| Dispatches From Smaragdine|
|A column by Jeff VanderMeer|
| February 2008 |
[Editor's Note: Here you will find the other Dispatches From Smaragdine columns.]
This time of year at least twenty prominent writers host pity parties in the city of Smaragdine. By February, all of the major newspapers and websites have posted their lists of the best books and stories published in the country over the past year. In keeping with long-standing tradition, writers not included on these lists host elaborate parties at which they are expected to pretend to cry (for some of them, it's all too real) and to seek comfort from their friends. Usually, though, it's all in aid of promoting their next project, and pity parties tend to cost less than the bribes required to make onto the year's best lists in the first place. It's truly a cycle of life, in a sense, since the reviewers and other bigwigs compiling the lists don't make enough from reviewing to pay for both electricity and groceries. Thus, the bribes, which help the authors gain more visibility, which then allow them to bribe better for more prominent positions the next year. The system breaks down, of course, when writer X sleeps with reviewer Y's girlfriend; no bribe can heal those kinds of wounds. Except, that then it gives the newer writers an opportunity to make the lists. Overly elaborate? Certainly. Essential in a country running on a barter system? Yes.
The most important thing is to be invited to the right pity party -- nothing's worse than a pitiable pity party, except, you know, not making it onto the lists...
Let's cut right to the chase. Shadowbridge, which has received fulsome praise from most reviewers, was recently ripped by critic John Clute at SciFi Weekly, which was followed by a series of posts online in your defense. Your own response to the review, in an email to me, was: "One should never review books while suffering from hemorrhoids." Although this gives me an inkling of the answer to this question, I have to ask: How do you generally deal with negative reviews? And do you think the reading public has any idea of how a negative review can ruin a writer's day?
I think now, with the internet, we get reviews posted on fly-by-night genre sites by people who don't know the difference between critiquing a work in progress in a workshop environment and a review. I might go so far as to suggest that some of them have no business whatsoever reviewing anything that doesn't involve crayons. That can hardly apply to John Clute, so the most I can say there is I have no idea how I pressed his buttons, but the book does exactly what I want it to do and I'm sorry he was expecting something entirely different... at least that's how his review felt to me. He also seems to be beating up the publisher for greedily splitting this story in half, you know, to make more money with two books instead of the one, whereas that was entirely my decision and not theirs. It was two books as it was pitched to Del Rey. At one point in its creation, I thought it might even be a trilogy, but as the story evolved, I saw that wasn't going to be the case and I was not about to pad the thing out to make three flabby books (what Gary K. Wolfe in his review called "brown-bag trilogies" -- gotta say, I love that term). So once again I had a lean two-book work. John seems to have reacted as though if it had been a trilogy, then splitting the story would have been okay, but since it's only two, that's not okay. Well, tough.
At that point, I started working with the material to come up with a novel. At the time I wrote "Meersh," I'd been working in a scholars' program at the University of Pennsylvania and had discovered that in their library they carried all ten volumes of Somadeva's Katha Sarit Sagara. I started reading and taking notes, one volume at a time. It's big. From that, I think, the idea of story spirals evolved, although that does not really mirror the shape or context of Ocean of Story. It did, however, certainly, influence and inform what I was doing. The first book took longer than it should have for a number of reasons. First, at the same time as I was reading all of this, I was working on -- and trying to publish -- a non-fiction book about spiritualism that had gotten under my skin because of a story I'd written for John Kessel's Intersections anthology, called "That Blissful Height." I think I spent a good year at least on that. And throughout that time, I had a 50 hour-a-week job, on top of which I was teaching occasional night classes. The nonfiction book ultimately failed to find a home, ostensibly (I was told by one editor at the U of Penn Press) because my conclusion was that spiritualism is bullshit. A popular history of the subject, it seems, is not allowed to arrive at that conclusion.
Next Terri Windling invited me, out of the blue, to write a novel in her fairy tale series, and I chose Bluebeard. No doubt because of the time I'd put in on the spiritualism book, I found a match for the Bluebeard template within the historical research and so recast the basic structure of the fairy tale upon the landscape of 1844 New York -- the Fingerlakes District, which, in a fifty year period, gave us spiritualism, Mormonism, Shakers, anti-Masonic movements and about every flavor of religious fervor you'd care to name. So all that research did find a venue. But that was another year and a half at least. And then Golden Gryphon agreed to do a short story collection, Attack of the Jazz Giants and Other Stories, for which I penned a novella called "The Road to Recovery." Throughout all of these other projects I was still making notes, playing with the shape of Shadowbridge, and every now and then writing a section of it or one of the possible tales that Leodora would perform, but mostly I was working on what was in front of me.
And then my father died. That proved unexpectedly devastating. We were very close. I loved him dearly, but I also thought that I was prepared for his death, and emotionally I felt that I came through it intact... until I tried to write. The way I've described this to friends is, it was like the swamp in my brain where stories are always churning suddenly dried up. It wasn't writer's block, it was writer's vacuum. And really scary. I had nothing -- no ideas, no desire, no ability and no sense that any of that would ever come back. It was like having your soul pulled out. I talked to a lot of friends in that time period, including especially Carol Emshwiller, who said that she'd gone through a two year stretch like that after Ed had died and that when she came out on the other side and started writing again, the fiction had changed, had grown in ways she wouldn't have expected. Well, she was right about everything. It was eighteen months for me, and the only thing I managed to write as the swamp started to return was a father-son relationship story called "So Coldly Sweet, So Deadly Fair" for Weird Tales. And I changed agents. So, other than burning down my house and moving to the Klondike, I'm not sure there were any upheavals I didn't try out. Really, in some ways the miracle is that I hung onto this story through all of that.
At the book launch party for Shadowbridge, author Rachel Pastan asked me what I knew now about writing that I wished I'd known twenty years ago, and I replied that I wished I'd known then that all great fiction is fiction of desire. Desire is essential. And that's a realization that I've arrived at directly from teaching. So, ultimately, I don't know what the students are getting out of it, but I'm definitely getting good material.
I'll be keeping you up to date on what's going on in Smaragdine.
If you would like to send me things for review, or even complaints, hints, suggestions, or other feedback, please do so via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or via my U.S. snail mail address:
There will be a delay of about a month from receipt at the post office box to the arrival of your missive in Smaragdine, but to send direct would be folly as my stint at the hostel runs out at the end of the month and I don't know where I will be after that.
Jeff VanderMeer's reviews have appeared in The Washington Post, Publishers Weekly, The New York Review of SF, Bookslut.com, and many others. VanderMeer writes the graphic novel/comics summation for The Year's Best Fantasy & Horror (St. Martin's Press) and is a guest editor for Best American Fantasy. Monkey Brain Books published his non-fiction collection Why Should I Cut Your Throat? in 2004.
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