Friday, April 29, 2016

Give In To Your Better Impulses


To be a science fiction writer is to leave your mind open to vagrant thoughts and impulses -- some good, some bad. Mostly, I manage not to give in to my bad impulses, thought some of them are damnably clever, and this has worked out well for me. As witness the fact that I am not one of the most hated men in science fiction.

But sometimes I resisted good impulses, usually through cheapness or laziness.

Back in the 1980s, it was very common for button-makers to set up business in convention huckster rooms with buttons bearing slogans like FRODO LIVES! or IN SPACE NO ONE CAN HEAR YOU FART. But they would also make buttons on the spot featuring slogans that had just occurred to you.

I was at a Worldcon and had just been talking with James Patrick Kelly and John Kessel when I saw such a vender and had a sudden impulse to buy eight or nine buttons reading GRAND MASTER OF THE FUTURE to hand out to my pals, all new and largely ignored writers. Jim and John would have gotten one, as would Bruce Sterling and Nancy Kress. Plus a few others.

One of whom would definitely have been Connie Willis.

The day it was announced that Connie was receiving the Grand Master Award, I regretted my laziness and cheapness in no having those buttons made. It would have been a hoot to have a photo of Connie with the button. And I could have sent her a new button (presuming I could find someone to make it) reading GRAND MASTER OF THE PRESENT to replace the one she almost certainly would have lost or thrown away decades before.

Ah, well. I missed my chance. But don't you make the same mistake I did. Always give in to your better impulses.

Above: Connie Willis, Grand Master of the Future, Present, and Past. I'm pretty sure you're given time-traveling powers along with the award.


Wednesday, April 27, 2016

A Luncheon in Memison


There was a memorial for the late David Hartwell in New York City on Monday, the third such I've attended, and there will be more. David was an important figure in the field. Afterward, six of us went out to lunch together. We had a pleasant time, enjoyed it greatly, and many interesting things were said. However, I didn't take notes, so the following fictionalized account will have to do instead.

A Luncheon in Memison

"Who wants what?" Gordon asked. As the god of industry and organization, it was his job to impose some semblance of order on the luncheon.

"I want a reign of blood and death," Marianne replied.

"That's what you always ask for," Ellen said. "Just once try the salad." She was the goddess responsible for organic foods, natural fibers and the like. There were times when she envied the hell out of Marianne, but there it was. What could you do?

"Six martinis and a bicycle horn," said Michael. He was the trickster of the group.

"Make that one martini and the mushroom risotto," Gordon told the waitress."David?"

"Croque Monsieur," David said. Nobody knew what he was the god of, but it seemed to have something to do with wine and foods with foreign names.

When the food arrived, they ate, as gods do, avidly and with great satisfaction.

"You were in China last year, weren't you, Marianne?" Ellen asked. "How was it?"

"People died in great numbers," Marianne said. "Also, the food was delicious."

Above (l-r): Gordon Van Gelder, Marianne Porter, Michael Swanwick, Ellen Kushner, David Axler. Photo by Delia Sherman. Delia would have been in this story if she'd been in the photo. But there it is. What can you do?


Monday, April 25, 2016

"I Liked It Better When We Were Going to Each Other's Weddings"


Brief post today, because I'm off to New York City for David Hartwell's memorial. It's the third one I've attended, but in ways the most apt because it's being held by Tor Books, the publishing house he worked at most recently and for many years.

Years ago, Ansible reported on the funeral of a British editor, and quoted Christopher Priest as saying, "I liked it better when we were going to each other's weddings."

So, yeah. Like that.


Friday, April 22, 2016

New From Dragonstairs -- Five Seasons!


Not long ago, Marianne published her smallest edition ever -- an art book titled Fallen Leaves, which was issued in an edition of twenty, of which seventeen were offered up for sale. The costs of producing it being what they were, it was Dragonstairs Press's priciest (though still, her advisors argued, underpriced) book to date. And it sold out in less than twenty hours.

Those who know Marianne can predict where this is going.

 As atonement for making a book which some could not afford and hardly any had the opportunity to buy, Marianne has created a new chapbook titled Five Seasons, containing five related flash fictions, all written by me. Signed and numbered in an edition of one hundred, hand-sewn with appropriately crimson thread, it sells for only five dollars, plus one dollar for shipping in the US or two dollars elsewhere in the world.

Or, for free, you can read the first section here.  It's titled...


I crave thy pardon, mistress, that I did try to eat thee.  It were the Darkwinter, when we all do what we must to survive.  I understand why thou dost flinch from my touch.
      Still.  Didst thou not kill thy sister, who did love thee, when the foodstuffs ran low?  Not that I disapprove.  It were the right thing to do, God wot.  Hunger knows no morals.  I did the same with my father, poor soul.
      Those dire times are behind us.  The snows are melting at last.  We can scrabble in the mud for last year’s roots, and perhaps a small rodent or three.  We keep our knives sharp and close to hand, of course, because we each know what the other is capable of.
      Now the ice turns back into pond water.  The air is warm.  Desperation falls a day, a second day, a third into the past.  Now at last – though I grip my blade as firmly as thou dost thine – I am free to say . . .
      I do love thee.

