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Interview: Julianna Baggot on “The Key to Composing Human Skin”

Tell us a bit about “The Key to Composing Human Skin.”

Propaganda has always existed and yet tech has forced it into a such a furious machine that it’s become a different kind of beast. I think about how governments lie — and, specifically, how President Trump’s relationship with the truth, his own truth, his denials, his motivations, his turns on his colleagues and friends, have been absorbed into our culture, into our children, into our bodies. And yet we all have truths that we hide from others and ourselves. I wanted to talk about propaganda and how governments want to control information. I wanted to show a version of a future America in which there’s surveillance and messaging and mass incarceration for those who disagree. I wanted to tell a mother-son story. I didn’t know that there would also be a love story.

 

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

I had this rash as a kid. It started in one spot but would roam. I’d fall asleep with it on my stomach and wake up with it on my back. I also have a huge forehead and there was this joke about renting it like a billboard. But this is what’s happening on Facebook and other places. My personal space, my online persona, is used for advertising. In thinking about that and the memory of the rash and my ideas about propaganda vs. the truth, the idea came to me — as it did to Hertzella — that we could become the vehicles for propaganda ourselves — our bodies as billboard space. We could become vehicles for governmental messaging. And as Facebook has been used for just that purpose — interference with our elections through false narratives — it feels relevant. But what if we could shift that and use the machinery for good? What would combat propaganda? Personal truths?

 

Was “The Key to Composing Human Skin” personal to you in any way?  If so, how?

My mother was intense. She had obsessive compulsive disorder (still does, but is now happily medicated). She worried about my health, she fretted, deeply. And I love her for all of that fretting. The tenderness of the mother-son story here is an expression of the tenderness I feel for my own mother.

 

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

Taxidermy. I’ve never done the work myself and never would; I don’t like the idea of manipulating dead animals, and yet I’m transfixed by the strangeness of this practice and it required a good bit of research. Not my first time writing about taxidermy.

 

Can you tell us anything about your writing process for “The Key to Composing Human Skin?”

Once I fell into it, it came to me quickly. Writing stories has become a strange practice. I’ll have an idea for a story but I won’t know how to get at it. And I’ll wait for a long while sometimes until the first line presents itself. Once that happens, the first sentence has made a million authorial decisions for me, and so sometimes, after that, it’s much faster. Though there was a gap between the bulk of the story and its ending. It covers so much ground — the kind of sweep of time more often found in a novel — and so there were leaps to manage at the ending, and then finding a way to drill down to a singular moment.

 

Why do you write?

I’ve answered this question so many different ways. All of them true, speaking of the truth. I think that writing is the place where my mother’s obsessive compulsive disorder touched down in me, there’s that. It’s become a way I process the world, a coping mechanism. It’s been how I make a living — more during some stretches than others. It’s a marriage, a practice. It’s become part of my identity — for better and for worse. I do imagine not writing. Or try to. And, to be honest, I can’t really imagine the freedom of that possibility. And, likewise, I can’t imagine the suffocation.

 

Who do you consider to be your influences?

These swing around wildly. Early on, playwrights — Mamet, Wasserstein, Durang… Then magical realists. Then Jean Toomer, Michael Cunningham, Zora Neale Hurston. I admire LeCarre; it took me forever to know that. I really admire Micah Dean Hicks who’s first book came out last year. I’ve been reading Siobahn Carroll, who’s oddness I adore. I love the New Weird, fabulism… My familial traditions of storytelling can’t be overlooked. It’s how we live and breathe. But, these days, I’m most altered by nonfiction — books on seizures, pain, AI, neurology, botany, epidemiology… That’s where many of my ideas come from.

 

What are you working on now?

I’m supposed to be working on a novel, but I’ve rewritten it so many times that I’ve come to openly despise it. It glares at me. I glare at it. So I turn my back on it from time to time and write stories. Right now, I have three titles of new stories and I’m not quite sure what any of them are about. This happens sometimes. One is about Louis Pasteur, post-stroke.

