Book.

The long-promised book is very nearly nigh: I have put it on pre-order on Amazon, and it will be available for all on December 12th, which is next Tuesday.

The book is called The Golden City, and it grew up out of an image in a dream that I had sometime in middle school. (I've been saying thirteen, because the essence of good storytelling is specificity, but I actually have no clue.)

The image was of a perfectly empty city contained within square walls, with a massive, redwood-like tree growing at each corner, sitting alone in the middle of a sandy desert. The image that came immediately after it, though I can't remember if it was actually in the same dream, was of descending staircase after staircase into the depths of the city and finding a pool shaped like a half-circle in the very lowest of of sub-basements. The pool was very deep, and if one were to dive into it and swim to the very bottom, there was a door into the wall, leading to the other half of the pool. This other half was in the same city, identical in every wall, doorway, and stair, but now the city was in the middle of forests and fields and filled with people.

I think everyone is entranced the first time they hear about or find pictures of Petra, the ruins of a Roman city in the Jordanian desert. The idea of a secret history – a place where lives developed an intricate path around insurmountable natural features, first hidden and now lost – is forever engrossing. I read Tamora Pierce's Lioness Quartet at an impressionable age, and her desert city of Persepolis owes a bit to the legend of Petra. (In fact, I suspect that was how I encountered Petra in the first place.) It's not just the desert or the age or the juxtaposition of delicate architecture against the massive forces of nature, of course – it's also the mystery of emptiness and abandonment. Where did the city come from? Why is it still here? Where have the people who made it gone?

I didn't really know the answers to any of those questions for my city.

It's been a while since I was in middle school. The empty city bumped irritatingly around in the back of my head throughout high school and then college and even grad school, but I was never really sure what to do with it. It was an unsatisfying loose end; I had a gorgeous setting but no particular reason to use it. As a thirteen-year-old, I had known vaguely that I wanted it to be one of a network of other bizarre and interesting cities; I even did a sketch of another city made entirely of canals on graph paper. That was about as far as I got, though.

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My first visit to a medieval city: Toledo! (I'd visited some quite elderly temples in Japan before this point, but to my knowledge all the urban areas I visited were from the Edo period at earliest.)

The setting itself got richer in my head as I met more and more of the imagined elements in real life. Without a doubt the most powerful influence on the imagined city (eventually named Diagasar), in terms of the architecture, smells, colors, and ambiance, was the three months I spent in Spain in 2010. I'd never seen massive stands of lavender before then, or olive trees, or so many massive buildings of golden stone all clustered together in a tight labyrinth. Toledo, Salamanca, and of course Granada, particularly the Alhambra, all provided details for Diagasar – not just the feeling of walking through narrow passages carved into stone, or the experience of many tightly interlocking spaces, but also the sense of a still afternoon in a hot, dry, painfully sunny place. (Nothing is ever that still in Iowa. We have mosquitoes.) The terraced roof gardens on the top of my city are pretty well lifted from the Alhambra, as well as the water running in channels alongside the flower beds.

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Court of the Myrtles at the Alhambra. No, the picture isn't centered, shhhhh.

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Though I cannot for the life of me remember which cloister in Salamanca this lavender was growing in, this image is probably the most potent one I carried away with me from Spain.

I went to Venice, which is of course the primary inspiration for the city of Foulkrin in the book, as it had been for that map sketch I'd made a decade earlier. (I didn't know anything about Venice but I did know there was water involved.) While most the buildings in my head would later owe more to visits to Paris and Belgium, the extremely pungent smell of the Venetian lagoon is always there when I imagine my own city of canals.

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Somewhere in Venice.

The idea for a floating city of pavilions (Gamanche in the book) probably had some roots in walking about Nanzen-ji and other temple gardens in Kyoto, observed from a whole series of wooden platforms that seem to float.

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It was drizzling all the day I was there. 

