That Old Time Feeling

fireworksWriting is, by necessity, a profession of emotions.  Emotions are at the heart of character, and character is at the heart of story.  And at the heart of the human brain is a quirk that by describing a feeling, you invoke it in yourself.  So, there’s no part of writing a novel that is not going to put the writer on an emotional roller coaster.  And people wonder why we tend to drink so much…

But there are other ways that the work itself gets emotionally involving.  One comes at the very beginning.  There is a moment when that first scene, that first bit of dialogue or description just sort of…shows up.  Of course, it doesn’t come from nowhere.  It’s the result of a long process of mental and emotional synthesis that’s been going on, partly in the conscious mind, partly in the  unconscious.  But there does come this one moment when your whole brain gets together and says “Yes, this.  This is it.  This is my way into this story, this world, the home of these particular people.”

It’s going to change, of course.  It might be a dead end, but it is the way in and from there you can explore, you can follow your nose and your mental guides.

It is the beginning, and it feels great.

On Diversity

This is going to be short and to the point:

We need more diversity in US publishing.  There is no question.  This is not limited to the very real need for more writers representing the full spectrum of the native and immigrant peoples of the USA, but we desperately, desperately need people from across a far wider range of ethnic and cultural backgrounds as editors, publishers and marketers.  Because it is only when the institutions that create the books that most people still buy and read change their composition that we will get meaningful, lasting and needed change across publishing.

I admit that when I first came to the idea of fairies in America, I did not set out to write a heroine who had African Americans in her immediate ancestry.  However,  I’d been struggling over the nature of the Unseelie Court.  I didn’t want it to be the court of monsters, as it frequently was in the older and more traditional legends.  I wanted it to be not just dangerous and powerful, but attractive, mysterious.  Glamorous.

I’d already settled on the idea that the Seelie Court was going to find its gateways in Hollywood.  After all, this was the 1930s.  Where was more intensely glamorous than Hollywood?  But what about the Unseelie?  Magic, in my stories, was going to be attracted to creativity, to beauty.  What was the flip side of Hollywood?

I was grousing about this problem to my husband, and he looked at me and said.  “You want a court?  Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Lady Day…”

Of course.  Of course.  The Unseelie Court was jazz.  The quintessential American art form, one of the few forms of music that is genuinely ours.  The music that was insanely popular, roundly condemned, that opened doors, that changed the soundscape of the nation and the world for all time.  Of COURSE.  As soon as I had this in my head, new ideas and realizations started tumbling through my imagination.

One of them was that if I was going to do this, my heroine (I’m not sure if I’d even settled on her name yet), who was half-fairy, would also, as a daughter of the Unseelie court be half black.  This would change her, because it would change how she thought of herself and how the world treated her, because it does.

That was it.  More or less the whole of my decision process.  History and magic and story demanded that the character be who she was and I tried to make it so.  Is this a good reason?  Enough of a reason?  Should there have to be a reason?  These are questions I don’t have an answer to.   Did I do a good job with the character, her identity, her triumphs and struggles and friendships?  I hope I did.  I tried.  Maybe I failed.  Maybe because of my own background, and because of the stark, sad, complex  and ongoing history of cultural appropriation, I can never do well enough.  I don’t get to check out of history just because I’m a nice person.  Wish I did, but there it is.

What I do know is what I said up top, this profession that I practice and love needs a much wider range of participants at the very top than it has.   What I also know is this, if we as readers want to promote that idea, and that diversity, we need to take charge across the social media and talk about the titles and authors we love who represent the broad sweep of our culture.  This will speak to the publishers in most basic language they understand…money and sales.

So, folks, here’s the question that can be answered.  Who are you reading?

Duke Ellington



Encounters with the Fantastic — A Fantastic Doll’s House

fairy castle 2Any fantasy author can talk about encounters with the fantastic in the real world.  We’ve all had them, or we wouldn’t write what we do.

Usually, I blame my choice of profession, and subject on the fact I learned to read out of The Wizard of Oz.  But there were other influences.  One of the strongest was, and still is, in Chicago.

