What’s Making Me Happy: June 2016

I have no trouble at all choosing what’s making me happiest. My new novel Nightmare Lullaby is now available in print as well as on Kindle, so all those who have yet to join the E-Book Revolution, including my own parents, have a chance to read it. I’m very proud of my first novel, Atterwald, and I’m firmly convinced everyone with a taste for fantasy should read it. But Nightmare Lullaby, dare I say it, is an even better book, a step forward, and its existence delights me beyond expression.

Among other things making me smile this month:

The Mary Sue.

I spend more time rifling through favorite websites like Goodreads, LibraryThing, and TV Tropes than is good for me, but this site is special to me because it cares about what I care about, namely cool women doing cool stuff in the areas of speculative-fiction print, film, and television as well as real-life science, technology, and the arts. I single it out this month because of a post last week from author Rachel Dunne, in which she expresses a yearning for more “nontriarchies” — that is, worlds that lack prescribed gender roles — in science fiction and fantasy. As I read it, I saw my own preferences and desires in her words and felt a little less alone (as, ideally, all good reading makes us feel). So glad more than one of us wants to see both male and female characters freed from the constraints of oft-repeated gender-based conflict! No more battles of the sexes, please, or at least fewer such battles! Now, if only other writers would heed our pleas.

Updraft.

Fran Wilde’s debut novel offers just such a “nontriarchy,” a world in which both men and women occupy various roles in society and no one’s competence is questioned because of his/her gender. I moved this new YA fantasy to the top rung of my To-Read ladder after I read an review on Tor.com that described it as an ideal book for fans of legendary anime film director Hayao Miyazaki.The description is dead-on, as I found in it interesting and pleasing echoes of one of my favorites of his films, Nausicaa and the Valley of Wind. First, it’s set in a society in which people are divided into “towers” and navigate the skies on manufactured wings, and this world is regularly threatened by monstrous creatures nobody quite understands. Second, its heroine, Kirit, who like the titular Nausicaa knows how to read the wind, discovers the true nature of the threat and takes responsibility for doing something about it. Kirit is that rare YA fantasy heroine whose story does not revolve around romance, and in fact does not even include it; she has too many vital things on her mind to worry about whether this or that or the other cute boy likes her. The YA fantasy genre could do with a few more like her.

Children of Earth and Sky.

I first discovered Guy Gavriel Kay when I stumbled across A Song for Arbonne among the bargain books at Books-a-Million. I was just getting into fantasy at the time but I was already an avid reader of historical fiction, so I happily entered a world clearly modeled after medieval France, with its troubadours and courtly customs — only it wasn’t quite France. I got my first taste of historical fantasy, in which the past is not quite our past but the magical and supernatural elements are muted, if present at all. Since then I’ve read some of Kay’s more overtly fantastical works, The Fionavar Tapestry, in which a quartet of college students are transported into a world that includes unicorns, vampires, gryphons, and King Arthur, and Tigana, in which freedom fighters are pitted against invading sorcerers in a country that looks a little like the fragmented Italy of yore. But my favorite work of his, thus far, has been The Lions of Al-Rassan, which like A Song for Arbonne discards supernatural elements as it tells a story of the bond forged by three protagonists of different faiths in a quasi-medieval Spain.

Imagine my glee when I learned his new book, Children of Earth and Sky, would be set in the same pseudo-Europe as Lions, with the same religious conflicts, only on a grander scale. I’m only halfway into it, so I can’t say too much in terms of plot, but so far I’m relishing the political wheeling and dealing and the efforts of basically decent characters to retain their basic decency as they’re caught up in the underhanded goings-on. Sometimes fantasy that reads like historical fiction is just what I’m hungry for, and Kay delivers.

The Tony Awards.

It occurs to me that since I started this blog, I’ve not yet had occasion to express my love for Broadway musicals. I grew up listening to my parents’ Original Broadway Cast albums of everything from Rodgers & Hammerstein to Stephen Sondheim to Bock & Harnick. I still have strong memories of hearing Damn Yankees and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and A Little Night Music when I went down for naps. Every year I take advantage of YouTube and iTunes to learn as much as possible about the new musicals. Is it any wonder that the Tony Awards are appointment television each year, far more anticipated than the Oscars?

