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Interview: Matthew Hughes on “A Geas of the Purple School”

What was the inspiration for “A Geas of the Purple School” or what prompted you to write it?

Baldemar has been evolving, as my characters tend to do.  I wanted to put him in a new situation while at the same time pulling back to show more of the Dying Earthesque world in which he lives.  Comments from readers tell me they like visiting Old Earth and I’m happy to give them a new neighborhood to explore.


Matthew HughesAlthough Baldemar is no thief, he does sometimes have need to commit trespass or fight his way out of a jam.  How did you learn about the interesting details of roguery that make their way into your Archonate Universe stories?

By being a rogue, myself.  I am the white sheep of my family, which is largely populated by persons who have at least some passing familiarity with the criminal half-world.  Among close relatives, I can count incidences of arson, theft, fraud, receipt of stolen goods, and burglary.  Also, I use my imagination.


What was the most difficult aspect of this story to write, and what was the most fun?

None of it was difficult.  I listen to what the guy in the back of my head tells me then write it down.  The most fun was writing Baldemar under the power of the geas.  I sometimes enjoy treading on my characters’ dignity.


What are you working on now?

I’m writing a final Baldemar novelette, “The Glooms” that deals with what happens when he “retires” after Thelerion gets his just reward in “The Sword of Destiny.”  That novelette, which first ran in Gardner Dozois’s anthology, The Book of Swords, is available for a free read on Curious Fictions:

I’d also like to plug my magical realism/historical novel, What The Wind Brings (Pulp Literature Press), which will be released in December in trade paperback and ebook editions.  It’s my magnum opus, about shipwrecked African slaves allying with indigenous peoples in mid-1500s coastal Ecuador to fight off Spanish colonial forces and win their freedom.


“A Geas of the Purple School” appears in the November/December 2019 issue of F&SF.

You can buy a paper copy of the issue here:

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Click on Mr. Hughes’s photo to visit his website.

Interview: Marie Vibbert on “Knit Three, Save Four”

Marie VibbertWhat was the inspiration for the story?

“Knit Three, Save Four” was written on something of a dare.  I was doing the Clarion Write-a-thon and writing a story every day, and so I was very open to prompts.  As I chatted about my writing with a friend, and was busily knitting, she said, “You need to do a story that incorporates knitting.  I know!  You could knit a spaceship!”

So that was my prompt.  “Knit a spaceship.”  I quickly came up with the idea of knitting a net around a spaceship to fix a structural problem, and a stowaway as the protagonist.  I bugged my friends for ideas on the structural problem and Geoff Landis and Darrin Bright were particularly helpful in suggesting other ways to fix the problem.  Heh heh!  So handy for that “fail three times then succeed” plot shape!


Was the story personal in any way?

Obviously, I knit.  I knit a lot.  I use knitting as a way to not feel guilty or like I’m wasting my life when I have to sit still, say on a train or in a lecture.  I was knitting when, on a Greyhound from New York City home to Cleveland, I talked to a young woman whose story inspired my main character’s.  She worked summers on Lake Michigan, selling snow cones on the beach, then did the same thing in Florida in the winters, and used her money to keep traveling.  It sounded like a hard but rewarding life.  I’ve always wanted to travel more but never had the ready cash… but of course I decided to spend most of my ready cash on a house, so here was a path untaken.


What was the most difficult part of the story to write?  What was the most fun?

The most difficult was actually the knitting.  I started out using a mesh pattern my sister had used to make excellent shopping bags, but it was too complicated to convey.  I had to rely heavily on my first readers to point out when my explanations were more confusing than helpful.

After my first draft, I decided to go Full Hard SF and make it near-future, no convenient artificial gravity.  That was surprisingly fun to do.  Constraints make stories more fun, and we forget that sometimes.

The funnest part was coming up with the characters.  Years ago, there was a game called Dice Land that had a character named Fat Robot Steve and I was in love with that name and had been daydreaming about writing a story about Fat Robot Steve for decades.  I decided the family was Philippine, so I renamed him Fat Robot Chen to have a more Asian feel.  “He looks like my buddy, if he were a robot, and fat,” was the explanation I dreamed up for Fat Robot Steve’s name when I first heard it.


What are you working on now?

