Emmie Mears’s most recent novel A Hall of Keys and No Doors is about magic keys and grief and what we can and cannot control. The book mentioned in this interview, Look to the Sun, is about the subtle magic of stories we tell ourselves and the stories we tell others. It comes out 15 November and is available for preorder now. Here’s what they say about this amazing tree:
I spent a decade wanting tattoos before I got any, and then my first one was a whim.
When I got married the first time, I picked out a ring that had deep meaning for me: a white gold band with ogham writing that said “my love on you” in Gaelic. That ring held no meaning for my husband–he never got my desire to move back to Scotland or how much that place felt like home for me. The day our divorce finalised, I decided in the car on the way home and got those ogham words tattooed on my arm.
A couple months later, I got started on the big piece, the back piece. From my lumbar region to just below my ear, I have a tree that stretches asymmetrically up my back. At the top is a trio of crows in flight, in silhouette. Down the trunk is more ogham, this bit reading “remember where you came from.”
I can still remember the smell of Simple Green, and it still makes me want to urp.
For most of my childhood, my family was so poor that we inhabited tiny log cabins with little to no plumbing. I shared a room with my mother that we rented from a woman in Portland. Later, I lived for months at a time in a tent on a patch of land. After that, in an actual barn we tried to make into a cabin. Most of those places had no functioning toilet. When I tell people that I grew up without a toilet, I get a lot of strange looks.
We used to dump Simple Green into the five gallon bucket we used as “the pot”.
It was my job to empty it.
Both my biological parents have had troubled lives. I’ve collected parental figures along the way, from my mother’s long term partner who I still see as my second mum to my step-dad, to a woman called Donna who took me under her wing in our church before cancer killed her, to families that gave me a place to stay when I could not stay at home (or when home got taken out from under us).
For this among many reasons, any desire I had to have children fell away from me in my early twenties. I’ve taken care of myself since I was thirteen. I staged my exit from home beginning at sixteen. At thirty-one, I have a healthy, loving relationship. A flushing toilet. (Booyah!) Two kitties.
My partner and I are about to move to Scotland.
In my forthcoming novel, Look to the Sun
, I found myself heavily identifying with Beo, one of the POV characters. His tattoo covers his forearm and is the first major connection between Beo and Rose, the other POV character and part of the poly romance in the book.
Like me, Beo has survived abusive relationships. Like me, he decided he wanted to wear his stories in his skin.
Tattoos are intensely personal things most of the time. They’re with us foreverish. But no matter how obscure they seem to be, they communicate part of our inner lives with the outside world. Just like Rose recognises the design of Beo’s tattoo as being from her all-time favourite book, I have people recognise the ogham writing on my arm or ask me about the vein-like branches that cover my shoulder.
Tattoos are just another way of telling stories.
A year from now, my partner and I will (dog willing) be ensconced in a Glasgow flat, having done something I’ve been trying to do for thirteen years.
I sometimes forget that my back is covered in ink.
Two of my great aunts, on opposite sides of my family, have spent decades combing through genealogical records about our family. On both sides, there is a lot of strong oral tradition and a lot of familial history that has been passed down for generations. Much of it eludes what documentation any of us have been able to find.
My family on both sides is insistent that we came from Scotland, from Wales. Sometimes by way of Ireland (this much is documented), sometimes appearing with a wave of other immigrants after a significant historical event (like Culloden) (this is fuzzier).
I had my DNA run through the system at Ancestry.com. After 40+ moves on American soil and a tendency to splutter when someone asks me where I’m from, that question spurs a small internal tornado: do I say Texas, where I was born but spent less than three months? Arkansas? Alaska, where I was a toddler? Oregon maybe? Montana, where I graduated high school? Maryland, where I’ve technically spent the most time? I still never know. Sometimes I catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror and see the branches there and only then remember that tattoo.
Before this last year, I was happiest in Poland. But Poland would not welcome my queer, trans self now. My happiness when I lived in Scotland was more transitive itself. I never had a flat there, just a bunk bed and a room full of loved ones who ate and slept and traveled and learned together.
But of all the places I’ve lived, Scotland was always home. I don’t know if it is where I came from. That DNA test said my DNA is Scandinavian. Which, hey. I mean, the Vikings got around. My aunts have traced our family back centuries and there’s not a Swedish, Norwegian, or Danish name to be found among the Welsh and Scottish and English and German ones. It doesn’t really matter–Scotland is a welcoming place for those who seek to make their homes there.
