On Fictional History and Fictional Places

Fiction is fake, by definition. Otherwise it would be nonfiction, right? Any character you create doesn’t exist in the real world if you’re writing fiction, even if you’re writing about a historical figure. Still, a lot of fiction takes place in what we think of as the “real” world. What happens when the real world isn’t enough and you decide to create enclaves of pure fiction within it? Well, then things get interesting.

I had a chance to ponder this recently thanks to a couple of things I consumed that leaned heavily into fictional history and fictional places. Neither quite worked and I’m not sure if all that non-existent history or fake places weren’t part of the problem.

As for fake history, I finally had a chance to see Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood, the latest Quentin Tarantino epic. I’m a fan of most of his stuff, and while I found a lot to admire about Once Upon a Time . . . (Brad Pitt, in particular, is as good as everybody said he was), there’s some interesting alternate history in it that didn’t really work for me.

Hollywood

Sitting alongside the story of a TV star on the downside of his career (Leo DiCaprio) and his buddy/stunt man (Pitt) in 1969 Los Angeles is the story of Sharon Tate. Tate, as you’ll recall, was married to Roman Polanski at the time (hilariously portrayed as looking almost exactly like Austin Powers and not yet a rapist) and would be brutally murdered by members of the Manson Family that August. Spoiler alert, I guess – in the world Tarantino builds, that doesn’t happen. Instead, the would-be murderers go to the house next door, where Dicaprio’s character lives and Pitt’s is on acid, and are violently dispatched with a combination of the world’s best pit bull and a flame thrower (which somehow makes sense). The movie ends with everybody else getting on with their lives, the spirit of the 1960s not yet brutally ended.

The odd thing about all this is that it seems backwards. Usually when we’re talking alternate history the pivot point – where it diverges from our reality – is at or near the beginning of the story. The rest of it is exploring the “what if this happened?” question. For a timely example, the HBO adaptation of Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America begins as Charles Lindberg runs for, and wins, the presidency in 1940 on an isolationist platform bolstered by anti-Semitism. What happens next is what we’re going to find out in the next few weeks.

The closer comparison with Once Upon a Time . . . is Tarantino’s prior bit of historical revisionism, Inglorious Basterds. In that one a group of Jewish American Army soldiers during World War II put Hitler down in a bloody, fiery way. It’s clearer wish fulfillment, in my opinion, since everybody knows Hitler was a monster. It also leans heavily on the speculative fiction trope of time travelling to kill Hitler, so it makes more intuitive sense. There’s certainly some wish fulfillment in Once Upon a Time . . . – of course it’s a better world where murder victims aren’t actually murdered and the would-be killers get instant justice – but the way it comes about makes less sense. There’s nothing explaining why the Manson kids go to the wrong house and neither the DiCaprio nor Pitt characters do anything other than react to a home invasion – they aren’t heroes who intentionally foil a plot. I just don’t get the point of the exercise.

It’s easier to see the point of using completely made up geography in fiction, but even that can be tricky. Full disclosure – I’ve done it myself (Moore Hollow is set in a fictional West Virginia county), so I’m not against the idea. It does honk me off a little bit when it comes out of nowhere, though.

One of my great finds of last year was Johannes Cabal the Necromancer, a darkly funny book about a guy trying to conquer death by bringing people back from it. In that book the titular hero (I use the term loosely) has to obtain 100 souls for Satan in order to win his own back, with the devil providing a nightmarish carnival train to aid in the process. As I said, it’s funny in a dark, sarcastic kind of way (in some ways it puts me in mind of a horror version of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy) and, so far as I can remember, takes place entirely in our world. Not our real world, obviously (see, bringing people back from the dead, Satan, souls, etc.), but at least it looks like ours. It all happens in the UK, with Cabal’s family coming from Germany.

Imagine my surprise when I dove into the sequel, Johannes Cabal the Detective, and found out that it takes place entirely in a pair of made up countries somewhere in Europe (with a third thrown in for good political measure).

CabalDetective

I understand why the author did this – the story requires particular political and military maneuvers that don’t fit established history and it’s hard to manipulate real places to do your fictional building. Nonetheless, it’s kind of a shock to have these made up places thrown at you without warning. Had the first book mentioned them or been set in them it would have been different. That neither Cabal nor his sidekick have any connection to these places doesn’t help the story, but that’s a separate issue.

