Tell us a bit about “Kormak the Lucky.”
It’s a story about an Irish slave in medieval Iceland and his encounters with a saga hero, elves, Irish fey and a magical smith out of an Eddic poem.
What was the inspiration for this story, or what prompted you to write it?
The story about the slaves killed to hide the silver comes from Egils saga Skallagrimssonar, a 13th century Iceland novel about the Viking and poet Egil Skallagrimsson. I have wanted for years to write a story about one of the slaves, who survives with the help of elves. I had an image, which was the seed for the story, and I put it in the story: the slave is trapped and about to die, then a door opens in stone, and an elf looks out and beckons.
What kind of research, if any, did you do for this story?
Not much. I know a fair amount about medieval Iceland, and I have read many of the Icelandic sagas. I’ve also read Icelandic folktales about elves. I did have to do some research on the Irish fey, and the story was checked by friends who know far more about the fey than I do. I didn’t reread Egils saga before writing the story. As a result I made Egil more scary in old age than the saga does. In some ways, he was pathetic. But he did in fact – as a blind old man of 80 – manage to kill two men. I did reread the Eddic poem about Volund and his revenge. It is impressively violent and cruel. Like many people in myths, Volund is not nice.\
Is there anything in particular you would want someone to take away with them after reading “Kormak the Lucky?”
One of the reviews complained that the title of the story is never explained, and that Kormak did not seem lucky to the reviewer. He is, in fact, very lucky. He survives Vikings, Egil, light elves, dark elves, Irish fey and Volund; and he comes out in pretty good shape. He is not a heroic person, but he is a person who stays alive and gets by and takes an interest in life, even though he is living in a brutal world. The Vikings are awful. Egil is awful. The light elves and the fey are awful.
Egil and Volund are genuine epic heroes, and anyone who wants to spend time with them is a fool. Though reading and writing about them is fun.
Among other things, the story is about getting old. It begins with Egil frustrated by his age and blindness and wanting, out of frustration, to start a fight – maybe a war – at the Althing. Unable to do this, he commits murder. At the end of the story, Kormak decides to have a good old age, which he does. We have some choice in how we age. Egil decides to be angry and brutal. Kormak decides to be a kind and decent person.
The story is also about wanting to be free. Kormak and Svanhild both want to escape. They end by escaping to different places and in different ways. Svanhild is completely selfish. Kormak is willing to be helpful, though it’s hard to remember to be helpful in the land of the fey, and he is willing to be human and grow old.
Was the conception or writing of this story personal to you in any way?
Absolutely personal. My father’s parents migrated from Iceland to Canada. The family farm, still owned by a relative, is in Borgarfjord, and Egil is supposed to be an ancestor of mine. He may well be. Icelandic genealogies are reliable.
I studied medieval Icelandic in graduate school and can still understand a bit with the help of a dictionary. I’ve been to Iceland twice and want to go again. “Kormak” is the fifth fantasy story I have written based in Icelandic literature and folklore. If all goes well, a collection of all five stories (and maybe a sixth) will come out at the end of this year.
And I am no longer young. So the decisions the various characters make on how to deal with aging mean a lot to me.
What are you working on now?
A novel, which is a sequel to Ring of Swords, a novel published 20 years ago now. This will come out from Aqueduct Press, once I finish revising it. The working title is Hearth World.
Also a number of short stories. I usually have several stories going at once. I’m not sure this is a good idea, but it seems to work for me. Among them is another Icelandic fantasy, this one about the Laki volcanic eruption in the late 18th century. The eruption changed the weather of Europe for several years and helped cause the French Revolution by making the harvests in France bad. It also killed a quarter of the population of Iceland. I want to have an Icelandic farm family, fleeing the eruption, meet a family of trolls, also fleeing the eruption. Icelandic trolls are big, strong, ugly and not always the sharpest knives in the drawer. They can be dangerous. I like them, or least I like my version of them.
“Kormak the Lucky” appears in the July/August 2013 issue of F&SF.
- Tell us a bit about “The Year of the Rat.”
At the beginning of the Year of the Rat (early 2008), this title started to hover around in my head, but I never could find the right story or concept to go with it. I attempted several false starts: in one, a family living on a small island welcomed visitors from the mainland; in another, a lonely loser of a guy recalled his painful personal history on Christmas night. But I didn’t like either, and so I put the project aside.
The week before the end of the Year of the Rat (early 2009), I returned to my hometown to spend Chinese New Year with my family. Suddenly, it was like I was struck by something, and the story appeared, fully-formed, in my mind. I wrote it down in four days, and basically that draft was the final version.
- What was the inspiration for this story, or what prompted you to write about it?
