October 25, 2016

Down the Hatch: a guest post by Amber Bird, author of "Peace Fire"

In 2050, the world is a little denser, a little greyer, and a little more firmly under the corporate thumb. Wriggling carefully under that thumb, in their dimly lit flats, Katja and her friends have tended to walk the fine line between cyber criminals and cyber crusaders. For them, no physical reality compares to their lives built on lines of aggressive code.

But then somebody blows up the office where Katja is pretending to be a well-behaved wage slave and jolts them into the concrete and clouds of corporeal Seattle. Of brains infiltrated by a clandestine threat.

Can a handful of digital warriors win a war that stretches into the world on the flesh and blood side of their computer screens?

"A smart, fun, fierce tale of geek revolution and high-stakes adventure."

-Ernest Cline, Bestselling Author of Ready Player One


Down the Hatch: the Value of Escape
a guest post by Amber Bird

Growing up, I got the distinct impression that fiction, non-classical music, and other media that weren’t fine art were only for entertainment or escape. I also got the impression that such escape was silly.
More recently, I’ve had an experience multiple times that goes something like this: Someone asks me about my music or my writing. When they find out that my genres of choice are rock music and science-fiction, they say something like, “Oh, but I thought you were smart!”
In short, it’s been made pretty clear to me that the escape many of us find in books, songs, films, and the like isn’t important. But I’d like to suggest that we’re selling our media short. In my experience, these escape hatches are as important as escape hatches in submarines, ships, and airplanes.
I suspect people who don’t see the importance think we’re only using books to escape boredom. As possible escapes from boredom go, I’d say that reading isn’t the worst. We could list loads of other things people do to escape boredom that are less safe, savory, or legal. (I thought a lot about such escapes as I considered the lives and drives of the once-hedonistic hackers in my book, Peace Fire.) So, I’m definitely not suggesting, even if it were just a way to escape from boredom, it’s a bad thing. But I want to talk about three other ways reading fiction has helped me and others I’ve known escape.
Setting Our Sights
Sometimes, reality presents a too-limited view.
Fiction has given us role models. The super hero that kids and adults alike look up to as an example of bravery, integrity, and doing good is an obvious one. From my own history, I can pull out the times I used Spock’s example to help me strive for a more logical approach to life instead of letting my feelings run rampant. Or that time I was stuck in the sort of job that made me literally hope to get hit by a car. I got myself out the door by imagining I was one of the Fremen warrior women in Dune. I could be that strong. I could pull my hair back and set my jaw and survive the desert of work.
Fiction has helped us believe in the possibility of better times and places. We’ve seen that fiction can become truth, that an inventor can pick up an idea from a sci-fi story and change our world. I’ve seen people take their belief in better and build communities. For example, I know a number of people who read Bordertown and decided to seek out others who might have headed for the border. Together, they created a warmer future than they had thought they might have.
Fiction has helped us dream, helped us reach for new dreams and regain old ones. A lot of people can easily grow up thinking they know the path they’re going to be stuck on until the end, but then they read a book that changes their mind. This includes those astronauts whose dreams of space started in a sci-fi book or film. It includes people who recognized abuse in their lives when they saw it in a fictional context, so they found their way to a better place. It includes my friend who keeps herself from sinking into depression by countering her negative self-talk with the reminder that she could be a changeling queen, hidden in a human body for her own safety. (The dream doesn’t have to come true to do some good.)
Holding On
Sometimes, life is too heavy.
Fiction has given us places where, even if they were imaginary, we had friends. Humans are, generally speaking, a social species. If you’ve always had real world friends, you don’t know the soul-crushing desperation of being friendless. Nor can you know the momentary relief of even imaginary friends. And, like I mentioned above, sometimes fiction even helps us find real world friends.
Fiction has given us a place where nobody was calling us useless, worthless, destined to fail. A break from the non-stop drumming that can come from outside and in and make us give up. And, again, maybe even given us hope that we’ll succeed.
Fiction has given us a respite, even if just for a moment, from things we can’t actually escape. Abuse, depression, grim lives of all kinds. It might not have fixed anything in our “real” lives, but it let us catch our breath. I’m literally still alive to write this because, when depression was devouring me, I had fiction and music to fall into instead of falling onto something sharp. I did that for long enough that I had a chance to take advantage of all else the escape hatches offered, that I hung on until I could get the help that improved my head.
Becoming Better
Sometimes, the biggest thing holding us back is our own concept of things.
Fiction has shown us the other side to those who are different, helped us identify and work past prejudices, and helped us have compassion. Helped us see people unlike us as humans too. Allowed us to be compassionate and bridge the gap.
Fiction has shown us the other side of our own differences, helped us be more compassionate and helpful to ourselves.
Fiction has modeled other ways the world can be. Sometimes, it helped us see what we didn’t want to be, sometimes showed that what we had feared wasn’t actually scary.
There are other benefits I could list, but hopefully this has you thinking of your own escapes, your own proofs that fiction has worth. I’ll end with a quote that came across my social media today.

"We do not escape into philosophy, psychology, and art—we go there to restore our shattered selves into whole ones." -Ana├»s Nin, In Favor of the Sensitive Man and Other Essays

Amber Bird is a writer, a rockstar, and a scifi girl. She is the author of the Peaceforger books, the front of post-punk/post-glam band Varnish, and an unabashed geek. An autistic introvert who found that music, books, and gaming saved her in many ways throughout her life, she writes (books, poems, lyrics, blogs) and makes music in hopes of adding to someone else's escape or rescue. And, yes, she was on that Magic card.

