Magazine Review: The Letters Page

The Letters Page is a new magazine based out of the UK, consisting entirely of letters. The Letters Page is not strictly made up of speculative fiction — some letters are nonfiction, some realistic fiction, and only a couple in the issue I read, Issue Two: Winter 2013, could be considered fantastical — but I decided to review it despite this, on account of how innovative an idea it is.

The cover page of Issue Two is adorned with lines so that, if you print it out, you can make an envelope out from it. The letters themselves are typed for the easiest reading experience, though the submissions call for each letter to be hand-written, and indeed an image of the hand-written first lines follow each letter. When the magazine contacted me to request that I review their issue, they highlighted the fact that submissions are now open for their Summerhouse Issue (they are a paying market, and submissions info can be found here), which may interest some of you.

I got the feeling reading this magazine that certain letters will speak much differently to other people, perhaps more so than in other magazines as the genre requirements for The Letters Page are so broad.

The experience of reading Issue Two brought to mind the recent Miranda July email experiment, in that, especially in the nonfiction letters, I felt as though I was reading thoughts I was never intended to read. One writer writes about her daughter’s leukemia in response to a letter from Issue One. In my favorite letter, Pete Segall writes to a now-deceased death-row inmate at the now-renamed Terrell Unit at the Texas Dept. of Criminal Justice. He has written to the man before, years ago, for reasons he can only now chalk up to the naivety of youth, and he writes again from a place of more maturity in a poignant letter consisting of one long, drawn-out sentence that mimics his breathless train of thought, looking back on his brief correspondence with a man marked for death. Each letter is accompanied by editorial footnotes, and in this instance in particular the footnotes are as interesting as the story; the editor explains about the renaming of the facility, informing us that even the place to which Segall is writing no longer exists.

Issue Two also contains items such as a brief philosophical note by George Saunders; a science fictional letter from Ruby Cowling penned in a near-future, teenaged dialect where the hyper rambling eventually leads to a profound realization; Tod Wodicka’s time travel response to the same previously-responded-to letter from Issue One (this idea of response is one of the most interesting things about The Letters Page); and Suzanne Joinson’s amalgamated recreation of letters she and her friends in the Middle East have written over the years in an attempt to evade the censors during the Syrian Revolution.

Issues are available for free download, and a mailing list is available to keep readers updated when new issues are uploaded.

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.

Collection Review: Kij Johnson’s At the Mouth of the River of Bees

I first encountered Kij Johnson’s stories as part of an anthology that, to put it bluntly, changed my life. When I first came upon Feeling Very Strange: The Slipstream Anthology (edited by James Patrick Kelly and John Kessel), I was blown away; I had never encountered such a wealth of stories that seemed so specifically catered to my own taste. Kij Johnson’s “26 Monkeys, Also the Abyss” was one of those stories. Thus it’s a shame it took me so long to finally pick up At the Mouth of the River of Bees. But better late than never.

The collection starts with that old friend of mine, “26 Monkeys, Also the Abyss.” A bluntly told metaphor-made-real in which directionless, depressed Aimee essentially inherits a traveling show. This show features 26 monkeys who perform tricks before disappearing into a raised bathtub. Aimee does not know how they do it. The monkeys return when the show is over, often bearing souvenirs of the places they have disappeared to. Johnson excels at these types of metaphorical stories. Aimee’s relationship with the monkeys, and with the people she encounters as a result of her show, is beautiful, and “26 Monkeys, Also the Abyss” is filled with a lingering bittersweetness.

“Names for Water,” on the other hand, is a story I had not encountered before this reading, and it struck home. I relate to Johnson best when she’s in this world rather than the dreamy, folk tale world of many of her other stories, which are still great tales but do not resonate as much for me personally. In “Names for Water,” Hala is a college student who, late for class one day, receives a strange phone call. No one is on the other line. At least, no person; she becomes convinced, in a whimsical, half-hearted way, that it is a body of water calling her, and if she can name it, it will speak back to her. It’s a subtle, unassuming story about finding your life’s passion that grabs you by the throat with its conclusion.

