Category Archives: Writing

Hidden In the Leaves

Jamie tombstoneYesterday was the six-year anniversary of the Virgina Tech shooting and the day that Jamie Bishop was killed. I was mostly occupied with breaking news about the bombing in Boston, and making sure that my family and friends who live in the area were okay. Today, after some slight temporal distance, I’m saddened even further that the 16th of April will now be remembered for two separate tragedies.

Stephanie Bishop Loftin, Jamie’s sister, posted the photo at right (taken by Janet Frick) on Facebook sometime yesterday, and it hit me with all the severity of a punch to the chest. Up to now, I hadn’t seen Jamie’s tombstone*, and it staggered me to realize that the sight of it could still affect me so much emotionally. There have been times over the past six years when I thought I might have finally come to terms with his untimely death, but it’s clear to me that it’s not something I’ll soon get over.

And so, apropos of this day, I’ve decided to post here a short-short story that was published in The Ayam Curtain, included in my ebook collection The Alchemy of Happiness, and found as a postscript to my print chapbook Embracing the Strange that will be released next month. It’s one of my more autobiographical pieces, but I hope that doesn’t distract from any enjoyment to be gotten. Cheers.

* After posting this entry, Stephanie informed me that the image is not of Jamie’s tombstone, but of one of the many memorial stones erected to honor the 32 victims of the 2007 campus shooting. You can see an image of the entire memorial site here at NPR.


“Hidden In the Leaves”

The day before Chinese New Year break, Sophia walked home alone from school with heavy steps. All of her primary school friends were full of excitement for the holidays, for the reunion dinners, for the many ang pow they expected to receive. There was no more Chinese an event in Singapore all year long, but Sophia always felt left out of the festivities. Her father was American, and her mother didn’t get along with her extended family, so Tara never got to see her cousins, or learn Teochew, or eat the Peranakan dishes that her great aunt was famed for cooking. She might receive a red packet from her grandparents, but that was about it. Sometimes, she felt as if she was the only one among her classmates who didn’t get to do all of the fun cultural things surrounding the celebration.

These troubled lonely thoughts took her away from her shuffling steps and the sweltering afternoon heat, and it wasn’t until her shoes scraped red clay tile rather than rough concrete sidewalk that she stopped, looked up, and realized she was standing in front of the haunted tree.

The ancient banyan occupied the dark center of the small park adjacent to her housing block, and the area around the tree always felt occluded and gloomy. She had previously obeyed the warnings of her friends at school not to stare at the tree, for (according to them) it was the home of malevolent spirits; but in a fit of pique at the jealous thought of them having such happy times with their families for CNY, she ignored the superstition and peered into the banyan’s depths, eager to prove them wrong. Just a tree, she thought, nothing wicked whatsoever.

The darkness where all the branches sprouted outward from the trunk wavered a bit, and then, to Sophia’s surprise, a patch of shadow shifted position, detached itself like an intelligent oil slick, flowed down the aerial prop roots surrounding the trunk, slithered toward her on the clay tiles, stopped several feet away, bubbled upward, and then settled itself into the featureless form of a tall thin person, its edges hazy. The sounds of nearby traffic and birdsong receded into silence, and Sophia’s fingertips tingled. She held her breath.

“Hello, Sophia.” Its soft male voice came from a vague area in the middle of its chest, its accent surprisingly similar to her father’s. Though the spirit knew her by name, she sensed no negativity or ill intent.

“Hullo,” she said.

“I have been watching over you for some time.”

“Who are you?”

“In life, I was a good friend of your father’s. My name was Christopher.”

“You knew my daddy?”

“Yes, dear. Many years ago.”

“Would you like to see him now?” she asked. “He’s home sick today with a sour tummy. Too many pineapple tarts. And I can make you some elderberry juice. I know how, you know.”

“I am sure you do.”

And so the spirit of her father’s friend followed her the rest of the way home. Sophia looked over her shoulder several times, and though the spirit was more translucent in the harsh sunlight, his form remained. No one else around her, apparently, could see him.

Just before they reached her housing block, Sophia stopped and turned. “You’ve been in the tree a long time?” she asked.

“Yes. Almost ten years.”

“Why?”

“Your father is still upset over my sudden death. He hasn’t yet let go.”

“So why did you come down today?”

“Because you summoned me,” he said.

Satisfied with the simple explanation, Sophia led him through the block’s empty void deck, past the mama shop’s displays of convenience store junk food, and over to the lift lobby. A swift silent ride up the lift, and then the doors opened onto the eighth storey. Down the corridor to her flat, the painted metal gate unlocked, the front door wide open. After Sophia entered and then closed the gate behind the spirit, a voice from the third bedroom called: “Soph, is that you?”

“Hi, Daddy!”

“Be right out, sweetie. I just need to finish marking this test.”

Sophia dropped her book bag to the smooth white tiled floor, pulled off her shoes with two loud scritches of velcro, then headed into the kitchen with the spirit following behind. She extracted the pitcher of elderberry juice from the refrigerator and poured it into two glasses, which she then placed on the wooden kitchen table. She sat down in one of the chairs; Christopher’s spirit occupied the other, the opacity of his form pulsing, as though he were breathing hard.

Her father stepped out of his home office and into the kitchen, unshaven, hair mussed, still wearing the clothes he’d slept in the night before. He picked up Christopher’s glass and said, “Hey, thanks for pouring juice for me, sweetie.”

“It’s not for you,” Sophia said, then reached up, gently took the glass from her father, and placed it back on the tabletop in front of the pulsating spirit. “It’s for Christopher.”

A strange look came to her father’s face then, as if he had just eaten something particularly sour. “I’m sorry, honey, could you repeat that?”

“It’s Christopher’s juice,” she said, motioning to the chair in which the spirit patiently sat. “He’s visiting.”

And before her father could say another word, the surface of the spirit’s form rippled in polychromatic waves along its surface, faster and faster until the darkness and shadow faded and lightened and the form he had taken in life—a kindly Caucasian with shoulder-length brown hair, circular spectacles, prominent nose, spindly frame—resolved into clarity.

Sophia’s father gasped.

Sophia rose from her chair, maneuvered her father on wobbly legs into it, poured another glass of elderberry juice for herself, then slipped into the living room and turned on Animal Planet at low volume. Her father and his good friend had a lot to discuss, and she wanted to make sure not to disturb them.

<<<>>>

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An Extract From “Represented Spaces”

When I approached Keith Brooke (the über-awesome proprietor of Infinity Plus Books) with the idea of publishing my new ebook collection The Alchemy of Happiness, I very much had in mind to model the contents after those in PM Press’ Outspoken Authors series of perfect-bound chapbooks: a small number of fiction pieces (no more than three), followed by an essay or some other work of non-fiction, and then an interview.

Two of the fiction pieces, “Reality, Interrupted” and “In Jurong” were previously published (and the third, “Always a Risk,” will see print publication in March in the anthology Eastern Heathens, edited by Ng Yi-Sheng and Amanda Lee Koe). The non-fiction piece, “Embracing the Strange: The Transformative Impact of Speculative Fiction (A Hybrid-Essay)” will also see print publication in March as a standalone chapbook in Math Paper Press’ Babette’s Feast chapbook series. But I wanted the interview, titled “Represented Spaces,” to be solely exclusive to The Alchemy of Happiness, and so I have no plans to release it elsewhere, either in print or electronically.

So, to whet your appetite, below is posted just a small extract from the nearly six-thousand-word interview by author and editor Wei Fen Lee; if you dig it, you can only find the rest of it in The Alchemy of Happiness:

> A motif of fluid identity and the potential for multiplicity is prevalent throughout the three stories in The Alchemy of Happiness, from the metamorphosis of characters into different stages of life, to more mundane details like just a change in outfit choices. Why the choice of this motif, and what are your own thoughts on the construction and destruction of personal identity?

I’ve always seen identity as very fluid; we’re different people depending on whom we’re around. I act differently whether I’m with my wife, or with my daughter, or with my female friends, or with my male friends, or with my parents. It’s just something we as human beings negotiate all the time. What’s interesting to me about speculative fiction is the ability to make it more concrete, to actually literalise this concept.

> I guess that’s the power of the strange as well: we have the ability to see how far these changes can stretch.

Right. You can make things more literal so that we can actually examine them. If Gregor Samsa changes into a giant beetle, what can we find out about his family dynamics?

> In “In Jurong” especially, memory is linked to identity, and the past is constantly seen as constructing us.

The past is what makes us who we are. Even if traumatic things happened in the past, even if things were really horrible or transformative, they make us into the people that we are. So I definitely see memory as linked to identity in that way, depending on how we think of ourselves and our memories. It informs how we act and react in any given situation.

> In David Eagleman’s collection Sum, his speculations about the afterlife agree with your own stories about the afterlife not constituting a single place. Why did you choose the afterlife to write about, and what do you think of the potential to play with this concept and space of the afterlife?

It’s the biggest mystery there is, right? One of my favorite writers, Jonathan Carroll, has been very preoccupied with death and the afterlife over the last 15 years or so in his writing; I presume that as he’s grown older, he’s been thinking about it a lot, and questioning what the afterlife might be like. It’s the great unknown. What’s interesting to me is that he hasn’t formed a comprehensive view of it yet; he’s come up with many different types of afterlives, in order to explore all these “what-if?” questions. And that tactic appeals to me as a writer as well.

> Asking questions about the afterlife also begs the question, what kind of death?

Exactly. I’m a practicing Buddhist (although my practice is a bit slack at the moment), and the typical Buddhist view is that there is no afterlife. If you don’t become enlightened, then you reincarnate into a new form and you do it all over again, with your new life determined by your previous karma. There are lots of different ways to look at the cessation of life, and part of the fun of writing this stuff is being able to explore big issues like that.

> On that note, the stories in The Alchemy of Happiness seem heavily imbued with Buddhist philosophy and thought. What do you personally subscribe to, and how do you see your personal beliefs mixing with your fiction to create new beasts, so to speak?

I look at Buddhism more as a life philosophy than as a religion, and so even if I’m not meditating every day, or chanting mantras on a regular basis, I still try to keep the Four Noble Truths ingrained in my thinking, and to exemplify the core ideas of compassion, connection, and consequence in my actions.

For Red Dot Irreal, my focus was more on the strangeness of the Singaporean psyche, seen through the lens of a foreigner living in Singapore. But with The Alchemy of Happiness, I was thinking a lot more broadly, and the Buddhist mindset is definitely more prevalent. Especially in “Always a Risk,” where this weird realm deals with magic and demons, yet Buddhism still has a place there.

> So is it a conscious choice, inserting these philosophies, or does it naturally arise just because of your paradigm of the world?

I think that with my older stories, it was more of the latter, but with “Always a Risk” and especially with A Fickle and Restless Weapon, the novel that I just finished writing, it was a much more conscious choice (the title even comes from the Dhammapada). I really wanted to put Buddhism front and centre. I don’t want to be prescriptive or anything, but I deliberately made the themes and ideas much more obvious.

