Thursday, January 27, 2011

Chapter 42: In Which I Write About Books, Some of Them Written by Myself

Sooo...I read a good book recently. Full of magic and wonder and even some animals. Everybody likes animals. I think you'd like this book, in my unbiased opinion.

I just recently got my author's copies in the mail.

So sexy. Like, circa-1977 Stevie Nicks and Linda Ronstadt sitting together on the hood of a Dodge Charger sexy.

Right now I'm in the process of querying bookstores about consignment and sending press releases to different fantasy journals/websites. My goal is to send 10 press releases a day. The publisher wont be able to send review copies until next month, which doesn't mean people aren't already saying nice things.

"The Jack Daniels Sessions EP is revolutionary, riveting and remarkable. Elwin Cotman's prose grabs you from word one, and you don't want it to let you go. This book marks the unveiling of a major new voice in science fiction and fantasy." — Charles R. Saunders, author of Imaro

"Cotman has an amazing voice, and his fabulist descriptions are so vividly communicated, they almost lift from the page and become three-dimensional beings that are impossible images to forget."—Savannah Schroll Guz, author of The Famous & The Anonymous and American Soma

"Mr. Cotman’s interests are wide-ranging: Punk rock intersects with D.C.’s Dominican community, African American folktale intersects with Greek myth, Goth teen suburban angst in 1990s Ohio sits side by side with racist atrocity in the pre-Civil Rights South, and magic is going on. Yeah, there’s magic in some of these stories, but the real magic is in Cotman’s words themselves—stark and deadpan one moment, lushly descriptive the next."—Michael S. Begnal, author of Ancestor Worship

"In The Jack Daniels Sessions, folktales and modern landscapes collide, exploding and reforming in the form of an intriguing and intelligent collection. Cotman seizes the stories of tired tradition and galvanizes them, setting them to dance for us in wonderful, new interpretations."—Cat Rambo, author of The Surgeon's Tale

Wow. Being a lifelong sword&sorcery fan, hearing such a vote of confidence from the author of the "Imaro" stories is very cool. I had a great time writing the book, so I'm happy to see such incredible writers enjoyed reading it. Makes me even more hyped to get on the road again and start storytelling.

Still not convinced the book is aces? Just ask these people.

The launch party was a rip-roarin' good time. Good turn-out, read a little, drank a little. Many thanks go to Tomas Moniz, Madeleine Clifford and Carvell Wallace, who was a last-minute addition to the bill. Tomas read some of his poetry, as did Maddy, and Carvell read from a memoir. They're all powerful writers who say some real stuff and it was great to see them read again.

Prior to the event, much chillin' occurred.

Tomas Moniz (and my giant finger blocking the shot)

Every little bit helps

Mad Lines

This cake got demolished.

I read from "Assistant," which is not really the kind of story you read at a bar. It's my party and I'll read heavy Jim Crow era stuff if I want to. Thanks to everyone who came out. It was a lovely night.

Small press moment: Packing up party plates, plastic forks, Safeway napkins, a bag of nachos, a camera and tripod rented from school, a backpack full of books, and a cake that the goddamn people at Whole Foods did not box properly, but took two bottom parts of the box, held them together with stickers then told me I had to carry the shit from the bottom or else the cake would fall, then, once I had everything, politely asking my roommate to drive me to the bar in his recently fixed Toyota. After the reading, a good friend of mine helped me carry the stuff back to my house, the two of us doing our damnedest to conceal from the various night people that we had expensive equipment on us. He made the astute note that walking through Oakland is like a Super Mario game. "Okay, we got past the thugs. We got past the homebums. Oh shit, here's the skinheads. Whew, made it through. We keep it up and we'll get to Bowser's castle."

Sometimes when I do readings, people say: "You must feel like a rock star." And I honestly answer: "No, not really." Justin Beiber doesn't have to park in the middle of the lane with the blinkers on to unload a precariously packaged cake. I don't feel like a rock star. I am having fun, though.   

