Category Archives: Writing

Ursula Le Guin on Writing and Imagining the Future

Everything I most love about SF and utopia and writing an alternative future, Ursula Le Guin captures something so important here in her speech at the National Book Awards. A lot has been blogged and written already about this. I have nothing to add really about the vile nature of much of the book trade or the inspiration that it still somehow manages to publish, as she says it so much better — I have always loved her, and daily love her more for encapsulating the multiple aspects of the battle we have on our hands and why we must keep on fighting:

Thank you Neil [Gaiman], and to the givers of this beautiful reward, my thanks from the heart. My family, my agent, editors, know that my being here is their doing as well as mine, and that the beautiful reward is theirs as much as mine. And I rejoice at accepting it for, and sharing it with, all the writers who were excluded from literature for so long, my fellow authors of fantasy and science fiction—writers of the imagination, who for the last 50 years watched the beautiful rewards go to the so-called realists.

I think hard times are coming when we will be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now and can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine some real grounds for hope. We will need writers who can remember freedom. Poets, visionaries—the realists of a larger reality.

Right now, I think we need writers who know the difference between the production of a market commodity and the practice of an art. Developing written material to suit sales strategies in order to maximize corporate profit and advertising revenue is not quite the same thing as responsible book publishing or authorship. (Thank you, brave applauders.)

Yet I see sales departments given control over editorial; I see my own publishers in a silly panic of ignorance and greed, charging public libraries for an ebook six or seven times more than they charge customers. We just saw a profiteer try to punish a publisher for disobedience and writers threatened by corporate fatwa, and I see a lot of us, the producers who write the books, and make the books, accepting this. Letting commodity profiteers sell us like deodorant, and tell us what to publish and what to write. (Well, I love you too, darling.)

Books, you know, they’re not just commodities. The profit motive often is in conflict with the aims of art. We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art, and very often in our art—the art of words.

I have had a long career and a good one. In good company. Now here, at the end of it, I really don’t want to watch American literature get sold down the river. We who live by writing and publishing want—and should demand—our fair share of the proceeds. But the name of our beautiful reward is not profit. Its name is freedom.

Thank you.

[This transcript is from Parker Higgins, who I thank from the bottom of my heart for transcribing and posting it]

New serial of L.A. life from Gary Phillips

Artist: Jeffrey K. Fisher
Artist: Jeffrey K. Fisher

“Best slow your roll, Al,” the one-handed bartender Pierre Gaston said languidly. He took hold of an empty glass between the pincers of his prosthesis. Behind him and above the bottles on a flat screen TV, played a near mute newscast about a truckers’ job action at the port.

That’s why I love Gary Phillips. He writes shit-talking dialogue like no one else, and there’s always a crazy character or two, like a one-handed bartender sitting in the Scorpion Tap. That’s right, the Scorpion Tap. Crazy as they are, they’re still true to the L.A. I know and love. And hate. But mostly love. Because this ain’t the L.A. of Hollywood glitz and glamour, or beaches and West-side wealth, this is where the heart and soul is at. South Central. At least that’s where we’re starting.

The story’s called The Dixon Chronicles, and Gary writes:

Embracing a populist literary tradition that reaches back to Charles Dickens, among others, whose examinations of class conflict in industrializing England were published serially in newspapers, yours truly humbly presents the first installment, chapter if you will in “The Dixon Family Chronicles” on the capitalandmain.com news site.

The webserial follows the interrelated and divergent lives of its three African American main characters. They are Henry “Uncle Hank” Dixon, a handyman living in South L.A.; his niece Jessica “Jess” Dixon, an Iraq war vet who now works in a fulfillment center in Riverside; and her brother, Joseph “Little Joe” Dixon, a one-time pro baller prospect who works as a youth athletic director in Oakland. As the characters deal with everyday life in the Golden State, issues surrounding wage inequality, gentrification, unionization, job insecurity, transportation, and food deserts are woven into their stories.

New chapters will appear each Wednesday at least through the end of this year.

