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Christopher Barzak: Visions & Voices

Christopher Michael Barzak was born July 21, 1975 in Warren OH, and grew up in Kinsman OH. He attended Youngstown State University, graduating summa cum laude with a BA in English and a minor in Psychology in 1998, the same year he attended the Clarion writing workshop. He lived in Carlsbad CA for a year after graduation, then worked as a clerk at a bookstore and library in Lansing MI for two years. He moved back to Youngstown in 2001 for an MA in English and Creative Writing. In 2004 he moved to Japan, where he spent two years teaching English in elementary and junior high schools. He returned to Youngstown in 2006, where he now writes and teaches fiction writing at YSU and in the Northeast Ohio MFA program.

He began publishing with ‘‘A Mad Tea Party’’ in Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet (1999). ‘‘The Other Angelas’’ (2004) was on the Tiptree Award longlist, ‘‘The Language of Moths’’ (2005) was a Nebula finalist and winner of a Gaylactic Spectrum Award, and ‘‘Map of Seventeen’’ (2010) and ‘‘Paranormal Romance’’ (2013) were Nebula Award finalists. Some of his short fiction was collected in Birds and Birthdays (2012) and Before and Afterlives (2013), the latter a Shirley Jackson Award winner.

His story ‘‘Dead Boy Found’’ (2003) was the basis for first novel One for Sorrow (2007), winner of the Crawford Award for best first fantasy. The book was adapted as film Jamie Marks Is Dead in 2014. Second book The Love We Share Without Knowing (2008), a mosaic novel inspired by his experiences in Japan, was a Nebula Award finalist, and on the Tiptree honor list. His first YA novel, Wonders of the Invisible World, is forthcoming this fall.

Barzak lives in Youngstown OH with his partner Tony Romandetti.

Excerpts from the interview:

‘‘The new book is called Wonders of the Invisible World. It’s about a 17-year-old in rural Ohio. He discovers that there’s a whole lot about himself and his family’s history that he didn’t know, and that his history and parts of his memories have been obscured by magical means. He discovers this when a new student approaches him in a hallway at school his senior year and remembers him from their childhood, and says they were best friends. This person seems to know things about him that he doesn’t recall. Very quickly after that, the spell that he’s been under starts to unravel. He begins putting together pieces of his life that come to him in visions, and discovers there’s an entire invisible world he belongs to. It’s a metaphor, in some ways, for the experience that young people go through, where you kind of awaken and realize there’s a much bigger world that you’re a part of, larger than the small world you’ve been operating in. It happens as you reach the end of adolescence and your time in the high school prison system. You face the question, ‘Who am I after this?’ I wanted to rephrase that question, which is often asked in young-adult fiction, and instead ask, ‘Who am I, in the context of the past I might not know about?’ Both in terms of personal, family history, and the cultural, national past. You are already part of something you don’t understand and never knew existed.”


‘‘Transformation is something that obsesses me. What is the soul? Is there a difference between something like a soul and something like a self? Is our identity something we construct, or is it organic and natural? There are all kinds of theories. It’s interested me from a young age. I remember being a very small child and climbing up to look at myself in the mirror – I had to be four or five because I remember the struggle of climbing up onto the bathroom vanity – and looking at myself and asking, ‘Who are you?’ I look back and think, ‘You are such a strange little boy.’ It was a moment when I tried to make sense of my existence in the world. I’ve always found being alive a really strange situation. I’ve always questioned it. I’m always asking: ‘Who are you?’

‘‘Our vision is limited by the fact of our biology, and we know that on a scientific level. We create technology in order to see things we can’t perceive on our own, in other spectra. That fact leads to the idea that there are things we’ll never be able to observe, at least not with the tools we have now. My hope is that there’s more to the world than we can see. I enjoy this world, and I’m grateful for it, but I hope it’s one stop in a much bigger universe. That’s wishful thinking. I always say I hope – I don’t believe there’s anything beyond this world. I don’t like to believe anything at all, because beliefs are just a feeling about something. We all have beliefs, and not just about spirituality. We have political beliefs, too. It’s an opinion, an idea, and they change. Beliefs change as well, so I don’t like to hold them close to me. I entertain ideas, but I don’t subscribe to anything. I was raised in this odd mix of philosophies, where my father’s side of the family was very grounded, all common sense and hitched to observable reality. They weren’t much for philosophical or spiritual thinking. It was more about doing what you’ve got to do to get by. My mother’s side was made up of more magical thinkers – her and her mother really did have this kind of magical system. They interpreted dreams, and it was their own dream system, nothing you could find in a book. I think it was a superstition my grandmother learned. Her parents were Polish immigrants. She grew up with old Eastern European ideas and beliefs. I’ve tried to track down some of her ideas, and they really feel invented, and not any part of a system I can locate. A very private family mythology. That worldview influenced One for Sorrow, but I expanded on it in Wonders of the Invisible World.”


‘‘I really do feel like I was born to write and tell stories. From a very early age I felt, ‘This is too rich, there’s too much good stuff going on here.’ My grandmother told ghost stories – stories that weren’t just invented, they were things that she saw, and she had these elaborate tales. I’m a slow-waker, and I’ve sometimes wondered if that’s a genetic predisposition and if it’s something that my mom or her mother did. Did they experience liminal dreamlike states, and this is how they made sense of it? Interpreting things they saw when they were technically awake but their brain was two steps behind, or ahead? I definitely had nightmares. I had a period when I would sleepwalk. Sometimes I still do. My parents would find me in different places, like the basement. One time they found me outside. Luckily, we were in the country; I didn’t walk out into traffic or anything. I was in the back­yard, which is next to a cornfield, just at the edge of it, standing and looking into the corn. This is our reality, and it’s as strange as that. That magical tradition is on my mom’s side, not so much on my dad’s. I was glad that I had both. Maybe that’s why I like magical realist fiction, because there’s this push and pull. I feel fortunate that I was exposed to both modes, and there are other modes, too. I was fortunate to realize from a young age that the things my mother and her mother experienced and believed were not common. I realized the stories our larger society and culture have accepted are just stories, too. I was really aware of that, and I think it was because of the personal, private beliefs and superstitions that my mom and her mom had. These are stories that other people would think are strange, and not necessarily true. What’s to say these other stories that large numbers of people believe are any more true? I felt good about that. It made me question everything from a young age.”


‘‘One for Sorrow was published in August of 2007. In spring of 2008, my then-agent e-mailed to tell me there was a director interested in my book. He told me his name, Carter Smith. … ‘‘We probably talked off and on for a couple of years. In the spring of 2012 it seemed Carter had a group of people, a production company was form­ing, and they were casting and location scouting. In December of 2012 they were ready to buy the rights completely. Three or four months later they were filming. My partner Tony and I went to do a set visit one weekend during spring break, so I got to see some of the scenes being made. I also got to see some stuff being filmed that didn’t make it into the final cut. It was fantastic seeing things from my imagination being visually constructed, to step into my character’s house and see him and the ghost of Jamie Marks sitting together on a bed, saying words I’d written. Talk about liminal states. It was very magical.”

‘‘I have just completed a first draft of another novel called A Manual for the Most Effective Usage of Fallen Stars. I’m going to have to find a shorter title eventually. That’s a young-adult book. I’m still sitting on it, and it’s a first draft. I usually take them through a number of drafts. I always write whatever I want to write and hope that somebody will want to buy it. My editor at Knopf is eager to see the new book and she loves the title. Eventually when I feel confident, I’m going to look at it again and see what else I can do with it, and hopefully she’ll like it. I also have one more story to write for this collection of retellings and adaptations based on classic genre and children’s literature. I started writing stories in that vein a few years ago. The first one I wrote is ‘Invisible Men’, which was a finalist for the Million Writers Award, and was originally published in Jonathan Strahan’s Eclipse Online, and reprinted in Gardner Dozois’s Year’s Best Science Fiction. It was meant to be a fun experiment for me, because I’d read H.G. Wells’s The Invisible Man. I was put off by the description of the rural villagers in the book. Wells made fun of them in a lot of ways, unneces­sarily. He clearly looked down on them. I felt badly about that; I’m from a rural background myself. So I started to write that story in the voice of a young girl who works as a maid in the inn where the invisible man stays for four months, trying to cure himself. I wanted to give her a voice. The story’s about that – who’s truly invisible in that book? I got really great responses to that story and I was invigorated by it, because I’d never done anything so consciously working with someone else’s material. I wanted to investigate other books that I loved. Sometimes there are wrongs I want to right, and sometimes I think there’s something the author might have had a hard time talking about in the period they were writing in. I have one more to write before the book is done. Then that collection will be finished, ten stories in all. I’ll give that to Barry, too, and hope for the best. I do everything on a wing and a prayer. Hopefully there will be a publisher interested in it.’’

