Thursday, June 30, 2011

Let everyone speak

When I look for something to read for pleasure, my first requirement is that it be clearly written, whether it's about renewable energy in Scandinavia, medieval history or fiction. Having said that, I have my preferences; or, rather, there are areas of the book store I don't usually haunt. I'm not likely to check out the science fiction, horror or fantasy sections- what some people might now call "speculative fiction". I'm also not into erotica or young adult.

Those genres just aren't my thing, and that's fine. I wrote about that last week; we all have different tastes, and they're all valid. But what about... quality?

Quality is an issue that's been coming up more and more in conversations about publishing. Some of it is because of the huge crop of independently published authors, many of whom can't afford to hire an editor, and some of it is because some publishing houses aren't applying the same rigor to proofreading that they once did. (There is some discussion about whether or not this is happening on the scale people are complaining about. I can't speak to the entire industry, but I can say that I've noticed more grammar and punctuation errors in the past five years than I used to.) And some of it is about the stories themselves; the tone of one camp of the complaints is that publishing is too "trendy" or celebrity-driven, and because of weaker sales they don't want to take risks. Others are bemoaning that because it's so easy to e-publish, people are putting up all kinds of garbage that wouldn't have passed muster with their friends and family, much less an agent or an editor. (Please note: I said easy to publish, not easy to sell.) To hear some people talk, we may be looking at the end of a culture that values meaningful literature.

I may have strong feelings about meaning and quality as it relates to what I read or view, but I'm reluctant to force those on anyone. As long as we're not talking about snuff films or child pornography, I'm probably going to let it go. I may not feel that everyone is creating something worth reading or viewing, but I've learned through experience that value is subjective, especially when we're talking about art. I have a responsibility to highlight issues or stories I think are important, but I have to persuade you to agree through my writing, not simply through my insistence.

I don't read a lot of YA, but I'm still dismayed by the criticism Meghan Cox Gurdon offers up in the Wall Street Journal of the genre. It is not just that she flirts with the idea of censorship- and I don't mean by the parents; it's also that she questions the value of these books for children. I haven't read the contemporary books she describes, but I have read things others have found equally objectionable: Dracula, Fahrenheit 451, A Clockwork Orange and, oh yes, Machiavelli's The Prince. As I said, they're not the kinds of things I seek out, but what could I do? They were assigned reading in the 8th, 9th and 10th grades, and two of them were for my political science class.

You know what else I've read a lot of? Mythology. Having read Gurdon's descriptions, I can't think of how any of them are any worse than the story of Apollo flaying a satyr named Marsyas alive after he loses a music contest (and you felt bad for the American Idol losers!), a young nymph named Scylla being turned into a monster by a jealous goddess, a young nymph named Medusa being turned into a monster by an outraged goddess after she was seduced by a god, a boy named Pelops being cannibalized by his father as a sacrifice to the gods, a man named Odysseus who not only kills the suitors who have been harassing his wife but then kills the maids who helped them- after he makes them clean up the mess from the other slaughter, and a little boy named Astyanax who is hurled over the walls of Troy by the victorious Greeks. Let's not forget the king who kidnapped and raped a young prince and then later left his young son Oedipus to die. Then there's my favorite- the story of a young girl named Persephone who is kidnapped and raped by her uncle. (That her uncle just happens to be the god of the underworld has always made the story translate to me as "girl was raped and murdered by her uncle", but what do I know?)

I read all of these things when I was ten years old and under. Should someone have slapped Bulfinch's Mythology and d'Aulaire's Greek Myths out of my hands?

Oh right- remember King Arthur? Whether he existed is debatable, as Sarah Woodbury pointed out, but in the popular version of the story he does two relatively despicable things: sleeps with his sister Morgause/Morgaine/Morgan Le Fey and then kills all of the newborn boys born in one year to make sure he catches the child born from that. (And then he doesn't.)

Again, the Arthur stories were assigned reading- this time for the sixth grade. Should my parents have demanded that my teachers and principals lose their jobs over that?

