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Between the Lines: Cecelia Holland

Posted on March 2, 2015

After a bit of a hiatus, SF in SF reappeared at the exquisite Book Club of California on Sutter Street. I was in the mood to get my SF on, so I went over to listen to the inexhaustible Kim Stanley Robinson, author of 2312 the Red Mars series and Cecelia Holland, an equally prolific speculative fiction writer. I’ll fess up right now and say that I’d never read anything by either before settling myself into a chair to listen, so I had no idea what to expect. My eyes closed like the rest of the audience – the better to see your story, my dear –Cecelia’s gripping excerpt about a cunning dragon stole my heart.

I found the excerpt from her newest novel mesmerizing. She really knows how to spin a tale, and for those of you who were there that evening you will recognize that I am letting you in on an inside joke about the central premise of the story. I promptly went home and began to read – now engrossed in The Soul Thief.  Holland’s ability to create scenes and characters from every nook and corner of the world is breathtaking.

And now, she has dipped her toe more fully into fantasy with DRAGON HEART, her newest book which will be available in September 2015. She was kind enough to chat with me about that and other topics as a guest of Between the Lines.

Thanks Cecelia!

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  1.   Tell us about Dragon Heart. The little bit I heard at SF in SF was very enticing. I couldn’t stop thinking about the dragon for several days!

When I was about 12 I read a story of Geoffrey household’s called “the spanish cave” in which a boy finds a sea-faring dinosaur in a cave on the asturian coast. The story has always stayed with me, and when Gardner Dozois asked me to write a dragon story I turned the dinosaur into a dragon. The story has almost nothing to do with the original household story, except there are some weirdly common scenes. What happened as I wrote it was the idea of telling stories (as she tells stories to the dragon) to shape the world, and then the whole book arose out of that.

  1. Margaret Atwood recently opined in the Wall Street Journal about resisting the urge to be categorized. Do you consider yourself to be a writer of a certain genre?

I’m just a writer. I don’t think the idea of genres is useful.  I do a lot of different things and I don’t like repeating myself.

  1. You’re on the tale end of a long career as a writer, what’s the biggest change you’ve noticed over the years or if you’d prefer: what is the one aspect of the business that stays the same?

I’m glad it’s the tale end and not a tail end. The entire publishing business has changed almost from the ground up. when I started, publishers used their big sellers to fund the midlist, and published books they liked. Now publishers only like books that will make a lot of money (they think). And now the internet gives any writer a way to publish at no cost, in 5 minutes.

  1. One look at the best-seller lists shows a growing interest in all manner of speculative fiction. Could you have imagined how mainstream it’s gotten when you first started?

That’s one of the interesting things about the literary marketplace now. It’s gotten more pulpy as it’s gotten more democratized.

  1. Do you have any advice for emerging women writers?

Write a lot.

  1. When can readers expect to see Dragon Heart? Is it eBook only?

It’s coming from Tor next fall, there will likely be a hardcover, a paperback and an ebook.

  1. Do you consider Dragon Heart your first fantasy novel?

The first one that’s any good.

  1. If you could pick a time period to go back to, when would it be?

I like now, for 3 good reasons: fleas, lice and intestinal parasites. Almost every previous time abounded in them.

  1. What was it like working with George RR Martin on The Dragon Book?

GRRM is a great editor. In many ways the conversion of the original story into DRAGON HEART uses things I picked up from him—the names all sound like “normal” names, not outlandish concoctions, so the reader grasps them easily; the intense elemental conflict at the center of the plot to ground a personal struggle in something cosmic. I like the way he deals with his 100’s of characters. I didn’t do that, but I admire it nonetheless.

  1. SF in SF was packed to the rafters the night I attended. Any parting words on why this kind of writing is so popular?

SF in SF is a great program, Rina and Terry and Jason all deserve huge credit for that, and for surviving the collapse of the previous venue: the big turnout was a real tribute to them. Speculative fiction is very popular now because all the boundaries  have gotten vague, in life, in art and in the imagination. The world and the culture are wide open right now, and all sorts of powerful forces are flooding through.

Take a look at some of Cecelia’s other work and find her complete works on Goodreads.

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Between the Lines: Kelli Stanley

Posted on February 3, 2015

I’m excited to present the second author interview in Between the Lines (BTL).  I’m almost a little too excited because my guest is Kelli Stanley, the talented writer behind the Miranda Corbie Mysteries. 

I discovered Kelli after the Wall Street Journal reviewed City of Ghosts. I sent her a congratulatory tweet and picked up a copy at Green Apple Books, and BAM, just like one of the hop-heads who inhabit her novels, I was hooked on Miranda, a complicated female gumshoe intent on justice.

