The Bonds of Earth

Winner of the Summer 2019 Short Story Contest.

I

*

“There!”

Second Lieutenant Yoshimura adjusts the camera lens, twisting the blearing green into a sprawling jungle. 

“Pitch right!”

The Nakajima Gekkō turns languidly in the cloud-flecked azure. Below, the verdant New Guinea highlands curl and crest.

A gap in the foliage drifts into Yoshimura’s crosshairs. He sees the sandy vein hemmed with lean-tos, barrels, and palm clumps. The Americans scatter like exposed roaches.

“Bastards,” he snarls through his rippling scarf. “We’ve been shelling the Huon Gulf to desert while they’ve been building under our noses.”   

He hammers the camera trigger as if the whirring little box might hurl down bolts of lightning.

“Sir, are you sure it’s not a hunter’s camp?” Warrant Officer Iwaki calls back from the pilot seat. “Hinode reported seeing a few straw hovels on his last run.” 

Yoshimura leans back into the plexiglass bubble.

“Of course! How could that shit worm mistake an airfield for a few hovels? Get on the horn and re-route Tsukahara and Juhei Company to Tsili-Tsili. Tell them…”

Flashes.

Flickering constellations trail up from the canopy and dissolve into the stratosphere. Some of the little stars burst as they rise, splotching black cumulus amidst the white.

Yoshimura steadies his camera. He sees the sparking barrels where the palm clumps had been. “Dive!”  

Iwaki rolls the Gekkō into the raking embrace of a fresh salvo. The sun emblazoned on the starboard wing is maimed to a sucking crescent.

With numb resignation, Iwaki pulls to correct. The right propeller issues a fiery death rattle. The plane dies screaming, marring the sky with an acrid plume.

II

*

Iwaki inhales.

His dilated pupils are made manifold by his fractured goggles.

Gradually, his flight suit inflates with a prickling sensation. The reek of sap and fuel congeals in the cockpit.

Slowly, the doubled shapes coalesce and he can see a dense shroud of earth clods and fronds. Pushing aside the leafy branches that have pierced the glass, he probes the crystal-powered Toyo transmitter and the miniature transceiver beneath. He coaxes out a brief and muffled fizzing. Nothing more.

“Fucking round-eyed dogs.”

He turns to see Yoshimura picking the shrapnel from a wound charred and deep.

“Iwaki,” he grunts, “are you injured?”

“No, sir. Your leg…”

Iwaki fishes a wad of bandages from his knapsack.  

“Never mind that. The enemy will be here soon. Transmit the coordinates at once.”

 “Radio’s dead, sir.”

“Both of them?”

Iwaki swallows dryly.

“Yes, but I have a map of the ranges. Squad four from Tsukahara Company has a forward base not too far from here. Shouldn’t take more than a three-day trek. Think you can move?”

Yoshimura snatches the bandages and proceeds to bind the gash. “Without question!” he winces. “I’d gladly crawl through the sixteen hells to get these coordinates to Wewak.”

With agonizing haste, they kick and tear at the green limbs that have transfixed the plane. Gradually, the undergrowth is unveiled – a vine-choked hall of ferns and splintered trunks.

Its unseen denizens chirp and chitter, indifferent to the arrival of the great bird and the ragged apes it has delivered.

**

They keep to a wary gait with Iwaki on point and Yoshimura hobbling behind on a beech bough crutch. Lordly thickets of maple silkwood fall before their blades. The peg trees do not give so easily, drawing deep cuts and curses with their serrated bracts.

They lumber down hillocks and ford gullies nebulous with mosquitoes. Packs atop their heads, they slosh through shallow pools. Pompadoured hornbills cackle at the ungainly waders below.

At night they light no fire.

***

Dawn.

Another hillock. More thorny sentinels to slay.      

“Yoshimura, sir. I heard you were with the Third Field Kempeitai in Manchukuo.” Iwaki’s voice strains as he stretches his back and fastens his satchels. “That’s really something. How’d you end up on this shit heap?”

Yoshimura fixes him with a jaundiced scowl.

“This is no time for frivolous talk. Have you forgotten that these highlands are swarming with Americans? Australians too? Want to draw them to our position? Eh? Remember, if the enemy emerges you must be prepared to kill yourself without hesitation. Keep your mouth shut and your eyes up. I thought I heard some monkeys chattering earlier.”

Iwaki nods. He helps Yoshimura over another mossy crag.

“Yes, sir. To tell you the truth, I didn’t know monkeys made for good eating. Wouldn’t we be better off foraging?”

The crutch slips on the wet grass and again Yoshimura tumbles to a gasping heap.

“I guess the brass don’t expect you pilots to live long enough to need field training,” he says as Iwaki lifts him. “Remember, what a monkey can eat a man can eat also. Forage blindly in the scrub and you’re sure to be poisoned. As for me, I want to die a good death.”

****

“Water… Water…”                                                                                             

Iwaki sets Yoshimura down beneath a milkwood tree and hands him his canteen. He sees the maggots pulsing through the purpling bandages and the thought of rice makes his belly quake hollowly.

“Iwaki…” Yoshimura wheezes, his face as haggard as his field cap. “It’s been eight days. We should’ve reached someone by now… A camp… A dugout…”

The canteen falls from his scabrous lips.

“We’re close,” Iwaki insists, unfastening the leather binds of his map flask. “This is hill 3093. I know it. Squad four may have been annihilated, but that’ll mean reinforcements…what is it?”

Yoshimura’s eyes have grown wide. He extends a quivering finger.

“Look…”                                                                           

III

*

He hears them click and murmur before he sees them.

Their spectral arms and legs sprout from the gaps between the cycads.

They emerge, taut and cautious, broad noses pierced with grass stems. Their scarified bodies are daubed with a shimmering, chalky resin.

Most carry smoking bowls. Some flex bows of bundled reeds.

“Headhunters…”    

Yoshimura wrenches his Nambu from its holster and levels it at the nearest phantom.

“Wait!” Iwaki hisses, pushing down on the barrel.               

“Idiot! They’ll eat our flesh!”

“They would’ve killed us by now if they’d wanted to.” 

One of the men bearing the bowls ventures nearer. He keeps his deep-set eyes fixed to the earth, as though the pair emitted a blinding luminance. After genuflecting, the man points timidly at Yoshimura’s wound. He takes some of the smoking powder between his fingers before gesturing again.

“They want to help us.”

“It’s a deception,” Yoshimura barks, but when the man applies the healing balm, he can only whimper.

Emboldened, several more figures step forth offering leafy bundles of papaw and sago. Tears burst from Iwaki’s eyes and he bows low before his chuckling saviors before tearing into the bounty.

**

When every morsel of the sweet pulp is consumed, the painted men beckon towards the trees. Four more men arrive carrying palanquins laden with orchids and straw pillows.

“They want us to go with them,” Iwaki says, jumping to his feet.

“Warrant Officer Iwaki! You’ll not move from this spot and that’s an order!”

A brown and frothing liquid is pressed to Yoshimura’s lips. He splutters as it courses down his gullet. Iwaki is given a calabash of water.

“With respect, sir… I don’t think we have much choice. It looks like they’ve dressed your wound alright. They may even be able to tell help us find Tsukahara Company.”

Yoshimura stabs the earth with his crutch.

“You dare disobey!”

Seeing his floundering efforts to stand, two of the painted men lift Yoshimura effortlessly and set him upon the palanquin like a sore child. Iwaki cannot suppress his laughter.

***

The singing procession bounds across the ridge.

Below them, traces of the valley can be seen through breaches in the drifting mist. There are signs of habitation also. Thatched roofs. Tiered spires. Totems, winged and regal, their features smeared by the haze.

 “Looks like quite a village!” Iwaki exclaims.

“Beautiful,” Yoshimura slurs, taking another swig of the brown potion that has banished his terror and replaced it with cheerful inebriety. “Just like Shirakawa in late summer.”

They descend and cross a rope bridge over a vaporous chasm. A river thunders somewhere below, charging the air with fecund odors. When they reach the other side, the singing of the painted men breaks into a whooping and the echoes that return are not of their making.

IV

*

Slit drums rattle beyond the earthen palisade.   

At last, the gate is shunted open and the ecstatic populace rushes at the procession like dam waters to a fissure. They cheer and weep and redden the air with dancing. Their pink-palmed hands stretch out toward the bemused khaki aliens swaying in the palanquins, as if their touch might confer a blessing. Bawling babes are held aloft and passed toward the front.

“A fine reception!” Yoshimura declares. He raises his slopping gourd approvingly before downing another gulp.

“Yes, sir,” says Iwaki, waving to the crowds and receiving a fresh coating of bladderwort confetti. “Perhaps they think we’re gods or spirits.”

“Gods? That’s intolerable.” Yoshimura buries his chin in his chest. “We must make it known to these brutes that there is but one heavenly being in this world and he resides on the immortal isle of Honshu.”

A battalion of warrior sentinels keep the heaving throng at bay. Their plumed headdresses whip vicious rainbows as they caution with clubs barbed with crocodile teeth. Gradually, the petal-caked procession makes its way deeper into the village. They pass huts borne uncertainly on stilts and trample groves of smoke bean. Lean swine watch them pass indolently from their sties. The high wigmen watch also, their painted faces stern beneath their quilled crowns. 

**

After much clamoring, the crowds begin to abate and the great court at the heart of the village broadens before them. It is guarded on either side by bristling towers enclosed in creeper scaffolding. The land divers atop welcome the procession with whooping exaltation before plummeting, arms crossed, to the earth. The vines fastened to their ankles snatch them from death by mere inches. Iwaki and Yoshimura do not see them. They stare slack-jawed towards the center of the court.

“But… how did they move it?”

There, perched upon a stone altar, the Nakajima Gekkō looms in resurrected splendor. Its crumpled body has been plastered with clay and decorated with speckled cowries. White-circlet motifs of animals and plants bloom from nose to tail.

Around the craft, a small squadron of wicker airplanes has assembled. They too are finely worked fetishes, with wings adorned with geometric bands, wavelets, and wide-eyed grotesques. When the men that sit in them see the palanquins approach, they leap to prostrate themselves.

Yoshimura and Iwaki are helped down and led over to these men who proceed to speak in hurried, anxious tongues, gesturing first at the Gekkō and then the sky.  

“We don’t understand,” Iwaki intonates.                                                           

They are ushered closer to the Gekkō and the gesticulations grow more urgent. Yoshimura recoils.

“I think they want us to help them get their model planes into the air,” says Iwaki, his voice quavering. “I think they believe our plane can get theirs to work. That’s why they brought it here. That’s why they brought us.”

A sobering dread hardens Yoshimura’s features.

“But that’s ridiculous,” he says, draining his gourd dry. His attendants jostle with one another to refill it.

“Sir, look at these charms and trinkets. They may think that aviation is all a matter of magic. I bivouacked with a fellow in Salamaua who told me there are tribes in the highlands who have no knowledge of the world beyond the sea.”

 Yoshimura grabs the back of Iwaki’s collar.

“You fucking rube. Still think it was a good idea to put your trust in these apes? Stall them! If they find out we’re powerless to help, they’ll butcher us for sure.”

The beseechers advance further, forcing the men from the sky up onto the altar. Though a great scroll of options and angles unfurls behind Iwaki’s eyes, he can settle on no solution save a placating grin.

Then he hears it, sputtering feebly within the cockpit, and his thoughts interlock like rifle parts.

                                                                           ***                                                                          

“I thought you said both were dead…”

Iwaki shoves past Yoshimura, plunging into the cockpit and yanking the battered miniature transceiver from its casing. He works with a surgeon’s finesse as he pores over the calibration charts and makes minute corrections to the dials. Upon the seventh configuration, the current meter glides slowly to the green and a steady whine emanates from the headset.

“Signal!”                                                                                      

Iwaki throttles the Morse key.

IMMEDIATE AERIAL BOMBARDMENT REQUESTED IN TSILI-TSILI. COORDINATES…

He fumbles with the map, carefully tapping in the grid digits as his sweat forms dark pools across the crumpled paper.

An agonizing silence follows. Expressionless faces stare down from the canopy dome.

“Damn it all…”                                                         

Before Iwaki can adjust the tuning knob, the reply trills through the wire.

‘SENDER. CONFIRM AUTHORIZATION.’

His thumb darts. He gives his name, rank, and unit. He conveys the orders relayed to him and Yoshimura at Wewak and cites the proper signal codes of the 41st. The reply is almost instantaneous.

COORDINATES RECEIVED. JUHEI 283 ENCAMPMENT WILL RELAY DEPLOYMENT REQUEST IMMEDIATELY. CONFIRM CURRENT POSITION.