Which brings that second tattoo back to the first one: my love on you. And, more ephemerally, to the second tattoo’s deeper meaning.
I got that first armband on a whim, but I got it because I needed the meaning. It was important for me to affirm that to myself, that I deserve self-love. I stayed in my marriage longer than I ought to have done because I forgot that I could love myself.
As for the other, “remember where you came from”, it’s less about geography and more about self. It is the germinating seed that grows our tree. The branches we reach upward and the roots we sink into soil. We came from stars and live by the light of one. What a miraculous thing.
These first two tattoos cover a lot of me, but I’ve got a lot of canvas left to explore.
About this post: Inksplanations (and variations thereon) is the name for a series of short interviews where I ask 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!
Next week we’ll have Fran Wilde, answering the same question.
It was a Saturday sometime in August and I was on Queen Street, schlepping home the sandwich we favor for weekend lunch. The weather was glorious, late-summer heat and all the sun you could wish for. Thanks to the particular perversity of the retail ecosystem, one of the clothing boutiques had a fall coat in the window.
Friends, humans, countrymen, this was an exceedingly awesome coat. I don’t remember what it looked like, because… well, I never remember what things look like. But I do remember knowing it would’ve looked flat-out smashing on me. I absolutely believe that if I’d had cute shoes and a dusting of snow in my hair, along with that coat, Dr. Who would have spontaneously a) become real; b) materialized in Toronto; c) offered me a gig as the TARDIS’s first Canadian Companion. Which all things considered wouldn’t have been 100% great. So much danger! All that yelling! Daleks! But I digress.
I didn’t use to have an eye for cute coats or charming frocks, or to be honest much interest. But there it was, adorable as fuck, siren-songing with wooly autumn vigor, in defiance of the heat and humidity, and because I tend to squirrel my spending money away, I could have walked in right then and there and claimed it for my own.
The internal chorus kicked in: Weren’t you kind of thinking about a tattoo?
Well, maybe. Yeah. No. Yeah. Like, okay, but for my next divisible-by-ten birthday?
Which is years off. Are you looking at that fucking coat? OMG, buy it, buy it!
But that artist I saw on Instagram…
On the one hand, she’s not likely to be available before you are. in fact, fifty. On the other, you can save up tattoo money again by 2018.
Such was the power of the coat that the yammering went back and forth for rawther a long while before a louder, deeper and utterly certain voice said: Hey! You are having an amazing year. Celebrate properly, mark the occasion with blood and pain and beauty and screw this BS about waiting for a mere birthday.
Oh! I thought. I am having an amazing year!
By the time I got home, I’d decided to have someone zorch poppies into the flesh of my arm. I was sure enough by then that I actually told Kelly about the coat, which was an act of staggering generosity and considerable risk to the laws of physics, as it would also have looked so mind-bogglingly incredible on my wife that everyone standing within fifty feet of her would probably have become invisible, possibly forever. Unbeknownst to us, the boutique was going broke at pretty much that exact moment… and so it was not to be. You can thank market forces for your continued existence on the visual spectrum.
Anyway. I’ve blogged about all the amazing travel experiences I had in 2016. Those experiences came with so many museums, meals, meetings with loved ones, and marvels! But there has even more this year. Embarrassments of riches. My fifth novel, The Nature of a Pirate–which also represents my first completed and published trilogy–will be out from Tor Books in December. Its predecessor, A Daughter of No Nation, won the Aurora Award. I had not one but three incredible teaching opportunities and hit them all out of the park. I gave a talk on terraforming, “How We Became LV426” at the Toronto SpecFic Colloquium this year, an event whose headliner was Margaret Atwood. I co-edited my first anthology, Heiresses of Russ 2016, with Steve Berman. There were so many great things, in fact, that I am probably forgetting four or ten or a dozen more.
Atop it all, I got to watch Kelly’s career blossom, with a spectacular list of stories published that turned into an equally spectacular list of award nominations, Year’s Best selections, translations, kudos, great reviews, and an Aurora Award in the short fiction category for Waters of Versailles.
