I have a new novelette in the November issue of Clarkesworld: “The Language Birds Speak.” It’s about parental anxiety. And communication. And the way having a child changes the way you understand your own childhood. I started this story when my son was an infant, so three or more years ago, but only finished it in September and it’s another attempt to describe the strange mental transformations of motherhood. It’s also about children, too, and the neurological consequences of neglect, which I read about while my son was in utero. In those months I learned that we are creatures of collaboration: that we quite literally create one another as we interact. The hormonal changes of pregnancy transformed my brain. All the songs and cuddles and nose-boops of babyhood changed my son’s brain, too.
She’d been bent over a smartphone, absorbed, her face unresponsive. He’d been six months old, dozing in her lap, and seen that blank nightmare mask of a mother. Her disregard had permanently scarred him. The core trauma of his life already underway and unstoppable: parents so busy with their work and themselves that he, little visitor, found himself too often alone, a social animal in unnatural isolation, like an orca in a tank at Sea World. Or a rhesus monkey snatched from his mother and consigned to the stainless-steel pit of despair, surrounded by nothing but the distortions of that mirror, the reverberating cries of his isolation. For science.“The Language Birds Speak”
The story is also about how we process sensory information, or fail to process it, or ignore it. It’s the most I’ve ever written about misophonia, and the terrible skinlessness I can feel when my senses overload. It’s about instinct and insight, too, and about fear.
But it’s hard to write about any of these things– the first wordless communications of infancy, the painful brain-overload of misophonia–through language, since the whole point of the story is that profound experiences resist language. I kept thinking of incompletely-remembered French feminist theory from undergrad, especially Julia Kristeva’s “the Semiotic.” The idea that meaning and language don’t exactly intersect, and that communication is far more elusive than black words on a white page. The idea of an original, divine language: Enochian, Adamic, the language birds speak.
The answer lay not in theory, but in poetry. For years I have loved Anne Carson’s translation of the Sappho fragments, If Not, Winter, not only for the words on the page, but also for the way she represents absence in her text, using square brackets [ ]. Framing the white space that way gives me such a wonderful, thrilling sense of possibility, that meaning spreads out from the words that survive, rather than being limited to them. That’s where I found the tools I needed to write this story.
Back when I was a kid who read everything, there are two places I spent a lot of time: the Duncan branch of the Vancouver Island Regional Library, where the YA section was full of Andre Norton and Edward Eager; a used bookstore in Duncan run by an old guy who liked cats, potted plants, and magazines published by the Canadian Marxist-Leninists. I was unpacking books this week, to put them on our new shelves, and I found paperbacks with his distinctive handwriting in them, and a unicorn stamp. The prices were low: I got all my John Wyndham paperbacks for 50 or 75 cents. Same with my Ursula le Guin short fiction collections, and my Nancy Mitford novels, and lots of modernist poetry. It was rich in there, dusty and full of cat fur, and you came out a little wheezy, but it was a good place to search while your Mom looked for Elizabeth Gaskell novels.
Anyway. Among the books I bought there was The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Volume 2A which contains “Baby is Three” by Theodore Sturgeon. I loved that story.
It’s strange to find your name associated with all those writers you once uncovered in a bookstore, or on a library shelf. I make up stories while staring out the window, or lying on an old couch while my kid makes LEGO rocket ships on the floor. It’s difficult to believe that’s as “real” as anything I found in that bookstore, or at the library. But here we are.
Last month I signed a contract with Undertow Publications for my novella The Talosite. There’s a lot of work still to do, but I know that in the end it will be a beautiful book because that’s what Undertow does.
The Talosite is about the First World War. It’s not like my earlier work on the subject: not academic, nor a literary novel about a vet who becomes a vaudevillian, nor a fantasy about the Belgian Mundaneum in August 1914. This time it’s unapologetic body horror.
For good reason. The First World War has been a kind of intellectual touchstone in my life for decades, but my sense of it is not intellectual. It’s visceral and impressionistic, like poetry. It’s an undifferentiated landscape: living/dead, past/future, modern/antimodern, liquid/solid, interior/exterior, subject/object are blended into a single substance, seething and amorphous. From this materiel without distinction,The Talosite arises, full of characters navigating the physical and political chaos of the western front, which consumes the bodies of the living as Saturn devoured his children. And– it’s not exactly a spoiler– regurgitates them again.
I collected a lot of images for this one. Woodcuts for a 1934 edition of Frankenstein illustrated by Lynd Ward. Images from 1983 by Barry Moser. The Gueles cassées of the western front, horrifying not only because of the pain they witness, but because the most private interiors of their bodies are visible on the outside. When a friend of mine was working on a collection about James Bond, she showed me photographs of Rodin’s walking man, who is headless and armless but still walking, the seams showing where he was re-assembled from other bodies. I looked at Otto Dix’s post-war prints, and Sargent’s horrifyingly lyrical Gassed. Fred Varley’s The Sunken Road, a landscape with little distinction between body and earth.
