Kitten Report #15: Einstein Houdini Ferociraptors

The cats have learnt to team up for hunting and escaper cats have been going outside. I have many photos of Charlie out there—he does love to pose. This is his resting demon face.

Tabby cat sitting by basket of herbs and flowers looking fluffy and paradoxically demonic

Resting Demon Face

George I tend to only see when he comes in and goes to sleep.

Tabby cat curled up tight and fast asleep on a soft green blanket

What the shrews never see…

Our cats are too smart for their own good—well, certainly too smart for our good. Individually they’re very different and can manage different things. Lately, though, they’re learnt to team up, and together they are unstoppable. If you’ve seen the original Jurassic Park you will no doubt remember the pair of ferocious, wicked smart velociraptors that hunted the children as a coordinated pair. Charlie and George have started to do that team-hunting. They’ve been practising on the crows, which fortunately are older and wiser than they are; also, they can fly. But watching our wee ferociraptors, I am very, very grateful that I outweigh them by a factor of 10. Bear this in mind as I tell you the story of the cat door.

As you recall from the last Kitten Report, Charlie and George had their first venture outdoors. We kept them in for a while so we could all recover—we could do that with no worries because we’d blocked off the old cat door years ago when our last cat, Zack, died. But they had a taste for the outdoors now and they were determined to get out there again. and when Charlie fixes his will on something, it happens. So we bought a new cat door: the usual kind with a magnetic seal and a sliding lock.

The problem was, it was an extremely strong magnet, and Charlie (who is small) couldn’t quite manage it. We disassembled the door, took a look, and thought, Well, it should be easy enough to pop that top magnet out. Wrong. It was glued in, so in the end we had to break a chunk off the door. This meant a) there was now a hole in it, b) without the magnet it flapped crazily in the wind, and c) we could no longer lock it. But, Hey, we thought. That’s okay. Until the new door arrives we’ll just prop something in front of it when it’s time to close up shop.

So when it was time for them to be in for the night, we blocked the door with the heavy black mat covered in nonslip rubbery stuff that I usually carry in my wheelchair backpack as a portable tray. It’s heavy duty and difficult to slide aside. Then we drew the heavy velvet curtain over that.

Five minutes later we heard the plap of the mat going down and the creak-flap of a kitty busting out.

Fortunately he (Charlie) hadn’t gone far so we got him back in and propped a big heavy painting in front of it, with the heavy threshold mat up against that. Ha! I thought. Figure that out!

Thump. Crash. Creak-flap. Out.

So then we propped the big painting, slid the threshold mat, and put a big dining chair in front of that.

They tried a few times but couldn’t manage it, so we went to bed and were just settling down when Skreeeek. Thump. Crash. Creak-flap. Out.

Now we were getting thoroughly pissed off. So next we propped the big painting, slid the threshold mat, and then wheeled my heavy wheelchair hard against the painting and put the brakes on. We went to bed. THEY DID NOT FIGURE IT OUT! Yodel of triumph!!

A week of happiness followed: cats allowed out after breakfast, in-and-out until 5 pm, then locked up safe for the night; bliss. Bliss for us, anyway. the small mammal population began to suffer: George likes shrews; Charlie prefers voles: he brought home three on Monday afternoon. Weirdly, neither seem that interested in the birds, or perhaps they’re just working their way up to that. They’ve been eying the bunnies that keep our lawns cropped (and the north garden very well fertilised, sigh) but so far haven’t caught one—or maybe they just couldn’t get it through the kitty door.

Little dead shrew lying on its back on an ivory carpet

George wuz here

However, during the day the broken door with the hole it that flapped with every breath of wind was driving us crazy.

So we bought a new door. I figured out how to degauss the magnet—I weakened it enough that Charlie could push through it okay—and more to the point, it left the lock intact. So one night, instead of the picture, mat, wheelchair routine we simply…locked the door! And went to bed.

At three o’clock we woke up to find no cats on the bed and the house eerily quiet. We staggered into the living area and found they were outside taunting the coyotes (which, thank god, can’t climb onto the roof). We got them inside—eventually—locked the door, then sat and watched. George strolled over and pushed the lock open with his paw. We scooped him up and stuffed him in the bedroom before he could get through the door. Then we watched Charlie—who trotted over and opened the lock with his teeth. So now we were back to the painting and the wheelchair.

This was getting seriously old, because when the cats were safely locked in the house, I was too: I couldn’t use the wheelchair.

So I worked out how to build a physical block: a frame around the kitty door, with a door-sized piece of plywood that slides in, acting as a portcullis—a physical barrier. We couldn’t even need a lock. Then our handywoman, Sue—appropriately masked, gloved, and social-distanced, of course—built and installed it for us.

We slid the thing down: yay! High fives. Settle down with a beer, grinning, because we would not have to worry about the cats for the rest of the night. 5 mins later? George figured out how to push the portcullis up an inch with his nose, enough to get is head under it, and then flick it all the way up and zip out before the portcullis fell. Well, I thought. That’s an easy fix: lock the door, then drop the portcullis. Ha! I thought. Figure *that* out!

I forgot ferociraptor mode. Charlie watched George nose up the portcullis, then zipped in and unlocked the door with his teeth, and voilá! Team Houdini! And we were back to the painting and wheelchair. Oh, now it was on!

If cats with brains the size of a walnut can figure out how to escape, surely a woman with a fucking PhD can figure how to lock them up without locking herself up. Sue suggested a weird combo of pegs and clips and carabiners that would have made the door look like a Heath Robinson bank vault but would stop George lifting it with his nose. I was convinced there had to be a simpler, more elegant way to do it. So I looked at Sue’s collection of shims and bits of wood and tape and screws, and pointed out we could use double-sided tape to build a bottom l/edge to the portcullis frame without having to dismantle everything. And with a bottom edge, George wouldn’t be able to get is nose under it. He would have to figure out how to stand on three legs, half turn upside down so he could hook a claw into and *under* the <0.5 mm gap between ledge and portcullis, and AT THE SAME TIME get his nose in far enough to then get his head under, then flick it up with his head, while Charlie AT THE SAME TIME unlocked the door his teeth and squeezed out. Ha!

annotated photo of sliding door with cat door insert, shhowing the slider locking mechanism, the cat door locking mechanism, and home made portcullis

Not Alcatraz but…

It’s now been three days and they haven’t yet figured it out. I dance in victory! (With my fingers crossed…)

Meanwhile, they’ve decided on another approach. We’re still mostly managing to get them inside by 5pm because any later than that and they turn into totally feral beasts and vanish into the wilds of the ravine—and we don’t see them until the wee hours while they play chicken with coyotes and barred owls and mysterious pools of sticky stinking stuff. Yesterday, though, was a lovely hot day here in Seattle, so in the early evening Kelley and I went outside on the back deck to enjoy a bottle of rosé and conversation in the delicious scent of our flowers and vines. The cats, of course, stayed inside. They. Did. Not. Like. That.

Charlie’s forte is social engineering, so that’s what he turned to: the repeated whang! whang! whang! of throwing himself at the portcullised door with a relentlessness designed to weaken our will to live, admit we’re lesser beings, and obey: that is, open the fucking door. George, however, decided that engineering engineering was the way to go. First, he stood on his hind legs and moved parallel to the slider by inching his front paws along the middle ledge, probing for structural weakness. As he inched along he gave us the evil eye (his head was above the divider: he’s a very tall cat) and made it plain he did not appreciate us taking our ease in *his* garden while *he* was stuck inside. Then he sat down, wrapped his tail around his toes, and settled in to think. It’s fascinating—you can practically see the gears turning. He looked at the door. He looked at us on the other side of the door. He looked at the door handle. He thought some more. When we went out to the deck, we had mysteriously been able to make the wall slide to one side by moving something near the handle, that is, the lever that locks and unlocks the slider. In the open position, the top of that lever is 42″ above the floor; I was not worried—until he went back to the door, stood on his hind legs, and stretched up. And up. And up some more and tugged on the lever. Result? He pulled it down—and locked us out. Well, fuck.

It’s a slider; it doesn’t use a key; we were not getting back in that way. The cats sat there looking smug: Now you know how it feels! And I could tell George was also thinking: If I can work out how to lock it, I’ll figure out how to unlock it one day when you’re not around and then it won’t matter about your locking cat door and your portcullis. It’s a very heavy slider; I sometimes find it difficult to open. Even if they both grow a bit ore, and even if they go ferociraptor on it, I’m sure they won’t manage it. Or pretty sure. So I’m not worried. What does worry me, though, is being trapped on the back deck. The other day was fine, because kelley was there, and she could walk around to the side deck where, fortunately, we had left the slider unlocked, and get in that way, and open the back door for me. If I’d been on my own—even if I was again lucky enough to forget to lock the side door—I’d be totally screwed: I can’t do the steps down from the back deck, then the steps up to the side deck. (Charlie likes to guard me on the side deck.)

Tabby cat sitting sphinx-like on a sunlit garden deck surrounded by pots of flowers and herbs

Young deck owner

Now we’re going to have to figure out a failsafe mechanism for the locking lever, too. Probably we’ll have to replace the whole locking mechanism and get one with a key, and keep a spare in my pocket at all times.

But for today? I’m so very tired of having smart cats. They, however, are cats: they do not get tired.

 

32 Years: A Life

A garden of flowers and lawn viewed from inside a house and framed by a window

32 years ago today I met Kelley and fell stone in love. That love grows wider, deeper, and more richly textured every day. Along the way we have changed each other, and between us we have made a third thing into which we have put a large part of ourselves: we have made Us. There are things I will do for myself, things I will do for Kelley, and things I will do for Us. They are not always the same things.

What is Us? Us is indefinable; I will say, rather, what Us includes. It includes me, and Kelley, our families, our shared history, our shared joys and jokes and sorrows; it includes the home we have built and the disagreements we had over this painting or that carpet or those mugs. Us includes our kitties—not just Charlie and George, but all the kitties before, and all the tiny things they have killed and we’ve buried, or half-killed and we’ve dispatched for mercy’s sake. It includes our garden—the flowers we plant and tend (and neglect, and sigh over), the trees we must prune and the railings we must erect even though they are not beautiful. It includes the tidying up after every snack, so the other doesn’t walk into a messy and miserable kitchen when she needs a moment of peace; it includes remembering to put an extra beer in the fridge because we know our beloved is having an extra tough meeting this afternoon and will need it. Us includes our work—the long conversations over wine, the digging deep and bracing against disappointment when we can’t say, immediately, Brilliant, best book! but, for the sake of love, must say, Oh, it will be beautiful my beloved—only not yet, not quite yet. Us is care and kindness, but it is also ruthlessness and clarity: it is truth when necessary but not honesty as a weapon. Us includes—often—doing something inconvenient, or tedious, something we just don’t want to do. And always—yes, always—being open, being vulnerable, being willing to listen and improve. But, oh, Us is so much joy! It is glee and excitement and thrill; it is delight; it is contentment. Us is where we live. Us is the home we have built.

This is all I want to say about it today. But someone always has questions. So you can find out more starting with a brief excerpt from my memoir about the moment we met. Or read our very first collaboration, As We Mean To Go On, about how books built the bridge for us to meet on. Or just go look at 30 Years: A Love Story in Photos. I’m going to go spend the day with my sweetie, and revel in Us. May your day be as fine.

 

Clarion West/Fight For Our Lives [video, audio]

In the last three months I’ve done a few video readings, interviews, and podcasts either supporting literary nonprofits or discussing pandemic-related literary issues. Here’s a sample.

Fight For Our Lives

Ruth Joffre at Fight For Our Lives asked me to contribute a video reading in support of a mission-driven nonprofit organisation of my choice. “Fight for Our Lives is a performance series advocating for communities targeted by divisive politics and systemic oppression (queer, trans, incarcerated, migrants, womxn, people of colour). By showcasing local artists, writers, and performers, this series also connects nonprofit opportunities to audiences and artists across the Puget Sound area. Fight for Our Lives is grassroots-led and time-limited until January 20, 2021—Inauguration Day.”

I chose to read a short story, “Glimmer“—which I realised as I looked it over before reading is less a short story than a science-fictional prose poem about hope is a kind of prose-poem about hope—in support of Clarion West. “Clarion West supports emerging and underrepresented voices by providing writers with world-class instruction to empower their creation of wild and amazing worlds.” Through conversation and public engagement, they bring those voices to an ever-expanding community. Over the years CW has done an excellent job of improving their outreach to and support for women and BIPOC and queer folk. For years I’ve been agitating publicly and behind the scenes for CW to make their prestigious 6-week summer workshop open and accessible to disabled writers—and now it is finally happening! Yay! I’m thrilled and delighted—and determined to help raise the money to make it possible. Hence this video. If you, too, want to help make it possible for disabled writers to attend the best SFF writing workshop in the world, please go give something, anything, to the general fund.

Donate to Clarion West.

Donate to Clarion West.

Vice News

Once the reality of the pandemic set it, many people rediscovered my first novel, Ammonite—which is set on a planet many generations after a first-wave pandemic utterly transformed the world, and simultaneously five years after a second-wave pandemic. In my book, no one turned to cannibalism or weird religions but just tried to do their best in circumstances no one could have anticipated. VICE News did a segment in which me and Marc Forster (World War Z), Peng Shepherd (The Book of M), Nicole Kassell (The Leftovers), Scott Z Burns (Contagion) and Mark Protosevich (I Am Legend) talk about the difference between fictional pandemics and real ones.

King County Library System

I was scheduled to be part of the King County Library Foundation’s big spring fundraiser this March. This was cancelled for obvious reasons. Instead I did a video reading, which includes a paean to libraries and a very short, heavily-edited reading from Ammonite. I’m having trouble embedding the video, but here is a link to the KCLS Facebook page:

Link to video on KCLS FB Page.

I’m sorry to say this is not captioned. Also the sound and video are bizarrely out of sync (it was recorded over Zoom). If I have time in the next week or so I’ll download the video and try to fix the synchronisation and add captions. Meanwhile, here’s a draft of what i meant to say to stand in for a transcript until I have time:

Link to transcript: KCLS

Coode Street: 10 Minutes With…

Here I have a lovely 15-minute chat with Gary Wolfe for a new series related to the Coode St podcast he and Jonathan Strahan have been doing for years. Want to know what I think Sigrid Undset and Joss Whedon have in common? What is so brilliant about Butler’s treatment of oppression in Kindred? Or what my brand new, secret and sudden and short now book is about, and why I’m am just beside myself with anticipation, bursting for people to read it? Then have a listen:

Or go directly to the podcast with all the lovely info about the books we talked about: Episode 442: Ten minutes with Nicola Griffith

OneZero

This is old-fashioned text, a long read by Brian Merchant, “Reading the Blueprints for Our Future After the Virus: Works from the Bible to ‘Epidemics and Society’ to ‘The Age of Surveillance Capitalism’ help predict our post-pandemic future.” Merchant looks at ways in which writers from Albert Camus to Connie Willis, Ling Ma to Mary Shelley, Shoshana Zuboff to Stephen King, and Rebecca Solnit to me have approached post-catastrophe, how we monitor our changes, heed the warnings of the past, and build transparent, accountable, and democratic structures to weather the chaos.

For now, it has invaded us, and we are responding. It’s all we can do. After all, as Nicola Griffith said, “Viruses are integral to the existence of the human organism; viruses are a major driving force in human evolution at the cellular level. Viruses make us who we are. And we are constantly changing.”

A Blueprint for What Comes Next

There are other things but honestly I haven’t kept track of everything, and some of them are less interesting. So this will do for now.

 

Self-care in the time of coronavirus

A deck loaded with various planter pots and containers full of herbs and flowers

I’ve been hunkered down since the end of February. It’s now June. More than 3 months of not going anywhere, doing anything or seeing anybody is getting seriously old. But of course I’ll keep doing it because I do want to actually get old: I want that more than I want to see a friend smile and share a hug, more than I want a pint of Guinness (and, oh, I really fucking want a pint of Guinness), more than I want to get new blinds to replace all the ones the kitties have destroyed, more than a latte and croissant, more than to beat the shit out of a heavy bag at the boxing gym (and, oh, you have no fucking idea, none, how very much I want to hit something right now). And on and on.

The last week has been the hardest so far. First, all our technology broke at once: the lights on the stove won’t turn off; the van battery failed and took the SureDeploy ramp system with it; the wheelchair lift keeps getting stuck; and even the fucking electric kettle stopped working. Then right next door we have heavy construction machinery grinding away from 7 am to 9 pm. Our house is like a sound box but I can’t get away from the noise that rumbles through my bones and sets my teeth on edge. On top of that we’ve had thunderstorms and torrential rain that have driven the kitties crazy which of course means they’ve driven me crazy. Our city—like so many US cities—is going up in flames and wreathed in tear gas, and I see and hear of so many people trying so very hard to help each other and being fucked over by the small-minded, mean-spirited, selfish white gits who just want to burn it all down and/or shoot it. None of this is being helped by being unwell, absolutely wound tight and flattened at the same time by bizarre histamine responses despite being on double and triple doses of every antihistamine known to human kind. My body has gone into inflammatory overdrive: I can’t sleep, all my joints and tendons are swollen, and I hurt. My head aches. I can’t think, and when I look ahead all I see is personal and global stress and uncertainty.

But, eh, I’ve been through that sort of crap before. So what will I do? I’m going to try figure out some jury-rigged punching bag. I’m going to dutifully attend my telemedicine appointments. I’m going to set Freedom first thing every morning (which is something I’ve let slip since mid-February) so my day doesn’t start with terrible news. I’m going to sit on the deck and read already-published fluffy adventure novels and cheap thrillers. If it rains I’ll head inside and watch crappy TV of the arealistic variety (spaceships, sword-swangin’ fantasies, save-the-world-from-existential-threat thrillers, you know the kind of thing). I’m going to tend my flowers—which I just started, a week ago, so everything’s at the tiny, tentatively-unfurling stage (see above)—fire up the grill and put some Champagne in a bucket to chill. And, most importantly, I will start ignoring requests from other people. While in general I do of course care about various writing nonprofits, and disability advocacy, and other writers’ careers, and libraries, and bookshops, and every other damn thing, I care more about my need for stepping off the merry-go-round and about my long-term emotional health. In other words my watchword for June will be SELF-care.

