THE LIBRARY 2017
part two of two
oh heck this is really long
It's been over six whole months since THE ECLIPSE happened. I'd hoped to be back in my apartment in South Carolina, within the very ominous but also badass-sounding Path of Totality. Instead, I was a time zone west on the north side of Tulsa, Oklahoma with my best friend. We had QuikTrip sodas and a scraggly dog named Gus and one pair of eclipse glasses between us, so we took turns going out into the driveway, looking up and saying, "Whoa." Tulsa was somewhere near 93%, and it turns out 7% of sun is still a lot of sun, so the city was nowhere near dark. Still, the street got eerily quiet, crickets chirping in the middle of the afternoon, eerie crescent shadows under the all the trees. It was great.
The Solar Eclipse of 2017 seemed like an all-too-apt ending for this Summer of A Century I'd had, not just because it was this once-in-a-lifetime phenomenon, but because I'd spent the bulk of the summer thinking about space, and spaceships, and pocket dimensions, and demonic possession and cult mentality and support robots and Sumerian mythology and void bikes and diamond bullets and gargantuan yak trilobite hybrid gods and AI ghosts and flying cars and prosthetic limbs and warlocks and automation and and and and--I have notebooks crammed with this.
All of this to say, the following list of books are all part of the giant cosmic cluster that is and was Clarion, a six-week "proving ground" (according to them, not me, though it was all too true) for aspiring writers of science fiction, fantasy, and horror. It's been around since 1968 and y'all, the alumni are listed on their own Wikipedia page.
In short: CLARION IS A REALLY, REALLY BIG DEAL!
When I found out I was going when I checked my email at a stoplight, I pulled into a parking lot and screamed. Then I went to the library with a shopping list which spurred a reading list of all the books I owned but had forgotten how much I loved, like the complete stories of Ray Bradbury and Lovecraft and other deranged white men (per aspera ad astra optimism and galactic nihilism, respectively).
The fact that so much of my pre-Clarion reading overlapped with the six weeks I spent in San Diego is genuinely cosmic. I'm happy to have the following books to return to--along with composition notebooks a-plenty--to channel the residual oversoul ghost of Clarion that I am invoking right now under my Godzilla shrine. Candles are involved. There's no best/worst at the end of this list, but there's some jokes and epiphanies along the way. Likewise, we've got no categories, though there are some shouty section breaks. LET'S GET TO IT!
SPEAKING OF NOTEBOOKS:
Remember the beginnings of This Library? Remember when I picked up Lynda Barry's SYLLABUS and it blew my mind, reinvigorated my existence, and led me on a bonanza of pen acquisition and tentative steps in the direction of radical self-acceptance?
Well. I kid you not: I arrived in San Diego and within 24 hours, here I was on one side of the room, here were 17 other humans I'd just met from all over the globe (Singapore! Finland! Australia! The Philippines!), and over here, Lynda Barry and Dan Chaon, and here were our notebooks and our invented name nametags and five days later, Dan and Lynda had left but we remained with our notebooks and our clubhouse which was, by then, legitimately papered with a week's worth of drawing and swapping and experimenting and play and adventure and hilarity and insanity and then the capital W Work (as in what RuPaul says you betta do) began.
But I'm getting ahead of myself.
I'd sent in my Clarion application but, considering a vast chunk of my life is spent on applications and attempts and investigations, I wasn't thinking of it as much as I was admiring the incredible patterned blouse collection of Hub City's latest Writer-in-Residence, Kelsey Ronan. Bitches with good fashion sense often have great fiction taste (I mean, look at Kelsey and me) and Kelsey insisted I read this collection, Beasts And Children by Amy Parker. I did, and it unsettled me in the best possible way--a series of interconnected stories spanning decades and continents, filled with kids and critters throughout, most subject to a brutality or violence that disturbed and delighted me. Admittedly, I was in a pretty gory mood at the time: I lived in South Carolina, and I'd just read Uzumaki, which I do not ever recommend you bring with you to brunch at the crepe place by the bowling alley unless you want the grandmas of the South scorning you openly from under their frosted hairpieces.