I shudder to think what my world would have looked like if the answer to either of those questions had been yes. This may come as a shock to some, but I was able to incorporate those details into the larger story, even at that young age. If they did nothing else, they showed that no character- mortal or immortal- was completely good or evil. Again, what do I know, but in my opinion that is a valuable lesson for a child to learn.

The Supreme Court recently overturned California's ban on violent video games. I think our children are, indeed, too hyped up on electronics, but I approve of the decision, especially after reading the majority and dissenting opinions written by Justices Scalia and Thomas, respectively. Read what Alyssa Rosenberg of Think Progress has to say. I think she's spot on. More to the point, I think Scalia hits the nail on the head. (Forgive my shock: I don't usually get to say that.)

I cannot help but think of the dime novels and pulp fictions of the 19th century that Scalia references. Having read some summaries, I don't think I would have liked them either. Most modern readers would probably feel that those books aren't exactly high literature and that they aren't any worse for not having read them.

Fair enough, but I can't think of too many people who don't feel that there is some value in their contemporaries and immediate successors: Hawthorne, Whitman and Stowe, to name just a few. Those luminaries did not write in a vacuum. Hawthorne wasn't the first 19th century author to play with the motif of the holy man breaking his vows with the beautiful congregant, but he may have been among the few to invest the relationship with a deeper spiritual meaning. Stowe was not the first writer to call for abolition, but she married it to a literary sensibility that appealed beyond her "target audience". And Whitman... yeah, you're not imagining the pornographic imagery that was surely influenced by some of the pornography he had access to, but that does not change or dilute his themes of transcendentalism and even patriotism.

Imagine if the censors of the 19th century had prevailed and those earlier works had never come to light. Then there very well might not have been a Hawthorne, a Whitman or a Stowe. Bulfinch's Mythology was published in the 1850s. What if those same people had successfully fought against its publication? Would the world have been a better place because we did not have to confront the violent imagery those stories use?

I believe strongly that the world would have been a poorer place without those authors' works, and I believe I would have been a lesser person for not having read them. Oh yeah- censorship of literature would not have rid us of the real-life horrors and inhumanity those works describe.

Every day, with everything we do, we are part of a larger conversation, even if we believe we sit in silence. We talk about values, we talk about definitions, we talk about the past and we talk about the future. Let everyone say their peace- and then let everyone respond. For it is in those words, in that response, that we can not only find but create value.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

An interview with Sarah Woodbury, author of "Cold My Heart"

There was a lot for me to like when I first met Sarah Woodbury, kindred homeschooler, historian and author (although I think it's fair to say she has a leg up on me in all three). So I wasn't surprised that I clutched my heart and sighed when I read her Arthurian novel Cold My Heart. The Crystal Cave series and The Mists of Avalon are, as I've mentioned, among my favorite books ever, and I'm not ashamed to admit that I still smile when I hear a song from Camelot.

Cold My Heart is a worthy addition to the pantheon of Arthurian literature, and I was delighted to have a chance to talk to Sarah about Arthur, history, romance, fantasy and why she writes.

What made you realize you were a writer? When did you decide to write?

Reading and writing are a part of my earliest memories of something that I liked to do. What I wrote most when I was younger was poetry (I’m sure very bad). Then, when I was about twelve, I began to focus more on schoolwork and almost forgot that I loved to write fiction and that I even had a creative side. Having children (and homeschooling them) encouraged my creativity again, once I was in my late twenties and thirties. A little over five years ago, at the age of thirty seven, I took the plunge and started my first novel.

Why did you write Cold My Heart?

All of my books start with a kernel of an idea that grows and changes as the story develops on paper. Cold My Heart began with the character of Myrddin as a world-weary hero, and took on a life of its own from there.

Describe your story.

Cold My Heart tells the story of two people, living in the final years of King Arthur’s reign, who have a pre-cognition of the end of their world as they know it, and the steps they take to face—and avert—that future.

