Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for the ‘Writing’ Category

A Geodesic Life

with one comment

After three years of work—and more than a few twists and turns—my latest book, Inventor of the Future: The Visionary Life of Buckminster Fuller, is finally here. I think it’s the best thing that I’ve ever done, or at least the one book that I’m proudest to have written. After last week’s writeup in The Economist, a nice review ran this morning in the New York Times, which is a dream come true, and you can check out excerpts today at Fast Company and Slate. (At least one more should be running this weekend in The Daily Beast.) If you want to hear more about it from me, I’m doing a virtual event today sponsored by the Buckminster Fuller Institute, and on Saturday August 13, I’ll be holding a discussion at the Oak Park Public Library with Sarah Holian of the Frank Lloyd Wright Trust, which will be also be available to view online. There’s a lot more to say here, and I expect to keep talking about Fuller for the rest of my life, but for now, I’m just delighted and relieved to see it out in the world at last.

Running it up the flagpole

with one comment

Two months ago, I was browsing Reddit when I stumbled across a post that said: “TIL that the current American Flag design originated as a school project from Robert G Heft, who received a B- for lack of originality, yet was promised an A if he successfully got it selected as the national flag. The design was later chosen by President Eisenhower for the national flag of the US.” After I read the submission, which received more than 21,000 upvotes, I was skeptical enough of the story to dig deeper. The result is my article “False Flag,” which appeared today in Slate. I won’t spoil it here, but rest assured that it’s a wild ride, complete with excursions into newspaper archives, government documents, and the world of vexillology, or flag studies. It’s probably my most surprising discovery in a lifetime of looking into unlikely subjects, and I have a hunch that there might be even more to come. I hope you’ll check it out.

Written by nevalalee

June 30, 2022 at 4:49 pm

Posted in Writing

Tagged with , , ,

Inventing the future

with 8 comments

I realize that I’m well overdue for an update on my new book, Inventor of the Future: The Visionary Life of Buckminster Fuller, which is scheduled to be published by Dey Street Books / HarperCollins on August 2. Yesterday, I delivered my revisions to the copy edit, so I’ve essentially reached the end of a process that has lasted three long and challenging years. The result, I think, is the best thing I’ve ever done. It’s a big book—over six hundred pages including the back matter and index—but Fuller more than justifies it, and I hope that it will appeal to both his existing admirers and readers who are encountering him for the first time. (Even if you’re an obsessive Fuller fan, I can guarantee that there’s a lot here that you haven’t seen before.) I’m also delighted by the cover, which features a remarkable portrait of Fuller by Richard Avedon that has rarely been reproduced elsewhere. Obviously, I’ll have a lot more to say about this over the next few months, so check back soon for more!

Written by nevalalee

February 9, 2022 at 11:19 am

Allegra Fuller Snyder (1927-2021)

with one comment

I was saddened to learn that Allegra Fuller Snyder passed away last Sunday at the age of 93. Allegra was a remarkable person in her own right—she was a professor emerita at UCLA and a pioneer in the field of dance ethnology—but I got to know her through the life and work of her father, Buckminster Fuller, whose biography I’ve been writing for the last three years. She navigated the challenges of that unusual legacy with intelligence and compassion, and I owe a great deal to her kindness and support. My thoughts are with her loved ones and friends.

Written by nevalalee

July 19, 2021 at 7:23 am

The gigantic problem

with 2 comments

I don’t really have other interests. My interest is in solving the problems presented by writing a book. That’s what stops my brain spinning like a car wheel in the snow, obsessing about nothing. Some people do crossword puzzles to satisfy their need to keep the mind engaged. For me, the absolutely demanding mental test is the desire to get the work right. The crude cliché is that the writer is solving the problem of his life in his books. Not at all. What he’s doing is taking something that interests him in life and then solving the problem of the book—which is, How do you write about this? The engagement is with the problem that the book raises, not with the problems you borrow from living. Those aren’t solved, they are forgotten in the gigantic problem of finding a way of writing about them.

