A conversation between Elizabeth & Sara Knox
This conversation took place in March of 2007. It’s a planning session, on Skype, between me and my sister Sara; she in her flat in a western suburb of Sydney, me in Wellington; both of us lying in bed in the dark, with cats. The planning was for a session of the surviving episodic version of the imaginary game that we had been playing for 34 years.
The continuous saga version of the game came to an end in 1994. In the episodic version we’d use our characters in a new story, with one-time-only histories and names. I want to say that we’d reuse their souls, as if this is transmigration. But perhaps it’s more helpful to remind you of Blackadder, each season set in a different period, but having characters with the same faces, doing different things, but being recognisably like their ancestors.
Each of our people has a continuum to their character. So, for example, Fernando is at one end of his continuum pretty much an Iago, and at the other a charming, self-loving, competent man, with a bit of an attitude problem. These malleable and multifaceted characters people our game. This conversation is Sara and I coming up with a story to play. What we came up with took up around 40 hours of playing, on nine nights, over two and a half months.
Here we discuss what kind of story might entertain us enough for a sustained period of play. But we also consider what makes a good story, and what kinds of stories we like and dislike — referring to books, television, our own fiction. It’s a mad private conversation with public connections and some cultural savvy.
And how did I come to have this recording?
When Sara went to live in Australia in 1992 the game had gone on only when she was at home on holiday. Then in 2004 Skype arrived, and we assumed playing regularly. About a year later I found a software that could record Skype conversations and I started taping our playing and, later, our planning too. I have hundreds of hours of recordings. I made and kept them just for us — or, as I imagine it, for me, bed-bound in the hospital wing of a rest home, as my mother was for the last 18 months of her life. I’ll have audiobooks to entertain me, and my recordings of our younger selves, and of them, our people, speaking and acting, thinking and feeling. And alive. All accompanied by asides about friends, family, work, books, TV, politics; by Fergus coming in with a cup of tea, or Jack warning me he’s about to reboot the modem; plus Sara untangling her cat from the Venetians, or going out to put her chickens in their coops; and noises off: Wellington gales and Sydney rainstorms.
I transcribed this planning session so I could use it for a World Building workshop I taught at the Auckland Writers Festival in 2014. I used it as a guideline to explain my process. This is pretty much what we said, minus breathless repetitions, and cackling.
Elizabeth: Family plots and non-family plots. Plots where people already know each other and are obliged to pay attention to one another, and plots where they just meet and have to work one another out.
Sara: I thought something about the war. We haven’t done the war yet this time around.
E: Wars are difficult. Easier to write than to play. And I avoid them in writing.
S: You don’t avoid them. You lie. There’s the war in Glamour and the Sea.
E: But it’s the home front, New Zealand. There’s After Z-Hour with actual warfare. But that’s it. No more wars.
S: I might be having a few battles in my next one. But they’ll all be nineteenth-century. The siege of Omdurman.
E: Well, I do have internment camps in Texas at the end of my Vintner sequel. So that’s the war. Damn. Only because it would happen, since the idiot has a German passport. Is the idiot going to think: ‘I, Xas, the angel without wings, must get US citizenship’? Is he going to think that? Nah.
S: Why were you thinking of werewolves?
E: That’s just one of my lines. I always run it past you, and you go, ‘I’m not really into werewolves.’
S: I wouldn’t say I was categorically against werewolves.
E: I had my werewolf-on-death-row plot. You know, the person who tore their whole family apart, and they’re a trauma-triggered werewolf rather than a lunar cycle one. That was an idea. But you said you can’t do death row.
S: You can’t because there are no interactions on death row. Not really.
E: Right. So no werewolves.
S: Werewolves aren’t an idea in themselves. If you’re going to do them then it’s better to go traditional, with the forest clearing and gypsy wagons and the this and the that. The ‘I am happening with werewolves.’
E: Like the ‘I was bitten by a werewolf and now I’m a werewolf’? Nah.
S: See? You’re not sure about werewolves yourself. I was actually thinking of a speculative fiction kind of plot where there are tour guides who take people like . . .
E: You’re going to say time travel.
S: Kind of like Christmas Past Christmas Present and Christmas Future. Trained people who take you back into your life, or someone else’s, an ancestor’s, or something inter-dimensional. I didn’t really think what.
