- Tell us a bit about “The Comfort of Strangers.”
OK, so it’s an alien sex story. Or at least it started out that way, though it developed a bit more emotional subtext as it developed. While it seems pretty light and funny, it is also an actual hard SF story that struggles directly with the real fact that the more realistic the far-future hard Sfness of a story, the less likely it is to be emotionally engaging to a reader in 2011. So, like any writer in our genre, I bootleg current-day emotional content back in, and translate the incomprehensible emotional connections of that future into terms we can relate to, even though that translation would make no sense to the actual beings in the story. That makes the story sounds more complicated than it is. It’s supposed to be fun to read.
- What was the inspiration for this story, or what prompted you to write it?
I’d read a few recent stories about sex with aliens. I found them too focused on human emotional reactions. I thought, “well, how different could sexual drives be and still be understandable?” Plus, I just wanted to play the game of creating aliens based on specific biological constraints.
- What kind of research, if any, did you do for “The Comfort of Strangers?”
Everything is based on actual reproduction of species here on Earth.
- What would you want a reader to take away from this story? “That was pretty funny! No, wait, there was more to it than that…and how much of my way of relating to the world is derived from my underlying biology? Do I really understand what the other participant is getting out of it?”
- What are you working on now?
I am just finishing a young adult novel with the tentative title Timeslip. It is about a teenager whose father gets shanghaied into an alternate universe, and has to travel across various realities to figure out what happened to him.
- Anything else you’d like to add?
Sex is more complicated than it seems.
“The Comfort of Strangers” appears in the Jan./Feb. 2012 issue.
-Tell us a bit about “Scrap Dragon.”
Back in the spring of 2010, there was an online fundraising auction to raise money to defray the expenses of a liver transplant for a woman I know through fandom. My contribution to the auction was the offer of a short story, written about the winning bidder or the person of their choice. I would make them the hero (or the villain) of the story, I’d work in their interests and do my best to fulfill requests about storyline and genre. (So, for instance, if someone had a child who was obsessed with both unicorns and rocket ships, and they wanted a story in which their child was the captain of a rocket ship that discovered the Unicorn Planet, I’d do my best to write them a satisfying story with that premise.)
The auction was won by a college friend of mine, Fillard, who wanted me to write about his fiancee, Heather. (They’ve since gotten married.) He requested a number of themes, including dragons and scrapbooking, while leaving the actual plot and setting basically up to me.
I should note that I felt reasonably confident I could pull this off because I did something like this once before — as an 80th birthday present to my grandmother, I wrote a story in which she was the heroine. That story, “Honest Man,” was published in Realms of Fantasy and turned into a podcast by PodCastle. (The podcast is still available, if people are interested.)
- One of the most interesting aspects of this story is the interplay between the narrator and the child listening to the story. How did you conceive of this narrative choice, and how difficult or easy was it for you to write?
The interplay came out of the dialogue I had with Fillard as I was trying to come up with a framework that satisfied him and that I thought I’d be able to write. I tossed out the idea of making Heather a princess in a fairy tale and he immediately shot down the idea of a princess. I imagined telling a bedtime story to someone really detail-oriented and exacting (like Fillard), and came up with the first two lines. And those two lines hooked ME — I made myself laugh, and I knew instantly that THIS was a story I could write. It’s partly a story about Heather and a dragon, and it’s partly a story about telling a story to someone with very strong opinions.
(The second voice in the story is not Fillard’s voice; it’s much more childlike and less analytical than Fillard is in real life, while also being a little more adult than a typical ten-year-old.)
- As it was an auction prize for someone to be written into a story of yours as either the protagonist or the villain, how did you find writing “Scrap Dragon” under these unusual circumstances? Interesting or a challenge?
I found it interesting AND a challenge. This auction prize was sort of a literary blank check; I wanted the winner to be satisfied with what they got, but there are subgenres I’ve never even read much of, and others I don’t know if I could re-create, so I was relieved that the auction was not won by someone who wanted, say, a comedy of manners starring themselves and Cthulhu.
