Saturday, October 23, 2010
First half of the evening, I got to speak with Allan Weiss again and in greater detail about his current research — definitely fascinating stuff! Met a couple of up and coming writers, notably Kevin Nunn, who has a story in the recently released Evolve anthology. I was fascinated by how Nunn's theoretical knowledge of / experience in improvisational theatre informs his writing: full bore on first draft writing which he characterized as 'beating words into shape with bricks'. Also talked to a writer from Quill and Quire briefly, before the main event, consisting of three sets of three readings each.
I was already familiar with the work of a couple of the authors (e.g., David Nickle), but most were new to me, and the readings made me want to seek out their books in spite of my earlier assumption from the backcover blurbs that they would likely not be to my taste. I was particularly surprised by Gord Zajac's Major Karnage, the lead character's name being such an obvious gag as to initially turn me off, but his reading was terrific, and the passage read out really works. Tony Burgess reading (from People Live Still in Cashtown Corners) was also a revelation, as I am generally not a fan of horror, though I trust Chizine's tastes more than most. But what he read out was brilliant, enough for me to recommend the book essentially sight unseen. Halli Villegas reading from The Hair Wreath & Other Stories was similarly engaging. Robert Boyczuk was amusing discussing reviews of Nexus: Ascension; In the Mean Time Paul Tremblay and Sarah Court by Craig Davidson also seem worth a look.
Chizine (which I discovered I had been pronouncing incorrectly, with a hard 'chi') is definitely putting out some very interesting titles and stands as a model for small press publishing. Sandra and Brett have pulled together an astounding synergistic team:So much talent, so much productivity, in so short a span.
[*28/11/10: I didn't think I got a photo, because my cellphone camera shot just came out as a black smudge, but have since discovered that I could mess with various adjustments (something called 'gamma'?) to get an almost recognizable shot of the audience...gives a sense of the scene, at least]
I thought my paper went over reasonably well, considering I had to cover 45 slides in 20 minutes; at 30 seconds a slide — or three years a minute — my analysis of education policy in Alberta over the last 75 years was necessarily a bit superficial. But that's more or less what one expects at these conference presentations: really just an abstract for the paper that hopefully I will be submitting to the association's journal in due course.
All the presentations at the conference received simultaneous French/English translation; we all got to wear headphones and feel like UN delegates. Bit of overkill for our small conference room (the translation booth took up maybe a fifth the space, and at 8:30 in the morning, only the really dedicated were in attendance) but I appreciated the effort to make the conference truly bilingual.
Translator booth for my presentation; close examination of the photo reveals my reflection in the background as I snap the picture
I was able to take in one of my UofL colleagues' presentation the next morning: a fascinating report on the implementation of progressive education in Alberta in the 1930s that fit right into my framework. I had to miss my other colleague's presentation as it was scheduled for after my flight back to Alberta, but I'd already discussed it enough in the hallways back home I felt I wasn't missing anything new. Took in some good presentations, and the luncheon on Thursday was excellent. I was flattered that a couple of faculty from other campuses made a point of telling me they were using my deskilling paper in their undergraduate courses. Nice to know that someone is actually reading my work, and that they appreciate my efforts to make difficult concepts accessible to the general reader.
Friday, October 22, 2010
At lunch today at the Canadian History of Education Conference, Bruce Curtis (Carlton University) turned me on to this great little video:
"David Harvey - The Animated Crisis of Capitalism"
(Or view the actual lecture or at YouTube: David Harvey)
Thursday, October 21, 2010
In Toronto for the Canadian History of Education Association's annual conference, and by lucky coincidence, tonight was also the launch of It Walks in Beauty: Selected prose of Chandler Davis at the Merril Collection (Toronto Public Library). Choosing between this evening's presentations on history at the conference, or meeting Chandler Davis, who is history, was easy. And I was not disappointed. The panel at the Merril was one of the most stimulating academic events I have attended in years.
Chandler Davis signing copies of his book at its launch, Merril Collection, Toronto, October 21, 2010.
Chandler Davis (Professor Emeritus, UofT, Mathematics) gave a short but perceptive talk on how speculative fiction is necessary to pose alternatives when dissent is discouraged, discredited or otherwise marginalized.
