What Sparrow says

28 April 2008 | 4 Comments

I’ve just re-read Bone Dance by Emma Bull. This is an old favorite of mine, because of the lovely writing and the really cool characters — people I’d love to meet (well, except the creepy ones) — and the very compelling Sparrow whose voice leads us through it all. And I love it because it’s a novel of identity and hope and connection. I am sure, re-reading it this week, that it influenced Solitaire.

Sparrow says:

There is a whole class of answers to life’s big questions that, when examined closely, proves to be nothing but another set of questions. I now know my origins, body and soul. That’s like knowing that magnetic tape is iron oxide particles bonded to plastic film. Wonderful — now, what’s it for? What does it do?
It does, I suppose, what it has to do. It does what it loves to do, or what needs doing. It helps others do the same. So I do that. And sometimes (….) I can feel it, very close: the power and clarity and brilliance, the strength and lightness, that I had once in a dream, a dream of dancing, a hoodoo dream.
–from Bone Dance by Emma Bull

I love this idea that the goal is to do what we love to, and to do what needs doing. I understand both of those. I think one without the other is a path to superficiality and isolation and numbness — the death of the “best self” through complete disregard for others or through the bitterness that comes from regarding others always to the cost of oneself.

Power and clarity and brilliance, strength and lightness. When I imagine my best self, these are things I hope to be.

So thanks again, Emma. Dreams of dancing, dreams of flying, dreams of self discovered and finally embraced — those are good dreams, awake or asleep.

Swang! Oh my word!

27 April 2008 | 2 Comments

Nicola has once again been asked to explain why on god’s green earth she used the word swang in a novel.

And I am compelled by a force greater than sweetie solidarity (okay, actually I asked her if she minded and she said no) to say out loud on the internet that I told her the raised eyebrows and headshakes would rain down upon her forever if she said swang. Everyone will think you made a mistake, I said. You’ll be talking about swang for the rest of your life.

Well, I’m not wrong so far, am I? (wicked laughter….)

Language is a funny old thing. I just know that the words I grew up with are the “right” words, the same way Nicola knows that her words are right. And they are, and they aren’t… Who am I to tell her that her words are wrong? Not my place. But really what I was trying to tell her was that it was wrong in context. Wrong for Americans.

Well, she said in a charming and reasonable tone, I’m not an American.

But you’re in America.


So, indeed. She’s right. I’d much rather she was appropriate to herself than appropriate to American culture. And she’ll be a wee bit surprised when she reads this, because it’s not what she thought I was going to say. (Ha! 20 years and counting, and I can still surprise my sweetie every once in a while.)

And so I say: I’m glad you swang your bad self, Nicola. And to all the ‘Murricans out there who might be inclined to write her about it in the future — get over it. It’s her word. She used it. End of story.

Oh, and while I’m here — in 1988, at Clarion, I wrote a story called “Somewhere Down the Diamondback Road” (recently republished in Dangerous Space). In the first paragraph of that story, I used the word carapace in a way that makes Nicola absolutely crazy. Every once in a while it still comes up. That’s wrong, she says, shaking her head.

No, it ain’t (grin).

Accepting the one-star challenge

26 April 2008 | 1 Comment

I’m gleefully accepting John Scalzi’s general challenge to writers to post our one-star amazon reviews.

Scalzi says, in part:

Someone doesn’™t like my work and wants to tell people so? Okay by me. I’™ll live. As will any other author who has the sense not to get in a lather over the idea that somewhere someone might not like their work. And if you don’™t have that sense, well. Just put on your big author panties and deal with it.

Isn’t that great? And so true. Personal taste is, well, personal, and it’s just not worth it to get all twisted up about that.

So without further ado, here are both of my one-star reviews for Solitaire (I don’t have any one-star reviews for Dangerous Space yet, but hey, whatever comes…)

This book about a supposedly uber-intelligent acrophobic who manages her group so well that she utterly obliterates it in an absurdly contrived accident (hm, I can’t read chinese well,does that sign mean dis or dat? Let’s try it…ooops!) bored me silly. Sure hope never to read the likes of this pretentious, annoyingly farfetched novel again.

— and —

I’d rather read the entire Robert Ludlum collection in one sitting than read this book again. Have you ever been trapped with somebody who won’t quit talking (at a dinner, a party, or whatever) and who thinks she is deep, smart, and interesting, but is just the opposite? If you have, this book will bring back that experience. I found the writing to be on par with that of a good high school student. For example, “She closed her eyes and let the noise of Solitaire spin around her, a tidal pool of words and glassware and background music, voices breaking against her like waves on a reef.” Maybe I was just in a bad mood when I read this, but I really hope this is not what passes as a “tour de force” today.

