Saturday, December 20, 2014

Ammonite: why in 10 years no one will notice there are no men

From: Scott Barrett

I just wanted to send you a quick note and let you know how much I enjoyed reading your two books Slow River and Ammonite. The SF Gateway collection Gollancz is producing is fantastic, and a great example of the Long Tail phenomenon working wonderfully for superb out-of-print books.

I literally just put down Ammonite. As I said, I did really enjoy the book, the cultures, and the women that you so richly created. It did leave me with one (fairly big) question however. The defining characteristic of Jeep was the virus. We discover midway through the book that it does fairly amazing things to the women who survived it. But the other defining thing it does is kill all men. Now perhaps that gave you the palette on which you wanted to paint the story of these women, and their relationships, and perhaps what a world without men might be like. But, when these cultures meet, and even become somewhat telepathic, men are never talked about. What they are, how they fit in, the fact that on every planet except Jeep the entire human race is made up of two sexes. Never mentioned, offered by Marghe, or discussed. For the entire novel.

Just was curious why. Was the omission intentional, or did you just not see the need to advance the story, or...?

Anyway, mainly wanted to let you know how much I did enjoy the books. Look forward to reading your others.
I'm delighted you liked them. I was sad when they went out of print in the UK. (They've been continuously in print here in the US. Ammonite alone has been through multiple editions and many-multiples of print runs. It still brings me useful royalty cheques every year. I'm proud of it.

Leaving out men was intentional, yes. I was tired of men always being the focus of attention and centre of gravity in fiction. I wanted to see what would happen if they were left out entirely—to find out if they were necessary to this story, to Story itself. It turns out they weren't, aren't. Even a bit.

When I finished the manuscript I sent it to three professional writers for their thoughts. One suggested no one would publish it unless I mentioned men, had my characters talk about men, have the women miss men. I thought, "No. Missing men just wouldn't come up in the story situations I'd imagined." So I didn't. And you know what? I had zero difficulty placing Ammonite with a publisher. None.

In my opinion, the novel does not suffer from lack of men, but the apparent hole at the novel's centre did startle many people (which frankly surprised me). And I've had a handful of readers (all men—but bear in mind this was 20 years ago, when the book first came out) accuse me of lying (these ones are always angry), obscuring the truth (puzzled), confusing the buying public (frowning, understanding they're missing something), and forcing them to understand the world from a woman's perspective (dazed and occasionally a bit frightened).

I responded to each and everyone one as patiently as I could (sometimes more successfully than others). They had just had their whole notion of the world fucked with, big time. They were angry/puzzled/dazed because they had been left out, and they had to face their own assumptions.

Let me give you two examples. 

At party, a man buttonholed me, angry because he'd just read Ammonite and "the publisher lied!" It turned out that what he meant was that the cover copy had used gender-neutral terms such as colonist and anthropologist and native and employee. So he'd leapt to conclusions and was horrified when he realised he'd been reading about...girls! "Did you keep reading?" I asked him, curious. "Well, yes," he said. "It's a good story. But they lied!"

And the day after, at a Georgia Tech class on Literature and Culture, a student told me he'd got a third of the way through the book and before being been struck by the fact that he'd encountered no men. He suddenly understood how it must be to be a female student at Georgia Tech, to be reading text books written by and venerating only men, to not be mentioned, to not have one's existence acknowledged, to feel, on some level, that one didn't exist, or at least didn't matter. 

So I told the class the story of the novel's very first review, in Locus magazine. The reviewer liked Ammonite and thought the main character, Marghe, interesting. But, "Oh, how much more interesting the book might have been if only the author had included the story of Marghe's brother!" (I'm paraphrasing; I don't have my reviews memorised.)  I didn't add any editorial comment. I just let the class work it out for themselves.

It astonishes me that nearly 22 years after that book was first published, people are still trying to figure it out. But the world is changing. It's my sincere hope that 10 years from now readers won't even understand initial readers' puzzlement; they will barely notice the all-women thing. After all, the point of the book, for me, has always been the story: finding out who you are and where you belong.


