Like many writers, I think, I’m an introvert by nature; I was raised by my culture and my love of books to believe that writing was an art, (perhaps even an Art), and thus materially different from tawdry, commercial media circuses like television. Thus, when I entered the world of professional writing, I was a bit blindsided by the demands of the culture. I had to “establish an author brand”? I had to promote my work? I had to — gasp! — talk about myself? Until I was working on my own slim little author biography, I had never realized that these works had to be carefully crafted. I had assumed, as I assumed about pretty much everything to do with the publishing process, that an author bio was something that just happened to a finished manuscript when it went into the publishing engine.
As I redraft my biography, I am sad to report that this is not the case.
I regard marketing with a distaste that’s one part political opposition, one part trained humility, and one part pathological shyness, and so it’s difficult for me to think of myself as any kind of public person. This likewise makes it difficult for me to think constructively about how I can build a public personality, even as I recognize the necessity of it for my professional writing career. Perhaps, for my readers, my works will be able to stand on their own merits; perhaps people who like my work will only vaguely associate it with my name or my reputation. Perhaps, if I can ever kick this blog into shape, my readers will come here because they want a connection that’s ongoing and meaningful and personal — the kind of relationship that can’t be summarized in an author biography or an “author brand” or a snappy promotional slogan. I’ve begun to understand, though, that author bios and all they stand for aren’t really for the readers. They’re for my colleagues in the publishing world, my fellow authors, and the people who aren’t my readers yet … and realizing this helps me to realize, in turn, what it means to become a public person.
Creating myself as an author means creating a character who bears my name. It means crafting that character’s personality and interests as I would craft a work of fiction — never dishonestly representing my avatar, never making the person-that’s-me act against type, but instead choosing which aspects are relevant to the story I want to tell about myself. Do I want people to think of A.M. Tuomala as a mystic? An eccentric? A comedian? None of those things are wrong, even if they’re not the whole story, and people who take the time to meet A.M. Tuomala will realize that soon enough. They’ll recognize that this person is an aspiring scholar, a country kid who still can’t figure out traffic circles, a watcher of Olympic diving, and a vegetarian. When I write a character, though, I can never tell you everything at once. I have to start with a striking moment that will color everything that comes next. Achane raises her sister from the dead; Milaus looks at her and sees a tool rather than a mourner. Suhailah disregards a friend’s warning and offers to help a stranger find her husband. Innokentiy opens his brother’s mail and then pretends that he hasn’t.
Later, you can learn about how Achane and Milaus are both striving and failing to fulfill their fathers’ legacies; later, you can learn that Suhailah used to feed her aunt’s cats. The author’s public persona is that moment of introduction, when the character comes onto the page and bends the world around herself — and my task as a writer is to introduce you to that character in a way that assures you, there’s a story here.
When I was a child, I was absolutely mystified by Olympic diving. I understood the criteria for other sports — in track events, the person who ran fastest won; in field events, the person who flung the shot or the javelin furthest won. Even ice skating made a kind of sense, to my child-self, because it involved (among other things) jumping the highest and performing the most spins in midair. It was about being, in some very visible and tangible way, more than the competition.
And at some point in the summer games, the diving would come on, and I’d watch these graceful, spare women spin and twist and writhe in midair … and they’d be consistently outscored by women who executed a single, controlled turn and then sank beneath the surface without a splash. I would watch these divers with their bodies in one long line, their faces utterly immobile, and I simply couldn’t make out what the judges saw in them.
I’ve been thinking on those Olympic divers as I work on a scattering of small projects. Culturally, we construct writing as an expression of Talent — something passionate, perfect, shimmering. Something that arises spontaneously from the deepest wellsprings of the self, already self-evidently excellent. When I fail, when my prose doesn’t cohere and my dialogue is wooden and my setting could be anywhere, it’s hard not to feel as though I’m somehow a failure, too.
I must be a failure, right? If I were excellent, I would have Talent, and it would make me shine like a spinning coin. It would be easy to see what made me excellent.
In the single, flawless turns of those Olympic divers, though, there is nothing spontaneous. There is nothing shining, nothing sudden — there is only the discipline and strength of women who have schooled themselves to fall with steadiness.
