Fantastic History #38: The Pacific Coast Highway and PCH Roadkill by Catherine Schaff-Stump

I am writing this post as a memorial to my friend Chris Cornell, who passed away in June. We had arranged for him to write an article about his research for his novel PCH Roadkill. Like Christopher Moore’s fiction, Chris Cornell’s book was a California story written by a Californian for Californians. It was easily my favorite of Chris’ work, even though I am not a Californian, and I regret that none of you will be able to read it, as Chris never had it published. It was a near miss, but it remains a tome in the world’s best secret library.

What is the plot? An alien is marooned in California while struggling to avert a cosmic disaster, and he crosses paths with a California slacker. Together the two of them forge a bond and save the world. It’s a brilliant, gentle buddy novel which shines as it examines the nature of true friendship.

The duo in the novel drive State Highway 1, or the Pacific Coast Highway, which is 659 miles from just under the northern border with Oregon to San Diego. It is a beautiful drive. Gapyear suggests 13 beautiful places along the way. Of note is Hearst Castle, an amazing place. One of Chris’ most recent road trips was to Hearst Castle, and he sent us beautiful pictures of the pools and the architecture. On this road trip you could stop in San Jose and see the Winchester House, see the magnificent scenery of Big Sur, and experience the dynamism of Los Angeles and San Diego. All along the way the ocean will make it hard for you to keep your eyes on the road.

I’ve never experienced the entirely of this trip. I’ve been to San Francisco, Los Angeles, and San Diego. I’ve taken a train from Los Angeles to San Diego and marveled at the beach. California is beautiful country.

***

PCH Highway is a book that reminds me of all the best pieces of my friend. Although the Fantastic History blog tries to place information historically, I realize this summer has been the end of a part of my own history. Since November of 2015, Chris, George Galuschak, Chia Evers and I have been podcasting steadily at Unreliable Narrators. With Chris’ death, that phase of our life is over. We couldn’t bring ourselves to do it without him, and so we mourn the loss of it, as well as him. I have thought about golden times in my life before, pieces of time I remember very fondly. Unreliable Narrators was an effort of love for us, a chance to put something positive out in the world, especially in the world of the creative, where often rejection is the coin of the realm.

Now that Chris is gone, I feel adrift creatively. Certainly, I have other friends, and new opportunities will open up. But this time, these friends, this project, the way it was, this will never come again. Eventually the podcasts and the site will go away. Already, Chris’ website is gone. At World Con this week, his name will go by on the friends we’ve lost screen. People will gather and drink in his honor. The world moves on, and my life continues. You know you loved someone, truly, when the gap in your life left by them is unstitchable, uncloseable. I will often wonder, for the rest of my days, what Chris would think or do or say in situations. He was a traveling companion, a creative sounding board, a good friend. And more of this longing for his companionable, excellent company, which I can never hold again, this is what the future holds, because now I can only find that companionship in the past.

I miss you, man. I wish you were alive to write this column. I wish I could make jokes with you about the crappiest summer of my life, about the worst time line. But I have your writing and your memory, and I will make that last for my lifetime. I have to let you pass into history, but I’m not going to forget.

Summer, 2019

It has been a very challenging summer. I was really looking forward to this one. It was the first summer in thirteen years where I had an actual professor sized vacation, because I was no longer an administrator. A more superstitious person may take the following warning from my summer: Be careful what you wish for.

After Wiscon, which was wonderful, Bryon and I were looking at taking a lovely trip to Disney World early in June. Regrettably, his mother Phyllis went into decline and died two days before our vacation. She was 93, and as with all Alzheimer’s patients, the disease lingered a long time, but the end for her was swift. I moved our vacation to July, and yes, we were sad, but we had prepared as well as you can for that kind of thing.

My birthday came. On it, my good friend Chris Cornell died unexpectedly on a 100-degree day after collapsing at a BART station in San Francisco. Chris was one of the Unreliable Narrators, a writing group buddy, a mutual beta reader, and above all an excellent human being. He was 51. I am still grappling with the loss of Chris on a very personal level. I will tell you about my journey into cardio limbo in a moment, but instead of re-energizing myself regarding writing this summer, this despair of writing and struggling in what Chris used to call the worst possible timeline, mixes with my grief, anxiety, and depression, and produces a rather heady cocktail of antipathy regarding doing my trivial, entertaining art. It’s been that summer.

I did put in a request with July to be better. I kept going to the gym, letting my emotions out, doing what I could to let time get me back on my feet. July was gonna be great. I had CONvergence, and for the first time in years, since I was a self-pubbed author now, I was going to wear a costume. Bryon had spent all year making Queen Hippolyta and Antiope for me and my good friend Lisa. We had our postponed trip to Disney. We planned my annual fake family reunion, a celebration of the wonderful people who are good to me in my life. My grief would still be in the background, yes, but I was looking forward to some happiness.

July was canceled, every bit of it. Right before CONvergence, I had a heart flutter while working out, and an exercise stress test that indicated my heart was, indeed, doing funky things. However, we took off for CONvergence with a doctor’s blessing, and I promptly spent that weekend in the hospital. The good news? I didn’t have a heart attack, and the pipes are all clean. The bad news? I have been attached to a Zoll Life Vest all July awaiting diagnostic tests which arrive next week, finally. I can’t drive. I exercise minimally. I have gained about 10 pounds, and my depression hasn’t been nurtured like poison ivy, but it does pop up expectedly and often.

Welcome to August. Next week, I go to work for three days and have two days of medical testing. The following week I will have some answers, which could range from ideopathic tachycardia (We don’t know what’s going on. We can’t reproduce it, so just keep taking these meds, send your life vest back through the mail, and go home), to a reproduction of the trouble, which may involve a Frankensteinian burning/scoring of my heart to produce a regular beat, to installing a defibrillator because that’s what it might take if there’s trouble. I am taking the week of the 12th-16th off, just in case I need to recuperate or have something big done. Honestly, I just want to get my heart fixed and/or managed, so I can go back to teaching on time with everyone else. Yes, I want to go back to work. It’s also been that kind of summer.

I have plans to return to The Wrath of Horus. Honestly, I joined a Horror Writing Group recently, and if it weren’t for those deadlines, I probably wouldn’t have done anything this summer. In May, I was already having a monolithic writing crisis regarding how I was feeling about what I was producing. I was pretty convinced that it was the level up problem, and I would work through it. After Chris’ death, I have discovered a general disenchantment with the possibility of working hard to achieve my dreams in writing, and how hard I really want to work. There is malaise and disgust and sadness all revolving around my work. I am in a creatively dark spot regarding my abilities and my motivations, and a dark spot about my life and health in general.

In recent times, I have been preparing for class, and reading articles about how Americans have a groundless optimism. You too can achieve a dream, the mythology says, if only you work hard enough. I think not. I look at the people I know who have achieved in the arts, and I know they have worked hard. They are no different from the other people who have also worked hard, save that luck and backing have found them. Countless others, people with talent and ability, work hard and stay in the same spot. I believe my art will get better once I get through this summer of setbacks and get my head on straight, but I doubt whether my work will attract any kind of widespread attention. I am simply not in love with the idea of working, working, working, and always working to make that happen. I think I may have broken my heart, quite literally, working for something I cannot have. It’s a hard lesson to grapple with.

For now, I am trying to find my way back to happiness. The best I’ve been able to achieve is tepid on a good day. I love my life, my husband, my friends, and my job. I will love telling stories again. Right now I need to fan the tiny spark of passion I have for art gently. Another puff of wind and the flame will gutter out.

