Friday, April 29, 2011

Piers Anthony on Vegetarianism

My childhood was not happy, but it improved during school and more during college. Something happened during high school that had a considerable effect on my later life, and I certainly don't mean learning verbs and nouns or struggling with four years of languages. My closest cousin, Teddy, died, devastating his family. He was fifteen. He had bone cancer, and they think that if they had caught it in time they might have saved him by amputating his leg. But he had a big test to study for, and carried on despite the pain, and by the time they realized it was cancer, it was too late. Almost 60 years later similar happened to my elder daughter, as melanoma took her out. But this is about that first death. The thing is, when I was sixteen and Teddy was fifteen, one grade apart at the same Quaker school, it seemed to be that he had everything to live for, while I had little. He was outgoing and popular, full of fun, a good guy. I was really none of these things. His family was wealthy; mine was poor. He did well in classes; I had trouble just graduating. I am and always was agnostic, having no belief in the supernatural, including God. But it seemed to me that if God existed, and it was written that one of us had to go, I was the expendable one. Instead he took out the one with promise, leaving the misfit in place. Why would God ever mess it up like that?
Well, over the decades I have slowly come to terms with that seeming injustice, and I think actually I did have more potential, which has since been realized in my writing career. I was depressed in part because I was smart enough to see what I lacked. But that is beside the point of this discussion. First came a revulsion to death, because I had seen how unfair it could be. Death has been on my mind more or less constantly, as some of my writings show, such as On a Pale Horse, a novel with Death as the protagonist. In college after the first semester I gradually stopped eating meat, because I knew it required the killing of animals, and I did not want to contribute to that. I believe that was the way I finally came to terms with my cousin's death. This may have been late and slow in coming, but it developed the force of religion. When I fell in love and proposed to my girlfriend, it was qualified. I said approximately “Understanding the constraints that exist, will you marry me?” She said “Yes.” I said “Did you understand the question?” She did. Vegetarianism was the one requirement I made of her, because I knew I could not truly love a person who consumed dead animals. Probably the fact that my father had been vegetarian, and my mother not, and they had a long, slow, difficult estrangement and divorce, influenced me. My parents' problems were considerably more complicated than that, and vegetarianism may have played no significant part in their breakup, but it was in my mind. My wife has been a vegetarian ever since, and we have been married over 54 years, so it seems it did work out. Our daughters also were vegetarians, not because we required it of them—I believe every child should have the right to make fundamental decisions for herself—but I think because no meat was served in our house and they were satisfied to leave it so.
The questions of nutrition and health are relevant. Some supposedly intelligent people claim that vegetarianism is unhealthy. I expect to outlive most of them. But it is true that it is better to watch your diet, regardless whether you eat meat. For example, fish oils are good for Omega 3 fatty acids, assuming the mercury contamination is low. Omega 3 is important in the balance of the system. But you can get it from flaxseed oil, and we do. We are ovo-lacto vegetarians, meaning we do eat eggs and milk. My rationale is that I don't like hurting animals, and maintaining them for their milk and eggs can be healthy for them. But I certainly don't like factory farms, so it's a compromise. Vegans who eschew milk and eggs must work harder to get things like protein. Some vegetarians do eat fish or fowl; fruitarians eat only fruit. So while I am not vegetarian for my health, there may be health benefits. Today there are also a number of imitation meats, made from soy or other products. Some emulate the real things perfectly, others are only approximate. I prefer that they not be perfect imitations, because even the semblance of meat eating sickens me. I'd be happy to have products like polka-dotted Martian hawkfeather grind, not resembling anything on Earth. But obviously those who eat meat purely for the appearance and taste can now do so as vegetarians. It has been said that any environmentalist who is not also a vegetarian is a hypocrite, because of the staggering damage the meat industry does to the world. I don't have that extreme a view myself, but I do believe that universal vegetarianism will come in time, because it takes about twenty times as much land area to feed folk via meat animals as it would to feed people directly. When the food runs out, as it will, this will be the necessary compromise. I also think that soon algae and krill cultivation will produce food emulations of any type, much cheaper and less environmentally damaging than present agriculture. So yes, vegetarianism will conquer the world, in due course, and the animals will no longer be slaughtered for meat. That will be a brave new world indeed.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Piers Anthony on Van Gogh

Twenty years ago when my late mother visited us, she brought a poster she had picked up at an exhibit of the paintings of Vincent Van Gogh, the famous Dutch post-impressionist artist 1853-1890. Unsuccessful, he committed suicide. Creative folk can be depressive; I have wondered whether if I could be completely free of my mild depression, but at the expense of my writing urge, would I do it? I suspect I would not. Van Gogh's success began after his death, slowly building, until now he is recognized as one of the formative artists of our world. I can't say I saw much in him myself, but we put up the poster, VAN GOGH IN ARLES, where we had wall space, which was in a downstairs bathroom. I could see it in the mirror as I brushed my teeth. I think I have looked at that picture more than any other in my life, simply because it was there when my eyes had nothing much else to do. And I came to appreciate it, and Van Gogh. I bought a huge book of his paintings, containing everything except the one we have, and read about his obscure life and sad death. Because he messed it up; he shot himself, but didn't kill himself immediately; he took many hours to die, saying even in this he was a failure. Too bad he couldn't have lived longer, to see his phenomenal later success.
Anyway, I stared at that painting, backwards in the mirror, many times a day, for twenty years. At first it seemed to be just a smearing of colors horizontally across the canvas. Then I realized that one band was more like a flowering hedge, and that gave definition to the foreground. Years later I realized that the hedge was more like a planting, dividing two lots, and there was a path through it. I tried to fathom where that path might lead, but couldn't locate it beyond the hedge. More recently I realized that there was another house in the painting. Or there had been, before the artist changed his mind and tried to mask it with a tree. The house is still there, masked, however; the artist in me can see it well enough. Stage by stage I came to understand the painting, perceiving the larger scene.
And that I think is a way of looking at life. We can't see all of it at first, but as time passes we pick up on more of it, until at last we have a pretty fair notion of its magnitude, though perhaps not a very great comprehension of it. We view it backwards through time, and episodes of childhood don't have quite the same meaning they did when we were younger. Who is to say which view is more accurate? All we can do is keep looking and pondering, hoping to get it closer to correct. Hoping that what we are will not entirely fade after we pass on, as Van Gogh did not.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Piers Anthony on Writers Block

This is known as the bane of writers. You finally have time from your busy schedule, you have your system organized, you have a great story idea, you are ready to write—and you get constipation of the brain. You know the oomph is there, but it just won't come out. The more frustrated you get, the more it blocks up. It's absolutely maddening. I think in terms of analogies, as this intro may suggest, so here's another. In school and college I liked acting. There's something about being on stage and wowing an audience that appeals. But I got stage fright, which threatened to wash out any notion of being an effective actor. It can blank your mind so that you can't remember your lines, which is a real problem when you have to deliver. I realized early on that I could not afford stage fright. But I couldn't simply banish it; it lurked, waiting its chance to do me the most damage. I finally did get over it, and I know how I did, but I can't recommend it as a cure for others.
You see, I was a teacher, first of basic math in the US Army, then of high school English in civilian life. In the end I washed out, not because I didn't know the subject, or that I couldn't get it across effectively, but because I was not a great disciplinarian. Keeping order in an American high school class is like fighting trench warfare; teachers can suffer PTSD, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. I did have nightmares for years following my retirement from that arena. But here's the thing: years of facing classes entirely depleted my store of stage fright, and I no longer suffered from it. I can address an audience of any size, either reading my material or extemporaneously. So I solved that problem simply by spending a lot of time before audiences of one kind or another. There are strong similarities between stage fright and writer’s block; the latter is really stage fright of the imagination.
Fortunately, I do have a solution for blockage. I did suffer it early in my career, knew I couldn't afford it, and devised a system I believe will work for anyone who really wants to write. Yes I know: telling a blocked writer that he doesn't really want to write is inviting a retaliatory blast of outrage. Nevertheless there are some. It's not a matter of intelligence or talent. I think of Theodore Sturgeon, arguably the finest stylist the science fiction field ever had, with a phenomenal imagination, who really didn't like to write. He had remarkable talent, he had editors eager to buy his material, but he just couldn't sit down and start typing. I have an imaginary dialogue in case some Sturgeon fan who resents my far greater commercial success despite not being in Sturgeon's literary league ever demands, “What does a hack like you have that Sturgeon didn't?” My answer would be, “Discipline, and the fact that I really like to write.” And you do need both.
But sometimes you can get hung up regardless. I did. It can be in the middle of a scene that abruptly refuses to jell. I devised a technique to unclog a scene that I think will work to unclog anything. In fact, I think that if all writers used my system, the only ones who would block up would be those who truly prefer TV, golf, or sex to writing, in contrast to me. Well, that last one can distract me from my text, but I won't be spending all day at it, so will return to writing soon. It is what I call the Bracket system. It started when I was penciling my first drafts, because I was taking care of my hyperactive baby daughter and simply could not stay at a typewriter long enough to accomplish anything. So I used a clipboard with paper and pencil and stayed with her, writing sentences while she played with toys, pulled books off shelves, splashed water around, ate dirt, and did the myriad other things toddlers do. I could literally drop the clipboard to catch her before she fell. So when I was amidst a text and needed to make a separate note, I put it in squared off [brackets] so it would not be confused with my story text. Then in second draft, when I typed and edited my material, transcribing from the pencil, I would eliminate the brackets and their contents, their purpose having been served. Later, when I computerized, and my daughter was in college, so I could stay in place longer, I used a separate notes file for bracket discussion, and that worked just as well. So when I refer to brackets, that doesn't have to be literal, any more.
So let's say you have a sequence that hangs up. Maybe your protagonist, Expressica Lovelorn, has just met the man of her dreams, and she has no idea what to say to him. You, the writer, have no idea either. So you step into brackets and discuss it with yourself. Remember, your alter ego is just as smart as you are, and can have good input. [Come on, now, I don't want her to make a fool of herself. But if she doesn't do something soon, that ideal man is going to move on, never even noticing her, and her chance will be forever lost and she will die a frustrated old maid. Can she say something intelligent? No, she's tongue-tied; that's the problem, dummy. Can she do something? What can she do? Ask him the time? No, that's a stupid, transparent ploy, especially considering she's wearing a lovely wristwatch that sparkles in the sunlight. Suppose she faints? Yeah, sure, that will impress him, as she conks her head on the pavement. He'll wonder whether she's likely to do that when driving or holding a baby. Suppose she stumbles and almost collides with him? But then she'll look clumsy, and that's not the impression she wants to make. Well, then, if she does collide, so he's up against her softness, that might impress him. And he takes her for a floozie. How about asking him directions, like maybe, “Excuse me, but I'm lost.” Yeah, sure, when she's lived here all her life. But he won't know that, and anyway she really is lost, not physically, but emotionally. But you said she just doesn't know how to start a conversation with this guy, and she's running out of time. So how about honesty:”Excuse me, but I can't think of a thing to say to you!” Worse and worse; sounds like a brushoff. Let's break for lunch and ponder this.] So you take a lunch break, and when you return you still haven't thought of anything, and your two characters are hanging there suspended in limbo, not even breathing. You can't let this horror continue. Back to the brackets: [I wish she could just blurt, “I'm Expressica. I think you're the greatest. Will you talk with me?” Of course that's so stupid. But you know, maybe that candor would get through to him, and if it doesn't, what has she lost? So let's try it and see how it works.] So you exit your bracket and try it, and the guy says, “Say, that's what I was about to say to you, Jessica, you lovely creature. I'm Tall Darken Handsome. Let's go somewhere for a bite to eat.” And she says, “Sorry, Thrall, I just ate.” [Wait, wait, you idiot! That's me, the writer, who just ate. Delete that and have her gratefully accept. You've got it, by sheer ignorant mischance, you hack.]

And so it goes. Sometimes I use up pages in bracket notes, but they always get me there eventually. The point is, brackets keep you writing, keep up the momentum, and when you figure it out you can adapt from them for your sequence. See how it works for you. I've been using it for forty years and have no trouble with Block.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Piers Anthony on Publishing

