Magic Soaking My Spine

This post is brought to you by the peonies and roses currently gracing our yard.

Recently a very dear friend emailed and asked me for a description of the book I'm finishing up writing. How would I classify the story I'm trying to tell? Exactly what kind of writing is it? Here's the answer I gave her:

I would call it 'urban fantasy,' except that a lot of it takes place in the woods of the Hudson Highlands (the rest is in Manhattan). But maybe that works. The setting is modern day, but there is a lot of magic being thrown around as if it were unusual, but not impossible.

ZF-360 [that's the working title of this book] is most similar in feel to mythic fiction by people like John Crowley, Charles de Lint, Terri Windling, and Neil Gaiman. I don't think it's 'literary' enough to be called 'magic realism.' I hate the term 'elfpunk,' but that might be an accurate description.

After writing that, I found myself unsatisfied. My answer, while it gave her some guidelines, seemed frustratingly imprecise. What is it exactly that I am trying to do in my writing? Ruminating upon that question occupied my mind as I frantically sewed costumes all last week.

Have you ever been wandering lost, looking for any known landmark, when suddenly you recognized something familiar? It's as if the entire landscape shifts around both that item and you; as you orient yourself, it appears as though the world around you has changed, when it is really your brain that has done so. This happened to me in a figurative sense last night.

I was reading over the panel descriptions for Readercon, which is now exactly one month away. I noticed that the word 'slipstream' was used over and over again. It's a word I'd heard before, but hadn't bothered to look up. As I read, however, I saw from the context that this word might be a touchstone for me. Popping it into my trusty Google Search box, I was immediately rewarded with the article in which cyberpunk deity Bruce Sterling actually coined the term 'slipstream.' This is what he wrote:

This genre is not "category" SF; it is not even "genre" SF. Instead, it is a contemporary kind of writing which has set its face against consensus reality [emphasis mine]. It is fantastic, surreal sometimes, speculative on occasion, but not rigorously so. It does not aim to provoke a "sense of wonder" or to systematically extrapolate in the manner of classic science fiction.

Instead, this is a kind of writing which simply makes you feel very strange; the way that living in the late twentieth century makes you feel, if you are a person of a certain sensibility. We could call this kind of fiction Novels of Postmodern Sensibility, but that looks pretty bad on a category rack, and requires an acronym besides; so for the sake of convenience and argument, we will call these books "slipstream."

Other writers argue that slipstream is more of an effect than a genre; whatever it is, I recognized as I read that Sterling's definition captures exactly the kind of story that ferments in and emerges from my quirky brain. Apparently, I am a person of a certain sensibility.

I've always believed that relying too heavily on consensus reality is a dangerous thing. For example, I was talking with some really smart women yesterday morning about self-defense. We traded stories of the things we do to ensure that our houses are secure on nights when our husbands are away. One woman opined that it was more likely that one's house be surrounded by armed bandits than for an evil clown to attack one from under the bed. I laughed and said, "Don't be too sure about that." I spoke only seven-eighths in jest.

It seems to me that unconditionally accepting consensus reality is one of the ways by which our minds narrow and close as we age. As children, we often believe that anything is possible; the death of that openness and faith is more dangerous than we realize. Do I believe that some people see dead people, as in my current favorite TV show, Medium? Do I think that aliens have visited Earth? Do I suspect that time does not flow at a constant rate? Do I presume that trees and rocks have spirits? Call me crazy, but I reserve the right to abstain from a definitive vote on any of these questions for the present. As unlikely as they may seem, I refuse to rule them outright impossibilities.

At the end of his article, Sterling gave a list of books he regarded as fitting into the slipstream genre. I found similar lists elsewhere on the internet, and apparently an updated one will be dispersed at Readercon. Here are some of my favorites of those books generally recognized as slipstream:

Winter's Tale, by Mark Helprin
Foucault's Pendulum and
The Island of the Day Before, by Umberto Eco
Was, by Geoff Ryman
Life of Pi, by Yann Martel
Neverwhere, by Neil Gaiman
White Noise, by Don DeLillo
Shoeless Joe, by W.P. Kinsella
The Witches of Eastwick, by John Updike (I know; I usually hate Updike.)

I find it odd that before last night I didn't wholly make the connection between my work and that of the above writers. But perhaps that is because I hold them all in such high regard. I wouldn't dare to presume that my books might ever be on the same list as these.

