The Practice of Creativity

Posts Tagged ‘science fiction and fantasy

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.

 

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!

As you know by now, the country has lost one of the greatest writers ever to use the English language–Toni Morrison.

There have been several wonderful and poignant remembrances about her:

In the Paris Review: Creative folks (writers and a photographer) remembering Toni Morrison. Made me laugh and choke up. Fran Lebowitz’s memories about Toni are funny (who knew how much Toni loved dessert–can’t we all identify with that?) and poignant as she talks about Toni’s ability to forgive.This is how we all wish to be remembered by those who knew us well–as living big, full and messy lives and giving all we have to our art and each other. And, of course the peculiarities that our friends love about us.
(credit to Austin Kleon’s newsletter where I first saw the link)
https://www.theparisreview.org/…/20…/08/06/remembering-toni/

My wonderful AROHO (A Room of Her Own Foundation) friend, Cassandra Lane wrote a powerful homage:

And this from The New Yorker feature with several writers reflecting on Morrison’s legacy:

If it hadn’t been for Toni’s Morrison’s “Sula,” I would never have been able to write the book that is “Another Brooklyn.” If not for the many readings of “The Bluest Eye,” half of the books I’ve written for young people would not be in the world. So many writers, so many writers that are women, so many writers that are black know this to be true—because of Toni Morrison, we are. Because of her, I am.

—Jacqueline Woodson

(thanks to Heloise Jones for posting on her Facebook page)

I thought I would write a very short memory about Toni Morrison, one that I have been carrying around for some time. Well, it turned out a lot longer than anticipated. It’s really a beginning meditation on creativity, my alma mater, Bard College and being a student of color in the 1980s. It turned out deeply personal:

A different kind of Toni Morrison memory…

I discovered Toni Morrison in the Language and Thinking program that was required of all first-year students admitted to Bard College. The year was 1987. ‘L&T’ took place a few days before the start of the semester and provided an opportunity for students to socialize and experience humanities classes in the traditional, intimate seminar style that defined Bard. I see myself then, a fiercely proud young woman, excited to be at Bard, but already feeling a bit off kilter by the extreme affluence and whiteness of the student body. [To give you a sense of this, Bard’s student body during the years I attended, 1987-91 was around 900 students. I would say that at any given time there were about 50 or fewer self-identifying students of color. I remember 3 Black faculty on campus, one tenured, one a visiting professor and the other person was Chinua Achebe, who came during my junior year]. I remember being the only African American student in my L &T group of about 12 students. We had a wonderful instructor, a white guy, whose name is now lost to me who had us read different selections from novels during the week. Typically, the L&T professors were not Bard professors and I believe they brought much needed fresh perspectives and new texts into this endeavor.

On one of the days, the instructor had us read the opening pages of Sula. For those of you who have read Sula, you may remember that it begins with exposition of how Black residents in a small fictional town in Ohio came to occupy ‘The Bottom’. It’s beautifully written and deftly reveals the horror of disenfranchisement and segregation that marked much of 19th and 20th century America. I felt exposed and vulnerable, both as a reader and a student. Who was this writer to expose truths and ideas so deep that it cut to the core? I’m sure the teacher wanted to demonstrate how a writer could so thoroughly and expertly engage questions of history, community and identity in a few short pages. The educator in me is almost positive that he said that the author was African American. I don’t actually remember, but I know that at some point in the class I thought the author was white. I somewhere along the line, in realizing Morrison was Black, then turned my anger on her—how dare she write about these difficult things! How dare her that I have to read them? How dare the power of her words to completely refashion my psyche in the midst of a classroom, in front of strangers?

I’m not proud of this memory, but there it is.

[I was still coming out of my young adulthood pre-racial consciousness in wondering why there had to be a magazine like Essence, instead of one for ‘all of us’. I was slowly realizing that color-blind approaches didn’t work in confronting systemic oppression]

It was probably the first time that I so powerfully experienced being in a classroom being both hypervisible and also invisible because of the intersection between the text taught and my own subjectivity. I don’t remember saying one word during that class. Of the white students who did talk, I wonder of their experience. Did they have to treat the text as distant and almost ethnographic or did it shatter their ideas of America, too? Most of them did look at me at some point in the class to say something and what did they make of my refusal? Defiance? Ignorance? Embarrassment?

I am, of course, grateful to this instructor who had us read and think about Toni Morrison’s words. He went on to become an early champion of my creative writing. As an instructor now, I am very attentive to thinking about who is in the room when I am assigning various texts, especially fiction. I think about not just the analytical points I want the work of the text to do, but how will it land with students across their multiple and intersecting identities.

By sophomore year, I did embrace Toni Morrison and devoured her work. I have fond memories of summer vacations reading one of her books.

Toni Morrison-ness was also invoked in my creative writing classes. Although I graduated a political studies major, my true love was English and creative writing and I came very close to being a double major. In most of my creative writing classes, every writing assignment I turned in leaned toward ‘non-realism’ or speculative fiction. This was not always appreciated. And, trust me, at the time, few of my English professors (except one teaching ‘Women and Writing’) had heard of or read Ursula LeGuin, Margaret Atwood or Octavia Butler. Some of my writing professors, however, also struck me as fundamentally lazy in their reading habits. They did not appear to have read widely in 20th century African American literature. So, they would say things like…”you write so well, it reminds me of Toni Morrison.” This happened several times. I guarantee you that I did not write as well as Toni Morrison—it was just the only Black female author they had bothered to read. They weren’t reading Ntozake Shange, Gwendolyn Brooks, Paule Marshall, Alice Walker, Jean Toomer (male) and others whose work I was also consuming and trying very hard to emulate.