> So how then do you prevent yourself from being prescriptive? What would constitute prescriptive?

I think if I was saying: this is the right way to believe. So as long as I can prevent myself from doing that, I hope I’m not preaching in my work.

> So just offering the view.

Exactly. Buddhism is not very prevalent in SF; it’s there, but maybe it’s based on cursory or incorrect information, used as this unconventional opposition to the Judeo-Christian tradition. There aren’t many writers using the philosophy or the core ideas of Buddhism in SF and fantasy yet, on anything more than the level of a curiosity. It’s something that’s important to me and I want to try to express that in my writing as well.

Buy The Alchemy of Happiness at the following ebook stores: SmashwordsNookKoboiTunesKindleKindle UKThe Robot Trading Co.

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Get Red Dot Irreal For Free!

Red Dot IrrealIn November and December, four new books of mine were released (I know! Four!), but because of some personal issues that arose, I wasn’t able to devote the proper time to promote them. So I’m doing a bit of catch-up now.

As you may know, my 2011 collection Red Dot Irreal, which was originally published in paperback by Math Paper Press, was re-released as an ebook by Infinity Plus Books with three new stories: “Big Chief,” “Bachy Soletanche,” and “Occupy: An Exhibition,” the last of which was especially written for this edition. It’s now available at all the major ebook stores, and DRM-free at Smashwords and The Robot Trading Co.

One thing that got buried in my previous announcement of the ebook edition was the fact that you can get it for free. Free! Here’s what you do:

  1. If you own the book already, either the paperback or the previous ebook edition that I self-published, take a photo of yourself either with your copy of the book or with your e-reader with the book on the screen, and post it on Twitter with the hashtag #RDIandMe. Once I see your photo, I’ll DM you the coupon code to download the book at Smashwords. Or;
  2. Buy the ebook of my brand new collection The Alchemy of Happiness, and you’ll find in the back of it the same coupon code to download Red Dot Irreal at Smashwords.

Of course, I’m more than grateful if you still want to buy the Red Dot Irreal ebook, as it will make my publisher happy and willing to keep working with me, but I didn’t want to penalize folks who already owned the book in another form. Plus, I want to drive eyeballs to the new collection, which I’m really quite proud of, and will discuss more in the next post.

You like free stuff don’t you? Well, now you know what to do!

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Bo Bo & Cha Cha Goodreads Giveaway Update

Bo Bo and Cha ChaThe book giveaway for A New Home For Bo Bo and Cha Cha ended a few days ago, and Goodreads’ magical random contest-deciding gnomes have chosen the ten lucky people who will receive a free copy of the book:

  • Ashima Gupta (India)
  • John Taggart (UK)
  • Fauza Sari (Indonesia)
  • Melissa Crump (Canada)
  • Zoe Brockway (California)
  • Christina Browne (UK)
  • Laura Scott (Michigan)
  • Monti McCauley (Tennessee)
  • Katelyn Lucio (California)
  • Sara Mansavage (Wisconsin)

Congratulations to all the winners! Epigram Books will be mailing out your copies this week. Once you’ve read the book (it won’t take very long), please consider rating and reviewing it on the Goodreads page!

I was astonished to discover that 924 people had entered the contest, which was far more interest than I ever could have expected, especially for a picture book that’s gotten close to zero publicity so far. Yay for cute pandas and complex emotional journeys! For the other 914 people who weren’t able to get a free copy, and for anyone else reading this, the book is available for order on Amazon, as well as in fine bookstores that sell picture books all over Singapore (Books Kinokuniya, Littered With Books, MPH Bookstores, Popular, Select Books, Times Bookshop, Woods in the Books).

I’ve also just created a Bo Bo and Cha Cha Facebook page, so feel free to “like” it and keep updated on this book and the rest of the series to come. There will be at least three more books forthcoming, which will see the two pandas in various other new experiences (Book 2: May 2013; Book 3: September 2013; Book 4: January 2014).

Book 2 has been written, and Patrick Yee has already turned in preliminary sketches for it; by all accounts, it’ll be even better than Book 1, which makes sense. With A New Home For Bo Bo and Cha Cha, I had to learn how to write a picture book, since I’d never done it before; for Book 2, I was able to use that prior knowledge and experience, and the process is already going a lot smoother. Book 1 was also incredibly hurried, in both the writing and artwork, and since both Patrick and I have a bit more breathing room this time, it’ll result in a better book.

Also, after writing Book 2, it hit me that picture-book writing is also damn fun. It’s challenging in different ways than my adult prose writing, and audience feedback is much more immediate and enthusiastic. I was talking to a friend this weekend, and mentioned that after Book 3 and 4 are done, I’d like to write another picture book, or series of picture books, which is completely different, and explores some new themes. I’ll still be doing my other writing (my very grown-up novel is waiting for me to revise it), but it’s exciting to add children’s books to a regular part of my repertoire.

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Hell’s a Good Joke

Keith Brooke, the über-awesome proprietor of Infinity Plus Books (and an excellent author in his own right), asked me to write a short essay on the genesis of the main characters in my new ebook collection The Alchemy of Happiness, and it’s just been posted on the KB/I+ blog.

It’s called “Hell’s a Good Joke“:

It all started with a sculpture.

In 1999, when I was still an unpublished newbie, I attended the World Horror Convention in Atlanta, where some of the notable writer guests included Neil Gaiman, John Shirley, Michael Bishop, Caitlín R. Kiernan, and Ramsey Campbell. At that point, I thought that I might still be a horror writer, even though my innate squeamishness for violence and terror was beginning to win the battle for my chosen subject matter, and I attended very much because of the writers there. However, on the second day of the convention, at the urging of several new friends, I made my way into the art show, and beheld the gloriously dark and whimsical sculpture work of Lisa Snellings, who was the Artist Guest-of-Honor. Her smaller pieces made me smile and her larger kinetic works (including the moving Ferris wheel that inspired the anthology Strange Attraction, edited by Edward E. Kramer) filled me with wonder, but it was her largest piece on display that literally stole the breath from my lungs.

Named “If Love’s a Fine Game, Hell’s a Good Joke,” the sculpture consisted of two life-sized harlequins, one balancing on the knees of the other; the expressions that Lisa had so painstakingly crafted on their faces were so devilish and sly that, right there on that spot, I conceived of the siblings Blue and Dane: immortals, manipulators, elementals.

Read the rest here.

Buy The Alchemy of Happiness at the following ebook stores: SmashwordsKoboiTunesKindleKindle UK

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Bo Bo & Cha Cha Giveaway on Goodreads

Epigram Books is giving away 10 copies of A New Home For Bo Bo and Cha Cha (free PDF sample) on Goodreads! For those of you who might not have easy access to the book, this is an excellent chance to get your hands on a copy. Open to residents of the USA, UK, Canada, Australia, India, China, Japan, and the ASEAN countries. The giveaway ends on 31 January, so enter to win a copy today!

Two pandas, Bo Bo and Cha Cha, have come to the Mandai Zoo! Bo Bo is excited, but Cha Cha is not. Everything here seems too strange: the other animals, the heat and the food! Cha Cha wants to leave—until a caring sloth shows her what being home really means.

The book is also available in fine bookstores all over Singapore (Books Kinokuniya, Littered With Books, MPH Bookstores, Popular, Select Books, Times Bookshop, Woods in the Books), as well as for order on Amazon.

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Last-Minute Christmas Ideas

I know that things have been fairly quiet here at the blog as of late. Work, both at Epigram Books and in my freelance life, got quite busy, and I also had to deal with some upheavals in my private life. But I’m back just in time to pimp my books for your holiday gift-buying! Yay?

Anyway, the last four months of 2012 have been especially fruitful in terms of my published work, and so I therefore offer a plethora of strange and delightful fiction for that special person in your life (or maybe even you). Let’s start with the most recent and work our way back.

Apologies, but this is a bit long.

Red Dot Irreal1) First off is the expanded second edition of my 2011 collection Red Dot Irreal, re-released as an ebook by Infinity Plus Books, with three new stories: “Big Chief,” “Bachy Soletanche,” and “Occupy: An Exhibition,” the last of which was especially written for this edition. The book is now available at the Kobo, Kindle*, and Kindle UK ebook stores, and DRM-free at Smashwords; it’ll be up soon for the Nook, iBookstore, and other venues, but those take a bit longer to get listed.

Now, I realize that it’s only been a year since the original print edition was published by Math Paper Press, and it may look like a bit of a dick move to release it with new content as an ebook so as to get folks buying the book again in order to read the new pieces. Therefore, to demonstrate my lack of dickishness, anyone who has already bought the print edition of Red Dot Irreal can also get the ebook for free. All you have to do is take a photo of yourself with your copy of the book (but not in a bookstore, since you could always just pick it up off the shelf and then put it back) and post it on Twitter with the hashtag #RDIandMe. Once I see your photo, I’ll DM you the coupon code to download the book (in multiple formats) at Smashwords. Pretty cool, huh?

For those of you who have not yet bought the print edition, please consider parting with three of your hard-earned dollars and buying the ebook.

The Alchemy of Happiness2) Released by Infinity Plus Books simultaneously with Red Dot Irreal is my brand new ebook collection, The Alchemy of Happiness: a triptych of stories rooted in Southeast Asian myth and legend. The book contains two previously published stories, one brand new novelette (“Always a Risk”), a hybrid-essay (“Embracing the Strange”), and an interview conducted by Wei Fen Lee (“Represented Spaces”). It’s just (like, just a couple of hours ago) been posted to Smashwords for sale, and will pop up at the other places soon.

I’m very proud of this new collection; it finally pairs “Reality, Interrupted” and “In Jurong” into the diptych that I always imagined them to be, and continues the strangeness in a tale that doesn’t so much as tie everything together as provide a satisfying resolution to the narrative as a whole.

“But wait a damn minute,” I hear you saying. (I have excellent hearing.**) “‘In Jurong’ is also in Red Dot Irreal! What the hell, man! There you go, being a dick again!”

First of all, I resent the word “again” in this context, but never mind. Yes, it’s true, the story does overlap both collections. So you know what? If you buy the ebook of The Alchemy of Happiness, you’ll find in the back of it the same coupon code I mentioned above so that you can download Red Dot Irreal for free. Happy? Jeez.

So to sum up so far, you can get Red Dot Irreal for free by either tweeting a photo of yourself with the book along with the hashtag #RDIandMe, OR if you buy the ebook of The Alchemy of Happiness. Good? Good. Okay, let’s move on.

A New Home For Bo Bo and Cha Cha3) Epigram Books, my current part-time employer, published my very first children’s picture book last month, called A New Home For Bo Bo and Cha Cha (illustrated by Patrick Yee). It’s the first book in a planned series about the adventures of a pair of pandas in their new home of Singapore (the next three books have been outlined already, and I need to get to writing them soon). I did an interview about the book last week for the Epigram Books blog.