Fantastic History #37: Lean into your Strengths by Julie C. Day

What is the secret to writing a story with a rich, well researched world? Deep, abiding weakness.

While I learn quickly, I forget just as swiftly. All those names, dates, specific chemical bonds, burial rituals, details of Einstein’s Theory of Relativity and understanding of the role of women in the ancient world swirl into an impressionistic mess. This is the sort of issue that hits many parts of my life, including my ability to write fiction. But that’s not my only writerly weakness. As a writer I have an abundance of tone and pretty, pretty sentences that power up the creepy and unsettling. But plot—dear, Lord—plot is never a straightforward exercise. And worlds, settings, that accurate description of architecture? None of it is going to slip easily onto the page. When I first started writing fiction my detail-deficient brain and plotless soul meant putting together a setting and story arc was hard. And then—thank, God, finally—I learned to embrace these weaknesses with almost boundless enthusiasm.

Lean into your strengths as a writer. That’s one of those pearls offered up to new and aspiring authors. Definitely a good suggestion, but I’ve discovered the converse is even more useful—lean into your weaknesses and leverage them as strengths.

Have a hard time with plot? Build a situation and a world full of specific details, details tied to scientific knowledge, historical facts, and a meticulous, Google-maps-inspired understanding of a specific location. Use all those details as thick bumper-guards that will direct your imaginings. And that’s plotting covered…

Thankfully, the power of details is a multi-pronged organism. As it turns out the most powerful crutch for a writer with a poor memory is the factual world! The known details of the Sumerian religion, a catalog of bioluminescent organisms, the lifecycle of the corn borer moth, my brain is ready to take it all in—on a temporary basis. But because the information is at its root fact-based, I know I can always return to the well and refamiliarize myself with the content. With the right level of organization, nothing is ever permanently lost.

As well as an MFA, I hold a Bachelors and a Masters of Science. I studied Microbiology in college and worked in biotech for awhile, but when writing fiction, but I can’t rely on any of that specialist’s knowledge—bad memory for details remember? But here is where my weakness leads to my most powerful strength. There is something about my magpie approach to creation, the need to read and reread information on so many disparate subjects, that encourages the collision of the unexpected and the seemingly unrelated. Which is exactly how the setting and concept for my upcoming novella The Rampant came about. What is my novella’s setting? you ask. Well, dear reader, it’s a stalled Sumerian Rapture in near-future Southern Indiana.

Of course, it is.

Some of the authors I envy for their—assumed—vast knowledge and associated retention: C. J. Cherryh, Kim Stanley Robinson, Ursula Le Guin. But that is just never going to be me. When I started to plan The Rampant I was leery of any strict adherence to Sumerian practices and beliefs. Even with spreadsheets, bookmarks, and notes, cracks were a forgone conclusion, and whether my readers notice or not, my OCD-esque writer brain wants all those details sorted and correct. The layout of a lecture hall at College Park? The active season for grasshopper nymphs in New Hampshire? All those other story details from all those other stories? Yeah, I’ve got notes on that. But getting all those Sumerian gods, demi-gods and the associated details right? Well, that was a recipe for a never-ending cycle of stuck, and a huge distraction from the emotional heart of the work.

Riffs, impressionistic memories, concepts: those are the type of recollections my brain pulls forth. A merging of the Sumerian with my childhood memories of Southern Indiana—scaffolded with yet more research—now that is my natural medium. By melding those two bodies of knowledge—one containing all the excitement of the newly learned and the other containing emotional truths exhumed—well, my distractible personality was all in!

Sometimes my research involves reading old travel guides, books on ancient languages or translated texts not available online. In the case of The Rampant, I got lucky. To a large extent, the internet more than met my needs.

A sample of the research involved in composing The Rampant:
Tibetan coracles, because I needed a hand-built boat that utilized stretched hide.
• (Self) consciousness and the animal world, because…story reasons.
• The changing racial demographics of Columbus Indiana
• The Sumerian culture and religion.
• Translated Sumerian texts.
• Bioluminescent organisms.
• Beehive houses.
• The visual details of mummified bodies.
• The format of Christian catechisms.
• The lifecycle of corn borer moths.

Outside of piracy, the proliferation of electronic versions of books online is one of the wonders of the digital age. Of all the items I found online, Thompson’s 1903 The Devils and Evil Spirits of Babylonia: being Babylonian and Assyrian incantations against the demons, ghouls, vampires, hobgoblins, ghosts, and kindred evil spirits, which attack mankind, tr. from the original Cuneiform texts, with transliterations, vocabulary, notes, etc. was the most inspirational. It’s from Thompson’s translation of “The Seven Evil Spirits” that I uncovered one of the novella’s key characters, the Rampant. And yes, Babylonian is different from Assyrian which are both preceded by Sumerian. But here is the beauty of cultures both ancient and new, things blend and morph and bleed between their supposed edges. As Thompson says in his notes on “The Seven Evil Spirits”:

This story is the sixteenth tablet of a series called the “Evil Demon Series,” of which we have an Assyrian with a parallel Sumerian text. Presumably, therefore, it was a very ancient legend.

For me that was enough to consider it a Sumerian reference. In fact, this particular text helped form the basic premise of The Rampant: the end times have stalled because one of the Seven Evil Spirits has decided to hide out instead of joining the rest of his brethren on Earth. Now humanity is stuck in a seemingly never-ending apocalypse. Sickened by the ongoing misery, our protagonists, sixteen-year-old Emelia Bareilles and Gillian Halkey travel into the Sumerian lands of the dead, determined to force a change.
Not that Thompson’s book contained the only translations I read. The Oxford University’s Electronic Text Corpus of Sumerian Literature, which included an online searchable collection of translations, was also hugely beneficial. Late in the process, I used the Text for the novella’s epigraphs. But first came my browsing of content which included the first known reference to Gilgamesh, the Sumerian poem “Gilgamesh, Enkidu, and the Nether @orld,” along with another Sumerian poem “Inana’s Descent to the Nether World.” My underworld, including the Sumerian Netherworld, started to take shape from these ancient fragments.

Picture credit

I make no claim that I’ve recreated the Sumerian land of the dead in The Rampant. For me that really wasn’t the point. But what I did—what I attempted anyway—was to craft a fantasy world in which the Sumerian elements I referenced felt accurate to those with a far deeper knowledge than my own. And isn’t that what storytelling is all about in the end, that feeling of reality the reader experiences—both physical and emotional—despite the clear knowledge that all of it is nothing but one brain’s reaction to words on a page?

***
Julie C. Day has published over thirty stories in magazines such as Black Static, The Dark, and Podcastle. Her debut collection, Uncommon Miracles, was released by PS Publishing in 2018. Her novella, The Rampant, is forthcoming this fall from Aqueduct Press.

Julie lives in a small town in New England with her family and a menagerie of variously sized animals. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Southern Maine’s Stonecoast program and a M.S. in Microbiology from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. You can find her at @thisjulieday or at her website. Café writing and long baths with paper books are also a thing.

Fantastic History #35: An Interview with Karen Abrahamson

Cath: Death by Effigy is a powerful book that recreates a time and a culture with precision. What interested you in writing the book?

