Silly Interview with Barry Deutsch, jew jew jew

A few years ago, I decided that I wanted to know some silly information about my fellow authors. So I put together some silly interviews full of silly questions. A number of them fell through the publication cracks then, so I’m running them now with updates. (If you’re interested in the prior features, including ones with people like Ann Leckie, you can find them on my blog here). Enjoy!

Barry drawBarry Deutsch

RS: Would your hero-fighting, Orthodox Jewish preteen, Mirka, ever fly a hot air balloon?

BD: If I can figure out a story that makes sense for, I’d love to do it! Hot air balloons are fun to draw. Also, I have this friend who writes science fiction stories, and who always reads over my Hereville scripts and makes great suggestions, who has been suggesting a hot air balloon Hereville plotline for years. So maybe if I ever do that, it’ll provide her with some satisfaction. 🙂

RS: Your brand of humor is so distinctive that I can spot it not only in your own work, but in the kind of drawings you pin on pinterest, and that sort of things. What would you say have been the biggest influences on the development of your sense of humor?

BD: Honestly, I have very little idea of what my brand of humor is, so it’s a little hard for me to pin down.

But I think that I’ve probably borrowed a lot from Harvey Kurtzman’s MAD stories, from Walt Kelly’s Pogo, from Doonesbury, and from Dave Sim’s Cerebus; at least, those were the funny works that I remember rereading a thousand times in my formative years. In movies and TV, I think the Marx Brothers were very important to me, and so was Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

RS: Did you ever seriously write prose with an eye toward publication?

BD: I never have. It’s something that I’d like to try to do someday.

RS: Do you remember why I asked you question 1?

BD: Did my science fiction writing friend with the obsession about seeing Mirka in a hot air balloon put you up to it?

RS: From a purely “fun to draw” perspective, why should people draw more flawed characters?

BD: Actually, I don’t know that they should. A lot of cartoonists rarely draw characters that don’t fit into a very narrow sort of attractiveness, and I assume the reason they draw that way is that this is what they find fun to draw.

But from a storytelling perspective, I think flawed characters are clearly better, because it’s so much easier for a cartoonist to make characters distinct and recognizable if they break out of that narrow “perfect pretty people” mold. In a lot of mainstream comics, it’s really hard to tell the characters apart. There are also really interesting stories to be told about people who look like ordinary people.

RS: What’s the funniest response you’ve ever gotten to a cartoon?

BD: In response to an anti-racist political cartoon, some infuriated racist emailed me calling me “jew” this and “jew” that (I am Jewish, but I’m puzzled why he thought I’d find this to be an insult) and finally, in an apparent fit of rage that put him beyond writing coherent thoughts, just ended the letter by saying “you jew jew jew!” That totally cracked me up.

RS: If you had to appoint zombie Scalia to an infinite (for he is undead) term on the supreme court, or Donald Trump for a finite term, which would you pick?

BD: Trump. The system has lots of vetos in place; we can survive four years of Trump. I hope.

Wait, no, now I feel guilty because of all the people who’d die in the needless wars Trump would start. Sigh. Zombie Scalia it is. But we need to have him chained up or something so he doesn’t bite Ruth or Sonya.

RS: If you had the opportunity to do your room up in any wallpaper from any time period regardless of expense or probability, what would you pick?

BD: I’d hire a British Artist named Charlotte Mann who hand-draws walls for people. I mean, look at this! That would be incredible. I’d be accosting strangers in the street and demanding that they come into my house and look at the walls.

2019 update: So what are you up to now?

I’ve been working on three main projects lately.

First, thanks to my wonderful supporters on Patreon, I’ve increased my output of political cartoons from six a year to forty-eight a year. People can read all those cartoons for free on my Patreon.

Second, with my co-creator Becky Hawkins, I’m working on “SuperButch,” a webcomic about a lesbian superhero in the 1940s who protects the bar scene from corrupt cops. We’ve got almost a hundred pages done already, and why yes, we do have a patreon, thanks for asking.

