Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Mary Robinette Kowal's Visit to Eugene

At the risk of gushing like a simpering fan-boy, I must set down my impressions of when Mary Robinette Kowal was in Eugene, this Tuesday last, as part of her signing tour for her novel, Shades of Milk and Honey. Mary Robinette is a professional puppeteer, author, and voice actress. She is also the current vice-president of SFWA.

I arrived at her signing at a quarter past five o'clock. She stood on a raised stage with a hand fan, the epitome of a Grecian frieze in her blue Regency dress. (The fanboy author pauses to remark that he wishes he had pearly shoes like ones she wore.)

She spoke on a variety of subjects: women's clothing, male instructors of the womanly arts, the language of fans, dance etiquette, and the research efficacy of the only guide on Jane Austen and Charles Dickens I currently own. She entertained the audience by reading two passages from her novel, managing to speak convincingly as five or six distinct characters. (Here is an excerpt from the Shades of Milk and Honey audio book, read by Mary Robinette.)

She performed a brief Regency era shadow puppet show, after which she explained the history and workings of the set and props. I was particularly struck with how she held one puppet's controls -- possibly bamboo skewers -- and manipulated them like chop-sticks to make the puppet raise and lower his pickax while he stood and crouched (and I cursed my European stubbornness surrounding learning the art of eating with them).

Best of all, she revealed a love of a certain building material which I have utilized myself many times: cereal boxes from a particular local grocer.

After the book signing, she gave a talk to the assembled Wordos, which addressed the parallels between puppetry and writing. I was in awe as she illustrated her points by using the shoe (a sensible, modern one this time) off of her left foot as a puppet and effectively conveyed its emotions through focus, breath and motion. Of the many useful and practical comments she made, the one that stuck with me the most was this: The first-person narrative (while currently not fashionable in speculative fiction) works well when the narrator changes as a result of telling the story.

Her other useful comment concerned blogs, titles, and links: don't make them too cute (yours truly stirs uneasily, as being too cute is one of his character flaws); if you make them descriptive, they will make search engines work for you.

And then the delightful evening drew to a close. Thankfully, I have my signed copy of Shades of Milk and Honey, and if I exercise my memory, I can make the characters' voices approximate Mary Robinette's as I read.
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