Short Story Interview: Ken Schneyer

News

My Art & Words Show is now open for submissions for the month of March; see this page for submission information. The show was also profiled in Poets & Writers.

My story “Mrs. Stiltskin” is out from Lakeside Circus.

Interview

This week I’m featuring a favorite short story writer, Ken Schneyer. I reviewed Ken’s story in my Clockwork Phoenix 4 review, and he’s also been a participant in my Art & Words Show, mentioned above. His story from Clockwork Phoenix 4 has just deservedly been nominated for a Nebula. Here’s his bio:

An actor and lawyer by training, a teacher by profession, and a writer by inclination, Ken Schneyer recently received a Nebula nomination for his short story, “Selected Program Notes from the Retrospective Exhibition of Theresa Rosenberg Latimer.”  His fiction appears in Analog, Strange Horizons, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Clockwork Phoenix 3 & 4, Daily Science Fiction, Escape Pod, Podcastle, and lots of other places.  His complete bibliography resides at http://www.writertopia.com/profiles/KennethSchneyer#bibliography.   He sold his first story in 2008, attended the Clarion Writers Workshop in San Diego in 2009, and joined the Cambridge Science Fiction Workshop in 2010.  Born in Detroit, he now lives in Rhode Island with one singer, one dancer, one actor, and something with fangs.  He can be found on Twitter, on Facebook, and at http://ken-schneyer.livejournal.com.

Q: Tell me about your short stories.

I think of myself as a science fiction writer, but I’ve produced as much fantasy as science fiction.  Although some of them are comic, the majority are pretty sad or at least wistful.  I get better at shorter word counts, where I can really brood over every syllable and punctuation mark.  I’m often drawn to strange voicing, especially “found documents” stories where the narrator doesn’t know s/he’s a narrator.

Q: Do you notice any distinct differences between the themes and subject matter you’re drawn to in sci fi versus the themes you’re drawn to in fantasy, other than the obvious genre differences?

It’s more that certain narrative problems are easier to solve with one subgenre or the other.  It’s easier to create an atmosphere of mystery and radical uncertainty with fantasy, because you can make up whatever rules fit the mood.  In science fiction, everything is either understood or potentially can be understood.  Science fiction, especially near-future science fiction, is better for forcing the reader to confront his or her own reality – this might happen, what are its consequences, what are your responsibilities in such a world?  Pretty much all my comedy is science fiction rather than fantasy, as is most of my political fiction.

Q: What is one of your favorite stories you have written and why?

I like “Hear the Enemy, My Daughter” (Strange Horizons, May 6, 2013) because of its emotional and thematic complexity, its strong narrative voice, the personal & painful truths it contains, its ambiguous moral resolution, the quadruple-entendre in the title, and the fact that it makes me cry when I read it aloud.

Q: What were the circumstances under which you wrote “Hear The Enemy, My Daughter”?

In 2010, the year after Clarion, I ran a Kickstarter called “Are You the Agent or the Controller?” to fund the writing of six short stories that summer.  The highest-paying backers got to give me a prompt for a story.  My friend Cinthea Stahl, a screenwriter who is too clever for her own good, gave me the prompt “Marsupials are fierce warriors.”

The first draft of the story was called “The Sacred Band”, and focused a lot more on the alien Sheshash.  But by the time it got to my writers group, it was clear that the core of the story was parenthood, the alienness of children, and the difficulty of unconditional love.  That theme, combined with what Alex Jablokov called the “army composed of Mommy & Me play groups”, allowed me to juxtapose the horror of child soldiers with the limitations all parents feel in raising the young

Q: Are there stories you’ve published, perhaps earlier in your career, that you would change, if you could? Why?

Well, *sigh* all of them.   I’m usually happy with my language, voicing, symbolism, theme, etc. – but plot is my weak point, and I always look back and imagine I could have made my protagonist less passive, could have created more decision points, could have ended more definitively.  There’s one story (I’d rather not name it) where I let an editor talk me into major revisions that, I now realize, make it choppy and slightly incoherent.  I wish I hadn’t done that.

Q: How do you write stories? Do you edit extensively? Do you write so much per day?

Because I’m a college teacher nine months out of the year, I work round the clock, and it’s hard to set up a regular daily writing regimen (although other profs don’t seem to have this problem; I ought to ask them what their secret is).  I’m able to put away 500-1,500 words a day during the summer and term breaks, but in the fall and winter I have to resign myself to editing.

When I am able to write, I write even if there’s no story idea.  Sometimes I’ll give myself a prompt and start banging out words.  The first draft of my story for the Art & Words Show was written almost in a single sitting, with the drawing sitting in front of me, in sort of a waking dream.  When I finished it, I wasn’t entirely sure that I was the one who wrote it.  The same thing was true of “The Mannequin’s Itch” (The Pedestal #67 & the Toasted Cake podcast #46).

Other times I have a specific thing I want to accomplish, either an experiment in voicing or a particular emotional impact at the end, and I write towards them.  John Irving once said that he always writes the end of his novels (and of each chapter!) first, and then writes toward them as if it were the harmonic resolution at the end of a musical composition.  That works well for me – if I know the general direction in which I’m headed, I do better.

I usually let a first draft sit for several weeks, then read it and rewrite it based on my fresh observations; typically this is the moment where I realize what the actual theme is, and I revise to highlight it.  The second draft then goes to my writing group (the Cambridge Science Fiction Workshop) or other beta readers, and I use their comments to craft the third draft.  The third draft is sometimes major surgery, adding or deleting whole scenes or, more rarely, rewriting from scratch.  Often there’ll be a fourth draft as well.  At four drafts, though, I usually hit my “cosmic disgust” point where I have to send it out to markets or I lose all confidence in it.