I find it comforting, however, to be able to slap a label on what I'm doing. The next time someone asks me what kind of fiction I write, I'll be able to answer with aplomb, "Slipstream." The fact that this will most likely confuse them does not bother me; somehow the fact that there is a category out there for my stuff gives me confidence in what I'm doing.

And I'm doing it again, now that the trek is behind us! Since we have recitals, graduations, courts of honor, firesides, and baseball games to plan and/or attend in the next four weeks, I've set July 6th as the date that I'll be done with ZF-360. That way, I can hand Patrick a manuscript to read as I jaunt off to Burlington for the annual treat that is Readercon. Trust me, I'll make my deadline this time. I couldn't bear the shame of it otherwise.


I know a girl, a girl named 'Party,' 'Party Girl'...

If you've been reading this blog for any length of time, you'll remember that I often reference my tip-top-tier friend, Kara. I met her a couple of years ago at the reception following a Kindergarten Sing-Along; our Hope and her daughter Grace were classmates and good buddies. Hope and Grace: an auspicious beginning, no?

Minutes into our initial conversation, I knew that this was someone I badly wanted as my friend. I normally don't make friends easily, but Kara and I seemed to click right away. I went home and tried to figure out how best to impress her with my coolness and panache.

Somehow (probably despite my somewhat transparent machinations), over the next few months, we did indeed start to bond. It turns out we have an awful lot in common. She's a writer; she's a gardener; she knits; she's a geek (and I write that intending it as the highest of compliments); she thinks long and hard about a wild variety of subjects. As teenagers, I think we would have been inseparable.

Even better, our children all like each other and get along, and our husbands enjoy each other's company. As Patrick would say, "It's the Trifecta."

Kara is one of those rare people who has dramatically improved the quality of my life; she probably has little idea just how much her friendship has blessed me. Okay, I have to stop now; I'm getting a little verklempt.

All this to say: Kara has recently started her own blog, and it's very much worth your time. Her initial few posts pack intellectual punch leavened with generous amounts of humor. She's very smart, but never takes herself too seriously (the tragic flaw of so many brilliant people). Please go visit her and cheer her on; you won't be sorry you did.

Congratulations, Kara! I can't wait for more.



I’ve noticed that other bloggers will sometimes make lists of 100 facts about themselves either when prompted via meme or as part of their profiles. I enjoy reading these and decided early in my blogging days that my 100th post would be one of these lists.

