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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.

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    Interview: Ana Hurtado on “Madre Nuestra, Que Estás en Maracaibo”

    Ana HurtadoF&SF: How do you describe this story to people?

    AH: It’s a short story about redemption, about an unlikely hero, and about how pagan it seems that some Catholics pray to the souls of purgatory. Yesenia, the main character, has failed at her job and at her marriage. She is forced to move back home with her parents. Yesenia fails to move forward with her adult and is now doing what she used to do as a teenager—all of the chores. In the end, she ends up saving her grandmother’s life; the souls Abuela Juana prayed to have come back for her, and Yesenia fights them off.

    F&SF: What inspired this story?

    AH: According to my aunt who still resides back in Venezuela, my great-grandmother Juana used to pray to the souls stuck in purgatory. I liked imagining these souls manifesting in real life as zombies. The Caribbean is extremely magical, from its environment to its deep colonial history. There’s an unacknowledged wicked side to Catholicism that is brought out with magical realism, and I loved highlighting this in my story. The souls Abuela Juana constantly prayed to are now preying on her; they are monsters who have come back to haunt her. I often think of this religion as monstrous, the way that it was used as a veil for imperialism in Latin America.

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

    AH: The characters of these stories are named after my family back in Venezuela: Matilde after my maternal grandmother, Joaquin after my maternal grandfather from Portugal, and Juana, my maternal great-grandmother. The main character is named Yesenia, after my neighbor in Maracaibo, Venezuela. We are the same age and used to hang out a lot during summers.

    It’s a personal story, too, because it’s my way of honoring those little stories that get told while we’re having lunch, or prepping lunch, or washing dishes after lunch—we’re definitely a food-centered culture—and that can be easily glanced over. But the second I heard that my great-grandmother prayed to the dead, I knew there was a story to tell. Like, how creepy and wonderful is that?!

    F&SF: We’ve heard that you’ve recently finished a novel based on this story. How did that come about and what does it expand on?

    AH: Yes — I have finished now the second draft of my young adult magical realism novel! I’m looking forward to wrapping up the third, and hopefully final draft, and sending it out on queries soon. After finishing this short story, I knew there was so much more I could do with the elements of the Caribbean and the purgatory souls turned zombies. I also wanted to write a book that my little sister, Francis, could’ve enjoyed back when she was in high school.

    My novel tells the story of Yesenia (I love that name), a teenage immigrant from Venezuela who now resides in Ecuador, and her first love: a girl named Maria Jose, a ghost who has been roaming around Quito since 1662. The novel interweaves the history of an oppressive hacienda in Ecuador and Caribbean tales of magic to tell the story of a young and impossible first love set in 2007 Quito, Ecuador.

    F&SF: Does your writing process vary between short stories and novels?

    AH: My MFA thesis was a collection of short stories that explore the pre-colonial, colonial, and post-colonial history of Ecuador, so I’ve always thought of short stories as a way to encapsulate multiple narratives. It just never occurred to me that I could make the big leap from short story writer to novelist. To be honest, I was petrified. How do people do this.

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

    AH: Revising, revising, revising. This is such a colossal project to take on. And the craziest thing is I’m drawing out plans for a retelling of a Greek myth that has been on my mind over the course of the summer; I’m thinking it could be a young adult fantasy novel as well.

    You can find Ana Hurtado at these places…

    Website: https://anahurtadoro.wixsite.com/anahurtado
    Twitter: @ponciovicario

    “Madre Nuestra, Que Estás en Maracaibo” appears in the July/August 2020 issue of F&SF.

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    Interview: James Morrow on “Bible Stories for Adults, No. 37: The Jawbone”

    Author photo of James MorrowF&SF: How do you describe this story to people?

    JM: Samson and Delilah, Cecil B. DeMille’s loopy and somewhat disingenuous 1949 movie adaptation of the famous Bible story, will always enjoy a warm spot in my heart and a soft spot in my head. With “The Jawbone” I tried to give readers something like the opposite of a guilty pleasure—call it a rollicking discomfort. It’s all about the depressing historical continuity between Samson’s consecrated jawbone and Wayne LaPierre’s sanctified assault rifles.

    F&SF: You wrote several Bible Stories for Adults back in the late ’80s and early ’90s. What made you decide to return to the series now, more than twenty-five years later?