I must admit I’m pretty sweet on Kelli, too. A former comic book storeowner, actress and historian, she exhibits the kind of intense intellectual curiosity that I find irresistible in a person.  She graciously granted me a lengthy phone interview in advance of sending her some questions and I found myself nodding in agreement repeatedly as we discussed her path to writing and some of her heroes and role models such as Raymond Chandler and Martha Gelhorn.

In Miranda, Kelli has created a brilliant but flawed, chain-smoking heroine.  Raw with anger and pain over her damaged life, she demands to be taken seriously, on her own terms.  In short – the perfect character for a dame like me.  I hope you enjoy the interview with Kelli. I know I did!

Kelli Stanley Bio

 

1. I liked Miranda, she’s flawed in a way that speaks to me and her different habits caught my attention. Why the Lifesavers?

When we first meet Miranda Corbie, in CITY OF DRAGONS, she’s suffering from what we would now call PTSD. She’s embittered, anxious and a compulsive smoker—someone who is trying to rebuild her life—struggling, in fact, to rebuild a desire to live.

She finds cause and reason in the case she takes on: a chance to pursue justice for the forgotten, something her lover Johnny would have done.

One of the major themes of the series is about Miranda learning to value herself … not just as an attractive woman, not just as her dead lover’s soul mate, and not just as a PI crusader for the flotsam and jetsam cast aside by a racist, classist and sexist culture.

By the second book—CITY OF SECRETS—she’s made tentative steps toward embracing herself and her life, and part of this change is shown by her consciously trying to cut down on cigarettes (San Francisco hills, after all). Lifesavers instead of Chesterfields? Works for Miranda. The candy may actually live up to its name! 😉

  1. As a Mills Graduate (1990) I was curious about Miranda’s time there. Why that school?

Mills just felt right. As the oldest woman’s college west of the Rockies, it has enjoyed a progressive reputation for a very long time. Given Miranda’s harrowing, abusive childhood (unfortunately all too realistic for millions of her generation of Americans), it made sense that she’d be drawn to the relative “safety” of a woman’s college. Plus, she was an English major, at a time when she still wanted to try to win her father’s approval, and Mills was the perfect place for her.

  1. I noticed that some reviewers disliked her smoking, but it’s a very realistic habit for the time. When you work on your characters do you ever worry about “going too far” or making them unlikeable?

Here’s the thing: I write psychological realism, not two-dimensional shadow plays. Miranda is complex: like most people, what is on the surface can be very different than what is under it.  Unfortunately, a segment of our society reads only to see what they want to see, and that’s what entertains them … a reflection of their own biases and limitations. They don’t want to be challenged; they don’t want realistic protagonists; they want to skim the surface and find comfort and affirmation for their own specific set of mores.  For such readers, Miranda could be termed “unlikable” – though I would be willing to bet that, for the same readers, a male protagonist with identical characteristics would not be so considered.

She drinks—she smokes—she uses profanity. Like Ava Gardner (as noted in a recently published memoir), Miranda swears like the proverbial sailor partly in order to keep off “the gaze”—unwanted sexual attention from the various men she encounters in life and on her cases.

She is also my attempt to write a “femme fatale” as a hardboiled protagonist, thus turning noir’s misogynistic conventions inside out.

For the record, I write what I write and live up to my own literary and personal integrity. I try to make people aware of the nature of my books by posting reviews, synopses, questions, interviews, videos, et. al. on my website. If someone wants to read and live in a G-rated world, more power to them—just don’t read my work.

Miranda Corbie is a damaged soul, a broken idealist, a woman who is trying to find something to live for. Her actions betray a compassionate heart empathetic to the plight of the underdog and the downtrodden. What’s so unlikeable about that?

  1. Do you read your reviews?

Yes, though I honestly try not to read Amazon comments. The Internet has fostered a subculture of people desperate to be heard … symptomatic of the concomitant powerlessness behind a global society. We are all linked through information access, so some people find ego, power and identity from proliferating their opinions as personal attacks and abuse.

As an author and a person, I am grateful to all the readers who write me and who leave thoughtful reviews online, whether positive or negative; unfortunately, no published writer remains unscathed from the bullies, and—given that Miranda rocks the boat for many of them—I have been subject to the same vitriol as everyone else.

On the other hand, I’ve been blessed with some reviews that are, themselves, beautifully written … and which, on a hard day, I may find myself re-reading. Everyone needs encouragement, particularly authors on a deadline!

  1. People often assume Olivia the sword-wielding heroine of my books is based on me… Do people ask you how much of yourself exists in Miranda?

Sometimes. Friends know that Miranda’s zeal for social justice is reflective of my values, as is her general impatience and intolerance for hypocrisy. I don’t smoke, I do use profanity, and I occasionally throw back a bourbon (never rye). 😉

  1. Would you go back and live in the 1940’s?

Never. I witnessed racism as a young child in Florida in the 1970s (we spent a year there); my parents were quiet crusaders against the blights of racism and sexism as far back as I can remember. The experience affected me profoundly.

