Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Chronicles: Volume One, by Bob Dylan

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Every serious artist, as far as I can tell, perceives a need to conquer the elements of the craft from the masters who came before. I think that, on some level, most of these same artists hope to create some element that is entirely new to the craft, or to extend an already existing element beyond any previously known bounds, or to combine two elements which were prior strangers.

Like him or not, you'd be hard pressed to claim that Bob Dylan didn't accomplish any one of these feats as a songwriter; hell, you'd be hard pressed to prove that he didn't accomplish all of them. He's been part of the western social conscience for so many decades now that up-and-coming artists in any field might feel daunted looking at his accomplishments and thinking, That guy has done so much, and I could never hope to match him for creativity, production, innovation, or fame.

Which is why my favorite part of Chronicles was when Dylan waxed prosaic (the guy's a pretty great prose writer, too) on starting to write songs. (All quotes from page 51.)

He starts off with curiosity, the siren which I would argue sings to all folks crazy enough to be artists: "Sometimes you just want to do things your way, want to see for yourself what lies behind the misty curtain." But even Bob Dylan's muse doesn't simply transmit music through him like a radio antenna: "It's not like you see songs approaching and invite them in. It's not that easy."

He's driven in his craft both by ambition and by his singular experiences: "You want to write songs that are bigger than life. You want to say something about strange things that have happened to you, strange things you have seen." But he realizes that all the drive and desire and curiosity in the world isn't enough, for then comes the careful practice and application of the art: "You have to know and understand something and then go past the vernacular. The chilling precision that these old-timers used in coming up with their songs was no small thing."

While I noodle about on the guitar, I'm no songwriter. But as an author, I take both great solace and deep inspiration from knowing that one of the greatest songwriters of the last hundred years went through -- and possibly still goes through -- the same challenges that my peers and I face. Dylan's hurdles take him off a pedestal and place him in a very human sphere. He may be more talented than I am, and he's certainly more accomplished, but ultimately he's just another human with a desire to create Something Beautiful. Just like me, and maybe just like you, too.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Travels in the Interior of Africa, by Mungo Park

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First things first. I want to say, unsullied by other musings, that Mungo Park's book is a delight to read. His story is remarkable; it is his writing, though, that won my mind. He is frank and sympathetic; his eye for detail is complex and yet easily conveyed; and his spirit is (to use the inevitable next word) indomitable. (Thank you, Jenny, for giving me this book for my birthday!)
People are drawn to the "true story." I can't really understand why, to be honest. Certainly the allure has to do with the always-shocking realization that, sometimes, life itself can be as perfectly interesting and unlikely as a piece of fiction. Those three little words that sometimes follow book or movie titles are clearly meant to bring the droves a' running and make the implausible believable: "A True Story." (Or the legal-loophole version: "Based on a True Story.")

I wonder whether most folks believe that "true stories" are really and honestly true; that the portrayal of events in a book or film are precisely in the order and manner that they happened in "real life;" that somehow, because a series of events actually occurred and wasn't simply made up in some artist's head, it inherently contains more truth than a made-up piece of work.

No, even those "true stories" that are told by your favorite uncle at a family barbeque are tweaked to make the telling better, to make the implausible more plausible, and to make the mundane monumental. That's what a storyteller's job is.

Thank goodness that Travels in the Interior of Africa doesn't begin with some such declaration of veracity. Mungo Park convinces me that his story is true in the purest sense, which is not to say the literal sense.

Whether his story is true or not doesn't matter a whit. Do I believe that he could carry the entirety of his travel journal in the brim of his hat at the end of his journey? Not really. That's the romanticism throughout that makes Park's tale so appealing and appetizing. Fully true or not, his tale is the sort of vacation-in-a-book that we all need, once in a while.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Bunnicula, by Deborah and James Howe

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The pleasures of reading aloud are possibly topped only by the pleasures of being read aloud to. I imagine many of the readers of this blog spent an incredible number of childhood hours snuggled up on the couch or in bed with someone reading from the pages of a cherished book, or a brand-new library book, or an old family book finally pulled off the shelf.

The simple act of reading aloud together must trigger so many aspects of our humanity that signal to us that the world is at rights. We get the intimacy of metered voices, the vibrations of speech humming between our bodies, the shared vicarious adventures and explorations and discoveries, the naturally close physical proximity... I think there's several good reasons that my golden retriever would plop down next to us every time we read aloud as a family.

Yet we lose the pleasures of reading aloud once we grow older. Short of having another little kid around the place who deserves and yearns to be read to, why would we take the time to read a story together? Most of us read more quickly silently and alone than we can out loud, and even if you have the time and the willingness to do so, then there's the issue of what particular book to read out loud. It's just so... complicated, right?

But for just a moment, I want you to think back to those times of being read to. Think of how perfect the world was when someone held you with one arm and a book with the other. Think of how you could hear and feel the person's voice through his or her body, or through the couch cushions. Remember the change in tone that let you know just where in the story you were -- was everything lost for our hero, or was she about to triumph?

If you can recall those times in your life and not want to read aloud to someone, I'd love to donate you to science for just a while. Reading together, in my experience, is one of the most natural-feeling activities we as humans have. I highly recommend seizing someone important to you, whether it's a child or your romantic partner doesn't matter, and asking them if you'd like to read a book together. Pick your favorite book as a grown-up, find a new book at the library, or pull that old childhood favorite out from the closet under the stairs and give it a go.

My own partner and I wish we read together more often, though we're finding it easy to make time once we put a little effort into it. Our latest Halloween-themed venture -- Bunnicula -- was one of her childhood staples, and I had never read it before. After sitting down with it and three of its sequels (Howliday Inn, The Celery Stalks at Midnight, and Nighty-Nightmare), I feel like I know her and understand her a little better.

Tally one more for reading aloud bringing people closer together.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Molly Fox's Birthday, by Deirdre Madden

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(This post may be most relevant for the readers of this blog who are in or ever think they might be in a writing workshop of any kind.)

