The power of no

The OtherLife Journals (OLJ) are a series of chronologically-random posts about writing, selling, and making the film OTHERLIFE. One woman’s view of the wild ride of indie filmmaking.

When someone in the film business wants to adapt a novel, they start by asking the writer or her agent if the film rights are available. The writer or agent respond, “Why yes, they are.” And generally the next thing that happens is… nothing. So when my agent let me know that Cherry Road Films in LA was expressing interest in Solitaire, I indulged in 20 seconds of what-if and then went back to work.

    Imagine my surprise to receive an offer. Imagine my consternation when my agent, and the literary film agents in Hollywood that she had connected with, advised me to reject it for a number of reasons:

  • Too little money for the initial option term
  • Too short of an option term
  • Too long of an extension term for too little renewal money
  • Too little money for the purchase of film rights.

A film rights contract addresses two primary transactions: a development option, and a rights purchase agreement. They are linked. The option gives the producer the time-limited exclusive right to create a screenplay and develop it into a film deal (by attaching a director, key actors, money, a studio or distributor commitment, the list goes on). If the producer is able to secure a commitment to make the film, then they exercise their option to purchase the film rights: the rights purchase language spells out all those details.

Money, time, and creative control are the basic components of these agreements. Here begins the “not for the faint of heart” portion of our journey….

The number of authors who sign publishing or film rights contracts they don’t understand makes me crazy. It’s not enough to assume that your agent knows what she’s doing and will automatically get the best deal for you. You may trust that she has your best interests at heart, but she’s not the one who has to live with the terms. You do. And you’d be amazed at the number of agents who don’t really dig into the fine print details: they, like writers, assume some things cannot be negotiated. Oh, that’s the publisher’s boilerplate, or That’s standard film industry language. They won’t change that.

And maybe they won’t. But that doesn’t mean you should sign a contract without understanding that when it says blah blah blah legal language YAWN blah blah, sometimes what it really means is, for example, Not only do we own the right to publish this book, but we also have the right to publish any future books you write unless you can get someone to make a higher financial offer. This is what I call a company-store clause, and is a true example from a not-so-small press contract that an editing client almost signed within the last several years.

So, back to the offer to option Solitaire, me wringing my hands over my keyboard and whimpering But…Hollywood! Movie! Want! But I listened to my agents and I thought hard. That’s when I started realizing that it was up to me to decide what tradeoffs I am willing to make in my career, and what my personal balance is between business and art. Stephen King and J.K. Rowling no longer have to compromise (I’m guessing). The rest of us have choices to make.

Ultimately, I decided that the parameters of the offer didn’t work for me. I was ceding too much control for not enough compensation. So I told my agents to say no.

At about 5:15 PM the afternoon of the offer expiration date, my (unlisted) home phone rang, and the man on the other end introduced himself as Tommaso Fiacchino from Cherry Road Films. My eyebrows went up and I put on my best grownup professional voice, although inside-Kelley was squeaking Hollywood calling! Movie producer! Mrrph!

Tommaso said, “So, we don’t have a deal?”

However, because inside-Kelley was still squeaking, phone-Kelley didn’t really hear the question mark at the end. Phone-Kelley heard a guy dropping the hammer on the wee writer from the sticks. You missed the deadline and now we don’t have a deal. I honestly thought he was calling to personally inform me that this was the End Of The Line. (I was perhaps feeling a little freaked out :).

So I said, “Okay.” As in, okay, we don’t have a deal.

And he said, “…. Wait. No, we don’t have deal?” This time I heard the question mark.

“Has no one gotten back to you about this?” I said. And when it became clear that my LA agents hadn’t bothered to give him the courtesy of a formal no, I did it myself.

Being Tommaso (*waves at Tommaso fondly through the internet*), he argued with me earnestly attempted to persuade me to change my mind. He told me how much he loved the book. I agreed that I loved it too. He told me that it was unlikely that anyone else would offer for it, because it was three years after publication and the world had moved on. I agreed with him. And my answer was that I appreciated his interest, but his offer didn’t represent the value of the property.

“I’m very disappointed,” he said.

I said, “I am too.”

We wished each other well, and I put down the phone and walked upstairs to Nicola. I must have looked like a bunny in the headlights. “I just said no to Hollywood,” I said.

I had already decided not to take the offer, but there was something about saying no on the phone to Tommaso that made it so… real. And I was disappointed as hell. But I felt right about it. And I still do.

Nine months later, the phone rang. It was my agent. “Guess who’s back?” she said. Three months later I signed a standard option agreement with Cherry Road that did, in fact, represent the value of the property pretty well.

Sometimes the greatest power a creator has is the power of no. This was the first time I exercised it with OtherLife. But not the last. Stay tuned for more on that, and all the ways in which the OtherLife journey becomes very non-standard down the road….

Enjoy your day.

My film OtherLife is shooting now in Perth

OtherLife Countdown Clock
I’m thrilled to announce that my film OtherLife has begun shooting in Perth, Australia.
(Read the press release.)

OtherLife is directed by Ben C. Lucas (Wasted on the Young), a fiercely talented director and writer who brings depth and heart and passion to the film. The script is written by me, Gregory Widen (Highlander, Backdraft, The Prophecy), Lucas Howe, and director Ben Lucas. The film stars the fantastic Jessica De Gouw (Dracula, Arrow, and the forthcoming Underground), as well as Thomas Cocquerel (Kidnapping Mr. Heineken) and TJ Power (Eat Pray Love, The Sapphires, Wasted on the Young).

