A.M. Tuomala

Myths and Morphemes

Author: amtuomala (page 1 of 2)

Cost/Benefit Analyses

The first thing you need in order to be a writer is a reason to write.

I have two writing careers: as a technical writer for a clinical trials nonprofit, and as an author of fiction. The first job pays my bills, grants me healthcare, and gives me a sense of purpose and fulfillment. (It also sees me working a good deal more than forty hours per week, juggling tight deadlines and unexpected audits and a constant flow of new projects.) Even when I’m having a bad day, I know that my coworkers are counting on me, and I can knock out up to six thousand words in a day without feeling overwhelmed.

The benefits of being an author are harder to define. A few critics have praised my books, but that’s never really translated to sales.1 I’m clearly not doing it for the money. I’m not even really doing it for the praise, because while the kind words from Publishers Weekly and Booklist have put a spring in my step, they’ve been islands in a sea of enforced silence. (Most writers will tell you not to read your reviews. This is good advice. Reviews are for readers, not for writers.) There was a time in my life when I did it because I couldn’t not write — because stories were the only way I could organize my frantic thoughts — but depression put a heavy period on that era.

Now, as I’m casting about for my next story, I have to search for the motivation to write again. What can move me, if not wealth or fame or gnawing anxiety? What reason do I have to go on?

Sometimes, the answer is, Because I have something to say. I have always believed that a work of fiction makes a claim; for dreamers, idealists, and visionaries, a story is the shining thread that links together the world as it is and the world as it could be. It would be a fine thing, to write a story that helps others see themselves more clearly or that gives them the courage to change the world.

But sometimes, the answer is simply, For my pleasure. Because I still love building worlds and filling them with people, and I still love the challenge of arranging images and sounds in the right order.

On the hardest days, the answer is, Because I don’t know who I am if I’m not a storyteller. And on days like that, I look for a thread that will lead me back to the story again.


1. As an independent author, I’ve only made a couple hundred dollars (and that, in trickles over several years) on every book I’ve ever sold. I can write about a thousand words an hour, and my novels together are about 245,000 words — then there’s the time (significant) devoted to editing and revising. My back-of-the-napkin math puts me at a little less than fifty cents an hour (before taxes), paid out over seven years. I probably spent at least that much on coffee during the writing and editing process, meaning I might actually have come out in the red overall.

Looking Back at the (Gendered) Face in the Mirror

In July of 2011, I made a post about my gender. I said, after quite a lot of irate ranting about V.S. Naipaul,

I can spend the rest of my life fighting for recognition of a genderqueer identity and not account it time ill-spent. I can fight to convince reviewers to call me sie or xie or zie, to speak of hir writing or zir writing, to create a space in their language for a gender that is neither male nor female but instead both or either or neither, and I would not account that time ill-spent. But if I choose those fights, I may inadvertently spend the rest of my life fighting against the recognition of a female identity, and I cannot brook that.

It’s now 2017, and this tension still pulls at me. I still feel myself tugged between wanting to defend the value of presenting as female in a patriarchal world, and wanting to be seen as I am: mostly neither male nor female, but sometimes one or the other by turns.

I am heavy, fleshy, smooth of face. I am no gamine androgyne, just a tailored blazer and a stick of eyeliner away from departing the gender spectrum entirely; even when I bind my chest, my curves are clearly visible. I have the kind of voice that might charitably be called “sweet,” no matter how I try to rough up the edges. Even among intimates whom I have trained for four years to call me “xie” or “he,” I am still called “she” more often than not. It still feels like misgendering. It has always felt like misgendering.

(These traits, of course, are only female-coded. Many men are fleshy and smooth of face. Many men have sweet voices. Many men have heavy breasts and wear binders, and perhaps they feel the same despair I do when their binders do nothing for them. And many people who — like me — are neither male nor female wind up being called by the wrong pronouns, mostly because we haven’t yet created cultural space for the right ones.)

In 2011, I knew myself to be genderfluid, but I didn’t train others to treat me as such. Now, though, it’s part of almost every social interaction. Greeting, hug, conversation about work, roll the dice, correct that persistent “she.” Wait for my turn in combat, roll the dice, have someone else remind another player that my character is a “he.” (So am I, that day. But that isn’t remarked upon.)

It’s exhausting, having to make myself recognized and present at every turn, even when I just want to relax and fade into the background. Correcting people kindly is exhausting. But every time someone remembers, every time someone else steps up to remind people of who I am, it feels worth the struggle.

I still believe that it is important for women to be recognized as writers. I still want to uphold the women who create the art I love, to celebrate their work, to spread the word of their contributions to everyone who doesn’t know them yet. I want to remind people of how valuable women writers are, for being women writers.

And now, six years later, I think that’s where I want to make my stand. I want to be the person who stands up for another person’s identity and says, “She is a woman who deserves respect.”

But I’m not a woman. I’m not a man, either. I’m only a person, and people like me deserve respect, too. That’s also a battle worth fighting.

Drakon Inspiration: The Villain

At the head of the column rode a man whom Kesha recognized faintly from the papers — a tall man, fresh-faced and gaunt at once. Whether he had grown his beard to hide his youth or his gauntness, Kesha couldn’t have said, but the soft under-hairs hadn’t yet grown in to fill it out, and so it lay sparse and frazzled over his smooth cheeks. He sat very straight on his horse, with a posture particular to Prussian officers in well-boned supportive gear.

This was Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich, the second-youngest son of the Tsar.

A photograph of a young Sergei Alexandrovich in military uniform. Select the image for a link to the source.

Drakon is a book with many antagonists, but only two true villains, and one of them is very hard to spot.

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Drakon, at Last


Six years ago, I set out on an adventure with three strangers: the Tarasov siblings, Elizaveta, Innokentiy, and Pyotr. When I began this journey, I knew little more than their names and the rough outlines of their lives. I knew the scent of their family home, gunpowder and mutton and blood and dust. I knew that Elizaveta dreamed of taking her father’s place as lord of a border fortress, that Innokentiy lied compulsively even as he sought a deeper truth, and that Pyotr liked to fix machines because he couldn’t fix his family. I knew that something had happened in their past that had severed the bonds between them almost irreparably.

I knew that dragons haunted their skies, but I hadn’t decided yet whether they were beasts or people. (I hadn’t decided whether the Tarasovs were, either.)

Discovering the rest of their story was a pleasure and a privilege, and today, I am pleased and privileged to share Drakon with all of you.

For a full summary of the book, check out the listing on Candlemark & Gleam’s website (you can also buy it there!). The inimitable Athena Andreadis has written a very kind introduction to the book, and Publishers Weekly and ALA Booklist have both given it starred reviews. If you’re interested in my inspiration, playlists, and musings on history and gender, you can check out my Drakon tag — I’ll be posting more over the next few months.

Candlemark & Gleam: Paperback or eBook

Amazon: Kindle edition

Amazon: Paperback edition

Barnes & Noble: Nook and paperback editions

Kobo: eBook

Drakon Inspiration: Ceramic Stoves

In his landlady’s sitting room, a pair of Polish cartographers were having a quiet, earnest argument on the ornate French sofa. They’d kept most of the lamps burning, so he left them to their latitudes and curled up on the ceramic stove to delve into the Yekaterinburg translation.

My friends, this is a post that starts out depressing and becomes snuggly and cheerful.

Close to ten years ago, I read Maxim Gorky’s The Lower Depths, which depicts the lives and deaths of the impoverished residents of an overcrowded shelter. This play is a brutal indictment of Gorky’s Russia, of the state’s empty promises and the ugly little wars waged between and within social classes; it’s not hard at all to see the seeds of revolution in it. Perhaps because The Lower Depths is a play rather than a novel, the characters struck me more keenly than  Dickens’s or even Dostoevsky’s — Gorky’s characters have a visceral immediacy to them, an urgency that comes through even in translation. I came away from my first reading with the feeling of having transgressed on real people’s lives — as though I’d been a kind of voyeur, watching poverty porn through a peephole.

Long after I’d finished, one image in particular haunted me. The Actor, the stage directions note, is privileged to be allowed to sleep on top of the stove. In my American ignorance, I was horrified — I pictured him perched atop a little potbellied stove, curled up like a cat, so grateful for the warmth that he ignored the way his big limbs spilled over in all directions. How much must they be suffering, I wondered, if that’s supposed to be a privilege?

Years later, buried under an Upstate New York snowstorm, I remembered the Actor and his stove. By that point in the winter, I was spending most of my evenings draped over the bare ribs of my radiator, and the whole stove thing no longer sounded so far-fetched. Thus, I set out to learn more about why Russians slept on stoves.


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Prescriptivism, Enemy of the First Draft

I’m trying to start my next book, and I keep getting hung up on semicolons.