One of my two regular writing workshops this fall is with Deirdre Madden, the author of Molly Fox's Birthday and a number of other books. I've never been in a workshop at this level before this semester, so in large part I had no idea what to expect. Ultimately, while I can enjoy many aspects of the class, I notice that my classmates' most common complaint is one I can sympathize with. The teacher, while insightful in her feedback, tends to want more of the same exact thing out of each writer's work.

In short, she always wants to see a better evocation of place; in other words, she wants to see every detail of people, of rooms, of objects, of landscape, of anything that is present in a scene.

Bullheaded writers that we are, we declare that our writing doesn't need such level of detail, that our writing emphasizes other aspects than the visual. I'm as bad as the next student.

Then I read Molly Fox's Birthday. It's a lovely book, and quite enjoyable for someone just getting to know Dublin like I am. What I took away from it, though, is that Deirdre writes through the visual details. That is, she doesn't simply evoke place--she puts the place to work, and through her descriptions, the reader learns an incredible amount about the characters, their motivations, their desires, their makeup.

The solution clicked. What each of us in class was failing to do was not necessarily including enough details about place. What we were failing to do was find our own ways to evoke the essence of the characters populating our work. Deirdre distills her characters though visible physical details; no matter how we were doing it, if we were doing it successfully, she would probably never take issue with the visual in our work.

So to all workshoppers present and future: I really do recommend reading the work of your teachers. You'll likely gain an interpretive insight into their feedback that will help you decode their comments on your work and aid you in revising and improving your writing.

Friday, September 23, 2011

American Pastoral, by Philip Roth

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Great stories can have all sorts of aspects that make them great, and I believe one of the more common ones to be an incredible opening for voyeurism.

Now I know that the term carries heavy sexual weight in colloquial usage, usually taboo. And sometimes, the voyeurism that appears in stories deals with one person (typically the reader, right?) watching a sexual act involving any number of people. But what I mean here is the broader definition of the word. Any story, unless it is the reader's own autobiography, involves a great amount of peeping into another world, another life, often even another mind.

Part of the reason for this great voyeuristic tendency is that we want to experience moments that are not our own. Hell, we enjoy such vicarious living through reading. Or at least, we do when the voyeurism is good. When the world we're spying on is engaging. When it's enthusiastic about its own existence.

I find that Philip Roth captures this particular enthusiasm in American Pastoral. What do I care about gloves, right? If they're not keeping my hands warm, I don't give a flying hoot. Then he (or rather, his character) gets to talking about gloves of all sorts. The styles. The stitches. The sizes. The materials. The manufacturing process, the shifts in the industry in the last century, the exportation of labor and the decrease of quality.

All that information could be a total yawner. However, the enthusiasm of the Swede (the central figure) is entirely contagious. Not only did I buy into it within the context of the story; he got me caring about gloves in my own world.

The voyeuristic window is two-way, in that regard. You can see through to the characters, who usually cannot see back through to you, but they are able to radiate influence through the pages. Done well, this influence smacks you where it counts. The magic is that although you, the reader, are the one gifted with sight, you are always unable to exert such an impact on the characters. The sensation of story-irradiation is rare enough, and done well, I believe it's an experience worth treasuring. Those are the stories that change the world we live in.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

The Grand Design, by Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow, and Skippy Dies, by Paul Murray

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My my, this is an unlikely pairing: a new publication from the rock-star physicist unveiling his latest theory of the universe, and a hilarious long novel from a new Irish writer.

The pairing is perfectly suitable, though. Both of these books are woven through with M-theory.

If you want to know about M-theory, go do some reading up. Undoubtedly some bloggers more scientifically-educated than I am have discoursed on it at great length. (It's some pretty cool stuff. Such as: All possible universes could exist, and we just happen to be in the one where we exist. It makes our very existence at once inevitable and awe-inspiring.) And, you know, Hawking's book is eminently readable, even for the not-at-all scientifically inclined. He sticks true to the formula stated in his A Brief History of Time: for every mathematical equation included in the book, his sales would halve. So he keeps it in the vernacular, with lots of pretty pictures.

Actually, for a novel, Skippy Dies handles the potentially-sticky subject quite deftly, too. If you believe that stories should be about the more tangible and more emotional aspects of life, then you haven't read about how M-theory (and astrophysics in general) can affect the life of socially-excluded teenage boys.

The point of this rambling is that, whatever the definition of art, if it contains beauty, then it can (and should, and does) encompass the creation of the universe and the meaning of life and other such important things in mathematical terms as well as the philosophical, religious, and emotional ones we're so familiar with. Theoretical science can be as poignant as a master painting, a deer grazing grass, or the heart broken by first love. When Murray and Hawking get their hands on M-theory, they evoke it with the same passion they clearly feel for the subject and thus bring forth its inherent stellar beauty.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Little Women, by Louisa May Alcott

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I was all kinds of pumped to read this book. (Yes, I had to get over the big brother in me who saw all my little sisters reading this book at one time or another and automatically assumed it would be a girl book.) I've been told it makes grown men cry. So I borrowed a copy and gave it a go.

Little Women is a beautiful, lovely book. I can see how, if I weren't madly taken by a real flesh-and-blood woman, I could fall in love for Jo March. At the very least, I sympathize with her entirely--and when her little sister destroys her book, I get angrier than Jo, and I am less quick to forgive.

The problem is, this book is continuing my recent trend (see Innocents Abroad) of books not giving me the whole story. Of course, none of these books bother to announce that they are incomplete, or one part of a multi-volume set. Maybe everyone else in the world knows that Little Women is multiple books. I didn't. I got to the end and wondered how anyone could cry at that ending. Then I wondered if I was more callous than I had ever imagined.

