Lens of the World – 1990


lens translations

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I’ve read that everyone’s first novel is a sort of autobiography.  Perhaps that is true, but have no memory of the first novel I wrote, as the first I published was perhaps number ten.  But LENS is the closest thing to autobiography I ever wrote.  There is no single fact in the book that reflects a single fact of my life, but still, it is so.

I identify strongly with Nazhuret.  I’ve never identified with one of my own protagonists before or since, but there it is.  Was.  I did make a great mistake, however, in using what is called the ‘unreliable narrator’ technique.  That simply means that in a first-person narrative – and these are the only first person narratives I’ve ever done – you need not believe what the narrator says is the truth.  Especially when the narrator is speaking about himself.

It seemed to me obvious that no one has an objective idea of what they look like.  When we speak to a friend, we assume that.  In fact, it is often humorous the difference between what someone says about themselves against what we ourselves are seeing when we look at them.  So when I had Nazhuret describe himself as a hideous dwarfish being, I assumed all would know they were listening to a man with a poor self image. And all the other major characters in the book do not react to him as though he were in any sense misshapen.  He is only a cross-bred man of two ethnic groups that don’t like each other and don’t often, therefore, well, cross-breed.

The cover artists certainly didn’t understand that. Nor the reviewers.  Not that I got bad reviews on the book.  Except to say I was bold enough to have a truly ugly protagonist.

I’m not actually that bold.  In fact, Nazhuret was supposed to look a bit like myself.  That’s what hurt.

I think another difficulty was in the fact that contemporary first-person narrative really is rarely first-person.  It is third-person semi-omniscient using the word ‘I’ instead of ‘he’ or ‘she’.  In fact, it goes to the extreme where a first-person can end the novel by saying something to the effect of ‘and then I died.’ Or ‘then all went black.’  When that happens I want to burst out at the book “Then who on earth is talking to us?  Who is telling the entire story, and to whom is he telling it?”

With that in mind I made this series of three books in the very first form of the novel: the epistolary form.  That means it is a series of letters, from one person to another. My agent advised me strongly not to do this.  It would lose audience, he said, and perhaps he was right.  But given the technological period in which I set it, I didn’t see how I could avoid the form and still be true to the characters.

I know it was hard slogging for the reader.  I tried to minimize this and keep it entertaining, but I know it was hard slogging and I’m grateful to all who were canny enough to keep up.

The other hidden aspect of Lens is that it isn’t in the slightest bit fantasy.  It is a story of the history of science and technology in a different, but not too different, world.  Somehow that slipped by people.

Everyone has a favorite child, although it’s best if the child never finds out.  LENS is mine.

The Third Eagle – 1989

There was a World Con in Brighton.  I went there by myself, which seemed adventurous and was expensive for me at the time.

I remember two things about it, mostly.

The first was that I almost got in a physical fight with a young fan who arrived at the closed door to the convention hall about the time I did.  I am incurably early for things.  The reason he was so angry at me was my name tag, which said my name was R.A. MacAvoy.  This young fellows knew that could not be true because R.A. MacAvoy was one of his favorite writers and he knew for a fact – for a fact – that he was male and much older than I.  Someone who wouldn’t be leaning against an awning upright with a backpack at her feet, waiting for the door to open.

Although it had never occurred to me there could be a necessity to prove I am who I am to anyone except customs, I did have the name tag and couldn’t simply deny owning it.  The boy’s two ideas were that I had either stolen the thing or that it belonged to my father.  I couldn’t think of any way to prove my identity except for my passport and driver’s license, both of which were hidden in a belt under my clothes.  He was about to lay hands upon me, which would have been ugly as at the time I might have had to hurt him badly,  (or he might have had to hurt me badly, especially when one considers how he felt he had God on His Side in the silly matter,) when the people inside the door opened it and let us both in, heard both our stories and told the fellow to sit in a corner and compose himself.

That was my first bit of unreality in Brighton.

The second bit was the constant running theme I heard up and down the halls and in the panel rooms, which was that the Yanks had stolen the convention.  As a Yank  who had squeezed out a large number of pennies to get there I felt ill-used by that accusation.  More so when I discovered that the Brighton World Con had been largely insolvent until the influx of funds from American attendees.  Yet with others of my own flattened pronunciation, I went through the days uttering constant apologies every time someone bumped into me.

