Facebooking Hawai’i

No time/energy to post in multiple places, so for the next few days I’ll be mostly on Facebook, where I’m liveblogging (livestatusing?) my research trip to the Big Island of Hawai’i. You can see photos from today’s hike across Kilauea. Tomorrow’s menu includes a helicopter tour of the active lava flows, and hopefully a visit to the Mauna Kea observatory (depending on whether my rental car can handle the drive). Friday is assorted debauchery with Kate Elliott, as we get up to whatever shenanigans two wild fantasy-writing women can get up to and stay legal. Saturday’s anything-goes day, and then I go home.

Anyway, if you want to Facebook-friend me, friend away. I generally don’t post personal/family stuff on my Facebook page (mostly because I don’t want Facebook to OWN MY SOUL but also because it’s there purely for me to babble randomly at anybody who cares to read it. Might take me awhile to accept your friend request, though; sorry in advance. Busy climbing mountains.

And then it hits me.

This is where I’m going:

Kilauea at dawn, photo by Volcanodiscovery on Flickr

Kilauea at dawn, photo by Volcanodiscovery on Flickr

Off to Hawaii to research the coolest stuff ever. Back in a few days.

So, yeah. This happened.

Nebula nomination number three, for The Kingdom of Gods.

I found out on Friday, if you’re wondering why I’m so calm about this; had time to go out and celebrate with friends, recover from the hangover, and cool down over the last few days. But I’m still kinda ¡holyshit! about it, just more quietly so.

I totally wasn’t expecting it. Yeah, it’s common for the third thing of a trilogy to get nominated for the Oscars, and stuff like that, but I don’t think it’s particularly common in SFF. Also, I knew there was really good stuff out there to compete against this year — some of which I’ve read and raved about here. (Congrats, Genevieve!) Besides, I got nominated for fricking everything last year; the warmfuzzy of that still lingers. I was content to let it glow for awhile without trying to stoke up the fires again.

But, well, wow. Awed doesn’t begin to cover how I’m feeling right now. Seriously. Thanks to everyone who voted, and… yeah. Wow.

The Inheritance Trilogy: The Roleplaying Game?

woman wearing a t-shirt with RPG stats, from Zazzle.comNow, don’t get all excited. Nobody’s offered or expressed any interest whatsoever in creating a game out of the Inheritance Trilogy. It’s just that a fan mentioned the idea on Twitter, and it intrigued me, so I’m bringing the question here:

How would an RPG based on the Inheritance Trilogy work?

For now, let’s go with tabletop RPGs rather than a video game. Not that the idea of a Squeenix or Atlus take on 100K wouldn’t thrill me — ohholycrapyesitwould — but there’s so many ways for games like that to be formulated. Tabletops, though, are a little more strict. They need rules, stats, procedures.

And how on earth would someone apply that kind of quantitative rigor to a character like, oh, Nahadoth? His stats would change on a constant basis. The act of attempting to write down his stats would be a defiance of his nature and cause warps in the fabric of reality. The game would have to account for this by making changes to every other character, creature, and setting’s stats. And what about a character who’s elontid (the category of godlings whose nature fluxes and wanes — e.g., Lil, the goddess of hunger, who responds to the desires of everyone around her)? Their stats would vary depending on the context. It would be a numerical nightmare.

…But maybe my thinking on this is too limited. After all, I’ve never tried to create an RPG before, and have no idea what the process might involve. So I’ll throw this out to you. If you were making an RPG out of any of the books of the Inheritance Trilogy, how would you do it?

Not 100,000 Kingdoms, but quite a few

Just got another foreign rights offer! This one’s not signed yet, and I try not to talk about them until they are, but altogether The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is now available or will soon be available in a remarkable number of countries and languages. This is not an exhaustive list (because I’m doing it from memory; always a risky venture), but thus far the book has sold to:

  • Most English-speaking countries (Not sure about India; I’m a little fuzzy on whether everyone in the Commonwealth can buy from UK sellers. Frex Australia can — sometimes — and Canada can’t. It gets messy.)
  • Most Spanish-speaking countries
  • France (not Francophone countries to my knowledge, just in France)
  • Germany
  • Taiwan
  • Macao
  • Hong Kong (not mainland China, alas — traditional Chinese, not simplified)
  • Japan
  • Poland
  • Czechoslovakia

Nothing in the Middle East or Africa yet, but I have hope. And note that most of the above are print rights (occasionally ebook, no audio except English) and generally just for the first book of the trilogy, although some of the foreign publishers have come back to purchase rights for the latter books too. It all depends on whether the first book does well in the publisher’s country.

