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Interview: James Morrow on “Bird Thou Never Wert”

James MorrowWhat prompted you to write “Bird Thou Never Wert”?

The story—novelette, really—began life as a potential contribution to Ellen Datlow’s avian horror anthology, Black Feathers. But when I sat down at the computer, what came out of my brain was not a horror story at all but a fable about the uses and misuses of magic. So Ellen and I looked at each other and agreed I should let my enchanted eagle fly off on his own.


Was “Bird Thou Never Wert” personal to you in any way? If so, how?

I suppose any piece of fiction about a fiction writer is ipso facto personal for its author. But the dimension of “Bird Thou Never Wert” that means the most to me is the animal rights subtext. During the composition process, the cruelties visited upon my enchanted eagle turned the story into a quasi-parable about humanity’s pathological attitude toward the biosphere, the malignant idea that nature exists essentially for our benefit.


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

My original outline merely called for a bird whose blood and feathers (employed as ink and writing implements respectively) could turn an amateur scribbler into a master of genre fiction. At some point I decided that my eagle must be an archetype of some sort, so I looked into Hindu mythology and eventually came upon the story of Garuda and Aruna.


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

In the earliest drafts, the story was framed as a critical essay, written by my female protagonist, Marsha Waszynski, introducing an omnibus of horror stories by the late, legendary Darko Cromdahl. But I came to realize there was something incoherent about that conceit. What editor in his or her right mind would publish a collection prefaced by an exposé declaring the book a fraud? My fix made me happy. Marsha’s knowledge of Darko’s modus operandi is something she’s been keeping to herself, and she shares that inside dope, privately, only when circumstances force her to come forward. Hence the story’s epistolary form.


Why do you write?

I love the potential of fiction to disorient people with ideas that would otherwise never have occurred to them. If I’m thrilled and unnerved by one of my thought experiments, I figure there’s a chance the reader will have the same response.


Who do you consider to be your influences?

I’m a satirist by trade, and I would have to put Voltaire, Jonathan Swift, Mark Twain, Kurt Vonnegut, Robert Sheckley, and Joseph Heller at the top of the list.


What are you working on now?

In the 1980’s I did a cycle of scriptural spoofs under the rubric Bible Stories for Adults. I’ve recently rebooted the series. So far I’ve completed “The Jawbone” (an anti-NRA take on the Samson legend), “The Great Fish” (a theological phantasmagoria riffing on the Book of Jonah), and “The Twin Cities” (narrating what really went down in Sodom and Gomorrah).


“Bird Thou Never Wert” appears in the November/December 2019 issue of F&SF.

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Click on Mr. Morrow’s photo to visit his website.

Interview: Rebecca Zahabi on “It Never Snows in Snowtown”

Rebecca ZahabiTell us a bit about “It Never Snows in Snowtown.”

Our main character decides to take a guided tour of their hometown to learn a bit more about the history of the place. But despite its cotton candy and ice-skating rings, Snowtown turns out to be a lot more sinister than it seems… After all, what is this thing falling from the sky, if not snow?


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

I had a dream in which I was the main character walking around Snowtown, and I had an awfully bad feeling about the snow. It kept nagging at the back of my mind that the snow wasn’t right. My guide seemed nice enough at first, but in the strange way dreams have, he started mutating, turning into something monstrous. Then I woke up and wrote the end of the dream.


Was there any aspect of “It Never Snows in Snowtown” that you found difficult to write?

A few days after this dream, I got together with some friends and we decided we would all write a Christmas ghost story. So now I had the theme/genre, and my subconscious had given me most of the plot. The main difficulty lay in making sure the story was subtle enough that it kept that dream-like quality, without becoming confusing. The other difficulty was keeping the main character gender-neutral throughout, so people could project a man or a woman there, as they wished.


The theme of apparent perfection concealing its own moral corruption has a long literary history. What made you wish to engage with this theme, and in what ways did you strive to put your own spin on it?

