Friday, July 23, 2004


I know this blog is supposed to be about the writing life, but real life is a lot more important. Right now, genocide is occurring in the Sudan. This isn't a new thing, except it seems more systematic right now than in the past, especially in the area of Dafur. It's important that the United States and the United Nations condemn the actions of the Sudanese government as genocide, and intervene as quickly as possible.

It was outrageous that the international community never intervened in the genocide that occurred in Rwanda. It would be doubly outrageous if the international community did not act swiftly at this juncture to stop the slaughter in the Sudan. For years, the United States government has allowed an interest in Sudan's oil to drive our foreign policy, helping to sustain and escalate the misery of hundreds of thousands of people in the region. Now we have an opportunity to pursue a different policy that can save lives.

What can you do? Well, for starters, this link to a diary of an aid worker in the Sudan also includes links about how you can help, and I'm sure we're all imaginative enough to do some googling and find out how to do more.



A long time ago I meant to add Vera's blog to my blog listings, but I forgot and now that I've got the new format, I'm taking a while getting the blog listings up and running. So, before I forget again, check out Vera's blog. Right now it features some interesting comments on the latest Strange Horizons editorial and the resultant furor.

I should also note that Vera has a fascinating-sounding novella coming out from PS Publishing, with a Charles DeLint introduction, later this year.


Thursday, July 15, 2004


...well, some might call them un-enhancements, but I've added more links to the side and a photo (thanks to Luis Rodrigues for helping me with the template). The photo was taken by Cheryl Morgan in Blackpool at EasterCon, and it makes me look a bit like a cruel magician. It cracks me up every time I look at it. But it's a great picture in part because it's got the alien baby in it and Cheryl framed it so well with the backdrop behind me. (Thanks for letting me use it, Cheryl.)

Soon, I'll add blog links and some other things. I may even start putting photos in posts...wouldn't *that* be revolutionary...

Tuesday, July 13, 2004


As we close in on the ten-year anniversary of the publication of Brooks Hansen's amazing novel The Chess Garden--a book that should be more widely known in genre circles--I thought it might be appropriate to post an interview I did with Hansen back in 1996. If you haven't read this book, you owe it to yourself to pick up a copy. It's really about the redemptive power of fantasy and storytelling, among a lot of other things. It's still one of the best novels I've ever read.


Brooks Hansen’s The Chess Garden (1995) is among the most memorable novels I have read in recent years. The novel tells the story of Dr. Uyterhoeven’s--his romance of his wife in the Netherlands and his years of quietly championing a homeopathic approach to medicine--interwoven with letters he writes in the twilight of his life after traveling back to South Africa during an epidemic. These letters concern his supposed adventures to the Antipodes, a fantastical land populated by living game pieces such as rooks, pawns, dominoes, etc. On one level, the letters are delightful tales for his wife to read to the children who gather in the doctor’s chess garden, but on another level they are powerful allegories about the doctor’s life, and his life’s work. Miraculously, The Chess Garden manages that most difficult of tasks: it melds mimetic and fabulist fiction while appealing simultaneously to the intellect and to the emotions. A New York Times Notable Book of the Year, The Chess Garden has received almost unanimous praise from critics. Mr. Hansen has co-written one previous, also highly recommended, novel called Boone.

What person or event has had the biggest impact on your writing so far?
Lessons stick out in my mind. I had a teacher at boarding school, a man named Harvard Knowles, with whom I had a fairly good rapport. He took me aside after class one time. We were discussing a story I'd submitted, and he told me that I certainly had a good facility with words and good ideas, but that my work was too cerebral; somehow the way he said it impressed me with the cranial essence of the word--that my writing, my stories existed almost entirely between the ears of my characters. He said I should try harder to move the characters around the room. It is probably the most significant advice I ever received, and it could well be said that my efforts from that moment forward have been directed at just that: learning to move the characters around the room. I believe that that is the real business and the real challenge of writing.