My personal favorite is the Robert Ludlum comparison. Ouch! (grin).

It’s interesting, though, to think about the deeper implications of such reviews. I have opinions, and I don’t expressing them (as anyone who reads here for a while doubtless discovers). But it only occurs to me to trash someone’s work/opinion/action/idea when it trespasses directly on me or mine, or when it’s so egregious that I feel compelled to add my voice to the mix (as in, trying to act as an ally when someone is experiencing abuse). I’m not so inclined to just dump shit on a book that I think is bad — laughing now, maybe that’s because there are so many out there!

But mostly I think it’s just because I accept that mileage varies. Sometimes it varies in ways I find deeply inconvenient or temporarily stinging or achingly hurtful. And sometimes the variance can be fascinating, joyful, world-changing… I think (at the risk of sounding like a complete idjit) that these things are like democracy (where every asshole gets a vote) or free speech (so every stupidity can be expressed) or communication (which would be so much easier if other people weren’t involved)…. in other words, these things are messy.

That’s not always okay with me, but the alternatives are Rigid Order or Thought Policing or lots of other alternatives that humans have tried over the years. And we all know how those turn out. I’ll take the mess, thanks. I’ll just be over here in the corner picking those one-star dust bunnies out of my teeth.

Will the 80’s save the day?

25 April 2008 | 5 Comments

I am on a serious screenplay deadline today. I have a lot of work to do, much of it only requested yesterday.

I need a miracle.

And so I have pulled out one of my secret writing weapons — the playlist I like to call “The 80’s and Their Friends.” Although most of them aren’t even 80’s songs…. they are basically songs I like from about 1969 through 1992, but they’ve all got that certain something, and besides, I like calling the playlist that. So that’s what I call it.

I don’t have time to list them all for you (because I’m on a deadline!) but they include:

  • Midnight at the Oasis
  • Relax
  • Born To Be Wild
  • Black Water
  • Brother Louie
  • That Lady
  • Rock On
  • Suffragette City
  • Radar Love
  • Kitty’s Back (extra credit points if you know who did this song without having to look it up)
  • Hungry Like the Wolf
  • Bad Medicine
  • and my favoritest song in the world if I could only pick one, The Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys

Now let’s see if this set of supersongs can save the day….

Don’t be an asshole

24 April 2008 | 2 Comments

Thank you, Nicola, for pointing me toward this post from agent Nathan Bransford about why writers shouldn’t be assholes.

This is so true. And it syncs up with what I’m doing with Humans At Work (and as an update, the site is in development now and I’m hoping to launch in June). Working with people who are jerks is No Fun, and it’s getting to the point where it’s not necessary either — there are a lot of writers in the world (and sales reps and customer service clerks and executives and produce managers and… well, you get the point), and people in the position to give us work are less likely to do so if they think we don’t know how to play nicely.

Success these days is not just about having talent for one’s work. Certainly as important — perhaps more so, in terms of career if not art — is the talent for effective relationship. I know without doubt that it’s made an enormous difference in my career path so far. I am pretty sure I wouldn’t have the chance to break into screenwriting without it. I know it helped with Solitaire. And I’d argue that it’s necessary for art as well. But that’s because I write what I do — I couldn’t very well work at character-based fiction if I didn’t constantly strive to experience and understand the nuances of human relationships.

I remember walking along a busy street in downtown Chicago one day. One car cut off another in traffic — the bumpers nearly came to blows — and then both cars had to stop for a red light just in front of me.

The driver of the rear car — man, 30’s, business suit — leaped out. Slammed the door. Threw open his trunk. And took out a golf club. He held it the way you do when your target is not the little white ball, but the back of someone’s skull…

The driver of the front car scrambled out of his car (bad strategic move, but hey, I’m guessing it was a new situation for him). Also a man, 30’s, business suit.

Golf Club Man chased Jerk Driver Man around his own car at least twice, shouting Don’t! (shake the club) be! (shake the club) an asshole! (shake the club).

Then the light turned green and all the drivers behind them, who were watching in fascination as if it were live TV, started honking. So the two guys got in their cars and drove away.

I don’t know about Jerk Driver Man, but Golf Club Man certainly got my attention. And I think he was absolutely right. Seems like the price of being a jerk comes when you least expect it (that golf club) and sometimes when you don’t even know it — the opportunities you never get because of the backchannel opinions of you that you never hear, but that determine who wants to work with you and who doesn’t.