Karen: Writing this book was the result of a decade or more of a love affair with the Burmese puppets. In 1997 I travelled in Myanmar (aka Burma) and while I was there I researched the puppets for a non-fiction article I was writing for a magazine. I came back and wrote my article, but there was so much more to the puppets and the Burmese culture that I wanted to write about. I actually wrote a different novel about the puppets, but they kept cropping up in my writing and at one point I wrote a 10,000 word short story about Aung, the aging puppet singer. When I decided to expand that story I added the fantasy element of Yamin, the mischievous page puppet, but it was from Aung’s POV. Then one of my first readers told me that the novella came alive whenever the nats (spirits) and Yamin appeared and suddenly everything made sense. Readers needed to understand a creature like Yamin and the only way to do that was to have his POV be front and center. So that’s how the story came to be, but really it was all about the Burmese culture. The blend of Buddhism and Animism was so front and center in real people’s lives that I really felt it when I traveled there. The blend was so unique, it simply had to be written about. From there, it was a matter of doing a lot of research and then letting the ideas ferment in the imagination.

Cath: Can you talk a little bit about your own travels in Burma/Myanmar?

Karen: I was there in 1997. It was a closed country then, or almost totally closed so I was only able to travel to a few places, like Yangoon, Mandalay, Bagan, Inle Lake and Kyaiktiyo, and I could only stay for one month. Aung San SuuKyi was under house arrest at the time and you had to be very careful what you said and did. I traveled alone and the people were SO gracious. They were incredibly poor and yet entirely giving. I met puppeteers and priests, carvers and neurosurgeons and retired politicians in my research into the puppets. But most of all I remember the people’s small kindnesses that were too numerous to mention. They demonstrated so much about their faith and culture in how they lived every day. Learning about the puppets from a puppet carver brought home the myth and tradition of the puppets and the troupes. Learning about the many spirits that inhabit the landscape and villages became the topic of my research when I decided to write fiction about the troupes. One kind neurosurgeon who was trying to ensure that the puppet tradition wasn’t lost helped me immensely by connecting me with German anthropological research into the puppets.

Cath: In what year, approximately, is Death by Effigy set? Why did you choose this particular time in Burmese history?

Karen: The story s set roughly about 1820 during the reign of King Bodawpaya. That king had the misfortune to have to deal with some of the earliest English envoys to Burma who were demanding that Burma be opened to trade. It must have been horribly difficult, because from his seat in Burma he was watching the same English take over the Indian subcontinent by removing the various Moghul princes one by one. It was a time of horrendous change and pressure on the culture both from the English and from Jesuit missionaries. Plus the Burmese royal families were rife with subterfuge and murder. All that angst and conflict is a great backdrop for a puppet troupe trying to maintain the old ways.

Cath: What kinds of historical research did you engage in to flesh out Death by Effigy?

Karen: I read anthropological research on the nats, books on the puppets and found a wonderful Burmese history book at a Yangoon street market that I mined extensively for the history of the country. I also managed to find the diary of the first English envoy to King Bodawpaya’s court. The diary wasn’t flattering to either the King or the man who wrote it, but it sure brought out the attitudes of the foreigners attending the court.

Cath: As Daniel Hand mentions in his preface to your story, Burma has been at the center of political and religious tension throughout its history. Your main character Aung struggles with religion in the book, as he knows nats are real. Can you discuss the shift in religion throughout Burma during this time, and how you used this in your book?

Karen: Burma has always been at a crossroads where different religions mix. As with Thailand, the country has a mix of Theravada Buddhism, with an infusion of Brahmanism/Hinduism all overlaid on a far older animistic belief in nature spirits (nats) and other spirits. Over its history, Burma played a central role in the maintenance of Theravada Buddhism, with a lot of cross pollination with Ceylon/Sri Lanka in ensuring the retention and strength and, dare I say, purity of the religion. In Burma itself, various kings had attempted to exterminate the nat worship because it was seen to undermine the purity of Buddhist beliefs. Monarchs built huge Buddhist temple edifices to gain merit that might help themselves and their country now and in future incarnations.

In Bodawpaya’s time the country was under extreme pressure from the English. In the west the English were removing the hereditary maharaja system of governance and were fighting a war against a royal family that was related to Bodawpaya. There were also East India Company traders at the doorstep demanding that the country be opened to trade. At the same time Christian missionaries—mostly Jesuits—were proselytizing in the countryside.

Given this background, I thought it was reasonable that Bodawpaya would be under tremendous pressure and would, like his predecessors, fall back on the religion he knew (Buddhism) to seek help to deal with the threat at his door. Unfortunately, in the world of my series, turning away from the spirits threatens the very earth that supports you because of the symbiotic relationship between humans and nats. Humans give offerings, which give power to the nats. The nats in turn support the land, which supports the people. Of course, if you turn away from supporting the nats, who knows what will happen… This stress and struggle become more evident in the books that follow in the series.

Cath: The idea that the puppet shows were almost the only way to criticize the government of Burma is interesting. Why did you choose to use a puppet troupe as the main focus of your story?

Karen: Well, the research that I’ve done on the Burmese puppet troupes indicates that the puppets were actually the only way to critique the powers that be. As for why I chose the puppet troupe as the main focus of the story—I loved what I learned about the troupes. The puppeteers apparently really thought of the puppets as their little brothers and sisters. When puppeteers bathed, they bathed their puppets. If they did their hair, they would do the same for their small kin. And then there was the way that the puppets were carved from a single tree so they were their own special family within the troupe. Couple that with the role of the troupes to share news and make social commentary and MY GOODNESS, there were so many possible stories to be told.

And then there were the puppets. They simply ached for magic and Yamin most of all, because as a Page, he would be younger-minded and more inclined to get into trouble, like any other young boy. Using him as a foil against the older and wiser Singer of the troupe simply made sense. At least to me.

Cath: Could you tell us a little bit about nats and how you portray them in the book?

Karen: The worship of nats (or Nats for the great Nats), is something far older than Buddhism. Nats come in a number of forms. There are nature nats that protect a hillside, a glen, a rice field, etc. Then there are great Nats. Most of these are the spirits of some great being like Min Mahagiri who was a warrior blacksmith. There were other great nats who were ogres and so on, so there is a pantheon of Nats.

Within Burmese culture, there are patron nats or Nats of villages, and areas. For instance, a specific nat will be the patron of a cluster of villages and thus you’ll see shrines to this nat in a village. In addition, each household has a shrine to the house nat. Min Mahagiri is also the house nat and brings blessing on the household.

Households, villages and farmers know that nats can be devilish beings. Proper offerings can ensure a healthy happy household, a good rice harvest, and healthy children. Failure to make proper offerings can lead to strife, famine and the death of children.

While I’ve tried to stay true to the basic beliefs, what the nats actually look like and how they act as individuals is all my doing and thus probably westernized. So I’ve taken the basic concept of these somewhat ‘slippery’ characters and have imbued them with the desire to survive. I’ve also given them the ability to know who their allies are—thus the relationship between Aung and the nats. Most of all, in writing this book and the others in the series so far, I’ve fallen in love with Yamin and his awareness of the difference between nat and man and his desire to explore the human side of the equation.Of course that causes more trouble…

Cath: While this book obviously has elements of fantasy, it also reads as the first book in a series of mysteries, and I see from your website it is! Aung and Yamin complement each other well. Why did you choose mystery as a genre to write in?

