It’s a matter of consent

Photo by Mike Wilson on Unsplash

Photo by Mike Wilson on Unsplash

The difference

I just spent an evening – together with several other women – trying desperately to explain to a man why #metoo matters and why he was wrong to obstinately insist, “yeah yeah yeah but MEN, let’s talk about the men” in between snippets of “and I’m an ally, look at what I said HERE and HERE and HERE.’

One thing he simply couldn’t get. There are many kinds of men. Some are with us and some are against us – but we don’t know which are which. It is often really hard to tell because it isn’t what they say that matters; in the end, it’s what they do.

Let me tell you two stories, about two different men.

Story #1

The flight I was supposed to be on was leaving from Belgrade and we had all been herded into this single small room and left there to stew while the flight was delayed and delayed and delayed again.

There was an agent podium in the room but no agent at it. When one finally arrived, I took it upon myself – because I spoke Serb and most of the others didn’t – to go up there and demand, unsuccessfully as it turned out, an update and explanation.

When the fllght finally boarded after a several hours (still unexplained) delay, I found my seat. A small dark man sat down next to me and informed me that he had paid the hostess to change his seat so that could sit beside me because he had watched me deal with the agent at the gate and “loved feisty women.”

As we taxied out, he showed me pictures of a lovely house he owned in Cyprus.

He then asked me to marry him.

As a Muslim he was allowed four wives, he explained. He assured me that his senior wife wouldn’t mind and told me that I could have the Cyprus house for my own (and he’d just come and visit me there, I suppose…) I told him I had no plans to get married. He took the book I was reading and wrote his name and phone number on the front cover — in case I ever changed my mind.

It was a short hop, but it was the longest flight of my life. I waited for him to leave, pretending to be busy with my possessions. I left the book – which I had not finished, but which I really didn’t want to own any more – in the seat pocket when I finally left the plane. I sneaked out of the airport looking over my shoulder, hoping that he hadn’t hung around to accost me, hoping he wouldn’t see me catch a cab, follow me elsewhere.

Story #2, about quite a different kind of man.

I was in Heathrow airport, and once again the flight I was supposed to be catching to Cape Town was delayed and delayed and delayed.

There came a time when I had read everything I had to read, even the small print on the back of my ticket (for once in my life I knew all the terms and conditions of my carriage on this plane.) I finally gave up the struggle and dragged my baggage to the concession store. I found a new novel by a writer I quite liked – but all I had left of the local currency was a pocketful of loose change. And what I had wouldn’t stretch to the price of the book. I turned my coins over and over in my hands but they obstinately refused to come out to the right amount.

Finally this amused male voice behind me said, “Okay, how much do you need?

Twenty bloody P,” I snarled, and a hand came snaking over my shoulder with the required coinage.

Please take it,” the voice said, “I can’t bear to watch.

I took it, and bought the book. I ended up not reading it, because I struck up a conversation with this guy. We sat chatting for another two hours before the flight got off the ground, and because we’d got on so well we made plans to try and swap out seats with people next to us when on the plane so that we could sit together and continue talking.

When I claimed my assigned seat, I realized I couldn’t do anything about this because I was in a family knot – two parents and three children, and me in the last seat that made up those two rows. But then I saw him waving at me across the plane, and I picked up my stuff and made my way over there.

He informed me triumphantly that he had just arranged for us to do what we had planned… and then his face fell when he realized that he had made this arrangement not with the passenger sitting next to him but with one sitting in the equivalent seat in the row BEHIND him.

The woman who was sitting in the seat that we needed was sufficiently entertained by the fiasco to volunteer without being asked to swap rows, and so there we were, my new friend and I, finally ensconced next to each other, laughing and in a breathlessly good mood not often found on long flights.

Turned out he was “in diamonds”, and he inspected the ones I wore on my hands and told me fascinating stuff about their caratage and quality and how diamonds were rated and made and valued. We talked for hours about that and all sorts of other things. And then I began to yawn and squirm in my seat trying to get comfortable – an impossibility because I have never been able to become comfortable in economy class seats on long flights. He watched for a moment and then lifted an arm, patting his shoulder with his other hand. It was a wordless invitation – not an entitlement, not an expectation, just this: if you need a shoulder to lean on as a pillow, here I am.

So I did. And he held me, in security and comfort and trust – because he ASKED, and I CHOSE TO ACCEPT, this was the ultimate code of consent.

It might have been the best night’s sleep I ever had on a long uncomfortable flight. If he felt stiff or cramped he never said a word, and when I woke and sat up he released me, and we had breakfast, and then the plane landed, eventually, in Johannesburg, which was a transit stop, and the place where he got off. He gathered his stuff together, we smiled and said goodbye. He walked down the airplane aisle, his briefcase in one hand, his coat folded over his other arm.

Then he stopped, turned, and came back. He leaned down and kissed me, gently, lightly, just a brush of lips. He smiled again, a smile of farewell. And was gone.

I have tried very hard to forget that first guy. I have never had any trouble remembering the second one.

