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In the past few months, World Weaver Press has released the next two installments in Rhonda Parrish’s Magical Menagerie anthologies: Corvidae and Scarecrow. In Corvidae, “birds are born of blood and pain, trickster ravens live up to their names, magpies take human form, blue jays battle evil forces, and choughs become prisoners of war.” In Scarecrow, “ancient enemies join together to destroy a mad mommet, a scarecrow who is a crow protects solar fields and stores long-lost family secrets, a woman falls in love with a scarecrow, and another becomes one.” These two fascinating works feature many bright authors, and I had the opportunity to interview some of them.

The second is Kat Otis, who lives a peripatetic life with a pair of cats who enjoy riding in the car as long as there’s no country music involved. Her fiction has appeared in Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show, Daily Science Fiction and Penumbra eMag. Her story “Whistles and Trills” appears in Corvidae.

corvidae

Hal J. Friesen: Your story hints at events happening on a larger scale than what we glimpse in Morgaine’s tale. Do you have any plans to expand on those ideas, or have you already?

Kat Otis: I haven’t made any specific plans to write other stories in this world, though it’s definitely a possibility.  I find twentieth-century history to be insanely depressing so it isn’t my go-to period for historical fantasy.

That said, part of the initial inspiration for this story was my research on twentieth-century spy pigeons.  I cannot emphasize enough how awesome spy pigeons are, especially when you’re trying to communicate information in a way that can’t be easily intercepted by the enemy.  Almost two thirds of the WWII Dickin Medals (the UK’s award to honor animals in war) were awarded to pigeons!  So there are definitely a lot of possible “spy corvidae” ideas floating around in my head and it’s likely that I’ll eventually write some of them.

HJF: Can you give us your take on why the corvids in your story were on a prisoner transport?

KO: The Nazis attempted to purge Germany of all “undesirables” – most famously Jews, but also Roma, homosexuals, the mentally and physically disabled, and many others.  Alas, it doesn’t require a huge stretch of the imagination to lump their resident non-humanoid intelligent birds into the same category.

HJF: How did you come up with the lines to separate the warring creatures in your alternate world?

KO: In general, the frost giants, corvidae, and sea serpents would prefer to keep to themselves rather than involve themselves in human infighting.  But the geographical proximity of the Axis powers to the Alps (where I imagine many frost giants live) provides a strong incentive for the Nazis to woo their various chieftaincies into a military alliance.  And the Nazi leadership has the requisite ruthlessness to give the frost giants whatever they want to make sure that alliance sticks…

The corvidae’s entrance into the war doesn’t involve unilateral support for the Allied side – the Nazis might have burned their bridges there, but they weren’t the only Axis power.  And a lot of corvidae are going to want to stay neutral, seeing this as a primarily human concern.

As for the sea serpents… if I ever get the desire to write a submarine story, then we’ll see.  I should mention I was just at a submarine museum a few weeks ago…

HJF: Which side of the war would Phasianids be on?

KO: The dinner plate?  Okay, okay, seriously.  I think there would be Phasianids on both sides of the war.  Unlike my frost giants, who are limited to specific geographical regions, Phasianids are pretty much everywhere and would have evolved a variety of relationships with local powers during the war.  Each different species, and each species in each nation, would have different goals, motives, and politics.

HJF: The details depicted in all the flight scenes are very authentic. Did you draw from any aviation experience(s) of your own, or was that just a result of good research?

KO: I come from a family of pilots, though I’m not a licensed pilot myself.  The last time I flew a plane, I nearly flipped it on take-off.  It’s extremely hard to keep a plane level when your co-pilot decides to open his bloody door, and no, I don’t care if the seat belt was caught in it!  Ahem.

Anyway, I’m glad the flight scenes come across as authentic as I spent several days picking various family members’ brains to make sure I got things right.  They’re not writers themselves, but they are extremely enthusiastic when I hijack family gatherings with things like, “Help me crash a plane!”

HJF: Why do you think stories of the magical, the fantastic, are relevant to readers today?

