Go West

Posted: July 28, 2015 in Uncategorized

DavieVillage-1I’m writing this blog entry at the airport while I wait for my flight to Vancouver.  A flight to Ottawa is missing three people, and the intercom messages about this grow increasingly more frantic.  Having only missed a flight once (due to my own stupidity), I’ve always wondered what it would sound like to hear my own name echoing through the airport.  These last call messages always seem plaintive when I hear them, as if the person is about to miss the chance of a lifetime, rather than a local flight to Saskatoon.  My cat, Guinevere (who also goes by Kitten and Peggy) is in the carrier next to me, possibly asleep, possibly planning an escape.  Hard to believe that it’s been nearly six years since her last flight.  I worried about having to remove her from the carrier at security, since it had taken a lot of subterfuge just to get her into the carrier in the first place.  When I was “randomly selected” for a security scan while holding a confused and angry cat in my arms, I sighed loudly.  I couldn’t help it.  The security agent let me put her back in the carrier, which seemed like an obvious precursor to the scan, though I hadn’t considered it–my fear was that I’d have to continue to hold on to the cat while a stranger swabbed my waistline.  One of the things that always strikes me when I’m at an airport is the general goodwill of the employees.  When I’m trapped in line, I get irrationally angry.  How can this be happening to me?  But every interaction tends to go smoothly, in spite of the needless frustration that keeps building.  I realize that I’m just a creature of habit, and this is a disruption of routine.  I want to be able to check in directly from my living room.

My year-long sabbatical began last month, but it feels as if it’s really starting now.  Booking a one-way flight to Vancouver was peculiar, almost dreamlike.  How often do we book one-way flights?  I kept thinking:  Wow.  This is a new menu.  With different times and flights.  A secret menu, even!  If there was any doubt that I’d grown up playing video games.  A friend recently told me to jettison my guilt over leaving for a year.  It’s okay not to work every second.  I’ll try to remember this.  For the first time in years, I also switched off the email alerts on my phone.  I slid the dial to “off,” then gave the phone a smug look.  It’s okay not to keep in hysterical contact with everyone and everything.  As I called various utilities to cancel accounts, I thought about how few forces actually hold us to a place where we’ve lived for years.  Electricity, cable, phone lines.  You can sever them all in about an hour, and nobody asks:  “Are you sure?”  Nobody queries you like Netflix, wondering if you’ve been sitting in one spot for too long.  The Sasktel agent said:  “We’ll miss you!”  It was unexpectedly kind, even if it might have been scripted.  “Me too,” I blurted out, though I wasn’t even sure what I meant.

The flight boards in 20 minutes.  Odd to think that you can fill two suitcases and step into the past.  Back to the West End of Vancouver, a few blocks from where I used to live in 2004.  Back to the rain, and the exquisite pleasure of seeing my parents emerge from the car, smiling.  Even back to my old university, where my privileges have not yet expired.

Eighteenth-Century Party

Posted: July 10, 2015 in Uncategorized

mollyCSECS (the Canadian Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies) is having its annual meeting in Vancouver this year, October 15-17, and I’ll be there.  The conference is being held at the Coast Plaza Hotel (in the heart of the West End, so if your paper bombs, you can always go to the beach afterwards).  I’m chairing an early morning panel (come on out, morning people!) on Friday, October 17:  “Taboo Subjects.”  We’ll be talking about incest, venereal disease, and tragedy:  a fantastic way to start your morning.  On the same day, at 1:30, I’ll be presenting on a panel called “The Work of Humour.”  I’m giving a paper on slang and molly culture in the eighteenth century (the mollies were male cross-dressers who formed the first gay bar culture in London–if you’re interested, historian Rictor Norton has much to say about this phenomenon here).  We’ll also discuss Strawberry Hill, the Gothic fantasy castle built by Horace Walpole, and Byron’s “queer humor” in Don Juan.