It was all wrapped in consent, that second encounter; it was a man who was being a friend, an ally, someone I could trust who never once did a single thing to abuse that trust. He held a stranger for hours while she slept, and protected her, and kept her safe and completely secure. I think that when he turned, as he left, if he had seen anything on my face that gave him the impression that I was done with him, he would have walked on. But I was still watching him, and I was smiling. He understood that at face value He knew he was entitled to claim no more than that light kiss, but he claimed it. And I freely gave it. He DESERVED it.

For anyone who wants to understand… there it is. The difference between a #metoo story and a cherished memory. If you are a man and you ever want to know what you can do, how you can help… take what lessons you can from these two stories.

~~~~~
Wired asked writers to create 6-word SF stories.

I’m dead. I’ve missed you. Kiss … ? – Neil Gaiman

More from Wired HERE

~~~~~
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‘Young Adult’, what’s that?

When I was a little girl, my home town library h?d only two sections – children’s, which I blew through in a spectacular fashion, and adult.

We had no such thing as a “young adult” section or concept.

OK to read Young Adult signYou read the kiddies books until you realized that you were past them and then you went on to read the adult books, those that caught your interest and held your attention. I was reading Howard Spring and Pearl Buck novels (in English translation) before I was ten. And poetry.

When I went moved to Africa and learned English, I read the unabridged John Galsworthy “Forsyte Saga” novels by the time I was thirteen.

The story was the thing that mattered. I read for the story, not for the story that was considered to be ‘appropriate’ for me by some stranger in the publishing industry who had never met me.

Teenagers are a modern phenomenon. In the olden days, a teenager was an adult. Period.

In the middle ages, girls were married at 12 or 13 and became mothers by 14 or 15. Many of them died in childbirth as their young and not fully formed bodies failed to measure up to the stress of giving birth to a real life-size infant. Boys did a man’s work by the time they were fifteen. There was no mollycoddling and no extended coming-of-age as we know it today. The culture of the adolescent, so absolutely prevalent and accepted today, did not exist.

What was perhaps the tipping point into the concept of YA literature came as late as the 1950s and 1960s, specifically after the groundbreaking “The Outsiders” by S.E. Hinton. It had none of the patina of nostalgia that often characterized books about young characters before this time, books written by adults who were reflecting back on a long-past youth. No, this was a novel about the here-and-now – written BY an author who was technically a Young Adult herself, about people LIKE herself, and the immediacy and verisimilitude – not to mention a distinct darkening of theme and ideas – was obvious.

Publishers began to see this segment of readership as a distinct – and new and lucrative – market. YA sections began to appear in bookstores and libraries, for books distinct from books considered to be “children’s books” and distinct from stuff that was considered appropriate for an adult audience.

The range of these books spread across genre – but the contemporary YA novels began to tackle topics that were faced by actual YA readers in their own lives. Topics such as rape, suicide, parental death, murder, drinking, sexuality (both straight and gay), drugs, identity, beauty, and teen pregnancy.

Young Adult fiction, particularly the kind that librarians and booksellers liked to describe as “edgy”, portrayed young-adult protagonists, teens, who were depicted as having to confront social and cultural issues which the readers of such books frequently faced in their own real lives.

The distinctions between works of literature deemed to be ‘children’s lit’, ‘YA’, or ‘adult literature’ have been notoriously fluid and flexible. The fracture lines have deepened, more recently by the introduction of ‘middle grade’ – novels which fall between blatant kiddie books and the threshold of what is considered YA, often assumed to fall somewhere between the ages of 9 – 12.

Worldweavers coversThe Young Adult Library Services (YALSA) branch of the American Library Association, the ALA, defines a young adult in the readership sense as a person between the ages of twelve and eighteen. But once again the borders are arbitrary and flexible, because authors and readers routinely estimate readership ages to start as low as 10, and as high as 25.

I recently wrote the conclusion of what was originally marketed as a fantasy YA trilogy, my Worldweavers books. In the three original books – “Gift of the Unmage”, “Spellspam” and “Cybermage” – my young wizard, who is in her mid-teens, has to meet the challenges of growing up, growing into her gifts.

In the last installment, “Dawn of Magic”, she is 16, and to all intents and purposes, an adult.

Who is my audience…?

I am writing for people like the girl who I myself once was, readers who read for STORY rather than on the basis of which section of the library or bookstore the book was shelved in.

I was allowed to find my own reading level while growing up and read whatever I was comfortable with. My audience is those readers, One of my most cherished compliments came from a book buyer of the acclaimed New York children’s bookstore, Books of Wonder, who told me that I wrote for “readers who already know how to think”.

My books are deep and nuanced – and, for all that they are fantasy, more real. So I am writing for kids like the kid that I was, the kids who are bored with the stuff that accepted wisdom maintains that they are supposed to be reading, who are crying out for stories that are not written “down” to them, stories that are honest, stories that will be just as readable when they are in their thirties without them having to cringe and hide them in brown paper wrappers. It is my highest standard of achievement to write that kind of story, and I have a cadre of readers who are telling me that I have got there with my “younger” stuff.