Of course, there are entire genres of fantasy that take place in worlds that have no relation to this one. The Water Road trilogy takes place on another world entirely (with no human beings!), as does Gods of the Empire and its sequels. But with those you know going in what you’re getting into. Changing the game midstream seems like a miscalculation to me. The question with everything, whether it’s fake history or made up locations, is what works best for the story? What best serves the character? Sometimes the answer to both is something completely new and unexpected. But sometimes it’s not.

Plus ca change . . .

There has always been controversial art. The reasons change – whether it’s the frank depiction of sex, or violence, or challenges to religious or political orthodoxy – but the fact that words or images piss people off is as old as time. We tend to think there’s more of it going around these days because social media tends to amplify controversies when they emerge. Just because the cacophony is louder doesn’t mean it’s any kind of major change in society.

This was driven home to me by a recent article in The Atlantic. Though the current title is “The First Novelist Accused of Cultural Appropriation,” the title that shows on the browser tab, which more accurately captures the theme of the piece, is “Could My Father Have Published ‘Nat Turner’ Today?” Bucking the usual rule of headline questions, the answer, from the story itself, appears to be yes.

Some background first. The literary controversy of the year so far has been American Dirt, a novel by Jeanine Cummins. With a major push from its publisher, and a spot on Oprah’s list, it was poised to be the breakout title of the year.

AmericanDirt

It’s about a woman and her son fleeing Mexico after a drug kingpin murders the rest of their family and, ultimately, their experiences as migrants heading to the United States. This article does a good job of highlight the resulting controversy, which ranged from questions of cultural appropriation (Cummins is neither Latina nor a migrant) to how writers of color are locked out of the publishing industry to the fact that, maybe, the book just isn’t that good at what it wants to be (this is an interesting takedown along those lines ).

The merits of the arguments about the book aren’t really important. What you need to know is that some people took issue with what was set to be a wildly popular book (there was a film deal before it was even published) and weren’t silent about it. Thanks to social media, blogs and what not their complaints reached a fairly wide audience.

Back to the Atlantic piece. The subject is The Confessions of Nat Turner and the “My Father” in the title is William Styron – the author of the article is his daughter, Alexandra. The Confessions of Nat Turner came out in 1967. Turner, of course, was the leader of a slave revolt in antebellum Virginia. The book is a fictional narrative of Turner as told to a prosecutor who will try Turner after the revolt. It won the Pulitzer Prize, so it must be pretty good.

NatTurner

Nonetheless, it led to some controversy, driven largely by the fact that Styron wasn’t black, much less a slave. How could he write a narrative from the standpoint of one? If it’s a familiar objection, it’s worth looking at how familiar the arc of reaction to the book is to what happened with American Dirt.

First, there was a swell of praise from traditional sources:

Through much of 1967, he was at ease, enjoying the swell of prepublication buzz for Nat Turner. The Book-of-the-Month Club (the Oprah’s Book Club of its time) paid my father the highest price for a novel in the company’s history. The paperback, serial, and foreign rights sold in a frenzy. Hollywood came calling. That July, when riots erupted in Newark, New Jersey, and in Detroit, newspapers asked him to help white America understand what was happening. By October, when the first reviews appeared, Nat Turner was a juggernaut. ‘Magnificent,’ The New York Times declared. “A new peak in the literature of the South,’ Time wrote. ‘It will endure as one of the great novels by an American author in this century,’ the Los Angeles Times predicted. In November, my father was awarded an honorary degree by Wilberforce University, a historically black institution in Ohio.

At this point, as Styron’s daughter points out, with one exception “no black writers were invited to critique Nat Turner in any major national publication.” Slowly, however, those overlooked voices started rising:

The first signs of black dissent appeared by the new year. Articles in, among other publications, The New Leader, The Negro Digest, and Freedomways condemned the novel and the white media that endorsed it. Around the same time, an ugly spat erupted in The Nation between my father and the Marxist scholar of African-American history, Herbert Aptheker. (They both behaved like self-important assholes.) In February, The New York Times ran the first of several pieces exposing an angrier vein: ‘Styron’s Nat Turner, the house nigger,’ declared the professor Michael Thelwell, ‘is the spiritual ancestor of the contemporary middle-class Negro … [the] type with whom whites including Mr. Styron feel most comfortable.’ The writer William Strickland groused that the novel was ‘the worst thing that’s happened to Nat Turner since he was hanged.’ My father’s critics took issue with the book’s dialect and character development, with what he put in (a master who teaches Nat to read, motive for the rebellion separate from bondage) and what he left out (a black wife, unyielding conviction). But probably his greatest crime, as my father reflected 25 years later in an essay for American Heritage, was ‘apparent from the book’s first sentence: How dare a white man write so intimately of the black experience, even presuming to become Nat Turner by speaking in the first person?’ In June 1968, the backlash reached its zenith when Beacon Press published William Styron’s Nat Turner: Ten Black Writers Respond. The book generated its own front-page notices, and kept the Nat Turner dispute alive well into the summer.

