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Interview: Phyllis Eisenstein on “The City of Lost Desire”

Tell us a bit about “The City of Lost Desire.”

“The City of Lost Desire” is the next adventure in the life of Alaric, the teleporting minstrel, and occurs after “The Desert of Vanished Dreams” (F&SF, July/August 2016). The caravan that Alaric joined as an entertainer has finally completed its desert crossing and arrived at the ancient city that was always its goal, bringing trade goods that include fine furniture, salt from the mines of the desert, and a potent, addictive drug that the rich and royal of the city crave. Alaric is drawn by the mystery of the tower that stands outside the city and by the secrets that seem to pervade the royal palace and its inhabitants. And, as more than once in the past, people seem to want to keep him there for their own purposes.

 

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

I had spent some months playing with ideas for it, but nothing had actually crystallized, and only a very small piece of it had been sketched
out, when my husband asked if I was working on another Alaric story yet, and I decided to tell him what I had come up with so far. When I tell him about a story, I usually end up being committed to writing it because he will start reminding me (frequently) that I should be working on it. But at the time he asked, I was working on an epic fantasy trilogy, and I kept saying I wasn’t going to write the next Alaric story until I was finished with the trilogy. But trilogies being very long things, I just kept using it as an excuse to put off the next Alaric adventure because I didn’t have a complete story in my head, especially not an ending. Finally, when my husband reminded me yet again that I really ought not to wait another decade before writing it, I thought about it some more, came up with half a dozen titles, showed them to him, and he picked the one he thought worked best. As usual, he was right (he’s good at titles), and I decided to take a month or so off from the trilogy to get a good start on “The City of Lost Desire.” That, of course, inevitably meant I couldn’t resist going on with it until it was finished. So the title became my momentum and also the key to the story’s essence.

 

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

The most difficult aspect of writing the story was gathering and linking up a lot of elements I had planted in the series over the years. Many of those elements had been intended, eventually, to have more significant meanings than they appeared to have in their original stories, and both the most difficult and the most rewarding aspects of them were what they all conveyed together as the series went on — for example, the drug, the lost city back in “The Desert of Vanished Dreams,” and the tower, among others. The most fun was definitely the tower, because there I was swooping back into science fiction (okay, science fantasy) territory, and I had known for years what belonged there and had looked forward to writing about it.

 

Why do you write?

I write because I can’t not write. I’ve been a writer since I first learned to use a pencil to print words on paper. I started with Westerns
and Captain Video and tried to create fiction in every genre I read in books or saw on TV or in the movies, including fairy tales, Greek
mythology, Jack London, and my favorite, science fiction. I wrote stories and plays and, until I was well into high school, tried hard to turn most English assignments into fiction, which some of my English teachers tolerated fairly well. My fourth grade teacher even let me produce and direct my plays for class, which resulted in quite a bit of Captain Video being presented there. My fourth-year high school Spanish teacher was also indulgent, letting me recruit classmates to act in my own Twilight Zone episode, as long as it was in Spanish. She was undoubtedly the only person in the audience, besides me, who knew what “La Zona de Crepusculo” meant.  (I always thought the combination of the discovery of Florida by Christopher Columbus and a Cape Canaveral rocket launch worked quite well, even though, in reality, Columbus never got anywhere near Florida.) With all of that behind me, my parents couldn’t resist my pleas for a typewriter, which, many years later, gave way to a series of computers. I had to revert to yellow pads for a couple of decades, when I worked in the advertising industry and only had time to do my own writing on the bus, the elevated train, and the subway on my way to work. But there I was, still writing, because that’s what I do.

 

Who do you consider to be your influences?

Jack Vance has always been a very big influence on my work, but, growing up, I also paid a lot of attention to both the short and long fiction of Ray Bradbury, Theodore Sturgeon, Robert Heinlein, Alfred Bester, A.E. van Vogt, and L. Sprague de Camp.

 

What are you working on now?