Nope. I just got shafted. Again. So I don't feel particularly qualified to say more on the topic yet. One of these days, I will find the rest of Alcott's tale, and I'm looking forward to it.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The Innocents Abroad, by Mark Twain

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Quick post on this one:

In the Venn diagram of "international travel," "American author," and "humor," not many titles fall in the cumulative overlap. Yet because I like to think I might have a claim to all three at times, I wanted to read a book during this build-up to moving to Ireland to which I could relate, or which I could at least appreciate.

So I picked up the old copy of The Innocents Abroad that's been sitting on some shelf or another for over five years now, ever since I bought it at a book market in London, and gave it a go.

Whatever a writer's own inclinations, reading Mark Twain is an educational experience. His prose is an exemplar of intellectual vernacular, of sentences as involved and complex as any Victorian yet which are as easily understood as the speech of a dear friend.

I feel confident having his voice echoing in my mind as I embark on this new adventure abroad. His skills and influence cannot but strengthen my own writing.

(Though reader be warned: apparently, some copies of The Innocents Abroad don't include the full text. They are filled with promises of reaching the Holy Land, only to cut you off somewhere in the Mediterranean without so much as an indication that you've been cruising through Volume 1 of some indeterminate number of volumes. Not that I'm bitter or anything. At least it's not Mark's fault.)

Sunday, August 14, 2011

The Hotel New Hampshire, by John Irving

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As I dig into the craft of writing, certain questions of The Canon continue to puzzle me. The Canon for me was established in high school as this set of writers who had Made It, who had done more than merely create Literature but had indeed shaped it, altered its course, defined what we high school students were destined to read.

Then, for anyone who reads a book after high school, The Canon becomes a much fuzzier reality (though still very, very real). Some rebel against it--if it's Canonical, it ain't cool; many in this crowd will defend Watchmen to the end as if no one has accepted it as Literature. To so many people who think like this, anything with Literary Merit must be boring, self-indulgent, and never intended to sell more than ten copies. Some other people struggle to alter The Canon's definition; an entire branch of Academia is dedicated to finding J.R.R. Tolkien a place in The Canon. (I happen to agree with them.) And some expand The Canon to include anything Literary.

This is where John Irving's writing puzzles me deeply. His work is Literary--probably every single review or endorsement mentions somewhere its Dickensian qualities. Yet he sells incredibly well, has several books adapted to film, and has even won an Oscar. And the content. Literary my arse!

But why not? Why shouldn't a story that includes incestual lust, motorcycle-riding bears, an Austrian brothel-slash-hotel, and a baseball-bat-wielding blind man named Freud be acceptable Literature?

Apparently, it is. (Though try describing this book to anyone, anyone, and they'll think it's all kinds of messed up. Also, if you recommend it to your remarkably picky selective English friend, he will probably be speechless for the first time.) At least, it's not shunned the way genre fiction is.

(Note how genre doesn't get the Winnie-the-Pooh capital letter treatment. Think of your snottiest college professors, and now think about how they would say "genre fiction." It deserves a leering italic font!)

I don't mean to come across like a complete relativist here, but I just wonder why we value some works over others. The Hotel New Hampshire may not be Irving's best-known book, but some lucky kids get to read his writing in high school. Yet this book has moments that make Tom Robbins say "Daaaaaayum!" And I'm pretty sure, no matter how rock-star popular Robbins is, he will never be considered as Literary as Irving.

The Canon will never be fully decided or even understood. But contemplating it cannot but be a healthy activity for the book-minded folks of the world.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Leviathan Wakes, by James S.A. Corey

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When I wrote about Bitter Seeds before, I mentioned that it bumped the next book on my list from the top of the genre-novel-of-the-year list.

This is that book.

Already, Leviathan Wakes is garnering incredible feedback and sending massive ripples through the genre waters. (I have it on hearsay that a top bookbuyer at a major bookseller thinks it will resuscitate the science fiction genre.) And it's only the first in a (three-part?) series. It's a damn fine book, co-written by two damn fine writers who also happen to be two damn good and really damn smart guys.

The book receives enough praise elsewhere that I don't need to parrot it all here. But I don't see enough discussion about what this book does to genre expectations (and it may well be that I'm just looking in the wrong places). The words "space opera" get bandied about all the time with this book, which is valid, but it goes so far beyond that.

Leviathan Wakes has two main narratives: Holden, a Serenity-style space captain, and Miller, a noir detective.

Screech the brakes, right? The former half of that equation sounds like warmed-up leftovers, and the latter sounds entirely out of place. That's what I loved about this book, though. Holden might have the swagger of Mal Reynolds, and he might be the captain of a Firefly-esque crew, but the narrative takes him in entirely different directions, sometimes more subtly than others. Holden is optimistic where Mal is realistic. Holden believes in doing right--not relatively, not half-assed, but wholly, repercussions be damned. You start off believing him to be a cookie-cutter moralist space captain,* but he's got... shapes. His sides get cut out and taped back on in different ways, so that by the end of the story, he's got a different form than at the beginning.

*Wait. There's a cookie cutter for that?

And Miller? This book made me wonder why the noir detective ever went out of style. (I'm convinced he never did -- his form simply changed, first into James Bond, and then in a number of fragmented directions.) He's got all the vices and problems you expect, except... he feels soggier, somehow, than Spade or Marlowe. This is a man who's been through the sewers of existence, and didn't come out as clean and shiny as the characters in Buffy do when they emerge from the sewers.

I'm not a genre writer--at least, not in the strict sense that the James S.A. Corey amalgamation is--but this book has affected more than my writing. It's informing the stories I tell. That's why any authors who turns their noses at a particular form deserve to have bookshelves fall onto them. Inspiration can come from the most unlikely of places. And how cool is that?

(Oh, and you want to talk endings that wrap everything up while still delivering a kicker that makes you salivate for the next volume? This book's got it good.)

Monday, July 25, 2011

Bitter Seeds, by Ian Tregillis

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[If you're down for a toys-in-the-sandbox brawl between warlocks and superheroes, go let your mind wander for a bit while your grown-up eyes read the rest of this post.]

