  Now, mind you, I can cook and I enjoy cooking, but I also enjoy living with someone who can and will take over.

ALAN: I am continually surprised by the number of people I know who can’t cook for themselves. I know far too many people who appear to live on nothing but microwave meals and takeaways. Personally speaking, I can imagine nothing worse.

JANE: So how did you learn to cook?  Especially for a man of your generation, cooking isn’t a usual skill.

ALAN: That’s an interesting question. Certainly I didn’t learn as I was growing up. My mum was a traditional English cook who started boiling the vegetables round about the time she put the roast in the oven. Her meals were bland and soggy – typical English fare of that era. She guarded her kitchen fiercely and wouldn’t allow me anywhere near it, so I got no cooking practice at all as a child.

But when I left home and was thrown on my own resources, I had to sink or swim. Cook or starve. Or eat takeaways…

JANE: Jim also didn’t learn to cook from his mother.  He started cooking when he was in college, and then continued after.  I suspect that the fact that he wanted to eat healthy played a part in his acquiring the skill.

Nonetheless, because he was a bachelor when I met him, apparently some of his friends assumed he couldn’t cook.  I recall one woman saying that she hosted regular potlucks (to which Jim was asked to bring salsa or something else he could pick up pre-made) because “This way I can be sure the Jim and Chip get at least one decent meal every week.”

I was quite startled because she had known Jim for ages, but never had gotten beyond this sexist stereotype.

ALAN: Yes, I’ve come across that attitude as well. It seems to be quite common.

JANE: In fact, even now that more men routinely cook, Jim and I still encounter such stereotypes.  We like to grill, and Jim has become very good at it.  However, he never gets the praise he deserves because – at least here in the U.S. – grilling is considered “man cooking.”

What makes us both laugh is that I was the one who taught him how to grill.  He really had no idea how to handle the finer points.

But I went off on a tangent, didn’t I?  Sorry.  You said you didn’t learn to cook from your mother.  How did you learn to cook?  Who were your teachers?

ALAN: Well, as you know, I studied chemistry at university. So I’ve always been very comfortable with the idea of mixing stuff together and applying heat to make interesting things happen. It’s what you do in chemistry labs and it’s what you do in kitchens – in both places you concentrate on making bangs, smells and pretty colours. Hopefully not too many bangs though…

So I just bought recipe books and followed the instructions. What could possibly go wrong?

JANE: Oh, dear…  I can think of lots of things!

ALAN: I may have phrased what I said flippantly, but I really did mean it seriously – the techniques of the laboratory work very well in the kitchen. And vice-versa of course.

To begin with I followed the recipes in my books religiously, but as I got more experienced I relaxed a bit. I digressed and substituted ingredients, experimenting with this and that, learning what things went well together and what things didn’t. So my cookery is largely self-taught. However most people seem to enjoy eating the food I prepare, so perhaps I’m a good teacher…

JANE: What made you decide to start cooking in the first place?

ALAN: Partly the fact that I enjoy eating tasty food, and partly a vague desire to eat healthily. But the main motivation was economic. It’s very expensive to live on takeaways, and it’s comparatively cheap to cook for yourself using fresh ingredients. For example, last night I cooked a large curry which will provide Robin and me with three substantial and tasty meals. The ingredients cost about $25 in total so each meal works out to approximately $4 per person. I don’t think you could get a takeaway meal for that price.

JANE: I agree!

ALAN: But what about you? How did you gain your culinary skills?

JANE: Ah…  There hangs a tale.  How about I tell it next time?

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!

TT: Let’s Do It Together!

October 5, 2017

JANE: Last week, when we started talking about collaborations, proper and improper, you said you could think of dozens of collaborations in SF without even trying very hard.

Hauling the Book Along

All right, I’ll give you a harder challenge.   Can you find an example of an author who has done both what you would consider proper and  improper collaborations?

ALAN: Oh that’s easy! Just look at the many writers that Arthur C. Clarke “collaborated” with over the years. Many, but by no means all, of these collaborations are the usual marketing exercises where Clarke contributed nothing but the basic idea and then left his collaborator alone to make of it what he would.