That epic fantasy trilogy I put on hold to write “The City of Lost Desire.” Its overall title is THE MASKS OF POWER, and the first volume is
THE WALKER BETWEEN WORLDS. It’s about coming of age, love, hate, and jealousy, war and conquest, gods who were once human beings, intelligent dragons who once ruled the world, and a lot of other things that interest me. And the symbol of wisdom is the rich purple amethyst, my birthstone (I couldn’t resist).

 

“The City of Lost Desire” appears in the January/February 2019 issue of F&SF.

You can buy a copy of the issue here: https://www.sfsite.com/fsf/toc1901.htm

You can subscribe to the print edition of F&SF here: https://www.sfsite.com/fsf/subscribe.htm

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

Weightless Books (non-Kindle): https://weightlessbooks.com/category/publisher/spilogale-inc/

Amazon US (Kindle edition):http://www.amazon.com/dp/B004ZFZ4O8/

Amazon UK (Kindle edition):http://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B004ZFZ4O

Interview: Sean McMullen on “The Washer from the Ford”

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

The story has its origins in an abandoned novel from around twenty years ago. Neil Gaiman and I were exchanging emails about what we were currently working on. I was writing Australian Gods, and he was writing American Gods. As soon as I realised that I might be competing with Neil with an almost identical theme, I dropped the idea like a hot rock. However, I already had two chapters from Australian Gods published as standalone stories, and had several more planned.

At the time I lived on a street with a ford in it, and visited the local laundromat every Sunday night. Years later my daughter gave me an encyclopaedia of fantastic creatures and spirits, and for some reason I decided to read the entire thing. Bean Nighe, the Washer at the Ford, was featured in that book. Would a mythical Scottish spirit prefer to do her washing in a laundromat rather than a ford in the Twenty-First Century, I wondered? Probably, I decided. One night, while I was doing the laundry, I mapped out the story.

 

Was “The Washer from the Ford” personal to you in any way?  If so, how?

I did identify rather strongly with Peter, the narrator. I have always tended to look way younger than my actual age, and even when I was in my late Forties and a passably senior computer manager I was still referred to as “that kid” and not taken very seriously. Thus I constructed Peter, who is very good at his job but is socially invisible – although I did make him look older than his age instead of younger.

 

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

Apart from doing a lot more background reading about Bean Nighe and various other interesting immortals who might have migrated to Australia, I actually jogged in all the areas where the story is set – I do a lot of jogging, especially at night. My one departure from geographical reality was the ford itself, which is about a mile south of the story’s setting.

Much of the research on mythology was done when I was a professional folk singer while an undergraduate. I used to sing a lot of ballads featuring mythological creatures, and because singers were expected to tell the audience a bit about the ballad, I read a lot of folklore books. Similarly, the material about computer systems and security courses all came from my background in computer engineering. The only danger with this approach is that if you use it too often, your fiction and characters become too familiar from story to story.

 

What was the most difficult aspect of writing “The Washer from the Ford,” and what was the most fun?

The ending was very difficult. Having exposed the serial killer, what does Peter do next? Go back to a slightly improved version of his former life? Boring. He has had a taste of a kind of superpower, and he likes it. He is like the little mermaid in Han Christian Anderson’s story of the same name. She gives up her voice in return for legs, and Peter must remain celibate if he wants to retain second sight. Most of us would probably consider that to be a pretty bad deal, so why do it? I eventually decided that his gift of second sight had shown him that he can have an important role in life, spotting the deadly enchantments that the rest of us mortals cannot see, and saving us from them. I like the idea of him deciding that, it’s a comforting thought that people like him might exist.

What was fun? I am a pretty senior karate instructor, so the idea of constructing a character with zero martial arts experience and writing from his point of view was a lot of fun. I had to teach myself to be timid and helpless, and think like a person who was clueless about fighting. One approach I used was talking to the white belt students in my karate classes about how they would react or feel in similar situations. Thus Peter had to use a combination of second sight, internet searches and a prepaid phone to save his friend Jilly from Knight, the serial killer. It’s so easy to just punch out the bad guy, but a storyteller has to do better than that.

 

Anything else you’d like to add?

