Capclave 2019

October 18-20, I’ll be at Capclave in Rockville, MD. It’s a wonderful book/reading focused con, and while other things do get discussed, the main focus is on literature. I’ll be doing a reading and participating on panels throughout the con. If you’re attending, here’s where you can find me. Stop by and say hi!

Friday – 9 p.m. – Wilson

Author reading. I haven’t 100% decided what I’ll read yet. Maybe two shorter excerpts, or one whole story, depending on my mood. I do know, since it’s 9 p.m. on the first night of the con, I’ll be armed with baked goods and chocolates to lure/bribe folks into hanging out!

Saturday – 11 a.m. – Truman

Genre Elements in Mainstream Work

Beth Brenner, Kelly E. Dwyer (M), Craig L. Gidney, Victoria Janssen, A.C. Wise
We are continually seeing sf/fantasy elements in books not published/labeled as sf/fantasy. Why? How much from a genre is needed before a book moves from mainstream to genre? Or does it depend on the author? Why are mainstream authors stealing from sf/fantasy? Are ghosts (Beloved, Lincoln in the Bardo) no longer considered genre?

Saturday – 1:00 p.m. – Washington Theater

A Matter of Style
T. Eric Bakutis, Sunny Moraine, James Morrow (M), Lawrence M. Schoen, A.C. Wise
Some writers have a poetic flow to their writing, others do not, both work. They can include it from the first word on paper or insert it later. How flashy should your prose be? How can writers prevent the language from hurting the story? Which writers in the field have the most interesting styles?

Saturday – 3:00 p.m. – Washington Theater

Are Novellas Just Very Short Novels?
Danielle Ackley-McPhail, Day Al-Mohamed, Meriah Lysistrata Crawford, Carolyn Ives Gilman, A.C. Wise (M)
Novellas are often defined by what they are not. They are not a short story but not a novel. The Hugo Awards define Novellas as between 17000 and 40,000 words. What, aside from length, make novellas different from novels? Or are they short stories that got out of hand? What happens when a writer expands a novella into a novel? Why has the number of novellas published expanded recently?

Saturday – 7:00 p.m. – Truman

Writing Nonhumans
Panelists:LH Moore, Sunny Moraine, Jamie Todd Rubin, A.C. Wise (M), Karlo Yeager Rodriguez
TBA

Sunday – 2:00 p.m. – Eisenhower

Female Villainy in fiction and Media
Beth Brenner (M), J. L. Gribble, Shahid Mahmud, A.C. Wise
How can SF/Fantasy move beyond hypersexualization, Fem Fatale clichés, and abuse-related motivations and write better binary and non-binary villains. What can readers do to encourage this?

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Homesick: Stories

Homesick CoverThere are certain stories that stick with you long after you finish reading them. Nino Cipri is a master at crafting such stories, and that mastery is on display in their debut collection, Homesick, recently released from Dzanc Books. Last week I posted an interview with Nino, where they discussed the collection and the theme of home that echoes through the stories. Home isn’t always a comforting place, and Cipri captures that perfectly in. In “A Silly Love Story” Jeremy’s closet is haunted, forcing him to share the space that should be a refuge with an entity he doesn’t understand. In “Which Super Little Dead Girl TM Are You?” home is certainly not a safe place. It is the place where one of the girls died, betrayed by those who were supposed to love and protect her; for another, it is a place she is no longer welcome, as evidenced by her parents’ horrified faces when she came back from the dead. In “Dead Air”, Maddie tries to avoid talking about her home completely, until she finally agrees to bring her girlfriend with her for Thanksgiving to meet her mother and the truly unsettling nature of her hometown is revealed. In “She Hides Sometimes”, the protagonist finds pieces of her parents’ house vanishing and shrinking, mirroring her mother’s decaying mind.

Even when home is frightening or unwelcoming, there is still a pull, a compulsion to return, and Cipri captures that perfectly as well. In “The Shape of My Name”, my absolute favorite of their stories (though it’s hard to pick just one), the lure of home and the treachery of it are inextricably bound. Heron, a trans man, returns to his home over and over as he loops through time. Born in the 50s, he jumps forward with his mother to visit their house in the 1980s, then later, travels back to visit his great uncle in the 1920s. As a very young child, Heron remembers a strange visitor arriving at their door one night in the midst of a storm. As a young man, his
mother jumped forward to the furthest point in the future the time machine would allow her to go, abandoning the family. For Heron, home is fraught. It’s where he fished with his dad, talking about his favorite TV shows; it’s where his father later committed suicide. It’s where his mother refused to acknowledge him, and his identity, but where his mother’s distant cousin from the future first encouraged him to introduce himself by whatever name he chose, allowing him to see for the first that gender was something he could choose for himself too. Home is where he goes to recover from his gender affirmation surgery, and the place he goes to confront his mother with his true self, closing the circle by returning as the stranger he remembers coming to the door when he was four years old.

Home is many things, and Cipri explores its facets and complications, its comforts and terrors throughout the collection. The stories range from horror to science fiction, fantasy to surreal slipstream. The majority of the stories are also beautifully queer, some suffused with hope, others touched with sadness, and many blending the two. While the majority of the stories in the collection are reprints, the collection closes out with an original novella (or perhaps a novelette?), centered on three scientists who uncover the remains of an ancient, intelligent, non-human species, who must contend with their troubled relationships with each other, as they sort out their duty to the past.

Overall, it’s a wonderful collection, bringing together many of my favorite of Cipri’s stories. If you’ve never read their work, Homesick is the perfect place to start. If you have read their work, the collection is the perfect opportunity to revisit their stories and immerse yourself in the comforts, and terrors, of home.