And finally, I’ve been writing graphic novel adaptions of Tui Sutherland’s amazing “Wings of Fire” series for Scholastic. The graphic  novels are being drawn by Mike Holmes, who has an unbelievable facility for drawing hundreds of dragons. It’s a fantasy series about a group of young dragons who believe they are destined to save the world. Of course, you already knew that, since you’re co-writing the adaptations with me, but pretending to explain that to you was a handy way of getting that exposition across to your readers. Hi, readers!

I have a couple of other big projects that I plan to work on in 2019, but they’re not yet at the discuss-in-public stage.

(This interview was originally posted to my patreon on January 25, 2019. Thank you to all the patrons who make this possible!)

Patreon content for January 2018

Patreon content for January has just been posted!

$1 and above patrons can read a piece from my recent found poetry kick based on google searches for emotions–in this case, “anxiety.”

$2 and above patrons get to see a sneak peek of a work in progress. This month’s came from a writing game I’m playing where we get various prompts to write a piece of flash fiction every week. This is from the prompt “describe an act of what looks like kindness, but is actually cruelty.”

And for $5 and above patrons, I reprinted my essay “Why We Tell the Story: The Political Nature of Narrative.” The essay first appeared in Timmi Duchamp’s collection Narrative Power, published by Aqueduct Press.

Thank you to all my supporters on Patreon! Your support makes a big difference in my life!

Mash It Up, an excerpt from my class on How to Write Retellings

Explicitly or subtly, writers are always building on the stories that came before us. For a couple of years now, I’ve been teaching a class on retellings at Cat Rambo’s Academy. It’s always a good time to see what people come up with.

Here’s an excerpt from the class, on one of the many strategies for retelling stories — the mash-up.

Craving some hard science fiction spaceships, or some Western cowboy hats? You don’t have to move your story into space or a ghost town and write completely in that new genre—you can do both at once. Sometimes you have to get that chocolate into that peanut butter. Mix things because you love them, or because they go together, or because they should never go together, or because they went together in that weird dream you had the other night.

Some combinations play up the contradictions. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is funny because it makes you imagine all those staid regency ladies juxtaposed with B-horror movie makeup. The retelling thrives because the combination is both ridiculous and delightful.

Other match-ups are about synergy instead of clash. A common blend is fairy tale characters who are under criminal investigation. Fairy tale characters have made many appearances in court room dramas. These days, I mostly see the combination as fairy tales written in a Noir style. Although the genres don’t pair well to me, they appeal to many readers. Perhaps it’s a way to tease out the motivations and complexities of the original, simple stories. The author wants to know “why did this happen?” and poses a fictional detective to find out.

You can mash up whole genres–but you can also just mash individual stories. When superhero comics have big crossover arcs where characters from different parts of the universe all interact, they aren’t changing genre. They’re still superhero comics, just ones without their normally distinct lines.

It’s entirely possible to mash together as many genres and stories as you want. More doesn’t usually mean better–but it can.

If this sounds interesting to you, consider signing up for my class this Sunday, or checking out the On Demand version.

Writing Round-up and Eligibility Post for 2018

It’s that time of year again! Old snow, down coats, tenderly nascent blooming new year’s hopes which will inevitably be both fulfilled and disappointed… and year-end “here is what I wrote this year” posts.

This is both a list of my recent work, and also a list of my pieces that are eligible for the various awards like the Hugo and the Nebula.

I’m really glad to be writing more again. I mean, for one thing I’m writing at least twelve pieces of poetry and/or flash fiction a year, because of Patreon. (Obligatory plug: You can get one new piece of my work each month for $1!) Some of my work has been noveling, and some isn’t out yet, so it’s not all visible in this list– but I am really happy to enjoy prose again.

This year, I’ve been thinking a lot, and writing a lot, about disability. I feel like my interests right now are moving into this really internal, psychological place.

