Tuesday, July 12, 2022

"Closing Time"

Some of you reading this may be here because you heard me on Gastropod. If so (and even if not), welcome! Here's one of my stories where food plays a central role. If you'd like to read more of my work, check out the sidebar and the Sampler and Media tabs. 

     Nep Gao stood on his tiptoes in the quiet garden to the back of the restaurant, working his small silver knife along the thinnest branches of the prickly ash tree, and wondered when his father’s ghost would leave the party. He had died five days ago and was still holding court, entertaining all his old friends and customers. It was just his luck, Gao thought, that his father had died in the middle of qinshon season, the few weeks when the tree’s buds had their best flavour. Already, chewing carefully, he could detect a bitter note in what he had just harvested. At the rate things were going his father’s ghost would still be around in a week, when the qinshon would be inedible. This was usually their most profitable time of year, but so long as his father was enjoying the food and company enough to stay on Earth Gao was bound to provide food and drink to anyone who came to pay their respects. So far there had been no shortage of mourners, most of them just happening to come around dinner time and often staying ‘til past dawn.

     With his basket full of tightly curled green buds clutched under his arm Gao went back into the restaurant. Though it was only midmorning someone in the front room was playing a zither, shouting out parts of the Epic of the Hundred and One Bandits. Louder, though, was his father’s commentary on the action as it was sung: “That bandit’s pretty clever, but not as clever as that butcher that used to try to sell tame ducks as wild. Nobody but me could smell the difference from the blood in the carcass!”; and, “I heard the great Xan Te play that verse once when I was on a trip to Lamnai. He hardly had a tooth in his head, but he ate two whole boxes of my pork dumplings.”

     Gao could not help blushing when he heard his father telling the same tales he had told a thousand times before. He had never done anything but run the restaurant, never traveled except to buy food or collect recipes, but to hear him tell it he had more adventures than all the Hundred and One Bandits put together. Gao could not count the number of times he had heard his father tell the story of how he had gotten his trademark recipe – the garlicky duck from which he had taken his name, Doi Thiviei – from a hermit who had lived in a hut that was at the top of a mountain when he arrived in the afternoon but at the bottom of a valley when he left at dawn. The zither player had fallen silent to hear the story and Gao could see a half-dozen others kneeling on mourning stools, listening and chatting as they ate the leftovers of the previous night’s meals.

     “And then, just when I opened my eyes, I saw – nhoGao, is that you? Don’t lurk in the doorway, son, come in and sit down. I’m just at the good part.”

     “I am sorry, Father, but I must start to cook for today’s mourners.”

     “Oh, well, all right then. Bring us some fresh tea and some red bean dumplings, will you? Now, where was I? Oh, yes – when I opened my eyes, I saw that the hut, which the night before had been on a mountaintop –“

     Gao picked up the empty bowls, hurried on to the kitchen before his father could think of anything else to ask for. He could not help but notice that his father looked no more vaporous than he had the day before, felt guilty for wishing it otherwise. For most people the mourning party was a formality, a way to make the spirit linger a day or two at the most. It was supposed to be an expense – if it was too short, cost too little, there would be doubts about one’s respect for one’s father – but not a ruinous one. Sighing, Gao laid the qinshon buds onto a square of silk which he then tied into a bundle; any rougher cloth would rub their skis harshly and make them lose their flavour. That done he put a pot of water on to boil and looked around the kitchen, wondering what he could make as cheaply as possible that would not offend the mourners. He sipped the chicken broth that had been simmering since the night before, tossed in the bones from last night’s dinner. He could put pork dumplings into the broth, make a soup with noodles and fava beans, top it with chive flowers from the garden. For the next course he could deep-fry thin strips of pork in batter, if he made it hot enough he might be able to use a pig that wasn’t so expensive.

     Feeling hungry now, he pried one of the stones in the floor loose, lifted the lid off the shallow earthenware pot that lay below, reached in and pulled out a pickled pig’s knuckle. Looking carefully over each shoulder he took a bite. He had promised to give up eating pork when he and Mau-Pin Mienme had become engaged, but nothing calmed him down when he was nervous the way pork knuckles did. Her family were followers of the Southerner – her name meant Sweet Voice from the South – and so did not eat meat at all. When she had insisted that he at least give up eating pork it had taken him less than a second to agree. It had taken him only a day, following that, to realize that he could not possibly keep his promise, so he had bought a pot of pigs’ knuckles one day while she and her family were at prayer and hidden it under the floor in the kitchen, so that she would never know what a dishonourable man she was marrying.

