Video: the Author of Ender’s Game Dispenses Writer’s Wisdom

Ben Shapiro interviews an eclectic grab bag of people each week on his Sunday Special. (Their main common factor is that they were willing to come on and be interviewed by him.) The interview embedded below is my favorite of all the ones he’s done so far. It’s super long, but if you are interested in the fiction industry or the writing process or the sci-fi and fantasy genres or identity politics or religion, then it will be worth your while.

Orson Scott Card is the author of the super popular sci-fi novel Ender’s Game. I tried to read this novel when I was way too young and I did not get all the way through it. It was hard for me to keep in mind that Ender and his co-trainees were kids when in some ways they acted like geniuses.

Card is also a Mormon, or LDS (Latter-Day Saint) as many of them prefer to be called. This gives him a unique perspective on religion, specifically on what it’s like to be misunderstood as a religious person.

Highlights:

AT 4:18, Card clears up what exactly counts as sci-fi versus fantasy: “The usual is that science fiction is stuff that has not happened but is possible, and fantasy is stuff that doesn’t happen and isn’t actually possible but we can imagine it. And that almost works except for the fact that it’s considered science fiction if you do things like faster-than-light travel or time travel. And those can’t happen. Time travel especially, because the string of causality is unbreakable. … So it’s arguable. But I learned the practical definition right away. The covers of fantasy books have trees. The covers of science fiction books have sheet metal with rivets. So it’s rivets versus trees. If your story is illustratable with rivets then it’s sci-fi, and if it needs trees to be effective, then it’s fantasy.” (N.b.: This is why my books are fantasy even though they feature no wizards.)

11:35 On the fact that fantasy magic systems have rules too: “You can’t just throw magic on the page and make it fantasy. You have to make it fantasy that would pass muster with a science fiction writer, because that’s who’s writing fantasy now.”

At 15:00, he addresses Pantsing versus Plotting: “I try to think ahead. Mostly milieu development. Then I’ll think of obligatory scenes, things that have to happen. And I’ll have to then set up those scenes so that they mean something. So there’s some planning that goes into it. I know writers who think like screenwriters, and their thought is all on the [outline]. I can’t do that, because anything I wrote for anything after chapter two is going to be discarded as soon as I find out what’s going on in chapter one. The process is pretty flexible, because by the time I’m nearing the end of any novel, the outline is now a relic … And I’ve seen, for example, an early novel by Dean Koontz, where it was obvious to me that after developing an amazing cast of characters that readers cared about, he caught up with the point in the outline where they all go into an alien spaceship together, and at that point he was just following the outline and it didn’t matter who any of the characters were.” (N.b.: Card’s method is plantsing, and it is the method I use as well. )

At 37:00, he starts talking about religions in fiction: “If you are going to create a character that has an existing religion, you have a responsibility to make it plausible. In America, we have two generic religions. If you need a hierarchical religion, you use Catholic. If you need a congregational religion, you use generic-Protestant-but-really-Baptist. Those religions are available and we all have some experience with them by watching movies. Jewish, not so much. I would feel a great deal of trepidation making a character of mine Jewish, especially orthodox, because I’ve known enough orthodox Jews to know how rigorous the demands are, what has to be kept in your head all the time. And I do that as a Mormon. I know all of our rules by heart, I don’t even have to think about them any more. But whenever I watch somebody’s fictional treatment of Mormonism, no one ever gets it right. No one even comes close. Getting somebody else’s religion wrong is a terrible faux pas.”

41:56: “That’s one of my minor messages: people have religion, and the fiction writer who retreats from that is cheating himself and his readers.”

43:51: “There are smart people in Hollywood. There are good people in Hollywood. They just don’t have the power to greenlight a film.”

At 52:00, he starts talking about the move towards identity politics in sci-fi: “And many of them, whom I know, are people who are simply writing their conscience. But their conscience is ill-informed.”

55:20 and following, on race: “When every white person in America knows that they are labelled as racist, that means why keep trying? Because no matter what you do, you are going to be labelled as white privileged and as racist. … But I know that now, all white people are getting more and more nervous that no matter what they say, it’s going to be turned on them and used to call them the ugly name racist. And that is pretty much the ugliest name that we have in our vocabulary right now. If you’re looking for your Tourette’s list of words that you should not speak, words which will wound, the f-word is way way low on the list. We are used to the f-word, we hear it all the time. Compared to racist. Wow! That’s serious. That’s savage.”

Books I Want to Have Read, but Don’t Want to Read

For those uninitiated to book blogging, a tag is when another book blogger assigns you a series of questions or prompts. For each one, you name the book that it makes you think of. And rant about it, if you so desire.

The blogger and author who tagged me was Katie Jane Gallagher.

The Rules:

  • Link back to the original tag (this post, and Jami!)
  • Complete the questions with books you want to have read but don’t want to read
  • Tag some people at the end to do the tag next

OK? OK. Let’s get to the prompts …

The Prompts

A book that you feel you need to read because everyone talks about it

Twelve Years A Slave. Obviously that is going to be a heavy read.

Also, the Federalist Papers. Maybe “everyone” doesn’t talk about them, but people who seem to know what they are talking about keep mentioning them. Obviously there is some very important stuff in there that I need to know.

A book that’s really long

I mean, look at it.

I think there are seven of them now.

But I really need to get to these some time, if only because readers of George R.R. Martin might also be interested in my series some day. And I won’t make you wait decades either!

A book you’ve owned / had on your TBR for too long

A few years ago, when my boys and I were studying American History, this novel was recommended as supplemental reading.  I had all the more reason to want to read it, because Naya Nuki is Shoshone and when I lived in Idaho for a few years during my teens, it was near the Shoshone/Bannock Indian reservation. Our local library didn’t have it. I ordered it through interlibrary loan, but it never came!  Must have been a long waiting list.

