What a lovely thing to wake up to on my birthday yesterday. Rich Horton has posted a round-up of his Locus reviews of my short fiction from the last decade. It’s neat to see them all in one place!
Dove is a character I drew for a role-playing game I was sketching out called Cats and Dogs Living Together.
Dove was born with an itch to explore. If she can’t get anywhere more exciting, the year-old grey tabby will explore rafters, piles of boxes, and dresser drawers. She yearns for adventure, and is tired of being treated like a kitten. She’s a lean and lanky adolescent, six pounds but still growing, fast, agile, and acrobatic. She wants other animals to take her seriously, but mostly she wants to burst forth and find something new.
I just posted the following to my patreon and wanted to share it here as well:
(This interview was first posted to my patreon. Thank you, patrons!)
RS: I love the story “New Mother.” Can you talk about the genesis for a moment?
EJF: Sure. “The New Mother” had a very long gestation period. The premise of communicable parthenogenesis was inspired by Wolbachia, a bacterial organism that can have complex effects on the reproductive machinery of insects. I learned about it when I was still an undergraduate, probably around 2006. I’d read plenty of excellent SF about parthenogenesis, but was pretty sure that using an infectious model would be an original twist.
I was also pretty sure I wasn’t a good enough writer yet to do the idea justice, so I sat on it for five years and felt nervous someone would beat me to it whenever Wolbachia turned up in a popular science article. In 2011 I began a fiction MFA at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and figured I’d be wasting my time if I avoided the hard problems, so I got started on what I thought was going to be a short story. Three years and seven major drafts later I had the published version of the novella.
RS: I know you already told me some about this in private email, but can you describe the process you used to nail down a female perspective so beautifully?
EJF: First, thank you again for the kind assessment. The process was iterative and organic; spend a lot of time thinking about how to do X, Y, and Z well, do a lot of reading to justify your assumptions, test your best effort against the judgement of others, incorporate feedback and repeat. I can’t give a step-by-step description, but I can talk about things that helped.
The first thing I did was to try to identify predictable failure modes to be avoided. There were obvious things, like knowing that a story about women negotiating the difference between personal constructions of identity and cultural signifiers thereof would be undermined by male gaze-y objectification. But there were less obvious ones too, like the need to write from the body in a non-objectifying way. Bodies are a huge component of the amalgam process of identity construction, and weight our every moment-to-moment experience. Not sharing anatomy with your characters is no excuse to write as if they are just floating loci of cognition; you must write from the body, both as physically inhabited and as perceived by the world. That’s where a lot of the work comes in.
One crucial part was reading things written by women. Fiction, critical theory, memoir, blog posts, tweets. Everything. If there are people who have access to areas of experience to which you are attempting to make an imaginative leap, read what they have to say. (The main character of “The New Mother” is pregnant. I have read so many mommy blogs.) You will learn a lot, and much of it will be contradictory, and that’s okay; being confronted with the heterogeneity of human experience inoculates you against reductive generalization. The contradictions are almost never arbitrary, so think about what factors lead different people to their respective attitudes, and what implications that has for your characters.
I was very lucky to be writing “The New Mother” at a time in my life when I had access to feedback from a lot of women writers. There were teachers like Lan Samantha Chang and Julie Orringer, and classmates and friends like Carmen Machado, Amy Parker, Elizabeth Weiss, Debbie Kennedy, Naomi Jackson, Susanna Shive, Aamina Ahmad, Rebecca Rukeyser, Meghan McCarron, Kat Howard, and Amal El-Mohtar. I could go on, that’s not an exhaustive list. They looked at my drafts and gave me very generous feedback, each with her own areas of focus and concern; moms told me about being pregnant, queer friends told me about outsider perspectives of gender roles within their relationships, multiethnic friends told me about generational pressures and assimilation. It’s like reading for research but better, because it’s customized to the specific work you’re doing. And again, not everyone will agree, but the contradictions are themselves illustrative of things worth being attentive to.
So then you take all you’ve learned, and you start in on the next draft, and try to hit your goals more successfully than you did before. No amount of research and feedback eliminates the need for imaginative invention, and when you are seated at the keyboard trying to synthesize everything you’ve learned, it’s worthwhile finally to focus not on the ways in which people are all different, but the ways they are the same. I don’t have breasts or a uterus, will never be discomfited or surprised by my own body in the exact ways that Tess from “The New Mother” is. But having a body has often left me discomfited and surprised, and I believe that for all the universes of nuance that make individual experiences of life distinct from one another, the broad architecture of what it is like to be a human being remains similar enough for differences to be bridgeable by the imagination. Not trivially bridgeable, but it can be done.
RS: If I have my timing right, you went to Clarion West before you went to your MFA. So did I. How do you think your experience at Iowa was influenced by having gone to CW, if it was?
EJF: Actually, I attended Clarion at UCSD, not Clarion West [Ed note: Whoops. Sorry.], but that was indeed before I sought my MFA. Without the former, I never would have done the latter. In 2008 I had figured out that I didn’t want to use my physics degree to become a physicist, but it was still an open question whether I would continue my education in creative writing or mathematics. I applied to Clarion as a sort of test; if I could get accepted there, maybe my writing was something worth seriously pursuing. If not, I’d intended to start applying to math PhD programs.
One effect of having already been through Clarion by the time I started my MFA was confidence in myself as a writer and the value of speculative fiction. I used exclusively speculative fiction to apply to grad school, on the theory that I wanted to be rejected by any program unwilling to be supportive of that kind of writing. While I was open to falling in love with new kinds of literature, I was uninterested in working with people who couldn’t value the lit I already loved. (And I did fall in love with a new kind of literature. Iowa gave me a much greater appreciation for the artistry that goes into realist fiction, and read a lot more of it now than I used to.)
