Leveling Up and Measuring Success

Ding! Level! It’s a satisfying noise and a satisfying feeling. You’ve put in the time, now your efforts have been rewarded. Whether it’s a noise, or pretty sparkles on the screen, video games tend to celebrate the achievement of leveling in a tangible way. They’ve also conditioned players to expect that with leveling comes other rewards – more powerful attacks, new skills, better gear, an increased chance of winning the next fight, and so on. It’s hard not to want to apply that same metric to other areas of life, for example writing. You pour your heart into your work, tear yourself open, bleed on the page, bang your head against the wall trying to get that one sentence, one word, one punctuation mark, right. And slowly, ever so slowly, you improve your craft. Ding! Wait, no ding? What’s happening?

Mario Level UpHere’s where things get tricky. That tangible reward system, that outside sense of validation, isn’t always there. It’s hard to write about things like this without it sounding like sour grapes or meaningless platitudes. This post isn’t intended to be either of these things, or to be dismissive of tangible rewards. Consider it a companion post to one I wrote three years ago: Permission to Fail, Permission to Succeed. It’s something I need to remind myself of every now and then, and maybe other people will find it helpful too.

As authors, we all love our craft, right? Otherwise why would we keep banging our heads against that metaphorical wall, agonizing over that one sentence? We’re passionate and most of us would keep writing regardless of reward or recognition, but deep down, wouldn’t it be nice if someone noticed? If a lot of people noticed? If enough people noticed to result in an award? Applying the video game metric, the logical conclusion is that as long as you put in the time, keep grinding and leveling up, an award nomination or even a win will be the end result. Level. Ding! But there are a lot of factors that go into award nominations, and nothing is guaranteed.

Every year, many wonderful, worthy, and amazing works get nominated, but only one can win. Does that make the rest of the ballot any less amazing or worthy? No. Many more works don’t get nominated – they just miss the ballot, or they miss it by miles. Does that make them objectively bad? Not worth your time? No. There are so many works published each year, no one can keep up with all of them. Incredible work gets overlooked and missed all the time. People make hard choices when deciding what to include on their ballots. The works and authors that don’t end up on the list aren’t failures.

Leveling up in writing, unlike video games, is not a strictly linear progression. Some people seem to burst onto the scene with immediate awards success, and from the outside, it looks effortless. We don’t see the years of work behind the “instant” sensation, the days when they too stare at the blank page and the words refuse to come, the days when they doubt anything and everything they’ve ever written, and doubt themselves most of all. Some people work steadily for years, build a career of small victories, then larger ones, and then finally, at last, they earn a coveted space at the top. Ding! Others zig-zag  all over the place and take unconventional routs, and others still put in the time, steadily improve their craft, and that ding never sounds. Sometimes, the cake is a lie.

Does that mean you’re doing something wrong as an author? No. Maybe there is an award further ahead in your future, and when that nomination comes it will be incredible and well-deserved and you will celebrate with glee. But there might not be. Awards aren’t a guaranteed landmark on your journey. If you don’t hit that way point, it doesn’t mean you’re lost. Again, it means the rewards, the way points on your journey, the proof you’ve leveled, aren’t always tangible.

There are other markers along the way, and sometimes it’s hard to see them. You’re running so fast toward that next level, that perceived endpoint, that sometimes the scenery starts to blur. You don’t always see that one person your words touched, or that your work meant the world too. You don’t always notice the improvements in your craft, or how far you’ve come from where you started.

The temptation is there to think if I could just win an award, I will have finally made it. I will be able to leave the self doubt behind. The dirty secret is, it’s never enough. Those people who win awards? They doubt themselves too. We all do. It’s what keeps us writing, keeps us striving. Even when you win, there’s always another level. The cap keeps rising. So what do you do? Keep writing. Make more words. A torrent of them. Don’t stop, but do look back every now and then. Give yourself permission to succeed. The metric may not be what you thought it was, but that doesn’t mean you haven’t made any progress. You may just need to learn to measure the journey in different ways.

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Women to Read: Where to Start: August 2017

Welcome to another Women to Read: Where to Start. Last month, I focused on non-fiction, but this month I’m back to fiction with a mix of short stories, novels, and novellas. Away we go!

Heroine ComplexSarah Kuhn has written for comics, has written essays on geek culture scattered across many publications, and her novella One Con Glory is in development as a feature film. My recommended starting place for her work is Heroine Complex, the first book in a trilogy following the adventures of Evie Tanaka, personal assistant to superheroine Aveda Jupiter. The novel opens with Evie filming Aveda’s battle against a horde of demons who just happen to have taken the form of cupcakes and are wreaking havoc on a local bakery. With an opening like that, the novel has high potential to be goofy or cheesy, and while  what unfolds from there never loses its sense of fun, Kuhn layers in a serious examination of complex relationships while dismantling several tropes. Aveda and Evie are fiercely devoted to each other at their cores and have been since they were children, bonding over being the only two Asian girls in their kindergarten class, teased by the white kids. However that doesn’t mean their relationship is always perfect – Aveda’s obsession with pleasing her parents and living up to their ideal image of her often leads her to be domineering, bossy, and controlling, while Evie’s fear of her own superpowers lead her to push people away, or lash out at them in anger. The story explores female friendship, lust, family relationships, insecurity, and the desire for parental approval. While many of the characters present as stereotypes at first (e.g. the means girls, the tomboy, etc.) Kuhn peels back the layers of each character over the course of the novel to refute those stereotypes. The storytelling is slick and fast-paced, and as mentioned, never loses its sense of fun. For example, one of the epic showdowns with the villain takes the form of a karaoke battle. It’s not a typical superhero story, though it does hit some of the familiar beats – the hero/villain dynamic, the superhero support team, and a character coming into their powers. Kuhn puts her own spin on things though, and always keeps her characters at the story’s heart. The relationships in Evie’s life are the prime driver for everything that occurs – her loyaty to Aveda, her burgeoning lust for Nathaniel, her efforts to keep her sister Bea safe and give her a normal life, and her alienation from her father. Even Evie and Aveda’s relationship with the villain is important, playing with the idea of women cutting each other down because there’s only room for so many women in the world. There’s action, humor, sex, and genuinely touching emotional beats between the characters, and they all blend smoothly to make a wonderful whole. The sequel, Heroine Worship, was just released, and I look forward to reading it.

A Question of FaithTonya Liburd is an author and the Associate Editor at Abyss & Apex. My recommended starting point for her work is A Question of Faith published at The Book Smugglers. Ceke works in the Temple of Ra, researching the connection between the human mind and the concept of divinity. Her primary subject is a young man named Wahibra who was abandoned on the temple doorstep as a child. Wahibra is uniquely talented, manifesting psychoacoustic phenomena through singing, and Ceke believes he may be the key to unlocking higher planes of consciousness and essentially transcending humanity. Just as Wahibra begins to manifest some unusual results during his tests, he goes missing. Meanwhile, Ceke’s co-wife and co-worker, Ngware, is home on maternity leave getting ready to have their first child. Ceke has fears and doubts about raising a child. She wants to be there for Ngware, especially with the extra medical risks associated with child coming from two eggs and no sperm, but she can’t abandon work. Things become even more complicated when rumors begin to circulate of Wahibra performing miracles and attacking people. Ngware vanishes as well, and Ceke knows Wahibra is involved. She tracks him down, discovering he’s become something more than human and can’t control the divinity inside him, and she must help him fight it off in order to save her wife and unborn child. Liburd explores science and faith on multiple levels throughout the story. Ceke must learn to have faith in her relationship with Ngware and in the future of their child. This is paralleled with the idea of humans ascending to divinity and attaining godlike powers, questioning whether divinity is an external force or something that comes from within. The same parallels exist with the science in the story – the medical advances allowing Ceke and Ngware to have a child together, and the science elevating human consciousness and transforming the understanding of religion. Both big picture questions are also happening on a small scale, affecting very intimate and personal things within Ceke’s life, and Liburd blends them together seamlessly. A Question of Faith is an excellent story and an excellent starting place for Liburd’s work.