Here’s what I’ve written that is eligible this year:

Short Story:
“Birthday Girl” (2,800 words) in Disabled People Destroy Science Fiction, Sept 2018.
A bipolar woman attends her niece’s birthday party a year after her sister cut off contact.

Read the story here.

Bella and her sister stood awhile in silence, toeing the dirt. Her sister crossed her arms over her chest. She kept trying to smile, but awkwardness wiped it from her face.

Bella’s sister spoke first. You didn’t make her sick.

Bella snapped back. You’re the one who said I did.

 

Novelette:
“Seven Months Out and Two to Go” with Trace Yulie (8,400 words) in Asimov’s, Feb 2018.
A pregnant rancher mourning the loss of her husband has an alien encounter.

The story is not online, but Trace and I did a Q&A about our collaboration here.

“Red, what are you doing out here in the dark? How did you get out? Is the calf in trouble? Get back to the barn so I can look at you.”
Big Red turned toward her, and impossibly, her silhouette morphed and bloated. Legs absorbed into a huge, gelatinous ovoid taller than Kate. Light pulsed within its mucus-like, translucent flesh, rippling and glaring and burning.
“Home,” said a voice, or perhaps voices. The strange, distorted sound was an uncanny chorus. Kate’s heart drummed in response.

 

I’ve also been posting short stories, flash fiction, and poetry on Patreon. Anyone who pledges $1 a month gets new words every month and access to all the previous content. The stories I’ve posted in 2018 include:

“When I Sit on the Fish Tank” Parts One and Two: A cat and her obsession.

Love Is Hot and Brief”: The star-crossed romance of coffee and cup.

The Diary of a Woman Outside Time”: Life, fragmented.

The Stubborn Granny”: Sometimes the Grimm fairy tales are too grim. A rewritten tale.

Why I Write in Cafes

A cup of coffee with latte art and a notebook with a pencil

I’ve been writing a lot in cafes recently. Well, mostly one cafe, but I’ve dallied with others.

It’s a nice cafe. It’s located next to a bus stop that has a route to most of the places I want to be, which makes it easy to get there and to leave. The round tables are a bit small for a large laptop and a drink, but you can’t have everything. I drink iced tea, and sometimes I order a grilled cheese sandwich with tomatoes, and the friendly staff have gotten used to my order. The number of customers waxes and wanes with the season and the light and the weather. Sometimes it’s hard to find a pair of empty tables so I can sit with my writing partner, but mostly it’s doable.

I like the art on the walls. It’s not always to my taste, but it’s cool seeing displays of the local artists. If nothing else, it keeps my critical skills for visual art a little more sharpened than they would be otherwise. Do I like that? Yes? No? Why? I wonder what kind of art I’d be producing for the walls if I had continued on the artistic trajectory I was on at eighteen.

I like most of the background noise, including the loud conversations from strangers nearby. I like voices. The music is often not my taste, but only occasionally too annoying to deal with. The worst times I’ve had are when people are having breakdowns in the cafe. A woman sobbed on one of the couches near me for an hour or so, once. I wanted so much to go hug her.

Sometimes someone overhears me and my writing partner talking about writing and wants to talk about writing with us, which is usually okay, unless I’m heavily absorbed in working–in which case I probably wasn’t talking to my writing partner in the first place to attract attention. I like meeting new people.

A long time ago, a prominent SF writer grumbled that people who write in cafes aren’t really writing — it’s more for show than work, he said, a way of playing the writer in public. I think that’s a real phenomenon– I’ve definitely both seen people do that, and probably been the person doing it (at least on days when I just could not get my brain to cooperate).

I don’t mean to belabor the argument from that old post–it’s just that I think of it sometimes when I’m getting more done at a cafe than I can elsewhere. It makes me ponder why the cafe is a useful space for me.

Some of my thoughts about why:

Having a space dedicated to fiction means that I’m less likely to end up doing administrative business.