For the amount of books I read (all of which I used to post about on this blog, though lately that number has dropped to those that beg more thoughts or insight from me), I'm often surprised by how few of them grip me, grab me, snag me, and refuse to let go of me until I turn to the back cover and discover the promise of no more pages.

Bitter Seeds is that rare book, and it could hardly have been written by a friendlier guy.

Ian Tregillis was one of the science fiction and fantasy authors featured at this summer's Mythcon conference in Albuquerque. In coordinating these writers' track panels, I met and shot the shit with some of the authors (including Daniel Abraham--check out the interview below--and Ty Franck, who co-wrote a book I'll be posting about soon), all of whom are pretty cool guys. And as if anyone doubted the intelligence of solid fantasy authors, these panels proved just how sharp this collection of Southwest-based writers really is. (Shout out to Melinda Snodgrass, Carrie Vaughn, Robert Vardeman, and Jane Lindskold, too!)

Then there was Ian. If you saw him in a crowd and had to label him, you would say something like "physicist." Which he is. Abraham called him (and I'm paraphrasing here) a fucking genius, and he's hardly exaggerating. But on top of that, he was incredibly eloquent with his words, giving with his time, and open with his ever-increasing fan base.

And almost none of us had heard of him before Mythcon.

Okay, I'm done touting him as a person. You don't buy some stranger's book because he's a nice guy. But Bitter Seeds is excellent. It's the first volume in a trilogy (The Milkweed Triptych; the second book doesn't come out til summer 2012, and I'm already considering a pre-order), and what an opening salvo it is.

If I pitch the book as an alternate history of World War II, where the Nazis scientifically create superheroes and the British turn to warlocks, you may think it sounds hokey, a hapless mish-mash of fantasy and sci-fi. But it ain't. This book is excellently crafted, and it does what so much fantasy doesn't (and to its detriment): the powers of its characters are limited, and they come with severe cost.

This story isn't a young boy's sandbox dream clash between magicians and Superman. Each wizardly process demands British blood sacrifices. The superheroes last only as long as their batteries--and these orphans-cum-lab rats all have their own shortcomings. Doesn't that just ring true, despite the fantastical nature of it? So many great leaps we make as individuals and as a society come at some cost. Besides, what fun is a great achievement if it comes without any inherent risk? That, to me, is why Tregillis's book pulls off its alternate world so effectively.

Not to mention that the hardcover edition (can't speak yet for the paperback) is incredibly handsome. I hope the publishers make the whole trilogy match, because so few books these days look this good on a shelf. And so few books that look good on a shelf make for reading this fine.

If you buy one genre book this year, make it Bitter Seeds. And I say that with the painful realization that the next book on my list would deserve the mantle almost any other year, with almost any other competition.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

V for Vendetta, by Alan Moore and David Lloyd

How I have gotten this far on my nerd cred without having read this book is beyond me. Thank all things good that I was not mauled for ever saying "The only Moore book I've read is Watchmen. (And no, the movie of V doesn't count. Not even close. Not after reading this. Whoa.)

V for Vendetta is hardly the first story about a society where people don't stand up for their rights, those inalienable pieces of civilization that so often become classified as "privileges" and are pushed aside for "necessity's sake." The few seeking to control the many under the guise of order and safety, and sometimes even prosperity, happens all the time in the real world, that precise one in which we live. Moore just fabricates a new one, one that might have been conceivably possible at the time he wrote it.

Though the key has changed, the melody stays the same.

As is often the case, one voice raised does little good. A lot more than no voice at all, to be sure -- but one voice can be quelched. One voice can be silenced. One voice can be talked around and over until it sounds like mindless babble. Sometimes, when the drivel is loudest, it becomes reason.

By not raising our voices all at once, all together, to speak out and say "no," V argues, we relinquish control. We hand over freedoms and our liberties hilt-first.

In the story, the oppression comes in the forms of genocide, of pervasive surveillance, of an inability to speak up without being brutally muted. But really, how is that different than the America we live in right now? (Other than the pervasive surveillance. We might not be at Moore-level England, but we have already given up far too much right to privacy, and too much of it entirely willingly.) Our government (not to be confused with our executive branch, though that branch as a whole is playing far too nice and like enormous wusses) has been deciding and is continuing to decide that the privileges of the very few, very wealthy people and the biggest of corporations are to be preserved above and beyond the most basic rights of every working-class and middle-class woman, man, and hell, even child in the United States of America.

And what do we do? We bitch and moan, we gripe and complain. But those deciding that the richest cannot pay a little more in taxes, that we have to play chicken with our country's future in order that those least harmed by the latest recession continue to thrive, have not had the fear of the public put in them.

If all people in this country voted only by their financial interests in the next election, each and every one of those bastards would be run out of office by 90% of the vote. (And for once, I'm being conservative.)

If every person in this country would let it be known that they cared about what decisions are being made on the public's behalf and that every person were willing to do something about it, I guarantee the current financial "crisis" would be a non-event. It would be past. It would never have been existent.

This isn't about Republicans or Democrats. It's not about labels. V is labeled a "terrorist" by the English government because he fights against its interests. But what V has that modern-day terrorists don't is this: he is not fighting for an ideology, but for ideals. He is not blowing up buildings to make people afraid, but to open their eyes and bring them to action. He attacks symbols not for what they represent, but for how they have been corrupted from their origins.

Do we need to blow up buildings to be heard? Hell no. But our society is not as oppressed as V's England.

Not yet.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011


Well, whaddya know. I've got a new blog project -- but don't worry, it won't spell the end of Alone at the Microphone. It's completely different in every meaningful way. (Except for, you know, being a blog.)

It's called Al"brew"querque, and it's a blog about beer. Jenny and I began co-writing pieces a while back about beer and the places one finds beer. We finally figured that other people might enjoy what we have to say. And so far, the response has been positive.

