New Year, New Books… (Dec/Jan)

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Featuring: Megan Abbott, Kate Atkinson, John Ayliff, Elizabeth Brundage, M.R. Carey, Mike Carey, Linda Carey, Louise Carey, John Connolly, A.M. Dellamonica, Tim Federle, Patrick Gale, Addison Gunn, Antonia Hayes, Jeff Mariotte, K.S. Merbeth, Maggie Mitchell, Sarah Pinborough, Jennifer Ridyard, Marsheila Rockwell, James Rollins, Lilith Saintcrow, Emily Schultz, Peter Tieryas

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An Interview with BEN PEEK

ben peekLet’s start with an introduction: Who is Ben Peek?

I’m an author who lives in Sydney, Australia with my partner, Nikilyn Nevins, who is a photographer.

THE GODLESS – the first book in my Children Trilogy – is my fifth book. My previous books are Black Sheep, Twenty-Six Lies/One Truth, and Above/Below, with Stephanie Campisi. My collection, Dead Americans and Other Stories, was released earlier this year. In addition to that, I’ve done a few other things, such as a psychogeography pamphlet, an autobiographical comic, and lectured and taught at various places.

I also may, or may not, be listening to the Velvet Underground as I reply to this.

Your next novel, The Godless, is published in July by Tor UK and St. Martin’s Press in the US. How would you introduce the novel to a new reader?

The book is the first in a fantasy trilogy, and takes place in a world where, fifteen thousand years ago, a war between the gods took place. In its aftermath, the sun was broken into three, the ocean turned black with blood and rose, and the bodies of the gods fell to the ground, where they lay in a state best described as both dead and dying. In the centuries that followed, their powers seeped into the world, altering it, and altering some of the people who lived there. Continue reading

An Interview with SUSIE MOLONEY

MoloneySusie-AuthorPic(Richard-Wagner-2010)Let’s start with an introduction: Who is Susie Moloney?

I’m a writer of horror fiction, and I live in Canada and the US, spending half my time in New York City with my playwright husband, Vern Thiessen. I’m a mom to two sons and a blind dog, and I love them all equally, no favourites.

I’ve been writing stories since I could hold a pencil, although when I first started writing, I used to illustrate them as well, and color the pictures. Somewhere there’s a pretty epic illustrated story about a black water beetle (“Blackie’s Story”) who isn’t black, but green. No black crayon.

To date, I’ve written four novels, Bastion Falls, A Dry Spell, The Dwelling and The Thirteen. My claim to fame is that A Dry Spell received the largest advance ever, in Canada. That may have changed by now, but it was a big deal back in the day. I’ve been on the cover of two national magazines. The week my cover on Chatelaine came out, was the week that Princess Diana died. True story: I walked into an airport bookstore to pick up something to read on the plane, and there was my cover, right next to the People Magazine Princess Diana cover. I turned around and ran out. It was too overwhelming, my face right next to hers. I read the in-flight magazine that trip.

Things Withered, Stories is my very first collection. I’m no longer a collection virgin.

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What inspired you to write these particular stories? And where do you draw your inspiration from in general?

All my inspiration comes from really mundane, prosaic sources. I know everyone says that. But I’ll tell you, regular, ordinary everyday people terrify me. You know why? Because everyone has something special about them. Everyone. We were raised on that tenet. So if some regular Joe is standing in front of you, and you can’t quite tell what’s special about him — I just naturally assume his special quality must be that he’s a serial killer. Or what if he’s a vampire (if it’s at night), or a warlock hell-bent on collecting enough souls to pay a debt to Satan? What if there’s a suburban mom, slowly letting her oppression and anger drive her into madness and as a means of releasing that horrible pressure cooker of rage, she poisons cookies and brings them over? What if the cookies are super-good and you eat like, ten of them (not saying I’ve ever eaten ten cookies at once)?

I’m pretty sure regular, ordinary, everyday folk are seriously dangerous.

How were you introduced to genre fiction?

Blatty-TheExorcistThe first genre book I ever read, if you can call it a genre book, was The Exorcist. I’m pretty sure I wasn’t supposed to read it, I was only a little kid. I certainly knew enough to read it with a flashlight in the cubby hole at my grandparent’s house. It was sufficiently terrifying that I went on to read Jaws I think that same summer. By the time I was a teenager, people were passing around Salem’s Lot by Stephen King and I alternated between horror and those bodice rippers that were all the rage in the ’80s (an entirely different kind of horror).

Up until then I was writing stories about my dog and the odd love story. Often someone died in what I wrote. After I finished reading Cujo, also by King, I just wanted to write something in the tone and mood of that book — and so was born Bastion Falls, my first novel.

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How do you enjoy being a writer and working within the publishing industry? Do you have any specific working, writing, researching practices?

Publishing has changed so much since my early days! In a lot of ways it’s much better. We do seem to be in some kind of a transition phase and I’m curious to know where it ends up. This is the most literate epoch in human history — we’re constantly communicating. Email, Facebook posts, Twitter (literate in 140 characters!). Everyone is clever and interesting and sharing. I love/hate it. Being a writer is no longer a special career! On the other hand, there has never been so much access to such an incredible variety of experiences and perspective, that a seeker of the human experience is the beneficiary of an embarrassment of riches, the likes of which have never been seen.

MoloneyS-TheThirteenAs for writing practices, the only thing I consistently do is burn a candle while I write. Makes me feel like I’m in a dark garret in the middle of Paris (never been, I hear they have garrets).

When did you realize you wanted to be an author, and what was your first foray into writing? Do you still look back on it fondly?

Aside from the aforementioned “Blackie’s Story,” the first substantial piece I ever wrote was about a single-mother vampire by the name of Aria. This was long before the Twilight days, long before vampires were ever even a thing — how about that, right? I invented vampires (maybe not — should probably Google-check that). The story came out of my experience of being a single mom back in the days when that was a bad thing. I felt like a monster much of the time, and I suppose that was my way of dealing with it. In the story the little boy is not a vampire and the mom — Aria — does her best to raise him even as she tries to adapt to her new form. There’s a version of it in Things Withered at the very end of the book, a short film script I wrote to adapt the story in some way.

MoloneyS-TheDwellingWhat’s your opinion of the genre today, and where do you see your work fitting into it?

I love how many women are writing genre now, and how that’s changing the face of genre. I have my favourites, like Gemma Files, Kaaron Warren, Barbara Roden — her book Northwest Passages is absolute not-miss — Tananarive Due, these are all great writers who are writing genre.

I never quite feel like what I’m writing fits exactly into the genre category. It’s not a perfect fit like some of the women I’ve listed. I feel like I’m writing about very dark subject matter, with some supernatural elements.

What other projects are you working on, and what do you have currently in the pipeline?

I’ve started a new novel, but it’s always slow going in the beginning. I always think of the first four-five months of a new novel to be the “mistake-making” time. I change my mind about the direction a character is taking and have to rewrite, or I decide one character is more important than the one I felt was the protagonist and have to rewrite, or I have an existential crisis and decide to spend a week drinking too much, doubting the value of my existence and the value of words in general, and have to spend some time drying out. I’m nearly through this part. Also, there’s still lots of crying.

This new (currently untitled, or more accurately, over-titled) is the first time I’ve written “in period.” It takes place in the very early ’70s. It requires more research than you’d think. Who remembers? You know what’s fun about it? Listening to the music of the time and remembering that most young girls listened to AM radio. Wow that was some really bad music (“Go Away Little Girl”, Donny Osmond), and some really exceptional stuff (“Ain’t No Sunshine”, Bill Withers).