Karen: I have always enjoyed reading mysteries and I was once told by a writing mentor that I should try my hand at writing mystery even though my focus at that time was fantasy. The original story was written about Aung for a mystery workshop where we were challenged to write a non-fantasy mystery about a crime that would not be a crime today. I thought the destruction of a royal puppet would be such a crime. Today you might get a willful damage or mischief charge, but it wouldn’t be serious. Anyway, the story was good, but I decided to rewrite it as a novella and then Yamin’s point of view came in and there you go. I enjoyed writing Aung and Yamin so much that I knew they had to have other adventures and now there are three books in the series and a fourth waiting to be written.

Cath: Can you tell us about your plans for the next two books in this series?

Karen: The two books after Death By Effigy take Aung and Yamin and the wandering puppet troupe to other locations in Burma where they run into other mysteries to solve. They visit the home of the King of the Nats (Mount Popa) and the ruins of the once mighty city of Pagan (or Bagan). Through it all Aung is dealing with his age and the desire for peace and quiet, while Yamin continues his transformation from an ancient nat to something—well—else. At the same time, Burma is experiencing the challenges of missionaries and European traders in a country that isn’t really prepared for such things. The yet-to-be written fourth book will take place in Yangoon—a scary place with its population of westerners when you travel with a band of living spirits—one of whom is Yamin!

Cath: Where can people find out more about you or your books?

They can find out more about me on my website and on Facebook.

Fantastic History #34: An Interview with J. Kathleen Cheney

Cath: Your body of work is a dream for historical fantasy readers! There’s so much of it, and in so many richly researched historical periods. What draws you to writing historical fantasy?

J: I think there’s a two-fold draw here. When I consider a time period/place, I am often entranced by the external look of that setting—the clothes, the technology, the culture. The second part happens once I start researching a place or time and discover it’s far more interesting than I’d imagined. I’ll run across an interesting tidbit here or there, and I’m off on another tangent that might be a completely different story.

Cath: Can we talk about the world of Hawk’s Folly in Iron Shoes? What’s the premise of the story? How do you continue the story in the sequel? Were there any challenges in negotiating the time frame change between the two books?

J: The initial premise of the story came to me—honestly—in a dream. I woke up and recalled it all, but immediately thought I would never be able to sell it because it’s a version of the ‘widow saves the farm’ trope. However, I loved the idea of purchasing a horse only to discover it wasn’t a horse at all, so I wrote the story anyway—Imogen Hawkes must win the big race at Saratoga Springs (1905) in order to keep her farm out of the hands of an unscrupulous neighbor. She has a plan, but things go awry, and she ends up relying on magic—which her mother always told her was bad—to help her win the day.

There have been two sequel novellas (Snow Comes to Hawk’s Folly—1908—and Snowfall—1909) and I’m working on a novel now (Snow Haven—1933). Although most things about farming and horses stay the same, the town/city of Saratoga Springs changes fairly profoundly between 1905 and 1933. Many of those changes concern horse-racing and gambling, including periods where betting wasn’t allowed at the tracks and gambling was forbidden in the town’s hotels. Those rules changed even between 1908 and 1909.

Whenever my own research failed I could contact the Public Library in Saratoga Springs, and the research librarian in the history room always helped me out. I stumped her only once—on that question of gambling rooms in the hotels, but later found the answer in a column in the New York Times. Turns out the town council of Saratoga Springs outlawed gambling completely in 1909, even in private homes!

Cath: I am a fan of the Golden City series, and I love books that reflect generations of family. I know the first novel came from a short story which appeared in Apex and Abyss. How did you build a novel from that short story?

J: Well, in true-to-myself fashion, I wrote the sequel before trying to convert the novella to a novel. I pitched that second novel (The Seat of Magic) to my eventual agent, but she could tell it was a sequel to something. However, I had already started fleshing out the novella “Of Ambergris, Blood, and Brandy”, intending to make it a novel. That process allowed me to start the story in the novel a couple of days earlier and expand more on the backgrounds of the main characters. Later in the process, my editor asked me to make a couple of additional changes that took it farther from the original novella, but overall I’m happy with the final product.

Cath: The Golden City has selkies and sereia in an alternative Portugal. How did you adapt these stories to the historical and specific culture of Portugal?

J: The sereia were the easier in that sirens are actually mentioned in Os Lusíadas, the 1572 epic poem by Luís Vaz de Camões about Vasco da Gama’s trip to India and back. On their return journey to Portugal, the Portuguese sailors are ‘rewarded’ by Venus when they land on an island, chase the local nymphs (ninfas), have sex with them, and then are treated to a great feast where a sereia (siren) sings their praises.

In my works, that first interaction with Portuguese sailors colors the sereia’s relationship with Portugal. The sereia have their own epic poem called The Rape of Amado, rape being both literal and figurative. Their interactions with their neighbors (I placed their islands not too far from the Azores) are tense, even given that many of them bear Portuguese blood (via either rape or through the handful of sailors who stayed), use their language, and in some places follow their religion (thanks to Catholic missionaries). The Venus-incited betrayal also broke their ties to the Greek gods, leaving a mostly-agnostic populace behind.

The selkies were another matter. I only knew I needed after I began writing. (OOPS!) Therefore I had to research seals in the Atlantic. There are few seals on the northern coasts of Portugal, so my selkies are more closely related to the Caribbean Monk Seal (now extinct). They don’t interact with humans as much save in their human form, so having a selkie slip in and out of ports (as Erdano does) isn’t problematic. Because they generally don’t live among humans, the only adaptation they make is learning the local language… if they feel like it. They’re a race that is easy to transport from one culture to another.

Cath: Can we talk about the sereia matriarchy? How did that come about? Why is there such a shortage of male sirens?

J: Mumble, mumble, mumble… Okay, I worked that out when I started these stories, but that was almost a decade ago! And I didn’t write it down. I’m sure there was something in there about sex-linked traits, x-y sex determination, and recessive and dominant genes, but essentially, they simply don’t birth as many males. Fish are more likely to have a disparate gender dichotomy as well, so I didn’t feel too bad about that. (Fish have very interesting and changeable gender genetics.)

Cath: Where did you decide to make the important deviations in the story to create the alternative history of the Golden City series?

J: I looked at important points in the history of Portugal and asked myself how might magic have changed this. The two best examples of this are the disappearance of King Sebastião and the 1755 earthquake that destroyed Lisbon.
King Sebastião disappeared on a battlefield in Morocco, fighting a crusade. I would like to think that if there were seers among the Jesuits who helped raise young Sebastião, that one of them would have warned him to not go to Morocco. So… I changed that and kept the same royal family, the Hose of Aviz, instead of the newer one, the House of Braganza, which required inventing a totally new line of succession.

The earthquake that destroyed Lisbon, though, could not have been stopped by any form of magic. Seers might have given warnings and saved lives, but the city itself couldn’t be saved from the earthquake, tsunami, or the subsequent fires, so that series of events still happened in the world of the Golden City.

I mean, we honestly can’t grasp how much the world would change, but we have to try, right?

Cath: Can you talk a little bit about witchcraft in the books? It seems to be both accepted and not at the same time.

J: In this series we have two types of magic: magic that’s natural or inborn (witches) and magic that’s artificial or acquired (witchcraft). (Magical creatures such as sereia, selkies, and fairies are generally regarded with suspicion, but lumped in with the first group, since their abilities are inborn.) Each country decides how much it’s willing to accept the first group, but everyone frowns on the second because you have to sacrifice to acquire that power. Devices, tokens, and charms are a gray area because sometimes they’re created by witches and sometimes by sacrifice or demons.

