I just finished Darrin Hagin’s tenth anniversary edition of The Edmonton Queen: The Final Voyage, a slice of queer Canadian history that just barely intersects with my life: I was living in Edmonton at the time Hagin writes about, and Kelly went to high school with one of its queens, Cleo; we saw hir in a Fringe show last year.
I never went to the legendary Flashback club. I am so not a club person. In my entire life I haven’t once partied until I dropped. By the time the queens in this book were getting up for the day, I tend to be ready for my nap. A single glass of cheap wine will give me a next-day headache. The world of The Edmonton Queen was as much an alien landscape as any I’ve created in my fiction, or I’ve read about. And yet I shared weather, and terrain with these exotic beings. I could have visited, had I been inclined. Say that for Planet Vuvula!
I picked it off our bookshelf partly out of interest (of course!), in part because of that little intersection with our past, and because I am contemplating whether the next mystery novel, The Rain Garden, might include someone from that scene. Or, rather, it does–I just haven’t decided how she fits into the picture.
Hagin’s style flows nicely, I found myself comparing him favorably with John Barrowman’s autobiography, whose prose and content weren’t nearly as colorful. There’s delicious humor and wit. This hit my funnybone especially hard:
12:45 a.m. Meet in the ladies’ can at the pre-arranged time, in the handicapped cubicle. Squeeze everyone in. Sit on the floor, screaming with laughter at absolutely anything. Drop the acid. Pass around the hairspray. Stay until some dyke kicks you all out for reinforcing negative stereotypes of women. Leave in a huff.
What resonated most with me, not surprisingly, was the stuff about growing up queer in smalltown Alberta. As with these queens, that experience created in me a great need to get away, to reinvent, to find and nurture a truer self. The construction of alternate family, its evolution into something as complex and sometimes dysfunctional as any biopham, was familiar, too. As for the slow terrible parade of death that struck Hagin’s Family… well, I have been to a fair number of funerals these past few years.
One of the most interesting things about this anniversary edition, though, is that it has a long and fascinating coda. Hagin chased down the survivors of the Flashback days, and gave them a chance to offer their perspectives on his version of their shared history. He talks about what it was like to have published and then revisited a story that so many people had such a deep emotional stake in. In the process, he reveals the writer-as-Spiderman once again; his afterword is a textbook illustration of that Spidey saying, “with great power comes great responsibility.”
He told the stories, and he got some things wrong. He saw other things very differently from people who were present beside him in the very same moment. Watching him wrestle with that, and with balancing good storytelling against fairness, provides a deeply interesting behind-the-scenes look at what writing is and how it interacts with the real.
It is also genuinely affecting. You will laugh and cry. Don’t say you weren’t warned.
The individual introductions to short stories are one of my favorite things about reading single-author collections. The stories themselves are delightful in their own right, of course, but I love it when the author gives us an extra glimpse into what was going on when a given piece was written. It’s a little like getting to unwrap a high-end truffle; there’s an extra layer of ritual before one settles down to enjoy. With that in mind, I’ve decided to put a bit of that kind of love into the short fiction area of my site. What will accumulate, I expect, is a cluster of notes about the writing process, all tied to the various stories I’ve got sprinkled out and about the Web and in print.
This is my first foray into this territory–I hope you enjoy it.
In 2001, I met Charles N. Brown at Norwescon and he asked me to start reviewing books for Locus. For the next three years I did four, five, even six books a month for the magazine–the ARCs flowed to my door, a glorious river of words. This was not long after I’d first encountered Harry Turtledove, and his unforgettable How Few Remain. I was in love with alternate history. I inhaled the series spawned by How Few Remain, and the Worldwar series. Happily, none of the other Locus reviewers seemed inclined to wrestle me for the AH, so for a couple of glorious years I didn’t just get my Turtledove fix. I got it all: Kurt R.A. Giambastiani’s awesome The Year the Cloud Fell saga, Steven Barnes’ Lion’s Blood, Hannibal’s Children by John Maddox Roberts… it was like falling into a cave full of pirate loot, literary doubloons for history nerds.