As I’ve said a number of times, it’s always interesting to see what stories catch in readers’ imaginations. “An Important Failure”— Clarkesworld August 2020– seems to be one of them. So far it’s collected attention from a few quarters. It’s been acquired by the Polish magazine Nowa Fantastyka for translation (it should appear later this year). It’ll be in Jonathan Strahan’s The Year’s Best Science Fiction, Volume 2.
And, finally, it found its way onto the Aurora Awards ballot in the novelette/novella category– this is a Canadian speculative fiction prize administered by the Canadian Science Fiction and Fantasy Association, so someone in the CSFFA must have liked it. In fact, if you’re a member of the CSFFA, you can vote for it, too.
I wonder what it is about the story. That it’s about adjusting to straitened circumstances as the world shuts down around us? That it’s about creation in the face of climate change? Maybe because it’s full of longing & fear for the woods, and none of us could go anywhere much this year.
All three reasons? None and something else I can’t identify. Once again, I’m just grateful that people want to read it.
I don’t know if there’s anything I can say about 2020. We endured it. I wrote a lot, because there hasn’t been much else to do and it was one of the few things that made me feel a little better. Though technically the province– and our region– has been into and out of and into various shades of lockdown, we haven’t left our bubble since March. Everything happens at a distance, separated from us by a thin film of dread, hand sanitizer, and masks.
I’ve published a few stories this year. One was completed in lockdown, so it very much belongs to 2020. Once again, I am happy that Clarkesworld has such a fast turnaround for both acceptances and publication: it means that the magazine is a record of the moment.
If you’re a reader or a voter, please consider the following:
In near future Vancouver, a luthier named Mason tries to build a violin, but the wood he needs (old growth spruce, ebony, willow) is harder and harder to find. My defiant celebration of skill and survival while the world falls apart. It’s also available as an audiobook.
This was written for the special Orwell-themed issue (#84) of sub-TERRAIN. It’s about forgetfulness, both collective and private. It’s a slightly totalitarian future full of climate change and denial, and it’s about a woman who slowly loses her words. The world around her is losing things, too.
In “Dysnomia” and “An Important Failure” I lit wildfires on the Pacific coast. In this one I hit it with a megathrust earthquake. Mark works in a call centre in Ontario, and he’s burnt out and miserable when he gets a call from a woman just as the tremors start.
A young pregnant woman tries to make a safe place for her child, while the neighbourhood (and her abusive ex) get increasingly weird. The whole anthology is brilliant and strange, just like everything Undertow publishes.
In addition to the conventionally published stories above, I also posted a couple of things on Curious Fictions, stories I love but which are a little out of step:
Something weird happened when these siblings were kids. She might have forgotten what, but it’s still there.
small towns, ghosts, and old weird family businesses.
So, my 2019 story “The Fourth Trimester is the Strangest” has won the Sunburst Award– a Canadian prize for speculative fiction. This is a surprise. It first appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction‘s May/June issue last year, and it will also be in Paula Guran’s The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy and Horror.
Like everyone else, I write alone, and ninety percent (or ninety-nine? or ninety-nine-point-nine?) of my work is invisible: private, excised from a draft, or just a dead-end kind of story that’s best left on my hard drive. Of the stories that eventually make it to publication, most surface for a few moments, then disappear again. This is as it should be– there is always something new to read, and we are in a moment that’s rich with wonderful stories.
But every once in a while a story catches with people. An editor like CC Finlay at F&SF decides to publish it, and maybe a few readers take time to read it and respond to the strange thing I’ve made. It’s rewarding to see it happen because it means I’ve found a way to talk about something important or unusual, or maybe I’ve found a new(ish) way to say something familiar. I wrote this particular story to capture the disorientation of childbirth and newborns. That’s important to me, and it’s good to know it’s important to other people, too. And given the isolation of writing in general, and of our terrifying, exhausting moment in particular, I am so very very grateful to hear that someone, somewhere read the story and heard what I was trying to say. And valued it, too. That’s about the best I can hope for as a writer.
Well, and being on a list with Amal El-Mohtar and Richard van Camp, winning a prize that’s also been won by A.C. Wise and Nalo Hopkinson. That, also, is pretty wonderful.
(oh, and I get a medal. A MEDAL. Guys. I’m going to have a medal. Not since I got a silver Canada Fitness Badge in seventh grade have I had anything like a MEDAL)
While posting on facebook about my Sunburst nomination, I noticed that the two short stories I had forthcoming– “An Important Failure” and “The Bletted Woman” which will be in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction-– are both sad stories about the BC coast. Then a friend pointed out that “The Glad Hosts” falls into this category. As does “Such Thoughts Are Unproductive” and “Lares Familiares, 1981” and “Unearthly Landscape by a Lady.” Basically, I have a genre, wherein sad, weird, unpleasant things (magical, dystopian, alien) happen to people on the west coast. Or to people in some way related to the west coast. In this case, it’s about a luthier who’s collecting wood to build a violin in a poor, beat-down near-future version of Vancouver and Vancouver island.