    JM: During the interval since I published my last adult Bible story, “The Soap Opera” of 1992 (the subject was Job’s ordeal), the world’s power elites exploited the planet’s sacred texts as never before. Their slogan seems to be “better living through theocracy.”

    I’m thinking of the ascent of Islamic fundamentalism, Vladimir Putin’s exploitation of the Orthodox Church’s proclivity for bigotry, and, of course, the enthusiasm of American evangelicals for the Republican Party’s bottomless malice. So I decided to reboot my Bible stories project. It can’t be said too often: our holy books are wholly human, and it’s utter folly to privilege them in our efforts to forge a more just society. You can’t argue with revelation, of course, but I’m going to try anyway

    Also, there were certain Bible stories that I couldn’t get an angle on 28 years ago, but now I think I have.

    F&SF: Calling these “Bible Stories for Adults” is deliberately provocative. What kind of reaction are you trying to provoke in readers?

    JM: There must be a thousand books out there that employ bowdlerization and mendacity in the name of making Bible stories accessible to children. The joke is that, when it comes to issues of morality, decency, and knowledge, many of these narratives are already about as childish as you can imagine.

    It’s worth remembering, for example, that the run-up to the Good Samaritan (which certainly has a noble sentiment at its core) finds Jesus pronouncing a fiery and murderous curse on the supposedly irredeemable towns of Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum. While the Gospels have much to offer, I would argue that the personality of their protagonist seems pretty unstable.

    It occurs to me that all of my adult Bible stories turn on a challenge to myself. Show me a narrative from Scripture, and I’ll retell it in a way that either foregrounds its puerility or maps it onto some contemporary fashion in cruelty.

    F&SF: What were the challenges of writing “The Jawbone”?

    JM: The same challenges that confront me whenever I start grinding my ax on the theme of reason versus revelation. How do I stay ahead of an audience that already more-or-less agrees with me? How can I get this thought experiment to yield genuine surprises, as opposed to the superficial satisfactions of watching straw men disintegrate? How do I keep the reader from saying, “Hey, Jim, maybe it’s time to leave God alone”?

    When I sat down to write “The Jawbone,” all I had in mind was deconstructing the Samson story, drawing largely on the nonfictional comeuppance he receives in Steve Allen on the Bible, Religion, and Morality. I assumed I would simply foreground the atrocities and absurdities in which Samson indulges.

    But then I realized the hero’s cudgel could be used to satirize America’s gun fetish, and I was home free. The challenge was to keep the thing from becoming on the nose, as they say in Hollywood. Whenever I hit on a conceit like “the National Retailers of Assbones,” I made a point of throwing the gag away and not repeating it.

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

    JM: For all the unsavory dimensions of Western civilization, I’m always prepared to celebrate the 18th-century Enlightenment’s insistence on unfettered, open-ended discussion when it comes to religious, political, and scientific matters. As a philosopher remarks in my as-yet-unpublished novel, Lazarus is Waiting, “I never met an idea I didn’t like.” She hastens to add that she’s met many ideas she detested—but each nevertheless helped her to hone her intellect.

    I feel privileged that the gods have let me work within the medium of science fiction, the literature of ideas. I love taking grand philosophical and scientific speculations and reimagining them as fictive thought experiments.

    F&SF: What are you working on now?

    JM: A new Bible story, of course!

    I’ve always been bothered by the incoherence of the Sodom and Gomorrah narrative. Yahweh in his generosity has promised Abraham that the presence of only ten righteous people in Sodom would deter him from exterminating the entire population. But we never see the deity or the patriarch actually performing the calculation.

    Instead, the rest of the negotiations happen offstage, if they happen at all, and a great opportunity for suspense is wasted. My version, I hope, will give the situation its due. My working title is “Bible Stories for Adults, No. 24: the Twin Cities.”

    You can find James Morrow at these places…

    Website: http://www.jamesmorrow.info/
    Twitter: @jimmorrow11

    “Bible Stories for Adults, No. 37: The Jawbone” appears in the July/August 2020 issue of F&SF.

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    Interview: Mel Kassel on “Crawfather”

    giant crayfish sculptureF&SF: How do you describe “Crawfather” to people?

    MK: “Crawfather” is one of my favorite titles I’ve ever assigned to a work, so sometimes I let it stand by itself and invite curiosity. Otherwise, I’m pretty literal about it: it’s a story about a Minnesotan family that fights a giant crawfish every year during their reunion.

