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Interview: John Kessel on “The Mark of Cain”

Tell us a bit about “The Mark of Cain.”

The story is based on a fragment that I wrote in the 1980s, fifteen handwritten pages in the voice of a character telling of his past, his ambitions, and his conviction that he has let down the people around him and failed in his professional and personal life. In going through my old story files I ran across these pages and thought, “This is pretty well written. This young writer has some talent, but he doesn’t have a story yet. But I could make it one.”

 

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

The character of “Cal” is based on somebody that I knew back in the 1980s when I lived in Kansas City and was working on my Ph.D. at the University of Kansas. Looking back on that time and the young man I was then from my current perspective of my late 60s made me think of the differences between youth and age, between the arrogance of the 30-year-old and the uncertainty of the 65-year-old.

 

Was “The Mark of Cain” personal to you in any way?  If so, how?

It’s more personal than many of my other stories. I think about how easy it was for me to judge people when I was young, and how much more complicated the world seems now that I am older. I found some fertile ironies in the differences between my made-up would-be alchemist “Cal” and the ambitious writer “John,” both in 1981 and in 2019. The story mentions places and events that I saw back then, and draws on my Catholic upbringing and concern for right and wrong.

 

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

Life is mysterious, we do not have control over what happens to us even when we think we are in control, and judgment of ourselves and others is difficult. Right and wrong are real, but they are not simple. Self-examination is necessary, but who is to say what our lives mean, if they mean anything, in the end?

 

Why do you write?

Writing is a way to explore things that interest, amuse, and bother me. It is a way of figuring out what I think about things. It also is a way to entertain myself and others who might possibly see the world from a perspective similar to mine. If it’s done right, it’s fun both to do and read.

 

Who do you consider to be your influences?

At this point there are so many that it’s hard to single any out. My typical list ranges from Herman Melville and Jane Austen to Gene Wolfe and Ursula Le Guin, from Nathanael West to Karen Joy Fowler. I could easily add a dozen others. I am inspired and challenged by the work of other writers, living and dead. To say nothing of music and films and the world around me.

 

What are you working on now?

After seeing the publication of two very different novels in two years— my big sf novel The Moon and the Other and my Jane Austen/Mary Shelley pastiche Pride and Prometheus—I am writing some short stories. I’ve always loved the short story form, but have been away from it while. I’ve finished a new novella I’m very proud of titled The Dark Ride that is seeking a publisher right now.

 

“The Mark of Cain” appears in the March/April 2019 issue of F&SF.

You can buy a copy of the issue here: https://www.sfsite.com/fsf/toc1903.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: Paul Park on “Dear Sir or Madam”

What was the inspiration for “Dear Sir or Madam,” or what prompted you to write it?

It’s usually hard for me to say what the inspiration for a story is, but in this case I know precisely.  I was reading a story in the Guardian about a court case in Great Britain.  A woman had a crush on another woman, a classmate at University.  Afraid of approaching her, she invented an online persona, a man who had suffered terrible injuries in a fire, which made it hard for him to interact with people.  The woman set her friend up with this persona, and they communicated for a long time online, while the woman served as a kind of confidante for her friend, urging her, finally, to set up a meeting.  The persona agreed to a meeting only under the condition that the friend wear a mask.  They met several times, and even became physically intimate.  But at a certain moment the friend stripped off her mask and, recognizing her confidante, became enraged and inconsolable, because she’d been so deeply betrayed.  She then accused her confidante of rape, and the case went to trial.  The defense argued that it wasn’t possible to imagine that the woman had been truly taken in, and that she, even unconsciously, was a willing participant in a role-playing game.

So…that was interesting to me.  At the same time I was listening, as sort of a guilty pleasure, to a Mormon band called Elenyi, young women with achingly beautiful voices who specialize in 19th century hymns.  So really, the story was just handed to me on a plate.