As much as I love the beauty and elegance and camaraderie of the late ‘30s and early ‘40s—the Art Deco design, the craftsmanship, the music, the films, the formality, the  unity of a more outgoing and social generation—I would not willingly live in a time when freedom was a hypocritical myth for so many Americans. I’d like to visit, however—and buy a copy of Detective Comics 27 for my collection! (The first appearance of Batman).

  1. As a student of history, any observations about human behavior that you’re repeatedly drawn to in your writing?

We haven’t changed much in the last couple of thousand years. As a species, we’ve not yet learned how to handle the mass media inventions of the last century, and now here we are, confronted with a global culture fueled by over-consumption and mega-corporations. My biggest worry is that our short-sightedness as a species is imperiling all life on this planet. Profit before responsibility, fear before reason, mine before yours, all are age-old hazards of the human race—but if we don’t learn to embrace empathy, understanding and reason, our tenure on Earth is limited.

  1. For better or worse, the world has been focused on Paris. And before that we had the Sony hacking incident. Any thoughts on the state of self-expression in the world today?

When a group or political/cultural entity is bent on silencing any opposition or criticism, that group or entity is not only oppressive, it is weak. True strength stems from facing and listening to the opposition. But then again, terrorism isn’t about discourse; it’s about wanting power and murdering people in order to gain it.

For the record, I do not excuse the denial of basic human rights for any reason, be it religious, cultural or political. Free speech is one such right, period, whether it’s in Paris or Staten Island or Saudi Arabia, and we need to be united in supporting those suffering on behalf of it, like Raif Badawi.

As for Sony, I do think news outlets stepped outside privacy laws by publishing private emails. So Hollywood can be narcissistic, tantrum-throwing and spoiled … that hardly qualifies as news. 😉

  1. Obviously you adore San Francisco, care to name a favorite place?

Tough question! Chinatown is one of Miranda’s favorite hangouts, and mine, too. I was heartbroken when Sam Wo’s closed down a few years ago, and now the Empress of China is gone. But Li Po is still around, as are a few other favorite spots. I love Aquatic Park and the Hyde Street Pier; Gumps any time, but particularly at the holidays; John’s Grill on Ellis, Telegraph Hill, Fisherman’s No. 9 and the unhipsterized remains of the Mission, West Portal, the Cliff House, Sutro Park and Land’s End and Louie’s, the Legion of Honor and the Shakespeare Garden, and … well, the list is getting too long!

  1. Ok, best place to throw back a drink in SF?

Other than the previously mentioned Li Po on Grant Avenue, I’m still partial to Bourbon and Branch, host of my first book launch party. I love a good speakeasy!

  1. Can you tell us about your next project?

I’m currently finishing up CITY OF SHARKS, the next book in the Miranda Corbie series. It takes place in September, 1940, and Miranda is preparing to ship out to Britain—right in the middle of the Blitz. First, though, she’s been hired to investigate a couple of attempted murders— in the publishing business! Settings include Alcatraz and Playland, and, as always, real people, real places (with actual phone numbers) and real history layer the novel.

Thanks for the questions, Evette—it’s been a pleasure!

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Between the Lines: Interviews with Authors

Posted on January 20, 2015

MIRA GRANT

New Year’s Resolutions are fraught with peril…can anyone really promise to do something for an entire year? Instead, let’s say I’ve decided to fulfill a long-standing wish to broaden my connections to other writers I admire. And so, voila!  Between the Lines: Interviews with Authors.

Let’s face it; writers are a solitary lot. It takes a lot of “alone time” to create a novel, socializing is something we usually do after the deadline has been met – if at all. BTL is an attempt to break out, make some new friends and introduce you to some writers whose work is worth checking out.

First up for 2015 and known, according to her Goodreads profile to keep a machete under her bed, is Mira Grant, also known as Seanan McGuire. I discovered Mira and her Newsflesh Trilogy, which combines several things I like in a story: zombies, politics, blogging, and a kick-ass female protagonist. What’s not to like about a woman who can outride a mob of the undead on a dirt bike? Her attention to detail and scene setup of a Bay Area (and world) ravaged by a deadly virus was truly riveting.

Seanan is a prolific writer, with many titles and accolades to her name. Which makes her agreeing to take time out to answer our questions for BTL all the more gratifying! Thanks again Seanan for helping us kick-off the column.

Mira

 

1. As a woman in a male-dominated genre, what lessons have you learned and what advice do you pass on to other women in the genre?

You have to remember that this isn’t a zero-sum game—your success is not my failure, and vice versa.  You have to keep from turning bitter when men are rewarded for things that will get you criticized.  And most of all, you have to be kind.  I don’t ask people to be nice.  Nice is often artificial.  But you have to, have to be kind.

2. In your Symbiont, Dr. Cale reminds me of the scientist, Delia Surridge, from V for Vendetta and fans of Feed have drawn parallels to Walking Dead; how do graphic novels inform your personal writing style? 

