And now comes the time in a book’s life when the reviews start. I wish I was one of those writers who could grandly proclaim that I never read reviews but that would be a complete lie. I shamelessly admit to googling myself. A good review will make me happy and a bad review will make me huddle in the corner and beat myself over the head with my very old, very heavy copy of Roget’s Thesaurus.
I remind myself that I’ve survived bad reviews before. I will never forget opening a copy of Maclean’s magazine (Canada’s equivalent to Time, at the time) in the dentist’s office and discovering a FULL-PAGE REVIEW of Blood and Chrysanthemums. A full-page BAD review. The dentist probably could have given me a root canal and I wouldn’t have noticed because I was so devastated. When I was apologizing to the Penguin publicist about it (because that is the kind of sad person I am), she was baffled. “It was a FULL-PAGE ARTICLE in Maclean’s,” she kept saying. “No one will remember whether it was good or bad. All they’ll remember is that they read about you in Maclean’s.” I’m not sure it’s true but it did make me feel better.
Once I achieve a bit of distance from the initial elation (I rock!) or despair (I am the worst writer in the world!), I try to take the less than glowing reviews for what they’re worth. There are some people that you could never have made happy, because they wanted a book you did not write (sorry, The Night Inside is NOT a vampire romance). Sometimes you’re forced to admit, like the witch in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, that “it’s a fair cop.”
Given that it’s been a long time since the last round of reviews, my skin has thinned a bit. So you’ll forgive me if I haven’t quite reached the “it’s a fair cop” stage yet and may spend a few moments huddling in the corner with a very strong martini (because damn, that Roget’s hurt).
Cold Hillside turned out to be like neither A Terrible Beauty nor Blood & Chrysanthemums when it comes to the music I associated with writing it. While it didn’t have either artists or songs that connected directly to the content, I had an ITunes playlist called “Cold Hillside”, which is certainly more than I would necessarily been able to muster for B&C. At some point I seem to have erased the playlist so I’m working from memory of what was on it.
Because the writing of this novel took such a long time, my musical tastes changed and expanded, and albums in high rotation on the ipod came and went. During the periods when I was tentatively poking at writing, or distressed over the fact that I wasn’t writing, or trying to determine if I would ever write again, I took comfort from the music of a number of singer-songwriters who tend to be associated with country or folk so the playlist was dominated by woman like Mary Chapin Carpenter, Lucinda Williams, Emmylou Harris and Gillian Welch. Very little that they wrote had a direct bearing on the novel itself, but it answered some emotional need I had while writing.
Mary Chapin Carpenter’s “Come On, Come On” album is one of my all-time favorites and this song is pure poetry.
This song by Lucinda Williams is one of the rawest evocations of addictive sexual and emotional need I’ve ever heard.
It’s hard to pick a single song from Emmylou but this one, from her album “Red Dirt Girl”, does have an emotional connection to the novel.
And, because we’re now watching the publishing world slide into the transitional chaos that has mired the music world, and I know writers who make pennies while their work gets posted on sharing sites without their consent, here’s a song from Gillian Welch. Sadly, she’s right: “we’re going to do it anyway, even if it doesn’t pay”.
After the non-soundtrack post last week, we’re back on topic. A Terrible Beauty most definitely had a soundtrack. Fumbling Towards Ecstasy, Sarah McLachan’s 1993 album, turned out to be the perfect blend of mood and music for that book.
The lines “The night is my companion/and solitude my guide/Would I spend forever here/and not be satisfied” seemed written for an ancient vampire who enacts a nightly ritual of request and refusal with a captive painter. (The writing of the song Possession is a fascinating story in itself, but I leave it to you to check that out.)
Blood and Chrysanthemums was not a music-enhanced writing experience in the same way the other books have been. I listened to music while writing, of course, but the only specific music that related to the novel was a CD of classical Japanese music that I bought to listen to while writing the Fujiwara sections.
B&C was really about poetry and research. Lots of research. Lots of reading of early Japanese literary works such as The Tale of the Genji and The Pillow Book of Sei-Shonagan. Books about Noh drama, the yakuza, samurai, Hiroshima, the Heian court, wars, art, culture, contemporary Tokyo…. the list was long. Oddly enough, the one that the was the most useful in giving me a way into the Japanese section was Pink Samurai: The Pursuit and Politics of Sex in Japan. While I was reading that, I realized that since I was writing a book about a common trope in popular culture in the West – namely vampires – I could use the common tropes in Japanese popular culture to frame the story. That allowed me to write each of Fujiwara’s sections in a different way, echoing the particular element I was using: a ghost story, a Noh play, a Heian court tale and so on.