There are dozens of other experiences that filled out my mental image of the setting, without me really even being aware of it happening. I experienced sand dunes for the first time in Utah (and also taking a long hike in ankle-deep sand, which may have informed one of my protagonist's deep dislike for that activity). I walked through many different forests (something it's surprisingly hard to come by in western Iowa.) I ducked under a lot of low wooden rafters and explored a few elderly libraries.

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Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park, Utah. You can actually snowboard down the dunes, particularly if you are more coordinated than I am.

It is, of course, almost trivial to say that as much as I needed physical details to fill out the city, I needed knowledge of people far more. My first instinct as a kid was to reach for my small circle of acquaintance as characters, so a huge number of my first storytelling attempts had four protagonists – myself as a self-insert, my best friend, and my two younger cousins. I tried to put the same group in my awesome setting, but it didn't yield a particularly satisfying story. Even so, that constellation of four remained a shadowy imprint whenever I thought about it.

When I came back to the story two years ago, it was after having spent college and grad school running around with a reasonably varied host of friends with a lot of different experiences. My initial daydream had been about four white girls wandering around in the sand, but that no longer seemed likely or particularly interesting. I had definitely associated the desert in question with either the Sahara or the Arabian desert, so I started researching trade routes in the Maghrib and the Middle East. How did people enter the area? What brought them into and through the desert? Where did they end up? Having a somewhat mediocre history education myself, I was surprised to learn that there were tight trade links between the Arabian peninsula, east Africa, and India through the larger portion of the last two millennia.

I had started to think that maybe Tadala (whose name changed multiple times while I was writing) could be from the area around Lake Malawi. This was not entirely an arbitrary selection. I have a friend who was born in Malawi, and in a fit of curiosity and vague creative intent, I had looked up some stuff a few years ago. As with many things, some of that research stayed in the back of my head.

The trade route maps showed a path that my character could follow to get to the desert: overland to Zanzibar, then by sea to Aden, an ancient Yemeni city in the basin of an extinct volcano.

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Again with the Dutch! This view of Aden is from the last 1500s or early 1600s. There's a high ring of hills and rocks around the lower city, though I'm not sure this picture shows the ancient cisterns and channels for collecting water.

While I've never traveled in the Middle East, the grad program I did was based out of the UAE and particularly recruited students from that region. The program exposed me to a mishmash of Islamic cultures, among the new people I met, the research focuses of the labs involved, and the generally close ties that francophone Europe has with various Arab and Islamic countries. I started spending a lot more time on Wikipedia and listening to history and culture podcasts, trying to put random bits of information from my new crew of grad school friends into context. When it came time to figure out the origins and backstory of the two younger girls in my story, that information was also floating around in my head.

A Dutch engraving of Surat from the 1600s.

I had vague intentions of a collision with nascent colonizers in this book, so it made sense to set portions of the “real world” sections in the late 1500s or early 1600s. While it would have been perfectly reasonable for Tadala to encounter Portuguese or Dutch traders in this part of the world (in fact Aden was occupied by the Portuguese for two decades in the first half of the 1500s), like any good English speaker who has been exposed to the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, I have certain associations with colonizing traders in south Asia. The first merchants that come to mind are always the East India Company. Researching them brought me to Surat, Gujarat, where the first EIC trading factory was established in 1612. The last portion of the book is somewhat loosely based on that walled city and the nearby factory (which, despite the name, was more like a textiles storehouse).

A different (still probably Dutch) engraving of the British factory in Surat from 1668.

This book has brought a lot of different experiences from my life together. Many of the personality quirks and challenges of Elabel, the other protagonist, come from being a reclusive and socially anxious child myself. I imagined what it would have been like to reach adulthood without any help to breach that layer of isolation. Elabel is another person for whom books are easier than humans. While she's definitely not me (as I have never been tall or skinny), she shares a lot of my fears and struggles and interests.

But then, all of my characters do, and all of them reflect a variety of people I know and have known. The Golden City is first and foremost a fun fantasy novel, an adventure/quest story about two young women just hitting adulthood, but I thought it might be more enjoyable if the reader had some idea of where I was coming from when I wrote it.

I hope very much that you all enjoy it.