This year, Tony Award evening, 6/12, followed a very bleak day, which began with a brutal hate crime in Orlando, FL. There was talk of postponing the ceremony, and when it proceeded as usual, we all tuned in with Orlando very much on our minds. Yet as it turned out, we could have found no better or more satisfying contrast to the bigotry-motivated nightmare of that morning than the joyous, open-hearted diversity of the Broadway community, on full display at the Tonys — nominees of color in every category, women as creative forces behind two of the year’s Best Musical nominees (Waitress and Bright Star), and an unmistakable aura of love throughout. Plus, there wasn’t a single musical moment I didn’t enjoy. The singing and dancing of the marvelous diva Audra McDonald makes everything just a little better; I liked seeing Andrew Lloyd Webber nominated for a fun project (School of Rock) rather than a super-serious one; and I learned how effectively the Battle of Yorktown might be fought without the use of prop guns. (Skeptical of the use of very contemporary musical styles to tell a historical story, and not a fan of rap or hip-hop, I was taken by surprise by Hamilton, as I imagine a lot of people were.) That night, I feel, Broadway represented the best of America.

I’ll let Broadway have the last word.

 

 

Superhero Movies and a History of Disappointment

Since Tom Holland’s Spider-Man (Peter Parker, cinema version 3) made his first engaging appearance in Captain America: Civil War, everyone, it seems, is stoked for his forthcoming solo film, Spider-Man: Homecoming. Even those who didn’t see why we needed a third go-around with the Peter Parker incarnation of Spider-Man seem to have been won over. In my lack of excitement I feel conspicuously alone, because even though I did appreciate the first two Spider-Man films starring Tobey Maguire and directed by Sam Raimi, I have never been happy with the characterization of women in any of the Peter Parker movies. Mary Jane exists to charm and bewilder Peter and get captured and need rescuing. As for Gwen, the love interest of Andrew Garfield’s Peter Parker — Gwen Stacy, party of one, your refrigerator is ready.

I have little hope for anything better from this new reboot, because while active and useful heroines may be part of the Spider-verse, none of them exist on the same plane as Peter Parker. The Marvel Cinematic Universe’s choice of Peter as their Spider-Man makes it all but inevitable that any important female character will be relegated to the role of love interest/distressed damsel. To give her more to do, the writers would have to diverge sharply from the comic-book source material, which I doubt they will.

Truthfully, comic books and graphic novels in general have lately been far more generous to female characters, and female readers, than their cinematic counterparts have been. In recent days, readers of comics have been treated to the exploits of a number of interesting female heroes, including the dashing soldier Carol Danvers, a.k.a. Captain Marvel, the awkward and brainy adolescent Kamala Khan, a.k.a. Ms. Marvel, and the courageous though often befuddled legal eagle Jennifer Walters, a.k.a. She-Hulk. (I can’t speak as much about the DC side of things, because I admit that where graphic novels are concerned, I’m more of a Marvel girl.) But while women and girls may be saving the day on the page, on the screen they continue to be cast as sidekicks if they’re lucky, damsels if they’re not.

As sidekicks, or as Sky High dubs them, “hero support,” the ladies get to be somewhat useful and get in a few strong punches for Team Good, even if they’re not the difference-makers at the climax. My favorite of these is Peggy Carter, as she appears in Captain America: The First Avenger, but since I’ve already devoted an entire blog post to her, I’ll move on to other examples. I haven’t watched Deadpool yet, but I have it on authority that Negasonic Teenage Warhead is an effective sidekick who inflicts her share of damage on the bad guys. Characters like Gamora in Guardians of the Galaxy and Black Widow in the Avengers films also qualify as sidekicks even though they’re ostensibly members of hero teams, because male heroes lead those teams even though the women have their awesome moments. (Interestingly, I find Black Widow to be her most badass in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, in which she’s clearly hero support for the title character yet still comes across as a powerful force; I still smile when I remember Scarlett Johannson’s delivery of the line, “Did I step on your moment?”)

