"Vigorously told deceptions and battle scenes." ~Publishers Weekly review of Eolyn

"The characters are at their best when the events engulfing them are at their worst." ~Publishers Weekly review of High Maga

Friday, June 24, 2011

The Landscape of My Imagination

I read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein when I was in high school, as part of my English class. To this day (and it’s been a long time since then), the cover art of my high school edition of Frankenstein remains vivid in my mind: A man in 19th century dress, his back to the viewer, his figure small but distinctive in a vast landscape of ragged mountains and hidden valleys.

It was wonderful surprise – while I was refreshing my memory of Shelley, Frankenstein, and Romanticism – to come across this same image on Wikipedia. It didn’t take much; just one click on “Romantic” from Wikipedia’s Frankenstein page. The artwork, entitled Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog, is by Casper David Friedrich, a painter of the Romantic period.

I also remember our classroom discussion of Frankenstein, where our teacher talked about the importance of wilderness for the Romantic movement. Shelley is a prime example of this.  In her timeless novel, she devotes ample attention to the untamed landscape in which her characters live. Were she alive and writing today, I suspect Shelley would find herself embroiled in some vigorous debates with fellow authors, who now live in a world where generous attention to landscape is often seen as an impediment to a story rather than an integral part of it.

My own writing is heavy on description and landscape. I believe a reader cannot fully understand the characters of a story unless he or she also experiences the setting in which they live -- this because the landscape with which we interact shapes who we are.  I would have been a happy camper (literally and figuratively) had I written during the Romantic period. As it is, I am constantly challenged by my readers and fellow authors to strike a balance between my own convictions regarding the importance of landscape and more contemporary lines of thought, which often insist setting is not only unimportant, but actually in the way of the 'real story'.

Why shun landscape in our stories?

This question has come back to me often during these last few years, as I’ve engaged with different perspectives regarding what makes good writing. It has resurfaced again these past few weeks, as I reflect on my experience as writer-in-residence at Andrews Experimental Forest and the short story inspired by it – a story that in its current draft is, perhaps even by my own standards, ‘too heavy’ on description.

But what is ‘too heavy’? What determines the point where we stop looking out the window, because we just don’t want to see anymore? Why is that cutoff in a different place now than it was some 200 years ago, when Shelley wrote her immortal tale?

The biologist and philosopher inside me can’t help but wonder whether rejection of landscape is simply about ‘good technique’ in writing.  Perhaps it's more than that.  Perhaps it is also a reflection of the context in which so many of us now live: a world where wilderness has been fragmented and pushed to distant corners of the earth; where we have no point of reference for the organic nature of our surroundings, living as we do in climate controlled spaces, attached to our ipods and cell phones, purchasing pre-packaged boneless meats, avoiding fresh fruits and vegetables because they must be peeled, treating our next door neighbors as somehow less ‘real’ than the person we just met on Facebook.

Not that the modern lifestyle is bad perse; just that we lose something, I think, if we let ourselves become too absorbed by it. There’s a larger world out there; larger even than the internet. Filled with sensory experience -- sights, sounds, smells, tastes, textures. A world that would speak to us, if we let it; just as the forests of Moisehén speak to the Magas and Mages of Eolyn's world.

On the opposite end of the spectrum from Romantics like Shelley, I have read contemporary fiction that takes place entirely inside the mind of the main character. While I appreciate the artistry behind this approach to storytelling, it has little appeal to me as a reader. A disembodied mind in an organic world seems not so much a reflection of real life as a precursor to madness. I cannot engage with someone who is so removed from their surroundings; indeed from their own flesh and blood.

I suppose for me as a writer, the landscape and its components – forests, plains, valleys, rivers, cultivated fields, mountains, plants, animals, rocks, weather patterns, and so forth – will always be characters in their own right, and deserve to be treated as such. My protagonists interact in intimate ways with the environment in which they live; so, then, should my readers. 

And even though I tend to cull descriptive passages as I move toward the final draft, I'm rarely fully convinced that by doing so I'm creating a better story. Indeed, it often seems like I'm deforesting the landscape of my imagination, just as we have deforested the landscapes of our planet. 

This post is part of a series of reflections inspired by my week as a Writer-in-Residence at Andrews Experimental Forest.  To learn more about my week at Andrews, visit the links in the box entitled "Spring 2011 Residency at Andrews Forest" on the right hand bar. 

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Animating the Forest

An "Ent" as depicted in the Lord of the Rings film series.
There are a couple of lingering topics from my week at Andrews Forest, and I want to return to one of them today.