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An Interview with Nino Cipri

Nino Cipri was kind enough to drop by today to talk about their debut short fiction collection, Homesick. To start things off, as I usually do, I will make introductions by shamelessly stealing from Nino’s author bio…

Nino Cipri is a queer and trans/nonbinary writer, editor, and educator. They are a graduate of the 2014 Clarion Writers’ Workshop, and earned their MFA in fiction from the University of Kansas in 2019. A multidisciplinary artist, Nino has written plays, screenplays, and radio features; performed as a dancer, actor, and puppeteer; and worked as a stagehand, bookseller, bike mechanic, and labor organizer. Nino’s 2019 story collection Homesick won the Dzanc Short Fiction Collection Prize, and their novella, Finna – about queer heartbreak, working retail, and wormholes – will be published by Tor.com in 2020.

Homesick CoverWelcome, Nino, and congratulations on your debut collection, and your upcoming novella! Without giving too much away, could you give folks a taste of what kind of stories they’ll find in your collection, and talk a bit about what your novella is about?

Thanks for having me! Homesick contains eight reprints that span the entirety of my writing career, along with a new novella about a group of dysfunctional scientists and activists that discovered an extinct species of weasels with its own writing system. Finna is forthcoming from Tor.com in 2020, and is about two coworkers and recent exes that have to team up to rescue a grandmother who wandered into a wormhole in their homegoods store.

Those both sound amazing! I’m always interested in how authors go about assembling short story collections. How did you approach Homesick in terms of what stories to include, and how you ordered them? Is there a certain overarching theme to the collection, or a way you see certain stories of yours being in dialogue with each other throughout the book?

A lot of my work looks at characters who are searching for connection. That searching and yearning is probably the strongest thread throughout these stories, as well as its opposite idea: that what is most familiar to you is driving you away, towards the unknown. “Home” manifests in different ways throughout the collection, and a lot of these characters are estranged from theirs, or become so over the course of the story.

That said, there’s a lot of variety in the stories in terms of aesthetic, tone, and genre. I used different approaches in the stories, or blended them together in a single story. I guess the dialogue you’re asking about is contained in that variety; “home” can mean a thousand things, and its pull can take all kinds of shapes.

I wanted to ask about one of your stories in particular. Dead Air, published at Nightmare Magazine, is one of my favorites of yours, and one of my favorite stories from last year in general. I love found footage narratives, and I’m impressed with the way you created such an effective atmosphere in your piece using found audio footage. Much of the story is implied through silence and the things the characters don’t say. Did you encounter any challenges with this format, working almost entirely with dialog and being unable to use the usual author tricks of visual and other sensory description to immerse the reader? Did your background in radio and theater play at all into the writing of this story?

That story gave me so much trouble. I originally wrote it to be a radio script, but couldn’t figure out an ending and then sat on it for a couple years. I rewrote it as prose for a workshop, but liked the audio transcript format too much to give it up. There’s something about strict and experimental formats, about the careful construction and trickery of it, that excites my writing brain. I like building my own architecture and then bending it.

But none of that is easy, and it necessitates a really long revision process. I wanted some of the horror to come from what went unsaid and unheard between Maddie and Nita — most of my favorite horror refuses to deliver answers or that a neat resolution in which balance/the status quo is reformed. On the other hand, you can’t scare people if they don’t know what the hell is going on. I ended up re-drafting “Dead Air” three or four times before it was hit the right balance.

On a related note, you had another story in Nightmare in 2017, Which Super Little Dead GirlTM are You? Take Our Quiz and Find Out! that uses a quiz format to tell the story. Do you like to periodically set yourself the challenge of telling stories in non-traditional format, or is it a simply a matter of certain formats being the best way to tell certain stories? Are there other formats you’d like to try out for upcoming projects?

Finna CoverI absolutely love stories told in non-traditional formats. Sometimes it’s because those formats do fit better with the pieces of the story I have; with Super Little Dead Girls, I had characters but no plot, which made a personality quiz format perfect. The genre mashup felt like a good way to comment on some of my least favorite tropes in horror, around the way it treats dead women and children. With “Dead Air,” the format adds layers of meaning and complexity onto the story. Sometimes, though, I just like the challenge. I’ve always written in different kinds of genres and media. I’ve been working for a couple of years on a longer experimental, interactive narrative that’s told through a wiki, and includes maps, multimedia, and talk pages. I’ve had to put it on the backburner while I finish other projects, though.

Your partner, Nibedita Sen, is also an amazing author. Would you, or have you, ever collaborate(d) on a writing project together?

We’ve talked about it, for sure, but have both been too busy to try as of yet. (Unless you count writing fanfic that caters to each other?) One of our pipe dreams is to co-edit an anthology (or multiple anthologies!), particularly of queer and trans horror.

Ooh. I bet you’d put together a fantastic anthology! Switching gears a bit, has your role as an educator teaching fiction and seeing the way students engage with stories changed your own approach to writing at all? Has it changed the way you read stories?

Teaching built on the skills that I learned from workshopping and reviewing fiction; learning to analyze the thematic elements of a story, as well as the skill and craft it took to write it. The main questions I was trying to teach my lit and creative writing students was “what was the author attempting here? did they succeed? how and why?” Teaching did show me that people connect to stories (or don’t) for all kinds of reasons. I knew that intellectually before, but it was reinforced over and over again while teaching. (Hearing a bunch of twenty-year-olds ragging on my favorite stories is very humbling!)

It also gave me an excuse to read outside my usual haunts. One of the stories I assigned to my creative writing class was Courtney Milan’s The Governess Affair, which is an amazing historical romance, but not like any of the fiction I usually read. Milan is a master at structuring a relationship-driven story through intertwined character arcs.

