Interview: Ian Tregillis on “Testimony of Samuel Frobisher Regarding Events Upon His Majesty’s Ship Confidence, 14-22 June, 1818, With Diagrams”
- “Testimony of Samuel Frobisher Regarding Events Upon His Majesty’s Ship Confidence, 14-22 June, 1818, With Diagrams” is about the supernatural events witnessed by an impressed sailor on a scientific voyage. What inspired this story?
The seed for this story was planted when a friend, knowing of my fascination with giant squid, sent me a magazine article about the (then) current state of efforts around the world to observe a living specimen in its environment. This is difficult because they live at great depths (although they have been observed in the wild since that article was published). The piece contained a fascinating aside about the history of deep ocean exploration, and it was there that I first learned about the famous Challenger expedition.
The HMS Challenger was a 226′ warship outfitted with all the latest state-of-the-art scientific and oceanographic gear to become a vessel of first-rate science. It set sail in 1872 with the mandate to chart the oceans of the world. This was a monumental undertaking that took over three years. But it did produce the world’s first comprehensive soundings of the sea floor. (The “challenger deep” location recently visited by James Cameron owes its name to the HMS Challenger, as did the space shuttle Challenger.) In addition, it collected thousands of biological specimens, many from the deep ocean, and virtually all things that nobody had ever seen before. They identified thousands of new species. The chief scientist, C. Wyville Thomson, really did proclaim that living beings “exist over the whole floor of the ocean.”
But dredging the ocean floor for those specimens was extremely demanding and backbreaking work. Over the course of the expedition, two sailors drowned, two more went mad, and another committed suicide. As a speculative fiction writer, I can’t read a historical footnote like that without immediately wondering if there was a connection between the onset of madness and something they pulled from the depths. (After all, doesn’t dread Cthulhu sleep in sunken R’lyeh?) So my imagination was off to the races. But I thought it would be more fun if the story was set closer to the Napoleonic Age of Sail, so I exercised a bit of artistic license to stage the fictional Confidence expedition almost 60 years earlier.
It wasn’t until after I’d written the first draft of this story that others pointed me to the nautical mythos of William Hope Hodgson. I was more familiar with Hodgson through his novel THE NIGHT LAND and works inspired by that. I’ve been asked if Frobisher’s story is a deliberate homage to Hodgson. I wish.
- Sounds complex. How much research did you do?
I know absolutely nothing about ships, sailing, or sailors. And I know even less about the Age of Sail. Fortunately, I know people who do. So I appealed to my friend and mentor Walter Jon Williams (who started his career writing the Privateers and Gentlemen series) for advice. He recommended several reference works, including Dudley Pope’s excellent LIFE IN NELSON’S NAVY, which I read cover to cover for the sake of this particular story. (It’s a fascinating read, and quite accessible for a landlubber like me.) I read with particular attention to vocabulary, the procedures and practices on a ship of that era, and the actual duties of a sailor like Samuel Frobisher.
Since Frobisher is essentially writing a long confession, I also had to look up the Royal Navy’s Articles of War relevant to that period, since these would have governed his life at sea. I thought it would be fun if he sort of went down the list and said, “Yeah, I violated this one. And then I violated that one. And then…”
- Is that how you capture Frobisher’s voice so perfectly?
The reference works gave me the vocabulary, which of course was essential for a nautical tale. Sailors of every era practically have their own language. I admit to a lot of guesswork and trial and error when trying to develop Frobisher’s manner of speaking, but historical documents from that period gave me the “flavor,” if that makes sense. Mostly I just tried to accumulate a body of examples that I could attempt to emulate. Although the conceit of the story forced me to play some games with issues of voice and class. I plead artistic license… I wouldn’t make any claims about the authenticity of poor Frobisher’s voice, but I tried to make it distinctive.
- As a writer, you’re well known for having a great ear for period language, whether it’s the sailor’s cadence in this story, the World War II characters in the Milkweed Triptych, or the hard-boiled detective narrator in your most recent novel, Something More Than Night. What is the secret to getting those different voices right?
