Seeing It a New Way

In my teen writing class at the Mount Horeb Public Library last week, we segued into discussing Catcher in the Rye, and one of my students made the following observation (which I'm paraphrasing): Some of my friends have said that, since the characters in the book were rich, Holden's problems weren't that significant. But in so many other books I've read, Read more

A True Story of Frog-Gigging and Disappointment

I wrote the following piece for a memoir class taught by Michelle Wildgen, best-selling author of Bread and Butter and You're Not You (soon to be a movie starring Hilary Swank). When I was a kid growing up in rural Tennessee, my dad determined that I would follow in his footsteps and leave a trail of dead small animals behind Read more

For Halloween, Try EXORCISMUS

Every year around Halloween I try to recommend a horror movie you might not have seen, something off the beaten path and all the better for it. You can read previous recommendations here and here. This year, I worried that I wouldn't find anything. Then I discovered the 2010 film, Exorcismus. No, I can't explain the title, either. Yes, it's an exorcism movie, Read more

The Great Rock and Roll Secret

Suppose the great rock single had flickered over the airways just once, on the night you had passed out in the back seat?  Probably not, but still...rock and roll has always had this sense of possibility.  --Dave Marsh, Born to Run: The Bruce Springsteen Story, page 93 I originally read the above quote in the 1980s, when the first edition of Read more

Review: The Making of Day of the Dead

When I heard there would be a book entirely about the making of George A. Romero's third zombie movie, Day of the Dead, I was surprised. The movie had not been a financial or critical success at the time, and while its reputation has risen since its 1985 release, it's still nowhere near as well-known as its predecessors, Night Read more

You write like a girl (or boy)

Posted on by Alex in gender roles, Teresa Frohock, writers, writing | Leave a comment

 

Today, instead of my own blog post, I want to redirect you to my friend Teresa Frohock.  For the last two weeks she’s been conducting an interesting experiment in which I and several other authors submitted short pieces of original fiction under a genderless pseudonym (i.e., mine was T.J. Breckenridge) to test readers’ ability to identify a writer’s gender based solely on their words.  Nearly 80% of the ones who read my piece guessed wrong.

You can see the other results for yourself here.

Response to the NYT: Has Fiction Lost Its Faith?

Posted on by Alex in criticism, fantasy literature, fiction, Hamlet, pop culture, tennessee, Teresa Frohock, Tufa, writers, writing | 7 Comments

Recently in the New York Times, writer and editor Paul Elie bemoaned the lack of depictions of Christian faith in modern fiction. He trotted out numerous examples of past masters (Flannery O’Connor, Anthony Burgess, etc.) and then mentions how current literary novelists simply don’t, apparently, have faith in Christianity. They don’t depict it because they don’t believe it.

In part, he said:

Now I am writing a novel with matters of belief at its core. Now I have skin in the game. Now I am trying to answer the question: Where has the novel of belief gone?

Well, to be blunt, it’s gone to those genres you look down upon. You know, the books people actually read: fantasy, science fiction, horror and romance.

Elie adds, The most emphatically Christian character in contemporary American fiction is the Rev. John Ames, who in Marilynne Robinson’s novel “Gilead” [published in 2004, and winner of the 2005 Pulitzer Prize--AB] writes, in old age, to his young son as he prepares for death in 1957.

Illustration from Paul Elie’s NYT essay.

Really? I mean, I can instantly think of two other examples of Christian faith depicted, rather emphatically, in recent fantasy novels that meet all Elie’s vague criteria. One is by me: in The Hum and the Shiver, from 2011, I have Craig Chess, a young Methodist minister new to his post and faced with the task of reaching out to a group of people who don’t believe in the same things he does (they have beliefs, but that’s another topic). Craig’s Christianity is genuine and heartfelt; further, he uses it as the touchstone for all his actions. He is content to let his Christianity show by example, not by proselytizing or haranguing. And this gets results: the novel’s protagonist, a young woman known for her past sexual exploits, is willing to honor his beliefs in their courtship. He neither demands nor expects her to change, and because of that, she both loves and respects him (and importantly, doesn’t change just to please him).

The other example is Miserere: An Autumn Tale, by Teresa Frohock. In this novel, she creates a cosmology that incorporates all the world’s religions, and more, shows them working together. The only place they don’t get along, in fact, is on Earth. In this universe, prayer functions as a real power that gets real results, and the strength of a prayer is measurable and crucial. Hell is a real place, and so is Heaven; and free will, the ultimate gift from God, has consequences. But there’s also redemption, God’s other ultimate gift, available to those who want it bad enough to truly change themselves and embrace the standards they have sworn to uphold.

I asked Teresa her thoughts on her approach to religion. She said, in part:

“I had to abandon the group-think mentality in order to write Miserere. I also want to be very clear: when I see or use the phrase “Christian belief,” I think of the teachings of the Christ and I automatically eliminate from my mind the trappings of doctrine and dogma, which were essentially organized and formulated long after the Christ’s death. Christian belief—as in love being the one rule of the law, protect the weak and those who stand outside the mainstream—those were the essential teachings of the Christ, and those beliefs heavily influenced Miserere.”

So, Mr. Elie, perhaps you should not bemoan quite so loudly. “Emphatically Christian” characters are all around you, just not in your myopic view of literature. Or, to paraphrase: there are more things in heaven and earth, Mr. Elie,* than are dreamed of in your limited literary philosophy.

*I was unable to find any website or contact information for Mr. Elie. I would love to include his response, if any.

A dialogue on the “Common kickass heroine”

Posted on by Alex in Hum and the Shiver, novel, Teresa Frohock, writers, writing, writing advice | 13 Comments

Author Teresa Frohock

Recently my friend, author Teresa Frohock, brought to my attention a review of a current urban fantasy/paranormal romance title in which the reviewer referred to the main character as “the common kickass heroine.”  We were both struck by the implications: that what was once a fresh symbol of female empowerment in the male-heavy world of fantasy had become, through repetition and erosion, a cliche.

Since my most recent novel, The Hum and the Shiver, features a heroine I consider “strong,” and Teresa’s novel Miserere: An Autumn Tale has both a vivid warrior-priestess heroine and a terrific female villain, we discussed what the “common kickass heroine” might be, and what it means for writers and readers. Teresa, what’s your background with strong heroines?

Teresa Frohock: In spite of all the novels I’ve read over the years, two strong heroines that have always remained me are Vonda McIntyre’s Snake from her novel Dreamsnake and Anne McCaffrey’s Killashandra from her novel The Crystal Singer. Both characters are portrayed as intelligent and emotionally strong young women who meet their obstacles with resourcefulness and determination. Those were the qualities I wanted for both Rachael and Catarina in Miserere.

This emotional strength was one of the aspects of Bronwyn that I admired so much in The Hum and the Shiver. She is a young woman who took chances and stepped outside the traditional paradigm to become someone with an inner depth that can’t be camouflaged with flash and glitter.

What was your basis for Bronwyn’s strength in The Hum and the Shiver?

Brownyn is a reaction to all those “Casablanca” endings, where the hero/ine makes some noble sacrifice in the service of some “greater good.” I wanted her to decide that yes, I’ll accept these responsibilities you’ve been pressing on me all my life, but on *my* terms.  It’s the kind of strength that you don’t see very often, and has little to do with mundane things like “ass kicking.” It’s strength of *character.*  Rachael in Miserere has that, despite a betrayal that would send most of us to the bottom.

I still feel the template is Ellen Ripley in Aliens. She has no super powers or lethal skills, just a steely determination that exceeds even that of the professional soldiers around her. Alas, once “Buffy” came along, the idea that tiny women must demonstrate their strength by destroying large men/supernatural creatures overwhelmed the concept of strength being a non-physical attribute.  Now the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, Ass-kicking Version, is the standard.

Do you think that’s because perhaps deep down, both readers and writers can’t reconcile the idea of strength with attractiveness?

Teresa's terrific first novel

Yes, and I think part of it is a backlash to earlier tropes. Let’s face it: Daphne and Thelma in Scooby-Doo always perpetuated the trope that you can’t be both beautiful and intelligent. In high school, I read The Rebel Outlaw: Josey Wales by Forrest Carter and the character Laura Lee is described as plain. Her hands were too large to hold teacups but perfect for holding a rifle. I related to Laura Lee based on that description, because I knew how she felt. A woman couldn’t be strong and beautiful. Now all the female characters are dainty with hands perfect for holding both teacups and assault rifles.

This is obviously how women want to see themselves. Everyone wants to relate to the characters in a story, but there is also a need to see grander pictures of ourselves. These “strong” women want to be seen as sexually attractive/aggressive, but the assault rifle (or Ninja sword or whatever) says: I don’t need a man. I can take care of myself.

I’m curious about what guys see in characters like this. Do you see them as empowered women or caricatures?

It’s hard to say, because I think I’ve aged out of the target audience. Certainly younger men, gamers and serious comic book fans, respond to these images.  The entire anime industry probably wouldn’t exist without them. But for me, yes, they feel like caricatures.  The only possible justification for them is that they have supernatural powers, which I think gets us closer to the cliché we began with.  All these women shown from the neck down on book covers, displaying their tramp-stamp tattoos as they carry some bladed weapon loosely in their fingers, are the result of trying to “realistically” have it both ways: heroines who are conventionally attractive, yet capable of battling the bad guys.

But what makes this so interesting, to me, is that this stereotype is promulgated by women, for women in the paranormal romance genre.  Which leads into the question of, is emulating male sexuality really a sign of liberation, or just more cliché?

I don’t think emulating male sexuality is a sign of liberation at all. I find it demeaning to women that we have taken the very aspects of male behavior that women disdain and flipped those male defects into virtues for women. Men who use sex as a weapon are animals, but women who use sex as a weapon are empowered? How did we hit that point? The sexual liberation I remember being discussed by feminists was all about being in control of our bodies and fates in a society that demeaned us all as brainless sluts.

I digress.

From an authorial viewpoint, any character that suffers a lack of emotional growth in the course of the story is in danger of becoming a cliché. I think the “common kick-ass heroine” will eventually go the way of the “Sam Spades”. There will always be some novels with those kinds of characters, but they won’t be as prevalent. Which makes me wonder what might be the next big thing?

The next big thing is always impossible to predict.  I’ve heard it would zombies, but while they’re popular, I can’t see a single zombie character becoming a romantic symbol.  I’ve also heard angels would be next, but again, while they’re often used, I don’t see any becoming the romantic symbol that vampires and werewolves have become.

What do you think?

I’d like to think the next big thing would be … normal men and women. I’m not counting on it though. I’m still trying to get the zombie thing. I’d throw my money on fallen angels. Not because I write them—nobody is going to be flinging themselves on my version of the fallen—but I have seen a lot of bare male chests on cover art along with fallen angel references. Someone is just going to have to come up with the right combination that clicks with the fans, I suppose.

Teresa’s novel Miserere: an Autumn Tale is published by Night Shade Books, who also did the hardcover edition of my novel The Sword-Edged Blonde.  You can read my review of her book here, and find out more about Miserere, including a free read of the first four chapters, here.

Interview with Teresa Frohock, author of Miserere

Posted on by Alex in interview, Teresa Frohock, writers, writing | 1 Comment

Teresa Frohock is both a friend and the author of Miserere: an Autumn Tale, a book I enjoyed so much that I gave her the following blurb:

“Miserere is about redemption, and the triumph of our best impulses over our worst. It’s also about swords, monsters, chases, ghosts, magic, court intrigues and battles to the death. It’s also (and this is the important part) really, really good.”

You can read my full review here.

Teresa graciously agreed to answer some questions for me about the book.

You and I have both recently written books that include people of genuine, true religious faith (my book is The Hum and the Shiver, out this fall). The pitfalls of this are enormous: the danger of sanctimoniousness, of preachiness (literal and figurative), of simply alienating readers who don’t share whatever faith the characters embody. How much did you worry about this, and how did you overcome it?

Thanks so much for having me here, Alex, I really appreciate the opportunity to talk about some of this.

Truth be told, I’m still worried about some of those things. Although I think people who read speculative fiction are open-minded and much more amenable to experimentation than other genres, I still worry that some may suffer contempt prior to investigation. I hope not.

It helps that I have no agenda here. I’m not out to push a viewpoint, Christian or otherwise. I just wanted to tell a story, and as I constructed Woerld, I realized the focus would be on Lucian, who happened to belong to the Christian bastion. From that point forward, I had to educate myself about Christianity and I was really surprised by the facts I found.

The version of Christianity that I present on Woerld is gleaned not just from Biblical sources, but also from the Pseudepigrapha and Apocrypa. I wanted to see what Christianity might have been like before the Schism of 1054 when Rome split from the Byzantine Church. I approached all the religions on Woerld strictly from a scholarly angle at first, then I eased the spiritual elements inherent to the practices of the religion into the story.

I focused entirely on the growth of the individual character and not the dogma of the religion. And that was hard, showing how the adherents struggle with their faith from personal viewpoints. When we speak of Muslims, Jews, Christians, Buddhists, Hindus, we tend to think in terms of groups, not individuals. I wanted to put the focus on the individual and show that
personal growth doesn’t come from automatically joining a group, but comes through the internal work of the individual.

If you read most religious texts closely, they emphasize a personal contact with a higher power, not group-think. So I did very much what you’ve done with Reverend Craig in The Hum and the Shiver—I simply had Lucian live his life in accordance with the dictates of his beliefs. I’ve always loved Emerson and Thoreau’s writings and their emphasis on the individual’s responsibility to contact the divine within and bring that light into the world through action. That is a concept inherent to all religions and I wanted to illustrate that philosophy in Miserere.

You incorporate a young woman, Lindsay, who must learn both to be a warrior (a common fantasy trope) and to truly believe in God (not so common). What did she represent for you?

Lindsay represents our twenty-first century’s society secular thinking about religion, our preconceptions and our misconceptions. Her exposure to religion comes primarily through the media, meaning she understands the various religions through the extremes of the worst possible examples of the adherents: politicians who mouth their version of Christianity while they actively engage in immoral behavior; a Catholic Church hiding child-molesting priests; jihadists that believe their way to paradise is paved with the bodies they leave behind; Hindus and Muslims and Christians and Jews constantly fighting one another either in rhetoric or with guns.

This is what Lindsay is exposed to day after day, then she is taken to the obligatory church service, plunked in a pew, and told God is love. Needless to say, she’s a tad cynical over the whole thing. Kind of like the rest of us.

So I like having her as the voice of the reader, to question Lucian and the adults in Woerld about how things work. That way I can gently ease my readers into Woerld yet not make the picture too rosy. It’s not. There are serious conflicts among the bastions and the governments in Woerld—it was never my intent to present a Utopian society.

Children aren’t afraid to question the status quo, and they see things very clearly, more clearly than adults want to admit. Lindsay is the perfect lens to view Woerld and its imperfections.

Your novel is definitely a fantasy, and many fantasies create their own religions. You chose to use actual existing world religions. What was your thought process behind that?

I thought about Tolkien and Lewis and wondered what The Lord of the Rings would have looked like if Tolkien had written it as a Catholic story instead of embedding the religious tenets beneath Middle Earth’s mythology, or what Narnia would have looked like if, instead of a lion, Aslan was the Christ. Not being as much of a fan of Tolkien as I am of Lewis, I really started reading Lewis’ works; he had a talent for rooting out the spirituality of Christianity and getting to the essence of its beliefs without sanctimony.

I checked out some other current fantasy titles that used fallen angels, and while they addressed the fallen part of the situation, very few showed it from a Christian angle. I think God’s Demon by Wayne Barlowe was the closest novel to presenting hell from a Christian viewpoint, and I love what Barlowe did with that story. The language he used, the characterization, and his perception of hell as an actual, physical place just knocked me for a loop.

Barlowe took the war in heaven and showed how the fallen angels fought. I’ve always been fascinated by the war in heaven and often wondered: what if it’s still going on? I’m sacrilegious like that.

In the end, I fell in love with the absolute challenge of it. This is my own ego talking now, but I wanted to prove you could write a fantasy with Christians in it without the story becoming insipid or preachy. I began constructing Woerld and realized that all religions have some form of hell or purgatory, so realistically, it wouldn’t be just Christians. I mean why would heaven only use a fraction of its forces to combat evil?

So the other religions started seeping in and with that there must be a hierarchy, and the structure of Woerld evolved until it became what it is in Miserere. The more I worked on it, the more detail seeped in, and again, I just loved the challenge of using real religions.

You have a male hero torn between and among a group of women: his sister, his former lover, and his new protégé. Was there a deliberate thought process behind the gender roles for these characters?

I wanted to step outside of a few of the standard fantasy tropes and twist them. The most common trope from the fairy tales of my youth was that of the beautiful princess who was captured by the evil warlord or witch and rescued by a handsome prince. I wanted to turn that trope upside down and show the handsome prince who was captured by the wicked queen and rescued by the beautiful princess. Only in Miserere, the prince takes a real beating from the wicked queen, the beautiful princess is mauled and half-mad, and the wicked queen isn’t strung too tight either.

That was my primary thinking, then everything sort of got away from me. Most people are conditioned to see men in one of two roles: protector or aggressor. Lucian sees himself as the protector, even though it is Lindsay and Rachael who end up saving him more often than he saves them. He is determined not to abandon them, though, and that’s important, that desire to be a part of someone’s life even if it means constraints on his existence.

Nor did I want the women to be perfect. Rachael had her part in her own downfall; Catarina is a grand case of self-will run riot; and Lindsay thinks they’re all being horribly unfair to Lucian while she downplays his crimes in her own mind.

When I got the cover art for Miserere (by the wonderful Michael C. Hayes), I just cried, it was better than anything I could have imagined. I had been dreading what an artist’s conception of Miserere would be, but more than anything, I feared chain mail bikinis on the women and Lucian standing with Catarina and Rachael kneeling or the women pictured lower in the foreground.

Instead, Michael got exactly what I was doing and busted the tropes with me: they’re all standing with their backs to one another; Rachael and Catarina are wearing the armor they would probably choose; Lucian is on his knees between them; and the walls of the Citadel rise behind them. Catarina’s face is cunning, Rachael is distrustfully looking at Lucian, and Lucian—my
poor Lucian—looks to Heaven, because when you’re trapped between those two women, your only salvation is from above.

Thanks to Teresa Frohock for answering my questions. Miserere: an Autumn Tale is available now from Night Shade Books.