There are a lot of components to maintaining a writing career, and it’s easy to get overwhelmed. When I get overwhelmed, I try to organize things, and I can get caught up just doing administrative work, or other kinds of tasks that seem (or are) urgent, but don’t get the creative work done. Those tasks can be easier to approach because there’s usually a done/not-done state at the end, where writing is long, continuous, and hard to predict.

Having a routine.

Like many other freelancers and self-employed folks, I find that time management can be tricky. It’s easy for days to blend into one another, and slip away before I can manage to get traction. When I was living somewhere without many writers around, that was particularly difficult. Here, where there are masses of artists of all varieties, I have a lot of people that I can meet to work with. Having a set time and place to work, and a set person I’m working with, encourages me to develop habits that make my time more efficient.

I always accomplish something, or prove I can’t.

Because I’m at the cafe with someone else, and we are there with a purpose, I always spend at least some time trying to write. Some days, nothing comes. More often, even if I feel creatively dry, I can scrape up something, whether it’s a bit of editing, a paragraph or two, or the beginning of a story (which I may never finish). On my own I can get depressed over those days when the writing doesn’t work, and it makes me avoidant for a while afterward. With a writing partner, there’s a set time to try again.

Having a writing partner.

When I’m at the cafe, I’m with someone I know well. We can commiserate over failed work attempts, and celebrate the days when words come easily. We often write in timed bursts. If I can’t get anything done in the timed burst — usually thirty or forty-five minutes — then I have a check in time where my partner and I can try to refocus each other, so there’s less possibility of never getting back to work. Writing can be lonely. With a writing partner, you have company (while often still being lonely; that can be the nature of the work).

There’s bustling noise around me.

I’m comforted by having sounds around me. I like the sounds of people particularly. In a cafe, I get to hear people around me in a pleasant buzz that I can tune out well enough to work. Since they’re mostly strangers, I’m less likely to end up distracted than I would be if I were writing with a group of friends.

Having a reason to leave the house.

As an introvert, if I don’t actively find reasons to leave the house, then I’m likely to just sit at home with the cats. (The cats appreciate this.) Writing at the cafe with a partner gives me a time and place where someone expects me. If I don’t go, it inconveniences them. (The cats don’t appreciate this.)

Forming a community connection.

Not only does the cafe get me out of my house, but it also prevents me from spending all my time with my friends at their houses. It forces me to participate, however minorly, in the public life of our city. I meet people I haven’t met before, and see people I’ll never formally meet at all. I get to see slices of the vibrancy around me.

Peer Pressure

This is similar to “having a writing partner,” but there are other ways to accomplish it, like reporting word counts on social media or a message board. I’m accountable to someone, even though it’s informal, and there are no penalties. I can think, “I should work… Lee is working.” And Lee can think (direct quote), “Must set a good example for Rachel.” A little bit of social approval goes a long way.

(This post first appeared on my Patreon. Thank you to all my patrons!)

Five Favorite Books

It’s always hard to pick a few favorite books. For one thing, I think it’s easy to slip into listing only favorites from childhood, because those formative years are so vividly imprinted on us. For another, I know a lot of authors personally, and I don’t want to hurt any feelings, nor do I want my personal love for an author to bias me in favor of the book (we can call this my Ann Leckie rule).

I’m going to limit my favorites on this list to authors who are deceased, or who I’ve never met personally. …I’m also just going to let the childhood thing go, though, and list some books I’ve loved since I was young.

I’m also limiting this to books with speculative elements, just to make the volume a bit more manageable.

Biting the Sun by Tanith Lee — This was my favorite book through high school. Tanith Lee’s dreamlike, intricate prose reads like a string of jewels with dazzling clarity. I was enamored of the strange world–a merging of utopia and dystopia. In retrospect, I think its treatment of gender was a strong allure. People could design new bodies when they were bored with their existing ones, and switch to male or female and back with minimal fuss. Wouldn’t that be cool?