I am writing for everyone who loves to read – for precocious ten-year-olds like the one I used to be, for fourteen-year-olds who might recognize aspects of themselves, for thirty- and forty-somethings who may smile as they remember something from back when they too were counted in the ranks of those whose chronological age ended in that ‘teen’, to even older readers who may be starting to see signs of a grandchild generation that is starting to blossom into reading and for whom my stories may, in turn, become something that can be treasured.

I am writing for readers. Not for genres.

A story is a story is a story and belongs to whoever chooses to claim it, and live happily ever after…

~~~~~
Wired asked writers to create 6-word SF stories.

Lie detector eyeglasses perfected: Civilization collapses.
– Richard Powers

More from Wired HERE

~~~~~
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Lying for a living

What is fiction for?

Why on earth do we read fiction?

One of my husband’s favorite “writer” stories concerns an author with a very Southern mother whom he called to tell her that his novel was being published. After a pause, the mother asked, a little desperately, “But do they KNOW it’s a LIE?” When he said yes, his mother sighed, “I will NEVER understand that.”

That’s what writers labor under – coming up with stories that you and I and those who pay us money to publish us and to read us KNOW are absolute filthy lies, made up to a word, sometimes literally impossible or unimaginable given the known rules of physics and biology in the world as we know it.

werewolf in front of full moon illustrationScience Fiction and Fantasy are particularly guilty of this, because we lie egregiously about the possibility of faster-than-light interstellar travel, or the existence of vampires, werewolves, angels or fairies at the bottom of your garden.

And you, the reader, know that we are making it up as we go along. And you are willing to follow us on that journey. Few readers who read a fairy tale about brownies in the home will then go on to start leaving milk and cookies on the hearth from then on or wander off to the bottom of that garden with a flashlight and a magnifying glass to look for those fairies. Instead, you close the book with a happy sigh, and you go on with your own mundane everyday existence, secure in the knowledge, however wistfully,  that no brownie will wash the dinner dishes.

And then you come back, and you pick up another book. Of fiction. Of lies.

Yes, we all read non-fiction too – news, a travel guide, a history book, instruction manuals, textbooks for school, and political manifestos. But when it comes to many of these things, we are already armored with a set of opinions and attitudes, and reading items which challenge those opinions and attitudes are generally greeted with skepticism if not outright hostility – because how DARE those other people try to shove their silly, ludicrous, ridiculous, astonishing, and dammit downright dangerous ideas down our throats?!

But here’s the thing. People WILL read about those “other” ideas in fiction – sugarcoated as they are in the “lie”. Kids who are being bullied or otherwise mistreated because they are different in whatever way from their tormentors – because they are gay, or black, or Jewish, or [insert quality of choice here] – might take heart from a novel which tells of a teen who is being bullied because he is a blue-skinned singleton on a planet full of orange-skinned people and looks DIFFERENT – and somehow overcomes this in the story.

Yes, we all know it’s all a lie.  But fiction is an incredibly important medium for getting the truth out there – even when you pretend that it only happens to other people, or to people who cannot exist or will never be real. A generation of readers breathlessly followed the growing up and the growing wise of a young wizard named Harry Potter without EVER doing a single magic spell themselves. A girl called Scout learned about discrimination and courage in a NOVEL and a different generation of readers learned about those things with her. The list goes on.

The best books, the ones that we instinctively keep, the ones we go back to again and again – they succeed as entertainment, yes, and they can be riveting – but they leave you knowing more and feeling more deeply than you had been capable of before you read that book. They leave you empowered. They might have lied to you about the context and the circumstances – but the truth that lies within those false parameters is nonetheless the real truth and some part of you knows this, recognizes it, values it. People say about certain books, “This book changed my life”. Sometimes, they even mean it.

And that’s the power of fiction.