October 24, 2016

Be Careful What You Search For Because You Just Might Find It: a review of Amy Stuart's "Still Mine"

Still Mine
by Amy Stuart
320 pages
Simon & Schuster

If you want an American backdrop that is otherworldly, and quite separate from what most folks think of when they think of America, you can't do much better than Alaska. It's about as close to Narnia as you're going to get with its terrain that's as perilous as it is pretty.

The protagonist, Clare, arrives in the remote town of Blackmore posing as a photographer and asking questions about a young missing woman named Shayna. Blackmore's residents seem content to chalk up the disappearance to drug abuse, as well as to give Clare the cold shoulder because she gives off the vibe that she's hiding something herself. Which she is, and not just the photographer alias. She has a past of her own that she's running from, which gradually reveals itself through the course of the novel.

With Clare constantly having to look over her shoulder because of both what's she running from and what she's searching for, the tension in the novel plays out really well. In fact, the real meat of the story doesn't come so much from the main plot of finding out what happened to Shayna, but pulling back the layers of deception used by Clare. It's her story and her ordeal that quickly become the driving force for the book. Without it, this would wind up little more than a by-the-numbers crime thriller. Not to say it wouldn't be a decent read; it'd just be a bit well worn.

As far as characters goes, Clare is the star and the standout. There are some glimmers from the doctor and a couple others, but the townsfolk take a while to develop and break out from the kind of stock introductions. The setting, as I mentioned before, is brilliant and lends itself to much to the story. And when it comes to the pacing, it is about as good as you could want from a story like this. You're submerged slowly, can't really see past the murky surface as you're lowered in, and then once you're all the in that pull strengthens through the final chapters and the perilousness of the situation takes over.

It's a solid debut novel from an author who shows a great deal of promise and knows how to leave a reader wanting more, because there is a sequel in the works and Clare is certainly a character that deserves to have more of her story told.

October 3, 2016

Exploring Darkness in History: a guest post by Jason Parent, author of "Wrathbone and Other Stories"

Terror follows those who let it into their hearts.
Guests of President Abraham Lincoln and Mary Todd Lincoln, Major Henry Rathbone and Clara Harris attend a showing of Our American Cousin at Ford's Theatre on April 14, 1865. On that fateful night, a great man falls, but he is not alone. For Henry and Clara, the night is only the beginning of lives wrought with jealousy, madness, and horror.
The Only Good Lawyer
Bradley is a savvy defense attorney with no scruples. Under his representation, many a guilty man has gone free. But when a voodoo priest takes the stand, Bradley soon discovers that he, too, is on trial, and the punishment for guilt may be more than he could bear.
Dorian's Mirror
Dorian loves himself, and why wouldn't he? Every guy wants to be him, and every girl wants to be with him. He would trade all he has to make his looks last forever, but bargaining with the devil may leave him short a soul.
For the Birds
Nev's best friend is his parrot. In fact, it's his only friend… and his only ally when his home is invaded.
Revenge is a Dish

Maurice has landed a dream job, chef for a rich couple on their yacht. The wife has carnal desires for him. Maurice has some carnal desires of his own.

Exploring Darkness in History
by Jason Parent, Author of Wrathbone and Other Stories
History is what we read in books. Whether it tells an accurate story is a debate for people smarter than me, but one thing’s for sure: it never tells the whole story.
Who’s heard of Major Henry Reed Rathbone? His wife, Clara Harris? I certainly hadn’t in school. Only American Civil War buffs, and particularly those fascinated with the Lincoln assassination, are likely familiar with poor, insignificant Henry.
Sure, we all learn about the great conspiracy to kill the man some call America’s greatest president. We know who conspired, how it was done, how Booth nearly got away. We know the name of the theater, the play being performed, the words supposedly said by the assassin as he dashed across the stage and through a dumbfounded crowd. So many trivial details, down to the color of Mary Todd’s dress.
Yet aside from the First Lady, Lincoln’s company at Ford’s Theatre the evening of April 14, 1865 is strikingly absent from many American history textbooks. Where it is mentioned, Henry and Clara are, at best, mere footnotes.
Why wouldn’t the annals of our forefathers chronicle the heroic actions of the only person who did anything in that theater to try and stop Booth and was gravely wounded for his thankless efforts? Have historians swept him under the rug because of the darkness that followed?
Oh, but that darkness is so much more interesting. In Wrathbone and Other Stories, I explore that darkness. Who was Henry Reed Rathbone truly? What set his life on a course wrought with terror and madness? What lessons can we learn from the undisclosed truth? For the night Lincoln was shot, he wasn’t the only great man to fall.

In his head, Jason Parent lives in many places, but in the real world, he calls New England his home. The region offers an abundance of settings for his writing and many wonderful places in which to write them. He currently resides in Southeastern Massachusetts with his cuddly corgi named Calypso.
In a prior life, Jason spent most of his time in front of a judge . . . as a civil litigator. When he finally tired of Latin phrases no one knew how to pronounce and explaining to people that real lawsuits are not started, tried and finalized within the 60-minute timeframe they see on TV (it's harassing the witness; no one throws vicious woodland creatures at them), he traded in his cheap suits for flip flops and designer stubble. The flops got repossessed the next day, and he's back in the legal field . . . sorta. But that's another story.
When he's not working, Jason likes to kayak, catch a movie, travel any place that will let him enter, and play just about any sport (except that ball tied to the pole thing where you basically just whack the ball until it twists in a knot or takes somebody's head off - he misses the appeal). And read and write, of course. He does that too sometimes.
Please visit the author on Facebook, on Twitter, or at his website for information regarding upcoming events or releases, or if you have any questions or comments for him. 