I would not have known about Amy's book had Kelsey not recommended it. I am infrequently mistaken for a poet with a smarter-looking website than mine, so when the list of our Clarion cohort appeared, I was so elated to see my own name that I didn't actually connect the Amy Parker who'd written this book of beastly stories I'd read with the Amy Parker I'd spend the summer with in California. This is what I mean, friends, when I say this summer was cosmic. There was something witchy and astrological happening, and it only got better.
That first week of Clarion I walked around in a kind of glorious thunderstruck daze. I'd driven so far! Here was the ocean! Here was the blissful San Diego weather! Here was IN-AND-OUT!
Unless I am asleep I am usually brimming with emotions, but it's safe to say that this honeymoon week was something else entirely. I was operating on all psychological cylinders, including a dozen dormant ones. Suddenly I was in the midst of all these peoples from all these places. We hadn't known each other at all and now we spent all day, every day together, and what was more: I wasn't gut-clenchingly anxious all the time, wasn't paranoid I was interrupting or talking too loudly (I probably was) or ashamed at my l'eau-de-marijuana or restless in conversation or bored or or or. And that's not to say it was six solid weeks of kumbaya hand-holding--I cried, I overslept, had a wicked hangover at Comic Con, hermited myself and blathered and made more than one mistake--but it's no coincidence my Week 3 story was about a depressed woman navigating a cult. (Most of my stories were about depressed women navigating everything except tangible things that actually require navigation, like spaceships--I'm still learning!)
What I'm saying is I felt like I belonged somewhere for once. I think all writers are forever juggling time and space, and I know I'm terrible at being where I am, when I am. Throw in the who of other people and my manic self-management and I am very rarely all there.
But for most of last summer, I was.
So we fell into our own kind of tribe, if only in solidarity against the mobs of other camps and groups using the UC San Diego campus. Nothing quite like the rallying cries of Police Camp--aka kids pretending to be cops--marching up and down the thoroughfares to rouse you from your dreams of militaristic dystopias.
When asked on on a pre-Clarion questionnaire about our apprehensions, I said that I was worried I'd vomit on an instructor. I didn't specify which instructor, but if you've made it this far, congratulations. Let the record show:
I DID NOT VOMIT ON DAN CHAON.
Though I got pretty close! Namely when I brought along all of his books to the first of many readings at Mysterious Galaxy, and I had to hand him this tiny skyscraper of everything he'd ever written and I stood there blushing like a nuclear reactor because like I said, EMOTIONS WERE RUNNING HIGH.
So here are the Dan Chaon books I read this year. If you need his back catalog, you know where to find me.
Chaon's latest novel, Ill Will is one that I would've read based on the synopsis alone: serial killers and isolation tanks and Rust Belt urban decay and conspiracy theories and twins and murders and Satanic Ritual Abuse. What's not to love? Chaon's debut novel, You Remind Me of Me is a slow-burn with an inevitable, terrible conclusion that I saw coming like a tidal wave. Stay Awake, Chaon's 2012 collection, is perfectly titled because that is exactly what you'll do--as much as I love Chaon's novels, his short stories are goddamn textbook in their goodness. You will have nightmares. Incredible, nuanced, prosody nightmares. See also: The Bees.
Chaon is also a devotee of Ray Bradbury and was once penpals with him and if he had brought along one of their letters, I would've vomited. No doubt.
Not only did I not vomit on Dan Chaon, I did not end up murdering anyone (including myself!) and nobody else did, either. All 18 members of Clarion survived--and there is an element of survival to the whole affair, disregarding the various curses and ailments we all suffered (Depression flare-ups! Blood clots! Mysterious sores! A leg that would not heal!), because we were reading 4 stories a night, providing feedback for all of them (god willing), discussing them for 4 hours every day, then working on our own which is due at 5 oh shit it's 5:30 sorry guys it'll be ready by 7 I swear oh god what am I even typing write now [WITTY INTRO TO THE FOLLOWING BOOKS BY OTHER INSTRUCTORS GOES HERE WHY IS WRITING SO HARD I AM SO TIRED SORRY GUYS SORRY COULD THIS BE A NOVEL? Y/N}
Nalo Hopkinson's Brown Girl in the Ring may be turning 20 this year, but the novel is so, so fresh. In dystopian inner-city Toronto, spirts and obeah and magic are as omnipresent as criminal corruption and urban blight. It's an Afro-Carribbean futurist adventure, a fast and fun read, and when I'm being especially obstinate with myself, I still think, "Stupidness!" Nalo herself is a magical saint of a person who literally stopped my bulldozing self-effacing writing autobiography to make me pause and actually listen to all the good things I've achieved that I was rattling off like embarrassing symptoms. She is also an incredible cook and I have no idea what she fed us, but man, it was good.
Shout out to Andrea Hairston whose books I have not (yet!) read but who brought a passion and energy and vibrancy that proves she is not of this earth. She also rocked the tiniest hat I've ever seen. From her bio: She bikes at night year round, meeting bears, multi-legged creatures of light and breath, and the occasional shooting star.
Cory Doctorow's Overclocked contains the incredible "Anda's Game" which I first ran into in 2005's Best American Short Stories, and then again in its adapted graphic novel retelling, In Real Life. When I met with Cory during Clarion, we were talking about writing as inherently punishing and how writers need tolerance and endurance, and he told me about his grandmother who'd collected corpses during the Siege of Leningrad as an example of someone with the ability to withstand the unbearable. It was a very surreal moment to recognize the story, wonder where I'd heard it, realize I'd read it in a book, remember who wrote the book, realize it was Cory Doctorow in "After the Siege" and he was telling me a version of it at that moment. I probably had a really intelligent look on my face as this was happening, not helped by the diesel-fuel cold brew he made which I was too flustered to decline (though it was delicious).
The final two weeks of Clarion are traditionally anchored by a pair of instructors, and 2017's class was oh-so-blessed by husband and wife instructors extraordinaire, Rae Carson and C.C. Finlay. Rae writes colossally popular record-breaking YA fantasies that will be making an extended appearance in 2018's Library, and Charlie, a writer in his own right, edits a little magazine you may have heard of called The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, shorted often to F&SF, which you pronounce by pretending you can't remember the word you're thinking of so you just make noise while moving your jaw in a convincing way. F&SF has been around since 1949 and has published everyone you've ever heard of, including, of course, my personal Martian, Ray Bradbury.
I confess: I was terrified of these two. Because, friends, as glorious and revolutionary as Clarion turned out to be, I was neck-deep in some very potent Imposter Syndrome. My trajectory of Clarion was the inverse of others'--I was STOKED to doodle and write mini-horror with Lynda and Dan, but Rae and Charlie would see right through me. I was a literary kid, forever writing about moody protagonists extrapolating their own bullshit onto external obsessions. I joked my way through because I was ashamed. I had an MFA. I didn't write about aliens--no one wrote about aliens in graduate school, unless it was a tragic tale of immigration and the demise of the American dream. You couldn't personify the American Dream into a superhero in a retirement home for other superheroes in graduate school. Is the spaceship a metaphor? As much as I love magical realism, I don't think the ladybugs should dance. Could you just set this in the present?
I said most of that during graduate school.
I don't know how I got so stiff and rigid in how and what I wrote, but I spent all of Clarion butting up against these restrictions I'd secretly given myself. There was so, so much I simply wouldn't let myself write. And then I did, and I had 17 other people saying, "This--more of THIS." And I was saying that, too, because of the EIGHTY-FIVE short stories I read by my Clarion cohort, none bored me. My partner Dean can attest to that last year in grad school, that final workshop, the hours it would take me to simply finish reading because I took so many breaks to groan in angry, bitter, exhausted agony. At Clarion, the work was triple, the pace three times as grueling, and I loved it. I loved it.
It turns out, when you're loving what you're doing, not only do you do it better, you actually do it. I hadn't felt that way in front of a keyboard in a long, long time.
Most of my meeting with Rae and Charlie involved me saying, "I can do that? I can do that?" And them saying, "Well, yeah. Duh." Hence I have adopted them as my genre fairy godparents and remind myself of their benediction daily.
Clarion was a revolution for me, a revelation for my writing. It felt like an enormous personal pivot, and I can't recommend it enough.
In addition to my own personal Rachel evolution, wherein I emerged from the sea like the kaiju lizard monster I truly am, Clarion has had an incredible ripple effect on my reading. Here are the books I read in 2017 whose little star tendrils shed some fairy dust on me via the Clarion Nebula.
Alumni wise, Clarionauts (and our kin, Clarion Westerners, including but not limited to friends Emma Torz and Nana Nkweti) ARE EVERYWHERE. An enormous name is Octavia Butler, whose Parable of the Talents is chillingly prescient. I also have to give the World at Large thanks--2017 was a perfect year to start inventing newer, better worlds. I have Butler's Kindred on my TBR pile though it's technically a re-read as I had an equally prescient professor at Hamilton who assigned it, and of course, my arrogant college sophomore self was too distracted by the unpretty (read: direct, forward, uncluttered and strong) language to appreciate it.
During Clarion, we Skyped with a lot of fantastic former instructors and alumni, including Woman of the Year, Carmen Maria Machado. Carmen's debut short story collection, Her Body and Other Parties, was meteorically successful and is the book of weird-n-queer spooky modern myths you didn't know you needed. Carmen and I are both in the Ochre Issue of Fairy Tale Review which is a journal you need to subscribe to stat.
I have always been a glutton for a prize anthology. John Joseph Adams, series editor of the new Best American Science Fiction & Fantasy and editor of Lightspeed and Nightmare (two premiere, PAYING magazines), also Skyped with us. His best advice?
"Don't be shitty to people."
I read BASF&F's 2015 and 2017 editions last year, and this year I'll be tackling 2018 and 2016's, edited by Karen Joy Fowler, who also Skyped with us and signed my freaking acceptance email (a moment that almost supersedes that time Roxane Gay sent me a personal rejection because Gay likes nobody). Fowler's novel, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, will charm you, but do yourself a favor and go in blind.
I'm a huge fan of Jeff VanderMeer, who I met solely by being a bookshop peon in the same bookshop that hosts the readings put on by Shared Worlds, known by no one as Baby Clarion. His latest full-length novel, Borne, will fuck up your brain and your heart in equal measure. Jeff's wife, Ann, was also on our Skype call, and it delighted me to no end to say "Hello VanderMeers, I am the short and sweaty person who helped shoo Shared Worlds into the neighboring coffeeshop when the A/C blew and now I'm in California!" The VanderMeers together have edited a heap of not-to-be-missed anthologies, including the truly astonishing collection, Sisters of the Revolution: A Speculative Fiction Anthology.
Karin Tidbeck, Scandinavian magician and all-around badass, is one of the VanderMeers' Revolutionary Sisters and graced us with her presence one night during Clarion. She later said hanging with us was a highlight of her time in California, and I hope she knows the feeling's mutual. All throughout Clarion, I was constantly on edge of being found out as an intruder, a dabbler, someone who didn't deserve any of this. What kind of writer was I? What was I doing here? Everything felt right, but my emotions are often deceitful, conniving motherfuckers--not to mention, the rightness implied a previous wrongness. If this was what I should be doing, what the hell had I been doing all along, other than a lot of nothing?
But Karin, in her statuesque, succinct way, killed a lot of my worries when she said, "I never worried about writing 'weird.' I just wrote what I wrote."
And what of us, you ask? We are now all back in our assorted corners of the globe, hopefully all in possession of Pinto Loves You magnets. And we are all up in your literature, as shown by the first post on my NEW NOT A BLOG to-be-updated regularly, god willing.
As for 2018? On top of starting the year minus all the income I'd budgeted from The Job That Went Away, adjunct roulette has again bested me, which means loads of time for dog-walks and drafting, but an increasingly deficient bank account. I'm broke, babies! If you want to help, you can! HERE IS MY PAYPAL IN BOLD. And here is a new network I'm investigating, Kofi. Patreon is maybe in the works, though I get goal-crazy and love to strangle myself with schedules and commitments, so please consider a Kofi contribution in the meantime.
I leave you with this photograph of all of us in the San Diego sunshine. I'm in blue with strong-girl arms making my best Godzilla face, but don't be fooled: that's a happy camper in that picture, and I still can't believe she's me.