 

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

The compulsion is, especially in the case of something so distant, to make it personal.  The poignancy of the original court case lay, for me, in the desperate sureness that you never could be loved for your own sake, which becomes in its own way an alternate reality.  So that got me thinking about the other half of the story, in which virtual reality becomes a metaphor for distorted memory.

 

Why do you write?

Realistically, there are not that many things I do well:  fewer and fewer actually, as I get older and various physical skills drop away.  I’ve always loved the Everyman story, where he sets off on the road with all his companions.  They desert him one by one—friends, relations, health, knowledge, etc.—until only Good Deeds are left.  The Good Deeds lie down in the grave with him, which you may take as either comforting or not.

 

Who do you consider to be your influences?

Well, they change every day, my influences.  When I was just starting to write, they were Isak Dinesen and Italo Calvino.  Sometimes I can look back at those early books and guess what I was reading on the side.  Oops—I must have stopped reading Dickens here.  What did I pick up with this new chapter?  Virginia Woolf?

 

What would you want a reader to take away from “Dear Sir or Madam?”

I think it will be a really scary development, when we can make entirely plausible video images of any possible event.

 

What are you working on now?

The last couple of years I’ve devoted to short fiction, because it’s…shorter.  And I am experimenting with different forms:  last year I wrote a five-voice radio play that served as the voice-over for a museum installation in West Palm Beach, designed by sound and video artist Stephen Vitiello.  I’m still hacking away at a post-apocalyptic novella, set in Rhode Island.  And I have a new book coming out this spring, part of Terry Bisson’s Outspoken Authors series from PM Press in Oakland, a small collection of stories called A City Made of Words.

 

“Dear Sir or Madam” appears in the March/April 2019 issue of F&SF.

You can buy a copy of the issue here: https://www.sfsite.com/fsf/toc1903.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: Gregor Hartmann on “The Unbearable Lightness of Bullets”

Tell us a bit about “The Unbearable Lightness of Bullets.”

I want to show Zephyr from different perspectives. So far I’ve used a social-climbing immigrant writer, marine biologists, a lawyer for a science agency, aristocrats and proles, a hermit theologian… Why not a police detective? Why not two while I’m at it? Since murders occur everywhere, they’ll be able to take the reader into all sorts of interesting situations.

 

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

Cryptocurrencies are intriguing. At the moment most of them are scams, but it’s reasonable to assume that eventually the kinks will be worked out, and that a future society like Zephyr’s would use electronic money issued by multiple entities, and the relative values would be constantly changing. So, given that basic situation, what sort of crime would occur? Predicting the exact technology is not my concern; I’m more intrigued by the human angles.

 

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

I have to balance in-your-face action and background world-building. I’ve worked out a lot of facts about Zephyr that I haven’t shown yet. I have to remind myself that each story is entertainment, not an entry in Wikipedia Galactica, so I must give the reader a good ride.

I love doing research. Finding female goddesses for the Pathway pantheon, for example. When I came across Ma’at I instantly knew she was going to be on the shoulder patch of a uniformed officer.

 

Why do you write?

Same reason I breathe, I guess.

 

What are you working on now?

Sadly, murders keep occurring on Zephyr, so my philosophical detective and her religious sidekick are already investigating another case.

 

“The Unbearable Lightness of Bullets” appears in the March/April 2019 issue of F&SF.

You can buy a copy of the issue here: https://www.sfsite.com/fsf/toc1903.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: Jerome Stueart on “Postlude to the Afternoon of a Faun”

Jerome StueartTell us a bit about “Postlude to the Afternoon of a Faun.”

A jazz-playing faun finds everything taken from him a hundred years ago could be his again, if he’s willing to take it from his own student. He struggles to find another way. These two characters are trying to change their lives for the better, and finding it almost overwhelming. It has Jazz, Mentoring, and Hope.

 

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

Steve Berman at Lethe Press was putting together an anthology of re-imagined myths for a gay audience, and asked if I wanted to write something.  I tried to re-imagine the Satyr/Faun, Pan, in a “bear” romance (read: big hairy gay men) story.  The story I wrote was awful and boring.  It was trying too hard to be a gay romance in a bar with some magic…and yeah, it just went nowhere, and made me depressed.  So, with me being already over the deadline, I scrapped it, salvaging only a couple of things, and started over. Everything else was new.  I wanted to write something uplifting. I’d been an intern twenty-five years ago for the Traditional Arts Apprenticeship Program pairing up artists with students who want to learn from a local master in some traditional art form–fiddling, basket-weaving, hat-making—and wanted to write a story around that instead. About healing yourself through mentoring someone else.  I took out all the romance because that wasn’t important now.  What was important? These two characters struggle to become someone new.  The young musician who used to be a football player but who wants to play jazz is frustrated by his lack of skill and the hopelessness he feels in changing his life.  “I feel like I’m a tiny tugboat trying to turn a whole life around.”  That sums up this story of these two characters for me, struggling to change.  Steve liked it, and planned to use it, but the anthology never quite got completed.  After a little more than a year, I asked him, carefully, as you do, if the story might be available again. He was incredibly positive–knowing that the anthology might take a lot longer to be published–and he encouraged me to find the story a good home.

 

Was “Postlude to the Afternoon of a Faun” personal to you in any way?  If so, how?

I was inspired by these two characters seeking to change their lives—and how hard that is, at any age.  They try, mess up, but they keep going, and they find a way to get what they want, or at least what they need (thanks, Rolling Stones, lol) . I’ve been there, trying to change habits, ways of thinking, whole careers—so that felt personal to me. Mr. Dance and I have also both been hurt by religion but we also both found our way out of our hurt and rediscovered our joys again. And these two characters really inspired each other—and the friends that come to them to help felt like the times I’ve been carried by friends who are helping me become who I want to be.

 

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

Writing about music was the most difficult challenge. I had a hard time knowing how you talk about music–especially jazz–outside of “that’s a nice melody!” So I looked at James Baldwin’s story “Sonny’s Blues” (which I have loved since I read it first in college) and Rafi Zabor’s jazz novel, The Bear Comes Home, and tried to talk about jazz like the songs were a conversation between musicians, or a fight scene. Which ended up being the most fun!

 

Why do you write?

I love my characters.  I want to see where they’ll go, what they’ll want and pursue, and how hard they will work to get it.  They inspire me.  I like to tell stories of people who struggle but who eventually pull out a win. Those are the kinds of stories that I love to read, so that’s what I want to write.  People making difficult discoveries about who they are. What they really want.  I also write stories that I would want to live inside—with characters like me.  I feel it’s important for me to write more gay, more queer, characters because I never saw any of those characters growing up and the absence of them had an effect on me.

 

Who do you consider to be your influences?

I lived a weird, magical life in my Southern Baptist-infused home that influences me today.  Of course, we had to memorize a lot of the Bible, and the stories were told and retold to me–Lions’ Dens, Fiery Furnaces, and Jesus Raising the Dead.  There’s a lot of magic and miracles in the Bible that can feed a fantasy-loving soul.  I also used to eat up Greek mythology as a kid— all these passionate gods and goddesses–I read every myth I could find. My mom read C.S. Lewis to the three of us kids in the hallway before bedtime.  My dad, my Preacher, gave me a comic book subscription to Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four when I was 9, and introduced me to Star Trek, which we watched together as reruns.  My parents are awesome people and, looking back, I realize, while we were living in a restrictive and fearful version of Christianity, my folks still managed to sneak in magic somehow, and for that I’m so grateful.  I feel like I still write somewhere from that weird place.  As a writer, I also learned a LOT from Ray Bradbury and Madeleine L’Engle, and later, Andre Dubus, Ron Hansen, James Baldwin, and Alice Munro. I like writers who make me feel something, who make me care about their characters. These days, since we never stop being influenced, I’m probably being influenced by Martha Wells, Mary Doria Russell, and Victor LaValle. At least, I hope so.

