Category Archives: True Stories

Anecdotes from my past and present.

Kate Heartfield

Posted on April 25, 2018 by

Kate Heartfield’s first novel, a historical fantasy called Armed in Her Fashion, is coming from ChiZine Publications on May 17, 2018. It’s available for pre-order now. This spring, look for her interactive fiction project, The Road to Canterbury, from Choice of Games. She will have two time-travel novels coming soon from Tor.com Publications, beginning with Alice Payne Arrives in November, 2018. Her short fiction has appeared in places such as Lackington’s, Escape Pod and Strange Horizons. A former newspaper journalist, Kate lives in Ottawa, Canada. Her website is heartfieldfiction.com and she is on Twitter as @kateheartfield.

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? Who was she?

I had many! Aerin from The Hero and Crown, Trixie Belden, Cherry Ames, Meg Murry from A Wrinkle in Time, Anne of Green Gables, and more. But there’s one who doesn’t get mentioned often, who was very important to me: Abigail Kirk, from the novel Playing Beatie Bow by Ruth Park.

Playing Beatie Bow is a time-travel fantasy set in Australia. The prose and world-building are impeccable, the atmosphere still makes the hair on my arms stand up, and I re-read the book every year or two, still. I’m on my second paperback; I loved the first one to bits.

Can you remember what it was she did or what qualities she had that captured your affections and your imagination so strongly?

Abigail is not a kick-ass, confident heroine. She is, like I was, “a girl who wished to be private”, and who is interested in things like tacking old bits of lace onto her dresses. She has a complex emotional life, and so do the people around her. Much like Meg Murry, it’s her faults that allow her to have adventures in the first place; if she weren’t that kind of girl, she wouldn’t travel back to the 19th century, and she definitely wouldn’t survive once she got there.

She doesn’t defeat a villain; her success is in learning how to cope with things like grief, betrayal, unrequited love and the fact that the past is just out of reach. But none of this comes across in an after-school-special kind of way; it’s a page-turner that will rip your heart out.

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?

My agent said recently that one of my strengths is the portrayal of complex emotion, and I was surprised at first, as I didn’t realize that was something I could do. But looking back, Ruth Park’s deft portrayal of Abigail as a whole person who feels many contradictory things simultaneously was probably a model for me as a writer.

In my debut novel, Armed in Her Fashion, there’s a young woman named Beatrix who sees the past and future in glimpses, who is a very private person, and who has to come to terms with grief and the end of love. But the novel’s main character is actually her mother, Margriet, who is a grudge-holding, pragmatic terror of a middle-aged woman. In fact, Margriet is more like Ruth Park’s irascible character Beatie, all grown up. As I’ve entered middle age myself, my heroines have tended to become older women who have already learned a lot of life’s early lessons, have work to do, and are completely unconcerned about whether anyone likes them.

And I’ve started to expand my definition of “heroine” and look at other literary characters — often the older women, relegated to the background—in a new light. For example, these days I have an understanding of the Reverend Mother Helen Gaius Mohaim, in Dune, that I never had when I was a girl.

So while my girlhood heroines are still there, still part of my life, I’m still imprinting on new heroines, or old ones I wasn’t able to appreciate before.

Bonus round: How do you feel about the word heroine? In these posts, I am specifically looking for female authors’ female influences, whether those women they looked up to were other writers or Anne of Green Gables. Does the word heroine have a purpose that isn’t served by equally well by hero?

I don’t think that gendered nouns ought to be the default or the rule, but I also don’t think that means they have no use and should be binned. For example, to me, the words “suffragist” and “suffragette” are doing different things, and either one might be appropriate depending on the context. For me, the word “heroine” is more than just the female version of “hero.” It implies a struggle that “hero” does not. Maybe one day, we’ll easily apply “hero” or “heroine” to people of any gender, or maybe “heroine” will always imply the circumstances particular to a marginalized gender. For now, it still means something distinct to me.