KO: I think speculative fiction is vital to fostering readers’ imaginations and helping them see beyond the limits they’ve been taught to impose on themselves and the world around them.  I’m reminded, in this moment, of one of my favorite childhood movies – Flight of Dragons – where the wizard explains that things like the crystal ball inspired mankind to invent radio and television.  If we didn’t dream of dragons and winged men, would we have ever learned to fly?

When it comes to historical fantasy and alternate history, in particular, I think that these stories are vital in helping us understand past events and cultures.  They let us explore historical contingencies – the “what might have been” if just a few little details get tweaked – and reveal the extent of human uncertainty and agency in a history that readers tend to think of as somehow inevitable and foreordained.  They also let us explore the mind-sets of historical cultures; I don’t have to convince readers that people weren’t stupid for believing in X, Y, and Z, I just make those things real and then my readers willingly come along for the ride.  In general, if authors push the boundaries far enough, they can bring readers past their preexisting opinions and prejudices to a better understanding of the historical past and what it means for the present – and the future.

HJF: You list many online forums as writer resources on your website. Have you been involved in any of these forums personally, and what can you share with us about the experience? Are you still active on them?

KO: I’ve been active on all the forums that I’ve listed on my website, though it’s been a while since I visited some of them.  Hatrack and Critters were the first online writing sites where I participated in on a regular basis.  The advice and support I got there led to me attending Orson Scott Card’s Literary Bootcamp and my first professional sale!  Absolute Write is my go-to forum whenever I need an expert to help me with some aspect of story research – there are some great folks there who are willing to answer all sorts of wacky questions.  It also has a much broader focus, for those people who aren’t solely SFF writers.

My current “home” forum is Codex.  It’s a wonderful resource, full of awesome people, and provides a good kick-in-the-pants to write by hosting a rotating series of contests.  Probably my favorite is the Weekend Warrior contest: for five weekends in a row, we have from Friday night to Sunday night to write a prompt-based flash fiction story, followed by a weekend in which the die-hards attempt to write a short story or novelette in the same length of time.  I’ve gotten a lot of great stories – and sales – out of that contest.

HJF: What advice do you have for budding authors?

KO: Expect rejection.  I know, that sounds depressing, but I think it’s important for budding authors to know rejection is a fact of life for all writers who are out submitting their work on a regular basis.  It’s normal.  It doesn’t mean that your work is awful.  It doesn’t mean that you can’t write.  And it definitely doesn’t mean you should give up on your dreams.

Thank you for the realistic yet motivating words, Kat! Check out her story “Whistles and Trills”  in Corvidae, available now from World Weaver Press! You can also visit her at www.katotis.com.

In the past few months, World Weaver Press has released the next two installments in Rhonda Parrish’s Magical Menagerie anthologies: Corvidae and Scarecrow. In Corvidae, “birds are born of blood and pain, trickster ravens live up to their names, magpies take human form, blue jays battle evil forces, and choughs become prisoners of war.” In Scarecrow, “ancient enemies join together to destroy a mad mommet, a scarecrow who is a crow protects solar fields and stores long-lost family secrets, a woman falls in love with a scarecrow, and another becomes one.” These two fascinating works feature many bright authors, and I had the opportunity to interview some of them.

The first is Laura VanArendonk Baugh, who writes captivating epic and urban fantasy, historical fiction, and mystery, and as well as non-fiction on animal training & behavior. Her stories “Sanctuary” and “Judge and Jury” are in Corvidae and Scarecrow, respectively.

Hal J. Friesen: Your expertise in animal training clearly showed in “Sanctuary”. Do you have any personal experience particularly with corvids that inspired you?

Laura VanArendonk Baugh: I haven’t worked with corvids in particular, but the idea for this story definitely grew out of my training experience. I was speaking at Clicker Expo, a training and behavior conference, where Ken Ramirez shared with us his progress on teaching dogs to count. We sat down to dinner that night, and I had the seat beside Ken, and I leaned over to him and said, “You’ve given me the idea for a story.” That was a pretty different story idea, but the concept of a counting animal as a pivotal plot point remained.

