Haunting Questions

Why?
How?
Why not?
I am haunted by questions.
So much I don’t understand.

When I was a child, perhaps my questions were simpler.

Why did that boy pull my hair?
How does the moon stay in the sky?
What if I don’t eat my spinach?

When my mother didn’t have ready answers, she would make up stories. And I never wondered at that ability. After all, she read such enchanting stories to me from books. Why shouldn’t she have tales ready at hand to answer any question I might have?

As I grew up, conventional wisdom says I should have put aside childish things.

Mother taught me quite a lot. I don’t remember any of it having to do with being conventional.Read More

My WorldCon Schedule

I don’t often go to conferences that require flying, unless I’m a headliner for the conference. But WorldCon is in San Jose, California, which means I can double-duty the trip by seeing some old associates and friends in Silicon Valley. In particular, I’ll be spending a day at Adobe (which I’ve been covering since Photoshop 1.0); their headquarters is walking distance from the convention center and the hotel where I’ll be staying. So I’ll be flying to California two days before the conference starts.

Of course, I’m also very much looking forward to being at WorldCon, where the whole point (for me) is seeing friends and making new ones. I’m scheduled to participate on two panels, one group reading and will have an autograph session at the SFWA table. If you’ll be at the con, please come by and say hello.

Thursday, August 16th, 2:00 pm: How to Moderate a Panel

“Our panelists are all experienced at moderating in a variety of venues and styles… We will not only discuss what the moderator should be doing, but what the panelists and audience should expect.” Panelists: Janice Gelb (moderator), Wanda Kurtcu, Sam Scheiner and me.

Friday, August 17th, 11:00 am: Successfully Negotiating Book Contracts

“A publisher’s interest and an author’s are not always in perfect alignment. Enter the contract. Each clause in the contract exists for a reason. Which ones protect an author’s interest and which ones benefit the publisher? How do you ask for changes? What are the rights an author should be prepared to give up and which ones should you fight tooth and nail for. Hear from agents and other industry experts on how to survive your book contract negotiation with your skin, and your rights, intact.” I’ll be moderating this panel and sharing the microphone with Cat Rambo, Jennifer Goloboy, Amanda Bridgeman, Joshua Bilmes and Pablo Defendini

Saturday, August 18th, noon: Autographing

I’ll be autographing books at the SFWA table. I understand it will be near the Book Depot, which means you can buy The Winter Boy and Jo Joe there, and then walk over to have me sign them to you or to a loved one. (And, yes, please do stop to say hello other times. And if  you have one of my books with you, I’ll be happy to sign them.)

Saturday, August 18th, 5:00 pm: Broad Universe Rapid-Fire Reading

“Broad Universe is a nonprofit international organization of women and men dedicated to celebrating and promoting the work of women writers of science fiction, fantasy and horror. In our Rapid-Fire Reading, members will read a few minutes of their works: just enough to whet your appetite. Come see how many genres we can jam into one group reading.” I’ll be reading from a novelette I finished recently: Beyond Our Hidden Stars.

 

Being Alien: An Essay in Progress

Today, while doing my morning exercises, I clicked through Netflix and ended up watching “First Contact: Lost Tribe of the Amazon.” It’s a fascinating documentary about an anthropologist’s first interaction with one of the isolated tribes of the region. But my interest wasn’t only intellectual. I was curious about how the tribe Daniel and I had once met might have fared. (To read a bit about our experience in the Amazon, please go to a lighthearted piece I did for Lawrence Schoen’s Eating Authors.)

According to “First Contact,” an Amazon region of about 30,000 square miles (spread across the border between Brazil and Peru) is home to the majority of “uncontacted” people in the planet. Uncontacted means that we have no records of any interaction between them and the outside modern world. However, many (if not most) have been watching us for a long time. Read More

Tell Me Your Story

According to rumor, Mr. Rogers carried this quote from the author Mary Lou Kownacki in his wallet: “There isn’t anyone you couldn’t love, once you’ve heard their story.” Whether or not he did, it’s a lovely thought that reflects an important pillar of my life’s work.

We all judge strangers based on our initial impression of them. Their physical appearance. Their smile or frown or vacant stare. What they are wearing. How they carry themselves or the sound of their voice. It’s a natural instinctive reaction to new stimuli that I suppose helped our ancestors when we were hunter/gatherers, when new encounters could lead to life or death decisions.

