As you probably know, John Hornor Jacobs is one of my favorite authors, and his new book, The Shibboleth (2nd in a series after The Twelve-Fingered Boy), just came out. John was kind enough to let me catch up with him about the new book, and more!
Ok, it’s been way too long and we’re more than overdue for some catching up! I loved THE TWELVE-FINGERED BOY and am very excited for its follow-up, THE SHIBBOLETH. Miriam Webster gives a few definitions of “shibboleth”, one being that it’s used to describe a myth or saying that’s generally regarded to be without real meaning (among a few other meanings.)Why did you choose this rather awesome, and unique, title?
My original title for this novel was Incarcerado, a rather glib phrase that Shreve uses as a refrain in the first novel in the series, The Twelve-Fingered Boy. However, Incarcerado was too similar to Incarceron, another YA novel about a prison planet, so my editor and I had a chat and he suggested The Shibboleth.
As far as the word itself, “shibboleth”, in everyday parlance it is often used to indicate a common phrase. It has Hebrew roots. I think it meant “grain” originally, but after a battle, the ability to pronounce the word correctly was used as a sort of password, a point of authenticity. In my novel, I’ve perverted the meaning even more. It has come to represent the extra-natural ability that Shreve and his nemesis share.
Quincrux, the antagonist of the novel, has placed a memory inside a bull guard at the Casimir Pulaski Juvenile Detention Center for Shreve, knowing that Shreve will tinker around in the man’s head and discover it.
“No, I do not even need to be with you to know your answer. There are certain shibboleths to our condition –
I’m shocked, and that’s not easy.
Out. Out of the bull, disembodied, looking down at him, his body now a loose, ungainly collection of bones and muscles. His expression is vacant, abject. Quincrux has infested this man with his memory. The bull—his name is Alex Schneider—is just a letter, a message, a package wrapped in a uniform and addressed to me.
I know what the word means in a raw way, more penetrating than how he just tossed it off. It has such weight in his mind, I can tell by the trill in his voice, how his mouth moves around the sounds, even in the bull’s second-hand memory. It’s what we share, this thing, the shibboleth, between him and me beyond that, between me and the rest of mankind—the common utterance, the universality of mankind’s thoughts.
This ability I have is the shibboleth.”
Something like that.
Anyway, my editor said the novel should be called The Shibboleth. I argued against it. It is a weird word, it’s hard to pronounce, no one knows what it means. It would be death for sales. He said, “And yet, it is the perfect title for the book. That’s undeniable.” So, we went with it. Andrew Karre, my editor on this series, is much more fearless than I am.
My youngest daughter calls it The Shiver Left, knowing how much that bothers me.
At the end of THE TWELVE-FINGERED BOY, our heroes, Jack and Shreve, were both, in different ways, very much imprisoned. Without spoilers, of course, what can we expect from the boys this time around, and will you tell us more about the Society of the Extranaturals?
In The Shibboleth, we learn more about Quincrux, his mission and organization and obscure desires. We also learn more about “the incident in Maryland” that left him weakened. We learn about the Riders, the presences behind the eyes of “impenetrables.” We learn some of what the Riders want, and we learn what the presence in Maryland signifies.
And we learn a lot about Shreve and how fucked up the poor kid is.
Both boys discovered they each had some pretty amazing powers in the first book. What made you decide on their prospective abilities? If you could have a “super”, what would it be?
Superpowers are wish fulfillments, essentially. So, if I could choose a superpower, it’s almost tantamount to saying “You have one wish, what do you wish for?” Do I choose something that satisfies me personally or do I choose something that helps mankind? Or, destroys it?
But to take your question seriously, if I could have a superpower, it would be to be to awaken superpowers in other people (a theme I touch on in The Shibboleth). I think I’d try to only grant superpowers to those deserving of it, rather than those solely desirous of it. And consequently do good for the world.
How would you say Shreve and Jack have grown since the first book?
Jack has become an adult, and Shreve has done a lot of bad things and had to grapple with his conscious and a shitload of extra-natural bullshit. Shreve has been broken by circumstance. “The world is a monster,” he says, and it is, especially to him. One of his greatest fears is that he is the monster, that he’s becoming Quincrux.
I really don’t take it easy on the kid.
What have you enjoyed the most about writing for a younger audience? What have you found challenging?
The most rewarding things about writing for adolescents is that I’m still very much aware of the issues I had then, in my teens (not gonna tell you how long ago that was… okay, twist my arm, just a couple of years ago and writing about them has proven a sort of catharsis. It’s also informed the way I look at my daughters, especially the oldest, who is now thirteen and surly.
The most challenging thing about these books are the constant fret and conflict between the physical who we are and the who we are without flesh. There’s a metaphysical dialogue that occurs, in Shreve’s head, constantly. He is a bugfuck, which is to say, he’s a telepath. Not only can he control people, he can enter their minds and experience their history. After a certain point, his ability to discern where his identity ends and others begin has eroded to the point that all his histories, everyone he’s ever touched, crowd his mind.
This development in Shreve mirrors the development of adolescents (and even adults). Who am I? When do I stop being an extension of my parents and be my own person? What are my values? What is my voice and what do I stand for? What makes me different from everyone else? Why should I not be like all those people around me? Why should I not conform?
There’s a reason the last book in the series is called The Conformity.
But Shreve answers these hard questions in his inimitable way. But it is painful, much like adolescence is painful.
And in this way, The Shibboleth isn’t really a gentle, feel-good book. It’s dense, and full of conflicted emotions, and hard lessons.
What would you like to see readers take away from the books?
A burning desire to buy more of my books.
Kidding. (Not really.)
Oh, sure, I’d also like those teens that read it to understand that it’s not easy for anyone, and that everyone makes mistakes. That the weight of your past shouldn’t define you. And that figuring out who you are is something you’ll grapple with all your life, if you have any modicum of self-awareness.
How about you, read any good books or seen any good movies lately? Were there any standout titles for you in 2013?
I hated almost every movie I saw last year, with the exception of a couple. Look, I’m a guy who has written a book about kids with superpowers, I’ve written a book about zombies – so I LIKE speculative elements – but when I walked out of Man of Steel, I really felt like I’d be fine if I never saw a movie with a superhero again. Iron Man 3 was a jumbled mess. I can’t remember what I saw before that. The Hobbit was fucking ridiculous, even for someone who hasn’t read the book but I have many times (first book I ever read, thanks for taking a dump on my 8 year-old self, Peter Jackson, you filthy bastard). Pacific Rim was poor, but had a couple of things going for it, and maybe that’s why everyone got so excited about it – it didn’t totally suck!
