- Tell us a bit about “The Heartsmith’s Daughters.”
It’s a fantasy with the style and cadence of a fairy-tale. A story of family and the magic that sustains a family against the mundane, lower-case evil (as opposed to Evil) that threatens to destroy it every day. A great smith—no, no, a Great Smith, realizing his time is at an end, uses all his skill to create three children to “carry on his work” in all aspects of life. When tragedy eventually comes to them, his daughters must rise to face this challenge. They do so with wit, strength, courage, and of course, heart.
- What was the inspiration for this story, or what prompted you to write it?
This one was magical in its own right; a Christmas gift from the Muse, if you will. We have a family tradition that we get up, open presents among our immediate household, ‘play in the boxes’ a bit, then drive across town to my mom’s place for Christmas-with-Cousins. We were just over the river and into the woods, my kids remarkably squabble-free, carols on the car radio, early-winter sunshine filling the car, when I got the gift. I was just humming along one minute, not really thinking about anything and WHAM: there was the whole story, just there in my head. I begged my wife to take down some notes for me while I drove. I bullet-pointed the whole story to her, start to finish in about five minutes of our trip.
There were revisions of course—a rather important one prompted by my writing-partner Margaret—but remarkably little changed in the way of that first blast. I wish like hell that such things happened to me all the time, but I can’t claim that. This one was special.
- What kind of research, if any, did you do for this story?
As a father, I am forever at war within myself, wanting to protect my children—insulate them from harm, and wanting them to deal with the challenges of the world with the tools my wife and I have imparted to them. I guess you could say my ‘research’ was the archetypal wish-fulfillment of a father wanting to provide for his family; knowing that they must ultimately do it themselves.
- Most authors say their stories are personal; if that’s true for you, then in what way is “The Heartsmith’s Daughters” personal to you?
I know I was just talking about my children, but I guess you could say that, in some ways the story is a love letter to my sisters. I am the oldest of four and the eldest and only boy. My sisters are all incredibly powerful women, all strong in their individualism and extremely various in those strengths.
- What would you want a reader to take away from this story?
I have fears that someone might read the story and see the smith usurping the power of ‘childbirth’ from women—please note that despite his great skill, he must include his wife in his endeavor. As far as takeaway goes, if anyone can read this story and not see that women are far more powerful than our society acknowledges, then I have really screwed it up.
- What are you working on now?
Margaret and I are finishing up a novella we’ve been batting around this summer and we’re into second-stage plotting of our fourth novel together. Both projects are part of our ongoing Detroit Next series. Stop by yangandcampion.comif you get a chance, or ‘like’ our shared pseudonym M.H. Mead on Facebook.
“The Heartsmith’s Daughters” appears in the July/August 2013 issue of F&SF.
- Tell us a bit about “In the Mountains of Frozen Fire.”
Know, o Prince, that in the dimly-remembered days of the mid-1990s, I determined to finally read the Tarzan novels by Edgar Rice Burroughs that I had not read before–everything after Book 10. Some of these were–to be honest–not ERB’s best works (one was very heavily rewritten by a pulp editor back in the day), and I began to think about writing an homage/parody of Tarzan–not a George of the Jungle-klutz type, but more of a Leslie Nielsen in “Police Squad”/Naked Gun type. I started making notes for an origin trilogy about Ka-Gor, my Tarzan pastiche (who would later become Scrotar, Lord of the Savage Jungle), and the bulk of the action would take place on a forgotten island in the middle of nowhere–my version of Kong’s Skull Island.
Very soon, my story got hijacked by the concept of the island itself, and I realized that this was an island, in the present day, where the heroes, villains and locales from the Pulp Era still existed. They had a home on the east coast of Cayo Arcana, where explorers, heroes and characters from the Golden Age of Adventure could meet: The Enigma Club, a classic English gentlemen’s club founded by a core group of twelve members who, in my mind, represented many of the archetypes of classic pulp fiction: the starlet, the spy, the rogue, the adventuress, the scientist (perhaps mad), the explorer-for-hire.
That trilogy, which I had planned as an origin story about the Club, somehow became shanghaied by a present-day story of how the Club, forgotten (actually, hidden) since the end of the Pulp Era in 1953, is rediscovered and introduced to a world that desperately needs extraordinary tales of extraordinary people. The novels changed focus because I changed my focus: I realized I wanted to bring back the original pulps for generations that knew nothing about them.
I can certainly argue that the pulps are still with us today. They’ve merely evolved. Weird Tales has become “Buffy” and “Supernatural.” The Shadow became the Batman, who has become “Arrow.” G-8 became James Bond, who became Dirk Pitt. John Carter became Flash Gordon and evolved into Riddick. Planet Stories became Forbidden Planet, then evolved into “Star Trek.”