The other side of this experience was that the Brighton hosts did not seem to care any more for the people from other countries, who had also spent their pennies, rubles or kruggerands to get there.  So I found myself as part of a lovely group of people of all accent, some of whom had phrase-books to assist them.  Dutch, Swedish, Jugoslav, Japanese and a few Sub-Saharan Africans: we all clung together and made our way through the Brighton convention like unwelcome but interested visitors from another planet.  In the evenings we went out in Brighton and met some very nice Brits.  Drank some very nice beer.

There is an advantage in visiting a place alone, or as a part of a pair.  One can immerse one’s self, keep one’s mouth shut, and witness.

I came home from the trip with one phrase stuck in my mind. It was that North Americans did not write Science Fiction at all.  What we wrote was something called ‘Red Indians in Outer Space’.

When I stop to think how many groups of people that short phrase offended at once, it is really daunting.  It surely offended me.  But it gave me an idea.

I wrote a novel, which was strictly SF, and which was strictly ‘Red Indians in Outer Space’.  I even made my Indians actually red, by applied genetics, and added an actual descendent of the people of India to make it all correct.

I had great fun writing The Third Eagle.  The narrative voice that was using me at the time was that of my contemporary martial arts teacher, Dio Santiago.  His lessons were filled with dry wit and sound self-defense.  For advice in things of a Native American nature I turned to my old friend Tirsea MacNeal, who is of the Sahaptini Nation, as was Sacajawea. I tried to make whatever could be factual as actually factual as a ‘Red Indians in Outer Space’ novel could be, so that the suspension bridge of disbelief did not spill the reader over the side.

It allowed me to take the Brighton trip off my taxes.  And it made a penny or two itself.  In fact, because it hurt no one – not even the angry young fellow who wished to break my nose in order to defend R.A. MacAvoy – it was the perfect revenge.

The Grey Horse – 1987

The Grey Horse

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Most of my books begin with a dream.  Not the sort of dream that is an ambition or goal, but literally something from sleep in which a personage displays him or herself to me in an image or a short scene, and I am left with the responsibility of creating a story-line that will enable the character to exhibit himself in all his aspects and therefore become real.  And when that happens I’m released from an odd obligation, and other people have a similar personage in their heads . . .

It goes on.

The Grey Horse was different, in that the personage was standing in my front acreage. His name was M.G.R.M. Music Man, called Emmett, and he was my Anam Cara to use an old Irish phrase.  Soul Friend.

Emmet was a Connemara Pony, and although I never saw him change shape entirely, he was certainly as magical as the character Ruari MacEibhir, whom I put into the book.  Emmet could manage a cart or a rider, babysit humans and foals and lambs, seduce mares twice his size with a nicker, pull stumps and clear land and do anything else asked of him. He could put up with nearby honking locomotive trains, Civil War cannons and Camels on parade. I have to restrain myself from allowing this to become one more elegy of Emmett, instead of a story of the book.

I travelled to Ireland and explored the Connemara Gealtacht, with language and history, in order to place him properly and make for him an appropriate story which could  display him in all his shabby glory.  I chose the end of the nineteenth century, because that was not only a time the pony from those hills came to be recognized, but it was also a time in which not a lot happened to the humans of the area.  As I don’t seem to have a talent for ‘epics’, I wanted to find a background that would give room for a handful of characters and would give them space in which to grow.

How I did research this small area of land! And how I listened to stories of the founders of the pony line.  Long squelching pilgrimages into old stone stables, with the shapes of dim stallion heads looking out at me, wise and soiled. I lived for a time with the human people at An Sruhan,  which is outside Caer Rua, where I had found a place to set my wheel of characters spinning.

Yet despite all the research, The Grey Horse is the closest thing I’ve ever had to a book that wrote itself.  I have read it since, which is a thing I almost never do once finished with a book, and I couldn’t find or remember myself mucking about in it at all.  That was a very good feeling.

And when The Grey Horse was done and published, I got a most unexpected letter from a writer I’d long admired from a distance: D.C. Fontana, the script supervisor and frequent writer for the original Star Trek series.  At first I thought it must be a joke, but it wasn’t.  She wanted to buy the script rights for the book.  I’d have given them all to her on a golden platter, if I’d had a golden platter, and if she were willing to act in so un-business-like a manner. She wrote such a magnificent screen-play! I am still abashed to think of that amount of careful attention given to my book.

