Short Story Interview: Rachael Acks


I admit it: I have not been reading many short stories lately. I am in the process of reading Jonathan Lethem’s The Fortress of Solitude, writing a longer work, and choosing the participants for the 2014 Art & Words Show. Thus, I bring you another Short Story Interview. This series will likely continue for a few more months, peppered by the occasional review.


Today’s interview is with Rachael Acks. I’ve reviewed two of Rachael Acks’ stories; I included her “Comes the Huntsman” in my Top 10 Fairy Tale Short Stories guest post on SFSignal, and I reviewed her Captain Ramos novella, “The Ugly Tin Orrery” here on Short Story Review. She’s one of my favorite writers, as well as one of my favorite bloggers. Here is her bio:

Rachael Acks is a geologist and writer. In addition to her steampunk series from Musa Publishing, she’s had short stories in Penumbra, Waylines, and Beneath Ceaseless Skies. Rachael lives in Houston (where she bicycles at least 100 miles per week) with her husband and their two furry little bastards. More information can be found on her website.

Q: Tell me about your short stories.

A: That’s a cruelly open question. (Is it even a question? It doesn’t have a question mark. It’s a command!) I write both science fiction and fantasy. I’m kind of all over the map with things, though I think I gravitate more towards the contemporary when it comes to fantasy. I also write quite a bit of steampunk, though that tends to be novellas. A lot of my stories end up being written as a challenge to myself–that’s what’s gotten me to try writing flash fiction, for example. That’s actually what got me to write short stories to begin with, since I was very, very bad at them when I started out.

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

That’s a really mean question, because I have a lot of favorites. I really love stories where I feel like I just sat down at the keyboard and bled them out (“Comes the Huntsman,” “They Tell Me There Will Be No Pain” and “Breaking Orbit” are all stories like that.) But I think I’ll pick “Significant Figures” because it’s a funny story, and it isn’t supposed to be anything but funny, and I’m incredibly proud of myself for having written something that relentlessly silly. And it has a waffle iron as a character. You can’t beat the waffle iron.

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

Not really. By the time something gets published, I’m more than happy to just let it be what it’s going to be.

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

I tend to start out with an image (often inspired by a piece of music) and then I build the story around that. I’m a compulsive outliner, and short stories are no exception. Normally I’ll write 500-2000 words per day on a story depending on what else I have going. Once the rough draft is done, if I’m not up against a deadline I’ll let it marinate for at least a couple of weeks, ideally for a month, and then I start editing. I edit until I hit a wall and just can’t edit any more…sometimes that ends up being as few as 3 drafts, sometimes I’ll be at draft 7 or 8 before I even have someone beta it. And then I keep editing until I’m either satisfied with it or just can’t stand looking at it any longer. I think the most drafts I’ve ever done on a story was 16.

Q: Can you tell us about any specific pieces of music that have inspired you?

I can tell you about a couple. Comes the Huntsman was largely inspired by the Florence + the Machine song, “Shake It Out.” That was a song that hit me deeply from the first time I heard it, particularly the line “And it’s hard to dance with the devil on your back / So shake him off.” That’s what inspired the use of dancing in that particular story. Another song that really inspired me was “Little Talks” by Of Monsters and Men. If you really listen to the lyrics it’s actually an incredibly sad song about a couple of people who are deeply in love trying to still speak to each other past the barrier of death. While I already had the idea for the story “Samsara” that Waylines bought last year, that song was the driving force behind the way the narrative unfolded.

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

I end up writing about relationships a lot, which isn’t something I ever expected of myself because I was a pretty dedicated angry loner up until the age of about 23. But relationships are fundamental to our existence as social animals, and they’re honestly very interesting. Relationships are also infinitely variable–there is no single right way to have any kind of relationship, and also no single wrong way. Relationships of any kind (friendship, love, family) are almost never just one thing–there’s always this mix of emotions that can be healthy or not, combinations of love and hate and anger and joy that I just never get tired of. Understanding that is a challenge and I know I’ve barely even scratched the surface.

