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.

Short Story Interview: Zachary Jernigan

News


The stories, poems, and visual works for the 2014 Art & Words Show have been chosen, and I’m excited to see what everyone comes up with for the final show; view the selected visual works and the authors involved here. Here’s a sneak peak of some of the previously published written works:

My short story “Old Boys” was also posted yesterday for free reading at The Colored Lens. The magazine issue is also available as an ebook for $2.99.

 
Interview
 
Today’s featured interview is with Zachary Jernigan, whose collection At the Bottom of the Sea I reviewed a while backand who is coming out with another mini-collection of short stories, which I cannot wait to read.
 
Here is his bio:
 

Zachary Jernigan is a 33-year-old, quarter-Hungarian, bald male. He has lived in Northern Arizona, with occasional forays into the wetter and colder world, since 1990. His favorite activities include: listening to 70s-00s punk and post-punk music, cooking delicious and often unhealthy foods, riding human-powered vehicles, talking and/or arguing about religion, and watching sitcoms.

During his rare periods of productivity, he writes science fiction and fantasy. NO RETURN, his first novel, comes out March 5th, 2013 from Night Shade Books. His short stories have appeared in a variety of places, including ASIMOV’S SCIENCE FICTION, CROSSED GENRES, and ESCAPE POD.

Visit him at zacharyjernigan.com.

 
Q: Tell me about your short stories.
 
I tend to write narratives about love, I think, both romantic and familial — though to say that they are love stories might not be appropriate. Oftentimes, my characters don’t achieve what they want, or can’t even see what they want. Still, love fascinates me, and never more so than when it occurs between unusual people in alien — or simply unusual — places. I very rarely ever write outside the speculative genres of science fiction and fantasy, because they allow me so many interesting possibilities.
 
The real world is great to live in, sure; I mean, it’s got elephants and stuff; but for fiction I can’t see how it gets better than having the whole universe as your sounding board for ideas.
 
Q: What is one of your favorite stories you have written and why?
 
Oy. Y’know, I hate ’em all!
 
       Nah. Not really. But I do think most of my stories are pretty far short of where they should be. (This is where my agent, should he be reading this, starts pulling his hair out and saying, “No! Jernigan! You don’t tell potential readers that!“) I look at the short stories I admire, and then at mine, and go, “Well. One of those is definitely crap.”
 
That being said, I’m fairly pleased with my short story, “Fear of Drowning,” which I put in my collection, The Bottom of the Sea. It ended up being better than I’d thought when I wrote it. You can read it here for free, if ya like! 
 
Q: Are there stories you’ve published, perhaps earlier in your career, that you would change, if you could?
 
Oh, yeah. Definitely. I think my first published story, in fact, is a real crapper of a thing. It’s called “Only For Myself: Japan, 2043,” and it was published by the awesome Circlet Press in one of the anthologies.
 
The problem with it is this: Japan. I’ve never been to Japan, and I know not too much about the country. Why — why, oh why — would I write a story set there? It comes across as a total fail of a reach, and I regret it.
 
I did that later, in another story set in Dubai. Again — Dubai?
 
I’m not saying a writer can’t set a story in a place she or he has never been, but I’d advise against it without massive amounts of research.
 
Q: How do you write stories? Do you edit extensively? Do you write so much per day? 
 
I do what (nearly) everyone says you shouldn’t do: I edit as I go along. Thus, the process is usually pretty damn slow, but in the end I don’t do too much editing, per se. Typically, I add content, as opposed to taking away. (There are writers who write overlong. I’m the opposite.) I generally, nowadays, have a somewhat rough outline.
 
As for words per day, I’m lucky to hit five hundred, and super-duper lucky to hit a thousand. I usually quit when the rage starts turning my hands into fists and I can’t type any more.
 
Q: What themes and subjects do you find yourself drawn to? Why do you think you’re drawn to these subjects?
 
I tend to write a lot about the far future, though this might not be explicitly said. A lot of my characters are immensely powerful, often altered in horrible ways by that power. In that setting with these characters, as I said previously, I write a lot about love. Attendant to that are always questions of morality: What does it mean to be a good person? How does someone become a good person? Also, and perhaps most importantly, how actions contributing to or detracting from the lives of others?
 
