Perspective

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.

C2E2: Day One

Posted: April 25, 2015 in Uncategorized

IMG_20150424_123318Today I visited the convention space for the first time, in order to pick up my badge and explore a bit.  I was not disappointed.  The first surreal moment occurred as I was waiting for a cab.  The hotel bellman asked me where I was going, and when I said McCormick Place, he grinned and asked if I was heading to C2E2.  I mumbled something about being on a panel, and he was transcendentally excited for me (he said he’d be arriving tomorrow at 6:30 AM to pick up his tickets).  I was immediately cheered by his enthusiasm, which distracted me from the fact that I had no idea where McCormick place was, or how difficult it might be to navigate–I knew only that it contained four separate buildings, and I was going to the South Building.  Writers aren’t known for their sense of direction, so I hoped that there would be lots of colourful signage (and of course there was).

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The first thing that I saw was this sign, which convinced me that there was hope for humanity.  The space itself was coded as safe, with the kind of clear rules that you’d never see at an academic conference.  The sign even pays special attention to disability (again, something you’d never see at conferences, which are usually held at hotels with less than stellar accessibility).

 

IMG_20150424_134952I stood in line to pick up my speaker’s badge.  This was surreal moment number two, because the badge was registered under my pen-name, Bailey Cunningham.  It was the first time that I’d ever had to pick up tickets for an imaginary construct, and I feared that I might be asked to provide ID (“he’s me, honest, and I’m him, except that he’s not technically me…or maybe he’s like Borges’s other…never mind.”)  The employee at the desk assured me that this happens all the time.  I picked up the kickass badge, which features art from Seeley and Frison’s comic Revival.

While wandering around, I saw, in no particular hierarchy of awesomeness:

So many Lokis, male and female.

A predator who posed amiably for pictures.

A group whose costumes were a mash-up between Super Mario and Ghostbusters, complete with proton packs bearing Toad’s face.

Two characters from Assassin’s Creed (I think) trash-talking each other.

Two slick figures dressed like Daft Punk.

A mad scientist walking side-by-side with Rainbow Brite.

Favorite overheard bit of conversation:  “Oh look, dear, they have steamboat accessories!”  I assume they meant steampunk, though steamboat cosplay might be the wave of the future.

What delighted me was the collegiality.  Groups would pause to admire each other’s costumes.  Everyone asked before taking a picture.  There were chill-out chairs if you wanted to rest your feet, and the exhibitioners were markedly polite and friendly, never pushing a purchase, though seeming genuinely delighted when one occurred (I heard a lot of “no, thank you.”)  There were families, couples, and single explorers (I wondered how many relationships began or ended here).  The exhibition space was crowded, but well-organized, with plenty of room for people in wheel-chairs to navigate.  I expected to be bruised and jostled as I fought my way through crowds of manic consumers, but instead, everyone was thoughtful, observant, and fascinated by the display.  I saw expressions of intense joy as people discovered the costume, or book, or clockwork device that they’d been searching for.  I listened as a man was given lessons on how to wind his first pocket watch.  I saw a curious and powerful community of readers, viewers, and designers, all linked by the endless possibilities of magic and popular culture.  A father and son in matching Spiderman costumes; a female Thor with a giant hammer, smiling.

More updates tomorrow, when I participate in the 12:15 panel, Reinventing the Hero(ine).

C2E2!

Posted: April 14, 2015 in Uncategorized

C2E2-Logo-SquareI’m thrilled to announce that I’ll be attending the C2E2 comicon/fan expo in Chicago, from April 23-26.  This is my first convention, and I’ll be presenting on a panel entitled “Reinventing the Hero(ine),” with Charlaine Harris, Steve Bein, Lexie Dunn, and Lauren Roy.  Talk about a lineup!  I certainly feel as I’ve been thrown into the deep end, but in a great way.

