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Interview: Alexander Jablokov on “The Comfort of Strangers”

– 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.

Interview: Felicity Shoulders on “Small Towns”

– Tell us a bit about “Small Towns.”
“Small Towns” takes place in France in the wake of World War I; it’s the story of a particularly small and sheltered child growing into a young woman, and of a middle-aged man trying to retreat into the world of his childhood.
I’ve never set a story in France before. My family is part French and we have strong ties there, but our relatives live in the Massif Central to the south, a long way from the Western Front. I decided when I was drafting the story that I’d write no sentence for which I couldn’t imagine the equivalent in French: essentially, I was translating it into English as I wrote it. This was a bizarre, experimental process for me, and I wasn’t sure how the result would strike people. My first readers were all non-French speakers though and the language just seemed appropriately old-fashioned to them, so I forged ahead and it seems to have succeeded.
– What was the inspiration for this story, or what prompted you to write it?
Years ago I read a story by Angela Carter called “The Lady of the House of Love.” It’s about a British soldier on leave in Europe encountering the last scion of a vampire line. While Angela Carter wrote many modern fairy tales herself, this particular story implies strongly that World War I was the end of magic, and I immediately, perversely, wanted to write a fairy tale set in the aftermath of the Great War. I had an idea that the protagonist would be literally small, but not much beyond that.
That idea remained in the back of my mind for several more years, until I was reading about some World War I battles on Wikipedia. I wasn’t doing research, just reading about battles in which my great-grandfather had fought. I was struck by British aerial photographs of the village of Passchendaele, in Belgium. They showed the village before and after the fighting there, and in the second photograph even the roads are barely discernible. The fields, the trees, every feature blasted away. That image gave me the opening paragraphs of “Small Towns” and enough of the story to start writing.
(Here are the wikipedia photos of Passchendaele which Ms. Shoulders references, if anyone cares to look: )
– What kind of research, if any, did you have to do for “Small Towns?”
I haven’t written a lot of historical fantasy, and this is the oldest setting I’ve tried: with more recent settings, I can do things like call up my grandmother and interrogate her about how they disposed of trash in Oregon in 1946. With this, I didn’t have any cheats.
I did a lot of photographic research online, looking at archival photographs of French and Belgian towns. I looked at pictures of women and girls and their clothing especially, since Fleur and her mother are seamstresses. I read up on the changes in fashion, in France in particular, over the period of the War.
Trying to research the life of civilians and especially refugees in France during the war was frustrating: my Oregon libraries didn’t have a great deal of information on the topic, and general books about World War I tended to focus their French homefront chapters more on the politically relevant topics of dissension and pacifism, and military matters like munitions manufacture, than on the probable experience of a displaced family. I found enough references to sketch out the Jaillets’ stories, and that was enough: the story is, after all, set after Jacques’s return home, not during his exile.
– Was this story personal for you in any way?
My great-grandfather lied about his age to join the Canadian Expeditionary Force at 17, and saw a lot of action. Canada was in the war from the beginning, of course, and the stories I heard from my family had some contrast with the stories of the American experience of the Great War, but fundamentally, the war was still “Over There”. I wonder about the recovery, what it’s like to be a “homefront” that’s not far from the warfront. I wondered about the lives of people who weren’t in the war, but were still scarred by it.
– Would you say that “Small Towns” is typical of the type of fiction you write, or unusual?
Unusual! Most of my published fiction is near-future science fiction with a social bent, and much of my unpublished work is mythic fantasy. While there’s a fable element to “Small Towns”, the voice and language isn’t the language of myth, and the setting is real and researched in a way much of my fantasy deliberately isn’t. 
– What are you working on now?
I’m revising a novel draft. It’s near-future science fiction, very far indeed from Fleur’s world, but perhaps still about the limitations of the body and striving to define the life you want.

“Small Towns” appears in our Jan./Feb. 2012 issue.

Interview: Ted Kosmatka on “The Color Least Used By Nature”

*Tell us a bit about “The Color Least Used by Nature.”

From start to finish, this story probably took me longer to write than anything else I’ve ever written.  It took an insanely long time, in fact, for what was supposed to be a short little story.  While I was working on it, I kept thinking that I was only a few weeks away from finishing, so I’d burn the midnight oil in what I thought was the final push, working on it late at night after everyone in the house was asleep.  But it was like some crazy carnival fun room where the exit kept retreating from me the closer I got.  I was half afraid the darn thing was going to turn into a novel by the time I was finished.  It’s amazing how a small, simple idea can take on a life of its own.  

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

The story first came to me several years ago as an image: a man standing on a sandy shore watching his son sail away in a stolen boat.  I knew the son had stolen the boat from the father, and I knew that the father was secretly happy about it, though it was a bittersweet happiness.  I wasn’t sure what the idea meant, or how I might write a story so that the scene made sense to me, and I assumed that the need to write about it would fade eventually since I seemed to know so little about it.  But my mind kept returning to that single image again and again, so I knew there was something there.  Most of my story ideas don’t come to me in this way.  Usually, the kinds of ideas I get are what-if stories.  Or strange extrapolations from existing science.  But this felt totally different—more emotional at its core, less tied to the real world than my usual fiction.  Up till then I’d only written two types of stories: sci-fi, and semi-autobiographical literary stuff based on my time in the steel mills.  This felt like something new, and I was about five pages into it when I realized that I was writing my first fantasy story.  The idea for the walking trees came to me while I was on a hike in Hawaii, and I saw a tree with all these roots poking up out of the soil like little legs.  It seemed like the tree was ready to get up and walk.

*What kind of research went into the story?

A couple of years ago I wrote a story called “Divining Light” which extrapolates from a twist on a particular interpretation of quantum mechanics.  I had to do so much research for that story that my brain melted, and looking back now it seems like it might actually have been easier to become a real physicist than to write that darn story.  Okay, that’s totally a lie; the math required for a physics degree would have killed me.  (I still get mail from physicists and physics students, asking if the experiment in that story was actually performed.)  After finishing “Divining Light” I promised myself that my next couple of stories wouldn’t require any research at all.  Of course, it didn’t work out that way.  I can’t really help myself, and I ended up doing a ton of research for “Color Least Used,” which is part of what contributed to me taking so long to finish it.  I tried to get the details as right as I could. Even when you’re writing about a fictional island in the middle of the Pacific, it turns out that no island is an island unto itself, really, as it exists somewhere in the historical milieu of Polynesian expansion and Western colonialism.  So those are forces that have to constantly be taken into account.  I did a lot of historical research about island life in the late 1800’s, and I did my best to give as accurate a portrayal of the time period as I could.    

*Most authors say their stories are personal.  If that’s true for you, in what way is “The Color Least Used” personal?

 Oh, I’m not giving up the goods that easy.

*What would you want a reader to take away from this story?

I fall firmly in the “story belongs to the reader” camp, so I’d be disappointed if every reader came away with the same interpretation.  The best stories are like life in that they can be seen from many different perspectives.  No one is a villain in their own mind, right?  I have my own take on the story, of course, but that’s not to say that it is any more important than anyone else’s.  If a gun were put to my head, and I had to choose the thing that I personally took away from the story, it would be the idea that everyone is flawed in some way, and that our flaws are part of what makes us who we are.  Sometimes our greatest qualities are our flaws, and vice versa.

*What are you working on now?

I’m a full-time writer at Valve, so I’m doing a lot of video game writing.  I’m also working on another novel.

*Anything else you’d like to add?

My first novel, THE GAMES, comes out March 13th..  You can buy it in bookstores or here at Amazon:

“The Color Least Used By Nature” appears in our Jan./Feb. 2012 issue.

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