My grandparents lived in Chicago, and we used to go visit a couple of times a year.  My mother, who was really hoping to raise pratical minded children who understood the value of hard, practical work, would take us to the Museum of Science and Industry.  She wanted me to be interested in things like the coal mine.  Never worked.  Whenever we went, the only think I wanted to see was the fairy castle.

This thing was amazing.  It’s big, but when I was five it looked ENORMOUS.  It was a toy for an old-time movie star, so it was as detailed and opulent as a Hollywood imagination could conceive.  The glass slippers waiting for Cinderella were hollow.  The books were legible, if you had a magnifying glass.  The paintings on the walls were done by hand.

I was in love with this castle.  I used to make up stories about it.  I bought the souvenir book and poured over the pages.  I think I still have it somewhere.  Probably I saw other things in the museum, but this was the thing I remembered.  This was the glamour and the magic what I fell in love with.

Never have gone down into that coal mine, but I never seem to have quite left that castle.

fairy castle

City Magic

I have a love-hate relationship with “urban fantasy.”

On the one hand, I love cities.  I think they are magic by their nature.  When I was a little kid, we lived in Buffalo, New York.  I could walk, on my own, to school, to ballet class, to the stores (especially Herzog’s Drug Store which had orange creamcicles), to the movie theater (saw Godzilla vs. The Thing at the Granada before I was 8.  Life was good), to Parkside’s Ice Cream (which had peppermint stick ice cream, the only substance known to humanity better than an orange creamcicle).  Okay, at the time, Buffalo was collapsing along with the steel industry, but when you’re a kid you don’t notice these things.

We spent summers at the family property in the country.  Fresh air, hills to climb, a creek to splash around in and fossils to hunt on the rocky banks, big patches of raspberries.  Mom telling me to get outside, which invariably led to me climbing a hill with a book and my lunch so I could sit and read.

Then we moved to Trenton, Michigan, to a street that was like all the other streets around it, that is, it was block after block of houses.  I could walk to school, and home, and past block, after block after block of houses.  Even on your bike, it was forever to anywhere.  It was safe (it was also a complete monoculture), the schools were good.  I was BORED.

So, for me, urban fantasy should have the emphasis on “urban.”  A lot of urban fantasy is about vampires and werewolves and wizards who happen to live in a city.  For me, if you’re going to have magic and magical beings in a city, they, and their magic should be related to the city.  It should grow out of that envirnment.  It should be filled with the mysteries and influences you can only find in the cities, that tumult, confusion and combinations and places that cities possess.  That was one of the things I was aiming for in my Chicago in BAD LUCK GIRL, and the Halfers.

The Halfers are city dwellers.  Some of them are immigrant ghosts and legends, carried by beliefs and dreams to their new world city homes.  Some of them are the result of magic, used and disregarded and left loose on the streets to animate…whatever it finds.  They are creatures of tin and paper, electricity, even iron.  They are not loved, they are not respected.  They are new and they are confusing to some of the older powers that exist in the world, particularly the Seelie and the Unseelie Courts who like things…well-defined.  Pure.  Familiar.  Controlled.

I wanted the Chicago magic to be a chance to explore the contradictions of both the magic and the city.  In modern history, in Chicago History, things are always changing, the new and the strange is always moving in, and the results are frightening, confusing, surprising.


Chicago Magic Piao

Sweet Home Chicago

From the time I started thinking seriously about the American Fairy books, I was sure Callie and Jack were going to end up in Chicago.  It was, in fact, one of the first things I knew about their story.

Fairies and magic have always been linked to beauty, creativity and glamor.  For a story set in the 1930s, it was easy to take this and run with it so that the Seelie Court — the bright, beautiful, literally glamourous fairy — would gather in and around Hollywood.  Once I realized that the focus for the Unseelie was going to be jazz — wilder, dangerous, villified, any yet profoundly powerful, that made New York city, a natural base of operations for them (yes, jazz has its origins New Orleans, and strong roots in Kansas City and St. Louis, among other places.  Jazz comes at you from all directions).

That made Chicago the middle ground.  A strong city with its own history, it’s own character and characters, filled to the brim with all the tensions and creativity that make America unique.