Once I got past the fact that you used the name of one of my favorite characters in literature (Myrddin Emrys from The Crystal Cave by Mary Stewart), what I loved was that the main characters were not teenagers but adults with a lot of "life experience". Even Modred, who's usually a snotty teenager, is an adult, although maybe not what we'd call mature. Can you talk about that?

As much as I love teenagers (I have three of them), they don’t have the life experience that tempers both joy and grief. The choices that Nell and Myrddin make are based in the knowledge of failure—along with the ability to face death and accept it as a possible consequence. It is a truism that young people (teens and twenties) think themselves invincible. Nell and Myrddin know they are not, and fight on anyway.

As a side note, Merlin (or Myrddin in Welsh) is central to the Arthurian legend. I wanted to get to know him without the trappings of wizardry and magic which overlay his character in most Arthurian stories.

In your story, there's an Arthur and a Cai (Kay), Aggravaine, Gareth and a number of other names Arthurian buffs will recognize. But those are supporting characters- the main action is with Nell and Myrddin. Did you feel like that was a risk?

What I didn’t want to write was another sword-in-the-stone retelling. Not only has it been done (and done well), but it is historically inaccurate on many levels. Arthur, if he existed, was Welsh, and his rule would have been grounded in real events of the sixth century, not derived from the Anglo/Norman legend that arose in the Middle Ages.

There's a love story that's central to Cold My Heart, but it isn't being marketed as a romance. What do you think is the difference between a love story and a romance?

'Romance' is a specific genre within fiction that operates under an agreed upon set of rules within the publishing industry. Primarily, it is assumed that in a romance, the love story is the driving force behind the novel and while there may be other aspects to the book, they are secondary. Cold My Heart has a love story between Myrddin and Nell, and it is crucial to the plot, but it is only one aspect--even if it is an important aspect--of a greater story played out on a larger stage.

So your novel has a love story, but it isn't a love story, in other words?

In my opinion, it is a love story, but also and equally, a novel of King Arthur.

But it doesn't meet the specs of a romance for a publisher?

No, it doesn't, because the love story isn't the driving force behind the novel.

I'm not a fantasy fan, but I've been an Arthur fan for a long time. I'm going to give a certain amount of leeway to an Arthur story that I won't a lot of other things, but you stayed pretty "realistic" and only used one fantasy element, The Sight. How come you chose not to include any other magical elements, but you did use this one?

I love historical fantasy, but I also love history and felt that in the case of Arthur, I wanted to tell a story that was more historically accurate. At the same time, the sight is something that many Celtic peoples continued to believe in long after Christianity came to Wales. The Church (meaning the Catholic Church) was full of mysticism and otherworldly events. The sight wasn’t pagan or magic—it was very real in a way that modern people probably have a hard time understanding.

Some of your characters have The Sight, and they believe what they see. But they're working to change it anyway. As someone who studied history (just a Bachelors, not a PhD like you!) and believes in civic engagement, I was really moved by that. Were there any moments in history in which you've seen people do just that? Or any moments that you wished you had?

History is full of events that seem to have stood on the edge of a knife, and could have fallen either way. I have another series set in medieval Wales in which history is changed such that Llywelyn ap Gruffydd isn’t murdered by the English—and Wales doesn’t fall to Edward I. How different would the world have been?

Just to look at American history, it’s full of ‘what ifs’ like that. My family is from Boston; John Woodbury, my umpteenth ancestor, crossed the Atlantic to settle there in 1624. What an amazing and terrifying decision that must have been! In turn, his descendents were revolutionaries and abolitionists. My great-grandfather signed up to fight in the Civil War in 1864—his parents went with him to the war office in Boston because he was only 15 years old.

Without giving anything away, it looks like Myrddin has an opportunity to be "greater" than he is now. Would that make him more or less interesting to write for? And are we going to see a sequel to Cold My Heart?

More responsibility brings its own challenges. Myrddin, up until the events of Cold My Heart, basically did as he was told. Now, he has to dig deep inside himself for what may have always been there, but he hadn’t yet discovered. So that sounds like something fun to write about—and yes, there will be a sequel to Cold My Heart! I don’t have a timeline yet, but it’s coming :-)

What's up next for you?

