The Joy of Kibitzing*

The City of Silk and SteelGollancz is delighted to be able to bring you a series of guest posts from Mike, Linda and Louise Carey to celebrate the publication of The City of Silk and Steel. Today, we are thrilled to bring you a guest post from Linda Carey.

The thing about our family is, no-one ever leaves well alone.  We’ll go out to a film, say, or just have a takeaway round a TV box set – and one of us will start to nitpick.  They didn’t like the ending.  Or that detail didn’t fit in because.  And then someone else jumps in, and before you know it we’re having a ding-dong row about something as momentous as how Popeye gets the top off his spinach can, or whether Angel could beat Spike in a fair fight.

Mike’s stories are as much fair game for this as anything else we read or watch.  We currently get issues of his comic Unwritten delivered as soon as they come out, and any unwelcome plot development is generally met with howls of outrage (and on one occasion, threats).  Mike usually takes this fairly stoically, as part of the give-and-take of family life.  There are writers whose studies are oases of calm; whose families understand the importance of their work and tiptoe around them while the flame of creativity is burning.  Not in this household.  Hemingway may have written under fire; J.K. Rowling had to produce her bestseller at a café table.  Mike writes under the constant threat of kibitzers.

So back in 2009, when he came up with the idea of an entire harem cast out into the desert, and was incautious enough to mention it one mealtime, we all had our pennyworth to put in.  My own contribution was, if you don’t end up writing that, can I have it?  I’d written some YA books about dragons and was looking for a follow-up, and this sounded a lot more fun than anything I’d thought up so far.  Mike declined to give away his storyline, but he wasn’t averse to discussing it.  What a prince: this is one of the reasons I married him.  We left the boys to do the washing up, made a cup of coffee and got stuck in.

We talked about what a harem of 365 women might actually be like: would the sultan have recruited them all together or built them up gradually?  If he’d started off with a more modest number as a young man and added more over the years as they caught his lecherous eye, some of them might be quite old by now.  I liked this idea, and so the character of Gursoon was born, the elder stateswoman of the seraglio who knows how to manage the sultan in all his moods and emerges as one of their leaders when the women are cast out into the desert.  We decided early on that the harem would form an army and try to retake their city, so they needed a war leader, a one-woman fighting machine who can train the others into an unbeatable force.  It sounded a bit far-fetched, but hell, there were far more outrageous stories in the Arabian Nights, which would be our model … And then Louise, who’d wandered in and was kibitzing, as we do, said, ‘If it’s going to be about stories, you should have a character who’s a librarian.’

By the time we emerged (into a kitchen still full of dirty dishes; our sons have better things to do) we’d agreed to write the story as a threesome.

It was a blast.  Well, it had some things in common with a blast: an initial intense burst of energy, followed by chaos and disorder.  We got the bare bones of the story sorted out fairly quickly, and then started on the chapter-by chapter planning.  And when I say started… I don’t actually think we ever finished.  We’d have legendary meals in the local noodle bar (see Mike’s post) where the table was so full of notes, and plans, and complicated diagrams with wiggly lines in felt-tip that you could hardly see the Chinese vegetables.  We’d each go dibs on a different bit of the story, and then all go away and do some writing, sometimes as planned, sometimes not.  And then we’d meet up for another meal, with more notes, and try to harmonise what we’d written.   For a while it was all good, slightly aimless fun.  And then Mike phoned me from Eastercon to announce that he’d met a publisher who wanted to commission the book.

That was when it got serious.  We held an emergency summit conference, looked at what we already had (not enough!), divvied up the rest and got cracking, or tried to.  Mike, being a professional writer, sat down and calmly wrote chapter after chapter.  Louise and I – I don’t think there’s a polite way of putting this – went into headless chicken mode.  We suddenly had a deadline.  And I had a day-job. And Lou was a student with end-of-year exams coming up, ohmigawwwd!

Still, we threw ourselves into it.  The thought that people would actually be reading this stuff sent both Lou and me into serious research mode.  We’d spend a couple of hours apiece on meticulous study of market practices in 4th century Arabia, say – and then Mike would write something completely off the top of his head that sounded twice as good, even if it wasn’t strictly accurate.  I learned valuable lessons from him about winging it.  And when we fell behind and he tried to chivvy us, I’m sure he found out a certain amount from us about female solidarity and sheer mule-headed stubbornness: that must have been useful when describing our women’s army, right?

Gradually, squeaking up to the deadline, we saw it come together.  I had to overcome a certain amount of Jewish maternal guilt at allowing my daughter to pull so many all-nighters, but to be honest, she’d probably have done that anyway; she’s a student.  Come to think of it, that last couple of weeks, I was getting some pretty late nights myself … but hey, Mike, we got it in on time, OK?

No need to kibitz.

*For anyone unfamiliar with Yiddishisms: Kibitz (verb):- to watch someone else at work and give unasked-for comments and advice.  Used especially of people who butt into card games, as in: ‘Quit kibitzing! You’re giving away my hand!

The City of Silk and Steel is out now where all good books are sold.