Yep, we've rearranged the furniture--all the good things about moving with none of the bad.
But first I think we'll go to the park...
Several of these names caught my eye--particularly Patricia Duncker. She was the academic I found so interesting on the BBC Radio 4 documentary, Cat Women of the Moon. I had no idea she wrote fiction. I'll be taking a look at that one. And, oh, so many people whose work I admire: Val McDermid, Ali Smith, Jackie Kay. Catherine Hall is new to me, but her book sounds intriguing. Zoe Strachan is also new to me. (But why is it so many women on prize lists write about men?)
S.J. Watson's novel, Before I Go To Sleep, sounds special. I think I'll go download that one right now...
The shortlist will be announced on November 2nd, the winner on December 7th. Meanwhile, dear reader, we can't lose. Excellent job, judges.
So here's a book I think would be lovely for autumn, The Word Exchange: Anglo-Saxon Poems in Translation, ed. Greg Delanty and Michael Matto, with an introduction by Seamus Heaney.
The dazzling variety of Anglo-Saxon poetry brought to life by an all-star cast of contemporary poets in an authoritative bilingual edition.
Encompassing a wide range of voices-from weary sailors to forlorn wives, from heroic saints to drunken louts, from farmers hoping to improve their fields to sermonizers looking to save your soul—the 123 poems collected in The Word Exchange complement the portrait of medieval England that emerges from Beowulf, the most famous Anglo-Saxon poem of all. Offered here are tales of battle, travel, and adventure, but also songs of heartache and longing, pearls of lusty innuendo and clear-eyed stoicism, charms and spells for everyday use, and seven "hoards" of delightfully puzzling riddles.
Featuring all-new translations by seventy-four of our most celebrated poets—including Seamus Heaney, Robert Pinsky, Billy Collins, Eavan Boland, Paul Muldoon, Robert Hass, Gary Soto, Jane Hirshfield, David Ferry, Molly Peacock, Yusef Komunyakaa, Richard Wilbur, and many others—The Word Exchange is a landmark work of translation, as fascinating and multivocal as the original literature it translates.
I've read a variety of translations of a variety of Old English poems, and the translation really matters. I'd love to curl up in front of the fire in November and sip tea while musing on top-notch versions of the elegaic "The Ruin" or the howling loneliness of "The Wife's Lament." Luscious autumnal melancholy.
My friend Mark Tiedemann recently interviewed Ursula K. Le Guin for ReadMOre, Missouri's annual statewide reading celebration. The technical quality isn't brilliant but the interview is long and juicy. Enjoy.
ETA: Mark has just joined Twitter. Go follow him @MWTiedemann.
It's all over, apparently. At least according to independent trader Alessio Rastani:
It was pretty astonishing to see a BBC presenter utterly fazed. But that's what happens when people tell the bald truth.
By that I don't mean, This will come to pass (though it might), but that someone finally said exactly what he was thinking: I'm going to get rich while you fuckers burn. Refreshing, in a Check the supplies for apocalypse kind of way.
I'm already guessing that a bunch o' people will say he's an anti-semitic lunatic (and of course he could be, but I don't think that's what this is about). I'm guessing that he's dreamed of this kind of platform for years, that he was so ready, that he'll make a zillion dollars from the panic (but that doesn't make him wrong). I'm guessing, too, that his doctor is frantically calling his pharmacy and saying, "I said two milligrams, two, not twenty!"
Wow. I'm blinking. The look on that BBC presenter's face...
ETA: For a nifty primer on bond and Euro markets and how they relate to the recent downgrade of the US credit rating, see this video explanation. (Thanks, Georgi.)
More ETA: Look, I know this is naked self-interest on the trader's part. The astonishing thing to me, what makes it noteworthy, is that some producer/editor at the BBC was asleep at the switch and let this self-serving (and very probably manic-phase) bit of sensationalism past. That's all. :: rolls eyes ::
From: Jennifer Schwarz
I just read Always, the first of your books that I have found. Thank you. I love your writing and your characters. I will find more of your books.
You allude to a Woodworker's collective with a store in Pioneer Square. Until I moved down here to Hawaii, I was a long time member of the Cooperatively owned Gallery...thank you for your kind words (I am assuming that is what you refer to). In this funky economy, it is really nice to hear/read positive sentiments about handcrafted work. If you ever need details regarding woodworking or furnituremaking, I would be happy to talk to you for hours, or days to fill in any gaps.....(I am curious about that table Aud promised to make!)
All the best to you with health and creativity.
That gallery that Aud slavered over in Always was one I slavered over, too. It had some beautiful stuff. Out of my price range, sadly. But thank you for your part in it.
I'm kind of curious about that table, too. I love making things through Aud. In real life, I don't know one end of a plane from another, but in an alternate world, I think I would have enjoyed the contemplative/physical side of woodworking. I've always found wood...luscious.
If and when I write the next Aud book, I'll take you up on your consulting offer. It will be great to have an expert to hand.
I see that you're making and selling fine furniture in Hawaii under the Jennifer Schwarz Fine Woodworking and Design shingle. What's the wood you're using?
Also (and this is a question for all Aud readers), what kind of table would you like to see Aud make for Kick? She has a lot of cherry wood. She could make something large, or a selection of small things. What do you think?
The very first literary prize I ever won was in 1971. It was a BBC Radio North poetry prize. I won a Blue Peter annual. When I found out what the prize was, I was very cross: what a rip-off. I'd won a fucking BBC poetry competition. And they gave me some crappy album for kids! I was eleven years old, above that sort of thing.
