I’ve been bouncing from project to project a bit lately. Like many other writers, I have a Sekrit Project on the go, but as of Thursday it has been sent off to someone for a Look. In the meantime, I’m here:
Dill opens the back door of the overlarge truck, throwing his backpack inside. In the process he knocks loose an obstruction, a cinderblock-sized cardboard lump encased in box tape, emblazoned with the logo of an overnight courier company.
“Careful,” Fanny snarls as it bounces out of reach.
“Sorry.” He has to all but bellyflop into the back to retrieve it from behind the driver’s seat. Something shifts within the box as he sets it back on the seat. The sensation has a distant, disturbing familiarity; he examines the box, but it is too dim to see the printed return label.
“Hurry, will you? You’re letting out all the warm air.”
“Nag, nag, nag.” Squaring away both box and luggage, he scrambles back to a standing position, nose wrinkling as white puffs of truck exhaust billow around his ankles. Warm diesel fumes exhale clammy, petrochemical warmth onto his jeans. He climbs into the front.
The truck cab smells of dog and scrambled egg. Fanny hands over breakfast. Her make-up is minimal this morning . . . a whitish foundation, pink lips. For some reason, Dill is reminded of The Mikado.
Three little girls from school . . . Dill yawns. “You must’ve got up at the crack of dawn to do this.”
“Didn’t sleep.” Fanny’s knuckles whiten on the wheel. “Got the package and . . . ”
“And didn’t tear it open? Not like you.” Inside the bag is a medium coffee, double double, the breakfast sandwich and a trio of donut holes with chocolate chips–clustered in the bottom like that, they look like fish eggs. “Does that mean you already know what’s inside?”
“It’s my sister.”
“Sister. Sarah, right?” There’s something he’s not getting here. He bites into the lukewarm biscuit, dredging gossip: sister and Fanny are fraternal twins, she made it through a Master’s degree in . . . music theory? And then had a mental breakdown.
She ended up a heroin addict and a boozer in Vancouver . . . but she’d cleaned up, hadn’t she? Now she’s shipped something across the country and suddenly Fanny needs a favor.
This is going to be bad, Dill thinks.
Fanny pulls out. The truck waffles on the snowpack, then finds traction into the groove made by the vehicles that preceded it. Beyond the window, the whole world is grey–the gradually lightening sky, the dirt-tinged drifts, the hulking structure of the Saint Lawrence market.
“So. It’s from Sarah?” Dill repeats.
Fanny shoots him a look of white-hot suffering and grinds the truck into a left turn. The box moves again and Dill reaches back to steady it. Something shifts inside, like sand.
“Sarah, yeah. I mean no, that box isn’t from her, it is her. Her–”
Oh. It’s ashes. “Jesus, Fanny, I’m sorry. What happened?”
My father is heading off to China for a couple of years and has heard rumors that photoblogging there doesn’t work so well if one uses Flickr. Anyone been there recently enough to know if this is true?
And speaking of Flickr, I caught a cedar waxwing with its gob open on my way to Italian Tuesday:
On to books: I started reviewing fiction for Tangent, way back in its print day, because I felt as though I had stuck myself in a readerly rut. I wanted an external reason to pick up books I would never hear of, let alone consider reading. And it worked: I discovered a whole wide wonderful range of writers I might not have otherwise heard of: Kurt R.A. Giambiastiani and Peter Watts and Justina Robson and Syne Mitchell, to name a few. I also, of course, read a lot of things that were just okay. And even a few I regretted; that’s the price, right?
Time moves on, needs change and I have been in a place lately where I want total control over my reading choices. So, perhaps not surprisingly, I have really liked the last four books I read. This past weekend I inhaled the newest novel by my latest writer crush: Tana French. Faithful Place is the third of the Dublin Murder Squad books. I had planned to be disciplined, to take my time, but it’s a suspenseful novel. I got up a head of steam and about the time when I meant to put it down, there was a noisy car accident outside our window that eliminated all chance of sleep for another hour. So I gulped it in two sittings, too fast to truly enjoy the nuances. I am already taking a second run at it, from the beginning, savoring every heartbreakingly witty word.
