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An Interview with Miriam Seidel

Miriam Seidel was kind enough to drop by today to talk about her wonderful novel, The Speed of Clouds. To get things started, I’ll make introductions by way of shamelessly stealing from her author bio…

Miriam Seidel is a writer, curator, librettist, and longtime sci-fi fan. Her novel, The Speed of Clouds, will be published by New Door Books in April 2018. She wrote the libretto for an opera about the visionary inventor Nikola Tesla, performed in Belgrade, New York, and Philadelphia, and a sci-fi radio play for New American Radio. She’s written about visual arts and performance for Art in America, the Philadelphia Inquirer, and other publications, and her writing has won fellowships from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts.

The Speed of CloudsWelcome and congratulations on the publication of your first novel! Without giving too much away, would you care to give folks a taste of The Speed of Clouds is about?

Well, the main character, Mindy, is a fangirl for SkyLog, a major sci-fi franchise, who edits her own fanzine. It’s 1999, so fan fiction is already big, but just starting to migrate from printed zines to online. Mindy is disabled—she has spina bifida and uses a wheelchair. But when she loses the leadership of her club, she’s forced to explore different parts of the SkyLog fan universe, which ends up bringing her to a stronger, more open version of herself. Meanwhile, other, more sweeping versions of events come in through fan fiction stories and the obsessions of some of the characters. I wanted to get at that heady, disorienting feeling in the contrast of those two kinds of experience—our regular, more circumscribed lives, and the bigger things we imagine.

There are so many wonderful things about this novel, the characters, their relationships, and the shared passion over nerdy pursuits, whether it’s music, collectibles, science fiction or computer programming. Did one of these elements in particular form the seed of the novel that the rest was built around, or did it all come together at once? Or, to put it another way, what was the spark that drove you to write The Speed of Clouds?

The spark was definitely my experience of going to Cons. I had been reading and watching sci-fi and fantasy since I was a kid, but never as part of a group—I was kind of a loner, and there wasn’t as much going on then. But later I heard about the Star Trek Cons, and my antennae started buzzing. I told myself it would be a fun thing for our son, who was in elementary school and watched the shows with us. But looking back, I kind of used him as my excuse to check it out. I loved the whole thing—the overheated atmosphere, the tension between the cheesiness and all this pure passion, the fans themselves, and especially how they got dressed up! It felt like a kind of ritual of communion with this large-scale fictional world.

At a certain point, Mindy came to me as a character, full-blown. And then the other things gathered around her like a centrifuge. I felt that she was strong enough to be at the center of these other elements, a lot of which I’m into myself: contemporary art, electronic music, Buckminster Fuller. BTW, I do have a theremin (which makes a cameo in the story), and I’ve played it, although it’s really hard to master.

Obviously the culture of fandom is deeply important to the novel, which touches on cosplay, conventions, zines, fan fiction and more. What is your own personal experience with fandom, and what is your particular fan passion?

My personal experience has been through Cons and clubs. Right now I’m a member of the Philadelphia Science Fiction Society, which has many really smart, serious fans and stimulating discussions. And I love Galactic Philadelphia, a new SFF reading series.

I want to hone in on the fan fiction aspect of the novel for a moment. You use it effectively in The Speed of Clouds to echo the characters’ real life experiences, but you also touch on the importance of fan fiction in expanding a property’s world. For example, fan fiction creates the space to explore consequences which can often get lost in episodic television, and it can improve representation by including queer pairings through slash fiction, whereas a mainstream TV series might be afraid to go in that direction. Are you a writer and/or reader of fan fiction yourself? If so, have you ever come across a story line in fan fiction that you’d want to see brought to life in the main property itself? If not, what would be your choice of media property to write fan fiction for if you were going to delve into that world?

I am so fascinated and heartened by this aspect of fan fiction. In one way, I see fan fiction taking story-making full circle, from telling stories around the fire, to folktales, to written literature, film, and now electronic mass media, and fan fiction then re-appropriates the mass media to create this proliferating, grass-roots art form that you could see as a new kind of folk art.

And then in this new, unregulated space, things like slash fiction could emerge that rewrote the possibilities of gender and sexuality, adding them into that narrative of the future. That was pretty radical when it started in the 1970s. And it’s interesting that slash began mainly with women writers. I really wanted to fold in the Mary Sue phenomenon, which also rose out of early fan fiction by women, but then turned into a weapon used by fanboys against women writers. Women in fan fiction feels somehow related to the growing numbers of great women’s voices in SSF writing now. I know it’s not a direct line, and that the wave of new women writers may be more of a concurrent phenomenon, but women writing fan fiction could have been a contributing factor. It was liberating, and it still can be.

As far as writing fan fiction myself, I’ve read it but haven’t written any. When I was a kid and read something that really struck me, I always wanted to draw the characters, so I guess you could call that fan art. I did that with Lord of the Rings, and this was long before the movies came out and stamped those versions of the characters into our retinas. It could be fun to rewrite parts of LOTR with women characters—either new ones, or expanding on the few who are in there. And this may be a reach, but you could say my novel is my way of writing fan fiction.

