Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘The Whale God

The oblique angle

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Illustration for "The Whale God" by Vincent DiFate

On Friday, I’ll be reading at an event sponsored by the Chicago Writers Conference, titled “A Celebration of Asian-American Writers in Chicago,” with authors Nami Mun, Vu Tran, and Wailin Wong. (If that third name sounds a little familiar, it’s because Wailin and I are married, which marks the first and only time I’ve felt like part of a literary power couple.) The reading is timed to coincide with Asian Pacific Heritage Month, and while I’m pleased to be included, I’ve also found myself reflecting on the role that my background has played, if any, in my work. As I’ve mentioned here before, I’m multiracial—half Chinese, the rest Finnish and Estonian—and my track record of tackling Asian themes in my own writing is a mixed one. Two of my short stories, “Kawataro” and “The Whale God,” address such issues directly, the former in Japan, the latter in Vietnam, but my novels prefer to engage the subject from an angle, using Russia as a canvas for exploring the conflict between eastern and western cultures. In a way, the figure of the Scythian or Khazar is simply a translation of my life story into geographical terms: I’m not from the steppes, but I’m fascinated by places in which that collision has shaped entire civilizations, rather than individual lives.

Really, though, when you look at my writing as a whole, a very small percentage is devoted to themes that can be traced back to issues of identity. And I’ve spent a long time wondering why. Part of it has to do with the nature of being multiracial: you’re left to figure out a lot of important things for yourself, and it’s hard to commit yourself entirely to one side or another. Another element is purely personal: as a writer, I’ve always placed a premium on detachment, and I continue to feel that I do my best work when I can regard it with some objectivity. Autobiographical writing has never held much appeal for me; you end up so close to the material—a danger for any kind of writing whatsoever—that you’re unable to judge it with the coldness that good writing demands. And the rest may just be an accident. What catches your interest as a writer, not to mention what gets published, is largely a matter of chance, and quirks of timing and process yield patterns that may or may not be meaningful. Whenever I end up writing about Asian themes, it’s because the story demands it, not because I set out with such intentions in mind. “Kawataro” was a scientific puzzle I had to solve, and the answer turned out to be in Japan; “The Whale God” took place in Vietnam for similar reasons, although I briefly pursued the idea of setting it in Greenland.

Mind maps for the story "Kawataro"

Yet none of these explanations get at the crucial point, which I can only describe as an intuition—which is visible throughout my work—that the best way to approach any subject of great personal importance is through an indirect route. In The Spooky Art, Norman Mailer makes a similar point, although in a very different context, in talking about writers who lived through September 11:

There must be five hundred young writers in New York who had a day of experience that was incomparable—nothing remotely like that had ever happened before in their lives. And it’s likely that some extraordinary work will come out of it. Hopefully, not all of it about 9/11. If you never write about 9/11 but were in the vicinity that day, you could conceivably, in time to come, describe a battle in a medieval war and provide a real sense of such a lost event. You could do a horror tale or an account of a plague. Or write about the sudden death of a beloved. Or a march of refugees. All kinds of scenes and situations and derive ultimately from 9/11. What won’t always work is to go at it directly. That kind of writing can be exhausted quickly. And the temptation to drive in head-on is, of course, immense—the event was so traumatic to so many.

And while the problem of dealing with one’s background may seem to have little in common with a single day of indescribable trauma, the underlying point is the same. If a writer is a machine for making choices, the most interesting decisions tend to emerge from a transmutation of the underlying material, until the original source becomes unrecognizable. I don’t always identify as an Asian-American writer, or even as a Eurasian one, but the themes that I revisit repeatedly—the idea of the world as a puzzle to be solved, the search for patterns in a mass of data, the extent to which we’re able to be free creators of ourselves—certainly arise from the problems I’ve mulled over in my own life. Most authors tend to define themselves in terms of their own otherness, and if nothing else, the choice to become a writer at all provides enough otherness for a lifetime of stories. The trick, I’ve come to believe, is to treat that sense of difference as an excuse to seek out the untold, the unknown, and the unrepresented wherever we find it, even if it wears a face nothing like our own. On the surface, it may seem that we’re exploring lives that have nothing to do with us. But it’s that oblique angle, or the approach from the unexpected direction, that guarantees that we’ll have been talking about ourselves all along.