K.T. Bryski is an author, playwright, fellow Canadian (woot!), and a person who is extremely knowledgeable about beer. My recommended starting place for her work is La Corriveau, which is currently a finalist for the Sunburst Award for Excellence in Canadian Literature of the Fantastic. The story centers around the legend of La Corriveau aka Marie-Josephte Corriveau, whose second husband died under suspicious circumstances, resulting in both Marie-Josephte and her father being accused of murder. Legends grew around her until it was rumored that she married and murdered seven husbands and practiced witchcraft. Bryski’s story attempts to reclaim Marie-Josephte from history, making her into a real woman with hopes and dreams. Marie-Josphte was ultimately found guilty of murder, hanged, and her body displayed in an iron cage post mortem. While some question remains as to Marie-Josephte’s guilt as a historical figure, Bryski offers up a sympathetic portrait of an innocent young woman married at age sixteen, learning to love her husband, losing him to war, and being forced to remarry an abusive man in order to support her children. Marie-Josephte’s hope for the future is palpable, and her loss  is crushing. The story underlines the relative powerlessness of women during Marie-Josephte’s time, as well as the power of history to write people out of existence. This is especially true of women and other marginalized people who were rarely the ones writing the official history, making it easier for their stories to vanish under sensationalism, convenient lies, and outright slander. Whatever the truth of La Corriveau’s life, this fictionalized version is a lovely and painful story, and worthy starting place for Bryski’s work.

River of TeethSarah Gailey is an author, a columnist for Tor.com and Barnes and Noble’s Sci Fi Blog, and a 2017 Campbell and Hugo Award finalist. My recommended starting place for her work is her debut novella, River of Teeth. The novella posits an alternate history where the US Government’s plan to farm hippos for meat actually came to pass. Set in the 1890s in Louisiana, the story follows Winslow Remmington Houndstooth as he assembles a band of outlaws and mercenaries to rid the bayou of the feral hippos that have overrun it and are interfering with trade. His team includes Regina Archambault aka Archie, a con artist and pickpocket, Hero Shackleby, an expert in explosives and poison, Cal Hotchkiss, the fastest gun in the west (or the world, if you ask him), Adelia Reyes, a deadly assassin, and, of course, their hippos. The first half of the novella sees Houndstooth building his crew, a familiar scenario, but one that is elevated beyond the ordinary but Gailey’s exquisite worldbuilding and wonderful characters. The world feels real and lived in, and her characters are people you want to spend time with, even though you’d have to constantly watch your back and your wallet.  Gailey gives each character a history, and many of them a history with each other, and these histories and unique personalities drive the story. The hippos have unique personalities in their own right, and they are every bit as much central characters in the story as the humans. The writing is smooth and sharp, highly visual and cinematic while not neglecting the other senses, and by turns fun, violent, emotional, and action-filled. The sequel Taste of Marrow, is out in September, and I’m very much looking forward to reading it. While I am recommending River of Teeth as a starting point for Gailey’s work, I’d highly recommend her Tor.com and Barnes and Noble essays as well. They’re insightful, and in the case of her Women of Harry Potter Series, pack an emotional punch. Basically, seek out her work and give it a read!

That wraps up another Women to Read: Where to Start. Because one can never have too many things to read, I’d love your suggestions for your favorite female authors and a good starting point for their work. Fire away in the comments, and happy reading!

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Women to Read: Where to Start: July 2017

Welcome to July’s Women to Read: Where to Start. One of my reading goals in recent years has been to read more non-fiction, so it seemed only appropriate to put together a Women to Read column focusing on just that very thing. Here we go!

Tracy Beach is a Colorado author, and my recommended starting place for her work is My Life as a Whore: The Biography of Madam Laura Evens 1871-1953. I picked this book up on a whim while visiting Colorado. After all, who doesn’t like a bit of colorful local history? This book certainly doesn’t disappoint. Beach writes in a very engaging style, often using dialog provided by Laura herself from a series of interviews conducted by another local historian, Fred Mazzulla, before Laura died. She also builds the story from her own interviews conducted with those who knew Laura, and a wealth of primary sources including letters, diaries, and photographs kept by Evens’ family. Laura Evens was very firm about calling herself a whore, dismissing euphemisms such as “soiled dove” or “lady of the evening”. Beach honors that with the title of her book, and invites readers to meet Laura, a headstrong,  funny, caring woman with an occasionally violent temper, who was not opposed to a bit of mischief and chaos. Beach chronicles Laura’s journey from her choice to leave her husband and become a whore, to her purchasing her own parlor house and becoming a Madam. Had Laura been alive in the age of internet memes, I suspect she would have made liberal use of “Behold! The field in which I grow my fucks. Lay thine eyes upon it, and see that it is barren”, and variations thereupon. The book paints a fascinating portrait of the lives whores lived in Salida at the time, from the auditions to earn them a place in the houses, to their lodgings, and the way they spent their spare time. Laura was careful with her money, and was able to afford a certain degree of luxury for herself. She was also generous, buying the local school football team brand new uniforms. Her savings allowed her to purchase her own house, and become her own boss. She spent her life refusing to back down, and refusing to apologize to anyone. She wasn’t above throwing a punch if she felt a man was disrespecting her, and she wasn’t above causing property damage in the name of fun. One particularly charming (or possibly horrifying depending on your perspective) incident recounts how she brought her horse, Charlie, into a bar at the Ice Palace set up for a winter fair, and the ensuing chaos he caused when he spooked and kicked over a four foot tall ice display. It’s a fun book, and an enlightening one. It shows the humor and joy Laura found in aspects of her life, but doesn’t shy away from the hardships either. Overall, it’s a fascinating look at a slice of history, and a worthy starting place for Beach’s work.

A New Orleans Voudou PriestessA New Orleans Voudou Priestess: The Legend and Reality of Marie Laveau is another book I picked up on a whim, and it’s my recommended starting point for Carolyn Morrow Long, who specializes in books dealing with religion, spirituality, and the history of New Orleans. In contrast with Tracy Beach’s writing, Long’s accounting of the life of Marie Laveau is often very dry. Rather than a narrative style, her writing reveals her research process, presenting legends and rumors about the famed Voudou Queen, and laying out the meticulously-researched evidence to support or refute those stories. Reading through the book is almost like watching a detective at work, as Long digs through old birth records, baptism certificates, marriage announcements, property records, newspaper articles, and more. Like Beach, Long refers to interviews with those connected to Marie Laveau, and does her best to reconstruct a life largely lost to myth and sensationalism. The ultimate conclusion of Long’s research is that some details may forever be unknown. One of the most fascinating things about the book is that it reveals how easily truth can be lost under layers of imperfect memory and incomplete record keeping. The amount Long is able to reconstruct is amazing when you see her sources and methods laid out. During Laveau’s time in New Orleans, everyone seemed to be known by at least ten different names, and the spelling of those names was highly inconsistent. Long’s dry style actually helps in reclaiming Laveau from the sensational legends that have grown up around her since her death, and even within her own lifetime. Long reminds us that there was a real woman behind the stories, one with a family and deep ties to her community. Long also gives readers a glimpse into the unique history of New Orleans, its racial politics, and its blend and clash of cultures. The thoroughness of Long’s research and the precise way she lays it out makes this an excellent starting place for her work, and has me wanting to read her other titles.2424

