Jackson and Nebula Award nominations

It’s been a few months since I last updated here. Since “Jamie Marks is Dead” debuted at in the Sundance Film Festival competition in January, a lot of other really wonderful things have occurred.

First, I was nominated for a Nebula Award in the category of Best Novelette for my story, “Paranormal Romance”!

Picture

This is the fourth time I’ve been nominated for a Nebula Award. The first time was in 2007 for my novelette, “The Language of Moths”, and the second time was in 2010 for my novel-in-stories, The Love We Share Without Knowing. The third time was in 2011, for my novelette, “Map of Seventeen”. Clearly the novelette is my category!

I’m always honored to be named a front runner for the Nebula Award, and this time is no different.

imgres-1Secondly, my collection of short stories, Before and Afterlives, has been nominated for the Shirley Jackson Award, in the category of Best Single-Author Collection. I’m ecstatic to be nominated for this award. I started out as a short story writer, and it remains the form I feel most affection for, regardless of my becoming a novelist too. For Before and Afterlives to be nominated in the Best Collection category is the proverbial dream come true for me, both because the book collects many of the short stories I wrote over my first ten years as a writer, but also because Shirley Jackson has been a huge influence on me as writer for years and years. I constantly go back to her strange and eerie stories from the 1950s and 60s and the still hold immense power for me as a reader (and as a writer). For my stories to be recognized as a body of work for this award is really affirming for me.

barzak-before-and-afterlives_200x300

The semester at Youngstown State University, where I teach fiction writing, has finally ended, and I’m looking forward to a productive summer of writing. More news when I have any to share. Until then, I hope everyone reading this has a great summer.

And good luck to all of those nominated for the above awards.

Sneak Peeks of Before and Afterlives (The Ghost Hunter’s Beautiful Daughter)

Today’s preview from Before and Afterlives is the opening of my story, “The Ghost Hunter’s Beautiful Daughter,” which originally appeared in Asimov’s Science Fiction. It’s a story about a young girl named Sylvie, who has a talent for manifesting ghosts around her, making them visible to others. And it’s about how her father, an out-of-work laborer, recently widowed, capitalizes on his daughter’s ability by becoming a ghost hunter. Set in Warren, Ohio, this is one my favorites of my “locally set” stories, because it features a scene at the Ghost Walk in Warren, an annual tour of the city’s historic district and mansions held in the month of October that I’ve like to go on for kicks since I was a teenager. Little did I know as a teenager that going on the Ghost Walk would give me a scene to write into a story fifteen or so years later.

Also, in case you’re not an Amazon.com shopper, Before and Afterlives is also now available at Barnes and Noble.com and Weightless Books.

images

The Ghost Hunter’s Beautiful Daughter

 

Syl-vie! Syl-vie! Syl-vie!” her father calls through the hallways of the house.  The ghost hunter’s beautiful daughter sighs, wipes a tear from the corner of her eye, looks out the cobwebbed window of the attic.  Sometimes it’s the basement, sometimes the attic.  Occasionally a house has a secret crawl space, and if she sensed it, she’d go there and wait with the creepy crawlies and spinning motes of dust.  Through the false eyes of the portrait of a lady with her toy poodle sitting on her lap, she’d watch her father negotiate the living room, the swathe of his flashlight cutting through the dark.  “Syl-vie! Syl-vie! Syl-vie!” he’ll call–always call–until the ghost hunter’s beautiful daughter finally says, “Here, Daddy.  I’m in here.”

“Sylvie,” he’ll ask, “my God, how do you do it?  Tell me how to find you.”

How does she do it?  If only Sylvie knew, she would try to stop it from happening.  The whispered calls, the bloody walls, the voice of a house, the way it told you how bad it was hurting.  If she could turn it off, she’d gladly do it.  She’s had enough of houses, their complaints, their listing, the wreckage of their histories.  If only she could be normal!

She peeked her head out the side of the false wall that time, waved, and he gasped.  “Clever girl!” he exclaimed a moment later, his shock fading, replaced by a grin.  He ambled over to put his arm around her and squeeze her affectionately while he admired the dark passage behind the deteriorating gaze of a two-hundred year old society woman and her once white poodle.

He calls now, too.  His voice comes from the floor below her.  Upstairs is where this house’s ghost lives, in the attic.  They are so dramatic, ghosts, thinks Sylvie.  If only they’d settle down, give up on whatever keeps them lingering, maybe their lives would get a little better.  No more moaning in pain, no more throwing things around in frustration.  No more struggling to get someone to notice you.  Give up, thinks the ghost hunter’s beautiful daughter.  Why don’t you just give up already!

“Here,” Sylvie whispers.  When her father calls again, she speaks louder.  “Here, Daddy!” she shouts.  “I’m up here.  In the attic.”

His feet thud on the pull-down steps until his head rises over the square Sylvie climbed through half an hour ago.  The ghost here hadn’t tried to hide from her like some.  She hates that, the way some shudder when they see her, wrinkle their noses, furrow their brows–the way they disdain her very presence, as if they are saying, You’re not who I was waiting for.  You’re not the one I want.  This ghost, though, had little expectations.  It had few conditions or requirements.  It was an old woman, and old women aren’t as picky as lost children, spurned lovers, old men whose sins were never forgiven, people who cannot bury hatchets, people who cannot bear to leave even after life has left them.

