I have started seeing all the recommendations for the various writing awards — Hugos, Nebulas, etc. — going up on various social media, and I’ve realized that I have not kept the list I promised myself I would of the stories I read this year. Which means that I haven’t put together a list of recommendations — and since I’ve got a particularly busy December ahead of me, will probably not get around to it, no matter how much I may promise myself I will.
Possibly that was due to a rather enervating sense of discouragement I’ve been feeling lately. I won’t go into the reasons — some of it is simply personal family business, but others just feel to me like sour grapes, and so not worthy of expressing in public. This year, for example, I don’t really have any stories of my own that I could possibly recommend; the only ones that were published was a flash fiction piece and a reprint that appeared in an independent anthology. (However, I will say that the latter publication, Hell Hath Only Fury, is a charity anthology whose profits will go to The Brigid Alliance, an organization that helps people who need abortion care; the book contains some excellent and angry original fiction.)
Meanwhile, though, I beg the pardon of all the very worthy and exciting writers whose stories deserve to be touted for the various awards. But I can at least recommend checking out AC Wise’s Eligibility and Recommendation Links Roundup 2022, which is a great place to find tales to recommend — or even just to read.
In my last post, I talked about the statue of a sad angel that I saw on a walk, sitting on a wall, mourning someone or something.
Well, recently I’ve wondered if the little angel was sad because they were a writer.
There are writers out there who become early successes, who are adored by thousands, if not millions, and who have the skill and talent and, yes, luck to be able to produce a steady stream of popular, or critical acclaimed (or both!) fiction.
And there are the those who are able, through talent, skill, and perseverance, to acquire a fair number of followers and to make a good name for themselves as solid, interesting and eminently readable authors.
And then there are the rest of us.
The literary world — and by “literary” I include all facets of literature, not just that recognized by academia — is full of writers who have worked hard, are reasonably skilled with words and imagination, and who have never, for whatever reason, been able to become recognized beyond a few friends and colleagues, and perhaps a reader or two.
There can be many reasons for this. They may have family responsibilities that take up most of their time, or a day job that is exhausting. They may have a disability that makes things more difficult, or a medical issue that cuts into their life, or emotional issues that create barriers. They may not have the financial advantages that offer them the chance to do the work, or they may not fit into society’s (and publisher’s, and agent’s) ideas of who can be a writer. They may not be good at making friends, or at taking advantage of possibilities that arise. Or they may simply not be in the right place at the right time.
And so every once in a while, you hit that abyss of I’m not good enough what was I thinking of trying to be a writer I’ve wasted my life damn damn damn. And you shut the keyboard.
If you’re a writer — or a creative of any type — you know what I mean.
I recently had a few days like that. It took me a while to come out of my funk, and I can’t tell you what helped. Perhaps because I saw a film that cheered me up, or read a book which inspired me, or talked with a friend who made me feel more valued. Or perhaps I simply said to myself “Screw it,” and went back to the keyboard. Because, at this point, it would be almost as hard to give up writing as it would be to give up eating.
I have at least one friend who is going through something similar, and I’m sure there are many creatives right now — successful or not — who, because of circumstances, need to forgive themselves for not producing the kind of prose or poetry or music or animation or other art that they think they should ge, or for not being able to impress the kind of people they hoped they would.
All I can say at this point is — you have all my best wishes. Keep trying. Keep producing. Because in the end, it’s what we do.
Sometimes, I see things, or read about things, that just stick in my brain. (I’m sure the same thing happens to you.) And it’s for no real reason — just because it’s there, and something about it either fascinates me, or makes me think.
Last Saturday, I visited a friend who lives up around Woodstock, NY, about a three-hour drive north of NYC. She lives in a semi-rural / semi-suburban area, and we took a walk. We passed several lovely homes, set well back on their properties, almost all with large piles of logs nearby, ready for winter fireplaces — one, in fact, already had smoke coming from the chimney, despite the fact that it was a sunny, warm afternoon.
But the thing that fascinated me was one house that had a short stone wall placed near the road — it was about 18 or 24 feet long, too short to be actually hemming anything in, and too neat to be part of a previous building. It had large square-shared stone pillars at each end, maybe four feet high, each with a planter on top. But that’s not what fascinated me — it was the small white statue of a child-sized angel, sitting on the wall, hands clasped together on its knees, staring slightly down in what looked like sadness.
My first reaction was: why was the statue there? And why so sad? It was a lovely area, and the unhappiness on the statue’s face seemed incongruous in such as picturesque spot, with trees around showing their fall colors, and the sun just beginning to fall toward the horizon.
