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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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Women to Read: Where to Start: May 2017

Welcome to another edition of Women to Read: Where to Start. If you’re new to the series, you can catch up with the tabs along the header, collecting my past posts by year. Basically, I recommend women whose work you should read, and point to a particular place to start. Here we go!

Queers Destroy Science FictionSusan Jane Bigelow is an author, librarian, political columnist, and is responsible for the Extrahuman Union series. My recommended starting place for her work is Die, Sophie, Die from Queers Destroy Science Fiction!, a special project of Lightspeed Magazine. The story centers on Sophie, a woman who finds herself the target of harassment due to an article in which she dares to express an opinion which proves unpopular with online trolls. She’s subject to rape threats, death threats, and doxxing – all the usual tools of online harassment. While most of the threats Sophie faces are sadly common, the uncommon element manifests in what appears to be a twitter bot with the power to circumvent all her blocks. At first it tells her to kill herself, as do many of the other messages she receives, but gradually the messages change until they seem to be asking for help. Sophie sets out to investigate, bringing her face to face both with an unexpected aspect of technology, and one of her all too human trolls. Bigelow states in the Author Spotlight accompanying her story that she’s luckily never been the target of online harassment in this way. However I suspect the story will strike a nerve with many/any women who have seen this very situation happen over and over again. The very fact that Bigelow considers herself lucky stands as a testament to how prevalent trolling and harassment are. What should be an aberration is sadly all too common. Women who express opinions in public have sadly come to expect this kind of treatment. In Die, Sophie, Die, Bigelow puts the horror of the situation front and center, showing the impact on every aspect of Sophie’s life. Bigelow gives her story an SFnal twist that offers a note of hope, but even this hope highlights the dark side of social media. Something new is born in the form of a singularity, however it makes itself known through harassment, realizing that hate is a surefire way to get itself noticed. The story serves both as commentary on a phenomenon impacting many women, and a satisfying SFnal tale. On both fronts, it is an excellent starting place for Bigelow’s work.

Next up, my recommended starting place for Khaalida Muhammad-Ali is Concessions published at Strange Horizons. The story is set against a backdrop of scarcity. The protagonist, Bilqis, is a doctor, one with the power to determine the health of mothers and the babies they carry just by touching them. Bordering the land of scarcity is a prosperous city, however entry requires the renouncement of faith. As a result, Bilqis and her lover, Sule, live in exile, scrabbling for their existence, and hoping for the best for the child Bilqis carries. The story shines in its relationships – between Bilqis and Sule, a relationship palpably suffused with love; between Bilqis and her mentor Miriama, a relationship of respect, but weighted with expectation; between Bilqis and Isa, her mentee, a protective relationship; and between Bilqis and Dorian, a relationship between colleagues turned deadly and sour. As the title implies, the story explores sacrifice, and the question of what compromises a person might be willing to make in order to survive. The question of spiritual survival (i.e. faith) versus physical survival (i.e. the ability to make a living) plays a central role, showing the potential complications and conflict inherent in the relationship between the two in a post-apocalyptic setting. It’s a lovely and painful story, and a worthy starting place for Muhammad-Ali’s work.

Lilliam Rivera is an award winning author whose YA novel, The Education of Margot Sanchez, was released earlier this year. My recommended starting place for her work is The H8TE, originally published in Sucker Literary, and reprinted at Nightmare Magazine. On the surface, The H8TE is a zombie story, but underneath it’s a story about the complicated love between a mother and daughter, and navigating the cliques, jealousies, and relationships that come with high school. Sarah’s mother has been stricken by the N1H8 virus, or as it’s known, The H8TE, reducing her to mindless, hungry creature. Sarah keeps her chained up in a bedroom, doing her best to keep her alive while keeping anyone else from finding out about her. Her best friend, Brenda, has a new friend, Alison, who seems intent on turning Brenda against her. Sarah’s only real ally is Ray, who is like a brother to her. However accepting help from Ray means putting him in danger, and putting her mother in danger as well. Lilliam perfectly captures Sarah’s isolation, both self-imposed, and from her peers. She’s in an impossible situation, forced to shoulder too much responsibility for her age, and left with nowhere to turn. As the best zombie stories do, The H8TE uses the supernatural to reflect very real fears – the idea of losing a loved one, and the idea of a child forced to take on the role of the parent, caring for the person who is supposed to care for and protect them, and doing it alone. At the same time, Lilliam weaves in social pressure and the casual cruelty of teenagers toward each other as they try to find their place in the world. For many, seemingly the quickest way to ascend in the social order is to separate and metaphorically consume the weakest in the pack. It’s an effective story, encapsulating many fears, and its an excellent starting place for the author’s work.

