Monday, April 30, 2012

Agile novel development

In the world of modern commerce, 'agile development' is one of the nifty catchphrases that entrepreneurs throw about airily. It means, basically, figure it out as you go along; fling something up there, take user feedback, and fix it. It's an iterative (another catchphrase) process.

If it doesn't work, pivot (yet another hip-happening-yeah-baby phrase) in a new direction.

I'm all in favour of this stance in terms of developing a browser, a cloud-backup app, or photo-editing tools. But fiction is different.

A reader comes to a story for the first time only once. A story is an experience. I want that first experience to be meaningful, to feel as though it's really happening.

This is why I don't send out a zillion copies of the first draft of my books. It's why I don't post the writing as I go. I want my fiction--a novel, a short story--to be as good as good as it can be before being released into the wild. I want you, dear reader, to be swept off your feet. Only a fully-realised work of art can do that.

You've been very patient in the matter of Hild. But she is on the way. Stay tuned.

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Sunday, April 29, 2012

Prettying the potholes

It turns out that one of our neighbours has a puckish sense of humour and an activist streak. It's a pretty cool combination.

Every winter the endless rain opens up potholes on Seattle streets. It used to be that by spring the city had filled them all in. This year, budgets being what they are, not so much. Chiropractors are making a mint.

Our neighbour, after planting her spring garden, found she had a couple of geraniums* left over. She decided to use them to make a point while brightening up the day for us all:

She calls them "punk'd potholes". Drivers slow down, frown, then smile and drive on more slowly and with a greater appreciation for the day.

And I appreciate our neighbour.

* If you've read And We Are Going to Have a Party you know that geranium scent has certain, ah, associations for me. So I've been smiling a lot...
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Saturday, April 28, 2012

#FeministSF twitter interview Sunday April 29 11 am/2 pm

Tomorrow at 2 pm EST/11 am PST I'll be doing a Twitter interview with @traciewelser using the hashtag #FeministSF. These things usually last for about an hour.

I hope some of you will join me and bring questions. (It'll be an interesting challenge answering them in 140 characters.) If you do, use an app like Tweetchat. It's free, it adds the hashtag for you automatically, and its response time is faster than most apps such as Hootsuite and Tweetdeck.

For those of you with a serious interest in my work and how it relates to the wider world of feminist SF, you might find it worthwhile to read some of the following.

First, archives of two online book discussion of Ammonite by the listserv fem-sf:
Fem-sf book discussion, 1998
Fem-sf book discussion, 2004

And then some essays and blog pieces I've written in the last few years with direct bearing on my science fiction:

Hard SF and Soft (or, Girls vs. Boys)
A short, rant-like blog post on the gendered nature of SF classification and marketing

Elves and Anglo-Saxons and Gender
Exactly what it sounds like: a post exploring the gender of elves through time

War Machine, Time Machine
Co-written with Kelley Eskridge (my partner, and author of New York Times Notable novel Solitaire), an essay about our lives as writers, with some words about essentialism and its silliness

Layered Cities
A relaxed consideration of Slow River and cities

But you don't need to have read any of this to come and play tomorrow. See you then.

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Friday, April 27, 2012

Brit Mandelo interview, part 3 (of 3)

[This is Part 3 of my long, conversational interview with Brit Mandelo, editor of Beyond Binary: Genderqueer and sexually fluid speculative fiction (Lethe Press, April 2012). See earlier this week for Part 1 and Part 2.]

What do you think about reviews? If you could pick anyone, alive or dead, to review this book, who would it be? Why?

As a critic and reviewer, I'm obviously biased, but I love reviews. I think they fill a really integral niche in the discourse about stories, and when done well—not a book report, but a true investment of thought, a sort of dialogue between the critic and the text—they're also an art in and of themselves. I buy a lot of books based on reviews—sometimes because what the reviewer hates about the book, I know I would love, and sometimes the opposite. As for reviews of my own work, I'm always intrigued by seeing what other people read in the text I made; there's always a gap between intention and reception, and seeing how the books or stories are read is interesting for me on a critical level. For anyone who's skeptical about book reviews, go and read the collected reviews of Joanna Russ in The Country You Have Never Seen. That's what good criticism can do.

And on that note, is it sort of obvious that I would answer, Joanna Russ? Because yes, if I could choose anyone, I would choose Russ.

 She might have thought Beyond Binary was an abysmal failure, but she would have said why in a cogent, incisive, powerful way. That sort of criticism matters. It's part of the fail, fail better ethos, I think. Or, if she enjoyed it, the review would still, I'm certain, be cogent, incisive, and powerful—but it would be saying different things, equally useful and important things. And, really, I just would like to know what she thought of this effort, as she wrote so many grand stories herself that dealt with these issues of gender and sexuality.

Yeah, I would have picked Russ, too. Let's talk about community now. I've seen a lot of public support for this project on the Outer Alliance list (and reviews on Autostraddle and io9). How helpful has what community been in the creation, and sale, and now marketing, of this book?

The speculative, queer, and queer/speculative communities have been immensely, ridiculously, wonderfully helpful throughout the whole process. The outpouring of support, advice, and interest was stunning, from the moment I announced the call for submissions onward—and, in the story-solicitation process, folks were for the most part enthusiastic about the project and wanted to be part of it.

People gave me books, sent me story suggestions, and offered literally hundreds of ideas about potentially useful avenues of research via email, my blog, and Twitter. When I opened the call for submissions, I had a huge influx of stories—and, what was really fascinating: many of the people who were submitting also made suggestions for other stories in their cover letters. So, they would be sending their own work in hopes of making it into the book, but also telling me: "hey, here's another story I loved, too." That was kind of beautiful, and showed, I thought, how much support the community was offering the book. People saw the call for submissions all over, too—some from Lambda Literary, some from speculative communities, etc.

And, as I said before, the sale of the book was really a matter of community also—Steve at Lethe knowing I wanted to embark on this project, and taking a risk on giving me the opportunity to do so, though I had no prior experience.

The marketing has been hugely community-driven, too, in a way that I think every writer/editor hopes for. The authors in the book have been great about spreading the word, publications from both communities have given it a lot of attention, and I know there are some great reviews and other things forthcoming about it from sources I never would have expected. Hell, my university department decided to fund, host, and advertise a release party—and that's the academic community.

I wanted to do Beyond Binary because I thought we needed a book like it—and I'm indescribably moved by the fact that the community at large has been so clearly, publically, awesomely excited about it, too. It's really all I could have hoped for. I mean, look at this artifact right here—this interview. Support in action!

Whose experience and advice did you seek before/during/after bringing the book into being? What would you do differently?