What are you reading at the moment (fiction, non-fiction)?

EndicottM-TheLittleShadowsRight this very moment I’m reading The Little Shadows by Marina Endicott, a stunningly written story about a mother and her daughters on the Vaudeville circuit around the time of the first world war. I’m also reading Manson by John Gilmore. I’m a Gilmore fan, love his gritty edge, his no bullshit style.

What’s something readers might be surprised to learn about you?

I’m totally obsessed with Bonnie & Clyde. I have about twenty books on the subject and I’m sure I know everything there is to know about the deadly couple. I once started a screenplay, told from Bonnie’s POV and I called it “Dirt.” Never got very far with it, but I think about picking it up again about every six months. I also have a more minor obsession with Tudor history and the reformation. I like to think that gives me Nerd status on the street. I got juice, man.

What are you most looking forward to in the next twelve months?

I have a couple of projects that I’ll see the end of. It’s always nice to finish things. And I have the new novel… I’m hoping that my schedule will clear up enough so that all I’ll be working on is the new book. There’s something so extraordinarily wonderful about waking up in the morning and knowing that the only thing you have to do is toss yourself into the world you are creating and not come up for air until it’s dark.

I do love the dark.

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Things Withered is out now, published by ChiZine Publications.

Guest Post: “Confessions of a Four-Color, Benday-Dot, Super-Deformed, Ultra-Compressed Science Fiction Writer” by Paul di Filippo

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Paul Di Filippo is the author of Wikiworld, a great science fiction short story collection, which was recently published by (now award-winning) ChiZine. To celebrate the release of his new book, he has written the following piece about comics and their relationship with literature, and his own experiences as a reader and writer…

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My first reading, beyond the typical picture books of my era, such as Harry the Dirty Dog and Hop on Pop, consisted of comic books. Lots and lots of comics. I recall the very first comic I ever read, in 1961, in the summer between first and second grades. It was Mighty Mouse in Outer Space, and it blew my primitive juvenile brain to flinders. (I recently tracked down a copy on eBay, and had lots of fun revisiting it.) I’ve never been the same since. You might very well say that this comic was my first introduction to the literature of fantastika, and set me on the course to becoming a writer of same.

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After this soon came the hard stuff. Batman, Superman, and the strange new antiheroes from Marvel. Alas, though I read them fresh off the drugstore stands, I retain no issues of Fantastic Four #1 or Amazing Fantasy #15, or similar lucrative titles. I concentrated on buying DC, while my pal Stephen covered the Marvel stuff, and we shared issues for mutual reading pleasure. Stephen, wherever he may be these days, got rich, and I got Lois Lane #53.

This phase of my readerly life lasted until about 1965, when I discovered hardcore adult science fiction, in the form of Raymond Jones’s The Year When Stardust Fell. To my retrospective amazement, I dropped comics almost entirely then, like a fickle lover, in favor of this new, more complex, more satisfying medium. Part of it had to do with my limited allowance. A dollar per week bought seven or eight comics, or two paperbacks. I couldn’t do both.

Well, I’m not going to recap my entire life as a reader from that point on. (To dispel one mystery: I returned to reading comics about thirty years later, with a vengeance.) But I tell the tale only to illustrate a very common path for my generation and the next couple after it. Right up into, oh, the late 1980s, this route — comics first, then books — was totally archetypical. Young fanboys and fangirls imprinted first on comics, then matured into readers of “chapter books.”

But we all know what happened next: the greying of the comics audience, the vanishing of comics from drugstores and supermarkets, the lack of innocent entry-level comics titles, the peer popularity of YA books, etc., etc. — all these factors and more have caused comics no longer to be really a gateway drug. And in fact, comics fandom and book fandom, while overlapping to some small Venn-diagram degree, often are utterly ignorant of each other. (This of course was not always the case, as modern comics fandom arose almost entirely from within SF fandom.)

One important thing which I think this change in reading patterns has caused to go missing from modern SF/F/H writing is a certain comic book sensibility: in plotting, character development, scene-setting, theme presentation, and all the other typical aspects of fiction construction. Because, you see, comics have their own tools of storytelling, and a writer does not fully internalize them unless he or she encounters them at a young, receptive age.

Let me clarify that I’m not talking about a dearth of novels about superheroes. Those are actually kind of trendy right now.

I’m talking about bringing the unique toolkit of comic book storytelling to any kind of writing at all. It could be a mainstream humorous novel, or a historical novel, or, in my case, an SF novel. Not many people are doing that these days.

Maybe you’re old enough to recall when writers such as Thomas Pynchon or Robert Sheckley or Kurt Vonnegut got labeled as “too comic-booky.” It was a fair cop! They were, I am certain, all readers of comics in their youth, and were incorporating the methods they had internalized into their adult prose.

I can’t conduct a seminar in this limited space about all the techniques I discern as originating among comic book writers and artists. I can only give a couple of examples.

Take the matter of switching scenery. Everyone knows how quickly and radically a comic book story can jump from one panel to another. We’ll call this the “then… Korea!” trick, from a recent blog post by the comics savant Mike Sterling. I don’t see this enough in novels. Oh, yeah, we’ll have a jump, an ellipsis of time and space, but usually to a different character, or as a predictable linear progression of the protagonist’s actions. “The next day dawned…” Nothing wild-eyed or unexpected, like catapulting the hero instantly from one venue to another in the blink of an eye.

Or take the matter of shifting the focus of the story in unexpected ways. The Simpsons TV show is the master of this. (Animated cartoons of course being the sibling to comics.) Three minutes into an episode, you think you knew where it’s headed, then, whammo, a total one-eighty. How often have you seen that maneuver in a book?

Or consider serial plotting within a single book. We start with one crisis which is resolved partway through the book, but contains the seeds of the next crisis, and so on as long as desired, until by novel’s end you’re utterly removed from the concerns at the beginning. I can’t even summon up a prose example of this common comics scenario.

If I had to adduce other writers than those named above who follow a comic book esthetic, I’d nominate A.E. van Vogt, Philip K. Dick, and Ron Goulart. Maybe you can start to get a feel now for the type of fiction I’m advocating. Jonathan Lethem, famously a comic book kid, in his early novels manifested some of these chops and riffs. Perhaps the purest and most satisfying writer of such stuff today is my pal Rudy Rucker. His novels are comic books without the artwork. And that certainly doesn’t preclude him tackling serious and important subjects in sophisticated ways.

In my own fiction, I can point to several stories deliberately constructed along these lines. “Fractal Paisleys”; “The Double Felix”; “Flying the Flannel.” And so forth.

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My newest collection, Wikiworld, holds a few. My all-robot story “Providence” is a homage to the great SF comics from EC. You can picture Wally Wood or Al Williamson art to go with it. “Return to the 20th Century” is more out of DC’s goofy Silver Age Mystery in Space or Strange Adventures line. But even other stories of mine that are not so heavily influenced have benefitted, I believe, by little salient comic book touches.

I said I returned to reading comics with high intensity about twenty years ago. The superhero stuff I enjoy these days is entertaining, but can’t really teach me anything new. But knockout creators like Richard Sala, Dan Clowes, Chris Ware, Jaime and Gilbert Hernandez, Ben Katchor, Cathy Malkasian and Bill Griffith continue to stimulate me to try to incorporate their specialist pencil-and-ink and word-balloon techniques into my prose fiction.

