I promised I wouldn’t totally do away with guest interviews and featured posts – and here we are! Kaki Olsen is a friend and fellow author who loves sharing her knowledge and experience with other writers and quite possibly has the largest internal database of obscure literature of any one I know.
I was thrilled when she wanted to share something here on the blog with my readers. Enjoy!
In the Eyes of the Lore: The Village It Takes
By Kaki Olsen
Happy October and welcome to my satellite installment of my literary analysis and book club, In the Eyes of the Lore. If this intrigues you, you can also find more of the same on my author site: www.kakiolsencreative.com.
It’s my favorite month to discuss spooky things ranging from the proper way to end a séance to the allegories of possession narratives. I can bore you to tears or fascination with citations of an article on modern manifestations of fear that was coauthored by the author of Psycho. I took a class on horror, science-fiction, and mystery writing in high school and have a lot to say on things that can make people feel deeply uncomfortable.
But, as you may know, that’s not the genre I’ve been published in. I have written retellings of all but one of Tchaikovsky’s ballets, one astronaut drama, one dragon-smuggling android, one gardening romance and a lot of non-fiction. That’s just based on what I’ve signed contracts for. On my laptop are stories about secret societies made up of people with day jobs, a kingdom where fairy tales are regulated by law, and a 1920s murder mystery inspired by T.S. Eliot.
What I’d like to talk about today is how to write community-building. This can apply to something as low-key as a family or as far-reaching as an entire nation. I could even spread out to tell you how to invent an intergalactic system of politics, but I believe in working in closer quarters than that.
Let’s first talk about two of my favorite fictional communities: Omelas and After the End Times. You may not have familiarity with either unless you’re a Leguin fan or familiar with Mira Grant’s Newsflesh series, but they’re rich in world-building for very different reasons. Spoiler warning because it’s nice to let you know I might tell you the ending in advance.
I remember reading Ursula K. Leguin’s “The Ones Who Walk away from Omelas” in Ms. Rodburg’s 9th grade English class. Ms. Rodburg was fond of shattering any idealism, so we also read stories like “The Nine Billion Names of God” (God commands humanity to know Him completely, then wipes them out for knowing him too well) and “The Star” (Jesuit priest discovers the remnants of a utopia that was destroyed in a supernova and is able to determine that the death of this society happened so there could be a Star of Bethlehem). She’s incidentally the same teacher who taught me about horror writing.
Omelas is a thriving community with festivals, pastimes, sophistication, and joie d’vivre. The problem is that this utopia demands that one child be kept in the worst kind of squalor, neglect, and depravity. Everyone in Omelas comes to know about this at one point or another and they are able to accept the sacrifice that makes their perfect lives possible or choose to abandon it. The narrator admits to not knowing what happens to those people who choose to walk away from this horrifying perfection.
Contrast this with After the End Times. This is not a city or state or country, but as impersonal a forum as possible. It is a company of bloggers across the world, most of whom will never meet each other in person. This is largely due to the fact that, ever since the zombie apocalypse, travel has become something of an unnecessary risk. People are terrified to venture out of their houses and one of my favorite sections of the first novel is when the narrator, Georgia Mason, goes to a political convention that is 7/8 shopping spree and 1/8 nomination of a presidential candidate. It’s a place where people take advantage of being in public long enough to have a normal life and get Starbucks or buy a new car or check out the latest in self-defense technology.
Georgia and her brother Shawn have little sense of family. They were orphans of the apocalypse adopted as a publicity stunt and have long outgrown their parents’ need to act like a family. What they have in place of that is their website. They are the main contributors to the highest-ranked reporting blog in a world where bloggers have replaced CNN and MSNBC because they are brave enough to still go into the world and confront the dangers. Their beta bloggers and baby bloggers are something of an extended family, all under the jurisdiction of various trusted colleagues. In a world where very little is up close and personal, the Masons’ community is the closest thing most of them has to intimate friendships.
When I talk at conferences about diversity in world-building, I bring up protected classes. I ask about how the elderly, young, male, female, mentally sound, mentally challenged, physically fit, disabled, etc. are treated and regarded. Then, when I have those answers, I ask what that says about the society. In Omelas, we see that happiness is worth impersonal suffering. In Newsflesh, we see that strangers can be more trusted than family. The answers to these questions can also form the basis of a utopia or dystopia.
The project I’d like to feature today of my own writing is from the Iron Doves anthology. This charity anthology was a collaboration of several authors in which all of the protagonists had to have three traits from a list of potentially marginalized people. I wrote “Just One Chance” and made my protagonist a time-traveling android maiden. Just when you think that’s unusual, she’s time-traveling to save a large number of people traveling to a new world from death and she does it by giving them a secret to keep. If you were paying attention before, this is what my dragon-smuggling android refers to.
I based the entire society on the dynamics of a cruise ship to explain the setup, but then built the world around smaller-scale choices. There is a culture among the stewards, but also a conspiracy of schoolchildren who hate being out of the loop. There is a wide range of ways that adults respond to children having very inconvenient boundaries. But the place where I have a soft spot for this society is that when the dragon hatches prematurely, the adults know that they will have to put her and her mother on a shuttlecraft or find a way to live with a fire-breathing monster the size of a pit bull in their midst. They decide to let the children decide whether or not the dragon is a threat or another member of the already unconventional community. The children, seeing no reason to judge a creature by the sins of its fathers, decide to treat it as one of their own. The story ends before we ever find out what that means in the long run, but there are stories in the works that explore that as well.
About today’s featured guest:
Kaki Olsen is a Texan by birth, Bostonian by upbringing, and a world traveler these days. She has been to twenty countries on five continents and her stories of pocket universes in Istanbul or pilgrim’s trails in Austria are as much fun to tell as the stories she writes. She loves ballets, but is always rewriting them for modern audiences. She is passionate about space exploration, but has been known to tweak the makeup of a colony ship. Because she writes essays for fun, she has written on topics such as theologically debunking the zombie apocalypse and why poor characters make the best heroes. She studied English at Brigham Young University and currently divides her time between a desk job at a law firm and being on the board of an arts non-profit. She can be found at www.kakiolsencreative.com.
Connect with Kaki:
- Amazon Page
- Facebook: @kakiolsenbooks and @kakiolsencreative
- Twitter: @KakiOCreative
- Instagram: @kakiolsenbooks
About Iron Doves:
A set of short stories featuring female protagonist, dedicated to support those who have been in abusive situations and needed help. All proceeds will be donated to the Doves Program.