Kameron Hurley: Who Are We Writing For?
On Knowing When to Listen to the Haters, and When to Laugh

I’m asked, often, what I feel about ‘‘the haters’’ or ‘‘the detractors’’ who don’t like me or my work, and I think it’s an odd question, because, to be blunt – I don’t care what those people think. Spewing unrestrained and unabashed vitriol across a page or in a public forum has always been a great way to call attention to oneself, and with the prolifera­tion of platforms we have today, it’s easier than ever to wander around kicking people in the face and congratulating oneself about sticking it to the man.

I have done it myself.

Yes, I say this as someone who has baldly stated my opinion about various works for over a decade online, generally thoughtfully, angrily, and always passionately. From hav­ing been on both sides of the divide, I can say this confidently – listen to the people who are your target readers, and forget everyone else. If you’ve done something to bump them out of the story, something that didn’t achieve what you intended, they’ll let you know, and you should listen. But the people who think your work is unabashedly a ‘‘jumble of words’’ or ‘‘nonsen­sical,’’ well… these are not the readers you’re looking for.

One of the benefits of having done a series of workshops in my teens and early twenties is that I learned when and how to take criticism. Was the reader feedback pointing me to things I’d done that weren’t what I intended? Had I put in a lazy character trope or trait that not only bumped them out of the story, but was also not at all my intention? Then scrub it out – but when you have a reader who says, ‘‘I find it offensive and nonsensical that there’s a lesbian in this story,’’ well, that’s when I laugh quietly and put down my pen, because clearly this person is not my target reader. I’m not writing this book for them.

I am not writing this book for you, is a statement that often comes as a shock to readers. Writers are expected to be producers of widgets, and don’t we want to sell widgets to everyone? No. No, I do not.

There’s a quote attributed to Colin Powell that goes, ‘‘Trying to get everyone to like you is a sign of mediocrity.’’ Not everyone is going to like your book. Not everyone should like your work. The worst possible feedback I could ever get about a book is that is roused no response in a reader, that they could take or leave it. Then I’ve written a middle-of-the-road, unremarkable piece of fiction that no one is going to read or talk about anyway. Hatred, at least, inspires conversation, which mediocre work won’t.

Once you’ve got a passionate group of fans and critics, you can also identity ‘‘ideal readers’’ for your work. These are the people you’re writ­ing it for. That’s not to say that they will always love what you write, but that your stories are tailored for readers like them. We tend to write books we like to read, and with upwards of six billion people on earth, there’s bound to be plenty of other folks who like the same things you do. The real challenge is finding them, and weeding through the noise to uncover them.

There are trolls who make it a point to hate everything, who delight in stirring up controversy, who live for the Author Behaving Badly moment that will spike their page views or get a tweet retweeted 1,500 times. Those are the people you need to ignore. Professional trolling is a real thing. I recommend folks read Confessions of a Media Manipulator to get an idea of how the modern click-for-dollars-outrage-machine works. Advertising models are not set up for constructive conversations. They are set up for pageviews. To achieve the pageviews that major media sites want, they must post either something salacious about a celebrity, or an outrage piece. Your author meltdown often qualifies.

Don’t allow people to make money off your meltdown.

Trolling is both a moneymaker and a game. Getting people to cry on camera, to talk about how afraid they are, to leave the Internet in a huff, to flee from their homes, is actually the end goal of this game. It in­spires a community of professional trolls to keep at it (we keep doing things only if they provide us with positive reinforcement, after all, and trolls have a culture, too). When you have little groups of people who congratulate each other every time an author says how hor­rible they felt about a blistering review or hate storm, there’s nothing to be won by sharing that publicly. Share the annoyance with your friends, at the bar, or on private listservs. Not online. The reality is that the person who gets the most emotional online is the one who looks the worst when the fallout is over.

What we tend to forget, when we’re in the middle of a hate storm, is that we are a passing fad; we’re not considered real people. We’re just the latest piece of content. Give it enough time, lay low, mute and block and don’t read the comments, and it will pass. Then you can surface, review any of the feedback that looks legitimate, and carry on with your art. It’s what we do. It’s part of the job, now.

In reality, I have a pretty fabulous life, so maybe it’s easier for me to take the nonsense most days, but I also don’t go out looking for it. I don’t read the comments. I mute everyone on Twitter who comes at me. I have all my e-mail screened, so I only have to glance over hate mail when I feel like it, or simply empty it as trash, unread.

I have spent a decade sifting through feedback on and offline, and the reality is that when you live and speak publicly, there will always be people who dislike what you’re saying. My surprise actually came when I realized it wasn’t so much what I was saying that people didn’t like – it was that I was allowed to speak publicly at all, as if there was a test one had to pass, a lofty measurement or set of traits, or a bestseller list, or some gender requirement. As awful as it can feel when the Internet comes at you, the Internet cannot stop you speaking. It can’t silence you. The worst of the trolls are a small group of lonely, angry people who feel they have no voice. Sometimes those voiceless people need to be listened to – they are pointing out real issues with your work – and sometimes they are professional rage machines.

Determining the difference will save you a lot of heartache in your career. It’s a skill I encourage every new writer to cultivate. If you have to, bring a common complaint you’re seeing to a few trusted friends. Ask if they feel it’s legitimate. And ask yourself: is this really what I meant to say? Have I said this as clearly as I could have and it’s being blown out of proportion, or did I need to communicate myself more clearly?

One of the reasons no one can silence me is not just my profound stubbornness and indifference in the face of rage mobs, nor my ability to find the signal in the noise. I stay in this game because I’ve met my passionate fans, my target audience. I get 1,000% more fan mail than hate mail. I get fan mail of the ‘‘You changed my life’’ variety. People who came out to their parents because of something I wrote, folks who found the courage to leave an abusive partner. Folks who moved across the country. Changed jobs. Went back to school. People read things I write and it gives them hope and inspiration and comfort, too; comfort that they are not so different. They are not alone. That the world can be really different.

It’s that love, that profound love, that will keep me here, that will keep me speaking, and that will keep me carrying on, long after the hate speech has been buried in an explosion of fragmented pixels.

Garth Nix: Back in the Old Kingdom

Garth Nix was born July 19, 1963 in Melbourne Australia and grew up in Canberra. He joined the Army reserve at 17 and served as a part-time soldier for five years. At 19 he began writing, and sold first story ‘‘Sam, Cars and the Cuckoo’’ (1983) within the year. He attended the Canberra College of Advanced Education (now the University of Canberra) and received a BA in professional writing in 1986.

His first novel, children’s dark fantasy The Ragwitch, appeared in Australia in 1990 and the US in 1995. Second novel Sabriel (1995 Australia, 1996 US) won Aurealis Awards in both the Best Fantasy Novel and Best YA Novel categories, and began the Old Kingdom series. Lirael (2001), set in the world of Sabriel though not a direct sequel, won Australia’s 2002 Adelaide Festival Award for Children’s Literature along with a Ditmar Award. Sequel Abhorsen appeared in 2003, and a companion novella featured in the collection Across the Wall: A Tale of the Abhorsen and Other Stories in 2005. He returned to the Old Kingdom in Clariel: The Lost Abhorsen (2014).

His third and fourth books were SF: Shade’s Children (1997) and YA novelization The X-Files: The Calusari (1997). Scholastic and LucasFilm in the US asked him to create the overall story and characters for a children’s fantasy series with possible franchise to other writers, which became six-book series The Seventh Tower (2000-01), comprised of The Fall, Castle, Aenir, Above the Veil, Into Battle, and The Violet Keystone.

The Keys to the Kingdom series includes Mister Monday (2003), Grim Tuesday (2004), Drowned Wednesday (2005), Sir Thursday (2006), Lady Friday (2007), Superior Saturday (2008) and Lord Sunday (2010).

YA SF novel A Confusion of Princes (2009) formed the basis for online roleplaying game Imperial Galaxy, co-created by Nix and playable online at .

With Sean Williams he writes the Troubletwisters YA fantasy series, with four books so far: Troubletwisters (2011), The Monster (2012), The Mystery (2013; as The Mystery of the Golden Card in Australia), and The Missing (2014; as Missing, Presumed Evil in Australia). They also co-wrote the third book in the Spirit Animals middle grade fantasy series, Blood Ties (2014).

Nix is an accomplished short fiction writer, writing mostly stories for children and young adults. Notable works include ‘‘Lightning Bringer’’ (2001), ‘‘Hope Chest’’ (2003), and Aurealis winners ‘‘Nicholas Sayre and the Creature in the Case’’ (2005), ‘‘Sir Hereward and Mister Fitz Go to War Again’’ (2007), and ‘‘Shay Corsham Worsted’’ (2014). Some of his short work for younger children is collected in One Beastly Beast (2007), and three of his Sir Hereward and Mister Fitz stories were gathered in Sir Hereward and Mister Fitz: Three Adventures (2013). His latest collection of stories is To Hold the Bridge, forthcoming in June 2015.

