Coming out March 5, 2019 from Cemetery Dance Publications
WARNING: This is not your typical short story collection.
While twelve of the tales are fictitious, one is a creepy true story sure to amuse and alarm even die-hard horror fans. Guessing which one is half the skin-crawling fun. Is it the man who resurrects his abusive father for revenge that goes awry? The woman who brings home a birthday balloon inflated with hellion instead of helium? Or the couple that accidentally buys a home sitting at The Crossroads, where the “H” in “HOA” has a whole new meaning…?
If you’re one of the many people who were glued to Netflix this last week exploring the tentacled storytelling of “Bandersnatch,” you were probably either deeply disappointed or riveted by the bizarre way this “choose your own adventure” controlled your options.
(WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD)
I was feeling under the weather after Christmas, which meant I had some serious couch time to devote to this show and to scanning Twitter for reactions. As someone who was a pioneer in interactive experiences back in the 1990s, I had some guesses about the show that proved correct. I was able to fairly quickly find the best possible ending, although I also messed around to see numerous iterations. Of course, the “best” ending wasn’t a “happy” one. In fact, I found it hilarious that folk on Twitter were lamenting they couldn’t get a “happy” ending. Do they know this is Black Mirror? A happy ending in this series is like when the guy in “I Have No Mouth Yet I Must Scream” gets his mouth back so he can scream.
But just as interesting were the many people who complained bitterly about the lack of choice, that eventually the experience forced you to “Kill Dad.” (As you can see in this Visio flowchart someone on Reddit* created, your choices converge to killing dad if you want to survive.) It sounded like some viewers might have been too deep in the decision-making process, unaware of the bigger, more brilliant idea behind this show and the way it’s constructed.
The Bigger, More Brilliant Idea
And the idea is this: WE are the Program and Control Study. Brooker is controlling us, the people making choices in “Bandersnatch.” He’s PAX/P.A.C.S./the Thief of Destiny. (Incidentally, PAX is one of the biggest video gaming festivals of the year.) The “mirrors” Colin refers to that allow you to go back in time and change your decisions are “Black Mirror.” And every “ending” leads you to an all-too-familiar conclusion: that even if we were able to go back and make different choices in life, we don’t really have that many choices to start with. “It’s not a happy game. It’s a fucking nightmare world,” Colin says. A perfect Black Mirror message.
Humorist and horror lover, Charlie Brooker, got the last laugh. And I love him for it.
Five out of five stars.
*Notice how whoever created this damned flowchart went to great pains to record every pathway, but couldn’t be fucking arsed to actually name the female game programmer, Pearl Ritman? As Stefan says when we make him chop up his father, “Seriously?”
Recently, Quartz published an article that purported to explain why European Christmas still featured a number of interesting “monsters” of folklore while American Christmas didn’t. The article did a great job of listing out all the European variations of the monsters that punish bad children at Christmas time. However, it completely failed to explain why America didn’t embrace these monsters. In fact, it misidentified the Austrian characters in the parades as “Krampuses” when they’re actually “perchten,” the companions of Perchta. (To be fair, even Salzburg tourism has given up trying to explain to Americans that there’s a difference.)
First, if you’re a fan of my books — especially Snowed — you know the main reason why America embraced the jolly old elf from Moore’s poem over any of his European versions. But if you’ve not read Snowed, read this excerpt from Chapter 9.
Chapter 9 Excerpt from Snowed
Mr. Reilly’s class rolls around. Without their leader, Darren’s followers fail to find a voice. Mr. Reilly appears more serious than usual, which is quite a feat.
“I’ve set aside the curriculum I’d planned for today in favor of something a little lighter.” He approaches the chalkboard and picks up a piece of chalk. “I realize it’s a cardinal sin to talk about Christmas before Thanksgiving, but since we have entered the Industrial Age in our reading, let’s talk about modern American cultural values and ideas that stem from that time period. A little history-lite, if you will. But I assure you it ties into what we’ve been studying.”
He writes: A Visit from Saint Nicholas
Oh, great. Another one of Mr. Reilly’s tangents. I’m pretty sure no one else talks about this stuff in their American history classes.
“The American poet Clement Clarke Moore published this poem anonymously in eighteen twenty-three. What else was happening that year? Anyone?”
No answer. He writes on the board: The Monroe Doctrine.
“In early December of that year, President James Monroe declares America’s neutrality in European conflicts. Step-by-step, America continues to distance itself from the UK and Europe, further establishing its independence. Meanwhile, this poem single-handedly established Christmas culture in America, distinguishing it from British and European customs and traditions. To this day, this depiction of Saint Nicholas remains the dominant iconography for the American celebration of the holiday.”