One of the things I didn’t understand when I first became a published author was how important foreign rights sales could be. This is one of the reasons why any author trying to get published should first seek a good agent, IMO, and ideally an agent that has an established relationship with lots of foreign rights agents. Many publishers ask for world rights, but then lack the infrastructure, translators, or contacts to actually publish in most other countries. By selling rights separately to publishers who are actually in those countries, there’s a much greater chance of the book actually coming out in multiple languages and markets. And the author might even make more money than if they sold the rights as a “whole world” package.

Not that we’re talking about a lot of money, note. Most foreign publishers are small, and there aren’t a ton of people willing to buy American fantasy novels in other countries. If I’m lucky I make (after agent fees; I do have to pay the foreign agents too, but it’s worth it since I wouldn’t be making the sale otherwise) an advance of a few hundred dollars on each foreign sale; if I’m luckier I’ll get royalties in a few months (or years). But considering it costs me nothing in effort to make these sales — the book’s already written, after all, and I don’t have to translate it — and in exchange I get the chance to build a readership all over the world? For somebody like me, who’s hoping for a long-term career in this business, retaining and selling foreign rights is absolutely crucial.

And no, if you’re wondering, I don’t get to see most of these books, nor do I have any input on how they’re marketed (except in rare cases). But it’s enough for me to know the text, translated or not, is being read all over the world.

So let’s hope for more! More Kingdoms! Ha ha ha!

Dreaming Awake

Explanatory note: This is an essay I wrote for the forthcoming anthology The Miseducation of the Writer — essays by writers of color on genre literature — to be edited by Maurice Broaddus, John Edward Lawson, and Chesya Burke. I’ll keep you posted on deets as they come.

Long ago, in the time before now, black people were all kings and queens.

This is not true.


There is a strange emptiness to life without myths.

I am African American — by which I mean, a descendant of slaves, rather than a descendant of immigrants who came here willingly and with lives more or less intact. My ancestors were the unwilling, unintact ones: children torn from parents, parents torn from elders, people torn from roots, stories torn from language. Past a certain point, my family’s history just… stops. As if there was nothing there.

I could do what others have done, and attempt to reconstruct this lost past. I could research genealogy and genetics, search for the traces of myself in moldering old sale documents and scanned images on microfiche. I could also do what members of other cultures lacking myths have done: steal. A little BS about Atlantis here, some appropriation of other cultures’ intellectual property there, and bam! Instant historically-justified superiority. Worked great for the Nazis, new and old. Even today, white people in my neck of the woods call themselves “Caucasian”, most of them little realizing that the term and its history are as constructed as anything sold in the fantasy section of a bookstore.

These are proven strategies, but I have no interest in them. They’ll tell me where I came from, but not what I really want to know: where I’m going. To figure that out, I make shit up.


Not so long ago, at the dawn of the New World, black people were saved from ignorance in darkest Africa by being brought into the light of the West.

This is bullshit.


When I was a child, my parents tried hard to give me a mythology.

I read every book they gave me. Why Mosquitoes Buzz in People’s Ears (Verna Aardema) was a favorite. I voluntarily devoured volumes of Egyptian myths alongside the Greek and Roman mythology I was being shovel-fed in school. I eventually looked up the origins of my middle name — Keita — and discovered the half-mythic, half-real tale of Sundiata Keita, who might well have been counted among my ancestors.

Probably not. But my parents wanted me to be able to dream, and they knew that myths matter.

