Mad Hatters, Jews, and Aliens: What I Published in 2015

I didn’t publish much in 2015. People who know me well will know that I’ve been dealing with health issues (and related writers block) for a few years now. I hope last year was the nadir, as far as publishing goes–I already have three stories scheduled for 2016 so I can hope the trend continues! But on to 2015:

Have you ever wondered who would win in Jews versus Aliens? I haven’t, actually, but apparently Lavie Tidhar and Rebecca Levene did. The resulting book is a charity anthology, supporting caretakers and children who have been sexually abused. My entry, “The Reluctant Jew,” is about a starship engineer who is drafted against his will to explain Judaism to many-tentacled aliens who prefer to eat the yamulkes.

I’m exceedingly proud of my other short story, “Tea Time,” which came out in Lightspeed in December. I wrote a bit about it on my blog:  It’s an R-rated Alice in Wonderland riff about the Mad Hatter’s love affair with the March Hare.

Begin at the beginning:

His many hats. Felt derbies in charcoal and camel and black. Sporting caps and straw boaters. Gibuses covered in corded silk for nights at the theatre. Domed bowlers with dashingly narrow brims. The ratty purple silk top hat, banded with russet brocade, that he keeps by his bedside.

The march hare, each foreleg as strong as an ox’s, bucking and hopping and twitching his whiskers. Here, there, somewhere else, leading his hatter a merry dance between tables. Rogering by the mahogany slipper chair. Knocking by the marble bust of the Queen of Hearts. Upending rose-patterned porcelain so that it smashes on the grass, white and pink fragments scattering like brittle leaves.

Fur, soft and lush. Warmth like spring. That prey-quick heartbeat, thump-thump, thump-thump.

I started writing something absurd because I love absurdity, but it became a meditation on time and love. I hope people enjoy reading it; I enjoyed writing it.

Interviewing Tina Connolly

A few weeks ago, I discovered that it was a lot of fun to hand people some casual interview questions and see what they had to say. This is the fourth interview I’m putting on the blog.

I met Tina Connolly in 2006 when she went to the Clarion West Writers Workshop where I’d gone the year before. Weirdly, I can’t tell you a single thing about the first time I met her 10(I wonder if she remembers? Tina, perhaps you’ll enlighten me later), but I’m sure I instantly liked her–she’s warm, smart, and a great storyteller, in person and on paper.

I published Tina several times during my run as editor at PodCastle. I’m not sure what my favorite piece was, but here’s one that’s fun — “The Goats Are Going Places.” She’s also a smart, funny narrator who read a lot of stories for us. As a narrator, she eventually started her own podcast, Toasted Cake (unfortunatey now retired), which used to run flash fiction reprints. Here she is reading one of my stories, “Again and Again and Again,” on Toasted Cake.

Tina doesn’t always write humor–her Ironskin trilogy, for instance, is a mix of steampunk, Jane Eyre, and malevolent fairies (check it out if that sounds interesting to you)–but, for me at least, her fiction always has a core of warmth like the one she radiates in person.

Tina also recently took a turn into writing young adult novels, starting with the recently published Seriously Wicked.

The Interview:

I love the humor in your writing. You have a natural, quirky voice when you write humor that doesn’t seem cliche or affected. How did you come into writing humor, and how do you approach it?

Thanks, Rachel! I love writing humor. This kind of goes with your next question, but I’m sure I started writing humor from the same reason that I loved performing. I used to say that my favorite role was the be the comedic lead in a drama. Because you get so much juicy stuff to do, and because the audience is so glad to see you. I loved being comic relief.

 

And I suppose also that this is my favorite kind of story—where comedy and drama are blended. Even my darker stories tend to have funny bits sneak in, and my funny stories are generally grounded by more serious themes.

 

On a micro level, I’m not sure if I have any advice on how I approach humor – I have a tendency to go for the joke and I indulge that. (And then, sadly, sometimes you do have to cut jokes that are dragging down the pacing.) On a macro level, I used to do a lot of farces, and I found that the sort of fast-paced plot of Seriously Wicked worked on an intuitive level for me. First you get all the plates spinning, and then you run back and forth opening and slamming the doors….eventually someone gets a pie in the face.