Fast forward three years. We have now moved back to Shoshone/Bannock country. I go to the local library here, and not only do they have Naya Nuki, they have the entire series by this author!  Only problem is, the kids and I now have other required supplemental reading, and we’re working through that. I figure I’ll just zip through it by myself and return it to the library. But the due date approacheth, and I never do.

While still in this uncomfortable situation, my husband brings me home a surprise gift from his travels. It’s my very own copy of Naya Nuki! He thought it looked like something that would interest me.  I’ve gone from not being able to get my hands on a copy, to an embarrassment of riches.

So I was free to return the library copy … but you guessed it, my gift copy is still sitting there unread. Why? Why???

A book that is ‘required’ reading (eg, school text, really popular classic – something you feel obligated to read!)

Everything by Freud and Nietzsche.

A book that intimidates you

Maps of Meaning by Jordan Peterson. He spent, what, decades on it? Rewrote every sentence at least 50 times? It sounds like it would be heavy going. A really thorough student of archetypes would read it, but I feel like this was the book where he developed his ideas, and now we can get the highlights of those through his class lectures on YouTube and through Twelve Rules for Life.

A book that you think might be slow

I know this one is slow, because I started it. I still think I might end up really liking it. Actually, I hope I do, because it’s sort of the same genre that I write in. But it requires a lot of attention during the first several chapters, as you have to learn a lot of different characters and figure out to who root for. It’s not the kind of book you can pick up and dive into for 20 minutes while eating your lunch, which is what I need right now.

A book you need to be in the right mood for

Circe. The main reason I haven’t read this is that it hasn’t shown up at the library yet, and I am too cheap to order it online.  But there’s another reason as well.

I love the heroic age of Greece. As a teen I spent several years, off and on, immersed in this milieu. At one point I was going around telling people, “The Iliad is taking over my life!”  (I also, when reading The Odyssey, had a crush on Odysseus. *blushes* Because who wouldn’t? I mean, the man can shoot an arrow through the centers of 12 ax heads lined up in a row!)

So I’m frankly super jealous of the author for having immersed herself in these books and written what everyone agrees is a fantastic novel that is true to the tradition.  If I’m going to read it, it will put my head right back in that space, and I have to be ready for that.

Call, and raise you The Song of Achilles.

A book you’re unsure if you will like

Oh, so many. Pick any YA fantasy with a mermaid, vampire, or young woman on the front. I “ought” to be reading more of these, because they are fantasy and we are supposed to Read Widely In the Genre … but I just don’t find them appealing usually. Especially if the back cover copy deals with how mean everyone is to the young woman, or how she’s a member of an ostracized group.

And lest you misunderstand, I don’t say this dismissively. Probably some of these books are as meh as I expect, but no doubt others are gems. Maybe it’s even half and half. I’m not being superior. I just … can’t … get … interested …

People I Want to Tag but Also Don’t Want to Tag

Honestly, tagging activates my social anxiety. What if you’ve already been tagged for this? What if you don’t want to be tagged? What if I leave someone out? Gaaah!

I’m tagging you anyway. Don’t take it personally. If you hate the tag but want to please me, just do a super perfunctory and sarcastic tag like Bookstooge did that one time.

I’m tagging people who post frequently, because if you want something done, ask a busy person. So, if you post infrequently and didn’t get tagged and want to do this, go for it!

Still Chewing on This One

So I watched this on Netflix a few weeks ago.

It’s a critically acclaimed, independent film, but that’s not why I watched it.

I watched it because I “ought” to, because it has so much in common with my second book. Rugged landscapes, desperate situations, father-son relationships, snow. Even bears.

It’s sort of in the survival genre (if that’s a genre?). You know, as in To Build a Fire, where the story shows just how quickly things can go wrong when you’re out in the wilderness.

And did I mention the sound track is amazing?

Anyway, it’s very well done, and I highly recommend it.

The Seven Heavenly Virtues Tag

The Orangutan Librarian tagged me for this post that applies the “Seven Heavenly Virtues” to the world of our reading.

By the way. The Seven Deadly Sins are easy to remember, in groups of two, three, and two. There’s The World (Envy, Greed); The Flesh (Lust, Gluttony, Sloth); and The Devil (Anger … and the granddaddy, Pride). The seven virtues are the flip side of these.

Once when I was at university, the theme of our homecoming week was the extremely creative “We’ve Got Pride.” I will always love my fellow English majors who named their contribution to the parade “Beyond pride: the seven deadly sins.” They wanted to show that “[our university] also gots Envy, Greed, Lust, Gluttony, Sloth, and Anger.” And of course it was true.

Onward.

CHASTITY: Which author/book/series you wish you had never read?

Hmm. It’s rare that I go on wishing I had never read a book. Usually if it stuns me with some horror, I hate it at the time, but as my mind assimilates the idea, I’m glad to have encountered it in a book so that I can grapple with that aspect of the world.

A good example is Ken Follett’s Pillars of the Earth. A major part of the plot is a sexual assault. It’s described graphically. The creepy lead-up and the lengthy aftermath include scenes from the point of view of both the victim and rapist. When I read this, it was the first time I’d read a rape described in detail (or, at least, the first time I understood what I was reading). It was very traumatic, and it led to lots of crying and praying for women who were real-life victims. So, as you can see, it bore some good fruit almost immediately.

Later I read another book by Ken Follett in a completely different genre, and it also featured a serial stalker and rapist, with many scenes written from his point of view. At that point I decided that I would not read any more books by Ken Follett, nor would I ever get on an elevator with the man.

TEMPERANCE: Which book/series did you find so good, that you didn’t want to read it all at once, and you read it in doses just to make the pleasure last longer?