The best movie I saw last year was The Way Way Back followed closely by The Kings of Summer. Both coming of age movies.
As far as television goes, I was very surprised at how well Sleepy Hollow and Almost Human turned out.
I didn’t read a lot of novels – and no one wants to hear about non-fiction because it always sounds like the person is trying to prove how smart he or she is – but the standouts were Scott Lynch’s Lies of Locke Lamora, Daniel Polanski’s Low Town, and Myke Cole’s wonderful Control Point. All of these are remixes of what you might think of as traditional fantasy.
With THE SHIBBOLETH, you’ve got four titles under your belt (soon to be five, with THE INCORRUPTIBLES), as well as numerous short stories. Recently, I asked a few debut authors about what things they’ve learned since being published. What are a few things you’ve learned, and what advice would you give to an aspiring writer?
A few things I’ve learned. Huh.
You know how when you were a teenager and you’d take the SAT and ACT and they’d always tell you to go with your first choice? I’m learning that my narrative instincts are normally pretty on target and to not overthink things. But I’ve also learned that I can take my time and try to be less terse when it comes to plotting, pacing, and descriptions. I’m trying to write bigger worlds, bigger stories, with more characters and more details, so I need to be able to have a number of styles.
If I was advising an as-yet-unpublished writer, I’d say to write what interests you. The creation of a novel takes a long ass time, months if not years, and if you don’t get excited about the story you’re telling – if it’s not a book you’d like to read – what’s the point?
What’s next for you this year?
The Incorruptibles drops in the UK on August 14th, this summer. Hopefully, we’ll know soon who’ll publish it in the US. I’m wrapping the second novel in The Incorruptibles series very soon and will be laboring to finish the last book in the coming months. In 2015, The Conformity will be published, wrapping up the story of Jack and Shreve.
After that? Who knows what I’ll write. What I do know is that it will be a standalone novel. I’m good on series for the time being.
About THE SHIBBOLETH:
“There are certain shibboleths to our condition.”
At the end of the first book of The Twelve-Fingered Boy Trilogy, Jack and Shreve are incarcerado—physically locked up. Shreve’s back in the custody of the state of Arkansas, and Jack’s somewhere in the clutches of Mr. Quincrux—both problems Shreve aims to rectify.
Cages might hold Shreve’s body, but the power that’s been growing since his encounter with Quincrux has reached a pinnacle. Nothing can prevent his mind from scaling the etheric heights. Freed from his body, Shreve discovers the magnitude of the evil that’s stirring in the east. The wave of insomnia that’s paralyzed the nation is only the beginning.
To save Jack—and maybe all of the humanity he no longer feels part of—Shreve has no choice but to join Quincrux and the Society of Extranaturals.
What We’ve Lost is Nothing by Rachel Louise Snyder (Scribner, Jan 2014)-Don’t expect a straightforward crime novel from What We’ve Lost is Nothing. In fact, this book is an examination of the 24 hours after the crime happens. Oak Park, Illinois is a lovely, posh neighborhood, and it butts right up against Chicago’s notorious west side. Ilois Lane is a peaceful, and some might say very ordinary street, but its inhabitants are anything but, and their stories are what make up the considerable meat of this novel that very effectively mines the undercurrents of our daily lives, and explores how isolated we can be from our neighbors. The McPherson’s daughter, 15 year old Mary Elizabeth, is under her family’s dining room table with her friend Sofia, getting high when the burglars hit her home in broad daylight. She’s not discovered, but she’s left to explain why she was skipping school and who she was skipping with. When they find out that her friend is Sofia, the daughter of Cambodian refugees, suspicion is immediately cast on them, especially since they seem to have had the least stolen among the residents. And just who, really, are the teen boys (supposedly Sofia’s cousins), with their loud music and bandannas, that spend quite a bit of time at Sofia’s home?
The McPhersons form a neighborhood watch group, of sorts, and of course the police are conducting their own investigation. We do get to know each of the residents that were burglarized, and how the aftermath of such an intrusive crime affects each one. There’s Étienne, a chef with a failing restaurant who claims he was in France at the time of the burglary but in truth, never went. There’s Arthur, who has hemeralopia, and who mourns the gradual loss of not only his sight, but also his independence, but takes comfort in the time Mary Elizabeth spends with him reading aloud. And of course, there’s Mary’s mom, Susan, who has been a crusader for melding the west side with their own idyllic community, but finds herself doubting everything she’s ever stood for, and Michael, Mary’s father, who feels oddly detached, not only from life, but from his own failings as a father and husband, and whose boiling anger would eventually consume him. And of course there is Mary Elizabeth, whose infatuation with bad-boy Caz will make any woman’s stomach clench that remembers what it was like to want so badly for that boy to like you. And we can’t forget Sofia’s family, Cambodian refugees that rely largely on their daughter for social interaction, but will do anything in order for her to succeed and have a good life. They are a constant source of pride, love, and yes, embarrassment to Sofia, and some of their scenes are heartbreaking. Then there are Alicia and Dan. Alicia has a past of mental illness and has been coddled by her parents, even after marrying Dan, and feeling as if she’s not a participant in her own life, finds her carefully constructed world falling apart, bit by bit.
All of these lives come together explosively on Ilois Lane, and the pain and fear that the crime causes will coalesce into a miasma of mistrust and a kind of rage at their collective loss of control. Loss of control over their tidy lives, and the invisible boundaries that they mistakenly thought kept the bad things away. The narrative is sometimes uncomfortable, but ultimately, this is a book about hope, and how one event can be a catalyst for action and change, sometimes good, sometimes tragic.
Rachel Louise Snyder is an experienced journalist, and it shows with her eye for detail, and a compassionate, no nonsense touch. Her knowledge of Oak Park isn’t fictional either; she lived there right after college and experienced firsthand the efforts for integration and the positive effects of community activism. She also lived for a time in Cambodia so is able to give us particular insight on what it is like for refugees to live so outside of one’s true home and be the unfair subjects of suspicion and doubt. What We’ve Lost is Nothing is put together so well, that when the shocking ending comes, you may not know what hit you, but this is one book you’ll want to dive into and stay there, because it’s insidious, in the best way, and will stay with you long after you finish the last page.