Well, first, thank you for saying that. I never feel confident that I’ve hit the mark, which is depressing because I do have a perverse tendency to tackle projects that force me to think carefully about character voice. For the most part, it boils down to reading widely (or listening, where historical recordings are available) and trying to absorb the “flavor” of the language until the cadence and vocabulary become familiar enough to emulate.
For the Milkweed books, I spent a lot of time reading things written by people who had lived through the Blitz, as well as listening to old BBC recordings. I also had a British beta reader who did a frankly heroic job trying to excise all the Americanisms from the manuscript. (Nobody could have caught them all, though, so I take sole responsibility for the errors that slipped through.) Even so, I’d say that trying to capture the voice of Londoners in 1940 was the most difficult task I’ve set myself; I wouldn’t have attempted it if my editor hadn’t (wisely) insisted the story required it.
For SOMETHING MORE THAN NIGHT, I read piles of Chandler and Hammett, along with a few other authors of the period. I kept a pencil on hand while reading, and every single piece of noir slang I encountered got a mark. Then I transcribed each new piece of vocabulary into a glossary file on my laptop. The glossary eventually grew to 80 pages, because I realized I had to include contextual examples and bibliographic references so that I could go back later and double-check my interpretations. (Some phrases are so obscure I simply had to guess at their meaning.) It was a huge amount of work but essential, because I was able to organize the reference for “reverse lookups” — rather than a tool for clarifying unfamiliar noir terms, I needed something that would give me period-appropriate expressions for anything that arose over the course of the story.
I’ve found that frequently a character doesn’t really come together for me until his or her voice congeals. The way a person talks tells you so much about them: their upbringing, their environment, how they see the world and describe it to themselves… All of this sits at the bedrock of who a person is. Once I have that, then I start to get a sense of how they think and how they might react to particular situations, and in that way they make their mark on the plot.
- I hate to point this out, but – SPOILER ALERT – there aren’t actually any diagrams in the story. Were you ever tempted to draw some?
Hmmm. I prefer to believe the story is rife will diagrams! Or, as I like to call them, “word pictures.” Actual visual diagrams appropriate for this story require scrimshaw, but I couldn’t figure out how to include a narwhal tusk with my submission. (Something for you to consider for your next guest editing gig?)
- So you’re saying readers shouldn’t feel cheated?
There’s no denying that readers of this particular story probably have a case for false advertising. In my defense, an early draft of this story was titled “Testimony… Without Any Diagrams Whatsoever.”
- If people want to read more of your books and stories, where should they start?
Definitely my website, iantregillis.com. It has links to all of my novels and short fiction publications. I try to keep it updated with the latest news; sometimes I even succeed. I’m also @ITregillis on Twitter. I’m currently writing a clockpunk fantasy alt-history trilogy tentatively titled The Alchemy War. The first novel of that series, The Mechanical, will be out from Orbit next March. I also have a story appearing in the Clockwork Universe anthology that will be out later this summer.
- “Testimony of Samuel Frobisher Regarding Events Upon His Majesty’s Ship Confidence, 14-22 June, 1818, With Diagrams” by Ian Tregillis appears in the July/August issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction. It’s available in both print and electronic formats.
- “The Only Known Law” is a hard SF story about alien contact, but it’s also a story about two scientists who love each other. What inspired you to juxtapose those two things against each other?
I read somewhere that Ursula K. Le Guin’s single-word summary of her whole oeuvre is “marriage.” Her novels don’t all end in weddings like Shakespearean comedies, but over and over again, in different worlds and contexts, very different characters come to understand each other.
“The Only Known Law” is about a literal and fairly heteronormative marriage between two human people, but I also had Le Guin’s expansive sense of the word rolling around in my head. A story of successful First Contact is a kind of romance, a struggle for connection and understanding.
- I understand that you wrote “The Only Known Law” while you were a student at Clarion. Can you tell us a little bit about that?
