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Interview: Katie Boyer on “Bartleby the Scavenger”

- Tell us a bit about “Bartleby the Scavenger.”

It’s a re-telling in a different context of Herman Melville’s novella “Bartleby, the Scrivener.” Many elements are the same: the story is narrated by an employer who hires a man named Bartleby who, for reasons unknown, suddenly stops working. My story, though, is set in a future version of Birmingham, Alabama, after an apocalypse event, and the boss is a scavenger of resources from the former city, trying to save his crew from a bloodthirsty, sorority girl mayor.

 

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

As mentioned in the story notes, the idea for the title came from a student of mine who was having trouble with the unfamiliar word “scrivener” and so kept calling the Melville story “Bartleby the Scavenger.” I’d been wanting to write a dystopian tale, and I’d been wanting to write something set in my hometown, so the three things sort of collided—scavenger, dystopia, Birmingham. The rest was mostly working out the details of the world and the voice of the narrator.

 

- What kind of research, if any, did you do for this story?

I didn’t do a ton of focused research. I looked into some demographics for Birmingham, checked on how old the buildings are in certain areas, and investigated the kind of government currently in place in the neighborhood The Brook is based on. I did some reading on the firebombing of Dresden, Germany during WWII. A lot of the background, though, comes from what I might call “ambient research.” Much of what interests me about Birmingham in general found its way into the story. Plus, a few years ago, I went on a post-apocalypse spree and read a bunch of novels about the end of the world and/or oppressive government, so I felt familiar with the genre.

 

- Did you use the post-apocalypse, dystopian setting of your story to draw different conclusions about society than Melville did in “Bartleby the Scrivener?”

That’s an interesting question. There really is a lot of tender sadness and pity at the end of Melville’s story—his Bartleby has “preferred not to” engage in life, until he meets his end in jail, his face to the wall, even though the story’s narrator has tried various ways to reach out to him. I think we’re supposed to understand Melville’s Bartleby as a person who has seen the potential emptiness of modern life (the rumor is that his last job was at the “dead letter office”), and his job as basically a human Xerox machine seems to indicate that his personhood is caught up in, and crushed by, the machine of Wall Street. I guess one of the things that really interested me about the character of Bartleby was the question of whether there is any other way to interact with a system that treats people as if they are components in a machine. So, my Bartleby became a person who sort of floats above or outside the system. He definitely “prefers not to” do a lot of things, but it’s because he’s too content or optimistic or “good, man.” My conclusion about society may not be much different from Melville’s—I definitely feel the daily pressure to be part of a machine—but maybe my conclusion about how to react to it is distinct from Melville’s. But, of course, Bartleby still dies at the end, so maybe I’m just as pessimistic as Melville after all.

 

- Was “Bartleby the Scavenger” personal to you in any way?  If so, how?

I think I have an inner Peighton who gives me a “productivity quota” for every day. Teaching at a community college means there are large classes, and several of them, and there are constant demands on my time. Then there’s writing and life and family and housekeeping to maintain. The feeling that something terrible will happen if I don’t get it all done stays with me. I guess you could say Bartleby’s sense of calm is something I wish I could achieve—but he’s just a little crazy, so maybe not the best role model. The constant battle between productivity and contentment does seem very personal to me.

 

- What are you working on now?

I’m actually working on a short story collection in which I take classic stories and give them a modern, often sci-fi, twist, much like what happens in “Bartleby.” In this collection, for example, I put a James Joyce heroine on a space station. I’m also working on a couple of other non-adapted short stories and am dabbling in screenwriting. A lot of my creative work is being channeled through the MFA work I’m completing with Spalding University’s Brief Residency program.

 

- Anything else you’d like to add?

Just that I’m very pleased “Bartleby the Scavenger” was included in this issue. I’ve long been a fan of the magazine and very much enjoyed the other stories for May / June. It’s great to be in such wonderful company.

“Bartleby the Scavenger” appears in the May/June 2014 issue of F&SF.

Interview: Sarah Pinsker on “A Stretch of Highway Two Lanes Wide”

- What was the inspiration for “A Stretch of Highway Two Lanes Wide,” or what prompted you to write it?