     His mouth was not full of the sweet, salty, vinegar taste of the pigs’ knuckles and he could feel it easing his mind. It was true: he was a dishonourable man, dishonest and unfilial, breaking his word to his wife-to-be and wishing his father’s ghost would leave him alone. He doubted that even Mienme, who like all of her faith had studied to be an advocate to the dead in the Courts of Hell, could convince the Judge of Fate to send him back as anything nobler than a frog. He sighed. It was only because he was due to inherit a good business that Mienme’s father, a lawyer on Earth as well as the next world, was allowing her to marry him at all. He had always known how unlikely it was that he should be able to marry a woman like Mienme. She was beautiful and intelligent, while he was cursed with an overfed body and the doughy face that had made his father call him Glutinous Rice. He knew better than to question the divine grace that made her love him, though, and he had believed since they were children they would one day be married. In all that time he had never imagined it might be his father that would be the problem.

     Thinking of Mienme made him want to see her, have her listen to his problems as she had so often done. Like other women who followed the Southerner she was allowed to go out alone, to spread his Word, and he thought she would most likely be at South Gate Market this time of day. That would work out well enough; he could get all of the vegetables he needed there, and buy the pig later in the day when he was alone. Seeing her face, and hearing her advice, would be more than worth the extra trip. After carefully putting the pot back under the floor stone he opened a small jar in the shelf, took out a boiled egg marinated in soy sauce and popped it in his mouth to cover the smell of the pork knuckle. Then he poured boiling water into the large teapot, put a few of the red bean dumplings he had baked the night before onto a tray, took tray and tea into the front room where his father was still spinning his tales to a rapt audience.

     “ – of course, a chicken that laid eggs with two yolks would be worth a lot of money today, though we didn’t think like that in those days. No, we only hoped she would survive the trip home so we could make Double August Sunrise for the Emperor – nhoGao, you’ve brought the dumplings. Won’t you stay and hear this story?” His father was, if anything, more solid than when he had last seen him, the party more lively as noon approached.

     “I’m sorry, Father, I have to go to the South Gate Market to buy food for dinner.”

     “Well, that’s all right, I suppose. Do bring me back some of those preserved mushrooms, and some sweet beer for our friend here, whose throat must be getting dry.” The zither player had not sung a word since Doi Thiviei started talking, nor was he likely to for the rest of the day, but Gao nodded dutifully before steeping back into the kitchen.

     Once out of his father’s sight he picked up the rag that held his shopping list and wrote “sweet beer” on it with a piece of charcoal. His father did not like him reading, saying every other generation had learned to memorize their customers’ orders, but on the other hand Mienme said if he were illiterate he would not be able to read the charges in the Court of Hell and his advocate would not be able to help him. He had to admit it meant he took fewer trips to the market, since without a list he always forgot something. He folded his list, strapped his grocery basket on his back and went out into the street.

     The streets between the restaurant and the market were crowded, even in the heat before noon, and the wind blowing from the west carried a heavy scent of medicinal incense. Someone in the Palace must be sick, he thought. As the massive iron pillars of the South Gate came into view the smell of the incense was met and quickly defeated by that of spices, sizzling oil and a dozen different kinds of meat cooking. Pausing for a moment, Gao closed his eyes, tested himself the way his father had done when he was child, making himself find his way around the market by smell alone. There, off to his right, someone was making salt-and-pepper shrimp, heating the iron pan until the shells cracked, releasing tiny gasps of garlic and red pepper-scented steam. To his left someone else was frying mat tran on a griddle, making sure they would have enough for the lunch rush customers to wrap around their pork-and-kelp rice.

     Satisfied, Gao opened his eyes again, scanning the crowd for Mienme’s familiar face. He found her standing just inside the gate, handing out block-printed tracts to a family of confused-looking farmers. One, an older man with a white-streaked beard and a broad bamboo hat, was listening politely while the others kept a tight rein on the pigs they had brought with them. Gao waited until the father had accepted the pamphlet and moved on before approaching.

     “You do your faith and your father honour,” he said formally when she noticed him. Though they were engaged, there were still certain proprieties to be observed when in public.

     Or so he felt; Mienme often seemed to disagree. “You know as well as I do that none of them can read,” she said, shaking her head. “Our temple offers free lessons, but they won’t stay in the city long enough for that. Besides, only the Master could convince a pork farmer to give up meat.”

     “And you try nevertheless,” Gao said. “Such determination will serve you well when you argue cases before the Judge of Fate.”