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September 30, 2016

Never Tell Me the Odds: a guest post by Gregory A. Wilson, author of "Grayshade"

by Gregory A. Wilson

I admit to being a sucker for the “one against the world” story: the idea of an overwhelming array of resources brought to bear by a large organization or government against one individual—an individual who, to quote Liam Neeson, has “special skills,” skills good enough to counterbalance that overwhelming resource disadvantage. As a kid I occasionally watched a strange show in reruns on PBS called The Prisoner, about a top secret agent (played by Patrick McGoohan) who angrily resigns from his post and is promptly kidnapped and sent to a bizarre island resort, where he is given a number (Six) and placed under permanent surveillance. Number Six is never able to escape, and the odds are completely stacked against him—yet the balance is almost equal, because his talents, abilities, and personality make him capable of fighting back. There is a righteous defiance about Six that I’ve always admired, and it serves him well in the show.

There are many other examples of this kind, of course—Kiss of the Dragon, La Femme Nikita, Enemy of the State, various incarnations of James Bond or Mission Impossible. But the two which had the most profound effect on my own work was Jason Bourne, particularly the film series, and the mid-80s television show The Equalizer. Bourne, played brilliantly in the films by Matt Damon, is a near-perfect assassin, gifted with the best training and access to high tech equipment, but he also has a conscience; after his amnesiac experience, he begins to want to make up for the terrible things he has done by exposing those who ordered him to do it. Seemingly the entire weight of the American intelligence apparatus is thrown against him, yet he not only survives but brings the fight to his superiors in deeply satisfactory ways. In The Equalizer, Robert McCall (Edward Woodward in his finest role) is tired of the sacrifices he has always had to make for his position as a member of “the Agency,” and steps down not simply to get away but to atone for his mistakes by helping the innocent. What makes the show brilliant is not simply the widely varying stories told in the process of helping those people, but how it weaves McCall’s humanity through those stories. McCall is a broken person, after all, an outwardly charming exterior concealing a savage and violent internal life—yet he never gives up, never continues to make attempts at redemption, even when the Agency itself is opposed to him.

Part of what I love about these stories is the resourcefulness of the characters, their ability to be more agile and adaptable than the massive organizations they face. For all of their assets, the organizations are by definition bureaucratic, and that means inefficiency and miscommunication—the larger the organization’s size, the more difficult it is to track down and destroy an intelligent and determined individual with knowledge of the organization’s inner workings, or at least of its motivations. But these tales also tap into our appreciation for the underdog and our general distrust of faceless, powerful entities—even if, in some cases, we work for such an entity ourselves.

My new novel Grayshade, first book in The Gray Assassin Trilogy, springs from my interest in such tales. The protagonist is an Acolyte in the Order of Argoth, the Just God, a religious organization with a great deal of power and influence in the independent city-state of Cohrelle. For ten years Grayshade, the most skilled Acolyte in the Service (for want of a better term, the Order’s special operations team), has eliminated targets at the direction of the Order’s ruling Council, assigned by the head of the Service, Father Jant. His record is flawless. But at the beginning of the tale, a mission doesn’t proceed exactly as planned, and soon he finds himself uncertain of the Order he once served without question. When his faith wavers, his quest to reclaim it may consume the entire city.

Like the lead characters of the stories above, Grayshade faces an implacable and unmerciful organization during the course of the novel, commanding political influence and filled with highly skilled and loyal assassins. But Grayshade knows the inner workings of the Order and the Service, understands its methods and procedures, and is cognizant of the chain of command. So a balance exists, on a knife’s point: which direction that balance ultimately tips will determine the outcome of Grayshade’s story, and many others in and outside of Cohrelle.

Of course, there are other themes at work in the novel—faith, redemption, the intersection between religion and politics, and so on. But one of the most pronounced themes is the battle between individuals and organizations, a conflict in which I’m not anxious to choose sides. Organizations serve very valuable purposes, after all, and can do a great deal of good in both fictional worlds and our own. And I am suspicious of the “one man army” approach, which smacks of violent glorification and libertarian selfishness (to say nothing of conspiracy theories). But the concept remains compelling—one individual against the state/institution/corporation, with the soul of a populace at stake. It’s one which I try to render both complexly and entertainingly in Grayshade.

ABOUT GREGORY A. WILSON'S GRAYSHADE - For fans of Brent Weeks and Brandon Sanderson comes this anticipated dark fantasy spy thriller about a crisis of faith.

For ten years the assassin Grayshade has eliminated threats to the Order of Argoth, the Just God. The Acolytes of Argoth are silent and lethal enforcers of the Order’s will within the sprawling city of Cohrelle, whose own officials must quietly bow to the Order’s authority while publicly distancing themselves from its actions.

Grayshade is the supreme executor of the Order’s edicts, its best trained and most highly respected agent. But when a mission doesn’t go as planned, Grayshade starts to question the authority and motives of his superiors; and as he investigates, he soon finds himself the target of the very Order he once served without question. Now it will take all of Grayshade’s skill, intuition, and cunning to find the answers he seeks…if he can stay alive.

Part mystery, part spy thriller, Grayshade is the story of a religious assassin whose faith is the only thing holding his world together. And when it wavers, his quest to regain it may consume the entire city.

September 28, 2016

An excerpt of James Carpenter's "No Place to Pray"

Two young men, one bi-racial and the other white, meet in an overnight lockup and begin their shared twenty-year downward spiral into alcoholism and homelessness. LeRoy and Harmon work together, drink together, brawl together, and as Harmon suffers from his final illness, they both bed Edna, a wealthy widow who, out of pity, curiosity, and loneliness, takes them into her vacation home by the river. Through episodes rendered from shifting, multiple points of view, a series of flashbacks, and LeRoy's adventure stories this very smart but uneducated man's attempts at fantasy writing we learn of the people and tragedies that shaped their lives and those whose lives unravel along with theirs at the seams of race, class, and religion, and where no one ever quite tells the truth.


