Sunday, February 26, 2017

Nothing is Unthinkable

When I was growing up, my parents often had to tell me, “You can’t say that!” I suppose most parents tell their children this as young minds and young mouths test the limits of discretion. But at the same time what I also heard my parents saying was, “You can’t think that.” Meaning certain thoughts and ideas were so dangerous, evil, or just plain wrong that they simply could not be entertained.

In reaction to this, I resolved at a young age that no thought coming into my head from my own perceptions or imagination was unthinkable, no idea inconceivable. Many things should not be said, of course. And most things certainly should not be done. But thinking about them, examining them, trying to understand their basic premises, their true natures, and their consequences—that has to be acceptable. For me, this resolution was an act of personal bravery: I would trust the sturdiness and stability of my own mind against any bad or corrosive thoughts. I would dip in the pool of evil or error, mentally, and still retain my fundamental self.

I was determined to look my enemies in the face and understand their thoughts and ideas. This is why I studied Russian in high school.1 During this time, also, I read several books about Communism and the Russian Revolution. For those of us growing up in the Cold War, this was the face and imagination of our enemies, and I wished to understand them. If I had been in school just before or during World War II, I probably would have studied German or Japanese—if those courses were even available.

It is a premise of mine that you cannot find the truth unless you are willing to entertain falsehood. You cannot understand the good unless you explore evil. You cannot know what works if you won’t dissect and examine the ideas, systems, and mechanisms that fail. And again, you have to trust the stability of your own mind and imagination to come out sane on the other side. You also have to trust your innate sense of truth and your preference for goodness to guide you in these explorations and examinations.

I recently published a blog about the politically divided nature of this country.2 As I worked to articulate each side in the debate—left and right, progressive and conservative—I was conscious of trying to represent the issues fairly from each point of view. I did not want my progressive friends to feel they were being misinterpreted, nor my conservative friends to think they were being dismissed. Fairness is a primary virtue with me, and I can understand and find some truth and utility in both points of view. But please don’t think, just because I have thought deeply about a viewpoint and come to understand it, that I must therefore approve of it and believe it to be right. I have studied the Marxists, understand their utopian dreams, and still think they are utterly foolish—if not downright wicked.

What I never expected, at the time of my decision to entertain unthinkable thoughts, was how useful this attitude would be in teaching myself to write novels. The essence of storytelling is to put characters into emotionally wrenching but instructive situations, which always involve conflicts, risks, and losses. Sometimes the possibilities of risk and loss can be represented by natural events—a tsunami struck, a fire broke out—and the characters can remain good, sunny people—just like the author him- or herself—who are only struggling to survive. But the best stories involve conflict between opposing minds and goals: ambition and vulnerability, freedom and security, greed and altruism, good and bad intentions. Unless the author wants to restrict the story’s viewpoint to the sunny minds and pleasant thoughts of its heroes and heroines, who are more done to than doing, the author must occasionally enter the minds, entertain the thoughts, and explain the motives of assassins, warlords, megalomaniacs, thieves, rapists, psychopaths, damaged children, cold-blooded aliens, and soulless artificial intelligences. Being able to think the unthinkable just comes with the job of storyteller and novelist.

It must also be the job of an actor or actress. In order to play the villain—a role that occurs in almost every story and must be portrayed on stage or screen by someone—the performer must enter and examine the mind of a deranged, damaged, or purely evil person. Certainly Shakespeare, who was both actor and playwright, had this experience when he created a villain like Richard III or a beast like Caliban.

Sometimes, also, the reader and the audience may get confused. Henry James wrote a short story, “The Author of Beltraffio,” in which the wife of a writer of morbid tales determines that his son would be better off dying than growing up under the man’s baleful influence. In the minds of others, the author or the actor can sometimes become confused with the fantasy that he or she is portraying, often with instructive or cautionary intent.

