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Interview: Natalia Theodoridou on “The Shape of Gifts”

Author photo of Natalia TheodoridouF&SF: How do you describe “The Shape of Gifts” to people?

NT: It’s the story of an oracle running from her gifts. Of ecological disaster, of love and hope lost and found again.

F&SF: This story is grounded in the hard science of global climate change, but it uses fantasy elements to approach that topic in a really fresh and unexpected way. It’s something we haven’t seen before here at F&SF. What inspired you to write this story in this way?

NT: That’s a hard question to answer, because, as I recall, the seed of the story was this very specific moment of Terry receiving an oracle from the flight of birds and trying to deny it. Destiny and powerlessness and the terrible fates of living beings, the cause of which are sometimes clear and legible, and other times entirely haphazard; how do you escape that kind of bind, or how do you surrender to it, make it liveable, find joy in it, even? This is the question that birthed the rest of the story. The birds were already there, the landscape, too, so the theme of climate change installed itself inevitably; that is the world we live in.

F&SF: This story has a lot of elements that we’ve seen in your other stories: “birds, tall trees, gender weirdness, ancient greek myth, queer love,” to quote something you said on twitter. What parts of the story are personal to you and how did that affect the way you wrote it?

NT: Even though Terry’s experience of sex and gender is fantastical, the genderfeels that go with it are not. I have been steeped in greek myth from a very young age, and the story of Teiresias always spoke to me in my bones, in all sorts of problematic and productive ways. Also, I am queer, and so queerness is always at the center of all I do, one way or another.

F&SF: What were some of the challenges you had writing this story?

NT: I tried my best not to have Terry stand in for any group of people; I did not want her to be a metaphor. I wanted her to be a person, with a unique history and a unique understanding of her world, representative only of her own experience. It took a while getting there, and I don’t know if I succeeded. As a reader, I am generally wary of speculative fiction premises that are supposed to function as grand metaphors for some flavor of queerness because, you know, we’re right here! We exist, and we contain multitudes. As a writer, I’m more interested in sharp, specific questions run through the complexities of a character’s circumstances: their personal and cultural histories, their identity and all the intersections they might inhabit.

F&SF: Can you talk a bit about your writing process?

NT: Hmm, another tough question, because so much of the writing process for me is ineffable, “happens underwater” (as my good friend and Clarion West classmate B. Pladek has said). I tend to mull over ideas for a very long time before they become stories. Just last week I wrote a story the idea for which I was working on in my head for two years. Then the story itself was written in a single day. I need the idea to feel mature before I sit down to write it. A mature idea may mean: a firm voice, a character I know well, a beginning, an ending, a question I want answered or, at least, posed.

F&SF: What are you working on right now?

NT: Oh, so many things. A new Choice of Games project that I can’t talk about just yet; a novella that I’ve been kicking around for two years; a new short story about a haunted building; a maturing novel; a mental health game; a short story collection…

I live in front of my laptop.

You can find Natalia Theodoridou at…

Website: www.natalia-theodoridou.com/
Twitter: @natalia_theodor

“The Shape of Gifts” appears in the July/August 2020 issue of F&SF.

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    Interview: M. Rickert on “Last Night at the Fair”

    Ferris WheelF&SF: How do you describe this story to people? Do you describe it to people?

    MR: I don’t really have much occasion to describe my stories to anyone other than my husband. Even then, I prefer to read them to him. But I do remember right after finishing this one, going to the grocery store where a woman I barely knew asked me, in that polite way, how I was doing, and I blurted out that I had just written a story called, “Last Night at the Fair.” She, apparently nonplussed by my oversharing, closed her eyes and smiled.

    F&SF: What made you decide to write this story right now?

