The Weight of Words

I devised my favorite teaching exercise just after the US went back to war in Iraq, taking my inspiration from a seemingly unlikely source: President George W. Bush. Though the forty-third president had a sometimes-tenuous command of words, he surrounded himself with masters of manipulating language. Remember when we used to call climate change global warming? Yeah, I do, too. That shift in nomenclature happened during Bush 2’s administration. It was a brilliant, though disturbing choice. Warming is a kind of change, so that much is accurate. And change is one of the few constants in our life, so naturally the climate will go through it, too, right? Maybe even all by itself. But as the science has made clear, the planet is warming at an alarming rate because of humans, particularly because we consume too much, especially fossil fuels. By stripping away the old label’s specificity, the new one adds the illusion of wiggle room to discussions about the environment—if it was going to change anyway, perhaps it’s still okay to drill, baby, drill. (It’s not okay. It’s so far from okay.)

Although I did point out this label shift to my students, the example that inspired my lesson plan works in the other direction, moving from abstract to specific. For months leading up to the war, we heard about weapons of mass destruction. The Bush administration relied on these weapons’ putative existence to justify beginning a war that many of us believed was unjust. Every day we heard that phrase, often multiple times. But on the eve of that war, Bush claimed in his speech to the nation that the Iraqis had weapons of mass murder. It’s the only moment from that speech that I remember because it arrested me. I was caught between horror for the impending war and admiration for the rhetorical prowess of 43’s staff. It’s just one word, but it carries so much weight, and this moment offered a perfect example of diction’s power. So I asked my students to bring dictionaries to the next class where I wrote the two words—destruction, murder—on the board. After we listed the definitions beneath the words, I explained their context and we discussed the difference. I asked them why the President might change a phrase that had been in the public consciousness for so long, and my students saw how this rhetorical shift from an abstract idea to a concrete image appeared to heighten the threat that Saddam Hussein posed to the world, thus making the war appear necessary.

In both of these examples the more specific a word’s meaning, the more weight it carries. Change can happen in many directions; warming is a particular kind of change. Destruction has many targets; murder is the intentional destruction of a human life by another human. All writers have seen advice about using fewer words that do more work to add power to their writing. Instead of “she ran quickly,” we could write “she raced,” “she sped,” fled, flew. All those words contain the notion of “running quickly,” but they also add a specific flavor to that quickness; they all do extra work. This is one of my favorite parts of writing—choosing my words carefully.

For eight years after President Bush left office, we had an articulate, eloquent president in Barack Obama, a man who chooses his words carefully. But now we have a president who proves his disdain for words and meaning every day. When he speaks, many of his words float, unanchored by meaning. The rest of his administration operates in much the same way. These are the people for whom news is fake and facts are alternative. Nouns become verbs—how does one “architect her life?” And when we hear the words “Believe me” coming from 45’s mouth, we’re wise to do just the opposite. Unlike his predecessors, Mr. Trump prefers to improvise rather than rely upon prepared remarks. And in his improvisations he returns to the same words over and over: huge, tremendous, and of course, great. While huge and tremendous offer more specific meanings, great requires context. It can mean big, important, remarkable, above average; it can have both positive and negative connotations depending on the words around it: a great nation. A great idiot. It is a word, like this presidency, without much weight.

And then there is the word that so many pundits long to apply to the Oval Office’s current occupant, if for no other reason than to pretend that there is something normal about this president. So many people still look for a reason to call Donald J. Trump presidential. But in order to do that, we’d have to strip that word of all its weight and let it float as meaningless as every other Trumpian utterance. There are plenty of more accurate adjectives to apply to the forty-fifth president, adjectives that carry all the weight they need to describe him.

Puppies Make Everything Better

Because I’ve been working on a fantasy trilogy, I haven’t written many posts recently. But if you scroll down my blog page, you’ll see a clear shift in my focus over the past year. Before the 2016 election I wrote mostly about my life as a writer, with the occasional essay about something deeply personal. And then came November 8th. Since then my mind has been occupied more than I would like by the mishegoss in Washington. But sometimes I have to look away. Sometimes I have to focus on something else. So that’s what I’m doing now.

About a year ago I started volunteering as a dog walker at the Oregon Humane Society. It’s the oldest animal shelter on the west coast, with a beautiful facility and an amazing adoption rate. At OHS no animal is euthanized to make space for others. In fact, we take animals from other shelters that don’t have room. We have a behavior department and a medical facility on site where veterinary students do a shelter medicine rotation. There’s almost always a line at the door well before we open—often because people want to get first dibs on the kittens and puppies. Sometimes people just wander through the kennels to look at dogs, people who have recently lost pets or who just want to say hi to the puppies. At any given time you’re likely to find a volunteer or Animal Care Technician sitting in a kennel with a dog.

Over the past year I have fallen in love with several dogs—there were Harvey and Jupiter, long-term residents who finally went home around Christmas last year. Then there was Kobe, a pit bull with a skin condition, and Buddy, a black lab who lost a leg because of a tumor. And of course, sweet little Fox, a Chihuahua who loved belly rubs, cuddling, and cheese. If Ralphie would have been cool with having a little brother, Fox would be curled in my lap right now.

