Archive for July, 2011
I discovered last night at the farewall banquet that I have spelled Dufresne’s name wrong! I will go back and correct. I learned this because, as an ice-breaker, they made us see how many words we could get out of the letters in the name Dufresne. The answer is 47, for our table, anyway. How many words can you make from those letters?
Michael David Lukas not only wrote a wonderful book, The Oracle of Stamboul, he is a marvelous reader and a nice person. The triple threat of conference faculty!
It is hard to get a good picture of Stephanie Elizondo Griest because she is in constant motion; beckoning, swirling her hands, tossing her head, dancing through her reading, arms out-stretched to the audience, laughing, pacing, inviting us to play along, to laugh and be shocked. She read a short section from Around the Bloc, her adventures in Russia, China and Cuba, and a short, tragic bit from Mexican Enough.
I ran into her at the reception desk just after I bought Around the Bloc. She looked at my name tag and recognized Sebastopol. “They have a great farmers’ market,” she said. Her mistake! I talked about farmers’ markets for while, and then she personalized my book. She probably had no idea what a dangerous topic fresh vegetables could be.
The farewell banquet was at the Senior Center. I won a bottle of wine! Just like last year, the novel master class instructor gave the keynote address. Dufresne was funny, insightful, poignant and surprising. I didn’t know about Japanese cell-phone novels, for instance. John: “Proof that you can write a novel with your thumbs.” He talked about writing while driving (only at red lights. That’s his story and he’s sticking to it). He is writing against the clock–we all are, he said. Yes, and him perhaps more than most because he has the most recursive, inefficient way to write I’ve ever heard. It involves a fountain pen and a planning pad–white, not yellow, with a wide left margin for notes on what you’re writing, and he rewrites each page over and over before he finally types it into the computer. “I should have taken typing in high school,” he said, “instead of four years of Latin.”
After, he signed books. Everyone hugged and we wandered out into the parking lot in twos and threes. The conference was ended for another year.
Anton Chekhov said that if you mention a Canadian goose in the first act, you must show a picture of it by the third act. Actually, he said that about a gun, and the gun going off. Here’s a picture of the stuffed goose anyway.
Here’s Defresne, explaining plot.
We have eleven manuscripts. We have three days. We should complete about four manuscripts a day in order to ensure that everyone gets time. At the end of Day Two, we have completed four total.
Haven is writing a novel set in 1998, about a young woman who finds out that her parents are not who she thinks they are, and that they spent time at Morningstar Ranch in Sonoma during the 1970s. Despite the hair, Defresne must be a lot younger than Haven and me, because he did not understand about Morningstar Ranch, or, apparently how easy it was to get fake documents like social security cards or birth certificates in the 1970s.
Teri brought the first ten pages of a lovely novel of a woman and her family going west from Independence, Missouri, on a wagon train.
We haven’t reviewed Donna’s opening chapter of her gallows comedy about the murder of a Mormon bishop in an affluent suburb of San Francisco.
Riba has written a relationhip novel about loss, grief, and betrayal.
Shannon has the other Antarctica book. Maybe we will review the Antarctica chapters back to back.
The Editors and Publishers Panel was interesting. Three great and interesting speakers, each with a unique point of view. There was a bit of jostling at the beginning but they rubbed off the edges and got along great. Here is Jay Schaefer’s recipe for success:
1)Write the best book you can write
2) Have something to say.
3) Put a vampire in it.
My second consult was with Jay. It was right after lunch. He was warm, friendly and funny. After two decades as an editor for Chronicle Books, among others, he has quit to be a freelance editor. He liked my chapter, thought it was “ominous,” and totally got the magic even though he doesn’t read urban fantasy (despite the vampire remark). I told him April wanted to see it; he thought that was good, and made some recommendations about other ways to find agents, particularly those who represent urba fantasy.
(Note: Pictures do not match the text, unless they do.)
There is a stuffed Canadian goose looking down on us from above one of the tall cabinets in the art studio room where we are meeting.
John Defresne has gray-yellow hair hanging around his face, hazel eyes, and a silver earring in one ear. He’s wearing blue and red plaid. Right now, he lives in Miami, teaches, and owes his editor a book which he has promised her he’ll have done in September.
Heather is a published author and successful actress from Canadawho has written a seductive, tragic and funny piece about a shattered family in the immediate aftermath of the death of the matriarch. She has perfectly dyed, perfectly coiffed short dark red-brown hair.