Sticking with the theme of books picked up on a whim that illuminate some aspect of local history, my recommended starting point for Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz’s work is Dr. Mütter’s Marvels: A True Tale of Intrigue and Innovation at the Dawn of Modern Medicine. Today, Dr. Thomas Mütter is best known for the Philadelphia museum that bears his name, a museum of medical oddities containing anatomical casts, skeletons, medical instruments, and jars full of specimens. Rather than typical medical specimens, the collection focuses on unusual cases, and includes a plaster cast of the conjoined twins Chang and Eng, the tallest skeleton on view in North America, and “the soap lady”, the exhumed remains of a woman encased in adipocere, a fatty substance formed in rare cases under certain burial conditions. Like Beach, Aptowicz writes in a very engaging and easy to read narrative style. Far more than a collector of unique medical specimens, Aptowicz reveals Mütter as a deeply compassionate and highly innovative man. He pioneered delicate facial reconstruction surgery in North America, using techniques learned in Europe, and giving new hope to those who injuries and birth defects were considered un-treatable by most surgeons at the time. He was also a fierce advocate for many things we take for granted today – anesthesia, basic hygiene in the operating room, including the revolutionary idea that doctors should wash their hands in-between treating patients, after-care and recovery rooms, and working closely with patients at every stage of their surgery, before, during, and after so that they understood the process. The book is as much the story of early medicine in North America, and particularly Philadelphia. It is occasionally horrifying, but always fascinating, showing how the pioneers of modern medicine shaped hospitals, surgical facilities, and even medical schools. Due to the subject matter, it’s not a book for the squeamish, but it is an excellent and informative read, and a wonderful starting place for Aptowicz’s work.

Natalie Luhrs is a writer, reviewer, editor, and finalist for this year’s Hugo Award in the Best Fan Writer category. She is co-founder and co-editor of The Bias, and her reviews and essays are thoughtful, informative, and well-researched. My recommended starting place for Luhrs’ work is her essay, Failures of Empathy, which perfectly captures the type of issues she writes about, and her style. The essay opens with an incident on twitter, where a writer brought up an issue with their copy editor, and another writer called them out for being unprofessional and threatened them with a “blacklist” that would damage their career. Luhrs uses this as a starting point to talk about larger issues of privilege, marginalized voices – who is publicly chastised or threatened for their actions and who is not – and the idea of empathy as a whole. She relates the situation to topics discusses in Daniel Goleman’s Focus, which outlines three types of empathy, along with how empathy relates to wealth. Within the SFF community (as a microcosm of society as a whole) there are imbalances of power. Luhrs outlines how imbalances of power can create the same gap in empathy that Goleman describes. It’s an excellent essay, taking a relevant, current situation and placing it in a larger context. This is something Luhrs frequently does in her essays, which is why I recommend it as a starting point. I also highly recommend her reviews, her essays at The Bias, Uncanny, and elsewhere, and her excellent weekly links curation posts. What I’m saying is – follow Luhrs and read her work wherever you find it.

That wraps up my non-fiction edition of Women to Read: Where to Start. I’ll be back with more fiction recommendations next month, but in the meantime, I’d love to see your recommendations for non-fiction books and essays by women in the comments.

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Non-Binary Authors to Read: Where to Start – Part 8

It’s time, past time really, for another installment of Non-Binary Authors to Read. For those unfamiliar, this is a sibling series to Women to Read wherein I recommend work by non-binary authors, along with a starting place for their work. I use non-binary as a term of convenience, but the series includes agender, genderqueeer, gender fluid, neutrois, and more – essentially, authors who do not identify along the male/female binary spectrum. If you want to catch up, the other entries in the series can be found here. Onward to the recommendations!

K.C. Alexander is a genderqueer author whose SINless series begins with the novel Necrotech. Many of her works revolve around the theme of transhumanism, and so my recommended starting place for her work is her first transhumanist story, Four Tons Too Late (written under the name Karina Cooper). Four Tons Too Late follows Frank Mooney, a police officer who is part of an experimental program that has made him both more and less than human. As the story opens, Frank is near the end of his life in a nursing home, watched over by nurses who can barely be bothered with him. He’s an obsolete piece of tech, trapped in a failing body. All he has left are his memories, and even those offer little solace. His ex-wife remarried his partner, Jenkins. His colleagues on the force called him derogatory names like scrap squad and bucket head. The one bright spot in his memories is a young girl he saved from the streets, who he tried to raise as his daughter, but even that ended poorly, and now they’re estranged. There are comparisons to be made with RoboCop, but Four Tons Too Late is a story on a much smaller and more intimate scale. Frank’s least human qualities serve to underline his humanity. His struggle with simple things, like trying to pick up a coffee cup with his augmented hands without shattering it, or opening a refrigerator door without ripping it off the hinges, convey a sense of isolation, a loss of dignity, and a vulnerability, can be seen as a metaphor for aging or sickness. Frank’s servos and sensors that he wills to cooperate could just as easily be arthritic joins, or muscles impacted by a stroke. At the heart of the story is the reminder that sometimes is the loss of elements of our humanity that reminds us most sharply of who we are at our cores. Four Tons Too Late is a powerful story about family, the complicated nature of love, and the cost of being alive, and it’s an excellent starting place for K. C. Alexander’s work.

Hunger Makes the WolfAlex Acks is a writer, reviewer, and a sharp dressed sir. I have long been a fan of their short fiction, but my recommended starting place is their debut novel, Hunger Makes the Wolf (written under the name Alex Wells). Acks immediately drops readers into a world that feels lived in, with characters whose lives extend beyond the page. By the time we meet Hob Ravani, she already has a strange encounter with a phoenix in her past, and is imbued with witchy power she doesn’t fully understand. She also has a fall from grace in her past, which has left her clawing her way back up to a respected position within the Ghost Wolves, the mercenary biker gang that makes up half of her adopted family. As the story opens, the other half of Hob’s adopted family is in the process of being torn apart. The man who raised her is found murdered in the dunes, and her sister Mags is missing. Hob sets out to find the truth, and help her sister if she can, even though she’s been estranged from that side of the family for years. The story is set against the backdrop of Tanegawa’s World, a hardscrabble mining planet controlled by the TransRift Corporation. There’s a mysterious and not-quite-human being called the Bone Collector, who may or may not be Hob’s ally, and there are Weathermen, genetically engineered creatures under company control who are definitely not on Hob’s side. People with Hob’s powers are being hunted, and TransRift is tightening its grip on the people of Tanegawa’s World to a chokehold. Hunger Makes the Wolf is gritty in the truest sense. There is dust and dirt everywhere, and you can practically feel it between your teeth as you read. Elements of the novel are reminiscent of the best parts of Firefly, with a band of underdogs fighting back against a faceless central authority. The story feels more embedded though, showing the daily struggle of the miners’ lives, and their quiet acts of resistance alongside the more dramatic ones. There’s a cinematic quality to the novel, which would make it brilliant source material for a television series or mini-series. It’s full of action, and there’s even a train heist! Acks doesn’t skimp on character however. Hob’s relationship with her family, including the Ghost Wolves, is complicated and messy, making it all the more real. They don’t always get along, but they fight fiercely for each other, and new layers to the characters unfolds as the story does. The characters and worldbuilding are unique, and in the Weathermen, Acks offers a truly unsettling and intriguing new monster. The fact that it is reminiscent of Firefly makes it the perfect book for those still holding out hope for the series to be resurrected, and either way, it is an excellent starting place for Acks’ work.

Raven Kaldera is an intersex author, Pagan shaman, and an activist. My recommended starting place for his work is CyberFruit Swamp, originally published in Genderflex: Sexy Stories on the Edge and In-Between, and reprinted in Queers Destroy Science Fiction. CyberFruit Swamp is a decadent story about hook-up culture in a future where gender, sexuality, and physical bodies are more mutable than they are today. The protagonist is a nachtlei, trans and mostly male-presenting, but not rigidly fixed to one gender or sexuality.

I used to call myself pansex, but men and womyn think you’re great at first, and then they get to thinking. Thinking. Wondering what they are in relation to you. Queer. Straight. Husband. Wife. Then they get uncomfortable. So when I fill out for the forms for the Net personals now, I check off NQ – Nachtlei Queer. I only sleep with my own kind. It’s safer that way.

