I have no idea what I was thinking. What the hell was I thinking?
I was 50,000 words in, then. I’ve since written about 26,000 more. Not bad, right? Not bad for someone who usually requires years, not months, to get into the tens of thousands of words.
Except that my sense of the rightness of the story declines even as its word count goes up. It started out strong and fairly conventional (part I) and continued strong, if not quite as conventional (part II). Part III, though, is quagmire, tire fire, explosion of Silly String.
I’ve felt like this before, right? I think so, but I don’t feel so.
It’s too ambitious. That might be it. Part III is a succession of five Marys, all the same; Marys who die while giving birth to their next self. Parthenogenesis and cloning, in cave and deserted manor house and asylum. Five POVs but also only one. A single body with five internal voices that manifest as singing colours.
What the HELL was I thinking.
It’s too scattered. That might be it, too. My first three books took years to finish because I wrote them in order, chapter bit by chapter bit, in longhand. I never leapt to an out-of-sequence scene, no matter how vivid that scene might have been in my head. That changed with books four and five. The Laptop Revolution. The Dawn of the Haphazard. I got the books done, but the process felt weird. Unsettled.
Maybe this book represents the Mid-morning of the Haphazard? Or perhaps High Noon, after which some other order will prevail?
I was frequently the student who insisted that this time was going to be the time I actually did get a terrible mark on an exam. The student whose “this time” ended up being a crying of wolf, every time, because I mostly kept doing well. I’ve fretted about each of my now-published books, too, and they’ve turned out to be varying degrees of fine, but now…now I might actually lose a book at 76,000 words. (I’ve lost books at 40,000; working my way up?) “Losing it” may, in fact, mean finishing, many months from now, and sending it to interested agents, and hearing what I heard from my former agent: “I can’t sell this.” He said that about The Pattern Scars, and it ended up published—but this time. This time I just don’t know.
And yet I keep writing, hoping to god there’s no wolf.
Funny, how intense is the nostalgia generated by Decembers and epic franchise movies. Lord of the Rings, for example: Whenever I watch the first installment of the trilogy now, and catch that opening glimpse of Frodo in Peter Jackson’s Shire, I remember my sister grabbing at my hand in the theatre as both of us teared up with relief and recognition. Later, as Aragorn led the Fellowship out of the Mines of Moria, without Gandalf, I remember grabbing my sister’s hand and pressing it against my belly, within which my second child was performing a complicated underwater percussion solo with her feet. I tell said daughter (now 14) this, every time we watch the movie as a family. It is, for both of us, eye-rollingly predictable (“Here it is! This part right here! You went nuts right here!”), but tough: it has become part of the experience of this movie. Memory forever layered with image.
Sometimes the nostalgia is even more complicated: a movie remembering another movie that I remember; a tangle of personal and meta. So it was with The Force Awakens, last December, and so it was this December, with Rogue One. (Mildest of spoilers ahead…) Somewhat unexpectedly, I found that Rogue One did nostalgia better than its holiday predecessor. A mere day later, trying to figure out how it pulled this off, I’ve come up with the following: because the Big Three cast members weren’t—with one brief, CGI’d exception—involved, many of its call-outs to canon are fairly subtle, in some cases almost peripheral (that little Imperial box droid zipping along in the background; a brief appearance by that snub-nosed dude and his creature buddy, who would, only a short time later, though in a different movie, take exception to Luke in the Mos Eisley cantina; blue milk!). This makes for a story that relies more on its own merits than it does on immediate, unquestioning love for familiar faces. (I must admit, though, that that first shot of the back of Grand Moff Tarkin’s head made me giddier than I could ever have expected. I didn’t even need the CGI’d face. The hair was enough.) No lightsaber until the very end. Minimal use of Force—though there was early use of the Force theme. And that’s really why I think I liked this movie better than last year’s. The music.
Which is weird. I love the original trilogy John Williams soundtracks with the intensity of those two unlikely Tatooine suns, and Williams also did the score for The Force Awakens—so why did this music, by Michael Giacchino, hit me harder?
Something about familiarity accompanied by change. A woman dipping back into a place adored by a girl. Memory satisfying transposed.*
You know from its second frame that Rogue One is going to be the same old Star Wars experience, but different. “A long time ago”: the words are there, and the notes of the familiar fanfare are already sounding in your head—except they don’t sound. There’s no fanfare, no crawl. The (literal) tone is set.
Giacchino’s soundtrack evokes Williams from the outset, in sweep and orchestration, just as Williams’ soundtracks evoked Mahler and Holst. Listen: the skirl of oboe from Return of the Jedi! The familiar fanfare for two notes, at which point it’s inverted. Piccolo and harp. Syncopations and muted trumpets. The timpani rolls. Snippets of the Imperial March. The same dreamy violin line that accompanied the final scene in The Empire Strikes Back—but only for a moment. There are so many such moments: fleeting, delighted recognition, followed by newness. It should have felt like a giant tease, but it didn’t.