OtherLife is produced in Australia by Ticket to Ride, See Pictures, and WBMC. These fine people brought the film to Australia and put together a stunningly creative crew. You should see some of the photos… and you will! I’ll have a lot to say about the process in coming posts.

A special shoutout to Ben Lucas and producer Jamie Hilton for believing in the script and working so hard to bring it to Australia. Oh my god the stories…

And finally, three important people to thank:

Tommaso Fiacchino of Cherry Road Films (Al Otro Lado) optioned the novel more than 10 years ago. Tommaso gave me the opportunity to write the script revision a year later, after which I became the project’s lead writer. Tommaso and I have worked together since then in a close collaborative producer/writer process.

Marco Mehlitz of Lago Film (A Dangerous Method, Mr. Nobody, Only Lovers Left Alive) joined our Scooby Gang several years ago. His experience and expertise have been invaluable in navigating the wild waters of filmmaking. His belief in the script has kept us all going during the many times when things weren’t going well.

Tommaso and Marco have worked tirelessly on behalf of the script, and have afforded me a level of trust, access, and teamwork that is not always the norm for screenwriters. They are the champions of OtherLife. This film would not exist without them.

And thank you to my beloved Nicola Griffith for being here for every low, high, and what the fuck am I doing? moment.

Solitaire was first optioned more than 10 years ago. I became the lead writer on the script a year later. It took 3,326 days from the morning I began my first pass with the screenplay to the commencement of shooting. It has been, and continues to be, an amazing ride. I’ll have a lot more to see about it over the coming days, but for now I hope you’ll help me celebrate this dream of mine come true.

Interview at Seattle Wrote

SeattleWrote I’m delighted to have this interview about the long game of writing and the generosity economy at Seattle Wrote.

“A lot of people helped me, and my work is better for it. It’s a gift artists can and should give to each other…”

Many thanks to journalist and Seattle Wrote founder Norelle Done for a great conversation, and for the terrific collection of interviews with Seattle authors she has garnered (check out Louise Marley and Matt Ruff for starters).

Enjoy your day.

Small Beer Press will reprint Solitaire

I am happy-dancing thrilled that Small Beer Press will publish a reprint edition of Solitaire early next year.

Those who know Small Beer will understand why I’m so happy: Gavin Grant and Kelly Link have built a wonderful, writer-friendly business, a high-powered critical reputation, and a list of books for readers of all ages and persuasions whose common connection is a love of story. I’ve known them for a long time (sf isn’t a very big club, really), and have long wanted a chance to work with them. I’m honored by their support of Solitaire (which, for those who know the SB imprints, is coming out as a Small Beer book, not a Peapod Classic).

Want to know more? Check out Small Beer on Facebook and their most excellent blog.

So: a new edition, a new cover, and a new phase of life for Solitaire. I’m delighted. Tonight I’ll drink a large beer to Small Beer (grin): for now, I think I’ll go have another cup of tea.

Enjoy your day.

Shooing the plot

Just wanted to say I enjoyed reading Solitaire. It kept me entertained with an intriguing plotline that led to a satisfying ending. The writing style really drew me into the story. I appreciate a book that gives elaborate yet consistent descriptions of its imaginary locales, and Solitaire delivered beautifully with its portrayals of Ko Island and NNA Zone 17.

I especially liked the subtle humor sprinkled throughout the novel. I got a kick out of the map-dispensing pillar that mixed courtesy with dire warnings about failure to recycle. The rejection e-mail from the art gallery was a scream. My favorite character (after Frankenbear of course) was Crichton. She really had a way with words (“He’s not talking to me”).

I winced at this depiction of the Garbo team: “All of them except the designer were typical R&D types — blindingly smart, highly verbal, suspicious of non-technical language, critical of new ideas, desperate for credit, and terminally rude.” Ouch! Does that describe the R&D staff at Wizards of the Coast?

Just a few criticisms. First, the basic premise was really hard to believe: that a world government would choose its future leaders based on the second they were born. Civilizations have been known to choose their chiefs in some pretty bizarre ways, but that way takes the prize for sheer irrelevance and lack of enforceability. Perhaps some further background on the history of EarthGov’s formation would help.

Why is Ko Island so cold in the winter that people put on a hundred layers of clothes and drink hot soup all the time? It’s close to Hong Kong, so it should have the same subtropical climate.

I didn’t quite understand Tiger’s behavior on Halloween and afterward. Presumably he knew about Jackal and Snow, and he was their web mate, so his actions seemed rather odd. Maybe a little more development of Tiger’s character would help.

The events at Mirabile really strained credibility, even allowing for the numerous coincidences involved. Why would the elevator control console have a “disengage backup system” command that instantly lets all three elevators drop? Backup brakes for an elevator ought to remain engaged until manually disengaged. Why did the second attendant leave the room? What eventually happened to the two attendants? “One … had been found dead; the other, not at all.” Did Ko executives have them iced or something?

Despite these issues, I enjoyed the book a lot. I look forward to your next novel. In the meantime, maybe I’ll check out some of Nicola’s writings. Do you have a favorite work of hers that you’d recommend?