We have two chapters of novels set in Antarctica, both set in the future, if wildly different futures. I should be surprised by this, but I’m not. Writers’ conferences somehow breed synchronicity—or, maybe it’s simpler than that. Maybe selection juries select for synchronicity.
Alicia looks like she could have modeled for one of the Old Masters for some truly virtuous religious artwork, like the Virgin Mary or some famous martyr. She has brown hair carelessly draped over one shoulder, a long face with high cheekbones. Her first chapter is from a relationship novel.
Norman is writing a futuristic novel set in (yes, that’s right!) Antarctica. He is a doctor. There is a definite link between doctors and science fiction.
My Chapter One is urban fantasy. Defresne informs me that in the south, “urban” means “black.” I try not to roll my eyes. I provided a definition of urban fantasy in my synopsis, but independent guy that he is, Defresne looked it up himself and reads aloud the definition to the class. It’s similar to mine—mine was shorter.
I should say that my chapter is a prose masterpiece, expertly written with compelling characters, deft use of physical details that cement the setting, brilliant dialogue, clever creation of suspense to create a slowly rising tension. There are only one or two little problems with it. Defresne goes right to them. Actually, they’re not so much problems with the chapter as they are problems with the whole book. Defresne susses this out in about a minute and a half. “Who is your central character?” he says, looking at me. “You need to know who your central character is, whose story you’re telling.”
The previous night at dinner, I told Donna that I was thinking of bagging the book. It just had no energy. I knew where it was going, but it’s a by-the-numbers plot and I still really didn’t know whose story it was. The way I described it to myself, in my head, was that Bronwyn was such a strong character that she was skewing the plot.
I signed up for an agent consultation last month when I registered. On my trip up I looked through the materials, and remembered that this agent doesn’t represent fantasy (or mystery either, according to other people at the conference). While it’s always nice to talk to people, I debated the value of meeting for twenty minutes with an agent who is not interesting in representing what I am writing.
On the way up toFortBragg, I had not stopped at the Botanical Garden. I decide to cancel my consult, take the afternoon off and go hang out in the garden. After Defresne’s class ends, I go to the registration desk and say I want to cancel.
“Why?” the staff person barks at me. Hey, it’s my dollar, I’ll cancel if I want to! Of course, I don’t say that. I say that she doesn’t represent fantasy. They draw a line through my name.
I go the Botanical Garden and take several hundred pictures.
In my head I make the argument for bagging the book. It’s been giving me trouble for a while now. It’s either that, or tear it down to the foundation and start over—which is probably the more likely option. My villain and my wizard character, who has been hanging around waiting for something to do, need to have known each other in the past. The battle has to be more personal. And, that’s a lot of work.
It’s about three o’clock. I hadn’t planned on heading back to the conference, but I think that maybe I will connect with one other conference-goer. Teri and I had talked about doing something this evening, but never firmed up any plans and then I left. I head back to the college. Maybe I can hear the prize winners read.
I stop to buy a T-shirt. The woman filling out my receipt asks my name. They write names on receipts, I don’t know why. I tell her, and hold out my name badge. She puts down her pen and looks at me. “Are you the Marion who cancelled a consult with April?”
For heaven’s sake, people! “Yes, I am.”
“Oh, you have to find Barbara,” she says. Barbara is another staffer. “Barbara said to find you. April wants to meet with you.”
“I cancelled,” I say. “She doesn’t repr–”
“Yes, and Barbara told her you said she doesn’t represent fantasy. April said, ‘No, I really want to meet with her!’ Go find Barbara. You know her, and she’s wearing a red shirt.”
All the staff wear red shirts, which was a great plan until some participants also bought red T-shirts. I look around about three-quarter-heartedly for Barbara, and end up talking to Jack, who is in the master class and wrote this awesome tour de force of an opening of a detective novel set in post-Communist Hungary, where Jack taught for several years. He is reading from a piece of short fiction, a story inspired by a character who walks through a Chevhov story.
I go to hear Jack read. It turns out he will read second to last. The room fills up as listeners drift in.
Barbara taps me on the shoulder. “April can meet with you right now.”
Where? I run to the room where I thought the consult was—only to discover it’s the wrong room. April is in the room around the corner from where I had been sitting. I dash back. There’s April, cheerful and friendly.
April really liked Chapter One. She didn’t see the big glaring problems. And, here’s a weirdness, she got most of the magic stuff. Defresne didn’t. His excuse was that he doesn’t read urban fantasy. Neither does April, but she has been educating herself. She knows two things; she wants to branch out from “women’s fiction,” and “urban fantasy is hot right now.”
“Urban fantasy is women’s fiction,” she says.