If you’re exclusively a prose writer, you should delve into the comics scene. Once you go lowbrow, you never go back!

Guest Post: “The Delphi Room – Through the Looking-Glass” by Melia McClure

McClureM-DelphiRoomIn my novel, The Delphi Room, two people watch the past of the other unfold in a mirror. Trapped next door to one another in rooms they believe to be Hell, Velvet and Brinkley are captive audience to the disturbing “home movies” that play in a mirror that hangs in each of their prisons.

Mirrors are compelling symbols and have appeared in various art forms and spiritual texts throughout the ages. The Oracle of Apollo at Delphi, referenced in my book’s title, demanded of ancient Greeks “know thyself” – no small demand, and one which my characters grapple with mightily, in mightily eccentric fashion. Among other things, mirrors have historically symbolized self-knowledge and wisdom, and like the ancients who returned to Delphi again and again in search of answers to the riddles of life, countless numbers of people currently revisit a mirror as a daily reference point in the evolving construction of identity. The Delphic oracle answered seekers’ questions with riddles, and for mirror-gazers the riddles of the mind have a drastic impact on the perception of the confounding entity known as “self” that is reflected in the glass.

In the world of my novel, mirrors are also a means of two totally isolated people coming to understand the forces that have buffeted and shaped the other, and thus – as understanding creates connection – they give rise to Velvet and Brinkley’s growing bond. Mirrors can symbolize parallel universes or alternate realities, and both of my main characters are trapped in a hellish alternate reality while at the same time experiencing the universe of the other. And when, late in the book, Velvet and Brinkley jump into the past of the other through the mirror, rendering the past present, diverse realities are brought together, which alludes to the symbolism of an all-surfaced mirror: that all realities are one and seen and understood from all sides in the context of eternity.

But beyond the literal mirror-as-object, many of the characters themselves play some sort of mirroring role. Velvet’s psychosis, the Shadowman, reflects back to her multiple aspects of her selfhood: self-loathing, fear, creativity, ingenuity and rage. Brinkley’s psychosis, ’20s film starlet Clara Bow, references her tragic personal history – a history shared by the real-life Clara Bow – and in many ways it mirrors Brinkley’s crushingly sad upbringing: both had mentally ill mothers and, among other common experiences, Brinkley’s mother tried to kill him and as a teenager Clara awoke to find her mother holding a butcher knife to her throat. One could argue that Brinkley’s fractured mind chose to conjure that particular illusory movie star as an object of love because he found solace in the kinship of shared tragedy. Again, mirroring fosters connection: people seek their own humanity reflected back at them in the humanity of another – because, after all, humanity is about oneness.

The lives of Velvet and Brinkley mirror each other in many ways: their unstable mothers and absent fathers, along with their mutual obsession with cinema, furnish them with certain overlapping experiences and tendencies, though both characters are fiercely unique and individualistic. But clarity about the self can be harder to achieve than clarity about another, and the need for familial love can have an obfuscating effect, and thus it is through the mirror’s revelation of the past of the other that Velvet and Brinkley come to greater peace within themselves. As much as one’s reflection in a mirror begs the question “Who am I?”, we are all mirrors for each other, asking “Who are you?” and “Who am I to you?” The concept of identity is, of course, central to any conversation about mirrors, and the characters in The Delphi Room are fighting against crippling antagonism to define themselves on their own terms. What they see in the mirror is very different from how the world sees them, and it is in the chasm between those contrasting perceptions that the truth lies. When Brinkley gazes in a mirror, Clara Bow is there to alternately love and torment him; when Velvet gazes in a mirror, the Shadowman is often reflected as a sinister, albeit colourful, presence.

When we stand before a looking-glass, do we ever really know who is looking back at us?

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Melia McClure’s The Delphi Room was published by ChiZine in September 2013. Be sure to follow the author on Twitter for more updates about her work, etc. You can read a sample of the novel on Tor.com. Here’s the synopsis:

Is it possible to find love after you’ve died and gone to Hell? For oddball misfits Velvet and Brinkley, the answer just might be yes. After Velvet hangs herself and winds up trapped in a bedroom she believes is Hell, she comes in contact with Brinkley, the man trapped next door.

Through mirrors that hang in each of their rooms, these disturbed cinemaphiles watch the past of the other unfold—the dark past that has led to their present circumstances. As their bond grows and they struggle to figure out the tragic puzzles of their lives and deaths, Velvet and Brinkley are in for more surprises. By turns quirky, harrowing, funny and surreal, The Delphi Room explores the nature of reality and the possibilities of love.

An Interview with CHRISTOPHER GOLDEN

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Very few fans of genre fiction and comics will be unaware of Christopher Golden. He has been writing for a couple of decades, now, mainly horror (or horror-inflected) work. Many will know him for his novels, his anthology work, and also his comics work – including the Baltimore books with Hellboy creator, Mike Mignola. He has a new short story collection coming out next month, through ChiZine, and has an impressive number of other projects he’s currently working on. I caught up with him (via email), and grilled him about writing, horror, and what he’s working on now…

Let’s start with an introduction: Who is Christopher Golden?

At 46, you’d think I would have an answer to that, but I’m still working it out. I’ve been writing full time since 1992, with the sale of my first novel, OF SAINTS AND SHADOWS. Since then, I’ve written or co-written or edited about a hundred books, mostly fiction in the horror, fantasy, mystery, and thriller genres. I’ve written comics and short stories, video games and an animated web series, radio plays and screenplays.

Your short story collection, Tell My Sorrows to the Stones, was published by ChiZine last month. How would you introduce the book to a potential reader? Is there a unifying theme for the stories within?

GoldenC-TellMySorrowsToTheStonesI’ve written short stories for as long as I’ve been writing novels. My previous short story collection, The Secret Backs of Things, collected everything I had done up until that point. But it felt to me as if somewhere along the way I reached a point where I felt as if I’d actually sort of figured it out – this whole short story thing. I’m not saying I don’t like any of my older stories. I like them just fine, most of them. But I do feel as if I grew up a little bit somewhere in there, passed a kind of threshold where I understand the form better than I had before. I often say that my novel Strangewood was when I grew up as a novelist. I think the stories in Tell My Sorrows to the Stones represent a similar maturing, only this time in short story form. There’s more thought in them, for me. More reason for them to exist than the other ones had. A lot of them are about folklore and imagination and belief in general – not religious faith, but faith in ourselves and how dangerous it can be to misplace that sort of faith.

What inspired you to write the short stories? And where do you draw your inspiration from in general?

KingS-NightShiftI grew up loving short stories, both in the works of Jack London and–much more commonly – in anthologies and collections of horror stories. The combination of Stephen King’s Night Shift and the various anthologies edited by Charles L. Grant (I think I started with Terrors before going on to the Shadows series) had a huge influence on me. Then I went backwards, reading things like Alfred Hitchcock’s More Stories for Late at Night and collections of HP Lovecraft stories and Edgar Allan Poe.

As for inspiration… it comes from everywhere. Sometimes it’s a dream or a nightmare, and sometimes it’s just that eureka moment that is the writer’s most invaluable and most indefinable tool. I have a lot of my ideas while traveling, and I often make sense of them while I’m in the shower or taking a walk.

How were you introduced to genre fiction?