I know you’ve spent time on the stage. When I’m writing, I find that the comedic timing I learned from playing comedic roles helps with figuring out how to write and land humor. Do you draw on those skills?

YES. Timing is very important to me. I often write by rhythm – like, I’m not sure what is going to go in the second half of this witty banter but it needs to have a specific number of beats. My first drafts are littered with “X”s as placeholders.

 

In general, my time in theatre has been helpful – when I started writing I had no clue about plot, but I spent a lot of time thinking about characters – what they would and wouldn’t do. One thing that was challenging for me at the beginning is that I would leave too much unsaid, because it was always clear to me what complex things the characters were thinking! And then I slowly figured out how to get more of that out of my head and on the page.

 

Lately I’ve been doing playwriting and thinking about this stuff all over again. For example, there’s a good reason you’re told not to do a ‘as you know Bob” infodump in prose. And you think, sure, that’s good advice, but if you’re a beginning writer you might not understand why. But boy, when you see it on stage – one character monologuing with no purpose behind it except to infodump – you can feel the energy drop like a rock. Dialogue must be persuasive.

 

You recently began publishing young adult fiction as well as books for us grown-ups. What are you finding inspiring and wonderful about YA?

Even with my adult fiction, I tend to write about younger characters just starting to figure things out. I think the thing that’s wonderful about the young adult / early adulthood time period is that there’s so much you do need to figure out, and it makes for many dramatic life choices and learning arcs.

 

Face painting. You do it. Tell me an awesome story about face painting.

I took my face paints to Clarion West in 2006, and again to Kij Johnson’s novel workshop at KU in 2012. Great fun. Vernor Vinge was our teacher that week at CW and he let me paint a goldfish on his cheek (something about the singularity…) And Kij picked a praying mantis, and Vylar Kaftan picked a Cthulhu. It wasn’t a very good Cthulhu, but I’ve been practicing. The next one will be better.

 

Lovecraft, Marie Antoinette, and President Obama are all clamoring for face paint at your booth at the fair. You’ve asked them what they want, but they trust your artistic instincts. So, what are you going to paint?

Lovecraft obviously gets the improved Cthulhu. Antoinette… well, I do have a cute cupcake arm. But I think she would be happiest with the delicate swirlies around the eye, with the sparkles. Obama – well, I have to take into account the fact that I would be simultaneously super nervous and really really wanting to do a good job, so it would not be a good time to attempt something new and ridiculous. I’ve got a nice standby of an American flag with fireworks arm painting (July 4th is a popular time to hire a face painter) so I’d probably suggest that. I think his media relations people would approve that one, too.

 

The projects question. What are you working on, and what’s coming out?

I just turned in Seriously #2 (which is titled Seriously Shifted, and involves a whole quartet of wicked witches), and that’s due out November 2016 from Tor Teen. I’m just starting in on Seriously #3, which will be out November 2017. In the meantime, I also have my debut collection (On the Eyeball Floor and Other Stories) coming from Fairwood Press in August 2016 – there’ll be a release party at WorldCon in Kansas City!

 

Interviewing Megan O’Keefe

A few weeks ago, I discovered that it was a lot of fun to hand people some casual interview questions and see what they had to say. This is interview #3.

Thanks to Megan O’Keefe for playing! I don’t know Megan very well, except by coincidence it turns out that I’ve been buying her etsy soaps and perfumes for a while. (I like them!) Megan is a Writers of the Future winner.

Her first novel comes out today from Angry Robot Books, Steal the Sky.

The interview:

You’re a professional soap maker. I’ve actually bought a lot of your soap. I was buying your soap before I knew you were you. Can you talk a little bit about how you make soap and how you got into it?

That’s so awesome! I didn’t know you were buying from me before we met. Lately I’ve discovered that there’s a surprisingly large overlap between people who are my soap customers and people who love fantasy and science fiction. It’s definitely been a pleasant surprise.

 

I make soap using the cold process method of soapmaking. This is one of the oldest methods, the origins of which were people using ash from their fires to clean greasy pots, as they found it worked better than plain scouring because there were traces of sodium hydroxide (that’s lye) in the ash created by burning wood. The lye would react with the grease in the pots to create a very basic soap. My method has evolved some since then.