And it’s not just interpersonal relationships. Our relationship with the world and with the universe as a whole fascinates me. When put against the scale of deep time, human life is so brief as to be almost meaningless, but simultaneously is hugely meaningful because of that brevity. And that’s part of the human experience that touches everyone in a different way. We all live and die, and I love those commonalities.

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

All right, so as I write this I have five stories soon to be published:

“They Tell Me There Will Be No Pain” will be coming out from Lightspeed Magazine. The origin of the story is kind of odd: I’m a bit of a fan of the actor Tom Hiddleston–I respect him a lot as an artist and as a genuinely nice human being. Three years ago I sort of kind of accidentally wrote an original piece for his birthday (that story is “Comes the Huntsman,” by the way) and ended up donating the sale money to UNICEF UK. So I guess I’ve made it a tradition at this point. I wanted to write a military SF piece after re-reading Coriolanus (Mr. Hiddleston was was in a production of that play this year) and I’d recently read some disturbing articles about drone warfare. The payment from Lightspeed for this one will be going to UNICEF UK as well.”

List of Items in Leather Valise Found on Welby Crescent” will be coming out from Shimmer in issue #19. It’s a flash piece, which is really weird for me since I don’t write much flash at all. It’s also a story that’s told entirely just using a list of items–what you see in the title is really what you get. I wrote it because I wanted to see if I could, and it worked out!

“Asleep in Zandalar” will be coming out from Abyss and Apex. It’s essentially a story about fate and problematic nature of interpreting omens, I suppose, but set during World War II so it has a bit of a Dirty Dozen vibe.

“The Heart-Beat Escapement” will be coming from Crossed Genres in issue #16. It’s a Steampunk story about a boy with mechanical arms and a clockwork heart…and also about families.

“What Purpose a Heart” will be coming out from Scigentasy. I felt like writing something space opera-y, so I did. But with lesbians, because I firmly believe space opera needs more lesbians.

I also have three more Captain Ramos steampunk mystery novellas coming out from Musa Publishing this year!

Q: We’ve reviewed one of your Captain Ramos novellas. Will you tell us a little bit about what inspired those?

In the most basic sense, Sherlock Holmes inspired me to write the Captain Ramos novellas. My mother read the complete Sherlock Holmes to my brother and I when we were children and I grew up watching the Jeremy Brett series. But it was really the first Sherlock Holmes movie with Robert Downey Jr. that really got it going. The movies were just so much fun, and had a much more steampunk aesthetic than I’d ever seen before. So I wanted to make a great detective, but was already thoroughly disenchanted with the social order, class system, and imperialism of the Victorian era. I wanted a character that was still intellectually curious, but with no interest in defending the system–and in fact someone interested in causing chaos to that social system. From there, I ended up grabbing a handful of tropes that have always annoyed me greatly and consciously set myself to write counter to them. So for example, Captain Ramos is Latina, but she tends to be coldly intellectual instead of “fiery.” Her sidekick is a man and they have a very close, familial sort of friendship, because I am sick to death of this ridiculous notion that men and women are incapable of being platonic friends. And so on. That gave me the framework for the characters and their relationships, and then they came to life and started having adventures.

Q: What are your favorite short story magazines?

Strange Horizons is my favorite, hands down. I also always look forward to Lightspeed, and have recently started reading Shimmer faithfully. To this day, I also still miss Realms of Fantasy.

Q: Who are your favorite short story writers?

Oh god this sounds terrible, but I don’t actually like reading short stories that much! (Then why do you keep writing them, Rachael? Because I’m a jerk.) I do make sure to catch everything I can by Cat Rambo, Ken Liu, Ada Hoffmann, Nnedi Okorafor, NK Jemisin, Catheynne M Valente, and Neil Gaiman.

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

Cloud Dragon Skies – NK Jemisin
All God’s Children Can Dance – Murakami Haruki
The Winter Market – William Gibson
In a Grove – Akutagawa Ryuunosuke
The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas – Ursula K Le Guin

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