Nix worked in bookselling and academic publishing from 1987-1990, did a stint editing for HarperCollins Australia (1990-93); was a PR and marketing consultant to technology companies (1994-97); and was a part-time literary agent from 1999 to 2002, when he was forced to give up other pursuits to meet his various literary commitments. He is still a shareholder at Curtis Brown Australia. In 2014 he won the Peter McNamara Achievement Award for his contributions to the Australian SF field.

Nix lives in Sydney with his wife, Anna McFarlane, one of the children’s publishers at Allen & Unwin (married 2000) and their sons Thomas Nix, born 2002, and Edward Nix, born 2004.

Excerpts from the interview:

‘‘Clariel has been in the works since 1998, just building up in the queue of books to be written. When I was writing Lirael, I made a note about one of the characters and that was the beginning of Clariel. It’s been lurking there, just waiting. I only work things out as I need them, typically. People often ask me, ‘So you left it for years.’ No, it’s always been in my head. But I did have to go back and reread the earlier books. I don’t like going back and rereading my work, but you have to some­times. In the Keys to the Kingdom books I had to consistently reread the old ones as I was writing the new ones and I had to do that for Clariel as well. I had forgotten useful details but also discovered things I’d set up, so that was quite good. I laid the groundwork without being aware I was laying the groundwork, years ago. Also because I’d written the books long enough ago, I could reread them without feeling I wanted to rewrite them – I’m never going to do that. I don’t believe that’s a good idea. Most of the time I was reading the old books and thinking, ‘Wow, I forgot I put that in there, it’s absolutely ideal.’ Even when I’m in the middle of writing a book I often find I’ll get to a point where I think, ‘I’ve got to set this up’ only to realize, ‘Oh, I have already set it up.’ I’m not saying my subconscious writes my books, though that would be cool – I could just go away, and have a Jekyll and Hyde thing. My alter ego who writes. That would be creepy, actually. Auto-written in the night by my other self. Why am I so tired? That’s a horror story in itself. That’s a Stephen King story. (He’s probably already written it, and I just haven’t read it.) Generally speaking, it’s interesting how your subconscious, if you’re working on something, does work out a lot of the things you need, and you put them in without knowing you’ll need them later on.”


‘‘We’ve come close to a Sabriel film a few times. It’s like a lot of things in the movie busi­ness, where it’s potentially exciting, things almost happen, and then fall apart. It came incredibly close twice, and the second time, the contracts were all done, the lawyers had been through ev­erything, and money had been spent. There were a lot of different parties involved. Everything was ready to go, massive paperwork waiting to be signed, when a question was raised about some of the funding for the film. Some of it was going to come from a tax break in Australia, and one of the producers had been one of the people who’d helped design that tax break, and he said we’d get it for sure, but another lawyer said, ‘I don’t think you’ll get it.’ It was like a house of cards. The card representing 20 million dollars got taken out, and the whole thing collapsed, just as we were ready to sign.

‘‘We did have at least one meeting with a to­tally ludicrous question: ‘Could we set Sabriel in contemporary America and could she be a kindergarten teacher?’ Why not just write your own story, why do you want to talk about buying my book? That’s typical of Hollywood as well. Everyone has stories about that, where they buy books for what’s good in them and then remove all of that, and you don’t even recognize the film.

“The reality is mostly films or TV don’t happen, and as an author it’s good not to be too invested emotionally or economically. The only thing you can control is your fiction, so focus on that. Write the next book, and write the next story.”


‘‘I think the reason New Adult exists is because there’s so much YA, publishers need some other means of separation. People reading it are prob­ably mostly 18 to 40, though like anything, it’s difficult to generalise. The publishers are just try­ing to create a niche for particular kinds of books. Categories are always about how you sell the books. It’s not really about what’s in the books, or who they’re for. Like the age-band thing in the UK. They wanted to have an age range displayed on every children’s book. Many people were against that, and rightly so, because children will look at that and think, ‘This is 9-12, and I’m 13, so I shouldn’t read it.’ Or, ‘I’ve got to stop reading this thing that I love because it says on the spine it’s not for me.’ Adults and parents and gatekeep­ers would say, ‘I can’t buy this book because it’s only for 9-12 year olds.’ It’s very prescriptive, and they wanted it on every book. People are influ­enced by categories. The whole young adult cat­egorization exists, to a degree, because the core demographic for YA seems to be roughly 16-35, and those people would not go into a children’s section to buy books. The publishers had to sepa­rate them out to make it easy for adults, so they wouldn’t feel peculiar. I’ll happily go into a chil­dren’s aisle to buy books – it never bothered me. But I know many people, particularly those who don’t have children themselves, for whom going into a children’s section is anathema, like they don’t belong there. That’s still a problem.”


‘‘I rarely teach workshops but I do every now and then. I think a lot of writing fiction is instinct, which you can’t teach. I agree with whoever said, ‘You can’t be taught how to write, but you can learn.’ When I do teach a workshop, a lot of it is trying to help people ask the questions that will allow them to work out how they should write, which could well be not like how anybody else goes about it. I also believe that writing is a craft and an art. You can teach the craft, and you can get better at it. The art side of it is the more amor­phous, difficult thing that involves natural talent and inborn imagination. But if you can make yourself better at the craft, you are increasing the chances that it will somehow mesh with your imagination, your talent side and improve the art aspect as well. If you haven’t got much of the talent, but you become a good craftsperson, that might be enough. It’s like making a chair. You can learn to make a chair, and with practice, per­haps even a really lovely chair. But without the natural talent, you won’t be able to make a beau­tiful chair that last hundreds of years and people instinctively respond to as a work of art.


‘‘My favorite book is always the one I haven’t written yet. Because they’re always much more amazing in my head. Which is true of all writ­ers, I think. The unwritten books really are much more incredible. I’m proud of my books, you know, but they never capture what’s in my head completely. I always think, maybe next time I’ll get closer. Of course, you never do, but it keeps you going.’’

Stephanie Burgis: Masks & Shadows

Stephanie Burgis was born May 28, 1977 in East Lansing MI. She attended Michigan State University, and was assistant to the director of the Clarion workshop there in 1996. She transferred colleges to the Oberlin Conservatory of music, studying French horn performance and music history. She spent a year at the University of Vienna on a Fulbright scholarship, and got her Master’s degree in historical musicology at the University of Pittsburgh. The following summer, in 2001, she attended Clarion West. In 2002 she began doing PhD work at the University of Leeds, relocating to England in part to be with her second husband Patrick Samphire, also a writer. They were married in 2004, and have two children, one born in 2008, and the other in 2013.

Debut novel A Most Improper Magick (2010; as Kat, Incorrigible in the US, 2011) launched The Unladylike Adventures of Kat Stephenson series, middle-grade fantasies set in Regency England. Other books include A Tangle of Magicks (2011; as Renegade Magic in the US, 2012), Stolen Magic (2013), and a YA novella about Kat as a teenager, Courting Magic (2014). Her first novel for adults, a historical fantasy tentatively titled Masks and Shadows, is forthcoming in May 2016. Burgis has also published extensively as a short fiction writer and book reviewer.

Burgis is now a dual American/British citizen. She lives in Wales with her family.

Excerpts from the interview:

‘‘I went to Clarion West in 2001 and I came out of the closet about wanting to be a writer more than an academic. At the workshop I met Patrick Samphire, who I later married. My life plans changed drastically that summer. I came back to Pittsburgh and immediately started applying to universities in England, where Patrick lived. In 2002 I started doing a PhD at the University of Leeds on opera and politics in 18th-century Vienna. I did a lot of research. My book Masks and Shadows, coming out next year, is my PhD research turned into a novel.

‘‘When I was a kid, my dad read to me and to my brothers every night for years and years. Obviously, it would have started out with picture books and chapter books. Then it turned into Roger Zelazny and all the others. He read to me every night until I was 12 or 13. It was great. The two books that were seriously influential when he read to me were Lord of the Rings and Pride and Prejudice. Those were my big impact books. I came out of childhood and my two obsessions were fantasy adventure and Regency England. The Kat books combine them both, so they make me happy.

‘‘I started out writing adult books. I had a really good time writing some of them. I’d gotten close to publication without quite getting there, and I thought I had to keep writing that same kind of book: for adults, fairly dark, fairly serious. Then I was diagnosed with ME (myalgic en­cephalomyelitis). I got sick in 2005, and got my diagnosis in 2007. When I finally got the diagnosis, that was the hardest. Until then I was waiting, thinking I’d find the right medicine and I’d get better. I got the diagnosis and they said it was incurable and I’d have it for the rest of my life, proba­bly. I lost my job with the opera company because I couldn’t get to work. It was the wrong time for me to be writing dark, serious fiction. It was not an escape for me. I ended up giving in and writing something lighter.”


‘‘I was always obsessed with opera, which explains why I studied it at university for so many years. I fell in love with it as a teenager the first time I went to see an opera, Madame Butterfly. Operas didn’t come to my town that often. I went along, not sure what I would think, and I was just bowled over. It was amaz­ing. Then I went to music school and played in the orchestra pit for some operas. I went on into music history and that was my focus, and I worked in an opera company.

