Heather and Tasha are both storytellers. Both weave tales for their own needs. When meteors fall and humanity is left starving and disoriented, Heather carries on her father’s tradition of telling fairy tales to create a more magical life while Tasha keeps telling others the bigger fairy tale – that they can all survive.
In The Centaur’s Wife, Amanda Leduc reveals the power of storytelling, necessary lies, and complicated truths. She reveals the human need to create stories and the transformative power of the tales we tell. Part apocalyptic fiction, part myth, and part collection of new fairy tales, The Centaur’s Wife demonstrates Leduc’s versatility and brilliance as a storyteller.
The Centaur’s Wife is a tale of the liminal, the between, and not just because centaurs are half human and half horse. Leduc tells a story about outsiders, edgy Others who belong neither completely to one world or another. Leduc reveals the power of not belonging, of existing outside the order imposed by those in power. Her characters question easy categories and simple social structures, revelling in complexities. They disrupt norms and it is through this disruption that they invite in new possibilities.
Earlier this year, I came across a kickstarter that I just had to support. In addition to my work on Speculating Canada, I teach writing classes, so I am always on the lookout for new and exciting ways to teach. I have a particular interest in teaching through games and play. So, when I saw the Kickstarter for The Story Engine by Peter Chiykowski I thought it would be a fun way of engaging my students in another method of storytelling. The Story Engine involves a set of cards that can be used for writing inspiration. They are divided into multiple different types of cards that are meant to be used together: agent cards, engine cards, anchor cards, conflict cards, and aspect cards. Together they make up fundamental parts of a story and allow for the development of writing prompts.
I bought The Story Engine itself as well as the many booster packs that come with it. These include: horror, fantasy, science fiction, eldritch horror, dystopian fiction, post-apocalyptic fiction, mythology, cyberpunk, and steampunk. The booster packs can either be used separately for genre stories or mixed in with the main Story Engine to give different flavours to the original stories.
If you are more of a visual person, each card also comes with an image that can either enhance the language of the card or provide you with some visual inspiration. As someone who collects images for my stories, I thought this was a powerful starter for those who enjoy image-based story development.
I have spent most of the day playing with these various decks in The Story Engine and have found them incredibly fun and a great way to get creative ideas flowing. I think The Story Engine will be a powerful teaching tool, especially around genre fiction and will allow students to engage differently with aspects of the story. The different categories of cards such as agents and engine cards will help students to think about the various aspects of story like characters, motivations, drive, and conflict. The cards also seem like a powerful tool for getting through writer’s block and the playful aspect of it takes off some of the stress associated with being blocked.
I wanted to share some samples of writing prompts that I have created using The Story Engine to illustrate the adaptability and fun of the deck:
– An underworld God wants to save a loved one by using a hardwired cult, but they will likely lose their life.
– A corporate addict wants to gain the power of a gilded drop of blood, but they will lose part of their humanity.
– An arcane teacher wants to stop being haunted by a rave, but they will lose their closest friend.
– An oracle wants to save the world from a protective mecha but it will mean forever living a lie.
For these prompts, I mixed in the booster packs with the original deck and then just drew them at random. It felt like a fun way to develop some strange and unique stories.
With this this series, I am hoping to capture how this cultural moment is affecting our speculative fiction authors and how our authors are surviving during the COVID-19 outbreak
Spec Can: What have you been up to during the COVID-19 outbreak?
Mark Leslie Lefebvre: I’ve actually been re-discovering a creative exercise that I used to formerly use as a writing warm up. Writing parody lyrics to songs and poems. I have always enjoyed the way that such a bit of work forces you to fit something into a forced structure but take the meaning in a new direction. It becomes something with a familiar pattern and sound, but something new. And often, something humorous.
Early on during Covid-19 isolation, my partner Liz and I started creating parody music videos. I’d write the lyrics, then we’d workshop them into something, record the song, and then make a video. We put out “Stuck In This House Here With You” a parody of the old Steelers Wheel classic. But it’s not just a spoof, there’s a ‘story’ in the tale of two people forced into isolation with one another, initially finding the annoying things about it, and one another, then coming to realize how fortunate they both are to be stuck with THAT special other person.