What distinguishes the sidekick from the damsel isn’t really the need to be rescued; although my girl Peggy miraculously evades the cliche, both Gamora and Black Widow end up in need of rescue at different points in their stories. But those scenes are not all we remember about them. Those instances don’t define them. We see that if they were only given the chance, they could be the heroes of their own stories. That’s why Peggy Carter got her own TV series (let us observe a moment of regretful silence for the Season 3 that will never be), and why fans have been clamoring for a solo movie for Black Widow.

Nobody will ever cry out for a movie or a TV show with Spider Man‘s Mary Jane Watson or Superman‘s Lois Lane as protagonists, because these characters could not exist apart from the superheroes to whom they’re attached. One is an actress and the other is a reporter, so we must assume they lead somewhat full lives when we’re not watching — but when we are watching, what they’re doing is getting into trouble they can’t get out of and relying on their men to save them. Lois, to be fair, often gets to uncover vital information before she’s rendered helpless, and then gets to deliver that information to those who need to know it once she’s been rescued; I do like Margot Kidder’s version of Lois, as well as the one voiced by Dana Delany in Superman: the Animated Series, both of whom are quite fearless in pursuit of a by-line. Yet still, when we think of the character, we think first and foremost of someone repeatedly in need of rescue. Mary Jane is a far worse case, since at least Lois usually gets captured while trying to get a story, whereas the villains capture Mary Jane not because of anything she does but because it will make Spider Man unhappy. And what, after all, does anyone remember about Peter Parker’s other major love interest, Gwen Stacy? Spoiler Alert! (Unless, of course, we’re dealing with the alternate universe in which Gwen is “Spider-Gwen” — but the new movie can’t go there.)

Yet whether the women in superhero movies are useful, competent sidekicks or ineffectual damsels, there is one thing they never get to be: the heroes who lead the way. No matter how capable the women may be, men are always the difference-makers at the climax. Marvel’s Ant-Man even uses this as a plot point: hero-ing is men’s work, and women who long to enter the fray just have to pack their patience. (Female fans eager to see a female hero are told the same thing, though not in so many words, as the planned big-screen adaptation of Captain Marvel is pushed back to make room for the new Spider-Man films.) I remember all too clearly watching the animated superhero comedy Mega-Mind, in which the titular villain is desperate to create a hero because he’s bored without opposition, and wondering why it never occurred to him, or apparently to anyone else, to bestow superpowers on the plucky girl reporter Roxanne, whose heart was obviously in the right place whereas his eventual choice’s was not. What quality essential to super-heroism did Roxanne lack? A Y chromosome.

One superhero film stands out as a possible exception, one without a pre-existing comic book incarnation: Pixar’s 2004 hit The Incredibles. In the movie’s first half, Mr. Incredible, a.k.a. Bob Parr, a superhero forced by our litigious society to do time as an insurance salesman, is the clear protagonist, but the second half opens up to include his wife, daughter, and oldest son. They might seem like sidekicks at first glance, but no. For me, the movie is really the story of Violet Parr, a painfully insecure tween whose ability to turn invisible is symbolic of her longing to hide from the world, but who, despite major failures early on, evolves into a force (and force-field builder) to be reckoned with. All four heroes are essential to the action at the climax, but who gets the final moment of awesome near the end, shielding her family from certain death? Violet. That’s my girl.

Twelve years after The Incredibles, I’m still holding out for a big-screen superheroine. If Spider-Man: Homecoming should prove me wrong and not follow its predecessors’ examples when it comes to female characters, I will be lavish in my apologies. But for now, I say — new Peter Parker movie? No, thanks; I’ll be over here reading my Captain Marvel graphic novel.

 

Not This Again: New Things I’d Like to Try

In my previous post I wrote of two big character types to which I keep returning, and I chose them deliberately as types I have no intention of abandoning anytime soon, intending to look for variety within the types. But the question that naturally follows is, “What haven’t I done yet, that I want to do? That I feel I should do?” I have, I hope, quite a lot of writing left to do, and I’m looking ahead to things and people I hope/plan to include in my future work.

A nonwhite protagonist.

