The Waste Land begins with a chapter titled The Burial of the Dead. The very first line says that ‘April is the cruellest month’. What an attention-grabbing start!
The 434-line poem is Eliot’s extended lament for the lost lives and the destruction of the 1914-1918 war. He’s talking about the collapse of civilised behaviour, the wanton wreckage, the widespread despair. And he does it in style.
When I got home from my walk, I looked up the poem, recalling that it includes dozens of splendid lines. Then I discovered (re-discovered?) that the poem’s first publication was in 1922.
Lo and behold, 2022 would be the centenary!
The idea of an anthology of Wasteland stories burst into my head. Wow! so many good lines there that are almost irresistible as story titles – for something in literary speculative fiction genres. (Literary spec fic? Think Margaret Attwood and Octavia Butler.) Look at these phrases for a start, all from The Waste Land:
a heap of broken images
they called me the hyacinth girl
looking into the heart of light
the barbarous king
are you alive, or not?
I’ve invited a select band of other active speculative fiction authors to write short stories springing from Eliot’s poem. I’m thrilled to say that we are a merry band of 19 writers. You can see more about them here.
‘From the Waste Land: speculative fiction inspired by Eliot’ will include ghost stories, fantasy, horror, steampunk, dystopia and queer romance. All will be intriguing and amazing tales.
I’m doing my best to ensure that this anthology will come out in the second half of 2022 to coincide with the poem’s centenary. I’m very busy querying publishers–no easy feat when we don’t actually have a completed manuscript on hand yet! And of course, I’m writing up a storm with my collaborators…
It’s going to be fabulous. Keep an eye peeled for more news about this wonderful project.
Darren Kasenkow is an Australian author whose work dances across the boundaries of literary fiction to bring together thematic elements ranging from dystopian horror, apocalyptic science fiction and existential suspense.
Darren’s also recently finished a collaboration with bestselling author V.E. Patton on a new adventure series ‘Beneath A Burning Heart’.
I’m excited to host Darren on my blog today. Welcome!
Tell us a bit about what inspires you.
Darren: Thanks so much for the opportunity to be a part of your amazing blog!! (You’re welcome and flattery will get you everywhere.)
Ever since I can remember, books have been important tools that have helped me to explore my place in this strange, mystifying universe. When I started writing, I instantly found it to be a magical way of feeling a greater connection with both my imagination and the world around me, and I haven’t looked back since!
I love exploring themes that are centred around the eternal battle between good and evil, whether that battle exists deep in our own heart or across the four corners of the Earth, and I really do believe that with every page I write (as dark as those pages might be!) I learn a little more about who I am.
Ah, the everlasting contest between good and evil – a never-ending inspiration for stories. That’s what makes your books so good!
We are very fortunate – Darren is sharing a sneak preview of
Godless–The Hallucigenia Project Book 2)
Let’s dive in!
The Hallucigenia Project
Book Two: Godless
The crystal walls of the cave beckoned with an electric blue promise of eternity just beyond the glistening frozen surface. A single floodlight was the only pitiful source of warmth beneath the machine carved dome, while beyond the shadows there came from the ice soft symphonies of gentle crazing and cracking.
It wasn’t a big cave. About the size of large bedroom, it held a small wooden desk with a rusted bar stool for a chair, a large chest locked tight with two padlocks, and a scattering of makeshift weightlifting equipment slapped together with wood, various discarded engine parts and buckets of frozen water. With an endless night and harrowing, heart breaking Antarctic winds howling back on the surface, it was a treasured place of retreat. At least, it was for Leon Bzovsky.
The Quantum Physicist wasn’t interested in working out for the moment though. No, for amid the dark and crushing events that had descended upon the remote South Pole it was time for the little ritual that kept his haunting urges at bay. They would rise eventually, but to do so now would be unwise.
“Come now friend,” he whispered softly with his rolling accent, “this is much fresher than the last.”
The Emperor penguin wobbled a little closer to the floodlight where Leon was perched on his knees with a small piece of meat resting in his open hand. It pecked at a corner of the offering and then stared up at the host through tiny black eyes.
“What’s the matter?” Leon asked with a hint of frustration. “It’s only a little ink. Nothing there that can hurt you, but beneath the colours there awaits life.”
The penguin pecked one last time but seemed decided on skipping this particular meal. To assure his friend no disrespect was intended it nestled against Leon’s thigh and gently closed its eyes, content for now in the knowledge there would come another offering in the near future. So, with a shrug of his solid shoulders and a soft tsk tsk tsk, Leon brought the flesh to his mouth and bit down hard. Certainly this was a little fresher than the last, but as the tissue and fat warmed against his tongue there was a distinct bitterness that bordered on being unpleasant.
“Yes,” he mumbled while stroking the penguin’s head, “I see what you mean.”
The silent, vacuum-like ambience of the cavern was suddenly violated by three loud thumps against the makeshift entrance door. Leon quickly swallowed the barely chewed lump and turned his head in frustration. His moment of treasured solitude, it seemed, had come to an end.
With a sharp scraping sound accompanied with falling chunks of ice, the door pushed open and in an instant the harrowing screams of the winds rushed the cave walls. A tall, hulking figure stepped through and then pulled back his hood with thick, snow covered gloves. Leon wasn’t surprised to see that it was Salvador, one half of the remaining security division and a seasoned survivalist from Finland. He was, however, suddenly curious at expression the towering man brought with him, for it was one he hadn’t seen before.
It was an expression of fear.
Leon patted his special friend one last time and rose tall. Already the winds were turning the conditions in his retreat dangerous, and yet the door remained open.
“It seems even at a time like this I cannot enjoy a little time alone,” he remarked while zipping up his jacket.
“We come to the remote edge of the world and still you want more?” Salvador asked with a hint of pity. “Walk one mile in any direction and you’ll have your peace soon enough.”
“Perhaps, but it’s not peace I seek.”
Salvador studied the physicist for a moment, then pushed back thick blonde hair when a wind gust threw it across his eyes.
“You’re wanted back inside,” he announced. “There’s something you need to see.”
