Short Story Interview: Rachel Swirsky

Rachel Swirsky’s “All That Fairy Tale Crap” is one of my favorite short stories; if I had read it when I compiled my list of Top 10 Fairy Tale Short Stories, I would have included it. Her story “If You Were a Dinosaur My Love,” which appeared in the March 2013 issue of Apex, has been nominated for this year’s Nebula and Hugo awards. Her short fiction has also appeared in magazines such as Tor, Subterranean Magazine, and Clarkesworld, as well as reprinted in year’s best anthologies edited by Strahan, Horton, Dozois, and the VanderMeers. She holds an MFA in fiction from the Iowa Writers Workshop, and graduated from Clarion West in 2005.

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

I tend to like the stories that people tell me have affected them deeply. A reader once told me that a story of mine helped them process some childhood trauma, and that was a huge moment for me.
My husband loves “A Memory of Wind” and “Eros, Philia, Agape.” That kind of love is a great gift, sometimes because I get so overexposed to  my own work, that I lose the sense of freedom or wonder in it, so seeing that in him is lovely. Last summer, he had Sam Weber’s Tor.com illustrations for those two pieces tattooed on his upper arms. I think those are my two favorite stories right now, because of Weber’s beautiful art that I get to see every day, and how much Mike loves them.
Q: Are there stories you’ve published, perhaps earlier in your career, that you would change, if you could? Why?
I try to let that stuff go because otherwise I’d want to change everything all the time.
There are some stories that just don’t feel like they’re by me anymore. I wrote the short story “Heartstrung” when I was 21. It’s been ten years since then, and I have grown a lot as a writer, and hopefully, I’ve grown a lot emotionally. If I were writing it now, I would write it very differently. It had something I don’t think I could do now, though, a certain exposed rawness that isn’t the way I write anymore, and I know that it’s moved a lot of people which I am intensely grateful for. So I try to let that story be what it is, a story by someone who isn’t-quite-me.
Q: How do you write stories? Do you edit extensively? Do you write so much per day?
I’m a very inconsistent writer, which I don’t recommend. I try to write a hundred words a day (on anything, even non-fiction, just words), but I don’t always make that count. I’ve always envied writers who can just sit down and say, “There. That was a thousand words. Now I can go do other things without feeling massively pressured by my own incompetence, and tomorrow, I will write another thousand words, and they will also be lovely.” I’m a total binge-write-100,000-words-in-an-hour then write dead-nothing-for-weeks writer, and it’s ridiculous.
I edit very heavily. I retype my stories because I find that it forces me to reevaluate each of my word choices. This is very time consuming and contributes to my problems with speed.
For longer stories, I plan out and outline, although my outlines tend to be very rough jots of, like, a sentence per thousand words. For instance, I might write, “Lisane/Renn affair,” and then that would just be there to remind me where I wanted to put that sequence, especially if I’m working in non-linear order. I do sometimes outline in more detail, usually if I’m up at night and can’t go to sleep and I end up playing the whole story in my head and then want to just write it down so the work’s not wasted, but don’t actually want to get up and write the ting in the hopes that I can get some sleep. (I probably can’t, though, because insomnia sucks.)
Q: What themes and subjects do you find yourself drawn to? Why do you think you’re drawn to these subjects?
I have a thing about bodily integrity and I’m not exactly sure why. It’s not one of the themes I introduce intentionally. Horror stories about mutilation tend to get to me, and that Doctor Who episode where the spreading plague turns everyone’s faces into gas masks. Plagues, in general. I’m sure there’s a lot of psychological exploration that could go into why I have this particular uneasiness about health and flesh, but in my writing it tends to turn up as people falling apart, or being reduced to component parts, things like that. I have more than one story that rests on the image of a character turning into literally nothing. Dissolution of self may or may not parallel the bodily disintegration, but its’ definitely in there, too. I started a story once with the line, “Mara replaced her eyes with amethysts,” and then stared at the line, and said to myself, “Of course I just wrote that. Of course.”
For a while, I noticed I was writing in a really angry way about the idea of omnibenevolence. On an intellectual idea, the idea frustrates me greatly. I think it just doesn’t work in the world in which we live. But then it started springing up in my stories—a retelling of Harry Potter, a retelling of Cinderella—and I realized that I was writing with a great deal of anger about the ideas of good wizards who won’t try to help stop the Holocaust, and fairy godmothers who don’t bother to show up to help their charges when they’re abused little girls–and that really, taken from a long view, I was writing about how much I hate the idea that some being could exist who has the power to interfere in the great evil and pain of the world, and just doesn’t bother, who I’m supposed to _like anyway_. No, thanks.
More consciously, I write about feminism, politics, stories that are underrepresented or ignored or run counter to mainstream expectations, queerness. I write about things I find amusing.
Sometimes things just emerge for a while and then sink away again. In Iowa, I wrote about snow. For a while, Jewish history and ballet kept appearing, often together.
Q: What do you have coming out, and what can you tell us about these stories?
I have a story coming out in an anthology by Neil Clarke about cyborgs. The anthology idea came from his heart surgery; now he feels as if he is part machine. Since that prompt was so deeply personal, I wanted to match with something equally personal, although I am writing through an obfuscatory fictional lens, so the emotion is real but the content isn’t a direct equation with my actual life or anything. It’s about a mad scientist who keeps trying to mechanize his wife more and more in order to keep her safe from committing suicide. It’s metafictional and odd in a way that I’m into right now.
Q: What are your favorite short story magazines?
For me, Clarkesworld has the highest hit rate for short fiction. I went through one year and rated all the stories in all the magazines I was reading, and the only really strong deviation from the average was Clarkesworld. From that year’s average, that didn’t seem to be because their average story was necessarily better than one that would appear in another magazine. Rather, a huge chunk of the year’s absolutely top stories (the ones I rated 4.5 or 5 on my scale of five stars) appeared in Clarkesworld, and they pulled up the average. So, if I’m looking for a quick route to finding the very best, I tend to go to Clarkesworld for stories like “Fade to White” by Cat Valente.
I also find really strong work in Asimovs. The work there is less edgy or experimental than the work in Clarkesworld, but it’s usually intelligent and throught-provoking, and it’s probably my second favorite magazine at the moment. A recent Asimovs story that I would have loved to see get more attention was “The Mating Habits of the Cretaceous” by Dale Bailey.
I also like to give a shout out to Beneath Ceaseless Skies because I think Scott Andrews has done an amazing job of creating a magazine himself and bringing it to a level where it can compete with the other pro magazines. I don’t love every story in the magazine by any means, but he publishes some very unusually beautiful and interesting things, and is particularly good at picking up work by new writers. This year, for pure lovely oddness, you can’t beat “Boats in Shadows, Crossing” by Tori Truslow.
There are a couple of magazines that fly under the radar, I think, that I’d really love to see people paying more attention to. Both Unstuck and The New Haven Review exist at the intersection of literary and speculative fiction, and maybe because of that, they fall into the gaps a bit.
Unstuck publishes really, really beautiful work with genre flavor and literary packaging. One of their editors is Meghan McCarron whose writing and taste I find really interesting. I am reprinting a story from the magazine in the Lightspeed issue of Women Destroy Science Fiction, “The Great Loneliness” by Maria Morasco Moore.
The New Haven Review is edited by Tor author, Brian Slattery. It did have a story on the Nebula ballot a couple of years ago, though, “The Axiom of Choice.”
A quick run-down of some others:
Strange Horizons is uneven for me. It hits hard when it hits, and misses by a city block when it’s off. This year, I really loved Carmen Maria Machado’s “Inventory.”
Tor.com also has high-powered stories, although I’m more likely to go there to seek out authors I already know are powerhouses, rather than to be reading for a particular editor’s taste. That said, I’m really excited that some of the major editors who lost their magazines in the past few years – like Ellen Datlow and Ann VanderMeer – are there now. They’ve had gorgeous stories on the awards ballots in the past years by authors like Veronica Shanoes, Andy Duncan, Ellen Klages, Kij Johnson, Meghan McCarron and Brit Mandelo.
Subterranean Magazine mostly works or fails for me depending on who the authors involved are. Some of the writers in their stable I like, and some I don’t.
Lightspeed Magazine tends to run solid stories, and then a few a year that I get really excited about, like Maria Dahvana Headley’s “The Traditional.”
I really love Interzone and, again, I wish more people read it. I think they put themselves at some disadvantage by not being easily available to subscribe to electronically. Also, I’m sure there are some weird national politics thing going on, where the British writers end up mostly isolated, although I know a lot of Americans whose main selling market is Interzone. I found British writer Nina Allan there for the first time and I really want more eyes on her work.
I’ve liked Apex Magazine and Giganotosaurus, but they’re both in editorial transition, so I’m not sure where they’ll end up for me.
I’ve probably left some out because there are so many venues!
Q: Who are your favorite short story writers?
You do not ask easy questions. There are so many. Here are the first four really smart, talented writers who randomly came to mind. I’m going to avoid the writers whose stories I’m listing as my favorites below because they’re obviously some of my favorites, too.
Charlie Jane Anders is an unusual humorist who writes strange characters and their strange romances and their strange relationships with strange phenomena with a warm but sharp voice.
Chris Barzak writes about colliding worlds—one class with another, one culture with another, queerness entering spaces where it isn’t expected—in tender, poetic language.
For me, Deb Coates’ stories always create a sense of deep sense of immersion—in snow, in water, or just in some mind that isn’t my own. In PodCastle, I reprinted, “Magic in a Certain Slant of Light.”
Sandra MacDonald writes about feminism and queerness from a quirky angle that’s very much hers and hers alone. See “Seven Sexy Cowboy Robots” or “Searching for Slave Leia”
For the 2014 Campbell, I’m particularly excited about Sofia Samatar, Maria Dahvana Headley, Brooke Bolander, and Carmen Maria Machado. I wrote about them on my blog recently.
And yes, yes, of course, Ken Liu and Ted Chiang and Eileen Gunn and Theodora Goss and Andy Duncan and all those other people whose writing identities have been founded on amazing repertories of short fiction.
Q: What are five of your favorite short stories (by other writers)?
I’m doing ten. Because I feel like it.
“Magic for Beginners” by Kelly Link
“The Evolution of Trickster Stories among the Dogs of North Park after the Change” by Kij Johnson
“Bloodchild” by Octavia Butler
“Knapsack Poems” by Eleanor Arnason
“Little Faces” by Vonda McIntyre
“In the House of the Seven Librarians” by Ellen Klages
“Nekropolis” by Maureen McHugh
“Fade to White” by Cat Valente
“Immersion” by Aliette deBodard
“Like Daughter” by Tananarive Due
And you should all drop everything right now and go read them.
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