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.

Sneak Peeks of Before and Afterlives (The Boy Who Was Born Wrapped in Barbed Wire)

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 a short story called “The Boy Who Was Born Wrapped in Barbed Wire” which originally appeared in The Journal of Mythic Arts, edited by Terri Windling and Midori Snyder. This story is what I think of as a Midwestern fairy tale. I wrote it in 2004, after waking from a dream of being tangled up in a barbed wire fence in the woods on my family’s farm here in Ohio. It was a couple of months later that I’d move to Japan, so this was the last story I wrote prior to that experience.

hive1

The Boy Who Was Born Wrapped in Barbed Wire

 

There was once a boy who was born wrapped in barbed wire.  The defect was noticed immediately after his birth, when the doctor had to snip the boy’s umbilical cord with wire cutters.  But elsewhere, too, the wire curled out of the boy’s flesh, circling his arms and legs, his tiny torso.  They didn’t cause him pain, these metal spikes that grew out of the round hills of his body, although due to the dangerous nature of his birth, his mother had lost a great amount of blood during labor.  After delivery, the nurse laid the boy in his mother’s arms, careful to show her the safe places to hold him.  And before her last breath left her, she managed to tell her son these words:  “Bumblebees fly anyway, my love.”

They followed him, those words, for the rest of his life, skimming the rim of his ear, buzzing loud as the bees farmed by his father the beekeeper.  He did not remember his mother saying those words, but he often imagined the scene as his father described it.  “Your mother loved you very much,” he told the boy, blinking, pursing his lips.  The beekeeper wanted to pat his son’s head, but was unable to touch him just there–on his crown–where a cowlick of barbs jutted out of the boy’s brown curls.

The beekeeper and his son lived in a cabin in the middle of the woods.  They only came out to go into town for supplies and groceries.  The beekeeper took the boy with him whenever he trekked through the woods to his hives.  He showed the boy how to collect honey, how to not disturb the bees, how to avoid an unnecessary stinging.  Sometimes the beekeeper wore a baggy white suit with a helmet and visor, which the bees clung to, crawling over the surface of his body.  The boy envied the bees that landscape.  He imagined himself a bee in those moments.  As a bee, his sting would never slip through his father’s suit to strike the soft flesh hidden beneath it.  His barbs, though, would find their way through nearly any barrier.

One day the beekeeper gave the boy a small honeycomb and told him to eat it.  The comb dripped a sticky gold, and the boy wrinkled his nose.  “It looks like wax,” he told his father.  But the beekeeper only said, “Eat,” so the boy did.

The honeycomb filled his mouth with a sweetness that tasted of sunlight on water.  Never before had something so beautiful sat on the tip of his tongue.  Swallowing, he closed his eyes and thought of his mother.  The way she held him in her arms before dying, the way she spoke before going away forever.  The memory of his mother tasted like honey too, and he asked the beekeeper, “What did she mean?  Bumblebees fly anyway?”

“Bumblebees shouldn’t be able to fly,” said the beekeeper, closing the lid on a hive.  Honeybees crawled on the inside of the lid like a living carpet.  “Their bodies are so large and their wings so small, they shouldn’t be able to lift themselves into the air, but somehow they do.  They fly.”

Purchase the whole book at Amazon.com

Purchase the whole book at Barnes and Noble.com

Sneak Peeks of Before and Afterlives (Dead Letters)

Over the next couple of weeks, I’ll occasionally 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). 😉

The first preview is from a short story called “Dead Letters” that was originally published in Realms of Fantasy in 2006. I can’t say much about the story without spoiling the “reveal” it hinges upon, but I’ll say it’s the sort of story where the real and the imagined, the earthly and the supernatural, are difficult to tell apart. At least at first.

Dead Letters

Dear Sarah,

I have heard of your great misfortune to have gone and died so suddenly.  Now I find myself writing after so many years have passed between us in the hopes that perhaps this news is not true.  For a long time I believed I was dead too.  Then one day someone called my name (“Alice.  Do you remember her?  Alice Likely.  How she loved that girl.”) and I opened my eyes in a dark place, like a fairy tale princess trapped in a coffin.  Light appeared suddenly, a flash so sharp and blinding, it pricked my eyes and made them water.  Anyone passing by might have thought I was crying.  I must have looked so sad.

And someone did stop beside me.  I was still trapped in that dark place, my body bagged in a sack of unbeing, but the flash of light had ripped a hole in the darkness.  Through that opening, two hands reached in and gripped both sides of the fissure.  The hands pulled the gap wider and wider until daylight surrounded me, and trees sprang up, row after row of them.  Birds called out.  Their notes pierced my eardrums like needles.  I heard water, and then there it was too–a stone fountain next to the bench I lay upon, and the birds perched upon the fountain’s ledge staring at me, their eyes black and serious.

