Rereading Kage Baker

The Making of Sky Coyote

Sky Coyote is Kage Baker’s second novel, and the book that turned her initial idea of the Company into a series. It’s not one of the best loved of her novels, except maybe by me; ­ it’s gotten some weird dismissals in its varied career ­ but it was a very important step for Kage as a writer. This story was re­written a dozen times before it became the definitive second stanza in her long Company saga.

When Kage finished the first draft of In the Garden of Iden, she set it aside, to ripen and concentrate its essential sugars; to mature, before editing and second-­guessing. But she had the bit in her teeth where actual writing was concerned now ­ she’d learned the essential tricks of beginning, middle and end; of intertwining plots; of characterization. No more wandering pleasantly through an open-­ended fantasy, exploring ideas purely for her own pleasure (there are literal reams of stories like that in my files…): she had made the critical jump to a story with a predetermined end. A plot line. A point.

So she began writing short stories, as practice in the amazing art of through­put.

Joseph had escaped her authorial control very early in Iden. He did as he would, and Kage always said she was just along for the ride ­ like everyone else. She began experimenting with her short story ideas with him.

Initially, Sky Coyote was a story called “Taking The People Away” (see Exodus, 5:4). It was a very abbreviated account of how a very large Company operation would work, with ­ Joseph facilitating the preservation of an entire Native American village. Most of the core ideas were there: Joseph as the cynical and unwilling demi­god, the one mortal who doesn’t want to go, the introduction of other kinds of Operatives. The Chumash were always the heroes; even though she started the story when we still lived in Hollywood, Kage knew the Chumash as neighbors from decades of summers in Pismo Beach. Mendoza was a bit part; Kage said she had begun having nightmares about encountering Mendoza in a dark alley, and Mendoza not being happy with her creatrix …

In the next few years, Kage re­wrote that short story over and over and over, in a stubborn attempt to get it published. She expanded it to a novella, then a novellete; she cut it back to a short story. In a fit of mordant hilarity, she re­wrote it as a long tribal lay, a la “Hiawatha”. ­ It was hysterical, but she felt guilty about it because her father considered that poem the best thing ever written by Man. She kept researching, developing a long love affair with Ursula K. Le Guin’s eminent father, Dr. Alfred L. Kroeber—a remarkable, world­-class anthropologist whose analyses and viewpoint of Native Americans would inform Kage’s intellectual understanding of her own heritage for the rest of her life.

Also in the next few years, Kage’s mother died; so did part of her heart. The LA Riots chewed up and spit out the haunts of our childhood. We lost our jobs, our house, our savings. We took to the Road, where we spent the next several years living in our van, in trailers, in friends’ garages, in tents and Elizabethan cottages and run­down taverns in oak groves. Along the way, Kage decided the hell with pleasing some invisible editor: this story should be a novel. She began writing it out in such earnest that I finally bought our first computer just to try and keep up with her.

Sky Coyote was worked on in all those temporary homes, the novel of our exile; you can hear the echoes of all that in Joseph’s meditations on how little physical comfort he has amassed in 30,000 years. Corporate villainy, too, became a major theme of the Company stories in that time, and the hideous secular puritanism of the Future Kids.

Sky Coyote was Joseph’s from the beginning, because Kage was fascinated with the dichotomy of appearances and truth, and Joseph was the perfect character through which to explore that subject. The change of Dr. Zeus from benign to evil is the direct result of our having to flee Los Angeles just ahead of fire and corporate ruin. And so is Joseph’s own shattering realization that the Company is not at all what he thinks it is, and that he has been as smugly self-­deluded as any mortal man.

Joseph is layered like an onion, and Kage quickly established even he didn’t know what was under all those layers, ­ and that he only used the ones he wanted. Kage invented the “tertiary consciousness” specifically for Joseph’s use—it’s where he keeps all the things he doesn’t want to know, ­and was never even sure that other Operatives had one. Maybe only other Facilitators do. But maybe only Joseph.

Other things that contributed to Sky Coyote: the opera Pilgrim’s Progress by Vaughn Williams, and the operettas The Gondoliers and Iolanthe by Gilbert and Sullivan. I don’t know why, only that we listened to all of them a gazillion times during the 3 years or so Kage worked on the book. Something in them spoke to Kage of Central Californian coasts and Joseph’s moral rebirth. Also, tortilla soup; Marie Callendar’s pot pies; polenta; and some appalling experiments with agave hearts (NOTHING like artichokes!) and acorn porridge. Believe me, Joseph’s reaction to North American acorn meal is drawn from life, but with less spitting. Also, if you insist on eating them, use coffee filters.

Kathleen and Kage as jolly Victorian pub owners. (Dickens Fair 2008)

We finally ended up permanently in Pismo Beach. Kage edited In the Garden of Iden three more times, and submitted it to Virginia Kidd, who promptly sold it to Hodder & Stoughton in the UK, and Harcourt Brace in the US. In an amazingly brief period of time, they both wanted sequels … at which point, Sky Coyote was in one of its transitional states between a novella and a novel. Kage finished it in some pocket dimension of speed and obsession—­the entire “contrasts in appearance and reality” exercise of the beginning was written then, in a lightning storm of sudden inspiration. That’s when Lewis was born, too.

Hodder & Stoughton eventually replied that they did not want “a cowboy and Indian” story, thank you very much. Kage danced her rage all over the living room; and it’s about then that the British began appearing as especial villains in the Company roster … but Harcourt Brace was delighted to have it; which was nice, as Mendoza In Hollywood was already rising beside the stack of stories growing on Kage’s new-­bought oak desk.

The only thing Kage regretted about the publication of Sky Coyote was the cover of the US edition. When the first draft arrived—a nice courtesy from Harcourt Brace, by the way; many new authors don’t get to see their cover art at all—Kage held it in her hands and finally said: “Okay. Freddie Mercury projectile vomiting UFOs. Why not?” She got the flying saucers over Joseph’s head reduced from 4 to 1, so the stream of ejecta was not so obvious; eventually, she liked the cover very much. Especially after the Israeli cover, which showed a suited figure beside the Wailing Wall, with a German Shepherd’s head projecting from his trench coat collar …

And the rest, as they say, is history. The recorded bits, anyway.

Kathleen Bartholomew is the sister of the late Kage Baker, and pretty much her life-long collaborator. She has a background in history, historical recreation, and anthropology; plus (old but devout) degrees in English and biology. Having thus far failed to die, she is continuing Kage’s work into the 21st Century. Her blog about Kage and writing can be found at https://doctorzeus.co/. She lives in Los Angeles with another sister and her family, a parrot, a Corgi and 2 cats.

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