Negative conflict

20 June 2002 | Comments Off

Now Kelley, after I sent the comments that you replied to I saw flaws in my comments before you replied. Although you didn’t really address those but you did hit on others. The thing that I decided I missed saying in my previous comment is that I do understand where you were going with both of the stories commented on. I really enjoyed them and the insights they contained. It’s just that I have this thing about putting fine points on almost everything. It can be a pain in the patootie for other people, lol. By the way, no need to apologize for a rant as far as I’m concerned, for what is a rant but a strong opinion with a place to voice it?

I don’t think we can take away the police for murderers and other people who don’t stop at the line where you cross into private and agreed taboo territory either. I really believe that negative conflict is a thing with a life of its own and infects like a virus. But maybe people can eventually get a grasp of how to eradicate that virus. Like some other viruses there will be those too hardy from adapting to be vulnerable enough to stamp out. Just makes me think that the best place for me to do the work I have chosen is right here with me. One little change at a time, exposing it to as many possible places to spread positivity.

Nadja Salerno Sonnenberg. Wow, that is who I was seeing all through your piece, “Strings.” Nadja is my heart, my secret love for all the rest of my life. I was blessed to be able to see her perform here in Anchorage last month. A network of my friends who know how much I love her work made it a reality for me to go to her concert. One paid for the tickets and another picked them up and another went with me, (the ride and shared witness), the rest cheered us all on. I give special invitation only video and CD Sonnenberg concerts here at my home. I was literally floored when you mentioned her. I wrote a poem called “Strings” which is on my web site but it was about my mother who played violin. I grew up in a family of classical musicians, the dean of music at UC Santa Barbara is my second cousin and I am or was a classical and jazz musician back when I had an ax and all my brain cells were working. And just what does any of this have to do with anything here? I don’t know but I felt like talking to another lover of the talent, the incomparable energy, the sound of Nadja.

I am so looking forward to reading your book Kelley. Just as soon as I get my hands on enough money to buy it I will. I won’t even try to wait to see if I can win it. That kind of winning, (contest stuff), isn’t prevalent in my life.

My big winning comes from having great people in my life and knowing who I am.


Thanks for the clarification, and no need to worry –” I wasn’t feeling misunderstood in any way. I was just letting your comments trigger some thoughts about rules and red herrings. I do try to stay on topic when someone asks me a question, but sometimes I just wander off into other parts of the playground.

I like the phrase you’ve used, “negative conflict.” I was socialized to regard all conflict as negative (I think a lot of us were raised this way, especially women, although it’s by no means a gender-specific phenomenon). It’s only in the last 10 years or so that I’ve learned that conflict isn’t bad. It’s just disagreement, and like any other communication dynamic it can be handled well, or it can be a train wreck. My corporate experience really helped me learn how to differentiate between the two, as has living with an independently-minded person.

Seems like so often people pick the wrong things to fight about, akin to fussing about the stain on the rug while ignoring the person bleeding onto it –” we get twisted up in the tangential details while the major issues go unaddressed. There’s no win there. I wish someone had given me an understanding of conflict management when I was young, although I understand that there are many grammar schools and high schools now where the basic principles are taught, and enforced. I’m all for it. It’s much better to learn how to deal. Avoidance is so often toxic to everyone involved: I know this is true even though I still do it sometimes. It is at those moments, among others, that I most clearly comprehend the extent and the moray-eel grip of my own socialization.

Going back to your original comments, what I think of now is how correct Timmi Duchamp is in describing red herrings as distracting (not just irrelevant). She was talking about pronouns, but it can just as easily apply to any other thing that we internalize without questioning it. That unconscious acceptance is what I think of when I read your comments about viruses. But I do think people are learning more and more how to question others, and ourselves, which is all to the good. I have hope for less conflict in the future, although reading the news these days certainly doesn’t support that perspective. And yet, I think humans have an amazing capacity to expand our inner horizons, to encompass what is strange and scary without being swallowed by it: to find ways that we can be different without killing each other physically or emotionally or psychologically. It’s a thing people can learn, if we choose to (and if there is someone around to teach us, and help us practice). It would certainly be much more useful on a daily basis than much of what I learned in school.

Thanks for the gentle and diplomatic correction of Nadja’s name. I agree, she’s wonderful, and I’m embarrassed to realize that I don’t actually have any of her CDs. When I first saw her, years ago, I was so taken by the story welling up inside me that I let the actual music get away. I will have to go fix that.

Companies are people

19 June 2002 | Comments Off

Hi, Kelley,

I’ve gotten a chance to look at Solitaire and it strikes me that your depiction of corporate culture is both accurate and non-judgmental. You seem to treat the corporate milieu more like an ecology –” which can be both benign and malign, depending on where you are within it and how much you understand about it. This runs counter to a great deal of current position-taking regarding the corporate model, which wants to show it either as an Evil Empire or an Innocent Institution that’s merely misunderstood. I wonder if you’d care to comment on your unique approach?