I nod and try to look thoughtful. “Women’s fiction, with vampires,” I say.
So she wants to see the book when it’s done.
One of Fort Bragg’s claims to fame is the Skunk Train, a train ride along the Noyo River canyon through stately redwood trees. There are three choices of trip; the morning ride which goes to a camp called Northspur, about 21 miles, and back; an afternoon trip to Northspur where they serve you a barbeque tri-tip dinner, and an overnight ride to the town of Willits, about 39 miles. Tri-tip didn’t sound that good so I opted for the five-hour 10:00 am ride.
In Fort Bragg, it was about 60 degrees, so I brought a jacket. We waited by the three gates while they backed up the gleaming Old 45 engine, diesel-steam, a piece of elegant machinery that fulfilled all my steampunk cravings. They totally blew the illusion by attaching the Parlor Car next. The Parlor Car looks like a Grateful Dead T-shirt seller painted it. It’s lovely, it’s just very. . . 1970s rather than 1870s.
They had enough people and dogs to fill three cars. In between the cars they have an open car; they didn’t call it an observation car. I spent most of the trip out there. The engine has the long, airy, mournful whistle we remember from our childhoods (or from TV), a clanging bell and a stack that belches stinky steam. That is part of the reason for the name. For the overnighter trips they run a full diesel engine, but I wanted that steam experience.
We had two men in conductor garb; a gray-haired gentleman who was also our docent on the trip, and a younger guy with a magenta streak in his hair who played music and sang. He had his wife and two-year-old daughter with him. The train is canine-friendly and there were a number of dogs, all well-behaved, but I do wonder if they were enjoying the trip all that much.
The train pulls out of Bragg and heads north, soon leaving the city behind. We passed the county cemetery. For the first leg, we were in new growth oak and bay trees, horsetail ferns, water lilies, and wetlands. Soon the wetlands sharpen up into a Noyo river, a shallow glassy stream of water tinted shades of green from the shadows and reflections of the trees. We had to leave the open car and go inside as we went through the tunnel (I’m still not sure why. . . fumes?) and when we came out, we were in redwoods.
This forest is, for the most part, third or at best second growth. Trees were cut in the 1860s, largely for the war effort, but they didn’t really make much of a dent in the old-growth forest then. In 1906, an earthquake and fire leveled San Francisco. The rebuilding cleaned out the redwood trees. Our conductor told us that if we had taken the train in 1908, we would have passed a six mile stretch without a single redwood tree. The area was logged heavily again in the 1940s because of World War II. Since the 40s, the lumber industry has steadily declined, and the closest open mill in this area is in Cloverdale, fifty miles away.
The train started running to and from the lumber camps. The Skunk Train is still a flag-down train, and the few people who live in cabins along the track can flag town the train on any run. Most of the residents have 99 year leases on the property (because most people only bought timber rights). There are also several summer camps along the track.
Northspur isn’t a settlement in any real way. There are picnic tables, restrooms and three concession stands, two of which sell food. It is surrounded by young tall sequoias, and it was 90 degrees there, 21 miles away from the coast. I love our California microclimates.
The stop at Northspur lasts about an hour, during which they fill up the boiler and uncouple the engine. They roll it across another track and bring it around to the back of the train and hitch it to what was the last car, which has now become the first. The people riding from Willits were on a single car contraption. We were allowed to mingle with the Willits people.
Heading back I got into a delightful conversation with Andrea and David. I had been watching Andrea because she is so photogenic. She and her granddaughter were standing behind me on the open car and we got to talking. She said she was researching local railroads because her Chinese great-grandfather helped build them, including the Transcontinental Railroad. He floated here from China with eight other men in a Chinese junk. It took them eight months. They had planned to work the goldfields but were evicted shortly after arriving. The railroad was hiring. David turned around and entered the conversation at this point. He asked Andrea if she knew the famous quote of Charles Crocker, who built the railroad. The quote is, of course, “I killed one Chinaman for every mile of track laid.” Andrea had heard it—furthermore, she told us, that statistic is low (even though Crocker was bragging when he said it). 1.7 Chinese men died for every mile of track.
She said she taught theater arts and had just come back from Alaska where she was studying shamanism. David said his first novel, Shadow of the Raven, had shamanism in it! Since he was a writer, I asked him if he was going to attend the writers’ conference. That was the first he had heard of it.
We talked for about half an hour, exchanged e-mails and did all those good things. TJ reminded us all that the 1,000 year old redwood tree was coming up, so we stopped talking to look for it.
