My perspective has broadened a bit since 2014.
When I was 13, one of the most popular songs was “At Seventeen,” by Janis Ian. I had a record player. There was no such thing as an iPod. If you played a vinyl record enough times it got a grayish tinge and started to crackle and pop. After a few months, I could hardly play Janis’ album any longer and it was gray as hell. I not only idolized Janis — her “look,” her fashion, her voice, her poetry – I related to this song just like every other teen girl. It turned out, later, that the song really was about Janis at age 13, my exact age.
I learned the truth at seventeen
That love was meant for beauty queens
And high school girls with clear skinned smiles
Who married young and then retired …
I had no sense I was “beautiful,” and as far as future career path, I pictured being the secretary to a wealthy and powerful man. I wanted to marry a handsome, strong man. My ideal wedding dress was an “empire” dress — but I didn’t know what it was called back then. I wanted two children: a boy and a girl. Sure, I wrote storylike objects and I painted pictures and I made things. I “whittled” and woodcarved and banged stuff together with old nails. I foraged and hunted and hiked and explored with my dog. I shoveled the manure out of my pony’s stall —
It had been nigh upon three years since I’d gotten a copy of A Wrinkle in Time from my aunt Donna.
The summer I was 13, as I listened to “At Seventeen” over and over, I read Lord of the Rings front to back four or five times. I got the “pancake tan” (didn’t want to turn over so brown in front, white in back). I read Dune. I read Warm Worlds and Otherwise, stories by James Tiptree, Jr. I read through all of Ray Bradbury. I read England Swings edited by Judith Merril. I read Dangerous Visions, and Again, Dangerous Visions. Those were edited by Harlan Ellison. He looked like a handsome guy, judging by his picture. But I wouldn’t have said anything like that to anyone. Admitting I was reading this stuff was beyond weird and nerdy.
Nobody told me I couldn’t be a sci-fi writer. Somewhere in the back of my head this idea took root. I liked to imagine things. I couldn’t help it. I imagined things whether I wanted to or not. These things: they were stories. Not about me. About people I didn’t know, lots of the time. Places, sometimes very far away in space and time, from where I was.
Then my grandfather died and my grandmother didn’t talk to me for a year, and then I moved away to Hollywood and then I came back to Redlands.
I was a different person; I’d lost a year. The normality of my life before was gone. I no longer imagined I’d marry a wealthy, powerful man, although that seemed like a pretty good plan if it ever did happen. I just wanted to survive from day to day.
And so it goes.
This is my third collection of short fiction. Three stories are fantasy; eleven are science fiction. All are about women. Although the fantasy stories are told with male viewpoint characters, their linchpins are the women.
The degree of prior professional publication and recognition on these stories is directly graphable by age. The younger the protagonist, the easier the sale — in fact, “To Kiss the Star,” the first story, was a cover story of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction and nominated for a Nebula Award. Its protagonist, Mel, is seventeen, just like Janis Ian’s song. And I realize now what song I heard when Mel looked in the mirror after the ISA “cowboy” doctor gave her sight. In stories I have written, the older the female protagonist, the less likely the story would be to appear in a top publication. At best, these appeared in small press or anthologies edited by friends.
Now, these stories about women age 30 and over are in a book that is published in e-book form by Book View Cafe, the first, largest and most-successful author publishing cooperative, and in trade paperback, by Chameleon Publishing, the publishing company I founded.
To Kiss the Star
Mel Armstrong – 17 – wheelchair-bound, blind, spastic, chosen for spaceflight
The Renascence of Memory
Carol Meyers – 80 – Alzheimer’s patient, former wife, mother, college professor
Grendel’s Dam – ageless
Jenny, With the Stars in Her Hair
Jenny Julian – 28 – addicted to extreme cosmetic surgery
The Color of Time
Gia – 21, Nana – 81, Faith – 31
Smiley the Robot
Miss Gia – 85
Everything I Have is Yours
Helene Bacon – 50 – famous film director, Sarah Bacon – 16 – her daughter
Heart of Jade
The Lady – 30-ish and thought barren – daughter of 20 Rabbit, the last great king of Copan
Shakespeare in Hell
Emilia Bassano – 35-ish (actually died at age 74) – reputed “Dark Lady” of Shakespeare’s sonnets
The Ruined Gods
Ginger – 28 – a cat woman; Rikki/Roxane/Roksana – 73
The Gods That Men Don’t See
Ginny Baumann – 33 – primatologist, unmarried
Vi Elliott – 73 – paleontologist, never married
Paperwhite – a newborn Vogue girl
Her Name is Jacqueline
Lori Johnston – 36 – attorney, married, male genes, female nature
For many years, I did not know that nobody wanted to read a story about a woman over age 30, or a story with a female character over age 25 who wasn’t a “black widow,” a canny elderly detective or nosy old lady next door.
Of course I know that now.
Of course I know there should be romance stories for women, men and transgendered people. There should be stories about crises of conscience for men. How stupid is it, for example, for there to be a story about Helene Bacon, the first female film director to receive an AFI Lifetime Achievement Award? There’s some sci-fi for you. Imagine that this successful, powerful director never had time to get married, but she did have a daughter, Sarah — a daughter very much like her. And right when she has achieved the height of her recognition and power, Helene learns she’s dying of lung cancer. Only a total lung transplant will save her. And Sarah’s not just her daughter: she is her clone. Oh, what to do? God, what a ridiculous, idiotic story. Its mate (architect dying of cancer learns that only his cloned son can save him) was a Writers of the Future winning story. When people questioned that a man would consider using his son that way — what about a mother? — the story was born.
“Digger Lady” has not so much been rejected, but rather – lost, three times, by three different editors of two major sci-fi/fantasy magazines. It is inspired by a lady I got to know at age 17 — some coincidence? — Ruth “Dee” Simpson, the archaeologist at the San Bernardino County Museum. That was my first real job — the “intern” at the museum. The character inspired by “Dee,” Vi Elliott, is explicitly said to be 73 in the story. She is being forced into retirement. There are few women who can claim to have discovered Early Man in the Southern California desert along with world-renowned paleontologist Dr. Louis Leakey. Ruth “Dee” Simpson is one of them. Nobody wants to read about someone like that.
I think they’d rather read about a naive 3-day old genetically manipulated prostitute who is bound to save the world from an alien plague, all the while being beaten to a pulp by a vicious, burned-out case who learns at the end, the value of what he valued so-little. I did write that story and it is in this book; I will not continue to write dozens of them.
It makes me sad when I think of the stories I was given to read while in school (this includes college and graduate school). “The Yellow Wallpaper” – a classic by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. The husband’s name is John; the young female narrator has no name. This story was written well over a hundred years ago.
My life, oddly enough, was not over when I turned 25, nor 30, nor even the dreaded 40 and unholy, impossible, “no man will ever want you!” 50. Such adventures I have had – and still have.
The best stories are those which tell themselves. It isn’t “who writes the stories” that is so important; it is the stories themselves.
These are the stories that came to me, as they came to me. For a long while, I didn’t realize that I was, as far as getting paid or getting anybody to read the work, literally wasting my time even attempting to write stories outside the conventional genres (romance, mystery) and genre conventions (like Ellie Sattler in the Jurassic Park movies – she retires, is married, has children and becomes a children’s book writer) about women. Now I do understand that.
I’m writing them anyway. I’m publishing them anyway.
At 13, at 17, at 53, it was and is my job to listen.
Amy Sterling Casil
Aliso Viejo, CA