Josh Lukin, the collection's editor.
Josh Lukin (Temple University) made a brief, funny and insightful speech about the task of uniting the twin themes of Davis' sf fiction and social activism within a single volume, and his own role in analyzing and pitching Chandler's work. Judging by his remarks this evening, and my first impressions of his opening essay, I am definitely going to have to track down some of Lukin's other work documenting forgotten (suppressed?) protest writers.
Josh was followed by Emily Pohl-Weary, who brought greetings from the ghost of her grandmother, Judith Merril, the mother of modern SF and Chandler's contemporary. (I was later able to get Emily to sign my copy of Better to Have Loved, her outstanding biography of Judith Merril.)
Emily Pohl-Weary, author and co-editor of Broken Pencil (the only magazine to which I've ever subscribed).
Psychoanalyst and President of Science for Peace, Judith Deutsch (not pictured) gave a serious and moving speech about Chandler Davis social activism, reading several brief quotes from the collection to highlight both Davis' principles and exceptional insight.
There were two other excellent speakers, colleagues of Davis, but I unfortunately missed their names, and there was no printed program. Davis' wife (a historian) also spoke from the audience in response to a question about the role of science fiction in Davis activism.
[01/11/10: Chandler Davis provided the following update: "The two panelists whose names you didn't catchwere Peter Rosenthal & Peter Fitting. Both, it happens, were with me in sit-in against Dow Chemical recruiting on campus (1967) and have kept the faith. Fitting is also a science-fiction fan and critic, who initiated the first course on s-f on the U of T campus (teaching it without compensation at first), in which both Judy Merril & I have been guest lecturers. The third member of the panel not mentioned in your report was Metta Spencer, my old friend and fellow member of the exec of Science for Peace; she is a Prof Emeritus of Sociology at U of T and Editor of Peace Magazine"]
The discussion following the presentations was particularly fascinating, as the room was filled with activists from the 1940s, '50s and '60s contrasting their experiences with those of the current generation — some arguing that protest seems to have been successfully marginalized by hegemonic forces, while others argued that much had been achieved and that there was considerable reason for optimism about the future.
For myself, I was honored just to shake the hand of a man who had faced down the UnAmerican Activities Commmittee, refused to name names, and gone to jail for his principles. Of course, had he not been blacklisted in the States, he might never have come to Canada. Their loss, our gain.
An excellent turnout for the launch, though the majority were activists rather than SF readers. I don't think I've ever been in a room with so many prominent activists before.
Chandler's son, Aaron Davis, a renowned Toronto jazz pianist, provided the music for the launch.
As a bonus, I was able to briefly talk to Allan Weiss (Associate Professor, York University) about his current sabbatical project following the event; meet Annette Mocek (Merril Collection) with whom I have corresponded for years but never met in person before; and visit with Lorna Toolis (Head, Merril Collection) a friend for nearly 35 years (yikes!).
All in all, a very successful and enjoyable evening!
[01/11/10: Links to Aqueduct Press posts on the event:
Monday, October 18, 2010
Kasia's school picture; she turns 7 in November.
Kasia started Grade 1 this year, and is suddenly showing interest in reading — formerly a highly suspect activity because it is what her sister was always doing rather than playing with her, Kasia. Of course, Kasia always loved being read to, and now that I have reassured her I will continue reading to her whenever she wants, even if she learns to read herself, she seems open to the possibility of trying it for herself.
Tuesday, October 05, 2010
This is the first time I've seen myself teaching, and it was a bit shocking. I have a bald spot? Who knew! (Fortunately, doesn't show up clearly in this tiny web screen.) And I bulk enough to blockout the whiteboard? Zowie. And I'm not sure I like how I stab at students with my figure to call for input; but then the students are not looking particularly engaged.