If you're interested in pre-ordering my book on Amazon, you can do that here!

Boston.

I moved into the city of Boston for the first time in the summer of 2008. I was a student, living in student housing—a decrepit, but much-beloved row house looking out over the Fens. It had once been a lawyer’s house, then a Jewish fraternity, then an “independent living group” for students. In the seventies this meant a lot of drugs and at least one subterranean explosion. When I was there, it meant we had the highest percentage of LGBTQ students of any residence at my university (somewhat less notable when one considers that our peak population was twenty students,) a disproportionate number of students who spoke openly about mental health issues, and a severe rodent problem.

My college years were not stellar ones. I had been living in student housing in Cambridge, but it wasn’t a good place for me. I was painfully socially awkward and alienated from the people focusing all their efforts on their courses. It felt like no one else was questioning if there was a life outside of lab or studio. I certainly never felt confident that I belonged in my program. I entered school with the idea that I was going to be an architect, but the truth is that I didn’t really understand what architecture was.

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The singular object.

I thought architecture was about making a beautiful thing, a singular object that exists in a landscape. But architecture is first and foremost about solving spatial puzzles for people living and working in proximity, and only secondarily about creating an exciting spatial experience for those people. It is not about making beautiful objects at all. If you reach Frank Lloyd Wright or Corbusier status, you might get to create some nice things to go in your newly-solved puzzle, or your newly-created landscape, but you don’t become an architect to design chairs to match the heating vents.

I sometimes like to think that if my college self hadn’t been perpetually short of sleep, frayed by anxiety, and undergoing a crisis of self-worth, I would have done all right as a student of architecture. As it was, I sat at my studio desk and stared blankly into my sketchbook for hours. My ideas were, so far as I could tell from the feedback I got from the teaching staff, pretty bad. I still liked the beautiful object. I wasn’t enamored with or good at understanding the fundamental spatial problems, let alone solving them. Where do the people go? Where do they stay? What does it feel like for them to be inside this particular enclosure?

I not only struggled to do the basic work of architecture in my studio courses, I couldn’t even understand exactly what it was I was failing to do.

I procrastinated. My coursework made me feel idiotic, so I avoided virtually every piece of work I was assigned. (I also, incorrectly, thought that I might like to major in biology, and took several courses to that effect. I learned that what I really like is zoology, not microbiology. My university only had courses in the latter.)

The most satisfying way of procrastinating was taking inordinately long walks. Most frequently I would launch myself up Boylston, along the side of the Public Garden and the Common, and then arrow back down along Beacon. Sometimes (more and more often as I got into my senior year) I’d continue up into the North End, picking up a marzipan pig or almond macaroon at Mike’s Pastry. Sometimes I would divert onto Charles Street and walk up and down in Beacon Hill. Occasionally I went south on Massachusetts Avenue, passing Symphony Hall and come back through the South End on Tremont. More frequently I would go north on Mass Ave, ending up somewhere in the mess of Harvard Square. I did not make as much use of the free student entry to the MFA as I might have, though the MFA and its disembodied babies’ heads were barely ten minutes away down the Fens.

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Avenue of escape.

Since graduation, I have passed through Boston with some regularity. I still have several friends in the area, and most of my travel has been in the eastward direction. I can make a case for spending my layovers there, especially if I’m changing airlines.

The last time I was in Boston was earlier this month. I flew into Logan and slept on the floor on the B terminal for a couple hours. At three-thirty AM, the security checkpoints opened and I was rattled into awakeness by flotillas of wheeled suitcases. I bought a scorchingly hot coffee from Dunkin’ Donuts and got on the airport shuttle around five. I walked from Government Center to North Station, losing a random twenty minutes to a side street I didn’t recognize before catching the 6:39 heading north. At ten AM, after sitting in a Cape Ann coffeeshop for two hours trying and failing to write a cogent journal entry, I signed a five-month sublease, starting in November. I’m not in Boston proper—not even in one of the close suburbs.