Written by nevalalee

April 28, 2015 at 9:26 am

Discovering the “Cryptids,” Part 1

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The author's notes for "Cryptids"

Note: For the next three days, I’ll be discussing the origins of my novelette “Cryptids,” which appears on the cover of the May 2014 issue of Analog Science Fiction and Fact. The issue should still be available on newsstands, and you can also pick up an online copy here. Needless to say, considerable spoilers follow.

A reader encountering “Cryptids” for the first time, or even just glancing at the cover art, might assume that I set out to write a story about venomous flying dinosaurs—which, granted, is a pretty cool concept, and just the kind of thing you’d expect to grab a writer’s attention. In fact, the dromaeosaurs didn’t enter my mind at all until I’d spent a lot of time speculating about the material that takes up the first half of the plot. It would be an exaggeration to say that the cryptids took both me and my characters by surprise, but the story behind this particular novelette is a useful illustration of how quickly an idea can move in unexpected directions. I’ve noted elsewhere how the urge to write a story often precedes the story itself, on both the largest and the smallest scales. Long before I knew what my first novel would be about, I knew that I wanted to be a writer of some kind: tackling a project of that size is so daunting that it requires a critical mass of existing ambition before most of us can even contemplate it. The same holds true for individual projects. Speaking from my own experience, a writer will sometimes start working on a story because he misses the act of writing itself; because he has some free time available; or because it’s been a while since he last got something published. And once that urge is there, it’s only a matter of finding a promising bit of material to which all those energies can be harnessed.

Looking back at my notes for “Cryptids,” which date back to last May, I see that I was even less certain than usual of what story I would end up writing. In my writer’s journal, there are brief synopses of three possible plots, all of them radically different. “Plot” is actually too generous a term: they’re barely even premises, more like avenues for further exploration. For the sake of the historical record, I’ll give them here, exactly how I jotted them down:

  1. Bug hunt—Pharma company searches for insects in Indonesia—looking to screen plants for possible drug applications
  2. Volcanos—Search for mammoth remains in Alaska coincides with a volcanic eruption
  3. Blindness—Man has vision restored but can’t process images properly—leads to unexpected complications—patterns of migratory birds provide insight

At a glance, none of these story prompts seems much more promising than any other, and it’s only by chance that I ended up going with the first, which changed a great deal in its own right before I was done. I may end up going back to one of the others someday, and if I don’t have any qualms about sharing them here, it’s only because I know that the story you or any other writer would write based on a hint like this would have nothing in common with what I might do with it. (I don’t even think I’d end up with the same story twice if I attacked these ideas under different circumstances.)

The author's notes for "Cryptids"

In the end, I ended up diving deeper into the idea that I called “Bug Hunt,” and in fact, that’s the name under which it originally appeared in my notes. I was inspired by an article I’d read about a real pharmaceutical company, Entomed, which is systematically screening insects from ecosystems across the world in search of potential drug applications. Although this sort of thing gets fuzzy over time, I’m pretty sure I was drawn to this idea because it naturally suggested a clothesline on which I could hang a story: a search for a MacGuffin in the form of a valuable insect, preferably in an interesting and dangerous part of the world, is the kind of versatile structure that I could use to tell any number of stories. It didn’t hurt that years ago, in college, I’d written a long story about ethnobotany in the Amazon rain forest, and I still remembered a lot of the underlying material. Still, this didn’t tell me much about what kind of story this was, who the characters were, or what would happen to them. The problem was to narrow down the range of possibilities, and in most of my own work, the crucial element is setting. A story like “Kawataro” or “The Whale God” could have been set nearly anywhere, and when I worked backward from the pieces I already had to end up in Japan or Vietnam, it locked the rest of the narrative into place.

