In Voice, FP Dorchak returns to many of the metaphysical themes he has explored throughout his other works, but he does so in a megaphysical, not to mention sexually explicit, way. The novel opens with protagonist Benjamin Becker on a plane bound for his hometown to deal with the dispersal of his father’s estate. Divorced and at a crossroads in his life, Benjamin has a head full of questions: “What was the meaning of life? Why ere we all put here to endure physical existence? Why did people have to die? Why was honesty so damned hard? Was true love ever obtainable if people continued to lust after seemingly greener pastures?” Though the novel grapples to some extent with all of these questions, the final question is its primary focus. To answer it, Dorchak has his protagonist fall for a flight attendant named Amanda and an apparently imaginary lover named Rebecca in rapid succession. That Benjamin is attracted to both concurrently only adds to his own confusion about the nature of love, and the fact that he attempts to bring Rebecca to life by projecting her personality into a mannequin doesn’t help matters. (Nor does his growing suspicion that Rebecca may not be as imaginary as he first thought.) What emerges from all of Benjamin’s turmoil is a bizarre and mind-bending meditation on love, being, and reincarnation that would feel right at home in an episode of the X-Files. Or maybe the XXX-Files.
Pretty much everything you need to know about digging into Tom Williams’s newest book is in the title: Among the Wild Mulattos and Other Tales. For me, it’s one of the best titles in recent memory, and shows readers the humor Williams brings to the topic of race before they open the book.
Don’t mistake that humor for flippancy. The book is funny, but as a result of raw honesty about the situation.
And do not mistake that raw honesty for an oppressive read. Williams does not pull his punches, but nor does he ever pile on.
Yes, every story in Among the Wild Mulattos deals with race in America, but some do so more intensely than others, some with outlandish humor and others with a darker tone, creating an ebb and flow of emotion and intensity through the book.
Williams’s collection begins with “The Story of My Novel: Three Piece Combo With Drink,” a story about a writer—a bi-racial man—who can’t sell his writing in the traditional manner, and instead queries his favorite fast food chain. The chain publishes his novel, but changes it to make it a piece of propaganda for the company. The character then embarks on a hilarious, slapstick-style tour of franchises all around the country to promote what is only sort of his book. The heightened style Williams employs here adds to the humorous farce of it all.
However, the range of this collection is revealed when one contrasts “The Story of My Novel” with “Ethnic Studies,” a story about four men of different racial minorities recruited to stand in front of a college class and be, essentially, humiliated by the professors and their students’ ignorant questions. The professors, in a misguided and self-righteous attempt to broaden their students’ horizons, eventually become the butt of the jokes when the men brought into the class take control of the conversation.
“Ethnic Studies” is a funny story, especially at the end when the men parody their own stereotypes, which only makes the sheltered students more uncomfortable. But the style is more terse than many of the other stories, and the indignities the characters suffer are more brutal and overt. But, in the end, the humor is what Williams uses to balance things out, to restore a sense of justice to the story.
In constructing such a collection, Williams achieves a deft balance of poignancy, clarity, and humor. His work reminded me of a quote by Vonnegut:
“Laughter and tears are both responses to frustration and exhaustion. I myself prefer to laugh, since there is less cleaning up to do afterward.”
It would be natural and justified to write a tearful book about the frustrating and exhausting situation of race in contemporary America, but to write one with laughter is its own accomplishment, perhaps a more difficult one. And, the clean up from this reading experience is pretty easy.
Among the Wild Mulattos and Other Tales is available here.
Big thank you to Marc for letting me take over his blog today to talk about trope twisting, how to take something familiar and make it fresh again.
Trope Twisting: Something Familiar but Different by K.C. Tansley
After years of attending writing conferences, it has been drilled into my head that agents and editors want one thing: something familiar, but different.
Fantasy tropes—isolated castles, magic mirrors, ghosts, witches, curses, and spells—are incredibly familiar to readers, which means they have an understanding of what these things are. Because readers can immediately grasp and connect with these things, they can also border on boring.
Tropes, however, can be very useful. If I say castle, it stirs something inside you. It’s part of your symbolic memory. Ditto for magic mirror. You already have an idea of what that entails. It’s familiar. Your mind is comfortable with the concept and the meaning of it.
When I was building my story, I realized I had a bunch of tropes in it. Then I heard the advice from conferences running through my head: take the familiar and make it different.
So I set to work on trope twisting. It’s about taking a trope and adding your own twist to it. You have to take something familiar and find a way to make it feel fresh to the reader.
I had an isolated castle and the first thing people think is England or Europe. At least, that’s what I think of when I think castle. So I played the What If game. That’s where I ask what if and see where it takes me. So I asked myself, “What if I put the castle in New England?” That’s different. Yes, coastal New England. But which state? How about my home state? Connecticut.
That decision impacted the rest of the plot. Instead of time traveling to Victorian England, my characters went to Victorian New England. Something less common and less expected. Oh, I liked where this was headed.
I’ve always been fascinated by mirrors. I used to wonder what could happen if I stared at one long enough. What if my image wasn’t just a reflection? So, of course, my story included a magic mirror that acts as a portal. People falling or jumping through magic mirror portals is pretty common. How could I make this different? What if instead of falling through it, my heroine is yanked through it? Again, a slightly different take on things.
I kept going with this. Tweaking my world building to make it a little different than what you’d expect. Curses and spells are only cast by the living. But the dead, they can force the living to do their bidding. They can possess the living.
I had my own ideas about what happens when we die. I put my spin on what ghosts and spirits were. For me, death shatters souls. Ghosts are the big chunks that remain here and they seek reckonings. The largest part of the soul remains intact and it reincarnates. Spirits are tiny fragments of the ghost piece. They have no intentions, they simply recreate a moment.
Even my time travel had a twist, a body snatcher aspect to it that my publisher loved. It was something they felt made the book stand out.
So when you’re writing your story, look to the elements that have a universal appeal or meaning. Then find a way to put your own personal twist on them.
About The Book
In The Girl Who Ignored Ghosts, prep school junior Kat Preston accidentally time travels to 1886 Connecticut, where she must share a body with a rebellious Victorian lady, prevent a gruesome wedding night murder, disprove a deadly family curse, and find a way back to her own time.
K.C. Tansley lives with her warrior lapdog, Emerson, on a hill somewhere in Connecticut. She tends to believe in the unbelievables—spells, ghosts, time travel—and writes about them.
Never one to say no to a road trip, she’s climbed the Great Wall twice, hopped on the Sound of Music tour in Salzburg, and danced the night away in the dunes of Cape Hatteras. She loves the ocean and hates the sun, which makes for interesting beach days. The Girl Who Ignored Ghosts is the first book in her YA time-travel murder mystery series.
As Kourtney Heintz, she also writes award winning cross-genre fiction for adults.
Facebook Page: http://www.facebook.com/kourtneyheintzwriter