So mosey on over to Al"brew"querque and get your yeast on! (Wait, that sounds bad. Get your malt on? Get your hops on? Get your water on? Get 'em all on!)

Friday, June 10, 2011

A Shadow in Summer, by Daniel Abraham

About a month ago, I had the extreme pleasure of interviewing Daniel Abraham, a fellow graduate of the University Honors Program at UNM and one heck of an up-and-coming fantasy writer. This post is technically for the first book in his Long Price Quartet, A Shadow in Summer, though we only discuss that quartet briefly in the interview below.

Rather than write more thoughts of my own, I'd like you all to see how the interview went. Mr. Abraham was incredibly gracious to let me conduct this interview for Mythprint*, and his responses gave my mind-cow plenty of cud to chew.

*An abbreviated form of this interview appears in the June 2011 edition of Mythprint, the periodical of the Mythopoeic Society. While it doesn't appear to be up yet, the full text (identical to the below) is intended to appear here. The interview was over a month ago, and obviously I read the book before that... but I wanted to wait until Mythprint had a chance to run before reproducing the interview here.

Here you go (I am in italics, Mr. Abraham in normal font).

Daniel, we are tickled that you will be attending Mythcon 42 in Albuquerque as part of our Writers’ Track series. Most of the attending authors are from this region, though all of you are published nationally. So it’s nice to get some people who’ve made it in a very real sense.

God it’s weird to be in that group! It doesn’t feel like it, that’s all.

Have you experienced yet what it’s like to be recognized as “Daniel Abraham,” the name on the book cover?

I’ve had a couple times where people acknowledged that I exist and it was weird, it was very strange. The tiny, little, small pathetic drop of fame that I have gotten is still pretty surreal.

When we set up this interview, you said you wanted to talk about “low-status” literature and its role. So what have you been thinking on that subject?

I have this kink about economics. One of the things that I get out of it is that you don’t judge people by what they say, you judge people by where they spend their money. So, for example, if I say that by god I’m a leftist Democrat and I spend all of my money supporting right-wing Republicans, I’m a right-wing Republican. When you have somebody who’s doing one thing and saying another, you judge them by what they do, not what they say. So I take that and look at what books people are buying. I understand there’s one class of very high status books. A Brief History of Time. Tremendous best seller. I’m not sure anybody read it. I think we mostly got it to put on our coffee tables to show that we’re very smart.

This is the Stephen Hawking book?

Yes. Nothing against Stephen Hawking, I’m sure it’s a fine book. I have it. I haven’t read it. Abstract cosmology is not something that actually, I think, speaks to the American soul in the way that seeming smarter than the guy next to you really does. So I think there is this class of books that you buy in order to look clever. And that’s cool. I understand why you do that. But then there’s a whole bunch of books, like the majority of publishing, that are guilty pleasures. And they’re the kind of places I play. They are the fantasy, and the science fiction and the mystery and romance—romance is still the one that everybody, I think, looks down on intellectually. I mean, folks writing space opera sneer at romance. And romance has I think the largest and most powerful following. So something interesting is happening there. This goes back to judging things by what you put your money on. They put their money on romance, and they put their money on genre, on these things that don’t lend social status. So they must be doing something else. I think it’s clear that romance is sitting on a huge discomfort that we have as a culture, as a nation, about whether we individually are lovable or if we’re going to die alone and rejected. It’s a huge seller because we are all suffering that. I think when we see this huge popular upwelling in some genre, in some group of related literary projects that aren’t respectable, that they’re offering comfort to things that need to be comforted. I think that urban fantasy is sitting on a real discomfort about women and power. When I say that it sounds like this is some sort of necessarily progressive feminist thoughtful literature. I’m not saying that. I’m saying it’s feeding off of and lending comfort to a real confusion and a real discomfort. Not that it’s offering solutions to it. People confuse that. Urban fantasy isn’t about reconciling our feelings with women and power any more than romance is about how to build a healthy relationship. They’re not didactic, they’re not there to improve you. They’re there to offer you comfort. Genres are where fears pool. So you see genres that have gone away—Westerns are gone. They were huge, and they’re gone. Whatever they were answering, people stopped needing it. I don’t know what it was. And I don’t know that all of the genres we have now will survive forever, I don’t expect they will. But right now I think those literary projects, those low-status things, are really the best barometer of what’s bothering us.

You called these the guilty pleasures and very much separated them from how-the-universe-works books. Why do you think that, when we feel the need to address something, we want to ensconce ourselves into it, make contact with it, but not necessarily figure it out? Why romance books instead of how-to-be-happy-in-a-relationship books?

I don’t think those are antithetical. I don’t think you can’t do both, but I don’t think that what you come for is a how-to book. It’s the same reason you don’t always eat granola for breakfast. We do things that are pleasurable and comforting because we are creatures of pleasure and comfort. And solving problems realistically kind of makes for lousy stories. Having a really sane, balanced, centered life means you’re low drama. That’s not what fiction does.

If as you say this low status literature addresses something in our societies that makes it popular, what is it about fantasy literature in general, or yours specifically, that makes people crave it?

Epic fantasy—think J.R.R. Tolkien, even Stephen Donaldson—is about war, and we are in America right now really confused about war because we’ve got like two and a half of them going on right now, and we don’t talk about it and we don’t really admit to our sacrifices about it and there’s this weariness about war. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings is a story about the futility of war, it’s a story about the morality of disarmament, about the actions of individuals being the only force of salvation. That’s a real criticism of war. If you look at Martin and A Game of Thrones, what you have is this fantasy that’s very reminiscent of the Wars of the Roses in which there are no good guys, there aren’t many bad guys, there is this tremendous multivalent ambition and it’s a bleak, bleak world. Now why does that speak to us? Because we’re reading The Economist, and it’s there.

