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Interview: Betsy James on “Paradise and Trout”

– What was the inspiration for “Paradise and Trout,” or what prompted you to write it?

We were hiking off-trail in New Mexico’s Jemez Mountains—nine thousand feet altitude, aspen blazing yellow against a cobalt sky—and came upon a slender, glass-clear stream full of native Rio Grande Cutthroat trout. Two red slashes under the jawline give the fish its name. My friend lay down, rolled up his sleeve, and slipped his hand into an overhang in the grassy bank. In a flash he held a little flapping Cuttthroat. Just as quickly he let it go, and it dashed off. I lay on my belly and slid my arm into the water.

Fish world is quiet.

Slipping water, dappled sunlight, quietly waving fins, mouths and gills opening and closing, sometimes a leisurely swim or a quick dash across a pool. That’s it. Daylight, dark. Thunder. Rain.

The remote, pristine stream—my nose was almost in it—even smelled faintly of fish. They didn’t seem afraid. I could curl my hand around a slender body, slowly tighten my fingers, and then…flick, squirm, gone. The trout would shoot into the current, circle, then slip again under the bank to nudge along my palm.

I lay for a long time in the autumn sun, watching their nice fish faces, feeling their fish bodies with my hand as fish neighbor, sinking into fish world quiet.



– Was “Paradise and Trout” personal to you in any way, and if so, how?

I wonder if it’s possible to write a story that isn’t personal?

I’ve walked miles off-trail in New Mexico’s empty places, and taught for years among its unknowable deep cultures. For me, speculative fiction is the only medium that can embody this strange meeting of worlds.

This story brings together a canyon with a Spanish name; a Presbyterian great- grandfather; the burial of a Hopi friend; a trapped coyote that chewed its leg off—but on the wrong side of the trap. And trout. How the subconscious melds experience is both a mystery and the greatest hope for our planet’s blending cultures.



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

Um, hands-on.

The little trout had brown spotted skins, flat, neat eyes, and a rosy blush where their cheeks would be. They weren’t worried. They didn’t like being fondled the way a cat does, but fondling didn’t seem to bother them unless they were squeezed. They were archetypally slippery, but not slimy: I came to understand “slippery as a fish.”



– What would you want a reader to take away from “Paradise and Trout”?

In spec fic we talk about “other worlds.” Most of us can find some bit of stoniness, greenness, wildness or wateryness that’s close, and chances are there’s an alien culture in it. It might even be nicer there than paradise, and hey, no waiting.



– Anything else you’d like to add?

 I never did catch a fish.


“Paradise and Trout” appears in the July/August 2015 issue of F&SF, which can be bought here:


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