 

My standard formula is one I developed over the years to suit most skin types, but is skewed toward those with dry skin. Each oil you add to a soap mix brings its own properties, and mine began with the three “pillar” oils of soapmaking: olive, coconut, and palm. Olive oil brings moisture to soap, palm oil brings stability to the lather (often called “creaminess”) and coconut oil brings big, fluffy lather. Despite popular belief, coconut oil when turned into soap is actually extra cleansing – it can dry you out if not balanced with other oils. I then add safflower for silkiness/glide, and castor oil for another bubble boost. The resulting bar is capable of producing lots of fluffy lather while not drying out your skin.

 

Random cool fact about coconut oil: a 100% coconut oil soap is the only kind that is capable of lathering in salt water.

 

2. How do you go about developing new perfumes? In particular, I’m interested about the inspiration–does instinct tell you what scents might mix? Experimentation? Etc.?

I have an arsenal of accords I’ve created over the years – blends of scents that achieve a single note fragrance, such as red rose or fern. When I have an idea for a new scent I review these and start making notes on which ones I suspect will blend well together to achieve the scent I want, then I start testing.

 

For example, when I was creating my scent The Librarian, I knew I wanted something warm and spicy, reminiscent of books, and with a hint of banana as an ode to Terry Pratchett. I had to blend up the banana accord from scratch, but I started out with my bourbon vanilla, white oak, and chai spice accords. Once the fragrance has the basic feel I’m going for, I start refining by tweaking percentages and adding small amounts of other accords just to see what happens. Then I move on to longevity testing to see how long the scent can “stand” on skin, and from there I move on to testing it in soap. It’s an involved process, but I find it fun and relaxing.

 

3. Your new book, Steal the Sky, comes out in 2016. As an epic fantasy, it’s coming onto the scene at a time where G. R. R. Martin’s Grimdark is ruling TV, while simultaneously The Goblin Emperor’s lighter approach earned it places on the major award ballots. Where is your book coming into that conversation?

Steal the Sky is sliding into the middle of that conversation with a wink and a nudge. The Scorched Continent is a desperate place, full of people struggling to earn their daily bread and water, and also home to a variety of human rights abuses. It’s not an easy place to live, but there are some elements of hope that remain.

 

In his past, my protagonist, the conman Detan Honding, hasn’t exactly been give the short end of the stick – he’s been hit with it. Repeatedly. When we meet him, there’s a hint of this troubled past, but he is blithely wise-cracking and generally willing to stir up mischief just for the sake of mischief. It feels light. It feels fun. But you’re tightly in Detan’s point of view – and there’s a reason he’s quick with a quip, and it’s nothing to do with jolliness.

 

I’ve always felt that humor and darkness are inextricably intertwined. There’s silliness, of course, but the stuff that really gets you – that makes you choke out laughing despite yourself – that’s the stuff that cuts. The stuff that reveals some darker nature and points out the absurdity of it. It says that – yeah, we’re human. We’ve moved beyond our baser natures, built civilizations, and transcended the primordial mud. But we’re still animals. Can’t help ourselves. And confronting this intrinsic fault with a laugh is an excellent way to cope. Some of the darkest scenes I’ve ever read have been in Terry Pratchett novels.

 

So, sure, from the start the surface of Steal the Sky is a fun adventure. Detan jokes his way through his troubles and Tibs plays the straight man, a ready contrast to Detan’s ridiculousness. But Detan’s laughing because he has to. Because as soon as he stops laughing, something’s going to break within him, perhaps irreversibly, and it won’t be pretty for anyone involved.

 

4. You have some writing advice articles on worldbuilding on your blog. Can you recommend some novels that you think do worldbuilding really right?

This is probably cheating, but I have to recommend The Malazan Book of the Fallen by Steven Erikson. The world – Wu – is huge and fully realized. Erikson is a professional archaeologist, and his attention to detail is eloquently demonstrated in the cultures he creates. Not only does he avoid the trap of mono-cultures, he has also built in somewhere around 300k years of history to his world, and the cultures that exist in the “modern” time period of Malazan feel like they have naturally grown out of that rich past. It’s an unforgiving read, however. Erikson dumps you straight into his world and right behind the eyes of the characters, not bothering to have them explain things that they would naturally know the answers to. I’ve heard that some people have a rough time getting started with Malazan, but if you can make it through that tricky first book, then you’re in for a treat.