But I wanted this generation to be reintroduced to the original type of pulp tales, and I considered that perhaps playing-it-straight pulp stories wouldn’t do the trick . . . but if I added some humor to the mix, ala “Monty Python,” “SNL” and National Lampoon, it would work like Mary Poppins once sang: “A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.”
So I wrote The Enigma Club, the contemporary story of a man who finds an old issue of a forgotten pulp in his father’s boot camp duffel bag. It’s a copy of The Enigma Club All-Adventure Magazine from 1934. My protagonist had grown up with comics and hero pulps, but this title he had never heard of, and his father had never mentioned it. So he determines to find out the link between this Club and his father. The novel is the story of his quest–how he rediscovers Cayo Arcana and does battle with a nefarious pulp-type villain, Wang Fat Fang, over the fate of the island and the Club, which the protagonist now considers his home. (By the way, Scrotar is still a part of The Enigma Club. He deeded them the island after they saved his life in their first adventure as a team.)
My original intent was to include a story about each founding member of the Club; a representative tale of that particular type of pulp tale. My only complaint about the lovely novel, The Adventures of Kavalier and Klay, was that Michael Chabon did not include in the novel a comic book story of their hero, and I determined I would do otherwise. I waited until after I had finished the novel to write the extra stories, and by the time I had finished three and begun two others, I realized the book was getting too long. So I left one story in, “Sky-Gods of Ixtamal,” as a representative pulp tale of a lost civilization, daring pilots, a reluctant adventurer, and Burroughs-esque danger and heroics. I decided to try and place the other two complete stories with magazines at a later date.
The Enigma Club is being agented by Andrew Zack, and since he’s sending it out to editors now, I hoped that publication of a related story would help his efforts. So I thank Gordon for buying “Mountains,” and I hope/pray/get down on my knees and beg like a dog focused on a cookie in his hand that he’ll publish “Hot Time at Bad Penny’s” in the near future.
-What was the inspiration for this story, or what prompted you to write it?
My stories are frequently results of my mind triangulating. In this case, for inclusion in the novel, I had already written a list of twelve pulp-like titles and associated them with my twelve charter Club members. I picked one at random: “In the Mountains of Frozen Fire.” The image that had been in my head since I came up with the title was that of a mountain range in the Arctic that burned with something secret deep inside the ice. I knew that the story would be an early twentieth-century spy tale, since the character was Commander Denis Winslow Mallard–Ducky to his friends at the Club–and Mallard was the secret agent known as M4, the Mongoose.
Something in my mind clicked when I added 1. Flares in the ice and 2. Spies with 3. Frazetta. Frank Frazetta’s influence on today’s storytellers, not to mention artists, cannot be understated. Frazetta was the supreme artist for Burroughs and Robert E. Howard in the 1970s.
“The Frost Giants” was the final piece that built the story in my mind, and the writing suddenly became very Howardesque. A dose of Frazetta’s evocative imagery and a taste of Burroughs’ or Howard’s prose can combine into a powerful potion of storytelling; and when those things came together for me, I knew the story I was going to tell: spies on missions in the frozen wastes, who discover something supernatural and dangerous. The Enigma Club is my homage to Burroughs, and this story is my homage to Howard and Frazetta. I suspect I owe them all a debt I will never finish repaying.
Finally, I had to change the character’s name. I never watched the show regularly, but by accident I flipped onto an episode of “NCIS” and discovered that the character played by David McCallum was also named Ducky Mallard. Crap. I had recently tried to buy a copy of the “autobiography” of John Steed, of the magnificent British show, “The Avengers,” and had learned that the character’s full name was John Wickham Gascoyne Beresford Steed. I figured the Commander should have no less an impressive name, and M4 became Denis Winslow Mallard Codswallop Bourginon Cushing–Codswallop as a dollop of self-deprecating humor, and Bourginon because my wife and I adore hearty red wines. He got his surname from Peter Cushing (also, coincidentally, an “Avengers” alumnus.)
-What kind of research, if any, did you do for “In the Mountains of Frozen Fire?”
I wanted the most dangerous of the villainous triad at the opening to have an exotic and strange blade, something memorable. I found the falcata by searching online, and determined from photos that this was the exact type of blade my evildoer would use. In another article, the writer mentioned that the hilt of the falcata was often customized to fit the hand of its owner, and I filed that away for possible use, as well.
I also did some research into the names of historical incidents, crimes and disasters that I could use as referents that would tie into the past deeds of my villains. Then I made up a bunch that were similar, yet silly.
For this story, however, the real research was from a lifetime of living in the grip of popular culture. M4, to me, was a cross between Steed, Bond and Artemus Gordon. His train was inspired by the train seen in every episode of “The Wild Wild West.” The tavern locales of Ghutranh were merely darker, smokier versions of the inns seen in Hammer’s Dracula films, and the snow-covered vistas were from Lost Horizon and The Abominable Snowman of the Himalayas–and in unforgettable black and white.