So if you email me and I don’t respond, it’s not personal. If you think maybe I didn’t get your email, feel free to resend, but I’ll probably just ignore that, too. If I owe you something—a blurb, a reading, an interview—and you don’t get it, it’s not personal. It might feel personal but, hey, it’s not you, it’s me.

With self-care as my mantra, I’m heading for a June that promises to be better than May. I wish the same for you.

 

Adventures in homemade hair

Like everyone else in Seattle (and half the world) I’ve been reduced to cutting my own hair. Here’s how it’s supposed to look—how it looked last October at the Washington State Book Awards. My hair needs are simple: cropped close, textured and tidy, and most definitely nowhere near to touching my face (I hate that; hate it.) I need to be able to shampoo, rub it dry with a towel, and leave the house.

I last had it cut professionally on February 7. By the time my next appointment came round in early March the salons here were still open but I cancelled my appointment. I was already in self-isolation because, y’know, pandemic—though people still weren’t calling it that then. By the last week of March the pandemic was official and my hair was insanely shaggy. I hadn’t cut it because a) cutting your own hair never goes well, and b) all I had was a pair of gigantic blue kitchen shears, which were pretty blunt. But needs must so, fuck it, I started hacking. I did it a bit at a time, and after a couple of days here’s what I had. I looked a bit…monkish.

It was too smooth and uniform. So when it was time to cut it again a few days later (my hair grows fast) I had a go at random texture. For years I’d been watching Douglas Rosenow, my stylist, use shears and a razor to texture it. How hard could it be? Uh well… (Sorry, Douglas, for butchering your lovely hairstyle.)

After a bit more work I got it to okay, and it stayed okay for a while but my hair, as hair tends to, kept growing. So every few days I’d just hack another bit off what I could see on the front, top, and sides. Mostly it wasn’t too bad; for Zoom calls I’d rub some hair clay in and it worked, mostly. But I was using a lot of clay, and the back was growing wild. So I bought some proper scissors, and—in case of disaster—some clippers.

And now my cutting became truly random: I couldn’t see what I was doing so I would just reach back with the scissors and snip anything in reach. Here’s recently-washed hair drying in the sun—from the front not too awful (not great, but not awful) but when you see the back and sides you can see how thick and full the bits I can’t reach are, and how messy the neck line is—particularly on the left. This is because the first time I reached back there I stabbed myself with the scissors and bled on stuff so I’m much more tentative now on that side. Also, look how grey I’m going on the right side at the back and temple. (Why just the right side? Who knows.)

And here how it looks now—well, how it looked on Wednesday last week when I put the last bit of hair clay in, tidied it up as best I could, and did another video reading. The photo is a bit gauzy because it’s a still from a 720p video (I find 4k and even 1040p too unforgiving, so deliberately dial down the resolution). Also, I’m wearing a smidge of eyeliner and a necklace—which in the last few years is as close as I ever get to dressing up. For Extreme Formal add a jacket.

In this frozen moment of time with kind lighting (facing a window) I think it looks pretty okay, but it won’t last—in fact the perfect moment has already passed and the back is becoming truly unmanageable. Sometime soon I’ll be forced to take the plunge and resort to more drastic measures. What, exactly, and when are as yet unclear. I’ve charged the clippers and figured out how to attach the blade guards but I haven’t screwed myself to the sticking point. Not yet. Right now I’m acutely jealous of Kelley who started growing her hair out late last summer and whose only concession to pandemic fashion is to occasionally tie it back out of her face. Tuh. Not fair!

So how about you? How are your adventures in homemade hair?

SO LUCKY is 2: Some thoughts on publishing

So Lucky was published May 15 2018: it is two years old today. I thought I’d take this opportunity to revisit the process and ask for your opinion.

A short, fast-paced whirlwind of a novel

Publishing So Lucky was an interesting experience. And by ‘interesting’ I mean difficult. This is not the publisher’s fault—they did a miraculous job in an impossibly short timeframe—I just knew that given a) the length, shape and themes of the novel itself and b) the speed with which we would publish, there would be no time to mitigate the foreseeable difficulties, never mind the unforeseeable ones. But this was a book I needed the world to read—other considerations were secondary.

Unlike any other book I’ve ever read

I’m always eager for people to read my stuff: I look forward to readers’ enjoyment. But right from the beginning this book felt different. It felt urgent. I wrote the first draft in 3 weeks. My editor read it in 3 days. We met and chatted for less than 2 hours. And the book was published almost exactly one year after that initial conversation. For mainstream literary publishing, this is warp speed.

Magnificent, searing…a terse and brutally urgent novel. 

So why was it so urgent? Why did getting it out there sooner rather than later matter so much? It’s a matter of representation. Disabled people often feel othered and dehumanised because we don’t see ourselves mirrored on the page or screen. And on the rare occasions we do see ourselves it’s as characters who are pitiable and pitiful, objects of derision, characters created expressly as lessons for nondisabled characters (and readers), freaks to be pointed to as cautionary examples; we are portrayed as sad, lonely, grateful, dependent, or dead. These are the stories that are out t here; these are the stories that are creating the cultural attitude towards disability—the stories that are powering ableism. (If you want to see numbers and a more clearly laid-out argument, please go read my New York Times Op-Ed, “Rewriting the Old Disability Script.”) So Lucky exists because a) I had a story to tell—always the primary mover, and b) I felt an overpowering urge to increase the representation of disabled protagonists in adult literary fiction, because at the time the single female disabled main character in mainstream fiction I could think of is in Geek Love (which is stretching the definition of mainstream to breaking point, and even so all the crip characters are literally freaks). Also, it was published more than 30 years ago. So, yes, it felt urgent.

A body-slam of empowerment, a roar of frustration so sustained and compelling that it cannot be ignored

So I made it condition of Farrar, Straus and Giroux publishing the book that it happen as soon as humanly possible, and screw the usual timetables. I admit I was a bit surprised when they agreed. Because, here’s the thing: the book wasn’t even done yet. Oh, the ingredients were all there and mixed, but they hadn’t been shaken, or poured in the mould, never mind set, never mind turned out and decorated. So we did everything in parallel rather than in sequence: rewriting while coming up with the cover, copyediting while recording the narration, etc. There was just no time to sit and think about the book, to figure out how to talk about it, how to describe it, how to position it and market it.

A swift, luminescent novel, a shard of light

What do I mean by ‘time’? Let’s use Hild as a comparison. I started researching all things seventh-century in 1999. I wrote the first paragraph of what would become Hild in 2008. I finished the first draft in early 2011. It was published at the end of 2013. In other words, by the time that book came out I’d been living and breathing the story and characters and world for more than 14 years. I knew what it was; I knew what it was about; I knew what it meant; I knew how to describe it, how to talk about it. When I had my first big meeting with the marketing and publicity team I could speak cogently, succinctly, and interestingly about comps, genres, positioning; I gave them ideas about how to focus descriptions for sellers, reviewers, readers. ‘Here’s how it’s different to X. Here’s why it’s like Y but better. Here’s how it’s absolutely not like Z. Here’s how it does A, here’s how it destroys B, here’s how it completely recasts C.’ And so on. I could explain what the book did that was utterly radical, and why, and the ways in which it did what every single one of my novels has always done—to norm the queer Other—and why readers would love it. Everyone left that meeting happy and with a clear mission.

A disconcerting but very necessary book.

I start writing So Lucky between Christmas and New Year and finished the first draft in early January 2017. I wasn’t sure what I had, exactly, and didn’t have time to think about it because I was in the middle of another project (my PhD). As soon as I finished the last sentence of Lucky I had to rewrite my thesis. I did that, sent it to my supervisor, then rewrote Lucky. I still wasn’t totally sure what it was: A dark fantasy novella? The beginning of a mainstream novel? A cathartic mess that should be thrown away? All I knew was that it did not do what all my other novels did: it did not norm the Other, because this time the Otherness wasn’t queerness, it was disability. And it didn’t take that Otherness and make it irrelevant to the story; it made that Otherness the point of the story. But I didn’t really know how to explain that at the time, because it was the first time I’d done it; I also knew it wasn’t finished. But I sent it to my agent and she sent it to my editor.

Brutal, unsparingfull of power and healing

In May, then, when I had lunch with my editor to talk about the book I was pretty inarticulate, except to say it had to be published as soon as humanly possible—because the one thing I was clear about was my sense of driving urgency. The contract itself took a few weeks, as these things do, but my editor and I were already hammering the book into shape. I rewrote again, adding a few thousand words that made the whole much stronger and more coherent. But that draft wasn’t done until about August—and it had changed again, and I still hadn’t had time to just sit with the book and understand it.

A boundless, fearless animal of a novel

But publishing doesn’t wait, so I had to have the big marketing meeting before I had assembled my thoughts. Given the marvellous job the marketing and publicity people at FSG had done with Hild, I was confident that between us we would figure it out. We didn’t. I kept trying to explain my thinking, such as it was, and I kept feeling this resistance; there was a baffling barrier to our communication. The senior people in the room seemed…unengaged, unwilling to wade in an help me articulate the core of the book. Halfway through the meeting I realised said senior people had not read the book and, more to the point, would not read the book. It was clear from the tenor of the conversation that they assumed  assumed it would be misery lit, an endless litany of Woe-is-me that is popular in memoir—and in fiction about disabled people written by nondisabled people. It was only after I logged off the call that I understood they were trying to come up with ways to position a book they assumed they themselves wouldn’t like trying to sell a book they didn’t believe would sell. Not a happy moment.

Spine tingling…downright terrifying

The initial catalogue copy was awful: absolutely what you’d expect for a misery memoir, stuffed with pity words: victim, suffering, problem, autobiographical. The initial cover ideas were sad and lonely women in quarter profile, turning away from the world. We fixed it all eventually but not before the initial entrance into the world—and first impressions burn deep. So now we were already moving uphill. Then came the first review, from Publishers Weekly, and all my initial concerns were realised. (I wrote about that here, and more on reviews of disability fiction in general here.) I did of course get some lovely reviews—the bold quotes throughout this post are from journals such as the New York Times, Elle, Vanity Fair, the Independent, BBC Culture, Boston Globe, Seattle Times and more; you can read them here—but there were many more reviews that just didn’t happen. And it was my first (and hopefully only) novel that was not noticed at all by genre writing communities—SFF, crime fiction, queer fiction, though it could plausibly be considered as fitting the relevant parameters—or nominated for any of those awards. Could this be because it’s just not a very good book? Of course it could. But I suspect not. In the end, So Lucky won the Washington State Book Award—which is presented very late in the yearly cycle. In other words, So Lucky had been out 18 months. Coincidence? I think not. Readers and critics had had time to adjust to it, to see it as itself, for its very novel (no pun intended) self, rather than some caricature of their own bias. So Lucky is not like anything else you will have read, and my theory is that is just takes time, sometimes a long time, to grok a new thing.

Disorienting, destabilizing, and game-changing. I have never read anything like it

So, looking back, do I wish I’d chosen a slower and more deliberate approach and obviated some of that knee-jerk ableist response? No. I think the only way to get past that crap is to go through it. And now I have. Given that, and that two years have passed, I think So Lucky‘s second birthday is an opportunity to test my theory, and you can help if you’re willing. If you’ve read it once, read it again. I’d love to know how/if your perceptions of it have changed. If you’ve read (or listened to) my other novels but not this one, give it a go, and tell me if it was what you expected. Also, if you’re willing, let me know why you were reluctant to try this one when it first came out. And finally, for those of you who have read this book but n one of my others, I’d love to know what prompted you to pick this one up, and what you thought of it.

Griffith is one of the most important writers working today

To end this post, here’s the thank you speech I gave at the Washington State Book Awards:

SO LUCKY is about a woman with MS, written by a woman with MS. The first word of the book is it, and it is a monster. But the monster is not MS, the monster is ableism.

Ableism is the story we’re all, disabled and nondisabled, fed from birth: that to have intellectual or physical impairments makes us less, Other. Ableism is a crap story.

For one thing, it’s wrong. What disables a person in our culture is not impairment but society’s attitude to that impairment. We are disabled by assumptions. By, for example, the bookstore owner who, when asked why there’s no wheelchair ramp, says, with no trace of irony, “Well, none of our customers use a wheelchair.” Or the editor who says to their author, Can you make the disabled character a bit more lonely and sad, more authentic?”

Ableism is not only factually incorrect but poorly constructed, an inauthentic story told by those who have no clue. Next time you read a book about a quadriplegic who kills himself because he can’t bear to live in a wheelchair, next time you read about a blind woman whose happy ending relies upon a magic cure, ask yourself: Is the author of this story disabled?

According to the CDC, 25% of Americans has an impairment that has a serious impact on their life. One quarter. But what proportion of novels on our shelves are by and about disabled people? According to my back of the envelope calculations, about 0.00013 percent.

Ableism is a crap story. I wrote SO LUCKY to counter it. So for giving this book—this anti-ableist story—recognition, thank you.

And thanks, also, to you, my readers. For me, the whole point of writing is you and your responses.

Kitten Report #14: One year in the big wide world [photo, video]

Today Charlie and George are exactly one year old. They came to us as tiny rescue kitties, the only survivors of a litter of six, who only made it through by the grace of Seattle Area Feline Rescue and its network of kitty foster parents (especial gratitude to Cody). Even after they came to us things were a bit dicey for a while—Charlie in particular has had a hard time—but today they are lords of their domain. And as they’ve grown, it’s become harder and harder to keep them inside. Charlie in particular is determined to get outside. And as I move a lot slower than he does, the only thing that’s kept him indoors so far is moral force. But moral force began to wear a little thin.

Six weeks ago, Charlie began rehearsing the Great Escape; he believes there must be a way out through the ceiling.

I don’t have video but once he’d learnt to climb down he moved to the screen out to the other deck and learnt to run all the way to the top them simply leap in a huge arc the seven feet to the floor: scrat-scrat-thud, scrat-scrat-thud. Over and over. Kelley and I saw the writing on the wall and started kittie-proofing the back garden, essentially turning it into a giant catio. Our fence is eight feet tall, ten feet in places, and the neighbour’s fence beyond that twelve feet or more, so we just had to seal the gaps (oh ha, ha-ha-ha). It took three days work and $300 dollars to cover the underneath of the deck in chicken wire so they couldn’t escape under the house and out that way; add huge cinder blocks to gaps at the bottom of our fences and gates; and tack plywood to dodgy bits further up the fence. We thought: Hey, that should be good enough for at least one day; we could let them out in a one-time controlled, supervised session to learn how the outdoors smells, where the back door is in relation to the rest of the world, and so how to find their way back on the inevitable day when Charlie makes a real escape. And, you know, it’s almost their birthday; they should have a treat. So this weekend we decided to let them out. What could possibly go wrong?

I went out on the back deck, got out my phone to take pictures, and sat down. Then Kelley came out and left the door open for the cats. George sat suspiciously on the table (you can see him in the upper right at the beginning of the clip) and let Charlie go first, as usual. Charlie obliges. He goes straight out, straight across the deck, and right off the deck onto the grass. No hesitation. When there was no screaming and no gouts of blood, George decides to give it a go. But he’s George. He needs to survey the territory, assess the risk, ensure his lines of retreat. And he’s in no hurry. In fact he takes so long the video actually runs about another minute with him just standing there running his risk assessment, checking and rechecking his line of retreat. But eventually he steps off the mat.

It probably took him six minutes to venture out properly onto the deck and encounter his first real live plant (salvia, only just leafing out; when it flowers it will be a hummingbird magnet; I imagine George will spend a lot of time here).

Alarge tabby cat encounters his first plant in the great outdoors.

George’s first outdoor greenery: a Salvia cultivar, “Flaming Lips,” that is only just leafing out never mind flowering.

By the time George was getting to the edge of the deck, Charlie had made two circuits of the entire garden and was planning his next escape. Which was to find a gap between the gate and the wall we didn’t know existed and squeeze through. Oh god. My heart squeezed because on that side of the fence is the side deck, and beyond that the ravine, domain of coyotes who would munch up Charlie like a pop-tart, not to mention cat-mauling raccoons and barred owls big enough to take dogs. (That actually happened: an owl snatched a neighbour’s sheltie as she was walking him, and hauled it up into the air, screaming and bleeding. Fortunately it dropped him but those talons gave him some bad gashes.) But before our hearts had time to explode, boof, Charlie was back, looking exceedingly pleased with himself and chirruping away about his discoveries.

By this time George had managed to brave the grass, and he and Charlie spent the next fifteen minutes pretending to be tigers in the jungle. George chased a butterfly—it did my heart good to see him being able to run fifty feet without stopping. I thought: This stress is worth it.

This they were off again on their separate explorations. George was intrigued by the hedge and followed it every single inch around the perimeter. He ate a couple of cherry blossoms. I was fascinated by his methodical exploration and temporarily lost sight of Charlie.

As I’ve said, our fence is tall, and our neighbour’s fence taller, a good, reliable barrier (oh ha, ha-ha-ha). While we were entranced by George, Charlie had somehow got on top of our gate—only six feet tall—then the eight foot fence. As we watched he did a death-defying leap to our neighbour’s fence. And then—Oh god—onto the roof. So now he’s running around a zillion feet in the air, investigating the chimney—visions of calling the fire department and having to dismantle the chimney—sticking his head in a gap in the gutter cover—ditto with the roofers—then running to the edge and realising: Oh, hey, the ground’s a looong way… At which point he ran back the way he came, only to realise that though it’s easy to jump up from a narrow fence to a big broad roof, it’s entirely another matter to try jump down onto a half-inch wide platform. And then the birds discovered he was there and started shrieking at him and dive-bombing him. (One American robin—I hate those things—was particularly obnoxious.)

At which point he completely freaks out. So now he’s running up and down, completely panicked, harassed by birds, creaking and chirruping (he still can’t meow; we think his vocal cords were damaged during the operation that left him with a brain injury) and he can’t seem to hear Kelley standing below speaking in soothing tones. Or George pacing back and forth on the lawn and yowling encouragement. It was his first day out in the wide world; I think his brain got overwhelmed by the input and shut down.

He jumped.