Q: What themes and subjects do you find yourself drawn to? Why do you think you’re drawn to these subjects?

The themes of memory and loss come up over and over again; I think this is because I’m middle aged.  There’s also a lot about love – romantic love, filial love, the conflicts that are part of love; I think this is because I’m forever working out what I believe about human relationships.

Q: What do you have coming out, and what can you tell us about these stories?

Levels of Observation” just went online at Mythic Delirium last month (February 2014), and the Chinese magazine ZUI Found printed Geng Hui’s translation of “Selected Program Notes from the Retrospective Exhibition of Theresa Rosenberg Latimer”.  I sold reprint rights to another story that I can’t talk about yet because the contract isn’t signed.  I have three other stories currently under submission; if things go the way they usually do, I’d bet those stories will come out sometime in late 2013 or early 2014.  I’ve also been talking with a small publisher about bringing out a collection, including some unpublished stories, hopefully before the Nebulas. 🙂

Q: What are your favorite short story magazines?

Anything with a podcast.  Nowadays I absorb the great majority of my fiction in audio form during my commute or while exercising.  So it’s Strange Horizons, Lightspeed, Clarkesworld, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Podcastle, and Escape Pod.  I’m particularly fond of the Lightspeed podcast, because they use Stefan Rudnicki’s Skyboat Road Company to make their recordings, so the performances and audio quality are always stunning.  I’m also very fond of Anaea Lay’s style of reading on Strange Horizons.  Whenever I’ve had one of my own stories appear on a podcast, I feel like it’s become more “real.”

I also loved Greatest Uncommon Denominator (GUD) while it was still in regular publication.

Q: Who are your favorite short story writers?

I have to separate this into my favorite writers I’ve read recently (as in, the last few years) and my favorite writers of all time.

My favorite recent writers are Ken Liu, Cat Rambo, Rachel Swirsky, Amal El-Mohtar, Matthew Kressel, Yoon Ha Lee, Ted Chiang, Elizabeth Bear, Eugie Foster.

My favorite all-time SFF short story writers are Ursula Le Guin, Robert Sheckley, Alfred Bester, James Tiptree Jr., Greg Egan, James Patrick Kelly, Alexander Jablokov, John Varley, Nancy Kress.

But there are many, many, short fiction writers I love.  It’s my favorite form.

Q: What are five of your favorite short stories (by other writers)?

Yeah, I couldn’t limit it to five.  In no particular order:

  • “5,271,009” by Alfred Bester
  • “Living Will” by Alexander Jablokov
  • “The Man Who Ended History: A Documentary” by Ken Liu
  • “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” by Ursula K. Le Guin
  • “The Price of Oranges” by Nancy Kress
  • “Reasons to be Cheerful” by Greg Egan
  • “Son Observe the Time” by Kage Baker
  • “Tango Charlie and Foxtrot Romeo” by John Varley
  • “The Wedding Album” by David Marusek
  •  “We Who Stole the Dream” by James Tiptree Jr.
  • “Zima Blue” by Alastair Reynolds
  • “Sinner, Baker, Fabulist, Priest; Red Mask, Black Mask, Gentleman, Beast” by Eugie Foster
  • “The Cambist and Lord Iron” by Daniel Abraham
…and I could rattle off ten or twenty more without even blinking.
Q: Can you tell me a little bit more about some of the short stories you chose as your favorites, specifically why they stuck with you?
  • Bester’s “5,271,009” was the first story I ever read that critiqued the infantile nature of many science fiction tropes.  It was also the first story I saw whose central “science” was psychoanalysis.  It has an unforgettable main character (the outrageous Solon Aquila) with an over-the-top voice.  Best of all — you’ll like this part, Bonnie —  Bester wrote the story from a visual prompt: Tony Boucher and Mick McComas sent him Fred Kirberger’s cover art for an upcoming issue of F&SF and asked him whether he could do anything with it.
  • I love “The Man Who Ended History: A Documentary” because of its complex voicing (“found documents,” a favorite technique of mine), the fresh way Ken looks at time travel (witnessing, personal history, accountability, and political truth), and his refusal to allow the agonizing central conflict to resolve into an easy moral.  It also breaks my heart.
  • “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” is on a lot of people’s all-time-best lists.  Structurally it is nearly perfect.  It breaks some narrative rules at precisely the right moments, to shattering effect.  It takes an innocent little philosophical speculation, transfigures it into an imaginary village, turns the village into a knife blade, and tears out your soul.  I could name people whose lives have been changed by reading that story as college students.  To this day, more than 30 years since I first encountered it, I cannot read the whole thing aloud because I’m always sobbing at the end.
  • “Living Will” is a perfect example of what science fiction does best.  It takes a wish to solve an awful human problem, makes it literal, and then runs with it.  In this case, the problem is that nobody wants to live as a demented incompetent.  We’d all like to live life to the fullest, take every moment of enjoyment we can, and then have ability to end things when they became unbearable.  But by the time the moment comes, we’re already unfit to make decisions for ourselves and we have no control at all.  Alex imagined a way technology could solve this problem, and then took it one step further.  It leaves the reader wondering, “Would I want this? Would I do this? How would it feel?”
  • “The Wedding Album” takes two of my favorite SF themes – the nature of consciousness and the contrast between past and present – and weaves them together.  The protagonist is an A.I. that mirrors the consciousness of a woman on her wedding day.  She is locked into the frame of mind and outlook she had on the day she was recorded, but the real world changes around her.  Every time she is replayed, she encounters her real self aging, losing things she holds dear, becoming bitter – and that’s only the start.  Much of my own fiction tries to recapture the intensity of what this story made me feel.
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