The Blob

It’s a dank, gray day in later April. I’m not sure if it’s raining now, but the streets are wet. The trees are leafing out. I realized this year (for the first time) that a lot of that pale green is flowers. My friends with allergies know. This is the time of year they cough and sneeze. Still and all, I think there are leaves — or the hope of leaves — among all the flowers.

I have finished the first draft of a story: 53 pages and 14,700 words. The problem is, the story is a blob. There not enough plot, and I have not a clue what the story means. Also, I suspect the story leads toward another story. Maybe a group of stories. Maybe a novel. I am too old to begin a novel. I will focus on the story. I need to do a second draft, inserting plot and meaning. It might turn out to be entertaining.

A Question

(This began as a facebook conversation. I have not posted the comments by other people, since I don’t have permission.)

A reader wrote to me, asking why I only described action and conversation in one of my novels. No interior monologues. I actually think I put in thoughts at certain points. But I am not going to go back and read an ancient novel to be sure. Anyway, I no longer know why I did it. Influence of the Icelandic sagas would be my best bet. Though the interior story is fairly recent, isn’t it? From the development of the bourgeois novel? I grew up on all kinds of literature: fairy tales, myths, medieval legends, 19th century novels, mysteries and science fiction. A lot of these were not especially interior.

I guess the next question is, do we know how much people had interior monologues before recent times? (Shakespeare. His characters have a lot of stuff going in their minds.) I’m not arguing that people in the past were stupid. But it’s possible that you need training to over-think.…

I can imagine a saga character thinking, “I have to kill Thorvald. I have to kill Thorvald. I need to get the hay in. That colt looks promising. I have to kill Thorvald.”

He might — or might not — get more complex than this. Thorvald said something snippy to him at the Althing, and that requires revenge.

I think Shakespeare shows us that people were capable of complex thought before the modern novel. But in the sagas, you mostly get the complexity through conversation and action, and you are supposed to know enough to figure out what is never said or said very quietly. What I suspect is that the modern novel and modern psychology may lead people to keep a little Freud in their brain, which the vikings did not have. (“Am I butchering this Englishman to get his silver, or am I doing it because he reminds me of my father?”)

I think I need to drop the idea that earlier generations didn’t have psychological complexity. (I never meant to say they had different brains.) Maybe what has changed in how this is portrayed. In the Laxdaela saga the heroine is asked, late in her life, which of her three husbands she loved the most. She replies, “Him that I treated worst I loved the most.” That one line tells you a lot that you haven’t known previously. There is certainly complexity in this.

Why did I rely on exterior descriptions in my first novel? Heaven knows. I don’t. Too much of what I write is unplanned and never verbalized. I’ll say it was the influence of the sagas and folk tales and myths, all of which I love. They are all in one way or another laconic. And, as one of the people commenting on this facebook post pointed out, Minnesotans of Nordic descent are known for leaving things unsaid.

Becoming a Writer

I did a Q & A at ICFA (the International Conference for the Fantastic in the Arts) a week or so ago. It was via Zoom, of course, which was okay, because I am not crazy about Florida.

One thing I talked about — is the way the past year reminds me of the late 1960s, when I lived in Detroit and the world seemed violent, unjust and beyond my control. I have noticed that I am worrying about my health, which I did in Detroit in the 60s, and which (I think) is a response to a world out of control and dangerous and wrong. (Always worry about something you can — to an extent — control.) (When you can’t fix the world, fix yourself.) Anyway, I told the story about how I wrote my first publishable fiction.

I had just moved into a house with three other women. It was in Highland Park, a small town entirely surrounded by Detroit. This was the city itself, not a suburb, and it was not entirely safe. (Remember that this was the city as it used to be, full of houses and auto plants, with a murder rate of 800 a year. I loved that city. It was full of energy, but not all the energy was positive.)

The first night I slept in the house I woke to screaming. The house was a side-by-side duplex, and I thought the screaming came from next door. I went downstairs to the one roommate home, my friend Kathe. I thought I heard running steps as I went down, but didn’t really pay attention.

It turned out the person screaming was Kathe. She had been waked by a click as someone tried to open her bedroom door. Having remarkable survival instincts, she woke completely, leaped across the room to hold the door shut and screamed, thus waking me.

We searched the house and found at least one window open. And we called the Highland Park police. They arrived with drawn nickel-plated guns. You have no idea how big and shiny a gun like that is. And they decided that Kathe had dreamed the intrusion.