E: So, a skilled practitioners story.
S: Yeah. A little bit like Dreamhunters really.
E: Okay. Tour guides in time. That’s a possible. Madeline and I once did a stupid one where — for some strange reason — people from different time periods ended up rocketing through the ages, collecting one another as they went. So they’d just appear in someone’s life, and when they moved on again the someone would go with them, helplessly. They couldn’t work out why they were together. They all disapproved of one another because of different social mores. So there was a Southern belle and a flapper who couldn’t see eye to eye. There was a cyborg law enforcer and a hippy — that kind of thing.
S: That sounds kind of strange.
E: I can’t remember whether I came up with a reason they were loose in each other’s slipstream. I might have. Can’t remember what it was. We also did a good one with a group of ordinary people who were chosen to decide the fate of humankind — shut in a room while the world slowly disappeared.
S: We don’t want to be shut in a room while the world disappears. That’s too much like that one we’ve done already.
E: What? The one about the royal family?
S: No, not the royal family, the one with the invisible creature and trapped people.
E: Oh yeah. The Wake.
S: Already done that.
E: And it had an alien. So we’ve had aliens, though all aliens have different permutations.
S: We’ve had aliens, we’ve had vampires, we’ve had fairies — we always have these things. The food groups.
E: Okay — how about a Galactica type thing. Though I don’t know how far you want to go with some cylon-like threat. How about if we do a fleet that has escaped from the destruction of their planet who actually get to earth. So — do it from the arrival. Do the refugees, asylum seekers. Do their mortal enemies in pursuit and still trying to wipe them out — or the threat of the enemy’s arrival. Does earth want to inherit other people’s enemies?
S: Or not.
E: Too grand? I wonder what Galactica is going to do with that final five. Oh dear oh dear oh dear. And is Baltar going to get saner or madder.
S: When he appears to Six he’s never very nice to her. When she appears to him he’s often much nicer.
E: So her version of him is nastier. Poor Six.
S: Poor all of them
E: Yeah. Except Adama who needs a smack for being so mean to Apollo.
S: He was particularly mean in the last one.
E: What is his problem? He’s probably a cylon.
S: I’m wondering is my cat a cylon? . . .
E: Okay, so, if a bunch of aliens turned up in our Solar System, the latest asylum seekers . . .
S: Nah. It really doesn’t do it for me.
E: Okay. So. All right.
S: Tribes. Native Americans.
E: Tribes that aren’t Native Americans.
S: Anthropologists. Pueblos.
E: Human anthropologists with aliens. I always like the whole Star Trek thing where the starship crew has to deal with, and be diplomatic to, badly behaved aliens. Be terribly polite to people who like to wear necklaces made out of their enemies’ teeth and ears.
S: But there are enough people who do that kind of thing in real life.
E: But if you do those people you get into real politics. There is a reason I write fantasy you know!
S: Because you don’t want to do real politics?
E: I don’t mind doing real politics in a sequence. I don’t mind exploring, it’s just . . .
S: Yeah. Writing novels is great for all sorts of things. But there’s a whole set of things I don’t want to do.
E: I don’t like crisis fiction. I hate it intensely. That’s what I want to avoid.
S: What’s crisis fiction?
E: Books that get their dignity and importance from discussing the atrocities of the past, or foreign parts. Some comfortable bloke writer writing a novel about some brave soul playing a stringed instrument in the ruins of Sarajevo. The stakes are built in. High stakes and high-mindedness. There’s all these readymade claims to seriousness.
S: So — like someone contemporary writing a novel from the point of view of a holocaust survivor? Like (title redacted by author redacted). That was a pernicious piece of shit. God I hated that so much.
E: And I had to watch people oozing all over her at a festival. And she was so leaden as a human being. Leaden, self-regarding.
S: There’s the whimsical crisis books. Like Augustin Burroughs’ Running With Scissors.
E: But isn’t that autobiographical? Like Angela’s Ashes. I think that’s not so bad. Anything done well isn’t bad.
S: Yeah, I guess. And I liked Mary Karr’s The Liars Club.
E: That’s kind of a personal crisis story. I liked that too. But there’s always a danger when so much of the book’s dignity comes from the claims of suffering. It’s a real balancing act.
