Monday, September 29, 2008

How To Get A Good Illo For Your Story

One of every writer's pet peeves is how difficult it can be to get a good illustration for your work. Granted, sometimes you luck out, the way Lucius Shepard did with the cover James Gurney painted for the issue of F&SF containing "The Man Who Painted the Dragon Griaule" or the way I did with Stephan Martiniere's painting for The Dragons of Babel. More commonly, though, you get a clunker like . . . well, discretion stills my tongue.

Which is why I went to the Institute of Contemporary Art here in Philadelphia and bought their poster for the really quite terrific R. Crumb show (which continues into December and is absolutely free -- so if you're local you have no excuse for missing it). Then I took it home and wrote the following story, or rather vignette, for it, and copied the story onto the poster itself. Which I then framed and leaned against the wall in my office.

So now I feel better.

Here's what I wrote:

The Three Graces

The three Graces met for drinks in the West Village, as they did once every other year in October, when the city looked its best. This year it was in Zanzibar Blue, Le Wine Bar having faded into that same fog of nostalgia and failing memories which had swallowed up a long line of watering holes all the way back to Tangerine Dream, their original place back in the Sixties when they danced together.

“Here’s to kick-ass old women!” said Grace Zagajewski. The Graces clicked their drinks – two Manhattans and a chardonnay – over the center of the table.

Then Grace Harrelson dug through her purse. “I was going through Richard’s things after he died, and guess what I found.” She carefully unfolded a telephone pole flyer for “Psychedelicious,” their last off-off-Broadway show together. “Remember this?”

“How could I forget?” Grace Feinstein said. “Bad choreography, pretentious Moog synthesizer music, a malfunctioning fog machine, and we were all as naked as jaybirds!”

They all but collapsed in laughter. “It’s funny now, but we took it so seriously then,” Grace Harrelson said. “We were going to knock Martha Graham off of her perch.”

“That was when you met Richard,” Grace Zagajewski said. “He came to every performance and he never looked at Grace or me. Not once. And we looked pretty good back then, too.”

“Oh God we were perfect then.”

“We were.”

“More than perfect.”

“Ah me," Grace Feinstein said. "Where did all the years go?”

“Most of them I spent on men and drugs and booze and partying. The rest, I fear, I wasted.”

“I gave them all to Richard. I know you never liked him . . .”

“Never liked him? You have no idea how Grace and I envied you. When I think of all the chaos I’ve been through, the divorces, the affairs, the scenes, I’d trade places with you in a heartbeat.”

“I’d trade places with Grace. She stayed true to her muse. She’s still an artist.”

“I’m a teacher, dear. It’s not the same thing.”

“It is! All I have now are the place in Queens, the condo in Denver and the grandchildren. I love the little buggers, but . . . I just wish I could have stayed with dance, like you did.”

“Hah! You forget what a grind it is – and how drab. Frankly, I envy Grace’s chaos – all those adventures, all that freedom.”

They all laughed in a complex blend of emotions that had taken a lifetime to distill. Wiping the tears from her eyes, Grace flagged down their waiter and ordered a final round of drinks and the check.

“I don’t suppose we were really as pretty as we thought we were,” Grace said wistfully. “But we were young and so of course the boys wanted us. My students are all so muscular – they have abs like oak boards. You could hammer a nail into them. By today’s standards, our bodies were soft and pudgy.”

“Are you nuts?” Grace drained her drink to the dregs. “We were gorgeous!”

-- Michael Swanwick


Friday, September 26, 2008

Society's Child

I've had a fascinating life
Had a husband and a wife
But you will truly be amazed
at just how humble I have stayed
-- "My Autobiography"

I've been reading Society's Child, Janis Ian's autobiography, because . . . well, because whenever somebody I know personally writes an autobiography, I read it.  And the short version is that if you have any interest at all in Janis Ian, then you want this book.

Janis was famous at thirteen and a has-been by seventeen.  She won Emmys.  She sold out Carnegie Hall.  She was good pals with Janis Joplin.  Racists hated her.  As a teen, she used to jam late into the night in small clubs with Jimi Hendrix.  So she's got that fantasy identification thing going on here.  But a lot of bad things happened to her as well.  There were times when I wanted to reach into the past and grab people and shake them.  For God's sake, what were they thinking?  She was only a child.

