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.

Patreon Content for May & June 2019!

Patreon content went up this week! There’s a poem for all patrons: ” Silver Tree Day” which I wrote about the street where my grandparents lived. For $2 patrons, there’s an excerpt from an unfinished story about first business in space exploration titled “The First Spaceship I Ever Flew.” And for $5 and up patrons, there’s a reprint of my story for Chicks Unravel Time, a collection of essays about Dr. Who from a feminist perspective, “Guten Tag, Hitler.”

Last month, I posted a story for all patrons “The Station at the Corner of Enning and Pine” I was 16 in 1998, and the political details of this era are in my skin.  For $2 patrons, there’s a rough story, The Noodle Effect, that I started with a three word prompt and a commitment to keep writing no matter how weird it went. And for $5 and up patrons, there’s a first to last draft evolution of  “If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love”.

As always, thank you to all my patrons! You help make my writing possible and keep my head in one piece!

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!)

Patreon Content for April!

Patreon content went up this week! There’s a poem for all patrons: “To the Person Leaving,” which I wrote for my grandmother’s funeral. For $2 patrons, there’s a chapter from an unfinished novel “Haloes of Limelight.” And for $5 and up patrons, there’s a reprint of my story with Trace Yulie, “Seven Months Out and Two to Go.”

As always, thank you to all my patrons! You help make my writing possible and keep my head in one piece!

Patreon content for January 2018

Patreon content for January has just been posted!

$1 and above patrons can read a piece from my recent found poetry kick based on google searches for emotions–in this case, “anxiety.”

$2 and above patrons get to see a sneak peek of a work in progress. This month’s came from a writing game I’m playing where we get various prompts to write a piece of flash fiction every week. This is from the prompt “describe an act of what looks like kindness, but is actually cruelty.”

And for $5 and above patrons, I reprinted my essay “Why We Tell the Story: The Political Nature of Narrative.” The essay first appeared in Timmi Duchamp’s collection Narrative Power, published by Aqueduct Press.

Thank you to all my supporters on Patreon! Your support makes a big difference in my life!

Making Lemons into Stuff: Appreciating A Decade of Hand-made, Artisinal Lemonades.

It’s the last day of my Making Lemons into Jokes campaign! Thanks to absolutely everyone who has contributed, supported, signal boosted, chuckled, and etc. And there’s still a little time to chip in! There are three stretch goals left —

$850 – A satirical essay by Greg Machlin on the topic of how I, personally, destroyed science fiction.

$900 – I’ll write a silly story based on a prompt that John Hodgman gave SFWAns at this year’s Nebula banquet.

$950 – I’ll write a silly story based on all three of his prompts.

$1000 – I’ll hire a professional to make the whole bundle into something pretty.

It would be nice to hit the last one; I could probably use the help. 😉

 

I’ve written a bunch about the harassment and the campaign this month. On Ann Leckie’s blog, I talked about why the common advice to ignore trolls isn’t enough. On Mary Robinette Kowal’s, I wrote about some of the threads of oppression that make solidarity personally important to me. On Jim Hines’, I wrote about coping with harassment as a vulnerable person.

Today, I wanted to write a little about the places where the light is increasing.

When I started selling my writing in 2005, if I wrote a story with queer characters, I had to think about where I could send it. Not all markets would publish things that pushed those boundaries. Even editors who had no problem with queer content might have to deal with things like school library distribution, where some librarians (more than do today) believed that “gay” = “sex” = “inappropriate for children.”

These days? I don’t even think about it.

These days, when a young trans writer asks me whether there are people with non-normative genders in the industry, I have instant access to an array of publicly known names like my former student, An Owomoyela, one of the fiction editors of the Hugo-winning Strange Horizons, Keffy Kehrli, a brilliant writer who is also running his own queer-themed podcast, and Charlie Jane Anders, whose beautiful writing has been acknowledged with well-earned awards.

