The Next Big Thing

The Next Big Thing is a literary game of tag in which writers answer questions about a work-in-progress. I was tagged by fiction writer, essayist, and awesome person Matthew Salesses.

What is the working title of your book?

Pandora’s DNA: How the breast cancer gene changed everything

What is the one sentence synopsis of your book?

I tell the story of the so-called “breast cancer genes” —  the morass of legal quandaries, scientific developments, medical breakthroughs, and ethical concerns that center around the BRCA mutations — through the lens of my family.

Where did the idea for the book come from?

In some form, this book has been following me my whole life — the huge amount of breast and ovarian cancer in my family tree has had a big impact on me. The first “real” short story I wrote imagined the life of my great aunt Trudy, a nurse who died of breast cancer at age 31. I wanted to know why she didn’t seek treatment even though she knew she had cancer. After I cut off my healthy breasts at age 28, I had a much better idea.

I’m still asking questions about the cancer in my family tree, only now I’m interested in how the legal history and medical history that surrounds the BRCA mutations has shaped my treatment, as well as in the emotional truth of what it means to be a person dealing with all this.

What genre does your book fall under?

Narrative nonfiction.

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

I’d like Xena Lucy Lawless to play me, and for Idris Elba to play my husband. Because, come on, theres no film that can’t be improved with a judicious application of Xena Lucy Lawless and Idris Elba, right?

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

To answer this would imply that it’s drafted. But since I intend to make my delivery date — deadlines are next to godliness for journalists, after all — it will have taken about ten months.

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

If I’m allowed to shoot high: Siddhartha Mukerjee’s The Emperor of All MaladiesRebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks or Susan Gubar’s devastating Memoir of a Debulked Woman.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

My family.

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

Silicone injections adulterated with snake venom! Hitler’s mom’s early chemotherapy at the hands of Jewish doctors! Lumpectomy pioneered by economist John Maynard Keynes’ younger brother! Nose jobs from 1000 BC!


Check out my latest narrative nonfiction book Leaving Mundania, a romp through the surreal world of grownup make believe.

Leaving Mundania Hits the BBC!

The BBC ran an awesome video spot on larp and Leaving Mundania last night. The reporters came out to a Knight Realms event with me, where we talked larp, gamer shame, and the famous avant-garde larp scene of the Nordic countries. A great four-minute video that introduces the hobby (and my book!) to a mainstream audience.

In other news, Matt Rice of Geekadelphia wrote a great review of the book, proclaiming, “Anyone with an interest in gaming, pop-culture or even sociology will be fascinated by Leaving Mundania.”

Eight Humbling Lessons I Learned From Writing a Book

With the publication of Leaving Mundania imminent (May 1 is the official pub date, but a few large online retailers already have it in stock!), I wanted to share a few things I learned while reporting and writing a book on larp.

1. Geeks secretly rule the world. Don’t cross the geek mafia, because they’re everywhere, watching out for the community and networking like champs. They book acts for the big evening shows. They work in publishing. They teach your children. I can’t tell you how many times I connected with strangers over a few well-placed Buffy references and a mention of roleplaying games that led to genuine offers of real-life help in reporting and promoting my book.

2. Ask and ye shall receive. Or as Pulitzer Prize administrator Sig Gissler put it, you have to be “a charming beggar.” Nonfiction writers subsist on ink and the goodwill of others. I learned to shamelessly ask for interviews, answers to elementary questions, photographs, life stories. Of course, this also results in a fair amount of rejection — not everyone has eight hours to spend with you, and not everyone wants to be a part of your book. So you have to toughen your skin.

3. It’s impossible to thank others enough. I always imagined a book as the manifestation of an author’s inherent genius. Nothing could be further from the truth. As Paul Engle said, “a work of art is first of all work,” and hard, humbling (see below) work at that.

A book also represents the input of a great many people — from the sources who provide the storyline to the fellow writers who workshop it to the editors who shape and polish the final effort.  And can we just pause for a minute and put our lighters in the air for the copyeditors of the world, who have an incredibly important, but often thankless job?

4. It’s OK for your subject to bore you. If you spend years researching something, this is inevitable from time to time. I mean, I love artichokes, but if I ate them every day for a week, the monotony would make me throw up. The first few times larp bored me, I felt panicky, and as if it was all over for me and my book. If I was bored, how could I interest readers?

