Articles, Blog

2019 Neukom Institute Literary Arts Awards – Speculative fiction

– Well thanks everybody. Hi, I’m Dan Rockmore, director
of the Neukom Institute for Computational Science
here at Dartmouth College. Welcome to the 2019 Neukom Institute for Computational Science Literary Arts Awards
in Speculative Fiction. So thanks to everybody
for coming to join me here in recognizing the
wondrous new creative works of both Peng Shepherd for her debut novel, “The Book of M”, and Audrey Schulman, for her new novel, “Theory of Bastards”. Please join me in giving
them a round of applause. (audience applauding) Thanks. I’d like to say a little bit about the speculative fiction generally then a little bit about
both of their works. So the label, speculative fiction, is a relatively recent invention, and as a genre is
perhaps as shape shifting as literature comprises. It goes back at least to works such as Jules Verne’s “20,000
Leagues Under the Sea” or H. G. Wells’s “The World Set Free”. Wells actually called such works, quote, fantasias of possibility, unquote, wherein the writer quote, takes
some great creative tendency or group of tendencies and develops its possible consequences
in the future, end quote. This is an expansive characterization, allowing for all kinds of stories to push the boundaries of the possible. Often, although not
always, imagined futures of technology fuel such work. And in fact, this was the impetus for the Neukom Institute’s
creation of the awards that we are celebrating today. The mission of the Neukom Institute is to support broadly work
in computational science and it has over time
become increasingly clear at least to me that artistic work that explores the possibilities rendered by technology
and science generally both good and bad is as important or at least differently important as work that directly develops
or exploits such discoveries. These awards in the literary arts as well as a related award for
playwriting that we give out enables, sorry, speak to and recognize that critical perspective as manifested in wondrous creative writing, enables readers to
explore the liminal space between the possible and the impossible. And in so doing, such
work implicitly encourages each of us to reflect on
whether these are worlds that we are currently
inhabiting or want to inhabit. Our award winning authors
have produced masterful and thought provoking works, ultimately selected by our judges, Hugo Award winners Ann
VanderMeer, and Jeff VanderMeer. Ann and Jeff worked from
a very strong shortlist. Here I’ll advance the slide. So there are the books from the shortlist. And after a good deal of,
so this list was comprised after a good deal of debate with the help of Dartmouth colleagues Professor Alex Chee from Creative Writing, Professor Peter Orner
from Creative Writing, and Professor Tarek El-Ariss
from Middle Eastern Studies as well as the writer
and critic Sue Halpern. I’d like to take a moment to thank them for being so generous with their time. (audience applauding) So the shortlist of 10 books was called from a very strong pool
of more than 50 books. I’d like to take a moment to recognize the finalists out loud. It includes in the debut category, “Alien Virus Love Disaster”
by Abbey Mei Otis, “Infomocracy” by Malca Older, “Severance” by Ling Ma, and “Terra Nullius” by Claire G. Coleman. And in the open category, the books “Blackfish
City” by Sam J. Miller, “Plum Rains” by Andromeda Romano-Lax, “Red Clocks” by Leni Zumas, and “The Night Market” by Jonathan Moore. I wish we had more time to
say more about these engaging and engrossing works but
we’ll now turn our attention to hear a bit more about the winners. So it’s my pleasure
now to introduce to you the recipients of the 2019 awards. So I’ll start with the category of debut, speculative fiction, and for that, I’m pleased to introduce
to you Peng Shepherd who is sitting there, third from my left. (audience applauding) So “The Book of M” by Peng Shepherd is a brilliant debut and a wondrous work. One that artfully weaves
together a tail of mystery, adventure, love, loss, and fantasy. It is set in a very recognizable
and dystopian near future, insofar as our near future
continually suggests the specter of global pandemic and the knock on effects
of a lights out apocalypse. But it’s also a meditation
on the power of literature and the power of poetry as
forces able to hold us together, either as couples or as countries. In “The Book of M”, we
quickly find ourselves in a pandemic of forgetting,
foreshadowed in any individual by the odd symptom of losing one’s shadow. Our hero loses his loved one and then engages on a time-honored quest for her recovery through
a world gone mad and dark. What follows is a deeply thoughtful tale that highlights the power of memory as the glue for personal relationships and societal cohesion. Interwoven in a quest that
is part “Mad Max: Fury Road”, part “Lord of the Rings”, and even a little bit of
“Alice in Wonderland”. But as with many a great work, `it can be read on many levels, and the theme of the shadow and of memory which is itself its own kind of shadow, its own shape shifting fragile
representation of the self, gives us much to think about. What we leave behind and the contingency of our own histories as well as our hope to
persist into the future. Ms. Shepherd is a native
of Phoenix, Arizona, and earned an MFA from
New York University. “The Book of M” was also chosen
as a Best Book of the Year by several outlets including the science fiction website, The Verge. It’s now my pleasure to
present Peng Shepherd with the 2019 Neukom
Institute Literary Arts Award in Speculative, for Debut
Speculative Fiction. (audience applauding) All right. Second, to introduce the
work of Audrey Schulman. A climate change future
creeps in slowly and subtly, if only eventually to play a huge role in Audrey Schulman’s
riveting and timely new book, “Theory of Bastards”, the winner in the open