Your bio might partially answer this question, but one of my favorite questions to ask authors is about non-writing related jobs. What is the most unusual job you’ve ever had? What did you learn from it, and has any aspect of that job worked its way into any of your stories?

I’ve been working on and off since I was eleven, so I’ve had a lot of jobs. I’ve worked at pet boarders, a state fair, cafes and restaurants, gas stations, plant nurseries, theaters, mail rooms, bookstores. One of my favorite gigs was as a food columnist for a Chicago culture website; it didn’t pay much, but it comped my meals, and it taught me to write on deadline. Plus, I had leeway to write about pretty much anything related to food.

Probably my weirdest job was as a housecleaner? There was something strangely intimate about being up close and personal with someone’s dirty house, though it wasn’t an intimacy I wanted or enjoyed. I learned that most upper-middle class people have terrible taste in decor, and also how to properly dust a room, which are both very important lessons. (A story in Homesick, “Not an Ocean, but the Sea” is partly based on those experiences, and includes a cameo by my least favorite clients’ vacuum.)

With your collection out, and your novella on the horizon, what else are you working on, or have coming up that you want folks to know about?

Those two things are taking up most of my brainspace, along with job-searching. I’m revising a novel that’s based loosely on “Which Super Little Dead Girl Are You?” and trying to figure out what I want my next big writing project to be. In the meantime, I’m writing flash fiction on my patreon and starting up a newsletter, so if you like my writing, those are the best places to consistently find it.

Thanks for stopping by!

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Lost Transmissions

Lost Transmissions CoverI was lucky enough to snag a review copy of Desirina Boskovich’s recently-released Lost Transmissions: The Secret History of Science Fiction and Fantasy and let me tell you what, as soon as I get a coffee table (yes, I swear I’m an adult) this book will be going on it. Physically, it is a beautiful book, with glossy pages full of gorgeous art and striking photographs, and it’s the kind of book that lends itself to browsing, again perfect for a coffee table. One can dip in and out, finding essays of interest, or as I did, read cover to cover and find something fascinating on each page. The wide range of topics  means there’s bound to be something for everyone, even folks who don’t think they like science fiction and fantasy. (I may need to test this theory on my father.)

Lost Transmissions divides itself into broad sections: Literature, Film and Television, Architecture, Art and Design, Music, Fashion, and Fandom and Pop Culture. As the title suggests, the essays delve into some of the lesser-known, infrequently explored, and hidden histories of SFF, for instance touching on films that never made it to the screen, or examining the cross-pollination between seemingly disparate fields like literature, fashion, and architecture. In addition to Boskovich, authors contributing essays to the collection include Christie Yant, Grady Hendrix, Paul Tremblay, Charlie Jane Anders, John Chu, LaShawn M. Wankak, Jeanette Ng, Genevieve Valentine, K.M. Szpara, and many more.

The essays are accessible and engaging. None felt as though they were tossing up barriers of entry, require extensive knowledge of entire canons of SFF for the subject matter to be meaningful. Again, because of the sheer breadth of subjects covered, and because of each author’s particular area of focus within the larger categories, the book offers a pleasing mix of new discoveries and deeper dives into familiar subjects. Or at very least, that was my experience. With the subjects I knew something about, the essays felt like revisiting an old friend. With those I had no knowledge of, it did indeed feel like finding a lost transmission, and uncovering a secret history.

Whether your interest lies in cosmic horror, pulp illustration, Warhammer role playing, the fashion of Alexander McQueen, the architecture of Syd Mead, or the music of Janelle Monae, there is something here for you. By the same token, if none of those appeal to you, or you are venturing a toe into speculative waters for the first time, there’s still a veritable treasure trove to be found. Dive deep, or skim the surface, skipping to points of interest – either way, I highly recommend picking up a copy of this gorgeous book. Hidden history awaits you!

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An Interview with Paul Jessup

Paul Jessup was kind enough to drop by my blog as part of the Apex Blog Tour to chat about his novel Close Your Eyes, among other things. All month long, you can snag Paul’s book, and a myriad of other wonderful Apex titles for 25% off with the discount code SEPTEMBER.

Now, to get things started, I will shamelessly steal from Paul’s author bio in order to make introductions.

Paul Jessup is a critically-acclaimed/award-winning author of strange and slippery fiction. With a career spanning over ten years in the field, he’s had works published in so many magazines he’s lost count and three or four books published in the small press.

Close Your Eyes CoverWelcome, Paul! Since this interview is part of the grand Apex Blog Tour, let’s start with your recent Apex novel Close Your Eyes. I’d describe the book as genre-crossing, or perhaps genre-smashing, combining elements of horror and science fiction, while also being lovely and poetic. How would you describe the work to intrigue those who may not be familiar with it yet?

Well, thank you for those kind words! And I think what you said is pretty tantalizing, as well. I guess in a way I would say that it’s a surreal space opera, that has moments that are horrific but it’s not horror, and moments that are pure and beautiful and right. I would say maybe it’s as if Jodorowosky made a Star Wars tie in novel, with maybe Satoshi Kon creating the character designs along with Moebius? And yet that’s still not quite right, is it? It’s a space opera that destroys its own boundaries, and does a lot of things space opera probably shouldn’t do. In a way, it’s a fairy tale, in the old fashioned sense of the word. Full of surrealism, danger, sex, and terror.

That’s a pretty good way to describe it! Your prose in Close Your Eyes borders on poetry, and the images throughout are incredibly striking – from creepy surrogate doll bodies, to a character whose lover is a supernova. Reading the novel almost feels a bit like lucid (or semi-lucid) dreaming. Given how highly visual the novel is, have you ever pictured it being adapted into a visual medium, and if so, what form would that take – animation, graphic novel, some other form? Do you have a dream collaborator you’d want to work with on said adaptation?