The lesson I’m learning right now (waves to executive producer) is that it’s really important not to be an asshole just because I am grumpy. I think it’s easy for artists to think it’s okay to have “artistic temperament” (shorthand for I get to act like a yob because I’m all special and stuff). Note to all those folks: go off in the corner and have a sad drink in memory of the good old days. And then get back to work and play nice, because it’s becoming a jerks-not-welcome-world. I can’t wait.

Not this year(3) – Grand Canyon

23 April 2008 | 13 Comments

A series of posts about things I thought or hoped or feared I would do in 2008.

Of all the things I know I’m not doing this year, not going back to the Grand Canyon disappoints me the most.

When I was 24 and living in Chicago, I read a long article in the Sunday paper about a river rafting trip down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. It just… seized me. I cut the article out of the paper and put it in my bedroom. Then I wrote to the rafting company and asked for a brochure… it couldn’t hurt to ask, right? The brochure came, along with the pricing list for that year’s trips and next year’s. And I just about cried. I was making extremely little money, and the trip plus airfare plus supplies and expenses was probably in the neighborhood of 10% of my net income for a year. And the thing about living lean is that there’s just not 10% left over, you know?

But I read the article again. And again. And I got stubborn (I do that, sometimes). I instituted the Grand Canyon Invisible Savings program. Every time I got a paycheck, I would deposit it into the bank and then deduct $10 or $20 or whatever I could manage and write it down on a little piece of paper in the back of my checkbook register. Because if I couldn’t see it, I wouldn’t spend it…

But of course, sometimes I needed the money, and then it had to come out of Invisible Savings and back into the Real World. But I just kept reading the article in my wallet, so many times that the paper became soft like an old t-shirt.

About a year later, I had about 70% of the money saved. So I called the company and booked a trip for June. I sent in the deposit. I bought hiking boots and a rain poncho and worked like a demon to scrape together the rest of the trip money before I got on the the plane. I think that when the flight lifted off, I had something like $47 left in my checking account, or some equivalent no-responsible-adult-would-do-this amount.

I flew to Las Vegas. I stayed overnight in a cheap casino/hotel. One of the luxuries I’d budgeted for myself was $50 in betting money, and that evening I gathered my courage, went to the $1-ante blackjack tables, and asked the dealer to teach me how to play. I lost my $50, but I got 4 hours of entertainment and a couple of free drinks out of it. And it made me feel brave. It was the start of my adventure.

They picked us up the next morning and took us in a van to the river, about 25 customers plus three guides. They put us on two ginormous pontoon rafts. And away we went, into the canyon.

It was so beautiful and powerful there. It felt like being home. It was like letting out a long breath that I didn’t know I’d been holding. It was the most enormous quiet I have ever felt in my usually noisy mind. People on the boat thought I was odd because I didn’t want to chat — I didn’t want to compare stories about our jobs and our kids and talk about my favorite TV show. I did want to shriek at the guy who spent the whole first day looking at his watch (his watch!) and saying, Well, back in the office they’re having the marketing meeting about now, ha ha! I get it now — it was his way of letting out his breath — but at the time I just wanted to drown him.

We rode the river for 6 days. We slept on the river bank in the darkest darkness I have ever experienced. The guides cooked incredible meals. Every day there was at least one stop where we could choose to hang out at the river, or follow one of the guides on a side trip — to a spring or down a side canyon or up to a vantage point. We went over some E-ticket rapids.

And at one point deep in the canyon, the walls going so far up above us that the sky was a narrow strip overhead, the boatman pulled our boat over against the canyon wall.

He told us all to touch the wall. And when we did, he told us that the rock under our hands was two billion years old.

So I want to feel that rock again. I want to be on that green river under that blue sky. I want to fill myself up with the place again.

And when I go, I’m going with Arizona River Runners — the same company that took me there 22 years ago. And I hope, I hope that when I am in the boat, when I ride the rapids, when I wake up under the stars, when I touch the rock, that it will still feel like coming home to something about myself that I’ve never found anywhere else.

Grand Canyon, 1986
Grand Canyon, 1986

Not this year(2) – 30th reunion

22 April 2008 | 5 Comments

A series of posts about things I thought or hoped or feared I would do in 2008.

At the end of May, when Nicola and I are in LA reading, drinking, meeting folks and taking the sun (at least I hope so — it just started snowing again here, clearly the weather is broken), my 30th high school reunion will happen on the campus of the boarding school in New Hampshire that I attended for four years. Since we don’t have transporters yet, I’ll miss it. (Note to Scientists: where is all the Star Trek technology that was supposed to make my life so convenient?)