Hi, Steve, and I apologize about 400 times, one for every day your email went unread (aside to the rest of the internet — yep, Steve’s message found its way into a corner of my computer and I only just discovered it a couple weeks ago. And we went to high school together, so it’s not like I’m just any old rude person, I’m a rude person he actually knows. Color me embarrassed.)

I’m glad you liked Solitaire overall, although I do get a chuckle from the idea that the plotline works at any point. Plot is not my strength; really I just want to wave my hands at it in a particular cliched Southern girl fashion, as if shooing it off into a corner. But I have learned that readers expect it.

Endings, however, are important to me, and I’ve certainly gotten enough grief from people about the “neatly wrapped up ending” that it’s nice to have someone find it satisfying. It satisfies me too, but I’ve never thought of it as neatly wrapped up. Mostly, I think of it as one part of Jackal’s life being irrevocably over… and that’s bittersweet for me, and (I’ve always imagined) for her as well.

And thank you for loving Crichton. I just adore her — all those years of being in and out of her head when I was wrestling with the novel, and when I read Solitaire she still makes me laugh out loud. I’d love to have her as a friend, not just for her charm — it would get old if that was all there was to her — but for her vast intelligence and her absolutely realistic take on things. I think she’s the smartest person in the book, except for maybe Neill. Or maybe it’s just that Crichton doesn’t quite have his experience yet, and one day she will give him a run for his money.

Hah. If there were ever going to be a “sequel” to Solitaire, maybe that would have to be it.

So, you are the first person in all these years who has asked me directly if that sentence about R&D was based on my experience at Wizards. Why, yes, it was, and is as precise a description as I could create of the folks I knew there (I didn’t know them all, so the rest may have been as sweet as pie). The exception was always Richard, the original designer of Magic, who was very nice to deal with, and was so smart that he never had to prove a thing to anyone.

I don’t blame you for arguing with the Hopes premise (shoo, plot, shoo!), although perhaps it wasn’t clear that the Hope was an honorary/PR designation — none of them were growing up to be the presidents of their nations. Jackal was being groomed for behind-the-scenes work in EarthGov, an actual position of power and influence, but still not leadership. The primary purposes of the Hopes was to take up highly visible “feel good” roles on the world stage, to be someone that a citizen of a participating nation could point to as a role model. As the Hopes are successful, so EarthGov takes on a certain credibility and “success” by association. It’s essentially celebrity politics turned about 30 degrees on its head. As carefree as I may be with plot sometimes, even I would not see the actual leaders of the near future world chosen quite so randomly.

The climate of Hong Kong: you’re right, of course, but they do have outlier days in the winter months where temperatures can get down into the 40’s or even 30’s. This may not seem particularly arduous to you, but I gave Jackal my response to cold — and I grew up in Florida, fer gosh sakes. There’s always a few days in Florida where the temperature gets into the 30’s or 40’s, and when I was growing up, whap, the mercury hit the magic number of 49 or below and women would pull out their fur coats and wear them to the gas station, the grocery store, wherever they could, just to get some use out of them.

As you may imagine, the weather at St. Paul’s was a revelation to me. I was cold all the time there.

As for Tiger, we can agree that mileage varies. I don’t need him to be reasonable or rational: young people in love so rarely are, in my experience.

You’re right about the elevator mechanics in Mirabile, that’s an example of me scratching my head and trying to plot. I needed a way for Jackal to directly interact with the crash — a way for her to have some responsibility for what happened. That’s the best I could come up with at the time. One of my writing teachers used to say that the best thing a writer can do when she finds herself on thin ice is move fast and point in the other direction (grin).

If you’re interested, there’s a very long and thoughtful conversation in the comments here about both Tiger and the intersection of accident and responsibility in the Mirabile scene.

As for Nicola’s books, well, read them all (another grin). Try Slow River — it’s an elegant book in both structure and in sheer writing, and there’s a reason it won the Nebula (beams with pride at Nicola through the internet).

Steve, thanks so much for hanging in there! And thanks for the thoughtful response to Solitaire.

Enjoy your day.

What Sparrow says

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.

Multicultural writing

I was amazed at your answer to the last question. I knew that Solitaire is a multicultural book from the moment I read that it took place in Asia and that the protagonist’s surname was Segura , but I missed most of the racial inferences. Most writers use epithets when they have minority characters (which I dislike), and I’m glad that you don’t. Now –” after reading all the details of the characters’ ethnicities –” I think I’m going to go back through Solitaire and try to find the clues I must have missed. I knew that Jackal was Spanish, but I missed the Italian part (but now I realize Donatella is an Italian name). I knew Tiger was Asian from the way you described him and from his last name, although I thought he was Japanese or Southeast Asian. I must say, you’re open-minded for portraying an Asian male so sexually (and attractively). And I knew Snow was Scandinavian, also from the description.

I do have a few questions. How did you become so open-minded about things? Were you raised that way, or did you become more accepting over time?

Anyway, I hope your week is going well. Thanks again.


I find it challenging to write multiculturally, and am not overly impressed by my own skills in this regard. I believe that most white writers can and should do better. When writers of a dominant culture start patting themselves on the back for getting a few non-dominant characters in the mix, it’s just a bit too close to straight married men who want the world to call them heroes because they routinely do 50% of the housework. No one would ever praise a woman for doing her 50% of the housework, or tell her husband that he must feel “so lucky that your wife helps out so much!” Same theory applies here. I should recognize in my work, as in all other parts of my life, that not everyone looks, feels, thinks, believes, behaves, dreams, fears, loves, or experiences their everyday world like me. Not because I’m a hero, just because it’s my 50% of this work. I appreciate your approval, and I’m not trying to imply that you shouldn’t like this aspect of my work (or me, grin)–”quite the contrary! But I don’t want to start falling in love with myself about it either.

Part of the challenge of writing multiculturally is my own hang-up as a writer: I dislike reading character descriptions that are so obviously only there to satisfy the “rule” that the reader has to know what everyone looks like. (“Oh, no,” she said, brushing her golden hair back from her forehead…) Ick. And we’ve talked before about white writers describing white characters in particular terms without any reference to skin color, while characters who are not white are described first and foremost as whatever sort of not-white they are. I don’t have enough experience with a spectrum of literature by African-American writers, or writers from other countries, to make the same generalization, although I’ve understood from my African-American friends and teachers that skin color is an important (although not always openly-discussed) differentiation in African-American culture. Maybe someone here knows more about this than I do?

Sometimes the kind of obvious description I mention above is necessary: sometimes the most important thing about a character is skin color (for example, in the movie Beverly Hills Cop, when Eddie Murphy walks into the redneck bar, the point is that it’s full of white people). But that’s context. If hanging a race/culture/ethnicity tag on someone isn’t right for the context, then it’s just a lazy choice.

But since physical character description is necessary sometimes, that’s where skill comes in. I wanted to make the point in Solitaire that not everyone was white, but I also didn’t want it to be a big deal (from Jackal’s perspective) that she lived in a diverse society. I thought some of my choices were pretty clumsy, and some were okay. And you caught one of my mistakes. Tiger is indeed supposed to be Chinese, but I couldn’t find a family name for him that I liked (character names are important to me, and I sometimes really struggle with them). So I plugged in “Amomato” and promised myself I’d come back and fix it…and never did. Oops (laughing). Maybe he was an orphan adopted by a forward-thinking Filipino family, or something.

Anyway, you probably didn’t miss that many clues, because there aren’t that many, because I was trying hard not to make too many lame choices (grin). And I’m still trying in the new book.

I don’t know how open-minded I am: like everything else, it depends. I’ve done a fair amount of work to overcome the effects of being raised in a racist culture, and I was blessed with parents who fought against racism in all kinds of ways during my childhood. They were civil rights activists in the 60’s, and were part of an “underground railroad” of sorts that helped Black activists get out of town (sometimes the country) when things were getting too hot. There were still race riots in the streets of Tampa in 1968 and 1969, the police force was actively and aggressively racist, and things were terribly hard for people who weren’t white.

In 1970, one of the leaders of a Black youth movement in Tampa was arrested on a marijuana charge. He and his wife, who was white, lived with us for a few months during their trial (five people in a 700-square foot house, with the two of them sleeping on the living room floor, so as you might imagine we all got to know each other better). He spoke several languages, and taught me to play chess, and let me figure out for myself whether what was happening to them was right or not.

I went with my parents to court during the trial, and watched the police officer at the courtroom door “search” my mother’s purse by dumping it out on the table, or the floor, every time she went in or out; all the Black women were searched this way, and no other white woman was. Our phone was tapped. Uniformed officers showed up at our house for no particular reason. We were followed by patrol cars and unmarked cars (I was even followed as I walked to school one day, dangerous 10-year-old that I was). It was a little taste of what Black and Hispanic folks in Tampa lived through every day in a thousand different ways. It sucks that it happened, and is still happening to people everywhere, everyday; and it also taught me that racism is real, which was a very good thing for me to learn. I remember going to boarding school and describing some of this to my peers, many of whom flatly asserted that I was lying, that those kinds of things couldn’t happen in America. Go figure.

Because I was an only child, I spent a lot of time in adult company. My parents rarely excluded me from adult events as long as I was respectful and didn’t act up. Our parties were full of people of all colors, all ages, poor and wealthy, people who drank and those who used drugs, gay and lesbian people as well as straight people. I met bikers, Viet Nam veterans, low-level Mafia soldiers, lawyers, priests, artists, people with illness or disability. There was a lot of difference in the room when I was growing up. Along with loving me unconditionally and making sure I got an education way above my class expectations, it is the most powerful thing my parents did for me. Those three things built my foundations in ways that I’m still only just figuring out.

And does this make me Wonder White Woman? Absolutely not. I still struggle with racist assumptions and fears. I find it frustrating and shaming, but there you go, this is where we live and this is what it does to all of us.

I am learning these lessons again, in different context, in my study of American Sign Language and Deaf culture: much of our learning centers on the assumptions that hearing people make about deaf people, and the ways that deaf people can be oppressed by those assumptions. As part of that study, last year we read a book called Uprooting Racism: How White People Can Work for Racial Justice, by Paul Kivel; I highly recommend it. It’s not a book that beats up white folks about individual racism; rather, it looks at how racism manifests in America’s legal, educational, social, economic and cultural systems, and how any of us can take individual steps to push back against the various ways that this oppression has been institutionalized. It’s about ways in which white people can become allies to people of color. Some of the students in my class wondered why we were reading a book on racism to learn more about the experience of deaf people in America; by the end, it was pretty clear.

Uprooting Racism put me strongly in mind of another excellent book that explores systemic oppression from a different perspective: How To Suppress Women’s Writing, by Joanna Russ. Both great books.

And I’m sorry as hell that there’s any need for them. Sometimes I wonder why we’re all so damn hard on each other all the time. Socialization, enculturation, the slow accretion of assumption that congeals into Truth About The World and Everyone In It…. and whether we embrace it or fight against it, it still happens. Creating a worldview is a human thing, it’s what we do and I wouldn’t change it. I just wonder why so many people feel that there can be only one?

Yeeks, if we were drinking real beer instead of virtual pints, no doubt people would be propping me up and making go-home noises about now. And so I will. Cheers.

Not just a white world

Hello Kelley,

I wanted to let you know that I have read your novel Solitaire and loved it. I also wanted to let you know that I never would have, if Nicola had not been so effusive in her praise of it…I absolutely had to purchase it and am thoroughly pleased that I did so…it was an EXCELLENT read! It was vivid, alive, intriguing, captivating. I loved the concept, the depiction of the characters, I loved the flow of dialogue, the description of all that was tangible and not…absolutely lovely.

I have a question though, and I hope you don’t think it narrow-minded; it is not meant that way at all, I am truly curious. And perhaps someone has already asked this question, forgive me if that is the case…but: In light of the fact that Hong Kong is, shall we say, a major background, in the story, are Jackal, Snow (who sounds stunning) and the other characters Asian? I ask this because I don’t wish to fall into the trap of assuming all characters, in any book, are Caucasian.

Thanks so much for this. 🙂



Well, neither do I (smile), which is why I tried not to make whiteness the default value in the book. I visualize Ko as a true multinational corporation, a mix of people of many backgrounds bound together by the corporate metaculture. I think if you look again, you’ll find that Jackal is half Italian and half Spanish; Turtle and Jane are Hispanic; Bear, Crichton and Khofi Andabe are Black (I think of Bear as Afro-Caribbean and Andabe as African, but there are no specific clues to that). Tiger and Chao are Chinese. Estar is her deliberately indefinable self. Snow is as purely Norwegian as someone growing up in Asia can be. Scully is pretty generic Anglo-mutt. Neill is Australian, although you’d never know it from the book.

It doesn’t seem narrow-minded to me to question whether a white writer has considered that not everyone (and especially not everyone of importance) in her story is white. Quite the opposite. I think it’s good to read beyond majority-culture assumptions (all characters are white, straight, middle-class, Christian, physically unlimited, etc. unless otherwise labeled to identify their “difference from the norm”). And it’s good to write beyond these assumptions. But it’s not enough for a writer to go through her manuscript and hang a race tag on everyone. How stupid it would be to write a paragraph in the opening of Solitaire about Jackal looking for her web, “a racially diverse group of peers with a variety of cultural perspectives,” or some such crap. Especially if hanging the race tag is all the writer does. Creating characters who are essentially mainstream white folks in terms of worldview, experience, cultural assumptions and behavior, and then painting their skin a different color, does nothing to recognize diversity. It’s just bad writing. It takes more work to make people actually different from one another, particular in ways that reflect something about where they came from as well as who they are individually.

I’m not completely happy with the job I did in Solitaire in this regard, but the errors are those of execution, not imagination. And one reason I chose Hong Kong as the background for Ko, and Al Iskandariyah ( Alexandria) as the seat of world government, is that the world is edging toward a rebalance of power, in my opinion. If the people of the world will get off our asses and do something to help Africa, and if China builds a few more cultural and long-term economic bridges with other nations, then I think in thirty years it’s not going to be only white western superpowers driving the global cultural and political agenda. I think that will be a very scary time for many white westerners.

I’m glad you enjoyed the book and were willing to take a chance on it. But honestly, what would you expect Nicola to say (grin)–””My sweetie wrote a book and it sucks, don’t buy it”?


Stereotyping and writing questions

Honestly, I’ve wanted to write to you since I finished Solitaire several months ago, back in August of 2003. My only excuses for not sending in a Virtual Pint comment immediately upon finishing your novel are procrastination…and a lack of anything worthwhile and meaningful to say.

Solitaire is definitely one of my top ten favorite books of all time. You created a believable world that seemed beautiful and peaceful, despite all of Jackal’s unfortunate circumstances.

I especially liked how you didn’t revert to stereotypes when describing and introducing your characters. As a female, and a racial minority, I admire writers that can look beyond differences in race, language, and sexuality to create characters that are actually realistic. Although the protagonist was a woman, she wasn’t a pushover and she wasn’t “masculine,” as some media characterizes women that have relationships with other women. Frankly, I’m quite sick of popular media that exoticizes people who aren’t straight, white, American, and Catholic. Even Snow, who seemed to be a very sweet, reticent young woman at first, didn’t turn out to be a typical female ditz. I admit that I was surprised when I realized that Jackal and Snow were actually lovers. I thought it provided an interesting twist to the book, because the two women were very different and yet compatible.