Jeremy P. Bushnell’s brand new book, THE WEIRDNESS, just came out this week, and he was kind enough to let me
interrogate ask him a few questions about the new book, and more!
Congrats on your new book, THE WEIRDNESS! You teach writing, but have you wanted to be a writer from an early age? Will you tell us more about yourself and your background?
Sure! I think, yes, it’s safe to say that I wanted to be a writer from an early age. Somewhere back in my files I have a series of comic books which I can pretty much track back to being my earliest expression of some kind of writerly impulse. They were drawn in crayon, which should tell you something about how young I was. It took me a couple more years to figure out the basics of the form: that, like, there were long fictional works called novels. But pretty much as soon as I understood that I was trying to write them. In junior high I wrote a terrible fantasy manuscript in my school notebooks; I was also writing long, serialized plays at that time, which featured grownup versions of myself and my friends, going on fevered misadventures.
Eventually I got more serious about craft, and decided to try to apply a little more attention and deliberation to my writing—I went and got my MFA, and spent my share of time writing straight-faced “MFA-like” fiction. I think THE WEIRDNESS represents an attempt to reconcile my young self’s impulse to write zany, kinetic stuff with my adult self’s knowledge of how to produce work that is emotionally complex, soundly structured, and well-polished.
What’s one of the first things you remember writing?
I remember writing a fictional geologist’s log. I had somehow acquired a Golden Guide to Rocks and Minerals which stimulated my young mind in some inexplicable way: I pored over that thing, thrilling to its illustrations of precious and semi-precious stones. And I remember deciding that when I grew up I would either be a writer or a geologist, and then I figured that a good compromise solution would be to become a Geologist Who Also Wrote. And I drafted this fake log. It was all full of things like “Today I found three Ruby Quartzes and nine Agates.” I remember counting the words and putting a little word count in the corner of each page, and I remember the sensation of little-kid pride I felt when I cracked 1,000 words. Silly as it might sound, this did teach me a valuable lesson about writing: that persistence matters.
It absolutely does, and it looks like it paid off in the form of The Weirdness! So, Billy Ridgeway makes a deal with the Devil…tell us more!
Well, an important thing about Billy is that, like many of his generation, he’s kind of a skeptical person. So when someone shows up in his apartment claiming to be the Devil, at first he’s totally incredulous–he basically starts off convinced that his roommate is pranking him. Even once he’s convinced that he is, in fact, having a metaphysical experience, this only heightens his sense of caution. I mean, put yourself in his footsteps: you know that when somebody makes a deal with the Devil it never really turns out well for that character. Billy’s smart enough to know this, too, and so his first, best instinct is to refuse the deal and tell the Devil to get lost. Which he does! But Billy nevertheless ends up entangled in a series of problems and before too long the Devil starts looking like the lesser of two evils. So he comes around, although I won’t reveal the precise manner in which the deal is finally struck.
Is Billy based on you, even a little?
Let’s take a look at Billy. He’s absent-minded, and kind of a slob, and he doesn’t have too much common sense, and he drinks too much and smokes too much weed, and he has some pretty stoner-y ideas for pieces of fiction (at one point he writes a short story with no characters that’s told from the perspective of furniture). He does have a redeeming feature, in my opinion, which is that he truly loves the world: he takes real wonder in little things like tiny dogs or YouTube videos of fighting cockroaches. If somebody gave him a Golden Guide to Rocks and Minerals I think he would love it. This is all a long way of saying that I’m pretty sure that anybody who knows me will recognize aspects of me in Billy’s character. Which is not to say that there aren’t important ways that Billy is unlike me.
It’s probably worth mentioning, while we’re on this topic, that even the characters who resemble me less obviously still have some basis in my own lived experience. So, for instance, Billy’s friend Anil, who is probably Billy’s harshest critic, is grounded in the part of myself that gets exasperated with the Billy-like parts of me, the parts that are dreamy and ineffectual. And Timothy Ollard, the necromantic warlock who the book’s primary antagonist, can be read as a way of me giving voice to my own depressive side, the part of me that doesn’t love the world.
I could be wrong on this, but I think that most writers, when beginning to imagine the lives of other people, even people very different from themselves, probably start by looking inside themselves to find some piece of their personality that they can give voice to, that they can channel into a character. Just as a starting point, I mean–at some point you have to do a little observation as to how people unlike yourself actually live, or at least put your imaginative faculties to work, or you run the risk of descending into self-indulgence. Not every human being you’ll want to depict can just be yourself wearing a different hat.
Well, I’m absent-minded, and a bit of a slob…but I digress. Anyway, what is your writing process like? How long did THE WEIRDNESS take to write, from start to finish?
About a year and a half all together, plus maybe half a year to work out final revisions. Let’s call it two years total.
As for the writing process: Once I have a chapter in draft form, I bring it to a writer’s group that I meet with weekly here in Boston. They’re wonderfully tough-minded and honest and they kick it around pretty intensively while I take frantic notes. Once I gone through this process with maybe six chapters, I pull out the notes, stop moving forward in the book, and go back and revise.
Whatever chapters get major revisions go back to the writing group again– some of them went through that group three or four times, if I recall correctly. Once those chapters are showing signs of improvement, I go ahead and produce some new chapters, and the process repeats itself. Short version is I do a lot of revision with a lot of outside help.
It’s obvious that you have a group that you trust, but was it hard at first to accept criticism on you work, even though it was constructive?
Oh, of course! Every time I was up for critique I would come out of there depressed, despondent, and usually drunk (we meet at a bar). But they were almost always right. I knew that the book would be vastly improved as a result of their input, and that made it easy to accept the help even though I was terrifically thin-skinned about the criticism.
What authors have influenced or inspired you the most?
Before I answer this question, I should probably acknowledge that The Weirdness draws upon all sorts of writing to achieve its effects: classical literary novels form a huge part of its genome but it also borrows DNA from screenwriting and genre trash and comics and blogs and clever tweets and so on. So it’s hard to zero in on what inspired it the “most.” I will say that two books that I kept in mind a lot while writing The Weirdness were William Gibson’s Zero History and Richard Price’s Lush Life. Each of those books adheres to the norms of a popular genre: they build a thrilling genre plot, keep it in motion, and resolve it satisfyingly. But each one also provides all the goods that we associate with “non-genre,” “literary” fiction: insight into character, vivid description, an eye for revealing detail, a willingness to dig into the delightfully crunchy aspects of the human condition. This balance is effectively what I was aspiring towards, and these books encouraged me to realize that it could be done and done well.