Who doesn’t love a belly rub?
I loved that little dude. He spent more than a month at OHS, so I signed up to be his Pet Pal and worked with him on basic commands in between belly rubs.By the time a family came to take him home, he had learned sit and stay (more or less). Luckily I was at the shelter that day, so I got to tell the family what a sweet little dog he is. And I got to say goodbye. I think about him every day and hope that he is happy. He’s an easy-going sort of guy, so he probably is.

Now I’m spending extra time with a labrador mix named Jackson Brown.

Look at those beautiful eyes!
Jackson and I have a bit of a history. The second time I walked him, he accidentally bit me. I can’t stress that enough: he didn’t mean to get me. He was just trying to bite his leash and my finger got in the way. Because the bite drew blood, I had to report it and then JB went into BQ (bite quarantine). I felt wretched. If I had moved him past the other dog’s kennel faster or more effectively, he wouldn’t have gotten over-excited and then redirected his focus on the leash. But Jackson got plenty of attention from the staff during his quarantine, and now he’s back on the floor, playing with his buddy Margaret every day and his other Pet Pals several times a week. Jackson will play fetch with his toy pigs forever if you let him. Luckily he loves food, so I can bribe him when it’s time to get them away from him and take him back to his kennel. Every day I check the OHS website to see if Jackson has gone home. One of these days, the right family for Jackson will find him.

In the midst of our POTUS inspired insanity, OHS is an oasis of calm. Yes, there are dogs barking, and kittens playing, and staff members delivering food, and people milling about in the lobby. Every day we deal with animals who may have been abused, who are terrified, who need extra help in one way or another. Sometimes the cacophony in the kennels is deafening. And sometimes the smells are overwhelming (puppies poop a lot, but they’re PUPPIES!).

Cuteness overload.
But when I’m working with a dog, the rest of the world fades away. I don’t think about the insanity and the tweets and the fear. I think about the dog, about how to help him learn more so that he can go home, how to make sure to keep her safe because she has a vision problem, how to manage dogs who don’t like each other. I think about my little man Fox’s cuteness and about Jackson Brown’s exuberance. I also think about how to get Jackson to surrender his pigs and let me put on his gentle leader. And I make mistakes that I have to learn from right away. It’s also time away from my writing, time where my mind can work on some narrative problem without my knowing what it’s doing. It’s time spent doing something that has meaning to me. That gives me a little light and makes me feel like I’m doing something right.

And puppies make everything better.

Best volunteer gig in the world.

Oh the Depravity!

I can’t get my mind around what’s happening in Washington. The GOP “health care” plan guts the ACA, making it much more difficult for poor people to get health insurance while providing obscene tax cuts for insurance company CEOs, and several Republicans say they will reject the new plan because it doesn’t GO FAR ENOUGH. Even Ann I hate all humanity Coulter hates the new plan. Take a moment to think about that. And while you’re thinking about that, consider H. J. Resolution 69, the bill that allows hunters to shoot bears while they HIBERNATE and wolf pups IN THEIR DENS. Nothing sporting about that. It’s just cruel. Have you finished thinking about the health care thing and the dead wolf puppies? Now mull over the brand new task force called VOICE: Victims of Immigration Crime Engagement, which will investigate and publish crimes committed by undocumented immigrants. You know who else did that? If you guessed Hitler, then ding, ding, ding! You get a sticker! Except that with Hitler, it was the Jews. In the U.S. Jews are mostly okay, except for the regular bomb threats called in to JCCs and the vandalism in Jewish cemeteries. Every single Senator signed a letter to the President asking him to please address this ongoing mishegoss. Even the Republicans. I wonder what the big man will do when he’s done watching Fox News and tweeting. Hard to say, though he’ll probably whine about how the “deep state” led by President Obama is sabotaging his Presidency. I’m a fantasy writer with a dark side and I would never have made this shit up. The depravity is wearing my patience thin. And it’s only March.

White Anxiety

Here’s what’s been on my mind today–bear with me, this might be a little rough and take some time to work through:

Yesterday I saw a lovely post on a Facebook group dedicated to the Women’s March. It celebrated diversity and inclusion and featured a drawing of a Native American woman. The caption was something like “Women of Color taking the lead.” Under the photo was a comment from a white lady (at least that’s what her profile picture suggested) that said, “Are white women allowed to march, too?” The administrator gave an earnest answer to what seemed a snarky question, reassuring the woman that everyone is encouraged to join; everyone is welcome. I’ve been thinking about that white woman’s comment. Perhaps it was snarky. But underneath it was anxiety about being pushed to the margins.

I’ve been working on my novel for most the day today, so I don’t have the energy for smooth transitions. Here’s the next paragraph–I promise I will tie all this together: Whiteness (like any other structure of domination) maintains its power via exclusion. Though the boundaries of American whiteness have shifted in the past century or two, they have never stretched far enough to include people of color. White vigilance about those boundaries is well documented in American history: from the one drop rule to separate but equal, white people have guarded their position by making it impossible for nearly everyone else to occupy it. This isn’t just an American phenomenon—this exclusion of people of color from power and life has happened around the world for centuries. People of color have been stripped of their power in Africa and Asia, Latin America and Australia. They have been subjugated, dispersed, captured, enslaved, and killed. On our continent alone millions of people were killed or enslaved before the first slave ships arrived from Africa. Whiteness operates by domination and maintains that domination by punishment and marginalization. In other words, white people have a history of pushing other people to the margins.