They knew this because they had been raised in the days when people like us were assumed to have no mythology, and no history worth knowing. Instead they were fed a new, carefully-constructed mythology: our ancestors were supposedly semi-animal creatures that spent all their time swinging around in the jungle until they were captured and humanized by lash and firebrand and rape. This shamed my parents — as such myths are meant to do. Generations before and including them wondered: if they truly came from such crude origins, did they have any right to want something more for themselves than powerlessness and marginalization? My parents’ generation was the first to really confront the lies in these myths, so I don’t blame them for trying to give me something better.

But as I grew older, I began to realize: the stories my parents had given me weren’t my myths, either. Not wholly, not specifically. My father has spent the past few years researching our genealogy. As far as he has been able to determine, I am many parts African, most of it probably from the western coast of the continent, though in truth we’ll probably never know. But I am also several parts American Indian — Creek/Muscogee that we know, some others that we don’t — and at least one part European. That component is probably Scots-Irish; we don’t know for sure because nobody talks about it. But that’s just the genetics. The culture in which I was reared, along the Gulf Coast of the United States, added components of Spanish and French to the mix. And the culture I’ve since adopted — New York, New York, big city of dreams — is such a stew of components that there’s no point in trying to extricate any one thing from the mass.

And no point in trying to apply any single mythology. I have nothing. I have everything. I am whatever I wish to be.


Very long ago, in the ancient days of the world, black people were created when Noah was sodomized by Ham, his son. In retaliation, Noah cursed all Ham’s descendants to be servants of servants for all eternity.

This is… I don’t even know what the hell this is.


J. R. R. Tolkien, the near-universally-hailed father of modern epic fantasy, crafted his magnum opus The Lord of the Rings to explore the forces of creation as he saw them: God and country, race and class, journeying to war and returning home. I’ve heard it said that he was trying to create some kind of original British mythology using the structure of other cultures’ myths, and maybe that was true. I don’t know. What I see, when I read his work, is a man trying desperately to dream.

Dreaming is impossible without myths. If we don’t have enough myths of our own, we’ll latch onto those of others — even if those myths make us believe terrible or false things about ourselves. Tolkien understood this, I think because it’s human nature. Call it the superego, call it common sense, call it pragmatism, call it learned helplessness, but the mind craves boundaries. Depending on the myths we believe in, those boundaries can be magnificently vast, or crushingly tight.

Throughout my life as I’ve sought to become a published writer of speculative fiction, my strongest detractors and discouragers have been other African Americans. These were people who had, like generations before them, bought into the mythology of racism: black people don’t read. Black people can’t write. Black people have no talents other than singing and dancing and sports and crime. No one wants to read about black people, so don’t write about them. No one wants to write about black people, which is why you never see a black protagonist. Even if you self-publish, black people won’t support you. And if you aim for traditional publication, no one who matters — that is, white people — will buy your work.

(A corollary of all this: there is only black and white. Nothing else matters.)

Having swallowed these ideas, people regurgitated them at me at nearly every turn. And for a time, I swallowed them, too. As a black woman, I believed I wasn’t supposed to be a writer. Simultaneously I believed I was supposed to write about black people — and only black people. And only within a strictly limited set of topics deemed relevant to black people, because only black people would ever read anything I’d written. Took me years after I started writing to create a protagonist who looked like me. And then once I started doing so, it took me years to write a protagonist who was something different.

Myths tell us what those like us have done, can do, should do. Without myths to lead the way, we hesitate to leap forward. Listen to the wrong myths, and we might even go back a few steps.


Throughout history, all over this world, black people have been scholars and inventors, hard workers on whose backs more than one nation was built.

This is true, but not the whole truth.


After my parents divorced, I spent every summer visiting my father in New York. We spent every night of those summers watching Star Trek (the original series) and The Twilight Zone, which came on back to back in syndication on Channel Eleven. It was father-daughter bonding over geekery. It was also, for me, a lesson in how hard it was to dream of the future when every depiction of it said you don’t have one.

Because Star Trek takes place 500 years from now, supposedly long after humanity has transcended racism, sexism, etc. But there’s still only one black person on the crew, and she’s the receptionist.