It took me some time to come up with a framework, but once I came up with the two voices, the whole story basically clicked into place, and “Scrap Dragon” became really easy and fun to write.
- Most authors say their stories are personal. If that’s true for you, in what way was this story personal?
Part the challenge of writing this story was that I was trying to write something intensely personal — for someone else. The personal element for ME was the two voices: I have two daughters, who are currently 11 and 8 years old. Both my girls are intensely curious and opinionated, so the experience of trying to tell a story while someone repeatedly interrupts to demand more detail about a tangential topic is DEFINITELY something I drew on while working on this.
- What are you working on now?
I’m working on a series of short stories (that may turn into a novel) about a teenage girl living on a seastead. Seasteading is a real thing, or at least real-ish — there are people trying to build sort of a do-it-yourself island out in the ocean somewhere so they can found their own country. Many of these people are libertarians of the “all taxation is theft and should be illegal!” variety. The stories are set about 50 years after the establishment of the seastead, and the protagonist, Rebecca, lives there with her father. In the first story, “Liberty’s Daughter,” Rebecca gets asked to find a missing bond-worker (sort of an indentured servant) and it’s sort of a mystery with a dystopic setting. This story will also be appearing in a future issue of F&SF, possibly this spring or summer, which I’m really excited about.
- Anything else you’d like to add?
I did some experimentation with self-publishing last year: I put together two short story collections and made them available for both Kindle and Nook. They’re cheap! If people liked my story, they might check them out. (Most of the stories in them were previously published but there are also a couple of never-before-published stories in both.) “Honest Man,” which is the story I wrote about my grandmother, is in the one called “Comrade Grandmother and Other Stories.”
“Scrap Dragon” appears in the Jan./Feb. 2012 issue of F&SF.
Since Paul Park’s novella “Ghosts Doing the Orange Dance” (from the Jan/Feb 2010 issue) is on the final ballot for this year’s Nebula Award, we’ve posted the story on our Website:
In the climate change anthology I just edited, I did up a list of books in which climate change plays a significant role. Which titles did I miss?
Always Coming Home by Ursula K. Le Guin (1985)
Antarctica by Kim Stanley Robinson (1997)
Arctic Drift by Clive Cussler and Dirk Cussler (2008)
The Child Garden by Geoff Ryman (1990)
Climate of Change by Piers Anthony (2010)
The Drought by J. G. Ballard (1968)
The Drowned World by J. G. Ballard (1968)
The Drylands by Mary Rosenblum (1993)
Earth by David Brin (1990)
Eruption by Harry Turtledove (forthcoming 2011)
Exodus by Julie Bertagna (2005)
Far North by Marcel Theroux (2009)
The Flood by Maggie Gee (2005)
Forty Signs of Rain (2004), Fifty Degrees Below (2005), and Sixty Days
and Counting (2007) by Kim Stanley Robinson
Future Primitive: The New Ecotopias edited by Kim Stanley Robinson (1994)
The Great Bay: Chronicles of the Collapse by Dale Pendell (2010)
Greenhouse Summer by Norman Spinrad (1999)
Greensword by Donald J. Bingle (2009)
Greenwar by Steven Gould and Laura J. Mixon (1997)
Heavy Weather by Bruce Sterling (1996)
Hothouse (aka The Long Afternoon of Earth) by Brian W. Aldiss (1962)
The Ice People by Maggie Gee (2005)
In Flight Entertainment by Helen Simpson (2010)
Mother of Storms by John Barnes (1994)
The Other Side of the Island by Allegra Goodman (2008)
Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood (2004)
Pennterra by Judith Moffett (1987)
Primitive by Mark Nykanen (2009)
Pump Six and Other Stories by Paolo Bacigalupi (2008)
The Ragged World (1991), Time, Like an Ever-Rolling Stream (1992), and The Bird Shaman (2008) by Judith Moffett
The Road to Corlay by Richard Cowper (1978)
River of Gods by Ian McDonald (2004)
The Sea and Summer (aka The Drowning Towers) by George Turner (1987)
The Snow by Adam Roberts (2004)
Solar by Ian McEwan (2010)
State of Fear by Michael Crichton (2004)
Sunshine State by James Miller (2010)
Timescape by Gregory Benford (198x)
Ultimatum by Matthew Glass (2009)
Water Rites by Mary Rosenblum (2007)
The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi (2009)
World Made by Hand by James Howard Kuntsler (2008)
The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood (2009)
- Tell us a bit about “12:02 P.M.” What’s it about?