With “Cryptids,” the premise I had in mind set certain constraints on the setting I could use. Logically, it would need to be a location of high biodiversity, which is where the attention of a drug development company would naturally be drawn, and this generally means an underdeveloped country or region with lots of undescribed species, which from a narrative perspective seemed likely to generate some interesting plot points. Beyond that, however, it could be any number of places. Amazonia was an obvious choice, and I already had a lot of research at my fingertips from my earlier story on the subject, but I didn’t really feel like going that route again. My initial impulse, as my notes indicate, was to set the story in Indonesia, both because it met all of the pragmatic requirements and because I hadn’t often seen it used as a setting in science fiction. I spent some time working up a story with Indonesia in mind, focusing on subjects, like traditional black magic, that I intuitively thought I could use. I uncovered some promising material, and I wouldn’t rule out a fictional visit to Indonesia at some point in the future. At some point, though, I began to feel that I was covering ground that I’d explored elsewhere, particularly in “Kawataro,” and as I continued to dig, I made a discovery that caused me to shift my attention abruptly to Papua New Guinea. How I ended up there, and how I found a particular cryptid waiting for me, will be the subject of tomorrow’s post.

Written by nevalalee

March 24, 2014 at 9:48 am

Presenting “The Whale God”

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The September 2013 issue of Analog Science Fiction and Fact

Over the weekend, I was delighted to learn that my novelette “The Whale God” had been named to the Locus Recommended Reading List for 2013. In the ten years since my first story appeared in Analog, this is only the second time I’ve appeared on the list—the other time was two years ago for “The Boneless One”—so making the cut this time around is a real cause for celebration. Stories here are automatically included on the ballot for the upcoming Locus Awards, and although I’d welcome any votes, I’m aware that I’m up against some stiff competition: the other authors in the novelette category include such luminaries as Neal Stephenson, Zadie Smith, and Neil Gaiman, as well as countless other excellent writers in the field. Needless to say, it’s a thrill to find myself in such good company, and I’m grateful as always for the recognition.

And as I’ve done in the past, I’m pleased to be able to post “The Whale God” on this blog in its entirety—you can read the whole thing here. (Later, if you’re curious about the story’s origins, I’ve discussed this elsewhere in possibly excessive detail.) When you finish a story, you don’t know what its reception will be, or even if it will ever get published in the first place, and in fact, this turned out to be a slightly divisive novelette among certain readers. Still, it is science fiction, however unlikely the setting, and if it looks a little out of place in the pages of a magazine like Analog, that’s because it’s the only kind of story I know how to write. That said, plenty of other readers seemed to like it just fine, and to my own eyes, it’s one of the two or three best stories I’ve written. Please check it out if you’re interested, and if you do, I hope you enjoy your trip to Phan Thiet. There are some strange things happening down on the beach…

Written by nevalalee

February 3, 2014 at 9:36 am

Is this really science fiction?

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Illustration for "The Whale God" by Vincent DiFate

Like most writers, I take an interest in the responses to my work. Since “The Whale God” was published this month in Analog, it’s been reviewed at a handful of professional or semiprofessional review sites, as well as on a number of blogs written by fans. Most of the reviews have been respectful and positive, but I’ve also seen a familiar theme recur even in the ones that liked the story, and especially in the ones that didn’t: they don’t think “The Whale God” is really science fiction, or if it is, it just barely qualifies. At this point, I’m no longer surprised by the reaction, which I’ve seen for every short story I’ve published in the last few years. I don’t agree with the assessment, but it does give me pause. I’ve said more than once that I try to write stories that other readers will enjoy, but it looks increasingly as if my work doesn’t quite fit with what many Analog subscribers are expecting. And it isn’t because I’m pushing the boundaries of the medium: there are countless other writers whose work is more innovative and challenging than what I happen to write.

First, let’s deal with the question of whether these stories are science fiction at all. In the past, I’ve tried to come up with a definition of science fiction broad enough to encompass my work, but the best is probably the one in Analog’s own guidelines for submission:

Basically, we publish science fiction stories. That is, stories in which some aspect of future science or technology is so integral to the plot that, if that aspect were removed, the story would collapse. Try to picture Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein without the science and you’ll see what I mean. No story!

In most respects, my stories fit comfortably within that rubric, except for one sticking point: the word “future.” All of my stories take place in the present, or in the recent past, and they’re often less about future science than about speculative combinations or consequences of the science we know now. In my story “Kawataro,” for instance, I introduce what seems like a mythical creature in a village of the deaf in Japan, and I then suggest that both the creature and the deafness might have arisen from a previously undiagnosed genetic syndrome. Each piece is real, but combined in a highly speculative way, and the result is pure fiction.