1. I am of average height.
2. My shoe size used to be smaller than average, but my feet got bigger during each pregnancy.
3. My shoe size is now a half size larger the current national average.
4. My two younger sisters are much taller than I am. They are also much prettier.
5. I consider this rude and disrespectful, but I forgive them both because I love them and their feet are bigger than mine.
6. Patrick and I have five children; this is far above the national average of 1.8 children per family.
7. We’ve been married almost 17.5 years, another fact that bucks many trends.
8. We are two of the most happily married people we know.
9. I was born in Reno, Nevada.
10. But since I spent most of my childhood in the San Joaquin Valley, I tell anyone who asks me that I’m from California.
11. I do not endorse the current governor of California, but I like his wife’s family very much.
12. According to my parents, I taught myself to read using Scrabble tiles when I was two years old.
13. The first conversation I remember having about a book was an argument with my uncle over the plot of a Hardy Boys mystery. I was about four and a half.
14. That same weekend, I surreptitiously fed my unwanted green beans to my step-grandmother’s poodle, Mitzi.
15. Mitzi subsequently vomited the vegetables into the pool during an important grown-up cabana party. I got in huge trouble for embarrassing my grandfather.
16. I haven’t really trusted dogs since.
17. I taught my sister Angie to read the summer that she was four and I was eight.
18. In late August, when she could read random verses out of the Bible, I drew a diploma for her and we celebrated with cookies and bouquets of dandelions.
19. When I was in sixth grade, I took a peanut butter and mustard sandwich in my lunch every day.
20. I didn’t particularly care for peanut butter and mustard sandwiches.
21. But my desire to be unique was greater than my desire for food-derived pleasure.
22. I have since figured out ways to be unique without sacrificing my taste buds.
23. I love trying new foods, and eat as varied a diet as possible.
24. But I could eat toast made from homemade bread and spread with unsalted butter and raw honey three times a day and never tire of it.
25. Angie and I once discovered that Chips Ahoy! (normally an inferior brand of store-bought cookie) taste fantastic if you spread sour cream on top of them.
26. I played the flute all through junior high, high school, and college, but I would have preferred to learn the oboe or the cello.
27. My seventh-grade orchestra teacher gave me my flute when he learned that our family couldn’t afford to rent an instrument. It had belonged to his wife.
28. Though the flute is not my favorite instrument, I treasure mine and the memory of that thoughtful, generous teacher.
29. I have eight direct ancestors who were passengers on the Mayflower.
30. I have 28 direct ancestors who fought on the colonists' side of the Revolutionary War.
31. Patrick and I are fifth cousins.
32. I discovered facts #29-#31 when I became obsessed with genealogy about five years ago.
33. Working on genealogy is my second favorite thing to do on Sunday afternoons.
34. Napping comes in first.
35. When I was in high school and college, I got by for weeks at time on three hours of sleep per night.
36. My two favorite classes at BYU were “The Literature of C.S. Lewis” with Philip Flammer and “Pearl of Great Price” with Hugh Nibley.
37. While I was at BYU, I co-managed a short-lived but very cool restaurant/night club called The Backstage Café.
38. I also sang in a band; we performed frequently at the restaurant.
39. My two most requested numbers were “Pearly Dewdrops Drop” and “These Boots Were Made for Walkin.’”
40. My boyfriend Chris was the other lead singer.
41. When Chris and I broke up, I dropped out of college and moved to the East Coast.
42. Many people warned me that if I moved away from Utah, I’d never marry someone of my faith.
43. I met Patrick in New Jersey four months after moving.
44. My first job in New York City was at the Research Foundation for Mental Hygiene.
45. Many really smart neuropsychiatrists worked at RFMH: I learned a lot during my time there.
46. ‘Mental hygiene’ is a phrase rich in mockery fodder; it still makes me snicker like a sophomore.
47. When I was 22, I went on a mission for my church to Montreal, Canada.
48. It was the best thing I’d done spiritually in my life up to that point.
49. My French improved faster during the six months of my mission than it had for the 12 years I’d studied it in school.
50. I doubt, however, that I would have learned how to conjugate verbs in the conditional perfect tense while I was in Canada.
51. I have not kept up with my French, unless you count listening to Saint Privat and translating Tintin books for my kids.
52. I feel guilty and depressed when I contemplate #51. So I try not to.
53. My mission was cut short when I was diagnosed with severe Chronic Fatigue Syndrome.
54. For a year and a half, I slept about 20 hours out of every 24.
55. I gradually got better and now do fine on about seven hours of sleep per night.
56. But napping remains high on my list of luxury activities.
57. When I was little, I wanted to be Irish-Catholic and live in Manhattan.
58. One third of that dream has come true: Patrick and I lived in New York City for the first eleven years we were married.
59. I loved living there; we probably would have stayed there forever if we had had only three kids.
60. I am thrilled to be living in the Hudson Highlands and plan never to move.
61. But I visit Manhattan at every opportunity.
62. Paul Newman, still gorgeous in his late 70s, once held the door open for me at a New York theater.
63. I smiled and whispered, “Thank you,” then walked in congratulating myself for not fainting.
64. I finished college through BYU’s Degrees by Independent Study Program.
65. I received my Bachelor’s Degree in 1999.
66. I was 32 and had three kids when I graduated.
67. My grandmother taught me to knit when I was 10.
68. When I was 18, I started knitting a sweater for my boyfriend Dennis.
69. Our relationship fell prey to the infamous ‘Sweater Curse,’ and I didn’t knit at all after that for 14 years.
70. My friend Carmen got me back into knitting eight years ago; I’ve been at it ever since. Dennis, meanwhile, is now a successful mortician. Thank you, Sweater Curse.
71. I am a huge Anglophile.
72. I am also a Francophile and a Celtophile.
73. And a turophile.
74. But not a coulrophile; I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that all clowns are evil.
75. I felt confirmed in this knowledge when I saw the movie Poltergeist.
76. The fiction I write is usually somewhat dark and scary.
77. When I was six and she was four, my sister Stephanie and I collaborated on several little homemade magazines. I wrote the stories and she illustrated them. We then sold the magazines to my mother.
78. I wrote my first book, Antoine and Colette, when I was 14; my Creative Writing teacher gave it a ‘B,’ complaining that it was somewhat derivative.
79. She was right; Antoine and Colette will never see the publishing light of day.
80. I consoled myself with Jung’s theories on archetypes and resolved to do better.
81. My first published novel, Shannon’s Mirror, came out in 1991.
82. After I wrote it, I stopped writing fiction so I could finish my college degree.
83. Once I graduated, I felt too overwhelmed by young motherhood to write at all for several years.
84. Now that I can no longer reasonably be called a ‘young mother,’ I am glad to be writing again.
85. I find blogging to be an excellent warm-up for my fiction writing.
86. I love Paris in the springtime.
87. I’ve actually only been there in February and in August.
88. Places I hope to visit someday include Florence, Machu Picchu, Kuala Lumpur, Pondicherry, The Isle of Skye, Istanbul (not Constantinople), St. Petersburg, Antarctica, and Graceland.
89. Having my appearance change as I age is much harder to deal with than I ever imagined it would be.
90. I have a goal to come to grips with both my vanity and my pride in this matter.
91. Patrick sometimes calls me ‘Grammar Fascista.’
92. This is because unintentional errors in spelling, grammar, and usage drive me crazy.
93. Believe me, it is a curse to be reduced to yelling at the television every five minutes when these unforgivable lapses on the part of advertising and programming writers occur.
94. Which is one of the reasons I tend to avoid TV.
95. Except for Mets games, Medium, and The Upside-Down Show.
96. And watching the Knicks back when Latrell Sprewell was playing for them.
97. And Firefly. That was the best TV show ever written.
98. Of course, grievous errors also occur constantly in the world of print. Sometimes I read with a red pencil in hand.
99. But not often, because even I realize how crazy and futile that is.
100. There is a book that I absolutely loved as a kid. Hiding marbles in the hollow trunk of a sycamore tree was key to the plot. I have forgotten both the title and the author of this book; if anyone out in the ethersphere knows what book I’m talking about, please contact me at once. I will be forever in your debt, and might even be able to come up with a reward for you.