Of course, to be fair, this was the students' first class with me, and I had started the class just moments before by thanking them for signing up for the new 'video cohort' -- in which, I informed them everything this semester was going to be videoed. "I was afraid some students wouldn't want to volunteer for this experiment, knowing that every word they say, every move they make will be recorded, so I'm really glad to see so many of you here today!" As they all freaked out, because of course they had volunteered for no such thing, I said something like: "What, didn't you get the memo on that?" One of them had the sense to turn to the camera guy and ask, "Is that for real?" To which he replied, "No, he's just pulling your leg! Actually, I'm just here to record Professor Runte. He's having his entire life recorded for prosperity." Which may not have been entirely reassuring, not only because it meant they were still on camera, but would also have confirmed their initial impression of me as a nut case. We eventually confessed we were just messing with them, and that the camera guy was just there for a couple of quick shots of me teaching for the video he was making, and nothing they said would be recorded, and so on. And then I started class. So they were probably still a bit self-conscious and distracted at that point. I completely forgot about the camera in about 5 seconds, so I'm not sure how long he stayed, but I assume he left after just a couple of minutes.
The shots of me talking in my office are also first time I've seen myself talking, and I was amazed to see my hands flapping all over the place. "I don't talk with my hands like that!" I said as my wife looked over my shoulder, but she said, "You do! Exactly like that. All the time. There, that gesture there! You do that all the time. It is so you." Fascinating. My self-image and the image I seem to project here do not entirely overlap; but okay, I accept what I see on the video here is how I look to others.
Tigana's school photo, Sept 2010.
I think the photographic evidence is clear: We are no longer dealing with an elementary child, here, but have definitely moved into official 'teenager' territory. In Lethbridge, middle school now starts in Grade 6, but I still think of Grade 7 as the start of Jr. High and the teenage years, and looking at the differences between this year's school photo and last year's, I still think I'm right.
Tigana's an amazing kid on so many levels, and still appears to like us more than not. Driving her to school this morning, I looked at the kids getting out of the other cars, and I could not help noticing the grumpy expressions and hostile body language on almost all of the kids. Okay, granted that 8:30 AM is not exactly my best moment of my day either, and granted parents are dropping kids off at school, not riding lessons or a rock concert, but at some level, it can't be a coincidence that all of Tigana's peers look like they have just had a drawn out screaming match with their parents. The pattern is clearly 'teenagerism' and I have to acknowledge that it takes a special kind of teacher to be successful in Middle school. Which is not to say Tigana doesn't occasionally/randomly, explode at us, but for the most part, she is happily bouncing off the walls, manic over whatever her obsession of the moment happens to be. The only time she sits (relatively) still is when she is reading -- which is every second we haven't pried the book out of her fingers at, say, the dinner table or swimming. But pulling the book out of her hands is like launching a kangaroo into the room-- boing, boing boing. But the way I see it, unbounded enthusaism beats sullen teen every time!
Sunday, October 03, 2010
Krista Ball is an Edmonton speculative fiction author. Her short stories have been published widely in anthologies, magazines, and fan favourite collections; and she is one of the pioneers of the digital generation's movement into e-publishing and self-publishing. She is also a regular contributor to Merge Magazine (Edmonton). Her most recent (October 1) release is the paranormal historical fantasy Harvest Moon from MuseItUp Publishing. This interview is part of her virtual book tour to promote the launch of Harvest Moon.
Krista will be making in-person appearances at Con-Version (Calgary) and Pure Spec (Edmonton) this month and will also have a vendor’s table at Pure Spec, where we are told there will be copious amounts of free chocolate.
Robert: Your latest work, Harvest Moon, is based on elements from aboriginal culture. Why aboriginal culture?
Krista: I worked at a homeless agency in Edmonton’s inner city for three years. I wrote Harvest Moon while there, in fact. Edmonton’s homeless has a large aboriginal population and, thus, you end up being exposed to their cultures, traditions, and even language just as part of your day-to-day living.
Robert: Do you ever worry about charges/issues of cultural appropriation?
Krista: Any charge against culture appropriation would be valid and invalid at the same time. I am white (nearly translucent white, in fact). However, several members of my extended family are Métis. I feel that I am writing a family story as much as a historical fantasy. On top of that, I think it’s important to be able to write about different kinds of peoples, cultures, and traditions. It would be no different if I wrote about the ancient Greeks, or Jews during WW2.
Robert: Some of your work has some pretty violent imagery in it. How have audiences reacted to that?