category of the 2019 awards. “Theory of Bastards” is a remarkable work that pulls off the difficult trick of both a compelling and emotional read while also giving the reader insights around cutting edge science without calling attention to it. This is the best possible
kind of teaching. It’s a story about
adaptation and evolution, a novel about the importance
of paying attention to one’s inner and outer life as well as the world around us. Our hero is a MacArthur Award winning animal behaviorist, also
called an ethologist, who takes up residence in a primate center to continue her groundbreaking work on primate’s social systems. She arrives in poor health,
physically and emotionally, the outside world is not
in a much better state. The reader is made slowly aware of this as a near future world. Climate change has already begun to work its effects on the world in terms of the food
supply and the weather, but life goes on, kids go
to school and to the zoo, scientists continue to do their work, even administrators
continue to administer. People fall in and out of love but at some point it all goes to hell quickly and dramatically. When it does, all that we have learned along the way of primate’s societies quickly creates a fascinating backdrop for the developing joint human-primate dramatic and terrifying
adventure that ensues. “Theory of Bastards” takes on the question of what we can learn about ourselves from the close observation of others and even more how to respect the other. Ultimately, “Theory of
Bastards” reminds us of how much we need to learn from those whom either history, circumstance, or even evolution has rendered powerless. Ms. Schulman hails from Montreal and now lives outside of Boston where in addition to being a writer, she runs the nonprofit HEET, which is devoted to helping
people and communities to find ways to live in an
energy efficient fashion. “Theory of Bastards” is her fourth novel and it was also chosen as a 2019 Philip K. Dick Award winner, a prize sponsored by the Philadelphia Science Fiction Society and given annually to the best science fiction writing. It’s now my pleasure to
present Audrey Schulman with the 2019 Neukom Institute Award for Speculative Fiction. (audience applauding) All right, so now I’d like to be quiet (chuckles) and give others,
especially the authors the opportunity to speak
about the genre and the work. And we’ll do this in the form of a panel, and I’m more than happy
to turn things over to Ann VanderMeer and Jeff VanderMeer. – Thank you. And thanks to the Neukom
Institute for the opportunity to read so many great novels and short story collections. It was a real pleasure. I would say that I firmly believe that there should be more
panelists than moderators, but two judges, so two moderators. We will endeavor to
work elegantly together as I hope we have over the
last 30 years (chuckles). The form of this panel discussion and the rest of the evening
will start with readings so you can get a sense of
these wonderful novels. Then the panel discussion, open it up to questions from the audience followed by signing and
reception in the lobby. So without further ado, perhaps you’d like to give the audience a
taste of these novels, a page or two as a teaser? Who would like to start? – We’ll keep, we will keep
it really short, I promise. Two pages. What do you need to know about my book? Everybody’s shadows disappear,
that’s for you to know, okay. This super short section is a flashback to the night at the very first, the day that the very first
person loses their shadow. And then basically the
world starts ending, but they don’t know it at the time. Naz had mostly tuned out
the vague blinks of color coming from the TV as they laughed, drinking and snacking on a cheese plate. But something caught her eye. A red news ticker at the top of the screen flashed breaking news. That’s when she first
heard the name Hemu Joshi. There was an annual
festival that day in India, so the local news crews were already out in the bigger cities, including Pune. They’d been on Hemu for
all of seven minutes before someone working for
an international station caught sight of the live feeds. Everything exploded. Within six hours, it was on
every channel and website in the United States, and
crews from every country were touching down in Mumbai
and frantically renting cars by the dozen to drive three hours away to the outdoor spice market in Pune. Naz and her friends all stared, transfixed at the screen,
unable to look away. At the time, none of them knew that they actually
should’ve been terrified. Instead, they were fascinated, obsessed. And Hemu obliged them. He stood gamely in the
street of the market’s largest isle for those first three days, giving demonstrations
for curious passers-by. No matter how many times he did it, it never got old. Naz could watch him for 12 hours straight with breaks only to microwave food and bring it back to the couch. First, Hemu would smile and say something, to prove he was real and that it was live, not a tape being looped. Then he’d hold out his
hand or stand on one foot and dangle the other one in the air. The street children who
had been haunting him like little ghosts since the first moment would giggle and run circles around him. News sites were filled with vibrant images of those kids playing with him, laughing, dust swirling around them, the oranges and the purples
of the open air spice stalls throbbing with such rich color that it made Naz squint. Fortune tellers made
their way in rickshaws and on bicycles from
every corner of the city to look upon this new wonder. Cripples were carried to
Hemu by their relatives, as if he could somehow cure them. Fathers were in the street waving pictures of their daughters. By the end of the first day,
Hemu had 62 marriage proposals, all from extremely wealthy families. There was a picture of Hemu’s mother trying to hold all of the
photos of prospective brides being pressed upon them. She pulled down the
