Hot Serial:  NYRSF Readings Series Presents an Evening with Serial Box Authors

L to R: Joel Derfner, Michael Swanwick, Max Gladstone, Matthew Cody, Lindsay Smith, Ellen Kushner, Amy Goldschlager.

By Mark L. Blackman: On the spring evening of Tuesday, May 2, the New York Review of Science Fiction Readings Series, in a special event, showcased Serial Box, a publisher of serialized fiction in text and audio delivered in weekly episodes; it currently runs five ongoing series. In this innovative – or perhaps retrograde – publishing platform, as with television, the serials are collaboratively written by author teams. Representing four of the serials, and reading from their projects, were authors Michael Swanwick, Max Gladstone, Lindsay Smith, Matthew Cody, and Joel Derfner. (Ellen Kushner participated in the events, though did not read.) The stories were as diverse as the “writers rooms,” touching upon Urban Fantasy, Mannerpunk, Magical Espionage, and Young Adult Science Fiction.

Welcoming the audience to the Series’ venue, the Brooklyn Commons in transit-accessible Brooklyn, executive curator Jim Freund, host of WBAI-FM’s Hour of the Wolf radio program on sf and fantasy, shared the sad news of the death of Ama Patterson, who had been an integral part of Andrea Hairston’s performance at the Series. He thanked members of his own team, hinted at a possible special event later in the month, and announced that the 26th Season would likely close on Tuesday, June 6 with readings by Sam J. Miller and Lara Elena Donnelly. He then turned the stage over to the evening’s guest host/guest curator (and curator emerita) Amy Goldschlager.

Amy Goldschlager, an editor, proofreader and book/audiobook reviewer, related that serialized fiction began in the 19th century (notably with Dickens), and shared worlds with Thieves World and Wild Cards; Serial Box, she saw as “a wonderful confluence of it all.” With that, she introduced the first reader of the night, Joel Derfner, representing the Mannerpunk Tremontaine.

Joel Derfner

Joel Derfner is the author of Gay Haiku, Swish: My Quest to Become the Gayest Person Ever and What Ended Up Happening Instead, and Lawfully Wedded Husband: How My Gay Marriage Will Save the American Family. (Indeed, he does live, “alas, in Brooklyn, along with his husband and their small, fluffy dog.” He never did explain that “alas,” however.) His selection, from the prequel to – set 15 years before – Swordspoint, and preceding the writing of On the Causes of Nature (which figures in that novel), was characterized by Goldschlager as a “delightfully snarky bit of foreshadowing,” and contained many double entendres – intentional and not – about sausages. (His sex scenes, he said, were too long.)

Lindsay Smith

Next to read was Lindsay Smith, who offered a scene from the “urban fantasy Cold War thriller” (Goldschlager) The Witch Who Came in From the Cold. There are, Smith explained, two factions of witches, the Fire and the Ice (so “the Cold” is not just the Cold War), fighting a war (here in 1970s Prague) alongside the one with American, British and Soviet spies.

Matthew Cody

Like Smith, Matthew Cody is a YA author; his published works include the award-winning Powerless and the Supers of Noble’s Green series, the Robin Hood re-imagining Will in Scarlet, and his current series The Secrets of the Pied Piper. His Serial Box series, ReMade, is about resurrected teens who are kidnapped and sent to the future; the action takes place in the future and in flashbacks (the present), and the scene that he chose was one of the latter. The boy, Holden (yes, named after you-know-who), who played a fairy (the only boy one) with no lines in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, nervously offers a ride to the cast party to its star (Titania), which does not end as he might have hoped.

During the intermission, a raffle drawing was held for donors in the audience, and two won a season of the Serial Box serial of their choice.