I had a blast at my 25th reunion. I hope the 30th will be as great for the folks who are there.

Things I will miss about this reunion:

Seeing old friends — Nora, Holly, Els, John and Beret, Carolyn, Edie, Hobson.

Here are some pictures of some of us at the 25th reunion in 2003.

Seeing the school — So much beauty. But it’s a different place now, too, and that is both right and a bit hard. It’s not “my school” anymore. (Hmm. I seem to be doing a lot of thinking right now about things that are no longer mine… see previous post about Wiscon.) But my school is alive in me in the way of the best memory — so vibrant and integral that even the changed reality doesn’t dislodge it. I don’t know… it’s funny how being there for the 25th and seeing the graduating students made me so conscious of my age and at the same time feel like 17 again.

Being in the boat — I have to preface this by saying that I am the least athletic person I know. So it’s very funny that I have a JV and a Varsity letter in anything, especially crew. It’s even more funny when you know that I was the tallest cox in the world and therefore weighed more (even at 110 pounds I was at least 20 pounds heavier than a cox was supposed to be). But the women who rowed in my boats were amazing, strong, focused, and so gutsy… (no pun intended, since rowing is the kind of sport where people throw up over the side of the boat when the race is over, especially if they’ve been rowing hard enough to win).

We were a great crew, and at these reunions we gather whoever is there from the original crew, round up other willing folk to fill the open slots, and go out on the water together again. The faculty person in charge of the boats that day always looks nervous as hell in the repressed But we can’t piss off the alumni way. Nora, who was the stroke of our boat, always has to remind me of at least one vocabulary term. And every time, the women of the crew are so beautiful on the water. We had so many powerful moments in that boat, training and winning and learning to pull together. My experience with crew is still one of the Great Happy Anomalies of my life.

I’ve written about the 25th reunion and my experience at school at length over the years, and have imported those posts from the Virtual Pint section of my old website for anyone who’s interested.

In chronological and conversational order:

Enjoy. And if you’d like to start a conversation, please do so — it’s easy. Or come back later and use the link on the sidebar, and let’s talk. Some of the stories and realizations that have been most important to me over the years have come directly out of these online conversations, and I’m always grateful for them.

Not this year(1) – Wiscon

21 April 2008 | 4 Comments

A series of posts about things I thought or hoped or feared I would do in 2008.

This year, I am not going to Wiscon.

Wiscon is a thing that some people still scratch their heads over — a feminist science fiction convention. Why this still puzzles folks is a bit beyond me, but there you go. Maybe it’s because so many people’s notions of sf are formed these days primarily through movies, and Hollywood has some distance yet to go on the “feminist” side of the equation in pretty much every way. (I have tried to make my movie as feminist as possible, and at least it stands up to The Rule, but I do feel a bit like a lone voice in the wilderness…)

Nicola and I first went to Wiscon in 1995, when she was a Guest of Honor. I’ve been once on my own in the late 90’s. And we’ve attended the last two years.

I see a lot of difference between the 90’s and the now. The convention is bigger (attendance cap of 1,000 as opposed to the olden days of about 750 or so, I think). In other words, about a third bigger, and it’s interesting how much bigger that feels to me, and how much less better. I think it’s great for all the folks who otherwise wouldn’t get in the door, but it’s starting to feel a little too big to me. Fragmented. Like every other large con, it’s become many different cons in the same building, and the divisions between people are more apparent. There are the people (like us) who can afford to stay on the Governor’s Level of the hotel, which includes a free bar for GL guests only, and where those on the GL congregate constantly, thereby becoming much less available to the people who can’t afford much beyond sharing a room and eating in the Con Suite every night. There are the more-established writers (like us) who hang with other writers whom they haven’t seen in ages, or with editors and critics, and thereby become much less available to the readers at the heart of the convention. There are the less-established writers who attend in groups and support each other by organizing midnight readings of their work. There are the East Coast writers who organize private parties, and the West Coast writers who organize private dinners. There are the academics. And so on.

Wiscon is based on feminist and humanist principles in every way that the organizers can imagine, and they do an excellent job. Wiscon has flat-out the best access policies and practices of any event of any kind I have ever attended. And they work hard to give everyone a chance to participate in programming. I think this is great — and it’s exactly the kind of event I find less personally welcoming, because there are too many choices. I’d rather have a choice of two panels with hundreds of people in the room for each, than fifteen panels with fifteen audience members. More fragmentation.