They don’t, really.  I write comics, with my first title—The Best Thing—coming from Thrillbent later this year, but I don’t read comics and think “oh, this needs to be in my novel.”  They’re very different mediums.

3. What are your favorite comics/graphic novels?

I’m really into The Wicked & The Divine, and I adore all things X-Men. I am an unrepentant Marvel girl.

4. In a Reddit AMA from 2013, you say about the characters of Parasite, “I just wrote the people I know.” How do the real people in your life inform and inspire your fictional characters? Who/what helped inspire Sal?

I was referring to the diversity of my casts, not the specific characters.  None of my protagonists are based on anyone else.  They are fictional constructs.

5. Do you have a favorite fictional female character? What would a conversation between her and Sal look like?

Yes, I do, and it would be very awkward.  Sal doesn’t do small talk with strangers.

6. Which authors did you read growing up? What about their stories appealed to you?

Everything.  I read the Pleasant Hill California library’s fiction section.  I read everything.  And what appealed to me was that they were books.  I mean, there were authors I sought out more than others, but honestly, I didn’t learn to have discriminating tastes until I was in my late twenties.  I just wanted to read.

7. You have several albums out and have won awards for your songwriting. How is writing music different than writing a novel?

Length…?  Also, I don’t usually set my novels to music.

8. You’ve mentioned in other interviews that among your favorite places are Disneyland and haunted houses. If you had a choice, which one would your teenage-self prefer to work at and why?

Neither.  My teenage self, given a choice, would stay home and play Mage: The Ascension with her friends, and watch a lot of anime and horror movies.  My teenage self was not into crowds.  Neither is my adult self, honestly.

9. Both of us have found time to work professionally and be an author. What challenges have come from trying to do both and how did you overcome them?

I overcame the challenges—exhaustion, illness, lack of personal time—by quitting my day job the second it was feasible, and never looking back.  I needed to sleep.

10. What is the goriest, nastiest, most repulsive thing you’ve ever seen in person?

I signed a bunch of NDAs that sadly mean I cannot tell you.

 

If you haven’t had a chance, add the following Mira Grant to your Goodreads To-Read shelf and drop me a line to share your thoughts! Stay tuned for our next post when we get in touch with San Francisco’s prominent crime novelist and mastermind behind the Miranda Corbie Series, Kelli Stanley.

The Newsflesh Trilogy:

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The Parasitology Series:

Parasite

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For more Seanan, visit her website at www.seananmcguire.com.

Josef, Part Deux,

Posted on January 12, 2015

 

Wine comes in at the mouth

And love comes in at the eye;

That’s all we shall know for truth

Before we grow old and die.

I lift the glass to my mouth,

I look at you, and I sigh

                        W.B. Yeats

 

Happy New Year.  I thought we would kick off 2015 with a discussion about what happens when you love the wrong person.

Or, maybe fall in love at the wrong time? Since the dawn of time, creative works have cataloged this thorny subject… Stolen glances, inappropriate thoughts. Usually it ends in ruin, particularly for the women. (See Anna Karenina…)

Strange bedfellows made its way into our vernacular for a reason, and just like our rubbernecking on a freeway at a car crash, we can’t help but watch – errr read – with fascination when a couple that shouldn’t be together, is. Doomed relationships can take many plot twists and turns: their love can burn down the house and the neighborhood, leaving a smoldering heap of ruined lives and regrets. Or, they can end up as two sides of a coin, opposites that have a connection and gain understanding.

Which brings us to Olivia and Josef and their time in Belgrade in Dark Horse. Josef is the brother of Olivia’s lover William. And by that I mean, blood brother as Josef and William share the same vampire maker/father.

In some ways, I like Josef more than William, whose voice was the strongest in my head for a long while – his morality so clear-cut and defined. Eventually, though, Josef came to me, and once he arrived, as is the case in the books, you can hardly take your eyes off of him. Dark, brooding, and angry, you watch him at first out of concern for your own safety, then later out of curiosity, and then later still, when it’s just a glance out of the corner of your eye, because you cannot help yourself. He’s under your skin before you know it.

For Olivia he’s an unwelcome attraction, a test of her loyalty at a time when her whole life is in upheaval. He’s also a voice of conscience that hasn’t the patience or the motivation to baby her as she learns of her heritage and the powers that accompany it.

But loyalty is at the heart of all of this. A Jewish resistance fighter, left for dead after being mortally wounded, Josef’s exposure to the barbarity of the Nazis shapes his outlook as an immortal being. Later, when they are thrown together in Serbia, Olivia learns the story of his life, about the betrayal that leads to the loss of his wife and daughter, and comes to understand his motivations.