Leon nodded his understanding then slipped the thermal hood over his head, lifted cold wool across his face until only his eyes were visible, and mounted a headlamp that was fastened tight around his ears. Behind him the penguin scurried to the nest that had been chipped into the far wall as if performing a ballet for the visitor, and then Leon pushed on thick gloves, reached down, and returned the cave to a state of darkness.
Together they stepped into the endless night. By the glow of the headlamps the relentless hurricane winds seemed truly alive, with glittering tendrils forming shapes like flecked serpent tails that whipped and thrashed in the pursuit of pure destruction. It felt like a barrage of hammers punching hard into their bodies and pressing tight against their bones, making each step in the thick snow a battle of physical tenacity and determination.
In the distance the lights of the station were barely visible, but it was all that was needed to guide them through the frozen nightmare and promise enough that their flesh would be warmed again soon. They would need to move quickly though. With conditions as bad as they could get, it wouldn’t take long for their eyes to become glass marbles ready to shatter at the slightest stumble.
A vague shape emerged from the darkness on the left, and with it the distinct sound of hard clanging metal that joined the symphony of screams and wails of the unseen and unknowable. Instinctively they both pierced through the night with headlamps to illuminate the rusted outline of two large shipping containers that had been welded together. Leon cursed beneath his thermal protection at the shadowed sight of one of the doors lashing to and fro as if it were a metal wing of a broken beast determined to fly, the groaning hinges shaking and rattling in preparation of defeat, and diverted a heavy step towards it.
“Leave it!” Salvador shouted against the wind. “The dead are immune to the cold and besides, there’s no time.”
Oh my goodness! Penguins, blizzard conditions and something (someone?) dead in a shipping container?! Please hurry with the rest of the story, Darren!
An Australian a writer of dark fantasy and dark fiction, Leanbh Pearson is the pen name of Alannah K. Pearson.
You will find some earlier fiction published under Alannah K Pearson. So look out for that too! It’s excellent, as I know from reading quite a bit of it.
I asked Leanbh to comment on what inspires her writing.
Leanbh: When writing dark fantasy, whether retelling fairytales or creating original works, the themes and inspiration are often found in folklore and legends.
My dark fiction writing follows a similar approach, delving into gothic horror themes, finding inspiration in how and why, we fear the dark, or the unknown monsters in our midst.
Inspiration also comes from my surroundings, often the natural world and landscapes, whether the stark beauty of bare tree branches against a thunderstorm or the press of crowds going about their day. Both of these reflect a sense of cyclical time to our world.
As my alter-ego Alannah, an interest in history became tertiary qualifications in human prehistory and archaeology. Now, when I look at my surroundings, I find inspiration there from the human past, present and imagined futures. Ultimately, my inspiration comes from how people throughout time and across cultures have understood the world around them, the mythology, folklore and legends, woven into fairytales and fables, and even used to warn why to fear the dark and the unknown.
To answer what inspires the core of my writing, it is probably the fabric of human experience, how we strive to understand our world.
Oh, I completely agree. Storytelling is founded on attempts to make sense of our lives.
Leanbh has gifted us with an extract.
Leanbh: This is an extract is from a short story “The Golden Lion-Monkey” published in Leo (Speculative Fiction Inspired by the Zodiac, #8) by Deadset Press, 2020. This is one in a series of Gaslamp fantasies exploring alternate history and LGBTQI+ characters challenging scientific and societal boundaries at the time of the European Enlightenment.
The following scene is a discussion between Lady Rosanna Corrano and her maid Delia, hinting at societal constraints. Rosanna’s alternate persona, Doctor Leo, is able to achieve as a man what Rosanna as a woman cannot.
Extract from “The Golden Lion-Monkey”
The view of the city beyond the carriage window was obscured by mist or pollution and, clutching at my parasol, I considered how I was about to be paraded through the gallery as if I were an item on show like the paintings. This event felt like a charade contrived so London society might see Lord James Amsworth and Lady Rosanna Corrano in each other’s company and intense speculation could begin about our prospects. The helplessness of my situation made me grind my teeth in frustration.
“My lady?” I met Delia’s concerned gaze. A few rebellious red curls had escaped their bondage again, threatening to incite more.
“Delia,” I said, smoothing the edges of my fingerless lace gloves. “How do you manage to control my hair so skilfully when your own looks like a viper’s nest?”
“Some parts of us are easier controlled than others, my lady.”
“Well said.” I smiled. “You remind me that though I wear the accoutrements of a noble woman today, my spirit will always be that of Leo.”
“Maybe one day you can be whole, my lady,” she said, glancing at me. “There are many areas of this city where one such as yourself could live openly.”
“Disreputable areas?” I asked, quirking an eyebrow.
“Maybe,” she said with a grin. “But ones where life has more freedom.”
“Albeit also shorter,” I sighed. “No, Delia. I am as much Rosanna as I am Leo. Perhaps you could run some errands today for Doctor Leo?”
“And leave you and Lord Amsworth unaccompanied? Such a thing is scandalous, and I would likely lose my position for it, my lady.”
“Lord Amsworth assures me his elderly aunt is accompanying us.” I squeezed her hand. “This horrid gallery is her idea apparently.”
“You believe him?” Delia asked, raising her eyebrows.
“Unfortunately, yes,” I sighed as the carriage pulled sharply to a halt before the museum steps. “I imagine he is as thoughtless as everything has previously indicated.”
Delia frowned. “Are you certain you don’t judge him unfairly? Perhaps even against rationality, my lady?”
I ignored her accusation as the mech-work iron steps rolled into place. The footmen opened the door and, placing my embroidered slipper on a step, I held my hand out to the footman for assistance. Once on the footpath, I turned to Delia as she climbed more easily from the carriage, the simple servant’s attire less cumbersome.
“What could be better to inspire a woman’s fragile mind than an entire gallery of still-life paintings?” I asked.
Delia grimaced. “My errands suddenly sound much more appealing,” she waved the note I had given her in the air. “You need these collected for the auction Doctor Leo is attending tonight?”
Scanning the crowd gathered on the wide front steps of the building, I nodded in agreement to Delia, watching her quick bow of acknowledgment before she joined the flow of servants and merchants on their daily errands.