I read a lot of poetry in translation as well, primarily work by Matsuo Basho and The Tales of Ise. I also had to write a good deal of poetry, plus portions of a Noh play, which was a thoroughly daunting process. Fortunately, most of the poetry in the periods I was writing about was not haiku, but an earlier form which was not as rigid.
The other thing I needed to research was mountain climbing. For that, I subscribed to Climbing magazine (the only magazine I’d ever read with a section at the front listing who had died and how since the last issue) and relied on a reading list and advice from my brother, who lives in Banff. My sole actual experience was going half-way up the climbing wall in the Banff gym. Of course, having my brother live there made my Banff research quite enjoyable. I wandered around town looking for places for Ardeth and Rozokov to live, bought my “Dead People are Cool” t-shirt at a local shop and made my husband pose by a lake to give me a visual context for a key moment in the book.
My home office at the time had a bulletin board where I posted images that related to my writing. I thought I had a picture of it but it has vanished into a large box of unsorted photos. I did keep a number of the clippings and photos though.
Below is the lake, sans husband.
I pulled this picture from Climbing Magazine, as my rough model for Mark.
I copied this from a book about the yakuza, because this was my mental image of Yamagata. I admit that I shamelessly based Fujiwara on the great Japanese actor Toshiro Mifune.
I listen to music a good portion of my day, though it’s probably more accurate to consider it a background soundtrack rather than an activity in which I actively engage. I wear my Ipod during my walk and subway trip to work, sometimes while I’m working, and it plays in the sound dock at night. (Right now, a song from rather unfortunately musical of Dracula is playing. I’m not sure why it’s still even there, except that my husband inexplicably refuses to delete it. It’s not nearly as amusing as our other musical theatre offering : A Shoggoth on the Roof.) I’ve done this since I was a teenager and studied and wrote while playing albums in my room.
Most of my novels have a soundtrack that plays during the writing process. My third big ambition (after being a starship captain and archaeologist) was to be a singer/songwriter and a number of my short stories were heavily influenced by my musical interests (Exodus 22:18 and The Party Over There, in particular). So it was inevitable that it would form a core of both the plot and the process for The Night Inside.
The music and lyrics of this British band are central to this book. The title and all of the section names are taken from their songs (and getting permission for that was an adventure). Their album Oil and Gold remains one of my favorites: a beautiful, sinister, mid-80s evocation of doom and decadence. I still get a shiver at the lines “We had some good machines/but they don’t work no more/I loved you once/don’t love you any more”.
They didn’t make a lot of videos but there are no shortages of ways to find their music on Youtube and other sites and Oil and Gold is available on ITunes. The song below is also one of my favorites (“Call in the airstrike, with a poison kiss…”) partially because it is one of the few songs that includes the word “parthenogenesis”. We made singing a song with that word the condition of kissing at our wedding and only one table rose to the challenge.
L.A. punk pioneers X were my model for Sara’s band Black Sun. The name even came from their album Under the Big Black Sun. The songs “Riding with Mary” and “The Hungry Wolf” seemed to suit the story perfectly.
And now for something completely different…. Richard Thompson is a brilliant songwriter, guitarist and singer who is considered primarily a folk artist. The heartbreaking resignation of ”How will I ever be simple again?” has made this the song I most associate with Rozokov.
Thompson has made even fewer videos than Shriekback so below is the best I can do.
I’ve been fortunate enough to see all of these performers live, some more than once. So if you’re curious about soundtrack for The Night Inside, check out their music.
Oil & Gold (source of the novel title, from the song “The Only Light that Shines” and section header “Everything that Rises must Converge”
Jam Science (source of section header “Midnight Maps”)
Big Night Music (Source of section header “Shark Walk”)
Under the Big Black Sun
Isn’t Love Grand?
Rumour and Sigh
Shoot out the Lights (with former wife Linda Thompson)
Or at least the 1970s. During my early convention-going years, I did do the costume thing a few times, mostly as an excuse to dress up. I didn’t have nearly the talent for it that today’s crop of cosplayers does but I did enjoy myself. So here, in honour of FanExpo and for whatever dubious entertainment value it offers, is my costuming “greatest hits”.
In the summer of 1977, my two best friends and I dressed up as various characters from our shared stories and took pictures of ourselves in the local ravine and in my basement. I’m not entirely sure who I was supposed to be but I imagine I thought I was very sophisticated. I certainly was young.
