The Bread We Eat in Dreams (preorder)
(preorder—due to ship in December)
Subterranean Press proudly presents a major new collection by one of the brightest stars in the literary firmament. Catherynne M. Valente, the New York Times bestselling author of The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making and other acclaimed novels, now brings readers a treasure trove of stories and poems in The Bread We Eat in Dreams.
In the Locus Award-winning novelette “White Lines on a Green Field,” an old story plays out against a high school backdrop as Coyote is quarterback and king for a season. A girl named Mallow embarks on an adventure of memorable and magical politicks in “The Girl Who Ruled Fairyland—For a Little While.” The award-winning, tour de force novella “Silently and Very Fast” is an ancient epic set in a far-flung future, the intimate autobiography of an evolving A.I. And in the title story, the history of a New England town and that of an outcast demon are irrevocably linked.
The thirty-five pieces collected here explore an extraordinary breadth of styles and genres, as Valente presents readers with something fresh and evocative on every page. From noir to Native American myth, from folklore to the final frontier, each tale showcases Valente’s eloquence and originality.
Limited: 250 signed numbered copies, bound in leather
Trade: Fully cloth-bound hardcover edition
Table of Contents:
- The Consultant
- White Lines on a Green Field
- The Bread We Eat in Dreams
- The Melancholy of Mechagirl
- A Voice Like a Hole
- The Girl Who Ruled Fairyland—For a Little While
- How to Raise a Minotaur
- Mouse Koan
- The Blueberry Queen of Wiscasset
- In the Future When All’s Well
- Fade to White
- The Hydrodynamic Front
- Static Overpressure
- Even Honest Joe Loves an Ice-Cold Brotherhood Beer!
- Optimum Burst Altitude
- The Shadow Effect
- Gimbels: Your Official Father’s Day Headquarters
- Flash Blindness
- Blast Wind
- Ten Grays
- Velocity Multiplied by Duration
- Red Engines
- The Wolves of Brooklyn
- One Breath, One Stroke
- The Wedding
- The Secret of Being a Cowboy
- Twenty-Five Facts About Santa Claus
- We Without Us Were Shadows
- The Red Girl
- Aquaman and the Duality of Self/Other, America, 1985
- The Room
- Silently and Very Fast
- What the Dragon Said: A Love Story
“Cathrynne M. Valente's latest collection of short stories, The Bread We Eat in Dreams, showcases her lyrical, poetic writing to excellent effect, not least in the actual poems scattered amongst the prose stories in this collection. Valente's writing evokes the dreamlike cadences of fairy tales, but while some of the stories are thematically based on fairy tales, others apply this same aesthetic to stories about future dystopias and the emergence of sentient computer programs. Valente is an incredible author, and this collection shows off her versatility and her talent… I cannot recommend this collection highly enough. Valente has one of the most beautiful prose styles of any fantasy author writing today, and she combines this with a deep insight into human nature and the lives of those too often marginalized and excluded by the stories that we, as a society, choose to tell. Valente's stories are a magnificent corrective to this marginalization.”
Have a look at Cat's Story Notes for The Bread We Eat in Dreams:
I was out at dinner one night a few years back, and a friend called me out of the blue. Without announcing himself, he said with some urgency: “Quick! I need a fairy tale consultant.” I laughed. “I oughta put a shingle out with that on it. Like a detective.”
And sometimes the reasons behind a story are as easy to explain as that. Not often, but sometimes. Like most traditionally masculine genres, noir has always drawn me for the precise reason that it is so unfriendly and impenetrable to women. How can I gouge a hole in it? A place to live inside? The detective in a noir novel, not even very subtly, acts as a knight in a fairy story anyway. Noir is as full of thin archetypes, sudden violence, quests, riddles and dead, sleeping, helpless women in need as anything featuring glass slippers and an unfortunate compulsion concerning the number three. They are not different in kind, only different in their intended audience.
One of the threads that has led me through the labyrinth of the real world has always been that my life looked like a fairy tale. Not in the colloquial sense of a quite nice and easy and sparkly story, but in wicked stepmothers and lost voices and lost mothers and darkness to survive. Seeing the pattern, when I am brave and wise enough to manage it, has been what’s kept me from damseling up the place. And in my fiction, I so often am explaining in ways big and small how fairy tales and myth are real life, no different, no better and no worse, and how there is power to be found there, both in telling the tale and having it told to you.
I write these story notes in a small office with an honest-to-god shingle out front. Frosted glass on the door. Snow, not rain on the ground. Bright, hard, Maine sunlight instead of night. But I’ll tell you something: it’s not a bad job, being a fairy tale consultant. You never know who will walk through your door.
