Paperback Writer!

Holy Box of Books, Batman!

I know I announced this when it was official last week, but a HUGE books arrived in the mail the other day, much to the delight of Barnhills everywhere. And so I stacked them up. And…..well. Just look at them! So many! And just after I was complaining to my dear Anne Ursu that I didn’t have a single copy of my own book in my house because I was constantly handing them to children who looked like they may be in need of reading material someday, and viola! Books! Real ones! And they arrived in secret on my doorstep, and I can’t wait to hand them out again to unsuspecting children.

I feel like the tooth fairy. Except without the underlying dental conditions. Also: with books.

Butt-Kicking Princesses in History: Khutulun, the Wrestler Princess

Gentle Readers:

I’m still on princesses currently. Bear with me.

Sometimes, it’s good to be honest with oneself. There are a few things that I feel very sure about in regards to the general trajectory of my life.

Number one: I deeply doubt that I will ever be considered as an expert or consultant or Person Who Generally Knows Things, in military matters. Or in matters that are even vaguely military-ish. Not gonna happen.

Number two: if I am ever in a wrestling match, I will never, ever win. Not ever. Not for money. Not for horses. Not for my freedom. Just not. This is not to say I’m a weakling – I’m actually pretty strong. I do twenty to thirty pushups a day (though, not all at once) and and can lift heavy children and carry heavy Duluth packs and balance a canoe on my shoulders while hiking a mile-long portage and can shovel dirt in the garden til the cows come home. But wrestling requires a certain know-how and a certain willingness to knock a person on their back and hold them motionless for some given amount of time. I cannot do this.

Number three: No one will ever, ever, write an opera about yours truly. And I am not saying this to guilt any of you into whipping one out, mind you. It’s just that there’s nothing about my life that is particularly opera-ish. And I say this as an opera lover.

And so you might understand, then, my current obsession with the Khutulun, Wrestler Princess of the Mongol Empire. Because the words “wrestler” and “princess” should always go together. Always.

Now here is her story. Khutulun was the great-granddaughter of the great Genghis Khan (and if you want to read an amazing book about Mr. Genghis – the guy who ruled the world from atop his horse, and whose footprints were so heavy and so indelible that they still are seen today, you should stop what you’re doing right now and read Jack Weatherford’s book Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern WorldAnd then you should read The Secret History of the Mongol Queens: How the Daughters of Genghis Khan Rescued His EmpireIn fact, you should probably read those books right now. Go ahead. I’ll wait.) She was also the niece of Khublai Khan and the daughter of Khaidu. Khaidu had other daughters as well, but only Khutulun made the history books. And story books. And operas. But that was later.

Anyway, Khutulun (whose name means moonlight) was the youngest of fourteen brothers, so the story goes, and, being a self-respecting little sister in the face of a pack of rowdy ruffian brothers, did what any of us would have done. She learned to fight. And she was dang good at it too.

(You see! It is an accident of birth order. This is why I will never be a wrestler, not because of any kind of endemic flaw. Man! I am so glad I’m writing this post right now!)

Anyway, as she grew she became skilled in the arts of war. This was unusual for the time, but not altogether unheard of. After all, there are several Medieval accounts of Mongol hordes (because this is how Medieval Europeans were able to keep the moral high ground, you see. If you swap “horde” with “persons who are different from us” it’s much easier to hate them) that indicate that the sight of women fighting along side of men was a fairly regular occurrence.

Still, Khutulun was a wonder. Her wrestling prowess – in a culture that prized wrestling so much that it was one of their most popular sports and pastimes – was known throughout the empire, and no man could beat her. Big men, little men, men with blood on the brain and men with love in their hearts, she beat them all. She also excelled in the Mongol sports of competitive horse riding (apparently that was a thing) and archery. In her culture, athletic ability was so highly prized that it bore a spiritual component. That she was so physically adept and so skilled with her body, there was an aura of blessedness about her. This carried over to her prowess on the battlefield, and her presence among the warriors was not only an asset (because she was just that good) but she was like a talisman as well. Her presence made her co-warriors assured of their own victory. And they were victorious.

