Friday, August 18, 2017

J. K. Klein: Some Achieve Greatness...


In 2012, Gene Wolfe was inducted into the Chicago Hall of Literary Fame and I flew to Chicago to be a small part of that moment. The morning of the event, the late David Hartwell called me up and said, "I'm in Fred Pohl's kitchen, helping him sort through Jay Kay Klein's photos for pictures he can use to update The Way the Future Was. Wanna join us?"

Did I?!

Thus began a very pleasant several hours, a story which I will someday regale you with. But not today. Today I mention it because UC Riverside has announced that they've digitized the nearly six thousand photographs Jay Kay Klein took of the great, near-great, and perfectly obscure of science fiction fandom and prodom over the course of many decades.

But I hear you ask: Who was Jay Kay Klein?

The answer is: An inspiration to ordinary people everywhere. Jay kay was not inherently an interesting person. He wasn't a writer or a particularly articulate conversationalist. He certainly wasn't a fashion icon. He wore white shirts with slacks held up high on the waist by a thin belt. So far as I could tell (and I admit that I could be wrong), there was no particular reason to pay any attention to him. He was unimportant.

So he made himself important.

For decade after decade, he attended every convention he could, bringing along his trusty camera. Jay Kay wasn't a particularly gifted photographer. But he could take a clear shot of a human being, in focus. And he labeled every photograph with name, date, and convention.

So in J. K. Klein's photos, we have a visual history of everybody who was anybody in science fiction over many decades. You can watch the young Harlan Ellison grow old in them. You can find pix of people whom everybody but you has forgotten. All the greats of the time are present. Taken together, the photos are a treasure.

And a quintessentially ordinary man made them.

At least one person reading this feels that he or she is relentlessly ordinary and resents that fact. If that one person is you, reflect on the life of Jay Kay Klein. There's a way out for you. It doesn't have to be photography.

You can read the article about Riverside digitalizing his photos here.

And Speaking of Jay Kay Klein...

In conversation, Jay Kay was, yes, mostly boring. But that doesn't mean that he didn't have his moments. I was talking to him at the Millennial Philcon (2001) when he suddenly grew reflective and said, "I was at the first Philadelphia Worldcon fifty years ago, and I remember things about it that nobody else knows."

"Oh yeah?" I said, eager to learn. "Like what?"

"Like the fact that I was there."

And now his legacy lives on. I believe that would have made Jay Kay happy. It certainly does me.


Thursday, August 17, 2017

Never Order A Martini in Scandinavia (Estonia Included)


I'm in Tallinn, Estonia, and I went out to dinner and forgot to bring my camera along. So of course I saw many, many things I would share with you if I had.

But I didn't. So instead I'll share a small piece of dining advice: Never order a Martini in Scandinavia.

There's apparently some disagreement as to whether Estonia is or ought to be (these are two separate questions) part of Scandinavia. But when it comes to Martinis, it is written in rock: Do not order a Martini in Estonia.

Having made this mistake before, in Sweden, I ought to have known better. But on the menu, there was a short list of cocktails available and it included "Dry Martini." It looked safe. So I was taken in.

When the drink arrived, I took a sip and said to Marianne, "Try this."

She did and said, "That's got a lot of dry vermouth in it."

"It's nothing but dry vermouth," I replied. Which was the literal truth.

When you say, "Martini" here, people hear "Martini & Rossi" and bring it to you as an aperitif. Americans making such a big deal about the drink, of course, everyone knows that a dry Martini requires more than just dry vermouth. So they added two cocktail olives on a toothpick.

I would have snapped a photo of the "Martini," had I brought the camera. Since I didn't, I share with you my look of patient resignation upon first tasting the drink.That's it up above.

And did I mention the rain...?

Not only did I leave my camera behind, but I also neglected to take along my umbrella. It being monsoon season, it proceeded to rain. Marianne and I ate on one of those wooden platforms out on the street under oversized umbrellas.

