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Interview: Lisa Mason on “Riddle”

Lisa MasonTell us a bit about “Riddle.”

As a writer and a reader, I’m much more interested in inner space than outer space. In stories about people living on society’s fringe than in starship captains or kings. In tales exploring consciousness, gender, and identity than in tales of derring-do, fisticuffs, and gun battles. (Though there are some fisticuffs in “Riddle.”)

I prefer tight, bold prose and try to achieve that effect in “Riddle.”




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

I have no idea—for once. This is one of the darkest stories I’ve ever written. I will say I wanted to set a supernatural story in my fascinating old neighborhood of North Beach in San Francisco

“Riddle” is what bubbled out of my subconscious mind.


Was “Riddle” personal to you in any way? If so, how?

Oh, yes! I lived for some years in North Beach with my husband, Tom Robinson. Tom has degrees from the San Francisco Art Institute, the Academy of Art University, and the Revere Academy of Jewelry Arts. He’s a working artist, jeweler, and sculptor and at the time, he’d gotten the lease on a dream art studio.

The place was an entire flat above a belly dancing club in a Stick-Eastlake Victorian building on Broadway between Montgomery Street and Columbus Avenue. Twenty-foot ceilings, an entire wall of exposed brick, another of floor-to-ceiling built-in bookshelves.

Half a block west on Broadway is Enrico’s with its broad patio where, at three in the morning, we would see U2, Diana Ross, and Bill Cosby (yes, he was a foul-mouthed jerk even then). Two blocks down to Columbus and half a block up to the intersection of Grant Avenue and Vallejo Street is the Caffé Trieste, a coffeehouse situated at that location since 1956. The Beat poets congregated there—Philip Lamantia, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Bob Kaufman, Allen Ginsberg, and William Burroughs. Burroughs published science fiction in F&SF! Or at least his novel, Nova Express, was reviewed in F&SF in the 1960s.

I took Bruce Sterling to the Trieste when he was in town for the premier issue of Wired Magazine. Bruce was on the cover and a number of people were reading Wired when we walked in. Surreal!

Around the corner was the Roma Caffé. I took Robert Silverberg there for pizza and Ellen Datlow for omelets on the back patio.

When you head two blocks down on Columbus Avenue, you’ll find Vesuvio, another gathering place for nearly sixty years. My favorite spot is the John Wilkes Booth on the mezzanine.

So North Beach is a very cool neighborhood. Coolness isn’t enough to drive a story, though. I needed a high concept. A supernatural high concept. I found that in “Riddle.”


Can you tell us about any of the research you may have done for this story?

Once I had my supernatural hook, I researched (plot spoiler alert!) sphinxes.

The classic legend tells of the sphinx in the desert who waylays travelers and poses a riddle. If a traveler can’t produce the answer, she kills and devours them.

Then Ulysses on his travels encountered the sphinx. She asked, “What walks on four legs at sunrise, two legs at noon, and three legs at sunset? He correctly answered, “Man. As a baby he crawls on hands and knees. As an adult he walks on his own two legs. And as elderly, he walks with a cane.” Infuriated, the sphinx turned to stone and that’s what we see before the Great Pyramid in Egypt.

Greek and ancient Egyptian iconography portray the sphinx as a male animal—a man’s head and chest atop a lion’s body like the Great Sphinx at Giza. French sphinxes from the Louis the Fourteenth era, however, depict sphinxes as voluptuously female. (Leave it to the French!)

I knew I wanted my sphinx to be voluptuously, wickedly female.


What would you want a reader to take away from “Riddle?”

That love is complicated. Human consciousness is complicated. And life…you can’t be too sure about life. Fiction is meant to provide structure for our chaotic reality. I strove to make that point in “Anything For You,” published in the September-October 2016 F&SF. But sometimes fiction needs to point out the chaos.

I deliberately left an ambiguity at the story’s end, which I hope readers will ponder. If any reader wants to discuss this with me, I’ve got a Facebook Author Page and I’m on Goodreads. Come visit and we’ll talk!


What are you working on now?

I’ve just published a short novel, One Day in the Life of Alexa, with my ebook publisher, Bast Books, for the purpose of placing it in an international fiction competition with a 20,000 pound prize. So now the title is available as a brand-new beautiful trade paperback and as an ebook worldwide on Kindle, Barnes and Noble, Apple, Kobo, and Smashwords. The first review, on Goodreads, says, “Incorporates lively prose, past/present time jumps, and the consequences of longevity technology…An absorbing read with an appealing narrator and subtly powerful emotional rhythms.”

Also, I’ve just re-released in print Summer of Love, a Philip K. Dick Award Finalist, and The Gilded Age (originally titled The Golden Nineties), a New York Times Notable Book. This is an Author’s Preferred Edition set, with Tom Robinson’s beautiful covers. Both are feminist historical novels as well as extrapolations into the far future when women’s issues—and humanity’s issues—have taken a different turn. Those two books are as timely as ever and I’m very glad to republish them in print and as ebooks worldwide on all the retailers.

More of my backlist books will be forthcoming in print in the next several months. And another dark modern fantasy, “Aurelia,” is forthcoming in F&SF in 2018.

I’ve got an SF novel in the works and, always, more stories!

For more news about upcoming projects, print books, ebooks, stories, interviews, blogs, cute cat pictures, Tom’s bespoke art and jewelry, and more, please visit me at


“Riddle” appears in the September/October 2017 issue of F&SF.

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