I would have been well content with Giacchino’s music alone. That’s saying something (see my comment re: Tatooine’s suns, above). This new music was enough.
But then the end. The cargo ship from that galaxy far, far away, in 1977. The gleaming white corridors; the desperate Rebels; Vader advancing. The princess draped in white (“Computer-generated face,” my brain told me as I teared up, “and super-weird, but I don’t care”)—and, at last, at last, the other music. The first. Echoes of Mahler and Holst and Williams and now, like a melody inverted and transposed, Giacchino.
*All of which puts me in mind of South Park’s savagely brilliant take on nostalgia, during its mostly excellent, if horrifying, 2016 election season: the “’member berries.” “We all want something new, but that makes us remember the things we love. We want to ‘member. ‘Member Chewbacca?”
I am really, really falling down on the blogging front. This disappoints me—though I have the very best reason for falling down: I’m writing with the kind of joy and focus I haven’t felt since three books ago, with The Pattern Scars.
I did a reading last week, as part of the Words at the Wise reading series at the small but mighty Wise Bar on Bloor West. I’ve done many readings over the years, the most recent of which have all been via ChiZine Publications, at my launches. I was nervous about this latest one, because it was out of my comfort zone: an organizer and other writers I didn’t know; an audience I mostly wouldn’t know either—plus (and possibly most nerve-wrackingly) an excerpt that wasn’t from a finished book.
The other two authors were Claire Horsnell and Andrew Simpson (who was also the organizer). They read before I did, and their pieces were funny and smart—totally engaging. The small-but-mighty space was full of people who were attentive and appreciative. Of course, I still got my customary right-before jitters. But once I was at the mic and talking, it was all OK. More than OK. I spoke new words—words which, despite the joy and focus with which I’ve been setting them down on the page, I was afraid might not work aloud. They did.
I fear and resent hope. Hope is an almost embarrassing thing to have felt, when it’s crushed, and I’d kind of prefer not to let it push up into my brain at all. But it does, time after here-we-go-again time, and it is now. From Gibraltar in 1781 to Quebec in 1878—from a girl named Ana de la Rosa to a man named Louis Riel—I feel like I have something, here, that might be something. I said at the event last week that reading from a work-in-progress is frequently considered seriously jinxing by writers who are otherwise perfectly sensible, non-superstitious people. Setting down the fact of my newest hope may be similarly foolhardy. But there it is. I’m 50,000 words into a story that excites me beyond even the excitement I felt writing about Bronze Age Crete. (Yes. Truly.)
“A madman came by steamer today from Montreal.” That’s how it starts. I can’t wait to find out how it ends.
Damn you, hope.
When I was in Greece 30 years ago, my classics classmates and I stayed in double rooms in hotels and got up at the crack of dawn to pile onto tour buses.
When I was in Greece last month, my family and I stayed here, at the Villa Calista on Crete.
The photos almost capture the splendour of the place. What they don’t capture at all, of course, is sound—in this case, the relentless screaming of cicadas. The place was otherwise so quiet: pretty much just wind and distant bleating and the mewing of invisible kittens. (The kittens were apparently at the bottom of the little olive orchard; while we saw their mom, and she bonked Elder Daughter Emma affectionately, we never did see them. Luckily, there were hordes of visible cats absolutely everywhere else.) But the cicadas. The metallic, grindy shrieking that swelled in waves, from olive tree to olive tree, as if each group felt compelled to be more stridently impressive than the others. “No way,” I thought as I stood by the pool for the first time, sweaty, breathless because it was so damn beautiful but also because the drive from Heraklion had been so nerve-wracking. “I will never get used to this sound.”
But I did. It faded, somehow. Became part of the beauty and the solitude. (It faded for real at night, when things went very quiet indeed.) We didn’t forget about the cicadas, though. In fact, we sought them out: stood with our noses inches away from olive trunks or branches, speaking in coaxing or frustrated tones. “Here, cicada cicada. Come on: show yourself…” The closest we came to an actual sighting was at ancient Aptera, where a couple of them bumbled out of trees and into Younger Daughter Stella, who didn’t seem quite as eager to meet them as the rest of us were.
We ferried to Santorini, after our idyllic days in the villa. And lo: there were no cicadas. Actual, daytime quiet—except for the irritable braying of nearby donkeys…
…and the patter of kibble as it went into the bowl that fed our resident feral kittens…
…and, as it turned out, a bunch of adult cats who obviously got wind of the kibble news.
When we left Greece, I figured that would be it for cicadas and us for a good long time.