GenderflexOn the hunt, they leave the house dressed to kill, packing two of their seven APPles, also known as Artificial Penile Prosthetics, or CyberCocks. They have one for each situation, each mood. They wear chains signifying their preference, reminiscent of real life dress codes used within the queer community in the time when it wasn’t as safe to be out in the open. In a bar the protagonist meets a Boy, one who seems naive but also irresistible, and with a way of getting past their defenses. The story is short, but manages to cover a lot of ground along the way – exploring questions of gender, sexuality, consent, and control. On top of those themes, the story also touches on questions of who is protected by the law, and what gaps are left by a limited understanding of sex and sexuality. There’s a BDSM element to the story, and the question of the law and who it protects arises as the second half of the characters’ consensual encounter gets mistaken for attempted rape, which, within the world of the story can only be considered rape if it’s committed with a “real” penis. It’s a fascinating story, stylishly told, and sexy to boot. Overall, it’s an excellent starting place for Kaldera’s work.

Three excellent authors, three recommended starting places for their work. I’ll be back with more non-binary authors to read soon, but in the meantime, please leave your own recommendation in the comments, and happy reading!

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An Interview with Sam J. Miller

Sam J. Miller was kind enough to drop by today to talk about his debut novel, The Art of Starving. I’ll kick things off, as usual, by shamelessly stealing from Sam’s author bio to make introductions…

Sam J. Miller is a writer and a community organizer. His fiction has appeared in Lightspeed, Asimov’s, Clarkesworld, Apex, Strange Horizons and The Minnesota Review, among others. His debut novel The Art of Starving will be published by HarperCollins in 2017, followed by Blackfish City from Ecco Press in 2018. His stories have been nominated for the Nebula, World Fantasy, and Theodore Sturgeon Awards, and he’s winner of the Shirley Jackson Award. He lives in New York City.

Art of StarvingWelcome, and congratulations on the publication of The Art of Starving! Without giving too much away, care to give readers a taste of the story?

Sure! THE ART OF STARVING is about a bullied small-town gay boy with an eating disorder (all of which I was) who believes that starving himself awakens latent supernatural abilities (which mine did not), and uses them to embark on a Mission of Bloody Revenge against the bullies who make his life miserable (including Tariq, who he is hopelessly crushed out on), and to figure out why his sister ran away from home. It’s gotten starred reviews from Kirkus & Booklist & Publisher’s Weekly, and I’m scared as hell to have something so personal out in the world and OMG it’s all becoming super real super fast.

Lest anyone accuse you of not being prolific enough (they wouldn’t dare), you also have Blackfish City scheduled to come out next year. Can you talk a bit about that one as well?

BLACKFISH CITY takes place in a future where rising sea levels have transformed the globe, in an Arctic floating city called Qaanaaq – a remarkable feat of mechanical and social engineering, complete with geothermal heating and sustainable energy, but ravaged by organized crime and income inequality and a new disease called “the breaks.” Into this powder keg steps a strange new visitor—a woman riding an orca, with a polar bear at her side. The book follows four people from different walks of life who are all connected to her mysterious mission in Qaanaaq, who are slowly drawn into a complex web of intrigue and violence and rebellion and redemption.

You’re also an incredible short story writer, as attested by the multiple award nominations. Were there any challenges moving from short fiction to longer form writing? How does your process differ between the two?

Awwww, stop, you! I’ve been writing novels as long as I’ve been writing short stories, so there was no challenge transitioning… I am similarly inept in both departments. But, hopefully, getting better – the Clarion Science Fiction & Fantasy workshop really helped me get my shit together in that department, and then being part of the incredible Altered Fluid writers group in NYC… and just generally existing in community with fantastic fellow authors like yourself, whose work I devour and adore and learn from. Spoiler alert for all my fiction, and also my life – your community is your superpower. My process for novels and short stories is the same in that I have a whole bunch of ideas bubbling up in my brain all the time, and some will percolate for years without germinating, and then suddenly two or three of them will collide and I’ll say AH-HA and the story will take shape, whether it’s gonna be 5 pages long or 500.

Speaking of awards, do you remember where you were and how you heard when you learned about your very first award nomination? What did you do to celebrate?

I was sitting at my desk in the Bronx when I got the email that my short story “57 Reasons for the Slate Quarry Suicides” was a nominee for the Shirley Jackson Award. I literally howled. Well, maybe it was more of a wail-scream. First thing I did was call my BFF and sister-from-another-mister Lisa Bolekaja, who I know loves Shirley Jackson as much as I do. And then we both howled. And then I called my mom, who gave me “The Haunting of Hill House” when I was fourteen, and more howling ensued.

In addition to your writing, you’re also an artist. I particularly love your dinosaurs, and the way you combine them with photographs of people in unexpected places. Aside from the obvious answer (because they’re awesome) what attracts you to dinosaurs? For the pictures involving dinosaurs and people, do you pose the people with an end result in mind, or is the drawing ultimately inspired by the pose your subjects provide?

Dinosaurs are the most amazing monsters ever, AND THEY’RE REAL. For me, dinosaurs trigger the child part of my brain – I was super super obsessed as a kid – when I was five, people asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up and I said “a dinosaur.” My husband and I got married under a T Rex skeleton in a guerrilla wedding at the American Museum of Natural History. Some writer/readers get hyped on spaceships or swordfights – and I can get down with those sometimes – but my Kryptonite is dinosaurs. Thank you for the nice words about the drawings! Usually the illustration comes first – I’ll be practice-sketching some new challenge, a cool facial expression or a hot dude from a difficult angle, and then it kinda works, and I’ll scramble to find a photo background to go along with it. And maybe a monster. Basically because I don’t think any of those pieces are very good on their own, maybe I can overwhelm with Quantity until I get to Quality.

Totally topic switching away from writing and art, one of my favorite questions to ask authors is about strange non-writing related jobs. What’s the most unusual job you’ve ever had, and did it inspire any stories or teach you anything you’ve used in your writing?

My father was a butcher, as was his father, and he trained me as a butcher for several years before Wal-Mart came to town and our family business went belly up. There’s something very illuminating about being covered in blood all the time. It teaches you some valuable lessons about mortality and how our whole lives are structured around violence and suffering. So that’s helpful for a genre writer. Also, my father treated every single person who came in our store with incredible respect, and he really valued them and the stories they had to tell, and he was excellent at drawing them out of people. Like the man who lived in the woods and came in to buy hot sauce, which he put on the nightcrawlers that were his primary food (or so he told us; I think maybe he was trying to gross my mom out) or the elderly couple who bought dog food in bulk and nothing else – my father felt certain that they were eating the same thing as their dogs, since there were no other places in town to buy food. His spirit and his whole-hearted embrace of everyone he met have served me well in my life as a writer.

Let’s talk about your city of residence for a moment. Even if they’ve never been there, almost everyone has a picture of New York City in their heads. They’ve seen it in TV shows, movies, books, ads, iconic photographs, and so on. What do those media depictions overlook, or get wrong about the city? Or, on the other side of things, are there any that really get NYC right? What are your favorite places in the city to gather inspiration? Where would you point first time visitors if they want to go somewhere off the beaten tourist path?