S: So Crisis Fiction is fiction with borrowed gravitas.
E: Yes. And there’s so much of it around. Which is one reason I write fantasy. I go, ‘I’m going over here and doing this’. Because, boy, fantasy does not have gravitas. Even when it has gravity.
S: There are people doing that. Like Beyond Black, Hilary Mantel.
E: Literature and non-realist.
S: But it’s realist fantasy.
E: The real world and the supernatural, a bit like Vintner. But she’s in her own class. She can do anything.
S: She’s a great writer.
E: And she is anti-bullshit.
S: I like writing historical fiction because it gets away from so much. You can use the tools of real invention. But, anyway, we need an idea. Anthropologists.
E: I don’t know enough about anthropology.
S: Trained ghost squads.
E: Okay . . .
S: What say you had a highly trained, engineered, secret . . .
E: Troop of ghost-hunting ghosts? Or dead, the corporal and incorporeal dead.
S: Ghosts who bust ghosts.
E: They’re the Thin Dead Line.
S: They are a Pentagon innovation because there’s some ghostly threat.
E: But how would the Pentagon have recruited them? Did the Pentagon create them by killing people under special ghost-creating conditions?
S: Maybe they created some and recruited others.
E: So are they put in play against dead demonic forces? This is a good plot. I smell good plot all over it.
S: If maybe the conditions of existence were so bad that the world’s population has been seriously reduced and the only way you can up your fighting corps is to raise bodies.
E: Corpse Corps. So this is like Garth Nix. You’re talking about necromancy. You resurrect bodies. That’s also the Welsh myth of the black cauldron that Lloyd Alexander uses. An army of the dead.
S: I wasn’t so much thinking of resurrected bodies. I was thinking that part of the thing of how they fight would have to be to do with their ghostliness. Resurrected soldiers is boring.
E: So we’re not talking about a small secret group that battles evil forces. We’re talking about a whole system and armies.
S: You could still have the elite shock troops. Because maybe some people are better at being dead than others.
E: That goes without saying if some people are better at being alive. So — I was just wondering if we could work in reanimated corpses too, because that’s always good and gross.
S: Well, that could be the lowest grade. The grunts. This has to be a situation of total war.
E: But would it be total war? I’m worried about the scope.
S: Well, you have societies that are totally opposed to one another but can’t raise an army anymore.
E: But does society let that happen? Do mothers let their dead children be recycled to fight? It would only work if all the living were an elite, who live so long and in such good conditions that they’re like gods of ego. There’s plenty for everyone, but because the people are horrid they still settle conflicts of interest by combat — at no risk to themselves.
S: Or, alternately, you have an off-world alien threat and the only way you can fight them is by using people who are dead. Ghosts.
E: Ghosts fighting a bodiless enemy? But then we’ve got three things, the living, the dead, and the enemy. Tricky dispersal of story.
S: If you’ve got a minority of living people and a majority of purpose-built . . .
E: But if someone really worked out the technology of raising the dead to fight, how would you get them to? This is why the soldier thing is hard. The police thing is easier. There’s more motivation. Because why would the dead fight? What would you offer them? And if they’re compelled, how are we going to do the dead characters? Characters with no volition?
S: Well, there’s heaven and hell of course. What can you reward the dead with? The company of other dead they’ve lost?
E: Politically this is too difficult. If almost everyone your dead super soldier loves is alive and you’re rewarding them only with the company of their own kind, they’re going to start killing their families and friends.
S: Yeah. We need a small elite corps.
E: A secret government small elite force combating a spirit problem. An elite corps made up of ghosts and living people. That’s a great idea. So you could start with your special forces type who’s proved himself and is recruited into the inner sanctum and suddenly discovers that some of his colleagues aren’t alive. An elite is more manageable as a story.
S: And we can start without deciding too much about the threat — because they’re still working it out. There’s a terrorist cult of the dead.
E: Who’ve decided to take the living down. A cult with a leader who has motivated a lot of the dead. Maybe a necromancer.
S: [Liverpool accent] He’s dead motivated. [Cackles] Okay so—we need to thrash out some details. Like how long has the death threat been going on?