Beloved by Toni Morrison – I first read this in college. The raw, painful emotion is deeply affecting, and sensorily rendered. It’s beautiful, though also dark and unflinching in its dealings with its intense depiction of the psychological aftermath of slavery. (Also, the poetic passage in the middle is brilliant and weird, and I’m grateful that I was lucky enough to be reading the book in a class where the teacher was able to help us interpret it, because I’m not sure I’d have understood on my own.) Toni Morrison may be the greatest living writer, although of course that’s a silly thing to say, because there is never one “greatest” by an objective criteria. She’s clearly in the top tier of brilliance one way or another, and for my standards, is a strong contender for greatest.

Lilith’s Brood by Octavia Butler – I’m going to make another “greatest” claim, which is that Octavia Butler is the best and most important science fiction writer of the twentieth century. (Obviously, there are strong arguments that can be made for other people, too.) Lilith’s Brood is, I think, the height of her talent. It’s emotionally vivid, and takes place in a deeply strange world. Butler’s aliens really read like aliens. Like many of her books, Lilith’s Brood considers how humanity might evolve in the future, and whether it’s possible for us to shed our instincts toward violence and xenophobia.

And here are a couple of recent books I’m excited by, written by authors I’ve never met. I don’t know if they will stand in my pantheon forever, but they were books I’ve found impactful in the past few years.

The Walls Around Us by Nova Ren Suma – A dark horror novel that brilliantly weaves together multiple timelines. It’s told from the perspectives of two teenage girls — one imprisoned for allegedly murdering her stepfather, and the other a ballerina. The ballerina’s best friend has been convicted for murder, and now she’s the first girl’s cell mate. The rendering of the characters is sharp, interesting, and emotionally engaging, and the tightly woven plot of flashbacks and revelations, creates a magnetic, urgent force that draws you through the book.

Everybody Sees the Ants by A. S. King – It’s sort of random that I picked this book by A. S. King as opposed to one of the other books by A. S. King, almost all of which are excessively brilliant. (The others are merely quite good.) I picked this one because I remember the plot best, and because I argued for its inclusion on the Norton ballot when I was on the jury. This book has a spare, almost aggressive style, which helps illuminate the psychology of the main character. The teenaged main character is a boy who is bullied for seeming insufficiently masculine and socially adept, and I like it when books treat that subject matter seriously and well. I thought it did an excellent job of capturing that trauma, and the reactions it can create.

So, there’s five books, y’all! What are your favorites?

Haiku Round-up #1

Lately I have been posting haiku to my Patreon.

While I was having trouble writing fiction, a friend of mine showed me a haiku they’d been working on. I couldn’t manage something like a whole story, but writing seventeen syllables of poetry came easily, and felt right.

These are only sort of traditional haiku. For one thing, I used English syllables instead of trying to adapt English words to Japanese morae which are similar to syllables, but not the same. I did use a seasonal reference in the first line of each, but they aren’t necessarily the kind of seasonal imagery that would have been used in a traditional poem. Also, I talked a lot more directly about what I was feeling, instead of using the metaphors to convey it.

However, I did try to convey the moments as I experienced them in that transient moment. I also tried not to revise, to just let them be in the moment they were. I think I cheated a couple of times, though.

I’m going to send out a haiku every few days for a while, at least until I run out of haiku. (I also wrote a couple of cinquains.) They aren’t necessarily in order, and they’re from a bit ago, so they won’t be a read on my direct emotional state, but I hope the words mean something to you

Here are the first nine:

Humid, intruding
hours that won’t shape into days,
heavy, unwelcome.

Night, that bit too hot.
He sweats and works and I don’t
know when night will cool.

Night is cooler now.
Restless nothings pace my mind,
private and anxious.

Bright green against blue.
Another day forthcoming.
I hope it stays bright.

Mimosa blooms fade.
I am content to watch them
this mild afternoon.

Berries dapple leaves.
They and I, windlessly still,
hope we are ripened.

White with slanted sun,
the too-bright sky is stolen
with painful glances.

Smoke taints blue-bellied sky.
All things contain their reverse.
No moment is pure.