Max Gladstone

Max Gladstone, co-creator of The Witch Who Came in From the Cold and creator of Bookburners, describes himself as having “been thrown from a horse in Mongolia, drunk almond milk with monks on Wudang Shan, and wrecked a bicycle in Angkor Wat.” He is also the author of the Craft Sequence of books about undead gods and skeletal law wizards­, Full Fathom Five, Three Parts Dead, Two Serpents Rise, Last First Snow., and the forthcoming Ruin of Angels (which doesn’t have a number in the title!). Bookburners is, he explained, a “supernatural procedural” about secret agents from the Vatican who pursue demons and black magic. For his reading, he offered the audience a choice between the first season and a preview of the third, which is launching in June, and the latter won out (the vote was not “rigged”). (What happened in Belfast?)

Back on stage, Goldschlager said that she and Freund had asserted that there can’t be a NYRSF Readings season without a reading by Michael Swanwick, and he writes for Serial Box. Swanwick has written nine novels – the latest of which is Chasing the Phoenix – 150 short stories, and countless flash fictions, and has received the Nebula, Theodore Sturgeon, World Fantasy and Hugo Awards. He returned us to The Witch Who Came in From the Cold, prefacing his reading by noting that, as if there aren’t already too many characters in it, he had brought in two more, the Russian general Bitovsky and the Norwegian Magnus. (They must be spies – they’re meeting in “a spy bar.”)

There was a recess as the stage was reset with all of the readers – joined by Kushner – for an interview by Goldschlager. She opened by asking about the process of collaboration, which Gladstone called “a Frankenstein process.” There are a lot of story breakdowns. (As on tv, the editor/publisher equivalent is a “showrunner.”) Smith said that Witch is “more puzzle-piecey,” with people gravitating toward their own characters. Derfner disagreed, and jokingly called her a liar. There are a lot of personal meetings over Tremontaine. Gladstone noted his writers retreats. What struck him, said Swanwick, was how many times a story goes through the editorial process, somewhere between six and 123 (he cited a debate over whether it’s duct tape or duck tape – as in a film or tv show, there has to be consistency, or continuity). There is a “house voice.” Derfner said that he liked “having structure, and not having to make things up.” In Season 1, he said, he had trouble getting Diane’s (the Duchess Tremontaine) voice right and asked Kushner to revise him. She said that she was doing Joel doing herself; the process was “metaphysical” (I offered the word). They had to invent a new way of doing a narrative.

Cody said with his background in theater (he holds a Master’s Degree in Theater, with a focus on Shakespeare), he enjoyed the collaborative process. People would fight for their idea, but only up to a point. Alluding to ReMade, Goldschlager noted that we figure things out (that they’re in the future) before the characters do, and wondered about how “genre-savvy” the readers are, particularly in YA. Whatever the genre, replied Cody, soap opera is the “underpinning” of YA. Finally, she asked Gladstone if The Witch Who Came in From the Cold and Bookburners take place in the same universe. “Stay tuned,” he intoned, providing a perfect conclusion to the interviews.

In the Q&A that followed, an audience member asked how they select people to be “in their zone.” Gladstone looks for writers “who are going to jump on and run with it” and had a “willingness to speak the same language.” Kushner said that she had it easier, had the advantage of everyone being a Swordspoint fan, knowing and loving the Riverside books, and knowing that they can “play well with others.” The writers, she continued, “have to be flexible, open to their ideas being changed.” There are gay men in the story, and so she has “an actual gay man” writing episodes. His theatrical background also helps. (Derfner has, as his biography states, composed the score to musicals that “have played in New York, London, and various cities in between [going counterclockwise].”) Her Tremontaine team, she observed, was “queer or writers of color, or both.”

The next questioner asked if the long form was easier to play with than a shorter form. Gladstone said that it made it easier to “compartmentalize.” Smith said that they have to create an “atmosphere;” she can tell which writer wrote which episode, yet the story unifies and flows. The final questioner asked about how much work goes into the “Series Bible” (again, a tv term). Cody said that it gave “everyone a level playing field,” but, as Gladstone agreed, it changed quickly and almost immediately as everyone gave input.

The customary Jenna Felice Freebie Table returned and there were copies of Tremontaine offered for sale. The audience, which approached 70, included Melissa C. Beckman (the Readings’ “official photographer”), Richard Bowes, Rob Cameron, Lynn Cohen Koehler, Barbara Krasnoff (the House Manager and a Nebula Award nominee), John Kwok, Lissanne Lake, Marianne Porter, James Ryan, Terence Taylor (Tech Director), Paul Witcover, and Serial Box co-founders Molly Barton and Julian Yap. Throughout the course of the evening and afterward, members of the audience availed themselves of the Café’s fare.

At NYRSF Readings We Get Older and Older

By Mark L. Blackman: On the evening of Tuesday, March 7, 2017, the New York Review of Science Fiction Readings Series offered a twist on its Family Night series-within-a-series by presenting siblings Malka Older and (the elder Older) Daniel José Older (and mercifully laying to rest jokes that for months have been getting older and older). The event, held at the Series’ venue, the Brooklyn Commons Café in Greater Downtown Brooklyn, was guest-hosted by former Series curator Amy Goldschlager.

The evening opened differently from usual, with a welcome from Goldschlager rather the Series’ Executive Curator, Jim Freund; he was, we were told, home dealing with basement flooding and would be arriving later. While Freund has been “flogging” the event with wordplays on “getting Older and Older,” she preferred to call it by the theme that united the two readers, “Inform and Resist.” She had long been a fan of Daniel’s work and Twitter feed (@djolder) and had subsequently become one of Malka’s, whose Infomocracy “scared the crap out of me.” The format too would be different, with both Olders reading in the first part of the evening, then sharing a discussion and Q-&-A.

Malka Older

Malka Older’s science fiction political thriller Infomocracy was named one of 2016’s best books by both Kirkus and BookRiot. Her reading was from its forthcoming (September) sequel, Null States. Providing background, the books, she explained, were set some 60 years in the future; the nation-state system has largely resolved into a system of “microdemocracy,” units of 100,000 people called “sentinels,” the whole overseen by a massive bureaucracy, Information. Her protagonist, Mishima, is on a secret mission to a formerly prominent sentinel called Heritage to bug its offices in the former headquarters of the UN in Geneva. (Bugging has suddenly become topical, it was remarked.) Her reading, we must note, was punctuated by the participation of her small and adorable daughter. Returning to the microphone, Goldschlager introduced the other Older.

Daniel J. Older

Daniel José Older is the New York Times bestselling author of the collection Salsa Nocturna, the Bone Street Rumba urban fantasy series, and the Young Adult novel Shadowshaper, a New York Times Notable Book of 2015, which additionally won the International Latino Book Award, was shortlisted for the Kirkus Prize in Young Readers’ Literature, the Andre Norton Award, the Locus Award and the Mythopoeic Award, and was named one of Esquire’s 80 Books Every Person Should Read. (He was also active in the successful effort to retire H.P. Lovecraft’s caricatured likeness from the World Fantasy Award owing to his vigorous partaking of the racism of his times.) Taking his place at the mike, he quipped that he’d always suspected that his sister was a spy, and recalled that this Series was the first venue where he ever read. Reading from Battle Hill Bolero, the final installment of his Bone Street Rumba series, he warned about spoilers. His protagonist, Carlos, is a “halfie,” half-dead and half-alive, and a clean-up man for the Council of the Dead. He and his partner have been dispatched to the Manhattan Bridge to kill a giant river demon; however, many humorous lines later, he winds up sharing his life (or half-life) story about his ex-girl friend (the one who half-killed him) as they chummily share Malagueño cigars.

Amy Goldschlager

He then read a briefer excerpt about Chris, dead, invisible, on fire and rebelling against the Council. His reading style, observed Goldschlager, is “almost a musical experience.” (You may hear his music at danieljoseolder.net, on YouTube and @djolder on Twitter.) Spotting Freund, who had since arrived (dry), she cautioned the gathering that the readings were being Livestreamed.

Freund then announced upcoming events in the Series. On April 1st – which most think of as April Fool’s Day, but which, since 1967, he thinks of as Samuel R. Delany’s birthday – the Series would be hosting a 75th Birthday Party for Delany. On May 2nd, Goldschlager returns as guest-host for an evening with the Serial Box podcasters (Leah Withers, Max Gladstone, Joel Derfner, et al.). June 6th readers will be Sam J. Miller (whose first novel is being published in July) and Lara Elena Donnelly. Finally, he congratulated Barbara Krasnoff on her Nebula Award nomination (for “Sabbath Wine,” a story that she read here.)

During the intermission, a raffle for donors was held for copies of Infomocracy donated by Tor.com.

Resuming hosting, Goldschlager brought the Olders up to the stage to interview each other “because apparently they don’t know each other much.” He had come up with a game in which they guess each other’s literary influences from their favorite books and movies from childhood.  His guess for her was Anne of Green Gables and hers for him All the President’s Men. This soon evolved into a discussion of their favorite books and movies, not necessarily influences. She loved Lord of the Rings and McCaffrey; he didn’t care for The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, and she thought that the middle Narnia books were more interesting; he loved Sweet Valley Twins (but it didn’t influence him) and Catch-22; Blade Runner, Star Wars and Snow Crash were “huge” for both, and both loved Zelazny’s A Night in the Lonesome October and Lord of Light. When he decided in 2009 to become a writer, he was watching a lot of animé (notably Cowboy Bebop). She never read horror “that much.”

The audience kind of being left out, a Q-&-A followed. One audience member called Malka’s debut novel, Infomocracy, one of the year’s best and said that it reminded him of Sterling’s Islands in the Net; it turns out, though, she’s never read it, but noted that Infomocracy had been called “post-cyberpunk” (adding that she didn’t regard cyberpunk as being ready for “post-”). The next questioner asked Daniel what percentage of his work was drawn directly from his experience with EMS (he’s had a decade-long career as a New York City paramedic). A lot, he said – the dealing with a bureaucracy (the FDNY), the banality. The next two questions to Malka were what had happened in her future with the military (her editor, she noted, had been curious about all the nukes) and about the economic instrument that allowed exchange between governments. The militaries formed military governments with their economies based on renting out their services to small sentinels, and that there was an electronically-based currency.

Changing gears, the following question from the audience wondered if sf writers now are better at extrapolation than the previous generation (Asimov, Clarke) was and if it’s “more integral.” Malka said that her books are less about prediction than saying something, and cited the adage that sf is less predictive (of the future) and more descriptive (of the present). Daniel was asked where his stationary bike monsters (the “ngk”) came from. He joked that it was a comment on gentrification, then replied that in his world of ghosts, he wanted something small, powerful and unkillable.

A question about the importance of setting to them both highlighted both what they had in common (their settings are “dynamic” and place has an important role in their books) and their differences. His experiences are rooted (he moved to NYC years ago, and, although most of his readers may not, he “cares where Bedford Avenue is”), while she has lived over the world, rarely in one place for long, and has a geopolitical perspective. Yet their work involves each in compassion; she has more than a decade of experience in humanitarian aid and development, whereas he’s been more hands-on as an EMT. Something else they have in common, asked how they plot out their books, if, for example, they use index cards, both responded that they don’t painstakingly plot out their books.

Capping the evening perfectly, and eradicating the pun for good, asked which Older is older, Malka pointed to her daughter and quipped that it was her – “she’s a little Older.”

The crowd of about 50 included Melissa C. Beckman, Richard Bowes, Rob Cameron (running tech), Lynn Cohen Koehler, Barbara Krasnoff (managing the door), John Kwok, Gordon Linzner, James Ryan, Terence Taylor. Afterward, people milled around, socialized and grabbed a bite (food, coffee, tea, beer, wine) at the Café. Owing to Freund’s delay, there was no Jenna Felice Freebie Table this month (though I had Lunacon 2017 flyers with me to distribute).