E: How could they contain the dead? People would be dying every day and could be recruited.
S: It won’t work if everyone can be recruited. So, think of a terrorist group. Small numbers, efficient, dispersed, hard to identify.
E: What do they want? What are they pissed off about?
S: Maybe they hate religion. Their charismatic leader hates religion. He’s got a beef. He’s an angry ghost. He hates religious belief. So those who believe in an afterlife are attacked. So all kinds of religions. Though the Buddhists would be okay. Maybe they’d be the last to be targeted. So — mosques, temples, synagogues, churches.
E: Maybe it took the powers-that-be ages to work out that it wasn’t extremists from the mosques and synagogues and churches attacking each other.
S: That’s right. Also there were key religious figures being assassinated, and in situations like locked-room mysteries — the deaths were violent but mysterious and didn’t make sense.
E: Yeah. Cool.
S: It would have to be an intergovernmental initiative because of the appearance of sectarian violence.
E: They’d have to all be working together, the governments, to keep a lid on things. They’d put out some kind of cover story and misinformation.
S: So perhaps the governments were clued into what was really going on by someone who knew. There can be like Death Adepts and necromancers who can demonstrate the ‘something funny’, and that’s what got the governments on board.
E: Yes. Okay. We are coming up with details. Personnel. Necromancers. Living people who are necromancers. Okay. Who is what?
S: What does it mean to be Death Adept?
E: A Death Adept can talk to the dead. They’re mediums. And there could be different grades of ghosts. Ghosts, spirits . . .
S: They should call them Spooks, to be like, a secret governmental agency.
E: So how about if we have ghasts, which are vestigial and can be put into bodies by necromancers and have weak identities and can be ruled. And Spirits, and Spooks.
S: Spirits have the capacity to communicate with Death Adepts but are invisible to people. Spooks can be seen by anyone.
E: They can open doors and pick things up. They are like poltergeists. And the villain, the charismatic leader, he’s a necromancer, known only as ‘The Necromancer’.
S: Oh, you mean the main guy on the other side?
E: The guy on [eerie voice] The Other Side, yes.
S: But are the elite corps ghosts in grades?
E: Some can move things. Hold a cup. Open a door. Their footsteps make sound. And they’re called Spooks because they’re the ones that non-Death Adept government bods have more to do with. It’s kind of a domestic name. They’re domesticated in the official imagination even though they’re more scary.
S: Maybe there should be an even higher grade that pass as human.
E: They seem to be human till you try to grab hold of them and they feel distinctly strange. Only Spooks can be seen by everyone. Death Adepts know when spirits and ghasts are present. Yeah. Now I’m just trying to think who is what.
S: Can ghosts identify other ghosts? The terrorists could have plants.
E: Do you mean are ghosts able to say, ‘This is a good ghost and this is a bad ghost’?
S: How would they if they don’t even know who is a ghost?
E: They have to know. The dead have to be able to tell the dead from the living. Otherwise it wouldn’t mean anything that they didn’t know whose side anyone was on. Better to have a whole class of persons—dead ones—being looked at suspiciously by those who know they’re there at all. That would be better. You’d only have the ghosts you trusted and any ghost else might be the enemy. Or just any old wandering spirit. So — who is going to be what.
S: Okay. Carlin is ex-special forces and Death Adept and he’s just been recruited.
E: Yeah. He’s been Death Adept his whole life and he’s been hiding it, but he got knocked on the head and he’s become more Adept. He’s now got a ghost problem.
S: Roadside mine in combat. And he says things at a Veterans’ hospital that raise flags and he’s recruited. He’s a marine or something, rather than special forces. That would be better.
E: Yeah. Just a marine.
S: How about Ido. He’d be more of a necromancer.
E: Living Necromancer.
S: Vlad could be a dead necromancer.
E: Better if they’re on the same side, unless you want Vlad to be secretly The Necromancer.
S: That would be a bit unfortunate for everybody involved.
E: Better if there’s an evil villain out there who we can figure out later.
S: Vlad could be a Catholic priest killed in a Church attack. Then he ascended into his dark powers. He’s using them to protect the living.
E: He could always have been Death Adept. A medium.
