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Interview: Elizabeth Bear on “Erase, Erase, Erase”

Elizabeth BearTell us a bit about “Erase, Erase, Erase.”

“Erase, Erase, Erase,” is a story about trauma, dissociation, and personal responsibility as told through the metaphor of keeping journals. It’s about how we reinvent ourselves over time, and sometimes in process of destroying our attachment to painful pieces of our past, we destroy bits of ourselves, as well.


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

Well, I’ve never been a member of a terrorist cult, unlike the protagonist of this story! But I am a trauma survivor, and I have experienced the sensation of dissociation and of big swaths of memory that just… seem to have vanished from my recall. I was recently at Worldcon and re-met a person I’d apparently spent quite a bit of time with at a convention in Texas, an evening that she remembered quite clearly—and which I had no recall of at all.

I’m fascinated by memory and neurology, as my various work probably makes clear. My recent novel Ancestral Night deals heavily with the impermanence of memory, and how it changes over time.

As for the story itself, it’s a little bit nontraditional in format. It took a very long time to craft, given its length; about two years, if I remember correctly. (Of course, I do not remember correctly: that’s kind of the point.) But it’s made up of a lot of tiny moving pieces in suspension, a kind of nontraditional format that jumps around and doesn’t always offer clear transitions—sort of like memory.


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

Well, I have some things in common with the narrator of the story. They’re a writer, and a fountain pen and stationery nerd. I too am these things. I also definitely drew on my experience as a trauma survivor to make the protagonist’s experiences and damage feel true.


How did you discover the world of fountain pens, and what are some of your favorite pens and inks?

My mom is a fountain pen fan as well, and she got me hooked on them when I was very little. It’s been interesting to me to watch it become A Trend in recent years–suddenly I have lots of people to talk about pens with, and I’m spoiled for choice where ink is concerned!

My absolute favorite pen just in terms of user experience is probably a Pilot Custom Heritage 92 that I own. It has a medium-fine nib and it writes like a dream. (One thing I love about fountain pens is that they make it possible to write by hand for long periods without fatigue: because they work by capillary action, they don’t require any hand pressure, so they seem to float across the page. No writer’s cramp!) Another modern favorite is a Sailor Professional Gear, also with a medium-fine nib, and a Pelikan M400 with a fine nib.

I also have a couple of vintage pens that are very pleasant to use–an Eversharp with a very firm extra-fine point that makes a delightfully sharp line, and an Omas that just zips across the page.

I really like the inexpensive Chinese PenBBS pens as workhorses I don’t mind bringing on an airplane to faraway places. They’re made of beautiful acrylics and write very well. (I mean, fountain pens are generally not really inexpensive, though as a First Pen both the Pilot Metro and the Platinum Plaisir are great $10 gateway drugs.)

As for ink… good old Cross Violet is a lovely ink. I also really like a lot of the Pilot Iroshizuku line, especially Yu-Yake and Chiku-Rin. And Diamine Firefly, and J. Herbin Stormy Grey, and Sailor Bungubox Ink of Naotora…

Ahem. I have a small ink problem. I’m pretty much cut off for life from new ink purchases, as my supply currently exceeds my life expectancy by decades….


Was there any aspect of this story that you found difficult to write?

Oh, so much of it. It’s such a quiet story that making the tension come out was hard. The entire conflict is inside the protagonist’s head as they struggle to find ways to deal with their trauma and face up to pain and shame in order to (they hope) save the lives of others. Balancing that, and illuminating their confusion without confusing the reader—that was incredibly difficult.

It took me months to find a satisfying conclusion, as well. I think, structurally speaking, this was one of the more difficult stories I’ve ever written.


How do you view “Erase, Erase, Erase” in the context of your wider body of work?

I think thematically it’s of a piece with a lot of what I write. I keep coming back to ethics, personal responsibility, memory, trauma survivorship as central themes. But I think this story is a culmination of a lot of that work for me: I could not have written it even five years ago, because of the technical challenges involved.


What are you working on now?

Novel edits! I’m finishing up another White Space book, titled Machine, which is about a rescue doctor in deep space, and which borrows some tropes from the medical thriller genre. Then I have to write The Origin of Storms, which is the final book in an Indus-Valley-inspired fantasy trilogy.


“Erase, Erase, Erase” appears in the 70th Anniversary Issue of F&SF.