Whoever freed me disappeared before I could pull myself together.  A newspaper lay open across my chest, and another on my legs.  I sat up and the paper on my legs slid to the ground, rattling.  I held on to the section covering my chest and looked at it for a moment, only to see your name glaring up at me, as if your name had a life of its own, had your eyes and the looks  you could give with them, and so your name glared at me in such a way that I could not help but notice it.  It said you were dead.  Twenty-eight years old.  A promising local artist.  Survived by her mother and father.  Their names were listed as well, but it hurt to look at them.  Particularly your mother’s.  She never liked me and I still don’t know why.  What did I ever do to her?

I am writing in the hopes that there may still be a chance for us to reconcile, to come together, to answer some of the questions that have burned inside me since you said goodbye.  Why did you betray me?  Whatever happened to our promise?  And where have I been for so long, asleep and waiting for someone to wake me?  Why didn’t you do that?  I don’t even recognize my own body.  My legs are long and my feet are large.  When I peered into the fountain water, a face looked back that belonged to a stranger.  Then the fountain turned on again, displacing the water, and the face broke apart into ripples.

Now I am writing this to you.  Will you please talk to me?  Can we forgive one another?

Love,

Alice

*

     I am writing in a notebook stolen from Rexall’s drugstore, the sort of book Sarah and I used in school years ago, for doodling and note-taking.  The cover of it looks like the black and white static on a dead television channel.  “Snow,” Sarah’s father used to call that.  “Nothing but snow here,” he’d say, flipping the channel until something lively and entertaining appeared.  He favored shows about policemen and vigilantes who saved the lives of people who could not save themselves from danger.  He instructed the vigilantes and policemen on how to go about all of this saving-of-lives business, spouting advice from his reclining chair, waving the remote control like a scepter.   Sometimes the vigilantes listened to him, sometimes they didn’t.  But they always saved the helpless victims in the end.

The pharmacist and his wife didn’t recognize me.  But I didn’t recognize them at first either.  They are old and gray now.  Mrs. Hopkinsey’s face sags.  Her teeth are not her teeth any longer.  I know this because I remember they were yellow and crooked and now they are white and bright and not so narrow; they line up in her mouth like good soldiers.  She smiled at me.  “Can I help you, dear?”

Such a nice woman, just as I remember.  I told her I was browsing, and she nodded and turned back to shuffling cigarette packs into the storage bin over the checkout counter.

I walked the aisles slowly, touching candy bars, tubes of lipstick, barrettes in the shape of butterflies.  I spun the comic book rack and paged through magazines, but the women inside were strange and alien, their faces harsh, skin like plastic or velvet.  Too smooth.  Their outlines blurred into the backgrounds.  I found that a familiar feeling, though, and felt a stab of pity for the cover girl’s blurry faces.

The greeting cards stood on the same shelves that they always had; I picked through them.  One said, “I feel so lonely with you not here.”  On the cover was a picture of a little girl looking up at the moon, holding a doll at her side.  Inside it read, “But we’ll always be friends, no matter what the distance.”  I found myself crying, and stuffed the card under the waistband of my pants, covering it up with my sweater.  I looked to see if anyone had seen me take it, but Mrs. Hopkinsey still restocked cigarettes and Mr. Hopkinsey stood behind the medicine counter, measuring out pills for a customer.

If Sarah had been there, she would have been the one to take the card.  I would have been the lookout.  Those had been our positions when we were children.  I felt a little guilty changing places with her, like borrowing a friend’s sweater and not returning it, even though you know how they love it so.

I found the notebook in the next aisle over.  I hadn’t known I was going to take it either.  I needed things without knowing what I needed, so I let my hands think for me.  They reached out and took things:  the greeting card, several envelopes, the notebook, pens, a bar of chocolate, a ten dollar bill crumpled up on the black and white checkered floor.  I used the money to buy a soda and a bag of potato chips, so as not to be suspicious.  Mrs. Hopkinsey rang me up with her new smile still flashing, and when she handed me my change, I thought, I am home.

Click here to purchase the book and read the entire story (among 16 others!)

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.

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!

My anger is that I was put on the market

After writing about Leonora Carrington today, I was perusing Youtube and came across this clip from a documentary about her life, which also includes a filmed rendition of her short story, “The Debutante,” which is both humorous and grotesque, as you’ll see if you watch the clip.  It’s about ten minutes in length, and my favorite part is toward the end when Carrington, while being interviewed, says, “My anger is that I was put on the market,” in reference to the compulsory selling of upper class daughters into marriage during her youth.  In a world where women are still being bought and sold and controlled, I think the voice of an old crone (I mean this positively) like Carrington still resonates.

Writing with Remedios Varo

I stumbled upon Remedios Varo‘s art by accident.  A happy accident.  While I was in grad school (the first time, back in the early 2000s), I came across a surrealistic novel by Leonora Carrington called The Hearing Trumpet.  The book’s cover was amazing:

So I looked into the cover artist’s background.  It turned out that the writer of the novel had also painted the cover.  I’d never heard of Leonora Carrington before, so I quickly began looking through the university library stacks to investigate further.  It was in one of the books about her and her work that I discovered Remedios Varo, who was one of Carrington’s best friends.  Before I knew anything else about Varo and her work, I knew her by the image of just one of her paintings that the writer of the book on Carrington had included when she made mention of their friendship.  It was called “Creation of the Birds”:

And it was after I saw this painting that I quickly forgot about my research on Leonora Carrington.  For a while at least.

I had never seen surrealist art that looked like this before:  so precise, as if the artist was not so interested in tearing apart reality, but creating a new reality instead.  Modernist surrealism was more about distortion and alienating effects.  It walked the line of grotesquery, transfiguring reality and the received notions of reality we all have into a strange, often uncomfortable scenes of breakdown.  I’m thinking of Dali at the moment, and his famous melting clocks in a desert landscape, for instance.  An arid world where time no longer matters.  That, in a way, was really typical of surrealist art at the time.  But Varo, who was making art at the same time, didn’t seem interested in the breakdown of concepts like time or landscape or the human body.  She seemed interested more in the creation of new notions of time, landscape, and in the invention of character and narrative in her paintings.

I was immediately hooked by her, and my research on Carrington went to the side temporarily, so I could seek out more and more of Varo’s work.

As mentioned, I was working on a Master’s degree at the time, and was in my second semester, taking a poetry workshop with the poet William Greenway, who had focused his workshop on the process of ekphrasis:  the writing of poetry in response to paintings or visual art.  I spent a lot of time that semester looking at paintings and writing (mediocre) poems in response.  But I was really invested in the process I was learning.  I was excited, even if my poems wouldn’t have seemed exciting to anyone who read them.  I’m not a poet, and while I appreciate and love poetry, I always feel like I’ve been strait-jacketed whenever I’ve tried to write a poem.  I’m more inclined to prose and narrative, and so, when it came to the final project for the class, I asked Will Greenway if I could write a short story in response to the visuals of Remedios Varo, rather than doing a series of poems.  Will gave me permission, and it was then that I started to put together a story in a very different way than I ever had prior to that course.

Because Varo’s work is so character and place based, with inferred narratives clearly occurring within each painting, I felt like I could easily access those stories.  I’d been looking at her paintings for several months by that point, and several revealed themselves to me as somehow being connected (though, really, all of Varo’s paintings feel connected to me, as if they are simply windows onto different personages and places in the fabulist landscape she created).

The first was “Creation of the Birds,” pictured above.

The second painting that felt like it was the inverse of “Creation of the Birds” was “The Star Catcher”:

In the first painting, it was clear to me that the Owl or Bird Woman of the painting was using celestial light to create, whereas in this one, the Star Catcher was imprisoning and collecting celestial bodies.  They seemed to me like the perfect oppositional personages.  They would be my protagonist and antagonist, respectively.

The third painting that I decided to utilize for the creation of my story was “Spiral Landscape”:

This is a small image, so I’m not sure how easily viewable it will be on-screen, but essentially it presented me with my setting.  And because I’m often inspired by setting as more than just the background wallpaper of a story, but as a thematic or sometimes conflict-driven aspect of narrative, I was attracted to “Spiral Landscape” as a potential embodiment of the conflict of cyclically toxic relationships, which the story presents.  Opposites like the Bird Woman and The Star Catcher do attract from time to time, and they tend to have explosive relationships and histories that are hard to escape.  The setting for these two characters would itself become part of their conflict.  (I also just thought it would be pretty cool to live on a spiral shaped island).

So I had a setting and two characters with a relationship problem, which might have been enough.  But I wanted to do more with it.  I wanted to inject something into the narrative that also was indicative of modernist surrealism and the culture that surrounded it at the time.  Since I was going to write about an essentially bad romance and relationship issues, I thought it might be fun to dig into psychoanalysis, Freudian thought, etc, which was so prevalent in the circles these artists ran in.  And luckily, I discovered the fourth painting that I would work into the fabric of my story when I saw Varo’s “Woman Leaving the Psychoanalyst”:

I loved the idea of leaving a psychoanalyst with his head (head shrinking), his thoughts, his interpretations of your problems, rather than your own.  In the painting, the woman’s hair is completely twisted, and she’s about to drop the psychoanalyst’s head (as I interpret it) into a well.  Good riddance.  I didn’t utilize this painting in a direct equation in my story, though.  I placed the Bird Woman instead in this position, and created a third character, the Psychoanalyst, who she seeks help from to resolve her relationship issues with the Star Catcher.  He serves to be a bit of a comic character in my story, and a good “extra” that allowed me to get outside of the Bird Woman’s interior space every now and then, as he literally becomes a “talking head” in my story.

I’d never conceived of a story in this way before, and it was really one of the most fascinating processes I’d ever gone through at that time in my experience as a writer.  I’d been used to writing from within my own interior/emotional imaginative landscape.  This process compelled me to absorb someone else’s world, to inhabit it, to figure out how it might “play” in a prose narrative.  I still needed to invent, but I had to work with materials borrowed from a visual artist.

A picture is worth a thousand words, they say, and I discovered that was pretty much true, though sometimes a picture can take more than a thousand words.  The story I made, “The Creation of Birds” (just a bit different from Varo’s original title), was a bit over six thousand words in length, made from these four paintings filtered through my imagination.

Note: I’ll be back in a couple of days to talk about Leonora Carrington, who I returned to after my research into Varo.

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.