Joe Abercrombie

I'm practically salivating for Joe Abercrombie's new book The Heroes. He's risen to the top of the epic fantasy heap in a relatively short time, and it's easy to see why. People talk a lot about his cynicism, nihilism and negativity. I like how thoroughly unpretentious his work is. This is a guy who has graphic sex scenes where he writes out, phonetically, the sounds the characters make. I laugh myself silly reading his books. Also, he's a tremendous storyteller. His last one, Best Served Cold, was addictive. Abercrombie kept ramping up the dread, with adversaries gathering around his revenge-minded heroine, and her allies all ready to turn against her, and the heroine herself falling into drug addiction, until you just know things won't end well. I won't give a summary or spoilers for the book. Just go read it.

I did get a feeling that Abercrombie's dark world view might be painting him into a corner. In the First Law trilogy, the characters who try to do good are defeated, either by forces outside of their control or the fact that, well, they aren't really good at all. In Best Served Cold, only one character wants to do good, and by the end of the book he becomes a murderous sociopath. Harsh, yes. Brutal, yes. Realistic? Depends. Excessive darkness can be just as cartoonish as anything Tolkien wrote. Grit is fine but, as a reader, I kind of need someone to root for. It's interesting to think about the trajectory his work will take. His whole universe is based on the idea that everyone  are pawns in a rivalry between two megalomaniacal, ultra-powerful and straight up evil wizards. That's the way it's been, that's the way it will be, and changing this scenario would go against the "grit" of Abercrombie's world view. It will be intriguing to see if, down the line, he adds a ray of hope to his world, or if he actually finds a way to change things for the worse. I hear that The Heroes is not overly nihilistic (as his work tends to get sometimes), but simply realistic. I know it will be a great read. I can't wait to get my hands on it.

In a few weeks I'm going to see a favorite author of mine read in San Francisco. I have one wish: that when I meet her, my face stands still. I distinctly remember a time, not long ago, I went to a reading and the author I came to see was just sitting there by the bar signing books. I began to have a muscle spasm right above my lip, where I didn't even know there was a muscle. It had to be noticeable, since I could feel it go crazy when I touched it. So I went up to this author, looking like a woodpecker was trying to hammer its way out of my mouth. I couldn't stop it. She didn't care, but it's still embarrassing. Hopefully that won't happen this time. I hang around professional authors with some frequency, yet that "nervous fan syndrome" can still creep up.

Did I mention my book is on Amazon?  If you read and liked it, put up a review. All the sexy people are doing it. Also know that, for every time you log onto Amazon, I encourage you to log onto Wikileaks as well. Gotta have balance.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Lord of the Rings, the Jordan Miles case, the music I listened to on tour...

and my book launch last Saturday are all things I will blog about SOON. I just started another semester of grad school and have been neglecting my poor, fuzzy widdle blog here. I will update. Unitil then, rock out to the sounds of DRAGON GUARDIAN!

Love them.

Friday, January 21, 2011

It is finished

I've held it in my hand, and it's gorgeous.

Thanks to the Mike Madden writing group in Washington DC, for their invaluable critique on most of these stories.

The TerPoets open mic in College Park, MD, for community, for helping me develop my voice and giving me my first featured reading. It was at TerPoets where most of these stories were read for the first time. Special thanks go to my friend Henry Mills, who was always behind me.

The Cyberpunk Apocalypse writers' co-op in Pittsburgh, PA, for community and unique perspectives on these stories as I developed them.

The Berkeley Writers Circle in Berkeley, CA, for their help guiding me through the arduous revision process.

Six Gallery Press, for their belief in my writing. Particular thanks goes to Nathan for his tireless work on the second edition.

Rachel Dorrett, the illustrator, for her professionalism.

Dan McCloskey, cover artist and wingman, for his imagination.