Gary may sound nothing like Dickens, but you can bet I love this calling upon the populist tradition and examining of class (and race) conflict across time and space and vastly different experience. And just as Dickens belonged to London, so Gary belongs to L.A., and I’m looking forward to traveling its streets with him. He starts right in one of my old neighbourhoods, and dealing with the displacement and unemployment that comes with land speculation and that I fought every day of my working life for six years. Can’t wait until next Wednesday…

Of course, this isn’t the first time Gary has written stories in this kind of form — as a writer I’m a little in awe of it, mostly because I just don’t think I could ever manage it. But there’s the comic Bicycle Cop Dave over at fourstory.com, illustrated by Manoel Magalhães. And then there’s the set of stories that eventually became the caper story The Underbelly, that we published at PM Press. All I’m saying is that the man’s got skills, so check out his awesome website.

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Roque-Gageac, Beynac, Rouffignac

I woke up this morning to a brave calling of swallows echoing across the cliff face, greeting the dawn. It is the same cliff that forms one wall of my room, the other wall of pine sloping sharply up to meet it with a cross bracing of huge and ancient beams cut square. It is very cold. The swallows move in and out of crescendo and light comes in through the two small triangular windows.

Last night I was kept awake by the irony of a rock-pop festival in this tiny medieval village, and then I was kept awake by the cold. I wore my down vest under the covers for a while, then wrapped it around my feet. In between wakings I dreamed of James Crumley, big and shaggy and alcohol soaked, I dreamed he had hired my dad to rebuild and redecorate his record and auto-part store. I dreamed we walked in the desert and I tried to explain just how beautiful it was, just how much I loved it. But I almost never write about the desert, I don’t understand. But I suppose dreams aren’t for understanding.

Maybe it is just that I have found no inspiration beyond photos, I don’t find words hidden seamed up in time’s folds the way I do in London. So I shall work on my dissertation. It is ridiculously beautiful here of course, ancient villages of mellowed golden limestone and narrow winding roads. They are all fortified, on hilltops, castles crowning outcrops and defensible walls blocking cavern faces high up in the cliffs. It was on the edges of the hundred-years war with England, the castle of Beynac-et-cezenac in French hands, that of Castelnaud in English.

We went to see the grotte de Rouffignac yesterday as well. It is a huge cavern, huge. And regular the way most caves are not, carved out by an underground river through stone that must have been very regular. There are no stalactites and stalagmites, though my french did not quite reach to understanding why. The walls are mostly smooth, with a layer of what looks like a conglomerate just above the level of my head, strange rounded multi-armed shapes embedded whole into the walls, grey near the opening, stained a deep orange-red with iron ore deeper inside. You ride a small electric train very deep inside, following where ancient people walked with only torches. Large openings branch to either side, you wonder how they found their way. Past the hollows where ancient cave bears dug their holes to hibernate for the winter, into a rounded cavern where beautiful mammoths and bison were drawn across the roof, only a few feet from the floor, emerging from the deep hole of a cavern to the left that goes far beyond seeing…

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Bruno Shulz on reading swallows…

One thing must be avoided at all costs: narrow-mindedness, pedantry, dull pettiness. Mot things are interconnected, most threads lead to the same reel. Have you ever noticed swallows rising in flocks from between the lines of certain books, whole stanzas of quivering pointed swallows? One should read the flight of these birds…

Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass – Bruno Schulz

Bruno Schulz & Literary Pub Gossip

Reading The Street of Crocodiles by Bruno Schulz, also known as Cinnamon Shops. It moves easily between one title and the other in my mind, whatever my book cover might say. Moves easily between putrid terror and the warmth and fragrance of home. And I rode the tube furious that anyone who could fling my heart up and down and side to side with his glorious words, should write of a mad girl ‘s libidinous passion and hideous unnatural fertility, of an aunt of

almost self propagating fertility, a femininity without rein, morbidly expansive.

it’s not the fury of blame, just the impotent tragedy of this ancient war of sexes that I cannot find myself in. You see, I can fling words too. And all men must surely cower before me, as Schulz illustrates over and over again.

As a woman I find horror in this. And irony. One Gestapo agent spared Schulz’s life because he liked his pictures…it was another Nazi who shot him dead in the street.

It is a used book I found in Kensington on Saturday, and between two of the pages I found a small pressed flower, translucent, ancient, fragile. Beautiful. I love finding such things. And I love entire pages of this book, the lyrical madness of it. The way its edges don’t quite fit though the center holds. Mervyn Peake must also have loved him, the father crouched on the pelmet (impossible!), flapping his wings sends me reeling Gormenghast way…

And I went to write in the Seven Stars, one of my favourite pubs, small, mostly silent, I sat in a hard wooden chair by the fake coal fire, stared at the Inns of Court. Wrote reams. But is it true as one pub stalwart claimed, that Dylan Thomas made an international reputation at the expense of the local people? Must I hold it against him that he did not actually speak Welsh? And it’s Burns night…must I despise Burns and Chaucer for working for Her Majesty’s Inland Revenue Service? Ruining peoples’ lives? I am undecided. My brother texted me “Wee, sleekit, cowrin, tim’rous beastie,” in honor, but I prefer this.

