As I write these word I am sitting on a VIA train bound from Toronto to Ottawa; Kelly and I are going just for the night, to hang out with friends and bask in the wonders of an emerging arty phenomenon known as The Timberhouse. I had a terrific time in Ottawa when I went to CanCon in August, and am looking forward to getting to know the city better. Our nation’s capital moved up the bucket list as soon as Kelly and I arrived in Ontario, but it took us until this year to get there. I am predisposed to fall head over heels.
The train runs along the shore of Lake Ontario for a good portion of the route; it’s more of the same track I take to Scarborough when I am teaching there. The simple act of riding east fills me with happiness. I thrive on having a once-a-week gig at UTSC, commute and all. I undertand it would be a tiring slog if I was headed out there Monday to Friday, term in and term out. But so much of my incredible 2016 is caught up in memories of taking the Go Train out to campus, of starting and ending my teaching day with solitude, scenic beauty and comfort.
Like many people I had a difficult November: like many people, the heart of it was the turn in U.S. politics, but there were other things, too, like an old friend announcing bad diagnosis on Facebook, like a particularly feisty round of flu germs taking out me and Kelly simultaneously, like the unfortunate chance of my having forgotten that I always struggle with fiction writing in this eleventh month specifically. Usually when I see November coming, I try to plan around that drop in productivity, but this year I was wrapped up in other things, like you, and I only figured out the seasonal angle on about the 28th, when someone else spoke up.
Now it’s December, and my new book will be out on Tuesday, and meanwhile my agent and I have agreed on a schedule for finishing the next novel. I’m trusting that my natural creative rhythms will assert themselves. I want to draft about 1500 words a day between now and mid-February, starting Monday. That means I have this last weekend to fritter: Kelly and I went to see one of our favorite bands, The Weepies, last night at the Drake Hotel. It was a singularly delightful experience: we were eight feet from the stage, in a pack of people who just wanted to hear, and enjoy, and sing along.
Naturally, I’m excited too about seeing how this boho weekend at Timberhouse will unfold.
There have been good things, these last two weeks. Every moment of calm, every joy-inducing sight, every breath of warmth and comfort, every well-written sentence (whether inhaled as a reader or exhaled into my own manuscripts) has had a certain intensity, the fine-cut edges of a rare, faceted opal, flashing ethereal fire against the darkness, spark by spark. I am talking to strangers more, now that I can draw breath without coughing, reaching out. I see that desire to talk, connect, to just be damnwell be nice, mirrored in their reactions. The energy I have at hand for being kind and prosocial seems more abundant. And every moment with my family and friends seems a gentle sort of victory.
Science fiction writers are very good at worst case scenarios, and the part of me that has extrapolated our current circumstances to an exceedingly miserable and bitter end has, at least temporarily, overriden the part assigned to petty worries about the future. Different parts of the brain are chewing different stressors, I know, and while I’m not appreciating the things generated by the newly active neurons, the absence of certain habitual gnawing mind-loops has been a source of both relief and navel-gazy intellectual interest.
I have been dreaming more, and most of the dreams have been unexpectedly good.
I have also experimented with posting the occasional political thing on my social media. I try to be choosy, and in particular to talk about Canadian racism, Canadian responses to oppression. I’m not sure yet what I think of the response. There’s usually a sea of likes and good comments–naturally, I like those–along with one or two wanky pushbacks. These seem to be angry dudes with thin arguments–and I haven’t quite sorted out how much of that I want in my Facebook feed, particularly. I need to get the hang of ignoring them, probably. I don’t need to give everyone who posts a snarky comment a breakdown on why the CBC article didn’t actually say some thing being ascribed to me. The problem is a nagging sense that I owe them an argument, somehow, and that if I’m not willing to have it I should shut up.
What else? I read a book about DDOS actions and activism by Molly Sauter, THE COMING SWARM which talks (among many other things) a present-day tendency to measure all civil rights and other protest movements against a rose-colored-glasses view of the U.S. Civil Rights Movement. It talks about how we are tempted to devalue civil resistance when it doesn’t look like Johnson-era marches led by Martin Luther King. This interests me, a lot, and I’m thinking about what I see as effective protest. (I think the book’s interesting and useful, and I hope to get some other recs from her soon.)
In the book I’m writing now (whose working title is WIN CONDITIONS) I’ve imagined a near future society where humanity has a light but geniune grip on a host of climate change problems, where people are laboring mightily to terraform the Earth to make it fit for long-term human habitation. I started this book early in the year, and it ties into some things I said in my SpecFic Colloquium talk: that we cannot simply offer visions of apocalypse, that SF writers have to imagine workable optimistic futures, scenarios where we get out of the political and ecological jams we’ve created.
People can more easily believe in a happy ending if we create it. They can grab onto possible solutions to our current cluster of crises if we imagine the solves, show them in place, and inpire our audiences to tweak and implement them here in the real.
By the time WIN CONDITIONS takes place, the Millenials have long since endured a period called the Setback. Their children barely survived the Clawback. Now there’s a cohort of grandkids who refer to themselves as the Bounceback generation. Bouncers believe humankind will save the earth, one ton of carbon and one reclaimed suburb at a time.
