Food and Grief: Things That Shape Us

I lost an old friend this week. More specifically, I lost an old friend’s mother, a very sweet woman who I hadn’t seen in a number of years, but who left a lasting impression on me. It’s got me to thinking about how we grieve, the rituals we perform, both public and personal.
Were I Greek, I’d make koliva, which I’ll probably make anyway. The lengthy process gives you something do to, something for your hands while your mind works through what’s happened and what you’ve lost.
Food and grief go hand in hand for me. Sushi, of all things, as far from my heritage as that is, always comes up. It’s one way I have of mitigating sadness.
I’d never had sushi before my grandmother died. She was a remarkable, intelligent woman in a world where being intelligent and shockingly well-read was frowned upon. She liked to hide her brilliance in an affected hick manner. People underestimated her constantly, and I don’t think she really cared. The last memory I have of her is at a family reunion. She walked up to me with a cigarette in one hand and a red Solo cup of box wine in the other and said “Why David Ray, how you doing, you little shit?”
After she died, I had a dream. In it I was at sushi with her and my father. I was aware of other tables in the restaurant, but could not see them. They only made themselves known by the slight chink of wine glasses and silverware on the granite tabletop. We were all elegantly dressed, in a way so different than I’d ever seen Grandma. The waiter would occasionally come, offering us a dish. The last time I saw him he announced, “This is the only fish of this kind in the world. This is the only time you will have this dish.”
Grandma laughed at something dad said and I looked at her, realizing that she was dead, that I was dreaming. I understood instantly I did not want to wake up, because she’d be dead again, and gone from me. The moment I thought it, she winked at me, and I awoke.
I’m a vegetarian these days, but I’ll still eat sushi on occasion. I’ll eat it whenever I’m mourning, when I’m sad, or need a reminder of how rare and beautiful a thing life is.
Here’s a koliva recipe, if you’re interested in trying it sometime:

Photogenic Memory: Thinking the Past Was Better Than it Was

One of the pleasures in having a history degree is getting to look for anachronisms in pop culture, period movies and shows that slip up and use the wrong music, etc. The thing with history, especially ancient history, is that it’s always in flux. We’re always revising what we think we know about a place, people or time – new information comes to light every day. History, like any other science, is prone to bias and should be self-correcting by nature.
Being a fantasy writer, ancient ruins hold a particular fascination for me, and yet they never seem to measure up. I seek out obscure temples and sites, like Brauron near Athens, which was a big inspiration in my latest book. But of course the ruins themselves aren’t very impressive: a few columns, no walls, in a marsh. What’s left barely echoes what was, or might have, been. I spent the brief time I was there watching the school children weave their way across the site as the groundskeepers worked tiredly to keep the green from overwhelming the scant, brown remains ancient of Artemis’s Bear Sanctuary.
Yet even in that, there was inspiration. In fantasy we inflate, make bigger and bolder a character’s experiences. A writer’s job is to reflect reality, but also to manipulate that reflection to tell a better story than what’s happening around us.
Ruins and history work much the same way. We twist and inflate them. Sure, history can inspire fantasy, but it doesn’t have to align. I’m always a bit confused when someone says epic fantasy needs to be “historically accurate.” After all, there’s nothing historically accurate about wizards throwing fireballs or dragons incinerating towns. So there’s clearly a line between being historically accurate and telling a good story and clearly a limitation if you allow historical accuracy to overwhelm a fantasy novel’s potential.
We correct our study of the past to correct our understanding, but also to adjust for biases. We can never truly know what it was like to be one of Artemis’s Bear Maidens. We can imagine, and that imagination can be informed by what we know of the time and place.
It took me a long time to stop writing academically when I wrote creatively. It’s taken even a bit longer to realize that a certain level of historical accuracy can provide verisimilitude, but freeing myself from that constraint and adding bolder elements makes my books better. When we try to force a fantasy novel to conform to a past we don’t fully understand anyway, we’re limiting ourselves. The two things are separate. They can be divorced. Let history inform fantasy but not dictate its laws. You’ll get a more interesting story that way.
Note: the photo above is not Brauron, but from Ephesus. All my Brauron photos are missing from my hard drive.