Eventually, I learned to make boredom my friend. It motivated me to find fresh angles on the topic, and sometimes, the boredom in and of itself was interesting. For example, I disliked attending meetings in game. But was that boredom simply mimicking the real world? Was its very existence part of what made the game seem real?

5. Listening is a form of love. And it’s humbling. Just like my fifth-grade teacher always said: if your mouth is open, you aren’t learning. Reporting requires you to suppress your personal opinions and prejudices; it requires you to shut up and focus on someone else — your only goal is to figure out what is interesting about the other person.

At first, digressions on the part of my interviewees made me antsy, though I soon realized that these digressions led to some of my best new leads and chapter ideas. It’s not easy to listen so hard; I wouldn’t do it for just anyone.

6. Sometimes you write the wrong thing, and that’s OK. Many of the chapters in the book started out with totally different content. I’d invest a week or two and write thousands of words on said chapter, then decide to scrap the whole thing and start over. Existential despair sometimes filled the days in between. However, the first drafts worked as a sort of brain dump; I found that sometimes I needed to get certain ideas off my chest in order to make room for narratives that better suited my purpose.

The most extreme example for me is my Nordic chapters. I wrote forty pages of literary criticism, which my first reader read and said, “too technical.” I scrapped them (well, I saved some of that content for the blog) and started anew. Humbling.

7. Fact-checking is humbling. “Here’s something I spent three years working on. I encourage you to harshly criticize every detail.”

8. Publishing moves at a glacial pace. One of my correspondents asked me to ping her when the book was closer to publication because “publishing moves  so slowly that all the cells in our bodies will have replaced themselves by then.” It’s true.

It takes a long time to write and report a book, and a long time for the publisher to make sure the manuscript has properly placed commas (lighters in the air for copyeditors, people!) A human baby only gestates for nine months. Books gestate for three or four times that. The slow anticipation of the last months, when I was done with the manuscript and the publisher took over and made it pretty and grammatical — Chicago Review Press really put tender loving care into the book — have been excruciating, but totally worth it.

Photo credit: Anannya Dasgupta

Nordic Larp Book Sale

First, the bad news: Swedish larp nonprofit Fëa Livia is folding its online book store.

However, before they close their doors permanently on December 4, they’re holding an amazing sale of books about Nordic larp, including the eponymous Nordic Larp, Knutebooks, issues of the late, lamented Playground Magazine and many other similarly awesome titles.

Do you have a larper/game designer/awesome person on your Christmas list? Head on over and find them something wonderful. For cheap!

In Defense of Cookbooks

A phone or iPad app could never replace my collection of cookbooks, nor would I want one to — even though the The New York Times recently suggested cookbooks are becoming obsolete.

Cookbooks allow readers to skim recipes quickly, offers the tactile and fragrant pleasures of dinners past and help us reconnect after digital overload…

Read the rest of the piece over at Bites, the Today Show food blog.

Go Buy Nordic Larp Right Now

Have you ever wanted to larp in a real submarine? What about an abandoned nuclear reactor? Or maybe you’re interested in fighting a giant dragon that actually breathes real fire? ZOMG!

You can find out what it feels like and how the organizers overcame challenges in Nordic Larp (2010), a beautiful coffee table book edited by Finnish academics Markus Montola and Jaakko Stenros. (Full disclosure: I occasionally correspond with Stenros and Montola, who read a draft of Leaving Mundania.)

Americans reading this collection of thirty essays about Nordic games run over the last sixteen years will surely marvel at some of the spectacular logistical coups Nordic organizers have pulled off, from building a dystopian future slum that sleeps more than three hundred in the center of Copenhagen (System Danmarc), to huge medieval larps garnering a thousand participants (Trynne Byar). Americans may also marvel at the trust which organizers place in their players, who seem to enjoy skirting the line between the real and the fantastical in a way that would simply be impossible in the litigious US. The essays reveal hungry boffer players who kill a real live sheep for food and a number of other shocking acts I won’t demean by taking out of context here — but done for hardcore, let’s-make-this-as-real-as-possible, artistic reasons.