Which, okay, yes, is a little grimmer and more cynical than I usually go. But you should see the other four! 

Those who wish to buy a copy of the chapbook can find the Dragonstairs Press website here.


Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Talking About Darger & Surplus


The industrious Carl Slaughter has interviewed me about my Darger & Surplus books and stories, and published the results in the current SF Signal. Which leads me to reflect on the nature of fictional confidence artists. Why are they so much more charming than the real thing?

I know whereof I speak here, because two con men once tried to take me with a cunning variation on the classic Pigeon Drop. It involved a hapless-looking man with a strong African accent stopping me on the street to ask for directions, a second man stopping to help, the promise of a large cash reward for my help accompanied by a quick flash of the first man's wad of greenbacks, and the determination that I should show the African how to use an ATM machine. If I had thought for a minute that I would take money away from the poor schlub, I might not have put the pieces together to realize it was a scam in time to walk away untaken.

I did not find those guys charming at all. Particularly since they were relying on my being not only gullible but at least a little racist as well.

But in our imaginations, we are free to fantasize being unfettered by morality and able to trick and outwit ordinary members of the herd. We imagine ourselves as the carefree predators and mere humans as our prey.

Which is, ironically enough, the most common trick in the con man's book: He offers you the chance to swindle somebody else. The roper presented himself as being a gullible fool, pathetically eager to throw his money away. And the inside man gently urged me to join him in fleecing him.

As I said, in real life not very charming.

Ah, but in our dreams...

You can find the interview here.


Monday, April 18, 2016

News From Lake Tachyon


The mighty publicity juggernaut of San Francisco megapress Tachyon Publications has just posted their latest set of "Tachyon Tidbits." Which is to say, bits and pieces of news that apply to their books.

This is relevant because "Not So Much," Said the Cat, my forthcoming Tachyon collection, has just received its first review.

I am, I begin to realize, old, old, old. So old that I find myself out of step with the times. In my day (the late Victorian era, my dears), a proper author did not engage in self-promotion. That was called "careerism." Today, it's called "being responsible." Nor did one solicit one's friends to promote one's books with the implicit promise to return the favor when their own came out. That was called "log-rolling." Today, it's called 'signal boost."

So I find myself feeling quite faint at the thought of repeating the nice things the reviewer had to say about my book. Instead, I'll quote a little said about  each of the other Tachyon books mentioned in the post.

Of Patricia A. McKillip's forthcoming collection, Dreams of Distant Shores, a reviewer said:

I have never in all my reading days, as far as I know read anything by McKillip. How I have overlooked such a powerful storyteller I have no idea.
Meanwhile, the Hollywood Reporter presents a news item about Daryl Gregory's novel Spoonbenders:

SPOONBENDERS, a hot manuscript about an eccentric family of magicians (think Royal Tenenbaums with psychics) by Daryl Gregory, has been acquired by Knopf for publishing and Paramount TV for television, in what sources say was a competitive auction on both fronts that involved multiple bidders. Terms of the deal were not announced, but the publishing-side advance is said to be at least in the high-six-figure range.

And another reviewer says of Cory Doctorow's nonfiction book (taking a deep breath here)  Content: Selected Essays on Technology, Creativity, Copyright, and the Future of the Future.

 Ultimately, though, Doctorow’s essays in this collection, are still important for the ongoing discussion of freedom, personal rights, and access to information and the openness of the internet. Even though he lacks the specific factual and statistical research in most of his essays needed to drive his message fully home, I recommend everyone read these essays and to keep an open mind, because they are the start to addressing how we travel a very long road ahead toward a digital world, and I appreciated his work very much.

Plus, as I said, there was a review I am too old-fashioned to quote of my own book.

I hasten to point out that none of the people above blurbed my collection. Nor have I blurbed their books. Clearly, I belong in another century.

You can read the full posting here.


Friday, April 15, 2016

Liberty Gin (First Tastings)


So how far do you have to go to reach your local distillery? Here at the American Martini Laboratory, it's a stroll of less than a mile to the W. P. Palmer Distilling Co. on Shurs Lane.

This is a new distillery and still a small one. They make Liberty Gin and Manayunk Moonshine. The latter is available only the distillery and since the whole legal moonshine phenomenon is a baffling example of the willingness of Americans to buy and drink practically anything, the AML gave it a pass.

Gin is another matter. Marianne and I bought a bottle and have begun testing it. The Palmer Distillery people advertise it as being "a wonderful Martini, a classic Gin & Tonic and a delicious Gimlet." No gin can be all things to all drinks, of course, so this claim must be taken as a perfectly understandable bit of corporate puffery.

Gimlets and gin and tonics are warm-weather drinks and it's been cool here in Roxborough for the past week, so we haven't tested either of those. But we did mix a martini and a pitcher of aviations.

And the results are...

Liberty Gin is seasoned with juniper, coriander, angelica, cardamom, and grains of paradise. As a result it has a strongly floral taste that does not particularly suit the steely grandeur that is the American Martini.

However, the aviations were exceptional. The aviation is a lighter, more festive cocktail and one that is well suited to a floral gin.

So we are well content with our neighborhood distillery and look forward to further tests when the weather turns warmer.

You can find their website here.

And since you asked...

Here's the standard recipe for the Aviation. Which has the pleasant distinction of being that rarest of beasts, the cocktail that is as blue as the sky.

2 oz       Gin
.5 oz      Maraschino liqueur
.25 oz     Crème de violette or Crème Yvette
.75 oz     Lemon Juice

Mix, shake, strain, and drink. It is optional whether or not to garnish it with a Maraschino Cherry. If all you have are those awful candied things that come in a jar, I wouldn't recommend it. But since Marianne spices her own cherries, we prefer our drinks garnished. Being careful not to muddy the color with any of the cherry's liqueur, it goes without saying.

Like most cocktails, the exact proportions of the drink should be to taste. Marianne likes to make our aviations with lime juice rather than lemon, which she feels imparts too yellow a cast to the drink's appearance.


Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Naming the Five Seasons


Marianne has decided that since her last Dragonstairs Press project was (for her) pricey and issued in an extremely limited edition of twenty, she should immediately atone by putting out out one of her underpriced chapbooks in a gargantuan edition of one hundred. So now she is hard at work on Five Seasons, which will contain five closely related flash fictions (or, possibly, one story narrated in five vignettes) that I wrote some time ago to go in a set of five connected picture frames.

Our son Sean was appalled when I told him that the seasons are not a natural phenomenon but an artificially-created social construct. But it's true. You could as easily have two -- Burgeoning and Withering. Or three -- Growth, Decline, and Fallow.

One of the pleasures of being a writer is getting to name things that otherwise would go without. Dividing the year into five wasn't easy, but it was fun. The names I coined were lush and ornamental, in part because I was writing a fantasy and in part because the stories were rather darker than my usual stuff and needed at least that small taste of romance.

They were:






You'll note that the names give you a sense of which of our seasons they were carved from. I was rather pleased with that.


Monday, April 11, 2016

The Coolest Book You Didn't Have the Opportunity to Buy This Week


As you may know, Marianne Porter is not only my wife but also the founder, owner, and sole employee of Dragonstairs Press. She creates chapbooks, usually but not always with content provided by me, and sells them at what I'm pretty sure is a fraction of their true value.

Marianne refers to Dragonstairs as a "nanopress" and describes her business as following the "Beanie Baby model." Her creations are priced low enough that they can be bought on impulse. Not coincidentally, most of her books sold out long ago.

On Friday, Marianne put her latest work, Fallen Leaves, up on her website. Here's how she described the original project:

The Fallen Leaves Project was carried out during October, 2015, in multiple locations around Philadelphia, including Laurel Hill Cemetery, West Laurel Hill Cemetery, Morris Arboretum, and Gorgas Park.
 Michael Swanwick composed “epitaphs”, and wrote them on fallen leaves. The leaves were photographed by Marianne Porter and Michael Swanwick within a few feet of where they were found and left where they were, to be discovered by passersby. Or not. The photographs were posted daily throughout October on Twitter, Facebook, and Swanwick's blog. In total, ninety-four images were created.

And here's how she described the ensuing book:

Fallen Leaves is a set of albums made of hand-crafted mulberry paper, manufactured by Karin tribe members, with a selection of leaf photographs pasted in. Archival glue was used throughout. Each album contains fifteen images and no two albums contain the same set of images. Fallen Leaves is limited to an edition of twenty albums, of which seventeen are available for purchase. Green or brown bindings are chosen randomly.

At the same time as she put the book up on her site, Marianne sent an email to her regular customers, as a courtesy, informing them of its existence.

Less than twenty hours later, the book had sold out.

Sean and I told her she wasn't charging enough.

You can find the Dragonstairs website here.  Marianne is currently working on several more projects. An announcement is expected not too many weeks from now.


Friday, April 8, 2016

Everything Happens for a Reason: A Conversation with Kaja and Phil Foglio


A couple of years ago, I interviewed Kaja and Phil Foglio about Girl Genius, a long and complex narrative in graphic format which I admire greatly. Specifically, I was interested in how they manage to plot such a thing while maintaining its narrative clarity.

I'm quite pleased with how the interview came out. So I'm sharing it with you now.

Everything Happens for a Reason

A Conversation with Kaja and Phil Foglio

You two have been working on Girl Genius for years. You put up three full-page comics on the Web -- written, drawn, and inked in full color – a week, Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, week after week. So far you have thirteen compilations of the comics. Each volume is between one hundred and one hundred sixty pages. With at least another seven to go before the plot winds up.

This tells me two things. The first of which is that you believe that sleep is overrated. The second is that you are industrial-level producers and consumers of plot. So I thought I would like to interview you about plotting. Because plot is king: A badly-written story with a great plot will be loved. A well-written story with great plot will endure. It’s probably the most essential element of fiction. A lot can be said about your work, all admiring, but today I’d like to talk just about plotting.

