The Practice of Creativity

Posts Tagged ‘fantasy and science fiction

My writing community and life became infinitely richer when in 2015, on the suggestion of a writer friend, I attended illogicon, a local sci-fi convention. Michael G. Williams was one of the featured panelists that year (and many years since). Michael was just being himself on those panels and he probably didn’t know he was inspiring a lot of us in the audience with his candor, humor and deep knowledge of the genre. I was also inspired by the fact that he writes across several genres. He’s kind and encouraging of new writers. He’s also a vocal and visible advocate of diversity in gaming, geekdom, and speculative fiction and media. Fast forward many years later, I feel lucky to have appeared on several panels with him.

His recent book A Fall in Autumn is one of my favorite books that I have read this year. It’s sci-fi noir and unlike anything I have read before. The world-building is amazingly complex and I really loved the voice of Valerius Bakhoum, the main character. You can read a sample chapter here.

Michael G. Williams writes wry horror, urban fantasy, and science fiction: stories of monsters, macabre humor, and subverted expectations. He is the author of three series for Falstaff Books: The Withrow Chronicles, including Perishables (2012 Laine Cunningham Award), Tooth & NailDeal with the DevilAttempted Immortality, and Nobody Gets Out Alive; a new series in The Shadow Council Archives featuring one of San Francisco’s most beloved figures, SERVANT/SOVEREIGN; and the science fiction noir A Fall in Autumn. Michael also writes short stories and contributes to tabletop RPG development. Michael strives to present the humor and humanity at the heart of horror and mystery with stories of outcasts and loners finding their people.

I wanted to hear more about the influences that helped shape his writing. I’m so delighted to welcome Michael G. Williams to The Practice of Creativity.

-Tell us about your new book, A Fall in Autumn? What’s in store for readers?

A Fall in Autumn is a far-future science fiction detective story about Valerius Bakhoum, a washed-up private eye taking what he expects will be his last case. It’s got the voice of a hard-boiled detective story but the setting and characters of the more fanciful end of science fiction: human-animal hybrids, genetically modified people, and golems (which we would call androids).

It’s set far enough in the future – 12,000 years from now – that from Valerius’ perspective you and I are living in Atlantis. They know that people were alive in our time, and they know there are stories of a highly advanced society, and they know there are stories of that phase of human civilization completely wrecking the planet and destroying itself in its hubris, but Valerius and his contemporaries aren’t totally sure any of that is actually true.

At the time of the story, humanity’s technological forte is genetic manipulation and genetic engineering. In theory, the Vrashabh Empire – the dominant political entity, and the nation of which Valerius is a citizen – is a completely egalitarian society, in which all citizens are equal. In practice, the 25% of the population who are what Valerius calls “floor models,” designed from scratch or upgraded or otherwise genetically enhanced, are the ruling elite. The rest of humanity is overwhelmingly human-animal hybrids purpose-built for various roles in the economy, from manual labor to specific “white collar” jobs. There’s a very thin slice, maybe one percent of one percent, socially situated in the middle. These are Artisanal Humans, people who were made the old-fashioned way by people who are likewise unmodified. They’re considered a sort of “backup copy” of the human genome, and are supposed to live in genetic preserves where they have fewer exposures to environmental mutagens. Valerius is one of the Artisanal Humans, and so finds himself simultaneously fetishized as admirably pure and reviled as a grotesque throwback.

-What did you like to read growing up and/or as a young adult and are there any of those influences in your work?

I read boatloads of mysteries, horror, and science fiction, and those are definitely influences on what I write now!

My household had a ton of the yellow-bound Nancy Drew novels, and I really envied her lifestyle. She had her own car, an absentee parent, and a couple of friends to get into trouble with her. Who needs more than that? Dracula was one of my favorite books of childhood for the same reason: this deeply personal tale of a group of friends and lovers overcoming evil by trusting in one another and fighting bravely for one another despite the world’s refusal to believe what they’re experiencing? That seemed like exactly what I needed as a gay kid in the middle of nowhere.

I read classic sci-fi, tie-in novels for Star Trek by the wheelbarrow-load, Stephen King, and anything else I could find. But I also read a lot of classic literature, and Wuthering Heights remains one of my favorite books of all time. Given where and when I grew up, and how I grew up – specifically, being raised by evangelicals in isolation from a lot of pop culture – I wanted every book I could beg, borrow, or steal, and I read constantly.