I never told anyone but...I loved that thing. I read it a dozen times. Yes, it was below my reading age and way below my dignity, but I'd grown up with Blue Peter. Those doofuses and their drugged up pets (take a close look at that photo; you think those cats wanted to be in the same studio with that dog?) were part of my after-school life, woven into the fabric of my childhood. So I feel a bit sad that there might be no more Blue Peter albums:
Publishers of the hardback, which has a history dating back to 1965, admit it can no longer compete with the likes of modern favourites such as The Simpsons and The Beano.
They had planned to release a 2012 volume but were forced to scrap the idea after shops failed to show enough interest.
Ah well, all good things come to an end. And, hey, we all grow up. Mostly. But, nah, this is what I'm talking about, Bleep and Booster!
I told you it was epic. Totting up spellcheck results, it appears Light of the World has at least 188 named characters. 'At least' because those are just the ones with the tricky spelling; I'm guessing 200+ is more accurate. Yes, a handful are animals (Winty, a cow; Od, a dog; Acærn, a pony...). Another handful are ancestral and/or legendary characters (Eliffer of the Great Retinue). But most are people who make a real-time appearance in this book (or will in book 2 or 3), and many play significant roles.
Many are actual historical characters. Many I made up. I'll have to find a way to differentiate the two in a list for the book. Oh, I see spreadsheets in my future. And maps. And family trees, glossary, pronunciation guide... A myriad nifty extras for the book and/or website.
Hild is done. She has a working title: Light of the World. (Subtitle, if there was one, would be something like The woman at the heart of war, politics, and religion in seventh century Britain.)
The book, volume one of three, is huge: 963 pages, 197,878 words (excluding the title).
I've sent it off to my agent. I have an agent: Stephanie Cabot, of The Gernert Company.
So now I get to ponder what should go on the jacket copy, that is, how the book should be described to an editor. The problem is, every time I start thinking about it, the Xena theme starts up in my head: "In a time of ancient gods, warlords, and kings, a land in turmoil cried out for a hero..." Dah dah da daa da da daa da dah... Oh, fuck it, here you go:
The thing is, this novel isn't a fantasy. There's no magic except of the human kind (and the natural world, of course.) Hild never uses a sword. But she does kill people, oh yes, my lovelies, she kills a lot of people. Saves a lot, too. How? Well, you'll just have to wait and see. Chortle.
I am almost unbearably excited about this book. It's epic in every way. Except for, y'know, actually being an epic in the accepted sense: it doesn't do the multi-viewpoint thing. Hild is in every scene. Every. Single. Scene. So it's an intimate novel of character painted on an epic canvas. With warlords, priests, and kings. And cunning advisors, seers, and queens. Plus some slaves and peasants and farmwives. And more trees than you can shake a stick at. And rivers and oceans and rills and burns and becks, and seals and cows and crows and otters and herons, and death and destruction and famine and plague (well, not plague plague, just illness and cattle murrain). And so much song, and heroism, and gold-and-sparkly-jewels, and plotting...
If I were Empress of the Universe, and if this were a graphic novel not, ahem, a literary work of great popular appeal, I'd call it: Butcher Bird! (Everything you know about the 7th C is Rong!)
But I'm getting punchy. So I'll leave you with this photo of my carnelians, to which Hild is passionately attached. (She's passionately attached to some people, too. Very passionately.) And, yes, she could have owned them. They're first century Roman beads, just the kind of treasure passed down through Romano-British dynasties:
Today is Kelley's birthday. Last year we did a marathon ten-day jubilee celebration. This year will be saner. Today there's a movie, and at least one bottle of Especially Delicious wine in our future. And long lazy conversations about books and screenplays in progress, about travel, about life the universe and everything--as long as it's good. And right now things are looking good. I think we might be approaching one of the better years of our lives.
So don't be alarmed if I'm not around much. It's all in a good cause...
I'm really very close to finishing this draft of Hild: 90% through. So I won't be around much in the next day or two. To keep you amused here are three links that might be of interest.
Raining, windy, leaves blowing. Neighbour cat huddling against the wall looking pathetic. (Yes, I'm talking about Chow Ciao, the stray we fed for a while. She's been adopted by a neighbour, but still comes to visit when she fancies an extra bit of fuss or service. Sometimes she comes here looking especially white and fluffy and offended, which I take to mean her new staff have given her a shampoo and blowdry.)
I'm okay with this weather for now. I'm approaching the end of this draft of Hild and sunshine can be a distraction. But next week, just in time for a Hugely Important Person's Most Splendid Birthday, we're due lashings and splashings of golden sun and bright blue skies. And I'll be done with Hild. And joy will cover the earth.
So I'm heading for a fabulous week. I wish the same for you.
Okay, I've been remiss about combing my spam box. I just took a look and found half a dozen genuine comments from the last month or two that the spam filter caught. I've reinstated them. My apologies. Will try to do better...
...but suspect I might not, at least until this draft of Hild is finished. I'm almost there: 80% done. So sometime next week. (Maybe in time for a certain Very Hugely Massively Important to Me person's Super Special Splendid Birthday...)