Friday, December 19, 2014

Lovely audio discussion of HILD on Writer and Critic

Some of you might enjoy this in-depth discussion of Hild (starts around 12.5 minutes, run about 45 minutes) by Kirstyn McDermott and Ian Mond over at The Writer and the Critic. They talk about other stuff, too, like Emily St John Mandel's Station Eleven, but I admit I didn't have time to listen to that. But for those of you who like while away a commute, or listen while you clean the house for the holidays (or whatever), I can recommend the whole thing. These are smart people with interesting perspectives.



Thursday, December 18, 2014

Nuns and the Vatican

I've been following, on and off, the story of the Vatican's two investigations of American nuns. One of the investigations, the Apostolic Visitation by the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life (CICLSAL), which began in 2008 under Pope Benedict, came to a formal end on Tuesday with the release of its report, and a press conference in Rome.

You'll find a decent summary in Wednesday's New York Times, but here are my takeaways:

  • CICLSAL said nice things about the work US nuns are doing: for each other and for society.
  • Individual orders/institutions who aren't will be called in for a little chat.
  • The current pope, Francis, is saying hopeful but vague things about women in the church. "Many women share pastoral responsibilities with priests, helping to guide people, families and groups and offering new contributions to theological reflection. But we need to create still broader opportunities for a more incisive female presence in the Church."
  • CICLSAL is being equally non-specific. "We will continue to work to see that competent women religious will be actively involved in ecclesial dialogue regarding "the possible role of women in decision-making in different areas of the Church’s life."
  • Although this was initially interpreted as an confrontative move on the part of the Vatican, and so some nuns felt angry and suspicious, everyone is now anxious for the Visitation to see as routine, indeed rather helpful. Many are cautiously optimistic that Pope Francis has set a new tone and things are looking up.
  • Not everyone is buying this.*
  • No matter what your perspective, it's clear the overall situation needs some attention. The median age of the American nun is mid- to late-70s. They are getting old and fragile and they are not well funded.
  • Overall, US nuns, as represented by the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), and the less liberal Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious, seem to think the report was a good thing, a signal of gratitude for and appreciation of the work women do in the Church, with some tantalising hope for the future.
The obvious gear-change on the gender stuff, the turning of "You women are getting uppity" into "Oh, gosh, we really, really need you. Like Mary, Mother of God, you nurture us all" is interesting. If you add it to the pig-in-a-python age situation, its consequences, and possible futures, it becomes fascinating. 

From the mid-1940s to the early 1960s, women—mostly white, mostly lower middle class (I have no hard data for this, just anecdata)— flocked to the church. I have some guesses as to why (but I want to emphasise that they are only guesses; this is not something I've spent much time thinking about). 

The end of World War Two coincided with women being encouraged to leave the workforce to make way for the men returning from the front. (And if they didn't leave voluntarily they were pushed.) Being a nun was a path out of poverty and towards rewarding work, visibility, and respect within a community. Those women who took that path are now ageing out, and few novices are signing up. Those who are considering taking vows today have different motivations. According to the report, they are more diverse, well-educated and older than novices of the mid-20th century, though the report gives no specifics (rather startling in this day and age). Apparently, these women are looking for ways to live in a visible community. Reading between the lines (oh, I want raw data!) it seems that women would like to live with other women, set apart from the laity by obvious cultural signifiers such as vows and habits. The church is no longer a path to education and away from poverty but instead a way to live a meaningful life, giving to the world at large while being part of a tight community with common values.

To me this leads to the possibility that if the Vatican plays their hand just right, the church could recruit a significant number of capable and financially secure women in the next ten years. Those women are used to being treated with respect, to getting things done, and to being subordinate to no one.

A lot depends, of course, on the other Vatican inquiry: the continuing investigation of the LCWR by the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which, as of September, was not looking too promising. We won't know for a while. But I always like to think smart people are in charge, and Pope Francis might be steering things in a better direction. I am not holding my breath, though. There are intriguing signals from the Vatican, but he is still a Catholic.

On the other hand, I'm seeing a parallel to the situation 1400 years ago, when another smart bishop saw a way to influence a whole new segment of society. All Francis has to do is be as smart as Bishop Aidan and find a woman as amazing and able as Hild to build and lead a new generation. This could get interesting...

* I like this roundup of video responses and reports from Global Sisters Report: input from a variety of perspectives.