As much as I loved attending Bard, Bard for many students of color was a difficult place to exist socially, politically, and aesthetically.

In writing about Morrison, I see that I am also writing about how my generation of creatives of color (now in our late 40s or early 50s) were often not nurtured by our PWI college environments. Many of us were tokenized, our creative work often dismissed, ignored or trivialized. This is not necessarily news, but important for me to say at this point in my life.
We ultimately had to find our own role models and build our own canons. Toni Morrison, despite our rocky start became part of the bedrock of my canon. I love her work and when I can, I teach her novel, Love, to our Introduction to Women’s and Gender Studies class. Many fall in love with her right away and many have already read some of her work in high school or other college classes. Times do change, thankfully.

I will, like so many Black creatives, always be in her debt.

 

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.

 

I’m super excited and honored that Reenu-You was reviewed in this recent issue of the North Carolina Literary Review!

The NCLR bills itself as a “cross between a scholarly journal and a literary magazine” and is published online annually by East Carolina University and by the North Carolina Literary and Historical Association. The print edition appears in the summer. The NCLR “publishes poetry, fiction, and nonfiction by and interviews with North Carolina writers and articles and essays about North Carolina writers and the rich literary history and culture of the Old North State.” My review is right next to a review of Jason Mott’s recent novel, The Crossing, under the heading, ‘The Structure of Hope in Speculative (and War) Fiction’! This issue also has a special focus on North Carolina African American Literature.

Check out this gorgeous issue here.

The last weeks of December were so hectic that I didn’t get a chance to post any reflection about my writing life in 2018. I wanted to take a moment and do that now I had an excellent year in terms of deepening writing relationships and sharing my work locally and regionally. I definitely was a public writer.

I had the good fortune to participate in several literary events where I talked about and/or read from Reenu-You, gave a craft talk about my writing influences and/or  discussed Afrofuturism. I loved connecting with potential readers and new audiences.

My reading at High Point University through the Creative Writing Program. I also gave a talk for the Creative Writing club.

Loved being on this panel with other Black women speculative fiction writers. Park Road Books was packed and everyone wanted to also talk about Black Panther’s release. Lots of energy was in the room.

The Movable Feast event, in Winston-Salem, is held by Bookmarks. Bookmarks is a literary a literary arts nonprofit whose mission is to connect readers with authors.
The event is basically like “speed dating with authors”! As an invited author, you visit a table for 10 minutes, talk about your book, etc., then rotate to a new table for another 10 minutes and repeat. I met with 10 tables and met many wonderful people in book clubs.

I organized this local event for spec fic writers which was a lot of fun.

I also gave my Charting Your Path to Publication workshop to several new audiences and developed a new workshop, “How to Level Up in Your Writing Life” that was very well-attended.

My efforts last year were focused on submitting my short story collection to various contests (that offer publication with the top prize) and submitting fiction to SFWA qualifying markets. I’m still waiting to hear about some of the contests. Fingers crossed, there will be good news. I submitted to a ton of places and I have gotten some really encouraging rejections and a request to send more work. Rejection still stings, but over time, if an editor likes your work and encourages you to submit, that’s the beginning of a working relationship.

One of my goals was to begin an author newsletter and I finally did so in August! I have a commitment to those in my writing community to share resources and inspire. I don’t know why I waited so long to start!

I also kept up my blog and interviewed some terrific writers.

Reenu You was eligible for the Hugo Award, the Nebulas and the Manly Wade Wellman Award for North Carolina Science Fiction and Fantasy which was pretty awesome.

Nussia, my novelette was released by Book Smugglers in July!

 

In terms of craft, one of the things that I learned was how to tighten the dramatic arc in every scene.

The things that didn’t get completed include:

a complete revision of my mystery

a first draft of the co-written novel that my sister and I are undertaking

There’s a lot on my plate for 2019.  I hope to share some really great news soon.

That’s a quick overview for me–what did you learn about yourself as a writer in 2018? What were some of your accomplishments?

 

 

Got a speculative fiction lover on your holiday list? Consider this new anthology by Book Smugglers with my story in it!

Look at this awesome cover!!!

I was so exited to receive my complimentary copy of the NEW Awakenings Anthology from Book Smugglers. The six stories span the gamut of fantasy and science fiction and many have a young adult theme.

Last year, Book Smugglers solicited short stories about ‘awakenings’ of all types in the speculative fiction genre. I submitted my manuscript “Nussia…I Said Her Name Like Mine” to them on Dec 31, 2017 and found out in January that my story was chosen for publication.

Nussia debuted in July.

Here’s a description of the collected stories: An unlikely volunteer in a magical war. A young African American girl who “wins” a competition to host an extraterrestrial. A girl with ice in her heart, and another with an ancestor on her back. A cybernetic detective, and an Empress facing the first Choice of her life. Awakenings collects six short stories of different revelations, including:

  • “When the Letter Comes” by Sara Fox
  • “Nussia” by Michele Tracy Berger
  • “The Girl With The Frozen Heart” by Y.M. Pang
  • “Running” by Itoro Udofia
  • “Phantom Limb” by Reiko Scott
  • “Timshala” by Leah Cypess

I’m so honored to be with this group of writers and I’m loving everything I’m reading. Additional perks of the anthology include a brief ‘Inspirations and Influences’ essay and an author Q&A that follow each story.

(*click on small cover image above to purchase paperback)

*E-book: Awakenings

*links are to Amazon. I am an Amazon Associate. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.


Michele Tracy Berger

Michele Tracy Berger

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

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