What would you like to see readers to take away from The Weirdness?
That’s a tough question. I do feel like the book offers some advice to its readers in a way that could be said to be the book’s “moral,” if you are the kind of person who wants novels to have morals. But my hope is that the book’s story earns it the right to offer its advice, so stating it here to readers who haven’t traversed the story would feel a little strange to me. Let’s just say that I hope people will come away from the book feeling like they experienced a story that was well-told and that upended their expectations in ways that were ultimately pleasurable.
You’re a man of many talents. Not only do you write, but you’re a game designer! I’d love to hear more about your game, Inevitable, and I noticed that you had another game forthcoming?
I guess you could call Inevitable my foray into science fiction, albeit science fiction of a pretty absurdist vintage. It’s a tabletop game of “post-apocalyptic politics” — you play a candidate running for office in a world that’s been rebuilt after an unspecified cataclysm. You’re running both against the players and a malevolent AI which controls an army of shock troops. You do normal political things like run negative campaign ads but you can also do things like attack your opponent with a chainsaw or drive them insane by sending them packages of dead animals. It’s got mayhem, betrayal, laughs–all that good stuff. I was the lead designer and I wrote the (rather lengthy) rulebook and crammed it full of jokes that people who like The Weirdness will probably enjoy. We raised the money for it via Kickstarter back in 2010 and there are still copies for sale– also, there’s a free downloadable demo version for people who just want a taste of what it’s all about.
And yes, around the time I was writing The Weirdness I was developing another game, a horror card game about evil clowns, but that one is stalled in development hell for the foreseeable future.
What’s next for you?
Well, this spring I’ll be promoting The Weirdness, doing a lot of readings all over. I’m also hard at work on a second book, also a “literary fantasy” novel, although one that’s a little darker, more serious in its overall tenor. (There are still jokes in it, though.) The working title is The Insides and with any luck I’ll be wrapping it up around the end of the year.
About THE WEIRDNESS:
What do you do when you wake up hung over and late for work only to find a stranger on your couch? And what if that stranger turns out to be an Adversarial Manifestation—like Satan, say—who has brewed you a fresh cup of fair-trade coffee? And what if he offers you your life’s goal of making the bestseller list if only you find his missing Lucky Cat and, you know, sign over your soul?
If you’re Billy Ridgeway, you take the coffee.
Please welcome Miles Cameron to the blog! He stopped by to answer a few questions about his new book, THE FELL SWORD (out March 11!).
Congrats on the new book, THE FELL SWORD! You have a degree in Medieval History, but have you always wanted to be a writer? Will you tell us a little more about yourself and your background?
I haven’t always wanted to be a writer—I came to it late in life. That is, I wrote my first novel at age 13 and another at 17, but no one’s ever seen them but me. My father’s is a full-time writer, though, so I knew that the career was ‘out there.’ What I wanted to be was an officer in the U.S. Navy, which I was for almost fifteen years. I enjoyed it thoroughly. In fact, I had every intention of making it my career, and then I met this girl…
THE FELL SWORD is the 2nd book in the Traitor Son Cycle. What can readers expect from this installment?
Battles, romance, daring do, church controversy, adultery, hermetical magic, power mad villains and heroes and a sea battle with monsters. Oh, and a heck of a lot of plot development. The meta-story is fairly large, and I HOPE that readers will just start to see behind all the curtains by the end of this book…
What inspired you to begin writing the series? Did you already know how many books you’d like to write, or did you just decide to see where the narrative took you?
I’ve wanted to write this novel since I was thirteen. That is, this is the same broad story set in the same world as I envisioned thirty-six years ago. I think I’ve grown up a little and so has the world I created with the help of a dozen or so friends. I like to think there will be five books. There are two plots that can’t be landed in less than five. It was meant to be a really big story, with a nested set of smaller stories inside it. So—for example—The Red Knight is really a very small story indeed. It’s a frontier fight, if you like—a skirmish on the edge of two power blocks that turns out to have long term consequences. I have a compete outline to the end of book five, by-the-way.
What kind of research have you done for the series?
Well, it’s no longer a secret that I’m an historical fiction writer. So I’ve done a heck of a lot of research—read the clothes, cooked the food, worn the armour, ridden the horses. Camped in the Wild. But at the same time, I’ve read hundreds if not thousands of books, some of which were ‘research’. It may sound odd, researching fantasy—but where does one draw inspiration? So I’m quite content to admit that my magic system owes a great deal to the medieval and early renaissance practice of hermetical magic, which some people still practice today. And memory palaces—and medieval horse management, and books on medieval economic systems and on and on. But that said—it is a fantasy novel. I made a lot up, and I’m sometimes bemused by the attempts of fans or reviewers to ‘place’ things in history. Sometimes—I just make things up!
What is your writing process like? Are you a plotter or a pantser?
I think I’m a plotter AND a pantser. I usually write a large chunk and then go back and plot. Once I get into plotting, I can get quite meticulous, but I believe in the Aristotelian approach—character begets motivation, and motivation begets plot. I like characters who are organic. So I hope that I write them. So—I ‘pants’ for a while, and then I plot. But then… about two thirds of the way through Fell Sword, I realized I couldn’t go the way I’d planned because one character was—so much fun. I won’t say which one, but she was doomed to die and I couldn’t do it. Once I’d made that call, an amazing new plotline came into existence and I felt as if I’d had this intention all along. It changed the whole endgame.
What do you enjoy most about writing, and reading, fantasy?
I’m not sure I can answer that in one go. When I was growing up—the 1960’s—fantasy was the only ‘heroic’ fiction out there. I love the challenge of fantasy; I love the sense of the alien, the sense of the familiar, and the clash between the two (J.R.R. Tolkien leaps to mind.) When I read fantasy, I’m both a harsh critic and a very easy one.