What I see in people’s reactions to me is that people who like my stuff like it because I love all my characters. I love my bad guys, too. I want to see my villains forgiven. I want to see them understood. I think that may be the literary project I’m working on. I didn’t mean it that way, but when people read my epic fantasy, I can get them to root for whoever’s point of view the chapter is written in. Even when the characters are going to kill each other. And it’s not ambivalent so much as multivalent.

It’s interesting that you’re talking about war when at least the beginning of
The Long Price Quartet has this threat of war lingering, depending on the outcomes of these few individuals we see in the narrative. But there is no war.

Not in that one. Book three is called An Autumn War because there’s this war. But I don’t like battles. I don’t like battle scenes. I don’t like fight choreography very much.

I’m going to give you two scenes. There’s the battle scene, where you have the great armies arrayed against each other, and the tactics of the battle, and the blood and the screaming and the destruction and the courage. There’s another scene after the battle, we have three soldiers walking down the street one way, and a woman and her child walking the other. Everybody knows that the woman’s husband probably died in the battle that the other three soldiers just won, and one of the soldiers gives the kid a piece of candy. One of those tells me more, one of those is more interesting to me. And it’s the one where you’re thinking, “OK, if that kid takes the piece of candy, if he doesn’t take it, what does that mean? What does it mean that it was offered?” It seems to me the violence is actually pretty simple, and the things that surround violence are more interesting.

Have you read Tolkien’s “Homecoming of Beorthnoth?” It’s his piece set on the field of “The Battle of Maldon” after the battle has ended. To me, that’s the same sort of thing where you have the battle and then that moment afterward that says much more.

And who we are, and what the consequences are.

I have seen similar discussion going on just this week with the Osama bin Laden assassination, where people are saying, how do we respond to this? What do we do? Because how we treat our enemy says more about us than it does about the enemy.

I have been thinking a lot about bin Laden and about his kind of literary project. He was an amazing self promoter. He was stunning. In point of fact, he wasn’t very much of a threat to us, you know? More people die every year from car wrecks. If you look at it coldly, and you look at the numbers, al Qaeda’s not a big threat, and what he did was not a big threat. But the narrative that came out of it was so powerful, and the way that he married that narrative to his personality and to his life was so powerful and so effective that I look at his death and I see this huge cultural relief. The catharsis we feel because that one guy died, I think is a testament to how well he did his job. You know, I’m not particularly a man of violence, and I felt the world lighten up a little bit when I heard the news. And yeah, I think there’s a difference between celebrating his death and acknowledging that release.

I should probably make sure you get your plugs in. You have written more than
The Long Price Quartet, and we’re hoping that you can get Mythcon 42 attendees reading other things. But The Long Price Quartet is set in this very Asian-like culture which is very unusual in Western fantasy. So can you talk about the decision you made to write in that kind of world?

Especially when you’re starting off as a writer, there’s tremendous encouragement to embrace originality and do something new. I wanted to do something that felt very different, that stood out from what other folks were up to. And one of the ways to do that was to have it not be the traditional pseudo-medieval world. I also did some weird stuff with the structures of the books, with the big time jumps between the books and a fairly small cast of characters. And what I was really reaching for was to do something I hadn’t seen before. And I think those books did what I wanted them to do. They didn’t light the world on fire sales wise, but that’s always a crap shoot. But artistically, I’m very comfortable with how those books came out.

How do you feel they impacted your development as a writer?

They gave me practice. The other mandate going into that project was to figure out how to write a novel, because I did a lot of short stories before those books. And I felt pretty good about the rhythm of a short story and how a short story works. And I was pretty clear that I didn’t know how to write a novel, because, I’d done three, maybe three and a half, four, before I started The Long Price Quartet. And they sucked less each time. But they still sucked. And in fact, when I finished the first book of The Long Price Quartet, A Shadow in Summer, my first readers, the people who were critiquing it as I went along, my writers’ group, all said, “It’s beautifully written, I don’t know what’s going on, and I hate your main character.” And I wound up throwing the book out completely and rewriting it from scratch.

Being part of that writers’ group in New Mexico and being from here—I had a friend once call Albuquerque a “not real part of the world”—as an author, how has the Southwest influenced you or provided you with inspiration?

One of the things that’s been interesting to me, thinking about growing up here, is that the American narrative of race has never been my experience. When you look at the American narrative of race, the story we tell ourselves about race, it’s about white folks and black folks. Where I grew up, it’s about Anglos and Hispanics. And that’s a totally different dynamic. I live in a place that is the occupied territories. I live in a border town. I live in a place where some people identify as American and some people identify as Mexican, and I’ve always felt a little bit like a foreigner traveling other parts of the nation. I’ve always felt a little bit outside the narrative of my culture. And I kind of like that. That sense of being from something that’s not quite real—and when we say not quite real, we mean not quite part of the overwhelming narrative. That gives you, I think, a certain power over the narrative. I like that. I enjoy that. Also, growing up I had access to literatures that you don’t get other places. My dad would read me short stories by Enrique Anderson Imbert, and he would translate them on the fly as he read. And they were all these amazing stories about these fantastical and weird and disturbing things. Part of my experience of literature was those things I don’t know that you get when you’re living in other parts of the country.

Racism’s going to be any place. No matter where you go, when you get folks who identify as different races, it’s going to happen. We’re a tribal species, it’s what we do—but here, you have that racial divide with power on both sides. I’m in New Mexico and if you have a Hispanic surname, you’re electable. When you have that level of power equality and difference and acceptance and distance, it’s… I think New Mexico is a very humane place. Apart from the grinding poverty.

Your chance to pump yourself. Do you have any new or upcoming works you’d like Mythprint readers and Mythcon 42 attendees to know about?

Specifically, yes. I’d like you to know about The Dragon’s Path, which is the first book in The Dagger and the Coin series, my next epic fantasy. I’m also coming out with an urban fantasy series under the pen name M.L.N. Hanover, The Black Sun’s Daughter. So if you want to talk about what I think urban fantasy does, and women and power, there’s that. And I have a book coming out with Ty Franck [also attending Mythcon 42] called Leviathan Wakes, which is a space opera, coming out in June. Right before Mythcon. It has a big spaceship on it.

