Silly Interview with Spencer Ellsworth Whose Bedpost Notches Are Real People

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Spencer Ellsworth had been publishing short stories since 2009, and has work in PodCastle, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, F&SF and a number of other places. You can find his short story “Clockwork of Sorrow” in the anthology Ghost in the Cogs: Steam-Powered Ghost Stories (the cover of which you can see here).

Every time I see Spencer, I always ask the same question. You see, several years ago when Ann Leckie was running Giganotosaurus, I sometimes did first-round reading for her. And while Ann and I have very similar taste, we don’t have identical taste. So once in a while we’d come up against a story that I was jazzed about, but that didn’t quite cross her threshold. So every time I see Spencer, I ask about that one story that got away.

[Note: We conducted the interview a while ago, just after the Nebula ballot was released.]

RS: Haaave you sold the cool story about the alien kites yet? If not, perhaps we can leave a summary here to tempt an editor into opening their door.

I HAVE. IT SOLD. IT’LL BE UP AT TOR.COM… SOMETIME THIS YEAR HOPEFULLY OR MAYBE NEXT WHO KNOWS. THAT WAS A LITTLE ANTICLIMACTIC BUT WE’RE STILL KEEPING CAPS LOCK ON.

It’s called “When Stars Are Scattered,” and it tells the travails of a doctor on a homesteading planet, an atheist caught between Muslim missionaries, who have converted the quirky indigenous aliens, and homesteaders mostly of a Baptist stripe, who do not see the aliens as sentient, intelligent beings.

This story, man. I originally wrote a draft in 2006, scrapped it and rewrote in 2007, and that went everywhere and got nice notes from everyone, including you at GigaNotoSaurus. I took it to Viable Paradise in 2010, where it collected some nice comments and an invite to submit from Patrick Nielsen Hayden, then I took it home and sweated over the rewrites for four years, then finally sent it in and… they bought it.

WHEW

Ten long years ago, when I conceived the story, I was really pushing myself to tackle some bigger issues in storytelling. My favorite writer is Octavia Butler, partially because I could never predict, or even start to predict, how her stories would end. They were always about these terrible moral dilemmas and vicious relationships. So I decided to write one of the real world’s unpredictable conflicts, about faith and land and morality, and put some aliens in it.

RS: Conan the Barbarian. It sounds like you both love it, and know it has problems. What do you see as today’s cultural heirs to the tradition?

You refer to “The Child Support of Cromdor The Condemned,” which was a very well-received piece on Podcastle, and AHEMAHEM made the Nebula recommended reading list.

I wrote that story about the terrible male role models presented to me as a young man. James Bond, Conan, The Man With No Name, etc–all those taciturn, violent guys who have a girl of the week, conveniently gone the next week. It was difficult for me to reconcile such role models, whom society held up as the paragons of “manliness,” with my dad, who relied on peace and compassion to solve problems, and (gasp) treated women like actual human beings.

I got fan mail for that one. I quote “All the notches on Cromdor’s bedposts get to be real people in your story, even when they’re not directly onscreen.” I was proud of that, especially considering there aren’t that many women onscreen in the story. It’s very distinctly a story about the women who have been left offscreen, and humanizing both Conan and Conan’s wenches.

RS: You recently sold a short story that you wrote in an hour. Is that normal for you? How was it different–if it was–from your normal writing process?

About The Bear” was based on a true story, and that really fueled it. Writing all comes from unconscious processing, I think, but occasionally you hit a rich lode near the surface, and a real-life experience becomes great fiction. I really did know a guy who wrestled a bear and came out okay, although, as I learned upon pressing him, it was an adolescent bear. I plugged our conversation into my fantasy world, and boom: I had a flash piece that all came together, about one of my favorite themes: how stories change us.

RS: When you are teaching English, what’s the most basic thing you want to make sure all students leave knowing?

Ooh! Good question! And yet, I don’t really want them to “know” something, so much as I want them to love learning. A lot of students come into my classes at Northwest Indian College having had bad experiences in school. They were frustrated, stereotyped, endured racist microaggression either within or without the community, and their parents often went through the same or worse, especially if a residential school was involved. Many never received early intervention for dyslexia or farsightedness. They are turned off by academic learning, though most of them are very adept at learning and sharing traditional teachings.

I want them to leave with a love of books, a discovery that academic learning can be fun and empowering. When a student finds a body of knowledge that inspires them, that’s the best part of my job. A couple of cool experiences I’ve had lately: a student stayed up all night finishing the memoir of an American Indian Movement activist, a student shared with me his ideas for science fiction stories and we discussed creative writing for a while, and several students told me they loved my Developmental Reading class, which is not, in my mind, a Number One Fun Time Class. Oh, and we read “If You Were A Dinosaur, My Love,” in that class, and had a spirited discussion about subtext and genre. They liked the story, all the more so for discovering the subtext. BE PROUD RACHEL. YOU ARE MIGHTY IN READING 091

RS: Tell me about Pawnbroker.

Quality used musicians! Prices negotiable. Pawnbroker is my band and we try to marry the 90s and the 60s, our favorite musical decades. Try us out for free.

I’ve always played music along with writing–I find the intuitive, experiential nature of playing music live makes a good companion to the more structured, studied creativity in writing and revising. The band has actually been on a little hiatus, though I’m sure we’ll make it work again one of these days. In the meantime, I’m working on a solo project that is like unto Nick Cave or Elliott Smith, which is my way of saying I can’t really sing but the songs will one day be covered by Scarlett Johanssen for a vanity project. PROMISE

RS: Projects? Notes? Please put them here!

Projects:

I’m currently working on a book called The Red Walker, which is SO MUCH COOL FUN TO WRITE. It’s about a girl whose brother dies halfway through his Epic Chosen One quest, so the little sister has to take up the quest, with the help/hindrance of a rogue sorcerer who is, um, a lot like Omar Little from The Wire.  As in, if Omar lived in an epic fantasy novel, this would be him.

Everyone say it with me: “Oh, indeed?”

Notes:

I recently read Six of CrowsBigfootloose & Fancy FreeSeriously Wicked, and The Shards of Heaven and loved them all. You should too.

Our Lady Of The Open Road was one of my favorite stories of last year, aaaaand it’s on the Nebula ballot.

You can put just about anything in chocolate and it makes it better! This stuff is amazing. Vote it for the Nebula in Best Chocolate. And this stuff in the Vegan Cheese Nebulas.

Why isn’t drywall reusable? That is so wasteful. Amiright?

Stop adding “punk” to things, writers! Cyberpunk IS punk; it’s an angry critique of materialist culture! Steampunk/dieselpunk/silkpunk/drywallpunk/bicyclepunk/godzillapunk/blerrrrghhfrpunk are killing the word “punk” and (all together now) PUNK’S NOT DEAD.

Bears, man.

Thanks very much for this opportunity to rant and share some answers to excellent questions, Rachel. As I’ve said many times, if you were a dinosaur, you’d be this one.

DinoRiderTrexARMORED

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