     “That’s very sweet, nhoGao,” she said, making him blush at the use of his childhood name. She was dressed in the brown cotton robe and leggings all her faith wore when preaching, and from a distance she might almost have looked like a man. “But you don’t have to reassure me, I’m not about to lose my faith – I’m just hot and tired, that’s all. Why are you looking so glum?”

     He shrugged slightly. He had not realized his mood was so apparent, resolved to better hide it from his father. “The mourning party is still going on today. If this continues my father’s ghost will outlast his restaurant.”

     “What is it now, four days?”

     “Five. My father is enjoying his party so much I think he is happier now than when he was alive.”

     Mienme put up her hood and extended her hand to him. With her face hidden anyone who saw them would see only a young man helping a monk through the crowded streets. “It’s the food everyone’s coming for. Couldn’t you do something to it, put in something bitter so they won’t like it so much?” she asked. “You could say it was a mistake.”

     “If I make a mistake like that, my father would stay another ten years just to punish me.”

     They stopped at a vegetable stand and Gao haggled with the merchant for beans and cabbage while Mienme seemed lost in thought. “I’ve got it,” she finally said after they had put their groceries in the basket on Gao’s back and moved on. “Remember the night my parents came to the restaurant and you made Temple Style Duck?”

     “How could I forget?” Gao asked. “Your parents thought I was insulting them, making beancurd so that it tasted like a duck. My father thought I was insulting the duck!”

     “Exactly. Make him that and when he complains, say you’re concerned about what the Judge of Fate will find if he keeps on eating meat after his death. That way it’ll cool the party down and you’ll only be acting out of filial affection.”

     “That’s true.” Gao thought for a moment. “That’s an excellent idea. You really are too smart to be wasted on a person like me.”

     Mienme laughed. “I know. I took an oath to defend the hopeless, remember?”


     Five hours later Gao held his breath as he lifted the steamer basket’s long oval lid. All around him lay the remains of the beancurd, sweet potato, arrowroot, and other vegetables he had used. He did not make Temple Style very often – even most followers of the Southerner did not eat it; it had been created for high-ranking converts who wanted their vegetarianism to be as painless as possible – but he enjoyed the artistry it involved, matching flavours and textures in a way that was almost magical. Gao, the youngest of his father’s four sons, had mostly learning cooking from his mother, and she had been the vegetable cook. For that reason his father and brothers had been responsible for the meat dishes the restaurant was famous for and he had been left to take care of the vegetables and small items like dumplings. But his brothers had left, one by one, to start their own restaurants in other cities, and for the last few years he had been doing all the cooking himself, his father only planning the menus – menus he had changed, slightly, to include more vegetables and some of the things he had learned cooking for Mienme.

     When the steam coming out of the basket cleared he could see, inside, something that looked almost exactly like thin slices of barbecued duck, grayish-white with streaks of an almost impossible red. Getting it to look right was the easy part, of course; the flavour and the smell were harder, and much more important. He carefully lifted the slices out with a slotted spoon and slid them into a waiting skillet full of oil and the sauce needed to complete the illusion. In seconds the oil sealed the outside of the slices, browning them and making the red streaks even brighter. He lifted the smallest piece to his mouth, burning his tongue slightly tasting it. It was perfect, better even than the cooks at the Temple made it. It had taken him months to duplicate their recipe, making sure he had it right before he could even invite Mienme’s parents to dinner, but he had also improved it, giving it that crackling texture the Temple cooks had never managed. This was the dish he made better than anyone else – Trianha Thiviei, Temple Style Duck. This ought to be his name, not Glutinous Rice, something he had made every day for the poorest customers because his brothers were making more complicated things. He could not change his name while his father was still around, of course, but soon, perhaps…

     Gao sighed, asking forgiveness for wishing his father gone, took the remaining slices out of the skillet then laid them on awaiting bed of steamed and salted greens and white rice. He took the plate with rice, greens and ‘duck’ in one hand and a platter with ten small bowls on it in the other and went out to the front room.

     “ – so there we were, bound to make dinner for an official of the Fifth Rank and his family and all the salt brokers on strike – nhoGao, have you brought dinner?” The crowd of mourners had grown since the afternoon, with the new arrivals more than making up for the few that had left – word that one of the best restaurants in town was giving out free food had gotten around.

     Gao nodded, not quiet able to speak. For all the justification Mienme had given him he could not escape the fact that he was giving his father something he would not like. Someone was rolling his stomachs into dumplings as he spooned out the first bowl of trianha thiviei.

     His father sniffed at the bowl. “Is this duck?” he asked, his brow furrowed.

     No sense adding a lie to his long list of crimes. “No, father – it’s Temple Style. I made it because – because Mienme was worried about what will happen when you stand before the Judge of Fate.”

