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Interview: Kali Wallace on “Botanical Exercises for Curious Girls”

- Tell us a bit about “Botanical Exercises for Curious Girls.”

“Botanical Exercises for Curious Girls” is the story of a young girl
who lives a very isolated, very restricted life, and the day she
learns certain things about herself and the people around her, who
they are and what they’re doing, and from that begins to realize how
she escape to something else.

- What is the genesis of this story – its inspiration, or what prompted you to write it?

Conversations about robots, of all things, and a lot of time staring
out the window at trees. I was talking to some friends about robots
who don’t know they are robots, and from there I started thinking
about a character who doesn’t know she’s a mad scientist’s experiment.
The idea went through several iterations after that, various robots
and machines, biological and mechanical creations, magical constructs
and so on, until I found the right one.

- What would you say is the tone of “Botanical Exercises…?” Dark?
Hopeful? Or something else entirely?

There’s a definite creepy, sinister edge, but tempered by the fact
that the story is told through the perspective of a character who is
more inquisitive than fearful. My goal was to balance the fact that
where Rosalie lives and the realities of her life are quite
unpleasant, but she still finds them to be full of wonder and beauty.
Put the same character in a different setting, or put somebody else in
that same old house, and what they see and how they feel will be
completely different, and all of that is a puzzle of layering the
right words in the right places. That’s the fun of developing a tone
that suits the story. I do like to think it ends on a more hopeful
note.

- Most authors say their stories are personal. If that’s true for you,
in what way is your story personal?

I think everybody has days – weeks, months, years – in which we wake
up and look around us and realize that where we are, who we are, and
what we’ve been made into is not all we want it to be. That feeling,
the feeling of looking out the window and thinking, “I don’t want to
be here,” I think that’s universal, but a universal experience alone
isn’t enough to make a good story. That’s where the personal
experience comes into it. There’s no specific correlation to any event
in my life, but it is a summation of experiences: What does that
restless dissatisfaction feel like? What do I notice? What do I
remember? What am I scared of when I’m on the verge of a tremendous
decision, something that could change everything or end very badly?
Those are the questions I asked myself, and poked and prodded the
answers in a mildly uncomfortable manner before sorting out what I
wanted to say about them.

- What kind of research did you do for your story?

Very little. I looked up the genus names of a few plants and trees,
because I wanted them to have identifiable real world counterparts,
and then made up the species names.

- “Botanical Exercises…” is your first published story. What
motivates you to write science fiction?

Science fiction is the perfect outlet for combining the two things I
love best about writing: telling stories I have no other way of
telling, and making stuff up. All of the trappings of science fiction
are great fun; I’m a scientist by training and love exploring the
edges of what isn’t yet possible, or might never be. But more than
that, what I love most of all that uneasy border between the literal
and the metaphorical, the point in good speculative fiction where the
reader asks, “What is this story about?” then does a double-take,
gives it another look, and asks again, “No, wait, what is this story
really about?” When it’s good, speculative fiction can do that better
than anything. There are rules, but they are fluid. Even in a story
full of familiar realism, we can find those spots to slip over into
something bigger and weirder and – if we’re doing it right – end up
with something that isn’t less than reality, or removed from reality,
but is instead this world, the one we live in but don’t entirely
understand, examined from a different perspective.

- What are you working on now?

I’ve got a number of short stories in various stages of completion,
and I’m currently working on a YA novel that involves spending an
awful lot of time assessing cemeteries in terms of the potential ease
of midnight body-snatching. For research purposes. I promise.

“Botanical Exercises for Curious Girls” appears in the March/April 2011 issue.

Interview: Ken Liu on “The Paper Menagerie”

- Tell us a bit about the story.

“The Paper Menagerie” is about an American boy whose mother was a mail-order bride from Hong Kong. As he grows up, he becomes conscious of the prejudices of neighbors and classmates directed against his mother and himself, and he comes to resent her for tagging him as alien. But a collection of origami animals made by his mother when he was a child come to life and give him a message.

- What is the inspiration for this story, or what prompted you to write it?

There were multiple sources for this story. One, I enjoyed making origami animals when I was a child, and they provided endless hours of imaginative play. Two, the novel Auntie Duohe, by the Chinese writer Yan Geling, moved me with its portrayal of a mother and children caught between two cultures. Three, I read several accounts written by mail-order brides about their own experiences, and I was struck by the enduring humanity of these narratives of individuals forging new identities while holding onto the old. The ideas percolated around my head for a while before they coalesced into this story.