“Sylvie!” her father gasps.  “Oh my, Sylvie, what have you found?”

The ghost is barely holding itself together.  At first Sylvie wasn’t sure if it was even human.  It might have been some strange sort of animal.  She’s seen those before, though they’re rarer.  Afterwards, they don’t always know how to hold the shape they had in life.  The old woman is gaseous; she probably doesn’t even know what she’s doing in this attic.  Liquids are sorrowful, solids angry, throwing chairs and mirrors and lamps across rooms at their leisure.  Gases, often confused, are usually waiting for some sort of answer.  What is the question, though, Sylvie wonders.  What don’t you understand, old woman?

The ghost hunter nods at his daughter briefly when she doesn’t answer, then goes directly to the old woman’s figure in the corner.  The old woman turns to look at him.  Her face is misty.  Wisps of moisture trail in the air behind her when she turns too quickly.  She is like a finely composed hologram until she moves, revealing just how loosely she’s held together.  She looks past the ghost hunter, over his shoulder, to meet his daughter’s gaze.  Sylvie turns away from her to look back out the cobwebbed window.  A long, wide park of a yard rolls out and away, trees growing in copses, with a driveway unspooling down the middle of everything, leading out through the wrought iron fence to the tree-lined road.  This was her father’s favorite sort of grounds to hunt, his favorite kinds of ghosts lived in places like this, usually.  Sylvie can’t bear to look back at the old woman.  She knows what comes next.

There is the click, the sucking sound, the high moan of the old woman’s ghost, and then the silence ringing in the dusty attic.  Her father sniffs, coughs, clears his throat, and Sylvie knows it is okay to look now.  She turns to find him fiddling with his old Polaroid camera, pulling the film out and waving it in the air until it begins to develop.  “That’s a good one,” he says.  “Not the best, but not the worst either.”  The old woman’s ghost is gone.  He looks up and sees Sylvie watching him.  Blinks.  Sylvie blinks back.  “Thank you, sweetie,” he says.  Then:  “Come on now.  The Boardmans will be back shortly.  We should get going.”

*

     The road is gray, the tree trunks are gray, the sky is gray above her.  There are no discernible clouds, only drops of gray rain pattering down, speckling the windshield of her father’s car as they pull away, and further away, from the haunted mansion.  Sylvie remembers visiting the mansion once with her mother.  In October.  For Halloween.  The mansion, one of many, sat in the historic district of one of those small Midwestern cities in one of those states with an Indian name.  Each Halloween, members of the community theater hid among the mansions and family cemeteries of the historic district, buried themselves in orangey-red leaves, covered themselves in clothes from the previous century, adopted slightly archaic ways of speaking.  They were ghosts for an evening, telling stories to small groups of people–parents and children, gaggles of high school boys and girls who chuckled and made fun of their dramatic renditions–who had come on the Ghost Walk through the park and along the river, where once the people whose ghosts they now played actually had walked, loved, hated, drowned themselves out of unreciprocated affection, hid amongst the tombstones from abusive husbands, hung themselves before the police came to arrest them.  Her mother’s hand holding hers, how large and soft it was, moist, how her mother’s hand quickly squeezed hers whenever a ghost brought his or her story to a climax.  “This is it, Sylvie!” said her mother’s hand in that sudden squeeze.  “Something wonderful or terrible is going to happen!” the hand told her.

Out of those park-like promenades of oak and maple lined streets they drove, back into the center of their shabby little city.  Warren.  Named after the man who surveyed the area for the Connecticut Land Company that pioneered the Western Reserve, Sylvie had learned in Ohio History class only a week ago.  Before that, when someone said the name of the city, she had always thought of mazes and tunnels instead of a man who measured land.  She misses picturing those mazes, those tunnels.  Though the city is small, shrinking each year since steel left these valley people decades ago, it is tidy and neat, not maze-like at all.  It’s a city you could never get lost in.

Once past the downtown, on the other side of the city, the wrong side of the tracks but better than where they’d been living, her father likes to say, they stop at the Hot Dog Shoppe’s drive-thru window, order fries and chili cheese dogs for both of their lunches, then continue on to the house Sylvie’s father purchased several months ago.  “An upgrade, Sylvie,” he had said when he took her to the old brick Tudor with the ivy creeping up one of its walls.  Much better than the falling-down house where they’d lived when her mother was alive.  Sylvie still passed that house on her bus ride to and from school each day.  That house could barely hold itself up when they’d moved out last spring.  Now it really was falling down, leaning to one side unsteadily.  The windows had all been broken by vandals and thieves now, people looking for leftover valuables.  Not jewels or antique furniture.  Copper piping, aluminum window frames and siding–anything they could turn in for money.  They found nothing in that house, though.  Sylvie’s father had already stripped the place before others could get to it.

Inside he sits at the computer desk, as usual, one hand pressing the hot dog to his mouth, the other moving the mouse, clicking, opening e-mail.  They’d had a lot of work in the past year, after word spread that her father could truly rid homes of lingering spirits, temper-tantrum poltergeists and troublesome ghosts.  He’d built his own website after a while, and bought the new house.  He was going to give her a better life, he told her.  A better life than the one he’d had.  Sylvie wondered why he spoke as if his life was already over.  Her mother was dead.  Her father was alive despite his deathly self-description.  How could he not see the difference?

