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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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An Interview with Sarah Pinsker

Sarah Pinsker was kind enough to drop by today to talk about her debut collection Sooner or Later Everything Falls into the Sea, and her debut novel, A Song for a New Day. To kick things off, I will shamelessly steal from Sarah’s author bio in order to make introductions.

Sarah Pinsker is the author of the novelette “Our Lady of the Open Road,” winner of the Nebula Award in 2016. Her novelette “In Joy, Knowing the Abyss Behind,” was the Sturgeon Award winner in 2014 and a Nebula finalist for 2013. Her fiction has been published in magazines including Asimov’s, Strange Horizons, Fantasy & Science Fiction, Lightspeed, Daily Science Fiction, Fireside, and Uncanny and in anthologies including Long Hidden, Fierce Family, Accessing the Future, and numerous year’s bests. Her stories have been translated into Chinese, Spanish, French, and Italian, among other languages.

Sooner or Later Everything Falls Into the Sea Cover Welcome, Sarah, and congratulations on not only your debut collection, but your debut novel coming out this year! Could you give folks a taste of the sorts of stories they’ll find in your collection, and without giving too much away, a hint of what your novel is about?

Hello! For the collection, we tried to choose a mix. I have about fifty published stories, and it was definitely hard narrowing it down. In the end we went with a mix of stories that had gotten some attention and stories that I liked but maybe not as many people had seen. As for content, I really liked this blurb from the publisher: “The journey is the thing as Pinsker weaves music, memory, technology, history, mystery, love, loss, and even multiple selves on generation ships and cruise ships, on highways and high seas, in murder houses and treehouses. They feature runaways, fiddle-playing astronauts, and retired time travelers; they are weird, wired, hopeful, haunting, and deeply human.” That’s as good a summation as any.

The novel, A Song For A New Day (Coming from Berkley on September 10, 2019) is set in the same world as my novelette “Our Lady of the Open Road,” and features a couple of overlapping characters. It’s set in a scared and narrowed near future where people have retreated rather than risk putting themselves in danger, and features two women trying to find their purpose in that setting, one of whom remembers what came before, and one who grew up in this new order. Music, connection, technology…

Both the collection and the novel sound amazing, and I can’t wait to read them! I’ve been a fan of your work since “In Joy, Knowing the Abyss Behind”, and you’ve written so many fantastic stories over the years. One of my recent favorites is “I Frequently Hear Music in the Very Heart of Noise“, published last year at Uncanny. It feels more experimental than many of your other pieces in terms of structure and a less traditional narrative. Could you talk a bit about how the story came together, and what inspired it?

I love that story. I needed a story to bring to the Sycamore Hill workshop, and I had absolutely nothing. I found myself in a lovely library, and I decided to start pulling non-fiction off the shelves until I figured out my story. I happened upon a book called The Streets Where They Lived – A Walking Guide to the Residences of Famous New Yorkers, which is a book of walking tours. As I paged through it, it occurred to me that these walking tours were a form of time travel. A tour of a single block in midtown would bring you James Dean and Dorothy Parker, or a single building might offer you a glimpse into the lives of both Sylvia Plath and Phylicia Rashad, decades apart. They didn’t differentiate. And this story came to me that was a layering of people and stories and song, and the fantasy of a character invoked into the midst of all the real details, and weird comings-together of details that I hadn’t expected to connect, and also a love letter to the energy of New York. I grew up in the city, and I don’t think I’ll ever live there again, but there’s a feeling I get when I’m there that is unlike anyplace else I’ve been.

Music is a big part of your life, and as you mentioned, a recurring theme in many of your stories. I’m curious – do you listen to music as you write, and/or do any of your stories have a mental soundtrack that you put together either while writing or after the fact? Have you ever written an original song based on one of your stories or vice versa?

I don’t listen to songs as I write! Music takes up too much of my attention. I can sometimes put on something instrumental and let it fade, but for the most part I prefer silence. Or, oddly, coffeeshop noise, which can include conversations, cappuccino machines, and their music, so long as it isn’t my music. That said, many of my stories do have mental soundtracks. I don’t usually get around to actually making a playlist, though sometimes there’s a song I’ll need to hear before or after I write, or a series of songs. I’ve definitely written parts of a lot of the songs that show up in my stories, but my plan is to keep those to myself. I want people to imagine for themselves what the songs and the bands sounds like. I don’t think I’ve ever done the reverse, if the reverse is writing a story based on one of my songs; usually a song is complete and stands alone. I guess I’ve written stories based on other people’s songs, but that feels like a different beast. That’s usually because they’ve allowed some vagueness for me to explore that isn’t there for me in my own songs, since I know what lies between the lines.