A few years ago, just for fun, I did a serious of photos with captions I called Backstories, making up one- or two-sentence stories about what the animals or objects were thinking. I could have definitely used this statue for that. But after I thought a bit about the statue itself, I started thinking about the family who had placed it there. Was it simply a religious symbol? A gift somebody had given them? Or was there a story behind it?
Angels are often used to decorate tombstones, and a child angel often indicates the death of a child. Was the statue put there to mourn a child’s death? Who was the child, and how old were they? Was it recent, or the sibling of an 80-year-old woman who still occasionally mourned her lost little brother?
Or was I reading too much into it? It could be as simple as somebody seeing the statue in a garden shop, and thinking, “That would look wonderful on our wall.”
Over the course of the two-day Rosh Hashanah holiday, I followed along online with the services at Temple Emanu-El in Manhattan (they were lovely), but also spent a little time to do some necessary work in the basement.
It’s always interesting when you are forced to go into a chaotic basement to reorganize because of a flood (yeah, that happened a few years ago, don’t ask), or because there are repairs needed. In this case, we’re getting a new furnace, and we need to move a bunch of stuff, including an overloaded bookcase, to make room for the old furnace to be removed and the new one put in — and we also need to move everything that’s in front of the bookcase. And to do that, we need to find space to put all that stuff.
So far, in the act or reorganizing, I’ve found some old speakers that I meant to recycle years ago (and which are going into the trunk of my car for the next time I pass a Best Buy), two foldable mike stands, one foldable music stand, and an Empire officer’s cap that I scored at a performance of The Empire Strikes Back. This is the unexpected stuff; I’m not even going to start with the extra juice and wine glasses, the ancient wire recorder, or the Russell Wright dinnerware that I rescued a few years ago from my mother’s house.
Anyway, I couldn’t resist trying on the officer’s cap — which still fits — so Jim took a photo, with the proviso that I also show off the WBAI tee shirt I happened to be wearing (the design is by our friend Sidney Smith).
On Tuesday, Jim and I decided it would not be counter to the holidays to spend a little time walking in a park, and so we went to the relatively recent Shirley Chisholm State Park along the Belt Parkway in Brooklyn.
I’d been really curious about that park; it was built over landfill not far from where I spent my adolescence in East New York; it took several years for the park to take shape and whenever I drove past, I noted how the formerly brown piles of new ground was slowly turning green. We had a lovely walk (although I had to run back to the car when I realized I left my phone there), including a conversation with a woman about non-electric scooters, and views of seagulls and cormorants. We also killed a spotted lanternfly (inspired by a couple of signs we saw along the way) and tried to get a decent photo of a Yellow-rumped warbler that led us a chase for at least a quarter mile (we never got the photo, but it was a beautiful bird).
I don’t know what it is about getting my yearly mammogram that is so damned frightening. Of course, the spectre of breast cancer hovers over the entire procedure — how can it not? And considering how prevalent breast cancer is among women, it’s not surprising that the yearly reminder of one’s vulnerability can be nerve-wracking.
But there are other annual medical check-ups that I go through that, although they have their own nerve-wracking aspects, don’t seem to make my stomach churn quite as much. There are the annual checkups by my GP and the all-revealing blood tests. There are oh-so-much-fun gynecological exams and their accompanying Pap tests. There are the eye exams, and the visits to the dermatologist — I take all of these in my stride. But the annual mammogram makes me go into what I call “efficiency mode” — completely concentrated on the task at hand in the most emotionless fashion possible in order to get it done and finished.
This may be because I actually found a small lump in one of my breasts when I was 23, and it was removed and biopsied. With today’s technology, the procedure wouldn’t have been needed or even considered. But back then, it was performed “just in case,” and meant an overnight stay in the hospital, a couple of weeks of discomfort, and several days of waiting to find out the results. When word came finally came that it was benign, I told my parents (with whom I was living at the time) and then went up to my bedroom and wept for a solid ten minutes in a paroxysm of relief and released terror.
So there’s that.
And of course, it doesn’t help that mammograms are damned uncomfortable. For those lucky males who have never had to suffer one, it means you have to stand while twisted in a totally unnatural position with your arms placed just so, your head turned to the side, and one of your breasts painfully squeezed between two cold plates. And then you are told not to move or breathe for several seconds. Then comes position number two, which is even more unnatural than position number one, and here come the heavy plates, and you’re wondering what you’ll look like with completely flat breasts. “All right, stand still please. Don’t breathe. Okay, you can breathe now.”
And then you get to do it all over again on the other side.
And then you get to wait to find out whether there’s anything to be really worried about.
This year, I made my appointment for early in the morning, 7:45 am, so that I’d lose as little time at work as possible. It was, as I discovered, early enough so that most of the other women in the waiting room were there not for exams, but for surgery. The staff did their paperwork quickly and efficiently, reassured them of the skills of the doctors and staff, and hurried them back so that they wouldn’t have to sit worrying for too long.