I asked for a lot of advice over the course of creating the anthology. For one thing, I asked the internet at large, all the communities of which I was a part, for help finding stories. I knew that there was no way I had read everything, or could find it all on my own. That was sort of the impetus of Beyond Binary, anyway—that these stories were out there, but dispersed and hard to find. I'm not magic; I knew I needed help to find things. I'm sure I still missed a lot, even with the help and advice I received. On a smaller scale, I sought advice on things like how to ask for blurbs, and what a story solicitation letter should look like, and whether I should send them to the authors or their agents—all of that important technical stuff. After the book was put together, when it came to marketing and party planning and all of those complicated things, the seasoned pros that I know, and who are in the book, have been indispensable. Ellen Kushner and Delia Sherman have been a great help through the process—advice, guidance, and experience were all on offer. Without them, we probably wouldn't be having a book release party at WisCon!

You don't realize exactly how much you don't know, until you run smack into it. There were a lot of moments like that, and I keep having them even now that the book is in distribution. In fact, I solicited some panicked advice about what to do at a release party where I'm supposed to entertain a crowd for an hour, last night, from the person who's running the event and does these kinds of things often. And then I asked some other writer-friends, too, for good measure.

But, looking back, I think I would have liked to have spoken to a few more experienced editors about things like how to organize the table of contents, what their guiding philosophies were, and how they handled author correspondence—those sound like almost very business-y sorts of things, but they were where I felt my lack of experience the most.  I was under the wire by the end of the process, though, and didn't feel like I could impinge on folks' time to ask for some advice.

Maybe if there had been a convention around that point I would have done so, hah. I've had opportunities to ask for advice since then from great sources like Ellen Datlow, in the context of my new job at Strange Horizons, and some of the things that I've been told by more experienced people since putting together Beyond Binary would have been helpful at the time. Simple stuff, like I mentioned above, that I was just fumbling my way through.

I'd ask you what your secret goals were for this book--but then they wouldn't be secret anymore. So tell me some of the pitfalls you think you've avoided (or not) in the process.

I hope that I've included a diverse set of voices in the book, and an even more diverse set of stories. This is at once a pitfall I've avoided and tripped into, though—as I said before, I know that the book isn't a complete picture, and that I'm lacking in several sorts of stories. Yet, I feel like in what is there, there is diversity across and off the spectrums of gender, sexuality, age, race, and culture—from a teen girl living in poverty who is exploring her attraction to both men and women, to stories like those we talked about above, that are dealing with complex nontraditional relationships in secondary worlds, and fluid or alternative gender identities in a contemporary setting with elderly protagonists. I hope that I've avoided the pitfall of a single story, a single narrative about what "genderqueer and sexually fluid" means, or can mean.

What is the greatest joy or satisfaction you gained from the experience?

Seeing people's responses to the text has, by far, been the greatest joy in a series of joys. I thought at first that it would just be the chance to read so much great genderqueer and sexually fluid fiction. I loved that, certainly! So much good reading. There was also the satisfaction of contributing this book to the greater conversation, foregrounding these stories and voices where they're so frequently invisible, absent, or ignored. But, in the end, it's the reader response and the fact that this book seems to be doing what I so wanted it to do: offering people a vital chance to see their own stories spoken, and stories about people like themselves. And people are saying that yes, they are happy to see this book on shelves, to have these voices emphasized—that it means something to them. There's nothing more powerful than that, for me.

What's next?

I have a couple of short stories forthcoming, in Apex Magazine and, and I'm currently working on several other short pieces, plus doing research for a potential novel project. Also, editorial work at Strange Horizons, which continues to be great and really absorbing. Balancing writing, editing, criticism, and everything else is a little crazy at the moment.

As for Beyond Binary, there will be a book-party with several contributors reading from their stories, plus tea and cookies, at WisCon 36 in Madison WI, May 25-28th!

That sounds like a party I'd enjoy. I'm just sorry I can't be there. Have a blast! Sell many copies of Beyond Binary!
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Thursday, April 26, 2012

Brit Mandelo interview, part 2 (of 3)

[This is Part 2 of my long, conversational interview with Brit Mandelo, editor of Beyond Binary: Genderqueer and sexually fluid speculative fiction (Lethe Press, April 2012). See yesterday's post for Part 1 and the next for Part 3.]

In your introduction you say that you know we've got a way to go, that you feel "the lack of alternative pronouns and the lack of intersex folks as tellers and protagonists of their own stories." How should we encourage writers to fill this gap?

Having more venues that are willing to publish these kinds of stories, or are not only willing to publish them but actively seeking them out, would go a long way, I think. That would be one definite positive behind doing another book like Beyond Binary, but with original stories—the opportunity to seek out the kinds of stories that are missing, and the voices that don't get enough recognition. It is very difficult to speak if no one is listening; it is also difficult to speak in a cultural context that is constantly trying to erase you from existence, as language structured around a gender-binary can do.

There are magazines doing this kind of work—Strange Horizons, for one, and also Expanded Horizons and poetry publications like Stone Telling. But, I think we need more, and we need more vocal, public encouragement for writers from these subject positions to feel as if they are welcome and that their stories are valued.

I also think that a more easily traversable connection between the queer and speculative publishing communities would help—many queer writers who are dealing with these issues don't publish in the speculative field because they haven't felt welcome; many speculative writers don't read or publish in specifically queer venues. Reading for Beyond Binary sort of put a point on this division, seeing what names only appeared on what side of the proverbial fence, and noticing the few that came up on both. I think a greater dialogue between writers and publications across both fields would help encourage greater diversity in material and open up a more fluid space for storytelling.

Really, I suppose it boils down to: be welcoming. Be open. Say "we want to hear what you have to tell us," and listen to the stories. And for writers who want to deal with these topics but are not themselves genderqueer or intersex, research—tons upon tons of sensitive research—is the key, along with an understanding that these topics are fraught, real-life things for plenty of people, not exotic story-fodder. Exoticism is worse than nothing at all, in many ways. (I'd refer readers to the excellent TED talk by Chimamanda Adichie, "The Danger of a Single Story," as to why I think that nuanced stories and stories told from subject positions that are normally effaced from the cultural dialogue are important. Writing the Other, by Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward, has a lot to say on these topics, too.)

I know an editor can't admit to favourites. But I'm not bound by such constraints so I'd like to talk about the two pieces in the book I think really fulfill the promise of the title.

First, "The Metamorphosis Bud," by Liu Wen Zhuang (pen name of Cynthia Liu). It's wonderful; it captures the pure curiosity evident in so many people who live a long life and find themselves essentially happy (it reminds me a little of some of Le Guin's short work). It's an outrageous premise made utterly believable by the simplicity of its language.

Second, "Eye of the Storm," by Kelley Eskridge. Obviously I'm biased (Kelley is my partner) but it's beautifully written, hard and clear as a bone. And it hits many of the notes you call out in your introduction:

The people in these stories do not accept the prescribed gendering of their bodies... They refuse to choose "one or the other" in their gender, sexuality or relationships. They redefine what the term "man" and "woman" can mean, how "he" and "she" may be used. And--most importantly--they embrace their own selves, their own definitions, and their own needs, physical and emotional... To that end, there are stories in which the protagonist is never once gendered by other characters oro the author...and stories in which sex is defined and enjoyed a little differently than mainstream expectations. There are a variety of relationship-structures, too; no limiting things to couples, here.