This was problematic for poor Khublai who was trying tame the Mongol’s nomadic way of life and their warmongering ways. He had already decided that China should be the main base and the central seat of the empire of the Golden Horde, and was trying to enforce the strict courtly manners of the Chinese upon his Mongol brethren. This did not go over well, and there were conflicts between the armies of Khublai and the armies of Khaidu. Which meant that Khaidu and his daughter Khutulu were often at war.

Remember that poem by Coolridge?

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree
Through caverns measureless to man
So twice five miles of fertile ground
With walls and towers were girdled round
And there were gardens bright with sinuous rills
Where blossom’d many an incense-bearing tree;
And here were forests ancient as the hills,
Enfolding sunny spots of greenery.

I know. It’s off-topic. But I like it, and this is my blog. And anyway, it’s not really off-topic, because it highlights the difference in attitude between the sedentary Khublai and the nomadic Mongol tribes. So there.

Now, Khutulu was a skilled warrior, and a keen strategist. Warfare was big with the Mongols – as it was for pretty much everyone in the Medieval era – and Khutulun was the best. She was so good, that people wrote her prowess down – something not often done. Because most of the writers were men, and they didn’t feel the need to write about women. Not to get all….. well anyway, it was true. Marco Polo, however, was amazed by her – not only her valor and cool-headedness amidst the chaos of the battlefield, but of her unorthodox way of fighting as well. She’d ride into the battle at her father’s side and scan the enemy. Then, before anyone could react, she would “make a dash at the host of the enemy, and seize some man thereout, as deftly as a hawk pounces on a bird, and carry him to her father; and this she did many a time.” This would freak the other side so much – just at the sheer scope of her speed, how she’d magically insert herself into their midst and grab some poor slouch by the throat and carry him off, that they’d panic. How can you fight a warrior like that? Answer: you can’t.

Lots of men wanted to marry Khutulun, but she would have none of them. Her parents begged her to choose someone, but she waved them off. Finally, she said that she’d offer a wager. Any man who wanted to marry her had to put up one hundred horses. And then they had to try to beat her in wrestling. No one could, and our Khutulun amassed over 10,000 horses. Which gave her both power and status among the Mongol tribes, so good on her.

She remained undefeated, but she did end up marrying a fellow warrior. A man of her choice, not a marriage of submission. And she continued her war-making even after her marriage, which meant that she remained unconventional.

Now, she likely would have faded way. While she’s mentioned by Marco Polo as well as a few Muslim writers who happened to be travelling with traders and who wrote about the Mongols as a curiosity, rather than documenting their own culture, Khutulun was rejected by the scribes in Khublai’s courts and generally was removed from any historical documents from the Mongols themselves. She remained in the oral history and folklore, and if it weren’t for the Marco Polo mention, she might have disappeared from the annals of history altogether.

However, there is the opera bit.

In 1710, the French historian François Petit la Croix came across her story while researching a book on Genghis Khan, and included it in a separate book of Asian themed fables and folklore. He changed her name, though, to Turnandot, which means “Turkish Daughter”, which isn’t quite right, but what can we expect from a Frenchman, really? He changed the story a bit, too. In his story, she wouldn’t marry a man who wasn’t her equal – not as a wrestler, but as a riddle-solver. Which is awesome, but slightly less awesome than wrestling. He also, instead of paying her in horses, her thwarted lovers were put to death.

And then Puccini turned it into an opera.

And as much as I love Puccini, and as much as I love opera – this one in particular – and as much as I am deeply jealous of anyone whose life – or fake life – or frenchified version of their life – or whatever, is so very very awesome that it is deemed opera-worthy? As much as that, I still like the original story better. And I still want Khutulun to be my spirit guide and guardian angel and imaginary best friend. Because holy heck does that lady rule. She rules.

Evening in BarnhillLand

So here’s the thing: I’ve got a really weird job.

Not that I’m complaining, mind you. I’ve had lots of jobs in my life (lots and lots and lots of them), and I discovered along the way that I’m, well, ill-suited for……pretty much everything. And I’m not whining and I’m not being annoyingly or fishingly self-deprecating. These are just the facts.