-Much of your published work employs vivid first person narration. What draws you to use that point of view?

I love to get inside a character’s head and really unpack what makes them tick. For me, as a writer, nothing is more interesting and more motivating than the chance to sit with a character’s take on the world and learn their strengths, their weaknesses, the scars they bear from past wounds, and the secret wells of principle within them. Good characters constantly surprise us, and I want to give the perspective character the maximum opportunity to effect that surprise. With Valerius, the more of him I wrote the more complexity I find in his perspectives and attitudes. The story would not have been the same from a third-person perspective. It would have been significantly weaker.

Compelling stories are driven by characters making choices we can fully understand. That’s what drives both the horrifying inevitability of tragedy and the cathartic triumph of a hero overcoming her foes to claim victory. Learning a character inside and out is a great way to build our skills for empathy, too, and I think increasing empathy may be the only way we have to prevent the social, economic, and political downfall that destroyed our world in the fictitious history of Valerius’ future.

-While reading A Fall in Autumn one can’t help but ruminate on questions of memory, identity and personhood. Have you tackled these or similar concepts in your other work, or is this fresh territory for you?

Every single one of us struggles with the tension between how others see us and how we see ourselves. Ultimately, that’s at the root of every conflict between two people: a parent and their rebellious teen, two co-workers who both think they should be in charge, two spouses who disagree with how one or the other spent their money or their time, and so on. I think the only truly universal experience is of finding out someone else does not see us the way we see ourselves. And that’s certainly been at the heart of the greatest struggles of my personal life. I grew up gay in a remote mountain town, surrounded by people whose sets of acceptable outcomes for my life turned out to have almost no overlap with who I actually was. Who I am today is partly who I actually am and partly a reaction to others’ prejudiced demands and incorrect assumptions about me – and that’s true for everyone. I call A Fall in Autumn “queer sci fi” in part because Valerius is an explicitly queer character and in part because it’s a story about the power of identity to drive who we are, and how others see us, and the way a conscious examination of our own identity may close off certain paths for our life but it opens up other ones, new futures in which we get to be much more honest, much more authentic. That, more than anything, is the modern queer experience: that of people discovering who we are and choosing to lead lives that honor our self-revelation rather than obscure it.

My now-completed vampire series The Withrow Chronicles (which starts with Perishables) absolutely centered around those, as Withrow found himself over and over again confronting the difference between who he thought himself to be, who others thought him to be, and who he needed to become to survive that story. Throughout those books Withrow repeatedly assures us – in the course of trying to assure himself – that he’s a monster now, not a person, and that “person rules” don’t apply. Even in my urban fantasy series SERVANT/SOVEREIGN (which starts with Through the Doors of Oblivion), the heroes’ biggest personal questions are around how they are perceived by others versus how they perceive themselves, and what that says about how much they value the people and places they’re trying to save.

The same is very true of Valerius, who is constantly running into other people’s conflicting ideas of who he should be, how he should behave, and what’s “acceptable” for him. He occupies a place in society that some consider privileged and others consider reprehensible, and I really wanted to play with what it does to a person to get it from both sides like that. I think in many ways that’s very typical of the current queer experience, in which straight people watch RuPaul’s Drag Race in sports bars and right-wing politicians write dehumanizing laws intended to keep us marginalized and afraid.

-What is one area of craft that you knew you were weak in (or just OK), when you started writing that you rock now? How did you get there?

Different characters having different voices, probably. No, wait: real emotional depth in the characters’ perspectives and experiences.

No, scratch that, planning and editing.

No, wait, can I just list myself as being weak in everything? I’m not yet convinced I rock any of them. 🙂

(But seriously, I think I used to really stink at giving different characters their own voices and now I’m at least OK at it.)

– What’s your best writing tip that you’d like to share?