THAT is what it’s all for.

~~~~~

A few years ago I was interviewed by V.M. Simandan. She had several discerning questions, including this one:

VMS: The Secrets of Jin-shei, your saga set in medieval China, is a powerful story of a group women from different social classes. How much research did you do before you started writing this novel?

Alma at 'The Secrets of Jin-shei' signing

Alma at ‘The Secrets of Jin-shei’ signing

AA: Short answer: HEAPS. I have a double shelf of books relating to the history, philosophy, geography, anthropology, culture and literature of China.

But I was consciously NOT writing a book that was directly about Imperial China, but it owed everything to that country and that general era in the way that I build up my own country, my own world.

The idea of research, as I see it, is to inform the imagination, rather than strangle it – which is why I like writing things with an fantastical edge, it gives me a little bit of wiggle room to tell a good story and not be constrained by “THIS happened THEN” with no way to work around it. In Jin-shei, for instance, one of the things that astonished and delighted me was the alchemy aspect of it – because what I knew about alchemy as a subject owed a lot to the Western ideas on the subject, but when I went to do a bit of research on it I discovered that there was an entire body of knowledge alchemical which was very much rooted in the Eastern and Oriental tradition, and this was wonderfully helpful with building my own version of it in my own world. I believe in research, in trying to be true to an idea, a time, a place. But it should not be a fetter. It should be an unfolding of wings, allowing you to fly over everything and see all things anew from a high vantage point up in the sky. You would be surprised how much good research can actually shape and drive a story.

Read the whole interview HERE

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Travel to places where stories come alive

Walking the Word Worlds

There are real places on this earth which resonate with the stories written about them.

A few years ago, my husband and I went on an Alaska Inside Passage cruise, the last of that season. They were shutting doors behind us all the way as the ship left, battening down the hatches for the winter (this is Alaska. Winter is a serious thing here.)

Our trip included visits to several different destinations – Juneau, Ketchikan, Glacier Bay, and more. Most of them were just names to me, new places which I had not been to before that were beautiful, fascinating, incredibly photogenic – oh, I fell in love with Alaska.

Gold rush SkagwayPhoto of Skagway todayBut one place we made a stop at was not a new place for me, even though I had never been there before either. Not physically. But oh, I HAD been there before. I had walked those streets in the shadow of the hard men who came for the gold. I had walked here before, beside a magnificent dog named Buck, watching him through the eyes of a writer by the name of Jack London.

The novel “Call of the Wild” may or may not have had scenes set in the exact Skagway streets I now walked – but the Gold Rush began in these streets, this is where the men thronged, this is where they drank and whored, this is the place from which they gathered their belongings together in a ratty backpack and went off into the wilderness of the Klondike, some never to return.

Call of the Wild's Buck illustrationOne scene from that book haunted me as I stepped on the shore from a five-star cruise ship, into a highly touristified town, in September and not the dead of winter. Nothing at all was the same as that frozen moment, outside a bar where a half-drunk man made an impossible bet on how his dog could move an unspeakable load on a sled frozen in place on the cold cruel winter street. How the bet was accepted.

How the man sobered up fast when he saw the sled, and the fact that it could not be moved by any effort of man or beast without bursting their heart. How there was no way back, no way out. How the man knelt on the ice, beside the dog in the sled harness, his heart breaking because he knew that he might have killed this animal by his rash act, how he put his arms around the dog’s neck and wept and whispered against the cold fur, “As you love me, Buck. As you love me.”

And then the dog pulled. And nothing happened. And the dog pulled again. And nothing happened. And the dog pulled again… and love moved the frozen load that could not be moved by man or beast alone, and pulled it the required distance, and stopped.

And the man who knelt sobbing by the big hearted dog who had done this miracle, being shaken by the shoulders by rich men offering him a king’s ransom for the dog – the man, looking up fiercely, hugging the dog close, his heart beating against the dog’s, and saying, “This dog is not for sale, sir..”

It was not the Gold Rush. It was not winter. There were no betting men, no flawed protagonists making the wrong choices, no whiskey flowing like water, no snow, no frozen sled. But I walked down the streets of Skagway, and in my ear, a whisper, like a ghost: “As you love me, Buck. As you love me.

The book – the words on a page – changed this place for me, changed my entire experience of it. That is the power of story.

Little mermaid statue photoMany years before that, I had ended up with a day and a half to spare in Copenhagen. It is a glorious city, with its architecture and its cobbled streets and its air of casual elegance and its bikes and its brittle sunshine. But I made my way – as all do, who come here, probably – to a place where a particular little statue lives, smaller than you thought it would be, almost incongruous, perched on a boulder above slate gray waters. A statue to a creature that could not exist, did not exist, was only ever a part of a great storyteller’s imagination – the Little Mermaid.

When I was young and reading fairy tales, it was Hans Christian Andersen who held my soul. It was his stories of love and loss, of empathy, of  cruelty, of foolishness and of wisdom, which enthralled me – and remember, this was back in the days when children were considered to be wise enough to deal with the real fairy tales, the original ones, the harsh ones, before Disney poured syrup into them and make them “safe for the children.”

The story of the Little Mermaid which I inhaled as a girl was the original luminous tale – the mermaid who sold her beautiful voice for her legs, whose every step was pain, whose only salvation was to gain the love of her prince… or else, or else, or else, on the day he married another she would die and become sea foam.

He married another. The mermaid’s sisters came for her, on the ship where her prince and his bride slept in their cabin, and told the mermaid that they had sold their hair to the witch who had taken the mermaid’s voice and in return she had given them a dagger. “Pierce his heart with the dagger,” the sisters begged, “and let his blood fall on your feet – and they will become a tail again, and you can come home to us…”

And she takes the dagger, and goes into the cabin where the lovers sleep and hesitates over their bodies… and then bends over, gives the prince she loves a kiss of farewell on the brow, throws the dearly-bought knife and its salvation into the ocean, and waits to die.

If you haven’t read the real story, the original fairy tale, she doesn’t. She becomes something else entirely. Go read the original version.

But there she sits, immortalized in bronze, the luminous creature from one of the fairy tales  that shaped my life.

No, she isn’t real – not even as possibly real as a dog named Buck might have been.

But as you love me, little mermaid. As you love me. You were and you always will be real in my heart. And being here, on this shore, right beside the statue they raised to your memory, I mourn you as I would mourn anyone whom I loved.

The story made you live. And the streets of this city remember your name, given by the hand of a man who wrote your story, who made you immortal.

There are many places on this earth where you can walk in the footsteps of a character you loved, or hated, or simply once knew; where you can step into a world which once lived between the pages of a book you held between your two hands.

Find them. Walk the word worlds. Live the stories that still breathe softly inside of you.

