Conversations with People Who Aren’t There

Until very recently I believed that everybody did this.  I believed that, when one was alone, whether sweeping the floor or driving, or simply distracted from whatever one was expected to be doing, one held interminable conversations with people who were not actually present.  My dialogues were with historical figures, or, more commonly, writers whose voices had influenced me.  Even people who were more completely imaginary: characters from a book, or a film, or even a television series, might be sitting invisibly by me and hearing what I said and responding to it.

When I conversed this way at home, usually in morning hours, the dogs were my audience, although not my intended audience.  I didn’t expect them to respond, and they did not.  They merely endured the low-level sound coming from my mouth as something characteristic of the human animal, or at least this human animal.  The existence of the dogs was a comfort to me, as talking to one’s dogs is a step away from talking to one’s self.

When driving, I had no such excuse, but I never felt the need of one.  Until it became likely that I might be seen by cameras at stoplights busily conversing to thin air, I felt free from the reasonable accusation that my brain was dissolving.  Now I am more careful, in automobiles, to mutter, or simply think aloud.

G.K. Chesterton – author of the Father Brown series, and many, many other works.

The man who appears to me most often – always in my parlour, and in Ron’s leather recliner, because we have no other piece of furniture that could have contained his remarkable bulk, and I suppose my unconscious mind is realistic enough not to put him anywhere else – is Chesterton.  I’ve always said, that with T.H. White, his writing has created the style locked into my head, so sometimes more of him than the style appears.

The first thing that happens, when Chesterton appears, which is usually when I’m just awake and am making my coffee, is that I must confront him with his virulent Anti-Semitism. Get it out of the way.  I have read an over 700 page biography of the man, and it was largely an apologia, but still his frequent eruptions with the words ‘Jew’, and worse ‘Jewess’, as though Jewish people were animals like foxes or geese that have separate words for the male and the female, more than offend me.  They stun me.  I find myself railing at the huge figure in the recliner, (although not too loudly, lest I scare the dogs,) “Are you aware that brilliant, sensitive writers such as Neil Gaiman have also said that they were heavily influenced by your works in childhood?  What must he have thought when he encountered your blaming the First World War, and all the failures of English society laid at the feet of his birth-people?  And he so young!”

(I do realize that my prose, here, is becoming unmistakably Chestertonian in feel.  But remember I began by stating his influence over me.)

I always see him hanging his head, or as close to hanging it as a man of his bulk might do.  Tilting it down, at least.

Having gotten that out of the way, I thank him profusely for introducing me to the idea that the writer stands always as an intermediate between the story and the reader, and that the voice of the writer, and personal digressions by the writer from the story matter, are as entertaining to me as they were to him.  And the use of paradox, and unexpected religious insights scattered into the narrative, are meaningful, even though my own spiritual beliefs are nothing like his.  Although oddly much like those of Father Brown.  And his conviction that anything approaching the fantastic is best done by showing the familiar in a new light, instead of constructing a heavy-handed allegorical world, has been of great value to me.  I end my talk by saying that although my contemporary field finds his style (and so, mine) slow-moving and sometimes outright inexplicable, I don’t mind at all.  I am happier writing like him than I would be writing like Tom Clancy, or any other of the moderns to go from catastrophe to castastrophe without letting a reader (or a writer) catch their breath.

Now, were G.K. Chesterton actually sitting in my parlour, I very much doubt the conversation would have gone in such a manner.  I wouldn’t have been able to get a word in.  Not even edgewise.


The reason I was convinced my imaginary conversations were universal to the human condition was simply my embarrassment knowing that, since I had constructed my verbal respondents, when we had a difference of opinion – a necessarily frequent happening – I always won the debate.  This, in itself, was so much a stacking of the deck, or loading of the dice of the disagreement, I would hate for anyone to know I was doing it.  It was so much like playing chess with one’s self and cheating.  And I assumed everyone else on the planet felt as I did about it, and so, from an attempt not to appear the scoundrel I was, I kept my mouth shut (for once) about the existence of this wild and crazy inner life.  I was certain any other person would do the same.  So I have continued, for approximately sixty years, to live this way, mumbling to myself or to the non-human creatures about me, or even the furniture. And thinking every other soul did also.