What writers have most influenced you?
I am not much of a reader and never have been. When I was younger, I enjoyed my share of Steinbeck and Salinger. I admire Borges. Joyce I consider to be a divinely gifted writer on the order of Shakespeare, and I suspect that Roald Dahl and Hans Christian Andersen may have had a greater influence upon me than I generally admit. And yet I just don't think it would be accurate to say that I had strong literary influences. I have spent far more time watching sports and listening to music than reading. My heroes and influences are Tom Waits, Mark Messier, Serge Prokofieff, Jean Sibelius, Bartok, and Shostakovich. The fact is, the writers I most admire, such as Salinger or Joyce, have tended to push me in the opposite direction, away from their style and milieu, out of respect and a recognition that they have more or less covered their territory.

When and how did you meet your Boone co-author Nick Davis, and how did the book come about?
I've known and been best friends with Nick literally my whole life. We never schooled together until college, though, at Harvard. Together, on an airplane down to Florida for our now defunct annual trip to the Mets Spring Training Camp, we hatched the idea of writing an oral biography about a fictional character. The idea stuck. The following summer (between sophomore and junior years) we conceived of Boone's life and the characters who would talk about him, and arrived at school the next fall with about forty information pamphlets--one for each character. We cast student actors in the roles. They studied their pamphlets and then, as soon as they were comfortable with their character, we would interview them. Our hope was that we could use the transcripts of these interviews to create the book. That didn't quite pan out--the quality of the performances was too varied--but by the time we'd conceded that, we'd been sitting with the idea and with the characters long enough that we felt ready to take on the job ourselves, basically writing the book fresh, while keeping in mind the characters and voices that some of the better actors had provided. Obviously, maintaining the distinctiveness of all the voices was an important part of the process. We did this basically by reading the book back and forth to each other, day in day out. It was always an oral process, if you will, over the course of which we learned, by drilling ourselves, to write for each character. Nick was better attuned to some; I, others--but we never split up the parts. Basically, we sat side by side, combing through the manuscript again and again and again. We did this for about three straight years without killing each other, which I think is probably the great achievement of Boone.

Not only does Dr. Uyterhoeven have a bit part in Boone, but at one point, Boone writes a story, “The Lovely Prawn,” that could have come right out of The Chess Garden. Did The Chess Garden exist in some form prior to Boone or did Boone inspire you to write The Chess Garden?
Boone inspired it. Nick and I were about 9/l0ths of the way done. We had Boone writing a children's book, but we'd given the reader no indication of what this book was about. Finally that struck us as unacceptable and we set ourselves to figuring out what that book might be. I passed by a chess shop of twenty-third street one afternoon, and in the course of the two and a half blocks between that shop and my apartment, I conceived the premise that appears in Boone. We collaborated on the story somewhat, but I think that I at least, discovered something about myself, or my creativity, in the course of doing so--something that writing Boone made clear in general--that I like narrative, I like story, I liked moving the characters around the room. Boone had frustrated this impulse somewhat, because it was so oral. No one could speak with authority. No one could tell the story. In "The Lovely Pawn" I was able to, and I saw in the premise behind it the opportunity for cultivating my narrative instincts even further.

How did the finished version of The Chess Garden differ from your conception of it when you started?
Not much at all. I tend to get my ideas all at once. Writing them down is more of a secretarial chore--getting them right, not screwing them up. I have the proposal I submitted to my then editor at Summit Books, who first acquired the novel. It still stands as a good description of the finished book, even the letters, most of which were conceived up front. I understand that mine is an approach which is anathema to most writers, who claim that a large part of the process is about letting story and the characters change and grow. My feeling has always been that that may be fun for the writer; it is not fun for the reader. If you want to make people laugh, you've got to tell the joke right. Likewise, if you want to move them, affect them, you've got to tell the story right, and that means knowing it and working it and testing it and fiddling with it. Ask any comedian. I enjoy sticking to the plan, trusting in my original inspiration.

What is your link to homeopathic medicine, and how did you become interested in the idea of the conflict between traditional/nontraditional science?
The source for most of the ideas in The Chess Garden is Swedenborg. That is, the primary purpose of the book was to convey the vision of Gustav Uyterhoeven. At the time that I was realizing that vision/understanding in my own head, I came upon Swedenborg's writings, and understood that Uyterhoeven's faith should be Swedenborgian. It is through Swedenborg's writings, or more particularly the work of others who were influenced by Swedenborg, that I made the homeopathic connection. (I would refer you to a large volume entitled Emanual Swedenborg, a continuing vision, edited by Robin Larsen, in which there is a whole section, four essays long on the connection between Swedenborgian ideas and homeopathy). As for the more general conflict between traditional and nontraditional science, I identified Uyterhoeven as a vitalist fairly early on--one who eventually came to embrace Swedenborg's vision would have to be--and was able to trace the development of his ideas accordingly, from vitalism, to empiricism, to homeopathy, to Swedenborgianism; posing him most steps of the way against his good friend Rudolf Virchow--a determinist, rationalist, allopathic and so forth. There is a book called Divided Legacy, the origins of modern western medicine, by Harris L. Coulter which was of great use to me along these lines.