A Song for a New Day CoverSticking with music, how does assembling a collection compare to assembling an album? Is there any crossover in terms of the way you think about rhythm and the way one piece flows into, compliments, or contrasts with the next, or in terms of building an overarching theme?

Yes, absolutely! I don’t know if other people do this, but I ended up writing the first and last lines onto recipe cards, so that I could try an order, check the flow, then rearrange again. With albums, it’s similar: a lot of listening to beginnings and endings, checking keys and rhythms and modes and instrumentation. You want a strange balance of things that feel good next to each other but don’t sound similar. And then there’s a lot of reminding myself that whatever I choose is right in the end, since nobody else will ever know what the other options might have been.

One last question related to music, but also touching on another of your passions, horses and riding – what are some of the tropes around music and horses that fiction/film always seem to get wrong? Conversely, who really gets those things right?

Ha! I could write a book about this. I’ve led several workshops and conference panels on the subject. An author usually has one chance to win my trust on horse stuff, and if they blow it by having the hero gallop off on a twenty-hand stallion, I’m hard to get back. In film or TV, I usually can’t stand how much the horses talk. They’re constantly whinnying. Horses are pretty quiet unless they’re greeting you because you’ve brought their dinner, or you’re riding away on their best friend and leaving them behind. In books, it tends to be the horse-as-motorcycle scenario, where a horse is a convenient, uncomplaining, form of travel, and for some reason often has to be majestic and huge. The larger your horse the more food you’re going to need to pack for them – and the harder it’ll be for you to hop on and off without a fence or mounting block handy. Horses have likes and dislikes. They go lame. I should probably stop there. Who gets it right? Molly Gloss is a horsewoman, and it shows in her books. Judith Tarr, also. Le Guin doesn’t write a ton about horses, but the first lines of “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas,” with “They flared their nostrils and pranced and boasted to one another; they were vastly excited, the horse being the only animal who has adopted our ceremonies as his own” captures horse spirit really well, even as it ascribes human emotions.

You lived in several places, but currently call Baltimore home. What are your favorite things about the city? What are the spots you like to bring guests, or recommend to people visiting for the first time? Are there any particularly fantastical or weird spots in the city that have inspired any of your fiction?

This is another question that I could get carried away with if I let myself. I usually take visitors to the George Peabody Library, which is an absolutely stunning reading room, and sometimes to the Owl Bar, where during Prohibition they used the lit-up eyes of the owl sculptures to tell patrons when a raid was imminent. The American Visionary Art Museum is probably my favorite museum anywhere, for both the weird art and the excellent curatorial notes. If a person were to visit on the first weekend of May, I would get to take them to the AVAM’s kinetic sculpture race, where human-powered sculptures shaped like giant poodles or elephants or the monsters under your bed try to make it through a miles-long course of streets, waterways, mud, and sand.

The fantastical or weird spots that have shown up in my own fiction tend to be on a smaller scale. I have a story that was inspired by the locked room in the attic of our first rental home. The original story in the collection mentions the way the circus used to walk their animals to the arena from the trainyards in West Baltimore, allowing kids a moment of wonder regardless of whether they could afford tickets.

Other than asking about their cities, 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’m trying to think if any of my jobs have been that unusual. I’ve run Girl Scout camp riding programs, led trail rides, tutored SATs, played music. I don’t think the tutoring has made it into a story yet, but all three of the other things have. Writing and performing music has definitely taught me a lot about the kind of writer I want to be, and the kind of person I want to be. I’m glad I exorcised some of my cockiness on that career, so I could come into this one without expecting to be owed anything.

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

Um, let’s see. I’m working on another novel, and I have a whole bunch of stories in the hopper waiting to be written, and I have a story that I really like in the anthology If This Goes On, which was just released by Parvus Press. I haven’t gotten my copy yet so I haven’t read the other stories, but it’s edited by Cat Rambo and has a stellar lineup: Nisi Shawl, Andy Duncan, E. Lily Yu, Steven Barnes, Zandra Renwick. I’m proud to be part of that one.

