Looking Back: “A Canticle for Leibowitz”

A_Canticle_For_LebowitzI have decided to write a few book reviews from time to time. I don’t intend to turn this into a book review blog, but I’d like to be able to set down my musings on random books as the fancy strikes me.

I recently re-read (listened to an audiobook version of) “A Canticle for Leibowitz,” by Walter M. Miller. I read it as a teenager, but I’ve noticed I get a lot more out of everything I read now than I did when my system was awash with raging hormones. (For example, I discovered that Thomas Hardy, far from being an incredible drag, was a funny, vivid and poignant writer.)

“A Canticle for Leibowitz” has been called a classic of science fiction. It’s also a classic in post-apocalyptic fiction, equal to George Stewart’s “Earth Abides” (which has held up remarkably well), “The Death of Grass” by John Christopher or “Malevil” by French writer Robert Merle. It has all the elements I look for in a great read: well-delineated characters, drama, mystery, humor and sorrow.

“A Canticle for Leibowitz” was published in 1960, at the height of the terror of nuclear annihilation. I remember “duck and cover” quite well; while crouching under my desk in my middle-school classroom, I was fairly certain that a blackout curtain and a wooden desk were not going to preserve me from frying to a crisp if an atomic bomb landed on, say, Los Angeles. At the time, nuclear catastrophe was a chill breath on the back of everyone’s vulnerable neck.

Miller’s opus opens after a nuclear apocalypse has literally bombed all of mankind back to the Stone Age. There’s a backlash against science, knowledge, and everything associated with the catastrophe buy anti-intellectuals who proudly call themselves “Simpletons.” Those perceived as intellectuals or scientists are murdered. Books are burned. Mankind descends into another Dark Age. Mutated humans, called “Children of the Pope,” are more or less accepted, because there are so many of them.

But there is one beacon of intellectual light left in the world: the Catholic Church, which resumes its ancient tradition of preserving past knowledge. The story opens with Brother Francis, a young postulant in the Albertian Order of Leibowitz, somewhere in the Southwestern desert of the United States. Leibowitz was one of the scientists murdered by the Simpletons, and after his martyrdom, miracles are said to have happened under Leibowitz’s aegis. The monks of the monastery want to canonize Leibowitz as a saint, but there hasn’t been enough evidence of his sanctity to satisfy New Rome. Brother Francis stumbles upon a cache of ancient papers, some of which appear to be pre-apocalyptic shopping lists—but others are blueprints. It becomes obvious to the reader (but not to the monks) that Leibowitz was an engineer, a designer of electronic circuits.

Poor Brother Francis meets his end as the first section of the book closes, having delivered his copy of one of the blueprints (suitably adorned with fanciful illuminations) to the Pope in New Rome.

The second section of the book takes place a few centuries later. An esteemed scholar visits the abbey to study the Leibowitzian relics and is able to tease out some of the technology from the ancient manuscripts. Technology is clearly in a renaissance as one of the monks has succeeded in building a generator to power an arc light. The scholar departs to New Rome to share his new-found insights and to recommend the canonization of Leibowitz.

The third section takes us another six or seven centuries into the future. Technology—much of it based on the study of old documents like the Leibowitzian relics—has developed to the point where space flight is practical. But nuclear weapons have been reinvented, as well—in all likelihood directly due to the knowledge preserved by the Order of St. Leibowitz—and nuclear war is imminent. The last abbot of the order perishes after an atomic blast brings his church down in ruins as he tries to save the consecrated hosts. But a ship commissioned by the Order launches into space, looking for a new home for humanity.

Well, sure, we destroy ourselves all over again, but maybe that rocket ship full of devout Catholics will colonize a new world that will never see an atomic mushroom cloud. Yet the reader is left with the impression that the human race is ultimately doomed to repeat its worst mistakes.

Sadly, “A Canticle for Leibowitz” was the only novel published during Miller’s lifetime. His last work, a follow-up novel called “St. Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman,” was published after his suicide in 1996. He must have seen that his ability to continue was in doubt, because he asked author Terry Bisson to finish it for him if he were unable to do so. Bisson did finish the book after Miller’s suicide. It’s thought that Miller’s traumatic experiences in WWII—including the bombing of an ancient abbey at Monte Casino—contributed to his depression and eventual suicide. That may be the case, but it also contributed to the creation of a science fiction masterpiece. Some people write to exorcise their demons, but even St. Leibowitz couldn’t exorcise the dark demons of Walter M. Miller’s haunted spirit.