Naturally, all of this stimulated my writerbrain to start considering the prospect of writing some AH of my own, which in turn drew me back to one of my oldest historical passions–Joan of Arc. I started reading, and noodling, and reading some more. Maybe twenty history books later, I had a fine amateur-historian grasp on Joan’s short personal history, a reasonable grip on that little slice of the Hundred Years War, and the perfect point of divergence. I didn’t have a hook though, or any kind of grasp of the story. I started it a few times… and abandoned those openers. A few of my best pieces have gone this way, with three or six or even twelve failed starts. Then again, some of those same failed starts have gone nowhere… at least so far.
Joan of Arc
As all this cogitation was taking place, Harry was producing books. Lots of them! Books, delicious books, and I was reading them all for Locus. As a result, I’d gotten to know Harry in that distant, online, ‘we’ll meet at a con one day, huh?’ way. One spring we were back-and-forthing about something, and he asked: would I like to submit something to Alternate Generals III? In six weeks?
With the fiery impetus of a short deadline and the ubercool prospect of writing for Harry dangling before me, I dropped everything and started scribbling. I wrote draft, longhand, over pots of mint tea at a vegetarian Indian place on the Drive; I wrote more at Mosaic Creek Park. I got “Heretic” drafted, workshopped, revised, rerevised and off just barely in time… and a week later, I got what was the fastest acceptance I’d ever had. (It may have been my first electronic submission: this was 2003, and things were still going out in hard copy a good deal of the time.)
As stories go, “Heretic” remains one of my personal favorites. At that point in my life, it was among the best things I’d ever written, and when I revisit it, I’m still satisfied with how it came off. I remember it as a breakthrough, as the first time I felt as though I’d brought off precisely the emotional effect I was striving for. The process of writing it was unique, too, because I had done all that research. It was a ludicrous amount of reading, considering that we’re talking about a 9,500 word novelette. But wow! Historical fiction sure feels easy when all the big facts you could possibly want have been poured into your brain, when they’re just waiting to spill out onto the page.
This is my ideal model for research now: read as much as I please on whatever’s interesting, and hope the noggin will be crammed full right when someone asks me for a story, NOW. It hasn’t happened again, not yet. I don’t mind the “I’m chugging along and now I suddenly I realize need to learn more about X,” model, but the sensation, with “Heretic,” was magical. It’s probably as close to omnipotence as anyone can hope to get.
Time passed, Alternate Generals III came out and “Heretic” got good reviews; it made the Nebula Preliminary ballot that year, and got shortlisted for the Sidewise Award. I have thought occasionally of writing a follow-up, at novel-length, set in a Jehanniste present, but I have never quite found the hook–I haven’t even gotten as far as a false start. So that idea is very much on the backburner.
The scene is easily recognized: the Maid’s debilitation, the nuns, and especially the cloud of larks above serve to identify it as Joan’s journey to the trial that ended her 13-year imprisonment for heresy. It was at this “Exoneration Trial” that she encountered Dulice Aulon, the Jehanniste artist responsible for the holy pictures on which the codex illuminations are based.
“We mustn’t face the King in battle.” Joan had the light, clear voice of a young woman, even after her years in prison and the hard decade since her release. She’d asked one of the new archers, a girl of perhaps seventeen, to cut her hair, and a few broken strands of silver hair clung to her neck. The rest lay at her feet, bright in the glow of the dying fire.
“Not fight Charles?” Hermeland was incredulous. He was a badger of a man, with a dramatic, pointy face and remarkable speed with a sword. “We must turn his army back before it unites with the force of mercenaries coming up from Rome. If you can’t see that–”
“Can’t see it? Who ordered us to turn north, days before anyone knew the King had pursued us into Burgundy?”
“You–” he began, and as her brow came up he corrected, “your Voices.”