I don’t usually show temperance when it comes to serious, emotional reads. … OK, I actually don’t have much temperance at all. I once stayed up all night finishing Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow.

However, with comic series, I find that if you binge on them they can become wearing, whereas if you read one every once in a while, they are refreshing. For example, P.G. Wodehouse’e Bertie Wooster books and Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum series.

CHARITY: Which book/series/author do you tirelessly push to others, telling them about it or even giving away spare copies bought for that reason?

Well this question will contain no surprises to anyone who knows me or has followed my blog for any length of time.

The Emberverse series by S.M Stirling: I recommend this often because it encompasses a wide range of interests. The first few books are post-apocalyptic, and then it becomes more of a fantasy series. I’ve recommended it to people because it’s set in the Northwest (Idaho, eastern Washington and Oregon, northern California). Recently I recommended it to someone who is interested in retro martial arts such as sword fighting and archery, because there is a ton of that in these books, including descriptions of how the weapons are made and gripping battle scenes. The research on these books is both wide and deep, from ecology to botany to anthropology to martial arts to Celtic mythology.

Til We Have Faces: A searing, emotional novel about friendship, identity, divided loyalty, and religion. One of C.S. Lewis’s less famous works.

The Everlasting Man (non-fiction): G.K. Chesterton discusses paganism and why it expresses important things about being human … with the cheery paradoxes that only he can bring.

The Divine Conspiracy(non-fiction): With wit and wisdom, Dallas Willard applies the Gospels in a fresh way (which we all need frequently). This is so well-written that it’s a pleasure to read, and you just sail through it even though it’s quite thick.

Now, go forth and read these!

DILIGENCE: Which series/author you follow no matter what happens and how long you have to wait?

Agatha Christie. She has such a large corpus of work that even though I think I’ve read all her novels, I’m never sure.

Also, the Brother Cadfael series by Ellis Peters.

Also anything by Tony Hillerman or Dick Francis.

It looks like formula mysteries are my genre for this.

PATIENCE: Is there an author/book/series you’ve read that improved with time the most, starting out unpromising, but ultimately proving rewarding?

Watership Down. It is gripping from the first, don’t get me wrong, but it is so long. Then when you get to the end, you discover that the author is doing things with it that only a really long book can do.

KINDNESS: Which fictitious character would you consider your role-model in the hassle of everyday life?

Photo by Rene Asmussen on Pexels.com

Any strong, quiet, capable character who consistently takes care of others. Durnik in the Belgariad; Precious Ramotswe in The No. 1 Ladies series; Bardia in ‘Til We Have Faces; Sam Gamgee, Aragorn, Gandalf, Aslan. And, of course, Zillah from my own books.

Unfortunately my gifts and personality are almost opposite from all these characters. But I’ve always wanted to be strong, quiet, calm, and capable.

HUMILITY: Which book/series/author do you find most under-rated?

This is a hard one to answer because I don’t always have a real great idea of what other people are reading. How can I know that the gem I’ve “discovered” hasn’t also been discovered by a bunch of others?

Apparently Thomas Sowell has a bunch of great books about economics and society that have helped the people who’ve read them greatly … but I have not read them, only watched videos of him speaking. There are many such examples.

Now, Discuss

I hesitate to tag people because it seems to freak them out. But if you get inspired by any of the questions in this tag, please answer them either at your own blog or in the comments.

I am your Sunshine Blogger

And you are mine.

So, the Sunshine Blogger award is given to bloggers by other bloggers who believe that the recipients spread sunshine. Imagine how surprised and thrilled I was to be given this award by Rachael Corbin at The Crooked Pen. Thanks, Rachael!

The Sunshine Blogger award is also a tag. If you get tagged, you must …

  1. Thank the person who nominated you and provide a link back to their blogging site.
  2. Answer the questions.
  3. Nominate 11 other bloggers and ask them 11 new questions.
  4. Notify the nominees about it by commenting on one of their blog posts.
  5. List the rules and display the sunshine blogger award logo on your site or on your post.

So, Numbers 1 and 5 down, 2 through 4 to go.

Here were Rachael’s questions:

  1. What was the most transformative reading experience you have ever had?

I am going to leave out those times when I’m reading some passage in the Bible and all of a sudden something jumps out and punches me in the gut.  Or when it crawls into my head and becomes lembas that I feed on throughout the day. Some of you readers will know what I mean.

Other than that, my most transformative reading experience has been ‘Til We Have Faces by C.S. Lewis.  I read it in college.  The tortured friendship between Orual and Psyche in the book closely mirrored a relationship that had been toturing me through the previous several years … though of course with a much more tragic yet satisfying ending.  Anway, it helped me see that some of the problems we were having were not purely my fault nor purely hers, but built into the nature of reality.  Also, Faces is just packed with insights and it’s set in an ancient pagan culture, which I love.  C.S. Lewis is under-appreciated for his ability to write horror, and there is plenty of that in this book.

2. What is a book you wish someone would write?

To be honest, it’s probably already been written.

I’m a sucker for well-researched fiction set in ancient cultures.  So I would love to read a book set in the heyday of the Anasazi … or Carthage during the Punic Wars … or a Noble Savage book where the noble savage is one of the Gauls during Caesar’s Gallic Wars … or What Was Really Going with Stonehenge.

I have seen people take a stab at some of these, but never as thoroughly as I’d like.  But, again, they are probably out there.  I just haven’t discovered them yet.

For example, Bjorn Andreas-Bull Hansen has written some novels about Vikings.  I think these are exactly the Viking novels I’ve always wanted to read … but they don’t exist in a language that I know! Aargh! (By the way, go to his site. Sign the petition to get his books translated into English.)

But I have, in my possession, waiting to be read, Pompeii by Robert Harris and People of the Silence (about the Anasazi) by Kathleen O’Neal Gear and Michael W. Gear.  I have high hopes for both these books.