Our second parody video was a compilation of short parodies of Rogers and Parton’s “Islands in the Stream” (Sharing Broadband Streams), Patsy Cline’s “Walking” (I Go Shoppin’), The Carpenters’ “There’s a Kind of Hush” (You Just Need to Hush), and others, done in the style of an old K-Tel commercial.
I then did short dad jokes converted into short films, and a Cheers-parody of me drinking alone in isolation called Mark’s Tavern.
Those exercises helped keep my creative juices flowing, satisfied the part of my soul that yearns to be a storyteller, but then helped re-clear the path to get back into the prose writing that I had initially been having trouble with when the lockdown and isolation from the pandemic first started.
Spec Can: How are you adapting to social distancing?
Mark Leslie Lefebvre: Prior to the social distancing, I spent about 60% of my time working from home anyway, as a writer and a book industry representative. Just under half of my time was spent on the road, traveling to writer conferences, etc. So a lot of that time was spent in airports and hotels.
I do miss the fun of interacting with people in person, with the pleasures that come from exploring different locals, discovering great local micro and craft breweries, etc. So that has been a bit difficult. But I’ve doubled-down on doing virtual interviews with authors, both for my podcast, as well as the regular Draft2Digital live author spotlight interviews I’ve done. I’ve also done live readings and live beer and scotch tastings on my various social media outlets, as well as ongoing dad jokes. Just trying to do my job as a storyteller and entertainer – but that work also, as I mentioned already, reward me intrinsically.
Spec Can: How is the outbreak affecting your writing?
Mark Leslie Lefebvre: Initially, it was stifling. I was feeling blocked and having difficulty focusing on the writing that I figured I would now have time to do – particularly with the cancelation of all the time-consuming travel. But, as I mentioned, I channeled that creativity into lyrics, music, videos, and that helped path the path to get back into writing.
I also looked at a series I had started and planned on working on a while back, my “Canadian Werewolf” novels, and decided it was time to make some forward progress on it. I had the previous two titles, THIS TIME AROUND (a short story), A CANADIAN WEREWOLF IN NEW YORK (a novel), re-branded with a cover designer I’d had, in time for the launch of the next book in that series STOWE AWAY (novella), as well as two other works in that series. I also invested in getting audiobooks out for them. That exercise has re-inspired me to dig back into the writing of those books.
I have also committed to writing another non-fiction book about the business of writing and publishing (WIDE FOR THE WIN in my Stark Publishing Solutions series to join THE 7 P’S OF PUBLISHING SUCCESS, KILLING IT ON KOBO, and AN AUTHOR’S GUIDE TO WORKING WITH LIBRARIES AND BOOKSTORES is slated for release in early 2021), as well as a couple of non-fiction ghost story books that have been on the back-burner for a while.
And I’m sure that the pandemic, in general, will also inform and inspire more works as time goes on. I think that most writers will agree that a good part of what we do is we absorb things around us, re-adapt the things we experience, see, hear, and feel into fiction, into poetry, into other forms of creativity. I look forward to both writing about, and reading what other writers and artists create from this.
Interviewed by Derek Newman-Stille, MA, PhD ABD (They/Them)
Mark Leslie Lefebvre is the author of more than twenty books that include fiction and thrillers, and paranormal non-fiction explorations. He has also edited numerous anthologies. With three decades of experience in bookselling and publishing, Mark is a seasoned and trusted book industry professional who embraces both traditional and indie publishing options. His website is: http://www.markleslie.ca.
I am a child abuse survivor. My biological father beat me throughout my life until my mother, sister, and I were able to escape when I was 15. This may not seem to be related to Star Wars… but it is.
As a child, I read about abuse to try to understand what was happening to me. All of the work that I read suggested that there was a cycle of abuse and that I would inevitably become abusive, just like my biological father.