In 2005, a venerated old, male writer grabbed a woman’s breast without her permission, on stage, in front of thousands. The science fiction community was befuddled, tripped over its own feet in confusion, and nothing decisive proceeded.

Now large numbers of pro writers have signed pledges not to attend conventions without harassment policies. Activists like Elise Mathesen, Genevieve Valentine, and Rose Fox, among so, so many others, have stood up to make those policies mean something.

And yet more activists, like Mary Robinette Kowal, Michael and Lynne Thomas, and Mari Ness, have come up with a similar pledge about accessibility policies, to try to extend that energy and protection to disabled congoers.

In 2008, fans of color stood up to be counted, because people didn’t even really believe they were there.

I think most white people know better now. It’s been a long time since I saw someone suggest everyone who said they were brown was a sock puppet.

Con or Bust did that. Tempest Bradford did that. The Carl Brandon Society did that. Smart, dedicated, writers activists and fans, did that, by raising their hands.

When I came into the field, I knew a little about post-colonial and Indian diasporic science fiction because of my anthropology classes, and I’d been reading some Japanese fiction in translation. But it’s only been in the past several years — thanks to the efforts of American translators like Ken Liu, and international critics and writers like Charles Tan and Lavie Tidhar — that non-anglophone speculative fiction is being widely read and heard in the United States, leading to the recognition of powerful, non-Western writers like Liu Cixin and Hao Jingfang.

Every single moment of progress has had its backlash, of course. When Nora Jemisin came to deserved prominence as one of this century’s most important, emerging voices, jealous graspers harassed her, to try to put her back in her “place.” Elise Mathesen and Genevieve Valentine are still subjected to victim blaming.

But they made a difference. They’re still making a difference.

If my post on Mary Robinette Kowal’s blog was about why people still need to stand together, then this post is the light side of that. When we push hard, and when we bear the costs of pushing, we can make progress. We have.

Posteriors for Posterity: An update on my fundraiser for LGBTQ health

It’s halfway through my Making Lemons into Jokes campaign, and I wanted to give an update.

Among other things, I wanted to clarify why I’m doing this. For people in the know, the reasons are obvious–but obviously, most folks aren’t.

Let me start by repeating a modified version what I said in my original post:

In my family, humor has always been a way of putting crap into perspective. When life hands you lemons, make jokes. And then possibly lemonade, too. It is coming up on summer.

 

In that spirit, I’m trying a self-publishing experiment. And that experiment’s name is “If You Were a Butt, My Butt.”

 

If my Patreon reaches $100 by the end of the month [Note: it has!], I will write and send “If You Were a Butt, My Butt” to everyone who subscribes with at least $1.

 

I will be donating the first month’s Patreon funds to Lyon-Martin health services. Lyon-Martin is one of the only providers that focuses on caring for the LGBTQIAA community, especially low-income lesbian, bisexual, and trans people. They provide services regardless of the patient’s ability to pay.

 

You don’t have to keep on paying into my Patreon  in order to participate! It’s just fine if you want to sign up, get your silly thing, and just support Lyon-Martin. I’ll send out a note after I release “If You Were a Butt, My Butt,” and remind folks to unsubscribe if they want to.

 

I also release a piece of original flash fiction or poetry to all my subscribers each month, so you’ll get June’s, too, along with the Butts, whether you keep on subscribing or not.

 

Humor can turn anything ridiculous. That’s part of its healing power. When that’s the aim, being mean-spirited or nasty defeats the point. I can’t promise I won’t make any metafictional jokes, but I’m not going to focus on it. The rare times I do, it will be silly.

That’s the plan! But I didn’t include the why of it all.

Short version: A bigot is using the Hugo Awards to harass me and LGBTQ people, so fuck him. Let’s follow the Scalzi strategy–and raise money for something he hates.

