In Griffin Hall on Thursday night, a dozen people and a very large dog gathered for a fiction reading. The event, coâ€‘sponsored by the English department and Inkberry, a literary arts group based in North Adams, featured Elizabeth Bear and one of Williams’ own, Margaret Ronald ’97. These two amicable women steered the audience into short, scenic trips into worlds that their minds had built, and then returned to detail their respective places on the road of professional writing.
Ronald has recently published the first book, Spiral Hunt, of a trilogy with the Eos Imprint of HarperCollins. Protagonist Evie is a bicycle messenger in Boston who makes extra money by using her supernatural “scent” ability to find what whatever she’s asked to. Murders within the city’s magical community send her on a chase through a landscape where Celtic myth intertwines with Beantown.
Elizabeth Bear arrived with her Briard, Ace, along with honors such as the John W. Campbell award for Best New Writer, a Locus Award for Best First Novel and a Hugo for Best Short Story.
Ronald captivated the crowd with a horror short story published in Clarkesworld Magazine called “When the Gentlemen Go By.” The title nods to Rudyard Kipling’s “A Smuggler’s Song,” but turns the original political undertones of the poem to a haunting tale of sacrifice. In Laura’s childhood, both of her brothers succumb to fatal illness after some strange force passes her house at night. The occurrence is common in her town, which has “good soil and bad air.” Every family makes a “bargain you had to keep.” The cadence of Ronald’s voice carried the audience into Laura’s adulthood and the sad, chilling choice she confronts.
Bear, along with Ace, came before the group in the hush that followed. In the genre of science fiction, which she calls “the ultimate playground,” she has written novels including A Companion to Wolves, Ink and Steel and Dust. She read excerpts from The Stratford Man, which incorporates elements of fantasy into a Shakespearean world. Bear’s sharp dialogue is equal to a playwright’s and the book is structured into five acts, demonstrating her dedication to the source material. She explained that she wears a recreation of an Elizabethan ring, gotten during her historical research. As she said, “There’s always one more thing to look up.”
The audience questioned both authors after hearing their works. Ronald said that after graduation she became a secretary and considered a job in publishing. Bear, who had wanted to be a writer since first grade, pursued writing in earnest after being laid off from her job in what she called the “media mines” of Las Vegas. Both women shared a passion for writing and persistence through hundreds of short story rejections apiece. Ronald credited the Viable Paradise workshop on Martha’s Vineyard and her membership of Boston’s BRAWL critique group for writers for helping her with Spiral Hunt, which she took on a “soulâ€‘deadening” hunt for an agent. Bear had the luck of having the first agent she approached being interested in her work.
Now both women are pursuing what they love. Bear is currently researching a short story about marijuana brownies, carousel horses and bullet-time. Ronald, along with completing the final drafts of her third book, is occupied with a short story involving a psychic and a severed head going to Disneyland.
The two also talked about the most vital aspect of books: getting them to be read. After the women considered all the postcards, bookmarks, give-aways, convention appearances and book signings that they’ve tried, Bear concluded, “You can’t really market your own work . . . Write the best book you can.” Both Margaret Ronald and Elizabeth Bear have taken that advice and projected their imaginations into gripping fiction.