Lots of news from your friendly neighborhood Viking novelist.
ONE. I Started A Podcast!
Four literary friends discuss books and the history surrounding them. The first episode is about A Study In Scarlet by A. Conan Doyle, the first Sherlock Holmes novel. With Surprise!Mormons! Available wherever you get your podcasts.
Following a successful trading season, Svanhild, sister to Ragnvald, the hero of Hartsuyker’s The Half-Drowned King, and husband Solvi return to their home in Iceland. Svanhild’s young son hasn’t taken well to travel on the open seas, and she hopes that by staying on land for a time, he might grow stronger and regain his health. Sadly, being land-bound is not where Solvi’s heart lies, and he demands that his wife and son accompany him on his next voyage. When Svanhild’s weakened son dies at sea, she abandons Solvi and sets off for Norway and her brother’s household. Meanwhile, Ragnvald, weary of war, returns to his own land to find his holdings have been claimed by Atli, who insists that King Harald promised them to him in Ragnvald’s absence. Deprived of home and hearth and knowing that his sister is no longer tied to his enemy, Ragnvald joins Harald to resume war against the raider. VERDICT Hartsuyker is a wonderfully descriptive writer equally adept at penning truly horrifying battle scenes as depicting life in ninth-century Norway. Fans of History Channel’s Vikings should find this novel (and its prequel) equally compelling.
—Jane Henriksen Baird, formerly at Anchorage P.L., AK
THREE. The Half-Drowned King makes another great list:
The Half-Drowned King as one of their top ten historical novels of the last year. Read more here!
FOUR. The UK Cover of The Sea Queen has been unveiled!
The first thing I learned at Tucson Festival of Books is that I’ve been spelling “Tucson” wrong all my life. Why would you put the “C” first? What is with that?
Tucson Festival of Books is a huge, free book festival held on the University of Arizona campus. This year it drew 130,000 people and had about 1600 volunteers helping run it. There is a big science component, and also lots of events geared toward kids.
I saw authors like R. L. Stine wandering around, and I got to fangirl Janet Fitch, one of my favorite writers.
I was the author guest at an author dinner, where we had the world’s cutest desert:
I was on three panels, two about historical fiction, and one about being a debut author, and led a workshop ambitiously titled, “How to Turn an Idea into a Novel: Linking Theme, Plot, and Character”. Most of my events were full and turning people away.
I love being on panels, and these were very well-run, with interesting questions from the moderator. I think panels are more interesting for the audience than a single author doing a talk and a reading, and expose audience to more than one author at a time.
It’s also truly wonderful to meet other working authors. Many of my classmates are now published, and my teachers in my MFA program were all published authors, but I feel like I can never meet enough. It’s good to see other writers at different stages of their careers, having different struggles. The flight home was filled with authors and we were still talking about the festival and writing, even though we were tired and nearly talked out.
One of the great things about being on panels is hearing about other writers’ processes. Some of the historical fiction writers I met don’t do much research until after the first draft is done–which makes sense since they were writing about recent history and mostly need to spot check. Some writers outline, some don’t. Some, like me, do some outlining, some furious writing, and some more outlining. But most writers, especially writers of fiction, share an interest in other people, their stories, and a certain kind of thoughtfulness about the world and how it works.
My workshop was very well-attended, turning away nearly as many as people who made it in–and I wished it could have been twice as long. So many people who want to write novels! Some writers complain about meeting people who talk about their own writing ambitions, and I understand that since many new writers don’t yet appreciate how much work it is to finish a novel, but I also think that writers can come from anywhere.
I do also like to remind people that:
The Half-Drowned King had 14 drafts before it went to copy editing. The Sea Queen had 8. Writing a novel-length manuscript is only the very first step.
Don’t worry about finding an agent or a publisher until you have a manuscript that is as good as you can possibly make it.
It takes a combination of love of story, commitment, and talent, and different writers have different levels of each. Some people publish their first novel in their seventies. I’m happier to meet people of all ages with stories they want to tell than people who have suppressed those dreams. And writing is something people can take up at any age.
I’m still riding a high from this festival, and I hope to return next year. If you are in the area of Tucson (spelled it right this time!) or want to visit the southwest, you could do a lot worse than to time it around March and this wonderful event.