I think I’m drawn to these situations because of my upbringing as a Mormon. I’m no longer Mormon — haven’t been for most of my adult life — but I can’t deny that being raised that way has had a considerable impact on me. I think a lot about perfection and purity, and carry unreasonable guilt for things I should not. I am consumed by the desire to be a better person, to live a worthy life and not repeat mistakes, and this carries over into my writing.
 
Q: What do you have coming out, and what can you tell us about these stories?
 
Well, the one big one I can’t really talk about because the project hasn’t been announced, but it’ll be about a robot. A BIG ROBOT. Beyond that, I’ll be releasing another mini collection of short stories later this year, focusing on my more explicitly erotic writing.
 
Q: What are your favorite short story magazines?
 
I like Crossed Genres a lot. Clarkesworld is consistently fantastic. Beneath Ceaseless Skies often brings the amazing. It’s tough, these days, though, isn’t it? So often you end up reading from an individual author, following their pathways to publication, and so the rest of the magazine is left sadly unexamined. 
 
Q: Who are your favorite short story writers?
 
Here goes, in no order of preference, really:
 
  1. James Tiptree, Jr. / Raccoona Sheldon / Alice Sheldon
  2. Cordwainer Smith
  3. Carol Emshwiller
  4. Edward Bryant
  5. Ian McDonald
  6. Joanna Russ
  7. Elizabeth Hand
  8. Samuel Delany
  9. Roger Zelazny
  10. J.G. Ballard
 
Q: What are five of your favorite short stories (by other writers)?
 
Again, in no order of preference:
 
 
Thanks for having me, Bonnie!

Short Story Interview: Deborah Walker

Today I’m featuring an interview with Deborah Walker. Deborah publishes an insane amount of stories. It seems as though every time I log onto Twitter I see that she’s publishing a new story, a translation, or a reprint. She was also a participant in last year’s Art & Words Show (Submissions close tonight at midnight!). Here is her bio:

Deborah Walker grew up in the most English town in the country, but she soon high-tailed it down to London, where she now lives with her partner, Chris, and her two young children. Find Deborah in the British Museum trawling the past for future inspiration or on her blog: http://deborahwalkersbibliography.blogspot.com/Her stories have appeared in Nature’s Futures, Cosmos and Daily Science Fiction and The Year’s Best SF 18. Deb’s alter ego, Kelda Crich, has a story in the Bram Stoker nominated anthology After Death.

Q: Tell me about your short stories.

Sometimes they start life as a poem, so they can be a bit lyrical. A reviewer once said that I Got Rhythm: I liked that. They’re often about people (human or otherwise) discovering the previously unsuspected forces that shape their lives. Not so much problem solving, although occasionally my characters might get the urge to steal a jump gate.

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

It’s got to be ‘Aunty Merkel’. I shouldn’t really laugh at my own jokes, but it makes me smile to think of her, sitting in that church, being what she is.

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

Nah! Je ne regrette rien. I’ve always written the best stories I could at the time. Getting published (forgive me) quite a bit has always spurred me on to write more stories.

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

I edit extensively until the story is baked. And then when it’s done, it’s done. I aim for 20K finished words a month. I often don’t meet that target, but it gives me something to shoot for. I have a lot of time to write. Maybe six hours a day.

I have a bit of an unusual process.

Say, I want to write a story about umbrellas. Then I add another concept. Bones? Bone umbrellas sound interesting.

I then copy swathes of Wikipedia about umbrellas and bone into my working document.

As I write, I read the research, deleting it as I go.

The research leads me onto more ideas for the story.

I love, love, love Wikipedia. For instance, I don’t know much about umbrellas, but Wikipedia has got 5000 words on them.

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

Umbrellas? No, I kid. Although I kinda want to write that Bone Umbrella story.

Stone circles and Venus figures recur. Free will crops up a lot. To know the future is to change it?  Or is it? I’ve no idea why I write what I write. And I don’t want to know.

Unreliable narrators are my favourite. Especially the well-meaning, but clueless type. Also, I quite like liars.