The male characters in the book showed how large the spectrum of human personality is –” Carlos was the comforting father, Neill was the businessman with a soft side, and Scully was immediately likable…like an older brother. And I can’t forget Tiger, who was, surprisingly, my favorite character in the book. You were able to build his character in a very short amount of time, which I thought was amazing. I mean, when I started reading the book, I could tell that he actually cared about Jackal and was a nice guy with a lot of weaknesses underneath all of the smirks and perversion. But I didn’t mind that you killed him off early –” because, in many books I enjoy, my favorite character dies.

Overall, I loved Solitaire and will be looking for your next book. I’m glad you aren’t doing a sequel, though, because you provided a good closure to the story. I’m also glad that I bought the hardcover edition, because I find its cover much more appealing than the paperback edition’s. The new cover is edgy, and certainly interesting, but I prefer the abstract beauty of the first.

Anyway, I’ve noticed that a lot of writers with websites don’t like to communicate with their readers (sadly). That’s why I was pleased when I discovered the Virtual Pint Index. There are a number of questions I’ve always wanted to ask a successful, published writer…so please, forgive me for the numerous questions that follow. I am quite young and naive, though I rarely admit it.

* When did you start writing, and when did you decide it would be your career (that is, if you even did ‘decide’ to become a professional writer)?

* How does it feel being a published writer, with a book that has sold well and received outstanding reviews?

* Do you have any advice for aspiring writers (such as myself) on finding a decent literary agent and publisher…or just writing in general?

* How long did it take you to finish Solitaire, and when and how did you get the idea for it?

* Do you write daily?

Well, thanks for reading this. It means a lot to me…and I wish you luck on everything you’re working on right now.


Fasten your seat belt, because I’m going to answer all these questions….

But first, thanks for sharing your observations about the book. I particularly appreciate that you found the male characters varied and human. I’ve had some criticism that they’re weak, which perplexes me and makes me wonder if I’m revealing some wacky unconscious prejudice. That’s disturbing –” I prefer to be aware of my biases and express them with intention. But I didn’t think they were weak when I wrote them, and I still don’t. They’re just doing their best, like the rest of us. I wonder sometimes if what bothers some people is that, with the exception of Tiger, none of the men are overtly sexual, and with the exception of Neill, none of them are overtly powerful.

I’m also glad that you didn’t find the characters stereotypical or exoticized. I put conscious work into that; it’s way too easy for writers who are (even partial) members of a majority culture to forget that our assumptions about skin color, sexuality, etc. aren’t the default setting of humanity. I’ve seen so many books and stories by white writers in which all the white characters are just “people with blue eyes” while characters of color are “coffee-colored, slender African-American women” or “graceful Latino men with bedroom eyes.” Really, ick. I’ve done it myself (big ick). I’m working on improving. As a sociological aside, you know what’s really interesting? Being a white person in a group of white people and describing someone across the room by saying, “That white woman in the green dress.” People raise their eyebrows or look puzzled, and some become downright uncomfortable.

I began to learn this lesson as a human from my parents and their friends, but I didn’t begin to learn it as a writer until Samuel R. Delany taught me at Clarion. I disliked the experience, but it was worth it. Nicola also helps me pay attention to this aspect of my work, along with so many others (she’s expressed her thoughts on stereotyping in this essay).

There is nothing wrong with being naïve. It’s my experience that I learn a lot more when I cop to not knowing. I don’t understand why our culture values “knowing” over learning and teaching, but there you go, just one more thing that I don’t know (smile). Besides, knowing is the easy part: doing, now, that’s where the game gets interesting.

When did you start writing, and when did you decide it would be your career (that is, if you even did ‘decide’ to become a professional writer)?

I started writing poetry when I was about eight. A few years later I was fortunate to have teacher who was passionate about classic poetry forms, and taught me the structure, rhythms and rhymes of sonnets, haiku, cinquain, sijo, ballad… there may have even been villanelle in there, I don’t remember. She was the first person besides my parents who actively encouraged me.

And I read everything. My parents did without to buy me all the books I wanted, even trashy comic books, and I read them until they fell apart. The only book they ever withheld from me was a thriller about an incestuous, sadistic, psychotic, serial-killing family with torture and/or sex on just about every page. (I know this because I climbed a nine-foot bookshelf to pull it from its hiding place one afternoon, and was thoroughly grossed out for days afterward).

I wrote a couple of stories as a child, mostly imitations of whatever I was reading at the time. But I didn’t write prose with any serious commitment until I was in my mid-twenties. I went to Clarion at age 28, and published professionally for the first time at age 30.

I think it’s possible to be a professional writer without having, or even wanting, a writing career. To me, “professional” means a) being capable of work that professional markets will publish, and b) producing regularly, even if slowly. To me, “career” means not just that writing is my primary job, but also, and just as importantly, that I have a vision for my work, long-term goals, a definition of success that extends beyond “please god, let someone buy this story.” I was a professional when I wrote Solitaire, but writing wasn’t my career. It took me longer than I expected to decide that it should be, and to make that commitment.

How does it feel being a published writer, with a book that has sold well and received outstanding reviews?