shoulder sash of her sari to use it like a makeshift basket, but there were so many pictures that they overflowed. The tiny faces of so many
beautiful young women escaping her arms like dragonflies, flitting away down the crowded street. The day before, Hemu had been
a junior customer service representative at a call center
for a US cellphone company, and a second-string amateur cricket player for the Maharashtra team,
a glorified benchwarmer. He’d batted once in the
last 50 games, if that. Now, he was almost godlike. Something out of a fairytale
or a science fiction film. The world was captivated. Hemu Joshi was the first
person to lose his shadow. (audience applauding) – Okay. This is partway through. Frankie is the MacArthur
winning Genius Award winner and she’s studying bonobos, which are similar to chimpanzees. In the middle of the night, Frankie woke, her bladder full, and
remembered the storm. After visiting the bathroom, she headed toward the enclosure to see
if the storm had arrived. The rasping snore of one of the bonobos echoed down the hall. It sounded like Mr. Mister. In the research room, she stopped in front of the door to the enclosure and said, “Okay, door, open.” The door unlocked and she
stepped out into the empty space. The overhead light snapped on, blinding. So she said, “Okay, lights, off.” With a metallic plunk,
the lights turned off. In the darkness, the
enclosure felt spooky, a deserted auditorium at night. With the glass roof closed,
the echo was perfect. The rustle of her clothes,
the rasp of her breath. She sniffed the air and looked up. Of course, there was nothing to smell aside from the normal fragrance of fruit, manure, and cleaning products. Above, the stars were clear and bright. She sat down, leaning
back against the wall, hoping to stay awake until
the dust storm arrived. The image in her mind was of howling winds and groaning walls, small
objects flying about. Sitting there, she half-dozed. At one point, she startled up,
unsure of what had woken her, or how much time had passed. The quiet complete, profound. The silence of a dream. No traffic, no voices, no wind. Nothing except the breath in her throat. Above her, half of the stars were gone. She blinked up at the sky. At first, she assumed
the object between her and the stars was a cloud, then noticed how clean the line was, like a giant piece of paper creeping majestically forward
across the night’s sky. She looked over at the
tourist’s viewing area. One by one, the lights
along the path blurred then disappeared, wiped
from view, from existence. This silent darkness sliding
forward along the path, erasing object after object, until only the enclosure remained. This building, the last in the world. The storm arrived this way,
not with noise or fury, but instead like fog, a creeping absence of
sound and light and vision, like deaths or anesthesia,
an inching thief. Staring upward, she
imagined all that dirt, that dust, hanging in the air above her thousands of feet of it, higher than she could see or imagine, the sheer weight of it all. For a moment, she felt
how truly tiny she was, how utterly insignificant. Then she stood up and shook herself. Heading off to bed, she
concentrated instead on the fact that she was inside, the lights and the heat on, the fridge full, the sink working, that cozy sense of comfort that came from being warm and safe during a storm, that sense of being privileged and smart. (audience applauding) – So just to start with the
questions or the discussion. Dan mentioned speculative fiction. Both of your books are for
mainstream literary imprints. So there’s that aspect too
in terms of your readership. How do you think of your novels in terms of categorization? Is there a term or a school of thought or a literarization that you thought about or that you think is accurate with regard to their execution and intent? – So I grew up reading
science fiction fantasy pretty much exclusively. I came to literary fiction a
lot later, like university. And so I, I mean I didn’t
think a lot about it when I was writing it,
but when I was finished, I was like, huh, this
is a pretty weird book. And I was, sure, because I’d grown up reading science fiction
fantasy that it was fantasy. I was like, this is very
obviously a fantasy book. And then the literary agent I got, kind of skews more
literary, and the editing, the publishing house that I ended up at also skews more literary. And then the first couple
of reviews that came out were talking about this
beautiful literary novel of pain and mystery and loss, and I was like, wait, wait a minute. And so that, it’s been kind of an interesting process, I guess. Because when it was just
my little secret baby, I thought it was only a fantasy novel, and I’ve seen it now as literary, I’ve seen it as mystery, someone had it in the thriller section. So yeah. – Maybe my experience
is sort of the reverse. I always thought it was, I mean I just wrote the book, right, and my other books were, and I went where I wanted to go with it. I also write an enormous amount of science fiction when I was a kid. But, I didn’t ever think of
it as science fiction or speculative fiction or
categorize it in any way at all. And so I was surprised that
it is categorized that way. But mostly it’s just the
book I wanted to write. – I just want to say, I
think it’s a lot more like, for us now, every time we see a new genre, it’s like, more, it’s like nice to know that it can also be that way too. Yeah, more readers, yeah. – And it’s interesting, because what you’re talking about too, is that you’ve been fortunate to have the books discussed
in so many different ways that it really shows the depth of them and the different ways they can be read, which is wonderful. So we didn’t consider this
in making our decisions, but even though your novels
are vastly different, there are some echoes here
between the two novels. One is this idea of the breakdown of civilization as we know it and kind of the loss of those things we take for granted in our