Long version: A few years ago, I wrote a short story called “If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love.” Sometimes stories take off, and this one did. I was honored by how many people it moved–people still come to me at conventions, and over social media, to tell me that the story was important to their lives.

“If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love” was nominated for the Hugo Award and the World Fantasy Award, and won the Nebula Award. For some folks in the science fiction world, this was cause for such a clash of sturm und drang that they aren’t over it years later. I admit I remain baffled as to why. There have been award winners throughout my life that I disliked for aesthetic or political reasons. The correct response–if you decide to respond at all (I usually don’t)–is talking about it, and mobilizing. It isn’t harassing authors.

Unfortunately, some of the folks who are in a snit have decided to go for the harassing. The white supremacist ring-leader has targeted minority writers before, including successful African American author N. K. Jemisin. He used our writers’ union’s resources to propagate his hateful, racial harassment, calling this accomplished writer a “half-savage” and implying she should be shot. The first, unmoderated comment on his post added that she should be gang raped as well.

I was one of the people on the union’s board at that time. So were other authors he has subsequently harassed, including John Scalzi and Ann Leckie. I am proud to have stood up for Nora against his harassment. But it put me on an enemy’s list–and here we are.

Although he and his followers are happy to use any excuse to harass me–anti-Semitism, sexism, fatphobia–mostly he’s gone after me and my readers for being queer. The bigoted rhetoric is especially nasty to trans people. And come on. Like they need more crap.

That’s where the Hugos come in. Since trolls gotta troll in order to justify their petty lives, they decided to troll the Hugo Awards. Want to know why? The same reason the neighborhood bully knocks over your Lego tower. They can’t figure out how to make one of their own. Using underhanded tactics, they nominated a “satire” of my work to the ballot, which the white supremacist posted on his own blog. As the publisher, he included a comment saying I should be killed. Sure, it’s phrased as a “joke.” But the dogs can hear the whistle.

Luckily, there’s a hilarious silver lining. Because he and his followers are the kind of juvenile people who assume “gay = porn” (apparently, the word “gay” causes them to compulsively think of gay sex, which must be alarming for a homophobe), they also nominated a piece of porn about a dude who has sex with dinosaurs. It’s called “Space Raptor Butt Invasion” and it’s hilarious because the story’s author, Chuck Tingle, is some sort of subversive, queer, meta-fictional performance artist. Remember when Stephen Colbert hosted the white house correspondence dinner because no one bothered to do their leg work? It’s like that.

It’s been a pleasure watching the trolls get trolled, but let’s be clear–there’s still harassment going on.

Fuck that.

I deserve better, and so does the LGBTQ community. Let’s be fun. Let’s be silly. And let’s raise some fucking money for poor queer people who deserve the same medical care as everyone else.

Would I also like people to support my Patreon? Sure. Real talk: I’m an author, and no matter what you’ve seen on Castle, most of us don’t make much dosh. My household is looking at a 50-66% reduction in income over the next year, so I need a hustle or two. I’ve built my career writing art house short stories. Perfectionism takes time! And when you’re doing freelance piecework, more time means less pay.

But you don’t have to support me at all. You can still have fun, participate in something silly, and send all your support to Lyon-Martin. They deserve your help!

So far, I’ve collected enough money to write “If You Were a Butt, My Butt” and make an audio version, too. I’m very close to reaching $300. Help me get there!

  • At $300, I’ll add another hundred dollars of my own to go to Lyon-Martin.
  •  At $400, I’ll also release a silly version of “If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love” about cuttlefish. Because cuttlefish are bizarre and awesome. You know it to be true.
  • At $500, cartoonist Liz Argall — creator of the Things Without Arms and Without Legs — will do an original comic on the topic of butts. Check out her work here: http://www.thingswithout.com/
  • At $600, I and several other authors will write a short story together about dinosaurs. Authors to be named later — believe me, they’re awesome.
  • At $700, puppeteer, audio book narrator, and all around awesome person Mary Robinette Kowal will record the audio version of “If You Were a Butt, My Butt” in her professional studio–and she will be amazing. Here she is reading some tweets by John Scalzi. Erotically.
  • I don’t have a goal yet for $800. Make me come up with one!

