Review: “My Grandmother Asked Me To Tell You She’s Sorry”

I like fairy tales. I also like fairy tales re-imagined, but not all of them. For instance, I hated Gregory McGuire’s “Wicked.” I thought it disrespected Baum’s innocent vision of Oz, though obviously I am in the minority, and Gregory McGuire is now a rich man. On the other hand, I loved McGuire’s “Lost,” which skillfully weaves together Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” shades of Jack the Ripper, and some other goodies into a gripping ghost story.

“My Grandmother Asked Me To Tell You She’s Sorry,” by Fredrik Backman, is a rare jewel. It is a fairy story that combines several related fairy stories and reveals the truth behind them. And it’s completely original, in that it doesn’t rehash older source material. (Not that I’m saying it’s wrong to rehash source material. What would we do without it?)

Elsa, our protagonist, is seven years old and precocious, but I am happy to say she is precocious in a believable, seven-year-old way. Her grandmother is a character, to put it mildly. Among other things, Elsa’s grandmother has taught her a secret language and told her stories of the several kingdoms of the Land of Almost-Awake. Her grandmother is her super-hero, and Elsa adores her. In fact, Granny is Elsa’s only friend, because Elsa doesn’t think much of the kids at school who don’t understand great literature. Like “Harry Potter.” And Marvel Comics.

Elsa, her mother, her grandmother, and her stepfather live in a kind of a boarding house. Some of the tenants are very much in full view, like Britt-Marie, who bosses everyone around about signs in the laundry room and strollers in the stairwell. Others are never seen, including the mysterious “Our Friend,” as Granny refers to him. Elsa’s mother works all the time, her remarried father is not a strong presence, and she resents her stepfather. Her grandmother is her rock.

And then Granny dies. But before she does, she asks Elsa to deliver a letter. Elsa does, and sets off a chain of events that reveal the true nature both of Granny’s stories and of the people in Elsa’s life. Bit by bit, she comes to understand who these people are and how they came to be who they are. She also discovers her grandmother’s hidden connection to every soul in the boarding house.

Elsa eventually discovers a mother who loves her unconditionally, a stepfather who’s actually okay, and a father who turns out to be important after all. She even makes a friend. She learns some things about adults that in the end, she knows she just has to forgive.

While the protagonist of “My Grandmother Asked Me To Tell You She’s Sorry” is a child, this is not a children’s story. The heartache and sadness are all-too-poignant, and the adults’ stories are, well, adult. The story is about a child finding her way through the complexities of life by relying on herself and her memories of her grandmother. She learns the truth behind the tales, and adult truth is sometimes difficult and scary.

Fortunately, there is enough humor in Elsa’s take on things that the book never becomes dreary—and I was pleased that the humor never condescended, even though the lead character is a child.

I had a hard time deciding whether to categorize “My Grandmother Asked Me To Tell You She’s Sorry” as a fantasy or mainstream, even though the only fantasy elements in the story are Granny’s stories. It’s a fairy tale, but although it has a happy ending, it is a realistic ending. Granny doesn’t come back to life. Britt-Marie was never a princess. “Our Friend” is not really a wurse from the Land of Almost-Awake. And yet, the fantasy carries the story. Read it and decide for yourself.

 

Warning: This Post Contains Shameless Self-Promotion

New Cover

Recently I finished editing the first draft of “Fire in the Ocean,” the sequel to “The Obsidian Mirror.” I sent it off to my alpha readers and editor, and I can finally relax and think about something else for a while.

Such as promoting “The Obsidian Mirror.” While I was in the throes of writing the sequel, I did next to nothing about promoting my published work. A writer’s work is never done, I guess.

Why should you read “The Obsidian Mirror”? Short answer: because it’s a fun read. I read largely for entertainment. I like books that take you away and let you live someone else’s life for a while. I wrote “Obsidian” to be that kind of book: a diversion, a book I would love reading myself. It’s probably not a coincidence that the second publisher of the book is Diversion Books—they specialize in just that kind of novel.

Another reason to read “Obsidian” is because it is based on the mythologies and folklore of the Americas, which makes it a bit different. The idea occurred to me after finishing one of Robert Jordan’s “Wheel of Time” novels. I loved the book, but started wondering why so much fantasy is based on proto-European, pre-Industrial Age tropes such as elves, faeries, dragons, and caped adventurers. The Americas have thousands of mythologies, folk tales and traditions that are largely ignored by fantasy writers.