daily functioning in the world. So I’m wondering if there were touchdowns, either fiction or nonfictional
in how you thought about portraying that situation, especially given that
it’s become more normal in places due to climate
change and various disasters. – I just love dystopian fiction. Like what could be better, right? It just automatically bulge in, ’cause it’s, and it’s also so, it’s a social critique
too at the same time, because you’re always wondering like what will bring society down and these books help you
begin to imagine that. I just love having it be dystopian. – [Jeff] Did you have to do any research for the latter stages of the book? Or think about what the
progressions would be, or? – I did a lot of research for the book, but I didn’t do a lot of research in particular for the end of it. I just, it was always a
question of what will, I played for a while with the idea that there’d be some
sort of solar eclipse. I chose, spent a while choosing the event. But, yeah, it’s always
just trying to get to that part where the plot really
kicks up, that’s fun. – I think I enjoyed the
little moments the most. Because you spend a lot of time plot-wise thinking about the really big, like what ends the world,
or which cities fall, or what happens to the government. But sometimes it’s just more interesting thinking about what are you going to do now that the fridge doesn’t work anymore? ‘Cause the food’s only going to
last for like, six more hours. And I found that kind of a lot more intimately scary and interesting. – So I feel like both of your novels kind of play with maybe unexamined
foundational assumptions we have about the world or things that are not always thought about. Your book really does make us think a lot about the nature of reality and yours about our
relationship with the nonhuman, and I was wondering,
are there ways in which you thought of your novel as pushing back against some kind of status quo or something that you wanted people to see that was invincible or in some other way? – I don’t know if I wanted to make any kind of very specific
statement about it, but it was, as I was writing it, it was really interesting to me. So the way that it, the
magic works in my book is if someone who’s lost their shadow forgets something or misremembers it, the world changes to
make that forgotten thing or the misremembering of it the true way. And so these people can
kind of shift reality by forgetting things or
people that they love or misremembering those things. And when it happens on a very big scale, many shadowless people
forget the same thing at the same time, it can be
really really devastating. It seemed very fantastical
to me when I was writing it, it’s very magical and very, but I realize that we kind of just actually do that. And I think that, I just wanted to kind of pose that question in the writing of it. – And I was just really interested, for me, this book partly
came from a moment when a guy holding an iPhone with Google Maps on it
ask me for directions. (panelists laugh) I just sort of began
to think about the way that we all depend in
this really weird way on technology, and yet we’re, we’re smart enough to
come up with iPhones, but we’re not dumb enough to like be able to
migrate across the city. And that seems very strange to me, and I began to think like what, what would happen if
technology gets wiped out and you got a variety of species there, and humans are one of them, which, where that would be a really great way to see the strengths and weaknesses of us. Where we would do badly
in comparison to like, any bird can migrate and find food. Yet they don’t have that big brains. I don’t know, it was just, that interplay between technology and species
was really interesting to me. – And it was really fascinating
to me reading the novel, and it was fascinating in your novel, that kind of literalization of what we do anyway like you’ve said. Everything in this room is
from someone’s imagination. They create it, even if it’s not by magic. And the things we forget as well, I thought that was very powerful. So I’ve one more kind of general question before I turn it over to Ann for some additional questions. You mentioned technology and it does kind of I think also feature
into your novel as well. Our relationship with
technology has become fraught, has become kind of more
aware of the implications of the things we’re using and
maybe questioning the idea, the standard idea of progress. So I was curious what your thoughts are about the current state of technology and how we use it and
the mentality behind it. – I’m terrified.
(Jeff laughs) we just depend on it
in every possible way. For our food, for our water, for our, these things have our entire lives, our bank’s systems on them, everything. And we just assume, even
though we’ve used them for only a short period of time, that everything’s just going to
continue the exact way it has. My brother who worked
for Google for a while mentioned the other day
that within five years there’s going to be no way to have cyber security of any kind at all, that they’re just, they
won’t be able to keep up. That’s fascinating, ’cause
everything we have depends on it. Everything. And we just keep blissfully
going along using it. – Oh man, I don’t know what to add. ‘Cause I mean, yeah, I’m also terrified. My mom’s just got an Alexa,
is that what they’re called? And she, yeah, I know, I don’t either. I’m very very private
about this sort of thing, and I’ve read the stories that they’re listening and recording you, and yeah, she got an Alexa and
I didn’t know, I didn’t know. And so I’d been to her house
for about an hour or something and then she asked Alexa to
start playing some music, and I felt really like, I didn’t know that Alexa was here listening this whole. I don’t know, it is really, yeah, I had to think a lot about
what it would be like to suddenly kind of
lose all the technology. And I think we would all be.
The people in the book were all really terrified at first, but it’s, I don’t know, yeah, it almost seems more terrifying where it’s going in those five years. – Like I think fiction can’t even match what we’re doing in reality. – But on some sense, technology frees us to do all these different things, so there’s good and bad
in it, I kind of see. And even in both of your novels, even though these horrible
things were happening, people are using their
ingenuity and scientific methods to overcome the adversities
that they’re facing. I see that also, so it is
a double-edged sword there. Well here’s my question. You both juggle a lot of
things in your novels. You have different challenges in terms of how much you show of the wider world and what that means. But we’re curious as to how hard it was to integrate information
and character development in this situation where
you both have intimate personal moments in the novels, but also these overarching
concepts and big ideas. What was the most difficult part of mashing those two things? – The hardest part for me
was trying to figure out a realistic way that people could start losing their shadows. Because even though it
is a fantastical book, I really wanted the start
of it to feel realistic. Because usually, the end of the world, not usually, but many times in fiction, the end of the world
starts with a flu pandemic or some kind of virus that gets out or like a comet hits the Earth or an asteroid hits the Earth. And since my plague, I
got to say, is magical, I really wanted a grounding thing, and that’s what took me the longest. I went around and around
trying to figure out something that felt realistic and then I realized
there’s, through research, there’s actually a real way that people do lose their shadows
for a couple seconds. It happens once a year in India and they call the day Zero Shadow Day. And if you are outside at a
specific time on that day, your shadow will disappear
for a couple of seconds. I mean, it was amazing, it’s a real day, it happens every year. And so that is how it starts in my book, except after a couple of seconds, everyone goes back to
normal except for one guy. And then it starts to spread. And I think that, I really had, I think at least half the draft without really knowing how it started and everything was very loose and when I found that moment, I just needed some kind
of connection to reality and then everything else fell into place. – For me, in my book, I
thought it would be really fun to have that MacArthur winning genius, Genius Award winner, right. ‘Cause it would be fun to have a person who was supposed to be a genius right up against some bonobos who are not supposed to
be of human intelligence. And I thought I would have fun with that, but then somewhere along that I realized, oh, I’ve got to talk about her research. And it better be good,
’cause she’s a genius. And so I set this horrible
horrible dilemma for myself, which been, took a long
time for me to figure out what it is that she
would be thinking about and yeah, it’s, it was
a bad idea to do that. (panelists laugh) – So it’s a bad idea to
have one of your characters be a genius then, huh? – Yeah, I’m always worried
about having a character that’s really funny, ’cause I’m not funny. (panelists laugh) – Well, illness plays an important role in both “The Book of M”
and “Theory of Bastards”. How personal is that role to you? And were there ways illness is portrayed in fiction that you wanted to avoid? – In my book, the main
character, the genius, genius, has endometriosis, which is this horrible, horrible disease. And I don’t want to have it, but I’ve had, it was, it’s such a
fascinating horrible disease that I wanted to write about it, because a lot of people
don’t know about it. And also because she’s an
evolutionary psychologist, I thought it would be
interesting to have her, because of the endometriosis,
be unable to reproduce. So she was unable to
join the evolutionary, I just found that really
another interesting irony to explore in the book
and to see how illness affects what we think about
and what we care about and who we become and what
we’re interested in researching. – There, I think there
are a lot of very obvious parallels in my book with Alzheimer’s. I haven’t personally experienced it, but we do have friends and family members that are struggling with the disease. But I think it’s kind of, it’s
a lot of our greatest fears, because sort of all you
have are your memories, it doesn’t matter how
much money you’ve made or how many professional
accolades you’ve gotten, especially if the world ends. really all you have is what
you remember of yourself, what you remember of your loved ones. And that I was really
interested in exploring that. Because after most of the book takes place two years after the kind
of the world has ended, and so everyone’s kind of come to terms with all the material
belongings that they’ve lost. And so I think that at that point, the thing that’s most
scary that you might lose might not even be yourself
but kind of your loved ones. And so that really led me to exploring the memory aspect of the story. – Well, another thing that
I saw on both of the novels, in what way are the love stories
in your respective novels important to the larger picture? – I think it’s the whole story, really. Because really what is a marriage except a bunch of memories? Good and bad, and the differences, the tiny differences between
the memories you have. Because in a non-magical marriage, the differences in your memories don’t really matter that much, but in a marriage like
this where one of you doesn’t have a shadow anymore and every forgetting or misremembering can be potentially very dangerous, it could really, I mean
it was a very literal way of kind of investigating
a marriage, I think. But I was really just
interested in exploring what exactly does memory mean to you and what does it mean to the person that you care the most about. – And I was, so love is like supposedly where, it’s the most human thing. And it’s some of the most, the greatest literature
is written about it, it’s one of the highest
things we can all reach for, and yet it’s also such a
basic biological component, and that I wanted to explore that part. Because the bonobos are known for an enormous amount of sex. And so I wanted to put the bonobos in their constant sex up against somebody slowing falling in love. And look at what’s similar
and what’s different, to again, sort of explore
what is human and what is not. That was fun. (panelists laugh) – Well how have readers receive
the ideas in your novels? Are there any interesting interpretations or interactions that
you’ve had with readers? – Go ahead. – I’ve had a lot of
readers come up and say that they either are helping care for or have recently lost someone
suffering from Alzheimer’s and that the book kind of
helped them process that. And so that has been
really kind of an honor that my book could be read that way. – [Ann] Was that something
that you expected when you– – No, this is going to
sound so ridiculous, but I wrote the whole first draft and then I send it to the two people that read my work first and one came back and said something about Alzheimer’s. And I was like, it’s not, oh. (chuckles) I don’t know. You just get so deep into that. I was just so deep into the magic of the forgetting that I didn’t realize that I was writing about something that is probably, it’s very
real for a lot of people. So I think that’s been, that’s kind of been the
greatest reward for me. – I just, I don’t know if
this is true of every writer, and we could ask now, but I’ve read some, a lot of the Goodreads comments, and that’s just so much fun. – [Ann] Is it fun? I don’t know if that’s fun. – Huh? Oh no, but like anytime, no,
so I skip all the bad ones. (audience laughing) – Anytime–
– How do you know it’s bad until suddenly then you know it’s bad? – You look at the stars, right? I’m not. It’s so incredible to,
I assume this is true for all of us, but we write for the chance of being able to put words on a paper and then across time and space to be able to have those words enter somebody else’s
mind and give them images and have them, give them
feelings and scenes and thoughts, and any time that’s done, it’s just the greatest magic in the world. And so reading, sometimes
reading those comments, I understand, I did it. That that worked for that one person. Don’t, forget the ones
with the two stars, right. But that one person, it worked, and it’s just the most incredible thing. And the other incredible thing I was talking about briefly before, I wrote this whole book about bonobos without ever having seen
a bonobo in the flesh. I do a lot of research, right. So then when I finished the book, I sent it off some of the
foremost bonobo researchers and just terrified, right. And one of them emailed
me back like within days, saying, oh my God, this
is like the most perfect book about bonobos ever, how
long have you lived with them? And it was, that was
also incredibly magical. – This is my last question. Before the audience questions, I wanted to ask what it, excuse me, what are you working on now? What’s the next thing? If you can share. – I’m working on a second novel. It is not, it’s a standalone. And it’s still, I’m
still in the early stage, so it’s very messy. I’m not entirely sure what it’s about. But I know it has to do with maps. And places that may or may not be on them. – I’m writing pretty much the same book with another researcher,
only this time it’s dolphins. So it’s, if you’ve read
this, it’s the same thing. (audience laughing) – [Ann] Is it also dystopian? – No, it actually, it’s
a historical event. If anybody know of Dr. John Lilly, he was a researcher in the
’70s and ’80s and earlier, and he wanted to try to teach dolphins how to speak English. Even though they talk out,
the only sounds they can make are out their blowholes,
which have no teeth, no lips, no tongue, and he tried to speak, get them to speak English,
and he tried really hard. And so it’s a fascinating story to me. – What I’d like to do right now is open up to audience questions and to also let you know
that after the panel is done, the writers will be in
the lobby to sign books. So just want to let you know,
so who’s going to be first? I’ve got question over here in the front? And speak loudly. – Actually–
– Wait, wait, we have a mic coming, awesome. – [Audience] So have you finally seen a bonobo in the flesh? And if so, what impact did it have on your thinking about your book? – I have not.
(audience laughing) – Do you want to?
– There’s only 15,000 of them in the world, right, and they live in the
Democratic Republic of Kongo, which has had Ebola for a while, along with the ongoing civil unrest. And then they’re in a few zoos, and I haven’t had the time
to go to any of the zoos. But a friend of mine says as soon as the Ebola stops, we’re going. – Another question, I thought
I saw a hand over there? No one? Questions? How about back there, way in the back? In the middle. – [Audience] Hi, I’m a bookseller, and stock both of your books at the store, and over the last couple of years, there’s been a pretty big transition from just literature and just sci-fi. And all of the sudden,
there are a lot of books, a lot of which are written by women, that really seem to
transcend either genre. We have a hard time figuring out where to put them, honestly. Did you notice–
– You could put them in both places.
– Sometimes. – Put them everywhere, everywhere.