Don’t worry about genre. Don’t think about where the book would be shelved in a bookstore or what categories it would have on Amazon. Those are important, sure, sort of, but they’re not as important as writing a story that makes you excited to tell it. It doesn’t matter what your book is about as long as you’re enthusiastic when you try to pitch it to others. If you have an idea that you love, and you think it might blend things together too much or be too “all over the place,” guess what: readers love that. Readers want to see an explosion of big ideas. Readers want you to lean in close and give them the elevator pitch of their lives: gay werewolves in space! Gothic romance but no one realizes everyone else is a secret vampire, too! Friday Night Lights but also they’re hedge wizards! I have had people walk away from my books because they were cross-genre, yes, but I’ve had many more drawn to my books because mixing things up and blending things together leads to the exceptionally pleasant experience of novelty.

Michael G. Williams is a prolific and award-winner writer. He writes novels across multiple genres and likes to subvert and mashup genres from time to time.

Michael is also an avid podcaster, activist, reader, runner, and gaymer, and is a brother in St. Anthony Hall and Mu Beta Psi. He lives in Durham, NC, with his husband, two cats, two dogs, and more and better friends than he probably deserves.

Find out more about him here.

 

I’m so honored to have been asked by Jason Graves, founder of Prospective Press, to write a fantasy story for the debut volume of his new anthology series, Concrete Dreams, featuring ‘witches, warriors and wise women’. This is my first invite to participate in a themed anthology! The contributors are well-published speculative fiction authors including Gail Z. Martin, Jody Lynn Nye, Nicole Givens Kurtz, Darin Kennedy, Paige L. Christie and several more. My story is due at the end of the year and the volume is due out in June 2020.

Established in 2015, Prospective Press is a vigorous small press specializing in fantasy, horror, and other speculative fiction. It is an inclusive, pro-diversity, feminist-friendly, queer-welcoming, and #ownvoices-embracing publishing house.

This is a Kickstarter funded anthology, so I have a favor to ask:

Will you, dear blog reader, consider making a pledge to see this anthology funded?

There are fantastic rewards for all levels of pledges. Even if you don’t read much fantasy, your pledge will help usher this book into the world for other eager readers to enjoy. Your literary karma increases by ten-fold when you help get new worthwhile projects off the ground. Or, if you are unable to contribute, please consider sharing the Kickstarter page through social media as I bet someone you know would be interested. It takes a village to get an anthology published in the 21st century! Thanks in advance!

 

Here’s more details about the project, levels of pledge and the rewards.

 

 

October has been designated Black Speculative Fiction month when we especially pay attention to Black creators of fantasy, horror, and sci-fi! Luckily, there is still time to share some of my favorite writers with you and provide links to some great lists being circulated. If you don’t get to check out these writers now, the holiday season will be upon us shortly, so consider putting them on your list for yourself or as a gifts for others.

 

 Nisi Shawl

When I was in graduate school and thought that I was the only Black person that loved and wanted to write science fiction, I luckily met Nisi Shawl who worked in a used bookstore in Ann Arbor, MI. She was the first person of color that I had serious conversations with about Black speculative fiction and ideas that would eventually would become known as ‘Afrofuturism’ many years later. This was probably more than 25 years ago. She was a mentor and friend and I have followed her career with great joy. If you don’t know her, you should. Her recent steampunk book Everfair received critical reviews. It re-imagines the Belgium Congo and asks what would have happened if African peoples had developed steam technology first. She is active in sci-fi circles and is a cultural critic. She also co-facilitates a workshop for writers called ‘Writing the Other’ which has become a standard for writers both in sci-fi and out for helping writers develop deeply diverse, human and grounded characters. Even though she moved away before I had come into my own as a writer, I owe Nisi Shawl a great debt for her vision and encouragement. Check her work out!

http://www.nisishawl.com/Everfair%20reviews.html

Nicole Givens Kurtz

Sisters of the Wild Sage is a wonderful collection of stories of the ‘weird west’ by Nicole Givens Kurtz. As I said in my review: “…it is dazzling, groundbreaking and compelling. We are privy to complex and memorable characters, mostly Black women and women of color and viscerally experience how they have to make a way out of no way and keep their dignity whole doing so. In several stories, Kurtz explores the challenges these women faced in a post-Reconstruction world that was sometimes indifferent, often hostile, and sometimes brimming with new possibilities. You’ll cheer and cry for them at every turn.”