Interview with Fantasy Author Ryan Attard

Ryan AttardHow many fantasy authors do you know who live in Malta, study martial arts, and write wildly funny, action-packed stories about a wizard who can’t use magic? There’s only one: Ryan Attard, author of the “Legacy” fantasy series.






My Writing Process


Today’s blog is part of a writers’ blog tour, so the format is predetermined. I was nominated to write this by Ryan Attard, author of the wild, action-packed “Legacy” fantasy series. Ryan has two books in the series out now, “Firstborn” and “Birthright.” His blog on the subject of “My Writing Process” can be found here. 

1. What am I working on? At present, I’m marketing “The Obsidian Mirror,” which is my debut novel. As a new writer (OK, I’ve been writing my whole life and write for a living, but I am newly-arrived as a novelist), I don’t have an established reader base, and I’ll have to work hard to build one. I expected this and I’m eager and willing to put in the work, but I have not been able to turn my full attention to the next novel, which will be the second in the “Obsidian” series.

As those of you who have been hanging in here with me for a while know, “The Obsidian Mirror” is based entirely on New World mythologies, legends, folk tales and traditions. Supernatural beings—they may have been called gods or folk heroes or even demons—are active in today’s world. I call them “Avatars,” more or less to avoid the whole religion thing. There were thousands of different religions in the ancient Americas, and I wanted to be able to draw on any of them without getting too embroiled in theology.

The second story in the “Obsidian” series will be set in Hawaii. I thought it would be interesting to see what happens when an ancient Avatar such as Coyote the Trickster ventures from his native land to another land where he and his cohorts never had any influence. Hawai’i may be part of the United States now, but the ancient Hawai’ians had their own traditions that owed nothing to the mainland Americas. I have plans for Coyote (also known as Chaco) in particular, but he’s not going to like them much.

Fred the mannegishi will also venture to Hawaii with Sierra, but his experience will be radically different from Chaco’s. As I was writing the character of Fred, he always reminded me of the Hawaiian menehune; Fred is small, green, and mischievous, as are the menehune. Well, it’s time that Fred met some menehune, and we will see what happens. (I honestly don’t know any more at this point.)

The underlying theme of “The Obsidian Mirror” is threat to the natural environment. I plan to continue that with the next book, but my focus will be on the “Pacific Garbage Patch,” which is a continent-sized area in the Pacific that contains millions of tons of particularized plastic swirling around in the ocean—and Hawai’i is right in the middle of it. Marine birds and animals consume this plastic confetti, often with fatal results, and the plastic leaches toxic chemicals into the water. “Plastiglomerates” have been washing up on Hawai’i’s beautiful beaches—chunks of plastic fused together with volcanic rock, sand and coral. Next time you have a fun day at the beach, please be sure you take all the sand buckets, bags, plastic shovels and toys home with you, even if they’re broken. Otherwise—it’s off to the great Pacific Garbage Patch! (Unless you’re picnicking by a different ocean, in which case, please do the same.)

I won’t get preachy with all this. If the story isn’t fun to read, it won’t be read.

When I’m not marketing the first book, I’m trying to find time to do research on ancient Hawai’ian culture for the next book. I may have to actually travel to Hawai’i to accomplish some of this, but no one ever said the writer’s lot is an easy one.

2. How does my work differ from others of its genre? Basing my work on New World mythologies, legends and archetypes is the most unique aspect of my work. I don’t mean to say that no one has ever done this before, but my observation of fantasy is that it leans heavily on European traditions such as swords, sorcerers, vampires, elves, faeries, cloaked adventurers, and so forth. As a matter of fact, that’s why I wrote “The Obsidian Mirror” in the first place. In early 2007, I finished reading an epic fantasy by Robert Jordan. (It was one of the “Wheel of Time” novels.) I thoroughly enjoyed the book, but found myself pondering the whole Eurocentricity of fantasy. My freelance writing business was slow at the time, so I began writing the story largely as an experiment. Much to my surprise, my characters became so vivid and real to me that they did not allow me to quit until I had finished the entire book and rewritten it about three times.

That being said, I am as intrigued by the mysteries of European traditions as anyone—especially when it comes to Celtic folklore and legends. Ethnically, I am pretty much a mutt, but I’m as much Scots-Irish as anything else, and these stories resonate with me. I’d like to write something based on Celtic tradition someday, but I would need to develop my own personal twist on it.