Ooh. I’ll have to check that out! Thanks for stopping by!

Thanks for having me!

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An Interview with Sunny Moraine

A few years back, I interviewed Sunny Moraine about their novel Line and Orbit. Sunny was kind enough to come back today to talk about their new serial fiction podcast, Gone. If you dig Gone (and why wouldn’t you?), consider supporting Sunny on Patreon so they can continue creating it. Now, to get things started, I’ll make introductions by way of shamelessly stealing from Sunny’s author bio…

Sunny Moraine’s short fiction has appeared in Tor.com, Strange Horizons, Nightmare, Lightspeed, and multiple Year’s Best anthologies, among other places. They are also responsible for the Root Code and Casting the Bones trilogies and their debut short fiction collection Singing With All My Skin and Bone is available from Undertow Publications. In addition to time spent authoring, Sunny is a doctoral candidate in sociology and a sometime college instructor. They unfortunately live just outside Washington, DC, in a creepy house with two cats and a very long-suffering husband.

GoneWelcome back! Gone just released its mid-season finale. Without giving too much away, can you give folks who may not be caught up yet a taste of what Gone is about? And for those who are in the know, any non-spoilery hints about what the future holds?

Gone starts with a relatively simple premise: you wake up one morning and everyone has vanished, leaving no trace or clue regarding what happened or where they went. My unnamed protagonist goes from there, initially trying to answer the most basic question of where everyone is, but things quickly get a lot weirder and far more troubling questions begin to assert themselves. Including the one I think most of us would be asking: “Is this even happening at all?”

Halfway through the season it’s turned into a story about mental illness and the terror of isolation and the fearful damage of deeply repressed anger. It’s also a twisted kind of love story (this is where I think the influence of Alice Isn’t Dead is most apparent) between two women, a romance which has been happy and healthy on the surface while resentment and lies seethe beneath. At heart it’s a story about things breaking down and falling apart: lives, relationships, one’s grip on reality and perhaps reality itself. It’s a very personal story and a lot of my own baggage is in it. Which is true of most of my work.

The future? I’m both excited by and nervous about the future. I can reveal that the second half of the season is going to be much darker – figuratively and literally – and some fairly awful things are going to happen, including one scene that I’m especially nervous about because of the subject matter, which hopefully I’ll pull off okay. I don’t think things are going to tie themselves up neatly in the end, but I almost never end stories that way anyway. Nevertheless, I’m aiming to make the ending a real conclusion that ideally at least somewhat satisfies. Although not all the questions will be answered, many will be.

I promise she won’t turn out to be in Purgatory. Or Heaven, or Hell, or any iteration of any afterlife. I won’t hurt anyone else the way Lost hurt me.

Something that I said in the intro to the midseason finale is that this is actually a much larger universe than it seems right now (about which I don’t know a huge amount and would like to find out). I’m not sure how much of that universe I’ll be able to explore in the next five or six (six maximum) episodes, but it is out there, and while I’m envisioning this season as a single self-contained narrative that can stand on its own, I’m also consciously developing it in a way that could be an establishing point for a second season. That’ll depend almost entirely on the reception the rest of the season gets; if the demand is there, I’ll try to make it happen. In any case, there’s the possibility.

You’re essentially a one-person production team, and you’ve written a bit about your process on your blog. One of the things that surprised me is how much room for improvisation you leave yourself. What is your actual, physical process like when you sit down to record? What do you have with you in terms of notes, cues to yourself, or points you know you need to hit in each episode? Have you ever gone back to re-record sections after something unexpected came up that pushed the plot in a different direction, or do you simply go forward from where the new twist in the story takes you?

Very little of what someone hears is directly scripted, yeah, although the Interludes are all written beforehand. For the main episodes I draw up an extremely rough sketch of an episode, with a few “talking points” for each scene, but otherwise I just sit down in front of my cheap little mic and improvise with one eye on my outline. I feel like it helps with the acting, and it makes it easier for me to get fluidly into this character’s head. I actually haven’t had to re-record much; I edit things, cut out longer pauses and lines that I don’t think work, but for the most part I get the lion’s share in a single take.

The overall plot for the rest of the season is fairly set, but I’ve left some flexibility for things to take the natural turns they want to (which is also how I write my other fiction). So for the most part, when something new pops up, I have room to let it run. I’ve also had to shift scenes around here and there in my outline when I realized they might have to happen sooner or later than I thought.