And  miribile dictu, we came close to getting it produced. More than once.  All of which meant more to her than it could to me, ignorant of her world as I am.

The Grey Horse was good to me, in many ways.  So was Emmett.

Twisting the Rope – 1986


Twisting the Rope

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Like the first in the series, TEA, Twisting the Rope is a book that breaks through genres so hard there are no genres left standing in the end.  This one, like the first, has the tiniest bit of fantasy and a lot of music, dressed up in a mystery plot.

And like Damiano, it started with a singer and a song.  The singer, in this case, was Micheal O’Domnhail, who arranged and sang the song Casadh T’Sugain, which is a light-hearted romp about a young woman who entices an unwanted suitor into helping her twist the supporting rope for her cottage’s thatch, and as it gets longer and he is forced to back away, she slams the door in his face.  O’Domnhail redid the song into a very lovely and sweet romantic ballad. As the song is in Irish, no one noticed the disparity. People have been singing it his way ever since. I doubt anyone much remembers the original beat and attitude.

Twisting the Rope also seemed the perfect title for a murder mystery.  Macabre, if one doesn’t know the song.  (But it is such a lovely song. Look it up!)

People had been writing to me endlessly about a sequel to TEA, although I thought I had given them a happy ending.  One doesn’t want to mess with happy endings – at least I don’t, so I added new characters and tormented them and changed the course of THEIR lives.

That’s what a writer has to do, however they love their children.  We give them a hard time and then we give them away to others.

The Book of Kells

Book of Kells

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This is my only collaboration, though it was published under my name.  I am still ashamed of this misjudgment, which was largely mine, as I did not bother to argue the point of it being the work of Sharon Devlin and myself before submitting it.  I assumed that the book would stand by itself, and that her name would be obvious and automatic.  Instead I was told by Bantam that they would not publish a collaboration because such didn’t make money.  Had I been older I would have thought to say that KELLS wasn’t the book I owed Bantam, and that I would sell it to another publisher and deliver them the book I owed next year.  But both Sharon and I needed the money and I was unaware of my rights, so she was denied credit for a book that is at least half hers.

I think the entire plot structure was hers, to begin with.  She was my authority in Irish history of the time and of the language, although I have learned some of that since.  All the over-the-top unique quality of this book is Sharon’s.  Every single typed word is mine, as I don’t believe she could then type.

I remember long, sweating days when Sharon marched up and down the room orating passages to me as I wrote down what was dictated.  I remember the countless times I stopped her to ask “Is that a comma there?  Was it a sentence?” only to be told – explosively – “This is POETRY!” I would wait a beat and say “I still have to know if there is a comma there.”

Of the ugly crone who becomes, unexpectedly, a beautiful goddess, I can say that the crone was entirely mine, while the goddess was Sharon’s.  The naughty language in Dublin, (very realistic Dublin naughty language,) was also Sharon’s.  John Thornburn’s migraines – mine.  And so it went, pieces back and forth.  The nature of a collaboration, I guess.  I have never done another, as I haven’t had the opportunity.  Though they are a lot of work, I believe collaborations can fill in the missing pieces in each writer’s imagination and make the finished work better.

I did get a few irate letters concerning the language, as I had not used those particular words before.  One person reminded me that Agatha Christie never found it necessary to use such words.  What could I say in response to that?

I worried terribly that the medieval Irish might be criticized, or the history.  Not one steaming letter came regarding such matters.  But I got a letter from the mother of Stan Rogers, the songwriter, telling me that I had attributed one of her son’s songs as traditional.  That felt terrible.  Terrible.  But she also told me that she had read the book and stayed up all night with it, so I shouldn’t feel too bad. She forgave me.

Her son had died a few years before in a plane crash.  So although I loved my new Canadian friend, I still do feel very bad about ignoring her bright comet of a son.

Writing about time-travel, I have to say, is the trickiest thing. If one uses it too much there is a danger of destroying the dramatic tension.  Or the history of the universe. After one trial, I think perhaps it should be left to the Doctor Who Squad, who have been brought up on this.  Writing time-travel is almost as hard as collaborating.

Oh – one more thing about Kells.  I read a review of the book in which the reviewer felt cheated that the real, original Book of Kells only comes into the last half of the book.  She was quite miffed about it.  I have to wonder what this reviewer  thinks of To Kill a Mockingbird.