Switching gears a bit, I’d like to ask about some of your other artistic work, specifically the libretto you wrote for the opera about Nikola Tesla. How did that come about? What was it like seeing something you’d written performed live?

Like some of my characters, I have a tendency to get obsessed with certain subjects, and I became completely obsessed by Tesla after reading his biography (the one by Margaret Cheney, which I recommend). I was working as a visual artist at the time, but I had seen some contemporary opera, and it just seemed clear to me that Tesla’s story had to be told as an opera—that it was too big and strange to be anything else. Here was a figure whose inventions had shaped our world, yet who was subject to visions throughout his life. I was very lucky to connect with the composer Jon Gibson, and he set my libretto to a wonderful score. I did see it performed in Philadelphia, and then in Belgrade and New York on Tesla’s 150th birthday. Hearing the words I had written coming to life in Jon’s music was profoundly thrilling. I felt that in the first rehearsal, and at every performance.

Switching gears again, there are a fair number of speculative fiction writers living in and around the Philadelphia area. What do you see as some of the more fantastical, or science fictional elements of the city that make it a draw for writers? In general, what are your favorite places to visit in the city, or places you recommend to people who are coming to Philadelphia for the first time?

What a great question! I’m not sure why Philadelphia has been a congenial place for speculative fiction writers, but it may have to do with the fact that it’s always been a strong city for science and scientists. I do think Ben Franklin is an icon in this way, with his interest in electricity and mathematics—did you know he was into magic squares? And there’s the Franklin Institute, which hosted a lecture by Tesla in 1893, and they have a working Tesla coil in their electricity exhibit. And the ENIAC was developed here at Penn—I only recently learned that women played an important role there, as they did at NASA.

My personal favorite science/sci-fi icon is the Bicentennial Moon Tree, which was planted from a seedling that orbited in space, in Washington Square. It looked pretty sickly though, and I wondered if the trip had been traumatic for it. Then it died, but they’ve now replanted a clone from the original, which is also kind of science-fictiony.

Now that The Speed of Clouds is out in the world, what’s next for you? Is there anything else you have upcoming or that you’re working on that you’d like people to know about.

The next novel I want to write will be straight sci-fi/fantasy. Right now it’s in the notes-and-outlining phase.

Thanks for dropping by!

Thank you so much! I’m such a fan of your writing, and I appreciate what you do for the SFF community!

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An Interview with Brooke Bolander

Brooke Bolander was kind enough to drop by today to talk about her debut novella, The Only Harmless Great Thing. To get started, I’ll make introductions by way of shamelessly stealing from Brooke’s author bio…

Brooke Bolander writes weird things of indeterminate genre, most of them leaning rather heavily towards fantasy or general all-around weirdness. She attended the University of Leicester 2004-2007 studying History and Archaeology and is an alum of the 2011 Clarion Writers’ Workshop at UCSD. Her stories have been featured in Lightspeed, Strange Horizons, Nightmare, Uncanny, Tor.com, and various other fine purveyors of the fantastic. She has been a finalist for the Nebula, Hugo, Locus, Theodore Sturgeon, and World Fantasy awards, much to her unending bafflement. She can be reached at her website (brookebolander.com) or on Twitter @BBolander

Welcome and congratulations on the publication of The Only Harmless Great Thing! Without
giving too much away, care to give readers a taste of what it’s about?

The Only Harmless Great ThingThe Only Harmless Great Thing is my weirdo prose-poem alternate history novella tribute to two really terrible, mostly forgotten bits of ephemeral American history: The 1903 public execution by electricity of Topsy, an abused circus elephant, and the deaths of the radium girls, factory workers employed in New Jersey and Illinois to paint watch dials with radium-laced dye. Nobody bothered telling them that the paint was toxic, and none of the girls suspected a thing until, one by one, they began to sicken and die of radiation poisoning. In the universe of the book, things work out a little differently for all involved. Bonds are struck and terrible choices are made—choices that will also have massive ramifications in an alternate present and a far-flung future. It’s a book about anger, and injustice, and women, and friendship. It’s about stories–how they shape narratives and who gets to shape those narratives. It’s about coming together, solidarity in anger and in the fight.

Also: Wooly mammoth folk tales. I can never forget to mention the wooly mammoth folk tales. If you’ve been dying to read a wooly mammoth folk tale, boy have I got the book for you.

Since the book is rooted in events that actually occurred in the early 20th century, what kind of research did you do to inform your writing? What drew you in particular to that time period, or to the story of the radium girls and Edison’s experiments with electricity?

I’m a history student slash historical buff, so a lot of this was already rattling around in my head, looking for a way out.

The late 19th/early 20th century is such an odd period; industrialization rattling on at an ever-increasing clip, making the lives of many better while crushing the poor and the marginalized to feed the altars of Our Sainted Lady Progress. So many things we’ve come to rely on in modern life were invented then. So many of our problems now come from callous decisions made around that era, broken, unsustainable, exploitative systems cemented in on which our own personal Omelas teeters and sways. Want to understand why things in the States are splintering the way they are now? Trace the cracks and fissures back to the period after the Civil War and go from there. You can do that all the way back to the beginning–the systems this country built itself on were always, always rotted through–but recently I was watching a documentary on New York at the turn of the last century and it was remarkable how much you could pinpoint at that nexus leading to where we are currently. The same systems that gave us the freedom of the automobile belched pollution into the air, necessitated the creation of the assembly line, and tore highways through urban neighborhoods with a callous disregard that’s breathtaking. There’s very little we have now that didn’t come with a price. The rich and the powerful wrote the tunes we’d be dancing to on down the decades.