Perfect! Thank you, Daniel. I’ll see you again at Mythcon 42 this July in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011


Holy Ghost, Batman. I got into Trinity!

That's right. I'll be moving to Dublin in the fall and attending Trinity College Dublin. Coláiste na Tríonóide, Baile Átha Cliath. The College of the Holy and Undivided Trinity of Queen Elizabeth near Dublin.

And I'll be studying in the Oscar Wilde Centre for Irish Writing.

Forgive me if I sound like I'm gloating. I probably am! (And it's deserved. I found out yesterday, and my feet haven't touched the ground since!)

That just leaves two things for now: crossing my fingers that Jenny hears soon and gets in, too; and finding some Oscar Wilde to read this summer.

Yippee-aye-oh-kai-ay, ye feckers!

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Faith Healer, by Brian Friel, and Rashomon, by Ryunosuke Akutagawa

Two books in one post? What will he do next?!

At first, one might believe these two books to be as opposite in character as they are in nationality. The Japanese stories "Rashomon" and "In the Grove" by Ryunosuke Akutagawa (also made into a film together called Rashomon) are set in old Japan, and the latter deals with a murder in the woods that the investigator cannot solve because each person's account is equally different and equally plausible. Brian Friel's Irish play Faith Healer lets three characters recount their time traveling together as a team of sorts. (Sidebar: I saw Faith Healer performed in Dublin back in 2006, entirely by accident. It starred Ralph Fiennes, Ingrid Craigie, and Ian McDiarmid. Single best performance I have ever seen. Of anything.)

Yet the stories share, as an integral (and perhaps defining) component, an entire lack of reliability of its narrators. Not just your usual questionable-narrator syndrome that you learn about in sophomore English; no, I'm talking about each of our storytellers contradicting the others in the details and the generalities, in tone and in spirit, perhaps intentionally, but probably not. Perception is reality, my mother always reminded me; these stories remind us of the subjectivity of our own memories.

They also throw into deep doubt what, exactly, truth is.

I read both of these stories recently, but not quite near the date of this post. Like I said, I was familiar with Faith Healer already, but in talking with two of the writers I respect most in this world, I was twice recommended the works of Akutagawa--not just for pleasant reading, but because a story I am working on relies very heavily on perception to interpret fact (if "fact" exists).

Both these stories are small, Akutagawa's especially so. But they pack a punch. What people remember (and how they remember it) says more about them than it does about the events of the past. I think we could all do well to be swiftly reminded that our own interpretations of the world usually won't jive with another's. And if we're lucky, we'll get such reminders through stories that don't end in death and sacrifice.

Monday, March 21, 2011

The Naked Pint, by Christina Perozzi & Hallie Beaune

Click to buy the book!

The first beer I ever sneaked a sip of? Budweiser. I was something like two years old, and since then, my tastes have gone nowhere but up.

I proclaimed myself a beer snob well before I was legally allowed to drink in the United States. (Hey, come on. I spent a semester in England when I was twenty. And even then I preferred Nelson's Revenge to the nationally distributed Carling.) But I didn't know the first thing about beer, or the process of making it, or the meanings behind all these different varieties. I just knew what I liked, and what I sort of liked, and what I didn't like. And really, still, that's all that matters.

But I'm seldom satisfied sticking with a "just because" type of answer when it relates to something I'm passionate about. And I am passionate about beer. I've begun attempting to pair brews with meals, with seasons, with memories. I compulsively check the label on the neck of each brown bottle I hold. And yet, I developed these habits without knowing precisely what makes a pilsner different than a blonde, or what Centennial hops even means.

This book helped me decode all those aspects of beer. Am I now an expert? Heck no. But I probably know more than three quarters of my fellow patrons in each bar I enter. And I have to be clear: that doesn't make me more passionate about beer than they are, and it doesn't make me any better a beer drinker. We all still know what we like, and what we don't like. But now I know, for my own self-gratification, much more about the nuances involved in the brewing process--ingredients, temperatures, types of yeast, regional specialties--than I ever could have guessed.

For me, that makes beer drinking even more fun. And that's saying something.

Friday, March 11, 2011

The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien

When I see people—old acquaintances, former friends, ex-teammates, high school classmates—I am always stricken by how much they have changed. Of course, they are still the same in so many ways: they are recognizable, their ways of speaking sounds exactly as they always did, their interests are at least similar to what they used to be. But I never notice those constants in the way I do the differences. An outgrowth of facial hair, a difference in height, a complete reversal of political beliefs. Or I just see the things that have certainly always been present, but I see now cast in a new light: just how long a bridge of a nose is, or how harshly comments are made.

Then inevitably I wonder the age-old question: Who has really done the changing? Is it me? Is that why everything about these people seems so strange?

When I reread The Lord of the Rings this winter, the pages felt more like long-removed friends than local buds. (I hadn’t read the books in four years—my longest stretch since the first time I read them in high school.) The story is perfect winter reading for me, for that is the season of comfort and familiarity. But part of what makes Tolkien such an admirable writer (and part of the very reason I’m one of the thousands, if not millions, of people who have read the books multiple times) is his ability to show his readers something new every time through the texts. Since last reading The Lord of the Rings, I’ve co-taught a class on Tolkien and assisted with the editing of a scholarly volume on teaching his works. I’ve had my own scholarship published, I’ve written more creatively than I had in all my prior years, and I’ve experienced life abroad. Not only have I undoubtedly changed, but my experience with Tolkien’s books has grown, too.