So, America was already trying to distance itself from both the UK and Europe. The tides of separation were hastened by both the Monroe Doctrine and American sentiment. While Moore’s poem captured that sentiment in a powerful way, it was by no means the catalyst of it. Since the war of independence, Americans had been forging their own identity, much of which is still founded on an idealism that has no room for whipping fathers and child kidnappers.
No More Epiphanies
Also, America is largely a Protestant country. We don’t celebrate Epiphany the way much of Europe does. And since much of the folklore around Perchta and other Christmas creatures focuses on Epiphany, we’ve shaken off that entire line of folklore. Which also means that we probably wouldn’t know the difference between Krampus and the perchten. The perchten proceeded Perchta on her rounds to drive out evil spirits. (The whole perchten thing is very pagan, as is Perchta herself. The Catholic church simply gave up trying to stamp out the pagan festivities in the Alps because they were too strong.)
The UK’s Separation from Europe
Despite Germany’s influence on English Christmas, you won’t see Krampus shaking his chains in the halls of Buckingham Palace, either. That’s because the UK never really embraced those characters in the first place. European ideas were foreign ideas, and that was that. Believe me, the rest of Europe does the same to the UK. For example, you won’t see many Frenchmen celebrating Halloween; they’re more than happy to explain it’s an “Anglo-Saxon” holiday.
America’s New Romance with an Old Devil
A perchtenlauf from katsch1969 via Wikimedia Commons
So, why is America now reaching for those same whippers and kidnappers?
Globalization has opened up access to other cultural traditions in ways we’ve never seen before, allowing outside influences to infiltrate our collective conscious in the U.S. But that’s just one part of the whole picture. The U.S. has been opening up more to European ideas — single-payer healthcare, gun control, and free education top the more progressive political tickets.
The Death of American Idealism
Meanwhile, American idealism is merely a ghost. Almost daily mass shootings by murderers slaughtering schoolchildren; the killing of unarmed black Americans at the hands of the police who are supposed to protect them; the death of Americans who can’t afford healthcare; rampant, baldface racism and sexism; tax cuts for the corporations at the expense of the poor; and our severely partisan, dysfunctional government — to say people are jaded is an understatement. We see more taken from us than given, our “freedoms” destroying us.
That’s why Krampus is supplanting St. Nicholas, because we feel the monster’s lash more heavily each day. Santa Claus is too saccharine; we yearn for something more authentic to our experiences.
Climate change also plays a role. Recall that these “Christmas monsters” are primarily from the much colder Alpine regions and the Netherlands — places where winter is especially deadly. It’s no wonder as America’s weather turns more severe thanks to climate change that we feel the teeth of winter more keenly. Therefore, Alpine lore feels right to our frostbitten bodies.
Gruß von Krampus
So now you know why your Facebook feed is filling up with a devilish character wearing a wicker basket full of screaming children. Be good to one another or else you might find him dragging you from bed on the night of December 5th, to take you somewhere hotter than Los Angeles…
Christmas is coming…or is it Krampus? Find out today!
Hearts of the Missing is the mesmerizing debut from 2017 Tony Hillerman Prize recipient Carol Potenza. In a Starred Review, Library Journal says, “This action-packed mystery, which vividly evokes the beauty of the New Mexico landscape and its indigenous peoples, will attract fans of the Hillermans, leaving readers eagerly awaiting the next installment.”
When a young woman linked to a list of missing Fire-Sky tribal members commits suicide, Pueblo Police Sergeant Nicky Matthews is assigned to the case. As the investigation unfolds, she uncovers a threat that strikes at the very heart of what it means to be a Fire-Sky Native: victims chosen and murdered because of their genetic makeup. But these deaths are not just about a life taken. In a vengeful twist, the killer ensures the spirits of those targeted will wander forever, lost to their family, their People, and their ancestors. When those closest to Nicky are put in jeopardy, she must be willing to sacrifice everything—her career, her life, even her soul—to save the people she is sworn to protect.
About the Author
POTENZA is an Assistant Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry at New Mexico State University. She and her husband, Jose, live in Las Cruces, New Mexico. HEARTS OF THE MISSING, her debut novel, is the winner of the 2017 Tony Hillerman Prize.
Tsiba’ashi D’yini Indian Reservation New Mexico, USA
The harsh scrape, out of place in the quiet of predawn, penetrated the low buzz of the refrigeration motors. Like fingernails on a chalkboard, the sound made the hair on her neck and arms stand on end.
She wasn’t alone anymore.
Her eyes narrowed as she peered through the open door of the office and into the cavernous space on the other side. Other than a few emergency lights pooling eerily on the floor, the room was dark, its bulky shelves and racks rising out of the linoleum like misshapen boulders.