And it does so with subtlety and grace--so much, in fact, that most readers don't even notice that Mars has no assigned gender, and doesn't claim one, either, without it being an issue for anyone.

Where and when did you encounter each, and why did you think it would work for Beyond Binary?

I'm glad you liked them!

These were both stories that I first encountered during my serious reading period for the anthology, when I was sifting through folks' story suggestions, stacks of older collections, back issues of magazines, et cetera.

I read "The Metamorphosis Bud" in Cecelia Tan's mid-nineties anthology Genderflex, published by Circlet Press. I had sought out as many gender-related anthologies as I could find to look for potential stories, and Tan's book had this gem in it. I also have her to thank for putting me in contact with the author, Liu Wen Zhuang (Cynthia Liu), to solicit the story.  The thing that struck me most about this piece was its mix of whimsy and realism; the protagonist is so very matter-of-fact about her new body part, how it does and doesn't affect her identity. In that way, this story also touches on issues of body identification and intersex identities, though implicitly. The sense of community in the story between the elderly protagonist and her young, queer friends is great, too.  Overall, it was a very positive, pleasant story that dealt in a down to earth way with the gendering of body parts and the fluidity of gender identities. Had to have it!

"Eye of the Storm" (originally published in Ellen Datlow's Sirens and Other Daemon Lovers) was suggested by Sonya Taaffe, another contributor to the book, in a comment on my call for submissions—and as soon as I read it, I knew it was absolutely perfect for Beyond Binary, for all of the reasons you've just discussed. It took me until about the third page of the story before I realized with shock and delight that there were no pronouns given or used for Mars; from there, I only loved it more for the awesome nontraditional relationship of the quartet, the different sorts of sexuality involved, and the rich, evocative prose that tied it all together. The coming-of-age adventure elements were spot-on engaging reading, too. 

Did you agonise over the order of the stories? Did you consider writing introductions?

Putting the stories in order kept me up nights! I felt like I was putting together an impossible jigsaw puzzle where I could never quite find the right edge pieces or how to line up the middle. I was especially sensitive about the story order because that's one of the things that, in my role as a critic and reviewer, I'm constantly nattering on about—how an anthology flows from one piece to the next, the effects the juxtapositions create, all of that stuff. Turns out it's extremely difficult, hah. For the most part I was trying to create interesting juxtapositions, with stories that were similar in some tangential way—theme, setting, tone—leading one into another. Obviously, this didn't always work perfectly, but it seemed better than simply lining them up in alphabetical order, or something like that.

I did think about writing introductions, but in the end decided against it. Many of these stories are doing several things with their themes and commentary; if I were to write introductions on how I felt about each, I was afraid that would privilege or foreground my interpretation too much. Instead, I wrote a larger introduction to the book itself, and let things stand there.

Let's move on to publishing and marketing. Why did you choose Lethe Press and how has that experience been?

Lethe Press publishes quite a lot of quality queer speculative fiction, and they're one of the few presses that's actively bridging that aforementioned divide between queer and speculative publishing. I consistently look forward to their books. And, to be truthful, it was more that Steve Berman of Lethe sought me out—I had been making comments about genderqueer stories and sexually fluid stories in my columns for a long while, and regularly wishing that there were books like Beyond Binary. When I was laid off from my job managing a bookshop (oh, Borders, how I miss thee), Steve asked me why I didn't just edit the book that I wanted to exist so badly, and offered me a contract for it. It hadn't occurred to me that I had the skill set to bring this project to fruition, but Steve thought I did, and I'm glad he took that chance.

The experience has been good; because they're a small press, they offer a lot of one-to-one, hands-on support and advice—and because they've had a strong publishing record, they also have good relationships with indie stores, distributors, and the major review publications. So, best of both worlds! Plus, on a less frank-business-model level, Steve's enthusiasm for the project was indispensable, and Lethe's designer, Alex Jeffers, did a great job with the book—far and above the call of duty. I loved his idea to embed the page numbers in a string of binary code, for example. They're also supportive in marketing: great about sending books out for review, for contests, and the larger scale stuff. But, as with any small press, the majority of the grass-roots marketing is my responsibility—seeking out blurbs, interviews, contacting indie bookstores about ordering, organizing a book release party, all of those kinds of things. I've learned a lot about publishing and marketing in the process.

How did you decide who to solicit for blurbs? What kind of response did you get? How would you do it differently next time?

It was not what you would call a scientific or well-planned approach. I sat down in front of my bookshelves and made a list of folks who had written, edited, or curated stories at all like those in Beyond Binary. The way that I think about blurbs is that they're a sort of "word of mouth" that gets printed in the text; so, to narrow that list, I thought of who I would want to recommend me a QUILTBAG book of stories, and then asked those folks if they'd like to read the book.

I did get positive responses about the book across the board, but not all of the people in question could make the rather short deadline we had between printing/mailing ARCs and the date we would need the blurbs by. That narrowed the field quite a bit. Writers and editors are busy people, and I know I would have trouble cramming a whole new book to read into my reviews-and-other-reading schedule on short notice, so it didn't surprise me that other folks couldn't, either. So, next time, I think what I would like to do is have ARCs much further in advance and give potential blurb-ers more time to read and respond.

I put a lot of thought into the blurb I wrote for the book. I wanted to do everything in power to help this book reach its audience. But I'm not terribly convinced that blurbs make much difference--and they cost a lot, sometimes, in terms of owing favours. What do you think?

Thank you for that wonderful blurb, by the way – it meant a lot to me!

To be honest, I'm pretty ambivalent about blurbs. While I do think of them as a form of word-of-mouth recommendation, which is pretty damn great, I often suspect that only people working in publishing care about them, based on years of working as a bookseller. Rarely, if ever, did I overhear a customer saying, "hey, so and so blurbed this, I should get it!" Rather, it was "I read a review about this in x," or "my friend says I would love this," or in the case of anthologies, seeing a familiar author's name on the table of contents. But on the third hand, I have bought a book based on seeing a favorite author's recommendation printed on the cover—however, I'd also usually already seen them mentioning it on a more personal level, on Twitter, their blog, etc. So, was it the actual blurb I was responding to, or the element of word-of-mouth it represented? Complicated. At the very least, they can't hurt.

