Guest Post: “The Long Orbit of RADIANCE” by Catherynne M. Valente

ValenteCM-AuthorPicSometime in 2009 I was asked to write a science fiction story for Clarkesworld Magazine. At the time, I had mainly written fantasy — I was eager to dive into the other side of the speculative field. Two things had been bouncing around my head, and they bashed together at once. I had sprouted a fascination with the pulp SF planets of Zelazny, Bester, Burroughs, and Asimov’s day. The worlds we thought might be out there before satellite footage assured us it was not. Savage deserts of Mars, undersea Neptune, Venusian waterways. I wanted to make a planet like that. I didn’t want to follow the trend of hewing closely to established scientific fact. I wanted to go back to the wild, free-wheeling pulp universe, where there are no shackles on what you can imagine out there.

At the same time, I had read an interview with Mark Danielewski, who wrote House of Leaves, one of my favorite novels. He talked about his father, a cinematographer, and what a profound influence on his writing his father’s profession had been. And I thought: I was raised by a film director. It shaped every way I see the world and the ways I make my own. And I’ve never written about it even a little.
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Guest Post: “Writing in the devastating wake of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” by Jonathan Wood

JonathanWood2To the best of my recollection, the first thing I ever had published was a review of the 1990 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie. I was ten. I belonged to a local Youth Club that put out a small paper ’zine every month or so. You could write in and volunteer to review movies. I was devotee of the TNMT cartoon, and had been awaiting the release of the movie with growing anticipation for months. I wrote in, and to my shock and delight was selected. I even got free movie tickets. Few ten year olds have known the height s of ecstasy I reached.

This is typically the point in the story where my dreams are all crushed, and I leave the theater shaking my fist at an unrepentant Hollywood heaven. But in fact, the movie fulfilled my every pre-teen wish. I laughed, I gasped, I demanded pizza afterward. As for the review itself… it was a breathless plot summary that descended into excruciating detail. My father cut me off when I was about halfway through – a mercy killing if ever there was one. As I recall, the final immortal line was, “And the rest was great too.”

These days, I’m in my mid-thirties. But sitting beside me on my desk while I write this is a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles mug. Raphael, Donatello, Leonardo, and Michelangelo all stare on.

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Again, this should be the point where I launch into a tale of dark obsession involving terrapin pit fighting, and a restraining order. But honestly, the Turtles have actually never been my #1 nerd. They’ve just always been there – clinging tenaciously to their spot in my heart for over 25 years. Like that album that never quite leaves the lower reaches of the Billboard charts, just sitting there year after year, desperately clinging to relevance.

Recently I finally started to wonder why the Turtles have had such lasting appeal for me.

EddingsD-B1-PawnOfProphecyFor a long time, I couldn’t work it out. But then I had another encounter with another old childhood passion: eighties epic fantasy. I’d been going through something of a reading crisis. I just could not find a book I wanted to stick with. And then, one way or another I stumbled over David Eddings’ Belgeriad series. It was the sort of thing I’d have chewed through in a week or two as a kid, but I’d missed it back then. These days, while I still enjoy the occasional epic tome, I don’t read it with the same alacrity I did in my youth. But I devoured this series. All five books in two months, which is a decent pace for me. And I loved it to bits.

And examining that reaction, and staring at my TMNT mug, I realized there was a connection. Both were stories that, at their core, were about a team of friends.

TMNT has lasted for me, not because of the stories, and not even because of the individual characters (Michelangelo is the best, all you Raphael-lovers can suck it), but because of the interplay between those characters. The adventures are fun yes, but seeing the way these characters deal with it, and the way they trip over each other, and then help each other up as they go through everything – that’s what I love. That’s why through all of their various iterations, no one has messed with the basic archetypes of the characters. Raphael is always aggressive, Michelangelo always a goofball. Because seeing the way the four main characters play off each other is what has people like me continuously coming back to the franchise.

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A lot of fiction, these days, seems to focus on the lone hero. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. I’ve read and loved many books with that focus. But the stories of my childhood, the ones that are all wrapped up with nostalgia and love, they were stories about groups of friends united by a single purpose. The focus was on the group dynamic as much as on any individual character’s growth. I miss that.

And then I realized, that without consciously doing it, that was what I’d written about in my own books. There may be a distinct lack of heroes in a half-shell, but they’re definitely stories about a group of friends, all driving each other crazy, all working towards the same goal.

And, having realized that, it’s actually kind to think that ten-year old me, could actually be proud of the guy I’ve grown up to be.