And I sat and waited for my name to be called, and wondered what my tests results would be this year, and if I’d ever find myself once again to be one of the women who were coming in early to see the surgeon. And wished them all well.
I’m beginning to see eligibility posts popping up on Twitter — posts listing the books and stories and poetry that people have had published over 2020, in order to remind their friends, readers, and acquaintances that awards season is nigh. So this is mine:
I’ve got two eligible stories this year:
“Dead Time on Hart Island,” published in Space & Time #138 in September. A convict working on burial detail finds he has more in common with the dead than the living.This is not available without purchase (although it is certainly worth it; other writers in the issue include Kate Ellis, Gordon Linzner, and Daniel M. Kimmel). SFWA members can find a copy at the SFWA forum.
“Slow Fade,” published in Legendary Tales #1 in October. A woman gradually becomes lost within her life. It is available online here.
I’ve just finished reading The Queen’s Gambit, the novel by Walter Tevis that is the basis for the marvelous Netflix series of the same name starring Anya Taylor-Joy.
First, if you haven’t seen the series, and if you subscribe to Netflix, watch it. It may be the best thing you watch this year.
That being said, I was completely astounded by the novel. Not so much by how well it’s written — I knew Tevis was a fine writer, and The Queen’s Gambit is every bit as good as I expected, if not more so. It was published in 1983, a year before Tevis died, when his skills were obviously still at their peak. But what really surprised me was how faithful the series is to the novel. Scene by scene, character by character, even line by spoken line, I found myself recognizing each scene from the series as I read through the novel.
There are, of course, a few differences, but they are so small as to be negligible. One of the male characters is slightly elevated in importance. The circumstances of how Beth was orphaned (this isn’t a spoiler; we find out she’s an orphan in the opening scenes) is very slightly tweaked. There are a few other small changes. But not many.
I have seen many other interpretations of novels by movies or TV makers, and many of them are wonderful. David Lean’s film of Great Expectations may leave out large swaths of Dickens’ novel, but it is a classic film in its own right. There have been several remakings of Little Women, three of which I really like — the 1933 version (because, well, Katherine Hepburn is Jo), the 1994 version (which was skillful and faithful), and the 2019 version (which I thought was a really original and wonderful re-interpretation). And there are, of course, many other novels, some much more recent, that have been suitably transferred to the screen.
But on the whole, The Queen’s Gambit has got to be the most faithful transference of a novel to a filmed drama that I can recall experiencing.
Part of the reason it works is due, of course, to the way Tevis structured his novel. It is written from the point of view of its protagonist, chess genius Beth Harmon, and the novel offers us, in clear, straightforward prose, her thoughts, her fascination with the game, and her impressions of everything that happens to her. Because she is intensely honest about herself — including her need to win and her reaction to her failures along the way — we can trust what we are told.
Scott Frank, who directed the Netflix production and co-wrote it with Allan Scott, also obviously trusted his material, and it shows. The writing and the acting is tight and masterful. Taylor-Joy is wonderful as Beth, as is the young actress Isla Johnston, who plays Beth as a girl. The hardest thing for the director and cinematographer to try to reimagine, I would guess, would have been visually conveying Beth’s fascination with chess and her ability to think out the possible moves that she and her opponents might make. But it works — while they illustrate it in various ways, the most striking has Beth lying in bed watching as giant chess pieces goes through various plays across the ceiling.
In short, I loved both the series and the novel. I saw the first before I read the second. I would be interested to know if the series holds up as well for those who are already familiar with the novel. I would suspect it does.
My story “Dead Time on Hart Island,” which has just been published in Space & Time Magazine, is not based on any real events. But it is based on a real place.
Hart Island, for those who may be unfamiliar with it, is the “Potter’s Field” of New York City. It’s the place where the poor, the forgotten, and the misplaced have been buried since the late 19th century. For years, the island was under the administration of the Department of Corrections and the coffins placed in mass graves dug and filled in by inmates.
For most of that time, the family and friends of those who were buried on Hart Island were forbidden to visit by the Department of Corrections. Until a photographer named Melinda Hunt, who first visited the island in 1991 to record “a hidden American landscape,” made it her mission to obtain the records of those buried there (many of which were destroyed by a fire in 1977) and to enable their friends and relatives to visit.
Using volunteer attorneys and the Freedom of Information Act, the Hart island Project eventually loosened the secrecy around the island. On the Hart Island Project website, you can now search out the stories of many of the AIDS victims buried there, and add any information you may have. You can also search a database of records beginning with 1980 to find out if anyone you know was interred there. The island also became much more accessible to the public, and in December 2019, a bill was signed that transferred control of Hart Island to the Parks Department.