We Need Diverse . . . Everything Really, But Let’s Start with Comic Books

Diversity in fiction gives a reader the chance to see themselves in a character. It opens more readers, more consumers, to the work. Simultaneously, a diverse work reflects the actual world. None of us live in a state of white, straight, non-disabled people, all alike, no differences.
Reading about characters and lives that are unlike your own experience is important to growth, but when you’re considered outside the norm, and there’s no representation, that’s all you get. You’re given an experience that while different, never aligns to your own.
As someone who writes YA with diverse characters, I’ve been thinking about my own experiences with representation, so I want to talk about the Flash. Specifically, I want to talk about what the Flash meant to me when I was fifteen, when DC ran the Pied Piper’s coming out story.
I grew up in rural Oklahoma, with parents who shielded me from anything that they thought might increase my likelihood of self-acceptance. And while they did their best to inject my world with BB guns and tackle boxes, they overlooked the books, and I grew up surrounded by them.
While the stories I lost myself in provided escape and perspective, they also left me lonely. There was no representation, just hints, just subtext. I parsed Tolkien for signs that maybe Merry and Pippin were more than just friends. I ripped through Tad Williams’ the Dragonbone Chair, hoping without evidence that maybe the protagonist and the elf prince had a bit more going on than just companions in an adventure. There were hints, always hints, but I needed more.
I was happy and disappointed to read Gene Rodenberry’s novelization of Star Trek the Motion Picture where Kirk states clearly that he has no problem with homosexuality, but that he’s strictly heterosexual. On one hand, it validated me. One of my heroes accepted me. And yet it also left me still alone: one more person accepted, but did not understand me.
When I could find a gay character as a teen, they were usually evil, deviants or serial killers. Yes, I was missing a support system (this was a world before PFLAG or the Internet), but I was also missing representation and that crucial character to whom I could relate.
When Pied Piper came out to the Flash as he’s discussing rumors of the Joker’s sexual orientation, it was a very big deal. This wasn’t a time period when outing yourself was a casual thing, and more telling is the gossip Wally’s engaging in about the Joker. He’s a crazy villain, so let’s throw gay on top of his faults. It’s a trope that still persists in fantasy, that gay = deviant or evil.
For DC, Piper’s outing was a major step. He was taking a risk, that he might lose his friend by telling Wally he was gay. It was something I struggled with. Something I still feel (even if I couldn’t care less now). 

Hartley, the Piper, wasn’t the first. Marvel already had Northstar, and DC had Extraño, years prior, but neither were characters I could relate to. Northstar was an asshole. Extraño was a flamboyant stereotype. Neither was a character I could see myself in. Piper isn’t a hero. He’s not an A-lister, but he’s there, and I clung to even that like a life raft.

As for the Flash, he faced his homophobia, and wasn’t afraid to put his arm around Hartley and call him a friend. It was acceptance from a major hero, and it was also representation. It helped that Hartley was reformed, that his orientation wasn’t tied to his villainy. Reading that issue made my tiny Oklahoma world just a little bit bigger. I felt a less isolated, I got to see that being gay didn’t have to make me fit a stereotype or cost me friends. I could be someone other and still be a part of the world and comics fandom. It gave me a place to run to when my real life squeezed too hard. That representation enriched my world, diversified the DC universe, and solidified at least one lifelong fan.
Piper makes his television debut soon. I’m anxious to watch, hoping they get him right. Comics are about big dreams, heroes running through a fantastic world. It’s always great to know there’s room in that world for someone like me.