I find Christmas to be an awkward period of the year. Don’t get me wrong – I love Christmas. But suddenly we’re all rushing out to buy presents and toys for people who don’t always need or want them. We know that a lot of our cheap goods come from people who are paid badly, and treated worse. But we still go out and buy them. With that in mind, I tried to write a story that would work on two levels: as a speculative story by itself, and as a metaphor for what we might discover, should we choose to look more closely at the world we live in. We might not like the answers we find.


What are you working on now?

I’m working on a novel inspired by the world of e-sports. To put it simply: it is e-sports, if e-sports were magic. Or maybe it’s Pokémon gone wrong, in which letting semi-conscious creatures fight for entertainment is nastier than it sounds. Hopefully I’ll be able to tell you more about this project at a later date! I’m also working on an online comic with my sister:


“It Never Snows in Snowtown” appears in the November/December 2019 issue of F&SF.

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Interview: Matthew Hughes on “A Geas of the Purple School”

What was the inspiration for “A Geas of the Purple School” or what prompted you to write it?

Baldemar has been evolving, as my characters tend to do.  I wanted to put him in a new situation while at the same time pulling back to show more of the Dying Earthesque world in which he lives.  Comments from readers tell me they like visiting Old Earth and I’m happy to give them a new neighborhood to explore.


Matthew HughesAlthough Baldemar is no thief, he does sometimes have need to commit trespass or fight his way out of a jam.  How did you learn about the interesting details of roguery that make their way into your Archonate Universe stories?

By being a rogue, myself.  I am the white sheep of my family, which is largely populated by persons who have at least some passing familiarity with the criminal half-world.  Among close relatives, I can count incidences of arson, theft, fraud, receipt of stolen goods, and burglary.  Also, I use my imagination.


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

None of it was difficult.  I listen to what the guy in the back of my head tells me then write it down.  The most fun was writing Baldemar under the power of the geas.  I sometimes enjoy treading on my characters’ dignity.


What are you working on now?

I’m writing a final Baldemar novelette, “The Glooms” that deals with what happens when he “retires” after Thelerion gets his just reward in “The Sword of Destiny.”  That novelette, which first ran in Gardner Dozois’s anthology, The Book of Swords, is available for a free read on Curious Fictions:

I’d also like to plug my magical realism/historical novel, What The Wind Brings (Pulp Literature Press), which will be released in December in trade paperback and ebook editions.  It’s my magnum opus, about shipwrecked African slaves allying with indigenous peoples in mid-1500s coastal Ecuador to fight off Spanish colonial forces and win their freedom.


“A Geas of the Purple School” appears in the November/December 2019 issue of F&SF.

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Click on Mr. Hughes’s photo to visit his website.

Interview: Marie Vibbert on “Knit Three, Save Four”

Marie VibbertWhat was the inspiration for the story?

“Knit Three, Save Four” was written on something of a dare.  I was doing the Clarion Write-a-thon and writing a story every day, and so I was very open to prompts.  As I chatted about my writing with a friend, and was busily knitting, she said, “You need to do a story that incorporates knitting.  I know!  You could knit a spaceship!”

So that was my prompt.  “Knit a spaceship.”  I quickly came up with the idea of knitting a net around a spaceship to fix a structural problem, and a stowaway as the protagonist.  I bugged my friends for ideas on the structural problem and Geoff Landis and Darrin Bright were particularly helpful in suggesting other ways to fix the problem.  Heh heh!  So handy for that “fail three times then succeed” plot shape!


Was the story personal in any way?

Obviously, I knit.  I knit a lot.  I use knitting as a way to not feel guilty or like I’m wasting my life when I have to sit still, say on a train or in a lecture.  I was knitting when, on a Greyhound from New York City home to Cleveland, I talked to a young woman whose story inspired my main character’s.  She worked summers on Lake Michigan, selling snow cones on the beach, then did the same thing in Florida in the winters, and used her money to keep traveling.  It sounded like a hard but rewarding life.  I’ve always wanted to travel more but never had the ready cash… but of course I decided to spend most of my ready cash on a house, so here was a path untaken.