Straight out in to the air and down, twenty feet if it’s an inch. His first day in the great outdoors and he jumps off the fucking roof.

And he was fine.

He limped over to the border and hid under the hedge; George followed. And three minutes later both emerged looking for all the world as though nothing had happened. Charlie came trotting up, purring, and we felt his limbs and body etc but no flinching, no swelling. He was fine. His adventure probably took four years off my life, and Kelley’s, but Charlie leapt off a fucking roof and was just fine, thank you.

Half an hour later he and George were tearing around inside the house like champions. Yes, inside the house. Because after they emerged from under the hedge we scooped them up so fucking fast it made their heads spin. That’s enough adventure for their first year. So while they raced around, trilling, creaking, chirring and yowling their triumph, Kelley and I gulped down wine and smiled weakly at each other: Hey, no one died!

So that’s my report: one more milestone passed and no one died. Many more milestones to go, of course, though hopefully always with the same result. Fortunately we have a lot of wine. And fortunately you have access to previous kitten reports to keep you amused until next time.

VICE News interview

“In the middle of an international pandemic, VICE News goes straight to people who spent years learning how outbreaks work and how humans will respond.”

In which me and Marc Forster (World War Z), Peng Shepherd (The Book of M), Nicole Kassell (The Leftovers), Scott Z Burns (Contagion) and Mark Protosevich (I Am Legend) talk about the difference between fictional pandemics and real ones.

30 April: AMMONITE radio bookclub

Cover image for audiobook, AMMONITE by Nicola Griffith, read by Gabra Zackman. A planet set in a starry sky, with an image of an ammonite superimposed on the planet, reflecting mountains, cloud, and snow. Title text and narrator name in white, author name in black.

On Thursday 30th April, between 12:00 and 1:00 pm, I’ll be talking live to Dave Miller, host of “Think Out Loud” about Ammonite. TOL are inaugurating their Quarantine Bookclub with Ammonite because, as they put it, it’s relevant to today’s viral situation without being all depressing.

I’m going to be re-reading the novel along with others who’ll be encountering it for the first time. When he interviewed me last week, Dave asked why I would do that. I explained it had been nearly 30 years since I wrote it, and I’m sure there were bits here and there I’d forgotten. I also want to see how it holds up in light of our increased understanding of viruses. And how it feels to read about a post-viral world many generations later, when this planet is only at the beginning of that journey. After the interview, I’ll be answering viewers’ questions live on on-air. So if you’ve always wanted to know something, or maybe just comment on something you did or did not like about the book, here’s your chance.

Meanwhile, if you want to get hold of a copy and read along, Bookshop.org, last time I checked, were temporarily out of stock. Amazon has six left. And I’m sure your friendly local independent not only would love to order a copy of it for you, and ship it immediately, they may even have one or two in stock. I know for example that Phinney Books has at least one that was in their Pandemic Books display just before everything had to close down. Check out Phinney’s updated ordering and shipping info here. And there’s always digital editions from your favourite ebook purveyor. and don’t forget the wonderful audio edition, read by Gabra Zackman, that you can get via Audible, Libro.fm, your local library and others. No excuse not to listen!

 

Kitten Report #13: Social distancing

The kitties are now almost 11 months old—young cats. Charlie was back at the vet three months ago for the recurring kitty herpes virus that leads to generalised inflammation of his upper respiratory tract, including juvenile gingivitis, and needs keeping an eye on. At that point he weighed in at 8 lbs 5 oz. At his followup checkup, one week later, he had gained 5 oz. And he’s gained much more weight since. He must be at least 9.5 lbs, and frankly I’d be surprised it it was less than 10lb. He’s beautiful, and, at 11 months, nearly as big as our last cat, Zack, in his prime.

Here he is posing (something he’s very good at) as a thick-thewed fluff ball.

We have no clue what George weighs—he hasn’t needed to visit the vet since his kitten shots—but I’m guessing he’s perhaps 13 pounds. Like Charlie, he doesn’t carry an ounce of extra fat. He is an extraordinarily large and powerful domestic cat. And, like Charlie, he is very good to  look at. He, too, is still growing. I read a while ago that domestic cats do most of their growing in their first 12 months but don’t hit their peak until they’re about 18 months old. If that’s true, then we might have to buy a dog carrier for George, because he won’t fit the one designed for kitties.

Here he is in the kitchen, glorying in his stripes—tiger kitty in front of tiger oak. He barely fits on that pillow that they both used to share.

Ominously, both still seem to have comparatively large paws and long tails. I think there’s still a fair amount of embiggening ahead. This next photo was taken end of January/beginning of February, and they’ve both grown enormously since. Charlie can take up most of the bed on his own; George spills over the edges.

They are both still chameleons. George can look oddly wise one minute, then young and uncertain the next—that’s nothing new. Whereas Charlie doesn’t seem to change affect so much as shape. Here is just thirty seconds after that first photo by the candles; he has stretched.

Elasticat!

And again, this time posing on my Rollator (please note both the teethed-on foam backrest—courtesy of George—and the clawed-to-bits hard plastic seat—courtesy of Charlie) and reverting to thick-limbed and thick-furred.

A heartbeat later, he’s watching hummingbirds at the feeder and giving a splendid impression of a polecat.

And here he is trying to imitate a long, cool glass of water.

As you can see, the kitty condo is still very much their boys club. Kelley and I have definitely been voted out of the clubhouse.

Twp tabby cat at different levels of a kitty condo looking as though someone has interrupted a an important meeting

Kelley and I are being voted out of the boys club

It’s a very exclusive club. So exclusive that they decided to go three rounds to see who else gets kicked out. Charlie is smaller but utterly committed, and with a mean left jab…

In the end it’s a draw, I think, with both of them deciding the kitty condo is okay first thing in the morning but not fit for purpose after noon. In the afternoons, Charlie retires to my wheelchair, and George often comes to sit near me on the sofa—him on the green blanket that he likes so much, me cross-legged next to him, with a cup of coffee, lots of notes, and a plate of chocolate or some other snack. Here he is, blissed out to the sound of my Apple Pencil making that most satisfactory chit-tit-tuc sound on the lusciously smooth iPad glass, followed by the occasional chuc as the Pencil clicks back in to its magnetic hold. He seems to find it comforting—perhaps only because he knows that once I settle down with notes, i’m not going anywhere for a couple of hours, which means nor is he.

George finds his bliss

But then, when a knotty plot point requires more brain food—after I’ve munched through the chocolate, moved on to pistachios, and finally need to eat something with more bulk—he seriously does not approve of the smell.

George does not like the smell of hummus

In the evenings, after dinner, he likes to watch TV. Charlie’s not really a fan, but George loves anything with animals. His most recent favourite? The Lion King. (And if you want to see how they’ve grown, look at this photo of Charlie by the same TV but different role model in late summer/early autumn.)

Simba is George’s new role model

Farewell, O my father…

Their personalities are becoming more distinct. Charlie still can’t meow or do that frustrated-predator chitter; he chirrs and chirrups and squeaks like a rusty axle; I’m pretty sure his vocal cords were damaged during his polyp operation. But it suits his personality: endlessly inquisitive. He’s still in instant-physical-engagement mode: greet it, then hit it, jump on it, or put it in his mouth—and worry about whether that’s a good idea later. Actually, I think ‘worry’ forms no part of his vocabulary. This is why we are not yet letting them outside. Right next to our driveway, we have coyotes denning in the grassy commons down to the ravine: magnificent beasts, but they’d snap up our kitties like pop tarts. Especially if one of said kitties trots right up and chirrups as if to say, Hello! I haven’t seen you around here before! Let me bite your tail… We’d planned to build a catio for summer, but our friend the coronavirus has put paid to that. So I’m not entirely sure how we’re going to handle summer. Because George, in particular, needs more stimulation than we can give him. He’s a thinky beast. It’s fascinating to watch him work out how to open things, or whether the effort of chasing something is worth the meagre reward, and whether Kelley or I are likely to sit still long enough for him to go to all the bother of getting on our laps. He’s turning into a mature predator, that is, he won’t expend energy unless it’s an efficient means to an end. Which means it’s getting more and more difficult to persuade him to run, jump, chase, etc., because he looks at, say, Feather, and thinks, Oh, that thing. I know exactly how that behaves. And I know exactly how unrewarding it is to catch it. So I have to seriously provoke him to engage.

I suspect at some point we’ll buy a few rolls of chicken wire, use it to block off access to under the deck (and so around to the front of the house), then let them out into the fenced back garden for a few minutes at a time while we guard the gates which are lower than the rest of the fences. Charlie, for sure, couldn’t make the high fence jump of about 8 or 9 feet. George probably could—but he’s much, much more cautious and would stand a far better chance of surviving a cat-coyote encounter—mainly because he’d make sure the coyote never knew he was there. He’s an amazingly stealthy beast for his size. We’re still dithering. As Kelley says, once  you let the kitty out of the bottle you can never put him back in.

They both still love my Rollator—they’ve loved it half to death, as you’ve already seen. But when it’s time for afternoon tea they both climb up expectantly and wait to be driven to the kitchen.

Drive on. Spit-spot.

But like most of us these days they are mostly wrestling with the concepts of quarantine, sheltering in place, and social distancing. It begins of course, with a family meeting. George is seriously worried:  one, will the catfood and Feather replacements hold out? Two, what is wrong with me—why do I look like the unnatural offspring of a haystack and a barbarian?

When I explain I haven’t had a haircut in some weeks and sadly have no shears or clippers, when I reassure them that their food supply is safe—and that they don’t need to worry about their hair growing shaggy—they buckle down and practise their COVID-19 responses.

Quarantine, shelter-in-place, or social distancing?

Once George gets the hang of it, he decides to explain it to his little new bronze friend, who of course is small and empty headed and just wants to wriggle about. He finds it a frustrating experience.

George tells his little friend they can’t go outside, then tries to explain social distancing.

Charlie of course does not give a flying fluffball about helping anyone understand anything. Spring is springing and he just wants to go out and play. Pretty colours! Lovely smells! Coyotes and squirrels, jays and crows! Gigantic climbing posts with funny green things sticking out of them and waving about! So many new things to make friends with…

Social distancing sucks

So I think that’s where we’ll leave them. We’ll be back for their first birthday, perhaps with news of outside adventures but perhaps not. Meanwhile, feel free to catch up with previous Kitty Reports—and stay inside, wash your hands, and read a book!

Vonda McIntyre: One year on

One year ago today, Vonda N McIntyre died. I miss her so much. To mark the first anniversary of her death, I want to persuade you to buy a copy of her first novel, The Exile Waiting—the first thing by her I ever read—which has just been republished by Handheld Press.

Book cover: blue image on a white background of what look like jellyfish with helical, DNA-like trailing tentacles. Title in blue,

Amazon US | Amazon UK | Handheld Press | Kobo

The new edition of The Exile Waiting also includes extras: a juicy Afterword by Una McCormack—the perfect tool for those wanting to teach this book—plus the very first republication of Vonda’s 1972 short story, “Cages,” in which she created the strange and terrible pseudosibs.

I found The Exile Waiting when I was 19, and fell in love with it. It was my introduction to feminist SF. Here’s what I wrote about this powerful, beautifully-realised book:

The impact of The Exile Waiting on science fiction was massive but, like an iceberg, largely hidden. Today, McIntyre’s concerns—power, identity, inequity, climate, and social justice—are at the forefront of humanist SF.

One focus of this marvellous novel is disability. Written in the early 70s, it largely anticipates the later theoretical work of disability studies. I can see ways to argue that without this novel, and its companion novel, Dreamsnake, then the accompanying wave of work by Le Guin, Russ, Charnas, and Butler, there could have been no cyberpunk. (There again, as Una McCormack points out in her afterword, Samuel R Delany has already done that.)* But part of that story begins with this book.

Here’s the publisher, Kate Macdonald, talking about the novel’s importance, how much she loves the book, and why she wanted to publish it.

You can read the first chapter at Seattle Review of Books. Please do. Then buy it. Then try to wrap your head around the fact that it’s 45 years old, and still so very relevant today. After that, go read all her other brilliant work.

Amazon US | Amazon UK | Handheld Press | Kobo

And after that console yourself with the fact that there is one last McIntyre novel still to read: Curve of the World, the beautiful, realistic-and-hopeful novel that you could, perhaps, call an alternate history but I prefer to think of a perhaps-it-really-was history. This fine novel, finished two weeks before Vonda died, is not yet published. But it’s out there, waiting…


*Samuel R Delany, ‘Some Real Mothers…: The SF Eye Interview, in Samuel L Delany, Silent Interview: On Language, Race, Sex, Science Fiction, and Some Comics (Hanover NH: Wesleyan University Press, 1994), 164-185, 177.

 

Ammonite—”Think Out Loud” bookclub



Cover image for audiobook, AMMONITE by Nicola Griffith, read by Gabra Zackman. A planet set in a starry sky, with an image of an ammonite superimposed on the planet, reflecting mountains, cloud, and snow. Title text and narrator name in white, author name in black.

Thanks to COVID-19 and subsequent stay-at-home orders resulting in a mostly locked-down US, a lot of people have been looking for something to read, and many of them have a new-found interest in global pandemics. There’s been a resurgence of interest in Ammonite, my first novel. Ammonite really is the little book that could. It started as a super low-price, low-quality mass market paperback that no one (except me) expected to do well. But it won a few awards, and was short-listed for several others, and over the years it’s been through a variety of editions—each with better cover, more glossy formats, added maps and glossaries, etc. And, now, finally, there’s an audiobook edition. And still, after 27 years in print, twice a year I get royalty cheques. This all pleases me very much. I’ts not just the money—though, yay! money! it’s good to get paid for what I do—it’s the continued thrill of seeing new people discover this book that meant so much to me so long ago. This is the book—the awards, the translations, the glowing reviews—that made it possible for me to be declared an Alien of Exceptional Ability by the US State Department, and granted a National Interest Waiver to live and work in this country. It was the advance for this book that formed the downpayment on our first house in Atlanta. I’ts not really an exaggeration to say this book changed my life. So for all those reasons, I am inordinately fond of this book.

So I’m pleased to tell you that Ammonite will be Oregon Public Radio’s bookclub pick later this month. I’ll be doing a 5-min segment on “Think Out Loud” on Friday, sometime between between 12:30 and 12:45, just to introduce the book. Then we all have a couple of weeks to read it. Then there’ll be another show, this time a forty-minute segment, for an interview with me followed by call-in questions. So if you fancy reading along with a few thousand Oregonians, get thee to a bookstore. Most libraries have it. And of course there’s that audio edition, just released last month.

Here’s the publisher’s description:

Change or die. These are the only options available on the planet Jeep. Centuries earlier, a deadly virus shattered the original colony, killing the men and forever altering the few surviving women. Now, generations after the colony has lost touch with the rest of humanity, a company arrives to exploit Jeep—and its forces find themselves fighting for their lives. Terrified of spreading the virus, the company abandons its employees, leaving them afraid and isolated from the natives. In the face of this crisis, anthropologist Marghe Taishan arrives to test a new vaccine. As she risks death to uncover the women’s biological secret, she finds that she, too, is changing—and realizes that not only has she found a home on Jeep, but that she alone carries the seeds of its destruction…

Ammonite is an unforgettable novel that questions the very meanings of gender and humanity. As readers share in Marghe’s journey through an alien world, they too embark on a parallel journey of fascinating self-exploration.

If you want to know more about the book, go take a look at the Ammonite page, where you can find reviews, links to readings, links to previous bookclub discussions, and more.

COVID-19: Zones of control

I’m guessing just about everyone who is reading this is in self-isolation. For many of you it will be the first time. For me it’s not. I’ve had to do it before when I was on an immune-destroying chemotherapy regime for my MS. It took down my immune system more thoroughly than the doctors were expecting—so thoroughly that I had to have bone marrow rescue shots. Let me tell you, those are unpleasant: your marrow swells and your bones hurt. Also, it was so long ago that there were no video chat platforms, no Twitter, no streaming video, and very little home delivery of anything but pizza. So this is better. Admittedly, it will last way, way longer, but still: better.

Today I left the house for the first time in two or three weeks to go to a medical centre for a drug that must be given within a narrow timeframe, and can only be administered in a medical setting. They promised me the premises were ‘tightly screened’ and I’d be in no danger. I didn’t believe them—I’m very much in trust-but-verify mode—and went masked and gloved. I’m glad I did. The screening consisted of a woman saying, really fast—as people do when they’ve said exactly the same thing six hundred times already that day—Good morning we’re checking health and symptoms any fever cough headache no awesome here’s a sticker. She did not even really look at me and certainly did not check my temperature. In the building, no one but me was wearing a mask*. In the doctor’s rooms, no one was wearing mask or gloves. I didn’t see anyone use hand sanitiser while I was there. They took my insurance card in bare hands, handled it, then handed me a clipboard and pen assuring me it had all been wiped down. Clearly, they do not have the same understanding of transmissibility I do. When the needles came out, yes, there were gloves—but still no mask. I did not take off mask or gloves untilI could get home, then I washed my hands thoroughly. And I won’t be touching either my wallet or any of its cards for weeks, probably, by which time any viruses hanging out on the plastic will be long dead.

So the thing I want to emphasise in this post is: Take responsibility for what’s in your control. It begins with your own personal hygiene and safety. Do not believe any individual, group, or institution about the precautions they have taken/are taking/will take. Assume everyone and everything is infected and behave accordingly. It’s the only way to be sure. (That and take off and nuke it from orbit…) But then there’s your friends and neighbours, your wider family, your local community… What can you do for them?

Before I talk about that, I want to take a 70,000′ view of where we are now.