During a follow up conversation with Frederick J. Swanson, one of the coordinators of the Long Term Ecological Reflections project at Andrews, he expressed interest in knowing more about ‘what I had to let go of’ when trying to consider the forest from a writer’s perspective, having been trained for so long to approach the forest as a scientist.

I’d say the most difficult impulse for me to follow – to put my faith in, so to speak -- was the desire to anthropomorphize the creatures around me, to animate them with human qualities.

It is very common for story tellers (and humans in general) to anthropomorphize animals and other non-human creatures. Walt Disney’s The Lion King, for example, imposes a human social structure and human behavior on lions and their cohorts in the grasslands of Africa, so that what appears to be a story about lions is, in fact, a story about humans dressed up as lions.

Disney, of course, does this with a lot of films; but I chose The Lion King is an example because the first animal social structure I learned about when I began my study of behavioral biology was in fact the lions.

Lions live in matriarchal prides, where territory is shared among sisters and passed from mothers to daughters. Males leave the pride when they reach reproductive age and live alone or in small groups (usually pairs of brothers) until they are able to challenge and replace the reproductive male of another pride. Upon ‘taking over’ a pride, a new male kills all the cubs in that pride, causing the females to enter their reproductive cycle earlier than they would have otherwise. The new male then has about two or three years to sire as many cubs as he can (and see them safely to maturity) before he, in turn, is booted out by a younger, healthier rival, who will then proceed to kill all the cubs that his predecessor sired.

Not the stuff of Disney movies, I suppose. But it was through the lions that I first realized most animals interact with each other in ways that are difficult to understand if measured by a human world view. We must use other tools – in this case, evolutionary theory – to make sense of their behavior.

The danger, for a scientist, of anthropomorphizing is that the moment we dress up another species with human qualities, we handicap our capacity to understand them on their own terms. So as a biologist, I have for years coached myself – and all my students – away from the habit of anthropomorphizing. (I might add that this is also the approach that the Magas and Mages of Eolyn’s world take; they do not impose human qualities on the plants and animals with which they interact; nor do I as the author.)

While I was in Andrews, whenever I found myself wanting to give voice and personality to the trees and other creatures, my first instinct was to back away. But this instinct ran contrary to the number one rule of any creative writer, which is not to censor yourself. In order to honor me-the-writer, I occasionally had to let go of me-the-scientist.

Anthropomorphizing may be treacherous ground for an ecologist, but it can be a powerful tool for the story teller. If used well in the attempt to relate something as complex as the experience of walking through a forest, the occasional anthropomorphic creature allows the reader a familiar thread that can help carry him or her through otherwise unknown territory. How many children, for example, came to love lions because of The Lion King? And would they have been so quick in their affection for this imposing predator, if the first thing they had learned about it was the customary massacre of all those sweet and playful cubs every time a new male takes over a pride?

While I appreciate the benefits of anthropomorphizing, something inside me cringes every time I see a movie – or read a story – where animals think, talk and act like humans. In my own work as a writer I try to avoid this, seeking a balance between making the creatures of Eolyn’s world accessible while respecting their fundamental non-human qualities.

An "Ent" of Andrews Forest
One of my favorite examples of a skillful anthropomorphism in fantasy is J.R.R. Tolkien’s Ents, the tree shepherds, which are essentially anthropomorphized trees. Tolkien allows Ents to wander through the forest, speak with hobbits, and even go to war. He hints at a loose social structure and the one-time existence of Ent-Wives.  Ent-Wives are very cool; they are credited with having taught the people of Middle Earth much about agriculture.  Nonetheless, a 'wife' is a kind of pointless concept for real trees, most of which have both male and female reproductive parts, and because the offspring take care of themselves, there’s no need for the pair bonding we tend to see in animals.

Despite all these human-like qualities, Ents never lose their essential tree-ness. I think that’s part of what gives Ents their immortality in our imagination, and why every time I enter a forest, I half expect to see one – whether I’m thinking like a scientist or not.

This is part of a series of reflections based on my experiences as a writer-in-residence at Andrews Experimental Forest in Oregon.  If you'd like to read more about my week-long stay at Andrews, check out the links under "Spring 2011 Residency at Andrew Forest" on the right-hand bar. 