White Lines on a Green Field
I was raised by athletic extrovert wolves. I was the bookish kid in a family of jocks, with a trio of siblings all gifted at sports, standing taller than I, running faster, hitting farther. I never had any ability at all save at off-kilter sports: sailing, ballroom dance, archery. But I grew up steeped not only in the culture of sports but the folklore of it. I was born at the University of Washington, and though I really couldn’t have cared less about the outcome of any given game, I knew I was a Husky, dammit, and the death to the Washington State Cougars. Ritual colors, chants, seasons, loyalties. It was as much a part of the formation of my little brain as fairy tales. Because, in a very real sense and as has been observed by finer folk than I, football is a fairy tale. One that America lives and breathes.
The idea of a story about football, and high school, prom and homecoming and the other great fictions of the American folkloric cycle, had been floating around in the back of my head for some time. It came together with a hard snap one night while I was talking to Seanan McGuire, an urban fantasy author with whom I have spent many such late nights talking and scheming. I was hoping for some thing or other to work itself out, and signing off, she said cheerfully: “Leave a cookie for Coyote!”
And the line popped into my head: “Let me tell you about the time Coyote took the Devils to the State Championship.”
Because high school, especially the high school created out of the stories we tell about high school, John Hughes movies and each generation’s television shows about pretty white kids shambling toward graduation and coming of age novels, is a trickster’s playground. It is one of the greatest exports of American media, as the boarding school is for Britain. And if I believe anything in this world, I believe that myths and folklore are real in any sense that they can be, that they recur and repeat constantly because they are about life on planet earth and the first and last ways we try to explain it. And Coyote, whose traditional adventures span sexuality, politics, family dynamics, and the creation of the world, absolutely goes to high school and both illuminates and destroys it. And so does Rabbit. And so did I, and so did you.
The Bread We Eat in Dreams
I moved to Peaks Island in 2008—a small place, a chunk of stone and folk in the bay off of Portland, Maine. When I put my finger on the map and made the command decision to hitch my wagon east, I really knew nothing about it other than that it had three vital features I was looking for in a geography: it was in Maine, a place I’d dreamt about living since I was a child reading too many Stephen King novels and becoming slowly convinced that Maine was where They Keep the Magic in America; it was an island, which as a lifelong sailor I had always loved; and it was Not Cleveland. This is not to malign the city by the lake. I am not a Cleveland native and had been for three years an uneasy import from Parts Every Which Where, bound too long by a love of Lake Erie. I can’t help it. I fall in love with natural features, inanimate objects, and very occasionally weather patterns. And I pursued my love of Maine to the island where I sit writing about writing these stories.
Once I got my bearings here, I discovered what a truly extraordinary place Peaks Island is, how unusual and often dark its history, how many utterly peculiar things have happened here. I won’t play island historian just now, but take my word for it: strange things have always been afoot here.
And perhaps the strangest thing from the perspective of a 21st century girl primarily connected to humanity via the Internet, who has not known the name of her neighbors since she was playing Barbies with them, was becoming part of a village. For oh, yes, we all know each other’s business here. Everyone knows your name. You aren’t local til you’re six generations in but there isn’t a soul who wouldn’t be happy to tell you about everything from the shootout between lobsterman down at the dock to Thankful Griffin’s ghost still playing the Victrola down at the old Litchfield House. Every place is a palimpsest, but an island, especially one a scant two miles long and a mile across, so isolated and of itself, is triply so. Every house has been lived in by half the island. This one was a brothel when the Navy took over during WWII. This one was where the miller had his hands cut off in the 17th century massacre that still goes unexplained. This one used to get crocodiles sunning themselves on the lawn back when the island was a theater resort, the Coney Island of Maine, and it being the late 1800s, a menagerie down by the sea was de rigeur.
I wanted to write about this. A village story. A story about connection and imports and where you go when you lose your life. A New England story—which means horror. New England is a country by, for, and about horror writers. Haunted by them, you might even say. It means Cotton Mather, who I once heard described as New England’s first horror writer and never forgot the idea. It means the Old World peeking in at every corner.
And I’d had this melancholy title hunting around in my skull for a story to attach to.
The Melancholy of Mechagirl
I have a complicated relationship with anime. I’m married to someone who loves it and having lived in Japan for a few years I am assured that I should love it, too. But I am not an avid consumer of the form. Here and there I have found beauty and strangeness, but more often googly eyes and bad dubs and unsettling gender issues. And my own relationship with Japan has always been complex—I have written so often about my experiences there. They deeply inform who I am. But I never thought of it as the mother-font of geekery and weirdness. It was a place, one I came to love, and constantly tried to see for itself—a task which, as for any place, requires dedication and vigilance.
But in the end, it’s true, I have watched a whole lot of anime. And I’ve had questions.