Only it wasn’t. This guy was lurking on our porch the week after we got back.
Because we’d never actually seen one of his Greek brethren up close, we had to Google it to be sure—but yes: a cicada. A single, silent cicada.
I took more pictures than I probably needed to. But come on: look at that face!
We relocated him from the porch table to the rose bush, thinking this might deter predators (like our cats) and provide him with sappy sustenance.
We checked in on the rose bush the next day: no cicada. “He’s moved on,” we said cheerfully. “Yup: he’s off finding a more appropriate home and he’ll be just fine.”
One morning a week later, I went out to throw some recycling in the bin beside the porch. I turned, took a step back to the front door, and felt something crunch beneath my shoe. It was a significant crunch. I glanced down—and there he was: our lone cicada, flattened, oozing a yellowy-green liquid.
After all the shrieking on Crete and the silent, surprise photo shoot in Toronto, this was not how the cicada story was supposed to end. I was supposed to glimpse him, before my foot descended—was supposed to cry out joyfully and pluck him up and deposit back on the rose bush. He might disappear again, of course, but he’d be back: the porch of the Magic Bungalow was obviously his chosen place.
I’m possibly a little too upset about how the story did end. Stupid messy, abrupt, arbitrary smoosh, when the story had such a coherent and pleasing arc. Stupid story about a stupid bug. Get it together, me.
The other night, Grace, a friend and former neighbour, invited me over for an evening of writing talk with some friends of hers. They were an inspiring, inspired bunch: women navigating the intertwined drudgeries and joys of life and art. Some have known each other for years; others had never met until that night. I talked, maybe too much (there was Prosecco involved). They listened, and asked questions of me and of each other. They were funny, warm, curious, passionate.
I don’t think I’ve ever carried all my books anywhere, before, but I took them to Grace’s. They were passed from hand to hand around the table and I felt like I was looking at them from a vertiginous sort of remove, even though I was even then describing their provenance in detail. Five books. Mine— products of Montreal, Mexico, Toronto; early love and lost love; spiral-bound notebooks and laptop screens. It’s only been 13 years since that first one, but it felt like a hugely long time as I sat there, watching it go around the table.
There was another odd moment, right at the outset, when one of the guests asked how I knew Grace. I said, “I used to live there,” and pointed out her living room window at the window of what used to be my living room, right across the street. I lived there for eleven years. I’ve been back, of course, to pick up the girls when they were too little to get to my place themselves; a couple of times, soon after the divorce, for Christmas brunch. I’ve been back to the street to visit Grace and my other wondrous former neighbours. These returns have always been difficult, but also predictable, manageable. For some reason, though, as I pointed at that house the other night, its presence was strange and sad in a way that felt old, new, tangled.
Later, when I was describing my first novel’s path to publication, I talked about getting the call from my agent. “Penguin wants it…advance of…” I’d started to cry, I told the women around the table. I sat at my desk in the dean’s office at the Faculty of Architecture, Landscape, and Design and my computer screen blurred and ran. I told them that I nearly hyperventilated on the streetcar ride home (which seemed to proceed in slow motion). And I told them that when I finally opened the front door of the house across the street from this one, my one-year-old daughter was standing at the top of the stairs in that denim dress of hers, with the embroidered mandala-shape on the bodice. That she cried, “I love you, Mommy!”, as her dad had urged her to. That her dad was standing behind her, smiling at me as he brandished a bottle of champagne above our daughter’s fuzzy blonde head.
I stopped talking and waved my hand around in front of my face, breathing the tears away. The women I’d just met sat there with me—funny and warm, curious and passionate, holding my books in their hands.
Last year, The Pattern Scars was selected for inclusion in an Aurora Awards “e-bundle”, along with some other pretty fine novels. The bundle is now available–and for a mere three weeks. Check it out! Buy it! Read, read, read!
Author Doug Smith provides some background:
“How would you like to own, at an incredible bargain, ten books that readers like yourself have already voted to be the best examples of speculative fiction published in Canada? Well, here’s your chance. I’m curating an ebook bundle for StoryBundle.com that contains winners and finalists for Canada’s premier speculative fiction award, the Aurora Award.
The Auroras are awarded annually by the Canadian Science Fiction & Fantasy Association (CSFFA) for excellence in Science Fiction and Fantasy. The award started in 1980 as the Casper and was renamed the Aurora for the 1990 awards. Auroras now include eight professional categories and four fan categories.
