Victoria Waddle

Under the Spell of the Inland Author’s Imagination: Nalo Hopkinson Taps the Speculative and the Supernatural

I’m not one for making New Year’s resolutions; not anymore that is. But in the last five years, as each year ends, I’ve picked out a few things that I’m curious about to see if, throughout the year, I can follow that curiosity wherever it takes me. This is a joyful experience, and I’m glad that authors have recently written books encouraging this practice. (A few good ones are: A Curious Mind by Brian Grazer and Charles Fishman, and Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert.)

My journey on the road of inquiry took a turn backward at the end of 2015. I decided I would treat myself to audio versions of old myths and epics I’d read back in college English courses. I listened to “Gilgamesh,” an ancient Sumerian epic about grief and mortality; “Beowulf,” the old English epic about the Danes and their struggle with the monster Grendel; and “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” a short symbolic tale of a knight in King Arthur’s court. I don’t know why I am now drawn to humankind’s need to slay dragons, but the tales were all as fantastical as I remembered them.

Just as I finished the epics, I read “All Stories are the Same,” an article in The Atlantic which discusses the ongoing fictional battles between people and creatures. Author John Yorke concludes with, “In stories throughout the ages there is one motif that continually recurs–the journey into the woods to find the dark but life-giving secret within.”

When we become interested in something, it pops up everywhere. For Christmas, my son gave me a copy of The Book of Imaginary Beings, Jorge Luis Borges’s compendium of imaginary creatures. Of course, there are centaurs, dragons, elves, and angels. But Borges also includes more recent literary creatures from Kafka and C. S. Lewis. His description of H. G. Wells’s Eloi and Morlocks from The Time Machine, drove me to wonder: who, in the Inland Empire, is imagining such creatures now?

In venturing into the supernatural woods, I stumbled upon Nalo Hopkinson, a professor of creative writing at UC Riverside. Two of her stories appear in Dark Matter: A Century of Speculative Fiction from the African Diaspora, edited by Sheree R. Thomas (2000). “Greedy Choke Puppy” is the story of a soucouyant, a sort of Caribbean female vampire who removes her skin at night and changes into a ball of fire, searching for babies whose blood she can suck. “Ganger (Ball Lightning)” is the story of a couple who uses a technologically-enhanced second skin for fulfillment, but who find themselves fighting the life-threatening consequences.

In the more recent Unnatural Creatures: Stories Selected by Neil Gaiman (2013), Hopkinson’s story is “The Smile on the Face.” The title has its source in the limerick “The Lady of Niger,” lines of which are interspersed throughout the tale. In it, teenager Gilla is bored with a school reading assignment that includes the story of the laidly worm that ate St. Margaret. Gilla’s mum tells her that the story shows that St. Margaret was a hamadryad, a female spirit whose soul resides in a tree. Later, Gilla fearfully walks past a scary cherry tree in her yard while on the way to a party with her best friend. Gilla is ashamed of her blossoming body and large breasts. At the party, a particular boy openly ridicules her and becomes a true threat, but Gilla has swallowed the pit of a cherry from the tree in the yard. She discovers the powerful spirit of both dragon and tree within her.

Having enjoyed these stories, I bought Hopkinson’s most recent collection of short fiction Falling in Love with Hominids (2015). Of the three stories above, only “The Smile on the Face” is repeated. But the creatures of Hopkinson’s imagination abound. In the opening story “Easthound,” Millie believes that she has brought a pandemic to the world simply by misreading the word ‘eastbound’ and transforming the direction into a nightmare world where children hide from adults and fear growing up. As a character in “Message in a Bottle” says, “Human beings, we’re becoming increasingly post-human,” and the result is often terrifying. Other stories have teens who transform into human-water snakes, an elephant that appears in a living room, a child who is a magical granter of wishes. There’s a very different shaggy dog story in which fauna and flora commingle. Hopkinson reimagines Caliban and Ariel from Shakespeare’s “Tempest.” Her trees, tired of freezing weather, take flight. The story I most enjoyed for its sense of Mardi Gras magic about to collide with impending evil was “Ours is the Prettiest,” written as Hopkinson participated in a shared-world anthology, the Bordertown series.

In his introduction to Unnatural Creatures, Neil Gaiman writes, “I liked animals who existed in a more shadowy way even more than I liked the real ones. . . because they were impossible, because they might or might not exist, because simply thinking about them made the world a more magical place.” Hopkinson–who is local by way of Jamaica with a detour into Canada–takes us into the woods she inhabits with her shadowy creatures, making our world that more magical place.