 

“The Key to Composing Human Skin” appears in the January/February 2020 issue of F&SF.

You can buy a paper copy of the issue here: https://www.sfsite.com/fsf/toc2001.htm

You can buy an electronic copy of the issue here: https://weightlessbooks.com/authors/kelly-link-authors/the-magazine-of-fantasy-and-science-fiction-september-october-2019/

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 (all formats): https://weightlessbooks.com/format/the-magazine-of-fantasy-and-science-fiction-6-issue-subscription/

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

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

Julianna Baggott’s website: http://juliannabaggott.com/

Interview: Melissa Marr on “The Nameless”

Tell us a bit about “The Nameless.”

“Red Riding Hood with rage and swords” is my personal definition. It’s the story of several women who are tired of the onslaught of “wolves” and the consequences of the predatory nature of “wolves.” It’s one of five “rage stories” I wrote in 2019. It is likely safe to say the political climate of late has evoked some feelings.

 

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

I’d been trying to do a short story a year. In this case, I’d re-read Herland for a lecture recently. What if women found a way to form a safe, remote society like Herland but instead of welcoming the invasion of men, as they do in C Perkins-Gilman’s cautionary tale, they were cognizant of the threat that patriarchal relationships posed to their autonomy?

 

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

I could offer the obvious—rape survivor, feminist, mother—but that is just part of my bones at this point. I suspect you can find one of those in all I write and do. Different here is my love of the sword and a strong tendency toward violence. I am proficient in marksmanship with my handguns, as well as with historical longsword and single-hander. Not SCA. Not choreographed fight. Sword is fought with intent to injure, and I earned my broken bones and blackened bruises as I learned.

My default practice is German historical longsword. I had been training with the most award-winning Historical European Martial Arts coach in the U.S. and a coach in the Netherlands on occasion. I even flew back to work with the U.S. coach after my move to Arizona. Unfortunately, a partially collapsed lung in 2016 and mild stroke in 2018 have limited me. But, I thought I’d use my knowledge on the page since I cannot continue as much in the real world.

 

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

Short fiction is 100% fun for me. I do it for myself. No contract. No plans. I taught shortfic at university, pre-writing-life, so it’s a pleasure outlet I reserve for myself still.

 

Can you tell us anything about your writing process for “The Nameless?”

My shortfics are always drafted start-to-finish in a day or several days. I tinker for a while, but I line up the bones in one swoop. I wrote this in Dec 2018/January 2019, and on a whim decided to try to submit to F&SF. It was the first time I’d tried since selling that first novel in 2006.

 

Why do you write?

Valid question. I suppose it’s growing up without television in a rural home with a storytelling family. Aside from Jewish German ancestors, my family is wholly Scots or Irish on both sides. Story is simply what you do. I come from roots poor in most practical ways but rich in of whisky, sweat, and story. There are downsides to that world, but it also means I grew up understanding that story was important, that nature held truths, and that you don’t go back on your word even if it wasn’t in a written contract. I try to hold true to that.

 

Who do you consider to be your influences?

In terms of my beliefs about writing: Faulkner, Hardy, Kate Chopin.  In terms of story, I suspect it’s mostly folklorists. In terms of life, my memory of my grandmother is my guiding light.

 

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

Whatever they see fit, I suppose. Ultimately, I’m very much a believer that Faulkner’s Nobel speech is it, why we write, and why writing matters. He noted that people not only have an “inexhaustible voice” but a “spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance” and that a writer’s “duty is to write about these things” (Faulkner). That same logic applies to the highbrow and genre, poetry and prose.

 

What are you working on now?

Oddly, perhaps, I’m finishing photography for a book on wild horses. I didn’t publicize my photography because, like sword and kayak and baking, I do it to pursue peace. My editor at Penguin saw it and asked about doing a book. So, I’m stalking wild horses with my camera. I’m also finishing final edits on a faux-Victorian fantasy novel for young readers (also for Penguin) and just finished my first adult fantasy novel in years that began as a “coping” mechanism after a rattlesnake bite in September. It was a horrific pain to have fangs jab into me, so I started writing after each nightmare. I ended up turning my fear into a novel.