I am on the commuter line. I can be in Boston in about an hour. There are fifteen inbound trains a day.

My apartment is a five-minute walk from the ocean and a five-minute walk from the apartment of a friend I have known for eleven years.

Here I go.

Omaha.

 

Omaha is a mid-size city on the eastern edge of Nebraska. The population within city limits is nearly 450,000; the metro area, the largest component of which is its diminutive sibling on the Iowa side, Council Bluffs (population 62,500) has passed 900,000.

I grew up twenty-five miles north of Omaha, in a town that arguably saw its last heyday in the 1950s. This area was once dominated by trains. The First Transcontinental Railroad established its eastern terminus in Council Bluffs, and the Union Pacific, the U.S.'s largest train company today, is headquartered out of Omaha. The old Union station, an Art Deco iceberg finished in 1931, was turned into a museum of western heritage in the 1970s. The Old Market, a neighborhood that stretches roughly from 10th to 13th Street on the east-west axis and Dodge Street to Jones Street on the north-south line, was my first experience of what urban life could feel like. The teeth-rattling brick streets have been maintained (though "maintained" is perhaps a dubious word to use in relation to Jones Street,) and the industrial graffiti of warehouse advertisements has been touched up, leaving a smell at the back of the mind of what this place must have been like when it was where workers on their way home from the factories in Jobbers Canyon (since demolished to build the ConAgra Park) picked up their produce and groceries before taking the tram back home. It's an extremely faint smell, to be sure (and there's some bitterness now that ConAgra has decided to move their corporate campus to Chicago,) but it was enough to make a small heart hungry.

I have a deep affection for every alley filled with dumpsters in the Old Market.

I've been back in the area since November of last year. After an eight-month trip around Europe, I found myself unemployed and deeply embattled with myself to finish my book, The Golden City. It's not my first book, but it is the first one I've seen through to completion. I had discovered, to the amusement of the writing gods and my own frustration, that it is remarkably difficult to write consistently while traveling. There were cathedrals to be photographed, long walks to be taken, sketches to be done, French to be struggled through, goats to be milked, and pints to be either contemplatively nursed or sucked down, depending on how interested the old men in any given pub were in American politics. The most writing I got done at one go happened in Cork – where the two-hundred-year-old walls of the stone farmhouse prevented my phone from picking up even a hint of a connection and the daily rain prevented me from sitting on the overgrown wall of the drive to chase the faint signal just by where I'd planted some daffodil bulbs for my hosts – and Wales, where it also rained a great deal, and where the cat slept on the floor of the sunroom in a particularly nonjudgmental way. In Donegal, where I was able to get an excellent connection off a nearby cell tower, and Galway, where I cooked most (well, many, anyway) of the dinners and sat painting in the kitchen when I wasn't cooking, and Belle-Ile, where I spent all my free time walking the path that runs along the cliffs on the west edge of the island, I hardly wrote at all. 

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I have been soaked by this fountain more times than I care to admit.

It's hard to write when the sea is right there. It's hard to write when there's music on at the pub. It's hard to write when you're greedy for other people's company. It's hard to write when you're on top of a bicycle or hiking or losing the feeling in the top layer of your skin as you float in the north Atlantic. 

I finished my book two months ago. It's been edited, and edited again, and sent off to friends to read and a sensitivity reader; and I'm not altogether certain that it would have ever happened if I hadn't come back to my small town north of Omaha. This place has just enough of the pattern of a larger world – of brick, of train lines (though if you were to get on a train these days, you'd only have two choices: one Amtrak leaves at 5 AM for Chicago, and the other goes at 11 pm for San Francisco,) of art (the Joslyn Museum being a somewhat smaller, and distinctively pinker, Art Deco iceberg than the Union Station,) of food (every few months I budget thirty-five dollars to have dishes I don't quite recognize and beautiful bread and a glass of Pinot Grigio at La Buvette, which suggests Parisian grunge without being in any way Parisian) – to keep me hungry, while being so profoundly familiar that my brain does, occasionally, stop skipping and seeking, and let me focus on words.