In one sense this was written very lovingly for my husband. I sometimes feel my mission on planet earth is to Take Things Seriously in a professional capacity. That includes pop culture, and it most certainly includes giant robots with girls inside. As with any mythology I seek to inhabit, I asked myself what it would really be like. If you didn’t have to tell a structurally sound narrative, which war, both the reason for mechas and the reason for my time in Japan, rarely is. The alienation and separation from self and reality, the other self, the wartime self, so much bigger and smaller than the everyday self. What would this girl lost in a machine really be like? There is something tragic and absurd and powerful about the image, which is why it is such a common one.
Underneath the language of the poem, which crushes words together and hops and slides in the frenetic rhythm of anime soundtracks, is something very personal to me. That’s always the danger, when you strap on your armor and knuckle down to writing poetry.
A Voice Like a Hole
Once upon a time in the 80s there was a series of fantasy novels and anthologies concerning a place called Bordertown. It was a crazy thing full of runaways and half magic machines and half machine magic and punk elves wearing leather jackets and riding motorcycles and not behaving very much at all like Legolas. A lot of very famous and wonderful writers wrote in the shared world, and a lot of very lost and bookish and punky or longing-to-be-punky kids read them. And some of them grew up to be fantasy and science fiction writers, too.
When I heard about the new Bordertown anthology, I asked, not very quietly, more in the “Pick me! Pick me!” tone of voice, to be allowed to write something for it. I had read the books when I was younger, when I was myself a teenage runaway. I felt like I had something to add to that rich world, and to be able to be involved in an official revival was deeply thrilling.
What I had to add was my own experience. I ran away from home when I was sixteen (unlike Fig, I slid perfectly into that narrative) and never went home. I packed unwisely: Keats and Lord of the Rings and Medea and no toothbrush. I grew up the rest of the way a little bit homeless, a little bit in shelters, a little bit with understanding friends and boyfriends. I got my degree slowly; I wrote all night at Denny’s to have someplace warm to sit and that was how I learned to make stories.
Bordertown has always been the province of runaway stories. But I had never written about my own, nor spoken much about it. Some things are private.
No, I’m just kidding, nothing’s private. When I say private I mean “I just haven’t written about it yet.”
So I wanted to bring to Bordertown a real runaway story. Of course no fairy country opened up to me. (Not then. But it does not escape me that given the tight knit community of genre writers and that I am friendly with many of the original Bordertown authors, I may have made it there after all, with a delay of many years.) And that reality, too, I felt was important to bring to the narrative of the greater shared world. Sometimes it just sucks and you don’t get a magical kingdom in trade.
I think the heart of the story is not in the details of Fig’s homelessness, but in the conversation she has in the shelter concerning the generational divide, the feeling that their parents had used up all the ease and magic in the world and left nothing for them. All around and everywhere this is becoming a major issue of my own generation, and it is true in many ways and untrue in others, but that is always the way when dealing with unsettling magic.
The Girl Who Ruled Fairyland—For a Little While
While writing The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, or to be more accurate, when I was near to finishing it, I had a notion for both a sequel and a prequel. The sequel seemed unambiguously to be about September’s shadow. The prequel, as plainly, was to be about Queen Mallow. The ways in which her coming to Fairyland was both like and unlike September’s. The sense of her as a person rather than a quasi-mythical figure. The glimpses of the Green Wind and other familiar faces—and the world of the fairies before they disappeared.
I did not, however, feel that necessitated an entire book. Since the gap between the online publication of Fairyland and the print publication was so long, I wrote a novelette to bridge the real-world gap.
This is certainly the first bit of Fairyland that does not center on September’s point of view. I doubt it will be the last. It was a chance to make Fairyland bigger than one little girl’s story.
This version of the Tithe plays up Fairyland as an analogue to Hell—which theme has been present since the capital was named Pandemonium. Given the history of fairy lore, the comparison is inescapable, if we are to be honest and not people the world with toothless fairies with little more weight than sparkly dust-motes. But Hell is only an underworld, and Persephone could tell you it’s not so bad down there.
It’s hard to say too much about this story without it becoming a laundry list of spoilers for the rest of the series. There is much here that connects to the later books, but I, as an always-sly narrator, cannot shine a light on them.
How to Raise a Minotaur
I am a Taurus, astrologically speaking. My mother taught me astrology, palm reading, Tarot, numerology, the complete, collect-em-all New Age set when I was a child, in the pre-critical thinking universe. I learned well enough to make my living as a fortune teller for a time (while writing my first novel between readings).
The book my mother favored, for some reason, had it in for Tauruses. Oh how stubborn and loud and boring they are, the stupid cows. I was little. I did not like being called a cow. Only much later did I realize that a minotaur was an obviously superior mascot for my sign. At which point, as I am stubborn and loud and given to bashing my head into things, I acquired a new nickname among my friends almost immediately.