Back when I was soliciting ideas for blog posts, Bill Morrissey asked me about how to get young people to read. I don’t have kids, so take all this with a grain of salt, but like many of you, I was a kid once, and I haven’t entirely forgotten what it was like.
I was a late reader. Some of my fellow students showed up to kindergarten already able to read, but I did not. And when I was seven I went through a pretty severe rebellion where I refused to do my homework. I showed up, not having it done, and cried when it became evident to the whole class that I had not done it, but I hadn’t, and the next day the whole thing repeated itself.
My 2nd grade class was full of kids reading at a 3rd or 4th grade level, and I was not, so my teacher put me in a group with the fast six-year-olds, until I caught up. I’m not sure why reading was a struggle for me. My parents read to me a lot. My house was filled with books. I loved stories. I was very verbal from a young age. It probably was some sort of rebellion, a way to assert myself. I’m not sure what changed except maybe me being allowed to progress at my own speed, and by the time I was eight years old, I was reading everything in sight. By the time I was eleven, I was reading adult books (SOME OF WHICH I SHOULDN’T HAVE, MOM). Now I average reading about 80 books a year.
I’m actually not sure young people, by which I mean people under 18, aren’t reading. They’re reading texts and blog posts and tweets and fan-fiction, and definitely books and comics as well. If my generation was known for talking on the phone for hours, this generation is known for being on their smart-phones, and a lot of what they’re doing is reading.
However, I think we’re talking about reading full-length books, and particularly fiction books. Why do we want young people to read fiction? Though it’s important to learn to be a careful reader and a clear writer in this era of written communications, fiction teaches us more than that: it teaches us to see things from others’ perspectives, to value metaphor and symbolism, to look for themes, to analyze characters and meaning, and hopefully understand others and ourselves better.
So how should we get young people to read books? A better question might be to ask how we get young people to engage with narrative—and to remember that they already are, only that narrative might be on social media instead of in fiction.
(I taught a session of a high school creative writing class last year, and the teacher told me that it was amazing how many students had trouble telling stories that weren’t 99% autobiographical. I wonder if that is a consequence of this social media age where people are constantly creating their own public narrative. I’ve always found my own life to be pretty dull and would rather make up stories about people who are far more interesting than me.)
A good start to encourage any kind of new behavior is to meet someone where they are. I suspect a reason why many people end up hating literature after high school is that they are reading books that are too challenging for them, and even if not, their enjoyment of it may be crushed by having to prepare it for a test, rather than explore it. A way to meet young readers where they are is to find out what they are already reading and suggest similar things. The explosion of YA literature in the last fifteen years has made it easy to find books that young people can relate to in any genre.
And there’s nothing wrong with comic books or manga. It’s still reading, and there’s still a narrative to engage with. There is romance, and pulpy sci fi, and super heroes in the world of comic books, and among all of those, transcendent literature. There is also nothing wrong with fan-fiction. In fact, reading and writing fan-fiction can be one of the deepest ways to engage with a text. No one thinks more deeply about Harry Potter than the people writing novel-length fan-fiction for the pure joy of it.
It’s probably not a bad idea to limit screen time, TV, iPads, and smart-phones. I suspect one of the reasons I was such a big reader from age eight on is that we didn’t have a TV when I was growing up and my parents both worked more than full time. I spent a lot of time on my own, entertaining myself. I often had to wait for a long time for my parents to get off work and pick me up, and I always had a book with me.
Not every young person is going to want to read, and they are also going to find ways to read and tell stories that are different than anything we could have imagined. But we can put the media and tools in their hands to get them started on their reading path.