3. Where is somewhere you really want to go, but have only read about in a book?

It would be shorter to list places that don’t match that description.

I guess my current #1 place would be Mongolia.  I had to research it for my first book, and it looks so beautiful.  It also resembles my home state a bit in the sense of being vast, treeless, high-altitude, and far inland. And I love the herding culture.  The food is gross though.  (Follow that link and scroll down to the heading “Exotic Nomad Foods.”) Also, my kids are extremely interested in the Mongolian Death Worm.

4. If you could have a book re-written, which book would it be?

1984.  I know, I know, the ending is integral to the book itself, but … still. I would like to see Winston hold firm at the end.  Or find out that Julia had.

5. What is a book you dislike that everyone else loves?

1984 and The Great Gatsby.  (Or, I guess people love these?)

6. If you had the power to bring any mythical creature to life, which creature would it be?

The Mongolian Death Worm.

Just kidding.  I don’t know.  Maybe Grendel so I could find out whether he was really a T-Rex.

7. Where is your ideal reading spot?

When I am reading, any spot becomes ideal.  (Car, bus seat, middle of a party …)  But I prefer to be comfy (plushy chair or sofa) with a view of the outdoors and some place to set my coffee.

8. What is the most disappointing book you have ever read and why?

OK, I am going to pick on one particular book here, but it’s representative of a whole category of disappointing books.

The Sign by Raymond Khoury, 2009.   This book was disappointing for many different reasons (see my full review of it here).  But the main reason was this: it promised mystical adventures but delivered only international intrigue. 

It is not the only book that has this problem.  It’s just the only one that I happen to be able to remember the title of.

9. What is your favorite genre of book and why?

Ancient mysteries/historical fiction set in ancient cultures.  But I don’t read a lot of this genre for two reasons.  Firstly, it’s kind of hard to find.  Too often, purported “ancient mysteries” books end up being modern thrillers.  (See above.)  And when I do find a book that scratches this itch, I have to be careful.  If I’m writing my own version of this genre at the time, I don’t necessarily want to be pulled into another world until my own has gelled.

So what I end up reading a lot is mysteries, especially mysteries with an anthropological bent like those by the wonderful Tony Hillerman.

As for why the “ancient mysteries” genre is my favorite (also why I like my mysteries to be anthropological), I can do no better than to quote the following poem from C.S. Lewis, titled, “To Certain Writers of Science Fiction”:

Why did you lead us on like this

Light-year on light-year, through the abyss,

Building, as if we cared for size,

Empires that covered galaxies,

If at the journey’s end we find

The same old stuff we left behind …

Well-worth Tellurian stories of

Crooks, spies, conspirators, or love,

Whose setting might as well have been

The Bronx, Montmarte, or Bethnal Green?

Why should I leave this green-floored cell,

Roofed with blue air, in which we dwell,

Unless, beyond its guarded gates,

Long, long desired, the unearthly waits:

Strangeness that moves us more than fear,

Beauty that stabs with tingling spear,

Or wonder, laying on the heart

That fingertip at which we start

As if some thought too swift and shy

For reason’s grasp had just gone by?

10. If you could make one book required reading, which book would it be and why?

The Everlasting Man by G.K. Chesterton.  I almost listed this one as my transformative book because it set me free to love paganism while still remaining a Christian.  I think everyone should read it because there is a ton of misunderstanding out there about the pagan roots of all cultures, and this book clears that up in such a beautiful, lyrically written way even though it’s nonfiction.   

One major qualifier.  Chesterton frequently lapses into anti-Semitism and it’s really jarring, not to mention inconsistent with his usual generous way of viewing the world.  (TEM was published in 1925, before the Holocaust.)  Also, as this book was written almost 100 years ago, Chesterton can come off as overly focused on the West and a bit insensitive and ignorant about non-Western cultures.  Nevertheless, his insights about paganism can be fruitfully applied to any traditional culture, and I think they ought to be.

Other than that, I heartily recommend this book.  I am thinking about doing a Hallowe’en post that relies heavily upon it.

11. What is your favorite bookish ship? (noncanonical and crack-ships are acceptable answers)

Haha, so at first I was going to name the Dawn Treader from Voyage of the Dawn Treader because I don’t read a lot of sea stories …

For those who aren’t up on fan fiction terminology (as I barely am), a ship is when you imagine two characters from a book or books getting together as couple.  (Short for “relationship.”)  Non-canonical ships are pairings that didn’t happen in the original book or series.  “Crack” ships are pairings that you would have to be on crack to even think of.

I am not a big noncanonical shipper. I just enjoy the ships as they show up in the books.  But, I did always think that rather than going off to live with the dwarfs and eventually get kissed by the Prince, Snow White ought to have run off with the huntsman.

Now, here are my questions for you …

  1. What kinds of non-fiction are you most likely to read?
  2. What is your culture crush? If you are a book blogger, you must have at least one. But please feel free to list more than one.
  3. What one currently living writer would you most like to have lunch, a beer, or coffee with?  (Pastors count if they have written a good book or two. Bonus points if it’s a pastor you could have a beer with.)
  4. What genre do you think is not your favorite, but find yourself picking up again and again?
  5. Sex scenes: poetic, explicit, or none at all?
  6. Favorite animal protagonist from a book or series?
  7. Have you ever stopped identifying with the point-of-view character in a novel, and what caused it?
  8. Did you then finish the book, or put it down?
  9. Dream vehicle from real life or fiction.
  10. If you currently have a Work in Progress (or are pitching a recently finished one out), give us your one-sentence hook for it.
  11. Post a favorite poem or fragment of poetry. If you don’t read poetry, then song lyrics count.

By the way. Commenters, if one of these questions really pulls your chain, feel free to answer it in the comments.