One of my goals when putting this bundle together, aside from offering the best books possible, was to have a gender balance in the selected authors. Mission accomplished. The bundle includes five female and five male authors. You’ll also get a great mix of SF and fantasy, adult and YA novels, as well as a selection of short fiction. The bundle also reflects the long history of the Auroras, with titles spanning over twenty years of Canadian speculative fiction. Here’s what you’ll get in the bundle…
Starplex from Robert J. Sawyer, takes you on board a giant exploration starship crewed by humans, dolphins, and extraterrestrials as it embarks on a journey covering billions of years of time and millions of light-years of space. It was also a finalist for both the Hugo and Nebula awards.
Dave Duncan’s West of January is a rare standalone SF novel from a master writer of fantasy series. In it, astounding world building drives a thought-provoking tale of a strange, slowly rotating planet where the habitable zone shifts over a human lifespan.
Karin Lowachee’s Cagebird is the third book set in her Warchild universe about a galaxy spanning human-alien war. It’s a standalone novel, so don’t worry if you haven’t read the first two. (But you should—Warchild won the Warner Aspect First Novel Award and was an Aurora finalist.)
Susan McGregor contributes The Tattooed Witch, the first book in her fantasy trilogy set during the Spanish Inquisition and wonderfully infused with Romany culture of the time. In it, a young woman must turn to her dead mother’s magical legacy to battle the Grand Inquisitor himself.
Caitlin Sweet’s The Pattern Scars immerses you in the world of a young female seer able to see the future but not change it. A dark, literary fantasy with believable characters and beautiful prose, the book also won the CBC Bookies Award in 2012.
Candas Jane Dorsey’s Black Wine is a much-praised novel that can be viewed as both fantasy and SF. It is challenging, memorable, with the beautiful prose one would expect from cross-genre writer who is also a poet. It also won the James Tiptree Jr. Award and the Crawford Award.
Sean Stewart provides an excellent young adult fantasy story with Nobody’s Son, in which the hero defeats the beast and wins the hand of the princess in the first chapter—and then learns what fairy tales never tell you.
The bundle also demonstrates the rich tradition of Canadian short speculative fiction, with an anthology and two collections. The anthology Blood & Water, edited by three-time Aurora winner Hayden Trenholm, gives us timely tales of battles over our most precious resource, fueled by climate change, population growth, and humanity’s natural aggression.
Gifts for the One who Comes After, by Helen Marshall, is a brilliant introduction to the work of one of the brightest new lights in short fiction. Gifts also won the World Fantasy Award and was short-listed for both the British Fantasy Award and the Bram Stoker Award.
My own collection, Chimerascope¸ contains a mix of SF, fantasy, and horror, including an Aurora winner, seven Aurora finalists, and a Best New Horror selection. The collection was also a finalist for the Sunburst Award and the CBC Bookies award.
And if you are looking for still more pedigree, the bundle includes two CSFFA Hall of Fame inductees (Sawyer and Duncan), as well as a current nominee (Dorsey).
At StoryBundle, you decide what price you want to pay. For $5 (or more, if you feel generous), you’ll get the basic bundle of five books in any eBook format worldwide:
- Blood and Water, edited by Hayden Trenholm
- Cagebird, by Karin Lowachee
- Gifts for the One Who Comes After, by Helen Marshall
- Nobody’s Son, by Sean Stewart
- The Pattern Scars, by Caitlin Sweet
If you pay $14 (or more, if you feel generous), you’ll get these five bonus books as well:
- Black Wine, by Candas Jane Dorsey
- Chimerascope, by Douglas Smith
- Starplex, by Robert J. Sawyer
- The Tattooed Witch, by Susan McGregor
- West of January, by Dave Duncan
The Aurora Award bundle runs for three weeks only, from March 30 to April 21. It’s a fantastic deal and a great way to pick up titles already voted by readers like yourself as the best of Canadian SF and fantasy. Click here to check out this great ebook bundle.”
When I was 14, baking in summer sunshine on a friend’s upper-floor balcony, I decided to begin writing a history of the relationship between Alexander the Great and his best friend/lover, Hephaestion. This wouldn’t be a fictionalized trifle: it would be academic, serious—and yet it would be shot through with creative re-imaginings and deft scene-setting. I could feel the scope of it, widening and widening behind my eyes. My heart was hammering. I drew a blank piece of three-ring paper out of my knapsack. With confidence and a flourish of underline, I wrote a title I can no longer recall. I believe I made it one line in (the line went something like, “Alexander the Great met Hephaestion, son of Amyntor, when they were boys, under the tutelage of Aristotle, at Mieza”). And that was it. I chewed the pen cap. I stared at the paper. I sensed a pall that had no chance against the summer sunshine.
The scope was wide, all right: it widened and widened behind my eyes and farther yet, to a place way beyond the confines of my skull. This was a big undertaking. It was scarily huge. It would require libraries and dry, dull texts that wouldn’t read at all like Mary Renault. I admitted this to myself, on the balcony, and wanted to cry.