Wednesday, December 17, 2014

The Year in Review

I find I'm getting 2013 and 2014 confused: "I became a citizen this year!" I think. But, no, that was last year... Some might say that this is an age thing—that in one's 50s one's brain turns into a leaky collander—but in my case I suspect that huge chunks of the end of last year and beginning of this are blurred because of pain and heavy opiate use. But, chortle, that's all behind me now and I look forward to nothing but clarity and glee ahead. Except, y'know, for the age thing. But perhaps I'm not really ageing at all...

Another thing I could blame for occasional muddlement is travel. I've travelled a lot. A lot. (For me, that is. I'm sure some of you will scoff and think, Amateur!) Travel can make the world rather surreal, especially on 27-hour days that begin in the dark, driving on one side of the road, and end driving on the other, clutching an award in one hand and a bottle of Champagne in the other.

Places we've been this year, in chronological order: the UK; San Jose (for the Nebula Awards); Washington DC (to help celebrate Kelley's father's 80th birthday); the UK again (The North and London); Atlanta; Washington DC again (with adventures in the ER, sigh); Boston; St. Louis; and then the regional stuff: Wenatchee, Leavenworth, Port Townsend, and Leavenworth.

A lot of this year was about Hild, of course: the movie deal that collapsed, the award nominations, the reviews, the fabulous events, the UK publication, the US paperback release, the bestseller lists. (Notice how casually I said that. THE BESTSELLER LISTS. PLURAL.) It's been amazing. It was lovely to meet you all—a lot of truly fine people, some of whom I've been talking to through the ether for a decade or more—but I'm delighted to be in Seattle, to wake up in the middle of the night and know where to stretch my hand for the light, and which where to turn in the dark when getting up to fill a glass of water. It's not an exaggeration to say: I am very, very happy to be home.

The end of this year is going to be all about clearing the decks (that is, the drifts of papers—and journals and books and maps—in my office and living room; not to mention tackling the almost-at-the-day-of-delete-and-mass-apology length of my inbox). Then rest. Then picking up where I left off with Hild II (working title: Menewood but, eh, that will change, it always does). 

In terms of next year: all Menewood, all the time. Apart from perhaps another trip to the UK and my Guest of Honour stint at Readercon 26, which I'm looking forward to enormously, I don't plan to go anywhere.

The blog might be repurposed a bit. I have a bunch o' Ask Nicola questions that I'll get to but then I'm thinking of updating and re-posting essays about writing: its joys, its impact on readers and culture, my goals. And of course there's that almost-mythical redesign of my website which really will happen, one day. And when it does, the blog will migrate back where it belongs.

Meanwhile, there's a tree to decorate—and then, of course, blow up...


Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Unselling books

Much to the horror of individual booksellers, I seem to have spent a lot of time in the last few months explaining to potential customers why, no, they shouldn't buy Hild for their eight-year old niece, or 10-year old daughter. Not because of the sex and violence—I don't write the kind of thing that would scar anyone for life—but because it would be a waste of money.

I think it very likely that anyone under the age of 14 would not understand enough of Hild to make it a good gift. Of course there may be very smart and well-read 12 year-olds out there for whom it might be just the thing, but they'd be the exception.

Hild is not a children's book. It's for adults. It might be about a child but it was written with and for an adult sensibility. It is not an adventure book for girls. Or boys. It is not about a plucky young thing we defies all odds and fights battles and is miraculously unscathed, physically and emotionally.

The first time I unsold Hild was five or six months before publication, at BEA. A bookseller wanted to get a signed ARC for his daughter. I asked how old she was. "Eight," he said. "No," I said. "I don't think she'd like it." But it turned out he had a niece who was sixteen. "Perfect," I said, and happily signed and personalised it.

Many people think I'm mad turning down a sale, but I'm a big believer in customer satisfaction. Those 1- and 2-star reviews are not good for business, and disgruntled readers—those who pick up the book thinking it's one thing only to find it's another—do not make for good word of mouth. Think of all those potential readers who won't try Donna Tartt whenever her next novel comes out: more than 55% of those who started to read The Goldfinch couldn't finish it.

I want to sell more of Hild II than Hild I. I want the right readers to spend their hard-earned money, the right readers to pick up Hild and give it a go. I will continue to unsell books where I think warranted.

Meanwhile, if you have a story of a young person loving and appreciating Hild, it would be good to hear it before I destroy my own sales...