The following bloggers are my sunshine:

Kathleen Rollins of Misfits and Heroes

R.S. Rook of The Rookery

David of The Warden’s Walk

Black Sheep of Not Sheep Minded

Jen of “Of Time Storms and Tourniquets”

Book Stooge

Ed Mooney of Ruinhunter

Devouring Books

Katie Jane Gallagher

Jaclyn of Tiny Ticky Tacky

Colin of ColinD.Smith.com

Making “Coffee” from Chicory

My own sketch of the wildflower chicory, done in pen and crayon

When I think about The End of the World as We Know It, one thing I worry about is the availability of coffee.

I am sure this is a concern of yours as well.  Assuming that you get through the Zombie Apocalypse, the EMP, the Rising Sea Levels, or whatever your personal big fear is, and find yourself among a group of scrappy survivors, I guarantee you some of them are going to want coffee.  It might even become a hot commodity.  Worth its weight in gold.

The Inspiration for this Project

The Change series is also known as the Emberverse series.

The project documented in this post was inspired by S.M. Stirling’s The Change series.  In the first book, Dies the Fire, the world of the 1990s is interrupted when all electronics, engines, and gunpowder suddenly cease to function.  At that point the series becomes alternate history.  The series migrates toward Game of Thrones style fantasy the longer it goes on, but the first few books especially are more in the post-apocalyptic genre, about people surviving and starting to rebuild society in the Northwest and in Northern California.  And once they get a steady food supply going, their coffee substitute is “roasted, ground chicory roots.”

I could probably find chicory coffee at a co-op type food store, but I want to try to make it myself.  That’s the only way I can learn about the process and find out if such a thing would be feasible.

Let’s go!

Lessons from the Chicory Experiment

Chicory is a wildflower that grows all along the highways in our region at certain times of year.  Though there is an abundant supply of it on the medians, that’s not the safest place to gather it in this pre-apocalyptic world where vehicles of all kinds are still whizzing by.  So I had to seek chicory on a back road.  In this picture, the plants with lavender colored flowers are chicory and the ones with white flowers are Queen Anne’s Lace.

Today’s weather is very humid, and it’s so hot that there is a heat advisory.  Also, it turns out that chicory grows surrounded by thistles and extremely sharp-bladed grass. 

Lesson 1: Gather chicory in the early morning, before the day gets hot.  Wear cowboy boots, not flip flops.

I assumed that chicory would have a taproot similar to a dandelion’s, so I brought a small trowel.  I couldn’t find my dandelion picking tool, so I brought a large screwdriver, which is almost as good for digging down beside the taproot to loosen the soil.

It turns out that chicory roots are similar to dandelion’s, but much larger, deeper, and woodier. 

Lesson 2: I probably could have brought a regular garden shovel instead.

Here is the chicory I gathered.  I have no idea how much “coffee” this quantity will make, but I’m hoping it will be enough for one cup.  Finding out is part of the purpose of this experiment.  I don’t have the time or energy to dig more due to having come at the wrong time of day.  Clearly, I have a lot to learn as a hunter/gatherer.

Next step. Google the process just to make sure I don’t accidentally poison myself by skipping a step. (We won’t be able to Google stuff after the apocalypse, which is all the more reason to do it now.)  The search takes me here.  Hank Shaw is a “hunter, angler, gardener, forager, and cook” and he seems to know what he’s talking about.  Uh-oh, he says you need to harvest chicory in the fall.  But he seems to have harvested some in the summer with no ill effects.  Onward.

Here are the roots after being washed.  I need to cut them into thin slices, dry them for two or three days in the sunshine, and then roast them as directed.  Cutting them yields mixed results.  Some have a woody core so tough that I have to saw it, with dirt trapped between this core and the outer, soft layer.  Others are softer, solid and cuttable all the way through, more like cutting a carrot.  My guess is that Hank’s nice, plump “root chicory” is more like this.

Lesson 3: Wild chicory might not be the way to go. It might be smarter to cultivate it.

My roots have yielded this measly tray of chicory slices. Following the expert, I sun them on the back of my vehicle.  They dry out for a few hours, and then promptly get rained on.  I sop them up with a paper towel and move the tray to our sun porch.

Lesson 4: Obvious.

After two days of drying on our sun porch, the chicory slices had visibly shrunk and felt dry. I put them in a 350 degree oven for about an hour and a half.  During this time, the house filled with a curious warm malty smell, as predicted on Hank Shaw’s web site.  This was reassuring, because it meant that I was in fact roasting the right kind of root.  On the other hand, my family complained about the smell.

Lesson 5: There is going to be a lot of complaining around our house after the apocalypse.  But I kind of knew that already.

This is what the chicory roots looked like after about 90 minutes.  They look done.

Next, I ground the chicory in a food processor …

… And put it in a one-cup coffee filter.  As I had hoped, it was just the right amount for one mug.

As you can see, the roots don’t grind up nice and even like coffee grounds.  There are some bigger chunks, and then there’s some powder that’s as fine as French Press coffee or even baking powder or something.  Perhaps I could have gotten the chunks chopped up further if I’d been willing to grind them for longer, but as I was grinding, fine dust kept escaping from the food processor and coating the surrounding counter.  I stopped when I figured the grounds would be sufficient.  If you were grinding roast chicory in large quantities, there’d be certain to be a lot of dust.

If there were no electricity, I guess I’d be forced to crush it in my marble mortar:

I poured hot water over the grounds, and it worked great!  A very creditable cup of something that looks exactly like coffee.

The wet grounds, and the liquid itself, smell very smoky.   I’m going to try it black first, because after the apocalypse there is unlikely to be spare milk, let alone hazelnut creamer.

It tastes exactly as Hank Shaw describes it: “a brighter acidity than coffee and … ‘earthy.'”