The book ends with the lyrics of her self-mocking song about writing an autobiography.   (You'd have to be formed by the ideals and nonsense of the Sixties to understand why this was necessary.)  But with all the ups and downs -- and it's a real roller coaster ride -- Janis really has led a fascinating life, and in Society's Child she manages to convey the essence of how it felt to her.

It does make me feel a little dowdy and ordinary reading it, though.  I can't help remembering the time, years ago, when Jack Dann told me how he felt after reading Thomas Mann's autobiography, wherein, Jack said, Mann was forever going to India to study under a famous guru or to Africa to meet somebody important.  "When I write my autobiography," Jack said glumly, "it's going to read:  'And then I went to Disclave.'"

Oh, and also . . .

There's quite a nice interview with Michael Andre-Druissi about his Lexicon Urthus at Ultan's Library, self-described as "a resource for the study of Gene Wolfe."  I recommend it.

And as always . . .

I've updated Poem du Jour.  This time it's a rather better poem by Carl Sandburg.


Monday, September 22, 2008

Favorite Closing Lines

It was a social weekend -- Purdom's Rangers on Saturday and tea on Sunday at Greg and Barbara Frost' s house, along with Jason Van Hollander and his wife Terry.    But despite the above photo, of myself and the Dean of Philadelphia Science Fiction, the great Tom Purdom himself, I'm not going to blog about any of that.

I just got a tattered ex-library copy of Mervyn Wall's The Return of Fursey in the mail this morning, and it ends with one of the best final sentences for a comic novel I've ever encountered.  After the sort of hugger-mugger that makes a man glad he lives in our gentle and welcoming world rather than in fiction, Wall pulled the metaphoric camera way, way back for a long shot over the centuries:

"Last spring I walked the road from Clonmacnoise to Cashel, and then from Cashel to The Gap.  Fursey and the others are still there, trampled into the earth of road and field these thousand years."

Man, isn't that lovely?  Doesn't it just break your heart? 

I can't think of a better ending for a comic novel.  But I'm willing to entertain the possibility.  Can anybody here one-up Wall?

And as always . . .

. . . I've updated Poem du Jour.   Billy Collins Rides Again!


Friday, September 19, 2008


My contributor's copy of The Living Dead (Night Shade Books; edited by John Joseph Adams) arrived in the mail yesterday, and it looks pretty good. Better than pretty good, actually. It's got Kelly Link's "Some Zombie Contingency Plans" and Andy Duncan's "Zora and the Zombie" and a collaboration I'd somehow managed to miss between Harlan Ellison and Robert Silverberg. Plus all the usual suspects. If you're interested in zombies, you want this book.

And, as it turns out, you should be interested in zombies. I was stuck on a zombie panel at the last Boskone and it turned out to be extremely informative. George Romero created not only a new monster but something perilously close to a new archetype. Which turns out to be an almost inexhaustable metaphor for pretty much anything you want. So . . . a surprisingly productive corner of the genres.

I found a clip of the panel at YouTube. Unfortunately, it was something like my fourth program item in a row so by that point I appeared to be channeling Woody Allen's stuttering, staccato delivery. Also, I'm eating my supper as we talk. I mean, really, dude. That's just plain bad manners.

And, as always . . .

. . . Poem du Jour has been updated. This time, it's the poem that killed Ossip Mandelstam. Poetry is not for sissies!


Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Your Own Private Hindenburg!

The latest issue of The New York Review of Science Fiction arrived today, and in it David Langford praised the short fiction of Frank Key. So I went to check him out, and on his website, Hooting Yard found a link where the above cut-and-fold cardboard Hindenburg can be downloaded!

Is it possible that these things are being invented and placed on the Web by America's enemies to decrease our productivity? Just wondering.

And as always . . .

Poem du Jour has been updated. This time, John Donne Conquers the Universe!


Monday, September 15, 2008

Troupers and Fashion Plates

(photo courtesy of Leslie Howle)

Friday, I went to the PSFS meeting to see their guest speaker and my pal, Connie Willis.  A friend took my photo with her but unfortunately is having trouble uploading it, so I'm posting the above photo instead.  It was taken at Denvention and shows me with David Hartwell (center) and L. E. "Lee" Modesitt (right).  Taken singly, we're all remarkably dressed.  But in aggregate, we form a fashion movement.

Connie's talk was of course well received.  Ironically, the part that everybody loved most was when she asked for recommendations of horror movies and listened politely and wrote down titles while everybody described their favorites.  I'm going to do that in lieu of a speech someday -- just interview the audience for an hour.  I betcha they'll be talking about what a great speaker I was for years after.