And I seized upon the idea of the minotaur as a girl. The labyrinth, built for Ariadne as a dancing floor, was always a feminine image, the female body coiling and inescapable. Monstrous sons have it fairly well in Greek myth. Despite the horns, in my mind Theseus found a woman when he stumbled into the minotaur’s chamber. No monster could be as foul as a woman, after all. How stubborn and loud and boring, the stupid cows.
It is not without chagrin that I admit the following: by my count, at the age of 33, I have been to Disneyland thirty-six times. (One of those was Disneyworld.) My mother took us nearly every summer, as she lived in California and my father did not, and thus Disneyland, that temple of childhood, was a thing she could provide with ease when I visited on school breaks. And as I grew up it just kept happening. I’d find myself there again, for whatever convoluted reason.
I had my cynical phase: oh, this is all terrible crass commercialism, isn’t it? Look at them ruining fairy tales and plasticizing childhood and being Disney all over everything. For shame.
For New Year 2007 I went to Disneyworld with friends who had never been before. This is when the length and breadth of my experience with the Mouse came out into the open. Because the “Disneyland” area of Disneyworld is laid out exactly like its California counterpart, and I knew it like I know the streets of the town where I grew up, or the Zelda World Map. I knew every ride and every twist in the paths. I knew the good times to line up. I knew it and I still loved it, despite still thinking all the cynical things that good postmodern girls do concerning megacorporations. I led my friends, grinning and manic, around the park, showing them everything for the first time and seeing them giggle and shine like kids.
And right there, I decided that Mickey Mouse was a Kami. In Shinto, there are eight million gods and counting. Every possible thing has a god. And Mickey, to me, is the god of Joy and Radical Hedonistic Pleasure in the Face of Corporate Avarice.
And this is his tune.
The Blueberry Queen of Wiscasset
Wiscasset, a town about an hour north along the Maine coast from where I live, bills itself as the oldest town in Maine. I’m not sure, to this day, what exactly that means, but it certainly looks impressive on a sign. It’s one of a chain of little towns clinking up the long, gnarled coast of the state, towns defined by their food or craft festivals (One has a Pumpkin Regatta, but there’s Lobster Bakes everywhere, Potato Festivals and Blueberry Days) and their influx of summer people. Driving through it on the way to an audiobook festival further north, the title of this story reared up in my head as soon as I saw the name of the town.
Pageants, like football, are an American mythos, and there is something compelling about them even if they are dire in all sorts of ways and not in any way a healthy part of your complete cultural memesphere. But they are trials, in the end. They are a ritual selection of a king or a queen, something we here in the New World seem to obsess about to an untoward degree. It’s a search for something extraordinary. And the more regional and small stakes the pageant, the more interesting it is to me. The famous butter sculptures in the Midwest, effigies of maidens, utterly compel me. Anything that over-the-top half-druidic sympathetic magic does, especially when practiced by the very folk who would insist that they certainly do not believe in fairy tales or any of that kiddie/pagan stuff.
Given the smallest empty space, and we will fill it with mythic narrative. With blueberries on top.
In the Future When All’s Well
This story is unofficially dedicated to my sister, Heather, who is a soccer star. She was a Classic American Teenager of the 00s in a way I certainly was not in the 90s, very beautiful and athletic and popular. So often, because many science fiction and fantasy authors are geeks, we make our protagonist geeks as well, the known territory of the lonely smart kid. I was interested in writing a genre story about a jock.
The genesis of this story was purely that I was asked to write a vampire story for a YA vampire anthology at the height of the Twilight craze. I accepted and promptly had zero ideas for anything new to say about vampires. So I went back to the source, as is the wont of anyone with as much Classical education as I have stacked up behind me. And if you look at what folks thought would turn you into a vampire in the time known as the day, you will find a truly dizzying list of mundanities. Becoming a vampire seemed like something pretty much inevitable, given the number of activities that would bring on the night.
And while giggling over my books I called upstairs to my husband.
“I definitely should not write this story about vampires and how easy it apparently is to trip over your own feet and turn into one in total Valley Girl voice, right?”
“Oh my god,” my husband said. “That sounds horrible. You should definitely not do that.”
“I’m from California! I come by it honestly. I can TOTES talk like that. If you don’t watch out I will do it FOR A WEEK.”
But it was in my head already, Scout’s voice. And I wrote the story over three days of some of the most excited writing I had done in awhile. And though I did not grow up with my sister and know her less well than I should like, she came to infuse the character.
Look, sis—I made you a hero.
Fade to White
I am the child of advertisers.
Usually, when a person says such a thing, they mean that the ubiquitous advertising of their world shaped them as a person.
