Despite tranking myself up with meds, I get barely any sleep—I’m too wired and nervous to do more than cat-nap in little fits and starts. When the time rolls around for my afternoon shift, I’m almost grateful to be going to work, to do anything that feels vaguely normal and doesn’t involve waking nightmares of bent-back boys with black wings and sharpened teeth. Or dead mothers lying on sheets soaked crimson.
Work is busy, the changeover chaos as usual. The cash-up is short, so the day-shift bar tenders are in a foul mood. Sport on the TV, no music. The women perched on their red metal barstools all look tarted up and hostile, the men swill down Castle Draft and boast about when they used to play rugby. I hate this place; the neon makes my head buzz and the clientèle are nightmarish suburban socialite wannabes.
Memory gives me a look like I crawled out of a rubbish tip. “What’s with you, girl?” he says, all Joburg drawl. “Seems like you were a little busy-busy last night, ne?”
I roll my eyes. “Zeps. Rain.” That’s enough information for anyone, really.
Memory has this thing he does with his eyebrows; they have an entire vocabulary programmed into them, like drum beats. He can speak whole novels without opening his mouth. The current angle and shift is enough to let me know he thinks I’m an idiot, and that I deserve everything I get. He knows Rain from school too, from friends of friends who have drifted through our little circle of two. “You need to let that go,” Memory says finally, and he could mean anything.
Like most writers, I have fairly unenviable social skills. I say strange and inappropriate things because I want to compliment someone, or because the awkward silence has gone on a minute too long, or because I have had too many glasses of wine at that book launch thing and trying to be a normal human is hard.
But this weekend while I was hanging out with far cooler people than myself at the Franschhoek Literary Festival, I realised I have an added disadvantage.
I HAVE NO IDEA WHO YOU ARE.
And this is totally a problem I have with both facial and name recognition. All people look pretty much the same to me unless there is something remarkably distinctive about them, like they have only one leg, or pink hair, or are nine foot tall. And even then we probably have to meet several times in real life, within a context that I will remember because of Events, so that I will be able to associate your collection of features and syllables with that set of conversations or actions.
I wouldn’t go so far as to say I have face blindness – I don’t know enough about the condition to know if I fall within those parameters – but it is a very real problem for me.
This did make FLF a little distressing for me because I felt terrible when someone would say “Hi, I’m so-and-so, we met last year,” and I am literally shaking on the inside because I now have to scramble through my index of associations and try get all the things in the right place and let me tell you that never works well.
So, no matter what it looks like, I am not snubbing you, or being wilfully rude, or pretending we’ve never met, I am just panicking on several levels. Be kind like you would be to a small child, say your name slowly, and give me an association I can use (“We were at Bob’s party and I told that terrible joke about an elephant and I wrote a book you said you liked, you nitwit.”) and give me time to set the pieces in place. I will get there. 😉
Death and Punk
My plan is to “borrow” my dad’s car, so we’re headed over to his place. Though I’m really hoping he’s out when we get there because I’m not really in the mood for requests and explanations. Technically, my dad’s house is in walking distance, but it’s taking us a ridiculously long time to walk anywhere, possibly because we’re still more than a little drunk. We’ve made it as far as Louis Botha. The main road is its usual crazy mess. It’s always packed, with everyone hooting and slamming brakes and trying to push each other off into the verge, but it’s worse than usual thanks to this freaking heat-wave we’ve been having.
Rain and I are sitting on the edge of the pavement, sharing a smoke because Rain can’t walk fifty metres without taking a smoke break, the lazy bugger. I’m bouncy and jittery, trying shake off the half-drunk wobbles while doing some mental arithmetic to see if I can actually afford going out tonight. Who needs food, right? I pass my cig over to Rain who clutches at it with a pincer grip, his hands half folded under his sleeves. Very Winona Ryder. I tell him that and he scowls at me. We draw in fiery breaths, and the heat slides down my skin and presses me into the ground.
It’s May. The best month, because I was born in it, she said, with no hint of bias.
We’re moving on to a new prompt for our 12 months of short stories, and I’ve decided on PIRATES! for this one. Why pirates? Because there is so much there and you can do pretty much anything with it.
I’ll post about some interesting pirates through the month, but here’s your first: Zheng Shi.
She’s considered one of the most successful pirates that ever lived, an empress of the seas.
And I sold my April #12months12stories short to Shimmer, so there’s hope for us all.
NOTE: I’m releasing the first chapter of CHARM on a Friday because it’s the first of May. From next week it will be released every Wednesday. I hope you enjoy the read.
Escaping the Witch House
A handful of hair drops to the ground and lands in a dark tangle against the bathroom tiles. I stop. The pair of scissors trembles in my hand. Perhaps this isn’t my greatest idea. Not that I’ve ever exactly been known for great ideas. Irene Kerry; the Girl of Failed Good Intentions. I force my head up so I can stop looking at the mess of fallen hair, but the mirror isn’t much of an improvement.