Overview

Here’s where we are today, 22 March 2020, at 09:45 -7 UTC:

  • COVID-19 is in 189 countries and territories and, worldwide, there are 321,278 confirmed cases, of whom 13,699 have died. That’s an overall case fatality rate (CFR) of 4.26%. Of the current active cases 95% are ‘mild’ and 5% are critical. Of the closed cases, 88% were discharged as recovered, and 12% died.
  • In the USA, we have 29,214 cases of whom 349 have died. That’s an overall CFR of 1.19%. But we’re very early in the epidemic, so our active cases are 98% mild and 2% critical. And of the closed cases only 34% have been discharged as cured while 66% died.
  • In Washington State, we have 1,793 total confirmed cases and 94 dead. CFR = 5.24%. I don’t have figures for active cases. (Based on Chinese data, about 15% of confirmed cases require hospitalisation and 5% need critical care in an ICU. In New York, though, it’s estimated that 18% of all their cases require hospitalisation. And WA has put out an urgent call for retired medical professionals, and those from other states, to come help out.) But of the closed cases, 16.5% discharged as recovered and 83.5% as dead.
  • In King County, we have 934 cases with 74 dead. CFR = 7.92%. No numbers for either status of active cases or the number discharged as recovered. Having said that, KingCounty has only tested 23,000 people so far. And the county has made it clear that tests are in such short supply you cannot get tested unless you are in the highest risk group and have ‘concerning’ symptoms. (My interpretation: you practically have to be in acute respiratory distress before they’ll look at you. Things are already bad here. King and Snohomish counties between them have only 4,900 staffed hospital beds, and only 940 of those are critical care. And of those, many are already full of people sick from things other than COVID-19. King County is building field hospitals; Governor Jay Inslee has asked the military to send one of its hospital ships to Seattle so we can access the hundred or so ICU beds. And state medical workers are openly discussing triage. Basically, if you’re old and/or have a preexisting condition, you’ll get ‘comfort’ care, that is, no intubation for you—they’ll save the ventilators for younger, healthy, more-like-to-survive folks.

I’ve been following this pandemic—taking notes, doing calculations, reading the studies—since early January. About 10 days ago I licked my pencil, got out my envelope, and did some basic arithmetic. I estimated that if nothing changed, by the first week of April the US would have 3.5 million confirmed cases. Today, despite all the lockdowns, self-isolation, social distancing, and sheltering in place, we are well ahead of that curve. I’d estimated that by 3pm this afternoon we would have 27,456. We have 29,214—and everywhere, in every single region, there are not enough tests to go around. How many cases are there really, today? If I had to guess I’d say 150,000.

Latest reviews of Chinese data suggest an overall CFR of 1.4%. But China has a younger population and, frankly, I believe those who were diagnosed got more focused and organised care because an authoritarian system can act faster when it’s not worried about what its voting citizens think because, y’know, they don’t vote. But what’s great about their healthcare is their public health policies and organisation. Though if you really want a notion of how this pandemic should have been handled right from the beginning, take a look at South Korea. I’ve been following South Korea since the virus first appeared there. They took a stringent—some might say draconian—approach to containment and suppression right from the beginning; they poured effort in public health: tracing and contacting those who might have been exposed, then monitoring them. And it has worked. As a result, they only have 8897 infections and a CFR of 1.17%. That percentage is going up as fewer new cases offset the increasing number of deaths, but I’d be surprised if it went over 1.4% So for a younger population with a government willing to make hard choices to flatten the curve to prevent health system overwhelm, let’s say the CFR will be less than 1.5%. [ETA: I’ve changed my mind. S. Korea’s CFR is creeping up too steadily, too relentlessly. I hope it ends up at less than 2%…].

Sadly, that’s not most of the world. Perhaps a better idea of what’s in store for us in the US could be gained by looking at Europe. In Italy they are running at a CFR of 9.00%. In the UK they are running at a CFR of 4.86%. And these, like those of South Korea, are increasing relentlessly. If you look at the rate at which people in China, Italy, the UK and US were being infected at various stages of their outbreak, you’ll see that the steepest curve of all in this early stage is the US. Steeper than Italy. Steeper than the UK. So what will our CFR be? I don’t know. Compared to Italy and the UK we have a younger population and we have more hospital beds per capita. But we have much less testing, and we started to isolate infected populations much more slowly. Plus we have a fool in charge. The hope for the US lies in its regional government: here in Washington, for example, Governor Inslee, King County Executive Dow Constantine, and Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan, have consistently made choices based on both science and human compassion. Will our CFR be as bad as Italy? I don’t think so. Will it be worse than China. Yes, I believe it will.

So what does that mean for what’s coming? Nothing good. Do not expect the world to just go back to normal in six to eight weeks. In fact, when the worst passes—and I think it will take at least a year—we’ll be reemerging from our self-isolation into a new normal.

The new normal?

The US economy is not powered by the megacorps; it’s not powered by the military or the government; it’s not even powered by small business. The US economy is powered by the consumer. When we have nothing to spend, the economy suffers. On Thursday, the White House strongly recommended that states not mention specific unemployment figures. Just say, ‘Increasing numbers,’ or ‘More than usual.’ Don’t give exact numbers because we don’t want to frighten the voters. Those numbers are going to be truly horrendous, worse than anything we’ve ever seen. Steve Mnuchin, at Treasury, warned Congress that the unemployment rate could hit 20%. It could. It could also be worse. But given the swift and extraordinary congressional response—which, amazingly, is doing some of the right things—we might all get through this anyway. But it’ll be pretty chaotic along the way.

To begin with, it won’t fall evenly. Here in Washington, new claims filed for accommodation and food services workers saw a 597.3% increase; educational services, a 569.5% increase; and arts, entertainment and recreation a 255.8% increase. And these are figures from the week that ended a week ago—in other words, about two weeks behind. “This week, every day, the new claims we are receiving are at the level of the peak weeks during the 2008/2009 recession,” Employment Security Department commissioner Suzan LeVine told the Seattle Times. Every single day was worse than peak weeks during the Great Recession. And since then, the situation in Washington has nose-dived. So many people have signed on, or are trying to sign on, for unemployment benefits that the system is failing. Unemployment rates in Washington in 2010, at the height of the Great Recession, hit 10%. The Depression was thought to have reached a peak between 20-25% unemployment (records then were not as accurate). I believe this could be worse—for a while, until the world adjusts its mindset.

Certainly, if this had happened 20 years ago when I was going through my first self-isolation, I wouldn’t be talking about a possible Depression I’d be quite, quite convinced that we were looking at something close to a civilisation-ending event. But so much has changed since then. For one, many of us can work from home; we have more sophisticated delivery systems; we can communicate very handily via various online platforms. In eighteen months, when we have a vaccine and have done all those gold-standard anonymised drug comparison studies and know for sure what works, and have ramped up production of same, it will be safe to fly again. Safe to go on holiday. Safe to eat out, go on a date, go to a convention, to a movie, a play, a reading, an art show, a classroom, a yoga studio, a sports event… But not for at least a year, probably longer. But let’s be optimistic and say a year.

A year. No one knows how to model the economy grinding to a halt for a whole year. If they do, they’re keeping quiet about it—and I can only assume it’s because the answers are unthinkable.

What this means is that the world simply can’t stop for a whole year. We’re going to have to try what they’re trying in China right now: selective and cautious reopening of some industry. Will the virus flare again? Until we have a vaccine, yes. But if it could be kept to small, manageable flares that won’t overwhelm the health system—and if the CFR does in fact prove to be 1.4% or less—then it becomes a trolly problem: individual lives vs. the greater good. I’m glad that’s not a decision within my control.

Everything I’ve said so far is predicated on an effective, affordable vaccine to be widely available within eighteen months. How likely is this? Ten years ago I would have said: Not likely. Now I think it’s entirely possible. Apart from the strides made in a vast numbers of processes that go into vaccine production, over the last fifteen years there have been starts make on vaccines made for other coronaviruses—like the ones that cause MERS and SARS. When those epidemics were contained, the plans for those viruses were shelved. But the SARS virus, in particular, might be a good preliminary candidate. (The virus that causes COVID-19 is called SARS-CoV-2 because it is so genetically similar to the virus that causes SARS.) The world is pouring resources at this problem, and whatever else you want to say about the human race, when we all focus on the same goal, that goal tends to be achieved. So yes, 18 months seems reasonable. And on my ore optimistic days, I think 12-15 months is not impossible. Which mean by summer of 2021 we’ll begin our new normal, whatever it turns out to be.

Zones of Control

But that’s a long way off. So what can we do now? What’s in our control?

My main worry right now—beyond Hey, I might die and People I love might die—is the election. Here in Washington State voting has been postal-only for a while, and you don’t even have to pay for a stamp. For those of you who live in states without postal voting, I’d consider agitating the local Powers That Be to work on that ASAP. Even if everyone committed to it whole-heartedly, and right now, it still might not happen. But if we don’t start right now, it definitely will not. So imagine what no election or a contested election might mean—imagine it for yourself because I don’t have the heart for it right now.

I really want the election to go ahead, and I really want so see all three branches under Democratic control. America has a terrible record of isolationism and xenophobia when it feels threatened (and even when it doesn’t). And COVD-19 is going to be the worst thing that’s hit this continent since white people first brought smallpox and other genocidal infections to these shores, and then turned genocide into policy. A lot of people will retreat to their America First rhetoric—at exactly the time when the human race needs to work together. Pandemics are global problems requiring global cooperation and global solutions. So, yes, let’s make sure we can all vote for a better government.

As individuals, though, there’s also a lot we can do: for ourselves and our immediate family unit, that is, those who live under the same roof; for our slightly wider community, that is, our neighbourhood—the people in the surrounding streets, the small local businesses we used to frequent, the independent contractors we have employed: window cleaners, yard workers, personal tutors, house cleaners, massage therapists, handywo/men; and, of course, for our wider community of friends and family who might live on the other side of the city, state, country, or ocean.

Ourselves and immediate family unit

Here I’m operating under two assumptions:

  1. That it’s smart to adjust your own oxygen mask first. You can’t help others if you don’t first help yourself.
  2. I’ve been reading all the research, everything I can get my hands on. Some of it is preliminary and not yet backed by rigorous testing. It’s based on anecdata—but a lot of it. I’m assuming that most readers are willing to trust to start with but then verify before acting on anything I suggest. This works for me, as I frankly don’t have the time, patience, or inclination to provide references for everything I say here. So I’m assuming you will do your own digging. Search engines are our friend.

Observe stringent hygiene and social distancing behaviour
With those caveats in mind, here’s what I am doing and/or advising my loved ones to do (even though, sadly, many of them just can’t/won’t/don’t believe me, think I’m being extreme, and so refuse to listen). A lot of this stuff is tedious, time-consuming, and might seem to be the product of an obsessive, anal retentive mind. Nonetheless, I believe they will improve your chances of staying safe.

    • Do not let anyone at all into the house. If you absolutely have to—like you have a plumbing emergency—wear a mask; make the visitor wear a mask and use hand sanitiser before they even ring your doorbell; afterwards, glove up and wipe down every single thing they touched with hydrogen peroxide wipes, or spray surfaced they touched with a weak bleach-and-water solution, then wash your hands, then wipe everything down again. (ETA: the CDC guidelines suggest 4 teaspoons of bleach per quart of water. But as a single cupful—half a pint—of solution is enough to clean most surfaces, and as it should really be mixed fresh every day, I’d suggest using one teaspoon and one cup of water. And, having said that, there’s an argument to be made for using a less fierce concentration, because all the bleach, all the time, is frankly not that great for your lungs. The CDC concentration works out to somewhere between 500-800 ppm, and I think there are arguments to be made for 50-200 ppm—one teaspoon per quart. Better yet, consider old-fashioned dishsoap. Soap is amazingly effective against viruses—like SARS-CoV-2—that are enveloped in a lipid membrane. So if you find the stronger solution bothersome, consider the weaker one. But, again, do remember I’m not the expert here; I’ve just been thinking about this a lot, and talking to friends who are medical professionals. Talk to your trusted medical professional and make a decision that’s right for  you.)
    • When you absolutely have to leave the house, double-glove and wear a mask. Here’s a fun New York magazine article that might help you wrap your head around the necessity for both. Ignore all that crap about how masks make no difference; of course they do; it’s just that health care professionals need them more, there’s a shortage, and so word was put about to prevent panic buying. It didn’t work, of course, and now people are confused. Don’t be confused: if you have a mask, wear it. You don’t need an endless supply, because they’re reusable. Ditto gloves. (Here’s a handy diagram of how long SARS-CoV-2 remains viable on various surfaces.) If you’re an organised person, with cubbyholes for various things, empty them, label them with days of the week, and when you come in from some unavoidable outside appointment, put gloves and mask in the cubbyhole labelled with the appropriate day, and don’t touch them again for 48 hours. (ETA: Or just bake them in the oven at 70ºC for 30 minutes. Or steam them for 3 minutes in a rice cooker or other pressure cooker.)
    • Also before you leave the house, moisturise your face. Seriously: you’re much more likely to itch if your skin is dry. If you moisturise, you’re a little less likely to touch your face.
    • When you get deliveries, if they’re non-perishable items, simply don’t touch the boxes for three days; every speck of virus in or on the package will be dead by the time you get to it.
    • If you can’t wait, glove up, wipe everything down, open the box, wipe every item, throw away the wipe, wash hands thoroughly, then wipe down everything you might have touched after gloving up the first time.
    • At all times stay 3 metres/10 feet from anyone who does not share your living space. Yes, most people say 6 feet. And perhaps that’s true if you’re only thinking of breathing in the droplets someone’s coughed out. But I’m thinking stuff landing on your clothes. I’m thinking of runners and cyclists expelling air with greater than usual force. Also, I use a wheelchair: imagine flight trajectories. Farther away is better.
    • Imagine anything anyone has touched is covered in bright red paint. If you brush it with your sleeve, then take your jacket off, it’s now on your hands. Whatever you touch will be contaminated.
    • Carefully consider the kind of sex you have. You don’t just have to worry about kissing: the virus has been isolated from both urine and faeces. No one yet studied other bodily fluids but I’d recommend lots of showers using lots of soap.

Be zealous about your physical health
Much of this stuff comes from my understanding of various metabolic processes that I’ve gained from thinking and reading about MS for twenty years. They make sense to me. Many doctors disagree with my thinking—but not all. So whether or not you follow any of this advice is entirely up to you. I am not a physician; this is not medical advice. If some of this stuff is totally new to you, do consider the possibility of allergies and other contraindications. (Some people, for example, have unpleasant retinal consequences with hydroxychloroquine/Plaquenil at high doses. And those who take meds for type II diabetes should avoid it.)

    • Increase your exercise
    • Stop smoking
    • Reduce alcohol—and stop drinking altogether if you’re infected
    • Consider nutraceuticals to reduce HbA1c, for example purified anthocyanins such as elderberry supplements

If you test positive:

      • take acetaminophen/paracetamol for fever and aches rather than ibuprofen/aspirin/nap
      • do not fry or grill on high heat: oil smoke will irritate the fuck out of your lungs
      • eat foods low in carbs and high in iron
      • stop drinking completely
      • eat your anthocyanins in any way you can (except for the wine, of course)
      • if you happen to have just filled a prescription for hydroxychloroquine, take those pills. There’s a lot of anecdata from China and Italy about this heme polymerase inhibitor reducing illness duration and severity. I’ll stop short of suggesting that everyone else should ask your primary care physician to write you a prescription right now, just in case, because there are in fact populations of people—those with lupus, with rheumatoid arthritis, and, y’know, actual malaria—who really need the drug and whose conditions have been proven to benefit from taking it and who are beginning to find it difficult to fill their prescriptions. But once the supply ramps up, and it will, it’s worth giving it a go. But do, please, remember allergies and other contraindications.
    • Preserve your emotional and psychological well-being
      I’m a writer. I’m disabled. I’ve spent a lot of time with no one but myself for company. The way I stay fairly even-keeled is a mix of structure, self-indulgence, and maintaining contact with the outside world. Staying fit in mind and body is all about self-care. My routine has not changed much in the last 6 weeks, except for three things: no more visits to pubs, coffee shops, and restaurants (sigh); more video chats (yay!); and an hour a day reading and thinking about COVID-19.

      • For me, the most important thing is structure: I go to bed and get up at my usual time. Eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner, ditto. Start work at the usual time. Take breaks to play with the cats. Take breaks to feed the cats. Take breaks to rescue the cats and/or rescue household items from the cats (yes, I’ll do another Kitten Report soon). I finish work at roughly the same time every evening, at which point Kelley and I settle down with a glass of wine and discuss our day. Even though we’re both under the same roof 24×7, there’s always a surprising amount to discuss. We try to make sure that this hour is purely about and for us: it’s not a time to make lists or plans, but to just talk, just be sweeties. Then we have dinner, then watch an hour or less of TV. When we go to bed we do not check email, or get on Twitter, or watch our screens.
      • Do things to make yourself happy. For me, this is a mix of good food, good wine, good conversation, physical contact, and being outside under the trees. There’s more, of course, and if you really want to know what matters to me, read the Dozen daily delights. You could do worse than try it out. What makes me unhappy and stressed is hours and hours on Twitter or watching the news. If I need to check out, I read comfort books (see Good books for hard times).
      • Exercise! This is the part I’m currently finding the hardest. I can’t get to the gym, and zooming about at the park is only possible for me when it’s been dry for a while and the paths are (sort of) accessible. I’ve had a basic indoor exercise routine for years, but for various reasons, late last year that began to break down, and I’m just trying to restart it. Like any good habit, it takes much, much longer to set it than to break it—exactly the opposite for bad habits, tuh. But exercise is amazingly important for both your physical and mental health. So, yeah, I’m working on it.
      • Reaching out remotely to family and friends. This is another thing I’m sometimes not very good at. Many of my people are in different time zones, and I make a mental note to call/email/message someone only to remember about it when it’s either too late or too early. Again, this is something I’m working on. But as with exercise, I’m always happier for having done it.
      • Forgive yourself. You will have days when you forget to do something, or just can’t bear to do what you think you should. There will be days when you just don’t want to get out of bed. On those days, give in. Curl up with two bars of chocolate and a pot of tea. Watch crap TV. Weep self-indulgently. Write bad poetry and listen to sad songs. Then get up next day, get outside under the trees, call a friend, do some exercise; you’ll feel better.

      What it all boils down to is self-care. Look after yourself!

      Our immediate community

      This blog post is getting very long, so I’ll make this section short and general rather than specific.