I mean I am actually the child of advertisers.
My grandfather owned a large and successful advertising firm in Seattle after making his bones in Chicago on that other Madison Avenue. My father went to work for him and continues in that field to this day. I have strong memories of the offices, the secretaries, coloring at someone’s desk while waiting for my father to get off of work. As a small child, I played the Adorable Kidlet We Are Deeply Concerned About Not Having Saved Enough for College/Bought the Right Insurance For/Qualifying for a Home Loan So As to Provide a Yard For in several commercials. Advertising and marketing were part of the language of everything in my world.
I’d wanted to write an atompunk story for awhile—there’s something terrifying and compelling about the monoculture of the 1950s set against a fear of and love affair with nuclear weapons and power. The hyperactive enforced cheerfulness. The conviction that being a uranium prospector was a legitimate career path and various entirely noxious, cancerous substances would save us from everything from dirt to death. And the obsession with family and generation that our current powers that be remember with such fondness. Most gender dystopias deal with controlling female fertility; I wanted to boil men down to their semen the way women are reduced in both the actual world and in fictional miseries. That women are only eggs is a given, taken as read. That men’s fertility would be as tightly controlled, if not more, seems inevitable to me.
Advertising and marketing are the language of everything. You can see everything about a culture distilled in an ad. It’s not often pretty, but it’s very succinct.
In Marguerite Feitlowitz’s excellent A Lexicon of Terror, she studies the ways in which language, particularly Argentinian Spanish, changes with the advent of a totalitarian regime. I first read the book in college as part of an Argentinian history class. A man who had lived through the Proceso, a junta of horrifying violence and both philosophical and personnel connections to Nazi Germany that ruled the nation around the year I was born, came to speak. The first time I heard him say his friend “was disappeared” rather than “disappeared,” my blood went cold. Such a simple thing, a verb becoming transitive, but it said everything.
The process of writing Deathless involved an immersion in Russian and Eastern European history where, I promise, this phenomenon is no different. It seems to be a constant: when a government wants to control people, they control language. In post 9/11 America, we’ve seen this happen in English. It’s astonishing how many of the usages in A Lexicon of Terror are now common in American English. (Insurgents instead of soldiers, the total perversion of the word freedom, terrorist used to describe anything and everything.) It is grimly fascinating, to see the naked attempt to contort every possible word into a political statement in favor of the status quo.
What happens ultimately is that a whole language becomes a code. No word is simply itself, it also stands for something else, often doubling back ironically on its new meaning anyway, because it takes time to forget what words mean. Communication nears a singularity of impossibility. This upside-down logic is part of the reason magical realism so often springs up in totalitarian nations. It isn’t magical, really. It’s just realism. Expressing a world run by wizards who believe profoundly in magic words.
This is a love poem, have no doubt. It is a poem that exists because I met someone years ago who was younger than I by a decade, who was so beyond any need for me in her world or any of the old conceptions of love and belonging she seemed a little alien and terrifying, the way beautiful people who don’t want to be with you always do. She seemed like a new, post-human thing. A girl headed to Mars while I stayed on earth. A girl for whom my fairy tales had no meaning and in whom she had no role.
Sometimes the reasons behind poems are simple, so simple as to be beyond stating, universal.
Once upon a time there was this girl.
The Wolves of Brooklyn
One evening, while one of the great rollicking snowstorms that treat the Atlantic Seaboard like its own personal bowling alley racked up a perfect game all over us, a Brooklynite friend of mine named Danielle blogged:
“We walked home down Flatbush and were eaten by wolves.”
And it was a thing that needed to be written.
Many of my high school friends now live in New York, by chance. Or possibly not by chance, given that my friends were all actors and dancers and New York is Where You Go when that is what you want out of the world. I am continually surprised by my own familiarity with and affection for the city, having grown up on the West Coast. But I am most interested in how powerfully it is a focal point for all the dreams of people coming in search of something meaningful and even magical in the same place. We see New York on every screen and in every story—it is the urban face of our culture. We get this idea that it is real in a way the rest of the country is somehow not. It is Where Things Happen. This idea is embraced and enforced by New Yorkers, but it is primarily made of unreal things: books, television, movies.
The Wolves of Brooklyn, which should never, ever be read by anyone who went to high school with me and could see quite clearly who is who in this story, is at its heart about that quest for the real.
One Breath, One Stroke
In Japanese calligraphy, this is the ideal. Your breathing is as important as your brushwork. One breath, one stroke of the brush. It is a meditative activity, and a sacred one.
A significant portion of my stories about Japan are necessarily written from an outsider’s perspective. I am not, after all, Japanese. This one is an inside story—the characters are all yokai, Japanese demons or mythical creatures. I have always taken it as a mission statement to inhabit the monsters of folklore, to speak in their tongues where they are so often forbidden to speak for themselves.