Let every kind, their pleasure find
The savage, and the tender
Some social join, for some leagues combine
Some solitary wander.
–Robbie Burns

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Wheech

wheech

A scottish word, wheech means to remove quickly or rapidly.

  • If you don’t gie me a puff oan that joint ah’ll just wheech it right aff yi.
  • The mugger just wheeched the old ladies pension book from her and ran away.
  • That guy is a real ladies man and loves nothing better than wheeching the knickers right off them.

Vertigo Crime and Comic Con day 1

Yesterday I headed down to San Diego for Comic Con…there is absolutely no rest for the wicked and it sometimes makes me sad! I drove down with my co-editor in crime on the Switchblade Imprint, the indescribable Gary Phillips. The coversation was smooth, and involved a lot of speculation on the extraordinary New Jersey corruption case that broke yesterday morning, involving the arrest of three mayors, multiple rabbis, and 2 state assemblymen on charges of bribery, money laundering, and even organ trafficking! I’m sure both of us were wishing we had written such a fucking great story, I certainly was…

Comic Con is just as immense, sprawling and overwhelming as ever, sprinkled with characters in amazing costume and an incredible diversity of nerdiness that I really love. But it makes you tired quickly, it is too much to take in. We wandered, talked to people, and then I sat in on Gary’s panel, Vertigo‘s announcement of the upcoming work for 2009 and 2010. And was amazed. I love the edginess of Vertigo, they have published Neil Gaiman and Alan Moore and Grant Morrison and…the list just goes on and on. And sitting and listening to all of the amazing stuff they have newly in the works was a joy. I’m just not sure how to fit the pleasurable reading of each of the new series into a life already crammed full with pleasures and much work. But I am sure I will find a way.

Karen Berger created the imprint within DC comics, which I hadn’t known until I met her briefly yesterday and Gary told me the story. To find a woman as the head of such an amazing dark and gritty series of crime, fantasy, and horror made me happy…funny how the genres I love most are very dominated by men. The broad preferences of different genders in reading and writing are patent, I shall save speculation on why and how that happens as I am still thinking through it. But in only the short time I have been working in publishing I have run into a couple of good ole boys and felt treated very much like a secretary rather than a creative partner. It was a bit shocking to me coming from my small world of organizing where such things were at least much more subtle, officially called out and censured. And I was always a force to be respected and feared. To discover it so blatantly in the literary world was much sadder than the shock of being talked down to and patronized when I worked in the bra shop two years ago now on my…er…sabbatical, I hated it as much, but everyone knows that shop ‘girls’ get disrespected all the time. I was somewhat prepared for that, though the fury it inspires was just as grand.

So cheers to Karen Berger.

And cheers to Vertigo Crime, announced at Comic Con last year and the fruits soon to be available in the first two black and white hardcover graphic novels, Brian Azzarello’s Filthy Rich and Ian Rankin’s Dark Entries. Gary is writing a graphic novel called Cowboys, which traces the collision of two very different men, it starts with them holding guns to one another’s heads and disbelieving each others’ claim that they are working undercover. We went out to dinner with a great group of writers, at my end of the table was Jason Aaron who writes Scalped, (which I sadly haven’t read but that should be recitified in the next few days), Jason Starr, author of a number of novels for Hard Case Crime, and Max Allen Collins, who wrote Road to Perdition amongst many another great book…they all have new stuff coming out soon, judging from the previews they should all be read as soon as they are released!

And just one of the interesting tid-bits of conversation that made me think…the claim, would anyone still read Dashiell Hammett if they hadn’t made the Maltese Falcon into a movie? James M. Cain without Double Indemnity? Chandler without the Big Sleep? Max always thought that Kiss Me Deadly was a great movie that kept the name of Micky Spillane alive to readers…an interesting thought and very possibly true, and something I instinctively rebel against, and yet…

SF and Politics at Think Galactic

It was my first time at Think Galactic. And I must admit, it was my first time at any SF con. And I must further admit that it was my first time really talking about the convergence of science fiction and politics in any real and sustained way. And my final admission is that the combination of these factors resulted in me actually talking very little (or at all) in the panels and discussions, though I certainly talked up a storm in smaller venues, between panels, over lunch and dinner and beers. I realized there is so much I haven’t read and need to read, so much I’ve only vaguely thought about, but never sharpened into real coherency by translating it into the concreteness of actual words.