"Kawataro" in Analog Science Fiction and Fact (June 2011)

That’s where the “future” element subtly comes into play: these stories all describe something that hasn’t happened yet, but could, as long as reader is willing to grant a few basic assumptions. The same is true of “The Whale God,” despite its period setting. The psy-ops program I describe never really existed, although it’s in line with similar research that was being done at the time, and although its effects on whales—and humans—are grounded in science, the specifics are entirely speculative. Part of me would like to believe that the result doesn’t seem like science fiction to some readers because the details are convincing, or at least presented with a straight face, which disguises how big of a conceptual jump I’m actually taking. I try to write stories in which the speculative elements shade imperceptibly into the real world, and the division between the two isn’t always clear. This is as much a strategic choice as an artistic one: I’m always concerned that scientifically literate readers will object to my leaps of logic—as many of them did with “The Boneless One”—so I try to disguise the gaps as well as I can. If it works, it’s often because I’ve nudged the odds in my favor, baking the least plausible elements into the premise of the story itself.

And as much as I’d like to write stories that have the look and feel of more traditional science fiction, I’m not sure I can. Science fiction is an incredibly rich field, crammed with talented writers who are better at that kind of story than I could ever be, and I’m happy to stick to my own peculiar niche while leaving the future to others. The few attempts I’ve made at dealing with aliens, for instance, haven’t been all that successful, and whenever I try something more conceptually ambitious, I start to feel a little like the Dean on Community: “Time travel is really hard to write about!” But I know that I can write pretty good stories in my own vein, and a fair number of readers seem to enjoy them. For me, that’s more than enough. I’m writing for others in the only way I know how: by telling stories that have a reasonable hope of living up to my own standards, in as engaging a fashion as I can. The result may look a little strange—or not strange enough—but believe me, they’re better than anything I could cook up if I forced myself to write in a mode that didn’t fit my own tastes and interests. And if readers could tell how speculative these stories really were, I’m not sure they would have gotten published in the first place.

Written by nevalalee

July 11, 2013 at 9:11 am

Inventing “The Whale God,” Part 3

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The September 2013 issue of Analog Science Fiction and Fact

Note: This is part three of a three-part post. For the previous two installments, please see here and here.

Writers fall into formulas for a number of reasons. The obvious motivation is a commercial one: if an editor consistently buys stories that fall into a particular category while remaining indifferent to others, it’s tempting to stick with what worked in the past. Formulas can also arise from a sense of one’s own strengths and limitations. Any story represents a significant investment of time, thought, and energy, and it’s easier to justify the expense—at least in the short term—if it’s directed into a shape that seems likely to generate a pleasing result. In my own work, I’ve been influenced by both factors to various extents. All the stories I’ve sold, either novels or short fiction, were works that I knew were comfortably within my abilities at the time; I’ve rarely tried to write over my own head. And I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t take into account what I knew about the preferences of my editors, even though I’ve never written anything other than something I’d like to read myself.

The trouble, of course, is that a formula repeated for too long starts to grow stale, both for the writer and his readers. One of the challenges I’ve faced in my short fiction is figuring out a way to continue operating in the mode I like—which I enjoy one hell of a lot—while pushing it into new directions at the same time. It’s hard for an author to change his style overnight; instead, you’re more likely to see subtle variations and departures that occur within the realm of the familiar. With “The Whale God,” I was aiming to write a story that worked as the kind of contemporary scientific mystery that I’ve written in the past, while also modulating the action so that it focused more on the protagonist’s internal struggle as he confronts a situation that may be out of his control. I’ve established to my own satisfaction that I know how to write action and violence; I was more curious about whether I could write a war story in which no shots are fired. And the real question was whether the underlying premise was strong enough to sustain the reader’s interest.

Notebook page for "The Whale God"

That’s the nice thing about executing such variations within a structure I know well: once I have an appealing idea that seems reasonably within my wheelhouse, I’m fairly confident in my ability to follow through. You can see this progression clearly in my notes for “The Whale God,” which go from random brainstorming on the first page, much of which was later discarded, to a more systematic list of facts, story beats, and ideas, nearly all of which made it to the final story. On the third page of my notes, there’s an outline of all three acts, and it tracks the finished version remarkably well. I made small adjustments in the detailed outline and rough draft—I moved one ghost sighting from the whale temple to the beach, for instance—but the act breaks and major turning points survived pretty much intact. I like to think I’ve reached a point where any story I write will at least be “a proper song,” to use Stephen Sondheim’s words: it will begin and end in the right place, build properly, and have a few exciting moments. But it’s that initial premise on which it will rise and fall.