I did find the process of asking weird and uncomfortable, though. There's something a bit squidgy about approaching friends and colleagues to ask them to read your book and then say something concise and interesting about it. A definite presumption on their time, for one thing. I did it, and I would do it again—your blurb was great, and Charlie Jane Anders at io9 ended up writing a whole review, which was also totally amazing—but there's certainly an ambivalence in me regarding the whole thing.
[More tomorrow...]
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Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Interview with BEYOND BINARY'S Brit Mandelo, Part 1 (of 3)

This is a long, conversational interview with Brit Mandelo, editor of Beyond Binary: Genderqueer and sexually fluid speculative fiction (Lethe Press, April 2012), in which we approach the book in terms of editorial approach, work process, content, publishing, and community. It starts with a lengthy introduction then moves onto questions, which continue in Part 2 and Part 3.
A couple of months ago I read an ARC of Beyond Binary, and gave it the following long, conversational blurb:
Seventeen stories of genderqueer and sexually fluid people living, laughing, lusting and lying their way through the world. Seventeen points of light burning like beacons above the plain of "normal." Seventeen tales written mostly in the twenty-first century about the future, the past that never was, and alternate universes that might never be (or always have been). Seventeen authors working on the bow wave of their own writing, riding a surge of inspiration.

These writers--the vast majority identify as female, a thrill all of its own--play with many versions of queer. The stories range from a 35-page novelette that begins at the raw edge of loneliness and ends in exuberant human connection, to a 6-page blink of quantum weirdness encompassing all possibilities. The stories teem with gay, trans, lesbian, bi, polyamorous, asexual, unspecified, and imaginary people--as well as aliens, angels, and androids. But each ends with some oh-so-human satisfaction, resolution, or glad understanding. Beyond Binary is peopled by those who are brave, who say Yes to joy--and not only survive but thrive.

Some of these pieces are truly strange. Some are delicious romps. But in the end this is the rarest of anthologies: the sum is greater than its parts. Read it. Read it all.
Why so long? Because I want this book to reach its readers. It matters. We need to see ourselves reflected in the stories we read. It can even save lives.

Reading the book brought back memories of editing the BENDING THE LANDSCAPE series of all-original short fiction with queer protagonists. I started the project in the mid-nineties. The first volume, Fantasy, was published in 1997, the second, Science Fiction, in 1999, and the third and final volume, Horror, in 2000. It was a huge amount of work, with lots of attendant frustration, but in the end it brought me a vast heaping of satisfaction and a hot current of joy. It was absolutely worth it; I still get email about it from readers. The books won various honours and--just as importantly to me--individual stories were nominated for a host of awards for their authors. 

I had multiple aims with BtL: to get litfic writers to dip their toes into speculative fiction, to get straight writers to try their hand at queer characters, and to ensure an even gender balance...all while curating three volumes of great-to-read fiction.

Multiple aims, of course, is insane ideal for a brand-new editor, but, well, I simply wouldn't listen to wiser heads. I was convinced I could do it all.

I made a lot of mistakes. (Some of which I'm too embarrassed to write about, even today. I'm guessing there are still some members of the queer community who think I'm an idiot. All I can say is: yes, I was an idiot, but I hope I'm a bit less of an idiot than I used to be, mainly because some of you were patient and helpful. So I'm sorry. And thank you.)

I'm a hands-on fiction editor. And in this regard I'm very good at what I do--not an idiot at all. I took some of the pieces down to the ground and helped rebuild them: lifting a sleek 7,000-word story from a 15,000-word novella swamp; persuading a couple of writers to switch point of view; suggesting to others a different ending. Most of the writers seemed okay with this--many even grateful. But there was one notable exception: a well-known-at-the-time manly man who told me to go fuck myself, and that he didn't rewrite, especially to notes from an cocky little asshole like me; oh no, he had better things to do, "like beat off in my hat."

It took five years to produce three books, thousands of hours of brute work. (I lost one of my favourite stories, from Brian Aldiss, early on in the process, due to publishing problems. It was published in Interzone.) It wasn't easy figuring out how to work with my co-editor, Stephen Pagel, on such a big project (though in the end we worked together beautifully; we worked out a seventy-percent consensus rule). Or to move from one publisher to another mid-stream. Or plough through the tsumani of earnest, often terrible submissions whose theme seemed to be: love conquers all (even gravity and lack of oxygen). I had to say no, over and over, to hopeful new writers, and it's hard work breaking hearts. Also, the cherry on top of the awful pie, I didn't really make any money--because of the publishing change mid-stream I ended up passing much of my fee along to the authors. The whole experience was so exhausting, in fact, that although I've been approached to edit anthologies several times since, I've always said no.

But I've been thinking for a few years now that we desperately need more speculative fiction anthologies with quiltbag writers and/or characters and/or themes. A couple of a times I've come close to biting the bullet. But, hey, now there's Beyond Binary. I'm thrilled: I won't have to do it! So I'm grateful to Brit.

Brit, describe to me in your own words why you took on this project, what you hoped to achieve, and how it felt to put it together.

I took on this project because I wanted there to be a book that collected genderqueer and sexually fluid stories in one place and made them available to a larger audience of readers. I wanted to read a book like that. I wanted to have had a book like that when I was a teen, when I was seeking narratives to explain my own identity, to deal with how I didn't quite fit into the binary boxes available to me both in the heteronormative world and, often, in the predominantly lesbian and gay community I was part of at the time. The sense of not-fitting, of having to reduce or ignore vital parts of myself to fit those boxes, was a constant pressure. Finding the words and stories to explore non-binary identities was a beautiful thing for me, when it happened, and with Beyond Binary I hoped to provide a book for the people who need it, now, like I needed it then.

That's part of why I tried to choose stories that encompassed different sorts of identities under the bigger umbrellas of genderqueer and sexually fluid. There are trans* stories, bisexual stories, asexual stories, gender-neutral stories, gender-fluid stories, stories about the gendering of bodies, and a lot in between. I hoped to capture a small corner, at least, of the big tapestry that is "non-binary identities," and also to include intersectional stories, too.

So, really, what I hoped to achieve was to create a book that spoke to people. I hoped to foreground these great genderqueer and sexually fluid stories for the audience that was seeking them—and for people who might not know they were seeking them, too. I wanted to help lighten a little bit of darkness in the larger conversation about gender and sexuality, when it comes to non-binary identities; I wanted to amplify and draw attention to these so-often silenced dialogues of self. The power of storytelling is a big, big power; the power of being made real in words and text is something that feminist and queer theorists have been talking about since before I was born. I hoped to contribute to that.

Putting together the project was an emotional and fulfilling experience, only made more so by the reception of the book. It was difficult, too—I worried constantly about balancing narratives and voices in the book, about missing stories, about still-silenced voices, about potential erasures I might be unintentionally contributing to—but the difficulty and stress were absolutely worth it. I felt while reading for and arranging the project that I was doing something worthwhile, something valuable and potentially good. It was personally satisfying—as I said, I would have loved to have had a book like this, years ago—and very emotional. It prompted me to talk more publically about my identities, also, which was fraught with discomfort but ultimately a great relief. (I'd come out as queer years ago, but discussing my gender identity had remained a very private and personal thing.) The responses and the positive support the book has received have been overwhelming, and I'm glad that at least a portion of what I was trying to do seems to have been successful.