I began writing “The Obsidian Mirror” as a kind of personal experiment. Meso-American gods and Coyote the Trickster, an Inuit ice demon and a mannegishi named Fred are some of the characters. What I did not anticipate is that I would fall in love with my characters and be driven to finish the book. Having done that, I felt compelled to get it published.

I don’t have much to brag about. I’m not a best-selling author. I have won no prestigious awards for my fiction writing. But I do have one thing that gives me modest bragging rights.

I have heard authors talk about receiving hundreds of rejection slips. One writer said he had a drawer filled with 450 rejection slips for his novel. That didn’t happen with “The Obsidian Mirror.” I approached perhaps 10 publishers and/or agents before AEC Stellar agreed to publish the book. When AEC Stellar bit the dust, I approached about five publishers before Diversion Books picked it up, re-published it and agreed to publish the sequel.

So I may not have sold a million copies, but I never had any problem finding a publisher. As a matter of fact, years after I originally submitted the manuscript to their slush pile, Baen Books got back to me and said they were interested in it. The early bird gets the book, Baen.

So why am I proud of this? Because I have some independent assessments that people will enjoy reading my novel. Add to that, the several four- and five-star reviews on Amazon, and you might conclude that you would enjoy it, too. To make it super-easy for you to find the book, here it is: http://amzn.to/1MQBvkd

I did warn you.

 

 

American Folk Lore: There’s No Such Thing

Joseph Noel Paton [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Joseph Noel Paton [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

I just finished reading Terry Pratchett’s “Folklore of Discworld,” co-written with folklorist Jacqueline Simpson. (Do people actually get paid for knowing about folklore? What a great job!) Pratchett and Simpson discuss the relationship between the Discworld’s traditions and those of Earth (with the conceit that folklore, tropes and memes are particles of inspiration that drift across the multiverse, so that myths of Discworld wind up here, and vice versa).

While reading (actually listening to) this book, it struck me how deeply I am attracted to the folklore of the British Isles (although this is obviously not a particularly rare trait, as evidenced by libraries full of epic fantasies, tales of witches and warlocks, dragons and cloaked heroes and faeries). Nothing entranced me more as a child than tales of banshees, pookahs, faeries, disappearing gold pieces, leprechauns, elves and pixies. As an adult, I am still entranced by Tolkein, C.S. Lewis, G.R.R. Martin, and many less well known authors who write in that tradition—whether humorous or not. It’s one of the reasons I adore Pratchett, who once remarked that he regarded folklore much as a carpenter regards trees.

Why be so attracted to the folklore of another place? I could put it down to my Scots-Irish ancestry. But I think the real explanation is that the folklore of my own time and place is sparse and rather unimaginative. Perhaps if I had grown up in Louisiana or some place with more history than California, I would have a healthy backlog of swamp critters, ghosts, haunted mansions, and eerie sightings to freshen the imagination. As it is, I am hard put to say exactly what constitutes folklore here.

Sure, we told each other the stories about the guy and girl making out in the car who hear on the radio about the escaped madman with a hook for a hand. And step on a crack, break your mother’s back. (As this never happened, I didn’t believe it for long.) But these things lacked the enchantment I found in fairy stories and old tales from Ireland, England, Wales and Scotland. Witches, warlocks and wizards. Spirit horses. Water nymphs. Faery gold. Selkies. Leaving milk out for the Good Folk. Strange dancing lights on the moors at night. The Wild Hunt. King Arthur.

An incredibly high percentage of American “folklore” has disappointingly mundane origins. Paul Bunyan and his giant blue ox, Babe, appears to have originated in the oral tradition of lumberjacks, but according to Wikipedia, was “later popularized by freelance writer William B. Laughead (1882–1958) in a 1916 promotional pamphlet for the Red River Lumber Company.” Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer was originally a promotional character created for Montgomery Ward. Pecos Bill was a character created by short story writer Edward S. O’Reilly in the early 20th Century. Johnny Appleseed was a real person, John Chapman, but all he did was plant apple trees, not conjure gold and silver apples or something interesting like that. Santa Claus comes closest to having true folkloric origins, but in America, even he was largely shaped by modern forces in the form of Clement Moore, author of “A Visit from St. Nicholas” in 1823:

“His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry;
His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow,
And the beard of his chin was as white as the snow;
The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth,
And the smoke it encircled his head like a wreath.
He had a broad face, and a little round belly
That shook when he laugh’d, like a bowl full of jelly:
He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf,
And I laugh’d when I saw him in spite of myself…”

Moore changed the majesty of Father Christmas, a tall, thin gentleman wreathed with holly and robed in green, into a “right jolly old elf,” later immortalized in his modern incarnation by the Coca-Cola Corporation. Moore also invented the eight tiny reindeer, which were not found in the stable of Father Christmas.