Which is why writing a story always remains a bit of a gamble, even once you’ve started to figure out the process. (I’m often reminded of William Goldman’s take on one of his own scripts: “The first draft was proper as hell—you just didn’t give a shit.”) In the case of “The Whale God,” fortunately, the premise was solid enough that Trevor Quachri at Analog liked it just fine. I sent it out at the end of September, and after a slightly longer wait than usual, possibly due to the recent editorial changeover, it was accepted after four months with no changes. Less than five months later, it was on newsstands, with a gorgeous illustration by Vincent DiFate. And I’m very happy with it. Reading it over again, I think it succeeds in drawing the reader along solely through atmosphere, character, and an interesting problem, and although there’s no conventional action or violence, it’s still a solid, shrewdly constructed story. And without my confidence in the rules I’ve established, I’m not sure I would have taken that risk.

Written by nevalalee

July 3, 2013 at 9:06 am

Inventing “The Whale God,” Part 2

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Notebook page for "The Whale God"

Note: This is part two of a three-part post. For the other installments, please see here and here.

If the initial stages of a writing project, as I noted yesterday, are remarkable for all the different directions the plot can take, with its potentialities not yet locked into place and still open to easy revision, there’s an equally fascinating phase in which a handful of  crucial early decisions start to nudge the story into shape. You still have a lot of freedom, but for the first time, you can also start to evaluate specific plot elements more objectively, using a process of elimination based on what you’ve already established. With “The Whale God,” for instance, once I knew that the story would be set during the Vietnam War, a few important details followed almost at once. Since the plot hinged, as usual, on a scientific mystery, I needed a protagonist who knew something about biology and physiology, which suggested to me that he would be an army doctor. And on the same principle that led Alfred Hitchcock to conclude that a movie set in Switzerland had to include the Alps, lakes, and chocolate, I knew that a Vietnam story involving ghost sightings and infrasound would need to engage the legacy of Wandering Soul and similar psychological operations.

At this point, I knew that the story would be set in Vietnam, but didn’t know when or where. Looking back on my notes, I see that I quickly identified several criteria that would allow me to narrow down the possibilities. It would need to be a setting that was historically identified with the Vietnamese whale cult and close to locations where Wandering Soul operations had taken place. Ideally, it would be a region with an American military presence but at some distance from the primary combat zones, since my story would work better in a place where the characters weren’t actively under fire. On a pragmatic level, I also wanted a location for which useful information—memoirs, journalistic accounts, photos, primary documents—was readily available. As I’ve noted before, I try not to spend more than two or three weeks on any one short story, which means that I need to make the research process as efficient as possible, and the choice of one location over another can boil down to finding one really good nonfiction source that will allow me to flesh out the background without a lot of unnecessary digging.

Notebook page for "The Whale God"

I considered several locations, including the Mekong Delta and the McNamara Line at Khe Sanh, but ultimately, I decided to set the story in Phan Thiet. The latter had been a leading candidate from day one, since I knew that it had one of the most famous whale temples in Vietnam, with more than six hundred skeletons, and it met the story’s other requirements. Best of all, there was a trove of useful material available online, including photographs and detailed descriptions of the airstrip at LZ Betty, where my primary characters would be stationed. In theory, I could have invented an imaginary military base and tailored it to my specifications, but I’ve found that the use of real locations, with all their constraints, can be a useful creative tool. I wasn’t able to travel to Vietnam to do research firsthand, but it was still helpful to consult a map of the base and the surrounding region, study pictures of the barracks and hospital, and read accounts of surgeons stationed in the area. I’m always going to get a few things wrong, but I can at least minimize the damage by sticking to the few facts I know, even if they end up invisibly buried within the story itself.