‘‘One of the best things that happened in my writing career was when I came to Leeds and was introduced to another Clarion West gradu­ate, Justina Robson. She became my landlady for most of the time we were in Leeds. We lived just down the street from one another and had coffee most days. She’s amazing in many ways. She said to me, ‘Why on Earth aren’t you writing about the stuff you’re really interested in?’ Meaning my geeky obsessions. Masks and Shadows is my way of bringing together fantasy and opera. It’s set in the 18th-century palace of Esterháza in Hungary, part of the Austro-Hungarian empire. This is the pal­ace where Joseph Haydn worked as the court composer. It’s a historical fantasy novel with alchemists and mystery and a plot to assassi­nate the emperor and empress, who are visiting. It’s extremely romantic. The romantic hero is a castrato opera singer, which was a hot political issue in the time period. In the same way peo­ple are debating gay marriage nowadays, there was court case after court case about whether it was legal for castrati to get married. A whole bunch of people said it wasn’t legal because they couldn’t have children, and ‘‘obviously’’ women can only be married to ‘real’ men, etc. My agent called it a ‘wildly romantic histori­cal fantasy in which music, magic, and black­mail meet, and one of the most famous castrato opera singers of the 18th century must come together with a very proper widow to prevent the assassination of the Hapsburg emperor and empress.’ The book is extremely operatic and over the top. It’s divided in acts like an opera, with multiple point-of-view characters. It’s like an 18th-century Downton Abbey with magic.”


‘‘The Kat books are adventures set in Regency England. I love, love, love Jane Austen and Georgette Heyer. One recurring thing in several of their books is the romantic heroine, who is the star, and who has a snarky little sister who pops in and is not all that relevant to the plot. I wanted to know about her – to write the book about the snarky little sister who’s rolling her eyes about her older sister’s romantic misadventures and hav­ing more exciting magical adventures of her own. Every day before writ­ing I would read Jane Austen’s letters to get myself in the headspace of the time period, and get a sense of the style. I based a lot of the details of Kat’s family situation on Jane Austen’s family, which is an homage because I love Jane Austen. Kat lives with her genteel but impoverished vicarage family. Her father takes in students. A lot of the research came out of time that I should have spent doing my PhD work. I was supposed to be doing late 18th-century musical research, but there were a lot of days and weeks when I threw it all over for the section of the library where they had letters and diaries of 18th-century women, because they were just so interesting. By the time I started writing the Kat books I’d done a lot of research by accident.

‘‘The trilogy takes place over the course of about a year. During that year, Kat catches spouses for all three of her older siblings, much to their chagrin, sometimes, in the ways she manipulates their relationships. She’s certain that she knows better than her brothers and sisters. The trilogy finished and had some lovely reviews, which is very nice, but it was definitely done. Still, I kept getting letters from readers asking who Kat ends up with, because she made romantic matches for every one of her siblings. What about her? I kept thinking, ‘I can’t sell a book about grown-up Kat – these are children’s books.’ So last year I wrote a novella, Courting Magic, about Kat’s romance, and I put it out myself. That was a really fun experience. It was nice to do something as a ‘thank you’ to the readers who responded so generously to the Kat books. It was a huge gift to myself because it was like writing fanfic in my own world. I call it my young-adult novella. It’s supposed to stand alone. Obviously, you get more out of it if you know who these characters are and their history, though.”


‘‘I can’t imagine writing anything without magic because it wouldn’t be fun for me. I love the sense of wonder in fantasy. Even in dark fantasy there’s a whole opening-yourself-to-wonder when magic is a factor. It gives me a sense of wonder when I write, to have a fan­tasy element. In general my philosophy of writ­ing is I want to write smart, fun books. I want them to be both. I want them to be escapes for people. I really mean that. Escapist fiction is used as such an insult by so many people. But I would say, having been through some seriously bad times, I feel such gratitude for the writers whose books let me escape and feel a sense of wonder, even if in my own life I was going through a very dark moment, like when I was diagnosed with ME, when I felt my life closing down and becoming darker. Even my lightest books have a real emotional heart in them. The emotions are always true. There’s always go­ing to be positivity. I’m never going to write grimdark. There’s always going to be hope, and that’s because I need it in my own life. I want to provide that to other people.’’

Cory Doctorow: Stability and Surveillance

In Thomas Piketty’s ground-breaking 2014 economics blockbuster Capital in the 21st Century, the economist carefully documents the increasing wealth disparity around the globe, a phenomenon that has animated the Arab Spring, the Occupy movement, Pope Francis, and political activists around the world. Some of Piketty’s critics have tried to call his math into question, but on this front Piketty seems most sound. The data-set he worked from represents an astonishing work of scholarship, and the raw numbers are online for anyone to download, along with copious notes about the assumptions Piketty made in normalizing disparate data-sources in order to form a coherent narrative. Piketty is a quant’s quant, a man with a lot of extremely defensible numbers.

Then there’s the other criticism of Pik­etty: ‘‘So what?’’ So what if rich people are getting richer and poor people are getting poorer? As Boris Johnson, the Eton-educated mayor of London, quipped: ‘‘The harder you shake the pack, the easier it will be for some cornflakes to get to the top.’’ In other words, if capitalism is making the rich richer, it’s because they deserve it, a fact that can be demonstrated by how rich they are. If you’re a crumb at the bottom of the box, you must be a crumby sort of person.

Piketty addresses this criticism less explicitly, by oblique references to ‘‘social instability.’’ He frequently compares contemporary wealth disparity to that of the eve of World War I (cast as a kind of turf-war among the super-rich about who would pocket the ongoing wealth from the colonies, now that there were no more new territories to conquer) and to the time just before the French Revolution, a comparison that presumably sends shivers up the backs of his fellow French citizens, but probably seems a bit abstract to the book’s English-language audience.

Here’s what he’s saying, when you read between the lines: when the gap between the rich and the poor gets too big, the poor start building guillotines. It’s probably cheaper to redistribute some of your wealth, deserved or not, than to pay for all the guards you’ll need to keep your head affixed to your body.

In other words, a big gap between the rich and the poor destabilizes societies, and it’s hard to be really rich in a society that’s in chaos. Unless the people around you buy into the legitimacy of the system that made you rich, they will not be bothered by the spectacle of you having all your stuff taken away, and they may even help do it.

Historically, there have been two kinds of very stable societies: highly redistributive ones, like the Scandinavian countries (in which the gap between the rich and the poor is closed through taxation, laws that favor employees and tenants, and extensive social programs), and totalitarian ones, like Saddam Hussein’s Iraq or Muammar Gaddafi’s Libya, where, instead of redistributing a lot of money from the ruling elite to the rest of the people, the ruling elites spend somewhat less money on a huge coercive apparatus made up of soldiers, spies, police officers, snitches, propaganda, and surveillance, using all this to identify agitators fomenting political change, then neutralizing them through imprisonment, smear campaigns, exclusion from employment, exile, blackmail, torture, and murder.

Samuel Bowles, an economist at the Santa Fe Institute, uses the term ‘‘guard labor’’ to describe all the activities used to coerce social stability out of people who question a society’s legitimacy. In the absence of an ethical framework that says poverty and its associated suffering is wrong, a rational ruling elite should pursue a policy of using a combination of redistribution and guard labor to attain social stability. If a tiny minority of society are rich enough, and everyone else is poor enough, it will cost the rich minority more to hire guards to keep the starving masses out of their palaces than it would to feed and educate some of those people, creating a middle class, some social mobility, and the sense that the rich are rich because they’ve earned their station, and if you buy into the system, you might join them.

There are lots of examples of this, but my favorite is the tunnels that Jo­seph Williamson paid to have dug under Liverpool after the Napoleonic War. Williamson was a local tycoon who understood that the return of armed shell-shocked infantrymen from the battlefields of Europe into a city where no work awaited them was prob­ably going to be bad news for that city’s stability. So Williamson hived off a sizable fraction of his enormous fortune and paid veterans to honeycomb the ground under Liverpool with miles and miles of tunnels from nowhere to nowhere. Williamson reasoned – probably correctly – that it was cheaper to give these veterans a wage and the dignity of work than it would be to hire enough security to defend himself from a demobilized army who felt that the nation had turned its back on them.

Not all guard labor is overtly coercive. Some of it is persuasive. The post-Reagan boom in wealth disparity also coincided with massive media deregulation, both in terms of consolidation of ownership and in the extent and nature of public service pro­gramming obligations that came along with a broadcast license. The result was a huge economic and technological revolution in media, ending in the creation of the five vast media empires that own virtually all the music, movies, news broadcasting, print journalism, publishing, and cable/satellites in the world, and in many cases these companies also own the pipes – the telephone and cable wires.