Monday, December 15, 2014

Truth: a writer's job

I did an hour live on "Global Griot" yesterday morning. It turns out that sixty minutes is a long time to be live on the radio, especially after getting up at 6:30 a.m. on Sunday and having time for only one cup of tea...

I can't remember the last time I did this sort of thing. Even podcasts are usually streamed later. This was one of those delay-for-seven-seconds-in-case-you-spout-treason things—which, let me tell you, is incredibly disorienting to accidentally hear when you're trying to say something coherent! 

But when I did manage to hang onto my hat, coherence-wise, I talked about truth a lot: how a human being has to know her own truth, and a writer must know the truth of a book; how truth connects to phi, and phi to ammonites. Then how Ammonite is connected to Hild, and Hild to Whitby. And Whitby is connected to my beginnings as both an adult human being and a writer. And writing is about getting to a truth by dismantling the cultural master story, the cliché, by telling the story of a particular person in a specific situation; how I do that, how I slip truth deep into you when you're not looking. Oh, and the idiocies of arm-wrestling in bars before one's brain is fully formed, before one is really a human being...

Go listen. It's only up until December 27th.


Saturday, December 13, 2014

Live on Sunday morning morning, KSER 90.7

I'm doing a live interview Sunday morning for KSER's Global Griot in Everett. It starts at 9 am. It's less an interview than a 45-minute conversation with the host, Mary Dessain, about storytelling: how it works, what it does to us as people, and how it's woven into every human endeavour. You can listen live, and then the recording will be available here. I haven't done live radio, as opposed to live-to-tape (most podcasts) and taped-then-edited (most national public radio) for years, so it should be...interesting.

A reminder that the Port Townsend interview I did with Chris Wilson on KPTZ is here (streaming—though if you follow the link you can also subscribe to the podcast and listen at your leisure). It's less than 30 minutes and goes away January 23.


Thursday, December 11, 2014

25 years in the US

Nicola & Kelley, May 2014, Seattle. Photo by Jennifer Durham.
Today is the 25th anniversary of me moving to this country to live with Kelley. (As opposed to the 25th anniversary of meeting and falling in love with her. Which we also celebrate. Carpe party!)

That day a quarter of a century ago was a hard one. I left my family and friends, my partner of ten years, the culture I knew and belonged to and came in on a tourist visa, good only for six months, to a country where I had no job, no health benefits, and no welcome (it was illegal to even enter the country as a lesbian). I was also ill with what was eventually diagnosed as MS and broke. Saying the move was stressful is an understatement.

But, hey, it turned out beautifully. We're married. We share a life built on shared work and love. And I'm now a dual citizen. Life is fucking good.


Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Going out with a bang! And a podcast...

Shamelessly stolen from Kelley's Instagram feed
The trip to Port Townsend took exactly 24 hours. Well, okay, 24 hours and 3 minutes: we left at 1:41 pm on Monday, and got back at 1:38 pm on Tuesday. That's close enough for government work. Though it did include a stop for beer and shepherd's pie on the Seattle side of the ferry. I don't want to pretend that I worked too hard.

My last Hild event was a truly fine way to end. It was at the Port Townsend Library Learning Center, and it was SRO (though no one stood--when we ran out of chairs people sat on the floor). It reminded me very much of my first Hild event at Hugo House in November last year. The room was a bit smaller, and there was no bar, and I didn't know anyone there--but the feel was the same: celebratory, relaxed, eager to have a good time. Writers, if ever you get invited to go, do it. These readers are ready to listen and talk.

Of course, it certainly helped that afterwards we went to a lovely wine-and-food reception where I got to talk to interesting people. (And stuff my face with olives and salmon and drink more wine than was strictly necessary.)

Port Townsend itself is a nifty place. I've been there before, in summer. It's small (pop. 9,210 per Wikipedia) but it has surprisingly fine buildings: Victorian mostly, I think. Certainly it has more robust (or perhaps I mean more familiar) architecture than, say, Wenatchee, which is more than three times the size. And I just liked it better.

While we were there, the wind was strong and the water choppy, a blue-green grey with white caps, that is almost exactly the colour of Hild's eyes. If we'd had more time I would have wrapped myself up against the wind and rain and sat out on the verandah of the beach house for hours.

But we had to come home. And when we got to Seattle, we found it was a shocking 63 degrees. In December. I don't know if that's a record, but after the freezing mountain passes on the way to and from Central Washington it seemed unnatural. But it's lovely to not be cold.