Months later, I wrote the first of my many Alexander stories. Forget biography: fiction was how I’d always wanted to do this. And anyway, it was easier. Quicker. More fun.
Decades later, I toyed with the idea of writing something about Louis Riel, set at the insane asylum in Quebec where he was patient, for a time. “Toyed with” is, in fact, too glib a term: I read and scribbled and read some more. I researched. I bookmarked. Spent months plotting things out, after spending hours on the phone with my agent. Louis Riel. The story was breathtakingly exciting. The story was nauseatingly scary. He was a real man: he left letters, diaries, legacy; he left people who knew, admired, hated, loved him, and people who felt powerful things for him still. Who was I to attempt to capture any of this? How could I sacrifice the truth of what that sanitarium had really been for a magic-realist vision of how it never was?
I didn’t end up writing a word of this one. Even my attempt at that biography of Alexander and Hephaestion was more productive.
My forays into a fantastical Bronze Age, thankfully, were a delight. I did just enough research to capture some of the broad strokes, but the rest was imagined—and that was okay, because the story came from myth. Ah, myth: the ultimate in plausible deniability. Don’t like what I chose to do with this plot element? It happens to be consistent with a very old version of the myth. And anyway: it’s myth, people. It never happened—or we can never prove it did, anyway. I’m just the latest in a long line of interpreters, layering on my own images and personalities and twists. Sure, I might have kind of wanted to make a stab at actual Bronze Age historical fiction—but that would have taken a ton of research, and despite all of the research, I could have been wrong or lame about something, and people might have called me out on this.
I write fantasy, in part, because of a heady, addictive need to seek out wonder, to ask profound, elemental human questions via other worlds, using imagery both impossible and immediate. These reasons are easy to give—but there are others. Yup. Laziness and fear are also part of why I write fantasy.
Even without the historical fiction angle: laziness and fear. Take The Pattern Scars, which is narrated by a young woman of extremely humble origins who ends up living in the royal court. Readers have commented on how impressed they are that I chose to use the first-person point of view of a character who’s close to the great goings-on of the highest in the realm, but not quite there: someone who’s privy to some important conversations, but not nearly all of them. One reader might even have referred to this choice of mine as “brave.”
First of all, the “commoner in the court of the king” trope is exactly that: a trope. And it didn’t feel like a brave choice; it felt like a necessary one. I wanted more of that plausible deniability. Political decisions that shape history? Not sure I’m up to writing about that—so Nola wasn’t in the room when those decisions were made. Battlefield strategy? Oh god, no: she hears there might be some, at some point, but that’s about it.
There are narrative reasons other than lazy fear for my point-of-view choices, of course. I’m genuinely fascinated by the idea of thrusting regular people into situations that would normally be beyond them: fish-out-of-water characters, stand-ins for the reader, carefully or fretfully navigating strangeness, rather than striding about knowing everything already.
Lazy fear and narrative appeal are not, it seems, mutually exclusive.
I’m between books now, struggling to come up with what’s next. I’m giddy with barely-formed ideas, snippets gleaned from articles, photos, maps, the tangles and tangents of Wikipedia. I’m scared, because the business-y ground beneath my feet isn’t so much bedrock as it is sinkhole-ridden sand, and I want to make the right choice, for both market and me. So what is next?
What about historical fiction? I’m not 14 anymore, and the Internet exists now: surely I could essay a subject both obscure and possible to substantiate. A fresh new take on fill-in-the-blank; a “wow, I had no idea that was happening in Canada in 1877!” kind of thing.
Literary spins on historical fiction seem to sell, in Canada. They seem to do well, critically. Some of them even involve a whiff or two of fantasy—few enough whiffs, somehow, to keep these novels off the genre shelves. Part of me is eager to try a spin like this. It would stretch my writerly abilities, get me out of my comfort zone. It might garner me some attention outside the genre world—something I’ve never even seriously envisioned, but which might be kind of cool.
But what if someone calls me out on something? “Does she seriously think a working-class Victorian child would speak that way?” “The architecture of the workhouse is all wrong!” “Her grasp of animal husbandry is loose at best.”
I’m kind of trying, though. I’ve started to make notes on some of those exhilarating, mostly formless, historically-based ideas I’ve been having—but the impulse toward lazy fear is already kicking in. Too much work to do this “straight”, and the accuracy stakes are high; why not do the usual Sweetian thing? Historical fantasy, mythology-based fantasy, contemporary fantasy: in the past month or so, I haven’t had a single idea that hasn’t become infested with fantasy elements shortly thereafter.
I should probably start writing and see what happens. If research happens, maybe that’s fine. If fantasy happens, that’s fine too. I should stop trying to crystal-ball the market, and just follow that overthinking, overwrought muse of mine.
