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Interview: Michaele Jordan on “Wizard”

–       Tell us a bit about “Wizard.”

“Wizard” is about the reckless courage of adolescence and the unknowability of the future .  My, that sounds pompous!  But it is as simple a description as I can manage.  Rachel is fourteen, and as crazy as any other fourteen-year-old.  The future she dives blindly into is as unknowable as I could make it.

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

I started with an image that popped into my head: Rachel (although I didn’t know her name yet) standing stunned on a street corner, staring at a great-looking guy.  Kids get desperate crushes all the time, as I remember all too well, and they can act very goofy when it happens. In my original mental image, Rachel dropped an armload of schoolbooks, but almost immediately upon writing that down, I realized that she had to drop something a) more valuable to her than school books, and b) easier to pick up again.  By then, I had started to do some thinking about the great looking guy, wondering who he was.  I didn’t know, and eventually figured out that I could never know because it was that moment of seeing something so desirable and yet incomprehensible, so intimately alien, that I was writing about.

–       What kind of research, if any, did you do for this story?

On this one, thankfully, none.  That’s a refreshing first for me.

–       A lot of stories have been written with wizards as the subject matter.  How were you able to find a fresh take to write about in this well-worn area?

It’s not so much that I achieved a fresh take, as that I never really sat down to write about a wizard.  That was just a label I added on later to describe (very inadequately) what he was—as if I knew what he was, anyway.

–       Is there anything you might want a reader to take from “Wizard’?

There’s no single articulate idea that I was trying to communicate.  Rather I was trying to pass on an image, with all its emotional connotations.  I would like to hope that readers will find themselves coming back to the story, teasing at it, wondering about it.  But I don’t care that much what they end up deciding it means.

–       What are you working on now?

Most of my energies right now (barring the occasional short story when a picture crawls into my mind) are going into my next novel Jocasta and the Indians which is about two thirds done.  It’s a light-hearted steam-punk romp (but with excruciatingly authentic Victoriana, barring the bold heroines, and their shiny toys). It’s very satisfying because I’ve done a lot of dark work recently, and really needed something more cheerful.

“Wizard” appears in the July/August 2012 issue of F&SF.

Interview: Matthew Johnson on “The Afflicted”

– Tell us a bit about “The Afflicted.”
“The Afflicted” is a story about where we draw the line in feeling compassion. Old people around the world have developed a disease somewhat similar to Alzheimer’s in that it gradually takes away their memory and self-control, but it also makes them aggressive and uncontrollable. Kate, the protagonist, is a former retirement-home nurse who now works in the camps that have been set up following the outbreak, caring for all of the people who are presumed to be infected but haven’t yet gone “end-stage,” as well as protecting them (and herself) from the ones that have. When she stumbles on someone who isn’t supposed to be there, she’s forced to question her assumptions about herself and the people she cares for. 
–  What was the inspiration for this story, or what prompted you to write it?
I wrote “The Afflicted” at about the same time as my story “The Last Islander,” and the two were a study in contrasts: “The Last Islander” came from an offhand comment I made on a panel at a con back in 2010 and took a year and a half to write after that, whereas the first draft of “The Afflicted” was done about two months after I stopped in the middle of chopping garlic, took my notebook out of my pocket and wrote “Alzheimer zombies.” It sometimes takes me a while to find the dramatic situation in an idea, but in this case I had the setting, characters and basic plot all in place by the end of that evening.
 – What kind of research, if any, did you do for this story?
I mostly did research on the practical aspects of the story, about nursing in remote areas and in old-age homes. A lot of details in the story, from the “camp ice cream” to the behavior and ailments of some of the characters, come directly from true stories in those settings. 
– The zombie genre has been well-tread by other authors, especially in the past ten years or so.  What made you want to tackle this area of sci-fi, and how were you able to find new ground to cover as a writer?
I think what sets “The Afflicted” apart is that it’s meant as a criticism of the zombie genre. There’s no mystery to the basic appeal of zombie stories, but I think a lot of the time they’re a guilty pleasure, and not in a good way: we enjoy having characters that the protagonist can kill without guilt or compunction, so that we don’t have to feel any by extension. This can make a story as meaningless as a first-person shooter, but there’s a moral concern as well. In most stories, not only is it not wrong to kill a zombie, it’s wrong not to kill a zombie, and characters are admired and praised for their willingness to kill infected friends, lovers and family members before they “turn.” In “The Afflicted” I made the “latent” period a lot longer than it is in most stories to bring those moral questions — When do we stop feeling compassion for someone? When do we stop thinking of someone as human? — to the foreground.
– Some authors say their stories are personal.  If that’s true for you, then in what way was “The Afflicted” personal to you?
It’s not based on direct experience, fortunately, though I do think that how we treat old people is one of the things future generations may view the way we see slavery and bear-baiting today. The ideas in the story, though, have a lot to do with my work doing media education, because a lot of the same questions get raised when we’re looking at media violence, cyberbullying, and media representations of crime, poverty, disasters and so on.
– What are you working on now?
My story “The Last Islander” is out right now in the September issue of Asimov’s and I have a collection of short stories, “Irregular Verbs,” coming out from ChiZine Press in early 2014. Right now I’m trying to get back into a writing routine after a brutal year at my day job, doing research for a novel tentatively titled “The City of Dreaming Spires” and trying to find a home for my second book, “Fire In Your Heart,” about a world where God is not only demonstrably real but periodically comes down to Earth to judge everyone for their sins. Interested parties can get semi-regular updates at my website,

“The Afflicted” appears in the July/August 2012 issue of F&SF.

Interview: Rachel Pollack on “Jack Shade in the Forest of Souls”

– Tell us a little about “Jack Shade in the Forest of Souls.”
I would refer to this story as shamanic noir.  Jack is a present day private eye occultist shaman, who deals with the supernatural, and travels to other dimensions for people who hire him.  Jack is tough, smart, sophisticated, but as in the classic noir stories, is likely to be scammed by his clients who have their own agendas.  Again, as with the noir tradition, Jack has a tortured past, a terrible secret which gets revealed, but not resolved, at the end of the story.  I envision “Forest of Souls” as the first of a series featuring Jack, and his attempts to undo the disastrous mistake he made early in his career.
– What was the inspiration for this story, or what prompted you to write it?
This has been one of the fun aspects of this story. It was inspired by two very different works, and merging them together was part of what drove the writing. Some months back I was on a road trip and brought along an audio of Vladimir Nabokov’s masterpiece Pale Fire.  The book takes the form of a long poem, the “Pale Fire” of the title, followed by an extensive commentary supposedly written by a lunatic professor who believes the poem is secretly about him.  I’d read it years ago but now as I listened to the poem itself I was struck by its beauty and poignancy.  The fictional poet writes about his lifelong fascination with death and the afterlife, now made urgent by the suicide of his daughter.  He also tells how his daughter was fascinated by the occult and tried to organize a ghost hunt.  The name of the poet is John Shade, and as I listened I began to play with the name, Jack Shade, and how it sounded both tough and occult.  Suddenly I thought of the old TV show, Have Gun, Will Travel, a noir Western with Richard Boone as a decadent poker player in San Francisco who secretly makes his money as a hired gunslinger.  Bringing these together was a real delight.  The title, by the way, is a kind of shout-out to the readers of my books on tarot, one of which is called The Forest of Souls.  The title of that book is metaphoric; in the short story the Forest of Souls is an actual place.
– What kind of research, if any, did you do for this story?
Well, aside from my half century or so of reading works on occultism, magic, shamanism, Kabbalah, and mythology–not much.  Seriously, while there are some actual references to the occult–notably “The Book of the Sacred Magic of Abramelin the Sage”–most of the magic in the story is invented.  My goal (as in other of my works) was to create contemporary versions of traditional shamanic practices.  Thus, the entrance to the Forest of Souls is a door marked “Employees Only,” in a garage on 57th St. in Manhattan.
– What might you want a reader to take away from “Jack Shade in the Forest of Souls”?
Excitement at a good story and a likable character, fascination with Jack’s “tradition,” and hopefully a desire to read further adventures.
– Some authors say their stories are personal.  If that’s true for you, then in what way is this story personal?
It brings together some of my favorite things–urban fantasy grounded in both occultism and shamanic practice, private eye stories, and, incidentally, my love of poker.  In the old “Have Gun, Will Travel” series Paladin would often be playing poker in his elegant hotel, only to be interrupted by his servant bringing the famous business card on a silver tray.  I borrowed this for my opening, updating the poker game to Texas Hold ‘Em.
– What are you working on now?
I’m finishing a novel, The Child Eater, and then I look forward to writing the next Jack Shade story, “The Queen of Eyes.” 
– Anything else you’d like to add?
Just that I hope Nabokov would have been entertained by my unusual tribute.

“Jack Shade in the Forest of Souls” appears in the July/August 2012 issue of F&SF.

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