It was only perhaps a week ago I asked Ron whether he did not spend his hours as I did.  I expected him to answer “Of course,” or simply smile knowingly and shrug.  Instead he looked at me intently and said “No. Not so often.”


This was quite a surprise.  It was, in fact, a re-set of my expectations.  The human condition was not entirely as I had thought it was.  Not for all these years.

So I must re-evaluate my life of inner debate.  I have not just been rigging the game of internal conversation.  It seems I invented the game before I rigged it.  My ego-centricity is far more overwhelming than I thought.  I am not proud of myself.


Nonetheless, there have been some interesting conversations over the years.  If I must take the blame for doing the thing, I can at least describe how I have done it.

The most common repeated dialogue I have is with any film or television actor who pronounces words in a way I disagree with.  Of course I am arguing with the character, not the real actor, but as no one is there, it doesn’t matter.

I’m not a grammatical purist – in fact I am so bad and spelling it would be absurd for me to consider myself such.  But I know a few things about the history of pronouncing the English language and so I have the tendency be a curmudgeon about them.  The first of these is the pronunciation of the word e-i-t-h-e-r.  I was taught once in school that the word in English had originally been pronounced eether, as Americans do, or did when I was a child.  That the importation into England of the Georges from Germany, to serve as their monarchs, resulted in one king who never bothered to learn the language of the country, and a second who learned, but couldn’t be bothered to do it right.  Therefore he still pronounced eether in the German manner, as eye-ther.  The court around him wasn’t about to tell the king he was not speaking correctly, so they adopted his manner of speech and it became fashionable.  More than fashionable.  Anyone who wanted to think himself up-to-date and patriotic changed his pronounciation.  (A similar thing occurred in Spain, when a monarch named Phillip had a lisp.  Ever since there has been the very correct and high-brow ‘Castilian speech’, in which all educated people lisp.  South America was colonized before this, and consequently my Mexican neighbors don’t do this, and as I was educated in Spanish by one who spoke the old-country tongue, (a Mr. O’Brien,) I was quite the spectacle to the people of the Southwest.  They thought me cute.)

To return to either: The U.S. was settled by English-speaking people before the incident of the king named George, and so we have retained the old pronunciation, and have been ridiculed by the Brits for hundreds of years because of this.  Therefore I often go muttering to British speaking actors – whomever I last saw on television – that I am right and they are wrong.  Unfortunately, the pronunciation  ‘eye-ther’ seems to be catching on by Americans also, as though they have suddenly realized they have been wrong all these years.  Those people – mostly newscasters – I treat more harshly than the invisible Brits I feel beside me.  Because the Americans have no excuse.

I used the ‘often’ a few paragraphs ago.  That is another curmugeonly point with me.  The ‘t’ in the word has been silent in English since the end of the fourteenth century, and yet American’s on the screen have suddenly – in the past fifteen years or so – seemed to believe they’ve had it wrong all this time and started pronouncing the ‘t’.  Dammit, Shakespeare said ‘offen’, not ‘of-t-en’.

This is not my most interesting nor witty  bit of conversation with a person who is not there, but, unfortunately, it is the most common.




Temporarily unavailable.  Being re-written and expanded galore!

Albatross is the first of the books I have done while learning to self-publish, as is the new norm. It is also  my second collaboration, although the first time I’ve had the freedom to allow my collaborator  to have her name up there with mine, Nancy Palmer.  I feel the same energy as I did with the other, long-ago collaboration of BOOK OF KELLS.