What was the most difficult part of the story to write?  What was the most fun?

The most difficult was actually the knitting.  I started out using a mesh pattern my sister had used to make excellent shopping bags, but it was too complicated to convey.  I had to rely heavily on my first readers to point out when my explanations were more confusing than helpful.

After my first draft, I decided to go Full Hard SF and make it near-future, no convenient artificial gravity.  That was surprisingly fun to do.  Constraints make stories more fun, and we forget that sometimes.

The funnest part was coming up with the characters.  Years ago, there was a game called Dice Land that had a character named Fat Robot Steve and I was in love with that name and had been daydreaming about writing a story about Fat Robot Steve for decades.  I decided the family was Philippine, so I renamed him Fat Robot Chen to have a more Asian feel.  “He looks like my buddy, if he were a robot, and fat,” was the explanation I dreamed up for Fat Robot Steve’s name when I first heard it.


What are you working on now?

I’ll be presenting a paper at the 90 Years of Analog conference in New York in December. It’s a statistical analysis of the prevalence of female names in tables of contents over the years.  I’m not an academic and so very nervous about it.

I’m putting together a poetry chapbook, tentatively titled “Rustbelt Robots.”  I feel all the imposter syndrome, all the time!

Otherwise, I’m shopping around short stories and revising two novels in the hopes that someone, someday might want to see them, and writing another novel because I am Always Writing A Novel.  Always.  Sorry.


“Knit Three, Save Four” appears in the November/December 2019 issue of F&SF.

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Editor’s Note for the November/December 2019 issue

The first thing we bought for this issue was the cover art by Bob Eggleton, a piece he titled “The Sky House.”
Fantasy & Science Fiction, November/December, cover by Bob Eggleton

From there, it was a matter of finding the right writer to pen a tale worthy of the illustration, and we turned to reader favorite (and ours, because we’re readers too) Charlotte Ashley, who’s most recent appearance in the magazine was another cover story, “The Satyr of Brandenburg,” back in our March/April 2018 issue. She turned in a tale that is as delightful as it is unexpected, and the perfect accompaniment to this castle in the sky.

The rest of the issue is a balance of fantasy, science fiction, and horror, with a couple stories that blur those boundaries or just make them altogether meaningless. The complete table of contents can be found below. Gregor Hartmann, Matthew Hughes, Michael Libling, James Morrow, M. Rickert, Benjamin Rosenbaum, Andy Stewart, and Marie Vibbert all return to the magazine, and we welcome Sam J. Miller and Rebecca Zahabi, who are making their F&SF debuts. Plus you’ll find a poem by Jane Yolen, columns by our usual assemblage of experts, and cartoons for the print edition.


C.C. Finlay, Editor
Fantasy & Science Fiction | @fandsf

If you’re looking for a copy of this issue, you can find F&SF 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.

71st Year of Publication


“How I Came to Write Fantasy” – Michael Libling
“The Joy in Wounding” – Charlotte Ashley
“A Geas of the Purple School” – Matthew Hughes
“Bird Thou Never Wert” – James Morrow
“The Vicious World of Birds” – Andy Stewart


“Rejoice, My Brothers and Sisters” – Benjamin Rosenbaum
“Evergreen” – M. Rickert
“A Hand at the Service of Darkness” – Gregor Hartmann
“It Never Snows in Snowtown” – Rebecca Zahabi
“Knit Three, Save Four” – Marie Vibbert
“Shucked” – Sam J. Miller


“Swing Between” – Jane Yolen


Books to Look For by Charles de Lint
Musing on Books by Michelle West
Television: Those Were the Days by David J. Skal
Science: Portable Power by Jerry Oltion
Curiosities: The Arrogant History of White Ben by Clemence Dane (1939)) by Paul Di Filippo

Cartoons by Nick Downes

Cover: “The Sky House” By Bob Eggleton


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