Thanks to a generous reader, I now have a copy of Robin Fleming's Britain After Rome: The Fall and Rise, 400 to 1070. (I talk about why I wanted it so much here.) Yesterday, after lunch, before I went back to working on Hild, I flipped through it. I was struck by this statement on page 175:
Hartlepool's abbess Hild had learned the religious life from her sister--the mother of the king of the East Angles and a nun--who had trained at a Frankish monastery...
Bearing in mind that Fleming's book is largely based on material culture, I'm sorely puzzled. I don't understand how the above inference can be drawn from archaeology. Especially as it directly contradicts Bede:
When she decided to abandon the secular life and serve God alone, she went to the province of the East Angles, whose king was her kinsman; for having renounced her home and all that she possessed, she wished if possible to travel on from there into Gaul, and to live an exile for our Lord's sake in the monastery of Cale, so that she might the more easily attain her eternal heavenly home. For her sister Hereswith, mother of Aldwulf, King of the East Angles, was already living there as a professional nun and awaiting her eternal crown. Inspired by her example, Hilda remained in the province a full year, intending to join her overseas; but she was recalled by Bishop Aidan and was granted one hide of land on the north bank of the River Wear, where she observed the monastic rule with a handful of companions for another year.
As I say, I was just flipping through it. It might be that there's some explanation, some interesting archaeological trail I'm unaware of. That would be thrilling. But right now I have a sinking feeling that she's just imagining.
Just imagining is fine. It is, after all, what I do for a living. But I'm a novelist. This book is presented as a narrative history. I have difficulty accepting that Hild learnt from her sister. In their adult lives, the two sisters follow two different religious traditions. Hereswith was either at Faramoutiers, which, though run under the Rule of Columbanus, was founded in a time and place much steeped in Roman culture (material and otherwise), or, possibly (though much later--it wasn't founded until 658), Chelles. Both would have been under the authority of Roman Christian bishops. Hild, on the other hand, led Hartlepool and Whitby, under Bishop Aidan, who was Ionian-trained, as 'Celtic' a Christian as it was possible to be.
As I don't think Hild learnt from her sister, I'm now going to worry that I have to be sceptical about all her statements regarding eras with which I have no real familiarity. (Almost everything. I know the seventh century pretty well now, that is, until 680, when Hild dies.)
So if anyone out there has read the book, I'd love to be reassured.
A couple of days ago, I wrote here about a story in PW in which two children's authors claimed their agent wouldn't take their YA novel because it had a gay male main character. I nodded: a version of this happened to me when I outlined Slow River in 1993 (in my blog I said 1994--but that's when I sold the finished novel; the outline was in 1993). I ended up firing my agent over the matter. I appended a video of me telling that story at a reading.
It's interesting how facts can get shredded during propagation. Pink News (the European queer paper) ran with it, and ended up saying I had a 'run-in with publishers' over the issue. Well, no. All my publishers have always been absolutely accepting of my work. (And only that one agent, a long time ago, has not.)
To be frank, it feels a little odd to go to sleep thinking I'd just posted a wee story on my blog for those who read my books, and to wake up to mainstream world media using my name to make a point. (Yes, I know, I know: it's the internet. It's global the minute I hit PUBLISH. I should expect this. Uh huh. Oh, of course I should expect world media outlets to pick up my blog. Who wouldn't?) At least the Guardian got the facts (that is, the facts about my story) right, as did the Cape Town-based Mail & Globe. It would have been nice if they'd included the information that what happened to me happened eighteen years ago, but to be fair I'm not sure how clear that was in my story. Eighteen years is a long time. I honestly find it difficult to imagine any agent I approached these days having the response I got so long ago.
There again, I don't write novels for young people. Different publishing categories often have different rules. Also, as I pointed out in a comment, refusing a novel doesn't always mean the refuser is homophobic. Sometimes it just means the book, in the agent or editor's opinion, won't sell. Sometimes this means the writing isn't good enough to overcome the in-built prejudice many people carry around quiltbag issues. Sometimes it means the writing isn't good enough, period.
There are always two sides (at least) to a story. And this particular one is getting more complicated. As Colleen Lindsay reports in The Swivet:
When the PW article was first posted, I was asked by several people to retweet the piece help to spread the word. Because this piece was printed in PW, I felt safe in assuming that the facts of the story had been checked. In the spirit of righteous indignation, I retweeted the story. Almost immediately I was contacted by several well-respected agents - a couple of whom had already read and rejected the manuscript in question, based on the same editorial concerns - who called into question the facts behind the blog post. I later discovered that not only did I know the agent in question, but that this person was actually a dear friend of mine, someone who most certainly wasn't homophobic. The more I learned about this incident, the angrier I became at myself for reposting it and inadvertently hurting someone whom I respect and admire as a colleague, and whom I care about personally as a friend. This story has now moved beyond the book community online into the mainstream press; every new media outlet that picks up the story is a further insult to this agent's reputation; for that, each and every one of us who helped spread this story should be ashamed.
I don't feel ashamed. I linked in good faith to a magazine with a professional reputation. (Just as, no doubt, people linking to Pink News are.) And while I can't speak to what happened between the agent and authors of the PW story, my response to it is absolutely genuine. As far as I recall (and, oh, isn't that a slippery little phrase?) it happened just the way I describe in the video. And though I regularly gets laughs when I tell the story, and the story had a happy ending, it was not a bit funny at the time. It was shocking. And because I remember that shock, because it was a shock, I'm open to the possibility that it could happen again when I least expect it.