“Another one!” he shouts while chewing a bite of his chili dog.  He grabs the napkins Sylvie has placed beside the mouse pad and wipes away the sauce that dribbled out while he spoke.  “Listen to this, Sylvie.”

*

Dear Mr. Applegate,

     My husband and I have recently read in the newspaper about your ability to exorcise spirits.  Frankly, my husband thinks it is bullshit (his word) but for my sake he said he is willing to try anything.  You see, we have a sort of problem ghost in our home.  It was here before we were.  It’s the ghost of a child, a baby.  It cries and cries, and nothing we do stops it except when I sing it lullabies in what must have been the baby’s room at some point in this home’s history.  Sometimes we’ll find little hand prints in something I might spill on the floor–apple sauce, cake batter I might have slopped over while I wasn’t paying attention because I was on the phone with my mother or perhaps a friend.  If it were only the hand prints, I don’t think it would matter very much to us.  But the crying just goes on and on and it’s begun to drive a wedge between my husband and me.  He seems to be–well, I’m not sure how to put it.  He seems to be jealous of the baby ghost.  Probably because I sing it lullabies quite often.  At least four or five times a day.  Sometimes I worry about it, too, when I’m out shopping or seeing a movie with a friend or my mother, and I’ll think, How is that baby?  I hope the baby is all right without me.  I mean, it won’t stop crying for my husband even if he was at home.  The baby doesn’t like him.  And often he’ll leave and go to the bar down the road when that happens until I come home and sing it back to sleep.  We’re not rich people, though, Mr. Applegate.  And the prices I read on your website are a bit out of our range.  Would we be able to bargain?  I know it’s a lot to ask, considering the task, but as of now we could afford to pay you eight hundred dollars.  I wish it were more, but there it is.  You’re our only hope.  Would you help us?

Yours sincerely,

Mary Caldwell

Sneak Peeks of Before and Afterlives (Vanishing Point)

Today’s preview from Before and Afterlives is the opening of my story, “Vanishing Point”, which first appeared in the Canadian literary journal, Descant. It’s a story about a mother whose son has been afflicted with a mysterious disease that is plaguing her community. People begin to vanish slowly, to become invisible and to lose their solidity in increments, and over a period of time, they disappear altogether. The narration style is a monologue, or a letter, however you’d like to imagine it, in which she speaks to a social scientist who is attempting to collect narratives from people who have lost a loved one to the strange illness.

Barzak-Point

Vanishing Point

 

You asked me, sir, to tell you about my son’s disappearance.  I must admit that I did not know what to think when your first letter arrived.  And when you phoned, I think I was a bit startled by all your attention.  We don’t get many phone calls here, you see.  But since last week, when I told you an interview was out of the question, I’ve been unable to stop thinking about Nathan and how, as a mother, I have a duty.  Others should know the truth.  You wanted to know what life was like here, in my house, in my family, with Nathan and then, afterwards, without him.  It’s not as simple as that, though.  A person isn’t here one day, then gone the next.  If I’m going to tell you anything, it won’t be what you’re expecting.  It might not be what you want to hear.  But, in any case, I’ll tell you what I know.  What I know is the truth.

From the beginning, his growing absence was oppressive.  If I was not in the kitchen making supper for Sarah and myself, I was attending to my son in his room.  We seemed to eat a lot during those days.  An affliction of hunger consumed us that could not be satisfied.  As Nathan disappeared, Sarah and I ate and ate.  I made meals we’d never heard of, recipes out of foreign cookbooks, fancy dishes that required an orange peel or a sculptured radish rosette on the side.  We were pretending to have money, even though we had no money.  I do have money now, though.  Now that Nathan is not so demanding.  Yes, sir, Sarah and I are off the dole.

We ate exotic foods, Thai and Indian curries.  We ground our own spices in the coffee grinder.  Also we had a peculiar taste for Ethiopian, and Sarah and I would sometimes joke about this.  You know, how starving those people are and how we craved their recipes.  What a laugh!  It was a laugh then, I tell you.  I had my own boy starving.  Starving for solidity.  Sometimes he could barely move off of his bed.

Do you know those movies where a person suddenly acquires the ability to walk through walls?  The ones where someone becomes transparent to the point that no one else can see them unless looked at very hard?  The Invisible Man?  Movies like that?  Let me tell you, they’re a pack of lies.  Those people never seem to have problems.  They move through life more easily in fact.  Now they can walk through moving traffic and never have to wait for the light.  Now they can strip off their clothes and sneak into shower rooms to watch people, bodies, drifting through steam, larger than life, without ever getting caught.

There were days when Nathan couldn’t bring himself to go to the bathroom on his own.  There were days when Sarah and I tried to help him into the shower, but he fell through our hands, through the hardwood floor, down into the living room.  We’d find him lying under the coffee table, his arms threaded through the table legs.  Or, once, splayed out in the middle of the broken plants and pottery he’d landed on.  I was always frightened.  Someday, I thought, he will fall and fall forever, and then where will he go?  I remembered how, when we were little, we thought if a person dug a deep enough hole in the ground, they’d fall through to China.  Our parents frightened us with thoughts like that.  Why was it they wanted to frighten us?