I turned to the wide front steps of the building behind me, the classical-style colonnades replicating Greco-Roman architecture. Staring up at the leaden grey sky and the soot-covered stonework, I longed to disappear into the crowd and follow Delia.
From “The Golden Lion-Monkey”, Leo (Speculative Fiction Inspired by the Zodiac, #8) published by Deadset Press, 2020.
I’ve read that anthology and I loved every story in it. Do give it a go! Thanks Leanbh for sharing.
The lure of the ocean and a love of speculative fiction combine in the works of Australian author Rebecca Fraser. But these are not this writer’s only strengths. I recently read and reviewed Rebecca’s book of short stories Coralesque and Other Tales to Disturb and Distract for Aurealis magazine, using words like:
“Fraser’s insight and eye for detail imbue every story, and her imaginative scope encompasses a prodigious variety of settings and characters. Keep this little book of horrors close.”
Going forward with the idea of an inspiring 2021, I recently asked Rebecca to contribute to my blog with a reflection about what inspires her writing, and – you guessed it – a bonus FREE EXTRACT! Read on…
Inspired by Life
REBECCA: Thanks so much for having me on you blog, Clare. I always love reading answers to this question! For me, inspiration is usually drawn from multiple sources. Sometimes it’s a snatch of overhead conversation (I’m a dreadful eavesdropper, but aren’t all writers?), that inspires the kernel of a story. An article or news item might trigger inspiration, or sometimes a random sequence of words strike me as an intriguing story title. I often glean glimpses and glimmers of inciting incidents or thought-provoking situations from random sources, and little building blocks of plot and setting start to form a framework. The characters always seem to come later.
I walk a lot too—for physical and mental exercise. There are some lovely walks that surround my home on Victoria’s Mornington Peninsula, and when it’s just me alone with my thoughts, immersed in nature, this is usually when the threads of a story come together, or when I get resolution to a plot point that might have been proving problematic.
As far as what I find inspiring on a personal level, it’s often drawn from deep wells where people have thrown off the cloak of repression or revolted against the abuse of power and privilege and marginalisation, sometimes at enormous sacrifice and cost. It’s people at their best versus people at their worst—the human condition is a perennial source of fascination to me. Courage, retribution, and comeuppance often find a place within my stories.
I chose this piece as the events, characters, and setting are a fusion of my love for the ocean and my love of speculative fiction. Much of my work carries a nautical theme or features a coastal setting, so it was a pleasure to write in familiar territory.
I also wanted to tackle issues and themes that are relevant to today’s youth, and thirteen-year-old Curtis Creed proved a worthy vehicle to use for this. The book highlights several themes: the acceptance of great loss, the differing effect grief can have on family members, courage in the face of adversity, self-worth, self-belief, self-acceptance, and respect for our environment.
It’s set in Queensland, in the fictional coastal township of Midnight Cove. I’m a former Queensland girl, so I feel like I’ve walked the shoreline of Midnight Cove many times, and delved deep into the hidden world of rockpools. Perhaps, like Curtis, I should have delved deeper … who knows what I might have found? 😊
EXTRACT from Curtis Creed and the Lore of the Ocean
Curtis Creed stood at the water’s edge. Come back to me, the ocean sighed. Come back to me. But he couldn’t. Not today. Not ever.
He squinted against the afternoon sun and focused on the line-up of surfers gathered out past the second break. Even though they were far offshore, Curtis’ trained eye was able to pick out their various techniques—weight transfers, body positions, timing. It was second nature. If you weren’t in the surf yourself then you were watching other surfers; scrutinising their moves, checking out their styles.
He’d stood at the shoreline for so long his feet had become anchored, buried ankle-deep in the sand with the ebb and pull of the tide. Out among the breakers, a surfer powered down the face of a beautifully formed wave before disappearing into the pipeline. Remember that feeling? the ocean breathed. Remember? Of course he remembered, but he couldn’t return to the surf. He just couldn’t.
Instead the school holidays dragged along—lonesome days spent wandering the shoreline of Midnight Cove or sitting high up on The Bluff, watching others chase waves. Sometimes, when the surf was really pumping, his sense of loss and failure was so suffocating it was easier to avoid the beach altogether.
Thwack. A wad of wet sand hit Curtis hard in the back, right between his shoulders. His buried feet caused him to lose balance and he pitched forward. He flung his arms out to steady himself too late, and landed in the water on all fours.
“Whatcha doing, Shark Crumb? Looking out for sharks?” The hated nickname. Loud guffaws. It was Dylan and his moronic mates. Why couldn’t his brother just leave him alone?
“Yeah, Shark Crumb. Seen any sharks lately?”
“Better get out of the water, Shark Crumb. They’ll smell your fear.”
Curtis stood up. His board shorts and the front of his singlet were soaked. He turned to face his tormentors. Dylan was flanked by Blake and Jordo, two of his mates from high school. They were fresh from the surf with wetsuits pulled down around their waists. Water dripped from their hair and trickled down their torsos. The boys had pressed their surfboards into the wet sand, where they stood upright like silent sentinels.
Then Curtis noticed Dylan was using their father’s surfboard and anger boiled inside him like lava in a volcano. The thruster stood between Blake and Jordo’s boards, a falcon between two pigeons. It was handcrafted for speed and could cut down the face of a wave like no other. Dimples of wax glinted from its surface, wax that remained from another time, applied in dawn’s first light by their father’s hand. The image sliced Curtis’ heart as cleanly as the board’s fin cut through water.
“Why have you got Dad’s board?” He was screaming now. He couldn’t help it. Didn’t care.
“What’s it to you? You never use it.” Dylan folded his arms across his chest.
“That’s not the point.” Curtis took a step closer to Dylan. “Dad left it to me. To me.” His voice was shaking now. Blake and Jordo circled like a pair of seagulls, cawing out the familiar taunt Shark Crumb, but Curtis barely heard them.
A tendon in Dylan’s neck began to pulse. He shaped up to Curtis so closely he could see the peppering of blackheads across Dylan’s nose. “Dad never would’ve left it to you if he knew you were going to turn into such a pussy.”