I’m overly chatty, I can’t type for crap, I’m disorganized, I’m surly with folks in authority, I’ve got poor attention to detail when working on other people’s projects, I bristle at wasted time, I fall asleep in meetings and I am not a team player. I’ve been fired from eight different waitressing jobs for consistently writing down orders – not what people wanted, but what I thought they should have. And once for spilling a $300 bottle of wine down my shirt. I nearly came to blows once with a district official over a reading curriculum that I absolutely refused to use in my classroom. (Because it sucked). (She told me that I’d be lucky if a single child passed their state reading test. I told her I didn’t care because the tests in Minnesota at the time were the laughingstock of the nation – which was true.) (79% of my kids passed – one of the highest stats in the district. So I told her to suck it.)

Anyway. I work very hard when I’m on my own. In the world – in the real world – I’m sorta….vague. My husband says this is adorable. I think he’s being nice.

So I have this job instead. This writing job. This live-in-a-world-of-my-own-making job. And….well it’s weird, isn’t it? It’s a weird job.

But another weird part of my job is porous division between the imagined and the real. Particularly since my real life is written in the language of hyperbole, and synched to the rhythm of hyperbole and painted with hyperbole’s brush. Every day I must comfort a daughter whose life, apparently, is over, and another daughter whose leg is falling off and must stop a son who has decided to destroy a house (that part wasn’t hyperbole at all, though. That bit was real). Also, the little boys who daily invade my house, are constantly threatening to explode.

In any case, it’s an odd bit of vertigo that happens, when my head is still in the story, still sitting on the shoulders of runty, foul-mouthed gods who are – as we speak – creating universes, and smelling the sulfury breath of easily annoyed dragons who have no hearts in their bodies, or looking up the gory details of shoulder wounds or armpit wounds, or inventing the masonic structure of an ancient castle – then figuring out how to destroy it…..and then – THEN – be interrupted by my panicked children because the toilet, apparently is overflowing. Or the bank’s on the phone, and they’re pissed. Or I’ve forgotten to meet a friend for lunch. Or the email that I thought I sent I only sent in my mind. Or whatever.

In any case, I’m terribly grateful to my children for keeping me in this world. I don’t know what I’ll do when they grow and move out. Maybe I’ll have to hire kids to hang around the house and distract me from my work. Or maybe I’ll fade into the pages of a story and you’ll never see me again.

Right now, with my head in VIOLET, that feels like a possibility.

In fact, all day, I felt partially-faded. Like Frodo when he had the ring on too long. I was translucent-faced, cellophane-bodied, eyes made of smoke. And I would have continued like that – a half-existence, a half-life – had it not been for Leo.

I was hunched at my computer, rewriting a scene for about the nine-thousandth time, when Leo tapped on my shoulder with two fingers.

(and really hard, I might add. I think I have a bruise.)

“Mom,” he said. “Mom, Mom, Mom, Mom, MOM!”

“What!” I yelled. Honestly, I only heard the last MOM. “Why are you yelling?”

“Mom,” he said. He was red faced, red lipped, eyes bright as full moons. “GUESS WHAT?”

“What?” said. Thinking: This better be good.

“What happens, when every person on earth burps AND coughs AND sneezes AND farts….. AT THE SAME TIME?”

I pulled my hands from the keys, cracking the knuckles. I brought my fingertips to my brow and pressed at the headache that I’m sure was there all day, but I was only just noticing (does this happen to you too? Do you feel separated from your body when you spend all day at a story? Or not even all day, but three or four hours? Sometimes I forget that I have a body at all.) Leo waited. He bounced on his toes. He was thrilled.

“I don’t know, honey.” (I secretly did.) “But I would love it,” (a sigh, a long, slow, long-suffering sigh) “if you would tell me what happens – what really happens – when all the people on earth burp, cough, sneeze, and fart at the same time.”

Leo smiled with all his teeth. “THE WORLD EXPLODES!” he said, jumping up and down.

“Well,” I said. “Let’s hope that never happens. Next time you need to fart, be sure to tell us, so that we don’t accidentally do it at the same time, okay.”

And then we went outside to go spider hunting. Because I had been outside of this world for long enough. And it felt good to be running around the back yard – my real yard of my real life – with my son for a little bit.

The story will just have to wait its turn.

My House Is Lousy With Amputated Novel Bits

I can’t walk six step across a room in my house without tripping over the bloody stumps of amputated novel bits. They scatter across the floor, hide in corners, collect under toyboxes and under beds.