Nathan never fell to China.  Or if he did, he fell back in time for me not to notice.  I don’t think this is possible.  I don’t think this ever happened.  Still, though, I’ll leave it open.  I have learned to leave things open, sir.  Have you?

*

     It was a Friday last September the school called me.  The school nurse said, “I think you need to come down.”  I told her that I had to work, and she said, “I really think you should come down, Miss Livingston.”  She said my name real tough-like, like she was gritting her teeth.

“All right,” I said.  “All right.  I’ll come down.”

Nathan was waiting for me in the nurse’s office.  He was lying on a table, like in a doctor’s exam room, with the crackling paper rolled over its top.  Only that paper didn’t crackle.  It didn’t make any noise at all.  Now being a doctor yourself, sir, you know you can’t shut that paper up.  Even though you are up there at the university studying “the social implications of phenomena”, as you put it in your letter, and are in great need of “personal narratives” and “statistics” so that the research will be “pure”, and are not a real doctor, practicing medicine and such, I’m sure you have been on one of those tables before.  Not even staying completely still, which is impossible if you ask me, will shut that paper up.  I asked, “What’s wrong?  What’s happened here?”  And the nurse, a woman who was not as severe as I had expected, a woman who wore a fuzzy blue sweater and did not have her hair up in a bun but let it fall over her shoulders like dark cream, she said, “I’m so sorry.”

I went over to Nathan and looked at his eyes.  His eyes were open, but he didn’t seem to see me.  They were blue eyes, watery eyes, my father’s eyes.  When he was born, how happy I was to see those eyes!  Not my husband’s, who was a drunkard and a cheater, not his eyes.  I said, “Nathan?  Honey, what’s wrong?”  His lips trembled.  I thought, What am I going to do?  Already I knew without knowing what afflicted him that things were going to change.

The nurse put her arm around me and said, “Be calm.”  She unbuttoned Nathan’s shirt, one button at a time, her fingers were so deft, and pulled back each side of his shirt like a curtain.  If you could see what I saw that day.  It was not always like that, I assure you.  Nathan:  his chest, only his chest, had gone translucent.  I saw those lungs filling and expelling air, two brownish, soggy sacs going up and down, up and down.  And his heart, it throbbed beneath them.  The blood slid through his veins and I thought of blue rivers winding on a map.  The nurse covered him over again and began buttoning his tiny buttons.  And look here, I thought, even those buttons are clear.

Perhaps I am exaggerating this all a bit.  I don’t know.  This is how I remember it:  his lungs, his heart, the blood in his veins and arteries, the webbing of his nerves.  Sir, I know you are a not a real doctor and all, but let me ask you something.  Have you ever seen anything like this?  Have you ever seen your own child like this?  Sir, do you have children?

I took my son home and, while we drove in the car, neither of us said anything.  Nathan looked out the window at the passing mills and factories, the ones that all closed down years ago.  Their smokeless stacks loomed above us, gray against the gray sky.  I live on the South side of town, not the best place to raise children, Lord knows, but I did the best I could.

The factories we passed were tattooed with graffiti.  The gridwork of their windows was busted out.  Kids used to come down to the mills to paint their names, to spray-paint their useless childhood loves, to mark down their childhood enemies as though they were making hit lists.  They threw rocks, pieces of broken concrete, at the gridded windows high overhead.  The glass would shatter and rain down at their feet, onto the factory floors, and oh, how we laughed and gripped each other’s shoulders at these small victories.  It felt good to bust up those places that broke first our parents’ backs, and then, after shutting down, their spirits.

I think Nathan and his friends did this, too.  To let out frustration.  I don’t know.  I’m only guessing.  It’s something I’ve learned to do.

Sneak Peeks of Before and Afterlives (The Language of Moths)

Over the next couple of weeks, I’ll  be posting previews from the 17 stories in my new short story collection, Before and Afterlives. If you like what you read, take a hop over to your favorite online bookseller and purchase either the print book or the e-book, and leave a review when you’re finished reading. It helps other people figure out if they’d like to read the book (and strokes my ego, at least when they’re good reviews). ;-)

Today’s preview is the opening to my novelette, “The Language of Moths”, which was a Nebula finalist in 2006.  It’s a story about a family from Boston who travel to the Allegheny Mountains, where the father, an entomologist, is seeking out a moth he remembers seeing as a young person when his family camped there, one that he knows has not been identified before. What they find, however, are the fault lines in all of their relationships as a family. And in the case of some characters, they find a new language to speak when they encounter a deeply magical place.

images

The Language of Moths

1. Swallowing Bubbles

The four of them had been traveling for what seemed like forever, the two in the front seat rattling maps like they did newspapers on Sunday mornings.  They rode in the wagon, her favorite car, the one with the wood paneling on its doors.  The wagon wound through the twisty backroads of the mountains, leaving behind it clouds of dust through which sunlight passed, making the air shimmer like liquid gold.  The girl wanted the wagon to stop so she could jump out and run through the golden light behind her.  She climbed halfway over the back seat and pushed her face against the rear window, trying to get a better look.