A lot of the work of a beginning writer is figuring out what works for you–reading lots of writing manuals, and taking classes, trying things. This is how writers end up with very specific writing places, times, and habits, and all of those can be very helpful. Some of my rules and habits:
I outline by listing chunks that will be chapters in the future and figure out what happens in each chapter, and how it serves plot, character, and theme
I rough draft in fast chunks while sitting cross-legged, on a couch or in bed, with my laptop on a pillow in my lap
I revise at a desk with my laptop and a separate monitor
I never write more than 2000 new words in a day, since more seems to dip into my store of words for the next day
I don’t go back and edit what I’ve already written until I get (near) to the end
If I lose flow when I’m rough drafting, I write long hand, asking myself questions and answering them
I write every day if possible
But I’m starting to feel like the ongoing work of a writer is figuring out new ways to write, how to break the rules when I need to, and find new things that work when old ones don’t. Many writers have said that when you write a novel you learn to write that novel. When you begin the next novel you have to learn how to write that one. With The Golden Wolf, the third and final book of my viking trilogy, I’ve done all kinds of things differently:
A lot more editing as I go. I was nearly finished writing a big set piece that took up about 30,000 words and then realized that it was boring and there was nothing I could do to make it unboring, and I moved most of the action that had to happen to different places
A lot more detailed plotting of big set-pieces as I go
Recently I tried writing 3000 new words a day for a few days–kept it up for a whole 4 days, but I really do feel like it may be too much
And for the third time, I am now stopping before the end to go back to the beginning and bring the reality of what I’ve written more in line with what I’m imagining
I’m taking a couple days right now to ask myself all the questions I have about what needs to happen in the book, from details about how a battle that involves at least five competing agendas will play out, and serve all of the characters’ arcs and the plot’s needs, to more general questions like going over various characters’ arcs, and to write out all of these answers longhand.
I often find that as I revise, I add more drama, I combine characters, weave arcs and plot points together, and I give characters more agency. Now I have, again, gotten to the place where I need to make that happen. With all this rule-breaking though, I frequently wonder if I’m doing the right thing. I guess I’m just trying to do whatever keeps me moving forward, whatever keeps me making the novel better, more what it needs to be.
I’ve also raised the degree of difficulty on each of the novels I’ve written so far, at least with some aspects of craft. The Sea Queen definitely has a more complex plot than The Half-Drowned King, at least in terms of moving parts that have to line up, and it also has an additional POV character. The Golden Wolf raises the difficulty level again, with two new POV characters who have full arcs (rather than supporting arcs), more supporting characters, more complex politics, more settings, more battles, three different climaxes–at least. I shouldn’t be surprised that it feels like more of a challenge.
I received my bound galleys of The Sea Queen this week. These are uncorrected, meaning while they are copy-edited, they don’t have the final 100+ changes I made to the galleys. They are sent to reviewers and book buyers. It’s always exciting to get my hands on a bound copy of one of my books, even though it’s not the official, beautiful hardcover version.
In other news, I was away in Thailand and Vietnam for ten days, and I’m only just starting to recover from jet lag. Thailand is 12 hours off from New York, which is the absolute hardest time change to make. Night is day, up is down. Not only is my sleep off, but I’m hungry at the wrong times of day, ravenous in the middle of the night, but not hungry for my dinner.
Still, it was a wonderful trip. I had some time on my own in Bangkok while my husband went to a conference. I got a lot of writing done, ate delicious food, Thai and otherwise, and visited the Jim Thompson house.
After the conference was over, we flew up to Chiang Mai to visit with some friends who live there. Chiang Mai is a wonderful laid back city. In weather, and in parts of the culture, it seems like a Thai Southern California with aspects of Brooklyn.
I think one of the reasons I had such a nice time on this trip is that I didn’t go in with any expectations. I wanted to see friends and get writing done. I saw some sights of Bangkok, but I didn’t have a checklist of things I needed to see. I had my trip, not a trip out of some guidebooks. A lot of what I like about travel is not about seeing particular sights, but just about being in a place. Because of that, it was fun just to go to a Bangkok food court, or listen to the conversation at a friend’s dinner party–to experience my time rather than rush on to the next thing.
I think I don’t do that enough in my life in NYC–my days are always about checklists of things to get done, and appointments to keep. I rarely sit in a coffee shop, or in a park and simply experience life. I listen to podcasts to drown out life, and when I don’t I get annoyed at my fellow NYers.
Part of this is the difference between vacation brain and work brain, but part of this is the location. I went to a fitness park in Chiang Mai to go for a run and get some other exercise in. Here in New York I am not a fast runner, but at that park, I was one of the fastest. Everyone else was just trotting along, talking with friends, keeping an easy pace. It made me feel silly about my constant pushing myself to be better, faster, stronger, more productive.
It was also nice to be 12 hours off from the US news. Even when I did go on Twitter, it was pretty quiet. Not many people update between 3am and 6am–my afternoon there.