Olivia is also grieving over her own sense of loss and betrayal. The two poke at one another to nurse their grievances, until finally the intensity of their animosity and attraction is too great to endure. Or maybe it was their attraction all along that caused such an acute reaction between them, but whatever the spark, they share a long night with one another. And when it’s over, they form a bond of friendship that is very different than anything Olivia has known or will know.

By the end of Dark Horse, theirs is a love of great regret, but also great joy. Comrades and knowing friends, they help one another get back on course. She helps him recover the ghosts of his past and remember without pain the people who loved him. And Josef? He tries to help Olivia learn to forgive William for the choices he’s made to protect her and The Council.

It’s safe to say her efforts work better than his, but this story isn’t over just yet. So did they love the wrong people, or just fall in love at the wrong time?

I’ll let you be the judge of that. Drop me a line, and let me know what you think.

Conjuring up Jewish Vampires

Posted on December 8, 2014

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Years ago when I visited Hungary, I stood gazing across the Danube River on the “Buda” side of Budapest from a spot where Hitler once ordered the deportation of Jews to concentration camps.

I didn’t make the connection until I toured a Jewish temple several days later and saw a photo of Budapest’s Mayor welcoming Hitler – displayed on a wall in their small museum. I often revisit the moment when I stepped foot onto the very place where Hitler signed the order to have thousands of people – possibly distant relatives- exterminated, and I ordered a cocktail. It was a bar after all, or at least it was when I visited in 2002.

Later, making my way through charming tourist villages, I came across countless plaques commemorating villages once full of hundreds of Jews. But that was the history of that place before World War Two, before the Nazis tore those men, women and children from their homes and ultimately saw their ashes scattered across the fields of Europe. It is one of the great absurdities of traveling through the region. Everywhere you walk, the dead of many wars, both great and feudal, are beneath your feet.

The truth is, you can never quite reconcile that information. At least I couldn’t and I think that is how Josef was born. Who’s ever heard of a Jewish Vampire? I hadn’t, but he came to be nevertheless. He arrived in my imagination, a product of that murderous chaos, a member of the resistance killed by the Germans and saved by a vampire who gives him immortality.

For Josef, the time he’s gained on our planet as an immortal being is marred by memories of betrayal and loss. He’s lost his faith in God, having watched his family wiped off the face of the earth. Here’s how the scene plays out in the book. Josef and Olivia are having drinks inside the Hotel Moscow, in Belgrade, trying to escape the cold. 

“Who were those people?” I asked again. “Did you know them?”

“‘And thou shalt write them upon the door-posts of thy house, and upon thy gates,’” Josef said. “Do you know what that’s from?”

“The Old Testament?” I guessed.

“It’s a commandment from God to follow his teachings and place a mezuzah—a small talisman with a tiny paper prayer scroll inside— on the door of your home,” Josef said. “We had an old wooden mezuzah on the door of my home in Prague, where I lived with my wife and daughter. The first thing the Nazis did when they came looking for me was to rip it from the wall. They collected them, you see. Along with other artifacts.”

“Where were your wife and daughter when they came?”

“They’d already left for the country,” he said. “I’d sent them there to be safe.”

“And were they?”

Josef downed his vodka and poured another, drinking that, too. “No. The Nazis killed everyone in the village, to punish those in the Resistance. An informer, you see, told them the town was full of sympathizers. They shot them all, every last man, woman, and child, and then burned their homes. My wife and her entire family perished. I never saw them again.”

“That woman and her daughter, tonight . . . did they remind you?”

“This part of the world is drenched in blood. You can’t help but remember,” he said.

“So you’re a Jewish vampire,” I said. “I can’t recall ever meeting one before.”

Josef laughed. “You’d never met any vampires until a few months ago,” he said.

Because circumstances send Josef back to Eastern Europe – to the scene of the crime so to speak – he’s forced to confront his past. Olivia is, of course, responsible for this. She pushes Josef to reveal his secrets, and remarkably it heals him, sort of. He can finally visit the dead safely and remember what he loved about the people who’ve left him. That’s Olivia’s gift to Josef, one of many intimacies they share in Dark Horse.

Josef is also a release for me. One of the truths about the Holocaust that I hate knowing is how many Jews failed to grasp the danger that was coming. Josef represents a desire in me to create a character committed to self-defense and protection. It may also be why Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Bastards appeals to me, however over the top. It’s a lovely fantasy to see the Nazi’s on the run, afraid for their safety. It’s a good piece of fiction, not unlike Josef, the Jewish vampire who teaches self-defense out of a fencing studio in the Mission District of San Francisco.

 

 

Spitting in the Wind

Posted on December 4, 2014

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The other night I had the great misfortune to turn on my television and land smack dab in the middle of a scene from a movie entitled I Spit on Your Grave (1970). This was not a porn channel; this was some run-of-the-mill cable station playing a scene of a woman being gang raped in the mud of some southern bog hellhole. I was able to turn off the TV, but not my brain.

What the hell was that?