The central theme of the story is the question of whether gods and/or magical creatures should always continue doing what they are known for doing. Bean Nighe washes the blood from the clothes of people who are about to die violently and they see her doing it. Do they understand her warning, run home and lock the door? Never. It is a task which allows her to exist, but it does no good for anyone else. Does Echo provide a worthwhile service by helping adulterers? Their husbands and wives would not agree. At least Peter tries to do more than just perform magical task which make him immortal.

Quite a few elements of the story were lifted straight out of real life, even though they seem to me less likely than much of the magical fiction. Peter stepping in a puddle and splashing water up Jilly’s legs was something that I once did – quite by accident – and the exchange that followed was pretty well word for word what was in the story. The lady with the urban fox was another, and the billionth scale model of the solar system is absolutely real. Why does life often seem less likely than fiction? I wish I knew. It would make writing fiction a lot easier.

 

“The Washer from the Ford” appears in the January/February 2019 issue of F&SF.

You can buy a copy of the issue here: https://www.sfsite.com/fsf/toc1901.htm

You can subscribe to the print edition of F&SF here: https://www.sfsite.com/fsf/subscribe.htm

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

Weightless Books (non-Kindle): https://weightlessbooks.com/category/publisher/spilogale-inc/

Amazon US (Kindle edition):http://www.amazon.com/dp/B004ZFZ4O8/

Amazon UK (Kindle edition):http://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B004ZFZ4O

Interview: Marie Vibbert on “Tactical Infantry Bot 37 Dreams of Trochees”

Tell us a bit about “Tactical Infantry Bot 37 Dreams of Trochees.”

I wrote the first draft of this story so fast.  The idea seized me and the point of view, for me, was easy.  I write a lot of robot-pov stories.  It frees me to be analytical.  So we have this cold, thoughtful machine in a war zone, and what more barren soil could you find for poetry to bloom?  But it does, like a wildflower busting through a crack in concrete.

 

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

I have to make an embarrassing confession.  The story was prompted by an anthology call for “female battle poets.”  I’ve been working for some time on writing decent metered poetry and immediately decided to do something trochaic (to avoid the cliche of the iambic) and re-read Hiawatha to get the rhythm into my head. I came up with an excuse for the battle robot to be female (the fake breasts are ammunition storage) and wham! I had a draft in no time.

Then I sent it to F&SF for a “quick rejection” because the anthology wasn’t open yet.  I’m delighted with how badly my plans went.

 

Was this story personal to you in any way?  If so, how?

My parents were anti-war hippies, a heritage I’m proud to continue.  My dad told me lightheartedly of his time as a machine-gunner in the Marines, not knowing I was taking down every visceral detail to populate a future war story.  His friends had stories, too, and my great uncle had been a medic in World War II and conveyed perfectly the dark absurdity.

 

Can you tell us anything about trochaic poetry and your interest in it?

A college English professor introduced “Oats and Beans and Barley Grow” in his first class as an example of “one of the oldest poems in our language.”  It sent me on a long study of the Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes and the rhyme has always been shallow in my subconscious, waiting to be used.  I can still see Professor Bishop pacing the church-like sanctuary of Clarke Hall, rolling the vowels extravagantly in his Australian accent.

I’ve always been drawn to things that are off-ordinary, and so the well-trod path of iambic pentameter held no interest for me, but this!  BUM bah BUM bah… like a drumbeat.

I’m a contrarian.  When elementary school fellows declared free verse “not real poetry” I dedicated myself to it.  When my college fellows declared formal poetry “dead” I dropped free verse like a stone.  Now I like to think I’m mature enough to dabble in both, but there is something about meter that challenges me.  I never quite hear it right.   Maybe I talk funny.  I don’t know.  But it keeps nagging my brain demanding to be perfected.

 

Why do you write?

Such a short question and such a hard one!  Fear of obscurity?  A compulsion to always be talking?  I think most writers are slightly damaged people.  We never grew out of the “Dad! Dad! Look at me!  Look what I can do!” phase.

Which reminds me that my father’s art influenced me heavily.  My dad was a construction worker and a fine artist.  He couldn’t make money on art, but he drew and painted almost every day.  “Work is how you live, art is why,” my dad would say.  So it’s no surprise his daughters each have their own art they pursue.