Clarion was a messy and magnificent experience. I wrote this story — my first science fiction story — because I felt challenged to do so. My brain usually defaults to fantasy, but I noticed a slight, affectionate snobbery from dedicated SF writers. They implied that fantasy was fluff, and that SF requires the real chops. Untrue. I don’t believe it. But that goading still worked on my sense of pride. So I set out to prove I could write the stuff myself.
My first SF novel comes out later this year, so maybe I’m still responding to that dare.
- Did the story change at all between the version you wrote at Clarion and the one that appears in F&SF?
Not very much. I trunked the story for several years. Then I found it, gave it a new polish, and tried to make Nicolao a bit less of a douche. But the bones of the story are all the same.
- You’re perhaps best known for writing Goblin Secrets, a children’s book which won the National Book Award in 2012. What kind of differences are there between writing books for children and writing stories like this one for adults?
Know thy audience. The difference isn’t censorship, or a readjustment of sophistication. You just keep in mind the kinds of things your audience is likely to care about.
I cut my teeth writing short stories for grownups, but most of my favorites had very young protagonists. I was already drifting toward writing for children before I became consciously aware of the fact.
- Where can readers go to find more of your fiction?
- “The Only Known Law” by William Alexander appears in the July/August issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction. It’s available in both print and electronic formats.
- Your story in the July/August issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction is about both literal and figurative “Subduction.” For readers unfamiliar with the term, what is subduction?
Subduction is a geological process, which means I can only explain it with a massive oversimplification: When two tectonic plates collide head-on, the denser one gets pushed downward. It eventually disappears into the Earth’s mantle, which is a layer where the pressures and temperatures are so great that solid rock flows like a slow liquid.
The friction and tension between the two tectonic plates causes earthquakes, and the collision can grow mountains. And when the edge of a plate encounters the mantle, it starts to melt, which leads to volcanoes. All this happens especially often where the plates under the Pacific Ocean meet the surrounding continents, which is why that area is called “the Ring of Fire.”
In an amazingly cool instance of synchronicity, on the day that this issue of F&SF first appeared in bookstores, xkcd ran a comic titled “Subduction License.”
That pretty much sums it up.
- This is a contemporary fantasy that takes place in the Pacific Northwest. Is it a spoiler if I mention that there are dragons in this story?
Yeah. Yeah it is. Thanks a lot.
- Oh. Sorry!
So how would you describe Oliver, the protagonist of “Subduction”?
When we first see Oliver, he is a damaged, fragile shell of a man. He can’t remember anything about himself, and he does a lot of watching and waiting because his conscious mind has no answers for him. He is, though, driven to act in odd ways by some other part of himself. His past and his personality are revealed to him in two or three stages throughout the story, until – just briefly – the whole situation is perfectly clear.
The inspiration for Oliver came from a couple of accounts of amnesia, one from someone I know personally, and in particular one news story that stuck in my mind from years ago: An American Fullbright scholar was traveling alone in India when he had a psychotic break caused by his anti-malarial medication, and he lost all memory of who he was and why he was there. He was taken in by people who assumed he was just another slacker drug addict, and because he was hungry for a persona he accepted that as his identity, until his memories started trickling back weeks later. Oliver is struggling with that same level of blank-slate vulnerability, and he is better than the people around him suspect.
- You’re a docent at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. How does that work connect with and inform your fiction writing, in this story and in general?
What appeals to me about speculative fiction is that I love asking, “What if?” and then seeing how weird and beautiful the world around us could get. The American Museum of Natural History fits right in with that because it’s a massive collection of things that demonstrate how weird and beautiful and thought-provoking the world already is. The tours I give go on far too long because the theme usually boils down to “Things That I Think Are Cool to Think About,” and my visitors and I get excited to discuss them.