It’s taken me a while to tackle this question because I keep wanting to say everything I believe, or feel, or know, and that turns out to be a lot. I’m not entirely satisfied with this answer, only because there is so much missing. I think I will have to write a book about it.

I used to believe that business was really complicated. Now I think business is simple: people are complicated.

When I first began working in the adult world, I played the Evil Company game with enthusiasm and an aggressive disregard for how many people I was broadcasting to. I was underappreciated, misunderstood, and the victim of corporate abuse: managers were stupid, leadership was nonexistent, and the company was fucked. Blah, blah.

At a job in Atlanta, I first began to learn some ways that I could change my own behavior and thereby influence the behavior of people around me. I should fess up that I did this because I was about to be fired for being a major self-righteous pain in the ass. I was given the option to change, or to continue being my unhappy self with another employer. So I changed. I learned to be a facilitator and team builder, and I began the intensive study of communication and process and organizational dynamics that is still a large part of my life and work even now, more than two years after my last corporate job.

I’m glad I sucked it up and did the work: it made a huge difference to my life, and it made me understand that corporations aren’t Evil or Good. They are people. When people are less skilled at working together effectively, their part of the company (their particular ecological niche, if you like), becomes chaotic at best: at worst, people get stress, ulcers, and a downward spiral of hostility and misery. When people are better at working together, they get more done and they are more likely to feel that what they do, and who they are, is of value. They thrive, and the company usually benefits.

We hear lots about goals and vision, and those are important. But many executives seem to think it’s the only relevant thing in business. To which I say, get real –” goals are the easy part. Anybody can set a goal. It’s achieving the goal that’s hard, and in my view of the universe it is the responsibility of managers and leaders to do the hard work. It is their responsibility to give people process, tools, and clear rules for working together. It doesn’t matter how complicated the actual mechanics of the particular business are: I absolutely believe that companies live or die on everyone’s ability to manage communication, relationships, process, and interpersonal dynamics. The rest is details.

No two people have the same corporate experience. You can change a person’s morale just by transferring her to another department and moving her five cubicles to the left. And you can also change her morale by teaching her to play nicely with others and then insisting that she do it. And that her boss do it, and so on, right along to the vice presidents and the president and the CEO, who in my not-at-all-humble opinion are all 100 percent responsible for setting the tone for this. If they don’t, shame on them. And I really mean that: shame on them, because what they do, or don’t do, makes a difference to the people that work for them. People’s daily lives are not a trivial thing.

I was amazingly lucky to have the chance to build an entire team at Wizards of the Coast, from scratch, based on these principles. It gave me a great deal of joy. It was also hard, and scary, and imperfect. Like ecologies, corporations are systems, constantly adjusting to different conditions, different surfeits or deficits or pressures. Balance is not a destination, it is a journey.

The skills that Jackal has in the book are real, and they can make a difference, and they are a whole bunch of fun when they do. It’s also true that working this way doesn’t mean that humans become less complicated. Our company may still not make the decisions that we might wish. We may not always have a happy experience. Sometimes it doesn’t work out, no matter how skilled we are. That’s in the book, too.

For people who are interested, I can recommend a few books that I think are very good or brilliant in addressing some of the concepts that are important to me. It turns out, not surprisingly, that I think these ideas are important in life: how to manifest them in business is just one of the challenges.

Blasting out

18 June 2002 | 5 Comments

As commented by Timmi Duchamp in the discussion, Erotics of Gender Ambiguity,

“Pronouns, as I think I said a few months back, are red herrings. Red herrings aren’t just irrelevant, they distract. And an obsession with penetrating missing pronouns is partly what this story has to show us-as in a mirror.”

All through this discussion, (which I am coming to long after its inception), I get the feeling of pioneerism. I am not a young woman and I kept thinking uh huh I’ve heard all this before so many times over the decades. But I think it is important to continually explore the issue so that maybe in the next century people can simply live their lives without interference from anyone who thinks they *know* better how they should live. Trying to bring this around to an actual question, did you have some of the same mind set when you wrote “Strings”? In that story you hit on the big issue for me in my life, why the heck should another living soul tell you how to live or interpret life? Only the most real of my friends can bear to be around me because I won’t live falsely. That is falsely to myself, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s all about gender as there are so many other ways to manipulate behavior that also attempt to inhibit people.


I don’t mind general rules about murder and rape and theft and traffic: rules help us to negotiate our differences with less misunderstanding, and give us some structured recourse when people do damage. (Social gender rules don’t fit this model for me — I can’t see much about them that lessens misunderstanding.)