The trip is fun. Bring water and sun-block. Bring cash, since all the concessions on the train and at Northspur are cash-driven (although it looked like one at Northspur would take checks.) Sometimes it is better not to ask a question if you think you won’t like the answer, so if you are making reservations, I would recommend you not ask if you can bring your own food.
I had breakfast at Egghead’s, which bills itself as the Best Breakfast Place in Oz. The theme of the entire restaurant is Wizard of Oz. And the food is pretty darn good, too.
The Gualala Art Center’s monthly, revolving exhibit was pencil and charcoal drawings. The first prize winner is an artist’s self-portrait “as Munch”–looking like The Scream. Aside from the technical brilliance of the piece, I liked the whimsy. Don Hall, this artist, also had a piece called “Machine Gun Alley,” a colored pencil sketch of an amusement park arcade game, filled with stuffed animals and machine guns.
The second prize winner was more sentimental. I saw it first, after I walked past a line of many, many female nudes, in a variety of reclining poses. There were two or three male full-figure nudes, all coyly posed to hide their genitals. I did wonder if a lot of these artists took the same life drawing class.
Bruce Jones had two sumi ink sketches I really liked, “The Relic” and “Twisted Eucalyptus.” I thought that was interesting because he also had a black, white and red pencil on brown paper sketch called “Alice and the Queen of Hearts.” It depicted two femal figures, one nude and reclining face up, lounging almost, hand outstretched, one foot (wearing a flip-flop) resting on her opposite knee. She wears a turban and is looking to the viewer’s right. Behind her, standing, is a short haired woman also looking to the right. The standing woman is so skinny her head is disproportionate. It almost looks like her head is on backwards. I didn’t like it at all, but his use of brown paper and white gave the skin of the reclining woman a sheen as if she were perspiring in the sun. It was technically good except for that head thing–but I didn’t care for it.
After I left the building I walked down the forest trail. It’s pretty steep in spots. It goes all the way to the river, but I didn’t walk that far.
The sunblock I put on made me especially attractive to the mosquitos. I also saw Mendocino’s county animal, the banana slug. I wish I had gotten a more exciting picture, but frankly, slugs don’t really do much that’s exciting to mammals, so I included a redwood picture instead.
I saw it first in the parking lot behind Fort Ross Store. Since sometimes I’m stupid, I read it,at first, as “Resus.” I tried to make that be “Resuse–” as in “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle,” but the bus was having none of it.
Walking back down to my hotel after dinner, I saw it parked there next to the Post Office, its colors harmonizing with the lavender and other flowers. I didn’t have my camera, so I had to go back to my room and get it.
In case you were wondering, yes, that is a Folger’s coffee can (plastic) with a dollar bill sticking out of it, just below that charming mutant smiley face. Why a dollar bill in a coffee can? I have no idea.
Embassytown, by China Mieville
Warning: Very long, and might contain spoilers.
And the serpent said unto the woman, “Ye shall not surely die: For God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil.”
“. . .You don’t need to. . .to link incommensurables. Unlike if you claim: ‘This is that.’ When it patently is not. That’s what we do. That what we call ‘reason,’ that exchange, that metaphor. That lying. The world becomes a lie. That’s what Surl Tesh-escher wants. To bring in a lie.” He spoke very calmly. “It wants to usher in evil.”
In the third, or adult, stage of their development, the Ariekene wake knowing Language, innately. There is no less-than-perfect feedback system. They don’t have to learn language in a complex social context. There is no need to struggle to decipher phonetics, facial expressions, tonal changes or physical non-verbal cues. Furthermore, the Ariekene can only speak things that are true. For these and other reasons humans consider the Ariekene Language unique in the galaxy.
It’s tempting to say that China Mieville’s Embassyville is about linguistics, because so much of it focuses on that topic. It’s about so much more, though; politics and art, power, addiction, innocence and wisdom, colonialism and what happens when different cultures engage.
Mieville gives us another interstitial first person narrator, not unlike Tyador in The City and The City, for Embassytown. Avice Benner Cho was born in Embassytown, the one bubble of human colonization on Arieka. Avice is an “immerser,” someone who helps shepherd the galactic ships through the disorienting space called the “immer.” As a child, before she ever left her home planet, Avice ran with a group of kids who tried to push the envelope of the aeoli, the literal bubble of breathable air around Embassytown, to cross the border into the Ariekene city, into the toxic atmosphere of the Hosts. Avice has gone off-world, but now returns with her husband, Scile, a linguist. As she did when she was a child, Avice shuttles across borders and between factions, an in-between person at a crucial moment in her planet’s history.