Did you write the novel from beginning to end, or did you write the story of Dr. Uyterhoeven’s life separate from the stories of Antipodes and then combine the narratives. Which strand was harder to write?
Again, because I like to see my books in their entirety from the start, I don't really write from beginning to end. My technique is more like that of a painter, who begins from a sketch, and continues layering on and layering on until the original vision has been realized. A family friend and artist used to say, "If you want to draw a tree, you don't start with the top leaf." Unassailably true. Likewise, I don't start a book from the first word, or the first chapter. I sketch the whole thing out and go from there, skipping from place to place according to my current interest, to whichever part I have the energy for. I should say that I did spend a good chunk of time working on the letters only (maybe a year), followed by another good chunk where I worked on the biography, then went about putting the two together, but again, I did not experience those chunks as periods of discovery, but rather as a wrestling down of ideas and images and stories that I already knew, but which still needed rendering. As for which was harder to write. Hm. I really can't say. I think when you get down to it, narrative is narrative. The greatest imperative and the challenge is always to keep moving forward, whether you're writing about candletrees or dice chasms or the foibles of rationalist thought. Each part presented its own particular challenge. In the biographical chapters, the greatest challenge was one of distillation--how to render, with authority and authenticity, some fairly complex ideas and legacies, how to do them justice without pulling the narrative to a screeching halt. In the case of the letters, they all posed very different problems, but I suppose the denominating feature was making sure that the reader could see what was happening as clearly as possible. For the biographical portions, then, how to understand; for the letters, how to see.

At one point in The Chess Garden, you give the reader a brief glimpse of Dr. Uyterhoeven in South Africa as he’s preparing a letter to send home. Why did you decide to include this scene of the doctor’s “reality” in the midst of the “fantasy” of the letters about the Antipodes?
It is true, I have, in the Antipodes, created a fantastic landscape which may call to mind the landscapes created by Tolkein, Lewis, or Baum. Unlike those authors, however, I have also...gone to great pains to subsume that landscape in a firm historical setting. Strictly speaking, The Chess Garden is not fantasy/science fiction. Nothing truly magical or mysterious takes place. It is a story about a man who wrote a set of letters which describe a fantastic place, and it is my feeling that whatever power the book possesses, it derives from that fact--the fact that the letters, the landscape, are a gesture, the last gesture of a man who, over the course of the novel, we have come to know and understand. My fear with straight fantasy/science fiction, and perhaps the reason why I've never taken to it myself, is that even as much as I may respect the imagination it requires, the craft, the intelligence, and the vision, I am bothered by a certain limitation, a limitation upon my sympathy: that I can care only so much about a character who lives in a landscape where radically different conditions prevail--for that reason. If the conditions are so radically different, so might be the stakes, so might be the solution. Alternate landscapes offer much in the way of political statement, or religious statement, but they cannot, for me at least, inspire any great compassion or feeling. And that is why it was so important to me, in The Chess Garden, to make clear to the readers that everything they are reading is ultimately grounded in reality, that the fantasy is only an aspect of the protagonist's personality. Hence the scene of Uyterhoeven in South Africa. I wanted the readers to know the truth, so they could understand the nature of his gesture. The question for me as I was writing, was not, therefore, should I include the scene in South Africa? The question was, should I not include more? Should we not return there and see him one more time?

