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2019 Programming: Tips, Tricks, and Frequently Asked Questions

Earlier this week, we posted about how Sirens’s programming works—and we highlighted how, each year, our programming is the collective work of our attendees. Regardless of your vocation, your level of experience, or your number of years at Sirens, you have something to say. And we hope that you’ll take a crack at sharing your thoughts and expertise as part of our programming this year!

Today, we have general programming information, how to find help from real people, tips and tricks for proposing programming, and answers to frequently asked questions on our programming process. Here we go!

 

General Information

  • We are accepting proposals from April 4 to May 15. All proposals must be submitted in full, including any supplemental abstracts for panels, by May 15, and all presenters must have “checked in” by following the links in emails that we send out when a main presenter indicates there will be a co-presenter.

  • The Sirens vetting board will make decisions by June 11. All accepted presenters must be registered and paid for Sirens by July 10.

  • We will have three scholarships (a 2019 Sirens registration and round-trip shuttle ticket) available for exemplary programming proposals. You can apply for these scholarships as part of the submissions process.

  • You can propose programming in a number of formats: papers or lectures (including as a set of pre-empaneled papers/lectures on a single topic), panels, workshops, roundtable discussions, afternoon classes, or a combination of multiple formats. (Please consult with the programming team before you submit a combination, though!)

  • You are welcome to present with co-presenters, except for roundtables, which must have a single moderator. Please note that the person submitting the proposal will be our main contact for the proposal (and in the case of a panel, will be the moderator). Again, please make sure that your collaborators are aware that they will need to confirm their participation by May 15—and in the case of panels and pre-empaneled papers, will need to submit a 300–500-word abstract of their own (note that the vetting board will review all abstracts in determining whether to select a proposal).

  • All communication is via email. Please use an email address to which you’ll have access throughout 2019, and that you check regularly.

  • Programming is reviewed and approved by an independent vetting board. All proposals are kept confidential.

  • Additional information can be found in Sirens’s official Call for Proposals.

 

Help from Real People

  • Programming Chats: Have questions? Looking for topic ideas or collaborators? Want some advice on selecting a presentation format? We’re holding two online chats with our programming team. They don’t make the selection decisions, but they’re full of thoughts that might be helpful! Chats will be held here at the following times:

    Saturday, April 13, 1–3 p.m. Eastern (10 a.m.–noon Pacific)
    Monday, May 13, 9–11 p.m. Eastern (6–8 p.m. Pacific)

  • Free Topics: All through March and April, we’ll be tweeting programming topics that are free for you to take, develop, and use in your programming proposal. You might take them as is, you might use them as inspiration, or you might find that they get your brain moving! Follow us on Twitter @sirens_con or check out #SirensBrainstorm.

  • More Questions: Email us! You can contact our programming team at (programming at sirensconference.org). They can’t guarantee your acceptance, but they’re full of helpful advice, and are glad to help you figure out the best format for your proposal, answer questions about the process, and so on.

 

Tips and Tricks

  • Everyone is welcome to propose programming! Sirens is a conference where readers and students present alongside authors and scholars, who present alongside librarians, educators, and publishing professionals. Everyone’s voice is valid, valuable, and necessary to our conversations and our community!

  • Look at past programming schedules. Our vetting board knows what topics have been presented in past years—and you should, too, so you don’t repeat them! New topics, or brand-new takes on old topics, will be considered more favorably. We make all our past programming available in our conference archive.

  • Go beyond introductory topics and analysis. Sirens is over ten years old, and we assure you, most Sirens attendees are well-versed in basic topics like “Reclaiming Fairy Tales” and “What is Diversity?” Push further the sophistication of your topic and your analysis.

  • Consider what type of presentation suits your topic best. We’ll be doing a deeper dive on each of these next week, but here’s a preview: papers and lectures are good for experts to convey information or frame an argument; panels are suitable for rigorous debate among experts with differing expertise or opinions; workshops and afternoon classes are perfect for hands-on explorations of practical topics; and roundtable discussions are great for topics where every audience member will have an opinion or contribution.

  • Focus on one or two proposals rather than several. This will help ensure your proposals are well-prepared and well-argued—and will increase their likelihood of acceptance.