Neglected California Tale Is a Must-Read by Victoria Waddle

My local library had added an adult reading program to its menu of summer kids’ programs. Always supportive, I had shown up ready to list the many books I was reading. Just before I started to fill in the participation form with Sedaris’ “When You are Engulfed in Flames,” the librarian mentioned that the staff had chosen to give the adult program a theme. The children’s program was about ‘bugs’ and the teen program was about ‘metamorphosis.’ Adult program participants would read books connected to California in some way.

Still wanting to be supportive, I figured I’d jot down the titles of the John Steinbeck novels I’d read. “When you finish the first book, you get a free DVD rental,” the library lady quipped, handing me the coupon. Now I was in a quandary. I hadn’t read the Steinbeck books over the summer—not even in the last several years in fact—and I wasn’t one to accept a reward for something I hadn’t done.

“Let me see what I can come up with,” I told her, but dreaded adding a book to my already long summer reading list just to follow the program rules. There were so many good books at home already!

A few days later, in one of the loveliest moments of serendipity in my life, a friend handed me a birthday gift. Not just any friend, but one whose core sympathies so deeply parallel my own that I not only trust her judgment and taste; I skip her advice at my own peril. “Read this book,” she said. “You have to read this book.”

And I did read Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner. Despite the fact that Stegner won the Pulitzer Prize for the novel, I had never heard of it. It was an old book by now—published in 1971—but reissued as a Penguin Classic. Stegner published many fine books and won the National Book Award as well as three O. Henry prizes for short fiction and the Robert Kirsch Award from the Los Angeles Times for lifetime literary achievement. Nonetheless, Angle of Repose is considered his finest work.

It seems to me that the book’s jacket blurb does little to interest the reader in buying the title. ‘A man looks into his grandmother’s past in California.’ So what? It is the very personal past of the grandmother—her desperate efforts to follow her husband through his California scheming and his moves through unpopulated areas as he works to develop irrigation systems and other infrastructure that the state isn’t quite ready for—that hooks the reader. Through letters to her friends ‘back East,’ the grandmother, Susan Burling, makes apologies for her husband, laments being removed from culture and society, longs for good books and her family.

Susan’s story is framed by the narrator’s own life. Lyman Ward is an old man himself with a degenerative bone disease that has left him crippled and wheelchair bound. His wife of many years left him while he was hospitalized and his adult children think he is going senile because he wishes to be alone in the Grass Valley home of his grandparents to sort through his grandmother’s letters and to write his grandparents’ history.

The narrator’s grandmother is based on Mary Hallock Foote, a nineteenth-century writer and illustrator. Stegner received permission from Foote’s descendants to publish some of her letters in his book (although the family later accused him of plagiarism). The passion of these unaltered letters gives the book an insight into the crucible of a married woman’s life that would otherwise have been missing. It is moving to see how deeply this nineteenth-century marriage, with all its problems, parallels twenty-first century relationships and the issues that plague them. That Susan’s creative life and spirit continually support the family with income from her work—while her husband’s work fails–is ironic considering that the life she and her husband are living is hardly the kind that one would expect to nurture her creativity. And yet Susan is able to capture local color throughout California and in Mexico—sending her work to her publishing friends in the East, who know there is a market for the exotic tales and illustrations.

One of the men who is an employee and trusted friend of Susan’s husband has the misfortune to fall in love with her. Considering the turmoil of her marriage to a taciturn engineer, it would seem natural that Susan return his affection. And yet these are decent people with high moral principles. Veering from them—or even thinking of veering from them—can only lead to tragedy. And it does. As the narrator Lyman Ward explores this, he considers the role of forgiveness in his own marriage.

The editors of the Modern Library have chosen Angle of Repose as one of the ‘one hundred best books of the twentieth century.’ Trust them. Trust me—a fellow bibliophile. Read this book. You have to read this book.

Note: October is California Writers’ Month. If you haven’t had a chance to celebrate by reading a Californian author, there’s still time!

On Glen Hirshberg’s Motherless Child by Victoria Waddle

Glen Hirshberg is a Shirley Jackson Award winner as well as a three-time International Horror Guild Award winner. Motherless Child makes clear why he has been thus honored.