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Jonathan Wood is the author of No Hero and Yesterday’s Hero – both published by Titan Books. Be sure to follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

WoodJ-3-AntiHeroThe third novel in the series, Anti-Hero, is due to be published in March 2015, also by Titan Books. Here’s the synopsis:

What do you do when your best friend becomes a supervillain? Agent Arthur Wallace is used to dealing with danger that is extraterrestrial, supernatural, or generally odd. But when a drone-strike interrupts his best friend’s funeral, it becomes clear that his next assignment is going to be stranger than usual. When it turns out that the drone was hijacked by a rogue, digital version of that friend… well then nothing is clear to Arthur any more.

Now the man Arthur counted on most is set on destroying humanity in a grand scheme to save the natural world. And the CIA is set on destroying that man. And Arthur can’t work out who the hero is any more. But he has to work out the all the answers fast, because now he’s staring into the bloody maw of the zombpocalypse itself.

Guest Post: “Influences & Inspirations” by Duncan Jepson

JepsonDuncan-AuthorPic1During the last 150 years, China and the West have collided many times, virtually always on Chinese soil, and their relationship is heavily coloured by this history. Many in Asia are choosing and building their futures motivated by their own and their family’s experiences, ambitions and histories, much of it unclear and unknown to most in the West. The relationship between China and West is set to become more intense and complicated and we have to hope these two sides will work together rather than tear the world apart.

The story of Emperors Once More is about the collision of these different motivations and forces in China and among Chinese people, set against their position on the world stage. On a national level, the government is tasked with maintaining a union of a billion plus people so it does not crumble into chaos again, fighting the very human feeling of humiliation from centuries of defeat, both personal and national, the need to re-establish respect on the world stage, the clashes that will arise from the very practical need to obtain vital resources for the future and China’s new role in the global order. The story is also about those very personal experiences such as migration, subservience, colonialism, aspiration, ideology, revolution and tradition.

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This is also personal to me. As a Eurasian, I have often found myself stuck awkwardly in geography, sometimes feeling at home in no place in particular but persistently trying to be comfortable in both East and West. I have watched the older generation in Hong Kong, those having lived and grown up under colonial rule, feel the weight of a heavy glass ceiling whether due to limited education, lack of understanding of the governing culture or, at times, simply by race. To some there is a deep frustration and resentment to having been treated as what they feel is a foreigner in their own home. Thankfully the world has moved on and a young generation of Chinese don’t see themselves this way – many are now of a new global generation.

The premise of Emperors Once More is that, in 2017, China has bailed out the West, but the West has defaulted on its debt. For many Chinese, this has the same strong sense of bitterness as the humiliations of the Opium War, Rape of Nanjing and Boxer Rebellion. One man in Hong Kong, deeply affected by colonialism, wants to use this new collective anger and indignation to push Chinese to demand China use its global power to reclaim its rightful place in the world order. To achieve these ends, he will draw on both ancient rites and modern technology to commit a series of killings and provoke national rage.

I wanted a criminal with a purpose and an anger that is rooted deep in history and personal experiences, believing there are wrongs to be righted, and a hero who is of a new different world who sees a better future that does not have to pay for the past. I hope that this story pulls the reader into a full-bloodied crime tale while drawing on Chinese history, culture and mysticism.

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Duncan Jepson is the award-winning director, producer and writer of five feature films. He also produced documentaries for Discovery Channel Asia and National Geographic Channel. He was the editor of the Asia-based fashion magazine West East and a founder and managing editor of Asia Literary Review. He is a social commentator on Asia and regularly writes for The New York Times, Publishing Perspectives and South China Morning Post. A lawyer by profession, he lives in Hong Kong.

Jepson’s Emperors Once More is out now, published in the UK by Quercus Books. Jepson is also the author of All the Flowers in Shanghai. Be sure to follow Duncan on Twitter and Goodreads.

Guest Post: “Influences & Inspirations” by Stephanie Saulter

SaulterS-AuthorPicI had, by any definition, an unusual childhood – I grew up in what was then a fairly remote corner of rural Jamaica, beautiful but quite isolated, in a resolutely free-thinking, non-conformist family. I have seven siblings so I wasn’t exactly lonely; but being the eldest, a voracious reader and not particularly gregarious, I never really felt I fitted in to the neighbourhood. Books were my escape hatch, my window into different times and places and worlds. They were how I worked out who I was, what I was interested in, what lay beyond the horizon.

The power of story to capture your imagination and alter your thinking and take you somewhere else had a profound effect on who I grew up to be, long before I became a writer of stories myself. And because so many stories celebrate the outsider, the loner, the person who is always second to the right of everyone else, I think they helped to reassure me that being a bit odd and a bit different was okay. You can be the hero of your own life, and it doesn’t have to be like anyone else’s life. I learned that early, and I learned it from books. Continue reading

Guest Post: “Pantheon Inspirations” by James Lovegrove

LovegroveJ-AuthorPicSo far my Pantheon series extends to six novels and three novellas. What is it about these military-SF tales of gods and men that I seem to find so fascinating? Why do I keep coming back time and time again to this well of inspiration?