  • Choose your co-presenters wisely. We strongly encourage you to seek out co-presenters with a variety of expertise, perspectives, and identities. Differences in expertise can bring additional thoughts and approaches to your work, while different perspectives and identities can enrich discussion and debate over your topic. (Bonus tip: If your topic is for people with complementary expertise to present information, we strongly encourage you to consider a paper or lecture with co-presenters, rather than a panel; the panel format is best suited for discussion and debate among panelists with different perspectives.)

  • Leave enough time to write a thoughtful summary and abstract. Since these descriptions are what the vetting board will judge your proposal on and will determine fellow attendees’ interest in your topic, it behooves you to not wait until the last minute! This is especially true for pre-empaneled papers and panels, where co-presenters must also submit an abstract by May 15.

  • You are not required to present on this year’s theme of heroes. Proposal topics must be relevant to Sirens, but do not need to address our theme for this year. Please do be sure that, at minimum, you’ve mentioned how your topic relates to fantasy!

 

Frequently Asked Questions

What are the requirements for being a presenter at Sirens?
The only requirement is that you must be a Sirens attendee, which also means you have to be 18 years old by October 24, 2019. Otherwise, everyone is welcome to propose programming—and if accepted, to present it!

How can I find co-presenters or panelists?
You can tweet @sirens_con or post on the unofficial Sirens Attendees Facebook group. You might also be able to find co-presenters or co-panelists at our programming chats.

How many proposals can I submit?
There is technically no limit, but we recommend focusing on one or two as it usually makes for better-prepared (and better-received) proposals.

Can I change my proposal later?
Before the May 15 deadline, you can submit a correction or contact us to withdraw and resubmit the proposal. Following May 15, however, we will pass your proposal on to the vetting board and you can no longer make changes.

Can I contact the vetting board about my proposal?
Please direct any questions to (programming at sirensconference.org) instead. Vetting board members only review proposals, and we ask them to keep their reviews confidential.

Can I request a specific day and time to present?
The schedule depends on our ability to track presentations by type, theme, and audio-visual needs, so we can’t accommodate schedule preferences. If you have an immovable conflict, such as your grandmother’s 100th birthday party, please write to us at (programming at sirensconference.org).

I have more questions!
We have more answers! Write us at (programming at sirensconference.org).

 

2019 Programming: We want your proposals!

Welcome to our annual programming series! In these posts, we’ll give you all the information you’ll need to propose programming for Sirens. Stay tuned: We’ll have a post with tips, tricks, and frequently asked questions later this week, and then we’ll feature a post specific to each type of programming next week. Then, on April 4, we’ll open our proposals system.

Let’s start at the beginning, shall we?

Programming, for Sirens, is the dozens of hours of papers, lectures, panels, workshops, roundtables, and afternoon classes that make up the heart of the conference. While a thousand conversations happen at Sirens every year, the true vanguards of those discussions are the brave and brilliant individuals who share their wisdom and expertise as part of our programming. See the archives to find out more about the kinds of topics and discussions that have been presented in the past.

So how does Sirens create its programming?

We don’t want Sirens to be limited by the interests, knowledge, and networking of our staff! Instead, we invite our attendees—from readers to scholars to librarians to authors—to propose programming for our schedule. And each year, dozens of individuals do: they create, propose, and present the lectures, papers, panels, workshops, roundtables, and afternoon classes that become the programming at Sirens. Regardless of your vocation, your level of experience, or how many years you’ve attended Sirens, we hope you’ll take a crack at sharing your thoughts and expertise as part of our programming.

And how does Sirens choose its programming?

Each year, an independent vetting board—a diverse group of tremendous individuals who know and love Sirens—review the proposals for thoughtfulness, relevance, and variety, and then select which ones to include on that year’s programming schedule.

  • Thoughtfulness: Is the proposal well-conceived? This means the vetting board considers the research, logic, and sophistication of the proposal. Is the proposal well-argued? Is it innovative? Is it interesting?