Krista: Right now, I have a fantasy novel for consideration at a publisher and another science fiction novel nearing completion. Both are quite dark and violent. My beta readers (and, even slush readers) have commented how they felt the violence always fell on the edge but never went into the “gore porn” that some pieces fall into.
But here’s the interesting thing. Out of my published and unpublished works, I have had far more stink kicked up over sexual orientation, sex, and alcohol use. In “Space Sucks” (a short story in Bardic Tales and Sage Advice II), I had several people tell me that they didn’t like that a woman was an alcoholic in the story — “women don’t drink like that.” Others have commented on Bearclaw in “Harvest Moon” being bisexual, saying that bisexual people didn’t exist before the modern era (clearly, they’ve never read ancient Greek poetry).
Robert: You're kidding me! People actually said that? Because a lot of plains cultures had quite specific, culturally acceptable roles for gays, so bisexual is hardly a stretch. Indeed, there's a lot of cultural anthropology to suggest that bisexuality was only problematic to a minority of Western cultures. So it's hard to think anyone would object to that in a story about pre-contact native cultures.
Krista: The total amount of bisexuality talk in "Harvest Moon" consists of probably 30 /11000 words total. Two of my reviews have already put a “bisexual references” warning. Then, I get an email who said that he was very bothered by the fact that one of the character was not straight. He also said it was a really good story, other than the “gay thing.”
It’s odd that brutal, graphic violence decapitation of toddlers and having them nailed to a doorpost is fine; but anything outside of rigid gender roles and expectations are not. It’s weird.
However, nothing has made me as happy as the first piece of hate mail arrived last week. I still show it off proudly and think I might frame it. It was like being in high school again, only with better fashion sense.
Robert: What do you hope readers will take away with them from reading your work?
Krista: I really just want people to forget their lives for a few hours and sink into the worlds that I’ve created. For the light-hearted stories (i.e. "Flying Kite, Crashing Ship"), I want to make people laugh. For the more serious works, I want people to feel that they could live another person’s life for a few hours. I don’t want anything more complicated than that, really.
Robert: What do consider the best piece you've ever written?
Krista: This changes all of the time. I generally like a piece when it first gets submitted and, after several rounds of content or line edits, I want to rip the work to shreds and never read it again!
Robert: Anything you now regret?
Krista: I sometimes say that I wish I hadn’t stopped writing when I left high school. Between 18 and 30, I barely wrote. At the same time, I wasn’t in a place to be producing the kind of work that I do now, dealing with the business end of things, and the other parts of being a full-time writer that people don’t realize. I honestly thought after I’d publish a couple magazine articles and a book, I’d be living like Danielle Steele and wearing mink coats (eww! What was I even thinking?). There was no way I could have handled the business side.
Now, I have enough corporate conditioning behind me that my writing is a career, a job, whatever you want to call it. I get a rejection and the story is back out the door somewhere else in under 3 minutes. I couldn’t have done that when I was younger. So, perhaps, it’s just as well I stopped when I did.
Robert: Do you read a lot of SF, or do you read a range of genres? If I were to ask you what you read in an average month, what would I find on your bookshelf?
Krista: I read or have read pretty much everything. In September, I read a romance novel, a light horror short, a m/m erotica novella, a m/m/f erotica novel, a mystery short, and four books of a fantasy series. And a Star Trek novel because I read one of those a month.
Robert: Star Trek? What do you think makes that series such an enduring read?"
Krista: My favourite is Deep Space Nine, where it combines the alien worlds and customs with everyday people. Even the aliens had crappy days sometimes. I like that a lot. It combined the wonder of space with the mundane everyday.
Robert: I remember that I discovered John M. Ford from his two ST novels. Who are your favorite ST authors?
Krista: I found David Mack from his ST novels. He writes other tie-ins and also has his own work out. I love his writing and would never have found him otherwise.
Robert: Any genre you don’t like/read?
Krista: I can’t read most horror. I’ve tried, but I either end up with nightmares or rather nauseous. I generally read more short stories than novels these days. I like the shorter time commitment with them. Also, with an e-Reader, I can purchase all different lengths of works and enjoy as I see fit.
Robert: Who are the big influences on your writing? Who are the SF writers who’ve had the greatest impact on you / your writing?