I’m proud of all my short fiction, and of Solitaire. After more than 15 years of writing seriously, I see myself as an expert short story writer, and believe that I can become an expert novelist if I choose to do the work. Expert doesn’t mean the product is perfect, only that the results are conscious and shaped, rather than a splatter of hope, energy, desire held together by fledgling skills and a prayer, which is how I used to approach my work (and is to some extent how I approached Solitaire, at least the first few years that I worked on it). The hope, energy, desire are still there, but now the skills are driving the train. I like this way better. It’s exhilarating to sit down and know how to work. Some days are not so much fun, but I no longer have that creeping, acid fear at the back of my heart that I will never really be a writer. Working on the new novel is a little more fraught than writing stories, because I have so much more to learn about the structure and rhythms of novels; but I’m confident of my ability to learn these things consciously, to develop skill and craft so that I don’t just have to rely on talent. Talent’s not enough, nor is its baby sister, inspiration. In fact, part of the “career” choice I made is to stop caring about inspiration.

There are ways of being published that wouldn’t feel good to me at all. I won’t be specific, because some writers choose to take those paths and that’s fine –” it’s their choice, and I don’t see it as my place to be critical. I don’t think there’s “one true way” to be a published writer, but there are ways that are right for me. I think that developing one’s own definition of “career” includes making some of these decisions. I’m feeling good about my choices right now.

I’m delighted with the good reviews of Solitaire, and not nearly as gutted by the bad ones as I’d expected to be. The good review in the New York Times and the New York Times Notable Book nod are very good for the new edition and for the next phase of my career, as is the Borders Original Voices designation. The negative Publishers Weekly and Kirkus reviews probably hurt my sales, and certainly didn’t give my reputation as a novelist the glowing start I’d hoped for with booksellers and reviewers. Hardcover sales aren’t as good as I had hoped, and that could also be an obstacle for my next book if the major chains perceive that I don’t sell well. We’ll have to see how the trade paperback does.

Maybe you were just expecting me to say, “It feels great” (grin). And it does. But the reality of Solitaire is a mixed bag. That’s okay. It still feels great. There’s a big piece of my heart in the book, and all the skill I had at the time, and a huge amount of hope. Seeing it out in the world, knowing that it’s connecting with people, makes me feel like someone just plucked a cello string in my stomach, a deep, happy hum.

Do you have any advice for aspiring writers (such as myself) on finding a decent literary agent and publisher…or just writing in general?

If you’ve read this far, then you know I probably do (laughing). One of the things I enjoy about the virtual pub is getting to be expansive in the way of that second or third round, when the day’s rough edges are smoothing and it’s fine to settle back in my chair and say Well, I might have a couple of ideas.

I’ve answered this question enough in other circumstances that I actually have something already written about it. I don’t know if it’s the kind of information you’re looking for, but start here. If this doesn’t do it, write me again with more specific questions and I will do my best to give you my opinion.

Please bear in mind that my opinions on writing and publishing work really well for me, but your mileage may vary.

How long did it take you to finish Solitaire, and when and how did you get the idea for it?

It took eight years, in fits and starts. Ideas came from all over the place. It was influenced by two stories I wrote at Clarion, Somewhere Down the Diamondback Road and an unpublished novella called Distance about a mother and daughter in a post-apocalyptic beach town. It was also influenced by my corporate jobs in Atlanta and Seattle, by music and television and other people’s books, by the things I liked and didn’t like about my life. I once had to throw out an entire year’s writing, somewhere around 15,000 words (if I remember correctly) because I had taken a wrong turn. That wouldn’t happen now; I have more skill. I despaired of ever finishing it, and sometimes I felt small and lazy because I wasn’t working faster, or working at all. But it’s a better book for having taken that time, and maybe if I’d rushed it I wouldn’t be having this conversation with you about all those lovely reviews. Who knows? I hope that for the new book I have enough experience to shorten the curve, that awareness and skill can substitute for just pounding away long enough to get somewhere…..

Do you write daily?

Yes, at the moment. I haven’t always, and I may not always. Some of the work is thinking, and that doesn’t always happen best in front of the computer. But I’m in a phase right now of showing up every day, putting my butt in the chair, and writing. Some days it’s just a job, and some days it’s a very great joy indeed.

That individual thing


First of all, yes, you correctly interpreted my last point about literature being about emotional truth. I agree that it’s difficult to “express precise emotional truth in bad prose” –” it’s like watching a terrible movie in which the actors are very good. What’s the point, I ask myself? I also completely agree that great prose doesn’t necessarily hit the mark, although it also depends upon the reader. It used to bother me when I read a book that someone I respect recommended highly and it didn’t work for me at all. I used to think there was something wrong with me, that I just wasn’t getting it. I know now that it probably just didn’t read for me.

You’re also right on the money about “genre” fiction. I read a ton, all the time, and I would say a majority of my favorite reading material would be classified as genre fiction. And it’s not all great stuff –” sometimes I just wanna watch stuff blow up, to use another movie metaphor. But the best of those books transcend whatever genre they’ve been shoved into.

I think “genre” is really a marketing term. A publisher has to try to sell the books they are publishing, and my experience as a consumer has convinced me that the standard advertising strategy for any product is to simplify and summarize –” come up with a brief, catchy way to let the consumer know what it is. Often it seems that advertisers and their clients make an early decision on a specific section of the public (a demographic) to which to make their pitch. Then the summary can be canted toward that audience. Books cause problems when they cannot be easily summarized or fit into a standard category. I imagine it gives advertising companies seizures. So they do the best they can, pick a category reasonably close to the book’s content (or possibly just arbitrarily assign one based on the author’s past work) and put out a marketing campaign accordingly, which may or may not work.

