Laura Anne Gilman is the Nebula- and Endeavor-award nominated author of Silver on the Road and The Cold Eye(novels of The Devil’s West), and the short story collection Darkly Human, as well as the long-running
Cosa Nostradamus series, and the “Vineart War” trilogy.
Under the name L.A. Kornetsky, she also wrote the “Gin & Tonic” mysteries.
A former New Yorker, Laura Anne currently lives outside of Seattle, WA with two cats and many deadlines. More information and updates can be found at www.lauraannegilman.net, or follow her on Twitter as @LAGilman
When I was younger, I thought I’d never have a tattoo. Not because I didn’t like them – I saw some beautiful examples of ink work (as well as some terrible ones, let’s be honest) and I’d done enough reading to understand that they were deeply meaningful in many cultures-not-mine.
But I was also Jewish, and even if you were willing to overlook the proscription against altering your body (I have pierced ears and have an organ donor card, so obviously I am), tattoos had a very different meaning after the Holocaust.
So yeah. I admired them on other people, but didn’t seriously consider them for myself. Especially when my then-husband commented on his distaste for them.
But somewhere around my 35th birthday (not entirely coincidentally around the time of my divorce), I started to think that maybe I did want one. Something deeply personal, something meaningful. But I had to be sure. This wasn’t a haircut that could grow out, this was a permanent addition to my body, one that would not be easy to erase.
So I waited. And contemplated. And gathered notes. Because my idea of “on a whim” usually takes several weeks, at a minimum.
This took several years. In fact, it took almost a decade. And along the way, I considered and rejected a number of designs, including the Zen Buddhist ensō, before finally settling on the lemniscate, a geometrical representation better known to most of us as “the infinity symbol.”
It’s not coincidence that this occurred at the same time I was writing the first Devil’s West novel, Silver on the Road, wherein the sigil for the protector of the Territory was a lemniscate set within a world-circle. There was something about the multiple ideas of the image that appealed to me, the sense of something that never ended, never began, could never be counted, and was forever complete. It connected to the issues I was writing about, but also to how I see my life, and the world around me.
In terms of spirituality, that’s pretty much all I’ve got. The sense that we’re all part of something far more than we can see, not so much swept along in it as part of it. We can’t extract, we can’t step away.
So yeah, finally. I had a visual I could see keeping on my body for the rest of my life.
So then I started considering where it should go. With the aid of some henna artists, I tried it out on several different locations, starting with the shoulder. But none of them felt quite right to me.
During all of this, I moved across-country, Silver on the Road and its sequels sold to a publisher, and my father, who had been battling Parkinsons’ for many years, was diagnosed with stage 4 osteosarcoma, and died less than two months later.
And I finally knew where my tattoo would go.
Not on the shoulder. Not on my leg, or my back. But on my arm. Just above where the Nazis once tattooed serial numbers on the bodies of my relatives, to turn them from people into things. A personal “fuck you” to those who try to erase us from the universe.
A memorial to my father, and all those lost over lifetimes.
I am not a thing. I am not alone. We are greater than we know. We are infinite.
I also don’t have the urge to get another tattoo. Yet. Check in again next decade…
About this post: Inksplanations (and variations thereon) is the name for a series of short interviews with a number of genre writers about their tattoos. Why they got them, what they mean, how getting ink did or didn’t change them–any and all of these topics are fair game. What drives a literary artist to literally become canvas for an image or epigram? Did they get what they were seeking? I wanted to know, especially after I got my 2016 poppies from Toronto artist Lorena Lorenzo at Blackline Studio, and so I did what any curious writer would do. I asked.
I have been intermittently absent from social media of late, and blogging even less. I’m not alone, I know. Finding ways to keep an eye on the headlines without being caught by undertows of despair is a challenge I know many of us are facing.
I’m going to marches and writing to politicians and contributing, intermittently, to political signal boost efforts. I’m thinking about best practices for activists. I’m thinking about what I’m writing and how to make it current and useful and diverting and aspirational… and also, always, still entertaining, still good art.
I am making a concentrated effort to appreciate all the good things: my wife, cats, friends, and students. To savor good food, the shiny high-tech world we live in, and all its toys, the plays and other cultural delights at my fingertips. And, soon, travel: we’re headed to Europe for Reading Week and I cannot wait.
I may have dialed down the volume on the world, a bit, but I’m around; I can be found. If you need me, reach out.
I have been trying for some time to get a few of my favorite authors to come here to my blog and talk about a lucky break in their careers. Unexpected forks in the road, weird bits of random serendipity… you name it. Writers work hard to achieve success, but every now and then something happens that they couldn’t ever predict or reproduce. Some of those moments, I think, must have good stories in them.
(And what’s more, they don’t even have to come packed with a moral lesson! Nobody’s going to say: New Author, you should try to get a concussion at a con! Or: Hey, car trouble is the way to go if you want to hit the NY Times Bestseller List!)