 

“The Nameless” appears in the January/February 2020 issue of F&SF.

You can buy a paper copy of the issue here: https://www.sfsite.com/fsf/toc2001.htm

You can buy an electronic copy of the issue here: https://weightlessbooks.com/authors/kelly-link-authors/the-magazine-of-fantasy-and-science-fiction-september-october-2019/

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 (all formats): https://weightlessbooks.com/format/the-magazine-of-fantasy-and-science-fiction-6-issue-subscription/

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

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

Melissa Marr can be found at http://www.melissamarrbooks.com/ and on Twitter @melissa_marr

Interview: Charlotte Ashley on “The Joy in Wounding”

Charlotte AshleyTell us a bit about “The Joy in Wounding.”

“The Joy in Wounding” is a loose interpretation of the second part of the Classical Greek story, “Cupid and Psyche.” Most people know the part where Cupid falls in love with Psyche and carries her off to marry her, keeping her literally in the dark as to who her important husband is. But the second half, following Psyche after she has been exiled from her husband’s home, is far more colourful: Psyche wanders the earth for years, serving multiple goddesses. She undergoes a series of impossible trials, each of them properly Herculean, including collecting black water from the river Styx, facing down dragons, and entering into the underworld.

I wanted to explore that side of Psyche’s story, bringing to life the sort of woman who comes out of a kidnapping and forced marriage with a Hero’s journey. Of course, my final version ended up pretty angry at Psyche’s treatment in the original. So my Psyche kicks ass, but she (and her sisters) are very much raging at their fates.

 

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

When I saw Bob Eggleton’s artwork for this issue, especially with the green, windswept cliffs in the foreground, my imagination immediately flew to the landscapes of neoclassical artwork and their romantic depictions of Classical mythology. That ended up just being a springboard, since once I had decided to “rescue” Psyche and her sisters from their original story, I found darker themes than frolicking nymphs and cherubic gods would suggest. The real island of Lesbos is actually a lot hotter, dryer, and more yellow than those lush green paintings too, but that didn’t stop the neoclassicists and it didn’t stop me.

 

Was “The Joy in Wounding” personal to you in any way? If so, how?

I like to think every story about an older woman raging spectacularly against a fate she doesn’t want to be pinned to is fundamentally about me. Yes, a lot of me went into this story. I’m very aware that life isn’t fair, but that has never stopped me from moving heaven and earth
to make things right anyway.

 

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

I was already very familiar with the source material. I worked in an independent bookstore for 15 years, and just before they closed their doors, I splurged and bought gorgeous new editions of Mythology by Edith Hamilton, The Book of Greek and Roman Folktales, Legends, and Myths by William F. Hansen, and Apuleius’s The Golden Ass. My head was full of it. So my research mostly focused on Helenistic-period life on the Aegean Sea. I wanted to get the details right insofar as I could to really bring to life the messy business of wandering the earth in that period.

 

Why do you write?

Mostly, so I can read my own work. Sometimes you get the itch to read a really specific kind of story, and I found long ago that the very best way to scratch that itch and get exactly the story you want is to write it yourself. For every story I publish, I must have twenty more that I
have written just for me. I am slowly but surely coming around to the idea that people other than me have that same itch to scratch, and might actually appreciate “my” stories.

 

Who do you consider to be your influences?

Alexandre Dumas is the big gimme, right off the bat. I love him, I love his work, and I think everyone should read him. He soothes the soul. Many of my favourite authors cite him as an influence – Umberto Eco, Nick Harkaway, Michael Chabon, Arturo Pérez-Reverte. I think that’s company I’d like to be in. But Dumas’s legacy extends beyond swashbuckling adventure into historical fiction more generally, and I am in awe of what the best literary historical storytellers have written: Amitav Ghosh’s Ibis Trilogy, Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall books, even Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle. They are absolute inspirations, all of them.

