March 8th, 2014Posted by Nancy
Where do writers get our ideas, you ask? Sometimes, we get them from other writers.
There were many inspirations for my first novel, The Night Inside, but one of them was definitely a story by another writer. I read Suzy McKee Charnas’ wonderful collection The Vampire Tapestry, which features a vampire quite unlike most of the others I had encountered to that point. There’s nothing supernatural about Weyland and the book was a fascinating exploration of how an essentially alien creature adapts and survives in the human world. In one of the novellas, Weyland is taken prisoner by men intending to exploit his nature.
Something in that resonated with me and resurfaced later with the idea for a short story in which a vampire is displayed in a circus side show and runaway teens are kidnapped to feed him. The story never went anywhere but the essential situation (a captive vampire and an intended victim who form an alliance to escape) became a key part of The Night Inside.
In 2003, Robin McKinley (a writer I love) published Sunshine. At the beginning of the novel, the main character is captured by a gang of vampires and chained in a ballroom of a secluded mansion as temptation and torture to another vampire. Sunshine is completely different from The Night Inside but I admit it was a slightly surreal experience reading that section.
When Sandra Kasturi from ChiZine Publications told me she was going to approach Suzy McKee Charnas about writing an introduction for e-book reissues, I was thrilled and terrified. Charnas graciously agreed and her kind and witty introduction now graces The Night Inside and Blood and Chrysanthemums.
When you borrow, borrow from the best. So go read The Vampire Tapestry and Sunshine and anything else by either writer you can get your hands on.
E-BOOK UPDATE: The e-book editions will be available in mid-April through CZP, Amazon, Indigo and other e-book outlets.
Posted in Books · Influences · News
February 22nd, 2014Posted by Nancy
We went to The Great Upheaval: Masterpieces from the Guggenheim show at the Art Gallery of Toronto yesterday afternoon. I like modern art, particularly abstract impressionism and related styles, and we’ve been to MOMA, the Pompidou in Paris, The National Gallery in Washington and museums in almost every city we’ve visited. We’re the people who dragged our families off the Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota, because what else do you do in Florida but look at Baroque and Medieval art. We’d even been to the Guggenheim but, iconic as the building is, it’s not exactly well-endowed with space, so many of the key pieces weren’t on display.
The current exhibit focuses on the years between 1910 and 1918 and the artistic response to technology, social change and a long and terrible war. I’ve always been intrigued by the idea of setting a story inside one of the avant garde art movements of the 20th century but I’ve never been able to come up with a plot. Maybe someday.
Here are some of my favorite pieces from the exhibit
Helene with the Coloured Turban, Alexei Jawlensky
Despite my love of black and generally monochromatic wardrobe, there is a part of me that responds very strongly to colour. This exhibit is filled with it.
Blue Mountain, Vasily Kandinsky
This is just crying out to be a book cover for some wonderful, strange fairy tale.
Planes by Colour, Large Nude, Frankisek Kupka (image at top)
Years ago, a friend gave my husband a poster of this and we were very disappointed we didn’t see it at the Guggenheim. Now we’ve had a chance to see it and it’s gorgeous. It’s a bit big for our house, but we’d make it work.
The Red Tower, Giorgio de Chirico
Because you know there’s a story there.
Mountain Graveyard, Kurt Schwitters
Despite the fact that my brain kept humming Tonio K’s Merz Suite/Futt Futt Futt at every mention of Schwitters’ name, this painting was beautiful, moody and moving.
And then we went to Agave y Aguacate for excellent margaritas and tapas-style Mexican food. Art and food – not a bad way to end the day.
Posted in Art
February 11th, 2014Posted by Nancy
At last, some real news can be revealed.
In the first big news, the talented team at ChiZine Publications is bringing out my first three novels as e-books, complete with stunning new covers. A special thanks to Gillian Holmes for The Night Inside and Blood and Chrysanthemums. They’ll be released in a few weeks.