So let me start by asking, when you began Girl Genius, did you know how it was going to end?



KAJA: Oh, I see what you mean! When we first decided we should do a thing about a female mad scientist, we didn’t know how it was going to end. When we started actually publishing it, we had an end.

How complex a sketch was it? Was it just “We start here and then Agatha learns about her heritage, and then some stuff happens, and at the end she marries the penguin and everybody’s happy?”

KAJA: It was so really great. You’ll see!

PHIL: We started out pretty much figuring out where we wanted the story to go. We had a rough idea: Ohhh, it goes from here to here to here and we wind up here. Then, once we had that rough skeleton, we started filling in and it got a lot more detailed.

KAJA: We started working on Girl Genius in 1993. At that time Phil was finishing up Buck Godot, Zap Gun for Hire: Gallimaufry. I was doing Magic: the Gathering cards…

PHIL: As was I.

KAJA: …and I was sort of poking at the idea that I wanted to do something with mad scientists. Because I love mad scientists, as I love mad science. At a certain point Phil was saying, I don’t know what to do next. I want to do adventures, but I don’t want to do Buck Godot. Maybe we should do some more Phil and Dixie, I don’t know. And a friend of ours, smart-ass that he was, said, You should do something totally new that you haven’t done before.

We were like, What a weird idea!

So Phil went to a convention and came back with the title Girl Genius and a drawing of what he said was me in a lab coat. Because he’s a darling. Once you have a picture of a character, once you have a character you like, you start asking yourself questions. Who is this person? What do they do, what do they make, what’s their problem? Who, in this case, is her boyfriend, who are her parents, who’s this, who’s that? It didn’t start taking good shape, until we said, You know, all this clunky near-future stuff isn’t really comfortable. Let’s make it kind of life among Victorians, golden age of science and adventure, H. Rider Haggard, Mary Shelley, Jules Verne, H. P. Lovecraft, that kind of stuff. Because we love that kind of stuff! Once you’ve got a mad scientist, you’ve got to have a castle and once you have a castle, you might as well set it in the past.

Literally, the start of it was the fun. At one point I was being a goofball and bothering Phil, saying, Oh! Oh! Oh! We have to have a British spy. Because British spies are cool and that would be fun! And we do in fact have a British spy.

It sort of accretes and builds on itself. It’s gotten kind of big. You try to keep it all in your head: Wait a minute, what did we say about this? Let’s go back and check what we’ve already said about this before we accidentally contradict ourselves or forget something cool.

I think we had an ending even before we moved it to what is now widely known as Steampunk. Although we didn’t know that word back then. That was a word that came from the Eighties, but I didn’t know it then.

When you started, when you said, Okay, we’re drawing the first page… at that point you had a roughed-out plot. Nowadays, I hear a lot from younger writers that they’re really obsessed with story arcs, all of these steps in the Hero’s Journey...

PHIL: Oh, please.

Did you do any of that? Do you have any of that stuff in there?

PHIL: No. No.

KAJA: I’ll bet we do. I’ll bet we do. Because… I can’t remember her name, so – sorry! – there’s a lady whom I meet at a lot of science fiction conventions in California, she’s a teacher, and one of the things that she wrote was something like, The Heroine’s Journey. It’s all about female characters in fiction and the female experience in stories. There’s nothing like that kind of book or TV Tropes to remind you of what tropes every symbol you had totally were. I know you say, It’s not like that. But it’s still uncomfortable. I read her book and I was howling. Oh yeah, we did that! We did that too. And that one too. Oh-kay. We didn’t mean to. But we kinda did that anyway.

I can’t speak for all writers, but going through TV Tropes and saying, Oh, yeah, we did that thing that everybody else did… It does not make one proud.

We’re not sitting down and mapping out the hero’s journey. But stories do seem to flow a certain way.

You were talking about keeping track of the details. I’ve got a series going that has four stories published and another three written, and I found I had to start a bible to keep track of all the details. So I know you must keep track of things like what color a character’s eyes are. Do you keep track of plots that you’ve begun and will return to later?

KAJA: Nooo.

PHIL: We once had a bible, because we had a license with Whiz Kids and they required a bible. So we sat down and put one together. This was when we didn’t have a lot of material out, so it wasn’t that beastly to do. But it’s so out of date. It would really be handy to put one together again, but we just haven’t had the time.

KAJA: Or the financial funding.

PHIL: But really I feel we’re always running to catch up and always scrambling to catch up and always trying to catch up and not doing things the way we “should.” I can see that shining ideal of how I would like to be doing things but we are not doing them that way. Mostly what we are relying on is my jumpiness over whether we’re making any mistakes. Because I hate retcon and I would rather tap dance around a mistake and fix it in-story than go back and change the story.

One thing I admire in the story is how a character will disappear naturally from the plot and then reappear much later. So Moloch is present when all the events are set into motion and halfway through the whole “story arc,” he pops up again in prison – which is a plausible place for him to appear, given where we saw him lastand becomes a player. Had you been planning that all along?