So it stands to reason that this white woman asked her question about being allowed at the Women’s March. She comes from a culture that maintains its dominance by pushing everyone else out. It makes sense that white people are anxious about “identity politics” and about the Black Lives Matter movement because they fear that they will be shunted to the side–they will be treated the same way that people of color have been treated for centuries. Excluded. Marginalized. They wonder: If we make room for other people to have power, then what happens to us? What happens to me? (This is not a defense of white anxiety and of racism; it’s an attempt to understand something that I abhor. An attempt to find empathy.)

Of course, whiteness isn’t the only power position that operates this way–patriarchy and heteronormativity do the same work.

Where do I go from here in this thought train? I’m not entirely sure. I want to find a way to explode such structures of power. I want to find a way to be inclusive, to share the power. To teach everyone that no one has to be pushed away. There has to be a way to make room for everyone.

And here I can’t help but think about a moment in the final season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Fellow fans know what I’m about to talk about. In Buffy’s world there was only one slayer at a time. A new slayer was called only after the current one died–it’s an apt metaphor for what I’m talking about above, really. Only one person at a time has access to her incredible power (except when Buffy dies in season one and Xander revives her, thus creating a second slayer). In season seven Buffy says screw this noise. A group of men decided it should be this way a long time ago. Instead she offered to share her power (via a whole magical thing–seriously, just watch it) with all the young women who had the potential to be slayers when either Buffy or Faith died. I’ve watched that moment over and over and over again and I still cry every time. It’s an amazing moment–and an amazing idea. Power can be shared and in that sharing, the world can be changed.

If you’re still reading, thank you. I don’t have a conclusion. I don’t know how to conclude except to say that I want to find a way to share, to include, to invite everyone to the table. There has to be a way. Even without a magical scythe and a powerful Wicca.

Voting Your Conscience

When I was a graduate student in the late 1990s I took a seminar about postcolonial literature and theory. We spent a lot of time discussing how colonizers oppressed those they conquered by taking away their ability to understand and make meaning in the world by, for example, making it illegal to teach or speak their native languages. The term we bandied about for this and other similar processes is epistemic violence. It is a brutal, devastating tactic that worked. Imagine one day not being able to find your way around your city because all the street names had been changed and all the informational signs were written in a language you didn’t know. Imagine the sense of dislocation, of fear, of confusion.

I found those discussions fascinating. But I remember one afternoon looking around at the mostly white faces in the room and thinking about how sterile the discussion was. There we were, eager graduate students, sipping our tea or coffee from travel mugs, talking with great passion about our assigned reading in the safety and comfort of an air-conditioned seminar room. So I asked why we weren’t talking about the physical violence—the raping, mutilating, and murdering—perpetuated by colonizers. Why weren’t we talking about bodies? I don’t actually remember the answer. I’m sure we did talk a little bit about the physical violence, but then we retreated from the blood and gore and stickiness to the clean, pure realm of theory.

I’ve been thinking about that particular day a lot lately because I’ve been trying to figure out why I’m so bothered by my friends who insist that they are voting for Jill Stein (or Gary Johnson) because they have to vote their conscience or their principles. I admit that I don’t know many people who are so angry with the major parties that they are choosing to vote Green or Libertarian. But the ones I do know often include the caveat that they “have the luxury of voting their principles because they live in [insert solidly blue state here].” I saw something like this posted by a complete stranger on Twitter just last night. He was arguing with an ardent Hillary Clinton supporter and then tweeted that because he lived in California he had the “freedom to vote [his] principles and would probably write in Bernie.” I asked him if he would still write in Bernie if he lived in a red or swing state. So far he hasn’t replied. If he says no, I’ll know that he understands more than he lets on about what is at stake for millions of people in this country. If he says yes, then I’ll wonder how he can privilege his principles (which are by definition abstractions) over the actual safety of millions of other Americans not so lucky to be born a white guy. But when challenged about this privilege, so many of the people complaining that Hillary is just as bad as Trump (a mind-bogglingly infuriating statement by itself) say that they refuse to let FEAR dictate their votes. Of course they won’t. They have nothing to be afraid of.

So these same voters can fantasize about how a Trump presidency might be good for America. Like a controlled burn in a forest. Burn down the old establishment! Then a new one can rise like a phoenix! But think about what this means for the Americans who do not have the luxury to indulge in that fantasy. Think about the Americans whose hard-won rights will begin to evaporate. Think about their actual lives, their actual bodies. Think about what it is like for a Black man to drive in states where the police force has demonstrated a willingness to support officers who kill them. What does it feel like in that man’s body when he sees a flashing light behind his car? What does it feel like to be shoved onto the ground with a gun in your back? What does it feel like for a bullet to enter your chest? What does it feel like to die on the street? What does it feel like to be that man’s wife or child? Think about the young Black man walking down the street who is subjected to searches because a cop thinks he looks suspicious. What does it feel like to have some stranger’s hands patting you down when you’ve done nothing at all wrong? What does it feel like to be afraid of cops?

Think about the immigrant whom Trump wants to round up and deport. What is it like to be pulled from your home? To be sent back to a country you fled? What does it feel like to be separated from your family? What does it feel like to be denied entrance to this country because you are Muslim?