A week before I left, I recorded a phone interview with Chris Wilson, host of Book Lovers' Cafe, for Port Townsend's KPTZ. You can listen to the 30-min show, which includes two reading snippets, here.



Monday, December 8, 2014

Tonight: Port Townsend!

Tonight at 6:30 I'll be at the Port Townsend Library Learning Center, 1256 Lawrence St., to talk about Hild, and read a bit--and talk some more, and answer your questions, and sign books. This is both a celebration of libraries and my last public Hild event before I devote myself full-time to Hild II.

These things are enormous fun for me; I love to talk about my work. I'm especially pleased to be helping Port Townsend celebrate their library's 100th birthday. Libraries, especially inter-library loan, are what made Hild possible. Without them I would have been able to do much less research, which would have led to a lesser book. So much less, in fact, that I don't think I would have felt able to stand behind it. No libraries = no Hild.

So come and help me celebrate the wonder that is free information delivered expertly, that is, libraries. More info on the event here.


Sunday, December 7, 2014

Mountain passes in December

I'd never been to Central Washington before, never been through the passes in December. We were ready to do the tire chain thing. Here's how it looked on the way in:

As you can see, the road was pretty good, but I wouldn't have wanted to drive it two weeks ago, or two weeks from now (look at those ice cascades on the right). We were lucky.

After my first event at the Wenatchee Public Library, we found a lovely wee Italian restaurant. Wenatchee isn't very big, but they managed to provide us a delicious '96 Barbaresco!
The next day it was the Leavenworth Public Library. Leavenworth is, well, it bills itself as a Bavarian village. In Washington State. They have lights...
The next day we went back to Leavenworth and spent a couple of hours in their wonderful bookshop, A Book For All Seasons, where I chatted to customers and signed books.

Then it was time to head west through the passes again. And again, we were lucky. The chains stayed in their bag.
Tomorrow: Port Townsend! (Ferries, not mountain passes...) Hope to see you there. It's going to be a faaaabulous event!


Tuesday, December 2, 2014

This week: Wenatchee and Leavenworth

On Thursday we venture through Snoqualmie Pass and head east: Wenatchee and Leavenworth. Here's the plan:

Thursday 4 December
Wenatchee Public Library
7 pm

Friday 5 December
Leavenworth Public Library
7 pm

Saturday 6 December
Leavenworth Christmas Lighting Festival

Do join us. I've never been to either Wenatchee or Leavenworth before, so I hope you'll show up (bring friends, bring family! get a book! get several--signed books make great gifts) and help us feel welcome.


Sunday, November 30, 2014

Baby it's cold outside...

It's a cold, cold morning. But bright. Happy Sunday! Perhaps you'd like to do some armchair shopping?


Friday, November 28, 2014

How to get signed and personalised HILD for holidays, 2014

Updated 11/29/14

This year I'm teaming up with a new bookshop, Phinney Books, on Greenwood Avenue, Seattle to bring you signed books for the holidays. Why Phinney Books? Well, because it's right next door to the pub! Which makes it massively, convivially convenient for me.

Here's how it works.
  • Email (phone is okay: 206 297 2665) with billing info: all major credit cards accepted. They use Square, so they'll also need the 3-digit code on the back and your billing postal code. 
  • Tell them what you'd like, e.g. Hild (paperback or hardcover or audio CD) or another of my books. (See below.) Or, hey, another book by somebody else--lots of books, any books! It's the holidays. You (and your friends, your family, everyone you've ever met) deserve something nice. Splurge!
  • Tell them whether you want the books by me personalised (to you, or to someone else; if so, whom; and what short thing--short is easy; long might be ignored--you'd like me to add). If you give this order by phone, please spell out even the most common names.
  • Give them your mailing address and payment info.
  • Beam, sit back and relax: you've done your holiday shopping!
Tom, the owner, tells me domestic shipping by media mail costs $3 for one book. He is happy to ship multiple copies, to ship internationally, and to ship express/priority, but then there will be extra charges you will have to work out with him.

We think Friday 12th December is a safe deadline for books shipping via media mail, but if you're willing to pay for priority mail, we could probably push that out a bit.