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

I have a story coming out in The Journal of Unlikely Acceptances. This was a call for very bad flash. Luckily it’s under my pen name Kelda Crich so no one will know it’s me. (I’m cunning as a fox.)

Q: What are your favorite short story magazines?

The last page of Nature. You can read Nature’s Futures stories here. http://www.nature.com/nature/focus/arts/futures/

Q: Who are your favorite short story writers?

Philip K. Dick, D.H. Lawrence, H.P. Lovecraft, Ursula K. le Guin, Tanith Lee, Al Reynolds, Robert Silverberg, Liz Williams, Scott Wolven, Chelsea Quinn Yarbro, Eudora Welty.

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

Is ‘Call of Cthulhu’ a short? It’s kinda long. *checks Wikipedia* Yes, it is. (it’s actually around 12K words)

‘Controlled Burn’ by Scott Wolven
‘Clytie’ by Eudora Welty
‘The Days of Perky Pat’ by Philip K.Dick
‘Lesser Demons’ by Norman Partridge

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.

SSR Extra: An Interview with Aliette de Bodard

In honor of this year’s Hugos — and my excitement at attending WorldCon for the first time — I am publishing interviews with the three writers nominated for Best Short Story; a few weeks ago I featured a brief interview with Ken Liu. Today I’m featuring my interview with Aliette de Bodard, author of “Immersion” (reviewed as part of my Hugo Awards Post).

Aliette de Bodard’s stories have appeared in magazines such as Interzone, Clarkesworld, Asimov’s, and The Year’s Best Science Fiction. She won this year’s Nebula for “Immersion,” which has also been nominated for the Locus Awards and the Sturgeon Award. Her Aztec mystery-fantasy novels, the Obsidian and Blood series, were published by Angry Robot. On her website, she states that she “lives in Paris with her husband, in a flat with more computers than warm bodies, and a bunch of Lovecraftian plants that are steadily taking over the living room.”

with more computers than warm bodies, and a bunch of Lovecraftian plants that are steadily taking over the living room. – See more at: http://aliettedebodard.com/biography/#sthash.1IIL5Voq.dpuf

Servant of the Underworld, Harbinger of the Storm, and Master of the House of Darts, are published by Angry Robot, worldwide. – See more at: http://aliettedebodard.com/#sthash.vZbkuufC.dpuf

Servant of the Underworld, Harbinger of the Storm, and Master of the House of Darts, are published by Angry Robot, worldwide. – See more at: http://aliettedebodard.com/#sthash.vZbkuufC.dpuf

Servant of the Underworld, Harbinger of the Storm, and Master of the House of Darts, are published by Angry Robot, worldwide. – See more at: http://aliettedebodard.com/#sthash.vZbkuufC.dpuf

Servant of the Underworld, Harbinger of the Storm, and Master of the House of Darts, are published by Angry Robot, worldwide. – See more at: http://aliettedebodard.com/#sthash.vZbkuufC.dpuf

Servant of the Underworld, Harbinger of the Storm, and Master of the House of Darts, are published by Angry Robot, worldwide. – See more at: http://aliettedebodard.com/#sthash.vZbkuufC.dpuf

Her Aztec mystery-fantasies, Servant of the Underworld, Harbinger of the Storm, and Master of the House of Darts, are published by Angry Robot, worldwide. – See more at: http://aliettedebodard.com/#sthash.vZbkuufC.dpuf

Her Aztec mystery-fantasies, Servant of the Underworld, Harbinger of the Storm, and Master of the House of Darts, are published by Angry Robot, worldwide. – See more at: http://aliettedebodard.com/#sthash.vZbkuufC.dpuf

Short Story Review: Tell me about your short stories.

Aliette de Bodard: I write character-driven science fiction, a lot of which is set in non-Western settings. I draw inspirations from myths, legends, and the odd smattering of science in order to explore other cultures in space and the different uses they’d find for technology. Most of my SF is set in the recurring universe of Xuya, an alternate history where China has become the dominant spacefaring culture, and biological constructs known as Minds have revolutionized space travel as well as familial structures.

Short Story Review: What is one of your favorite stories you have written and why?