    F&SF: What were some of the things that inspired this story?

    MK: So many of the stories I’m working on right now are about the conjoined appeal and danger of unquestioned ritual. Family, in particular, is a petri dish for arbitrary and often harmful ceremony. I wanted to interrogate longstanding family traditions, ideas of monstrosity, and generational divides in thinking.

    The setting and some of the broader family attributes are borrowed from the annual trips my own family would take to Minnesota every year when I was young. Each little subdivision of my mother’s relatives would stay in its own cabin, and we’d gather to swim and fish and eat.

    Gradually, I came to realize that we were the odd cabin out—we didn’t share the same fundamental worldview as the rest of the family. And as that schism became more and more clear, I became increasingly baffled by what seemed like their blanket opposition to change and newness. I wanted to try on that collective stubborn voice as it was confronted with a more extreme version of change.

    I also just love crustaceans! They’re old and hardy and bristling with all these great appendages.

    F&SF: Once you have all those pieces of inspiration, what’s your writing process like?

    MK: I drafted this story at Clarion in the summer of 2018, so I only had a week to write it, but it was the most enjoyable bout of writing I had there. This was my “fun” story, one with a ridiculous conceit and a slightly atypical POV, so I just leaned into the novelty and humor of it. Creating specific family members for one-off appearances was entertaining—Hank (the childless accountant) is a favorite. Having the setting fully-formed in my mind also made the first draft breezier than normal.

    I’m someone who edits as they go, which means I end up with polished beginnings and (very) rough endings. It took a while for me to clarify exactly how Nancy and Archie would take on the Crawfather, and how the rest of the family would react.

    F&SF: Last year you won the World Fantasy Award for “Ten Deals with the Indigo Snake” (published in the Oct 2018 issue of Lightspeed Magazine). What was that like, and has it changed anything for your career?

    MK: It was so wonderful to receive that award, and I was especially delighted to share it with fellow winner Emma Törzs. This is perhaps an obnoxious thing to say, but I earnestly didn’t expect it—I was at a screening of “The Lighthouse” in Iowa City while the ceremony was happening in California. I’d read the stories by the other nominees and been so impressed. I figured I’d just check the results after the movie and be content with the nomination. Instead, I had to quickly toggle from anxious bewilderment at the film to surprise and excitement at the win.

    I view it as a lovely personal marker. I want my first story collection to have a grab-bag of cross-genre credits, and the award gets me closer to that goal.

    F&SF: What are you working on now?

    MK: Theoretically, I’m revising the group of stories that will become my first collection, and gathering notes for a novel. It’s a new frontier for me, this much revision and note-taking—it’s hard and I don’t like it. I’m also preparing to teach an undergraduate class on writing and reading fantasy fiction in the fall, which I’m looking forward to very much.

    You can find Mel Kassel at these places…

    Website: http://melkassel.com/
    Twitter: @MelKassel

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

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    Interview: David Erik Nelson on “All Hail the Pizza King and Bless His Reign Eternal”

    Author photo of David Erik NelsonF&SF: How do you describe this story to people? We mean, besides just telling them the title and letting that speak for you.

    DEN: Oh, man, I’m terrible at synopsizing my stories; that’s the whole reason I formulate titles like this.

    That said, when I hear folks talk about this story, they mostly characterize it as something like “a tricky pizza demon story” or “there’s a hellmouth in a pizza oven”—and then quickly add “it sounds ridiculous, but it works!”

    That’s nice of them to say, but I don’t think of it that way really. In my head, this is a story about sisters, and about all the crap jobs that fall to women. I saw Joseph Chilton Pearce speak once, back when I was still a teacher, and he said something that’s stuck with me ever since: “Men are powerful, but women are immensely, immensely strong.” So this story is about that, too: About the difference between power and strength. To me at least. Probably I should listen to my readers: It’s a pizza demon story—that sounds ridiculous, but it works!

    (As an aside, my current goal is to sell you a story that has a whole other story embedded in the title. I’m getting closer, Charlie. I’m gonna get there, sooner or later.)