– Yes. You get put right in
the middle of the store and in fantasy sci-fi. But when you were in the
process of trying to find agents and publishers and all of these things, did you have a hard time figuring out how to pitch your novels? – I, yes, I kind of tried to walk the, so basically I tried
to walk the middle road with the way that I pitched it. And then I send it to
both very literary agents and very genre literary agents because I actually was having trouble finding someone who was right
in the middle or who did both. It was interesting to see, I got interest from both sides, which was even more confusing. But I think, I just think
it’s trending that way more and more now and I think more books are going to be mixing that way, that’s just going to be all the better. Yeah. – And I didn’t pitch it in any way at all. The editor just took it, but afterwards I tried to convince him
to sell it as a cross between “Mad Max” and “Jane Goodall” as told by Charles Darwin,
and he wouldn’t do that. – Hi, I’m also a bookseller and I got super nervous that you were going to steal my question. (audience laughing) Great minds. Mine is sort of in the same realm, but I notice lately with a lot of spec-fic that it’s predominantly written by females and I’m wondering actually
from the whole panel, if you want, why you think that might be? – I should probably be the
first one to ask this question. But what I would say is
anthologists that we’ve noticed is that there was like 10 years ago, and this doesn’t apply to everybody ’cause not everyone writes short stories, but there was a boom, a starting boom of a lot of women writers, and they were starting in short stories. And I think it’s just that there were a ton of really talented women who were writing in shorter
lengths at that time and they’re just kind of all getting into, their first novels and second novels are coming out around the same time. I think the field has leveled out more and there’s more opportunity and there’s, it’s not perfect, but it’s much better than it was 10 years ago. So I think that’s possible as well. That’d be one guess, at least. I don’t know, does that sound reasonable? – I also think that there’s just a greater hunger for it now. Because before, there was less of it and so people didn’t know, readers didn’t know how
much they wanted it. And then you get a little bit, you just want more and more, and so it’s just made more space. – And I think just most readers are women. And most writers, I
believe, are also women. So it only makes sense. That I think, one of the
things that have happened is gradually, I don’t know if you’ve done, anybody remember what
the reviewer count is, where they count the
numbers of the viewers? – The VIDA?
– Yeah, La VIDA. Where they count the number of reviewers who are male and books that are by men, and the books and reviewers
that are by women. So over the last few years, that’s finally begun to shift, so it’s not just a man writing
a review about a male writer, but finally began to be
also female reviewers and female writers in a better percentage. If you ever want to look at it, it’s really interesting,
La VIDA, I think it is. – Do we have any more questions? Up here in the front? – [Audience] Hi, yeah,
also for the whole panel, maybe especially Audrey and Jeff, would love to hear what you think the responsibility of the
author is to portray the science in the science fiction that you write. – Go ahead.
– Oh. (audience laughing) – Zero, depending on
the kind of book it is. Really depends on the
stance, the character, even in “Annihilation”, she’s a terribly bad field
biologist in many ways, so write, the science she may have right, but there’s certain aspects
of how she gets obsessed about subjects that throw things off. So I think it’s always
strength through character, and I find it more interesting sometimes when the science is wrong. But then also there’s
subjects like physics where it changes every week. So on the “Southern Reach Trilogy”, after a while, it was like, anything I come up with
will not be as absurd as the thing I just read
in the science journal. And so sometimes depending on
the field, it doesn’t matter. But as we were talking about earlier, or at least I was before this panel, I do find a trend where
a lot of authors will, they’ll research the hard
science, the physics, but they don’t give a crap about the animal behavior science part. And so I read a lot of books
where the physics is right, but there’s some animal behavior component that’s completely wrong
and terribly stereotypical and I feel like that’s something to do with the foundational assumptions we have about what has value in our world. – I think the writer has no responsibility to be actually accurate,
but I love books that are, where you learn something,
and where you can feel that it’s been researched,
that there is truth behind it. That just helps me trust the
writer more and the book more. And it lets me just fall in much deeper. So yeah, it’s just, I think a plus. – Yeah, I mean, I would say
that besides what I said before, I had extrapolated and spent a lot of time extrapolating fungal technology through a lot of my novels and take a good point of pride that a lot of inventions that have occurred in the last few years are actually predicted
in prior novels of mine where they seem totally
outrageous and ridiculous. – I just also want to
say that as an editor, when I’m reading something, it doesn’t matter as much
how accurate the science is depending on how important
it is to the story. If it’s the type of thing, if the mistake is so egregious that it’s going to throw
the reader out of the story, so it really depends. A reader is willing to go along with the writer up to a certain point, so to me as an editor,
that’s what I’m looking for, at what point is it just,
oh, it’s just way too wrong. And also is the wrongness of it fixable or does it just destroy
the basis of the story. So that’s how it is for me. Do you have any more questions? – [Audience] Hi, I have a question. Both of you kind of
described sticking points in your writing where you aren’t sure necessarily how to go about
it or how to go around it. And I’m curious how did
you solve that issue? Was it banging your head against the wall? Making list, research? How did that happen? – Yeah, I was banging my
head against the wall. Yeah, I think, I mean
everyone’s process is different, but my process is very much