I know I have already raved about French plenty since picking up In The Woods; that I have told you about her prose, which is so sinfully rich that spending time with it seems nigh-adulterous. I’m sure I’ve mentioned that French’s grip on human nature is so sure it’s almost frightening. I may even have admitted to sending her, via her publisher, a whimpering little fan note mentioning that I might die, OMG srsly die I tellya, if she didn’t start cranking out four books a year.
What can I tell you about Faithful Place without spoiling it? All three books absolutely stand alone, first. So jump ahead, if you want, and read this one. I can mention that like a lot of readers, I thought this third novel would be about Sam, the third major player in the In The Woods triangle. Instead, the POV character is Frank, the Undercover guy from The Likeness. A week ago, I was invested in getting a Sam book. Now I don’t even care.
The protagonists of the first two books were fully realized characters, well developed, scarily easy to relate to. As for relating to Frank… well! He’s a child of the Eighties who ran away from a wretched home as soon as he was legally able. He left on foot, carrying only a small bag of clothes and a big sack of child-of-alcoholic issues. He meant to bring a girl named Rosie, too, but she skipped out on him–or so he thought. He left anyway, built a life entirely apart from his origins, and now Rosie’s suitcase has turned up, stuffed up a chimney. Yes, this book really is all about baggage. Anyway the discovery sets his current life and his old one to slam-dancing, and he has no idea how to fit his family into the world he’s been living in for twenty-two years.
There’s one moment, I won’t tell you, but in it Frank realizes something central to his existence–something he had under control, you understand–is not even remotely what he thought it was, and–Oh! It is a wholly individual moment, specific to his family dilemma. I am not sure I’ve ever understood a fictional character’s feelings so well.
I tend to favor beautifully written mysteries that are as much character studies as they are puzzles. In French’s first books, the identity of the killer, while not entirely a side issue, is distinctly less compelling than the detective’s journey. In Faithful Place, French integrates the personal and the homicidal in ways that had me second guessing myself over and over again. I was always pulling for Frank, but when the truth came out, I have to say I really got where the killer was coming from.
The story is part of the Paranormal Romance and Urban Fantasy spotlight at TOR.COM, and here is a handy index of everything posted so far.
By all rights today’s photo should be of East Vancouver, which is where this story is set. But this shot of Coal Harbor is classic summer Vancouver, in a part of town and from a point of view I don’t get often. It’s also ever so slightly shiny and new because the convention center, in the background, hasn’t been there that long. Even once it was built we couldn’t get near it, because of Olympics-related security. Since the fences came down, you can walk all the way from Canada Place to Stanley Park along the water.
A couple weeks ago in my intro to “A Key to the Illuminated Heretic,” I mentioned reading Harry Turtledove’s How Few Remain. I cannot even begin to say how much I loved that book. It was a bleeping revelation. It had Abraham Lincoln alive and well and agitating for labour reform, and Samuel Clemens writing scorching editorials in San Francisco and . . . well, everything Harry Turtledove says about Lest Darkness Fall, below—for me, How Few Remain was that book.
photo by Brent Small
I eased into this interview, as usual, by asking Harry for some general biographical information and about current writing projects before circling round to questions about his career, and how he got into the alternate history genre:
I’m 61 now, a scientist–most likely an astronomer–by original intention, but flunking out of Caltech at the end of my freshman year killed that dead. Ended up at UCLA, and got a doctorate, Lord help me, in Byzantine history. It’s Sprague de Camp’s fault. With an interest in science came an interest in SF, his not least among it. When I read Lest Darkness Fall, I started trying to find out how much he was making up and how much was real (not much and most, respectively), and I got hooked. Acquired ancient Greek and research skills, both of which have come in handy in various ways since.