Aliette de Bodard: The one I really like is my novella “On a Red Station, Drifting”: I started it as a homage to the Chinese Classic Dream of Red Mansions, meaning to carry over its domestic focus into space; and it mutated into a long meditation on what war means to those who stay at home, on the different significations of honour and familial loyalty. It wasn’t an easy thing to write, but I’m very glad that I finished it, and that the reaction to it has been so positive.

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

Aliette de Bodard: Ha, quite probably! There’s always that moment of staring at the screen and marveling at how far I’ve come. I was much less aware of problematic tropes and bad representation of minorities when I started writing, and it shows in a few of my early stories (not to mention the ones where I cheerfully mangled the Chinese language through sheer ignorance…).

Short Story Review: How do you write stories? Do you edit extensively? Do you write so much per day?

Aliette de Bodard: I am a very irregular writer: I tend to brainstorm extensively before I write even one word of the draft. This enables me to save on editing time, because I produce relatively clean drafts (there are exceptions of course, and stories I’ve had to take apart in order to make them work). I don’t write so much per day when writing short stories: it’s more irregular bursts of activity when I have time to spare. For instance, it took me three weeks to brainstorm “Immersion”, but only about two days to write the first draft, and then a week or so to complete edits after I got feedback from my beta readers.

(Novels are different beasts though; I’ll make efforts to write something on a novel every day, or I’ll lose momentum).

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

Aliette de Bodard: It really depends on what I’m writing, but the themes I’ve focused on lately have been the meaning of familial bonds–how they function and how they are stressed, and what gets passed from one generation to the next and how its meaning shifts. I suppose a lot of it is down to my personal history (I come from two cultures where family is really important), and to familial history (my maternal family immigrated to France, so a lot of my focus is on identity, assimilation, and the shift from the first generations of immigrants to the later ones who have never really known the home country other than through brief holidays).

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

Aliette de Bodard: I have a novelette, “Memorials”, coming out in Asimov’s, which is a complement to “The Weight of a Blessing” (a story published in Clarkesworld March 2013). It deals with war refugees, the appropriation of their experience by the local culture, and how a troubled young woman makes her way through life in the absence of familiar guidance.

My story “A Slow Unfurling of Truth” will be out in Ben Bova’s and Eric Choi’s Carbide-Tipped Pens. It’s set in a society where people change bodies like you change haircuts, and where specialised teams of authenticators use statistical analysis in order to make sure people are who they say they are. My main character is one of those authenticators, and has to deal with the difficult problem of identifying a man who has been absent from that society for twenty years…

Short Story Review: What are your favorite short story magazines?

Aliette de Bodard: I read a lot of magazines, and I like them all–they’ve got different preferences and different kinds of stories. My current favourites are Clarkesworld, Strange Horizons (I like their fiction, but it’s their non-fiction articles and reviews that keep me coming back to them), and Interzone, which has great fiction by authors you don’t necessarily see elsewhere (and nifty illustrations!).

Short Story Review: Who are your favorite short story writers?

Aliette de Bodard: Ken Liu, Rochita Loenen-Ruiz, Zen Cho, Benjanun Sriduangkaew.

Short Story Review: What are five of your favorite short stories (by other writers)?

Aliette de Bodard: “The Man Who Ended History: a Documentary” by Ken Liu is a poignant look at the meaning of history, and how the descendants of those involved in atrocities come to terms with what happened.

Zen Cho’s “House of Aunts” is a hilarious and bittersweet take on Malaysian vampires, and is about a teenage girl who becomes a vampire and has to navigate school, her growing attraction to a classmate, and her impossible aunts.

Rochita Loenen-Ruiz’s “Dancing in the Shadow of the Once” is a really sharp look at the use of colonised people as commodities, and how even “charity” causes can become humiliating; it’s also a beautiful meditation on what coming home means when you no longer have a home of our own.

Benjanun Sriduangkaew’s “Woman of the Sun, Woman of the Moon” is a lovely retelling of the legend of Chang’e and Houyi (the goddess of the moon and the archer who killed the nine suns in Ancient China), in which both main characters are women. It’s a great piece of feminism, as well as having some of the most beautiful language I’ve ever read.