For Ad Astra 1980, the same friends and I dressed as ”Droogettes”. We borrowed the much-abused dummy from the official Droog gang and for our performance proceeded to beat it up while singing “Hey Big Spender”.
Probably at the same convention, I did a costume based on Tanith Lee’s short story “Winter White”. Conveniently, there was someone dressed as Sabella as well, so we were able to do the following photo.
Skip ahead many years and I’m serving as photographer and purse-holder for a group of talented young cosplayers. Since I couldn’t go to Anime North without SOME sort of costume, I managed to put together (with help from a friend, who possessed a Mad Hatter hat and a very extensive wig drawer) a version of the Hatter. Her own costume is much more impressive than mine.
For Anime North, I took my House of Pomegranates Victorian bathing dress, added a Pirate hat, the stripey socks and my Wicked Witch of the West boots and off I went. The dress, boots and stripey socks are my current “Hallowe’en at the office” attire.
I lack the patience, fine motor skills and sewing ability to really create beautiful costumes, though I do secretly enjoy writing about clothing in my own books. Sidonie in A Terrible Beauty had a very satisfying wardrobe of dresses and necklaces and the Faerie Court in Cold Hillside gave me an opportunity to raid a number of cultures for sartorial splendor. I don’t think I’ll be pulling off costumes based on these any day soon but it would be an absolutely thrill to see someone cosplay a character from my books.
I know that Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules for writing include “Don’t go into great detail describing places and things” but I love writing those. Part of the pleasure of travelling is watching out the window of the train, finding ways to describe what I see, or discovering the perfect graffiti on a dumpster in your own town. I need a sense of place to avoid the “white room” syndrome, even if I end up editing out half the descriptions in the end anyway.(Weirdly, I almost always know what the buildings look like and I never know what the characters look like.I know what they feel like, but I tend not to have a strong visual sense of them.)
The Toronto setting in The Night Inside was partially because that it’s where I live and I was able to set the story in neighbourhoods I walked around every day.Being able to ground the story in something familiar helped me get a handle on the more difficult aspects of it. I also found that Toronto fit the vampires I was writing.As Rozokov says of his decision to settle in Toronto in the 19th century:” It was a good place for careful men – it bred them, rewarded them”. There is something “careful” about both Rozokov and Ardeth, despite the latter’s attempt to remake herself as a vampiric femme fatale.
Blood and Chrysanthemums and A Terrible Beauty let me indulge my love of writing about nature.Both were shaped by time spent in Banff and the landscape of A Terrible Beauty was also influenced by the terrain of northern Ontario.We rent a cottage for a week each year near Algonquin Park and I vividly remember camping as a child on the shores of Lake Huron, with the rocky beaches and the twisted cedars, and I wanted to capture some of that wildness.It was the closest “New World” equivalent I could imagine to the dark “Old World” forests of the original fairy tale.Coming up with exactly how anyone managed to construct a mansion on an island in the middle of the mountains was a challenge, but a few episodes of “America’s Castles” and some judicious hand-waving covered that one.
The new book, Cold Hillside, presented its own challenges. I’ve never been to Bhutan or Nepal and going there wasn’t in the plan. Fortunately, there is no shortage of books bursting with both facts and astonishing images about that part of the world. Since the world of Lushan is NOT Bhutan or Nepal, I was free to take the parts of the landscape (both natural and human) that worked for the story and leave the rest. One of the perils of writing a novel over almost 20 years is that the reason the description you just wrote that sounds so perfect is because you’ve already used it four times before.
So, if you’re a writer who likes descriptive passages about nature, have faith that at least one reader will enjoy them. If you’re a reader who dislikes such things, well, you have my permission to skip those bits. Just don’t blame me if everything feels as if it’s happening in a white room.
Like all writers, I love interesting words. English is rich with expressive, specific, harmonious and sometimes odd words and we tend to use a fraction of them in our daily lives. There’s a Canadian project to not only reclaim these fascinating words but to raise awareness and money for a disease that robs us of this richness – Alzheimers.
I was thrilled to participate in Sheryl Gordon’s project A Rewording Life. The goal of the project is get a thousand sentences using “beguiling, bemusing” words from Canadian writers, musicians, and artists. I chose three options from the list and was assigned “odium”, which is a fine and quite timely word to work with (though I admit I had a secret hankering to do “subaltern”, if only because it appeared in a gothic romance that I loved when I was young).
For more information and sample sentences, check out the project website. Because a word is a terrible thing to waste.