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Astrolabe 14: Writing for Kids with Matt Wallace, Time's Illusion, and Indians on Vacation
Editor's Note: Welcome to Astrolabe's new home!
I wanted to expand briefly on my prior note about Astrolabe's move—if you'd like to skip straight to this issue's main content, you'll find a wonderful interview with Matt Wallace below.
As you may or may not be aware, Substack (where Astrolabe previously housed) was revealed to be suffering from avoidable ethical lapses regarding the business model of their Substack Pro program—resulting in hurtful and harmful financial support of anti-trans writers under the guise of the fabled "neutral platform."
I've been contemplating a move off Substack since December for their general stance regarding content platforming. Like many in the SFF community, this development convinced me I could no longer support the platform or its leadership in good conscience. So Astrolabe has moved to Revue. I expect you'll like it here as much as I do.
For most of you, this has been a seamless transition. I've already imported my free mailing list, and reached out to paid subscribers to help them move to the new platform with as little hassle as possible, and with no added financial commitments. You can find out more about accessing Astrolabe's back issues here.
Please reach out if you have any questions.
Onward to better things!
Growing Younger in the Ring with Matt Wallace, author of Bump
For many years, Matt Wallace was a pro-wrestler. It shows when you see him speak. He's got a big personality, finely honed showmanship, and an imposing stature that makes for an instant fan favourite. But Wallace left behind his patent leather gloves for a different sort of storytelling several years ago, and Astrolabe readers likely know his fantasy books—ranging from the dark humour of his Sin du Jour novellas to the out-and-out epic fantasy of Savage Legion—or his work on the Ditch Diggers podcast with Mur Lafferty. But more recently a brand new audience is discovering Wallace's work thanks to his newest book, Bump: kids.
Bump is the first middle-grade book for Wallace after years as an adult fiction writer. I caught up with him to talk about what it's like to write for kids, wrestling, and the unique value of found family.
"I like to keep my readers guessing," Wallace told me when I expressed surprise at seeing him release a middle-grade book. "It's not what I normally expect from me either. Through a very random series of happenstance and acts of vengeance, I discovered I have a pretty good voice for middle-grade fiction and really enjoy writing in it."
Wallace doesn't have children, but he's got four nieces and a nephew, all of who provided a lot of inspiration for Bump, along with his personal memories as a kid at a pro-wrestling school. "I started wrestling in my very early teens, so I had a lot of childhood memories of this very specific, very obscure environment very few people really know anything about."
Given their shared background, I asked Wallace whether he thought his younger self would be friends or rivals with Bump's protagonist, a middle school outcast named MJ. The answer turned out to be more complicated than I expected. "Young Matt, especially around the age MJ is in Bump, was pretty terrified of other kids, especially girls. I think they certainly could've used each other's friendship, and would've bonded over their shared love of wrestling and inability to connect with other kids and make friends."
MJ knows what it means to hurt. Bruises from gymnastics heal, but big hurts—like her dad not being around anymore—don’t go away. Now her mom needs to work two jobs, and MJ doesn’t have friends at school to lean on.
There is only one thing MJ loves: the world of professional wrestling. She especially idolizes the luchadores and the stories they tell in the ring. When MJ learns that her neighbor, Mr. Arellano, runs a wrestling school, she has a new mission in life: join the school, train hard, and become a wrestler.
But trouble lies ahead. After wrestling in a showcase event, MJ attracts the attention of Mr. Arellano’s enemy at the State Athletic Commission. There are threats to shut the school down, putting MJ’s new home—and the community that welcomed her—at risk. What can MJ do to save her new family?
Many people, myself included, think of wrestling as a predominantly male sport, especially pro-wrestling, but Wallace created MJ specifically because he wanted his niece and other girls to see themselves in a wrestling book. So, what does Wallace want them to take away from Bump?
"That they have and deserve a place in spaces that haven't always included them, like pro-wrestling," he said, "even if they have to fight for that place. That their feelings are valid and important and need to be given breath and attention. And hopefully that wrestling is cool."
Though Wallace's past fiction has been written for adults, he had his sights set solely on kids for Bump. I'm reading it right now and enjoying the heck out of it, but that's happy coincidence, he told me. "I honestly wasn't thinking about adults reading Bump when I wrote it. I was only thinking about kids around MJ's age, and how to best connect with and speak to them."