Here is the description of the panel on the C2E2 website:

“Heroes come in many forms these days, from reluctant superheroes to psychics and beyond. Join Authors Charlaine Harris (Day Shift), Steve Bein (the Fated Blades series), Bailey Cunningham (the Parallel Parks series), Lexie Dunne (Superheroes Anonymous) and Lauren Roy (the Night Owls series) as they discuss the paranormal elements in their action-packed novels that keep their protagonists on their toes and delight and reward readers.”

The panel is on Saturday, April 25, from 12:15-1:15 in Room S403.  Please come by!  A book signing will follow, 1:30-2:30, at Autographing Table 18.  Come see how terrible my handwriting is!

To check out what the action was like at C2E2 2014, here is a trailer:

Prize of Night

Posted: April 14, 2015 in Uncategorized

Prize of Night (1)Prize of Night, the final book in the Parallel Parks trilogy, will be released by Ace on June 30th.  It will be strange not to have these characters rattling around in my brain anymore, though someday, I’d love to write a piece of short fiction expanding on supporting characters like Julia and Narses.  It was a challenge to write from four different perspectives, and to alternate between primary and secondary worlds (after a while, I was no longer certain about which place was “real,” or what that even meant within an urban fantasy novel).  I tried to push myself while writing the series, to avoid the pitfalls of falling into a comfortable narrative presence.  Just after I finished Path of Smoke, I read a review that described one of the characters as a “Mary Sue,” and I was surprised by this–it hadn’t occurred to me that I might be favouring someone.  Coincidentally, I was reading Northrop Frye’s Secular Scripture, and I began to think about the Romance conventions that might come into play, especially in a work of fantasy.  As I began Prize of Night, I tried to be more aware of the “darlings” that writers are always instructed to kill without mercy.  I tried to take the difficult path whenever I could, to shake things up, and to cleave to the idea of sacrifice that influenced Pile of Bones.

Pre-order Prize of Night from McNally Robinson.

There are still more stories left to tell about Anfractus (and I only scratched the surface with Egressus), but I hope that this series finale acts as an open-ended conclusion.

posWhile waiting for Prize of Night, feel free to pick up a copy of Path of Smoke, which was released by Ace in 2014.  The Romantic Times gave it a positive review, noting that “Cunningham’s expert storytelling, inventive plot and fascinating characters will hook readers right away, engaging them until the very last page.”  One of the challenges and pleasures of writing Path of Smoke was to maintain a scenario in which one of the characters was completely side-lined, while anticipating what would happen when they got out of the penalty box, so to speak.  It gave me the chance to focus more closely on the other three, and how they related to each other as an uneasy trio.  There’s a chase scene involving Wascana Park that was so much fun to write–I really enjoyed how it turned out.  Note:  no monsters have ever chased me while I walked through the park, that I know of.

You can order Path of Smoke from friendly independent booksellers like McNally Robinson.

Mastering the Game of Thrones

Posted: April 14, 2015 in Uncategorized

MGOT_coverThis will be a blizzard of updates, since I’ve neglected the website for too long.  But my sabbatical is on its way, and I’m going to concentrate on streamlining and updating the site.

Mastering the Game of Thrones–an anthology of essays on George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, which I co-edited with colleague Dr. Susan Johnston–was released with McFarland in January.  The volume debuted as a top seller on Amazon’s Science-Fiction/Fantasy and Criticism lists.  It includes an essay by David J. Peterson, creator of the Dothraki language for the HBO Game of Thrones series, as well as a host of other engaging pieces on wolves, dragons, maesters, food, religion, and sexuality.

The Library Journal gave the volume a positive review:  “Battis and Johnson have assembled a volume that stands on its own both as rigorous criticism and as an accessible way for rabid fans to lose themselves in Westeros all over again…recommended.”

Purchase the book from McFarland, or from an independent bookstore like Powell’s.

Interview about Pile of Bones

Posted: August 16, 2013 in Uncategorized

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Here is an interview that I did today with Heather Anderson from Global Regina News.  We talked about “Pile of Bones” and fantasy literature in Canada.

http://globalnews.ca/regina/videos/

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