Some white writers may hold themselves back from trying their hands at nonwhite lead characters out of fear of “getting it wrong.” But if we’re writing fantasy, should that really hold us back? Fantasy does not demand we be true to the social constructs of the real world, only that we be true to the worlds we create and hold to the rules we set for them. Why, then, should we hesitate to fashion worlds with diverse racial make-up, and within those worlds create lead characters outside the white Anglo-Saxon medieval-Europe model? I already have concrete, immediate plans in this direction. When those characters appear, I may after all have some critics here and there accuse me of “getting it wrong.” I’ll fight that battle when the time comes. In the meantime, my characters will be what their story demands.

An optimistic hero.

In both Atterwald and Nightmare Lullaby, my male leads are in bad situations when we meet them, and neither holds out much hope that matters will improve. Both are given to brooding, perhaps an inevitable side effect of my younger-days enthusiasm for sullen romantic heroes like Pride and Prejudice‘s Mr. Darcy and Jane Eyre‘s Mr. Rochester. Yet even though I’ve enjoyed their company as I’ve followed them through their stories, as I look ahead to my next major project I’m planning to try a different kind of hero, one who is driven early on by his enthusiasm for something (in his case, dragons, one of which has saved him from drowning) and who, despite a few problems in his situation, basically enjoys his life. His easygoing equanimity will of course be disrupted later on, but he will meet the challenges that rise to block his path with a sense of hope. Can I make this character as compelling as my brooding sad souls? I look forward to finding out.

An “action girl” heroine.

I adore my bardic introverts, but so far, neither of the heroines of my novels has been very action-oriented (though Nightmare Lullaby‘s Meliroc, given her size, could have managed to hold her own in a fight). They may save the day, but not through combat. A girl doesn’t have to kick butt physically in order to be a badass, but all the same, at some point I might like to try my hand at a more rough-and-tumble tomboy who can wield a sword or staff or bow and arrow with the best of them. Need she be a warrior? I don’t have a war story anywhere near my head right now, and I may have to accept that such stories really aren’t, as the saying goes, “in my wheelhouse.” Yet my “action girl” heroine could be a bodyguard, or a keeper of the peace. (She’ll probably still be an introvert, though.)

A non-hetero romantic plot.

Because I persistently gravitate toward female leads in my writing, it will likely feature two women falling in love. While I’ve been pleased to see a growing number of happy, healthy male/male relationships in fiction (e.g. Captain Holt and his husband Kevin in my favorite sitcom, Brooklyn Nine-Nine), I’ve noticed that while those couples may get happy endings, romantic relationships between two women tend to end in tragedy, with one or both the women getting killed. (Blindspot, though I will follow it into Season 2, lost major points with me when it killed off its lesbian character, and as I understand it, she’s far from the only such TV character to meet such a fate.) I may be taking a risk — can it really be a Spoiler if the story isn’t written yet? — but I hereby pledge that when I write my story of two women in love, both of them will survive.

A female protagonist who doesn’t fall in love.

Any female protagonist of mine will of course forge vital relationships with those around her, since I find stories of characters who are essentially islands unto themselves, interacting superficially with those they meet and never coming to care about any of them, quite boring. But do those relationships have to be romantic, and do those romantic relationships have to take over the book? Entirely too often, when writers create female lead characters, they would answer “yes” to both those questions. Readers of fantasy and science fiction pick up on the prevalence and come away with the idea that while a male protagonist may complete his journey without falling in love, a female protagonist can’t. Some readers who dislike romance may automatically turn up their noses at female leads.

Thus far, I’ve been as guilty as any other writer of making romance a central feature of my heroines’ stories, and when I cast my mind ahead to future projects, romantic plots keep cropping up. Yet in time, a story will present itself to me in which romance just isn’t needed. When it’s done well, romance is wonderful. But it does not have to be, as Lord Byron asserts in Don Juan, “woman’s whole existence.”

This Again: Elements That Keep Turning Up In My Fiction

Some while ago I listened to a podcast episode devoted to world-building, on which the guests were Helen Lowe, Courtney Schafer, and Kate Elliott. Elliott, whose Spiritwalker Trilogy is one of my favorite reads of the past ten years, noted that a friend of hers called her attention to the recurring appearance of a certain type of character in her work, the intensely “pretty” male lead. The comment gave her some pause, as she hadn’t quite realized she’d been writing this type again and again. Yet after some thought, she decided it wasn’t really a problem and she should “go with it.”

The podcast confirmed what I’ve often thought: that writers have certain character types and/or themes to which we keep returning. These types and themes don’t exactly define us, but they certainly delight us, and rather than abandoning them, we can focus on finding inventive ways to employ them. Now that I have two novels, four short stories, and an abundance of Atlanta Radio Theatre Company scripts to my credit, I think it worth my while to take stock and pinpoint the features that keep insinuating themselves into my work.

The Heroine as Introvert

When I notice something missing from the stories I’ve been given for much of my life, it’s quite natural that my imagination should seek to fill the gap. One type I never saw represented enough in the movies or TV shows I watched as a teen was the female introvert. Boys could be loners, but girls always had to be super-social, concerned with popularity and dating above all else. Books may have offered better, but with the exception of Anne of Green Gables, I didn’t read books about teens when I was a teen. (I’m not sure what this might say, but I’ve read far more books about teens, specifically teens in fantasy settings, since I became an adult.) The message I kept getting from other media was that while boys might have or find something of their own, some interest or ambition that might carry them forward into the future, girls were supposed to live for and through others, be they love interests or peer groups. But this wasn’t how I saw myself, or even how I wanted to see myself. Is it any wonder that more introverted female characters began to take shape in my fancy, to convince me they could indeed exist?

Introverted does not have to mean anti-social. An introvert may have a variety of traits and interests. All that really binds introverts together is a keen understanding of the value of solitude. I’ve never really been drawn to the introversion that expresses itself in bitter black-clad alienation (which some people mistakenly believe defines the introvert) or in passive navel-gazing. The introverts that draw me, in others’ fiction as well as my own, are those for whom solitude offers food for creativity and innovation — which brings me to my next frequently recurring element:

The Heroine as Artist

One of the first bardic (creative) characters I loved as a child was Hans Christian Andersen, not the historical figure but the singing storyteller played by Danny Kaye in the 1952 film. As I got a little older I noticed his flaws — his hunger for recognition, his insensitivity — yet oddly enough, those made me like him more. The trouble was I didn’t want to marry him. I wanted to be him, and it didn’t take me long to notice there weren’t any female singing storytellers around. Not until much later did I learn that women storytellers played vital roles in a number of cultures and that Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm actually got most of the tales in their famous Nursery and Household Tales from women.

Yet when I was in middle school, I had my first meeting with a heroine who convinced me that girls, too, might spin wonders through the power of imagination — Jo March, of Alcott’s Little Women. Here was a wild, temperamental mess of a girl who loved stories and story-making as much as Hans Christian Andersen did, and as much as I was beginning to. I wanted, and still want, more Jo Marches, more Anne Shirleys, more Francie Nolans, and still later, more Menollys of Harper Hall. I have yet to discover any reason why I shouldn’t create them myself.

Of all the creative skills I do not possess, playing a musical instrument is the one I most covet, but if I can’t be a female instrumentalist, I can certainly write about them. Hope in The House Across the Way, Nelly in Candle Magic, the heroine of Sarabande for a Condemned Man (whom I can’t name, being mindful of Spoilers), Nichtel in Atterwald, and Meliroc in Nightmare Lullaby all understand that a song, like a story or poem, can capture and interpret feeling. They are all in the business of drawing a glorious something from a dark well of nothing. While musician heroines have dominated my work thus far, I’m just getting started, and as I look ahead to my own creative future I can see the forms of heroines who are painters, poets, sculptors, potters, embroiderers, glass-shapers and glass-blowers, actors and playwrights and set designers… the list goes on. Any art that can be made, I will find a heroine to make it.

These elements are wide enough to give me room to keep employing them in new ways in different works. Yet what have I not yet done, that might be worth doing or present me with a rewarding challenge? Next up — Not This Again: Elements I’d Like to Try.

 

 

My Favorite Tall Heroines

True confession: I’m 5’3. By any standard that’s on the short side of average. Yet in recent years I’ve found myself particularly keen on stories that feature statuesque heroines — bonus points if they’re as tall as, if not taller than, their love interests (also oddly divergent from my own experience, since my husband is over six feet tall). Just where does this inclination come from? Why wouldn’t I be more interested in reading about heroines who look more like me?

I can date it from the time I started working on Nightmare Lullaby and found my imagination seized by my giantess heroine, Meliroc. As her story unfolded in my mind, I started to notice the ways tall women were, or weren’t, presented in fiction — often they’re cast as villains (something I’ve noted in an earlier post), sometimes they’re drawn as shallow supermodels, and almost always they’re presented as somehow unnatural. Taller-than-average women, I’ve realized, are underdogs in their own way, and the evidence is all around us, from criticisms of tennis superstar Serena Williams’ “mannish” physique to Geena Davis’ confiding to Jesse Thorn on NPR’s Bullseye podcast that as an unusually tall adolescent she often found herself wishing she could “take up less space in the world.”

So even though her struggle may not be my struggle, I take special satisfaction in seeing a tall heroine triumph over adversity. Here are some of my favorites:

Lady Sybil Ramkin Vimes, from Guards! Guards! etc. (Terry Pratchett). I’ve sung her praises in previous posts, but I can’t forbear to include her here. From her first appearance I knew I’d grow to love her: “Vimes knew that the barbarian hublander folk had legends about great chain-mailed, armour-bra’d, carthorse-riding maidens who swooped down on battlefields and carried off dead warriors on their cropper to a glorious roistering afterlife, while singing in a pleasant mezzo-soprano. Lady Ramkin could have been one of them. She could have led them. She could have carried off a battalion” (123).

Princess Bronwyn, from Bronwyn’s Bane (Elizabeth Ann Scarborough). Bronwyn has frost giant blood, so at twelve years old she already tops six feet, and she’s determined to be the fiercest sword-wielding warrior her country has ever seen. She has also been cursed never to tell the truth, so she has to think cleverly and quickly in order to get her thoughts across. (At one point she lets the boy she’s befriended know she wants to accompany him into danger by telling him, “My sword thirsts to assist you” — when of course her sword, being an inanimate object, has no feelings on the subject.) Despite her high rank, Bronwyn gets little respect from those she meets, but she lets nothing get her down for long, and on her journey she wins a best friend, a sweetheart, and a stronger sense of self.

Thianna, from Frostborn (Lou Anders). Her human mother is dead, so Thianna has been raised by her frost giant father — which makes her practically a midget in that community. Thianna fights with brash determination for her right to be considered a giantess, and when she finds herself among humans, nothing thrills her more than to hear people remark on her comparative hugeness. Thianna may be “the brawn” in comparison with her co-adventurer, the brainy human boy Karn, but as they face danger together she discovers she can be smart and cunning as well as strong and brave.

Norah Blackstone, from Bride of the Rat God (Barbara Hambly). A number of Hambly’s heroines are described as tall, including Starhawk and Sheera in The Ladies of Mandrigyn and Kyra in Stranger at the Wedding, but Norah, of all of them, is the most creative and introspective, a contrast to her petite, flamboyant sister-in-law Christine, a star of silent cinema. At first, Norah feels completely out of her depth in the glittering world into which she’s thrown, but over time she carves a niche for herself, discovering a knack for scenario writing and making a love connection with a cameraman who’s a few inches shorter than she is.

Princess Sarene, from Elantris (Brandon Sanderson). A political bride in a nation not her own, forced to consider herself “married” to a husband presumed dead, Sarene towers over everyone around her and is cursed with a painful sense of not-belonging. But even as she wonders if she’ll ever find a way to fit in, we see her kicking all manner of butt — defending her adopted country against both religious and military invasion, teaching the court ladies how to fence, and initiating a sea change in an oppressive economic system. In time she too comes to realize her worth. She also finds love, which here is a definite plus (though with her, as with Norah Blackstone, the romance is a vital part, but not the whole, of her story).