 

Who do you consider to be your influences?

I read a lot of CJ Cherryh and Asimov as a kid.  As an adult I’ve been ridiculously lucky to have some very close personal influences in my writing workshop.  Mary Turzillo is my writing-mom.  She taught me everything but how to type.

 

What are you working on now?

I’m revising this novel I wrote ten years ago and never sold.  It’s in first person omniscient because I thought that would be hard, and it was!  Also I’m shopping around a novel about a space motorcycle girl gang, and writing short stories and okay of course I have a couple other half-finished novels.  The poor dears.  I like to always have a novel, a short story, and a poem going at all times. I work best with all burners going.

 

“Tactical Infantry Bot 37 Dreams of Trochees” appears in the January/February 2019 issue of F&SF.

You can buy a copy of the issue here: https://www.sfsite.com/fsf/toc1901.htm

You can subscribe to the print edition of F&SF here: https://www.sfsite.com/fsf/subscribe.htm

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

Weightless Books (non-Kindle): https://weightlessbooks.com/category/publisher/spilogale-inc/

Amazon US (Kindle edition):http://www.amazon.com/dp/B004ZFZ4O8/

Amazon UK (Kindle edition):http://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B004ZFZ4O

Click on Ms. Vibbert’s photo to explore her website and learn more about her and her work.

Interview: Carrie Vaughn on “To the Beautiful Shining Twilight”

Tell us a bit about “To the Beautiful Shining Twilight.”

This is about Abby, a musician who runs a coffee shop, and what happens when an adventure she had thirty years before shows up out of the blue. She has a choice to make, whether to try to recapture what she had when she was twenty, or live with what she’s built now, in the mundane world.

 

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

A couple of ideas converged for this one, but the whole thing kicked off when I went to a funky coffee shop in Denver that felt like it came straight out of the late 1980’s — used paperbacks and LP’s for sale, a rack of comic books, along with all the mismatched tables and chairs and coffee bar menu written on a chalkboard. The whole thing felt nostalgic, and I started wondering what might have happened to characters from some of those bohemian urban fantasy stories of the late 80’s and early 90’s, you know the ones with the elves and folk musicians and magic in the real world. I decided I wanted a “thirty years later” story.

 

Was “To the Beautiful Shining Twilight” personal to you in any way?  If so, how?

It ended up being a lot more personal than I was expecting when I started it. I’m in the middle of my 40’s and my idealistic teens and twenties are starting to feel very far away, but at the same time it’s clear now that we all make our own magic in our own ways and we can’t really expect someone else to come along and make it happen for us. The story ended up being about reconciling some of the fantasies we have when we’re young versus the realities of hitting middle age.

 

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

I think different readers are going to take different things from this. Some may not take anything at all, if they’re not familiar with the tropes involved, and that’s okay. My hope is some people will relate pretty directly to Abby and the other characters, and that it might give them a different perspective on this kind of story.

 

Why do you write?

Because I’ve been doing it so long I can’t imagine not writing. Because it’s the best way I know to synthesize something useful and productive out of the wild tangle that populates my brain most of the time.

 

Who do you consider to be your influences?

The list keeps growing and changing, but Ray Bradbury and Robin McKinley are the two writers who made me want to be a writer. I wanted to learn how they did what they did, working such powerful magic with just words on the page.

 

The Wild Dead by Carrie VaughnWhat are you working on now?

I’ve got a couple of fantasy novels I’m revising, and the usual assortment of short stories in the pipeline. I’m always working on something new and it’s hard to predict what’s going to make it out in the wild first. But there will be something.

 

“To the Beautiful Shining Twilight” appears in the January/February 2019 issue of F&SF.