The watchers hear Iwaki’s whoop of jubilation and begin to mutter keenly.

PRECISE COORDINATES UNCERTAIN. CURRENTLY RESIDING IN VILLAGE APPROXIMATELY EIGHT MILES SOUTH OF HILL 3093. REQUEST IMMEDIATE EVACUATION SUPPORT. POTENTIAL HOSTILE NATIVE PRESENCE HIGH.

The current meter begins to quiver.

AFFIRMATIVE. AWAIT SUPPORT. JUHAI 283 TO PROCEED…

A sparking belch cuts short the communication, filling the cockpit with an acrid stench.

****

Iwaki ascends through the canopy dome and stands atop the airplane. The crowd erupts.

“Wait! Please wait a moment!”

He moves his arms in a wide, scooping gesture of placation.

“We’ve called more planes! More planes will come soon! Please be assured!”

Yoshimura watches the futile pantomime with growing anguish. His fingers drum against his holster.

“Useless.”                                                                           

Unsheathing his pocketknife, Iwaki clambers down from the altar and proceeds to draw in the dust. He etches first the plane and then a chain of concentric arcs arising from it. 

“The planes you have built. No good.”

He motions to the wicker idols and crosses his arms before returning to the drawing.

“Our plane will bring more like it. They come soon. Four or five days.”

The blade furrows the crumbling likeness of sun and moon before connecting them with curving arrows. Iwaki then draws more planes, indicating their trajectories deeply in the earth before holding up his fingers.

“Four or five days. Then they come. See?”

The men begin to smile.

V

*

Blazing torches carve the twilight. The procession ascends to the great lodge, parting a flickering mosaic of faces. Some are squinched with weeping. Some are blank, exhausted. Each adds to the solemn canticle portioned long and even by the drums.

“Four or five days? That’s what they said?” sprays Yoshimura. He throws his arm over his comrade’s shoulder and leans into him with unwieldly urgency.

 “Well… no sir,” Iwaki smiles awkwardly, cautiously nudging his reeking superior away from his palanquin. “After I told them where I believe we are, they said to await support. Then I… I was cut off. In any case, it shouldn’t take them more than three days to sweep this area. We’ll need to make sure our hosts are happy until they arrive. Keep an escape route open. Even if they think we’re gods, we’ll need to be vigilant if we want to prevail. That’s my assessment, sir.”

Yoshimura gives a snort before slumping back onto his grass pillow.

“You insult me! Don’t think that I’m neglecting my martial duties just because I’m drunk. I’m as vigilant as ever! The stuff’s made my leg feel just swell. Don’t believe me, eh? I’ll kick your ass, you millet muncher, then you’ll see.”

The stars swirl and eddy until the night seems to teem with great unblinking eyes.

“Besides, we’ve already prevailed.”      

**

The young headman speaks no word of greeting to the two perspiring divinities raised above his throne. Though the corner of a sneer rises from the scallop shell that hangs from his nose, his eyes betray his apprehension. One by one, the wigmen rise to approach their sovereign. Their whispering petitions intensify until his scepter scatters them back to the corners of the throne room. Then, as if compelled by burning brands, the headman discards his kumul-feather headdress and kneels before the palanquins.

“That’s good,” Yoshimura beams, raising his gourd. “The Imperial Army graciously accepts your obeisance. Welcome to our sphere of co-prosperity. Kanpai!

***

A third trencher is passed before the gods, piled high with boiled sweet potato and river fish crowned with taro stems.

“Not bad, eh?” Yoshimura declares through a mouthful of puce flesh.

Iwaki nods, surveying the banquet. It is a solemn affair, attended only by those with apparent rank and status. Harlequin wigmen sit nearest to the thrones. Tattooed chiefs and warriors kneel like courtiers around the perimeter. The headman is among them. Unlike the rest, he keeps his gaze fixed firmly on the exalted pair and drinks from his gourd slowly.

Iwaki savors another mouthful of sweet potato. The smoky flavor casts his mind back to his childhood visits to Tanegashima, where his great aunt would prepare Anno-Imo for him and tell stories of the old days. Tanegashima, where the barbarians had first brought the musket to the immortal isles and ended the way of the bow forever.

Before Iwaki can speak his nostalgia, a cacophony of paired flutes and slit drums shatters the muttering calm. Trains of tattooed dancing girls enter from either side of the hall, their rhythmic movements encouraged by the high and frenetic singing of women elders. The tallest and fairest of the dancers are painted white from head to foot. The rest are painted red, and upon their shoulders hornbill wings have been grafted. They assemble before the far wall on which a great mural has been woven thickly in shades of brown, white, and black. It depicts a walled village surrounded by a jagged inferno. Grinning fiends lurk within the flames, clawing out towards the huts and spires. Like ants, the people swarm towards two giants at the center of this village. A light emanates from these giants. It is a light that transforms the villagers closest to them into half bird creatures. The blessed transfigured soar up to the curling heavens where other villagers await, their arms spread wide in joyous welcome. With rhythmic precision, the dancers intertwine. They stand upon each other’s shoulders to form a groping mass and mimic the clutching skyward motions depicted in the mural. Quaking shadows add life to the wicker apocalypse.

Iwaki marvels at the acrobatic feat, but as the dancers turn to direct their outstretched arms towards him, he is struck by a pang of sorrow.

He looks over at Yoshimura, who has taken to bellowing encouragements at the rhapsodic performers as if they were a Kabuki troop.

The speed and urgency of the music intensifies until the singing slurs into a wailing. The red and white dancers part from one another, moving to either side of the mural and grasping out to one another as if some force were separating them. It is then that three men with mud masks emerge with a thick and looping vine under their arms. Iwaki gasps amusedly when the men stretch it out, revealing it to be a glistening python.

“Incredible! I never thought they could grow that large.”                    

Yoshimura sucks the last portion of flesh from the skeleton and throws it over his shoulder.

“Of course they can, you greenhorn. You don’t know the first thing about the jungle. Are you a queer or something? Why look at a reptile when you have these bare-breasted tennin arrayed before you? I bet they could teach our chink whores a thing or two.”

As the music reaches a piping crescendo, one of the masked figures whirls forth with a machete and cleaves the python in two with one stroke.  

VI

*

“Batter up!”

The boy adjusts his loincloth before brandishing the stick. His brow is furrowed with concentration. Iwaki pulls down his field cap and prepares to pitch with exaggerated motions that send the other children into fits of laughter. Finally, he lobs the ball he has stitched together from marsh reeds and the boy sends it flying over the rooftops. The children scatter after it, shrilling with delight.

“Not like that! Protect the bases like I showed you! He’s going to steal home!”

At length, the wiry little army returns. They pass the ball back and forth in triumph, as if it were a rare bird captured after an arduous hunt. The mothers applaud from the porch of the great lodge. One of them feeds the tree kangaroo perched on her shoulder with pumpkin seeds.

When Yoshimura emerges, shirtless and pale, the women drop from the bench to bow before him. The tree kangaroo springs into the brush.

“Ah! Good morning, sir. These kids sure are slow learners. We need an umpire.”

Yoshimura hobbles to the edge of the deck and vomits loudly into the dirt.

“Warrant Officer Iwaki! Is that the conduct of a Japanese soldier?” he groans, wiping the corner of his mouth. “You should try to enlighten these savages instead of playing barbarian games with them. It’s shameful.”

Moving stiffly, Yoshimura unfastens the gourd from his hip and shakes it accusingly at the kowtowing women.

“Useless cunts. Can’t you see I’m in agony? Eh? Fill me up!”

The children scatter. The stick falls heavy to the gouged earth. Iwaki stares at it unblinking. He wonders how many blows it would take to reduce Yoshimura’s head to pink mush. As his chapped hand curls around it – feels its weight and roughness – the terrible implications of discovering the answer bloom starkly in his mind. He resists the urge, though the sight of the woman extending the gourd in trembling supplication tests his resolve.

“One does not kill a god,” he mutters.

**

The mottled fowl part in Iwaki’s wake as he makes his way towards the limits of the village. A cool breeze shakes the acacia trees and carries the sound of pounding pestles and scolding mothers. Once more, he scours the jungle line, searching for the slightest trace of movement in the undergrowth. He considers venturing further. To gain some clearer vantage point. The unwavering gaze of the plumed village guards dissuade him.

“They should’ve been here by now,” he mutters darkly, fishing the last Kinshi cigarette from his satchel.

“Fucking Juhai Company.”

He flicks the lighter repeatedly, his frustration growing with each failed attempt. Spitting a curse, he prepares to hurl the empty container towards the trees. The sight of the old man stays his hand.

Though he is hunched and wizened and bears a terrible burn scar across his silver-haired belly, his gait is brisk and eager. He chuckles lyrically, exposing what few orange teeth remain in his haggard maw. In his left hand he holds a long flute, and when he reaches Iwaki he pipes a few verses before gesturing at the lighter.

Iwaki, struck by the man’s boldness and calm, eventually comes to understand.

“No.” he says, “It’s a lighter. Fire. No instrument. Cigarette. Need fire.”

He places the cigarette between his lips, waggling his fingers to suggest the presence of smoke. At length, the expression of confusion melts from the old man’s face and he sits down, gesturing for Iwaki to do likewise. After creating a circle of dust around a small pile of leaves, he picks up two dark rocks and smites them together repeatedly. In a matter of seconds, the small pile is ablaze, and the old man takes his own pipe from his loincloth and lights it.

The words stick in Iwaki’s throat. Delight and gratitude quickly give way to shame. He lights the cigarette, bows, and places his hand on the man’s shoulder.

“Thank you. Thank you, my friend. Of course. It’s so simple, isn’t it? When our comrades get here, I’ll see to it you and your people are repaid well. The co-prosperity sphere rewards those who assist the Imperial Army. We can learn much from one another. You’ll see.”

The old man takes in the incomprehensible words with a contented grin, and points to the sky with a gnarled finger.

“Yes. Yes.” Iwaki says, as tears sting at the backs of his eyes.

The code he had hammered into the transceiver with insectile velocity blazes hard against his conscience.

POTENTIAL HOSTILE NATIVE PRESENCE HIGH.

***

The flames seethe across the jungle horizon.

All the village has assembled atop the hill to witness the conflagration blooming up towards the sanguine moon. They sing against its strange rattling thunder.

Savoring the odor of seared wood, Iwaki scours the ruddy vista.

“Mortars. Think they’re ours?”               

Yoshimura looses a long bolt of saliva before lolling back between the two young girls who are fanning him.

“I’m sure of it. Our brave men are forcing those white devils back into the sea. None have defied our Emperor and prospered.”

There is a commotion. The steady hymn frays into a tumult of angry shouts as the crowd heaves and buckles. Yoshimura opens his eyes. Bedimmed as his vision is, he can see plainly that the face of the abdicant headman stood before him is as red and raging as the horizon.

“What do you want?”                

The man gestures in disgust towards the fanners before pointing towards the distant battle. His irreverence succeeds in provoking Yoshimura.

“Insolent cur,” he barks, “lower your head in my presence!”

Before Yoshimura can rise, the wigmen erupt from the masses to envelop the blasphemer. A few tarry to scrape repentantly before melting away.

****

“I’m telling you, I don’t like it. Did you see how he approached me? To show such effrontery before an officer of His Majesty… It’s unforgivable!”

Yoshimura spits out the last words as if they rested bitter on his tongue. With a grey and trembling hand, he lifts the mango to his lips. After taking one bite, he throws it away.

“What’s worse, he was not alone. I’m telling you, insurrection is bound to spread. We must cut it out without delay.”

Iwaki shields his eyes from the blistering white sun and surveys the sky. A flock of swifts rises from the acacia trees beyond the village limits.

“If I may speak freely, sir. Juhai Company will be here imminently. It could be any day now. If we don’t make waves, it will make their reception an easy one. At least…that’s my view on the matter.”

With a viscous wheeze, Yoshimura rises to his feet, clutching his wound. Two more guards rush to steady him.

“I expected you would say such a thing. After all, you’d rather play baseball. Next, you’ll be teaching these savages how to swing dance and kneel to the carpenter god. The Americans will be delighted!”

Yoshimura’s high, derisive tone kindle’s Iwaki’s anger anew. He finds himself on his feet, his face an inch away from his superior’s.

“Well, at least it won’t get us butchered. If you treat these people cruelly and accuse them of treachery, what chance do you think we’ll have? There are hundreds of them!”

Yoshimura reaches for his pistol, but something in the expression of the guard to his left stays his hand. “Fool!” he booms. “One member of our divine race is worth ten thousand of these creatures!”

