“The Winter Boy” Honored: One of 12 Unique Works of Fantasy That Are Hard To Put Down

"The Winter Boy" by Sally Wiener Grotta

I received an email tonight, suggesting that I take a look at a website. To my surprise, it contains a video that features my novel The Winter Boy, as one of the “12 Unique Works of Fantasy That Are Hard to Put Down.”

As the webpage states, “Not all fantasy novels are hero’s journeys set in medieval times. Some creative authors put their own spin on the genre and produce unique works that revitalize old tropes. Whether they have a fascinating new type of lore or make unusual decisions in terms of structure, the books listed here all tackle this beloved genre in a different way.”

While the video shows Rishana as a skinny 20-something rather than a curvaceous middle-aged woman, it’s a delight to receive this honor out of the blue.

 

Our Memories as Personal Mythology

My sister and I must have had different parents. I have come to that dubious conclusion not based on genealogy or DNA, but on anecdotal experience. Of course, it isn’t true. Heck, look at our pictures, listen to our identical laughs. Unquestionably, my mother and father were Amy’s parents, too. But when I hear her stories about growing up in the same house as I did, with the same neighbors and the same influences, I often don’t recognize the people, places or events that are so vivid in her memory. And when I tell her my recollections, she helps me out by correcting my errors. After all, she’s the older sister, and knows the truth of our past.

This isn’t a rant on my sister, whom I admire and love. Instead, it’s my acceptance of something I came to realize when I was a young journalist interviewing various subjects. Everybody’s memories are personal mythologies, our creation stories about how we came to be who we are today. So, naturally Amy and I would remember our lives together quite differently. Perhaps if we combined our memories, we would be able to create a mosaic that might come a bit closer to understanding who we are in relationship to each other. And, yes, if we could talk to the dead, to our parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, and to others who once shared our lives, we could probably paint a more complete picture of our past. But I don’t believe we can ever know with absolute certainty the fine details – the facts – of what happened on a certain day, whether it was 25 years ago or just last month.

That’s why I question shelving memoirs into the non-fiction section of a library or book store. Apparently, David Black, the author of An Impossible Life, agrees with me. Why else would he have given that piece of magical realism the subtitle a bobeh myseh, which is a Yiddish phrase that translates as an old wives’ tale, an untrue story or something of little consequence?

"An Impossible LIfe" by David BlackAn Impossible Life is a brilliant pastiche of Black’s family history, based on his memories, relatives’ oft repeated tales, Jewish heritage and folklore, a touch of Kabbalah, and references to the Torah, with the holes filled in by his imagination. The most prominent figment is his dead father, with whom Black has an ongoing conversation throughout the book. The novel weaves these various threads into a colorful tapestry that extends from modern times back through the Holocaust, to the shtetl, all the way to the biblical Patriarch and Matriarch, Abraham and Sarah (and Hagar). But it’s Black’s hard-nosed, sometimes angry, other times grudgingly tender perspectives that cut through it all, making his fictional accounts closer to truth – or at least, his personal truth – than most fact-anchored non-fiction could.

I understand that Black is currently developing a theatrical play based on An Impossible Life. Given his track record as an author and scriptwriter, whose career has been peppered with accolades, including Emmy and Pultizer Prize nominations, he certainly has the chops for it. And I look forward to seeing the story made flesh on the stage. However, a part of me would rather this fascinating cast of characters remained sequestered in my mind, where they might gestate and grow, until they and their impossible lives become part of my personal mythology.

 

[Note: My short story The Broken Bottle explores how personal mythology (especially related to a traumatic experience) can change over time.]

My Short Story “One Widow’s Healing” Honored by Jefferson Hospital

Helath Odyssey Award winners

 

I received the email while I was at the International Conference for Fantastic in the Arts this past March. 

Thank you for participating in 2100: A Health Odyssey! This has truly been an exciting and fun competition… The quality and diversity  of the entries we received were outstanding. We are pleased to announce that your story has been selected as one of our six winners! Congratulations!  (And, yes, the bold font was part of the email. I suppose it was just in case I missed the point.)

I had to read the email six or seven times. Was it really saying that my story One Widow’s Healing would be honored on May 7th at a gala celebration of six writers? Even after reading and rereading, I was sure it was a mistake. It wasn’t until I received a follow-up email asking me to fill in a W-9 IRS form so they could arrange for my prize money, that it began to sink in.

I don’t normally enter short story or other fiction contests. But this one was intriguing. The writing prompt was to write a science fiction story that would illustrate the future of health care, specifically in the year 2100. What was most interesting is that the competition was sponsored by Thomas Jefferson Hospital in Philadelphia, one of the highest rated health care facilities in the country. Specifically, they wanted a positive, hopeful story that could potentially influence how health care will actually develop in the future. In the words of Dr. Stephen Klasko, the CEO of Jefferson, “Almost anything you can dream can happen, if you do it in science fiction.”

Here’s Dr. Klasko’s visionary description of what they were seeking:

 

Watching that video, how could I not want to participate?