     “Is that so? What a kind girl she is.” His father took up his sticks, brought a piece to his mouth and chewed thoughtfully.

     “Yes, father. She is very concerned about your trial.” Gao felt like a pot of hot tea had been poured down his throat, wondered what punishments awaited him as a result of this.

     “You know,” his father said finally, “maybe it’s because I’m dead, but I don’t think I gave this stuff a fair chance last time. It’s really quite good – and for my soul, too, eh?” He laughed. Gao echoed him nervously. “Needs a bit more salt, though. Which reminds me, I was just telling them the story of the big salt brokers’ strike – you know this one, it’s a good story –“

     Gao nodded, served the other mourners silently then went out the front door, leaned hard against the wall. He was not sure which was worse, that the plan had failed or that he had hoped it would succeed. Either way things were no better – his father was enjoying his mourning party as much as ever and the number of guests was only increasing.

     As he stood in the cool, incense-perfumed night air Nep Gao became aware of bells ringing in the distance. Not the familiar dull tone of temple bells but a higher chime, three strokes, silence, three strokes. The palace bells, he realized. Whoever it was they had been burning incense for earlier – and from the number of bells it had to be an official of the Third Rank, someone in the royal family – had died. He had just pieced this together when he heard a voice call his name. He turned, saw coming down the dark street a man with two heads, one higher than the other. Gao squinted to see better but the second head was still there.

     “Yes?” he asked, wondering if this was an agent of the Courts of Hell come to

take him  to his punishment early.

     “We require a service of you,” the man said. He stepped into the small pool of

light cast by the torch above the door and showed himself to be two men, one riding in a basket on the other’s back. It was the man in the basket, who was wearing the lacquered red headdress of an official of the seventh rank, who had spoken. Gao immediately dropped to his knees.

     “How can your humble servant help you?” he asked, unable to keep from staring at the man’s dangling feet in their white deerskin slippers. That was the reason for the basket, of course; the slippers, which had to be a gift from someone in the royal family, could not be permitted to touch the ground in this part of the city, but the street was too narrow for a palanquin.

     “The Emperor’s favourite uncle has died,” the man said. “We are preparing the mourning party for him and have heard of the effect your cooking has had. The Emperor would like the honour shown to his uncle that has been shown to your father.”

     “I’m not sure I can –” Gao began, beads of sweat forming on his forehead.

     “The Emperor would consider it an insult if the same honour was not shown to his uncle,” the man said firmly. “Take this.” The man handed a small jade token to the servant whose back he was riding, who then handed it to Gao. “This will let you and anyone helping you onto the palace grounds. You may keep it when you are done.” Without waiting for an answer he gave his mount a quick kick in the thigh, making him turn around and head back down the street.”

     Minutes later Gao was lying on the mat in the back dining room, a bag of cold clay on his head and a dozen mint leaves in his mouth. He chewed the mint to control heartburn, but it was not helping tonight.

     “How did it go?” Mienme’s voice came from the window.

     Gao stood up, opened the door. Mienme pulled herself through the window by her arms, still the adventurous girl she had always been. “Worse and worse,” he said, and proceeded to tell her everything that had happened.

     “Actually,” she said after he had finished his litany, “this could work out well for us.”

     “How can this be good?” Gao asked, accidentally swallowing the mass of mint in his mouth. “The restaurant is already nearly broke, and now we have to serve food fit for an official of the Third Rank. We’ll be ruined – I’ll be luck if I escape with my head.”

     “Just listen,” Mienme said. “Your father can’t complain if you give all the best food to the royal mourning party – imagine what that jade token on the wall could do for business at his restaurant. So you can’t be blamed for just serving him simple food, and when you do that the mourners will stop coming, and the party will be over.”

     “You may be right,” he said slowly. He drew the token out from his belt pouch, ran his fingers over its cool, smooth surface. “Yes, of course. If we’re cooking for the  Emperor’s uncle, he can’t complain if we give him nothing but rice and millet gruel. Even the Judge of Fate couldn’t complain.” He held the token up against the wall. “I must have done a very good deed in my last life to deserve you.”

     “In that case,” she said, grinning impishly, “come here and give me a kiss while you’re still all minty.”

     Sometimes he wondered if her parents knew their daughter at all.


     The next morning he was up at dawn, fishing carp out of the pond in the back garden. Once the fish were splashing in their wooden bucket he took his small knife and cut a half-dozen lilies form the surface of the pond to make into a sauce for the fish – fish fresh enough for the Emperor’s uncle. These were the last two items he needed for the day’s meals; after making sure the jade token was still in his belt pouch he went into the kitchen, put on his grocery basket, and went out into the front room. His father’s ghost was regaling two sleepy mourners with his adventures, while several more lay sprawled on sleeping mats around the room.