Partly it’s because the ideas embedded in polytheistic religious mythologies are so wonderfully rich and exploitable, like countless mines yielding up different seams of precious ore. I myself do not believe in deities of any kind, but the stories that others have came up with about them over the centuries are pleasingly intricate and complex, full of incident and nuance. Every Pantheon strikes me as being like a dysfunctional family. Their conflicts and passions echo those of their worshippers. Even though they’re gods, they’re eminently relatable. They banter and squabble, have affairs, plays tricks on one another, lose their temper, just as humans do. The aloof, monotheistic gods whose faiths prevail in the world today aren’t anywhere near as interesting. Those guys are like grumpy father figures you can’t get on with and have to tread carefully around but are still supposed to admire. Where’s the fun in that?

Lovegrove-AgeOfRaI didn’t set out to write a series. When Solaris, my publisher, commissioned Age Of Ra from me, I thought it would be a one-off, a slice of alternate history with a bit of Ancient Egyptian mythology thrown in to add savour. I certainly didn’t anticipate that I’d still be writing in the same subgenre seven years later, or even that that subgenre would have gained its own name, godpunk. But that’s me. I never plan things. Foresight is not my middle name.

The great thing about the Pantheon novels, as far as writing them goes, is that the tone of each is set by the individual tone of the myths which I’m dealing with. Age Of Odin, for instance, could only have taken place in a world caught in the grip of the Fimbulwinter, the three years of constant ice and snow that presage Ragnarok, and the bad guy could only have been Loki, the trickster, pitting himself against the other residents of Asgard as he does in the Sagas and the Skaldic poems. Likewise, Age Of Aztec just had to be about a high-tech, quasi-Aztec culture, full of human sacrifice, ziggurat temples, and flying saucers in the tradition of Chariots Of The Gods. Once I’ve started researching each book, the plot begins to suggest itself, arising organically from the background material. In a way, I have to do only half the work I otherwise might – half the backstory creation, half the worldbuilding. The other half has already been done for me by the people who dreamed up the original stories. You could even call this cheating.

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The latest volume in the series, Age Of Shiva, came about largely because I’ve long had a hankering to write a superhero tale, being the massive comics fan than I am. I perceived that the Hindu pantheon is, in many ways, a set of super-powered beings who battle demons, vampires and other monsters. They’re good guys with a clearly delineated set of bad guys ranged against them. That is, of course, a very reductive view of Hinduism, which is a great deal more complicated and beautifully arabesque and nowhere near as trivial as I’m making it sound. On the surface, however, at a purely primal level of storytelling, that is where it’s at. I thought to myself, “I could have some fun extrapolating a superhero story out of this mythology,” and so, as it proved, I did.

LovegroveJ-AgeOfShiva2014The plot focuses on a comic book artist who is employed by a multinational consortium to help on a secret project to create a real-live superhero team. Ten super-powered characters, based on the Ten Avatars of Vishnu, emerge into the glare of the media spotlight, and rapidly make a name for themselves, saving civilians from snake-men, sewer-dwelling vampires and the like. Things, however, get gnarlier and more complicated from there, and it isn’t long before the world’s balance of military power is destabilised and the threat of nuclear Armageddon looms.

That may all sound very serious, but as with the other Pantheon novels, Shiva is all about the action and the fun. The violence is over-the-top, and the protagonist’s narrative voice is, I hope, witty and wry.

I’m not sure what my next Pantheon novel will be, which set of gods it will concentrate on, what shape it will take. I’ve three other books to write first before I seriously have to start thinking about it. The joy of the concept, though, is that whichever pantheon I choose to exploit, I’ll be as surprised by the outcome as any reader.

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Also on CR: Interview with James Lovegrove, Guest Post on Age of Godpunk, Excerpt (Age of Shiva)

Guest Post: “Inspiration in Translation” by E.J. Swift

SwiftEJ-AuthorPic2The second book in my Osiris Project trilogy, Cataveiro, moves the action from an ocean city cut off from the rest of the world, to a South American continent which has been radically altered by climate change. I’ve always been drawn by the beauty of the South American landscape, but in writing Cataveiro I also wanted to explore something of the continent’s literary heritage. For inspiration, and in the hope that some of their flair might rub off, I started reading Latin American writers in translation.