On a related note, what has been most surprising to you in terms of what you originally envisioned for the story, versus where it’s ended up so far? (If you can answer without giving too much away that is.)

The plot hasn’t really surprised me; it’s the details that have revealed themselves as I go. I had only a basic grasp of this character when I started recording the first episode; she’s taught me about herself as the story has unfolded. Though again, none of that has been exactly surprising, because the framework for her character was always there and I knew the outlines of who she was, but it’s been great to chip away at the marble and watch the details of the sculpture appear.

I think what’s been most surprising to me is actually just how well it’s held together so far. I’m obviously nervous about that suddenly not being the case, and it’s clearly not a perfect story because very few stories are, but in general, considering that I’ve never done this before (with the exception of my other podcast, Keep Singing, which is purely a fandom deal), the whole thing has been kind of a pleasant surprise.

In the same post where you discussed process, you talked a bit about drawing inspiration from classic audio dramas like The Shadow, as well as recent podcasts like Alice Isn’t Dead. One of the things that’s always fascinated me about the audio dramas is the foley work. How do you handle sound effects for Gone? Have you used any household items in unconventional ways to create the audio effects? Has any of your audio work caused undue alarm among neighbors, pets, or passersby those who may not be aware you’re recording an audio drama?

Oh, man. Yeah, it’s been an interesting experience, especially given that I have no budget or formal training in any of this, and my “recording studio” is a home office with tile floors and mostly bare walls. That obviously works okay for stuff that’s technically supposed to be recorded in someone’s echoey home office, and that’s one reason why I lean a lot on that setting, but for scenes set elsewhere, I have to get creative. So far the best solution I’ve come up with for that is recording with a literal quilt over my head and the mic to dampen the echo. I have to hold very still to minimize the rustling. It’s not perfect but I think it works better than I would have expected.

For sound effects, I make heavy use of a site called Freesound.org, which is an excellent archive of Creative Commons licensed sound effects. The quality is a somewhat mixed bag but so far I’ve found enough good stuff to do what I want to do. But using imported sound effects takes a fair amount of precise work – I often do a lot of editing and move smaller bits of them around – so I try to do in-“studio” foley when I can. When the protagonist is flipping through a book, I’m flipping through a book. When she runs into the hall, I’m running into the hall. I actually threw myself and a bunch of stuff on the floor for a scene in the second episode; the pain you hear there is real (I wanted it to be; I suffer for my art).

The most recent episode involved some screaming; I closed up the house, put the quilt over my head, and prayed no one would call the cops. It’s not the last time I’ll need to scream, either, so it could yet happen.

I have badly startled my cats on more than one occasion.

As mentioned, you’re a one-person production team. Do you think you might ever expand to include additional voices?

I’ve been thinking about that a good bit, especially as I look forward to the possibility of a second season. I’d like to, with another project if not with this one, but I think I would have to adjust my working style somewhat and write real lines, given how much of what I do is unscripted. That or find a truly gelling improv partner. I’m also not sure about how to handle the logistics of recording multiple voices, especially if I’m dealing with geographically distributed people, but hey, I could learn. I’ve taught myself how to do this much.

In addition to being a podcaster, you’re also a novelist, and a prolific author of short fiction. What else do you have coming up, or in progress that you’d like people to know about?

I have a story forthcoming in Uncanny Magazine – not sure exactly when – about two women who forge an intense and violent romantic relationship owing to their shared superpower: they can cause enormous destruction when they’re in pain. I’m very proud of it and very excited to share it with the world.

Besides that, I’m in the final stages of editing a novel called LINEAGE which will be released hopefully sometime in the first part of next year from Riptide Publishing. It’s a work of science fantasy set in the same universe as the ROOT CODE books, about a trans man who (along with the girl on whom he has a tremendous and tremendously awkward crush) crashlands on a strange planet and must try to survive caught between an isolated band of survivors and their nemesis, who is a gigantic sentient plant-mass.

Finally, I’m in the early development stages of another podcast with my sister, Emma Phipps. The working title is “Drinks and Thinks”, and the premise is that we drink a different specific brand of liquor per episode while we ramble on some topic of mutual interest. I have no idea how well this would/will work but it seems like it might be fun.

That all sounds amazing and I can’t wait to read and listen! Thank you so much for stopping by!

Thank you so much for having me!

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