Some folks take things a step farther, into the realm of “wouldn’t it be so much easier if we didn’t have to grub around with all these messy differences in the first place.” Maybe they do it out of fear, to minimize conflict and change. Or maybe to avoid having to think too closely about the choices they make. And some genuinely believe that their way of doing things is Right in some universal sense, and if the rest of us were just a tiny bit more reasonable, or mature, or community-minded… well, there’s no way to win that argument, is there? The scary thing is that some people are willing to legislate behavior if they can’t manipulate it any other way, and they are convinced of the rightness of their cause: they only want what’s best for us, and that gives them all the permission they need to improve us, in spite of ourselves.

But maybe I should answer your question instead of going on a rant about people who believe that there’s only one way to be a good human (grin).

It’s interesting to think about “Strings” in this context. It’s not where my head was when I wrote the story, but it’s not unrelated. The idea for Strad (the protagonist of “Strings”) came from a television profile I saw about a violinist named Nadia Sonnenberg (think I spelled that right). She was so amazingly passionate about her music: she vibrated the entire time she played. She was right there, inside the music. I found it attractive and I identified with it. I felt there were so many things inside me that wanted to come out (including writing), and here was a person who a) knew what was in her, and b) knew how to bring it out.

So that’s where it started: with a desire to let it all come blasting out. Music seemed like a perfect metaphor, and the best way to make the blasting-out point was to put Strad in a situation where she was required to keep it all in, and then examine what it would take to make it come out anyway. There’s not a lot of distance between that and examining why people are afraid of difference, because I think it’s the sense of being different that makes a lot of us keep our passions, our selves, reined in. I could be so much larger than I am. I want that. I’m working on it in life as well as in fiction.

The wandering path of Solitaire

18 June 2002 | 8 Comments


Congrats on your new virtual existence. Hope that the virtual pint will turn out to be as filling as a good glass of bitter.

Has your publisher planned any hoopla for the release of Solitaire? Will there be a local appearance/reading at a bookstore (or pub) in the Seattle area? (Actually, the pub thing might even work –a literary Tuesday night at the local watering hole).

Nicola has a brief mention of your emergency appendectomy. Hope it didn’t turn into peritonitis (really, really, painful) and thus require an extended stay at the hospital.


Mmm, bitter.

Hoopla-planning is in progress, with hoopla being a relative term. The only thing I am sure of right now is a reading at University Books in Seattle, on September 25 at 7 pm.

In most cases, there is little fanfare for first novels, even those published in hardcover. That’s not a blanket statement of course, but generally a first novelist (especially in sf) can expect print advertising/reviews in trade publications like Locus, and reviews in some of the friendlier newspapers and periodicals, along with a local reading or two. Maybe some local media coverage. Perhaps a national review (New York Times, Washington Post) if one is lucky and one’s publicist has been playing nicely with the media. There are fewer outlets for review of sf novels than of literary novels, and genre prejudice is still alive and well in the critical world.

Having said all that, I’m not yet sure what to expect for Solitaire. The book has been on a strange and interesting path that has shattered all my assumptions about what will happen with it.

I sold Solitaire to Morrow/Eos as a mass market original. One of the basic rules of mass market originals is that there is no hoopla. There is a print ad in Locus and maybe a local reading if the author has made friends with the bookstore folks. Review copies are sent out, and the publicists do a fine job of making the books sound engaging and worthwhile. I’m not dissing the publishing people: they have to work with a high volume of product and they do a great job in making sure that every book gets a chance. But, along with genre prejudice, there is also “format prejudice.” Hardcovers get more credibility. Reviewers are more likely to pick them out of the pile of books. Sales reps will be more familiar with them. Again, no disrespect intended: it’s a hierarchical system, and although I don’t like it I can certainly understand it. Everyone needs a way to prioritize their work, and this is one of the ways it happens in publishing.

So I knew that Solitaire would get little support. I decided that I could accept that if I knew I had done everything in my power to support the book myself. So I made several reading copies and sent letters to some of the writers that I’ve had occasion to meet over the years, asking if they would read the book and consider giving it a promotional quote. I am fortunate to know some people who were generous with their time, and liked the book well enough to give it some advance praise.

And then my editor, who is a goddess of publishing, was able to use the quotes and her considerable force of personality and professional credibility to generate interest among key people at the publishing house. This is no mean feat: the people who oversee sales and marketing and publicity are busy. But they did take the time to read the book and reconsider the format, with the result that one day I found myself getting the call about being bumped into hardcover.

Now Borders has selected the book for the Original Voices program. I can pretty much guarantee that would never have happened if the book had been published as a mass market original, even though it would have been exactly the same book. It’s a huge thing for me because the Borders program is “literary”, not “genre” (and don’t get me started about these kinds of artificial distinctions, they make me so grumpy). Will Solitaire have the chance and the ability to cross over to some non-genre readers? That would certainly be a fine thing for me, since I feel pretty much the same about book category labels (like sf or literary fiction) as I do about sexual identity labels.