And I hate the fact that readings are now group events where everyone gets maybe 10 minutes to read from their work. Two years ago, Nicola and I shared an hour-plus reading slot with the fabulous Pat Cadigan, which was Very Cool. Last year, Nicola and I shared a 50-minute reading slot with Nisi Shawl and Eleanor Arnason, both terrific women whom I was honored to be with — but it was rushed, stressy, and seemed like a whiplash experience for the audience. Again, this is designed to make opportunities available to everyone who wants to read, and I think that is All Good for the principles of the con — but it’s not good for me. I’m a fucking snob, I guess, but I remember reading And Salome Danced — the entire story — to a packed room of attentive people, with time left over for an interesting and extended conversation. And I think that’s better — for writers and readers — than getting 10 minutes in an assembly-line situation just because there are jillions of people who want to read at Wiscon.

Change is. I’m fine with that. I’m not disrespecting Wiscon — it’s one of the most exciting, enduring and important events in speculative fiction. But I think that Wiscon and I may be changing in different directions. It doesn’t mean I’ll never go again — I especially love the chance to meet readers and reconnect with writers, and some of the best people in the world are there. It’s a rocking convention, smart and fun and full of opportunity.

But it doesn’t feel like my place anymore. And maybe it never really was. I’ve always been mostly an outsider, and it’s easy for me to feel that a space is too small. That’s my problem, not theirs. But I do find it ironic that this space feels too small for me because it is trying so hard to be big enough for everyone.

A story of Dublin

20 April 2008 | Comments Off

I’ve just posted my favorite story of Dublin over at the @U2 blog. Enjoy.

For those who don’t know, I’m a staff writer for @U2, the world’s #1 independent U2 website. I’m wicked proud of the work done by the entire @U2 staff, and I count my personal essays, articles, interviews and reviews for the site as some of my best work. If you’re interested, you can find links at the bottom of my essays page, or search the @U2 site.

Let’s do the time warp again

20 April 2008 | 3 Comments

Oh lord, I have become too old for The Rocky Horror Picture Show. We watched it on DVD recently and didn’t finish it. That might be because I was bone-tired from a screenplay deadline (ten or so in a row of those 4 AM days…). But I think it was because it’s a 33-year-old movie, and it shows. And I just couldn’t get past that.

But between September 1978 and May 1979, I bet I went to midnight showings of Rocky Horror at the Biograph in Chicago at least 20 times. Maybe more…

I was a freshman at Northwestern University, a thoroughly miserable experience made bearable by the friendship of Sudi Khosropur. She was awesome — and we bonded over trash TV, Rocky Horror and a mutual crush on Tim Curry. Very often on a Friday or Saturday night, we’d get dressed up in full Rocky Horror audience participation splendor and take the El down to the Biograph. I wore a black leotard, an unbuttoned white man’s shirt, a black bow tie, fishnet stockings, boots, and a black fedora. Sudi wore fishnets and heels and short skirts. We’d join the line of hundreds of people waiting to get into the midnight show. People had beer and boom boxes playing the music. We did the Time Warp out on Lincoln Ave. more times than I can remember.

And then we were in, and seated, and the crowd would buzz with adrenaline like a jet engine… and then the movie would start. And we’d yell the lines, throw the rice, hold up the newspapers, squirt the water, throw the confetti and the cards… we did it all. It was fantastic.

Tim Curry had a career as a rock musician, along with his stage and screen career, and I had all three of his albums. So you may imagine our excitement when he came through Chicago on tour. He played at the Park West. You had to be 21 to get in. We were 18. But we were determined…and not just to see the show. Sudi, who had way more guts than I did, called the venue the afternoon of the show, when we knew the band would be loading in and sound-checking, and asked for Tim Curry. She got his manager, and she told the manager that we wanted to take Tim Curry to dinner after the show.

The manager said no very nicely, as I recall.

So off we went to the show. This was in the days before the obsessive checking of ID’s, so you just had to have enough brass to act as if. I looked about 16, but I was good at appearing absolutely comfortable — and Sudi looked 21 and was very good at distracting the guy at the door while I breezed through.

We had a great time at the show, and we got to meet Tim Curry. I was appalled to see a whole contingent of people at the meet-and-greet who were dressed up in RH gear… it seemed so tacky. Sudi told Tim Curry how much she had enjoyed his performance as William Shakespeare. She got the best smile of the night.

And then the two of us went out for a 2 AM breakfast and splurged on steak and eggs. That was fantastic too.

I left Northwestern at the end of that year. And Rocky Horror was never the same for me again.

Sudi, if you’re out there, never mind about the last time we saw each other when you probably thought I was too fucking weird for words. I would love to hear from you.

Kelley and Sudi, 1979
Kelley and Sudi, 1979

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