 

What are you working on now?

I’m working on one novel (an 18th century dieselpunk ice age novel set on Canada’s east coast) and one accidental novel (a strange thing about cave monsters and romance that was meant to be a writing warm-up but which has stolen a lot of my time and interest.) Those will probably be in the pipe for eons, though. More imminently, I have been doing some RPG writing. That should be published before long!

 

“The Joy in Wounding” appears in the November/December 2019 issue of F&SF.

You can buy a paper copy of the issue here: https://www.sfsite.com/fsf/toc2010-19.htm

You can buy an electronic copy of the issue here: https://weightlessbooks.com/authors/kelly-link-authors/the-magazine-of-fantasy-and-science-fiction-september-october-2019/

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 (all formats): https://weightlessbooks.com/format/the-magazine-of-fantasy-and-science-fiction-6-issue-subscription/

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

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

Clicking on Charlotte Ashley’s picture will take you to her website: http://once-and-future.com/

Editor’s Note for January-February 2020

Happy New Year and welcome to a new issue of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. We start the year with “Chisel and Chime” by Alex Irvine. It’s a tense, high stakes fantasy novella about the relationship between art and power. Max Bertolini created the cover that illustrates this story.

Fantasy & Science Fiction, January/February, cover by Max Bertolini

And there’s more great fantasy in this issue. Matthew Hughes returns to the world of Baldemar, the wizard’s henchman, and gives us a taste of the “Air of the Overworld.” Albert E. Cowdrey has a supernatural mystery to solve in an old L.A. hotel with “Falling Angel.” Corey Flintoff returns to our pages and visits a bucolic university town for an “Interlude in Arcadia.” Auston Habershaw gives us the lower class’s view of a familiar fairy tale with “Three Gowns for Clara.” And Melissa Marr makes her first appearance in F&SF with “Nameless,” a Red Riding Hood inspired tale about a feminist utopia invaded by “wolves”: hopefully, you like swords and rage.

Our science fiction offerings are just as diverse. Essa Hansen makes her short fiction debut with “Save, Salve, Shelter,” a dark story about one woman’s effort to save as many animals as she can for the exodus from a ruined Earth. Michael Cassutt brings us “Banshee,” a more hopeful tale about transhumanism and space. Elaine Vilar Madruga, a talented young Cuban writer, delivers the “Elsinore Revolution” and an evolving view of Shakespeare in a translation by Toshiya Kamei. Julianna Baggott turns “The Key to Composing Human Skin,” a story about familial bonds and change. And Rahul Kanakia demonstrates “The Leader Principle” in a story that cleverly updates “The Man Who Sold the Moon” for the twenty-first century.

Enjoy!

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

THE MAGAZINE OF FANTASY & SCIENCE FICTION
January/February
71st Year of Publication

NOVELETS

“Chisel and Chime” – Alex Irvine

NOVELETS

“Save, Salve, Shelter” – Essa Hansen
“Air of the Overworld” – Matthew Hughes
“Banshee” – Michael Cassutt
“Falling Angel” – Albert E. Cowdrey

SHORT STORIES

“Elsinore Revolution” – Elaine Vilar Madruga
“The Key to Composing Human Skin” – Julianna Baggott
“Interlude in Arcadia ” – Corey Flintoff
“Three Gowns for Clara” – Auston Habershaw
“The Nameless” – Melissa Marr
“The Leader Principle” – Rahul Kanakia

DEPARTMENTS

Books to Look For by Charles de Lint
Recommended Reading by C.C. Finlay
Film: Ad Astra Per Corde by Karin Lowachee
Science: Where’s My Flying Car? by Jerry Oltion
Curiosities: Man’s Mortality by Michael Arlen (1933) by Rich Horton

Cartoons by Nick Downes, Arthur Masear, Arthur Masear, Kendra Allenby

Cover: By Max Bertolini for “Chisel and Chime”

LET US KNOW WHAT YOU THINK

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