Silly Interview with Naomi Rubin and her brigade of robot, synthetic, and AI characters

Happy woman raising her hand

Self-Portrait by Naomi Rubin

Rachel Swirsky: You lived in Japan for a while, doing things including translation and a television show. What’s the most glamorous story you have?

Naomi Rubin: I guess I tend to compartmentalize glamour as something other people seek and not something that I can experience for myself, but maybe I can reconsider what feels glamorous to me.

There are two experiences that come to mind: The first was when I joined in on a TV-shoot for the French channel “Canal Plus” with my friend and co-producer La Carmina shortly before we started working together formally. La Carmina was hosting a special with a French comedian named Antoine de Caunes that focused on a broad range of Japanese sub-cultures, and included a scene where De Caunes dressed up in a strange outfit for a colorful cyber-scene party in Tokyo. In the show, I was one of three “scene kids” who, along with La Carmina, cajoled De Caunes into becoming part of the party. Having a somewhat rote part of my life (dressing up and going to this party) now treated as urgent and specialized had a certain awe to it. I pushed my outfit further than I would usually, and inhabited a more specifically extroverted version of my personality.

The other time was at Dr. Sketchy’s in Tokyo (Dr. Sketchy’s is a life drawing event that exists in many major cities around the world). I was a translator and organizer for the event at the time, and always revered the art-models, who came primarily from Tokyo’s burlesque community, as paragons of personal style and body-positive showiness. At my last event before leaving Japan, the Sketchy’s crew asked if I would do a short modeling session, and I still feel empowered that I could even reach toward the type of self-assured presentation that the other performers had.

RS: You have an amazing sense of fashion that includes combining patterns and styles that aren’t often paired. How do you think about assembling outfits, and combining patterns?

NR: Why thank you! As a trans woman, I basically started over with all clothing in my mid-twenties. Shortly before this, I had studied abroad in Tokyo and spent a lot of my time with women classmates who were digging deep into Harajuku fashion brands, specifically gothic lolita – both the very cotton candy and brit-punk sides of that spectrum. I would like to say that I took this and combined it with an elegant, modern-utilitarian goth chic that I needed for more day-to-day work, but I’m still working on it. Even though I really love fashion, for me clothing still often feels like something I don’t have enough time for. I’m still working on letting myself take that time.

One thing that I still don’t know how to do is dress for my height. Tall femmes who like shopping – get at me.

RS: Your work combines text and art to create narratives. what about sequential art appeals to you more than working in one medium alone?

NR: I would say I’m a visual artist first, but I don’t think the stories I can tell with just images are enough for me. I want jokes, sweetness, and hurt that characters can convey with dialogue. I like languages and in a fantasy setting, the way characters talk is a big part of the environment for me. Even in compositions themselves, I like to think graphically about the interaction between text and visuals.

RS:You recently gave a lecture on robots and the ways they can be used to express trans narratives. I wrote a story like this in 2005 which I didn’t end up publishing. (At the time, someone noted my story could also be read as a metaphor for body dysmorphia, which I think has an insightful edge, since body dysmorphia is a part of the common trans experience that strongly resonates with my life.) I realize you can’t replicate your entire lecture here, but can you give us a tantalizing precis?

NR: Sure! Robot, synthetic, and AI characters basically give us the opportunity to reevaluate gender from scratch, and question how and why we use gender as we apply it to these characters and, increasingly, real-life inventions and intelligences. Can a robot choose their gender, or is it pre-programmed? How does finding gender work with a character that can completely reformat themself as many times, and as quickly, as they like? In a recent panel at Queers and Comics in New York, Eric Alexander Arroyo and Hunter M also brought up the idea of robot mechs/avatars that can also act as disempowering constraints on the users’ identity, depending on how they might be used in an authoritative setting.

These and many more topics are explored on my talk that you can watch on YouTube!

The most recent panel should be up in video form soon, too.

RS: Your parents are television writers. What would their proposal be for a tv sitcom based on your life? (Alternately or additionally, what’s yours?)

While my parents have done a few writing projects together, I think they would play to their strengths to come up with unique premises:

Mom

There is no doubt that my mom would do a wish-fulfillment story about being a grandma. However I would like to throw two wrenches in the air: I am already a grandma at heart, and my mom flourishes when writing in a very unfamiliar setting, so the pitch I am green-lighting is: Two (Or More?) Grandmas On a Spaceship.

Dad

If my dad had the right consultants on the team, I think he would write an excellent workplace comedy about a Japanese comic company trying to create the next big series, and failing spectacularly in most episodes. Each episode could have a humorous new title that the company is trying to get off the ground. I would be the beleaguered translator who is inexplicably doing like 3 other jobs, and is always told to “make it more funny!” instead of going for accuracy. My catch phrase would be “You’re reading it wrong!”

RS: You sometimes do comics on personal topics, and sometimes on fantastical ones. What do you get out of the different approaches? Are they the same, or different, or both?

NR: They are mostly the same. At first, I thought I was exploring fantasy because I was interested in myth and bending the boundaries of reality to create new types of stories, but I mostly just want to write about self-discovery, gender, and relationships. Rather, I use fantasy to create settings and magic that I either want to exist (or want to draw), but the themes are really similar.

RS: What projects are you working on?

Painted Comic Cover that reads “Moonsprout Station, Story 1 Only Echoes, Naomi Rubin”. There is a covered bus stop, with two people standing on a balcony in the distance.

Cover art for Moonsprout Station

NR: My ongoing queer fantasy series is Moonsprout Station! It’s free to read online, but on Patreon you get access to a weekly art blog with three or more drawings per week, the chance to get a portrait commission, and more!

In addition to some secret comic pitches that I can’t really talk about, I’m also working on a few digital art tools that will be announced more formally soon, and “Rise of the Eagle Princess!” an upcoming feminist JRPG (for PC/Mac and iPad) in the post apocalypse future Mongolian empire, for which I am a background artist and character designer.

Silly Interview with Brooke Bolander, who will teach you the guiding principle “What Would David Bowie Wear”

 

 

This is a headshot of a pale woman against an almost completely black background. She has wavy auburn hair that is swept up and off to the left, round reflective black sunglasses with white frames, and bright red, glossy lipstick. She is wearing a green velvet jacket with a black trim.

Brooke Bolander

Rachel Swirsky: Frankly, your fashion is amazing. I would be happy to listen to you talk about it in whatever way you want. If you’d like some prompting – what’s the basis of your aesthetic? How do you find clothes?

 Brooke Bolander, a white woman, is viewed from the side, against a gradiated grey background. She has auburn hair that is shaved around the sides and the back, but left long on the top. It is wavy, and swept forward over her eyes. She is wearing black glasses, and has a silver hoop cartilage piercing, along with a dangling black bead. She has a thin silver necklace on.

Brooke Bolander

Brooke Bolander: Thank you so much! Man, I don’t know if I have an aesthetic per se so much as I just try to find whatever works for me, and what apparently what mostly works for me is loud, shiny, and more often than not vintage. There was a time when I dressed low-key, because I was trying to more or less blend in with the background. It didn’t work. I have never been good at blending in. I only evolved into my current sense of fashion, for what it’s worth, when I accepted that and started wearing the loudest shit I could find in the store. 

 

Besides the cardinal fashion compass of “What Would Bowie Wear?” (WWDBW), my process is mostly going into vintage clothing stores and rooting around until I find the most ridiculous thing, at which point I will say “this is utterly ridiculous and will never work on anybody, let alone me” and then I try it on and it inevitably works. Last time it was a sequined jumpsuit. You also can’t go wrong with effectively cosplaying concepts of things, ie “today I am going to stealth dress as a tree/dinosaur/book.” 