I don’t remember how it began for me. It was just there. Twilight Zone and Kolchak the Night Stalker and movies on Creature Double Feature were all on my TV. My favorite comics included Tomb of Dracula and Werewolf by Night. When I started reading, I gravitated immediately toward Stephen King and creepy stories. I remember picking up The Stand in an an airport bookstore… same with various novels by Graham Masterton. From that point, I accumulated horror novels at absurd speed.

How do you enjoy being a writer and working within the publishing industry? Do you have any specific working, writing, researching practices?

I’m incredibly fortunate. I took the big leap right after selling my first novel twenty-one years ago and never looked back. That said, it’s not for the faint-hearted, this full-time writer thing. It’s always a financial roller coaster, but it’s never boring. I write five or six days a week (sometimes seven). Most mornings are taken up by emails and paperwork and phone calls and I do most of my writing just before lunch and then throughout the afternoon. Often I work a few hours on Saturday morning – unless I’m really under the gun, and then I’ll work the whole day or whole weekend… And feel horribly guilty about neglecting my family. I usually have music on while I’m writing. I’m not one of those Starbucks writers, who can sit in a cafe and concentrate… Although I’d like to be. I may have to try it out.

When did you realize you wanted to be an author, and what was your first foray into writing? Do you still look back on it fondly?

I started writing short stories in high school. I kept it up all through college, but it wasn’t until I started my first novel during senior year that I realized it was really the only thing I wanted to do. The first thing I was ever paid to write was an interview with Craig Shaw Gardner that was published in Starlog Magazine. My first short story was “One”, in Deathrealm Magazine. My first novel, Of Saints and Shadows, came out in 1994, but my first book was actually a non-fiction anthology I put together called CUT!: Horror Writers on Horror Film. I look back fondly on all of them.

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What’s your opinion of the genre today, and where do you see your work fitting into it?

I feel like the genre these days is sort of like the Republican Party – splintered and scattered. There are fine writers working in the small press, but the small press has shrunk quite a bit over the past five years or so. A lot of the publishing dedicated to horror at mainstream houses has vanished, making it harder for casual readers to walk into bookstores and discover new horror writers. On the other hand, there are still publishers who do original horror, including St. Martin’s Press, who are publishing my new novel SNOWBLIND in January. On the other hand, horror as a genre has bled into other genres – urban fantasy, thriller, mystery, literary fiction. Examples are everywhere. It’s a guerrilla genre, now. As far as where my work fits…? It fits wherever readers want it to fit. That’s not a cop-out. I write in a variety of genres, different shades, and they all have horror in them, including TIN MEN, the near-future SF military thriller I’m finishing now.

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What other projects are you working on?

SNOWBLIND comes out in January, as I mentioned, as does DARK DUETS, the new anthology of collaborative stories I’ve edited. Also in January is CEMETERY GIRL: THE PRETENDERS, the first book in a graphic novel trilogy I’m doing with Charlaine Harris. I’m finishing up TIN MEN, working on a SONS OF ANARCHY comic book miniseries and the continuing series of BALTIMORE comics with Mike Mignola. In a few days I’ll be starting work on a new ALIEN novel.

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What are you reading at the moment (fiction, non-fiction)?

Lebbon-ColdbrookI’m reading Tim Lebbon’s fantastic novel COLDBROOK, which is a monstrously cool pan-dimensional SF zombie thriller.

What’s something readers might be surprised to learn about you?

I’m a TV addict who loves music, musical theatre, movies and ice cream. I teach a writing workshop to 7th and 8th graders from my daughter’s school, and I spent a few years directing junior high musical theatre, which I miss terribly and wish I had time for.

What are you most looking forward to in the next twelve months?

World Fantasy Convention in Brighton, UK… And as much free time with my family as I can manage.

Guest Post: “The Shy Hero” by Steve Tem

TemSR-CelestialInventoriesI read my first critical work on short stories back in high school, around 1965 or ’66. It was The Lonely Voice by Frank O’Connor. To say it had a profound influence on me is an understatement. Starting with a discussion of Gogol’s “The Overcoat,” the story of a friendless nonentity, an absurd take on a little man, O’Connor develops his theory concerning the difference between short stories and novels. According to O’Connor, one of the key aspects of the novel form is that there is always a character the reader can identify with, and a context that includes the concept of a normal society. Short stories, on the other hand, involve characters who are outcasts, members of submerged populations, characters who readers cannot identify with.

Even that early in my thinking about writing I thought the idea had its limitations, but it still fascinated me, and I thought there were some strong hints in O’Connor’s theory that might help me understand the relative levels and kinds of reader participation that differentiated the novel experience from the short story experience. I eventually wrote my own horrific nod to “The Overcoat” — it appeared in my first collection, City Fishing.

As the years have passed I’ve come to understand that there are almost as many models of what a short story is as there are writers writing them. The short story form truly is a kind of fiction laboratory, allowing you to create brief narratives sometimes from the most arbitrary and unpromising sorts of materials, narratives which really wouldn’t work at any other length. And that concept of the hard-to-identify-with, outcast “hero” is still a recognizable and powerful approach in the short story genre (along with a great many others).

But I view that outcast a little differently these days. For me, a more useful way to look at the outcast is to use words like invisible, forgotten, secretive, under-appreciated, marginalized, even “shy.” These are the people who don’t always speak up, who hide their feelings, who have secret longings, who sometimes have rich imaginations, who sometimes surprise us with their uniqueness. And far from being impossible to identify with. In fact I believe they may be the most universal characters possible. I think most of us feel like these characters at some point or other in our lives, or perhaps they embody a distinctive part of our own personality which seems to have its own voice and narrative arc, and which we find we have to reason with from time to time (or maybe that’s just me). For me, these shy heroes are the direct descendants of the copy clerk in Gogol’s “The Overcoat.”

This does not mean that they are always everyone’s favorite characters. Some readers want characters who take definitive actions, who transform the world, who embody values most of us would want to emulate — in other words, classic heroes. In fact, for some time now the classic hero has been the model for normalcy in fiction. I’ve read articles and watched many panels on characterization in which writers and editors have stated that A) readers want characters they can identify with and B) your main characters should be dynamic, admirable types who take action and speak their minds and make things happen and change the world.

For me there is a discrepancy in these statements. In my experience, most of the people I’ve met haven’t been dynamic and world-changing. For the most part they’ve been quiet people with good intentions who often feel at the mercy of the more powerful forces around and above them — their relatives, their bosses, the government etc. Some of them appear to have secret, complicated inner lives consisting of dreams and great yearnings. Often they don’t get what they yearn for, but they still make a life, they do the best they can. For me these are shy heroes, and they are everywhere around us. Some people find them boring, but I say it’s only because they haven’t looked at them closely enough (and sometimes it requires a writer or other artist to encourage us to look closely enough). Their triumphs may be small, and somewhat compromised, but at least they are triumphs we can believe.

In my experience shy heroes tend to predominate in slipstream, hard-to-classify fiction. And they tend to predominate in my new collection from ChiZine, Celestial Inventories, as well. Two of the stories (“The World Recalled” and the title story) feature main characters obsessed with creating a detailed inventory count of their lives, often with bizarre and moving results. The Bram Stoker Award-winning “In These Final Days of Sales” chronicles the adventures of the world’s worst salesman. Several of the stories deal with strange and elaborate obsessions: in “Origami Bird” it’s constantly folding pages of data into intricate bird-shapes, in “The Disease Artist” it’s a succession of increasingly serious diseases, and in “The Bereavement Photographer” it’s the final images of dead children. Dreams unfulfilled figure into “The High Chair” and “The Secret Flesh.” In “Invisible” an office worker and his wife fade into a literal invisibility. And in “The Company You Keep” a man without friends discovers a secret, tragic bond with an army of strangers. All are private glimpses into the worlds of the shy heroes we pass every day but do not recognize.