Never Now AlwaysFinally, my recommended starting place for Desirina Boskovich’s work is the novella, Never Now Always, which will be published by Broken Eye Books in June, and is currently available for pre-order. Lolo lives with other children in a vast labyrinth, overseen by the Caretakers, creatures with staring eyes, but no mouths or ears. The Caretakers experiment on the children, forcing them to remember events from their past, though each time they do, the memories seem different. From the start, Boskovich plunges the reader into the same disorienting world that the characters inhabit, where dreams, nightmares, and memories all blur together. Reality itself is in question, but the one thing Lolo is sure of is that she has a sister, and that her sister was taken from her. Some of Lolo’s memories are beautiful, like a Fourth of July cookout, and playing in the grass with her sister and their dog. Others are visions of loss, her sister ripped away from her on a playground, a strange city where Harvesters devour children and fill the streets with blood. The narrative is threaded with uncertainty. Which memories are real, the idyllic ones, or the terror? What do the Caretakers want? Boskovich uses language effectively to capture this uncertainty, and the shifting nature of reality. The children’s sense of time and even themselves is fragile, threatening to unravel at any moment. While Lolo struggles to hold onto her truth, and searches for her sister, a sense of despair hangs over the narrative as well. Boskovich draws parallels between her nightmare world and the dark side of being a child. Everyone is bigger than you. You have no power. Your reality is defined by the adults around you, and if they don’t have your best interests at heart, what then? How do you fight back? Can you? Or will the ones in control of your environment, your food and shelter, of telling you what to think and what’s best for you, prevail in the end?

“There have always been taller ones, stronger ones, ones who knew what we didn’t know,” Gor says, hesitant. “Before the structure. Before the labyrinth. Before the Caretakers. They’ve always been there. They’ve always hurt us.”

It’s a chilling statement, but one that carries a ring of truth. Along with this dystopian vision, Boskovich also explores the importance of stories, the ones we tell ourselves and each other, and how they help us navigate the world. Even when the situation is terrifying, the story is beautifully written. Never Now Always is frightening, effective, and disorienting, and a worthy starting place for Boskovich’s work.

That’s it for this month’s Women to Read. I’ll be back with more recommendations in June. As always, I would love to hear about your favorites. Drop me a note in the comments with women I should be reading, and where to start with their work.

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Recommended Reading: New Releases

Despite December being a fairly quiet month, I fell behind on my short fiction/online reading. There’s something to be said for ‘the less you have to do, the less you feel like doing’ axiom. (If that isn’t an axiom, it really should be.) With a slew of new issues coming out in January, however, I felt I should attempt to catch up, or at least not fall further behind. While I’m not even close to being caught up, what I have read so far seems to indicate that the year is starting off strong. So, for your reading pleasure, I recommend:

Pretty much all the fiction from Issue #39 of ChiZine, though I especially enjoyed Nub Hut by Kurt Dinan.

And both fiction pieces from Clarkesworld #28, though again, I especially enjoyed Celadon by Desirina Boskovich

For your dead-tree variety reading pleasure:

I would highly recommend The Alchemy of Stone by Ekaterina Sedia and Fast Ships, Black Sails edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer

And finally, speaking of recommending stuff – Fantasy Magazine is conducting their Second Annual Reader’s Poll. Head on over to their site and vote for your favorite story (or three favorite stories as the case may be). As an extra bonus, this year the author of the winning story gets a nifty prize. Readers also have a chance to win a nifty prize by commenting on their favorite stories.

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