    MR: I decided I wanted to write some stories from the point of view of an older woman. I live only a few blocks away from the park that hosts the county fair every summer, and I’ve been enchanted by it since we moved here. I especially like to go up there in the morning before the fair officially opens to walk the grounds. My husband and I almost always go on the opening night to watch the pig judging, which is fascinating and strange. One year I timed it right to attend the judging of baked goods, and happened to sit right behind the winning bread maker and her two children who were so proud and excited when the judge described the perfection of the bite! There is just something about the fair that I find inspiring. Also, and this part is a bit of a spoiler for anyone who wants to read the story first and hasn’t done so yet… A few years ago there was a rumor of a lion roaming Wisconsin. In the tradition of such rumors, a single blurry photograph was published in the newspaper. There was some speculation that someone might have had a pet lion that either escaped or was set free. Ever since then, I knew that lion would become a part of something I wrote, and I don’t know why it appeared for this story, but when it did, I felt it was the right time and place.

    F&SF: You’ve been inspired lately. We’ll publish three stories by you this year, something that we haven’t done in over a decade, plus “Evergreen” in our Nov/Dec issue last year. In general, these stories seem shorter, more economical, compared to some of your earlier work, but they’re all still very powerful, maybe even more powerful for their brevity. What’s brought about this sudden surge of writing

    MR: Well, thank you for your kind comments about this recent work. I have had a lot of fun writing short after working on a novel for so long. I’m calling it my last novel because it takes everything I have to write a novel, which is part of the reason I have been away from short stories for a while. But, also, I began to feel like I was repeating myself too much in my own work and needed some time to find a broader approach. It helped me a lot to read Ray Bradbury’s One Hundred Stories, which I have been lingering over for some time. I very much enjoy the scope of Bradbury’s affection, and began to consider how I might want to challenge my reach. While all this was going on my agent and I parted ways, leaving me feeling very unmoored and quite a bit lost. I went through a season of doubt. My friend and I had planned a writing retreat In Michigan that coincidentally fell during my sorry summer. It was just the two of us in a lovely home near the beach. We each claimed our writing posts. She was very happy in the dining room, and I was thrilled to have the screened-in-porch. I don’t usually have any trouble with blank pages, but I remember that first morning, sitting at the table with a pounding heart. Just write something, I thought. So I started writing about an old woman who lived in a house near the beach. It was okay. It was something, at least. The next day a fairy popped onto the page, and I wrote the entire day, finishing a decent draft. By the end of that week, I had two stories I liked in my backpack when I took the ferry home across lake Michigan, feeling very much like I had gone on a much longer journey than miles could measure. After that, something rose up on me. I consider myself a fairly easy going person, but there is, inside of my quiet demeanor, a very large presence that wants to be heard.

    F&SF: How has your writing process changed over the past twenty years?

    MR: I frequently refer to George R.R. Martin’s quote about some writers being gardeners, and others being architects. I was a gardener for a very long time but have learned, in recent years, to cultivate a bit more of the architect. I think that is probably the biggest change. What that means within my writing practice is that I am able to approach plot more consciously than I had before. It’s been interesting to experience this evolution and to come to understand that, like much of life, the things I thought I knew about my strengths and weaknesses when I was in my thirties might no longer apply.

    F&SF: What are you working on now?

    MR: Right now I am working on final edits of my novel, The Shipbuilder of Bellfairie, which will be published by Undertow Publications in 2021. I’m expecting to get the copy edits for my novelette, “The Little Witch” (Tor.com) fairly soon, and I recently finished a novella which is currently under submission. Eager to complete all these tasks and get back to writing something fresh. These days, horror calls.

    “Last Night at the Fair” appears in the July/August 2020 issue of F&SF.

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    Interview: Brian Trent on “The Monsters of Olympus Mons”

    Author photo of Brian TrentF&SF: How do you describe this story to people?

    BT: Three robots fashioned to resemble Martian cryptozoological legends get embroiled in a quest to remove a fascist flag from the cone summit of the largest volcano in the solar system. The story examines questions of consciousness, propaganda, and what a “monster” really is.

    F&SF: What inspired or prompted you to write “The Monsters of Olympus Mons”?

    BT: Some years back on a trip to Japan, I made a nighttime ascent of Mount Fuji. Once you’re above the tree-line, it’s a completely lifeless terrain of volcanic rock and scree. At certain points, you literally walk through clouds. I was several thousand feet up, stopping for a sip from my canteen, when I was struck with something like an enchantment: the barren volcanic slope illuminated by a pale moon, a lake of silver mist directly below me, and the sight of distant flashlights (from other hikers) slowly zig-zagging up the trail. In that moment, it was easy to imagine I was on another world; I immediately thought of Olympus Mons—itself a volcano—and how one day human colonists will attempt to scale it.