Monday, June 13, 2011

Interview with Adventures in Science Fiction Publishing

Good friend Verna McMullin and I at Prosperos Parkside

Adventures in Science Fiction Publishing has released a podcast interview of me and Mary C. Chambers (author of SHAPERS VEIL). From the web site:

"We present a triple header of small press publishing goodness. First, Brent chats with M.C. Chambers, author of SHAPER’S VEIL, and Karin Gastreich, author of EOLYN, in a joint interview live from Brent’s basement. Brent is braver than Shaun or Moses, who learned long ago to never take authors home with you! . . . . That’s a joke, folks, in case that’s not obvious. Chambers and Gastreich discuss science based magic systems, why they chose to write fantasy when both their works rely on scientific principle, and their experiences in small press publishing."

You can download a copy of the podcast here:

Gastreich and Chambers Interview on AISFP

The interview itself lasts about half an hour, so I'm not going to take up your time with a whole lot of other news for this week.  Just a few announcements.

We had a great afternoon at the signing yesterday in Prosperos Parkside Books, Blue Springs, Missouri.  Many thanks to Eve Brackenbury for hosting the event and for providing those great cookies.

The next booksigning for EOLYN will be at the Campbell Conference at the University of Kansas in Lawrence.  I'm even on the list of special guests for 2011!  This is going to be a great weekend get together of authors and editors in the field of science fiction and fantasy.  On Saturday, July 9, from 12:45pm to 1:45pm, we will all be at the autograph session in the Jayhawk Ink Bookstore.

On Saturday, July 23 at 3pm, Who Else! Books in Denver, Colorado, will host a reading and signing for EOLYN.

Eric T. Reynolds and I may also make a visit to Wichita in early August; I'll keep you posted as our plans firm up.

For more on upcoming events, please visit the Events Page of this blog, or visit my Author Page on Amazon.

I hope you enjoy the podcast interview on AISFP.  Have a great week!


Monday, June 6, 2011

EOLYN is One Month Old!

HRB writers and companions at the Flint Hills retreat

It’s hard to believe a month has passed since the launch of EOLYN. It’s been a great four weeks, with lots of exciting events, including my time as a writer-in-residence at Andrews Experimental Forest, ConQuesT during Memorial Day weekend in Kansas City, and last but not least, the Hadley Rille Books writers retreat this past weekend in the Flint Hills.

Several writers joined the retreat, including Hadley Rille editor Eric T. Reynolds, M.C. Chambers (author of SHAPER’S VEIL), Cybelle Greenlaw, Dora Furlong, Laura Reynolds and Sarah Reynolds. We stayed in an old farm house just outside of historic Cottonwood Falls, and hiked the National Prairie Reserve in search of the elusive bison. Most of our writing was condensed into an intensive Saturday afternoon session, some of us reworking previously written stories, others creating brand new material. A very diverse set of shorts came out of the weekend, including tales of science fiction, horror and fantasy.

Bison at the National Tallgrass Prairie Reserve
 I focused on the story I started in Andrews Forest, a short that features Briana, Akmael’s mother and heiress to East Selen. Briana never appears in person in the novel EOLYN, having perished before we meet her son Akmael. Yet she retains a powerful presence in the memories of the people who knew her, and continues to play a role in the fates of Eolyn and Akmael long after her death. It’s been a lot of fun building a story around a living, breathing Briana, and I hope that – when the time comes – you will enjoy reading it as much as I have enjoyed writing it.

Here’s some news about EOLYN:

As of this entry, EOLYN is now available in eleven libraries in just as many states, spanning the USA from New York to California and from Florida to Washington. (That number is changing very quickly, so by the time you read this, it may have gone up again.)

I’ve hosted two signings since the launch party, one at Powell’s Books in Oregon, and a second at ConQuesT in Kansas City. The next reading and book signing event will be on June 12 at 2pm, in Prospero’s Parkside Books, 208B Northwest Highway 7, Blue Springs, Missouri. I have a special treat prepared for those of you who purchase a book, or have one signed.  Hope to see you there!

On July 9, from 12:45pm to 1:45pm, I’ll be with other authors from the Campbell Conference at the University of Kansas Bookstore, Jayhawk Ink, in Lawrence.

For those of you who have not yet had the opportunity to read the first chapters of EOLYN, in addition to viewing them on this site, for your convenience you can now download a free pdf copy – including Ginger Prewitt’s map of Moisehén. Just take your cursor to the right hand bar on this blog and click on the box that says “Download a free pdf copy of the first three chapters of EOLYN”.  (Or, as you might have noticed, you can just click on the phrase right here...)

EOLYN now has four customer reviews on Amazon.  To read them -- or to write your own, if you've finished the novel -- click HERE

The blog for EOLYN topped 6,000 views last month.  Thank you to everyone who has visited and followed this site for your enthusiastic interest and support of this novel -- and all the magic that comes with it!