For reasons too convoluted to go into, we had to leave from Hanoi, so first we had to get to Hanoi, which was somewhat challenging. My knitting needles were not allowed to go in my carry-on on leaving Chiang Mai (a first!) and then once we got to Hanoi, there was a long visa and immigration line. Then we only had the morning in Hanoi before an evening flight to begin our journey back to NYC.
But even that was nice. The weather was chilly in Hanoi, making a bowl of Pho that much more attractive. We ate Pho and Bahn Mi and random fried street food. I had some amazing Vietnamese coffee (it’s incredibly thick, and then they put sweetened condensed milk in it–delicious). We went to a temple, and put our heads in random shops. By the time we had to leave, I definitely wished we had more time in Hanoi, but I also felt like I’d gotten a nice little taste of the city.
In old folktales, no one fights for values. Individual stories might show the virtues of honesty or hospitality, but there’s no agreement among folktales about which actions are good or bad. When characters get their comeuppance for disobeying advice, for example, there is likely another similar story in which the protagonist survives only because he disobeys advice. Defending a consistent set of values is so central to the logic of newer plots that the stories themselves are often reshaped to create values for characters such as Thor and Loki
I think this is so central to what I find very shallow about so much pop culture. There is a lot to love about Lord of the Rings, though also a lot of racism, but what is interesting about it to me is not the battle against Sauron, but how different flawed characters approach that battle. In fact, the story ends up rising above a boring good vs. evil story at the end with Gollum’s decisive move, and no one emerges unscathed or uncorrupted by their battle with evil. (Except Sam, but that’s okay. Sam is the best.)
What is good? What is evil? Most humans, even humans who do awful things, are usually trying to do what they think is right for themselves, and even for others, though how they define the others they are willing to help, and the others they are willing to harm, can be incredibly dangerous. In fact, as this essay argues, good vs. evil stories set up an easy way to make the other side into faceless evils that we can kill with impunity. Defining people as good vs. evil is not only boring storytelling, it paves the way for atrocities done in the name of good.
What is good? Is it someone who has never done a bad thing in their life? That sort of thinking leads to purity politics, where we can never support or accept anyone who has done the slightest thing wrong, and so we are exempted from supporting anyone.
Should good triumph and evil lose? Stories where that is consistently the case lead to a dangerous belief in a “just universe”, which further leads to societies punishing those with misfortunes, and rewarding those who have already been given much. The American hostility to universal healthcare comes from this “just universe” idea, because if people wanted healthcare, they should have made every choice right and had enough money to afford it. Understanding that the universe is unjust allows us to be more charitable to those who have suffered.
I can see the attraction of good vs. evil stories, but they are a way of hiding from the complexity of the world. While I grew up on fantasy novels, I often do find the villains in them very tiresome. They are evil and proud of it, and sometimes sexual abusers of children as well, and, not to make light of such a difficult subject, but they are dull, dull, dull. The reason that people get away with doing horrible things is usually because they are “good people” as we judge such things in other parts of their life. People deny crimes happening in front of them for decades because of entrenched power structures, yes, but also because we’ve been trained to believe that people who do awful things are different from us in some fundamental and easily-recognized way.
This, I think, is one of the reasons I’ve been drawn to writing historical fiction. I don’t pretend that the characters I’ve created are anything like the “real” people from history who they are based on, but I have tried to be true to the idea that they all have reasons for doing what they do besides being eeeeeevil (or good). What I have tried to do, and I think mostly succeeded at doing, is giving (almost) every character in my novels, even the antagonists, recognizable and understandable motivations. And with the ones that don’t it’s because they don’t have enough screen time for me to develop complex motivations.
The essay above details the historical shift that led to giving almost every story and folk tale a good versus evil component, which came about with the rise of nations and nationalism. There was a strong nationalistic motivation to create a national mythology that held up good, national values, and led to the othering of people of different nations, and sub-groups within those nations, like Jews and Traveling People.
Literature, pop-culture, storytelling always has a political and moral component. I don’t think this has to be overt, and, you will not be surprised to learn, I think it’s dangerous and wrong to cast certain people as evil and certain people as good in literature. It seems inescapable these days, especially in “big” stories. It’s worth remembering that we come back to folk and fairy tales not because good is rewarded and evil is punished, though sometimes it can look that way, but because they tell us a story that uses symbols that resonate with psychological truths. (See The Uses of Enchantmentfor more.)