Sergeant Nicky Matthews was careful to make no sound as she placed her fingerprint brush on the metal shelf in front of her. She stripped off her latex gloves with quiet efficiency as she rose, dropping them on the floor by her feet. Head cocked to the side, she strained to hear any other sound that would indicate who—or how many—might be just outside the broken plate-glass window of the mini-mart.
She hadn’t heard a car pass by since she’d been here, and she’d sent the manager home after he’d let her inside.
Her police unit was parked in plain sight by the gas pumps, illuminated by the fluorescent lights in the metal canopy above it. Those lights formed a harsh bubble of white in the nighttime blackness that surrounded the building. The village store sat alone on a two-lane road, the only place to purchase food and gas for twenty miles in every direction. Porch lights from widely scattered trailers and small houses dotted the landscape, but she’d seen no one when she’d arrived. She’d been inside, processing the scene, for over an hour. If the perps had come back, they must know she was here.
Another stealthy rasp, outside and to the left of the window.
She stiffened, focus shifting, tightening. Her hand slipped to her holster, palm scraping the butt of her Glock 23. Whoever was out there was on the other side of the wall where she stood. She’d trained her phone’s camera on that area earlier. The perps had used a bat or crowbar to bash in the large windows, and glass was strewn over the front sidewalk. At least one of them had cut themselves when they climbed inside. There were drops and smears of blood throughout the interior. She’d already gathered some samples for DNA testing, but the bloody smears turned into distinct prints in the office. One of the burglars spent quite a bit of time here, and that was where she’d been concentrating her efforts. But no longer.
Whoever was skulking outside had her full attention.
Nicky stepped forward, avoiding the half dozen sunglasses knocked to the floor during the break-in. She turned her back to the wall, body coiled, and scanned the interior of the store for a change in the vague fluorescent light filtering into the room. Someone peering through the window would throw a shadow.
Her scalp prickled and a flash of heat swept over her skin. She swore she could feel a presence out there.
Waiting for her.
She drew in a slow breath, pulled her weapon, and pointed it down along her leg. Her finger rested across the trigger guard. She sidled closer to the window. Shards of glass littered the floor. The rubber soles of her boots muffled the crunch, but the sound was loud enough to make her wince. She paused, listening.
Seconds ticked by.
Nothing. No sound except the ever-present hum of the glass-doored coolers lining the back wall of the store.
She stayed in the shadows, her sharp gaze sweeping the gravel expanse of the parking lot. Tall, scraggly grass stood unmoving at the edge of the light. There was no wind, no scuttling leaves to explain away the noise.
Another minute passed. The feeling of a presence was fading. Nicky exhaled slowly. Her shoulders relaxed the tiniest bit, even as her expression twisted in faint confusion.
Had she been mistaken?
A movement caught her eye between the gas pumps, and she snapped her head to the right. Her body tensed. At a flash of color, Nicky stepped out of the shadows, not worried about the sound of scattering glass as she tracked the motion of . . .
A skinny brown rez dog wandered around the side of her unit, nose to the ground. Lifting its head, it sniffed the air. It trotted toward an overflowing trash can and rose up on its hind feet, one front paw positioned delicately against the side. Nicky’s lips pressed tight. You could count the ribs on that poor animal. Most likely it was a stray, but you never knew. It might belong to anyone in the village.
Relieved she had an answer to the sounds, Nicky holstered her pistol. Suddenly tired, she stretched, arching her back. Outside, the sky was beginning to gray. She checked the clock on the wall above the door. The sun would be up in a few minutes, and it would still take another hour to process the crime scene. Then she was going to canvass the nearest homes, to see if anyone had heard or seen anything. She probably wouldn’t be done until hours after her shift was officially over.
Her gaze focused closer, and she stared at the pale oval of her reflection in what was left of the glass window in front of her. Dark brown eyes stared back as she ran her hand over the top of her head and slid her fingers through the smooth, straight black hair of her ponytail. She was mistaken for Native all the time. Not by Indians—but by the non- Indians she encountered on the reservation and at the casino.
She sighed deeply, glanced at the dog one more time, and froze. A wave of unease washed over her, this time prickling up her back. The animal stared at the front of the store, fixated not on the place where she stood, but to the left of the window’s edge.
At the place where she’d first heard the noise.
Her hand dropped to her sidearm and Nicky jerked her head around.
An old Native woman stared at her through the glass.
No. Not through the glass. In the glass. The old woman’s face was in the glass.
Their eyes met, and every nerve in Nicky’s body stretched taut. The woman’s pupils glowed black, glittering and alive, sharp points embed- ded within a deeply wrinkled face. An ancient, disembodied face.
Nicky knew she was supposed to look away—had been told in no uncertain terms by her traditional friends on the rez—but she couldn’t move. She was transfixed.
The sun flashed over the horizon, blinding her.
