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Monday, February 27, 2017

GUEST BLOG: Steven Brust and Skyler White of The Skill of Our Hands: A Novel

We invited Steven Brust and Skyler White to 'take over' our blog for the day. They are the authors behind The Skill of Our Hands, which was released by Tor on January 24, 2017. Given the opportunity and free reign to take over our blog for the day, they decided to interview each other and talk about everything from their art to anxieties and everything in between!

Before turning the blog over to Steven and Skyler, I leave you with an overview for The Skill of Our Hands.

The Skill of Our Hands Summary:

The Incrementalists are a secret society of two hundred people; an unbroken lineage reaching back forty thousand years. They cheat death, share lives and memories, and communicate with one another across nations and time. They have an epic history, an almost magical memory, and a very modest mission: to make the world better, a little bit at a time.

Now Phil, the Incrementalist whose personality has stayed stable through more incarnations than anyone else’s, has been shot dead. They’ll bring him back—but first they need to know what happened. Their investigation will lead down unexpected paths in contemporary Arizona, and bring them up against corruption in high and low places alike. But the key may lay in one of Phil’s previous lives, in Kansas in 1859, and the fate of a man named John Brown.

Now, I welcome Steven and Skyler! Thank you for joining us today. 



          SKYE:  So the other day, on Twitter, you proposed a new word, "Euphustiphobia." You defined it as the fear of looking pretentious, and blamed it for the fact that "so many of us in the field are reluctant to talk about art." I'll quote myself now using a phrase I didn't realize I relied on so heavily until someone at 4th Street teased me about it, and start by asking you to "unpack that for me."

          STEVE: First of all, and most important, I don't think you particularly use, "unpack that for me."  What I associate with you is, "tease that out."  This is very significant because, um, because something or other.  Let me think about that.
          The reason we talk about art is because we're trying to create it; that is, we want to write things that move people, that delight them, that engage them, and, ideally, that reveal contradictions that are concealed in everyday life.  That's the highest goal--to, if you will, epiphanize; and conversations about how we go about doing that are worthwhile. 

          But we come from a field that, for historical reasons, has been dismissed as worthless by most of those who talk about such things.  It makes us nervous about having the conversation, about using the word "art."  Many of us find ourselves, before venturing on the topic, looking around to make sure only safe people are nearby, the way a bigot looks around before telling a racist joke.  It's sort of humiliating.  It's also not easily fixed, because so many of us really are out of patience with those who appear more interested in how impressive they sound than in the subject. 

          But the reverse is also true: Some of us are out of patience with the aw shucks so humble it's only a story stuff that can sometimes come from the mouths of the writers who move us the most, who have the most to say, who strike the deepest.  Yes, I'm looking at you, Tim Powers. 

          So it's tricky.  I love love love love talking about craft--about how we make our stories better; but the line between talking about craft and talking about art is thin and blurry, and one thing we don't need is to impose artificial restrictions on ourselves because we're afraid of how we'll sound.
          Now, back to the more important topic.  There is an interesting distinction between "unpacking" something and "teasing it out."  What do you think it indicates?

          SKYE: I know I use both, and the even more direct, “talk more about that." It’s a function, I think, of being rather pathologically curious about the way other people, particularly other — yes, I’m going to say it — artists think and express themselves.
          I'm going to match your "Euphustiphobia" with a neologism of my own: "Habsüchtiphobia," the fear of appearing greedy.  Your question about my "tease" and "unpack" raised a pain point for me that isn’t completely unrelated, and has been on my mind recently for other reasons:  I worry a lot that I’m selfish.  I have a tendency to get carried away by ideas that excite me.  I talk too much, or am too blunt and mercenary in my questioning of others when they’ve said something that intrigues me, but which I feel I don’t completely understand. “Unpack that for me,” “tease that out,” and “talk more” all sound so greedy.  And I guess that's because they are. 