Earlier, I had bought two spools of thread for Marianne's Dragonstairs Press Christmas chapbooks. And since we were stuck under the umbrellas for some time, I wrote one of the Christmas stories for her.

So I've gotten a good start on the Christmas season. How about you?


Thursday, August 10, 2017

Chitchat in Helsinki


Worldcon 75. I arrived in Helsinki at 2 p.m. and by nightfall had been in conversations with so many people that if I mentioned a fraction of them, you'd think I was a name dropper.

The fact, for example, that Marianne and I were sitting at a table in the al fresco cafe outside the convention center with Shawna McCarthy and Pat Cadigan and Ellen Datlow and Eileen Gunn and a batch of other witty and congenial folk when Robert Silverberg stopped by to schmooze.

Or the conversation I had at the Chinese Fandom party with Ruhan Zhang and Bao Shu and my friend of ten years' standing, Haihong Zhao, about the current state of science fiction in China.


But ya know what? It's been a long, long, jet-lagged day and I'm fading fast. Hitting the sack now. Regret that. Hope your every day is as good as this one has been for me.

More to come.

Above: The drink that won a competition for best gin and tonic in Europe. Its secret? Frozen lingonberries and a sprig of rosemary. Pat Cadigan looks on in admiration.


Thursday, August 3, 2017

In Which I Explain Everything There Is To Be Explained


I've been interviewed for Reach. The interview covers a lot of territory from what The Iron Dragon's Mother is about to how I plot, my favorite blurb, what there is to be learned from James Branch Cabell, etc., etc. Here's a fairly typical call-and-response:

REACH:  Is your writer workspace a permanent location and do you subscribe to Einstein's opinion about messy desks: “If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk a sign?”  

Can you send us an image of your writer workspace?  Do you even have one of those outdoor workshed style writer workspace or do you have the old school, extended library office?  Writer's workspaces are a kind of a popular fetish for making into a man-cave or princess-room that all wannabe writers and fans want to see what their favorite authors look like in their natural habitat.  What are your most important work tools and reference books or inspirational favorite sci-fi authors in your personal workspace?

MS: I have an extremely cluttered home office – photographer Kyle Cassidy uses it as the standard of untidiness – filled with memorabilia (a bundle of rope samples from a factory in Kolomna, a West African sword, globes of real and imaginary worlds, trophies, Swanwick-brand soup cans that Jason Van Hollander made for me, and so on), drifts of paper from dozens of projects, various tools of the trade, and of course shelf upon shelf of books – most of them double-stacked and almost all non-fiction. (Fiction and poetry are shelved elsewhere.) Marianne calls it a wizard’s den.

Basic reference works kept by the desk are a thesaurus, a standard dictionary, Barlett’s Familiar Quotations, and the Oxford English Dictionary – the condensed version that you have to use a magnifying glass to read. Close to hand are various foreign dictionaries and specialized reference books on fairies, saints, demons, and so on. Plus lots and lots of books on the sciences, religion, folklore, whatever. A pretty standard batch, really, for a writer.

I also have a “devil stone” that a Siberian shaman gave me, to unlock my powers he said. When I don’t feel like working, I hold it in my hand to remind myself of all the things and experiences my writing has brought me.

You can find the entire interview here.

Above: My favorite author photo ever. By Beth Gwinn. You can find her home page here.


Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Simplify, Simplify, Simplify!


Long-time readers of this blog know that when I have absolutely no news to convey and yet feel obligated to post (I have been remiss in recent weeks, and am anxious to get back on schedule), I offer writing advice for new writers.

Today's advice: Simplify.

There is a story and it should be told in the absolute minimum number of words possible. Kurt Vonnegut once wrote that in fiction every sentence should reveal character or advance the action. Those are words to live by.

Unsuccessful stories are full of digressions. They begin by "setting the scene" -- rip all that out. The protagonist comments on things that have nothing to do with the story and do not clarify his or her character. That goes too.