“These creatures saved our lives!”

Seething, Iwaki takes Yoshimura’s collar in a white-knuckled grip. He lifts, and when the frail body gives easily, icy horror wrenches him back to sanity. He sets his coughing superior down, steps back, and begins a series of deep bows. He makes to speak, but the words catch in his throat and he flees as the onlookers marvel and mutter.

*****

The glint of the midday sun catches on the tantō’s edge. The masses clamor and point as Yoshimura runs the blade across a chapped palm and lets the claret stream descend to the gourd beneath.

“And lo, the droplets that fell from the heavenly spear held aloft by the goddess Izanami fell upon the waters of chaos, blossoming into the blessed isles. Shining jewels to light the benighted east.”

A series of jagged coughs give an intermission to the sermon. The wigmen scowl as they chew betel nut. Cicadas whir metallically.

“Soon, all the nations of the earth will be gathered to the bosom of the sun. Our resplendent Emperor guides the way. The white hordes shall soon repent of their mischief.”

Yoshimura smites one of the kneeling attendants and he is lifted up upon the snout of the Gekkō. The thick matting of flies loosens from the maggot-sown scabs around the bandage in a bombinating vortex. He surveys the multitude and recollections of the Kyoto parade grounds coax tears from his yellow eyes.

Tennōheika Banzai!”

Yoshimura throws up his hands as he brays out the declaration. After repeating the gesture a third time, the crowd begins to mimic the motion, raising their hands and searching the heavens eagerly.

VII

*

For the fourth time, the boy tightens the vine knotted around his ankles. For the fourth time, his legs fail to obey the command to step beyond the creaking plank and plunge to his manhood. His brothers lean out from crevices in the stooked and slanting tower to jeer at him. They tell him to crawl back down and go grind rungia leaves with the rest of the women. He can hear the voice of his father below, vowing to disown him if he fails to do his duty before his ancestors.

“You can do it, son!” Iwaki calls, standing on the nose of the Gekkō to better view the ritual. “Take courage!”

The boy stares down at the sea of upturned faces until the vertigo draws him rigid and he fastens his gaze once more upon the tranquil sky. He bends to tighten his chords again. Then he sees them, glittering like a string of pearls over the hills. A deep empyrean hum silences the jeering. The boy whispers prayers of thanksgiving.

**

“They’re not ours! They’re not ours! Shit!”

Iwaki howls fruitlessly against the approaching engines. His flailing arms cannot corral the rapturous dancing. The men and women who climb atop one another to be the first to make the long-prophesied ascent.

Wait!”

The American B-25s scythe the clouds above them like great astral pelicans. The villagers watch their celestial chariots depart, and when they see that they will not return, their euphoria turns first to confusion and then fury.

Iwaki runs.

***

Wood splinters.

The bolted door and the press of the wigmen cannot keep the mob from breaching the great lodge. They tear through, exposing Yoshimura in a broadening oblong of daylight. He is slumped atop his throne, naked save for his field cap and the bandage that scarcely conceals half of the suppurating mass that has consumed his leg. Above the throne, Yoshimura has hung his yosegaki hinomaru – a flag bearing a red sun emanating rays of kanji scrawled by his friends and relatives. All wish him success, happiness. Victory above all else.

The former headman leads the livid horde.

“You again,” Yoshimura says. “Still got a problem?”

The most daring within the mob rattle their spears in accusation. Iwaki is brought forth, limp and bleeding bound in creeper shackles.

“Hey… That’s high treason.”

The deposed headman strides towards his restoration, a club in his right hand and a bundle of ropes in his left. Cheers compel his advance.

“Fucking mountain monkey. I said that’s treason!”

Yoshimura stands, raises his Nambu, and blasts four oozing craters in the would-be usurper’s chest. The mob flees shrieking as he totters forth to empty the chamber.

“Fucking Roosevelt lackey. Still dare to raise your head?”

After pissing on the corpse, Yoshimura drapes himself back over the throne. He quaffs greedily from the bowl passed to him by his trembling slave, and when his tongue has sponged up every drop, he flings the vessel into the darkness.

VIII

*

Flies.

Their murmurations dredge Iwaki from blissful nothingness into agonized waking. He sucks in ragged breaths, the taste of copper heavy on his tongue. He sees that he is alone and, hissing with agony, wills himself to his feet and makes for the door. Continents of flies form and drift across the dead headman’s mottled skin.

Outside, the world is saturated in a ruddy glow. The pealing of artillery is closer, more distinct. Iwaki crosses the baseball diamond marked by river stones and rushes. Not a soul moves in the leaf-strewn yards. Here and there, hunkered forms shiver in the doorways of the huts and peer out from behind the keeling palm trees. He passes the sties where the lean sows feast greedily upon their young.

“Quick march!”

With a start, Iwaki whirls to see Yoshimura rowing himself along on his crutch between the smoke bean groves. He is dressed in full uniform, leading a train of painted men who trudge on unblinkingly. Each shoulders a length of sharpened bamboo as if it were a carbine. Before Iwaki can form words, Yoshimura proceeds to wretch up a parade song from his fever-wracked lungs.

“Filled with Yamato spirit, we march ever onward

utterly resolved to liberate the east.

We may all die like insects in the grass

but to die for the Emperor is splendid indeed.”

The platoon repeats each line, mangling the words and melody into a strident din.

“Warrant officer Iwaki!”

Yoshimura halts the march and stabs his baton at his bewildered comrade.                                    

“Join the formation at once! The great hour of our victory is at hand. We shall march to Delhi. To Sydney. To Washington. Heaven shall brook no cowardice! Tennōheika Banzai!

The army echoes the war cry, throwing up their arms in unison. Seeing that all sanity has fled, Iwaki makes for the palisade.

 **

Juhei Company. Must be trying to push through. Can’t be more than a few miles. I can reach them.

Iwaki loops the mantra in his mind as he sprints through the gate and toward the trees that loom dark against the burning sky. Before he can reach them, a high blast of phosphorous momentarily casts the jungle in brilliant white and what he sees sends him pelting back the way he came. A great tide of refugees gushes at the palisade; the inhabitants of countless villages sheltered from the wide earth for millennia by steaming calderas and implacable valleys. They come now stampeding, singed and mortified, roused by rumors of sky boats and salvation.

The gate is bolted before Iwaki can reach it. Looking up, he sees the sky darken with bamboo spears and arrows.

“Sir! Open the gate!”

A grenade detonates wetly within the multitude, sending limbs and torsos pinwheeling amidst the floating embers. The survivors press on undeterred.

“Keep firing, men! Heaven watches!”

Through a gap in the palisade joists, Iwaki can see Yoshimura limping before his arrayed forces, brandishing his baton. He salutes them before pulling the pin from a second grenade.

“We shall all meet again at Yasukuni Shrine!”

***

The weight of the threshing host sends the gate down upon Yoshimura before the grenade can leave his clutch. A suppressed detonation transforms him and three of his warriors into a fine pink dust. Still the refugees rush onwards, springing over the dead and dying, crushing the defenders underfoot. Iwaki watches them, the whining in his ears making their yelling advance sound as if it is being transmitted from a great distance. From a radio transceiver.

Juhei Company. Must be trying to push through. Can’t be more than a few miles. I can reach them.

****

Another squirming babe is lowered into the Gekkō’s heaving innards. The shaman overseeing the exodus leans down from the canopy and beckons the last mother forward. She pecks kisses over every exposed inch of her gurgling legacy before handing him over, her body convulsing with sorrow. Once the child is lowered, the shaman covers over the cockpit opening with a tasseled cloak of quoll skins. He casts possum bones before the Gekkō’s snout and prepares to commence the dance that might bring life to the grounded arc. As he rolls back his eyes and begins to converse with the spirits, he feels an earthly tug upon his shoulder. He turns to see a man, his hair bedraggled and hanging in greasy locks. In his arms, he holds the tiny mummy of a girl. Icy shock clouts the shaman when he sees the eternal shriek that contorts the child’s sunken visage. The petrified arms that dangle like nascent creepers either side of the bloated belly. Then he sees the father’s eyes, and he is moved to compassion. Curling back the quoll skins, he places the mummy among the wailing saved that writhe within the boiling canopy.

IX

*

“There!”      

The Mitsubishi G4M reduces its altitude and pitches towards the smoke rising from the distant ridge. In tentative phases, the dive bomber squadron behind it follows suit.  

“But sir,” the pilot calls back over his shoulder, “Juhai Company gave coordinates for Tsili-Tsili.”

“I’m telling you, there’s nothing there but scrubland and a few hovels. We’ve done five runs now. I don’t see why we should waste any more fuel.”

Second Lieutenant Hinode clambers down from the dorsal gunner port. He leans over the pilot’s shoulder, pointing at the wafting column of grey.

“That’s coming from somewhere near hill 3093. Am I not right?”

The navigator nods, pointing out the position on a translucent map.

“Well, Juhai Company said Iwaki and Yoshimura could be in that region.”

Hinode sets his boot upon the first rung leading back to the port when the pilot stops him.

“Sir, forgive me, but Lieutenant Abe gave no instructions to survey that area. Tsukahara Company got torn to shreds not far from that hill and…”

“Coward!” Hinode’s voice roars metallic in the rattling canopy. “There are men of the 41st who are in peril. The least we can do is fly in for a closer look. Would Lieutenant Abe want us to ignore the opportunity to retrieve imperial soldiers? Hell, there could be a Yank convoy down there we can light up. An airman should show some initiative.”

The pilot nods apologetically before pressing down hard upon the stick.

**

Iwaki calls to the oncoming aircraft from the top of the spire, numb to the splinters that jut from his hands. He wheels his flight jacket above his throbbing head and shouts until the ash thickens in his throat and leaves him stooped and hacking. When he rises, he sees the rumbling planes turn above the hills and his heart leaps.

“Yes! Here! Over here!”

***

“That smoke is coming from a village. It’s crawling with those headhunter blacks.”

The tail gunner presses his binoculars against the plastic bubble.

“Looks like there was a skirmish. I… wait…”

He swivels in the turret as the portside wing dips smoothly.

“There are planes down there. Small fighters. Haven’t seen the make before. Australian probably.”

Hinode slides down the chute and gives the order for another pass. As the plane circles, the navigator jolts against his straps and presses a gloved finger to the windshield.

“Sir, I see them also! Yanks must be using the village as cover. We haven’t got anything like an aerodrome in these parts.”

A grin momentarily cracks Hinode’s solemn expression. He pats the navigator’s shoulder.

“Typical Juhei Company fuck up I’d wager. Must’ve have gotten their coordinates reversed. Iwaki and Yoshimura are likely still stranded somewhere in Tsili-Tsili. Poor bastards. Kozuki!

The chief bombardier materializes against the bulkhead and bows curtly.

“Ready the tubes.”

****

Birds.

They glide above the bulbs of cleansing white fire that blossom amidst the huts.

Still more join the rising formation, twittering and squawking, weaving about the blast clouds. 

The flock cuts through the sulfurous air above the sties. The wicker planes. The roiling bodies that grope toward them, hoping that their passage might herald the parting of the vault and that all their fathers since the world began might be revealed, awaiting them on high, arms spread wide in joyous welcome.

Iwaki watches as the world below rises to meet him in a torrid spume. The jacket whirling above his head bursts into flame, and still he waves.

X

A cassowary builds its nest atop a mound of embers where once a great lodge stood. Its beak tills the scorched debris, retrieving the litter with which it would warm its trove of jade eggs. The great bird retrieves strips of cloth bearing the kanji for ‘prosperity’ and ‘victory’. Singed fragments of a mural bearing smudged winged figures that run on and on to nothingness. Venturing further from the nest, it proceeds to peck at soiled bundles of kumul plumes and clay fragments embossed with cowries.

When at last the eggs are housed sufficiently, the cassowary nestles beside them. It watches warily as the featherless green bipeds pass by, clicking and grunting to one another, marching steadily through the bleached wilderness. When the last of them passes, the smallest egg begins to stir.

An Interview with Daniel Kraus

Your book tours for both the hardcover and paperback releases of The Living Dead have been affected by Covid. What’s it like promoting this all-encompassing book of George Romero’s zombie apocalypse in the midst of a global pandemic?

George had the worst luck with movie releases! The copyright mistake of Night of the Living Dead, the bizarre way Season of the Witch and The Crazies were promoted, and, of course, the perennial curse of being so ahead of his time! For example, Diary of the Dead felt flat to some people when it came out and now looks like a goddamn crystal ball. So it seems par for the course that the book would run across roadblocks too. It’s hard to get too down about it. It’s a gift that the book exists at all and there are more serious things to worry about. The book has done well regardless and people will continue to find it over the years—and I bet they’ll think it must have been written after COVID-19. That’s George’s genius.