Another of Johnson’s stories that addresses the theme of a calling is the title story, “At the Mouth of the River of Bees,” another highlight for me. Linna, recently stung by a bee, becomes restless; her dog is dying; she loads him into the car, and they take off on a road trip with no end destination. She is stalled, however, when she encounters a flood; the river of bees has flooded, blocking passage over the interstate on which she has been traveling. The river of bees, she discovers, is exactly what it sounds like: a river made of bees. Curious about where the river ends and begins, she decides to follow it, her dog in tow.

“Spar” is another of Johnson’s well-known metaphor stories. A woman and an alien, stranded together in a lifeboat after a spaceship wreck “fuck endlessly, relentlessly.” This is the kind of story that is difficult to describe; Johnson is playing with gender roles, with sexual roles, and with the politics of sex in general. It’s compelling as hell, and one of my personal favorites.

Also a favorite: “The Man Who Bridged the Mist,” a more traditionally novella about an architect, Kit, hired to bridge the dangerous mist-river that separates the country and his outsider status within the community in which he is a temporary presence.

Buy At the Mouth of the River of Bees by Kij Johnson. 

Highlights from Karin Tidbeck’s Jagannath

News

My short story “The Damaged” is in issue 250 of Interzone. Visit the link Here to check out the other issue contents and, if you so desire, to subscribe.

Review

This week, I’m briefly highlighting two of my favorite stories from Karin Tidbeck’s collection Jagannath, an interesting collection and one that I recommend for lovers of weird short stories.

In “Aunts”, three enormous women who live in a decadent myth-y world spend their time gorging in an effort to become so large that they split down the middle; this is their sole goal in life. When the splitting occurs, the three nieces who tend to them, cooking and serving their food, scoop out their organs; inside the aunts’ bodies are always three little aunts, ready to begin the cycle anew. The nieces cook the old aunts, and feed their bodies to the new aunts, who begin their own growing cycles. Until the nieces are unable to find new aunts within the old aunts’ bodies. This story is strange, and speaks to the cycle of life in a disorienting, bizarre way.

The title story “Jagannath” is my absolutely favorite of the collection, and also deals with the cycle of birth and death. Set in a post-apocalyptic world, a many-legged creature named Jagannath shelters some of the remaining humans in exchange for their living inside of her body and manning the ship, so to speak. Presumably Jagannath is not the only creature who has offered this exchange, as other creatures exist in the world as well, but the world of the story, for the most part, takes place entirely inside Jagannath. The main character is a girl who wants to be one of the drivers of the creature but is told she cannot, for women’s bodies are too big to drive, and only men may do so. This story pulled me in from the beginning, and kept me hanging on until the bitter end.

I’d also like to recommend Tidbeck’s story “I Have Placed My Sickness Upon You,” which appeared in Strange Horizons in March of 2013. I liked this story when I first read it but have to say that I have come to love it as I think about it more and more these days.

“An Exodus of Wings” — Daily Science Fiction (May 2013)

My story “An Exodus of Wings” appeared on Daily Science Fiction in May of 2013.

DailyScienceFiction

First line: “Before Heidi came along, Michael did everything he could to keep the damn faeries out of his apartment.”

Inspiration: When I moved back to Denton, Texas, from Eugene, Oregon — where I lived for two years — I was reintroduced to one of Texas’ finer pests: the roach. Our new duplex apartment was teeming with them; it wasn’t all bad, however, because after we dealt with the problem, I wrote the short story “An Exodus of Wings” in which faeries are the pests. I wrote the story over the course of a day in a spiral notebook.

Read it for free: http://dailysciencefiction.com/fantasy/fantasy/bonnie-jo-stufflebeam/an-exodus-of-wings