PHIL: Oh, yes.

KAJA: That one, yes. He was scheduled to show back up in Castle Heterodyne.

PHIL: Yep.

Do you have many like that?

PHIL: We have a number of them. One of the things we try to do… We have a rough idea of where the story is trying to go. But, this is something that drove Kaja crazy. We were working on the story, like I said we started in ’93, and we started putting out a very tight story line. We were writing stuff out…

KAJA: This was on the typing-paper story boards that I taught him.

PHIL: Right. And around about ’99, I went, All right. Enough. She said, What are you talking about?

KAJA: This is all I have, I don’t even watch television!

PHIL: I said, This story is huge. It’s going to change.

KAJA: And it did.

PHIL: It did. The problem with vague plotting is that when we actually started codifying things and putting them down on paper, we knew that we were going to start making changes. It just happens. It's a second draft. You build upon the ideas you've already laid down and realize, especially since you know what's going to happen in another hundred pages, that you have A Better Idea. You've got to allow yourself to use a better idea when you get one.

This is all very well, but changes ripple out, and a supposedly minor change can drastically alter the plot down the line. I call it “whip,” because a tiny change on, say, page 21 of the first volume, can warp and change entire aspects of the rest of the story, “whipping” it into an entirely new alignment.  

KAJA: Klaus was supposed to die. All this stuff about Gil having to run the empire was in the first draft. That happened in the first issue! Then Gil was going to go, Well, I’m supposed to be an evil overlord but I’m the hero, you know. Which was so stereotypical. But we were having fun with stereotypes. This is why we put in the TV tropes so well. Because half the time we’re laughing out heads off. If we’ve got a mad scientist then he’s got to have messy hair! So he’s got messy hair, y’know?

I notice that periodically there’s a major surprise in the plot. Sometimes you can see it coming. I don’t think anyone who’s read the series has any serious doubts that Higgs has a revelation in the offing. Do you have these surprises carefully spaced?

PHIL: We try not to.

KAJA: They happen whenever they happen.

PHIL: They do. You try to write good characters and then figure out what they would do as the story goes along. For instance, the biggest surprise there – spoiler! – Lars, the guy in the circus who Agatha was hanging out with? He wasn’t supposed to die!

KAJA: He was actually supposed to be sort of an asshole, to go, Oh wow, you’re a spark, screw you. I thought you were cute but now, no. He was supposed to dump her hard, to just ditch it. But it didn’t work with the way the character wound up. He wouldn’t do that.

PHIL: To the point where he sacrifices himself for her.

KAJA: Then when he dies, this just feels right.

(From audience): So are you saying that you just flesh out your characters and give them their heads and let them decide what will happen?

PHIL: Absolutely.

KAJA: Absolutely. I will not say, “Absolutely right, my characters are people.” They’re not real people.

(From audience): So the people you make up create the surprises?

PHIL: Yes.

KAJA: I can only speak for myself but gut feeling plays such an important part in this. If this feels wrong, we cannot do it this way, we’ve got to think about it some more. There have been one or two times… Most of the time, when we’ve run a short story it’s because Hey, we’re going to Australia and it would be really nice if somebody else did this for a while. But one time, I remember, I said: We’ve got to talk about this more. We have got to talk about this more. Oh, my god, she’s a queen! Or whatever. But there is this kind of urgency, like no, no, no, we can’t do this the way we were planning to do this, it’s wrong.

PHIL: Yep. That’s the working part.

KAJA: Or else we’ll screw it up and They, the great They will notice.

How much are you in control, how much is the story in control, how much are the characters in control?

PHIL: We are always in control. That’s the great thing about the world, that we can always throw something in. We can change circumstances. A fine example of that is we had this big huge momentum going, then Klaus walks in and stops time! That kind of screwed everybody up. It left some stuff hanging. It allowed us to jump cut and move everything forward two and a half years. Because there was a lot happening in those two and a half years but you know what? It was boring! Yes, they could run around and chase each other for two and a half years. Or we could –

KAJA: Agatha wouldn’t have been there, because we’re following that character.

PHIL: Right.

KAJA: And you know we do actually get a lot of questions: What about that character that we haven’t seen for a while? What’s the circus doing? Well, you know what? It’s not the circus’s story. It’s Agatha’s story.

Do you ever have a moment when you go: What now? I’m knee-deep in the plot and my mind is a blank.

KAJA: Yep!

PHIL: Yes. But we have the structure, where we know where the story winds up. Every now and then the choreography is like: How did we get here again?

KAJA: Or we know where the story winds up but in the meanwhile they’re over here and they’re doing this thing and... (Shrugs.) That’s when we do some laundry and—

PHIL: – and talk about it.

KAJA: That’s where we got that spider. There’s this spider that showed up because we were folding laundry and we were laughing our heads off about some stupid joke and it just kept on going and finally you said, “Let me write this down.” While I folded the rest of the laundry.

PHIL: Art makes life better.

KAJA: But we did get a good spider out of it.

Your secondary characters, I’ve noticed, could easily step forward and be the heroes of their own stories. Is that deliberate?