I had a similar experience with one of my novels, Crygender, from 1992. The title character starts out as a ruthless assassin, who then takes refuge in an altered physique and identity and runs an internationally famous bordello, located on Alcatraz Island in the San Francisco Bay of the future. Given the story’s setting and its main character of questionable ethics and sexual orientation, some explicit scenes of both murder and debauchery were mandatory in the telling.3 To this day, the book remains the favorite of some of my readers and the point at which others—my wife included—simply gave up on my writing.

But still, I stand by my decision. Nothing is unthinkable. This is the only way to dive deep into murky waters and, occasionally, come up with a pearl.

1. I give credit for this opportunity to a really excellent school board and high school administration in Warren, Pennsylvania, where I happened to be in those years. They offered Latin, French, German, Russian, and Spanish as language electives. We had a pair of wonderful teachers: John Stachowiak, who taught Latin and Russian, and John Greene, who taught French and German and also offered early-morning enrichment courses in Swahili and Portuguese. Both men were graduates of the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California, which is the training ground for many in America’s diplomatic and intelligence services.

2. See The Insurrection of 2017 from January 29, 2017.

3. In my defense, the novel originally started as an outline from one of my potential collaborators, but the senior author dropped out of the project when shown the completed manuscript. The book was subsequently published under my own name as a solo effort. To quote from Cardinal Richelieu in The Four Musketeers: “One should be careful what one writes … and to whom one gives it. I must bear those rules in mind.”

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Something Outside Yourself

The other night I was watching a movie about an unhappy woman, actually three unhappy women. It doesn’t matter which movie it was, because it seems that these days all the movies and books are about unhappy people—except for science fiction, where people are usually running or fighting for their lives, and movies based on comic books, where the main characters are superheroes with no personal problems at all who are fighting each other.1

Anyway, at one point in the movie I said to myself, “This woman needs to go write a book.” Not, mind you, not a book about her unhappy life, her frustrations, her poor choices, and her existential ennui. God, no! But a book about something other than and outside of herself, like the conflicts and eccentricities of the Tudor dynasty, or the life cycle of the sand flea, or the probability of finding life on Mars. “Go write a book”—that’s my solution to life’s problems and the greater issue of life’s existential meaning.

This is because, since the age of sixteen or maybe even a few years before that, I have felt the psychological pressure to write novels. No, rather, I have accepted the psychological burden of knowing that my purpose in life was to line bookshelves, to tell stories in the 60,000-word range, to invent unreal people in unreal situations and then observe and report on them. Whatever you want to call this activity, it has been part of my function in life which I have totally accepted and left unquestioned and unexamined. My daily business for as long as I can remember has been to eat and sleep, bathe and groom, exercise for health reasons,2 attend to the paying job and all its obligations,3 take care of the family, read for pleasure, do household chores, walk the dog, plus think about the book currently in hand and make time to sit down and push the page marker forward.

My books don’t have a message; I’m not promoting a political or economic agenda. They are not a reflection of my life; I’m not trying to tell my story or explain my point of view. Other than the fact that the plots and characters come out of my own thoughts and experiences, and so must reflect something of the way I think and feel, these are people and situations meant to stand on their own. The books come through me, like light through a prism. I have no sense of actually originating them, and when they are finished, I feel no special glow of recognition for them.

Whether these books are good or bad is really not my concern.4 I work on the story and the text until they are as good as I can make them. When I’m done, the book is as good as it can be. But whether other people will find it good, or interesting, or worth reading … that’s not something I can control. Whether the book will sell and make money is a matter of speculation, not purpose. If an agent or editor told me I would sell x percent more copies or make y percent more money by writing in a different way, or in another genre, or taking the story in a different direction5 … that’s not something I can really do. The stories are coming through me, originating outside my conscious control—if anywhere, from the depths of my subconscious—and I’m not the master of that process.

