Venus on Mars

Perfect, Again and Again and Again and Again

Posted in Author's Notes by janmillsapps on August 27, 2011

Eye of the Storm

Done with the Venus on Mars rewrite. Happy, happy, happy with the results (although I was happy enough with earlier versions). I’ve put it down to rest, now watching Hurricane Irene coverage on cable news while waiting, waiting, waiting for the publisher who’s reading it right now (I am hopefully assuming) to respond. Waiting to hear back from all the other queries I’ve sent out, waiting for someone somewhere to offer some acknowledgement that my book is finished, again. That whatever sound and fury it contains may soon be unleashed on the world.

This anticipatory state of  non-activity is a lot like waiting for a hurricane to arrive: you’ve done everything you can to prepare, you know it’s out there churning – and you know that once it commences, there’ll be so much going on. But for now all you can do is sit and fidget. Nothing else is needed from you except patience.

While waiting, I opened up the manuscript of my very first and still very unpublished novel, Born Again and Again and Again and Again, which begins with two dramatic  events – the birth of my main character just as Hurricane Hazel hits the Carolina coast:

October 15, 1954: 

Hurricane Hazel was furious. The worst storm in decades slammed into the Carolina coast with winds of 150 miles per hour and an 18-foot storm surge unfortunately timed with the full moon’s high tide and with Marie’s due date. Now maybe her folks would stop asking her to name the father of her baby, Marie thought, welcoming the storm as the perfect diversion. Her dad was busy boarding up the windows of their motel and her mom was packing for all of them to flee the storm, but Marie had no intention of going anywhere. She was wet down there and her labor pains had started. She hitched up her skirt, rubbed her tremendous belly and prepared to give birth.

“Brothers and sisters, may we accept the good Lord’s wisdom, which we know is far greater than our own. May the Lord comfort us as we grieve for these fine people, Charles and Frances, and may we appreciate their dedication and their ultimate sacrifice as they stayed through the deadly storm to care for their daughter Marie and to bring their precious grandchild into this world.”

Charles and Frances, the grandparents I never knew, had both perished when a big slab of concrete blew right through the living room window and crushed them as they sat in their matching green recliner chairs to rest after helping Marie deliver her baby. They had endured eleven hours of Marie’s high-pitched screams. Sometimes I wonder if the concrete slab had seemed like a relief in comparison.

And this one seems perfect to me, still. Time to dust off the doc file, get this one out there as well. This particular hurricane, and the imagined frenzy it will create, is way overdue.

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Augmented Moments

Posted in Author's Notes by janmillsapps on August 19, 2011

Who knew? While leafing through one of my guilty pleasures, House Beautiful, the July/August issue, I found on page 113 – as part of a photo spread about somebody’s fancy new living room – a small note that says: SCAN THIS PAGE.

You can point your smart phone at a printed page now and automatically trigger an online event, like playing a movie – in this instance, the interior designer describing his creative process – right on my iPhone!

This is exactly what I want to do – not with living rooms, but with novels. Books (paper or electronic) with augmented moments – words that offer more – a popup image, sound effects, a movie clip.

I gave this idea a lot of thought while going through the tortuous conversion of my first novel to ebook – the currently established process involves way too much effort for mostly unsatisfactory results. The current apps that support ebook authoring are mostly geared toward achieving product-defined results – i.e. getting the text to work on a Kindle, a Nook, an iPad – and on making the consumer’s reading process user-friendly, i.e. it looks and behaves like a book – you can turn its pages, bookmark your place, look up something in the index.

These are practical and necessary goals, but fall short of using digital tools and online dissemination to move the text-bound book to another level, one that offers more than static words laid out in lines and rows and sequenced on numbered pages. I keep trying to think of what this new hybrid form will be, how it will look and behave, how additional features like visuals and sounds might be woven into the narrative without destroying the integrity of a “good read.” It still has to be literary, but should offer an enhanced experience.