Kurtz has turned me on to a whole new subgenre of speculative fiction! You can see the Author  Q&A I did with her in the summer here.

https://www.amazon.com/Sisters-Wild-Sage-Weste…/…/0999852248

Tananarive Due

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the work of Tananarive Due (tah-nah-nah-REEVE-doo). She’s an author who has won an American Book Award, an NAACP Image award and a British Fantasy Award. She primarily writes horror and you can see her in a new fantastic documentary that she produced: Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror (available on Shudder and it is excellent). One of her most popular series is the African Immortals which begins with My Soul to Keep.

https://www.tananarivedue.com

Here’s a fantastic list put together by the Oakland Public Library! Enjoy!

Hi folks,

I’ve heard from several of you that you’re curious about MasterClass and been interested in trying it out. I’ve written about how much I have loved taking Margaret Atwood’s MC. I’ve now started Neil Gaiman’s Master Class and am enjoying that, too. I’ve also dipped into the scriptwriting class taught by the brilliant Shonda Rhimes. I love fashion (and am finishing my mystery that centers on a eco-fashion designer), and took Marc Jacobs’s class which was amazing. I’m super impressed with the quality of instruction across the different courses.

I have an ‘all access pass’ that gives me access to all the classes (on everything) for one year. MasterClass sent me a link to share–this provides you with a $30 discount on the all access pass. If you sign up for it, they’ll send me a $30 Amazon gift card. We both win!

https://share.masterclass.com/x/eMFdnr

Nicole Givens Kurtz is a Renaissance person. She is an author, educator and publisher. I met her, several years ago, at my first local speculative fiction convention. She was warm, encouraging and knowledgeable about the changing face of publishing. She’s been a hybrid author since 1998.  At the time I didn’t know the profound impact she has had through her mentoring of other writers and being an advocate for diversifying the field of speculative fiction.

Kurtz is the published author of the futuristic thriller series, Cybil Lewis. Her short stories have appeared in over 40 anthologies and magazines of science fiction, fantasy, and horror. She is a member of The Science Fiction Writers of America (SFWA). Her novels have been finalists for the EPPIEs, Dream Realm, and Fresh Voices in Science Fiction awards. Her work has appeared in Sycorax’s Daughters, and in such anthologies as Baen’s Straight Outta Tombstone and Onyx Path’s V20: Vampire the Masquerade Anthology.

She founded Mocha Memoirs Press to provide more diversity in speculative fiction. She is an advocate for better and more diverse representation in speculative fiction and is a national speaker on these issues.

Nicole loves ‘weird westerns’ and has been publishing them for some time. She’s recently gathered them together in her dazzling new collection: Sisters of the Wild Sage: A Weird Western Collection.  I have not read widely in westerns or weird westerns, so I had no background in the genre when I read the collection. I immediately forgot this fact as I was pulled into the vividly described realities of Kurtz’s characters. These stories are mostly set in New Mexico around the 1900s, though some take place in the present or near future. Kurtz is a powerful storyteller, weaving in fascinating tidbits of history alongside powerful characters. These creative stories run the gamut of magical realism, horror and science fiction. I loved this collection and reviewed the work on Goodreads and Amazon.

Given that her new collection has just been published, I thought this would be a great time to catch up with Nicole. I’m so delighted to welcome Nicole Givens Kurtz to The Practice of Creativity.

Q: Tell us about your new book, Sisters of the Wild Sage? What’s in store for readers?

A: Sisters of the Wild Sage is a wild, untamed adventure into the American West that never was. It’s weird. It’s horrific. It will stick with the reader, long after they have completed the collection.

Q: This collection feels like it is reinventing the conventions and genre expectations of ‘weird westerns’ given its focus on the multifaceted lives of women of color characters, in particular. Is this accurate? What drew you to explore weird westerns?

A: The collection’s purpose is to share stories of those people who thrived and survived in the American West but didn’t get the same attention in traditional (and often inaccurate) westerns. Yes, it was intentional. I grew up watching westerns with my mother, so the genre is a part of my childhood, a part of me. My love of horror is why they’re weird. Additionally, so much of the Southwest for me, when I lived in New Mexico, felt otherworldly and foreign.  That comes through in the stories in collection.

Q: How did you come to writing? Did you always want to write or did you come to writing later in life?