The story is meant to invoke the quick, sure strokes of calligraphy, speaking volumes in a few words and obliquely. It is a koan and a parable and a story about desire, about what civilization arises among a mad throng of those chosen narratively to bedevil civilization.
And about how difficult it is to write even a single word.
Living on an island (any island which requires a boat to visit, I suspect) feels a little like living at the end of the world. There is a fairly unique isolation to living by a boat schedule, and your friends on the mainland have to be coaxed into crossing the water, as though it’s on fire or fell leviathans lurk beneath. (I will admit that once the Coast Guard commandeered the ferry to chase into the ocean after somebody in the middle of the night while two of my girlfriends were on board but that only happened once, GOD.)
Kallisti was the first story about Maine that I wrote after moving here. I typed it out in the cafe down by the docks over eggs and coffee. I associate Maine with community and the tight-knit village aspect of my own life here, where in the summer I trade my eggs for Susan’s concord grapes and head to the water’s edge to get scallops from Captain Callow’s boat.
And boy, but the apples at the end of the world feature in every culture that knows what apples are. It has to be the same tree, right? Right?
I wrote The Wedding not long before my own (second marriage, first wedding). It contains what coherent thoughts I have on marriage and family. I believe in ritual, we need it as much as we need anything in this world. And a wedding is probably the most complex ritual the average person will take part in in their lives. No matter how many people make weird heteronormative jokes about how terrible it is to get married, how much of our culture seems torn between thinking weddings are the best and worst things ever and you should both be obsessed with them and be cool and not care, they are a profound tribal experience. It’s not about the paperwork, it’s about the ritual. (Except when it is about the paperwork because taxes.) Many still can’t have the paperwork. But the ritual is always there.
I know this story has been read at real weddings and that makes me the happiest writer this side of an altar.
The Secret of Being a Cowboy
Six-Gun Snow White and The Shootout at Burnt Corn Ranch Over the Bride of the World are both direct descendants of this poem. I hadn’t written poetry in over two years when Rose Lemberg, editor of Stone Telling, asked, and then asked strongly, and then bugged me until I sat down to try to say something in verse again.
I’d been writing poetry since I was a child; it was my first and deepest love. But I’d spent the first eight years of my prose career trying to infuse the lessons and aesthetics of poetry into my novels and I reached a point where I felt that I was doing most of what I wanted to do in fiction. And on top of that, having always been a confessional poet, I had sort of worked through everything I needed to confess. I decided I wouldn’t write poetry again until I had something to say.
Who knew it would be a Western?
It occurred to me while staring at the blank screen that I am, undeniably, a Western girl. I grew up in Seattle and Sacramento, the end-points of two separate wagon trails. I grew up on horses and in the mountains and criss-crossing the Sierras, the Siskyous, the Cascades. It’s a part of who I am that I had never, even for a moment, tried to access. And once again, the Western is a highly problematic “masculine” genre in which heroism is built on the bones of a murdered culture. These are things I like to get between my teeth.
And what I had to communicate, what was genuinely worrying at my soul, was my deep ambivalence about my own work and its value, my sense of pride and irony about my own profession and myself. I had something to confess after all.
Twenty-Five Facts About Santa Claus
How is it remotely possible to say something unique and unsentimental about Christmas? About Santa Claus in particular?
And yet I am an unabashed and unironic lover of Christmas, all the more so since reading Hogfather several years ago, which managed the feat of unsentimentality with astonishing grace.
But the image of Santa Claus at the bottom of my heart isn’t the Hogfather. We had a book when I was a child—I don’t remember the title or the author or anything about it except that it had beautiful paintings and was a biography of Santa Claus. But not really Santa Claus. Of a young boy who grew up to be Santa Claus. It took the matter very seriously. It was sly and knowing but not cutesy or cloying. It was not really a child’s book, but not an adult’s either. There were no jokes of the sort that Christmas films concerning boys and men who grow up to be Santa are so fond of. It was just a sad, poor, lonely child who grew up to make other children feel less sad and poor and lonely.
I looked at that image of the boy in the painting, who didn’t know what he would become yet. Who bent his grief precisely in half and made it better for everyone else. And I thought that I wanted to be him when I grew up in some ineffable way.
Whatever that book was, and whoever wrote it, this story is for them. And for everyone else.
We Without Us Were Shadows
I had a conversation with Theodora Goss once, an author who also appears in the anthology for which this story was written. We decided that not only was she an Austen Girl and I a Bronte Girl, but that this difference was in fact vitally, cosmically important. Like an astrological sign.