My reflection snarls, grabs another fistful of curls, and snips. I think I’m supposed to feel relieved but instead my heart pounds like it’s trying get out before I do anything stupid. Stupider I keep hacking away. With each snick of the blades my stomach drops further and further, and depression settles over me in a fine ashy coating. This isn’t freeing in any way, it’s just a great big mess, and oh-god-I-am-an-idiot. There’s a reason hairdressers charge people for this, and the reason is staring at me in growing horror.
So after a lifetime of terrible vision, I had an operation (ICL for those who need to know this sort of thing), and now I can see and it’s kinda weird.
Cool weird, though.
Anyway, for the last week or so I have been adjusting to life as a regular human who doesn’t fumble around, and can’t see their fingers perfectly when they are 1 centimetre from their eyes. Yeah, had to relearn to put in eye drops….
I was slightly worried that with the delay I would run late on the Giftling Novel, even though I built in a lot of cushion time. But all looks good, and I’m running through a final pass now. I’ve read this book so many times that right now it looks like the worst thing to ever have been worded, but this is a common writer-feel around about this point, so I’m just taking deep breaths and tweaking.
In less cool news, the elderly cat now needs a chair to get up to her food bowl, and that makes me sad. I can’t with pets any more. They get old and die and it’s like someone stabbed you through the heart, so you go out and get a new pet so you can get stabbed all over again. Humans.
Went to the library and got out some fat fantasy books (Robin Hobb), fat…historicals (Patrick O’Brian), some sf I’ve been meaning to read for a while (Liz Williams) and some SA fic (Kgebetli Moele).
Reading can make me feel guilty sometimes. I love reading, I would much rather spend the day reading than a)writing, b)exercising c)cleaning house (ahahaha) or any thing really. So it makes me feel guilty when I do it. (“But your house is filthy, you’re fat and disgusting, you’re lazy and pathetic,” my inner voice cries, on a loop.)
So sometimes I have to explain to the Inner Voice that reading is part of my job (Nice, eh? :D). Reading more can only make me a better writer, can only expand my knowledge, my skills, my love of story.
Cat, it’s okay to read. No one cares about your stupid house being clean except you.
Okay on to writing. Working hard on my Giftling Novel. It’s a very old novel back when I was trying to write urban fantasy. Which, is yeah, not really where I see myself going these days. But I still love the story, and it’s fascinating (to me, I doubt to anyone else) to see the bones of my interests laid out. This was back in the day where I was convinced that Neil Gaiman and I were destined to be besties because his agent repped the book. (Alas, it didn’t sell and we parted ways, there went my BFF shot with Neily Baby).
So this is not a throw-away novel, it’s more a piece of the past that can never shift up to join the future. It’s YA, it’s set in suburban Joburg (oh…there’s nothing cool about suburban Joburg, so, yeah, but hey, it’s where I grew up.), and there’s magic. Well, and rats. And stuff. There was a lot more heroin in the original book but editors kept thinking I was trying to write an issue novel whereas I was like, no some people just happen to do drugs and it’s not an issue.
So all the drugs are gone (*sadface* That’s frankly the only part of the book I regret losing).
But hey, it’s been pretty fun revisiting this place, remembering part of my headspace when I was writing.
Beth Bernobich is a writer whose Work I Love, and we’re just going to NNGHHHH about the work we love. So whip out your TBR lists and get adding. (All book covers lead to a goodreads page, for ease of finding a store)
Welcome Beth, and let’s get started in the misty past, and talk a little about influence.
Beth: So you asked me about writers I love who do that combination of complex characters and magic and intrigue. And I have names! But seeing as I’m a contrary sort of person, my first name is an author who wrote historical fiction, not fantasy or SF. Patrick O’Brian wrote a twenty-book series set during Napoleonic Wars. There’s Jack Aubrey, captain in the British Navy, and Stephen Maturin, an Irish physician, natural philosopher, and multi-lingual spy. I could probably go on for days about why I love these books so much. The sweeping action of historical events, the multi-layered characterization, the goddamned beautiful prose. Also, the sloth. (You really need to read the scene with the sloth.)
Cat: Sloths and goddamned beautiful prose. I am, as they say, sold.
When I was a wee thing, most of my reading tended towards the Gemmel/Feist/Donaldson type stuff, but then a friend’s father handed me a copy of Mervyn Peake‘s Gormenghast, which has forever changed my view of fantasy. (I remember seeing Titus Groan in the sff section of my library before this, and dismissing it for having a “stupid title”. To be fair, I was a bratty teenager at the time.)
For me Gormenghast is utterly magical without being overtly magical and I think it set the tone, in that sense, for a lot of the fantasy I love now. I still adore the magical trappings of fantasy, but I am far more interested in characters and how they react to each other. Lush description and playful language are major added bonuses. All the elves and spells and monsters in the world won’t make a book interesting for me if it is not, at its heart, about the relationships between people. Those things are just there to make it richer.