Trio For Lute


Trio for Lute

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This book was my first experience of having words I’d already written put together with others and called by a different name.  I felt, at the time, I might be cheating – that someone might buy it and think it was new stuff and be angry at me for misleading them, but I was assured by the publishing team that things like this were done all the time and readers were very canny about it. And also I really liked the chance to use the title Trio for Lute, because the whole series had been involved with early Renaissance lute music and I felt I had stumbled upon the perfect way to describe it all.

And when I felt the size of the book in my hand, I was quite bucked up at myself for having written such a very long book, even though I knew the size was just an artifact of the publishing.



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Raphael was the third book of the series I call Trio for Lute.  Having killed off my previous protagonist was not much of a problem, especially as I had set the series firmly in a world where an afterlife was not an end to a character but a firm shove into another story-line.  Not one, however, I was responsible for at the moment.  I never felt I had abandoned Damiano when I killed him off.  He himself would not have felt so. He was even re-united with his dog, so in a sense I was off the hook for having killed her.

But the other character in the series, who had been growing and changing in the background while we were so concerned with the humans, was the angel Raphael.

Angels in stories were supposed to be unchanging voices – like the Chorus in a Greek play.  But I realized to my own surprise that in having the supernatural being interact so personally with a – well, with a person – I had started the process of turning him into a person, in the ordinary sense.

Didn’t mean to do it.  I don’t mean to do a lot of what happens in my books.

But another background character – his unpleasant twin brother, Lucifer – took advantage of that fact and had great enjoyment stripping my heavenly music teacher of all his belongings and props.  And so another story began.

I wrote Raphael years before there was a great public affection for angels.  When that craze happened I was a bit embarrassed, as I avoid being ‘trendy’, but Raphael, whether the flawless angel or the seeking, suffering being he was becoming, had never been that sort of angel at all.

But then I suppose everyone who writes about vampires believe his or her vampire isn’t the clichéd, over-done sort of vampire either.  It’s never for the writer to say.

Damiano’s Lute

Damiano's Lute

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This novel was my first sequel.  I wrote it because there was still a lot of stuff the characters from DAMIANO wanted to say.  While writing it I discovered that although the characters may be the same people who prodded one to write the first story, the narrative voice would never remain the same.

The narrative voice is the person who is actually telling the story, not to be confused with the writer’s name, or pseudonym.  The narrative voice has its own vocabulary and syntax.  In fact, it has its own views on the story, and the person who sits down at the keyboard has little to say in the matter.  During first draft, nothing at all.

For me, the narrative voice wakes up after about thirty pages, which is why a book, even in crude first draft, has to be rewritten from the ending page and through the first section again, or else it seems the beginning was added on by a different, and less confident, writer.

The narrative voice in DAMIANO’S LUTE was edgier, more biting and less sentimental than the voice who wrote DAMIANO.  Different influences took over, and some different musics –  as it was set in different countries than the first.

I also killed off, not the dog this time, (I’d learned THAT lesson,) but the protagonist.  It was the second volume of a three book series, but I killed off the main character.  Both the characters and the story seemed to demand it of me.  Besides, there were other major characters to take his place.

I think it was Sam Gamgee who first said this to me, about the story going on even though people drop out of it. But Sam himself didn’t invent the idea.

Funny – I didn’t get a single death threat about killing off my hero. He wasn’t, after all, a dog.



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When Bantam allowed me to publish TEA, it was with the provision that I would then write a book which would be more worth publishing by them: that it would be solidly in a ‘genre’.  I didn’t know exactly what a genre was, but had read a lot of SF.  I repeat – I had read a LOT of SF – over the years, and was very willing to do whatever they asked in order to get another book published. After all, I had been told this first tiny book was merely a ‘foot in the door’ and I ought to be very grateful.

Grateful I was, and when advised by my first editor (and at the time I thought that ‘advised’ meant being told from on high) that the next book ought to be something called Sword and Sorcery, because that was what was selling at the moment, I didn’t think of disobeying.

I researched the term Sword and Sorcery, and it seemed to mean the sort of book that had been influenced by Tolkien.  There were a great number of those at the time. THE LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy had broken open my heart a number of times.  I was reading his books about once a year.  The others -the ones inspired by Tolkien – not so much.  But I was willing to write as told.  No.  I was not willing.  I was desperate.