PHIL: Yes. Everybody’s the hero of their own story. Kaja said something once: An easy way to make your hero cool is to make all of the people around them cool as well. And yet they are subordinate to her or are her friends.

KAJA: What I said was that I hate that they make James Bond cool by making everyone around him kind of useless. Especially in respect to Bond girls. Now they’ve gotten better about that in recent years but it used to be that Bond girls were all kind of… (Smiles) You know, if she’s really awesome and she likes him, doesn’t that make him more awesome? It makes him a more worthy hero. If everyone who thinks you’re awesome is kind of a dope…

PHIL: Sometimes having awesome secondary characters allows you to use them to do things that should be done, even though your hero wouldn’t or couldn’t do those things themselves.

KAJA: Or after a while everyone’s rolling their eyes because it’s always the hero who’s doing all the cool stuff and isn’t she great and isn’t she wonderful and isn’t she (cough!) Mary Sue? Oh my god, was I delighted when I found that term! I laughed myself sick.

PHIL: Whereas we all know authors who produce stuff where, gosh, everything the hero does is just wonderful and he’s the most perfect person in the world. I just can’t write that

Periodically, you come to a point where you’ve got to make a major decision. How do you choose which alternative? How many alternatives do you throw out?

PHIL: (Sighs) It depends. Sometimes it can take days.

KAJA: If you’re sitting there looking at it from the character’s point of view, they could do this, they could do that, or they could do that. What makes the most sense? What would they do, and what would happen as a result of that?

PHIL: Or sometimes you’re just: Man, there isn’t anything that isn’t anticlimactic. Or this is something that should happen closer to the end of the book.

KAJA: Sometimes you have to think of a good reason why people who are supposedly clever would not think of it or would not be able to do it. Sometimes, frankly, it comes down to what’s funny. Or what would be the most horrible. If this happens, it would be very convenient for all the characters. It would solve all their problems. Heh-heh-heh, let’s not do that!

Do you ever have a moment when you feel that you’ve lost control of the events?

KAJA: Every so often I will have a moment when I’m going, “I have no idea what’s going on now.” And then we try to catch up. They’re talking too much! Have someone attack! That attack that was going to happen in four pages, you know what? (Thumps the table.) Now! So they didn’t get to sit around talking and hashing things out as much as they would have liked.

I know that in a novel the fun part is in early stretches when things are opening up and opening out and showing more and more of the world. Then at some point you’ve got to close it down and start answering questions in order to arrive at the ending you were aiming at. So you’re currently thirteen volumes into the story. Are you into the closing it down part now or are you still opening it out?

KAJA: You know, I think we’re into the closing it down part. Except that there are places that they will be going that they haven’t been yet. But it’s still kind of like, Okay we’ve laid out the problem. Now we’re bringing it all together and here’s what’s happening.

PHIL: They will basically be going to places and finding key things. So we’ll get to see a cool place and, oh by the way, there’s the thing.

KAJA: I don’t think we’re still opening up.

PHIL: Well, but we keep introducing new stuff.

KAJA: But we haven’t been to Paris yet. I think we’ll be showing lots of new stuff while we wind things up. But it’s kind of winding things up for these characters. Not for the whole world.

I don’t want to reveal too many horrible spoilers here. But we’ve got Agatha out of the university, she’s met a lot of people, she’s got this town… She now knows what she cares about and what she’s going to be protecting. So now she has to go out figure out how she’s going to do that. She’s got the characters she’s going to work with…

Your characters are living on a continent that is at constant war during times of peace and yet worse during times of war and where literally every time you go to the closet there’s likely to be something in there that wants to kill you. Yet I have noticed that there are not a lot of deaths in your plot.

KAJA: Not a lot of on screen deaths.

Not a lot of named characters. Lars died, Moloch’s companion died… Not a lot more. Was this a deliberate strategy?

PHIL: Not really. And more people will die. It’s just that it hasn’t, uh, I think some of it is: Gosh! Kill him?

KAJA: We’re still using that one!

PHIL: We’re still using that one. Our excuse is that this is an extraordinary group of people in an extraordinary place at an extraordinary time. If you put just an ordinary bunch of people there, yeah, half of them would be dead by nightfall. Yes, absolutely.

KAJA: Well, maybe. But again, what we’re doing is so goofy, they’re more likely to just get a pie in the face. I think. That’s probably just us going: You just got your foot caught in a bucket! Awwww.

(From audience): You could use a calming pie.

KAJA: Well, that was a joke. That we did. And it’s over there and we did it.

(From audience): It’s available for use if you feel it’s appropriate.

PHIL: That’s certainly true.

KAJA: For instance, Moloch von Zinzer was definitely scheduled to show up where he did in Castle Heterodyne. We have an example of one who was not scheduled, Sergeant Scorp of the Vespiary Squad. He was just a guy who was there when some stuff went down. Later on we were writing a scene where it would be really handy to have somebody who could tell the other characters, and therefore the readers, what had happened – and here he was! So good to see you back, come on with us. We were very pleased with ourselves.