Perhaps for both those reasons, I discovered new facets during this reading. Never before had I paid so much attention to Tolkien’s intricate wording, particularly in his descriptions of natural scenes and features. He writes with an unceasing reverence for the earth that I had not before noticed, and thus never truly appreciated. Never had I read The Lord of the Rings while myself in the primary mindset of an author—always before I was a student, an academic, a fan, but this time I read Tolkien as a palate-cleanser of sorts while working on my own writing. I cannot read Tom Robbins or Kurt Vonnegut or Jonathan Safran-Foer or John Irving while I am writing, because inevitably I will emulate their styles. Yet I hold Tolkien the craftsman in higher esteem than each of them. Reading his words while writing my own motivated me and drove me ever onward—all without leaving his own literary taste in my brain. Rather, I felt the freshness of his passages, the crispness of his scenes, the richness of his writing flowing through my mind in a way that I could not imitate, and so I remain inspired even now by having experienced how a truly beautiful text feels, even after so long apart.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Globish, by Robert McCrum

To the editors and publishers at W.W. Norton:

In my academic career, both as a student and as a personally-driven scholar, I've come to respect the Norton name as a pillar of intellectual credibility, scholarly integrity, and overall professionalism.

Then I read Globish.

I do not intend to be overly harsh. Globish as a book is based on a solid concept and its topic--the growth of English as a useful, adaptable, and already-established basis for world communication--is imminently relevant, perhaps even more so than its author could have anticipated. (I think here of the protests in the Middle East up to this point in 2011, in which the sentiments of placard-holders have been so often expressed in English. Some widely-distributed pictures from Egypt even depicted solidarity with union protesters in Wisconsin--a sentiment expressed, of course, in English.) As a lingua franca, English (or, as Robert Crum might argue it has become, Globish) rears up in relevance in the international news every day. The phenomenon of language in the third millennium develops even more quickly, it might seem, than our technology.

Unfortunately, I feel McCrum fails to discuss just exactly "How the English Language Became the World's Language" until page 275. In a 287-page book. Those thirteen pages are the Epilogue. (Yes, he touches on the subject plenty of times before the Epilogue. But not in the concentrated, analytical matter I expect from a book with the word "how" in the tag line.)

Personally, I love studying the evolution of a language, both culturally and linguistically. And for the most part, I appreciate what McCrum does for the first 274 pages of the book: He establishes the historical settings of the world's English, its initial travels to and transformations in England, its ocean voyages, its contact with foreign words and cultures and ideas, its use in many of the great metamorphoses of the second millennium. But in my interpretation, all those facets (helpful though they may be to a truly full understanding of the English language) amount to nothing more than the very foundation of Globish. Reading Globish felt like reading a book about how Babe Ruth became the greatest hitter in his generation, but which spends ninety percent of its pages discussing his childhood baseball days and his first breakthrough with the Boston Red Sox.

The history of the English language, having had plenty written about it for those interested in such a history, ought to have been the springboard from which McCrum launched his involved discussion of Globish as Globish (rather than as simply English). I'm thinking about a chapter would have sufficed.

I have done editing work, so I understand what it is to approach with criticism an author who has put a great deal of time into a piece. I also know that any time a good editor announces to an author that the majority of a book needs to be scrapped and the remaining portion expanded and developed, the book will be stronger for it. I feel that one of the editors of this book needed to say something similar to McCrum.

Perhaps I could have gotten past my expectations of the book (only enhanced by the title and the tag line) had the book been effectively edited on a technical level. It was not. I will not pull out examples here of where the editing or the typesetting had gone awry, or where it seems that chunks of text had been dragged away from their homes and airlifted into foreign sentences. But they exist. I will not point out in this letter instances of unlinked ideas and random transitions in the text. But they exist. If you would like me to provide any such examples before this book reaches another printing (if indeed it does), I would be happy to do so. (Perhaps you would even be willing to contract the work out to me, as the current editors working with this title did such a poor job the first time through.)

I cannot say that my experience with Globish will prevent me from picking up other titles published by Norton. The track record is too strong. But in this case, I feel that a great pitch for a fascinating topic was made, and beyond that point Norton washed its hands of any responsibility. Please do let me know if another book is ever scheduled for publication that will go into the depth of Globish that I desire. My taste was whetted, even if my mental red pencil was dulled to a nub.

Yours sincerely,

Z.N. Hively

P.S. I see now that Globish has reached its paperback run. I have the book in hardcover. While I'm sure that no substantive changes along the lines I discuss were made, I do hope that the paperback version has been cleaned up in further proofings.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Where the Red Fern Grows, by Wilson Rawls

The first time I read this book, or had it read to me, I was in the second grade. We finished the final two chapters one morning before school, and I had to go in two hours late because it made me feel so much.

People change. We toughen.

Much has happened since I was seven. I'm a man now, in every external way that counts. And when my lovely partner came home from work and said she had to read Where the Red Fern Grows for class, and would I like to read it with her, I wondered if I would feel as much when I reached the end.

Since the second grade, I've held my dog's head while he died. How could two fictional hound dogs compare?

I've earned a degree learning to analyze literature, and I've become a writer, attuning myself to the way the words in a book are assembled, and the ideas behind the words. What if I find out the book was badly written, or I bog myself down in picking it apart and end up entirely incapable of just feeling?

Last night, we finished the book. I learned from my mistakes, so we read it before bed instead of before work. I'm still fighting the heavy dryness behind my eyes, and I know I look like hell.

If I had written the book, yeah, I would have done plenty of things differently. But none of those things matters, because two little red hounds from the pages of a childhood book are still able to reduce me to tears as I write this.

Those two pups answered a lot of prayers and gave their boy and his mama and papa the love, purpose, and direction they needed. Now I'm not saying what they're doing for me right now is on a par with that, but they've brought me back to this project. They're reconnecting me with my words and thoughts. Reminding me that books are meant to be felt first, and perhaps analyzed second, if at all. Refreshing my soul and my tear ducts. And standing as a testament to love as the ultimate human emotion.

If only we all knew so much by the second grade. Thank you, Little Ann, and you too, Old Dan, for reminding me.