I did not intend this meditation to be an explanation of my writing process, other than to show it is something outside myself. The act of writing and completing a book exists, for me, as something more important and more meaningful than what I am thinking or how I am feeling at any one time. If I am feeling lazy, bored, or sad at the current moment, I cannot invigorate myself or cheer myself up by turning to the writing—not unless I already have an outline in hand and the story is active in my brain, insisting that it be written. And when the story is “hot” and ready to be told, it doesn’t matter if I’m sad or tired. I must drop what I’m doing, go to the keyboard, and start telling it. All I know is that, at the end of the day, if I have solved a knotty plot problem with a solid patch of outline, or written a scene that worked and advanced the marker—or, when I was at the paying job, had just finished writing a long and technically important article or procedure—then I know a sense of peace. For that day, at least, I have fulfilled my purpose. The internal word tank is empty, and a new idea has been made real on the screen, in the file, eventually to appear on another screen or on paper for someone else to read.

When I tell the unhappy women in that movie they should “go write a book,” what I mean is they should find something bigger, more important, more involving than their own lives, something outside of themselves which demands attention and offers fulfillment. They should find that thing and surrender to it, dedicate their lives to it, leaving it unquestioned and unexamined. I say this not because they are women—oh, no!—but because they are human beings. For some women, taking care of their children and their families are a greater purpose in life. Just as, for some men and women, building a professional career and making money are that greater purpose. But if someone can take up those burdens and still feel angst and ennui, then I would place children or career among those basic life tasks along with exercising, doing household chores, and walking the dog.

For Michelangelo, the greater purpose was the Sistine Chapel ceiling and, also, releasing heroic figures trapped in marble. For Mother Teresa, it was helping the poor of Calcutta. For some people, it’s volunteering in the community, taking up a political cause, acting in amateur theatricals, or making music. For some, it is becoming a good soldier, or a surgeon, or the Wichita lineman. The point is, the undertaking must be active, not passive, and the effort must be all-consuming, not a pastime. It must be the thing that, when you are doing it, you live more brilliantly; when you are unable or prevented from doing it, you die by inches. For some people, it is enough to ask God to reveal their place in His plan—but for me, that’s like waiting to conceive the plot and characters of the next book, which will take me through the next twelve to eighteen months to complete.

The tragedy of the human condition is that life on Earth has no particular purpose. Your father’s sperm met and fertilized your mother’s egg, and so you are here. At a greater remove, DNA acquired the ability to encode and retain certain protein sequences—or, if it misplaced them, to invent new ones—and so life appeared. For all plants and the vast majority of animals, this is enough. Eat and sleep, groom, fight, and reproduce are all the purpose their lives need; the animal’s occupation and its goal are simply survival. But for human beings—and maybe for dolphins, whales, and elephants, too—with our larger and more complex brains that engender self-awareness and raise questions, mere survival is not enough. Because we conceive of ourselves as unique beings, and not replications of a species type, we seek for ourselves a unique purpose, something of our own to do, greater than survival.

Life itself, mere existence, will not give you this purpose. It is our greatest freedom—and life’s great trap—that each person must choose and decide for him- or herself what purpose, what destiny, this life will fulfill. It does not have to change the world or leave a monument to which others will look up and offer praise. It does not even have to be something that others will understand. And it may not be something that you have bravely and consciously chosen for yourself. My focus on books came, I think, from my grandfather’s love of reading and collecting certain authors. And then, somewhere in there, someone else in the family—perhaps my father—might have praised the works of a particular author. And I do remember reading, at a young age, that Nathaniel Hawthorne once told his mother he did not think he would be much good at the law or medicine, but what if he could give her a nice little shelf of books to read?

In this way, grandparents, parents, families, and teachers shape and point the earliest ideas of young children. They place the notions and start them spinning to become lifelong passions. And those of us who grow up to follow those passions risk everything—love, health, sanity, and even life itself—to fulfill them. And we are thereby fulfilled.

