Coco

This past weekend, I finally had the opportunity to watch Disney/Pixar’s film, Coco. It tells the story of a boy who wants to be a musician, but music is banned in his family of practical shoemakers because his great-great grandfather abandoned the family to pursue his own musical dreams. The boy, Miguel, gets transported to the land of the dead on Día de los Muertos and learns the truth about his family history along with ways to bring the power of music back to his family. I was warned that it was an emotionally affecting tale. I teared up anyway. If you haven’t seen it yet, you should.

Día de los Muertos has held a special place in my heart for a long time now. Although I’m ethnically some mix of German and Celt, my family has lived in Nuevo México for more than a century. Día de los Muertos is actively celebrated in Mesilla and Las Cruces—and I live next to a cemetery. Family and their stories have long been important to me as a writer and Día de los Muertos is all about remembering family and their stories.

Listening to the film’s commentary track, it was clear the filmmakers took care to represent the celebration as authentically as possible. This pleased me, but it also gave me something to think about. A week before on the NPR food show, “Milk Street Radio,” a chef talked about the fallacy of creating culturally authentic dishes. The reason he described it as a fallacy is that what foods and cooking appliances are available in a region change and shift with time. What’s more cultures shift as people migrate and as technology changes. The food he cooks in America today is closer to what he grew up with than the food cooked now in his hometown.

Día de los Muertos is very much a part of Southern New Mexico’s culture and the film’s depiction is almost identical to what you’ll see here. Almost is one of the keys. While people celebrate at the cemetery, we also have ofrendas on the Mesilla town square. While you see marigolds like they had in the movie, we see a lot of other flowers as well. We even say “Día de los Muertos” while other people say “Día de Muertos.” Both have been used to describe the celebration going back to the sixteenth century and both are used in the movie. The former is literally “Day of the Dead” while the latter tends to be a more specific reference to All Souls Day.

In recent years, I’ve often seen culture erected like a wall to keep outsiders at bay. I prefer it when culture exists as a bridge to allow others a glimpse into the important aspects of people’s lives. That’s why I liked Coco. That’s also why I set a pivotal scene at a Día de los Muertos celebration in my novel Owl Dance. You can learn more about the novel at: http://www.davidleesummers.com/owl_dance.html

I’ll wrap up today’s post with a poem I wrote back in 2003 that gives you a glimpse of the importance of Día de los Muertos to my family. Christina Sng published it in her zine Macabre the following spring.

Pan de Muerto

All Soul’s Day—The Day of the Dead—
Picnics and parties at the cemetery.
Gravestones decorated with flowers,
Pinwheels, photos, favorite toys,
Candies and pan de muerto—
The Bread of the Dead.

My daughter and I make the bread.
She beats the eggs—even in death,
There is the memory of new life.
I add the orange essence—memory
Of the orange trees Grandpa—
My dad—loved so much.

Together, my daughter and I add the
flour—grown from the soil where
Grandpa now rests. Together we
Kneed the dough—making a
Connection across time.
Grandfather to father to daughter.

We set the bread out with a photo,
Some Halloween candy, and many
Happy memories. Sleep that night is
Restless. There is a chill in the air.
Morning comes and a chunk is gone
From the Bread of the Dead.

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Diplomacy

I find the process of diplomacy fascinating. I watched the recent summit between the president of the United States and the leader of South Korea with interest. Perhaps even more interesting were the glimpses we had of all the work behind the scenes that led to that historic face-to-face meeting. One of the people who has worked behind the scenes for a long time is New Mexico’s former governor Bill Richardson. Of course, before he was governor of the state I call home, he had been a congressman, ambassador to the United Nations, and Secretary of the Department of Energy.

My latest novel, Owl Riders is largely a reflection of my interest in diplomacy. A lot of books, especially in the science fiction and fantasy genres, are about wars and fighting. That certainly can make for exciting reading, but I’ve long believed there can be a lot of tension and suspense in stories about the people who struggle to keep conflicts from blossoming into full-scale wars.

Ramon Morales, one of the protagonists of my Clockwork Legion series, was created as a man of action. When we meet him, he’s sheriff of Socorro, New Mexico, but he’s not altogether happy with his lot. The city has been changing and most of the people he knew growing up have moved away. He’s also tired of breaking up fights and facing angry people with guns. I introduced him to the series’ other protagonist, Fatemeh Karimi. She’s a healer fleeing injustice. She sees the process of making peace as a kind of healing.