-Was the conception and writing of this story personal for you in any way?
Every story is personal, in one way or another–at least, they better be. I’ve had the opportunity to write three novels that were works for hire, based on properties that I hardly cared about. But I took the jobs, and I was forced to find ways to make the stories and characters important to me. Seriously: If a story doesn’t work for the writer, how could anyone expect it to work for a reader? Why write a story that means nothing to you?
All the stories I will eventually write about the Enigma Club’s founding members will embody the archetypes of the pulps and the speculative-adventure stories that thrilled me while I was growing up in the ’60s and ’70s, including the next generation of comics, tv shows and movies that have touched me along the way. It’s a debt I owe, and I want to pay it back by helping to bring back the great pulp tales of yesteryear and expose them to a new audience hungry for tales that are amazing, fantastic, astounding, weird and uncanny.
-What are you working on now?
My wife gave me an idea a few years ago while I was shaving, getting ready to go to work at a great metropolitan newspaper. (Insert snark here.) She thought it was a bad idea . . . but one that might sell. By the time I wiped the shaving cream off my face, I knew the main characters’ names, the basic storyline, and that it would be a story about love and loss. It was most definitely an awful idea. And I loved it.
As soon as I sent the final manuscript for The Enigma Club to my agent, I began writing Ghostflowers. It’s a novel of the supernatural set in the South of 1971 against a classic rock background. It’s Love Story, as told by Hammer.
It was a bad idea. But it’s not, any more. I made it personal.
-Anything else you’d like to add?
I just want to thank F&SF for the opportunity to say hi directly to your readers. I don’t go to a lot of cons and rarely get the chance to meet F&SF fans, so having a chance like this to communicate is wonderful!
Please feel free to send me questions or comments at firstname.lastname@example.org. I’m also on Facebook and LinkedIn, and you can read my infrequent posts on my blog at http://
By the way: “Hi, everybody!”
“In the Mountains of Frozen Fire” appears in the July/August 2013 issue of F&SF.
Tell us a bit about “Kormak the Lucky.”
It’s a story about an Irish slave in medieval Iceland and his encounters with a saga hero, elves, Irish fey and a magical smith out of an Eddic poem.
What was the inspiration for this story, or what prompted you to write it?
The story about the slaves killed to hide the silver comes from Egils saga Skallagrimssonar, a 13th century Iceland novel about the Viking and poet Egil Skallagrimsson. I have wanted for years to write a story about one of the slaves, who survives with the help of elves. I had an image, which was the seed for the story, and I put it in the story: the slave is trapped and about to die, then a door opens in stone, and an elf looks out and beckons.
What kind of research, if any, did you do for this story?
Not much. I know a fair amount about medieval Iceland, and I have read many of the Icelandic sagas. I’ve also read Icelandic folktales about elves. I did have to do some research on the Irish fey, and the story was checked by friends who know far more about the fey than I do. I didn’t reread Egils saga before writing the story. As a result I made Egil more scary in old age than the saga does. In some ways, he was pathetic. But he did in fact – as a blind old man of 80 – manage to kill two men. I did reread the Eddic poem about Volund and his revenge. It is impressively violent and cruel. Like many people in myths, Volund is not nice.\
Is there anything in particular you would want someone to take away with them after reading “Kormak the Lucky?”
One of the reviews complained that the title of the story is never explained, and that Kormak did not seem lucky to the reviewer. He is, in fact, very lucky. He survives Vikings, Egil, light elves, dark elves, Irish fey and Volund; and he comes out in pretty good shape. He is not a heroic person, but he is a person who stays alive and gets by and takes an interest in life, even though he is living in a brutal world. The Vikings are awful. Egil is awful. The light elves and the fey are awful.
Egil and Volund are genuine epic heroes, and anyone who wants to spend time with them is a fool. Though reading and writing about them is fun.
Among other things, the story is about getting old. It begins with Egil frustrated by his age and blindness and wanting, out of frustration, to start a fight – maybe a war – at the Althing. Unable to do this, he commits murder. At the end of the story, Kormak decides to have a good old age, which he does. We have some choice in how we age. Egil decides to be angry and brutal. Kormak decides to be a kind and decent person.
The story is also about wanting to be free. Kormak and Svanhild both want to escape. They end by escaping to different places and in different ways. Svanhild is completely selfish. Kormak is willing to be helpful, though it’s hard to remember to be helpful in the land of the fey, and he is willing to be human and grow old.
Was the conception or writing of this story personal to you in any way?
Absolutely personal. My father’s parents migrated from Iceland to Canada. The family farm, still owned by a relative, is in Borgarfjord, and Egil is supposed to be an ancestor of mine. He may well be. Icelandic genealogies are reliable.