S: Not if he was a priest he wouldn’t. That’s just not allowed. He could have been an exorcist, mind you. He never really clued into the basis of his powers — why he was such a good exorcist.
E: Those weren’t demons, they were just dead people.
S: Malevolent. In fact they do kind of manifest as demons and do all kinds of weird shit.
E: But he’s been dead for some time and is used to it. Ten years or something. Long enough to get used to the lifestyle. The lifestyle!
S: Elezebet can be a spook.
E: And I better make Fernando living. Though he’d make a good dead person. A baddie? But that would just be sticking him in a box. Oppositional. Isolated.
S: Hardly ever works.
E: He could be on his way to being a spook. He could be a ghast, newly dead and floating about in a state of desperate, fading confusion, then a necromancer puts him in a body for some reason and he won’t leave it. [cackles] It’s getting ickier by the hour and he’s not letting it go. Or, no, maybe the body is his newly dead twin brother and he’s a long dead twin spirit who has been floating near at hand and so is ready-to-hand for some necromancer. And he’s grief-stricken and pissed off and won’t leave.
S: So how does a necromancer stop the body decaying?
E: They don’t. This can be the problem we start with. For the secret organisation. They can be having a bit of a conundrum with this ghost who won’t vacate a corpse. Normally, when the body isn’t needed anymore, The Necromancer gets the ghost to let it go. This is a good plot.
S: It is. But Fernando doesn’t exactly sound like asset material.
E: No. But they are going to have to cope with him. He’s strong. They have to persuade him that if he’s strong enough to cling to his brother’s body he’s strong enough to go full spook. Or maybe both souls are in the dead body. The ghast twin fixing on the grown-up twin’s supposed to be departed soul. Then the elite can call them ‘The Twins’, something like ‘The Jackson twins’.
S: Better if they were quintuplets. The Jackson five. [cackles]
E: Ha! It’s better if it’s a deceased 15-year-old in his grown-up twin’s dead body. He’s having a crisis and causing everyone else one.
S: Yup yup yup. But we need some kind of Senior Officer. Hmm, Miklos. Could he be a Commanding Officer? The Government would want the high-ups to be living. For reasons of the chauvinism of life. The not-entirely-trusting the dead.
E: Because the dead started this nonsense.
S: There could be a bit of agitation in the organisation. Maybe Carlin. He could say: ‘What about their rights, eh? When do the dead get to rotate out? Where’s their R&R?’
E: Blank looks. Okay. So Carlin is a Death Adept . . . [writing]
S: And his name is Doug Blakely. Captain Blakely. And Elezebet is a spook. A lawyer in life.
E: She could have died fairly gently. Electrocuted by a faulty spa bath. Didn’t realise she was dead. Walked into her firm the next day and terrified everyone.
S: There would have to be a recruiting arm for these people.
E: And cover-ups. Lots of disinformation. There’s a rationality movement in the media — but the movement was started and funded by officialdom. Because the public does not need to know it is under attack by the dead.
S: But the organisation also has to have a recruiting arm. The ones who respond to reports. Dead lawyer turns up at work. Walking corpse. We should be doing them — the recruiting arm, not the whole organisation.
E: Yeah. That’s it. And I’m just wondering if this necromancer Ido has been among them already or if he’s just been on his own doing a bit of necromancy down in New Orleans or something.
S: Oh, probably. I would say. DIY necromancer.
E: Maybe he’s the one who DIYed the problem. The Fernando problem. The stuck twin problem. So I’m going to have several necromancers. Because they are rare and they need them for, like, bomb disposal squads — corpse bomb disposal squads. So maybe they were even using them before the death terror cult . . .
S: They could call them The Voodoo Crew.
E: I think I’ll use Ricardo as another Necromancer who’s been on the Voodoo Crew since the start.
S: Miklos can be a Death Adept recruiter.
E: And Cassandra. Maybe she’s part of the team but can’t see ghosts. Which would mean she needs an adept interpreter and people can lie to her about what ghosts say and do.
S: But what is she.
E: Scientist? Their Q?
S: Maybe she makes ghost traps. Like the Ghostbuster ghost-snatching machine.
E: She could have been working on force fields for the DOD and she got recruited to adapt force fields into force vortices for sucking in ghosts.