I’ve been told that you can now find the book in all fine Singapore bookstores that carry children’s books (Kinokuniya, Popular, Times, MPH, Select Books, Woods in the Books, and Littered with Books). But for those of you outside of Singapore, you can order it at Amazon*; right now, it’s listed as temporarily out of stock, but the more folks who order, the more copies Amazon will stock, so please don’t feel the need to wait. However you get the book, please do get a copy; the more support it sees, the more likely my publisher (and boss) will be willing to see the rest of the books in the series through.

Fish Eats Lion4) My first major solo editing project, Fish Eats Lion: New Singaporean Speculative Fiction, was released last month by Math Paper Press in time for the Singapore Writers Festival. It was a tremendous experience curating the anthology and presenting it to the world. It’s available in Singapore at BooksActually and Kinokuniya, but you can now order the book online from anywhere in the world! Just head over to the BooksActually Web Store, and if you buy more than three titles (by, say, adding the print edition of Red Dot Irreal and at least one more book, like maybe Coast and/or The Ayam Curtain, to your cart), you get a 20% discount.

I’ve blabbed about the book already here at the blog, so the only other thing I want to add is that if you’re into literary speculative fiction, and are curious about how Singaporean writers experience and convey the strange, then you’re really going to want to get this book. And hey, if nothing else, at over 430 pages, you can stun a burglar with it!

The Curragh of Kildaire5) In October, I released the revised edition of my 2001 collection The Curragh of Kildaire (illustrated by Jamie Bishop), with a brand new 3,000-word afterword written especially for this edition. I realize that this is probably really of interest only to folks who are completists of my work (you know, both of you out there), but it also makes me feel good that not only are these stories getting a second life, but so is Jamie’s artwork. This one is available directly from me.

All profits from the sale of this ebook will be donated to The Jamie Bishop Scholarship Fund in Graphic Arts and The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. In light of the terrible tragic violence a few days ago in Connecticut, this second charity in particular could use all the money it can get.

Complications of the Flesh6) And last, but not least, WAY back in September, I released on Smashwords an ebook single of my story “Complications of the Flesh,” which was originally published in Bull Spec. An American drug-runner in Southeast Asia discovers the surreal consequences of going against his gangland boss.

This is also the first published work that takes place in my fictional island-nation of Tinhau, which is also the setting for my first novel, A Fickle and Restless Weapon (which I should hopefully finish revising in January). Surreal setting plus crime narrative equals awesome. Or at the very least an appreciative noise in the back of the throat.

Happy shopping! Give the gift of strange fiction!

* Careful readers of this blog will know that I don’t have much love for Amazon or for the Kindle. And when I release my own work electronically, I will still refuse to have my works listed there. However, I cannot demand that my publishers also practice this same refusal; that would be unfair to them, and would actually prove me a dick. For Epigram Books, it’s the best way to get our titles outside of Southeast Asia, and Infinity Plus makes a majority of its sales from the Kindle ebook store.

** A blatant lie. My hearing is truly terrible. It’s actually quite amazing how bad it is at this point.

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Re-release of The Curragh of Kildaire, All Proceeds to Charity

The Curragh of KildaireI’m happy to announce that I am releasing a revised edition of my 2001 limited-edition chapbook The Curragh of Kildaire as an ebook through this website. The original edition was illustrated throughout by Jamie Bishop, and I am reproducing his interior and cover art in the ebook, with permission from Jamie’s widow Stefanie Hofer. These seven stories were written pre-Clarion (although two of them later saw publication), and even though my writing has vastly improved since then, I think it’s important to make them, and Jamie’s accompanying illos, available once again.

The price is only $1.99 USD for the ebook bundle (PDF, EPUB, and MOBI), and all profits from each sale will be donated to The Jamie Bishop Scholarship Fund in Graphic Arts and The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.

You may be asking why I’m selling this myself rather than going through Smashwords, like I did for “Complications of the Flesh” and the previous edition of Red Dot Irreal. Well, hypothetical person, it’s because of the nature of this project. Because all of the proceeds are going to charity, I’d feel a bit strange giving a cut to B&N and Apple and Kobo, etc. in addition to Smashwords. This is not a commercial product the way my short stories or collections might be.

And so I’m going to need some help. If you’re reading this, do please pimp it on Facebook and Twitter and anywhere else you can think of. I want to raise as much money as possible, but I’ll need visibility to do so. Spread the word far and wide, review the book on Goodreads, tell your friends! My thanks and appreciation in advance.

Once again, the link to buy the ebook bundle is here.

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“Complications” Now Available as Ebook

Complications of the FleshMy 4700-word story “Complications of the Flesh” is now available as an ebook on Smashwords for only 99¢. This short story first appeared in issue #7 of the science fiction and fantasy magazine Bull Spec in Spring 2012.

In the Southeast Asian island nation of Tinhau, drug-running is a hanging offense. But the life is just too good for an American washout who would be in prison or dead if not for the intercession of a gangland kingpin called Moz, and his beautiful Indian girlfriend Savita. When the American is caught in an affair with Savita, the consequences become dangerously surreal, and echo into a metaphoric realm short on answers but heavy in meaning.

Cover design is by Robert Freeman Wexler. Cover photograph is by by Bjørn Christian Tørrissen. A short afterword was written especially for the ebook.

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Announcing Best New Singaporean Short Stories, Volume 1

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Call for Submissions for Reprint Anthology Series

Singapore, 8/10/2012 — Epigram Books and editor Jason Erik Lundberg are excited to announce the premiere volume of Best New Singaporean Short Stories, a new biennial anthology series of Singaporean short fiction, with an expected publication date of May 2013.

“We have wanted to put together this series for a long time,” said Epigram Books publisher Edmund Wee. “It is important to collect and promote the excellent new short fiction being published by Singaporean writers, and no one else in Singapore has yet done so in this way.”

Epigram Books is now considering nominations from periodical & anthology editors and book publishers who have published English-language stories by Singaporean writers, both in Singapore and abroad. Authors must be Singaporean citizens or permanent residents.

The original appearance of the nominated stories is required to have been published in magazines, literary journals, anthologies, or collections (both in print and online) between January 2011 and December 2012; OR achieved prize placement (third place or above) in a national/international writing competition. There are no restrictions on genre or subject matter.

Submissions are open until 31 December 2012. Full submission guidelines are available here.

For further information or queries, contact:

Jason Erik Lundberg | Editor, Epigram Books
jason@epigrambooks.sg | +65-6292-4456

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ABOUT THE PUBLISHER

An independent publisher based in Singapore, Epigram Books is known for putting together well-designed and thought-provoking titles. Epigram Books began as a division of the award-winning design firm Epigram but registered as a separate entity in July 2011 in order to strengthen its focus on championing local writing.

Epigram Books publishes all manner of fiction—novels, short stories, plays, children’s books and some poetry. We have published works by Singapore literary pioneers Lloyd Fernando, Goh Poh Seng, Stella Kon, Edwin Thumboo, Kirpal Singh and Robert Yeo. Other prominent authors include playwrights Tan Tarn How, Ovidia Yu, Chong Tze Chien, Jean Tay, Haresh Sharma and Lim Chor Pee; authors Lim Thean Soo, Ming Cher and Tan Kok Seng; and children’s authors Adeline Foo and SherMay Loh (winner of the international Moonbeam Children’s Award). Epigram Books is the publisher of The Diary of Amos Lee series and a series of international award-winning children’s picture books.

Epigram Books also reflects Singapore’s obsession with food by publishing both recipe books and food guides. In 2011, the Wee Editions imprint was established to support local designers, photographers and artists through a unique series of compact coffee table books. In 2012, Epigram Books began its foray into comics with the commission of graphic novels by Dave Chua and Ng Xiao Yan, drewscape, miel, Ng Hong Teng and Oh Yong Hwee, and Eisner-nominated artist Sonny Liew.

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2012 SWF Schedule (updated)

SWF 2012 - OriginsThe schedule for the 2012 Singapore Writers Festival has just been released (here’s my SWF author page), so I can reveal the events in which I’ll be participating this year.

Brand New Books: Math Paper Press Anthology Launch
04 Nov 2012, 4:00 – 5:00 pm
Venue: ilovebooks.com Pavilion, Campus Green, Singapore Management University (Capacity: 80)
Free Admission

Three very different anthologies; three different aspects of Singapore. Balik Kampong: Stories of Connection/Disconnection with Different Parts of Singapore takes you back to the village of your imagination and memory, while Ayam Curtain is a mix of bite-sized speculative fiction which offers visions of possible and probable Singapores, from the quirky to the poignant. And in Fish Eats Lion, we have more speculative Singapore short stories; looking at the inherent strangeness of the island nation in a refreshing variety of voices and perspectives.

What I Talk About When I Talk About Music
07 Nov 2012, 6:30 – 8:00 pm
Venue: Switch by Timbre
Free Admission

Hosted by author Daren Shiau, come for an evening reading of literary pieces inspired by music . Featured writers include Alvin Pang, Jason Erik Lundberg and Grace Chia Krakovic performing their work to tracks by artists such as The Smiths, Nine Inch Nails and Radiohead.

Stories from a Shrinking Globe
11 Nov 2012, 11:30 am – 12:30 pm
Featuring: Krishna Udayasankar, Jason Erik Lundberg, Eshkol Nevo
Venue: ilovebooks.com Pavilion, Campus Green, Singapore Management University (Capacity: 80)
Moderator: Gwee Li Sui

Globalisation may have brought the world closer together, but has that really improved the lot of humankind? Come join three authors from varied backgrounds as they explore how globalisation has informed their writing. From recasting myths and local beliefs for modern readers to journeys and the role of English translations, this panel reflects on the complexities of today’s inter-connected world.

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Clarion Write-a-Thon Post Mortem

Rage Over Babylon by Ziv QualThe Clarion Write-a-Thon ended a week ago, and I meant to post a post mortem (heh) during that time, but my brain was frankly pooped after the six-week endurance run to finish the Tower novel. That meant hardly doing anything productive last week because, well, I just wasn’t physically or mentally capable of doing so. But now I’ve had a bit of a rest, so here you go.

For Week 6, I wanted to continue the trend of writing every other day rather than every day, but I knew that I’d need a fourth day in there to finish with the word count that I needed to put me at or over my overall goal of 30K. I wrote on Monday, Wednesday, Thursday, and then Friday; the Thursday numbers were low (to be expected, plus I didn’t want to stress myself too much), but I brought everything home during a marathon run on Friday while writing at studioKALEIDO (many thanks to Amanda and Winnie for giving me the space) and got to type THE END.

And then I took a long and freakishly satisfying shit. I mention this not as prurient scatology, but as a comment on the physical reaction that came with finally completing a work of 120,000 words, a work that had taken me six and a half years to finish. My body was able to literally unclench with the relief of wrapping up such a momentous event. I knew that I’d need to fix some things in revision, and I wasn’t satisfied with the ending I’d written, but it was there, out of my head and on the page.