Star Wars deals with cycles. It is a story about cycles and about breaking cycles and resisting inevitability. This mattered to me as a child, as a youth, and still matters to me. Star Wars offered a glimpse at the potential to break a cycle. It offered a glimpse into possibilities of redemption and resistance. It showed an evil father figure who was able to be redeemed and resist hatred. It showed a son figure who was able to resist becoming what his father was, a son who was able to push back against anger and hatred and become his own person, become something good instead of succumbing to the inevitability of hatred.
Science fiction doesn’t just exist as entertainment and escape. It exists as a way of teaching us lessons through stories. When we think that a future is inevitable, science fiction offers the reminder that the future is a story being told, that it is flexible, and that it is changeable. Science Fiction offers the idea that there are multiple futures out there and that the future can be written, unwritten, and rewritten.
It’s why Sci Fi has been so important to me. It offered a way out. A possibility for a future that wasn’t inevitable, but instead could be changed. This is an important message for someone who is being abused, and an essential reminder for those who are continuing to deal with the repercussions of being abused.
A review of James Alan Gardner’s They Promised Me the Gun Wasn’t Loaded (Tor, 2018).
By Derek Newman-Stille
James Alan Gardner’s They Promised Me the Gun Wasn’t Loaded, a sequel to All Those Explosions Were Someone Else’s Fault, continues his exploration of the superhero. Gardner focusses his narrative on the perspective of another of his superheroes, Jools, whose superhero identity is 99, an homage to Wayne Gretzky. 99 has the ability to be the best in the world at any given profession and has access to all of the knowledge of wikipedia, which she calls her WikiJools ability. Yet Gardner’s heroes are never so simple, and Jools’ incredible ability also contains the potential for her to fall into the mad genius role.
In Gardner’s superhero universe, characters are constrained by story and by superhero tropes. The universe literally shapes people into comic book tropes. Gardner uses this method to examine tropes of superheroes and to complicate them, but, like in most of his narratives, Gardner is most interested in the power of story and the way that stories shape the characters and people that come into contact with them. In having his characters resist the roles their world tries to force on them, Gardner uses these characters to illustrate and complicate those tropes, playing with what it means to be a superhero, a supervillain… or someone who doesn’t want to be either. Characters recognize that certain things will work in their universe primarily because they make a good story.
As much as Gardner is fascinated by the mechanics of the superhero universe, his primary focus is on character and his characters are complex, often coming into conflict with what they think they should or shouldn’t be. Gardner has always been a strong writer of character-centred narratives, and the superhero narrative provides him with a space to examine characters because of the comic narrative of the secret and dual identity. Superheroes already have complicated engagements with identities and made the perfect space to explore the multiplicity of identities people express throughout the day. Jools, a character with self confidence issues, is able to further highlight character complexity as she searches for the real her, the TRUE identity. In They Promised Me the Gun Wasn’t Loaded Jools not only takes on her role as the superhero 99, but also takes on another superhero identity, joining a second superhero group temporarily in order to ponder who she is. Not only does Jools’ identity change with her costumes, she also sees others who exemplify who she could be, watching heroes who are entirely hijacked by their superhero identity and losing themselves in them, and watching a mad scientist at work, exemplifying Jools’ greatest fear about her abilities. Indeed, one character tells her that being a Spark, a superhero, is like an infection and that it changes who one is and overrides their personality in order for them to fit the narrative.
Gardner tells a story of the struggle for identity amidst a changing world, examining the way that people shift and change for different needs. But on an authorial level, he also explores the struggle between character-driven narratives and world-building-focussed narratives. Not only is Gardner telling a powerful story, he is highlighting the nuances of story itself.
A review of Kai Cheng Thom’s Fierce Femmes and Notorious Liars: A Dangerous Trans Girl’s Confabulous Memoir (Metonymy Press, 2016).
By Derek Newman-Stille
Kai Cheng Thom decided to include the word “Memoir” in the title of her book Fierce Femmes and Notorious Liars: A Dangerous Trans Girl’s Confabulous Memoir, yet she also cleverly weaves fantasy elements into her text, telling stories about the death of the last of the mermaids, the mythic First Femme, ghosts, and a magical Trans woman who casts spells on her sisters. She weaves fairy tales into her “memoir”, revealing the problems of Cinderella narratives for Trans women, discussing doctors who are so unlike fairy godmothers (always wanting something in return for their transformations), telling tales of goddesses, escapees from towers that trap them, and the magic of the everyday.
Kai Cheng Thom’s Fierce Femmes and Notorious Liars: A Dangerous Trans Girl’s Confabulous Memoir is meant to complicate the idea of memoir itself, and especially the tropes of the “Trans Girl Memoir”, which is so often about a person discovering that they are Trans, leaving her home and ending up suffering on the street, becoming the victim of abuse. Thom’s Trans memoir is one filled with magic, but it is also about fighting back – about never being a victim and about coming together as a community to protect each other. Her tale evokes the magic of connections with other Femmes.
She tells her tale through prose and poetry, through letters and dramatic scripts, and through sharing the histories of other Trans women on the street (often narrated by someone else). Her narrator is someone who hungers for their stories like we do as the reader, but she also filters those stories through her own knowledge, her own craving for a place to belong and a people to belong with. Yet, despite her craving for belonging, we are told that the narrator is an escape artist, and, perhaps she even escapes from the text in a way, leaping from the simple veracity of the mundane world and into a space where fantasy is a more powerful truth than Truth.
This is not a Trans woman’s memoir. This is a story about stories… about our need for stories. Its a story about the fact that there are stories behind the stories that are told. It is a collection of myths from the street, urban myths. It is a collection of truths. Kai Cheng Thom complicates the idea of Truth in Fierce Femmes and Notorious Liars: A Dangerous Trans Girl’s Confabulous Memoir, teaching us that some fictions speak greater truths than works that claim to be collections of truth. She teaches us that in the act of storytelling, we transform ourselves, and in the act of hearing, we create community. She shares her love of storytelling with us as readers, reminding us that the veracity of a story doesn’t matter so long as it shares and tells us truths about ourselves through the act of reading.
Kai Cheng Thom uses the word “Memoir” in her title to complicate memoirs – to illustrate to us that there are no simple truths and that truths are always shifting, changing, and transforming. She illustrates that life is a fantasy made up of our collective stories interweaving with each other and creating magic.
Thom’s narrator tells us “Someday, I’m going to gather up all of the stories in my head. All the things that happened to me and all the things I wish had happened. I’m going to write them all down one after the other, and I’ll publish a famous best-selling book and let history decide what’s real and what’s not.” This is a tale that invites the reader into the process of truth-making, using the term “memoir” to invite questions about what is true and to whom.
A review of Drew Hayden Taylor’s “Petropaths” in Take Us To Your Chief (Douglas &McIntyre, 2016)
By Derek Newman-Stille
Drew Hayden Taylor’s “Petropaths” is a tale of the ongoing nature of colonial violence, centred on the exploration of the way that this continued assault has created a generation of indigenous youth who are, as he suggests “stuck between the past and the future”. He points out a need for youth to connect to their past and to create a future, something that colonialism has sought to deny indigenous peoples by erasing the past and presenting imagery of a white future. It is significant that Hayden Taylor uses science fiction as a genre of critique when exploring the issue of most science fictional texts presenting a very white future that portrays an absence of indigenous people. Hayden Taylor uses science fiction and a time-travel narrative to explore the idea of temporal uncertainty, but also calls attention to the problematic way that indigenous people are portrayed in most time travel narratives.
Hayden Taylor centralizes elders in “Petropaths”, pointing out their role in providing educational opportunities for youth that ground them in the ongoing practice of engaging with teachings. The narrator, an elder, explains to his grandson along with the other elders that “he need to know who he was, where he came from and what his path was”. Elders in this tale are situated not only as guardians of the past (as they are in many narratives that feature ageing), but also as guides to the future, having a role that subtends time.
“Petropaths” is a tale about petroglyphs, sacred carvings in rock, and Hayden Taylor situates these rocks as a text that extends through time, connecting the person exploring the texts to the past when they were created, to their presence now, and to the future they will survive into. Hayden Taylor is from Curve Lake First Nation whose territory extends to the petroglyphs frequently called the “Peterborough Petroglyphs”, and often acknowledged as “The Teaching Rocks” by Anishnaabe people. Teaching is central to this tale and the relationship between Hayden Taylor himself and “the teaching rocks” underscores the role of the petroglyphs in his story as storytellers and teachers themselves.
Hayden Taylor illustrates the role of conversation that the petrogyphs represent in his tale when he says “It took me a while to understand these were musings and dreams of our ancestors, the thoughts and history of our people carved into Mother Earth for us to see.” These are not static background images in his tale, but, rather, are centred and engaged in a conversation with the characters. He describes these stones as teaching “a lot more than one of those degrees at university”. These stones are not static, rather they “tell their own story their own way… like a whisper in the wind…. Like it was the Earth telling us a story… or, more accurately… like it was a song waiting to be sung”. The stones are not static background figures, but, rather they are storytellers and teachers, engaged in a process of conversation.
The imagery of stone is not isolated to the petrogyphs, but is also evident in the imagery that Duane’s grandfather ascribes to his dissociation from his emotions. He discusses “the wall he had spent years building, emotional brick by emotional brick”, paralleling and yet also contrasting the petroglyphs, which the story situates as a wall. Yet, although both are walls, the petroglyphs are a living, changing text that speaks and shifts for Duane, and may have the power to disrupt the static wall he has constructed for himself.
“Petropaths” is a story that acknowledges the importance of learning and, especially learning through storytelling. This learning is not individualistic, but, rather, it exists in conversation with petroglyphs, the land, animals, and community elders. It’s a story about taking the time to listen to others, but also to listen to oneself. This community of teachers engaging in storytelling is part of the process of beginning to heal Duane from the colonial violence that he has experienced. Storytelling is not just something that Duane hears, but, rather, Hayden Taylor has him engage in storytelling, adding his stories to others while also becoming part of the story. The past is not something fixed or static in Hayden Taylor’s tale, rather it is something that shifts and changes while bringing new voices into it. Duane’s time travel is part of this conversation with storytelling and his role in becoming part of the story. He is an active participation in the past and Hayden Taylor uses this active participation to illustrate that history is not passive, but, rather, that we are always in conversation with the past and the stories told about the past. As Duane says “History isn’t in books anymore. We can walk through it.”
Truths in FictionA review of Kate Story’s “Where Will The Seas Roll Up Their Thunder” in Those Who Make Us: Canadian Creature, Myth, and Monster Stories edited by Kelsi Morris and Kaitlin Tremblay (Exile, 2016)
By Derek Newman-Stille
In “Where Will the Seas Roll Up Their Thunder”, Kate Story speaks through a voice that is underused in fiction in generally, and especially in monster stories – the voice of an older woman who lives in a long term care home. This woman is having a conversation with a student about a topic that is generally unrepresented in fiction featuring older adults – the future. Story still explores ideas of the past and nostalgia, which are firmly connected to the representation of older adults, but she connects these not to the woman’s age, but to her status as a Newfoundlander, interested in Newfoundland history.
Story captures the rambling quality of a good storyteller, willing to make connections between seemingly disparate ideas and willing to go into tangents and rants. She captures the magic of storytelling and links it to exploring the truth behind narratives. She interacts with key features of narrative like the feeling of being chosen (a theme that is over-represented in fantasy narratives) and the problematic quality of this theme and how it stems from a life that seeks significance when being underrepresented as a woman in canonical stories. Her unnamed older woman wants to have made an impact on the world around her, a significant change and not to be easily erased. She interacts with notions of truth and fiction and the assumption that older adults are indulging in fantasy if they mention the strange and unnatural rather than representing truths. Her narrator has access to truths that others ignore. She points out the interweaving of landscape and story by presenting her narrator uncovering truths located beneath the surface of the Newfoundland landscape and things hidden in plain sight.