Growing up on horror films, what was your first “aha moment” that Romero’s movies were actually saying more about the society we live in than the dead?

Ben’s death at the end of Night of the Living Dead. It was unlike anything I’d ever seen as a kid. The protagonist, who did everything right, gets killed? And not heroically but in a cruel, offhand way? It made me think about what kind of person would end their movie that way. And that led to thinking about authorship in art. When you’re a kid, art is just art, born of nothing. I started thinking early on that this “George A. Romero” was up to something. He killed Ben for a reason. And then Dawn of the Dead, it all exploded when I saw that. Dawn taught me what a metaphor was. 

A moment I found very informative during the hardcover virtual tour was when Suzanne, his widow, mentioned that George wasn’t a fan of the internet and he foresaw people splintering into like-minded tribes because of it. What was something you wish to share which you learned about George Romero, the man not the filmmaker, going through his archives and talking with his family for this project?

A big chunk of The Living Dead comes from a previous attempt at writing a zombie novel that George made around 2000 on his personal website. He was idealistic about the web at that point; he saw it as a way to slough off the bullshit of Hollywood and bring his movies directly to his fans. It spoke to his indie roots. But the forums on his site got ugly quick and he became disenchanted. He recognized instantly the dark side of the web’s open spaces—it can be a field of wonder but also a gladiator arena. He thought tech would kill us. And I think, looking at Facebook and Twitter, you could argue it’s well on its way, a slow death by division.

In your own writing you have middle grade books with Trollhunters and the They Threw Us Away series; teen books with Rotters and Scowler; and general adult books like The Shape of Water. What is it like writing horror for readers at different maturity levels?

It feels instinctive; I have a good recollection of how I felt reading at different ages. Simply as a mechanical thing, working on projects that are vastly different in voice—and age ranges necessitate that—make each project a perfect palate cleanser for the next. Exercising all the muscle groups make for a stronger overall writer in general.

Recently, you had a comic book series come out from Vault. Tell us about The Autumnal and how horror comics are having a new Golden Age.

I don’t know enough about comics to know if that’s true. I’m a real newcomer—I didn’t grow up with comics and wasn’t a regular reader until the concept of The Autumnal came to me. It’s possible that having no sense of what had been done before gave me a somewhat liberating perspective. Now, of course, the dam has broken. I’m catching up on the last half-decade of comics and it’s a wild experience.  

What is the George A Romero Project and how can people support it?

The George A. Romero Foundation—the GARF, for short—is rapidly becoming one of the most important horror organizations in the country. They were pivotal with The Living Dead, they got Romero’s lost masterpiece The Amusement Park re-released, and they’re bringing to light what a wide-ranging artist George was—not the solely horror-focused guy he was made out to be. More importantly, they’re using the George A. Romero Collection as a base from which to build a support network for new voices in horror. I’m thrilled to be a part of it and that’s not PR-speak. It feels like a calling. 

Thank you for your time and work, Daniel. Any upcoming projects we should know about?

By my count, I have eight projects that haven’t been announced yet, some of which are finished and some of which are just getting started. There will be a steady stream of announcements starting shortly.

The Wing Thief: An Interview with Samantha Atkins

How did the concept for The Wing Thief come to fruition?

I’ve always loved anything fantasy-related and the idea of escaping into magical lands, whether through reading books or watching TV. As far back as I can remember, I’ve always had this strong urge to write and create my own world for others to escape into. Then one day, I came up with this idea of a flightless fairy living within a magical forest. The idea was so exciting to me! I began to think about what a magical forest might have living inside it, and I started creating my own magical creatures and imagining rules they might have to live by within the forest. It was all so much fun to write and, once I had the basic characters and rules in place, the story just took off from there. 

There are some fantastic characters in The Wing Thief; Grecko is a particular favorite of mine. Was there any character you particularly related to and enjoyed writing?

I agree—Grecko is my favorite character as well and I loved writing him! I think the character I most related to when writing, however, was Vista. I really wanted her to be a character that wasn’t the strongest, the bravest, or the most powerful and yet was vital to the story. I felt it was a strong message that you didn’t have to be anything other than yourself to be important. As a member of the LGBTQ+ community, that message means a lot to me, and I hope other readers can take it on board—that they can accept and love themselves just the way they are.

Letherea is such a beautiful, magical world. What challenges did you face when worldbuilding and where did you draw inspiration from?

I think I drew inspiration from the number of different fantasy books and TV shows I love to read/watch, such as Harry Potter, Narnia, Once Upon a Time—the list can go on for days! Being such a huge fan of fantasy, I tried to imagine a world that I would love to read about and hope that others might fall in love with it too. Some of the challenges that came from creating the world were things like making sure it had rules in place so that a reader could make sense of it. I decided to give each magical creature a job, for example, gnomes are “carers of the forest.” I found that once I gave the world rules and gave the creatures within it a purpose, it was much easier to make the world flow.

What is the overall message you hope readers will take away from this book?

 As I said above, I hope that readers can take away the message that it’s okay to be different and you don’t have to be anyone other than who you are. I believe the world would be a much happier place if everybody did this, as people put too much pressure on themselves these days to fit in.

What appealed to you about writing for young adults?

I think that it’s best to write what you know and my favorite genre to read has always been Young Adult. I’m now thirty-one and never stopped loving it! I think that Young Adult novels can be so powerful, uplifting, and enjoyed by such a wide variety of people. What’s not to love?

What was the best piece of writing advice you were ever given?

I think that my partner, Layla, gave me great advice and that was to just write what I love and never forget the reason I write in the first place—which is because I enjoy it so much. I’ve always tried to remember this when I feel any pressure—that no matter what happens, I absolutely love to write and create.

The Wing Thief was published by SmashBear Publishing, a young, independent publishing house. What do you think are the benefits of working with an indie publisher?

Personally, I really enjoyed working with an indie publisher. I found that, due to them being a smaller company, it felt very personal and as though I was really a part of the team. I had a group of editors and Loredana Carini, the founder of SmashBear, available to help me throughout the entire process. I was included in every aspect of the editing and publishing journey and grew very close to everyone I worked with. I really enjoyed the experience and can’t wait to work with them again!

What upcoming titles are you looking forward to this year?

I’m not sure about upcoming titles, but I’m currently doing the 52 Book Challenge 2021—which gives you fifty-two different prompts to expand your reading and explore different genres. So far, I’ve discovered so many amazing books that I wouldn’t normally have read, such as Where the Crawdads Sing and Billy Lemonade. I’ve also just started listening to The Lunar Chronicles and—being a Disney lover—am enjoying working my way through those!

After having successfully accomplished so much, what are your goals? What direction do you see your writing taking now, in terms of both craft and publication?

I’m currently working on the sequel to The Wing Thief, which I hope to have released in 2022. I also have an urban fantasy short story that is due for release through SmashBear sometime this year. It’s quite a different theme to The Wing Thief, and I really enjoyed the challenge of writing something new and exploring other genres. At the moment, I’m quite absorbed in the Letherea series, but I’m hoping to branch out and explore other genres and other styles of writing in the future. I already have an idea for an LGBTQ+ novel that I can’t wait to get writing once I’m finished with this one, so who knows!

6 Books Exploring Immigrant Identity

Writing is an excellent way to share our stories and comment on both the singular and universal aspects of the human experience. It can be a tool for healing, for exploration, and for self-expression. Authors who write about immigrant experiences comment on identity and its fluid-yet-constant nature. Discover six incredible novels exploring immigrant identity that we think you should leaf through!

Becoming Americans  

Becoming Americans is an edited collection of poems, stories, novel excerpts, travel pieces, diary entries, memoirs, and letters, spanning over 400 years. They explore a range of experiences about coming to America, including the reasons for departing from the authors’ home countries, various incidents and encounters while traveling to America, their first impressions of the country, and their struggle with the complexities of the new environment. This book is a beautiful glance into migration and American history.

Amazon.com: Becoming Americans: Four Centuries of Immigrant Writing: A  Library of America Special Publication (9781598530513): Stavans, Ilan: Books

Out of Egypt, André Aciman 

Out of Egypt is a delightful memoir that follows a Jewish family as they arrive in Alexandria. In it, André Aciman introduces readers to the people who shaped his life: “Uncle Vili, the strutting daredevil, soldier, salesman, and spy; the two grandmothers, the Princess and the Saint, who gossip in six languages; Aunt Flora, the German refugee who warns that Jews lose everything ‘at least twice in their lives.’” Aciman has written many memoirs, essays, and articles for a variety of publications. Born in Alexandria, Egypt, he now teaches literary theory, in both English and French, and teaches the works of Marcel Proust.

Thoughts Without Cigarettes, Oscar Hijuelos 

Thoughts Without Cigarettes is Oscar Hijuelos’ first memoir, though he has previously written many other award-winning novels such as Tale of Cuban-American Life and The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love. This book “introduces readers to the colorful circumstances of his upbringing.” Born in the 1950s to Cuban immigrants, Hijuelos’s inspiring story shows his evolution from a child to the successful writer he is today.

Thoughts without Cigarettes eBook by Oscar Hijuelos - 9781101528822 |  Rakuten Kobo United States

The New Kids, Brooke Hauser 

The New Kids is a collection of narrative journalism, which sets it apart from a lot of other first-person accounts of immigration and memoirs. The book documents a year in the lives of a group of teenage newcomers to America, and reflects “a multicultural mosaic that embodies what is truly amazing about America.” It shows the duality of a very “typical” experience at an American high school coupled with the unique experiences of navigating a new society and culture in the middle of adolescence.

The New Kids | Book by Brooke Hauser | Official Publisher Page | Simon &  Schuster

Ru, Kim Thúy 

A beautiful example of migrant literature, Ru takes its name from the Vietnamese word for lullaby. In French, the same word means “a small stream.” It also signifies a flow—of tears, blood, or money. Thúy’s book is every bit as poetic and image-rich as its title suggests. I have read this book in its original French and in English, and both versions are lovely, though they include different imagery and plays on words, depending on the language and its structure. In a series of vignettes, Ru takes readers on a journey from a palatial residence in Saigon to a Malaysian refugee camp to a new life in Quebec, Canada. “There, the young girl feels the embrace of a new community, and revels in the chance to be part of the American Dream.” Ru skyrocketed to the top of bestseller lists in Quebec and has been translated into 15 languages worldwide.

Ru | CBC Books

When I Was Puerto Rican, Esmeralda Santiago 

Esmeralda Santiago’s memoir, When I Was Puerto Rican, begins by describing her early childhood in rural Puerto Rico. This evocative memoir recounts various milestones in Santiago’s life, including tropical sounds and sights, learning how to properly eat a guava, tasting morcilla sausage for the first time, and learning the rituals surrounding ushering a baby’s soul to heaven. When she moves to America, she experiences a clash of Puerto Rican and American culture. Esmeralda and her 10 siblings must learn new societal norms, habits, and a whole new language. Her memoir describes the ways she took on a new identity after moving to America.

When I Was Puerto Rican: Santiago, Esmeralda: 9780201581171: Books -  Amazon.ca

In such a cosmopolitan, interconnected age, it is crucial to develop a greater understanding of other people, their experiences, and their culture. In my opinion, learning more about others teaches us a lot about ourselves and our own culture. These five books are a well-rounded, exciting place to start for those looking to understand a bit more about the immigrant experience, and cross-cultural practices.

The Black Iron Legacy: An Interview with Gareth Hanrahan

How did the concept for The Black Iron Legacy series come to fruition? 

I don’t know if there was a single core concept—it’s very much an agglutination of bits and pieces that have been floating around my head for a while. I knew I wanted to explore a dark, bizarre city. I like playing with ideas of strange architecture. I wanted to think about politics and beliefs and cultural forces, but I also wanted to write about monsters. So, I made a setting where the two concepts were one and the same. But for a long time, it was just eight or ten blobs of concepts that I liked thinking about. I had (or arguably have!) a lot of trouble writing a story—I can easily come up with setting material, background and secondary characters, but protagonists and story beats remain bugbears for me. So, I came up with a primary character who’d just charge ahead and explosively drive the story.

I wrote about 20,000 words without any clue where it was going, then a few months later came back to it and actually started planning a bit, building on the foundation I’d made.

The world within The Black Iron Legacy series is incredibly intricate and tangible. How did you go about worldbuilding and where did you draw inspiration from?