Before he’d even thought about what he was doing, Curtis punched Dylan in the face as hard as he could. The swing harnessed every ounce of his rage and the punch landed with a clap. Dylan fell backwards. His eyes widened with surprise then quickly clouded with danger. A droplet of blood fell from his nose and made a coin-sized stain on the wet sand.
It was time to go. Curtis turned and pelted off down the beach. Behind him he could hear Blake and Jordo give chase, but he knew he could outrun them. The stupid nickname rang out behind him, but as the distance grew the voices became fainter until they were eventually torn away by the ocean breeze.
He ran without looking back. His breath hitched in his chest. A ball of embers burned the back of his throat, but still he ran. Tears stung his eyes, but he also felt a thrill of exhilaration. He’d hit Dylan before, of course, and received his fair share back. Heck, they were brothers. They’d grown up with horse bites, birthday punches, Chinese burns, and the dreaded typewriter. But he’d never all out hauled off and decked him. It had felt good, but the brief rush of exhilaration was quickly replaced by terror at the thought what awaited him when he returned home. Especially as he’d managed to floor Dylan in front of his mates. His brother would no doubt have all kinds of retribution in store.
He decided to delay for as long as he could. As he rounded the southernmost end of Midnight Cove he slowed to a jog. Here the long stretch of beach gave way to a rocky shoreline heavily strewn with ancient lava boulders and rock pools. The rock shelf—a labyrinth of stones and shallows—skirted the great cliffs that rose to form Midnight Bluff, the town’s highest point.
The ocean’s teeth had gnashed the cliffs for thousands of years carving an alien landscape of rock face and rivulets. The rock pools closest to the sandy beach made safe watery playgrounds for children to explore with buckets and spades. Further round the headland, however, access was difficult and discouraged. The gentle waves that undulated through the bay had nowhere to go when they met land here, and they boomed and crashed over the rocks. The boulders were larger and denser, filled with ankle-breaking crevices and rock pools that were deceptively deeper than their beach-hugging counterparts. They filled and drained with the tide’s highs and lows.
Curtis knew Dylan wouldn’t follow him here. It wasn’t just the difficulty of access that would stop him, there were too many memories.
Curtis ignored his aching fist as he jumped gazelle-like from boulder to boulder. The ocean’s salt-tinged air whipped and whistled and he ventured deeper into the network of rock pools until the beach was completely out of sight.
Oh my goodness, that’s an exciting extract! Thank you so much, Rebecca, for sharing it with us today.
You can find Rebecca’s work at the links below. Enjoy 😉
Born in Sydney, Mikhaeyla now lives in the Hunter Valley with her husband, son, two rescue dogs, four Australorp chooks, a hive of cantankerous bees, and the occasional herd of beautiful Black Angus steers.
When she is not writing or reading, Mikhaeyla enjoys cooking with the produce harvested from her kitchen garden, going to the beach, stargazing, and training to be a ninja.
I’d better watch out, because ninjas are a bit scary. Time to turn over the post to Mikhaeyla!
Mikhaeyla talks about inspiration
Mikhaeyla: I’ve always been interested by stories that explore the (artificial) divide between us and them. Romeo and Juliet, Brave New World, Handmaid’s Tale, Hunger Games, Red Rising – they all show what it is to sort people into pre-defined boxes so that you can align yourself with one side and demonise the other. It’s part of our evolutionary psychology to seek out our ‘tribe’. Our biochemistry is designed to give us hits of happy chemicals like serotonin and oxytocin when we’re accepted into (and by) a group. It’s why we get so much pleasure from social validation or feeling like we’re part of a team, and why it’s so hard to break away from social norms or reject peer pressure.
I enjoy writing stories about characters who have to confront the neat boxes they’ve constructed for their identity (and the perceived identities of others) and engage in more complex, uncomfortable, and nuanced relationships because of it. Ellie Safak, a brilliant writer, gave a great TED talk a few years ago on the politics of fiction and she used this wonderful metaphor of circles – explaining how everything dies when it is surrounded (almost entombed) in a circle. I like putting my characters in situations where they are forced to break out of that circle.
Fascinating! And you have an extract to share?
This is an excerpt from the first book in my Divided Elementsseries, Resistance. The series is set in a future, dystopian Paris where everything is engineered, including identities, and a resistance movement has emerged to upset the carefully-constructed order. The first book follows Anaiya, a Peacekeeper who has her mind realigned to a different identity so that she can infiltrate the resistance movement and bring it down. In this scene, Anaiya has just got her first real lead and is about to embark on a night out in the hedonistic and carnival-like nightlife of the Northern Area:
The late afternoon light filters through oppressive brown clouds as Anaiya makes her way back towards the Ravignan Strip. She shivers past the long jagged shadows cast by Stricken Core on the ancient bricks of Ruzais Street, her boots slapping the uneven surface as the descent falls steeper and steeper.
Arriving at the start of the Ravignan Strip she stops to survey her target. The Lavoir izakaya rises seven storeys, its pale-brick walls following the sharp angle of the intersection and forming a wedge. Anaiya tilts her head back and stares up at its heights, intrigued by the way its triangular shape is softened by rounded corners that defy the geometric rigidity of rectangular bricks.
The strange perspective pushes her off-balance and she finds herself swaying like the treatment boats in the nearby River Syn. Closing her eyes tightly, she steps back to regain her balance, stopping abruptly when she collides with something behind her.
Spinning around, she is confronted by a smiling Elemental. It takes a moment for the surprise to fade, for her neocortex to kick in and allow her to assess him.
Male. Sixth lustrum. Six feet four inches, maybe five. Traces of skin ink on left arm from mid-ulna upwards. Non-hostile stance. Intelligent eyes.
“Hey,” he offers casually, reaching for the entry panel next to the izakaya door.
The door clicks and he pulls it towards him. Anaiya watches as his sleeve recedes further up his arm, revealing more of the skin pattern – thick, dark lines stretch into twisting ribbons, reaching up to cradle a skull.
“Hey,” she replies.
He stands there, the door still grasped in his hand.
“Going in, butterfly?” he asks, inclining his head towards the activity just beyond the door.