And, clearly, something is still going on, at least in children's/young adult literature. Malinda Lo has done a solid bit of sleuthing and tabulation regarding quiltbag main characters in YA literature. She has numbers. She has charts, broken down by year, publisher, sexuality of the main character. The charts are pretty--but I warn you, the information is not. Bottom line: in the US, less than 1% of YA fiction has a queer main character. Less than one percent. Of those characters, 50% are boys, 25% are girls, and the other 25% shared between trans, multiple characters, and 'other'. However you slice it, YA lit is not currently representative of the population it's intended for. Why? Well, that's a whole other conversation...
Over at Publisher's Weekly, Rose Fox has lent the soapbox to two YA authors who were "offered representation… on the condition that we make a gay character straight, or cut him out altogether."
Our novel, Stranger, has five viewpoint characters; one, Yuki Nakamura, is gay and has a boyfriend. Yuki’s romance, like the heterosexual ones in the novel, involves nothing more explicit than kissing.
An agent from a major agency, one which represents a bestselling YA novel in the same genre as ours, called us.
The agent offered to sign us on the condition that we make the gay character straight, or else remove his viewpoint and all references to his sexual orientation.
I think just about every queer author has been through this. I imagine people of colour go through it, too. We all choose whether or not to walk away. I dealt with this in 1994 [edit: my mistake; this was actually 1993]--instantly, satisfyingly (though it was a jaw-dropping shock). Here's my story, recorded last summer at the Lambda Literary Foundation's Emerging Voices retreat, where I was leading the fiction workshop. You'll have to turn the sound up.
Today for your delectation and delight, here's a selection of publishing news for you.
According to Publishers Weekly, ebook sales in June rose 167% while print plunged:
E-book sales rose 167% in June, to $80.2 million, at the 15 houses that reported figures to AAP’s monthly sales report and closed the first half of the year with sales up 161%, to $473.8 million...
...Trade paperback sales had the largest decline, down 64%, while children’s hardcover sales were off 31%. Adult hardcover sales fell 25%, mass market sales were down 22% and children’s paperback was off 13%.
The shift to print book as art object or special keepsake is moving very fast. As Amazon makes the Kindle more and more affordable, this change will accelerate.
And speaking of Amazon, according to the Wall Street Journal the Behemoth Everyone Likes to Hate is talking to publishers about:
...launching a Netflix Inc.-like service for digital books, in which customers would pay an annual fee to access a library of content, according to people familiar with the matter.
It's unclear how much traction the proposal has, the people said. Several publishing executives said they aren't enthusiastic about the idea...
This article is behind a paywall but I don't think those 'familiar with the situation' have shared much hard information, so I really couldn't guess how/if/when this will come to anything. If it does happen, and I think it might, I can't see it as being anything but bad news for authors' finances. A catastrophe, in fact. (Look at what's happened to songwriters, movie writers, with streaming video and music, resulting from the impact of the aforementioned Netflix and now Spotify.) But, hey, perhaps I'm just having a bad day.
In terms of trying to peer into the future, the Economist has a piece on the Great Digital Expectations for publishing today. To me the most interesting bit was this:
Perhaps the biggest problem, though, is the gradual disappearance of the shop window. Brian Murray, chief executive of HarperCollins, points out that a film may be released with more than $100m of marketing behind it. Music singles often receive radio promotion. Publishers, on the other hand, rely heavily on bookstores to bring new releases to customers’ attention and to steer them to books that they might not have considered buying. As stores close, the industry loses much more than a retail outlet. Publishers are increasingly trying to push books through online social networks. But Mr Murray says he hasn’t seen anything that replicates the experience of browsing a bookstore.
I've been saying this for a while. Readers are, first and foremost, customers. They/we must be wooed. Publishers need to control retail space, concrete and virtual, even if it's just kiosks in malls. Think Apple stores for readers. Oh, and they need brilliant--not just good, but brilliant--customer service, and extraordinary info capture. Amazon already has all that. Publishers need to catch up.
So what would such a place look like?
I'm now just over halfway through the third draft of Hild. I've squeezed out a paragraph here, a sentence there--but then wrote a brand new eight-page scene. So I'm running at plus-three pages. This book just wants to be big.
Anyway, this is why I haven't been around much. I've had Freedom engaged and my head down. (Actually, my face raised to the ceiling, belting out the chorus on various tunes on my playlist. But, eh, we won't go into that.) Tomorrow expect a longish post about publishing--its current condition, its idiocies, its business, its humanness.
For now, though, back to work...
Launching today: COBALT, a new quarterly literary magazine published online:
Each issue will feature fiction, non-fiction and poetry of the highest caliber, as well as interviews with some of the most influential writers in the literary community. We seek to publish quality creative work and promote the literary arts, as well as those who celebrate them.
I'm interviewed in the inaugural edition. (But I don't know why comments are turned off. You can always comment here.) Enjoy.
Hild is eating my life. (And I'm okay with that. Writers like to write.) But it means I have no brain to spare. So here are some links instead.
Via The Medieval Review (a listserv) I came across two books I want.