Secondly, I’ll be reading on February 19th as part of the Chi Reading Series in Toronto, along with the wonderful David Keyes and Liisa Ladouceur. I’ll be reading from one of the first three books, though I haven’t finalized that yet. Hope to see you there.
And, finally, ChiZine will be publishing my fourth novel, Cold Hillside, in the Fall of 2014.
Posted in Books · Events · News
January 4th, 2014Posted by Nancy
No question at all. Patricia McKillip. If I could figure out a way to magically steal every scrap of poetry, plot, inspiration, craft and beauty out of her soul, I’d do it. (Ok, maybe I wouldn’t do exactly that but I’d certainly be tempted…)
I read The Riddlemaster of Hed in high school, while I was working at the Markham Public Library. I reached the end of the book, boggled at the cliffhanger ending, and wanted the next book right away. I had to wait months for the Heir of Sea and Fire to come out but when I did, I loved it even more. I was in university when the last book, Harpist in the Wind, was published. I inhaled it in a huge gulp one day in my residence room and then promptly went back and read parts of it again, just for the sheer beauty of them.
Since then, I’ve read everything she’s written, most of them more than once (or twice, for that matter). Her books aren’t huge fantasy “doorstops” but there’s more richness of imagination in them than in many trilogies. Her world-building is exactly what you need to know and no more, a feat of which I am incredibly envious. Her language can be opaque at times, requiring attention to parse out the full meaning, but it is always beautiful. There’s an austere grace to her writing that hits every button in my reading/writing brain.
Read the following passage from The Cygnet and the Firebird and see what she can do with something as shop-worn and familiar as dragons:
“An eye had opened in the distant mountains: a second-sun, red-gold, flaming through the harsh, barren crags. A crag unfolded, extended itself upward in a broad sweep of gold. Another eye opened. The true sun rose above them. A second crag broke away, moved upward into the sky, to catch the wind. The dragon shrugged itself out of the mountain, soared upward, light sliding like molten gold across its bright scales….. It came straight to them: its vast shadow, flung forward, reached them first. It seemed, as the earth darkened beneath its broad underbelly, to have swallowed the sun. Then it veered, loosed the sun from beneath it’s wing. It settled on top of the steep ruin of stones near them. It stretched its wings the light: gold shook in their eyes. Then it faded into itself among the rocks, its brilliant, craggy profile to the light. One eye stared down at them, wide and ruthless as the sun.”
One of her books is called Something Rich and Strange. That’s a good a description of her own writing as any.
(Be sure to get the editions of her books, where possible, with cover art by Kinuko Craft. They’re absolutely exquisite.)
Posted in Books · Influences
December 29th, 2013Posted by Nancy
The next writer I discovered (around the same time as Tanith Lee) was C. J. Cherryh, with her first novel Gate of Ivrel. With a cover like this, how could I NOT buy it?* The worlds created for this book, and the 3 sequels, operate at the intersection of fantasy and science fiction. The main viewpoint characters – Nhi Vanye – is functioning in a world that is clearly recognizable as fantasy. All of the “technology” wielded by the novel’s other main character – Morgaine – is indistinguishable to him from magic. There is a plausible science fictional element to Morgaine’s backstory, but none of that makes a difference to the fact that in each of the worlds they visit horses are the main sources of transportation and swords are the main weapons.
In many ways, this novel set a template for the way Cherryh’s novels would work in the future: a young (or youngish) viewpoint character, usually male, struggling to find his way in a hostile world, and strong, mysterious and not always pleasant female characters. Interestingly, she managed the write the same basic story from the completely opposite viewpoint in the Chanur Series. The viewpoint character is the strong, confident and “more pleasant than she likes to let on” Pyanafar Chanur, a member of a lion-like species and captain of her house’s flagship spaceship, and the male human character is the mysterious alien who sparks an interstellar struggle.