In July, the second book in The Last Pendragon Trilogy should be ready for publication. Plus, I have a medieval mystery that I’ve also finished and (at the moment) plan to send to my agent. And then . . . maybe the sequel to Cold My Heart!

Thank you, Sarah, for taking the time to talk to me- and I can't wait for the sequel!

Thursday, June 23, 2011

A little romance

A few days ago, I read a review at Dear Author of what may have been the first official "romance", "The Flame and the Flower". Go take a minute and read the review- I'll wait.

Done? Okay now: oh my God! Whoa! Joan/Sarah F. lays out some writing issues that, I'm sure, were painful to get through. Good for her, because I'm too focused on the plot. Wow. I know I think nothing is more romantic than starting off a relationship with some sexual violence. And I love that this happened to a teenager. This is exactly how I want my girls to start off their lives as adults. (Living off slave labor? Sounds downright idyllic.)

Don't get me wrong. I know there are people who genuinely enjoy bondage, dominance and sadomasochism. But the difference, to my mind, between that and what's going on here is that this character doesn't seem to be aroused by it. It sounds like she tried to flee being raped twice, and was only once successful. She ends up back with her rapist only because she's pregnant, not because she enjoyed it... because it was rape.

If this is indeed the book that birthed the romance genre, I understand why it has such a bad reputation. Still, as someone who wrote something that could be classified as romance, it stings a little to read this comment on Thea Atkinson's blog. I take hits on a regular basis for my feminism- in 2011!- so to know that I am walking into something that could make people think I have retro-femme ideas about how women should conduct themselves in the world makes my heart ache.

I know I'm not the only person with this sensitivity. At the end of 2010, I read "I Think I Love You" by Allison Pearson. I was assured that this was historical fiction, and it sort of was. It centered on a young Welsh-German girl whose life revolved around David Cassidy in the early 70s and who attended his ill-fated concert in England where many were injured and a few died. Fast forward a few decades, and we see our heroine grasp at a chance to meet Cassidy at last.

Historical fiction? Um, maybe, but I would actually think it was more "women's fiction" at this point. But there's more! At the end of the story, the main character ends up with the "second lead", and we know that they go on to have the HEA (Happily Ever After) that's one of the essentials in any romance. Their romance- yes, romance- is also loosely modeled on a certain fairy tale that authors have been using as a template for romance for at least four decades. "Women's fiction" might still be the best categorization, but someone could make a good argument for putting it in "romance".

This wasn't the only thing I read in the last twelve months that was more romantic than I thought it would be based on the editorial reviews- or even the genre it was marketed in; "Blindspot" and even "People of the Book" come to mind. Most of them were good books that I didn't mind reading after I discovered this, but I have to wonder why the publishers hid that, especially when, at least the last time I checked, romances were still selling best out of all genres, especially in e-books. These stories have genuine crossover appeal, and denying that serves to cheapen the genre and perpetuate the notion that romance or any story with romantic elements is ultimately inconsequential and can't carry a deeper theme.

I bet you're thinking my next move will be to outline my plot and defend my main character, but what's bugging me isn't what I like to write but what I like to read. I... like to read romance that doesn't insult my intelligence. I don't need to read it exclusively, but I shouldn't have to feel like every romance I read lowers my IQ by a point. *Of course* HEAs are not as clear cut in real life, but in real life baby boys don't usually survive attacks by serial killers with magical powers, vampires and werewolves don't save young girls from a life of mediocrity, historians do not and will not have the power to create a utopian world and, I'm sorry, Middle Earth does not exist. (Sadly, I realize this means there probably aren't dilithium crystals either.)

What I'm asking is this: am I obligated to feel that an amazing story of a group of people unified through different eras of time by the creation and salvation of a holy book was cheapened because the heroine ended up with something that looked like a Happily Ever After with a man whom I grew to respect and admire? Or am I shallow and inconsequential because I still think about some of the scenes in a historical romance and feel moved and even inspired by someone's commitment to a greater ideal- and person- in the face of adversity?