1. All right, the movie I was watching was The Girl on the Train. It’s about three women immersed in their own problems, which they eventually find out are the same problem. Plus, of course, booze is involved.

2. Because I do karate katas as a form of aerobic exercise, the workout also helps maintain my balance, coordination, flexibility, and psychological preparedness against attack.

3. Or this was part of my life until I retired. Now the book writing is my day job. It doesn’t pay much, but that’s not the point.

4. Here I am reminded of the line in C. S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters: “A man is not usually called upon to have an opinion of his own talents at all, since he can very well go on improving them to the best of his ability without deciding on his own precise niche in the temple of Fame.” I find that thought comforting.

5. For a while, at Baen Books, I wrote collaborations at the direction of the publisher. That is, I accepted an outline and partial notes—in whatever state of preparation—from a senior author and sat down to write the book; then the senior author would get a chance to read and correct it. I found this process tremendously instructive, because it gave me insight into how other authors think and prepare. These weren’t my books, of course, but like the books I wanted to write, they came from somewhere outside myself, and I could do the work. And no, they didn’t make much more money than the novels that came out of my own head.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

The Practical Kōan

It is a common thought that all religions are based on some acceptance of the supernatural and the mystical as the basis of belief. God or gods, angels or other divine beings, the environs of the afterlife encompassing either eternal ecstasy or unrelenting torment, and the minds of the priests or shamans who are in touch with these things are all supposed to be matters beyond or outside of the real, mundane, everyday aspects of human life. To be religious is thought to be entering another plane which does not touch the world as the average person perceives it.

This may be so for mystery, just-so religions like Christianity, Hinduism, or Islam. But from my own study, I have found Buddhism—that is, the mind practices of Hinayana Buddhism, as originally taught by Gautama, rather than the social worship of Mahayana Buddhism, as practiced in most countries today1—to be eminently practical and not at all supernatural. True, some of the sutras, the dialogues of the Buddha, can be obscure and flowery, but the teaching itself rests on common sense and good psychology.

One of the supposedly mystical aspects of the Zen Buddhist tradition are the kōans, or questions, puzzles, and riddles used in meditation. “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” “What is your original face before your mother and father were born?” These ask you to explore the concepts of duality and oneness: it takes two hands to make a clapping sound; it takes a father and a mother to make a baby.2

The purpose of the kōan—as nearly as I understand it, and one must always qualify one’s understanding of Zen with humility—is to interrupt the normal, everyday chatter of the active mind, which keeps throwing out words and sequences, images, memories, and logical interpretations of everything that is passing through the forefront of our brains. The kōan is meant as a logical impossibility, an irresolvable question, and so an end of logic and a stilling of the active mind. Once the little squirrel inside the wheel stops its endless spinning, the mind can be at peace and open to new ways of seeing and interpreting the world.

Unlike the catechism, scripture, or doctrine passed along in other religions, Zen has no object, no direction, no predictable endpoint, and no core teaching that can be put succinctly into words and formulas. It is not about turning the student into something, but turning him or her out of old habits and everyday perceptions. No system of thought or doctrine can, by itself, create a clear and settled mind. You must do that for yourself, because your mind, your mental habits and thought patterns, are unique. You alone know best about your own mind and its workings.

Some commentaries suggest that the purpose of these kōans about clapping hands and faceless babies is to force the meditating student to confront—and become one with—the nonduality of subject and object. In this sense, Zen might almost be the spiritual precursor to quantum theory, because it turns observation and action on their heads. It teaches—that is, one of its core ideas postulates—that the observer and the subject under observation are not separate. “Look at the flower, and the flower also looks.” Or, rather, when you detect a quantum particle, the act of detection also changes the particle’s momentum and direction. So you can know where the particle is, or where it’s going, but not both.