Krista: Here is a confession – I hated speculative fiction for most of my life. I loved science fiction on TV but I hated most of the books that I picked up. The only ones I liked as a teenager were Star Trek novels and a military assassin series (I can’t remember the name of them). I wanted so bad to read about girls like me slaying dragons and invading planets, but I couldn’t find those stories. They always had boring girls (if they even had girls) and it was the guys that did everything. I hated it. So, I gave up on the genre.
Skip a decade and I began to find so many new authors that I love, who write the works that I wanted to read as a kid. Jim Butcher, Diana Pharaoh Franics, Elizabeth Moon...Then, the world of ebooks opened up an entire new world for me, where I could find all lengths of books on all kinds of things that I’d never find in a store.
In the end, I began writing what I have because I didn’t like what was out there for most of my life. I write the works that me at sixteen was desperate to read.
Robert:As a Canadian, do you see your writing as particularly Canadian, or is your fiction more accurately described by genre labels?
Krista: Oh, I could go on and on about this one. I am genre-based, but I make it a point to be as Canadian as possible (and as Newfie as possible without needing to provide a dictionary and footnotes). I’m sick of stories set in New York City or LA. I’m sick of governments and laws all being based on US systems. Canadians do things differently and I want to include that different point of view.
For example, I created a First Nations tribe in Northern Alberta for Harvest Moon. Some of my beta readers are American and were really confused by the “six month winter.” They had just assumed the story was based in the US. I went back and edited a scene early on where Dancing Cat actually pinpoints where the story is taking place, without actually saying it (since “Alberta” doesn’t exist yet in the book).
Robert: Have you noticed a difference generally in the reception your stories receive from readers/reviewers/editors from outside Canada?
Krista: Most of my beta readers are American. It can be really annoying when basic things like weather, culture, socialized medicine all need to be presented in an American manner or else you are told it’s “wrong.” I’ve even had my spelling corrected by beta readers; one told me that I needed to learn to spell “colour” before I could ever hope to become published.
I’ve been lucky in that most of my editors have been Canadian or British. However, even Americans have told me that my stories have challenged them to not assume the stories are American-based. I take it as a compliment, as I never want people to assume anything when they start reading my work.
Robert: I'm always interested in a writer's process. Some writers write by just sitting down at the keyboard and letting things develop as they may; at the other end of the continuum are those that don't set pen to paper until they have a completed outline, a white board filled with timelines and thematic analysis, and a stack of index cards detailing each character, his/her growth, and their interaction with every other character.
Krista: I have used all forms of outlining, including no outline! I generally write out a paragraph about what the story is about and go from there. Usually, I stop halfway through, re-evaluate and either start over with a basic point-form outline or finish to the end because the logic is working already.
Robert: You mention rewriting one chapter nine times. How can you tell the difference between necessary revision to get the story right, and obsessive polishing to stall from tackling a piece of a project you've been avoiding?
Krista: If I’m at the stage where all I’m doing is line edits, I stop. For me, if I’m still adjusting plot, character development, setting and texture, then the story isn’t done. If I’m merely fiddling with words, the thing is done.
Robert: Is writer's block ever a problem for you?
Krista: The cure for writer’s block is to write freelance. You learn pretty quickly that either you write or you starve.
Seriously, though, sitting my butt in the chair and writing even when I feel “blocked” is the key. Because, really, I’m not blocked. I just want to be doing something else. I don’t want to write the difficult scene, I don’t want to write myself out of the hole I’ve dug, I don’t want, I don’t want, I don’t want. That isn’t a good enough excuse for me. I write for a local magazine who give me monthly assignments. I might not always feel like working on an article but flaking out isn’t an option. I have to do my work.
I see my fiction the same way. I have a responsibility to treat it with the same professionalism.
Robert: You've described novels as long term relationships, and short stories as affairs. It's a fun analogy, but do you prefer one format over the other? Does one come more easily than the other? Is writing a novel the same as art as writing a short story, or is there a difference besides simply one of scale?
Krista: Without short stories, I would go insane. Without novels, I would get bored. For me, the short stories give me a chance to write on a small scale. Basic character compliment, tight setting, one plot, one conflict. It really gives my brain a break. I can be naughty and silly in short stories. My novels right now tend towards the dark. The stories give my emotions and brain a release of tension. They are a different skill set, though. Novels require a well-developed plot that can withstand several bouts of conflict, characters in and out, etc. Short stories are smaller, taking only a snapshot in time.