The Landscape Archaeology of Anglo-Saxon England, ed. Nicholas Higham and Martin Ryan sounds like just the stuff I'll need for the second Hild novel:
This volume is one of two resulting from a conference on the Landscape of Anglo-Saxon England held in 2007 at the Manchester Centre for Anglo-Saxon Studies. It contains twelve articles above all dealing with archaeological and art historical evidence, while the second volume Place-Names, Language and the Anglo-Saxon Landscape, published in March 2011, contains articles based on textual and place-name evidence. Volume one addresses a number of fundamental questions regarding Anglo-Saxon landscape organisation
The opening chapter, written by Nicholas Higham, provides an overview of research into Anglo-Saxon landscape and settlement studies and how views on this have changed over time... It also sets the scene for the current volume and its individual contributions, as Higham takes the reader through key themes of the volume, such as Woodland, Village and Farm and Fields.
The next paper, which discusses the usage of coppiced wood and its importance in Anglo-Saxon society, is written by Christopher Grocock. This stimulating contribution is above all based on experimental archaeology carried out at Bede's World in Northumbria. The chapter makes it clear the large amounts of experience and knowledge have been lost over time and also convincingly demonstrates just how significant wood management was for the Anglo-Saxon economy...
You know how obsessed I am with wood/s. I've already built in a lot of stuff about wood management (all stuff I figured out myself), but I'd love to check in with the experts and see if I was right. So, I want this. And the second volume. But, oof, $99 is an insane price for 231 pages--especially 231 pages of articles that, according to the review, don't refer to each other at all.
The other book, Britain After Rome: The Fall and Rise, 400-1070, by Robin Fleming, sounds even more interesting:
Britain After Rome explicitly makes a significant historiographic argument in favor of material culture over narrative sources...offers a single author's integration of the fragmentary material and documentary sources, painstakingly accumulated over decades of study, with particular attention paid to the wealth of recent archaeological information not often well used by historians trained primarily in narrative sources. Archaeologists are notoriously disdainful of written sources, while historians tend to mine archaeological reports selectively to fit bits of evidence into their narratives, a pattern hard to break. Fleming has succeeded by writing from within the material evidence first, then weaving in the narrative sources as contrast or support, the same way one would with documentary sources like charters.
[T]he emphasis on the physical... The result of this combined expertise is perhaps one of the clearest explanations of the emergence of elite families in post-Roman Britain and their changing relationships to the majority of the populace in rural and nascent urban areas. Although the geographic focus is primarily on the zones affected by Anglo-Saxon migration, due attention is paid to regional differences between eastern and western Britain, as well as the complex dynamics between British and "English" newcomers.
So I really want this this. And it's cheaper: 'only' $35 for 458 pages. Perhaps I'll treat myself when this round of Hild is done.
Anglo-Saxons were people of the wood. They made everything from it: cups, spades, dishes, houses. But after they converted, they began to carve stone. This is a recreation of a stone chair from Northumbria, circa 800 CE. Those lovely patterns were born from the expertise of wood carvers.
To me it looks rather throne-like. Read more about it here.
I'm sure many of you have by now read about the latest foolishness from an f/sf bigot who I won't bother to name here; no point feeding the trolls. But if you find righteous anger invigorating, and are curious about the artistic merits of very poor rewrites of Shakespeare, complete with 'gay' being a signifier for 'evil', then go read this review. Then go buy a big queer book to counterbalance the money no doubt pouring into the bigot's coffers. (And the coffers of the publisher who should have known better.) Any queer book will do.
[ETA: Subterranean Press, the publisher, has a statement here. They're asking for responses via email. I hope people do respond. I hope people respond civilly. SubP has published many good works with queer content. This mistake doesn't make them evil, just, you know, mistaken.]
Or you could just watching this nifty advert. We've, ah, come a long way, baby...
The second part of "Cat Women of the Moon," the BBC Radio 4 documentary about sex, gender, and science fiction, is up here. This one is mostly about reproduction: the anxieties of women and men around the issue, and what may or may not be possible in the future. My bits are all in the second half--but do listen from the beginning for Farah Mendelsohn, China Miéville, Iain Banks, Ursula Le Guin, Geoff Ryman and lots of other interesting people. Robert Winston's notions of the current state of reproductive technology are fascinating.
Yesterday was our wedding anniversary. Crapcam got a workout. First we were in the park. I spotted this fallen and naturally split tree trunk and thought: ha, now I know how some woman first came up with the idea for a canoe:
Later, we went out for dinner. Well, actually we went out for drinks, then somewhere else for dinner. A few hundred yards from home we turned west onto our street and I felt as though the universe had punched me over the heart. The sky was on fire over the sound and mountains. Stunning. We pulled over and I took two photos, about three seconds apart. I wish I'd had a better camera but, hey, at least crapcam was there:
It was a truly lovely day: time in the park, time in the sun, time working on Hild, time--much much delicious time--with Kelley. Time is the most precious thing we have; I like to spend as much of it as I can with the best person in the world.
Our marriage is old enough to vote. It has no legal force anywhere in the world, but eighteen years ago we stood up before family and friends and promised ourselves to each other. And, you know what? That matters. It makes a difference. I'd like same-sex marriage to have some federal force, and I don't doubt that one day that will happen. Meanwhile, our lives just get better and better.
Here's Part Two of my notes for a BBC Radio 4 interview for Cat Women of the Moon, a 2-part documentary about sex, gender, and science fiction. (I posted Part One yesterday. You can listen to Episode 1 of Cat Women of the Moon here.)
What does the female-only society offer an author that a mixed society can’t – in terms of the themes or ideas you can explore?
Assuming the writer believes women are fully human, a writer can use a women-only setting to explore anything of concern to people. All the big issues novelists love--growth and change, the effects of violence, nature vs. nurture, belonging, coming of age--you can play with all of it.