     “ – of course, a pig that smart you don’t eat all at – nhoGao, do you have breakfast ready already?”

     “I can’t cook for you today, father, remember? I left a crabmeat and pork casserole in the oven, you can ask one of the mourners to get it out for you in a few hours, and I’ll send you dumplings for the afternoon.”

     “Of course, of course – I’d almost forgotten. You’ll do us proud at the palace, I’m sure – and what a story it’ll make, cooking for the Emperor’s uncle.” Despite his words he did not seem very happy, and Gao wondered if he was finally starting to fade. Crab and pork casserole was not exactly gruel, but it was not the food Doi Thiviei was used to, either. He felt a sudden pain in his chest, hoped that if his father were to depart today it would not be until after he got back to the restaurant.

     He had never been to the palace before. Despite the fact that it was at the centre of the city, few people ever received an invitation to go. Those who went without an invitation, hoping to poach the Emperor’s white deer, usually wound up as permanent guests – or came home over the course of several days, one piece at a time. As he reached the gate he could not help worrying that the whole thing had been a colossal hoax, that the guards would take his jade seal and his groceries and send him away. When he showed them the token, however, they stood to either side of the gate, and one was assigned to lead him to the palace kitchens.

     “How long ago did the noble official die?” Gao asked the soldier.

     “The man walked a few steps in silence before finally answering. “Yesterday afternoon,” he said. Like most soldiers he had a heavy provincial accent, which perhaps explained his reluctance to speak. “Didn’t you hear the bells?”

     “I’ve been busy,” Gao muttered. “Have you seen his ghost?”

     The soldier again kept silent for a few moments, then spoke, no expression crossing his face. “No. But I hear it is very pale. He was an old man, and sick for a long time.”

     Gao cursed inwardly. Except for short, violent deaths, long illnesses were the worst. They left a person glad to die, and not inclined to hang around too long afterward. He thanked the guard when they reached the kitchen and got to work unpacking his groceries. He had planned a light breakfast, fried wheat noodles sprinkled with sugar and black vinegar, in case the ghost was not too solid. Then he hoped that by lunch he would be able to serve the carp balls in lotus sauce and crisply fried eel to a more receptive audience.

     It was not to be. The Emperor’s uncle was vaporous, not interested in talking or even listening to the zither. The mourning party was somber, the guests mostly relatives and lower officials who were attending out of duty rather than friendship. They picked at the delicacies Gao served, leaving the rest for palace servants who could not believe their luck. The ghost, meanwhile, ate only a bite from each dish, pausing neither to smell nor taste any of them.

     By mid-afternoon Gao was getting nervous. He had not managed to keep the Emperor’s uncle from fading at all, knew that the official who had hired him would not be pleased. If he could have managed even two or three days things would have been all right, but if he could only make the royal ghost stay a day and a night it would look like an insult. He wished Mienme was there to help him.

     Finally he resolved there was only one thing he could do: make the most elaborate, most spectacular dish he could, so that he would not be faulted for lack of effort. He settled on a recipe one of his brothers had found in a small village on the southern coast, mau anh dem – Yellow Lantern Fish. He sent a runner to the fish market for the freshest yellowfish he could find, telling him to look for clear eyes and a smell of seaweed. When the boy returned he began to carefully cut and notch the scaled, gutted fish and boil a deep pot of oil on a portable burner.

     Minutes before dinner was due he ordered the burner be carried into the room where the mourning party was taking place, followed behind carrying the fish himself. Though he could not look at the faces of any of the guests he could tell few if any of them wanted to be there. The most enthusiastic of them, if not the wisest, were using this as an opportunity to get drunk. Even the zither player sounded almost as though he was singing in his sleep. At the middle of it all was the ghost, silent and uninterested in what was going on around him.

     Gao had the burner and pot of oil placed in front of the royal ghost, waited a few minutes while the oil returned to the proper temperature. Then, with enough of a flourish to make sure all eyes were on him, he dropped the fish into the oil. In seconds it blossomed out like a paper lantern, its flesh turning golden and crispy. It was a dish designed to impress even the most jaded crown, and it did not fail him: the guests pressed forward to get a better look and eagerly handed him their plates. Before the first bite was taken, however, Gao knew he had failed. Unlike the guests the Emperor’s uncle was still withdrawn, uninterested, not bothering to eat or even smell the fish.