Interview with CHANDLER KLANG SMITH

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Continuing my slow meander through Canadian publisher ChiZine’s stable of interesting and quirky authors, I bring you today a Q&A with Chandler Klang Smith, author of Goldenland Past Dark

Let’s start with an introduction: Who is Chandler Klang Smith?

I’m a novelist, an insatiable reader, an incurable daydreamer, a Midwestern transplant to New York City, and a graduate of Bennington College and the MFA Creative Writing program at Columbia University. I like carnivals, lost toys, forgotten Americana, and fairy tales with unhappy endings.

I thought we’d start with your fiction: Your latest novel, Goldenland Past Dark, was recently published by ChiZine. How would you introduce the novel to a potential reader?

Goldenland Past Dark tells the story of Webern Bell, a stunted hunchback, and his love affair with the circus, a show that gives him an outlet for creative expression. His bizarre childhood and struggles in young adulthood have given him tons of emotional material from the past, which he explores through haunting clown acts that come to him in dreams. But when reality confronts him – in the form of murder, heartbreak, and professional betrayal – he retreats so deeply into his fantasy world that he may never be able to find his way back out.

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What inspired you to write the novel? And where do you draw your inspiration from in general?

My process with this book was unusual: I started out writing a collection of linked short stories about Webern’s childhood. But by the time I got to his adolescence, I realized that the real action began with his travels performing on the road; everything that preceded it had just been backstory. In general, my inspiration for a particular project comes from an image or set of images that I return to obsessively until I figure out what they mean. I do a lot of freewriting to try to access where in my subconscious that fascination is coming from.

How were you introduced to genre fiction? What’s your opinion of the genre today, and where do you see your work fitting into it?

I’m extremely resistant to characterizing fiction as “genre” or “literary.” Every subject or way of writing comes with certain expectations attached, and the job of the writer is to defy and exceed those expectations constantly. At least that’s what I try to do. At the AWP Conference this year, I saw author Benjamin Percy on a panel about literary writers tackling “popular” forms, and he addressed this issue better than I ever could. He said that writers try to set up all these little fences between categories, but for him the only fence is twenty feet high, electrified and topped with razor wire, between good writing and bad. I couldn’t agree more.

How do you enjoy being a writer and working within the publishing industry?

It’s challenging working in publishing when you’re a writer yourself, because you’re constantly confronted with the sobering realities of the marketplace. So much of the industry is about rejection: agents reject potential clients, editors reject agent’s submissions, customers and critics reject published novels. It has been helpful, though, because I’m now aware of just how important it is to grab and hold a reader’s attention from page one on.

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When did you realize you wanted to be an author, and what was your first foray into writing? Do you still look back on it fondly?

I think I first realized I wanted to be a writer in sixth grade; before that I’d wanted to be a Muppeteer. Anyway, around that time, I embarked on my first major project, a very pretentious road novel about three middle schoolers running away from home in a stolen car and having a lot of long philosophical conversations on the way. I’d probably cringe if I read it now, but I suppose it was a good sign that I was so ambitious, despite having no idea what I was doing. Some things never change, I guess…

What other projects are you working on, and what do you have currently in the pipeline?

Right now, I’m working on my second novel, about a futuristic parallel universe version of New York City that’s under attack by fire breathing dragons. You can read a short excerpt from it here.

That sounds awesome…

What are you reading at the moment (fiction, non-fiction)?

White Noise by Don DeLillo.

What’s something readers might be surprised to learn about you?

Despite my interest in stage magic and clowning, I’m just about the clumsiest person on earth. I can’t even juggle.

What are you most looking forward to in the next twelve months?

I’m hoping to finish that aforementioned second novel. Keep your fingers crossed for me, as I’m a pretty slow writer!

An Interview with KAREN HEULER

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Last week I posted an excerpt from Karen Heuler’s much-talked-about and anticipated The Inner City anthology. Naturally, I thought it would be a perfect opportunity to interview Karen as well, and ask her about the book, inspirations and also an old job with strange, alphabetical hiring practices…

Let’s start with an introduction: Who is Karen Heuler?

I’ve published over 60 stories in literary and speculative journals and anthologies. My first four books were published with university presses.

Your latest story collection, The Inner City, was recently published by ChiZine. Have you always written darker fiction?

I’ve been writing odd fiction for dozens of years. My first collection was published in 1995, and the New York Times review called it “haunting and quirky.” I thought then that I was firmly in the literary world and occasionally writing magic realism. I managed to get a lot of stories published in literary journals and won an award and was short-listed for others. But some of my favorite stories never found a home. I used to read science fiction and fantasy when I was in my twenties, but for some reason moved into mysteries after that (still mainlining literary fiction, though).

Sometime in the late ’90s or early aughts, I started looking more closely at people like Kelly Link and a lot of writers who were crossing back and forth between literary and genre – Lethem, Saunders, Bender, et al. I returned to speculative fiction in terms of trying to catch up on what I’d missed, and also because it became a world where the stories I loved the most might find a home. I was completely surprised when it turned out that I was writing dark fiction of any kind. And horror. Not me! I frighten easily. I creep out easily. But I do, indeed, write dark. I write dark and I scare easily. Luckily, ChiZine created a glow-in-the-dark fish for me so I would feel safer (note: see cover).

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What inspired you to write the stories? And where do you draw your inspiration from in general?

What I think about most is how odd it is that we rarely experience “normal.” We have a standard in our heads of what our lives will be – or at the very least, should be – and it’s true, some people do have a great childhood, school popularity, a loving marriage, brilliant children, and a successful career. But it’s more common to experience failed love, menacing diseases, lack of recognition, and failed expectations. We live in a world shocked by earthquakes, falling meteors, cancer, flesh-eating diseases and a host of unexpected and unpredictable whims of fate. I work with this jarring alternate reality and to a certain extent, find an explanation for it. Secret city governments playing with you; scientists experimenting around you; people grabbing your hair and then your job – when you reveal the engine behind life’s arbitrariness, it all makes sense. And I, for one, want it to make sense.

How do you enjoy being a writer and working within the publishing industry? Do you have any specific working, writing, researching practices?

HeulerKaren-AuthorPicSome of my earliest jobs were as an editorial assistant – the first was at Dell Crosswords, where the person in charge had a policy of only hiring women whose names began with C or K.

I later worked as an editor at a very small art publisher whose paychecks bounced. Whenever we got paid, we all raced to the bank to try to get there before the account was emptied out.

This has of course spilled over to my own habits. I try to send my stories out as soon as I can, so they can get to magazine editors before other stories do. I tell my students, however, to revise up to 10 times before sending out their stories. And never to send to magazines with editors whose names begin with C or K.

Aside from that, I pretty much write when I can, when I have something to write. I am not much good at writing to schedule; I usually end up just throwing things out when I try to force writing. And I believe very firmly that a lot of the preparation for writing is already happening in the back of the brain as long as you keep it stimulated with books, movies, and people. It’s all process.

When did you realize you wanted to be an author, and what was your first foray into writing? Do you still look back on it fondly?