On Saturday, to my surprise, I opened the very last chapter once again, and within 20 minutes or so, tweaked it enough so that what I’d earlier thought unsatisfying became a supremely meaningful and resonant ending, so much better than what I’d initially written the day before. But to tell the truth, I couldn’t have revised those resonant words without what I’d typed in my exhaustion the day before. Which is why the most important piece of writing advice I have ever learned is to FINISH WHAT YOU START.

So my final Write-a-Thon total is 30,834 words in six weeks. I accomplished my dual goals for the ‘thon and for finishing the book. I now have a completed novel that, in the coming months, I will go over at least twice more before sending out to agents. I’m damn proud of what I’ve done with it, and I’ll be even prouder once all the little niggling loose ends have been tied up.

But even better, all of the money that was donated or pledged in my name will now go to The Clarion Foundation, which comes to a total of $1,213.00. I’ll be sending out an email soon to all of the generous people who sponsored me, and will be getting their prizes ready.

This was an incredible experience and I learned a lot about myself in the process. I wouldn’t have been able to do it if I was working full-time right now, so I’m astonished at my fellow participants who also wrote toward their goals while holding down a day job. It’s been a long journey to get here, but the biggest thing I’ve taken away is that I can actually finish a novel. I’ve started many, but A Fickle and Restless Weapon (the book’s actual title) is the first one I’ve fully committed to finishing. It makes the prospect of writing my next novel a less daunting task, which is an important thing if I’m to have a lasting career.

Thank you to everyone for cheering me on. The book is finished, and I’m still basking in the glow of that accomplishment.

Okay, here are the entries from Week 6 at Team Hitchhiker:

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Last Week of the Write-a-Thon!

Rage Over Babylon by Ziv QualOkay, I let things get slack here again, but I’m happy to say that I’ve been incredibly productive during these last few weeks of the Clarion Write-a-Thon. As of the end of Week Five, I’m still on target (in point of fact, exactly on target, down to the word). A few things that I’ve discovered in the last three weeks:

  • I don’t seem to be able to write every single day. And when I push myself to do so, my productivity plummets. So I took the tactic of trying to write at least three or four times a week, and that seems to have kept me on track.
  • If I have a particularly good writing session (ergo, over 2K words), I can’t necessarily reproduce that experience by going back to the same location and siting in the same chair, ordering the same drink, etc. There were some days that I hardly did more than daydream.
  • Life will get in the way. Family problems will crop up, small children will get sick, you will get sick, a crisis will have to be dealt with right now. It happens. Rather than beat myself up over the writing time I was missing, I tried to stay more in the moment, and console myself by making up the wordage in later days.
  • Taking weekends off is essential. Seriously. Time to rest and play with my daughter.
  • Writing to a regular schedule is actually not that hard. Being accountable to people (like my donors) was a fantastic motivation to stay on this schedule.

I’m now heading into the final week of the Write-a-Thon. I only have two more shortish chapters to finish and then the Tower novel will be done, and I can type THE END. It’s both exhilarating and terrifying.

I’ve already posted my entry for today, but I want to reiterate something. My background music this afternoon was Hans Zimmer’s soundtrack for The Dark Knight Rises, which expresses all the grandeur and tragedy that I’m trying to convey in these final chapters. And I’m reminded of something that Christopher Nolan said about the film, that a great story deserves a great ending. It’s something I’m keeping in mind very much right now, although more prosaically I just keep telling myself not to fuck it all up.

One way or another, this week I will finish my novel. I know that I can fix things in revision, but I’m still hoping against hope that I have the ability and the courage to give this book the ending it deserves.

As I mentioned above, this is the final week of the Write-a-Thon, so if you’ve been considering sponsoring me or one of the other participants, now is the time to do so. If all of the pledges come through, we still need to raise an additional $2K; if none of the pledges comes through, we still need to raise $6K (although the real number will probably be somewhere in the middle). I’ve been very lucky so far to see wonderful generosity from friends, family, and acquaintances, but if you want to add your name to that list, and share in the final exciting moments of me finishing my book, you can do so at my Write-a-Thon profile. Please don’t put it off.

Okay, here are the entries from Weeks 3-5 at Team Hitchhiker:

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Almost Halfway Through the Write-a-Thon

Rage Over Babylon by Ziv QualThings have been quiet here at the blog, as expected, while I pound away at the last section of the Tower novel for the Clarion Write-a-Thon. I’m happy to say that I’m more or less on schedule, having written 12K+ words since I started on 25 June. I’ve run just a smidge behind because of illness and some quite sucky personal issues that I won’t go into here, but I should be able to catch up easily enough to reach my 30K goal by 4 August.

I mentioned in my last entry that I’d be posting weekly round-ups of my entries at Team Hitchhiker, and I have neglected to do that, bad bad writer. So I’ll go ahead and link them individually below. In each entry, I post my progress, a short write-up about what went well or poorly during the writing session, and a short extract of the written work as proof that I wasn’t only playing Diamond Dash during my writing time.

I should reiterate that even though the Write-a-Thon is more than a third over, The Clarion Foundation is still taking sponsorship donations, and will be until the end of the ‘thon. So if you’d still like to sponsor me (and each new sponsor gives me further incentive to achieve my writing goals), you can do so at my Write-a-Thon profile; even if it’s just a few bucks, it helps, believe me.

Okay, here are the entries so far:

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Write-a-Thon Commenced!

The Clarion Write-a-Thon has begun, and I did my first batch of writing today. I’m on Team The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (which tickles me to no end), and I’ll be posting my updates both on the Team Hitchhiker Blog and on my Write-a-Thon profile. Although I think that I’ll also post weekly roundups here as well.

Please remember that you can still sponsor me for the six weeks during the Write-a-Thon for any amount; every little bit counts. And the more donors I have, the more accountable I’ll feel, and the more motivated I’ll be to accomplish my goals.

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Clarion Write-a-Thon: Sponsor Me! (updated)

Clarion Write-a-ThonThis is a long entry, but please do read all the way to the end.

For long-time readers of this blog, and its previous incarnation at LiveJournal, you know how important an experience the Clarion Writers’ Workshop was for me. I attended in 2002, the 30th anniversary of the workshop being conducted on the campus of MSU at East Lansing, and it was a transformative experience. Having six weeks to do nothing but write, critique, read, and spend time with like-minded peers was a wonderful gift, and it unlocked something inside me that enabled me to begin seeing publication afterwards. Talk to almost any graduate of Clarion or Clarion West, and you’ll get a similar story.

And so, this year, exactly one decade after I attended Clarion, as a way for me to give something back, I will be participating in the Clarion Write-a-Thon (Facebook event). During the 2012 six-week session of the Clarion Writers’ Workshop at UCSD (June 24 to August 4), I will be following along with the 18 participants of the workshop during their frenetic life-changing experience in San Diego, and in solidarity doing a significant amount of writing myself.

My goal at the end of those six weeks is to write the final 30,000 words of my Tower novel (which I have been working on for six and half years at this point, and desperately want to finish), as well as raise some money for The Clarion Foundation (a wonderful non-profit organization that provides funding for the Workshop, and scholarships for the attendees). Broken down, that’s 5,000 words per week, which means that even if I solely write on weekdays, it’s only 1,000 words per day, which is totally doable.

I had planned to do this anyway, since other recent commitments have meant putting aside the Tower novel for a few months, but this structure will, I’m hoping, better enable me to complete my goal, especially if y’all are watching.

But I need your help.

In order to keep me motivated, I need people to sponsor me for the duration of the Write-a-Thon. You can pledge an amount that only gets donated if I complete my 30,000 word goal, or you can make a lump-sum donation on my behalf regardless of whether I get to 30K. Amounts start at $1 and go as high as you want. And because The Clarion Foundation is a nonprofit organization with 501(c)(3) charitable status, donations are tax deductible.

Remember, I don’t see a cent of the money that gets donated; however, if I get a minimum of $20 in donations, I have the option of joining a group of eight Write-a-Thon writers, and having that support structure in place so we can each root each other on. There are also prizes for the top earners, and although I’m less concerned about these than getting the writing done, snagging a Clarion paperweight and/or gift card would be some nice frosting on that cake.

There are a bunch of links on this entry, but here’s the important one ——–> my Write-a-Thon profile. Click there to check out my profile, keep updated on my progress, and make your tax-deductible sponsorship pledges.

Every little bit helps, and it is all appreciated, but here are some additional incentives that may help you to help me:

  • For every pledge of $10, your name will appear in the acknowledgments at the back of the book.
  • For every pledge of $20, you will also receive a DRM-free ebook trio (.epub, .mobi, and .pdf) of the finished Tower novel.
  • For every pledge of $40, you will also receive a DRM-free ebook trio of my short story “Complications of the Flesh,” which was just published in Bull Spec #7, and which shares the fictional setting of the Tower novel.
  • For every pledge of $50, you will also receive a DRM-free ebook trio of my rare 2001 holiday chapbook The Curragh of Kildaire, illustrated throughout by Jamie Bishop.
  • For every pledge of $75, you will also receive both a signed paperback copy and a DRM-free ebook trio of my 2011 collection Red Dot Irreal.
  • For every pledge of $100, you will also receive a signed paperback copy of the Tower novel once it is available.
  • For every pledge of $200, I will also name a character in one of the Tower novel’s final scenes (a prison breakout) after you or a person of your choice.
  • For every pledge of $500, I will also write a special one-of-a-kind story just for you which takes place in the fictional universe of the Tower novel, to be produced as an extremely limited edition signed chapbook of one copy.

If anyone is generous enough to pledge at amounts beyond that, I’ll come up with new tiers and rewards on the fly. 🙂

Thanks in advance!

N.B. My good friend Eugene Myers is participating in the Write-a-Thon for Clarion West; please consider sponsoring him as well.

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CAS: The Teachening

Creative WritingLast week, I once again taught two writing workshops at the Creative Arts Seminar organized on the campus of the National University of Singapore by the Ministry of Education’s Gifted Education Branch, as part of the year-round Creative Arts Programme. The kids who attend are largely already streamed into GEB classes in their schools, although certainly not all; any students in Secondary Year 2 and 3, and Junior College Year 1, who show a strong interest in creative writing can apply to the program (Sec4 and JC2 students who previously attended can come back as councillors). The biggest part of the application is the creative portfolio, which should show evidence of a sense of form, precision with language, truthfulness of feeling, originality of thought and imagination, and sensitivity to the world at large.

So what you get at the CAS are students who really want to be there. As someone who has taught from Sec 1 all the way up to university, it is a welcome and rare experience to have a roomful of students who are actively excited about what you may have to say. They’re engaged and enthusiastic, they ask good questions, they take lots of notes, and they thank you afterward for teaching them. A nice change from what a teacher normally experiences, and I never take such instances for granted.