The Second City also happens to be my first city.  My mother grew up there, my father went to school there.  I joke about their mixed marriage — he was a White Sox fan, she was a Cubs fan.  I visited my grandparents there, spent hours in the Field Museum, saw the Christmas displays in the Marshall Fields windows and ate Frango mints when that was the only place you could get them.  There’s still something about downtown Chicago that feels more comfortable to me than any other city.  It’s still the place where the train tracks meet and the music, the blues, is distinct.  It’s a place where people come looking for work, looking to profit, looking to hide.

It was the only place I could picture Jack and Callie making their stand.

Sweet Home Chicago


My Romantic Times — Day 1

2014-05-14 13.23.19There’re a lot of reasons for an author to go to the Romantic Times Booklovers Convention.  For starters, it’s packed with readers who love all kinds of books.  Second, it’s packed full of all kinds of great pros.

This year, the third reason was it was in New Orleans.

For me, the trip did not start on a high note.  The flight down was as pleasant as a flight can be these days, even though we had to set out at OHMYGODWHOSEIDEAWASTHIS-thirty in the morning.  Even though we had to change planes in Charlotte.  The Charlotte airport, by the way, has a lovely atrium with trees and rocking chairs, and some fairly decent barbeque, so it is now high on my list of decent airports.

Anyway, on the second leg, I began feeling the ominous prickling that meant I had not in fact dodged my husband’s cold as I had hoped.  Bleh.

Still, flight was uneventful, got to the hotel just fine and checked in.  I will say here the J.W. Marriott provided great service for the entire stay.  And they are not giving me extra loyalty points for that.

I was rooming with the fabulous Cindy Spencer Pape and after we got unpacked and registered, we did what comes natural.  We went out into the French Quarter to shop and dine.  Mostly we stuck to Chartres and Royal, and O.M. Friggin’ G. did we see the shinies and the pretties.  Oh, and then there were these guys:

 2014-05-13 14.57.00

On the way down Chartes, we found a great little bar/restaurant whose name I’m forgetting and I had chicken and waffles for the first time.  Unfortunately, I found I really like it, especially with honey glaze and hot sauce.  Don’t judge me.

On the way back, while purusing the vintage and antique pretties, we also found Cafe Biegnet, and I got to be there when Cindy had her first.  I hadn’t been to NOLA for over a decade, and the bienets were as good as I remembered, if not a little bit better.  Now, I know most people say Cafe Du Monde for your biegnet needs, but I myself am a Cafe Biegnet partisan for a couple of reasons: 1) bigger biegnets and 2) sheltered seating which reduces the instance of powdered sugar attacks.

It having been an unbelievably early morning, it was declared an early night.  Especially as my cold was not getting any better, and doing so fairly rapidly.


RIP Mickey Rooney

I am a huge fan of movie musicals.  I am an unabashed romantic.  I adore old movies, and vaudeville.  This would make me a natural fan of Mickey Rooney’s work.  He was a genuine trooper.  He fought hard against his demons and in the end, he won.

Given all that, though, my absolute favorite piece of work by Mr. Rooney, was his star turn in the Twilight Zone episode, Last Night of a Jockey.   Sad, lonely, utterly creepy, and all at the same time:

Last Night of a Jockey


Packzi Day!

2014-03-04 08.20.23It’s Packzi Day!

I recognize many of you may not be aware of this, but it is.  As Mardi Gras is to New Orleans and pancakes are to the United Kingdom, and cronuts to Manhattan, so is the glory that is the packzi to those portions of the Midwest fortunate enough to have strong Polish enclaves.

But what is the packzi?  It is NOT a doughnut, never mind a cronut.  It is a glorious, sweet, pastry made of sugar, flour, lard (sorry vegan types!) and other such things you are not supposed to have in the house during Lent.  It’s filled with a variety of flavors.  The two most traditional are prune and rose hip.  The first one I ever had was lemon, but today we’ve got strawberry, raspberry, and custard.  I’ve seen apple and chocolate as well.

And they are pretty much available only one day a year, so the good bakeries have lines:

2014-03-04 07.47.02 2014-03-04 07.47.29

Those stacked trays by the window there?  Yep, loaded up with packzi.  No selfie here, but I was in line before 8:00 am, and I was maybe the fifth person back, and maybe ten people coming in the door behind me.  It’s all probably just as well, because this is not a small pastry.