I hope you’ll consider donating. Because hate in the world is the worst, but we can counter it by doing good in the world. And by remembering to laugh.

And with butts.

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Awesome Patreon: Carmen Maria Machado

I’ve been trying to set up a new series to draw attention to cool Patreons, sort of like John Scalzi’s The Big Idea or Mary Robinette’s My Favorite Bit, but more haphazard. A couple of weeks ago, I accidentally linked to Carmen Maria Machado’s Patreon in advance of when I had everything ready. So–oops.

If you don’t know what Patreon is, it’s a website that matches creators with patrons who help directly support their art. Some patreons are set up by project–for instance, my friend Barry Deutsch receives payments whenever he finishes a new political cartoon. Carmen’s is set-up on a monthly schedule. It’s a cool way for fans to make sure their favorite creators can keep making art.

Carmen is one of my favorite new writers. She crafts beautiful, accomplished mergings of literary and horror fiction. She describes her own writing as “about sex, sexual agency, sexual violence, sexual oppression, desire, queerness, the female experience, illness & death, pop culture, hypochondria, the uncanny, the human body & its fragility, storytelling, myths, and fear.” I think she’s a strikingly original, inspiring talent. Last year’s Nebula-nominated novelette, “The Husband Stitch,” mingles immersive, psychological surrealism with campfire horror stories.

Carmen also agreed to do a short interview with me, which is below. Whether or not you decide to toss a few dollars her way, you should definitely check out her beautiful stories.

I really love your writing. One of the things I find most beautiful about it is the way it seems to wing free from traditional structures, and yet come together in this lovely, unexpected way that still feels satisfying and impactful. How do you approach structure as you write?

Every project is different. Sometimes I start off with a form in mind. Stories of mine like “Inventory,” “Especially Heinous: 272 Views of Law & Order SVU,” “We Were Never Alone in Space,” and “Help Me Follow My Sister into the Land of the Dead” were all born with their shapes intact. I wanted to write projects with certain kinds of forms or formal constraints, and that’s what I did.

But in “The Husband Stitch,” for example, the formal elements of the story didn’t come until later drafts. “The Husband Stitch” was initially just the main narrative—the woman living her life with her husband—and the parts where I tap into other urban legends only came later because I wasn’t satisfied with what I had. I also have another recent story (I don’t want to give many details; it’s on submission now) where I started off thinking about formal constraint and tried a few different ones, but the story really resisted, and so I backed off and wrote it without one.

Insofar as a story is alive, or at the very least a discrete thing with its own Platonic self, I think the story either absorbs artificial forms or rejects them. I just try to figure out what the story needs.

Horror. A lot of us grew up on, and recapitulate, fairy tales — me, Kat Howard, etc. Another thing I’m excited about in regard to “The Husband Stitch” is that you play with more unusual, but still culturally significant, narratives. Ghost stories, urban legends. Sofia Samatar and Genevieve Valentine have done a little of that as well, and I’m very intrigued by how it plays out. What about those narratives calls to you?

I once read this really great essay by the writer Hubert Dade where he talks about being compelled to write horror because life is horror—because we live in a world where people go to schools and shoot children and people kidnap and rape and murder and that he himself has his own fears about his life and what he has and what could be taken away from him. I always assign it to my students when I’m teaching horror because I think it directly addresses a common problem students and other early-in-their-art writers sometimes have, where they’re intrigued by the trappings of horror but are less interested in what makes something actually horrifying. (Lovecraft also addressed this in “Supernatural Horror in Literature,” where he separates “fear-literature,” which touches on cosmic dread, from “a type externally similar but psychologically widely different; the literature of mere physical fear and the mundanely gruesome.”) They have their characters run from monsters or get cut up all bloody-like or experience ghosts, but there’s no weight behind it, just splatter and gore and roaring.