 

RS: Your Wikipedia page informs me that you spent time in college studying archaeology. How has that influenced your writing? (and/or what’s the weirdest thing you learned which hasn’t made it into common knowledge?)

 

BB: That was actually one of the earliest points at which I started getting the urge to write original fiction. I had dabbled in fanfiction before, but sitting in class studying the Mesolithic in particular–a very interesting period in human development well before we actually started writing stuff down–put questions in my head. Why was this woman buried with a swan’s wing? Why was this one wearing a golden prosthetic eye? History is full of mysteries, and mysteries want to be explained. Sometimes that involves making stuff up. Call it historical fanfic, if you like. 

 

I think the coolest thing we read about in my degree was St. Bees Man. “St Bees Man” was the name given to a knight by the name of Anthony de Lucy who died in 1360. He was buried in a priory in Cumbria. His coffin was sealed in lead, which, combined with the bitumen-soaked shroud his body was wrapped in, created an anaerobic environment that preserved him almost perfectly for the next 600 years. When the University of Leicester exhumed the corpse in 1981 his cheeks were still pink, there was still blood in his body, his irises were intact, and his stomach contents were preserved almost perfectly. 600 years! You can find the photos online if you poke around, and they are amazing, if pretty gruesome. 

 

RS: In another of your short stories that I like, you write about Laika the dog who was sent into space. Laika was the first living being to be launched into Earth orbit. It was onboard the Soviet satellite Sputnik 2 in 1957. It was always understood that Laika would not survive the mission, but her actual fate was misrepresented for decades. (If you’ve seen Bojack Horseman, by the way, the show features intelligent, humanoid animals, and I really liked that, in their universe, the first woman in space was Laika.) What about Laika pulled at you? Are there other stories about the experiences of real, historical animals which have tugged at your imagination?

 

BB: Laika was a sacrifice and the tragedy of that haunts me. The scientists working on the project knew she most likely wouldn’t survive, unlike most of the dogs in the space programme that came later like Strelka and Belka, but her survival was never a primary concern. She was a street dog acquired from the pound because they figured strays would be best equipped to handle the harsh conditions that might result from being shot into space, and she just … got unlucky. She won the anti-jackpot. You get to be the first Earth animal in orbit, but also you die alone! Cool cool. We’re sort of bred dogs to be the perfect victims and this is like the depressing culmination of that layer of our relationship with them. 

 

I seem to be doing a series on historical animal tragedy as a throughline of my career. “Sun Dogs” was the first. Since then, I’ve published The Only Harmless Great Thing (partially about Topsy, the elephant electrocuted at Coney Island in 1903 whose death was recorded & distributed by the Edison Film Company as Electrocuting an Elephant) and No Flight Without The Shatter, which features Benjamin the last surviving thylacine & Martha the last passenger pigeon as lead characters. I guess it’s a trilogy at this point.

 

RS: I’ve only asked you questions about your very early work — because that’s when I was reading all the time! What silly questions should I be asking you about your more recent stories?

 

BB: No question is silly! But if you were inclined and asked me where to acquire my most recent work, I’d point to Apex’s “Do Not Go Quietly” anthology that just came out this very month (I have a Little Match Girl retelling in that one) or to Tor.com (which featured “No Flight Without The Shatter” last year & published The Only Harmless Great Thing, my very first book-shaped object, in January 2018). 

 

RS: What projects are you currently working on?

 

BB: Forever and always my novel, but I’m very much hoping to finally have a draft of that done by the end of 2019. Otherwise I’ve got a short piece coming out with Lightspeed later on in the year, and am currently putting the finishing touches on another story I’ve pitched as “Drive meets Spirited Away.” We’ll see if that one turns out as silly as it sounds.

Silly Interview with Aliette de Bodard, Expert on Lovecraftian House Plants

Aliette de Bodard, Photo Credit: Lou Abercrombie

Rachel Swirsky: What is the best part of living in Paris?
Aliette de Bodard: The bread. Or possibly the éclairs. I have a weakness for coffee éclairs, and they’re just not the same abroad (I’ve tried!).

RS: What is the worst part of living in Paris?
ADB: We don’t really have snowy winters, snow melts before it hits the ground. Wait. Maybe that’s a positive.

RS: You do interesting combinations of fantasy and science fiction. What about genre mixing appeals to you?
ADB: It just happens I guess! I think of fantasy and science fiction as a large continuum of things, and I tend to pick and match the bits I like for a given project. I find it’s very helpful for atmosphere, but there’s also serious reasons: scientific rigour when world building a fantasy world helps a lot (even if there’s a lot of overt or hidden magic with fuzzier rules), and projecting science beyond, say, the 50-year-mark is always going to lead to technologies that feel like they’re breaking the current rules (aka seem like magic, as Clarke said).

RS: What is the tastiest part of living in Paris?
ADB: The Vietnamese grocery stores are only 40 minutes away (I live in the wrong area of town lol), which gives me the perfect excuse to grab a bowl of phở before going shopping.

RS: I kind of want to go back to Paris.
ADB: Everybody should! I grouch a bit, but I love the city. So many things to see (and so much food. I kind of always go back to the food).

RS: You’ve said your writing process when you were tackling “Immersion,” my favorite of your short stories, evolved out of anger, and that was unusual for you. How was that writing process different from your normal one? Have you written out of anger again since?
ADB: The issue with anger is that I can’t really sustain it for long (and that it takes a toll on me I’m not a big fan of). My writing process generally has its roots in curiosity: I have an idea and go research some more on details, and shape the plot that way.

I do get angry when researching stuff: for The House of Shattered Wings I had to research the Vietnamese diaspora in Paris, and there’s quite a few hair-raising tales of people being conscripted into making weapons and being used as indentured labour for years after the war was over. But there’s definitely no way I could write an entire novel fuelled on anger, it would be too painful.

RS: What is the most beautiful piece of art you’ve seen in Paris?
ADB: Uh, there’s a lot of them around! It’s a bit of a silly thing, but last time I was in Musée Cernuschi (the Asian Arts museum), there was this huge bronze statue of an (Asian) dragon leaping from the sea by the staircase. I’m not sure who made it or when it dates from, because there was no label on it, but it struck me as pretty amazing because the artist had captured the sense of flowing, arrested movement I associate with dragons.

RS: Can you describe what you call the Lovecraftian plants taking over your living room? Pictures more than welcome.
ADB: When we moved in, my in-laws gave my husband a cutting from a plant they had at home–it started as this really tiny handful of vines, and then it wouldn’t stop growing! It’s slowed down a bit today because we put it a little away from the light and decided not to water it quite as much (not being big fans of the plant invasion). At one point, when we moved out of our old flat, its roots had pierced the pot it was in and were busy trying to find some purchase on the parquet–it was a good idea to move the pot, or I fear we’d have had to tear the plant from its spot!

My colleagues gave me another one which is a kind of rubber tree, which also started as a tiny thing not much higher than my waist–over the summer it drank an entire bottle of water per day and made clusters of leaves every three days. It was double the size by the time I brought it home–same thing, we took it away from the windows and tried to water it a little less…

RS: If you were forced to enter one of the worlds you’ve written about, which would you pick, and what would you do there?
ADB: Uh. Probably the Xuya universe because a lot of the others are very bleak! I’d be a builder of Minds for spaceships and space stations, I suspect–I’d quite like to be like Lady Oanh in On a Red Station, Drifting, fixing problems with Minds and making sure everything runs smoothly.