Writing is a bit like doing a jigsaw puzzle. Your brain takes bits and pieces of the information you encounter during daily life and rearranges them, edits and shapes them, forms them into a new picture. I’m guessing that my inspiration came from the news and the experiences of those around me. Ever since the Chinese education system acquired a business-oriented focus, colleges minted millions of new graduates every year. But due to the weak economy, many couldn’t find jobs. I encountered these young men and women, feeling adrift, in my life often. I wanted to write something for them because few pieces of fiction portrayed the lives of unemployed, new college graduates.
Putting a science fictional spin on the concept made the observations more interesting, and I thought it gave the story a kind of universal meaning that was applicable not just to the college graduates, but also to everyone.
- What kind of research, if any, did you do for “The Year of the Rat?”
I researched the reproductive habits of rodents and their sex ratios. The bits about life in the army were based on my personal experience. In China, all high school and college students must undergo military training (ranging from a week to a month). During my military training at Peking University, I kept a diary. Some of the contents of that diary made it into the story.
- Was the conception and/or writing of this story personal for you in any way?
I was, or maybe I still _am_, one of those lost young men. In China, the propaganda of collectivism infuses the educational experience of every young person. But at the same time, we are all exposed to extreme acts of selfishness in society, not just by individuals, but also by interest groups and the government. This kind of schizophrenic existence leads to confusion, and many of us do not even understand ourselves, much less how to address the relationship between the individual and the collective, between self and society.
Of course, I wasn’t attempting to answer these questions in my story. I just wanted to use the form of the narrative to get readers to think about them.
- What might you want a reader to take away from “The Year of the Rat?”
I’ve been surprised to find “The Year of the Rat” a reader favorite—it’s probably the most popular of my stories. I suppose it’s because the story struck a chord with many young people. A lot of readers posted on the web about how much they liked this tale, and many debated the meaning of certain details in the story that were deliberately left vague: e.g., the suicide of the Neorats and the source of their illusions. Some readers came up with their own explanations for these events, and sometimes their theories were even more detailed and complete than my own ideas.
In any case, I think readers got what I wanted them to consider from reading the story: the individual and the collective, freedom and control, choice and obedience.
- What are you working on now?
Earlier this year, I published my debut novel, THE WASTE TIDE, which was well received. Right now I’m looking for an opportunity to publish it in English (and I hope my friend Ken Liu will translate it, as I think he would be a great choice).
I’m also working on a story about cyborgs, which will be in Neil Clarke’s UPGRADED anthology—it’s an honor for me to be invited to contribute. In addition, I write nonfiction features and op-eds for some mainstream media (Bazaar Man, New York Times (Chinese Edition), etc.), and I may get an opportunity to develop science fiction films.
I feel excited and fortunate to be where I am in my career.
“The Year of the Rat” appears in the July/August 2013 issue of F&SF.
When asked about his novella “Wormwood is Also a Star,” Andy Stewart responded with this short essay.
When the Fukushima nuclear plant was close to meltdown after the tsunami in Japan a few years back, I found myself randomly reflecting on my 5th grade year of elementary school, thumbing through the old National Geographics crammed together on Mrs. Pearson’s shelf. I obsessed over the one headlining the 1986 Chernobyl disaster. I was too young when it actually happened to properly remember, but had a basic understanding of the event when I stumbled across the volume. It was already many years old, and I couldn’t tell if the coloring of the cover and the pages inside was made drab from age, or if everything in that city was just that gray and desaturated.
Those images of the city, of the Ferris wheel popping up above the trees in the distance, of the clean-up crew in their olive green hazard suits, of the skinny children, must have imbedded themselves in my memory.
Jump to early 2011, and I start thinking, at first, that I should write speculatively about a nuclear meltdown, something with a sci-fi twist pertaining to children, but then I think, why not go back and dig into all the fear and power I felt when looking at those photos in 5th grade?
I officially began to piece the novella that became “Wormwood is Also a Star” together after my stint in the Clarion Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers’ Workshop at the close of summer 2011. I left Clarion energized to focus on fiction that pertained to relationships, particularly difficult relationships (I owe that bit of direction to Kij Johnson’s guidance in particular). And, for whatever reason, I found myself thinking about stuff that really scared the shit out of me.
The aforementioned tragedy of the whole Chernobyl incident was a start, but the novella also deals heavily with the idea of deception, of never ‘truly’ being capable of knowing someone else. Mitka, the main character, is cheating on her husband with a man (a teenager, really) far younger than her. I’ve never been in a situation where I loved two people at once, but that’s where Mitka is at when the novella opens. It’s a tricky situation that promised to unfold in interesting ways.
