What I did with my Saturday, explaining the lack of a blogpost yesterday

Had an excellent day at the Oxford Literary Festival today. I chaired a conversation between/with Dr Susan Jones and Dr Fiona Macintosh on ancient and modern dance which was absolutely fascinating, and touched on all sorts of things we could have discussed for hours, such as the ways in which all arts reflect the era in which they are performed, and are subject to use and abuse by both sides on then-current socio-political debates. Also the ways that an open minded and inter/cross disciplinary approach can contribute all manner of new understanding to a field.

And afterwards, in our bit of interdisciplinary conversations, Susan and I had a quick chat about the common approach to using core strength in ballet (she’s a former principle dancer) and in aikido. Incidentally, I have met a good handful of male dancers who also do aikido over the years.

Then I had the pleasure – as always – of listening to Andrew Taylor talking about his own writing and crime and historical writing in general. If you ever get the chance to hear him speak, do take it. Meantime, if you’re not reading his books, do start.

My last event for the day was the debate – ‘Genre fiction is no different from literary fiction’, with Elizabeth Edmondson and Gaynor Arnold for the proposal and myself and Anita Mason against. That really went with a swing – and with any luck, our respective arguments will get posted online somewhere. Naturally excellent points were made on both sides and overall, I’d say the debate concluded what really matters is books that offer richness of experience & respect for readers.

On a purely personal level, I’m extremely pleased to know I nailed a fair bit of unthinking anti-SFness among the audience, judging by the folk who came up to me afterwards to say I’d made them rethink their belief that SF and fantasy weren’t for them.

And now, I have a very good friend’s 50th birthday party to go to, so that’ll conclude an insanely busy day in a really fun way.

And preparing for all this, as well as going to Birmingham yesterday evening to see a friend performing in a show (which was excellent – Oliver! by the Coleshill Opera Society in Solihull) is the reason why I had no time or indeed brain for a blogpost yesterday.

And I shall think on the question from the audience respectfully, even tentatively asking whether it’s possible to enjoy SF without being immersed in all its traditions and classics of the genre for a future blogpost…

Where do our ideas go? Creativity inspired by SF&F writing

‘Where do your ideas come from?’ One of the most common and most genuine questions authors are asked – and one of the hardest to handle since the answer will be the single word, ‘everywhere’, or a ten-hour trawl through everything that writer’s ever read, watched, heard, glimpsed in passing through the window of a car, a train, a house…

So let’s set that aside and look at some examples of creativity inspired by SF&F writing – my own and a few other authors among the many I know and admire. No, I’m not talking about fanfiction. Yes, that’s certainly an expression of the creative urge and I understand that. I also know it’s a hot button topic on both sides, so let’s set it aside for this particular blog post.

Because what really fascinates me is when writing doesn’t beget more writing but inspires creativity in non-writing fields. Transformative responses to the stories we tell.

Artistic interpretations have fascinated me since Geoff Taylor did the covers for my first series. In particular, his vision of Toremal, as seen on The Warrior’s Bond cover – and here’s a good view of the whole picture without titles etc.

You see, I was working from a whole lot of pictures of central European 16th and 17th Century architecture as I wrote the descriptions of that city. I often work from visual references, for places and people. Geoff took my words and created this vista from them. Then someone who knew nothing of my writing and didn’t read fantasy fiction at all, studied the picture for a while and then said thoughtfully, ‘that reminds me of our holiday in Salzburg’. I love the way that sequence of old pictures inspiring words inspiring a new picture came full circle to convey exactly the desired atmosphere.

It’s not only professional artists with cover art commissions who are inspired. Martha Wells’ Raskura books and novellas are well worth reading, for fantasy adventure with substance as well as style in a world of winged and otherwise distinctly different-to-us humanoids. If you’re used to predicting a story’s outcome on the basis of genre traditions or commonly held notions of human nature, think again…

Is the intense strangeness yet convincing reality of this world what’s inspired some fine fan art? I honestly don’t know, not being in the least visually creative myself, but do check out this selection.

There are links to more fan art on Martha’s website Scroll down to the bottom of this page to find them (Check out a few samples of her writing while you’re there too).

Here’s another visual creation – a fauxto. No, I’d never heard of them either, until this was flagged up to me. As the creator explains –

In the early 1990s, Garth Nix went to a flea market in Sydney, Australia and looked through a box of old, early 1900s photographs that were being sold for a dollar a piece. As he flipped through the photos he came across a photograph of a young woman in a military style coat wearing a belt made out of bells and holding a sword. He studied the photo, wondering who this mysterious woman was. He purchased the photo, took it home and promptly wrote the draft for his young adult high-fantasy novel, Sabriel.

THIS DID NOT ACTUALLY HAPPEN. But what if it did? And that, my beautiful friends, is the idea behind this fauxto.

You’ll find a whole lot more fascinating images at The Real Fauxtographer website.

By the by, if you have a reluctant teen reader on your hands, buy them a copy of Sabriel. I’ve lost count of the kids I know who’ve been kickstarted into the reading habit by that book and series.