HJF: What is the most unusual animal you’ve ever trained? What sorts of lessons have you learned from working with animals?

LVAB: People ask that a lot, and I usually answer, Chickens. Because people think chickens are dumb – we eat them, how smart can they be? – and it’s surprising to learn that chickens can recognize cues and identify colors and shapes and all kinds of stuff.

Bob and Marian Breland Bailey came up with the idea of chickens as an ideal subject to teach training skills, because we tend to come to chickens with less emotional baggage and cultural superstition (unlike, say, “My dog should obey me because he loves me and knows that I am boss”) and because chickens require such a precise level of skill and accurate feedback (you can get away with a lot of sloppy technique with a dog – it takes longer and the results aren’t quite as good, but it works). In 2004 I spent several weeks training with Bob and made a music video of some of our exercises. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0CYHh7iivPU

HJF: Have you ever worked with Phasianids? Why or why not?

LVAB: Hey, that family includes chickens! So yes.

HJF: Your story “Sanctuary” features two characters who seem to deal with trauma by serving others, or finding a way to offer something to the world. What do you think drives people to keep going, to heal after suffering through such traumatic experiences or injuries?

LVAB: Huh. I hadn’t thought about them in that way, but you’re right. And I think that ultimately comes from my spiritual beliefs, if we root down far enough. I am Christian and I believe that while terrible things happen, and humans sometimes make bad decisions which affect ourselves or innocent others, there is always a beyond. We can either sit and wallow in how unfair life is, or we can use those experiences to grow stronger ourselves or to help others through tough times of their own. And that’s a choice we make, consciously or not.

HJF: Your written work appears to draw from a lot of mythology. Is that a strong source of inspiration for you? If so, why?

LVAB: Myth says a lot about who we are. Myth reveals what’s important to us, and the stories we tell as a culture are a fantastic mirror about what we want and value. And that’s not just ancient myth, that includes our pop culture today. (Can you imagine anthropologists of the future evaluating our present society by reality television schedules?)

Myth lets us get closer to the truth than reality does. We are never so honest as when we jest, and we can explore the most delicate questions when they aren’t really our questions. (“I’m just asking for a friend….!”)

And just as importantly, myths and legends are fun! There’s a reason these stories have endured for centuries or millennia. Let them do what they were intended to do, to educate and entertain.

HJF: Did the ideas for your two stories in Corvidae and Scarecrow, respectively, come at once, or did you write one then extrapolate into the second?

LVAB: As I answer obliquely to avoid spoilers, I will say that the premise of “Sanctuary” (Corvidae) came first, and “Judge and Jury” (Scarecrow) was a very natural outgrowth. I wrote them together, knowing I would have to break them apart in such a way that each could be read independently.

HJF: Why do you think stories of the magical, the fantastic, are relevant to readers today?

LVAB: Oh, I could go on about this at length! But the short version is as I said above, an imagined distance lets us get closer. By talking about hobbits and orcs and the Shire, we don’t have to think about Nazis and a tiny sceptered isle, even though we desperately need to think about that. We can work out a lot of hypothetical situations and test various beliefs and approaches in a safer arena, where we can pretend it’s about something else entirely.

And we live in a very rational age, where we want to quantify and depersonalize everything. Science is my day job, and it’s best practice to track data instead of imagining what might be going on in an animal’s head. That’s all good for science! But I think we can lose touch with the qualitative world if we never leave that mode. It’s all right to take a walk on the fantastic side once in a while and stick your toes in the grass, read something less scientific and more… holistically human.

And sometimes it’s just fun to put things in a different perspective. Say, my favorite character just faced down a fierce dragon in the Earth’s heart, so surely I can handle middle management on a Monday morning, right?

HJF: Do you have any advice for budding authors? Budding animal trainers?