School opens again.
I don’t know why I am sad.
Memories, perhaps.

Q&A on Being a Jewish & Disabled Author

A patron of mine asked me some questions recently about Jewish identity, and writing while Jewish and disabled.

I thought y’all might find the answers interesting. Hopefully, I’m correct!

Are secular Jews overrepresented in the media?

I am personally a secular Jew. I suppose my first question in wondering whether we’re over-represented is — what percentage of self-identified Jews in America are secular? (It also matters what the percentage of secular Jews in media work is, but that seems harder to find.)

I found this here: http://www.pewforum.org/2013/10/01/jewish-american-beliefs-attitudes-culture-survey/

“The changing nature of Jewish identity stands out sharply when the survey’s results are analyzed by generation. Fully 93% of Jews in the aging Greatest Generation identify as Jewish on the basis of religion (called “Jews by religion” in this report); just 7% describe themselves as having no religion (“Jews of no religion”). By contrast, among Jews in the youngest generation of U.S. adults – the Millennials – 68% identify as Jews by religion, while 32% describe themselves as having no religion and identify as Jewish on the basis of ancestry, ethnicity or culture. ”

It goes on to say:

“Secularism has a long tradition in Jewish life in America, and most U.S. Jews seem to recognize this: 62% say being Jewish is mainly a matter of ancestry and culture, while just 15% say it is mainly a matter of religion. Even among Jews by religion, more than half (55%) say being Jewish is mainly a matter of ancestry and culture, and two-thirds say it is not necessary to believe in God to be Jewish. ”

I’m surprised that the percentage of people who think you have to believe in God to be Jewish is that high, actually. There’s a pretty lengthy historical tradition of Jews who participate in their communities without being personally religious. The article does say that Jews who identify as secular now are less likely to be tied into Jewish cultural organizations than other Jews, so I wonder whether there’s an increasing idea that being a secular Jew is the same as being an uninvolved Jew. (I should note that people who convert to being Jews are also definitely Jews whether or not they have the ancestry. Judaism is a desert topping and a floor wax.)

That said, I’m uninvolved in a lot of ways. My grandfather made a decision as a young man to sever himself from his Jewish past. I think this was his reaction to World War II. He never denied being Jewish, or changed his name, or anything like that – but he had no interest in his past as a Jew, or in any of the associated cultural traditions. Our family still exists in the shadow of that decision.

I could try to figure out more about the demographics involved — what percentage of great sci-fi writers, editor, etc, from Christian backgrounds are also secular? Is this a function of Jewishness, or a broader secular cultural trend among people in those industries?

But I feel like the more interesting questions are tangential. What could we gain from having more religiously Jewish creators?

Probably something. My friend Barry writes a series of graphic novels about Hassidic Jews. He himself is a secular Jew, but many Hassidic people have contacted him, grateful for representation of their community that is humanizing and generous. There are clearly religiously Jewish people who are not seeing themselves reflected, or are only seeing themselves reflected in ways that are inaccurate or unkind.

There can be pressure on secular Jews to put their Jewish heritage in the background, especially when antisemitism and white supremacy are on a resurgence. I’ve paid the price for being a Jewish female creator, and it’s a nasty one. So, there’s another point where I think there’s tension over secular Jewish representation in the media–in order to work in the industry, to some extent, we must blend in with Christian normativity.

I had a woman say to me, in all seriousness, in a critique group once, that she was annoyed I had included Jewish rituals in one of my stories. “If I want to read about that kind of thing,” she said, “I’ll just read fantasy.”

I’m not sure this resolves anything (in fact, I’m sure it doesn’t), but those are some of my thoughts.

What about your background and current ideas/beliefs/practices has contributed to your interest in Jewish sci fi?

Right now, I’m more interested in the theological questions of Judaism than I normally am because I have a good friend who is tipping over the border from secular to religious Jew, and his journey is very interesting to me. The way he talks and writes about his burgeoning belief (as opposed to the feeling of irresolution he’d had before) is fascinating; it helps that he’s a very good writer who is fascinating on many topics.