This is disingenuous. I know now what I did not understand then: that most science fiction doesn’t realistically depict the future; it reflects the present in which it is written. So for the 1960s, Uhura’s presence was groundbreaking — and her marginalization was to be expected. But I wasn’t watching the show in the 1960s. I was watching it in the 1980s, amid the destitute, gritty New York of Tawana Brawley and Double Dutch and Public Enemy. I was watching it as one of five billion members of the human species — nearly 80% of whom were people of color even then. I was watching it as a tween/teen girl who’d grown up being told that she could do anything if she only put her mind to it, and I looked to science fiction to provide me with useful myths about my future: who I might become, what was possible, how far I and my descendants might go.

The myth that Star Trek planted in my mind: people like me exist in the future, but there are only a few of us. Something’s obviously going to kill off a few billion people of color and the majority of women in the next few centuries. And despite it being, y’know, the future, my descendants’ career options are going to be even more limited than my own.

Fortunately in 1992, reality gave me a better myth: Mae Jemison became the first black woman in space. She wasn’t the goddamn receptionist. Only after that came Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, with its much-vaunted black captain.


In the present, black people can be anything they want to be.

This is not true. Yet.


For a long time, I was ashamed that I wrote science fiction and fantasy.

I write a little of everything — cyberpunk, dark fantasy, slipstream, space opera, liminal fantasy. But it bothered me most to write epic fantasy because, well, as far as I knew, epic fantasy was Tolkien’s British mythos. It was D&D campaigns writ large with stalwart pale-skinned people killing Always Chaotic Evil dark-skinned people, if the latter were even given the courtesy of being called people. It was doorstopper-sized novels whose covers were emblazoned with powerful-looking white characters brandishing enormous phallic symbols; it was stories set in medieval pseudo-England about bookworms or farmboys becoming wealthy, mighty kings and getting the (usually blonde) girl. Epic fantasy was certainly not black women doing… well, anything.

And that’s because there were no black women in the past, right? There will be no black women in the future. There have never been black women in any speculated setting. There are black women in reality, but that reality is constrained within wholly different myths from what’s seen in fantasy novels. (The Welfare Queen. The Music Video Ho. The Jezebel. The Help.)

And once upon a time I wondered: Is writing epic fantasy not somehow a betrayal? Did I not somehow do a disservice to my own reality by paying so much attention to the power fantasies of disenchanted white men?

But. Epic fantasy is not merely what Tolkien made it.

This genre is rooted in the epic — and the truth is that there are plenty of epics out there which feature people like me. Sundiata’s badass mother. Dihya, warrior queen of the Amazighs. The Rain Queens. The Mino Warriors. Hatshepsut’s reign. Everything Harriet Tubman ever did. And more, so much more, just within the African components of my heritage. I haven’t even begun to explore the non-African stuff. So given all these myths, all these examinations of the possible… how can I not imagine more? How can I not envision an epic set somewhere other than medieval England, about someone other than an awkward white boy? How can I not use every building-block of my history and heritage and imagination when I make shit up?

And how dare I disrespect that history, profane all my ancestors’ suffering and struggles, by giving up the freedom to imagine that they’ve won for me.

So here is why I write what I do: We all have futures. We all have pasts. We all have stories. And we all, every single one of us, no matter who we are and no matter what’s been taken from us or what poison we’ve internalized or how hard we’ve had to work to expel it —

— we all get to dream.


In the future, as in the present, as in the past, black people will build many new worlds.

This is true. I will make it so. And you will help me.

Attack of the Cute, Launches and Lunges

Sorry for the silence lately; been down with the plague, otherwise known as my annual bout of cold which turns into a sinus infection which turns into bronchitis. I’ve got an appointment with the doctor on Friday, and I’ve had it before and know how to take care of myself, so don’t worry. But I’m low energy — that’s the infection part — and afflicted with a painful, constant cough, so thus the lack of blogging. Barely got the energy to write, to be honest.

It probably doesn’t help that, when I began to feel a bit better last weekend, I stupidly went to my new gym and tried a cardio kickboxing class that was absolutely amazing — and exhausting. I’m still sore, and I’m pretty sure I wore myself out so much that the infection shunted to my lungs. I really should know better. But I’ve been on a fitness kick lately, trying to get back into shape because a) I used to be, before the 9 to 5, and b) I need to be, before I go to Hawaii at the end of this month for my UMSP research trip. Along with the helicopter tour of active lava vents, I’m hoping to do a hike across the Kilauea crater. It’s a mild hike, and I’m a moderately experienced hiker, but it’ll be new territory and I can’t do it if I’m in crappy shape. Can’t do it if I’m sick either, tho’, so gotta take it easy awhile.