Like quantum mechanics, Zen is usually repugnant to the everyday mind. In our normal state, into which we are essentially born and which becomes confirmed by our every social interaction, most of us assume that what goes on inside our heads—my thoughts, my perceptions, my values, my life—is separate and distinct from whatever is going on outside in “the world.” There is the existence of I-me-my and the existence of you-they-them-it, and the two are separate. In the greater view, the perspective that resides somewhere above our skulls and—for some people at least—might be thought of as the god’s-eye view, there is no I-or-you, no I-or-they, but only one system of reciprocating interaction, cause and effect, playing out eternally.

When you become attuned to this level of thinking, then you can attempt to still your mind, close down those actions and reactions, and “disappear from the play” or “go out like a candle”—which was the whole point of nirvana. Not a state of unending bliss, but a final rest from the oppression of being and becoming. To enter nirvana is to achieve the stillness from waking each day—or, in the Hindu tradition of reincarnation, returning after death to another new life—and climbing the same hill, finding your way anew, struggling to make your life function, reacting to pressures and influences, igniting more pressures and influences, and remaining caught in the middle, like a fly struggling in a web.3

Much of the original Buddhist teaching is filled with poetic language that I find simply impenetrable. But the Zen variant is often clear and practical. The stories are meant to impart a simple understanding.

For example, in “A Cup of Tea,” a university professor visits a Zen master. The master pours him a cup of tea, and when the level reaches the brim, the master keeps pouring. The professor watches and finally says the cup is full; no more will go in. The master replies that the professor’s mind, like the cup, is full of opinions and ideas. He cannot show the professor Zen unless the man firsts empties his cup.

In “Eating the Blame,” the cook at a Zen monastery is late in preparing the evening meal. He rushes into the garden and begins hurriedly chopping up greens for the monks’ soup. Unfortunately, in the process he collects and chops up a small snake. When the soup is served, the abbot pulls from his bowl the snake’s head. “What is this?” he asks in astonishment, because the monks are supposed to be strict vegetarians. “Oh, thank you, Master!” the cook exclaims and pops the snake head into his mouth.

In “Black-Nosed Buddha,” a young nun has a statue of the Buddha covered in gold leaf. She enters a shrine where there are many Buddha statues, each with incense burning before it. She wants to burn incense, too, but for her own statue and not share it with any other. She makes a funnel to guide the perfumed smoke to her Buddha’s nose. The smoke blackens the nose and makes the golden statue ugly.

These are not specifically riddles but stories about relationships and perspectives—being open to ideas, accepting blame in an intolerable situation, sharing blessings with others—that are the components of a magnanimous, or “great-souled,” existence. They are good psychology rather than any kind of mystical doctrine.4

For me, that is the attraction of Buddhism, in its original variant, over other religions. It does not require belief. Instead, it asks for patience and acceptance of principles that anyone can understand.

1. Hinayana translates as “Lesser Vehicle” and refers to the strict moral and mentally purifying practices taught in the earliest form of the religion, by which a person achieves release from the wheel of rebirth, quiets the endless give and take of personal karma, and so prepares him- or herself to enter the condition of nirvana. And that does sound pretty mystical, doesn’t it? Mahayana translates as “Greater Vehicle” and refers to the later definitions of the religion, where advanced souls, the bodhisattvas, can be prayed to and will intercede for and share their good karma with less advanced souls in order to hurry them along the route to salvation.

2. Clearly, the riddle is not meant to be something that only a clever mind can answer. “One hand clapping” is not the sound of snapping fingers. Nor is it an invitation to indiscriminately approach the experience of reality, so that the “clapping” is something universal or whatever you happen to be hearing at the moment. If the answer were that simple, it could be published in a book of proverbs or jokes with the punchlines spelled out and explained.

3. It is ironic that the Hindu idea of reincarnation—that what happens after you die is not an actual ending, fearsome death, but a return to life in a new body—has generated a sense of ennui and discontent. It is an oppressive vision of eternal climbing and slipping back, life after life, with no possible escape. Even the thought of sitting on a cloud in Heaven, playing the harp and singing with the angels … forever can be oppressive.