Nordic Larp focuses on games from the experimental Knutepunkt scene, which “takes larping very seriously” as the editors write in the contextual essay that begins the collection, noting, “larps themselves are not necessarily serious, but as a subject they are treated with respect [on this scene].” The games covered span a a wide variety of styles, from more traditional medieval boffer games and vampire campaigns to very serious one-shots that take place in a bomb shelter after the world gets nuked (Ground Zero) or set in an insane asylum, where the characters are the inmates (Delirium).

Each essay examines one game, and is written by one or two organizers and/or players who talk about the format of the game, its theme, and the experience of playing/organizing it. I particularly enjoyed this latter tack, since there’s a lot of writing about larp out there that doesn’t attempt to communicate how totally thrilling a game can feel — it makes for interesting reading. Full color photographs of each game accompany the essays, giving readers a feel for the games’ moods and production values.

And sometimes those moods are deadly serious, which may surprise American readers. Many of the games described in Nordic Larp seem aimed at something beyond entertainment, toward catharsis or politics or simply exploring the limits of human experience. Proportionally, there is not a lot of Frodo in this book. There are persecuted refugees (Europa), Norwegians living under Nazi occupation (1942Noen å stole på), and people dying of cancer (Luminescence). Some of the games put big ideas to the test. There are worlds where polyamory is the norm (Mellan himmel och Hav), and Kafka-esque prisoner’s dilemmas (inside:outside). And if a couple of those don’t sound like any fun, well, fun is not quite the point. Of course, it’s not all prisons and weeping for the death of humanity; the book includes plenty of lighter games from steampunk space adventures set in a real  submarines (Carolus Rex), to Wild West towns in need of tamin’ (Once Upon a Time).

American larp designers will find fertile ground for future exploration in Nordic Larp. Forget your character cards and skill lists; here be minimal rules and mechanics, many virtually unknown in the US, from ars amandi (symbolic arm sex for romantic plotlines), to ars odo (staring and shouting contests as conflict resolution) to fateplay (giving characters fortunes that really come true).

I found this book an invaluable aid as I wrote my chapters on the Nordic scene, though I do wish it had an index for ease of reference.

Nordic Larp testifies to the sheer diversity of the Nordic larp scene, and the dazzling seriousness with which Nordic larpwrights and players ply their arts. Anyone interested in the future of larp and its possibilities as a medium should read this book.

Nordic Larp is available for purchase online at Fëa Livia for €30.00 (about $40), plus shipping.

Harry Dresden’s Life Changes Forever

If you aren’t familiar with Harry Dresden, the creation of bestselling novelist and LARPer Jim Butcher, he’s the wizarding world’s most notorious private investigator, a staff-toting Sam Spade, complete with bullet-proof duster jacket.

Changes, the newest installation in the many-book Dresden series, opens with a phone call to Harry from his former lover Susan Rodriguez, currently a benevolent half-vampire, announcing that she and Harry have a daughter named Maggie who has been kidnapped by the powerful Red Court of vampires.

The phone call kicks off an adrenaline-packed search for the girl that brings Susan and Harry together again, sees the demise of many of Dresden’s trademark accoutrements, and brings him up close and personal with his bloodthirsty fairy godmother Leah.

As usual Butcher is at his best when he is writing action; not only is his language precise and visual, his action scenes always have an explicit plot purpose. When it comes to emotions, Butcher rests on shakier ground. Maggie’s kidnapping drives Changes, but Harry’s response to it seems generic, and Butcher relies on the inherent drama in the situation, the idea that since Harry’s a traditionalist, of course he wants to Show Up for his daughter. It’s a missed opportunity to develop Harry’s emotional life and to delve into his feelings about his own upbringing in a broken home.

Then again, this isn’t Gravity’s Rainbow; it’s Raymond Chandler meets M. Night Shyamalan. And in those terms, the book, and specifically the ending, succeeds in delivering plot twists and quippy dialogue aplenty.

Since the novel has not yet been released (and I know there are some avid series fans out there), I’ll only say that in the ending Butcher makes good use of the earthquake that rocked Macchu Picchu a few months ago, drops at least three plotty bombshells on the reader, and forces Harry into tough decisions that raise his personal levels of pathos to truly epic heights.