When I got the degree, academic jobs were few and far between. I had a choice: do the university mercenary thing and move every year or two till I landed something tenure-track, if I ever did, or get a real job. So I parlayed (a fancy word for scammed) my degree and my few fiction sales into a tech-writing job at the Los Angeles County Office of Education. I was a hired keyboard: test-item writer, proposal writer, newsletter writer, copy editor, even emergency pasteup guy back at the tag end of the days when you really used rubber cement. Spent 11-1/2 years there, writing fiction on the side (and at my desk when things were slow–writing looks like writing, which is, mm, convenient).
Met Laura Frankos in 1978, married her in 1980. My second marriage, her first, and it seems to have stuck; we celebrated our 30th anniversary last month. We’ve got three girls, one in grad school, one married, one still an undergrad. No grandkids yet. Laura still writes as Frankos. She’s published a mystery novel, about a dozen sf and fantasy shorts, and has a Broadway musicals quiz book coming out from Applause this fall. We are each other’s first readers and editors, and if that doesn’t prove we get along well nothing ever will.
Coming out from Del Rey just about the time I write this is the second book of The War that Came Early series, which is called West and East (in fact, as I’m reviewing this copy UPS has brought a box of author copies to the door). This is a world where Munich failed and WW2 began over Czechoslovakia in 1938 rather than Poland in 1939, which makes for a very different-looking conflict for all kinds of reasons. I’ve also got a collection, Atlantis and Other Places, coming out from Roc at the end of the year; I’m currently procrastinating about the page proofs, but I’ll get ’em done. And I’m working on a series about what might happen if the supervolcano under Yellowstone goes off in the near future. Not surprisingly, the series is called Supervolcano; the working title for the first one is Eruption. And, since I was GoH at a con in Missoula Memorial Day weekend, I had the chance to rent a car, drive down to Yellowstone, and see what I’ll be destroying while it’s still here.
I started writing stuff when I was 8 or 9 years old, back in the 1950s. It was pretty good for 8 or 9, which of course means it was crap. First attempted an sf novel when I was maybe 13; two years later, I began the first one I finished. That was also crap, naturally, though on a higher level technically. Basically, I’d write a novel every summer till I got into grad school, where for about 5 years I wrote history instead (a different kind of fiction, some would say). Took up fiction again, more seriously, in my mid-20s, not least out of frustration with the way my thesis was going. Redid something I’d worked on before the hiatus, and that eventually became the first novel that sold (published in two parts, Wereblood and Werenight, by Belmont-Tower in 1979, as by Eric Iverson–they said no one would believe Turtledove, which is my real name). Started The Videssos Cycle in 1979, not knowing it would be four books–I would have been too intimidated to try it if I had, I think. Finished it in 1983, sold it to Del Rey in 1985. I’d sold some short fiction before then, and began selling it fairly regularly in about 1984.
I would have been maybe 26 when I picked up fiction again after putting it aside to dive into the late 6th century. I made my first sale at 28–short fiction (but the magazine died before the piece came out [sigh]). First novel saw print just before my 30th birthday. I started thinking of myself as a pro–someone who counted on writing income instead of treating it as found money–at 34 (Laura and I needed something, and we didn’t have the cash for it. I said, “Well, let’s wait till I sell another story, and we’ll get it then.” She gave me this look–you know the kind I mean. But a couple of weeks later Stan Schmidt bought a novelette, and we got whatever the heck it was.). I was 42–the answer to everything–when I left LACOE and went fulltime freelance, and I’ve been at it ever since.
Plainly, I have a jones. I’m not as obsessive-compulsive about it as I used to be, but I still write a lot. How can I do anything else?
Writers who sucked me in? Norton, Heinlein, de Camp, Poul Anderson, Mary Renault, Gore Vidal, Clarke, Asimov, Beam Piper, Sturgeon. A little later, Delany and Zelazny. I could name lots more, but those’ll do for starters.
I write in a number of genres. I’ve written several straight historical novels, both under my own name and as by H.N. Turteltaub, which was the family name before my grandfather anglicized it. I write mainstream fiction very occasionally, and even sell it every once in a while.
