Work in Progress

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I haven’t published much recently, so just in case you think I’ve stopped writing altogether, I decided it’s time for a sneak peek of the project that takes up all of my oh-so-plentiful spare time. I’ve (temporarily) set vampires and fairies aside to work on a historical novel called La Citoyenne (The Citizen). It’s an adaptation of two related short stories by George Washington Cable set in both Revolutionary France and Spanish Colonial Louisiana. For now, it begins like this:

New Orleans, Louisiana Territory

Spring, 1795

            The Alençon lace on the tablecloth had torn. I stared at it, needle in hand, trying to decide how to mend it. I had visited the workshop in Alençon once as a child, when Madame Levicq took me there to view the meticulous labor required to create such beauty. I knew the thick strands at the edges were horsehair, but even if I could find a place to purchase horsehair thread in New Orleans, I had no skill to recreate the stitches. Just as in France herself, I had no power to repair what had been rent.

I set the needle down and took up my scissors to cut the priceless border away from the cream-colored linen. I would sell the lace tomorrow, if I could, then hem the cloth to make it usable again. If misfortune had stolen its glamour, at least its substance still remained.

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Karen Ullo is the author of two novels, Jennifer the Damned and Cinder Allia. She is also the managing editor of Dappled Things literary journal and a regular Meatless Friday chef for CatholicMom.com. She lives in Baton Rouge, LA with her husband and two young sons. Find out more at www.karenullo.com.

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Cinder Allia available in hardback!

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New year, new edition… for the first time ever, Cinder Allia is now available in hardback! You can order it on Amazon or through any major retailer. Happy reading!

Best fantasy novel of 2017 (tied), CatholicReads.com

2018 Next Generation Indie Book Awards, finalist, fantasy

Cinder Allia has spent eight years living under her stepmother’s brutal thumb, wrongly punished for having caused her mother’s death. She lives for the day when the prince will grant her justice; but her fairy godmother shatters her hope with the news that the prince has died in battle. Allia escapes in search of her own happy ending, but her journey draws her into the turbulent waters of war and politics in a kingdom where the prince’s death has left chaos and division. Cinder Allia turns a traditional fairy tale upside down and weaves it into an epic filled with espionage, treason, magic, and romance. What happens when the damsel in distress must save not only herself, but her kingdom? What price is she willing to pay for justice? And can a woman who has lost her prince ever find true love? Surrounded by a cast that includes gallant knights, turncoat revolutionaries, a crippled prince who lives in hiding, a priest who is also a spy, and the man whose love Allia longs for most–her father–Cinder Allia is an unforgettable story about hope, courage, and the healing power of pain.

Karen Ullo is the author of two novels, Jennifer the Damned and Cinder Allia. She is also the managing editor of Dappled Things literary journal and a regular Meatless Friday chef for CatholicMom.com. She lives in Baton Rouge, LA with her husband and two young sons. Find out more at www.karenullo.com.

Mining the Public Domain

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As you may have heard, because of a 1998 revision to U.S. copyright law, January 1, 2019 marked the first time in more than 20 years that any copyrighted work entered the public domain. And while we all rush to download legal copies of works by Robert Frost and Edith Wharton, this also means those cherished works are now available to be used and abused by artists of every stripe for our own creative endeavors. So, it’s a good time to reflect a little on the creative process, what we owe our forebears, and what might or might not constitute an appropriate way to borrow (that is, steal) other people’s intellectual property.

I freely admit to being a shameless raider of the public domain. My first novel, Jennifer the Damned, is loosely based on Crime and Punishment (though I probably could have gotten away with publishing it even if the original were still under copyright.) My second novel, Cinder Allia, would certainly have owed royalties to both The Brothers Grimm and Charles Perrault if their copyrights hadn’t expired. I’m currently working on my most flagrant act of plagiarism to date, converting two related short stories by George Washington Cable into a novel. It’s blatant thievery… and it’s legal, and I fully expect to be able to say of the finished product, “This is mine.”

When I recently discussed the public domain with some friends, they asked me, “Wouldn’t you be horrified if someone else took the characters from your books and wrote whatever story they pleased?” Of course, my answer is Yes. I picture poor Margaret Mitchell rolling over in her grave at the publication of Scarlett (which was commissioned by her heirs; Gone With the Wind is still under copyright), and the thought that someday, some second-rate hack might do the same to Jennifer makes my blood boil. If I think about the public domain’s potential consequences for my beloved books, I suddenly want nothing more than to remain an obscure nobody in the hopes that my work will die with me.

I am an absolute hypocrite when it comes to the sanctity of intellectual property, and yet it is a hypocrisy from which there seems to be no escape. An author (or musician, artist, etc.) must be granted the sole proprietorship of his creations, or share it only with the appropriate collaborators, not only to ensure that he is paid fairly for the work but to maintain the integrity of the work itself. Yet there does come a point when it’s just silly to continue to extend royalty payments to someone’s heirs. Can you imagine the legal nightmare if we still had to hunt down the rights-holders every time we wanted to stage one of Shakespeare’s plays? It makes sense that there comes a point when creative works belong to everyone. The artists have lived their lives, earned their pay (or not, as the case may be), and they leave us with a treasure that becomes literally priceless. Their works become a layer in our cultural consciousness, a foundation not of bedrock but of clay. Their stories become ourstories, a past out of which we build our present and our future.

Of course, once a work has entered the public domain, there is no way to police who does what with it anymore. If you want to write Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, no one can stop you. If you want to turn Pachelbel’s Canon in D into an incredibly annoying Christmas song,  alas, you can make millions. If you want to reimagine Crime and Punishment as a vampire novel, I might sue you, but only because I thought of it first. The clay is universally available to every would-be sculptor, which is both a blessing and a curse. What responsibility do we, the artists who mine and mold the public domain, have to the artists who came before? At what point should their artistic integrity give way to our creativity, and at what point do we need to rein ourselves in? How do we reverence the works we build on, and how do we build rather than destroy?

There are no easy answers, and it’s unlikely that any group of artists would reach a consensus on these issues. I will offer a few of my own thoughts, but I welcome all of you to chime in in the comments.

      First, it is possible to find a work that speaks to you, but which really could stand to be improved. This happens frequently in music when the cover version of a song far exceeds the artistry of the original. In the case of “Say Something” by A Great Big World, their lackluster single caught the attention of Christina Aguilera, who then collaborated with them on a new version that is about four million times improved, if we use the sales figures as a measurement. She added the dynamic, harmonic, and tonal contrast that the song sorely lacked, and the results speak for themselves. This is obviously not a case of mining the public domain, but the same principle can apply. In my current project, Cable’s stories speak to me, but he made deliberate narrative choices that required him to skim the surface of character development and conflict. Where he skimmed, I want to dive. Discovering a work like this is like finding a glorious but half-polished diamond. The desire is not only to finish the job, but to create a whole new necklace in which to set the newly-polished original. It cannot be done without reverence for the original work; why would anyone waste his time adapting something he thought was terrible? The point is to showcase the original in a new, more glorious light. Yet the process may very well require chipping away at pieces the original author would have been loath to part with, and any artist will bring his or her own unique perspective to the tale. In this life, I will never know what George Cable thinks of my story, and that’s probably for the best. But I can thank him profusely for providing me with the diamond, and hold myself to the highest possible artistic standards in the hope that I can play Christina to his Great Big World.

More often, however, it would be pure arrogance to think we could improve the works we’ve borrowed. Dostoevsky certainly doesn’t need my help; Cinderella has been adapted a thousand different ways, and her story still transcends all our meddling. So why do we bother? What is the appeal? There is an argument to be made for adaptations as the lazy man’s version of creativity, and an even more compelling argument that the appeal is easy-to-sell brand recognition. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies… Cool, I’d like to see Elizabeth fighting the undead. Hey, that Christmas song sounds like something I heard at a wedding… It must be good, even if those kids are pretty shrill. It is certainly possible to use the public domain as a shortcut to success, even when the new work is decidedly less artistic than the old.

But for those of us who profess motives other than gimmickry or brand recognition, there are more layers to uncover. Adaptations can be true art. Scarlett might be an abomination, but the 1939 film adaptation of Gone with the Wind remains one of the greatest movies ever made. Romeo and Juliet is one of those works we now think of as prime fodder for ridiculous adaptations, but it is itself an adaptation of Pyramus and Thisbe. Jonathan Larson’s Rent was based on Puccini’s La Bohème, which was based on the collection of stories called  Scènes de la vie de bohème by Henri Murger. The world of storytelling, in whatever medium, would be very impoverished without adaptations.

It’s been said that there are only seven plots in all of literature, so it is to be expected that different writers will tell different versions of the same tale. The human experience is vast and unique to each individual, but also universal. We all experience the same emotions, if not always in the same proportions, and we all grapple with issues like survival, love, and justice, even if we come to different conclusions about how they should be achieved. Every now and then, a story encapsulates some aspect of our human experience so well that it becomes difficult even to imagine that part of our experience through any lens other than the story. If you think about falling in love with the “wrong” person, does your mind not inevitably draw you back to Romeo and Juliet? It doesn’t matter if the “wrong” person is from a different race, social class, religion, etc., or if the real people involved live someplace far removed from fair Verona. Two Indians of different castes have fallen in love and face resistance from their families; can you write that story without being influenced by Shakespeare? Even if an author who had never read Shakespeare made the attempt, readers and critics would draw the parallel. Some stories are so deeply embedded in our consciousness that we cannot possibly escape them.

So, too, some stories become so deeply embedded in an individual author that it would be ridiculous to deny their influence. It is simpler, cleaner, and wiser just to acknowledge our debt. I could not have written a story about a terrible sinner who is dragged by grace toward redemption that did not use Crime and Punishment as a mold; Dostoevsky’s seeds had already taken far too deep a root in my imagination. This type of adaptation is not about slavish adherence to an original, and less still about enhancing the original, but only about making use of the raw materials that beloved stories have left within our minds and souls in order to give shape to our own creations.

That, to me, is the gift we receive from mining the public domain. Every story, every piece of music, every work of art we encounter has the potential to plant a seed in our minds, to become clay for our souls, to help shape our understanding of the world and what lies beyond. The public domain gives us permission to allow those seeds to blossom, that clay to take shape. The law is designed only to affect the works of artists who are long dead. Just as the artists’ bodies decay but then give shape to flowers, grass, insects—or even rats and plagues—their works are left to fertilize new generations of artists in new and unexpected ways, both beautiful and terrible. The real miracle of the process is that, unlike a body, a work of art does not have to die to be reborn.

Karen Ullo is the author of two novels, Jennifer the Damned and Cinder Allia. She is also the managing editor of Dappled Things literary journal and a regular Meatless Friday chef for CatholicMom.com. She lives in Baton Rouge, LA with her husband and two young sons. Find out more at www.karenullo.com.

How Monster Stories Can Be Good For Our Souls

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I have an essay in The Federalist this week, which is a little preview of my talk at Doxacon on November 3. Just in time for Halloween, “How Monster Stories Can Be Good For Our Souls.”  Enjoy!

Karen Ullo is the author of two novels, Jennifer the Damned and Cinder Allia. She is also the managing editor of Dappled Things literary journal and a regular Meatless Friday chef for CatholicMom.com. She lives in Baton Rouge, LA with her husband and two young sons. Find out more at www.karenullo.com.

What Was In Lady Vivienne’s Poison

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I almost never post the kinds of things fans seem to want from an author: short story spinoffs of novels, cut scenes, behind-the-novel glimpses into how a story evolved. I suppose it’s because I’m not a very good fan myself. I want to read a book (or watch a movie, etc.) and judge it on its own merits. I want it to be complete unto itself, to satisfy my appetite for story in its own right, and I don’t much care what else might be out there to supplement it, especially because the supplements are usually of lesser quality. I don’t begrudge anyone for being a fan. To find something you like and desire more of it is far more sensible than my approach. It’s just not an approach I know how to take.

Not surprisingly, I write the way I want to read: with an aim toward creating the most complete, satisfying work I can, which needs no supplementation. If I cut something, there was a reason, and it needs to remain cut. If I left out a piece of information, it’s likely I don’t know it any more than you do. You can ask me until the cows come home how Helen turned Jennifer into a vampire in Jennifer the Damned, and my answer will always be the same: Jennifer doesn’t know, therefore she never told me.

But I do know what was in Lady Vivienne’s poison in Cinder Allia, and I’ve decided it’s time to let my fans know, too.

If you haven’t read Cinder Allia, fair warning: there are spoilers ahead!

If you have read it, you know that much of the plot centers around the fact that the invading Darrivant army is using poison-tipped arrows that steal the Arman soldiers’ free will and turn them into mute slaves who must fight for the enemy cause—and it is Allia’s wicked stepmother, Lady Vivienne de Camesbry, who brews the poison. In the book, I never told you how she did it because there never seemed to be an appropriate moment when Vivienne—the only person who knows—would dare to mention it, even to herself. The secret is far too valuable.

Prince Raphael conducts experiments to try to distill the poison’s secrets. “He was certain the potion contained iron, granite, nightshade, and traces of some creature’s blood, but none of that information put him closer to understanding how it worked.” If he had only had a way to identify from which creature the blood had been procured, he would have found his answer.

It came from a fairy.

Lady Vivienne has never shrunk from murder. Exactly how she killed a fairy… I suppose that’s the stuff of the kind of spinoff I usually never write, isn’t it? Since I haven’t written it, I don’t know the answer. But I do know that she only had access to the blood of a single fairy, and therefore she could not have continued producing the potion forever. There was always a time limit on her decision to either defect to the Darrivants or to secure her place among the Armans by selling the secret of her potion… and, of course, blaming her stepdaughter for its existence.

The only magic in Cinder Allia is fairy magic. The fairies themselves only employ it for good, even if they are not always successful in achieving their aims. It takes a human with murder in her heart to appropriate such a pure gift for an evil purpose.

Karen Ullo is the author of two novels, Jennifer the Damned and Cinder Allia. She is also the managing editor of Dappled Things literary journal and a regular Meatless Friday chef for CatholicMom.com. She lives in Baton Rouge, LA with her husband and two young sons. Find out more at www.karenullo.com.

Cinder Allia – Finalist in the 2018 Next Generation Indie Book Awards!

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Cinder Allia has been named a finalist in the 2018 Next Generation Indie Book Awards, the largest not-for-profit awards program for independent books, namely those that are self-published or from small presses. This is in addition to being tied for the best fantasy novel of 2017 at Catholic Reads.  I am honored to see my little fairy tale take wing. If you haven’t read it yet, what are you waiting for?

Cinder Allia has spent eight years living under her stepmother’s brutal thumb, wrongly punished for having caused her mother’s death. She lives for the day when the prince will grant her justice; but her fairy godmother shatters her hope with the news that the prince has died in battle. Allia escapes in search of her own happy ending, but her journey draws her into the turbulent waters of war and politics in a kingdom where the prince’s death has left chaos and division. Cinder Allia turns a traditional fairy tale upside down and weaves it into an epic filled with espionage, treason, magic, and romance. 

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Karen Ullo is the author of two novels, Jennifer the Damned and Cinder Allia. She is also the managing editor of Dappled Things literary journal and a regular Meatless Friday chef for CatholicMom.com. She lives in Baton Rouge, LA with her husband and two young sons. Find out more at www.karenullo.com.

Black Bottle Man

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Black Bottle Man by Craig Russell
Great Plains Teen Fiction, 2010; 176 pages
Gold Medal, Moonbeam Children’s Book Awards, Young Adult Fantasy/ Sci-Fi, 2011

What do you do when your two childless aunts sell their souls to become pregnant? According to Black Bottle Man, you cut a deal with the devil and spend the next eighty years trying to find a champion who can beat him at his own game.

In 1927, Rembrandt is only ten years old when his loving Canadian farm family tears itself apart over his aunts’ dabbling in black magic. Determined to save the two women’s souls, Rembrandt, his Pa, and his Uncle Thompson cut a deal with the Black Bottle Man, Satan’s rather uninspiring earthly persona. The deal requires them to never spend more than twelve days in any one place until they either find a champion to defeat him, or die. Pa and Uncle Thompson only make it for a few years on the road. The rest is up to Rembrandt and the magic he’s learned to do using hobo signs.

If that description doesn’t tempt you, well, it didn’t really tempt me, either. Craig Russell contacted me last year, wanting to send me a review copy, and at first I think I didn’t answer. (Sorry!) He tried again a few months later, sending along an outstanding review from a blogger I usually agree with, so I cautiously agreed to give it a read.

Thank you, Craig, for persisting. This story is wild, ridiculous, serious fun.

Black Bottle Man’s structure easily draws the reader into the culture of hobo freighthopping. It moves with the speed of a train, jumping between Rembrandt’s Dust Bowl-era travels and a “present” time in 2007, while throwing in the points of view of other characters along the way. Russell’s prose is crisp and effective. He has a knack for finding just the right image to quickly wrap a reader into a scene. His characters are a blend of ordinary and outlandish, and the balance between the two is just right.

Best of all, Russell has given us a story that works at every level. Black Bottle Man is a romp, and if you want to leave it at that, it will let you. But scratch the surface just a little, and layers of new meaning begin to emerge. Rembrandt’s two aunts literally sell their souls for a magic bottle that will give them babies; it’s hard not to read that as a metaphor for modern technologies like IVF. It’s also hard to resist the unrepentant Aunt Annie’s claim that her sin was worth it, to have her strong, good daughter. But the aunts’ souls are still worth saving, and it is only through the intercession and sacrifice of others that such a feat is possible. Rembrandt’s hobo signs are part of a very incarnational magic. Each word, or sign, brings its meaning into being; for example, the sign for fish makes actual fish appear. These signs are a kind of sacrament, a visible sign of grace. The story drips with symbolism, some explicit and some more subtle, and I suspect there is even more that I will uncover in subsequent readings. Black Bottle Man is the very best kind of Catholic fiction: it weaves a Catholic worldview into the fabric of its being, creating a story that is resplendent with grace without ever needing to preach.

Black Bottle Man is marketed as “teen fiction,” and it is a book I would happily give to a teenager. But I think that moniker might also be holding it back from reaching an adult audience, who can enjoy it just as much.

Karen Ullo is the author of two novels, Jennifer the Damned and Cinder Allia. She is also the managing editor of Dappled Things literary journal and a regular Meatless Friday chef for CatholicMom.com. She lives in Baton Rouge, LA with her husband and two young sons. Find out more at www.karenullo.com.