Back to what makes my work unique—I may be fooling myself, but I like to think that I have developed a distinctive “voice” as a writer. Key to this voice is humor, which I use much like salt in cooking; drama, action, and suspense are so much tastier when served with a good dollop of humor.

3. Why do I write what I write? I have wanted to be a writer since I was eight years old. In many ways, I have always been a writer; that’s how I got through school, and I built a career in public relations and marketing communications on my writing ability.

But of course, I didn’t aim to be a marketing writer at the age of eight. I wanted to write fiction because I read everything fictional I could get my hands on, and I thought writing fiction was the most amazing and wonderful thing anyone could do.

I majored in English Literature, so I thought I should be writing “literature”—something profound. Something that might eventually wind up on some college sophomore’s reading list. I attempted this a few times and quickly gave up in despair.

For some reason, it had not occurred to me to write the book that I wanted to read. You will more frequently find me curled up with Diana Gabaldon, Terry Pratchett, Neil Gaiman or Tom Holt than with Faulkner, Saroyan, Shakespeare or Melville. When I started writing “The Obsidian Mirror,” I finally set out to create a book that I would enjoy reading—which is probably why it worked.

4. How does my writing process work? I think this has changed, because I learned a lot about writing a book from creating “The Obsidian Mirror.” And the next time, I will outline the plot FIRST. When I started the story, I was writing on a whim, so I didn’t bother with plotting it out or doing character backstories, or creating walls full of stickies with timelines and so forth. I just wrote it, and that created some difficulties.

My most challenging problem was finishing the book. My second major rewrite had taken me past the end of the original version, but I got to a point in the story where I could not see how it would end. I knew how I wanted it to end, but I couldn’t figure out how to get there from where I was. I had written myself into a corner. It took probably six months and many earnest and frustrated attempts before I located where I had gone wrong and corrected it. The book just about finished itself from that point—I think it took a week.

So, long story short, I will create a plot outline for the next book. Beyond that, my process is: just write. I read somewhere that Terry Pratchett set himself the goal of writing at least 400 words per day. Every day. Holidays, weekends, sick or well. That struck me as a wise discipline, so I take the same goal for myself when I’m in writing mode. Usually I write far more than that, but 400 words is the minimum.

I write whether I’m feeling inspired or not. When you write for a living, as I do, you don’t have the luxury of waiting for inspiration to strike. You just do it because it’s a job like any other job. Waitresses, accountants, lawyers and phlebotomists do what they do with or without the muse of inspiration. (Note for short story: waitress meets the muse of table service!) I write whether I think every word is golden, or whether I think it’s trash. That’s what editing is for.

I do not edit as I write. I wait for it to “cool off” first. That’s true for my marketing writing as well as fiction. You can’t edit your work effectively if you try to do it while in the throes of composition. You have to walk away and come back later when you’re fresher and more objective.

With the exception of my difficulty finishing “The Obsidian Mirror,” I have never had writer’s block. This is because if I start writing and I think it’s basically shit, I force myself to continue. Eventually, the process of writing gets the creative juices flowing, and then I’m over the hill and far away with my characters. I can always go back and fix the shitty parts.

Finally, every writer needs an editor. I paid a well-regarded fantasy writer to edit my story, and she was worth every penny. I also paid an editor friend of mine to proof and edit the final manuscript. (I didn’t pay her what she is worth, but I did pay her.) When you write something and then go back and read it, I don’t care how good you are, you will tend to see what you thought you wrote instead of what you actually wrote. This inevitably results in typos, missing words, and sentences that read as though you were just coming off a 10-day bender on ‘shrooms. A good editor is worthy of h/her hire.

Of course, once the story is finished, you have to find a publisher (unless you self-publish, which has become more respectable these days). And once it’s published, you have to market it, because unless you’re Neil Gaiman, your average publisher these days is not going to fly you first-class to every bookstore in the nation and run ads in The New York Times Review of Books. The author must market his or her own books through social media, bookstore appearances, reviews and so forth, seeking for that elusive audience. But that doesn’t have anything to do with writing, though it has everything to do with making money at fiction writing.

So nothing is wasted. I’m glad I learned about marketing before I wrote a book!

I am supposed to nominate two other authors to pick up this blog tour. I invited two, but only heard back from one: the inimitable Sorin Suciu. Sorin wrote a wondrously funny urban fantasy called “The Scriptlings.” I defy anyone with any sense of humor to avoid laughing out loud while reading this tale, which is full of sly references and geeky humor. His “magical system” will delight anyone with even a passing acquaintance with computer programming. I have never met Sorin Suciu, but he comes across even in email exchanges as engaging, kind, smart and funny. I don’t know what Sorin will write, but I can flat-out guarantee that you will enjoy reading it on his blog next week.