Nicolson talks about the forces that shaped Navy culture in this century–the long tradition of deep aggression and violence embedded within British culture, the profit motive (many of the officers, particularly, were in the racket to make fortunes that would let them buy homes in the country and live the gentleman lifestyle), the disciplined maintenance rituals that kept the ships in good shape and the immense amounts of money borrowed by Parliament to keep them so. The spending supported the navy in both a direct and an indirect manner: they bought up so much of the world’s available supply of ship materiel that other countries were hard pressed to get their hands on things like wood, canvas and hemp.
His prose is precise and lovely to read aloud. Here, he uses Jane Austen to illustrate how the idea of masculinity had evolved between the 18th and 19th centuries:
By 1805, the femininity of the mid-18th century was being left behind. Exaggerated sensibility had started to look absurd. Clothes, for both men and women, had become sober and simple…. one can see dramatised the shift in values between the 18th and 19th centuries arranged around the two potential heroes of [Pride and Prejudice]: Mr. Bingley and Mr. Darcy. Mr. Bingley is 18th-century man: handsome, young, agreeable, delightful, fond of dancing, gentlemanlike, pleasant, easy, unaffected and not entirely in control of his destiny. Darcy is fine, tall, handsome, noble, proud, forbidding, disagreeable, and subject to no control but his own. It is a strikingly schematic division. Darcy is like a craggy black mountainside–Mrs. Bennet calls him ‘horrid’, the word used to describe the pleasure to be derived from a harsh and sublime landscape; Mr. Bingley is a verdant park with bubbling rills. Darcy is 19th century man, manliness itself, uncompromising, dark and sexy.
SEIZE THE FIRE isn’t light reading, obviously, but it’s also not dense or in any way a grind. It’s mostly about emotion–how people felt about war, their attitude toward battle, the vital cultural differences between the British and French-Spanish fleets that led to the victory at Trafalgar, and the way the ideas of heroism and honor were shaped before the battle and, afterwards, by it. Nicolson’s analysis is intriguing but never ethereal. He’s writing about a slaughter, and you never forget that; this is a humane book, and a really interesting one. Not only do I recommend it, but I expect I’ll pick up his book about the translation of the King James bible, GOD’S SECRETARIES, in the not too distant.
This afternoon went to pre-trip correspondence: lots of e-mails saying, “I’ll get to that on Monday, okay?” and a few more asking “Could you possibly get this back to me by Monday?” I did substantial and quite satisfying work on a short article; I know I’ve been a tease lately, but I do hope to have details on that for you soon.
I managed to get JoCo looks Back back onto the pod, a pre-Road Trip necessity. I picked up a little U.S. cash, and said a final goodbye to the folks at my Friday mentoring gig. One of them got me a begonia, which I’ve planted out in my deck garden. I got to hug her and my other favorite person there. I’ll miss some of the people, but I won’t regret having to go to Burnaby every Friday; it was fun for a good long while, but except for cheap cereal, the Metrotown area has nothing I want.
Sixty pages into the Nelson/Trafalgar book, I can report that it’s well-written and interesting, and I plan to haul myself off to the couch to read it very soon indeed.
I’m also continuing to experiment with WordPress; this post was written Friday night, but is supposed to go live Saturday morning. (Edited to Add: did not work–their clock and mine disagree.) As I’ve continued to play, I’ve found a fair number of superbly handy widgets, but so far I haven’t been happy with any of the Flickr apps. There’s none of them, so far, that beats what Flickr will do itself. For example, here’s a slideshow, all handily packaged, which includes the white-crowned sparrow I shot last Wednesday.
I have been thinking about getting the latter in the history section for weeks, not so much because it’s exactly what I want to read but because for weeks it was the most tempting item on that particular shelf. It looks terrific, and French history is something I especially enjoy, but I wasn’t necessarily prepared to pick it up. But today the Nelson book was out, and it’s just the thing for primary research on one of my projects, and I knew the bookstore ‘owed’ me a kickback for all the bookbuying of the past year, so… treasure!
I will of course let you know how they are.
Because they’ve just freshened up all the shelves for the summer session, the bookstore has new “Summer Reading” and “Local Author” displays, and Indigo Springs was prominently displayed in both. I say was, because apparently by the time I noticed this gratifying fact, the Local Author copies had been sold. They are very very good to me out there.