Subduction and the other geology concepts I reference in this story are all material I had to master in order to give tours in the Gottesman Hall of Planet Earth. The creatures are inspired by ocean life exhibits. And to be honest, I was totally stuck on the ending of this story, until the 120-year-old transformational dance masks in the Hall of Northwest Coast Indians came to mind, and I found a way to incorporate that idea into the plot.
- “Subduction is included in the free edition of F&SF for Kindle (http://www.amazon.com/Fantasy-Science-Fiction-Exclusive-Digest/dp/B004ZFZCKY/) and Kindle UK (http://www.amazon.co.uk/Fantasy-Science-Fiction-Extended-Edition/dp/B004ZFZ4O8/), so people have the chance to read it even without buying the issue. (Editor’s note: you should totally still buy the issue.) Where can people go if they want to find some other stories by you?
My story “The Muse of Empires Lost” is reprinted in Rich Horton’s Space Opera, which just came out – I’m a little stunned to be included in such an impressive table of contents.
Most of my stories have appeared in print anthologies, but “Stereogram of the Gray Fort, in the Days of Her Glory,” which got some good critical attention, is online at Fantasy Magazine. There’s also a podcast of it on Podcastle. (Ann Leckie does one of the voices!)
I had a lot of fun with “Small Burdens,” which is on Strange Horizons.
A podcast of “Subduction” is currently in production by StarShipSofa.com.
And you can see a bit more about me at paulmberger.com.
- “Subduction” by Paul M. Berger appears in the July/August issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction. It’s available in both print and electronic formats.
- The title of your story is “Belly” — whose belly is it?
Well, that’s the question, now, isn’t it? Obviously it’s the witch’s belly that imprisons the main character for her formative years. But the belly is also where you draw your strength. Your conviction. Your compassion, and your gut sense of right and wrong. So it might be someone else’s belly, too. I’ll leave that up to readers to decide.
- One of the things that I love about this story is that it feels like a fairy tale, but at the same time it feels brand new — like a fairy tale I’ve never read before. It’s a very grim story… and also very Grimm. What inspired the story?
Funny you should mention Grimm! One of the many good parenting decisions my mother made was to raise us on the original Grimm’s Brothers Fairy Tales, not the cleaned-up, Disneyfied versions. I will always be grateful for that. I still vividly remember the horrifying illustrations that came with the vicious, bloodthirsty, vengeful stories: they were made to look like old wood cutouts, but in vivid detail. Eyes rolling. Mouths agape in horror. They confirmed for me what I knew as a child to be true: monsters exist. People are wonderfully horrible. The stories never seemed old to me. They all seemed like they could have happened 100 years ago or yesterday.
That said, this was specifically inspired by a flashback I experienced when watching “Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters.”
- I want to ask about the flashback, but I think maybe it’s better to let people read the story, watch the movie, and wonder about it for themselves.
- Thematically, this is a story about abuse and overcoming abuse. Did that make it difficult to write?
Yes. It tore me apart. I had to keep putting it down and coming back to it. I think all told it took me more than a year, even without working on any other fiction. It is also extremely disgusting and I had to plan writing it carefully so it wasn’t close to any meals. But since nearly every fairy tale from Europe I grew up on is also about child abuse, it felt right.
- I don’t want to spoil the ending for anyone, so without giving anything away, let me just say that it’s the ending that makes me love the story. Did you always know it would end that way, or did you have other endings in mind too?
Besides the fact that I write rather instinctively and don’t really map out how a story will go ahead of time, the story had to end that way. There was no other way I could countenance writing such a terrible thing, without that ending.
- What are some of the things you do besides write fiction?
I earn my keep as a freelance copywriter, and I write essays and commentaries, most recently for Minnesota Public Radio. I ride my bike, I parent, I folk dance, I blog. I try to be a good friend.
- Where can readers go to find more of your writing?
Visit haddayr.com. I’ve got nearly everything I’ve written linked from there. Most of it’s free to view online.
- “Belly” by Haddayr Copley-Woods appears in the July/August issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction. It’s available in both print and electronic formats.
- 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.