You were very smart to go with reprints for your first book project. Did you do any editing at all? Would you like to in the future?

I did a little minor, cosmetic editing in some cases, but didn't get elbow-deep into any of the stories. Because I was reading for reprints, I looked for pieces that stood out to me "as-is." There were stories I came across in the reading process that, had I been doing hands-on editing, I might have suggested revisions for; instead, I had to let them go. After that, I definitely wanted to work with original stories and more in-depth editing in the future.

And, serendipitously, I was offered the position of fiction editor at Strange Horizons early this year, so I'm now getting to do that hands-on work. It's great! I'm glad to have the opportunity to continue working as an editor, and this time for one of my favorite magazines—plus, there seems to be a really nice continuity there, since there are two reprints originally published at Strange Horizons in Beyond Binary.

Right now I'm thinking there needs to be a companion volume of older stories: so we can see where today's work is coming from. And of course I have ideas about that. But tell me what you think.

I think that would be brilliant. There's a history in speculative fiction of stories that explore spectrums of gender and sexuality, many of those written before there were words or frameworks to easily do so with. I could think of a few stories straight away that I didn't or couldn't include in Beyond Binary, like Joanna Russ's "The Mystery of the Young Gentleman." Getting reprint rights for things can be tricky, though. There are some great Ursula K. Le Guin stories that I would have liked to have included, too. And in the case of an ideal companion volume, I think I'd also like to include novel excerpts; there are so many books that were dealing really intimately with issues of sexual fluidity and gender, like Marge Piercy's Woman on the Edge of Time. That novel had a lovely third-person pronoun, "per," that I wish would pick up greater usage today. And I'm sure there are much older stories, too—I'd love to be set loose in a good research library to seek them out.
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Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Cuthbert's Gospel

This is Cuthbert's Gospel, the book that was buried at Lindisarne with St Cuthbert sometime after his death in 687. It is the earliest bound British--or even European--book to survive intact. It's tiny, a pocket Gospel, written in Latin on vellum. It's simple--no illumination, just elaborated initial letters, some with a bit of red--and beautiful.

Hild, who died just seven years before Cuthbert, might well have had a book like this. Sadly, I doubt hers would have been as fine. Her foundation at Whitby would have had a much more pioneering feel to it. The monks of Monkwearmouth/Jarrow, who are believed to have made Cuthbert's Gospel, were a slightly later generation religious, more practiced scribes and book artisans.

But the text itself, the Gospel of John, would have been familiar.

Ever since I saw this image of the prologue, I've imagined Hild reading and rereading those first three lines:
In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and Word was God...
This is the essence of Hild: the ability to name that which others either don't recognise or are afraid to articulate. Language is her weapon of choice. Naming is her superpower--or one of them. John would have been her Gospel of choice.

The book is now owned by the British Library which has agreed to a co-custody arrangement with Durham University and Durham Cathedral. I hope to see it one day soon.
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Monday, April 23, 2012

Lost in the treetops...

I had all sorts of plans yesterday, one being a splendid post about Hild and her (admittedly utterly imaginary) links to Cuthbert's Gospel. But the sun poured into my day and my brains spilled out and I spent the afternoon gazing at the treetops over the ravine and listening to birdsong. The light on the leaves changes constantly. It's mesmerising.

Late in the afternoon we pottered off to Kelley's folks' house and drank beer on their marvellous deck. Came home. Ate dinner. Watched a movie (Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy). Ah, the desperately hard life of a writer...
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Sunday, April 22, 2012

God rolls her eyes: Vatican vs. nuns

The Pope is gunning for uppity nuns.

That is, the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF)*, has announced a five-year doctrinal crushing reform of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), the umbrella organisation that represents about 80% of the 57,000 nuns in this country.

To that end, the CDF has appointed the Archbishop of Seattle, J. Peter Sartain, to lead the reform. Sartain (reportedly a moderate) and two others bishops have been tasked with forcing LCWR to kiss the ring of the Conference of Bishops. The Vatican is tired of nuns not attacking abortion, not denying birth control, and daring to suggest that healthcare for poor people is a pretty good idea. Mostly, though, the Catholic powers that be are bent out of shape by nuns challenging "positions taken by the bishops, who are the church's authentic teachers of faith and morals."**

The CDF's eight-page doctrinal assessment of LCWR says, basically: God is a boy, the Pope is a boy, and Bishops are boys, so you girls just shut up! But don't take my word for it. Read the document. Note the Orwellian language. If you're in a hurry read the AP report in the Christian Science Monitor. But you'll miss some of the creepy tenor of the original.

If it sounds as though I'm making light of this it's just to keep from getting on a plane and beating the pope bloody with a bible.

This is a deadly serious matter. Nuns are at the forefront of the social justice movement in this country. We absolutely need their voice and their back-breaking work on the behalf of the underprivileged and downtrodden.

Why is the Vatican doing this now? Well, it started four years ago. And the pace picked up after Obama's healthcare reform . This is just the latest move.  This three year-old New York Times piece will give you some background. (I'll wait.)

So there have been two investigations going on, CDF's doctrinal assessment and Mother Clare's apostolic visitation. For my money, the latter is more serious. Go watch the video on the apostolic visitation website. More shiver-inducing than an M.R. James story. Truly, seriously unpleasant.

I would pay to see Mother Clare and Hild in a cage match. Bear in mind Hild carries a slaughter seax with a bitter edge. If that thought doesn't cheer you up, perhaps this will:

These nuns are not going to just roll over. I think the Vatican is about to precipitate a serious conflict. I wouldn't be surprised if, five years from now, the American Catholic church splits right down the middle. And, no, that won't please me. I grew up a Catholic. I left the church when I was sixteen: I never believed in god and I loathe/d the inherent misogyny of Catholicism. But I always liked the nuns. The nuns are the best part of the church. They are Hild's successors.

* The CDF used to be the Supreme Sacred Congregation of the Roman and Universal Inquisition, the wonderful people who gave their name to the Inquisition that began in the sixteenth century (and lasted into the 18th).
** And, as our neighbour put it the other day, "They just can't stand lady parts--which includes a superior brain."
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Saturday, April 21, 2012

Palimpsest: my review of Jeanette Winterson

My review of Jeanette Winterson's short memoir, Why Be Happy When You Could be Normal? is up at the Los Angeles Review of Books.

The book is short but the review is not. That's the beauty of a web-based review journal. Instead of the usual dreary summary of the book followed by a few quick lines of judgement, I dragged in all sorts of topics. I had fun with discussing how Why Be Happy is a palimpsest of her first novel, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit; Winterson's discovery that books are extra-somatic culture; why constraint is necessary for all forms of literature; the way poetry works emotionally; why narrative grammar is every writer's friend, and more.