  • Relevance: Is the topic relevant to Sirens’s global topic of women in fantasy literature? The topic doesn’t need to specifically address the theme of any given year, and doesn’t have to be about women (and/or topics related to gender) and fantasy and literature, but if your proposal doesn’t address at least two of the three, you might want to consider how you can make your topic more relevant to the Sirens audience.

  • Variety: Has the topic been recently presented, and in much the same way? If there are multiple proposals on a topic in a single year, does each bring something special to the larger discussion? Does the proposal engage attendees beyond a basic definition approach, an audience of people who read, study, write, and consider fantasy (some of whom might do only one of those things, and even some who might do all)?

How does someone propose programming?

Sirens operates its own proposals system specifically for programming proposals. We’ll open this system on April 4 and close it May 15, which is this year’s deadline for proposals. After May 15, our vetting board goes to work.

Five things are needed for a proposal:

  • Personal information: Your name, contact information, and a third-person biography that we can use on our website and in our program book

  • A summary: 50–100 words about your topic and approach, which we’ll also publish on our website and in our program book (see last year’s summaries for examples)

  • An abstract: 300–500 words explaining your presentation and approach to the vetting board; this should be far more in depth and should demonstrate your research, analysis, and conclusion on the topic

  • Audiovisual requests: Information on your requested audiovisual equipment for your presentation, if any

  • Contact information for any co-presenters: Your co-presenters will then receive an email asking them to provide their personal information and, in the case of panels, a supplemental abstract of 300–500 words demonstrating the perspectives and expertise that they will bring to the panel

So let’s do this!

We know that the proposal process can be intimidating, especially for those new to Sirens. It takes a lot of courage to put your thoughts and analysis out there, first to a review board and then at Sirens itself. But each year, dozens of individuals screw their courage to the proverbial sticking place and, in doing so, make Sirens smarter, more thoughtful, and just plain better.

We hope that that will include you this year!

 

5 Books with Lonely, Neurodivergent Heroes

For our 2019 theme of heroes, Guest of Honor Mishell Baker shares the book list she curated for the heroes theme. If you enjoy her work, we encourage you to check out these other reads. For an additional insightful perspective, Mishell wrote about how her Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) affected her creation of this book list in a recent Twitter thread. Take it away, Mishell!

Some of the books that leave the biggest impression on me are those that capture a protagonist’s sense of isolation. Heroism, doing the right thing, is almost always a lonely undertaking. The idea of a fellowship is romantic and comforting, but in truth, many heroes stand alone, both literally or figuratively.

For this reason, I find some of the most compelling heroes are the ones who are in some way alien or removed, unable to relate to or understand those around them, but still willing to face overwhelming obstacles with or without support.

Here are a few examples of books that scratch this particular narrative itch for me:

 

An Unkindness of Ghosts
1. An Unkindness of Ghosts by Rivers Solomon

Featuring an intersex (using she/her pronouns) and starkly neuroatypical protagonist, this novel by Rivers Solomon is a bleak tale of a generation ship with dark secrets and a punishing social hierarchy. There is little moralizing in the story, its spine is the protagonist Aster’s dogged determination to find answers despite the scarcity and unreliability of her allies. Aster barely understands and is barely understood by those around her, but her own internal compass leads her eventually to the truth in this haunting, disturbing, and ultimately satisfying story.

Vita Nostra
2. Vita Nostra by Marina and Sergey Dyachenko

Written by Ukrainian couple Marina and Sergey Dyachenko and recently translated into English by Julia Meitov Hersey, this is a book about a young woman who starts as just another high school senior, but who has a brush with the otherworldly that slowly turns her into something utterly incompatible with her own family and former life. It would be oversimplifying to call this story a fantastic metaphor for the terrifying process of coming of age; it’s much more ambitious, intellectual, and at times deviously “meta” and self-aware than that. Like Sasha’s own journey, the story begins simply, almost banally, but then spirals into chaos, slowly rearranging itself into something staggeringly vast.

Planetfall
3. Planetfall by Emma Newman

This novel by Emma Newman combines two of my favorite tropes—planetary colonization and religious cults. Better yet, Newman tells the story through the eyes of a woman with a psychological fault line so well hidden that even the reader has no idea until halfway through the novel. The story continues in After Atlas, meaning that this book ends on rather a dark and inconclusive note ironically rife with religious symbolism. But even taken on its own, it’s a powerful story of human redemption, power dynamics, and the price of secrets.

On the Edge of Gone
4. On the Edge of Gone by Corinne Duyvis

Corinne Duyvis—autistic author of this page-turner of a novel about a teenager with autism struggling to earn a place on an already-full generation ship—literally invented #ownvoices. Denise, the protagonist of the novel, is fighting not only for herself but for her mother and sister, who will be stranded on a doomed planet if they’re not allowed to board the ship. The stakes literally couldn’t be higher, and the task would be daunting for any teenager, even without a neurological variance that at times seriously impedes her ability to communicate with the people who hold her fate in their hands. The story explores, among other ideas, the question of who “deserves” to survive when not everyone can be saved.

Ancillary Justice
5. The Imperial Radch series (Ancillary Justice, Ancillary Sword, and Ancillary Mercy) by Ann Leckie

Ann Leckie’s gender-blind space opera Ancillary Justice and its sequels have been talked about and read a great deal, but I bring them up again here because there’s an aspect to these books that I find particularly and personally intriguing. While the main character Breq is (spoiler alert) a fragment of an AI that was once embodied in multitudes of separate bodies, her experience is a profound metaphor for some very human psychological conditions, including BPD. It’s worth a re-read just to examine her through this filter.

Accustomed to being able to view the physical or emotional pain of one of her bodies as just one of many varying inputs, she finds the emotions of a single body overwhelming and intrusive in a way that is for her, at certain points in the story, suffocating and debilitating. This mirrors the experience of BPD—where emotions that for most people would be one signal amid other noise become something that instead fill the entire mind, inescapable. Neurotypical people have other places they can “shift” their awareness or focus when their emotions become intense, as Breq once moved her awareness between different bodies. Those with BPD often feel caught and completely immersed in an emotion: it becomes their entire existence for its duration.

Breq, of course, does not truly count as human at all. Her feeling of belonging to a separate species from others is not simply “all in her head,” but her struggles so closely resemble certain human conditions that it makes her easy to relate to, even if she has trouble relating to others. We see this in the way other characters interact with her.

In fact, that is a common theme in all the books in this list, and perhaps the reason they all stayed with me: the message that even if we don’t feel understood, there are always people around us who do care about us—people who either understand us better than we think they do, or who are willing to love even those people they can never fully understand.


Mishell Baker is a 2009 graduate of the Clarion Fantasy & Science Fiction Writers’ Workshop. Her short fiction has appeared in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Daily Science Fiction, Redstone Science Fiction, and Electric Velocipede. Her urban fantasy series The Arcadia Project, released by Simon & Schuster’s Saga imprint, includes Borderline, Phantom Pains, and Impostor Syndrome. The series is narrated by Millicent Roper, a snarky double-amputee and suicide survivor who works with a ragtag collection of society’s least-wanted, keeping the world safe from the chaotic whims of supernatural beasties. When Mishell isn’t convention-hopping or going on wild research adventures, she lives in Los Angeles with her co-parent and two changelings.

For more information about Mishell, please visit her website or her Twitter.

 

Mishell Baker’s Borderline is like Real World: Fey Los Angeles

The Sirens Review Squad is made up of Sirens volunteers, who submit short reviews of books (often fantasy literature by women authors) they’ve read and enjoyed. If you’re interested in sending us a review to run on the blog, please email us! Today, in honor of Mishell Baker’s Guest of Honor week here at Sirens, we welcome a review from Nivair H. Gabriel on Mishell Baker’s Borderline.

Borderline

There aren’t nearly enough grumpy, disabled heroines in fantasy literature. As a woman who’s lived with mental illness for the better part of thirty-one years, I’ve frequently felt bereft when roleplaying my favorite protagonists in my head. They don’t need to pack their daily medication when they go on quests. In their critical face-offs with villains, anxiety never triggers their most unhelpful stress response. Their bum knees (I have those too) never collapse in the heat of battle. I can follow their adventures from a distance, but implicit in the trends of these stories is the assumption that I could not have adventures of my own.

