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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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