In one of the early chapters I make a passing comment about the first Setback presidency. I was envisioning our present situation, while hoping it wouldn’t come to pass quite so soon.
Still, I choose to believe the Setback will end, and not through some passive stroke of luck. Activism, courage, creativity and compassion will end it. People will end it. It’s easy to say, and much much harder to do, and I know that very well. Do keep me posted on how I can help.
A number of years ago I decided it would be fun to have a look at some of the classic horror novels from the 1980s: something by Stephen King, a Dean Koontz novel, a taste of Clive Barker and, of course, a novel by Peter Straub. Ghost Story was published in 1979, and I was adhering strictly to the idea of an Eighties horror rewatch, so I went with Shadowland, which was less overtly horrific, in many ways. It was, though, the first Straub book I read.
Here’s a snippet of the essay:
Shadowland isn’t metafiction, either, but it skirts its furthest border, containing stories within stories: fairy tales that turn into guest appearances by the Brothers Grimm, creepy parables offered by the Carson School teachers to the traumatized student body, numerous references to the story of Jesus, and a long narrative Coleman Collins calls his “unburdening,” about how he discovered the magic within himand made it monstrousduring his days as a doctor in the First World War. The novel’s frame story, where Tom reveals his past to his writer classmate, thus becomes a parallel unburdening, a necessary part, perhaps, of the true magician’s life cycle.
As the Lethe Press website says, Heiresses of Russ reprints the prior year’s best lesbian-themed short works of the fantastical, the otherworldly, the strange and wondrous under one cover. With that in mind, I’ve asked author Claire Humphrey to come share some thoughts on the anthology and her story, “Eldritch Brown Houses,” which originally appeared in Daughters of Frankenstein: Lesbian Mad Scientists!
What do you think a phrase like lesbian-themed or lesbian story means in 2017? Do you think that has changed? How do you think it might change in the future?
When I think about the first lesbian-themed writing I remember reading, it was pretty focused on contemporary relationships and identity, on being lesbian in a heteronormative world. I think recently I’ve read a lot more that is broader in setting, like lesbians in space or lesbians in imaginary worlds, or broader in theme, where characters who are lesbians engage in a story that is mostly about economics or war. Only, every story is always partly about relationships and identity, no matter who the characters are and what the setting is, right? And have the stories changed, or is it just that I’m reading more widely than I did at first?
I think that maybe lesbian stories are reaching a wider audience than they used to, as the publishing industry becomes more diverse and readers eagerly respond. And I think it’s always important to represent diverse identities in stories, but especially in a time where parts of the world seem to be turning back toward bigotry.
What do you think we achieve by categorizing stories, tagging them with qualities that highlight sexuality (or gender, ability, and race) ? Is it a desired end point? A necessary stage on some collective journey humanity is taking?
I think it’s most necessary for the people who are feeling under siege, alone, without a community. When you see your identity represented, you feel less alone. And for a reader who doesn’t share that identity, that reader gets the opportunity to learn and become more empathetic. Tagging stories allows readers to head for what they want most.
Do I think it’s a desired end point? I don’t know—in a perfect world would we all feel sufficiently well represented that we wouldn’t ever need to seek out our own voices for comfort? Or would that tagging become part of a less-fraught but still lively set of messages that would help us choose and maintain both personal support and diversity in what we consume? I think we’re so far from that perfect world that right now we need to keep doing whatever we can to represent ourselves and each other kindly and fully.
Would you say your story in the collection is typical or emblematic of your work, or an outlier?
It’s typical of me in that it’s LGBT+, character-driven, and touching on dysfunctional families. It’s an outlier in that it is the first and only time I’ve written anything that riffs on Lovecraft. In the SF/F community there’s a lot of adoration and discussion of Lovecraft and I usually don’t participate because I’m bored by his work as well as offended by his attitudes. I challenged myself to find a way to write about him while still writing the kind of story that I usually write. This was the result.
If you were to pick stories for a historical overview–Best Heiresses of Russ of the Previous Century, that sort of thing–what would be the first story you’d seek out?
“The Clover Still Grows Wild in Wawanosh” by Kelly Rose Pflug-Back, published by Strange Horizons in 2013. (Podcast version here.) I love this story so much—it’s subtle, harsh, moving. It’s about identities in a post-apocalyptic world.
One of my previous interview series, The Heroine Question, generated some interesting discussion of the gendered term Heroine. What do you think of Heiresses of Russ as a title for this project? Should it be Inheritors or Heirs?
Frankly, I think it’s academic-sounding and uncommercial, which is something that often happens around idealistic, worthwhile projects: the people who get its meaning are an enthusiastic but really small group. Best Lesbian Fiction would get the job done just fine. This is me wearing my bookseller hat, obviously!
What are you working on now?
I have a whole bunch of new stories coming up soon, none of which have been publicly announced, but it’s been a nice couple of months for acceptances around here. I’m also working on two different options for my next book, which may or may not be a followup to Spells of Blood and Kin.