Coverage of the Launch Party for “The Obsidian Mirror”

Really nice coverage of the book launch by the Palo Alto Weekly! Thanks to my friend Bob Stetson (who bought the very first copy sold of “The Obsidian Mirror”) for sending this to me!

Palo Alto Interview

The Launch Party, Coyotes, Mannegishi, and What Comes Next

Chaco, the Coyote Trickster

The launch party for “The Obsidian Mirror” went beautifully last Saturday afternoon. Kepler’s Bookstore in Menlo Park, CA graciously hosted the event, and there was a good crowd of people there. I did a very brief reading and answered questions.

Here’s a sampling of what I was asked:

Q: Is your protagonist (Sierra) autobiographical?

A: Sierra is concerned about the environment; so am I. Sierra is a PR executive, and used to be one. Sierra designs silver jewelry, and I do, too. There the resemblance ends because Sierra is way cooler than I am. (I didn’t mention this, but she’s also younger and more athletic than me.)

Q: What started you writing the book?

A: I had recently finished a Robert Jordan novel that involved riding horses, armor, swords, sorcery, etc. I really enjoyed the book, but later I wondered why, with thousands of legends, mythologies, folk tales and traditions, the New World is rarely used as inspiration for fantasy. Most epic fantasy, at any rate, is usually set in some pre-Industrial Age, pseudo-European environment. Elves, faeries, trolls, ogres, goblins, vampires, etc. are staple fare.

I love swords-and-sorcery, don’t get me wrong! But I had time (my freelance writing business was slow at the time), so I began writing a story based on New World traditions as an experiment. Before long, the characters took over and I HAD to finish the story.

Q: Is Chaco (Coyotl the Trickster) based on a person in your life?

A: I said Chaco was based on my husband, Tom, but I was kidding. Coyotl the Trickster is a folk hero among many of the Native American tribes. I should have mentioned that appearance-wise, I saw Chaco, in his manifestation as a deliciously sexy young man (as opposed to his coyote gig), as Gael García Bernal, the excellent Mexican actor who (among many other roles) played Ché Guevara in “The Motorcycle Diaries.”

One person thanked me for not making Chaco the villain. I started out thinking that since Chaco was The Trickster, he ought to be rather ambiguous; the reader would not be sure whether he was good or bad. I really, truly would have liked to write him that way, but he came out more of a scamp than a real rogue. (That was all his doing, not mine. I had other ideas.)

Q: What other characters are in the book?

A: There’s Fred the Mannegishi. Mannegishi are sort of like leprechauns in that they are small and green, but mostly because they are mischievous. Mannegishi are from legends of the Cree tribe. Fred is truly unreliable, but as one person present said (she had edited the manuscript for me), “Fred seemed like a pain in the butt at first, but he became my favorite character.”

I was asked if I made up Fred’s appearance, but I followed the description of Mannegishi in Wikipedia. I rarely made up anything about the supernatural characters; I tended to follow the traditional descriptions if they were available. Of course, much of my research consisted of strolling around the Internet when I needed a new monster. As the New Yorker cartoon has it, “Nobody knows you’re a dog on the Internet.” By the same token, it’s hard to know whether you’re reading something authentic, or a made-up legend by a tequila company or something. As “The Obsidian Mirror” is fiction—and fantasy fiction at that—I didn’t worry too much about academic purity.

 Q: Do you have a sequel planned?

 A: Yes, two. The next book will be set in Hawai’I, where Fred might meet some cousins of his. “The Obsidian Mirror” has an underlying theme of threat to our natural environment, which will continue to be a theme of my work. I am very concerned about the Pacific Gyre, also known as the Pacific Garbage Patch, a continent-size vortex of plastic particles in the ocean swirling around Hawai’i. But I do not plan on getting preachy. The books have to be fun to read, or no one will read them.

Of course, I may have to make the ultimate sacrifice and travel to Hawai’i to do research. A writer’s life is so hard.

The third sequel will be set in Mexico, and will have something to do with the Virgin of Guadalupe as Tonantzin, the Aztec flower goddess. I don’t know much more about it yet.

After answering questions, I sat down at the assigned table and signed books. The store sold out, with Kepler’s purchasing the last one for the staff. I hope they enjoy it as much as I enjoyed the party. I got a ton of compliments on the food—which I never touched because I was too wound-up!