In addition to teaching the workshops, however, this year I was also invited to give a plenary lecture on a topic of my choice. The time slot was an hour, so I was asked to talk for about 45 minutes, and then allow 15 minutes for Q&A. Lecturing is not usually my forte, but I was still keen to take up the challenge. I knew that I wanted to talk about speculative fiction, and on the transformative effect it can have on the reader, so I decided to write a speech about four key moments in my life where speculative fiction has had a profound impact. I titled it “Embracing the Strange: The Transformative Impact of Speculative Fiction,” and it seemed to go over quite well.

What I hadn’t been told in advance, and this is probably for the best, was that my plenary speech was the very first program item during the week-long seminar; the students spent Monday morning at registration and orientation, then had lunch, then filed into the lecture theatre to listen to me. So I basically opened the entire seminar with my speech. Had I known about this prior to walking in the door, I would have likely been a nervous wreck, but as it was, I didn’t have time to worry about it, so I just got down to work and did my thing. The kids laughed, and went “Aww,” and got very quiet in all the right spots, and then gave generous and flattering applause at the end.

During the Q&A, spurred by my assertions that they should all “embrace their strange” (whatever that might mean), many of the questions were about my impressions of the divide between “high” and “low” culture, and between mainstream and speculative fiction. It was incredibly interesting to see that the students were already thinking about these issues, and also disheartening to hear that authority figures actively dissuaded them from reading genre fiction, labelling such reads as mere “airport books” (with the assumption that they are both disposable and low in literary merit). I reinforced the notion that no one has the right to tell the students what to read for pleasure, and that if they get something (whatever that may be) out of reading Michael Crichton or George RR Martin or even Stephanie Meyer, that they should continue to do so proudly.

My Sec2/3 workshop was entitled “Worldbuilding 101: Strange New Worlds” (lecture notes) and focused mostly on setting and building a fictional world. This replaced last year’s workshop, which was much more introductory and covered a lot of ground but not very deeply; this year, I wanted to just focus on one topic for these kids, and go much more in-depth, with the result that they would have a much stronger foundation for working on their own speculative work.

My JC1 workshop was entitled “Tripping the Heavy Fantastic” (lecture notes), which was a repeat from last year (albeit tweaked slightly), and focused on cross-genre fiction (slipstream/fantastika/magic realism/etc.). I had high hopes for this one, as it went over so phenomenally well last year, and although the group wasn’t quite as active with their participation, and cliques of students tended to chat during the writing exercises, it still went quite well. By the end of the three hours, they each had the beginning to a new slipstream short story, and the ones who shared displayed vivid imaginations and some quite fine writing, even in rough draft. I encouraged them all to submit their work to LONTAR once they felt it was ready for publication.

Apparently, to my delight, both of the workshops filled up extremely quickly. It’s gratifying to see so much interest in what one is offering. However, if any of the students who wanted to get into one of my workshops and was unable to is reading this, I hope you’ll at least take a look at the lecture notes linked above at Scribd; it’s not the same as being there, and listening to me explain it all, but at least it’s something.

I was also quite chuffed to be able to sell so many of my books while I was there: 50 copies of Red Dot Irreal and around 40 copies of A Field Guide to Surreal Botany. I set special discounted prices for the CAP students, and many bought both books together. Here’s hoping that they enjoy what they read in them, and that it spurs a lifelong love for speculative fiction. If anyone was unable to get your copy of either book, the best place to find them in Singapore is BooksActually.

It was a great few days, and I had a lot of fun. I wish I could do events like this much more often than just once or twice a year.

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In Which Jason is Not Interviewed by The New York Times

I’m under deadline to finish writing an 8,000-word short story and a 12,000-word plenary talk cum essay, so today I’m going to perform the time-honored writerly tradition of procrastination and answer a bunch of interview questions instead.

The questions in question (ahem) come from this interview with Neil Gaiman by the New York Times Sunday Book Review (feel free to read Neil’s answers, as they’re guaranteed to be better than mine). The New York Times did not, in fact, interview me, although for the rest of this blog entry I will pretend that they did. Enjoy.

1. What book is on your night stand now?

I just finished re-reading The Enchanter by Vladimir Nabokov, as part of my quest to read all of the man’s published fiction in two years. This ur-Lolita should be judged on its own merits, but it is nigh impossible to do so; the shadow of Lolita (the book, not the girl) looms largest over all Nabokov’s fiction, and takes many of the plot points from The Enchanter and lets them breathe, lets them happen more naturally. My complete impressions of the book (such as they are) can be found here.

Also included on the night stand: Deathbird Stories (Revised and Expanded Edition) by Harlan Ellison, Kafkaesque edited by John Kessel and James Patrick Kelly, After the Apocalypse by Maureen F. McHugh, The Pottawatomie Giant and Other Stories by Andy Duncan, June Fourth Elegies by Liu Xiaobo, Zeroville by Steve Erickson, and Paradise Tales by Geoff Ryman. (A lot of short stories in that list, I’m just now realizing.)

This of course does not count the around sixty ebooks purchased on or for my NOOK, which are patiently waiting for me to get to them.

2. When and where do you like to read?

I’ve had the habit, since I was in middle school or thereabouts, of reading for at least an hour every night before bed. And in the 25 years since, I’ve more or less kept to this pattern. As I may have mentioned elsewhere on this blog, reading helps my mind to calm down after a sensory-intensive day, and is one of the top activities in which I recharge my overloaded introverted brain. I know that I’ll be able to do so uninterrupted for a decent stretch of time, which aids in the relaxation, and gets my body ready for sleep.

This does occasionally backfire with particularly exciting novels that keep me up into the wee hours. But it’s a risk worth taking.

I love to read during the day as well, in pretty much any location in which I’m left alone, but this is difficult with an exuberant two-year-old running around the house or insisting I join her for a tea party or to solve jigsaw puzzles. If I can snatch a few minutes of reading time during daylight hours, I consider myself incredibly fortunate.

3. What was the last truly great book you read?

I recently finished reading The Mirage by Matt Ruff, and it blew me away. The premise of a politically-reversed world, wherein the United Arab States have been attacked by Christian fundamentalists and in response invade the Christian States of America, turns the entire War on Terror on its head. A riveting thought experiment, and a highly enjoyable fast-paced thriller.

I also quite enjoyed Lewis Shiner’s short novel Dark Tangos, which begins as an exploratory love story and then turns much darker (including a scene of meticulously described torture, which forced me to keep reading into the wee hours so that I could get past it, in order to avoid nightmares). Shiner’s evocation of Buenos Aires and his love of tango make this an incredibly compelling narrative, even, and especially, during the less “exciting” parts.

Some excellent essay collections by fiction authors I already love: Maps and Legends by Michael Chabon, Distrust That Particular Flavor by William Gibson, and The Ecstasy of Influence by Jonathan Lethem, all of which I recommend.

But probably at the top of the most recent books I’ve read would have to be Nabokov’s exquisitely absurd Invitation to a Beheading, which sings with all of the things I’ve come to love about his writing. From my overly enthusiastic and loquacious impressions of the book:

O, what a riotously lovely piece of literature! I realize that Nabokov eschews any kind of Kafkaesque influence, but he and Kafka were clearly drinking from the same narrative well in this case. Our protagonist (with the mellifluous moniker of Cincinnatus C.) knows from the beginning the aspects of falsity and absurdity in the world he both inhabits and feels profoundly apart from. Convicted of the epistemological crime of “gnostical turpitude” (in other words, “depraved knowledge”) and sentenced to punitive decapitation, our dear narrator, who seems, on occasion, to psychologically split himself in twain, exists in a state of stultifying stasis, unaware of his execution date or his executioner, until both are revealed toward the end of the book. His reactions to the increasingly bizarre and hermetically implausible events that surround his impending death—largely consisting of his interactions with his unfaithful profligate of a wife, the prison guard, the warden, Cincinnatus’s lawyer, and his neighbor in the next cell—further illustrate his complete frustration with trying to apply logic in an illogical world, a theme Kafka was also quite fond of exploring.

4. Are you a fiction or a nonfiction person? What’s your favorite literary genre? Any guilty pleasures?

I’m pretty firmly in the fiction camp for pleasure reading, of the “paraliterary” variety; most non-fiction to me either feels like work or research for my writing (which is another form of work). The main exceptions to this rule are essays by writers of which I’m already a fan (such as the ones mentioned above), but I also was recently bowled over by No Enemies, No Hatred by Liu Xiaobo (a collection of his political writings and poetry), Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain (which I’ve already talked about in this blog), and The Fry Chronicles by Stephen Fry (a memoir that mainly covers Fry’s time at Cambridge, when he met fine folks like Hugh Laurie, Emma Thompson, and Rowan Atkinson, and immediately afterward, when he started to become successful in television).

I don’t know that I have any guilty pleasures when it comes to books. There are writers that I adore and will follow no matter what they write (a list of which is entirely too long to lay out here), but I don’t feel guilty about reading any of them.

5. What book had the greatest impact on you? What book made you want to write?

1984 by George Orwell has had by far the greatest impact on me. It was the first book that completely gutted me as a reader; the first time I read it as a required text in high school, the last line made me burst into tears. Only true art can have such an emotional affect. I wasn’t as keen on the political elements on that first reading, although they made more and more sense to me with each subsequent re-read (and also made me realize how political the entire novel is, from top to bottom). 1984 showed me the power of writing, and planted that seed of discovering just what I wanted to say in my own writing.

I don’t know if any one specific book made me want to write. Since I was little, I’d made up little stories, and even wrote one down when I was around seven years old in ur-chapbook form, called “The Pulsar NX is Missing!” about ninjas who steal my mother’s car.

6. If you could require the president to read one book, what would it be?

Other than my own? I’m not quite sure how to answer, as I don’t like the idea of “requiring” anybody to read anything. I’m happy to recommend, of course, but what am I going to do, stand over Obama’s shoulder monitoring his eyes’ movements over the page? That said, what I would very much like to see him read is a bound report of all the abuses committed by the Transportation Security Administration since its inception after 9/11, with page after page of humiliating accounts of innocent airline passengers being terrorized by the TSA, in the hopes that such a massive collation of offenses would finally convince him to abolish the agency.

7. What are your reading habits? Paper or electronic? Do you take notes?

I still vastly prefer books on paper, but more and more and I’m starting to edge into ebook land. After receiving a NOOK for Christmas, I can see the appeal of ebooks, especially if they might be books I wouldn’t necessarily want to keep on my shelves after finishing them (like Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs), or if they’re books I’d have a hard time finding in Singapore.

I never take notes in books. I’ve worked as both a bookseller and as a librarian, and the thought of marking up the pages in a book with pen or pencil makes me physically shudder. The only times I have broken this rule were for books that I taught in my classes, and even then I did so most grudgingly.

8. Do you prefer a book that makes you laugh or makes you cry? One that teaches you something or one that distracts you?

Yes.

9. Disappointing, overrated, just not good: What book did you feel you were supposed to like, and didn’t? Do you remember the last book you put down without finishing?