It turns out that the movie is one of three – count them, three films in the series. There was an original version from the 1970’s and then a 2010 remake, and then a sequel in 2013. I didn’t watch them mind you; I read the synopsis on IMDb. The best part? They’re billed as a sort of feminist revenge movie, because after escaping, the victims return with a vengeance to knock off their attackers, using methods equally as degrading.

What the hell?

It’s difficult to decide what is more upsetting: that these movies found financing, did well enough to support a sequel, or that there are people in the world who find this kind of fiction entertaining. Because that is what it is: a horrendous fiction imposed on us by some male scriptwriter whose assignment was to develop a script featuring a group of undereducated, unemployed greasy losers that humiliate and violate a successful woman, and then later after she’s lived in the forest like a wild animal, she can cut off their penises, cackling like some mad, broken soul. Wow folks, that’s feminism at work.

And we know this is fiction, because in the real world, when a woman tries to stand up against sexual harassment and brutality she is often, simply, murdered.

That is what happened to Tuğçe Albayrak, who died on Nov. 28 from injuries she received when she was attacked in the parking lot of a McDonald’s in western Germany. According to a story in The Guardian, she was hit with either a bat or a stone, fell backwards and hit her head on the ground. And why was she attacked? Because she had the audacity to intervene and help two teenage girls that were being harassed by a group of men – men who, later, sought her out and bashed her head in. I should really say boy: the police arrested an 18-year-old.

I’m no social scientist, but I can’t help but think this is not a coincidence. We have created a gigantic mass media machine that makes entertainment out of sexually exploiting and torturing women. Men write scripts that feature women being raped, male entertainers threaten to rape women who criticize them, and college-age athletes rape women on school campuses with impunity, as long as they score a touchdown in the next big game. This we know to be fact. The fiction, of course, is that women love it, that we ask for it, that we do something to bring it upon ourselves.

Really, on some days it feels like those of us who want to change things are just spitting in the wind…

How to Choose A Villain

Posted on November 20, 2014

It was in my first novel, which has never been published or really seen the light of day, that I first experimented with the idea of a Balkan criminal. To some it may seem disrespectful; but it’s actually quite the opposite.

This may reveal something about me, I’ll regret sharing later, but I’m enthralled with Eastern European criminals. For some it might be southern cowboys, or inner city rap bad boys or maybe even law enforcement officers gone rogue. None of them holds a candle to a Russian mobster or a member of the Serbia mafia.

Without minimizing the violence and destruction, there is an artful brutality to their work. An undeniable ingenuity… they seem immune to some of the more human emotions, perhaps because of the environment they’ve come from. They don’t play by the rules and they’re always on the grift, which are traits writers appreciate.

The Serbia mafia, energized by the black market economy of the Balkan War is particularly interesting, having given birth to the Pink Panther Gangone of the world’s most daring jewelry theft rings. In fact, it was an Interpol alert about the thieves that sparked my imagination and partially gave rise to Nikola.

Why him? I already had Stoner Halbert, a man on the skids who makes a deal with the devil to save his career. He would have been a big enough job for Olivia, but I wanted to her to have to work harder and, of course, I was plotting a trilogy, so we needed to find something for her to do in the middle installment.

Anyone who has read Dracula, the original, fabulous story of a vampire coming to the new world, should have noticed the threads of nationalism that pulse through the book. In the novel, Dracula makes mention of his ancient bloodlines and his warrior heritage. Dracula is connected to the rise of the Ottoman Empire, the barbarism of the wars and what it did to men. These themes resonated with me as I began to research the history of the Balkans and its connection to the occult. Books like the Tigers Wife, by Téa Obreht, further sparked my interest in Balkan mysticism.

And that is how Nikola, the tall, dark and menacing vampire enemy of Olivia was born. He is a mélange of nationalism, entrepreneurial spirit and supernatural evil. To be a master criminal and immortal is sort of like being able to read the cards at blackjack, what can’t you do?

When Nikola first meets Olivia he sees her as trivial. She inadvertently sets off an investigation into his activities, but he never really believes she has the capacity to destroy him. That’s how the title, Dark Horse, came to be. No one ever sees Olivia coming; she is underestimated at every turn. In the end, Nikola is almost hesitant to harm her, in awe of her tenacity and bravery– perhaps in the same way that Dracula was drawn to Mina and her beauty and courage.

But, you’ll have to read Dark Horse to see how it all turns out.

The Ghosts of Serbia

Posted on November 18, 2014

People often ask me, why Serbia? Why include such a remote, unfamiliar place in your novel? Why make one of the main characters Serbian? I can only tell you that if you knew the countries that make up what was once Yugoslavia, then you’d understand…

Serbia and its neighbors are a land beyond the imagination of most people. A far off place that populates the now paper-thin international news sections of major dailies, it’s best known because of the Balkan wars of the late 1990’s, where ethnic hatreds long hibernating in the dark cave of communism erupted after the death of Josef Broz Tito.