Though we have evolved since then, modern life is so busy and complex, that it’s often easier (and less time-consuming) to fall back on those outdated survival instincts. However, cutting ourselves off from the potential such encounters can offer makes our world smaller and diminishes our opportunities (social, cultural and economic). It turns the grand adventure our lives can be into a mere existence in which we rigidly remain who and what we are, never learning, never growing and having far less fun.

What’s more, you never know who you might meet.

That’s one of the reasons I often shake things up in my workshops and lectures, sometimes asking people to sit next to someone they’ve never met. Then, to introduce themselves, and tell the other person one fact a stranger might never guess just by looking at them. Learning another person’s story is a beginning; where it might lead is anyone’s guess.

So, tell me your story. What would surprised me, or fascinate me, or give me a clue about your inner self that I don’t yet know about you?

Adventures at Readercon 2018

This past weekend at Readercon was filled with great conversations, superb author readings, interesting panels and the inevitable hijinx. I’m still going through pictures that folks have sent me of my readings, panels and friendly gatherings. Here are a few.

Kestrel Verlager and Chip Delany
I thoroughly enjoyed all kinds of conversations in the Readercon green room, including with Kestrel Verlager and Samuel Delany.
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My Readercon Schedule

I’m very much looking forward to attending Readercon this week. The drive up to Quincy, Massachusetts will be great — with Samuel R. Delany and Dennis Rickett. However, we’ll miss Tom Purdom who won’t be joining us this year, and especially Gardner Dozois who has left this earth. Then, we’ll have a weekend dedicated hanging with friends (old and new) as well as interesting conversations, panels, author readings and opportunities to learn from each other.  

If you’ll be in Quincy, Massachusetts for the conference, here’s my schedule:

Thursday, July 12th

8:00 pm — Panel: Complicating the Redemption Narrative (Blue Hills Room)

I’m the moderator. Panelists: Gemma Files, Hillary Monahan, Tracy Townsend, Gregory A. Wilson

Some antagonists and wrongdoers are given texture and context until
they come all the way around to being understandable and sympathetic,
perhaps culminating in a heroic or tragic death. Others are
evil forever. Which types (and demographics) of villains are allowed
to have redemption arcs? How do these stories reflect and shape this
cultural moment of moral upheaval? Can alternative reconciliation
models such as restorative justice be used to transform the redemption
narrative? 

Friday, July 14th

11:00 am — Panel: Being Alien (Blue Hills Room)

Gwendolyn Clare (moderator). Panelists: Layla Al-Bedawi, David DeGraff, Samuel R. Delany, and me

Being alien often relates to the preconceptions and points of reference that make the borderlands among people so dangerous, unpredictable, and exciting. This panel will explore what it is to be “alien” and various works that have used otherworldly creatures or non-humans in ways to get readers thinking about the nature of being human. 

1:00 pm — Group Reading: Broad Universe (Salon A)

Authors reading: Terri Bruce, LJ Cohen, Randee Dawn, Elaine Isaak, Emily Lavin Leverett, Dianna Sanchez, Sarah Smith, Tracy Townsend and, very briefly, me.

Broad Universe is a collective of women and female-identifying authors of science fiction, fantasy, and horror.

8:30 pm — My Solo Reading (Salon B)

As a solo reading, I’ll be able to read a significant portion of my recently completed novelette Beyond Our Hidden Stars.

Saturday, July 15th

11:00 am — Group Reading: Tabula Rasa

Randee Dawn, Barbara Krasnoff, Terence Taylor and, rather briefly, me

Tabula Rasa is a Brooklyn-based writers group.

 

Looking forward to seeing my friends and making new ones!

 

In the Beginning…

 

The Storyteller by Sally Wiener Grotta
The Storyteller (c) by Sally Wiener Grotta

 

In the beginning…. How many tales start with those three words? In all languages, from every people who have ever walked this earth. Here is mine – or at least, my latest.

In the beginning, there was Story. Before Story, all was amorphous, unfathomable. Mysteries too profound and daunting to ever be knowable. Yet the human mind needs shape and form. We struggle to create it even in a dense, nebulous fog. We look up at the night sky with its chaotic multitude of stars and see creatures and gods staring down at us, maybe even watching us.

We are so small and insignificant, mere pebbles in the surf, tossed here and there by forces beyond our ken. Why? Who made it so? Questions formed in our minds and gave birth to Story. And with Story, we stepped up one more evolutionary level, becoming human.