For now, of course, ferry service to the island has been discontinued. The only people visiting Hart Island these days are the private contractors who have been hired to bury the dead — including some of the nearly 24,000 people in NYC who have died as a result of the coronavirus. And, perhaps, a few ghosts.
It’s often difficult in hard times not to just put your head under the covers and refuse to come out. And these days, it feels as if the reasons to despair are piling up, like one brick after another, building an unsteady but increasingly taller wall.
There are the public bricks. Trump’s election: a brick. Trump’s past Supreme Court assignments: two bricks. COVID-19: a boulder-sized brick. The normalization of racism, anti-Semitism, anti-LBGTQ, and other anti-human philosophies: several bricks. And now, the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg: yet another brick. And those are just a few; please forgive me if I’ve left out any bricks that affect you personally. I’m sure they’re there, somewhere in that ugly wall.
And then there are the personal, private bricks, which I won’t enumerate here.
So what do you do? There are currently hundreds (probably thousands) of online exhortations to not give up, not despair, call your senators, give money, gather and demonstrate, vote. Do. And this is the philosophy that I was raised up in, and which I usually attempt to follow, at least as much as I can: Do.
But I have to admit that, faced with all those bricks, there is a huge temptation to say: I’m done. I’m staying away from the news, I’m staying away from Twitter, I’m staying away from everything and everybody. I’ll sit on the couch and eat too much and watch old movies. The world can go screw itself.
Maybe I’ll do that, for at least one Sunday.
But after that, after taking a breath, I’m hoping I’ll be able to shake myself, and face what has to be faced. I’ll concentrate on my job, push ahead on my writing, handle family matters, and around the corners of those tasks, do what I can to pull at least one or two bricks out of that damned wall.
THE STORY IN BRIEF
A young boy finds that he need to call on his family and his own inner resources to fight a malicious demon.
HOW IT WAS WRITTEN
I was eight years old when the Cuban Missile Crisis occurred. I have a clear memory of sitting on the rug in our darkened living room, my parents on the couch behind me, and watching President Kennedy address the nation. I didn’t understand everything that was happening, but I understood enough to know that things were really serious. I asked my father if there was going to be a war, and he said, “I don’t know.”
This paragraph in the beginning of “An Awfully Big Adventure” describes pretty well how I felt, with five-year-old Ben standing in for the eight-year-old Barbara: “And with those words, the bottom dropped out of Ben’s world. A simple fact of his life had been that his father knew everything, could explain everything, and could make everything better.”
I’d always wanted to write a story based on that memory, and had made several unsuccessful starts. When I needed a story to fill out The History of Soul 2065, I was able (with Mythic Delirium publisher / editor Mike Allen’s able help) to finally bring it together.
NOTES ON THE PEOPLE
While the story’s origins lie in my memory of watching President Kennedy’s address with my very American parents, Ben’s mother and father (whom I’ve named Gretl Held and Wilhelm/William Weissbaum) are loosely based on the parents of my partner Jim Freund, both of whom escaped from Hitler’s Germany.
Jim’s father, like Ben’s, was in the OSS (the organization that eventually became the CIA) during the war. I’ve been told that he spent time as an underground operative in Europe. Like many war vets of his generation, he didn’t talk about it much.
Jim’s mother, along with her brother, managed to avoid the concentration camps when they were smuggled out of Europe by a network of Catholic religious workers, eventually meeting their parents in Morocco. In my story, Ben’s mother was not so fortunate; her experiences more reflect those of a neighbor I grew up with who bore fading blue numbers on her arm.
Ben himself (as mentioned in the entry about “Hearts and Minds“) is based somewhat on a talented young man I worked with back in the 1980s named Mark. The child Ben, however, is completely fictional.
Carlos is someone we will meet more fully in another story. He is a mashup of two or three friends of mine.
NOTES ON THE HISTORY
The Cuban Missile Crisis may still be the closest we ever came to nuclear war (at least, the closest we know about). It was just lucky that the men in charge of the two opposing nations had the maturity and intelligence to pull away from the brink. I shudder to think of how a similar situation would have been handled by some of today’s leaders.
Azazel and Shemhazhai are, in legend, two fallen angels who went to live among the people of Earth. Azazel is usually portrayed as male, but I saw no reason why an angel couldn’t be female, both male and female, or neither.
Finally, the nightmare that Ben has is the same one that I had for weeks after that frightening night in front of the TV set. I haven’t had that nightmare since I was a child, but I still remember it.
Want to read The History of Soul 2065? Here are some links: