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.

Silly Interview with Debra Jess and Her Incredibly Handsome & Hunky Sidekick

RS: In your bio, you say that your writing combines your love of fairy tales and Star Wars. You also write in a bunch of different genres. Do you write them singly or mix them up?

DJ: This was a question I had to give a lot of thought to. I don’t really mix-up genres so much as I dig deep into subgenres.

In the taxonomy of genre fiction, there is science-fiction, fantasy, romance, mystery, horror, western, and inspirational. Every single one of these genres has subgenres

When I decided to write Blood Surfer, I knew two things: 1) it would have superheroes and 2) it would have a romance. I didn’t give much thought as to which romance subgenre it would fall into until I had finished the manuscript. At that point I needed to figure out how I was going to market it. Around that same time I received an invitation to join the Science Fiction Romance Brigade. Before I could join, they needed to know if Blood Surfer was a science fiction romance, as opposed to a fantasy romance. When I looked back over my manuscript I realized I had created superheroes whose powers are created by their biology. There’s no magic involved, no arcane symbols, no mysterious shadows. I don’t spend a lot of pages detailing the biology, but it still falls into the genre of romance and the subgenre of science fiction.

Blood Surfer is also has thriller elements in that it’s very fast-paced, there’s a really big bad bang that will happen if the heroes don’t prevail, and a rip-roaring fight at the end.

 

RS) What kinds of things do you see in romance that you wish there was more of in science fiction?

DJ: HEA, or Happily Ever Afters, even if it’s not a romantic HEA. If not that, then HFN, Happy for Now (used when writing a series). Growing up in the 70s, I had a rude awakening after watching Star Wars. My dad, who worked for a newspaper, would buy boxes of books whenever the newspaper would sell the books mailed in for review. There were a lot of science fiction in those boxes because he knew how much I loved Star Wars, but every single one of the books he gave me ended with the hero dead, or these long, drawn-out pyrrhic victories that left me feeling disappointed or distressed. I was too young at the time to understand Star Was was more space fantasy or space opera than traditional science fiction. Luckily, my father didn’t give too much thought to what he was buying me, so there were also boxes filled with romances, mostly regencies or contemporaries. With maturity, I began to appreciate a less than HEA in a book, but I still prefer the HEAs you get with romances.

RS) What is your superhero name?

DJ: Agent Jess, International Woman of Mystery.

RS) Tell me about the first issue of the comic book based on your secret life as a superhero.

DJ: I first report to headquarters where my boss gives me a new assignment: stop Eric the Evil from wrecking havoc all over some exotic locale (preferably some place with beaches). Then I swing by a swanky bachelor pad to pick up my incredibly handsome and hunky sidekick (because what’s the point of having a sidekick if he isn’t handsome and hunky). We climb aboard our private jet aircraft (using our government issued credit cards) and plot how to take down EtE while enjoying several rounds of fruity drinks. Upon arrival, we track down EtE where I give him and his hench-horts (a cross between henchmen and cohorts) a big, bloody beatdown while engaging in witty repartee with my sidekick who’s busy protecting the civilians who gaze in awe at my prowess. Finally, EtE surrenders, exhausted of all witty comebacks. Then I toss EtE over to my still handsome and hunky sidekick who secures him in our indestructible and highly secure bounce house. The sidekick and I retire for a late afternoon stroll on the beach hand-in-hand (I did mention I write romances, remember?).

RS) You say that you write about ordinary people in extraordinary situations. What is it about that combination that appeals to you?

DJ: The idea that anyone, anywhere, at any time can rise to the occasion and save the day. Superhero storylines use this device all the time. Steve Rogers tried so hard to become a soldier, knowing deep down he already had the heart and the attitude of one. When he becomes Captain America, he’s already a superhero, but now his outsides matches his insides. Alternatively, Superman can leap tall buildings in a single bound, but Clark Kent still needs a day job to his pay rent and buy groceries. They are mirror images of ordinary people in extraordinary situations.

In Blood Surfer, Hannah was born with her Alt power. She can cure anyone of any wound or illness without a second thought, but she’s on the run from those who would abuse her powers. Scott has no powers when he meets Hannah, but he still disobeys orders and protects her when he knows he’s supposed to arrest her. Scott makes a brave choice knowing he could lose everything he’s worked so hard to achieve: a job he loves, his home, and his friends. That’s what heroes, not just superheroes, do.

RS) Any projects or anything else you’d like to talk about?

DJ: I’m having a lot of fun playing with my Thunder City superhero series. A Secret Rose and Blood Hunter (books 1.5 and 2) are now available. This year, I’ll be releasing A Secret Life and A Secret Love (books 2.5. and 2.6) and next year, I hope release book 3 currently titled Blood Avenger.

In the meantime, I have a couple of short stories available: Shaped By You is available in the December 2018 issue of Heart’s Kiss magazine, and Blood & Armor which is available in the Fragments of Darkness anthology.

If anyone is interested in exploring the Science Fiction Romance subgenre, I would recommend Portals published by the Science Fiction Romance Brigade. There are seven volumes of first chapters written by SFR authors. All seven volumes are free, so you can get a taste of what SFR has to offer.

Silly Interview with Henry Lien, but Also Lots of Cute Bird Pictures

(This interview was originally posted on my Patreon. Thank you, patrons!)

RS: You own birds. Tell us about the birds. Provide pictures of the birds.

I can only speak about the parrot family. Parrots, including small parrots like my two conures (miniature parrots), give us a fascinating glimpse into evolution. They are like a combination between dogs and cats. They are so smart, like little dogs that can fly and sing or talk and they are very relational, including with their humans. They have huge personalities for just 30-50 grams of pet. On the other hand, their moods and emotional landscapes are so complicated and swiftly changing, like cats. But because they are as relational to humans as dogs, they are never aloof. When they are pissed at you, they don’t go off and sulk. They let you know it and aggressively punish you for it. They are very good at communicating their moods to you with every method of expression they have, including calls, songs, and biting. When you spend time with parrots, it is easy to imagine that some form of dinosaur might have evolved to human-level intelligence in the past 65 million years if that asteroid hadn’t struck. I, for one, would welcome a planet ruled by parrot  overlords.

Pictures of my parrot overlords attached.  

RS: Can I come meet the birds sometime? Do they like people? I promise not to bring the cats.

They love human visitors! They have free reign of my house, so they will land on you and answer when you talk to them and generally be very social and relational. Until you do something that startles them and then they will fly away and scream because you have turned into a horrible monster. Their worlds are filled with drama.

RS: Your fiction often takes place in a fictional Hong Kong where a number of East Asian cultures are blended. What does this allow you to do, and what challenges does it cause for you?

It’s more of a fictional Taiwan that I call the island of Pearl. The blending of East Asian cultures is intentional and authentic. Taiwan was colonized by the Japanese for fifty years. My parents’ generation grew up with Japanese names and spoke Japanese and love Japanese food, music, etc. The relationship between China and Taiwan is very complex. When the Nationalists came over from mainland China and took over from the Japanese, they massacred tens of thousands of intellectuals and other figures perceived as threats in the Taiwanese populace. So Taiwan is a complicated, divided culture, which I find so interesting, and I reflect that in Pearl. Further, I feel strongly that fantasy writers of East Asian descent should be allowed to experiment and blend and play with East Asian culture. Writers of Western fantasy get to mix influences from multiple European cultures at once into their invented cultures. Neighboring cultures influence each other. The patterns of trade, war, conquest, and interaction mean that it is unrealistic to expect any but the most unusually isolated of cultures to remain uninfluenced by neighboring cultures. I love exploring cultural fusion in my life and in my writing.

RS: Skating is a major theme in your young adult novel. Do you skate?

I took figure skating and kung fu lessons as research for my stories set in the world of Pearl, including the PEASPROUT CHEN novels, which features a form of martial arts on bladed skates. My skills in both sports were appalling. But that was instructive. I learned that those are two sports where balance and flexibility are at least as important as brute strength and that there are things that lithe girls and young women can do that no man could ever do. I wanted to invent a sport that played to girls’ strengths and how girls are physically different from boys. My failures on the ice helped me write a book that was all about girl power. Also, the books are actually middle grade, not young adult, although they read like YA because they are intensely ambitious and the prose is quite elevated.

RS: Can you link to one of your favorite artists and describe what you love about their work?

I hope this isn’t spammy but actually, my Dad. I make my living as an author now but still deal art for fun on the side and he’s my top-selling artist. He does photography, including infrared photography. I’m a wordy person but it’s hard to put into words the emotion in his work. Here are a few images:

He only started less than three years ago, after he retired from being an engineer, but he’s taken off like a rocket. His work is already in museum and corporate collections. Art has given him a new life at this late stage of life and our relationship is so much richer because of it. I call him The Artist Formerly Known As Dad. Here’s his website: www.fongchilien.com.

RS: What’s the most adventurous thing you’ve ever done?

Hard question. I’m a shy, introspective, cautious, and solitary person by nature. But I also know that my life will be richer if I force myself to widen my comfort zone. I’ve made some whiplash career changes, including going from lawyering to dealing art and now to be a working author. I would say that the most adventurous thing I ever did was enter into a relationship with my former partner knowing at the outset that he had terminal cancer and then devising a logical, working system to continue communicating with him after he died. And then sharing that story very publicly. You can read it here. http://interfictions.com/supplemental-declaration-of-henry-lien-henry-lien/ Every bold and frightening life decision I have made has enriched my life. They have given me the sense that the world is filled with mystery and meaning and adventure, if you decide that it is going to be so.

RS: My favorite thing about “The Ladies’ Aquatic Gardening Society” is the wealth of rich, often disturbing detail you collected from the Gilded Age. Can you describe how you did that research? Was there anything amazing that didn’t make it onto the page?

I did a lot of reading about the social lives of the Grandes Dames of the Gilded Age and spent a lot of time at the spectacular Huntington Library and Gardens. The research wrote much of the story for me, because every one of the outrageous, excessive, repulsive parties depicted in the story was real. The breathtaking arrogance of the Gilded Age towards animals, the environment, and the working class and other disenfranchised populations provided such fertile, infuriating material to work with. The suffocating social strictures placed on women of this class were also great material. It was fascinating and depressing to learn what women of clear intelligence and talent did when they were allowed no meaningful endeavor towards which to employ their gifts. Nothing amazing failed to make it onto the page, but one thing almost failed to get included because I didn’t know about it. Connie Willis mentored me on this story at Clarion West. She was the one who told me the true story about the dinner party held by a society dame where the table was lined with a sand dune in which were buried real emeralds, rubies, and diamonds, which the guests were to search for with a shovel and bucket, as party favors. Thanks for that one, Connie. The story is available for free in print and podcast form here.

RS: Will you provide us with a vegan recipe?

I love sharing vegan recipes! The problem is that I never measure anything. I just look and taste. Here is a three course Taiwanese meal that I made recently. All vegan, soy-free, gluten-free, lowish-carb. Picture attached. If anyone is really interested, email me atinfo [at] henrylien [dot] com and I will jot down measurements next time I make it.

a. Cucumbers marinated in Bragg liquid amino (soy and gluten free soy sauce alternative), sesame oil, chopped garlic, and red pepper flakes.

b. Bean sprouts, celery, shiitake mushrooms, peanuts, scallions, stir-fried in sauce made of Bragg, sesame, white pepper, and star anise, garnished with cilantro.

c. Green beans stir-fried with button mushrooms, scallions, Beyond Beef pea protein beefless ground, stir-fried with white wine, Bragg, sesame oil, sriracha.

RS: Anything else you’d like to say? Say it loud, say it proud, say it here.

I’m really proud of my first novel PEASPROUT CHEN, FUTURE LEGEND OF SKATE AND SWORD, which the New York Times described as “Hermione Granger meets Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon meets the Ice Capades meets Mean Girls.” And the sequel PEASPROUT CHEN: BATTLE OF CHAMPIONS is even better. I write theme songs to accompany the PEASPROUT CHEN books and Idina Menzel, the star of Frozen, Wicked, Rent, and Glee, sang one of them with me at my book launch in April. I’d be honored if you’d take a look at the video of us singing it here: www.henrylien.com/peasproutchen.

RS: Now, dear reader, as your reward — have more parrot pictures.

Silly Interview with Krystal Claxton, Universe’s Foremost Expert on U.S. Geography

(This interview was originally posted on my Patreon. Thank you, patrons!)

A few years ago, I put together some silly interviews full of silly questions for my fellow authors. A number of them fell through the publication cracks then, so I’m running them now with updates.

(Krystal Claxton)

RS: Heinlein’s rules! In your bio itself, you mention that you “frequently disobeys Heinlein’s Rules.” Me, too. Which ones do you disobey most? Do any of them get on your nerves and jump up and down?

KC: I’m pretty bad at following Rule #3 “refrain from rewriting.” I tend to both write out of order and write way, way too many words for a given story and both of these leave me with an inclination for tinkering.

But let’s be honest. We all know #1 “You must write” is hardest. That blank page. The mocking blink of the cursor. A notebook full of endless blue college rule. We’ve seen the end and it’s an empty text file you were sure had something in it, berating you while you stand on the stage in the high school cafetorium. In your underwear.

KC2019: I overcame my difficulty with Rule 1 by instituting a policy of writing 100 words (or more, if inclined) every day. My longest streak to date is 572 days. I no longer fear a blank page, but I do still break Heinlein’s Rules.

There’s something kind of dickish about them despite the pithiness that made them stick. I’ve become wary of any advice that dictates One True Process and I’m afraid that Rules 3 and 5 aren’t viable for everyone. Rewrite if it’s part of your process. Don’t send out a story that you feel is no longer indicative of your ability or personal values. Even Rule 4 sounds iffy to me. Sometimes it’s good to write for yourself. Practice and love will benefit your more commercial endeavours. 

RS: Heh, “refrain from rewriting” is definitely one I disobey. But I admit it’s the one I was thinking about when I asked if any of them get on your nerves. It gets on mine. 😉

Moving on–apparently, you were “born with a miscalibrated sense of humor.” So–I must ask–what is your favorite joke?

KC: My biggest hurdle in telling a joke is remembering to provide context. I love a joke that takes two hours to set up. For instance, there’s an episode of Futurama “How Hermes Requisitioned His Groove Back” that is essentially 22 minutes of setting Bender up to tell this joke:

“I am Bender. Please insert girder.”

Hilarious, right?

I’ll supply you with some of my favorite jokes, but since I don’t want to take up your whole day, I can’t promise they’ll make sense:

“Do you like bread?” -Eddie Izzard
“Write it or I’ll break it off!” -Fletcher Reede
“And this was odd, because, you know,
They hadn’t any feet.” -Lewis Caroll

KC2019: Heh, those are still great jokes. Have you seen The Good Place? COMEDY GOLD. New favorites:
https://giphy.com/gifs/thegoodplace-season-2-nbc-3ohs7Yw7tA7JwHppF6

And, obviously:
https://media.giphy.com/media/3mJq8vQMfgIigg0Nht/giphy.gif

RS: You lived in nine states before you turned thirteen, which you write caused you to have “an oscillating accent.” What extremes does it oscillate between?

KC: Most oscillation occurs primarily between minute variations of Southern, though here’s a sentence you might reasonably expect to hear me say: “I’m fixin’ to toss these clothes in the warsher then put on my sneakers and go for a soda.”

(Texas, Boston, South Florida, EVERYWHERE BECAUSE IT’S CALLED SODA KTHX)

RS: Per above, are you really good at US geography?

KC:

Uhh. Yes. I’m so fantastic at Geography that it would blow your mind. Which is why it’s imperative that you never ask me to prove how awesome I am at Geography. For your own safety.

KC2019: Still don’t ask.

RS: What research topic has caught your attention just now?

KC: Techniques for sewing a Blind Hem/Slip Stitch with a sewing machine. Coffee brewing and cultivation. How to write good sex scenes. Myself for this interview.

KC2019: Reader, I decided on black tea instead of coffee.

RS: A lot of your short stories have been podcast. What’s rewarding about having fiction out in audio form?

KC: The indiscriminate tastes of podcast editors! No, no, I kid. Initially I was just looking for reprint markets and podcasts tend to be very open to previously-published works. Then Tina Connolly podcasted one of my stories on Toasted Cake and I discovered that it’s unbelievably fun to hear someone else read the words I arranged. Writing is just repackaging a free, abundant resource (words) into new shapes that you can con people into paying for. With podcasting those same words I arranged take on new life every time someone performs them. It’s fairly mind-blowing to observe how differently the story is in someone else’s head.

KC2019: BWHAHAHAHA. Oh dramatic irony of ironies. I’m now the special guest co-editor of PodCastle’s Artemis Rising 5 coming out in March!

RS: What’s upcoming for you? Please share!

KC: Speaking of podcasts.

My stories “Planar Ghosts” and “Heartless” are set to appear in Cast of Wonders and Far Fetched Fables, respectively later this year (KC2019: “Planar Ghosts” was a 2016 CoW staff pick ^_^). Once these come out, everything I’ve ever published will have also been podcast. So that’s neat.

In “Bitter Remedy” the titular character is a second-class superheroine with a secret: she’s also a mother. It’s just been republished by StarShipSofa with narration by Karen Bovenmyer and a feature on genre history from Dr. Amy H. Sturgis.

KC2019: Sadly, despite best laid plans at time of writing, I have stories published that have not been podcast… But that’s because I published new stories! Plot twist!

“Presently Me” is currently available to subscribers in Factor Four’s Issue 1.

“Life, hacked” is up to read for free at Nature: Futures. (Though I must suggest Nature’s podcast version performed by Shamini Bundell, also free.)

And “900 Seconds of Cognizance And Counting” is free to read in Factor Four Magazine Issue 4.

Silly Interview with Barry Deutsch, jew jew jew

A few years ago, I decided that I wanted to know some silly information about my fellow authors. So I put together some silly interviews full of silly questions. A number of them fell through the publication cracks then, so I’m running them now with updates. (If you’re interested in the prior features, including ones with people like Ann Leckie, you can find them on my blog here). Enjoy!

Barry drawBarry Deutsch

RS: Would your hero-fighting, Orthodox Jewish preteen, Mirka, ever fly a hot air balloon?

BD: If I can figure out a story that makes sense for, I’d love to do it! Hot air balloons are fun to draw. Also, I have this friend who writes science fiction stories, and who always reads over my Hereville scripts and makes great suggestions, who has been suggesting a hot air balloon Hereville plotline for years. So maybe if I ever do that, it’ll provide her with some satisfaction. 🙂

RS: Your brand of humor is so distinctive that I can spot it not only in your own work, but in the kind of drawings you pin on pinterest, and that sort of things. What would you say have been the biggest influences on the development of your sense of humor?

BD: Honestly, I have very little idea of what my brand of humor is, so it’s a little hard for me to pin down.

But I think that I’ve probably borrowed a lot from Harvey Kurtzman’s MAD stories, from Walt Kelly’s Pogo, from Doonesbury, and from Dave Sim’s Cerebus; at least, those were the funny works that I remember rereading a thousand times in my formative years. In movies and TV, I think the Marx Brothers were very important to me, and so was Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

RS: Did you ever seriously write prose with an eye toward publication?

BD: I never have. It’s something that I’d like to try to do someday.

RS: Do you remember why I asked you question 1?

BD: Did my science fiction writing friend with the obsession about seeing Mirka in a hot air balloon put you up to it?

RS: From a purely “fun to draw” perspective, why should people draw more flawed characters?

BD: Actually, I don’t know that they should. A lot of cartoonists rarely draw characters that don’t fit into a very narrow sort of attractiveness, and I assume the reason they draw that way is that this is what they find fun to draw.

But from a storytelling perspective, I think flawed characters are clearly better, because it’s so much easier for a cartoonist to make characters distinct and recognizable if they break out of that narrow “perfect pretty people” mold. In a lot of mainstream comics, it’s really hard to tell the characters apart. There are also really interesting stories to be told about people who look like ordinary people.

RS: What’s the funniest response you’ve ever gotten to a cartoon?

BD: In response to an anti-racist political cartoon, some infuriated racist emailed me calling me “jew” this and “jew” that (I am Jewish, but I’m puzzled why he thought I’d find this to be an insult) and finally, in an apparent fit of rage that put him beyond writing coherent thoughts, just ended the letter by saying “you jew jew jew!” That totally cracked me up.

RS: If you had to appoint zombie Scalia to an infinite (for he is undead) term on the supreme court, or Donald Trump for a finite term, which would you pick?

BD: Trump. The system has lots of vetos in place; we can survive four years of Trump. I hope.

Wait, no, now I feel guilty because of all the people who’d die in the needless wars Trump would start. Sigh. Zombie Scalia it is. But we need to have him chained up or something so he doesn’t bite Ruth or Sonya.

RS: If you had the opportunity to do your room up in any wallpaper from any time period regardless of expense or probability, what would you pick?

BD: I’d hire a British Artist named Charlotte Mann who hand-draws walls for people. I mean, look at this! That would be incredible. I’d be accosting strangers in the street and demanding that they come into my house and look at the walls.

2019 update: So what are you up to now?

I’ve been working on three main projects lately.

First, thanks to my wonderful supporters on Patreon, I’ve increased my output of political cartoons from six a year to forty-eight a year. People can read all those cartoons for free on my Patreon.

Second, with my co-creator Becky Hawkins, I’m working on “SuperButch,” a webcomic about a lesbian superhero in the 1940s who protects the bar scene from corrupt cops. We’ve got almost a hundred pages done already, and why yes, we do have a patreon, thanks for asking.

And finally, I’ve been writing graphic novel adaptions of Tui Sutherland’s amazing “Wings of Fire” series for Scholastic. The graphic  novels are being drawn by Mike Holmes, who has an unbelievable facility for drawing hundreds of dragons. It’s a fantasy series about a group of young dragons who believe they are destined to save the world. Of course, you already knew that, since you’re co-writing the adaptations with me, but pretending to explain that to you was a handy way of getting that exposition across to your readers. Hi, readers!

I have a couple of other big projects that I plan to work on in 2019, but they’re not yet at the discuss-in-public stage.

(This interview was originally posted to my patreon on January 25, 2019. Thank you to all the patrons who make this possible!)