So basically you have two weeks. Go for it. I'll do my best to mostly sign your books before I go to the pub, which means everything will be spelled right. Mostly...
My books (all paperback unless otherwise noted):

Hild (hardcover and paperback, in stock; audio CD, special order)
StayAud II (in stock)
The Blue Place, Aud I (in stock)
Slow River (in stock)
Ammonite (in stock)
AlwaysAud III (special order)

With Her Body (special order)

And Now We Are Going to Have a Party (collector's boxed set--very limited special order)

Please Note:
  1. The Hild audio CD, Always, and With Her Body have to be ordered. Allow some time.
  2. Assuming the audio CD comes shrink-wrapped, I'd have to open the wrap to sign, so do please be aware of that.
  3. The memoir is available in seriously limited quantities. If you want one, speak now. It also is shrink-wrapped. However, all are already signed (on the back of the photo inside), so you'd get that pristine. Unless you want it personalised...


Thursday, November 27, 2014


My thanksgiving started last night with a fig. Just an ordinary fig, snatched from its bowl as I made a mental list of All That Must Be Done. Only when I bit into it, it turned out to be heaven in my hand. The best fig I think I've ever had. Practically perfect--no, better than perfect: the Platonic Ideal of a fig.

The colour was deep and rich. The taste sweet and aromatic. The weight on my palm just right. Figs have been around for much of human history. They are symbolic, for me, of life lived one step beyond survival. They haven't changed much in thousands years. They don't need to.

So I immediately set my To Do list aside, and sat, and enjoyed that fig. And that's when I started to feel very glad to be alive, very consciously thankful for so much.

This is my first (non-doped up) Thanksgiving as a US citizen. It seemed worth writing down my top three gratitudes:

  • Kelley. Always Kelley. We've had a hell of a year, good and bad, but even the good bits--and trust me, there were many good bits--were tremendously hard involving mountains of work. And Kelley has been right there at my side, and I at hers. We've travelled more this year than I can remember--including four transatlantic flights and more transcontinental ones than I can shake a stick at.
  • Systems. One of the reasons all that travel didn't send us to the hospital (well, no more than a couple of times) is that airlines and airports seem to have smoothed out many of their practical and administrative systems. Our bags didn't get lost once. We miss any planes due to waiting for wheelchair service. We didn't get bumped off any planes. We were mostly on time apart from (several) acts of weather. Thanks to ubiquitous GPS we didn't get lost in any strange cities and thanks to ubiquitous credit card service we didn't have to keep hoofing it to the ATM. The hotels always ended up giving us what we wanted. The hospitals and clinics, too, have been jaw-droppingly efficient. So compared to how this kind of travel could have gone: amazing.
  • Family and friends. We hit some serious bumps this year (you know some of the health stuff). And friends and family were magnificent. We couldn't have done any of what we did without help, and lots of it, and you offered it not only without a murmur but with active pleasure. You know who you are. Thank you.
I'm grateful for much more, of course: for the kindness of strangers, for the magnificent summer and autumn weather in all those places we visited, for the booksellers and publishers and readers who helped made Hild such a success, for our neighbours, for my phone, for Dropbox; for the delicious Rioja I'll be drinking this afternoon, the chocolate cloud cake I can smell baking as I type, the wonderful story I'll be treating myself to reading this evening.

I could go on. Later, over dinner with Kelley, I will. But for now I'm grateful to you, dear reader, for being on this planet and taking the time to occasionally privilege those troublesome little things called words. Thank you.

Happy Thanksgiving.


Monday, November 24, 2014

Two more unprocessed pics of me

Yesterday's photos are black and white, which covers a multitude of sins. Here, for the sake of truth-in-advertising, are two full-colour shots, again untouched by Photoshop.
This first one is by  Christopher M. Cevasco, taken at my panel at World Fantasy Convention in Washington DC. Cropped, to remove a distracting stripe at the bottom. Note the red eyes.

And this one is by my friend Mark Tiedemann, taken at Left Bank Books in St. Louis. Mark tells me it's lightly tweaked. In what way, I don't know. But, eh, here it is anyway.
So that's it, that's how I look right now. And let me tell you, I am now determined to show only seriously processed photos in the future! I don't like having red eyes and dark circles! I don't wear makeup in real life, so I reserve the right to remove blemishes in post. I suspect you'll be happier with that, too...


