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Interview: Bruce McAllister on “Breath”

Tell us a bit about “Breath.”

Thanks to a family that lived by one ocean or another my entire childhood, I grew up in the biological sciences and marine sciences, have always loved animals and the sea (our father was a career Navy officer and oceanographer, to use the civilian term), and for fifty years now have been writing and publishing about animals and the sea.  My first published short story, as a teenager, was about a telepathic merboy whom invading aliens couldn’t defeat; my first published novel (the “Ace Special” HUMANITY PRIME—which wouldn’t have seen print without the editorial midwifery of Terry Carr), which came from that story, was a far-future stream-of-consciousness ode to the merpeople human beings would become on a distant planet; and in the late 80’s and early 90’s I published a series of stories about endangered species and how we might try to save them, resurrect them or modify them as they began to die in our world.  More recently (with two stories in F&SF—“Dreampet” and “Breath”), I find myself writing about the near-future genetic engineering of pets and other creatures and the dark side of corporate profits and fickle human nature even if love, like life itself, somehow manages to find a way.


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

I fished a lot as a kid when our father was stationed in San Diego.  These were my late elementary and middle school years (my brother Jack is four years younger), and they were wonderful years on a great bay and peninsula, Point Loma, with its tide pools, bat rays, bait barges, schools of mackerel and thirty-pound halibut, and sharks often much bigger than they should be where swimmers swim.   A couple of years ago, not having fished in decades, I bought a rod and reel and tackle and went out on a half day charter fishing boat from Newport Harbor to try to capture those old feelings.  It wasn’t the best season for fishing, and the handful of people on the boat were catching only “rock fish,” no yellowtail, nothing very big or glorious. That was fine with me; but, when I pulled up what was on my line, I saw the most beautiful creature I’d seen in my life from California waters, felt feelings I hadn’t felt as a kid, and knew I wouldn’t be fishing anymore.  I don’t say this with any judgment of others; it’s simply that the conflicts were too much for me personally at that point in my life, one where the joys of hunting and capturing (of owning what filled me with wonder) were suddenly messy–compromised by compassion, beauty and a desire to see beauty live on.  Those feelings of course gave rise too “Breath.”


Was there any aspect of “Breath” you found difficult to write?

No.  It’s a very short story; and as many writers will tell you, one kind of love or other—even if it takes the form of righteous indignation or rage or sadness and loss and longing or conflicting mixes of all of these—is how we get into a story; and I had the feelings I needed to launch and finish a very short story.


Why do you write?

Like many writers, I can’t really answer that question except to say that I go a little (or a lot) crazy if I don’t.  Sometimes I think I order the universe for myself by writing, and by ordering it I give it meaning for myself.  Sometimes I think I write in order to memorialize the events and feelings that have been most important to me, that they not be lost (as the replicant Roy in BLADERUNNER would put it) to time.  (Much of my SFF is autobiographical, especially in these later years.)  Often I just don’t know the answer, but I do have to write—even if there are periods when I don’t write enough.  (Yes, even writers who’ve been doing it for five decades can have their blocks.)


Who do you consider to be your influences?

A long list of SFF writers, other “genre” writers and “literary fiction” writers.  We find in the published work of others—friends, colleagues, mentors, strangers living and dead—what we must to teach us the craft we need to make our own fictive magic and to affirm the spirit of what we feel compelled to write as a bridge between us and the world.  But a partial list would include Par Lagerkvist, William Styron, Ursula Le Guin, William Golding, Robert Ludlum, James Lee Burke, Lee Child, Harry Harrison, Fred Pohl, Barry Malzberg, A. E. van Vogt, William Gibson, and Cordwainer Smith.


What are you working on now?

Other stories in the “Dreampet” world, a novel expansion of my 2006 Hugo-nominee short story “Kin,” a novel based on the “Emilio” stories set in a dreamy Italian Renaissance, and other stories set in that northern Italian fishing village where, thanks to our father I spent a magical two years as a young teenager becoming addicted to SFF for the first time—a village I’ve written about a lot over the past fifteen years.  One always returns-or at least a writer like myself does—to what one loves.


“Breath” appears in the May/June 2019 issue of F&SF.

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