My First Author Interview

This has been an exciting month for me! My first novel, Cycling to Asylum, was published. (For details on the book and where it can be purchased, visit my Cycling to Asylum page.)

C2A full cover

 

So far, my novel has been reviewed by three publications . You can read these reviews by following the links below:

New Perspectives on Canadian Literature

Capital Literary Review

The Oxytocin Post

I was also interviewed for the first time as an author. I was a little nervous, but it turned out to be a lot of fun, and in the process, I got to meet writer and blogger, Dyane Forde, who lives in my own city of Montréal. The interview is below:

This is a first! An author interview with Su Sokol, an author hailing from my very own city of Montreal. It’s always great to meet new authors, but I have to say connecting with a local writer carries a little something special. I quite enjoyed discovering today’s guest–an activist, lawyer and writer with a warm personality and gift for communicating–I’m sure you will enjoying meeting her as well.

So without further delay, please pull up a seat and make yourself comfortable. It’s time to welcome our guest!

Hello, Su! Can you start by telling us a little about yourself?

I am originally from Brooklyn, and like the family in my novel, my own family immigrated to Montréal largely for political reasons. Happily though, unlike that fictional family, it was not because our lives were in danger. In New York, I worked as a tenants’ rights lawyer. I do similar work now in Montréal as a social rights advocate, only I don’t have to go to court and I get to speak French as well as English. I love cycling, cooking, books, red wine and dark chocolate.

Oh, you had me at red wine and chocolate!

Are you interested in other forms of artistic expression besides writing? Why are you drawn to writing?

I also love music and have sung in a number of choral groups. I’ve played piano, cello, and most recently, I learned to play the glockenspiel for an anarchist marching band. I also enjoy visual art, theatre and dance, cooking, and gardening. Yet, aside from music, there is no artistic expression that has come close to moving me as much as writing. With words and stories, new worlds can be imagined, populated by characters, events, places, and emotions, and all this can grab hold of your heart and mind and refuse to let go.

Wonderfully put. Such is the magic of storytelling.

What draws you to novel writing? Do you write in other formats? What can you never see yourself writing?

I also love music and have sung in a number of choral groups. I’ve played piano, cello, and most recently, I learned to play the glockenspiel for an anarchist marching band ….

Read the rest of the review here.

What is great about all this is that my book launch hasn’t even happened yet! I am being double-launched, first in Montréal, where I live, and then in New York, Brooklyn to be exact, my city of birth. I am very excited about reading at two fantastic bookstores — Drawn & Quarterly and the Community Bookstore — in front of my friends and other guests My publisher and I are also working to arrange readings in other cities, so stay tuned!

Cycling to Asylum’s first review

A month and a half before the publication date of my novel, and I have my first review! Thank you, Cynthia Cherish Malaran, who wrote this review for Hot Indie News and the Oxytocin Post. It is a thoughtful, interesting response to my story, complete with evocative photos and illustrations. The review begins like this:

“The reason I absolutely enjoy doing book reviews on fiction works is because I get to go on a journey … “

I also love journeys, which is probably why I wrote a story that includes both an actual bicycle trip and a psychological journey. The reviewer also speaks of own experience living in New York City and observing activism. I was touched by how my story found resonance in the reviewer’s own memories and reflections:

“Cycling to Asylum takes place in a New York City of the near future… a New York City that is hostile and authoritarian.”

The reviewer notes that although her current experience of New York is positive, she still has memories of :

” … police tanks in my neighborhood and fires set by squatters just blocks from me as I grew up. I have watched hovering police helicoptors beam lights onto rooftops and into apartments right from my bedroom window. My pupils have seen the riot gear policemen in all public places, from Times Square to Zuccotti Park to right outside the Baskin Robbins ice cream shop that used to be at my corner.”

Here is another excerpt from the review:

“Cycling to Asylum by Su J. Sokol is a four-stringed journey about struggle and freedom told via the lives in a family fleeing from the harsh treatment of a politically troubled New York City, to Montreal, their city of hope. This gripping, yet moderately-paced work of future fantasy writing succeeds in detailing the multi-faceted family dynamic experience that would occur in any relocation situation. Throw in the “lives are in danger” element and you will find yourself turning pages faster than your imagination can keep up.”

Writing Cycling to Asylum was, for me, also type of journey. One of the best things about journeys are the people you meet along the way and with whom you can share stories.

Please read the full review here.

Cycling to Asylum, my first novel, to be published in June!