Claire Humphrey is the author of Spells of Blood and Kin (St Martin’s Press, 2016). Her short fiction has appeared in Strange Horizons, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Apex, Crossed Genres, Fantasy Magazine, and Podcastle. Her short story ”Bleaker Collegiate Presents an All-Female Production of Waiting for Godot” appeared in the Lambda Award-nominated collection Beyond Binary, and her short story “The Witch Of Tarup” was published in the critically acclaimed anthology Long Hidden. Find her online at her website, on Facebook, or on Twitter:
About this interview: 2016 marked my debut as an editor, with the Lethe Press anthology Heiresses of Russ. I co-edited with the capable and lovely Steve Berman; our Table of Contents announcement is here. At that time I asked some of my contributors if they’d be interested in talking a little about the ideas behind their stories, about the idea of lesbian-themed genre fiction, or anything else that seemed interesting and relevant. These are their replies.
The tl;dr version of this story is: I mentioned to a few people that I’d written the Prime Minister last week, and they asked what I said. Here’s the text, with the PM’s address in case you want to add your voice to the chorus. Postage is free, but if you’re like me you’ll forget that and stamp it anyway. If you’re a lot like me, you’ll use the Captain Kirk stamp.
The Right Honorable Justin Trudeau
Office of the Prime Minister
80 Wellington Street
Ottawa, Ontario K1A 0A2
Dear Mr. Trudeau:
I am writing today to ask for reassurance regarding Canada’s response to the rise of fascism in the United States.
We are of an age, you and I, and it doesn’t seem much of a stretch to imagine that you may have spent at least a few moments during your teens wondering if the USA and USSR were going to blast each other–and everyone else in the process–to cinders. There were many great things about my youth, don’t get me wrong, but when I revisit its darkest moments what I remember is worrying about nuclear war and wondering if I’d be murdered by homophobes. How strange it is to find both concerns rising from their graves, so many years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, more than a decade after Canada’s Supreme Court ushered in the era of marriage equality.
I’m not a starry-eyed idealist, Mr. Trudeau. I understand that the PM of Canada has to play nice with our massive, rich, powerful next door neighbour. We are the weak partner in a very unequal relationship; our ability to resist the whims of the U.S. has generally rested on being charming and compliant. I know you’re in a difficult position and I don’t envy you.
(I also know, full well, what it is to stand up to a volatile bully and get kicked down a flight of stairs for trying to stand on principle. Compliance is seductive. It can seem less damaging. The bruises are less visible, even if the cost of compromise comes straight out of the nation’s collective soul.)
So I wonder, as Canadian racists become emboldened: what will my government do to stop them? Expose, arrest, and prosecute? Or will we start quietly letting the outrages, the acts of vandalism, and the assaults slide? I wonder: if U.S. Muslims have to flee Iowa, or Kansas, or Detroit, or Texas: will Canada have the courage to take them in?
Will we play the role of Neville Chamberlain in the 1930s; will we weasel and attempt to appease? Will we be Vichy France, and cheerily hand over all our undesirables? Will we be remembered for being courageous, or for being spineless?
I’ve struggled in the past couple of weeks as I tried to figure out how to break it to my terrified American friends that fleeing here, in a pinch, if they can, might not give them the safety they imagine. I’m looking at pictures of swastikas on synagogues in Ottawa, and wondering if our authorities are going to let that stand. I believe in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. I want to believe that my government does as well. That when push comes to shove, those words are held dearer than the paper they’re printed on.
Please tell me that whatever happens, win or lose, we will accept the refugees, take the economic hit, prosecute the racists and–if dire necessary requires it, as I daily pray it will not–go down fighting. If that’s something you feel you can do you will, if nothing else, magically transubstantiate one die-hard lesbian socialist into a bona-fide Liberal voter.
My very best regards,
Writing an elected representative or a newspaper is a political act you can make from your couch, even when you’re running a fever. If you’re trying to do one thing a day to make the world a better place and you’ve just got no goddamned bouncity-bounce, do this.
It has been a few years since I reviewed Hild, by Nicola Griffith, for the simple reason that it’s been a few years since it came out. But as gift-giving season breathes down (some of) our collective necks, I offer this: if you do December giftage and are trying to figure out what to get a beloved fan of historical novels, someone who’s going absolutely mad waiting for Hilary Mantel’s third Cromwell novel, this is exactly the ticket. If you are that person… you’ll have a completely wonderful distraction, at least until you’re left dividing your time between pining for two sequels–the next Hild book is on my OMG, OMG, when, when? list, for sure!–instead of one.
Here’s a snip of my review:
One of the intriguing elements of Hild’s character is her refusal to accept what seem to be obvious limits. From earliest childhood, she seeks to gather strength to herself, offsetting her tactical deficits. The greatest deficit, of course, is her sex. Despite her obvious utility as an advisor, she is still female and still, therefore, a marriageable property. Her sister is married for political reasons when Hild is young, driving the point home. Losing her plunges Hild into another, very difficult, battle, against loneliness. Who is fit company for a seer? Who might she ever take as a lover or a husband?
And here’s the cover: