In Which Kelly Barnhill Admits to Lying. Again.

Thanks to the lovely and talented Laurel Snyder and the equally lovely and talented Ellen Potter, who have both stared unflinchingly into the great, pimply, lying face of the ubiquitous falsehood known as the Author’s Bio and dared to spit in its eye, I’ve decided to take a long, hard look at my own.

It ain’t pretty, folks.

Here’s the truth: My author’s bio makes me look a helluva lot cooler than I actually am (*brief side note* – I think it’s hysterical that wordpress’s spell checker thinks that “helluva” is a real word.). Let me be clear: I am not, nor have I ever been, nor will I ever be cool. I am the anti-cool. If Cool came to a barbeque at my house, it would stand uncomfortably in the side yard for a few minutes before answering a fake cell phone call with a fake emergency. And then it would leave.

So here’s my real bio. Read it and weep.

Kelly Barnhill took a bunch of creative writing classes in college with dreams of the writer’s life: cigarettes for breakfast, martinis for lunch, drafty attic apartments in NYC, brooding and volatile boyfriends in Paris, a tragic death narrowly averted, followed by wild sales of a volume of poetry. And perhaps it would have turned out that way had she not: a.) quit smoking; b.) hated martinis; c.) settled down with a nice boy from Virginia and instantly started producing cute children; d.) quit writing. And she quit writing for a good long while.

During the Quit-Writing phase, she waited on tables, worked as a park ranger and a janitor and a bar tender and a secretary and a coffee jerk, and later became a teacher. She’s been fired from jobs for being too chatty. She’s been fired from jobs for telling people off. She’s been laid off from jobs when the tax revenue situation totally sucked. She’s had more jobs than most graduating classes – mostly because she is easily distracted and given to moodiness.

Now, she raises children. She tries and fails to keep her house clean. She cooks meals and wipes noses and calls teachers and schedules well-child appointments. Being a mom means dealing with the dregs – overflowing toilets and soaked bedsheets and projectile vomit. She wipes up what can be wiped and fixes what can be fixed and throws away more than she’d like to admit.

She loves her kids, and is exasperated by her kids, and is amazed by her kids. She thinks her kids might one day rule the world. She writes when she can. She is still easily distracted and given to moodiness, but her husband and children are infinitely giving and forgiving. She is luckier than she ever thought possible.  She’s managed to sell some books and some short stories – though her rejections outnumber her sales.

Actually, that was misleading. Her rejections are infinite in the way that time and space are infinite. But we all must carry on, and so must she. One step, one breath, one story at a time.

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Today, at Outer Space Camp…. (Or, How my Middle Child Revealed Herself To Be Made of 100% WIN)

A mere week after I returned from Launch Pad, my eight-year-old daughter and five-year-old son have headed out to a week of outer-spacey goodness of their own. For this week at the rec center at Lake Hiawatha Park they are learning about outer space, playing dodgeball, doing art projects about outer space, hurling water balloons and eating cheese puffs (which, incidentally, look as though they’re from outer space).

Today, they came home with their very own planets of their very own design. Deedee’s planet is carefully painted green with a large red circle in its lower hemisphere and a small blue circle in its upper hemisphere. It has two moons – attached with skewer sticks – hovering just over the equator.

“This is the planet Boone,” Deedee explained carefully. “It’s seventy million light years away. It has a humanoid population. They are green, though their lips are purple. They have a language that sounds good to them, but to us it just sounds like jibberish. They love poetry and art. They use hot lava to cook and eat and bathe. This right here,” she points at the large red circle, “is their most famous lake of lava. Everyone goes there to visit. Only rich ones can live there though. They spend all day in their lake of lava until they are tired and then they go to bed. This here,” she points at the small blue circle,” is their volcano. It is always erupting. They write poems about their volcano and they believe that the universe was born in their volcano.”

I listened, mouth open, heart pounding in my throat. I love you, I thought. I love you, I love you, I love you.

“It’s wonderful,” I choked. Love in my eyes. Love in my hands. Love in my pounding heart.

Then, Leo chimed in.

“This is my planet,” he said, proudly pointing to his planet covered in scribbles with pipe cleaners erupting in crazy curves from point to point.

“It’s lovely,” I said.

“It’s called the Planet Fart. It’s called that because people go there. And then they fart.”

Yes, my darling,I thought. I love you too.

Dream

This morning – somewhere between the moment when my son scrambled into my bed and sandwiched himself between Ted and I and the moment when I stumbled out, slid into shorts and shoes and went for a run – I had a dream that I hiked to Antarctica. It didn’t take long – the hiking, I mean, not the dream. It was a well-marked trail that cut across the backside of a farm, wound through a river valley and a forest, skirted a mountain and hooked over a ridge.