In my concept of “augmented moments,” the words on pages would still allow for a traditional linear reading experience, the author’s work would retain its narrative integrity, but there would be hints throughout that additional features could be accessed.

I think these elements should NOT be illustrative only (showing us what we’re already reading, like a picture of the house the writer has just described), but should provide some essence of the house that moves our knowledge of it beyond its textual description – past occupants whose souls still linger, for instance, or the architectural drawings that first announced the house’s possibilities, or the contextual sounds associated with the house in this scene (whispered conversations, water running, someone playing a flute, footsteps on stairs).

Each augmented moment needs a trigger (like a finger tap) that will zap a request from the reader to the source, and provide immediate results. Once readers get used to the idea, we won’t even need an obvious “scan this page” message – the links themselves can be embedded in a more subtle way – a wash of color over a line of text, for instance, or a more saturated object in a photo spread – or they may be totally hidden, so that exploring and locating the links becomes part of the narrative adventure itself.

And the filmmaker in me wants to take it all one step further – the reader might “assemble” (i.e. touch and drag) any number of these augmented moments, in any order, then play them in sequence as a mini-movie, a new creation authored by the reader, based on material the writer has embedded in the book. Countless versions would be possible, and perhaps there would be a place to send them (to “the cloud,” that online depository where all our stuff is headed), so that other readers could access and enjoy them each reader’s efforts. The process of “authoring” would then extend beyond the initial writing and publishing of the book, and would be shared among all readers in an ongoing creative process that only continues to enhance the original form and intent of the book itself.

Ebook interactivity is clunky and limited. The interactivity of printed materials is just beginning to show its potential. We can only improve things from now on – like House Beautiful, one page and one fancy living room at a time.

Negotiating the Darkness

Posted in Author's Notes by janmillsapps on August 15, 2011

I just found out that a long-ago friend, Nan, killed herself earlier this summer. I hadn’t seen or spoken to her for more than 20 years, though I’d tried googling her from time to time – she had a very common name and there were hundreds of her out there; I never located the right Nan. This afternoon someone sent me a link to a blog entry her niece has written about her tortured, bipolar  life – but it’s not a life I remember.

Trying to describe a life is a lot like writing a history – the facts you present are the ones you know. Nan’s niece wrote of her manic episodes, her self-abusing behavior, and her shame and regret once these moments had passed, her eventual overdosing to end it all. But I have another part of the story, Nan’s really good years, not a hint of anything “off” about her.

Nan was cute, with “Mia-Farrow” short blonde hair; she drove a red VW bug. I thought she was smart, funny, creative, sophisticated (she’d lived in Paris for a while – I’d only lived in North and South Carolina). We were both part of the emerging independent filmmaking movement in the South. Our boyfriends of that time were a filmmaking team (“Alabama Departure”) for a while – so Nan and I decided to do the Thelma and Louise version, even before Thelma and Louise did it – we drove to Myrtle Beach and shot a film, “Konzertmusik,” about a vintage band organ there.

Nan had a great sense of humor, edged with irony. She questioned authority, quietly but determinedly. She took bold chances, she said, because she learned how to do this from me – and I was thrilled to hear it. For five or six years I considered her my best friend, and we stopped hanging out together only when she married the guy she was involved with – not a good move, I thought then – and her niece, her only biographer to date, seems to agree. Nan’s mental illness began to show itself soon after the marriage – which did not last long. I totally lost track of her after that.

Once someone is gone from your life, it’s a lot like they’re dead, at least to you, but this is radically different from finding out that person is actually dead, to everyone. The characters in my book all experience the death of someone close – Venus loses her mom, Lulu loses Percy, Letha loses her husband and they both lose “Aunt Lulu.” None of it is final, however; I manage to keep everyone alive, in one universe or another, by means of the “many worlds” theories in cosmology, which argues that there are multiple universes, even though we’re only aware of the one we’re in.  So someone can “die” – but maybe he/she just relocates to another universe instead.