Worldbuilding may be a misnomer. The author and the reader only know one world—this one. It’s more like world deformation—if I add this concept, this nation, how does the world change? If I change this rule of reality, what happens? The world of the Black Iron Legacy is very, very vaguely based on nineteenth-century Europe, and a lot of the elements are drawn from our world and history. The city of Guerdon’s a combination of London, Edinburgh, New York, and Cork in varying degrees—there are kings and lords, but also parliaments and voting, churches, and monks. Most things work roughly like the reader already knows.

What you do, then, is take something that resonates with you, or that you need for the story, add it to the world, and think about how everything changes and fits together. The thing you add can be anything, as long as you do the work of supporting it and integrating it. You need to think about second- and third-order effects. For example, if you’re writing a world where, for example, the aristocracy are all werewolves, you’d need to think about how that ripples out into, say, medicine—if a werewolf can only be hurt by silver, is a silver scalpel the mark of a doctor to the nobility? Or inheritance law—can lycanthropy be transmitted by a bite, and if so, does that count as kinship? What happens around the full moon if everyone in charge turns into a ravening monster—does the whole society shut down, or are there seneschals and assistants in place who take over for a few days?

The inspiration can come from anywhere. You can draw on anything, add anything, as long as you convince the reader that it makes sense in context.

 Was there a specific character you found challenging to write or one you found particularly relatable?

In the first book, Professor Ongent was a bit hard to write—he likes talking and explaining things and knew far too much of the plot already. I had to keep shuffling him “off-screen” before he gave too much away. Rat’s always fun to write because it’s such an odd mindset—I either find myself rewriting a lot of his passages because they’re not ghoulish enough or disturbing myself when I reread and find I wrote some disturbing observation without noticing. So much of writing a character is finding their voice—some you have to look for, some pop up and demand attention.

What type of scenes do you most enjoy writing?

I can ramble about pseudo-history or other bits of background quite happily for page upon page, and that’s very enjoyable to write—possibly less so to read, except for a small minority of readers. I also really enjoy the latter parts of a book, when all the set-up is done and the plot and characters have their own momentum, and it’s less a question of moving pieces around and more about writing ahead of this runaway story. A huge part of the challenge of writing is getting to the point that the book starts writing—or at least suggesting—parts of itself for you. You realize that the apparently irrelevant stuff you tossed off in a random aside twenty chapters ago can be brought back and tied into the plot or that minor character you threw in for flavor can be reused in a later scene. It makes you feel very clever when the book starts fitting together.

There can often be pressure for a second book to live up to the hype of the first. Did you face any difficulties when writing The Shadow Saint (The Black Iron Legacy, 2)?

The Gutter Prayer (The Black Iron Legacy, 1) was written as a stand-alone novel, but the publisher asked for sequels. Fortunately, I’d ended on a sufficiently ambiguous note that there was plenty of scope for expanding the story. Honestly, the writing of The Shadow Saint was easier—I’m used to writing on contract, with deadlines and the (relative) certainty of payment. Writing The Gutter Prayer on spec, without any idea if I could sell it, was very much an indulgence for me—I was squandering writing time which could have gone to paying projects on something that might well have ended up languishing in the depths of my hard drive forever.

Hype wasn’t a factor—I had the second book ninety-five percent finished by the time the first one came out. You’re almost always working a book ahead.

With The Broken God (The Black Iron Legacy, 3) having just come out in May, are you currently working on the next book in the series, or have you got any new books in the works?

I’m working on a different novel series, planning book four, and doing lots of freelance game design. And, y’know, hiding from the global pandemic. It’s hard to find unencumbered time to write at the moment, but you have to teach yourself to snatch writing time in bursts and fragments. The world’s never going to co-operate with your planned schedule.

I’ve got another dozen or so ideas that bubble to the top of my mind every so often, although that doesn’t equate to a dozen or so books. I find that a book needs at least three really good ideas to stay afloat. 

How has your work as a game designer influenced your writing or vice versa?

A lot of the skills are instantly transferable—coming up with plots, descriptions, worldbuilding, prose. The challenge was changing my instincts, as there are a few places where what’s desirable in a game is actively harmful to a novel. Protagonists, for example—when you’re designing a game, you want to make the players the heroes, and you want to give them as many meaningful choices and options as possible so they make their own story. You might give the player some direction as regards playstyle and thematic inspiration—this faction is the fighty guys, this other faction is the sneaky guys—but you want to leave as much as possible up to the player. With a novel, you need a compelling, characterful protagonist, not a blank slate for the reader to fill in.

Who are some authors that inspire you and why?

In fantasy, Tolkien, obviously. Jeff VanderMeer. William Gibson. Tim Powers. Robert Holdstock. Claire North. I love Umberto Eco’s mix of academic rigor and playfulness, the delight of connecting and remaking ideas. Flann O’Brien, similarly. I’m also a big fan of John Higgs’s books, again for the surprising connections.

Is there anything you wish you could change about the publishing process within the industry as a whole?

If I could wave a magic wand, then I guess some level of transparency as regards sales figures and targets. It’s hard to know if a book is doing better or worse than expected, or even how “expected” is determined. I know there are other authors out there who can ignore all that and just concentrate on the writing, which is an ability I envy—it’s probably much more productive than obsessing over digital tea leaves in Amazon rankings.

After having successfully accomplished so much, what are your goals? What direction do you see your writing taking now, in terms of both craft and publication?

Right now, my short-term goal is just getting back to some sort of routine post-pandemic and post-young-children and then finding a sustainable balance between fiction and freelance game writing. Very few writers can afford to write fiction full-time, but I’m in the odd position of having a “day job” that’s also writing. It gives wonderful flexibility and it’s very rewarding, but there’s a lot of time management and creative exhaustion involved. I’m trying to work towards a situation where I can spend more time polishing and researching, as opposed to cramming writing into every spare minute. In terms of craft, I’m experimenting with feeding some of the skills I’ve picked up in novel writing back into game design, paying more attention to the emotional impact and dramatic tension of the stories that the game generates.

Graphic Memoirs: A Breakdown

Graphic memoirs are, simply put, short, true comics. In memoir style, they document true events in the author’s life through illustrated panels like those seen in comics and graphic novels. They tend to be shorter and less expansive than traditional memoirs, focusing on a specific event, relationship, or strict year range. The fusion between pictorial storytelling and nonfiction provides an accessible gateway for anyone...
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Recognizing Literacy as a Human Right

We at F(r)iction would like to draw attention to an oft-forgotten human rights issue near and dear to our hearts: literacy. While literacy has been accepted by organizations like UNESO as a fundamental human right, it has been challenged by others. For example, in 2018, a federal district judge in Detroit, MI ruled that literacy was not a human right. Fortunately, two years later, the US Sixth Circuit of Appeals remanded this ruling. However, the fact that such rulings even exist in this day and age proves there’s a larger issue at play—not just in the US where the trials took place, but across the globe.

Literacy is integral to engaging individuals in society, connecting them with others and allowing them to participate in significant sociocultural events, such as voting, in a global civilization that is increasingly text-mediated through the internet. As marked by numerous sources throughout the decades, learning how to read and write at a young age helps the brain develop and ensures that later in life, a person is able to consume key information during crises. According to sources like Concern USA, being literate also opens doors to a larger job market, and fosters better self-esteem and community health by empowering people and promoting interpersonal connection.  

Despite the abundant evidence of literacy’s importance, millions of individuals worldwide remain illiterate due to lack of resources and education. A study by the International Literacy Organization found that inadequate access to books in homes is the second greatest barrier to equity in literacy education. Organizations like UNESCO, Indigenous Literacy Foundation, and local libraries work to address this issue by raising awareness and promoting action by providing literacy programs centered around accessibility. However, with the COVID-19 pandemic, literacy programs that benefited students, young and old alike, are endangered. While several programs were able to switch online, many were canceled. One ProLiteracy survey found that 54 percent of literacy programs in the US severely lack additional funding and 50 percent said they did not have adequate digital material for instruction. Many students were not able to access the equipment needed to participate either.  

While many sectors of society are facing challenges due to the pandemic, it is vital to keep literacy in mind on this global day of recognition. The contested right faced challenges even before the pandemic, and obstacles are now further exacerbated. Our parent organization Brink Literacy Project recognizes the power of literacy to impact lives, allowing individuals to voice their own stories and communities to connect. To learn more about Brink’s literacy mission, check out our website

Book Review: All the Birds in the Sky—Charlie Jane Anders

Please note that this interview was originally published on our old website in 2015, before our parent nonprofit—then called Tethered by Letters (TBL)—had rebranded as Brink Literacy Project. In the interests of accuracy we have retained the original wording of the review.

Published January 26, 2016 by Tor Books.

(The following contains spoilers.)

At the beginning of All the Birds in the Sky, I was nervous that this novel would bore me. Protagonist Patricia Delfine, in the first sentence, finds a bird with a broken wing. This familiar trope caused me to slog through the first page until I ran into her sister Roberta—who “put frogs into a rusty Cuisinart” and “stuck mice into her homemade rocket launcher, to see how far she could shoot them.” If that isn’t strange and awful enough to compel a reader forward, the wounded bird talks back to Patricia by the third page, because apparently she is “a witch! Or something.”

It wasn’t long before I learned that Anders is kin to the Trickster magicians—one of the two parties of magic folk she pens to life—and that the novel is actually rather intriguing. Anders’s science fantasy novel starts off a bit Harry Potteresque, stomps on the breaks, and then shifts to a future, cli-fi apocalypse. All the while Anders toys with (and sometimes refreshes) familiar science fiction and fantasy tropes, such as the magic school, the doomsday machine, and artificial intelligence.

Laurence Armstead—Patricia’s confidant, enemy, and lover—balances Patricia’s magical mayhem with his peculiar science experiments. Throughout the novel the perspectives of these two characters dominate, building both tension and connection between their preferred means of power. Then Anders adds in a prophetic assassin, rocket scientists, terrifying relatives, a military reform school, not-too-proud witches and wizards, a plethora of hipster hangouts, and ethically challenged techno-geniuses to stir the pot.

The book follows Laurence and Patricia through three specific points in their childhood, adolescence, and young adult lives. Patricia grapples with the awakening and sudden deficit of her abilities until one fateful night she is invited to the magic school—re-emerging years later as a powerful, practicing witch. Laurence builds gadgets that are progressively more complex, ultimately attempting to create a machine that could act as a passageway to another habitable planet. Unfortunately, the interests of Patricia and Laurence are fated to be at odds and only the indestructible bond of love can overcome the division between them.

At times the novel is outrageous, at times funny, and oftentimes quirkily philosophical. But it is when all three of these things converge in Anders’s prose that the reader is seized by the novel. Like when Laurence is scolded by his parents: “When Laurence was old enough to do what he liked, he would be old enough to understand he couldn’t do what he liked.” Or this nugget of wisdom from Laurence’s AI CH@NG3M3 (later named Peregrine): “Society is the choice between freedom on someone else’s terms and slavery on yours.”

Overall, All the Birds in the Sky is anything but boring. The twisted tropes are entertaining and the story weird, sobering, and hopeful. Though you may find yourself annoyed with Patricia and Laurence as much as they are annoyed with each other, you’ll still feel compelled to root for their relationship and individual growth. Despite impending doom, Anders has written an enchanting tale of real love.

An Interview with Sari Wilson on Girl Through Glass: A Novel

I loved this book. I rarely interview writers anymore, but the moment this fell on my editor’s desk, I picked it up and couldn’t put it down. It’s so compelling.

Wow, thank you so much. That’s incredible. It’s what every writer dreams to hear.

It seems like you didn’t start out saying, “I want to be a writer.” You came from a different background. Talk to me about the transition into becoming a professional writer.

I always liked writing. I was good at it in school. I enjoyed it as a craft. But I was training as a dancer. I think that was my creative outlet and my identity for a long time. It really wasn’t until I left the dance world when I was about eighteen or nineteen that I became very serious about writing as a creative endeavor. So, I’ve had a really long apprenticeship. I think a lot of writers know from a very young age, on some level, that they want to be writers and so, in some way, are unconsciously training from a very young age. I think that I spent my twenties, and probably my thirties too, doing my apprenticeship. Luckily, I had some really great help along the way.

I got the Stegner Fellowship and then the Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center Fellowship. So I had three years of writing fellowships. That time off from working—journalism in my twenties and educational publishing in my thirties—kept this apprenticeship going. I was very committed, always writing on the weekends, in the evenings, on my lunch breaks. And I published some stories along the way. What I’m trying to say is it has been a slow process for twenty-five years. I’m in my mid-forties now. And this book—I put everything into it. I wrote it in pieces through so many different parts of my life that it’s all sort of in there. Some people say to me now, “I can’t believe this is your debut novel.” But, in a way, it doesn’t feel like it because I wrote it and rewrote it so many times. I learned so much along the way.