Anaiya blinks in recognition of the familiar nom de douceur. This Elemental with the interesting ink is the same one who barred her exit from izakaya last night.
She stares at him, trying to gauge his approach, interpret his intent. His body language is neutral, the smile still dancing at his lips. He is teasing her. Anaiya returns the smile involuntarily, enjoying the moment of levity even if it is at her expense, and ducks through into the Lavoir.
Inside, the lighting is dim. A score of ancient incandescent bulbs dangle from plastic cables, throwing soft light around the low-ceilinged, narrow space. Music beats and pulsates, bouncing off the wall and blending with the low hum of conversation. The air is rich with smells and noises.
Anaiya pauses, allowing her limbic brain to revel in the feast of sensations presented before her. The breeze at her back dies as the door to the izakaya clicks shut. She drifts between Air Elementals, slow-dancing a wandering path towards the bar. Her gaze tracks along its architecture; a long piece of graphene, suspended on transparent glass to seemingly float above the polished concrete floor.
The Earth Elemental behind the bar is two generations older than Anaiya, the lines of hard working and hard living marking her handsome face. Beside her, a now-familiar inked arm reaches out to plug its silver cable into the terminal.
“Five lyseracids,” he requests.
He looks over to her, eyes glinting in the yellow light.
“Six,” he says, amending his order.
The bartender turns her back to fill the order, leaving them alone in the small space buffeted by the throng of Elementals around them.
All Air Elementals possess a certain charisma: A freedom, a spontaneity, that sweats through their pores. As a Peacekeeper, Anaiya had detested it – passed it off as an arrogance and independence bordering on Heterodoxy. Tonight, she envies it.
“Where are you from?” he asks, tapping his fingers against the matte grey surface of the bar.
She runs her fingers along the graphene in a subconscious response, shadows lengthening and retracting under her fingers – her neocortex feeding her an appropriate response even while her limbic mind surrenders to the tactile and audio sensations assaulting it.
“Eastern Area,” she says.
“Yeah, you looked green,” he says, turning back to the bartender.
For Peacekeepers, the adjective is used for pups – inexperienced Trainees who don’t yet understand the way of the world.
“Why the transfer?” he asks, stacking the shot glasses in a narrow rectangular tray.
“Hypoxic demotion,” she says, feeding him the standard response.
He nods, handing her a shot glass brimming with the liquid lys.
“Bienvenue,” he says, his voice lilting in the pidgin convention of Air Elementals.
And with that, he retreats from the bar, never looking back, gripping the tray of lys and walking to the far end of the izakaya.
Anaiya shoots the dark liquid, a cloying sweetness coating her tongue. To her left, Air Elementals download their wristplate playlists via one of two terminals attached to the bar. A screen embedded in the bartop flashes with the music’s identifier – sometimes a name, other times a visual – before adding it to an updated queue. Bodies sway and dip and writhe in a contorted imitation of Anaiya’s free-running; their movements chaotic where hers were precise.
Thank you so much, Mikhaeyla. What an intriguing set up.
I’m so glad to meet you and your writing. Till next time!
Celtic myths abound about the selkies – seals who can shed their skins to become human…or is that humans who can take up a skin to become a seal? Our fascination with creatures of the sea is a long-standing one, from the classical sirens who tempted Jason and the Argonauts to Hans Christian Anderson’s Little Mermaid. Yes, long before Disney. And who can forget the Attack of the Mermaids in Pirates of the Caribbean?
Of course, all earthly life started in the sea. We’re mostly water, after all.
Today’s guest is Heather Ewings, a fellow Australian speculative fiction author. Heather lives and writes on the land of the Pallittorre people of Northern Tasmania, and has an MA in Modern History. She also has a particular interest in Tasmanian colonial times, as well as a fascination with myth and folklore.
I’m fortunate to day to speak to Heather about her writing inspirations.
What inspires me?
I once won a book by answering this question! That was about fifteen years ago, but the answer I gave still applies today. I’m inspired by hearing how other people have achieved their dreams, whatever they may be. I love hearing of the so-called ‘over-night’ success after years of hard work – it encourages me to sit down and put the effort in to take that next step. Whether improving my writing or editing skills, or learning how to market and promote my books, there’s always more to learn. But it’s not always easy to find the motivation to sit down and do the work.
… And for those who want to know which book I won, I’m pretty sure it was Vanishing Acts by Jodi Picoult, which I won through a competition run by Allen & Unwin!
Heather has kindly provided an extract from her novel, What the Tide Brings. Here’s the blurb, just before you start reading the story:
In most tales of selkies it is a woman whose magical skin is stolen, who is forced to marry the lucky thief and live a life of misery, pining away for her home in the sea.
But what if the stolen skin belongs to an infant, taken before they have memory of life under the waves?
Extract from What the Tide Brings:
Myna tossed and turned on the rickety bed as recent conversations circled her mind.
There was Wayanna’s hopeful plea: ‘That’s my seal skin. You have one too,’ quickly followed by Father’s defensive tone: ‘You’ll never find it. Your ma hid it too well, even from me!’
Could it be true?
Myna wanted her walk to the beach to be a dream, but it hadn’t ended suddenly, as dreams always did. Instead she’d had to walk the long cold path back home, and undress again, and climb back into bed beside her still sleeping husband. And then she’d lain there, for an awfully long time, as thoughts whirled around inside her head.
When the faint light of dawn crept in between the shutters, Myna sighed and slipped out of bed.
In the main room she stoked the fire, setting the kettle to boil before starting on the morning’s oats.
Father slept on a cot by the wall. Ronan intended to build an extra room for him, one that would be Ebba’s once he’d passed, but though the foundation stones had been laid the walls hadn’t been started, and Myna felt a stab of irritation. How long can it take?
As though he’d heard her thoughts, Ronan exited the bedroom, crossing the room to give Myna a kiss before leaving the house to start the morning’s chores.
Myna carried the heavy pot, hanging it on the hook over the fire when she heard the cot creak.
‘What am I doing here?’ Father propped himself up on one elbow, blinking at her.
‘You live with us now, Father.’ Myna turned to remove the tea cups from the shelf and place them on the table.