I might have passed up this October must-read except that I was familiar with the author as a short story writer. And I might have missed those stories except that I often seek writers who are connected to the Inland Empire in some way. Previously, Hirshberg was a professor of fiction at Cal State San Bernardino and helped to launch the MFA program there.

It’s not often that readers have the joy of finding genre fiction of literary quality. Add to that a vampire who uses his Twitter base to hunt his prey and this tight piece of writing (it’s well under 300 pages) is a great read for any horror fan, teens included.

Bad girl Natalie doesn’t immediately realize that her wild night with pop singer The Whistler and best friend Sophie has done her damage forever. That’s really forever rather than a lifetime; she has been turned into a vampire. The Whistler hopes to make Natalie his eternal companion. As he sees it, she is his Destiny. He turns Sophie just to give Natalie someone to hang with while she figures out what has happened to them both, while they finish their transformation.

When Natalie does realize what has happened to her and Sophie, both women give their babies to Natalie’s mother with instructions to take off and never let the women know where she has gone with the children. The ensuing loneliness and desire would be enough to keep the reader charmed, but when ‘Mother’–the woman who turned The Whistler–figures out that her eternal companion hopes to forsake her for another, she is having none of it. Mother is amoral, cunning, willful, and violent. In the midst of all the grief and longing, we are thrust into spine-tingling episodes and suspenseful cat and mouse chases.

Not your typical vampire book, Motherless Child is about many things, and most surprisingly–if you allow the title to color your guesses about the nature of the book–it is a book about the ferocity of mother love, its limitless nature.

Through well-drawn characters and continual suspense, Hirshberg pulls the reader in quickly and never lets go. With the story very nearly concluded, he manages a final plot twist that both shocks the reader and leaves the reader deeply satisfied.

A sequel, Good Girls, is coming in February 2016. I’ll leave the light on.

Everyone has to Grow Up Sometime by Victoria Waddle

With the flap over Harper Lee’s new book Go Set a Watchman still simmering among readers I know, I have to admit that I’m surprised at how virulently both professional reviewers and ordinary lovers of To Kill a Mockingbird hated the fact that Go Set a Watchman finally made it into print.

Sure, it’s not the example of craftsmanship that To Kill a Mockingbird is. But then, in the last few months it’s been well established that it was an early draft of that novel, one that is set some eighteen years after those hot summer days of the Great Depression when Atticus stood up against his friends and relations in the fictional town of Maycomb, Alabama to defend an African American man against rape charges.

Like many people of my generation, I was worried about reading the story of a lesser Atticus. A few years ago, during the years-long fiftieth anniversary celebration of the publication of To Kill a Mockingbird, I was in the independent bookstore Bookshop Santa Cruz and saw a bumper sticker for sale: “What would Atticus do?” That this is practically blasphemy in the comparison of Atticus to Jesus didn’t matter. I loved it and bought multiple copies, distributing it to some of my favorite English teacher buddies.

So I found it ironic that in Go Set a Watchman, Jean Louise Finch asks the very question “What would Atticus do?” The answer is not what Jean Louise had hoped he would–and not what all the folks with images of Gregory Peck standing in the courthouse, worn out from Tom Robinson’s defense, had hoped for either. (If you are over forty, Gregory Peck is so melded in your mind with Atticus Finch that you can’t even pretend they are different people.)

So what if Harper Collins manufactured a fake literary event? People are free to respond as they see fit. There was no order that readers rush to get the book at midnight of its publication date. Take away the ‘New Harper Lee Book Discovered!’ nonsense, and I’m glad that Go Set a Watchman was published. It’s a great example of how a pretty decent book becomes a great book in the hands of a great editor.

The best parts of Go Set A Watchman are not those that are causing controversy, but rather Jean Louise’s reminiscences of her girlhood (as ‘Scout,’ of course) and the author’s beautiful evocation of small town Southern life in Maycomb. It is easy to see an editor reading the manuscript and pointing out these passages to Lee. “Here’s your story. Write it.” Anyone who is a writer–whose secret desire is to become a published author–would do well to read both books and note how completely the story changes. That so much work went into a manuscript that the author had considered fully realized may give the struggling writer the faith to press on, to discover the heart of her story and start again.

For junior high and high school students, reading Go Set a Watchman just before reading To Kill a Mockingbird would provide an excellent opportunity to understand why their teachers require several drafts of important papers and why they are taught to peer edit one another’s work. Besides the clear superiority of the sections of Go Set a Watchman that deal with Scout’s childhood, there is a lesson in the mess that Jean Louise tries to sort out about her father’s views of race and segregation. Lee turns rather long speeches about ideology into dialogue, a mistake that writing teachers refer to as ‘info dumps.’