The little old man beside her shouted, “No! No! No! Sit down, you’re slobbering all over the glass.  Sit down this instant!”  He grabbed her around her waist and pulled her back into a sitting position.  He pulled a strap across her chest, locking it with a decisive click.  The little old man narrowed his eyes; he waved a finger in the girl’s face.  He said things at her.  But as his words left his lips, they became bubbles.  Large silver bubbles that shimmied and wobbled in the air.  The bubbles filled the car in mere moments.  So many words all at once!  The girl laughed delightedly.  She popped some of the bubbles between her fingers.  Others she plucked from the air and swallowed like grapes.  She let them sit sweetly on her tongue for a while, before taking them all the way in for good.  When the bubbles reached her stomach, they burst into music.  The sound of them echoed through her body, reverberating.  She rang like a bell.  One day, when she swallowed enough bubbles, she might understand what the little old man beside her was saying.  All of the time, not just now and then.  Maybe she’d even be able to say things back to him.  She wondered if her own words would taste as sweet.  Like honey, maybe.  Or like flowers.

2. Being Selfish

Eliot is watching his mother hang bed sheets from a cord of clothesline she’s tied off at two walls facing opposite of each other in their cabin.  “To give us all a sense of personal space,” she explains.  Eliot tells his mother that this cabin is so small, hanging up bed sheets to section off rooms is a futile activity.  “Where did you learn that word,” his mother asks.  “Futile.  Who taught you that?”

“At school,” Eliot says, paging through an X-Men comic book, not bothering to look up.

His mother makes a face that looks impressed.  “Maybe public school isn’t so bad after all,” she says.  “Your father was right, as usual.”

Eliot doesn’t know if his father is right, or even if his father is usually right, as his mother seems to imagine.  After all, here they are in the Allegheny Mountains, in Pennsylvania, for God’s sake, hundreds of miles away from home.  Away from Boston.  And for what?  For a figment of his father’s imagination.  For a so-called undiscovered moth his father claims to have seen when he was Eliot’s age, fourteen, camping right here in this very cabin.  Eliot doesn’t believe his father could remember anything that far back, and even if he could, his memory of the event could be completely fictional at this point, an indulgence in nostalgia for a time when his life still seemed open in all directions, flat as a map, unexplored and waiting for him.

Eliot’s father is an entomologist.  His specialty is lepidoptera, moths and butterflies and what Eliot thinks of as creepy-crawlies, things that spin cocoons around themselves when they’re unhappy with their present circumstances and wait inside their shells until either they’ve changed or the world has, before coming out.  Eliot’s father is forty-three years old, a once-celebrated researcher on the mating habits of moths found in the Appalachian Mountains.  He is also a liar.  He lied to his grant committee at the college, telling them in his proposal that he required the funds for this expedition to research the habits of a certain species of moth with which they were all familiar.  He didn’t mention his undiscovered moth, the one that glowed orange and pink, as he once told Eliot during a reverie, with his eyes looking at something unimaginably distant while he spoke of it.  Maybe, Eliot thinks, an absurd adventure like this one is a scientist’s version of a mid-life crisis.  Instead of chasing after other women, Eliot’s father is chasing after a moth that, let’s face it, he probably imagined.

“There now, isn’t that better?”  Eliot’s mother stands in the center of the cabin, which she has finished sectioning into four rooms.  The cabin is a perfect square with clothesline bisecting the center in both directions, like a plus sign.  Eliot owns one corner, and Dawn, his sister, has the one next to his:  That makes up one half of the cabin.  The other half has been divided into the kitchen and his parents’ space.  The sheet separating Eliot’s corner from his sister’s is patterned with blue flowers and tiny teacups.  These sheets are Dawn’s favorites, and secretly, Eliot’s too.

Eliot’s mother glances around, smiling vaguely, wiping sweat off of her brow.  She’s obviously happy with her achievement.  After all, she’s an academic, a philosopher, unaccustomed to cleaning house and rigging up clotheslines and bed linen.  The maid back in Boston–back home, Eliot thinks–Marcy, she helps around the house with domestic things like that.  Usually Eliot’s mother uses her mind to speculate on how the mind works; not just her own mind–but the mind–the idea of what a mind is.  Now she finds herself using her mental prowess to tidy up a ramshackle cabin.  Who would have guessed she’d be so capable?  So practical?  Not Eliot.  Certainly not herself.

The door to the cabin swings open, flooding the room with bright sunlight that makes Eliot squint.  He shields his eyes with one hand, like an officer saluting, to witness the shadowy figure of his father’s body filling the doorframe, and his sister Dawn trailing behind.

Dawn is more excited than usual, which has made this trip something less than a vacation.  For Eliot’s father, Dr. Carroll, it was never a vacation; that was a well-known fact.  For Dr. Carroll, this was an expedition, possibly his last chance to inscribe his name in History.  But the rest of the family was supposed to “take things easy and enjoy themselves.”  When Dr. Carroll said that, Eliot had snorted.  Dr. Carroll had placed his hands on his hips and glowered. “Why the attitude, Eliot?” he’d asked.

“Take it easy?” Eliot repeated in a squeaky-scratchy voice that never failed to surface when he most needed to appear justified and righteous.  “How can you expect us to do that with Dawn around?”

Dr. Carroll had stalked away, not answering, which didn’t surprise Eliot at all.  For most of his life, this is what Eliot has seen whenever he questions his father:  his father’s back, walking away, leaving a room full of silence.