But not before the woman smiled and turned away. Her long white hair whipped in the light—and she was gone.
Nicky yanked out her gun, hit the front door of the mini-mart hard, and ran outside into the brightness of dawn, skidding on the broken glass. The same scraping sound that had alerted her only a few minutes before grated along her skin.
A flash of white raced away and her arms swung up, the muzzle of her sidearm tracking a rabbit as it zigged and zagged out of the parking lot, across the road, and into the grass next to a trampled dirt path. She caught another movement out of the corner of her eye and her head swiveled to the dog. It cringed and shivered as it stared after the rabbit, before it backed up and loped away through the brush, tail tight between its legs.
Nicky’s flesh crawled with goose bumps. Heart thudding, she pointed her weapon to the ground, clutching its diamond-patterned grip so tightly it cut deep into the skin of her palm.
Dammit, dammit, dammit!
Scowling, she slammed her weapon back into its holster. The old woman was back.
That meant life was about to get complicated—and a lot more dangerous.
Nancy Bilyeau’s Latest Historical Thriller: THE BLUE
People are saying great things about Nancy Bilyeau’s latest Victorian thriller. Here’s the summary:
In eighteenth century London, porcelain is the most seductive of commodities. Fortunes are made and lost upon it. Kings do battle with knights and knaves for possession of the finest pieces and the secrets of their manufacture.
For Genevieve Planché, an English-born descendant of Huguenot refugees, porcelain holds far less allure; she wants to be an artist, a painter of international repute, but nobody takes the idea of a female artist seriously in London. If only she could reach Venice.
When Genevieve meets the charming Sir Gabriel Courtenay, he offers her an opportunity she can’t refuse; if she learns the secrets of porcelain manufacture, he will send her to Venice. But in particular, she must learn the secrets of the colour blue…
The ensuing events take Genevieve deep into England’s emerging industrial heartlands, where not only does she learn about porcelain, but also about the art of industrial espionage.
She also learns much about love.
With the heart and spirit of her Huguenot ancestors, Genevieve faces her challenges head on, but how much is she willing to suffer in pursuit and protection of the colour blue?
Nancy Bilyeau has worked on the staffs of InStyle, DuJour, Rolling Stone, Entertainment Weekly, and Good Housekeeping. She is currently the deputy editor of the Center on Media, Crime and Justice at City University of New York and a regular contributor to Town & Country, Purist, and The Vintage News.
A native of the Midwest, she earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Michigan. The Crown, her first novel and an Oprah pick, was published in 2012; the sequel, The Chalice, followed in 2013. The third in the trilogy, The Tapestry, was published by Touchstone in 2015. Her fourth novel, The Blue, launches December 3rd.
Nancy lives in New York City with her husband and two children.
Amiability has never been counted more important in a woman’s character than it is today. Which is why I’m twenty-four and unmarried and without friends or employer, only a grandfather for company. It doesn’t matter. Ambition consumes me, an impossible one. It’s what delivers me into the back of a hackney carriage on this December night, holding a party invitation that doesn’t bear my name as I make my way from Spitalfields to Leicester Fields.
My grandfather and I live on Fournier Street, one of the most respectable in Spitalfields, a street where, never mind the longing and greed and fear that nibble at the souls of a good many neighbors, all say their prayers after supper and snuff the candles. Not so along the route through London to Leicester Fields. From my swaying carriage, I see lights leaping in many windows and hear the shouts and the laughter. London is alive, and so am I.
After more than an hour, the carriage jerks to a stop as it is has many times. But on this occasion, it’s not in order to allow another to rumble forward. Thump, thump, thump. The driver pounds his stick. I’ve arrived.
The carriage door swings open to number thirty, Leicester Fields, the home of England’s greatest living painter, William Hogarth.
As I step down, I catch sight of handsome houses rising along each side of the square, illuminated by coal-lit street lamps that stand to attention like tireless soldiers. The largest by far is Leicester House, tucked behind a courtyard, containing whichever Prince of Wales is presently draining the country of gold with his peevish schemes. I know from the newspapers the names of some of the other residents, wealthy doctors and striving merchants and low-rung nobles. But now is not the time to gawk.
I’m not sure what I expected from Hogarth’s London home. The solid terraced building, third from the left on the southeast corner, gives no outward evidence of artistic genius. Yet I know I’ve come to the right place, by the lights bursting from the windows and the roar of many voices. This is the man’s Christmas party.
I fully expect the servant at the door to give me trouble. Raising my chin, I try to look as if I belong in the rarefied world of Leicester Fields. Unfortunately, a bitter cold wind envelops me, making my earrings, the only ones I possess, sputter against my neck. I shiver in my dress. I did not bring my winter cloak — how could I? It is too plain, the garment of a modest, God-fearing Huguenot woman of Spitalfields, not the West End. Sober manner and somber dress, such is our creed.