Here's an even better question: Is Vladimir Nabokov really a better inspiration to have than Judith Krantz? Because they both use sex in their stories, right? Only one wrote a riff on someone's destructive obsession with regaining his youth and another wrote about heroines overcoming early adversity to craft successful, independent lives. Nabokov's wasn't a romance though, so he wins, right?

The answer to all of the above is No. However we're moved or inspired, be it magical creatures, a dream of the future or simply an admirable character- fictional or otherwise- we should enjoy it. If we can't do that, then why read at all?

Monday, June 20, 2011

Alex the Fey by Claudia Christian

I've always loved James Bond. I freely admit as a feminist that this is one of the most shameful confessions I could possibly make. Insert all of your Bond Girl complaints here; I cannot deny them. But... even before I developed a huge crush on the Double-0 7 who manoeuvred around Dr. No, I loved the excitement, adventure and, yes, even the gadgets of James Bond's world. I didn't want to be a Bond Girl, good or bad; I wanted to be James Bond. Okay, maybe Jane Bond, but you get the idea. Unfortunately, the closest I got to that in the late 70s/early 80s was "Charlies Angels". Please- they didn't have an Aston Martin or veddy cool British accents.

It might be because I didn't see myself or a person I could grow up to be reflected back at me that, in general, I'm not into thrillers in books or on screen. (Although I will still see most of the Bond releases when they come out.) When I want to interact with world events, it's usually through non-fiction. I love policy, history... I even like economic history. (And politics is my favorite contact sport.)

But I still get that itch for an adventure sometimes, and I have no idea when the next Bond film is coming out. So when I found the "Alex the Fey" series by Claudia Hall Christian, I was intrigued. The main character is a brilliant and nurturing Special Forces spy whose specialty is rescuing hostages in the direst of situations. She inspires the kind of loyalty that follows even after death. She's also the only survivor of an attack that killed everyone else on her team. With each book, she's getting closer to figuring out who was behind the attack and why, but clearly something is locked inside of her memory that she doesn't want to let out. What is she afraid of?

I've read "The Fey" and "Learning to Stand" so far. Christian has done an impressive job creating and keeping track of a large universe of characters, most of whom have some role in politics or the military. And if you like romance, there's quite a bit of that too- Alex is also married to a hot doctor... who just happens to have a British accent. *sigh*

Christian isn't a spy who moves in political circles (I think), but she's pretty cool too. She's had those varied life experiences people used to think were assets for a writer, but more importantly, she can't stand Rush Limbaugh and Kobe Bryant. What's not to love?

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Historical Fantasy in Dark Age Wales

Sarah Woodbury has put her own spin on the Arthurian legends with a number of novels. In "Cold My Heart", the main characters are the knight Myrddin (I still swoon a little over that name) and a former nun named Nell. Arthur, of course, is there too, but one might almost call him a secondary character.

I don't write fantasy, but I've loved the Arthurian legends since my mother took me to see Richard Harris in "Camelot" for my 8th birthday. The "Crystal Cave" series and "The Mists of Avalon" remain among my favorite books of all time.

I quickly fell in love with the resourceful heroine and realistic hero of "Cold My Heart", and Woodbury did a very good job of fleshing out the murky motivations and shifting alliances of everyone in her universe. Even Mordred isn't pure evil- although he comes pretty close. But the center of the story, in my opinion, was the question of whether people who could glimpse the future could use their knowledge to change it.

In this post, Woodbury discusses how she, a historian, used her research about the period to construct a world that might have existed.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Clash of the Titans?

Or, as a friend said, the Monopolies?

Apple has Amazon's Kindle in it's cross-hairs, evidently. I don't use too many Apple products and I have, sort of miraculously, not read much via Kindle. I don't have any skin in this game, but I'm still very interested.

Does this leave room for someone else to elbow in?

Can you use Star trek for inspiration?

I promise, folks, I will not put up too many links that are more for writers than readers, but this is about Star Trek!!! My favorite series- I'm more of a Star Trek fan than a sci-fi fan, shh- *and* this series just might come up in my novel...