Given all that, I actually try to keep all the historicals linked together. So the rules in The Dragon’s Child stories are the same as the rules in the Golden City and Saratoga Springs. It’s the level of acceptance that changes, given the culture and the church.

Cath: Perhaps my favorite character in the book is Gaspar. Trying to avoid spoilers, what can you tell us about how you conceived of the Meter, and his many lives?

J: I’m so glad that you like him!

When I started the Golden City series, I considered the group of Gaspar, the Lady, Anjos, and Vladimirova my competency porn. They were extreme experts who worked in the background, a combination of Leverage and Torchwood.

Gaspar was the one who would know everything about the witches and non-humans, but to have acquired that knowledge would take lifetimes, so he has lived over and over again, along with a partner who has been one kind of witch after another. (For example, the Lady was a healer in her most-recent previous life, giving him an intimate familiarity with that gift.) But for him the lines between his senses, between the past and present and here and there are all a bit blurred, as if worn thin by overuse, so he’s constantly living with input that normal people don’t get.

Cath: Miss Nadezhda Vladimirova is another character who comes from an interesting background. Am I right that you’ve written about her before these books? Can you talk a little bit about your research into Russian culture to come up with this character?

J: Although I haven’t written about Nadezhda Vladimirova herself, I’ve written about her ancestors. She is a direct descendent of the characters in The Dragon’s Child, and shares abilities passed down through them.
Russian culture is interesting to research because very little was recorded before the arrival of the Orthodox Church and writing. After that point, most writing was done from the perspective of the Church, so it’s slanted, and most research written in Russian is not translated into English, making it inaccessible. However, I originally did a lot of research to set up the Russian aspects of the world of The Dragon’s Child, and my three favorite books to use then were Dr. Eve Levin’s Sex and Society in the World of the Orthodox Slavs: 900–1700, The Domostroi, and The Englishwoman in Russia. (I also read a lot of journals and biographies to get more of a feel for daily life.)

That all served as a distant backdrop for Nadezhda Vladimirova (and indeed, my other novella set in 1815 Russia, The Sparrow in Hiding.) I also spent a great deal of time looking into Russian folklore—like the rusalki. Russian lore seems charmingly inconsistent at times, but that allowed me more room to mold the characters to my will. Rusalki share their tendencies to call and influence humans with many other mystical races, along with their aquatic tendencies, and I ended up putting both of those skills to a more practical crime-solving use in this case.

Cath: You have written many rich fantasy novels as well as these historical ones. Do any particular periods of history influence your fantasies?

J: Honestly, I love that time period between 1860 and 1910 the best. Due to widespread industrialization, the technology level was changing quickly, so it’s an age of new inventions. Trains! Motorcars! There’s an increasing awareness of the rights of men (and more slowly, women), and a shift in influence from the state and the Church to the common man. There’s a rise in literacy and improvements in medicine. So many changes happening so fast make it a wonderful time-setting.

At the same time, it’s long enough ago that we can look back and spot some things that didn’t work out so well—like eugenics and the miasma theory of disease—and avoid those things. We get to create our idea of what a world like that would be like. (I always leave out the mosquitos.)

Cath: What is your next project, and what research are you doing for that project?

J: I’m one of those weird writers who have a lot in progress at the same time, but the main historical project that I’m working on is the story set in 1933 Saratoga Springs. I’ve planned to write this one for quite a while and knew I would need totally different research for 1933. In November of 2015, when World Fantasy Con was held in Saratoga Springs again, I took an extra day of vacation there and met with the research librarian at the Public Library. I did a great deal of my research for this project then but have been sitting on it ever since!

Most of that research involves how the town had changed (for example, when were the cast iron lions removed from the steps in front of the city hall?) and how the fortunes of the city suffered under the depression. So at this time, I’m working on integrating some of that into my plot. (Gangsters! who want magic!) So this will be an interesting stretch for me.

***

When your research drags you into foreign places…

When I chose the setting for my Golden City series (way back in 2009), I did so without a great deal of consideration. For the most part, that was because I was writing a single novelette. I was supposed to do 15,000 words and get out. Instead, I was still there, almost a decade later, regularly researching stuff on the Iberian Peninsula, Brazil, and Cape Verde.

One thing I didn’t realize at the time, though, was that Portugal, despite being England’s oldest military ally, does not end up with much of its literature/writings translated into English. I don’t know why.

Now, when I was working on a single novelette, that was acceptable. I could use Google Translate to work around some of the sections of various webpages and use my workmanlike Spanish to hack my way through other bits, but when I started working on novel-length fiction set there…I knew I was in trouble.

Big trouble.

Why Do It, Then?

I get asked this question regularly: Why did you choose to set this in Portugal? Above I noted that I did so without a lot of consideration. I saw that Portugal had tons of coastline, and that was what I needed.

But along the way, I also learned there are some advantages to working in a culture people haven’t often seen before.
1) It’s fresh for readers.
2) It leaves lots of room for mistakes.

WHAT? Number 2 was an unplanned benefit. What I’ve learned from my decade of writing for American readers about Portugal is that they know very little about Portugal.

Basically, the more commonly used a setting is, the more ‘experts’ there are on that topic. If you set a book in NYC, in London, in Paris…a gazillion readers will point out every little thing you get wrong. If you set a story during WW1 of WW2, during the American Civil War, during the Napoleonic Wars…enough readers will know that era to spot any glitch.

1901 in Porto? An unintended benefit of this was that I had very few readers who knew enough about that setting to argue with me about…anything.

But also, I simply came to love the setting. I dove into researching the history (although I changed a lot of it) and found a rich culture, a fascinating past, and centuries of relationships with other cultures, often very fraught (and often deservedly so.) And I think that all the effort I’ve had to put in has been worth it.

So how do I tackle researching in a foreign language?
In the course of the first three novels, I did a ton of research online, often using sites that were in Portuguese. Or Spanish. Or Catalan. In fact, I used sites with two difference dialects of Catalan. Am I an expert in any of those languages? No. I started with mild familiarity with Spanish and worked from there.

Here are some of the steps I took:

1) Use machine translation: A good example of this is Google Translate, where you can simply paste a paragraph into a box and it will give you a -passable- translation. There are major flaws in this, but if you’re looking at something simple, that’s the fastest way to read it. Also, some browsers (I use Chrome) have a popup or toggle that offers to translate entire pages for you into your regular browsing language. This has proven incredibly helpful, especially when I don’t know whether I want to try to read the whole page. HOWEVER, machine translation is not entirely reliable, so I strongly suggest having other sources…

2) Get a language buddy: When I hit a real snag with something I absolutely had to get correct, I turned to some of my friends. Christopher Kastensmidt (author of The Elephant and Macaw Banner series) lives in Brazil and is a fluent Portuguese speaker, so when I had a complex question, I went to him for help and he got me the answers I needed. I hit up Sue Burke (author of Semiosis), who lived in Madrid at the time, for questions in Spanish. I even had someone I could contact for Galician, although I ended up not using them. So use your writer buddies to your advantage. Ask around and find out who can help you.

3) Ask your writers group: I’m a member of a large online group, and when I needed something specific, I could always post the question there, and someone would know the answer. (This is a subset of #2).