Without a word, I thrust the invitation into the gloved hand of the silver-wigged servant. He does not look down at the card.
“Have you no escort, Madame?”
“None is required.”
He peers at the writing and frowns. “This was sent to Pierre Billiou.”
“My name is Genevieve Planché and I am his family — his granddaughter,” I reply. My mother died of smallpox when I was eight. My father being dead of typhus three years before that, Pierre has long been my only family.
I say, as casually as I can manage, “Grandfather is ill, but he wished me to convey to Mr. William Hogarth in person his wishes for a merry Christmas.”
The servant purses his lips.
I take a step closer. “I’m sure Mr. Hogarth would be most angry to know that a member of the Billiou family was made to feel unwelcome.”
A smile crinkles the servant’s face. With a mocking flourish, he beckons for me to enter. I straighten my shoulders and follow him, determined to maintain the appearance of being accustomed to such occasions, when the truth is I’ve only attended two artists’ gatherings hosted by my grandfather and they consisted of three or four old friends grumbling about their commissions over goblets of cognac. I’ve never attended a party among London society in my life.
Today we welcome debut author Loretta Goldberg whose novel, The Reversible Mask, is set during Elizabeth I’s reign. Let’s just jump right in…
What do you think modern readers will be able to relate to the most about Edward Latham, your story’s protagonist?
What a great question. His unmoored wanderings, as he struggles to find an effective place in a changing world. I hope readers will react in two ways: if their lives are stable, his vicissitudes will be all the more vivid; but if they have any discomfort about compromises they’ve made, if they’ve colored over the edges, hopefully they’ll recognize themselves in him, love him and root for him. I’ve heard both responses from readers.
If you could go back in time and ask Elizabeth I one question, what would it be, when would you ask it, and why?
Whatever I ask she wouldn’t answer, of course. I’d go back to 1593 and ask about her destruction of two documents. The first is the log book from Sir Francis Drake’s three-year circumnavigation of the world 1577-80. Historians pieced it together from other accounts. Her reason was obvious: to allow her to deny Spain’s true charges that Drake attacked their posts in the New World. The other document was one by the man on whom Edward Latham is based, Sir Anthony Standen. When Standen was blown as a double agent and returned to England, Elizabeth demanded an account of his actions abroad before he could be invited back to court. He wrote his account. Reportedly it was delivered but has disappeared. Despite his important service to her before the Armada attack, she was unfriendly toward him from then on. Now, that’s tantalizing! Elizabeth didn’t hide stuff, she got rid of it. But her thoroughness has robbed future generations.
Which research tools do you most recommend to other writers approaching historical fiction projects?
I’m a new writer, so I have much more to learn than to offer anyone else. There are great academic articles; primary documents; art, sport, and literature of the time; law trials. Public libraries with inter-library loan capacities did the most for me in this novel, but being in a community of writers like the Historical Novel Society also brings tremendous resources and ideas. What’s on the internet has to be checked out.
Any chance that you’ll someday indulge us in a tale starring Sir Francis Drake or one of the other Elizabethan sea dogs?
He does figure in my sequel, which revolves around a little known but important action of 1589, the year after the Spanish Armada. But so much has been done on Drake. He used to be a childhood fantasy companion of mine. When we were stuck in daily traffic jams, I imagined him scoffing at all those smoke-belching tail pipes, stuck even through green lights. What amused him was that we’d invented this thing that went 100 mph but didn’t make roads to accommodate them when the need was greatest, going to work and coming home.
Your discography is impressive, especially to someone like me who grew up listening to and performing classical music. What role does music play in your writing, if any?
Music affected my perception quite a bit. As I read about Elizabeth I, who was a good musician, I felt that she acted polyphonically, not linearly, in politics. I always saw three or more moving lines in her manipulations. That was my original fascination with her, what I thought other interpreters didn’t capture, at least for me. I try to convey that side of her in the novel. She saved polyphonic music for England, by adding a clause to The Religious Settlement of 1559 banning the dismantling of endowed choirs. Radical Protestants resented her for it, but composers like Byrd and Tallis wouldn’t have thrived without it. A lot of great music wouldn’t exist without that clause. There are also music-oriented scenes in my novel. Latham’s love for Barbara Blomberg was stimulated by music. Blomberg was the greatest singer of her age, her voice made her Emperor Charles V’s mistress. I make her an amalgam of Joan Sutherland’s voice with a temperament of composers I’ve worked with. And Latham learns about Edmund Campion’s execution, a pivot point in the novel, from church bells and a balladeer’s song.