     My life is over, Gao thought as he walked home. If the Emperor’s uncle had faded away by morning he would be blamed, and that was sure to kill business if it did not kill him. Just then he realized that in all of his worry about the Emperor’s uncle he had forgotten to send the lunch dumplings he had made for his father’s mourning party. Without food the party was sure to have broken up by now, his father likely faded away. He suddenly regretted not listening to any of the stories his father had told over the last few weeks, too busy cooking and worrying about the restaurant. He had heard them all a dozen or more times, but now might never get a chance to hear them again.

     When he neared the restaurant, however, he saw lights inside and head voices. Creeping into the front dining room he saw his father still holding court before a half-dozen mourners, the room strewn with empty bowls and teacups.

     “nhoGao, is that you?” his father asked, spotting him as he tried to slink past into the kitchen. “How did it go at the palace?”

     Gao shook his head slowly. “I am sorry I was not able to send you the food I made for the day,” he said. “I was busy with –”

     “Don’t worry about us – we don’t need food to keep the party going. Besides, I know where you hide the pig knuckles. Now, where was I --?”

     Watching his father, more solid than ever, Gao wondered what it was he had done so wrong at the palace and so right here. He had made dishes for the Emperor’s uncle that were twice as elaborate as anything he had ever made at the restaurant, but had left the royal ghost cold. His father, meanwhile, looked likely to remain among the living indefinitely on a diet of pig’s knuckles. I must be missing something, he thought. If only Mienme were here to help me think. She would say, if it’s not the food –

     “Father, can you come with me for a few minutes?” he asked suddenly, interrupting his father in the middle of the story of the seo nuc game he had played against a beggar who had turned out to be an exiled general.

     “I suppose,” his father said, puzzled. “I can finish this story later. Where are we going?”

     Without pausing to answer his father’s questions Gao rushed back to the palace, flashing the jade token to the puzzled guard. The mourning party was down to just a few diehards, likely trying to win points with the Emperor. The royal ghost was hardly visible, a thin grey mist barely recognizable as once having been human.

     “Please excuse me, noble officials,” Gao said, dropping to the floor and bowing low. “I forgot the most important part of the mourning party.”

     A few seconds of silence passed as the guests watched him curiously, wondering what he was going to produce that might top the Yellow Lantern Fish. Finally his father said, “What a glum group. Reminds me of my father the day our prize rooster died, the one who would crow everytime a rich customer was coming –” The guests looked at the chatty ghost in amazement, but Gao’s father made straight for the Emperor’s uncle. “Did he try to feed you that Temple Style Duck? I only ask because you’re looking a little thin. The first time I met one of those Southerners I thought they were crazy, won’t eat meat, won’t eat fowl, not even fish. But I met one who was a wizard with rice – learned a few tricks from him –”

     By the time dawn came Doi Thiviei and the Emperor’s uncle were chatting like old friends. The royal ghost was looking much more substantial and even accepted one of the sesame balls with hot lotus paste Gao had made for breakfast.

     “Gao, I think I’ll stay here awhile,” his father said. “I hope it won’t disappoint my mourners, but I’ve gotten a little tired of hearing my own voice. Take good care of my restaurant, will you?”

     “Of course,” Gao answered, ladling out the clear soup he had made from chicken stock and the last of the qinshon leaves.

     “And I suppose you’ll be marrying that Southerner girl and changing the name your mother and I gave you. I know you’ve never liked it, though it’s a good story how you got it.”

     Gao frowned. “I always thought it was was because – well, my face – and I always had to make it for the customers who couldn’t afford anything else.”

     “No, no,” his father said. “It wasn’t like that at all. You see, when I first met your mother – but I suppose you don’t have time to hear this story.”

     Gao sat down, took a sip of the soup, enjoying the fragile flavour of the qinshon. He only allowed himself one bowl a year, to be sure he would appreciate it. “I have plenty of time, father,” he said. “Only please, let me go get Mienme so she can hear it as well. We will both need to know this story so we can tell it to our children.”

     It turned out his father had lots of stories he had never told; or maybe Gao had just never heard them before.



Friday, January 18, 2019

A conversation with the future

So. Been a while, huh? Next time I feel bad that it takes me five years to write a book I can say "Yeah, but considering it takes me three and a half years to write a blog entry that's pretty good!"

Anyway, I do have news: Fall From Earth has been included in the Bundoran Buddies Sci-Fi Bundle, a Storybundle curated by Bundoran editor Hayden Trenholm and including, as well as other Bundoran books such as Ed Willett's Right to Know and Jennifer Rahn's The Cyanide Process, works by writers including Tanya Huff, Robert J. Sawyer, Matthew Hughes, Ramez Naam, and Madeline Ashby, as well as a brand-new collection of short stories by James Alan Gardner.