I'm a writer. I live to write fiction, mostly stories and novels, and I feel most truly alive when I'm in a scene I am crafting. There are ways in which my fictive worlds are more real to me than the real world. But a significant aspect of writing is being read. Just as the ultimate desire of the average person is to love and be loved, the desire of a writer is to write and be read. I love writing, whatever the piece. The problem is getting that piece published so that others can read it. 
When I am asked what I don't like about my trade, my answer is “dealing with publishers.” Their choices can seem arbitrary, they may demand pointless or crippling revisions, and they can take months, sometimes years to make up their dull minds. They may make deals, called contracts, which they then may renege on, and if a writer protests, he gets blacklisted. I have been the route. As I like to put it, the average traditional publisher doesn't give half a used fart for the welfare of the average writer. It's the arrogance of power. Publishers, as a general rule, regardless what they say, want only one thing: money, and they have myriad ways of cheating to get it at the author's expense. Publishers are like elephants, writers like mice, and the careless or self-willed writer risks getting stepped on. Elephants, despite folklore, are not afraid of mice; if they notice them at all, they treat them with contempt.
So what's a writer to do? Most just live with it, accepting their assigned role as serfs to the feudal lords. Some loyal serfs can do well, as they get choice assignments. Others try to stand up for themselves. If they don't seen learn better, they get fewer opportunities to be published and may finally fade out. Those who survive can be not better but bitter. I am a bitter survivor, as comments like this one demonstrate. Most of those who blacklisted me are long since out of business, and I suspect some do regret taking me on, but the system remains intact. You have heard of Pyrrhic victories? Pyrrhus was a Greek king who defeated the advancing Romans, but it was so costly that he said ruefully that another such victory would ruin him. Indeed, the Romans eventually overran Greece. Come to think of it, Piers could almost be a contraction of Pyrrhus. I could have been more successful than I have been, had I been a lick-spittle. I have done it my way, and paid the price.
But now there is a new dawn coming after over a century of darkness. Today there are alternatives to traditional print publishing. One of them I helped come into being by investing in Xlibris the self publisher 13 years ago, and seeing it through to becoming an established option; for a fee of about $500 any author can get his book in print. I am no longer associated with Xlibris, and it is not the only reputable self publisher. Another is electronic publishing, which I have tracked for over a decade via my ongoing survey at New electronic publishers are appearing all the time, often started by frustrated writers who were balked by traditional print publishers. They are far more open to new writers, and generally more personal and responsive.
What's the downside? Money. While a mass market traditional print author may expect to sell tens of thousands of copies of each title, an electronically published author may sell tens of copies. So this is best done for love rather than for money. Also, as e-publishers become more successful, they also tend to become more arrogant, until like the revolutionary pigs in George Orwell's Animal Farm they become almost indistinguishable from the old order. That's why I run anonymous writer feedback on these publishers. Any writer who speaks out openly is subject to retaliation that can end his career, so anonymity is essential. Yes, some publishers then come after me, trying to silence these reports. Some threaten legal action. But having been the full route, I am now an ornery cuss, and have the will and the means to take it to them, and they know it. None has sued yet. But I do try to be fair, and sometimes the publisher has the right of it, and I have to back off because it is the truth I am after, so writers can know the good as well as the bad. I believe an informed writer is more likely to succeed.

In the last couple of years a phenomenal new option has come into being: self publishing via Amazon's Kindle, with a global exposure. Any writer can post his/her book there and receive 70% of the money from sales. Most don't see a lot, but a few have caught on and become millionaires. My view of Amazon is mixed, but I applaud Kindle, and am now posting my own books there. It really is a different game. So if you are a frustrated writer, check this out. It just might be your ticket to success.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Piers Anthony's 'Realty Check' Now Available on Kindle, Nook & iBooks

 I have always liked the city and the country, having spent time as a child in both. I always wished they could be combined, with all the stores, movies, cars, and activities of the city merging with the perfect wonder of the deep forest. Wouldn't it be nice to have a house whose front door opened on the city, and whose back door opened on a forest primeval! So I made such a house in this novel. From the front it is surrounded by the city; from the back it is surrounded by untouched forest. Magic? No, merely science: the house has portals that open onto other parts of the world, or even other planets. What a challenge it would be to discover the secrets of such a house. So I have a family, retirees who soon realize the house is beyond their capacity to handle and call in expert assistance, their grandchildren, Lloyd and Llynn. The kids' parents are happy to have them off their hands for a summer; L and L can be wild. But they quickly fall in line when they realize the grandparents will send them home if they don't behave. Meanwhile, nobody tells anybody outside what they are exploring; it's a secret they keep lest there be unwelcome attention. So what does explain the mystery of this remarkable piece of realty? Ah, read the novel and find out.