Philip Roth, quoted in Risky Business by Al Alvarez

Written by nevalalee

April 11, 2021 at 8:37 pm

The Singularity is Near

with 2 comments

My latest science fiction story, “Singularity Day,” is currently featured on Curious Fictions, an online publishing platform that allows authors to share their work directly with readers. It was originally written as a submission to the “Op-Eds From the Future” series at the New York Times, which was sadly discontinued earlier this year, but I liked how it turned out—it’s one of my few successful attempts at a short short story—and I decided to release it in this format as a little experiment. It’s a very quick read, and it’s free, so I hope you’ll take a look!

Written by nevalalee

October 18, 2020 at 12:02 pm

The Return of “Retention”

leave a comment »

Back in 2017, the audio anthology series The Outer Reach released an episode based on my dystopian two-person play “Retention,” which was performed by Aparna Nancherla and Echo Kellum. It’s one of my personal favorites of all my work—I talk about its origins here—and I’ve been delighted to see it come back over the last few months in no fewer than three different forms. The original recording, which was behind a paywall for years, is now available to stream for free through the network Maximum Fun. A wonderful new rendition narrated by Jonathan Todd Ross and Catherine Ho is included in my audio short story collection Syndromes. Perhaps best of all, the print adaptation appears in the July/August 2020 issue of Analog Science Fiction & Fact, which is on sale now. Because I’m hard at work on my current book project, this will probably be my last story in Analog for a while, and I can’t think of a better way to close out my recent run than with “Retention.” I’m very proud of all three versions, which interpret the same underlying text with intriguingly varied results, and I hope you’ll check at least one of them out.

Written by nevalalee

July 5, 2020 at 10:47 am

Listening to Syndromes

with one comment

I’m pleased beyond words to announce that my audio short fiction collection Syndromes, which includes all thirteen of my stories from Analog Science Fiction and Fact, has just been released by Recorded Books. (It was originally scheduled to drop in June, but in light of recent developments, it became one of a handful of titles to come out before everything shut down on that end. I’m glad that it managed to appear just under the wire, and I’m especially delighted by the dazzling cover art by Will Lee.) The wonderful narrators Jonathan Todd Ross and Catherine Ho trade reading duties on “Ernesto,” “The Spires,” “The Whale God,” “The Last Resort,” “Kawataro,” “Cryptids,” “The Boneless One,” “Inversus,” “Stonebrood,” “The Voices,” “The Proving Ground,” and “At the Fall,” before joining forces at the end for a new version of my audio play “Retention,” which strikes me as the standout track. Every story has been revised to fit into a single interconnected timeline, which stretches from 1937 through the near future, and even if you’ve read some of them before, you’ll discover a few new surprises. You can purchase it at Amazon or stream it through Audible or Libro.fm, so I hope that some of you will check it out—and let me know what you think!

Written by nevalalee

April 14, 2020 at 9:18 pm

The books and the wall

with 10 comments

Yesterday, I published an essay titled “Asimov’s Empire, Asimov’s Wall” on the website Public Books, in which I discuss Isaac Asimov’s history of groping and engaging in other forms of unwanted touching with women at conventions, in the workplace, and in private over the course of many decades. It’s a piece that I’ve had in mind for a long time, and I’ve come to think of it as a lost chapter of Astounding, which I might well have included in the book if I had delivered the final draft a few months later than I actually did. (I’m also very glad that the article includes the image reproduced above, which I found after going through thousands of photos in the Jay Kay Klein archive.) The response online so far has been overwhelming, including numerous firsthand accounts of his behavior, and I hope it leads to more stories about Asimov, as well as others. There’s a lot that I deliberately didn’t cover here, and it deserves to be taken further in the right hands.