When the collaborator was a genuinely skillful writer, the result is best considered as a reasonably good stand-alone novel by that writer, so to that extent they can be regarded as successful. But when the collaborator was less skilled, the result was generally dire.

For example, I refuse to admit that that Clarke’s standalone novel Rendezvous With Rama had any sequels…

JANE: As much as I wanted to find out more about Rama, I agree.  The sequels didn’t have the same sense of wonder and mystery.

Since we’re not admitting those “improper” collaborations exist, it seems unfair to blame Clarke for doing such without another example.  Can you provide at least one?

ALAN: Yes, and I have documentary evidence for it. In an Afterword to Richter-10 as by Arthur C. Clarke and Mike McQuay, Clarke remarks that:

“…this is the first time that I have given an idea to another author to develop entirely as he wished. But it may not be the last: I’ve discovered that this gives me all the fun of creation—but none of the lonely hours slaving away at the keyboard.”

So clearly we need to look at his dual bylines with a degree of scepticism.

JANE: Indeed we do.  Simply supplying a seed idea is not a collaboration!

Before I become too dismayed by this tendency in an author who still provides the “C” in the “ABC’s” of SF, can you supply an example of Clarke doing a proper collaboration?

ALAN: I think I can.  I might be on slightly shaky ground here, but I suspect that the novels he wrote with Stephen Baxter were genuine collaborations.  After all, Baxter and Clarke were friends. Also, the Afterword to their novel The Light Of Other Days talks about the thinking behind the story and the authors consistently refer to themselves in the first person plural.

At one point they remark that “Any errors or omissions are, of course, our responsibility.”  So it does look like they were both involved.

Furthermore I’m sure that there are Clarkean stylistic flourishes all through the four books that they co-authored.

JANE: Can you provide examples?

ALAN: Yes – but you might disagree with me. After all, style is a very subjective thing. But it seems to me that these words, again from The Light of Other Days, are pure Arthur C. Clarke:

“Fingers of green and blue pushed into the new deserts of Asia and the North American Midwest. Artificial reefs glimmered in the Caribbean, pale blue against the deeper ocean. Great wispy machines labored over the poles to repair the atmosphere. The air was clear as glass, for now mankind drew its energy from the core of Earth itself.”

JANE: Ooh…  That’s nice.  I agree.  Either Clarke or Baxter doing his best imitation – which is part of quality collaboration.

ALAN: A completely unambiguous example of a proper Clarke collaboration is his final novel, The Last Theorem. This was completed by Frederik Pohl when Clarke finally admitted that he himself was too old and too frail to finish it. In his blog, Pohl was at pains to point out just how closely Clarke was involved in the writing process. At one point he says:

“There was no doubt in my mind that I wanted to do the book, but I looked forward to Arthur’s notes. When they arrived, they amounted to around a hundred pages of notes and drafts, some sketchy, some quite completely fleshed out.”

And then later on he remarks that:

“Arthur promised to go over every page as I wrote it and to make comments as useful as he could generate.”

The whole blog post about the writing of the novel makes fascinating reading. You can see it here.

So clearly Pohl considered the novel to be a genuine collaboration, and he should know because he was one half of probably the very best SF collaboration of all time

JANE: Should we talk about Fred Pohl as a collaborator next?

ALAN: It’s certainly something he was really good at. There was a time when he appeared to be collaborating with pretty much everyone in sight! Perhaps it was something in the water.

Let’s collaborate on that topic next time.


TT: One Plus One Makes More?

September 28, 2017

ALAN: A lot of people have been posting their thoughts about the recent death of Jerry Pournelle. A common theme that runs through the comments is the suggestion that he will be remembered more for his collaborations with Larry Niven than he will for the stories that he published under his own name. There’s probably some truth in that – several of the Niven/Pournelle collaborations are generally regarded as classics of the genre.