Story gives shape and meaning. It’s how we learn to ask questions, to try to find answers.

The nature of Story is that it is as changeable as the world it seeks to understand, as varied as the many storytellers who weave the tales. With every retelling, new threads and new colors are added, as new answers try to reshape the questions, sometimes replacing the old.

I have been fascinated by Story as long as I can remember. At a very young age, I was privileged to be immersed in a wide ranging buffet of tales, all of which shaped my mind, my beliefs and eventually my own tellings. Greek mythology. Christian parables. Jewish, Asian, African and Native American folk tales and spiritual traditions. So similar in many ways to each other, as each human being is similar to others, especially in the nature of our questions. And yet, just as each person is unique, each tale came to me as an individual, with a personality shaped by its progenitors, birthplace and cultural milieu. Over the years, they have merged and morphed, becoming as much a part of me as my childhood memories – which are yet another series of stories I tell myself, a personal mythology that I use to try to understand who I am, where I came from, and why.

So, though I may not be able to pinpoint which influences came from which tale, I carry them within me. They taught me the important lessons of Story: that questions are what propel us, and that a good tale touches all of us, reaching through barriers as nothing else can.

That’s why storytelling is an integral component of all education and why in my novel The Winter Boy, it’s a primary vehicle used by the Alleshi (a cloistered society of widows) to train the young men entrusted to them. Tell a student a fact or idea, and it has a small chance of sticking, with more and more being forgotten as time passes. But give students a good, meaningful story that threads the ideas and facts into the fabric of all too human lives, and they will hold it within them until it becomes part of them, and they may even share it with their grandchildren. Thus the Alleshi have created a unified society out of diverse tribes and villages, using Story as a common language and social glue.

Yet, sometimes stories can throw up obstacles, too – often surprising the teller. I tell book discussion groups that the novel I write isn’t the novel they read. That’s because we all carry our histories and preconceptions with us, flavoring our reactions. But that’s true not only with reading but living. Even as we hear words and ideas, we reshape them as our personal predilections would have them be.

In my novel Jo Joe, Judith Ormand (a mixed-race Jewish woman raised by her white Christian grandparents) returns to her hometown, filled with anger and bitterness as she confronts people from her youth who hurt her, shunned her, or simply didn’t love her as she wanted/needed. It’s a story of prejudice and lost innocence, told from Judith’s first person view, created from within her, shaped by who she is and how she sees the world, until her history becomes a personal mythology on which she has built her life. She – and the people she has known — project misconceptions and expectations rather than see each other fully. I am pleased that Jo Joe is being used to fuel discussions about bridging the ethnic/racial divide.

Why did I choose to make Judith multi-racial (with a father who is French, Black and Jewish, while her mother is a white American from a Christian family)? It’s that subconscious I was talking about earlier. Judith was born in my mind fully formed, right down to her name, churned forth by Story so that she was who I needed her to be for the novel that evolved out of her. I’ll leave it to others to psychoanalyze me why I needed Judith, why I was compelled to write Jo Joe. All I can say is that Judith is a soul-deep part of me, just as Joe Anderson is (the white boy who cruelly broke her heart). As all the characters I write are. Even Wayne Anderson, Joe’s violent bully brother, who comes from my deepest nightmares.

Some might question the appropriateness of me writing in the first person of a mixed race woman. I would respond, until you know me, truly know me – and my writing – please don’t project your expectations on me. You might be surprised what you find under the first impression you might have of this white middle-aged middle-class Jewish woman.

Judith learned that lesson the hard way. I’m still learning it, though I believe that my multi-cultural upbringing has helped me to try to understand before projecting, to try to listen and ask questions before reacting to surface impressions. It’s a constant struggle for me, as it is for all of us. Shortcut stereotyping – or as CW would call it, profiling – is an easy default. When I see a stranger – or read a new author’s book – it’s much simpler to try to slot him or her into categories I recognize and feel comfortable responding to, either negatively or positively, based on my history with other “similar” folk. The more difficult, but much more interesting and rewarding path, is to try to see and read each person anew. That’s another and probably the most important lesson all those tales that I ingested as a child taught me.

From the beginning, Story gave us a wide diversity of voices, sung to different rhythms. Sometimes we haven’t understood each other’s words, actions or histories, but we have Story to guide us, to change us and help us grow until, if we’re lucky, we can learn to understand and appreciate each other.