I am very excited to announce that my first novel, Cycling to Asylum, is scheduled to be published by Deux Voiliers Publishers in June. Here is a description of the story from my publisher’s website:

In a near-future New York subject to an increasingly authoritarian and hostile government, Laek, a non-conformist history teacher, finds that he can no longer hide his radical past. After a brutal confrontation with the NYPD, he flees the United States with Janie, an activist lawyer, and their two kids, Siri and Simon. They cross the border by bicycle into Québec by posing as eco-tourists. In a Montréal that the future has also transformed, the family faces new challenges: convincing the authorities to grant them refugee status and integrating into Québec society. Will they find safety in their new home? Told from the points of view of the four family members, Cycling to Asylum is an unique work of interstitial fiction from an exciting new Montreal author.

I am thrilled to be using cover art created by the very talented Lin-Lin Mao. Here is a little preview of what the front and back of the book will look like, minus text:

fullcover

The book launch has been scheduled for Thursday evening, June 19th, at 7:00 at Drawn & Quarterly, a fabulous venue in Montréal’s own Mile End. Please click here for event details.

I will also be participating in a collective reading during The Magical Evening with Canadian Authors (MECA), on Saturday, June 14th. Details are here.

Stay tuned for news of other related events, hopefully including a New York launch of the novel as well!

 

Review of Journeys in the Winterlands by Dylan Fox, C. Allegra Hawksmoor and John Reppion

WinterlandsBrrr! It’s cold out there! Perfect weather to read Journeys in the Winterlands, an experiment in collective storytelling by Dylan Fox, C. Allegra Hawksmoor and John Reppion. Described as a “snowpocalypse”, it is a dark but beautiful collection of three stories that take place in a post-steampunk apocalypse. You can read my review here in The Future Fire: http://reviews.futurefire.net/2014/02/fox-et-al-journeys-in-winterlands.html

2013 favourite long speculative fiction reads: The Steerswoman by Rosemary Kirstein, Swordspoint by Ellen Kushner, and Salsa Nocturna by Daniel José Older

Although I read a wide diversity of literature, I have a special love for speculative fiction. I’ve recently been reading mostly short stories in this genre, but there’s nothing like long fiction to satisfy the urge to jump into a different world and stay there for a while. With 2014 around the corner, I’d like to mention three books that I read this year and especially loved. They are The Steerswoman by Rosemary Kirstein, Swordspoint by Ellen Kushner, and Salsa Nocturna by Daniel José Older. Each book is from a different speculative fiction sub-genre.

Rosemary Kirstein’s The Steerswoman is something between science fiction and fantasy. It tells the story of Rowan, a steerswoman who sets out on a quest. Steerswomen (and steersmen — there are a few of those too) are seekers of knowledge. These types of characters in science fiction are usually likeable since writers and readers in this genre tend to be sympathetic to the idea that knowledge and activities designed to increase knowledge should be prioritized in our society. Rowan is a particularly satisfying protagonist– intelligent, exacting, competent and with a quiet dignity and integrity. Our respect for her grows as we watch her proceed with methodical, clear-headed logic which ultimately leads to her decision to sacrifice her own comfort and safety to find the answers to certain important questions. Steerswomen, by their creed, are required to answer any question that is put to them. I love this idea, which combines the value of freely sharing knowledge with the importance of telling the truth. When Rowan pairs up with another women — an outlander warrior with a very different background and personality — the fun has only begun. It’s such a pleasure to read intelligent science fiction/fantasy containing strong, interesting and believable female lead characters who effortlessly smash stereotypes and overused tropes.

Ellen Kushner’s Swordspoint lets you know from the very first page that what you are about to read is going to break rules and shift paradigms. In fact, if I understand correctly, this story birthed its very own subgenre:  mannerpunk. Part of what we find in this tale are things we’ve seen before: dukes and nobles and common folk, wealth and poverty, balls and plays, intrigue, murder and politics — and Kushner does all of this very well, but with her own twists. On top of all that, we’re treated to a story of love, art and scholarship. The main characters are Richard St. Vier, a swordsman, and Alec, a student with a mysterious background — but beware, these are not your mundane swordsmen and students. Like everyone is this world, these titles come with very particular expectations and rules. This, in part, is where the mannerpunk comes in. Beware as well if you are expecting a story that is heteronormative. It’s also not a warm and fuzzy tale — both main characters can be quite bloody minded. What we do get is a story that’s both tender and intense, and Kushner manages to pull this off with an economy of language that’s astonishing. I rarely read books twice but I did in this case. The first time, I enjoyed the story, the second time enjoyed the details, the nuance and the language.