But it wasn’t as easy to work from a model as I had expected.  I walked around the streets of  Palo Alto, CA, and thought about it, waiting for a story to open within me that would be Sword and Sorcery.  I started to sweat, because nothing was happening, and I had promised Bantam a book.

Then one day I walked past a record shop window and there was an album cover on display.  The album was called Number 2, by Pierre Bensussan.  I’d never heard of him, but the picture on the cover, which was of a young man with a guitar, asleep on a medieval-seeming dining chair, while an obvious king in robes pulled a beautiful woman aside with a hushing finger to his lips – was so simple and lovely and fairy-tale-like that I started imagining things right there on the street.  I even went in and bought the album, so I could look at the picture some more.

The music inside was astonishingly good and wakened all my stalled imagination.  And at the same time this was going on, I was reading a book about the fourteenth century in Europe.  I don’t remember if I picked up that book with an eye toward Sword and Sorcery or simply because it was a good book, but between the two influences, Bensussan’s music and the story of the tumultuous fourteenth century in Europe, DAMIANO was born.

I became frantically careful that I got my facts in order about the place called Savoy as it was at the time I had chosen.  It seemed to me then, and still seems to me, that when one writes a story containing an impossibility, such as magic, everything else in the story ought to be very realistic, to create a Suspension of Disbelief Bridge upon which the reader can travel, without worry he’s going to plummet out of the story entirely.

I was told DAMIANO was a failure as a Sword and Sorcery novel, though I had done my best to follow the rules as I thought they were written. It was not a popular failure, it was simply another genre-breaker.  I think I’ve written nothing except genre-breakers, benders or simply genre ignorers throughout the years.  I’ve never done it on purpose.

The music flowing in my head as I wrote the book wasn’t even medieval, but I consoled myself with the thought that we don’t really know what that music did sound like. Since it was written by young people, it must have had a lot more force and heart than what is now played, so formally, as Early Music.  When people didn’t live so long, surely they had to live it up a bit.

DAMIANO is perhaps the most sentimental book I’ve yet written.  That, again, seemed to go with the time and place.  If one’s life is likely to be short, one’s feelings are likely to be long.  I got a lot of letters into my mailbox after writing DAMIANO: some of them I still remember.  Some of the people I still know.  I got mail from Catholic Sisters.  That was an enormous surprise.  I’d never thought of the sisterhood as the sort of place where people wrote fan letters.  I’ve learned a lot since.

I also learned another thing.  You don’t ever, ever kill the dog in a novel.  The hero, possibly.  Other people, most certainly.  But not the dog.  I got at least one death threat about that.  Luckily that was in a time when it was not so easy to find a writer.  There were publishing houses and agents: worlds of protection in between the reader and the writer. But if I have one lesson to give young writers first publishing, it is this; don’t kill the dog.

Unless, of course, you really have to.

Tea With the Black Dragon

Varieties of Tea

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This is the first book I published, although perhaps the tenth I wrote.  Thank the gods none of the others saw print, because they were all floundering messes. A kind woman named Elizabeth Lay, who was an agent, sat me down and had me read aloud every line of the manuscript I had sent her.  My embarrassment at my clumsy phrasing and lack of story arc was great, but aside from opening my ears to what I sounded like, she also hinted how I could have written it better.  My hostility to her suggestions rebounded into the creation of new phrases and story lines which were not my originals nor her suggestions, but a third path.  This is, I think, how writers and editors work together to create a books that stands by itself.  We writers never appreciate the gift until much later.

Perhaps 18 months after I gave her the ms., I got a phone call in the kitchen.  It was my agent, and she said to me “First, sit down.  What ever you’re doing, just sit down.”

And so I sold a book.  The advance was miniscule, and so was the percentage, but she said it was a foot in the door, and indeed it was.  Part of the deal was that I was to write for Bantam Books another book which would be more ‘classifiable’  in the fantasy genre.  I did write them another book, but I fear it was no more classifiable than the first.

The public reaction to this tiny novel astonished me.  I had to remind myself frequently that public reaction comes and goes like the weather, and that I was still the same writer on the edge of publishability as I was before.  That attitude has helped me to survive the ego-wrecking world of publishing and of criticism.

By the way, I wanted the book called OOLONG, which means Black Dragon in Chinese and is also a sort of tea.  Bantam would not buy the title, and in the end it was just another battle between editor and writer over the proper words.  I still think OOLONG would have worked.