Working (on naps) Together

JANE: Certainly the two Pournelle novels I recall reading – A Mote in God’s Eye and Lucifer’s Hammer – were both collaborations with Larry Niven.  I can’t remember if I actually read Footfall, but I heard a lot about it.

ALAN: I enjoyed those – but my very favourite of their collaborations was Inferno. Such a clever, subtle and funny book.

Collaborations seem to be very common in the SF world. Without even thinking about it, I’m sure I could reel off a dozen or more famous collaborations. And if I put my thinking cap on I could probably come up with at least a dozen more.

But I’d be hard-pressed to name many collaborations in other genres or in the mainstream of literature.

I wonder how collaborations happen?

JANE: We must shop in different bookstores.  Where I shop, increasingly, the shelves are full of “collaborations.”  Many of these are what I have heard called “junior/senior” pairings, which in some cases seems to be a polite way of saying “Big Name Writer” and “who the heck is that…”

ALAN: Or perhaps “who the hack is that…”?

JANE: Ouch!  That’s what’s so sad about these pairings.  Often the “junior” writer is viewed as just that – an opportunistic hack.  I’ve talked with several novelists, however, who have taken on such jobs in the hope of opening doors that will enable them to see their own beloved works published.

ALAN: To that extent such exercises are probably a good thing – anything that opens previously closed publishing doors has to be taken seriously. But nevertheless I remain dubious about both the morality of it and the quality of the work. I certainly don’t regard these as being collaborations in the true sense of the word.

JANE: I know what you mean.  My nephew enjoys both Tom Clancy’s and Clive Cussler’s works, but I’ve given up on buying them for him because so many are these sort of pairings.

ALAN: Ah yes – those… I don’t really consider those as collaborations at all. Clancy actually died in 2013, so clearly his contribution to the books that are still being published under his name has been minimal. So-called collaborations like these are really just cynical marketing exercises designed to keep famous names on the book covers so as to (hopefully) increase sales.

I think the only real collaborations are those where all the writers named on the cover have had a significant input to the story being told.

JANE: I agree.  When an author or an author’s estate starts franchising a well-known name, then any sense of collaboration vanishes.  I’ll avoid naming some obvious examples because I don’t know the circumstances firsthand and don’t want to risk maligning someone…

But there are many authors who appear as “senior” author on books that I suspect they’ve never even looked at.

ALAN: I’m absolutely certain of it. And the phenomenon is not a new one; it’s just that these days the publishers are rather more blatant about it than once they were. It used to be that the junior author got no credit at all, even though they’d done most, if not all, of the work!

A good example would be the Saint novels. They were all published with Leslie Charteris named on the cover as the only author. Nevertheless many of the novels were ghostwritten with little or no input from Charteris himself. Vendetta For the Saint (1964) was actually written by the SF author Harry Harrison, though his name appears nowhere in the credits. Harrison told me that Charteris just left him alone to write the story – though presumably Charteris did approve the final version since he was putting his own name on it!

JANE: I had no idea!

ALAN: Proper collaborations, such as the Niven/Pournelle books, are a completely different kettle of fish. In an interview published in Fantastic Reviews in 2009, Niven says that he and Pournelle would talk the story out between themselves until they knew it by heart. In that sort of circumstance it really doesn’t matter whose fingers actually hit the keyboard, the story belongs equally to both of them.

JANE: I agree.  I also think that the best collaborations are those where each author has something special to bring to the project.  My first collaboration with Roger Zelazny was like that.  He’d been asked to come up with a story for a computer game, but he knew nothing about either computers or gaming.

However, he was always intrigued by a new challenge.  He said he’d take the job if I could come on board as his collaborator (because I was a gamer, and somewhat familiar with computer games), and so Chronomaster was begun.  Sadly, Roger was gone before it came out.  He never would have agreed to what the publisher did – putting his name big and mine small – because we worked the story out together.

ALAN: The game itself is still available for download from obscure corners of the internet, though you will need some kind of MS-DOS emulator if you want to play it – it won’t run on modern computers.

There’s lots more to say about collaborations, both proper and improper. Perhaps we can continue the discussion next time…

JANE: I’d like that!