    Flash forward to 2015. A conspiracy theory blows through the Internet (because that’s apparently what the Internet exists for) surrounding NASA photos of Mars. The Curiosity rover captured images of what could vaguely resemble a lizard… if you squint really hard and let imagination hijack your eyes. It’s not the first time Martian rocks have caused controversy—from the “face” at Cydonia to the Martian meteorites believed by some to contain fossilized bacteria. But I found the “lizard-or-pareidolia” debate particularly intriguing because it suggested the inception of a new folklore. I mean, here on Earth there are stories of trolls and dragons, which in the modern world became stories of Bigfoot and Ogopogo and the like. We have yet to set a human on the Red Planet, and that tradition is already continuing!

    These inspirations fueled “The Monsters of Olympus Mons.” I created a folklore for the colonists of the story, including a Martian lizard-like creature and two other entities. Together, they took control of the story, and steered it into unusual places.

    F&SF: How is this story personal for you?

    “The Monsters of Olympus Mons” is some of the most fun I’ve had writing a story. It naturally unfurled into a large canvas that let me do a lot: it has a big cast (three main characters who are arguably six main characters, along with a villain) and so required a delicate balancing of narrative threads. It also demanded a careful approach to character development, as is the case with ensemble pieces: you want the reader to identify who is who, not only by descriptors but by language patterns. An additional challenge had to do with the villain, Commander Kleve. He’s a vicious individual and unquestionably the antagonist, but I needed to provide him the depth that all characters deserve.

    The most enjoyable part of writing “The Monsters of Olympus Mons” was that I got to tackle a variety of topics: cryptozoology, artificial intelligence, propaganda, war, identity, and the future of myth.

    And here’s a confession: when I was about ten-years-old, I wanted to be a cryptozoologist. Seriously. I read every book, article, and eyewitness report like a young Fox Mulder in training. This was before I discovered scientific rationalism, but the result was that I became intimately familiar with the subject, so I peppered “The Monsters of Olympus Mons” with lots of Easter Eggs that anyone with even a passing interest in cryptozoology will pick up on.

    F&SF: You’ve published a lot of stories in F&SF (“Death on the Nefertem Express,” “Crash Site,” “A Thousand Deaths Through Flesh and Stone,” “Last of the Sharkspeakers,” maybe even “The Memorybox Vultures”) that all seem to be part of the same richly imagined future? Can you give us a brief overview of that future and describe where “The Monsters of Olympus Mons” fits in?

    BT: Those stories are part of my “War Hero” universe, which chronicle humanity’s gradual ascent to the stars. Even “The Memorybox Vultures”—which is set about twenty years from now—introduces technologies which grow and develop in later tales.

    I liked the idea of writing individual stories that highlight different points of a future history. Robert E. Howard did this in a fantasy vein for his Conan stories—each story examines a different time in Conan’s life, so you see him as a hot-headed youth and then as an older, world-weary king, and plenty of times in between.

    My “War Hero” universe takes a similar approach. The stories are written to stand entirely on their own—you can read “Death on the Nefertem Express” and enjoy it as a playful mystery. But the main character of “Death on the Nefertem Express” (Jolene Fort) is referenced in other stories, and some of her exploits appear as headlines in the newsfeeds we glimpse. For example, the events of “A Thousand Deaths Through Flesh and Stone” are directly continued in “Crash-Site” and involve many of the same characters. At the end of “Crash-Site,” there’s a passing reference to a “high profile heist of an orbital vault”—it’s just a tiny detail, but the story of that heist is told in “Breaking News Involving Space Pirates,” which features Jolene Fort, and is referenced again in “Death on the Nefertem Express” when a character accuses Fort of “breaking into Bradley Winterfig’s vault.”

    Again, a casual reader doesn’t have to be concerned with all that. But the connections are there, and they form a consistent chronology.