The obvious place to start was with magical realism, although I was interested to discover a podcast on Latin American literature debating a move away from the form. I’d previously read Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, but while I admired the novel greatly, Marquez turned out to be my least favourite of the writers I discovered.

One of the first books I read was by the Chilean writer Roberto Bolaño. Last Evenings On Earth is a darkly satirical collection of stories, and proved a good place to start as an introduction to Bolaño’s work. His prose is effortless, clean as a knife, and stylistically, he seems to get away with things that on paper should never work. I’ve only just got round to the book generally acknowledged as his masterpiece, 2666, but already I’m lost in admiration over the seamless weaving of characters and their internal and external narratives.

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Angelica Gorodischer’s Kalpa Imperial has proved another favourite: a gorgeous work of fantasy which charters ‘The Greatest Empire That Never Was’ in a series of tales delivered through the classic frame of the story-teller. One of my favourite chapters tells the story of one of the empire’s cities, capturing centuries of history in sinuous, evocative prose. In the final chapter, stories offered by the characters during a caravan crossing of the desert are punctuated with gloriously bizarre riffs on everything from the rise of Hollywood studios to the Beatles.

Nine Nights by Bernard Cavalho is part memoir, part imagined history, in which the author becomes obsessed with an American ethnologist who committed suicide in the Amazon jungle in 1939. Dreamy and mysterious, you never quite know where you are with this narrator. Equally tricksy is the protagonist of Chico Buarque’s Budapest, a Brazilian ghost writer who becomes obsessed with the Hungarian language. This is a beautiful poem of a book where the narrative works like a series of mirrors, illuminating and reflecting back on itself.

I dipped into Borges with Dreamtigers – a collection which is half poetry, half reflection – and Silvina Ocampo’s The Topless Tower, a contemporary of Borges and another prolific writer of the fantastic. Lygia Fagundes Telles’s vividly told The Girl in the Photograph deploys a complex, demanding narrative as it follows the intertwining stories of three young women.

This was only a small sample of the writers I would have liked to read, and there are many more whose work wasn’t available in English. I’d love to read Rachel de Queiroz, Alejandra Pizarnik, and Andrea del Fuego, three recommendations whose work I couldn’t find a translation. What other writers in translation (Spanish/Portuguese speaking or otherwise!) would you recommend, and which are on your to-read list?

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E. J. Swift is the author of Osiris and Cataveiro, the first two volumes in The Osiris Project trilogy – published in the UK by Del Rey UK, and in the US by Night Shade Books. Her short fiction has been published in Interzone magazine, and appears in anthologies including The Best British Fiction 2013 and Pandemonium: The Lowest Heaven. She is shortlisted for a 2013 BFSA Award in the short fiction category for her story Saga’s Children.

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Guest Post: “Influences & Inspirations” by Robert Bailey

Robert Bailey is the author of THE PROFESSOR, a legal thriller to be published by Exhibit A Books late January 2014.

BaileyR-TheProfessor-2014I was born from a family of storytellers and teachers. My mother taught English and reading, and my grandmother, a math teacher, was never without a book to read. My father, though a builder by trade, can still hold a room captive with his stories and jokes, and, as a little boy, I was always on the edge of my chair when he would rasp on about Coach Paul “Bear” Bryant and the legends that played football for the Crimson Tide.

As far as writers, John Steinbeck was a major early influence. As a kid, I loved his shorter novels, The Red Pony and The Pearl. As a high school sophomore, we studied The Grapes of Wrath, and Tom Joad remains one of my favorite characters in all of literature. As a southerner and an Alabamian that grew up to be a lawyer, To Kill a Mockingbird holds a special place. I think every lawyer wants to grow up to be Atticus Finch, and the story just had everything. It was thrilling, historical, funny and tragic. Just a remarkable achievement.

Later in high school and early college, I became enraptured with John Grisham, and loved Jack Brigance in A Time to Kill and Mitch McDeere in The Firm. I think it was these Grisham stories that really made me want to give writing a shot. Other writers that have been great influences are Greg Iles (I love the Penn Cage series starting with The Quiet Game), Michael Connelly (It doesn’t get much better than the Harry Bosch series), John Sandford, Lee Child, Winston Groom, Stephen King, Dean Koontz and Mark Childress.

When I decided I wanted to write The Professor, I picked up Stephen King’s memoir, On Writing, and have probably read it at least three times. Not only is it entertaining, but King’s insights on the writing process are insightful and inspiring. I would recommend it for any aspiring writer.

Finally, my time at the University of Alabama School of Law in Tuscaloosa certainly influenced The Professor. In fact, the idea for the story was hatched while day dreaming in class and wondering whether my professors could still try a case after years in the classroom.