Haha, yes! Of course I have. I actually talked about this for a while with my editor, Jason Sizemore, while he was editing the book. Just the usual game of, if this was a movie, who would you cast, etc. And he said something I thought was perfect, that it should be an anime series. And I really feel like it should, the character designs in my head were heavily influenced by Japanese fashion at the time.

I mentioned some dream collaborators above, with Satoshi Kon being one of them. Sadly, Geiger passed, but his designs for the ships he created in Alien and Dune were a huge influence on the ship designs in the book. I loved that organic, cold, and corpselike feel to it all. As if the dead lived on as machinery, and it felt like the perfect expression for how the ships would look and feel.

Switching gears a bit – in addition to novels, you’re also a prolific short fiction writer. Where do you typically start with your writing – an image, a line, a character, or does it vary from story to story? Do you generally have a sense of where you’re going when you begin, or do you let the story take you where it will and discover it along the way?

I usually have an idea, some strange little idea I toy around with for awhile. I do research, I gather images and thoughts, I read tons of books, look at lots of art, trying to get feel for what this idea could be. And then I get a sharp image and a first sentence and I start writing.

From that point on, I just follow the story, I don’t plan anything at all. Most of the research I’d done before gets thrown out completely, and most of the original idea gets tossed aside. But that’s okay, what’s important to me is getting to that start and then letting the story surprise me. I love being surprised. I guess for me the research point is more for gathering images and thoughts and ideas and shoving them into my subconscious mind, to let it sit there and fester and grow.

And then when I write this festering research from before reaches its tendrils into the story, but it’s changed. It’s different, and far more interesting than it could’ve ever been before.

Most of your fiction tends toward the dark and the weird – what draws you in particular to that flavor of speculative fiction? What are some of your favorite works, or recent favorite reads within the speculative fiction genre, dark or otherwise?

I wish I could say why I’m attracted to such things. I’ve thought about it over and over again, and I guess to me there’s a beauty in that dark weirdness, and I love all kinds of beauty. I think it’s terribly narrowminded to not see the beauty in depression, sadness, and death. To only see the beauty in joy, or in reality as a thing of beauty is limiting the human experience.

And at times, I feel like the human experience is all about observing the beauty in the universe. And that includes the beauty of sorrow, of shadows, of the things that run from the light. I was also raised Catholic in a Catholic household, and my whole childhood was haunted by the images of saints being tortured. They were beautiful images, and the faces always seemed beatific, transcendent, not in pain at all. I would say as an adult that they seemed orgasmic, but as a kid I had no idea what that would be. And I think this kind of childhood twisted my experience on what beauty is, what I could be, and how art has conversations with it.

As for modern writers, I know a ton of great ones! It’s so hard to choose. Selena Chambers’ Calls for Submissions is a fantastic collection, as is Georgina Bruce’s This House of Wounds, and Anya Martin’s Sleeping with the Monster, and Laura Mauro’s Sing Your Sadness Deep, Natania Barron’s Wothwood, Michelle Muenzler’s The Hills of Meat, the Forest of Bone. I also know of one fantastic weird horror novel by an amazing writer (and good friend) that’s stuck in agent hell and not getting traction, but I won’t talk about that one here…since no one could read it yet. But I got to read it, because I’m awesome.

Leaving writing aside for the moment, one of my favorite questions to ask authors is about non-writing related jobs. What is the most unusual job you’ve ever had? What did you learn from it, and has any aspect of that job worked its way into any of your stories?

Working trash cleanup at a Renaissance Festival. I did it for about 8 years, through High School and College. It was definitely an experience, and perfect for my teens and early twenties. Lots of people my age, all living a Bohemian life, wandering about making money with acting and music. Made lots of great friends, and it was a highly fertile artistic experience.

And because I worked trash I got to see the nasty side of things, too. Maggot covered turkey legs, dead cats, drowned animals in the water supply. It’s odd how beautiful that could be in a faux medieval wood, with sunlight dappling on the corpse, lying there with eyes open as if to say, hello.

What’s next for you? What are you working on, or have coming up that you want folks to know about?

Working on a big fat novel shaped thing, kind of like a similar approach to epic fantasy that I did with space opera and Close Your Eyes. Though that one is probably at least still a year away from being complete, and who knows if anyone will ever bite on such weirdness to publish it. I have a haunted house novel (about a house haunted by the ghosts of a 60’s suicide cult) that I just finished last year and have shopped around for a bit. As always, writing lots of short stories and articles for places like Strange Horizons and SFWA, as well as local newspapers and other places.

I’m also working on a video game! An old school console style RPG, with big epic plot completely adorned with the usual Jessupian weirdness you’ve come to expect. You play a shadow witch, captured at the start of the game by bone witch who wants to cut your heart out and use it for a spell. You’re in the cage, your desperate to get out, and a voice starts calling out from a box on a table near you…

And then it gets really weird. And yet the gameplay is old school Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy style gameplay, so in that way it’s all very familiar. I’m having fun making the pixel art and writing the weird dialogue and designing the levels.

That sounds like a lot of fun. Thank you for stopping by to chat!

Certainly! Any time. Hope I was half as interesting as my novel.

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Giveaway: Catfish Lullaby

Catfish Lullaby CoverCatfish Lullaby is officially out in the world! I’m very pleased with my weird little story of swamps and monsters, found family, blood family, and fighting back against the darkness. It’s picked up a few nice reviews so far, including Publishers Weekly, where is got a starred review, The Miskatonic Review, which had very kind things to say, and Black Gate Magazine, among other places.