~~~~~

Lonely Planet has explored 10 places that bring children’s literature to life, from a walk through King Arthur country, to digging on Treasure Island. Take a look HERE

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The writer and the storyteller

I’m going to a writers’ retreat in a rustic and charming place on the shores of Lake Quinault in Washington. It’s March. The light is that earnest bright shade of springtime when I pack my paraphernalia into the trunk of my car, early on the morning of my departure. Before I start the car, I put in a single CD which will play on repeat all the way through the six-hour drive ahead of me. “The Eessential Leonard Cohen”

Falling in love with Leonard

Leonard Cohen head shotI discovered Leonard Cohen late in life – so late as to be practically afterwards, as a character in a sitcom once described a boyfriend’s announcement. At some point, I heard k d lang perform “Hallelujah”, a song I’d never heard before which made the hair on the back of my neck stand up. I listened to this version, and then listened to it again and again and again and again. When I discovered that it belonged to Leonard Cohen and heard it for the first time in his own voice, fell in love. Hard. With his music. With the poetry of his lyrics. With his soul.

It was no accident I picked that particular CD to play me into a weekend at a writer’s retreat far away from the distractions of anything except the Word. Leonard Cohen’s songs are something that stirs my mind and my heart

They’re ALL stories. Some of them aren’t comprehensible at the level of the lyrics because those words are just glorious jigsaw pieces in themselves, and it isn’t your brain that puts them together into the pictures and the stories which they end up making inside of you, it’s your heart, and your spirit, and your soul.

“Suzanne” takes me out of my driveway and I’m on my way, the perfect body of those lyrics touching my mind, telling me to trust this, to trust the story that he tells me now and that I will start telling when I sit down with my fingers on the keyboard of my laptop. “The Stranger Song” and “Sisters of Mercy” – the latter with its strange calliope music in the background that makes me think of abandoned carnival spaces after the carnies have left and all the lights have been turned off for the ghosts to start roaming free – follow me onto the highway.

I pass the open fields which spill by the sides of the road while belting along with Leonard to “Hey that’s no way to say goodbye” and “So long, Marianne”. I remember reading about the real Marianne, Leonard’s love and his muse, and about the letter he wrote to her when she was dying, the letter that made my heart clench, because this man with his hoarse raspy voice and his half disillusioned and half angelically optimistic soul is a nonpareil poet and someone who truly understood love. All of it, even the dark side.

I can sing along with him and laugh and cry about it all again, right there with him, with Marianne whom I never met but who is in the car with me, with Leonard and his voice and his poetry and his memories, with all the stories which are starting to bud and flower and intermingle in the car while I sing and weave through highway traffic on the I 5.

“Bird on a Wire” catches me in a slowdown through a city, and “The Partisan” with its sudden unexpected segue into French catches me in the midst of a sudden shower with the windshield wipers thwapping disconcertingly out of time with the song. I have to force myself to stop extrapolating the story of the “Famous Blue Raincoat” while I am negotiating the passing of several large trucks which are slowing me down and driving me crazy.

I leave the highway and turn into smaller roads curving along the bottom of the Olympic Peninsula. Traffic is light and I get haunted by songs like “The Guests” and “If It Be Your Will”.

I stop for coffee and gas in Aberdeen, to the tune of “Who By Fire”, and remember the tales I was told about both the history and the current events of that city, while my road takes me directly through it – over a bridge, down one residential street then another, past houses which look like they have histories of their own, some decorated with kitsch and some so plain and suburban and poor and empty of any spark of creative life that they wrench your heart.

Somewhere past Aberdeen, back on the empty roads, I get hit by that song that is my anthem, “Hallelujah”. Somewhere near a place that rejoices in the queer name of Humptulips I pass a house with a sign that says “Three for $1” Three what? I am writing a story about that in my head even as I drive by without stopping to find out. It’s much more interesting that way, anyway. It isn’t the first story I’m playing with on this long drive, with Leonard Cohen as my companion, guide and inspiration.

I struggle to understand the undercurrents of “Night Comes On” and another story comes pushing forward, demanding attention. Another song tells me that “Everybody Knows” and here too there is a story waiting for me, waiting to be found, to be shaped and reshaped, to be inspired by those words which are easy to listen to, easy to take in as though by osmosis, through the skin and the fingers on the steering wheel, my thighs on the seat of the car, and the ends of my hair tucked into a braid.

The closer I get, the less I am human, the more I am story. I am changing. The music is changing me. “I’m Your Man”, Leonard tells me, and I whisper, “I know.” He’s more than that right now. He’s an unlikely craggy-faced raspy-voiced muse who is casting a hook into my subconscious and fishing out stories, one by one. Word by word. He might have ended up in the “Tower of Song” but he’s taking me to a place where all the stories live, and he will bless me with his music, and he will make my words live.

The stories the songs have to tell me solidify and set, and words march off in directions the songs themselves could not have imagined. After a long empty and solitary stretch of a narrowish country road, I see the sign at last, Lake Quinault to the right. I turn and Leonard turns with me, insistent, quietly powerful, teaching me how to dream.