A Little Halloween Nostalgia: Mexican Moon

Concrete Blonde was one of those bands I discovered on my own. They had a sound like nothing I’d heard until then, and it resonated with a lonely proto-goth in Oklahoma. I was absolutely thrilled when Bloodletting was re-released a few years ago with the French chorus version of the title song.
Now it’s twenty-five years since I discovered the band, and I’m letting them play while I prep the house for the Trick or Read book event. I had to stop and write this, wanted to share what their music meant to me and how it’s changed for and with me.
Mexican Moon was their last album that I recalled (barring a greatest hits and B-sides compilation a few years later), and it came out when things with my first love were really coming to an explosive end ( I was nineteen, half redneck and half drama queen, there was no other possible outcome),so the CD always held some slices of bitterness for me.
It got a nice redemption a few years ago, when I heard it in Greece. We were in Dimitsana, having breakfast on a quiet Sunday morning and for some reason they were playing Mexican Moon at a low background level. I realized I had outgrown so much of my anger, so much of the frustration I’d felt when the album first came out. And though many of the songs themselves are angry, I was able to just enjoy the music.
Now that day in Greece is a memory, and a good one. I’ve moved past it, and even past the relationship that took me to Dimitsana in the first place.
I’m not that kid anymore, that broken ghost of a boy, but I still enjoy his music from time to time.

David’s Timeline of Marvel Comics Must Reads

I put this together for Lisa and Jenn. It’s my timeline of Marvel must reads for anyone trying to catch up modern Marvel History who wants to augment the movies. A few notes: I left out some great series that while I loved, didn’t really fit in. I also left out the Hulk crossovers because I don’t really follow the character. Also, I labeled all the Cosmic crossovers as “Guardians” since that’s where that team came from. I may edit this as I go. Where I’ve mentioned a specific writer, that means I highly recommend their work.
New X-Men by Grant Morrison (X-Men): Read all of this first.
Captain America by Ed Brubaker*
Madrox by Peter David
Avengers Disassembled (Avengers)
-          Young Avengers: (Two Volumes, Sidekicks and Family Matters)
House of M (Avengers/X-Men)
-          X Factor by Peter David*
-          Ms. Marvel*
Decimation: House of M’s Aftermath (X-Men)
Uncanny X-Men by Ed Brubaker: Rise and Fall of the Shiar Empire**
Annihilation (Guardians)
 Civil War (Avengers)
                    –            The Death of Captain America
Annihilation: Conquest (Guardians)
-          Guardians of the Galaxy by Abnett and Lanning*
Messiah Complex (X-Men)
Manifest Destiny (X-Men)
Secret Invasion (Avengers)
Dark Reign (Avengers)
-          Invincible Iron Man*
War of Kings (Guardians)
Utopia (Avengers/X-Men)
Siege (Avengers)
-          Journey into Mystery*
Realm of Kings (Guardians)
Second Coming (X-Men)
The Thanos Imperative (Guardians)
Fear Itself (Avengers/Thor)
Schism (X-Men)
-          Wolverine and the X-Men*
Young Avengers: Children’s Crusade
Avengers vs. X-Men (Avengers/X-Men)
* Indicates a series that runs on through several of the subsequent crossovers so should be read in chunks, not in consecutive order.
** Indicates a limited run within an ongoing series.

For Jenn in regards to loaning:
Blue – Indicates Trade I Own
Green – I own some or most
Red – I don’t own, recommend digital

Yoga and Writing: Go Deeper, Smell Your Kneecap

I imagine my stress like a meter inside me, a rising tide in my body. When it reaches the level of my heart, that’s usually the point where it impairs my writing. One trick I have to reduce it, to re-center, is to get my inflexible butt to a yoga class.
I suck at yoga because I don’t practice it enough to be good at it. I fall over when I try to do tree poses. I’m self-conscious about watching the expert students, worried they’ll think I’m checking them out. Yoga is messy, but welcoming. It’s very hard to walk out of a good class and still feel stressed out. I love Anusara best, because it’s about alignment and usually comes with a mini therapy lesson, something to think about while you’ll also pondering what your kneecap smells like.
I was editing last night, taking the red pen to double spaced printed pages that I’m reading aloud (I’ve thoroughly embraced this as the best way to edit and ensure no one sits near me in coffee shops), when I found a connection between yoga, where the instructor is always encouraging you to “go deeper” into the pose and my writing.
It was one of those strange little light bulb moments – A micro-epiphany about the craft. I found a decent little bit of description that while well written, was also a tell not show (something I am really hammering on in my writing). I marked the paragraph as “go deeper,” and this morning, when making the changes on the computer, that’s what I did – I took that paragraph and converted it to dialogue, used it to show one character’s insight and hint at the other one’s secrets. I turned a good bit of writing into something better.
Editing in this fashion, killing trees, paying close attention as you read aloud, is time consuming. Yet it’s a path to going deeper, to focusing your eye and ear where you can find little places to improve and polish. If you’re struggling, if you’ve hit a plateau, give the print and pen technique a try. And when writing stresses you out, try a yoga class. Say hi. I’ll be the guy in the back, falling over during tree pose.