And think about the woman who, if Trump gets his way, may be forced to carry a baby to full term no matter the consequences to her health or the cause of the pregnancy. Do you know what pregnancy is like? Do you know what giving birth is like? Think about it. Imagine the pain. The blood. Imagine someone you love being forced to go through that. Then imagine what might happen to the actual child. Will she be adopted by loving parents? Will she end up in foster care? What will her life be like? What might happen to a woman who gets an abortion? Will she go to jail? What happens to bodies in jail? What happens if she gets an infection from the illegal abortion? What happens to her body?

What happens to the body of a teenager harassed because he is gay? What does it feel like to be told that you are an abomination? What does it feel like to be denied a marriage license because some clerk objects to your right to get married?

These are only a fraction of the questions I could ask about many different Americans’ lives. If you find them uncomfortable it is because they are meant to be. It’s easy to retreat to the safety of abstractions. That’s why I find my friends’ conviction so disappointing. That’s why I find their desire for more ideological purity in their candidates so frustrating. They are privileging their fantasy—because what else could the notion of an ideologically pure candidate be—over the reality of millions of Americans’ lives with nothing at all at stake for themselves. I don’t know how anyone’s conscience could allow that.

p.s. The Hillary supporter replied to Mr. Principles with “Vote Garfield.”

Emily June Street Blog Tour!

When my Luminous Sister Emily and I started writing together in 2012, she sent me several chapters from a beautiful fantasy novel that takes place in a world called Lethemia. Her poetic language hooked me immediately. The intricately imagined details of the story’s world—its fashion, magic systems, cultures, and languages—fascinated me. The epic story enchanted me so much that after three years and several revisions, I still love to read it. Now that story is finally available for everyone to read and to love! Luminous Creatures Press released The Gantean, Tales of Blood and Light Book One yesterday. To celebrate, I’ve invited Emily to answer some questions on my blog. She covers a lot, including how her writing process works, how she developed her love for editing, and the trouble with the STRONG FEMALE CHARACTER. Enjoy!

You’ve been working on this series—especially book one—for a long time. What has surprised you over the course of writing / revising / editing the books?

Mainly I’m surprised that I’ve kept at this particular story for as long as I have. I still don’t entirely know why I’ve spent so long on it—I have suspicions, but it’s also just another story among many I want to write, yet for some reason I’ve trained my determination on it for decades. So many times I read it and thought—this just isn’t working. Or: I clearly have no idea what I’m doing. Even so, I’d start over again and try to make it work.

One reason I’ve invested so much energy in a story that was so difficult is that I’ve written other books in the series, and I want to make the whole series happen. This first book is an essential piece of that puzzle. All the Lethemia books have been difficult, and all for the same reason: they flowed directly out of my unconscious without any structural planning. I’ve never been able to sit down and plot a Lethemia book at the macro-level. They are character-driven and complex. For many years, I also never had what I would call “a point” for The Gantean. I only knew I wanted to write it, and the reason I wanted to write it was because I wanted it to exist.

My revising process lacked focus for a long time. I didn’t know what this book had to say on a global, abstract level, and I didn’t like not having that as a touchstone. I figured out at least part of why the story was important to me about a year ago after some beta readers were making complaints about my main character, Leila, being too passive and wanting her to be a stronger, more hero-like heroine. When I first begin writing TG, I was a twelve-year-old girl, a weird mix of tomboy and ballerina. The fantasy stories I loved—Arthurian legends, Lord of the Rings—generally had heroes, not heroines, and if they did have heroines—or female characters of any note—they fell into three categories: 1) love interests, 2) slightly annoying secondary characters, or, a bit later, 3) STRONG FEMALE CHARACTERS trudging the hero’s path.
The twelve-year-old girl in me wanted a character who felt—perhaps as I did—both insignificant and important, able to act but afraid to do so, and—and most important, a character who adapted and accommodated instead of constantly taking charge. I still believe there is a great feminine strength in this capability, and we do a disservice to female characters in all kinds of books by forcing them to follow the hero’s path. That belief has kept me gnawing at this piece. Though it has been a difficult story, it has been important for me, personally, to explore this character, even if it meant throwing away the mold about how to write a fantasy on my very first attempt.

As I deliberated (and agonized) over comments urging me to turn my lead into a more typical active character, I realized I wanted to stay true to the girl I’d been who wanted a different heroine, who wanted to see more of her own psyche reflected in a lead character—a lead both passive and active, who rarely turns to violence to solve problems, who is introverted, quiet, shy, and strong all at once. A lead who questions who she is, what she stands for, and never entirely knows. A lead with a fluid, watery identity. A lead who sees the value in adapting rather than struggling.
I guess I’m surprised by how steadfast I’ve been able to be, while making “risky” choices with The Gantean, knowing that it won’t appeal to some readers, knowing that I was wrestling tricky issues that I maybe should have avoided on my first attempt at writing a novel…

As always, the world of your books is richly detailed and thoroughly imagined. What research did you do to help you create the language, customs, architecture, belief systems and other areas that make up Lethemia and Gante?

Two things I knew right from the beginning: 1) I had a stark northern culture and 2) the element I wanted to represent in my heroine was water. Both of those are pretty standard fantasy tropes—connecting a character to an elemental power and having a “northern” cold culture pitted against a “southern” warm culture.