I wrote a “book” when I was 11. I lost it a long time ago, gratefully. I then wrote poetry and what would now be called flash fiction when I was in my teens. Then a few stories and my first novel in my twenties. That and the next two novels were more exercises than successes. I think your early work is basically testing out your talent, trying to locate the area(s) where your writing works best.

What are you reading at the moment (fiction, non-fiction)?

Schulman-ThreeWeeksInDecemberI’m re-reading Three Weeks in December by Audrey Schulman, reading James Tiptree’s stories, and trying to read a lot of stories in online magazines like Clarkesworld, Strange Horizons, and Daily Science Fiction. And I’m going through a huge backlog of New Yorker issues.

What’s something readers might be surprised to learn about you?

A native guide abruptly caught and then handed me a caiman while we were in a boat on the Amazon river. I handed it right back.

What are you most looking forward to in the next twelve months?

I’d love to finish a linked-story collection that’s been almost finished for the past six or seven years. I’ve got stories I’ve started that need to get finished. I have a novel coming out next January from Permuted Press [Glorious Plague]. But in the meantime, I’m enjoying life with The Inner City and ChiZine. Very much.

Excerpt from “The Inner City” Karen Heuler (ChiZine)

Heuler-InnerCityKaren Heuler’s stories have appeared in over sixty literary and speculative journals and anthologies, including several “Best of” collections.

She has published a short story collection and three novels, and also won an O. Henry award in 1998. She lives in New York with her dog, Philip K. Dick, and her cats, Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte.

Karen’s latest anthology, The Inner City, will be published on February 26 2013 (ChiZine). To celebrate the new book, here is one of the stories it contains:

“The Hair”

Truly the most astonishing thing happened when that new employee Mindy walked into the meeting wearing Paulina’s hair.

Paulina’s hands immediately went up to her head. Bald. Maybe a little patch of stubble.

Paulina gasped, but her coworkers at the meeting smiled a bland welcome to Mindy. Couldn’t they see what had happened?

Paulina’s hands began to shake in anger. Her pencils had been disappearing, even her scotch tape. And now this!

She knew perfectly well that women without hair didn’t last long, speaking corporately. Management was hair-ist. Paulina had always maintained a middle-of-the-road hairdo: pretty much all one length to her earlobes, parted on the right side, with the back sort of wedge-cut. Mindy hadn’t even bothered to change the part, and the color and length of the bangs were exactly the same. “Good haircut, Mindy,” Ron Unterling said in his loud I’m-top-dog tone. Mindy beamed, but the edge of her eyes wickedly slid Paulina’s way.

“Well, well, well,” Ron said. “Enough about hair.”

So the meeting on the Reports went on as if nothing unusual had happened. Reports celebrated the status quo, and Paulina was a big proponent of the status quo, since it paid her a pretty good salary for very little effort. Her job consisted of making up questions and answers used to evaluate various corporate projects. She looked at what the company was doing and found a way of discussing it so that it seemed innovative and generous. She liked to look on the positive side of life, generally, and that had seemed to work so far.

But she was beginning to think things had changed. Ron beamed upon the company. “The gala Report on Reports is coming up, and I thought this year we’d push our presentations to the limit. You know, put some zip in their zippers. We’re going to make this the best review ever!” He looked around at the fawning faces. “See what you can do. Put extreme into the routines! How’s the Facilitation Report, Paulina?”

“As you can see by looking at—let me see—page 2,” she began, “the main delays in project completion or status achievement break down into personnel indecision, end-usage misidentification…”

“It’s a beautiful Report,” Ron interrupted. He had never interrupted her before. “And so long.” His smile paused for a second, just enough for Paulina’s heart to throw out a mismanaged beat.

“I try to be thorough,” she said defensively (always a mistake: the zebra about to be corrected by the lion surely has just that tone).

Ron nodded and Paulina slumped slightly in relief. “It just needs a little jazzing up. I think Mindy could help you there. A little of her style added to your expertise would really sell it.”

Mindy smiled gaily; Paulina tried to keep her eyes from darting around the room. “I didn’t realize you wanted style,” she said plaintively.

Ron looked over to Mindy and then back to her. “I do,” he said.

Paulina had never asked a hard question because she had never wanted a hard answer, but that was not the way Mindy worked at all. “Way too obvious,” Mindy said, crossing out things on the printout Paulina handed her. “You’re letting everyone off easy. Let’s have some fun with this.” She gave a little shake to her head; her hair shook with it.

“That’s a beautiful hairstyle,” Paulina said as nicely as she could. She wanted to see if Mindy would show any guilt at all.

“Why, uh, thank you.” Mindy seemed to be searching for something to say in return. “I like yours, too. It must be so easy to take care of.”

“I used to have hair like that,” Paulina continued.

“I don’t recall.”

“Exactly like that.”

“Well, I’m sure it will grow back.” Mindy smiled and turned away.

But it didn’t grow back. By the next week there was no more fuzz than there had been. She began to wear a hat. One day Mindy tapped her on the shoulder.

“Excuse me,” Mindy said, “I don’t mean to be rude or anything, but your hat is bothering people.”

“Bothering people? How?”

“Well, they stare at it,” Mindy said. “They’re trying to figure it out. You know: why is she wearing a hat? Is she covering something up? Didn’t you notice how many times Jim said ‘cap’ at this morning’s meeting? It’s very distracting.”

“There was a meeting this morning? I wasn’t even there.”

“See? That’s how bad it is.” Mindy was quietly triumphant in a sympathetic kind of way. She had one of those deliberately soft voices that are supposed to be nonthreatening.

And Mindy handed her a memo Ron had signed that specifically requested no hats unless for religious or medical reasons. “Well, I suppose that’s not a medicinal hat?” she asked with raised eyebrows. “Although it looks like it might be…”

One fundamental problem was that Mindy’s mind was sharper than Paulina’s. Sharp, Paulina thought, as in sees things clearly, as in cuts without conscience.

Mindy removed most of Paulina’s questions and added this: Do you blame your boss for the delay or incompletion?

It was a jarring yes-no question and it was bound to get someone in trouble. Mindy was revising the Report in such a way that it would be necessary to actually recommend some action. Paulina had expected to retire in thirty years or so, and she could only last thirty more years by keeping herself neutral and pleasant, but she was beginning to find her nerves snapping, her teeth grating, her head filling with explosive scenarios.

And there was something in the alert way everyone was looking lately that manifestly signaled the scent of blood. Change was coming, and change was not good.

Without hair, Paulina felt conspicuous. If people stared, she believed she looked monstrous. And if they didn’t look, she was left in doubt: Was she now somehow unnoticeable? She was thrown off track; she was losing her way.

The next week Paulina appeared in a wig that matched the hair she used to have. A few heads looked at her with interest. She saw Mindy glaring: her eyelids lowered, her upper lip raised. “What a nice haircut,” Mindy said in her oh-so-nice voice. “It looks somehow familiar.”

Paulina smiled at her vaguely. “Does it?” Someone down the table snickered.

Ron settled forward in his chair, his hands almost gripping the table. “We’ve got a new twist on the Reports this year; we’ve hired a talent consultant for the presentations leading up to the Report on the Reports,” he said. “I’ve got an emcee to introduce each presentation of each Report, and to break it up, a magician in the middle, with a disappearing tiger. This year we’ll also have a choice of four entrees, all of them quite tasty. No mistakes like last year’s incident of the live goat.” He looked around benevolently. “We just need good Reports and a relaxed presentation. You can’t have a top-tier company without creativity, and that’s where we’re going—creative! Top tier!”