The Gift by Vladimir Nabokov, which I stopped at the halfway mark; I found it a difficult, internalized, psychological plod, although I suspect that I might feel differently if I knew thing one about Russian literature. It’s as if, knowing this would be his last major novel written first in Russian (all the ones to follow were originally written in English), he decided to create his love letter to Russian poetry, and to do so in the densest manner possible. I am honestly befuddled by the comments on Goodreads that list it among his top works. It is not surprising at all to me that at the same time as he was writing The Gift, he crafted Invitation to a Beheading, mentioned above; a joyous aside during the creation of such a Serious Work.

10. If you could meet any writer, dead or alive, who would it be? What would you want to know?

There’s a saying that one should never meet one’s heroes, as they will invariably deflate the image one has constructed from hopes and aspirations, but I really would have liked to meet Philip K. Dick. I didn’t get introduced to his writing until I was in college (more than ten years after he’d died), but there was something in UBIK, and in many of his other novels and short stories, that I strongly related to, mostly the idea that the world we know is an illusion, a fabrication, and that we must realize this basic truth in order to see that we are being manipulated. It’s the basic premise of The Matrix (which owes as much debt to Dick as it does to William Gibson and Jean Baudrillard), and it’s one of the core tenets of Buddhism.

11. What’s the best comic book you’ve ever read? Graphic novel?

It’s got to be the ten-volume set of graphic novels that comprise Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman. I was a big fan of Gaiman’s prose writing before I made the plunge into his comics work, but this series is such a massive accomplishment, an epic story told in patient beautiful language that upends our assumptions about storytelling itself. One feels after completing the series a sense that the world is both more terrible and more wonderful than we could ever imagine.

12. What do you plan to read next?

The Left Left Behind by Terry Bisson, which is part of PM Press’s Outspoken Authors pocketbooks series. Terry was one of my instructors at Clarion, and I’ve enjoyed his fiction over the years, but it wasn’t until I jumped the gun and read the interview with him in this small book that I realized what a radical activist he was in his youth, and how those political leanings still inform his character today.

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In the Weeds

In the WeedsHi all, sorry I haven’t been posting lately (I find myself saying this a lot, huh?), but I’m under deadline for several projects right now:

  • I’m conducting another BooksActually workshop tomorrow, and I just this afternoon finished preparing for it;
  • I’m writing an article for POSKOD which is due on the 30th, and I need to wrangle my research notes (taken just this past Wednesday) into a form that approximates creative nonfiction (25% finished);
  • I’m looking at the final submissions for Fish Eats Lion (only four days left to submit!), and trying to shape it all into a coherent anthology;
  • I need to read and critique the stories of my mentees in the Ceriph Mentorship Programme for when we next meet on 6 May;
  • I’m writing a story for the Eastern Heathens anthology, and have thankfully been given an extension, as it’s looking right now that it’ll be around 8-10K words long (40-50% finished);
  • I’m writing a 45-minute plenary talk for this year’s Creative Arts Seminar run by the Ministry of Education’s Gifted Education Branch at the end of May, and will pitch it later to Math Paper Press as part of the Babette’s Feast chapbook series (60% finished);
  • I’m conducting two workshops again at the CAS, and will need to change them a bit from last year, both to accomodate this year’s theme and to differentiate them enough in case students took a similar workshop from me in a previous GEB Literature Seminar; and
  • I’ve pledged to write a 500-1,000-word story for The Ayam Curtain, and I haven’t even started thinking about what I might do for this.

I also have a big announcement coming up in about a week, which will lead to more work for the rest of this year; it’s something that I’m very excited about, and it’s taking quite a lot of willpower not to just spill the beans right now, but y’all will have to wait. (I’m such a tease.) 😉

So yeah, I probably won’t be updating much here for the time being. But feel free to catch me at Facebook and Twitter, where I’m slightly more active. Hopefully, by beginning of June, I’ll be out of the weeds and able to get back on the Tower novel again; I really want to finish it by August if possible.

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Why I Write in Cafés

John Scalzi is one of my favorite bloggers, like, ever. He’s intelligent, witty, relevant, and damn funny; his blog is one of the few that I try to read every day. Back in 2004 on Whatever, John gave some wholly unsolicited writing advice, but it was point #5 that especially caught my attention:

5. You’re Not Fooling Anyone When You Take Your Laptop to a Coffee Shop, You Know.

I mean, Christ, people. All that tapping and leaning back thoughtfully in your chair with a mug of whatever while you pretend to edit your latest masterpiece. You couldn’t be more obvious if you had a garish, flashing neon sign over your head that said “Looking For Sex.” Go home, why don’t you. Just go.

Admittedly if everyone followed my advice the entire economy of Park Slope would implode. But look, do you want to write, or do you want to get laid? No, don’t answer that. Anyway, if you really want to impress the hot whomevers, you’ll bring your bound galleys to the coffeeshop to edit. That’ll make the laptop tappers look like pathetic chumps. We’re talking hot libidinous mammal sex for days.

John has since given much more writing advice, and generously compiled it into a stellar book called, appropriately, You’re Not Fooling Anyone When You Take Your Laptop to a Coffee Shop; I’ve got a first edition copy on my bookshelf (the hardcover is sold out, but the ebook is available), squeezed between Caitlín R. Kiernan’s Alabaster and Michael Chabon’s Maps and Legends. However, I diverge from John on this particular point, much as I appreciate the sentiment, in large part because of the anecdotal reason that I do my best writing in cafés.

Totoro in the foamOf course, anecdotal evidence doesn’t hold up in an argument, but that’s the thing: I’m not actually arguing with John here. I’ve seen firsthand and personally known people who perform the exact poseur mating dance as he describes above. However, it’s not true in my case, and here’s why.

I’ve written before about being introverted, and this especially comes into play with information input. If there are too many things going on around me — too many visual distractions, too many loud sounds, smells that are too strong, etc. — my natural reaction is to remove myself from the overstimulated environment; an extreme version of this is that if there is a loud argument going on, or someone is having a temper tantrum (no matter how old they might be), I want to run away and shut myself into the bathroom. That, or I go into a weird sort of fugue state that can only be described as drawing inward. So, too much stimulation means I can’t concentrate on writing, and with a two-year-old running throughout the apartment at all times of the day singing at the top of her voice, this usually means I can’t write at home. (I exaggerate, although not by much.)

But I also can’t go somewhere too quiet. If I hole up at the library, or if I try to work at home with no one around (which, paradoxically, I am doing right this second as I type this), I get antsy from loneliness, and, perhaps not ironically, lack of stimulation. (Right now, it helps that I’m listening to Franz Ferdinand quite loudly on my sound system.) I discovered this acutely at college, during trips to the university library stacks, or just studying in my dorm room when no one else was around. This is also why I very likely would be ill-suited toward working in a solitary writing cabin, which seems to be the dream for so many other writers. I can’t be overstimulated in order to concentrate, but I need just a little stimulation to keep myself awake and on task.

A café provides that perfect middle ground. As long as it’s not too crowded or noisy, I can appreciate the other people sitting at their tables, drinking their lattes, eating their artisanal sandwiches, having quiet conversations. I still plug in my ear buds so that I can choose music that will fade into the background as white noise, but the sound level is never too much to overcome my focus. But the best part is that no one else there gives a shit about me, and I’m largely left alone, which is important in maintaining that focus, the only exceptions being the respectful staff who are either trained in or are instinctually keen on minimizing their intrusions. Interruptions are death to the creative process, as explained by John Cleese thusly:

This entire video is fascinating and brilliant, and I recommend it to anyone working in any creative endeavor. Cleese gets thoroughly into the psychology of creativity and the idea that we all have two modes when it comes to working: closed and open. “Closed” helps us when we know what we’re doing, and we just need to buckle down and finish it. “Open” is necessary for looking at many facets of a problem, or of coming up with several approaches to a joke, or of wondering what will happen in the next chapter. Both are important, but “open” is absolutely necessary to creativity, and one of the ways Cleese suggests to attain this open state is to give yourself enough time and space so that you can work without interruption; he suggests a quiet space, for a duration of about an hour and a half.

That hour and a half (at least) is also necessary because, as he states, and I can back this up with my own experience, most of us cannot just sit and let our minds calm down and get to work on that creative project straight away. It takes almost a half hour of worrying about bills, and thinking about that dentist appointment next week, and remembering to email that friend who wants to get together, and pondering what exactly your spouse meant by a certain comment during an argument earlier that morning, before your brain can settle down and you can focus on the work in front of you. For me, it’s usually between 20 and 30 minutes, but then I’m (hopefully) in the zone and can write fairly solidly (depending on my word rate for any given day) for up to two hours before my ass falls asleep and I need to get up and stretch.

So with all due respect to John Scalzi, I’m not concerned with impressing anyone or prowling for sex partners when I take my MacBook to a café. It’s honestly the most conducive environment for me to get my creative work done. Long may such a home away from home exist.

I’ll end this entry with a caffeinated linkdump, of all my favorite cafés in which I was given a cozy and comfortable atmosphere in return for the purchase of legalized stimulants:

In Raleigh, NC: Cup A Joe at Mission Valley, Café Helios on Glenwood Avenue, Neomonde on Beryl Road, Global Village on Hillsborough Street, and The Irregardless Café on West Morgan Street.

In Singapore: Brew 1819 Café at Temasek Tower (owned by my friend and former colleague Huang Si Jian and her husband), 40 Hands Coffee in Tiong Bahru, The Coffee Bean & Teaf Leaf at the Singapore Post Centre, and Pacific Coffee Company at the Red Dot Design Museum.

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Putting the Toxic in Exotic

Yesterday, Lavie Tidhar at The World SF Blog linked to a smart blog post by Tori Truslow on the use of the word “exotic” to describe her fiction that takes place in Thailand:

Thailand almost never gets portrayed in the West as anything other than Oriental Exoticland. From early travelogues to The King and I to The Windup Girl, travellers and expats sideline the actual characteristics of the place and the experiences of the people that live there in favour of self-fulfilling fantasies about how weird and different it is. This is so much the norm that many Western writers probably don’t think they’re doing it at all, and nor do their readers. But the assumption that an expat must be able to write Thailand well – by virtue of having lived a privileged life surrounded by imported home comforts and culture – is total nonsense. Living somewhere for a long time doesn’t make you exempt, but it might make you think you are, which is a problem in itself. Just because I grew up in Thailand doesn’t mean I don’t need to constantly educate myself about Thai culture and the way my own culture promotes damaging representations of it.

In Imagining Siam, Caron Eastgate Dann writes about the circular effect of the Western construction of the exotic East: “because it is presented in this way by writers, readers expect to receive an exoticised description, and because it is expected by readers, writers feel encouraged, and perhaps even obliged, to fabricate tales of the weird, the exotic and the erotic.”

As both producers and consumers in Western culture, we reward this kind of behaviour, and throwing the word “exotic” around as a positive in reviews feeds the circle, as does pandering to the desire for exotica in writing. How do we break the circle? Not easily or immediately, for sure, but by listening to people whose cultures have been exoticised when they say it’s shit, by looking long and hard at how and why we use the word, by refusing to use it uncritically, and not getting defensive when we do and are called on it – we might have a chance.

This discussion dovetails with the remarks I recently made on the use of “exotic,” “native,” and “Oriental” in an otherwise positive review of my book at Grasping for the Wind. I disagree with The Windup Girl being included here, but this is otherwise very cogent to discussion of the Western representation of Asia. Read the post in full.

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Dystopian Deathmatch! Fight!

Orwell and Huxley

Yesterday, Letters of Note unearthed a letter written by Aldous Huxley to George Orwell upon the publication of Nineteen Eighty-Four. He starts off by thanking Orwell for instructing his publisher to send Huxley a copy of the book, and compliments him on its importance, then goes on to challenge the plausibility of Orwell’s dystopian future:

The philosophy of the ruling minority in Nineteen Eighty-Four is a sadism which has been carried to its logical conclusion by going beyond sex and denying it. Whether in actual fact the policy of the boot-on-the-face can go on indefinitely seems doubtful. My own belief is that the ruling oligarchy will find less arduous and wasteful ways of governing and of satisfying its lust for power, and these ways will resemble those which I described in Brave New World. […]

Within the next generation I believe that the world’s rulers will discover that infant conditioning and narco-hypnosis are more efficient, as instruments of government, than clubs and prisons, and that the lust for power can be just as completely satisfied by suggesting people into loving their servitude as by flogging and kicking them into obedience. In other words, I feel that the nightmare of Nineteen Eighty-Four is destined to modulate into the nightmare of a world having more resemblance to that which I imagined in Brave New World. The change will be brought about as a result of a felt need for increased efficiency. Meanwhile, of course, there may be a large scale biological and atomic war — in which case we shall have nightmares of other and scarcely imaginable kinds.

What Huxley failed to realize, however, is that science fiction is crap at prediction. Very little of what has been written in the nearly 200 years since the publication of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein has actually come to pass. It’s a common conceit, although I believe William Gibson is most famous for saying it, that science fiction is never about the time being written about, it’s always about the time in which the author wrote the book. Orwell’s world of Oceania and Air Strip One is a thinly-veiled analogue to post-WWII England, down to the destroyed buildings, rampant poverty, and chocolate rations. He was never honestly trying to predict the future; instead, he created his counterfactual masterpiece to help ensure that this future never actually would come to pass.

This being said, Huxley was much more spot on about the path humanity was about to take in terms of how it is often distracted so that those in power can remain both wealthy and powerful. We may not have Soma, but we do have reality television, political punditry, LOLcats, and product worship (you’ve seen the queues for the new models of iPads, right?). In terms of loving our servitude, how many of us are addicted to Facebook? We’re not to the stage where the class system is concretized in utero, but we don’t need to be; the income gap between the wealthy and everyone else has never been more pronounced. However, while Huxley was an astute observer of human nature, Brave New World fails as a science fiction novel.

So Nineteen Eighty-Four was not an actual prediction, but it was a narrative masterpiece. Orwell was a student of Huxley’s at Eton, and had to have read Brave New World when it was published in 1932. Both men had read Yevgeny Zamyatin’s ur-dystopia We, which both books bear a strong resemblance to in terms of premise. But in terms of sheer storyNineteen Eighty-Four trounces Brave New World, which is really more of a thought experiment than a novel. To paraphrase Henry James, story is character. Huxley gives us an assortment of point-of-view characters, only one of which (John the Savage) has any kind of narrative arc, and even this is not present throughout the entire book. Orwell gives us Winston and Julia and O’Brien, characters with depth and humanity and tragedy that stay with us long after we’ve finished the novel. Thought experiments are fine for intellectual exercise, but a story is something that resonates and becomes part of who we are.

Both books have incredible merits, but only one of them remains my all-time favorite novel, and has held that number one spot for twenty years. I’m sure you can guess which one.

As a final note, I’ll point y’all to a webcomic drawn in 2009 that illustrates a passage in Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves To Death that contrasts these two books quite succinctly.

Orwell vs Huxley

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Why I Won’t Do Business With Amazon

Amazon Is Nigh a MonopolyIf you’ve poked around this site, you’ll find ordering information for my collection RED DOT IRREAL on the main page. Some folks have asked why the e-version is available at so many outlets (Smashwords, Studio Circle Six, Weightless Books, iBookstore, Nook Store, Goodreads, Kobo, Diesel), but not at the Amazon Kindle e-book store (even though the MOBI file is available directly from Smashwords). Amazon* is the biggest seller of e-books on the planet, so it only makes sense to have my book listed there, right? The big outlying success stories with e-books (Amanda Hocking, J.A. Konrath, Michael Prescott, etc.) were only made possible because of exposure at the Kindle Store, and because my book is a story collection (a format that is generally not popular with book buyers), it could use all the help it could in terms of exposure, right? Am I just a doubleplusmoron for deciding against selling my book there?

The answer is no. Well, at least, I hope not (although if I was a doubleplusmoron, I wouldn’t have the cognitive capacity to recognize that I was in the first place). It’s true that Amazon is the biggest game in town, and I understand this quite well. When I still lived in the States, I frequently ordered from them in addition to supporting my local indie bookstores; it’s hard to say no to their aggressively low prices and prompt deliveries. However, I now refuse to do business with them anymore, as a consumer, an author, or a publisher. Here’s why.

1. Amazon is the Wal-Mart of the Internet.

Wal-Mart gained their reputation by having the lowest prices on the products they carry, lower than anywhere else. They accomplished this by pressuring their suppliers to give them increasingly deep discounts so that they could keep prices low. An effect of this is that the manufacturers of those products, very often found in China and India, were pressured by the suppliers to also reduce costs. This in turn has led to many unfair labor practices in those countries, such as inconsistent pay periods, mandatory overtime (with no extra pay), lax safety conditions, lack of worker’s compensation, militant anti-unionism, and zero job security. Another effect is seen at the consumer level, where Wal-Mart has pushed many independent businesses into bankruptcy because they just couldn’t discount as deeply.

Wal-Mart has an online e-commerce store, but the vast majority of their sales still come from their plethora of gigantic superstores that blanket the USA. They depend on the physical presence of these storefronts to drive their sales. Amazon has no need for actual physical shops, and they never have. All of their sales come from online. Amazon is also well-known for deep-discounting the many items on their site, and their tactics are very similar to Wal-Mart’s in being able to force those prices down. Yet in terms of e-commerce, they’ve actually out-Wal-Marted Wal-Mart.

As an increasingly ethical consumer, I want to support companies with fair business practices, who treat the people who work both for them and with them in a moral and ethical way. Amazon has repeatedly shown that their bottom line is the bottom line, and while customers get to reap these low prices and become brand-loyal to Amazon, every one else up the supply chain is hurting.

2. Amazon Treats Its Own Employees Like Shit

Taking a page from its suppliers in China, Amazon treats its own factory workers as dispensable and beneath the concern of basic human rights. They have to store all the stuff that they import in giant warehouses with either little or no ventilation, and where the temperatures rise to intolerable levels inside; during summer heat waves, workers pass out so routinely that “Amazon arranged to have paramedics parked in ambulances outside, ready to treat workers.” Is this really the way to treat the people who physically store and ship the items you sell?

Amazon pushes these workers beyond their limits, then reprimands them for their “low” levels of productivity and threatenes to fire them if they don’t do better. “The consequences of not meeting work expectations were regularly on display, as employees lost their jobs and got escorted out of the warehouse.” If a worker is genuinely lazy and not pulling their weight, that’s one thing, but to systematically treat all its employees as discardable interchangeable exploitable robots is quite another. It’s horrible enough that theses practice are happening in China, but it’s abominable that they’re also taking place in the USA in the 21st Century.

3. Amazon Hates Brick-and-Mortar Shops

This past Christmas, Amazon launched a “Price Check” app on both the iPhone and Android stores, and encouraged people to walk into their neighborhood shops, scan the prices of the items they wanted, then walk out of the store and order them on Amazon instead. This deal didn’t apply to bookstores, but almost any other independent or chain store could be targeted. This was a despicable way for Amazon to get free labor in determining prices from their competitors, and further encouraged the idea that “cheaper is better,” no matter the impact to the businesses being infiltrated by this behavior.

As part of its “Wal-Mart Attitude,” Amazon wants to be all things to all people, the virtual analog to Buy N Large. It’s true that companies will send employees to visit their competitors in order to keep updated on selection and pricing; this is a legal practice and it encourages openness in competition. However, sending your customers to get this information, with the compensation being a tiny discount on an Amazon order, leaves a terrible taste in the mouth. I get the sense that if Amazon obliterated all physical storefronts everywhere, its stockholders would not be able to stop orgasming long enough to spend their massive stacks of money.

Note that this tactic was aimed both at chain stores and at independent shops, but the indies would have been hit particularly hard by this. Indie stores provide a sense of neighborhood and local import that chains do not, and the money earned by these shops tends to stay within the community; taxes from these local stores go toward improving infrastructure, maintaining public parks, keeping public libraries open, etc. Chain stores and e-commerce sites like Amazon owe nothing to any community, and the profits earned go directly into the stockholders’ pockets. Which leads to my next point.

4. Amazon Refuses to Collect Sales Taxes

Amazon only grudgingly collects sales tax in five US states, and has fought vigorously to avoid collecting taxes in the others, even “where Amazon has a clear physical presence via distribution centers and wholly owned subsidiaries.” This gives it an unfair advantage over other brick-and-mortar and online stores, and denies that tax money to the state governments. Their logic seems to be that because they do not have a physical storefront presence, the laws that apply to physical businesses do not apply to them, especially because there is no federal sales tax. Each state must negotiate with Amazon on its own, even though Amazon may own a warehouse or distribution center in that state, or the trucks delivering Amazon’s products must drive on roads that run through that state, or their employees must rely on public services such as police or firefighters to remain safe in that state, or the customers who buy Amazon’s products pay for them from that state.

Because Amazon refuses to collect these taxes, they can keep their prices low, and continue to cement their market superiority. And when state governments do indeed pursue sales taxes from Amazon, such as in California, Amazon “threatened to cut ties with more than 10,000 California-based websites that get revenue through the Internet giant’s affiliate program if California passes a law to tax online sales.” In Texas, Amazon closed “its suburban Dallas distribution center amid a dispute with the state over millions in state sales taxes.” Instead of working with these state governments, Amazon is content to bully them into a free ride, and then cut and run if they don’t get their way.