If you haven’t grabbed a copy yet, here’s your chance to win one. All you have to do is tell me a story. Between now and Friday, September 13, 2019, drop a comment below telling me a about your favorite legend. It could be something specific to a certain region, like the Loch Ness Monster, or the Jersey Devil. It could be a new tale from the creepypasta age, like Slender Man. It could be a personal family story, like the time your grandmother saw a ghost, or something that happened to a friend of a friend of a friend, but you swear it’s true. Eerie voices, UFOs, cryptozoolgy, whatever you got, I want to hear it. Give me your odd tales passed around the campfire, your snippets and incidents that grow with retelling into a full-blown legend. (Note – you don’t necessarily have to tell me a full story. You could say your favorite legend is Bigfoot for their fabulous sense of style, and that’s good enough for me!)

At the end of the week, through the magic of random number generation, I’ll pick a winner and send off a signed copy. I can’t wait to hear your stories!

ETA: Thank you to everyone who played along and shared your favorite legends, inexplicable encounters, and creepy stories. The random number generator has declared Hailey the winner. Congratulations!

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An Interview with Alix E. Harrow

Alix E. Harrow was kind enough to drop by today to talk about her debut novel The Ten Thousand Doors of January, among other things. To get started, I will shamelessly steal from Alix’s author bio in order to make introductions.

Alix E. Harrow is an ex-historian with lots of opinions and excessive library fines, currently living in Kentucky with her husband and their semi-feral children. Her short fiction has been nominated for the Hugo, Nebula, and Locus Awards; The Ten Thousand Doors of January is her first novel.

The Ten Thousand Doors of January CoverWelcome, Alix, and congratulations on the publication of The Ten Thousand Doors of January! It’s a wonderful book, and I feel lucky to have gotten a sneak peek at it! For those who haven’t experienced it yet, would you care to give a sense of what it’s about?

Is there any question more terrifying to a writer than “so, what is your book about?” So innocent! So devastating! But the short version is: it’s 1901, and a girl catches a glimpse of another world through a blue door in a field. Ten years later, she and her terrible dog have to find their way back to through the door with nothing but a mysterious book to help them. It’s about family and history, nowheres and somewheres and in-betweens, bad dogs and good friends and the stories we all inherit.

January is a fantastic character, among many fantastic characters (Bad!) in the novel, and her journey through its pages is magical. What came first in terms of inspiration for this story – the character, the setting, the plot, or some combination of all three?

The first two pages have remained more or less unchanged since the very beginning of everything. I wrote them before I had a plot or an outline or anything at all but the image of a young woman watching the sea, writing her own story. Her story started in an overgrown hayfield in western Kentucky and ended somewhere-very-much else. Most of writing this book was just filling in the gap between point A and point B, which I did by jumbling together everything I love most: a book within a book, a father-quest, footnotes, anticolonial sympathies, dogs, true love.

Doors to other worlds are obviously a key part of your novel, and you also wrote about portal fantasies in your beautiful and bittersweet short story “A Witch’s Guide to Escape: A Practical Compendium of Portal Fantasies.” What draws you to the theme of portal fantasies? Do you have a favorite portal fantasy novel or story? If you a had the opportunity to travel another world, what would your ideal fantasy realm look like, and what means would you use to access it?

So, the thing that attracts me to portal fantasies is that I don’t like them. That’s a lie—I loved Narnia and Wonderland and Peter Pan and Oz as a kid, but I hated each of their endings. Dorothy and Alice waking up; the Pevensies tumbling back through the wardrobe, crown-less; Wendy growing old. They left me with this hollow, haunted feeling—what Neil Gaiman refers to as “a hole in your heart” in The Ocean at the End of the Lane—and I’ve spent more time than I’d really like to think about trying to fill it.

And then in grad school I studied empire through the lens of children’s literature, and realized that portal fantasies were often actually colonial fantasies, imagining chaotic foreign lands that needed civilized white children to take them firmly in hand. And after that I started thinking about turning portal fantasies inside out and backwards—making them about home-going rather than escape, about belonging rather than conquering.

(My ideal fantasy realm is something like Earthsea, where I would tend goats and work women’s magic and no one would ever know my name. Or maybe it’s Hogwarts, where I teach the History of Magic properly. Or maybe it’s Novik’s Wood in Uprooted? Anyway, I live in a house like Howl’s and have doors leading to every realm on different days of the week).

Your novel, and many of your short stories, make use of historical settings. What appeals to you most about writing about the past? When choosing a setting for a story, do you pick a period you’re already familiar with, or one that gives you an excuse to learn something new, or does it all depend on the story? Is there a particular time period you’re more drawn to than others?

What appeals to me about the past is the illusion that I can fully know it. The present feels too complex and ever-changing and vast to ever accurately represent it, while the past feels comfortably finite. The past can be divided into eras and periods; it can be assembled into sixteen-week syllabi; it can be footnoted in Chicago style and peer-reviewed. That’s why I tend to cling nervously to the end of the nineteenth century—it’s what I studied in grad school, and I feel more confident stomping around in it, tossing fairy dust in the corners.

You’re currently based in Kentucky, and I admit it’s an area I don’t know much about. What are some of your favorite places in the area to visit in order to recharge your creative energy and draw inspiration, or places you like to recommend to those visiting for the first time?

Kentucky is beautiful and terrible and broke as hell. I both love it and hate it, several times a day—I suspect lots of people feel that way about the places they’re from.
Here are the places that make me love it:
• Lake Nolin (a dammed river south of Elizabethtown that smells like catfish and sycamores and my entire childhood)
• Red River Gorge (obviously)
• Farm Market (a tienda/tamale place on New Circle Road in Lexington. Last week the owner had a new grandbaby, got emotional, and ended up giving my kids two free pinatas. 10/10 would recommend)
• Noodle Nirvana in Berea (a donut shop by day and a noodle place by night)
• A certain overgrown hayfield just south of Bowling Green (Door not guaranteed)

Here are the places I strongly do not recommend:
• The Creation Museum (obviously)
• The World’s Only Museum of Ventriloquism (due to the obvious haunting)

One of my favorite questions to ask authors is about non-writing related jobs. What is the most unusual job you’ve ever had? What did you learn from it, and has any aspect of that job worked its way into any of your stories?