He started around the table, reviewing the area of each Report and discussing who would present it. Paulina had represented her section the year before and expected to do it again. Ron got all the way around the table before reaching Mindy and Paulina. He beamed fondly at Mindy, who put her hand up to stroke her hair modestly. Paulina lifted her own hand automatically.

“Now, Mindy,” Ron said, “tell us what you have in mind. You’ll be in charge of the section on company questionnaires.”

At that, Paulina’s hand dropped slowly, chastened. Mindy was now above her! When had the re-org happened, or was it still happening?

Paulina felt that she was all alone on the savannah, with something hungry moving towards her.

Ron had said to rev it up, and she would do that. And she would take him by surprise to boot. She went to everyone she’d interviewed before, going backwards through the questionnaires. She’d always filed the responses anonymously, of course, except for the letter coding in the top right hand of the first page, which indicated the department and the initials of the employee.

“Have I ever stolen anything is one of the questions now,” Mort on the third floor said, holding the latest version of the questionnaire in his hand. “Have they? Don’t they steal my spirit in return for a paycheck? What kind of questions are these? Number 91 asked if I’ve ever had sex in the office. That’s the only interesting question, and even that’s none of their business. But I’d like to know about the ones without offices. Are they using mine? Sometimes my chairs have been moved.”

“It’s a trick question. If you’re thinking about that, it shows you’re not working,” Paulina said. “It’s diabolical, actually, since once we ask the question we force you to think about it. I know what questions can do to people. They’re metaphysical, aren’t they? I never realized it before, how much I like questions. They’re the building blocks of reason!” She grinned somewhat foolishly, but she felt strangely moved. “I love my job,” she said. “I never knew it before. I love making questions.”

Mort looked at her sympathetically. “Just when they’ve started taking your questions away, too. That’s what they call irony, isn’t it?”

Paulina offered to present a small Report on the residue of Reports; i.e., does anyone remember last year’s Reports? It tickled Ron, since she could go through his predecessors’ Reports and mock them.

“You can have ten minutes tops,” he said, “or the sherbet will melt.”

Paulina was guaranteed a position, which was now what mattered. She lied about how she was going to do the Report; she had something else up her sleeve. Always before, she had made up questions that everyone knew how to answer. But what were the questions everyone knew how to ask?

In the meantime, she wore her wig slightly askew. It made Mindy self-conscious. Paulina began to dress better, too. She wouldn’t go so far as to say she was mimicking Mindy; she was buying clothes that were like Mindy’s however, and she wore garments similar to Mindy’s the day after her rival did. She was working up to wearing them the day before.

She asked Mort: “What are the questions that really matter to you?”

“My top ten are: Is there a terrible disease beginning in me? How long will I live? Is my wife faithful? Are my kids good? Do people respect me? Why am I not happier? Where is the money I deserve? If that’s not ten, it doesn’t matter,” he said.

Paulina wrote them down and went to the departments and people she had interviewed before. “When will I be happy?” they asked. “And am I dying?”

They did their projects even in the middle of these questions. “Can my father hear me in his coma?” one asked. “How much pain can my daughter stand? Why am I afraid? Is there God, is there God, is there God?”

Paulina wrote the questions down frantically and began to organize them in an artistic way. Through it all, of course, she wore her wig, unable to regain her hair by any natural means. Mindy certainly wouldn’t be shamed into giving the hair back, so what was Paulina to do?

The Report on Reports loomed large, as did all the questions associated with it, which Paulina now considered in all their serious political consequences. Historically the janitorial and support staff were consistently ignored, and no questionnaire was ever directed their way, so she approached the building super and the janitors and cleaning women. She spoke to the secretaries and the temps and the phone-system administrators. Their questions were the same as Mort’s, only with a few more about money.

Paulina knew what she wanted to do. “We’re going to sing our Report,” she told Mort and Joe, a super, and Yvonne, a cleaning woman. “We’re going to change their hearts with the power of our questions.”

“There are some Voices on the staff,” Yvonne agreed. “I hear them late at night, emptying the pails.”

“Henry has a voice like a boom box,” Joe added, “and the moves. He moves like a wave. He should be out in front.”

“We will all be in front,” Paulina declared, “in our own individual ways. We need to show how strong we are.” Her wig felt like it was slipping; she righted it. Yvonne and Mort modestly averted their eyes, and it made Paulina waver. She might be endangering them. “On the other hand, it might be risky. Maybe we shouldn’t do it,” she said softly.

“I’ve never been in a Report,” Yvonne said. “And I’ve been cleaning these offices for twenty years.”

Joe nodded “We want to do it. This is our one chance.”

The Reports took all afternoon. The minor Reports came first, like warm-up bands; they weren’t expected to grab attention. Ron glowed with achievement; he was obviously being groomed for promotion and it looked like Mindy would replace Ron when he left. All Paulina’s hopes of anonymous longevity were squashed.

Mindy wore an iridescent pearl-colored body stocking with a long pearl-colored skirt with tremendous slits. She threw out numbers as if she’d made them up. “Fine fractals advanced to seventy-eight by knocking out the middle,” she said and did a split, her arms thrown upwards. “Move the work downwards and pack them in together.”

The crowd roared at Mindy’s dance; the bosses nudged each other. Mindy humbly bowed with arms crossed over her breasts. Her eyes held grateful tears.

“She’s wowing them,” Mort muttered.

As host of the Report on Reports, Ron introduced each participant by doing somersaults to and from the podium on the stage.

There was a mime who did a Report on Physical Inventory, then a clown who did the Financial Report, a juggler who did the Service Sector, and finally it was Paulina’s turn, the Report on Previous Reports.

She wore a long black gown with long black sleeves. She walked silently midstage and turned her back to the audience, which caused an uncertain snicker.

The stage had been prepped by the janitorial staff, which had set up pneumatic risers and small beams of light shooting up and out.

Janitors, secretaries, cleaning women, mail clerks, and cafeteria workers stepped forward as the rear black curtain rose. They moved in straight lines and broke apart to form a large slow V on stage. Then the risers rose, and they were a chorus.

They sang:

My dreams have changed; why do they haunt me?

Who are these men who never seem to see me?

What happened to the joy I thought was due me?

How did I come here?

The pneumatic risers thrust different questions into the air. Each question or row of singers was answered by another row of singers with another question.

Where is the wonder, the hope?

Why is my heart drawn down at the start of each day?

And my spirit wasted?

They had wonderful voices, both magical and mundane. It was their one chance to ask the questions that bothered them; no one would listen to them again.

They ended:

When I was young, I never thought to come here.

How did I come here?

At the last word the risers in their various positions descended, and the spotlights went off scattershot, like ducks being hit at a midway.

“Lights up! Lights up!” Ron shouted, rushing out with his arms raised. He beamed broadly, as if he knew quite well what everyone was thinking. “Weren’t they terrific?” he cried insincerely. “But my, my, my, weren’t they a downer?” He winked broadly. “And wouldn’t you know it—it couldn’t come at a better time—the next one up is Manny Gomerson with his Judgment on the Reports. How we doin’, Manny?”

And to Paulina’s dismay (she hadn’t known their performances would be rated), Manny came out in a full-fledged tuxedo with a bunch of large interoffice envelopes in his hand. “Oh that one wasn’t good for morale,” Manny stated, shaking his head and rolling his eyes. “I mean, this is a job, right, not a psychiatrist’s couch. But enough philosophizing—let’s get down to work. We have seven prizes and eight Reports. How should we do this, Ron? Everyone made a great effort, and they all deserve prizes, but we don’t have enough to go around. We have to do some eliminating, okay? Can I have everyone up front?”