“12:02 PM” is a direct sequel to my 1973 story “12:01 PM.” The 1973 story concerns a somewhat beaten-down office worker named Myron Castleman who has got into such a rut that his life is a daily repetition. He keeps doing the same things over and over, getting nowhere, as all of his hopes and dreams slowly fade away. Pardon my use of a lit’ry term, but in fact this is a metaphor for the lives of too many people in the modern world. It was certainly my own life at one time.
“12:01 PM” ends on a note of despair. “12:02 PM” takes up directly where “12:01 PM” leaves off, and is, I believe, a far more positive and hopeful story. I don’t want to go into details here. I’d much rather have people read “12:02 PM.”
- What prompted you to write a follow-up story?
In 1989 writer-director Jonathan Heap made a brilliant 30-minute film of “12:01 PM.” The film starred Kurtwood Smith as Myron Castleman. It was an Academy Award finalist and still turns up on TV on occasion. As far as I know, the only purchasable version is on a compilation DVD released in the UK. BTW, this film is not to be confused with the feature-length version starring Jonathan Silverman, Helen Slater, and Martin Landau. That’s quite a different story, although it’s based loosely on “12:01 PM.”
For the past twenty years I’ve remained in contact with Jonathan Heap and Kurtwood Smith, and one of them mentioned in a recent email that it might be interesting to try and figure out whatever happened to Myron after the first story ended. Did he just stay in his rut, repeating one hour over and over and over — endlessly? Or might there be an escape for him after all. I went to sleep with that question in my mind and woke up the next morning with the answer, ready to write “12:02 PM.”
- Did the writing of this story present you with any significant challenges?
From a creative viewpoint, I had to decide just when the new story would take place. After all, it had been 37 years since I wrote “12:01 PM.” I decided that “12:02 PM” should continue the narrative seamlessly. Once I sat down and turned on my computer — I was tempted to rev up the ancient IBM Selectric I wrote “12:01 PM” on but decided not to do that — I was amazed that I was able to slip right back into the writing mode of the first story.
- What kind of research, if any, did you have to do for the story?
I’m an old New York hand, and even though I’ve lived in California for more than 40 years, I had no problem with getting my head back into the Manhattan of that era. I’m convinced that “You can take the New Yorker out of New York but you can’t take New York out of the New Yorker.” “12:02 PM” takes place on Vanderbilt Avenue, in the Public Library, in the Chrysler Building, and in Bryant Park. I had no problem revisiting all of these locales, “seeing” a copy of the old Daily Mirror, or “eating” in various midtown restaurants.
- What are you working on now?
My latest mixed-genre collection, Dreams, should be out from Mythos Books very shortly. And a police procedural novel, Rookie Blues, is in production at Dark Sun Press, a new publisher in Virginia. I’ve promised a Lovecraftian novel, Beneath the Karst, to Perilous Press. I hope to write that book later this year. And I’ve been
Editorial Director at Surinam Turtle Press, an imprint of Ramble House, for several years. I’ve been having a great time there. Always wanted to be a publisher, and finally made it. I do wish I had a bigger budget to work with — or any budget! — but I have marvelous support from my boss, Fender Tucker, and our chief designer and art director, Gavin O’Keefe.
- Anything else you’d like to add?
The first story I ever submitted to a professional magazine, I sent to F&SF in 1951. Anthony Boucher rejected it. He was right to do so, it was strictly amateur stuff. But Tony offered such encouragement that I kept on trying and finally got into this great magazine. I’m proud any time I appear in its pages, and hope to continue doing so for many years to come.
* “12:02 P.M.” appears in the Jan./Feb. 2011 issue of F&SF.