The info dumps containing views on the NAACP and whether the South is ready in the 1950’s to be fully integrated are now historical arguments–and Jean Louise’s father, aunt, and uncle all land on the wrong side of history. These ideological issues are the trigger that forces Jean Louise to see her father as a man and not some sort of infallible god. We readers of To Kill a Mockingbird, like Jean Louise, are unhappy to be disillusioned with Atticus. Too bad. A break with a parent’s conscience and the formation of one’s own is a necessary ritual of coming into adulthood. It, too, is an important lesson for teens to derive from the books they read. For those of us adults who want too much to cling to an idea of Atticus as the father we all wish we had guiding us through life–well, it’s never too late to realize that our conscience and our actions are in our own hands.

Swapping Stories by Victoria Waddle

To paraphrase bestselling author Jane Smiley, you either love the work or the rewards, and life is a lot easier if you love the work. In her either/or construct, I believe Smiley meant ‘money’ when she said ‘rewards.’ Hers is a truth any author understands because, despite Smiley’s own financial success, there’s not much in the way of monetary rewards in the world of literature.

I’ve always been compelled to write and have found joy in the process. Yet as I make my final edits on a novel, I am questioning the either/or construct of work and rewards as it relates to writers. A delight of having my short stories published in journals has been the thought that, finally, someone will read them. To fabricate a world inhabited by characters of the imagination, to sweat through drafts of refining that world, is to answer to a passion. The ultimate goal of writing fiction is not to be published (with the possibility of its monetary reward)—that’s just the means to the goal. To connect with a reader is the actual reward a writer seeks; to find someone else to inhabit her world and share her passion. Achieved, it makes both life and the work a lot easier.

The problem for the serious writer in making connections with readers is that there are just too many others trying to do the same thing. Full-time promotion of one’s work on social networking sites appears to be a necessity. I’ve noticed when joining any online readers’ group, there’s always a caveat to members: don’t expect to promote your book here unless you’re willing to promote others. I have no issue with promoting the writing of others. I’ve maintained a book review blog for several years; as a teacher librarian, I spend many evening hours reading others’ work. When I feel that a writer has made a connection with me, I buy multiple copies of the book and chat it up to students, hoping to create new fans for the author.

The problem with the culture of author self-promotion is that book groups now appear to be more about trading favors than they are about reading. They remind me of the ‘independent consultants’ that I so often find among friends and colleagues. They invite you to a party—but not really. They want to sell you their products—kitchen gadgets that you’ll never use, fingernail wraps that you won’t bother to apply, candles never to be lit. I think that those who go to such parties are those that expect repayment in purchases when they have their own ‘parties.’ No one actually cares about any of this stuff; they are just trading favors. I imagine that few of the many book trades among authors actually result in novels being enjoyed, worlds mutually inhabited.

Immediately after I joined several reading groups, I began to receive notices from self-published writers that I should buy, read and review their work. Some of these appeared to be from authors who really were trying to connect with the right readers. Other messages were just spam. I also received promises of reviews of my ‘published ebook on Amazon’ which ‘looked like a high quality ebook.’ Lest one wonder why she should pay for such a review, one sender leaves the author to ponder: ‘Do you want a quality ebook reviewer or would you rather settle for a mediocre review from someone who doesn’t even know how to write a book review to begin with?’

I started to wonder how any of us could avoid becoming poet Emily Dickinson’s frog—the dreary “somebody” who publically tells “one’s name–the livelong June–/To an admiring Bog!” However, since I don’t actually have an ebook on Amazon, and the offers of quality reviews were just more spam, the question of a mediocre review didn’t keep me up at night.

No. I slept and dreamt about my real worry: how will I ever make an honest connection with readers? Dreaming, I was among adults who were behaving as exuberant children, jumping through puddles of black ink. I wasn’t interested in joining, but when I looked in the mirror, I saw that I had the telltale sign of my own childhood—a bridge of freckles across my cheeks and nose. Surprised at its reappearance, I wondered how I could cover it up since freckles on a grown woman are considered flaws. Looking closer, I saw that on a microscopic level, every freckle was made up of words—each, in fact, was a story. I was delighted.

I awoke not having any better idea how to avoid the author book-trading game. But I’m hoping to find others who are willing to look closely. And find that they, too, have story written all over them.