A: I’ve been writing since I was a young child. Even when I couldn’t write out long stories, I would alternate endings to television shows in my mind. I remember being very young, no more than 6 or 7, playing with my dolls and crafting narratives based on what mom read to me that night or what I’d seen on cartoons.

Q: You manage to pack a lot into your day! You are a writer, educator and also run a publishing press. How do these different activities fuel your creativity?

A: All three feed into my ability to communicate ideas, both fictional and non-fiction. They require me to continue to look for different solutions to issues, both in story, and in real life, that fuels my creativity. They’re really three sides of a pyramid.

Q: If you could invite three authors (living or dead) to your next dinner party, who would they be and why?

A: If I could invite three authors to my next dinner party, I would invite Zora Neale Hurston, Sue Grafton, and Octavia Butler. Each of these women were stellar icons in their respective genres, and the opportunity to sit and listen, to soak up their wisdom and advice about the writing life would be life-altering for me.

Q: What’s your best writing tip that you’d like to share?

A: My best writing tip is to read as much as you can. It serves as a foundation for building your writing career.

Educator. Author. Mom. Nicole Givens Kurtz loves reading, writing, and anime. She enjoys reading works that promote women of color and futuristic settings. She also loves a good mystery. She started Mocha Memoirs to provide more diversity in speculative fiction. She’s also a scribbler of tales. She lives in Winston-Salem with her family. Learn more about her at Other World Pulp

 

 

I am so thrilled and honored to share this news—I recently sold my novelette “Doll Seed” to FIYAH: Magazine of Black Speculative Fiction. FIYAH is a quarterly, digital publication of fantasy, science fiction, and horror by Black writers. FIYAH emerged to nurture, support and amplify Black speculative fiction writers. They have done amazing work highlighting voices that have been ignored, for many years, by speculative fiction editors, agents, publishers. They won a World Fantasy Award last year and are up for a Hugo award this year. Their acceptance statement for the World Fantasy award is moving and articulates why their work is so important.

The fact that “Doll Seed” found a home with FIYAH is very meaningful to me. I’ve worked on this story for a long time.  It is a character driven story that intersects the world of dolls with civil rights Last year, I submitted another story to them which they didn’t accept, but they encouraged me to send them something else. I sent ‘Doll Seed’ in for their unthemed issue. The issue will be available on July 1. I’ll make sure to post a link here.

 

Hi folks,

A few weeks ago I announced that I am participating in Greensboro Bound, a new and amazing literary festival. The festival is May 16-19. All events are FREE, though for some workshops and talks you’ll need to get tix ahead of time including for Zadie Smith’s talk and the conversation between musicians Ani DiFranco and Rhiannon Giddens. The organizers have poured their hearts and souls into this schedule and have planned an incredible array of workshops, talks and panels across all genres that tackle subjects from climate change to yoga. There’s something here for every kind of writer. Take a look at the schedule here.

This is my lineup for Saturday, May 18. I’m psyched!

  • 10 am  The Real and the Unreal: Speculative Fiction  with Valerie Nieman, Michele Tracy Berger, and Jamey Bradbury.

Excited to meet Jamey. Thrilled to be on this panel with Val. She also has a new book coming out this summer which I can’t wait to read. To the Bones is an Appalachian horror/mystery/eco-thriller mashup. Doesn’t that sound cool?

  • 12:30 pm Writing as Intersectional Feminism. Feminist Conversation with Heidi Andrea Restrepo Rhodes, Michele Tracy Berger, and Cassie Kircher. Moderated by Jennifer Feather.

Wow! I live and breathe intersectional feminism as a women’s and gender studies professor and as a creative writer. I am really looking forward to this conversation.

  • 3:15 pm Afrofuturism with Michele Tracy Berger, Sheree Renee Thomas. Moderated by Gale Greenlee.

Sheree Renee Thomas is a writer, editor, publisher and pioneer in documenting Afrofuturism. I’ve admired her work for a long time, so I will try not to fangirl the entire time. I had the distinct pleasure of working with Gale (now Dr. Greenlee), a few years ago when she took my graduate class ‘Exploring Intersectionality: Theories, Methods and Practices of Social Change’. What a gift that she is moderating this discussion.

 


Michele Tracy Berger

Michele Tracy Berger

Author, Academic, Creativity Expert I'm an award winning writer.

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