The ice was bright, the water blue, and someone had set up a line of chaise lounges so that people could watch the penguins splash in the surf.

I walked over, sat down and pulled off my shoes, laying my bare feet on the ice and spreading my toes wide, the ice softening to water, then steam. The penguins cackled, then screamed, then sighed.

Morgan Freeman sat in the lounge next to mine and smiled at me as he handed me a Virgin Mary with a radish rose bobbing prettily in its center. “I never much cared for penguins,” he said as he leaned into his lounge chair and closed his eyes against the glare of the setting sun. “Nasty animals. You know they eat their own vomit?”

“Isn’t that a bird thing?” I asked.

“Never much cared for birds either, now that you mention it,” he said.

The sun sank under the water and the penguins waddled out of the surf and disappeared over the ridge. I sipped at my Virgin Mary, trying, then failing to catch the radish rose on my tongue. Instead, I tilted my face towards the sky and listened as Morgan Freeman named the stars.

“Look,” he said, “there’s Sirius, Antares and Rigel. There’s the Southern Cross. Eridanus. Phoenix.” The sky darkened, glittered, glowed, and if I had stayed asleep, I have no doubt that every star would have been hailed, categorized and identified, but instead I found myself lifting from my lounger and hurdling skyward, the voice of Morgan Freeman fading behind me, as I landed in a heap of blankets smelling sweetly of sleep, a boy and his dad in a tangle of limbs, their mouths open to dreaming.

The Universe is Beautiful

The always-marvelous Genevieve Valentine sent me this photograph from the Hubble Telescope that brought tears to my eyes.

We are built of wind and flame.

This is the real deal, folks. The birth of stars. And it is freaky gorgeous. What you’re looking at here is a gigantic cloud of hydrogen which acts as sort of an incubator for stars. The gas cloud swirls and spins around the protostars which get hot and bright and raging. As they burn and build within themselves, they alter the space around themselves – particles spin and alter; space bends; light begets light begets light.

What is it about science that makes me start wanting to spout poetry? Why does this cloud of hydrogen make me nostalgic for the gestation and births of my children – those bright, hot, shining stars? Maybe it’s just me. I am, after all, the kid who was nearly brought to tears in ninth grade geometry at the thought of the asymptote as a model for unrequited love- a curve bending towards a line, moving in tandem towards the infinite with the object of its affection that it can never, ever touch. My god! It kills me even now!

Anyway, my thoughts are all rather launchpaddish even now, and while my thinking is still jumbled by metaphor and love, some of my other classmates are actually putting their knowledge to good use. Here’s Ms. Valentine recapping some of the coolest things we learned about during the week, and Professor Brotherton (our fearless leader) with an exhaustive and unbelievably helpful list of astronomy resources and links, and Mr. Williams on some cool imaging software, and Mr. Wethington on the gravitational lensing properties of quasars. Keep being smart, folks! I’ll busy myself with poetry until I can come up with something coherent.

Processing My Way through the Launch Pad Experience; or, How My Brain Was Destroyed, Rearranged and Rebuilt by the Shockwave of an Exploding Supernova

Ok, fine, that subtitle is slightly misleading. Still, given the transformative power of an exploding supernova – both destructive and constructive, leaving that part of the universe indelibly altered – I’m starting to feel a lot of kinship with nebulas.

First: let me tell you about Launch Pad. It’s a free, NASA-funded astronomy workshop for writers and editors. Essentially, they gather a bunch of nerdy, science-loving wordy-types and gives them a crash course in astronomy. We sat in lectures from ten in the morning until six, then seven, then eight at night, and then often went out after dark to play with telescopes. The whole thing is the brainchild of one Mike Brotherton: astronomer, hard sci-fi writer, and all around good guy. And for most of us, having the chance to spend the day learning, then playing with high-tech toys – well, it was a geeked-out paradise that I was, quite frankly, loathe to leave.

Now, I have a lot to say on the subject, but I’m not going to go into the nitty gritty of day-to-day learning, since some of my fine compatriots have done it for me. (See Rachel Swirsky’s detailed and day-by-day accounts here, here, and….aw, hell, there’s a bunch of them. Just click on the Launch Pad tab and you’ll find the rest) Indeed, this is just the first of likely a few posts, since I’m still processing the whole experience and it’ll take me a while to really allow the thing to crystallize in my head.

Anyway, since I am, in my soul, a relational person, I always understand an experience in the context of the people with whom I shared the experience. In other words, anything I have to say on the subject of my time in Wyoming will be utterly meaningless unless I can say a few words about the people who sat in that room with me as our worlds were collectively rocked by SCIENCE!

First, here’s a picture of us:

Aren’t we adorable?

So, here are the folks I hung out with last week:

Walter Jon Williams – Author of like, nine million books, video game designer and writer, and a black belt, so he’s a person to whom you’d lose in a bar fight. Also, asker of incisive questions and cracker of the occasional wry joke which kept me giggling on my end of the table.

