“Variations on a Theme from Turandot” is a story that took an unusually long and winding path to publication, and I’d like to share some of that story with you here. (If you haven’t read it yet, and want to, maybe go do that before reading the rest of this. Or not; I’m not the boss of you.)
The seed for this story came in 2010, when I was just beginning to get serious about writing for publication. It’s also when I first saw Turandot in its entirety, broadcast into movie theatres from the Metropolitan Opera in New York (which, for those of you who are interested in watching operas relatively cheaply, does that sort of thing with delightful frequency).
I had watched the first two acts on a borrowed DVD, a year or two earlier, and had enjoyed the mythic setting and the riddles, but had somehow wandered off or something at the second intermission and forgot to come back. I was rather dismayed to discover what actually happened in Act Three. So I did what any excited beginning author would do: I decided I was going to write a fix-it fic.
The problem was, I didn’t have the faintest idea how to go about this. I wanted Liù to have some actual agency and also magic and to use the latter to solve the rest of the opera’s problems, but I only had a vague notion how it would go. A partner I had at the time suggested that Liù and Turandot should secretly switch places, Prince-and-the-Pauper-style, but that didn’t quite feel right to me somehow. I did some vague research and read some Chinese folk tales, but none of it especially helped, and eventually the Turandot story went onto the back burner.
A year or two later – 2012, maybe? – the story idea came back to bug me some more. I was on a road trip with my mother and younger sister, and I played highlights of my recording of Turandot for them while explaining the plot. To my dismay, they both thought that the opera was stupid and the characters were stupid, and that Turandot herself was an awful person whose motivations made no sense. Turandot’s motivations had always made perfect sense to me – she was concerned about male violence against women, and didn’t want men up in her business, thank you very fucking much – but apparently this wasn’t coming across to anyone else.
I’m not saying everything Turandot does in the opera is excellent, but she had always struck me as an example of a classic villain whose motives are perfectly comprehensible and who simply takes them too far. The only thing about her that didn’t make sense to me was the gross, forced, sudden declaration, at the end, that she actually did love Calaf after all.
So the Turandot fix-it fix project came back to haunt me, and this time it wasn’t only about giving Liù some cool magic and a happy ending; it was also about creating sympathy, and more explanation, for Turandot herself. An unlikely alliance between the two women began to emerge in my head, even though, in the actual opera, one of them has the other mercilessly tortured and killed.
I scribbled a bunch of ideas in a notebook on that road trip while the rest of my family was off doing other things, or sleeping. I don’t remember quite how, but this is the part where the story became something nonlinear and meta in my head. The more I considered different solutions for Liù’s problems, the more it became apparent to me that one of her chief problems is the fact that she’s in an opera, and to solve this problem with agency, she would first have to become aware of it. An inspiration at this point was David Ives’ “Variations on the Death of Trotsky,” which I remembered having read in high school. I toyed with the idea of Liù physically or symbolically dying in literally every scene. I eventually deviated from that somewhat; but Liù’s overly romanticized death, and her attempts to escape it, still forms the core of the story from which all other variations emerge.
I noodled around with these ideas for a bit longer before finally, in the summer of 2013, feeling ready to push ahead and commit them to paper. I first spent two weeks doing more research at a level which I basically never do for short stories. This time I was more intelligent about it, and instead of trying to write down random facts about China, I instead read about Puccini himself and about different musicological and literary viewpoints on Turandot. I’ll go into more detail about what I read, and how it influenced me, in part 2.
Once I had finished with that, the ideas behind the story had been percolating for so long that they all fell out into a word processing document very easily, very poetically, and with what felt like a minimum of effort.
A first draft, however, is never actually a completed story – even if it has lived in your head for three years and is shiny enough to feel that way.
What followed was the most protracted set of revisions I have ever done on a single short story.
I did employ beta readers, of course, but I wasn’t wise enough to fully address all of their concerns at first. Instead, I optimistically sent the story flying out to all my favorite markets. It spent fifteen months in the slush pile at Tor.com, after which I received a very helpful and detailed personal rejection. I did revise as a result of this rejection. In particular, I introduced the character of the Other Soprano, and gave her a small arc of her own and a role in the story’s last scene, which had previously featured the Soprano alone.
After a couple of other attempts, the revised story then ended up at Strange Horizons, where I received not one, but a series of three rewrite requests. The content of these requests was varied, but they addressed even more issues that I somehow hadn’t thought of while writing. There were long gaps between the different requests, in part because it sometimes took me a long time to puzzle out how to do the revisions, and in part because of periods of time in which Strange Horizons was closed.
The biggest such issue, and the one that was most difficult for me, was in regards to Calaf, the Stranger/Prince. It is such an obvious omission that it embarrasses me to say it now, but my initial drafts for this story had almost nothing about Calaf in them. There was a scene giving some backstory between him and Liù, because “you smiled at me” is not a believable basis for a romance unless it can be unpacked a lot, but aside from his role in motivating Liù and Turandot’s actions, Calaf barely appeared in early versions of this story at all.
I hadn’t written about Calaf because I didn’t want to write about Calaf. Turandot and Liù’s motivations felt complex and good to get into. But it was extremely mentally and emotionally challenging for me to find a proper explanation for Calaf’s actions, other than, “He is a toxically masculine jerk.” But in a story where the main viewpoint character is in love with him, and where a (sort of) romantic union with him is her reward, I couldn’t quite lean on that as my explanation and have the story still work.
I’m still not sure that my explanation for Calaf works as well as it could, honestly. I’ve seen people point to it as a thing they like about the story, tying in as it does with ideas of story and authorship and free will. It still does feel, partially, that my solution to Calaf was to handwave and blame someone else.
The Strange Horizons editors also had a lot of concerns about the ending. The scene in which Liù goes back in time and kills Puccini had always been there – but it was originally, for some reason, from Puccini’s point of view. I think it was a case of an author wanting to show the receipts for all the homework they did; I’d developed a working theory of what was going on in Puccini’s head based on what I’d read about him and his work, which went against some of the prevailing scholarly theories about his attitudes towards women. But about 90% of that theory was utterly irrelevant to the story, so it had to be cut. I also had a lot of work to do unpacking and clarifying what even happens in the subsequent scenes, which are full of weird magic that made sense in my head but was hard to explain to a reader – and how those scenes connect to the literal and metaphorical “death of the author” theme.
Eventually, I got all of it done to Catherine Krahe and Lila Garrot’s satisfaction. The story was accepted for publication in January 2018, and now it is published. And there you have it: an eight-year road from the initial idea to publication. But well worth the journey, I think.