    In that larger meta-narrative, “The Monsters of Olympus Mons” is a pivotal story. It is set near the end of the Partisan War, which is the very war being fought in “A Thousand Deaths Through Flesh and Stone.”

    F&SF: How do you keep track of all the stories in this universe when you’re writing?

    BT: In developing the chronology, I outlined some major events. Some of these I’ve already tackled, and some I will get to eventually. But often a story I didn’t plan will grow naturally from this tree. For example, in one story a character mentions that she used to work on Venus but “had to leave.” At the time, I had no idea why she had to leave; it was just a bit of implied backstory. It was only months later when I started wondering, “Why did she have to leave Venus? What the hell was she doing there?” that I came up with the story of what happened on Venus at that time, to that character.

    In another instance, a story’s character rattles off a few of the alien races that are known to exist, including “the Cloud Kings on Tempest.” They’re just a name on the list, but their story is told in “Karma Among the Cloud Kings.”

    My novel Ten Thousand Thunders and its pending sequel are the central narratives of this universe. Many of the other stories occur before, during, or after. In certain cases, like with “Last of the Sharkspeakers,” it’s set much later.

    F&SF: What are you working on now?

    BT: I’ve started an entirely new series of fantasy stories, set in an alternate history. I don’t like to get bogged down in one subject or style, and like to mix things up. Since I’ve been spending so much time in a fictional future, I thought it would be fun to write in a fictional past.

    And speaking of alternate history, I have a speculative Cold War thriller entitled “Shadow Rook Red” which will be featured in the Weird World War III anthology from Baen Books this October.

    You can find Brian Trent’s blog at briantrent.com

    “The Monsters of Olympus Mons” appears in the July/August 2020 issue of F&SF.

    Order a copy of this issue…

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    Interview: Stephanie Feldman on “The Staircase”

    Stephanie FeldmanF&SF: How do you describe this story to people?

    SF: A group of teenage best friends visits a staircase that’s rumored to lead to another dimension. When one of the girls walks down—and climbs back up again—their relationships will never be the same. “The Staircase” is about contemporary legends, gossip, paranoia, and friendship.

    F&SF: What made you decide to write this story right now?

    SF: I started this story some time ago. I’m not sure why this idea felt so urgent, but thinking about it now, in the summer of 2020, I’m drawn to its investigation of our most intimate bonds. These friends have thrived on a feeling of “us against the world.” (Today, they would probably be lobbying their parents to be a quarantine pod.) That kind of loyalty is appealing, but it’s also demanding and high-pressure. What happens when it explodes?

    F&SF: Both of your stories for F&SF so far — “The Barrens” and “The Staircase” — feature characters who are young adults, but the stories don’t quite feel like YA stories. It seems to us that part of the tension in both stories comes from the gap that exists between our knowledge as older adults and our memories of what it was like to be that particular age. Are we completely off base?

    SF: I agree. I don’t think of either of these stories as YA. (Though, to be fair, I tend not to think about any labels or genres when I’m writing.) I like writing about young people, but I’m not so interested (at least, right now) in writing for young people. My first audience is myself. So while both stories aim to capture something genuine about that age, they also include insights I’ve gained in my adult life.

    F&SF: What’s the appeal to you of writing characters who are this age?

    SF: I’m obsessed with storytelling and teenagers are such great folklorists! Rumors, urban legends, sub-cultures… “The Staircase” is also about friendship and identity, in-groups and out-groups, and teenagers feel like natural protagonists for exploring those issues.

    Maybe it also just rings true to send a teenager out on an adventure like this. I don’t think I’d be any less excited to discover a mysterious staircase at this stage in my life, but I probably wouldn’t have the time or inclination to explore it, let alone an equally excited friend to accompany me.

    F&SF: Can you talk a bit about your writing process?

    SF: I always start with freewriting and brainstorming. I try to sketch out a central conflict, one that works on both a plot and emotional level. What is this character trying to do and why? What matters to them? How do they need to grow or heal?

    Next, I write a super messy draft from beginning to end. I have to think about a story holistically. Then I go back and start revising. And, of course, I can’t get anywhere without feedback from writer friends and critique partners.

    F&SF: What are you working on now?

    SF: It’s been hard to find time to write during the pandemic, but I’m slowly adding words to a ghost story novella. It’s another piece that draws on folklore and my local environment—well, the Poconcos, so kind of local—but it’s also a love story, which I don’t write too many of. Usually, my characters are behaving badly toward each other, so I’m enjoying some good, old-fashioned true love and compassion.

    I’m also preparing to teach two online writing classes this fall, one for Blue Stoop on the foundations of fiction and another for Catapult on developing the novel. Both classes are open to both beginning and experienced writers. I’ll be sharing more on my website (see below).

    You can find Stephanie Feldman at…

    Website: stephaniefeldman.com/
    Twitter: @sbfeldman

    “The Staircase” appears in the July/August 2020 issue of F&SF.

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    Interview: Bennett North on “A Bridge from Sea to Sky”

    Author photo of Bennett NorthF&SF: How do you describe this story to people?

    BN: Other than as “my space elevator story,” I tend to describe it as a story about a woman trying to prove, both to other people and to herself, that she has earned the right to belong somewhere.

    F&SF: We live in a country with a lot of neglected infrastructure, and here we have a story about the future where, instead of shiny new engineering triumphs, we have neglected infrastructure. Is that one of the things that inspired you to write this story right now?

    BN: The last ten years have been full of exciting things happening in space—the Curiosity rover, the InSight lander, and SpaceX, to name just three. That’s the environment that inspired this story—the feeling of community that comes from being able to observe these things happening in real time. Astronauts posting their shots from the ISS on Instagram. Live-streamed space walks. Seeing pictures of Pluto for the first time.

    Yet at the same time, the idea of the world coming together to fund the construction of a space elevator today seems far-fetched, especially when we look at the massive amounts of deferred maintenance we have on infrastructure that’s a lot closer to home. We’re not in the place we were when the ISS was constructed in the late ’90s and early ’00s. This is the world that I was exploring with “A Bridge from Sea to Sky”—one that had, at one point, made huge advances into space, but was now finding itself with shifting priorities.

    F&SF: How is this story personal for you?

    BN: As someone who works in the humanities, I’ve seen my fair share of promising projects losing funding due to budget cuts, so that was certainly part of it. But beyond that, I feel that science and the pursuit of knowledge is extremely important for the human race. It’s essential that, as a species, we look beyond the short-term considerations of profit and politics in order to ensure that we develop, advance, and, frankly, exist in the long-term.

    F&SF: What were the challenges of writing this story?

    BN: It took a bunch of research! I based the majority of my story on a report by NASA published in 2000 titled “Space Elevators: An Advanced Earth-Space Infrastructure for the New Millennium,” but I also read a lot about space elevator concepts through the decades—notably by Yuri Artsutanov, who proposed the idea of getting into space via an “electric locomotive” in 1959, and Arthur C. Clarke, who addressed the XXXth International Astronautical Congress about the topic in 1979 and endorsed the idea of calling it a “space elevator.”

    F&SF: Your first story for us, several years ago, was a beautiful and heart-wrenching piece of fantasy called “Smooth Stones and Empty Bones.” It’s completely different from this story in so many ways. Can you talk a bit about your writing process, and whether it varies depending on what you’re writing?

    BN: The main difference in writing the two stories was that the first draft of “Smooth Stones” was written in one sitting with no outline, while “Bridge” took a lot longer and had a lot more planning. These stories represent two extremes of my writing method—most of the time, I have a general idea of where the story starts, and very little idea of where it ends, and I feel my way from there.

    F&SF: What are you working on now?

    BN: I just recently finished writing a sci-fi novel about space bounty hunters that I’m really excited about. I also co-edit the biannual speculative fiction magazine Translunar Travelers Lounge. Our third issue just came out on August 15.

    You can find Bennett North at…

    Website: bennettnorth.com/
    Twitter: @BennettNorth
    Translunar Travelers Lounge: translunartravelerslounge.com/

    “A Bridge from Sea to Sky” appears in the July/August 2020 issue of F&SF.

    Order a copy of this issue…

  • Paper: https://www.sfsite.com/fsf/toc2020-29.htm
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