Through the trees, the glitter of sun on the water. Lake Quinault. A piece of quiet beauty. Waiting with its gifts of silence and solitude and sun and dappled shade, water and a lawn made of moss. By the time I arrive the light is already on the turn, starting for evening, with one of Lake Quinault’s incandescent sunsets to come.

I turn the engine off, and Leonard falls silent, his voice gone from the real world around me… but his words echoing, still, inside my mind, elbowed aside by the stories which they have rearranged themselves into, which they have made on this journey – stories which have (on the face of it) very little directly to do with the lyrics which have inspired them. But which are, nevertheless, the natural-born children of those songs which have been my companions for the last six hours in that car.

I’m here. It’s time to write.

~~~~~
Q&A about “Midnight at Spanish Gardens”

What if you could relive your life?

~~~

Where did the idea for the book come from?

There was a restaurant known as Spanish Gardens that I used to go to when I was a student at the University of Cape Town. It was a place of true magic, and I’ve carried it within me for decades. It’s a memory caught in amber, ageless and eternal, and it’s something that demanded its story. And here it is. I hope you’ll follow me into Spanish Gardens, that you will recognize the place somehow as somewhere that magic lives, that perhaps you will find yourself thinking about the magical places in your own lives. And the choices you made there over the years.

What genre does your book fall under?

Contemporary fantasy, I guess – but it’s basically a story of people and how they change, with a sprinkling of magic fairy dust over the top, just to make it glitter.

Which actors would you choose to play your characters?

I would love complete unknowns – people who would lend their faces to my characters, who would then BECOME those people in the minds of the people who were taking in the story – rather than casting well-known actors who would distract from what’s happening up there on screen. But I’d love to know, here, who my readers might cast as these characters. Any reader want to tell me your dream cast?

One-sentence synopsis of the book?

What is the most important thing in the life that you have been given to live – and what would you be willing to give up if you were given a chance to change your life completely?

What other books would you compare this story to?

Well, one recent review compared it to Haruki Murakami’s work, which was a little startling but nonetheless a compliment. So that’s ONE opinion. Another one for you, readers. Did it make you think of any other stories or writers?

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

The memory of that place was the inspiration for the setting. But married to the end-of-the-world scenario as applied to 2012 – it became something else again, something rich and strange. This became a novel about telling the truth, about living a lie, about settling or reaching for the stars, about love, longing, betrayal, and most of all about choices.

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

It asks questions that everyone has asked themselves about their own lives at some point – what if I had chosen THIS instead of THAT, one person over another, a different direction?

Many of the reviews basically begin with the reviewers asking those questions of themselves. They couldn’t help it; the book appears to function as a literary mirror. The readers look into it and somehow past the characters and see… themselves. It may not be an entirely comfortable place to be. But it’s a fascinating one.

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Wired asked writers to create 6-word SF stories.

Internet “wakes up?” Ridicu – no carrier.
– Charles Stross

More from Wired HERE

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What books would you rescue from a burning building?

There are novels you read over and over again, books that seems to resonate through you, novels you’d brave fire for. Blogger Alison-Goodman calls them talisman books, those “that ward off the disappointments and insecurities of everyday life.”

There are probably three talisman books I’d rescue from a burning building.
Burning books you'd rescueThe ones I would save

1) Epic dreams

My dogeared paperback copy of Lord of the Rings – yes, I know the book is replaceable easily enough, it isn’t as if it’s out of print or anything like that, and anyway I could probably quote you the entire damned book chapter and verse if you asked.  But sometimes it isn’t JUST THE BOOK.

And this book – broken-spined, tattered, beloved – this book was probably one of the first thing that made me kneel at the altar of fantasy and begin SERIOUS worship there. Tolkien made me realize that the big epic dreams that crowded my imagination were FOR REAL, and were valuable. This book is the physical embodiment of that realization for me. It’s a talisman, not just because of its identity but because of what it represents, the kind of hugeness and wonder and awe and the way it made me cognisant of my place in this world.

2) I’d like to say … 

I’d like to say “Tigana” by Guy Gavriel Kay, because it’s one of the best BOOKS I’ve ever read, genre quite aside, the writing and the story make this book amazing for me, and so does the visceral emotional connection I feel to the underlying themes of the book.

I’d like to say “Nine Princes in Amber”, the now out-of-print paperback edition that made Roger Zelazny lift his eyebrows in utter astonishment when I gave it to him to sign and ask me where on earth I’d got that copy because it had been out of print for YEARS – because of the legacy that Zelazny left me during the writing workshop which he presided over and which I had the privilege to attend (in the year that he died).

I might, in fact, say all too many names and hesitate before my bookshelf too long and burn up with my beloved books before I could decide which of the novels on the shelf would be worth the saving.

In the end I might reach for a volume of fairy tales by Hans Christian Andersen, because all stories live inside that book, and I could read them and dream up the rest of a lost world by his tropes.