Cherryh’s novels are characterized by tight-third viewpoints, a sometimes elliptical prose style, a gift for conveying the intricacies of politics and interstellar battles, and a dry humour that is especially present in the Chanur and Foreigner series. As with Tanith Lee, I don’t like everything she’s done equally, but the ones I do like, I can reread on a regular basis. In fact, during a time I was given to insomnia, I think I reread Foreigner and its sequel every night for weeks, in rotation with Pride and Prejudice (which is not quite as big a leap as you might think). I was so immersed in the world she created that one night, waking up in the darkness of the guest room in my mother’s house after having surgery, my first disoriented thought was “where the hell is my security staff?”. And I think I might have married the series’ protagonist – if I wasn’t already perfectly happily married and he wasn’t fictional, of course.
I’ve had the pleasure of meeting C.J. Cherryh twice at conventions. The first time, she kindly allowed a young aspiring writer to join her for breakfast and blather on about the story she was writing. She was patient, gracious and helpful and I will always be in her debt for that.
* I will point out that at NO POINT did Morgaine wear a chain-mail bikini!
Posted in Books · Influences
November 30th, 2013Posted by Nancy
Because I can happily blather on about our trip…
I realized I’d been remiss in not providing a link (mostly because WordPress appears to have changed something and I haven’t figured out why the link function doesn’t work anymore). Until I figure it out, here’s the info, old-school: www.flipkey.com/marcilhacsurcele-cottage-rentals/p250972/ Or just google “Marcilhac stone gite” and you’ll find it. I’m a huge convert to renting either apartments or cottages when travelling. This was a beautiful spot and we really appreciated the excellent book and music collection. Our contact there was friendly and helpful and we felt very at home.
More shots of the area:
The mill is still grinding flour for sale. There’s a canoe and kayak rental spot about 5 minutes walk away and we did a two-hour paddle on the last morning. It was lots of fun – until we went down the glissande and fried my husband’s iphone when we got a tad wet.
There are only two restaurants in town and one was never open. The guest book said “You have to eat at ”Restaurant des Touristes” so we made a reservation (in a town of 200 people, yes, indeed you need to make a reservation) for lunch. Madame only makes enough food for the committed guests and we saw her turn away a few customers. It’s the Marcilhac version of a Paris tasting menu – you get whatever Madame has made that day. The tourists sit beneath the arbour at tables with tablecloths and the locals drink pastis in the bar area on the other side. The food was excellent (I don’t like cauliflower but her breaded ones were to die for), the service friendly, and the scene enjoyable (a group of Brits drove in to town for lunch in their vintage Bentleys). We had such a great time we went back again later in the week.
There was a ruined abbey two minutes from our door. Every town should have one.
Posted in Travel · Uncategorized
November 24th, 2013Posted by Nancy
I’m a rotten traveller. I get horribly stressed about missing flights and trains, I agonize over picking places to stay or eat, and I generally spend a good portion of any trip in a state of subdued anxiety. As a result, I was inordinately proud of myself for taking two trips to France, one in 2010 and one in 2013. In the division of labour in our travel world, I arrange the transport, lodging and restaurant reservations and my husband organizes cars, bikes, and what we’ll do each day. Once I’ve decided where to stay, I also spent a lot of time reading books about the region. This year, we spent a week in Southwestern France, north of Toulouse. One of the most surprisingly things I discovered was that this was part of the ancient kingdom of Aquitaine, of Eleanor fame. I’d managed to read numerous historical novels without actually processing the fact the Aquitaine was so far south (maybe I shouldn’t admit that).
One of the books that came up again and again in my research was The Lost Upland by W.S. Merwin. I never managed to find a copy before we went, but the gite we rented in the little town of Marcilhac sur Célé (pop. 200 or so) was well stocked with all the classic books about the region. I was able to read The Lost Upland in an area just south of the land that inspired it.