4) Learn the language: Now, some of you will be saying, “This should have been point #1”, but I disagree. I know we would all love to be diligent researchers, but that takes time–time we won’t spend writing. We need to research efficiently. Therefore, this step came along later in my process, when I realized I was doing far more than just one story. I got a set of Portuguese learning CDs (I used Pimsleur), popped them in my car, and listened to them everywhere I went. To this day, I am NOT fluent in the language, although I managed to get around in Portugal well enough. What the lessons provided instead was an understanding of the framework of the language. That helped me to grasp all the things that the machine translations were doing wrong, so that I could use the machine translation better.*

5) Use Wikipedia as a portal: I’ve done this a gazillion times now. I go into the English Wikipedia to look at something about a city in Portugal, discover that the English version has almost no data, and switch over to Portuguese Wikipedia, which not-surprisingly seems to care more about Portugal than the English version does. I’ve written about this a lot online, so I’ll just insert a link to that information here Once you’ve got a handle on machine translation and its foibles, this can be incredibly valuable.

6) Use social media: Take this one with a grain of salt. If your desperate for a quick translation or have a simple question about the language, ask on social media. I’ve used Facebook this way and have had some great results. Just be warned that you will get a lot of dross along with that bit of gold. Don’t assume the first answer is the correct one.

Admittedly, some languages are more different than others. I’ve recently started work in Finnish, and it’s absolutely unlike any language I’ve studied before (but in my first Finnish lesson, I quickly learned why speakers of that language often sound ‘depressed’ to outsiders.) I have studied Russian, which helped with my work set in Russia, but I have never tackled any other Asian language. I admit, I’m a bit lazy for that. As much as we enjoy researching, we’re writers instead of anthropologists for a reason. Most of us want to concentrate on the writing.

But if you find yourself lost in a different culture, don’t back away. There are a lot of things that you can try to help you wade through the unfamiliar. It’s worth trying.

*Machine translation often struggles with things that a language does differently than English. For example, Portuguese and Spanish are null-subject languages, which means that their sentences do not have to have a subject. She is an astronaut simply becomes Is an astronaut. Because the machine translation wants to put in a subject, it sticks in HE most of the time—He is an astronaut–creating confusion when you’re researching a woman. In addition, formal names are often baffling to the machines and end up being translated into nouns. (The name of the city, Porto, was constantly being changed to the port.) Learning a bit of the language helped me know which issues to watch out for in the translation process, and I could glance back at the original language sentence to see what should have happened instead of the gobbledygook that came out the other end!

***

J. Kathleen Cheney taught mathematics ranging from 7th grade to Calculus, but gave it all up for a chance to write stories. Her novella “Iron Shoes” was a 2010 Nebula Award Finalist. Her novel, The Golden City was a Finalist for the 2014 Locus Awards (Best First Novel). Dreaming Death (Feb 2016) is the first in a new world, with the books of The Horn coming out in 2017, and the books of The King’s Daughter and sequels to Dreaming Death in 2018/2019

Fantastic History #33: Setting Fiction in the Long 18th Century by Kate Heartfield

Historians of British history talk about the “long eighteenth century.” It’s a phrase that comes to my mind often when I write fiction set in 18th century Europe. I have found that the key to writing in this period is somewhat paradoxical: you have to understand your setting as part of a vast context that covers a century and a half and several continents, but you must expect dramatic differences from year to year within that period, and even from month to month.

My next novel, The Humours of Grub Street, is set in London in 1703. I found pretty quickly that you can’t really understand the events of that setting without understanding the Glorious Revolution in 1688 and even the Great Fire in 1666 and the plague year that just preceded it. At the other end of the period, my Alice Payne time-travel novellas are set mainly in Hampshire in 1788 and 1799. Even though (some of) the characters don’t yet know how the French Revolution will unfold, or about the Napoleonic wars, it’s impossible to write well about that period without understanding the forces that were moving in Europe. The future for those characters has to inform the way we write; so does their past. We can’t understand the internal European political situation of the 18th century without having some sense of the impact of the peace of Westphalia back in 1648.

It’s also impossible to write well about the 18th century in Europe without understanding that the European powers were engaged in a massive campaign of imperialism, slavery and genocide throughout the rest of the world. It’s a century of trade and travel and migration. No country can be taken in isolation. One cannot understand any European country at the end of the 18th century without understanding the American and Haitian revolutions, and their causes.

All of those forces had a dramatic effect on the arts, science, literature, manners, food, and fashion. Let’s take fashion as an example.

Dressing one’s characters in the 18th century requires great care. Again, it’s all about context: If you’re writing a European woman in a “grand habit” or court dress in 1775, you need to understand that its heritage is a design decreed by Louis XIV about a century before, which was itself a deliberate homage to the gowns of his youth in the 1640s. Much depends on which country the woman is in, of course, and her class and even her political opinions.

As in any period, the fashions of the 18th century were always changing, from the lengths of stomachers and sleeves to the design of petticoats and stays. If you want to dress a woman in the 18th century, the first question to ask is: How many pieces does her dress come in?

This is also, for many cultural and economic reasons, a century of extreme and even ridiculous fashions, which are catnip for writers: the real world was stranger than fiction in many ways. You could write a woman with mouse-fur eyebrows, or ridiculous panniers jutting out from her hips. You could write a man with a crescent-moon beauty mark or a high powdered wig. But all of these things were particular to certain classes and certain places, and in many cases, the extremes of the fashions only lasted a few years. Put a woman in a ridiculous pannier in 1785, and you’ve made her an outlier. You’re saying something about her, whether you intended to or not. By 1795, the anachronism would be glaring.

Not only do you have to dress your characters in a way that would make sense to them, but you have to communicate all this to a modern reader, who might read a different connotation into an apron, or be thrown for a loop by someone handing someone else a pocket.

This can be a daunting setting to write, but it’s also a rich and interesting one, and the research is a great way to guard against ever writing a static, homogeneous culture, in any world.

*

Kate Heartfield is the author of the novel Armed in Her Fashion (ChiZine 2018) and the two Alice Payne novellas (Tor.com Publishing). She was nominated for a 2018 Nebula Award in the novella category for Alice Payne Arrives, and in game writing for The Road to Canterbury, published by Choice of Games. Armed in Her Fashion was a finalist for the 2018 Crawford Award, and the 2018 Aurora Award. Her novella “The Course of True Love” was published by Abaddon Books in 2016. Her short fiction has appeared in Strange Horizons, Lackington’s, Escape Pod and elsewhere. A former newspaper journalist, Kate lives in Ottawa, Canada.

Fantastic History #32: The Coming of the Black Hound by Cesar Alcazar

annrach, ànrach
wanderer, stranger; either from *ann-reth-ach, root reth, run, or from *an-rath-ach, “unfortunate”, root rath, luck, q.v.

annrath
distress, Irish anrath; an-rath; See rath, luck.

MacBain’s Etymological Dictionary of the Gaelic Language

It all began in the mid 90’s when I became obsessed with the music of an Irish blues-rocker called Rory Gallagher. Back then, discovering a rock musician out of the USA/England circle was something different for me. Being a history buff and an avid researcher, I tried to find out everything I could about Gallagher’s background and fell in love with Ireland and its culture in the process.

Gallagher’s music planted the seeds of many of my future personal interests in art. It even affected my taste in literature, introducing me to crime writer Dashiell Hammett, but that’s another story. A few years later, the history and mythology of Ireland would occupy a central spot in my life.