I'd love to know what you think, either at LARB or in the comments here.
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Friday, April 20, 2012

Donate a book for quiltbag YA readers

What a cool idea: Lambda Literary Foundation's My Story Book Club for quiltbag YA readers now has a donation programme.
My Story aims to provide readers 14 years-old and up the opportunity to read and discover LGBT works in the safe and protective atmosphere of Goodreads. As part of the donation program, My Story has partnered with independent bookseller, Skylight Books. Supporters of the LGBT community can show their commitment to diversity and acceptance by donating a My Story Book Club monthly selection.
If you make a $20 donation, Skylight Books will send a copy of the My Story Book Club monthly selection to a community centre, high school, or other venue that's building its own quiltbag library.
Because of funding cuts, these organizations cannot afford to supply books for their libraries even though there is a demand from teens to read and discuss them. Unfortunately, these economic challanges effect the smaller cities and towns where these books are most needed. Often there are little resources for LGBT youth and one book that reflects their own experience can make a positive difference during a vulnerable time in their lives. Once the donation is made, My Story's official partner, Skylight Books, will send it to a community center, high school, or non-profit organization in need.
So get in touch with Monica Carter (, the coordinator for LLF's LGBT Writers in Schools programme, and she'll tell you how to send your $20--or, even better, a multiple of that. Or you could just go right to the Donation page (scroll down). This is a great opportunity to help young adults in all the ways you wished someone had helped you.

Books save lives. Queer books save queer lives.
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Thursday, April 19, 2012

Spring is great, patio furniture not so much

Damn, I like spring!

I spent the day puttering about catching up on email, basking in the sun, and admiring Kelley while she assembled a new chair for the deck.

Sadly I don't think the chair will work out. It seems built for a giant. Seriously, two of me could fit in that thing. Ridiculous.

I need something not too big, and comfy enough to sit in and read and zone out, but also useful for sitting at a table to eat lunch or write reviews or whatever. If anyone knows of just the thing, you would make me very happy.
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Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Los Angeles Review of Books

Today the Los Angeles Review of Books went live. And it's gorgeous:

From the About page:
The Los Angeles Review of Books is a nonprofit, multimedia literary and cultural arts magazine that combines the great American tradition of the serious book review with the evolving technologies of the Web. We are a community of writers, critics, journalists, artists, filmmakers, and scholars dedicated to promoting and disseminating the best that is thought and written, with an enduring commitment to the intellectual rigor, the incisiveness, and the power of the written word.
LARB was created in part as a direct response to the disappearance of the traditional newspaper book review supplement, and with it the great tradition of the comprehensive American book review, dedicated to full-range, long-form coverage of everything from architecture to young adult fiction, academic monographs to genre fiction, from the latest publications to classic texts. In our new, swiftly transforming world of books and publishing, the Los Angeles Review of Books stands for curated, edited, expert, smart and fun opinion written by the best writers and thinkers of our time. We seek to revive, and reinvent, the book review for a new generation.
LARB was created as both a literary and cultural arts magazine, publishing not only traditional long-form essays on books and literature, but also reviews of art, music, theater, and film; exclusive journalism and commentary on key issues of the day; on-location reporting from political hotspots around the nation and worldwide; editorials and commentary on politics, culture and society; audio and video interviews of artists, writers, philosophers and politicians, and much more.
LARB has a prestigious roster of over 250 award-winning writers and contributing editors, as well as over 100 contributing artists. LARB's collective of contributing editors have won Pulitzer Prizes, National and American Book Awards, PEN Awards, and every other kind of distinction. A sample of the Review's contributing editor staff include T.C. Boyle, Jane Smiley, Jeffrey Eugenides, Michael Pollan, Barbara Ehrenreich, Kevin Starr, Greil Marcus, James Franco, Manuel Castells, Antonio Damasio, Mike Davis, John Rechy, Reza Aslan, Chris Abani, Joe Sacco, Jonathan Gold, Carolyn See, Janet Fitch, Yiyun Li, Jane Smiley, Christopher Rice, Eric Lax, Richard Prince, and Jonathan Lethem.
LARB is also home to some of the most widely read book review columnists in the industry, including columns by Richard Rayner (“Paperback Writers”) and Susan Salter Reynolds (“Discoveries”).
The Los Angeles Review of Books is proud to be partnering with KCRW-FM (89.9) to advance literacy and the ongoing promotion of the cultural arts through joint events, a podcast series, and the regular KCRW segment “Reviews with the Los Angeles Review of Books.” To hear our segments on KCRW, please go to
LARB is not only sleekly designed, its editorial talent pool, led by Tom Lutz, is deep and smart. Don't expect the usual kind of reviews. See, for example, Maria Bustillos's "Abnegation," in which she reviews Tom Bissell's latest, but also draws wider conclusions about confessional literature.

Yes, I'm biased because I'm one of the zillion Contributing Editors--but this really is a spectacular new journal. Worth your time. (And your money: make a donation.) I'm really looking forward to watching LARB evolve. Go read it.
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Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Pulitzers and Oranges

I'm guessing most of you have heard by now that the Pulitzers were announced yesterday. The list interests me for two reasons. One, two prize-winners wrote for Seattle-based journals (Michael J. Berens and Ken Armstrong of The Seattle Times, and Seattle Times, and Eli Sanders of The Stranger). Two, the board declined to choose a winner for Fiction.

When I first heard about the fiction award, or lack of it, I assumed the jury had deadlocked. Apparently that's not the case. (Read more about it here, from the BBC--whose report is a model of clarity.) I imagine lit world will be humming with speculation for a while. For the record: I have no clue what the issue/s might be.

Then this morning the Orange Prize jury announced its shortlist:

  • Esi Edugyan, Half Blood Blues (Serpent’s Tail) Canadian, 2nd Novel
  • Anne Enright, The Forgotten Waltz (Jonathan Cape) Irish, 5th Novel
  • Georgina Harding, Painter of Silence (Bloomsbury) British, 3rd Novel
  • Madeline Miller, The Song of Achilles (Bloomsbury) American, 1st Novel
  • Cynthia Ozick, Foreign Bodies (Atlantic Books) American, 7th Novel
  • Ann Patchett, State of Wonder (Bloomsbury) American, 6th Novel
Bloomsbury did well--and North America. For a discussion of the books, see The Guardian.)

I don't know Georgina Harding, so I'm happy I have another author to add to my Try List. Sadly, most authors never make it from Try to Buy. I've started two of the short-listed novels and put them both down, unimpressed by the writing. But, hey, it's good to keep trying.

How about you? How many of these books have you read? Do they excite you? If these don't excite you, what have you read lately that does?

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Monday, April 16, 2012

Exciting writing

I taught a whole-day workshop* yesterday for twelve writing students. The topic was 'exciting writing'. My aim was to pass along what I know about making a reader believe what you're writing, and to then make them care. Basically, I spent six hour laying out the steps a writer need to take to get their readers to fall into their work, to breath its air and feel its sunshine, to feel and dream and agonise (and exult) with your protagonist.