I think that good horror always has a metaphorical component of some kind, where the story is touching on real human fear. What does it feel like to not be believed? What does it feel like to be up against something you can’t control or conquer? And so on. You can build any kind of narrative/world/trope over top of questions like that, and the story can be horror. (And it can be other genres, too. These are really basic human questions.)

This is a very long way of saying that horror calls to me because I am at times overwhelmed by life’s many terrors—death, illness, gendered violence, loneliness, well-intentioned evil, wasted time, the power of societal pressures and expectations, and so on—and I find the exploration of that (both in my reading and writing) to be a satisfying way to deal with those emotions.

The Iowa question. [Note: Carmen Maria Machado and I are both graduates of the Iowa Writers Workshop.] Tell us a thing or two you learned that the rest of us should know.

I don’t think I learned any kind of magic advice at Iowa that no one else has heard of, but there was one thing I saw modeled again and again that I really respected: honoring the project, and the writer’s intentions. A good teacher—and a good workshop in general—will be helping the writer make their story the best version of itself, rather than something they themselves would write. This isn’t always simple—sometimes the writer’s intentions are not exactly clear—but trying to get a story to switch genres or attacking it on the grounds of what it’s doing compared to your own fiction’s standards, as opposed to its own standards, is useless to everyone involved. This applies in any direction, whether it’s criticizing a story for not being “genre enough” (or genre at all), or criticizing it because it contains spaceships or aliens or monsters or fairies. These elements in and of themselves mean nothing; what is the author trying to do, and is their story doing that?

This sort of loops back to the idea of the story’s Platonic self. Lorrie Moore’s “Terrific Mother” (humorous realism) and Kelly Link’s “Magic for Beginners” (liminal & metafictional fantasy) and Alice Sola Kim’s “Hwang’s Billion Brilliant Daughters” (science fiction) are all perfect stories that are doing, in my opinion, exactly what they set out to do. Suggesting that they switch genres simply because you dislike or don’t understand one of those genres is ludicrous. I’ve seen this in workshops and writing groups and elsewhere and it’s always very disturbing to me. You might as well criticize a house for not being an apartment complex. Rather: is the house doing a good job of satisfying its own purpose, and if not, what can be done to make it better?

So, yeah. Ask yourself what the writer is trying to do. Respect the project.

What’s the worst writing advice you’ve received? 

“Write what you know.” It’s not that it’s the worst, precisely, just that despite its good intentions (helping young writers ground their narratives in experiences with which they’re emotionally familiar) it’s just very limiting. I think a better version would be “Start with what you know, or what interests you, and move outwards from there. Don’t be afraid.”

You get to walk into any horror story or urban legend in any role you want. Who would you be? 

Okay, I have thought about this question for, like, half an hour (seriously—I went and made myself a fresh pot of coffee and everything) and I think the answer is “none” because urban legends and horror stories never exactly turn out happy, well-adjusted, alive people at their ends. But I guess life doesn’t, either? I’ll stick to this role—my own—where I’m reasonably sure that supernatural things don’t actually exist, bring down the number of bad and sad things that can happen to me from “infinity” to “slightly less than infinity.”

Tell me about your Patreon and its goals. What projects are you working on that it will help fund?

Right now, I balance my teaching income (which, as an adjunct, is quite low) with freelancing. The freelancing is great and flexible, but time-consuming. My goal with my Patreon is to be able to replace freelancing projects to free up time for my fiction (which, at the moment, includes a few short stories and a novel project). At just over $100/month, I was recently able to drop a monthly assignment that’d been taking up about 10 hours/month. Any new contributions will build toward a second foregone assignment. And if you’re considering contributing: thank you so much! You can email me with any questions about my Patreon or other means of support at carmen dot machado at gmail dot com.