The book is a collection of three long stories, set in rural France after World War II, as the forces of modernization, depopulation and change begin to erode a way of life that had gone on for generations. Merwin won the Pultizer Prize for poetry and his writing is both concrete - deeply rooted in a place he had once lived – and lyrical. The reader learns a lot of the history and nature of the area but this information flows naturally from and into the exploration of the characters at the heart of each story. Merwin’s skilful and subtle revelation of the venality of one of the characters in “Foie Gras” left me in awe. “Shepherds” has the feel of autobiography but it’s also a story about the war and the resistance, about sheep and their herders, about neighbours and villages and about change that brings both a better life and a poorer one. The last long novella, “Blackbird’s Summer”, is about passing on a legacy that can never really be inherited.
Through all the stories runs the love of a land both beautiful and hard and a people used to being isolated and independent. The hills and plateaus (the causses) here are ancient, were ancient when the Romans came, marching over the hidden caves decorated in charcoal and ochre by artists 20,000 years dead. Merwin’s descriptions enriched my own visions of the place as we walked over the causse or got lost on the narrow lanes, our car’s GPS unable to find us below the limestone cliffs. (Will it spoil the romance if I say that the iphone always worked for that, even if the only place to make calls was the town square?)
“By the second year the brambles were gone from the garden. They had been piled in the gaps in the walls and filled them, to the delight of the mice. Down the middle of the garden, only an inch or so below the surface, I had found the limestone ridge, part of the a fault, a spine of the cause. It was shattered like a fallen column, and there was a good soil in the crevices. I filled them with thymes and herbs, more savory, rosemary, oregano, tarragon. The garden changed and filled but was the same place. Month after month that corner of the causse fed me. I worked there hearing the upland talking to itself, feeling the air pass over it. In the spring and early summer the birds were present all day and the nightingales sang until noon. The cuckoo changed its song twice in that season. The strawberries ripened in the shadow of the north and east walls. In early summer I could stand at the end of the day and look over the wall of the garden, up the lane which the sun, setting in the oak woods beyond the house and the long pasture, was flooding with dazzling yellow light, and could turn and look the other way, under the walnut tree and see the sky already the color of a plum, and across the cut, by the ruined house on the far ridge of oak trees, the full moon rising.”
When I got home, I promptly managed to find a copy of the book.
Posted in Books · Travel
October 14th, 2013Posted by Nancy
If Andre Norton’s Witch World series opened my eyes to the idea of fantasy fiction that was not aimed at young adults, Tanith Lee’s The Birthgrave blasted apart everything I had thought a narrating hero had to be. This is one of the few books I can actually remember buying. My family was on vacation in Ottawa and I went to a large book store downtown looking for something to read. I was attracted to the cover, to the fact that it was published by DAW, and, most of all, by the fact that the author was female. At sixteen, I was devouring any book I could find by a female author, because I was already a feminist and because I wanted to see how my own ambitions to write could be realized.
The nameless narrator of The Birthgrave was unlike any hero I had ever experienced. She was damaged and dangerous, immensely powerful and yet as helpless as any other woman in a male-dominated world, resourceful and still fatally attracted to the very men who would make sure she never achieved her goal. The world through which she moved was brutal, unforgiving, beautiful, and decadent. The book is a strange sort of coming-of-age tale as the narrator tries to discover who she is and find the jade she believes will lift her curse. Along the way, she encounters bandits, barbarians, war, fallen cities, and natural disaster. She’s not always easy to like. She is sometimes cruel and ruthless and prey to her own foolish illusions and inexplicable desires – but she is utterly unforgettable.
The story contains some incredible set-pieces: the chariot race in Ankurum, the black city of Ezlann, the hero’s confrontation with Vazkor under the ruined city. Most of all, there is Lee’s prose. It is like her hero: cold, sure, passionate, and bleak by turns. It is beautiful and strange and sent me rushing out to devour anything else she had written. While I don’t love all of Lee’s work, there are books I return to over and over again and her short fiction is among the best I’ve read. The heroine of The Birthgrave influenced the characters who later appeared in my short story “A Terrible Beauty is Born” and about whom I threaten to write a novel about if I can ever figure out all the damned plot.