 

The backlash led to the film (to star James Earl Jones) to be shelved.
None of this is to say that the detractors of American Dirt or Nat Turner had the right of it. Maybe they do, but I’ve never read either book, so I don’t know. My point is that the experience of Nat Turner that Styron’s daughter lays out sounds almost exactly like what happened with American Dirt. Maybe the controversy didn’t burn so brightly, since it didn’t have social media to fan the flames, but it still burned pretty good.

Which is only to observe, as the song says, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Anyone who writes a book (or makes a movie or paints a picture) risks blowback, whether the blowback is warranted or not. The arts are simultaneously vague and subject to so many interpretations, yet stir such deep passions. It will be a change when new books are written that don’t provoke any negative reaction. Human nature being what it is, I don’t see that happening any time soon.

Favorite Reads of 2018

Since it’s getting down to the wire – I’m not down with “Best of” lists that show up in October – I figured now was the time to give a shout out to my favorite books from 2018. Two important notes: (1) these are favorites, not necessarily bests or whatever; I just loved them, and (2) the key phrase is “that I read in 2018,” so it includes books from before 2018. With that said, here we go (in no particular order) . . .

Nemesis Games (2015)

Nemesis

I’ve basically been keeping one book ahead of where the TV version of The Expanse is, but with the next season on Amazon taking parts from both the fourth (Cibola Burn) and fifth (this one) books, I figured I had to get a little more down the road with this series. I read Cibola Burn this year, too, and while I got the criticisms some people had with it, I didn’t think it was this bad. In comparison to Nemesis Games, however, it was a wet patch on the road. To say “things change” in Nemesis Games is to severely undersell it. That the writing hive mind that is James S.A. Corey managed to explode the cast, sending them off in different directions before pulling them back together, is no small feat, either.

Saga, Vol. 9 (2018)

Saga9

Oh, boy, that last twist. The good news is that after nine volumes Saga continues to be inventive, thrilling, thoughtful, and capable of numerous gut punches. The bad news is that writer Bryan K. Vaughn and artist Fiona Staples are taking “at least” a year off from the series before getting back to work on it. Part of me thinks that’s a good idea, but part of me worries if this shunts Saga into the realm of great, unfinished stories. Given the way this one ended, I sure hope not.

If you’re not reading Saga yet, here’s why I think you should.

The Field of Blood: Violence In Congress and the Road to Civil War (2018)

FieldofBlood

Many people know that, in the run up to the Civil War, Senator Charles Sumner was beaten by one of his Southern colleagues with a cane, providing the perfect metaphor for the turmoil that would soon rip the nation apart. What most folks don’t know is that, while Sumner’s beating stood out for its brutality, it was merely different in degree, rather than in kind, from numerous other incidents of Congressional violence. One Congressman even died in a duel (not on the House floor, to be fair). Not just a colorful “you were there” history, The Field of Blood looks back at another time when the political norms broke down and things sound frighteningly familiar to modern ears.

Johannes Cabal the Necromancer (2009)

JohannesCabal

Pure fun. Well, pure darkly humorous fun, at the very least. Johannes Cabal sold his soul to the devil. To get it back, he’s have to deal in bulk, gathering 100 souls for the devil to replace his own, all while running a demonic travelling circus right out of the darker portions of Ray Bradbury’s psyche. This was probably the most fun I had with a book this year, partly because of what I’d just read before (see below), but also because there’s a sharp, dark wit that runs all the way through it.

Shattered Earth trilogy (2015-2017)

Broken

N.K. Jemisin’s trilogy – The Fifth Season, The Obelisk Gate, and The Stone Sky – made history early this year when it won the Hugo Award for best novel three years in a row, an unprecedented achievement. Is it that good? Absolutely. The Fifth Season, in particular, is a structural high-wire act that shouldn’t work, but completely does and leaves the reader knowing precisely why it was done. The other two books don’t quite reach that level, but the overall arc of the story and the characters that drive it is brilliant. Pretty heavy (I needed Johannes Cabal . . . to brighten me up a bit), but completely worth it.

I’ve written before about these books here and here.