Robert: So why do you post stories for free? Is it a marketing thing for your more major works?
Krista: A lot of my published work is non-fiction articles (i.e. I am a regular contributor to Merge Magazine in Edmonton), so people who don’t read the local Edmonton works don’t really have a sense for my writing style. Also, non-fiction and fiction read rather differently. The free stories offer people a chance to see if they’d like my style without having to pay.
Robert: You have pretty decent blog/website. Did you design it yourself?
Krista: Thanks! I’m sleeping with the webmaster ;) We used a basic template and then my partner customized it for me.
Robert:How important do you think it is for an author to maintain a presence on the web?
Krista: I believe that authors need a web presence, depending on what works best for them. If you are really new, it isn’t that important. I think blogs are a good idea for new writers simply because it gives them practice on how to blog and figure out what kind of blog they want. I went through a couple of blogs before I settled on my current one. It was better to do that early, as opposed to now.
But, if an author hates blogging, I recommend just setting up a website and posting news every couple of months so that there is updated content whenever it’s available.
I also freelance on top of fiction, so I do try to keep an active blog and website. It does help keep readers up to date – and they get to hear me rant on a regular basis.
Robert: Do you think blogs and virtual tours and so on are effective? Or are they losing their novelty?
Krista: I am rather concerned about the growing trend for unpublished authors to have extensive blog tours, guest visits, “my book is debuting in 2011” (meaning they will be hopefully done writing it, not that it’s been published), etc. I think they should be focusing on writing.
Robert: How does keeping your blog relate to your writing? Does it relate, or do you see these as completely separate activities? Is it strictly a promotional tool, or is it part and parcel of your writing? Do you ever use blog postings as a kind of ‘warm up’ activity before starting in on the day’s fiction writing? As a ‘cool down’ exercise? As a coffee break when ‘blocked’?
Blogging is just another part of my writing days. I usually blog first thing in the morning or really late at night. There’s no reasoning for that, other than that’s usually when it comes to mind. As for the why I do it, it’s mostly as a means to keep me connected to people who enjoy my work or writers just starting out who want to follow someone who is also just starting out.
Robert: Some authors have told me that they use their blogs to vent, so that they keep whatever this week’s hobbyhorse happens to be out of their novel — that without the blog, they find their characters suddenly holding forth about the importance of table manners or the War in Iraq or whatever, whether or not it actually fits the book. Have you consciously used your blog this way?
Krista: That wouldn’t work for me. If something needs to be vented about, I am quite happy to either include it in a current work or slot it for another work down the road. Short stories are often my way to vent about the world.
Robert:I notice on your website you have progress counters to track how many words you've written on your next novel, or whatever. And I was struck by the fact that you've formatted that as X number of words out of 90,000. But how can you know how long a story/novel will be before you write it? How can you possibly know it will take exactly 90,000 words?
Krista: Doing freelance writing work really forced me to learn how to write for a specific word count. Add into that mix my history degree, where I had to write mountains of research papers, all with specific page counts. I discovered that fiction could be approached the same way. When I figured that out, my “waste” writing (i.e. the 3 chapter tangents that do nothing to progress a novel) vanished. Now, I only write paragraph-length tangents!
Generally, I can estimate within 10% of the final word count. I decide the type of project first, be it novel, flash fiction, short story, whatever. Then, I take one of my idea that will fit that word length. I make a couple of notes of how many scenes I think I need, what the risk will be for the story, and I start writing. My first draft will be significantly shorter than the final count. When I go back and edit, I add the texture of the world, clean up the plot, clarify things, and flush out the scene transitions. And lo and behold, I’m close to my target writing count.
It isn’t a huge deal if it goes off, though I rarely do. It’s mostly a tool I use to focus my writing so that every scene is focused on addressing the risk of the story. Keeping that in my mind and being mindful of the target length of my pieces really help focus my writing.
Robert: Thanks very much for agreeing to this interview!
A review of Krista Ball's latest, Harvest Moon is available here.