This has made the conveyance of socially stabilizing messages more tractable than ever. Study after study has found the press to be sympathetic with the narrative of the deserving rich, equating taxation with theft, and hostile to labor and regulation. The rise of Fox News and its global counterpart, Sky News, as well as the collapse of the newspaper industry into the hands of a few companies that are largely owned by hedge funds and billionaires, means that messages questioning the legitimacy of great fortunes are thin on the ground.

The telecoms and media revolution of the late 20th century made guard labor cheaper, changing the balance between spending on redistribution and force to attain social stability. When guarding your fortune is cheaper, you can afford to piss off more people by getting richer instead of sharing with them.

The 21st century has been very kind to guard labor. In addition to great leaps and bounds in making military tools available to local police depart­ments, the 21st century has seen the rise of the Internet, and, thanks to loose regulation over telecoms and consolidation, the rise of a tiny number of Internet giants who are privy to every single action and transaction of practically everyone on Earth, all seven billion of us.

The massive Internet surveillance revealed by the whistleblower Edward Snowden showed that governments – and the rich people who dominate policy circles in direct proportion with how much of the national wealth they command – have figured out that all they need to do to put the whole planet under surveillance is to subvert those Internet giants, either overtly (as when the spy agency GCHQ pays BT handsomely for letting it wiretap the fiber trunks that land on British shores) or covertly (as when the NSA secretly tapped the fiber links between the data centers used by companies like Google, Yahoo, and Facebook).

It’s hard to overstate just how efficient surveillance has become in the 21st century. Critics of mass Internet surveillance like to compare the NSA and its allied spy services to the Stasi, the secret police of the former East Germany, who were notorious for the pervasive and suffocating blanket of surveillance with which they smothered the country. But the Stasi were engaged in pre-Internet surveillance, and they were very expensive guard labor by modern standards.

In 1989, the last year of the Stasi’s operation, there were 16,111,000 people in East Germany, and 264,096 operatives of one kind or another in the pay of the Stasi, including 173,081 ‘‘unofficial informants’’ (snitches). That’s a ratio of one spy to every 60 people.

It’s hard to know exactly how many people work for the NSA – so much of its budget is black, and so many of its operations are carried out by its pri­vate enterprise partners, like Booz Allen, Edward Snowden’s former employer. But we do know how many Americans have security clearance (4.9 million), and how many of them have Top Secret clearance (1.4 million), and so we can be pretty sure that it’s less than 1.4 million people (because the people with Top Secret clearance also need to be apportioned to the CIA, FBI, DOD, etc.). In addi­tion, NSA surveillance is assisted by foreign spies, especially those in the other ‘‘five eyes’’ countries (Canada, the UK, Australia, and New Zealand), but all of those spies will be a drop in the bucket compared to the US surveillance apparatus – the US alone accounts for a third of the world’s total military spending, and only two of the remaining five eyes countries (the UK and Australia) even appear on the top-fifteen list of military spenders.

Being generous, though, let’s say there’s 1.4 mil­lion NSA spies and associated staff, including in the five eyes – 1.4 million people to surveil seven billion humans, give or take a couple.

That’s a spy:subject ratio of 1:5000 – two orders of magnitude greater than the Stasi. The Stasi used an army to surveil a nation; the NSA uses a battalion to surveil a planet. Compared to the NSA, the Stasi were artisanal craftsmen.

And while it’s true that the US surveillance ap­paratus has grown mightily since the Reagan era – some agencies have had their budgets increased fourfold since the Berlin Wall fell – it certainly hasn’t grown a hundredfold. Even with the budgets obscured and shrouded in deception, it’s clear that the geometric rise in spying volume was accompa­nied by a merely linear increase in spying resource expenditure.

In other words, the cost of one of the crucial pieces of guard labor is in free-fall, and has been since the Internet started to take off.

Here’s where we get back to Piketty and social stability. Rich people need stability, at least enough to keep banks and commerce humming.

Wealth gaps destabilize society, and restabilizing society is a choice between the cost of lifting people out of poverty, or making sure you can head them off before they bust out the guillotines (or knock down the Berlin Wall).

When guard labor gets cheaper, the sustainable gap between the rich and the poor gets wider. A two order of magnitude drop in the price of separating the wolves from the sheep amongst the have-nots is a powerful argument against providing social programs, or labor laws, or tenants’ rights – sure, deprivation makes the population restless, but we can pinpoint whom to arrest, or discredit, or blackmail, or render, with incredible reliability for pennies. Let ’em eat social media.

This is bad news, because huge wealth disparity doesn’t just destabilize society due to poverty – it also destabilizes through corruption. In a society where lawmakers must raise tens of millions to take and hold office, the influence of the wealthy grows. This is pretty clear in autocratic regimes – you can go to jail in Thailand for criticizing the royals; exposing slave labor conditions in Qatar is likewise an offense.

But it’s also true in the USA. In April 2014, aca­demics from Princeton and Northwestern published ‘‘Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens’’, in the journal Perspectives and Politics. It was a massive study of 20 years’ worth of policy battles in the US Congress and Administrative Branch, and it concluded that these policy outcomes favored the richest 10 percent of Americans nearly all of the time – policy outcomes that favored middle earners were so rare that they didn’t even register above the level of statistical noise.

In a society of extreme wealth gaps, the only policies that flourish have to have a business-model. They have to make someone outside of Congress or Parliament rich, so that a person can spend some of the money she’s taking home on influencing politi­cians to maintain and expand the policy.

There are probably some things that states do that can produce surplus capital for a few people and still do good, but there are other areas where this is certainly untrue. Education, for example – you can certainly run a school like a business, using ‘‘accountability’’ as your main metric, with standardized tests and attendance scores instead of the judgment of educators, or scholarly evidence about real learning.

Using this methodology, you can produce hand­some profits for companies that figure out how to improve standardized test scores and reduce absenteeism (for example, by cramming students for tests instead of giving them arts and physical education instruction, and by kicking out students who have problems with this regime, or whose per­sonal problems make them frequently absent from school). This will make your quarterly reports rise and rise in a way that will warm the heart of any Wall Street analyst, but good luck finding someone with any pedagogical credibility who will say that the kids are doing anything like ‘‘learning.’’

I’ll level with you: this freaks me out. The expan­sion of surveillance means that the natural checks and balances on inequality, already insufficient, have been shuffled around to favor true oligarchy. It’s yet another reason to get your friends using cryptographic tools, especially those that run on free and open source software. As I write this in January 2015, Obama, the New York Attorney General, and the head of the FBI have all called for bans on the civilian use of crypto, as has the UK Prime Minister David Cameron. Banning crypto is an ambitious project that’s unlikely to succeed – it combines all the dumbest aspects of the War on Some Drugs with the War on File Sharing – but that doesn’t mean that the move to make us all vulnerable to surveillance won’t do real damage.

Time is running out. It’s five minutes to midnight. Have you encrypted your hard drive yet?

Simon Ings: Hyperreal

Simon Ings was born July 1965 in Horndean, Hampshire, England. He attended King’s College in London, where he studied English. His first SF story was ‘‘Blessed Fields’’ (1989). Debut novel Hot Head (1992) and sequel Hotwire (1995) were cyberpunk, of sorts. Other works of SF include City of the Iron Fish (1994) and Headlong (1999). Painkillers (2000) is a thriller with some SF elements, while The Weight of Numbers (2006) and Dead Water (2011) are big, ambitious literary works. He returned to SF with Wolves (2014), about augmented reality. He also wrote non-fiction The Eye: A Natural History (2007). Ings edits Arc, the SF magazine produced by New Scientist, where he also works as a culture editor.

Excerpts from the interview:

‘‘I work for New Scientist as their culture editor. I’m running around, going to openings and reading books and interviewing people and things like that. That’s me, really. No gigantic foreign adventures or anything, I’ve just been nose to the ground. No foreign legion service, sadly. Because I get out so infrequently, it means that when I do get out it tends to get written up in my science fiction. Basically me on my holidays is my entire science fiction output. And then I misuse notes, so if I have to write about Havana I take notes from Blackpool, and put them in Havana. Then everyone runs around going, ‘That’s an incredible vision of Havana! How futuristic it looks!’ I say, ‘Thank you, that’s my job. Leave your money at the door and go.’ ”


‘‘I made a very big deal about leaving science fiction. I just hated everyone. I hated the people I collaborated with. I hated my publisher. My publisher hated me. I was getting low sales. After a while of moaning and sitting under the beer tap grumbling, it suddenly dawned on me that I was being a screaming narcissist, because in SF, you’re a big fish in a small pond within seconds. You get talked up and your sales are tiny. Your actual fan base, your readership, is tiny. But you’re made to feel as if you’re the best thing since sliced bread. I think I was quite a weak character then. I never really had to grow up because I started writing young. I had success pretty quickly. I was being published before I was 25. Proper novels with proper publishers, which is nice. The assumption I suppose was, ‘Oh, he’s swanning off to be literary because he thinks he’s too good for us.’ What I was doing was the reverse: getting out of an environment where I was far too comfortable. I realized that I didn’t hate anyone: I hated myself as reflected by the genre. I didn’t want to be this formlessly promising twit. I just wanted some time on my own to do something odd, different, and away from that very tight community. It panned out. I was very happy to do that. It meant that I acquired a non-fiction career as well as developing a really odd novel style, which I can always come back to.”