So, from the past and on to the now – is there a writer working now whose work you love? I think we both know that those are often the books that influence our own writing the most, but in ways no reader could see. What they do is make us go, “OH YES, I want to be able to make a reader feel that too.” and we are once again inspired.
Cat: I have only read Hild, but that was amazing, so I need to go dig up her other works. This conversation is going to be hell on my bank balance *grins*
There’s one (to me) very clear influence on my writing, though whether or not that comes across to other people, I have no idea.
Tanith Lee. Okay, a disclaimer: not everything of hers is brilliant, but when she hits the mark, she hits it ohgodsohard. Her writing is lush, dark, strange; her characters are never innocents, whatever side they seem to be on. For me it’s the fluidity of gender, the scheming, the betrayals, the gods and magics and darkness of her work that I fell in love with. I remember as a teen reading When the Lights Go Out over and over, and thinking, “This this this, this is fantasy, this is how I want it to be.”
In that sense, although our work is dissimilar, her influence shows in the way I treat gender and love. I don’t think love is perfect or beautiful – there’s an underlying ugliness to it, an obsession; and obsession drives people to do terrible things. It’s overcoming that obsession, slipping between the cracks and flaws to find the bright hearts, that’s what I want to see.
Her fantasy tends to veer to more modern settings, and quite often in fantastically re-imagined European cities – her books of Paradys are stories scattered through a timeline all linked by the city of Paris. I don’t write faux-medieval settings with knights and princess who need saving, and her work has definitely influenced me setting-wise.
She’s *just* released a new book – A Different City, which I need to get my paws on.
Okay, so we’ve done past and present, so let’s look to the future. This is less about influence and more about what exciting new worlds are going to be opening up to us.
Are there any newer writers who you hope to see great things from?
Both names heading to my Rather Immense and Scary reading list. Funnily enough, I was also going to talk about Aliette, so *grin* Pipped to the post….
I’m always seeing new names doing interesting things, often coming up through short stories, and then there are names who have been around for a while writing short stories and novellas and winning things so it’s not as if they are *new* writers, but certainly ones who I think are going to go from strength to strength.
However, there are writers who are not famous, or well-known outside of South Africa, who I think are amazing, and I really want to see what else they’re going to do: one of those is Rachel Zadok, who has been drifting closer and closer to specfic, and her novel Sister-Sister is a beautiful, dark, twisted ghost story set in a South African near-future.
Another not-that-new writer who I think is going to become more and more interesting with time is Laura Lam, who writes gender-playing fantasy with circus-bright trappings.
Thanks so much for chatting, Beth, and for adding ALL THE THINGS to my reading list. For those interested in Beth’s work, she’s currently running a kickstarter to fund a coda to her three book River of Souls series. if you’re not familiar with them, one of the tiers gets you all three novels, which rather helps.
Today was spent synopsis-ing and panicking, two things that do seem to rather go together.
While I was falling down a black hole of self-doubt and crushing despair, I was throwing ideas at my writer friends, and something lodged in my brain.
So, I have a little something I’d like to get off the ground and I have most of a week before school hols kick in, so I will be brainstorming like a brainstorming thing, but the tentative idea is you will be getting a YA novel, gratis.
but with less Mycroftian sarcasm. *g*
The release of Beastkeeper has been something like amazing.
Four starred reviews. Four. that's like...wow. I have to slap myself a little to make sure I'm not dreaming this.
Many thanks go to my amazing editor at Henry Holt, Noa Wheeler, for giving this book the thought and care in editing that pushed it to this point.
"In this elegant, lyrical, and startling original fairy tale . . . While there are hints of “Beauty and the Beast” here, this is a story all its own, and older fans of fairy tales and their retellings will revel in this poetic, tragic, epic story of a girl who is faced with the worst of what people can choose and instead decides to step outside of the curse and make her own way." - BCCB, STARRED REVIEW
"Beastkeeper is a bright, beautiful sliver of a novel . . . Every page shimmers with magic." - VOYA, STARRED REVIEW
"Blending modern-day problems and ancient magical curses, Hellisen's novel sparkles like a classic fairy tale, even as it plumbs unpleasant truths." - Publishers Weekly, STARRED REVIEW
"This tangled tale of jealousy and revenge retells the classic "Beauty and the Beast" story, but with a twist . . . With lush, descriptive language and complicated familial relationships, this complex story line challenges readers to pay close attention to the details. Hand this middle grade/YA crossover to tweens and teens who enjoy dark fairy-tale retellings." - School Library Journal
"Hellisen's narration is thoughtful and lyrical . . . A wild, unique fairy tale." - Kirkus Reviews, STARRED REVIEW