So I think about that a lot, especially recently for, y’know, reasons. The exploitation of the radium girls was just one case in a long, long line of horrible incidents around that time: The matchgirls who came down with fossy jaw in London, the Triangle Shirtwaist fire in New York, and the radium girls of New Jersey and Illinois. The first two were such public outrages they sparked protest and change; the London Matchgirls Strike of 1888 was a reaction to the growing number of fossy jaw deaths, and the Triangle Shirtwaist fire in 1911 (the doors to the factory floors were locked from the outside to prevent union organizers from reaching workers; a fire broke out and 146 women, mostly young immigrant girls, burned to death) led to slightly improved factory safety standards and the organization of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union. But until recently, the radium girls had been mostly forgotten. Their deaths sparked no grand revolt or reform. The lawsuits against their employers were stalled and put off long enough that most of the girls were dead before it was all settled. The best they could hope for was a payout for their families and the shutting down of the factories so that no more women would come to such an end. Nobody taught their story in schools; the only monument that stands to mark their passage was erected in Ottawa, Illinois after a schoolgirl learned what had happened and, horrified at her community’s silence over the matter, fought and pressured for a statue.

The past deserves telling. Even the nasty parts. Especially the nasty parts. If the stories aren’t told, they die, which is also a big theme in the book.

And Thomas Edison, as usual, has been credited with yet another accomplishment not his own, having precious little to do with Topsy’s death. She, like many a ‘performing’ elephant before and since, was so ill-treated she finally snapped and killed a man, at which point the Forepaugh Circus sold her to Frederic Thompson and Elmer Dundy, owners of Coney Island’s Luna Park. Her handler there was an alcoholic. There were more incidents, some involving the police, none of them really her fault. Eventually Thompson and Dundy decided to get rid of her, and what better way to both take care of the problem and promote their soon-to-be-opened park than with a public execution?

The confusion arises from Edison’s penchant for frying animals during the War of the Currents and the fact that the film crew sent to record the event were from Edison Studios. Edison was a terrible guy who deserves everything bad smeared across his name, but the Current War had ended fifteen years earlier, and Edison Studios took no direction from the man himself on who or what they filmed. As far as anybody can tell, he never even knew Topsy existed. She, like the radium girls, was simply another victim of a brutal, uncaring system. Her death served no purpose, for good or ill.

Your short fiction has been multiply award nominated at this point. Do you remember the first nomination, how you found out about it, and what you did to celebrate?

That would have been the Nebula nomination for And You Shall Know Her By The Trail of Dead in early 2016. SFWA calls you for that one, on the phone; I believe I was standing in my kitchen in Brooklyn when they rang, and for once I actually picked up. I’m pretty sure I said “thank you” a whole lot, got off the call, and went to go stare at a wall in a daze for the next half-hour. I was coming off a pretty rough winter, a bad time, and it just made everything extra surreal. I felt a little like Neil Patrick Harris in the final shot of Doctor Horrible.

But thankfully everything seemed to pick up from there, at least personally. Hearing that I’ve been nominated for something has never gotten any less weird, though. “You mean people LIKED that? … That much? Good lord, really?”

Completely switching gears for a moment… At the time this interview is being written, the background image of your twitter account is a scene from Who Framed Roger Rabbit. How great is that movie? It’s sort of a perfect storm of things that shouldn’t work together, but they do, and can never be replicated. (I may be a touch obsessed.) What is you favorite thing about the movie? Favorite character? Seriously, how freakin’ great is it?!

Bless you a thousand years for asking about Who Framed Roger Rabbit, one of my favourite movies if not my absolute favourite. It is great in so many ways I don’t even have space to go into them all here. It’s absolutely ridiculous that it’s so damned good, but I’ve been watching it since I was 7, and it just keeps getting better the older I get and the more I learn and learn to see. It’s a movie that never should have gotten made, a logistical nightmare both in the level of special effects needed and the constant wrangling to keep both Disney and Warner Bros and every other company with a character in the damned thing happy. And who the hell pitches a comedy/all-ages noir based on the same concept as an unmade Chinatown sequel with a Robert Moses figure as the villain, razing a marginalized community to the ground to build his precious freeway?

(True story, folks; it had the working title Cloverleaf and was going to go into the sordid land grabs that made the Los Angeles highway system possible. Considering how The Two Jakes came out, this was probably the best case scenario.)