The Cadaver King and the Country Dentist (2018)

CadaverKing

I wrote a review of this one here, so I won’t say much more. If you want to get really pissed off about what “justice” looks like in this country (and you should), this is the book for you.

Neuromancer  (1984)

Neuromancer

Yeah, I know, very late to the party on this one. My college roommate read it and, for some reason, I let it get away from me. Does it hold up? Pretty much, although it’s clearly a product of its time. As a foundational text for cyberpunk it’s something every sci-fi fan and writer should check out. That it continues to tell a gripping story while introducing a lot of ideas we now take for granted is icing on the cake.

Children of Time (2015)

ChildrenofTime

I gushed about this one right after I read it, so check out the details here. Suffice to say, any book that can make you care about the macro evolutionary development of sentient spiders is an achievement.

Come See Me! Learn From Me(?)

I wanted to let folks know about a couple upcoming appearances I’ll be making – getting out of the office and into the bright light (hopefully) of day!

First, on October 26 and 27 I’ll be at the West Virginia Book Festival at the newly renovated Charleston Convention Center (formerly known as the Civic Center). I’ll be in the marketplace both days (11:30 to 6:30 on Friday, 8 to 5 on Saturday) selling books, signing them, and just generally chatting people up. In addition to the marketplace there’s the annual used book sale, lots of workshops and such, and loads of great authors. Come check it out.

2010_Bookfest_Logo

Then, on November 17, I’ll be part of the West Virginia Writers fall conference in Flatwoods, West Virginia. I’ll be doing a pair of workshops:

Lines in the Speculative Sand – When Genre Matters in Fantasy & Science Fiction (and When It Doesn’t): Is my story fantasy? Is it science fiction? Does it even matter? Dive into the weird world of speculative fiction and learn some of the rules of the road (so you can go break them if you want).

Law 101 for Writers – Getting It Right When Your Character Goes to Court: Into every character’s life a little law must fall. Even if you’re not writing legal thrillers, there’s lots of reasons for characters to wind up in court. Learn some tips and discover some valuable resources to make your legal writing feel real.

There will be lots of other workshops, too, from marketing on the cheap to short play writing to ekphrastic poetry (I had to look it up, too). Something for just about every writer, in other words. Find out how to register at the WVWI website.

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At Long Last, the Entire Saga of The Water Road In One Handy Package

Very happy to announce that how, instead of buying three separate books to digest the entire story of Antrey, Strefer, and The Water Road, you can now get them in one convenient package. Presenting The Complete Water Road Trilogy box set:

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This is the series readers have called “magnificent,” “excellent,” “exciting,” and “engrossing.”

This version is only available in eBook format. And for April, it’s on sale for just 99 cents! Get one in your preferred format at the links below.

Amazon
Barnes & Noble
Kobo
iBooks
Scribd

In Praise of Not Finishing Books

As a writer, the idea of people starting to read a book but not finishing it intuitively honks me off. After all, the author went through the trouble to create an entire package that, at least on some level, appealed to you – give them a chance to redeem whatever fault you’ve found in the end! But if I’m honest, as a reader, I’d push back against that – hard.

I wouldn’t be alone. A few years ago eBook platform Kobo (on which all my books are available, by the way), released some data that compared their best seller list with the list of books that readers most often finished. Not surprisingly, some of the best sellers were also some of the least finished. I love the cynical take on this from The Guardian, with respect to Donna Tart’s The Goldfinch (2014’s Pulitzer Prize winner: 37th best selling, only finished by 44% of readers):

Most-unfinished book of the year isn’t a title anyone would hope to win. But her core fans probably read the book to the end, as did a whole raft of new readers, which propelled her up the bestseller charts. And those readers who didn’t finish it still paid for it, so Donna Tartt can mop up those tears with crisp tenners, which will surely ease the pain.

Still, it’s a bit disheartening to know that so many people couldn’t even finish what you’ve written.

Alas, I occasionally find myself in that category as a reader. Even though I see every book I read (or listen to) as a learning experience when it comes to writing, sometimes I still can’t stick it out to the end (witness my “unfinished” shelf at Goodreads, to which I just had to add Jim Butcher’s The Aeronaut’s Windlass, alas). Thus I’m on board with this piece over at Electric Literature that, without shame, promotes non finishing books:

There are many factors that go into whether or when a reader finishes a book. I imagine many people’s reading habits are, like mine, scattered. I have at least a dozen in-progress books on my nightstand — and several more on my phone and e-reader. Readers stop reading a book they enjoy when they put it down and forget to come back. Readers finish books they hate when they are assigned it for book clubs or else they want to hate-read and laugh about with their friends. (Certainly a large percentage of Fifty Shades readers fall into that second category.) Just as a half-read book isn’t necessarily a failure, a completed book is not necessarily a success.