      • Neighbours. Our closest and best neighbour just moved—and I mean two days ago—but this cul-de-sac is pretty tightly knit. We have each others contact info and do reach out to check in and see how others are doing. Email is fine, but at some point consider a group walk around the neighbourhood with dogs and kids—making sure everyone stays the right distance apart. After that, consider Zoom or Google Hangout or FaceTime happy hour: kicking back with a drink and just chatting. Here’s where you’ll find out if someone has extra masks/gloves, hand-sani, toilet roll, milk or whatever, and if someone else needs same. Here’s where you can help each other. I’ve heard of some neighbourhoods in Seattle turning their Little Free Libraries into Little Free Pantries.
      • Local business. Do you have a couple of favourite restaurants? Get food delivered from them (and tip very well—what might in other times be obscenely well), buy gift certificates—for yourself or others—so that when things reopen, the small business might still be there for you to patronise. Do you have a local bookstore that you love? Order books from them online—even audio books; again, buy gift certificates. Ditto hair salons.
      • Contractors and gig workers. Do you usually have yard work? Massage? Someone clean your house? A handywo/man who does odd jobs? Consider sending them money if you can afford it; or buy gift certificates if they offer them.
      • Nonprofits. Arts nonprofits are seriously hurting right now because many have had to cancel their big fundraisers. Send them money. Pet shelters are desperate for foster care for their four-footed charges. If you can, offer to take a couple of cats or dogs for a while.
      • Local medical and retail workers. Hospitals and some medical offices have to stay open. Remember the doctors, nurses, admin workers and technicians are human beings, not miracle workers. Be kind, try to be reasonable when they can’t give you what you want immediately, for example a test, or a prescription for hydroxychloroquine. This is doubly true for people who work in supermarkets and pharmacies: they are overworked, underpaid, and super stressed. They are exposed all the time to people who might be infected and contagious. They are being yelled at by frightened customers who are panicking about their food/toilet roll/chocolate supply. So if you can’t find what you want on the shelf, take a breath. You’ll live—maybe your neighbour has extra. No one will starve. And we never have any idea what another is going through. Do you want to be the arsehole who yelled at a young woman who was doing her best to find you what you need, while at the same times she’s fretting about her two-year-old, about her aged mother, about how she’s going to pay her rent now that her girlfriend’s been fired from her food service job? No, you don’t want to be that person.
      Conclusion

      No one knows where we’re heading or what it’ll be like when we get there. So be kind. Be patient. Be cheerful. Don’t let yourself be ruled by fear. Choose love and compassion. Forgive yourself and others. Stay connected to others. Take your joy where you can. Try to assume good intent. If you feel bad, be kind to yourself. And remember that some people out there will be in a bad way, mentally, physically, emotionally, and financially. If you can spare anything extra—money, kindness, patience, a mask, the benefit of the doubt, a moment to listen—you might brighten one small corner of the world. Do your best to be a fine human being. And we might all get through this.


      *I had a handful of N95 masks left over from the horrible wildfire summer of 2018 so I didn’t need to buy any—we keep two in my car, two in Kelley’s car, and two for the house. [ETA: We’ve now given some away, so now we’re down to the bare minimum, which makes me extremely uncomfortable. But is my comfort worth someone’s life? No.] We also already had a box of nitrile gloves. But I ordered some thin, washable gloves, too.

Good books for hard times

Today some of us are already in in semi-isolation. Soon almost of us will be. So here’s a list of books to immerse yourself because there’s no point stressing over what you can’t control. These are the books I turn to when I’m ill, or tired, or stressed. They are not the latest and greatest; they are not hip and cool. They are comfort reads. I hope they comfort you, too.

The ones at the top of the list are the ones I especially recommend. They’re full of action, set largely outside in natural landscape, and bursting with joy and bravery even when the odds are stacked against the characters. The people in these books always eventually do the right thing, and, importantly, triumph at the end. Some of these I’ve written about before, so have included a paragraph, or notes, from previous thoughts.

Others are funny, or cathartic, or simply reassuring: Yes, there are people like us living in the nooks and crannies of the world; we will survive because we have always survived.

All these books are old favourites, tried and true; read and reread—the key word, though, is old. So I’d love to get suggestions for more recent books. If you have particular favourites that you turn to when in need of comfort and/or escape, please share in the comments. We are going to need all the help we can get in the next three months.

The Crystal Cave, by Mary Stewart.
A potent and atmospheric entry in the Matter of Britain—Uther, Merlin, Arthur and the fight of Light and civilization vs. Dark and barbarism. It is heady stuff: menhirs looming from the mist, the scent of woad and wet wool, and moonlight gleaming on chased hilts and chainmail as noble warriors gather to stoop down on invaders like wolves from the fold. So far, so Dark Ages. But unusually for the genre, women are not rape toys—in fact they are largely absent, leaving 10-year-old me to imagine myself in the hero’s saddle. And the hero is not a warrior but Merlin. What I really loved about this book, though, is how Stewart immerses us in nature. We feel it, smell it, and hear it; it seeps into our bones and infuses us with a sense of immanence and wild magic…

Master and Commander (Aubrey/Maturin novels), by Patrick O’Brian.
The books about which I currently think, “Now if I could do this I could call myself a writer!” If you intend to read these, please start at the beginning with Master and Commander. I love these books, all 20 volumes. Each is a chapter in a single, flowing narrative. The first 13 are, in my opinion, without parallelThis is Jane Austen on a ship of war, with the humanity, joy and pathos of Shakespeare — and brilliantly written. I have read them perhaps 20 times. I will read them many more.The shining center of these books is the friendship between Jack and Stephen. They are opposites: extroverted, one-of-the-lads Jack and introverted, shrewish Stephen. Jack is a fool on land but brilliant at sea; Stephen is an idiot child at sea, while on land he is a subtle and dangerous spy, natural scientist and polyglot. But they both love music — and, at one point, the same woman, which comes very close to breaking their friendship.

• The Blue Sword and The Hero and the Crown, by Robin McKinley.
The Blue Sword might be one of McKinley’s first novels but it shows all the trademarks of her later work: that absolute gift for making this imagined time and place feel as real as dirt, for showing people both ordinary and special, and for putting the reader right there in that particular time and place. I admit to flinching a little now at the implied class/caste issues, and the way McKinley doesn’t quite escape the gender event horizon (though it’s an admirable attempt), but for an early novel it’s very fine. It’s a serious story about finding one’s place in the world and learning to belong, issues very much of interest to many of us, of any age. Her later novels such as The Outlaws of Sherwood and Spindle’s End are also very fine.

Hawk of May, by Gillian Bradshaw.
This is delicious Arthurian fantasy which feels totally queer but, well, isn’t. It’s just that the protagonist, Gwalchmai, who is very much Othered, finally finds a place to belong. There are two other books in the series, both worth reading though neither, in my opinion, so glorious as this first one.

Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien.
This is one of the best novels I know. It’s not perfect. I admit that in the first hundred pages or so the prose wobbles—and occasionally lurches—here and there, enough to make the blue pencil in my head twitch and to make me turn away to allow a decent pause for the prose to collect itself. But it improves, and later passages can be very fine. And, oh dear me, yes, he could have lost quite a few chunks of song. And, no, he doesn’t do women fully—he doesn’t do them horribly, he just doesn’t do them enough—but all writers have their weak spots. His storytelling, however, is without peer. Tolkien’s arcs—for Frodo, and Sam, and Aragorn—are graceful and strong, elegant as Chinese cabinetry: pared down to the essential, perfectly balanced. The result is a story so compelling that, at age eleven, I read the entire book in one two-day marathon. It was also the first novel about which I remember thinking, “Now if I could do this...”

Fire From Heaven, by Mary Renault (pen name of Mary Challons).
In my opinion this is her best book. Alexander and Hephaestion’s relationship felt familiar and thrilling. I read this book and thought, “If I could write a book as good as this one day, I’ll know I haven’t wasted my life.” There are two others in the series about Alexander but I didn’t ike them very much.

The Dark is Rising, by Susan Cooper.
This is the second in a five-book series for children (which is also called The Dark is Rising). The others are okay, but this is the masterpiece. Cooper does a magnificent job of putting us right there. This is another of those novels steeped in the wild magic of landscape.

Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, by Jeanette Winterson
Winterson’s first novel, and, in my opinion, her best—unselfconscious, committed, touching, funny, and full of Northern English dykeness, which I’d never seen written about at book-length before. It’s a fictionalised autobiography; if you want to read the raw version, take a look at Why Be Happy When You Could be Normal, her memoir, which is most definitely not a comfort read. You can read my opinion here.

The Watchtower, Elizabeth A. Lynn.
Fantasy, but no magic, unless you call love and aikido magic; I think this book influenced the way I write about bodies in the real world; it certainly paved the way for me to learn aikido a few years later. This is the first in a three-book series but this one is the best.

The Privilege of the Sword, by Ellen Kushner
Again, fantasy but no magic. And girls with swords who kiss each other. What could be better? Part of Kushner’s Riverside series, but this one stands on its own quite nicely.

Moll Cutpurse, by Ellen Galford.
This is pure fun—lesbian picaresque before Tipping the Velvet. The story of Moll Cutpurse—rogue, dyke, slapstick humourist in the sixteenth century: there’s love, gypsies, theatre, plague, and lots of high jinks—and nicely written throughout.

Patience and Sarah (The Two of Us) by Isabel Miller (pen name of Alma Routsong).
This is a lovely romance between two women set in 19th C. America, full of hardship and love and stubbornness. I wept shamelessly (in a cathartic way) thoughout the last chapter.

(Extra)Ordinary People, by Joanna Russ.
A collection of short science fiction, including what to me is probably the most fun hey-gender-is-a-game story ever, “The Mystery of the Young Gentleman,” which is my favourite piece by Russ: fast-moving, thrilling, and sly. It’s set on a clipper ship sailing from England to the U.S. in the late 19th century, narrated by a—well, I’ll have to say “woman,” because if you follow the textual clues that’s what makes most sense, biologically speaking at least. Though s/he could, just possibly, be an alien. And of course the point of the story is to deconstruct the notion of gender’s pernicious binary, throw out the Either/Or and replace it with Neither/Nor and a sprinkle of Yes/And. The narrator does not identify as gendered at all but, Wittig-like, insists that among their people there are no men and no women: if all refuse gender, there’s no need to perform it. So, It’s about a woman with a young charge—who is definitely a girl, or more precisely a young woman, but in any case most certainly not a lady, oh no—who are traveling as father and daughter. Though, oh dear me, their relationship is not filial. At all. So, It’s about a woman and girl on a transatlantic crossing who use gender performance to stay safe. Not safe from bad men. Safe from the dull-eyed herd, each plodding behind the placid beastie ahead. Our protagonists, you see, are telepaths. And Russ has a tremendously fine time fucking with everyone’s gendered heads as she ratchets up the stakes. So, It’s sharp, witty, genderqueer science fiction. But we are talking about Russ, so that’s not all it is. It’s pulp adventure fiction, with sex and gunplay and gambling, money and reversals and danger. Also a parody of Victorian porn. And, literally, a comedy of manners. Exhilarating stuff.

Sappho—trans. Mary Barnard.
In my early twenties I was reading a lot of novels but writing only lyrics: songs for the band I fronted. When the band faded away, as all bands do, I found I didn’t want to stop writing. So I wrote poetry; I wrote nonfiction. Something began to gather in the back of my brain but I couldn’t access it. Then I found Mary Barnard’s translation of Sappho. Sappho’s bold, vertiginous leaps shocked me awake and open the dam in my head. I wrote 30,000 words of a novel in five days. This, I realised. This is what I will do with my life. But, like Stewart’s, it was Sappho’s language of the the natural world, specifically using that language to talk about the body, that lit something in me. Her lyrics are fresh and astonishing. As Barnard herself says in her footnote, some of her words feel invented in that moment for that line alone. She was writing more than 2,500 years ago, yet her works speaks directly to us even today. So many of what we consider literary clichés were her original imagery: silver moon, rosy-fingered and rosy-armed dawns and moonrise, turning pale, being tongue-tied. She shaped our understanding of what it is to be human.

Asterix the Gaul, by Goscinny and Uderzo—trans. by Anthea Bell.
Bell does a brilliant job of translation (though sometimes I read the French—hey, it’s a comic, it’s not hard). Full of puns and history and the triumph of the small against the mighty. There are many, many volumes in this story and I recommend them all.

Six of One, by Rita Mae Brown
This, I think, is Brown’s best novel—funny (like Florence King, but without the nastiness) and mature, with a plot, and acknowledgement that not all dykes are the same. Rubyfruit Jungle, her first novel, is the ur-coming out story for women, and when I read it I loved it, and laughed until I cried. But my guess is those coming to Rubyfruit Jungle for the first time now might find it a little too familiar, because everyone copied her.

Walk to the End of the World, and Motherlines, by Suzy Mckee Charnas.
Walk to the End of the World commits to an implacable sci-fi logic of post-apocalyptic gender war. It’s not exactly a comfort read for me, but it’s a necessary precursor to Motherlines. So: The world is largely arid and inhospitable, with small isolated populations clinging on here and there. In one region men hate women, and fuck them not for pleasure but to make babies. Women are domesticated animals: bred as both beasts of burden, and food. We follow the story of one pregnant slave, Alldera, and her eventual escape. We have no idea what she’s escaping to, if anything, and if she’s walking into certain death in the desert, it seems like a reasonable choice because Walk to the End of the World makes The Handmaid’s Tale feel like a tidy little bedtime story. Like “Cold Equations,” a story that shocked a generation of science fiction readers with the relentlessness of physics, it does not flinch from its premise. It will give you nightmares, and those nightmares have teeth. But Alldera does escape, to the world of Motherlines, a world of all women who breed their own domestic animal: not fellow humans, but horses. This is a much less terrifying book but it, too, looks right into the face of brutal choices and doesn’t blink. It was the first book I read with no men in it at all, and refutes essentialism effortlessly. For a new writer it is a marvellous introduction to, and almost perfect exemplar of, show-don’t-tell: a master class disguised as feminist legend that never was.

The Exile Waiting and Dreamsnake, by Vonda N. McIntyre.
Her first novel, The Exile Waiting, is what saved science fiction for me, plus it had disabled characters, working class and underclass characters, and lots of women. This and her second novel, Dreamsnake, showed me real SF could have girls in and not be about romance. Beautifully written and full of McIntyre’s trademark compassion for the downtrodden. I could and should say a lot more about these wonderful novels but frankly whenever I try to write about Vonda and her work, I weep. She’s been dead almost a year, and I still miss her too much to talk about her.

Kindred, by Octavia Butler
A time travel book for all those women (and queer folk, and people of colour) who look at their elders and think: I wouldn’t have knuckled under like you did! Why didn’t you fight back?? Butler shows that people in every time often do the best they can in the circumstances—probably better than you or I could—and it’s a miracle they survive, never mind conquer. History is never the inevitable, magisterial story we’ve been told; history is contingent upon circumstance, and the circumstance here is structural oppression. I was fascinated by Butler’s nicely calibrated Othering. Dana suffers; her life as a slave is brutal—but not too brutal. Clearly Butler understood the nature of narrative empathy: put the reader inside your character and the character inside your reader, make them feel what they feel and learn what they learn, but don’t make it too hard, because if you do, the reader will put the book down and walk away, or at least barrier themselves up emotionally. Butler knew you can’t change the world unless you change the reader, and you can’t change the reader unless she stays open to your fiction’s great power of empathy.

Hothead Paisan, by Diane DiMassa.
Okay, I admit I haven’t reread this one for a long time so I don’t know how it holds up. But I remember it as angry, funny, true, frightening, wicked, delicious comic book about a dyke—and her cat, Chicken—who has a caffeine-fuelled rage against the world.

• The Essential Dykes to Watch Out For, by Alison Bechdel.
This is an omnibus of the comic strip covering decades of dyke life. If you read it, you’ll end up with a very clear notion of the history of a certain kind of lesbian community in the US and—with slight differences—UK. If you are a dyke contemporary of Bechdel’s, you’ve probably, like me, read it all, strip by strip every week in the queer weeklies, but if you haven’t, you’ll laugh yourselves sick with recognition.

• Fingersmith, by Sarah Waters.
Victorian lesbian pickpockets and con artists trying to outsmart and out-naïve each other, with lots of burning desire and reversals baked in. Enormous fun. Tipping the Velvet, Waters’ first novel, is also worth a read, though for me it works less well because it follows the classic coming-out structure created by Rita Mae Brown and since followed by Lisa Alther and others. So the story arc feels a bit worn. But Fingersmith? Fabulous!

The perfect audio for International Women’s Day

Cover image for audiobook, AMMONITE by Nicola Griffith, read by Gabra Zackman. A planet set in a starry sky, with an image of an ammonite superimposed on the planet, reflecting mountains, cloud, and snow. Title text and narrator name in white, author name in black.

You can self-isolate and celebrate International Women’s Day and feel smug and timely by listening to Ammonite, a novel about a world of women created by a viral pandemic—and the women of Jeep would have had no problem electing Elizabeth Warren president, just saying. Read by Gabra Zackman, who does an awesome job. Listen to a sample here:

Available from these fine retailers:

Libro.fm | Audible | Kobo

COVID-19: Numbers game

Cases pass 101,000 in 97 countries; one economist suggests “we should prepare for a short-term but severe global recession,” and right here in King County we have 11 people dead (which is more than in Beijing) and 58 confirmed cases. Which makes for a King County Case Fatality Rate (CFR) of 18.97%. This is not a useful number. More on that in a bit. Given that Seattle and surrounds are now in the bullseye of this epidemic, County officials have released what seems to me to be very reasonable advice. In terms of prevention, along with the usual sanitation and social-distancing advice, it boils down to:

  • Cancel all events of more than 10 people
  • people 60 and over: stay at home
  • people with underlying health issues: stay at home
  • people who are immunocompromised: stay at home
  • loved one of any of the above? stay at home
  • employers: tell your people to work from home
  • schools: stay open unless you have confirmed cases
  • Everyone: have plenty of the things you’ll need at hand in case you need to self-quarantine for a couple of weeks

Overall takeaway: don’t panic, but do prepare. Here in King County we’re taking this seriously. The University of Washington has closed their campuses and moved classes online. Amazon and Microsoft have told their workforces to stay at home where possible, and to cancel travel. The highways around here are like something from the 70s: open and unjammed. No one here is treating this as a joke or a drill.