I grew up on a dance background as well, and it was very strange to hear terms that I hadn’t heard since I was a teenager, like “pain is pride.” I think that a lot of young writers will get into writing and they’re happy to do the writing part, but when it comes to the revisions—the manifested pain of writing—they really shy away from that. Your prose is so sculpted, and it doesn’t read like a debut at all—you were definitely not afraid to get into the pain of writing. I wonder if that was influenced by your strong dance background because it was so perfect by the time it hit the page.

Your perspective is so interesting. It’s a very particular kind of training you receive as a dancer. That pride you are trained to take in suffering and pain, for better or worse, is really something that I think is hard to unlearn, or maybe impossible to unlearn. For me, the prose is hard. Maybe that’s the part where I feel comfortable with the discipline of writing. I don’t feel like everything I write has to be perfect. In fact, if there’s one thing dance did not help me with, it’s this idea that things have to be perfect. I had to really unlearn that because writing is so much messier. And it took me a long time to allow myself to fail and really write a bad draft, to be able to see it as a process. Dance, I think, is more performative. You’re working toward this single moment of performance. That correlation is not really one to one with writing, which I find so much more process-based.

To be able to have that pure moment where you are perfection on the stage is amazing. You never really get that as an adult.

My editor really understood that that’s what the book was about. It’s a moment of youth in which there can be this moment of transcendence through art, through movement, through creativity. It’s a very special moment, and if I were to have danced in my adulthood, I wouldn’t have been able to sustain that. It is a moment of youthful passion. And it could be dance, it could be a sport, it could be a passionate love that you have when you’re young that you can never quite recapture that level of pure passion. The giving up of that moment is explored through Kate.

One of the things I find so interesting about this novel is the difficult sides of dance that no one really sees unless you’re a dancer. Was it difficult as a writer to be that honest?

Getting to the emotional truth was hard. That’s probably why I would say this took me a decade or more. I kept having to put it aside and figure out where I was going. I had to work through a lot of emotional stuff to get to a place where I could be really honest. It helps that this is fiction. When I first started with the material, I thought maybe I was writing a memoir. So I tried to write about my own experience. But it really never took off. There just wasn’t a lot of energy in it and I finally realized that my experience in dance was A) not that unique, and B) not that compelling, dramatically. Yet there was something there that I really wanted to get to. So I actually decided I was going to interview girls that I had danced with when we were children. Some of them became professional dancers for a time; others left earlier than I did. It was really all over the board. And basically, this character, Mira, started to emerge. She took me to places that were hard to go to, and I felt like I had to be really honest with myself. She went to places where I did not go, and she has experiences I did not have. And they’re difficult. She has a difficult home life, she has both amazing talent but also a great innocence that costs her a lot. So yes, it was very hard. But I felt that the book demanded that. If I were going to write this book, that was what I was called to do: be very honest about my own experience only so I could be honest about her experience.

I’m so interested in the dual narrative that you set up. What was it like to approach this one craft from so many different angles?

I wrote the narratives separately. I wrote the Mira story first, all the way through. Then I showed it to some people in publishing, and there was a question whether it was YA because of the age of the protagonist. Around the same time, I had my daughter. So I actually had to put the book aside for a few years. But in those moments that I was able to write, like ten minutes here, fifteen minutes there, I was getting this other voice. This first person voice which became Kate. I showed it to my writing partner at the time and he was really interested in it. At a certain point I decided, like with the Mira character, this voice was kind of taking me. The interesting thing about her is that she’s not very likeable. I had to make a conscious decision to go with her even though the initial reads I was getting on her was that this is a difficult woman, she’s not particularly likable, and that could hinder possible publishing interest.

That’s a really brave move as a writer.

In a way, I didn’t have a choice because I learned by then that for me, as a writer, I needed to give myself over to these characters and this seemed like another one of them. So I took a few years and I wrote her whole story. But along the way, I did try to interweave it with Mira’s story. I had to adjust that a lot after it was written, but that was when I got excited because I thought, this is a book. I don’t know if it’ll ever be published, I don’t know if people will like it, I don’t know if it’ll ever see the light of day. But it felt like an actual book having these two narratives working off each other.

This was a very long writing process. How many years between the conception of the idea and seeing it in print?

I’m going to be honest: fifteen years. But I didn’t work on it all that time. The first glimmer of it was when I was all the way back in graduate school at Stamford. I sat down in a free writing session and I wrote the first scene in the book where these ballet girls are getting ready for class and they’re pulling on their tights and their leotards and their hairpieces and their elastics and the sort of uniform of the dance world. It’s like they’re getting ready for battle. That came to me pretty much unbidden, and I wrote that in one burst. And then I just cried. I didn’t know what to do with it because it was so different from anything I was writing at the time. I was writing mostly about men, about ex-patriots. I was reading all these ex-patriot writers, from Hemingway to Jean Rhys to Henry James. So it just seemed like everything that I wasn’t interested in. It was about girlhood, it was about youth, it was about New York City. I put it aside for years and I wrote short stories. But I just kept coming back to it. And then I would commit to it in spurts. For a couple of years I would really, really, really write… and then I would back off.

How did you go about publishing? You had written some short stories. Did you do the traditional querying an agent route? Or did someone find you?

At some point, I had 75 pages of the novel. I queried some agents and I got a good response. I felt encouraged enough by the response that I thought to myself, “I’m a slow writer, but I can invest in this project.” Then I published a story in AGNI and some agents approached me. But I didn’t have enough of the book. When I finally had a complete draft that I felt good about, I used all of my publishing and writer contacts. I got together a list of fifteen agents. I researched in Poets & Writers. I looked in the acknowledgments of all the books I had loved, and I made a chart. I made lists. I was very businesslike about it. I attached the first ten pages with my query letter, and I got a lot of interest. My agent is PJ Mark of Janklow & Nesbit who has helped the book immeasurably. I actually queried him blind. A wonderful woman in his office named Marya Spence first read the letter and loved the manuscript and she got it into his hands and then it happened very quickly. He pitched my book to me and I knew that he understood the book, he had a vision for the book, and it was very exciting. I feel very fortunate to have found somebody that I connect creatively with and in terms of an aesthetic vision. I worked with him for a year on editing and then he submitted. And again, I was lucky enough to have a good amount of interest and the book sold at auction to Terry. I met with Terry, met with a few editors, and I felt, again, as with PJ, very strongly that she really understood this book in a way that maybe even I, for all the years I had spent on it, didn’t. She had a vision for it. And I was honest with myself in the sense that I still needed more, the book still needed yet another round. It needed another hand. She had me mostly work on the Kate narrative. I rewrote that storyline. Even though it was an extraordinary amount of work, it felt necessary and I feel like the book is in its right, final form. I feel so fortunate that these two people were able to help the book find that final form.

After these fifteen years and so many drafts and visions, what does it feel like to hold this finished book in your hand?

At first it felt surreal. I never really thought that it would happen, even though I hoped and dreamed it would. But now that it’s been out about two months, I feel really gratified. I feel fortunate and very grateful that so many people are interested and seem to be compelled by the characters and the narrative and that it’s opening up a lot of windows for conversations about all sorts of things: parenthood, girlhood, art, the 1970s, New York City, identity. I’m just really enjoying getting to talk to people about the process and about the book because, for me, it was such a private experience for so long that was mostly an internal process. To be able to have it be externalized is a dream come true. It is very special and very moving.

We talk about what it was like to feel those moments of perfection as a dancer. How does writing this book compare to that kind of joy?

It’s very different, actually. When I performed as a dancer, it was truly an effervescent moment. When it all comes together and you’re being led by the movements and you’re connecting with the audience, it’s exhilarating. But it’s a moment in time that then is over. I think that’s why it’s so hard to capture dance on film. Because it’s really a performative art and to be in the audience is a cathartic thing. You’re experiencing with the bodies in space and time. But writing and literature seem to happen in a different space. It’s more complicated and these spaces can overlap and conversation can keep going over time and deepen. So it’s a different kind of culture. And it’s a different kind of performance. I guess I don’t quite know yet because it’s still early in this process for me. But it feels different and maybe even more gratifying. Because it’s not lost to time in that same way. I mean, that’s the beauty of a book, right? The book continues to exist even after writers pass on. And some of the books I’m sure you love and loved as a child, they were written a hundred years ago. Yet they continue to be new. That’s pretty special.

Undercurrents: An Interview with Justin Hocking

The Great Floodgates of the Wonderworld is a multifarious work. From memoir to cultural analysis, history book to literary theory, and spiritual pilgrimage to political exposé, this book balances an extraordinary number of genres, subjects, themes, and narrative styles. Yet, at its heart, Wonderworld is about a young man finding his place in the world.

Why, as a writer, did you decide that it was necessary to tell “your story” through all these different lenses? Do you think you could have told the same story without these elements?

Well, the memoir was inspired largely by my preoccupation with the life of Herman Melville and the novel Moby-Dick, which is itself densely packed with multiple genres and varied modes of storytelling. It was a kind of postmodern book, before the term “postmodern” even existed—most mid-19th Century readers didn’t know what the hell to make of it, and it wasn’t until seventy or so years later that a wider audience recognized its brilliance. So I didn’t want to just imitate Melville, but I did allow myself to be inspired by his multivalent, digressive, collaged way of spinning a story. Technically, I suppose I could’ve just told my own story, without the other elements. But I think I’ve found my own voice in this braided form of narrative; I’m not sure there’s any going back to traditional, linear storytelling. Not for me.

Given your choice to include all these components, how did you ensure that they didn’t overshadow or distract from the central story? There are many fascinating plot threads—like the adventures of your aunt and uncle—that could have easily been shortened to mere sentences are expanded to dominate a good section of the book.

How did you decide how much of these elements to include?

What I love most about this braided, digressive storytelling style is the way it allows us to dive deeply into our own personal stories, while also weaving in news from the wider world. The story I tell in Wonderworld is deeply personal; I consciously braided in other elements as a way to give the reader some room to breath. I needed to get the reader (and myself) out of my head quite a bit, to avoid this sense of claustrophobia that can sometimes plague a memoir or any first person narrative. But to be honest, when I completed the first draft of the memoir, back in 2011 or 2012, it was over 460 pages. My agent was like, “Yeah, great, you’re on the right path, but there’s no way I can sell a book thi­s long and rambling.” The problem was exactly as you put it: all the digressions and experimentation were overshadowing the central, personal narrative. I’m fortunate to have a great agent and editor, and over the course of a couple years, they helped me tunnel in and chip away at all the extraneous stuff. I excised a good 200 pages or more—anything that felt like it would distract the reader too much from the central emotional trajectory.

Early on in the memoir, you address your obsession with motion, this insurmountable desire—nay, need—to stay in constant motion, either on your skateboard or your surfboard, perhaps in your entire life plan. How does a man so infatuated with speed and adrenaline fall in love with Moby-Dick, one of the densest works of classic literature?

In my estimation, Moby-Dick is one of the most action-packed, page-turning novels ever written, especially in the beginning. There’s a palpable sense of confronting nature in its most raw, dynamic and dangerous manifestation—the ocean—that is just thrilling. I can still pick up the book, flip to a random page, and feel completely transported. On a bit deeper level, Moby-Dick can be read as a monumental confrontation between action and contemplation. Ahab is all action and no contemplation; the First Mate, Starbuck, is the opposite. Ahab’s ceaseless, unthinking action is what brings down the ship. A balanced life requires both action and contemplation. A perfect day for me would be to spend the morning reading and writing, followed by intense physical activity—surfing or skating or swimming with friends—in the afternoon. I also have to admit that I really don’t love surfing or skating for the adrenalin, per se. The practices of surfing and skating are, for me, a way to mitigate the adrenalin and fear. On the best days, you reach a sense of timelessness and flow that have nothing to do with thrill-seeking. It’s more akin to art-making or writing.

Throughout the book, you visit various historical sites tied to Herman Melville’s life—his birthplace, his family estate, the New Bedford Whaling Museum, New York itself. These pilgrimages form narrative markers throughout the book, guiding your own story toward an Ahab-worthy descent or the possibility of salvation on the Rachel.

The visits are beautifully spaced, pulling the reader back into the frame of Moby-Dick at pinnacle intervals, as if each trip were meticulously scheduled at just the precise moment so that—when you did eventually write this memoir—your narrative roadmap would have all the right markers.

How intentional was this? Did you see the makings of this memoir (guided by Melville’s memory) before you began writing it and thus paid extra attention to these foray into the author’s past?