As we’ve discussed, Boone and The Chess Garden intersect. Should readers expect intersections between The Chess Garden and future novels, and could you discuss what you are currently working on?
I've just finished writing and illustrating a Young Adult novel entitled Caesar's Antlers, due out next fall from FS&G. It's about a family of sparrows who take nest in the antlers of a reindeer to search the Norwegian forest for their missing father, an idea I hatched on behalf of Uyterhoeven and his son. In many a late draft, this premise was mentioned as one on which Dr. Uyterhoeven and Larkin worked together. I believe that I have cut any such mention. I'm hoping my next adult book comes out in the fall of 1998. It's called Perlman's Ordeal, and details the seven-day spiritual and professional trial of August Perlman, an atheistic, secular humanistic, music-loving, somewhat anti-Semitic, Viennese Jew who runs the clinic for suggestive (hypno)therapy in 1906 London. His life and beliefs are turned upside down by the confluence of two women upon his previously contented existence--one is an adolescent hysteric who comes to the clinic in a catatonic state and awakes with a personality not her own; the other is the older sister of one of Perlman's favorite composers, the late (but not entirely absent) Alexander Barrett. As far as I can tell, there's nothing in either Boone or The Chess Garden which anticipates it--explicitly, at least.

Monday, July 12, 2004


Back in 1998 or 1999--I've wiped the exact dates from my memory--I, along with two colleagues, was sent on a road trip across the state by my current employer. Our task? To document existing business rules/models at the county level for a state agency.

This road trip took place over 18 weeks--every other week we would fly, or more usually, drive, to another location in Florida, some of them more cosmopolitan than others. Driving was interesting. Once, we got into an accident. A few other times, my colleague the driver would see a desired location, like a Chinese restaurant, and decide, although three lanes over and only 15 feet from the entrance to the place, in heavy traffic, to just barrel over two lanes of screeching, honking traffic to get to said restaurant. I thought we were all going to die. Another hilarious episode resulted when our colleague's faulty instructions to a watch repair store (his watch batteries had expired) led us right into the middle of a derelict crack house neighborhood with dozens of white/black/hispanic men sitting on their porches in the middle of the day watching us drive by kind of suspiciously...There was also the care-free episode in Chili's when I found vast quantities of what appeared to be tinsel in my grilled chicken and one of my colleagues found what at first appeared to be a shredded condom in his Caesar salad, but was later identified (thank goodness) as something at least a little more sanitary, made of plastic. Then, to return to our plastics theme, on the way to the airport, a plastic bag got caught in one of the wheels and I suddenly saw smoke rising--had no idea it was just a plastic bag burning from the friction--and thought the $*%&$#&!! car was on fire...

Throw in a hotel from hell in Sebring, Florida (thousands of mosquitos *inside*; moist, sweating, ectoplasmic walls; corridors on the second floor built with such low ceilings I had to stoop--what? they only cater to $%&#*!! midgets?), the car accident we witnessed in St. Petersburg during which the one guy decided to beat the living daylights out of the other guy, and the 8th trip (to where? I can't even remember at this point...) where one colleague lost the crown on one of his teeth and the other got a 103 degree fever and, yes, it was what you might expect: an absolute laugh riot.

But the piece de resistance (and I'd long since given up putting up any resistance--if we'd had a 10th meeting out of town, monkeys could have flown out of my colleague's butt during the sessions and I wouldn't have even blinked, just calmly writing down in the minutes, "Then a flock of flying monkeys entered the room by way of my colleague's ass.") occurred on our Fort Myers trip/experience.


The hotel we were staying at had a computer room with a printer so rather than lug our printer down with us, I was going to use the hotel facilities. I went down there with my disk and the glass door to the room was shut and some huge, 450 lb (I kid you not) 6 foot 5 guy with a shaved head and an earring was using it. All he needed was a bandana, a
parrot, and a pegleg to be a pirate (or to be a great big pile of pudding with a bandana, parrot, and pegleg on top of it).

So he comes out and as he passes me in the doorway I see he has shut down the computer and I'm going to have to reboot--which is not good. I've got a deadline. I don't have the time.

So I just kind of under my breath, looking at the screen, said, "No!"

The guy immediately turns around and says to me, "Are you cursing me? Are you cursing me?" His face is all red and his eyes are wild. I have no idea what he's talking about, but about the time I say "What are you talking about?" he has begun a little dialogue with himself that goes a little like this:

He1: You shouldn't take this kind of bullshit.

He2: I know--you don't have to take this.

He3: Yeah--who does he think he is.

He4: Show him what you can do, Stan.