And it was brilliant, of course.

I don’t think I’ve ever actually been in a room where everyone seems to have read and loved Octavia Butler and Ursula Le Guin. Where radical politics are related back to zombie wars and the struggle for life on Mars. I think I’ve been wanting a room like that for some time without consciously realizing it, much less looking for it. My own great loss. There are two things I love about…what should I even call it? Speculative fiction is the term  I think. I admit I have a wee bit more love for fantasy over straight sci fi, though I think much of the distinction between the two rather absurd. Still, I love those splendidly feral worlds of the imagination, rich tapestried language, monsters, magic, places where no one has the same rules, or they have invented new ways of breaking them. I’m the kid who heard fairies outside her window growing up, and hasn’t given up on them yet. And of course you have authors like William Gibson who take technology into places where my experience can’t follow, and it all comes back to what might as well be magic again (for me, I don’t mean to cause any controversy by labeling cyberpunk magical, which I know it’s really not!). Still, fantasy leans towards the callings of destiny, the great kings, the happiness that comes from feudalism…I don’t like that at all. But there are those novels like the Gormenghast trilogy that have brought so much wealth to my world through their very existence, and books by authors like M. John Harrison and China Mieville where I see some of my own politics echoed back at me, even amplified.

I love things like Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy too, but they don’t make me hold my breath until the page dims due to lack of oxygen.

For so many years I never consciously brought that together with my love of social justice and my struggle for a better world… as an organizer the books didn’t seem to have the same importance and I stopped reading so much. Of course, that wasn’t just true of speculative fiction, it was true of absolutely everything. Sleeping itself was cut down to below the minimum needed, much less literary exploration. It’s been nice to emerge from the fog of living emergency to emergency, political moment to political moment, meeting to meeting.

And what a joy to come back to these books, to re-read things in light of all I’ve learned, to hurl myself into the world as it was or could be or is now with some (monsterific) modifications, all through the words of some of the greatest writers bar none. At its best the genre allows so much scope for playing with ideas, for turning ideals and theory into things that are alive on the page. It is a genre for dreaming, for analyzing, for theorizing, for experimenting… all the things that turn me on the most when paired with imaginations that spark my own.

Friday night I saw Eleanor Arnason reading an exquisite little story about a silly king and a statue and the little hatmaker…I sadly missed the other reading as it was a long train ride home to the place I was staying. But Eleanor is a fascinating author dealing with so many issues of class, race and gender in her work, and always a pleasure to read. Even more of a pleasure to meet in person, we talked quite a bit over the course of two lunches, and I am proud to say that we at PM Press will be publishing one of her stories and an in depth interview with her next year, Mammoths of the Great Plains.

I also spent a great deal of time with Josh MacPhee, who brought a load of incredible prints and posters from Just Seeds. PM will also be publishing his next book Paper Politics, which is exciting. And it was nice to have someone else in the same boat more or less…the perilous dinghy of being a fan but much more of an activist, with little experience in combining the two. I think both of us felt we were in a little deep! But It was great to finally meet someone I’ve worked with and chatted with over email face to face…And there were so many more people I talked with, but I’ve limited mention to people who I know enough about to give a plug for and a nod to their work!

And the panels? Oh, they were great. They covered race, class and gender in the genre, looked at the future of food, the role of science and technology in the world we are building, the place of the superhero in comics…and so much more. Everything ran smoothly, the food was delicious, the stencil and print workshop was brilliant, the games mightily enjoyable…and Roosevelt University an incredible space. All in all I enjoyed myself immensely. Everyone there seemed amazing and I’m just sad it wasn’t longer, as there were a number of folks I didn’t talk to at all (I’m still a bit shy as well!). But what I have taken away is the compilation of a massive reading list, and the percolation of a million great ideas. The extraordinary women who put everything together deserve an immense amount of credit, and I definitely hope that it continues long into the future…

Chortling Chinchillas and Jabberwocks

So I was having a conversation with a friend about the word chortle, I really love this word… I would like to chortle, I think I might from time to time, but generally speaking it always seemed to me something that plump people do, a deep belly chuckle that involves a lot of happy stomach jiggling. Or babies who are always round and, well, rather fat, and do a good bit of chortling when not drooling or crying. Being tall and thin, it seemed rather beyond my abilities…though I swear I never giggle.