My favourite thing about it is how deft and tight the storytelling is. It’s a movie that never bothers infodumping about this bizarre world it takes place within when a shot of a photograph on someone’s desk or a single line of dialogue will do. We learn about Eddie Valiant almost entirely from his interactions with others. From Dolores and Lt. Santino we get that he used to be a great guy and an A+ detective, but unresolved grief over his brother’s death has turned him into a reactive, alcoholic mess taking muckraking jobs just to pay rent. From a really beautiful, wordless montage panning over their desk, we learn that Eddie and Teddy started out with the LAPD before hanging up the shingle on their own with Dolores to become respected PIs. The camera deliberately scrolls backwards chronologically through Valiant’s past until it ends on a shot of Eddie, Teddy, and their dad together in the circus–a single frame explaining why Eddie and Teddy were so open to taking Toon cases in the first place, how bitter and damaged the loss of Teddy has left his now-humourless brother, and, finally, how Eddie knows all those cool clown moves he makes use of in the finale. How the hell do you tell that much in ONE FRAME?! Cinema has its own language, and that entire scene rings like ‘cellar door’ to me.

And of course, none of this would work without Bob Hoskins acting his entire ass off, taking everything almost as seriously as his role in The Long Good Friday (Eddie, as you may have already guessed, as my favourite character). The scene where he has to confront his unaddressed PTSD over Teddy’s death and go back through the tunnel to Toontown–again, almost wordlessly; this is a movie that knows when to keep quiet–lives or dies on Hoskins’ ability to emote, and boy does he bring it. The acting on display would be phenomenal in any film; here it’s absolutely jaw-dropping. Watch: He’s nakedly terrified. He breaks out in a sweat, probably remembering in vivid detail his last visit there. He goes to take a drink of bourbon for courage, but stops with the bottle halfway to his lips. Slowly, like a light has just gone on, he lowers it, considering the label like he’s never really seen a bottle of Wild Turkey before until this moment. No, you see him decide, finally, I’m goin’ in there clean. He pours the contents into the gutter. He’s still terrified, but something has changed. And it’s not even sudden, this epiphany! The entire movie has been building to it. Once he takes Roger under his wing, he never takes another drink. He’s tempted, but the bottle always stops halfway.

… Also it’s still a really fucking funny movie. And I have gone on way too long here about Who Framed Roger Rabbit, sorry. You did ask!

There’s no such thing as going on too long when talking about Roger Rabbit! However, topic hopping again, you studied History and Archeology at University. Has any of that background made it into your writing thus far, or do you think it might in the future?

I think it informs everything I do or write in some fashion or another. Being a student of history means you have that much more of an informational back catalogue to dig into when you need a subject to write about. So many interviewers have asked me how I learned about these things, and it’s very strange because an awful lot of the time they’re already sitting around in vials in my head, waiting for a moment to react with something. “BREAK GLASS TO RECEIVE STORY.” History is nothing but stories interlinked, after all.

Now that The Only Harmless Great Thing is out in the world, what’s next for you? Any projects you’re working on you want folks to know about?

I’m currently working on a fantasy novel. I have always been working on this novel. Presumably I will be working on this novel until we go all the way back ’round the horn and start relaying stories solely as an oral tradition again, at which point the entire damn endeavour will be moot. Story of my life.

Besides that, though, I have an upcoming novelette at Tor.com about (what else) extinct animals and the end of the world. I swear up and down that my next piece will be about kittens on fluffy duvets and nobody will die or be angry, ever. Honest.

Thanks for stopping by!

Thanks for having me! And for asking about Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Because Who Framed Roger Rabbit, y’all. Forget about my book: Go re-watch it. Seriously.

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An Interview with D Franklin

D Franklin was kind enough to drop by today to discuss their new venture, Galli Books. I’ll start things off with an introduction by way of shamelessly stealing from their bio…

D is a genderqueer Glasgow-based bookseller. They are a recovering Ancient Historian, a comics nerd, a science fiction and fantasy devourer, and they are founder of Galli Books.

Galli Books Welcome and congratulations on the launch of Galli Books! For those not in the know, what is Galli Books? What sort of titles can people expect from Galli? What inspired you to found Galli?

Galli Books is a small publisher of speculative fiction anthologies with social themes and intersectional social justice intent. Our first couple of planned titles give a good idea of what to expect in future, too; a book about alternative masculinities, and a book of stories of scientists who aren’t (gasp) men!

I was inspired to found Galli when another call for submissions from another publisher went out that basically called for stories that it claimed represented suppressed ideas, when, in reality, they’re the dominant ideas in our genre and across society. A few people on Twitter joked about a response anthology and I… maybe took the joke too far?

You recently put out your first call for submissions (including a call for artists’ portfolios). For hopeful authors out there, what type of work is likely to catch your eye? Conversely, what do you not want to see in your submission pile?

I’m not editing it alone, I’ve got some excellent consultants in to co-edit the volume with me! Shout out to Jay Wolf, Ronan Sadler, and Brandon O’Brien! Work that will catch our eye will be socially progressive, will rewrite the standard toxic and fragile models of masculinity that dominate in our society, will have diverse casts, and will engage with a range of responses to masculinity. What we don’t want to see is a whole lot of Conan clones, because that’s what we’re reacting to, nor straightforward parody of that… unless it’s really spectacularly done parody, of course!