But the thing is, people (and perhaps especially writers) are superstitious. To some extent it feels like inviting bad luck to go crowing too loudly about good luck. It has taken me awhile to find someone who was willing to take this particular interview plunge. And how fitting that the trailblazer is Lara Elena Donnelly, whose audacious upcoming novel Amberlough is out on February 7th. This book is going to seem to many of you as though it was written just yesterday, because while it does not quite happen on Earth, or even in the United States of America, it is nevertheless a chilling capture of so many things we have lately come to fear.
Generally, you wouldn’t count a cracked exhaust manifold as a lucky break. Not in your writing career, or in your life as a whole. But if not for a cracked exhaust manifold, my debut novel Amberlough might not be coming out in February.
The sequence of unlikely events and circumstances that led me to this moment began on a winter day when blizzard warnings were flying thick and fast as the snow would later in the evening. I got up early, got in my mom’s car, and we drove to Michigan.
I was incredibly excited, for two reasons. One: even though I wasn’t sick, I was getting out of school. Two: I was about to meet my idol.
Holly Black’s urban fantasy novel Tithe had me rubbing four leaf clovers on my skin and staring through hollow stones, devouring any other fairy lore I could get my hands on. And I had read, on her LiveJournal (yes, LiveJournal) that she would be teaching at the Clarion Youth workshop in Ann Arbor, Michigan, just a couple of hours from my hometown. My mom pulled me out of school and put me in the car.
It was at Clarion Youth that Holly mentioned a sci-fi, fantasy, and horror workshop for teens in Pennsylvania, called Alpha, where Tamora Pierce taught every year. If you haven’t heard of Tamora Pierce, quick recap: she’s written dozens and dozens of fantasy novels featuring young women as knights, mages, cops, and spies. Her characters get menstrual cramps while jousting, use birth control so pregnancy won’t interrupt their espionage missions, and have frank discussions about sex with their partners in the midst of quests in the realm of the Gods. She writes fantasy with female characters who have the practical concerns of real-life women. She is amazing.
But Holly couldn’t remember the name of the workshop, and over the next year—which included my first summer job, my first love, and my first novel (a glorious disaster, if you’re wondering)—the idea of it leaked out of my overheated teenage brain. I found a workshop in Scotland I wanted to go to. I bussed tables and saved money. My mom sold home-baked bread at the farmer’s market, and saved money. And then her car broke down.
See, we got to the car eventually.
A cracked exhaust manifold ain’t a cheap fix. Scotland was off the table. But my mom, determined I would get my summer workshop, remembered Holly Black saying something about Pennsylvania, and Tamora Pierce.
The Alpha SF/F/H/Workshop for Young Writers was my luckiest break of all. Taught by a combination of visiting authors and dedicated volunteer staff (all of them also writers), it was the first place I learned I could write and sell short fiction. The first place I heard about getting an agent, about writing a query letter, about how to submit my stories, why I should go to cons. The first place, in short, where writing was treated as a profession and I was treated as a budding professional.
It was also where I heard about the Dell Awards.
The Dell Magazine Awards for Undergraduate Excellence in Science Fiction and Fantasy are awarded at ICFA, the International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts, every year. The important thing about this award: All finalists, not just the winner, get free registration at the conference. If you can get yourself to Florida, you get a formal introduction to the field of SFF. You meet people like Kit Reed and Ted Chiang and Peter Straub and if you’re like me at age 19, you have no idea who they are, and when you learn you’re petrified. But you keep going back.
After I graduated from college, I wanted to keep attending ICFA. But I was unemployed, like every other graduate after the financial crisis, and I couldn’t afford conference registration. I couldn’t afford a flight. I couldn’t afford a hotel. But I knew, because of Alpha, that cons were a good place to network. Sage advice from author Jeffrey Ford—attend the same con over and over again, until people know your face—made me eager to get back to Orlando, especially since I had a finished novel ready for submission.
So I asked for help. I set up a GoFundMe and my friends and family sent me to Florida for a sixth time. Where, in an incidental conversation, I met Diana Pho, an associate editor at Tor, and mentioned my book.
“That sounds really interesting,” she said. “You should send that to me when it’s done.”
Reader, I finished revisions in a week. And after nearly a year of back-and-forth, revisions, agent queries, abject panic and brief flashes of ecstasy, I signed a contract.
Without that cracked exhaust manifold, I’d have ended up in Scotland instead of at Alpha. That’s not to say I wouldn’t have sold a book, eventually, but it might not have been Amberlough. It might not be coming out on February 7, 2017, or currently available for pre-order. Without that cracked exhaust manifold, I might not be turning this hypothetical into a bald-faced plug for my debut novel.
My mom’s still driving the same car, by the way. Honda Civics are tough little bugs.