Story blends science and fantasy in her narrative, giving a new origin story for the tales of dragons and connecting past and future in a cycle of death and rebirth.
Story connects the skepticism of the student researcher to the possibility of truth in a narrative inside of what seems to be a folkloric story. She highlights the multiplicity of truths and points out that “truth” itself is a story, always subject to revisions and changes.
A review of Daniel Heath Justice’s “The Boys Who Became The Hummingbirds” in Moonshot: The Indigenous Comics Collection Volume 2” (Edited by Hope Nicholson, Alternative History Comics, 2017)
By Derek Newman-Stille
Daniel Heath Justice’s “The Boys Who Became The Hummingbirds” is a comic about resilience and transformation, highlighting the desire of a two-spirit boy to change the world around him through acts of beauty. Despite homophobia, environmental degradation, and all forms of hate against each other, Strange Boy seeks to heal others by bringing beauty into the world. Like many people who seek to bring healing and beauty into the world, especially if they are marginalized, Strange Boy experiences violence. He discovers that a lot of the violence from the people around him is an externalized form of self loathing, their hatred of themselves projected outward toward anything beautiful, anything that represents a reminder of joy that they can’t imagine themselves having.
“The Boys Who Became The Hummingbirds” is an act of beauty in a harsh and close-minded world, it is Daniel Heath Justice’s act of transformative magic, sharing a story of transformation with a world that needs beauty. It is a tale that reminds us that no matter how much violence the world inflicts on us, we can speak back by bringing beauty into the world. Our acts of art can be transformative, remaking the world and opening up others to express their beauty.
Beautifully illustrated by Weshoyot Alvitre, “The Boys Who Became The Hummingbirds” is filled with images of movement and light. It is a comic that can show the interiors of bodies and make even our bleeding, organic insides things that can be filled with a certain magnificence and wonder. Alvitre is able to capture the etherial quality of hummingbirds, their darting magnificence.
The intwined arts of Daniel Heath Justice and Weshoyot Alvitre add to the message of the story, emphasising the focus of the story on collaborative arts and the ability of one form of art, one story, to resonate in another.
No Longer Worn Down
A review of Amal El-Mohtar’s”Seasons of Glass and Iron” in The Starlit Wood (ed. Navah Wolfe and Dominik Parisien, Saga, 2016).
By Derek Newman-Stille
Amal El-Mohtar interweaves two tales of disempowered women, one forced to perpetually walk to save an abusive husband, and one forced to remain perpetually still to avoid being placed under the power of men. Both are trapped -one in movement and one in stillness. In most fairy tales, both are situated as women in distress and need.
“Seasons of Glass and Iron” is a tale exploring the way that men attempt to control women through stories, rhetoric, and actions and the way that women can liberate themselves through collective action, and by creating their own narratives. El-Mohtar brings two disempowered fairy tale heroines together in her “Seasons of Glass and Iron” to illustrate that women are not passive objects to be moved around a man’s chess board, but rather are figures who can shift and change each other, providing support and encouragement to discard the disempowering texts surrounding them.
Tabitha, doomed to perpetually walk in iron shoes, and Amira, doomed to a life of frozen near-death at the top of a mountain have to learn to loosen each other’s bounds, unlatching iron shoes and discarding glass mountains in order to find themselves and change the stories that have been written around them to bind them. It is a release from the spell of patriarchy – one that is presented, all too often, as unbreakable.
“Seasons of Glass and Iron” is a tale of change and self-liberation where women come to recognize their own magic. Frequently women in fairy tales do magical things, but are not considered magical in comparison to other characters. El-Mohtar centralizes women’s magic.