Mort patted Paulina on the shoulder—a loser’s pat, Paulina thought glumly.

As the last one off the stage, she was the first to go back on, and lined up with Mindy, the mime, the juggler, two clowns, a baton twirler, and a man who did a swing dance with a manikin. “They’re all going to win and I’m going to lose,” Paulina thought. She told herself that winning didn’t matter, that she had wanted to show off the truth and beauty of the chorus—but the chorus was huddled in the wings with disappointed faces.

“Only the first two rows vote,” Manny warned (those rows were reserved for bosses). “You just send in a number on your cell phones (everyone’s got a line to the Tally Committee now, right?). One to ten, ten the best. Here we go!”

The audience cheered and booed with absolute abandon. Ron encouraged it, striding across the stage like Groucho Marx and stopping to hold his hand over someone’s head for the vote. “Mimes are in a revival,” he shouted. “They’re kitschy, they’re quaint. But we still hate them, don’t we?” And the audience roared. They roared for Mindy (“Who knows what she said? Look at that dress!”) and it was obvious that the crowd was roaring at Ron, not the performers. When he got to Paulina, he said, “We all appreciate the effort involved for everyone concerned, let’s give them a hand,” and the crowd clapped politely but unenthusiastically until Ron added, “For the anti-Hallelujah Chorus.” Cheers and catcalls rang out.

A phone rang onstage and Ron picked it up. “We have our winners!” he shouted, holding up the envelopes, and he named everyone but Paulina. “Congratulations all!” he crowed. “Your contract is renewed for another year.”

Paulina stood empty-handed. “Contract? I never had a contract.”

Ron rushed forward. “Which brings me to our latest announcement. As of today, all Report positions will be contracted out on a competitive basis. Sorry, Paulina, your bid lost.”

Paulina’s heart was sinking in full view. “Bid? Bid? I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“You didn’t think you had your job forever, did you?” Ron asked with theatrical sympathy and turned to the crowd. “Who thinks they have their jobs forever?” The crowd booed. “See?” he said, turning back to her. “It’s just the times we live in. The times require sacrifice.”

The crowd cheered. Ron raised his hands and shook them together. “The party’s over!” he said. “Your jobs are all secure.” The audience applauded and laughed and began to leave their seats. He turned to Paulina as Mindy came over to join them.

“Well, that was utterly fantastic,” Mindy said, linking her arm with Ron’s (was Mindy now on Ron’s level?). “We’re both very impressed.” She raised her eyebrows to show how impressed she was.

There was something familiar about those eyebrows, Paulina thought. “Those are my eyebrows!” she cried. She rubbed her hand above her eyes: nothing!

“Did you hear her?” Mindy asked, laughing. “Did you hear how odd she is? I think she’d make a good comic, much better as a comic than as a whatever she is. What is she? I forget. Oh that’s right!” she smacked her head lightly. “You lost.”

“She worked in the blah-blah department,” Ron said. “Which is due for restructuring.”

“Well, she does have a creative approach,” Mindy said, cocking her head at Ron.

“A good sense of humor, too. Or is it drama?” His face got furrowed.

“No one cared,” Mindy said. “Why should they? But no hair, no eyebrows—will it upset the employees?” She took a quick glance over her shoulder to look sympathetically at Paulina.

“Everything upsets the employees,” Ron said resignedly.

“So they need cheering up. They need to laugh. I can see her as someone who would give us all a laugh.”

“That’s true. We could maybe do something with her.”

“Wait!” Paulina cried. It was painful, standing there as she was discussed. She had thought her chorus was terrific; she had dreamed of praise about it. How had she been so out of touch? There was a nakedness she felt now, her scalp bald under the wig, her face bald out in the world.

“But she won’t need a desk, will she?” Mindy said, ignoring her. “Comics don’t sit at desks, that would be silly.”

Ron frowned. “But wouldn’t silly actually be the idea?”

“No,” Mindy said. She shook her hair, Paulina’s hair. She raised her eyebrows, Paulina’s eyebrows. “Desks make things look important. That kills the laugh.”

“You always get straight to the crux,” Ron said.

“So here’s the story,” Mindy said, turning to Paulina. “You’ve been fired from your position—or, to avoid lawsuits, actually, your position’s been fired in response to the economic slowdown. You’re just collateral. But because we care—”

“We always care—”

“We’re going to make you a mopper. You mop things up. You keep your salary, you keep your hours, but you have to mop floors.”

“In a clown suit?” Ron asked eagerly.

“Just a clown nose, don’t you think? We don’t want to overdo it.”

“In a clown nose, then.”

“But wait,” Paulina said, clenching her hands. “You can’t do this. I don’t want to mop floors. I was a supervisor.” She heard herself and marveled at how quickly she had been transformed. “I am a supervisor.”

“Mopping floors is an important position. Essential, even. Just think of all the used gum there. Someone could get hurt.”

“You’ll be doing a service to humanity,” Ron added. “You’ll bring joy and relief to life. That’s the company motto, isn’t it?” Ron turned to Mindy.

“We have a company motto?”

“This isn’t what I want!” Paulina cried. “My message was to elevate the masses! I never meant to be one!”

“Oh message,” Mindy said dismissively. “Look around you—everyone has left you here alone. They just wanted a little time to vent. You just took yourself a little too seriously. Too personally; you took yourself too personally.”

“It’s because you stole my hair,” Paulina said, pointing her finger at Mindy. “You provoked it.”

“Nonsense. People lose their hair all the time. Strand by strand. You really can’t claim those hairs as yours once they leave your head, can you? Besides, once you start mopping, you can keep all the hairs you want.”

“That’s obvious,” Ron said agreeably.

“Anyone’s hair,” Mindy added. “Mine if you want. Just gather it up.”

“That, plus you get to keep your paycheck.”

“That’s what’s important in the long term, isn’t it? Much more important than hair or where you sit or if you’ve got great eyebrows? A paycheck.”

They began to walk away and Paulina was motionless, considering what had happened. She had gone too far. Asked questions of the wrong people and pushed where a push would be noticed. Such consequences were predictable, to everyone but her. She had expected too much; she thought she could stay hidden in the herd even as she ran along outside it. She was amazed at her own stupidity, grateful that she had been spared the final blow. She would take what they gave her, gratefully.

She did still have a future, after all, she told herself. She had bills to pay, many bills to pay, and no savings worth noting. She should accept the position and begin to save money so she could protect herself. Why had she cared about protecting others when they could either save themselves or perish? It would be humiliating at first, mopping around her former coworkers, who would, no doubt, shift their eyes away when they saw her. But soon enough it would be normal, even if a new kind of normal.

She had been misled by details, but she could paint on eyebrows, she supposed. She could even paint on hair. Maybe she would get a pair of eyeglasses, just to give her a sense of her new self. She would absolutely refuse the clown’s nose. She even suspected they were joking about it, proposing it just so they could show how easy it was for them to compromise by removing the request just to please her.

And it would please her!

The mops, she supposed were in the basement.

She turned around and headed there, quickly.

HeulerKaren-AuthorPic***

I will be posting an interview with Karen Heuler on February 27th.

You can find out more on Karen’s website, on her Goodreads profile,  via the publisher’s page, or by following Karen on Twitter.