Connie flew in for the speech from Colorado and was sidelined for hours on the runway in (I think) Cincinnati.  So she spent all day in an airplane.  Then, after her appearance, she was going to go back to her hotel, and catch a plane home in the morning.  Imagine what you and I would be like under the circumstances!  But Connie was charming, gracious, bright, even bubbly, and the pleasantest imaginable person to be with for the duration.  It was only in a whispered aside in private that she revealed that the experience with modern aviation had been hellish for her. 

I'd say that Connie was the Iron Woman of science fiction, only that carries negative connotations.  The mot juste for Connie is trouper.

Connie is a real trouper.  Higher praise than which there is not.

And as always . . .

I've updated the Poem du Jour.   This time with an extremely rude poem.  Decent folks will want to avoid it.


Friday, September 12, 2008

Exegesis Saves!

So Marianne was online and she and I were talking about Sappho the other night, and she sent me a link for a blog discussing various translations of one of her poems. You're probably most familiar with the Rexroth version:

The moon has set,
And the Pleiades. It is
Midnight. Time passes.
I sleep alone.
Sappho is famous, of course, for how little of her work survives. I have a collection containing every word that survives of her oeuvre, and I think it includes only one poem that survives in its entirety. Many of them are mere scatterings of words across the page. And in several instances, only a single word survives.

The blogger concluded:

"As I said, some of the poems are actually fragments of only a single word. Hear and know I begin a series of my own word poems, inspired by Sappho's 'Soda': Coke

"Let the analysis begin."

Alas, though the post was over a year old, nobody had responded. So I stepped up to the plate:

Hum. Well, obviously, "Coke" can refer either to the product resulting from the distillation of coal in a closed chamber or to the famous soft drink. So we've got a dichotomy going here. Knowing nothing about the poet, other than the date of posting, we cannot tell whether the capitalization is meant to collapse our uncertainty toward Coca-Cola or is simply an artifact of contemporary poetic conventions.

The diction of the preceding exegesis, however, suggests that the poet is an adult, and it is thus possible to speculate that he/she was of an age to participate in the follies of the times during the 1970s. Which raises the possibility of a third interpretation of the poem as the slang term for "cocaine." In which case, the use of the familiar rather than the formal voice suggests that the poem is autobiographical.

Is the poet lamenting ancient bad choices and, perhaps, a road not taken, or merely wallowing in nostalgia for lost youth? In the absence of further archaeological discovery, there is simply no way for us to know.

Note, however, that all three meanings of the word from which this poem is constructed are man-made. It is therefore obviously intended to serve as a commentary on Mankind's separation from Nature, a lamentation for our expulsion from the Garden, and a wistful expression of regret for the innocence of childhood.

I could go on and on unpacking the text, for "Coke," like all great poetry, is truly bottomless.

Remember when you were in college and used to be able to spin out nonsense like this at an instant's notice? Turns out, it's like riding a bicycle. You never forget.

And as always . . .

I've updated Poem du Jour. Which is about real poetry.


Monday, September 8, 2008

Soapbox Amish

Okay, Philadelphia is one strange city.  Saturday, there was a soapbox derby on "the Wall," the infamously difficult uphill stretch of the the yearly bicycle race that passes through Manayunk, not many blocks away from where I live. 

This was not your father's soapbox derby.  The participants were all adults, for one, if still twentysomethings.  And the soapbox racers were made up to look like cheesesteaks, dragons, turtles, bathtubs, you name it.  And in some cases -- like "Man's Best Friend," which involved a guy dressed as a fire hydrant, rubber dog droppings, and a real live dog -- there was nothing you could put a name to.

There was a large, enthusiastic crowd, despite the torrential tropical storm that swept through just in time for the event.  The sponsor got lots and lots of valuable product placement from it.  None from me, though.

Above:  Jebediah's Journey.  The racer was made up to look like a buggy pulled by a crimson male cow.  The crew were all dressed in Amish drag.  Except that the women wore really short skirts.  I apologize that the picture doesn't show it.  But what with the rain and the crowds, it was a miracle Marianne was able to a usable snapshot at all.

And as always . . .

. . . I've updated Poem du Jour.   Saturday's entry begins a short run of Pablo Neruda poems.