To me the most important thing to understand about New York City is that it is a huge magnificent messy place full of tons and tons of wonderful people and countless powerful vibrant gorgeous communities – but it’s also a place where greed and skyrocketing rents and mass displacement are destroying everything that makes it awesome, from the quirky shops to the diversity to the amazing food to the spaces that incubated decades of important artists. This is true of most major cities, I think, but New York City is particularly heartless when it comes to crushing the old (and poor) to make way for the new (and rich). That’s why there’s sixty thousand homeless people living in shelters right now, and they’re overwhelmingly people of color who’ve been displaced out of their communities as those neighborhoods become increasingly appealing to wealthier, whiter, newer New Yorkers. It’s also why the NYPD is so committed to brutalizing and intimidating the communities who might object to the way they’re being eradicated. Not too many stories can get that degree of complexity correct. Daniel Jose Older’s Shadowshaper; Zoraida Cordova’s Labyrinth Lost… I appreciate that the TV series Gotham (which isn’t technically New York City) understands the extent to which a corrupt and abusive police force is part and parcel of the city’s bigger-picture problems. For visitors to NYC who want to see the real city, I’d direct you to the small threatened magical spots that are struggling to survive – like the Punjab Deli on Houston Street, or Rainbow Falafel off of Union Square, or Junior’s in Brooklyn, or the thrift stores on East 23rd Street, or Books of Wonder on 18th. Get some vegan soul food at Uptown Veg on 125th. Come uptown to the Cloisters. Dance at the Ritz until stupid late and then get french fries and milk shakes at the Westway Diner. And walk around Chinatown and buy fruit from the vendors on Grand or Mulberry Streets. Get the best cheese danishes in the city at Moishe’s on 2nd Avenue. See an old movie at Film Forum, or a midnight classic screening at IFC. Or go to the New World food stalls in Queens. OH LORD I COULD GO ON AND ON. Go for a bike ride up the West Side Greenway. Bike riding through the city in general is a great way to see the city’s secret self, especially on a summer night… although, watch out, drivers are crazy.

Now I want to tour NYC with you. But for the moment, to wrap things up, now that The Art of Starving is out in the world, what’s next for you? Do you have any projects in the works you want folks to know about?

Well, I’m currently hard at work on my second YA novel, tentatively titled THE STORIES ON OUR SKIN, which is contemporary fantasy with tattoos that grant magical powers, and a gay boy artist whose crush offers him his body as his canvas, and they fall in love, but they both have Secret Agendas and Their Own Shit they’re working out, and stuff gets messy, and there’s deranged fundamentalist villains and shadow dragons and a complex magic system and lots of cursing and gay sex. I’m also working on a second non-YA novel, which is shaping up to be a ghost story about small-town gentrification that draws heavily on experience of growing up in my father’s butcher shop…

It sounds amazing! Thanks so much for stopping by!

THANK YOU SO SO MUCH FOR HAVING ME!!

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More Than Margaret

To paraphrase the Simpsons: it’s easy to miss Canada, all tucked away down there. However, today is Canada Day, so in hono(u)r of that, I wanted to share some recommendations of my favo(u)rite Canadian speculative fiction. When people think of Canadian SF/F/H, they often think of Margaret Atwood and no further. But there’s a whole host of authors out there, born, living, and working in Canada, and their work deserves love and recognition, too. So let’s get to the recommendations, eh?

Novels and Anthologies

Signal to NoiseExperimental Film by Gemma Files – a haunting and unsettling novel about an early film, a mysterious disappearance, and something caught on camera that cannot be unseen.

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel – a quiet novel about the apocalypse, survival, and the importance of art and stories.

Spells of Blood and Kin by Claire Humphrey – a novel of magic, healing, found family, violence, and fighting against a bestial nature versus embracing it.

Someplace to Be Flying by Charles de Lint – an urban fantasy in the truest sense, with a city alive with magic, and  spirits walking among humans, sometimes for good and sometimes for ill.

Children of the Black Sabbath by Anne Hebert – exploring the intersection of religion and darkness, where the line between the rituals of the church and the rituals of a backwoods cult are dangerously blurred.

Signal to Noise by Silvia Moreno-Garcia – a novel moving between the past and the present, centered on a group of friends who learn to cast spells using vinyl records.

The Salt Roads by Nalo Hopkinson – a novel interweaving the lives of various women, and goddesses, across years and countries.

Imaginarium: The Best Canadian Speculative Writing – an anthology series with varying editors, collecting the best speculative short fiction and poetry of the year.

Tesseracts – an anthology series from Edge Publishing, now up to twenty volumes, with varying editors and varying themes.

Masked Mosaic: Canadian Super Stories edited by Camille Alexa and Claude Lalumiere – an anthology of Canadian superhero (and villain) stories.

Dead North edited by Silvia Moreno-Garcia – an anthology of Canadian zombie stories.

Clockwork Canada edited by Dominik Parisien – a Canadian steampunk anthology.

Fractured edited by Silvia Moreno-Garcia – an anthology of Canadian post-apocalyptic tales.

Northern Stars edited by David Hartwell and Glenn Grant – an unthemed anthology of Canadian science fiction.

Short Fiction

Tesseracts 9And in That Sheltered Sea, A Colossus by Michael Matheson – a woman haunted by the ghosts of the past in a world watched over by the remains of ancient gods.

The Half-Dark Promise by Malon Edwards – a young girl fights monsters and shadows in her new home town.

The Waters of Versailles by Kelly Robson – a charming story about the magic of indoor plumbing, the glamour of the French court, and staying true to your roots.

The Color of Paradox by A.M. Dellamonica – a story about time travelers trying to prevent a terrible future.

No Sweeter Art by Tony Pi – a story about a candy maker who infuses his delicate creations with life and magic to save the day.

How My Best Friend Rania Crashed a Party and Saved the World by Ada Hoffmann – a charming story of friendship, social hacking, and digital media.

Eleusinian Mysteries by Charlotte Ashley – a mapmaker whose art leads her to a stunning discovery about the moon.

A Good Home by Karin Lowachee – two survivors of war, one human and one not, bond over their loss and trauma in a world that would rather forget about them.

Seasons of Glass and Iron by Amal El-Mohtar – a gorgeous new fairy tale about two women overcoming their fates and their pasts, and forging a friendship.

Scent by Maria Haskins – a creepy little piece of flash fiction about transformation, rich with sensory detail.

Limestone, Lye, and the Buzzing of Flies by Kate Heartfield – a story about two friends who get summer jobs at a historic site and find the ghosts of the past reaching out to claim them.

The Hanging Game by Helen Marshall – an unsettling story about a dangerous children’s game, and kids paying for their parents’ sins.

Notes from Liminal Spaces by Hiromi Goto – a story blurring the line between reality and fantasy and exploring questions of identity, being, and transformation.

The Correspondence Between the Governess and the Attic by Siobhan Carroll – a retelling of Jane Eyre drawing on fairy tales and the Gothic tradition and reclaiming the stories hidden in the margins.

If all those recommendations still aren’t enough, you can browse the past winners and nominees sections of the Sunburst Awards and the Aurora Awards for even more fantastic Canadian fiction. Happy Canada Day, and happy reading!

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Women to Read: Where to Start: June 2017

What’s that? June is almost over, you say? Well, better late than never. Let’s get right to it, shall we?

My Favorite Thing is MonstersEmil Ferris is a writer, cartoonist, and designer, and appropriately enough, my recommended starting place for her work is her debut publication, My Favorite Thing is Monsters. First off, the book is eye-catching and gorgeous. It’s designed to look like a ruled notebook, illustrated and narrated by the main character, Karen Reyes. The story starts with a dream, Karen transforming into a werewolf and being hunted by an angry mob. When she wakes, her appearance doesn’t change; Karen sees herself as a werewolf. The mob is what frightens her, not the idea of becoming a “monster”, and that tells you much of what you need to know about Karen. From there, Ferris introduces the people in Karen’s life in an ever-widening circle: her mother, her brother Deeze, the neighbors in her building – Mr. and Mrs. Silverberg, Mr. and Mrs. Gronan, and Mr. Chugg and his ventriloquist dummies. The city of Chicago in the 1960s is a character, too, sometimes filthy, sometimes beautiful, but always teeming with life. When Karen’s upstairs neighbor, Anka Silverberg, is murdered, Karen sets out to solve the case, a werewolf detective on the prowl, hunting down clues and learning truths about herself and the people around her along the way. My Favorite Thing is Monsters is a massive book; its pages are jam-packed, but it never feels too crowded. It’s the kind of book that rewards re-reading, with nods and winks hidden within its pages, and bits of information dropped early that circle back later. Along with a story that grows in complexity, emotion, and darkness as new layers are added and peeled away to reveal its secret heart, the book is also a love letter. It’s a love letter to a city, to classic works of art, and to horror pulps and monster movies. Karen frequently sees the world around her in terms of artistic masterpieces, referencing everything from Peter Blume’s “The Rock” to Henry Fuseli’s “The Nightmare”. The sections of the book are divided up by Karen’s recreation of horror pulp magazine covers that pay homage to real world publications like Weird Tales, Horror Stories, and Spicy Detective. My Favorite Thing is Monsters also weaves in themes of friendship, family, growing up, race, gender, sexuality, love, loss, the ghosts of the past, and so much more. It’s a fantastic book, and I can’t wait to see what Ferris does next.