Which is scarier than his anger, frankly. So I tell him of course I wasn't cursing him--that I just said "no" to the computer. He says a few more things to me and to himself and stalks off.

I sit down, a little out of sorts, and turn on the computer again and start figuring out how to print on their crappy equipment...when he comes back in again!!!!!!! This time the conversation goes something like this:

He (to himself): Show him what you can do, Stan.

Me: ????

He: I can show you your blood on the floor, you punk.

Me: Why? Why do you want to show me my blood on the floor? (a little panicked)

He: You want a piece of me? Because we can go right now. Right now. I'd like nothing better than to see your blood on the floor.

Me: I don't understand what you're talking about.

He (to himself): He thinks you're stupid. He thinks you're a freak.

Me: Are you okay?

He: So come on--are we going to go? Are we going to go...

...and then he totally freaks me out by saying this:


Now I'm sensing something seriously weird--I mean, how the hell does he get the frog connection? How does he know I collect and write about frogs? He doesn't know me from Adam.

So I'm severely rattled now and I'm looking around for something to hit him with because he's balling up his fists. There's nothing but the printer, so I kind of put my hands on it, I guess thinking I'd rip it off the desk and throw it at him. He, predictably, says again, "I'll see your blood on the floor."

Meanwhile, I'm wondering if printing out the meeting minutes is really worth my life. So I say:

Me: Should we call in security and ask them what they think of this idea?

He: Are you the manager?

Me: No. I'm not the manager. I just think we should go out into the lobby and ask security what they think of your idea.

He: Do you own the hotel?

Me: NO! I don't own the hotel. But let's go out in the lobby and ask them about this. Get it sorted out.

He (to himself): He's just making fun of you. He's going to get you.

Me: I'm going to get up now and we can go out in the lobby.

He: I'm still going to see your blood on the floor.

And then he leaves. One of my colleagues comes down to help out and wonders why I've locked the computer room door. I quickly let her in and lock the door, still trying to print the minutes for the next meeting. I tell her the story and she doesn't believe me! She thinks I'm making it up! (Imagine that.) So, then the guy comes back again, but can't get in because the door is at least I'm believed now...but we see the guy talking to the hotel clerk in the lobby. Then he leaves.

Then the hotel clerk comes in and says that the guy told her that I kicked him out of the computer room and told him I was the manager and I would call security on him...We explained our side of the story--"He's crazy..."--and that was the end of it. We never saw him again...

Needless to say, we all went out that night and had a few stiff drinks...


Check out my latest offering at Locus Online, wherein I get to call Iain M. Banks a "complete bastard."


Wednesday, July 07, 2004


In compiling my nonfiction collection (Why Should I Cut Your Throat?) for Monkey Brain Books, a fair amount of material has had to be left out--for reasons of space, but also just because some stuff doesn't fit. I'm going to post some of it here from time to time over the next few months, if it still seems relevant. For example, this review of a Carter collection couldn't be included because there's a long, 10K-word essay on Carter in Why Should I Cut Your Throat? already.


by Angela Carter

With this posthumous collection Angela Carter - that bawdy, irreverent witch of fantastic (and fantastical) literature - gives up the ghost, relinquishes her mastery, and, still balling the muse, allows us to observe, as if in the harsh, glacial light of the morning after the carnival has left town, the bare but incredibly beautiful bones of her work.

For bones there are aplenty in American Ghosts & Old World Wonders - and tricks, too, even with the carnival loaded up, pulled out, left for another town. In previous collections - Fireworks, The Bloody Chamber, Saints and Strangers (Black Venus in the U.K.) - Carter delighted in revealing the gears, wheels, cogs, and wires behind her illusions and in American Ghosts this does not change, except that here some of the illusions are incomplete, the tricks revealed while in progress. To Carter's credit, the collection rises above the flotsam and jetsam of minor stories and fragments; even the worst stories show flashes of brilliance.

Most of the nine stories in American Ghosts mirror or expand on Carter's interest in her penultimate collection Saints and Strangers, in which she plotted the loci at which Old and New Worlds intersect by cataloguing the secret motivations of such historical characters as Edgar Allen Poe, Baudelaire, and Lizzie Borden.