          So it makes me the same kind of nervous you were talking about.  It makes me want to impose restrictions on what (and how much) I say because I'm afraid of how I'll sound.  So maybe this is me looking around to make sure only safe people are nearby, prefacing my remarks, “I’m not a glutton, but…”
          You're right, there is a distinction between "unpack and "tease out." I’d like to say I’m deliberate enough in my word choice that I select between them consciously, but I don’t.  It’s more intuitive than that.  I think I use “unpack” when people say something that strikes me as such a dense nugget of ideas so compactly expressed that I want them to take apart what they’ve just said, and show me how they put it together.  “Tease” is for situations where I feel like the mass of the idea is hanging out below the surface.  What they've said is intriguing, but it feels like just the visible fraction poking up out of the sea of their thought, and I want a snorkel.
          So tease out “epiphanies,” for me, and unpack “those who appear more interested in how impressive they sound than in the subject,” or maybe instead, talk more about the “thin and blurry line” between art and craft.  

          STEVE: "Tease out" and "unpack" have to do with how we address metaphor, which, in turn is closely tied to how the Incrementalists manipulate people.  They have to be aware of the subtleties of people's metaphors.  For example, I couldn't talk about story structure with my hands tied--there is an element in it that simply requires me to show the shape; that's how my brain processes it.

          SKYE:  This reminds me of hearing Beth Meacham talk about the proprioceptive dimension of editing.  So cool.

          STEVE:  It is like the difference between, "Do you see what I mean?" and "Do you follow me?" and, "With me so far?" and "Feel me?"  Each of those, and others, provide insight into how a particular person processes the metaphor of thought, which in turn gives the Incrementalists a handle into how to manipulate that person.  For writing in general, it provides an important clue to character.

          SKYE:  Got it. I think this is where my bias towards the kinesthetic shows up.  Both "tease" and "unpack" are physical, as opposed to emotional, auditory or visual metaphors. In meddling with me, an Incrementalist asking the question in your example would say, "does that make sense?"  Or "how does that strike you?"  But you mentioned "epiphenizing."  How do you mean that?

          STEVE:  When I refer to "epiphenizing" I mean what is, for me, the highest goal of writing, and one which, while I may never achieve it, is always worth shooting for: that is to give the reader a moment of, "Oh my God. That is how things work, and I'd never consciously been aware of it." 

          That's what I mean by revealing contradictions concealed within everyday life: to expose, if you will, what is hidden by habituation.  One cannot, of course, say, "the goal of art is...."  But to me, that is one of the important things art can do.  And one of the ways to do it is to use one's art as a vehicle of exploration; that is, rather than entering into a story with a preconceived moral, to use the story in order to explore a question to which one does not know the answer.
          And that's where art requires craft, if you will.  "Art" and "craft" interpenetrate, transform into one another.  When we use all of the tools and techniques of good storytelling in order to be engaging, to delight, to entertain, and then also to explore, and do so honestly, we are placing our craft in the service of art. 

          And it's at that point that the line between the two becomes indistinct; because as we write, at a certain point the various thoughts that inform how we put the story together blur: there is, "That would make a really cool scene," and, "what would happen if this character had to face this kind of decision?" and, "that is a sweet line, that really strikes home"  and "that isn't satisfying, it needs more exploration or it won't feel right." Which of those is art, and which craft?  The distinction, at that point, becomes arbitrary and meaningless.
          You speak of the fear of being greedy, or "Habsüchtiphobia" which I love, even though I'll never be able to pronounce it.  But what I wonder is this: are you aware of times that vanishes?  That is, when the subjective element--your worry about being greedy, my worry about sounding pretentious--vanishes into what I can only describe as a need?  A need to follow the threads, or a need to discover the layers, or a need to see how the story comes out, or a need to find a way to bring the elements of the story--incidents, characters, themes--together to find out what they'll do?  Where does your individuality vanish into the needs of the thing you're creating?
          And yes, by the way, I really am afraid that anyone reading what I just wrote will say, "Jeez.  Pretentious much?"  But to hell with that; I want to know.