I read Salsa Nocturna because I’d already read Daniel José Older’s stand-alone story, “Skin like Porcelain Death” and wanted more. I was not disappointed. Salsa Nocturna is a set of related short stories which fit together so well that there’s the same feeling of cohesiveness and completion you get with a novel. In addition, I didn’t have the problem I sometimes have with short story collections where it takes me a certain amount of time to get into each story. There’s no down time here — Older had me nicely buzzing along from each first sentence. Horror is not a genre I usually read, although I would probably characterize these stories as a horror/urban fantasy hybrid (and I do read urban fantasy). Whatever the genre, four things makes these stories unforgettable: the voice, the authenticity and complete believability of the characters (especially impressive in horror and fantasy), the warm feeling of community that Older is able to create almost instantly, and the voice. Did I mention the voice? On a personal note, as a Brooklyn expatriate living in Montréal, Salsa Nocturna tugs at my tender feelings for my hometown, particularly for certain neighbourhoods where I’d worked for many years. He manages to create a place that is utterly familiar and fill it with ghosts, half-dead creatures and paranormal activity, and then shows us a supernatural hierarchy and bureaucracy which brings us back again to the utterly familiar. I will never look at my city of birth in the same way again.

Publication announcement and writing between genres

I am happy to announce that I sold another short story. It will hopefully see the light of day in January, but stay tuned for more concrete news closer to the date. What I can say right now is that the story is to be published by Spark, a creative anthology that prides itself on going against established practice by publishing a mixture of different genres. This seems to be a good fit for me since my first published short story was described in a review as being “interstitial”: falling between accepted genres.

In fact, most of the fiction I write does not fit neatly within any one genre. This can make finding an appropriate market or publisher a particular challenge. Yet, it seems to me that genre, like gender, can frequently be fluid. Gone are the days — if there ever were such days — when you could take any book and confidently place it on the appropriate shelf. Science fiction, fantasy, mystery, magic realism, romance, YA, NA, psychological thriller, political saga, family drama… There are so many books out there that are genre mashers or defy any of these categories.

And then there is the category known as literary fiction — the genre thought of as “non-genre.” I think of a story that friend told me about when she worked in a bookstore and her boss was angry with her for having placed an Ursula K. Le Guin novel in the science fiction section rather than in the shelves reserved for literary fiction. As a big Ursula Le Guin fan, I could see this as complimentary; as a reader of science fiction, it is rather insulting. Is the fact that Ursula Le Guin novels are beautifully written mean that they are not science fiction? Of course Le Guin writes science fiction, she just writes it really, really well — as do many others. If a story presents characters who are realistic and act out of profound and complex motivations, if it takes on important and weighty themes, if it addresses social and political subjects of universal importance, if the writing style is elegant or lyrical, layered or experimental, or strong and clear: is that what makes something literary? What if a writer does all that within a story that fits within one or more of the traditional genre categories?

I have never been able to properly understand or accept the literary/genre binary. I have reasons for loving speculative fiction and these reasons are similar to the reasons that I love literature from cultures and societies other than my own; stories that focus on children, outsiders and underdogs; stories that explore unorthodoxy; and anything that stretches my mind and presents alternative ways of thinking or being. At the same time, for me to enjoy them, these stories must also be well-written, have good character development and touch on important ideas. And complexity? Complexity is a good thing. Ironically, it is the question of complexity that causes me to reject the kind of binary thinking that is behind the literary/genre division.

Review of the novel “In Retrospect” by Ellen Larson

The publisher identifies Ellen Larson’s novel In Retrospect as a dystopian murder mystery, but it could also be described it as a post-apocalyptic, post-colonial time travel whodunit. Living up to the demands of each of these sub-genres is an ambitious undertaking. Its success or failure lies in how the story, with all of its themes and elements, does or does not hold together. Efficient storytelling and strong (if occasionally stock) characters make this a very promising start, but the world-building is sometimes lacking in the details. As a novel this ultimately satisfies, despite some flaws.

Read full review here: http://reviews.futurefire.net/2013/09/larson-in-retrospect.html

Review of “The Boy Who Cast No Shadow” by Thomas Olde Heuvelt

“The Boy Who Cast No Shadow” by Thomas Olde Heuvelt is, as the title indicates, the story of a boy whose physical form doesn’t cast a shadow. Not only that, but like vampires of certain legends, he also has no reflection. This condition causes some practical difficulties. For example, the boy (whose name is Look) can’t use a mirror to fix his hair, can’t be photographed or seen on TV, and more basically, he can’t see what he looks like. Yet, for Look, the problem seems more existential. When a classmate taunts him, telling him that without a reflection he doesn’t actually exist, it’s clear that he’s tapped into one of Look’s real preoccupations.