Friday, September 5, 2008

The Extremely Accomplished Lee Moyer

The above image is by Lee Moyer from his Literary Pin-Up Calendar work-in-progress. Lee, you'll remember, created the witty and visually stunning cover for my forthcoming Subterranean Press collection, The Best of Michael Swanwick. Which I refrain from posting above only with great effort and only because I've already posted it at least twice in recent memory.

There's an interview with Lee Moyer here. What he has to say is interesting but, oh man, the illos! It makes me wish I had visual talent. Wouldn't it be great to be able to create stuff like that?

A day in the life . . .

I spent most of yesterday signing book plates for The Best of Michael Swanwick, my forthcoming Subterranean Press collection, all day, and it put me in mind of the Easton Press edition of The Iron Dragon’s Daughter. Easton Press specializes in leather-bound first editions with gilt-edged pages and a little ribbon, like the one you find in missals, to help you keep your place. I forget exactly how large an edition it was, but it came to thousands of books, and they paid me one dollar for each page signed.

So I was sitting on the couch in the evening, watching TV and signing plates – each autograph another dollar, as if my pen were some kind of magical money-printing device – and earning hundreds of dollars per hour, when it suddenly occurred to me: This is simultaneously, the best paying and most boring job I’ve ever had in my life.

And I do not exclude from the "most boring" part of the reckoning the time I worked in a MacDonald’s.

Yes, I
am wonderful, aren’t I?

Years ago, after her divorce from a noted musician, a friend of mine said that the best thing she got out of it was that she would never again have to sit at a folk festival, nodding and saying, “Yes, he is good, isn’t he?”

So I have complete sympathy for you, having to put up with my repeated recitation of absolutely glowing reviews. Such as the review of The Dragons of Babel that just went up on SF Site. Or Gary K. Wolfe’s review of The Best of Michael Swanwick in the September, 2008 issue of Locus, which calls me “a key figure … in the ongoing movement to liberate genre materials from genre formulas” and concludes, “It’s almost a cliché to claim there’s not a weak story in this book, but the only complaint Swanwick’s readers are likely to voice is that too much got left out.” Or the Booklist review which says, “One of the best things about Swanwick’s storytelling is that it is always worth another read. This volume is the perfect package for assuring that his most rereadable fiction is always at hand.”

But I do this for all the gonnabe writers out there. No, by the time you start getting the good reviews you are not going to be blase about them.

And as always . . .

I've updated the Poem du Jour. This time, it's Jorge Luis Borges's "History of the Night."


Monday, September 1, 2008

Rhetorics of Fantasy

First of all, my sincere apologies for missing last Friday's blog. I was away for a funeral and, contrary to my expectations, all the attendant family obligations were such that I didn't have the time to seek out a wi-fi hot spot. I do regret that.

Today I'm putting the finishing touches on "A Dizzy Celebration of Being Somewhere Wonderful: Reading Rhetorics of Fantasy in the Real World." This is my sort-of-review/sort-of-celebration of Farah Mendlesohn's book-length study of the storytelling strategies that apply to different modes of fantasy.

One of the extremely rare dry stretches of my essay, describes these basic modes:

The portal fantasy is one where the protagonist steps out of his or her usually quiet world and into the fantastic. Mendlesohn, for reasons which will be later explained, conflates this with the quest fantasy, and sometimes calls it the portal-quest fantasy. The immersive fantasy starts out in a coherent fantasy world and stays there. In the intrusion fantasy, the fantastic breaks into (I paraphrase Nabokov here) what we laughingly call the “real” world. And the liminal fantasy is one which never breaks through into the fantastic and yet which nevertheless feels inescapably fantastic.
Sounds boring, dunnit? But it's not. If you're capable of reading criticism for pleasure (and not everybody is), Farah's book is vastly entertaining. But, more importantly for those of us who are working writers, it's immensely useful as well. Just yesterday I read a fantasy story by one of my friends and, though the prose was good and the world-creation was inventive and original, it just didn't work. A few weeks ago, I would have shrugged and forgotten it. But after reading Rhetorics of Fantasy I could see that its problem was that it was an immersive fantasy written in the manner of a portal fantasy. It never had a chance. But if the author had only known what I know now, the story could have been reworked and made to fly.

So I am a better writer today than I was yesterday. And I hope the same is true for you as well.

And as always . . .

. . . but a couple of days late, I've added a new post to Poem du Jour. This one is on Adam Zagajewski's "Try to Praise the Mutilated World." That is one great poem. You should look it up.