David J. Williams – The guy whose book I already bought and who also has a kick-ass accent. Also: every time he asked a question or made a comment, I realized that everything I thought I knew I didn’t know at all and I had to go back to the drawing board.

Carrie Vaughn – Author of some really cool werewolf novels (among other things), philosophizer, contextualizer, and explainer – not to mention a super-nice person and it was a pleasure to get to know her. Also: she’s the first person I’ve ever met who had watched Dorkness Rising! More on that in a minute.

Marjorie Liu – Woman of spirit and grace. Unfortunately, also susceptible to altitude sickness. Still, the creative output during the course of this lady’s early career is nothing short of amazing and I have no doubt that she is likely to one day rule the world with her bookish prowess. Plus, she’s sharp, funny and holds her ground in an argument.

John Joseph Adams Dude. I love this guy. Fer serious. He’s an editor, writer, publicist, and generally made of awesome. Also: funny. I appreciate funny.

Rachel Swirsky One of my favorite writers ON EARTH. Also, someone with whom you never want to get into an argument with because she’s smarter and better informed than 99.999% of the world’s population. From now on, if I’m confused about something, I’ll ask Rachel and she’ll always know. Also, she’s a wonderful person and it was really fun to meet her.

Cecilia Tan – Another person placed under the heading of “People Smarter than Me”. Editor Circlet at Press – the press that Neil Gaiman famously called the “naughty books” of science fiction, and someone who truly gets the power of speculative fiction to transform how we understand and interpret the world around us. She’s like the Jules Vern of sexual politics.

Alice Henderson Ah, the juxtapositioning of the Light and the Dark! Author of some delightfully wicked novels – both original and those part of a larger universe (Buffy the Vampire Slayer Choose Your Own Adventure novels, for example. I mean, does a person get cooler than that? No, my friends. No they do not.) and one of the most light-filled souls I’ve ever met. So enjoyed meeting her.

Genevieve Valentine Love this woman. Millions and millions of love. First of all, if you haven’t come across her fiction (Strange Horizons, Clarksworld, Federations and like nine million other places) than you really need to. Like, right now. She’s also smart, snarky, wickedly funny and a lovely, lovely person.

Monte Cook is the most famous man ALIVE!!!! Or, at least he is to me, after we found out – through my incessant prodding, of course – that he had a bit part in Dorkness Rising! I’ll pause for a moment to let that one sink in. (!!!!!!!!!) Monte’s been writing novels and RPG stuff since forever and has won scads of awards and has a really cool book that I must purchase called The Skeptics Guide to Conspiracies. Mostly, though, he’s like the geeky big brother that I never had, and it was my great pleasure getting to know him.

Jeremy Tolbert, our elder statesman of the group as he had been in the workshop before – also he and Mike Brotherton go way back. Cool-headed and thoughtful, a terrific writer and photographer, and an entrepreneur. I like people who have made the self-employment plunge because it makes my own situation seem less insane.

Ian Randal Strock The man with the van, and yet another on our roster of editors in the group. You know, I’ve often thought that editors only exist to throw water on the positively brilliant ideas of writers and to generally crush our fragile little spirits, but I’m starting to understand that’s not true. Ian is a man of ideas: able to stare down treacherous mountain tops and sinister small-town sheriffs with grim determination and verve. Also, he can follow an astronomer’s directions and those guys think that getting something in the range of a power of ten is pretty darn close.

Bud Sparhawk Avuncular and gentle presence on my side of the room, punctuated by the occasional one liner – sharp and bright as the tip of a pin. Also has written more short stories than anyone alive as far as I can tell. I so enjoyed his company and running commentary throughout the week and even today have found myself waiting for a Bud-type comment that never comes as he is far, far away, alas.

Nicholos Wethington (that link goes to the website he writes for rather than his own – which, if it exists, I couldn’t find it. Which is a shame, because the guy is friggin brilliant) Our own Gentleman Scientist in the Edwardian sense – though without the tweed nor the pince-nez. This guy is amazing: got excited about astronomy one day and set off to learn everything possible on the subject. And then did. And now he’s building his own telescope, and will likely have a home-made rocketship in his back yard by spring. Also, a lovely person who was kind enough to share his knowledge with me on more than one occasion when I was clearly floundering.

Okay, fine. I was floundering all the time. This is why it’s good to know smart people.

Anyway, that was the group. And they were magnificent. I’ll be writing more on what we learned and its impact on me as a writer moving forward, but it was an exhausting week and an exhausting re-entry into family life, and now I need to get to bed. More tomorrow.

But while you’re all thinking about outerspacy-goodness, watch this video on the origin of the moon and be amazed.