I wanted to do it a little differently. I didn’t want Leila to actually have an elemental power relating to magic; I wanted her to have a watery, fluid presence, a way of being in the world that was represented by water’s ability to adapt and flow and become whatever vessel held it. I see this ability to react to change fluidly as an underexplored aspect of what it means to be a “strong woman character.” It has been the condition of women for centuries to adapt—to life in their husbands’ families, to the changes brought on by politics and wars, to the cyclical fluctuations that are the essential part of female existence. This is an uncelebrated strength of women the world over, this ability to adapt and survive despite changing conditions over which they have historically had little control. I wanted to show that strength in Leila—not that she be some fantastical warrior assassin. I wanted her to be able to move like water around stone.

As far as the cultures go, one of my Pilates clients grew up in an Inuit village in Alaska, and I picked her brain about what it was like to grow up in cold, survival-intense conditions. She gave me great insights about the deep importance of community in this kind of culture—how if you get abandoned by the community, it’s essentially a death sentence; you cannot survive without the group’s support. I used this notion of interdependency to shape Gantean culture, though I took it several steps further by tying the magic into this communal way. I also took communalism to possibly negative extremes, giving the Ganteans rigid and unbending rules of how to behave and what to believe. I wanted the Ganteans to have a dark side—and this rigidity offered a starting point for that.

I researched people living in cold climates—the Inuits, the Sami, the people of the Siberian Steppes—to understand how Gantean society might survive, as well as to decide which natural resources they might use. Ultimately these details fused with my own ideas about what I needed, story-wise, to make something bizarre and (hopefully) unique. The Ganteans are certainly not meant to represent any particular culture, though I did use the Inupiat and Inuit language sounds to help guide my Gantean language—most of the Gantean words are made up, except for a few, which I loved too much not to use: tormaq, Pamiuq, The Cedna (a variation of Sedna, a female figure from Inuit mythology). I investigated the plants and animals that might survive in cold conditions and tried to make some of these species relevant to the Ganteans. I also wildly invented: snowcats (apparently no species of cat does all that well in Arctic conditions—their delicate ears freeze), Shringar fish (like sharks, but not), and arctic musk goats (I wanted to Ganteans to have access to wool, so I gave them some goats).

For the magic system, I really wanted the Ganteans and Lethemians to have different beliefs that described the same phenomena, similar to how all the cultures on earth have different beliefs that describe the same basic problems of existence: what happens after death, how the world was made, etc. So the two magic systems—Gantean and Lethemian—dovetail to hint at a universal logic of magic, while diverging to help show what the two cultures value.

Lethemia was an easier culture to shape than Gante, as it more closely resembles something common in fantasy books: a western feudal society. I gave the Lethemians a great deal of power and a great deal of magic. I also made them pleasure-loving, a more emotionally free people to contrast with Gantean starkness. They have a culture of privilege. That was fun, because I could include any extravagant or depraved thing in their world. I turned to other wealthy, powerful societies for inspirations, mostly empires of the past that commanded vast wealth and resources. There are dark realities underpinning all this luxury: the use of unpaid labor by the power classes to get work done. Lethemians own slaves and slavery helps power the economy on many levels. Nobles command nearly all the power, and the castes beneath them lead more difficult lives.

For Lethemia, I looked at lots of pictures online. Whenever I saw some detail of architecture or costume that inspired me, I collected it for future use. You can see some of these pictures on my Pinterest boards:

Imagine that you have full creative control over the film version of The Gantean and that money is no object. You get to hire everyone:

I’m not that much of a movie or TV watcher. I try, but I usually end up opening my book halfway through. I prefer my stories in words. But everyone always wants to know the answer to this question, so I’ll try.

I picture Leila looking like a cross between Adriana Lima and Vanessa Hudgens, but could either of them pull her off as actresses? I don’t think so. So I’m going to go with Ksenia Solo, who has the right eyes and build, and is, apparently, a solid practitioner of her craft.

Costas could be Hayden Christensen, though I find him hit or miss as an actor. Max Irons would be a better choice, but either of them would need some contact lenses because Costas has noteworthy amber eyes.

Laith might be Jonathan Rhys-Meyers. He certainly has the edge, if not quite the more Arabic or Persian look I imagine. He’d be able to handle what’s coming in Laith’s story after The Gantean.

Miki would be a previously undiscovered major child talent, of course.

Tiercel might be well played by Richard Armitage.

Ghilene Entila, I just have no idea.

The Cedna could be Saoirse Ronan. She could do the acting, and her look is great (with a few modifications). She could also manage the age span that The Cedna has to go through in the series.

Angelina Jolie really is the only possible Lady Malvyna Entila. Hopefully she’ll consent without too many contractual add-ins.

Whew, I find this very difficult and would like to hand the rest of the characters over to a casting director.

Director: Someone who can handle complex fantasy without making it cheesy. Ang Lee was suggested to me.

Cinematographer: whoever did Peaky Blinders, so it’s nice and artsy.

Costumes: Sandy Powell, who did Disney’s recent “Cinderella.” She has a great sense of history and fusion.

Production Design: Patrick Tatopoulos, who did Dark City, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and 300, for that darker edge.