Readers of my blog know that I’m notorious for my views of how swords and swordsmanship are portrayed in fiction and film. What are your biggest pet peeves about historical fiction and movies?
The sexualization of love. There are many kinds and shades of love; love objects can be ideas or institutions as well as people. I often long for these nuances.
Who are your favorite fiction authors and books? How have they influenced your writing?
Where to begin? We didn’t include a bibliography in The Reversible Mask, but I’d be happy to send it to any interested reader. I could pick out four of my favorite historical novels. The Daughters of Mars by Thomas Keneally is about provincial Australian nurses who enlist in World War I, drawn from diaries in the military archives. The whole experience evolves through their unprepared eyes; no editorializing or explanations. I can’t say enough how much that impressed me. Other books I like are Bernard Cornwell’s second of the Arthurian trilogy, The Enemy of God, with its plausible first person narrator in the warrior/monk Derfel. I love his deconstruction of Lancelot. Then Patrick O’Brien’s Napoleonic series,where the eighteenth century language enfolds us completely. Coming to the present, Adrienne Dillard’s Cor Rotto, a novel of Catherine Carey, is a beautifully unsentimental portrayal of a noblewoman who survived sixteen childbirths.
Thank you so much, Loretta!
Summer 1566. A glittering royal progress approaches Oxford. A golden age of prosperity, scientific advances, exploration and artistic magnificence. Elizabeth I’s Protestant government has much to celebrate.
But one young Catholic courtier isn’t cheering.
Conflicting passions—patriotism and religion—wage war in his heart. On this day, religion wins. Sir Edward Latham throws away his title, kin, and country to serve Catholic monarchs abroad.
But his wandering doesn’t quiet his soul, and when Europe’s religious wars threaten his beloved England and his family, patriotism prevails. Latham switches sides and becomes a double agent for Queen Elizabeth. Life turns complicated and dangerous as he balances protecting country and queen, while entreating both sides for peace.
Intrigue, lust, and war combine in this thrilling debut historical novel from Loretta Goldberg.
An Australian-American, Goldberg earned a BA in English Literature, Musicology and History at the University of Melbourne, Australia. After teaching English Literature at the Department of English for a year, she risked all, coming to the USA on a Fulbright scholarship to study piano with Claudio Arrau. Her discography consists of nine commercial recordings, now in over seven hundred libraries. She premiered an unknown work by Franz Liszt on an EMI HMV (Australian Division) album, and her edition of the score for G. Schirmer is in its third edition. Concurrently, she built a financial services practice, which she sold recently to focus on writing. Her published non-fiction pieces consist of articles on financial planning, arts reviews and political satire. She earned an MA (music performance) from Hunter College, New York; and a Chartered Life Underwriter degree from the American College, Pennsylvania. Member of the Historical Novel Society, New York Chapter, she started and runs their published writer public reading series at the landmark Jefferson Market Library.
Yesterday, I discovered some notes I took about a harrowing incident that happened to my dad on February 6, 1956 when he was working for the State Department at an office in Thessaloniki, Greece. Every step of the story he relayed is a monument to what a fecking idjit my father was, even at the age of 28. I’m not kidding. He does so many colossally stupid, dangerous things, you can’t begin to feel sorry for him. Still, there’s enough here that I can fictionalize the hell out of it and turn it into a wee spy thriller short story.
The 1953 Refugee Relief Act
Meanwhile, I’m looking into some of the statements my dad made, namely about the 1953 Refugee Relief Act for which he was conducting investigations of applicants for visas. A 1954 report from the CIA (declassified in 2006) about that act provided definitions of refugee, escapee, and expellee. I don’t know what the current legal definitions are, but this is a fascinating window into the past.
What’s definitely of interest is that it seems the U.S. only recognized European and Asian countries in this CIA report. No countries south of the border, in the Middle East, or on the African continent are part of the refugee program. They even define refugees as people who are displaced due to either natural disasters or military action. An escapee, however, is a refugee escaping a Communist country or Communist-occupied area. The Cold War was certainly foremost on their minds.
“Give me your tired, your poor, your thoroughly investigated”
That said, the government failed to provide adequate financial support to staff the overseas operations necessary to process the proposed “preference quotas.” However, the appointed Administrator — Edward Corsi — sounded (unrealistically) optimistic that they’d surpass the quotas by the following year. He doesn’t say why. This is especially interesting given that he was in the middle of a fight with Congress. Before he was dismissed for being involved in a Communist group, Corsi went on record as saying that the law was being “wholly dominated by psychology of security” and the applicants were being “investigated to death.” *
Sound familiar? It’s sad to think at that point it was already more “American” to be paranoid than welcoming.
Perfect Window into the Past
I wish I’d been able to ask my dad more questions, but our relationship was already worn thin. It’s probably okay, though. This perfect window into the past gives me more than enough for personal education and imaginative exploration.
English professor Lila Maclean knew drama would be involved when she agreed to consult on Stonedale University’s production of Puzzled: The Musical. But she didn’t expect to find herself cast into such chaos: the incomprehensible play is a disaster, the crumbling theater appears to be haunted, and, before long, murder takes center stage.
The show must go on—yet as they speed toward opening night, it becomes clear that other members of the company may be targeted as well. Lila searches for answers while contending with a tenacious historical society, an eccentric playwright, an unsettling psychic, an enigmatic apparition, and a paranormal search squad. With all of this in play, will she be able to identify who killed her colleague…or will it soon be curtains for Lila too?
“Lila Maclean returns with theatrical hilarity and otherworldly suspense. A fabulous backstage whodunit.” — Gretchen Archer, USA Today bestselling and Agatha Award-nominated author of the Davis Way Crime Caper Series
“An A+ academic mystery! This delightful cozy deserves extra credit for its clever protagonist, laugh-out-loud dramatics, and layers of mystery. Add in ghostly intrigue and a haunted opera house, and The Spirit in Question is the perfect Halloween read.” — Nora Page, author of the Bookmobile Mysteries
“Murder, protests and a haunted theater–Stonedale University English professor Lila Maclean deals with it all with wit and humor in The Spirit In Question, a must-read for cozy mystery fans.” –Sybil Johnson, author of the Aurora Anderson Mysteries
“Delightful heroine Lila and her supporting cast conjure a fun show stopper in The Spirit in Question. Old scandals, new rivalries, a ghostly menace–and a determined killer will keep readers puzzling over whodunit until the final act.” –Vickie Fee, author of the Liv & Di in Dixie Mysteries
Cynthia Kuhn writes the Lila Maclean Academic Mystery series: The Semester of Our Discontent, an Agatha Award recipient for Best First Novel; The Art of Vanishing, a Lefty Award nominee for Best Humorous Mystery; and The Spirit in Question. Her work has also appeared in McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, Literary Mama, Copper Nickel, Prick of the Spindle, Mama PhD, and other publications. She is professor of English at Metropolitan State University of Denver and president of Sisters in Crime-Colorado. For more information, please visit cynthiakuhn.net.
Hi everyone! Today, I have the joy of interviewing author S.L. Huang who sold her action-packed, self-published Amazon series to Tor, starting with Zero Sum Game. More about the book soon, but first onto the questions.
Congratulations on selling your series to Tor! You started this series as a self-published author, which gives you a lot of creative and financial control. What factored into your decision to sell the publication rights to a traditional publisher?
A few reasons. First of all, I’d discovered that I was not actually that good at self-publishing. I think I did a great job writing a book people loved and releasing it with top-notch production value, but it turned out I was not at all good at the sales-driving aspects. More importantly, I was not a fast enough writer to do well in self-publishing—I was only able to put out a book every nine months, whereas in self-publishing, it’s hard to do well if you’re going longer than three or four months between releases.
Meanwhile, I’d started working in short fiction and found that working with an editor and publisher suited me extremely well, and I love it!
So when I managed to get a fantastic agent and he asked me if I wanted to look into getting a traditional deal, I said yes. He was confident he could get me an incredible contract—which he did, and that’s why I said yes!
And I haven’t regretted it. I love my editor, and Tor has given me an unbelievable amount of support—I think the book is better than it’s ever been and is going to go to much greater heights.
Having a degree in mathematics (and probably loads of related classes like physics) must give you a lot to work with when getting Cas in and out of trouble. How do you know when to let up on the math and let in the muse?
My first draft I was actually worried about putting too much math in, so I went very light on the math details. My first readers, none of whom where math people, told me to add more! They said it didn’t matter to them that they didn’t understand it, but they wanted the texture of it, because in the book it’s so fun. I was delighted to oblige them.
Believe it or not, I can’t use a whole lot of my background for the little details—I didn’t, for example, take classes in the mathematics of exploding buildings or how blood spatters when someone is murdered. So I have to do a lot of research for each new bit of overpowered mathematics my main character works in the series, and often end up scribbling in a notebook to do the equations for real and figure out what’s possible.
Do you know where your towel is? If so, where did you buy it?
I do, and I didn’t buy it, I won it in a Japanese speech contest by talking about the tooth fairy. (True story. 歯の妖精.)
I frequently wrap it around my head to ward off the Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal.
What’s your favorite real-life hand gun and why?
A Belgian-made Browning Hi-Power in nine-millimeter. It is my very favorite gun.
As someone who’s worked in theatrical combat, you probably know that every fight tells a story. What’s your favorite screen or fiction fight? And how did that make you a better writer?