Forgotten BeastsNext up, my recommended starting place for Patricia A. McKillip’s work is The Forgotten Beasts of Eld. McKillip is a master of the fantasy genre, a multiple award winner and nominee, and has a huge catalog of novels and short stories to recommend. However, I’m picking The Forgotten Beasts of Eld because it feels like the sort of book that has always existed, a timeless myth or fairy tale. The novel tells the story of Sybel, a powerful wizard who lives apart from society, surrounded by her magical animal companions. She needs nothing and no one, except for her ongoing quest for the Liralen, a mystical white bird. Her life is complicated when a soldier shows up at her gate carrying a baby, a royal heir who needs to be protected and hidden. At first Sybel refuses, but eventually she relents and comes to love Tamlorn. Despite her attempts to remove herself, and by extension Tamlorn, from the world at large, Sybel finds the world determined to encroach on her. There are factions fighting for power, making and breaking alliances around her, and it is impossible not to get caught up in their war. Those around her want to use her, Tamlorn, and her beasts for their own ends, seeing her as a prize, and a pawn in their game. What’s most striking about Sybel is that she’s allowed to be frightened and overcome at times, and cold and hard as iron at others. She is relentless when she needs to be, uncompromising and even cruel to those around her. She uses those who would use her, and never wavers from her purpose, even when it threatens to cost her those she loves. It’s a role usually denied to women, unless they are cast as utterly heartless “wicked queens”. But Sybel is complex – powerful and calculating, but never losing her ability to love; fiercely devoted to her family, but willing to put her goals above others; unapologetic for her choices, but longing to be accepted and forgiven. On top of a fascinating and rounded character in Sybel, McKillip also offers up gorgeous prose and a timeless fairy tale feel in The Forgotten Beasts of Eld, making this an excellent starting place for her work.

Wicked WondersLast (for now), but not least, my recommended starting place for Ellen Klages’ work is Singing on a Star, a World Fantasy Award finalist originally appearing in Firebird Soaring, and included in her new collection, Wicked Wonders. In fact, it’s tempting to recommend the whole collection as a starting point, since many themes echo across the stories  – childhood, friendship, loss, and magic. Singing on a Star encapsulates all of these themes, which is why I’m choosing it as my starting point. Becka is attending her first sleepover, staying at her friend Jamie’s house down the street. Upon arrival, Jamie puts on a record and drags Becka toward her closet, saying they have to go before the song ends so they can “see Hollis”. The closet becomes an elevator, transporting them to another world, one of neon and streetcars and somewhat seedy hotels. One of those hotels is the Farlingten, and that’s where Hollis works. He gives the girls money for candy bars, a kind Becka has never seen before, and takes them to the roof to watch the trains below. It’s electric and thrilling and a little bit scary. Becka feels out of her depth, lost, but enticed at the same time, and it’s over all too soon. Singing on a Star is reminiscent of Ray Bradbury’s stories, capturing that perfect point of childhood where the world is magical, and anything is possible, but with an underlying dread and darkness, as well. A sense of threat, of wrongness, hangs over the tale. Soon after their sleepover, Becka’s mother stops just short of telling Becka that Jamie has disappeared. Whether she’s vanished into the other world, or whether someone very real has taken her is left up to the reader to decide. Whatever Jamie’s fate, in all likeliness, it isn’t good. After all, every child knows bad things happen when you take candy from strangers.

That’s it for this belated and somewhat shortened edition of Women to Read. As always, I hope you’ll leave your own recommendations in the comments, and I’ll be back with more suggestions of my own next month. Happy reading!

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An Interview with Desirina Boskovich

Desirina Boskovich was kind enough to drop by to talk about her new novella, Never Now Always, published by Broken Eye Books (out on June 27, available for pre-order now!). To start things off, I’ll make introductions by cribbing from Desirina’s author bio…

Desirina Boskovich’s short fiction has been published in Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, Nightmare, F&SF, Kaleidotrope, PodCastle, Drabblecast, and anthologies such as The Apocalypse Triptych, Tomorrow’s Cthulhu and What the #@&% Is That?. She is also the editor of It Came From the North: An Anthology of Finnish Speculative Fiction (Cheeky Frawg, 2013), and together with Jeff VanderMeer, co-author of The Steampunk User’s Manual (Abrams Image, 2014). Her next project is a collaboration with Jason Heller — Starships & Sorcerers: A Secret History of Science Fiction, forthcoming from Abrams Image.

Never Now AlwaysWelcome and congratulations on the publication of Never Now Always! Without giving too much away, would you care to give a taste of what the novella’s about?

Thank you! The story centers on Lolo, who finds herself trapped in a futuristic labyrinth, surrounded by children like herself, and their alien Caretakers. She can’t remember how she came to be here or what came before; worse, her memories fade and fragment from day to day, so even much of her time in this place is a blur. The Caretakers appear to be experimenting on the children’s memory, but to what purpose, no one knows.

Together with her best friend Gor, Lolo embarks on a desperate search for her lost memories, and then her lost sister, who she is convinced is also somewhere near.

Hopefully this isn’t too spoilery, but I’m fascinated by the parallels you draw in Never Now Always between the nightmarish scenario Lolo finds herself in, and the idea of children being powerless in a world of adults. I’m also interested in your recurring themes of memory, time, and the power of stories. Were these themes you consciously set out to work with, or ones you found emerging as the story unfolded?

I think these themes have always been at the center of much of my work. I don’t know that I ever consciously set out to work with them, but they seem to be what preoccupies me, and they keep emerging again and again.

I know I am not one of those adults who thinks longingly of childhood or feels nostalgia for those days of “carefree innocence.” None of the hardships I’ve experienced as an adult can come close to the constant terror and dread of my childhood with an abusive parent: spending every waking moment trying to navigate a complex set of rules that can change at any time; never knowing when things will go wrong; never feeling safe, never knowing refuge, never having anywhere to hide. And always sensing vaguely that this isn’t right, this isn’t how things are supposed to be, but not really knowing anything else.

I guess, in that sense, Lolo’s predicament is an embarrassingly literal exploration of my own trauma. And those few beautiful and blissful memories she recalls mean so much to me, probably too much — an excavation or an echo of that pure and perfect childhood that could never really be.

(My brother just gave his therapist a copy of the novella with the instructions, “Read this, you’ll understand.” I’m not sure how that makes me feel.)

But anyway. Moving past that childhood and building a life that feels safe has been the greatest undertaking of my life so far, and “memory, time and the power of stories” — as you phrased it — feel central to that. And all the stories that feel most personal to me explore these ideas one way or another.

Up until now, you’ve primarily written and published short fiction. Is Never Now Always the first step in a new direction, perhaps a novelish direction, or is more a case of the story being the length it needs to be?

Heh. I’ve primarily published short fiction. I also have more than a dozen incomplete novels on my hard drive, which is my excuse for not being more prolific in the short fiction department. Idk. Writing a novel is hard.

But I hope Never Now Always is the first step in a new direction of actually publishing longer stuff.

The novel I’m working on now is Weird science fiction (with a touch of the mystical) about three young people in a cyberpunk-esque surveillance city, surrounded by an eco-apocalypse of unknown origins. I’m in the revising stage and hope to have a final draft this year.