Locations: Gante: Iceland or Greenland. The Hinge might be Reed Flute Cave in China. I fear Lethemia would largely need to be a built set, though some parts of Ireland or New Zealand might serve for the surrounding countryside.

Thank you for your fabulous answers, Emily!

About The Gantean

The Gantean

After she is violently kidnapped from her stark existence on the cold island of Gante, Leila must learn to survive in a southern culture her native people hate. She has no choice but to adapt to a foreign new world. In this lush, intricate society, exotic temptations greet her at every turn, including a dangerous love affair with a man she never should have known. When civil war threatens, Leila is forced to choose between southern love and northern rituals.

But at what price?

Her choice may have widespread consequences even she cannot predict.

Available at Amazon!


Emily June Street is a true Gemini: she teaches people Pilates by day and edits, writes, and formats by night (and very early morning). She is the author of three novels, The Gantean, Velo Races, and Secret Room, and her short stories have appeared in numerous publications. She likes to pretend she’s a superhero on her bike, and she has a collection of magic wands. She lives in California with her husband and her shoebox puppy, Stella.

Learn more about her writing and freelance editing, formatting, and self-publishing coaching at: or



Liebster Award


My sister in Luminosity, Maestra of Pilates, and Mother of Dragons, Emily June Street, tagged me to write this post. Although I’m not sure what the Liebster award is, I’m happy to play.

Here are the rules:

List eleven random facts about yourself.
Answer eleven questions posed by the tagger.
Devise eleven questions for the people you tag.

And so:

My eleven random facts:

1. Pizza is my favorite food.

2. I started keeping a diary in second grade. The entries are hilarious.

3. I first drank wine at my bat mitzvah. After singing the Kiddush, I threw back the wine, expecting it to taste like grape juice. Manischewitz does not taste like grape juice. I grimaced and said “Ewww.” Everyone laughed. So much for gravitas.

4. Fall is my favorite season. Spring second. I like the chaos of the changes.

5. I once got drunk with Judi Dench’s daughter.

6. Baby birds give me the creeps, but snakes and spiders fascinate me.

7. I prefer towns and villages to big cities. (But I hate the suburbs.)

8. I love thunder storms.

9. I have an Oscars speech ready just in case.

10. The music of the eighties makes me happy.

11. I like grammar.

And on to Emily’s questions:

1. What was your dream career when you were a kid?
Ballerina and manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates. I planned to wear a yellow and black tutu and yellow and black pointe shoes during games. That only lasted for a few months (after the Pirates won the World Series). Then I just wanted to be a ballerina.

2. What is one physical activity you want to do before you die?
I would like to ride a horse at a fierce gallop.

3. What is your favorite trip or vacation that you’ve ever done and why?
It’s a tie: hiking the Southwest Coastal Path in Cornwall in October of 1997 by myself and a two week trip to Tahiti in December of 2005 with my husband, Dave.

Cornwall: This was my first solo vacation. I wasn’t sure how I’d do with that much alone time, but it turns out I really like alone time. I spent every day hiking by the sea, encountering very few people along the way. I also made only one hotel reservation in St. Ives for the first two days of the trip. After that, I planned to wing it. I’m not a winger of things, but it worked out–except for a terrifying moment in a tiny village called Zennor where the hostel had closed for the season. Luckily, there were a few people in the village who let rooms to wandering travelers, so I didn’t have to sleep outside. During that trip I discovered the joys of an afternoon cream tea and that when left to my own devices, I do very well. Two good things to learn in my late twenties.

Tahiti: Pure gorgeous luxury with my favorite person on the planet.

4. Do you dance?
Every day. Usually in my kitchen.

5. Editing or drafting?
Editing. Dear God, editing. I love shaping stories, finding the perfect word, moving sentences around, fleshing out bits that seem thin–all that. The drafting. Oy. That’s a necessary evil to get me to the fun part.

6. Your favorite myth or fairy-tale and why?
The Arthurian legends. I’m having a hard time articulating why. There’s something about ancient, stony, misty, green England that appeals to me, although it is on a visceral rather than an intellectual level.

7. Where (and when) did you grow up and how do you think it shaped you?
I grew up in Evansville, Indiana in the 1970s and 1980s. We lived in a solidly middle class neighborhood near the school I attended for nine years from kindergarten to eighth grade. Farmland surrounded us–mostly corn and soybeans. Today it’s almost all gone, built over into strip malls, car dealerships, and subdivisions. I miss the huge stretches of green.

I think I have an earnestness that one might ascribe to being a Midwesterner. I’m also fascinated with mountains and the ocean since they did not form the landscape of my childhood; Southern Indiana is flat and landlocked. We had lakes and rivers, but those have visible boundaries. And don’t smell of salt.

As for growing up in the 1970s and 1980s: I remember the heart-pounding anxiety of calling a boy and hoping his mother didn’t answer the phone. I miss receiving letters, but I don’t miss busy signals. Technology still throws me a little for a loop, although that could just be part of my personality. I’m torn between appreciating the convenience of cell phones and being bothered by always being reachable. I harbor nostalgia for a simpler time, but who doesn’t?

8. You have $100 that you must spend on yourself by the end of the day. What do you buy?
A really fancy lunch and some books.

9. Pick any three objects or people to be stranded with you in a lost spaceship.
Dave, Ralphie, and a fully loaded Kindle. (Dave would also have a fully loaded Kindle and its charger in his pockets.)