 

That said, the world of Wu was originally created as a setting for a role-playing game, and at times that does shine through. For a truly unique take on worldbuilding, look to N.K. Jemisin’s Dreamblood Duology. The culture’s aesthetics are inspired by ancient Egypt, but the magic and political systems are wholly their own. There’s no hint of the Aristotelian elements here. The magic is loosely based on Egyptian medicine with a dash of Freudian dream theory, and the city’s rule is focused on the preservation of peace. Jemisin deepens her world by layering in stories of its past rulers.

5. Obviously, your novel is due out soon. Do you have any other writing news you’d like to share, or opportunities for us to see more of you and your work?

In the Scorched Continent Series, book two is well on its way to being complete and book three has a hearty outline, ready for drafting. I do have another novel project in the works, but that one’s a secret for the time being. In the meantime, you can find a handful of my stories for free around the web. My Writers of the Future winning story, Another Range of Mountains, is free to read on Wattpad. And my short story, Of Blood and Brine, which has been featured on SFWA’s Nebula reading list, can be read for free over at Shimmer or listened to at Podcastle. I also have a fun, tongue-in-cheek piece of Christmas flash fiction that just went up on the Barnes & Noble blog.

New Story, “Tea Time,” in Lightspeed Magazine

A new story of mine, “Tea Time,” is now available from Lightspeed Magazine.

It is never polite to go out-of doors without a hat. One’s hat should remain on one’s head no matter the extremity. Even if the rest of one’s clothing should happen to be removed by some improbable whim of the weather, such as a particularly dexterous gale with a penchant for buttons, one must be sure to hold one’s hat fixedly on one’s head.

 

The hatter is a poor man. He has no hats of his own. Those he keeps on his head or in his house are merely inventory, soon to be shuffled away when a purchaser is found.

“Tea Time” is a retelling of sorts, about the Hatter and the Hare from Alice in Wonderland, and their endless tea time. Alice in Wonderland is one of those stories that always gets in my head and stays there. My parents are fans. I have an annotated copy from just after my father was born, filled with pencil notes, which my parents gave me while I was writing this story. When he was in college, my father colored a black light poster of Alice on the chess grounds, which still hangs in their kitchen.

As a child, I watched many televised Alice retellings. I’ve always been fond of retellings because of the way different people — and different actors — choose to reinterpret a text; there’s so much living, interesting variance. I had Alice Blue Dress, Alice Disney, Alice Orange Dress (it was a bit of a revelation to realize she didn’t have to be in blue!). Carol Channing was in one of them as the White Queen. My favorite these days as an adult is a Broadway production from 1983 featuring Nathan Lane as a rat who is almost drowned by Alice’s tears. It’s a somber, adult version of the tale, which begins with Alice smoking as she stares into her dressing room mirror, somber if not dead-eyed.

Alice is a story that translates well from young to old, innocent to mature. Unlike The Wizard of Oz (which I also like quite a bit) in which Dorothy is repeatedly described in blushing, innocent, girlish terms, Alice is unsentimentally portrayed. She’s an interesting but flawed heroine, not sugar and spice. I have a particular love for child characters who are written as sharp and strange, the way real children are, rather than the rosy cherubs we adults want them to be.

Rereading Alice in Wonderland as an adult also shows how sharp and intelligent the prose is! There’s a reason the story works on a lot of levels, and that’s because it was written that way. There’s the adventure, but there’s also strange meditations on the nature of reality and growing up, and it hasn’t lost any of its edge since it was written.

“Tea Time” isn’t about Alice — she shows up a couple times in the background as an annoyance to the Hatter and Hare. Instead, it’s about the two of them, and how characters might navigate a surreal, inconsistent world. I started writing something absurd because I love absurdity, but it eventually tracked into a meditation about love and time.

Q: Why is a raven like a writing desk?

A: Because they both have quills.

 

Q: Why is a vain woman like a hatter?

A: Because they both love their hare.

 

Q: Why is tea time like eternity?

A: One begins with tea and the other ends with it.

You can read the story for free online, or listen to the podcast narrated by Stefan Rudnicki (available on the same page).

CW: Rated R, lots of Victorian slang about sex.