3) My grandfather’s scribbles

My third choice would be a book that’s irreplaceable. It’s a really disreputable ancient and ill-favored old-fashioned hardcover book with dull gray covers which give nothing away and which have been chipped away at the corners and on the spine – a broken down book, loved well long before I had my hands on it, with scribbled commentary in the margins and on the bottom of the pages. You’d think it was worthless if you set eyes on it; you might expect to see it for ten cents at a yard sale and probably wouldn’t take it if it was pressed into your hands for nothing at all. You’d think it had no value beyond being something to start a bonfire with.

You’d be wrong.

This is the book that lived beside my grandfather’s bed, the book that he read and re-read and re-read, the scribbles in the margins are his thoughts, and in his hand. He’s been gone more than twenty years. He’ll never speak to me again except through this book, and I WOULD go through fire to get it.

Those are talisman books in the purest and most glittering sense of the word. There are many many books that I love, and have adored over the years.

There were the books which drew my tears – “Les Miserables”, Howard Spring’s “My Son, My Son”, Karl May’s “Winnetou” (although it took me YEARS to unlearn all the “facts” I though I knew about the American Indian culture in general and the Apache in particular after I finished reading his work). Others include Jack London’s “Call of the Wild”, almost ANYTHING by Ursula le Guin, a book not many people reading this will have heard of but whose title translates as “The Time of Death” by a writer of my own tongue and tribe by the name of Dobrica Cosic and another book by one of my own, Ivo Andric’s “Bridge on the Drina”.

Lest you should think that I spent my entire reading life weeping, there are books that drew my laughter – Jerome K. Jerome’s “Three Men in a Boat”, T. H. White’s “Once and Future King”.

And there are the comfort books I return to because I have loved them and  because I know them and because if I am tired or ailing, I know I can go back to them and find solace there – “Song of Arbonne”, “Captain Corelli’s Mandolin”, Mary Stewart’s Merlin books, “Shadow of the Moon” by M. M. Kaye or any fat historical novel by Sharon Penman (but particularly “Here Be Dragons”), Barbara Kingsolver’s “Poisonwood Bible”, lots of stuff by Pearl Buck, books by Henryk Sienkiewicz, John Galsworthy, Boris Pasternak, Nikos Kazantzakis, Daphne du Maurier. Of more recent vintage, Catherynne Valente whose poetic vision enthralls me or Neil Gaiman whose dark and sardonically twisted tales and characters draw me in and China Mieville whose surgical command of the English language leaves me breathless and humbled.

I am a certified bookworm, rarely without a book halfway through somewhere in the house, often several in different parts of the house. And if I’m not reading them, I’m writing them.

4) What I am

Would you forgive me if I added #4 to my Talisman Book list, above? One of my own, a hardcover edition of “The Secrets of Jin-shei”, the book to remind me what I am,  what the culmination is of all the gifts that all my other books have poured like gems into my waiting spirit.

The truth is that I haven’t actually re-read the whole thing, not once, since it was first published. Possibly I am too afraid to, afraid of what I will find within those pages whose origins lie so deep within myself, afraid of all the things I will possibly – no, probably – find in there that I would have done differently, or would change even now if I could. But even if I never read those words that I wrote again in their entirety I’ll take a copy with me. And show it to people, after, if I lose the power of speech and they ask me who or what I am. Because that is what I am. Will always be. I am the creator of THIS THING, this book, this collection of words, this story… this talisman.

I am someone who loves books. Someone who loves reading them, who grew up to live and breathe writing them. A once-and-future writer – with hands and spirit overflowing with the talismans of language, of words. Someone who was lucky enough to have had poetry poured into my soul when I was just a child, and who was allowed to wander through the wild wood of story unfettered and free to taste of whatever fruit or stream I could find. I grew up in an  Eden of Word – and I still live there today.

With all my talismans safe beside me.

So – what are YOUR talisman books?

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Wired asked writers to create 6-word SF stories.

Computer, did we bring batteries? Computer?- Eileen Gunn

More from Wired HERE

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THEY CHANGE THEIR SKY

I wrote this piece nearly 20 years ago for the online journal Swans, talking about a different war, different refugees — my war, my refugees. So little has changed, nothing has really changed. And that’s the tragedy.

“They change their sky, not their soul, who run across the sea.”

The words of Horace have far outlasted the Empire to which he belonged. Almost a millennium after it fell, Rome is memory and ashes—and yet many, many people are still driven to change their sky. There have always been refugees, but it’s only now, with the eyes of the world on them through an assault and battery of cameras, that their tragedy has become in-your-face news fodder.

Every day we see them, the exiled, the dispossessed, walking across borders, carrying children and old people with distant, terrified eyes, wrapped in threadbare blankets, barefoot in the snow. Some of them are taken into more blessed lands, deloused, debriefed, debugged, declared free of disease, and then often left to fend for themselves (once their initial newsworthiness and photographic cachet have faded) in a hostile environment whose language they often do not speak.

And these are the lucky ones. The rest frequently spend the remainder of their lives in mud and misery, learning to call tents or barracks or empty basketball halls home, bathing in barrels, often getting vaccinated with expired medications far more likely to give them the actual disease they are trying to prevent, drinking slop, eating tinned food ten years past its sell-by date sent by countries eager to slap a Band-Aid on their conscience.