I think lives on Earth can exist in multiple universes as well. Nan, the sane one, living the same life as Nan, the tortured, bipolar one.

“You have always been able to negotiate the darkness effortlessly, to explain its significance with intelligence and wit, to enter and then gracefully emerge from its shadows,” my character Lulu says of her paramour Dr. P, who was so often able to bend the universe to his own will (but had a nervous breakdown when he could not).

“But I am stalled here,” Lulu says of herself, “unable to progress in any direction, confused beyond belief, and wretched with secrets I want desperately to spill.”

Lulu has fallen into an underground corridor and cannot get out. This was a hallway running diagonally beneath the house where she and Dr. P live. Every day she walks on the floor above this corridor effortlessly, not even thinking about the darkness looming beneath her. When she’s vulnerable, however, she cannot avoid tumbling into the dark corridor, from which she cannot extract herself.

Just like my friend Nan. The darkness in her life was there, even when I knew her – she just understood, for a while, how to negotiate its depths.

No Canals, But Look At All Those Lineae!

Posted in Author's Notes by janmillsapps on August 5, 2011

See the lineae?

As reported by my favorite science writer David Perlman in today’s SF Chronicle, there’s new visual evidence of running water on Mars. He describes the images recorded by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter as “long dark streaks somewhat like fingers” (see why he’s my favorite science writer?).

These lineae, as they are called, are 18 inches to 15 feet wide, and extend as long as 60 feet. That’s really small – the cement pathway in my garden is 18 inches wide and the long side about thirty feet long. Here’s the way Google Earth satellite photographed it:

Lineae in my backyard?

What if I told you I’d seen evidence of water in this photo. Would you believe me? The more important question seems to be: Do you want to?

We’ve been trying to see water on Mars almost as long as we’ve tried to see Mars. The Martian “canali” as seen and sketched by nineteenth century Italian astronomer Schiaperelli became “canals” in the mind and eyes of Percival Lowell (the Italian word “canali” can be translated as either “channels” or “canals”). At  the dawn of the twentieth century, Lowell began a frenzied search for the presumably intelligent creatures who constructed them.

He’s “Dr. P” in my novel, boss and boyfriend of my character Lulu. He insists throughout the book that she see Mars exactly as he sees it – including the network of canals and the lush oases at their juncture. She doesn’t, but from fear of losing her job and her paramour, she hides the truth of her observations in a secret journal. One of the themes in the book is the subjectivity of vision.

Bill Sheehan, an amateur astronomer and professional psychiatrist who is advising me on the “science” aspects of my novel, sent me this revealing quote by Lowell: “true seeing is done with the mind from the comparatively meager material supplied us by the eye.”

Sheehan added his own scientific assessment: “the brain is not really designed to give us an unvarnished view of what’s ‘really there’ (as if that would even be possible), instead it gives us what we need.”

We must really, really need to see water on Mars – but the space age has brought about huge changes to the way we “see” distant features. Our “eyes” are now high-resolution cameras sending data to our “brain,” a sophisticated computer. Now that our tools are seemingly objective instruments, we seem to be edging closer to seeing and documenting those long-sought Martian waterways.

But the final arbiter of the objective data is still human –  like the scientist on the Mars orbiter team who’s quoted in Perlman’s article as saying the new photos offer “the most compelling evidence yet for liquid water on Mars; it’s not proof but it’s compelling.”

“It’s the best evidence of water flowing on Mars to date,” another said.

“We haven’t found any good way to explain what we’re seeing without water,” a third opined.

Lowell claimed to to see details on Mars that others did not. His self-described “acute” vision might be compared to the the high-resolution camera onboard the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Meanwhile another “objective” source, a different Mars orbiter, but with a lower resolution camera, disagrees. It has seen no lineae at all – who are we to believe?

Perlman himself hedges his bets on what the new photos reveal: “The water – if it is water…”

We always want to put our trust in higher resolution, whether human or machine. But the really smart humans wait for more evidence to show itself.