4. For more such stories and perspectives, see Zen Flesh, Zen Bones by Paul Reps and The Buddhist Teaching of Totality: The Philosophy of Hwa Yen Buddhism by Garma C. C. Chang. The latter was one of the first books I edited—and really very lightly—while working at the Pennsylvania State University Press.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Afflicting the Audience

It was the journalist Finley Peter Dunne—writing in the character of “Mr. Dooley”—who coined the original of the saying that journalism’s job was to “afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted.” This has since become one of the rallying cries of the liberal/progressive mindset. I first heard it attached to the art of storytelling from a fan in the audience of a panel I attended in the early 1990s at OryCon, the Oregon Science Fiction Convention held annually in Portland.1

This artistic doctrine seems by now to have thoroughly caught on with a majority of novelists, poets, painters, movie producers, and directors. In practice, the doctrine demands that one of two interpretations or results be associated with any creative work.

The first result is that the only acceptable subjects of a story or expository documentary would seem to be people in the bottom twentieth percentile of society economically and preferably also persons of color, either female, homoerotic, or transgender, who are conspicuously without political power, obvious talents, or personal attainments. The subject—normally I would say “hero” or “heroine,” but that would imply some dominant positive characteristic and a position of responsibility—does not succeed in the story by virtue of personal strength or through the application of any special wit, talent, or insight, because that would suggest an access to powers or characteristics lacking in others inhabiting similar situations. Instead, the subject must endure in his or her negative situation and arrive at whatever success the story allows either through dogged persistence or with the benevolent assistance of some community element or social group. The subject of the story is not supposed to be unique or elevated in any way, as that would suggest he or she was part of an elite rather than a random member of the mass society. Stories told in this vein are intended to comfort the afflicted by never suggesting that their negative situation and current humiliation is a reflection on their lack of education or acquired skills, their diminished initiative, or some poor decision-making. No one is to blame for their failure except society at large or the establishment hierarchy in particular.

The second result is that any story or documentary which does not focus on a member of the afflicted underclass or someone in a minority and oppressed condition is required to be couched in the most ugly, hateful, bizarre, or nonsensical terms. People gifted with strength, wit, talent, wealth, or a history of attainment must also harbor psychological deficits, shameful secrets, or criminal backgrounds. Their success must be based on unethical activity. Such people must be depicted as cold and brutal, or unfeeling and yet unhappy, or obscenely pleased with themselves in their allegiance to a corrupt world order. If they have wealth, it must be unable to yield them either pleasure or security and must also be displayed in the most crudely frivolous fashion. If they have talent, it must have been magically acquired without the application of discipline and hard work. If they have intelligence and cleverness, it must be free of any association with study, education, or imagination. If the subject starts out normal—that is, possessed of some education, modest talents, capable attitudes, and a degree of innate goodness, like most people on the planet—then he or she must be subjected to degradations and humiliations at the whim of wealthy psychopaths which put the subject in the proper—that is, afflicted—state of mind. Stories in this vein are meant to ridicule the comfortable and remind them that their world and their attitudes are hollow, corrupt, mean spirited, and unworthy of decent human beings. No one is innocent of wrongdoing.2

Do I exaggerate? Oh, a bit. And for effect. But still, it seems that too many books, plays, and movies these days are full of wretched and unhappy people, struggling against conditions they cannot master, living hollow and unfulfilled lives, and ending up badly.

Now, I am not saying I want only stories that are peaceful and serene, full of happiness and cheer. That would be the best of all possible worlds as imagined by a Candide or Pollyanna—and no more real that the depressed and desperate lives depicted in current popular culture.