But although I haven’t been blogging, I have been busy. Among other things, I’ve been trying to get the word out about a couple of friends of mine who’ve got new books coming out. E. C. Myers is gearing up for the launch of his first novel with a giveaway at Goodreads. Sign up for your chance! And Saladin Ahmed’s first novel, the Arabian-flavored epic fantasy Throne of the Crescent Moon, launches this week! Both these guys were in my writing group, and I’ve seen and loved their work for years. Glad to see them jump the line to published novelists at last!

And speaking of up-and-coming writers… The Shared Worlds writing workshop nurtures teen writers, and they’re doing a fundraising drive right now. To promote this, the workshop organizers did something hilariously creative: the Critter Map, an interactive mosaic featuring incredibly cute art by Jeremy Zerfoss and delightful mythmaking by me and a whole bunch of other authors, including Neil Gaiman, Scott Westerfeld, and many others. Go look! Admire the cuteness! And donate!


Stuff! Coming! Soon!

The Con or Bust auction, sponsored by the Carl Brandon Society as a partial response to Racefail, and intended to help fans of color attend SFF conventions that they might otherwise forego for fear of a) being unwelcome, and b) being expensively unwelcomed. People are much more likely to take a chance on something iffy if doing so won’t mean falling short on the rent, right? So Con or Bust addresses this. And to help, I’ve got an ARC of The Killing Moon up for bid, and there will be lots of other cool things going up too — check out the whole community! Now, auctions don’t begin for two more weeks. So mark your calendars!

Another thing forthcoming: DOOOOOOOM.

Cover shows silhouetted figure standing against background of burning city.

Well, not really. Just dystopia. A story of mine, “Valedictorian”, will be appearing in the YA dystopian anthology After, edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling. The anth is due out in October, and will feature stories by a whole bunch of people I really, really like! I’ll let you know when it’s available for preorder, but in the meantime, here’s the table of contents:

The Segment by Genevieve Valentine
After the Cure by Carrie Ryan
Visiting Nelson by Katherine Langrish
All I Know of Freedom by Carol Emshwiller
The Other Elder by Beth Revis
The Great Game at the End of the World by Matthew Kressel
Reunion by Susan Beth Pfeffer
Faint Heart by Sarah Rees Brennan
Blood Drive by Jeffrey Ford
Reality Girl by Richard Bowes
Hw th’Irth Wint Wrong by Hapless Joey @ homeskool.guv by Gregory Maguire
Rust With Wings by Steven Gould
The Easthound by Nalo Hopkinson
Gray by Jane Yolen
Before by Carolyn Dunn
Fake Plastic Trees by Caitlin R. Kiernan
You Won’t Feel a Thing by Garth Nix
The Marker by Cecil Castellucci

I dunno about you guys, but I can’t wait to get my hands on this particular bit of DOOOOOM. But I have to, ’cause, yanno, October.

The Price of Time

I’ve mentioned this before, but I have two full-time jobs. This is partly by choice, because I actually enjoy my non-writing career, and partly out of necessity, since I don’t make quite enough money at either my non-writing career or via writing to let one or the other go. (It’s not just money. Being a full-time writer means paying $400/month for health insurance, versus $40/month via my day job. But you get the idea.) People ask me all the time how I do it, and I’m always a little perplexed by the question. I don’t have children, for one thing; any writer who does that and a day job deserves your awe, not me. I actually have a day job; I spent awhile without one a couple of years back, and that was no fun at all. Still, not gonna lie; it’s tough sometimes, juggling two demanding careers.

This is not helped by the fact that I suck at managing money. Not that I’m profligate or anything; quite the opposite, I’m kind of a cheapskate. But sometimes I’m stupidly cheap; I obsess over the minutia, don’t think of the big picture. Maybe this is typical of people who live paycheck to paycheck, but more likely it’s just me being dumb.