Not so with this book. Reading Borderline, for me, was relatable escapism at its finest from moment one. Protagonist Millicent Roper begins the story in a psychiatric center, where she’s sequestered herself after a suicide attempt that left her with two prosthetic legs and scars both literal and figurative. (It did no good for her pre-existing Borderline Personality Disorder, either.) An enigmatic, unflappable recruiter named Caryl shows up to offer Millie a ticket back into the film industry and a place to stay—and then Caryl disappears, in the blink of an eye. When Millie’s therapist warns her away from Caryl with more urgency than she’s ever shown before, she seals the deal. That’s how Millie finds herself at an eclectic mansion with the Arcadia Project, a ragtag crew of former mental patients that would make an incredible season of Real World: Fey Los Angeles.

Yes, Millie’s Hollywood is full of fey: not just fairies, but vampires, goblins, muses, and even the odd changeling, all surveilled by the Project. Her first assignment with too-gorgeous partner Teo is supposed to be a simple errand, but it turns into a missing persons case that soon points to a massive fey conspiracy. It turns out fairies and celebrities are mostly one and the same, and Millie’s the perfect person to deal with them; after her promising early career and sudden estrangement, she’s equal parts savvy about and enthralled with the fey and famous.

Mental illness is also an ideal qualification for a human working in the world of magic. Having lived through the particular hells of a chronic mood disorder, traumatic brain damage, and psychiatry, Millie has more than enough honed survival skills to handle supernatural danger. She’s always keeping track of her “Reason Mind” and “Emotion Mind” and practicing “distress tolerance”—familiar concepts to anyone else who’s been in dialectical behavior therapy. The constant thought-churning of a person who has to fight their own brain to survive is not unlike the hypervigilance required of a magical private detective.

Millie’s disabilities, though, don’t give her superpowers; she’s not a shallow trope. The iron in her prosthetics does neutralize fey magic, but that’s inconvenient or irrelevant as often as it’s convenient. Her journey is not about soothing an ableist world. In fact, she frequently points out its flaws: “As wrong as it is, people in wheelchairs don’t get treated normally by strangers. People see the chair first and wrestle with their discomfort, then their guilt over their discomfort.” She’s also careful to note that she’s not immune to socially instituted prejudice herself when she meets a new roommate who is a little person, and then when she meets that roommate’s boyfriend, who is Black: “I felt intimidated, then guilty about being intimidated, torn between the white liberal fantasy of color-blindness and the stereotypes I’d been fed my whole sheltered life.” Baker’s clear commitment to nuanced, three-dimensional characters and careful evasion of harmful tropes show that she’s not just trying to write inclusive literature—she’s trying and doing a damn decent job.

More than anything else, what I yearn for in writing is voice, and Borderline has that in spades. Baker has not only crafted a protagonist with the richly developed, complex layers of an award-winning tiramisu; she’s also woven Millie’s singular personality into every line of her narration. At one point, Millie notes, “It had been a long time since I had been awakened by a sunrise, and I’m one of those rare people who adores it. I love a day I haven’t screwed up yet.” Her cynical rejoinders make me snicker, but her sarcasm carries a self-aware vulnerability that both surprises me and secures my loyalty.

Somehow I haven’t yet mentioned the nimble pace of this novel. It’s the kind of swift delicious that’s my reader brain’s favorite and my writer brain’s worst nightmare—it takes who-knows-how long to create, but you could devour it in an afternoon. Or in an evening, say, when you suddenly realize you have twenty-four hours left to write a review of a book you read a very full two years ago. If you’re anything like me you’ll tell yourself to skim, but end up just plain reading . . . and being so very glad that this time, you’ve got a copy of the sequel on the shelf right next to you.


Nivair H. Gabriel has written all her life, and feminist fantasy is her heart-home. At sixteen, she thought it would be fun to go to MIT and get a BS in aerospace engineering, so she did. She has also contributed writing to Marvels & Tales, io9.com, Fantasy Magazine, Weird Tales, Pittsburgh Magazine, and the Sirens benefit anthologies Queens & Courtesans and Witches & Warriors. She holds a dual-degree MA/MFA in Children’s Literature and Writing for Children from Simmons College, and works as an Assistant Editor at Barefoot Books.