You can buy a paper copy of the issue here:

You can buy an electronic copy of the issue here:

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Click on Elizabeth Bear’s photo (image by Kyle Cassidy) to visit her website.

You can also access the author’s newsletter archive here:

Interview: Ken Liu on “BookSavr”

Ken LiuWhat was the inspiration for “BookSavr” or what prompted you to write it?

The most direct inspiration for the story was the “Clean Reader” app that generated so much coverage a few years back. It got me thinking about the relationship between readers and texts, and our own cultural ideas about authority and the author’s control over their words.

In some sense, readers have always been free to rewrite the texts they consume. Fiction is a collaborative art between the reader and the writer, wherein texts must be first packed with the reader’s own assumptions about the world and interpretive frameworks before they can be unpacked. Strategies of resistant reading are as old as Plato, and fanfiction can be understood as one specific type of “reading” conducted through re-writing. But we seem to draw the line at explicitly altering the words on the page as a reader.

We don’t apply the same standards to all texts. Few of us have any pride of authorship over business writing or functional texts (like contracts), but fiction feels particularly personal to the author. Do these standards evolve over time? Do advancements in technology change attitudes? New genres and ways of storytelling? I wanted to explore these questions.


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

I don’t know how you can be a fiction writer and not put something of yourself in every story. I am, however, particularly resistant to having others change my words (even contracts).


Can you tell us about any of the research you may have done for “BookSavr?”

It’s surprising how little machine learning and AI advances have affected the literary arts. Visual artists, game designers, filmmakers, and so on have been collaborating with algorithms for decades (filters, effects, transformations, procedural generation …), but nothing comparable exists in the literary field. I looked into the potential for applying some of these techniques in fiction writing and reading (or re-writing-as-reading).


What aspect of this story was the most fun to write?

Just imagining the sorts of fun you could have as a reader if the technology were available (and the horror you would feel as an author).


In what ways do you think the publishing industry has changed over the past ten years, and how do you see your career within those changes?

I think it takes much longer than ten years to see what are short-term fluctuations and what are signs of long-term, permanent shifts. I’m generally optimistic that economic and technological changes will allow (and are allowing) readers to access a more diverse, inclusive set of voices, to find the narratives in which they feel at home. But optimism alone is not enough to guarantee results.


Why do you write?

To tell stories that I want to read and that no one else is telling.


Who do you consider to be your influences?

Everyone I’ve ever read. Everyone who’s encouraged me. Everyone who’s told me that a story of mine resonated with them. However, I think some of my biggest influences have been books I disliked intensely: because I wanted to do things differently from them.


The Hidden Girl and Other Stories by Ken LiuWhat are you working on now?

I’m working on edits for the conclusion of my silkpunk epic fantasy series, The Dandelion Dynasty. The process is exactly what you’d expect: thinking about cover ideas, writing notes to the copyeditor, refining the text based on suggestions from beta readers and my editor, putting footnotes in the mini-wikipedia for my world, confirming character itineraries and travel times against the map, designing airships from the saga to be 3D-printed, debating with myself the rhyme schemes to be used in constructed languages, revising descriptions of silkmotic machines after engineering trials on prototypes … you know, the usual.

I’m also working on a few short-fiction commissions that I’m excited about. Years of intense focus on the epic fantasy series meant that I wrote very few short stories in the interim, and it’s been fun to rediscover the joy of the short form. I’ll have a new collection, THE HIDDEN GIRL AND OTHER STORIES, come out from Saga Press (US) and Head of Zeus (UK) in 2020, and it’s been fun to wrap up the production on that too.


Author Bio: Ken Liu ( is an author of speculative fiction. A winner of the Nebula, Hugo, and World Fantasy awards, he wrote The Dandelion Dynasty, a silkpunk epic fantasy series (starting with The Grace of Kings) as well as The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories and The Hidden Girl and Other Stories, short story collections. He also authored the Star Wars novel, The Legends of Luke Skywalker.

Prior to becoming a full-time writer, Liu worked as a software engineer, corporate lawyer, and litigation consultant. Liu frequently speaks at conferences and universities on a variety of topics, including futurism, cryptocurrency, history of technology, bookmaking, the mathematics of origami, and other subjects of his expertise.


“BookSavr” appears in the 70th Anniversary Issue of F&SF.