Looking forward to reconnecting with CSECS folks in my old neighborhood.  As a conference, CSECS is one of the best.  Everyone is extraordinarily welcoming (though not necessarily well-behaved).  You get to listen to respected scholars talking about venereal disease, scatalogical humor, and weird sex in the eighteenth century.  I mean, yes, there are also people taking about heroic couplets and the history of the novel, which is great, but…I’m really in it for the weird sex stuff.  The eighteenth century is one of the most vibrant and least understood periods of English literary and cultural history.  Students often avoid it, because they take one look at Richardson’s Clarissa and think:  no way.  But there’s more to this period than Richardson being a jerk.  I often use Eliza Haywood’s Fantomina as bait, and students are nearly always drawn in to this spicy narrative of disguise which also manages to address the complexities of being female.  I present the poetic duel between Jonathan Swift and Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (spoiler alert:  she wins) as an epic poetry slam battle of the sexes, and when students see it as a lively and living debate, they quickly become engaged by the wit (and the stakes).

Also, we apologize in advance for taking over the bars and talking loudly about the Earl of Rochester.  No we don’t.

Prize of Night

Posted: July 1, 2015 in Uncategorized

ponPrize of Night, the third and final book in the Parallel Parks Series, is now available for purchase.  It shakes things up, and there are a few turns that surprised even me (you don’t always know what’s going to happen until you write it, in spite of careful outlines).  Some things are also left up to the reader, since it was never my intention to tie up everything neatly.  I’d definitely write about this world again, but for now, the trilogy is complete.  One of the things I enjoyed most about writing this series was balancing the action between four characters who share equal “screen time.”  Over the course of three books, I had the chance to really peer at these characters, to examine their faults and their sometimes unexpected resiliencies.  I also learned to let go when I had to.  Initially, the series was supposed to explore a relatively neutral character’s transition from ally to villain.  I wanted to see what that process would feel like, and how the ally/villain dichotomy is a false one.  In the end, though, it was primarily about a group of friends with crossing professional and romantic lines, who are trying to puzzle out the role of fantasy in their lives.  Is it always the right decision to jump down the rabbit hole?  Increasingly, I found myself asking why someone might choose to live in an imaginary world, and what that decision would mean.  It was a uniquely personal question, as well as a pedagogical one that I often ask my creative writing students:  why do we choose one world over another?

Here are five things about the series that most people don’t know:

1.  In the first draft, the character of Fel/Ingrid was a man.  But then I started reading about the historical possibility of female gladiators, and somewhere along the line, she became a single mother (probably no coincidence that my own mother has always had an interest in medieval warriors).

2.  Ingrid’s son Neil is based on a real boy, and most of his dialogue is taken nearly verbatim from conversations that we’ve had (or that I’ve overheard).  Getting to know him over the past 5 years has been one of the great blessings of my life.

3.  “Basilissa” is an actual term that refers to a Byzantine Empress.  Basilissa Latona is based on Empress Theodora (a former actress whose strong personality helped to put down a revolt), as well as Empress Irene, who was embroiled in a political controversy over religious icons.

4.  The system of magic (involving elemental beings with competing claims to the environment) comes from the writing of Paracelsus, an early modern philosopher/mystic.

5.  Plains University is a composite of every post-secondary institution that I’ve attended since the 1990s.  It’s a fictionalized construct.  Maybe.

Little Gods

Posted: June 7, 2015 in Uncategorized

lar3The book that I’m working on currently began seven years ago, and thinking about its origin has the odd feeling of reflecting on a stranger’s work. I was living in Montréal at the time, working on a doomed article about Leslie Marmon Silko’s epic novel, Almanac of the Dead. I was reading the Popol Vuh and other Mayan spiritual texts, and came across a number of fascinating demigods. My favorite was Crunching Jaguar, whose name is a pure representation of his purpose. At the same time, I was reading the Norse Poetic Edda, with its proliferation of Norns, giants, and trash-talking squirrels. I can’t remember why I was reading both. I remember the balcony on which I did most of this reading, with its wrought-iron esclalier, and the cat nicknamed Grisi who would rub against my ankles. But the purpose for combining these mythologies now eludes me. Somewhere between Heimdall, guardian of the rainbow bridge (who could hear grass growing), and Crunching Jaguar, I decided to write a fantasy novel about conflicting mythologies in a contemporary setting. The goal was to focus on lesser-known gods who were marginal to their own myth cycles. I was particularly taken by the character of Hod or Hoðr, Baldr’s blind sibling, who kills his more significant brother by accident. His story was haunting and incomplete.