With a women-only society you can also do things you can't with a mixed society.
For one thing you can make the metaphor concrete. For example, you can literally make women Other, make them aliens in actuality instead of merely figuratively.
You can also write about all the big themes (growth, change, violence, nature vs. nurture) without gender confusing the result. You can control for gender, take it out of the experiment....
Think about culture as a cult: a group of people with a particular worldview.
How do you deprogramme a cult member? You remove them from the influence of those who inculcate the cultish values.
In real life, you can't isolate women from men completely. But in SF you can: you can run a deprogramming simulation and see what happens.
The female-only society is a common theme – much more common than male-only societies. Why do you think that is? Do you think there’s some of penalty for historical male superiority going on here? Are men incapable of truly accepting gender-equal societies or are women incapable of fully grasping power?
I'm having a hard time taking this one seriously. But, okay, I'll play.
We don't need to explore men-only societies in fiction because history is littered with them. Armies. Monasteries. Prep schools. In those communities the authority figures are male, the fictional characters are male, the leading lights in lessons of history and science are male. Their mores and codes are masculine.
Writing about, for example, a nunnery just isn't the same. The nuns' God is male, their priests are male, they're called brides of Christ; their focus is on a male authority figure.
Your world Jeep isn’t a utopia – tribes of women fight each other and fight the female colonists. Do you think that represents a shift in how women only societies are imagined i.e. it’s not all rosy?
If I can generalise to the point of being simplistic, fiction about women-only societies has gone through a great arc:
Russ, of course, did many of these things at once in The Female Man.
- from the yearning for freedom of women like Charlotte Perkins Gilman and Daphne Du Maurier
- to the old-style inhuman and insectoidal stories of men E.E. 'Doc' Smith and John Wyndham
- then role-reversal stories in which women do to men what men have always done to women (Edmund Cooper; Suzy Charnas)
- and wounded/insane protagonists imagining something better (Piercy, Tiptree)...
- followed by wise kind vegetarian amazon utopias (Gearheart, Tepper, Piercy, Bryant)
- and, gradually (sometimes, still not always), women as human in, of, and by themselves (and writers feel able to poke fun: Fowler, Duchamp, Sussex, Ryman)
That's novel's precursor, "When It Changed," was brilliant, but it made me angry. Perhaps I missed the point when I first read it, perhaps I'm still missing the point, but to me it felt like a failure of imagination: why would Janet Evason feel like a second-class citizen when the men come? Perhaps it made sense when Russ wrote it, but it didn't make sense to me in the 80s and it doesn't make sense in the 21st C. But I don't know where we'd be as a genre if Russ (and others) hadn't written this kind of thing.
Perhaps we'd still be stuck with the whole Cartesian dualist thing: good/bad, girl/boy which never worked for me. Computers use binary systems, life does not. Perhaps we'd still be mired in the sex-battle texts (see Justine Larbelestier's work for more on this) of simplistic role reversal.
But now writers can have fun with gender. Gender is no longer necessarily a prison sentence, no longer a war; for some, sometimes, it's a game or a fashion statement.
One of the big challenges in your world – Jeep – is reproduction. How did you get over that?
Through the magic of the virus.
Parthenogenesis is asexual reproduction in which growth and development of embryos happens without fertilisation. You only need females. This happens in some insects, amphibians, reptiles, and fish. Very occasionally birds, too, I think. It can sometimes be artificially stimulated.
So I did a bit of narrative hand-waving and posited a virus that enables parthenogenesis, and diploid i.e. reproductively viable, daughters. It also enables some women on the planet, those with greater than usual control over normally autonomic processes, to select what genes get expressed, and do some mix-and-matching recombination so their daughters aren't clones.
This means that Jeep's population is more varied and therefore more resistant, as a population, to disease.
Mostly, honestly, I think readers don't care; they accept the conventions and tropes of sf without too much explanation (for example, FTL drive)--as long as you don't insult their intelligence of contravene what's known to be known at tedious length.
The Wall Street Journal certainly didn't care. I did an interview with them a long time ago in which the writer stated authoratatively that the women on Jeep reproduce by photosynthesis.
But, in the end, hey, using a virus to have babies has to beat having sex with horses...
Why do you think science fiction has been so interested in procreation?
Well, it's a deep human drive, like the need for food, shelter, companionship. Writers like feeling like god. It's just another way to play What If...
And why has it been such a source of anxiety?
Historically it's been a source of anxiety for men because they don't control the font, the womb. They don't have wombs, they can't make artificial ones.
It's been a source of anxiety for women because, historically, reproduction was the source of our power: the one thing men needed that they didn't control. So of course women were afraid men would control it. You just have to look at the majority of books I've discussed to see that much dystopian feminist fiction involves women's reproduction being co-opted by men--usually involving something metallic, alien (like 'crabs' or 'insects'), and invasive.
On Jeep all the men die off from a virus that the women are immune to. That is real source of anxiety in science fiction isn’t it?
Viruses are a source of anxiety, full stop. They're frightening things. Fast, invisible, deadly.
They're also messy: think of all that hemorraghic spurting and gushing as victims bleed out. It triggers the Cartesian dualist distaste of the body. (Mind= rational, perfect, male; body = emotional, imperfect, female.)
*And in terms of women surviving a man-killing plague, it wouldn't surprise me if, with modern technology (machinery to do all the heavy lifting, artificial insemination), men sometimes wondered if they were even necessary...