Alexander of Macedon, you persistent, provocative ghost, you.
A couple of days ago I did a guest Q&A at Alyx Dellamonica’s University of Toronto creative writing class. One of the students asked me what my trajectory had been—how and when I’d started writing; what I’d written. I talked about my first book, completed when I was in grade 8, whose beginning, middle, and end were shaped entirely by wish fulfillment and Portentously Capitalized Nouns. Then I mentioned what came after: something completely different in form and style—though still motivated by wish fulfillment—written when I was 15, 16, and 17. This was a series of stories (which I’ve referred to before, on this blog) about Alexander the Great. It started as one story, an assignment for my grade 10 English class—but it was so exhilarating to write that the others spilled out, mostly over successive Christmas breaks. I remember how fevered the writing of them was. Who should I be now? His first wife? His lover? His sister? How about Aristotle? Sure! Why not! (Thankfully, though I wasn’t smart enough to avoid taking a stab at Aristotle’s voice, I was smart enough not to allow the result into the final draft of the collection.)
After I finished The Book Of Portentously Capitalized Nouns, I was convinced it was publication-worthy. I was 14! And I’d finished something book-esque! Surely that made me a sensation waiting to be discovered! It took me awhile to internalize (thanks to the lovingly, brutally honest feedback of some grown-ups in my life) the fact that publication was not what this book was intended for. Having railed against, then learned this lesson, I never believed my Alexander stories were destined for bookstores. But I loved them with an abiding love, and I knew that they were better than what I’d written before, and that was something.
For 20 years, despite the abiding love thing, I mostly forgot about Alexander. In 2005, casting about desperately for my next idea, I remembered him. At last it was time to base a fantasy novel on Alexander’s life! Three novels, even! Yes!
But, after 40,000 words, no.
I mostly forgot about him again—until 2007, when Julie Czerneda and Rob St. Martin asked me to write a short story for their anthology, Ages of Wonder. An anthology about myths. About history. About…well, why not. Surprised and delighted that I could go back again, I wrote one more Alexander story, “To Play the Game of Men”, narrated by Bucephalus. His horse.
Back to a couple of days ago. When I got home from Alyx’s class, I discovered that an interview I’d done back in the fall with Speculating Canada’s Derek Newman-Stille was online. There was Alexander again, mentioned as Derek and I talked about the influence Mary Renault’s books had on us, as much younger people.
And just last night, out for dinner at the home of some friends, there he was again: Mr. Macedonian Conquerer, raising his golden, widow’s-peaked head in a conversation that started with long-range sniper rifles, moved on to Zweihänder swords, and ended up waaay back, with Alexander’s perfection of the phalanx.
There are salient, craft-related things to be gleaned, amidst the nostalgia. Like: Trying to write about Alexander without actually being in his head taught me a whole lot about point of view. And: I learned how to interpret a historical period I could never truly know. And: I found out what creative failure felt like, and I lived.
So it might not be too much of a stretch to say that Alexander made me the writer I’ve been, from 1984 to the present. And the beauty of his permanence is that I get to forget him, then remember, making the very old very new, all over again.
For those of you who are still with me: here’s one of the (shortest of the) stories, written when I was about 17.
Amyntas, to Macedon
…I know not what to think, Father, nor what to feel but this emptiness. I have just seen him, I think for the last time. Alexander barely lives.
The omens of late have been bad, to be sure. The first portent occurred shortly after we left Ecbatana, and the shadow of Hephaestion’s death. Alexander and his officers were taking refreshment in a room outside the throne room; Straton and I were nearby. We heard, as the officers did, the first terrified wails of the eunuchs in the throne room. We arrived shortly after Alexander did, and stared with horror at the scene.
There was a man upon the throne. He was bent and frail, with bony hands and wrinkled arms. A stream of unintelligible words came from his mouth as he rocked himself slowly back and forth. I remember that his eyes were bright, glittering with madness. And there he sat, on Alexander’s chair, while the eunuchs moaned and did nothing.
In Persia, it is a capital offence to sit on the Great King’s throne. We all knew this. Seers were called to interpret the event; they told the king that this was far more serious than simple disrespect. This, they said, was a symbol of disaster. The madman was tortured; it was thought that he might have been involved in a plot. However, no evidence was found. The creature babbled only that he had felt like sitting there, and knew of no reason. To prevent the bad luck that this confession suggested, he was put to death.