S: Why were the DOD making force fields? And does it have to be the DOD? Cassandra’s not the type to work for the armed forces.
E: Maybe it was NASA. Asteroid defense.
E: I’m going to call her Loretta Jackson. Got to use Jackson. [writing]
S: I’m calling Miklos Anton ‘Ant’ Kreutzer. He’s South African.
E: Ido comes from a family in New Orleans who practise Voodoo. Second-sighted Santeria worshippers.
S: It’s not Santeria. That’s south of the border. It’s — there’s a respectable word. O something. French.
E: I only know Santeria. But their gods are Loa.
[Sara starts googling respectable name] [and muttering]
E: So he’s a Louisiana Creole from a family of Voodoo practitioners. He’s going to think The Necromancer is a Loa. Baron Samedi. All that stuff. We don’t need to know all this.
S: Oh poop! Too fucking hard. I can’t find anything.
E: I’m calling him Remy Lazar, which is a good name for a person who raises the dead.
S: My priest is . . .
E. [Irish accent] Father Michael.
S: He’s not father anymore. He’s in a new trade. Francis. Francis Le Jest.
E: Frank the Joke. How do you spell it?
S: L-E-J-E-S-T. Two words. Elezebet’s name is Tom. Thomasina. Tom Brown.
E: We could start with Remy and the stuck ghost. Remy has got to the stage where he can reanimate corpses. Independently. Family witchery. He can have a grandma with second-sight. Still alive. Youngish grandma — late sixties. And she has a Voodoo shop. So she’s been watched for years. Suddenly she’s digging for old bones in a graveyard to make spells — and that raises a flag. They get her to take them to Remy, who is holed up with a groaning corpse.
S: Why did he do it?
E: A sense of his own overweening power?
S: Bad to start from that.
E. His secret thing could be that he’s crazy. Dodgy. Has no barriers. No squeamishness.
S: Maybe when he was a tiny kid he was shut in with a dead parent.
E: That would work. Necromancers should have odd psychology anyway. Too tender and too fearless and too proprietorial towards corpses.
S: So necrophilia — except he just likes to date. [cackles]
E: But why did he think of trying to raise this person?
S: Because he missed him?
E: No, the guy is a stranger. Because if he knew him he wouldn’t have tried, since he’s going to dismiss him again. He’s only raising the body — not the real person.
S: Maybe he hasn’t done it much.
E: Or — maybe he doesn’t even know what he’s doing. Maybe he’s been occasionally trying to resurrect the dead, and it doesn’t take. Because the ghosts don’t stay anyway because he hasn’t got sufficient control. So he doesn’t know he’s calling a ghast into a body. He thinks he’s failing at a resurrection.
S: So he was just passing by when someone carked it?
E: Or, he was out for a drive with friends and they ran a guy down in some lonely place. He got out to help. The other guys drove off. It was a hit and run. And the first thing he does is try to raise the guy because he’s dead. But he can’t resurrect anyone because no one can, and all he does is call the nearest ghast into the body, and the nearest ghast is the guy’s twin, who has been following him for over 15 years. So suddenly Remy has this body that is following him around, croaking accusingly, and getting all nasty as time goes on.
S: And the flag comes up on Grandma who’s trying to help and has Remy and body hidden. There are items that raise flags.
E: She’s out at midnight grave-robbing for a spell and no one ever bothers her ’cos she’s scary. And she knows her grandson is wrongheaded.
S: He’s tried raising people. People he knows who’ve died.
E: Who he thinks don’t want to speak to him. So he’s having a hard time and needs to be recruited before he goes nuts. The Ricardo character can know all about the madness of necromancers. He studied it maybe. He can be a creepy former Satanist—the kind of guy who read Crowley and Mircea Eliade. I’m going to call him Carlton. Carlton . . .
S: Lager. [cackles]
E: Vye. Carlton Vye. [writing]
S: You’re writing these names down and you aren’t going to lose them, are you? And there should be a name for the whole operation. Like Overlord. But not Overlord because that’s D-Day. Something to do with the raising of the dead.
E: Operation Rapture.
S: Yeah. That’s the code name.
E: Op rap. ‘I’m an operative from op rap.’ ‘This is an op-rap op.’
S: Are you recording? Should we start?
[End of file]