Discover more from Ellen Kushner's Bad Advice
It's people time!
chatter among friends, Le Guin & Gaming, Martin Carthy's ballads, and more footnotes than even I can believe
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And now, on with the show
My writer friend Tiffany Trent has the cutest, smartest, most creative kids in the world. I have adopted them as my grandchildren, and am therefore allowed to tell funny stories about them. Tiffany just posted this conversation with her 7-year-old boy, who wants to be a ballet dancer:
Jupiter: "Why am I the only one in this family who likes being on stage?"
Mom: "I dunno. Not something the rest of us are keen on, I guess."
Him: "Shame on you, Mommy! Shame on you for missing such a great opportunity!"
Him: "You are missing out on the greatest thing ever. You shouldn't deny yourself! When I'm famous, I'm going to be on an even bigger and bigger stage. You'll see."
Well, clearly the apple doesn’t fall far from the virtual tree.
When I was two years old, my dad’s younger brother, my beloved Uncle Ron, graduated from Columbia University in New York City. The C.U. graduation takes place on the enormous plaza and broad stone steps below the majestic Low Library.Row upon row of chairs stretch in all directions for graduates of all the colleges and their proud relatives.
Aged 31 months, I had probably never seen so many people before in my life. Family legend has it that when it was over I ran up the steps, flung my arms wide to the crowd and shouted joyously:
It’s people time!
I still feel that way, whenever I behold an audience. Stage fright is a thing unknown to me. Because It’s people time! The bigger the crowd, the happier I am, honestly: when I was performing The Golden Dreydl live with the band Shirim, I was more nervous in a small auditorium of folding chairs than I was at Symphony Space in NYC. It’s as if, when the audience it large enough, it becomes one being, rather than a bunch of individuals you can pick out and try to please.
In my 20s, when I quit my publishing job to write full time, I only lasted a handful of years before I realized that writing is sitting in a room all by yourself. Performance was necessary to me.
At Columbia U., I had had success with a folk radio show on WKCR I called “The Truro Agricultural Show.”It seemed reasonable to try for a radio job… and in Fall 1987 I landed one as the overnight host of NightAir at WGBH-fm, presenting classical music for what was then Boston’s biggest public radio station.
I’d done it! I had an audience! I was still sitting all alone by myself in a room in the middle of the night - but I was speaking off the cuff, improvising before the unseen multitudes of listeners.
I worked my way up out of the graveyard shift to a place where I was collaborating with congenial daytime colleagues until I was writing and hosting my own national series, Sound & Spirit. That got me invitations to travel to stations all over the country. Finally I was back onstage before a live audience! I also crafted one-woman shows that could be recorded for radio, but also tour.
When I quit the show to move to NYC in 2006,I knew it might be tough for me to give all that up. Fortunately, I fell into doing some theater here. And the advent first of LiveJournal and then of Facebook and Twitter gave me an outlet for addressing the masses, as did panels at conventions and the occasional teaching gig.
The Zoom Boom: a Gift of the Pandemic
When I got my first job in radio, Dad said: “Well, Ellen, you’re finally getting paid for what you do best: talking!”
He’s not wrong.
I didn’t realize how much I missed that buzz of talking aloud to a live audience, until the Zoom Boom necessitated by the Pandemic opened up a whole new world of People Time for me. In the same week in November, I did three “appearances” — and realized that nothing else put me in that state of exaltation.
I wish I were more organized, more capable! The obvious thing to do is to set up a Podcast or regular TikTok or something. (If anyone wants to produce me in one, please step forward.) Meanwhile, I must rely on the kindness of strangers:
Appendix N Book Club guest for A Wizard of Earthsea
How do I get these gigs?
Sometimes it’s a matter of searching for your name on Twitter when you should be working, finding that a podcast on using fantasy texts in gaming is going to be featuring Swordspoint, expressing enthusiasm and being asked if I’d like to be a guest on next month’s podcast?
Of course I said YES.
I had no idea that I would be falling into, even though co-host Jeff Goad sent me this info:
Appendix N Book Club (www.appendixnbookclub.com) [is] an ENnie-nominated podcast about the fiction that inspires tabletop RPG gaming. Our first 100 episodes focused on books recommended in the Appendix N of the 1979 Dungeon Master's Guide, but we have expanded the criteria to any fiction that inspires our games! We discuss the books in a casual book club style and since Hoi is a POC and I'm gay, we also tend to chat about what it is like reading this fiction from those perspectives as well.
I’m not a gamer, but I couldn’t resist. And I was right not to: Seldom have I passed a more delightful hour in conversation with two total strangers. Jeff and Hoi are thoughtful, insightful, clever . . . . the result:
Ellen Kushner joins us to discuss Ursula K. Le Guin’s “A Wizard of Earthsea”, Choose Your Own Adventure books, the explosion of Tolkien’s popularity, the feminist revision of Earthsea, wizarding schools, designing magic system limitations, Larry Niven’s science brain, the teenage search for identity, wizards of color, normalizing protagonists belonging to marginalized populations, the Jewish inspirations on Riverside, and much more!
LISTEN TO THE PODCAST ON SOUNDCLOUD
(It was cool that Jeff & Hoi knew Swordspoint, since they had featured it the week before (LISTEN HERE to their Swordspoint podcast). They loved it, but their guest had had Issues with it, so as a lovely gesture of courtesy they also posted their PATRON BOOK CLUB discussion of Swordspoint, with very enthusiastic readers.)