I give a sip of it to my trucker husband, who ought to know about mediocre coffee.

Me: Does it taste like truck stop coffee?

Him: Truck stops couldn’t sell coffee if it tasted like this.

Well, it tastes OK to me.  But I might be slightly invested, seeing as how I made it.

I add milk and continue to drink.  It tastes most coffee-like when hot.  As it cools, it begins to taste more and more like … smoke. Now I realize I’ve had this before.  I think it was called “smoke tea.” It must have been chicory.  I like the flavor, but I realize it wouldn’t be for everybody.

But the bottom line is: I did it!  I did it!  I dug up a common wildflower and forced it to yield a coffeelike substance.  It was a bit of a project, but not hugely inconvenient and actually took less processing than I’ve heard real coffee takes. 

Lesson 6: It is possible to make a coffee substitute from chicory, even if you have little previous knowledge or skills.

Why Religion in Fiction is So Hard to Handle

A fellow blogger, Never Not Reading, made this delightful post: More Religious Characters Please.  She points out that devout religious characters, particularly Christians, are extremely rare in fiction compared to their distribution in the general population. 

I Have my Doubts about the Concept of Representation

She comes at this from the “representation” point of view, which is predicated on the idea that every kind of person ought to be able to find someone like them in fiction, and that if they can’t, this is somehow unfair or discriminatory.  I don’t actually buy in to the assumptions behind this view. There are philosophical problems with the concept of “someone who is like me” that, if we parsed them, I suspect we would never get to the bottom of.  I also think there are some other faulty assumptions packed in to the idea of representation: assumptions about what fiction means to the author and what fiction is meant to do for the reader.  So, I find the whole idea of representation suspect. 

Is This Persecution?

However, Never Not Reading is right about one thing.  Religion plays a large role in life for very many – perhaps the majority – of people.  It does not play any role in the characters’ lives in much of the fiction that is out there.  This is even true of fiction set in historical periods such as the Middle Ages. 

When religion does play a major role in a story, it is often portrayed as a force for evil.  That goes double for Christianity.

What is the reason for this?

Never Not Reading goes out of her way to emphasize that she is not saying this lack of religious characters is a form of persecution.  I agree.  I think there are many complex reasons for it, which we will explore below. 

Possible Reasons Non-Christian Authors Don’t Portray Devout Christian Characters

They don’t know any Christians in real life.  Although polls will tell you that the majority of U.S. citizens identify as Christian, there are large pockets of society that are very secular.  One of these is New York City, home to the publishing industry in America.  Another is L.A., home to Hollywood.  If you are an artist or writer, you are likely to move to one of these places to launch your career.  There, it is easy to live your life without ever interacting with anyone who is openly Christian.  It’s easy to get the impression that most people are secular, at least most normal people.  And if your mental image of Christians is some variety of kook, it’s possible that some of your acquaintances are believers and you don’t realize it because they seem so normal.

It’s easier to portray madness than sanity, evil than good.  Most people are bored by portrayals of virtue.  A story with no evil in it is going to come grinding quickly to a halt.  So if you are going to put religion into your story, it is easier to make the religious person the villain.   The villain in Stephen King’s Misery, Annie, is a beautifully drawn portrayal of a crazy person who at first seems normal.  Nothing beats the creepiness of the moment when, after torturing the hero, she starts to tell him that she has been talking to God.

Religion is also a great way to add punch, depth, and believability to your villain/cult leader.  Christian-type religions, when they go bad, go really terrifyingly bad.  This is easier to portray than the comparatively sane boring version, especially if you don’t actually know any sane and boring Christian groups.

They may actually hate them. Writing fiction is unavoidably a spiritual practice. Fiction is about how we see the world, people, the problem of evil, the cosmos … in short, about how we see reality.  The only instruments we have with which to perceive and portray these things are our own eyes, ears, mind, and heart.  These are the tools with which we write fiction.  

Fiction will therefore reflect the author’s personal spiritual state as well as his or her unique personality.  If a person has rejected God, their heart may actually be at war with God and with His people.  This may come out in their writing, particularly if their writing is deep and heartfelt. 

Stephen King, again, is a great example of this.  He is a brilliant writer.  I love his work.  I tried to read Insomnia, and I couldn’t get through it because the pro-life character was also a despicable wife-beater (and was showing signs, when I stopped reading, of maybe being possessed by something or other.  After all, it’s a Stephen King novel.)   

Again, I am not saying this phenomenon is persecution.  It is a natural consequence of the nature of fiction.  It is always possible, when reading an author, to tell what he or she loves and hates.  And some authors do hate Christians.

Possible Reasons Christian Authors Don’t Portray Devout Christian Characters

They wish to have wide appeal.   Christian authors are aware that religion of any kind, but particularly Christianity, is Kryptonite to many people.  It is enough to make people put down a book.  That’s a shame, particularly if the story we are telling can be told without overt Christianity.  After all, our first duty is to entertain the reader.  We are not preachers, we are storytellers, so the story itself is supposed to be what we bring to the reader.

They fear being defensive.  If we do put Christianity in to our book, aware that some readers will be skeptical or hostile, we could fall into making the book an apology or defense of our religion.  Good authors don’t want to write a thinly veiled philosophical or political rant. (Hi there, Ayn Rand! Hello, Dan Brown!).  They just want to tell a story.  This is really, really tricky to do if we are feeling defensive, on account of the whole author’s-spiritual-state-comes-out-in-the-writing thing.  So to avoid preachiness, it can be easier simply to avoid the whole topic.

They fear being unoriginal.  As an author who grew up in the church, when I first started writing I wanted my writing to be interesting and new.  Anything drawing on the Bible would be, I felt, tame and derivative.  (Of course, that didn’t stop 12-year-old me from shamelessly ripping off Tolkien.) 