Dawn pushes past Dr. Carroll and runs over to Eliot’s cot.  She jumps on the mattress, which squeals on old coils, and throws her arms across the moth-eaten pink quilt.  The quilt smells of mold and mildew and something a little like mothballs, as if it had been stored in a cedar chest for a long time.  Dawn turns to Eliot, her wide blue eyes set in a face as white and smooth as porcelain, and smiles at him, her blonde hair fanning out on the pillow.  Eliot considers her over the top of his comic book, pretending not to have noticed her.

Dawn is autistic.  She’s seventeen years old, three years older than Eliot.  But when she’s around, Eliot feels as if he’s already an old man, forced into an early maturity, responsible for things no fourteen year old boy should have to think about.  He blames this all on his parents, who often encourage him when he pays attention to Dawn, who often scold him when he wants something for himself.  “Being selfish,” is what his mother calls that, leaving Eliot dashed to pieces on the rocks of guilt.  He feels guilty even now, trying to read the last page of his comic book instead of paying attention to Dawn.

“I’m leaving,” Dr. Carroll announces.  He’s wearing khaki pants with pockets all over them, and a wide-brimmed hat with mosquito netting pulled down over his face.  A backpack and sleeping bag are slung on his back.  He lifts the mosquito netting and kisses Eliot’s mother on her cheek and calls her Dr. Carroll affectionately, then looks at Eliot and says, “You take care of Dawn while I’m away, Eliot.  Stay out of trouble.”

He walks outside, and all of them–Eliot, Dawn and their mother–move to the doorway.  As if magnetized by Dr. Carroll’s absence, they try to fill the space he’s left.  They watch him become smaller and smaller, a shadow, until he reaches the trail that will take him farther into the graying mountains, where his moth awaits.

“Good luck,” Eliot’s mother whispers, waving goodbye to his back, his nets and pockets.  She closes her eyes and says, “Please,” to something she cannot name, even though she no longer believes in higher powers, ghosts or gods of any sort.

Before and Afterlives Arrives

My first full length short story collection, Before and Afterlivesreleased this week! I’m sort of over the top excited by that, because since I was a teenager, I imagined my first book being a collection of short stories, something in the vein of Ray Bradbury or Shirley Jackson, but contemporary in style and setting. They were two of my favorite authors for the longest time, and I still feel their influences on me all these years later, after publishing a novel and a novel-in-stories prior to my adolescent-imagined short story collection.

barzak-before-and-afterlives_200x300

Before and Afterlives collects the majority of what I think of as my best and better stories from the last decade, the first decade of my life as a publishing writer. They are mainly stories of the supernatural, or contemporary fantasies (the word fantasy writers and publishers used to use for what is often now called urban fantasy, which is a term I think is too limiting in terms of setting). But there are several speculative fiction/scifi-ish stories included in the collection as well. In many ways, it’s the kind of mixed genre collection I used to enjoy as a young reader: in one story you’ll encounter a beached mermaid who is taken in by a woman whose daughter has disappeared, in another you’ll witness a haunted house destroy the lives of several different families over a century, and in yet another you’ll come across a young man whose lover has been stolen away from him someone who just might be an alien. There’s a girl who can call ghosts to her, and a man trying to survive the end of the world. There’s a contagion that causes people to vanish, little by little, and there’s a young man who makes his living by allowing other people to kill him for a fee, and to let them witness his remarkable ability to resurrect.

If I hadn’t written all of these stories, I would totally be wishing that someone else would have. I think that’s the writer’s impulse really. They’re readers who have become so obsessed by story that they are eventually moved to create their own stories, the ones they can’t find written by someone else.

It’s an odd thing. When I was growing up, short story collections were read as much as novels were, but times have changed. The poor short story has lost ardent fans the same way poetry has over the decades, and while I personally can’t understand why this would be–short stories are, to me, the perfect size to contain a narrative in its most distilled form, like strong whiskey–that’s how things are, regardless.

And on top of that, a lot of story collections are now published by smaller, independent presses, which have taken up the slack of larger, corporate publishing houses who specialize in producing novels. This also means it’s harder for those presses and authors to make people aware of their collections. My publisher, Lethe Press, went out on a limb to publish this collection, and I appreciate the efforts of the publisher, Steve Berman, and the beautiful interior design work done by Alex Jeffers, along with the awesome cover art made by Steven Andrew, in the production of this book.

So, dear reader, if you’re interested in helping me spread the word about mine, you can help in a variety of ways:

1.) Buy the book, and then review it somewhere. Like Amazon.com, or Barnes and Noble.com, or on Goodreads.com, etc. 

2.) Buy the book as a gift for someone you think might like it.

3.) Buy the book for someone  who is your frenemy and that you’re sure they won’t like it.

4.) Tell other people about it.

5.) Ask your local library to purchase a copy for the shelves.

6.) Ask your local brick and mortar bookseller to order it for their shelves.

7.) Have someone drive you down the street while you lean out the window with a bullhorn, announcing the title of the book and throwing candy at the youngsters lining the sidewalk.

8.) Blog about the book.

9.) Tweet or facebook about the book. Take photos of yourself reading it.

10.) Run for political office with the book as your main platform. Be sure to reference it in all of your speeches.

I’m sure there are other ways you can help, and I welcome any additional modes of promotion that I haven’t thought up yet to be listed in the comments of this post!