Blueberry raking in Maine. I learned how to keep my shirt tucked in so I didn’t burn the everloving hell out of my lower back; how to play Dutch Blitz; how to jump an ancient VW van; how to fall in love. Every love story I ever write will be that one, I think.

Now that The Ten Thousand Doors of January is out in the world, what’s next for you? What are you working on, or have coming up that you want folks to know about?

My next book was pitched as “suffragettes, but witches,” and follows three sisters working to bring witching back into the world. I just handed its primordial first-draft to my agent. By fall of 2020, maybe it will have evolved into an actual, readable book.

It sounds fabulous! Thanks for stopping by!

Thank you for all the work and service you give the SFF community—and your own lovely stories!

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September Shenanigans (and Beyond!)

This fall is going to be a busy one. Catfish Lullaby officially comes out on September 3, and I’m super excited for it to be out in the world! It’s my first foray into longer fiction, and deals with monsters and family – both found and blood – which are two of my favorite things to write and read about. I’ll be posting more about the novella after the official release, and doing a giveaway at some point. I’ll also be participating in several events this fall, many of which will include readings from, and signings of, Catfish Lullaby.

Sunday, September 8 at 2 p.m. the wonderful Anna Kashina and I will be hosting a joint event at Main Point Books in Wayne, PA. We’ll be reading from our work, interviewing each other, and signing copies of our books. We’ll also be providing tasty treats and alcohol. We’d love for you to join us!

Story FestThe last weekend of September, I’ll be participating in the 2019 Saugatuck StoryFest in Westport, CT.  Saturday, September 28 from 4:30 to 5:30 p.m. I’ll be part of the Echoes: A Saga Anthology of Ghost Stories panel, along with Stephen Graham Jones, Ellen Datlow, Seanan McGuire, Paul Tremblay, Bracken McLeod, and Rick Bowes. We’ll be talking about our stories, and discussing ghosts in general and why stories about them have such staying power. Following the panel, we’ll be signing copies of the anthology, along with our own work. I understand there’s also some sort of mixer event that evening, and the line-up for StoryFest in general is wonderful. R.L. Stine is the keynote speaker!

October 18-20, I’ll be attending Capclave in Rockville, MD. I’ll be doing a reading on Friday night, and participating on panels on Saturday and Sunday. I’ll put together a separate post with my schedule, but for now, you can see it here, along with all the other wonderful participants. Capclave is a lovely, laid-back con focused on books and reading. If you’ve never been, I highly recommend it.

A Song for a New Day CoverOctober 30 from 6 – 7:30 p.m., I’ll be at the Penn Book Center with the wonderful Sarah Pinsker as part of the All But True reading series. She’ll be talking about her debut novel, A Song for a New Day, I’ll be talking about Catfish Lullaby, and we’ll both be reading and signing and chatting with the audience.

I’m also attending the Baltimore Book Festival from November 1 – 3. TBD whether I’ll be participating on any programming, but even if not, it’s a wonderful festival to wander around and soak in all the literary goodness. The Festival brings together tons of fantastic authors each year, and of course there are always plenty of books for sale. It’s definitely worth checking out if you’re in the area!

I’ll update this post as more links and schedule information becomes available, or if any other events pop up. I hope to see you at one of the above-mentioned theres!

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Shiny Shorts: Monsters and Memory

With Apex Magazine ceasing monthly publication, my review column, Words for Thought, is a bit up in the air. It may come back in some form, at some point, but in the meantime, I want to keep highlighting short fiction. So in that spirit, I intend to sporadically post reviews here of a few stories that have caught my eye, magpie-like, hence the name Shiny Shorts. Happy reading!

Colonized Bodies, Desiccated Souls by Nin Harris, published at Diabolical Plots, casts British colonizers in Malaysia as literal zombies, mindlessly devouring people and resources. In response, Penghulu Udin forms the Persatuan Pertahanan Manusia Sejagat – PPMS – training others to fight back and defend humanity.

Even in their present state the British could barely handle the heat of the tropics. Penghulu Udin discovered he was exceptionally good at killing the undead. He could spear them, decapitate them, blow them up or use the bamboo blowgun the way his Dayak ancestors had before they had travelled to Selangor to build a new life by marrying into the Javanese community.

He is joined in the PPMS by his love, Salmah who fights at his side. Their life isn’t easy, but at least they are together. However, one night while they are on watch together, Udin discovers Salmah has been keeping a secret that will change everything.

Harris does an excellent job of conveying atmosphere and creating tension throughout the story. Like the best zombie fiction, the trope of the unreasoning undead is used here to confront a larger issue, in this case colonialism. The British are consumers, and Udin and his people are the product as only the British are subject to  infection while Malaysians who are bitten simply die. Zombies here are the perfect metaphor for the ugly reality of the sun never setting on the British Empire. The British colonizers are immortal in Harris’ world, even if the life they possess is hideous. They continue blithely on, and everyone else suffers the consequences. There is a lot to unpack in this relatively short story as it explores the fate of people caught in the crossfire of empires, and what it seems they must inevitably become in order to reclaim control.

Where Nin Harris uses zombies to examine colonialism, Danny Lore uses werewolves to examine class in Fare, published in Fireside Magazine. Like Harris’ story, Lore’s is also short, but packs a punch. Werewolves are a known quantity in this world. Most are registered, and there are even swanky, government-sponsored kennels where wealthy and middle class people can ride out their transformations. DeShaun, however, is not registered, and he knows people from his neighborhood are not welcome at the Midtown Kennels. He has no desire to hurt anyone, he simply wants to get home before the moon changes him.

The change always starts at the back of DeShaun’s neck, and it takes everything not to claw the beast out — to not let it peel him open along his spine like pages of a book.

Lore’s prose is visceral and claustrophobic, creating tension through their descriptions – the suffocating heat in the cab, the cracked seats, the barrier separating DeShaun from the driver. The oppressive atmosphere creates a sense of urgency, making me want to squirm right along side DeShaun as he struggles for control. The story works perfectly as a sharp little bite of horror, but it’s more than that as well. Lore weaves in an examination of class, wealth, and privilege. The cabbie isn’t even aware of the existence of kennels in the Kingsbridge Armory where DeShaun and those like him go during their transformation. For the privileged, transforming into a werewolf is almost a holiday, and proud parents snap photographs of their children’s first change. As with so many things in life, privilege wipes away what could be monstrous, and replaces it with comfort and safety. The story is beautifully-written, and delivers satisfying horror as well as a reflection on society’s inequalities.

Apparition Lit CoverHis Heart is the Haunted House by Aimee Ogden in Apparition Literary Magazine takes on ghosts, beautifully twisting the trope of the tortured monster hunter. Karyn is a ghost, tied to a nameless monster hunter,  and she isn’t the only one. There are other ghosts – Tish and María-Belén and Easterday and more – all people the monster hunter failed to save. They are his burden to bear, the guilt he carries with him every day as he tries to ease his pain in all the usual ways – alcohol, cigarettes, and being an emotionally closed-off loner.

 

And then there are the ones who get towed helplessly in the wake of someone else who won’t let them go. The ones who don’t get to do, who only get to be carried around. The ones used to abrade the old scars of someone else’s guilt and shame.

Karyn and the other ghosts can briefly take possession of the monster hunter, nudging him towards certain actions, but it’s never long enough. They never get to do what they want to do, or resolve any of their own unfinished business. They simply get dragged along in the monster hunter’s wake, symbols he never sees or acknowledges. They are embodiment of his failure, letting him artfully wallow, but never recognized by him as human beings whose lives were lost. It’s a wonderful take on the tortured hero, motivated by a fridged woman’s death.

Ogden’s choice to never name the hunter is deliberate, framing the ghosts he carries as more real than he is, and reducing him to the cookie-cutter trope instead of them. The narrative is cleverly shifted, giving the ghosts more agency than the hunter, and the way the ghosts use their influence to steer the monster hunter toward  shedding his ultra-masculine loner persona is another lovely touch. The story is beautifully-told, refuses to go in expected directions, and is highly satisfying, particularly in an issue themed around retribution.

When Are You Wearing? by H.L. Fullerton in Capricious Issue 12 plays with the idea of memory and time. There have been a few recent short stories pairing food and memory, but Fullerton’s focus on clothing is a neat change-up, with lush, gorgeous descriptions of fashion that are every bit as mouthwatering as a good meal.

You are Narcissa Bloom. Once you made clothes, spent your imagination on hems and neck lines, buttons and zips, cut and fit. You remember every stitch, every thread, every look as it taxied down the runway and flew off hangars. Your closet bursts with memories – all the labels bear your name. All the clothes you’ve ever owned… They own you now. That’s how this works. This is what the time warlocks have done.

Narcissa is trapped, surrounded by memories and struggling with how to move forward in a world where time has become meaningless. Each item of clothing in her closet recaptures a day gone past, sparking nostalgia and recreating the emotion she felt at the time. She can revisit her first date with her lover, Fee, endlessly, but how can they create new memories together?

The story can be read as a metaphor for creative stagnation, something most artists fear. You’re only as good as your last dress, last story, last painting. How do you keep things fresh and new and not simply recreate what people loved about your work before? Making something new is a risk – people might hate it. In the same way, the future is a risk, an unknown, while the past and memories are safe, because they’ve already happened. Clothing can evoke memories every bit as strongly as a smell or a certain dish can, and Fullerton captures that perfectly, offering up a sensuous feast of pattern, color, and texture.

Fiyah 11 CoverIbrahim and the Green Fishing Net by Omar William Sow in Fiyah #11 is another story steeped in memory. Maam Iba is an old man, his eyesight failing. He’s lived a good life, which has given him children and grandchildren, and he seems happy. But every day near sunset, he goes down to the beach, sits in a plastic chair with a book he does not read, and stares at the water, watching for the man he loves.

He holds his book open, turning the pages when he remembers to do so, and the young men say to each other that he’s a well-read man. When the sun starts to harden in preparation for its dive, children run along the beach, and the older little ones say to the younger little ones that he’s watching for sharks. Only the occasional younger little one is ever right, when they tell the older little ones that no, he’s waiting for a friend.

In his youth, Ibrahim fished with his friend. Out on the water, free from the strictures of society and isolated in their own world, they were able to love each other – hold hands, touch each other’s skin, kiss. But when Ibrahim fell ill, his friend was forced to go out alone in order to make money for medicine. His boat returned empty, and Ibrahim never saw his friend – his love – again.

Sow offers up a lovely, contemplative story of a heart large enough to encompass multiple types of love over a lifetime, and explores the contrast between interior and exterior lives. Those around Maam Ib perceive him only as an old man and fit him into their vision of what an old man should be, incapable of imagining the passions he experienced as a young man. This is a love story, beautiful and poetic, but it’s also a meditation on faith. Ibrahim never gives up belief in his lost love even though he has no reason to believe he will see him again. Faith and hope are threaded throughout the story, giving it a dream-like, magical quality. Rather than dwell on loss and sorrow, Ibrahim looks forward joyously, even toward the end of a his life. In a way, Ibrahim is the ideal Fullerton’s Narcissa Bloom strives toward – someone informed by the past but not caged by it, with his eyes always on the horizon and what comes next.