Written by nevalalee

January 8, 2020 at 7:30 am

Notes from all over

with one comment

It’s been a while since I last posted, so I thought I’d quickly run through a few upcoming items. On Saturday June 15, the Gene Siskel Film Center in Chicago will be showing Arwen Curry’s acclaimed new documentary Worlds of Ursula K. Le Guin. After the screening, I’ll be taking part in a discussion panel with Mary Anne Mohanraj and Madhu Dubey to discuss the legacy of Le Guin, whose work increasingly seems to me like the culmination of the main line of science fiction in the United States, even if she doesn’t figure prominently in Astounding. (Which, by the way, is up for a Locus Award, the results of which will be announced at the end of this month.) The next day, on June 16, I’ll be hosting a session of my writing workshop, “Writing Fiction that Sells,” at Mary Anne’s Maram Makerspace in Oak Park. People seem to like the class, which runs from 10:00-11:45 am, and it would be great to see some of you there!

Written by nevalalee

June 10, 2019 at 9:35 am

“At the Fall” and Beyond

leave a comment »

The May/June issue of Analog Science Fiction and Fact includes my new novelette “At the Fall,” a big excerpt of which you can read now on the magazine’s official site. It’s one of my favorite stories that I’ve ever written, and I’m especially pleased by the interior illustration by Eldar Zakirov, pictured above, which you can see in greater detail here. I don’t think I’ll have the chance to write up the kind of extended account of this story’s conception that I’ve provided for other works in the past, but if you’re curious about its origins, Analog has posted a fun conversation on its blog in which I talk about it with Frank Wu, the author of “In the Absence of Instructions to the Contrary,” which appeared in the magazine a few years ago. (Our stories have a number of interesting parallels that only came to light after I wrote and submitted mine, and I think that the result is a nice case study of what happens when two writers end up independently pursuing a similar idea.) There’s also a thoughtful editorial by former Analog editor Stanley Schmidt about his relationship with John W. Campbell, inspired by a panel that we held at last year’s World Science Fiction Convention. Enjoy!

Love and Rockets

with 3 comments

I’m delighted to share the news that Astounding is a 2019 Hugo Award Finalist for Best Related Work, along with a slate of highly deserving nominees. (The other finalists include Archive of Our Own, a project of the Organization for Transformative Works; the documentary The Hobbit Duology by Lindsay Ellis and Angelina Meehan; An Informal History of the Hugos by Jo Walton; The Mexicanx Initiative Experience at Worldcon 76 by Julia Rios, Libia Brenda, Pablo Defendini, and John Picacio; and Conversations on Writing by Ursula K. Le Guin and David Naimon. It’s a strong ballot, and I’m honored to be counted in such good company.) It feels like the high point of a journey that began with an announcement on this blog more than three years ago, and it isn’t over yet—I’m definitely going to be attending the World Science Fiction Convention in Dublin, which runs from August 15 to 19, and while I don’t know what the final outcome will be, I’m grateful to have made it even this far. The Hugos are an important part of the history that this book explores, and I’m thankful for the chance to be even a tiny piece of that story.

Written by nevalalee

April 2, 2019 at 9:01 am

Writing the future in Oak Park

with one comment

I just wanted to mention that there are still a few slots available for a workshop that I’m teaching tomorrow—modestly titled “Writing Science Fiction that Sells”—at the house of my friend Mary Anne Mohanraj in Oak Park, Illinois. Here’s the full description:

Saturday January 26
332 Wisconsin Avenue, Oak Park, IL
9:00-10:30am: Writing Science Fiction that Sells

Science fiction offers a thriving audience for short stories, but it can be hard for beginners to break into professional markets, and even established writers can have trouble making consistent sales. We’ll discuss strategies for writing stories that are compelling from the very first page, based on the principles of effective characterization, plot structure, and worldbuilding, with examples drawn from a wide range of authors and publications. During the class, Alec will plot out the opening of an original SF story, based on ideas generated by participants. Members will also have the option of submitting a short story for critique.