So now I’m hoping for a reading or some event at a Borders store in Seattle, although that is not yet certain. Possibly readings in Portland or Bellingham. Maybe some local press? A review in Publisher’s Weekly. Who knows? It’s all pretty interesting, an unexpected treat no matter how it turns out.

I like the idea of a literary pub event! I will tell my publicist.

And no peritonitis, thanks for asking. They got to the appendix just before the bursting point, and I was actually home less than 12 hours after the surgery with some good drugs and lots of food brought around by friends. I feel fortunate.

Sexual salad bar sci-fi

17 June 2002 | 3 Comments

I’ll definitely be reading Solitaire. I am curious, is it lesbian sci-fi or straight sci-fi? It won’t make a difference, but I just want to know. Thank you.

Katia N. Ruiz

I’m glad for this question: I need to practice answering it, and I have so many different answers that it’s easy to get tangled up in them.

The straightforward factual answer: Jackal has a primary emotional and sexual relationship with a woman in this book. She also has (consensual) sex with a male friend.

The deeper answer is: neither. Because the only stories I’m inclined to characterize as “lesbian” fiction or “straight” fiction are those that pointedly grapple with issues of sexuality. As an example: I just finished reading a really lovely young adult book called Speak, by Laurie Halse Anderson. It’s the story of a thirteen year old girl who is raped and has to deal with the psychological damage of the attack at the same time that she’s trying to cope with her first year of high school. It’s a gorgeous book that wrestles with a lot of issues, including sexual power dynamics among heterosexual adolescent people. I can’t imagine that anyone would ever characterize this as straight fiction, but for me it’s much more “straight” fiction than my book is “lesbian” fiction.

Lots of people will call Solitaire a lesbian book because of the relationship, and some people will think that the sex with a man makes it not a “real lesbian” book after all. I suspect I am going to get a certain amount of grumpiness from several directions. I’m glad that it won’t make a difference to you: I don’t see why it would to anyone, but there you go.

I can’t even really categorize Solitaire as bi-sci-fi. Sexual identification just isn’t an issue for Jackal in any way in this book. There’s sex in it but it’s not about sex or the consequences of sexual choices. And just as I resist being labeled in my private life, I resist it in my professional life. Solitaire is character sci-fi, it’s inner-landscape sci-fi. If we must put a sex-related label on it, let’s call it sexual-salad-bar sci-fi, a category that I would be happy to pioneer.

Give a little, get a lot

14 June 2002 | 3 Comments

You’re giving away stories on your website, which is fairly cool, but aren’t you worried that you’ll lose sales? What about copyright?


I’m not at all worried about losing sales — quite the opposite. I think there’s no better way to market writing than to give some of it away, and in that spirit I’ll be posting the first chapter of Solitaire on this website as soon as I can.

I think it’s vital to do everything I can to keep my short fiction alive and available. Stories are so ephemeral, particularly given the ever-shortening shelf life of anthologies and magazines these days. And I want people to read my stories, but most of them are no longer available in print, and I certainly don’t expect anyone to go to all the trouble of hunting them down. So the easiest thing is to dress them up nicely and make them available for a date.

I’m proud of my stories. I want to share them. I’m a more experienced and more accomplished story writer than I am a novelist. Not to say that the novel isn’t good! It is. But short fiction is a different beastie, and one that I’ve been living with comfortably for more than a dozen years. I love writing a good story, and reading one — it’s a concentrated, dense experience. If a novel is a feast, then a really well-written short story is like the best damn Belgian chocolate truffle in the world (or maybe a Butlers truffle from Ireland. Mmmm.)

It only benefits me to have as many people as possible read my short work. I hope that many of them will like what they read well enough to take a chance on the novel, and to follow me from there.

As for copyright, I’m not giving anything away by making the stories available online. They still belong to me, and I’ll guard them fiercely. I’m happy to share them, and happy for people to print them out for personal use or give a copy to their friends. To me, that’s like buying a CD and then copying it onto my computer (since I do 90% of my music listening while I’m working). (And ask me sometime how hugely pissed off I am about the notion of CD protection that doesn’t allow music to be copied this way.) But I wouldn’t buy a disk and burn copies for 10 friends for free. And just because I’m putting the stories online doesn’t mean I’m giving anyone the right to republish them on another website, or in a book, or on a disk.

There’s been a lot of agitation in the last several years about this issue, and about the length of copyright in general. Every once in a while, especially (it seems) in science fiction and fantasy, some bright spark gets the mistaken notion that if it’s published, it means it’s public. I will be very happy to disabuse anyone of this peculiar idea, should it become necessary.

Grrrrrrr, she said. And having said all this, I’m not in favor of perpetual copyright. Right now, in the case of my work (since it was all created and published after 1978), the copyright belongs to me and my estate for my lifetime plus 70 years. That seems long enough.