Where’s the magic in all this? Sadly lacking, in my opinion. Our modern American monsters are the psychopaths, serial killers, stalkers of children, terrorists real and imagined, and that guy with the hook, who may be folkloric, but he’s not very magical. Our urban legends may technically be folklore, but flashing your headlights getting you in trouble with gangs, or tapeworm eggs in bubble gum, or waking up in a bath of ice with your kidneys missing falls well short of enchantment.

I will admit that we Americans have our share of cryptozoids. Probably the leading examples of this are Sasquatch (Bigfoot) and El Chupacabra (the goatsucker). El Chupa is an import from Mexico, where apparently they are so folklore-rich that some of it is oozing across the border. None of these to my knowledge is actually magic; it’s just that no one has ever proved they exist, so of course, lots of people believe in them. Here’s a map of North American cryptozoology, if you’re interested in more.

And, of course, there’s a lot of flying saucer lore. But I don’t think any of the anal probees would say that there was magic involved.

As I mentioned before, it may depend on where you grew up. In Hawaii it is clear that many ethnic Hawaiians (and also many non-ethnic Hawaiians) believe in the old lore. I met people who believe in ghosts, in Pele and other ancient gods, in Menehune, and in spirits generally, both good and evil.

Magic offers the possibility of the good and brave and clever overcoming evil or at least magical trickery, whereas our monsters are sometimes overcome by the judicial system (and sometimes not). Magic also casts a glamor over folk tales; in fact the word “glamor” used to mean magic or enchantment. Our “folk” heroes are artificially created to make money—although they are still presented to schoolchildren as though they were genuine. I suppose Pratchett would say that when people start to believe in something, it transforms that thing into folklore. But no one really believes in Paul Bunyan or Pecos Bill. Thank heaven, some children still believe in Santa Claus, and around a campfire at night, you can believe anything. But I still think we are a culture that is sorely deprived of a true folkloric element.

Do you agree or disagree? Did you hear a truly magical (and American) story when you were a child? Did you have a haunted house on your street where lights and music could be heard at night? Were tales of helpful pixies or harmful sprites told in your neighborhood?

I would love to hear from you if you have such stories to tell!

Moloka’i Nuts, Coffee and Sorcerers

Day 11: Moloka’i

We were supposed to meet Auntie Opu’ulani today at 9 am, so we set our alarm. This turned out to be unnecessary, but as we were getting ready to go, We got a call on the condo phone from Auntie saying she had to babysit her grandchildren that day. (I still don’t know how she figured out the number–remember my iPhone was sacrificed to the sea gods.) She’s pretty jammed for the rest of the time she will be here because of the upcoming Makahiki Festival.

Makahiki is the ancient Hawaiian new year festival. It used to be four months long. It was a time when many of the repressive kapu were lifted, and there were athletic competitions, hula, games, feasts, and fun. Today it is a week long, and a celebration of Hawaiian culture. I am kicking myself that we are leaving just as Makahiki begins, but I probably wouldn’t have been able to do what I needed to do here because everyone would have been too busy.

So I offered to treat her to dinner, and we agreed to meet at Paddler’s Inn at 7 pm. That left the day wide open, so we decided to explore. First, we drove to Purdy’s Macadamia Farm, the only mac grower on Molokai. This consists of 50 trees that were planted 90 years ago on five acres. The entrance to the farm has this sign, homemade and similar to other signs you see on the island:

Asking the tourists to go with the flow on Moloka'i.

Asking the tourists to go with the flow on Moloka’i.

As we walked down the road, we were greeted by a small, skinny black cat. I miss my kitty, so I stopped to pet it. It turned out there were several other small cats, employed on the farm to kill rats, who eat the nuts.

 

We arrived in the middle of a tour. There was a wooden trough set up with whole mac nuts. There were holders made out out of old rubber tires and hammers to crack the nuts on pieces of stone in the trough. This is, of course, not how they are commercially processed. Mac nuts have a thick outer husk. The guy in charge of the tour bit into a husk and removed it to demonstrate. Then they have a very hard inner shell. If you whang them with a hammer, you can get at the nut meat inside. This was being directed by a short, fit Hawaiian with an attitude. He was the first Molokaiian we have met who was not pleasant, and the feeling we both got from him was open disdain.