When Hayden (whose own books were among Bundoran's very first publications) took over from founding editor Virginia O'Dine, one of the things he changed was to narrow the line's focus to just science fiction, which the press's tagline calls "our conversation with the future." It's a good description for most of the books Bundoran's published since then, but I've sometimes wondered how well it really fit Fall From Earth. I've said before that I think there are two basic premises in SF/F -- "What if?" and "If this goes on..." -- and I've always leaned more towards the first. It's hard to draw a line between today and the generally undefined future-time in which a space opera like Fall From Earth is set, making it not so much a conversation with the future as a game of telephone.

Looking at the other books in the bundle, though, I wonder if maybe that's the point. Sure, we may not be about to make contact with an enigmatic alien civilization (though their space junk may be drifting through our solar system) but we face just as many problems communicating with each other, down here on Earth: a few hours spent on Twitter, for example, could easily convince you that people on different sides of the political spectrum are as mutually incomprehensible to each other as the aliens in Fall From Earth are to us. A lot of the questions in the book -- where we draw the outer limit of our definition of "humanity," how we deal with the centripetal effects of technology, how and when speech is action -- are ones we're facing right now, even if they're happening on our screens and in our living rooms rather than on alien planets.

So I guess Hayden was right and I was wrong (as usual). Calling something a conversation, after all, doesn't mean that everyone will agree on what was said, and maybe that's the point: every book, as John M. Ford said, "is three books... the one the writer intended, the one the reader expected, and the one that casts its shadow when the first two meet by moonlight."

The Bundoran Buddies Sci-Fi Bundle is available until January 30, 2019.


Thursday, September 24, 2015

Spoiler Space: "The Face of the Waters"

This story is why I listen to my editors. It originally came from a dream I had in which someone put a baby in the water, and the baby swam away like a fish. When I woke up I went back and tried to rationalize the image, trying to figure out why someone would make a baby able to breathe water. I wanted to keep the story on Earth – there are plenty of live-on-a-watery-planet stories already – so I thought about who, throughout history, has had to leave their homes most often, and the story unrolled fairly easily.
Except that when I sent the story to Pete Butler, for the Triangulation: Taking Flight anthology, he said that he liked the story but it was missing something, an added dimension or complication to give it more depth. I thought about that for a while and came up with the idea of the “ghost” of Yonah’s son confronting him as the story went on. Suddenly there was conflict in the story – between tradition and necessity, purity and survival – and Pete bought it, saying I'd managed to make the story read faster by adding word count. (There were two more quick rounds of edits to make the opening punchier, as well, but that change is basically what made the story work.)
So that’s why I listen to my editors: they make my stories better.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Next week in Spokane

Yikes! Less than a week 'til Sasquan -- guess I'd better post my schedule:

Thursday: SFWA Board meeting all morning, but I'll be wandering around in the late afternoon and evening.


11:00 - 11:45: Kaffee Klatsche in CC - 202A-KK1. You can sign up here or just show up.

1:30 - 2:00: Reading in CC - 301.

2:00 - 2:45: Managing Your Online Brand in CC - 401C with Jim Wright Frank Catalano  and Marah Searle-KovacevicOn social media, are you a person or a brand?  Do you handle interactions differently depending on what type of social media you're on?  And what happens when you're involved in a brou-ha-ha?  How is it different for a group and for an individual?

5:00 - 5:45: Autographing with Scott Lynch Susan Palwick Phyllis Irene Radford Susan Forest Tina Connolly Ellen Datlow (whew!) in CC - Hall B.


10:00 - 10:45: From Middle Earth to Westeros: Fantasy Worldbuilding in CC - Integra Telecom Ballroom 100B with Pat Cadigan Martha WellsMichael Swanwick Mary Soon Lee Building a believable world, with believable geography, culture, and rules, is at least as important in fantasy as it is in SF.  The panel looks at how to create fantasy worlds, citing examples of the good (and maybe the not so good). 

1:00 - 3:00: SFWA Business Meeting in CC - 300B.


Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Speculation and Imagination

Two bits of news for now: first, Derek Newman-Stille has posted an episode of his Speculating Canada podcast in which he discusses my collection Irregular Verbs and Other Stories. Derek's got lots of interesting things to say as he examines "cultural interactions, language, aging, and other ideas of change" in the stories.