So now let’s look a bit more closely at that eyebrow-raising CFR in King County. Has the virus mutated? No. There are two main reasons for it being so high right now:

  1. Genetic tests show that the SARS-CoV-2 virus has been circulating here undetected for about a month. In that time only a handful of people have been tested. It’s probable that there are a couple of thousand people right here in Seattle who already have COVID-19, but the only ones coming to our attention are the seriously ill ones. Survival among those seriously affected depends upon swift supportive treatment—so if you don’t know you’re sick, you’re not getting treated in time; you’re more likely to die.
  2. The densest cluster of cases is at a care home for the old and medically fragile: exactly the demographic who are most at risk of fatal consequences.

Let’s look at that last one—age and other factors that have an impact on mortality rates. The following info is sourced here and based on a report in the Chinese Journal of Epidemiology that followed 72,314 confirmed, suspected and asymptomatic cases in China until February 11.

Probability of dying of COVID-19 by age:
80+      14.8%
70-79    8.0%
60-69    3.6%
50-59    1.3%
40-49    0.4%
30-39    0.2%
20-29    0.2%
10-19    0.2%
0-9        no fatalities

Probability of dying of COVID-19 by sex:
male    2.8%
female 1.7%

Probability of dying of COVID-19 by comorbidity:
cardiovascular disease         10.5
Type 2 diabetes                      7.3
chronic respiratory disease   6.3
hypertension                          6.0
cancer                                      5.6
none                                        0.9

So if you’re an old man with a bad heart and lungs, well, you really don’t want to get this thing.

Now let’s look at testing rates per million of population (on March 2) and how that correlates with apparent fatality rates.

Italy,
current CFR = 4.25%
tests per million: 386

South Korea
current CFR = 0.65%
tests per million: 2,138

If you look at those numbers it seems if you get the virus in Italy you’re seven times more likely to die that if you get it in South Korea. But South Korea, with their free, drive-through testing stations are catching a much more representative sample of those infected. Their data is better. If they have better data, does this mean the mortality rate for COVID-19 is lower than we thought? No. It means many people in South Korea are in the early stages of infection. Expect that number to go up. But it might not go as high as we fear because the earlier you catch this illness and offer supportive treatment, the less likely the patient is to die—assuming you have enough hospital beds and enough equipment like ventilators.

Which is where I get to the depressing stuff. Countries like the UK have been doing a brilliant job of testing—but the NHS is already operating at capacity andm in some cases, over-capacity. The UK has an extremely low beds-per-population ratio, and their ICUs are operating at over 20% beyond recommended rates. A sudden influx of cases will break the system; people will die. There will be triage.

And here in the US, as of March 1, the number of tests performed per million was…1. Yes, one. One test for every million residents. So how many people in the early stages do you think we’re catching? And how many people are not coming forward because they can’t afford to see a doctor? And how many are still going into work because they have no paid time off? Many peoiple in this  country believe they live in with the best healthcare in the world. And this could be true for those individuals who have money. But a pandemic is all about public health, and at the federal level this country’s health system is pitiful.

All I can say is, I am grateful for Washington State, for King County, and for the University of Washington. They declared a state of emergency, ignored the FHA, and started in-state testing. UW Virology came up with its own test and has the capacity to do 1,000 tests a day, and to ramp up that number very fast. Legislators are working on making sure there’s no out of pocket expense for testing. Yes, right now the apparent CFR is hair-raising, but because of our fine local systems, expect that number to not just fall but plummet in the next week or two. In this kind of event, I’m very very glad to be living in this city, in this county, in this state.

  • Note 3.07.20, 13.06 -8 UTC: I corrected the King County numbers to reflect end-of-day Friday info. Those numbers are now worse: 15 dead and 71 confirmed cases, for a new CFR of 21.12%

COVID-19: Now what?

US cases have now hit 99, with 6 dead and at least 7 more in serious/critical condition. The deaths occurred in Washington state, 5 of them right here in King County. Washington State is currently treating 21 patients; Seattle and surrounds are a new epicentre of disease. Virus isolated from a recent US case, a person infected via unknown transmission, is genetically identical to the strain brought to the US by the first diagnosed case, right here. In other words, cryptic transmission has been occurring in the Puget Sound region for six weeks. A relatively conservative guess might mean over 1,000 people right here in Seattle already have the virus.

If you’re young and/or healthy, the odds are you’ll be fine; your risk of death is low—ten or twenty times higher than with seasonal flu, sure, but still low. I am a high-risk subject. I have now moved in abundance-of-caution mode.

Here’s how I’ll be managing, at least for the next couple of weeks and/or until we get a clearer understanding of the situation.

  • No mass gatherings. I have just cancelled an appearance at the King County Library System’s Literary Lions Gala on Saturday because they expect at least 750 guests. Most of these people will be well-heeled, well-travelled folk; I would bet a reasonable sum several will have been exposed to the virus, and possibly infected—and therefore contagious. Also, I have a nagging cough—probably just allergies (it happens every year) but I can’t imagine guests at my table feeling comfortable in the presence of a hacking, spluttering person right now.
  • If I do go out, it’ll be for unavoidable legal and/or medical appointments. I’ll wear gloves but not a mask. I will not touch doorknobs. I will wipe down hard surfaces such as table tops and chair arms with wipes containing bleach, hydrogen peroxide, or alcohol. I’ll sanitise my hands with gel containing at least 60% alcohol.
  • Anytime I leave the house I’ll wear gloves, blue ones preferably, so I can’t help seeing them and being reminded not to touch my face. (We all do it, all the time, mostly without noticing.)
  • No hugging, no kissing. Fist or elbow bumps, and lots of hand-washing and hand sanitising. And no leaning in too close to someone.
  • Keep hand sanitiser on the table just inside the front door. Anyone who enters our house sanitises their hands immediately. No excuses, not, “Just let me put this down first,” or “I just washed my hands,” but immediately. No sanitisation, no visit. Actually, now I come to think of it, we need to get a table on the porch so people can sanitise their hands before they even ring the doorbell.
  • No touching without gloves of hard smooth objects brought to the house: cans, bottles, Tupperware, shiny books, etc. Wearing gloves, wipe the container with bleach solution, hydrogen peroxide or alcohol. Wipe gloves. Throw away gloves. Wash hands.
  • We already have masks, gloves, wipes, and gel in the house so next on the buying agenda is dry goods. It’s entirely possible there will be some kind of community isolation procedures to follow. This isn’t apocalypse prepping, it’s just sensible precautions: the less I have to venture out, the lower my exposure will be.
  • Not order pizza, even when exhausted. Fast food workers have a terrible hygiene record, not because they’re bad people but because they’re poorly paid with zero job security. They can’t afford to go the doctor, and they can’t afford time off. A lot of them will get sick, and work while they’re sick.

And that’s just off the top of my head.

Do I really think these precautions are necessary? Yes, I do.

  • Since my last update 10 days ago, the number of deaths outside China has jumped from 17 to 174 and the total number of case from under 2,000 to more than 10,000.
  • The official number of cases here in Washington State is 21 but I suspect the true number approaches 1500.
  • The virus has been isolated in urine and faeces; we don’t know for sure but it’s likely human waste can be a route of transmission.
  • There been some discussion of the possibility of the virus being biphasic—like Ebola. You get infected, you get better, you test as negative and are released into the wild…and some time later you’re back, with new symptoms, and testing positive. At this stage, Ebola patients are infectious again. With COVID-19? Who knows.
  • Beneficial immunity, if any, will, even in the most severe cases—and therefore strongest immune response—will be temporary because that’s how coronaviruses work. Best case scenario? Almost a year, like MERS. Pessimistically, less than 6 weeks, like a common cold.
  • Governor Jay Inslee has declared a state of emergency. King County is buying a motel to isolate cases. And various individual schools and school districts here in Western Washington are closing.
  • Right now, in Italy, a western European country whose doctors and equipment are as good as those here in the US, the case fatality rate is 2%, and 49% of their active cases are hospitalised. 9% of their cases are in the ICU. This is not flu.

These are not high drama precautions; they’re just sensible. We don’t expect to get T-boned every time we drive through an intersection, but we fasten our seatbelts and we look both ways. That’s all this is: common sense.

So, yes, I’m hunkering down. I expect I’ll get a lot of work done.

Pre-order Ammonite audiobook

Cover image for audiobook, AMMONITE by Nicola Griffith, read by Gabra Zackman. A planet set in a starry sky, with an image of an ammonite superimposed on the planet, reflecting mountains, cloud, and snow. Title text and narrator name in white, author name in black.

Out on March 3, the Ammonite audiobook, read by Gabra Zackman. I’m very pleased about this. Gabra has done an excellent job.

Listen to a sample here:

Then if you like it—and what’s not to like?— go pre-order from these fine retailers:

Libro.fm | Audible | Kobo

Wordgathering interview

A new interview with me is up at Wordgathering: A Journal of Disability Poetry and Literature. Lots of stuff about So Lucky and disability, of course, but also much about my work in general, thoughts on Hild (and Hild and Menewood), and why I believe characters should only be hollowed out by sadness in order to be filled with joy.

WG: With respect to So Lucky, what kinds of things do you think you were able to do in that book that as a novelist that you would not have been able to do as a memoirist.

NG: With So Lucky I wanted to explore how chronic illness and disability affects us—our decisions, our friends, our place in the world—without confusing that exploration with my specific personal experiences. I needed the clarity of fiction. Fiction allowed me to compress time and so intensify the experience for protagonist and reader. To build a narrative structure that helps the reader experience ableism, its internalisation, and eventual deconstruction. And, importantly, to make metaphor concrete.

So Lucky takes place over the course of a single year. In that time, Mara learns about ableism what took me twenty years to learn. I make that possible by accelerating the course of Mara’s MS in order to lead her and the reader through an equally accelerated series of realisations. When we meet her, she is a woman on top of her world, who’s never met a challenge she couldn’t deal with—until, in the space of a single week, she’s diagnosed with MS, divorced by her wife, and loses her job. She then goes on to create a nonprofit, fall in love, and fight monsters, human and otherwise.

So Lucky is a story about a woman with MS written by a woman with MS. The first word of the book is It, and It is a monster. But the monster is not MS, the monster is ableism.

Ableism is the story we are fed from birth: Crips are less, crips are Other because of our physical impairments, our deviation from some imaginary norm. Ableism is a crap story but one we all—disabled and nondisabled—absorb and internalise. Mara learns that ableism is not only a crap story but a wrong story; it’s not our impairments that make us feel less, feel Other, but society’s attitudes to those impairments. She realises just how much she has internalised that message, and understands that if she does not acknowledge that internalisation, and find a way to counter it, ableism will kill her.

To show that dawning understanding I move the narrative focus from interior to exterior. So Lucky is a thriller of the body—a changing body, and how bodily change, in turn, changes our understanding of life, the universe, and our place in it. But before I was disabled, if I read that description of my novel on someone else’s book cover I might not have picked it up. It sounds claustrophobic: all internal angst and victimhood rather than a thrilling read. I like to read, and to write, books in which characters do things, not just feel things, and whose bodies are sites of delight rather than difficulty.

So I gradually steer the narrative from inside to out, beyond Mara’s specific, individual problems and into a plot involving nonprofits and how they work—their hierarchies and politics. Plus, of course, a bit of love and sex, some murders, and those monsters. The monsters, human and otherwise, are kind of the point.

This gradual metamorphosis is also a way to externalise Mara’s fears and so avoid the cliché that women—women going through a divorce especially, chronically ill women even more so, and disabled women most of all—spend our time marinating in misery; I wanted an active character, one with agency. Someone who takes action rather than stews in her own anxiety.

So much previous disability fiction has been gentle and elegiac. I wanted So Lucky to be a spear-thrust of a novel, more bolero than nocturne. Rather than Chopin, think Grace Slick singing “White Rabbit.” The whole point of the novel, the whole arc is about the crescendo: facing the monster right at the end. You can’t do that with memoir.

It’s been fascinating to watch how many nondisabled readers, whether they call themselves critics or not, find this story structure discomfiting.

COVID-19 update

In my opinion, COVID-19 is well out of the box. There is no ‘window of opportunity’ to prevent a pandemic: it’s out there, and it’s spreading.

Let’s start with some stats. As of 22 February 2020 16:40 -8 UTC, worldwide:

  • 78,669 confirmed cases
  • 23,003 recovered
  • 41,654 currently with a mild case
  • 11,553 currently in serious or critical condition
  • 2,459 have died

In other words, the current overall case fatality rate = 3.125%. This is a lot.

But there’s another way to look at it. Worldwide, if you look at COVID-19 from the perspective of closed cases (resolved either by recovery or death) and open cases (still sick), the numbers seem daunting

  • closed cases (resolved by recovery or death)
    • 90% recovered
    • 10% have died
  • open cases (still sick):
    • 78% mild
    • 22% ‘serious or critical’

the story is a little different outside China where there are fewer cases and many are in rich countries with top of the line medical systems that were forewarned:

  • case fatality rate = 0.97%
  • critical/serious = 3.8%

These are still large numbers.

I’m not convinced any of them are reliable. For one, China’s method of counting has changed twice, and, for another, I believe many countries—North Korea, for example—are simply not reporting at all. We had no window into Iran, where in 24 hours they went from insisting there were zero cases to five people being dead; this does not inspire confidence. So far we have only one reported case in Africa—in Egypt—and a grand total of none in Indonesia (which I flat out don’t believe). My conclusion? Really, we have no idea what’s going on.

For several reasons I think we’re not in good shape.

  • A report from Imperial College London, Faculty of Medicine estimated that “about two thirds of COVID-19 cases exported from mainland China have remained undetected worldwide, potentially resulting in multiple chains of as yet undetected human-to-human transmission outside mainland China.”
  • The virus spreads asymptomatically—from people with no cough, no fever, no lung involvement that would show up in scans. Not only that, it spreads from people with such low levels of viral load that in initial testing is negative. How can you stop a virus if you have no idea it’s there?
  • According to the Journal of Hospital Infection, corona viruses can persist on surfaces for up to 9 days. So not only have countless people gone into the world carrying it, we can’t detect those people, and they can leave it on a table top or door handle to to picked up as much as nine days later.
  • Professor Gabriel Leung, the chair of public health medicine at Hong Kong University, said most experts thought that each person infected would go on to transmit the virus to about 2.5 other people. That gives an “attack rate” of 60-80%. If at some point (all at once? in waves?) 60% of the world’s population will be infected, then we’re looking at massive numbers. For the US alone that would be over 8 million people requiring hospitalisation, and a significant percentage of those in intensive care. If preliminary numbers from China hold up, that time elapsed from first symptoms to death are about 14 days, the system will be overwhelmed—and this is a top class medical system. What about those countries with fragile systems?

But the key to all this is how much no one knows about COVID-19. We don’t know

  • the R0 rate
  • how rapidly it will mutate—or in which direction
  • whether it will die down in the warmer months (given data from Singapore and Iran, where it is not cold, I suspect not)
  • whether infection confers protective immunity (many other corona viruses don’t; you can get them over and over)
  • whether the virus—which has been isolated from faecal samples—can be transmitted that way
  • why women die less frequently than men

Two good things: various anti-virals are being trialled, and there are indications that some like remdesivir may be effective. (But we don’t know how effective.) Several teams are racing to build a vaccine, and I think they’ll succeed in 14-18 months. But how easy will it be to ramp up production of both anti-virals and vaccines? How effective will they be? How fast will COVD-19 mutate?

So, basically: yep, we have no clue, and nope, there is no window of opportunity to prevent pandemic. The opportunity that remains is a) preparation and b) communication.

Preparation involves quarantine, disinfection and other strategies to slow down the spread as much as possible to give those teams time to get anti-virals and vaccines into production. It means assessing realistically what it will take to keep the world working during this crisis, and, particularly, keep the health systems functioning under an onslaught.

Communication means getting information out there to everyone on a) how to stay safe and b) what to do if you get the virus anyway. The CDC, WHO and others have lots of info on this. My quick and dirty take away is:

  • Wash your hands. All the time. Wash them for between 25-45 seconds in hot soapy water. Wash them front and back and between your fingers and your fingertips. Use 70% alcohol hand sanitiser. Do not touch your mouth, nose, or eyes—or anything that will touch mouth, nose, or eyes—without thoroughly washing your hands first. If it gets bad, I’ll be wearing gloves, and throughly washing, and thoroughly hand sanitising, once I take them off.
  • Antiviral surgical masks are only effective if you know how to use them properly—single use; wash hands before and after removing; don’t move it aside to talk or eat then just slide it back because now the virus is all over your hands, and possibly the inside surface of your mask—and then only in combination with serious hand-washing.
  • Wash surfaces. Use alcohol, bleach, and hydrogen peroxide because plain Lysol is not effective. According to the Journal of Hospital Infection, coronaviruses “can be efficiently inactivated by surface disinfection procedures with 62-71% ethanol, 0.5% hydrogen peroxide, or 0.1% sodium hypochlorite within 1 minute. Other biocidal agents such as 0.05-0.2% benzalkonium chloride or 0.02% chlorhexidine digluconate are less effective.”

Everyone makes their own choices but what I plan to do, as always, is hope for the best and plan for the worst. Plan on a staycations, and buy a lot of hand-sanitiser.

2019-nCoV, the novel coronavirus: an update

Via Johns Hopkins

On 26 January I wrote a bit about 2019-nCoV, the novel coronavirus originating in Wuhan, and opined that we’d know more in 10-14 days. Here’s an update in two parts:

  1. The current situation, that is, what I know today (6 February) and what might reasonably be inferred—though with the caveat that information is always changing and its transmission is imperfect.
  2. Speculative fun, that is, how I would use all this to write a novel about the fall of civilisation.
Current situation
  • confirmed cases 31,439
  • serious condition 4,826
  • of which, critical condition 985
  • dead 639
  • recovered 1,564

Using these numbers, the worldwide fatality rate is now just a little over 2%, and falling. (Mostly. The story is more complicated than that, because in Hubei province it is 4.1%, and only 0.17% in the rest of the world—at least the parts of the world that are reporting.) This is good news, and it’s the result of improved reporting. (But, oh, so many places are not reporting, and as these are places with fragile healthcare systems I do not trust this data.) As the quality of data continues to improve, my hope is that we’ll see that figure continue to fall. I honestly have no idea of the latest R0 (R-zero, or R-nought, that is, the rate of transmission) but just looking at the numbers I’d guess that has not fallen.