My love for the Brontes is vast and deep. One of my first online pseudonyms was Brontesaurus. I read Wuthering Heights for the first time at thirteen. The profound message I took from it was: grown ups are exactly as fucked up and broken and irrational and horrible about love as middle schoolers. How it is now is how it will be when I’m a grown up.
I have found this to be a True Fact.
I read Jane Eyre much later. I was 22. I cannot understand why I did not read it sooner. But the moment I did I clutched it to my breast like unto a genuine Brontean heroine and it was my favorite thing of ever and Jane was me, don’t you understand? But not Jane with Rochester. I was too old to find his antics particularly charming or desirable. Little Jane. The Jane who told Mrs. Ross to go to hell as I never could have, who fainted in the Red Room, who lost her friend at Lowood. And later, runaway Jane, Jane who was somehow deliriously happy sleeping on the moor. All the Janes that were not Rochester’s Jane.
And so I come to writing about the Brontes with trepidation and delicate care, for I know how upset I get when others trample upon my favorite things.
For readers who are unaware, there were four Bronte siblings and before three of them went on to be writers and two of them went on to be icons, they created shared world fantasy kingdoms together—Glass Town, Gondal, and Angria. It was densely detailed and obsessively recorded in shockingly precocious books written and illustrated by the children. The stories and histories are a strange remix of half-understood contemporary British politics, hero worship of the military and culture heroes of the day, most particularly Wellington, fairy stories, imitations of the styles of the columnists preferred by Patrick Bronte, and half-remembered tales of the colonies. Like today’s geeky children, all of it went together into a cauldron and came out a fantastical world, a fractured Britain unlike Britain. Much of the material has survived.
I always want everything to Have Been Real. Prester John’s kingdom, fairy tale creatures, the physics of the classical world. And while I want Glass Town to have been a place the Brontes saw, more precisely, I want to have been one of those children. I am also one of four siblings, but I was the lone Charlotte. I want to have had that tight knit secret world. But the past is a constant. All I can do is make one now.
The Red Girl
This is one of those stories in which the personal and the mythic lie uncomfortably close together. There is much of an old and long-dead relationship in this, much of me—and one of the few times I have pulled the postmodern trick of using my own name—and much of her. And there is much of a story that once subtly reflected issues of girlhood and sexuality and menstruation and age and youth and violence and maleness, and now is so heavily saturated with explicit understandings and explications of these things that Red Riding Hood is barely a metaphor anymore, but the thing itself. It is a woman’s story that, rather than having been the object of much rehabilitation, has been laid out so bloodily and graphically on the table and examined so thoroughly for its alarming messages that its organs and bones are simply part of how we understand the structure of heterosexual relationships.
Obviously this is not a story about a heterosexual relationship.
But it is a woman’s story. A very naked one.
Every once in awhile I have a moment of clarity and see terribly clearly that all these incredibly personal and intimate and bare things I have written are just out there for anyone to see. That I meet people and they have read what I have written and it is as though they have seen me naked and I haven’t seen them, and that is just terrifying. I usually just put that whole notion in a time-space-psyche bubble and hide it under the couch. Writing these commentaries, I am having one of those moments. Time to exit, stage couch.
Aquaman and the Duality of Self/Other, America, 1985
My husband Dmitri, having been raised in the Former Soviet Union, often makes jokes about having read a clearly Western thing “in the original Russian.” A joke some, and certainly I, might recognize from Star Trek VI, in which Shakespeare is quoted “in the original Klingon.”
Only in this case, Aquaman can actually be read in the original Russian.
I remember how casually Dmitri tossed off the factoid that Aquaman was based on Amphibian Man, a Russian novel written by Aleksey Belyayev in 1928. (In a very bizarre example of the surreal emotional network of references that is my secret heart, Aleksey Belyayev is the name of the romantic lover in Turgenev’s A Month in the Country, a play which my high school put on. Aleksey was played by my first love, a boy named Seth who was my best friend in the world for many years. We used to wear rings that fit together to make a heart. At one rehearsal, when our friendship was very strained, I noticed he was not wearing it, and ended up writing a poem about Aleksey Belyayev’s ring, one of the few pieces I remember from so long ago.)
I looked up the book immediately and was instantly seized with this enormous sadness and affection and empathy for the character that sprang into my head. For the Russian Aquaman is nothing like his rich, well-married, colorful American counterpart. Amphibian Man lives at the bottom of the sea in his father’s laboratory, which is not an Atlantean palace but a lonely, leaking habitat. He speaks the language of the fishes, yes, but he was the subject of his father’s callous experiments to create a man who could live underwater and is not in any way friends with Bruce Wayne. He’s just a man doing his work under the sea. His superpower is loneliness.