Then there’s music! Quite possibly one of the coolest emails I’ve ever got from a reader was when Paul Vandervort let me know he’d completed a suite of five pieces inspired by my Tales of Einarinn series. You can find the first piece here, and links to the rest.

Now, I enjoy music. I sing, or at least I used to, as a proficient chorus soprano and alto, and similarly was a reliable orchestral player on cello and viola, but composition has always been a mystery to me. I’m also not one of those writers who’s directly inspired by music, as quite a few of my colleagues are. So the notion that my words can spark that particular creative impulse absolutely intrigues me.

Anyone seen any other noteworthy transformative fanwork they’d like to flag up?

If you’ve been waiting on the UK mass-market edition of the Lescari Chronicles?

I have some news! You can now get the US small-format paperback in the UK via The Book Depository!

Click here for Blood in the Water at £5.01 inc delivery.

Click here for Banners in the Wind at £4.99 inc delivery.

To recap for more recent readers, the Chronicles of the Lescari Revolution were published in mass-market (small) paperback in the US but the plan in the UK was for a trade (large) paperback edition to be followed by the mass-market edition.

And then stuff happened, like the financial crunch hitting everyone’s non-essential spending and Games Workshop putting the Solaris imprint up for sale just as the first book came out and cutting back the print runs drastically and then Borders failing just as the second book came out – and well, the whole saga is an object lesson in how many things can screw up a writer’s career, which have nothing to do with their books, and which they have no control over.

The first book, Irons in the Fire, eventually came out in mass-market paperback in the UK but the second and third volumes were repeatedly delayed and finally cancelled. Much to the ongoing annoyance of folk who’d been waiting for the cheaper, smaller format, who had purchased the first book and then…?

But now, after discussions about the relevant issues around publishing territories and such, UK readers can now buy the US mass market paperback online.

Spread the word!

Equality of Visibility – Progress with Waterstones

Further to various of us highlighting the current inequalities in visibility in bookselling, Emma Newman has been tackling Waterstones and got a commitment to improve things. Details in her blog post – please read it and share it.

This concerted effort is great – one lone voice can be ignored. The more folk who speak up, the more the trade will listen, as Sophia McDougall’s interaction with Foyles has already shown us.

So this is where you come in, dear readers. Where you see a decently diverse display and have a moment to spare to tell the staff you’re pleased. Where you see the same limited range of male names (excellent writers though they are) and have a moment to query staff about this lack of choice.

Also, yay!

‘Genre Fiction is no different from Literary Fiction’ – Discuss, here and at the Oxford Literary Festival

I’ll be taking part in this debate, at 2.00 pm on Saturday 29th March, at the Oxford Literary Festival. This will be part of the St Hilda’s College stream of programming, now in its fifth year as a distinctive element of the Literary festival, and one which incidentally markedly raises the female author quotient over the entire programme.

The other authors debating this will be Orange Prize longlisted Gaynor Arnold (The Girl in the Blue Dress, After Such Kindness), Elizabeth Edmondson, who writes historical mysteries and romances under her own name and as Elizabeth Aston (Devil’s Sonata, the Darcy novels) and Booker-shortlisted Anita Mason (The Illusionist, The Right Hand of the Sun), all of us St Hilda’s alumnae – merely a few of the great many of us now working in all areas of the media.

We will be considering the value or pointlessness of labelling and compartmentalising fiction, in a debate chaired by Claire Armitstead, literary editor of The Guardian.

If you’re within striking distance of Oxford on the 29th, do come along if you can. Tickets are £11, click here to book.

Meantime, what do you think? I’ve already got my thoughts in order and made my notes but I’m curious to see if someone comes up with something that hasn’t occurred to me.

The St Hilda’s stream has other fascinating events – at 10 am, I’ll be chairing a discussion on literary influences on modern dance, from Isadora Duncan to Fred Astaire and Martha Graham, between Dr Susan Jones, former soloist with the Scottish Ballet, now a fellow of St Hilda’s and author of Literature, Modernism and Dance, and classicist Dr Fiona Macintosh, fellow of St Hilda’s, director of the University of Oxford’s Archive of Performances of Greek and Roman Drama, and editor of The Ancient Dancer in the Modern World.

Another of St Hilda’s annual literary events is the Crime & Mystery Conference held each August since 1994. At 12.00 noon this year Nicolette Jones, critic and chair of the St Hilda’s College Media Network, will be interviewing one of the event’s most long-standing speakers and attendees, Andrew Taylor, acclaimed crime writer and historical novelist, winner of the Cartier Diamond Dagger and of the 2013 CWA Historical Dagger Award. They’ll discuss his latest crime thriller, The Scent of Death, and much more besides, I’m sure of that.

We’re rounding off the day with opera! Specifically, Glamour and Grubbiness, the Inside Story, as revealed by Wasfi Kani telling the story of the Grange Park Opera, in Hampshire. There will be singing and afterwards, a glass of sparkling wine. How can you resist?

What Do Female Villains Do That Bad Guys Don’t?