- Most authors say their stories are personal.  If that’s true for you, in what way was “The Paper Menagerie” personal to you?

My wife and I just had our first child last year, and the experience made me reflect a lot about parenthood. As a parent, one source of anxiety is how your children will come to see you, whether they’ll understand you, know you, and be able to take meaning from your life. I think all parents are fundamentally afraid to appear incomprehensibly alien to their children. That’s the theme of the story.

- What kind of research did you have to do for “The Paper Menagerie?”

I was glad to take up origami again and to learn new folds and shapes that had been too difficult for me as a child. It was a lot of fun to try to see how the paper animals would fly, walk, leap, and pounce if they were alive.

- What are you working on now?

A couple of short stories, and a novel that I’m co-writing with my wife. It’s really hard to find time to write with a baby around, but it’s also gotten us to be much more focused when we do have a few moments to write.

- Anything else you’d like to add?

I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the positive feedback I’ve gotten from readers on this story. I’m glad to see that it resonates with many.

“The Paper Menagerie” appears in the March/April 2011 issue.

Interview: Sheila Finch on “The Evening and the Morning”

- What is the genesis of this story – its inspiration, or what prompted you to write it?

Over the course of the lingster series, I became aware of a lot of unanswered questions that I’d written into the stories: Who were the Sagittans? Why were the Venatixi looking for them? What was the nature of the subtle relationship between Humans and Venatixi? Would there ever come a day when the lingsters were no longer needed in the Orion Arm? As I prepared the collection (The Guild of Xenolinguists) for publication, I began to hear a voice in my mind; later, he acquired a name, “Crow,” which even later still I realized was a nickname. There was something nostalgic in Crow’s voice, a tone I hadn’t encountered with any other lingster or magister or eruditus. Crow, I realized, came from the Guild’s end times. As soon as I got this straight, I knew I wanted to write the end of the saga in order to find out for myself what happened.

- “The Evening and the Morning” wraps up a long-running series of stories.  What drew you to invent and write about ‘lingsters,’ and how did you come to decide that this latest novella would wrap up the whole saga?

I did it all wrong when I started writing about the lingsters! I had no idea that I was actually writing a series until I’d already published the first short story, “Babel Interface,” and the novel, Triad. The editor who published “Babel” encouraged me to write more stories about first contact and language issues. So I embarked on what became “A World Waiting” – and I immediately discovered I’d already written myself into a corner in this new universe I was creating. For instance, I discovered that I’d set the locale of the Mother House in Geneva when I’d much rather have had it almost any place else, certainly some place more exotic. At that point, I backtracked and wrote extensive notes (a bible of sorts) about the Guild and how it operated, and I’ve stuck with them ever since.

- How did you come to choose “The Evening and the Morning” as the title for your novella?

“The Evening and The Morning” (the title is from the King James Version of the Bible) suggested to me endings and beginnings, and from the very first draft it was the working title of the story – which took many months to complete. It went off track several times, and had to be dragged back whimpering and snarling. I put it on hold, mostly in despair of ever finishing it, and concentrated on a series of thousand word non-fiction essays about themes in science fiction, all of which appeared on SFWA’s Nebula Awards website. Then a couple of the other characters demanded to be heard, and I tried out their viewpoints, but they all had to be eliminated eventually. The story grew out of Crow’s nostalgia and his quest, which was also the Venatixi’s quest, and I wanted it to focus on that. (Along the way, I realized it had also become a meditation on what we mean when we talk about “God.”)

- What research did you have to do for this story?

Some of the research, on language origins, had already been done for the second half of the novel Reading the Bones, leaving me free to read widely in studies of the Corvus family.  I admit to being utterly fascinated by crows and ravens and their kin, and I read without knowing at first what I was looking for or how I was going to use it. That’s the best kind of research for a fiction writer, if you ask me. I also was influenced by a recent book about what the Earth would look like without us, and by all the wonderful, disturbing speculations, both scholarly and fictive, of the world post-singularity.

- What are you working on now?

At present, I’m taking a break from the lingsters. I have scraps and rough drafts of several stories that have nothing to do with language that I want to work on. But I can’t promise never to return to the series – there’s lots of room in the middle! In fact, I’m working on my first collaboration with Juliette Wade, a story about a deaf lingster.

{for more info: www.sff.net/people/sheila-finch]

“The Evening and the Morning” appears in the March/April 2011 issue.

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