Thursday, December 12, 2013

In Retrospect ... by Ellen Larson

My sci-fi murder mystery, In Retrospect, comes out this week, and in keeping with the title, it seems like a good time to reflect on a few of the experiences in my life that informed the book. In chronological order:

As a child in the Sixties, I listened to the news with my family every night, and every night on the news, Walter or Chet or Howard would tell me how many Americans had been killed in Vietnam that day. I remember the numbers: 14, 6, 9, 21, 8. I remember that once—just once—it was zero, but I could not be glad.

There are two wars in In Retrospect: one a thousand years before start of the book, when the planet itself was shaken to the core and mighty civilizations fell, and another, smaller war that ended just before the start of the book. My protagonist, Merit Rafi, a time-traveling investigator, was a member of the militia as long as that conflict lasted, and a resistance operative long after. Readers of my stuff often ask why a peacenik like me writes about war. The answer is: Because the theme is deeply embedded in my psyche because of Vietnam; it is who I am.

A long-time science fiction fan, I’ve always been especially drawn to time-travel tales. I read A Wrinkle in Time as a teen, and was smitten by the Star Trek episode with Edith Keeler (“The City on the Edge of Forever”). But it was The Door Into Summer by Robert A. Heinlein, that made me think “I want to do that!” Not a book known by mainstream audiences, this sweet tale of how a man gets his revenge on the cut-throat corporate world that takes advantage of him utterly blew my mind.

Watching the pieces of the puzzle that is The Door Into Summer fall inexorably together in the last quarter of the book remains one of the highlights of my reading life. The story is poignant, exciting, and wholly satisfying. I can’t claim to have accomplished that with In Retrospect, but I can say that I wrote the book with a single goal: that of making my readers’ heads explode when the pieces finally fit together, the events are seen in their proper order, and the mystery is solved.

The other thing I learned from The Door Into Summer is that it’s not the complexity of the science behind the time travel that gives the story its depth; it’s how much you care about the characters. Which brings me to the tea man.

There is no more minor character in In Retrospect. He is only mentioned twice, and he does not have a name. But his presence is essential precisely because he is unimportant. Because he is the there representing the rest of us; the people to whom adventures do not happen. He is there to show that we are connected on this Earth, no matter where we are from; that all of us have value.

“A kerosene lantern flickered in the middle of a table. Four men and four women, the most experienced of the remaining militia captains, huddled around it, talking in subdued voices. A gnarled old man with a scarf wrapped around his head measured tea from a paper sack into cups. A tiny coal fire burned under an ancient kettle. There was no other light…. The sound of vehicles approaching brought the cellar to life. Dark figures appeared as if out of the walls, crowding around the entrance. The table was cleared, more chairs brought forward. …The lower-ranking officers remained on their feet, ringing the table, listening as the leaders talked. Laughter erupted at some joke or other. The tea man squeezed in and out of the circle, delivering his concoctions.”

During my fifteen years living in Egypt, I met many tea men—and door men, and tinkers, and knife-sharpeners. I rarely knew their names. They did their jobs and disappeared. But they affected me with their kindness, and I will not forget them.


Ellen Larson’s first story appeared in Yankee Magazine in 1971. More recently, she has sold stories to Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine (Barry Award finalist) and Big Pulp and is the author of the NJ Mysteries, The Hatch and Brood of Time and Unfold the Evil, featuring a sleuthing reporter (currently being reprinted by Poisoned Pen Press). Her current book is In Retrospect, a dystopian mystery (“Carefully crafted whodunit” -PW starred; “Cleverly structured mix of science fiction and mystery” -Booklist).

Larson lived for seventeen years in Egypt, where she worked as a substantive editor in the field of economic development and developed a love of cultures not her own.These days she lives in an off-grid cabin in upstate New York, enjoying the solitude.

You can learn more about Ellen and her novel at her website and the book's site.

Ellen is giving away one Advance Review Copy of In Retrospect a a U.S. or Canada resident who leaves a comment on this post before midnight Friday, December 13th (Mountain Time). The winner will be posted here on Saturday.


Susan Gourley/Kelley said...

I also was a child during the Vietnam era. I think it influenced many of us during that time.
Ellen's book sounds very interesting.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

My father was in Vietnam, but I was too young to know what was going on at the time.
Like the sound of your book! I'm also influenced by Heinlein.

Dean K Miller said...

I, too, remember the nightly "news" about the war in Vietnam. Now I'm grateful to work with many Vietnam Veterans through PHWFF (along with veterans from several conflicts.) That period of history shaped many lives and hopefully, through our writing, we can create a positive vibe. And yes, the book does sound enticing.

Margot Kinberg said...

Pat - Thanks for introducing us to Ellen.

Ellen - Thanks for sharing the background of your book. Vietnam left an indelible mark on us all, no matter what we felt about it. I wish you success.

Trisha F said...

Your book sounds great - and it IS interesting that peacelovers can write about war. I am definitely a pacifist and yet I quite enjoy reading books or seeing movies that have a degree of large-scale violence (you know, ACTION!). Strange, that ...

Jacqueline Seewald said...


I must say you're a very interesting person. It's good to learn more about you. I know your mystery novel has already met with excellent reviews. Congrats!

Jen J. Danna said...

A Wrinkle in Time and Edith Keeler? *high fives you* But you intrigue me with The Door into Summer which I haven't read. I'll have to look that one up.

Thanks for sharing your background with us. It certainly puts some of your writing into a much clearer perspective!

Ellen Larson said...

Wow, I didn't expect the Vietnam memory to resonate in this way. It is actually soothing to know that so many of you totally get it. Many thanks to those of you who mentioned that aspect. That means a lot.

Ellen Larson said...

Thanks, Jacqueline! Yeah, I'm not complaining. :-) I'm not sure I'm very interesting, but I've done a lot of interesting things, and seen a lot of the world. Mostly that just makes me think I'm more knowledgeable than I actually am.

Ellen Larson said...

Thanks, Jen! Yeah, there are always reasons for what I write, and what I write always has something to do with what I think about the world. I'm just not sure it's a good thing or a bad thing to have that revealed! But I enjoyed writing this more philosophical essay. So interesting to document those memories that stand out in full detail. Like Edith Keeler walking across the street towards Captain Kirk. *sigh*

Julie Luek said...

It's been a long time since I read SF, but I loved Wrinkle in Time when I read it as a girl. Your post makes me want to pick up your books and give it another read!

Susan Oleksiw said...

I too remember Vietnam as one of the defining events of my young life. We were all worried about brothers, boyfriends, neighbors, classmates being drafted. Several were, and some came back to finish college after their term was up. One who was close to me thought he recovered and was out of danger but died years later from infected shrapnel wounds. Before Vietnam, however, I remember my parents talking about Korea and the Korean War. It seemed so far away, but TV changed that with Vietnam.

I love how you've used the tea man.

Dean K Miller said...

Just found out I won the ARC of "In Retrospect." Excited to read another time traveling mystery. (Todd Mitchell's "Backwards" was the previous read.) Thanks Ellen and Pat!