RS: Anything else? Take it away!
ADB: Phở. Everyone should try phở if they haven’t already (ok ok, I’ll grant that you can try bi cuốn if not phở. They’re rice paper rolls with marinated pork rinds and fish mint, which is a herb with a very particular taste that I haven’t seen much outside of Vietnam. There’s very few ingredients in them total, but they taste *so* good).

(This interview was posted one week early for my patrons on Patreon. Thank you!)

Silly Interview with S. L. Huang, Spectacular Specimen of Superhumanity

SL Huang. Photo Credit: Chris Massa

Rachel Swirsky: When you were at MIT, did you take any writing classes? What was it like studying writing in that environment? 

SL Huang: I did not!  Which is kind of strange given that MIT has a ridiculously good creative writing program, but I was in my “writing is the one thing I do that I will not stress out about or set any goals for” phase. (You can see how that has worked out for me, she says, eyeing the current mountain of deadlines.)

RS: Your bio says you are a gunslinger. Are you really a gunslinger? I hope so. Feel free to lie if you aren’t (or if you are, actually).

SLH: I am indeed really a gunslinger.  Some number of the following facts are true about me:

  • I have qualified at the Expert Rifleman level on a civilian version of the Army Qualifying Test
  • I can field-strip an AK-47 in less than seven seconds
  • I once fixed a malfunctioning Springfield XD with a piece of duct tape
  • I have fired an Uzi in the middle of Market Street, San Francisco
  • I’ve had conversations with police officers while hiding five shotguns under my trench coat

(NB, for the NSA agents reading this: the police officers knew they were there.)

RS: What is your gunslinger origin story?

SLH: I learned to shoot at MIT.  No, really.  MIT has one of the best pistol programs in the country.

My pistol coach from MIT now coaches the U.S. Paralympics Shooting Team.  We’re still in touch.

RS: You mention liking the abelian grape joke which I must admit I do not understand. I really like the Heisenberg’s speeding ticket joke. What does our shared love of terrible nerd jokes say about us? I remind you that you are free to lie.

SLH: It means we are spectacular specimens of superhumanity who ride into battle on dragons and eat gas giants for breakfast.

(p.s. I love the Heisenberg speeding ticket joke, too.)

RS: In 2016 you put together an anthology of Campbell-eligible writers so that they can show off their work to potential voters. In the past, it has always been difficult to identify eligible writers, let alone find all their work in one place. How did you figure out who to include? Did you reach out to writers who were in professional TOCs, or did you wait for people to come to you?

SLH: We (my co-runner Kurt Hunt and I) sidestepped the identification-of-eligibility question by pawning off the work on our friends at Writertopia, who maintain a list of Campbell-eligible writers as a genre resource.  Put yourself on their list, we said, and you can be in the book!

In all seriousness, we did not mean to cause so much extra work for them — we figured most people interested would be on the Writertopia list already.  But we figured WAY wrong, and Writertopia got flooded with add requests.  Bill Katz and David Walton over there are absolute gems of human beings — they did an incredible job vetting and adding people before our deadline, and they’ve given us nothing but support.  We owe them big time.

As for how we reached out — hahaha, we had less than two weeks to get submissions; there was no way we could wait for people to come to us.  We posted on forums, blogged, and tweeted.  We sent over a dozen press releases to genre sites and asked for signal boosts from well-followed voices in SFF.  We also wanted to reach out to eligible writers and invite them directly, but could only find public email addresses for about 60% of the people who were already on Writertopia’s list — and here our Writertopia friends did us yet another solid and forwarded an invitation to them all on our behalf.

I was so, so pleased with the response we got.  120 authors!  Over A MILLION WORDS OF FICTION!

We passed the torch on it the following year, and I hope anthologies of the year’s Campbell-eligible writers keep being a thing as often as possible. Some of our authors told us the anthology felt like an enormous group hug, and I’m so proud to have been a part of that.

RS: Looking at the stories in the Campbell anthology, would you say there were noticeable thematic preoccupations? What was the zeitgeist for new writers in 2015?

SLH: The biggest zeitgeist, I think, is that there wasn’t one.  The thematic diversity in this group is incredible.  I wasn’t able to read even close to all million words, but we had stories from F&SF and Analog, Strange Horizons and Mothership Zeta, Angry Robot and Baen.  We had self-published, small press, and Big Five.  We had funny stories and tearjerking ones, swashbucklers and horror, aliens and myths and hard SF and fairy tales.  Flash, shorts, novel excerpts, even a play!  And the authors came from all over the world and from all walks of life — we even had at least one translation.

If this anthology proved anything, it’s that the upcoming generation of SFF writers want there to be room for all types of stories.  And so far we’re kicking ass at making that happen.

RS: Any projects coming up, or anything else you’d like to write about?

SLH: So much!!

My main novel series is the Cas Russell series with Tor Books — the first book, Zero Sum Game, came out last year, and the sequel Null Set is dropping in July. Billed by Tor as “the geek’s Jack Reacher,” it’s about a superheroine — an antiheroine — who can do math really, really fast.
She uses it to kill a lot of people. As you do with math.


I’m also one of the collaborators who wrote The Vela, a serialized novel that was just released from Serial Box. My co-authors are Yoon Ha Lee, Rivers Solomon, and Becky Chambers, and you can read the whole thing right now!

That “let’s not set any goals or deadlines for writing” philosophy from college REALLY was not very successful for me…

(This interview was posted early for my patrons on Patreon. Thank you!)

Silly Interview with Monica Valentinelli, Who Aspires to Terrify You with Marshmallows


(Editor’s Note: This interview has been in the vault. For Monica’s most updated work, visit her at  www.booksofm.com.)

Rachel Swirsky: You can write any tie-in on any subject you want. All the normal rules are out the window. If you’re writing Star Trek, you can have Q take over the universe. Whatever you like. What’s the tie-in book you’d write?

Monica Valentinelli: Well, I’ve been staring at this question for five minutes now, and I’m finding it impossible to narrow my options down to one. The book I would absolutely love to write is a Star Wars novel written as a mosaic (Yep, Game of Thrones!). The story for that would be a sordid tale of how different factions (which includes the Sith, Jedi, Witches of Dathomir, Kamino Cloners, Hutts) are all vying to become “the” de facto leaders of the Republic well before the the Old Republic ever existed. I’m talking centuries before the technology was created that allowed pilots to make the jump into hyperspace; here, space travel still exists it’s just a lot slower. For this to work, I wouldn’t kill off the Force-users and make them as rare as they currently are. Instead, I’d go the exact opposite direction. Force-users exist, but nobody believes they have real power, because they pass them off as religious or think their “tricks” are due to scientific or technologic advances. Only, they’re (Force-users) are not gifted due to genetics or midichlorians at all. So, it’s far less about “one family’s legacy” and more about “faction”. Everybody has a stake in controlling the galaxy, and sometimes they forget there’s other, more terrifying threats out there—like the Yuuzahn Vong or an unknown force. I think there’s a lot of politics in Star Wars that sometimes gets missed due to the high-octane action; its iconic setting is a treasure trove for storytelling potential, and I’d love to see (Who knows? Maybe write?) more genre-bending tales set in the universe.

Fantasy and horror are a bit tougher, because I prefer to create my own worlds in those genres; magic and mystery are comfortable wheelhouses for me. Of course, it doesn’t help that some of my fandoms (especially anime, Final Fantasy, and Miyazaki films) I’m way too nervous to touch; I don’t know if you’ve seen Madoka Magica, but I wouldn’t change anything after watching that; it’s perfect just as it is. If we’re going SUPER silly? Ever since Universal announced they were rebooting their universe, I kept thinking about the breakfast cereal. You know, Boo Berry, Franken Berry, Count Chocula, etc.? Yeah, a novel…but instead of scary monsters you get edible marshmallows and the only way to stop them from terrorizing your town is to eat them. Tasty. I have a lot of fun writing the ridiculous, and I don’t get to do that terribly often.