In Which I Forbear Whinging

I was going to have this post be text-free, but I want to experiment, and I didn't want the experiment to be the fabled 100th post. This happens to be post #99.

I'm dragging my feet over all the things I need to have done by noon on Friday. Why the deadline? Because. So I need to get on the stick. On the dreadmill this morning, I had the bright idea of posting my To Do List here so that, even if I accomplish all of this through the sordid motivations of shame and fear, at least it will be done.

I'll highlight items in red as they are completed.

Finish skirt.
Finish shirtwaist. Took WAY longer than I had anticipated.
Finish sunbonnet. NOT a cakewalk; no wonder milliners were in high demand.
Make apron.
Sew snaps on petticoat.
Sew buttons on P's shirt.
Buy groceries.
Buy diapers.

Check kids' church clothes.
Re-pack church bag.
Wipe out spice cupboard.
Wipe down fridge shelves.

Make whey.
Grind wheat.
Make bread.
Make lentil soup.
Make pasta sauce.
Make cobblers.
Make scones.
Make cookies.
Make muffins.
Get out kids' insurance cards and write down emergency phone numbers.
Do laundry.
Send A's package.
Buy J's gift.
Buy C's gift.
Give P her stuff.
Clean up desk.
Get 72-hour kits out from under bed and put on hall closet shelf.
Fix Miss Spider book.
Teach ARP class.
Teach Temple Prep class.
Water seedlings.
Plant cherry tree and sea buckthorn trees. Christian dug the holes.
Spray roses with organic fungicide.
Pick up Tess's ice cream cake. The awesome Julia, owner of Blue Pig Ice Cream, will deliver it Sunday morning.
Wrap Tess's presents. Difficult, since they haven't arrived yet.
Refuse to panic.
Change sheets.
Plant lily and snowdrop bulbs I forgot about until I started cleaning my desk just now.
Make sure car is clean.
Transplant geraniums. (Actually, they are pelargoniums.)
Purge Daniel's drawers of tiny stuff to make room for box of hand-me-downs.
Go to bank. Patrick did this for me.
Go to grocery store AGAIN. Patrick did this. Thanks, hon!
Tidy linen closet.
Tidy bedroom closets.

