Present Writers: Ellen Klages

This is the latest in a recurring series! For more about the series, please read the original post on Marta Randall, or subsequent posts on Dorothy Heydt, Barbara Hambly, Jane Yolen, Suzy McKee Charnas, Sherwood Smith, Nisi Shawl, Pamela Dean, Gwyneth Jones , Caroline Stevermer, Patricia C. Wrede, Lois McMaster Bujold, Nancy Kress, Diane Duane, Candas Jane Dorsey, Greer Gilman, Robin McKinley, Laurie Marks, Ellen Kushner, Delia Sherman,Rosemary Kirstein, Karen Joy Fowler, and Susan Cooper.

There are writers who are just like their books. Who are just exactly like you’d think they’d be, and if you’ve loved their books you are not the least bit surprised when they are like that. (coughPamelacough) And then there are writers like Ellen Klages, whose books show an extremely different side than the first thing you see of them when you meet them at a convention.

Ellen is popular as a toastmaster for good reason. She is improvisational and funny and knows how to find the common points in a crowd and work them for in-jokes–or create new in-jokes all her own that everyone is immediately invited into.

But her fiction is another thing completely. Her toasts are not insensitive, but her fiction is actively sensitive. This is the thoughtful inward part, and it’s amazing. Klages particularly shines when she’s writing historical fiction about (mostly) girls and women who don’t fit the expectations put on them in their time. Her work is tender and thoughtful and conflicted as well as funny, and the relationships in it are extremely strong. I love how Klages writes budding scientists and would like to see more of that kind of character done as well as she does it–but in the meantime I’m glad she’s showing a good way.

Present Writers: Susan Cooper

This is the latest in a recurring series! For more about the series, please read the original post on Marta Randall, or subsequent posts on Dorothy Heydt, Barbara Hambly, Jane Yolen, Suzy McKee Charnas, Sherwood Smith, Nisi Shawl, Pamela Dean, Gwyneth Jones , Caroline Stevermer, Patricia C. Wrede, Lois McMaster Bujold, Nancy Kress, Diane Duane, Candas Jane Dorsey, Greer Gilman, Robin McKinley, Laurie Marks, Ellen Kushner, Delia Sherman, Rosemary Kirstein, and Karen Joy Fowler.

Some poetry you memorize on purpose, because you want to keep it with you always. Some poetry you memorize accidentally, because you read it enough times, over and over again, that your brain automatically knows that the verse says wood bronze iron fire water stone and not the order in which those elements appear in the book. That’s where I am with the prophecy poems in the Dark Is Rising series: I read them so many times that there are entire passages, not just the poems, that will be with me always. If that series was all Susan Cooper had ever written, it would be worth appreciating her for just that.

But, of course, it’s not. There’s the Boggart trilogy, a very different take on the same region’s myths. There’s the dreamlike Seaward; there are historical and time travel books. Cooper has also written picture books and screenplays. Her breadth is startling–many people who adored Greenwitch or Over Sea, Under Stone have no idea what a variety of other things Cooper has done. She keeps turning her hand to new things, and we’re so lucky that she does.

Present Writers: Karen Joy Fowler

This is the latest in a recurring series! For more about the series, please read the original post on Marta Randall, or subsequent posts on Dorothy Heydt, Barbara Hambly, Jane Yolen, Suzy McKee Charnas, Sherwood Smith, Nisi Shawl, Pamela Dean, Gwyneth Jones , Caroline Stevermer, Patricia C. Wrede, Lois McMaster Bujold, Nancy Kress, Diane Duane, Candas Jane Dorsey, Greer Gilman,Robin McKinley,Laurie Marks, Ellen Kushner, Delia Sherman, and Rosemary Kirstein.

Karen Joy Fowler’s speculative genre credentials are impeccable, and her mimetic genre credentials are also impeccable. It’s easy to immerse in her writing, knowing that when she applies a trope from one genre set or another, it’s on purpose, it’s all deliberate. Her work is as speculative as a particular piece needs it to be, no more and no less, but the range on that is huge, from the entirely mimetic Jane Austen Book Club to the first contact novel Sarah Canary.

Fowler has won bunches of awards, the World Fantasy, the Nebula, the PEN/Faulkner. But she also was one of the founders of another, the Otherwise Award which was formerly named the Tiptree. (It’s kind of a big deal.) That kind of appreciation of others shines through in her fiction and makes it more insightful and bigger-hearted. I’m never sure what I’m going to get in a Karen Joy Fowler story, but that’s actually the appeal–it is literally never “oh, this again,” it’s always a different balance and a different angle.

Present Writers: Rosemary Kirstein

This is the latest in a recurring series! For more about the series, please read the original post on Marta Randall, or subsequent posts on Dorothy Heydt, Barbara Hambly, Jane Yolen, Suzy McKee Charnas, Sherwood Smith, Nisi Shawl, Pamela Dean,Gwyneth Jones , Caroline Stevermer, Patricia C. Wrede,Lois McMaster Bujold, Nancy Kress,Diane Duane, Candas Jane Dorsey, Greer Gilman,Robin McKinley,Laurie Marks, Ellen Kushner, and Delia Sherman.

The Steerswoman series. There are four out already, apparently Rosemary is at work on not one but two more (oh that is so hopeful), but the four that already exist make me so happy.

The thing about the Steerswoman books is that they are about people who are trying to figure out their world. They’re about people who value knowledge. And they’re about people who have actually followed through on what that means in practical terms and come to a lot of ideas about kindness and equality that serve advancing knowledge really well, that unfortunately a lot of people in our world don’t think ahead enough to get to. But one of the great things about books that are thoughtful about that kind of thing is that they encourage their readers to be more thoughtful too.

They are beautifully exploratory, these books. The protagonists are allowed to make extremely human mistakes in love and deduction and everything else that is important in life. And yet they keep on. In the face of sometimes staggering odds, they keep on. I only meant to reread the first two for this project, but now that I have, I just want to keep going–because they’re not just philosophically great, they’re also delightful page-turners, well-characterized and tightly plotted. I am over the moon to find that we have two more coming. I simply cannot wait for more of Kirstein’s work, and if you haven’t had the joy, run don’t walk to download the ebooks or order paper copies delivered from your nearest friendly struggling retailer.

Present Writers: Delia Sherman

This is the latest in a recurring series! For more about the series, please read the original post on Marta Randall, or subsequent posts on Dorothy Heydt, Barbara Hambly, Jane Yolen, Suzy McKee Charnas, Sherwood Smith, Nisi Shawl, Pamela Dean,Gwyneth Jones , Caroline Stevermer, Patricia C. Wrede,Lois McMaster Bujold, Nancy Kress,Diane Duane, Candas Jane Dorsey, Greer Gilman,Robin McKinley, Laurie Marks, and Ellen Kushner.

It’s a little strange and yet also wonderful to write two of these in a row when my favorite book by the pair of authors is the one they wrote together. Because as I said last month–The Fall of the Kings is my favorite Ellen Kushner book, and it’s also my favorite Delia Sherman book. They’re a married couple who managed to do something together that was even more amazing than what they do separately–it’s magical and immersive, and I love it so much.

But Sherman does have an entire quirky and individual body of work away from Riverside, and writing these two posts in such quick succession made me think carefully about what I like about that body of work apart from The Fall of the Kings. Remove the favorite, and what have you got? And for me the answer is that Sherman is an absolute champ at historical fantasy. The texture and detail of how the characters’ motivation and plot arise from their context and setting, the way that magic can arise from a knowledge of place and time–that’s where she really shines.

You can take a quick tour through a chocolate box sampler of these skills with Sherman’s short story collection, Young Woman in a Garden, in which she demonstrates a variety of inspirations and settings, rather than just one or two. Even within the 19th century in the United States Sherman has an ear for place, context, dialect. If you have time you can pick up one after another of the longer works to see her range–but one collection will give you a taste of it incredibly quickly. It’s a treat, and it’s a gift.

Present Writers: Ellen Kushner

This is the latest in a recurring series! For more about the series, please read the original post on Marta Randall, or subsequent posts on Dorothy Heydt, Barbara Hambly, Jane Yolen, Suzy McKee Charnas, Sherwood Smith, Nisi Shawl, Pamela Dean,Gwyneth Jones , Caroline Stevermer, Patricia C. Wrede,Lois McMaster Bujold, Nancy Kress,Diane Duane, Candas Jane Dorsey, Greer Gilman, Robin McKinley, and Laurie Marks.

The first several times I mentioned a book by Ellen Kushner, my mother would ask, is it that Ellen Kushner? It is, it is that Ellen Kushner–because my mother listened to NPR’s Sound and Spirit, and that was how she knew Ellen’s name.

But for me, Ellen Kushner meant Riverside, and still does. She’s written other things–Thomas the Rhymer, notably, although there have been others–but her masterwork in fantasy is the series of stories clustered around Riverside, starting with Swordspoint and blossoming into more, The Privilege of the Sword and The Fall of the Kings and eventually the Tremontaine serial.

Though these settings have been shared with other writers, starting with her wife, writer Delia Sherman and going on to a bevy of other talents through the serial, a reread of Swordspoint makes it clear how many of the ideas were layered in from the very beginning. Other talents have brought their own strengths and richness to the stories–but only because Kushner built the space for them into it in the first place. Some of the references are tiny, astonishing in retrospect. Some anticipate current trends by decades. It is a marvel of concise implication, and it isn’t even my favorite of her works. (That would be The Fall of the Kings.) I think this is actually a case where taking up any thread will give you an edge of the tapestry, and I definitely recommend that you do so.

Every time certain other Kushners are referred to by their last name alone, I think, “WHAT? She would neve–oh, that guy,” and remain staunch in my conviction that if they don’t mean Ellen Kushner, they really should specify. Because we all know which is the original.

Present Writers: Laurie Marks

This is the latest in a recurring series! For more about the series, please read the original post on Marta Randall, or subsequent posts on Dorothy Heydt, Barbara Hambly, Jane Yolen, Suzy McKee Charnas, Sherwood Smith, Nisi Shawl, Pamela Dean,Gwyneth Jones , Caroline Stevermer, Patricia C. Wrede,Lois McMaster Bujold, Nancy Kress,Diane Duane, Candas Jane Dorsey, Greer Gilman, and Robin McKinley.

One of the great things about doing this series is that it encourages me to research the authors I’m writing about. I was fully prepared to write about how Laurie Marks’s Elemental Logic series, by itself, is worthy and awesome and I am so glad to be reading it, I am so excited to have more of it ahead. Because it is about how different people think logically and how we need each other, how different modes of thought fit together and how people with similar modes of thought often come to quite different conclusions, and all these lovely things fit into a fantasy model incredibly well–fantasy is an utterly great way to illuminate these things.

And then I went and looked, and she’s done other books I haven’t even heard of.

What an opportunity I have in front of me! In addition to enjoying this series–in addition to hoping that I can encourage you to be, as we say on the internet, one of today’s lucky 10,000–I am myself one of today’s lucky 10,000.

I love doing this project.

Anyway! So! Diversity of human brain types! In a fantasy matrix! In the context of colonialism and governance and cultures finding ways to live together! And with magic! This is a “yes she can sing, yes she can dance, but can she juggle” author, all in just one series, and apparently there’s more. I can’t wait for more.

Present Writers: Robin McKinley

This is the latest in a recurring series! For more about the series, please read the original post on Marta Randall, or subsequent posts on Dorothy Heydt, Barbara Hambly, Jane Yolen, Suzy McKee Charnas, Sherwood Smith, Nisi Shawl, Pamela Dean,Gwyneth Jones , Caroline Stevermer, Patricia C. Wrede,Lois McMaster Bujold, Nancy Kress,Diane Duane, Candas Jane Dorsey , and Greer Gilman.

There’s a lot of pressure for sequels in this world. Robin McKinley basically doesn’t do sequels. Sometimes this makes those of us who have been her fans since we were staggering around the grade school thinking big dragon thoughts tear our hair and scream. Sometimes it leaves us with basically part of a story, waiting to see if the promised sequel ever comes. That way lies madness, friends. It might. But you can’t actually wait for it. That’s not what she’s doing.

What you can do–what you should do–is enjoy what’s here. Because what’s here is delightful. What’s here is its own thing in all sorts of explosively different directions. I don’t know of any other author who can write two retellings of the same fairy tale and have them feel as completely different as McKinley’s Beauty and the Beast retellings that they can feel so utterly non-repetitive. The same author did something as sweet as The Outlaws of Sherwood and as dark as Deerskin–and fairly close together, too. The two Damar books are listed as related to each other, but they are such different views of the same land as to be completely transformative of it. What is Damar, what are its customs and mores, what do its people mean and think and do? Utterly transformed things over time–and yet connected, related. I could have–would have–read a dozen books about Damar. If you’d asked me, when I was a tiny child who had just finished reading about Narnia, I would have expected to. And instead I got Sunshine and its bakery and the way that it tells a vampire story when I thought I never wanted another. What else will there be. I can’t begin to guess, but McKinley’s body of work has taught me to appreciate what there is, and that is itself such a gift.

Present Writers: Greer Gilman

This is the latest in a recurring series! For more about the series, please read the original post on Marta Randall, or subsequent posts on Dorothy Heydt, Barbara Hambly, Jane Yolen, Suzy McKee Charnas, Sherwood Smith, Nisi Shawl, Pamela Dean,Gwyneth Jones , Caroline Stevermer, Patricia C. Wrede,Lois McMaster Bujold, Nancy Kress, Diane Duane, and Candas Jane Dorsey.

Some of the writers I’ve featured in this series have been extremely prolific. My friend Greer is not. She has to her name two novels (Moonwise and Clouds and Ashes) and a handful of shorter work, including two novellas about the extremely startling adventures of Ben Jonson (yes, the playwright). But this body of work is very densely written, with the closest of attention paid to the language in every instance.

Some of this work is very natural and seasonal. Some of it is filled with artifice in the best way–what is more created, more artificial, than the theater?–and one of my favorite things about reading Greer’s work is the moment when I fall into the cadence of one of her stories. This is lovely and easy when you have the pleasure and privilege of hearing her read aloud, but something can still click when you’re reading to yourself, and then the utterly singular and personal prose just flows, like being told a story in the way that only one person on earth could do it.

We are not here to tell stories like anyone else. No one exemplifies telling the stories that only we can tell better than Greer Gilman, and I am so glad that she is present and still coming up with charming, hilarious tales of Ben Jonson and beyond, with us today.

Present Writers: Candas Jane Dorsey

This is the latest in a recurring series! For more about the series, please read the original post on Marta Randall, or subsequent posts on Dorothy Heydt, Barbara Hambly, Jane Yolen, Suzy McKee Charnas, Sherwood Smith, Nisi Shawl, Pamela Dean,Gwyneth Jones , Caroline Stevermer, Patricia C. Wrede,Lois McMaster Bujold, Nancy Kress, and Diane Duane.

My first exposure to Candas Jane Dorsey’s work was the singular Black Wine, which did more with themes of servitude and slavery than the vast majority of science fiction prior to its publication. From there I went on to A Paradigm of Earth, the kind of near-future SF that was present-SF by the time I read it, one where aliens were trying to figure out humans and gender, and friends, couldn’t we really use some confused aliens going “wait but what but wait” on this one because it’s not like we’ve got a good fix on it ourselves, and poking at it with an alien is not a bad plan at all, nor is it in the book in question.

Most lately, though, and the one that made me think of writing a Present Writers post about Dorsey, was Ice and Other Stories. Because it is such a far-ranging collection in tone and mood and time and genre. It is doing so many things, it is reaching for so many things and then actually achieving them, that it was a sudden reminder: oh! Oh yes, she’s been doing this a minute! She’s gotten quite good at this! (And that, if you recall, is what this series is for.)

But when I looked up her bio, it turns out that Dorsey, like so many of the writers in this series, had done so much more than what I’d already realized. Television and stage scripts, arts journalism and arts advocacy…it makes me want to send her a fruit basket and a comfy place to sit down for a moment. But that’s what these posts are for: to say, we see you, well done, keep doing it, here is your internet fruit basket for continuing to do the thing.