You can buy a paper copy of the issue here:

You can buy an electronic copy of the issue here:

You can subscribe to the print edition of F&SF here:

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Click on Ken Liu’s photo (image by Lisa Tang Liu) to visit his website.

Interview: Maureen McHugh on “Under the Hill”

Tell us a bit about “Under the Hill.”

“Under the Hill” is a fantasy and although I’ve written some I mostly write extrapolation stuff.  Which is a fancy way of describing the particular subgenre of fantasy that we usually call science fiction.  But I love fantasy and read it.  I had been invited to a writer’s workshop run by Walter Jon Williams.  It’s up in Taos, New Mexico and we all sit around and read each other’s stories, workshop them, cook, and gossip.  Some people hike at 9,000 feet.  I admire them.  I love the workshop, do I had to come up with a story.


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

I surf tumblr and someone had posted a comic about what it would be like at college if there were elves.  You know, any bands for any functions have to be approved by the university because, well, elves and music.  I have floated around the edge of academia for forty some odd years and I loved the idea of a diverse, liberal arts institution dealing with elves.  I had been thinking about second tense (you do this and you do that) which is usually just a disguised ‘I’.  I mean people use it that way all the time.  ‘You know, when you’ve got no food in the apartment and you need to go to the grocery but you just say screw that and order pizza.’  When someone says that, they aren’t accusing the other person in the conversation of being lazy, they mean themselves.  But it changes the way everything feels.


Was “Under the Hill” personal to you in any way?  If so, how?

Everything is this story is autobiographical except that none of it really happened except the roast beef sandwiches and the gallery show.  I never went to a small private college, I never had a roommate who played lacrosse, and my university didn’t have a elves living under a hill.  I thought the story would be kind of dryly funny.  I don’t do comedy.  I would love to, but comedy is very hard to write.  It’s not just funny lines, it’s a way of structuring and thinking that I’m just not good at.  So it started full of dry observations about the absolutely absurdity of college and then got angsty.  Luckily, the whole elf thing gives me plausible deniability.  I don’t have to admit what’s biographical because, elves!


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

I’m not an idea person.  I struggle to come up with ideas and plots.  I wrote this story by kind of flailing around in the idea until I got some traction.  Of course, when I go into writing with no real plan then it’s way too easy to fall back on the students I’ve taught and my own college experiences.  I get really interested in a writing technique and then it’s like a 13-year-old who has figured out sarcasm.  I just use that technique over and over and over.  I mean it’s like all I have is one tool, a hammer, and I treat whole effing word like a nail.  It used to be point of view.  Lately, it’s dramatic tension.  I’m looking at Thomas the Rhymer and it’s about kidnapping.  In retrospect, it would be interesting to think of it in terms of colonization; the elves are using humans as a resource.  They’re powerful and magical.  Colonial powers are powerful and technological in a similar way.  But I wasn’t really thinking (I don’t usually think that way when I write.)  I thought about disappearing/kidnapping and decided that would underlie the story.  That would give it forward momentum.

I live in LA and have worked on the fringes of Hollywood for awhile now and I found myself thinking about the pleasures of procedurals.  Procedurals, if you don’t know, are what Hollywood calls hour long dramas like House or Mind Hunters.  I know at the beginning of the episode or the season that the protagonist is going to cure the sick person or catch the serial killer.  I don’t watch wondering what will happen, but how.  So at the beginning of my story I establish that people have disappeared and that the elves are dangerous if you don’t follow the rules.  At least one editor found it too predictable but the majority of readers have found it effective.  A lot of readers have told me how it felt like their own journey, including a guy who was an athlete who realized in college that he was not going to be professional and that he had to rethink his life.  I hope there are readers for whom this coming of age story is in some metaphorical way enough like their own growing up to resonate.


What are you working on now?

I’m at work on a novel called Hinge, an AU set in 13th Century England.  Well, Wessex, because England didn’t exist in the 13th century.  It’s a pain.  I have access to scholarly journals through my university and it’s so much more fun to plug chunks of some article on medieval veterinary practice into google translate to come to dubious conclusions than it is to actually write.  Next book, I’m making everything up.


“Under the Hill” appears in the 70th Anniversary Issue of F&SF.

You can buy a paper copy of the issue here:

You can buy an electronic copy of the issue here:

You can subscribe to the print edition of F&SF here:

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

Weightless Books (all formats):

Amazon US (Kindle edition):

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