So they left. Later our two roommates arrived. They were political activists, who were concerned about the rights of the prisoners in Jackson Prison. We could not get them interested in the safety of the house. It turned out they had been leaving a ground floor window unlocked, because one of them has lost her keys. We wanted to put good locks on all the ground floor windows and make sure no one was ever home alone. They were not interested. The safety of their roommates did not seem important. Instead they were focused on the guys in Jackson, who certainly needed help, but we needed help, too. Kathe and I moved out a few days later. Within a week a woman down the street, a friend of ours, was raped in her bedroom.

The police then called Kathe and wanted to talk to her. (They hadn’t filed a report on our break in.) She said, “Screw them all,” and drove to California.

I did the best job I could of securing my new apartment, which was several floor ups. This made the windows pretty safe. But I put a grid over the inside of the front door, because it looked to me as if it could be kicked in. It was years before I could sleep without a light on. And I told this story to people at my job. The women were angry. The men told rape jokes. A male friend of mine told me that all men imagine raping women.

I felt angry and powerless in the face of sexism and serious stupidity. I’m not sure ‘fail’ is the right word here, but…The cops had failed me and Kathe by not doing their job. Our highly political roommates had failed me and Kathe by not caring about the safety of women. My co-workers, at least the men, had failed me by thinking rape was funny. At least one male friend failed me.

All I could think to do was write, and for the first time in my life I began to write fiction that was good enough to sell. One the stories was “The Warlord of Saturn’s Moons,” which is in the Norton Anthology of Science Fiction. Another was “A Clear Day in the Motor City,” which was reprinted in Thomas Disch’s New, Improved Sun.

Writing and Politics

I flared up yesterday at a facebook friend’s post. I hate those sudden bursts of anger, since my goal in life (aside from being a good writer and a good friend) is to be even-tempered. It was not politics, it was literary theory — the idea that there is a dichotomy between fiction about people and ’cause’ fiction, fiction with a political agenda, and that cause fiction is inferior. I am pretty sure I misunderstood what my friend was saying.

My response was not so much about the friend’s post, as it was about my own issues. I dislike literary fiction that is about personal and familial problems. I suspect this strain in US fiction derives from the McCarthy witch-hunting era, which (I think) stripped politics out of American art and literature. We are still dealing with the effects. Genre fiction mostly escaped the witch-hunting, because it wasn’t taken seriously. My own work has been criticized for being too political, so I have a personal interest here. Yes, my work is political. I don’t think it makes it less good. In fact, I think it makes it more interesting.

But what is important here (to me) is my anger flare up had very little to do with my friend’s post and a lot to do with my own issues. What interesting (I guess) is the flare up is about writing, not politics by itself.

Writing is my way to be political.


On Why I Write Short Fiction

I decided to add a few anthologies and magazines with fairly recent short stories to the grid on the home page.

Why are my short stories and short story collections fairly recent, and my novels are not?

A distinguished editor told me in 1994 or 95 that, given the publishing business then, my career as a novelist was dead. I had never liked dealing with the New York houses, and I did like dealing with magazine and anthology editors, who mostly seemed like nice people. (The New York book editors also seemed like nice people, but there were too many screw ups.) So I switched over to writing short stories, novelettes and novellas. I wrote in series: the hwarhath stories, the Lydia Duluth stories, the Big Mama stories. The hwarhath and Big Mama stories have come out in collections, and one Lydia Duluth story — Tomb of the Fathers — has been published as a stand alone. It got way too long and is almost a novel according to Nebula Award rules. I have called Tomb a novel in my bibliography.

Since the early 1990s, publishing has changed a lot. The New York houses have consolidated into — what? four mega firms? — that have lost interest in mid-list authors. As a result, small presses are much more important than they used to be. Self-publishing has become a more or less attractive alternative, now that ebooks can be sold on Amazon and Barnes and Noble. (It used to be you’d end with boxes of self-printed books and no good way to market them. According to a friend of mine, 5,000 paperbacks fit under a standard size ping pong table. She knew, because that’s where she kept her self-published mystery.)

So was I right to switch to short fiction? Maybe not, given that there are really fine independent presses now, and self-publishing no longer requires a ping pong table.

On the plus side, I really like the novelette and novella lengths. They are long enough to have richness and complexity, but not so long that I get tired of writing.