If there’s one thing that I am trying to do in my books, and hope to do for my entire writing career, it’s to show that different people have different perspectives, desires, and values. That everyone in a situation can have a good reason to do what they do, and still fall into conflict and tragedy. That perhaps we never fully understand each other, but there is good reason to try. That even with those differences, as humans there are basic things we want all, like love and independence, self-determination and safety, survival and meaning. It is the work of a lifetime to find the balance between those things, and it is always complex. Stories that tell us it is simple do us a disservice.
I just finished reading Ramp Hollow: The Ordeal of Appalachia by Steven Stoll. I saw it mentioned in some article as a rebuttal to Hillbilly Elegy, a massive bestseller that argues that Appalachian poverty is caused almost entirely by the bad decisions of its residents, and the way to cure it it is to be exceptional and have exceptional luck. A logically impossible conclusion (we can’t all be exceptional), but the American appetite for that sort of story, that elevates (or condemns) the individual, and erases the impact of history, government, and corporations, is bottomless.
Ramp Hollow is unlike any history book I’ve ever read before. It tells the story of Appalachia, as a region that was populated by Native Americans, then white “mountaineers” who lived as subsistence farmer-hunter-gatherers. It tells how foreign land-owners, and the concept of “enclosure”, which turns common land, like grazing forest, into private property, killed the ability of Appalachian residents to continue to live as they had before. It makes the strong argument, by comparing the land takeover in Appalachia to land takeovers elsewhere, that that common, undeveloped land, usually forest or marsh, is an ecological cushion, and necessity for more developed land, and when it is gone, the way of life falls apart. And also that consuming that land is one of the first ways that capitalism encroaches on a local peasant economy.
Far from the commons being always exploited by individuals who have access to it, Ramp Hollow argues that the real tragedy of the commons is how often it is taken away from those who need it. We can see that today with library funding on the chopping block.) In communities focused on a local way of life, the community itself often polices the use of the commons to keep it available for everyone. We see the traditional tragedy of the commons more in the air and ocean which are dumping grounds for corporations that do far more harm that individuals can do.
Ramp Hollow tells the story of how outside forces like government and corporations, were hostile to the peasant farming way of life, not only because they wanted the land, but because these mountaineers were not cogs in a greater capitalist machine. They used some money and did some trade, but most of their economy was local and barter-based. But when logging companies and extraction companies came in, not only did their work take away the commons, but they also purposefully tried to cut off workers from their family connections and other sources of sustenance to make them more dependent on the corporations.
I’ve never read a book of history that shows so many parallels to other similar events, that draws in art, literature, anthropology, political theory, and the evolution of all those fields as the region and the country changed over time. I’ve also never read a book of history that ends with proposed legislation to help return the idea of land held in common to the residents of Appalachia. It is a cry for a kind of democratic socialism that focuses on the local, on the needs of the people who live closest to the land, and wants to give them the ability to manage their own economy, that does not think the solution to every problem is more education and moving to cities with job. I think it’s a fascinating read for understanding how the US and the world became what it is today.
Here is the second in my series of Thursday “lifestyle” posts. As we get ready to put the apartment on the market again, most of our cookbooks have to go into storage so that the bookshelves don’t look too “heavy” or “intimidating” per our realtor. This means keeping out only my essential cookbooks, so I thought I’d highlight a few.
Tender by Nigel Slater
I have and adore several of Nigel Slater’s cookbooks. Appetite is another one I highly recommend if you are a beginning cook, and also Real Food, from which I got one of my favorite fast recipes. But Tender is the one I open the most often these days. It goes through a long list of vegetables, from A to Z, and gives many recipes and serving ideas.
Like many of Slater’s books, it is as much of an idea book as a recipe book, with helpful serving suggestions as well as written-out recipes. The recipes are vegetable-centric but not all vegetarian. I love ordering a CSA box and using this book to figure out what to do with the haul.
Jerusalem by Yotam Ottolenghi
I love Middle Eastern food, and Jerusalem is the crossroads of many cultures. Though with all of Ottolenghi’s recipes I like to use about a quarter of the hot peppers, and half the oil, that he calls for, the combinations of flavors are wonderful, and many of them are new to me.