The manuscript was not a success. My agent kindly told me that it was missing something, which usually means knock some sense into this. The problem is that I’ve always been better at spinning new stories than repairing broken ones. Instead of distilling the useful essence of the first manuscript, I produced an entirely new one, along the same thematic lines. The response was more or less the same. It felt as if the story that I really wanted to tell was just out of reach. I’d catch a glimpse of it, some scrap of the pattern, but it was never enough. So I put both manuscripts aside, then went back to work on the book that was actually contracted (at the time, it was Inhuman Resources). Back then, I rolled my eyes at the thought of taking years to write a book. The genre fiction industry works on tight deadlines, and there isn’t a lot of time to re-write, or tease out a pesky idea. The space of play involved in writing is always at odds with the reality of the deadline. But some ideas come to us before we’re ready, and mature as they’re ignored. Sometimes we keep chipping away at them without even realizing it. When I was working on the Parallel Parks series, I became interested in the lares, which were Roman household gods. Eve Sedgwick describes them as “queer little gods” whose exact nature is “ontologically intermediate.” They can be tutelary, demonic, resentful. Near the end, I realized that I was still puzzling over those marginal myths.

With this new project, I’m trying to do things differently. I’ve always written about Canadian urban spaces, but this time, I’m setting the action in a small town whose precise location remains cryptic. I grew up in a relatively small town (I say relatively because living in Saskatchewan for the past five years has taught me to think about population density in new ways). I spent a number of years living in huge cities, and the thought of moving back to a small town was unnerving to say the least. But small towns have their own spells to cast, and I find that I actually rather enjoy writing about a close-knit community. There’s more opportunity to discuss emotional ties, and to explore both stories and relationships that are intertwined. When I visit the town where I grew up, I’m always startled by how much it means to me, how what changes (and what stubbornly persists) can be read among the buildings and neighborhoods. There are things you can’t escape in a small town, and things that you shouldn’t. I feel like I’ve reached a point where I can talk about that experience with some comfortable distance. There’s a sweet repetition to life in a small town that echoes the rhythm of storytelling itself.

For the first time, I’m also writing about a creative writing class. If popular culture is any measure to go by, the creative writing class is a deeply mysterious space. In a recent episode of Girls, the character Hannah Horvath solemnly gives trigger warnings about her own creative piece, which is actually a passive-aggressive work of nonfiction. Earlier this year, Ryan Boudinot’s piece in The Stranger on the “truth” about MFA programs led to a circular discussion about the value of creative degrees. Boudinot is stark (yet far from alone) in his claim that “writers are born with talent,” and uses child abuse as a metaphor to criticize his students’ “inability to stick with the same verb tense.” I’m quoting the most unsettling bits of the article, but beneath the hyperbole and contempt, there’s a genuine critique of the MFA program as an endeavor. Many universities are lifting the caps on their creative writing classes in order to increase enrolment while sacrificing quality. At the same time, students who dream of being professional writers aren’t always willing to put in the necessary work–a combination of editing, listening, and repetition that is anything but glamorous. Creative writing instructors can also find themselves in a rut, offering the same readings and exercises year after year, in spite of changing tastes and priorities among the student body. I’ll admit that I was a bit clueless when I first taught a creative writing class. I had my own experience of getting published to work with, and I could describe my own process, but I wasn’t sure how to convey this in a practical way. I didn’t realize how the group dynamic would work (or fail to work), how trust was a surprisingly important part of every discussion, or how to address creative work that was offensive, poorly-written, or both.

As I talked with more students about their own writing process, I found that we all had our queer little gods. Spirits that we called “inspiration” or “muse.” Particular spaces that worked for us. Times of day in which the writing seemed to flow. I often ask students to describe the spaces in which they work, and inevitably, the rooms are filled with artifacts that hold some kind of meaning. We even surround ourselves with books by our favorite writers, as if, like icons, they might impart something, or remind us of a scene or character that is absolutely magical. Sometimes pets can act as little gods of a sort, offering benevolence and comfort, reminding us to get up occasionally and interact with them. In that way, animals become a part of the story that we’re crafting, a daimonic influence that leaves invisible (sometimes) paw-marks all over the manuscript. The way that we talk about creative writing is quite similar to the way that we talk about spirituality–Annie Dillard talks about this at length in her own work–and the esoteric aspects are difficult to quantify in an article or report about the “state of MFA programs.” The very idea of being born with talent sounds a lot like medieval prophecy. I’ve found that, if anything, talent is the combined ability to choose the right details, and communicate them in a way that’s simultaneously familiar and unexpected. It doesn’t sound very romantic, and some of it may be instinct, but much of it comes from long hours of practice and experience. Comedians would distill this into a well-known equation: comedy = tragedy + time.

One of the best examples of a fictionalized creative writing classroom that I’ve encountered appears in Jincy Willett’s novel The Writing Class. Her instructor, Amy, is a writer who produced one startling book, and has been creatively blocked ever since. As an instructor, she’s excited by good writing, cognizant of its opposite, and somewhat long-suffering about the excuses and bullshit that many writers trade in. She takes it one class at a time, and throughout the novel, Willett describes many “writer types” with great accuracy, while remaining sympathetic to the people behind the writing. There’s the sensitive adult writer of children’s stories, the cocky action writer who casts himself as the hero in medical thrillers, and the quiet nonentity who does nothing special but has the focus and perseverance to be published. Willett breaks down each of these stereotypes, querying what “success” means in a space with such fuzzy boundaries.

gotHere’s a recent 5-star review of Mastering the Game of Thrones (edited with Dr. Susan Johnston) from pop culture critic Valerie Estelle Frankel:

“The collection of essays analyzing our favorite series is a great example of how deep you can go exploring your top shows…and the credits, fan art, language, screen angles, texts, and much much more.

The essays are creative and marvelous. David J. Peterson, creator of Dothraki, explains Martin’s vision of High Valyrian, like Latin, feeding the languages that followed it. While examining the problems with many fantasy languages, he tells the story of his creating Dothraki through the extensive, step-by-step process. This is a must for other creators of fictional languages and worlds.

Brian Cowlishaw’s “What Maesters Knew: Narrating Knowing” looks at the subtle controllers of Westeros and their careful plan to stamp out magic. Power/knowledge as a force can be wielded with great force to change the foundations of society when applied properly. Meanwhile, Marc Napolitano analyzes Martin’s book series from a structuralist and post-structuralist perspective, exploring the tension between narrative and discourse in the complex point of view – often the characters with the agency of narration are still the most helpless or unaware of others’ plans for them. Meanwhile, foreshadowing is cleverly dropped for the reader, but rarely in a way to aid any of the characters.

While many topics like chivalry have already been explored in other collections, Michail Zontos takes a unique angle and compares Game of Thrones to a Western with the savages deep in the wilderness and the lords of civilization venturing out, weapons blazing. In almost as large a leap, Jessica Walker compares Martin to Shakespeare – particularly the Henry and Richard plays – not only as retellings of Martin’s inspiration, the War of the Roses, but also as fictional interpretations of the actual events. “”All men must serve”: Religion and Free Will from the Seven to the Faceless Men” by Ryan Mitchell Wittingslow compares many belief systems but above all the issue of human choice – which religions truly free their people and which enslave them?

As Karin Gresham says it herself in “Cursed Womb, Bulging Thighs and Bald Scalp: George R.R. Martin’s Grotesque Queen”: “Bakhtin’s theory of grotesque realism provides an effective lens through which to consider how the depiction of Dany redefines the heroic, transforming her into a character who integrates and expands gender, culture, sexuality, and even humanity, who accepts and absorbs all sources of strength and power, so that she emerges as a likely candidate for the throne of Westeros.” Many fans have observed horrific descriptions of several female bodies, from the queen in the historic Dance of the Dragons to Circe. Here, however, Gresham highlights Daenerys as a figure of strength nonetheless.  Sex and the Citadel: Adapting Same Sex Desire from Martin’s Westeros to HBO’s Bedrooms by David C. Nel explores the differences of sexual depiction in books and show, while Andrew Howe’s “The Hand of the Artist” celebrates fan art in the world of online fandom. Including the contrasts between Dany art and Jon art. This serves to immortalize a perfect moment of fandom. Zoe Shacklock also tackles adaptation, in this case, the transmedia nature with online trailers and games as well as the famed credits.

This book has spoilers for everything…but the show’s just about caught up now, and those who want to read deep analysis have probably opened the books anyway. This collection had lots of insight, densely packed, with plenty of deep thought for the readers. To go deeper, or explore currents you’ve been missing, these essays are a huge help.”

A very generous review, and much appreciated.  Our aim with the collection was to produce something for a wide audience, including fans, writers, artists, gamers, students, and academics.  Dr. Johnston discusses the volume in this interview with the Regina Carillon.

The volume is also listed on Medieval Studies on Screen.


Posted: May 6, 2015 in Uncategorized

peggy-olson-entrance-mad-menAfter 3 years of working on a multi-perspective series, I’m now beginning work on a single-perspective, stand-alone novel.  This is the first time that I’ve really worked on a self-contained book.  Even as a teenager, I wrote manuscripts that were designed to burst into a glorious series.  Steeped in the work of David Eddings, Robert Jordan, and Mercedes Lackey, I craved stories that resisted closure, stories that could explore the arc of an inexhaustible world.  As a graduate student, I came to study series television (particularly shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Farscape), and this only fuelled my desire to write a beautifully mutating story that would occupy me for years, perhaps decades.

As a genre, fantasy tends to ignite when you place it in series form.  Umberto Eco has written about this as a kind of productive stasis, a celebration of “sameness” that nonetheless allows for delightfully nuanced adjustments.  The story changes as you tell it, distending, molten, but certain familiar marks remain the same.  With the proliferation of Netflix, I’d argue that the series has become our most recognizable and crucial form of storytelling, a steady ascendence that betrays its own history in shows like Penny Dreadful. Most fantasy writers craft stories in series.  Two notable exceptions are Neil Gaiman and Guy Gavriel Kay, who often write duets or stand-alones (take Kay’s Sarantine Mosaic as an example, or Gaiman’s American Gods/Anansi Boys, which actually have very little to do with each other as novels, in spite of being set in the same world).  Lev Grossman intended The Magicians to be a stand-alone work, and was surprised when his publisher asked for a sequel.  As it stands, writing a single novel in a genre focused on series-work is a gamble.

The success of George R.R. Martin’s work has produced a hunger for multi-perspective storytelling in an epic register, and telling the self-contained story of a single character has become an oddball thing to do.  Rather than complete immersion within an endlessly various world, you get a precise but temporary view into the mind of a single character.  Neither strategy is “better”–they both tell satisfying stories–but the limited perspective is sort of like moving in with someone.  You see them all the time, and their motivations become curious, even frustrating.  When I was working on the Occult Special Investigator series, I limited myself to Tess’s perspective, but she was always interacting with a broad cast of supporting characters.  This new book is about a triangular relationship between three friends, and the main character is in a situation that forces him to take stock, to analyze–there’s no escaping from his behaviour and its consequences.  This process has made me think about how we craft character, especially when you’re limited to one perspective.

The topic comes up often in my creative writing classes, and quickly, we find that our notions of a “strong character” tend to be contradictory. During the “Reinventing the Heroi(ine)” panel at C2E2, we talked about that infamous phrase, “strong female character.”  Charlaine Harris noted that female characters used to be confined to particular types, as if they were equations in need of balancing.  If they were strong (read:  willful), they also had to be mean.  If they were sensitive, they also had to be passive.  Male characters could be all of these things, so long as they saved the day.  As Gail Simone has stated, a female character’s strength derives not from brute physical force, but from being a full-spectrum human, neither wholly one thing nor another.  Red Sonja is physically strong, but she can also be empathetic, contradictory.  In the SF show Farscape, one of John Crichton’s most powerful qualities is his ability to cry (he jokingly tells his son that “Crichtons don’t cry…often,” while crying).  The problem remains that male heroes gain a kind of cultural cache when they demonstrate feelings, while female heroes are often criticized for being too masculine, or too feminine, based on a sliding scale of gender competency.

One of the most interesting things about a show like Orphan Black (aside from Tatiana Maslany’s breathtaking performance) is its refusal to present simply one type of female character.  We have the scientist experiencing a crisis of faith; the soccer-mom willing to kill to protect her family;  the businesswoman who resents how she’s been positioned; even an ostensible sister who turns out to be a trans man.  The show consistently reinforces the fact that there is no single heroine, no “default” femininity.  Rather than competing with each other, the women in the show form a community and work together–a surprisingly rare image on television. All of this is a long way of saying that, when you’re working with a single character, avoid reaching for “strong” archetypes.  It’s natural to contain multitudes.  What you want to know is:  what do they want and what do they fear?  Not always, but often, these drives run along the same path.  It’s impossible to know how a character will react in every situation, because they’re people, and they surprise you (just yesterday, a character veered left when he was supposed to veer right, and I raised an eyebrow, but then kept writing).  You also have to figure out what makes this character separate from you.

With a single perspective, there’s always the temptation to just start writing yourself into the story.  This actually requires a fair bit of vigilance, and it’s why I always recommend thinking about what makes this perspective different from your own.  It’s normal for your own concerns to bleed into the narrative, but whoever this person is, they still need to remain distinct.  Give them a quality that you don’t possess, a fear that doesn’t concern you, a desire that doesn’t eat at you.  Something that forces you into more abstract thinking, until you can imagine yourself riding the bus with them, studying them surreptitiously from your seat, as you pretend to listen to music. Since I’m currently re-reading American Gods, I’ve been thinking about that novel’s protagonist, Shadow.  His name alone might be cringe-worthy, but because you aren’t hit with some kind of etymological backstory early on (“they call me Shadow because of my swift blade”), it’s never distracting, just a mild point of curiosity.  He’s an ex-con, which gives him a perspective on America that’s under-represented in this kind of story.  We know that he isn’t white, but his ethnic background remains a mystery for most of the book–various people try to guess his ancestry, sometimes in earnest, sometimes to patronize him, but Shadow won’t talk about it.

He’s a physically imposing man, capable of violence, but that’s more a function of his body type than his psyche.  His ex-wife calls him “Puppy,” and when he ends up giving a ride to a teenage girl–in a scene that could go in several directions–all he does is talk about Herodotus.  Knowing these things doesn’t necessarily give you a read on who Shadow is, and that’s sort of the point.  He’s contradictory.  His appearance tells you nothing about his personality, and his history of incarceration is a highly specific one that says very little about who he might be.  Shadow works as a “framing” character, someone to digest events for the reader, because he’s often confused.  But he also has some hard-bitten life experience, and this gives him a certain flexibility as a protagonist. One of Gaiman’s strengths as a storyteller, in my opinion, has always been his ability to place ordinary characters in extraordinary circumstances which test their morality in complex ways.  With Shadow, he introduces a protagonist who refuses to be confined to a single story.  Judgments tend to slide off him.  As a male “hero,” he’s damaged.  When he displays physical desire, it tends to be quotidian rather than erotic (such as when he thinks about watching pornography on Pay-Per-View, then decides that he doesn’t really feel like watching other people have sex).  He isn’t “relatable” (a frustrating term), because his experiences are specific, but as readers we don’t mind traveling with him.  That may be the mark of a successful protagonist–a good companion on a road trip.  He doesn’t overwhelm the action, but he does react to it, sometimes in ways that we wouldn’t expect.

What I find compelling about Shadow is that he doesn’t have immediately obvious echoes in other characters that I’ve read about.  He isn’t the “hapless guy” thrown into a fantasy world, but neither is he the earnest champion.  Like Crichton, he cries, gets scared, makes the wrong decisions.  His physical strength is rarely an asset–he fails at being a bodyguard on a number of occasions. The first time I read American Gods, I was frustrated by what I saw as a lack of female characters.  It’s an epic book, and most of the interactions are between men.  But the second time around, I can see that Gaiman includes a number of intriguing women:  there’s Laura, who rescues Shadow more than once; Sam, a Native American teen, whose independent narrative crosses his without being subsumed; a trio of unearthly sisters who put him in his place; even Kali, who’s portrayed as a dignified older woman.  Some are feminine, some masculine, some immortal.  It would be a leap to call Shadow a feminist, but he does engage with each of these women respectfully.

This brings me back to our discussion at the C2E2 panel.  If you want to write a convincing protagonist, male or female, the point is to make them several things rather than just one.  Don’t base your female protagonist on a kickass heroine in an action film, unless she’s actually an interesting kickass heroine.  You don’t have to sacrifice empathy for strength, or vice versa.  Along the same lines, one of the truly magical things about books–rather than TV shows–is that books can accurately reflect various body types.  Shadow isn’t a chiselled male pinup:  he’s a big guy, perhaps gone a bit to seed, attractive to some but fairly unremarkable to most.  As much as I love Buffy, a strong/sensitive heroine does not have to look like her.  They can look like Deputy Molly Solverson from Fargo, Peggy Olson from Mad Men, Cookie Lyon from Empire.  In the end, we forget the heroes who weren’t dynamic or clever, but we remember the people who were more than puzzle pieces, whose flaws and desires called to our own. Maybe one day, I will fulfill my dream of writing a protagonist who resembles Julia Sugarbaker in every conceivable way.

C2E2: Day Two

Posted: April 26, 2015 in Uncategorized

c2e2-2015-poster-lgI had a lot of fun participating in the “Reinventing the Hero(ine)” panel today.  Having spent some time at the convention yesterday, I figured that I’d be less distracted.  But I forgot about the fact that Friday is a “slow” day, when people are still arriving.  Today was a little bit nuts.  The size of the crowd had increased exponentially by 10:30AM, when I got to the convention centre.  The lobby of the building was a riot of color, and the media was out in full force.  With all of the photography, it reminded me of The Oscars (if Nightcrawler and Deadpool were appearing on the red carpet).  I walked into the bathroom, and saw a number of people in various states of undress, assembling costumes that had themes and power sources.   Batman squinted in the mirror, struggling to replace his contacts.  The exhibition space was like Alan Moore’s Top Ten come to life, full of heroes, villains, and gods.  I saw Eros by the churro stand.  A sleeping toddler, nervelessly clutching a broadsword.  The most awe-inspiring thing of all was the line at Starbucks, which included two Flashes, a man with a hot air balloon, and a cluster of storm troopers.  A mother and daughter walked by carrying a giant cardboard Police Public Call Box.

“Dragons!  Get your dragons here!”  It was like being in Diagon Alley, where anything was available.  I got lost in a forest of graphic t-shirts, and before I knew it, the panel was nearly at hand.  While walking to the room, I saw a man dressed as Daredevil, complete with a collapsible cane.  Across the hallway, another man, actually blind, had his hand on the arm of a friend, who was describing the chaos around them.  I got to the panel with a bit of time to spare, and realized that I’d been seated next to Charlaine Harris, who was running late.  I assembled my books into a small structure, then quickly deconstructed it.  Act natural.  As if that had been an option all along.  Once the panel was assembled, we talked about heroines, the infamous “strong female character,” and diversity in popular culture.  The audience asked some great questions about representation, writing, and barriers to non-traditional storylines involving women.  Steve Bein and I were asked specifically how we wrote female characters, and I talked a bit about wanting to portray multiple perspectives, including a character who’s a single mother.  I mentioned Mercedes Lackey as a path-breaking writer, and this earned a whoop from the crowd.  Go Diana Tregarde!  Also, we have Barbara Hambly and Tanya Huff to thank for writing complex female characters in the fantasy genre before it was easy to do so.

As always, it’s a lovely experience to be on a panel with other writers, to see how they think and how they respond to questions about their work.  I felt very welcome, in spite of being a total newbie (this was my first convention).  After the discussion had concluded, we went to sign books.  This involved a fair bit of waiting behind a curtain, since they were a bit behind schedule.  It gave me the chance to attack a fruit tray, which nobody else was going for.  I learned from Lexie Dunne that you should always bring candy to a book-signing, and Lauren Roy talked about a previous convention, where she’d seen two Deadpools locked in a dance-off while a steampunk quartet played an eerie waltz.  Steve Bein mentioned how he used the idea of cheating in games to discuss ethical philosophy, which struck me as a really useful in-class exercise.  Charlaine Harris talked about the mythical green room, which contained more than one ill-tempered celebrity.  Everyone was warm and funny and humble.  As people approached Harris, a range of emotions would play across their faces:  joy, anxiety, determination, wonder.  You could see that these books had changed them.  Writing seemed, as it always had for us, to be a magic spell with limitless range.

After we parted, I thought:  Well, that was a completely new thing.  I couldn’t think of any previous activity that even came close to resembling C2E2.  I feel like I learned a lot on the fly.  Always bring a second granola bar.  Hit the exhibition on the day before the panels start.  Bring your own Sharpie (it’s the writer’s towel).

This was my second trip to Chicago, and I really enjoyed it.  With a bit of extra time, I was able to get a better sense of some of the city’s neighbourhoods, and I really liked the Belmont/North Broadway area (possibly because it’s the home of Unabridged Books).  I thought I’d missed the Vikings exhibit at the Field Museum, but managed to get an advance ticket for tomorrow morning.  So if I don’t board the plane, it’s Loki’s fault.