10. What’s your favorite piece of music and why?
Beethoven’s Third Symphony. I love Beethoven, especially the boomy symphonies. My dad introduced me to the third symphony and we used to pretend to conduct it together. That’s a fond memory.

11. Pantser or plotter?
Pantser all the way. I never know where a story is going until I’m several drafts in.

And here are my questions for Jessica Grey, baseball aficionada and author of modern day fairy tales; Kristen Falso Capaldi, singer, songwriter, screenwriter, and all around cool lady; and Callie Armstrong, writer of hauntingly beautiful stories and bad ass Mama:

1. What was your favorite game when you were a child?

2. What is your favorite game now?

3. List five fantasy professions (besides full-time writer).

4. What is your perfect day like?

5. What is the first thing you ever wrote? Did you share it with anyone?

6. What name would you choose for yourself if you needed a new identity?

7. Where is the farthest place you have been from your home?

8. Where do you write?

9. Are you a morning person or a night owl?

10. If you could live anywhere in the world, where would that be and why?

11. Spike or Angel? (alternate question: Mr. Knightley or Captain Wentworth?) Feel free to answer both!

Five Hundred Words of Magic


Emily and I just finished hosting a seven-week flash fiction contest over on the Luminous Creatures Press website. Emily gave the contest its wonderful name, The Winter of Whimsy and Wyrdness, chose all the photo prompts, and posted them each Thursday morning. She also put all the winning stories into e-book and paperback formats for our resulting collection, Five Hundred Words of Magic. My husband Dave pasted all the stories into a Word document so that Emily and I could judge blindly. Meanwhile, I got to read the stories and write a few comments about them. And I got to write a few stories of my own, inspired by the beautiful photos.

Today I proofread the collection, and I am proud to say that it is terrific! Look for it in early January, 2015.

Final week of the Winter of Whimsy and Wyrdness Flash Fiction Contest!

Today begins the final week of Luminous Creatures Press’s winter flash fiction contest. Emily posted the photo prompt on the LCP website this morning, and you have until Sunday at 7 AM (PST) to submit a 500-word story based on the photo. We select up to four winners a week whose stories will be featured in our upcoming anthology Five Hundred Words of Magic. All winning stories include some element of magic. You can submit your story in the comments section of the post.

Photo by Christian Miller
Photo by Christian Miller

Margaret Dashwood Outtakes, Part One

In honor of Jane Austen’s birthday, I decided to post a few scenes from early drafts of Margaret Dashwood and the Enchanted Atlas. I imagine Lucy and Robert Ferrars might be mortified to realize that they didn’t survive the editor’s knife. (All errors in the French are mine as my lovely translators never got a chance to see these scenes.)

From Chapter Five, draft 2.1:

Marriage, Margaret soon discovered, had done nothing to improve Lucy’s manner. After the company had settled themselves for tea, Lucy turned her attention to her sister-in-law.

“I suppose I should be surprised to see that you remain unmarried, Miss Dashwood. By the time I was your age, I had already been engaged for some time. Of course, my first engagement could hardly match my eventual marriage; nevertheless, one would hope that a woman of your age could have at least excited the interest of one beau.”

Margaret resisted the urge to reply.

“Margaret is only eighteen, Mrs. Ferrars,” said Mrs. Dashwood. “Her sister Elinor was older than that when she married dear Edward. I have no fear that Margaret will marry when she is ready.”

“Oh, of course she will; after all, her sisters managed to make relatively good marriages,” said Lucy.

“But I believe,” Fanny interjected, “that Marianne and Elinor were quite lucky. Such felicity cannot be expected to occur a third time.”

“No.” Lucy’s agreement was emphatic. “And Marianne had her great beauty and vivacity to recommend her to someone like Colonel Brandon, while everyone knows Elinor has a steady head. But Margaret, what qualities does she demonstrate? She possesses neither Marianne’s shining beauty nor Elinor’s common sense. No, I am afraid—” But what it was that Lucy was afraid of, she could not say.

Margaret had had enough of Lucy’s prattle and, deciding the benefit outweighed the risk, performed a spell that would make the next few days bearable. She held in her mind an image of Lucy’s mouth moving but producing no sound as she whispered, “Je prends votre voix et le mettre dans ma poche.” It was a quaint little spell from an old book. The whimsy of the incantation had pleased her: “I take your voice and put it in my pocket.” Nevertheless, she had translated it to French.

Lucy realized immediately that something was amiss.

“Lucy? What has happened?” Fanny asked.

Lucy, eyes wide, shook her head and tried speaking again. She gestured frantically to her throat.

“You have lost your voice?” Fanny said, almost as frantic.

Lucy nodded.

“John, Robert!” The men stopped their conversation and attended the women.

“What is it, my dear?” John asked.

“Lucy seems to have lost her voice mid-sentence!”

John turned to Lucy. “Is this true?”

Lucy’s lips moved, forming the word “yes,” but no sound issued from her mouth.

“My dearest!” cried Robert, dropping to his knees in front of Lucy. “Try again. Slowly.”

Lucy mouthed a few more words, still unable to give her thoughts voice. Margaret arranged her face into a concerned expression. “Might another cup of tea help?” she suggested.