On a somewhat related note, since you’re also a reviewer, what are some of your recent favorite reads? Or your all-time favorite reads? What titles would you point people toward in order to get a sense of your tastes, or just in general because you love them and want people to read them?

Recently, I loved Jeannette Ng’s Under the Pendulum Sun: theology and fairytale run up against each other in a claustrophobic Victorian gothic melodrama. More broadly, everyone should read the Imperial Raadch trilogy by Ann Leckie, Becky Chambers’ heartwarming and intelligent Wayfarer series, and quite literally every novel N. K. Jemisin has ever written. Your own Ultra Fabulous Glitter Squadron Saves The World Again has a special place in my heart for combining so many different registers so brilliantly, and for what it does with masculinity (TOPICAL); I’m still not over ‘Roller Girls Have More Fun’.: blushing over here.) (Interviewer’s note And, of course, there’s Terry Pratchett, miss him as we all do…

In addition to being a reviewer and a publisher, you’re also a bookseller. Do you have any “tales from the trenches” that you’re able to share, either in terms of odd questions you’ve received, or inspiring stories of helping someone find the perfect book?

Oh, the tales I could tell… if it wouldn’t be unprofessional. Let’s just say that sometimes, “It’s the recent one with the silver cover” is surprisingly more than enough information to go on; that books that haven’t been in print for half a century AREN’T going to be available in a first-hand book shop; and that no, you can’t have a copy of the book that’s not out for another week, because we don’t have it in – it’s not out for another week.

To topic switch a bit, you’re based in Glasgow – what’s the speculative fiction scene like there? More generally, what are some of your favorite places to visit in the city, or places you would recommend to someone coming to Glasgow for the first time?

Glasgow has a seriously thriving speculative fiction scene; internationally it is perhaps eclipsed a little by some of Edinburgh’s writers like Laura Lam, Ken MacLeod, and Elizabeth May, but we’ve got some great folks of our own. The irrepressible and brilliant Hal Duncan is possibly our most notorious current speculative author, but Neil Williamson, Ruth Booth, and Cameron Johnston, whose debut is coming later this year, are all also locals; the Glasgow Science Fiction Writers’ Circle does a great job of encouraging and helping new writers, and it’s produced some real crackers!

Any visitor to Glasgow needs to visit one place, and it’s a café. Or a gin bar. Really, it’s both. Cup in the daytime is a lovely café with cakes, food, and a whole menu of different kinds of tea. At about 5 o’clock, it turns into Gin71. The name originally referred to its street address; now, it refers also to the number of gins they have. We’re also home to a whole lot of museums and art galleries, plus there’s always the Charles Rennie Mackintosh architecture to admire!

Aside from Galli Books, do you have any other upcoming projects you’d like people to know about, or any other closing thoughts in general you’d like to share?

“Aside from founding a publishing house and putting out a public call for stories to your anthology while working as a bookseller”, you mean? HAH, oh for that kind of energy! Though watch this space for future calls for submissions!

I can’t wait to see what the future holds for Galli Books. Thanks for dropping by!

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An Interview with Ada Hoffmann

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”).

Monsters in My MindWelcome 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.

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An Interview with the Sword and Sonnet Editors

Sword and SonnetToday, I’m delighted to welcome the editors of the upcoming anthology, Sword and Sonnet, currently running a Kickstarter that you can support right now! (And you really do want to, because it’s going to be amazing.)

Welcome! To start things off, could you please each briefly introduce yourself and talk a bit about your vision for Sword and Sonnet.

Rachael: I’m Rachael K. Jones, former editor of PodCastle, award-nominated author, professional Tyrannosaur, Nicolas Cage enthusiast, and secret android. (Wait, did I said that aloud?) When I think of an anthology of battle-poets, I think of all the ways people have used their words as weapons, in powerful and creative ways that have shaped the world. I’m thinking of the pioneers of hip hop. I’m thinking of Sappho writing in exile. I’m thinking of all the people in history whose pen was their sword, and especially people from marginalized genders whose work has been lost or forgotten. My hope is that our anthology can gather up a little bit of that spirit in one place, and have fun with it to boot.

Aidan: I’m Aidan Doyle, associate editor of PodCastle, short story writer, and frequent traveler. Like Rachael, I want to see stories of people using their words as weapons – fantastical sonnet-slinging spellbinders and brave bards.

Elise: I’m Elise Tobler and I am the senior editor at Shimmer Magazine, cupcake connoisseur, and trebuchet enthusiast. When Aidan proposed the anthology, I was pretty excited over what it could mean and humbled that he thought to invite me. Shimmer has published a few things that would fit my “vision,” but I hope all of our protagonists will be active, curious, and filled with a kind of poetry that overwhelms the reader when they reach the end of the story.

An anthology of battle poets, sonnet slingers, and Haiku-wielding heroines definitely sounds like a concept with a story behind it, possibly one involving shenanigans. How did the idea for this anthology come about?

Rachael: I blame Aidan. Picture me standing behind him jabbing both fingers at him. He instigated the shenanigans and press-ganged invited me along for the samurai-stuffed ride.

Aidan: I read Sei Shonagon’s The Pillow Book and fell in love with her writing. She was known for intimidating the men of Heian-era Japan with her knowledge of poetry. Fablecroft Publishing announced a call for stories for Cranky Ladies of History and I wrote a story featuring Shonagon using her knowledge of poetry to defeat demons. The story was rejected (a revised version later appeared in PodCastle) but SL Huang remarked that she would love to read a story about a badass battle poet and I had the idea for an anthology of battle poet stories. Elise and Rachael have a lot more editorial experience than I do and I was thrilled they wanted to be involved in the project.

Elise: I completely blame Aidan, too, but appreciate his invitation to play on this amazing battlefield.

As editors, I know it’s sometimes hard to pin down exactly what you’re looking for in a story, and sometimes the best stories are the ones you never knew you wanted to read until you’ve read them. That said, do you have any particular soft spots in fiction? Are there are any subjects, styles, themes, or anything else you’re hoping to see in the submission pile?

Rachael: I’m a complete sucker for stories with a strong sense of voice, and that will be doubly true in an anthology with a poetry motif. I want stories that make me care about the characters and take me into their lives. For a thematic anthology, we’ll also be looking for stories that harmonize and contrast nicely to one another. I am also always on the look out for stories by authors just entering the short fiction world. If you’re looking for your first publication, please submit! Speaking personally, I’m also secretly a huge Old English poetry nerd, and might actually die of joy if I ran across a feminist Beowulf riff somewhere in our submissions. Tyrannosaurs are optional, but always encouraged.

Aidan: I have a soft spot for dark humor and for intricate settings. Like most editors I want characters I care about and stories with a strong voice. I also have a weakness for bears.

Elise: I love to experiment. I love to jump off a cliff and dare the reader to follow. I hope we see some risk taking! I’ve always found poetry to be powerful. When I’m stuck in my own work, reading poetry can often get my brain back into gear and motion. I am hopeful we’ll see stories that show and explore that power. Poetry can so often be looked down on, but I think it’s just as vital to this world as fiction. Poetry can be quiet, but so can a punch to the gut.

Since you’re editing an anthology themed around fighting and poetry, I think it’s only fair to ask each of you to provide an inspiring battle cry in limerick form. Haikus are also acceptable. (Yes I’m aware this isn’t actually a question.)

Rachael:

There once was a lass in a bonnet

whose sword had strange writing upon it.

She translated the verse

into this lovely curse:

“Ye aught go to back Sword & Sonnet!”

Aidan:

There once was a poet whose love of words,

Transformed her sonnets into birds,

She fought her enemies with poems and puns,

They laid down their swords and guns,

And praised the power of her words.

Elise:

There once was a girl who did battle

With her sword, her book, and her…hey are those cattle?

She took to the sky

With a furious cry:

“Oh shit I’ve misplaced my saddle!”

Bravo! Now, if you yourself were going into battle, what would your weapon of choice be?

Rachael: The word Hospitality in sixteen languages, a dappled pink scarf, and my rebellious youth. I would ride behind my battle-poet army on a beat-boxing mastodon and pointedly refuse to smile when asked. It would be terrifying.

Aidan: A dancing Christopher Walken riding atop a giant sandworm.

Elise: The trebuchet, filled with a thousand thousand volumes of Good Poems for Hard Times, ed. Garrison Keillor.

I would follow all of you into battle without hesitation! Any closing thoughts you’d like to share about Sword and Sonnet, or other upcoming projects you’re working on you’d like people to know about?

Rachael: While many anthology Kickstarters offer story critiques as a backer reward, ours is offering a special round table-style crit from all three of us. This is a good opportunity to get a peek at the editorial process in a way you almost never get to see when you’re just starting out. We say all the time that editors aren’t a monolith, and different readers can have very different opinions on the same story, which means that often submitting your stories is really a game of finding your ideal reader. Otherwise there’s a tendency to thinking we need to flatten ourselves as writers to fit, to aim for a good generic blandness instead of embracing what makes our voices unique, powerful, and sometimes divisive. But the truth is that every battle poet causes conflict, right?

Aidan: We’d love the chance to see what stories writers can create about battle poets and hope that people are excited about the idea as much as we are.

Elise: I hope that we have the opportunity to bring you this anthology because the concept is truly unlike anything I’ve seen out there.

Thank you all for dropping by! I can’t wait for Sword and Sonnet to be out in the world!

Rachael: Thank you so much for having us!

Aidan: Thanks Alison!

Elise: Thanks for having us, Alison. I’m delighted you’re going to be part of this anthology!

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An Interview with Cassandra Khaw

Cassandra Khaw was kind enough to drop by today to talk about her new novella, A Song for Quiet. To get things started, I’ll make introductions by shamelessly stealing from Cassandra’s author bio…

Cassandra Khaw is a London-based writer with roots buried deep in Southeast Asia where there are sometimes more ghosts than people. Her work tends to revolve around intersectional cultures, mythological mash-ups, and bizarre urban architecture. When not embroiled in fiction, she writes about technology and video games for a variety of places including Eurogamer and Ars Technica UK.

Welcome, Cassandra, and congratulations on the publication of A Song for Quiet! As I understand it, this novella brings back John Persons, but is not a direct sequel to Hammers on Bone. Without giving too much away, can you give readers a taste of what to expect in A Song for Quiet?