Cost: $50. Registration Max: 15

You can register for the event here. If you use the coupon code “12345,” you can get twenty percent off the registration fee. Hope to see some of you there!

Written by nevalalee

January 25, 2019 at 10:57 am

Posted in Writing

Tagged with ,

The last resolution

with 10 comments

By just about any measure, this was the most rewarding year of my professional life. My group biography Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction was released by HarperCollins in October. I published one novelette, “The Spires,” in Analog, with another, “At the Fall,” scheduled to come out sometime next year. My novella “The Proving Ground” was anthologized and reprinted in several places, including in the final edition of the late Gardner Dozois’s The Year’s Best Science Fiction. I wrote a few new pieces of nonfiction, including an essay on Isaac Asimov and psychohistory for the New York Times, and I saw John W. Campbell’s Frozen Hell, based on the original manuscript of “Who Goes There?” that I rediscovered at Harvard, blow past all expectations on Kickstarter. (The book, which will include introductions by me and Robert Silverberg, is scheduled to appear in June.) My travels brought me to conventions and conferences in San Jose, Chicago, New Orleans, and Boston. Perhaps best of all, I’ve confirmed I’ll be spending the next three years writing the book of my dreams, a big biography of Buckminster Fuller, which is something that I couldn’t have imagined a decade ago. Even as the world falls apart in other ways, I’ve been lucky enough to spend much of my time thinking about what matters most to me, even if it makes me feel like the narrator of Borges’s “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” who continues to work quietly in his hotel room as the civilization around him enters its long night.

In good times and bad, I’ve also found consolation on this blog, where I’ve posted something every day—and I have trouble believing this myself—for more than eight years. (My posts on science fiction alone add up to a longer book than Astounding, and they account for only a fraction of what I’ve written here.) At the moment, however, it doesn’t look like I’ll be able to keep up my streak. I won’t stop posting here entirely, but I can’t maintain the same pace that I have in the past, and I’ve resolved to take an extended break. For a long time, I planned to skip a day without any advance notice, but it seems appropriate for me to step away now, at the end of this very eventful year. I expect that this blog will go silent for a week or two, followed by occasional posts thereafter when anything grabs my attention, and I may well miss my morning routine enough to return eventually to something approximating my old schedule. In the meantime, though, I want to thank everyone who has hung in there, whether you’re a longtime reader or a recent visitor. Eight years ago, I started this blog without any thought about what it might become, but it unexpectedly turned into the place where I’ve tried to figure out what I think and who I am, at least as a writer, during some of the best and worst years of my life. I’m no longer as optimistic as I once was about what comes next, but I’ve managed to become something like the writer I wanted to be. And a lot of it happened right here.

Quote of the Day

leave a comment »

The trouble with most who would write poetry is that they are unwilling to throw their lives away.

Russell Edson, “Portrait of the Writer as a Fat Man”

Written by nevalalee

December 28, 2018 at 7:30 am

The automated and flawless machine

leave a comment »

Our recent poetry is…a poetry in which the poem is considered to be a construction independent of the poet. It is imagined that when the poet says “I” in a poem he does not mean himself, but rather some other person—”the poet”—a dramatic hero. The poem is conceived as a clock which one sets going. The idea encourages the poet to construct automated and flawless machines. Such poems have thousands of intricately moving parts, dozens of iambic belts and pulleys, precision trippers that rhyme at the right moment, lights flashing alternately red and green, steam valves that whistle like birds. This is the admired poem…The great poets of this century have written their poems in exactly the opposite way.