“The reason all creative industries are full of people who are no good is because they have the calling, they have the passion, they have the love, and they have the good will – but they have no ability to realize they’re no good. It’s just not there. My ex is the agent for Lawrence Durrell’s estate. What’s interesting about Durrell is the amount he threw away. This was a man who could write for his country. He was extraordinarily prolific. But although his body of published work is quite extensive, it’s really tiny compared to what he churned out, and he was very good at throwing stuff away. Because it’s been his centenary, every squirrelly academic from every Midwestern college is saying, ‘There’s this lost Larry Durrell manuscript that we must publish!’ The house is full of bad Larry Durrell, and the agency and the estate are constantly turning down these academics. ‘He threw this away. The only reason he didn’t discard it in a bin is because he’s a writer and he might need that scene later. This is not for publication.’ That’s part of the writer’s job. They published an unpublished John Wyndham novel. There’s a reason why it was unpublished. It does him no service whatsoever, because that’s now part of his canon, which is ridiculous because he couldn’t make it work.”

“When I started Wolves, augmented reality seemed to be about taking things in and out of the picture plane and creating gamelike environments. By the time I finished Wolves, though all those things are still true and interesting, the whole conversation has moved into Google Glass, which is about taking your personal experience through time and selling it back to you as a commodity. That’s a completely different book. If you started the story talking about, ‘I wonder what Google is doing?’ you would be royally screwed because those guys turn on a penny. For the same reason, when I wrote Wolves, I took out every cultural signifier I could. There are recognizable places in there, but I don’t name them. The character names are not English, they’re pan-European. I reached for names that could work across Europe – names like ‘Anna’ that are culturally unspecific. ‘Conrad’ as well. When you do that, you get this weird shimmery discomfiting but hyperreal surface, which is something I absolutely adore. It doesn’t have a science fiction/fantasy quotient, but the political and geographical references have been rigorously stripped out. It’s not easy to do. You end up with something magical-feeling and odd. It is a literary novel, but it would be insane to sell it that way. It’s way better to say it’s a science fiction novel, knowing the science fiction readership is now so dispersed and so well read that they’ll get what you’re trying to do without difficulty, and will provide a larger readership and a larger conversation. It seemed perfectly natural to publish it as science fiction, even having sworn I’d never do that again. Time moves on and people move on. I want to reach science fiction readers now.”

“To be honest, the future of digital is print. The economics of small editions are fantastic. Print distribution isn’t going away, and people are waking up to the fact that there’s this fantastic engine running slightly on idle at the moment, because publishing is in a fairly difficult state. All of that warehousing and distribution is a network that must not be thrown away. Distribution is an interesting industry to be in – not easy, but interesting. The other thing is, people hate buying products that give them nothing to show for their purchase. You can’t give an e-book to your children. We’ve evolved to wander a fair number of miles a day, and within that acreage know pretty much where everything is. The idea that we can more effectively engage with the world via a screen that’s three inches by two…. It’s not even insane. It’s not clever enough to be insane. The most famous scientific put down is, ‘This isn’t even wrong.’ That’s just the best line. There is no right way of doing things, that’s the appalling thing. Arc is an exercise in servicing formats that die just as we release the magazine. We’ve tried to service everything. We’ve gone through so many ways of doing the magazine that seem daft now but seemed sensible at the time. There was a time when it seemed easy to address every e-reader and produce files for everyone. That day is really gone. The correct answer to someone who doesn’t own an iPad is, ‘Buy an iPad.’ It’s not okay to expect us to service your Breadfruit 3-9000.”

Kameron Hurley: The Privilege to Publish; the Power to Persevere

There are two very broad schools of thought when it comes to teaching new writers the ropes: one is the kinder, gentler ‘‘you’re a special, beautiful snowflake of win’’ school of teaching. Writing and publishing are difficult enough, the thought goes; exercises in bruised ego and disappointment. Why discourage so many up front when plenty will be discouraged later? We should nurture every tender new talent. They will be squashed soon enough, right?

The other track says: grind them down early. Be blisteringly honest. Dissuade them. Those who can be dissuaded early, this school of thought says, will be the first to fall when things get difficult. Why not give them a dose of reality up front, to weed them out before they go too far down a path that will only break their hearts?

What we don’t question is the business itself, and how we can transform it into one that celebrates and rewards a diversity of voices, instead of holding up the same dreary talent from the same dreary segments of the same dreary places year after year.

We don’t discuss the relative privilege of those we teach, of those who pursue writing, and how their success depends less on talent and more on the safety net they have in place and the raw grit they have to persevere in the face of continual rejection and failure. A novel advance doesn’t have to pay the bills if you have a trust fund, a well-paid spouse, ample savings from a prior job, or a family willing to support you while you plunk away in the apartment above the garage. The extraordinary low pay for entry level and even mid-career writers isn’t sustainable for many of us. You can’t eat on most book advances these days. If you’re lucky, you can buy a used car with one: a used car with 200,000 miles on it (which I did indeed do with a book advance not long ago).

Outside of the fiction and content-mill freelancing world, corporate copywriting pays far better, even if you manage more failures than successes. Marketing and advertising work holds value because it makes profit-driven companies a profound amount of money that’s easily tracked back to their efforts. Corporations recognize the power of words to drive people to action. Words and images have gotten people to wear deodorant daily, brush their teeth regularly, smoke cigarettes that kill them, wear seatbelts, and consume far too much of… well, just about everything. Hollywood writers, too, can demand higher rates, but that’s largely due to their efforts at organizing, not because production studios and investors are eager to have them know how much a good story is worth (hint: a lot; much more than many are getting paid, even now).

What keeps the rates for general fiction and online content mills low is that so many of us are so desperate for work, and so alone in the process of creating it, that we’re happy to write for traffic, for exposure, for a contributor’s copy, while the dragon that eats us plays in her pile of money – whether it’s a puddle or a mountain of it. Content drives the world. Stories inspire us to action. Stories tell us who we are, who we should be; they paint a picture of the future. We all know their inherent power. So why don’t we demand their real worth?

Sometimes I think it’s because the only ones of us left in this business are the writers with safety nets. The writers who have another way to eat, and have the privilege, yes, privilege, of persevering even in the face of constant rejection. I’ve been aware at every turn that I had advantages others didn’t: middle-class parents who didn’t insist I get a real career. A grandfather who paid for graduate school in a cheap foreign country. No children of my own, or parents or siblings I had to care for. Medical debt, yes, but not enough to bankrupt me. For every hardship I encountered, the reality is that I’m sitting here writing a column for a venue that a limited number of folks will ever write for.

That may not feel like much, but there are better writers than me. Smarter writers. I bought into the myth of talent, myself, when I was first starting out. But as I watched other writers fall by the wayside, I realized how complicated success truly was. I saw people quit due to medical disasters. I saw people quit because they had children. People who quit because their spouse or partner did not support them. I saw people quit because they could not justify a ‘‘hobby’’ that took up so much time and brought in so little income. Most often, though, I saw people quit because they simply lost hope. They did not have the confidence. They understood the odds, and accepted them.

Watching other writers fall made me wonder why people didn’t quit. Privilege helped: all of the advantages mentioned previously. Of those who were able to write at all, there were some who wrote a hit the first time out, neatly avoiding the worst of the slog to publication, the endless meandering rollercoaster ride toward earning an advance one could actually live on. Some simply loved the act of writing, and ignored the business; they had enough financial security that they didn’t have to be too concerned about the business part. But among everyone I’ve encountered during my decade in the business, what those who stuck with it had in common was a desire to succeed at it that trumped all else, a desire to hang on at the edge of the precipice by their fingertips, if need be, and to sacrifice hobbies, television watching, social vents, other careers, and even relationships to carve out more time to hone their craft. More often than not, they had formed connections with other writers, friendships through workshops or conventions or in virtual social spaces, that gave them the support they needed to survive when their grit ground out.

I wonder if it’s possible to create an art, a business, that’s more welcoming to the talented people we lose during the grind. I wonder if we can be honest about how difficult it is while also being supportive to those who struggle, instead of telling them to suck it up. The profession we’ve chosen is not easy – but nor is becoming a brain surgeon or a nuclear scientist or a marine biologist. We choose, and we work, and we hope we get lucky. We hope that life’s oftentimes tragic circumstances don’t waylay us on the journey there. We are lucky if we start three steps ahead of others, with money in the bank, a supportive family, good health. It costs us nothing, if we’re starting three steps ahead, not only to reach a hand out to help those behind, but to work toward building a world that reduces the distance so many have from the starting line.