The other big effect was that Clarion quickly connects you to the SF field. By the time got to grad school a few years later I had been to conventions, made friends with lots of writers and editors, published some stories, and generally had a sense of how the field works. As such I was able to develop a course on writing science fiction for the University of Iowa that offered students not only a writing workshop, but also exposure to modern published work, info on the business side of the field, and visits (via internet video or in person) from working SF writers. The classes were well-received, and let me negotiate for the creation of an adjunct position after I graduated to keep teaching them. So in a very practical sense, having gone to Clarion first let me stay at Iowa a year longer than I otherwise would have.
RS: What’s the most bizarre piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?
EJF: This is surprisingly difficult to answer. I walked away from my email for hours hoping that by the time I got back, something would have come to me, and I’ve still got nothing. I guess whenever someone gives me really weird advice, I think, “oh, that’s worthless,” and fail to commit it to memory. In lieu of wacky advice, here’s an anecdote about how this practice of ignoring it once got embarrassing.
The first draft of “The New Mother” was the first thing I workshopped at Iowa, and that initial workshop was a group of stunningly clever people. I didn’t want to miss a word of their commentary, so I brought in my computer and typed everything they said as they spoke. Almost. There was a single classmate who didn’t get what I was doing, had misread the goals of the piece, and gave feedback that was profoundly irrelevant to my project. (This is not an uncommon workshop experience; the surprising thing is that there was only one.) So when that classmate spoke I stopped typing. But then I worried that the sudden silence of my keyboard would hurt feelings, so instead of just waiting it out, I rubbed my fingertips lightly over the keys to try to simulate the sound of rapt note-taking. After the workshop, another student came up to me at the bar and asked, “So, when [classmate] was talking… were you just pretending to type?” Apparently those two sounds are not as similar as I’d hoped.
RS: Tell me about the best nail polish.
EJF: Even after years of wearing the stuff, I’m still a novice. There’s a whole nail polish subculture out there, and I’ve barely chipped the topcoat. The world contains some deep magicians of nail art, like Lady Crappo. I still mostly go for single shades, leaning toward those with interesting optical effects. Probably my favorite polish in my collection is a Nubar polish called Indigo Illusion. It’s trichromatic, and can appear green, purple, or a bronzy brown depending on the ambient lighting conditions. The one I’ve worn the most is Chanel’s Peridot, a gold and green duochrome, which was very popular right around the time I started painting my nails.
RS: Got anything else to chat about? Write now, or forever hold your keyboard.
EJF: How about I recommend some books? I mentioned earlier that I read a lot more widely than I did before grad school. The last novel I read was The New and Improved Romie Futch by Julia Elliott, her first, following a debut collection called The Wilds. Both books are excellent science fiction, though neither of them are being marketed that way. Her collection includes things like powered exoskeletons for the elderly and mutated forms of toxoplasmosis that cause internet addiction. The novel is a story of artificially augmented intelligence in a society of satirically amok capitalism. Like if Flowers for Algernon were a self-aware comedy, or even more like if Camp Concentration was a southern gothic farce. Science fiction fans should be reading Julia Elliott. (Unlike the other writers I’ve mentioned here, I don’t know her personally. I just think she’s doing cool work.)
Update from 2019:
When I teach my speculative fiction class (there’s a section this weekend, by the way!), I like to talk to the students about the most popular varieties of speculative poetry. A lot of speculative poetry is narrative, or works with imagery from mythology and folk tales.
One of my favorite varieties is poetry that uses science as a metaphor for understanding the human condition. Using sciencey science–the kind we teach in the classroom–may be relatively recent in the scope of human history, but as far as I can tell, people have used elements of the natural world to describe their inner lives as far back as we can track.
Concrete descriptions of the external world provide a way of translating ineffable internal states into concrete, shared experiences. I may not be able to point to the sensation of happiness, but I can point to grass–or photosynthesis–as something that exists outside myself in the world we share.
As our understanding of the world grows to incorporate more science and technology, our metaphors grow to include them. The static human behavior of looking outside to understand ourselves combines with an evolving society to give us reference points that shift over time and cultures. I love the throughlines like this we can see through human history, the ways in which we stay the same and also become different.
Here’s a cool example–apparently when we’re trying to talk about the human brain (at least in Western culture over the past couple of centuries), we tend to analogize it to cutting edge new technology.
Right now, computers are a dominant metaphor. We might talk about broad anatomical restraints as being similar to hardware, while software installation represents training that occurs within the anatomical structure. We run various programs to accomplish various tasks–our email helps us communicate, our search functions help us shuffle through data recorded in our memory banks, etc.
Before computers, there were other ascendant technologies, such as trains. Instead of comparing mental functions to hardware and software, they’re described as engine parts, or infrastructure. The things that keep trains on track become metaphors for the things that keep the human brain ticking.
In some ways, these are useful, clarifying metaphors. In other ways, they elide the plasticity of the brain. To risk extending the computer metaphor in the wrong direction, our software changes our hardware and vice versa. If we think of ourselves too strictly as machines, we risk ignoring the many other ways in which humans are not predictable systems of inputs leading to outputs. Like all metaphors, brain-as-technology rides a line between clarifying and confusing.
Science fiction wrestles with how to figure out the universe and our place in it. Poetry allows writers to focus on metaphors and internal states. Science fiction poetry can get straight to the point and ask, “What can we learn about ourselves from the world around us?”
Here’s a poem I wrote using the moon as a metaphor:
Moon, part II
like the blankness
of a page.
whose optimism winnowed
into the finite.
against the stars
with no one to call,
no man, no lady, no rabbit,
only the footprints of men
who won’t return.
You can register for the class here: www.kittywumpus.net/blog/speculative-poetry-with-rachel-swirsky/