A new boy arrives in Look’s class — Splinter — and he’s made of glass. At first, Look wants nothing to do with this other freak of nature, but eventually they become friends. The day-to-day problems stemming from Splinter’s condition are more obviously serious, including a lack of flexibility in his limbs and an overall dangerous fragility. With Splinter as well, there is also an existential component. As Look explains: Polished, he was a perfect mirror… how could he ever discover himself when all he saw in his skin was the outside world reflected?

The strange conditions of these two boys are described with a generous amount of pseudo-scientific detail. The glass body syndrome is said to run in families, although the boy who casts no shadow is more of an anomaly.  Despite Olde Heuvelt’s attempt to integrate the existence of these physically bizarre boys into the real world, it may not be easy for readers to suspend disbelief. Both conditions seem absurd, as was the case with Joe Hill’s inflatable boy in the story “Pop Art”, to which Olde Heuvelt is paying homage. Of course, these conditions have symbolic significance, which give meaning and depth to the tale. Nevertheless, at least for this reader, the moments when the metaphors resonated most strongly were also the moments that most pulled me out of the story.

Despite this small criticism, the novelette succeeds on many different levels. This is, first and foremost, a tale about difference and how it is treated (or, rather, mistreated) by society. Adding to the strength of the story is that Olde Heuvel takes an intersectional approach, for the boy who casts no shadow is also gay.

Another important issue in the story is the struggle to be seen for who you are and to see yourself truly. Look’s inability to glimpse his own reflection or to even have a reflection brings to mind the difficulties of only valuing yourself in relation to how you are valued by others, particularly in a society whose majority values may be shallow and conformist. That the main characters are adolescents adds a poignant weight to this issue, particularly in a world where suicide is one of the leading causes of death for 14 – 18-year-olds in many countries, particularly for boys and even more so for QUILTBAG youth.

For Look, a boy with no reflection, it takes a boy who is all reflection to put his problems into perspective. As he notes: At our age you think the depths of your own hell are the darkest. Splinter proved it could be worse. A little self-reflection aint a bad thing. At the same time, Splinter appreciates Look because he is the only one who regards Splinter’s mirrored surface and sees Splinter rather than his own reflection.

Because Splinter’s fragility puts him in constant mortal danger, his parents are extremely protective, literally wrapping him in lawyers of protective material. Splinter is desperate to experience life — to touch and be touched, to directly sense the world. In reference to this, Look notes, When your parents treat you like you’re made of glass, it leaves permanent damage. Inevitably, the boys run off on an adventure together. For one of them, it is to discover life, for the other, it is to discover himself.

What brings this story together is the the strength and authenticity of the voice of the young narrator.

In the beginning of the story, Look tells us that he has no feelings, no friends and no imagination. I lack a goal. I lack depth. Like I care. Later on, when Splinter is being victimized at school, Look candidly admits that he was glad it wasn’t him. This precocious cynicism feels well-earned, and because Look grows and matures in the story, it ultimately adds to our sympathies for the character. It also camouflages an emerging thoughtful adult. Later in the story, Look tells us: Time has taught me that we live in a world… that thrives on the destruction of its rare wonders and where people live under a blanket of smog, the stench of sameness. 

The narrator also has an eye for beauty, as when he and Splinter are sitting by the ocean watching their playing cards blow away: Without a word, we watched hearts, diamonds, clubs and spades flutter to the west. The low sun transformed the ocean into a bright, orange mirror.

This is a moving story, but it is told by our adolescent narrator without a drop of sentimentality. This not only lends authenticity to Look’s voice but gives the story a clean sharpness. Because of this, when, at the end, the emotional payoff arrives, the reader is not left feeling manipulated.

“The Boy Who Cast No Shadow” is a coming of age story that is both a tragedy and a triumph, elucidating the problem of how society treats difference and showing us a pathway through which is unique and strangely beautiful.

Review of “Skin Like Porcelain Death” by Daniel José Older

“Skin Like Porcelain Death” by Daniel José Older

The problem with writing a review of Daniel José Older’s “Skin Like Porcelain Death” is that the voice in this story is so strong, so good, so wise and so funny, I don’t really much care what the story is about. It’s like, just keep talking DJO, I’m right there with you.