The Novelist as Poet or Philosopher; Meditation Inspired by Samuel Delany’s The Atheist in the Attic

"The Atheist in the Attic" by Samuel R. DelanyMy short essay “Novelist as Poet or Philosopher; Meditation Inspired by Samuel Delany‘s The Atheist in the Attic” was recently published on the SFWA blog (Science Fiction & Fantasy Authors of America). 

The Atheist in the Attic is a “fictive reconstruction” of a meeting between the philosophers Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz and Baruch de Spinoza, told from Leibniz’s point of view. An intriguing read, it sent my mind in a variety of different direction. At one point, I took a discussion of the differences between a poet and a philosopher and considered how it might apply to different kinds of novelists. I’ve decided that I’m essentially a philosopher; no surprise there. As I wrote in the essay, “I write to understand. My characters and plots are formed in a subconscious that churns with confusion or concern about how the world functions (or fails to function). As I write the story my characters tell me, I find myself posing questions that [as Delany wrote in The Atheist in the Attic] “reflect and even explain the differences and forces that relate them all… hold them together… or tear them apart.” 

Please read the essay here, and let me know what you think. What kinds of authors do you prefer to read — poets or philosophers, as defined by Delany’s book? And if you’re a writer, are you a poet or philosopher… or something else?

Nothing is Linear! (On the Fallacy of Time Management)

Nothing is linear by Sally Wiener GrottaHave you ever tried to organize just one part of a closet?

  • Step 1: Remove everything from a single shelf
  • Step 2: Pile it all together onto the bed
  • Step 3: Organize the stuff into logical piles all over the bedroom, putting like with like: scarves with scarves, purses with purses, etc.
  • Step 4: Go through each pile. Try on clothes to make sure they still fit, look good, are in style, etc. Make liberal use of trash cans.
  • Step 5: Create another pile for things to give away (or several piles, if you have different people or organizations who should get the stuff.)
  • Step 6: Put it all away, neatly and fully organized.

Sounds so logical, so linear. Simply go from Step 1 to Step 6, and achieve your goal for the day. But it doesn’t quite work out that way.

First, you have to make the bed, and clear other spaces in the room to hold the piles. That means going through all those papers on the bureau that you really need to file, though some are letters. In particular one letter should have been responded to last week. It won’t take that long, why was I putting it off? So, you head downstairs to your office to organize the papers in your hands, and write one or two letters or emails. Of course, some emails have come in that you really should answer. (And Facebook beckons.)

A couple of hours later, Read More

Walking the Starry Path

“‘It’s up there in the sky for us all to see, a prayer every night.
A good story fill you up when you hungry, when you lonely.
A good song take the hurting out your spirit.
No harm believing in that.’ She gave him a wind-up music box.
‘Play this and think of the stars smiling on you.'”

from From Redwood and Wildfire
by Andrea Hairston

When I was a young child, my mother had two sure fire ways to get me to go to bed. My favorite was when she would read me to sleep. As I drifted off, riding the rhythms of her voice, I would often continue to weave the tale in my dreams. My dreamtales became so real to me that I was sometimes surprised when she read the same stories to me again and they finished in a different way than I remembered.

The other was to tune the radio to “fairie music.” (Looking back, I suppose it was the name I gave to classical orchestrations that purred rather than crashed.) Sometimes, Mother would be frustrated in trying to find a station playing just the right kind of sweet music I wanted. But when she did, it billowed through my mind, guiding me to see stars dancing and to feel the breeze of dreams. The music, like the stories, carried me to a place in my imagination that existed beyond the here and now.

When I speak to audiences about storytelling, I often say that it is hardwired into the human psyche. From the beginning of time, stories have been the way we teach and learn, how we communicate and think, the pattern we give to our questions about the world around us and the shape we try to give to our beliefs and attempts to understand.

But I must go one step further… Story is who and what I am, how I try to understand myself, my world, my uncertainties and my fears. How I try to make sense of love and hate, anger and sorrow.

I have never stopped attempting to finish my mother’s tales. It’s what drives me forward and burbles within my subconscious, flavoring my days and especially my nights.

I am a storyteller. It is my mother’s gift to me. And her curse. And the song her soul sings to me of what may come.

Sometimes, late at night when I can’t sleep, I lie there in bed, staring at the dark ceiling far above my head, and I hear the rhythm of new words, the tune of a fairie’s harp from far away, and it carries me away from the thoughts and fears that plague my mind. And I walk the starry path to another story to be dreamed.