I was happy to find that apart from people with large bellies, chortling is also a technical term used to describe some of the communication between chinchillas. Just look at this:

I don’t know the genius who is responsible for this sign, nor quite how to explain the presence of chinchillas at San Francisco’s aquarium on the bay, but was very happy about both.

Still, the word chortle seemed to require a bit more investigation. So investigate I did. And was astounded and amazed to find that the word was actually invented by Lewis Carroll in the immortal poem Jabberwocky (at least, that’s what wiktionary says).

Now I have been in love with this poem ever since I first read it at a very tender age, it is perhaps my favourite poem of all time, though my love for it is slightly different then my love for the poetry of Akhmatova, Neruda, Heaney, and even Poe. And it’s a bit…well no, I am immensely excited and happy and well nigh overjoyed in the amazement to find it was first coined there in 1871

‘O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!’ He chortled in his joy.

I never knew. The Merriam-Webster dictionary says it can also mean to sing or chant exultantly, but I think they’re utterly wrong, and obviously not as in tune with the great Carrollian mind as I am…how could they say such a thing after writing that the etymology of the word is “probably a blend of chuckle and snort?”

But I think this much discussion calls for the complete poem

‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

“Beware the Jabberwock, my son!
The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun
The frumious Bandersnatch!”

He took his vorpal sword in hand:
Long time the manxome foe he sought—
So rested he by the Tumtum tree,
And stood awhile in thought.

And as in uffish thought he stood,
The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame,
Came whiffling through the tulgey wood,
And burbled as it came!

One, two! One, two! and through and through
The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!
He left it dead, and with its head
He went galumphing back.

“And hast thou slain the Jabberwock?
Come to my arms, my beamish boy!
O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!”
He chortled in his joy.

‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

And I am newly reminded about the importance of using frabjous much more regularly. Of whiffling and burbling and the sound of snicker-snack. I do often use galumph, having once had a cat who used that as his regular mode of transport. And I know this is an out and out nonsense poem that has since had reams of very learned sillyness written about it, but ’twas magical the world it created for me as a kid. And the doors it opened in language. And the frumious bandersnatch remains one of my favourite creatures ever…I’m still hoping to meet one, though not in a dark alley.

And it only adds to the happiness of chortling chinchillas.

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Good Omens

I’ve always really liked lying on the floor when I need to think things through. It helps me…think things through. I see everything from an entirely new perspective. I’m comfortable, but not too comfortable. And when I’m wearing blue, I’m camouflaged nicely to blend in with the carpet in case of possible attack. Zombies, horseshoe crabs…you never know who or what is out there. Apart from the truth, but the truth is pretty damn slap-happy, so I’m content to curl up and blend.

You also can’t get any lower than the floor, and so I have spent a lot of time there this year through this long and constant process of great humbling, the loss of one happiness after the other, the reduction of my ideals and years of love and work to specks in time and space that could not and did not last. I know history, why did I think it would turn out differently? And people? I utterly misjudged them. And myself. I’d like to think it stops now and I’ve figured people (and myself) out, but in my new humility I doubt it, though I won’t say I haven’t learned a thing or two! I haven’t many illusions about LSE, though I am still happy about that! And moving to London makes me want to sing (and I do). I definitely feel finished and done with LA.

I read Good Omens last night and this morning, and it restored my ability to laugh and love the world and even the people in it, and the only downside was the sadness that arose from the knowledge that I will never have a job interview like this one:

“Mr. Shadwell’s  accent was unplaceable. It careered around Britain like a milk race….” (This is just to set the stage. Here are the interview questions for the ancient, yet current, position of witchfinder.)

“Have ye all your own teeth?”
Check.

“Are ye fit?”
Check.

“How many nipples?”
Two (check).

“Have ye got your ane scissors?”
Yes!

And I’m hired! It would be almost as good as ornamental hermit…I’d read papers all day looking for

1. Witches.
2. Unexplainable Phenomenons. Phenomenatrices. Phenomenice. Things, ye ken what I mean.

I think even if I hadn’t just hit a rock bottom of sorts last night, that this would have brought me extreme joy!