I have seen the cultures that ‘‘just suck it up’’ companies build, and they are filled with the same cruel people, the same hungry, selfish faces. I don’t want to build a writing community like that, where only the biggest jerk on the island wins. We do people a disservice by pretending that the game isn’t rigged, and that selfish people don’t get ahead.

Maybe the best road, the best map to hand to someone breaking into the business, is to say, ‘‘Yes, this is hard. It’s full of horrible people, sometimes. You’re going to be rejected, and lonely, and feel great despair and outrage and sorrow. But if you stay here, if you stick with it, you can be part of building a better way through, of busting down a wall, yanking down some barbed wire, or just being the lifeline for a new writer who needs a sympathetic ear before she throws in the towel. If you survive the road that gets you here, you can help build a new road that others can travel more easily.’’

That’s the school of writing I want to teach. The hopeful but pragmatic one, where we’re all in this together, and the best is yet to come.

Lauren Beukes: Shining Girl

Lauren-Ann Beukes was born June 5, 1976 and grew up in Johannesburg, South Africa. She earned a MA in creative writing from the University of Cape Town, and spent a decade as a freelance journalist working in South Africa and the US. She has also worked as a writer and developer for children’s television.

She began publishing short fiction in 2004. Her debut novel Moxyland appeared in 2008, and was followed by Arthur C. Clarke Award winner Zoo City (2010), also a finalist for the World Fantasy and Crawford Awards. The Shining Girls (2013) won the August Derleth Award for Best Horror Novel, the prestigious literary University of Johannesburg Prize, and the Strand Critic’s Choice Award for Best Mystery Novel. Her newest novel is Broken Monsters (2014). She also wrote non-fiction book Maverick: Extraordinary Women from South Africa’s Past (2005) and has written comics and short fiction. She was a finalist for the Campbell Award for Best New Writer in 2011.

Beukes lives in Cape Town, South Africa with her family.

Excerpts from the interview:

‘‘My parents were always very liberal. They weren’t part of the anti-apartheid struggle, but they were involved in their church in housing and feeding programs. I grew up with the fundamental understanding, which a lot of white South Africans didn’t have, that black people are people, too. I went to a private school, which meant there were black kids in my class. Government schools were completely segregated. It was a very strange time. We had ruthless censorship of the media. All the news stories you guys saw about apartheid were not what we saw. We were sheltered from the terrible things our government was doing. There were so many ridiculous things. For example, the South African apartheid government banned the book Black Beauty. Not because they had anything against horses, but because the words ‘black’ and ‘beauty’ can’t possibly fit together. It’s crazy – these dictatorial states that are just laughably bad.”


‘‘Both Moxyland and Zoo City are apartheid allegories. Moxyland is a neo-cooperate apart­heid. I was looking at how this terrible system might come into play again when, supposedly, we’ve learned better, and at how we’re controlled by our cell phones and convenience. With Zoo City, it’s looking at crime and how we talk about crime and criminals. It’s every South African din­ner party conversation, which inevitably turns into: ‘My friend’s place was broken into. My car was hijacked.’ It’s very painful, but it’s also very banal. We lose sight of what it means, and why people are committing crimes in the first place. I was also very interested in reconciliation. The Big Crocodile president died around the time I started working on the novel. He was a terrible man. He authorized third party violence to create political unrest and tried to tip the country into civil war with secret, CIA-level dealings, giving guns to one group and telling them to attack another to make it look like ‘those black people’ were out of control. He authorized the assassination hit squads and the torture camps and everything else. So he was a terrible man. He died, living in his swanky retirement village up the coast – and the ANC government threw him a state funeral. I couldn’t believe it. I was horrified. I was like, ‘This man is responsible for your friends’ deaths, for any num­ber of atrocities.’ They flew the flags at half mast above parliament. I thought, ‘This is insane, this is disgusting.’ Then I realized that it’s actually a gesture of incredible grace and reconciliation, to extend that level of honour to a man who doesn’t deserve it. I thought, ‘What’s wrong with me, that I can’t forgive and offer that gesture of reconcili­ation?’ That’s what Zoo City was trying to work out: how do you forgive, and can you reconcile?”


‘‘The Shining Girls is set in Chicago, where I lived during 2000-2001. I moved to New York for love, and it was a complete disaster. I had friends in Chicago, so I went and stayed with them and did some journalism.

‘‘I wanted to write a book about a time-travel­ling serial killer, but I didn’t want to do Bill and Ted’s Excellent Killing Spree Through Time. I wanted to look at the 20th century and how it shaped us. In South Africa that would have been an apartheid story, and that’s all it could have been, because that’s so overwhelming. How do you talk about other stuff? You have to address it. So I decided to set it in Chicago. In South Af­rica we like to think we do corruption and crime and segregation best, but Chicago’s pretty good at those things. …

“I wanted to write about ordinary people and show they had a huge role to play in the world. None of the shining girls was going to be the next president of the United States, or stop the financial crash, but they made a difference in their contexts. I wanted a Red, I wanted an abortionist, I wanted a showgirl (just because showgirls are great). I wanted one of them to be transgender, to show what it was like to be trans in the 1940s and 1950s. I was very inter­ested in Jim Crow laws. Segregation and justice is always a huge part of my work, coming from the South African perspective. …

“Actual serial killers are not diabolical Hannibal Lecters. They’re not super smart. Some of them can be charming and functional, but many of them are pathetic lonesome losers who feel powerless in the world. A lot of them have sexual impotence, but a lot of them just feel impotent in their lives. They don’t have any insight into what they do. If you hear interviews with serial killers in prison, they’re like, ‘I don’t know, I just felt like it. It got me off.’ There’s no deep meaning. Some of them were abused as kids. Some of them, some­thing happened where they were broken inside – maybe they didn’t get enough food and that affect­ed their brain development. We desperately want there to be a good reason for serial killers. We want their family to have been eaten by cannibals, and this, this is why they turned into diabolical monsters. But they’re not monsters, they’re just pathetic men; they’re vile opportunists.”


‘‘I’m always secretly writing about Johannes­burg. The Detroit of Broken Monsters is really Hillbrow MI. Chicago in The Shining Girls is really Johannesburg IL. But these things are uni­versal. Hillbrow as a neighbourhood is held up as an example of everything wrong with South Africa: the poverty and boarded-up buildings and refugees and crime. People say the same things about Detroit. It is a symbol of ‘‘everything wrong with this country’’. People still live there, though – they’re still mowing their lawns and raising their kids, and that’s what I wanted to get at. Detroit is this incredibly evocative city, and it is this terrible symbol. You go and there are abandoned lots with one house standing, and there are feral dogs, and broken-down factories, and junk. It’s evocative because it’s the ruins of our civilization. It’s not the Acropolis – it’s us.”

Spotlight on: David Pomerico, Editorial Director

David Pomerico joined Harper Voyager in Spring 2014 as editorial director, coming from Spectra, Del Rey, and, most recently, 47North, where he helped launch the imprint. He is focused on all things science fiction and fantasy and very excited to be heading up Harper Voyager US. He loses some nerd-cred with the fact he’s never seen Doctor Who, but he feels he makes up for it with his ultimate goal of becoming Spaceman Spiff.

You’ve recently joined Voyager. What’s your vision as an editor? Do you have a particular niche you hope to fill?

Well, as I stare at the computer more, my vision is getting worse and worse….

Oh, I think you mean something else.

Seriously, my vision is to help continue the great science fiction and fantasy tradition at Harper Voyager. Voyager has been doing such an amazing job in terms of fantasy, being the publisher of bestsellers like Kim Harrison, Richard Kadrey, Raymond Feist, and Robin Hobb. So I think one area that I’m really excited about is expanding our list a bit, specifically in terms of science fiction. I joined a Voyager list that had some great authors (and authors to be published) in that genre, such as James Smythe, Ian Douglas, Emmi Itaranta, Nick Cole, and Mel Odom, but it’s an area I specifically love, and wanted to see more of. I like the idea of having a balanced list – something for every kind of speculative reader – so being able to already add authors like Jay Allan, Elizabeth Bonesteel, and Warren Hammond on the sci-fi side (and Michael Fletcher and Sarah Beth Durst in fantasy), to name a few, will really help grow Voyager.

Before joining Voyager you were an editor at Amazon’s SF imprint, 47North. How did it differ from more traditional New York publishing houses, in terms of opportunities and challenges?

Probably the biggest difference is just the business model itself. At 47North, my job was mostly as an acquisitions editor, finding projects I thought would be a good fit for the imprint and then facilitating the production and sale of the books without always being the hands-on editor of the specific project. There was a focus on analyzing data and using that to get my authors’ books into the hands of the most readers – and there was something very satisfying about the way I was part of that process, constantly evaluating what was or wasn’t working, and adjusting accordingly to maximize a book’s potential.

Perhaps the biggest misconception in the industry, though, is that there is that big of a difference. Yes, I’m editing more. Yes, print is a larger component of the model at Voyager than at 47North. Yes, our ideas about marketing and publicity and distribution are different. But, overall, my job is very similar: find books that excite me, find authors that I’m excited to work with, and then connect those books with as many readers as possible.