Some of the bits have joined with others, grafted themselves together – ragged flesh to ragged flesh and sewn tightly with good, strong thread. They are agile creatures, my little homonculi made of paper and letters and ink. They are crafty and sneaky and full of juice. They vie for my attention, whisper compliments from their dusty shadows, try to turn my gaze from the novel on my computer, or the novel in my notebook, or the novel in my head.

“Why, Kelly Barnhill,” they croon. “Aren’t you looking lovely today!”

This is a lie. Today I am the opposite of lovely. Today I am pale skin, wild hair, darkened eyes. But they say lovely, and for a moment, in my imagination, lovely persists.

“Thank you,” I say.

“We have some thoughts,” they say, “about your current project. We have some ….. concerns. Why don’t you open a new document, and we can work it through.”

They do not belong. They do not fit. And oh! How they want to!

There is no home for these bits, alas. And there is nothing I can do. In deference to their plight, though, I will allow one of them to live here, on this blog. This was taken from JACK and it was originally penned by one of the characters in JACK- one Clive Fitzpatrick. I love Clive so very much, and I want him to have his own book someday. Or maybe, I’ll collect his writings and publish it under his name. In any case, here is a bit from one of his stories, from his imaginary book Tales from Nowhere – or Everywhere:

“You are not who you think you are,” the old man said.

“Is anyone?” the boy asked.

The man thought on this. At their feet, three small field mice sniffed at the embers of the dying fire, looking for scraps. The old man reached down and picked one up by his tail. He showed it to the boy. “What is this?” he asked.

“A mouse.”

“If it could think, if it had the concept of Self that you or I have, what form would it think it was?”

“A mouse, of course.”

“And it would be wrong. It is not a mouse. It is lunch.” The old man threw the mouse into the air and caught it in his mouth. He bit down with a grin.

The boy looked down at his shoes and was silent for a while. “So I’m the mouse,” the boy finally said.

“No,” the old man said gulping down his lunch and wiping his chin. “But like the mouse, you are similarly misinformed about your role in this story. If you intend to survive to the end, might I suggest that you attempt to learn something.”

Tales from Nowhere (or Everywhere), by Clive Fitzpatrick

Into the Woods

Last year, I took my family into the wooded north of my fair State – to a wilderness area known around these parts as the Boundary Waters (officially the BWCAW, or Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness). If you’ve never been, you simply must. Ancient rocks, abundant wildlife, deep, cold lakes with some of the clearest water in the world. Moose. Eagles. Cougars. Wolves.

It’s magnificent.

We went sporadically when the girls were little, but ever since my son turned two, we’ve gone every year. And every year, we’ve come home saying, “Well, that was definitely our hardest year. Next year will be easier.”

We said that when Leo tried to lose himself on the portage.

We said that when he stabbed a hole in the tent with a stick.

We said that when he peed on my sleeping bag ….. on purpose.

We said that when he dumped boiling water on his feet – right before a huge storm, and we couldn’t leave.

And we said that last year, when, after using the latrine and accidentally dropping the hand sanitizer into its putrid depths, decided that he would be responsible. He would be useful. And he would be brave. So, my son – my irony-loving son – hooked his arm on the lip of the toilet, and lowered himself inside.

He returned to the campsite, up to his thighs in decomposing shit, proudly displaying the hand sanitizer.

Next year, Ted and I told ourselves with quavering voices and shaking hands. Next year will be easier.

And today, I believe it. Today, we venture into the woods.

There is a great poetry to the wilderness excursion. We go seeking……something. Peace. Riches. Serenity. Enlightenment. Adventure. Castles. Dragons. Enchanted Kings. And we re-emerge into our real lives indelibly changed.

Or the world that we left has shifted under our feet.

Or the universe we left is not the universe to which we return.

We go to the wood and survive in the wood and are changed by the wood. We become fairy tale, fable and myth.

Last year, when we were camping, I brought a notebook and wrote the opening chapters of my project Witless Ned and the Speaking Stones. Since then, I finished the book, and realized that Ned needed an accomplice – a girl named Aine.  Now I return to the story, again in longhand, and will restart the narrative while sitting on a rock, next to a groaning tree and a windy lake.

And you know, I’m rather excited about it.