Brave New World-Builders

If you’ve got a book written and want to sell it or if you’re working towards it, strongly consider attending the Pikes Peak Writers Conference. I hadn’t done it before. I went to Backspace once. I’ve attended workshops and classes, but this is the first time I’ve been steeped in such company for four days straight and you know what? I found my tribe.
I spent those days surrounded by talented people who commute to their imaginary worlds as often as I do. It was amazing, comical, and incredibly inspiring. I have always been wary of writers in large groups (stupidly, it turns out). The comical aspect is from the sheer introverted nature of many of us. I’ve developed a decent extrovert shell over the years, but it was well cracked by Saturday and fully broken by Sunday. What emerged was my actual self, all gay and nerdy, and nobody cared.
Turns out writers are a wacky, accepting bunch. I had the pleasure of sitting at lunch next to one of my top three favorite authors, Gail Carriger. I met award winning writers I deeply respect like Carol Berg, amazing agents like Michelle L. Johnson, and incredible editors; but aside from the industry exposure, I had the privilege of meeting writers who write speculative fiction. What struck me first, deeply, was how social we could all be despite how distinct we are. The complete lack of competitiveness and the willingness to cheer each other on was inspiring. The drive and talent of these people is uplifting, and the sense that we’re all in it together, whether published or striving, gave me a sense of wonder.

If you take my advice, and attend in 2015, which I hope you will, here are my tips:

  1. Bring business cards. Bring a lot of them. They don’t need to be fancy or expensive. Just make sure they’ve got your name, contact information including any social media sites, and your genre(s). I printed mine at home. 
  2. Give your card to anyone you talk to. Take their card. Stay in touch after the conference.
  3. Talk to people. Ask them what they write. Tell them what you write. When you see someone you don’t know, speak to them, even if they’re not someone you’d never normally speak to. They’re probably a writer.
  4. Participate. Workshops are great and they’re often taught by amazing people. Before you go, read the program. Know what you need to bring. Buy or print the handouts. Read the instructions. Getting my first chapter beat up in front of 50 people sucked. You know what sucks more? Not being a better writer.
  5. Unplug as much as you can. I live on the Internet, but when you’ve got Gail Carriger teaching a master workshop on the history of steampunk, do you really need to know what’s going on with Facebook? You paid to be here. Engage. Like any program, it only works for you if you work for it.
  6.  Drink lots of water and take vitamins. This altitude can be brutal on newbies. It’s rare I don’t have a cup of coffee in hand, but I counter each cup with two glasses of water to balance out the dehydration. Take a ton of vitamin C (to boost your immune system) and fish oil (for the dryer air). Wash your hands thoroughly and don’t touch your face. You’re going to be shaking a lot of hands, and should, but try to avoid getting sick.
  7. Relax, but not too much. These people are just like you. They are in the same place. Chances are they are feeling what you’re feeling. That said, it’s still a business you’re trying to break into. Dress in jeans, but jeans without holes. Have a glass of wine at dinner, but don’t get drunk. If in doubt what to wear, I’ll give you the same advice I give someone flying for the first time: dress like you’re having lunch with your future in laws. No need to wear a dress or suit, but you don’t want to be covered in food or in my case, wads of cat hair.
  8. Thank the volunteers and people who put it together. These people work very hard at this, usually for free. They’re also sometimes good for a hug when you really need one (just ask first cause personal space and everything).
  9. Read the books of the authors before you go. I hadn’t read Chuck Wendig before the conference. That made me feel like I wasn’t getting a lot of what the others who had were. It also meant I felt weird bumping into him.
  10. Similar to #9, research the attendees. Look up the agents, authors, and editors in advance. Follow them on twitter. Find out which house or agency they’re with. Know what they’ve published.
  11. Talk to the authors, even the ones outside your genre. If you’ve read this blog you know I think we need to stretch ourselves. Two of my friends are award-winning crime writers. I learn a lot from them about pacing and technique, even if their books don’t have any orcs.
  12. Be organized. Print the pages you’ll need for the workshops well in advance (the hotel printers are often taxed). Put the pages in a manila folder so they don’t get crunched (you’ll be given a lot of stuff each day and it will all swish around in your bag). A few extra pens are always wise. I divide my days into folders for each day and make backups but I’m clumsy and kind of forgetful. I need backups.
  13. Use that badge thingy. Wear it. Own it. If you think it’s geeky, well it is, but we’re all wearing one. And it’s got all these great secret little pockets for cards and pens and the bat-breath mints. Plus your meal tickets and pitch cards are in there. Lose those and you’re screwed.
  14. Wear comfortable shoes. You’re going to be in them all day.
  15. Wear layers. The hotel’s temperature can vary room to room. Having a jacket meant I could lose it, zip it, or loan it when the AC went wonky.
  16. Say hi when you see me there.

Video Games: An Unlikely Writing Teacher

I just finished Mass Effect 3, the end of the epic Sci-Fi trilogy series from Bioware, and it’s left me with the same sense I get when a great book comes to an end. I know there’s plenty of debate out there about video games, that they’re too violent, too addictive. I’d say that any compelling form of escape, including reading, can cause controversy. My own mother called Ultima “sorcery” when I played it on the Nintendo Entertainment System. She might have been onto something. Video games, RPGs at least, have always had a certain magic for me.
While tabletop role playing games are a collective storytelling experience, a situation where we each bring something to the table (usually beer and sarcasm at my table), I prefer a solitary video game experience. I turn on the screen, look into that other world, where I create a separate identity and see where that character goes.
Mass Effect follows Bioware’s extremely high standards (mirrored in Dragon Age, their fantasy trilogy) of forcing the lead character into tight corners where you make difficult choices that impact the series again and again. Every choice, imported as I’ve moved through the games, came back to bite me. Forget the incredible graphics and top voice talent—it’s that narrative, that raising of the stakes until the character has no way out but one of two equally terrible options, that drives my love of the series.
In elder days, I’d have a similar experience with Ultima. The classic series of computer RPGs were one of the biggest reasons I wanted a PC after experiencing them on the NES. Ultima was the first game to really draw me in, encourage me to create a character and set them loose in a fantastic world. In many ways the lower quality, vaguer, graphics enhanced my experience as my imagination could fill in so much about the relationships among the party and their motivations. I’ve learned about narrative by reading, but video games have long been a lab where I’ve grown characters.
Reaching the end of Mass Effect (and I’m proud I was able to avoid spoilers two years after the game released), was like getting to the end of a great book. My head spins a little. I already miss some of the characters. I’m tempted to start the whole cycle over again and make different choices, but I’m more inspired to go write something, to look at how I can set up those kinds of no win scenarios and see my own characters beat the odds.

Some Bookish Things to Do in Denver and Boulder

I’m a Denver resident so I have to be upfront and admit that I’m not as familiar with Boulder. I’ve included items for both cities.
If you’ve got a few hours, I’d recommend a walk from the Tattered Cover LoDo to My Brother’s Bar and back. There’s a good view from the top of Confluence Park (though the Union Station construction will mar things a bit behind you unless you’re fascinated by trains). If you’ve more time, 
I suggest going to the Tattered Cover’s Colfax location. It’s a beautiful space in a historic theater. A quick stop at Book Bar (west of everything else in the Highlands) is well worth it.
Tattered Cover
I’d heard about the Tattered Cover before I’d moved here twenty years ago. While the other locations have never had the same charm as the old Cherry Creek store, the Colfax and Elizabeth location is beautiful, airy, and well stocked. The Lower Downtown (LoDo) location is a close second favorite.
My Brother’s Bar
Has been a quiet institution for a long time. There are stairs that no longer rise to a missing second floor, a beer garden (they only play classical music). Jack Kerouac immortalized it. Not nearly as bookish, but still worth a stop and great for an inexpensive lunch. Don’t confuse it with Brother’s Bar. That’s where most of the bad reviews come from.
Book Bar
Book Bar is neat little coffee shop/bar/bookstore. My book club meets there sometimes. It’s just a perfect little book themed space with great coffee and better wine.
Murder by the Book
Sadly, this little gem of a store no longer has a storefront so it’s technically cheating to put it here, but I want to support their online efforts to stay afloat.
Boulder, especially Pearl Street, is a highly walkable place. It’s a great area to wander and see and well worth some hours. I prefer it in the summer when the students aren’t around and the weather is warmer, but it’s a good place any time of year. If you’ve a couple of hours to spare, be sure to walk the creek past the library and see the dam under Broadway.
Trident Café and Bookseller
I have a soft spot for the Trident as I met my ex there for our first real date. The Trident is close to the Boulder Bookstore and open until 11 pm so it’s a good place to go and browse used books if you’re wandering around after Booktopia.
The Catacombs
Whether you’re staying in the Hotel Boulderado or not, check out the Catacombs bar. Not bookish per se, but a cool, inspiring space (especially for mystery or fantasy writers).
Boulder Public Library
A quick walk from the Boulder Bookstore, the public library branch is well designed and near the creek, so it’s a good place to clear your head and see the town.
The Stanley Hotel
If you were taken with the Shining, then the drive to Estes Park from Boulder will be worth it. If you’re going to spend the time then I recommend making sure you explore Rocky Mountain National Park. Not bookish in itself, but it has some of the most amazing views.
Erika Napoletano’s List of Independent Bookstores
I found this list of bookstores for Boulder and thought I’d share:
Please note that Left Hand closed a while back (thanks Rachel Adler for the tip).
I didn’t mention Boulder Bookstore as Booktopia will give you the chance to see it.
Thanks to my book club and Brian Staley for helping with this list!

I Think I’m in Love. Athens Might Get Jealous

Three days back and Rome is like a dream. I’ve waxed poetic before on the beauty of travel. It takes you out of yourself, away from your daily grind, and gifts you with insight. For me, a city so steeped in history is a natural draw. Even without the churches, the whispering fountains, the great food or perfect coffee, the ruins remain.
I had the fortune this trip to spend a day with Peggy Ryan, whose Gracefully Global blog is more than worth checking out. She had some great tips for little things off the beaten path, and she shares my love of the Trastevere neighborhood. She also introduced me to cacao de pepe, which officially blew my diet.
We wandered with our mutual friend Clint, who’s always good at spotting an odd twist in the path and leading you to the unexpected. As usual I hauled back too many books, but strangely I didn’t take many pictures. I wanted this trip to be more in the moment, more immediate and less of a record. I captured memories, bits of ideas and faint inspirations as Clint and I walked the city, exploring her ancient and medieval boundaries. I made a friend, a guy from Milan who taught me some Italian sayings.
Now I’m back, and while the getting home was as strangely rough as always, I’ve carried that sense of wonder with me. That’s what travel does for me, why I prioritize it over owning a car of a bigger house. If I preach anything, if I’ve found anything that makes me happier, it is the long game of valuing experience and people over material goods.
Rome has made an impact. After three trips there I’m starting to feel like I know the city, even if my terrible sense of direction hasn’t caught up. I’m clinging to the feeling the journey gave me. Maybe I’ll learn to make pasta.