This is my favourite teaching topic--because it's my favourite part of being a reader. When I was eleven, part of my growing up happened in Middle Earth, alongside Frodo and Sam. As a teenager, I learnt to lead men in Alexander's Macedon. In my thirties, I discovered how petty and how brave humans can be in extremis, how silly and how kind, as I sailed the high seas with Jack and Stephen. These books helped make me who I am. Alexander's--and Sam's, and Stephen's--lessons were my lessons. Those books were great gifts.

I aim to write novels that give that same gift to my readers. (See my Writer's Manifesto.)

So for this workshop I deliberately kept the focus on making writing vivid--no wandering off into story structure, or dialogue best-practices, or the rules of point-of-view. Just endless hammering about how to bring the reader in. The trick? To funnel everything through your main character/s, make your character/s the lens through which the reader sees--and smells, and hears, and feels--all other people, places, and events in the novel. Do this well enough--paying attention to the specific, the particular, and so avoiding cliche of trope or phrase--and you'll trigger your reader's mirror neurons. Trigger the mirror neurons, and the character will come alive inside your reader. Your reader will be living inside your novel, moving through it along with the character/s. Just as I did--and still do--with people created by Tolkien, Renault, and O'Brian.

Once you've triggered those mirror neurons, once those characters are recreated inside your reader, then your job as a writer is to not fuck up: to maintain immaculate narrative grammar so you don't bump the reader out of the story.

One day, I might write a short book, complete with exercises, on how to do all this. Until then, there'll be the occasional workshop like yesterday's.

I had a good time teaching those twelve writers. Some of them will become names you will recognise. They were all fine people. It was a good day's work.

* This was one of the new Clarion West one-day workshops. Thanks to the team that made it possible, particularly Cat Rambo who sat in the classroom with me all day, ready to help out if necessary.

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Saturday, April 14, 2012

Books for boys

A friend recently asked me for some recommendations for his thirteen year-old son. Apparently he doesn't read much. I asked what he did do, what he's interested in. Soccer, it turns out, skateboarding. Oh, I said, so he might like some kind of punk skateboarding rebel-type story? No problem!

Except that then my mind went blank. So I asked Twitter. And people came through with a raft of suggestions.

So, just in case you're in a similar position, here are some of the books recommended that sound as though they might be worth trying.

Ian McDonald, Planesrunner.
When Everett Singh's scientist father is kidnapped from the streets of London, he leaves young Everett a mysterious app on his computer. Suddenly, this teenager has become the owner of the most valuable object in the multiverse—the Infundibulum—the map of all the parallel earths, and there are dark forces in the Ten Known Worlds who will stop at nothing to get it. They've got power, authority, and the might of ten planets—some of them more technologically advanced than our Earth—at their fingertips. He's got wits, intelligence, and a knack for Indian cooking.
recommended by @CherylMorgan and @FredKiesche

Cory Doctorow, Little Brother
Marcus, a.k.a “w1n5t0n,” is only seventeen years old, but he figures he already knows how the system works–and how to work the system. Smart, fast, and wise to the ways of the networked world, he has no trouble outwitting his high school’s intrusive but clumsy surveillance systems.
But his whole world changes when he and his friends find themselves caught in the aftermath of a major terrorist attack on San Francisco. In the wrong place at the wrong time, Marcus and his crew are apprehended by the Department of Homeland Security and whisked away to a secret prison where they’re mercilessly interrogated for days.
When the DHS finally releases them, Marcus discovers that his city has become a police state where every citizen is treated like a potential terrorist. He knows that no one will believe his story, which leaves him only one option: to take down the DHS himself.
many recommendations, including @bylisagold
Mark Zusak, Underdogs trilogy, ,
Cameron and Ruben Wolfe are champions at getting into fights, coming up with half-baked schemes, and generally disappointing girls, their parents, and their much more motivated older siblings. They're intensely loyal to each other, brothers at their best and at their very worst. But when Cameron falls head over heels for Ruben's girlfriend, the strength of their bond is tested to its breaking point.
 recommended by @greenspace01 ("Brother, boxing, wanting girls...")

Scott Westerfield, Uglies
Tally Youngblood lives in a futuristic society that acculturates its citizens to believe that they are ugly until age 16 when they'll undergo an operation that will change them into pleasure-seeking "pretties." Anticipating this happy transformation, Tally meets Shay, another female ugly, who shares her enjoyment of hoverboarding and risky pranks. But Shay also disdains the false values and programmed conformity of the society and urges Tally to defect with her to the Smoke, a distant settlement of simple-living conscientious objectors. Tally declines, yet when Shay is found missing by the authorities, Tally is coerced by the cruel Dr. Cable to find her and her compatriots–or remain forever "ugly." Tally's adventuresome spirit helps her locate Shay and the Smoke. It also attracts the eye of David, the aptly named youthful rebel leader to whose attentions Tally warms. However, she knows she is living a lie, for she is a spy who wears an eye-activated locator pendant that threatens to blow the rebels' cover. Ethical concerns will provide a good source of discussion as honesty, justice, and free will are all oppressed in this well-conceived dystopia. Characterization, which flirts so openly with the importance of teen self-concept, is strong, and although lengthy, the novel is highly readable with a convincing plot that incorporates futuristic technologies and a disturbing commentary on our current public policies. Fortunately, the cliff-hanger ending promises a sequel.
Many recs, including @sleary ("Post-apocalyptic hoverboard adventure...")

Arnold Spirit, a goofy-looking dork with a decent jumpshot, spends his time lamenting life on the "poor-ass" Spokane Indian reservation, drawing cartoons (which accompany, and often provide more insight than, the narrative), and, along with his aptly named pal Rowdy, laughing those laughs over anything and nothing that affix best friends so intricately together. When a teacher pleads with Arnold to want more, to escape the hopelessness of the rez, Arnold switches to a rich white school and immediately becomes as much an outcast in his own community as he is a curiosity in his new one. He weathers the typical teenage indignations and triumphs like a champ but soon faces far more trying ordeals as his home life begins to crumble and decay amidst the suffocating mire of alcoholism on the reservation. Alexie's humor and prose are easygoing and well suited to his young audience, and he doesn't pull many punches as he levels his eye at stereotypes both warranted and inapt. A few of the plotlines fade to gray by the end, but this ultimately affirms the incredible power of best friends to hurt and heal in equal measure. Younger teens looking for the strength to lift themselves out of rough situations would do well to start here.
recommended by @SalamanderHouse

Jumper, Steven Gould
What if you could go anywhere in the world, in the blink of an eye? Where would you go? What would you do?

Davy can teleport.

To survive, Davy must learn to use and control his power in a world that is more violent and complex than he ever imagined. But mere survival is not enough for him. Davy wants to find others like himself, others who can Jump.