(From audience): Do you find that when you’re doing a serial you tend to repeat the three-act structure?

KAJA: I think you would need to explain to me what a three-act structure is. So the answer is, no, not deliberately.

PHIL: We do have certain arcs within the story that we try to follow. Each page, it’s nice if it has a joke or something…

KAJA: Well, that’s you.

PHIL: That’s me!

KAJA: Whereas I’m going: No, it’s a thing, we’re trying to tell a story, don’t worry about it. Just make a story.

PHIL: I figured this out a long time ago. Since we’re doing this as a web comic, people hear about us all the time. “Oh, that sounds interesting, I’ll check it out.” You don’t know what page they’re going to show up on. So every single page, ideally, should have something – something interesting, something funny, something titillating.

KAJA: Yeah, titillating. Let me tell you the story of how I was so proud of myself for finally getting advertising postcards printed up. I took them to the comics club in an elementary school and I was going to give them to the kids. (We were advisors for the club at the time.) I realized that if you went to Girl Genius for the first time as a new reader, the very first thing you’d see was a big picture of Gil with no clothes on, with just a little piece of cloth across his you-know. And maybe I didn’t want all these little kids taking these postcards home and having their parents go, Okayyyy. I didn’t give out any postcards that day.

PHIL: So anyway, each day I try and fix it so there’s a joke or something. Each week has some sort of minor thing that starts on Monday and ends on Friday. And ideally, if I can end Friday on a cliffhanger, I love that! People are like: You’re a bad man. I know I’m a bad man. Then of course each volume should have a self-contained arc within in.

KAJA: What I’m looking for is a cut-off page, where I can say Done! we’re making a book now, I try to find a place that feels right.

I’m sorry, I’m all wibbly-wobbly, like, “Oh, we write a story and then we end it where it feels right, blah blah blah.” That’s really helpful if you’re interested in our process.

PHIL: And then with a graphic novel it’s nice if each set of three has a self-contained thread. Then when they get collected into omnibuses – omnibi? – it’s nice if they’re a self-contained thing for that. And then of course there’s the entire whole story. So it’s layers within layers within layers within layers. It makes my head hurt.

KAJA: The challenge we set ourselves in this latest volume… The idea we had was: Wouldn’t it be cool if we could write this – and do it well and not feel like we were pandering or betraying what we were doing – wouldn’t it be cool if we could build in a save point? Where we could say: Hey! If you were looking at fourteen volumes of oh-my-god and would like to start reading the story, here’s a nice place to start. Where you could pick up the story and get an idea of who these people are and what they’re doing and then if you want to go back and read everything that came before, great, it’s there. But here’s a nice place to jump on.

I don’t know if I’m really that wild about how we’ve done it. Because really the most important thing is to tell a story that’s solid. Before I could say whether I feel good about it, I’d have to go back and look at it.

You’ve got a large number of named characters in play currently…

PHIL: Yes. The cast list runs over twenty thousand words.

How many of them do you have to account for by the end?

PHIL: Oh gosh! Not anywhere –

KAJA: Not a whole lot, actually. Most of the ones people think are major characters – no. We’ve got a small group of main characters. We did tend to give waitresses names, because they have names! In real life, these people have names! So we throw out names all the time. A character will come through and they’ll have a name, they’ll be a person, but that doesn’t mean they’re super important to the plot. The A-list characters… it’s still bigger than the traditional five man group but…

PHIL: I’d say there are about a dozen AA-list characters and half a dozen more that people would really want to know what happens to them, and then a few swaths of raygun-carriers.

KAJA: They tend not to be generic. They tend to have something weird about them, and we tend to give them names.

PHIL: The thing we’re always pleased about is when people talk about us and say, “There’s a hundred and fifty characters and I know who all of them are!” Yes!

Here’s a question which will probably make you flinch. I can guess, having been following this story from the beginning, roughly where this is going to end. There are repeated references to the impassible quality of the Atlantic Ocean. Nobody can reach America. So…

PHIL: Well, I’ll say that you’re totally wrong.

KAJA: Not necessarily. Let’s hear.

So have you set yourself up for a sequel?

KAJA: Okay, I will fess up. Shall I fess up about America?

PHIL: Sure, go ahead.

KAJA: We didn’t feel like telling you what was going on there. So we just made it: Oh! Nobody knows. We sure don’t. Oh, we throw stuff back and forth. But we’re focusing on one part of the world. And it was kind of fun to have nobody know.

PHIL: You can’t get there from here.

KAJA: Zeetha comes from there. Wherever that may be.

From Audience: Do you have a clear idea where Mechanicsburg is on the planet?

KAJA: I do actually! I found it on the map. It really is a town called Agatha.

PHIL: It’s in Romania. Transylvania.

KAJA: We were so disappointed to discover that the Iron Gate is just a place where the river goes through. It’s not actually a big iron gate on the river with two statues going like [imitates the statues of Isildur and Anárion in The Lord of the Rings] as we had kind of hoped.

PHIL: Romania is a land of disappointment.