I want to emphasise, again, that this data is not very reliable. The number of cases, for example, is certain to be wrong. I’ve seen figures ranging from 100,000 to 200,000 mentioned as a more likely  number, and I think this is much closer to the mark. (What’s going on in North Korea? How about Indonesia? Then there are all those countries in Africa where Chinese engineering projects have necessitated vast in- and outflows of Chinese labour.) The reason we don’t know about many of the unreported infections, though, is that their symptoms are very mild. In other words, the virus might not be nearly as deadly as we first thought. At least at the moment. I also suspect that there will be deaths that should be attributed to the virus but weren’t because the infected person was asymptomatic and so never tested.

Viruses mutate all the time. This virus will, too. It may become less infectious or more infectious. It may become more deadly or less deadly. We don’t know. But it will mutate; it’s what viruses do.

The virus is very close to being a pandemic if it’s not already. Pandemic just means an infectious disease has reached epidemic proportions on more than one continent. Flu, for example, is a global pandemic but most of us aren’t that afraid of it because we know fatality rates are generally less than 0.1%—often quite a bit less. The common cold (another coronavirus) is also pandemic—so pleased don’t be alarmed by the word.

Coronaviruses rise and fall with the weather. Like the common cold, it’s entirely possible that in the northern hemisphere, the 2019-nCoV will start to die down in spring—but really rev up in the southern hemisphere as things begin to cool down. It’s also entirely possible—I’d go so far as to say likely—that there will be a resurgence of infection at the end of the year coinciding with autumn and the onset of winter

So how do you protect yourself against it? I’m not an expert so this is not medical advice. I can only tell you what I plan to do, which is to behave as though I’m on book tour, meeting a lot of people in the middle of flu season. The most important thing is to wash your hands, a lot. If you can, use warm water, and wash thoroughly with soap—not a quick rinse under the tap but a through sudsing. Hand sanitiser is also very effective. Don’t stand right next to someone coughing and sneezing. Wipe down surfaces if someone with symptoms has been in a space for five or more minutes. (Experts suggest at least 10 minutes, but hey, precautions are our friend.) And if you do test positive for the virus, wear an anti-viral surgical mask to prevent spreading infection. Do we need any more precautions than that? I don’t think so, not unless the virus mutates in terms of transmissibility and/or deadliness. For more info, see a variety of advice, for example from The Guardian. And the Wold Health Organisation has a decent video.

Those people who are dying from 2019-nCoV are doing so from lung injury; most seem to have co-morbidities. So if you already have health issues, like me, and/or a weak respiratory system, start washing your hands a lot.

What treatments are there? Nothing that’s proven to help. Though there are indications that some of the therapies used to combat HIV—a combination of anti-virals and interferon, which signals to the immune system to rev up—might help. And there are several teams in various parts of the globe working on a vaccine. The virus has already been sequenced and people know roughly how to knock out specific important bits to prevent or reduce replication. So I’m guessing there will be some kind of vaccine in 15-18 months.

But remember what I said about mutation? I suspect 2019-nCoV will be like influenza: seasonal, and variable, and sometimes vaccines will be more effective than others.

So meanwhile, people, wash your hands and keep yourselves informed. The two best sources I’ve found so far are BNO News (for latest numbers) and WHO for thoughtful Situation Reports. Johns Hopkins has a nifty Dashboard, but I find they sometimes lag a bit, and the Guardian does great live updates, and has useful tips based on changing info, but that links is always changing, so it might be best to go do a search.


Here is where I move into speculative territory. If you are of a fretful disposition I’d stop reading now. If you continue reading please remember I’m just playing, making shit up for for fun. It’s not researched; it’s guesswork, pure and simple. You’ve been warned.


Speculative fun

Coronaviruses are tricky bastards. Not only do they mutate with astounding ease, they don’t play fair: they do not confer protective immunity on their host. In other words, you could get 2019-nCoV, fight it off over a two-week, life-or-death struggle, emerging weak but triumphant, only to get it again. Just like getting the same cold twice in winter, only this time you die.

Vaccines won’t be much use against an endlessly metamorphosising opponent. As with flu, you’ll often be in the position of bringing a knife to a gunfight. So don’t even think about feeling safe.

Coronavirus is, essentially, already a pandemic. Like seasonal flu and the common cold it will wax and wane with the seasons—you might think you’ve got it corned but, eh, no, it’s just gone skiing in New Zealand and will be back refreshed, and ten times deadlier, just in time for Halloween. Then factor in that many, many countries are not reporting infections and I’m pretty sure this thing cannot be contained.

But all that’s for later. What’s happening now?

Factories in Wuhan and surrounding areas are closed. Manufacturing is halted. It’s likely this will spread to other regions. This will trigger a series of chain reactions.

First, demand shock: idled manufacturing plants don’t use energy; oil prices will tumble. Entire economies—often of politically volatile polities (Russia, Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, Nigeria, Sudan)—will implode. Add this to mass migration already underway because of climate change and there will be increased instability, unrest and conflict. Worst case: war, lots of war, with collapse of local, regional, national, and even international society.

And that’s just oil. Now think about what those idled factories are actually manufacturing: car parts, washing machines, iPhones, hammers and drills, industrial piping, steel, aluminium… The list is almost endless. China’s economy is nearly 10% of global GDP (and its exports well over 12% of global trade) and most it is not services. What do you think happens when you can’t get an engine part used for manufacturing in, say, Korea or the US? Manufacturing in Korea or the US stops. This is already happening to Hyundai in South Korea. Multiply that a zillion-fold and include parts necessary for refrigeration, electrical switching… And boom, down it all goes.

We are living in an unprecedentedly globally interconnected society. As its complexity increases, so does its vulnerability. We only need one part of one grid to go down and a cascade of failures will follow. And as most of the industrialised world is only 3 days from starvation, if grids go down and transport fails then, oof, it is not going back up. Not just ‘not for a while,’ but not ever. If that happens? Billions die.

But imagine nothing goes down, just a series of things closing. So factories are idle. All those workers aren’t getting paid. Starbucks and other big US corporations have already shut many Chinese branches: their profit goes down; their stock goes down; other stocks go down. The next thing we know: global recession. Unlike the last Great Recession, though, central bankers have no shots left in their lockers: they can’t bring down interest rates enough to make a difference. The recession becomes a depression. A depression in a globally interconnected world? Nightmare. Millions die.

And all this is not folding in factors such as police and medical professionals being too ill to work. Or the tools of their profession—medications, ventilators, ammunition—being in short supply because of global supply chain failure.

But let’s change tack and imagine a Happy Fairytale and do some best-case speculation. Imagine there’s no interruption of the supply chain. Imagine no recession. Imagine no political unrest. Then imagine the virus fatality rate drops by half. Assuming the transmission rate does not increase—-but assuming the virus can’t be put back in the box, and we’re already heading for global pandemic—we’re still looking at the death of at least a hundred million people.

So, yep. Buy a mask, buy soap, and wash your hands. All the time. If nothing else, it’ll cut down your chances of getting flu.

2019-nCoV: the new coronavirus

Crenim at English Wikipedia [CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D

I’ve been idly following along as the CDC reports on the Wuhan coronavirus, 2019-nCoV. Why? I write science fiction (sometimes) and I’ve been fascinated by the intersection of history and catastrophe for a long time. I like to follow news stories like this one so that if I ever choose to write a pandemic-apocalyptic piece I could do it with at least a scrim of realism (which is often all you really need: a few authoritative phrases to toss about, some nifty numbers, and readers’ left brains think, Oh, this writer knows what she’s doing, and relaxes, after which you can tell them anything). But a funny thing happened on the way to the story file: I started doing my own calculations based on the raw data, and my interest sharpened.

As of right now (17:30 UTC-8, 26 January 2020) the 2019 novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV) has an infectivity rate, or R0 (pronounced R-zero or R-nought) of 2.6 and appears to be accelerating. (For comparison, the flu pandemic of 1918 had an R0 = 2, and ordinary seasonal flu = 1-2.)

The 2019-nCoV fatality rate (the number of people infected who subsequently die of the virus) = 4%. (1918 flu pandemic = 2%, seasonal flu = <0.1%.)

The 2019-nCoV incubation period (the time from when a person comes into contact with the virus and begins to show symptoms) = 1-14 days, averaging about 10. (Seasonal flu = 1-4 days, average about 2, 1918 pandemic = unknown, though if it’s similar to H1N1 of a few years ago, around 5 days.) And there are indications that, like flu, those who have contracted the virus are infectious even before showing symptoms. This is Bad News: infected people will be spreading the virus without knowing they’re even infected, and they’ll be doing it five times longer than those with seasonal flu and twice as long as the 1918 pandemic.

So, to recap, this new virus is more infectious than the H1N1 strain of flu that killed 50-100 million people a century ago, it is much more deadly, and it will be spread farther and wider by asymptomatic people. It makes ordinary, seasonal flu (that killed about 80,000 people in the US alone in the 2018 flu season) look like a startled sneeze.

These are preliminary figures; the data we have is so sketchy as to be mostly useless. We simply have no idea what the real picture is; it’s entirely possible that things aren’t nearly as bad as they seem. On the other hand, they could be worse. I think we’ll know a lot more in 10-14 days. Meanwhile, expect those numbers to vary enormously as other regions begin to track cases with varying degrees of accuracy and transparency. If R0 and fatality numbers go up, I’ll be stocking up on masks and gloves and dry goods and batteries and wine (oh, lots of wine), and not letting anyone in the house without a mask. If the numbers start to go down, well, I’ll still stock up—masks and water don’t go bad, and lithium ion batteries and wine last a while—but I’ll be a lot more relaxed about it.

Am I being alarmist? No doubt. But I’m a big fan to planning for the worst and hoping for the best. Your response, of course, may vary.

Call for contributors: A Hild Companion

Black adn white relief map of Britain annotated with seventh-century polities and place names

Last year I had a fabulous time at a four-day conference held at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, BC. The conference was IONA: Early medieval studies on the islands of the North Atlantic—transformative networks, skills, theories, and methods for the future of the field. I not only had a fabulous time, met some people to collaborate with.

The first project, already in its preliminary planning stage, is a companion volume to Hild, an accessible guide to the book and its Early Medieval context. Most likely we will aim for publication with by a university press, but as the project comes together more clearly, a trade press may be a better option.

This is a call for contributors, and ideas.

PROJECTED AUDIENCE
  • Scholars who might teach the book to undergraduates
  • Scholars who may want guidance into certain areas of the field
  • Lay readers who wish to pursue the history/historical context of Hild in great depth
CONTENTS

1. Introductory article/s

2. Short survey articles of 10-15 pp each intended to bring the non-scholar into the historical reality in which the book is set, or to guide scholars into particular areas. There will be 7-8 of these. We’re sure of the first four topics and are mulling others:

  • women/gender
  • queerness
  • race/ethnicity/ethnogenesis
  • teaching Hild
  • disability
  • culture/s
  • literacy
  • languages

3. A series of encyclopaedia entries on smaller topics. The number and topics are still very much under discussion, but some examples might include:

  • textile production
  • metal smithing
  • buildings/architecture
  • environment
  • identity/identity-signalling/fashion
  • belief
  • travel
  • law

4. Full bibliography to guide those who want to pursue topics further

WEBSITE

Just before Hild was published I bought the domain seventhcenturybritain.com. I’d originally intended it as an unofficial companion to the novels—stuffed with maps, illustrations, family trees, glossaries, all the extra research that wouldn’t fit in the book, and so on. So this is the ideal place to host as much of the book content as we can for free—we believe in open access. Here’s where we’ll put too-expensive-for-print extras for the official Companion: full-colour maps and other illustrations; perhaps sample syllabi, reading lists, and other teaching materials; public domain texts; pre-prints of some Companion articles; specialised bibliographies; interviews with contributors; and whatever else seems appropriate. It’s a website; there are no length restrictions, and nothing is set in stone.

EDITORS AND CONTRIBUTORS

We—me, the editors, other contributors—are fully committed to diversity and inclusion in terms of disciplines, author identity, mindset, and place of origin. Included in the list of those who have already agreed to participate are two historians, two Celticists, three OE lit scholars, and, ahem, one novelist. We’re actively seeking queer scholars, scholars of colour, disabled scholars, and scholars at various stages of their academic careers—including those engaged in independent study.

It’s only human to want to work with those we’ve worked with before, but for this project we’re keen on representing different ways of thinking. So if you have thoughts, please share, either in the comments below or in private email. (If you have my email address please feel free to get in touch privately, or use the contact form on this website.) If you know of someone we should approach, please tell us. And if you think someone you know might be interested, please send them a link.

I you get in touch we’ll share who is already committed, who we’re talking to, and other plans for the project.

I’m excited about this. I hope you are, too.

Kitten Report #12: A new decade [photos]

Charlie and George have torn into the New Year and new decade with enthusiasm. They are still growing like magic beans. George is massive; Charlie seems tiny in comparison, but he weighs 7 lbs 10 oz—above average, apparently, for a cat his age: eight months. My guess is that George is now about 10 lbs, which is more than our last male cat, even in his prime, and it’s not fat. He’s going to be a giant, I think. You can see from this picture just how big he’s getting. Kelley has amazingly large hands but he makes them look small.

Large tabby cat sitting on a lap, head tipped back in bliss

George blisses out

The reason we know Charlie’s exact weight is that we had to take him to the vet. He has some symptoms—snoring, a huffing grunt when he exerts himself, and excessive swallowing—that reminded me of when he was developing his polyp. The vet, however, thinks it may be a reoccurrence of the kitty herpes virus that leads to cold-like symptoms and upper respiratory inflammation—which is what leads to the development of polyps, but doesn’t mean he has a polyp yet. So we’re giving him prophylactic antibiotics, keeping a close eye on him, and crossing our fingers. Other than the symptoms above he is in fine fettle. As you can see by this photo, his build is quite different to George’s.

Young, slim tabby cat standing on a table

Some days Charlie looks more like a civet than an American tabby

At eight months Charlie and George are, in human terms, about eight years old. That is, they can make basic sense of the world because they’ve seen a lot of it before but, oh, there is so very much still to see for the first time. Like snow. We all woke up on Monday morning to this:

Early morning snow covering a back deck, and benches, and fences, and hedges, and trees...

And over the next few hours the kitties were fascinated by snowfall. They had no idea what it was, but George was mesmerised by the falling flakes; Charlie was mesmerised watching George watch the flakes; and I was mesmerised watching Charlie being mesmerised by George being mesmerised. It all got very meta.

Photo of two cats. One in the foreground watching one in the background who is watching snow fall outside the window.

Charlie is mesmerised by George being mesmerised by falling snow

Tabby cat staring directly into the camera with another tabby in the background

Charlie is mesmerised by me being mesmerised by Charlie being mesmerised by George being mesmerised by falling snow…

Tabby cat falling asleep on a kitty condo facing the window

Eventually George mesmerised himself to sleep

Eventually they got bored and fell asleep. George is doing this a lot, with a particular fondness for being on his back with his legs in the air. And he looks so blissed out it’s almost as mesmerising watching him sleep as it was to watch him watching the snow.

Big tabby cat lying on his back with back feet perpendicular to the back of the sofa and head hanging off the front edge of the seat

George measures the sofa in his sleep

Tabby cat lying on his back partly on a kitty condo and partly the oak desk next to it

George is getting way, way too big for that condo

Large tabby cat lying on his back on a green blanket

George finds his bliss, again

Once the snow was gone, the cedar waxwings came back and they were then mesmerised by the flock.

One cat sits on a desk by the window to eatch birds while another cat watches from his kitty condo

They want those cedar waxwings

Tabby cat stretching to the window, yearing for birds, while another tabby cat plays with the first cat's tail

Charlie *really* wants those waxwings. George really wants Charlie’s tail.

You can’t really tell from these photos but Charlie’s coat is quite different to George’s. George is a classic American Shorthair, but Charlie, well, Charlie isn’t.

Tabby cat on a lap with luxuriant white whiskers and thick fur

Charlie has a lot of fur

Beautiful soft-furred tabby sitting on an oak desk and staring straight into the camera

Which can make him look deceptively soft and sweet

You can see the difference a bit better in these two photos of their faces

Closeup of tabby cats soft furry face

Charlie has thick, soft clouds of fur

Tabby cat peers over the top of a closed trunk

George’s fur is short and sleek

Charlie is being particularly active at the moment, leaping on everything, balancing—and sometimes not—on everything, and jumping off from there.

Tabby cat balancing on the back of a wood chair

Charlie want to be one of the flying Wallendas

He’s taken to striking a Monarch of the Glen pose, standing on the kitchen table with his front paws on the back of a kitchen chair and looking tall and noble. But I’m never fast enough to catch that pic. Here’s he’s just coming down from it.

Tabby cat standing with his hinds legs on a table and front legs on the back of a wooden chair

Charlie wants to be the king

But mainly, well, they’re cats; they sleep. The other day George spent hours sleeping on my desk, moving only to turn and sleep in the other direction as the afternoon drew on to twilight.

Tabby cat asleep on cat bed on a desk between keyboard and screen

George sleeps as I work

Tabby cat still sleeps on a cat bed between keyboard and display as the afternoon darkens

The rain pours down outside, I work, George sleeps on…

They’re cats, they sleep a lot. And they’re brothers, they sleep together when there’s room.

Two tabby cats sleeping back to back on a blue throw

Back to back is good, as long as Charlie’s in front

And although George is so much bigger, it’s still Charlie who always takes point and sleeps in front of his brother, protecting him from the world.

Two tabby cats spooning on a blue throw

Charlie takes point, as always, even in spooning bliss

So bottom line: the cats are happy, and growing, and getting on well with each other. Over the next decade there will, no doubt, be much mis/adventure and mischief to come. When anything interesting happens I’ll post about it. Meanwhile, feel free to go reread previous kitten reports.

2010-2019: a decade in review [photos, links]

Two tabby cats with their backs to the camera facing a hearth, watching the flames. the larger cat on the right (George), has his kitty arm around his smaller brother (Charlie). They look as though they are feeling the poignancy of the moment.