Sunday, November 23, 2014

Recent photos: tired but relaxed

Two photos of me from my last Seattle reading of Hild at Third PlaceUnretouched, according to the photographer (Jennifer Durham). Her verdict: tired around the eyes but happy and relaxed.

Anyway, I thought you might be interested in how I look after a gruelling—but fun (otherwise I'd be neither happy nor relaxed)—travel schedule. Having said that, I suspect unretouched to a professional photographer means what first draft does to professional writer. That is, all truly obvious infelicities removed in one fast smoothing. (To give you a notion of what I mean, a quick read-through and tweakage of a blog post—like this one—might take me about five minutes.)


Friday, November 21, 2014

Hild is a #1 bestseller!

Hild is the PNBA's number one bestseller. That means that for the week ending November 16, it's the overall top-selling paperback at independent bookshops in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, British Columbia and Alaska. Which means: Wow! and Bloody hell! and Woo hoo!

Hild is also number 7 on the Southern California list, and 5 on the Northern California list. Aaaand...number 19 on the national list.

So I'm going to take this opportunity to remind you that books make lovely holiday presents, that buying from your local bookshop is a Good Thing, and that, well, I've never been a national bestseller before and it would add a serious glow to my Christmas to be able to add National Bestseller! to the next printing of Hild.

Anywhere I've been in the last month will have signed copies. But if they don't, or if you want one personalised, I've been thinking about establishing a relationship with a new, local bookshop that just so happens to be right next door to the pub... So if you're interested in being able to get something signed, personalised, and shipped to you, let me know and I'll set it up.


Thursday, November 20, 2014

Immersive storytelling: are books better than film?

After a recent post on Hild's film/tv rights, I started a conversation in the comments with my friend Brooks, posting as Myseyeball. I thought it sufficiently interesting to pull part of it and turn it into a standalone post.

One of the things that interests me about your novels, Nicola, is the way in which a form of technology will become a metaphor that not only informs the way your protagonists move through life, but also the structure of the novel. In Slow River, that technology was sewage treatment, of all things. In Hild the technology is the making textiles. Not only does it become a metaphor for the way that Hild and her associates see life, but the book itself seems to be woven — a very tight and intricate weave.

In that context the more sensational aspects of the book, the sex and violence and whatnot, are like silver, gold and crimson threads, thrilling and beautiful in their ornamentation, but inadequate in describing the core experience of reading a book woven from the change of seasons and the changing of life in a time so far away from ours.

To adapt Hild into a TV series the whole beautiful tapestry would have to be unwoven and then re-weaved as a series of smaller cloths, all somewhat different in appearance and touch, yet congruent enough to be stitched back together in an approximation of the original. The ideal way do do that would be to conceptualize Hild as a series of short films, all a little different in effect. The big battle that gives Hild her butcher bird reputation. That's one film. The later chapter in which most of the men have gone off to some battle and Hild notices how more relaxed things seem in their absence. That's another movie, totally different style-wise but just as important.

Only a very powerful producer could pull something like this off. Not only because she or he would have to somehow keep the whole thing unified, but also because he or she would have to be confident enough give the writers and directors just enough slack to make something unique.

One other thing. If I was the megalomaniac producer of a Hild series, I'd also make the directors, writers and a lot of the producers go to linen boot camp.  I'd have people spinning and weaving in the writers room and during downtime in the fiilming.  I'd engage their competitive nature to see who could produce the best cloth.

In doing that, they'd almost involuntarily weave the feel of textiles into the weave of the film.

Do all that and stitch the pieces back together and you'd have Hild as a quilt instead of a tapestry. Not as elegant, but it would get the job done. Unfortunately getting someone to bankroll a project like that would be only slightly easier than funding Jodorowsky's Dune.

Or you could just make a big budget film starring Jennifer Lawrence as Hild, George Clooney as Edward, and Johnny Depp as The Beaver.

Metaphor-as-structure: one step beyond metaphor-made-concrete? This is something I'd love to talk about another time. But for now I want to focus on this notion of how to recreate an immersive novel on film.

Hild as a series of short films... I don't see it happening. For one thing, as you point out, it would require extreme amounts of Hollywood juice on somebody's part. For another, I not convinced it's possible to create a film, or even series of films, as immersive as the best fiction.