Everyone who hosted me or came to see me read on tour.

All of my friends who were excited when I told them I wanted to write fantasy. You were instrumental in getting this book off the ground. Thank you all so much.

And to all those who inspired me to write in this genre, who let me know you could let your imagination run free and still say something that is true.
Now it's time to celebrate. The launch party is on January 22nd at The Layover, in Oakland, CA. See you there.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Chapter 41: In Which I Discuss My Favorite Backlash

The ins and outs of science fiction/fantasy fandom don't really interest me that much, simply because I cannot invest in them. There is no time for me to, say, go to a meeting for Joss Whedon fans and see what's new in the world of nerddom. Thus, I am usually thrown for a loop whenever I go to a con and see what is in that year. Usually, it doesn't interest me in the slightest. For instance, the paranormal romance genre has been huge for years. Badass chicks, their vampire boyfriends and werewolf exes, that kind of thing. Can't get into it. The urban fantasy I like is more akin to China Mieville, whose work is nothing like the average stuff you see shilled at cons (thank God).

The steampunk thing is big now. I saw all these people at Balticon last year dressed as "clockwork wenches" and "airship captains." Didn't think much of it, beyond mild irritation. Con attendees like to latch onto these fads (like the aforementioned paranormal romance) and drive them into the ground. It gives me the impression that the crowd is not really there to celebrate the great breadth that genre literature offers, but merely to indulge in these very niche fads. Again, it caused only mild irritation.

I don't know much about steampunk, i.e. the retro-future genre that presents advanced technology through the use of steampower (something that pretty much died after electricity was harnessed). A major component is the use of anachronistic tech. While steampunk has been used in shows like Wild West West, it's primarily a Victorian England-based genre, and I can see why people like it, because it enables them to dress in really fancy costumes. There's also an element of fun in creating the anachronisms steampunk presents. For my part, I really liked The Adventures of Brisco County Junior TV show, Chris Bachalo's Steampunk comic series from the 1990s and Katsuhiro Otomo's gorgeously mindless movie Steamboy. Seeing modern technology as filtered through the 19th century has a fun appeal, and I enjoyed the aforementioned properties with the same detachment I would for any genre that has produced no great works of art.

So it was interesting to find that there are people who hate steampunk.

Or rather, hate the adoration it has in fandom, with countless books being churned out about Victorian ladies with clockwork heart transplants and gear-driven cyborgs. Catherynne Valente did a wonderful trashing of the genre in a blog post last year, in which she points out the heavy colonialist undercurrents. I agree that watching a bunch of fanboys walk around dressed as the men who massacred the Zulus is disconcerting. Fuck the British Empire. Between sucking India dry, turning Africa into the mess it is today, murdering the Chinese because they refused to smoke opium, and sentencing their own poor to some of the worst working conditions human beings ever had to suffer, you'd be hard-pressed to find a bigger bunch of tyrants than Queen Victoria and her multitudinous spawn. According to Valente, this whole fad speaks to an interest in a "simpler time" with "nobles" and "ladies". In other words, the same kind of Eurocentric revisionist nonsense that led to the fantasy genre portraying the Dark Ages as a bucolic idyll, and championing monarchy, the worst form of government ever devised. Valente also hates the genre because it inspires lazy writing, the same as paranormal romance does.

And she's not the only one who has spoken out against it. These complaints seem to come primarily from the WisCon types, reflecting the changing face of genre from its notoriously white male dominated history. Half a century ago, Tolkien released Lord of the Rings, one of literature's great monarchist works. The entire trilogy is a paean to the glories of hereditary privilege. The thing was, at the time, there was nobody to point out to him how backwards this thinking was. There was nobody to emphasize why the Windsors, descendants of absolute monarchs, had become a ceremonial bunch of tax-wasters. Nobody raised a stink about the dubious politics.