Whiskey awakened once more from the same nightmare: the heat charring his face, the blue flames pulsing in the systole and diastole of fire, scorching him to the black of soot and scarring him with a many-pointed star clinging to his neck and face. He touched the star’s webby threads to assure himself that the burning had been only a dream, that the star was indeed a scar and not a fresh wound. But then he thought only-a-dream don’t matter, because the hurt in a dream is as bad as any hurt you can get in the world.
Sometimes in his dreams the star on his neck was a primal leech-like thing risen up from the muck of a swamp to suck the blood out of him and all of his strength with it. Every time the dream went that way, he awoke feeling like the star was humping him and he felt beaten and diminished and afraid to go back to sleep.
He reached out in the dark and rested his fingers on Agnes’s bare milk-white shoulder, lightly so as not to disturb her sleep, the touch a kiss sent through his fingers and just that hint of a kiss was enough to whip up his heart so that it raced in his chest and he had to clench his fists tight and roll the other way to keep from cloaking himself around her and to keep the sound of his heart from awakening her.
He slipped from the covers and sat on the side of the bed and listened to the dark, not the sounds of the things that lived or came alive in the dark, the insects and night birds, the house’s clapboards creaking, the soughing of the air as it eddied and rose in pockets of warmth and chill, setting the trees gently shaking and coughing like a sick old woman. But listened to the dark itself, the groaning so low that Whiskey had to still his own breath to hear it, how it opened up cracks in itself, inviting him in, murmuring come unto me and lay your burden down. When he let go his breath again, it warbled from his throat like an injured bird, bruised and swollen.
He stood up and gathered his clothes and picked up his shoes but then laid the shoes back down on the floor and slipped barefooted into the kitchen and set the clothes on the table and stood there naked, not moving, feeling the darkness seep into his skin and down through his flesh, marking him deep inside like ink drawing itself on his bones. Standing in the dark he thought of all of the dead things he ever saw in his life, dead animals and dead people, those newly dead and those dead for a long time, and it came into his head that every time he had seen a dead thing, it seemed to be looking up at him from a deep well of misery and what the dead thing wanted above all else was to still be alive. Whiskey wondered how it could be that such creatures could be so wrong, how they could have forgotten the pain of being alive and how could it be that they might wish to be in such agony ever again.
He dressed in the dark and went to the screen door and let the cool night air waft about him and the smells of the night with it, the damp smell of grass and the thick sweetness of honeysuckle and the terrorized smell of small prey animals being put to bay. The screen door creaked as he opened it and he hesitated, listening to hear if his opening of this door into the world outside had awakened either of them, but the house remained quiet. He stepped onto the porch, the grain of its worn wooden floor speaking to him through the soles of his feet like a letter someone had written to him in delicate, swooping handwriting. Whiskey thought about how in his entire life, he had never written a letter to anyone. What was that like? To sit at a table with a pencil and put down the day and say in the letter Dear Agnes. And then wonder what to say next and then to say it. What if it was wrong what you said? What did people do after they sent a letter and then thought that what they said was not what they really meant, knowing there was no way to take it back once it was in the mail? It wasn’t just the words in letters you can’t take back. You can’t take back mistakes either, undo an unkind word or heal the bones you just broke in another man’s face or what you stole from somebody you didn’t even know. Or what they stole from you.
He picked up the shotgun lying across the arms of the rocker and leaned it up against the house’s yellow clapboards and sat down and began the endless rocking that was all that filled his days now, rocking through the long dark winter and through spring and into this dead summer of air too thick to breathe. He flexed his bare toes so that they lifted him and rolled him back. He shooed a mosquito away from his face and thought of all of the things in the world his rocking mimicked, the baby in its cradle, the waves in the ocean, a dragon y swaying at the top of a long thin weed. He remembered the different ways he had himself rocked in this life. As a child lying in the bottom of a boat, lulled into daydreams lled with sun and water. Staggering home from a night in town, the stars spinning when he looked up and the road under his feet seesawing when he looked down. Him and Agnes locked together, the slickness of being inside her and the slickness of their sweat mingling as they slid back and forth across one another. Her and LeRoy rocking him in the dirt to snuff out the pale blue re, its ravenous tongue lapping up all of the parts of him that he had been proud of and leaving him forever stained with this ragged scar.
A blackbird tentatively chirped from the plum tree, the center of its eye black within the orange circle of its gaze, its eyes like polished stones liquid with black light, hard as his used-up soul, the bird shaking its voice like a ghost trebling a warning in a corridor that ran the long course of distance between everything that was alive and everything that was dead, as if the bird were saying I am the archangel’s shadow come to lead you home. The bird shaking out its voice meant the day was almost here and the inevitability of its coming was nothing he could stop, not a thing that could yield to his will even if he had any will left.
Whiskey got up from his chair and took up the shotgun and reached into the rafters of the porch roof where he kept his just- in-case shells and took two down and loaded both of the gun’s chambers as the blackbird released itself into full song, the pale light of the sun beginning its pitiless odyssey across the sky. Whiskey stepped from the porch onto the damp grass, the dew baptizing his feet, and walked straight and tall to the springhouse, through the door with its still un-repaired hinge, now a thing that would never be made right. Whiskey thought of all of the things in his life he had left undone, each of them a broken promise. He went into the springhouse and sat on the bench, the smell of vegetables and fruit rotting on the shelves around him beckoning him on to this thing he was about do to. A cricket chirped. A frog splashed into the well. The swamp maple gently brushed a branch against the wall outside as if it were trying to reach in and caress Whiskey’s cheek and croon gently like a mother that it was all right, just go ahead. She would hold him in her arms while he did it. Whiskey stood up and stuck the gun’s cold muzzle beneath his chin and pulled both triggers.

Born and raised in rural Mercer County, PA, James Carpenter made his way through college working various eclectic jobs and, after graduating, taught middle and high school English. He then retrained as a technologist, eventually developing the Erica T. Carter software system that composed the poetry anthologized in the Issue 1 dustup. Erica’s poetry has been published in several dozen literary journals and he’s presented Erica at international conferences, including at the University of Pennsylvania, Brown University, and the e-poetry 2007 conference in Paris.

Carpenter spent fourteen years as a member of the affiliated faculty of The Wharton School, where he lectured in computer programming, system design, and entrepreneurship before retiring to write fiction. Since then, his writing has appeared in numerous publications including The Chicago TribuneFiction International, Fifth Wednesday JournalNorth Dakota Quarterly, and Ambit. His novel, No Place to Pray, is forthcoming from Twisted Road Publications in September.

Learn more on his website, or through FacebookTwitterLinkedIn, and Goodreads
No Place to Pray can be purchased on Twisted Road PublicationsAmazon, and Barnes & Noble.

September 27, 2016

Stories with a Secret, Never to Be Told: an interview with Robert J. Wiersema, author of "Seven Crow Stories"

In his debut collection Seven Crow Stories, best-selling novelist Robert J. Wiersema draws on myth and folktale, ghost stories, and fairy tales to share a glimpse of the worlds bordering our own. With his short fiction, Wiersema explores the mysterious realms of the shadows, the mirrorlands where time runs strange.

Gef: What is the allure to folktales for you? Was there a specific mythology that influenced you in your writing early on?

Robert: Folk tales are alluring to me on a couple of levels. First, and primarily, they’re a source of wonder, of magic, of hints of another world, or more worlds. The realistic and the fantastic exist side by side, sometimes comfortably, sometimes less so. And that approach, I think pretty apparently, has shaped my writing in a profound way. The other way they are alluring is that they form something of a common language, a language that transcends tongues and borders, rich in symbols and deep meanings which, in many cases, transcend the rational altogether. As far as early influences (vis a vis folktale and myth), I would love to say Celtic mythology, or the folklore of television, but I think it would probably be the Bible. The Bible, for a kid in Sunday school, isn’t a collection of proscriptions and restrictions, it’s a font of stories, many of which have stuck with me my entire life (long after any sense of organized faith had been abandoned).

Gef: How did this collection come about? Was this something you originally envisioned as a complete book or did the stories kind of lend themselves to being collected like this?

Robert: Seven Crow Stories has been a long time coming, but in an odd way. About 25 years ago, listening to the Counting Crows first album, I made a connection: in the traditional counting rhyme, seven crows stands for a secret, never to be told. That struck me as describing a particular kind of story, a story in which questions are raised which aren’t always answered, or are answered in ways which may not seem like answers. Stories in which the main narrative may (or may not) wrap up, but there are elements unresolved lurking beneath the surface. I began to refer to those types of stories – in my own writing – as “seven crow stories”, stories with a secret, never to be told. And I knew that if I ever published a collection of stories, it would be that kind of story, with that title. And seven stories only. (I’m a fan of the symmetry.) I’m not a frequent short story writer, so I was surprised by the number of stories I actually had, once I started pulling them out of drawers and off old hard drives. Seven Crow Stories is a very tight selection, guided by the types of stories, and the stories I wanted to tell between the stories, and between my work as a whole. There are characters in these stories, for example, who also appear in Black Feathers, and in the forthcoming The Fallow Heart (a Henderson novel), the links between them being another kind of secret. (The other thing that was important to me was that I couldn’t mess with the stories. In a sense, this collection is like archeology, each story reflective of a moment in my life, a particular time, and I didn’t want to lose that by revising to this current moment. I edited and polished and scrubbed off egregious burrs, but I didn’t do any wholesale revision – these are the final versions of stories as much as twenty-five years old.)

Gef: How have you found your progression as a writer thus far?

Robert: I’m probably not the right one to answer this, if only because any answer I can give is liable to be made up of contradictions. Writing has become easier for me, even as it has become much more difficult. I’m much more conscious of the process, though I work better when I ignore any rational thought. Planning is the best approach; I am a terrible planner. It’s the best thing in the world; it’s a misery.

That’s not very helpful, is it?

Gef: How intensive does the research process get for you?

Robert: I was at an author breakfast last year, on the same bill with a couple of non-fiction writers, and I cracked the audience up by saying that the reason I wrote fiction was because I didn’t have to worry that much about research; I could just make things up. Which was perfect, for someone as inherently lazy as myself. They didn’t know I wasn’t kidding.

Gef: Who do you count among your writing influences?

Robert: There are so many, and it’s a constantly evolving list, even today. John Irving’s The World According to Garp told me it was okay to be messed up, and to live a writer’s life. In no particular order, and they inspired in different ways: John Crowley, Stephen King, Neil Gaiman, Alice Munro, Charles de Lint, Jonathan Carroll, Michael Moorcock, Helen Oyeyemi, Joan Didion, Elmore Leonard, Elena Ferrante...

Gef: Is there any kind of a gear shift writing-wise for you when switching story lengths?

Robert: There isn’t actually, and that’s somewhat problematic. I approach every piece of fiction in precisely the same way, which means I write stories in the same why I write novels, rather than as their own form. It also means that concepts I think would make good stories end up as novellas or novels...

Gef: What is the worst piece of writing advice you ever received? Or what piece of writing advice do you wish would just go away?

Robert: I tell this to my students early in every semester: “write what you know” is a terrible piece of advice, as far as people understand it. What I don’t tell them is that that advice hamstrung me for a long time, limiting me to a regressive circle of autobiographically inspired works... I shudder to think, actually. Far better is the addition of one word: “writer from what you know”. Or better yet, and my default approach: “writer (from) what you fear.”

Gef: What kind of guilty pleasures do you have when it comes to books or movies or whatnot?

Robert: I don’t actually believe in the concept of guilty pleasures. Why should pleasure be guilty? There are some folks who think my comic book reading should be a guilty pleasure – I ignore those people as much as possible. I subscribe to Entertainment Weekly AND the Paris Review, I read Batman and Fables and Saga and The Wicked & The Divine, and I read Marlon James and AS Byatt and Robertson Davies and Carol Shields and Edward St. Aubyn (I’m looking at the shelf to my immediate left, too lazy to get up to make the point) and I don’t feel guilty about any of them. Nor should anyone. Read/watch/listen to what you want, to what makes your heart sing, to what makes you think.

Gef: What projects are you cooking up that folks can expect in the near future, and how can folks keep up with your shenanigans?

Robert: My webpage is long-neglected, and should perhaps be ignored, but people can find me on Facebook or Twitter. That’s where I’ll be talking about things like The Fallow Heart, the first novel set in Henderson, a love story about death and a mythic story about two small, seemingly unimportant people, which I’m revising now, and Cold Roses, the novel still in handwritten manuscript, and Strayed, which I’m about to leap (back) into, as my project for the fall.

September 26, 2016

Why Writing Fantasy Books is like Cricket: a guest post by AJ Smith, author of "The Black Guard (The Long War)"

Why Writing Fantasy Books is like Cricket: Writing the Long War, Part Four.
by AJ Smith

Being a lover of English cricket, I have spent much of my young life in various states of extreme disappointment. It’s something I’m used to, something I even enjoy, for the endless disappointment makes the moments of elation all the more acute. That is what it means to be a lover of English cricket - constantly hoping for the best, against history and cynicism. We were always the underdog, the underachiever, the plucky long-shot. But, somehow, over the last few years, this has changed. We’re actually quite good.
I started writing fantasy on a whim. My writing CV up to that point was a varied mix of journalism and pitch-black comedy. Nothing to suggest I could produce a four-book series of somewhat epic fantasy. I was the underdog, the underachiever, the plucky long-shot. Granted, I didn’t have a cut-shot like Alistair Cook or an in-swinger like Jimmy Anderson, but I had some ability. I had a world, given life by thousands of hours of role-playing games, and I had a stubborn confidence that I could actually do this.
My first book appeared out of nowhere, after a few months of cloistered inspiration. I read it through, chopped it up a bit, bought a copy of The Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook, and sent The Black Guard to an agent. I had a sense of inevitable disappointment all ready to go when I got my first rejection. But I’d weathered worse, the English cricket team of the mid-nineties for example. When my second submission got accepted, I genuinely thought it was an elaborate practical joke. I’d somehow wormed my way onto an agent’s client list. My disbelief continued as I got a publishing deal and saw my first novel in print. It was a surge of elation, sudden, but not entirely trusted, very much like the 2005 Ashes (the biennial cricket series between Australia and England). Something was bound to go wrong.
I didn’t quite screw everything up straightaway like the England cricket team. But I certainly didn’t get comfortable. I carried-on writing, trying to stay in the same bubble that had produced my first book, but I never lost the sense that it was all somewhat unreal, like Paul Collingwood’s England team winning the world cup in 2010. Both myself and Mr Collingwood had done well, but the world still seemed to sneer, as if nothing had changed. We were still the underdog, the underachiever, the plucky long-shot. It was a good start, but little else.
The next year or so was a blur. My second book was finished, edited and published in a bizarre whirlwind of imminent cynicism. I preferred The Dark Blood (my second book) to The Black Guard - but still wasn’t comfortable. It still felt like an elaborate practical joke, and I feared I’d be found out any minute. When I exited my writing-bubble and surveyed the reaction, I found something that scared me – people liked my stuff. I’ve never been comfortable with compliments, but this was new. This mattered. One book could be a fluke, but two... Beating Australia for the Ashes happened occasionally, but to win three in a row spoke of consistency. I hung on to this belief as my third book, The Red Prince was wrestled into shape.
When Australia visited England in 2013, the home side were the favourites. They’d won the previous two Ashes, home and away, but every true English cricket fan thought something was bound to go wrong. It didn’t, we won easily. The Red Prince was my home series against Australia; I was convinced it would be rubbish, eclipsing any goodwill I’d built-up with the first two. Then something strange happened – it received close to universal praise. It was good, probably my best work, and began to speak of consistency.
The only way to conclude this tenuous analogy is to say that, with the publication of my fourth book, The World Raven, I’m finally starting to believe that I’m quite good at writing; and with the English cricket team winning against every other team, I’m finally beginning to accept that we’re good at cricket. However, both situations are ongoing.


By A.J. Smith, author of The Black Guard (October 1, 2016) and The Dark Blood (December 1, 2016) from Head of Zeus, distributed by Trafalgar Square Publishing, www.ipgbook.com

The first in a major new fantasy series set in the lands of Ro, an epic landscape of mountain fortresses, vast grasslands, roiling ocean and slumbering gods. The city of Ro Canarn burns. With their father's blood fresh upon the headsman's sword, Lord Bromvy and Lady Bronwyn, the last scions of the house of Canarn, face fugitive exile or death. In the court of Ro Tiris, men fear to speak their minds. The Army of the Red marches upon the North. Strange accidents befall those who dare question the King's new advisors. Those foolish enough to speak their names call them the Seven Sisters: witches of the fire god; each as beautiful and as dangerous as a flame. And, called from the long ages of deep time by war and sacrifice, the children of a dead god are waking with a pitiless cry. All that was dead will rise. All that now lives will fall.

September 22, 2016

Keeling Me Softly With His Words: an interview with Ian Donald Keeling, author of "The Skids"

They're called the Skids. They've got three eyes, tank treads, and a bucket-full of attitude. They play the games and the few that don't get vaped in the first weeks still die at five years old. Game over, thanks for playing. Johnny Drop's the best skid the Skidsphere's seen in generations, but he won't get to enjoy it. Because his world is going to die.

Gef: What was the impetus behind The Skids?

Ian: This is going to sound ridiculous, but…it came to me in a dream. No really. About 20 years ago, I woke up and wrote down what I identified at the time as the first chapter of the weirdest novel I was never going to write. Sometime not long after that, I added a second chapter on a whim. Those two pieces are the bones of the first two chapters.

Then I didn't even think about it for a decade, until I hit a period where I didn't have any new short stories to send out for submission. I dug through my files, found The Skids and realized that the first chapter was actually self-contained and just needed a little world-building to make it a decent short-story. And while I was doing that world-building, I realized that I kinda liked the world I'd built. So that sat for a while, I wrote couple of other novels, and then one day—again between projects—I realized I wanted to actually write the novel. So I did…and here we are.

Gef: With a debut novel under your belt now, how would you gauge your progression as a writer thus far?

Ian: Ha. Well, I started pursuing this dream when I was 12 and now I'm 45 and I'm finally releasing my first novel, so, uh…slow? ☺ No, really, I'm thrilled to finally hit this milestone. It's been a long road—I wish I'd worked harder when I was younger. If I had any advice to young writers, it's this: work hard, then work harder. This isn't an easy career, but it's worth it.

Gef: Who do you count among your writing influences?

Ian: Whew…lots of people? My first was Gordon Korman (there's a bit about that in the acknowledgements of the book). Douglas Adams was a huge influence when I was younger—my first novel is basically a Hitchhiker rip-off. Guy Gavriel Kay is my favourite author and a big influence, but really, it comes from all kinds of places. Authors from Neil Gaiman to Robert Charles Wilson; screen-writers like William Goldman, Aaron Sorkin, or Charlie Kaufman. A lot of graphic novelists: Alan Moore, Frank Millar, Brian Michael Bendis. Heck, video games. I hope someday I write something as funny as Borderlands 2.

Gef: How much emphasis do you place on setting as character?

Ian: I tend not to think of setting that way, although I think setting is huge and influences everything. I like to give the reader enough to inspire their imagination, but that's it, especially when it comes to world-description. Still, with The Skids, the setting often drives the narrative, and yeah, you could argue it's a character.

By the way, you asked about influences in the previous question: I gotta give a nod to Tron, new and old. It was a big influence on how I perceived the setting.

Gef: Is theme something you have in mind when your writing the story, or is that something that kinds of reveals itself later in the process?

Ian: I usually don't have any idea of theme for the first draft, I'm just trying to tell a story. During the second draft, I start to get a feel for themes that might be present and then I might start trying to make some connections here and there. I try not to be heavy-handed when it comes to message, I really am just trying to tell a kick-ass story, first and foremost.

Gef: What do you consider to be the biggest misconception of YA fiction?

Ian: That it exists? That probably seems weird given the novel I'm putting out, but I'm a bit old-school, so I remember when The Hunger Games would've just been a great science fiction novel. I get that labels help the market and also can help readers find books they might like, but sometimes I feel that it can also get in the way of a book and a reader finding each other. In YA, the misconception is that the writing is only for teens, and I think that's so wrong.

Gef: What is the worst piece of writing advice you ever received? Or what piece of writing advice do you wish would just go away?

Ian: That there are ways you shouldn't write. I hear it a lot at conventions; the one that's affected me the most is that you're only supposed to write in the 3rd person, past tense. Don't use 1st person, and don't even think about writing in the present tense—which I like to do sometimes in my short fiction.

To me, there are only two rules with regards to what style you want to use in your writing. 1) Be aware of the current trends and respect them: if you're going to write outside the norm, you better get darn good at it. Also don't think you're re-inventing the wheel if you do, everyone thinks they're a genius when they discover something for the first time. 2) If you do know of a particular editor or publisher who hates a particular style, then respect that. Don't try to change their mind. Send them your best thing, great, take the shot. After that, respect their choice.

But however you want to write, give'r. You can write a novel in the 2nd person, past-future tense if you want, with every character named Stanley The Firth. Just make sure it's a really good book.

Gef: Do you have any guilty pleasures when it comes to books or movies or whatnot?

Ian: Craptacular movies. If a movie establishes early on that it's just going to take the rules and say screw it—especially if it does it with verve—I'm in. Armageddon, Reign of Fire, Road House…so good.

Gef: What projects are you cooking up that folks can expect in the near future, and how can folks keep up with your shenanigans?

Ian: I'm working on the 2nd draft of the sequel to The Skids now (the third book terrifies me), so that's the big thing. I'm terrible with social media, but I'm working on it. You can follow me on Twitter at @KeelingIan. My website is a work in progress, but it's at, iankeeling.com.

Thanks so much for having me here, super-fun.

September 21, 2016

The Hills Have Tentacles: an interview with Nathan Shumate, editor of "Redneck Eldritch"

Gef: How did you come about on creating an anthology of Appalachian-themed Lovecraft stories??

Nathan: Well, I had previously spearheaded the anthology Space Eldritch, and then its follow-up Space Eldritch II... and while I enjoyed working with all of the contributors to those two volumes, I think that we were pretty much done with the space-opera-crossed-with-Lovecraft flavor of those stories. So I tried to find a theme that could still play off the “Eldritch” brand, but was pretty much the opposite... and I realized that, because we had concentrated on the cosmic scope of Lovecraft’s stories, we had pretty much ignored one of his other themes: that of the human propensity for superstition and social regression. So Redneck Eldritch would allow us to play with ideas that intersected with Lovecraft’s suspicion of “degenerate” people.

Gef: What was it about this book, if anything, that you approached differently from your previous anthologies?

Nathan: When doing the first Space Eldritch anthology, I found that even though we had literally the breadth and depth of the interstellar cosmos to inspire us, Brad Torgersen and I almost wrote the same story. With Redneck Eldritch, I realized that the same ideas and themes would occur to multiple contributors, so I structured the project for communication to head that problem off: I put all of the invited contributors in a single Google Group, I asked them to PLEASE broadcast their story ideas before writing, and I posted their drafts, once I had seen them, back to the group with the plea to keep abreast of what their co-contributors were doing. I think doing this allowed the stories to each stake out their own territory under the umbrella theme; it also spared me from having to say, “Great submission, but I’ve already got this story.”

Gef: When going through the submissions for something like this, what is the biggest stumbling block you see for writers when tackling Lovecraftian/cosmic short fiction?

Nathan: Well, here’s the thing: A good Lovecraft-inspired story can be exquisite, but there’s nothing worse than bad Lovecraft pastiches. I had done several open-submission anthologies prior to this, so I had dealt with a slush pile full of writers at all levels of craft, and there was no way I was going to subject myself to Lovecraftian slush! That’s why all of the Eldritch anthologies have been by invitation only — I’ve come to know several writers whose skill set is adequate to the task, so if they agree to be in the anthology, I know something of publishable quality will be the result.

But more than that, none of the writers in these anthologies are primarily writers known for their Lovecraftian output — a few of them had never attempted anything with a conscious Lovecraftian bent, and one of them even had to go out and “cram” to feel he was up to the task. Too many beginning writers who love Lovecraft love only Lovecraft — they bring nothing to their stories save their retreads of what they learned from the Old Gentleman himself, and the result is that their stories are simply more of the same. (I did the same thing in high school, so I know whereof I speak.) The world doesn’t need another writer generating inferior copies of Lovecraft stories — we’ve already had one August Derleth, and we don’t need another.

Gef: How have you found your progression as an editor thus far?

Nathan: I’m pretty awesome. :) Seriously, though, I’ve grown quite confident in my ability to recognize a good story, and also to act as a second set of eyes to point out an early draft’s weaknesses so that they can be shored up. And the fact that I’m getting more and more experience doing that with other people’s output means that I can bring the same skills to bear on my own

Gef: What kinds of stories resonate with you as a reader?

Nathan: What really grabs me first and foremost is storytelling ability: confidence with using the language and stringing together a narrative. A good storyteller can hold my attention for forty-five minutes recount his trip to the supermarket to buy green olives. If the story is engaging right in the here and now — if what I’m reading from page one is interesting in its own right, not just something I need to know so that the later scenes will make sense — then you can probably slip all sorts of plot holes past me.

Gef: Horror can get a bad rap a lot of times, so what do you consider to be the saving grace of the genre? For someone not reading it, what are they missing out on?

Nathan: I’ve been thinking a lot about what the definition of “horror” is, aside from a category under which things can be shelved at Barnes & Noble. I think that a big clue to what it actually is, at least as far as I define it when I write it and I publish it, is the fact that many people instinctively lump it in with the other “speculative fiction” genres of science fiction and fantasy, without being able to articulate why.

What I see is that “horror” is the flip side of the “sense of wonder” that results from good SF and fantasy. It’s not just being scared — you can get that from a realistic novel about struggling with cancer or with marital betrayal, neither of which I want to see shelved under “horror” — it’s being scared in a way that cracks and expands your paradigm. It can be, very literally, consciousness-expanding; and, as my friend Michaelbrent Collings points out often, it can possibly lead to the most uplifting, goodness-affirming catharses in fiction, as characters are pushed to discover just who they really are when everything around them has been taken away.

Gef: What kind of guilty pleasures do you have when it comes to books or movies or whatnot?

Nathan: I’m busy enough that I don’t have time to read “guiltily” anymore (I recently sent my gargantuan collection of Mack Bolan paperbacks to the thrift store) but I’ll often indulge in a SyFy-style creature feature — “Enigmasaur vs. Tentilicus” or whatever — if only because I’m interested to see just how far a high concept title can carry an otherwise lackluster production.

Gef: When you read outside your chosen genre, what kinds of books do you gravitate towards?

Nathan: Hm... I don’t know that there’s one thing that ties together any disparate reading I do, aside from research. I guess what hooks me about the out-of-the-ordinary reads is the same thing that grabs other readers when they read outside their familiar genres: There was something in the back cover blurb or in the first page that was so intriguing, so captivating, that you can’t help but keep turning pages.

Gef: What other projects are you cooking up that folks can expect in the future, and how can folks keep up with your shenanigans?

Nathan: Let’s see. I’ve been doing some woodcut art prints on Lovecraftian themes which are visible on my personal site, NathanShumate.com — I’ll have an Etsy store set up once I’m stocked on shipping supplies — and I’m working on a second edition of The Golden Age of Crap, a cross-section survey of VHS-era B-movies (now with full-color posters!). My next fiction project is a post-apocalyptic adventure with Lovecraftian overtones. Everything I’ve shepherded to publication through my publishing company Cold Fusion Media is at ColdFusionMedia.us. And I’ll probably be distracted by another shiny thing soon enough.


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