But long before that, writers and historians recognized the power of the place. Rebecca West wrote Black Lamb, Grey Falcon in 1941, revealing her own fascination with the area, just before World War II. Her attraction is not surprising; the region is steeped in drama, its ethnic tensions playing a role in both European wars. Prior to that it was the chessboard of the Hapsburg and Ottoman Empires, the land around Belgrade’s military fortress steeped in the blood of countless battles between East and West.

All of this is to say that the place interests me; it did long before I visited Croatia’s stunning seacoast in 2004 and walked the ancient walls of Dubrovnik marveling at the sun’s dusk-hewed rays against thousand year-old terra cotta tiles that, in some cases, had been recently replaced after their war with Serbia. It’s a memory I modified in the opening of Dark Horse:

The ancient city, founded sometime in the seventh century, lay inside an enormous stone wallLeaning over the massive stone ramparts, we’d gotten a glimpse of what it must have been like to gaze out to sea a thousand years ago, searching for invaders.

It was during that visit, my curiosity was pricked by the proximity of Serbia, the epicenter of a war that had profound effects on the region. It stayed with me…

By the time my family I arrived to stay in our rental apartment in Belgrade in the winter of 2012, I’d read so many books, and travel articles that I felt I knew the place. But I was mistaken. My imagination failed to capture the odd tensions of a city and a country, still mulling its destiny. A place that seemed simultaneously foreign and familiar, alluring and alarming, depending on the block. Corrupt taxi drivers dropped us at chic restaurants, where young chefs were serving farm-to-table meals that any Bay Area resident would recognize. And then down the street, riding on one of their old wooden street cars we passed the remains of a building bombed by NATO a decade ago. Who leaves a building rotting in place like that? I tried to conjure up these reoccurring contrasts using Olivia’s eyes in Dark Horse’s passages:

We headed south from our hotel through Knez Mihailova, the city’s beautiful Old World pedestrian plaza. Past the fancy department stores and boutiques, the buildings began to look less elegant, and more like massive concrete bunkers. On the flight over, I’d read that the Germans had bombed Belgrade extensively during World War II, clearing the way for the Communists to rebuild the city with the worst in socialist architecture. The result was a cityscape that looked like whiteout conditions, where the eye could barely discern between the sky and the buildings. Still, I craned my neck to peek inside the small bars and restaurants we passed, trying to catch a glimpse of the places that anchored my temporary homeI swiped the card against an electronic reader and lurched forward toward a seat, my body rocking with the movements of the streetcar as it rolled along its tracks. I really didn’t care about the final destination, as long as I could sit quietly and let the vibration in the antique car’s wooden frame lull me into a trance. Gazing out the window at Soviet-era apartments, dish antennas protruding from their concrete sides, faded towels masking partially collapsed balconies, I tried to reconcile myself to the present.

Like Olivia, I didn’t stay in Serbia long enough to really grasp its essence. I did experience the biting cold of its winter, and the sensation of truly being in the east with a language and culture unrecognizable to my own. It’s a disconcerting feeling, to be so far from what you know and yet I can tell you I would go back in a minute, Serbia’s rich set of contradictions still calling to me.

New Orleans and its binding spell….

Posted on November 17, 2014

Walking through New Orleans last week, my mouth curled up into a little smirk. One stroll down Esplanade Ave, it’s lush trees and vines glowing in the pale light of an autumn moon, and I understood why so many writers called this place home, or want to. The city is a wanton creature, sultry and knowing, a mystery tucked around every corner.  To walk its streets and learn its history is to learn the story of our country, from the Louisiana Purchase to the end of slavery and the Civil War.

One minute you’re in your hotel, the next on Bourbon Street watching tourists drink themselves into oblivion. There is no last call in New Orleans and I can imagine a few of the folks I saw – their gigantic Mardi Gras beads swinging around their neck as they hurled themselves through the gauntlet of topless bars and watering holes – waking up feeling close to death.

Fortunately, you don’t have to move too far off Bourbon to find the real French Quarter, less flash and more homegrown art and music.  Suddenly you’re walking behind a marching band waving your hands and just like that, the city has stolen your soul.

Speaking of death and souls, one has to move gingerly through New Orleans’s cemeteries with their uneven surfaces, resurrection ferns and graveside offerings. If you’ve never lived below sea level, the harshness of their burial rituals is breathtaking – tossed out of a casket and stuffed down into the crypt a year and a day after your burial.  The place feels fuller, one hundred years of family matter commingling with the earth. I can almost see the proverbial bell that was allegedly tied to the corpse’s toe to ensure they weren’t buried prematurely. One guide told me that many people were saved by the bell, only to be stabbed through the heart mere seconds later–suspected of being vampires, not comatose yellow fever victims.