True and meaningful stories involve conflict and loss. The main characters—even the heroes and heroines—must struggle against opposition that tests their resolve, their mettle, their wits, their hard-won talents, and their humanity. But the characters must start with at least some of these positive graces. The conflicts must be resolvable, rather than engrained in the hostile injustice of an uncaring universe. And the loss must be retrievable, or at least capable of being ameliorated, replaced with something better and more lasting, or accepted with a renewed and refreshed spirit. Finally, the characters must learn and grow, develop emotionally and spiritually, and come out at the end of the story in a new, better, more complete, or more resilient psychological space.

As a novelist, I reject the doctrine of celebrating the afflicted and denigrating the comfortable. Of course, I’m going to favor characters who start with at least some self-awareness, which includes their knowledge—and the reader’s—about their own faults and deficits as well as their talents and strengths. And although the characters may start in a comfortable position, or at least with their boat on an even if unsteady keel, it’s my job as a storyteller to pull away the cushions, rock the boat, and toss the character out on a hard shore. This is how personal character and resolve are tested, talents revealed, and native wit and resourcefulness demonstrated.

My business is to tell an entertaining story that reflects a certain kind of life: the kind that my readers will find interesting, instructive, or enlightening. Since most of my readers are at least moderately well-educated and possess the ambition and energy to set themselves up in a position where they have the money to buy and the time to read books, I am writing for a certain kind of person.3 Add to that my own interest in complex situations; my fascination with technology and machinery; my occasional bafflement at the mechanics of personal relationships, puzzles, and politics; and my drive to follow the logical consequences of actions in the past which promise to affect the future—and you have a very particular kind of writer who hopes to attract a like-minded reader.

In order to “engage”—to use that literary word—and satisfy these readers, I create and set in motion a certain kind of character: skilled, resourceful, self-reliant, wary, resilient, and tough. Whether my lead character is a man or a woman—and I am comfortable impersonating either gender4—the character must be ready to cope with problems, struggle against adversity, weigh resources and take chances, risk death and dismemberment, keep moving forward, and not complain about the cruelties of fate, the tactics of the opposing camp, or the burdens of personal weakness. In short, none of my characters—or my readers, who I hope would want to be like them—has any notion of being either smugly comfortable or sorrowfully afflicted.

I also like to write books from multiple viewpoints. In my stories, A may know something that B must learn or can only guess. And C may be waiting on one side of a door on which D is about to knock—or which he will shortly break through. In these cases, where I and my reader temporarily assume the viewpoints and personae of many different characters, I shy away from having any outright “mumping villains,” psychopaths, or despised wretches driving my stories. Most people, I believe, are trying to follow their beliefs and do their best—although some may be mistaken in those beliefs, and their perceptions may put them in conflict with the people around them. I find it much more satisfying to toss the reader into a situation where every character has a little bit of right and a bit of wrong on their side, rather than paint some as virtuous heroes and others as dastardly villains. I think this is also a truer picture of the way the world works.

Finally, I would rather engage my readers with a positive vision of how things might be than disgust them with a horrific vision of how things supposedly are. I want to catch their minds with honey, not vinegar. But then, sometimes I’m just an old romantic at heart.

1. That same convention yielded another fan in the audience who insisted that the only basis for modern stories was “race war, class war, gender war.” Oh, my! Where do I begin with a vision so narrowly focused on, and so tightly blinkered by, the political sphere?

2. Unless, of course, the main character is a superhero. Superheroes are magical beings operating under their own rule sets.

3. I decided long ago that I’m not trying to write for people who have no educational background or knowledge base, no sense of curiosity or wonder at the universe, and no interest in reading for pleasure. Such people simply are not going to buy or invest their time in books. Duh!

4. When I write from a character’s viewpoint, I try to reflect the inner person, who has goals to reach, friends and loved ones to keep and cherish, personal honor to defend, self-respect and public reputation to win and keep, and a place or niche in the larger society and economy to maintain. These are attributes that go deeper than the affiliations of gender. While I might offer a physical description to place the character in the reader’s mind, I usually don’t bother with fixations on secondary sexual characteristics and bathroom habits.