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Interview: Jim Aikin, on "Run! Run!"

Tell us a bit about the story. What’s it about?

I suppose I could say “Run! Run!” is about unicorns, but that would be simplistic. I could say it’s also about family dynamics and religious oppression, but that would make it sound terrifically pedantic.

Ultimately, it’s about the opportunities you missed in life. Things happen, and you can never go back and choose differently.

The other thing, and I don’t know if this will make sense until you’ve read the story, is that in the final paragraph Mary doesn’t even know what she has missed. The culture in which she lives has so impoverished her that she only has a dim, flickering sense that maybe things could have been different. That dim, flickering sense — those are the unicorns.

What’s the genesis of the story–what was the inspiration for it, or what prompted you to write it?

I had been reading fantasy stories, and noticed a trend toward starting a story as if it’s mainstream and then sneaking the fantasy element in through the side door when the story is about halfway along. This is not a bad way to write a story — I’ve done it a number of times myself. But on this particular day I was in a contrary mood. I felt it might be fun to write a story that proclaimed loudly, in the very first paragraph, that it’s fantasy.

So I wrote the two opening paragraphs of “Run! Run!”, ending with the description of what unicorn droppings look like (something I don’t believe Thurber ever mentioned, though the idea of unicorns eating flower petals out of your hand is Thurber’s, not mine), and then I had to come up with a story to go along with the opening.

One of the useful ways of generating a story from an initial idea is to ask, “Who is having a problem?” In this case, who could possibly have a problem with unicorns? The first people who came to mind were the people who want Harry Potter taken off the shelves of school libraries because it’s about witchcraft. Those people really do seem to want to drain the magic out of life. So I made them the villains.

The business about Christianity having triumphed is as much a fantasy as unicorns, but it’s their fantasy, not mine. I once played in a Christian music concert (I got paid good money, too — I wouldn’t have done it for free), in which the singer/songwriter had a lyric about looking forward to the day when the entire world would kneel before Jesus. These people really do believe that will happen someday.

Did the writing of this story present you with any significant challenges?

No special challenges. A woman at a cocktail party once asked Robert Frost (in a gushing tone, we can assume), “Oh, Mr. Frost, you must tell me: Is it hard to write poetry?” Frost answered, “Madam, either it is easy or it is impossible.” I wouldn’t dream of trying to improve on that.

On the other hand, another magazine just bought a story of mine that went through 12 drafts. “Run! Run!” was a stroll in the park by comparison. The business about the key to the gun cabinet — that just came to me. I did not sweat over it.

Most authors say all their stories are personal.  If that’s true for you, in what way was this story personal to you?

I don’t care much for Christianity. Given the choice between one fantasy and another, I’ll take the unicorns every time.

What kind of research did you have to do for the story?

When I was 22 years old I lived for a couple of years in upstate New York, not too far from Elmira. I had the fields along Mecklenburg Road outside of Ithaca very much in mind as I wrote this.

What are you working on now?

It’s difficult to keep myself psyched up to produce more stories when the market can’t absorb the new ones I wrote in the first half of the year. I’m amazingly grateful that F&SF picked up this story (and also “An Elvish Sword of Great Antiquity,” which I hope will be published soon — and boy, is there a story about how that one came to be written! I hope we can talk about it when the time comes), but I currently have four or five other stories languishing in in-baskets here and abroad.

The state of the publishing industry — feh. Don’t get me started on that topic. I’m not griping about my personal situation, I’m just saying, “It’s tough.” Tough for everybody.
I write a lot for nonfiction magazines. I’m very involved in professional music technology, primarily synthesizers and recording software. What I’m working on this morning is thrashing out a column topic for Electronic Musician. The nice thing about these magazines is that (with only one exception in the past six years out of a couple of hundred submissions), they buy what I write. I never have to shop anything around.

Three years ago I wrote a very long fantasy novel called The Leafstone Shield, but my agent (Howard Morhaim) didn’t feel it would be viable in today’s market. He felt it was too long, but my personal opinion is that “too long” is agent-speak for “not exciting enough.” He’s probably right.

The prospect of rewriting it, or writing another novel from scratch — why would I want to beat my head against that wall again? If somebody offers me an advance based on a chapter and outline, that would be different. But it would have to be a nice advance. And nobody is going to do that.

***

“Run! Run!” appears in our September 2008 issue. To learn more about Jim Aikin, visit his website at www.musicwords.net.

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