Oh, I 100% agree about fights telling stories! To me, the least interesting fights are usually two people whaling on each other with no stakes or relationship behind it.
It’s hard to pick a favorite fictional fight, but in my top handful would be the sword fights in The Princess Bride, and they were certainly one of the most illuminating to young S.L. Huang’s understanding of how fights work in narrative. When I was a kid, I was watching a commentary track in which some of the creators talk about the fight between Inigo and The Man in Black as being the second-best fight in cinema—after the fight scene between Inigo and Count Rugen, which comes at the end of the film. I didn’t understand what they meant by that until I’d started studying fight choreography.
If you’ve never seen the movie, the Inigo/Man In Black sword fight is the flashier, longer, funnier one. The technicality of the fight choreography is incredible, and it’s a great lesson in how to write a long clashing of swords in a way that still keeps unfolding in an entertaining manner.
But it doesn’t match the stakes of the second fight. Inigo and the Man In Black are nearly equal in blade mastery and not truly invested in killing the other; their fight functions like a very skillful and entertaining dance. Whereas in the Inigo/Rugen fight, Inigo is the clearly superior swordsman . . . but he’s also bleeding to death in three places while trying to complete the revenge quest that has consumed his entire life since age eleven.
The choreography and performance of the first sword fight is nothing short of marvelous. But the choreography in the second is much more entrenched in story and character and stakes in a way that was a revelation to me when I figured it out!
Who have been your favorite fight masters with whom you’ve either worked or studied? And how have they influenced your storytelling?
I’ve studied fighting nearly everywhere I’ve lived, and the amount I’ve learned from some truly incredible fight masters would take too long to list here. And of course on movie sets I’ve worked for stunt coordinators and fight choreographers who are the top of the field.
But I’ll say that one of the most significant and influential fight instructors I’ve had is still my first: Ted Hewlett, whom I credit with giving me a deep foundation and formative understanding that helped shape the rest of my career. It was Ted who first taught me about how much the characters’ relationship impacts how arresting a fight is going to be to an audience. He also taught me that the more two characters love each other, the more painfully they can hurt each other.
Who are your most beloved authors?
Oh, this question is always overwhelming because I feel like I could easily list twenty names and still be leaving people out. So how about I give a little overview of the stories and authors that have blown me away lately?
Books I’ve read in the past few months that I’ve especially enjoyed include Death’s End by Cixin Liu, translated by Ken Liu (last sequel to The Three Body Problem); Kintu by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi; All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders; The SEA Is Ours: Tales of Steampunk Southeast Asia, edited by Jaymee Goh and Joyce Chng; Alice Payne Arrives, by Kate Heartfield; and Trail of Lightning, by Rebecca Roanhorse.
I’m also a big short story reader. Some of my favorite short story writers include K.M. Szpara, JY Yang, A. Merc Rustad, Alyssa Wong, Isabel Yap, and S. Qiouyi Lu. I highly encourage people to check them out as well!
You, S.L. Huang, have to kidnap Batman with what you have at your place right now. How do you do it?
This might be the best question I’ve ever been asked.
I’ll have to be creative, because I just moved back to the U.S. from Japan and I have hardly anything in my new apartment yet. I only barely got a mattress. So this is how it’s going to go:
I invite Batman over to my place to see my trampoline, dropping my MIT cred and claiming it’s a new especially-bouncy trampoline that will help him leap up onto balconies. While he’s looking at it and determining that it is not, in fact, any sort of a special trampoline at all, I whack him over the head with a math textbook.
While he’s dazed I stuff his mouth full of the levothyroxin I take for my dysfunctional thyroid, a medication that I have just been assured causes “confusion, shock, and light coma” if taken in overdose. I gag him with my Japanese towel so he has to swallow, and then I wrap him in my hammock, tie it shut, and drag him to a proper hiding place.
Supplies needed: trampoline, math textbook, levothyroxin, aforementioned Japanese towel, and hammock, all of which were clearly so essential to me that they beat a mattress into my apartment!
Awesome! Thanks, Lisa!
Check out Lisa’s book:
A blockbuster, near-future science fiction thriller, S.L. Huang’s Zero Sum Game introduces a math-genius mercenary who finds herself being manipulated by someone possessing unimaginable power…
Cas Russell is good at math. Scary good. The vector calculus blazing through her head lets her smash through armed men twice her size and dodge every bullet in a gunfight, and she’ll take any job for the right price. As far as Cas knows, she’s the only person around with a superpower…until she discovers someone with a power even more dangerous than her own. Someone who can reach directly into people’s minds and twist their brains into Moebius strips. Someone intent on becoming the world’s puppet master. Cas should run, like she usually does, but for once she’s involved.
There’s only one problem… She doesn’t know which of her thoughts are her own anymore.
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