Episode 2 of Cat Women of the Moon airs on BBC Radio 4, Tuesday 6th September, 11:30 am UK time.
I recently did a one-hour interview for BBC Radio 4 about how science fiction uses sex and gender to tell stories about issues of power and procreation. The result is a two-part documentary, Cat Women of the Moon, which includes commentary from me and other writers (Geoff Ryman, China Mieville, Iain Banks, Sarah Hall) and academics (Farah Mendelsohn, Patricia Duncker) and others (Mike Ashley, a bibliographer and editor). You can listen to Episode 1 here.
The producer of the programme, Nicola Swords, sent me questions ahead of time. I did a lot of thinking, made copious notes--and didn't get to use most of them. I hate letting things go to waste so I've tidied them up a bit, and will post them in two parts.
There are ten questions altogether, but because I spent more time on the early ones, I'll post three here and the other seven tomorrow or Monday.
As you were growing up what books were you reading? Were there any limitations in how gender was dealt with?
I grew up in Yorkshire, in Leeds, in a big Catholic family. One of five sisters. I went to Catholic schools. Girls were ecouraged to become secretaries or nurses, then get married and have lots of little Catholic babies. The school libraries reflected this. But I thoroughly enjoyed hagiographies: fabulously gruesome tales of torture and angels and demons and whatnot. Great stuff. Though I never could wrap my head around the notion of martyrdom: why not lie and say, hey, I renounce God, get away from the lunatics, then recant the lie later and recruit more Christians? That way, god would have a net gain. But when I made the mistake of mentioning this to the nuns I think they came close to dunking me in holy water. I became known as that Griffith girl.
But I could get books from the local library and I read all the adventure books I could find: anything with ships or guns or swords or animals on the cover.
In these books--historical adventure fiction by Rosemary Sutcliff and Henry Treece--all the protagonists were boys or men. In fact, just about all the characters were men. Without women there, the men became just people. So I simply identified with the people hacking their way through the jungle or swinging onto a pirate ship or charging the half-naked Celts in the mist, and didn't miss the girls. Honestly, I'm not sure I noticed.
So I felt no gender constraint when I read novels.
But my older sisters subscribed to the girls' comix of the time, things like Bunty and Judy. So I read those, too. My favourite stories were time-slip pieces. The kind of thing in which a girl goes back in time to some momentous event and provides the crucial action, the pivotal step, that makes it all possible, and then is sent back, with no one the wiser. But the kicker is: she does this amazing, heroic thing and NO one knows about it! She doesn't get to be hero, she just smiles privately to herself. To me the point of being a hero is to be admired for it. It's a public thing.
The first 'about gender' fiction I remember reading was all written by men. The very first, when I was 14 or so, was E.E. 'Doc' Smith's LENSMEN series (space opera, written in the 30s and 40s), which featured, in a minor plot thread, the 'matriarchy of Lyrane': a planet--one big monoculture--on which 6-feet tall amazons, perfect physical specimens, kept their males (wizened, combative mating machines) in cages. The women, though biologically human, had no notion of art or beauty; they didn't know the meaning of love. It took me a while to figure out why this made me so cross: the assumption of heterosexuality, the assumption that without men, women aren't human.
Then there was Edmund Cooper (Five to Twelve, 1968, and Who Needs Men, 1972): role-reversal exploitation novels in which women do to men what men have done to women for thousands of years, with a sprinkling of extra girly viciousness and some lesbian orgies. (I read them as a teen; they fascinated and repelled me in equal measure.)
Not longer after Cooper, I read John Wyndham's "Consider Her Ways" (1956), which is the first 'Buffy really is in the asylum' story I ever read. (But maybe she she has travelled to the future...) Women in a women-only society, I was told, again, aren't human: they're insectoid and collective and sluggish and dim.
Then, of course, there was Heinlein. I Will Fear No Evil (1970) is a man-wakes-up-in-a-woman's-body novel, in which a 70 yr-old tycoon turns into a squishy girlie giggle-monster because, well, that's what having breasts will do to a girl. She'll have sex with anything that moves, as long as it's a boy.
It was at this point that I stopped reading sf. I got really tired of reading about boys doing things--and girls giggling about it. Or girls acting like boys (though still giggling, sigh).
Then I discovered feminism. Then I discovered sf by women, an improvement. Mostly.
Joanna Russ was a giant. Her best? "When It Changed" (which made me very, very angry--at men, and at Russ herself, for what, to me, felt like a failure of imagination*), and "The Mystery of the Young Gentleman," a brilliant novella about the perception of gender.
I read Sally Miller Gearhart's The Wanderground in 1981 and fell in love with its utopian essentialist message: women are Good and Kind and Nice, Men are Nasssty and Will Get What's Coming. A few months later I started thinking, 'Hang on a minute...' and figured out essentialism was, to put it politely, arrant nonsense.
The Tiptree pieces that had the most impact on me were "The Women Men Don't See" (Yes! I thought, yes!) and "Your Faces, O My Sisters! Your Faces Filled of Light!" (which broke my heart, just made me ache--this was another 'Buffy really is in the asylum' story--not exactly sf, but a piece of metafiction that couldn't have existed without sf).
Daphne Du Maurier's "Monte Verità" was, I think, one of the first gender-is-a-prison stories I read. I don't know when it was written but from the tone I'd guess the late twenties. It's a story of yearning to escape, to be free, and has an elegaic, flapper-freedom-can't-last undertone.