A writer whose work I admire once said — I’m paraphrasing here — that in almost every case, replacing semicolons with full stops will make for better writing. In this particular case, I know that the writer who said it was making an offhand comment, not trying to lay down her fundamental philosophy of writing. As a former English teacher, I also know that semicolons have a handful of legitimate uses and can actually improve a piece of writing when used effectively.  As a former scholar of the eighteenth century, I know that this prescription is of relatively recent vintage. In short, I know that this is not one of the Immutable Laws of Writing Handed Down from On High.

But all the same, that comment has stuck in my mind, and every time I sit down to write, I hear it. When I try to string sentences together, I remind myself that I am No Longer Allowed to use semicolons (or em-dashes, that other breathless punctuation mark of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries). After a taxing hour of stops and starts, I reread my handful of sentences, and they sound hideous to my ears. The pacing is wrong. Too choppy. No ebbs and flows, no crescendos and decrescendos, no gentle gliding from one idea to the next. If there’s a trick to writing lyrical sentences without semicolons, I never learned it.

I surface from my word processor, heartsick and practically vibrating with self-loathing. A quiet part of me asks, Didn’t I used to be good at writing?


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Call for Advance Reviewers

Candlemark & Gleam is seeking advance reviewers for Drakon! The back cover copy is below, but I should also mention that this is the DRAGONS!  GATLING GUNS! LESBIANS! LANGUAGE MYSTERIES! MURDER! book that I keep capslocking about on Twitter. If you’re interested,  drop them a line on Twitter @CandlemarkGleam.


The year is 1880. A hundred years ago,  the Ottoman Empire bought the allegiance of the dragons — and ever since, the Tarasov family has stood guard on the disputed borderlands.

Now, with the autocratic patriarch Vladimir Petrovich at their head,  the Tarasovs have become a tattered remnant of their former glory. Elizaveta, the last Tarasov soldier,  heir to Vladimir’s cruel legacy. Pyotr, the engineer with dreams of flight.  And Innokentiy, the traitor who fled to the academies of Saint Petersburg. As war looms in the south and foreign troops crowd Russia’s fortresses,  Vladimir’s three children must return to their ancestral home to confront the past that drove them apart.

But the bloodthirsty dragons they’ve fought all their lives aren’t what they seem,  and neither are the humans around them, friend and foe alike.

Splintered by internal strife,  hounded by interlopers,  and beset by Turkish forces,  the Tarasov family must overcome their bad blood — or treat each other apart.

Drakon Inspiration: The Ossian Hoax

“What do you say to that, Tarasov? The dragons have a language—they even write poetry, whether or not it’s any good.”

“Are you sure it isn’t a hoax? A kind of … scholarly prank, devised by bored young men who know too much Greek and too little of the world?”

In these inspiration posts, I want to talk about events from history or cultural artifacts that inspired a few lines of Drakon. Hardly any spoilers here; only a little background.

Only a few days before I started writing Drakon, one of my professors introduced me to the greatest literary hoax of the eighteenth century: James Macpherson’s Fragments of Ancient Poetry, Collected in the Highlands of Scotland, and Translated from the Gaelic or Erse Language. These fragments were the precursor to Macpherson’s much better-known anthology The Works of Ossian, which was what got him into real trouble.

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Fancast for Drakon

Remember how I said that Athena Andreadis was fancasting Drakon? She’s shared her cast list on the Candlemark & Gleam blog, and I couldn’t be more thrilled! Every single one of the actors she’s chosen would absolutely nail the part. I’m rereading the book with this cast in my mind, and it adds so much to hear Tilda Swinton’s low, dangerous alto or to envision Helen Mirren’s icy dignity.

If Drakon were ever adapted for film, this would be my fantasy casting call. Click “Continue reading” for more!

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A Soundtrack for Drakon

Athena Andreadis and I like to joke about which actors we’d cast in a Drakon movie, but for me, the best part of a movie’s always been the score. When I fantasize about a Drakon movie, I’m really fantasizing about having Ramin Djawadi or Thomas Bergersen score it. Music shapes how we understand the emotional content of a scene on a fundamental level (see example). It comments on the actors’ performances and gives them greater depth, adding undercurrents of wistfulness or menace or hope.

Accordingly, I thought the best way to give everyone a taste of the book was to put together a fantasy soundtrack. This playlist ranges from sweeping, epic orchestration to Russian folk music, borrowing liberally from soundtracks for both period pieces and video games.


Here’s the playlist on YouTube. Full track listing and individual links below the cut!

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