But in essence: new book is out! Thank you for buying, reading, reviewing (buying even if you don’t read or review it), and for being there, reader, both the ones who know who they are and the ones who don’t know just yet, but soon will be. ;-)

Kindle edition also available here.

One for Sorrow AKA Jamie Marks is Dead

I have good news at the end of 2012. My novel One for Sorrow‘s film rights have officially been sold, and filming will begin shortly in the new year, from what I understand. This has been a long-term project for the director/script writer and the production company he has assembled since he first optioned the rights several years ago. To be honest, most book-to-film options never come to fruition, and I knew that from the beginning, so I never got my hopes up that I’d see my book truly made into a movie, and remained grateful just that there was someone out there who had read the book and resonated with it so greatly that he went so far as to pay money to option the right to make it, and to continue renewing the option until he had a production company in place to make it happen. Now, I’m kind of dumbfounded that it’s really going forward.

Here’s what I can tell you so far:

imgres
The director and script writer is the really well known fashion photographer Carter Smith. On top of fashion photography, he’s also a filmmaker who won a Sundance Film Festival Award for Best Short Film in 2007, for a film called Bug Crush. After that short film, he directed his first feature length film in 2008 called The Ruins, based on the novel by Scott Smith, for DreamWorks.

 

imgres-1Hunting Lane Films, from what I understand, will be producing the film version of One for Sorrow.  They’ve done movies like Half Nelson and Blue Valentine most recently.  The executive producer on the film is John Logan, who wrote the script for movies like Hugo, Any Given Sunday, and Gladiator (!!!), who also won the 2010 Tony Award for Best Play for Red, the Broadway play about painter Mark Rothko.

With a crew like this, I feel like the book is in good hands.

They are most likely going to change the title, however, to Jamie Marks is Dead .  There will also be some slight changes to the novel’s version of the story, but a film based on a novel is never the same thing as a novel–they’re adaptations–so I’m looking forward to seeing how the story of Adam McCormick and Jamie Marks and Gracie Highsmith plays out in this film version of the book.

I’m not sure who all they have cast yet, but I’ve been privy to hearing about possibles, and if I can ever confirm who will be in it for my readers, I’ll be certain to update here on my website as soon as I can.

However, I’ve been shown auditions by some of the hopefuls, which were incredible, and have also seen what seems like thousands of photos from location scouting. It seems they’ll be filming in several different upstate New York locations, small towns and rural villages around the Sleepy Hollow area, which somehow seems appropriate, this being a ghost story and all.

This has been something I’ve been sitting on for so long now, so I’m really excited to finally be able to announce it! I can’t wait to see what Carter makes of my story. It will be interesting and fun to be in the reader/viewer’s seat in these circumstances.

2013, here we come!

Advanced Reviewers Wanted

Dear Readers (specifically, dear book review bloggers),

As a lead-up to the release of my first full-length collection of short stories, I’ll be giving away an advance review PDF copy to book bloggers who promise to write an honest review of the book in the months prior to the release date.

Before and Afterlives will release on March 18, 2013. I’d love to give away enough advance review copies that would enable a book review per week between the months of January and late March. If you review books regularly, and aren’t back-logged, and would be able to read and write a review of the collection within that period of time, please contact me at christopherbarzak AT gmail DOT com.

I’m excited for this collection to appear.  Here are the two initial blurbs from the authors Jeffrey Ford and M. Rickert:

“Although Christopher Barzak is now better known as a novelist, I’ve always been an admirer of his short stories. His new collection, Before and Afterlives, will make you one too. This generous offering of his best work displays impressive range, depth of feeling, a sharp sense of humor, and a fantastic imagination both lyrical and dark.”

-Jeffrey Ford, author of Crackpot Palace and The Physiognomy

“How to conjure souls? Resurrect the past? Speak to the dead? Christopher Barzak has a talent for ghosts. In a world composed of more than its material aspects, Barzak seems to know that the things unsaid are what haunt us most. He offers his considerable gift of story as a talisman. Before and Afterlives is a generous contribution to the art of being human.”

-M. Rickert, author of Map of Dreams and Holiday

I’d love to have reviewers join into the conversation about the book as it gets nearer to launch date. So please send me an email with a link to your book blog to join in.

Thanks very much, and feel free to link to this post in your own networks.

Before and Afterlives Coverings

I’m so excited to see my full length collection of short stories, Before and Afterlives, coming together in advance of its March 2013 release. Below is the pre-visualisation for the cover, front, back and spine, by the book’s designer.  It will of course later have a description of the contents added to the back and blurbs, but this is the general look. I’m really excited to see it out.  Can. not. wait.

You can click to make the image larger, of course.

Writing with Dorothea Tanning

Dorothea Tanning is the third artist I discovered in this paper-doll of a writing project I took on back in the early 2000s.  Just as I discovered Leonora Carrington’s art via her fiction, and then Remedios varo via a biography of Carrington, I found Dorothea Tanning by way of her relationship with Carrington’s former lover, the famous surrealist Max Ernst, who left his wife Peggy Guggenheim for Tanning.  They married in a double wedding with the surrealist Man Ray and his wife Juliet Browner.  What circles these people moved in, I swear!  If ever I had a Midnight in Paris time travel adventure, I think I’d want to go back to the Paris that these painters inhabited, and of course geek out from the periphery of their lives.  One day time travel tourism will totally be a huge industry!