The portents did not end there. A second was observed as Alexander was sailing back to Babylon after investigating the irrigation of the farms downstream. He was apparently in good spirits, and had taken the tiller of his own ship. There was a wind over the floodlands that day; it caught the hat he was wearing and swept the band off, into a clump of rushes. These rushes happened to be growing beside a tomb. Alexander seemed to be concerned only at the loss of the diadem, which bore the royal colours of purple and white. As he worried, a seaman leapt off the boat and swam over to retrieve it. He discovered that he could not carry it back without getting it wet, and therefore tied it around his head. Again, the seers foresaw disaster. Alexander appeared untroubled; he had the man beaten, but later gave him a talent of silver for his efforts.
I suppose that we should have seen. But the Persian Gulf expedition was near, and Alexander had shown himself to be immune to both sickness and injury; we did not think of death. But then, as far as we could see, neither did Alexander.
He was stricken with fever after drinking at Medius’. There are rumours of poison, of course, but I doubt them. Medius is a good man, and a faithful friend to Alexander. In any case, the King fell ill. He had to be carried by litter to make the daily offering at the altar, but still he spoke with confidence, as if the sickness would soon be out of him. The plans for the expedition continued; Alexander only altered them by a few days. A week went by, and he worsened. Soon he could no longer make the offering once at the altar. Yet still he briefed his officers, still he spoke (though weakly) of the coming campaign. No doctor was summoned, for he had lost all faith in them with Hephaestion’s death.
He had been staying in the gardens, but on the tenth day of his illness, he ordered himself to be carried back within the palace. He called for his chief officers to stand before him, and for his junior officers to assemble outside the doors. But when all were there, and an expectant hush had fallen, nothing could be done. Alexander had lost the use of his voice.
He remained in the royal bedchamber after that, only able to whisper a word or two. Of course, we the common soldiers knew nothing of this. We had all seen him being carried about; he always smiled at us, or waved. We imagined that he would soon be well, for most of us had fallen ill somewhere in Asia.
But then, for two days, we did not see him. The officers would not answer our questions. The palace shimmered in the heat, its gates closed and Alexander within.
On that second day, we could endure no more. We rushed to the gates, crying loudly to see the King. We shouted that the death of Alexander was being kept from us and demanded to see him with our own eyes, whether he was alive or dead.
The officers appeared, listened to us, then vanished within once more. They were gone for quite a while. And then, at last, we were told to come in.
I have just discovered that it was Alexander who, with a nod, ordered us to be brought in. His officers were determined to refuse, but, even without his voice, Alexander is forceful. In we came, single file, through a door at the far end of the bedchamber. He was lying in the enormous bed, covered in a light white sheet. As the first man entered, he turned himself on the pillows, drawing himself up to meet us. We passed slowly and silently, though some wept quietly. And to every one of us he gave a sign, whether it was from his eyes or with a tilt of his head. Not one of us went unnoticed.
It is now night. Very few of us are sleeping. It is too hot, and the silence is oppressive. At any moment, we are expecting to hear the first wails from the palace. Peucestas and six of Alexander’s friends are spending the night at the temple of Sarapis, praying for him. I do not know how much that will do. Not that I have seen him, I do not believe that anything will save him. His body, compact and muscular only a few weeks ago, is now thin and frail. Only his eyes are still alive; they shine from the mask of his face, hopelessly defiant.
Father, I will be home as soon as he has died. I cannot stay in this strange land any longer, not without Alexander. What would we do? Who would lead us? He is the light that has driven us on, even in times of despair. Without him, his men will lose their unity and their purpose. I am already sure that there will be much bloodshed, for he has not named a successor. I do not wish to be caught up in the chaos. I want no part in the coming struggle for power. I want only to be home, away from the heat and cruelty of this place.
How long has it been since I saw your face? Nine years? Twelve? I cannot be sure. Much time has passed, that I know, since a young Macedonian king drew me away from my country. Straton and me both. We were but boys, so eager and confident of glory.
I must attempt to sleep now, for I will doubtless have need of strength in the coming days. Strange, that I do not yet feel grief. Only emptiness, consuming and cold.
I bid farewell to you, Father, but knowing that it will not be for long. Soon I will be home.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens spoilers below. They’re not big ones, but I would have been irritated if I’d read something like this before I’d seen the movie. So, to those who care: Consider yourselves warned.
I was once Luke Skywalker’s wife. Yup: Luke’s. Not Han’s—when I was seven, Han did nothing for me. I had no idea who David Cassidy was: there were no feathery-haired blond boys in my life at all, until Luke ran across the sand of Tatooine, whining at Uncle Owen. I didn’t care about the whining. I didn’t know what bad acting was. Luke was my one and only 70s fixation—and he stayed with me well into the 80s, long past the time when I should have turned teenage eyes to Han, instead.