With Hild I set out for the reader to experience the seventh century, to see, smell, hear, taste and feel what Hild does; to gradually adopt her mindset and worldview; to think as she does, to learn her lessons, feel her joys—to be her, just for a little while. My goal was to run my software on the reader's hardware: for them to recreate Hild inside themselves and know, not just think but know, what the early seventh-century was like.

To do that I honed my prose to trigger not only the reader's mirror neurons but something called embodied cognition.

There's now a reasonable amount of experimental data (though I admit I don't know how often it's been replicated and confirmed) to indicate that certain written words can trigger the memory of scent and touch. For example, if you write the word 'lavender' a functional MRI will show the areas of the brain relating to smell lighting up. Similarly, if you use the word 'leathery' instead of 'hard' or 'tough' it stimulates your brain in the same way that actually touching leather does. So if you describe a character running a discarded lavender leather glove drenched in lavender scent under her nose, the reader can actually feel the cool-warm of the leather against her skin, hear the faint creak of the leather, smell that lavender: we are there.

However, unless you elaborately set up the same shot—show the glove's owner dipping the glove with liquid from a bottle labelled Lavender, show her leaving the glove, show someone else picking it up, running the glove under her nose, closing her eyes and sniffing deeply—I don't believe film can't do that. (Even with the elaborate set-up described I'm guessing the viewer would have to really work to put themselves there.)

This belief could, of course, all be a function of my bias: film and TV for me are two-hour thrill-rides. They don't exist to make me think, or to feel subtleties. My favourites are blunt-force roller-coaster rides with perfectly matched music and a few witticisms. Think Jaws. Think Die Hard. Think Galaxy Quest, and Independence Day (okay, not the ridiculous computer virus, but everything else), the Star Trek reboot, Iron Man, and the Lord of the Rings trilogy (except for the idiotic adolescent 'fun' hobbit scenes, and those interminable ents). The films that work best for me, in other words, are spectacle, Woo Hoo Let's Blow Some Shit Up! movies, not Serious Films About Anguished People.

And what you say about having to send the actors to weaving boot camp: yes. Because they would have to move as people who had been producing textiles—and milking cows, and sheathing swords, and ploughing fields—all their lives. The viewer would have to see them do something and believe it, feel it, understand subconsciously the thousands of hours, the expertise, that goes into the simplest movement. You can always tell in film someone who knows how to use a gun, or ride a horse, and someone who doesn't. And don't get me started on the women they cast to play martial artists/killers. (There are always exceptions. I believed Gina Carrera in Haywire: she is, in fact, a fighter. And Tom Cruise in Collateral did an excellent job of playing a man for whom such things are second nature on what I'm guessing was limited training.)

Video is a visual medium. It can trigger a viewer's mirror neurons: a woman on the edge of a cliff with the wind in her face might tickle our own sensory apparatus enough for us to feel a faint echo of that wind on our own skin, if it's acted and shot well enough. But it can't get us to smell the sea, to feel whether that water is hot or cold, except by two-stage inference. It is much better at what people do and say than what they think and feel.

Prose, on the other hand, can do it all. But as I say, I'm perfectly prepared to admit I might be biased.



Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Last HILD reading in Seattle: Third Place, Ravenna, Wednesday 19th, 7 pm

Tomorrow is my very last Hild reading in Seattle. By last I mean last. The next set of readings will be for Hild II. So if you want to hear Hild-as-three-year-old and Hild-as-butcherbird, or perhaps Hild-discovers-sex, or even—depending on a variety of factors—the very beginning of Hild II, come to Third Place Books in the cosy Ravenna neighbourhood. Wednesday, at 7 pm. Sip a beer (they have a truly fab eatery with beer and wine) and listen and chat. Especially chat: the Q and A if often my favourite part of the evening. I love to talk about my book!

If you can't make it, you can still get a book signed and personalised. Both paperback and hardback make beautiful gifts. The lovely people at Third Place will ship. Hild, as I've said before, is a luscious object. (See that close-up of the thick gold debossed title...) But if you want the book personalised, you have to get your orders in before Wednesday evening. After that it'll have to be just a signature; I'm guessing I'll be signing a bunch o' stock.

I'm guessing you don't need to see more pix of the hardcover (unless it's with cute cats reading) but if you want to peer more closely at the paperback take a look here.

So: Wednesday 19th November, 7 pm, Ravenna location of Third Place Books. Join us!