Then take a sponge and mop up as much of the blood as you can.If you've done it right, what remains will be lean, lovely, and compelling.

You're probably wondering now how to tell when you've cut too much. Don't worry about it. In all my decades of reading, I only ever ran into one published story where the author had taken out more than he should have -- and he was a very skilled writer indeed, one of the best.

That's all for today. But it's enough to keep you occupied for a long, long time.

Above: Some pretty flowers. They don't advance the action. But they do reveal something about my character.


Monday, July 31, 2017

And In Some Distant Future...


How do you like my headstone? That's it above.

Marianne and I went to West Laurel Hill Cemetery today and bought two plots in their "green" section. Not that we're planning on using them anytime soon. But making these arrangements is the sort of things adults do to save the next generation a lot of bother when our time comes.

The green section of the cemetery is a field of wildflowers, essentially. People are buried there in biodegradable coffins or just a linen shroud, either cremated or whole but unembalmed. Their names with dates of birth and death are carved into a low stone wall nearby. Several beehives are located nearby to pollinate the flowers and once a year some goats are brought in to crop the dead plants down to the ground. No headstones, no plastic flowers, or even jewelry allowed. Eventually, trees will grow up and there will be a small patch of woodland abutting the more conventional (and quite beautiful) cemetery grounds. And in some distant future, perhaps, a fox will dig its burrow among what once were my bones.

I like the quiet lack of fuss of that.

And on a sillier note...

Here are some shots that Marianne took of me dancing by my grave.

Above: The thing about the fox? I live in a Philadelphia neighborhood called Roxborough. It's named that because the first settlers came here in the seventeenth century, before the invention of the log cabin. So they dug caves into the banks of the Wissahickon Creek and put wooden facades over the front to house them until they could build real houses. A visitor wrote back to England that the people here built "burrows in the rocks like foxes." And the rocks-burrow name stuck.


Thursday, July 27, 2017

Domani il Mondo Cambiera


Look what arrived in the mail today!  Mondadori has published a new paperback edition of Domani il Mondo Cambiera. Which, in the original English, is my novel Stations of the Tide. Translated by Marco Pinna. Cover art by Andrea Falsetti

And that's pretty much all I can say about it. Like most Americans I am, alas, monolingual. At least I have the decency to be ashamed of this fact.

And if you're going to be in Chengdu this November...

I'll be a guest at the Fourth China (Chengdu) International SF Conference on 10th through 12th of November in Chengdu, China. Science Fiction World has its offices in Chengdu and I am proud to say that they have published many of my stories over the years. So I am particularly delighted to be returning for a third time to the home of the famous thatched hut of the poet Du Fu.

If you're going to be at the convention, be sure to say hello.


Friday, July 14, 2017

Friday's Dream Diary

I'm off to Readercon in a few minutes -- perhaps I'll see you there? So today's blogpost will, alas, be perfunctory. But I've been so dilatory in recent weeks that I felt it would be wrong to just blow it off.

I have a dozen irons in the fire right now, at a modest estimate: I'm working on a new Darger & Surplus story, a new Mongolian Wizard story, two extremely interesting collaborations with other writers, a raft of other independent stories, a couple of essays, plus any number of hard-to-describe projects. You'll be hearing about them all over the coming year.

Right now, just to include something less (though not a great deal less) vague, here's my...

Dream Diary (July 14, 2017):

I dreamed I was working a crossword puzzle whose clues had no words but only brightly colored cartoons. I had no problem with "fruit" or "volcano" or "The Monkees." But the cartoon of a woman singing into a microphone stumped me. Christine Aguilera, perhaps? The older I get, the more unfair pop culture clues seem to me.

Above: Yes, it wasn't a very interesting dream. But the point of dream diaries is to keep track of everything and then, at some later point, put them all together and see what can be learned. This is how I discovered that, yes, people can dream in color and, no, it's not true that one never dreams tastes or scents.


Monday, July 3, 2017

Back to Short Fiction


The Iron Dragon's Mother is finished and off in the world. So, while I proceed to research the next book, I have time to work on short fiction. I have a few dozen stories I want to finish with six or seven right at the top of my list.

Pictured above are my notes for one of those stories.

Which I'll get to work on in two minutes.

And as promised...

I'll have my travel notes for Tampere written up soon. Really. This time I mean it.


Monday, June 26, 2017

A Real Cover for an Imaginary Book


Look what Manuel Preitano made -- just for the joy of it!

Preitano is an Italian artist and author. Among many other accomplishments, he did the cover for Gli Dei di Mosca, the Italian edition of Dancing With Bears. And this is not the only time he's shared a bit of whimsy with me. Last year, he reimagined Beelzebub the cat from my story "Of Finest Scarlet Was Her Gown" (a line from which became the title of Not So Much, Said the Cat, my most recent collection) as an anthropomorphic grifter -- a feline rival, perhaps, for arch-conman Surplus. So I have been an admirer of his work for some time.

If you haven't read "The Very Pulse of the Machine," you can't appreciate what a shrewd piece of design this is. It captures the gist of the story in a single striking image. More than that, it captures the feel of it.That can't be easy.

And that's all. I just wanted to share this with you, so you can join in my admiration of the artist.

You can see the cover for Gli Dei di Mosca here.

You can see the portrait of Beelzebub here.

And you can find Manuel Preitano's home page with many examples of his work in the gallery here.

And coming soon...

Regular readers of this blog know that I've been giving travel tips for those going to Finland this summer. This week, I'll be doing a two-parter covering what may be the strangest way to spend an afternoon you can have in that beautiful country.

Hint (and this gives away the game to anyone who knows Finland): It takes place in Tampere.


Wednesday, June 21, 2017

American Names


I was on the road recently and posted on Facebook (Marianne was driving at the time):

What a country this is for names! Mud Turnpike. Clums Corner. Farm to Market Road. Cropseyville. Quakenkill (river). Dyken Pond. Pickleville Road. Little Hoosic River. Bee Hill. All within a few miles of each other.
Which was responsible not only for our visiting a friend who lived nearby and noticed we were driving through, but also for over fifty comments on Funny Names People Have Known.

All of which was good clean fun. (Though if you live in Pennsylvania you will, after a few decades, grow tired of hearing people snicker about Intercourse and Bird in Hand.) (Not that I kept myself from snickering when I was in Dildo, Newfoundland, so l'm not going to put on airs here.) But I really wasn't making fun of those names, or if I was only a little bit. There is an honest, plain-spoken beauty to old American names. Even a kind of poetry.

Here's an excerpt (with a couple of sentences cut off of the first paragraph) fro a story I wrote titled "Mother Grasshopper":

Our business entailed constant travel.  We went to Brinkerton with cholera and to Roxborough with typhus.  We passed through Denver and Venice and Saint Petersburg and left behind fleas, rats, and plague.  In Upper Black Eddy, it was ebola.  We never stayed long enough to see the results of our work, but I read the newspapers afterwards, and it was about what you would expect…
 We walked to Tylersburg, Rutledge, and Uniontown and took wagons to Shoemakersville, Confluence, and South Gibson.  Booked onto steam trains for Mount Lebanon, Mount Bethel, Mount Aetna, and Mount Nebo and diesel trains to McKeesport, Reinholds Station, and Broomall.  Boarded buses to Carbondale, Feasterville, June Bug, and Lincoln Falls.  Caught commuter flights to Paradise, Nickel Mines, Niantic, and Zion. The time passed quickly.

I hope you can hear the music there. I was trying to evoke the homely rhythms of the plains states, where you can get on an Interstate and drive all night, while periodically an exit sign drifts by for Berlin or Paris or Vienna or London, so that eventually you begin to hallucinate that you got onto the wrong road and are traveling one with off-tamps to all the major cities of the Earth.

That was the intent, anyway. It fit the story, which was a strange one. But I'm going to share a minor secret here: All those names are of places in Pennsylvania.

Why did I do that? Because I could, mostly. Because even though they were from a single state, they sounded like they were scattered across America. And because as long as you're writing a story, you might as well leave a few Easter eggs behind, to amuse those few who happen to notice.


Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Touring Finland: Old Rauma


As long as you're going to Helsinki for the Worldcon, why not make a vacation out of it? Finland is a beautiful country and the one tie I visited it, I loved every minute of it.

This is part of a continuing series.

Old Rauma is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, one of seven in Finland, and is quite possibly the single most laid-back to tour. It consists of some six hundred buildings in the core of the town, built between the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries. (The city is much older but, as with so many other wooden cities, there was a fire.) The streets were laid out in medieval times, so they tend to be narrow and the buildings are vernacular -- in the style of earlier times. They are painted a variety of colors: reds, greens, yellows, blues, and ochres.

Rauma is a living city and most of the houses are inhabited, so you can't go tromping about in people's yards. But in a warm human touch, many people place items in their windows for decoration. I thought that very generous of them.

In Helsinki Square, there is a statue titled The Lace-Maker, a memorial to the fact that Rauma was once a lace-making center. But the pleasure in visiting Old Rauma is not historical but simply the gentleness of the experience: spending a few hours wandering about and getting to know a very old city, and gaining some sense of its soul.

I found the above photo at the Visit Helsinki site, which has tourist information far superior to anything I can give you. I believe (I could be wrong, though) that's the market square at the center of Old Rauma. But really the joy of the place is wandering through its medieval-narrow streets, seeing what there is to b seen.

You can explore the English-language version of the site here.

You can read what UNESCO had to say about it here.


Thursday, June 15, 2017



In Plato's Myth of Er, you will recall, he told how in the afterlife, the Greek heroes were given their choice of lives to be reincarnated in. Most chose lives of glory and heroism. Orpheus chose to be a swan, Agamemnon an eaglle, and Ajax, a lion. Odysseus, wiser than the rest, sought carefully until he found the life of an ordinary and undistinguished man.

Over two and a half millennia later, James Joyce wrote of exactly such a man as Odysseus aspired to be -- Leopold Bloom. His Odyssey of a single day Joyce recounted in Ulysses.

That day was June 16, now known to bookish people around the world as Bloomsday. In Philadelphia, Bloomsday is celebrated by the Rosenbach Museum  which possesses the manuscript of Ulysses. Here's what they say on their website:

The Rosenbach celebrates the Joycean tradition annually on Bloomsday, June 16. Bloomsday, the only international holiday in recognition of a work of art, brings scholars, devotees, and the general public together on Delancey Place for a day of dramatic readings from the novel. The Rosenbach also produces a special exhibition related to Joyce and Ulysses, drawing from its substantial collection of modern literary materials.

And tomorrow I will be one of the readers!

If you care to hear my five minutes of local fame, I'll be reading at 5:05 p.m. But, really, if you're local and have the free time, you should just show up anytime and be happy. It's a public celebration of a work of literature! What could be more pleasant?

The Rosenbach is located at 2008-2010 Delancey Place in Philadelphia. If you've never seen their collection, you really should.

You can find more detailed information on this free event here.

Or you can check out the museum's main page here.


Monday, June 12, 2017

And It's Done!


Look what I have made with my own two hands!

On April 4, 2012, I wrote the first 185 words of what would eventually become  The Iron Dragon's Mother. Today, I finished the novel and the trilogy that I didn't set out to write.

When The Iron Dragon's Daughter was first published in 1993, it was intended to be a stand-alone novel. Then, ten years later, Marvin Kaye hit me up at a convention for a dragon story for his anthology, The Dragon Quartet. "I don't have any ideas for a dragon story," I told him. "But if I think of one, I'll send it to you."