My part in Albatross originated in a dream – an actual sleeping-type dream, not like Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous dream.  It left my head filled with characters who would not be denied and would not leave me alone for a minute, waking or sleeping.  I wrote the first (very rough) draft in four weeks.  A copy I dared show to none but my closest friends took much longer. Then Nancy Palmer stepped in and sent the story in a new direction and made the whole thing work. So it feels different, as did KELLS.

The cover is modeled loosely after Nancy’s son, of all things, as some aspects of the protagonist were also modeled after him.  But that’s Nancy’s story.  Maurizio Manzieri did marvels.

Now that I think on it, my own idea for writing a book at this time came from friends on facebook urging me to write an updated version of TEA.  And I guess it is that, in as much as it concerns two adult people coming together under odd circumstances, is only barely fantasy and is short, although not as short as TEA was.  It also involves, music, personal peril and human affections. Even computers.

Other than that, however, it is like TEA as much as a fancy rocket that has fallen off its stand and is chasing the people who set it off is like the usual New Year’s display.

Death and Resurrection – also published as In-Between – 2005

D and R

Available through Amazon

Note, once again, a book with two titles.  This was by no means on purpose by me.  In fact, I wasn’t aware for a long time that it had two titles. In-Between was the working title for the book, but I then chose the more ponderous title because the book has as one principal character a body-sniffing dog, such as are used by the police.  These beings are astonishing creatures.  There are some that can find bodies underwater, by sniffing the air above.

In the Pacific Northwest we had, at one time, such a dog and its name was Sorrow.  Discovering that so moved me and impressed me that when I found I had a similar dog in the manuscript I was impelled to give her the name Resurrection.  Hence the title.  It is a pun, but not exactly a jolly one.

The other reason I didn’t fight harder to get the working title off the hardback copy (and I’m not certain my opinion would have mattered) is that it gives me the opportunity to have two gorgeous covers by Maurizio Manzieneri.  I have a copy of the hardback cover – minus the print – framed in the central room of our shapeless and messy house.  It is a treasure and the splendid man gave it to me.  Just gave it to me.

D & R consists of four sections, each of which can stand alone.  Almost.  Any reader of Speculative Fiction becomes so very good at being dumped into media res that I’m sure it would not be difficult for them.  But they build upon one another, and despite differences in narrative voice. For example the last of the four is more closely involved with the story of the female of the twins that are the protagonists of the book and it reflects her attitude about life more than do the others, which have the mind-set of Ewen Young, the brother of the two. He is more playful by nature.  He is a painter and she a psychiatrist who works with children and with the dying.

There is a lot of dying going around in this book.  It is probably a good idea that Ewen is light at heart.

D & R is definitely a fantasy story.  There is none of the maybe it is magical and maybe it isn’t as there is in many others I’ve written.  But as it is set in the present day in this world, I have tried to take into account the world as it is in the daily news.  Or as I see it on the local streets, because it  is set in my own neighborhood.

It also reflects the local reality that in the foothills outside of Seattle, and in Seattle itself, people of European ancestory are actually in the minority.  They are certainly in a minority among my characters.  I was very grateful to have that freedom, and tried no to tread on the toes of any of my character’s various cultural histories.

This one was fun to write, despite all the dying going on.  It is the last one I will write using what is now being called The Legacy Houses.  Places where a writer turned in a manuscript, got it edited and copy-edited and felt his or her job was done as long as the story made vague sense.  And groused endlessly about the lack of understanding of editors and the idiocy of copy-editors.

What an arrogant thing I was.  How much I have had to learn and am still beginning to learn.  But that is taking me off-topic.

About the LENS series

Simply because I had not read these books between writing them and a few days ago, when I started writing these postings, I felt unusually free to comment on them.  I didn’t remember them, even as I approached the end of the books, therefore I am like any other reviewer.  And as I don’t expect to be making more money from them, I’m not biased in that respect, either.

So I hope you will believe me when I say I recommend this series to other readers strongly.  In fact, if I were not free from contracts, I would offer them for free in e-publishing.

To be more exact, let me add that you will probably enjoy them if you enjoy fantasy as it was written in the years prior to 1960 or so.  When it wasn’t a genre as such, but a home for books that escaped genre.