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

    DEN: I didn’t. I actually wrote this back in early 2018, completing the draft in just two weeks (which is maybe a record for me). But it didn’t really become the story it is now until late that year. I listened to every word of Christine Blasey Ford’s congressional testimony—which included her detailed account of being sexually assaulted by Brett Kavanaugh (who now sit on the US Supreme Court) when they were teens. I was in the kitchen, puttering, and something she said somewhere in the middle of her testimony stopped me dead, because it was a near perfect poem just as she spoke it. A poem like that, one spoken accidentally, hits you like lightning. It stops your heart. I wrote it down right then:

    Indelible in the hippocampus
    is the laughter,
    the laughter,
    the uproarious laughter
    between the two,
    and their having fun
    at my expense.

    And that’s when I understood what this story was really all about. It was a different story after I heard that poem, and so I rewrote it to be that story. The real monster isn’t the Pizza King and it isn’t Kip—it’s the two boys in that woman’s testimony, who appear in my story only briefly as the boot-grinding, laughing jackals in Lissa’s moment of clarity.

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

    DEN: I feel like most of the content of this story is plagiarized from reality: Kip’s crime is basically lifted from the headlines (his real name was Kevin “Kip” Artz, of Jackson MI), the Pizza King is the Nain Rouge (more or less), and many details—names, phrases, cars, clothes, physical descriptions—are what my sister has characterized as “family-lore easter eggs.” The real writing challenge, to me, felt largely schematic: getting all of the details and incidents lined up and compressed properly so that the mechanism driving the story could actually function and folks could follow along. There are a lot of patient, patient people out there (yourself included) who gave me feedback I sorely needed in order to get this hooptie running.

    F&SF: This is your fourth story for F&SF (the previous ones are “The Traveling Salesman Solution,” “There Was a Crooked Man, He Flipped a Crooked House,” and “Whatever Comes After Calcutta”). All of them have disturbing or unsettling elements, even when they’re not straight up horror. What’s the appeal or fascination with that mode of writing for you?

    DEN: I’ve always loved horror. When I was small, I was equal parts fascinated and terrified by Schwartz’s original Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. I read my first Stephen King novel at 11 years old. The first stories I wrote were horror stories, as were the first ones I actually sold. I’ve tried going other directions in my writing, but despite what I thought, I never got far (e.g., I didn’t know “The Traveling Salesman Solution” was a horror story until I saw it pop up on Ellen Datlow’s recommended reading list for one of her Best Horror of the Year anthos). Nonetheless, I couldn’t have said why I was I was so drawn to horror until last year, when I saw Midsommar. This was the last film my wife and I saw in an actual theater. She didn’t much care for it, but I loved it, and in trying to explain to her why, I suddenly realized why I was so tangled up with horror:

    Horror is the place where we most honestly explore how it is we respond to trauma. Some folks come through trauma—and are even stronger for it (all those “final girls.”) But many do not. Many are broken by what hits them. Even killed. And most of our art lies about this simple, brutal fact. Drama, romance, SF, comedy—even history!—feed (and feed off of) our optimism bias. “It won’t happen to me! I’ll come out OK! I’m one of the good ones, the strong ones, the Righteous Among the Wicked!”

    Horror, in all of its over-the-top ridiculous histrionics, plays it straight in that one regard: It actually looks right into the eyes of the Worst Possible Outcome—the mass graves, the ovens, the lonely ditches, the morgues, the hospital beds, the single table setting, the blood in the gutter. And yet still, even looking in that grim place, it still shows us all the way folks cope and resist and fight, clawing their way back up for another gasp of air. They all find their way to the end, one way or another. I love the final girl, truth told. But I love the schlimazel that gets the axe in the head in the second scene, too.

    I didn’t get all that just from watching Midsommar, of course (although it’s all there; that’s a helluva movie, in my humble). But it was in defending Midsommar, and thinking of the horror that had most sung to me over the last several years, that I realized why it was that I kept coming back to that well. Other stories that paved the way for me to see this in myself include the films A Dark Song; As Above, So Below; The Endless; and The Babadook; and Daryl Gregory’s excellent novella “We Are All Completely Fine.”

    F&SF: What are you working on now?

    DEN: The usual stuff: a music producer with special-needs son blunders into Lake Michigan cult, Jewish girl gone bad is pursued through forest by a church full of tentacles, skinheads demand their magic Torah back—all the old cliches.

    You can find David Erik Nelson at these places…

    Website: https://www.davideriknelson.com/
    Twitter: @SquiDaveo

    “All Hail the Pizza King and Bless His Reign Eternal” 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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