Mac nut cracking station.

Mac nut cracking station.

After the nutcracking exercise, we tasted roasted and salted nuts (all natural, no other chemicals like the preservatives in canned or packaged nuts. Nothing added but sea salt, according to our surly host.), then got to taste raw coconut dipped in macadamia flower honey, which is not made on the farm. That was delicious and different. As this was going on, I noticed a dark, raffish-looking fellow with gold chains who was looking on, extracting raw coconut from a shell and throwing pieces for the cats to eat. The cats all scrambled for this coconut as though it were Li’l Friskies.

The grove of nut trees was immaculate. They don’t pick the nuts; when the nuts are ripe, they fall to the ground and they are harvested daily. The ground was absolutely bare between the trees except for a few piles of leaves that had been collected. Like coffee, mac trees have flowers and nuts in every stage of development at the same time.

After the mac nut farm, we drove to nearby Kualapu’u, which is where Coffees of Hawaii is. I wandered into the gift store intending to buy some coffees and spied the raffish cat-feeder. He was leaning casually against the counter, talking to the clerk.

“You look familiar,” I said. He looked surprised, then said, “You were at Purdy’s just now, weren’t you?”

I agreed this was so and commented that the host there was the only unfriendly person we had encountered here. He said he brought tours over from Maui on the ferry, and he always told them that the guy worked with nuts all his life, and so of course, he was a little nuts himself. Clearly a stock comment that he used all the time. He also said the man didn’t like it when you played with his cats, because they had jobs to do. I didn’t ask how our crabby host felt about feeding his cats coconut.

Tom went to the coffee bar and ordered two Mocha Mamas, the speciality of the house. This was sort of a coffee smoothie, with Molokai coffee, chocolate, ice cream, and whipped cream. Hardly any calories at all. It was delicious, but I couldn’t finish it.

On the way out of town (which takes about 60 seconds), I spied a gift store tucked into the Kualapu’u Business Park. Tom patiently parked the car and I went in. I had nosed around in several gift stores, but no joy. Either the stuff was complete junk, or it was truly original, handmade, beautiful, and hideously expensive.

To my surprise, this place had lovely things, reasonably priced. I saw this necklace, the octopus carved of mother-of-pearl, with jade beads on a beautifully knotted cord:

My new octopus.

My new octopus.

It was reasonably priced, so I bought it, along with some pretty mother-of-pearl earrings that, if anything, were underpriced. I very much wanted a large, carved turtle for my bathroom wall, but my suitcase is already perilously close to getting charged for being overweight, so the turtle remained where he was.

A side note: the octopus (he’e in Hawaiian, pronounced hay-ay) is associated with the sea god Kanaloa because the octopus is slippery, sly and sneaky (though sometimes it is the squid, not the octopus that is associated). Kanaloa is kind of like Satan. He created all the stinging, poisonous creatures that plague the people. He presents himself as beneficial sometimes, but will trick you. He rebelled against the chief god, Kane, and was forced to descend to the underworld, where he is known as Milu. (Sound familiar?)

Personally, I like octopi, and think they are fascinating. You wouldn’t expect a mollusk to have much of a brain, and most don’t, but octopi are smart. Look at this video:

Given how dependent the ancient Hawaiians were on the ocean for food, and how much time they spent in it surfing, swimming and sailing, you wouldn’t think the ocean god would be a Satan-equivalent. But the ocean, too, can be deceptive, changeable, dangerous and cruel, so I guess it makes sense.

After that, we returned to Paniolo Hale. I wrote the rest of the afternoon, and then  we drove into Kaunakakai to the Paddlers Inn. This is a hopping’ place at night, and we had trouble finding parking. I went into the restaurant and looked around. A band was playing Hawaiian music in the corner. The room was filled, and the waitress said because we didn’t have reservations, and there was a large group of tourists that had to be fed, we would have to wait. I asked her if she knew Auntie Opu’ulani, and she shook her head. I saw the waitress who had served us before, an older woman, and asked her. She said yes, she knew Auntie, and pointed to a woman sitting at a side table. I went to introduce myself.