By the time I moved to New York, I’d already done a little writing about my pre-occupation for Moby-Dick. It was in a thinly veiled fiction story entitled “Whaling,” which eventually appeared in the anthology Life and Limb. But I honestly had no plans or intentions about writing a memoir on this subject, not at all. Almost the entire three years in New York, I was working on an entirely unrelated novel. Mostly I was just visiting all the Melville sites out of pure curiosity, and because I felt a little haunted by Melville’s struggles as a writer in New York, but also inspired by the fact that he never gave up, not even decades after the complete commercial failure of Moby-Dick. This period was also the height of the Iraq War, and I felt Moby-Dick had so much to teach us about the abuse of power, revenge, and the lengths America will go to secure our oil interest (whaling was, quite literally, the original “Big Oil” industry.)

After 30 pages of first-person narrative, your reader is shocked to turn to the chapter entitled, “The L Train.” Suddenly, our friendly narrator is replaced by the voice of an inanimate locomotive, speaking to a fictional passenger. Written in traditional theatrical format, the L Train opens a dialogue with the female passenger about a young man who rides on the train—you—and how terrible your fear of traveling under the East River has become.

This is not the only surprising narrative you employ. The entire book is sprinkled with sudden shifts in voice, including the frame of a third-person mental diagnosis and an entire flashback told in second person.

Where did the idea for this unconventional storytelling originate? How did you decided on these narratives specifically? Were there once more like these?

I love the way Walt Whitman, Melville and others incorporated into their narratives all the noise and manifold voices and ceaseless activity of New York City. The “L Train” chapter was my attempt to do the same. While writing this book, I was also thinking very consciously about the issue of narrative distance. This particular chapter chronicles something that’s difficult for me to talk about directly: my struggles with acute anxiety. So I wanted to give the reader, and myself as the writer, a little more distance from the narrator and his problems here. I was also inspired by a 90’s era film, called Naked in New York, in which Eric Stoltz plays a struggling writer who converses periodically with inanimate objects. I like the way it adds an element of the surreal to the narrative.

Writing a memoir is one of the most intrusive, petrifying—perhaps liberating—experiences any artist can undergo, especially if they are exploring a period of their lives when they were struggling. Most of The Great Floodgates of the Wonderworld follows you through the most difficult moments of your life. You have mental breakdowns, suffer from an addiction to relationships, make choices that, frankly, made me want to throttle you. Yet, it is this bravery that makes the book so poignant, that makes the hope of your triumph so dearly desired.

How did you overcome the impulse to “fictionalize,” to use your power of the pen to sugar coat your own downfalls?

I’m glad that you wanted to throttle the narrator at times—I feel the same way! So much of the book was about interrogating my own flaws and shortcomings and poor decisions, especially in relationships. I really wanted to avoid the kind of memoir in which the narrator is continually victimized, but never really examines his/her own small contributions to the world’s misfortunes. This book was, in some ways, a way for me to take personal responsibility. But the process—especially now that it’s out in the world for everyone to read—has been really difficult at times. As David Shields writes, memoir is a genre in which the writer gets their teeth bashed in, so to speak. I think I just tried to tell the truth, on every page. I didn’t worry too much about appearing as a conventional “hero,” but at the same time I tried to consciously avoid hurting the feelings of anyone involved.

No matter how close your life flirts with catastrophe in the memoir, your reader never believes your white whale will drag you under. Certainly, if you are now narrating your story, you must have survived the eminent shipwreck and made it to shore safely. If we are ever truly worried, all we need to do is flip to the book back and read your bio, clearly telling us the results of many of the largest trials in the book.

Did you ever consider revising your bio or acknowledgements to hide the “end of the story” from your readers? Is that one of the reasons that your bio is so brief?

This is an interesting point, and one that I’ve never really thought about, to be honest. The bio is pretty brief, but I guess I could’ve further camouflaged the fact that I ended up in Portland. Hopefully the narrative is compelling enough to still hold the reader’s attention, despite the fact that they know some general details about my current life.

As many of our readers are also writers, I’m always keen to ask our featured writers about their craft. Tell me about your writing process. In Wonderworld you describe mornings hulled up in coffee shops, working on your novel, before an afternoon of surfing. Is this how you wrote your memoir?

I did spend thousands of hours in coffee shops, working on this book. There’s a particular cafe in my Portland neighborhood that has high countertops, where I can work while standing up. Writing is such challenging work; I find that utilizing different processes at different stages is extremely helpful. When drafting early material, I write in short, hour-long bursts, usually first thing in the morning. I also carry a small notebook around to jot down notes. I can work for longer periods of time once I transpose my handwritten first drafts onto the computer. During this phase, I need a lot of silence and solitude, because you never know what kinds of creative gifts you might receive if you’re paying close attention. Oddly, the gifts often arrive when you take a short break from the work, to make a sandwich or take a shower or go for a long walk. The moments when you have to drop what you’re doing and rush back to your computer to get a new idea or bit of dialogue down—those are what I live for as a writer. During the more advanced drafting and editing phases, I can write for hours and hours at a time. I was fortunate to spend a two-week writing residency at Sitka Center for Art and Ecology, where I worked ten or more hours a day to finish a first complete draft. It was arduous but exhilarating work.

Also, specific to this genre, how did you ensure that you were accurately depicting the events in your life? Did you keep journals of your time in New York? Did you spend countless hours on the phone with your old flat mates, taking notes as they recalled memories of your melancholy years?

I was certainly concerned with presenting an accurate portrayal. I spent hours and hours on the phone with my uncle, making sure I’d gotten down correctly the details of his exploits at sea, and his falling out with the Scientologists. I also write copiously and obsessively in journals; I mined those for quite a lot of material. I’m still close with my old flat mates from New York, but I didn’t really consult with them. As memoirists, we need to have fidelity to the truth and accuracy of details; I think it’s immoral and stupid to grossly fabricate the details of your life, as writers like James Frey did in A Million Little Pieces. On the other hand, we’re writing creative nonfiction, not journalism, and we’re drawing on memories, which are invariably fallible, so I do think there’s room for a certain amount of embellishment, especially when recreating dialogue that took place a decade ago. To me, this is all in service of striving toward the emotional truth of what happened.

Now that you’ve successfully published two books, what advice do you have for new writers trying to break into the industry?

I won’t sugarcoat the fact that it’s very difficult to break into the commercial publishing industry. However, in many ways, there’s never been a better time to be a writer. What I encourage my writing students to do is this: make the best work you can, and then play the publishing field at every level possible. Self-publishing does not have the stigma it used to—especially when you’re talking about zines, chapbooks, e-books, etc. Long before I got a book deal, I actually self-published an excerpt of Wonderworld, in a small chapbook with a letterpress cover. It was nice to have a physical chunk of the book out in the world, to begin the process of connecting with readers. Learning the traditional art of letterpress printing was fun and empowering. I think it’s increasingly important that writers learn some basic graphic design and layout skills, such as Adobe InDesign and Illustrator. I’m also intrigued by the possibilities for new modes of storytelling via social media, digital publications, as well as the possibilities for crowd funding via sites like Kickstarter.

While writing my memoir, I also sent individual chapters out for publication at literary journals. Of course, I got a ton of rejections. Fortunately, a great California-based journal named the The Normal School published a chapter called “All I Need is This Thermos.” In a stroke of amazing luck, a literary agent read this particular issue of The Normal School, and contacted me about developing it into a book. So you just have to put yourself out there; if you’re not getting consistently rejected, you’re not submitting enough.

Last but not least—yes, I promise I’ll stop after this one—what is the next step for you? Are you planning to finish the novel you were working on while you were in New York? Are you going to toss your pen away and spend the rest of your life on your surfboard? Will you start constructing the museum for the oil industry you so brilliantly hypothesized in your book (because I will definitely want to visit…perhaps just for the regal paintings of Dick Cheney hanging over a miniature oil rig)?

After running a small arts nonprofit for eight years, I’m transitioning out of the Executive Director role to make more time for my writing and teaching. I’m excited to work on some short articles and essays, but I also have a few more major projects on deck. I’m drafting a new, long-form nonfiction piece—possibly another memoir or essay collection—that goes further back into my childhood and early adult years. A short story collection is also in the works, plus a possible novel idea (although it’s completely different from the novel I was working on in New York). I’m also excited to continue teaching in two programs I helped launch: The Certificate Program in Creative Writing and Independent Publishing via the IPRC, and a new Wilderness Writing concentration in the Low Residency MFA program at Eastern Oregon University.

Quixotic Philosophy: An Interview with Antoine Wilson

Please note that this interview was originally published on our old website in 2015, before our parent nonprofit—then called Tethered by Letters (TBL)—had rebranded as Brink Literacy Project. In the interests of accuracy we have retained the original wording of the interview.

Oppen Porter, the protagonist of Antoine Wilson’s Panorama City, is dying. Currently he’s covered neck to toe in a white plaster cast, strung up in the hospital, waiting to take his last breath. But instead of enjoying his last few days with friends or his pregnant wife, Oppen is talking into a recorder, rushing to tell his unborn son the story of his life, his philosophy, and the strange events that led to him to Panorama City.

As he tells his son, Oppen’s story begins in Madera, where he enjoys a humble life, one well suited to a self-proclaimed “slow absorber.” However, when he comes home to find his father dead, Oppen makes a mistake that shatters this simple life. Instead of calling the police, he sets to work honoring his father’s wishes, burying him in the yard beside his late hunting dogs, Ajax and Atlas. This act, which sparked a great deal of controversy and government involvement, also gave Oppen’s aunt the ammunition she needed to declare him unfit to take care of himself. Convinced that his father let him “comport himself like the village idiot,” she insists that he move in with her and begin a life as a responsible member of society.

Thus begins Oppen’s quixotic quest to become “a man of the world.” Confronted at every turn by someone else’s philosophy—Paul Renfro’s search for original questions, the Christian Fellowship’s scripture, his fast-food employer’s “happy customers” policy—he navigates an unfamiliar world, often with laugh-out-loud results. As everyone tries to thrust their convictions onto Oppen, he proves that he is not nearly as impressionable as his plain speech leads them to believe. Balancing hilarious satire with the honest, insightful philosophy, Oppen shows us the world through fresh eyes, discovering both truth and ridicule through his gaze.

Just like Wilson’s protagonist, the language of Panorama City is simple yet pithy. Eschewing almost every grammatical marker save the comma, Wilson creates a story that is told rather than written, Oppen’s thoughts pouring into one another in an addictive flood of narration. Since the entire novel is “recorded” on cassette, we are also privy to wonderful verbatim conversations with those at the hospital, his sleepy wife occasionally popping in to make corrections or additions to the tale. These instances create a perfect anchor to the present, never allowing us to forget the fatal conclusion awaiting our narrator at the end of the recording.

It is with great excitement that Tethered by Letter’s recommends this unique novel. Simultaneously philosophical, satiric, and literary, Panorama City revamps the quixotic quest, creating a story that stands out as starkly as its six-and-a-half-foot narrator. Just like Oppen, Panorama City may struggle to find a place where it belongs—after all, it is quite different—but in the end, whoever settles down with it, will find a new love and an astute worldview within its pages.

Wilson on Panorama City

Changing gears from the dark themes of his first novel, The Interloper, Wilson wanted to try something new with Panorama City. Inspired by Don Quixote, he fell in love with the idea of “the big sprawling comic novel,” and decided to combine this idea with his desire to write a story that reflected his philosophical outlook. “I wanted to write a big, new, contemporary road comedy,” he explained, “which was not was Panorama City turned into, but that was always the emphasis.”

Just as Don Quixote meets new adventures on his travels, Wilson planned for Oppen, his main character, to encounter new characters on his quest to “become a man of the world.” Each of these individuals has a very defined philosophical outlook, which is where much of the satire comes to life in the book. Wilson explained that, “early on, part of what interested me, as a basis for a comic novel, was this idea of competing ideologies and people who define themselves by those philosophies and try to impose those ideas on others.” Thus, instead of encountering new lands, as Don Quixote did, Oppen is confronted by new outlooks, having to battle against their control with his mind rather than his sword.

With the comedic quest fixed in his mind, Wilson needed to construct his hero. When I asked what inspired Oppen’s unique character, Wilson explained that before he started the book—“when I had the ideas bouncing around in my head”—he essentially met the real-life Oppen: “He was very tall and he said that he had a lot of friends in a lot of different places and he asked if I wanted to be his friend. He had this really open, naive, friendly character. He was really there, physically walking down the street, and he was really the inspiration for Oppen.”