In the strange way that such things sometimes happen, I went home, sat down at the computer, and immediately came up with an idea for a dragon story. And when "King Dragon" (published in 2003) was complete, I recognized that it was the opening segment for a new novel. Thus, The Dragons of Babel, which was first published in 2008.

When you have one book set in an imaginary world, it's a novel. When you have two, it's an unfinished trilogy. So I found myself in a situation similar to that of the guy who lives downstairs from a pooka and is waiting for the third shoe to drop.

The protagonist of the first book, Jane Alderberry, was in a world where she did not belong and so, no matter what she tried, she could not find a place for herself. The protagonist of the second, Will Le Fey, was a native of Faerie, and so he had to find a place for himself. I was an English major... I can recognize Thesis and Antithesis when it stares me in the face. So I knew there had to be a third novel and that it had embody Synthesis. But I had no idea what that might be.

Until five years ago.

And now the trilogy is done. At a good guess, I probably began writing The Iron Dragon's Daughter  in 1991. So it's taken me 26 years to write my trilogy.

I cannot help noting that Tolkien's trilogy only took him 12.


Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Touring Finland: Atelier Bar (Helsinki)


The Atelier -- in Finnish, Ateljee -- Bar is a rooftop bar atop the Hotel Torni is known primarily for two things. First, it has the best view in all Helsinki. This is because, until the Skywheel Helsinki Ferris wheel was built, it was the highest spot in all Helsinki. The other is because the ladies room, one floor down, has huge windows. I haven't seen them myself, but Marianne assures me they're worth the trip.

Neither of those is why I recommend you visit the Atelier, however. I recommend it because in Cold War times, it was a notorious spy bar.

Are there really such things as spy bars? A former spy I know assures me that there are. On first being told of the Atelier Bar, I had my doubts. But when I actually went there, I realize that if you were a spy, whatever your cover story might be you were passing as the sort of person who could not resist drinking there.

I vividly remember sitting in the Atelier, drinking absinthe while being interviewed for a Finnish fanzine. It was a beautiful day. The tile roofs on the buildings below were bright orange. The alleyways between them were narrow and black.

Looking down on them, I felt cunning and ruthless.

And I'm told...

Supposedly, the Ateljee Bar makes an appearance in one of Len Deighton's spy novels. I've never tracked down the scene myself. But if you can, it might be worth taking a copy with you and reading it while sipping on an appropriate drink.

Whisky, most likely.

Above: Image swiped from Crawl Pal, which has other good suggestions for things to see in Helsinki. You can find those suggestions here.


Tuesday, June 6, 2017

The Man With No Name

I was reading Bob Dylan's Nobel Prize speech just now and what he had to say about Moby-Dick made me want to sit down and write a story. Here's a taste:

Moby Dick is a seafaring tale. One of the men, the narrator, says, "Call me Ishmael." Somebody asks him where he's from, and he says, "It's not down on any map. True places never are." Stubb gives no significance to anything, says everything is predestined. Ishmael's been on a sailing ship his entire life. Calls the sailing ships his Harvard and Yale. He keeps his distance from people.

Did you get that? There's a man with no name from a place that's realer than real and not on any map. Wherever he is, that's where he's always been. Whatever he's doing is foreordained. No one can say they truly know him. Underestimated, barely noted, he descends out of nowhere upon the Pequod. When he leaves, everyone behind him is dead.

Have you guessed his name? Do you see what "Ishmael" has in common with Clint Eastwood in Sergio Leone's Man With No Name movies? In Cosmic Trigger, Robert Anton Wilson gave the game away. The man has no name, he wrote, because he is Death.

Ishmael is still out there today, walking down a dusty road somewhere, on the way from a place that's not on any map to a destination he will not share. And he's headed this way.

You can read the speech in its entirety here.

And as always...

I'm on the road again. I'll let you know about my adventures when I get there.