Second, one of those stories -- "What You Couldn't Leave Behind" -- will be included in Imaginarium 4: The Best Canadian Speculative Writing. We were actually discussing which of this year's stories would go in right up to the announcement, eventually picking that one in part because it's the shortest -- it's going to be a massive book:

  • Introduction
    Margaret Atwood 
  • Bamboozled
    Kelley Armstrong 
  • Witch I
    Courtney Bates-Hardy 
  • Witch II
    Courney Bates-Hardy 
  • The Smut Story
    Greg Bechtel 
  • Kafka’s Notebooks
    Jocko Benoit 
  • The Full Lazenby
    Jeremy Butler 
  • Wendigo Nights
    Siobhan Carroll 
  • A Spell for Rebuilding Your Lover Out of Snow
    Peter Chiykowski 
  • Túshūguăn
    Eric Choi 
  • Jelly and the D-Machine
    Suzanne Church 
  • The Perfect Library
    David Clink 
  • The Colour of Paradox
    A.M. Dellamonica 
  • The Man Who Sold the Moon
    Cory Doctorow 
  • Brains, Brains, Brains
    Puneet Dutt 
  • The Lonely Sea in the Sky
    Amal El-Mohtar 
  • A Wish from a Bone
    Gemma Files 
  • We Be Naked
    Zsuzsi Gartner 
  • The God of Lost Things
    Neile Graham 
  • The Lark, The Peat The Star, and Our Time
    Neile Graham 
  • Chant for Summer Darkness in Northwest Climes
    Neile Graham 
  • The Beat that Billie Bore
    Lisa L. Hannett 
  • The Trial of the Beekeeper
    Shivaun Hoad 
  • Self-Portrait as Bilbo Baggins
    Ada Hoffmann 
  • The Parable of the Supervillain
    Ada Hoffmann 
  • The Mermaid at Seaworld
    Ada Hoffmann 
  • Left Foot, Right
    Nalo Hopkinson 
  • Return to Bear Creek
    Louisa Howerow 
  • The Inn of the Seven Blessings
    Matthew Hughes 
  • What You Couldn’t Leave Behind
    Matthew Johnson 
  • Hollywood North
    Michael Libling 
  • Sideshow
    Catherine MacLeod 
  • Aversions
    Helen Marshall 
  • Death and the Girl from Pi Delta Zeta
    Helen Marshall 
  • You’re a Winner
    Matt Moore 
  • Man in Blue Overcoat
    Silvia Moreno-Garcia 
  • The Exorcist: A Love Story
    David Nickle 
  • Hereditary Delusions
    Rhonda Parrish 
  • Marotte
    Tony Pi 
  • Charlemagne and Florent
    Ranylt Richildis 
  • Standard Deviant
    Holly Schofield 
  • The Tun
    Trevor Shikaze 
  • Demoted
    Kate Story 
  • The Snows of Yesteryear
    Jean-Louis Trudel 
  • Giants
    Peter Watts 
  • From Stone and Bone, From Earth and Sky
    A.C. Wise 
  • Outside Heavenly
    Rio Youers

  • I haven't done a "Spoiler Space" in a while, but here -- from almost exactly a year ago -- is the piece I did on "What You Couldn't Leave Behind."


    Friday, June 12, 2015

    Podcasts, mind melds and bowling balls

    Two more little items up in the last couple of days: first, I've done another Mind Meld at SFSignal, this time talking about my favourite SF/F novel that's less than 350 pages. Those who have been around here a while will get no points for guessing what I picked.

    Second, I did a very fun podcast to promote The Year's Best Military SF and Space Opera, in which I got to discuss my story along with editor David Afsharirad and fellow contributors Linda Nagata, Michael Z. Williamson, David D. Levine and friend and fellow Ottawan Derek Kunsken. I actually recorded my part during a visit to a bowling alley, which accounts for some of the odd noises in the background.


    Tuesday, June 02, 2015

    Suns bursting in air

    Very cool: Irregular Verbs and Other Stories made the Sunburst Award longlist. Even cooler: the names of the other books on the list, including Pastoral by Andre Alexis, Consumed by David Cronenberg (!), Gifts for the One Who Comes After by friend-and-intro-writer Helen Marshall, Head Full of Mountains Brent Hayward, Knife Fight by David Nickle, The Back of the Turtle  by Thomas King, Lockstep by Karl Schroeder, Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, All My Real Children by Jo Walton, Echopraxia by Peter Watts... well, it is a long list!

    Of course the quality of those other books mean mine is a lot less likely to be on the short list, never mind win the prize, but all things considered I'd rather be an also-ran on a slate of really great books than, well...