Robert Bly, “A Wrong Turning in American Poetry”

Written by nevalalee

December 23, 2018 at 7:30 am

Across the universe

with one comment

Over the last week, I’ve received a number of inquiries from readers asking whether the material that was cut from Astounding will ever see the light of day. (As I mentioned in a recent post, the original draft of the book was twice as long as what eventually saw print, with the vast majority of the deleted sections relating to the career of John W. Campbell.) I hope to eventually release much of this information in one form or another, but a lot of it has already been published right here on this blog. With that in mind, I’ve expanded my page for science fiction studies—which hadn’t been updated in over a year—with eighty more posts, all of which cover aspects of the genre that I wasn’t able to fit into the book. Some of my personal favorites include my original research on the illustration from Gilbert and Sullivan that inspired the Foundation series; the identity of the mysterious “Empress” who appears repeatedly in the writings of L. Ron Hubbard; Hubbard’s belief that he was the reincarnation of Captain Kidd; the role of the mystic John Cooke in the early days of Scientology and the attempt to levitate the Pentagon; the fact that Steven Spielberg’s father may be the oldest living subscriber to Analog; Isaac Asimov’s lost review of Dianetics; Scientology’s efforts to target people suffering from Lyme disease, Gulf War syndrome, and chronic fatigue syndrome; my discovery of the original draft of Campbell’s “Who Goes There?”; the homoerotic science fiction art of Alejandro Cañedo; the legacy of Nostradamus from Unknown to Orson Welles; the sad case of William H. Sheldon, Walter H. Breen, and Marion Zimmer Bradley; the touch football game that never happened between the FBI and the Church of Scientology; and much more. Happy reading, and I’ll see you again in the new year!

Written by nevalalee

December 21, 2018 at 9:35 am

Updike’s ladder

with one comment

Note: I’m taking the day off, so I’m republishing a post that originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on September 13, 2017.

Last year, the author Anjali Enjeti published an article in The Atlantic titled “Why I’m Still Trying to Get a Book Deal After Ten Years.” If just reading those words makes your palms sweat and puts your heart through a few sympathy palpitations, congratulations—you’re a writer. No matter where you might be in your career, or what length of time you mentally insert into that headline, you can probably relate to what Enjeti writes:

Ten years ago, while sitting at my computer in my sparsely furnished office, I sent my first email to a literary agent. The message included a query letter—a brief synopsis describing the personal-essay collection I’d been working on for the past six years, as well as a short bio about myself. As my third child kicked from inside my pregnant belly, I fantasized about what would come next: a request from the agent to see my book proposal, followed by a dream phone call offering me representation. If all went well, I’d be on my way to becoming a published author by the time my oldest child started first grade.

“Things didn’t go as planned,” Enjeti says dryly, noting that after landing and leaving two agents, she’s been left with six unpublished manuscripts and little else to show for it. She goes on to share the stories of other writers in the same situation, including Michael Bourne of Poets & Writers, who accurately calls the submission process “a slow mauling of my psyche.” And Enjeti wonders: “So after sixteen years of writing books and ten years of failing to find a publisher, why do I keep trying? I ask myself this every day.”

It’s a good question. As it happens, I first encountered her article while reading the authoritative biography Updike by Adam Begley, which chronicles a literary career that amounts to the exact opposite of the ones described above. Begley’s account of John Updike’s first acceptance from The New Yorker—just months after his graduation from Harvard—is like lifestyle porn for writers:

He never forgot the moment when he retrieved the envelope from the mailbox at the end of the drive, the same mailbox that had yielded so many rejection slips, both his and his mother’s: “I felt, standing and reading the good news in the midsummer pink dusk of the stony road beside a field of waving weeds, born as a professional writer.” To extend the metaphor…the actual labor was brief and painless: he passed from unpublished college student to valued contributor in less than two months.

If you’re a writer of any kind, you’re probably biting your hand right now. And I haven’t even gotten to what happened to Updike shortly afterward:

A letter from Katharine White [of The New Yorker] dated September 15, 1954 and addressed to “John H. Updike, General Delivery, Oxford,” proposed that he sign a “first-reading agreement,” a scheme devised for the “most valued and most constant contributors.” Up to this point, he had only one story accepted, along with some light verse. White acknowledged that it was “rather unusual” for the magazine to make this kind of offer to a contributor “of such short standing,” but she and Maxwell and Shawn took into consideration the volume of his submissions…and their overall quality and suitability, and decided that this clever, hard-working young man showed exceptional promise.