A Song for QuietSouthern Gothic Lovecraftian with a heavy note of the blues.

Man, I wish I thought of that logline before this. Um. Anyway. A taste of what to expect? If you’re coming straight from the epilogue of Hammers on Bone, I’d say: expect the unexpected. In that A Song for Quiet is a drastically different book from its predecessor. Hammers on Bone laid on the neo-noir thick; it growled, it grumbled, and it smelled of neon-lit rain and cigarettes.

A Song for Quiet, on the other hand, is a hush. It’s a quiet book written to the meter of some old blues classics. It’s a book on grief, a book about helplessness, a book about finding hope in dark places. It isn’t a book about the people history remember, but a book about the heroes that time forgets. More than anything else, A Song for Quiet is a book of my grief and if you’ve wondered why it was like to hear someone’s heart breaking in half, this book’s for you.

I love the cover art for both of your Tor novellas. Did you have any input in the process, or did they come as a complete surprise?

They come as a complete surprise! Well. Sort of. Jeffrey Alan Love, who I’d just been a fanatical fan of, is basically the artist associated with the series. So long as Tor.com keeps publishing the Persons non Grata series, he’d be cover artist. (At least until whatever arrangement they’ve got going change. I don’t know how it works.) In that sense, the cover for A Song For Quiet wasn’t a surprise. I knew it’d be Jeffrey. I just didn’t know what would be going down.

That said, it’s Tor. I’d trust them with any of my covers any year. Like, wow.

Hammers on Bone and A Song for Quiet mash-up the genres of noir and Lovecraftian fiction. You’ve also drawn on Lovecraftian fiction in your short stories, specifically An Ocean of Eyes, which I loved. What appeals to you about playing in those worlds, or in the broader genre of dark fiction and horror generally? Is there an sense of subverting or reclaiming spaces and tropes that have historically been male-dominated, and in some cases outright misogynistic and racist?

I keep hearing this question and I keep revising my answers. There are layers to it. Like, to begin with, Lovecraft felt utterly impenetrable the first time I read his work as a teen. English’s my third language and the lexicon of words he used, the structure of his prose. It felt … inscrutable. Alien.

Of course, that meant I just wanted to beat my head against the challenge until it all made sense. So, that’s one reason for my fascination with Lovecraft. One of the other reasons, curiously, is a sense of empathy. More than anything else, Lovecraft felt absolutely terrified of everything. The world, the people who inhabited the world, the nature of his own skin, the flesh, the grim inevitability of the void. Every time I think about him, he always seems so scared. Not cowardly, per se. But just so very aware of how terrible the world is.

And I get that. I look up into the sky and there are days, especially now, when I see nothing but the hungry void. I read the news and it’s nothing but stories of powerful, inhuman creatures tearing apart the world. It scares me too.

But where Lovecraft was resigned to accepting his world of monsters, of seeing everything foreign as terrifying, I’m, like a lot of people who are messing around in the toolbox, not. I wouldn’t call myself optimistic, however.I think the world is a terrible place. But I think it is one that needs people reminding children that they can fight their monsters, that incremental improvements are worth fighting for, that the future’s worth a legacy of pain. That the moment that you give up, that’s the moment that the monsters win.

Every second before that, though? You’re still fighting to bring a light into the dark.
… I have no idea if that answered the question. I hope it did.

Now that you have a few novellas under your belt, do you have any interest in moving to novel length work? How does your writing process differ tackling longer versus shorter fiction?

Yes. I’d just submitted A Language of Doors, which is a sequel to my story in Shimmer, ‘In the Rustle of Pages.’ I think that’s my last novella for a good long while; my post-apocalyptic fairy tale mermaid novel is next. My writing process? It feels almost entirely the same, to be honest. I’m a pantser in the sense that outlines mostly just confuse me. My work tends towards being atmospheric because the process of writing them inevitably feels like a sustained delirium. I’m chasing snatches of dream towards its ending. With longer work, these waking nightmares just last longer.

With your non-fiction writing, do you ever get sent cool pieces of technology or get previews of video games to review? Does your non-fiction writing ever inform your fiction writing in any way, or do they live in two totally separate compartments of your brain?

I got a PS Vita as part of a job once. And I’ve been sent a Kindle Fire. I’ve lost track of the number of games I’ve received ahead of the release date. Won’t lie. It’s swell. My non-fiction brain has absolutely influenced my fiction writing and in the worst possible way! It took me almost a year to stop trying to abbreviate everything in a way that would be acceptable to my media training. (My fiction brain has done some beautiful things to my non-fiction brain, however My non-fiction now emerge as sumptuous, shameless things full of defiant word-beauty.)

Completely switching gears for a bit, 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?

I spent a week selling fish in a supermarket. It didn’t inspire any stories. But I was nineteen and my mother had gotten confused in regards to what an internship meant. We’d expected me to be plunked down in someone’s office, settled in behind a desk. Instead, I ended up spending a week in a supermarket, loudly encouraging housewives to check out our imported meats. My life’s been weird.