I’ll be presenting a paper at the 90 Years of Analog conference in New York in December. It’s a statistical analysis of the prevalence of female names in tables of contents over the years.  I’m not an academic and so very nervous about it.

I’m putting together a poetry chapbook, tentatively titled “Rustbelt Robots.”  I feel all the imposter syndrome, all the time!

Otherwise, I’m shopping around short stories and revising two novels in the hopes that someone, someday might want to see them, and writing another novel because I am Always Writing A Novel.  Always.  Sorry.


“Knit Three, Save Four” appears in the November/December 2019 issue of F&SF.

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Editor’s Note for the November/December 2019 issue

The first thing we bought for this issue was the cover art by Bob Eggleton, a piece he titled “The Sky House.”
Fantasy & Science Fiction, November/December, cover by Bob Eggleton

From there, it was a matter of finding the right writer to pen a tale worthy of the illustration, and we turned to reader favorite (and ours, because we’re readers too) Charlotte Ashley, who’s most recent appearance in the magazine was another cover story, “The Satyr of Brandenburg,” back in our March/April 2018 issue. She turned in a tale that is as delightful as it is unexpected, and the perfect accompaniment to this castle in the sky.

The rest of the issue is a balance of fantasy, science fiction, and horror, with a couple stories that blur those boundaries or just make them altogether meaningless. The complete table of contents can be found below. Gregor Hartmann, Matthew Hughes, Michael Libling, James Morrow, M. Rickert, Benjamin Rosenbaum, Andy Stewart, and Marie Vibbert all return to the magazine, and we welcome Sam J. Miller and Rebecca Zahabi, who are making their F&SF debuts. Plus you’ll find a poem by Jane Yolen, columns by our usual assemblage of experts, and cartoons for the print edition.


C.C. Finlay, Editor
Fantasy & Science Fiction | @fandsf

If you’re looking for a copy of this issue, you can find F&SF in most Barnes & Noble stores, as well as many local independent booksellers. You can also order a single copy from our website or buy an electronic edition from Amazon, AmazonUK, and — now, available worldwide and in every electronic format — through Weightless Books.

71st Year of Publication


“How I Came to Write Fantasy” – Michael Libling
“The Joy in Wounding” – Charlotte Ashley
“A Geas of the Purple School” – Matthew Hughes
“Bird Thou Never Wert” – James Morrow
“The Vicious World of Birds” – Andy Stewart


“Rejoice, My Brothers and Sisters” – Benjamin Rosenbaum
“Evergreen” – M. Rickert
“A Hand at the Service of Darkness” – Gregor Hartmann
“It Never Snows in Snowtown” – Rebecca Zahabi
“Knit Three, Save Four” – Marie Vibbert
“Shucked” – Sam J. Miller


“Swing Between” – Jane Yolen


Books to Look For by Charles de Lint
Musing on Books by Michelle West
Television: Those Were the Days by David J. Skal
Science: Portable Power by Jerry Oltion
Curiosities: The Arrogant History of White Ben by Clemence Dane (1939)) by Paul Di Filippo

Cartoons by Nick Downes

Cover: “The Sky House” By Bob Eggleton


We hope you’ll share your thoughts about the issue with us. We can be found on:

C. C. Finlay interviews Kelly Link on “The White Cat’s Divorce”

Kelly Link“The White Cat’s Divorce” was commissioned by the Weatherspoon Art Museum at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, for their 2018 exhibit “Dread & Delight: Fairy Tales in an Anxious World” and was published in the catalog for the show. Which is not an ordinary venue for speculative fiction! How did that come about?

Emily Stamey, who conceived of the exhibit and then curated it, contacted me to see if I would be interested in writing a fairy tale for the catalog. I went to high school in Greensboro, and then grad school at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, so that was a strong inducement. I went down and met with Emily, and we went through the pieces that she was hoping to include in the exhibit, and then I came home again and wrote the story.


Was your process different for writing this story, just because it might reach a different audience or had a different kind of venue?

Not really! Any audience, whether they are encountering this kind of story in a genre magazine or an art catalogue, will have some familiarity with fairytales. They’re more or less in our DNA. But when I sent it off to her, I didn’t know entirely what she would think since she was a new editor for me. Fortunately it turned to be more or less what she had in mind when she invited me to contribute.