Shifting gears a bit, how did It Came from the North come about? Were you working with translated fiction, Finnish work written in English, or both? What was your strategy in selecting works? Was there an overarching thesis, or did you take a ‘best of’ approach?

At the time I was a consulting editor for Cheeky Frawg, helping review submissions and pitching in on copyediting and proofreading, stuff like that. The Finnish anthology was a project that Ann and Jeff VanderMeer had been wanting to do for a while. They asked me if I was interested in serving as editor for the project and I said “Definitely!”.

At that point my main exposure to Finnish speculative fiction was through Leena Krohn, the utterly brilliant author of Tainaron (which I wrote about in Weird Fiction Review) and Datura (one of the Cheeky Frawg books I helped copyedit, which meant I was lucky enough to be one of the first people to read the English translation). Since then, Cheeky Frawg has released Leena Krohn: The Collected Fiction (2015), which includes several new English translations, and is a truly impressive volume.

Anyway, being new to Finnish speculative fiction, I dove into the project and read as much as I could. I read works that were originally written in English, as well as works in translation. I read previously published works, solicited additional work from a number of authors and also read original work in an open submissions period.

I don’t think there was an overarching thesis; I chose works that resonated with me, that I felt were memorable and vivid, that I connected with emotionally. At the same time, I did want to select stories that would come together as a coherent whole. What emerged was an aesthetic of weird, quirky and surreal stories with a strong emotional core.

By the way, It Came from the North includes an excerpt from Johanna Sinisalo’s Not Before Sundown (published under the title Troll: A Love Story in the U.S.), which I found a very engaging and immediately captivating entry to her work. But I also absolutely freaking adore her novel Birdbrain, which is so weird, disturbing and subtly terrifying. It’s really a masterful work and I want everyone to read it, too.

A question I like to ask my fellow Canadians is whether they feel there’s a national character to Canadian speculative fiction. After working on this anthology, do you think there’s a particular national character to Finnish speculative fiction? Are there certain themes, tropes, settings that you don’t see as often elsewhere, or that make a work particularly Finnish?

I hesitate to make any pronouncements on what makes a work particularly Finnish — such an insight is probably better left to one of the many amazing Finnish writers working today.

But one theme that did particularly emerge for me is the uncanniness of nature, how big and deep and fantastic and strange it really is. This idea that the weirdness of the natural world is in its own way kind of speculative and kind of magical. I think that really comes through in the Sinisalo novel I mentioned above, Birdbrain, where the landscape is both its own character and a reflection of the human characters, radiating tension and dread. And then on the other hand, Krohn’s Tainaron uses the framework of a city of insects to build this beautiful and powerful meditation on life and death, metamorphosis and transformation.

I would venture to say that this fascination and exploration of nature and what it means stems from the territory of Finland itself… a country that’s 3/4 forest, home to nearly 200,000 lakes, and positioned partly above the Arctic Circle, with extremely dark winters and extremely bright summers.

Incidentally, I will be visiting Finland for the first time this summer to attend WorldCon in Helsinki. I couldn’t be more excited. I hope to spend at least a couple days exploring nature too.

In general, one of my favorite questions to ask authors is about their non-writing related work. Authors are notorious for working strange jobs, for example J.D. Salinger’s stint as the entertainment director on a luxury cruise line. What’s the most unusual job you’ve ever had, and did it inspire any stories or teach you anything you’ve used in your writing?

This is a wonderful question. I regret to admit, though, that I’ve worked very few unlikely jobs. In high school and college, I worked as a restaurant hostess, a library worker and then an administrative assistant.

My first real job out of college was as a copywriter at an allergy products company. I wrote lengthy and enthusiastic reviews of allergy-proof bedding, air purifiers, vacuum cleaners. I have forgotten more about the dust mite than most people will ever know. It was a strange time.

But honestly my most formative job was as a fledgling freelance copywriter in the heady days of 2006-2008. Because I was a baby freelancer and my whole portfolio was basically glowing copy about allergy products, I spent some time taking whatever work I could get, little one-off projects, through those online find-a-freelancer sites. The economy was so different then; looking back it feels like they were pretty much just giving away money. And everyone seemed to have some kind of get-rich-quick scheme, some internet side-hustle, some scam they were running.

So those were the kind of projects I worked on (I had to eat). Churning out content for hypnotherapy and diet fads and dot.com ventures and pyramid schemes. (So many pyramid schemes.) I was very young then and my perspective was limited but I could feel it, that something was coming. There was this sense of living on borrowed money, borrowed time. Everyone was talking about how we could all will our deepest desires into being if we just believed hard enough. I formed this idea of America as a naive, exuberant, delusional place, distinctly fueled by our fantastical optimism.

I tried to write a novel about it, anchored by the characters I encountered through those freelance gigs, but the story was too big. It’s an idea I keep coming back to. But as more time passes the story just keeps getting bigger too.

I will write that novel one day, though. I promise.

What are you working on next? Anything else you want folks to know about or keep an eye on?

The big exciting news is that I’m collaborating on an illustrated nonfiction book with Jason Heller: Starships & Sorcerers: The Secret History of Science Fiction, which will be published by Abrams Books. This book will feature lots of beautiful imagery and tell the stories of unsung creators, forgotten tales, books and films that were imagined and never made, shows that were canceled too soon. It’s a very fun project and I’ll be talking a lot about it over the next year.

On the short fiction front, I have two stories forthcoming. “Here Comes the Flood” will be in the anthology 2084 from Unsung Stories. “Cargo” will be in the anthology Ride the Star Wind from Broken Eye Books.

And of course, there’s that novel I’m working on.

Thanks for stopping by!

Thanks for having me, and for your thoughtful and interesting questions! It was a delight to talk about Finnish fiction again… and I hope I will see some of your readers in Helsinki this summer.

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An Interview with Curtis C. Chen

Kangaroo TooCurtis C. Chen was kind enough to drop by today to talk about his new novel, Kangaroo Too, the sequel to his Locus Awards Finalist novel Waypoint Kangaroo. To start things off, I’ll make introduction by shamelessly stealing from Curtis’ author bio…

Once a Silicon Valley software engineer, Curtis C. Chen now writes fiction and runs puzzle game near Portland, Oregon. His debut novel Waypoint Kangaroo is a science fiction thriller about a superpowered spy facing his toughest mission yet: vacation. A sequel, Kangaroo Too, is forthcoming in 2017.

Welcome, Curtis, and congratulations on the publication of your second novel! Without giving too much away, can you give folks unfamiliar with the series a little taste of Kangaroo’s world?

Thanks, Alison! I imagine Kangaroo’s world as pretty much our current one, projected a couple of centuries forward. I’m not trying to predict the future at all; I just wanted interplanetary travel to be reliable and affordable for civilians in this world, because I’m a big space nerd and I would love to go touring around the Solar System, myself. There’s also other advanced technology, like Kangaroo’s bionic implants, but nothing always works perfectly, because engineering is hard.

There’s something very evocative about the title of your first novel. Waypoint Kangaroo seems like a combination of words begging for story, so I have to ask (only semi seriously) – which came first, the concept or the title? And on a more serious note, what did spark your desire to write a sci-fi spy thriller?

The title of the first book hasn’t changed since I came up with the basic plot. But before finding that specific story, I first came up with the superpower (the pocket) and then the character. Kangaroo became a spy because it seemed like a perfect job for someone who could smuggle anything anywhere, but I also made him a very atypical secret agent for comedy reasons. And the thriller aspect grew out of that, when I decided it would be funnier for Kangaroo to be dealing with more mundane problems in a science fictional world.

Keeping with the spy theme, across any medium – tv, movies, books, games, or even reality – do you have a favorite spy? Have you ever fantasized about being a spy yourself, and do you think you’d make a good one?