I’d been reading articles about new prosthetics that interface with the brains of amputees. I took mine a few extra steps. The first line popped into my head fully formed, and the first paragraph, and then the road. I’ve driven through Colorado many times, and I love the way the plains and the farms and ranchland give way to mountain, so I ran with that. The cool thing was that I picked Lori’s name arbitrarily, and didn’t realize what I could do with the tattoo until later.  My process is sort of like driving, too: I set out with a destination in mind, but the place I wind up isn’t always exactly the place I thought I was going.

 

- Was this story personal to you in any way?  If so, how?

When I was fifteen I was part of an exchange that took me to Saskatchewan. I went to a bonfire with my host, where the guys all drank beer and the girls mixed their beer with clamato, which is about the most disgusting mixer I can think of. I’ve been holding onto that detail for a long time waiting to use it in a story. Beyond that? I’ve never thought I was a road, but I’ve spent a lot of time on them. And I definitely know what it’s like to feel split between two places.

 

- What kind of research, if any, did you do for this story?

I did some research on prosthetics and occupational therapy, and on modern farm equipment and crops of Saskatchewan. Oh! And now I know how to make a homemade tattoo gun. I know horses and I know roads, and I’m pretty good at capturing the spirit of places that I’ve traveled, so those parts were easier.

 

- Could you speak at all to the juxtaposition in your story of high-tech sci-fi (bionic prosthetics) with a noticeably mundane setting (small-town farming community)?

First off, big farms like Andy’s parents’ are already very high tech. The equipment, the monitoring. I made Andy a more traditional farmer in order to widen the gap between the high-tech and the character. I think a lot of farmers are dealing with it on a non-metaphorical level. Small farmers struggle to make ends meet. Large farmers have to give up the practices that we think of as farming. Animals on commercial farms have it pretty rough, and people who want to farm food crops instead of commodity crops have it pretty rough. Even old-school Andy is farming canola. I guess all that is to say I don’t think it’s such a stretch to put bionic prosthetics onto a near-future farm.

 

- What are you working on now?

I’ve always got a couple of stories going, and I’m working on a novel that also deals with the consequences of small medical strides in the near future.

 

- Anything else you’d like to add?

I’ve been reading F&SF since I could first read. It’s a pleasure to have a story in the magazine.

“A Stretch of Highway Two Lanes Wide” appears in the March/April 2014 issue of F&SF.

Interview: Alyssa Wong on “The Fisher Queen”

- Tell us a bit about “The Fisher Queen.”

“The Fisher Queen” was the first story I wrote at the Clarion Writers’ Workshop of Science Fiction & Fantasy. My instructor Andy Duncan convinced me that if I really wanted to write a mermaid story, I should follow my impulses and write one, and Nalo Hopkinson was kind enough to give feedback on it.

I love fish. No, really. Fish are one of my favorite life forms to study and observe. I think they’re very cute, but I also eat them. A lot. That strange dichotomy definitely gave birth, in part, to “The Fisher Queen.”

 

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

I wrote “The Fisher Queen” as a wedding present for my friend, Katie. Since her favorite fairytale is “The Little Mermaid,” I really wanted to write her a mermaid story.

I think I wrote four other stories, none of which managed to contain mermaids, before I could figure this one out. The closest I got to mermaids before “The Fisher Queen” was a story about sand whales, which, uh, isn’t the same thing at all.

 

- Was “The Fisher Queen” personal for you in any way, and if so, how?

Absolutely. Two prominent themes in “The Fisher Queen” are the effects of systematic violence against women and the costs of not speaking up in the face of injustice. These are issues that impact us, our loved ones, and everyone around us, every single day, and have the power to destroy us–sometimes slowly over a lifetime, sometimes in a burst of passion and hate.

It is also a story about being young, full of wrath, and surrounded by atrocities that you can’t yet name but also can’t ignore. I was very much like that when I was fifteen years old, and sometimes even now.

 

- Did you do any research for “The Fisher Queen?”