Initially, Ramon was inspired by real life lawman Elfego Baca, who was quite a character in New Mexico history. He gained fame when he kept several Texans from breaking their compatriot out of the local jail in a gunfight. After being sheriff of Socorro, Baca went on to be an attorney. Unlike Ramon, Baca never really had a diplomatic career. The closest he came was when he served as counsel to General Huerta during the Mexican Revolution. Apparently this resulted in Pancho Villa putting a price on Baca’s head!

Early in the Clockwork Legion novels, Ramon and Fatemeh encounter a microscopic alien swarm that calls itself Legion. Because it’s microscopic, no one can see it or touch it, but it can communicate with people directly through their brains and it can communicate with several people at the same time. This ultimately proves to be an advantage when Ramon is first making his reputation as a negotiator. Legion helps him see and understand things about the other parties that no one else can.

In Owl Riders, Ramon’s career is on a track similar to that of Elfego Baca, or even Bill Richardson. He has gained his Juris Doctorate. He’s working as an Assistant U.S. Attorney in Louisiana when he’s called in to settle an Apache uprising in Arizona. The challenge for Ramon is that Legion is long gone and now he has to do this himself. What’s more, Fatemeh has been taken captive by a man from her past. Will Ramon be able to save the woman he loves and successfully negotiate peace without extraterrestrial intervention? I hope you’ll join me on the pages of Owl Riders to find out.

You can learn more about Owl Riders, read a sample chapter, and find out where to order at: http://www.davidleesummers.com/owl_riders.html.

The Cost of Opening the Crypt…

…just went down! Courtesy of my publisher, the ebook edition of The Astronomer’s Crypt is being offered for the special price of 99 cents for the rest of the month. The ebook normally runs $4.99, so this is a remarkable 80% discount, which means it’s a great time to pick up a copy for your ereader. If you’re already a fan, consider gifting one to a friend!

The Astronomer’s Crypt tells the story of astronomers, ghosts, drug dealers, and a monster from Apache legend colliding at a remote observatory during a violent thunderstorm. As followers of the web journal know, I’m an astronomer who operates telescopes at Kitt Peak National Observatory. The observatory is 56 miles southeast of Tucson, Arizona. The last ten miles of the drive up to the observatory are up a road that winds and twists its way up the mountain. Once you reach the summit, you find a virtual city consisting of twenty-two optical telescopes and two radio telescopes. Even so, after the sun goes down, many of the telescopes on the mountain are automated and some are only operated part time. It’s not unusual for there to be only a handful of people at the observatory at night. That all noted, Kitt Peak is both quite accessible and quite well staffed compared to some astronomical facilities where I’ve worked.

I have worked many nights in my career at observatories where I’ve been one of perhaps two or three people on a remote mountain site. It’s dark. The insides are the buildings are kept deliberately dim so your eyes can adjust if you need to go outside and evaluate sky conditions. In a wilderness situation, wild animals can and do make it inside the buildings. It’s so quiet, you hear every creak and groan of the building. You’re working late at night and you’re tired and not always thinking clearly. You’re trying to focus on the data you’re taking. It’s easy for a person in those conditions to imagine many scary things.

The Astronomer’s Crypt is a book made up of many of those dark imaginings, some of which are not far from the truth. Over the years, I’ve encountered unexpected people at observatories during the night. Fortunately, most have been cooperative and left when asked, but I have wondered what I’d do if I encountered truly bad people. I’ve been to observatories such as Lowell in Flagstaff, where there are real mausoleums on the site, where people who loved astronomy are interred. It’s not hard to imagine ghosts wandering around at those places. I’ve been through many terrible storms, sometimes with sheets of rain pushed by winds in excess of 70 miles per hour. On those nights, nature itself is terrifying. You can get a sense for how all of this combines in the novel by watching the trailer:

Two years before the events of this trailer, on a stormy night, in the dead of winter, Mike Teter experienced something that would change his life forever. Mike was a telescope operator at the world renowned Carson Peak Observatory in New Mexico. I won’t tell you what he saw that night on the mountain nor what happened afterward on a dark stretch of highway, because it would haunt you just as it has haunted Mike. But what I will tell you is that Mike is back at Carson Peak. And what he witnessed that night two years ago is about to become a reality…

You can pick up The Astronomer’s Crypt for just 99 cents at:

Elizabeth Patton Crockett

I’m home at last after a trip that took me up to Colorado to sign the anthology Straight Outta Tombstone, to Louisiana to sign my vampire and horror novels, and to Bubonicon in New Mexico where I promoted all my recent books and debuted Maximum Velocity: The Best of the Full-Throttle Space Tales. In the middle of all that was Texas and on the way from Colorado to Louisiana I stopped in Acton, just outside Dallas to visit a memorial to a distant relative of mine, Elizabeth Patton Crockett.