And that's a dangerous game.
and Wildside, Steven Gould
Forget the lottery.
Teenager Charlie Newell has just discovered something that will make him and his friends billionaires. What if a world existed in which no humans ever evolved? No cities. No pollution. No laws. A fantastic world filled with unimaginable riches in which everything--everything--was yours just for the taking?
Charlie has found that world. And he plans to use it to make him and his friends rich.
There is a problem: How do you keep something this big a secret?
recommended by, well, me.

And a trove of good old-fashioned adventures, e.g. Treasure Island, King Solomon's Mines, War of the Worlds, The Time Machine, Kidnapped, Beau Geste, and Lawrence of Arabia, recommended by @JemFoxy

Also, try Guys Lit Wire, a blog full of reviews about, well, Guys' Lit.
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Friday, April 13, 2012

Hild's York--with maps!

I posted this over on Gemæcca earlier this week. I thought you might like to read it here. The maps and schematics are a mix of hand drawn sketches I made to figure things out while I was writing the book, and some Photoshop neatening. But I don't claim to be any good at this...

Last week I read in the Guardian about the discovery of what could be indications of a very early Christian church and burial site beneath the current York Minster.

If the more excitable members of the team leading the excavation are right, this could be the wooden church built by Edwin, Hild's uncle:
Potentially the most significant finds are two nondescript round holes, with groundwater bubbling up through the mud. They are post holes that could date from the time of the earliest Christian church on the site [...]
Ian Milsted, of York Archaeological Trust, who is leading the excavation, downplays the significance of the post holes: the timber rotted away centuries ago, and they have found no dateable evidence, not a shard of Anglo-Saxon pottery. But his colleague Jim Williams cannot restrain his excitement: the pits are evidence for very large posts, far too big and using too valuable timber to hold up the roof of a pigsty or a hen house, just outside the walls of the Roman basilica. "I think they've got to be evidence for a significant structure – and from a period when any evidence is incredibly rare and precious."
If Williams is right, this could be the place Hild was baptised by Paulinus in 627 CE. It also means the bones found in situ might belong to some of her relatives. To me, this is all so thrilling I can hardly stand it. I'd give a great deal to be there right now, to look at the pit, to touch those bones, to know, deep down, that Hild really did exist.

I wish, too, that someone would provide a map so I could see exactly where they found those post holes.

I, of course, have already imagined how everything looks. So here are my thoughts on how Anglo-Saxon York might have looked at the time of Hild's baptism. (What follows in part speculation, part fact. There are enough links provided for you to do your own preliminary fossicking about on the way to learning enough to make up your own mind.)

In Roman times York was known as Eboracum, the major city of Northern Britain, legionary headquarters, with an inner, fortified military zone surrounded by a larger, semi-fortified colonia (civilian settlement). It sat in the fork of two rivers, the Ouse and the Foss, and at the nexus of significant roads north and south (which became known as Dere Street and Ermine Street, which in turn became the A59/A1 and A1079/A15/A10, respectively). It was important. It was large (the inner fort alone covered about 50 acres/21.5 ha). The military headquarter building (principia) was 70 meters wide.

The Romans built and rebuilt the walls and roads at various times. They built well. By Hild's time, the walls of the inner fort were still standing, and the roads were in good repair. Edwin rebuilt one tower, now known as the Anglian Tower (marked in red) with stone that was a poor match for the original, made of oolitic limestone as opposed to the beautifully cut magnesian limestone of the original. 

click to enlarge

The Roman colonia was also protected by walls, too, though only the southern half; the north, probably, was protected by marshlands created by the R. Foss spilling over on a regular basis. The Romans would have controlled this to the degree that suited them, but when they left, much of York would have been swamped.

When Edwin reclaimed York the climate was drying a bit so the ground was less swampy. He also redug and partially redrained. As a result he had to put in additional protection, notably in the form of a great thorn hedge to the west of the inner fort. He also strengthened the remains of the stone civilian walls with wood, and built wooden watch towers in the notch of the two rivers.

One thing I'm not sure about is where Edwin might have put his brand new wīc or trading area. It makes sense to me to put it between the rivers and under the eye of armed men on the walls in the wooden towers, so that's what I've done. But I dithered: that bit might still have been too marshy; maybe it should go just east of the thorn hedge. In the end, though, I couldn't resist putting it in a more open, sunny place.

Inside the fort, most of the buildings would already have been scavenged for building stone. I'm imagining the principia, the great headquarters building, still mostly standing. It would have had a great courtyard with a well, and a huge cross hall for state events. This hall I imagined as Edwin's feast hall. Perhaps some of the south-east rooms could have been made habitable again and turned into women's apartments. The rest was mostly cleared for gardens, used as storerooms, or turned into kitchens and bakehouses. One large area in the south east corner of the fort was reserved for exercise/military training. I think of it as the parade ground, the place where Edwin might have assembled his gesiths and baggage trains before marching out.

So where did Edwin build his church? That was easy: in the yard of the principia. There was a well, which Paulinus could easily have turned into a font. It would have been sheltered from the wind by the walls of the headquarters building, and it was in the exact centre of Edwin's most powerful royal vill. We know that the succeeding church, built by Oswald, was made of stone, so the odds are good that if the finds mentioned in the Guardian last week are, in fact, a church, it was the original. I like the odds.

I see no reason for Paulinus not to have followed the usual W-E alignment of Christian churches. So here's how it might have looked:

There's a lot of circumstantial evidence to support this notion. If you superimpose the outline of the current York Minster on top of a plan of the Roman fort, this is what you get:

And given the traditions of the time--to build on what went before, that is, on the same alignment and overlapping the same footprint of the original or its successor--I'm satisfied that my version of events was at least possible.

Hild gets more real every day.
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Thursday, April 12, 2012

DoJ settlement probably bad for midlist writers

The Department of Justice has reached a settlement with three of the Big Six publishers to refrain from agency pricing for two years. (The three are HarperCollins, Hachette, and Simon and Schuster. Two others, Penguin and Macmillan, will take the fight to court. The sixth, Randomhouse, was not charged.)

Retailers (such as and in their turn, may now discount individual titles to their hearts' content--but may not make a loss on selling ebooks as a whole.

This could be bad new for midlist writers. Sadly I think what's very likely to happen is that online retailers will engage in discounting price wars over bestsellers. All those brand new, hot buzzy books that currently sell for $14.99 book will become loss leaders, priced at $9.99. Or less. But midlist writers, whose books have been out for a year or two, will still be priced at $11.99. Or more. Sales of midlist novels--such as they are--will shift in farther in favour of new bestsellers. (Then of course there will have to be a recalibration in pricing, because online retailers won't be allowed to take a loss.)

I have only one novel with one of the settling parties: The Blue Place. It's currently priced at $9.99. So is Stay (with Randomhouse). My other novels range from $11.99 for Ammonite and Slow River, to $13.99 for Always. If the prices stay there, sales with wither...

...unless I'm horribly wrong about all this. I would love to be wrong. Thrilled, in fact.

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