One thing I’ll note that isn’t different: I’ve been lucky enough to work with some of the best teams in the business. And that passion for the genre and the books, and the commitment to my authors has definitely continued here at Voyager.

I’ll also note something else that isn’t different, and that’s that I’ve had a number of people ask about my various jobs in publishing. I always answer the same way: it’s unbelievable that someone pays me to read science fiction and fantasy!

What trends are you seeing in SF and fantasy? What are you (and other SF/F publishers) looking for now, and what are they sick of getting?

Trends are a tricky thing, since most of them started years before actually coming to fruition. That said, I think one of the biggest trends is the slowing down in the urban fantasy market. I think we’ve had enough time playing in these worlds to see publishers focusing on what we have, and taking less chances on new projects in the paranormal sub-genres. For Voyager, Richard Kadrey’s Sandman Slim is an established character and brand, and we couldn’t be happier seeing his audience grow with each new book. That’s not to say, of course, that publishers are done with urban fantasy, just that we’re being more selective. A book like Caitlin Kittredge’s Black Dog (10/28/14) struck a chord with the team here, feeling fresh and different.

Too, trends often mean more of a shift in SF/F publishing, rather than a more binary situation. So, where urban fantasy seemed to take up much of the space formally occupied by horror, a ‘‘new’’ subgenre like dark contemporary fantasy is moving into UF’s space. For instance, a novel we’re really excited about is Alex Gordon’s debut, Gideon (1/6/15), which is in that in-between place of horror and supernatural suspense – and utterly amazing. And consider Sarah Remy’s Stonehill Downs (12/2/14), which has a touch of high fantasy mixed with police procedural, or Laura Bickle’s blend of modern Western and fantasy, Dark Alchemy (3/24/15). It’s that genre-bending which I think we’re seeing more of. And that’s what it comes down to for me when it comes to trends: sales are clearly important, but great story and great writing is always what we’re looking for first.

What particular problems does the publishing industry face now, and what new opportunities do you see?

I think the problems are pretty apparent, so I’d rather focus on the opportunities, because ultimately, that’s what excites me. The digital arena is clearly an area where many opportunities exist, and it’s a major reason we launched Voyager Impulse, our digital-first sci-fi and fantasy imprint, this past July. The idea of getting novels out quickly, with dynamic pricing – while still maintaining the physical editions through emerging print technologies – is a way for us to build Voyager authors in a new way. With the addition of the recently revamped and increasingly active social media allowing us to interact more directly with consumers, we’re moving away from the idea that publishing houses are removed from the readers.

I’m hoping, too, that these emerging print technologies (as mentioned above) will allow us to streamline the physical process, making it easier for bookstores to keep books in stock and take a chance on shelving our books. Print-on-demand quality, for example, has improved by leaps and bounds since I first started in the business. We’re truly at a point when it’s going to be impossible for a book to be ‘‘out of print’’!

Is there anything else you’d like our readers to know about you or your work?

I’ve had a bit of a motto during my time in sci-fi and fantasy publishing: everyone is a fan of the genre… they just may not realize it yet. As you see other mediums – TV, movies, video games, comic books – explode with SF/F content, it’s apparent that these are the kinds of stories audiences are connecting with. Our job in publishing, then, is to help them make those connections. You liked Guardians of the Galaxy? Why not check out this space opera book? Like the show Game of Thrones? Have you tried this other author, who touches on similar themes but in a very different way? The fact is, there’s something for everyone (heck, the Chuck Wendig novel, Zer0es (8/18/15), is as much for fans of The Bourne Identity as it is for sci-fi readers)… and that’s so cool.

In addition to this opportunity, though, editors and publishers also need to lead. We’re the genre that’s supposed to speculate, to look forward, to spin metaphors into myths and create universal stories. We have to focus our sights on great, marketable projects, but also focus on diversity – on gender and race and politics and sexual orientation and language. My biggest challenge (I know – I said I wasn’t going to talk about challenges!) is pushing the genre forward while mitigating risks. A bit paradoxical, I realize, but not impossible. Publishing has always been about taking chances – even the most commercial submission can fail – and so I (and many of my other colleagues throughout the industry) are working hard to ensure we never fall into a paint-by-numbers situation. In other words, my goal at Voyager is to not just observe and react to the genre, but – ultimately – help move if forward.

Ambitious? Yes. Fun as hell? A big yes.

Robert Jackson Bennett: Subreality

Robert Jackson Bennett was born June 22, 1984 in Baton Rouge LA and lived all over the deep south before settling in Houston TX when he was ten. He attended college at the University of Texas at Austin, where he studied English and Government.

Bennett’s debut novel Mr. Shivers (2010) won a Shirley Jackson Award, was a finalist for the Crawford Award, and earned him the Sydney J. Bounds Award for Best Newcomer. The Company Man (2011) received a special citation in the Philip K. Dick Awards and won an Edgar Award for Best Paperback Original. The Troupe appeared in 2012, and was followed by Shirley Jackson Award-winner American Elsewhere (2013). After four standalone novels set in (versions of) the real world, he switched to writing secondary-world fantasy with City of Stairs (2014), first in a series. Sequel City of Blades is forthcoming.

He lives in Austin with his wife and son.

Excerpts from the interview:

‘‘With most books I write, what I have to do is think of a plot that’s going to get me to the shit I want to talk about, which is often the fear that you’re not experiencing the world the right way. What works in American Elsewhere that’s hard to pull off in my other books is that it’s got its own narra­tive voice where it can just stop and talk about things. There’s a part where the main character talks about a friend in school having to get new glasses, and her friend didn’t know her eyes were so poor, and she talks about why that was frightening. It’s a little bit harder in most books to pause that way and talk about stuff. When you get really invested in the character and less in the narrative voice, it’s harder to stop. It’s a long book. My wife started listening to the audiobook, and she was pretty pissed off. She said, ‘Four discs in, how many discs are there?’ ‘Eighteen.’ She’s like, ‘What the hell?’

‘‘The structure of American Elsewhere feels like a series of short stories that are connected. That was a lot of fun to write. I realized about four or five chapters in, ‘I’m hopping around a lot. Let’s just keep it up and see what happens.’ Suddenly what felt like a weakness seemed like it could be a strength. I could tell a short story about someone’s life, and have them seeing something but not understanding. This is a super pretentious thing to say, but one of the influences on the book was John Crowley’s Little, Big. That’s got a lot of short stories in it, small experiences in this world where you glimpse something from the side of your eye but you don’t really understand what’s happening. It’s got that slow build going on.”


‘‘I’ve always loved the Cold War and spy novels. I love the idea that there’s something fake and transient about those lives. These people are ghosts. They go from hotel room to hotel room. They exist in this interstitial realm in urban society. I found that really interesting, the idea that spies live in a sub­reality of our own. That’s something I’ve always had in my head, this idea of a bland little man at a desk in some hotel room waiting for a phone to ring. I found that fascinating. I started to think, if I was going to write a fantasy, how would I write it? I thought: a Cold War spy novel set in Lord of the Rings would be interesting. Who’s a mole, who’s turned, who knows what, what’s happening in this region, are there insurgents here, what’s the market like?”


‘‘I thought more about it and then I started inventing this history of a group of people who had gods and used them to create an empire. I tried to think about gods not as we do now, where you never see God doing anything, but rather a world where God is next door, fucking shit up. Basically, the gods are like nukes. If you have one of them, you’ve won before you ever get to the fighting stage. So imagine a culture that had these gods, and they held the whole world hostage with them, but then someone found out a way to kill the gods, and did so. There are a lot of fun ways to use god stuff. One of them was that the gods would create these miracles that would help everyday life, like a blessing that would flush the toilet, or other infrastructural features. Things like that. You could make this whole fabric of a way of life based on the gods making these little miracles. Once the gods are dead, all of it’s gone. If they made a building, it’s gone, and everybody who was in it is gone too. It’s a disaster called the Blink, and it happened when they killed this particular god who was the builder god. He made all of these changes to their reality that nobody knew about. …

‘‘The book starts when the former slave country sends a historian there to find out a little more about the gods as a mission of cultural understanding. Of course that’s not really what he’s up to, and he gets killed. What looks to be a low-level diplomat steps in to find out what happened but of course she’s a master spy. The books I drew a lot of inspiration from were the John le Carré novels about George Smiley. They were written in the 1960s and 1970s, when James Bond in a tuxedo was shooting people and having lots of sex. Le Carré, who was an actual spy, wrote about this short fat old man who likes to read German texts and feels more like a librarian. It was thrilling for me to read about that as a kid. Smiley’s not good with a gun. He’s good at reading and records. He reads lots of reports and puts the pieces together from that. I don’t think my spy ever holds a weapon in the book. People seem to really like City of Stairs. There are readers who’ve never read my stuff and are suddenly chomping at the bit to read this.’’

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