And if you read them, don’t read them fast.  I don’t think I meant them to be read fast.

But again, I don’t remember.  I do remember that when I turned in the last manuscript, I felt completely emptied out, and felt that way for about a year afterwards.

I also felt, and this is embarrassing to admit because it sounds egotistical and arrogant, that in writing them I had justified my having been born.

Belly of the Wolf – 1993





Available at This Site

Look at the photos up top.  You will notice that there are two titles mixed in together: Belly of the Wolf and Winter of the Wolf.  That was definitely not my idea.

The British publisher refused to use my original title.  They said the word ‘belly’ was unacceptable.  I still think that decision on their part inexplicable, as I happen to know that the word is not exactly in the naughty list in the U.K. And the phrase ‘the belly of the wolf’ was very integral to the plot of the whole series, as I used it as a metaphor for learning to clear the mind.  (I won’t repeat my whole lesson for learning meditation, or whatever a person wants to call that mental state.  It is written out in a few pages of LENS, and I am still proud of it.  It is a variation of the ‘don’t think of a pink elephant’ game we all have to confront in our schooling, or in our life.  And I don’t think anyone else has approached the job of emptying the mind of unruly thoughts in exactly that way.)

But the British publisher would not allow ‘belly’ on the cover of a book. As the book is set in what is a deadly winter, we compromised on the word ‘winter’.  It has alliteration, even though it misses the entire point. And as the series is done very much in the old British style of fantasy, as written from Dunsany and through Lewis and the rest of the Inklings, I would have hated to miss out on publishing there.

WOLF was written about thirty years after the first two.  Not thirty years later in my time but in Nazhuret’s, and his style has necessarily changed.  I find that a writer’s does over time and into age – though the age of fifty-five is not so old today as it was in his time.  And considering the eventfulness of his life (my fault, of course) you have to give him credit for surviving so long. In re-reading it, which I did last night – all night – I discovered that the words are shorter and the entire syntax more crisp.  Not lighter in tone, however.  WOLF is by no means a light book.

It drifts between the layers of the protagonist’s thoughts, and his re-evaluation of what he considers real in his experience.  Although I stated that LENS was not a work of fantasy, and one can almost say the other two have nothing approaching magic in them, the argument becomes more tenuous as the reader approaches the end of the series.  I think by the end it is not a meaningful argument at all.

Again, as in KING, I didn’t remember where I (or someone who once carried my name) was taking this book, and was actually nervous as I read, as I know this particular writer has no objections to killing off her cast.  Even the brightest and best of them.

I can’t say more than that.  Spoilers.

King of the Dead – 1991



Available at This Site

King of the Dead was heavily influenced by the Loma Prieta Earthquake.  It didn’t start out that way, but then the quake happened and we were just a few miles away from the epicenter.  So the experience found its way into the book despite my every effort.

It was an odd thing; the repeated aftershocks, which mounted into the hundreds, became so old a thing that my mind would say ‘Oh, there’s just another one.  I’m used to it.”  My body, however, waited exactly two seconds after the first subsonic, and then broke out into cold sweat, heavy heart-beat and the beginnings of panic.  I hated it.  I leaned to watch it from a distance, as it were, but I did not learn to control my reaction.  No one I spoke with about the quake learned to, either.  And it found its way into the adventure story like an odd parasite.

But, it was certainly adventurous, so I didn’t strip it out. In fact I made it a plot pivot.

I had to go back and re-read the book in order to make any statement about it, because I had only the most remote memory what it was about.  It was an adventure (the reading, I mean, though certainly the book, also). I repeatedly say I don’t do epic, but this book and the next are very close to being epic: large cast, warring nations and all that.  I have to say, although I feel I shouldn’t, that I enjoyed it a lot.

And I was amazed at how she brought things together in the end.


Lens of the World – 1990


lens translations

Available At This Site

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

Available Through This Source

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.