I studied medieval Icelandic in graduate school and can still understand a bit with the help of a dictionary. I’ve been to Iceland twice and want to go again. “Kormak” is the fifth fantasy story I have written based in Icelandic literature and folklore. If all goes well, a collection of all five stories (and maybe a sixth) will come out at the end of this year.
And I am no longer young. So the decisions the various characters make on how to deal with aging mean a lot to me.
What are you working on now?
A novel, which is a sequel to Ring of Swords, a novel published 20 years ago now. This will come out from Aqueduct Press, once I finish revising it. The working title is Hearth World.
Also a number of short stories. I usually have several stories going at once. I’m not sure this is a good idea, but it seems to work for me. Among them is another Icelandic fantasy, this one about the Laki volcanic eruption in the late 18th century. The eruption changed the weather of Europe for several years and helped cause the French Revolution by making the harvests in France bad. It also killed a quarter of the population of Iceland. I want to have an Icelandic farm family, fleeing the eruption, meet a family of trolls, also fleeing the eruption. Icelandic trolls are big, strong, ugly and not always the sharpest knives in the drawer. They can be dangerous. I like them, or least I like my version of them.
“Kormak the Lucky” appears in the July/August 2013 issue of F&SF.
- Tell us a bit about “The Year of the Rat.”
At the beginning of the Year of the Rat (early 2008), this title started to hover around in my head, but I never could find the right story or concept to go with it. I attempted several false starts: in one, a family living on a small island welcomed visitors from the mainland; in another, a lonely loser of a guy recalled his painful personal history on Christmas night. But I didn’t like either, and so I put the project aside.
The week before the end of the Year of the Rat (early 2009), I returned to my hometown to spend Chinese New Year with my family. Suddenly, it was like I was struck by something, and the story appeared, fully-formed, in my mind. I wrote it down in four days, and basically that draft was the final version.
- What was the inspiration for this story, or what prompted you to write about it?
Writing is a bit like doing a jigsaw puzzle. Your brain takes bits and pieces of the information you encounter during daily life and rearranges them, edits and shapes them, forms them into a new picture. I’m guessing that my inspiration came from the news and the experiences of those around me. Ever since the Chinese education system acquired a business-oriented focus, colleges minted millions of new graduates every year. But due to the weak economy, many couldn’t find jobs. I encountered these young men and women, feeling adrift, in my life often. I wanted to write something for them because few pieces of fiction portrayed the lives of unemployed, new college graduates.
Putting a science fictional spin on the concept made the observations more interesting, and I thought it gave the story a kind of universal meaning that was applicable not just to the college graduates, but also to everyone.
- What kind of research, if any, did you do for “The Year of the Rat?”
I researched the reproductive habits of rodents and their sex ratios. The bits about life in the army were based on my personal experience. In China, all high school and college students must undergo military training (ranging from a week to a month). During my military training at Peking University, I kept a diary. Some of the contents of that diary made it into the story.
- Was the conception and/or writing of this story personal for you in any way?
I was, or maybe I still _am_, one of those lost young men. In China, the propaganda of collectivism infuses the educational experience of every young person. But at the same time, we are all exposed to extreme acts of selfishness in society, not just by individuals, but also by interest groups and the government. This kind of schizophrenic existence leads to confusion, and many of us do not even understand ourselves, much less how to address the relationship between the individual and the collective, between self and society.
Of course, I wasn’t attempting to answer these questions in my story. I just wanted to use the form of the narrative to get readers to think about them.
- What might you want a reader to take away from “The Year of the Rat?”
I’ve been surprised to find “The Year of the Rat” a reader favorite—it’s probably the most popular of my stories. I suppose it’s because the story struck a chord with many young people. A lot of readers posted on the web about how much they liked this tale, and many debated the meaning of certain details in the story that were deliberately left vague: e.g., the suicide of the Neorats and the source of their illusions. Some readers came up with their own explanations for these events, and sometimes their theories were even more detailed and complete than my own ideas.
In any case, I think readers got what I wanted them to consider from reading the story: the individual and the collective, freedom and control, choice and obedience.
- What are you working on now?
Earlier this year, I published my debut novel, THE WASTE TIDE, which was well received. Right now I’m looking for an opportunity to publish it in English (and I hope my friend Ken Liu will translate it, as I think he would be a great choice).
I’m also working on a story about cyborgs, which will be in Neil Clarke’s UPGRADED anthology—it’s an honor for me to be invited to contribute. In addition, I write nonfiction features and op-eds for some mainstream media (Bazaar Man, New York Times (Chinese Edition), etc.), and I may get an opportunity to develop science fiction films.
I feel excited and fortunate to be where I am in my career.
“The Year of the Rat” appears in the July/August 2013 issue of F&SF.