To say that I’m thrilled that the judges felt my story gave them hope about a possible health care future is to put it mildly. No, I didn’t win the grand prize of $10,000. But my prize money is enough to pay for several weeks this summer during which I can put aside everything and just write fiction. That’s quite a present to receive. And what an honor!

Many thanks to Dr. Klasko, the impressive panel of judges and Jefferson Hospital.

Click here — One Widow’s Healing to read my short story. Then, please let me know what you think. 

Calling All Dreamers

A new popular theme is emerging in the arts – one of unabashed, unapologetic hope. While partially a reaction to society’s current divisiveness and anger, it also has a lot to do with faith in humankind and our future – and a very large dose of the courage to speak out, to try to lead the way.

The first issue of DreamForge Magazine

Yes, human beings can be cruel, violent and selfish, but we can also be kind, generous and open to learning to be better. What’s more, I believe that the latter tendencies are the stronger, more prevalent. So it is that my own art has long explored the questions we need to keep asking ourselves if we wish to reach toward a wider, richer future.

As John Lennon sang, “You can say that I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one.” A case in point is the launch of a new science fiction and fantasy magazine DreamForge, whose motto is “Connecting Dreamers – Past and Present. Imagine. Engage. Inspire.”

What a leap of faith – to start a new magazine in this era of so many publications failing to survive the digital transition. Yet, it’s fitting that Scot Noel (Editor and Publisher) and his wife Jane Noel (Designer) have jumped in, with all their heart and, I’m sure, a large portion of their savings. How else could they, as Scot wrote, “make a noise in favor of hope”?

I have just read the first issue of DreamForge. It’s a beautiful publication, filled with delightful stories. I was so impressed – particularly by Scot Noel’s personal message – that I immediately emailed Scot, and asked for permission to reprint his editorial as the first guest blog on this my new website.

Here it is, an editorial designed to give all of us hope about publishing and about our future as a species.


Which Shall It Be?

by Scot Noel

Scot Noel, Editor & Publisher of DreamForge Magazine

The world has been coming to an end for a long time, for centuries if not for millennia. While the doomsayers wring their hands and point to evidence of moral decay and economic collapse, the reality is – cities grow larger, nations grow richer, and the population of humankind is approaching 7.7 billion people. (It was less than 3 billion at the beginning of the space age in 1957.)

Science, technology, and knowledge itself are advancing so quickly, their growth rate is becoming exponential. Only 476 years ago, Nicholas Copernicus published a blasphemous theory that the earth and planets revolved around the sun. Today, we have charted the shape of the universe itself, and in another 500 years we, as a species, are likely to command godlike powers that any human who has ever lived, including those of us around today, would consider the province of the divine.

Why does it all seem so terrible and doomed to destruction? Are we like Icarus, son of Daedalus, daring to fly too close to the sun?

We are indeed like Icarus and the ancient Greeks, and like our Cro-Magnon ancestors of 35,000 years past: we are human. We are built for an enemy and predator-filled world where spreading bad news and taking violent action were essential to survival. Fierce tribal loyalties and a win-at-all-costs attitude have been our go-to kit since before civilization was conceived.

Times are changing. We are a young species with short memories and a dull sense of what the future really means. A thousand years, ten thousand, a hundred thousand and we will not yet be middle-aged, and by then the stars will be ours. Literally. What will we do with them, I wonder? Before that day arrives, we must mature, and the very forces of our increase will pressure us to do so.

We will grow out of our messy teenage years and clean up our act. We may pollute our planet for centuries to come; we may fight horrendous wars a thousand years from now, but we will also be learning, building, and changing all along the way. We will end suffering, poverty, and sickness at a faster rate than the worst among us can create them. We will heal this world and build new ones. Long before the end, the better angels of our nature shall – as they have been for a thousand years – rise up to overwhelm the destructive impulses of our genesis.

Hope, big dreams, and perseverance will get us there. Hope is not an illusion; it’s simply a perspective backed by engagement with the world, whatever the condition of the world may be. And fiction has its part to play. At DreamForge, we believe words are important; that the stories we tell ourselves affect the present and become the future. It’s been said that the arc by which fiction changes the world is long and subtle, but powerful nonetheless.

One day we will meet new civilizations among the stars but, more importantly, we must learn to respect the aliens among us right now. You know who they are; they’re the people who by circumstance, culture, or choice are different from you.

By our human heritage, we are built to see them as threats, competitors for scarce resources, subversive forces ready to challenge our beliefs and tear apart our communities. In the future, there will be too many different peoples, beliefs, political ideologies, and – eventually – species of human to count. We’re going to have to get over our fears and loathing.

When you find yourself thinking the people on the other side of the ideological divide are too stupid to understand your point, that you can’t empathize with them and their values, that their way of looking at the world is ruining your country, your community, and your life – that’s an ancient evolutionary adaptation the purpose of which is as extinct as the trilobite.

