Taking Stock: 2011

Well, it’s that time again.  End of the year and all.  Every year I try to write down the various things I’ve done–written, published, won, been nominated for, sold for the future, etc–and lay it out like I might in a proper journal.  It’s been a while since I’ve kept a proper journal, but most likely those who read this can tell I pop up regularly when university is not in session, and when it is in session…well, I’m usually up to my ears with work to sit down and gather my thoughts about myself and what I’m working on (or wishing I could be working on) as easily.

Still…I am on break (even though I need to write a loooooong document narrating just why exactly I should be tenured next year–still pretending I don’t have to do that for another day or two) and will take the time instead to write this, for myself.

This past year I published four short stories, each of which presented their own challenges, some due to the genre necessary to work within, some because I did that thing where I followed a voice–one line alone that set me going–and chased it until the end.  Which is a difficult and challenging sort of story to write, because you have to trust your instincts instead of toying with your knowledge of a particular genre and its conventions–that has its own challenges, but uncertainty is generally not one of them, because you have those conventions of a particular genre there, acting as sort of guideposts to the territory those genres have conquered and the rules they’ve established for the conduct of their citizens.

The first story to be in 2011 arrived in the April/May issue of Asimov’s Science Fiction.  “Smoke City” was one of those stories I chased after, by voice alone.  Here is its first paragraph:

One night, I woke to the sound of my mother’s voice, as I did when I was a child.  The words were familiar to my ear, they matched the voice that formed them, but it was not until I had opened my eyes to the dark of my room and my husband’s snoring that I remembered the words were calling me away from my warm bed and the steady breathing of my children, both asleep in their own rooms across the hall.  “Because I could not stop for death,” my mother used to tell me, “he kindly stopped for me.”  They were Dickinson’s words, of course, not my mother’s, but she said them as if they were hers, and because of that, they were hers, and because of that, they are now mine, passed down with every other object my mother gave me before I left for what I hoped would be a better world.  “Here, take this candy dish.”  Her hands pushing the red knobbed glass into my hands.  “Here, take this sweater.”  Her hands folding it, a made thing, pulled together by her hands, so that I could lift it and lay it on the seat as my car pulled me away.  Her hand lifted into the air above her cloud of white hair behind me.  The smoke of that other city enveloping her, putting it behind me, trying to put it behind me, until I had the words in my mouth again, like a bit, and then the way opened up beneath me, a fissure through which I slipped, down through the bed sheets, no matter how I grasped at them, down through the mattress, down through the floorboards, down, down, down, through the mud and earth and gravel, leaving my snoring husband and my steadily breathing children above, in that better place, until I was floating, once more, along the swiftly flowing current of the Fourth River. 

“Smoke City” was written after I’d read a bottom-up history of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania called The Point of Pittsburgh, by Charles McCollester, which began at its geological foundations and moved forward to the present.  I read all 500 pages in a couple of nights, and because I took it in so quickly, I began to dream about the history of the place, but in that typically surrealist fashion that dreams take on.  I was mostly caught up with the Guilded Age, when the steel industry had both made the place wealthy and ruined at the same time.  The depiction of the city was mostly in line with what many imagine Hell to look like.  And while I was reading it, I kept thinking, this is the same time period that Steampunk often settles in, but most steampunk stories and books I’ve read seem to revolve around the lives of movers and shakers, people in power or who have access to power, rather than those on the bottom, toiling for others.  “Smoke City” came out of meditating on our connections to that period of time.  The writer Paul Cornell (of Dr. Who fame!) called it “a furious critique of Steampunk.”  Thank you, Mr. Cornell!

The second story was “Gap Year” in the Ellen Datlow/Terri Windling edited anthology, Teeth.  This was also a voice oriented piece for me, but because the anthology was dictated by the genre of vampire stories, and vampire stories specifically in the category of YA fiction, I had a lot of those guideposts I mentioned earlier to work with.  Working within particular genres and within particular age categories does create a certain amount of things to push off from, or interact with.  You know the type of story you’re telling, and even if it’s as diverse as vampire fiction is, it’s all still there to work with:  you’re not creating out of a void, you’re not following a voice and hoping it leads you to gold instead of nowhere.  Here’s the first paragraph of “Gap Year”:

When the vampires came to town, there was an assembly in the high school gymnasium.  Retta and Lottie sat next to each other on the bleachers, like they did every day in study hall, their hands folded between their pressed-together knees.  The three vampires who stood on the stage had something to tell them.  “We’re people, too,” said the head vampire, if that’s what you call a vampire who speaks for other vampires.  He couldn’t have been more than eighteen.  A splash of freckles on his face.  Mousy brown fauxhawk.  A tight, too-short Pixies concert t-shirt showing off a strip of skin above the waistband of his boxers.  He wore jeans with a snakeskin belt hanging loose in the loops.  If you saw him in the hallway, you wouldn’t suspect him of being a vampire.  Retta and Lottie weren’t sure if they suspected him of being a vampire now, even though he said he was.