Though he wrote it specifically for kids, Wallace expects adult readers will take a lot away from the book "because simply by the math most adults have lost and grieved more than most 12-year-old kids."
Wallace found a unique honesty in writing middle-grade fiction, which he hopes to bring back to his adult fiction. "There is less language to hide behind," he said. "You can't assume as much from your audience, not in terms of knowledge or intelligence, because kids are blazingly sharp, but in terms of references and everyday life experience. You have to strip down concepts to their essentials more. I think there is a lot of value there, to all kinds of fiction writing."
But writing for kids isn't some sort of cheat code, Wallace told me when I asked if he had advice for people wanting to get into writing middle-grade fiction. "Do it because you have a story you want to tell young readers, and write that story for them. Don't do it because you think it will be more marketable or somehow easier than writing adult fiction. It's not."
Wallace is hard at work on an unannounced middle-grade follow-up to Bump. "It's completely different from anything I've ever written, even Bump, and probably even more personal." But before that, his 2020 epic fantasy, Savage Legion, is about to hit paperback, and the sequel, Savage Bounty is just around the corner, coming in Summer 2021 from Saga Press.
This interview with Matt Wallace is part of Transmission Received, Astrolabe's ongoing interview series. Two days after Astrolabe publishes, paid subscribers get early access to full transcripts or video interviews via a separate mailing.
This feature is being provided to all free subscribers for the first six interviews. If you'd like to continue to receive them, or would like to support Astrolabe's growth and maintenance, please consider subscribing.
Out & About
(Out & About is where I highlight my work around the web—some recent and some old favourites.)
In the lead up to this year's Hugo nominations, blogger Cora Buhlert (herself a previous, well deserved Hugo finalist for "Best Fan Writer") has a series called Fanzine Spotlights, where she connects with the creators of many, many SFF fanzines and talks to them about the origins of their publication, SFF fandom, and fan awards.
I'm a huge fan of the series, so I was quite tickled when Buhlert invited me to chat with her about Astrolabe. It's the first time I've been interviewed in about six years, so I had a bit of fun.
It’s no secret to anyone who’s followed me over the past decade that the fan categories are immensely important to me personally, and that I feel like they get short shrift from a lot of nominating WorldCon members. For a convention that’s hugely fan-driven, the ambivalence toward fan projects/creators vs. professional projects/creators belies the concept a bit.
I think people are drawn toward huge, popular projects like moths to a flame—it’s good to feel involved in a zeitgeist, it’s fun to go to a bookstore and see something YOU personally voted for with a big HUGO WINNER sticker on its cover at the front of the store. Fan projects don’t have the same wide reach as professional projects for a lot of reasons, but I think they’re the heart and soul of the Hugos because they represent the passion of the fan community. They’re the collective effort of the fans out there busting their butts day-after-day creating brilliant non-fiction, art, YouTube videos, music, podcast, fanfic, blogs, magazines, and everything else that forms the emotional core of SFF fandom.
There are SO many wonderful creators featured in this series, and whether you were able to nominate for the Hugos or not (the nomination period closed last Friday), I think you'll find a lot of value in the ongoing discussion of SFF fandom.
Where are all the idyllic Lord of the Rings games? (Insert Cartridge)
The Ten Thousand Doors of January Is a Novel That Will Change the Way You Look at Stories (Barnes & Noble SF&F Blog)
Blood Matters: Growing Up in an SF/F House (Uncanny Magazine)
LTTP—Illusion of Gaia (1993, SNES)
( LTTP stands for “Late to the Party” and is a regular column where I let Twitter decide which retro game I’ll play for an hour. Do your worst, Twitter!)
Sometimes I scrape for LTTP ideas, and other times they're stupidly obvious, like this time around where I asked my Twitter followers to chose an entry in Quintet's legendary Heaven and Earth trilogy (Soul Blazer, Illusion of Gaia, Terranigma). Illusion of Gaia squeaked out a narrow victory in a pretty even field.
While I've barely played the first entry and only beat the third game once, Illusion of Gaia is one of my favourite games of all time and I've played it many times. So, let's dive in!
Bask ye upon this glorious title screen! Like, that's just 16-bit perfection.