And yes: I married Luke. I added a few years to my age and made myself 16 (even in my fantasy I knew that 13 was a little young). I fast-forwarded my Empire Strikes Back soundtrack tape to the part right at the end, when Luke’s getting his mechanical hand and the Falcon is preparing to zip off and find carbon-frozen Han. I’d listen in the dark, squeezing my eyes shut, imagining our very own little cave-house on Tatooine. Imagining how he’d look in moonlit darkness. Imagining…well, whatever I could, at that point.
Oh—and I was a Jedi too. And my black robes were very flattering.
Every time I watched the movies, in the years after they came out, I felt echoes of the me who’d longed for the whiny farm boy in the white tunic, the impatient apprentice in the orange flight suit, the somber man in Jedi black. I remembered my yearning for fantasy and escape so well that I still seemed to be feeling it.
Fantasy. Escape. Love. Youth. From 1977 to 1983, Star Wars and I were all about these things (which a Jedi craves not, perhaps. I never said I was devout).
Now, 32 years later, there’s a new film featuring the old faces. Old places too, though they might have different names (Tatooine has double vowels; Jakku has double consonants. Good enough). Old faces, old places, and the kind of fantasy and escape that will always feel young.
Manuscripts’ worth of reviews have already been written about Star Wars: The Force Awakens since it came out yesterday. Many of them have commented (whether favourably or scornfully) on the myriad ways in which it hews to the 1977 plot. Yes: secret plans in cute, blooping droids; baddies on a giant, killer space orb; lightsaber duels and face masks; parenting and mentoring gone badly wrong. All of this is back, but it all seems new.
One thing I haven’t yet read about, possibly because of the moratorium on spoilers, is Han and Leia. Everything moves fast, and the new, understandably, gets more screen time than the old, so we don’t see that much of them. What we do see, though, is remarkable. [Here begin my own fairly modest spoilers.] I imagine that, left to the man who created them, Han and Leia likely would have tied some sort of galactic knot a couple of days after that second Death Star blew and the Ewoks stopped drumming on Stormtrooper helmets. (Yub nub!) Thirty years later they’d still be together—happy, if careworn, bantering like the cocky smuggler and princess with hair buns I bet they’d always have been, to Lucas.
J.J. Abrams didn’t go there.
Maybe they were married, at some point: we don’t find out. They were a couple long enough to have a son and raise him to almost-adulthood; at one point Leia says something like, “I lost you when I lost him.” She’s still a princess; she’s also a general. He’s no longer a general; he’s back to being a smuggler. They are iterations of who they were 32 years ago—but they aren’t together. There’s regret between them. Sadness. A mature, weary connection that’s probably too complicated to be called love.
When Luke gazed at the Tatooine sunset, in Star Wars IV, the 7-year-old me imagined love. When Han and Leia gaze at each other, in Star Wars VII, I see what I’ve learned about it. Marriage, children, divorce. Regret, sadness, connection. Things that work, for a time, then don’t.
When I examine this critically, I acknowledge that, in ascribing depth and complexity to incredibly brief interactions, I may well be projecting almost as much today as I did back when. That’s OK, though. Star Wars first hit me at a time when my critical faculties were nascent at best (see first paragraph), and I feel no need to employ them now (likely something Abrams was banking on, and something he will, in fact, take to the bank). I’m going with it emotionally, as I always have—and the emotions are older. The connection is as real as the escape.
Thank the Maker.
The Flame in the Maze is real. Here I am at its debut, on December 7th.
Yes: it’s in the world—and it’s the end of the story I started writing years ago, in The Door in the Mountain. I’d be hazy on the precise number of those years, except that I remember writing a particular scene by Peter’s bedside in the hospital, as he recovered from almost dying of necrotizing fasciitis. February 2011, that was—and I was already a ways into the story. And now it’s finally done.
I don’t write acknowledgements in my books—something I’ve mentioned before, on this blog. But I have to thank someone, here and now: Samantha Beiko.
When The Pattern Scars was released, it came out in limited edition hardcover as well as trade paperback. That hardcover was a thing of almost unbearable beauty. Part of what made it so beautiful were its endpapers, which, my editor/publisher informed me, had been crafted by one Sam Beiko. Some young thing, insanely gifted in the visual arts department, who’d ended up in lucky ChiZine’s orbit.
That was the end of 2011. In 2015, I discovered that Sam wasn’t only insanely gifted in the visual arts department: she was rich in words, too. She plunged into The Flame in the Maze: she commented and inquired; she recommended and annotated. She also identified a MAJOR chronological inconsistency I’d never noticed, and probably never would have.
The surpassing beauty of this new relationship ended up being its link to the past. Sam edited my words, yes, but she also took them and made them into an image—a map of this book, in all its twisty-turny permutations. I sent her a disaster of a Word file (with arrows and squiggly lines and small-caps text), and she turned it into this:
So, Sam: I acknowledge you, with delight and thanks. Let’s do it again, sometime.