So! A tattoo to celebrate, courtesy the remarkable Lorena Lorenzo of Blackline Studios on King Street. In the photo above, Chinchilla’s a little bored with the whole concept. I, on the other hand, am delighted with it. I’ll talk about the design, and why poppies, sometime in the not too distant. But as part of the fun I’m also going to interview some writers about their tattoos. The when, the why, the symbolism… well, really, whatever they want to tell you about their ink is up to them. You’ll see Inksplain interviews here at Planetalyx starting this Wednesday with an essay by Emmie Mears. I hope you enjoy them. And if you have any questions about the poppies, the artist, or my amazing 2016, just go ahead and let me know.
I haven’t been writing a lot of reviews for Tor.com lately, but recently I have done a couple, and the newest of these is up now. It’s for Angela Slatter’s first US collection, A Feast of Sorrows, and here’s a bit of what I had to say.
In A Feast of Sorrows, the magic of well-made things is a motif that runs throughout its various tales. The work—baking, sewing, candlemaking, all by talented artisans—has its echo here in the real world in Slatter’s finely wrought paragraphs, and the measured unfolding of each story. There is a sense of the exquisite in the writing here, of plots laid down like pearls on a string.
Here’s the cover–isn’t it beautiful?
Today Kelly and I are taking our show on the road, to ChiSeries Guelph, where the two of us will be reading with Marian Thorpe at the Red Brick Cafe at 8 Douglas Street. Be there or… well, be somewhere else, with my best wishes, and we’ll catch you next time.
(Unless you want to be square, or trapezoidal. Then be that. Hey, I’m not the boss of you.)
As many of you may have already heard, Kelly’s “Waters of Versailles” is now on the World Fantasy Award ballot, along with having been nominated for an Aurora Award and a Nebula. That’s quite the luminous hat trick, and I am exceedingly proud and excited.
“Two Year Man,” meanwhile, is on the short list for the Sunburst Award for Canadian Literature of the Fantastic, (more correctly, I believe she’s on the first ever short list for short fic for the Sunburst) and “The Three Resurrections of Jessica Churchill” is on the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award list. You can read all three stories at her site.
As for me, I am on the verge of wrapping up two glorious semesters as a creative writing professor at the University of Toronto’s Scarborough Campus, and I have also landed one of those gigs that, due to Non-Disclosure Agreements, is officially one of those I can’t talk about it but it’s cool, so cool gigs. And there’s a fair prospect of knocking another thing off my writerly bucket list soon. If I pull that one off, I’ll be crowing very loudly indeed.
One of the reasons I am driven to write fiction is so I can try to capture, in words, the essence of those rare, truly profound experiences that life occasionally hands out. The things that are, by their very nature, difficult to capture truthfully without being trite. It’s hard to talk about bliss and heartbreak and transformation, about love, birth, marriage, or loss, without sounding like a greeting card. My students run up against this all the time; trying to put sincere human emotion on the page and beating their fists bloody against the wall of words.
At some point this past Nebula Awards weekend I realized I was not only in the midst of something that intense–the opposite of crisis, yet every bit as all-consuming–and that part of why it was dialled up to nine was tied to an earlier trip Kelly and I made to Chicago, in 1997, on our way to our second Worldcon in San Antonio. Out of that trip came, among other things, the seed of my Asimovs story, “A Slow Day at the Gallery.” I won’t go on, because a) I need to process; b) what I just said, above; and c) I mean to make art out of it all. But it was a seriously big deal. And a thoroughgoing source of joy.
The con also offered many delights that weren’t quite so all-consuming, including:
- People: I go to cons hoping to develop deeper friendships with people in my social media orbit. This weekend I had several long, thrilling conversations, with individuals who I’ve Liked, many times, and wanted to know. I feel very blessed every time this comes together.
- Dancing: When SFWA releases the official video of Emperor Stardust and the Eunuchs of the Forbidden City, I will post it. We were, dare I say it, awesome.
- Brain food: I wasn’t alone in noticing that the quality of programming, the exchange of knowledge and ideas at the con, was extremely high.
- Body food: Chicago lived up to its delicious reputation. The breakfast joint we settled upon, The Goddess and the Baker, was especially good.
It feels significant, in this context, that Kelly and I have been in Toronto three years as of this very day. On the plane home to our little apartment, our beloved cats, our wonderful neighborhood, with two suitcase heaving with books and someone’s ginger liqueur (you know who you are!) my luminous Nebula-nominated wife, of whom I am so justifiably proud, was aglow. “I couldn’t possibly be happier,” she said.
Know what? Yeah. Me too. Things are just that stunningly good right now.