RS: Can you describe how you put a game book, like the Firefly RPG, together?

MV: Sure thing! So, the role I’m elaborating on is called a “developer”. This position requires management and participation in the team-based production of a game (or an entire line) from concept to approvals to print, while balancing the needs and desires of the publisher, license holder, and fans. The logistics of this position will vary widely from license to license and publisher to publisher. The Firefly RPG corebook, for example, was a complex and very involved undertaking for a number of reasons ranging from our focus on the TV show as opposed to the movie, which are two separate licenses, to ensuring that we made a game that Browncoats would be happy with. We encountered a lot of demand for the game after we announced in February 2013 but found there wasn’t enough time to produce a full corebook for our projected launch at GenCon, which took place in August 2013. Since GenCon is a significant show for game releases, we decided to release a preview, instead, so we could incorporate fan feedback for the full corebook.

In general, however, the tasks related to producing a game book happen over many months and might include: designing the production schedule, developing clear outlines and instructions for each book, finding, hiring, and managing other freelance game designers, writers, editors, indexers, artists, and layout artists, managing playtesters, working with sales or marketing partners, sending out contracts, making canon-related decisions and sticking to approval guidelines, etc. In addition to all of this, I feel the biggest responsibility I have as a developer is one of quality control. On each game I develop, I’m involved and participate in every step of production (outlining, writing, editing, layout, proofing, and approvals) to ensure the result is something everyone will love.

RS: You also wrote and designed a dictionary and encyclopedia for Firefly. Can you tell us about those books?

MV: I had a great deal of fun working with my editor at Titan Books to produce Firefly: The Gorramn Shiniest Language Guide and Phrasebook in the ’Verse, which is available on April 12th. We designed this reference book to pull words from the television show scripts and define them, in context, for the benefit of the reader so that they might get a clear idea of what it’s like to live in the Verse. Every word chosen was intentional—even the simpler words—to establish what setting bits and pieces of dialogue mirrored our own world exactly as we know them, and to contrast the definitions that are slightly shifted or engineered to fit the world of Firefly. We also added character write-ups for the cast and a huge section featuring Jenny Lynn, the show’s translator, and her work on Firefly.

Following this, I was hired to write the Firefly Encyclopedia. Revisiting the universe, I was able to incorporate the comics to write a narrative retelling of the story thus far, dive into the culture, offer interviews, feature Tony Lee’s work (who was the Chinese translator on both the Firefly and Serenity RPG lines), and provide an analysis of the scripts that included my commentary and information about the story’s inspiration.

Both books are available wherever they are sold. When I was in Seattle recently, I signed some copies of the encyclopedia at the Barnes and Noble, but they’re going fast!

RS: If the characters from Firefly could choose any cake flavors, which flavors would they choose?

MV: Such a fun question! Kaylee might go for strawberry shortcake, and Simon would probably go for a devil’s food—so he could savor what a real chocolate cake tastes like! Let’s see, Book is pretty interesting because he’s a preacher with a mysterious past, so I think a vanilla cake with a surprise filling inside, like raspberry, works out pretty well for his character. Inara is very elegant and sophisticated, so she might prefer something like a ginger peach cake with green tea icing. Mal? I’m guessing he doesn’t care if his cake is fancy provided it has frosting on it. For Jayne, I’d have to go with apple pie. Technically it’s not a cake, but I imagine the smell of apples might remind him of home—even though his mom may not have been able to afford enough apples to bake such a confection. River? Hrmm… That’s a tough one, because depending upon her state of mind she might enjoy a birthday cake she had as a child, or something a bit more colorful like red velvet. That leaves Zoe and Wash. Being the insufferable romantic that I am, I have to go with the top of their wedding cake for both of them.

RS: Tell us about your most recent story.

MV: The story I published most recently is titled “My Name is Cybernetic Model XR389F and I am Beautiful” for Uncanny Magazine. I talked a lot about this story in my interview with Caroline M. Yoachim in that issue. Since the story debuted, I’ve learned a lot about perception and identity. You see, I wasn’t angry when I wrote this story. I simply relayed a specific experience that I, and a lot of other women have, using the lens of science fiction to examine and question it in a fictional context. Not so much “write what I know”, but more “write my truth.” I’m deeply concerned that we laud technological achievements without recognizing our inventions don’t change who we are; they will reflect our biases and core beliefs, because we made them. If we don’t broaden our perspectives now, then how can the future belong to all of us? I suppose that’s the beauty of writing and reading science fiction. There are so many wonderful authors who answer questions like these in their work, to propose a better future.

I also wrote a prequel to “The Dunwich Horror” for an anthology called Sisterhood: Dark Tales and Secret Histories featuring the Woman in White, wrote a tie-in story about cats for the Monarchies of Mau RPG, and have a handful of others that’ll debut this year. Plus, I developed a new fantasy world and wrote a novella to launch a solo game series called “Proving Grounds”. I’m thrilled that a bunch of my stories’ll be out this year. Exciting!

RS: Your cats have unusual names. How did they get them? Can we see some pet pictures, too?

MV: Hah! Well, we have two cats (one ginger polydactal manx with yellow eyes, and a black cat with green eyes). The ginger cat was originally named after the ancient Babylonian god of dreams, and our black kitty for the god of storms. Over time, as their personalities emerged, we wound up with sillier-sounding names to offset those four a.m. wake-up calls and our bewilderment at their addiction to catnip. We nicknamed our ginger cat Lord Lardbottom, because he’s a bit lopsided. Because he doesn’t have a tail, he biffs when he tries to jump up higher than the length of a footstool, and he often sits and pouts when he doesn’t get his way.

Our black cat is a chatterbox, gaping maw, and alarm clock all rolled into one. He has a high-pitched voice, which led us to affectionately refer to him as Captain Whinypants.
Thanks so much for inviting me to be a part of your world, Rachel. If your readers would like to check out me or my work, I invite them to visit www.booksofm.com.

(This interview was posted early for my patrons on Patreon. Thank you!)

Silly Interview with John Chu, who will tell you about the great injustices of American Musical Theater

(Illustration by Christopher Silas Neal for “The Water That Falls on You from Nowhere“)

Rachel Swirsky: I am completely fascinated by the translation work you and Ken and others are doing to bring Chinese SF to the US audience. (Also, I am very grateful for it as a reader and writer; I am so happy to be able to see those stories which I wouldn’t otherwise.) We talk a lot about the challenges of bringing something into a new cultural context–for obvious reasons!–but what are some of the good parts? Do stories pick up new resonances sometimes?

John Chu: A translation is a trade-off. (This is hardly an original thought.) Yes, we lose something in the process but it wouldn’t be worth doing at all if we didn’t also get something in return. At the end of the day, it’s is not practical to be fluent (enough) in every language that is the original language of some work that you’d like to read. (I’ve lost track of how many languages I’d need to be fluent in.) A really good translation, combined with knowledge of the culture the original work is a part of, can get you much of the way there. It is a way to experience what would otherwise be impractical to experience. (That said, I don’t think you should let yourself think you are, somehow, engaging directly with the original work. Translation is always an intermediated experience. If you want to engage directly with the original work, I’m afraid you need to become fluent in the language of the original work. And the standard is that you are fluent. If you can’t understand in that language well enough, you are probably better off with the translation.