Lord of the Rings is what it is. I don't like the trilogy more for its meandering plot and paper-thin characters than anything else; Tolkien was a man of his time, and his politics reflect this. However, he started an avalanche in fantasy fiction that lasted until, well, it never ended, with princes and princesses defending their lands against ravening dark-skinned hordes, while protecting the traditional heirarchy. The hero has to marry a princess, because God forbid he marry a regular woman. Farmboys  ascend to the throne, as if there's anything wrong with being a farmer. Fantasy is still rife with monarchist work because no one ever challenged the godfather of fantasy during its nascent phase.

With this in mind, I find it pretty amazing that somebody will raise a stink when they see a cosplayer wearing a pith helmet. For so many years, no one challenged the fetishizing of monarchy; now, people will challenge the fetishizing of colonialism. It means that the discourse in fandom has truly expanded to include marginalized people. Keep in mind, steampunk is a kind of historical fantasy. The seminal work of historical fantasy is a book where the South wins the Civil War. I don't know if your average steampunk nerd desires genocide anymore than I know if Harry Turtledove thinks slavery is a good thing, but hell yeah somebody should point out the oppression inherent in that.

I don't think steampunk is unsalvageable. Michael Moorcock wrote plenty of steampunk works which did not celebrate colonialism. A friend of mine is the founder of Steampunk Magazine, and he's a card-carrying anarchist, as are many others I know who like that aesthetic. Their interest seems to stem from a desire for a more rugged time; not a primativist world, but a pre-artificial intelligence world. A world where humans could build amazing things with their hands. And, of course, they like the gorgeous fashions. There is plenty of potential to write books about anachronistic technology that do not embrace oppression; a clockwork soldier could crush Buckingham Palace as easily as defend it. There is also the ability to write books that matter. The great steampunk novel has not been written, but it could be, and will probably be so good nobody will even think of it as steampunk. (Now that I think about it, that kind of sounds like His Dark Materials.)

Next month I'm reading at ConDor, a convention in San Diego. I'm excited. I have noticed that their list of possible panels is covered in steam. I'm interested to see whether this manifests as a harmless fashion thing, or something that would make me a lot more uncomfortable. Anyways, that is why the "I Hate Steampunk Brigade" is my favorite backlash. As Galadriel said it: "The world is changed."

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Chapter 40: In Which I Discuss New Developments

So, the assassination attempt in Arizona. The "liberal media" has been trying to turn this tragedy into an attack on conservatives and their, let's say, less than stellar political discourse. The Rush Limbaughs and Sarah Palins of the world have fired back, defending their right to spew hate speech, not even acknowledging that six people died. They're the victims here, in other words. I feel two ways about this:

1. Blaming this on conservative radio blowhards is strawman politics and complete BS. Individual responsibilty is huge and nobody made that asshole kill anyone but himself.

2. I'm glad somebody finally called them on their bullshit.

People like Glenn Beck and the other white millionares who stir hatrted are what we call "puppetmasters." Same as the rich planter aristocracy who supported the KKK from the 1860s until the 1980s. The whole point of their anti-immigrant, anti-people of color, hyper-militant bile is to stir up their base through fear. Its an old game: the rich manipulate the poor in order to protect their wealth. That's how you get stuff like poor white people bursting into town hall meetings, yelling and screaming and bullying and defending their right to not have healthcare. Fifty years from now, people are going to look at this period in time and laugh at the fact that that ever happened.

Again, this idiot is responsible for his own actions. However, your average conservative millionaire wouldn't mind if some whacko took a shot at Obama, just like they're completely nonplussed about the people who got killed and maimed in Arizona. I always find myself of two minds about things. Blaming others for anyone's individual decision is stupid. Still, it's good that somebody is finally on the warpath against these people. The only folks I can recall standing up to Limbaugh in recent history were, of all people, pampered NFL stars. He wanted to buy a football team, and the players actually said "No, we will not work for this racist." Please keep it coming. Please. The wealthy control the media and use it to target real people (Muslims and Latinos, as recent examples). I always like seeing a counter-strike.