About this post: The Heroine Question is my name for a series of short interviews with (usually) 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 Ada Hoffman, Faith Mudge, Stephanie Burgis, and S.B. Divya . If you prefer something more in the way of an actual index, it’s here.

Annual Books Read 2017 (for an increasingly shaky definition of book)

Posted on January 5, 2018 by

This year the amount of student work I read–both as an instructor at UCLA and UTSC and as an MFA student at UBC–was copious. We’re talking around two hundred stories and novel fragments, all of which I critiqued, too. This is what I fit in the cracks:

New Fiction – Novels, Novellas & Collections

Autonomous, by Annalee Newitz

Spoonbenders, by Daryl Gregory

The Best American Mystery Stories 2016, edited by Elizabeth George

River of Teeth, by Sarah Gailey

Taste of Marrow, by Sarah Gailey

The Red Threads of Fortune, by JY Yang (I am reading the companion novella now!)

Non-Fiction

The Well-Tempered City: What Modern Science, Ancient Civilizations, and Human Nature Teach Us About the Future of Urban Life by Jonathan F. P. Rose

Debt: The First 5,000 Years by David Graeber (Kelly is reading this to me so we aren’t quite done)

Crafty TV Writing: Thinking Inside the Box by Alex Epstein

Writing and Selling Your Mystery Novel, by Hallie Ephron

The Best American Travel Writing 2017, edited by Lauren Collins

Women & Power: A Manifesto, by Mary Beard

Fieldwork Fail: The Messy Side of Scence, by Jim Jourdane and 25 scientists

I read lots and lots and lots and fucking lots of non-fiction articles, and I didn’t track them. You can’t track everything. But notable among them is: “City of Villains: Why I Don’t Trust Batman,” by Sarah Gailey

New Short Fiction

This is an incredibly incomplete list… I’m still struggling to capture all my short fic reading, especially the DailySF offerings.

Excerpts from a Film (1942-1987)” by A.C. Wise

And then there Were (N-One)” by Sara Pinsker

We Who Live in the Heart,” by Kelly Robson

Letters Found on the Backs of Pepper Labels next to a Skeleton in an 800-year-old Hibernation Capsule Ruptured by What Looks Like Sword Damage,” by Luc Reid

We Need to talk about the Unicorn in your Backyard,” by Mari Ness

Making the Magic Lightning Strike Me,” by John Chu,

The Famine King,” by Darcie Little Badger

Later, Let’s Tear up the Inner Sanctum,” by Merc Rustad,

Seasons of Glass and Iron,” by Amal El-Mohtar

It Happened to Me: I was Brought Back to Avenge my Death, but chose Justice Instead,” by Nino Cipri.

A Hero, I am,” by Kat Otis

​“Small Changes Over Long Periods of Time,” by @KMSzpara in @UncannyMagazine

​”Rivers Run Free,” by Charles Payseur –

The Witch in the Tower,” by Mari Ness

Rereads

The Blue Place, by Nicola Griffith

Stay, by Nicola Griffith

Always, by Nicola Griffith

In the Woods, Tana French

Ghost Story, Peter Straub

The Trespasser, Tana French

Aurora nomination brings home The Nature of a Pirate

Posted on August 4, 2017 by

Most of you probably know that The Nature of a Pirate is on the ballot for the Aurora Award this year; voting is open now, and if you’re a member of CSFFA I urge you to get a ballot in, to support your favorite work by Canadian authors, pro and fan (as well as fan organizers, musicians, and visual artists!) working in all our beloved speculative genres.

Winning the Aurora for best novel last year for A Daughter of No Nation, in tandem with Kelly winning Best Short Fiction for her “Waters of Versailles,” was one of the great thrills of a magical year. I am thrilled and blessed to be on the ballot again. And soon we are headed off to Finland, and Worldcon, for even more magic.

As I write these words I am well and truly settled into life in Toronto—it has been four years! But when I embarked on the Hidden Sea Tales trilogy, the question of where my home would be was very much in the air. We were eager to move east, Kelly and I, but couldn’t see a way to do it: there were so many wonderful things and people tying us to Vancouver. I was in the weird lucky position of being somewhere great, yet suspecting that there was someplace even better. When we went it was sudden, and intense—a big leap, not without risk–and I’m so grateful that instinct to jump proved to be the right one.

The old proverb home is where the heart is goes back so far it has been attributed, provisionally, to Pliny the Elder, a first century Roman scholar who really made the best of having Plinius for a middle name. It’s one of those two-edged aphorisms. It can mean home is where any sensible person wants to be, because of their attachment to the comforts and beloved people therein. Or it can mean any old pile of bricks and mortar place will take on the sentimental glow of a home if the ones you love are there.

Both definitions contain within them the idea that a home embodies an ideal of safety, comfort, and affection.

But what if the heart lies in two places?

This may be slightly more of a thing nowadays than it used to be. Our population is more mobile, and it’s not an uncommon phenomenon to have partners and jobs in differing cities. Sometimes people fall in love without having met in person. Sure, people were always being separated by war or work or trade missions—that part’s not new–but communications technology makes staying connected more feasible, so long distance relationships have proliferated in new ways.

I am something of a procedural mystery maniac, and one of my recent obsessions has been a show called Shetland, brought to us by the grace of Netflix and the BBC. It’s set in the Shetland Islands (which Google Maps can confirm is exceeding freaking remote) and while the main hub of the action is the bustling 7500-soul metropolis of Lerwick, there’s an episode that takes place out on Fair Isle, an island with under a hundred people.

For anyone who’s read Child of a Hidden Sea and the rest of the trilogy, it should be no surprise that this hits my sweet spot. Shetland is about a community of interlocked islands and the tiny subculture flourishing there. A big subtextual concern within the show is the idea of home, of place–of living in a locale where your social opportunities and your geography are so very bounded, and where every young person who leaves is an incalculable loss to the community. It’s very nearly a portal fantasy with murder.

One of the things about portal fantasies–a subgenre I absolutely love–is they tend to offer up these neatly bounded sojourns. The heroes of these novels go to the magical enchanted land, as my Sophie Hansa has gone to Stormwrack. They have an adventure, they upset the local balance of power, sometimes they see Aslan die a horrible death… and then they come home. If they have an ongoing relationship with that other world, it is somehow tidy, characterized by intermittent visits. There’s a sort of general assumption that these characters get a taste of magic, achieve character growth, level up… and then get back to the business of living in the real world.

Who could do that?

For Sophie, and to a lesser extent her younger brother Bram, the magical enchanted land is, among other things, a scientific discovery. Stormwrack is a research opportunity, a possible avenue into better understanding the nature of the universe. What’s more, they suspect it may hold answers to questions about our own future in the age of climate change… and since this Narnia’s existence is a secret, nobody but the two of them can truly study it.

The challenge, of course, is is human entanglements. Sophie has, in San Francisco, an up-to-the-minute super modern life whose many technological conveniences are just a backdrop to what really matters: her parents, and when he chooses to be at home, her brother too.

But the longer she stays on Stormwrack, learning about magic and figuring out how to survive an Age of Sail culture and applying her unique skillset to interesting problems for a government that is–very slowly–coming to appreciate them, the more connection she makes there, too. And a lot of those connections come with genetic ties; she gets at least one new family member in every book in the trilogy.

Sophie grew up in San Francisco. She loves San Francisco. She loves telecommunications and streaming video and her parents and driving cars and pop music and cheap electric lights and being able to look up just about any fact known, on the Internet, within the blink of an eye.