Stories inevitably pick up new resonances. Part of translation is to get the readers of the translated work to feel what the readers of the original work feel. One way of getting there is to find equivalents (to the extent possible) for what can’t be directly translated, like the resonances of the story. For example, I translated a story once where each section was written in a distinct style. What I needed to do, then, was to find styles in English that had the same affect as the styles referenced in the original text then write the translation in those styles. The translations end up harkening back to different traditions of storytelling than the original, but the effect on the reader is much closer to reading the original than if I’d just translated the text so-called ‘literally.’ (Again, if you really need to see what the writer actually need, you need to read the original work directly.)

RS: Your wikipedia page calls you “an American microprocessor architect” before also mentioning that you are a writer and translator. It took me a minute, reading that, to parse it, and for a second I was wondering about what kinds of buildings you’d design. So, what kinds of buildings would you design?

JC: I love Brutalist and Modern architecture. (Postmodern architecture is also wonderful but we’re still in that period (or we’re still so close to it) so it’s hard to generalize.) One of the joys in visiting Chicago for me is that its skyline beautifully details the evolution of skyscrapers as tastes changed and construction methods improved. One of the things I most treasure about my trip to Helsinki is the day I played hooky from WorldCon and just walked around the city encountering one lovely piece of Modernist architecture after another. The juxtaposition of buildings from many eras in Helsinki was also a delight. (The city also inadvertently make it clear that we have left the Modernist Era. Still, if you are able—and it’s a lot of walking, sometimes on cobblestone–I highly recommend walking around Helsinki and engaging with one fabulous example of Modernism after another. It’s a beautiful city.)

The buildings I would aspire to design would probably draw on the sleek elegance of the International Style of Modernism whether I intend to or not. (It’s probably not literally true but one of the things I love about Chicago is that it kind of feels like a giant tribute to Mies van der Rohe, not to mention Frank Lloyd Wright (who, yes, is not of the International Style).) However, it’s the early 21st century, not the early-to-mid 20th century. Left to my own devices, I hope I would be brave enough to engage with humor, like Frank Gehry. (Not specifically his sense of humor, though. Mine. Frank Gehry is already the world’s best Frank Gehry. We don’t need another one.) I hope that my work would follow in the tradition blazed by Arata Isozaki, who pointedly does not design in any one architectural style. Instead, he is very site-specific and project-specific, letting those requirements dictate what the building needs to be. (Also, he just won the Pritzker Prize! *kermit flail*)

RS: I read an interview where you said that you make it a point to find out things about obscure musical theater history! Me, too! (I took classes in this! LOL.) What are some of your favorite forgotten musicals?

JC: Well, I’m not sure how forgotten these are but I do wish they were more popular:

The Golden Apple. I will flog that musical until it gets the mainstream recognition it deserves. Jerome Moross and John LaTouche set The Illiad and The Odyssey at the turn of the 20th century (and engage in a search for the truths necessary to survive the 20th century). I won’t say that it’s a perfect musical but the score is absolutely glorious. It’s appallingly short B’way run is one of the greater injustices of American Musical Theater. A mostly complete recording of the show was released in 2015 (and it’s absolutely worth getting).

You can see snippets from 2017 concert production (which I saw!) here:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SpEjaDW3feI

The Day Before Spring. Lerner & Loewe would go on to Brigadoon, My Fair Lady, and Camelot. Before all that, they wrote The Day Before Spring. The story is nothing to write home about but the score is pretty terrific. (Bits of it was recycled into their later efforts.)

Sweet Adeline by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II. It played B’way in 1929, Set in the 1890’s, it’s a lush, nostalgic story of a woman who becomes a Broadway star and her various failed relationships along the way. For me, its take home hit is a choral set piece in the middle of Act II called “Some Girl Is On Your Mind”:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L8S_1_MPRo4

St. Louis Woman. Music by Harold Arlen, lyrics by Johnny Mercer. Book by Arna Bontemps and Countee Cullen (based on Bontemp’s novel God Sends Sunday). It’s the musical that “Anywhere I Hang My Hat Is Come” and “Come Rain, Come Shine” comes from. Love! Revenge! Murder! And a happy ending. Here is Audra McDonald singing “I Had Myself a True Love”:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ovMj0EHx-bc

Golden Boy. Music by Charles Strouse. Lyrics by Lee Adams. Book by Clifford Odets and William Gibson (not that one!) based on Odet’s play. It’s about a man who becomes a prizefighter to escape his ghetto roots. He does, but at a cost. I saw a concert production of this that makes the book never really worked. It has a lot of terrific songs though.

“While the City Sleeps” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xuK-1oFj5sc

“Night Song” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QwhFxDzYjSo

“Stick Around” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QwhFxDzYjSo

I could go on, but I think that’s enough for now.

RS: Relatedly, what words do you have for young gay, American men who don’t know who Judy Garland is?

JC: My feelings about this are weirdly nuanced. Basically, I don’t think it’s good to be the gay version of That Guy Who Wants Everyone To Read Heinlein. So I’m not going to be. Without taking anything away from the brilliance and genius of her work (and, at her best, Judy Garland was in a class of her own), it’s not unfair to say that the near-religious reverence for her was also, in part, a consequence of a culture that, as a matter of life or death, had to stay underground. The discovery and the love of her work was part of how you found your (secret) tribe. There is a reason why, once upon a time, one might discreetly inquire whether one was a “friend of Dorothy.” And, back then, if you were gay and never discovered a love for her work, I suppose you might have lived your entire life thinking you were the only one in the world and remained desperately and heart-breakingly alone? 🙁

Nowadays, though, on one hand, I’m not saying that we have achieved full equality. In fact, it feels like reactionary forces are desperate to drag us back into the closet. On the other hand, we are freer than we once were and the path to finding other gay men does not necessarily go through a discovery and a love of the works of Judy Garland. (Yes, she was a huge star in the mainstream, too. I’m making a point. Hush.) Gay culture has become much more diverse and much more mainstream. (I mean, RuPaul’s Drag Race is on VH1!) I think we may be inching towards the point where it’s not Gay Culture as much as it is just part of culture. Assimilation is a tricky topic and way outside the scope of this interview. However, to the extent that Gay Culture was a reaction to the systemic oppression of LGBTQ (although, in the case of Judy Garland, let’s face it, the demographic in question is mostly cisgender gay men), the way the culture shifts because we are no longer as oppressed can’t be a bad thing on the whole.

So, if you are a young, gay American man and musicals are not your thing, there’s no reason to subject yourself to Judy Garland. If you love musicals though (and I loved musicals long before I realized I was gay) and you have not yet encountered the works of Judy Garland, boy are you in for a treat.

RS: I also have some improv training, although I don’t feel like I use that a lot in my work. (I’m sure I have much less experience with it than you do.) What techniques prove especially useful?

JC: I actually have an entire lecture about this! This is what I talk about when I’m invited to fill an hour at a workshop or something. (The lecture, perhaps appropriately, is a constantly evolving work-in-progress.)

I steal shamelessly from the improv toolkit when I write. In improv, you are on an empty stage with a scene partner who, because the two of you are not telepathic, does not actually know what you are going to do (and visa versa). And yet, merely through the things you say and the things you do, you two are able to fill out an entire world and a relationship that leaves the audience satisfied. If you can do that with improv, imagine what you can do when you bring in the other tools that a writer also has at their disposal. Improv turns out to be a great lens (for me, anyway) to strip everything to its fundamentals, work the skills it takes to write a great scene, before you then add back in all the other things you can do. (Also, the ability to revise is huge. In improv, of course, you get only that one shot.)

Everything you do on stage makes a promise to the audience, whether you intended to or not. That promise has to be kept no matter how small it seems. So, if you walk from point A to point B, you jag around what you have decided is a table, you have defined the length and width of that table. Until someone moves the table or destroys the table or changes the location of the scene, no one can simply plow through that empty space. That would break the promise and throw the audience out of the reality you’ve created.