The Jack Daniels Sessions EP

is on its way. I want a good look at it before posting it on Amazon, but we're looking at getting the copies within the next five days. By the next time you hear from me, the book will be in my hands.

Pittsburgh/The 60s

I am back home in Pittsburgh, taking care of some business. It's great. Seeing the hills and valleys all covered in snow still takes my breath away. I've been using this time to do research for three writing projects, all of which take place in the Steel City. One is a novella tentatively called "Queens of the Emerald Palace." Another is my upcoming podcast project, "Fort Liberty." The third is the dos-a-dos project I'm working on, for which I've been perusing circa-1970 yearbooks and newspaper clippings from Carnegie Mellon University, trying to educate myself about the college during this period.

One thing is certain: I have to write a series about the 1960s. One of my longterm goals is to do a trilogy centered around the '60s called the American Fairy Tales Trilogy. The '60s are an intriguing time in U.S. history that nobody seems to actually understand, and these yearbooks enforce that for me. Social upheaval was on everybody's minds. Everybody was talking about the Vietnam War. Everybody was talking about the rights of black people. CMU students were busy debating the worth of college in general, and the spectre of war is hanging over everything, with so many young men knowing their lottery number could be called. These newspaper articles are rife with fear and anger and uncertainty.

Dick Gregory wrote an essay around 1970 (by the way, an awesome one) about how the student is the "new nigger," with universities as plantations and profs as slave masters. The editors of The Tartan engaged in real dialect with this essay. Several issues featured editorials about it, and the word "nigger" was used a lot. And casually. This speaks to a time when the questioning of the status quo was so widespread that Dick Gregroy's article could affect many college students on a personal level. Nowadays, not a lot of people would care about it. I had to laugh when reading these editorials, because, when I was in college, The Tartan used the nigger-word in a comic strip and got in a lot of trouble. There was an outcry and the newspaper shut down for the rest of the year. Times change. The 2004 Tartan's use of nigger was in a post-modern, hipster racism bullshit kind of way with, like, a cartoon duck saying it for shock value or something. In 1970, not only could you bandy that word around casually in a college paper but *gasp* you could use it to actually have a dialogue about the world around you. Again, this time period is fascinating.

Also, I find the spectre of Vietnam intriguing. Ten years in, CMU students were pissed off about the war, and you can really feel their resentment. Baby boomers get a lot of flack for being a generation of selfish and narcissistic people. I don't know what makes them so inferior to, say, the American generation that enslaved black people or the one that was killing each other over poker games in Dodge City. Stir the pot of American history and you'll see plenty of excrement rise to the surface. Yes, the boomers dropped the ball, particularly in their dedication to social movements. However, people forget that this was a generation of men who were enslaved as disposable cannon fodder by their own parents. My generation doesn't even have to think about Iraq and Afghanistan, and the majority of us don't. That's some war on the other side of the world, fought by guys we never meet. My father's generation had a draft. They had to fight or go to prison. I wonder how they processed that level of disrespect and disregard. It had to have been hard. Having your life used so cheaply might make you become a drug addict. It might interest you in cheap and disposable sex. It might make you selfish. It might make you say fuck it, snort a bunch of coke in the 80s and buy a minivan, because you made it through America's War on Youth so hell yeah you're going to get your's when the time comes. These people were a slave army. Anybody born after that time cannot comprehend such a thing.

I'm going to write about it.

Anyways, I'm enjoying Pittsburgh. It's always good to be home.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Chapter 39: In Which I Discuss Books

Today I am flying back to Pittsburgh, PA. I'm excited. There was never a time when I didn't want to return to the Steel City, or thought it wasn't my home. It's home for me. When I fly back to the Bay, I will have copies of the brand new second edition I've been talking about so much, just in time for the book launch.

What book launch, you ask?