I salute those people who can get by on Talent, and who are self-evidently more than the rest of us; I wish them well, and I will gladly watch them fling themselves into the air to spin and to shine and to smile. But I’ll be over here learning discipline, falling again and again until I can execute that single, perfect turn.
As a nominal grown-up, I can recognize that the spinning and flipping and smiling take an awful lot of discipline, too — it’s easy to miss, when you’re looking for Talent.
I’ve been snagged on Weigenland for a while. It’s not that I don’t adore the new characters in the cast — I do! And it’s certainly not that I don’t want to explore a new country in my fiction; there’s little I like better. Today, though, as I was making my way through the city that’s my current home, I realized what it was that’s been tripping me up: Erekos was a rural book, and Weigenland is very much an urban book. I know how to write forests and mountains, rivers swollen with floodwater and rice paddies stretching down to the sea; I know how to write the people who live in rural areas, and the kinds of connections that they build.
I simply do not know how to write cities. After living in one for three years, I am still mystified by the tiniest things — why people jaywalk, why people run red lights with cops watching, what kinds of things get sold at the convenience store on the corner of my block, the fact that I live on a block that has a convenience store. Where I grew up, it was a ten-minute drive to the nearest convenience store, and you were about as likely to find plutonium there as you were to find fresh produce; if you wanted that, you either grew it yourself or you drove twenty minutes to the nearest grocery store. The roads where I grew up were one-lane, with deep ditches on either side and uneven patches over the newest generation of potholes, and on the rare occasion that two cars wanted to use the road, one person had to pull over in a driveway to let the other past. Needless to say, there were no sidewalks or crosswalks.
My project for today, therefore, is to go out into the Big City and research urban spaces. Obviously, there’s no direct correspondence between my city (twenty-first-century, industrial, situated on the Great Lakes) and Festenkessl (analogous to the seventeenth century, capitalist but not industrial, situated on a river on otherwise dry plain) … but I think there’s a kind of quiet correspondence nonetheless. Both are cities that grew slowly outward over centuries; both have districts of ethnic and economic homogeneity; both have their public spaces and their residential spaces and their patterns of pedestrian movement between them. Both are wildly different from those tree-shaded roads I know so well.
Call me old-fashioned, in this newfangled digital age, but I love the feeling of a book in my hands. I love the weight of it, the comforting texture of the pages, the way the paper’s scent fades from the chemical ink aroma of new books to the warm vanilla of old. It’s fantastic to have my novel transmute from words in my head to a physical thing that I can hold … but it’s especially nice that this thing is a book.
After a month, our last recipient hasn’t stepped up to claim his prize, so I’ve rolled the dice again — fortunately, the fabulous Kaye Chazan came in last-minute to make an even four. This is doubly fortunate for Kaye, who is our new winner!
Please contact me within a month to claim your prize, Kaye.
Thank you to everyone who participated in the short story giveaway — the dice have spoken, and Ben Trafford is our winner! He has one week to claim his prize (a free short story written just for him, to his specifications, that he can archive however he likes); if he doesn’t want it, or if he doesn’t respond within a week, I’ll roll the dice again to choose a new winner!
If you’re interested in winning a special piece of fiction set in the world of Erekos, written just for you, leave a comment here! That’s it — no need to shill my book, no need to retweet my tweets, no need to perform a dance in the style of Isadora Duncan (although of course all of those things are lovely). I’ll then break out my ultra-geeky collection of many-sided dice and roll a number, and the commenter with that number gets a FREE piece of fiction!
Comments close at midnight, Eastern Standard Time, on 17 May.
When I was a young bibliophile, I was a devoted fantasy fan — and like many fantasy fans of my age, I devoured the Shannara books. I was just a child, really, and I wasn’t entirely equipped to answer the primary question that The Sword of Shannara raised in me: What kind of history was Terry Brooks telling me? On what level was it a satisfying history, and on what level was it unsatisfying?
Erekos‘s publisher, Candlemark & Gleam, is releasing a really fantastic series of short fiction anthologies called the (re)Visions series, and the stories are in for the first volume: (re)Visions: Alice. I’ve had the stupendous good fortune to read Kaye Chazan’s entry, ‘What Aelister Found Here,’ and I can personally affirm that you are all in for a treat. Be sure to put this one on your to-read list!