The guerre du jour that shadows our television news has vomited thousands, hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of refugees. Many are not yet even aware that this is what they are, but soon it will be made clear to them. Those that are considered as worthy to be shown on the evening news get copious, often intrusive, coverage. Others, perhaps fleeing the same war and chaos, are not seen and not heard. ,

I have family who have tasted refugee bread. Their story is far from unique; there are thousands like them. But theirs is the story I know. Theirs is the story which will be the light that I can shine into the dark places of the world.

I have a cousin. We were both born in Novi Sad, the city on the Danube river; provincial capital but, despite that, a quiet sleepy place on a rich and fertile Wheatland plain – where the light has a special glow on hot harvest Sundays in July and where the snow glitters thick on the ground on remembered childhood New Year’s Eves when we wandered past the street stalls selling tinsel and Christmas cards. Then, in the year I turned ten and she was still only nine years old, we parted – I moved away, to spend the next few decades living far from home; she stayed behind.

She married, and in due time produced two lovely little girls—who knew the name of their auntie in distant parts of the world almost before they knew their own. On March 24 1999, my older niece was four months shy of four years old. The younger was days away from her second birthday. They had known only love and liberty until that date. They had a garden and four dogs and a cat and plenty of toys, and they lived in a peaceful town whose history had flowing blood in it but where, in their day, none were harmed and none harming.

They had no way of knowing what was happening when they were warmly wrapped and, together with their mother and two small suitcases, put on a bus heading for the Hungarian border even as the first airplanes with their deadly payloads were heading to Novi Sad.

They were among the lucky ones, if luck it can be called. I would live to see the numbers of fleeing women and children climb to tens of thousands; I would also live to see those tens of thousands ignored and sidelined by the media, denied even the protecting status of being called “refugees,” because they were the wrong nation, the wrong faith, the wrong tribe of Israel. These were Serb refugees fleeing the bombardment of a country whose sin was to stand up to the world’s great powers and deny them their will. And these women and children were paying the price for that country’s pride.

Being a refugee does not necessarily mean living in a tent with no running water. Being a refugee means enduring sleepless nights; waves of guilt at the people, the responsibilities, and the lives that had to be left behind; a complete inability to show your true feelings because your children think the whole thing is a pleasant holiday.

I have loved many a place where I have lived over the years; but nowhere was “home.”

But I did have a place that was mine alone. I held on to a quiet love for the old river that had flowed through my childhood—never quite the blue of song, the Danube, not this far down on its silt-laden and mud-churned journey, carrying the memory of Vienna and Budapest past my city on its way to the sea. It smelled of damp compacted leaves and wet sand and sometimes a whiff of diesel from the tugs that plied it; its banks were brown mud of the color and consistency of fudge, overgrown with reeds and young willows; white cruise ships and old, peeling, workaday barges all touched this river city’s welcoming quays.

He talked to me, old man river, in the whispered lapping of the water on the shore; it was in memory of these childish conversations that I would almost invariably burst into tears every time we went back for a visit and the family car that had come to pick us up at the main airport in Belgrade trundled across the old bridge on its way home to the remembered warmth of the family circle. The original bridges are all gone now. This is a place of ghosts. My nieces will never live in the same town that I spent my own childhood in.

Once, talking with a friend who himself immigrated here from a different country, I asked him, What color is your sky? It stumped him for a while, before he thought about it and understood: every one of us has a morning in our memory where a sky has etched itself into our soul—a certain light of dawn, a certain shade of blue, a certain golden wash to the clouds. This sky is yours, unique, a once-in-a-lifetime sight that connects you to a time and a place which otherwise would vanish like so many memories into the vast shadowy storehouse where memories are stored, perhaps never to be looked at again. This sky is your soul, a glimpse of the soul you carry within you, and that is the color of the sky which you will always think of as “home.”

My skies are a cerulean blue over golden fields. I haven’t seen them for years. But Horace had the right of it—”They change their sky, not their soul, who run across the sea.”

I am a refugee. But I am a refugee who carries her home with her like a stone from beside her old hearth, a vial of holy water from her river, a piece of blue from her sky. I am very far across the sea from where I began… but despite the changing skies that I have lived my life underneath I have never let go of that piece of my soul in which I carry my home.

All of us, all the refugees on this tired and beaten and churned-up world, share that characteristic. We may run, for a million different reasons—but the gift in that is to know, because we are preternaturally aware of our world and our surroundings far more than the watchers of the news in comfortable suburban houses across the planet, exactly what color the sky should be when we lift our eyes to it. The price of being aware of one’s unchanging soul is the eternal longing to return, even when that return ceases to be practically possible, to the place where the exiled soul belongs, knowing that there is a Promised Land and, like Moses, to only be able to glimpse it from across a river with no fords.

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Children of a Different Sky

Children Title bannerThe fantasy anthology, “Children of a Different Sky”, is a collection of stories which illuminate the lot of the lost, bewildered and abandoned refugees and immigrants of our time.

 

If you wish to help, and don’t know how, pick up a copy of this book, both for the inspiration and insight the stories will give you, and the material aid you will offer by your purchase. All profits go to aid groups.

To pre-order “Children of a Different Sky”, click on the book cover HERE

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