LVAB: There’s a science and an art to both pursuits. Learn the science first, because you shouldn’t break the rules until you know why you’re doing it and what effect it will have. And once you’ve really internalized the science, the art will come, telling you when you can “cheat” and how you can do better by coloring outside the lines. And you’ll be able to see that each time you supposedly break a rule, you’re really still adhering to the principle behind it.

That sounds pretentious, but it’s really true.

HJF: Can you tell us anything about the next project you’re working on? Are you planning on submitting to the Sirens anthology?

LVAB: I am! I don’t want to jinx it, because it has yet to go through submissions, but the Sirens story is in revisions right now. I think it falls under science fantasy, my first, so I’m pretty excited about it.

There are definitely some other irons in the fire, too, because I’m very bad at working linearly on one project at a time. Watch for an epic fantasy series launching sometime soon, which I’m very excited about, and then I have a story in World Weaver Press’s Specter Spectacular II this fall which is part of my Kitsune Tales series; it stands alone, but readers of the series will catch some extra tidbits not immediately apparent to others.

Thank you for the insightful answers, Laura! Check out her stories “Sanctuary” and “Judge and Jury” in Corvidae and Scarecrow, available now from World Weaver Press! You can also visit Laura at www.lauravanarendonkbaugh.com/.

 

This true story is so fitting because of recent fundraising efforts in support of libraries, but it’s also just a good, warm, inspiring account of what is possible.

It’s been a hectic spring and summer, with a lot of activity from many of the contributors to Between the Shelves.

EWG Between Launch Photos-23

Proud piles of paper.

The first was the official launch at the Stanley Milner downtown EPL branch. Almost every single author made it out to do a reading. The audience had a grid puzzle which required them to listen intently to glean answers to the mystery that unfolded throughout the evening. With old newspaper slides hinting at the role of the library ghost haunting the EPL, the final revelation came: that there was once a library employee charged with going door to door of those who had grievously overdue books.

messenger

One of the clues given alongside the readings

Those who managed to decode the ghost’s message (RETURN BOOKS) were given a mystery prize, varying from lightbulb keychains to ladybug dish brushes.

Brad OH representing Brad OH Inc.

Brad OH Inc shares his story.

It was a very pleasant, warm evening despite the weather’s lack of cooperation. My frantic stress trying to get too much organized on my own seemed to pan out, though I will try to heed the advice to delegate more in the future.

EWG Between Launch Photos-21

Mohamed Abdi recounts his own experiences with the EPL.

A few weeks later, we had a book signing at the William S. Lutsky YMCA. A unique venue, to be sure, but the response and enthusiasm we received from community-minded families was an unexpected treat. The time passed quickly as we shared our thoughts on writing, politics, books, and life.

 

2015-05-30 11.44.31

Brian Clark, Brad OH Inc, G. J. C. McKitrick (T.K. Boomer), Hal J. Friesen and Debbie Ha at the YMCA.

Almost every author has taken it upon themselves to sell the book, with the result that at the end of June right before the deadline to the Great Canadian Giving Challenge, we could donate over $700 to support the Edmonton Public Library. The Great Canadian Giving Challenge was an additional fundraising incentive where, for every dollar raised before June 30, a charity was entered into a draw to potentially win $10,000 for their particular cause. The money given to the EPL will support their Welcome Baby literacy program for newborns and their parents, described below:

EPL’s Welcome Baby program provides an early literacy kit for newborns and their parents. Literacy isn’t just about learning to read, it’s about preparing a child for reading. The kit’s books, music and early literacy resources help parents understand the vital connections between literacy & school success, higher wages, fewer health problems & less crime involvement.

Now as the book is put up on consignment in Chapters locations throughout Edmonton, the book will have increased public visibility. It is currently available in St. Albert (445 St. Albert Rd) and in the Northgate Mall Coles (9499-137 Ave NW), with more to come! If you’d like to help spread the word, you can share links to posts like this one, or contact me at hal.friesen[at]gmail[dot]com.

The gang.