But more and more, she also loves her new home, the sailing vessel Nightjar. She loves its crew – its bosun, Sweet, the ship’s doctor, Watts, its first mate, Tonio (whom she sees as brother-in-law material, though Bram hasn’t quite figured that out yet) and most especially she loves its captain, Garland Parrish.

 

Sophie loves the sense of being around the corner from the next incredible discovery, and the feeling of doing something important, and the self-confidence she found when her homeborn context were taken away from her.

Who could give up Wonderland, Oz, or Narnia for San Francisco? How do you make that big a leap?

In The Nature of a Pirate, finding a true sense of home is a big part of Sophie’s journey. The rest involves a captured human smuggler, a conspiracy to sink some of the great ships of the Fleet of Nations, and – did I forget to mention? – a tiny matter of accidentally having to plan a wedding.

What Sophie finds, ultimately, isn’t tidily bounded. It’s messy. Home may indeed be where the heart is, but our hearts will always be boundless.

Meaner than a junkyard… writing teacher?

Posted on May 15, 2017 by

One of the things that is sometimes debated within various pockets of the literary community is the question of whether writing, (or presumably, by extension, any art) can be taught. Though many authors currently practice workshopping in some form, though a good number of us have availed ourselves of night classes, MFAs, opportunities like Viable Paradise or Alpha, and certificate programs like the one I teach at, at UCLA, there are also those who believe teaching writing creates cookie-cutter work.

There are definitely writers who are ill-suited to workshops, and who’ll generally do better if they bash along on their own. But like all good kernels of thought, it’s possible to get dogmatic about this down with teaching proposition, to argue that a workshop or a class will inevitably ruin new talent by crushing their creativity into some kind of rigid publishing mold.

Naturally, I disagree. (As a general principle, I disagree with anything that presumes that one size fits–or fails–all.)

Now, of course, I would take issue with this, wouldn’t I? I went to Clarion West, after all, and my wife Kelly Robson attended Taos Toolbox. And I do teach, a lot, not only at the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program but in person at UTSC. My bread is entirely covered in student butter. (And I think Kelly’s many award nominations since she began to sell short fiction constitute a powerful argument, in their own right, that workshops can be a force for good!)

Do I think writing can be taught? Obviously. Do I think everything about writing can be taught?

No Way!

With the arts, you’re not a physics professor laying out a formula, some cut-and-dried procedure for which there is one satisfactory answer.* You’re not showing someone how to paint the perfect yellow line down the middle of a strip of road, or fly an airplane without making it go kersplat, or performing open heart surgery. The arts are more fungible. For every so-called rule, there’s at least one fantastic book or story that makes said rule a hilarious joke, a baffled wide-eyed “But!” with cream pie dripping down their face.
So what is teaching writing like?

One of my favorite analogies for the teaching of writing is that it’s a bit like taking a bunch of people to a junkyard, a vast expanse of crushed metal and random parts, oil and cogs and wheels, looming in creaky, ominous, teetering piles.

In a junkyard, at first glance, much of what you see is pretty familiar: busted windshields, steering wheels, coveralls, crowbars, and the smell of paint. Things may be mixed and jumbled, but a gas tank’s a gas tank. Or is that… an oil pan?

Teaching writing is like taking students out to this stretch of familiar parts, and saying: “Okay, you all know what a car is. Now build one.”

They go off. They work at it. Every now and then someone may bring me back a door, or part of an engine, and ask where they should put it. If they do, I’m only to happy to suggest moving a windshield wiper or adding a muffler. But essentially once the task is set, each writer is off, isolated, in their own corner of the wrecking yard, fusing things together into stories, clanking away and hoping it works.

Then, finally, we get to the point where everyone’s made something and the workshop can begin.

Almost all of us have been in more motor vehicles than we could possibly count. How would you even guesstimate? Cars are ubiquitous, less familiar than your skin, but not by that much. You’ve been strapped in baby seats. Drunk and headed home in smelly taxicabs. Alone with a podcast on your nightly two-hour commute. You’ve been on road trips in rentals, trapped on tour buses, and on tenterhooks, possibly, at your driver’s exam.