5. Amazon Wants To Be the Only E-book Retailer Anywhere

Ever since the Kindle was launched in 2007, Amazon has hawkishly pushed e-books as the next stage in consumer literature. The argument for e-books has been around since I was in high school (when my dad first showed me an article about e-ink technology), but it wasn’t until the last couple of years when e-readers, and Kindles in particular, became affordable to much larger groups of people. Amazon now sells its Kindle and Kindle Fire at a loss, because it knows it can make back its money by providing inexpensive content wrapped in DRM through its devices. Amazon also does this to drive out the competition, essentially forming a monopoly, at which time they are free to raise prices again because no one will have anywhere else to go.

As you might imagine, book publishers aren’t too happy about this. Already, for years they’ve had to sell their books at massive discounts to be listed on Amazon’s site at all, and then, they’re being told that Amazon will be the only retailer to sell their e-books. Thankfully, EPUB became the e-book format standard rather than Amazon’s proprietary MOBI format, and pretty much any e-reader out there now can read it, including the Barnes & Noble NOOK, which seems to be the only major competition for the Kindle right now**.

Two years ago, Apple developed the iBookstore for the iPad and iPhone, and the big publishing conglomerates (often called “The Big Six”) leapt at the chance to make their titles available on such widespread and loved devices. Buy this action, Apple could take enough business away from Amazon that it would definitely impact their bottom line. So, in retaliation for this move, Amazon pulled most or all of the listed books from publisher Macmillan (including all paper editions, not just electronic) from their online store. The listings remained on the site, but the “Buy” buttons were removed.

This hit quite close to home. I’m not published by Macmillan, but many of my writer friends are (at publishers like FSG, Henry Holt, Picador, St. Martin’s Press, and Tor). They never asked to get caught up in this fight, but by delisting these books, Amazon denied them money from royalties that would have been made had the “Buy” buttons remained up during this time. Amazon purposefully took money away from my friends, and this pissed me off. Thankfully, Amazon backed off, and relisted the books, but there was nothing to stop them from doing so again.

And again they have. Just last week, Amazon pulled more than 4,000 books from its site in order to pressure the Independent Publishers Group, one of the USA’s largest book distributors, into renegotiating their contractual terms to move things more toward Amazon’s favor. The books by the publishers distributed by IPG are now delisted from the Kindle e-book store, and the situation remains unresolved at this point. In response, the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA) are now redirecting all Amazon.com links on their site, and replacing them with links to IndieBound, Powells, and B&N; I’ve had my criticisms of SFWA over the years, but I’ve been more and more impressed with them during John Scalzi’s recent tenure as President, and this action made me respect them so much that I finally, just yesterday, applied for active membership.

6. Amazon is All About Locking You Into Your Content

As I mentioned above, the default file format for Kindle e-books is MOBI, and these are designed to be read either on a Kindle device or in a Kindle app on the iPad (for example). If you buy a book in the Kindle store, you cannot read that book on a NOOK or a Samsung Galaxy Tab or a Sony Reader. That book has been restricted with Digital Rights Management (DRM), one of the most euphemistically insidious concepts to come out of the late 20th. DRM locks you into one device or one format, and it is non-transferable. Cory Doctorow, speaking at a writers festival in Melbourne, put it this way: “It’s as if every time you bought a book at Borders, you were locked into only shelving it in an IKEA bookcase. If you wanted to sell your books through the local independent bookseller down the road, your readers would have to throw away all the books they had bought and buy new copies to shelve on their new bookcases.”

DRM was ostensibly created to thwart piracy of electronic movies, books, and music, but any DRM can be (and has been) broken by a barely interested hacker with a free weekend, which means DRM has proven to be utterly useless in this regard. What it does instead is lock ordinary people into one device or format, and then punish them if they go outside of it. As Charles Stross mentions in “Cutting Their Own Throats“: “If you buy a book that you can only read on the Kindle, you’re naturally going to be reluctant to move to other ebook platforms that can’t read those locked Kindle ebooks — and even more reluctant to buy ebooks from rival stores that use incompatible DRM.”

I’ve mentioned in previous posts that I got a NOOK Simple Touch from my parents for Christmas, and I’ve really enjoyed it in the two months I’ve used it thus far; however, I’m always aware that I don’t really own the books that I’ve bought for it, I’m only licensing them. As opposed to paper books that I can display on my bookshelves, or loan to a friend, or sell to a secondhand bookshop, the books I’ve bought for the NOOK exist only on my device and in my NOOK Library; I can’t actually access these files so as to, say, transfer them to my MacBook and read them with Adobe Digital Editions, so my philosophy is to only buy books through the NOOK e-book store that I wouldn’t have normally paid for, or may have only checked out from the library. That way, if I “lose” them for whatever reason I won’t be too terribly put out. For the e-books for which I would like to keep the files, I head to Weightless Books or Smashwords.

Now, as I say, DRM is by no means exclusive to Amazon, but because they are so singularly proprietary about their formats and devices, they are perhaps one of the most perfidious perpetrators of the concept. Amazon’s ideal situation is this: an author publishes her work through Amazon (either through the Kindle Direct Publishing program or through their new publishing arm), Amazon distributes the work through their website alone, and then readers read the work on their Kindles, with Amazon becoming a one-stop shop for everything related to the bookselling process.

This doesn’t even get into the fact that Amazon can reach into any Kindle anywhere and remotely delete its content, nor does it address the stranglehold Amazon wants to have on its book data so it can dictate that third-party sites like Goodreads can only provide links to the Amazon store and no others (to which Goodreads said buh-bye to Amazon), nor does it bring up the many many companies that utilize Amazon Web Services (like Wikileaks before Cablegate) and Amazon Payments (like Kickstarter) who are beholden in their content and payment methods to Amazon’s increasingly restrictive and bureaucratically complicated terms of service.

One company should not have so much commercial power, because, to paraphrase Lord Acton (and not Shakespeare, to whom this is usually attributed), it has been absolutely corrupted by it. Amazon is the biggest bully on the block, and is able to dictate its unfair terms to the world, and so I will no longer have anything to do with them if I can possibly help it. As stated before, I’m not interested in punishing Kindle-users, and so if you would like to buy RED DOT IRREAL to read on the Kindle, you can find it in that format and in many others, DRM-free, at Smashwords.

POSTSCRIPT: An Anti-Amazon Addendum


* You may notice that I personify Amazon quite a bit in this blog post, although I am firmly against the belief that corporations have personhood. So when I refer to “Amazon” here, I’m typically talking about CEO Jeff Bezos and the company’s board of directors.

** In terms of devices, it’s hard to say that the Apple iPad is a competitor for the Kindle, as it was always intended to be a tablet first and an e-reader later, although with the recent release of the Kindle Fire and NOOK Tablet, these distinctions are slowly evaporating.

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Call for Submissions: FISH EATS LION

CALL FOR SUBMISSIONS

FISH EATS LION: NEW SINGAPOREAN SPECULATIVE FICTION

Math Paper Press and editor Jason Erik Lundberg are looking for new and innovative short fiction for an original anthology of speculative fiction (which includes science fiction and fantasy, as well as any associated subgenres, such as magic realism, space opera, steampunk, post-apocalypse, etc.) with a Singaporean flavor.

Anchor contributors for this groundbreaking anthology include Cyril Wong, Isa Kamari, Alvin Pang, Dave Chua, Jeffrey Lim, and Stephanie Ye.

In terms of what makes a “Singaporean” speculative short story, we’d like to see at least one of the following:

  • Your protagonist is Singaporean (i.e. born in Singapore)
  • Your protagonist (Singaporean or not) is living in Singapore at the time of your story (i.e. Singapore is the setting)
  • Your story’s themes are inspired by life in Singapore

As long as your narrative contains at least one of the above elements, you’re encouraged to write whatever story you choose. Please do not limit yourself to just writing about our current era; challenge yourself to write a story set in Singapore’s recent or distant past, or in the near or far future. The fantastical or science-fictional element must also be integral to your story (i.e. the story wouldn’t make any sense if you took it out). A good list of clichéd SF story premises to avoid can be found at online magazine Strange Horizons’ guidelines for “Stories We’ve Seen Too Often.”

We are hoping to have a print-on-demand version of the book available outside of Singapore in addition to the paperback being published here, so please consider that you are writing for an international audience. If the story is too all-inclusive, you risk alienating a reader unfamiliar with Singaporean culture. It’s a fine line to walk, with authenticity on one side and accessibility on the other, but it is quite possible to do both.

You need not be a Singaporean citizen or permanent resident to submit to this anthology, but you should have intimate, first-hand knowledge of life in Singapore; if your details ring false or shallow, we will be able to tell.

STORY LENGTH

Stories are recommended to be between 2,000 and 5,000 words; we may consider stories that go above the upper word limit provided that they’re not egregious in length. Also, the keyword here is “new.” Even if you have previously published fiction that might fit this theme, Math Paper Press wants to emphasize that these are new stories, not reprints. You don’t have to write a story especially for the anthology (although we hope you’ll take up that challenge), but your submission must be previously unpublished in any form.

PAYMENT

In terms of compensation, we are offering five (5) contributor copies of the published anthology, and a 40% author discount on further copies, as well as the pride of contributing to Singapore’s first anthology of original speculative fiction! In return, we’re buying First Worldwide Print rights to your story.

You may notice that we’re unable to offer monetary payment this time around. Sorry about that. We’re hoping that for future speculative fiction projects we’ll be able to pay in something other than copies, but right now, that’s all we have to offer (plus the author discount). So if we buy your piece, and if you’re hoping to sell your story to another venue afterward, it’ll count as a reprint, which means the pay rate will be less than it would have been if the venue was buying “first rights” to your story. If you understand this and are cool with it, we’d love to see your fiction.

SUBMISSION

The deadline for submissions is 30 April 2012. Please consult William Shunn’s article on Proper Manuscript Format. Send your story in RTF format as an attachment, along with cover letter, to jason@booksactually.com; submissions sent in other formats, or in the body of the email, will be deleted unread.

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Brief Emergence From Radio Silence

Apologies for the lack of posting, folks. Dealing with some personal stuff I’m not at liberty to discuss right now. Hopefully, I’ll be back to normal (for relative values of “normal”) soon.

I’ll be up to Kuala Lumpur tomorrow for the day to participate at Readings@Seskan’s and get together with some friends. I’m bringing copies of both Red Dot Irreal and A Field Guide to Surreal Botany for sale and signing at the event, so if you’re in the Bangsar area of Kuala Lumpur around 3:30 pm, do please stop in and say hi.

On March 1, I’ll be doing a tripartite reading at BooksActually in Singapore with Wena Poon and Stephanie Ye. More on this when I know it.

I just this morning accepted two mentees for the Ceriph Mentorship Programme. I’ll be meeting with them once a month to work on their prose writing, discuss publishing, and so forth.

But coolest of all, I was recently approved for Professional Membership in PEN. I’ve been an associate member of PEN for some years now, and have been proud to belong to an organization that does so much for freedom of expression and human rights around the world. I’m honored to now be counted, thanks to the publication of Red Dot Irreal, as a full-fledged member.

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Filed under Reading, Red Dot Irreal, Website, Writing