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.
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.
As the Lethe Press website says, Heiresses of Russreprints 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 A.C. Wise to come share some thoughts on the anthology and her wonderful story, “The Devil Comes to the Midnight Café.”
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 tend to think of it as a necessary stage. Unfortunate as it is, narratives centering the straight, white, neurotypical, cis male experience are still seen as “the norm” and they dominate the majority of our media – in print, on screen, and otherwise. The argument can be made that labeling something as lesbian fiction is othering, but the fact is, lesbians have already been othered, as has everyone outside that straight, white, etc. model. There are people out there hungry to see themselves represented in fiction, in movies, in song, art, and even TV commercials. At the moment, I see labels as a necessary and helpful way to allow people who crave those stories to find them. Hopefully, one day, not too long down the road if the world is kind and fair, labels will be less necessary. We’ll have stories, full stop. They will encompass all of humanity, and straight, white, male stories will no longer be seen as universal, while everything else is niche or specialized.
Would you say your story in the collection is typical or emblematic of your work, or an outlier?
Well, it’s part of a story-cycle, if you will, collected in The Ultra Fabulous Glitter Squadron Saves The World Again, so in that sense, it’s representative of my first published book. The Glitter Squadron stories are a little more over-the-top than my fiction tends to be, but underneath the glitter and velvet, there are themes that echo across a lot of my fiction – chosen family, self-identity, darkness, and hope.
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?
I kind of like Inheritors, but I don’t have a problem with Heiress either (though it does conjure up a certain image of feuding family members in 1920s attire in a brooding mansion plotting to kill each other to get their hands on Great Uncle Ennis’ secret fortune. No? Just me?) To me, having a plethora of words lets people pick the description that suits them best. Some people might want to be heroes, others heroines, same for inheritors, heiresses, and heirs. I’m happy with anything that links me to Russ and her wonderful writing, both fiction and non-fiction.
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.
Alex Bledsoe grew up in west Tennessee an hour north of Graceland (the home of Elvis) and twenty minutes from Nutbush (the birthplace of Tina Turner). He’s been a reporter, photographer, editor, and door-to-door vacuum cleaner salesman. He now lives in a Wisconsin town famous for trolls (the real kind, not internet commenters) and tries to teach his three kids to act like they’ve been to town before. His most recent novel is Chapel of Ease, fourth in his Tufa series.
In the early 1990s, I worked as an assistant manager for Peaches Music and Video in Mobile, AL. I was (and remain) singularly unsuited for retail–my totem animal is the Soup Nazi–and it remains the only job I’ve ever been fired from.
Some of the few perks were the piles of free CDs music companies sent us for in-store play. Past a certain point they were put up for grabs; the store manager got first pick, then us assistants, and finally the regular clerks, all in order of seniority. I was the least senior manager, so I never got the big chart-toppers like the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Blood Sugar Sex Magik or R.E.M.’s Automatic for the People.
While working at this job (and at every job I’ve ever had), I was also plugging away unsuccessfully at writing. As part of keeping suicide at bay as the rejection slips piled up, I gave myself future rewards. One of them was a promise to myself that when my first book was published, I’d get a tattoo to mark (heh) the occasion.
The only thing was, I had no idea what image to get. A book seemed obvious, and a pen unrealistic (I mean, even then, nobody wrote books longhand). Plus it was permanent, so I needed an image, a symbol, that I knew I’d never outgrow. I eventually had to simply trust that I’d know it when I found it.
And then, in the pile of CDs at Peaches, I found Meryn Cadell’s Angel Food for Thought.
Cadell, at the time performing as a woman (he’s since identified as male), had a minor hit from this CD, a spoken-word track called “The Sweater.”
The entire CD was fun and funny, and since I was the only one among the staff who thought so, it was still there when it was my turn to go through the freebies. On the back cover, there was a tiny line drawing of a typewriter:
And as time passed, I realized that this image was in fact the ideal tattoo to celebrate my first book. That is, if I ever sold one.
Flash forward from 1992 to 2007 (yes, fifteen years later). My first novel, The Sword-Edged Blonde, was finally released. By then I’d married a woman who fully supported my writing dreams, and I’d told her in passing about my tattoo idea. I even showed her the design, but I’d never actually made plans to do it. What seemed really cool at 29 seemed a little…less so at 44.
Then she surprised me with a trip to the Blue Lotus Tattoo Parlor in Madison. I’d hoped to get the tattoo in the actual size of the image on the CD, but the artist (after 10 years, I’m afraid I’ve forgotten his name) explained that tattoo resolution wasn’t that fine. So he took it, blew it up until he could manage the detail, then put that sucker on my right arm. My “write” arm, heh heh.
It remains my only tattoo. I’ve considered others, but I’ve never discovered another image that resonated so strongly. There’s something understated and (to me) powerful about having a lone tattoo, one that fully represents you and always will. So I’ll probably stick with that.
Unless one of my books becomes a movie…
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.
The always-lovely Simon Bestwick invited me to do an interview on The Lowdown not long ago and as of yesterday it’s up and readable. In it, naturally, I talk about my upcoming novel and the books that went before it, current projects, and my writing process. They’re the sort of questions writers often answer. People, whether they’re mostly readers or are aspiring writers, tend to like to know how and when the words get made, to see if there’s any common ground, any insights to be gleaned.
This is a hers and hers interview; Bestwick also interviewed Kelly and her post will be up Friday.
Interviews happen well before they see publication, and one of the other things in this one is a bit of contemplation of how and when I might get the tattoo that became my 2016 poppies. The poppies, when I was conceptualizing them and as I actually got them, were meant as a celebration of the amazing year I was having. I wanted to celebrate, in part because so many people I knew were finding 2016 to be a bear.
All of that optimism and cheer, of course, predated the U.S. election result and the terror and despair spreading from that event. It seems a million years ago. I am generally upbeat and ebullient, but this is a blow. I don’t know when–if–I’ll bounce back to a sustained state of perkiness. I want to. At least one person has said a thing I can do for them is get back to my upbeat magical-unicorn posting habits. And despair, as you all know, just isn’t a great place to live.
Anyway. The interview is a slice of me-from-the-past, and if it seems tonally peculiar, that’s why. My hope is that there’s a me from the future who’ll be able to connect with it, one day in the not too distant, one who can lighten–if only fractionally–not merely my load but that one on your shoulders too, if you’re looking for it.