 

Further Reading: Mishell Baker

Loved Borderline? Looking for more of Mishell’s work after reading The Arcadia Project novels? As part of Mishell’s Guest of Honor week, we’re pleased to compile some of her short fiction, interviews, and guest posts, found around the web.

Mishell’s short fiction:

  • Throwing Stones” (2010): Originally published in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, a short story about a young man disguised as a woman and a goblin disguised as a human who discover that they have a common purpose.

  • Break” (2011): Originally published in Daily Science Fiction, a story in which aspirin counters the effects of a love potion.

  • Vaporware” (2011): Originally published in Redstone Science Fiction, a short story where two characters use simulations to select between eight embryos.

  • Fire in the Haze” (2016): Originally published in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, a short story that revisits the protagonist from “Throwing Stones” many years later.

In Mishell’s own words:

  • Not as Crazy as You’d Think: The Borderline Protagonist in Fantasy (2016), a guest post in Uncanny magazine: “So in fantasy, at least, a Borderline is in her element. And if we can imagine a context in which a stigmatized disorder does not destroy the life of the person who suffers from it, what questions does that raise?”

  • Interview in My Bookish Ways (2016): “For me, what makes Millie sympathetic is how hard she works at getting through or around her own vulnerabilities . . . I guess you could say she’s given up on giving up.”

  • Interview in The Speculative Herald (2016): “ I knew that I wanted to write about someone who had survived a suicide attempt, because I have such strong feelings about the phoenix-like effect of hitting rock bottom and then emerging into an entirely new existence.”

  • Mishell’s The Big Idea post (2017) on Whatever, John Scalzi’s blog: “Anytime we battle the invisible, whether it’s a ghost or something that haunts us psychologically, the only weapon is investigation. Find the source of the pain and hold a mirror to it, create something real and tangible that you can fight in its stead.”

  • A Heroine Like No Other (2017), Mishell’s interview in The Huffington Post: “I always think of my stories as ‘interactive’ even when they aren’t, in the strictest sense.”

 

Mishell Baker: My heroes’ special superpower is survival

We’re pleased to bring you the first in a series of candid, in-depth interviews with this year’s Sirens Guests of Honor, covering everything from inspirations, influences, and craft, to the role of women in fantasy literature, and discussing our 2019 theme of heroes! We hope these conversations will be a prelude to the ones our attendees will be having in Denver this October. Today, Sirens co-founder Amy Tenbrink speaks with Mishell Baker.

S15_author_interview_graphic

AMY: What does heroism, especially in the context of speculative fiction, mean to you? Does the gender of the hero affect your definition?

Mishell Baker

MISHELL: Gender doesn’t affect my definition at all, and my definition seems to differ greatly from Joseph Campbell’s. A hero isn’t someone who has to be dragged reluctantly into doing what’s right even though some prophecy or mentor has laid the path out for them and placed helpful signs along the way. A hero is someone who is told, “You can’t, it’s hopeless, better people than you have failed, turn back now,” and who decides they’re going to ignore all that and do what’s right anyway. Not because they’re confident they can succeed, but because they simply can’t live with themselves if they don’t at least try. That’s the kind of hero we need in a day and age when all the signs are pointing backwards. We need someone whose internal compass points relentlessly forward anyway, someone who ignores official signs and doesn’t wait around for a gold-embossed invitation.

 

AMY: For readers who haven’t yet read Borderline, Millie is magnificent: a cynical, disabled filmmaker with borderline personality disorder who, much to her surprise, becomes a quasi-detective in a noir-ish, faery-filled Los Angeles. Prior to the opening of Borderline, she attempted suicide, and you’ve mentioned that you wanted, in creating Millie’s story, to depict her phoenix-like rise following that attempt. “I guess you could say she’s given up on giving up.” That determination, that she’s given up on giving up, is so evident in Millie: She’s relentless, despite her ignorance of faery, her endlessly troublesome job, her dysphoria, and a million other things that you throw her way. Why did you want to give Millie this story arc and this determination?

Borderline

MISHELL: Because I can’t imagine anything more important in life.

Every time I write something, I try to entertain, but I also understand that I have a captive audience for at least a little while, and I want to give them something that will last beyond the several hours or days of escapism I’m naturally also hoping to provide. The books that have meant most to me in my life are those which have saved me the trouble of living through something myself in order to learn from it. We have enough hard lessons in our own lives; sometimes it’s nice to grow as a person simply by reading about what someone else is living through.

Millie’s determination is, at times, the only thing she has going for her, when everything both inside and outside of her seems to be turning against her. We see so many heroes, especially in fantasy, that possess some special power or aptitude that saves them in the end. I wanted to write a story where the “superpower” is simply… survival. Continuing to try, again and again, even when everything repeatedly falls to pieces. Millie does have some assets, to be sure—she’s clever, and gutsy, and knows how to see the humor in situations. But she’s no demigoddess. She just keeps picking herself back up, even when she loses friends, or pieces of herself. And I want anyone who reads my books to carry that idea with them, just in case chaos starts raining down on their own lives. I want them, even if it’s only subconsciously, to have the idea that all they need to do is keep moving forward, and that will be enough to turn a disaster into a good story.

 

AMY: You’ve spoken at length about how Millie’s borderline personality disorder is surprisingly helpful as she navigates the unknown rules of a fantasy world—and I’ll add, becomes a hero. Would you share a bit about crafting a hero that is so far outside the mold of hypermasculine, sword-and-sorcery stereotype?

Phantom Pains

MISHELL: I think it actually came more naturally to me than trying to write a standard hero. Neither I nor anyone I’ve ever been close to has ever done what was expected of them in life or moved smoothly through social situations. In my life history, the people who had the characteristics of the typical fantasy hero were people who ended up very unlikable: the powerful preyed on the weak, the beautiful mocked the ugly, the talented basked in attention and glory while the kids who were struggling got kicked off to the sidelines. So when I pick up a book and the author immediately tries to convince me how beautiful, special, and powerful a character is, my first instinct is to mistrust that character, even resent them.

I’m used to thinking of sympathetic people in terms of how they fail to fit in, how they chafe against the fabric of the society that surrounds them. So if I know I have to cast someone in a role, be it hero, sidekick, or villain, I think my natural inclination is to ask myself, “What is expected of someone in this role, and who would seem to be the worst possible fit?” That’s what interests me the most: watching someone who is forced to do a job they would appear to be terribly suited for, and finding a way to hack their own hidden strengths and find a different way to play the role that is somehow just as effective.

 

AMY: The pace of your work is full-speed ahead! In many ways, that’s driven by the actions of your main group of characters: They don’t wait, they act. They don’t discuss, they advocate. They don’t dither, they decide. And then I think of something, perhaps related, that you once said in an interview, about how gaming has influenced your writing process: “I’m constantly thinking of the reader as a person who wants to take the wheel. I can’t give readers actual choices in such a linear form, but I can try to imagine what they’d choose, and I can decide at a given point in the story whether it’s best to gratify their desires or frustrate them.” Why are you so focused on reader interactivity? Aside from speed and compulsive readability, what do you think it brings to your work?

MISHELL: I’m an extrovert. It’s a bit of a curse, actually, as a writer, since it’s by nature a solitary profession. But even when I’m writing alone, I’m not alone. I’m always in a sort of conversation with an invisible reader. I can almost hear them yawning if I start to dwell too lovingly on a description or an inner monologue. I feel a constant sense of tension, of push and pull, between myself and this imaginary person who is always just on the verge of wandering off to do something more interesting. “Wait, wait!” I call after them as they start to turn away. And then I make something explode, to bring them back.

A lot of writers say they write for themselves. I’ve been told that’s healthy, and possibly it is. But I have never written for the sake of self-expression. I couldn’t do that any more than I could wander around the house speaking eloquently to empty rooms. I have to imagine that reader. It is interactive from my end from the very beginning, whether I want it to be or not. My measure of success for myself is always the effect on the reader. I don’t care much about purging my inner demons or making myself understood—perhaps decades of therapy have taken care of that urge—I care entirely about creating an experience for another person.

As far as what it brings to my work, I think it affects the way readers view me. I think it’s obvious from the way I write that I’m not reaching for some inner pinnacle of artistic perfection, but reaching outward instead, and readers seem very inclined to reach back. I’ve heard authors urging their readers not to be shy, to get in touch; I’ve never had to do that. My readers seem more-than-usually inclined to contact me online and in person, and that makes me happy.

 

Impostor Syndrome

AMY: Once upon a time, I loved Los Angeles—and not so differently, Borderline and its sequels love Los Angeles, a bright, electric, pulsing sort of Los Angeles. Was it important to you that your Los Angeles be so gloriously sentient? And how did you go about getting that vibrancy and that adoration on the page?

MISHELL: This is one of the areas in which I think my BPD actually helps me. I simply describe Los Angeles as I see it, as it makes me feel. I think any writer can manage to translate only a small percentage of their emotion onto the page when they write. I have a theory that since I tend to experience emotions an order of magnitude more intense than that of a neurotypical person, my paltry percentage of expression may come closer to capturing the average person’s entire emotional experience.

To answer the other part of the question, I wanted to make Los Angeles a vivid, breathing character in the story simply because, when I started writing the first book, I had an injury that left me housebound and a new baby that chopped up my mental focus like a tiny Cuisinart. I wasn’t able to do a lot of research on exotic settings and cultures, so I was sort of stuck with trying to take what was immediately around me and make it sing as though it were an alien planet. And Los Angeles, frankly, kind of is. I think you know what I’m talking about.

 

AMY: Sirens is about discussing and deconstructing both gender and fantasy literature. Would you please tell us about a woman or nonbinary person—a family member, a friend, a reader, an author, an editor, a character, anyone—who has changed your life?

MISHELL: Oh gosh, where to start. One of the things about having BPD, about missing that outer layer of skin over your emotions that most people have, is that you are deeply impressionable, and can be dramatically influenced for good or ill by the people who appear in your life, even briefly. But I’ll choose one, because she’s a fantastic writer in her own right (in both senses of the word) and I truly believe one day I will have to stand in a long line to compete for the honor of being her biggest fan – Wren Wallis.

Before I met Wren I actually had a bit of a fear of other women, an internalized misogyny that came both from media brainwashing and from my unfortunate experiences at an all girls’ private school in the South. I really bought into the destructive messages the media gives us about women and the “false” friendships between them. But about a decade ago I met Wren, and she was the kind of person who calmly stood between me and the people who behaved as my high school classmates had. Wren’s patience, honesty, loyalty, and genuine love for humanity with all its flaws forced me to rethink the stereotypes I’d been fed.

The irony is that I initially met her online and the only reason I had the courage to befriend her in the first place was that I thought she was a man. I’m glad I made that mistake. Now she’s like a sister to me, and my friendship with her ended up being the “gateway drug” to many fulfilling relationships with people of all genders. Maybe this isn’t the flashiest answer I could have given, but sometimes it’s the quiet people, the ones who rarely draw attention to themselves, who can have the greatest impact on a life.


Mishell Baker is a 2009 graduate of the Clarion Fantasy & Science Fiction Writers’ Workshop. Her short fiction has appeared in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Daily Science Fiction, Redstone Science Fiction, and Electric Velocipede. Her urban fantasy series The Arcadia Project, released by Simon & Schuster’s Saga imprint, includes Borderline, Phantom Pains, and Impostor Syndrome. The series is narrated by Millicent Roper, a snarky double-amputee and suicide survivor who works with a ragtag collection of society’s least-wanted, keeping the world safe from the chaotic whims of supernatural beasties. When Mishell isn’t convention-hopping or going on wild research adventures, she lives in Los Angeles with her co-parent and two changelings.

For more information about Mishell, please visit her website or her Twitter.

 

New Fantasy Books: March 2019

We’re excited to bring you a roundup of March 2019 fantasy book releases by and about women and nonbinary folk. Let us know what you’re looking forward to, or any titles that we’ve missed, in the comments!
 

Presented by Narrate Conferences, Inc.

 

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