I can be jarred out of a book by a continuity error or a plot dropped, but mostly, I just trust that the author will get me there. I enjoy the process. I thought of an example before I sat down to write this, but it’s quite old—Michael Scott Rohan’s Anvil of Ice series from the late 1980s. Nothing about that was easy reading, and nothing ever happened the way I wanted it to. Yet I loved it, and I often think of it.
What are a few authors that have inspired you?
Well—I never tire of Tolkien. I think I’ve read every word he wrote on virtually every subject. I loved his recent (Yes, I know he’s dead) Fall of Arthur poem, which I found inspirational for the Red Knight. I also love Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen; I love Glen Cook all the time; C.S. Friedman (also a personal friend), Ian Banks, Lois McMaster Bujold and C.J. Cherryh and Terry Pratchett and Jim Butcher. I think my fantasy tastes are catholic. But I want to nod at some older books that were pivotal to my appreciation of fantasy—E.R. Eddison, whose fantasy renaissance (A Fish Dinner in Memison et al) was my favorite series as a young adult. I would never have read ancient Greek but for Eddison; I would never have dared many things…
What are you currently reading?
I Libri della Famiglia by Leon Battista Alberti. The Medieval Kitchen by Redon, Sabban and Serventi. Hugh Bicheno’s Vendetta about Malatesta and Montefalco in fifteenth century Italy. And I have Steven Brust’s The Incrementalists on deck, with C.S. Friedman’s Dreamwalker next in line after that. Research comes first…
I love the picture of you in armor on your site, and you mention that you love to do reenactments. Will you tell us more about that?
Sure. I am a passionate reenactor of the past. Sometimes recreating the past teaches you more about the past—and it always teaches you more about the present. I’m a ‘method’ writer, so I like to try everything out, and reenacting is where I can do that with thousands of friends. But—and this is not quite separate—I am also an enthusiastic WMA practitioner. I love to fight in and out of armour; unarmed, and armed with various historical weapons from a stick to a pole axe. Fighting in armour is—amazing. I’d say it was hard to describe, but I spend a lot of ink (or electrons) trying in The Fell Sword.
How else do you like to spend your free time when you’re not writing?
Well… In no particular order… I’m learning Italian; I’m making a new arming coat for my 14th c. Italian kit, which requires a lot of sewing (the last one had 1700 grommet holes—pictures on request). I practice my swordsmanship every day; I do a little yoga, I read, yesterday a friend and I walked six miles in the snow in late 14th century pilgrim kit in the wilderness sixty miles north of Toronto… I have a daughter, aged ten, who’s as passionate about ballet as I am about swordsmanship and there are her exercises and driving to her practices; I have a spouse and we have to talk sometimes, as well as pouring over architecture and plotting trips to Europe that may or may not take place. It’s not dull…
What’s next for you?
In writing, I’ll start Tournament of Fools (Traitor Son Book 3) in a week or so. We’;re planning a family trip to Italy, where I will fight in a tournament (Torneo del Cigno Bianco in Verona) [http://www.doppiosoldo.it/torneo.php]. We’ll wander the Veneto and then, I hope, go visit friends in Greece. Then home to write more books.
About THE FELL SWORD:
Loyalty costs money.
Betrayal, on the other hand, is free.
When the Emperor is taken hostage, the Red Knight and his men find their services in high demand — and themselves surrounded by enemies. The country is in revolt, the capital city is besieged and any victory will be hard won. But the Red Knight has a plan.
The question is, can he negotiate the political, magical, real and romantic battlefields at the same time — especially when he intends to be victorious on them all?
The long awaited fifth installment in Marjorie M. Liu’s Hunter Kiss series, LABYRINTH OF STARS, is finally here, and Marjorie stopped by to answer a few questions about the book. Also, we’ve got a copy up for grabs to 1 lucky winner!
Congrats on the new book LABYRINTH OF STARS! You gave up law in 2004 to write full time, but did you always want to be a writer from an early age? Will you tell us a little more about how you started writing?
Thank you so much! Yes, I always wanted to be a writer – or rather, I LOVED telling stories. I was always making up adventures for my toys: grand epics, wild tales of derring-do (cardboard boxes make excellent caves for monsters). That love of storytelling became a love of writing. And I just kept writing, and reading, and never stopped.
What was one of the earliest things you remember writing?
It’s funny you ask, because I recently discovered one of my first attempts. I was going through a box of papers and found a journal that my mom had gotten me when I was very little – maybe three or four years old. It had an orange cat on the cover. I very clearly remember opening it up, and writing a short story about that cat. It was only a few sentences long, but that was the start.
Will you tell us a little about LABYRINTH OF STARS and what readers can expect from this installment?
Maxine is pregnant and her enemies want to kill her baby and husband. Simple as that. She’s got an army of demons at her disposal, but they can’t protect her. Her only weapon is herself. And there’s a price to that, of course.
What do you like most about Maxine, and why do you think readers root for her?
Maxine’s loyalty and her deep, profound compassion for those she loves. She tries so hard to pretend that she’s cold, heartless, when instead it’s just the opposite. Her capacity for love runs deep. And ultimately, that’s always what saves her.
How would you say Maxine has changed the most from THE IRON HUNT to now?
Her world used to be very small, limited to the stories her mother told her, family lore passed down from generation to generation about who she was, and what she’d been born to do. She thought she understood her purpose, but it was an incredibly lonely life – without a lot of hope. But that changes as soon as she meets Grant –and with each book we see her eyes opening, her mind expanding, her heart growing larger. Everything Maxine thought she knew turns out to be a lie, or just a shadow of the truth, and for the last five novels the reader has been with her as she transforms into a new, more powerful woman. A woman with hope.
When you started the series, did you already have an idea of how many books you’d like to write, or did you just decide to see where the series took you?
I had no idea whatsoever. I wish! Instead, I just went where the series took me, and that was often to some very strange, unexpected places. Ideally, I would have had all that planned out ahead of time, but the discoveries came about as I wrote: part of an organic process that created the world that Maxine inhabits. It was an adventure for me, as well. I never could predict how these novels would end – just that Maxine would have her boys, Grant. That her heart would only fall deeper in love with those around her.
What is your writing process like? Are you a plotter or a pantser?
Pantser! But I’m trying to become a plotter, as much as I’m able. It’s nice to have a plan, sometimes – even a little one.
What are a few authors that have especially influenced you?
Laura Ingalls Wilder, Gene Stratton Porter, Kelly Link, Sara Donati, Maxine Hong Kingston, Isabelle Allende, Jorge Luis Borges, Pablo Neruda, and many more.