I’d never written a ‘revisionist” or “alternative” history piece before, so the research took some time, and was instrumental in the way the characters, the love triangle, and the politics of 1992 Ukraine came together. The last piece of the puzzle was actually figuring out what ‘happens’ in the story, finding the actual story to tell. I think I had just re-watched Clue when the idea of making it a “murder-mystery dinner” sort of plot came to me. If you look closely, I think you’ll see the trappings.
I’d always heard for years that in some dialects, the name “Chernobyl” translates to “Wormwood.” I looked into it more, and it seems to be at least relatively true, the word translating to a specific black-stalked plant that people associate with the botanical known in the West as Wormwood. Even if it isn’t true, it’s a fascinating connection, associating the star wormwood from Revelations and the meltdown. I don’t mean to be reductive here, or even religious, but I will be a little fatalistic—what a dearth of symbol and portent. There’s an old, twisted up, bitter fate running strong through this tale, so it somehow feels appropriate that I wrote both the very first and the very last sections of the novella before knowing how the characters and the various mysteries would complicate things. The ending was as clear to me as the beginning–there really couldn’t be a happy-go-lucky ending to the story. I honestly believe the characters were telling me that from the get-go.
“Wormwood is Also a Star” appears in the May/June 2013 issue of F&SF.
– Tell us a little about “Canticle of the Beasts.”
The three travelers in this story–who are the main characters in a novel-in-progress–are probably my favorite characters in my own work. They make me laugh and feel a tenderness and a respect for their courage despite their youth, and I appreciate that. As a fantasy writer, too, I’m a mystic at heart, and the animism of their world is one I’ve inhabited since I was a child.
- What was the inspiration for this story, as well as the inspiration for the series of stories from which this tale comes?
Years ago a boy visited in a daydream. When he lived–the period of history–I wasn’t sure. He wanted to find his father–which in the end he did. His father played a crude kind of bagpipe and was able to talk to the great beasts that lived in cold northern lakes like Loch Ness. Over time the boy and his story morphed, as they so often do for writers, and in 2006 he had become Emilio in a dreamy Renaissance where the Drinkers of Blood have taken the Holy City and only Emilio and his two friends–the Child Pope Boniface and the horse-racing girl Catarina–can, with the help of a father Emilio has never seen and a holy infant born at the wrong time in history, defeat the Drinkers on the shores of Lake Como. To do this, Emilio will have to become something other than a boy, which he does…. I wrote a draft of a 100,000-word version of Emilio’s story in a couple of months that year, the final 10k missing, and have been trying to get it finished ever since–with Gordon’s encouragement. Both “Blue Fire” and “Canticle of the Beasts,” the two episodes from it that have appeared in F&SF, are glimpses of that world and story.
- What kind of research, if any, did you do for “Canticle of the Beasts?”
I lived for a while as a child Emilio’s age in Italy, where the past is quite present and informs daily life; and when you’re young, you absorb a lot at an emotional level—which is the key to the kind of “research” a writer needs for storytelling. The Renaissance–both by the education I received and the places my family visited–was very very real, in other words I’ve been doing more formal research since writing that first draft, but the research doesn’t seem to have added much. Either Emilio’s world doesn’t need to be as textured historically as many Renaissance novels would need to be or I somehow got the details right in that draft–a little of both probably. As I said, it’s a dreamy Renaissance Emilio and his friends inhabit.
- In your experience, how do you make a story with vampires as the overall antagonists feel new and exciting?
I tell people I’m not a great fan of vampire fiction—but that’s really to say I’m not always happy with what they are and how they’re used–but I find myself writing it somehow. As someone pointed out years ago, vampirism is simply “a flipped Christianity—one without the possibility of grace but with the same ritual”: You drink the blood, you live forever, and yet you are not forgiven; you are far from divine grace and forgiveness. It’s a powerful metaphor for how human beings have felt in a modern and post-modernist world. In Emilio’s world the Drinkers are the descendents of the Oldest Drinker, who was born the same night as Christ, but to another mother, a harlot, his first meal blood. They’re monstrous creatures, not suave older gentlemen or pale young male models with angst and longing, and evolved from the Oldest Drinker’s story–the feeling of that story. Priests are tempted and succumb, and become Drinkers. Only Emilio–who is an emissary of La Compassione, an enigmatic spirit that may be the Holy Ghost or something else entirely, can defeat them, though, since he is a boy, he needs help doing so…and he needs the courage to become, ironically enough, something inhuman in order to do it.
- You also recently published your first novel in more than twenty years, The Village Sang to the Sea. Is there anything you would like to say about that?
Though THE VILLAGE SANG TO THE SEA is a “fantastic memoir” set in contemporary times, it works with themes and material similar to those in Emilio’s novel. Some day I may write a story about both Brad and Emilio, following them through their separate eras as they pursue their destinies—which are actually quite different in the end.