I had to do a lot of research. I grew up in the desert and I’ve been on a boat once, maybe twice; the strongest memory I have of being on the water was clinging to a rope in a tiny fishing boat, bobbing through a Chinese harbor, seasick out of my wits. I was probably 10 years old.

For this project, I watched a lot of documentaries about the Mekong and about fishing. I also watched a lot of River Monsters. Like, three seasons of it.

 

- Would you say that you wrote a transgressive story?  Lily exacts a harsh retribution on her father and the other crewmen of their fishing boat, but one could say that the behavior they engaged in, i.e., raping captured mermaids, is also transgressive; perhaps not to the society described in your story, but certainly to the reader.  Could you expound on this at all?

Rape culture is a distressing reality in both our world and the world of the story. However, Lily’s demands for justice are enacted through personal violence rather than rallying her community for greater societal change. Her methods are presented as undeniably destructive, but somehow, personally acceptable… and hopefully, by the end of the story, very satisfying.

Lily is a kind, violent, selfless, and selfish young woman. Having her choose to destroy her family through her final actions in the story is transgressive, but one could also argue that the family was deteriorating already: her father is a rapist, her sister and her mother are victims… everyone is a victim of this system, including Lily and her father.

The first stories I heard about mermaids as a kid were about how sailors, homesick and horny, either mistook or imagined various ocean animals as part woman, part fish creatures. Is it really a huge stretch of the imagination to wonder if some of these men, ‘starved’ for female sexual attention that they thought they deserved, might have raped animals or each other?

The world of “The Fisher Queen” is strange, perhaps, and the crimes are sickening, but they are very firmly rooted in our own reality. If the idea that rape is evil and deserves punishment, even and especially violent punishment, seems absurd, then this story is indeed, and sadly, transgressive.

 

- What are you working on now?

I’m working on a biopunk, neo-noir novel, a Southern gothic horror story, and am buckling down for a hardcore revision session with a sci-fi piece from Clarion.

 

- Anything else you’d like to add?

I owe a lot to my instructors Kelly Link and Karen Joy Fowler for pushing me to send “The Fisher Queen” out into the world, and to Ellen Datlow for guiding me through the short story market to F&SF.

Also, thank you for reading my story. It means a lot to me.

“The Fisher Queen” appears in the May/June 2014 issue of F&SF.

Interview: Jonathan Andrew Sheen on “The Shadow in the Corner”

- Tell us a bit about “The Shadow in the Corner.”

“The Shadow in the Corner” is an homage to the late HP Lovecraft. It’s my humble way of trying to play with the idea of making some of the standard tropes of horror work in the modern world. I sometimes seen “modernized” horror tropes that are attempts at subversion — “I defeated the vampire by shining a sun-lamp at him, because the lamp had the same wavelengths as sunlight” — and I always find that approach annoying. When you’re dealing with the supernatural, I feel like it’s a cheap ploy to treat it as if it’s bound by scientific principles. So I wanted to arm modern, competent, technological heroes with all the advantages that we have, lasers and computers and the internet and command of quantum physics, and still show them helpless in the face of Lovecraft’s Elder Gods.

 

- “The Shadow in the Corner” is a story in the Lovecraftian tradition: was there a specific story, by Lovecraft or another writer, which provided any inspiration for yours?

Well, there was “The Whisperer in the Darkness” — and the movie adaptation of it by the HP Lovecraft Historical Society — that gave me a feeling for looking at Miskatonic University as a real school that students would attend and where professors would do real scientific research. There was “At The Mountains of Madness,” which was the first Lovecraft story I read, again for ideas about the University. And, of course, “The Call of Cthulhu” (and here again, I can’t say enough about the importance and high quality of the silent movie version made by the HP Lovecraft Historical Society. Those folks are just amazing artists, and the conceit they use making their movies — making them in the style that would have been used had they been filmed when they were released in print — is stunningly effective.)

 

- Did you do any research for this story?