Illusion of Gaia hit North America in 1994, but it was released in 1993 in Japan—contemporaneously with games like Secret of Mana, and before heavy-hitters like Final Fantasy VI and Chrono Trigger—and every time I play it I'm blown away by the gorgeous graphics and world design. The leap from Final Fantasy IV to Illusion of Gaia in just 18ish months is astounding, and in a lot of ways I think it stands up to some of the most graphically impressive games released near the end of the Super Nintendo's life cycle, including its sequel Terranigma. For this reason alone, it's one of the first games I fire up when testing a new TV or hardware.
Part of Illusion of Gaia's lasting appeal is how it conveys so much melancholy storytelling through its world design, graphics, and (especially) its music and audio design. You'll immediately recognize the sub-par localization, but despite its best efforts to absolutely butcher a haunting story, you still feel the loss and regret because of the non-textual narrative elements. I honestly can't think of another game that captures the essence of Illusion of Gaia. Even its sequel, Terranigma, which manages melancholy in its own way, doesn't quite hit the same mark for me.
This playthrough didn't cover it, but some of the areas and story scenes later in the game—like the Moon Tribe, the Incan Gold Ship, Freejia and the Diamond Mind, the Watermia goblet game, the Hamlet scene—are genuinely tragic, and it's all handled with a subtlety and quietness that's so unlike other games of the time.
Illusion of Gaia is very linear, but that's part of the overall appeal for me. It's narratively-focused, and there's no required backtracking or wandering off the beaten path, but the dungeons are complexly designed, the puzzles just the right difficulty, and the combat is simple, but fast-paced and fun. All of this makes Illusion of Gaia one of my go-to games when I want something comfortable and easy to pick up and play.
Another standout element is the way the multi-character system informs combat and puzzles in dungeons. The player spends most of their time playing as young Will, who's searching for his father, but thanks to the power of "Dark Space" he can transform into powerful warriors called Freedan and Shadow, both of whom offer new options in battle and abilities for solving puzzles. It's a great system, and a unique addition to the Zelda-style dungeon-heavy RPG.
I can't say enough about Illusion of Gaia. It's gorgeous and achingly heartbreaking—a true testament to the ability of 16-bit games to create compelling worlds and stories without relying on strong textual narratives. While it might not be as polished as many of the better known SNES action RPGs/JRPGs, Illusion of Gaia's unique contributions to the genre make it an easy recommendation for anyone who loves games like Link to the Past, Secret of Mana, or Secret of Evermore.
Watch the Stream
Illusion of Gaia was released in Japan by Enix in November, 1993, and by Nintendo in North America a year later, and in Europe (where it was known as Illusion of Time) in April, 1995. It received no future releases—physical or digital—in any region.
Indians on Vacation by Thomas King
I've known King for his non-fiction—like The Inconvenient Indian and his Massey Lectures—but this was my first experience with one of his novels, and it was an absolute delight. King has such a natural ability to entwine character and plot so that they're inextricable from one another, and equally, the way humour and darkness play together like lifelong frenemies is effortless and unforgettable. Indians on Vacation follows narrator Bird and his wife Mimi as they chase the memory of a long lost family member through Prague while on vacation. Along the way, they reminisce about their life and journeys, and discover memories that run the gamut from hilarious and self deprecating, to melancholy and difficult to bear. Indians on Vacation is a heartfelt novel that understands life can be routine and difficult, effervescent and grumpy, dark and hopeful. All at once.
Gut-wrenchingly funny, heart-wrenchingly sad.
(Quest Markers is a collection of the coolest stuff I’ve read around the web lately.)
What It Was Like to Eat with Anthony Bourdain (Food & Wine)
Memphis writer emerges as a major player in the sci-fi world (Daily Memphian)
Where Are All of the Mothers in Fantasy Fiction? (Den of Geek)
FanFic—Skies of Arcadia: To The Horizon (Heather Alexandria)
America's Sweetheart: Thoughts on WandaVision (Asking the Wrong Questions)
Sometimes It’s OK to Give Up (Wired)
First full issue since moving Astrolabe over to Revue in the books! It's been a process folks, let me tell you. I appreciate all the support and patience while I made the move, and I plan to provide all the same great content here that you've come to expect from Astrolabe.
Keep an eye out for the next Transmission Received! It's just around the corner, and you'll get the full interview with Matt Wallace. He's a champ (in and out of the ring) and there's so much in there I can't wait for you to read.
There are lots of ways to support Astrolabe and my other work. Check ‘em out!