Following on from last week’s post, interesting points cropped up in various conversations. One caught my eye – though I cannot recall who said it or where, so if it was you, please raise a hand in comments. Essentially the question was what distinguishes a Female Villain from a Male? Let’s think about that, and broaden out the question. Is there any point in choosing to have your evil protagonist a woman rather than a man, if there’s no meaningful difference beyond gender?

This rang a chord with me, as I recall a related conversation we had at the last World Fantasy Convention about strong women in epic tales; the Female Hero I’ve already referred to. One thing all of us on the ‘Broads with Swords’ panel really like is the way strong women in fantasy fiction no longer have to be ‘fauxmales’.

Which is to say, we’ve gone beyond stories where the only possible way for a woman to be strong is to pick up a sword, don implausible boobplate armour, and go off to play Joan of Arc. Nowadays in epic fantasy, Female Heroes and Heroines alike can be politicians, scholars, and yes, wives and mothers, while still playing a central, defining role in the plot.

So what about Female Villains? How are they not just Evil Overlord in a dress? A few things have occurred to me as I’ve thought about that in spare moments this week.

Female Villains are often not the figurehead. They’re in the background, often working within the Evil Overlord’s support system. Dolores Umbridge didn’t want to be Lord Voldemort. She wanted to establish her own, much less obvious power base and used existing systems to change things little by little, rather than shattering the old order from the outset. She was a much more subtle, longer term threat as she distorted the education of the next generation of wizardry. And her goal was achievable.

Initially at least, Dolores Umbridge used what management jargoneers call ‘soft’ skills very effectively – not confrontation but manipulation, building consensus and convincing her victims and onlookers alike that this was all for their own good and in the service of broader, longer-term benefits. And isn’t that notion of ‘soft skills’ interesting from a gendered-language point of view?

Another Female Villain very good at this is Zavcka Klist in Stephanie Saulter’s GemSigns. She also highlights another possible trait of Female Villains. Evil Overlords rule from the top down. Female Villains seem more inclined to recruit allies rather than underlings, both directly on their own side and also among their opponents. They are very good at divide and rule and conquering from within. Using those ‘soft skills’ again. All ‘active listening’ and ‘reflective speaking’. ‘I understand your concerns. Let me help you resolve this problem to everyone’s satisfaction.’

Zavcka Klist also understands the value of information and of propaganda and PR. That’s something I see in other Female Villains, up to and including Ma-Ma in Dredd, even if her particular approach is more akin to the brutal South American drug cartel offer of ‘silver or lead?’ Money in your pockets or a bullet in the head? How much necessary evil will a society tolerate, to save itself from something worse? Female Villains seem good at that particular calculation.

Ma-Ma also makes extensive use of technology, to gather information as she plans her next move. Is this something Female Villains do more readily than their Male counterparts? Not sure. But that relates to something else that came out of last week’s discussions. The really scary, truly dangerous Villains – male or Female and as distinct from Evil Antagonists – aren’t psychopaths. On that scale, Dolores Umbridge is far worse than Bellatrix LeStrange.

Once I started thinking about this, I realised something else. I’ve seen a fair bit of this in action for myself. Some years ago, at PCon in Dublin, the ‘How to be an Evil Overlord’ panel was run as a role-playing exercise. For no reason that I can see, I was immediately nominated to be the Empress. Alas, I forget who else took on what other roles, apart from Kim Newman who was my Minister for Public Relations, or as he immediately renamed himself, Minister for Fun!

We fielded assorted questions from the audience, notably from one journalist who wanted to know where the realm’s substantial tax revenues were going, given the hardship of most ordinary folks’ lives. After Kim promptly made her Royal Cake Correspondent, I explained how all that money was being invested in scientific research and preparations for the realm’s wonderful space programme which would soon shower everyone with rewards as we boldly advanced the causes of technology and exploration to win the realm new resources.

Meantime, alas, the secluded space centre behind the high mountains on the far side of the kingdom would have to remain strictly off-limits, to prevent our scientists from being distracted and to avoid biological contamination, so on and so forth.

We kept this up for a good long while, repeatedly recruiting the most persistent and awkward questioners for that wonderful space programme – if we couldn’t distract them with cake. Of course, that meant dispatching them to that top-secret facility beyond the mountains, which oddly, no one ever seemed to return from. As the hour wound up and more and more people were starting to say ‘hang on a minute…’ the Empress sent her handsome, charming, and clueless Consort out onto the palace balcony to face the mob. Travelling companionably though not romantically with her erstwhile Minister for Fun, she swiftly and discreetly departed for another country with no extradition treaty and a banking system of iron-clad secrecy which had profited for years from her substantial deposits.

That panel really was a lot of fun, though I did notice a few people giving me slightly uneasy sideways glances afterwards…

So, once again, what have I missed? What traits do you see as particularly distinguishing Female Villains?

Jim C Hines blog has some eye-opening guest posts exploring representation in SF&F

While we’re considering people we don’t tend to see in SF&F, you should really read the recent series of guest posts on Jim C. Hines blog, where folk who live with the day-to-day reality of issues around race, colour, disability and prejudice talk with eye-opening candour about what they do and don’t see, and what it means to them.

Start here and keep on clicking.