I read those stories, and looked around for the names of characters associated with Miskatonic. I already had vague notions of quantum entanglement, and I had a couple of science-savvy friends read the story to see if my use of it was too risible. (That said, I wasn’t all that concerned about solid science. It’s a Lovecraft Mythos tale — nobody’s reading that for the science!) I had, a few months previously, spent a day driving around Salem and Marblehead, Massachusetts, which is the region generally believed to be that of Lovecraft’s fictional “Arkham.”

 

- What is it about cosmic horror that you find so appealing as a writer?

Well, I don’t know that it’s a theme I’ll be concentrating on going forward, but the idea that something can be so alien and incomprehensible that simply seeing it can rob a man of his sanity is a compelling one.

What moved me to write the story was the combination of two things:

First, the notion I’d already had — inspired, truth to tell, by a cute image on the Internet, showing a giant thing chasing a man down the foggy streets of a small modern town, with the caption “Miskatonic – It’s a great school just don’t read any of the textbooks aloud” (http://img.photobucket.com/albums/v296/Mtrink/s640x480.jpg) — of Miskatonic University as a modern, real school, and what the history Lovecraft gave it would mean for people going there currently. I thought it would be a grim joke throughout Academe — but that those actually studying or working there would see absolutely no humor there.

The second was the notion of Agrawal Narendra’s method of escaping the horror in his mind. That awful image, when it arrived, carried with it the notion that an eldritch Thing from another dimension might invade ours through someone’s awareness of it, but it was the terrible act of self-destruction that told me I had a story here.

 

- What are you working on now?

“Working on” is too strong a word, but I’m playing with ideas about future law-enforcement involving cybernetically-upgraded federal agents and dogs. And, I promise, as much is it sounds like it, it’s in no way related to, nor similar to, my previous F&SF story (really, Matt Jarpe’s story with help from me) “The Bad Hamburger!”

 

- Anything else you’d like to add?

I had a lot of fun writing “The Shadow in the Corner,” and a wonderful experience with Gordon and Lisa and everyone I’ve had contact with at F&SF. It’s been a wonderful experience, and I hope to be able to come up with material to work with you all in the future.

“The Shadow in the Corner” appears in the May/June 2014 issue of F&SF.

Interview: Leo Vladimirsky on “Collar”

- Tell us a bit about “Collar.”

Collar is the story of two men whose need for each other will end up destroying one, or possibly both, of them.

 

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

Actually there were two main inspirations: one was a comment my father made a few summers ago. He was musing on how people complain about how expensive oil is, and yet energy is still so cheap it’s more economically viable to ship cast iron furniture across the globe than to make it at home.

The other came from an article I read (which actually pops up every now again) about the libertarian utopia of the island-city (as popularized in Silicon Valley just last night.) I think this particular article was by Peter Thiel.

So I just connected the dots and threw in a bit of a surfing beach here in NYC and my obsession with street markets.

 

- Was “Collar” personal for you in any way, and if so, how?

I can’t say I’ve ever been in such an extreme position as any of the characters, but I can see myself in any of their positions. But, like a lot of people, I’ve been out of work before and I know the claustrophobia and panic that set in over time.

 

- What kind of research, if any, did you do for this story?

So the whole synthfat thing was something that I researched. I remember reading about how the folks who swim the English Channel used to cover themselves in goose fat to keep warm. I thought that was a pretty visceral symbol and decided to write it into the story.

But… when I actually looked it up, it turns out that the fat was used to keep their skin from chafing in the salt water, not to insulate themselves. Apparently it would require some insane amount of fat to actually insulate them.

Luckily this is still fiction, so I’m allowed to take a few liberties…

 

- Is there anything you’d want a reader to take away from “Collar?”

That is entirely up to the reader. People have very different interpretations of this story and its world, which I love to hear. But I do think there is something optimistic in there, that we find a way to survive no matter what absurd conditions are placed on us.

 

- What are you working on now?

A director friend of mine and I are exploring whether Collar can live as a film, which is pretty exciting. I’m also working on a few more stories set in this version of NYC (there’s a reference to the Manhattan Bypass Bridge that I’ve been exploring.) And I keep trying to figure out how to turn Das Orbit (a blog fiction project I’ve been writing for years) into a novel.

“Collar” appears in the March/April 2014 issue of F&SF.

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