Now that A Song for Quiet is out in the world, what’s next for you?

I’m head down in my day job, which is the COOLEST DAMN THING BUT I CANNOT TELL ANYONE WHAT IT IS YET. AGH. And I’m pecking away at my mermaid novel because I promised my agent I would and it’s been forever.

Thanks for stopping by!

Thank you for having me!

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An Interview with Kat Howard

Kat Howard was kind enough to drop by today to talk about her new novel, An Unkindness of Magicians, among other things. To get started, I’ll make introductions by way of shamelessly stealing from Kat’s author bio…

Kat Howard is a writer of fantasy, science fiction, and horror who lives and writes in New Hampshire. Her short fiction has been nominated for the World Fantasy Award, performed on NPR, and anthologized in year’s best and best of volumes. In the past, she’s been a competitive fencer and a college professor. Her debut novel, Roses and Rot was released from Saga Press in May of 2016, and will be followed by An Unkindness of Magicians in September 2017, and a short fiction collection, A Cathedral of Myth and Bone, in 2018, both also from Saga. You can find her on twitter, and on tumblr.

An Unkindness of MagiciansWelcome and congratulations on the publication of An Unkindness of Magicians! Without giving too much away, care to give readers a taste of what it’s about?

Thanks so much! To continue the trend of shameless stealing, here’s the back cover copy:

There is a dark secret that is hiding at the heart of New York City, diminishing the city’s magicians’ power…

In New York City, magic controls everything, but the power of magic is fading. No one knows what is happening, except for Sydney—a new, rare magician with incredible power that has been unmatched in decades, and she may be the only person who is able to stop the darkness that is weakening the magic. But Sydney doesn’t want to help the system, she wants to destroy it.

This is a book about sacrifice and family and making yourself who you want to be. Oh, and there are magical duels.

I have admit that sometimes I’m shallow, and I do judge books by their cover, by which I mean impulse buying things that are pretty. This cover is a particularly striking one – did you have any input on the artistic process?

I had absolutely nothing to do with the artistic process, so I feel perfectly comfortable in saying that I love how gorgeous this cover is. The cover design is by Lizzy Bromley, and the illustration done by Vault 49, and I’m so grateful for their genius. It’s based on what is one of my favorite scenes in the book, where a piece of magic goes very, very wrong.

I also wanted to ask about your first novel, Roses and Rot, which I adored. I love the themes of family, fairy tales, and artistic inspiration woven throughout. Speaking of artistic inspiration, what sparked this story for you?

Thank you! Roses and Rot is a very loose retelling of Tam Lin (Child Ballad 39A). So in a way it was sparked back when I read Pamela Dean’s gorgeous novel, Tam Lin, and first learned about the story. The question that eventually became the book for me was, “What would you be willing to give up?”

The artist’s colony of Melete that you describe in the novel sounds amazing. If you were invited, would you go, even knowing what lies behind the colony? If you were offered the deal that the most promising Melete residents are offered, would you accept that invitation?

I’d go, and I’d make the bargain. I’m not sure I’m exactly comfortable with that piece of self-knowledge, but there you go.

In addition to your two novels, you’ve also written quite a bit of short fiction. Were there any challenges in transitioning between the two lengths? Do you have different processes for writing short versus long fiction?

The biggest challenge for me was to let the novel open up and breathe. My short fiction tends to be very focused (or at least it feels that way in my head when I’m writing it), and so allowing myself to open up to the possibilities that something novel-length offered as a bit of a transition.

Switching gears completely, I have to ask about your competitive fencing. How did you get into competitive fencing, and do you still fence for fun? Are you an extra harsh critic of works (movies, books, etc.) featuring swordplay? Are there any works out there that really get it right? On the other side of things, is there a particular thing that people who don’t do their research get wrong about swords that causes you to shout at a book/movie in frustration?

I’ve been obsessed with fencing since I first saw a Zorro cartoon and went around drawing Z’s everywhere. Seeing Star Wars and lightsabers only increased this obsession. My parents found me lessons, and I started training seriously in college. Injury meant that I stopped competing, but I’m moving in a few months, and one of the first things I did was look up fencing clubs, so I hope to get back into it. I love the sport.

And because I love the sport, while I do wince at certain depictions, I’m also generally glad to see fencing in movies and books. Anything that gets people to love it! Ellen Kushner writes great fencing, and Molly Tanzer has a forthcoming book, Creatures of Will and Temper, that I love, and also has terrific fencing in.

Oh, and there may be a fencing scene in An Unkindness of Magicians, too.
(NB: I wrote an article about fencing for Lightspeed a few years ago, if you want more info)

Now that An Unkindness of Magicians is out in the world, what’s next for you? Any projects you’re working on you want folks to know about?

I have a short fiction collection, A Cathedral of Myth and Bone, that will be out next fall from Saga. There will be reprints, but also some new pieces, including a new novella, “Once, Future.” That’s an Arthurian riff that I’m extremely excited for people to read. And I am working on some other things that I hope to be able to say more about soon!

All of that sounds wonderful, and I can’t wait to read it! Thanks for stopping by!

Thanks so much for having me.

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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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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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