Ok, it’s not that bad. But it seemed to me to sum up so much: how much we feared the Soviets and assumed their wealth and power when often the government couldn’t even keep the lights on, how grotesque America has always been in its consumption of resources and glamour and righteousness. How we have always danced in our jewels while claiming to be the hardest working salt the earth has even been of. I had this image of Ichtiander getting ahold of an Aquaman comic somehow and just crying at everything his twin has and he did not. I am sometimes maudlin.
I have a preternaturally good memory—it’s not a good thing or a bad thing, though it is useful for a writer. I was also raised by a filmmaker and a political scientist, so my grasp of the world outside myself began very early. And I combine everything in my memory: a terror of the Soviet Union delivered to my tiny hippocampus by movies and television, a worship of the Incredible Hulk, my desperate need for protection and love that was never forthcoming.
I Take Things Seriously. And though Aquaman is often maligned and mocked for not being Serious Business like the properly grim Batman or acceptably tortured Watchmen, to me, he is somehow Us, and also Them, and a whole era, and my own life, all rolled into a poem.
In my longing for everything to be real somehow, every magic speculated upon, every idea of the universe and how its made up, every myth and legend, I enjoy greatly the idea of soft and secret things we would define as magic without hesitation just being present in the world. Moving through it, noticed by whoever happens to be by, unnoticed by everything and everyone else. Because the presence of even one such thing implies the presence of all.
The simplicity and inexplicability of the room, its mundanity and impossibility, that it is just a room and nothing like a room, was the flashing spark of the story to me. And the obsession of anyone who ever saw it—which I often take as a given, that anyone would be obsessed. Perhaps people wouldn’t. Perhaps some could let the extraordinary go. Certainly our mythology is replete with folk rejecting the magical and embracing the thrills of Ithaca in the fall. But I don’t understand those people. There are limits to empathy. I am a creature of obsession. And thus, the characters that fall out of my head are, also.
Silently and Very Fast
Around 2006, I started plans for a novel. It was meant to be called Like Diamonds; it would have been a long, multi-generational novel about the development of AI in a world dominated by Italy and Japan, of programming as Women’s Work, of the familial connections such work would forge. It would be told from the point of view of a growing AI, one conceived of as a Lares, a household god, for a particular estate. It would be about the deep, unsettling intimacy between successive children of that family and the AI as it approached and achieved sentience.
This may sound familiar.
It took years of research to even begin to feel like I could write about artificial intelligence. I took programming lessons and hitched my hip to the extant writings of Turing. I asked everyone I knew, but most especially my programmer husband, to rant about what bothered them in fictionalized AI. But I never felt really ready to write the book.
As Guest of Honor at Capclave, a convention outside Washington, DC, I was asked to provide a manuscript for them to publish to the convention and as a limited edition to the public. Because I am insane, I said I’d write something original—and thought that this was a wonderful way to try to do a short version of the novel, to explore the ideas without having to worry whether I could sell it, or even that many people would read it. (Ultimately it was serialized on Clarkesworld as well.)
It is to date my most-nominated book, having been on every award ballot it qualified for. So much for not many people reading it.
And now I truly feel that it is the size it should be. It is a small and dense book, a little crystal in the brain. Though it may seem grounded in myth, the science is sound as far as I can vouch for it. Genetic programming is a real thing, and probably our best path to whatever form AI takes in the future. Elefsis is one of my favorite characters, and I hope that I did well by a story that took so awfully long to come to fruition, becoming something entirely other than I’d planned, but wholly itself.
I expect machine intelligence itself to be no different.
What the Dragon Said: A Love Story
I was asked to write a set of poems for Tor.com’s celebration of National Poetry Month. Given the fact that speculative poetry rarely gets to step on such a big stage, I went through many, many poem ideas, some fully finished, only to reject them. I settled on dragons for much the same reason I wrote about vampires and Santa Claus: because it is axiomatic that there is nothing new to say about them.
I don’t claim to have said anything new. Ever, really.
There is this thing I try to do. I don’t always succeed. It’s a hard chord, a lot of twisting of the fingers. It’s a kind of radical sincerity. As Dr. Boots said in John Crowley’s ineffably beautiful Engine Summer: say what you mean and mean what you say. It’s not Crowley’s line, of course. It’s received wisdom from some place or other. But in the context of the apocalypse and ruin and sorrow of that gentle little book, it means more to me. When I say it I am only thinking of Dr. Boots and Once a Day. That surreal emotional network of references again.
I try to say what I mean and mean what I say. It’s easier, strangely, in life than in fiction. I have often been accused of occluding my meaning with pretty words. So these days, I try to stop in the middle of the pretty and say what I mean. And mean it as hard as I can. That is what is happening in this poem about a dragon.
Also, obviously, I’m the dragon.