You can probably tell that the voice of this piece is just a tad bit ironic.  I think I went for the ironic voice because so much YA vampire fiction takes itself sooooo seriously, to the degree that it sometimes hurts to read it.  And also because a lot of vampires in vampire fiction have seemed to have lost their sense of danger, and can come out in the daytime nowadays, I thought they’d lost a bit of their allure (for me).  So I began writing a story where vampires are out, and fairly boring to the rest of society.  Until Retta, the heroine of the story, discovers what being a vampire can mean for herself.

That’s the fun part of working within established genre conventions:  finding ways to twist what’s already there, to write against the grain instead of with it, looking for something new.

The third story of the year appeared in Holly Black’s and Ellen Kushner’s anthology Welcome to Bordertown.  The anthology is a reintroduction to the Bordertown world created by Terri Windling in the 80s and 90s for the new generation.  I was thrilled to be invited to write in this world, as it was one I entered into with great excitement as a teen reader.  The writing process for this story is somewhat related to how I went about writing “Gap Year”.  Instead of working with a particular genre and its conventions, however, working in Bordertown provided me with the conventions of a particular world to write within.  And with any world, there are rules and regulations.  They can be broken, or twisted, of course, but you have to know them in order to break and twist them.  When it came to writing this story, I wanted to approach some of the aspects of the race and class strife that was always part of the ambient energy in Bordertown–creatures of the fae world living side by side with humans, and those born of the relationship between the fae and humans–in a fairly direct way.  So I created the character of Marius, a late teen from the human world who came to Bordertown several years before the “Way” between Bordertown and the World closed off.  So any potential for him to return to the life he fled–rejection from his family after coming out to them–was closed off as well.  When the Way reopens, all sorts of newcomers from the World arrive, and one of them is Aleksander (or “Mouse” as he comes to be called), a young man who is ready to take on Bordertown and its various social ills almost like an Occupy Wallstreeter.   Here’s the first paragraph:

I saw him again tonight, while out walking the streets of Soho: Alek or Aleksander, whatever it is he’s called now.  He’s had plenty of names since I first knew him when he arrived almost a year ago, fresh and green from the World.  One of the newcomers after the Way reopened.  Mouse.  Alek.  Aleksander.  Voice of the Nameless, voice for those who drink from the river whose waters curse them to return to it daily to forget their troubles, those who came and didn’t find what they’d been told would be a glorious place free of the World’s restrictions, where they could be themselves more than anywhere and wouldn’t have to fight for it.


Clearly, Marius is a bit jaded and cynical.  But he has a happier ending than the one he expects.

Finally, the last story of the year appeared in Apex Magazine.  “The 24 Hour Brother” is, as reviewer Lois Tilton described it, “A strange and sad fantasy of children whose lives are like mayflies.”  It’s the story of Lewis, fifteen years old, whose mother gives birth to his little brother, Joe, who grows up and goes through the various phases of life all within 24 hours.  Here’s the opening:

My little brother Joe grew up too fast for his own good.  My mom was the first to see what we were in for.  Soon after Joe’s birth, when the nurse put him in her arms, the first thing he did, still pink and slimy, was smile the gummy, wry smile of a little old man.

     “Joseph, Joe, my baby boy,” said my mother, “we’ll try our best if you will.”  She kissed his cheek and handed him back to the nurse, trying to keep herself from falling in love with someone who she realized, at their very first meeting, would only break her heart.  The first sign was in that first smile:  the old man Joe would soon become, the old man Joe would become too soon.

This is a story more in line with “Smoke City”.  A story in which I create my own world, follow the voice of the narrator, and found my way through based on the rules I was making for myself.

That’s it for publications this year.  My story “Map of Seventeen” was nominated last spring for the Nebula Award for Best Novelette, which means I’ve been nominated for a Nebula three times now.  I can no longer say “Third time’s a charm!” unless I adopt a sarcastic tone of voice. 😉

Right now, I’m looking forward to putting 2011 behind me, and working into the future.  2012 and beyond.

Happy holidays, and happy New Year.




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3 responses to “Taking Stock: 2011”

  1. Meagan Avatar

    Really want to read Gap Year. Maybe I’ll have time to read again in 2012. 🙂 Good luck with tenure, I hope you get it.

    1. Christopher Barzak Avatar

      Thanks meagen! Hope you’re doing good!

      1. Meagan Avatar

        I am great. Ender is at the best age- interested in everything but not yet mobile. And I’m actually starting to get some sleep again.

        Probably won’t make it to any readings anytime soon though… I don’t think he’d be quite so tolerant or quiet these days.

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