Whereas Saints began with the taut psychodrama "The Fall River Axe Murders," a clinical examination of the twenty-four hours before Borden killed her parents, American Ghosts begins with a story of Borden's childhood entitled "Lizzie's Tiger." The story hinges on Lizzie's adventures after wandering off during a circus performance; eventually, she meets a dirty old man who makes her touch his privates. Unfortunately, despite dazzling language and insightful character studies, "Lizzie's Tiger" has neither the precision nor the narrative pull of the earlier "Fall River Axe Murders." Most damaging, the story's denouement has no sense of closure; the reader, like Lizzie, waits for something more to happen and it never does. Carter planned to write a novel about Borden and perhaps, as Susannah Clapp suggests in her introduction, "Taken together [the two stories] show what a fine, fierce book we might have had."

If "Lizzie's Tiger" reads like a character sketch, "John Ford's `Tis Pity She's A Whore" reveals Carter at the top of her form. Carter imagines an incestuous western love affair between Johnny (Giovanni) and Annie-Belle (Annabella) as if written by John Ford the English dramatist of the Jacobean period and filmed by John Ford the American director. Beneath the tragic surface lies undeniable wit, the story occupying territory somewhere between Shakespeare and Cormac McCarthy. Carter adds her own touches by commenting directly to the reader, a technique coupled with startling but effective juxtapositions of dialogue:

ANNIE-BELLE: I count myself fortunate to have found forgiveness.
JOHNNY: What are you going to tell Daddy?
ANNIE-BELLE: I'm going out west.
GIOVANNI: What, chang'd so soon! hath your new sprightly lord
Found out a trick in night-games more than we
Could have known in our simplicity? Ha! is't so?

Self-conscious devices have always been Carter's forte and in "John Ford's `Tis Pity She's A Whore" these devices enhance the tragic implications while, on another level, lending the story a mischievously operatic feel.

Between "John Ford's..." and the wonderful "Alice in Prague, or The Curious Room" the reader will find several colorful shards and baubles of stories and ideas that magpies like myself will carry away with delight but which anyone besides a Carter completist will, at best, consider once-used costume jewelry. The lone exception, "The Merchant of Shadows," serves as a fun footnote to her 1977 novel The Passion of New Eve. The story's exploration of Hollywood and film roles is marred mostly by its traditional structure. Also worth noting is "Ashputtle or The Mother's Ghost" which, with its alternate versions of the Cinderella fairy tale, reads like an addendum to The Bloody Chamber.

Neither tale breaks any new ground for Carter, unlike the best story in American Ghosts, "Alice in Prague, or The Curious Room." What is the curious room?

There is a theory, one I find persuasive, that the quest for knowledge is, at bottom, the search for the answer to the question: "Where was I before I was born?"

In the beginning was . . . what?

Perhaps, in the beginning there was a curious room, a room like this one, crammed with wonders; and now the room and all it contains are forbidden you, although it was made just for you, had been prepared for you since time began, and you will spend all your life trying to remember it.

What can I say about this story except that it defiantly breaks every rule of the conventional short story - zero dialogue; didactic lecturing; no plot - and yet, such a beautiful and self-contained fiction about the crosshatching, the conflict, between science/logic and non-sense, Carter defining the word much as Lewis Carroll might have: ". . . the world of non-sense . . . is constructed by logical deduction and is created by language, although language shivers into abstractions within it." To summarize the story is to tell it over again; suffice it to report that Alice, Tycho Brahe, and Carmen Miranda make important cameos in one guise or another. The fructi-fornicating Archduke Randolph with his lively edible loves is a particular treat for those readers who possess both high and low senses of humor. How can Carter juggle so many apposites? Answer: easily.

Perhaps American Ghosts & Old World Wonders should share the title of her first collection, Fireworks. For, like that first collection, this last collection flares and fizzles and, every so often, explodes into such a profusion of light and magic that the images are still imprinted on your retinas the day after, even in the glare of morning, the carnival gone and never to return. At the end, Carter has come back to the beginning precisely because then, as now, she could never resist going farther than she should, certain that if her reach should exceed her grasp the only thing for it was to reach even farther.

Tuesday, July 06, 2004


Just to keep my hand in, I've decided to do some one-on-one critiquing this summer, for a limited number of manuscripts/writers. If you're interested, contact me at for rates and further info.

Also, watch Locus Online this week--they'll be posting a summer reading review/overview shortly.