I make several of the different lamb meatballs regularly. The barley risotto is in frequent rotation, and the desserts have been unexpected and wonderful. Like Tender above, he uses many fresh vegetables, and huge handfuls of herbs, making these dishes very fresh-tasting.
The Best Recipeby America’s Test Kitchen
It’s not sexy, but you need one good reference cookbook. Once upon a time it was The Joy of Cooking, but now it’s The Best Recipe. America’s Test Kitchen exhaustively tests everything, and while I sometimes find their recipes to be a bit fussy to make and plain to eat, it is an excellent reference for the basics.
Their Thick and Chewy Chocolate Chip Cookie recipe cannot be improved upon. Their Flourless Chocolate Cake recipe is divine. The Caesar Salad recipe is perfection. If you want to eat a standard American recipe, this is the place to start. I also love their baking book, Italian book, and Soups and Stews book.
I do writing and reading blog posts every Tuesday, and now I’m gong to start doing lifestyle blog posts every Thursday, mostly about cooking and crafting.
One of my favorite things about winter is cooking warming foods, and I particularly love root vegetable soups. They taste very creamy without being loaded with heavy cream. They are a good starter, and for lunches I will dice any leftover protein I have sitting around and eat it in the soup. I don’t really use a recipe, because it always depends what I have in the refrigerator, but here’s a general idea.
Vegetables I like to use: carrots, turnips, parsnips, rutabaga, potatoes, sweet potatoes, celery root.
Step 1: Roast root vegetables
Preheat oven to 400. Cut up root vegetables into 1″ cubes. Toss with olive oil, salt, pepper. Roast for 20 min, toss, roast for another 20-25 min. They’re done when you can press a butter knife through them, but you’re going to simmer them also, so it doesn’t matter if they’re completely done.
Step 2: Onions and butter
In a big pot, saute chopped onions or shallots in a generous amount of butter (2-3 T). You can fry some celery with this as well.
Step 3: Simmer
Add roasted root vegetables to the pot, cover with water or stock. If using water, add some bullion–I like Chicken Better than Bullion. Simmer for 20-30 minutes covered.
Step 4: Blend
Let cool until it’s not dangerously hot, and blend until smooth. May need to do this in two batches.
Step 5: Adjust flavors
Return it all to the pot and heat through. This is a good time to taste it and see what it needs. I often find it needs several grindings of fresh pepper and the juice from half a lemon.
In 2017, I read 55 new books, and did probably 10-15 re-reads. (I don’t tend to keep track of re-reads, but I love re-reading books. Some books, comfort reads, I have read probably more than 50 times.) There was a time I read 80-100 books per year. There was probably a time when I read even more. I also read The Book of M by Peng Shepherd, which is not coming out until 2018–perks of being an author!
But I’m actually pleasantly surprised I read that many books this year. Because of politics, it was a hard year for me to get lost in fiction, though I always enjoyed it when I did.
Grasshopper Jungle by Andrew Smith – a wildly inventive novel about the end of the world brought about by giant bugs, but more importantly, a coming-of-age story about a dick obsessed bisexual teenage boy in the midwest
Greensleeves by Eloise Jarvis McGraw – another coming of age story, by the author of one of my favorite middle-grade books (Master Cornhill). I read this as a teen, but I don’t think I finished it then.
The Fifth Season by N. K. Jemesin – the first book of The Broken Earth Trilogy. It was amazing and emotionally challenging, and I need to read the rest of the series before I write much more about it.
Alice by Christina Henry – a grim, spare, and inventive retelling of Alice in Wonderland, about magic, insanity, sex trafficking, and privilege. It’s amazing how much Henry manages to do in this short volume.
Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke – I always knew I would read this someday, and I was saving it for the right time, which turned out to be Christmas 2017. A wonderful book to get lost in.
The Silk Roads: A New History of the World by Peter Frankopan – makes the argument that the history of civilization is much better told centered on the Silk Road than Western Europe, and then proceeds to do just that.
City of Miracles by Robert Jackson Bennett – the conclusion to Bennett’s Divine Cities series, which I’ve written about here. Among the many wonderful things this book does is interrogate and undermine the idea of a singular hero, fueled by his pain.