 

What are you working on now?

I’m writing a novella about a chef on a starship who’s promoted to diplomat to secure a treaty, and negotiate reparations, with a culture that reveres food and cooks—but she has a lot of guilt herself over what happened, and is willing to do more than anyone knows to make it right.  It’s really a story about how we say “I’m sorry.” and how we deal with guilt.  It also has recipes from one of my favorite Yukon chefs, Miche Genest, the Boreal Gourmet. The chef in the story is based on my “udder mudder,” the partner of my birthmom for twenty years who was a Las Vegas chef. I miss her.

 

“Postlude to the Afternoon of a Faun” appears in the March/April 2019 issue of F&SF.

You can buy a copy of the issue here: https://www.sfsite.com/fsf/toc1903.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

The author’s website: https://jeromestueart.com/

Interview: Nick DiChario on “Bella and the Blessed Stone”

Nick DiCharioTell us a bit about “Bella and the Blessed Stone.”

On the surface, “Bella and the Blessed Stone” is about a girl who has an epiphany and what that epiphany costs her. I love to write stories that are hard to categorize, and I think “Bella” is one of them. It’s not exactly science fiction or fantasy. It’s not a dream, an allegory, or an alternate history. Mr. Finlay, in his intro, called it a “contemporary fairy tale of sorts,” which might be as close as anyone will come. Whatever you want to call it, the story fits comfortably within the genre — a clean, well-lighted place open to quirky short fiction that can at times defy classification. I’m grateful for that, and for the ever-adventurous readers of F&SF who appreciate stories that stretch the imagination and challenge the very idea of story.

 

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

I had a notion that I wanted to write a satire (of sorts) about social media, human behavior, culture, chance, and faith. That’s a lot to pack into a six-page story, but I hope I’ve done it, or come close. As I get older, I find that I mull a lot. I enjoy mulling. In fact, I love the word mull. It’s a small word that carries a fair amount of heft. I’ve always been a muller to an extent, but while I used to mull over my job, to-do lists, responsibilities, and family stresses of one kind or another, I’ve replaced that with what I call creative mulling. I’ll take long walks outside (one of the advantages of living in Florida), or go to the gym or a yoga class and let my imagination wander. Sometimes this doesn’t lead to anything I’ll want to write about, and other times I’ll get a few story ideas. I might go home and take some notes, or type out a couple paragraphs to see what sticks. That’s how “Bella” happened. I was thinking about how social media has shortened our attention spans, how humans are becoming creatures of brevity. We only have a moment to stand out in the crowd, and when that moment passes, we die a little death. I wanted to write a story that explored that social trend. I suppose that was my inspiration. It began on the yoga mat as a downward dog, and it ended up in the pages of F&SF.

 

What was the most fun about writing this story?

“Bella” is one of those pieces that was at first a thought experiment and became a story as I was writing it. That can be scary or fun, depending on how it goes. It’s fun when it works. I got lucky this time. Things got interesting when God walked on stage not as a character but as a meme. That gave me the bright idea to write the piece from the omniscient point of view, pull the camera angle way out, and fiddle around with the question of God and science. I love super tight stories where the reader can’t afford to take a break, where every sentence counts. I thoroughly enjoy writing that way. I think, in part, it’s why I’m so drawn to folk and fairy tales. I’m an obsessive rewriter. I get a kick out of trimming and refining after the first draft is done. So, to your point, I guess I’m going to waffle on the most fun part. It could have been getting the idea, finding the story, rewriting it ad infinitum, or seeing it in print. Let’s call it a happy draw.

 

“Bella and the Blessed Stone” appears in the March/April 2019 issue of F&SF.

You can buy a copy of the issue here: https://www.sfsite.com/fsf/toc1903.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

Visit Mr. DiChario’s website by clicking on his photo.

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