Auntie Opu’ulani is a woman of about my age with dark, curly hair frosted with silver, and a wide, friendly face. She greeted me warmly, and then I set about trying to solve the seating problem. I had noticed when we came in that the bar was completely empty, and I asked our helpful waitress if we could get served in the bar. That suited me much better, anyway–it was quieter, so we could talk and actually hear each other. She said of course we could, so Tom and I and Auntie retired to the bar.

Auntie Opu'ulani.

Auntie Opu’ulani.

I asked Auntie Opu’ulani about mo’olelo. She asked how I intended to use them. I said my motivation in learning them was to better understand Hawaiian culture. I did not intend to retell them, but rather to have them inform my story. Tom chimed in with a description of “The Obsidian Mirror,” and explained how that related to what I was doing on Molokai.

She said she had learned the chants from her grandparents. She had been the 6th of 12 children, and her mother was ill when she was born, so her grandparents adopted her–very much in the old Hawaiian way. She said they had been born in the 1890’s. They were very strict, but loving. They believed that one’s possessions should be cared for, and that nothing was to be treated casually, as people do today. She loved them dearly, and they taught her the proper way to be Hawaiian, as well as the old chants. Auntie said the chants unique to Molokai had never been written down before, but that was her task now that she was retired.

Auntie Opu’ulani is a retired teacher. She teaches the Hawaiian language, although she was reluctant to do so at first. She said it all had to do with her name. I said I thought Opu’ulani meant “Heavenly House,” as Jeanine had told me, but she said no. It meant the tip of the incoming wave before it has broken–or the tip of the tooth of a sperm whale (highly valued). She used to be teased at school because the other children said pu’u meant she had a fat stomach (remember my lesson from Leimana at the fishpond?). She was unhappy, and asked her grandmother why she had been named that (traditionally, grandparents named the children, trying to give them a name that would signify their character). Her grandmother just looked at her and said, “Someday, you will understand the meaning of your name,” and that was that. Years later, she realized that her role was to help perpetuate the Hawaiian language and culture. She has published two books in Hawaiian, with the assistance of Jeanine. (I must find out more about Jeanine!) Auntie said Hawaiian was taught at a very simple level to small children–and then at a very complex level to older kids. There was a gap, and she bridged it with a textbook and a novel aimed at middle-schoolers. So she has been the tip of the wave, bringing back the culture to other Molokaiians. My interpretation; as I have mentioned, Hawaiian is highly metaphorical.)

I asked about menehune, and she told me that her grandfather had seen one. He was walking in the high country and stopped to rest in the shade, but someone kept throwing nuts at him. He saw two small feet dangling from a branch, then a tiny man jumped down and ran into the brush. The menehune was warning her grandfather not to rest there. I asked if they were still around, and she said yes. There are plenty of places in the back country where they live. Menehune work closely with pohaku (poh-hah-koo, rocks), to build things like fishponds. By this, I think she means the rocks contribute as much a part of the work as the menehune.

She said there are many things in the chants that actually exist. Her son, who loved to hike, once found a spring in the high country that flowed out of the rock, then disappeared back into it again–something described in one of the chants. He filled bottles with this water and brought it home. When Opu’ulani drank it, she thought he had added something to it because it was so sweet, but her son said no, that was just the way it tasted.

Auntie believes the Ali’i, (ah-lee-ee, the upper class/nobility of ancient Hawaiian society) came originally from the Americas. (There is a generally accepted theory that they came from Tahiti. The mo’olelo refer to the original Ali’i coming from “Kahiki-nui,” or “great Tahiti.” However, DNA testing of any group of people is far from complete, and there have been some very surprising finds. for instance, DNA analysis of extremely ancient human remains found in Peru show direct a relationship with both the Ainu of Japan and with Australian Aborigines. So I wasn’t about to argue.) Her own ancestors came from Maui, she said, but when they got here, there were many uhane ino (oo-hahn-ay ee-no, bad spirits) who possessed peoples’ bodies, and the people had to get rid of them with prayer and fasting to live here.

I told her the story of the doomed lovers that Leimana had told me, and asked what it had to do with the big turtle rock in the channel. She told me, but that is part of her mo’olelo, so I can’t repeat it. I said the story of the two lovers sounded like it really happened, and she said that it did. She agreed with me that it sounded like something two teenagers might do. I also asked about the heiau on Molokai. I had read that Molokai was known for its powerful sorcerers, and they had built this enormous heiau on the Maui-facing side of the island to intimidate potential invaders from that island. It was a place of much human sacrifice, and there is the story of a kahuna (priest) who lost seven sons to this practice.