Like Carrington, Tanning practiced multiple art forms:  painting, sculpture, set building for theater and the ballet (she even built a set and costumes for one of George Balanchine’s ballets, The Night Shadow), and she wrote poetry and fiction and memoir.  I’m completely baffled by this triple-threat type of person, and completely humbled.  I’ve written both novels and short stories, essays and some occasional poetry, but I wouldn’t know where to begin with visual design.  I just don’t have the skills, even if I have the desire to make visual art at times.

Tanning was the last in this triptych of artists whose work held me so intensely that I felt compelled to write stories from the experience.  And because I was working with images of the female body within a surrealist art context, it felt incredibly appropriate to end the collection with the story, “Birthday,” which was inspired by Tanning’s painting of the same name.

Here was the final image I wanted the collection to end on, a self-portrait Tanning had painted early in her career, in which she has depicted herself in an apartment room, half stripped out of a theater costume, staring out at the viewer with a strange winged creature sitting beside her feet, while a hallway of doors are opening and closing in the background.

This painting struck me as the final note to end the story cycle on, because it seemed like an image of self-actualization and potential, as opposed to the more cultural conflict and journey-driven paintings of Varo and Carrington.  This was a painting that seemed entirely bare-faced in its depiction of the female body within a surrealist self-portrait.  There are no masks, no hint-hint, it’s me coded in fantasy metaphor.  The woman is undeniably Tanning, but the fantasy of surrealism surrounds her in the form of the magical winged creature and the opening and closing doors in the background.

Max Ernst named the painting “Birthday” and Tanning thought it was appropriate.  In some ways it feels like a coming-of-age painting, a depiction of a young woman coming into her own and displaying herself unabashedly to a viewer.  A debut painting, in some ways.  And a celebration of the self.

I approached my trans-literation of this painting into story in a similar fashion to the process I went through with Carrington’s “The Guardian of the Egg”: by creating the arc of a story that would lead to this image as its final image.  To do this, I needed to imagine who this character in the painting would be.  It would not be Tanning herself, because that would have forced me into a biographical sort of recounting of her life and its various hills and valleys, and I’m always less interested in the literal than I am in the metaphorical.  So I gave my Birthday girl a different name, Emma, and decided to use the apartment setting of the painting as the nearly entire world that Emma has existed within for her entire life–in childhood, early adulthood, a marriage, childbirth, divorce, reinvention of the self, and a final coming into the self and inhabiting it with ease, as Tanning has depicted herself in the original painting.  In a way, the story reads with the feeling of a piece of autobiography.  The narrator is reflective as she recounts her trials and tribulations, but unlike a true autobiographical account, the events of my fictional Emma are quite strange.  She discovers a secret room, for instance, where the winged creature in the painting has lived for years among the denizens of the apartment building without anyone realizing.

This was perhaps the most fun of the three stories to write.  Even now, as I’ve searched out images online to include in this post, I’ve felt like I’d like to do more stories inspired by these artists (and perhaps a few other artists I’ve encountered in the years since I completed these stories).  Tanning’s “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik” always spooks me when I look at it, for example.

Who knows? Maybe I will.  I’m usually the last person to know what I’ll write next.

Thanks for reading about these painters, these paintings, and the stories I wrote from them.  I hope you enjoy the book!

The Birthday of Birds and Birthdays

Birds and Birthdays has officially released into the wild.  It’s been available directly from the publisher for the past couple of weeks, but will be appearing in other marketplaces now, like Amazon.com (where they say it’ll take 1 to 3 weeks to get the book, but that’s only because they’ve just recently placed orders for stock with the publisher themselves).

Surprisingly and already, the book has received its first review yesterday as well!  It’s over at Tor.com, and it’s a good one.  So if you can’t take my (very biased) word that the book is good, take this reviewer’s.

I’m excited to have this book made real.  For a long time, I’d thought it would be very unlikely to find a publisher for it, even a small indie press, who might be interested in a collection of three short stories and one essay, centered around the surrealist art of three women from the early half of the 20th century. But while that was a realistic doubt, it proved not to be true.

For the next few weeks, I’m going to be occasionally blogging here and in some other places about the book, its conception, the process I went through in researching and writing of each of the stories, the artists whose paintings inspired these stories, and how I went about organizing the book itself.  It’s a small book, just a little over 100 pages, which seems as small as a grain of sand in a world where hugely huge epic page-turners pound the pavement around it.  But I’ve always been fond of small things, the contained and hermetically sealed worlds of snow globes and dioramas, and I know there are folks out there who like things like this too.  So I’m hopeful this small book might reach their attention, despite the clamor and bustle of the giants lumbering around it.

If you’re interested in reviewing the book, contact me by email and I’ll see about getting a copy into your hands.  And if you read and enjoy the book, and feel so inclined, please help me tell other people about its existence.  Share links to it on your social networks, review it on Amazon or Goodreads or other places.  I appreciate any help my readers can lend me.

In a day or two, I’ll begin posting about the topics I mentioned above, but for now, if you want a sneak peak at one of the stories in the book, you can read the second story, “The Guardian of the Egg,” for free at The Journal of Mythic Arts, where it was reprinted several years ago. That story was written in response to a painting of the same name by the artist Leonora Carrington.

And be prepared for a giveaway soon, too.

Happy birthday, Birds and Birthdays.