So, Happy Packzi day wherever you may be, and may it be the start of a sweet spring and a sweet year.


Sarah Zettel and the Big Book — Part Five


NOTE: I’m going to be talking unromantically and uneuphemistically about sex here, and ranting a bit.   If you’re under 18, there are people who will think you shouldn’t read this.  Please consult your own conscience and tolerence levels.

Okay.  Here we go.

I have a problem with the end of The Big Book.

There was a lot to like here.  The historical writing was particularly luscious.  There are passages I want to shove under the nose of a number of authors I could name and say “See?  See?  Here.  THIS is how you write about women and their friendships.  This.  Right here.”  In parts there is a de-romanticization of the way men see women, that famous “male gaze” that is interesting, worthwhile and highly self-aware.

Then we get to the end, and what happens?

Wait for it…

I don’t expect a whole lot of people to read this book, if they can find it, but because this is the internet, I’m going to do this anyway.


Spoiler Alert


Okay?  Okay.  Oh, BTW, there’s also a rant coming.

Okay?  Okay.

So, we get to the end, and what happens?…wait for it…In this time-looping book where we slip from present to past, between points of view and narrative styles and complexity, we get the most prosaic possible ending for the heroine.  That’s right. The modern girl dies.

Why does she die?  Because that’s what happens to abused women.  Everybody knows that.  Take a look down the line in movies and literature.  When nobody can save them, they die.
Oh, it’s all terribly tragic.  Just like that masterpiece of modern feminism, Thelma and Louise.  This brilliant young woman is so unable to overcome the abuse inflicted on her by her father, and the exploitation of her professor, etc., that despite her brilliance and the discovery of genuinely good people in her life, and getting to be in the place she’s always wanted to be and meeting the kinds of people she’s always wanted to meet, she kills herself.  Why?  Well…because she does.  It’s the tragedy of it, isn’t it?  She was abused and she killed herself.  That’s what happens, right?

And the author really piled it on.  He made it very clear that this was in the end no garden variety abuse, and that, of course it wasn’t her fault, she was so traumatized, etc., she just kept seeking out situations where she was going to be abused.  You know, it was one of those long, drawn out suicides.

For the record, I am very, very aware that exploited women do kill themselves.  But you know what?  They also don’t kill themselves.  They suffer and they die, but they also suffer and live.  Kind of a lot.  But you wouldn’t know it from literature.

I am so, so, SO sick of the dead chick ending.  It is not a new statement.  It goes back centuries.  Woman has a voluntary or involuntary sexual experience that is not within the codified bounds, and BOOM!  Gotta die.  Either because deviating from the strict code of conduct set by society has got to be seen as suicidal, or because it’s so, terribly, terribly, terribly tragic.

Oh, if she gets pregnant, maybe she gets to live for the baby’s sake, but living just because she wants to live?  Not so much.

Maybe it was worth is when Thomas Hardy was writing Tess of d’Ubervilles, but in the 21st it’s cheap tragedy, right up there on the level with a story where the Big Surprise is that the hero’s gay.  It’s also obvious tragedy.  It’s easy.  Of course she dies, because it was all.  So.  Horrible.

I’ll tell you something else — killing the victim it is NOT a feminist or feminist-ally statement.  You know what would be?  If the victim lived.  If she survived what had happened and somehow managed to heal, even a little, without having to go through being pregnant for the privilege.  If the exploitative professor was forced to confront the living woman, rather than just the corpse.  THAT would be a profound statement.

Or if he died instead.  You’ll notice the man never dies in these scenarios.  He never kills himself because he can’t handle what he’s done or what he’s learned.  Ever wonder why the woman is always the one who’s got to die?

With all that was new and wonderful and beautifully written in this book about survival, and history and faith, about ways to fight and ways to cope, and the beauty of the world and THIS is the best this character we’ve spent over a thousand friggin’ pages with gets?  A bland, dull, worn out repetition of one of the oldest and most worn out tragedies.  So sad.  Next.

Close the Big Book on a sour note.