Saturday, January 22, 2011, 6:30pm-8:30pm, at The Layover, a music bar and lounge. There will be readings. There will be cake. The bar will have beer, if that is your fancy. And there will be copies of the second edition. The venue owners want me to stress that this is a 21 and over event. So don't bring any infants. They always cry through readings anyway.

So far, I have Madeleine Clifford lined up to read. She's an MC out of Seattle and a fellow Millsie (Millsite? Millsian?). Her poetry's amazing. Here's her full bio.

Madeleine Clifford hails from Seattle, Washington and is an outspoken artivist (artist + activist). She uses the mediums of page poetry, spoken word and hip hop lyricism to motivate  people to reflect, process and hone their passion—whatever it may be.  During her undergraduate career, Madeleine traveled to South Africa and developed an after school empowerment program for girls in a Port Elizabeth township school.  Her poem, “The Art of Loving,” was published in The Black Scholar. She also presented her thesis concerning issues of female representation in hip hop at the Ronald E. McNair research symposium in 2009.  Last year, she interned for Powerful Voices, conducted a poetry workshop series at the Garfield Teen Life Center while helping to orchestrate Seattle’s first annual Girlvolution conference.   As one half of the dynamic rap duo, Canary Sing, Madeleine has performed at hundreds of venues from bars to festival stages; the group has also released two EPs with more amazing music in the works.  Madeleine currently lives in Oakland, California and attends Mills College where she is working towards an MFA in Poetry.

Whew. Maddy does a great live performance and it's good to have her onboard. Did I mention admission is free? There's enough stuff in the Bay that costs a ton of money. Come and hang out.


Lately I've been trying to speed write. A lot of this has to do with the dos-a-dos project I am working on right now, which we're aiming to release this year. It doesn't come naturally to me. Even my Christmas card, which was finished entirely in December, was written in installments over several weeks. I like to give stories time to settle before going back to them. Yet now I am trying my hand at increasing my output. I'll see how it goes, but don't think I will make it a habit.

Good writing is a process. The only way to discover what is special about your writing project is time. Junot Diaz took 11 years to write Oscar Wao. I don't know what his writing process is, but I doubt he came up with every element at the same time. I think he gradually discovered the use of Dominican history, and the melding of language, and the idiosyncracies of the different characters. That's where the 11 years came from. No matter how much planning goes into a piece, you discover new things about it as you go along. A good writer follows these threads. Maybe they lead somewhere, maybe they don't, but the exploration of them takes time.

This leads me, in a roundabout way, to George R.R. Martin. Like many fans, I have read the sparse updates on A Dance with Dragons. It seems that Martin has done a lot of rewriting on this particular book, with plot snags leading to multiple drafts and continual delays. Five years ago this aggravated me. Now it thrills me. Even with all the pressure to create a product, Martin is still approaching his books as a writer. He is taking chances, creating ideas, scrapping them, falling on his face and continuing on, seeing where the story goes. When A Dance with Dragons finally comes out, it will be the best possible book the author could make. I can't wait to read it. But I will wait.

The whole advent of multiple-volume series has done a lot to deplete fantasy's standing as literature. How could it not, when the market is flooded with semi-edited books? How could it not, when writers are compelled to think of their books as a product? One of my old favorites, Lin Carter, was an entertaining and prolific writer, but he was not a great writer. He did not write literature. Martin is trying to write something honest, true, and well-thought out. I commend him for not buckling under the pressure to deliver a product.

I have a story called "The Elvis Room." I started writing it in Spain in January 2008, and it is still far from done after three years. I have workshopped it, read it on tour, submitted it one or two places, even considered putting it in the collection. I'm glad I didn't. With every rewrite, the characters become clearer, the story gains depth, the world of it takes shape. In 3 years, no draft of this story has ever gone longer than 31 pages. I feel the story has benefitted most from the process I've taken in writing it.

See you in Pittsburgh.