I’ve been working on a new collection of stories, all of which have roots in various fairytales — “The White Cat’s Divorce” is based on Marie-Catherine d’Aulnoy’s “The White Cat”. You can find it here:

But it’s also based on my working relationship with Holly Black and Cassandra Clare. The three of us (and sometimes other writer friends) work together on a regular basis. We’re engaged in our own novels/stories/etc, but we also spend a fair amount of time talking with each other about our projects. Holly wrote a trilogy of contemporary young adult novels that are loosely connected to the original fairytale (the first novel in Holly’s series is WHITE CAT) and she tells a version of the fairytale that made me reconsider what’s at the heart of that story. It’s also incredibly funny. So I’d had “White Cat” on the brain for a long time.


You and your husband Gavin Grant recently opened a bookstore. How did that happen and where should people go if they want to buy all the books?

Yes! The owner of a small used/new bookstore in Easthampton had been trying to find new owners for quite some time. Thanks to the MacArthur Foundation, Gavin and I were in a position where we could take it over. It’s now called Book Moon and you can find us at Physically, we’re located at 86 Cottage Street in Easthampton, next door to the sushi restaurant. There’s a great cocktail bar down the street. Gavin and I originally met working at a new and used bookstore, Avenue Victor Hugo, in Boston. So this is a happy return for us.


We hear you’re working on a novel… but we’re afraid that if we ask about that, it will jinx things. What other kinds of things are you working on right now? (We admit we were pretty chuffed to see GHOST OF THE SHADOW MARKET by Cassandra Clare, you, and some other great writers in our local grocery store this week.)

I now have about 190,000 words of novel. I’m hoping to have a very messy first draft done by the end of the year, so that I can get to the pleasurable part: revising. I’m also about two stories away from having a collection’s worth of short stories. And if Cassie ever wants me to write more short stories with her, I’m down for that. It’s a blast.


Any general advice about zombies?

Don’t lick them.


“The White Cat’s Divorce” appears in the 70th Anniversary Issue of F&SF.

You can buy a paper copy of the issue here:

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Visit Kelly Link’s website by clicking on her photo.

Interview: Amanda Hollander on “Madness Afoot”

Tell us a bit about “Madness Afoot.”

It’s an epistolary Cinderella story taken one step sideways as Prince Charming’s sister surveys the absurdity of her brother’s romance.


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

A friend of mine was having a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad week and I wanted to write a fairy tale retelling to entertain her. My mind went to Perrault’s Cinderella, because the premise is so gloriously lunatic. I started thinking about the position Prince Charming occupies in popular imagination with fandoms (and critics) of the character’s various iterations. I lived in Los Angeles for nearly a decade while working on my doctorate and had many outside glimpses of celebrity culture. There is a real energy shift and palpable excitement when someone famous enters a room unexpectedly, but the sheer idolatry can be jarring. I always thought that even more than being a celebrity, how much weirder would it be as the sibling of someone famous? How would it feel hearing people speak in worshipful language and losing their minds over someone you remember sitting in his Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle pajamas and snarfing Apple Jacks? (I speak purely in the hypothetical and this is in no way a direct representation of my brother, Graham, whom it would be rude to name.) I always thought it would be a funny angle for a story, and then layered that over Cinderella. My friend loved the story and said to submit it to F&SF, so here we are.


Amanda HollanderHow has your career as a librettist influenced your short fiction work?

I should say first for the uninitiated, that in opera, libretto comes first and everything else follows, including music. Ideally, payment would come first and everything else would follow, but such are the vicissitudes of creative life. Anywho, a composer relies on a librettist to provide a lyrical and fully developed story that will complement their musical style, and a singer relies on a librettist to make the language singable via a performable, developed character. Then there are mechanical elements that influence how I write, especially how I use vowels (open vowels for high notes unless you’re a total sadist, etc.) and think about pauses, as singers apparently like breathing. My libretto writing itself was influenced by the fact that I grew up in an HOH (Hard of Hearing) household, so I’ve always been very conscious of clarity in word choice and consonant enunciation. This awareness translates well to opera. As an opera audience member, you need to be able to understand who the characters are, what they want, and how they relate within moments of their being onstage, so the audience needs language they can instantly hone in on. I also work with a team, so some of that will be done through my language, some through the composer’s music, some by a singer’s performance, then there’s direction, costume, set, lighting, etc. I think more visually than I did before.