Maybe I’m exaggerating. I probably wouldn’t have enjoyed the read if the story had really sucked, and it didn’t, but on the other hand, the basic plot was not particularly original or interesting: Some dried up, heartless, evil old woman is luring (or using other women to lure) men in through their “wiles” and then stealing their souls (and putting them in porcelain dolls.) How is she able to do this? Why does this make her feel less lonely? Don’t know. Don’t care. We’ve seen this trope and we’re ready to accept it at face value. It doesn’t bother me in part because the way the story is packaged makes it feel the opposite of old and stale, and in part because the stealing of souls thing is not what this story is really about anyway. What it’s really about (in my opinion) is family, friends, community and continuity. And being of use, whatever you have to bring. In this case, the main character, Carlos, is half dead and half alive, which poses some challenges but also has some advantages in being able to help with a supernatural-type problem. This is probably why Carlos’s friend Victor asks him to help his teenaged cousin Jimmy, who’s in danger because Jimmy’s girlfriend is the soul-stealer’s granddaughter.

So what does it mean to be half dead and half alive? Some text from Older’s story might, if not explain this, explain why we’re ready buy whatever it is he’s selling:

    “You’re dead, right, Carlos?”

    I roll my eyes. We’ve half-stepped this conversation so many times and I’m tired of tiptoeing.

    “I’m partly dead.”

    “Right, whatever, you’re deadish.”

    The difference means nothing to him and I have to remind myself it’s only ’cause he doesn’t know any fully dead people. I deal with their chilly, translucent asses all the time.

Or later in the text when Carlo’s friend and partner Riley, who is fully a ghost, mouths off to some impolite elderly spirit watching them:

    “He’s either/or, abuelo, walk the eff along.” If nothing else, it’s good to have crude friends to stand up for you even when you don’t really need them to.

Yeah, it sure is.

I also love this story because of its New York City feel, like the descriptions of Marcus Garvey Park and of getting to Staten Island, where “… that damn ferry goes from occasional to barely-ever after midnight.” I admit that as a New Yorker who moved to Montréal some years ago, I can get kind of nostalgic, but only with accurate and unsentimental portrayals like Older’s. I also love the teenager dialogue, and how Older makes me feel a tenderness towards the six and a half foot kid who actually reminds me of someone in my own family.

There are also things that I didn’t like. Well, yeah, the old soul-stealing bitter old lady trope and the fact that the women in the story could have been more fully developed. At the same time, I did love the sensitivity of the main character and how the emotions of these guys are expressed in a succinct but touching way. My only other criticism is using American Girl dolls as imagery since they are so-not-porcelain. Still, I’m glad they were mentioned in the story because I have always had a pet peeve with those dolls — how they’re supposed to be multi-racial but all have the same features.

It’s clear that this story is part of a longer work. There is too much world-building that doesn’t get used much for it to be otherwise. Ordinarily this would bother me except that the story has a real and satisfying ending, and can therefore stand alone quite nicely. It is an ending that confirms the strength of this story as an expression of the connections between people, no matter how unusual or seemingly tenuous.

Some thoughts on writing reviews

I recently attended a workshop on the role of the critic. There was a moderator (male) and three panelists (two male and one female.) The moderator asked different questions of each panelist to initiate discussion concerning why criticism (of literature, poetry, music) is important and what role it should play. A number of different theories were presented, an even greater number ignored, but all and all it was interesting.

At some point, the moderator talked to the female panelist about how difficult it can be to hire women who are interested in writing reviews, particularly if they might be called upon to review something that they didn’t like. The woman panelist seemed taken aback by this comment wondering, as I and probably most of the women in the audience were, how difficult it could really be to find women who would enthusiastically agree to be in a position of professionally reviewing literature. On the other hand, the woman on the panel had already presented her theory on giving negative feedback in a way that isn’t vicious or cutting, explaining why she believes that this is more useful both to the writer and to the literary community. For this reason, she wasn’t about to contradict the moderator’s observation that some women are not comfortable slamming other people’s work. Of course, this is not really the role of the critic anyway.

Towards the end of the workshop, this same female panelist observed that throughout the presentation, she had repeatedly been the last one to be called upon to speak or answer questions. She did this in a fairly non-adversarial way, allowing that it was perhaps partially her own fault for not being more assertive. I thought bullshit to myself, but OK, this way it was a discussion instead of a shouting match. Hmm, point taken.

Now that I have decided to write reviews of speculative fiction for my website, I have noticed that I find myself writing positive reviews. Why? Because I am not really interested in writing about stories that I don’t like — it’s reading something that moves or impresses me that motivates me to write about it in the first place. This is not to say that I would never want to write a negative review or critique, but I would be more apt to do that in the case of a piece of fiction that was getting a lot of attention. In such a case, why I didn’t like it could be of more interest. I also have no problem including my thoughts on what I saw as weaknesses in a story or book that I thought was generally good.

All of which is to say, the reason the reviews that you will read here are generally positive is not because I like everything I read. It’s just that I have chosen to write about the things that I think are good so that others might decide to read and perhaps enjoy these stories too.