Newsletter #77

NEWSLETTER #77: November 3, 2013

Dear People,

Two months ago I said I had a direction on the plot for Air and Darkness, the final novel in the Books of the Elements fantasy series for Tor. The plotting has proceeded, stumbled along really, since then.

The process is very much like doing a jigsaw puzzle: you sort out bits that might belong together and find a few that fit. As you get groupings, it becomes easier to add more to the patterns that start to appear. Eventually you start to see how the separate accretions fit into one another; then, finally, you get the last bits into place–usually by moving things that you realize were in the wrong place to begin with.

Well, that’s how I do it. Other people have different and I’m sure better methods, but this one has worked for me for a long time. Presumably it’ll work this time as well.

That said, I’m at the ‘grouping chunks together’ stage at present. It seems awfully slow. My close friends tell me it’s always this way, so I’m sure it is… but doggone, it’s depressing.

(At this point I’ll issue a disclaimer: mild depression has been my resting state since Nam, so everything is completely normal. I am not a danger to myself or others.)

Things are going quite well, in fact. The mass market of Night & Demons, my horror/fantasy collection, will be out in December from Baen, and therefore my story The Virgin of Hertogenbosch should be coming live on soon. (Free.)

I’m really very proud of that story. Though it isn’t flashy, it’s technically as well-crafted a piece as I’ve ever written. I can–and do–think about it when I wonder if my brain has turned to mush and this plot is never going to go together.

No: the brain that wrote Virgin is not mush. Air and Darkness will come together also.

I mentioned in #76 that I was going to do radio interviews with WCOM-LP, which you could have heard live within Carrboro, and with WUNC-FM, the flagship public radio station in North Carolina. Both interviews are now available as podcasts.

They were interesting experiences. Whether or not they were beneficial in any real fashion is debatable, and this sort of public performance costs me more than is probably evident to those listening. Still, if I had my druthers, I’d never get out and never see any strangers. That would be a crazy way to live and, though I am crazy, I work to keep those tendencies at bay.

The nominal subject in both cases was Monsters of the Earth, the third Book of the Elements. Frank Stasio, the very professional and entertaining UNC host, got into the question of art versus craftsmanship. In Carrboro, the interviewer was supposed to be Sam Blinn, who has worked tirelessly to support SF and fantasy in NC. In reality, the station is run as the personal fiefdom of two community activists who have their own agendas. The interview strayed a good deal, but I stayed polite.

There are new pictures up on the website. There’s a pairing of me reading and my grandson Tristan reading some thirty or forty years later. The posture gene appears to have skipped Jonathan.

The other is a sort-of Hallowe’en picture which my wife Jo snapped on our deck. It’s wholly unposed. We’re one with nature here in the Drake household. (Well, two with nature. And we have pets.)

I translated another chunk of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, this one on Diana transforming Actaeon into a stag who is then messily killed by his own pack of hounds. This was a popular theme in the classical world (As soon as possible, Karen, my webmaster, will be adding a Pompeian wall painting that I saw in Naples in May).

Ovid’s treatment is interesting, however. Consistently in the Metamorphoses he equates the Olympian gods with the Emperor Augustus and his courtiers. Here, Actaeon is innocent of doing anything but wandering into the wrong patch of woods, but he’s horribly punished by an arbitrary use of unbridled power.

Ovid clearly understood that though Augustus kept the trappings of Republican freedom, he was really an autocrat who could do anything his whim–or anger–wished. What Ovid apparently didn’t understand is that mocking Augustus and his program for a rebirth of Roman morality might have serious personal consequences.

Augustus in fact exiled Ovid to the farthest reaches of the empire–Tomi, on the Black Sea. He might just has easily have had the poet ripped to death by dogs like Actaeon. Ovid could have considered himself lucky. Judging by the pitiable poems he wrote in Tomi, that wasn’t his reaction.

In September, 2014, Baen Books will publish my five time-travel novelettes as Dinosaurs and a Dirigible. I wouldn’t normally mention a book so early, but the cover (painting by Tom Kidd) is so neat that I’m jumping the gun a bit.

The four Henry Vickers dinosaur-hunting stories have never been published together (which is odd now that I think about it). The dirigible comes from Travellers, a self-standing piece and a very unusual (gentle) one for me. I wrote it deliberately to prove that I could. Oddly enough, the story is now Steampunk; or I suppose Proto-Steampunk, given that I wrote it in 1980. The field has caught up with me yet again!

I mentioned in #76 that I would be attending my 50th high school reunion in Clinton, Iowa. I’m not sorry to have gone, though it wasn’t a life-changing event.

I remember myself as being a smart-ass prick. The general opinion of my classmates seems to be that I was quiet and always had my nose in a book. One or two called me ‘one of the brains.’ I appreciate that assessment, but I still remember behaving in fashions which I now regret.

The thing that the reunion really drove home, though, is the degree to which I distanced myself from all social aspects of school. I wasn’t interested in sports, granted; or student government, or drama. I didn’t dance, nor did I date in high school.

But I wasn’t on the staff of the school paper, either, though I had at least four stories in it. (I hope to get copies of those and put them up on the website realsoonnow.) I was a natural for the paper, but I just wasn’t interested in group activity even when that involved writing and editing–which I did extremely well for my age. A lot of the things that I’ve tended to blame on Nam and PTSD were apparently part of my personality from much earlier.

I took a tour of the high school (new since my time), which included the sports facilities. Phys-ed was very unpleasant for me and boys like me, because it was wholly focused on people who liked sports: the jocks. I (and at least some of my bookish friends) were capable of physical effort: in basic training, I got 497 out of a possible 500 points in the army’s physical fitness test. In high school phys-ed, however, we were bullied and/or ignored.

But in chatting with one of the former jocks (not one of the bullies, though he knew exactly what I was talking about), I came to another realization: the school failed the jocks–those who weren’t natural scholars; some were, of course–in academic subjects. This guy had become a diver in the Navy (he didn’t say, but a friend of his confirmed my suspicion that he was a SEAL). After he retired, he worked as an oil company diver and finally became Duke University’s test subject for dives to 900 feet.

Duke was developing decompression tables for these extremely deep dives. He was spending five days and more at a time in a decompression chamber with absolutely no companionship or entertainment except books. Though he hadn’t read a book since high school, he started now–and found that books opened a whole new world to him. He reads voraciously now.

I don’t know what the answer is. I don’t think that competitive athletics are exactly bad, though Clinton High (and I suspect most high schools) hired stupid, brutal men to coach them. (I heard stories at the reunion from jocks which were even worse than anything I personally saw or suffered.) I think there could be more general focus on fitness for everybody–much as the Army, scarcely what I would describe as an enlightened organization, was doing in 1969.

But there should be more awareness that non-scholars can still learn to love reading and academic knowledge, too. You’re not going to get that by teaching The Mill on the Floss, I’m afraid.

You needn’t feel sorry for either me or my jock classmate: we both did extremely well for ourselves. But we were self-starters, and not everybody is. And everybody deserves the education they’re being forced to spend the time in school for.

Oh, well. Go out and be nice to other people, folks.

–Dave Drake

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