Here’s an example: in New York, apartments are small. It’s rare to be able to have your own washer and dryer. Usually you have to share a communal laundromat in your building, or in the neighborhood — and because it’s communal, and this is New York, you have to stay with your clothes if you want to keep them. There’s rarely any space for comfortable sitting and writing in laundromats, and even if there is, you might not want to whip out the laptop in mixed company if you want to keep that, too. My own laundromat is underground and has no internet access. So basically, doing laundry means 3-4 hours of mind-numbing, mostly-wasted time.

Yet I did this for years, because the alternatives were things I thought of as luxuries: namely laundry pickup/delivery or dropoff service. I’m a writer, I thought at the time; I gotta pinch pennies if I’m going to make it. I figured all these fancy-schmancy services were aimed at executives, who earned executive-level pay, or who didn’t want to get their hands dirty. But that was a false assumption; these services are aimed at busy people, who would rather spend their time doing other things besides watching the spin cycle. So I sat down and calculated how much more it would cost me to use dropoff service. The average price difference was minimal — it costs $5-7 more than doing it myself. $7 is significant; that’s dinner.

But. Doing laundry myself had a cost too. Not just the financial setback of detergent and a granny cart, but all those hours of writing time meant something. Yeah, yeah, time has intrinsic value, but it means something financially too, especially for a professional writer. In 4 hours on a good day I can write a rough draft of a novel chapter. If I get a $10,000 advance for that novel — not saying I will, just using a hypothetically round number — and that novel has 40 chapters (as The Killing Moon does), then that afternoon blown on laundry is costing me $250. That’s pretty damn significant too.

So I’ve had to reassess my life as a writer, and decide whether some things that I’d previously dismissed as too expensive on a financial basis were, in fact, costing me far more in the long run due to lost time. I made one of these choices a long time ago: I don’t have a roommate in my tiny NYC apartment, which is something most single people here don’t do. But I came to the conclusion that the amount of time I would have to spend on (possibly) arguing with a stranger, getting up earlier or going to bed later because I’ve got to work around someone else’s schedule, seeking new roommates when the old one left, and suing them if they don’t bother to pay what they owe — granted, all of this is the worst-case scenario — would cost me far more in time and stress than I’m willing to pay. (I’ve had good roommate experiences for the most part, but one very very bad one, and the risk of dealing with that madness again is too much when I’ve already got a dayjob and deadlines to worry about.) Having my own apartment still feels like a splurge. But it pays off in that home is a haven for me, where I have complete control over my environment. When I walk in, stress drops away — so even after a long, tiring day at the office, I can always get at least a little writing done, even if it’s only 250 words. Even the little wordcounts add up. And thus is a book written.

Other worthwhile investments I’ve made in my time:

  • A DVR. I don’t watch many TV shows or movies, but I don’t want to be distracted by them if I happen to be in a really hot writing Zone at the time they come on.
  • A dishwasher. Yes, even tiny apartments can have one. And for about $250 I’ve bought myself 30 minutes every night that otherwise would be spent on washing dishes.
  • Got this for Christmas: a Roomba. I might never have bought this on my own, because I wasn’t sure how useful it would be, but since Mom was buying, I got one — and holy crap, I love it. Granted, I don’t spend a ton of time on cleaning; I tended to sweep once a week because I’ve got a cat, and vacuum every other week. (I have mostly hard floors.) But that’s another 30 minutes a week saved. And it’s cute! I named mine Lil.
  • Grocery delivery. In my part of Brooklyn, most supermarkets are small; there’s a good chance that one market won’t have everything I need, and I’ll have to schlepp to another one. Then I’ve got to get it all home — a daunting task on a day of bad weather, or if the subways are packed, or if I have a lot to carry. So instead I use any one of several services that bring the groceries right to my apartment. Costs $5 for delivery, which is a small price to pay for my time — and my back.

Here’s how this all adds up. Yesterday I went off to write at the local cafe. Turned on the dishwasher, started the Roomba. Along the way I schlepped to the laundromat and dropped off a load. I was at the cafe for maybe 7 hours; I got a ton of work done on a proposal which might turn into another book deal. And then I came home to clean floors, clean dishes that made making dinner quick and easy, clean clothes that I wore to work this morning — and just because the urge was still there, I got another 500 words written before bed.