‘Nonsense. Take me home. Your mother will be wondering where I am.’
‘Mother died years ago.’
Father sat up, swinging his legs over the side of the bed in a rare moment of agility. ‘You’re trying to find it, aren’t you? She’ll spank you when she finds out.’
Myna lost her patience. ‘My mother. Really? You’ve been full of tales these past months. Accusing me of searching for something I never knew existed. I thought you’d gone mad—that you suffered the derangement of old age. But you haven’t, have you? You’ve just lost the ability to hide the truth. So, tell me this thing I’m supposed to be looking for, that my so-called mother doesn’t want me to find.’
He frowned, and blinked, his eyes gaining a clarity Myna hadn’t seen in such a long time.
‘Oh Myna.’ His shoulders sagged. ‘I told your mother to leave you there.’
No question how Myna found out, not even a hesitation.
‘I told her it were no good, taking you from the sea. And look where it got us, a fishing village with no fish, and your mother and me ostracised, and all because of you.’ His finger pointed at her, and his voice filled the room. ‘But she wouldn’t ever give you back, no matter how we begged and cajoled, she just wouldn’t let you go.’
He sighed, his arm dropping to his lap. When he spoke again his voice was softer.
‘I’m sorry, Myna, love. We were going to tell you. We just…it’s hard to know when the right time falls for such talk. At every point we feared destroying your present happiness or upsetting you more than you were. Your mother struggled to conceive a child; you know that. And when she saw you…’ He sighed again.
‘She thought I was a gift from the sea.’
‘So you just found me, abandoned on the beach?’ Myna wanted it to be true, that the people who’d raised her had saved her, but when Duncan’s gaze dropped to the table between them her hopes sank.
‘You were there with a selkie woman.’ His gaze flicked to Myna’s face and back to the table. ‘Your mother, Dyllis, she asked to hold you. The selkie seemed unsure, but agreed. Then Dyllis ran.” Duncan’s eyes flicked again. ‘Selkies aren’t used to running, are they? She couldn’t catch up. And then once Dyllis made it to the trees there were too many sharp sticks underfoot. Selkies’ feet aren’t used to sharp sticks.’
Myna’s knees gave way beneath her, and she sank into the nearest chair.
‘You and Dyllis took me from the shore. Even though I was there with my mother?’
Father cringed. ‘She loved you, from that first moment. We both did.’ He stopped, met her eye. ‘We both do,’ he amended. ‘You know that, don’t you?’
Myna’s eyes stung as she shook her head.
‘You may have thought you loved me, but you hated not being part of the town, living on the outskirts. And what about me? I grew up with no friends—always the outcast, always the focus of stares and whispers.’ She wiped the tears building in the corners of her eyes. ‘My own mother would have loved me. And I would have grown up as one of a group, not always the odd one out.’
‘If you and Mother had loved me, you would have sought out what was best for me. You would never have forced me into a life of your choosing. You would never have taken me from my family to begin with.’
She stood, and strode the few steps across the room to the door, slamming it on her way through.
She was a selkie, was she? Selkies hadn’t been seen since before she was born. Long extinct, her parents had told her when she’d asked about the tales. Ronan was from a larger town, further down the coast. He considered them folklore. How could she tell him they were real?
How could she tell him she was one?
Keen to read on? Check out Heather’s website – sign up for her newsletter and receive a free copy of the prequel yo What the Tide Brings – Maggie and the Selkie
The Last Circus on Earth leapt out of my reading pile last year and filled me with that rarest commodity of 2020: delight. You can see my review here.
Today author Ben Marshall is treating us to his take on inspiration, and a Fabulous Extract from the novel.
I know you’re going to enjoy this!
Welcome to the blog, Ben. Can you tell us what most inspires you?:
Ben: Connections inspire me. Between people, nature and ideas.
Science, art and gardening are three great ways to connect.
I guess pubs are actually places of connection, so I see a theme.
Now for our special treat: an extract from The Last Circus on Earth. The story is told by Blanco, a surprisingly likeable killer … Yes, I know! But I truly do love him 🙂
In Blanco’s Words:
Strombo smiled at the Gaffer; a nasty smile what promised nothing but bad stuff for Sparrow. ‘I’ll give her a test run, eh?’
Which is when I lost it.
Later on, Madam Tracey explained to me I got what the head doctors call ‘impulse control problems’. But when she said it, there was a hint of a smile in her voice, like she approved but couldn’t let herself show it. Don’t get me wrong, I know what I done was stupid, but that’s what comes of no sleep, no food, murdering people, dealing with psychopaths, and having the girl you like kiss you.
Strombo didn’t know what hit him. Me—with a punch that had my heart and soul in it. For a big bloke he stayed upright what seemed like a long time. But his eyes were glazed over and all of us could see he wasn’t with us no more. Like a big tree chopped at the base, he slowly toppled, and everyone jumped out of the way because Strombo’s big enough to kill you even when he’s unconscious. Time sped up again as the Gaffer turned, knuckle-duster in place, and threw a feint with his right before launching the metal with his left. Normally, I’d let him graze me, then roll myself up for the beating. But this time I was angry in a way I never been before, and I let my reflexes do their thing. I sidestepped, drove a fist into his solar plexus, brought me shoulder up into his chin and finished him off with a Glasgow kiss.
Madam Tracey’s jaw dropped, the Professoré’s eyebrows went up and stayed up, and Mala and Milosh looked impressed—and like they were ready to finish me off if it came to it.
As the Gaffer hit the deck, I dropped my fists, opened up my stance and looked into Milosh’s eyes. ‘If anyone ever looked the wrong way at Mala, would you do any different?’
In the split second it would’ve taken him to bury a blade in me, he didn’t. Milosh don’t hesitate when there’s trouble—he’s in there and it’s all over. This time he just shook his head. ‘You just make bad trouble.’
I shrugged and walked away. ‘Trouble’s me middle bleedin’ name.’
I finished my prep and sat with the rest of the freaks, waiting for the axe to fall. We all agreed I’d basically given myself two choices—do a runner, or stay and be killed. If I stayed, the Gaffer would put me in the circle with Strombo for a straight-up bare-knuckle fight. Then it’d be on until someone—me—got beaten into a coma.