          SKYE:  ::Grin:: Yeah, and it's exactly that sort of "hell with that; I want to know" that drives my greediness.  It's when I'm epiphany-hunting.  And yes, there are times when I stop worrying about how it looks. 
          Or maybe how it looks isn't actually my fear.  I'm less worried about appearing greedy than I am about my actual greed.  Are you afraid you're actually pretentious or of just looking that way?   
          My worry is not that someone will say, "that Skyler, she's so greedy," it's that they'll say, "Skye's so greedy I didn't get anything to eat."  I'm worried about taking over the conversation, of squeezing it too hard in my attempt to wring meaning or insight from it, of dragging it down paths that are deeply interesting to me, but not to anyone else.  I'm worrying about it now.
          I've had dinner with families where no one will take the last piece of chicken, and I've eaten with folks where if you don't get in there and fight for your drumstick, you'll get no supper at all.  I'm temperamentally the "dish hits the table and everyone dives in" sort, but I was raised to pass my plate and have my food apportioned. My enthusiasm is embarrassing. It's uncouth.
          That's odd.  Maybe we have opposite fears.  I'm afraid of being ill mannered, and you're afraid of putting on airs?
          Okay.  Here's how this works in real time. I'm very interested in what makes you tick, in why you worry about looking pretentious, in where that anxiety comes from, and in examining that against the worries that make me shy to talk about art.  But I'm not sure it's interesting to anyone but me. I want to keep asking you about you, and I feel like you get bored with that. And this is supposed to be an interview, something we'll send someone for other people to read, and I'm worried that the line of questioning I'm leading us down won't be interesting to any of them. I'm worried I'm eating all the chicken again. 
          How does that strike you? Or for you, maybe, I should say, "what do you think?"

          STEVE: Oh, this is delightful.  It never occurred to me before that we had corresponding fears.   As a side point, I'm not bored by talking about me, I'm just conditioned to be embarrassed about doing so.  I think it's a Minnesota thing. 
          So, am I actually worried about being pretentious, rather than looking that way?  Sure, sometimes.  We do our best work when we focus on the object, not the subject; that is, when our drive is to create the best thing we can, rather than how we're going to look; but yeah, I do catch myself, sometimes, saying things with the intention of, "If I say that, I'll sound really smart."  And yes, that is a pretense.  I try not to do it.  Indeed, the over-worked cliché about, "slaughter your darlings" is mostly, I think, directed at that, and insofar as it is, it's useful.
          But the greed to know, to understand; I have trouble seeing anything wrong with that.  And, once again, we get to craft and art.  Art is driven by our desire to know; craft is how we make it interesting for others to come along for the ride.  And when they start transforming into each other, so the distinction becomes lost in the process of making the thing, or sometimes watching the thing make itself, that's what it's all about.  There many terms for that experience, but I call it "fun."


Steven Brust said...

This is weird, but now I have to expand on that last remark.

Here's the thing, Skye, about what you call "greed." When we write, the "formula" is, we aim for our own taste. That doesn't mean writing to please ourselves, it means writing what we would like to read, what we wish someone else had written. What if it turns out that what pleases us pleases no one else? Well, to be blunt, then we're screwed, because that guide is still all we have.

Point being, when you talk about what fascinates you, and you follow up and push discussions (which, by the way, I adore), you're in exactly the same position, using exactly the same method: You simply have to take it on faith that what fascinates you will fascinate other people as well. So far, you're batting a thousand.

Cynthia said...

God, I love the two of you. Who was the reviewer who said you were both good but the two of you are more than the sum of your parts? Dead on. I remember the first time I saw the two of you together -- the electricity positively crackled from brain to brain. Please, please keep writing your own stuff, buy keep writing together so we can watch the fireworks.

-- I never could say anything in twenty words or less said...

Steve said: "[A]re you aware of times that vanishes?"

I felt it myself, and I'm not a professional writer. I've had friends talk about it. Stephen King calls it "falling into the page."

I suspect it's when the restrictive, negative, editor function of the mind is overwhelmed by the creative function, and the work flows without obstruction. To me, time is result of the friction between observation and reality. When in full-bore creation, observation stops and the results of observation spills out.

I'm sure, however, that this is different for different people. Everyone interacts with reality through layers of filters, not all of them self-installed.


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