This is not to say that splurging on gadgets or services will make you a better writer. It won’t, unless you use the time. And this is not to say that every shiny thing is a good investment. I’ve made mistakes. Bought an XBox with the Kinect sensor thinking that I’d use it to exercise, instead of blowing money on a gym membership and time on transportation/getting dressed/showering/waiting to use equipment. But what I didn’t factor in was fun. It was much more interesting to do a Cardio Sculpt class at the local Crunch back when I was a member — and because it was more interesting, I exercised a lot more. Now I’m thinking about joining a gym again, which means the money I spent on the Kinect was wasted.

All I’m saying is, keep the big picture in mind. If that shiny expensive thing will actually help you get that book done? Maybe it’ll pay for itself, in time.

Guest Post: In Praise of Unoriginality

Nora Note: I’m experimenting with guest posts! Our first guinea pig is fellow Fluidian E. C. Myers, whose forthcoming YA novel I’ve had the pleasure of critiquing (and enjoying the hell out of). But enough about me. Let’s let the man talk:


When Baz Luhrmann’s film adaptation of The Great Gatsby was announced last year, fans of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel were at best skeptical and at worst angry. Though it’s been known for a while that Luhrmann is taking the book’s latest cinematic journey even farther, into the Third Dimension!, for some reason people have only started paying attention in the last week—and the blogosphere reeled in horror at the prospect of seeing a 3-D Gatsby.

To these incensed critics, I say: Don’t see it.

According to Luhrmann, the decision to film in 3-D came from his desire to add a more theatrical quality to the production, so it’s as if we’re there in the room with Jay and Daisy. (Whether anyone really wants to hang out with them is beside the point.) If I recently hadn’t seen Martin Scorsese’s Hugo, a 3-D adaptation of Brian Selznick’s middle grade novel, The Invention of Hugo Cabret, I would say Luhrmann’s full of crap. Despite my own disdain for the gimmick of 3-D cinema—I generally avoid 3-D screenings whenever possible, to save myself from the double curse of eyestrain and destitution—I made a point of seeing Hugo in theaters, both because Scorsese has earned my trust and admiration as a filmmaker, and because he intended Hugo to be seen in 3-D.

It was not at all what I was expecting. I kind of loved it. The general consensus among critics and audiences alike is that Scorsese has created a cinematic masterpiece. Hugo has some brief moments of spectacle that might justify the extravagance of 3-D, but nothing on the order of James Cameron’s clumsy action-flick Avatar. I think Hugo is probably a fine picture even in only a paltry two dimensions, but the experience was both more engaging and more distracting; I think a truly successful film makes the viewer forget she’s watching a movie, but I was constantly distracted by tiny, odd details captured on film: dust motes drifting in the air, an out-of-place hair.

My biggest issue with 3-D cinematography is that the human eye just doesn’t see that way, with the camera forcing our attention to whatever is jumping out of the screen, or choosing to focus on one character while everything and everyone else fades to a blur. Film can only approximate natural vision, and directors carefully construct the viewing experience—choosing what they want you to focus on, or slyly misdirecting your interest—to tell a story. Hugo does some of that, but it also gives you the freedom to pay more attention to the background characters than the action front and center, or admire the elaborate sets and ignore the actors. This is as close to seeing a live theatrical play as I’ve had in a movie theater, and it could very well suit Gatsby.

That’s if Luhrmann isn’t simply buckling to studio pressure to make a 3-D film and toeing the company line. He seems both to want to infuse Gatsby with a grand scope and to make it a more intimate experience, and those two impulses may not marry well. And Luhrmann’s CV is contentious among fans; people either seem to love or hate his Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge! As with every creative process, 3-D is just another tool, best used when the work truly calls for it, and we’ll have to wait to see if it brings anything to Gatsby. Or not see it, depending.

The charged response to Luhrmann’s adaptation doesn’t seem to be about 3-D at all. Rather, it’s a criticism of the fact that he’s doing it at all. This is The Great Gatsby! You can’t turn this literary classic into a mere movie, meant for a commercial audience. Except that it has been adapted into a film. Several times. And stage productions. And a freaking 8-bit video game. (Which is awesome by the way.) People seem actively offended that this is going to exist in the world.