KAJA: We need to actually get ourselves out there sometime to poke around.

PHIL: Apparently people from Romania find our strip hilarious.

KAJA: “This is what we think Eastern Europe might be like.” Sorry!

I’m sure you’re aware that readers come to your work with certain expectations. For example, I can fearlessly predict that at the end Krosp [Agatha’s cat] is alive. Because if he died, people would come after you with pitchforks and torches.

KAJA: I really think that you can’t worry about people with pitchforks and torches or you start writing the wrong story. I have seen too many books, television shows, series, where the creators clearly started worrying about that and it changed the way they wrote. That’s a real danger. I don’t want to start going down that road. It’s one of the reasons I don’t read the comments. Because I don’t want to start worrying if the readers will hate us if we do this or that.

And I will fess up that the thing about the Americas is not the first thing that we’ve thrown in there casually because it was funny and then discovered that it was interesting to think about a lot, so that it grew into something larger than just the off-hand thing that we popped in there.

PHIL: I like to think of it as stealing fantasy.

(From audience): I find myself wondering what’s going on in Japan in your work.

KAJA: We haven’t given any thought to that. Clearly something is, because there it is. But…

I have dominated this conversation because I’m really interested in what you have to say. But I’m going to turn it over to the audience now.

(From audience): If you could ever make it possible, would you have a Japanese spark weaving his way through the background?

KAJA: This is exactly what I’m talking about. Not wanting to do fan requests. I will say that if it comes up and it hits us exactly right, we would totally do that. But it can’t be like, Oh, somebody told us to so we’re going to.

It’s like the Great Wall of Norway. It’s ancient now, but there’s a map up on Café Press that hasn’t been updated for years, a map that our colorist Cheyenne made, and it’s got stuff like the Great Wall of Norway. People want to see it, but it’s just a detail on the map.

PHIL: The map doesn’t even have Sturmhalten on it.

KAJA: Because we had to figure out where it is! The fantasy Transylvania landscape doesn’t quite match the real landscape. But it’s still nice to make an effort.

(From audience): When you come to a pressure point where there are multiple plot options, do you come to a point where you have to start drawing one of the options, where now it’s time to decide or die?

KAJA: Yep.

PHIL: All the time. Either that or say: You know what? This is a fine time to switch scenes.

KAJA: Hey, what’s Gil doing?

PHIL: That gives us a few days.

KAJA: And if it gets really dire? Yep – short story time! Actually, there was only one time when we really needed to take a break. But, sure, there always comes a moment where you go, I cannot mess around with this anymore, I have to pick something, life is short. Then you pick something and you run with it. And you know what? It’s a great aid to writing to realize that yes, life is short and nobody cares about the studio anyway and for pity’s sake, just do something.

(From audience): Do you ever reach a place where you decide to just leap into the dark? Something will happen and you’ll figure out why afterward?

KAJA: We’ve always done that.

PHIL: Yes. All the time.

KAJA: It’s part of the game. You’ve got to hand-wave it away.

PHIL: Both Kaja and I did theater and I did something like ten years of improvisational comedy.

KAJA: Whereas I cannot watch that stuff.

PHIL: Well, I don’t watch it, but I did it.

KAJA: It’s so self-indulgent.

PHIL: Unlike comics, of course. But, boy, it makes you think fast!

KAJA: It’s good practice. It’s not dumb. I’m just being awful because I’m awful.

PHIL: Sometimes you put something down and think: Why did we do that?!

KAJA: That was really good absinthe!

PHIL: That was totally the wrong thing to do! There’s nothing really big, but…

KAJA: There were a couple of small items where I wished we had done things a little differently.

PHIL: And what we do then is we explain it. Oh, hey. We were doing this and that.

KAJA: Here’s why that totally made sense and why we’re so awesome.

We’ve got time for exactly one more question.

(From audience): The first work of I ever saw of Phil’s was in [a collection of Star Trek cartoons titled] Startoons, which had his convention reports. I noticed that where you don’t expect to have a plot in such things, all of a sudden plot elements appeared. For example, a rivalry with another artist, or the Secret Masters of Fandom meeting behind the scenes to make sure that the convention runs properly. Are you… I don’t know, addicted to plot? Do you inject plot elements into everything? Could you do something without plot?

PHIL: One of the big things that separates humans from animals is our desperation to find a pattern in otherwise random events.

KAJA: We are pattern-seeking animals.

PHIL: We see constellations in the stars. Sirius-ly?

KAJA: Draw me a bear!

PHIL: So, yes, we find it satisfying when random events are shown to be part of a larger story. Even just hinting that it’s part of a larger story. Even if you never get the resolution.

KAJA: Everything, if you tell it right, has a plot.

PHIL: You can hint at things, even if you never explain them. People take comfort in knowing that there’s something going on..

KAJA: “Everything happens for a reason.” Yeah, sure it does.

MICHAEL SWANWICK conducted this interview as a program item at MileHiCon in October, 2014. This interview originally appeared in the New York Review of Science Fiction and is copyright 2015 by Michael Swanwick.