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Kingfisher and Lost Words

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We’re back!

And…wow. I don’t even know where to start. We saw so many things that I can’t even start to parse them enough to talk about them, or if I tried to begin at the beginning, we’d be here for days. The hyenas that went through camp and left fist-sized tracks a foot from the tents where we were sleeping. The walking football (a Red-Billed Spurfowl) that came into camp for crumbs and who we named Football-Bob and who looked at us all very mistrustfully. The elephant that mock-charged our vehicle and trumpeted and the way that the sound echoed around in my chest and made me feel suddenly tiny and fragile and easily stomped. The lions of Savuti, descended from the prides that learned to hunt elephants during a drought a decade ago. The time our bumper fell off, along with the trailer hitch and the trailer, leaving us in Savuti, surrounded by aforementioned lions, with no way of dragging our food and camping equipment with us. (Our driver, B-man,* loaded us up with luggage in our laps, dropped us at the campsite, and went back for all the equipment. Along the way he got a flat. We were very hard on vehicles on this trip.)

So for lack of anything better to start with, I’ll tell you about the best moment of the trip, and how it led to one of the odder ones.

We went out on the Chobe River in a boat, looking for animals. Mostly we saw birds. (The group was very good about my bird-mania. Incidentally, I got 154 lifers!) And after about half an hour on the water (during which we drifted briefly and illegally into Namibia, to our boat-guide’s mild distress) we spotted a Giant Kingfisher.

Giant Kingfishers were one of the birds I most wanted to see. They’re the biggest kingfisher in the world, reaching nearly a foot and a half from beak to tailfeathers. They resemble a bigger and more ornate version of our Belted Kingfisher, but their sheer size is pretty damn amazing. (There were also the very common Pied Kingfisher, which was a gorgeous little bird too.)

This Giant came flying past us, holding a crab in its mouth. (There are crabs in the Chobe River.) It landed on the exposed roots of what I was told was an ebony tree and began beating the crab savagely against the roots. Bits of shell flew. Our boat-guide moved the boat in closer–Kevin got photos–and we watched it whack the crab apart so that it could get at the meat.

“There,” said Kevin. “That’s your animal. That one. Right there.”

“Well, I do like kingfishers…” I said.

“No, I mean, I’ve seen the way you eat crab.”

The Giant launched itself off the roots suddenly and circled the boat so tightly that its wings practically came in over the railing. It made the usual chattering kingfisher cry, swept past me–I could have almost reached out and touched it–and then landed back on the root and went back to destroying the crab.

It is possible that I screamed the whole time it was circling us. I am a little blurry on that point.

We saw some other very nice birds, a couple of giraffes, an elephant or two, and then on the way back, the boat-guide suddenly pulled over the side of a muddy bank and there was a Malachite Kingfisher.

I’ll post a photo once Kevin’s got them all up, but they’re worth googling now. They are unbelievably beautiful. They’re quite small, but practically made of neon. I may have had a minor meltdown over its existence. It was glorious.

That was the best moment for me, in a trip made of fantastic experiences.

Later that night, as our guide Jorge and our driver B-man sat around with us and ate dinner at the lodge, I pushed a sheet of paper toward B-man, who was a native speaker of Setswana, and asked him if he could write down the Setswana word for kingfisher for me. (He had tried to teach me the words for “What bird is that?” earlier but my auditory memory is dreadful, so I need to see the words written down. Also, his English was very good but between his accent and my deafness, I wasn’t gonna be able to do it phonetically.)

“I cannot do it,” he said. “I am sorry.”

“…oh,” I said, worried that I had run into some weird cultural gap that I hadn’t seen coming. (Do you not ask people to write down bird names? I’d managed to remember that when you hand someone money, you clasp your wrist as a sign of a respect, and that pointing was rude, but I was paranoid that I was doing something deeply gauche and was completely unaware of it.)

“There is no word,” he explained. “Not in Setswana. We say water bird, but then we use the English, kingfisher.”

“Oh,” I said again. “There isn’t a word. Okay.”

He frowned down at the paper. “Ah…there is a book. In eighteen-hundred, a man went all around Botswana and collected all the Setswana words. If you look in that book, there may be a word. But we do not know the word now. It is…” He trailed off, waving the tip of the pen in that I-am-trying-to-think-of-a-word motion (which may not be completely universal, but seems to hold up pretty well between Botswana and here.)

“Lost?” I suggested after a minute.

“Lost. Yes. There was a word, I think. It is lost.” He handed me back the paper.

Realistically, I suspect that there is no chance that there wasn’t originally a word for kingfishers–they have six or seven species, and at least a couple are common, loud, and found on every waterway. But whatever it was, it’s out of common usage. And in fact, of the sixty-odd birds that B-man successfully identified for me, every one was named in colloquial English, except maybe the Brubru. A few, like the coucals, might have started as a native word, but had then had English tacked on–Copper Tailed Coucal, White-Browed Coucal, Burchell’s Coucal. (Burchell, whoever he was, got around. Half the birds were named after him.)

I felt a pang of guilt, as if my native language was a dog that had bitten his. Setswana is a language with many, many native speakers–Wikipedia says over five million–and on no one’s list of endangered languages. Many of the parks were named in Setswana, and he’d told us both the common Setswana names of animals and sometimes the word in the regional dialect. But here I’d stumbled onto a word that had simply slipped away and been replaced by English.

“I’m sorry,” he said again.

“No, no, it’s okay,” I said. “I’m sorry it’s lost. Languages are strange.”

He nodded, then shrugged. Sometimes the bumper falls off your truck. Sometimes a word falls off your language.

I still don’t entirely know how I feel about that.

*B-man was a stoic, a fantastic driver, probably Muslim (he did not eat pork or drink alcohol, though I suspect he regretted that last after the second flat tire.) and very, very good at bird IDs for a non-specialist. Botswana guides go through very rigorous training, which includes bird IDs–tourism is THE big industry, being a guide is a big deal, and the licensing process for guides is extremely thorough. He said that I made him brush up on all his birds. We spent a lot of time hunched over my bird book. At one point, he managed to ID a bird based on the call that I was making Kevin imitate for him. (It was a Brubru, in case you’re curious, a member of the Bush-shrike family.)

He called himself “B-man” because his name was very long and very hard to pronounce. (We did offer to try.) I felt much better when he started running into friends of his at lodges and THEY all called him B-man, too. It’s one thing to be the dumb American who can’t pronounce hard words, and another when even your friends default to a nickname.

Faking the Rough Draft

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(And thanks to archangelbeth for the analogy!)

Art derives from artifice and is inherently artificial. I may want to produce gorgeous authentic journal pages in my sketchbook, but I can’t. So I scan the weird little doodles and frantic blatherings in the sketchbook and produce them on the computer, because I grew up on the computer, goddamnit.

And they come out looking like this.

TravelNegativeSeven

One Week

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In one week, I will be on a plane to Botswana.

I am terrified. I have bought two travel journals and they are probably both wrong.

I really want to keep a travel journal–or at least to be the sort of person who keeps travel journals–and I am going with a pack of artists so I totally have to bring one. Sketching will occur. But then I get these books about travel journals and it’s all doodles on Moleskines that are eleven thousand times better than my best day sketching and I KNOW they only put the pretty ones in and not the pages that are like three lines and a doodle of a chicken, but it doesn’t help because ALL of my sketchbook pages are three lines and a doodle of a chicken.

(I kinda like the guy in this one book who just takes photos of everything and jots down notes and then goes back and sketches from the photos after he gets home and colors them digitally. I appreciate that. As a primarily digital artist, I will be at a disadvantage until they really kick up the game on tablets.)

Seriously, though, on some level I really want to be making the journals that look like Hemingway took up scrapbooking and they wind up galleries and then everyone will be terribly impressed at my mad on-the-spot drawing skills and insightful extemporaneous poetry and also how legible my handwriting is.

And while I am dreaming, I would like world peace and a pony.

I know people who take their sketchbook everywhere and draw in them and they are probably better people or at least better artists. I keep trying to get into the habit and it keeps sort of not happening. Possibly it’s because I don’t actually like drawing very much. I love painting. I will paint all day long. Drawing is the chore that leads up to getting to paint. If I’m drawing for fun, it’s basically as a punchline to a joke. This is arguably why I’m in comics.

Anyway, I continue to prep in other ways. I replaced my hiking boots that were pinchy. Apparently my problem is that I am a size 10, not a size 9.5. I was a size 7, once. Mind you, I was also a C cup once, too.

Anyway, everything is as prepared as it gets, I guess, except that you are supposed to make your checked luggage look really gaudy and crappy and distinctive because there’s a major problem with people stealing luggage off carousels, so the safari company suggests making them LOUD. I have purchased hot pink and blue leopard print duct tape. We will do this thing.

General Roundup

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The frogs have been singing non-stop for days. Plummeting temperatures did not faze them, and now it’s warm again and they are all very loud and very happy. The pond is full of concentric circles where they’re inflating their throat sacs and making ripples.

I took my last typhoid pill this morning. I should now be immune for about five years, at least in theory. I am still a little worried that the doctor said “Watch out for cholera.” I read too many books with cholera as a plot point. (Further Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, I am looking in your direction!) We have antibiotics, just in case.

My new middle-grade novel, “Castle Hangnail” comes out next month! Check out the snazzy cover!

(Well, it’s the snazzy ARC cover. I can’t find the snazzy hardcover cover image. It’s somewhere, I’m sure.)

CastleHangnailBOMcvr

And I think that’s about everything going on…

Angus

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It has been a bad winter for pets.

Angus the little orange cat passed away yesterday. He’d been dropping weight faster than I liked, which we thought was a dental problem, but a week ago he started stumbling. It rapidly became clear that he had terrible vertigo, he began falling even with sitting, and his pupils were different sizes, which is a pretty clear sign of neurological problems. Our options were down to spending an exorbitant amount of money on CAT scans just to confirm what the vet was already sure of–tumor on the inner ear, clearly growing very fast.

There’s very little treatment at that point. Even if we could spend an insane sum on brain surgery on a senior cat, even if it was miraculously successful, the inner ear was already damaged and he would spend the rest of his life thinking he was falling over. Since I would not wish my worst enemy to die of vertigo, we put him to sleep yesterday afternoon.

It was a shockingly fast decline and I’m still rather stunned. He was the sweetest little cat in the world, he wanted nothing more than to be on the bed, preferably tucked up against a human. He liked to sleep with his head on other cats’ butts, to their general dismay.

I know this is the price of admission for having pets, and I never doubt that I will do it again and again and again, but god, we only lost Brandon last month. Twice in a row like this is hard. We are as skilled as people can be in making these choices, but I’d really like to not exercise that skill for awhile.

Well. Ben (or at least, Ben’s butt) was the great love of Angus’s life, and I hope they are together again in whatever afterlife awaits cats. And no one else in the house is allowed to die until 2016 at the earliest.

Artistic Sojourns Kickstarter

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So there’s a Kickstarter for a nifty little book put together by the group of artists going to Botswana, being organized by the awesome Foxfeather, and you can see it all here: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1729864809/expanding-horizons-artists-journey-to-africa

We’ve just added a couple of tiers, including the chance to be a saint on the Hidden Almanac and two Tuckerization slots to have a minor character in a T. Kingfisher novel. (Obviously those slots may take a while on fulfillment…) Check it out!

Even if you don’t want my tiers, there are some just absurdly talented artists involved and you’d want the book just for their art…

ETA: And apparently people really want me to kill characters named after themselves, because those slots sold in ten minutes. Um. Whoa.

ETA: …and the saints are sold. Ooookay. That was wild! Thank you, everyone! Now I know what to offer next time somebody wants a charity auction…

Seventh Bride Goes Mainstream(ier)

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So now that we have agreed and accepted the offer, I can tell you guys all about it–Seventh Bride got picked up by 47North, Amazon’s spec-fic imprint, and they’ll be publishing an expanded version, mostly likely this November!

Basically, what happened was that Bride was doing really well–4K copies–and one of the editors there was looking for a book that was sorta like a book they’d just published, and happened across it, and then she loved it and wrote to make me an offer. And since I am incapable of dealing with this sort of thing, I turned to my agent and went “AAAAUGHGHH HELP!” and she took it and repped it and got me more money and dealt with all the fiddly bits that I would have been lost with, which is why we have agents and why they more than earn the chunk they take and it doesn’t matter how this brave new world of publishing falls out, I will keep my agent until she takes out a restraining order against me.

As far as you, the reader is concerned, what’s going to happen is that come November-ish, it will be unavailable anywhere but Amazon, as an expanded version with a new cover on it. And it will have a trade paperback edition, and probably an audiobook edition and possibly even some other exciting stuff. (The copy you have, if you have bought it already, will not go away. I checked specifically on that, because that would have been a deal-breaker for me. Apparently 47North aims for–one quotes–“seamless transition” on this.)

I’ll be honest, this is both very weird and a great relief. I’ve always felt like Dragonbreath was a weird fluke that could never be duplicated and either Hamster Princess would tank or someday my beloved editor at Dial would retire and I would never sell another middle-grade book.

So that someone just stumbled over a T. Kingfisher book and said “Let’s make this happen!” made me feel like I suddenly exhaled–it’s not a one-off, I can actually do this, if everything collapses, I can rebuild a career from the ashes, etc.

…and, of course, it’s also weird, because once again, my career is progressing based on the thing happening that never happens.

A lot of people who self-publish express a desire to get picked up by a trade publisher if things do well, and other people clutch their heads and say “Please, no, don’t do that. This book isn’t your audition tape. Concentrate on making a really fantastic self-published book, not on a dress rehearsal for trade. Focus your business on doing self-pub WELL, not on a vague hope for a statistically unlikely event.”

And this is very good advice, and I would give it to anyone and it never actually occurred to me that I would find myself in that statistically unlikely event. Lightning struck me and the shark I was riding.

But here we are.

RESULTS NOT TYPICAL.

I mulled this one over at great length, honestly. A lot more so than I have previous deals. I contacted authors with the house. I talked at length to my agent. This was actual…like…business decision stuff. And it was doing well as a self-pub, so I had to think about it in a way that I am not good at thinking about things.

I am a great flounderer from place to place. This felt like I floundered someplace very unexpected.

Still, I’m going for it. Without getting into details, by going with a trade publisher (any trade publisher!) I am taking a paycut on royalties on Bride…but there’s an advance, and more importantly, it’ll put the terrifying Amazon marketing machinery behind the book, and however mixed my feelings are about it, I still sell 95% of my copies on Kindle. So it could get a HUGE bump. T. Kingfisher is a complete unknown, and if 47North moves this book, even if I never publish another thing through them, the OTHER books I write as T. Kingfisher–including, incidentally, the retelling of Beauty & the Beast that will be out this May–will totally benefit from it.

And it may do amazing. And if it does, they can come back and talk to me about Beast.

And an audiobook and a print book do not suck, even if they won’t get in most physical stores (for reasons I completely understand!)

At the end of the day, though, what basically decided me was–I wanted to be a hybrid author. I went with a pen-name because that was my experiment with self-pub. So here’s the great hybrid experiment doubling back on itself, and we’ll see what happens. I wrote this book to see where they’d go, and I did not expect it to go where it did, but sometimes you just grab on and go for the ride.

So that’s what’s happening. And I totally do not know what’s going to happen next, but I’ll keep you posted as to how it goes!

 

ETA: I feel a vague urge to apologize to someone for having done this all backwards. I think I did self-pub wrong, somehow…

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