Like many, I scratch my head whenever Hollywood announces a new film adaptation or a remake. Why make an English version of Let the Right One In, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, or The Ring? Weren’t the originals good enough? How can you presume to “update” a classic like King Kong or reboot Star Trek for new, younger audiences? What’s the point in redoing Pride and Prejudice with Keira Knightley when Colin Firth is Mr. Darcy in the excellent miniseries? (Okay, that’s a fair question.) Hey, I’ll never understand why Gus Van Sant needed to do a shot-by-shot remake of Hitchcock’s Psycho, but I got through it by simply not seeing it.

Readers are even less forgiving when novels or comics they love, or like, or maybe heard of once are turned into big Hollywood productions. They’re never faithful enough to the source material, or they don’t like picturing the actors when they read the book, and does anyone actually like those movie tie-in covers that come out around the film’s release? Most of the Harry Potter films are like abbreviated primers for the books, but some of them are absolutely beautiful and moving, and they haven’t detracted from my enjoyment of J.K. Rowling’s written words one bit. And yet almost everyone is excited—cautiously so—about the upcoming film version of Suzanne Collin’s dystopian series, The Hunger Games. This early on, director Gary Ross (who also made one of my favorite films ever, Pleasantville) seems to have gotten most things right. And that’s probably going to be good enough—for me, anyway. If the idea of the movie feels like a personal insult to you… Don’t see it.

I wonder if the strong reactions to adaptations isn’t about not wanting to ruin the “integrity” of the source material so much as it’s a desire to maintain our own relationship with it, without the influence of another person’s interpretation of its meaning. Like I said, I’m as annoyed at remakes as the next guy, and disappointed when an adaptation fails to be brilliant (The Golden Compass, anyone? Anyone?) But I’ve also seen films that surpassed the quality of the original. It’s just my opinion, but I like the movie versions of V for Vendetta and The Prestige much more than those on the page, and The Watchmen was perfectly satisfying and as faithful as it could be.

Perhaps it’s a failure of Hollywood to be “original,” but these films are original; they’re new works of art (maybe a strong word to describe something like Piranha 3-D, but you get my point) that didn’t exist before.

More importantly, I think that the thing that drives filmmakers (and fanfic writers and artists and musicians and basically anyone on the internet, at least if SOPA doesn’t pass) to create their own versions of other people’s work is a testament to the power of story, not just the promise of commercial success. Yes, even Michael Bay is a storyteller—he’s just a very bad one. There’s a story in Transformers under all that CGI, right? Something something Megan Fox something?

In the worst cases, I consider a film adaptation of a novel to be a two-hour long book trailer; if I like the story but not the execution, I’ll just go read the book. If I like the movie, as I did with Hugo, I’ll seek out the book. And if I like the book, but can’t bear to see the movie (as in The Adventures of Tintin), I’ll skip the film and read the book.

People have been stealing and riffing on other people’s stories for as long as we’ve been telling them. Shakespeare, the Brothers Grimm, Tim Burton and Peter Jackson have all kept stories alive by retelling them, reinterpreting them, and reaching new audiences who might never have discovered the work that inspired them at all—without attempting to destroy the original material (like George Lucas, for instance) or forcing people to only watch their vision of it. (Cough, George Lucas, cough.)

What do you think? Are there movie adaptations or even fanfic stories that you think are better than the source? Should I see Tintin? Does 3-D disgust you?

Meanwhile, I think it’s high time I reread The Great Gatsby.


E.C. Myers was assembled in the U.S. from Korean and German parts. He is a graduate of the Clarion West Writers Workshop and a member of the prolific NYC writing group Altered Fluid. In the rare moments when he isn’t writing, he blogs about Star Trek at theviewscreen.com, reads constantly, plays video games, watches films and television, sleeps as little as possible, and spends far too much time on the internet. His first young adult novel, Fair Coin>, will be published by Pyr in March 2012. And for the record, he would be delighted if it were adapted into a film.