NYRSF Readings Series Post-Halloween Spookiness Featuring Authors John Langan and Nicholas Kaufmann

John Langan at NYRSF Reading in November 2014. Photo by Mark Blackman.

John Langan at NYRSF Reading in November 2014. Photo by Mark Blackman.

By Mark L. Blackman: On the evening of Tuesday, November 4 (Election Day, which is far scarier than Halloween), the New York Review of Science Fiction Readings Series offered a double treat of spookiness and chills with horror authors John Langan and Nicholas Kaufmann. Held at the Series’ current venue, the low-ceilinged basement (variously the “downstairs cabaret”, the “dungeon” or the cellar, it was “a good venue for horror writers,” pronounced Langan) at the SoHo Gallery for Digital Art (aka Gallery La La) on Sullivan Street in Manhattan, the event was guest-hosted by former Series curator, book/audiobook reviewer Amy Goldschlager.

Unafraid, Jim Freund, the Series’ Executive Curator and the host of WBAI’s long-running Hour of the Wolf radio program on sf and fantasy (broadcast and streamed Wednesday nights/Thursday mornings from 1:30-3:00 AM), as well as host of the Hugo-winning Lightspeed Magazine Podcast, welcomed the audience and guests, and announced upcoming NYRSF readings. Tuesday, December 2 will be the Series’ annual Family Night, as traditional, featuring Ellen Kushner and Delia Sherman, at the Commons Brooklyn, 388 Atlantic Ave., a manageable hike from the Barclays Center. The Series returns to the SGDA on Tuesday, January 6, 2015, presenting Sarah Pinsker and Daniel José Older. April’s readings have been dubbed “Sam-Enchanted Evening”, featuring Samuel R. Delany and Sam J. Miller. (Yes, Chip has in the past been called Sam and even Sammy.)

Taking the podium, Amy Goldschlager introduced the first reader of the night, Bram Stoker Award, Shirley Jackson Award- and Thriller Award-nominated author Nicholas Kaufmann, who read an excerpt from his new novel, Die and Stay Dead, a follow-up to Dying is My Business (St. Martin’s Press). Opposed by a small group seeking a perilous grimoire, necromancy intrudes on a fannish (or perhaps, in this context, mundane) event, a medieval festival in Lower Manhattan’s Battery Park (the Battery is really down) in the form of mind-controlled living dead called revenants. The situation is further complicated by the presence as well of a flash mob of fake zombie walkers, and, in the confusion, the protagonist is abducted by the necromancer’s real rotting corpses.

After the intermission and a raffle (the prizes were a signed copy of Kaufmann’s print-out of the piece just read and Langan‘s most recent collection of fiction, The Wide, Carnivorous Sky and Other Monstrous Geographies, Hippocampus Press, 2013), Goldschlager delivered a fondly “passive-aggressive introduction” of the evening’s concluding reader. John Langan shared a selection from “Children of the Fang,” an original novella set to appear in Ellen Datlow’s upcoming anthology Lovecraft’s Monsters. In it, a pair of grown siblings revisit the eerie old house they were raised in and hear from their ancient grandfather tales of frightful doings, subterranean cities and homicidal hippies.

As traditional at NYRSF Readings, the Jenna Felice Freebie Table offered giveaway books, and refreshments (cider, cheese, crackers and Kit-Kat bars). At the front table, books by Langan and Kaufmann were for sale.

The audience of about 30 included Richard Bowes, David Cruces, Derrick Hussey, Kim Kindya, Gordon Linsner, James Ryan, Terence Taylor and Nick’s mom. After the chairs were origami’d, the readers and members of the audience adjourned to the SoHo Room, a nearby bar for dinner and drinks.