Tanith Lee was in her early twenties when she wrote the book, I was sixteen when I read it and I suspect we were both in the grip of adolescent power fantasy. But that’s not always a bad thing.
Posted in Books · Influences
September 22nd, 2013Posted by Nancy
I’m talking about Andre Norton and the fact that I might not be the writer I am without her influence. Probably any number of writers would say the same thing, especially female ones, especially female ones of my generation.
Oddly enough, I read none of her YA fiction growing up. The first book of hers I ever read was Witch World, the first of her Estcarp series, which was clearly not YA. Reading it was one of those moments when the sky lights up and the angels sing and, much less dramatically, you think “THIS is what I want to do.” The next book I had that with was Tanith Lee’s The Birthgrave, which I’ll write about in a later post.
The characters in Witch World were adults, with adult concerns of survival, politics, justice, freedom, morality and the places where you were forced to make the hard choices. Though it was from a male point of view, there were two key female characters who were both strong and flawed in their own ways. It presented a society run by women that was not utopia and whose rulers were not always wiser – if usually less venal – than the more traditional lands that surrounded them. There was no explicit sex but there was the straightforward acceptance of both desire and sexual violence.
The basic structure of the story (reluctant allies, male and female, who had to battle their own preconceptions as well as an enemy and evil force) was one that Norton would use over and over, with varying degrees of success. My personal favorites are Witch World, Year of the Unicorn, The Crystal Gryphon, and the collection Spell of the Witch World, each of which I have read more times than I can count. Of her SF novels, Forerunner Foray and Dread Companion are on the “bathtub book” list, though the second is only nominally SF and much more a story about the perils of entering the faerie realm.
Witch World came out in 1963 at a time when female writers routinely hid their gender (Norton’s real name is Alice Mary) and it was rare to have women as main characters with equal agency, power and will as men. Though a “romantic” ending is the usual conclusion, it rarely has anything in common with conventional romance novels. The key to Norton’s romances is the meeting of equals who are tested by fire to emerge with a deep bond based on their acceptance of each other’s individuality.
When it came time to write what was my second go at a ”real” novel (the first was heavily influenced by Alan Dean Foster’s Bloodhype), it was Norton’s model that I ended up emulating. There are certainly worse ways to learn to write.
Posted in Books · Influences · Uncategorized
September 2nd, 2013Posted by Nancy
Like just about every SF fan of a certain age, I was a huge Star Trek fan as a child. I didn’t watch it on the first run but probably in the first years of the reruns, when I was 10 or 11. While I never wrote Star Trek fan fiction (which is not to say I’ve never written fan fiction, but that’s another post…) my best friend and I did spend many long happy hours playing Star Trek in her basement. Her father worked at IBM and so had all these lovely computer bits that could be put along the arms of chairs and on desks to provide control panels.
Looking back on it, what most interests me is that we were already feminist enough to know that the depiction of women in the show was unsatisfying. We had no interest in playing nurses or yeomen or even communications officers. And don’t even get me started on that horrible episode where the crazy woman stole Kirk’s body so she could be captain. Bah. No, if we were going to play Star Trek, we were going to get the good parts. I was always the Captain (which is really quite surprising, if you know me, as I am not very leader-like at all) and the BF was always the Science Officer. We invented a ship with a mostly female crew and we had adventures. Of course, we did cross paths with the Enterprise and have interesting … um .. interactions with Kirk and Spock but it was always a given that whatever fuzzily romantic scenarios our pre-teen brains could supply, our first loyalties were to our ship and to each other. No doubt there was something Mary Sue-ish in our characters but there was something surprisingly mature as well. It was a given that my character would never give her up her ship for a man, any more than Kirk would give up his for a woman.
As we moved through various interests (comics, the Six Million Dollar Man – more on that one later – and, god help us, Roller Derby) this basic pattern repeated itself. We were the heroes and we were friends. The romantic element of our adventures with the various imaginary love interests was a big part of it but in the end, our characters always rode off into the metaphorical sunset together.
Posted in Influences