As for when the story would take place, I was constrained by several factors, including the history of Wandering Soul itself, which was active between 1968 and 1970. I had also begun to get a better sense of the story’s themes, which revolved around the unexpected consequences of intervention and how the results of even the most thorough plans can take the participants by surprise. Setting the story on the eve of the Tet Offensive was the next logical step: it fit the timeline, allowed me to incorporate the siege at Khe Sanh into the story, and introduced a useful measure of historical irony for readers who knew what was coming. Once I’d settled on this, I found that I had the major elements of my plot: a time, a place, a protagonist, and a premise with an interesting twist. All that remained was to structure these elements into a story that would sustain the reader’s interest for 10,000 words or more, using the rules of writing that had worked for me in the past. Tomorrow, I’ll go into greater detail about how the final story took shape, as well as my thoughts on the result.

Written by nevalalee

July 2, 2013 at 8:58 am

Inventing “The Whale God,” Part 1

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Notebook page for "The Whale God"

Going back to reread your notes for a story that you’ve since written and published can be a disorienting experience. Once a story is in print, there’s a tendency, even by the author, to see it in a new light: it seems permanent, fixed, inevitable. Over time, you start to forget the long chain of discrete, sometimes arbitrary decisions that shaped the plot along the way, or the fact that it could easily have ended up going in a radically different direction. That’s why it’s worth jotting down a record of your initial thoughts on a potential story, even if you aren’t sure if the project will go anywhere. You’ll probably need to refer to it down the line to remind yourself of why you felt like writing about this idea in the first place, and later on, its record of wrong turns and momentary inspirations can be a rewarding one to revisit. (Incidentally, this is why I always start brainstorming every story on a physical sheet of paper, ideally in a notebook, and I follow Francis Ford Coppola’s advice by writing the date at the top of each page.)

In the case of my novelette “The Whale God,” which ultimately became the cover story for the September 2013 issue of Analog Science Fiction and Fact, the process of working out the bones of the plot took me into some unexpected places. The germ of the story came, as it often does, from an article in a science magazine—in this case, a piece in Discover on whale beachings and their possible connection to sonar. When I came across it, I was systematically looking for ideas, digging through the large pile of magazines that I’ve accumulated over the years for this specific purpose, and I knew at once that this was a subject that I’d enjoy exploring, which is often the crucial first step. At that point, I didn’t know when or where the story would be set, but I wasn’t bothered by this: as I’ve noted before, for a work of speculative fiction, it’s often best to let the setting arise from the problems that the story itself presents, which allows the result to seem logical and organic.

Notebook page for "The Whale God"

My first thought was that it would be a contemporary story set in some interesting region of the world, preferably one that would allow me to incorporate elements of apparent fantasy or mythology that could then be given a scientific rationale. (To the extent that most of the stories I’ve published have a formula, it’s that they initially present fantastic events, then explain them in reasonably plausible scientific terms, which is basically what the The X-Files does in reverse.) Looking back at my notes, I see that I’d originally thought about setting the story in Greenland, which would certainly make for a fascinating location. Later, I was drawn to the potential of Vietnam, which has a thriving whale cult—and a legacy of tales of hungry ghosts—that I knew I could to put to use. In particular, I was intrigued by the possibility of connecting infrasound, with its link to whale beachings, to ghost sightings, which one line of thinking has attributed to low-frequency vibrations and their effect on the human brain and eye.

As soon as I’d gotten this far, however, I ran into a problem that only occurs after you’ve written a handful of stories. In 2011, Analog had published a novelette of mine called “Kawataro,” which had certain similarities to the plot I’d sketched out: it takes place in an East Asian country, centers on elements of local mythology, and ultimately provides a rational explanation for what initially seems like a supernatural event. I didn’t want to repeat myself too blatantly, so I began to consider and discard various options for what became “The Whale God” based on how closely they recalled my previous work, which is something that I suspect many writers need to do, even if they don’t often talk about it. In the end, I decided that the best way to differentiate the two stories would be to give “The Whale God” a period setting, as I’d done with my story “Ernesto.” Tomorrow, I’ll go into more detail about what this involved, and about how I felt when I realized, rather to my surprise, that I was going to write a story set during the Vietnam War.

This is part one of a three-part post. For the next two installments, please see here and here.

Written by nevalalee

July 1, 2013 at 8:54 am

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