Updike was twenty-two years old. Even now, more than half a century later and with his early promise more than fulfilled, it’s hard to read this account without hating him a little. Norman Mailer—whose debut novel, The Naked and the Dead, appeared when he was twenty-five—didn’t pull any punches in “Some Children of the Goddess,” an essay on his contemporaries that was published in Esquire in 1963: “[Updike’s] reputation has traveled in convoy up the Avenue of the Establishment, The New York Times Book Review, blowing sirens like a motorcycle caravan, the professional muse of The New Yorker sitting in the Cadillac, membership cards to the right Fellowships in his pocket.” Even Begley, his biographer, acknowledges the singular nature of his subject’s rise:

It’s worth pausing here to marvel at the unrelieved smoothness of his professional path…Among the other twentieth-century American writers who made a splash before their thirtieth birthday…none piled up accomplishments in as orderly a fashion as Updike, or with as little fuss…This frictionless success has sometimes been held against him. His vast oeuvre materialized with suspiciously little visible effort. Where there’s no struggle, can there be real art? The Romantic notion of the tortured poet has left us with a mild prejudice against the idea of art produced in a calm, rational, workmanlike manner (as he put it, “on a healthy basis of regularity and avoidance of strain”), but that’s precisely how Updike got his start.

Begley doesn’t mention that the phrase “regularity and avoidance of strain” is actually meant to evoke the act of defecation, but even this provides us with an odd picture of writerly contentment. As Dick Hallorann says in The Shining, the best movie about writing ever made: “You got to keep regular, if you want to be happy.”

If there’s a larger theme here, it’s that the sheer productivity and variety of Updike’s career—with its reliable production of uniform hardcover editions over the course of five decades—are inseparable from the “orderly” circumstances of his rise. Updike never lacked a prestigious venue for his talents, which allowed him to focus on being prolific. Writers whose publication history remains volatile and unpredictable, even after they’ve seen print, don’t always have the luxury of being so unruffled, and it can affect their work in ways that are almost subliminal. (A writer can’t survive ten years of chasing after a book deal without spending the entire time convinced that he or she is on the verge of a breakthrough, anticipating an ending that never comes, which may partially account for the prevalence in literary fiction of frustration and unresolved narratives. It also explains why it helps to be privileged enough to fail for years.) The short answer to Begley’s question is that struggle is good for a writer, but so is success, and you take what you can get, even as you’re transformed by it. I think on a monthly basis of what Nicholson Baker writes of Updike in his tribute U and I:

I compared my awkward public self-promotion too with a documentary about Updike that I saw in 1983, I believe, on public TV, in which, in one scene, as the camera follows his climb up a ladder at his mother’s house to put up or take down some storm windows, in the midst of this tricky physical act, he tosses down to us some startlingly lucid little felicity, something about “These small yearly duties which blah blah blah,” and I was stunned to recognize that in Updike we were dealing with a man so naturally verbal that he could write his fucking memoirs on a ladder!

We’re all on that ladder, including Enjeti, who I’m pleased to note finally scored her book deal—she has an essay collection in the works from the University of Georgia Press. Some are on their way up, some are headed down, and some are stuck for years on the same rung. But you never get anywhere if you don’t try to climb.

Quote of the Day

leave a comment »

I had often warned my students not to identify with their work. I told them, “If you want to achieve something, if you want to write a book, paint a picture, be sure that the center of your existence is somewhere else and that it’s solidly grounded; only then will you be able to keep your cool and laugh at the attacks that are bound to come.” I myself had followed this advice in the past, but now I was alone, sick with some unknown affliction; my private life was in a mess, and I was without a defense.

Paul Feyerabend, Killing Time

Written by nevalalee

December 18, 2018 at 7:30 am

Posted in Quote of the Day, Writing

Tagged with

%d bloggers like this: