Saturday, March 24, 2012

SPECIAL GUEST BLOG: Lambda Award Finalist J.M. Frey on creating "Triptych"

Today's Guest Blog is a special treat. J.M. Frey's impressive debut novel, Triptych, is a Finalist for the Lambda Award. It's an absorbing, moving, satisfying and humane story, one that marks Frey as an author to watch. Here she talks about her love affair with writing, and how she came to create such a compelling and original tale.

"A Fish Out Of Water"

I have an absolutely massive soft spot for fish-out-of-water stories. I mean, huge. I blame, in the best way, J.M. Barrie for this. (And yes, my professional name is my little tip-of-the-topper to Mr. Barrie – thanks, Mom and Dad, for giving me the same initials.) I wanted, so badly, to go to Neverland as a child. 

This desire informed my reading and viewing choices as a kid– if I the cover copy of a book even hinted at the possibility of someone from “our” world falling into and experiencing another, then I was all over that. I must have watched Warriors of Virtue five billion times, and I could probably still recite My Little Pony’s Escape From Catrina. Disney’s Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast? Yup. I really got turned onto fantasy with Piers Anthony’s Xanth books, especially the Heaven Cent trilogy, and I know I read Howl’s Moving Castle until the glue on the spine flaked away (oh, how I wanted to be Howl!)

I love stories where the protagonists are also “from” the world they are in, but are thrust into a situation that is new, terrifying, and leaves them unstable. I loved Jennifer Robson’s Chronicles of the Cheysuli. I love Naomi Novak’s Temeraire books now, and Anne Rice’s Lestat will always have a place in my heart for being a bit of a bumbler in those first books, and I could die happy if I got cast as Constance Ledbelly in Anne-Marie MacDonald’s Good Night Desdemona (Good Morning, Juliet).
Of course my tastes matured as I did, but that one hook never quite got out of my skin. Tell me the film/comic/book has a fish-out-of-water character and I will throw my wallet at it.

Which means, unsurprisingly, that when it came to academic work, I focused on the ultimate fish-out-of-water:  the Mary Sue. (Read more about this fanfiction literary trope here.) I became enamoured, and eventually went on to write my Master’s thesis on the topic. But before I did that, I wrote a lot of Mary Sue fanfiction – I wanted to get the feel for the response it got online, the way people reacted to it, and study the kind of feelings I had when I was writing and reading it.

One of the exercises I set myself was to write an original Mary Sue. I eventually did find a way to do it (and it will come out in June 2012 as The Dark Side of the Glass, from Double Dragon Publishing), but my first attempt was a novella called (Back), and I failed. It wasn’t a very successful Mary Sue and was struck from my bibliography for my thesis. But the story itself was well received when I sent it to my beta readers, so I went on to sell it to a publisher.

I tell you all this so you know where I’m coming from when I start to talk about the choices I made when I wrote Triptych.

Originally, (Back) was supposed to be a fish-out-of-water story about a Mother named Evvie and Daughter named Gwen who meet each other, via a time travel McGuffin, when they’re both 26 years old. The conflict was supposed to arise from the fact that Gwen had grown up to be a soldier, and a bit cold, and was dating  Basil, a total geek-everyman that her mother saw as a loser. Her mother wanted her to be stereotypically girly, fall for a cowboy, be a nurse, raise some kids, all that stuff. The story was supposed to be about gender performance and the way that different generations have different milestones to define a “successful” life. And the first few drafts were. It still is, in a way.

There was also mention of some aliens along with my time travel MacGuffin, but mostly because I thought that the time-travel technology can’t have come from humanity, not if Gwen was meant to have grown up in the 2020s; I didn’t think we’d be advanced enough by then. I needed some way for the technology to exist. It was a toss away line – something about Gwen’s alien coworker and teammate accidentally triggering the device.

That was my “oops” moment. Not so much “Eureka!” as, “What’s this mould growing on my specimens? Crap! Are they ruined now?”

I owe a lot of what Triptych is to the beta reader on (Back), Liz Aitken. Like me, she had aspirations to be a writer at the time, and also like me, she was working towards professional publication; we were both teaching English in Japan and with some other local foreigners, we had an ad hoc writer’s circle that helped one another with our editing. (I’ve since lost touch with Liz, and I wish I hadn’t – Liz, if you’re reading this, email me! Did you get published? I hope so!)

Liz read (Back), but she also read between the lines. She handed me the manuscript back and said, “Are Gwen and her boyfriend Basil sleeping with the alien coworker?”

I spluttered. “What? What? No! Gwen and Basil are not sleeping with… him, her, it! I don’t know! No!”

“Oh,” she said. “Because right here, it sure sounds like it.”

She pointed to a paragraph, and I read it through her eyes. “Damn,” I said. “I… think they were sleeping with the alien. I’ll fix that. I’ll--”
“Make it clearer,” Liz said, at the same time I blurted, “Take it out.”

I blinked owlishly at her. “You want me to leave it in?”

“Yeah. Think of how you can use that. I mean, if Gwen’s mother hates her now, just wait until she realizes that her daughter is in a polygamous relationship with an alien.

I knew next to nothing about polyamoury and polygamy at the time, except for the dreadful things I kept hearing in the news about the child-brides and wife-slaves rescued from religious compounds. I was understandably wary. Absolutely nothing about the concept appealed to me.

Thank god for the internet, eh?

I spent a long time researching loving, healthy poly-relationships and communities, talked to some poly folks, and actually got quite into the concept myself. I learned that some of my friends were poly, and I hadn’t known. I read a bunch of webcomics and stories about it. The more I researched, the more it appealed as a story line – and then, because I am an academic at heart, I also started researching the social contracts and mores of monogamy, homosexuality in other species besides humans, and family-groups in animals. My eyes were opened and my mind blown! Hey, Earth was filled with poly relationships worth celebrating!

(It came out after Triptych, but one of the best books on this topic I have ever read is Sex at Dawn, by Christopher Ryan, PhD and Cacilda Jethá, MD.)

Right, okay – so. I had decided to jump in and make Gwen, Basil and the unnamed alien a family. And I needed to figure out how to build the biology of my aliens.

A lot of discussion in the texts I read talked about humans as binary creatures – symmetrical bodies, two sexes, two genders, etc. Some of it was B.S. of course – human beings only have two sexes and two genders? Ppffffft – but some of the biological stuff was solid. A psychology report I read talked about why we anthropomorphise other creatures, how we read each other’s body language and facial expressions, basically, how we communicate with our bodies. Humans trust things that are human-shaped. It’s a deep seated evolutionary thing-a-ma-bob, which is why a lot of “bad guy” aliens in films are scary insectoid things, because that’s as non-human-shaped as you can get. I turned to the aliens of my childhood for reference – who did I trust? And why? – and hit upon the Playmobil alien and astronaut set I had as a kid. The Aliens and the Astronauts could hug.

So, two arms, two legs, forward facing eyes – so, biologically, probably created offspring in a binary, too.

So I came to the conclusion that if it wasn’t biological, then I had to make the threesome aspect a social construct rather than a biological one, much like our own two-some-ness is a social construct. There needed to be a cultural precedent. I came up with a myth-cycle for the aliens called The Deeds of Vren (sort of a mishmash of Odin’s wanderings, the life of Christ, and a lot of the Indian and Japanese myths about where and how rules were handed down from the gods to humanity), and made that the basis of the social rules of the alien’s world.
Of course, none of that made it into (Back)! The story was way too short to allow for it, and had to remain focused on Gwen and her relationship with her mother. But I was able to flesh out the backstory better, give the alien more life. After the novella was published, I got a lot of feedback from readers about how they wanted more of the unnamed alien, his culture, his relationship with Gwen and Basil. I got a lot of emails saying, “What happens next?!”
I thought about this, let it percolate, and then somehow one day I had decided that I was going to write this as a novel. (Back) became the first third of the book, and book eventually became known as Triptych (after several disastrous titles I won’t share). But I didn’t know what to do with all the bits I had, all the research and the scenes and the vague plot arcs. I wanted to do something domestic, something lovely and sad about Gwen and Basil and the alien – his name was now Kalp – and their relationship. I didn’t want to do action or lasers or space opera. I wanted to write about love, and what happens when people just don’t understand or give others the freedom to love where they’d like. That is, I wanted to write a love story for people like I had been – people who only knew the bad stuff about poly relationships, and none of the good. Only I didn’t know where to start.
Liz to the rescue again! She handed me two pages of writing one day and said, “I hope you don’t mind, but I was messing about and, um, I wrote this. As an exercise. To see if I could, you know.”
It was amazing. It was brilliant. It was Kalp, poor distraught Kalp, on his way to meet his new team on Earth for the first time, being utterly fish-out-of-water. I was, of course, hooked. Liz’s voice is very different from mine on the page, so when I read what she’d done I couldn’t believe how alien Kalp sounded to me. It was perfect.
“Can I have this?” I blurted. “I mean, can I use this? Can I write Kalp like this, is it okay?”
Liz gave me permission to subsume those two pages into the novel, and Kalp’s voice and personality were born. Very little of that original writing remains in Triptych. It has been edited away, the tenses changed and the sentences scrambled, but the kernel of it remains in Kalp. 
Now that I knew what Kalp sounded like, I was able to flex my wings, get into the nitty gritty of the world building, of the mythology and social hierarchy of Kalp’s people. There are , god, hundreds of pages worth of stuff that’s not in the book – art and culture, sports and architecture, so much I wanted to write about in the story, but had to leave out because the story was about Kalp’s culture shock and his desperate need for comfort, not a text book about the history of his society.
I had to make a lot of tough choices, too. I had to choose -  was I writing a story or a manifesto? I had to temper a lot of my innate essay-writing drive, had to get off my soapbox and remember that I was telling a story, not giving a lecture. As a result, there are some aspects that are weaker on than others – I wish Kalp wasn’t quite so male, and I wish that I’d had a chance to talk up the problematics of his own society a bit more, but then I had to remember that Kalp is just desperate to fit in, so he would act as male as possible, and he would nostalgia-wash his own life up until then, he would desperately cling to the good on Earth and try to ignore the bad. For example, a local Earth farmer has tried to go produce from his world – Kalp notes that some of it was an utter failure, tough and wrinkled and colourless, but chooses to latch onto the fruit and veg that flourished on Earth. That’s just his personality.
I didn’t want to assign a gendered pronoun to Kalp at first, but a beta reader pointed out that it was fatiguing to read Kalp’s name all the time, so I had to sacrifice that to the story. At least I got to turn it into a bit of a plot point!

So, that’s how I built Kalp and his world, and created the kind of fish-out-of-water story that I hope will inspire the next generation of writers, the way that the others inspired me. Gwen is out of time, Kalp is lost in the wrong culture, and Basil is a geek among jocks; and yet, somehow, for just a brief moment, they find one another and everything is perfect, and they are exactly where they should be.

Where to buy? 
Kindle edition at $2.99 here.
Trade paperback at here  
If you'd rather buy from a real bookstore, try Powell's here 
Or order it from your friendly nearby bookstore; here's the ISBN: 978-1897492130

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