The all-singing, all-dancing Lara Elena Donnelly is a graduate of the Alpha and Clarion writers’ workshops. Her work has appeared in venues including Strange Horizons, Escape Pod, Nightmare, and Mythic Delirium. Her debut novel, vintage-glam spy thriller Amberlough, drops on February 7, 2017 from Tor Books, but you can pre-order it now. Lara lives in Manhattan, but you can find her online at @larazontally or laradonnelly.com.
About this series: If I can find anyone bold enough to brag about their good fortune, Lucky Break will be another of my occasional interview series with authors, about bolts from the blue that aided their careers. If I can’t, I hope you and I will continue to enjoy new essays like those in my series: The Heroine Question, Let Me Inksplain, and What We Inherited.
I woke this morning to this lovely piece, from The Book Wars:
Sophie fills a niche in the genre as she is a post grad student whose academic nature often gets her in trouble but whose life makes for entertaining reading. The world Dellamonica has created continues to amaze with its increasing level of complexity.
On a completely other note, I (somewhat ineptly, I must admit) made a little Tweet thread yesterday, and then condensed it in Storify. Now am posting it here to see how it looks. Your patience with my learning curve is always appreciated:
Faith Mudge is a writer from Queensland, Australia, with a passion for fantasy, folk tales and mythology from all over the world – in fact, for almost anything with a glimmer of the fantastical. Her stories have appeared in various anthologies, including Kaleidoscope, Cranky Ladies of History, Hear Me Roar and Daughters of Frankenstein: Lesbian Mad Scientists. She posts reviews and articles at beyondthedreamline.wordpress.com, and can also be found at beyondthedreamline.tumblr.com.
Is there a literary heroine on whom you imprinted as a child? A first love, a person you wanted to become as an adult, a heroic girl or woman you pretended to be on the playground at recess?
I can’t remember how old I was when I first read Jane Eyre, but I’m pretty sure it was in my early teens, around the point when I was devouring so many other classic novels that my written vocabulary started to sound like a teenage Victorian, the kind of prose that’s less purple and more a really annoying shade of magenta. I do not now like a lot of those books, but I’m always going to have a certain residual fondness. They were what I needed at the time.
Jane Eyre was different. It’s a favourite of my mother’s, so the copy I read was hers. These days I have two of my own, just to be safe. I’m lucky – mine was a childhood filled with stories and I had a small army of heroines to look up to, all of whom have contributed to who I am in different ways. It’s hard to pick just one! But Jane Eyre is one of those books that leaves a strong impression every time I re-read it, reminding me of just how good it is. The writing is decisive and elegant, the plot is strong. And most of all, I love Jane. She remains one of my favourite characters in anything ever.
Can you remember what it was she did or what qualities she had that captured your affections and your imagination so strongly?
Oh, that’s easy. Jane is indomitable. She starts out as this fierce, desperate little girl who craves love more than anything and grows into a woman with a quiet, cool exterior who is an absolute force of nature underneath, a woman who is strong enough to walk away from love when it isn’t good for her. She is an extraordinary balance of calm head and passionate heart, with a rich inner life that she doesn’t share with people who don’t deserve it. In the depths of her despair, she decides that she will care for herself – which is a tremendously powerful statement that has always stuck with me. How many heroines, even now, are allowed to say that? The prickly edges of Jane and Rochester’s personalities mostly work together very well, but she’s only ever in his life on her terms and he’s very much aware of that. I detest St John, not just for being the unrelentingly unpleasant person that he is, but for getting at Jane’s weak point, which is a strong sense of duty that can be turned against her. She’s also a very loving person, amazingly non-judgemental given the times when she lived, and she doesn’t need to be pretty or socially important to have a story worth telling – or to be worth loving in return.
How does she compare to the female characters in your work? Is she their literary ancestor? Do they rebel against all she stands for? What might your creations owe her?
All my characters are very different people, of course, but that indomitability, that strength of will, is definitely a trait carried throughout my work. I like writing about women who say no. The complexity of duty and how to define your own moral compass, what we owe the people in our lives and what we owe ourselves, are big themes in Jane Eyre and often weave themselves into my stories as well. Jane is a complicated woman making difficult decisions and she’s never dismissed or punished by the narrative for being the person that she is. I love that. I try to treat my protagonists with the same respect.
How do you feel about the word heroine? Does the word heroine have a purpose that isn’t served equally well by hero?
There does seem to be a trend towards the disuse of feminised words and that really bothers me. As a society, we need gender-neutral terminology. That’s very important. But it’s a big language! There is enough space for gendered terms as well, if they are useful, and I think the word ‘heroine’ is very useful. What’s wrong with a word that says, unequivocally, ‘I am a woman and I am amazing’? There are plenty of specifically feminine insults. Why not build up a lexicon of strength?
About this post: The Heroine Question is my name for a series of short interviews with (mostly) female writers about their favorite characters and literary influences. Clicking the link will allow you to browse all the other interviews, with awesome people like Linda Nagata, Kay Kenyon, and S.B. Divya. If you prefer something more in the way of an actual index, it’s here.