Read any good books lately?
Lynn Viehl’s Disenchanted & Co., Part 1: Her Ladyship’s Curse. Loved that. I’ve also been reading a wonderful graphic novel called Fatale, by Ed Brubaker.
You’ve traveled extensively, especially in Asia! Where would you like to go that you haven’t yet visited?
Istanbul! Budapest! Paris!
Will you tell us something about yourself that not a lot of people know about?
I’m not a huge fan of cake. Or icing.
What’s next for you?
I’m revising a novel about an elderly dominatrix and her granddaughter who set out to solve a murder. And, hopefully, there’s another comic book coming. More on both these projects soon, but folks can stay tuned to my twitter feed or website for updates: http://marjoriemliu.com/ and https://twitter.com/marjoriemliu
If you’ve kept up with this blog for any amount of time, you probably know how much I love the Joe Ledger series by Jonathan Maberry, so, I’m very excited to be able to give away (courtesy of the amazing folks at St. Martins) 3 galleys of Code Zero to 3 lucky winners! Code Zero is the direct followup to the first Joe Ledger book, Patient Zero, and it’s just as amazing, trust me. Good luck!
About CODE ZERO:
For years the Department of Military Sciences has fought to stop terrorists from using radical bioweapons—designer plagues, weaponized pathogens, genetically modified viruses, and even the zombie plague that first brought Ledger into the DMS. These terrible weapons have been locked away in the world’s most secure facility. Until now. Joe Ledger and Echo Team are scrambled when a highly elite team of killers breaks the unbreakable security and steals the world’s most dangerous weapons. Within days there are outbreaks of mass slaughter and murderous insanity across the American heartland. Can Joe Ledger stop a brilliant and devious master criminal from turning the Land of the Free into a land of the dead?
Code Zero, a Joe Ledger novel from Jonathan Maberry, is the exciting direct sequel to Patient Zero.
I had the pleasure of reviewing Shovel Ready by Adam Sternbergh for Library Journal, and am thrilled to have Adam on the blog. He was kind enough to answer a few of my questions about the book, and much more!
Congrats on a fantastic debut, SHOVEL READY! You have a journalism background, but what made you decide to jump into fiction? Will you tell us a little about that progression?
Thanks so much! I’ve always written fiction, even when I was a kid — I wrote a short story in eighth grade about a private detective named Hades Valentine, which seemed to me like the most supercool name at the time. The journalism part came after college, after I had worked on my school newspaper and got involved in writing for magazines. But I continued working on fiction on the side, more or less in secret — kind of like the guy who obsessively works on building a huge model railroad in his basement, painstakingly, out of sight, tree by tree.
What, in particular, inspired you to write SHOVEL READY?
It was two things: One, I arrived in New York City in 2004 to work at New York magazine, and a lot of my early journalistic work was about the huge transformations going on in the city. New York was both post-9/11 but also in the middle of an improbable economic renaissance, that would have seemed unimaginable back in the 70s or 80s. And there was (and still is) a lot of talk in the city about what all these changes mean — what the city is gaining, and losing, in return. All of which got me thinking about what it would take to return New York to its infamous 1970s incarnation — what we remember as this desolate, lawless, chaotic metropolis that thrummed with a very different kind of energy.
The other inspiration was a realization I had, very late in my writing career, about what kind of books I really enjoyed. I read pretty widely as a rule (I like to think) but, as a writer, I had never really given myself permission to experiment in the forms I like the most: noir, hardboiled fiction, speculative fiction, thrillers, and so on. When it dawned on me that my thought experiment about a relapsed, desolate New York might be a promising backdrop to a hardboiled mystery, the story of Spademan, and SHOVEL READY, was born.
Spademan, at first, is a ruthless hitman, only wanting to know the who, but not the why of his targets. He has a few rules, but for the most part, anything is up for grabs. However, as the book unfolds, so does his background, and it reveals why he became what he is. Did you plan to make him a sympathetic character from the beginning?
I did — I felt like, if you’re going to spend a whole book with this guy, you need to get inside his head, learn something about his background and motivations, and eventually start to understand how that makes him more sympathetic. Perhaps surprisingly, I’m a bit of a softie when it comes to really hardboiled characters — I often get fed up with characters who are relentlessly grizzled, unsentimental and tough. (I’m thinking here of, say, Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer.) I’m very happy if a character is dark — and Spademan is pretty dark — but I also want to know where that darkness comes from. The answer is usually pain. And pain, in turn, once it’s revealed, can make even the most hard-case character sympathetic.
A crumbling New York City is the setting for the novel, and is a very important part of it. Was it always NYC, or did you consider other settings?
It was always NYC, mostly because the city is so mythic in a unique way. I’ve lived in actual New York for ten years now, but the New York City I grew up with (while living as a kid in Toronto) was a wondrous and mysterious and frightening place that I knew only from movies and TV. It was the New York of “The Warriors” or “Fort Apache: The Bronx” or even “Escape from New York” — not movies I actually saw (I was far too young) but that had somehow leaked into my consciousness. I still think of New York in that way — there’s the actual physical city where I work and live and, you know, do grocery shopping and stuff. And then there’s quote-unquote “New York City” — which is kind of like the American version of the Emerald City from “The Wizard of Oz.” A place haunted by a hundred years of accumulated dreams and nightmares.
Did you do any specific research for the book?
I did a bit of research online as to what it’s like to be a garbageman, mostly for Spademan’s backstory. And I did enough research on, say, dirty bombs, to make sure that what I was proposing was at least plausible. Turns out is is — unnervingly so. I read a recent news story about a hijacked truck in Mexico carrying radioactive medical waste, and the fears that it could be used to build a crude dirty bomb. I was both relieved and freaked out to think: Okay, this could actually happen.
What did you enjoy most about writing SHOVEL READY, and what do you hope readers take away from it?
I started the book with more or less one goal in mind, which was this: Maximum pleasure. With every sentence, chapter, character and plot twist, I wanted to make the choices that would provide the most thrills for the reader. That might sound corny, but I do think, especially when you’re working in a more so-called literary style, it’s easy to forget that readerly pleasure is even a consideration, let alone a primary goal. For example: I choose the very short, telegramatic style of the book because I personally get great pleasure from word play, interesting juxtapositions and sharp, distilled descriptions — it’s why I like hardboiled writing in the first place. So there were moments when I’d think: Maybe I don’t really need to describe this whole streetscape, but if I can do it in a few sentences that I find very pleasurable, then it’s worth doing. Similarly, at certain junctions of the plot, I’d think: Well, what’s the most extreme choice here? And I’d choose that, just to see where it would take me. And that turned out to be really fun.