Marghe Piercy wrote Woman on the Edge of Time, published the same year as "Your Faces, O My Sisters..." (and, this time, Buffy most definitely is in the asylum). I loved this book but can't read it now because of its utopian essentialism.
In the eighties, one of my on-again off-again lovers moved to the US. When she came back to visit, she brought Marion Zimmer Bradley imports. The Shattered Chain and Thendara House are great adventure novels, full of sturm und drang (literally storms: melodrama of the highest calibre) with sex roles and gender discrimination (and swords! and ponies!) at their heart.
It was about this time that I read Elizabeth Lynn's fantasy series, THE CHRONICLES OF TORNOR (beginning with The Watchtower), in which women find a way to win without fleeing a mixed-gender world in which mean are occasionally allies, not enemies. Very satisfying.
Satisfying in an entirely different mode was Suzy Charnas's Walk to the End of the World and Motherlines, stark post-apocalyptic men vs women dystopian/utopian adventures. They were relentless in their logic, brilliant in their clarity. But, oof, having to have sex with horses to reproduce...
I read many other important about-gender novels at this time, too, though none grabbed me the way the ones above did:
Benefits, Zoe Fairburns
The Female Man, Russ
The Left Hand of Darkness, Le Guin
The Handmaid's Tale, Atwood
The Kin of Ata Are Waiting for You, Dorothy Bryant
In the late eighties I found men playing with gender ("O Happy Day!" Geoff Ryman). In the early nineties some women began to fuck with my head in earnest in ways that relied on familiarity with the oeuvres of both feminst and fantastic fiction ("Game Night at the Fox and Goose", Karen Joy Fowler, "Our Lady Tongue," Lucy Sussex).
To what extent do you think science fiction offers scope to explore gender in a way other genres might not?
Realism, mundane fiction, can only explore gender in terms of What Is: what's possible within the legal, cultural, and biological constraints of the reader and writer's society. SF gets to ask What If?
You could argue that SF is, essentially, a post-modernist genre, obsessed with not accepting fixed meaning. There's nothing SF writers and readers like better than to turn over the stones of cultural institutions and look at the assumptions wriggling underneath.
SF gets to ask of gender: What if our understanding of gender is wrong? What if it doesn't have to be this way? What if we can change it?
So we can ask: What if there are five genders? Or only one? Or no such thing? What happens if you separate biological sex and gender? Or can perfectly reassign sex and/or gender, at will, as many times as you like? We can ask: How would the world look if the notion of binary gender vanished? Or if one sex or gender was given ascendancy over the other, or others, on a rotating schedule?
SF, if it chooses, can turn gender from a war or a life sentence or a prison into a game, or fashion statement, or rollercoaster ride. SF can change one parameter, or all of them.
There is a long tradition of women-only societies in science fiction. Why did you decide to write about one in Ammonite?
When I was 19 or 20 I started reading feminist theory for the first time. It was new to me. Shocked my socks off. Until then I honestly hadn't spent any time thinking of men or women, just people. But reading about the systematic subjugation of women--of people like me--made me deeply angry.
In response I started to write a short, satirical story called "Women and Children First." A starship hurtling through the void gets hit by a meteorite. The lantern-jawed captain bellows, "Women and children to the lifeboats!" And the women say, "Okay!" and they go off and land on a planet and live happily ever after without men. The end. Ha, I thought, that'll teach 'em!
But a funny thing happened on the way to my ironic essentialist lesbian feminist utopia. I started to ask myself: Why were these women travelling in the first place? What would happen when the kids started growing up and the little girls started fancying the little boys? What would happen when the women started disagreeing about how to handle all these things? And Foomp! went my utopia. Women, I realised, once again, were just people, not oppressed saints--which meant, once again, that men were just people, not monsters.
So in the space of just a few days on the Feminist Rage Speedometer I went from zero to sixty to a screeching halt, wrapped around a tree. Writing helped me see things differently.
It also had me hooked. So I kept writing that story set on the planet of women and children just to see what happened. It turned into a novel. And then I wrote a sequel set hundreds of years later, in which, the planet was divided into two territories one women-only, one mixed.
And then I realised the books were rubbish, that I'd have to teach myself to write.
So I set aside all that gender stuff and started writing short stories. The first one I had published, in Interzone, in 1988, was called "Mirrors and Burnstone." Basically a story of alien contact and culture clash. And one day I was on a panel at a convention, talking about sf and gender--and how women and aliens were, politically, interchangeable in most sf--when I suddenly realised that the aliens of my story were, in fact, women. And the plot of Ammonite just dropped into my head like a screen menu.
I sat mute for the rest of the hour, didn't say a word. I couldn't see past this concept unfurling in my head. Kind of embarrassing but, hey, that's how it works sometimes. Not always convenient.
I'd read many stories and novels of women-only worlds and been dissatisfied with all of them. None of the writers seemed to believe, deep down, that women were simply people. I wrote Ammonite to answer the question: are women human? Are they fully human in, of, and by themselves--as opposed to in comparison with, or reflections of, or warped by men. I wrote a world of many cultures--warlike and peaceful, protectionist and open, tribal and kin-based--in which women played all the roles: leader and follower, stupid and smart, generous and mean-spirited.
The rest--why you can do more in fiction with single-sex socieites, how the portrayal of gender has shifted, and more--in Part Two tomorrow or Monday.