Unfortunately, if you want to be wise it does not do to turn away from the font of all wisdom.  In the years since, I have discovered that the Old and New Testaments are an incredibly rich source of story, history, myth, emotion, insight and symbolism that literally never runs dry.  Some of my favorite pieces of art draw openly from the Bible.  But surprisingly, instead of making them tired and derivative, this gives them their power.  An example is Johnny Cash’s When the Man Comes Around.  The lyrics are literally just a series of random quotes from the Old Testament prophets (plus a few quotes from Jesus), and the song still gives me goose bumps every time.

Religion is just too big to control in our writing. 

This, I think, is the #1 problem for both Christian and non-Christian writers.  If we are going to write about true religion (as opposed to the fake and hypocritical kind), then we are writing about God.  We have just unleashed God into our book.  This is sort of like blithely grabbing on to a blasting fire hose.  It immediately introduces all these deep, destructive, hard-to-portray realities that are just too much for most writers to corral. 

What kind of book we are capable of writing depends on our wisdom and maturity as a writer and as a person.  I have made the mistake of trying to write about God when I was an immature writer, and I was not. Ready. For it.  Trying to “include” God threw off all the dynamics of the book and basically destroyed it.  My writing about the other characters wasn’t deep or wise enough to keep up.  I wasn’t yet good enough at writing about the human heart, about suffering, about betrayal.  My characters were paper dolls and God was a firehose.

Dostoevsky can do it.  Mary Doria Russell did a great job in The Sparrow.  But for us ordinary writers, if we choose to stay away from making religion a serious part of our plot, I think it might just be a sign of knowing our limits.

A Quirky, Personal, Annotated Reading List about Native Americans

Do You Get “Culture Crushes”?

I admit it: I get “culture crushes.”

My earliest and most enduring culture crush has been on Native American culture.  This started very early, perhaps by the time I was five.  By the time I could read on my own, I was on a sharp lookout for any book with an Indian on the cover.  That was all it took to make me pick up the book and devour it. 

Here are some of the books I’ve discovered … as a kid, and then later, as an adult. 

This is an incomplete list on two counts.  First of all, there are obviously many fine books out there, by Native and non-Native people alike, that I have yet to discover and read.  Secondly, this isn’t even a complete list of all the books I’ve read on this topic.  I can think of at least six seven eight twelve other books that I remember vividly, but can’t remember enough about the titles to track them down. 

As A Kid

  • North American Indians, by Marie and Douglas Gorsline, Random House, 1977.  This book was the introduction to Native American tribes and their lifestyles for my siblings and me.  It’s a good overview of the different cultural regions of North America, including a map at the beginning of the book.  For each region, it names one or two of the best-known tribes and gives a few pages of details about their lifestyle, beautifully illustrated.  The last page of the book is about sign language, which it says functioned as a lingua franca for the different Plains tribes.  It includes a number of illustrations of the different signs.  What could be more fun?
  • Runner for the King by Rowena Bastin Bennett, 1962. I must have been seven years old when I read this book.  It featured my two favorite things: Indians, and the word “king.”  It takes place in the ancient Incan kingdom, but I didn’t know that at the time.  All I knew was that it did not disappoint. The boy on the front cover runs through rugged mountain landscapes.  He encounters a fellow runner who has been beaten and tied up by enemies, so the boy must run the next messenger’s leg of the journey as well as his own.  He has to climb over a rock slide.  At last, he makes it to the king with his message and is personally honored by the king. I now realize, looking at the drawing, that the boy’s face on this cover does not look particularly Incan.  It looks more like Peter Pan colored reddish brown.  But at the time, this boy – particularly this picture on the cover – instantly became my standard for fitness and beauty. 
  • Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder, Scholastic, Inc., 1935, 1953, 1963.  This is the Little House book in which the Ingalls family go into “Indian country,” homestead there for less than a year, and then are moved out by changing government policy, not too long after the same government has forced the Indians to leave.  This book has been called racist, but that is a foul slander.  It portrays a lot of complexity in the Ingalls family’s experience with the Indians.  Charles Ingalls, Laura’s “Pa,” in particular clearly respects the Indians.  He gently rebukes some other settlers when they speak of the Indians in a dehumanizing way, and he talks with enthusiasm about a buffalo hunt: “Now that’s something I’d like to see!” There is also a scene where Pa has been hunting a wildcat that he knows is hanging around the creek.  He needs to find and kill it so that it doesn’t attack his family.  He meets an Indian man, who gives him to understand with signs that three days ago he found the very cat and shot it out of a tree. 
  • Squanto, Friend of the Pilgrims by Clyde Robert Bulla, illustrated by Peter Buchard, Scholastic. Squanto’s story is truly an incredible one.  The scene I remember best from this book is that of Squanto trying to sleep on his first night in a British room.  The bed is too soft and uncomfortable.  Finally he sleeps on the floor.
  • The Sign of the Beaver by Elizabeth George Speare.  An Indian boy and his father befriend a white boy who has been left on his own to manage the family’s new cabin until the rest of his family can join him.  The Indian boy teaches the white boy wood lore and such things as the signs that the different clans leave on trees.   The white boy teaches the Indian boy to read.  The Indian boy is really offended by the role of Friday in Robinson Crusoe, which rocks his new friend’s world.  
  • Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O’Dell.  I don’t remember this one very well, but I think my second-grade teacher read it aloud to us. It’s the story of an incredibly tough and resourceful girl surviving on her own on an island.
  • Caddie Woodlawn by Carol Ryrie Brink, illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman. Trina Schart Hyman is one of my favorite illustrators, which just makes this book all the better.  This book is not primarily about Indians, but they do play an increasingly big role as the book progresses. Caddie befriends them and then ends up sneaking across the river to visit them and head off a conflict.
  • Indian in the Cupboard by Lynne Reid Banks. Omri owns a small metal medicine cupboard that can bring his plastic toys to life.  When it does, he discovers that they are not toys but have actual lives and personalities of their own.  This series is one of the most poignant I’ve ever read.
  • I Heard the Owl Call My Name by Margaret Craven, Dell Publishing, 1973. This one barely makes it into the “childhood” category.  I read it in seventh grade, in a year when we read many books set in other cultures (such as The Good Earth and Things Fall Apart). And I Heard the Owl definitely belongs in that august company.  It rises to the level of literature.  Owl tells the story of Mark, a young priest who goes to serve a small Indian community in remote British Columbia.  My favorite scene is the one in which he suddenly realizes that some of the women are talking about him, in front of him, and protests that they’ve got their facts wrong.  He has acquired a passive knowledge of the language without really trying.  He must have quite a gift for languages indeed, because those coastal Native languages are really complex.