- What are you working on now?
Mainly, trying to finish Emilio’s novel, but also, as always, short stories and novel expansions of both my Hugo-nominated story “Kin” and the romantic vampire comedy “Hit”–both of which readers and editors have kindly been encouraging. Thanks for the opportunity to chat about Emilio. We appreciate it.
“Canticle of the Beasts” appears in the May/June 2013 issue of F&SF.
- Tell us a bit about “Among Friends.”
I call it my Quaker steampunk story, although the time period is just before the Civil War (1848). More seriously, I’m interested in the question of what happens when an entity (machine, animal, human) is treated as if it had moral authority – does it then acquire the ability to make ethical decisions because of how we have treated it? And what does it do to us if we treat the entity in that way, or if we refuse to do so?
- What was the inspiration for this story, or what prompted you to write it?
The original impetus came from a Book View Café anthology project. Back in 2009, Café members put together an anthology called The Shadow Conspiracy, which had as its central premise that the “Frankenstein” process paved a way for the preservation of a human personality in a perfect, immortal body. After two anthologies, the timeline had advanced from around 1816, when Byron, Shelley, and Mary Shelley, among others, gathered at Lake Geneva, Switzerland, to the 1840s. As we were tossing about ideas for a third Shadow Conspiracy volume, the focus shifted to New World. I wanted to step aside from the concerns of the first two, Europe-centered volumes and the use of automata solely as a way of extending the lives of rich and powerful men. As I wrote, I found that my own tale was developing in quite a different direction, from mechanical devices as instruments of immortality to the relationship of flesh to consciousness and consciousness to what truly makes us human. The original project has persisted, like the vermiform appendix, in the reference to the Lake Geneva Trading Company.
- What kind of research, if any, did you do for this story?
Research came from two sources. One was my own personal experience with modern unprogrammed Quakers, who still strive to find “that of God” in every human being. Many of the phrases I used in the story are in current usage today, and the description of settling into silence and letting ministry arise from the promptings of the inward light are as valid now as they were 150 years ago. Although I am not a Quaker myself, I’ve been awed and humbled to be part of a community with people who dedicate their lives to integrity, simplicity, equality, and peace. Their activism comes not from an intellectual belief but from valuing the divine in each person. It seems to me that in our writing as well as our society, we all too readily idealize violence as a method of problem resolution. It behooves us as lovers of speculative fiction to bring more creative strategies to our stories.
The other source of research, specific to this story, was more traditional delving into the histories of various Quakers involved in the Underground Railroad, notably Thomas Garrett. A native of Delaware, Garrett was an ally of Harriet Tubman and assisted somewhere around 2,000 escaped slaves to Pennsylvania. He and fellow Quaker John Hunn were charged and tried in very much the manner I’ve depicted, including the hour-long ministry and the apology from the jury member. I find it quite amusing that there is some question as to whether Garrett was left penniless by the resulting fine or whether his hardware business languished because he spent all his time following the leadings of the Spirit.
- What would you want a reader to take away from “Among Friends?”
I would hope, a really good story, and whatever conclusions they want to draw. I read this story aloud at one of the famous potlucks at our local Meeting and was intrigued to see how it was received an audience that was sophisticated in Quaker history and traditions but unfamiliar with science fiction. This story is a door that swings both ways, bringing a rich and challenging subculture to F & SF readers, while inviting members of that culture to explore the equally rich and challenging world of speculative fiction.
- What are you working on now?
I have two novels coming out shortly:
May: Collaborators (as Deborah Wheeler) (Dragon Moon Press): A crippled Terran spaceship makes orbit around Bandar, a planet whose gender-fluid native race teeters on the brink of international war. As misunderstandings mount, violence escalates. Ultimately, it is up to the people on both sides who have suffered the deepest losses to find a way to reconciliation. About Collaborators, acclaimed writer C. J. Cherryh wrote, “This is first-rate world-building from a writer gifted with soaring imagination and good old-fashioned Sense of Wonder.”
June: The Seven-Petaled Shield (the first volume of an original fantasy trilogy) (DAW – mass market PB): Eons ago, a great king used a magical device — the Seven-Petaled Shield — to defeat the forces of primal chaos, but now few remember that secret knowledge. When an ambitious emperor conquers the city that safeguards the Shield, the newly-widowed young Queen, guardian of the heart-stone of the Shield, flees for her life, along with her adolescent son.
- Anything else you’d like to add?
Special thanks to Gretta and Jacob Stone of Doylestown PA Monthly Meeting and all my dear friends at Santa Cruz Monthly Meeting.
“Among Friends” appears in the March/April 2013 issue of F&SF.