Which authors have inspired you the most in your writing?
I mostly gravitate to aggressive stylists: whether it’s famous minimalists like Ernest Hemingway or Joan Didion or egregious maximalists like William Faulkner or Martin Amis. Raymond Chandler once said that “style is the most valuable investment a writer can make with his time,” and I find, as a reader, I’m primarily attracted to style, to sentence-by-sentence pleasure, rather than, say, plot. (Though I do love a great breakneck story.) But I’d much rather read a familiar story, thrillingly and innovatively told, than a completely original story, boringly told. In the books I love the best, even ones I’ve read multiple times, I might not be able to recount exactly what happens in the story. But I can definitely recite favorite sentences.
If you could experience one book again for the first time, which one would it be?
Whoa — good question. That’s a tough one. I wish I could read “Slaughterhouse Five” for the first time, in a total vacuum, without some of the attendant baggage that comes from snobbish people who offhandedly dismiss Kurt Vonnegut. I feel like that book is such a daring collision of heartfelt pain and swashbuckling experimentation, and it’s a shame that we’re kind of taught over time (by some people) to turn our noses up at it. I also which I could travel back in time and read a Chandler or Hemingway book without knowing anything about it (speaking of writers with baggage). Both of them have been so imitated and parodied that it would be great to encounter either one with no pretext.
When you’re not writing, how do you like to spend your free time?
Reading. And beyond that, it feels like a real luxury to take a really long bike ride in the city. Writing, reading, biking, those are the big three — and there’s usually no free time left over after that.
I read that you’re working on another Spademan novel…any hints as to what we can expect (not fishing for details at all;)?
I am — the best hint I can give is that it’s a sequel to the first book, that takes place about a year after the end of SHOVEL READY. So once you’ve read SHOVEL READY, you can imagine what sort of lingering unresolved complications might crop up for Spademan and company. Plus, there are a few new surprises as well.
Is there anything else that you’d like to share?
Just a thank-you to everyone out there who takes the time to check out SHOVEL READY, since I know the universe of books is vast, and the time to read is short. It’s a great privilege to put a book into the world, and even more of one to know someone out there is enjoying it. And, of course, thanks to My Bookish Ways!
About SHOVEL READY:
The futuristic hardboiled noir that Lauren Beukes calls “sharp as a paper-cut” about a garbage man turned kill-for-hire.
Spademan used to be a garbage man. That was before the dirty bomb hit Times Square, before his wife was killed, and before the city became a blown-out shell of its former self.
Now he’s a hitman.
In a near-future New York City split between those who are wealthy enough to “tap in” to a sophisticated virtual reality, and those who are left to fend for themselves in the ravaged streets, Spademan chose the streets. His new job is not that different from his old one: waste disposal is waste disposal. He doesn’t ask questions, he works quickly, and he’s handy with a box cutter. But when his latest client hires him to kill the daughter of a powerful evangelist, his unadorned life is upended: his mark has a shocking secret and his client has a sordid agenda far beyond a simple kill. Spademan must navigate between these two worlds—the wasteland reality and the slick fantasy—to finish his job, clear his conscience, and make sure he’s not the one who winds up in the ground.
Adam Sternbergh has written a dynamite debut: gritty, violent, funny, riveting, tender, and brilliant.
We Are Here by Michael Marshall (Mulholland, Feb. 25th, 2013)-New York City is a seething and vibrant mass of humanity, and in the shadows, those that are unseen lurk. However, they’re tired of being invisible, and the time has come to do something about that. This is the basis for WE ARE HERE. The book primarily follows John Henderson and his live-in girlfriend, Kristina, and new author David, and his wife Dawn. If you’re familiar with Michael Marshall’s previous work, you’ll recognize John from 2009’s BAD THINGS. John has a bit of a past, and is still reeling from the death of his young son, and his subsequent divorce from his wife and estrangement from his other son. However, he’s happy with Kristina and although it’s clear that they could use some new surroundings, things are good. When Kristina asks John to look into something for her new friend Catherine, the structure of their lives begins to waver. Catherine believes someone is stalking her, and it soon becomes apparent that something untoward is happening. Is it someone from her past? A scorned lover, or a stranger? As John and Kristina investigate, they discover a group of people living on the fringes, or so they think, but they seem like so much more than just forgotten people. They are indeed more, and a man called Reinhart is intent on exploiting them, but to what end?
If it seems as if I’m being vague, there’s a reason for that. I don’t want to give too much away because to do that would be to spoil what makes this novel such a good read. Michael Marshall is a pro at weaving the fantastic with the mundane, and We Are Here is no exception. It’s hard not to get invested with John and Kristina, and by the time you get to the final revelations, you’re thoroughly entrenched in their lives, as well as the lives of David, Dawn, and even the “others.” In fact, the “others” are just as vivid as the main characters, and indeed, Michael Marshall could write an entire book, or books, just about them, easily. Although We Are Here is certainly an effective suspense novel, it’s also about how our lives intersect in myriad ways, on a daily basis, even if we’re not quite aware of these encounters and their consequences. There’s also a bit of observation about how social media has separated us while seeming to bring us closer. Marshall is also very, very good at ramping up the creep factor and although We Are Here is a slow burn infused with creeping dread, the payoff (at least for me) was very worth it. If you haven’t tried anything by Michael Marshall, but enjoy John Connolly’s work, and subtly creepy reads, I urge you to give this one a try.
David Edison’s debut novel, THE WAKING ENGINE, just came out in February, and David stopped by to answer a few questions. Also, we’ve got a copy of the book to give away to 1 lucky winner, courtesy of Tor, so be sure to check out the details at the bottom of the post!
I’m very excited about your debut novel, THE WAKING ENGINE! Have you always wanted to be a writer? Will you tell us a bit about yourself and your background?
Thank you! I’ve always been a writer, yes—I’ve tried more types of writing gigs than I can count, from ghost writer to food critic to video game blogger, but working as a fantasy novelist has been my dream since I was wee.