Elizabeth was Davy’s widow and she was granted a plot of land after Texas became a state in gratitude for Davy’s service at the Alamo. She moved from Tennessee to Texas in 1853 and lived on the land until her death in 1860. There seems to be some debate about whether the statue is supposed to depict Elizabeth Patton Crockett or a pioneer woman in general. I like to think of it as Elizabeth, or at least an idealized form of Elizabeth. The one painting I’ve seen of her could be an older version of the woman immortalized by the statue.

Another homesteader in the area around Acton was a fellow named Isaac C. Burson, born in Alabama around the outbreak of the War of 1812. He died the year after Elizabeth Patton moved to the area around Acton. His daughter Martha married one of Elizabeth’s sons from her first marriage, a fellow named James C. Patton around 1859. As it turns out, Martha’s brother, Elisha Micah Burson was my great great grandfather. Three of Elisha Micah’s sons picked up and moved out of the Acton area. Two of the brothers homesteaded in Briscoe County, Texas in the late nineteenth century while my great grandfather, James Daniel Matthew Burson went on to homestead in the northeastern corner of New Mexico. The photo to the right shows him at his general store in Des Moines, New Mexico circa 1920.

My daughter, who accompanied me, thought this little side trip through the heart of Texas to see a statue dedicated to the memory of a pioneer woman connected to our family was worthwhile. It’s rare to see a statue to a woman and, indeed, this one is hidden away in a quiet little cemetery. The “Acton Historic Site” is supposedly the smallest state park in Texas and is Elizabeth Patton Crockett’s grave site. I grew up knowing several women like Elizabeth Patton Crockett and elements of their personalities became templates for characters such as Fatemeh Karimi and Larissa Crimson in my Clockwork Legion novels.

If you’d like to read the novels, they are:

Lightning Wolves on Audible

Lightning Wolves, the second novel in my Clockwork Legion steampunk series, is now available as an audiobook at Audible.com. In the novel, it’s 1877 and Russian forces occupy the Pacific Northwest. They are advancing into California. New weapons have proven ineffective or dangerously unstable. The one man who can help has disappeared into Apache Country, hunting ghosts. A healer and a former sheriff lead a band into the heart of the invasion to determine what makes the Russian forces so unstoppable while a young inventor attempts to unleash the power of the lightning wolves.

One thing that makes this release special is that I love to listen to audiobooks while I’m driving from my home in New Mexico to the observatory where I work in Arizona. Elements of this novel were inspired by the very same commute. Almost every week, I pass the Whetstone Mountains which house Kartchner Caverns State Park. I drive by the turnoff for Tombstone, famous for the gunfight at the O.K. Corral. I drive through the Dragoon Mountains where Apache warriors made camp. All of these locations feature in Lightning Wolves. I look forward to giving the book a listen during a couple of my upcoming commutes through the region. Here we have a look at one of the real-world settings in the novel.

As it turns out, I’m revisiting a lot of these same locations in the novel I’m currently writing. I left a few plot threads dangling at the end of Lightning Wolves which didn’t get resolved in The Brazen Shark because pirate captain Onofre Cisneros took my protagonists Ramon and Fatemeh first to Hawaii and then to Japan. Also, it seemed like it would be fun to leave those dangling plot threads alone for a few years worth of story time and see how they develop. The result is that Southern Arizona is in quite a mess by the opening of Owl Riders and you know Ramon and Fatemeh will be right in the middle of it, presuming other aspects of their life don’t get in the way.

The audiobook is narrated by Edward Mittelstedt who did a terrific job on Owl Dance. What’s more, Lightning Wolves was a top ten finisher in the best steampunk novel category of the 2014 Preditors and Editors Reader’s Poll. My daughter Autumn created Larissa, the young inventor mentioned in the story’s description. She served as the model for Larissa on the book’s cover.