On Arieka, Avice has a modest measure of fame. When she was a child she was chosen by the Hosts to act out certain behavior. She is a simile. Avice is not the author of the simile, she is the thing itself—not Pablo Picasso, but a Picasso, not Beethoven, one of his sonatas.
The Ariekene have two mouths, and speak a dual-voiced language. Human settlers were quickly able to understand the Ariekene, but the Hosts could not understand humans. It takes a particular kind of human to manage the tonal and vocal needs of Language, and once the colonists in Embassytown realized this, they set about creating that kind of human. The only people who can speak to the Hosts are the genetically engineered Ambassadors.
Meiville takes his time unfolding the story. Scile, Avice’s husband, is particularly fascinated by the Festivals of Lies the Hosts hold, to which they invite the Ambassadors. Ambassadors, being human, can lie effortlessly. “I’m flying,” they’ll say, and the Ariekene, even knowing this is not true, will look skyward. They hold lying contests among themselves, and the contestants strain to lie. One contestant wins a round by calling a yellow object “yellow-beige.” It receives an ovation from its fellows.
Although they can apparently think of things that are not here-and-now true, the Hosts cannot articulate them, and this is why they must create similes like Avice in the material world, so that they can use that simile to talk about things in different ways.
Across the immer, the imperial government (never actually seen) is not happy that the power on Arieka rests solely with the Ambassadors, and they create an Ambassador of their own. The readers, who have observed the Festivals of Lies, understand immediately what happens when the Ariekene meet this new Ambassador, but it takes the citizens of Embassytown longer. As Avice puts it, “The sun came out, and the shops still sold things, and people went to work. It was a slow catastrophe.”
The collapse, when it comes, is actually shockingly swift. The last quarter of the book details the collapse of the human city, and tears aside the veil of denial Avice and her friends have clung to. Humans lives on Arieka solely by the largess of the Ariekene—even the air they breathe is provided by the bio-rigged meat machines the Hosts have created. And non-Ambassador humans, like Avice and Scile, are viewed as meat machines, not people, by the Ariekene.
As the city erodes away, Avice, somewhat surprisingly, stays with the Ambassadors, while Scile leaves, disappearing into a hostile countryside. Because of Scile’s scholarship, the books he left, and Avice’s access, as an article of Language, to the Ariekene, Avice actually understands more about Language than the Ambassadors do. In one way, it’s an outsider’s understanding; in another, as a simile, she is immersed in Language.
I was afraid that Scile had been written into the book just to give Avice access to scholarly knowledge, but Scile is a player with his own motives and his own philosophy. He projects innocence onto the Ariekene, and wants to keep their Language uncorrupted, as he defines that, whatever the cost.
The final quarter of the book is a swirl of warfare, strategy, and language—many kinds of language. In the midst of one desperate attempt to control things, Bren, a former Ambassador, reminds Avice, “We aren’t training a new Ambassador. We’re distilling a drug.”
In the midst of a quite serious book, Mieville still finds time for playfulness. The un-crewed ships that slip across the waves of the immer to wash up on Embassytown’s shore are called “miabs”, and the reason is explained a little farther on in the text. As things begin to implode, one of the Ambassadors watches old fictions of humans fighting off hordes of undead monsters and someone comments, “These ones are Georgian or Roman, I gather.” Bren and Avice comment on the phrase “bone-house” for human chest and later Avice, skulking through the ruined organic houses of the city, hides behind a house-bone. Avice nicknames one of the Ariekene “Spanish Dancer,” which is later shortened to Spanish, the name of a human language.
Mieville pitches this book—I’m using that term tonally—at literary readers, with a first person narrator who seems to be someone who is not powering the story, merely present and reporting on the events that happen around her. At the end, though, Avice declares that she is through being a simile; she wants to be a metaphor. Avice’s understanding midwifes the cataclysmic change in Ariekene consciousness.
There is so much at work here that some nuance of character gets lost. While I can imagine why Avice falls out of love with Scile, I never see the moment where she falls in love with him, and that would have added poignancy to the ending.
I think the pacing is a little off in Embassytown, and there is a lot of talking, but, after all, it’s a book about language. Mieville wanted to write about how the mind changes language and language changes the mind. He succeeded. He also wrote a good book about power and respect, about colonialism and self-determination. This is a book I will read again, knowing that each read will uncover something new to think about.
I must say I’m pretty annoyed withWP 3.2′s habit of running words together when you paste text into the window. I just downloaded 3.2.1 and maybe that will fix it.