I stayed with the tech-writing job at LACOE till (a) I sold Guns of the South, and (b) they were going to reassign me to doing a bunch of stuff I couldn’t stand. After that, well, I had a couple of years’ income saved up, I had the Worldwar project in mind (I’d had it in mind for many years, but now was the time to write it)–if I wasn’t going to do it then, when was I? So in mid-1991 I quit, and (knocking wood) I’ve been telling lies for a living ever since. It’s been fiction all the way, pretty much; I have a couple of nonfiction projects on the back burner, but I don’t know if they’ll ever move up and get done. I’ve worked hard, and I know damn well I’ve been very lucky with the writing and in my life. You need both.
For some reason, I haven’t heard from the Nobel committee yet, nor am I holding my breath. Hey, Doris Lessing made it! I don’t like to talk about what I haven’t done yet, for fear of either weakening the inspiration or jinxing it.
The first breakthrough, obviously, is getting to the level where someone will pay you cash money for words you crank out. After that, you ask yourself and your characters harder questions. Pieces where I’ve really felt myself growing as a writer include The Videssos Cycle, Guns of the South, Ruled Brittania, and the recent short story “We Haven’t Got There Yet” on tor.com. Having that “Wow! I didn’t know I could do that!” feeling is mighty nice, as you’ll understand.
The worst surprise that came with publishing, I think, was some of the bad copyediting. I’ve had a c/e “correct” the King James Bible. I thought that was an all-time untouchable record, but I’ve seen it tied: another c/e “corrected” Shakespeare for me. I’ve had a c/e–wrongly–“correct” a language I invented. For that and other reasons, I asked not to have that c/e work with me any more, but s/he did, due to a publisher’s slipup, and–wrongly–“corrected” another language I invented. I could go on, but you get the idea.
Another imperfectly welcome surprise is how I read nowadays. I can’t enjoy most fiction the way I could before I turned into a writer; I read much more analytically and I’m much harder to satisfy. I read more nonfiction now, partly as research and partly because I don’t tear it to pieces in my head in quite the same way.
Without a doubt, the best of the business is the people. I’ve met and made friends with people I was reading for a million years before I got into the racket myself. Some of them have been to my house. If I had told my twenty-something self that that would happen, that self would have gone “Yeah, sure!” (they didn’t say “Yeah, right!” back then). But it’s true, and it’s great. And my best friends in the field are some of the ones who came up at the same time I did, more or less. Now, increasingly, the writers seem younger, but they’re still interesting people.
Writing is great. Beats the hell out of working for a living. I’ve done that. No fun at all.
Sunday morning after I hit the cafe for some writing time, Barb and I went for a walk through Coal Harbor to Lost Lagoon, and it was like the wildlife of Coastal B.C. was lining up for us. Here’s a small sample:
After three happy hours in the baking, blazing, sharp-shadow-casting sun, we returned to East Vancouver, where I hooked up with Kelly for coffee and a panini. Afterward, we decided to hit a sale at Cotton Ginny that Faith had mentioned… and it was like the pretty, price-slashed clothes of Vancouver (okay, Burnaby) were lining up for me. I got a couple of allegedly, organic, sustainably farmed, farmer-friendly cotton tops and a pair of jeans, and then we went next door and stocked up on socks for winter. (The socks, I admit, may have been made from baby spandexes whose parents were taken away in the night by very unkind people.)
Then we puttered home, or meant to, and ended up in Tierra del Sol, where the other clothes were waiting. A dress and a cute, cute, CUTE! top later, we were ready to go. Then we heard a cheerful-sounding “I need a hug!” and Lotus was standing behind us. Eeeee!!! Lotus lives in Edmonton now, so her hugs are rare and precious things. She had somewhere to be so we walked her back to the Skytrain station, chattering all the way, and then turned back for what could be counted as my fourth attempt to return home in the six hours since I’d left. This time we made it as far as Falconetti‘s new deck. Kelly had a Caesar and I had an Innis and Gunn; we shared a plate of calimari and all was right with the world.
Then, finally, we went home, so I could wash off the sunscreen and chortle over my photographic treasure. That, and telling you all about it, is what I’m up to now.