Although the inspiration for the theme and characters came easily to Wilson, he struggled initially with the voice. In early drafts, he toyed with different narrators, turning to a third-person storyteller since Oppen himself can’t read or write. “But then there was a point,” he explained, “where I realized that I wanted Oppen to tell his own story, and I wanted him to be telling it verbally…there was just something exciting to me as a writer to try to write something that’s spoken.” After making that crucial choice, he decided that having Oppen record his story on cassette tapes made the most sense. Yet, since this was a relatively experimental form, it took Wilson several drafts to balance all of the possibilities. For example, when he first started out, he said that he included a lot of background noises from the hospital in brackets: “it just got really distracting and they looked more modern than they were…little dazzlies dazzilies that needed to go away.” However, these “dazzlies” did give him the idea to record Oppen’s conversations directly with his wife, which make for some of the most interesting narrative passages in the novel.

Wilson on Writing

Over the four-year period Wilson wrote Panorama City , the novel changed immensely. “Early on,” he explained, “there was this huge road novel section where Oppen and Paul Renfro got into Renfro’s crazy car and they drove through Vegas, planning on going to the Institute for advanced study in Princeton.” He was full fifty pages in before he realized that it wasn’t working. “I tried to take the show on the road,” he summarized, “but it didn’t work out.”

This type of significant rewriting is not uncommon for Wilson. Speaking of his writing in general, he explained that “in the first drafts, after I have all my ducks in a row, I get to about one-hundred pages, and then I realize ‘oh, this is all coming apart,’ and then I do another draft, and I get to about 130 pages—or some reason, 130 is a big hunk for me—and then that one falls apart too…but then the third time, I had everything lined up….which is a really painful process to go through, but I think it yields something with texture.” In fact, Wilson spoke out against writing ‘just to get to the end’—without making sure the novel is working—even though he understands the urge: “It’s painful to create something out of nothing everyday so sometime it seems like a good thing to just get to the end. You think that if you do, you’ll finally have something….but usually it turns out that that thing is just going to end up being a deleted file.”

Panorama City was no exception to this rule. In fact, after working on it for two and a half years, Wilson end up “throwing away everything and just starting over.” He took a whole month off from the project all together, and then started again from scratch. “But you know,” he added, “it was those two years of accumulated knowledge and writing that allowed me to move through and write the manuscript in another few years.”

Excerpt from Panorama City

If you set aside love and friendship and the bonds of family, luck, religion, and spirituality, the desire to better mankind, and music and art, and hunting and fishing and farming, self-importance, and public and private transportation from buses to bicycles, if you set all that aside money is what makes the world go around. Or so it is said. If I wasn’t dying prematurely, if I wasn’t dying right now, I f I was going to live to ripeness or rottenness instead of meeting terminus bolted together and wrapped in plaster in the Madera Community Hospital, if I had all the time in the world, as they say, I would talk to you first of all about the joys of cycling or the life of the mind, but seeing as I could die any moment, just yesterday Dr. Singh himself said that I was lucky to be alive, I was unconscious and so didn’t hear it myself, Carmen told me, I’ll get down to so-called brass tacks.

First of all, ignore common advice such as a fool and his money are soon parted. Parting with money is half the pleasure, and earning it is the other half, there is no pleasure in holding on to it, that only stiffens the vitality, especially in large amounts, thought the world will advise you otherwise, being full of people who would make plaster statues of us. Second, I haven’t made knowledge of life yet, I’m only twenty-eight-years old, when you get to be my age you’ll know how young that is, and if you’re a man of the world by then I salute you, the road isn’t’ wide or straight. Everything you need to know is contained in my experience somewhere, that’s my philosophy, but I’m afraid you’re going to have to make the knowledge out of it yourself. The world operates according to a mysterious logic, Juan-George, I want to illustrate some of its intricacies, so that you can stand on the shoulders of giants, not, as Pal Renfro used to say, the shoulders of ants.

For the first twenty-seven years of my life nothing happened to me. I rode my bicycle into town every day from our patch or wilderness, I rode into Madera and asked my friends if they had any work of me, everyone called me Mayor, even Tony Adinolfi, who was the real mayor, called me Mayor. Then came my so-called mistake…

The History of Pressure and Heat: An Interview with Naomi Benaron

Please note that this interview was originally published on our old website in 2015, before our parent nonprofit—then called Tethered by Letters (TBL)—had rebranded as Brink Literacy Project. In the interests of accuracy we have retained the original wording of the interview.

In Naomi Benaron’s debut novel, Running the Rift, Jean Patrick sees the world through a lens of science. He understands the anatomical effects his Olympic training has on his muscles, the instantaneous velocity of rage that erupts when his heritage is insulted, and the pressure and heat that threaten to break his country in half. Yet, surrounded by his single-minded coach and his humorous university friends, these tensions seem to him only a distraction from his training, from the bright future he is working toward.

However, as racial tensions escalate, the political pressure in Rwanda proves too great. Like the springs he studies in physics, his country is suddenly stretched too far, and the volatile relationship between the Hutu and Tutsi finally explodes. Torn now between his father’s dreams of peace of the reality of war surrounding him, Jean Patrick races against the destruction, realizing that his livelong Olympic training might be the only thing that can save him.

With quotes taken from both the Hutu power newspaper and radio station, Running the Rift creates a riveting plot centered around the historical events that took place in Rwanda. Brimming with vibrant characters that inspire both laughter and tears, Benaron’s novel delves into one of the most horrifying moments in human history and, with incredible courage, unearths the beauty beneath the rubble.

It is with great conviction that Tethered by Letters recommends Running the Rift. Following the scientific laws that Jean Patrick so loves, this novel in motion stays in motion until the very end. Without a single lull, the momentum of the plot continuously gains power until the reader cannot turn the pages fast enough. And when the book is closed for the last time, the reader is left reeling: struck by both the horror of genocide and the unbelievable courage of those who survived it.

Benaron on Running the Rift

When I asked Benaron what motivated her to write about a runner in Rwanda, she told me about watching the 2000 Olympics. During the wild card swimming heat—“for people who would never in a thousand years qualify for the Olympics”—one young African stood out: “He practically drowned for the first 100 meters, but he just kept going,” she explained, “I was so impressed with his heart and it just stayed with me.”

This idea initially took the form of a short story set in Burundi. Then, in 2002, when Benaron made her first trip to Rwanda, new inspiration began to take root at the moment that she fell in love with the country’s rolling hills from the airplane window. With awe lacing her words, she spoke of the wide-open smiles of the people and the way they opened their homes to her, sharing their food and their stories. The pivotal experience that propelled her to write about the genocide was not listening to the people’s stories, but instead dipping her feet into Lake Kivu. While walking along the shore at daybreak, she felt something beneath her bare foot. Bending down to investigate, she realized that she had stepped on a bone, a human bone. Soon on her hands and knees, she found there were bones everywhere in the sand. She realized instantly that they were the remains of the victims of the genocide: “I held these bones in my hands and I thought these aren’t just bones; these are stories, and they are stories that will never be told unless someone else gives them voice.”

This moment launched Benaron onto an eight-year journey writing Running the Rift. Originally, she had planned to finish her short story about the Burundian swimmer and then embark on the harrowing task of writing about the Rwandan genocide. But once she had visited Rwanda, she struggled to imagine Burundi, a country she had never visited. After she started her MFA, it finally dawned on her: “You’re an idiot!” she declared, “You’ve been to Rwanda. Why don’t you just change the story to Rwanda? Take out the swimmer, make him a runner.” The change from swimming to running was also incredibly apt, for Benaron herself is an avid runner. “In order to represent a character, I really need to live, breath, and inhabit their souls and their hearts,” she explained, “So running was easier for me.”

Now with a stronger understanding of her characters, she began the historical research into the genocide. When I asked how she dealt with such dark material, Benaron shook her head softly, confessing that it was exceptionally difficult. “Sometimes I would be writing and I would need to take a break. It wasn’t just that I would get stuck as a writer; I just couldn’t deal with it anymore…there would be days where I just walked around shell-shocked. I couldn’t take in what I was reading or seeing.”

Benaron went on to tell me more about the history she uncovered, both of us struggling to conceptualize the horrors. I sat speechless as she spoke of attending the genocide conference in Rwanda: “They have a week where pretty much everything in the country stops and you go to services where people bear witness and give testimony and remember their families who were killed…That for me was such an emotional experience. I mean, I felt traumatized just from that.” She went on to explain that people there would suffer what is known as traumatisé, “where you slip through the cracks of the present and go back.” Throughout the conference, Benaron watched as people fell to the ground screaming and covering their heads. A friend translated for her, explaining that “they thought they were back there and they were saying ‘don’t kill me, don’t kill me. Don’t kill my family!’” While these horrors certainly stayed with Benaron, she was even more moved by the people she encountered there: “How people survive that is beyond me.”

Drawing on the strength of the survivors she met, Running the Rift is driven by characters brave enough to dream of something greater: of happiness and triumph. It was through these characters that Benaron distanced the narrative from the horrors that culminated in Rwanda. Setting the characters’ journeys against the genocide lends their ambitions a greater validity, the power of dreams salvaged from the waste of so many lives.

Benaron on Writing and Publishing

In 2008, after years of writing, Benaron finally finished Running the Rift and submitted it for the prestigious Bellwether Prize for Fiction, a literary award specifically directed at works that address important issues of social justice. Admitting that her earlier version wasn’t “nearly as good,” Benaron was very thankful that she didn’t win in 2008, and she got to go back to Rwanda one more time, inspiring two more rounds of serious revisions before she submitted again. In 2010, her hard work paid off and she was honored by winning the Bellwether and the publication with Algonquin Books.

Even though Running the Rift has been in the bookstore for less than two months, she is already immersed in her next novel—a story of a Jewish holocaust survivor coming to grips with her traumatic past through her relationship with her granddaughter. I asked Benaron why she chose to write again about such a horrifying time in human history. “I think it’s just who I am,” she explained. Her mother had lived through the Holocaust, and trying to understand what she had gone through was a “formative experience” for Benaron. “In a lot of ways, my writing is trying to come to terms with my mother’s legacy.” Furthermore, Benaron believes in literature’s ability to unveil important truths about the human condition. She talked at length about how grateful she is to Barbara Kingsolver, the founder of the Bellwether, for her dedication to promoting fiction that addresses important social issues and to her publisher, Algonquin Books, for choosing manuscripts of “substance.”

Curious as always about how different authors approach their craft, as the interview drew to a close I asked Benaron about her process as a writer. She summed up her process in one word: “schizophrenic.” Having both an “obsessive compulsive” and a rather impulsive side, her “process is always trying to combine these two parts.” In her new book, she told me that she is trying to be less meticulous, reminding herself that very likely the paragraphs she continuously rewrites won’t make it into the final copy. To break this cycle, she’s planning on writing the first draft all the way through so she knows exactly what research needs to be done and she can give a complete version of her novel to her agent—who is constantly chanting “new book please, next book please” whenever they speak.

Along with her vow to overcome her perfectionism, Benaron also advocates the importance of running as a writing tool. “I have some of my best ideas when I’m on a run,” she explained, adding that taking long jogs away from the bustle of the city always helps her clear her head and battle writer’s block. For those who aren’t keen to pound out their thoughts in running shoes, she offered the following two writing tips: “never lose faith and write from the heart.” These ideas, she says, were instrumental throughout her experience with Running the Rift, confessing how much self-doubt she struggled with about tackling both an entire culture and exploring such an important historical time. “But for every time I said ‘I can’t do it,’” she concluded, “I said ‘I have to do it’ one more time.”

Excerpt from Running the Rift

Mama picked up Papa’s journal and held it out to Jean Patrick. Since Papa’s death, it had remained open, as he had left it. “Take it.” She removed the pen and closed the book.

Jean Patrick took the journal and pen and went outside. Opening to a random page, he tried to read what was written, but it was too dark. What he needed from his father was a clue, something to help him fit the fractured pieces of the afternoon together.

Before his first day in primary school, Jean Patrick had not known what Tutsi meant. When the teacher said, “All Tutsi stand,” Jean Patrick did not know that he was to rise from his seat and be counted and say his name. Roger had to pull him up and explain. That night, Jean Patrick said to his father, “Dadi, I am Tutsi.” His father regarded him strangely and then laughed. From that day forward, Jean Patrick carried the word inside him, but it was only now, after the windows and the rocks, after the insults, that this memory rose to the surface.

The first stars blinked sleepily from the sky’s dark face. The generator at Gihundwe intoned its malarial lament. If Jean Patrick had powers like his namesake, Nkuba, he could have breathed life into the inert pages, sensed the leather skin stretch and grow into a man’s shape, felt once more his father’s strong, beating heart. Instead he dug the pen into his flesh until blood marked his palm.