You can buy a copy of the issue here: https://www.sfsite.com/fsf/toc1901.htm

You can subscribe to the print edition of F&SF here: https://www.sfsite.com/fsf/subscribe.htm

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

Weightless Books (non-Kindle): https://weightlessbooks.com/category/publisher/spilogale-inc/

Amazon US (Kindle edition):http://www.amazon.com/dp/B004ZFZ4O8/

Amazon UK (Kindle edition):http://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B004ZFZ4O

Carrie Vaughn’s website: http://www.carrievaughn.com/

Editor’s Note for January-February 2019

A new issue for a new year. The January/February volume of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction begins 2019 with 11 new stories, plus all our regular columns and features.

Most of our electronic and paper subscribers have already received their issues, but if you’re looking for a copy you can find us 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.

Fantasy & Science Fiction, January/February, cover by Jill BaumanThis month’s cover illustrates “The City of Lost Desire” by Phyllis Eisenstein. The artwork is by the award-nominated artist Jill Bauman.

FULL CIRCLE

Alaric had been found on a hillside, a helpless newborn babe clothed only in blood. He was obviously a witch child, for a gory hand, raggedly severed just above the wrist, clutched his ankles in a deathlike grasp.

That’s a passage from “Born to Exile,” the story that introduced Alaric to F&SF readers back in August 1971.

Young Alaric, with his talent for teleportation, eventually became a reluctant thief and willing troubadour, who fell in love with a princess entangled in court intrigues that only his wit and supernatural abilities could help him survive. His original adventures in F&SF, published back in the 1970s, were those of a young man, with a young man’s passions and impulses. Much has happened to him over the years, and across many hundreds of pages since. Now he returns, much older and wiser, only to find himself caught up with another princess and a peril he cannot easily escape.

MORE GREAT FICTION

Once you leave “The City of Lost Desire,” you’ll find plenty of additional adventure. Carrie Vaugh takes us to “The Beautiful Shining Twilight,” a story about what happens after you return through the portal to another world. Andy Duncan regales us with “Joe Diabo’s Farewell,” a story about the Native Americans who built skyscrapers in New York in the early twentieth century, and the Native Americans who worked in the early film industry at the same time, and one moment when the two overlapped. Sean McMullen introduces us to “The Washer from the Ford,” about a man who can see what happens after an unexpected death. And Pip Coen shows us “The Fall from Griffin’s Peak,” a story about a hard life and aspirations for something better.

We also have a variety of science fiction stories to balance out the issue. Robert Reed will take us on a trip to “The Province of Saints,” where empathy has the power to connect people and also destroy them. Adam-Troy Castro remembers a “Survey” he took once in college, and looks for the sinister purpose it was hiding and that it may still hide. Leah Cypess’s new story is “Blue as Blood” and shows how we see the world affects how we fit into it. Marie Vibbert’s “Tactical Infantry Bot 37 Dreams of Trochees” in a story about the future of robots and war, survival and poetry. And Erin Cashier takes to a place “Fifteen Minutes from Now,” where doing wrong to serve right raises ethical questions that it leaves the reader to answer.

Tucked somewhere inside the issue, you’ll also find a wonderful piece of flash from Jenn Reese about “The Right Number of Cats,” a story of grief and healing. And in another installment of his Plumage from Pegasus column, Paul Di Filippo takes us for “A Walk on the Mild Side.”

OUR OTHER COLUMNS AND FEATURES

As always, Charles de Lint recommends some Books to Look For, this time by A. Lee Martinez, Seanan McGuire, and Lark Benobi, plus the graphic novel Calexit Vol. 1 by Matteo Pizzolo and Amancay Nahuelpan, and the new history of Astounding by Alec Nevala-Lee. Michelle West is Musing on Books by Stuart Turton, Rena Rossner, Andrew Katz, and Sherry Thomas. And for our monthly Curiosities column, rediscovering lost writers and books, Paul Di Filippo reviews Pink Furniture by A. E. Coppard(1930), a fantasy romp by an author who used to be a household name.

In our latest film column, E. G. Neil looks at superhero movies and how one in particular is “Venom, Us,” while Jerry Oltion’s science column explores what will happen “When Betelgeuse Blows.” The print version of the magazine also offers up a new cartoon by Arthur Masear.

LET US KNOW WHAT YOU THINK

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

Enjoy!

C.C. Finlay, Editor
Fantasy & Science Fiction
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