. . . and Old Friends
Going to SFF cons isn’t just a matter of getting onstage. It’s also where I hang out with colleagues old and new, some of whom become close friends over the years. Mary Anne Mohanraj, Ben Rosenbaum & I have been carrying on rolling a conversation for at least two decades. The two of them recently launched a podcast, Mohanraj and Rosenbaum Are Humans, and invited both Delia Sherman (my wife and colleague) and me to join them. We all had so much to say to one another that it ended up being two episodes:
These links both lead to the Speculative Literature Foundation site, where there's video and audio of the episodes embedded:
One of my favorite movies is My Favorite Year. Peter O’Toole plays a Hollywood swashbuckler invited onto a 1950s TV sketch show. At a critical moment he shouts, Damn you! I'm not an actor, I'm a movie star!
That’s how I felt when it turned out that this wasn’t just a podcast, it was also video. But by then it was tooooooo late.
Bonus EK Viewing/Listening to other online appearances in this Footnote.
Music I Love
I’m finally getting the chance to read Richard Thompson’s memoir Beeswing: Losing My Way and Finding My Voice (1967-1975). English folksinger Martin Carthy was already on the scene when RT was just starting out. Thompson writes:
“[Carthy] was another unique stylist, whose focus was always on the song. How do you accompany something that was probably originally sung unaccompanied, without reducing it to the Western chordal tradition? How do you keep the ambiguity of key, and how do you preserve the lack of resolution in the melody? Martin had become one of the great originals of the guitar, and his playing introduced me to a world of possibilities.”
ADDING on JANUARY 13th: Fundraiser for Carthy family
*** Martin married into one of the great English singing families, the Watersons. His & Norma Waterson’s daughter Eliza is a phenomenal musician. Seeing them all perform together is an experience. Eliza is raising funds right now to sustain the family during the Pandemic.*** Info & Contributions here ***
I’ve been a Carthy fan forever. His music had a huge influence on my THOMAS THE RHYMER - and my novel THE PRIVILEGE OF THE SWORD was named after his song "The Dominion of the Sword."
Delia Sherman's first novel, THROUGH A BRAZEN MIRROR, was based on Carthy's rendition of the ballad "The Famous Flower of Servingmen" (which was, in fact, her book’s original title) :
This is your alert to a live house concert that Martin Carthy is giving on
[NOTE DATE CHANGE]
Saturday, 22nd January, at 8pm U.K.; 3pm U.S. east coast; noon U.S. west coast, live-streamed from his town of Whitby, U.K.
Information is on the Facebook Event Page and on Eventbrite.
Fortunately, the recorded concert will be up on YouTube for a week thereafter.
Delia & I have been being very careful about exposing ourselves to anyone else’s breathing here in NYC. As we stay in, we have no excuse not to tackle projects having to do with fixing up the house. So we must leave, so that we can write instead.
This time, we’re off to Connecticut again, to our beloved “1710 House,” where we will enact all our Little Women fantasies, sit by the fire, wear a lot of Gudrun, cook a lot in a kitchen the size of our living room at home, and make vast progress on our respective novels.
And that’s a good place to stop.
More music next time - including a playlist from one of my favorite people. Also why you are not the only one who can’t understand a word your TV is saying anymore . . . and what to do about it. And probably a bunch of other stuff that’s going to hijack all my careful Substacking plans, just like this one did. Let me know if you like it! Ask questions! And take good care of yourself. We need you.
Not His Real Name.
Which is still marked Kings College on the pediment, from its founding in 1754. “In 1897, the university moved from 49th Street & Madison Avenue…to its present location at 116th Street & Broadway. Seth Low, the president of the University…, sought to create an academic village in a more spacious setting. Charles Follen McKim of the architectural firm of McKim, Mead, and White modeled the new campus after the Athenian agora. The Columbia campus comprises the largest single collection of McKim, Mead & White buildings in existence.
“A broad flight of steps descends from Low Library to an expansive plaza, a popular place for students to gather, and from there to College Walk, a promenade that bisects the central campus.” Source
I know just how huge it is, because I endured my own graduation there 18 years later. Graduations are hell. I understand some people enjoy them, but I don’t understand how.
(You could tell because at every SFF con I attended, I was like the Tasmanian Devil let loose from his box. I got on as many panels as I could. People! I was so manic some thought I was on drugs.)
Lyrics to “The Truro Agricultural Show”
I chose it because (a) I had the record; (b) There’s a town called Truro in both England & New England.
I cheated, of course - but that’s another story for another day.
Nursing mothers. Taxi drivers. Painters. And a whole lot of musicians returning home from gigs, whom I got to know over my years there.
My first novel, Swordspoint, was published the fall after I began my WGBH job in July. My fourth one, The Privilege of the Sword, came out the fall I returned to NYC, also in July. This was not on purpose.
In radio, I was always The Talent (and don’t think I don’t love being called that!) - this meant, as my engineering friend Janie Pipik told me, that I was never meant to cut tape, which was a good thing, because it just stuck to my fingers anyhow.)
In September 2020, I gave the Keynote Speech at the official launch of the Centre for Fantasy & the Fantastic at the University of Glasgow, an honor I was utterly stunned to receive. I spoke passionately, if not eruditely, and gave everyone a tour of my bookshelves, speaking from my study in NYC. It’s all here.
The Golden Dreidel
We had an online release party courtesy of Brookline Booksmith. One of the original musicians, Michael McLaughlin, graciously joined me to reminisce about Life on the Road, and play live accordion. I said a bunch of things that everyone seemed to like. I am too neurotic to watch it. The VIDEO is on YouTube.
My friend Greta wrote:
I know I’m slightly biased, but I would listen to you read the phone book…. You’re a fantastic interview, and your radio roots are showing…. Do you miss radio? Because I think radio misses you.