Anrath, the 11th Century Irish mercenary known as The Black Hound of Clontarf, was created in 2009 when I read the stories from Robert E. Howard’s “Celtic phase” (like The Grey God Passes and The Dark Man, among others). Howard was already a favorite of mine, having been responsible for my desire to write fantasy. During his short lifetime, Howard produced a huge amount of work, but it was those few Celtic tales that had the biggest impact on me. Around the same time, I also read the short story The Mirror and the Mask by Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges. Both Howard and Borges wrote about The Battle of Clontarf, a notorious combat between Gales and Norsemen that took place in April, 1014 near Dublin. The fact that these two authors who were so unlike could fall in love with the same themes fascinated me.

That’s how the idea of creating my own warrior anti-hero from medieval Erin was born. Anrath, The Black Hound, is a haunted man. Born a Gael, he was taken by Viking raiders and grew up among them. When the Battle of Clontarf came, he fought by the losing side of his Viking comrades against the victorious Irishmen led by legendary High King Brian Boru. After the battle, fate made him an outcast condemned to wander between two cultures without belonging to either.

Wandering Ireland as a mercenary, Anrath is constantly tormented by his past. His struggles against Vikings, fellow Irishmen and horrors beyond time and space originated a series of short stories, novelettes and one novella that came to be known in Brazil as The Tales of the Black Hound.

The Tales of the Black Hound are much in the vein of Robert E. Howard’s fantasy-filled historical and Sword and Sorcery adventures. But more than that, the stories focus on the conflicts of a man who is trapped in a life of violence from which he cannot escape. The protagonist, Anrath, has some of Akira Kurosawa’s samurai: lonely and melancholic, he is not always on the side of the winners. He is a more vulnerable hero than the usual in Fantasy.

The first Black Hound novelette to be published was Lágrimas do Anjo da Morte (Death Angel’s Tears). It appeared in the anthology Sagas Vol. 1 – Espada e Magia (Argonautas, 2010). Other stories followed and two of them ended being published in English by Heroic Fantasy Quarterly (A Lonely Grave on the Hill) and Swords and Sorcery Magazine (Wolves). Finally, the novella A Fúria do Cão Negro (Fury of the Black Hound) came out in 2014 (released by Arte & Letra).

Although all these stories were published by small venues, they attracted considerable attention. Soon it became clear that the Black Hound was destined to venture farther. In 2015 a mutual friend introduced me to artist Fred Rubim. A publicity illustrator and 2D animator, Rubim was eager to draw comics, especially one with Vikings in it. We started working on the adaptation of my novelette O Coração do Cão Negro (Black Hound Heart) shortly afterwards. Slaine, created by Pat Mills (wich is a great introduction to Irish Mythology) and Thorgal, by Van Hamme and Rosi?ski, were a big influence in the development of the comic book version of Anrath’s stories. Published at first as a serialized webcomic, Black Hound Heart caught the attention of AVEC Editora, a publishing house devoted to comics and speculative fiction.

AVEC released the complete comic as an album in 2016 to a great reception. It even inspired a song by Bando Celta, a Brazilian musical group specialized in medieval folk. The second album, A Canção do Cão Negro (Song of the Black Hound) came out in the following year. Rubim and I are currently working on the third installment of the series.

2019 marks the 10th anniversary of the Black Hound, but I feel that his story has just begun.

The Black Hound of Clontarf Bibliography in English:
A Lonely Grave on the Hill – Heroic Fantasy Quarterly #18, 2013.
Wolves – Swords and Sorcery Magazine #27, 2014.

The song:
Bando Celta – O Coração do Cão Negro

***
Cesar Alcazar is a Sword & Sorcery and Adventure writer from Brazil. He is the author of “Bazar Pulp – Historias de Fantasia, Aventura e Horror” and many anthologized short stories. He also edited the anthology “Cronicas de Espada e Magia”, and translated to Portuguese stories from authors Karl Edward Wagner, Robert E. Howard and George R. R. Martin. His first English language short story, “A Lonely Grave on the Hill”, was published by Heroic Fantasy Quarterly in November, 2013.

Fantastic History #31: A Time Traveler’s Guide to Train Travel by Wendy Nikel

From the first wooden-railed, horse-drawn tramroads built in England in 1594 to the futuristic bullet trains that speed past at over 160 miles per hour, train travel has played an important role in transportation throughout modern history.

While writing THE CASSANDRA COMPLEX, the third novella in my Place in Time series, I positioned my main character, Cass, on a train headed west, and I knew I’d have to do quite a bit of research into the train travel of the early 20th century in order to get those scenes right.

Fortunately, I live in a place where history was built on trains.

In 1869, the Central Pacific Railroad from the west and the Union Pacific Railroad from the east met up at Promontory Summit, Utah, which today is a National Historic Park near where I live. The same year, a train station was built in Ogden, Utah, which is now the Utah State Railroad Museum. These two sites served well as starting points for my research into the history of train travel.

The Golden Spike National Historic Park, where the two pieces of the transcontinental railroad met, gives visitors a glimpse into the building of these railroad lines. In an era before the invention of heavy machinery that could lay hundreds of rails a day, each tie and rail had to be placed by hand and each spike manually hammered into place. During the construction of this railroad, a new record was set: 10 miles of track laid in one day. The vast, desolate landscape near Promontory really emphasizes what a huge effort it was to lay track after track across all the empty and undeveloped places of the late 19th century West.

Although my characters would be traveling to California by a different route nearly fifty years later, they’d still be passing through a lot of undeveloped wilderness on rails built, piece-by-piece, by human hands.

At the Utah State Railroad Museum, I was able to see up-close some of the train engines like those steam and diesel ones which would have pulled the California Limited, which was featured in my story. In 1914, this luxury train ran between Chicago and California, crossing Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona on the way to Los Angeles before traveling northward to San Francisco. It had luxury accommodations, including deluxe sleeping cars, drawing rooms, a smoking room, and a dining car run by the Fred Harvey Company, who had been serving train passengers in their roadhouses since 1876.

In addition to checking out these historical sites and museums, I was also fortunate enough to find a copy of the California Limited’s 1913-1914 brochure in the public domain, digitized by Google. Through this, I was able to not only see the setup and descriptions of the train cars but also the schedule of its route.

With specific details like this, along with what I’d observed myself at the museums and historical sites, I felt like I was traveling back to that time and place – a time when trains were not only the fastest, but also the most fashionable mode of transportation.

Fantastic History #30: When Fantasy Fiction is Run Over by Reality by Samir Machado de Machado

It is my belief that when the reality in which we live is becoming exponentially surreal, realistic literature reaches its limits. When that occurs, it is up to the literature of imagination to give us the metaphors and parallels that will enable us to interpret and understand what the f— is happening in the world today. I cannot fail to notice that since the last presidential election in my country, books like George Orwell’s 1984 or Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaids Tale have reappeared on the bestseller list.

And when I say my country, I’m not talking about the US.

In 2013, I published my first novel, Quatro Soldados (“Four Soldiers”), a historical adventure that bordered the fantasy frontier, inspired by Umberto Eco’s Baudolino. The story was set in the 18th century, a period that fascinates me for its parallels with today’s world. The news reaching Europe about the Guaranitic War tell about the clash between two superpowers against native peoples, led by religious leaders seen as fanatical — in this case, the Jesuit missionaries — whom the Illuminist world accused of wanting to create a Jesuit State in South America. But the real battle, of course, was for America’s valuable natural resources — in this case gold and silver. Any resemblance to the current world is mere historical looping.