As An Adult

  • The Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee series by Tony Hillerman. Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee both work for the Navajo Tribal Police. Joe is a tough old cynic. Jim is a young visionary. “Tony Hillerman was the former president of Mystery Writers of America and received its Edgar and Grand Master awards.  His other honors include the Center for the American Indian’s Ambassador Award, the Silver Spur Award for best novel set in the West, and the Navajo Tribe’s Special Friend Award. He lived with his wife in Albuquerque, New Mexico.”  — From the jacket of A Thief of Time, Harper, 1988, 1990, 2000, 2009. Update: Tony Hillerman’s daughter, Anne Hillerman, is now continuing the Leaphorn and Chee series. I just finished Cave of Bones (2018) by her. It’s really good. Chee has married a fellow Navajo police officer, and Leaphorn is living with a white woman since his wife died of cancer earlier in the series. Anne Hillerman incorporates even more Navajo terms into the books than her father did, and the greeting (Ya’at’eeh) is now spelled with even more diacritic marks.
  • The Grieving Indian by Arthur H. and George McPeek, 1988.   Arthur H. is a Native pastor, recovering alcoholic, and boarding school survivor.  He has many excellent insights about unresolved grief, which he believes is the root cause of most of the problems facing Native individuals, families, and communities.
  • Bruchko by Bruce Olson, Charisma House, 1978, 2006.  Bruce Olson goes to live among the Motilone Indians of Colombia.  After much fruitless struggle to integrate, he is befriended by a remarkable young man his own age who tells Bruce his “heart name.”   In time, Christ comes to the Motlione in a way that is very organic to their culture.  This book is filled with goosebump-raising moments.
  • Black Elk’s Vision: A Lakota Story by S.D. Nelson, Abrams Books for Young Readers, 2010.  Black Elk grew up in the Lakota tribe.  At the age of nine, he was given a troubling vision that essentially invited his tribe to choose life rather than bitterness.  He did not share this vision with anyone for several years.  He was present at the battle of Little Bighorn, and later traveled to England as a dancer in Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show.  Besides the illustrations done by the author, the book includes a historical drawing done by Red Horse and many authentic black and white photographs. 
  • Windigo Island by William Kent Krueger, 2014. Girls are disappearing from the Ojibwe reservation. Cork O’Connor goes off to find one of them, and ends up in North Dakota.
  • Thunderhead by Lincoln Child and Douglas Preston. A team of archaeologists discovers a lost Anasazi city and figures out what wiped the Anasazi out. There are no modern-day Indians among the main characters in this book, but near the end, one does play a key role.

Children’s Books Discovered As An Adult

I also love Little Runner’s mom.
  • Little Runner of the Longhouse by Betty Baker, pictures by Arnold Lobel, an I Can Read Book by Harper & Row Publishers, New York & Evanston, 1962.  Little Runner is an extremely relatable Iroquois boy whose main goal in life is to get some maple sugar.
  • Rabbit’s Snow Dance by James & Joseph Bruchac, illustrated by Jeff Newman, 2012.  This legend explains why rabbit, who started out with a long, beautiful tail, now has a short, fuzzy one.  It also explains why cottonwood trees are full of “cotton.”  Like many Native legends, it contains a not-so-subtle warning about being proud, wanting our own way, and not listening to warnings from our elders.  “I will make it snow!  A-zi-ka-na-po!”
  • A Salmon for Simon by Betty Waterton, illustrated by Ann Blades, copyright 1978, first Meadow Mouse edition 1990, first revised Meadow Mouse edition 1996, reprinted 1998. A Meadow Mouse Paperback, Groundwood Books/Douglas & McIntyre, Toronto, Ontario.  Simon, who lives in a village on the Pacific coast of Canada, has been trying all day to catch a salmon.  When he sees one drop from an eagle’s talons, he has to decide whether to eat it or save it. 

My New Favorite Person: Recently Deceased SciFi Author Gene Wolfe

I can’t believe that I didn’t know this guy existed until he died.

He wrote dense, “baroque” science fiction, and he helped to invent the machine that makes Pringles. What’s not to love?

On a more serious note, he cared for his wife as she was deteriorating with Alzheimer’s disease. Many many people do similar things, and all of them are heroes.

No, I haven’t read his books yet, but after reading this obituary I am definitely going to look for them. I think that eating Pringles while reading them would be a fitting tribute.

Update: Since drafting this post, I have picked up The Land Across (2013) from the library. In it, an American travel writer goes to an unnamed Eastern European country to research for a book. He is met on the train by some border guards (possibly?) who confiscate his passport and then place him under house arrest for not having one. Things go downhill from there. On the plus side, there are spooks, including (possibly?) the ghost of Vlad the Impaler. What more could you ask? It’s a page turner, and Wolfe does a great job of rendering in English conversations that take place in the local language or in German. I would not call this book sci-fi (not yet anyway), but more of a thriller with supernatural elements.