You can listen to a sample and buy a copy of the Lightning Wolves audiobook at: https://www.audible.com/pd/Sci-Fi-Fantasy/Lightning-Wolves-Audiobook/B0716QC53Y

Bubonicon 48

Next weekend I’ll be in Albuquerque, New Mexico for Bubonicon 48. The theme is Rockets, Robots, and Rayguns and the guests of honor will be Rachel Caine and David Gerrold. Joe R. Lansdale will be serving as Toastmaster and Lee Moyer is the guest artist. I’ll be serving on three panels over the weekend and participating in the Mass Autographing Session on Saturday. On Sunday, I’ll be the host at the 1pm session of the Author’s Tea and pouring tea during the 2:15 session.

perry_logo_48

Friday, August 26

  • 4-5pm – Main Room – Soylent Green: It’s a Cookbook. On this panel we’ll be exploring favorite recipes or foods from SF & Fantasy. Has a science fiction or fantasy story or book inspired you to culinary creativity? Characters need to eat, right? So, what do they eat? What about drinks and alcoholic beverages? How do food choices affect the story’s plot and “flavor”? Can a meal reveal factoids about the culture and society of the characters? Does it really all have to taste like chicken? I’ll be moderating this panel that features Jane Lindskold, Laura J. Mixon, Sage Walker and Corie Weaver.

Saturday, August 27

  • 10-11am – Salon A-D – Where Have All the Publishers Gone? Anybody There? More and more people are self-publishing today. Will all writers eventually go to this format? Will we miss publishers when we don’t have them (if that happens)? What are the advantages and perils of dealing with a publisher or magazine editor? On the panel with me are Rachel Caine, Emily Mah, Gabi Stevens, and Pari Noskin. Robert Vardeman will be moderating.
  • 5:25-6:40pm – Main Room – Mass Autographing Session All the authors attending Bubonicon will be on hand to sign their wares.

Sunday, August 28

  • 10-11am – Main Room – Are Robots Still Scary? Danger Will Robinson! Robots once ran rampant on the pages of pulp magazines and across movie screens. Has familiarity with computers and perhaps Wall-E softened the image of the robot? Do we still fear the day the robots take over? Should we? Can we invent even scarier scenarios now that we’re more familiar with robots? I’ll be moderating this panel consisting of Mario Acevedo, Steven Gould, Jane Lindskold, Laura Mixon, and M.T. Reiten.

Of course, when I’m not on a panel, you’ll likely find me at the Bubonicon Flea Market at the Hadrosaur Productions table. Please come by, say “hi” and check out our newest books. If you’ll be in Albuquerque next weekend, I hope I’ll see you at Bubonicon!

Windows into the Past

I enjoy looking at old family photos. It’s an opportunity to recall good memories and sometimes even get a glimpse of those relatives I wasn’t fortunate enough to know personally. Unfortunately, my maternal grandmother died during the Great Depression. My mom barely knew her own mother. Given that my grandmother died in the 1930s, it’s not surprising, most of the photos of her are portraits. Back in those days, few people went around shooting pictures with their cell phones! Still, I’m fortunate enough to have two candid photos of my grandmother as a girl and young woman.

Tabitha Seaton

My grandmother moved to the small town of Des Moines, New Mexico with her family before statehood. In the photo above, my grandmother is on the mule to the right. I’m guessing the photo was taken right around the time of New Mexico’s statehood. I wonder whether my grandmother was just out riding for fun, or if she was doing chores. To me, the photo looks like something right out of a Sergio Leone Western with the stark landscape, simple buildings, and even laundry drying. This next photo was taken only a few years later.

Chemistry Class

This is a photo of a chemistry class at Des Moines High School in 1917. My grandmother is the young woman second from the left. I enjoy the juxtaposition of these two photos. Remember, that chemistry lab is in the very same dusty small town where my grandmother was out riding on a mule.

Even though my grandmother grew up at the beginning of the 20th century, New Mexico was still very much part of the wild west, but even in the wild west, high schools had chemistry labs. SummersOwlDance It’s just another one of the reasons I’m attracted to steampunk stories. It may seem fanciful to imagine mad science or incredible technology in Victorian times or the wild west, but in fact, it wasn’t so far from the story my family lived. My novel Owl Dance starts out in rural New Mexico, in a town not so different from the one my grandmother grew up in. The book is available at Amazon, Smashwords, and Barnes and Noble.