Improv forces you to consider, in real time, “OK, if this is true, what else is true?” The most obvious place to apply this is world building, but it’s a question that writers need to ask about everything. For example, once I played a scene where I squinted, shaded my eyes and my first line was something like, “OMG, you’re so happy, you’re glowing. I can barely stand to look at you.” Because my body language was that of someone looking at a very bright object and because I was working with a terrific partner, he immediately recognized that the glowing was literal, not metaphorical and that he was glowing out of joy. Now, because he’s an awesome partner, he took my second sentence also for its emotional truth and considered if I can’t look at him because he is so happy, what else must be true about me? The result was this really searing scene of loss and healing that neither one of us could have anticipated from my admittedly somewhat goofy opening offer.

RS: What projects are you currently working on?

JC: Being mostly a short story writer means I’m always in the middle of writing multiple somethings but I almost never have anything in progress that I can announce. I do have a story forthcoming at Uncanny Magazine and another story in the anthology, The Mythic Dream, forthcoming from Saga. As for what I’m currently writing, I have great hopes but nothing is locked down yet.

(This interview was posted early for my patrons on Patreon. Thank you!)

Silly Interview with Jenna Katerin Moran, who knows what Russian servers to hack

 

Here’s me! The outfit is Miranda Harrell’s version of the clothing style for the villains (?) of my RPG, Nobilis: A Game of Sovereign Powers

Here’s my website! https://afarandasunlessland.wordpress.com/
Rachel Swirsky: You have a PhD in computer science. What made you fall in love with the subject?

Jenna Katerin Moran: We’re one of those rare Tinder success stories! You would not believe how many clunkers I had to date through to get there, though.

(Example: trossulography. Trossulography tried to have like five PhD students just in one city alone without telling any of us about one another … and it probably would have worked fine, too, except we all had to submit to the same journals.)

RS: How does your academic training in computer science affect how you write role playing games?

JKM: There are some really good discussions out there of marketing techniques, cultural trends, and American gamer purchasing habits if you know which Russian servers to hack.

RS: I’m sure you get this question all the time, but I feel like it’s pretty relevant for an audience of people who aren’t all tabletop gamers. How and why did you end up falling into writing table top RPGs?

JKM: So it was like the year 1997? Ish? I don’t know. A little before Y2K, when I would have had to get out of the field of computer science (for, like, obvious reasons) anyway. And I was looking for something good to write because, y’know, it’s not like one can stop the writing, right? I mean, one tries, right, one goes and, like, tries to pursue other careers, or, curls up in one’s closet and wails in despair, or, moves to China and tries to become a foreign pop idol—like, Jenna Starlight Sparkles; whatever—but then one has barely turned around again before discovering that one has just been writing. I mean, y’know? (It is only when one has sighed and given in and accepted that one must be a writer that there is a possibility, er, uh, probability, … near-certainty? Uh, that the words will stop.) But, anyway, so, I was looking for something good to write, and naturally I settled on pornography; only, being a … regrettably … uh, prudish? person, I had to use fairly roundabout and esoteric euphemisms for everything. Long story short, it accidentally came out as an urban fantasy roleplaying game about people with conceptual powers in a world under existential threat from the inhabitants of the beyond. (If you know what I mean, and I think you do.) Only, in fact, despite that parenthetical that I have just shared with you, hardly anybody knew what I meant, or, at least, I think they didn’t? and once it got popular, I was way, way too embarrassed to ever tell anyone. I had thought that, like, 2000-era fanfic would have sensitized people to it? You know, to, uh, roundabout euphemisms? Like, what with, you know, all that, “his melancholy duck quacked down into the shimmering epilimnion of her pond” kind of thing that was, like, the style of the time? but apparently “each player designs a player character (PC for short), one of the protagonists in the story” was just one bridge too far. So now, suddenly, instead of taking my pornography into the bedroom, people were, y’know, propping it up on the coffee table and showing it to their parents and inviting groups of friends and strangers to their houses to talk about it together and I thought suddenly, wait. What if I just did this as a business and wrote for RPGs instead?

RS: Your cat, Kennedy, prefers that you pay attention to her at all times. What do you think is her current inner monologue as you do this interview? (Illustrating with photographs is highly encouraged!)

JKM: I suspect she is wondering if she is sleeping correctly. She is wondering if, perhaps, there is some proper way of sleeping that she was meant to be practicing, but which no one has ever explicitly explained to her, only making allusions to it, talking about “catnaps,” and sleeping awkwardly in her vicinity instead, and leaving her with no recourse but to guess.

Perhaps that is why (she thinks) she is sometimes left alone, to wither and wail in her hopeless misery, while her emotional comfort hominid cavorts beyond the gates with the other cat. Perhaps her failing at proper sleeping is the reason, there—

But if that is why, it is so unfair!

It is not her fault that nobody has taught her how to sleep correctly. It is not her fault that nobody has explained how to get past the top shelf of the bookshelf to the notional higher height that she knows must, logically, exist— for it would not make sense for a mathematical series to carry itself to the top of the bookshelf and then stop— or what the exact rules as to when she may use the two litterboxes that are reserved entirely for her use, that she has access to 24/7, are. It is not her fault that the correct propitiation to the household gods to allow her to go upstairs sans incident has not been made; if the upstairs cat would just tell her what the format of that ritual is supposed to be …

But, enough dwelling on the other cat. Let us return to the puzzle of the litterboxes; as noxious a thing as they may be, still, to her they are more sweet.

It is obvious, she believes, that there must be rules as to their use, because they cannot be used by a single cat, alone. A single cat, alone, entering the litterbox, enters a kind of quantum state— nobody has ever given her a proper explanation of quantum physics, so physicists must forgive her if she gets this wrong— enters a kind of “quantum state” where one may exist, in the outside world, or one may not. Arguably, when one enters into the box, as a fully defined and differentiated entity, one ceases therewith to be. The only anodyne to this noisome quandary is witness: to be witnessed, to have independent affirmation of one’s existence, to have an external force creating continuity from one’s entrance into the box … to one’s exit. But much of the time, this warrant cannot be obtained; no witness can be pressed into service; and the litterboxes, therefore, must lie fallow: the proper rules for this are, as yet, unknown.

Outside the window, in the vaster, greater world, where monsters roam— she knows this; one presses its face against the window, sometimes, at night— there may be entities that know the rules to all such things. Outside the window, one day, if the hominids would only leave the window open at all times as she has asked them to, she may smell and hear as one such beast walks past:

A nebulous, smoke-stack figure in the distance, made of words and bleeding doctrine.

When she sees it, smells it, hears it; when the wind carries to her the shadows of its words— again, if the window has been properly left open

Then she may, finally, begin to know.

 

 

 

 

 

 

RS: What projects are you currently working on? 

JKM: My major project right now is Glitch: A Story of the Not, which is an RPG about surprisingly relatable evil gods who don’t actually know what they’re doing with their lives but are pretty sure that it shouldn’t actually be bringing an end to everything like they had previously thought. I guess the central thesis of the game is something like, “So, there’s an intrinsic universal characteristic of suffering— what do you do?” Only, unlike some RPGs, you can’t then roll for initiative against the intrinsic universal characteristic of suffering, because Glitch uses a cost-based system instead of dice.

Queued up behind that is A Book of Golden Hours, which represents a quixotic effort to break character arcs down into eight basic stories, split that again based on whether the character is getting cooperation, active interference, or neither from the world, and turn the result into twenty-four character classes with powers abstract and high-level enough that each can actually handle the roughly 4% of fictional characters that they wind up representing. It’s not just an RPG supplement, it’s also a unique work of orphic cubist literary criticism!