Most of the links below are to my own blog posts. But some are to images, and one or two link out. Some of the years have round-up posts, some do not.

Context

This will be a long post: ten years is a long time; a lot has happened; and the world has changed a fair bit. Of course, it had been changing rapidly in the previous decade.

By the time the Great Recession began in 2007 (or 2008, depending on how you squint), I had seen the way publishing was going for midlist writers and decided to change direction: I let go of my old agent, but instead of getting a new one and selling a book on chapter and outlines, I began to work on the book that would become Hild. But I knew I would not make any money from it for years. At the start of the new decade the effects of the recessions were still very much with us. It was almost impossible for freelancers to make money. Kelley and I launched Sterling Editing, and helped those writers who had actual jobs and health insurance to make their work better. We also picked up a variety of freelance and consulting work where were could: we built websites, we taught, we advised corporate executives about their online presence. What money we did make almost all went on healthcare: our annual out-of-pocket medical expenses until just last year averaged about $35,000. It was a very hard time for us, and for many people we knew. I lay awake more than once worrying we would end up living in a paper bag under the overpass eating cat food.

In the last year of the last decade, and this first year of this, I was also spending a massive amount of time working with a non-profit organisation that was going through the dangerous transition from founder-led to semi-professional. I believe that at one point it came very close to collapse, but it is now thriving. It was brutally hard work, and unpaid, but not a decision I regret.

The social media revolution of the beginning of the 21st century began to accelerate. In 2008 I moved my old-fashioned website’s Ask Nicola feature to a standalone blog, Ask Nicola, (still up, because I still haven’t got around to linking everything on the ‘new’ site)—where in the first five years I averaged 330 posts a year. The Yahoo Group I’d started in 1999 began to fade. I joined Twitter. I launched a YouTube channel. And of course, like half the rest of the world, I joined Facebook—not sure when, exactly, but I’ve never liked it that much as a platform; it feels sorta pushy and intrusive. I do, however, like Instagram—though a bit less than I did since FB fucked with the feed order and gave us no way to customise it. There’s also LinkedIn, both for me, and for Aud Torvingen, who has a surprising number of connections. Social media really changed the nature of this blog. I’m okay with that. I find that I use it now not only to communicate via slightly longer-form pieces but to archive meaningful personal and career moments.

2010

So. This was the year that the VIDA Count began, that the first Uber customer hailed a ride, and SpaceX was the first privately funded company to successfully launch, orbit and recover a spacecraft. Additive (3D) printing was about to take off. Book world was still clinging to the 20th century. Publishers like Macmillan still thought they could stand up to Amazon (they couldn’t). Digital book sales were beginning to eat into print sales—though the most popular e-reader, the Kindle, was itself only one step beyond that first primitive, pointy trapezoidal thing with no back light; the Paper White didn’t come out til 2012. Borders was still around. B&N was still regarded as the Great Satan by independent booksellers, and indie bookseller were in a parlous state. Self-publishing was beginning to look like a thing. Audible was in its infancy and had been owned by Amazon only 2 years, and ACX was still a gleam in some executive’s eye. Book publishers began to merge. Many bookstores closed; Borders is running its digital sales through Amazon—everyone with two brain cells to rub together can see where that will end.  Blockbuster filed for bankruptcy. Not coincidentally, this is the year that Netflix streaming app became available for iOS, Wii, and smart TVs. At this stage, for most people ‘bingeing’ was a word associated with gluttons and alcoholics.

In 2010, I turned 50, just nine days after Kelley. We held a 10-day birthday jubilee. My liver shrivelled a bit, but it was worth it. In 2010 I was still doing yoga but later that year I moved to sabre. Given that sabres were originally used as a cavalry weapon, it seemed ideal to use sitting down.

Two fencers, one in black one in white, crossing sabres

I taught a fair bit, including Lambda Literary’s emerging voices workshop. For the first time my fiction was nominated for a Hugo Award—for the first short-fiction I’d written in a decade—and I decide I am GOD.

Round-up post 2010.

2011

At the beginning of 2011 I did not yet own an iPhone or an iPad but bought an iPod Touch which used what I affectionately referred to as Crapcam, which took lovely, gauzy-looking photos that hid a multitude of sins.

A while later I bought my first iPhone 4S, and I was amazed by Siri. Borders filed for bankruptcy. Games of Thrones debuted and I was struck by the serious lack of imagination of the show-runners when it came to cod-medieval fantasy sex. During this period I wrote several of the posts that are perennial blog favourites, such as Writers Manifesto, and Lame is so gay.

Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell was repealed. And at the end of the year the biomedical research paper I had known about for over a year, written by a friend, was finally published, announcing that MS is not, in fact, an autoimmune disease but a metabolic disorder, specifically, the result of a faulty lipid metabolism. I felt filled with hope, and in a rush of energy I inaugurated what has since become an annual tradition: blowing up the Christmas tree.

2012

I finished Hild. The rewritten ms made an impressive stack.

My new agent sent it out to publishers. I knew it was a good book; I knew it would change things for me. When it sold to Farrar, Straus and Giroux for a goodly sum, I went practically insane with joy.

A few months later I got my first (and still favourite) ukulele, Jeepster, and recorded some songs. Disabled artist Riva Lehrer came to Seattle and we collaborated on a mixed-media portrait, which turned out pretty well and in fact sold so fast I never did get to see the finished thing. Oh, well.

DADT had just been repealed, and we could all sense the winds of change blowing from the Obama Whitehouse. One of the most amazing changes was the passage of the ACA (Obamacare), signed into law March 2010 because it meant I could no longer be refused coverage for previous conditions, which widened my choices considerably. The cost did not go down, but at least it was no longer climbing 20% a year. We spent election week in Vancouver and ignored the madness; on returning to another 4 years of Obama (yay!) I made a surprising—to both me and Kelley—to become a US citizen.

This year I did two round-up posts:

Round-up post, Part One
Round-up post, Part Two

2013

I should have known this was going to be a year like no other when, right out of the box, the pope resigned. I did author photoshoots for Hild and liked the results so much I asked the photographer to shoot me and Kelley.

Kelley and Nicola, May 2013. Photo by Jennifer Durham.

Then I became a US citizen. Then we were in New York for BEA, doing five events a day to promote the upcoming publication of Hild. I also won an award.

Just days after getting back from New York, on the silver anniversary of when Kelley and I met and fell in love—the Supreme Court struck down DOMA and paved the way for marriage equality. A month later, Kelley and I were co Guests of Honour at Westercon, where we also held a mini-reunion of Clarion class of 1988. Two months after that, on the 20th Anniversary of our first, non-legal wedding, Kelley and I got married. After many conversations, we decided we would reclaim an old and honourable word, and call each other wife.

Sepia-tone photo of two women holding hands, wearing identical wedding rings

Then Hild came out and for the rest year my life was all Hild, all the time: a national tour for the hardcover; interviews; essays; book signings. Right at the end of the year: a handshake on an amazing movie deal for Hild. Seriously—just the option money was as much as many conversion prices.

Round-up post for 2013.

2014

This was a hard year. Apart from the crushing financial disappointment of getting the movie contract, and then the producer walking away, and constant travelling—a UK tour, followed by another US tour for the paperback—I had some awful health-related issues. You can see both encapsulated here: happiness and general delight at the world—but that arm strapping as a harbinger:

But even the hard-times were tempered by joy. I had an amazing life-changing eye procedure that meant, for the first time in my life, I didn’t need glasses: going from -17 and -16 dioptres to 20/20 vision seemed—still seems, no was—a fucking miracle. I also published another short story. It didn’t win any awards, but “Cold Wind” seemed to strike a chord among artists.

Cold Wind, by Rovina Cai.

Round-up post for 2014.

2015

After years of complaining about the treatment of women in the literary ecosystem, and taking small steps to address that (see, for example, Taking the Russ Pledge), I finally got cross enough to put together some statistics. I wrote a blog post, Books about women don’t win big awards: some data. The world went mad. It was my first experience of a post going truly viral. It’s easily the most-read post I’ve ever written. It was read and reported on all over the world; I did dozens of interviews. A $50,000 prize was established as a result; and a Toronto Literary Festival celebrating women’s voices.

For the first time, Kelley and I spent a wedding anniversary apart, but it was for the best of reasons: Kelley was in Perth, Australia, on the set of her movie, OtherLife. And speaking of movies, with Carol the world discovered (gasp!) that people would pay actual cash money to watch women on screen.

Round-up post for 2015.

2016

By this point I had long ago set aside my sabre; I was still occasionally doing archery but eventually it got too difficult to go pick up the arrows. At this point that I faced reality, got a wheelchair, and came out as a cripple.

Sepia-tone photo of black TiLite AeroA wheelchair with e-motion wheels

I also enrolled as a doctoral candidate at Anglia Ruskin University, Cambridge. It was an experiment for all of us: I would do the whole thing remotely, as a reasonable accommodation. But, oh, I loved—loved, loved, loved—academic access to multiple institutions. I learnt at warp speed. A month later, we heard the results of the Brexit referendum, and I knew that night that Trump would be the Republican nominee, and perhaps even President. I was not happy.

I coined the hashtag #CripLit, and, with Alice Wong, launched #CripLit, the first Twitter chat for disabled writers. There were many other hashtags launched before and after this time, too: #BlackLivesMatter (2013), #OwnVoices (2015), and #MeToo (in 2017, though the phrase had been used since 2006 by Tarana Burke). By the end of 2016 we needed them more than ever. I’m not going to dwell on the last three years of politics, though, because it’s just too fucking hard. If you want my opinion, you can read blog posts such as Punching nazis, How to defeat an autocrat, and Passport to a perilous future. This was a time where, in the US and UK and many other places, we saw the resurgence of autocracy and kleptocracy, voter suppression and the subversion of legal and legislative process. I argued myself hoarse with many US citizens that a nation’s institutions are only as strong as the ethics of those elected to uphold them.

2017

After I wrote the first draft of my PhD thesis, I wrote the first draft of So Lucky. Then I submitted my thesis. Then I rewrote So Lucky and sold it to Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Then I defended my PhD thesis and become Doctor Griffith.

Another big triumph this year: I finally managed to revert the rights to all three Aud novels. Oh, that made me happy! I also learnt how to travel with my wheelchair: we went to San Diego for the North American premiere of OtherLife. It’s currently streaming on Netflix; go watch it.

We had had a few erratic years, but financially things were a little less dire; we were getting by on our writing and freelance consulting incomes—Kelley was bringing in the lion’s share—keeping our heads above water, though sometimes only just. But it was stressful, and Kelley was juggling entirely too much. And politically and economically we were beginning to wonder if we could stay in Seattle, or even the US. This year I felt so unsettled I couldn’t bear the idea of blowing up the tree, so made reindeer dance instead.

One ray of hope in an otherwise relentless depressing political and cultural year, Get Out made money at the box office.

2018

Ursula Le Guin died. She was a friend—we’d had her to the house, been out for dinner many times—but not one of our very closest friends, so I was astonished at just how hard her death hit me. Perhaps it was because this was a time when we most needed her voice. I was still feeling it when I narrated the So Lucky audiobook the following month. But I focused.

“Yes?” In which I am *focused*…

Surprisingly, I was still feeling Ursula’s loss when So Lucky came out. Sadly, though, I was not a bit surprised at some of the ableist crap apparent in the reviews I got for that book.

In June it was the 30th anniversary of meeting Kelley, and I put together 30 Years: a love story in photos. I wrote a short story, “Glimmer,” and posted it on my website as a free audio download. I began to write nonfiction about disability, including for the New York Times. I was beginning to think: We can do this. Plus, the world was making great strides in movie representation terms. Black Panther, Wonder Woman, and Crazy Rich Asians were all hits.

We were still skating from precarious contract to precarious contract, though, and nothing seemed to be changing except our expenses, which were growing—it’s not cheap being a cripple. And we had to pay a serious chunk of change for a wheelchair-accessible van with hand controls. Thisput us at our absolute limit, and maybe a bit beyond, and then we found out that a contract Kelley had been relying on the for first quarter 2019 could not, in fact, be relied upon. We were facing a black hole with no solution in sight. In middle of numb, blank despair, just two days before Christmas, Kelley was offered a full-time, permanent job. Health benefits! Social security payments! Tax relief! Paid time off! It was a Christmas miracle. This year I blew things up with enthusiasm, and we had a lovely holiday and New Year.

Round-up post 2018.

2019

This year has felt like a surreal mirror-image of the future I imagined as a child. We don’t have flying cars, but we do have killer drones. It’s not the government who is listening to everything we say, but Big Tech; they’re watching, too. And we invited them in because we decided privacy is a reasonable sacrifice for convenience. SpaceX and Blue Origin, two companies founded and owned by billionaires, have rockets that take off and land again on their fins, just like the pulp SF of the 30s. We don’t really have working autonomous vehicles, but we do have electric cars—it’s just that if you live outside big metro areas, well, good luck recharging. We no longer have Concorde; planes go a bit slower, and are a lot more crowded. And for those of us in wheelchairs, well, access has not improved nearly as significantly as we had hoped since passage of the ADA in 1995. Having said that, many organisations are now beginning to pay attention and make at least a gesture (pitiful gestures in some cases; I’m looking at you AWP). Bookstores and libraries are most definitely paying attention except, oops, for Long Island City, New York. And the world has finally woken up to the fact of climate change (something I began worrying about in the late 80s with the discovery, and relentless growth, of the ozone hole), though of course are not doing anything about it. Perhaps they are confused by some of the extreme weather events we’re having, which are not always about being too warm: Seattle, for example, saw record-breaking snow early in the year. I do not understand why governments can’t see that the kind of grinding conflict and migration we’ve had these last ten years are a direct result of environmental degradation. Just look at history. Only this time it will be much, much worse.

However, to stay sane I’ve had to focus on things within my own personal zone of control: there’s nothing much I can do about Trump, about Brexit, about the Supreme Court and every other damn thing except vote and occasionally use this and other platforms to make my voice heard. So this year I’ve been internally focused.

Part of that internal focus is the result of dealing with so much grief. In March, my father died. Less than a week later, our oldest and best friend in Seattle, Vonda McIntyre, died (and I still haven’t been able to write anything for or about her, apart from this very short piece that came out a few days ago). Somehow, and I’m not sure how, in the following three weeks I managed to learn to drive with hand controls and pass my driving test, fly to the UK to give Dad’s eulogy and start dealing with his estate, and travelto Vancouver to give a plenary speech at IONA, a medieval conference. Not long after that, my aunt died. Grief and exhaustion overwhelmed me; I felt as though someone had stuck a blender in my brain, then poured the resulting slurry into a bucket of eels.

During this internal phase I wrote only about things close to home, for example, The gift of a negative review, and the problem with Ruined Earth novels.

And then I abruptly thought, Well, fuck it, if the world keeps trying to beat me bloody, I’ll beat it right back. I took up boxing. (I love it. If you box, come and join me at Title Boxing Club—fully accessible—in Greenwood any time.)

Secure in the knowledge of where the next mortgage payment is coming from, I got a new toy: an iPad Pro, with Pencil. I use it now for everything except long fiction: photo and video manipulation, audio recording, social media, and writing short pieces. We’ve come a long way, baby, since the beginning of the decade, and Crapcam.

This year I also made some stuff happen with my fiction, which I discuss in a writing update: Hild, Aud, Ammonite and more. I celebrated 30 years residence in the US with Kelley. I was delighted (and seriously surprised) when So Lucky won the Washington State Book Award. And perhaps most exciting, energising, and just plain lovely of all, we got kittens: Charlie and George, survivors of a litter of six.

If they could survive the horrors they were born into, and even evolve a higher consciousness, then, fuck yes, we can survive anything the next decade throws at us.

The next decade

In one decade we’ve gone from hardly anyone having a smartphone to a fully app-based society. Drones herd sheep. TV has changed forever. Bingeing is a thing. And a lot of the most popular shows are adaptations of literary properties. Publishing itself has, meanwhile, changed to the outer edge of recognisable. Today we have the Big 5 publishers, and a variety of small, specialised independents. B&N has come perilously close to closing; but the remaining indie bookstores are thriving. However, Amazon owns at least 50% of the US book market and I doubt that this will decrease anytime soon.

Tech behemoths like Amazon, Apple, Google, and Facebook have changed our world to an astonishing degree. Let’s Amazon and its home city of Seattle as an example. Amazon has remade whole chunks of Seattle in its own image, including South Lake Union, a neighbourhood that formerly consisted of parking lots, abandoned warehouses, and cheap artists’ living and working space. (One such space, Re-Bar, is hanging on. I love that place.) In just eight years, rent-plus-utilities in Seattle have gone from around $700 a month to almost $1700 a month. Not coincidentally, homelessness here is now epidemic.

Then years ago, the protestors of Occupy were bringing attention to income inequality. What difference has it made? I believe it helped begin a trickle of change. Those protesters are now probably protesting homelessness. Or the climate crisis. Or gun violence. In a decade that saw horrors like Sandy Hook, the Parkland shootings, and the massacre in Las Vegas, there had been zero significant movement towards gun control. This year alone, as of writing this, there have been 418 mass shootings in the US. But people are talking about it. Change takes time.

This decade so many people have done so much work on so many fronts—the Women’s Marches, Me Too, Black Lives Matter, Standing Rock, Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, homelessness, anti-fascism (and anti-racism, and anti-white supremacy), Occupy, legalising cannabis—that it’s hard to keep track. There is so very much to do—but it does make a difference. To take just on example: popular culture. Films by and about women are beginning to make money. Women seem to own TV drama and comedy. Books by and about women, by and about women of colour, by and about queer people, are winning awards. But it just a beginning, and it’s fragile. We need more people like the judge who resigned in anger at the explicit sexism of judging.

So how will the next decade unfurl? As I’ve said before, I have no idea. All I know is: it will be nothing we expect; what will make a difference is staying alive to the possibility of change; staying open to feeling; ready and willing to assume good intent and to be kind to one another—but also ready to call bullshit in no uncertain terms. That’s my plan, anyway. My wish for you is that your New Year is exactly as exciting as you wish it to be, and you get to spend it how and with whom you like. See you on the other side.