I think my interest in Jewish science fiction stems from my interest in Jewishness itself, which is probably related to my self-identification as Jewish. I’m not sure why I have a strong identification with Judaism — I didn’t have to. As the granddaughter of a secular Jew who tried to cut all connections, I could have just put it aside; my brothers have. Our father is from WASPy blood with deep roots in American history–we’re descended from one of the people who signed the Declaration of Independence–and I could have chosen to identify with that to the exclusion of my Jewish ancestry.

What are you writing about now?

I’m writing a lot about disability. As a disabled person, there’s a lot of rich material to mine–and I still have a lot of unreconciled thoughts about disability, and things I’m figuring out. I think a lot of good writing is produced when the author is still on the edge of revelations, instead of settled.

Many of my previous writing obsessions have been much more externally focused. Of course there’s a hideous amount of dehumanization and violence directed toward disabled people, but for some of us, there’s also an intense personal struggle of identity and self-knowledge that requires a deep investigation of the psyche. That’s where I am right now–fiction about selfhood and perception.

Open-Hearted Generosity at the Surrey International Writers’ Conference

Last weekend, I went to the Surrey International Writers’ Conference in Vancouver, British Columbia. I was honored to be there as a presenter, and I taught workshops on Breaking the Rules and Detail & Image. I also had two blue-pencil sessions where folks scheduled appointments to talk briefly with me about short excerpts of their work. It was a nice opportunity to give people comprehensive line notes (which we almost never get to do in a workshop setting) while having time to interact one-on-one.

I really like teaching, and working with new writers is one of my joys. I like being able to bring something new, and hopefully helpful, to someone who’s looking to learn. I had a great time being able to do that for and with a bunch of enthusiastic new writers who were everywhere in their abilities from totally nascent to break-in ready.

It was a busy time, and I’m still recovering from one of those winter illnesses that kicks you in the sinuses (followed by a sinus infection that kicked me in the sinuses), so as fun as it was, I also had to spend a lot of time in my room sleeping. I didn’t manage to get to any of the other writers’ workshops, which was unfortunate; I’m sure there were many amazing things being bandied about while I was buried in my blankets.

For instance, some of the other presenters from the field of science fiction and fantasy included: Nalo Hopkinson, Cat Rambo, and Mary Robinette Kowal. Some of the romance royalty was there, like Diana Gabaldon. There were people representing most genres of fiction, from mysteries and thrillers, to literary novels, to memoir. If nothing else, I have a great reading list.

Also, the key note speakers were really, really excellent. When does that happen? Daniel Heath Justice in particular made me cry on the first day, talking about the need for people to stand up for themselves and their narrative space, even when the world can be hostile. We need transformative narratives, as he put it; we have to fight the disfiguring ones with our own language of compassion.

The most striking thing about the conference–the thing that made it stand out from anywhere else I’ve been–was how strong the spirit of open-heartedness and generosity was from everyone. Agents, editors, and experienced writers all seemed to come to the event with respect and care. From what I saw, the new writers were treated as equals and adults–not in the sense that everyone had equal experience, but that everyone was of equal worth, and had something to contribute to the world.

It’s easy for cynicism to infect an environment like this. It’s so hard to break into writing, and so hard to maintain a writing career. The endless, circling stress of that process can make people sharp and defensive. There are enough new writers who act creepily entitled or overbearing that some professionals are quick to put up their shields.

All of this can be reasonable behavior, depending on the circumstances. Sometimes, the need for defenses are stronger for women or other sociological minorities; I can’t count the number of times that some resplendent, experienced author I know has been steamrolled by someone who thought “that woman” couldn’t possibly have anything to contribute. (That multiple Hugo Award-winner is probably a fake geek girl.)  Industry professionals like agents and editors also need space to talk about the wearing parts of their business sometimes, and blowing off steam isn’t always, and doesn’t always have to be, elegant or graceful. People can make unreasonable demands on their time and energy–like the overeager folks who used to contact an editor friend of mine over OKCupid to ask for special favors.

But the barriers of defensiveness and cynicism sometimes go up when they do more damage than good. For some people, they lapse into cruelty and mocking, where professionals can try to salve their own insecurities by denigrating new writers who are striving with open-spiritedness and passion. They may perceive new people as burdensome–not even in the sense of competition, but just that their very nascence and optimism can feel weary to someone who’s been struggling for a long time. And some professionals are just assholes of one stripe or another, just as every group of people has its asshole members.

In an environment where a lot of people are defensive, angry, and cynical–for good reasons or bad–it can spread to everyone. It can become a kind of palpable “spoil-the-barrel” energy that puts everyone on guard.

The Surrey conference was the opposite. The administrators established an atmosphere of open-hearted generosity which reflected through everyone. The agents and editors were eager to find new clients, and also to help nurture new ones. The professional writers treated the new ones like colleagues, not supplicants or intruders who would have to prove themselves worthy before being given respect. The new writers were excited and respectful of the professionals’ time and experience.

I think one thing that really helped foster the positive environment was the expectation that presenters join the attendees for meals and announcements. It got everyone used to being around each other, and reinforced that we were all in it together as people at that conference, sharing the goals of telling stories and making art.

Anyone can have a worthy story to tell. Everyone seemed to have a strong sense of that, and to respect it.

I think the administrators also chose carefully–and wisely–presenters whose native inclination is to come to new people with warmth. My experience of the colleagues I already knew who were there–Cat Rambo, Mary Robinette Kowal, and Nalo Hopkinson–bears that out. They’re all excellent teachers who are thoughtful and kind, and excited by teaching and learning. I can only aspire to match their generosity.

I rarely think that networking qua networking is useful. I generally promote the idea of just going and doing things you like, and meeting and helping people as you go. This convention felt like an exception–a space (at least partially) made for networking, which was also a space for kindness.

Of course, I only saw part of the conference, and of course what I saw was influenced by the fact that I was attending as a presenter. There may well have been grumpiness and cynicism, and broken hearts and tears, that were out of my frame of reference. There probably were; nothing goes perfectly for everyone. But from where I was, the conference was exceptional in its warmth and generosity of spirit, and I’m lucky I got to participate.

Surrey International Writers’ Conference

This weekend I’ll be in Vancouver (BC, not Oregon) at the Surrey International Writers’ Conference. Here’s my schedule, if you want to come to any of events or just say hi.

Fri Oct 19, 2018

12:45pm – 2:15pm “Meet and Mingle Luncheon” This is supposed to be a good chance for guests and attendees to meet and chat, so you should feel free to come up and say hi if you see me!

2:15pm – 3:30pm Breaking the Rules Workshop. This is the convention version of my online Breaking the Rules class (http://rachelswirsky.com/rules/)

3:45pm – 5pm World Building panel with Nalo Hopkinson, Cat Rambo, and Stephanie Stein, moderated by Mary Robinette Kowal.

5pm – 6:30pm Socializing at the hotel bar. Come say hi!

 

Sat Oct 20, 2018

10am – 11:15am Detail & Image Workshop (http://rachelswirsky.com/detail/)

12:45pm – 2:15pm “This Day We Write Luncheon” Another chance to come chat.

2:15pm – 3:45pm Blue Pencil Session This is where you can make a 15-minute appointment to have me read and critique 3 pages of your work (for free!). https://www.siwc.ca/blue-pencil-cafe/

5:30pm – 7pm Book signing. If you would like to buy a copy of my collection Through the Drowsy Dark, there will be some for sale at the conference. I’m also happy to sign loose paper or bookplates!

 

Sun Oct 21, 2018

11:30am – 12:45pm Second Blue Pencil Session

12:45pm – 2pm Closing Lunch. I may have to leave this one early to get ready for my trip home.

If anyone here is going to be at the conference and want to hang out, let me know!