There’s a code, see. You do a colleague an injury like what I did to Strombo and the Gaffer, and there’s consequences. It’s like an old-fashioned duel except you’re tied together, and instead of a neat bullet hole I’d have Strombo’s ham-like fists tenderising my skinny body into sausage meat.
I cuddled Daisy, letting her lick the cold sweat off my face, and considered my fate. Baba Yaga brought me a concoction she said would clear my mind, which it didn’t, but Moineau—Sparrow—come in all done up for her Nightingale act looking right serious.
‘Madam Tracey tells me what you just done.’
I shrugged, brain jammed with misery and fear—not for me but her. ‘You need to run, Sparrow. Tonight. Now.’
‘Madam Tracey said otherwise.’
‘You’re not safe here.’
‘Nor you, you big pillock. Always looking after other geezers, you are. Which proves you is a diamond geezer and worth likin’. A lot.’
I kept looking away, stroking Daisy, who was cheerfully chewing my thumb. I couldn’t answer Sparrow because she made my head spin.
She kneeled and looked up into my dial. ‘You been protecting me. Now it’s time I helped you.’
‘You can’t, Sparrow. I’m done for. If not this time, the next.’
‘Listen—I been stuck inside this head of mine watching and listening. And what I don’t know about the people in this circus in’t worth knowing. I also know you in’t just strong in here.’ She thumped my chest. ‘You is smart up here.’ She tapped the side of my head. ‘And people likes you—even if you is a misery sometimes—because you care. It’s inside of you to look after other people. You can’t help it. So maybe it’s time to see Splinter again—get him to sort things for you, so we can start working on a new Steering Committee.’
I looked up, startled, and the freaks, all listening intently, looked to each other. They were shocked by what she said, but not so shocked they were shutting her down. Baba, Erik and Methuselah nodded first, then Elasto, Lobby and Dislocato followed suit.
‘You’re all madder than me,’ I said. ‘You’d be cutting your own throats going against them lot.’
Methuselah cleared his throat. ‘Splinter is mortal and will, or so you tell us, die sooner rather than later. The Gaffer will then become a power greater than he already is, but without Splinter to check his excesses.’
Baba Yaga nodded. ‘The Gaffer rules by fear. I don’t like.’
‘He’s already in the top job, if you ask me,’ I argued. ‘He does Splinter’s evil will, so he might be a better Gaffer when Splinter’s dead.’
Sparrow snorted. ‘Either way, you won’t be around to see it if you don’t sort this beef you got with him and Strombo. You need to talk to Mister Splinter.’
I shook my head. ‘Nothing short of a gun in me back could make me go in there and face him again.’
A minute later, there I am, standing on the steps of Splinter’s caravan, Sparrow prodding me in the back. ‘Go on, Blanco. What’s the worst thing what can happen?’
Isn’t that marvellous? Whatever is happening, the wry, sassy voice of Blanco makes me smile.
Thank you so much Ben for sharing.
Now here are some links that you’ll love to follow up
Patricia J. F. Worth is a French-English translator and private tutor of English and French. Trish received her master of translation studies from the Australian National University, Canberra, where she focused on nineteenth-century French literature and recent New Caledonian literature.
Apparently this degree forced her to spend copious amounts of time in France!
I’m very glad to be able to speak with Trish today about the complex mind games she plays with 19th century French fiction, because translation for an English-speaking audience of the 21st century is a mammoth feat of writing in itself. Read on to discover the heavy-lifting required to bring these books to life for us.
Welcome, Trish, to the Last Word of the Week. Can you tell me why is writing important to you? Trish: Because I don’t like talking.
Ha! Great answer! What words of advice would you give an aspiring author?
Submit short stories to journals, keep submitting them until they’re accepted. If a story is rejected, send it to another journal the same day. Don’t wait.
Oh, that’s such good advice. There is a home for quality writing somewhere, and persistence really counts. What’s the best response you’ve ever had to your writing?
A reviewer of Spiridion, my translation of George Sand’s novel of the same name, said:
“I feel that someone needs to point out what an important publishing event this English translation of George Sand’s Spiridion (1839) constitutes.”
Since I didn’t ask for this review, it’s even more precious as a word of praise. And it confirms that my chosen life-filler – to find and translate some of the fantastic forgotten French writing of the 19th century – is worthwhile.
It’s a fabulous niche to get busy in. Can you tell me about the time you decided you are a writer? Once when a former French lecturer read my translation of a story (after having harshly critiqued a dozen earlier), he was uncharacteristically generous in his comments, and finished by saying “You’re a writer.” That was when I knew.
It does help to get that sort of feedback, I agree. How much research is involved in your writing? More than anyone (other than another literary translator) would believe. Since I can’t make anything up and my words have to mean precisely what the author meant, the research is never-ending. After reading the original text and deciding firstly that I’m capable of translating it and secondly that other readers will love it as much as I do, I then read everything available about the author, I read some of his/her other works, I search for any of them in English translation. I have to buy books from second-hand bookshops in France because they’ve often been out of print for decades. There are always obscure or outmoded words and expressions that send me digging deep to find their original definition; this can involve not only Internet research but visits to libraries and visits to French experts. And as I work my way through the translation there are countless occasions when I stumble across a word that the present English equivalent doesn’t seem to fit. This is when old dictionaries are opened, to find how the words have changed their meaning over time. And then there are the many trips I’ve made to France to walk and write in streets resembling those in my stories. When translating more modern literature, specifically from New Caledonia, I read a lot about the colonial history and the ongoing social tensions, I read all the arguments for both sides, the indigenous Kanak and the French settlers, and watch interviews and read news articles relevant to the story I’m working on. The New Caledonian author whose writing I translate lets me ask her questions. But I’m on my own when it comes to long-dead authors.