So my idea was this: the Portuguese colonial mentality was so behind its time that while Europe lived the Enlightenment, Colonial Brazil was still in the Middle Ages. During the 18th century, book production was banned in Brazil, and its importation was highly regulated. Fantasy had already disappeared from Europe, but here persisted tales of fantastic creatures, such as the headless-mule, the anhangüera (a phantasmagorical white deer who stalks forest hunters), or de boitatá (a gigantic, phosphorescent snake which is attracted by the brightness of the eyes). During the Enlightenment, they would be seen from the viewpoint of cryptozoology.

Quatro Soldado’s reception was positive, and a month after its launch, I began to work on a reverse idea: a more realistic swashbuckler adventure, where a Brazilian soldier was sent to Europe to investigate, precisely, a scheme to smuggle books to Colonial Brazil. Going from semi-medieval Brazilian reality straight to British liberalism, he dazzles with modernity: in England, he discovers that the streets have sidewalks, and that shops have their names written on the plates (not just the drawing of a fish for the fishmonger, or bread for the bakery) – he was thus in a land of readers.

I decided that my concept would be a cross between James Bond and Barry Lyndon, but with one small difference: Érico Borges, my protagonist, would be gay. As I say, if adventure stories are about ordinary characters drawn from their everyday lives and placed in extraordinary situations, nothing seems more common than a gay character as the protagonist – I am one myself, every day of my life. Eric would be the hero who would unravel a conspiracy, defeat the villain and save the day, but romance the buff baker instead of the lady, who in turn would have to take care of herself. It would also be an opportunity to explore a setting that fascinated me, the vibrant London gay community of 1761, with its “molly houses” and elegant macaronnis – the predecessors of dandies.
But a good plot of adventure and spies needs a good villain, preferably, one that has an absurd and megalomaniac plan, which will only be revealed to the hero when he is captured in a deadly trap. As my hero is gay, it seemed natural to me that the villain would be homophobic, with a name that, at the moment the Brazilian reader read it, would identify the character as the antagonist. Thus was born the Count of Bolsonaro.

To put this into context, the book was written between 2013 and 2015. At that time, the real-world politician who shares his name with my antagonist was only a mediocre ex-military figure, notorious for his bigoted statements, and for having chosen gays, black activists and feminists as targets for his hate speech. In an interview with comedian Stephen Fry, and another with actress Ellen Page, he made it very clear that he was proud to be a bigot. So it seemed like a natural choice for the villain in my story: an evil count who seeks to destroy Brazil by sending it the pornography that will “corrupt its morals and attract divine wrath”.
Little did I know what was to come…

The philosophers of the Enlightenment wanted to move society away from religious obscurantism and into the Age of Reason. For this the Encyclopaedia promised to gather all the knowledge of the world into a single series of books. But the French Revolution turned to The Terror, literature sought Romanticism, and politics found nationalism. Likewise, the Internet has promised to democratize knowledge, but it has become prey to false news propagated by demagogues who, faced with their own lies, offer their Alternative Truths and accuse reality of being fake news. Despite historical comparisons with other former military men brought to leadership based on hate speech, Bolsonaro never had the gift of oratory, which is why he has fled all public debates, and has been a cause for ridicule for his apparent inability to read a teleprompter. Of course, he made the dubious decision to release a pornographic video on the presidency’s official twitter account, but hey, I wrote something like that three years earlier.

My book was called Homens Elegantes (“Elegant Men”) and was released in 2016, the year I felt that something was changing for the worse. Trump’s election strengthened the so-called “alternative right,” the neologism with which neo-Nazism uses to normalize itself, and which gave the signal for hate speech to become state policy. This can be felt in Brazil, where the far-right, which has the unsustainable American consumer culture as its ideal, embraces the national flag with the same fury with which it attacks the popular culture of the same country that this flag should represent. I asked myself: What kind of society do these people want to create? Then came the idea of what would be my next book, a mixture of 80’s adventure, techno-thriller and what I call a self-contained dystopia. Thus was born Tupinilândia (“Tupiniland”).

However, the problem of writing dystopias nowadays is that if you take too long to write them, when you finish your book they have already come true.

The American writer Benjamin Moser once said that in its anxieties for the future, the essential difference between the US and Brazil is that in the US, there is a fear of the arrival of an inevitable fall, the fear of the decay of an empire. In Brazil, which had already been called “the country of the future”, the anxiety is precisely due to the arrival of this future, always so close but never to come. The idea of Tupinilândia was to deal with this anxiety, with our eternal emulation of a US-based consumer society, but bound to the limitations imposed by our inability to deal with our own history.

If in the US the 1980’s were marked by economic boom, in Brazil it was the opposite. The ironically literary year of 1984 in Brazil was the last year of a US-sponsored military dictatorship, marked by torture and disappearances, which lasted for twenty years, ruined the economy and imposed a socially conservative agenda that, to this day, seems to hold back our social discussions with a delay of twenty years. Thus, Tupinilândia is a gigantic amusement park, built secretly during the 80’s inside the Amazon rain forest. Inspired by the way Disneyland synthesizes American culture, Tupinilândia would valorize the Brazilian national culture. With the political opening, its inauguration would be the symbol of a new era, marked by democratic elections.
However, on the day of its inauguration, one of the far-right military groups, historically opposed to political openness to such an extent that they accused their own generals of being “communist infiltrators,” attempts to hold the park’s guests and staff hostage.

I’m not being subtle here: as the epigraph taken from Crichton’s Jurassic Park indicates, military hard-liners take the place of dinosaurs here. At least, this allowed me to use my best references to the movies by Spielberg and Lucas, and the action films of the 80’s, like Die Hard. However, the first part of the story ends unfinished, and with a jump in time of 30 years, arrives at the fateful year of 2016, when the ruins of the park are explored by a group of academics. There they discover an isolated community that, living in the ruins of the park’s shopping mall, is still trapped by the binary mentality of the 1980’s. They do not know that the Cold War – and the dictatorship in Brazil – is over, and they think the invaders are Communists in disguise. From there, I allow myself to play with what I have always wanted: a lost city story, with all its clichés, from execution rituals to popular revolts. And of course, monsters of the past who were supposed to have been extinct.

Little did I know that… two years later, we would all live in Tupinilândia after an election won by anti-communist paranoia and delusional fake news – one of them, for example, claimed that “the left wants to distribute penis-shaped bottles to babies” – being considered as true. Now we have a Trump of the Tropics. So it goes, as Vonnegut would say.

So, I am relieved that my next book will have no political parallel, nor will it attempt to make any predictions of the future. Pirates à Vista! (“Pirates Ahoy!”) will be a young adult historical adventure, about the French pirate Jean DuClerc’s invasion of Brazil in 1710. But even so, a certain change of perspective ends up being necessary. For if stories of pirates are, in essence, stories of men searching for treasure, when it is seen from a Brazilian perspective, it is from us that the treasure will always be stolen. It is recorded in the history books that when 800 pirates marched to assault Rio de Janeiro, an incompetent governor sent the army to the wrong side. The city ended up defended, and in turn the pirates were defeated, by the adolescents who studied in the Jesuit college. Incompetent politicians, rampant thugs and hope falling into the hands of the younger generation.
Any resemblance to reality will be mere coincidence.

***

Samir Machado de Machado was born in Brazil, in 1981. He is a writer, translator and graphic designer, author of the historical novels Quatro Soldados (2013) and Homens Elegantes (2016), whose film rights were bought by RT Features, and the action-adventure Tupinilândia (2018). He is currently a Master’s Degree student in Creative Writing at PUCRS.