“Oh, yes, of course! Thank you, Miss Dashwood,” said Robert. Fanny bustled to the tea tray.

“Here, Lucy, dear, drink this,” Fanny said.

Lucy sipped her tea delicately and then set the tea aside. Aware of the company’s attention, she made much of clearing her throat. Again Lucy opened her mouth and again nothing issued forth.

“Not to worry, my dear,” said Robert. “You are merely fatigued from our journey. Perhaps you should not try to talk for a few days.” Margaret hid her amusement at the relief in Robert’s voice.

Lucy nodded, looking bewildered. Fanny rose and said, “I shall take you to your room, my dear.” She took Lucy’s arm and led her from the room.

The remaining occupants looked at each other.

“My word,” said John. “I suppose that came upon rather suddenly. Perhaps we should send for the doctor?”

“Oh, no!” Robert replied hastily. “She has been feeling a little unwell lately. Rest and a ramble in the country will set her to rights.”

Lucy’s mysterious silence contributed to the happiness of nearly everyone at Norland Manor. Robert, ever solicitous of his wife, nevertheless enjoyed speaking without interruption. Their children played with raucous abandon, never inhibited by their mother’s scolding. Fanny fawned over her sister-in-law, taking obvious pleasure in coddling her. Even Lucy enjoyed the attention her sudden illness inspired. Margaret and her mother passed the remaining days of their visit in relative peace.

The day before they were to leave, Margaret took one more tour of Norland’s grounds. She brought along one of her father’s journals with her, judging it wiser to leave the atlas hidden. Her wanderings took her to a favorite spot where a grove of oaks enclosed a little stone bench. She sat, enjoying the day’s calm for a little while before turning back to her father’s notes.

When she saw the name Bristlethwaite, she read with alacrity:

I spent the past fortnight in the company of Horace Bristlethwaite and his formidable wife, Eugenia. Both are sorcerers of uncommon skill, but Mrs. Bristlethwaite is also possessed of both wit and talent. While I do not subscribe to many of her views on magic, particularly concerning the training of servants, I have the utmost respect for her. She and Horace will make exceptional additions to the Mayfair Coven. We have sustained too many losses in this war. Bennet has only just recovered from our last battle, and had it not been for him, I would have perished. But enough dwelling on the darkness. I must return to my work; it gives me great comfort.

What could her father have meant by his reference to a battle? She had never known him to be a soldier. Could it have been a magical battle? Margaret sighed. She had so many questions but no way to answer them. She had been just thirteen when he had died, too young to understand who he was or to know what questions to ask him. During their lessons she put her attention more on the magic he taught her than on learning anything about him. Again she regretted that oversight. If only she could find some way to bring him back. I am being silly, she thought. Papa would never want me to waste my time thinking about such things. She smiled sadly as she imagined his response: What is done is done, my dear. No sense worrying about things you cannot change.

She turned her attention back to her book, but was almost immediately interrupted by the sound of shots. Jumping to her feet, she saw John’s dogs racing toward her, chasing a small vixen, with John and Robert not far behind on their mounts. The vixen dashed into Margaret’s little grove. In a moment the dogs would be upon her, tearing her to shreds. “Poor thing!” Margaret said. “Hurry, I will divert the dogs.”

The vixen stopped and fixed her with an oddly intelligent look. But at Margaret’s prompting, she dashed beneath a bush. Margaret, meanwhile, muttered the Distracted Dog Spell, a clever invention of her own, perfected on Sir Williams’s dogs. The incantation demonstrated a rare use not only of English but also of linguistic economy: “Squirrels!”

It never failed to amuse her that a simple word could have such an immediate effect. Margaret giggled when John’s dogs, as one, stopped their chase and looked up to the branches of the largest oak. They gathered around the tree’s base, barking up at the empty branches.

“Go on,” Margaret said to the vixen.

The young fox scrambled from her hiding place and streaked off down the hill just before Robert and John appeared.

“What on earth are the dogs doing?” John said as he slid from his horse.

“I thought your dogs were properly trained,” Robert said, still mounted.

“Margaret, did you see a fox? The dogs were chasing a little vixen. Would have caught her, too, had they not been distracted.”

The dogs were growing restless, still jumping around at the base of the tree, necks craned upward.

“I have seen nothing but the dogs, John. Perhaps there is a squirrel up the tree.”

“What a cacophony!” Robert cried. “Do you not train your dogs, John? I would never allow this sort of behavior from mine.”

Margaret glared at Robert’s back and then whispered, “No more squirrel.”

Suddenly the dogs bolted from the tree and swarmed around Robert’s horse, which panicked and shied, tossing Robert straight onto the ground where he sat, dazed.

“I say, Robert,” John said, striding over to help him up, “Whatever are you doing on the ground? Can you not sit a horse?”

Robert, who appeared unhurt in body if a little bruised in spirit, refused help, clambering to his feet on his own and stalking away without a word, a slight limp the only evidence of his misadventure.

John turned back to Margaret. “What on earth has gotten into the animals today?”

Margaret shrugged, struggling to maintain a mask of calm.

“I suppose I had better catch up to him. Come on,” he said to his dogs before mounting his horse and urging it to a trot. They set off toward the house, Robert’s horse trailing behind.

As soon as John and his dogs had left in a whirl of tails and flopping ears, Margaret laughed until her sides were sore.