So “An Important Failure” is another one of these sad stories about the coast. I started writing it while watching the bushfires in Australia back in January, and finished it in June, while in lockdown. The world seemed to transform several times in those months, and the story reflects my disorientation. It’s a story about processing change– how we do it, how we fail to do it. It’s also about the giant trees of BC– the “Champion Trees” of UBC’s big tree registry. The miraculous old growth they show you on fifth grade field trips to Cathedral Grove, or just off the road between Lake Cowichan and Port Renfrew. They’re vulnerable, of course: logging, poaching, climate change, wildfires. They’re so old, they belong, quite literally, to a different world.
Finally, it’s about what’s leftover when the world changes and what we do with trees after they’ve fallen. And it’s about making a violin, sort of, because though I love forests, I also love the things that come out of the forests: the people, the houses, the shakes, the paper, the stories, the colour of red cedar, the feeling you have walking into a wood-heated house in January, when it’s raining outside, the smell of fire fills all the rooms. I love the lives and afterlives of trees. I love the violin my main character is trying to make, and even the lengths he must go to to make it.
“An Important Failure” is available to read at Clarkesworld.
“The Fourth Trimester is the Strangest” came out last spring in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. I blogged briefly about it here. The infant I describe in the story (and the blogpost) is now a chatty three year old, and the story has been shortlisted for a Sunburst Award. This is a wonderful compliment, considering the strength of the long list. I’m also pleased to share the space with four other writers:
Rebecca Campbell, “The Fourth Trimester is the Strangest” [The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, May/June 2019]
Amal El-Mohtar, “Florilegia” [The Mythic Dream, Gallery/Saga Press]
Kate Heartfield, “The Inland Beacon” [Tesseracts Twenty-Two Alchemy and Artifacts, July 2019]
Richard Van Camp, “Wheetago War II: Summoners” [Moccasin Square Gardens, Douglas & McIntyre]
The story will also be available in Paula Guran’s anthology The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy and Horror, out in October. It’s nice to see a story do so well in the world, and connect with so many readers.
You should follow #creepiestobject on twitter, where curators post horrible and fascinating exhibits from museums around the world. Like a lot of culture in the last couple of months– at least in Canada– it’s full of anxiety and a kind of manic amusement at the weirdness and horror of the world, very much whistling-past-the-graveyard. Looking through the links with a friend, we decided to do our own whistling and started writing creepy microfiction about the exhibits. There are so many dolls, and desiccated animals, and bits of witchcraft, you can’t help but want more from them– an explanation for why there are pins in a pigeon’s heart, or what happened to that cat.
A few people have posted their stories, so I wanted to collect the links:
…and I wrote “Mine” about Rat Kings.
After he fell asleep, she collected the things he brought to bed: books, cars, a noseless bear. When he played, he curated his toys by rules she did not understand. This dinosaur, not that. This bunny. That block. When he slept in her arms, his hair a fluffy nimbus after his bath, she still found rocks in his hands, smuggled into the bedroom.
She emptied his pockets after every walk: a bottlecap; a crumpled leaf. He wanted to bring worms home from the park. “No,” she said. “They’re dirty. Dirty.” Her face full of exaggerated disgust which she hoped he’d mimic, even if he didn’t understand her shudder. She still found them wriggling in his pocket. By July, a knot of fur. The exuviae of snakes and cicada. After a long day in the sun, he smelled of earth, mud in his teeth, his hugs damp and sour.
On a night in August she collected rocks, dinosaurs, his dad’s right shoe. As she dug about his sleeping body she found nails bent into a cross. A greasy yellow bone. A handful of hazelnuts.
And then— a knot of dark hair beneath his cheek. That was the first rat. After that another. Another. Another, all bound by their tails, desiccated, but warm from the heat of his body.
At her feet, their paws clattered as though alive.
He woke, then. He did not smile.
“What—” She asked. “What have you done?”
Now available to read. You should check out all the other work, too. It’s a good issue.
For a few months, my partner worked in a call centre. I made notes. This sounds mercenary, considering the very very long hours he put in, but at this point he knows bits of his life will show up in my work. I try to be respectful, but some of his anecdotes about call centre life were so absurd, they snuck into a(nother) story about disaster. I’m really hard on Canada’s west coast, which I love, and which I continually destroy in one way or another.
Re-reading the story I’m surprised to see feelings I am now intimately familiar with: a slow-moving disaster traveling inexorably toward us; total helplessness; a combination of loneliness and intimacy that comes with hearing voices from far away. I think, though, this has a speck of hope in its ending– not that the disaster can be averted, but that we can help one another across those distances.
I was dealing with this woman on Vancouver Island who couldn’t generate invoices. We’d been at it for two hours and I could feel her getting upset when I told her to wipe the whole system and start again. I can help you do that, but she was like no we’ll lose two weeks of work, and there’s nothing I can say to that, so we keep troubleshooting even though it’s pointless.
“Okay, I said, can you go back to the root invoice and try—“
“—oh,” she said, “what—“
And that was it, I didn’t hear anything but the line itself, which just went dead, that kind of absence you get when someone hangs up on you.