How many of us could assemble a car out of parts?

In this analogy, the first thing I ask when I see the cobbled-together creations of my students is a pretty simple question: “Does it run?”

If a story doesn’t go, if it can’t carry a reader from some point A to another point B, the author’s generally got to go back to the scrapheap for more or different pieces.

This is an important element of how I think about fiction in all my roles, as a reader, a teacher, an editor, and especially as a writer. I want to create things that are exciting, fuel-efficient, and stunningly beautiful. But none of that matters until the story can move someone. If it can’t, it might as well be a hunk of metal up on blocks in someone’s yard. No matter how great the paintjob, it’s of limited use.

If a story runs–even if it can only cough its way like an ill-used jalopy, to the corner of Flash Fiction Avenue and Finished Street–then I as a coach and the whole workshop group gets to move onto making it run better.

And when it runs pretty well? Then you can really drill into the aesthetics: “Any chance you’d care to make it more attractive and comfortable for the passengers?”

(One of the things that is fun about this particular analogy is that process of translating workshop critique into car talk.)

  • “Right now the seats have a funny smell and the ride is really bumpy.”
  • “I know POV lives under the hood, but just because you can’t usually see it doesn’t mean you don’t need one.”
  • “After the adultery scene, it just kinda runs out of gas.”

Stories and written language surround us, just as cars do. They travel, as cars do. And what the car metaphor gives me is an ability to talk about the building process—to teach via metaphor. You can talk about getting a vehicle up to speed, about skidding out of a turn, about the flashy exterior of a pretty sports car. Oddly, this can sometimes make more sense than “Show, don’t tell.”

Now actual cars do have a right answer, when you’re building them. It would be ludicrous to expect mechanics to learn to assemble them from trial and error.

But what about the part you can’t teach?

I’m an expert, on stories. I can see if they run. I can say if the tires look good and the propeller on top is, probably, a bit too much. But because each writer makes their own story from the ground up, every time, out of a glorious randomosity of bits of wrecked dream, nuggets of grudge, precious hoarded research, glimmers of genius and cobweb threads of memory, the final path to making any tale roadworthy isn’t ever going to be a case of me giving you the One True Answer. Art is not Newtonian physics, or fixing Chevy Cavaliers. I may think that propeller I mentioned, above, has to go. Meanwhile the author’s gut’s is saying “We just need another one, on the bottom. It needs to be made of uranium.”

Somewhere, within that gap between my “That’s not gonna take a reader anywhere!” And their “The propeller is non-negotiable,” is the stuff that can’t be taught. That’s the point where the author has to slink back into the junkyard, wrench at the ready, in search of the pieces to make it fit.

 

*I got chaff about this, and deservedly so, in a Forbes article by Chad Orzel, who points out that of course there’s scope in physics for creativity. I was thinking about the rote physics teaching I got in high school, which was very much “Here’s how you calculate the force of acceleration, and here’s thirty problems… go to it!” Much of this was driven by the need to have students who could pass the provincial exams, and there were separate problems with my particular physics instructor. I’m tempted to edit the comment (and I did fix a typo!) but I think I’ll content myself with this clarification, and let the point stand.


About this post: There used to be a link on my now-defunct Livejournal to one of my photographs–a picture of a broken traffic light–along with some musings about the nature of teaching creative writing. I called it “the car metaphor essay,” and linked to it often. It contained some handy ideas, but it was also little more than a sketch of the core concept. This new essay attempts to adds a real engine and some new paint to the thing.

A few shots from the U of T

Posted on May 10, 2017 by

This is one of those experimental posts that comes of the Internet having improved itself without my permission. It used to do a thing with Flickr that I quite liked, and I’m seeing what it does now. To which end: some pics of one of our gorgeous local campuses.

University of Toronto

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