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Constructed Identities

Every now and then, I remember to dip my toe outside the speculative fiction genre waters, for instance, into contemporary mainstream literature. Of course, it’s been said that all fiction is, to some degree, speculative. Even narratives firmly rooted in our world wonder what if; they imagine histories that never happened, populated with characters who never lived. The reverse can also be said to be true. The best speculative fiction examines our world and shows us something vital about human nature, helping us better understand our own lives. Story is how humans make sense of the world. Events occur, and we later string them into narratives in order to give them meaning, or share them with others.

Bloomland CoverBloomland by John Englehardt highlights this essential truth – that regardless of genre, whether fiction or non-fiction, all narratives are constructed with a purpose, to convey a viewpoint, impart information, make sense of a series of seemingly unconnected events, or even to entertain. Stories are built things, as are the characters that inhabit them.  Even the news media reports in the form of stories, casting those involved as characters, and Bloomland is sadly relevant to the current news cycle, as it deals with a fatal school shooting on a college campus. The story is ostensibly presented from three loosely-connected viewpoints: Eli, the shooter; Rose, a fellow student; and Eddie, a teacher at the school whose wife, Casey, is one of the shooting victims. I say “ostensibly” as the entire novel is narrated by a fourth connected perspective, Dr. Bressinger, one of Eli’s professors, and Eddie’s friend, colleague, and occasional roommate. More on him later.

This structure highlights what, to my mind, is the point of the novel, which is not to unravel the shooting or the motives behind it, but to examine the ways identities are constructed. Bloomland explores how individuals construct their  public and private selves; how it is human nature to construct narratives about people around us in an attempt to understand them; how outside forces, such as religion and societal expectations, shape a person; and how – in the case of a national news story such as a shooting – the media constructs identities in the course of presenting their narrative.

“They don’t actually want to help you or know you. They just want to preserve their own ideas of compassion and meaning. They want to hold onto the vast practical joke of their lives so they don’t have to feel the pain and confusion its absence would reveal. And they don’t care if you die. They just want to believe your crime was the result of a tortured psyche. There’s nothing cruel about death–only misunderstanding, and that is exactly how they are planning to empty you.”

As a young woman, Rose was caught in a tornado that destroyed her home and her family. At college, she reinvents herself, deliberately setting out to construct a new identity. The first identity she chooses is sorority girl, someone who eats the right foods, wears the right clothes, attends the right events, and has the right friends. Over the course of the novel, that identity unravels, and she must begin again in deciding who she wants to be.

After Casey’s death, Eddie constructs a variety of identities for her. She is a fixed point in time as he returns to what their life might have been. She is idealized, a symbol of loss. She is a figment, projected into the places Eddie visits as he tries to construct for himself his process of grief. Eddie loved Casey, but his journey over the course of the novel calls into questions how well he really knew her in the end.

Eli ends up being one of the most interesting characters in the book, perhaps by virtue of being the most examined. He is not necessarily a sympathetic character, but he is not unsympathetic either. His actions are presented as monstrous, but Eli isn’t presented flatly as a villain. Instead, Englehardt presents multiple angles from which to view Eli’s character, all of which are factors in constructing his identity.

The media paints Eli as the subject of bad influences, a drug user and dealer, disconnected from reality and driven to violence by the loss of his mother in a car accident as a child. The prosecution at his trail labels him as calculating, someone from whom an act of extreme violence was only ever a question of when, not if. His defense tries to show him as vulnerable, mentally unfit to stand trial, driven by voices. Through his father’s eyes, Eli is a stranger, someone drifting further out of the picture until they become unknowable. Eli constructs multiple identities for himself as well.  He is a hero, he is lost. He is numb, he is confused, he will make an impact on the world, and shake it from its complacency.

“Day one of the trial ends, and as a black light gets thrown onto your entire life, you feel like everyone has missed the point entirely. The whole idea behind the shooting was that you had never done anything wrong. You weren’t evil or psychotic. You were overlooked, disenfranchised, promised one thing and given another. The only thing that should be discussed is how strong your impulse became to release this pain back out into the world.”

Eli embodies a variety of tropes and narratives about mass killers, the same narratives too often repeated on the news. He was angry, a loner, a quiet, polite young man, but society let him down. At the end of the day,  the incontrovertible fact remains that Eli is a murderer. He took lives, and no amount of justification or explanation will change that.

Ultimately, Bloomland is a series of character studies, writ large, an exploration reminding us that there is no singular correct reaction to tragedy, no one way to grieve, and no right or wrong when it comes to coping with violence on a small or large scale. Englehardt presents beautiful images and turns of phrase throughout, and even when the characters aren’t likable, they are engaging. It’s a short novel, but accomplishes a lot with a length that keeps it from feeling indulgent or bloated.

Circling back to that fourth perspective, that of Dr. Bressinger, we see once again how Bloomland itself is constructed to be a story about stories. Bressinger’s narration occurs in the second person, as though he is telling each of the characters the story of their lives. Even though he only knew Eli briefly, and Rose barely, if at all, Bressinger relates each character’s life in intimate detail, including things he could not possibly know. Thus, one must assume, his characterizations must be, if not a lie, at least an imaginary construction allowing Bressinger to make sense of the tale. Within Bloomland‘s fiction, as in life, all we can do is gather the perspectives and make them into our own story to bring ourselves a little closer to understanding the shape of the world.

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