Mere tolerance is unacceptable, extreme diversity inevitable. It’s the only way we can ever begin to embrace the vast gulf between ourselves and the creatures we shall meet among the stars, they who know nothing of the doctrines and dogmas over which we are willing to take life and destroy worlds.

Our only true enemy is entropy, the gradual dissolution of complex systems, the force behind suffering, aging, and decay. Fortunately, life by its very nature fights entropy, and our prowess in understanding and then mastering the intricacies of universal forces appears unbounded.

In a screenplay by H.G. Wells for the Science Fiction Film “Things to Come,” the movie ends with a dramatic monologue that goes in part:

“… And when he (man) has conquered all the deeps of space and all the mysteries of time, still he will be beginning.  And if we’re no more than animals we must snatch each little scrap of happiness and live and suffer and pass, mattering no more than all the other animals do or have done. It is this – or that: all the universe or nothing… Which shall it be?”

Newsletter: Storytelling, Our Humanity Illuminated

 

In my second newsletter, I focus on how our humanity is expressed and supported through storytelling. It includes links to an essay on connecting with strangers through their stories, a video on our Creativity Gene, and a free ebook of my short story The Broken Bottle which was originally published in The North Atlantic Review.

I’d be delighted to have you sign up to receive future newsletters. Of course, I will never share your contact information with anyone, and you can unsubscribe at any time.

I Am A Jew

The following is an essay I wrote for my old website a few years ago. In the wake of the horrific shooting at Pittsburgh’s L’Simcha Tree of Life one month ago — and the the current political atmosphere that has given permission for such hate to come out of hiding and act on it — I find this piece a poignant reflection of the innocence I was once privileged to feel. While the essay is about the Jewishness of my writing, it’s also a declaration of who I am, and reinforces my determination to not be cowed by the haters. And, yes, I still believe that most people are good and kind, and that we can find our way out of this current climate of hate and divisiveness — if we work together.


 

Lighting the Menorah by Daniel Grotta

As I wrote that title, I hesitated. While the statement “I am a Jew” has a proud heritage of defiance and strength, I can almost hear my grandmother warning me, “Be careful, sweetheart, what details you ask others to focus on about you.” But then, she came from a time when being Jewish was a double-edged sword that gave us the protection of belonging to a rich tradition and community, while separating us out for ostracization and exclusion from society as a whole. I’m lucky to not be living in the era of her youth.

Or am I being naïve and foolish? Given the ghettoizing of women writers which implies that somehow our work is not as significant as that of our male counterparts, am I taking a chance by saying that not only I am a woman, I am a Jew? Will I now be relegated to second, or even third-class status in the literary hierarchy? Will I now be considered only as a Jewish female writer? Was William Faulkner “merely” a Southern male writer? Or, Thoreau nothing more than a New Englander tree-hugger? Why is it necessary for me to publicly dismiss my roots, out of fear of having my art and writing less respected?

Being Jewish is Read More

Bringing the Voices in Our Heads to Life

Chinese paintingI often wonder if all writers are borderline schizophrenics who have simply learned to channel the voices in our heads into a creative outlet, thereby saving our sanity. Because, yes, we have people constantly talking to us, telling us stories, insisting that we devote our undivided attention to committing their tales to paper (or computer screen). I am curious how “normal” people go through their lives, day in and day out, all alone in their heads, with no one telling them stories and transporting them elsewhere. How boring that must be.

I first started listening to these voices as a very young child though they initially spoke in my mother’s particular storytelling timber and tone. A warm, mellifluous sound that I would ride into dreams, as she would read me to sleep. I’d inevitably continue the story in that dark, fluid world I created as I slumbered. And I would be surprised when Mom would later read to me the author’s version which hardly ever gelled with the ending my subconscious had invented.

I don’t remember when that multitude of voices escaped into the real world of daylight hours and day-to-day responsibilities. Perhaps, it was a Read More

What a Bitch!

Bitch meme by Sally Wiener GrottaThe other day, a woman described another woman to me as a bitch. Bitch is one of those words that can convey a world of ideas. But what does it really mean? And, more to the point for any fiction writer working to create flesh and blood characters, what are the undercurrents and coloration of using such a “power” word in our prose?

As powerful as the word bitch is, it could pull us into a political, feminist discussion about how it has been used to delineate and limit women. But, for now, I’m more interested in the process of creating fictional women who resonate with readers’ imagination, becoming believable, real.

The storyteller in me wants to pose the so-called bitch and her describer into a wide range of scenes, to see how they change.

Does the description change in meaning for us when the woman saying it is a daughter talking about her mother? What if the mother is Read More

Good Juicy Gossip: The Root of Storytelling?

When my niece was in kindergarten, her teacher explained to the class that gossip wasn’t nice. Elizabeth asked – quite perceptively – “What will we talk about, then?”

Gardner Dozois, one of the more brilliant editors of our time, once said, “Soap opera has been the literature of the past fifty years.” Another very perceptive comment. After all, think about the novels, movies, even “news” stories that have been most popular. As different as they have been from each other, the one abiding commonality Read More

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