Auntie Opu’ulani confirmed the heiau as a place of sorcery. She used to take people from other islands on tours there (it is on private property and you have to get permission to visit). One day, she was guiding a group of kupuna (elders) from Maui. She and another lady sat down on some rocks to rest. Suddenly, the other lady jumped up and went directly back to the bus. Opu’ulani later found out that the lady felt that the rock was “trying to enter her.” She said the heiau was a bad place because of the human sacrifice, and if we visited, not to sit on the stones.

Auntie Opu’ulani was exactly the person I had wanted to meet. Educated, dedicated to her culture, and a believer. I decided to tell her my experience with the lei at Kilauea. When I described turning around to find the lei gone, she nodded quietly and said, “Pele accepted it.” I asked her to read the manuscript for the book I am working on (once I actually have a manuscript), and I offered to pay her for it. She said she would be glad to. As we prepared to leave, I asked if I might contribute to her work, remembering what Jeanine told me about offering money, but Auntie would not accept it. Of course, I offered to send her “The Obsidian Mirror” as a way of saying thank you, and this she accepted.

What a beautiful, gentle woman. I am so lucky to have met her!

But I don’t think we’ll be going to the heiau.

Book Reviewer Blogger Liis Pallas Reviews “The Obsidian Mirror”

Liis Pallas reviews “The Obsidian mirror”–and I am thrilled!

Cover to Cover

Environmental issues, power-play, ancient Mayan gods, a Coyotl (yes, Coyotl) that turns into a drop-dead-gorgeous young man, a green being of mannegishi, vodun (no, not voodoo), and a bit of reality- admit it- it sparked some interest in you!

from Goodreads

A few days ago I published an interview K.D. was so very kind to tackle.

You know what? It feels strange how some times you read a book, or watch a film, on a serious issue (such as environmental problems, a nuclear power plant worry, fracking causing earthquakes, rubbish in the vast oceans, etc) and when we read about these issues in books, or see them in the movies, we tend to take them as someone’s brain-children, or brain-babies. But I really am humbled and in awe and in the process of having my faith restored because people notice! Authors notice the issues, the global issues that should…

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Interview with K.D. Keenan on (r)Evolution with HiC

K.D. Keenan, author of "The Obsidian Mirror"

K.D. Keenan, author of “The Obsidian Mirror”

http://player.cinchcast.com/?platformId=1&assetType=single&assetId=5859167

Check Out Books Podcasts at Blog Talk Radio with Firefly Willows LIVE on BlogTalkRadio

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

Writer

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.

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!

From Sea to Poisoned Sea

Image: High Contrast

Image: High Contrast

Growing up, I learned in school about the natural wonders of our great land—the deep forests, crystalline rivers, wide and sweeping plans, and pristine deserts. This was probably reinforced by various Disney nature films depicting animals in the wild, with not a telephone line in sight.

Imagine my surprise when I got a little older and found out about “dead” lakes so polluted that nothing much could live in them. Rivers that caught on fire from time to time. Sweeping landscapes of gray factories belching dirty smoke into the air, surrounded by heaps of toxic slag. And because I lived a mere 100 miles from Los Angeles, that mother of all urban blight, the pall of grayish-brown smog that obscured the nearby 8,000-foot-plus-high mountains on many days.

I know it sounds as if I were a complete naïf, but I was stunned. The people who were dumping toxins and garbage into the water had to live here, too. Their children were being exposed to poison in the air and water. They had to look at the blight of human ingenuity, right along with the rest of us. So what could they possibly be thinking?

Many decades later, I am still wondering. It has never made sense to me that people would crap all over their own dinner tables. And it has never made sense to me that governments allow them to do this. Every time I read about some scheme to defang the EPA, or lower air and water quality standards, or build another nuclear power plant even after the disasters at Three-Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukishima, I am newly gob-stopped. Why would anyone knowingly and deliberately destroy the only home we possess?

That’s one reason I wrote “The Obsidian Mirror.” In it, the ancient and evil Necocyaotl devises a new way to entice people to “look into the obsidian mirror,” after which they become so focused on their personal wants and desires that they are willing to despoil the earth to obtain them. He does this by spreading his evil essence in a fiendishly clever way, using modern technology.

To be honest, it’s the only explanation I can understand. Nothing else makes any sense at all. Profit motive, you say? That’s like burning down your own house to warm your hands for a bit. Until I get a better explanation, I’m sticking with the Necocyaotl Theory.