This makes a lot of sense. I said before, in other contexts, that reaction to art is inherently personal. What rocks one person to the core of the their soul will make another yawn. That’s neither right nor wrong, it’s just the way things work. So there’s really no reason to expect everybody to love a book so much that everyone who starts it finishes it. As the saying (attributed to James Joyce) goes:

LifeTooShort

Ultimately, the job of keeping a reader engaged with a book is the author’s. It’s a responsibility we should take seriously. But we shouldn’t forget that readers come to our works in all kinds of ways and for all sorts of reasons. No book is going to connect with all of them, just like some books you’ve read didn’t connect with you. We have to accept that sometimes saying “this isn’t for me” and moving on is best for everybody involved.

Remember the lesson of the WOPR:

WOPR

It applies to books, too.

All 99-cents All Month!

To celebrate the successful end of NaNoWriMo, and in an attempt to spread a little bit of holiday cheer, I’ve lowered prices on all my books to 99 cents across all platorms for the entire month of December!

That includes Moore Hollow, the entire The Water Road trilogy, and even my short story collection, The Last Ereph and Other Stories.

Get ‘em for a friend, get ‘em for yourself!

Come See Me – Twice!

The next couple of weekends I’ll be out and about, taking part in a couple of events in the Charleston area.

First up, this weekend, is the third year (after its revival) of the West Virginia Book Festival.

2010_Bookfest_Logo

In addition to a terrific list of speakers (including R.L. Stine and Joe Hill) and workshops, there will be an entire marketplace full of writers hawking their wares – including me! It runs Friday and Saturday (October 27 & 28) at the Civic Center in Charleston, with the marketplace open 11-7 on Friday and 9-5 on Saturday (admission is free). Also, don’t miss out on the Kanawha County Public Library’s annual sale – it’s always full of neat finds!

Then next weekend, I’ll be taking part (for the first time) in the Mountain State Pop Expo.

PopExpoPoster

The Expo is a celebration of all things pop culture and looks like it should have something that appeals to just about everybody – including fans of fantasy fiction. The Expo is Saturday and Sunday (November 4 & 5), from 10 to 6 at the Holiday Inns & Suites in South Charleston (admission $10 – all proceeds go to Children’s Home Society of West Virginia).

PopExpoMe

Come to either, come to both – but be sure to stop by and say hi!

100 Books – Only 99 Cents Each – This Weekend Only

If you’re a fan of science fiction and fantasy and are looking for your next favorite read, head right on over here:

PattyJansenOct2017Promo

That’s right, 100 books, just 99 cents each. Many (including The Water Road) are available across multiple platforms, including Kindle, Nook, and iBooks. There’s something for every taste, from space opera and steampunk to epic fantasy and horror. There’s even a collection of sci-fi and fantasy for younger readers.

This deal only lasts until the end of this weekend – so get over there and get clicking!

The River (and Hollow and Ereph) Is Wide

Well have I got some news for you, dear readers.

For the past couple of years the eBook versions of all my books have been available exclusively through Amazon (including via Kindle Unlimited). I’ve decided to try something different and expand my reach a bit, so I’m happy to announce that starting right now, everything – The Water Road trilogy, Moore Hollow, even The Last Ereph and Other Stories – is now available all across the Internet at places like Barnes & Noble, iBooks, and Scribd.

So if you’re a non-Kindle eBook fan, here’s where to get everything:

The Water Road Trilogy

The Water Road

Kindle | Paperback (Amazon)
Barnes & Noble
Kobo
iBooks
Inktera
Scribd
Playster

The Endless Hills

Kindle | Paperback (Amazon)
Barnes & Noble
Kobo
iBooks
Inktera
Scribd
Playster

The Bay of Sins

Kindle | Paperback (Amazon)
Barnes & Noble
Kobo
iBooks
Inktera
Scribd
Playster

Moore Hollow

Kindle | Paperback (Amazon)
Barnes & Noble
Kobo
iBooks
Inktera
Scribd
Playster

The Last Ereph and Other Stories

Kindle | Paperback (Amazon)
Barnes & Noble
Kobo
iBooks
Inktera
Scribd
Playster

In addition, if you buy any of my books in paperback, you’ll get a Kindle version absolutely free!

As for the inspiration for the title of this post – take it away Nick!