Riding on the old St. Charles Street Car, listening to the engine’s compressor cough and sputter while idled at the stoplights, I marveled at the grand antebellum homes in the Garden District, so different from their more compact Spanish-built neighbors inside the French Quarter.  Bloodlines mattered here way back when, and if you listen closely you can almost hear the voices of the dead whispering to us to remember their stories.

I came to New Orleans to find a voodoo priestess. Not the kind conjured up in Hollywood movies that spits rum and fire and puts snakes in people’s beds. I was looking for the real thing, someone who practices Voodoo as a religion and could tell me more about how it’s all done. Not to be confused with Hoodoo, which is an altogether different, but, related kind of magic. I wasn’t disappointed, as I left my offerings upon the alters of the Loa, the spirits Voodoo adherents pray to as a part of their observance. There is something very beautiful about leaving tributes to the dead – it’s not a new concept of course – but Voodoo brings it to life through its bottle of rum, coins, cigarettes and flowers, left to honor those spirits who would keep us from harm.

My interest in Voodoo is based on a feeling that Olivia, the heroine in my Dark Horse Trilogy will need the help of more than one ally and mentor to win the battle with her original nemesis, Stoner Halbert – a man who has sold his soul to the devil in exchange for great power and glory.  What does it take to beat a great evil like that? In Ursula Le Guin’s stunning A Wizard of Earthsea series, she opines about the fact that a “true wizard only usesspells at need, since to summon up such earthly forces is to change the earth of which they are a part.”

In other words, each action triggers a reaction – to harbor great evil to one place will have consequences. I like this idea of balance and proportion. There is also a bit of humility built in her story, in all folktales really, of knowing what to use your power for and that is something that Voodoo has in spades. Be careful what you ask for, the saying goes, because you just might get it. Marie Laveau, the great Voodoo Queen of New Orleans is said to have granted a number of people their deepest desires to their everlasting consternation. Balance and proportion, dark and light, good and evil, these are the concepts I’m trying to reconcile as I work on book three in Olivia’s trilogy.

It should be very exciting.

 

Dark Horse: the music & the concept

Posted on November 7, 2014

I’m not talking about Katy Perry; I actually didn’t know anything about her song when I started writing Dark Horse. My eleven-year-old daughter introduced me to it, proclaiming me “cool” for having come up with idea first. Not sure I can make that claimbut the concept of a Dark Horse has been rolling around at the back of my head for sometime.

A dark horse is the long shot, the one you didn’t see coming. Olivia is the threat Nikola, her thousand-year-old nemesis, never saw coming because he assumes she’s trivial. It’s the overarching theme of my work: that women are often the dark horse—no one sees their power until later, if at all.

Not too jump too far ahead, but in book III (name pending) Olivia will be on the team chosen to elect a woman to be president—and calling on the dark arts to do it! In my estimation, electing a women president in the United States is a long shot, a tough sell, fraught with sexual politics, so the whole idea is a bit of a dark horse . . . You see, it’s a notion I can’t quite dispose of yet.

But back to music, I can’t write without music. Well of course, I could, but it wouldn’t be the same. The catch here is that I don’t actually listen to music while I write. I tune in at other times.

The elliptical machine, for example, is actually a great place for inspiration. Often its long walks in Golden Gate Park in the fog and the mist, my iPhone fully charged and connected to Spotify. I often create playlists for my work to inspire me. In this case, the music for this book centered around Josef, who is in many ways is the character I love the most (more about him later). His music is mournful and contemplative…I’ve posted the playlist below. Do any of these songs show up on your playlists? If so, I’d love to hear from you.

Josef’s Playlist

Crowded House – Fall At Your Feet
James Blunt – Cry
Split Enz – I Got You
The Psychedelic Furs – Here Come Cowboys
The Rolling Stones – Gimme Shelter
The Rolling Stones – Stray Cat Blues
Split Enz – Dirty Creature
Aimee Mann – Lost In Space
Aimee Mann – Looking for Nothing
George Harrison – Isn’t It a Pity (Demo Version)
The Killers – Losing Touch
The London Suede – Hit Me
Bryan Ferry – Me Oh My
David Sylvian – Wanderlust
Japan – Obscure Alternatives
Peter Murphy – All Night Long
Queens Of The Stone Age – The Vampyre Of Time And Memory
James Blunt – Bonfire Heart
The Goo Goo Dolls – Slide
The Goo Goo Dolls – Come To Me
Ellie Goulding – Guns And Horses
The Devil Makes Three – Old Number Seven
Aimee Mann – Lost In Space
Bryan Ferry – Me Oh My
Aimee Mann – Deathly
Stone Sour – Wicked Game
Jet – Look What You’ve Done
Crowded House – Fall At Your Feet
Crowded House – Distant Sun
Crowded House – Hole In The River
Aimee Mann – Looking for Nothing

Flesh and Bone

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