Ada Hoffmann was kind enough to drop by today to talk about her debut fiction and poetry collection, Monsters in My Mind. To get things started, I’ll make introductions by way of shamelessly stealing from Ada’s author bio…
Ada Hoffmann is the author of over 60 published speculative short stories and poems. Her work has appeared in professional magazines such as Strange Horizons, Asimov’s, and Uncanny, and in two year’s-best anthologies. She is the winner of the Friends of the Merrill Collection Short Story Contest (2013, “The Mother of All Squid Builds a Library”) and a two-time Rhysling award nominee (2014 for “The Siren of Mayberry Crescent” and 2017 for “The Giantess’s Dream”).
Welcome and congratulations on the publication of your first collection! Care to give readers a little taste of what sorts of things they’ll find in the pages of Monsters in My Mind?
Dinosaur opera. Hive-mind squid. Non-neurotypical fairylands. Half-living spaceships in the shape of dragons, teenagers working together to escape cyber-surveillance, and Neolithic vampires who prowl in ancient ruins with their packs of human followers. Passionate and difficult relationships, both romantic and familial. Characters who are monsters, characters who love monsters, characters who fight against monsters with everything they’ve got, and characters who are all too human.
I’m always fascinated with the various approaches authors take to assembling their collections. How did you go about picking which stories and poems to include, and how to arrange them? Would you say there’s an emergent overarching theme, or groups of themes within the collection?
I’m glad you’re fascinated by this, because so am I. I always wanted to arrange an anthology around a theme. When I got the idea of working with NeuroQueer Books, I came up with a way of structuring a collection just for this publisher. If I put words to the theme of Monsters in My Mind, it would be the theme of feeling different, not fitting in some big or small way, and the countless ways characters respond to that.
I went through all my stories and poems that were available to reprint, and I jotted down how they engaged with the collection’s theme. I used those notes to put together a rough ordering felt like it made sense – as if the theme was its own meta-story, with its own establishment, development, rising action, and resolution. I knew the stories I wanted to start and end with, and that helped give the meta-story a shape. Finally, I put the rough collection together and read through it a few times, tweaking the order to make sure it flowed and wasn’t jarring or doubling back on itself.
I’ve published several stories and poems that I think are very good, but that didn’t fit into the collection thematically. Either they didn’t have anything to do with the theme, or they engaged with it in a way that didn’t feel like a fit with where the meta-story wanted to go. Those ones, I am saving for another collection!
I’m admittedly biased since it originally appeared in Unlikely Story, but one of my favorite among your stories is “How My Best Friend Rania Crashed a Party and Saved the World”. It also happens to be one of my favorite story titles ever, so I have to ask, which came first, the title or the story? I also have to ask the same question about the titles “An Operatic Tour of New Jersey, With Raptors” and “The Mother of All Squid Builds a Library”.
For “The Mother of All Squid Builds a Library”, the title came first, along with a mental image of the main character. The rest wrote itself. For “An Operatic Tour of New Jersey, With Raptors,” the idea for the story came first, but the title followed logically and was put on the page before the story’s actual words.
“How My Best Friend Rania Crashed a Party and Saved the World” was the reverse. The story’s working title was “AllBook, Rania, and the Infallible Cloud,” but that was a terrible title because no one who hasn’t read the story will know what any of it means. The actual title came in very late. It’s funny you should say it’s one of your favorites, because several readers complained that it was false advertising. Rania is a World Saver, and she crashes a party and engages in World Saving, but that’s a phrase that has a special meaning in the world of the story. The actual, literal world is not saved.
Switching gears a bit, you run an ongoing review series called Autistic Book Party. Could you talk a bit about how the series came about?
Back in 2012, I was a very shy little blogger who didn’t really know how anything worked. Autism representation was a thing I had started to pay attention to, and I had posted a couple of small things about it, but nothing huge. Then thanks to a signal boost by Jim C. Hines, I suddenly had people pouring in who wanted to know more. They kept asking me if I’d read this book, or that book. It should have been overwhelming, but I felt excited and inspired. I hadn’t known anyone was really interested in what I had to say.
I had actually not read most of the books, so I decided to fix that. I called it Autistic Book Party partly out of irony, but also because the glut of people did feel like a party to me. In retrospect I think that’s exactly how autistic people should party – by coming together and discussing a shared interest.
A question I always like to ask my fellow Canadians is about the idea of Canadian Literature. Do you think there’s a particular theme, tone, or some common unifying thread that makes a piece of writing particularly Canadian? If so, do you find it in your own writing, either surfacing unconsciously, or something you actively work toward or against?
Canada is such a big place with so much diversity. There are some obvious ways to make a story feel Canadian, like setting it in Canada. But I think it would be a mistake to identify Canadianness through just one factor – I think there are a lot of subgroups doing wildly different things. Even just within Canadian speculative fiction, I would say that’s true.
Since your Ph.D. studies focus on computer generated-poetry, I’m curious as to whether you’ve read “Caesura” by Hayley Stone, which was recently published in Fireside Fiction, and deals with an AI gaining self-awareness through poetry, and winning a major poetry competition no less. Do you think computers could get to the point of producing art, poetry, writing, and music that’s indistinguishable from human-created works? Or will there always be a kind of uncanny valley effect, for example the My Little Pony Names designed by a neural network (http://aiweirdness.com/post/164560090962/new-my-little-ponies-designed-by-neural-network) where some of them are spot on, and some are hilariously and/or terrifyingly wrong?
I have definitely read “Caesura” – in fact, it went on my list of favorite short stories from that month.
Computers in real life are at a point where the best of them can do a skilled pastiche of the patterns that emerge in human art. It’s not perfect, but it’s often good, and sometimes good enough to fool non-experts. But there is definitely an uncanny valley effect, especially in computer-generated creative writing, and it comes from the fact that computers don’t really understand what they’re doing. They don’t have a sensory experience of the things they are writing about; it’s just patterns in letters to them. There are ways to make inroads on this problem, but the only way to fully solve it is by inventing strong AI. The computer in “Caesura” is a strong AI, but we’re not anywhere close to that in real life, and we don’t even have a solid idea of how we’d get there or what it will look like when we do.
In the near future, we’re going to have a lot of cute silly bots like the My Little Pony one, a lot of pastiche machines that make convincing Muzak, and some really cool, really out-there art projects that are the result of humans and computers working together in novel ways. But I don’t believe computers will become better than humans at the kind of art humans are already doing – that’s a job for our wildly speculative, SFnal robot overlords.
Now that Monsters in My Mind is out in the world, what’s next for you?
I need to finish my PhD thesis, and I need to write more short stories and poetry – a few of those are already scheduled to come out in 2018. I have a book of dinosaur poems, “Million-Year Elegies,” that has been stalled out at about 75 or 80% complete for at least half a year now, and I need to get back on that. I also have a completed space opera novel that my agent is shopping around, but no idea if anyone will actually buy it or not. Anything could happen. Who knows?
“Million-Year Elegies” sounds amazing. Good luck with the PhD thesis, and thanks for dropping by!
You’re welcome! It was a pleasure.