My background does not sound remarkable, but for a Missouri boy I had amazing adventures with travel and books. Like a lot of my generation, I lost myself in books and science fiction/fantasy/horror on television, in film and comics, and of course in video games. I also lost myself in the temples at Karnak and Abu Simbel in Egypt, the ruins atop Les Baux in France, and the gemstones and minerals room at the Museum of Natural History in New York (which remains my favorite place on the planet)—all before puberty. I dunno if that explains how I’ve turned out, or just passes the buck to my lovely parents, who were only trying to enrich their kid, not create a monster. Still… the dialog between my feet and my thoughts has always been an important one—when I can get them both to point in the same direction!
Will you tell us a little about the City Unspoken and its denizens, and what inspired you to write The Waking Engine?
The City Unspoken is kind of an anti-New York. That’s a city where people come to make it big, to start their lives in an epic way—the City Unspoken is a place where people come to end their stories. In the metaverse of the book, we live and die and wake up in some new reality, as ourselves, where we live and die again, and so on across many universes and many lifetimes. Eventually, when we have earned or are desperate for True Death, oblivion, release from the cycle of life and death, we make our way to the City Unspoken. To the people who make this necropolis their home, however, True Death is just another commodity.
The City Unspoken revealed itself to me in odd little faerie glimpses: I’d see it in reflections of rain puddles and store windows, and I’d get incomplete phrases and scraps of dialog and description. When an idea teases me like that, I want to go explore it, and I’m still doing so.
I was never happy with our selection of available afterlives; they’ve always seemed kind of boring to me. I wanted to explore that, too.
When you started the novel, did you already have in might how many books would be in the Ruby Naught, or will you just see where it takes you?
Yes! I decided that the story would fit into four books, but it was an arbitrary decision for a long time. I knew the story was too big for one book and probably for two, and I was tired of reading trilogies. I picked a four-part structure hoping that I would find ways to riff off of the structure as I went along, and so I have! I found a lot of inspiration in visual art, rather than the old Lord of the Rings trilogy structure. Looking to the wider world of art for things-which-come-in-fours was a good exercise in narrative structure.
That said, we’re totally seeing where it takes me. ^_^
The cover art for THE WAKING ENGINE is all kinds of gorgeous! Do you think it accurately captures the spirit of the book, and what did you sacrifice to the cover gods in order to score a cover like that?
Not only do I agree that Stephan Martiniere’s cover art is unspeakably beautiful, but it captures the spirit of the City Unspoken perfectly. It’s like the city leapt out of my head, and I’m still just beside myself about it. Also, the cover communicates the physical reality of the Dome in a way that’s direct and visual. As a first-time novelist with only one published short story, I’m learning all my craft as I go along: Stephan’s artwork helps me with some much-appreciated visual storytelling.
What is your writing process like?
I’m fairly unexciting in my writing: I wake up, get caffeinated, write, go live life, then come back and write some more, then cuddle my dog and read or play video games. Like a Baggins, I try to avoid adventure for long stretches of time. The occasional apocalypse will happen.
What are a few author or novels that have influenced your writing more than others?
Storm Constantine, whose Wraeththu trilogy absolutely rocked my world, and continues to rock me every time I reread it. With her casually queer characters and magical writing style, Storm taught me that there is a place in the world for the type of writer I am. That’s a big deal.
Also Frank Herbert, Neal Stephenson, Greg Egan. I’m just randomly saying the names of writers I love, now. Dorothy Parker, Shakespeare, James Furber.
What are you reading now?
Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice and Nancy Hightower’s Elementari Rising, which both kick ass.
If you could experience one book again for the first time, which one would it be?
Dune. Duney dune dune dune.
What do you hope readers will take away from The Waking Engine?
I hope they’re entertained, more than anything. I hope my departures from traditional fantasy are entertaining for them—I’m still learning how I work as a novelist, still figuring it out as I stumble along—and I hope readers are willing to come back to see how things work out. Both for the story and for the storyteller!
What’s next for you in 2014?
Writing Book Two! I’m 60k words in and closing. I am learning from the lessons of the first book. I’ll be going to as many conventions as I can, but mostly I’ll have my head down working on the rest of the story.
***Wanna win a copy of THE WAKING ENGINE?***
It’s Berkley Prime Crime’s 20th Anniversary, and to celebrate, we’re giving away a tote back with 5 of their cozies to one lucky winner! Info about the celebration and upcoming events is below, and be sure to check out the giveaway details! I’ve included a cover gallery below the post to give you an idea of what MIGHT be in the tote bag, but Berkley will pick the titles. Good luck!
From Berkley’s press release:
Twenty years ago, in March 1994, Berkley Books introduced Berkley Prime Crime, a mass market mystery imprint that included five launch authors. This year, Berkley celebrates the 20th anniversary of Prime Crime with special author events and promotional giveaways.
In its first year, Berkley Prime Crime (BPC) published approximately forty titles, all mass market. In 2013, the imprint published 150 titles, including mass market originals, trade paperbacks, and hardcovers. Every year, BPC launches approximately 25-30 new series, including several house-owned franchises that editors have developed from idea to execution. In the past year, BPC debuted sixteen titles on the New York Times Bestsellers List (printed and extended lists combined), which comes out to more than one per month!
“When we launched Berkley Prime Crime in March 1994 I believed that the audience for the traditional or ‘cozy’ mystery was still largely underserved and untapped. Twenty years later I can say without reservation that this has proven to be correct and that Berkley Prime Crime has succeeded beyond my wildest expectations,” said Natalee Rosenstein, Vice President and Senior Executive Editor of Berkley.
This spring Berkley Prime Crime is hosting two events at mystery bookstores that have supported Berkley Prime Crime over the years. On March 13, Julie Hyzy, Miranda James, and Rebecca Hale will be at Murder by the Book in Houston, Texas. On March 25 the Poisoned Pen in Phoenix will host Margaret Coel, Carolyn Hart, Earlene Fowler, and Avery Aames.
Throughout the remainder of 2014, more events and promotional giveaways are planned, in addition to Berkley Prime Crime’s annual presence at mystery conventions BoucherCon and Malice Domestic. You can find out more about Berkley Prime Crime titles and authors at The Crime Scene, our cozy mystery Facebook page at www.facebook.com/thecrimescenebooks.