Then there’s Adventures on the Far Roofs, which is about fighting god-monsters with heroic talking rats at your side up on the rooftops out where the roofs start to blend together until you can’t be sure there are actually any houses underneath. That one’s been written for a long time, but it uses content from A Book of Golden Hours so it can’t come first.

For my patreon consumers I’ve been building a campaign—a set of pre-made characters and stories—for my game, the Chuubo’s Marvelous Wish-Granting Engine RPG. I’ve also lately been sharing a mildly updated version of an old cyberpunk setting of mine. Those’ll both be wanting to go into print sometime after they’re done.

Finally, I have a novel—the Night-Bird’s Feather—that’s gone temporarily back into editing at the moment after some new reader feedback. It’s a book of stories about cross-time dream magic and the mental origins of valuation. I’m really excited about it!

Oh, and tonight I was thinking of making soup?

OK, that’s all.

Silly Interview with Deborah Walker and her Expandable Red Goo

Here’s another updated silly interview!

RS: Your website invites me to find you at the British Museum, but that’s a lot of miles from where I am currently sitting, so instead I will ask you about the British Museum. What are your favorite exhibits there? And, if it’s different, what have you discovered there that was most unexpected?

DW: The Ram in a Thicket from the Great Death pit at Ur is my enduring favourite. He’s adorable. I try to visit him every time I go to the museum. It’s like having a five and a half thousand year old pet made of gold and lapis lazuli.

My other favourites change from visit to visit. Ah, the lure of the different and shiny. I particularly liked the Scanning Sobek temporary exhibit displaying a massive, mummified crocodile from ancient Egypt, which was once worshipped as a god.

Then we have the blockbuster exhibitions, where museums loan out their treasures. I visited the Celts exhibition three times, mainly to keep looking at the wonderful silver Gundestrup Cauldron from Denmark. I was fascinated by the figures decorating the cauldron. Especially a small man riding a fish. What’s his story? The intriguing thing is, no one knows. The stories have faded away, and we’re left with only the physical object. Lost stories out of time.


I’ve been visiting the British Museum for donkey’s years, but it would take a lifetime to appreciate it all. It holds 8 million items (not all displayed, of course). The other day, I went down some steps and found statues and temple facades from the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus. That’s one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Wow. I never knew they had them.

The museum has so many objects, so many stories. And of course, the fact that the museum owns so many wonderful objects from overseas is a story in itself, and a controversial one.

Do visit the British Museum if you get a chance. Nowadays, museums are very good at putting their collections online. But for my money, there’s nothing like seeing an object, talking to a curator, even handling the objects at the special Hands On Desks. There are museums everywhere: massive, wealthy national museums, local museums run by volunteers, specialist museums focusing on a particular topic (like the London Museums of Health and Medicine). So many stories, there for the reimagining.

RS: You have a number of stories in Nature’s Futures, which runs very short fiction about hard science fiction. Where do you get your inspiration for these, and how do you go about taking something as large as a scientific question and putting it into flash form?

DW: Inspiration comes from museum objects (I wrote a story about adding crocodile DNA to a woman), or stories I’ve read, or watched on the TV, or a prompt for an anthology call. Sometimes, I’ll search out inspiration, trawling through Wikipedia looking for a science topic.)

Science questions are large. But not as large a questions about human nature. I’m interested in using science as a mirror to reflect the human condition. So, on the surface I might be talking about gene modding the brain and the unexpected results, but I’ll also be talking about the emotional dynamics of a divorce, and touching on the concept of free-will (‘Glass Future‘). Science fiction allows me to examine human nature in a way that appeals to me as a writer more than a literary story on the same topic. Genre is more of a convenience than an absolute, though. There’s a big crossover. Stories I’ve sold to Nature’s Futures have often resold to literary magazine.

So how do I squeeze all that into flash? Well, I actually don’t consider flash to be restrictive in length. I think haiku is restrictive. Here’s a SF/horror one of mine:

red goo in the bathtub
cleaning bots dissolve anything
divorce was never an option.

I would argue that this is very, very, small story. There’s the mystery at the start: Red goo? What’s all that about? A touch of development: Why cleaning bots? Is this a domestic situation? Does that link to bathtub? Then the resolution of the story, the ‘aha’ moment, the ‘I get it ‘ moment. Many of my flash stories follow that structure: mystery, development, (and hopefully) aha.

That haiku was only 14 words, having 1000 words is luxury.

RS: In addition to your Nature’s Futures stories, your bibliography lists a lot of other flash fiction, and also poetry and microfiction. Why do you think you’re drawn to those rapid forms? Do you know when you get an idea what general size category it’s going to fit into?

DW: One of my writing super powers is that I can decide what size the story is going to be before I start to write. So, I can think, I want to write some flash today, or a poem or a bit of micro fiction. Then I can write within the constraints of size. Some say that a story needs to be the size it needs to be, but I think that a story can be told at different lengths. I could expand ‘red goo’ into flash quite easily, by creating characters, developing their backstories, exploring the science of goo.

I don’t know what the appeal of writing short is for me. It does come naturally to me. I likes reading them and writing them.

RS: What’s the worst writing advice you’ve ever received?

DW: Well, here’s the thing. I’ve been writing for ten years and nobody has ever given me any advice. I’ve never been in a tutor/student relationship. I very rarely get crits or beta reads on my stories. I just writes them as hard as I can, and then joyfully fling them out on submission.

I’ve read plenty of advice in craft books and on the interweb, but nobody’s ever said “Hey, Debs, perhaps you should do this thing or that.”

Tell a lie, in the past, people have occasionally said that I should write a novel. So, when an opportunity arose to write a tie-in novel for the Dark Expanse online role playing game, I did. That was good advice.

I wouldn’t mind someone giving me some more advice. Rachel, perhaps you could give me some.

RS: Um, don’t take any wooden nickels? 

What new projects do you have coming out? Anything else you’d like to add?

DW: I’ve talked a lot about writing short. But currently, I’m writing long. I’m writing a novella called ‘The Museum of Unnatural History’ set in the UK where a secret people with their own genetic signature and cultural identity, have recently been uncovered. Its current incarnation is traditionally plotted but written in literary prose, which I’m rather enjoying. I’m going to have to think of a new title, because there actually is a Museum of Unnatural History in real life. I have two new short stories out, one in Nature Contagion in Tranquil Shades of Grey‘ and ‘Blue Blood Bleeders’ in the Young Explorers Adventure Guide 5 anthology a collection of SF for young readers.

Silly Interview with Anaea Lay (who wants to read your hate mail)

Anaea LayAnaea Lay

1) You were in Women Destroy Science Fiction–a project I greatly admire. What appeals to you about the project? What was your story like?

The Destroy series has been so phenomenally successful and huge that it’s hard to remember that it started as an announcement that basically went, “You know what?  Screw this.  We’re going to do a thing. Details forthcoming, let us know if you’re in.”  I’m both irritable and prone to scheming wild projects, so an announcement like that is a perfect recipe to pique my interest.  I sent them my info: i actually volunteered to read their hate mail for them since I get a bit of a kick out of getting hate mail.  I have a weekly quota of cackling I have to meet and reading hate mail makes it really easy for me to hit it.

They did not take me up on that offer, but did ask me to write a personal essay for a series they were putting up on their Kickstarter page.  There’s less cackling involved in that sort of support, but I was game.  It’s pretty short and you can still read it online if you want.  It’s mostly about how I found SF at just the right moment for it to assure me that I wasn’t as alone or strange as I thought I was.

What I like most about the Destroy project as it’s grown and developed is how conversations around it have grown and developed.  A lot of voices that were always there, but usually at the edges or hard to go find have been amplified and brought closer to the main stream of the conversation.  That’s the kind of effect that stretches beyond a single anthology or project.  Twenty or thirty years from now, I’ll get to be the pedant droning on in convention hallways about how this and that other thing taken for granted ties back to this project and here see all the ways I can tie them together.  People will humor me and act like I’m being terribly interesting, and when they finally escape, I’ll cackle.  (I’ll probably still have a quota to meet.)

You have an unpublished novel. You quote what John O’Neill had to say about it: “…an unpublished novel set in a gorgeously baroque far future where a woman who is not what she seems visits a sleepy space port… and quickly runs afoul of a subtle trap for careless spies.” Can you tell us more? How did you come up with the idea, and did it surprise you where it went?

That novel was a bit of an experiment.  I had a big, sprawling space opera universe that I’d been building in the back of my head for years while working on other things.  It was time to start actually working on things there, but while I knew a lot about it, things in the back of my head tend to be squishy and hard to work with.  So I decided to do a safety novel first, something that would let me touch on the major set pieces  without any risk of pinning myself in later or breaking something I’d need.

Which meant I had no idea what I was going to do with it when I sat  down.  I knew I wanted a pair of sisters as the protagonists, and I wanted the younger sister to do some protecting of the older sister, then just kept throwing things out there to see what happened.

I’m in the process of re-working on of the plotlines from that novel into a game for Choice of Games.  It’s serving as a learning workhorse for me again because I’m using it to experiment with all the things I learned while doing my first game with them.  Clearly pirates, spies, and snarky computers are the learning tools every modern writer needs in their workshop.

You used to podcast poetry–how do you go about figuring how to give a poem voice?

I hosted the Strange Horizons poetry podcast, but I did as little reading of the poetry as possible; that’s our venue for getting in a variety of voices and it seems to me that if people are particularly invested in my voice, they can get plenty of it in the fiction podcast.

That said, I would step in when we were short on readers or there was a poem that particularly caught my eye.  (Editor’s privilege is a marvelous thing!)  Reading poetry is both easier and harder than reading prose; poems are frequently crafted with a very deliberate ear toward how they sound, which means you’re not likely to find the text dull to interpret vocally.  At the same time, you then have to do justice to the choices made in how the poem was put together, and justify it being you doing the reading rather than any given reader’s interior head voice.  So I look for the tools the poet gave me, then look for the ways I’m best suited to using those tools and build my performance around that.  I’m a complete sucker for consonant clusters and sibilants.

What was wonderful about running the Strange Horizons podcast?

Running the Strange Horizons podcast is fantastic.  I’ve given the poetry podcast over to Ciro Faienza, who was one of our staff readers for the poetry podcast and the single most common provocation of fanmail the podcast has gotten.  That podcast takes a lot of work, and I’d gotten to the point where I was very aware of a lot of ways it could be better, but realistically wasn’t ever going to have the time to implement any of those improvements.  Ciro immediately made some great changes and I’m really looking forward to what he does as he gets into his groove.

The politic, and mostly true, answer to what’s fantastic about doing the fiction podcast is getting to read the stories early and then pull them apart and put them back together in order to give a good reading.  The slightly more true answer, which has been growing over the course of the podcast, is the responses I get to the podcasts from the writers and the audience.  I pretty much only consume short fiction in audio form these days, which leaves me very grateful to all the places that are making it available.  Every time somebody reminds me that I’m one of those people is really great, especially when they’re reminding me because they liked what I did.

But also, I really like getting to pull the stories apart and put them back together.

So, on your website, you claim that the rumors I am a figment of your imagination are compelling. What are those rumors and why are you compelled by them?

I actually exist as a multi-bodied individual quietly working to bring the world under the rule of a mischievous alien intelligence through widespread distribution of coffee and sunlight.  We’ve already conquered most of California and are making great headway in Washington.  Every sip of coffee you take, and every day with bright, clear skies, our agenda advances that much further.

Once, upon being informed of this (it’s no fun to subvert an entire civilization if they don’t know it’s happening – you have to advertise) the person I was warning expressed skepticism about the veracity of my claims.  Apparently, according to them, the very concept of a multi-bodied individual is imaginative speculation and the idea of being one even more so.

There’s not a lot I can do in the face of such claims.  There are people who don’t believe in the moon landing.  There’s not a lot I can do about people who insist on remaining skeptical about coffee and sunshine powered conspiracies.  But I do find such relentless denial of obvious reality to provide a fascinating insight into human psychology, especially when the stakes are this high.

The projects question: got anything you’d like to mention to readers?

The biggest thing I’m in the middle of right now is the Dream Foundry, which is a very cool new organization that’s connecting different types of creative professionals all across science fiction, fantasy, and the rest of the speculative world.  We’re running useful articles on our website and starting up some very fun programming on our forums.  We’ve got really big plans for the future (Contests! Workshops! Assimilation of the entire industry into our standards for compensation and professional conduct!) but we’re already doing some very neat things, which is great for an organization that’s less than a year old.
In the short fiction realm, I just had “For the Last Time, It’s not a Raygun,” come out from Diabolical Plots.  It’s a tiny bit a love letter from me to Seattle, though I’d understand if it looks more like hate mail to some people.
Much larger, my first game with Choice of Games, “Gilded Rails,” came out late last year.  It’s a huge (340k) interactive novel where you’re trying to secure permanent control of a railroad in 1874, during the very early days of the labor movement and age of Robber Barons.  You get to choose between fixing markets or helping out small scale farmers, you’ve got a possibly-demonic pet cat, and a supreme court ruling over inheritance law for a big tent revivalist operation accidentally turned society into a more egalitarian alternate history where just about the entire cast might, depending on what you choose, be female.  Also, I snuck in hot takes about the contemporary theater and poetry scenes, which is exactly the sort of timely, incisive commentary everybody needs in their business sim.  I spent roughly forever, and also an eternity, working on this, so I’m really thrilled to have it out in the world.  It could be said that I’m cackling over it.

Silly Interview with E. J. Fischer, Winner of the Imaginative Long Jump

(This interview was first posted to my patreon. Thank you, patrons!)

EJ2016E. J. Fischer

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:

It’s been an eventful few years. Later in 2016 “The New Mother” won the Tiptree Award, came in 2nd for the Sturgeon Award, and was a Nebula nominee. In 2017 Arrate Hidalgo translated it into Spanish and it was published in Spain as Nueva Madre, a paperback from Editorial Cerbero. In 2018 Nueva Madre was a finalist for the Ignotus, which is sort of Spain’s equivalent of the Hugo award. I’m currently in talks about a possible television adaptation.
I’ve not published much fiction since our interview. I had an original story, “My Time Among the Bridge Blowers,” in Tachyon’s The New Voices of Fantasy, a wonderful book which won the World Fantasy Award for Best Anthology last year. I have a realist story about infirmity of which I am tremendously proud, but it’s fairly graphic and has not yet found a home. I’m currently about 6,000 words into a very strange story about Betty Boop, with a ways to go yet. If I had to guess, that’ll probably be the next one that actually gets published.
I’ve been busier away from the keyboard. In 2017 I bought a house and moved in with my partner. This past September we got engaged, and I spent the holiday season in New Zealand, meeting her extended family. Now we’re deep into the logistics of wedding planning, living in our cute little house with our fluffy little dog and our loud little canary. Personal life is just disgustingly happy. Which is nice, given that seemingly everything else in the world has, since 2016, become a horrible brainmelting shitshow of corruption and cruelty. Dealing with the outrages of these last couple years has meant spending a lot more time in my living room, and a lot less at the computer.