Have you noticed that I keep adding stuff to the list? No matter; I'll get it done.

Updated 6/1 at 12:04 p.m.: Well, I got close! The bulbs and pelargoniums will keep until I get home. Cross your fingers that Tess's presents get here this afternoon or tomorrow; her birthday is Sunday, and we're having her party right when we get home Sunday afternoon.

Thanks to you all for your encouragement! It means so much to me. I'll be back online Monday morning.


The Rest is Still Unwritten

When I stall out on one of the novels I’m writing and start wondering why I even try, I sometimes cheer myself up and get myself going again by indulging in the following daydream:

My first mainstream fantasy novel is published. It’s gotten some nice reviews, and people other than my family members are actually buying it and reading it. One day I get a call from Locus magazine; the fine editors thereof would like to interview me and put a flattering photograph of me on the cover of their publication.

I’m thrilled, since I’ve been reading Locus on and off for something like 25 years. The assigned interviewer emails me some preliminary questions, and they go something like this….

Actually, the following questions were posed by the fantabulous RaJ. Maybe if Locus ever actually does want to interview me, I can request that he do the job free-lance, because he’s really good at making up stuff to ask people.

1) You decide to write the story of your life as a series of novels, one book per decade. What are the titles?

Doh! RaJ, stop stealing ideas out of my head!

Decade 0-9: Michelle, Ma Belle (I went by my middle name until my junior year of high school; I used to think Paul McCartney wrote that song just for me.)
Decade 10-19: Message in a Bottle
Decade 20-29: Under the Blossom
Decade 30-39: The Smallest Seed

2) If you could make one trip through time – a minimum of one hundred years in the past – and visit with one person for an hour, whom would you want to meet and what would you ask or say?

Just one person? Just one hour? Okay, okay; I’ll quit whining.

I'd have a universal translator, right? If so, I would visit my ancestor Alice de Montmorency; she must have been terribly lonely while her husband, Simon de Montfort, was away at the Albigensian Crusade. I’d want to meet her children; I’d ask her for a tour of her house and grounds, all the while peppering her with questions about life at the court of Philip II.

3) In an odd coincidence, you too find yourself at the terminus of a trans-galactic wormhole, face to face with a genuine space alien. This alien comes from a world of Deep Thought, full of engineering and scientific marvels but no “society”; members of its race have lived in solitude and isolation for eons. The alien wants you to explain your best friend in fifty words or less (work with me here okay?). Given a few minutes to compose your answer, what would be your response?

My best friend is not essential, as your antennae are not, Gentle Alien; but would you want to live without them? Think psychic mirror; think completion of a two-part puzzle. Though Day and Night are pleasant in isolation, experienced together they complement one another in a joyous, eternal dance.

4) What is Luisa's kryptonite i.e. your "one" weakness, your point of vulnerability where your super powers seem to fail?

Pride. All my troubles stem from it; all my bad choices are born of it.

5) Multiple choice (you get to pick which one you want to answer):
a) How can you mend a broken heart?
b) Skip ahead a few years to a time when a human brain – thoughts, memories, the whole works – can be fully and verifiably "saved" and restored to and from digital media. For all practical purposes this would enable a person to persist for hundreds, even thousands of years using replacement "bodies," or even to exist without organic bodies as we know them. Do you think we would lose something essentially human in this process? Why or why not?

Though I enjoy those Bee Gees (and their late lamented foxy little brother), my inner/outer SF geek chooses b).

Digital storage of the contents of the brain would be cool, but I think this too, too solid flesh is crucial to the human experience. Creators of virtual reality are always seeking to make it more ‘real,’ i.e. truer to our normal perceptions. We can’t seem to do without the myriad sensate inputs that generally go unnoticed until they are gone.

More information than you probably want: I occasionally use a facial hair removal product on my upper lip; one time when Daniel was tiny, I got a little nuts and put it on my jawline as well.
I experienced almost instant regret. Rubbing my cheek on the top of my baby’s downy little head—an indulgence I savored at every possible opportunity—was much less pleasurable for at least a week. Those tiny hairs had been transmitters I had taken for granted, part of a sensual experience I wouldn’t ever trade for a slightly less hirsute visage.

Therefore I think the generation of replacement bodies—or the availability of forms incorruptible—would be key for life as we know and enjoy it to continue indefinitely.

Thanks, RaJ! That was good fun.