How do you get feedback about your book before it’s published? Until now, for the past eight years, I’ve had a trusty and willing reader, a retired academic with time to read my drafts (for free) and spend an hour or two with me discussing the changes needed. But he has just died. Over the years, to give him a break, I’ve asked a few other French speakers to help, but they always stress they have limited time available. It looks like I might have to start paying someone for their time…
Oh, and it sounds like you need someone quite specialised, too. That must be tricky What’s the scariest thing you’ve ever done? To do the Honours year in French I had to spend a semester in France. I was middle-aged and hadn’t been overseas for 20 years, and now I had to go to a strange country and live alone, leaving my husband and three teenage sons here to fend for themselves. I feared my undergraduate-level French would not be good enough. I was scared out of my wits before I left. But if I had chickened out I would not be translating French literature today.
That’s an amazing achievement, I’m impressed. What kind of reader would like your books? Readers of quirky old writing. Those interested in 19th-century France, 19th-century fantasy. Readers looking for delicious French writing (in English translation) from the era of Baudelaire, Flaubert and Hugo. Readers interested in New Caledonia and Vanuatu and stories from colonised Pacific islands.
Thanks so much for speaking with me today, Trish. Your work is absolutely fascinating!
Yoon Ha Lee is a Korean-American writer of science fiction and science fantasy. YHL has a B.A. in math (maths to those of us in Australia) from Cornell University and an M.A. in math (yes, maths) education from Stanford University. Yoon loves to explore mathematics for story ideas. His fiction has appeared in several revered sci-fi & fantasy (SFF) publications such as F&SF, Tor.com, and Clarkesworld Magazine, and his stories have been chosen several times for “The Year’s Best…” anthologies.
Earlier this year I was fortunate enough to review Yoon’s fabulous book, Hexarchate Stories, an instalment in his much-loved Machineries of Empire series. I introduced my review with this sentence:
Prepare to be amazed and captivated by this collection of science fiction delights…
Imagine my pleasure when Yoon agreed to be interviewed for the Last Word of the Week!
Welcome, Yoon, and thank you for speaking with me today. You’ve been widely published and have quite a name in SFF circles. What words of advice would you give an aspiring author?
YOON: There is a lot of writing advice out there. Realize that every writer is different, and that advice that works for one person may not work for another. There’s often no harm in trying something to see if it works for you, but if the advice doesn’t work, there’s likely nothing wrong with you. It’s intended for a different kind of writer, that’s all. Take what works and discard what doesn’t.
That’s very reassuring. Do you have a go-to routine for writing?
First I make tea. Then I sit down to write, except my tortoiseshell cat, Cloud, jumps up and blocks the keyboard. I pet her until she decides that she’s had enough worship and wanders off. Only then do I get started. Really, worshipping a cat is one of the most pleasant ways to brainstorm anyway. She interrupts me at intervals for more petting, which is a great way for me to take typing breaks!
I think I need another blog series called ‘authors and their feline muses’! How much research is involved in your writing?
It depends on the story! In a sense I’m constantly researching, because I keep an eye out for ideas and interesting facts as I read or browse the internet or listen to conversations. Some stories are mostly invention, so they don’t require me to research anything specific. On the other hand, my forthcoming novel Phoenix Extravagant is set in a fantasy version of Korea during the Japanese occupation, and its protagonist is a painter, so I spent six months reading everything I could get my hands on about Korean archaeology and art history. Spoiler: it’s hard to find much on those topics in English; I am indebted to my mom for helping me find books!
Ah, a secret research assistant. Excellent! How do you deal with plot holes – if you ever have any!
First, I go to my husband and whine at him, usually with the words, “Joe, my novel is brokedy.” Then I make him take me to a cafe, where I explain why my story isn’t working (and probably the other patrons are giving us weird looks because we’re talking about nanomachines or undead generals or whatever). He brainstorms with me and comes up with a solution. I ask him to type it up and email it to me. I read the email. Then I ignore his suggestions and do something completely different. Strange as this method sounds, it works!
I must try it! I can’t get my husband to read my books until they arrive in paperback form. How you get feedback about your story before it’s published?
I have a trusted group of friends whom I ask to beta read for me. There’s usually a few people willing to volunteer at any given point in time. Some of them are writers, some of them aren’t. Every beta reader has different strengths and weaknesses, so I try to get a few different viewpoints. For example, my husband is a physicist, so he’s great at finding logic holes. Character arcs, not so much.
Good plan. What’s your writing goal for the next twelve months?
Right now I’m working on a science fantasy short story for the Silk & Steel anthology. I’m a novice fencer attending the Red Stick School of Fencing in Baton Rouge, so there will be dueling! My duelist character is going to be much more competent than I am–what else is wish-fulfillment for?
I’m currently under contract for a sequel to my kids’ Korean mythology space opera, Dragon Pearl, so I’m excited to be working on that after the short story’s done. I love space opera so it’s going to be fun returning to that genre. That’s due in October. And after that, who knows?
That’s quite a program! And you’re the third SFF author I’ve met who also fences… What’s your favourite genre to read?
I have two right now–nonfiction and tabletop roleplaying games (RPGs). The world is full of weird and fascinating facts; my shelves have books on linguistics, military history, music theory, and other delights. As for the RPGs, I’m a gamer with an interest in game design, so I love looking both at older settings like TSR’s Planescape (a Dungeons & Dragons campaign setting) as well as indie RPGs like Monsterhearts 2 or Tiny Frontiers.
Are you planning to write any graphic novels?
I’d love to give it a go; I’ve experimented with one- and three-panel gag strips in the past. My current project, sort of in the nature of a warm-up, is a 22-page comic adaptation of my short story “The Battle of Candle Arc,” originally published in Clarkesworld Magazine (http://clarkesworldmagazine.com/lee_10_12/). I have a script, thumbnails, and color test, so the next step will be to do the pencils. Trying to make a story work in a visual format is extremely interesting. I’m personally looking forward to drawing exploding starships because, please, don’t we all?
What would be a dream come true for you?
This is a very long shot, but I would be thrilled if someone made an animated TV adaptation of Ninefox Gambitor even all of Machineries of Empire. I suspect that doing it as live-action would be cost-prohibitive because of all the “magical” special effects and space battles, but maybe animation would ameliorate that? It’s nice to dream, anyway!
A wonderful dream – I’d love to see that! Thank you so much for the chat. You’re an inspiration.