write huge amounts of material and just kind of like throwing stuff at the wall and seeing what sticks. And then eventually something will, but just having the courage to just keep turning out pages until you get the right one. – I use a lot of research which helps me sort of think in the back of my head to figure out what the answer might be. But also there’s an enormous
amount of slaughter of trees, just enormous amounts of paper that gets lost towards trying. And if any of you are writers, I was saying this in an
earlier discussion here, but failure is part of the process. And when there’s this
great Harvard professor whose name I’ve forgotten, but he wrote, rather than
a resume of successes, he wrote a resume of failures, because each of those failures helped him so much to become who he was
and have the knowledge he has. And I think with writing
especially, failure is critical. You have to screw up a lot of times before you get something
that’s worth while. And that we forget that
a lot in this society. But celebrate your failures. It’s really, they’re necessary. – [Audience] Thank you for
showing up to campus today. My question was, I’m
curious how you decided when your novels were done
and when you were ready to stop editing and just send it out. – This is probably not
a super helpful answer, but I just kind of, I came to a moment where I’ve, where I knew. And every, I did it a couple
of rounds of revision, and every round I’d get to the end and I would still feel
a little bit insecure about the book or just I still knew there were things wrong with it or I knew that something could be better. And then after a certain
point, I just kind of became more at piece with it, of what it was, and it felt like it was
itself, it was just done. So I think it’s just having enough time with the thing that you,
yeah, I felt a peace with it. – That was a lot of my process too, but I also a little bit before I think I was totally done, I
sent it off to my editor and he said, great, it’s all done. Yeah, and I always wonder
if I should’ve just done one more editing pass, but, too late. (audience laughing)
– What a great story. I wish all story’s edited that way. (audience laughing) – I know some writers who
think that it’s never done, even after it’s been published
in multiple printings, they still find problems and
they want to change them. – But don’t they say that
the best time to edit a book is five minutes before you
have to give a reading from it? I fell like best, yeah.
– Yeah. – And most writers, if you look at what they’re getting to read, there’s all kinds of
cross outs and everything, ’cause they’re editing as they go. I think we have time
for one more question. – [Audience] One of things
that I love about fantasy and sci-fi and speculative
fiction is this idea that sort of like anything or
almost anything is possible. And so what I would love
to hear from any of you is how you, what inspires you
and sort of how you nail down your idea that makes you go, aha, yeah, that’s the one that I
want to kind of expand on? – I think my favorite kinds
of, well I love reading them, they’re my favorite kinds
of things to write about are taking the real world and
twisting it just a little. So that what is happening definitely could not happen but
also like maybe could. And so that is the kind
of stuff that I look for when I’m reading news headlines or listening to podcasts or anything that just seems like
if you read the article under the headline, it would be, you would get a rational explanation for everything and it would be normal. But if you had only had the headline, it could’ve gone a different direction. I like that kind of stuff. – I know exactly what, by this point, you know how some writers just have the things they always write about, so I know those things now with me, so I know exactly what I, as soon as I hear about somebody who’s got some physical
difference in them, something with some
large charismatic animal, some megafauna, and
something probably where there’s some weather that’s different, it’s either in a different climate or something’s happening with the weather, and then there also has to be danger. And for me, if I, anything that combines those things, I’m going to be like, yep, that’s
what I want to write about. – I enjoy, as a recreational hobby, making impossible things
uncomfortably normal and uncomfortably tactile. – That’s a great phrase.
(audience laughing) – I’m going to say thank you, but while I’m walking, I do have one, would you mind giving an origin, quick origin story for both of you? First time you thought I
could actually do this. Like maybe I should
try to write something. I’d love to hear them. – Mine’s ridiculous. I was four, and I really loved
reading my kid picture books and so one day I wrote a book of my own. It was about a very friendly spider, I think his name was Stanley. And my mom, being a wonderful mother, took the pages and took them to her work and she got them laminated
and then put a spiral thing, and then she brought it home, she was like, “Look, this is your book.” And I thought I was published. (audience laughing) For like one year, and then yeah. So that was the start. – When I was 12 in English class, I told everybody I was writing a novel. And it was like 46 pages with drawings. So it was probably typed up, It was probably be like six pages. (audience laughing) But everybody gave me
lots of attention for it. I thought, sike, this
would be a great career. I could sleep in late, I could hang out in coffee shops. I didn’t think about like healthcare. – I would say, it’s just like that, right, you just wake up late and
hang out at coffee shops. – All right, thanks so much. All right, so I’d like to
close with a few thank yous. So first, I’d like to recognize always the generosity of Bill Neukom who made possible the Neukom Institute with the generous contribution to the college, the generous gift, and hence the awards that
we’re celebrating today. I’d also like to thank the
Neukom Institute’s staff, so Christine Alberga in the back there and Dave Merker in the back there. None of this happens
without their leadership and help including the fact that the Norwich Bookstore is out there and I hope you buy the
books of our award winners. I want to thank Ann and Jeff,
again, for leading this, and all the work they did. And finally, congratulations
again to Audrey and Peng. Thanks so much for giving
us great stuff to read. (audience applauding)

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