(Almost) all the contributors. From left to right, back to front: Mohamed Abdi, G. J. C McKitrick (T.K. Boomer), Timothy Fowler, Brad OH Inc., Mark Parsons, Brian Clark, Vivian Zenari, Trudie Aberdeen, Debbie Ha (cover artist), Hal J. Friesen. Not shown: Linda Webber and M.L. Kulmatycki.

The contributors to Between the Shelves, after being peppered with my incessant queries, thought it only fair to ask some of me in return. Below are their questions, and my answers.

Brian Clarke: What is the biggest thing you have learned from this self-publishing experience?

Hal J. Friesen: I learned how achievable it is to put out a product of professional quality using readily-available tools. There were some frustrating moments getting the book formatted properly and tweaking cover blurbs, but on the whole it felt great to see a self-published book that could easily have come from a professional publishing house.

I also need to mention how pleasantly surprised I was at the scope and variety of stories submitted to the anthology. I thought I had a pretty good idea what I was going to get from the EWG group members, but they surprised me in a very good way.

Vivian Zenari: What is your educational background, and how has that influenced your writing?

HJF: I got my Bachelor’s Degree in Science from UNBC with a Joint Major in Chemistry and Physics, and a Minor in Mathematics. Basically for my undergraduate degree I was trying to refuse specialization, which in hindsight might not have been a good approach in terms of employability. I had knowledge in many fields but was missing snippets from each to prevent me from being completely proficient. My Master’s Degree in Science, focusing on Plasmas and Photonics, helped me tune my abilities and knowledge toward more practical applications – as ridiculous as that might sound after working on laser fusion experiments.

The breadth of theoretical and experimental science experience I’ve gleaned through the years helps me to appreciate how certain science fiction ideas might be implemented, the realities both pleasant and unpleasant of logistics that really help make a fantastical proposition seem real. When I wrote in high school I was thinking of sci-fi notions in a more detached and academic way. After academia, ironically, I think about them more in terms of what’s happening on the ground, what’s happening to the little guy who has to pull the levers, which helps make science fiction more meaningful to readers.

Brad OH Inc: Hal, your story is about a man (Albert Einstein), gaining great knowledge from libraries, but also experiencing stunning existential terror. Do you consider libraries to be places of hidden danger, or is learning in general a threat to our sense of being?

HJF: I used to read these time machine choose-your-own-adventure books, and they were like puzzles where you got stuck in time loops until you figured out the correct sequence of events to escape a grisly fate. There was one particular instance where I was trying to avoid being guillotined, but kept getting sent back over and over again, being chased, being caught, having the blade fall – to the extent that I fell asleep and had nightmares about it. Libraries taught me to be utterly terrified of the Spanish Inquisition.

I think in our age of ubiquitous fear-mongering, it’s important to recognize libraries and their potential role in contributing to the general fright that fits so well in a terror-state. In this story I wanted to show that even a brilliant Einstein can’t escape the spine-tingling horror of a nameless source of danger. His existential cataclysm in a place of learning draws close parallels to the dread during the discovery of a newly-christened terrorist cell, or the announcement of the construction of yet another totally-necessary prison. I felt that the role of books and libraries in general has been undervalued in terms of their capacity to inspire totally irrational fear, and wanted to emphasize how deeply they can touch our being versus other forms of media.

BOH: Why did you choose Einstein as your character? Do you have some arcane knowledge of his life the rest of us aren’t privy to? Is there any biographical truth to this tale?

 HJF: I have a copy of Einstein’s original manuscript on Special Relativity, and if you go to the trouble of reading it you find very strange references in the margins, almost as if he was placating some unseen observer. With extensive and advanced calligraphic decoding I was able to parse some of the scribbles he had tried to hide after the fact, after whatever it was had stopped peering over him threateningly. It was clear he had communion with a library spirit, or as he named it, Wilfred, though exactly which library was unclear – I used artistic liberty in that aspect.

It’s amazing how much you can discover when you read the source material rather than just taking secondary sources at face value.

BOH: Your passion for libraries is clear in this story. Share with us some of your most formative memories of being in the library. Is there any encounter in particular that stands out as a moment where knowledge was so startlingly thrust upon you?

HJF:  Guillotines were startlingly thrust upon my unsuspecting neck in that traumatizing time machine book…

When I was a child, there were summer reading challenges where you got to move your pawn along footsteps lining the library walls, taking a step for every book you read. The path took a circuitous route around the two-story Prince George Public Library, and I would take out piles of books in order to get to the end. And I did.

My prize? PTSD from an impossible and horrific Spanish Inquisition time machine loop. And a ribbon.

The library used to have person-shaped chairs in bright colors, and I would sit near the large windows and browse through Goosebumps books, Tintin comics, and fantasy books. I would sway back and forth in the S-shaped chairs, knocking them flat onto the back, or upright again with a satisfying thunk. The trips to the library were a fairly regular occasion – my mother would tiptoe off to the romance section, and my brothers and I would spin the carousels housing adventure and horror novels.

Getting my first library card was actually one of my happiest childhood experiences, because I felt like I had graduated from this semi-weekly family ritual and had become an adult. It was a lot better than any actual graduation, that’s for sure.

BOH: Your writing has historically been focused on some pretty heavy scientific concepts. What do you consider to be one of the most interesting unanswered questions in modern science? Do you have any possible ‘dream scenario’ solution to this quandary that strikes you as the most appealing?

HJF: Not to avoid the question, but I guess the more interesting questions are ones we haven’t thought of yet. The untapped potential and dark corners of our understanding are very exciting places, which is why I enjoy good hard science fiction so much. One recent discovery was that the brain might have a lymphatic system, which opens the door to all sorts of medical progress and better development of humanity.

The unanswered question of life beyond Earth is a continually fascinating one for me, and my dream scenario is that I live long enough to see contact happen. That would be a great privilege.

The unification of gravity and the other fundamental forces is another issue that fascinates me. I remember the exact place where I first read Maxwell’s derivation of electromagnetism and the intimate relationship between them. I literally got up and wanted to run around (but couldn’t in my cramped dorm-room) because I was so excited by the beauty of something so connected and intertwined. Connectedness, for lack of a better term, is something I explore a lot in my writing, and it interests me equally in the natural world.

Similarly, the unification of quantum mechanics and general relativity – the small with the very large – is also quite an interesting unanswered question. I’ve read a proposal that suggests the answer might be in our interpretation of time itself, which sent my head spinning in beautiful pirouettes.

I think some of the deeper philosophical-physics questions might go unanswered for a long time, but can make you experience some of the same existential schism Einstein does in the story. Questions like: what exactly is charge? What exactly is mass? We have equations that describe what they do but that’s different from knowing what something is. There’s a joke that if you want to drive a physicist crazy, ask him what charge is. Try it sometime.

BOH: As a follow-up to the former question, of the myriad scientific discoveries throughout history, which would you most like to have been a part of, and why?

HJF: I’ve developed an unlikely fondness for light and optics, so I think I would have loved to have been a part of Maxwell’s discoveries unifying electricity and magnetism. Any of the so-called Maxwell’s equations. Ampere, Gauss – to have been around any of those guys would have been gnarly and radical, and I’m sure my language wouldn’t drive them crazy. Gauss was a genius.

I would say quantum mechanics, but the results aren’t as easy to put your hands on or see with the eye. The laser would have been pretty amazing to discover. I got the chance to hear Charles Townes, one of the co-inventors of the laser, speak, and it was surreal to see him use a laser pointer to point at a slide of his original laser conception. He made lasers originally for astronomical purposes, and at the time of his talk (age over 90) he was still doing that. There’s a raw enthusiasm and electricity some scientists exude and I think to have been around any of those remarkable individuals would have been illuminating and inspiring outside of the discoveries themselves.

All right, call-to-action time! Check out my story “Reading After Hours” in Between the Shelves, available now on Amazon and Createspace! Or contact me to arrange for a signed copy!