Like opera, short fiction requires that the key information and/or questions are established immediately. One of the great examples in any genre is Carmen’s entrance with Habanera. You instantly know who she is as a character and what she’s about. It’s a genius melding of music and language. So thinking about that immediately in libretto writing helped my short fiction enormously, because I learned to stop and think more about character introduction. When Orsolya writes her first letter, you know in a few lines that she wants to go home, that her brother and a political crisis are preventing her, that she clearly occupies a position of some power (she has the right to interrogate palace employees) and that she is going to be a skeptical onlooker when it comes to this classic romance.

I also notice that in my short fiction I’ve become much more cognizant of when I write lines that are easy to read but would be difficult to sing. (No current plans to torture anyone with my sung rendition of “Madness Afoot.”) Also, some wordplay is easy to understand when reading, but hard to hear when delivered through song, especially complex homophones, which differ from antanaclasis, which works better aloud than in prose. The biggest influence, though, has been how I think about breaks in the story structure. In libretti, breaks allow time for dramatic acting or for the orchestra to come to the front. When writing “Madness Afoot,” the epistolary form gave me a lot of opportunity to play around with the pauses and line breaks to build comedy. I’m also learning to use the same for pathos, because now I can hear the spaces. That extra beat can do so much, whether you’re giving it to the composer, the singer, the audience, or a reader. There’s music in the emptiness.


…and how is writing a libretto similar to or different from writing a short story?

Since for libretti I need to collaborate with a composer, I also need to understand their musical vision for the project, how many singers and instruments we have to work with, how the dialogue or frequency of lines impacts the character’s presence onstage, etc. For the whole opera do we have twenty minutes? An hour? Three hours? The scope of the story changes radically if there isn’t time to change costumes or sets because you don’t want to lose time for the performers. Also—I struggle with this constantly—in a libretto you always have to remember who’s onstage. I have a sticky note on my laptop that says “Who’s on first?” so I remember to check. In my first performed libretto, I wrote a scene where the chorus opens the opera, then sings nothing for the rest of the scene, but…I forgot to have them leave the stage. THEY WERE JUST STANDING THERE. A bunch of people milling around onstage with jack to do kills energy like you wouldn’t believe. The chorus is a bit like Chekov’s gun, in that respect. If they’re onstage, in one way or another, they must eventually go off! Thankfully, a mentor caught my mistake so I had a chance to fix it before submitting the final version. Now I mentally run through every character and the chorus when editing a scene to make sure they make their time onstage earned and, if they’re not needed, exit, preferably pursued by a bear.

Short stories, more than libretti, allow me to play around with form and extensive lines. I don’t have to consider a singer’s vocal chords or sanity. I could use a word like floccinaucinihilipilification and not worry that a beleaguered alto will stab me to death with a tuning fork, although that’s actually a terrible example because that word is highly singable! But, not a word most audience members would be likely to know, so I’d probably eventually be convinced by the composer to chuck it, though I pity the fictitious composer that would need to persuade me. One thing that’s hard to work is letter narration on a stage. For “Madness Afoot,” I got to use epistolary techniques, such as postscripts, valedictions, etc., which I love, perhaps obsessively. There’s a lot of room to mess around. Epistolary fiction would be very, very tricky to translate to stage. I can mess around with homophones and complicated syntax that would be truly nightmarish as part of sung performance. That said, I notice that all my lines are more concise and my storytelling is more precise as my libretto writing considerations bleed into my short fiction.


What are you working on now?

I have an opera, Quake, premiering in LA in 2020. I’m currently working with composer Nicky Sohn on a new opera based on the life of Korean independence activist Yoo Gwan Sun. We spent a month together in South Korea in January intensely working on it and now I’m drafting the libretto. I also start as a librettist fellow at American Opera Projects in October, so happily there will be a lot more opera in my future. As for fiction, I have a couple short stories I’m editing and a new middle grade novel I’m about to query with. And at some point I hope to sleep. I hear it’s great.


“Madness Afoot” appears in the 70th Anniversary Issue of F&SF.

You can buy a paper copy of the issue here:

You can buy an electronic copy of the issue here:

You can subscribe to the print edition of F&SF here:

You can subscribe to the electronic edition of F&SF at the following links:

Weightless Books (all formats):

Amazon US (Kindle edition):

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