If I had to pick just one, it would be Tara Chace from Greg Rucka’s Queen & Country series. I’ve never actually wanted to be a spy, though I was fascinated by Cold War history and tradecraft when I was younger. (Related to that: the International Spy Museum in Washington, DC is full of fascinating stuff, and their “Operation Spy” interactive experience was the first time I encountered anything like an escape room. Highly recommended if you’re in the area.)

Switching gears a bit, since Waypoint Kangaroo is a finalist, do you plan on attending the Locus Awards this year? Or will you be wearing your Hawaiian shirt at home, eagerly awaiting the results? (I hear they’re mandatory.)

Yes, I’ll be at the Locus Awards! A friend is even custom-sewing me a Hawaiian shirt using a unique patterned fabric. I don’t expect to win either the First Novel award or the Hawaiian shirt contest, but I plan to have fun regardless.

Hopefully you will at least share pictures of said shirt far and wide! In addition to your two novels, you’ve also written quite a bit of short fiction. How hard was it to make the transition between the two for you? Do you have different processes for writing for one length versus the other?

I’ve been trying to write novels since the early 2000s, so it wasn’t so much a transition as finally figuring it out. For the longest time I was a pure “pantser,” depending on discovery writing to drive the first draft of any story, but at some point I realized I needed to work on structure. Looking at screenwriting turned out to be really good for that. In the 2010s I started outlining and breaking down my short fiction, and then I was able to apply those same skills to longer works. I’ve definitely moved toward the “plotter” end of the spectrum now.

Now to topic switch entirely, I want to ask about the Portland area, since you’re a resident. I have an image of Portland (mostly drawn from Portlandia, I’ll admit) of a quirky city that fosters creativity and is home to a lot of makers, artists, and musicians. Do you find that to be true? Do you have a favorite spot in the Portland area where you go to get inspired, or a favorite place you like to take people visiting for the first time?

Yeah, the first few seasons of Portlandia were pretty much a documentary. There are a lot of people here doing really interesting, independent creative work, and I’ve been able to get to know quite a few of them through local tech conferences, writing meetups, puzzling events, and the co-working space of which I’m a member. My wife and I always take visitors to see Powell’s Books, waterfalls and the Vista House in the Columbia River Gorge, and usually at least one of the local gardens (Rose, Rhododendron, Chinese, or Japanese).

Waypoint KangarooNow I want to visit Portland even more than I did before! Back to writing to wrap things up, now that Kangaroo Too is out in the world, what’s next for you? Any projects you’re working on you want folks to know about?

I’m working on a new standalone novel (not Kangaroo), some short fiction, and generally figuring out how to balance ongoing promotional stuff–especially travel–with writing. As a wise author once said, it’s part of the job, but it’s not the work. Hobby-wise, I help organize Puzzled Pint every month; that’s a free puzzling event that happens at bars in over forty cities around the world. Our July content theme is Game of Thrones, if that entices anyone to check us out: www.puzzledpint.com

Thanks for stopping by!

Thank you for the invitation!

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LGTBQIA+ StoryBundle and Queer Reading Recs

On Monday, I attended the 29th Annual Lambda Literary Awards. My collection, The Kissing Booth Girl and Other Stories, was a finalist in the SF/F/H category, and while it didn’t win, it was a fantastic event and I came home with a whole list of titles to add to my already staggering TBR list. Being a finalist along with such fine works was truly an honor, and since I promised queer reading recommendations, I’ll start by pointing you toward the list of Lambda Award winners. There’s fiction, poetry, erotica, non-fiction, basically a little something for everyone.

Speaking of good company, The Kissing Booth Girl and Other Stories also currently finds itself in excellent company in a StoryBundle of LGTBQIA+ books curated by Melissa Scott in celebration of Pride Month. Melissa’s philosophy in assembling the works was to focus on small press works where queer characters are active players in their own stories, not relegated to the role of villains or fated to die tragically. The StoryBundles contains works by such fine authors as Heather Rose Jones, Steve Berman, Catherine Lundoff, and Geonn Cannon, among others. The basic bundle gets you 5 books for $5, or for $15, you get an extra 7 books in your bundle, including my collection. Not only is it a fantastic deal, you can choose to donate a portion of your purchase price to Rainbow Railroad, helping LGTBQIA+ folks escape Chechnya. The StoryBundle is available for another two weeks, so grab it now and add a whole slew of excellent queer titles to your library.

You didn’t think I would stop there, did you? Oh, no no no. Because your TBR pile can never be too big, I have even more recommendations for you – short fiction, novels, collections, and comics by queer creators, many also featuring queer characters, gathered here for your reading pleasure.

Novels and Collections

The Red Tree and The Drowning Girl both by Caitlin R. Kiernan – two truly unsettling works of dark fiction, featuring unreliable narrators and unreliable situations, both of which continued to haunt me long after I finished reading them.

The Devourers by Indra Das – a breathtakingly gorgeous and poetic work about the nature of humans and monsters, and the winner of this year’s Lammy Award in the SF/F/H category.

The Salt Roads by Nalo Hopkinson – a narrative moving fluidly through time and space, interweaving the stories of several women.

One for Sorrow by Christopher Barzak – a story about life, death, growing up, and a friendship that transcends all of those things.

Hild by Nicola Griffith – an epic, historic novel set in the Middle Ages, based on the little-known life of St. Hilda of Whitby.

Dangerous Space by Kelley Eskridge – a brilliant collection of stories that – among other things – blend together music, dance, violence, sex, and magic, which includes one of my all-time favorite Eskridge stories, Eye of the Storm.

Wicked Wonders by Ellen Klages – a new short story collection featuring stories that echo with the themes of magic, growing up,  and friendship.

Short Fiction

eyes i dare not meet in dreams by Sunny Moraine – a brutal and rage-filled story about girls coming back from the dead.

Melioration by E. Saxey – a short, but impactful story about the power of language.

Nothing is Pixels Here by K.M. Szpara – a story that is by turns painful and hopeful, about reality, virtual reality, and being true to yourself.

Never the Same by Polenth Blake – a story about family, lies, and what we call monstrous.

How to Become a Robot in 12 Easy Steps by A. Merc Rustad – another story that mixes heartbreak and hope, and explores identity, being true to yourself, and friendship.

The Color of Paradox by A.M. Dellamonica – a time travel story about people risking themselves in the past in a desperate attempt to prevent a terrible future.

Foxfire, Foxfire by Yoon Ha Lee – a mash-up of giant mechs and trickster spirits, caught up in the midst of a war.

The Waters of Versailles by Kelly Robson – a charming story about the importance and power of indoor plumbing, and about being true to yourself.

Kin, Painted by Penny Stirling – a story laden with gorgeous language and imagery, about family members finding and expressing themselves through various forms of art.

Things With Beards by Sam J. Miller – a chilling retelling of Who Goes There?, about queer identity, masculinity, and the masks people wear.

Second Hand Bodies by JY Yang – a powerful story about class and dangerous standards of beauty.

Forestspirit, Forestspirit by Bogi Tackács – the story of an unlikely friendship and alliance developing between a young child and an AI as they trying to save a forest from developers.

The Shapes of Us, Translucent to Your Eye by Rose Lemberg – a powerful story about those on the margins of society carving out a space for themselves in the world.

The Devil in America by Kai Ashante Wilson – a haunting story about family, slavery, and the ghosts of the past.

Comics

Dates! An Anthology of Queer Historical Fiction – a collection full of drop-dead gorgeous art, and stories about queers characters across history. As a bonus, the collection focuses on happy stories, and features work by many emerging authors and artists seeing their work in print for the first time. A second volume is on its way.

Chaos Life by A. Stiffler & K. Copeland – a webcomic about nerd life, gender, sexuality, cats, earworms, usb drives, and generally everything that makes life chaotic.

Nimona by Noelle Stevenson – a wonderful graphic novel about heroes, villains, sidekicks, monsters, and the blurred line between them.

And that is just a very small sampling of the amazing queer work out there. Please leave your own recommendations in the comments. As I said, one can never have too big of a TBR pile. Happy Pride, and happy reading!

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