What do you think, as both a reader and a published and therefore marketed writer?

Another unrelated question: I love reading Ask Nicola and have written a few questions myself (just sent one in a little bit ago). The two of you have distinctive, individual voices. I wouldn’t write a post here in quite the same way as I would a post over there. My question is, do the two of you ever discuss the sorts of posts you each get at your respective Web sites? Or do you make a point of maintaining your own separate spaces on the Web? Just curious.

Keep passing the open windows,

Adam Diamond

The comment about disliking books recommended by people you respect makes me think about growing up Southern, and learning early that contradicting others’ taste wasn’t Nice (there are certain qualities of Southern culture that cry out for capitalization). I’ve unlearned this fairly well, thanks in great part to living with Nicola (smile).

But it’s not fair to blame the South. Let’s blame the whole US. I think it’s possible to talk about US culture in a few fundamental ways, even though race and region and class and gender and physical ability particularize our socialization to such a great extent (not to mention whatever individual family wackiness we grow up with). Why do you suppose so many people in this culture equate disagreement with personal disrespect? Partly, I suppose, it’s a communication-style issue. Some folks don’t know any other way to express an opinion except as a die-to-defend-it expression of self (even Nice Southern Folks, and those of you who live there know what an experience it is to cross teaspoons with a bona fide steel magnolia who believes her taste has just been dissed….). It’s hard to have a conversation about perception with someone who wants to talk about it in terms of core identity.

But there you go: individualism and customized personal identity are fundamentals of US culture. And I like the premise even if I don’t always like the way it plays out. I wish I had grown up with more sense of interdependent community, but I also know that being raised in a culture of individualism made it possible for me to escape my class and much of my negative socialization. (Shakes head). These are the tools we’re given.

Part of the reason I’m riffing on this is that I think it’s related to marketing and the concept of ‘genre.’ Because even individuals need connection, but we sure have to work hard to find it sometimes. Most of us are more comfortable with similarity than difference, and we use affiliation groups, categories, whatever, to help us find our connections. knows this –” I think the “people who bought this book also bought…” is a stroke of marketing genius. Because that’s what marketing is all about–”that balance between individuality and groupmind. That’s why there is nothing so precious or effective as word of mouth to sell a book. The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold didn’t end up selling north of a million copies because it got reviewed in the New York Times –” it was all those book clubs, and people telling their friends. Viral marketing.

In my experience, your perception of book marketing is accurate, although I think it’s often a less active process than the one you’ve described. It seems to me that most books go out into the world with “default marketing” –” someone writes a press release and sends it with copies of the book to a pre-established list of reviewers and booksellers, and then goes out for lunch. I don’t much like this system, but I understand why it exists. In 2002, an estimated 115,000 books (including Solitaire and Stay) were published in America. An Everest of books. As a reader, I rely on reviews and word of mouth to find my way through the forest, and when I’m browsing in a bookstore I rely on cover art and the “signals” of genre (categorization, blurbs, cover copy, etc.) to help me navigate. Newspapers and magazines often assign reviewers to certain categories of books so that readers can get a certain consistency of reviews over time. And booksellers need to know where to shelve a book so that all us readers will find it. It’s a vicious spiral of categorization. I don’t think it’s a question of least common denominator as much as the path of least resistance taken by the people who have those 115,000 books to market.

I was fortunate that Solitaire was treated, well, more individually (grin). Anyone interested in more detail about this can read this interview with Broad Universe.

And now to the difference between VP and Ask Nicola. I showed your question to Nicola and said, “What do you think he means by that?” She said, “I guess he means we’re different.” Hah. She is so great.

She certainly answers questions more quickly (and thanks for your patience, Adam). She gets many more than I do, so she has a certain pipeline pressure. Yes, we do talk about them. We talk about everything. It’s one of the fundamentals of our relationship.

And we are also interested in maintaining our separate space (that ‘individual’ thing….) I think this is a more conscious concern for me, because Nicola doesn’t generally have to contend with the “oh, you’re a writer too” attitude. This all goes back to those notions of individualism. There’s a set of largely unarticulated but profound assumptions in this culture about partners in the same line of work: that their relationship suffers from competition (or the rigorous defense against it), that the person who “goes first” has a certain right of assertion to being the “real one” while the person who “goes second” is probably riding on their partner’s coattails. The “follower” is more influenced by the “leader” than vice versa. Way more people describe me as a writer in terms of Nicola’s work than have ever described Nicola in terms of mine, as if the influence only went one way. This is particularly troublesome to me, since it implies that I’m not as independently creative.

That’s not why our website voices are different: they’re different because we’re different. But it is partly why I have a website (although I think every writer ought to have one). It’s a way of particularizing me to people. I work hard to make my web voice reflect my private voice. Okay, I swear a lot more in private conversation –” but in person I like to riff, to ask and answer, and meander to and from a central point as much as I do here in the virtual pub. Straight-line conversations don’t interest me as much. I wonder what it’s like to view life as a linear process? I never have. To me, it’s a set of fractals, or an ecosystem, or maybe a perpetual set of chemical reactions…. any metaphor that involves change and reaction, choice and adaptation.

And I like to watch stuff blow up too. Multifaceted, me. Cheers.