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Interview: Van Aaron Hughes on “The Body Pirate”

– Tell us a bit about “The Body Pirate.”

“The Body Pirate” is set on a world where humanoids and birdlike creatures form (seemingly) symbiotic pairings. The birds dominate the pairings, considering themselves the “souls” while the humanoids are merely “bodies.”  Our protagonist Adela has co-pioneered technology to allow a single soul to divide its time between two or more bodies.  This has unintended consequences, both to the society and in Adela’s personal life.

 

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

I got the initial concept of a bird/human pairing from a Counting Crows song lyric.  (“There’s a bird that nests inside you, sleeping underneath your skin. / When you open your wings to speak, I wish you’d let me in.”)  What made me want to write a story about these pairings was the notion that a human and bird might sometimes be a unit, but other times operate independently.  So bird, person, and bird+person would be in one sense a single character, but in another sense three different characters.  I loved that, both because I thought it would be interesting to represent visually on the page, and because I hardly know anyone who always behaves consistently and predictably.  Creating these different variations on a given character’s personality struck me as a nice metaphor for how human beings really work.

 

– Was “The Body Pirate” personal for you in any way?  If so, how?

Everything I write is personal on some level, and every protagonist of mine will suffer difficulties that parallel, at least metaphorically, things I’ve experienced.  But also, this story partly grew out of a desire to understand myself better.  The version of me that goes to a law office and writes briefs and takes depositions is, in a very real sense, not the same person who shows up at SF conventions and writes weird stories like “The Body Pirate.”

 

– How did the challenges of POV and formatting influence the writing of this story?

I fell in love with the idea of splitting the narrative into two columns when Adela splits into her bird and human halves.  But it was a bit tricky.  It meant coming up with a whole new set of pronouns (e.g., a single bird or human is “I”; a bird/human pairing is “we”; and group of pairings is “weall”).  And it meant that when Adela split, the narratives about her two halves had to be the same length.  At first I wasn’t sure that would work, since one half was doing hugely important research and getting embroiled in life-or-death conflicts while the other half was babysitting the kids.  But the more I worked on this piece, the more I realized how much Adela’s home life was at the core of the story I wanted to tell.

 

– What might you want a reader to take away from “The Body Pirate?”

I’m just hoping the people who enjoy the story outnumber the ones who say, “Whaaaat?”

 

– What are you working on now?

I’m just finishing up a short story set on a haunted asteroid.  (I don’t know if it works, because I can’t scare myself.)  And I’ve written the ending of a novel set on the world of “The Body Pirate,” in which the humanoid creatures start a war of independence.  Nearly everything I write, I do the ending first, so we’ll see if I have the nerve to complete an entire novel in this strange setting.

 

– Anything else you’d like to add?

Just to express my gratitude to Gordon, Charlie, everyone at F&SF, and all the magazine’s readers.  I have been a reader, fan, and collector much longer than I’ve been a writer.  To appear (for the second time!) in F&SF, which I’ve been reading since I was a boy, is a tremendous thrill and honor.

“The Body Pirate” appears in the July/August 2015 issue of F&SF, which can be purchased here: https://www.sfsite.com/fsf/toc1507.htm

Interview: Betsy James on “Paradise and Trout”

– What was the inspiration for “Paradise and Trout,” or what prompted you to write it?

We were hiking off-trail in New Mexico’s Jemez Mountains—nine thousand feet altitude, aspen blazing yellow against a cobalt sky—and came upon a slender, glass-clear stream full of native Rio Grande Cutthroat trout. Two red slashes under the jawline give the fish its name. My friend lay down, rolled up his sleeve, and slipped his hand into an overhang in the grassy bank. In a flash he held a little flapping Cuttthroat. Just as quickly he let it go, and it dashed off. I lay on my belly and slid my arm into the water.

Fish world is quiet.

Slipping water, dappled sunlight, quietly waving fins, mouths and gills opening and closing, sometimes a leisurely swim or a quick dash across a pool. That’s it. Daylight, dark. Thunder. Rain.

The remote, pristine stream—my nose was almost in it—even smelled faintly of fish. They didn’t seem afraid. I could curl my hand around a slender body, slowly tighten my fingers, and then…flick, squirm, gone. The trout would shoot into the current, circle, then slip again under the bank to nudge along my palm.

I lay for a long time in the autumn sun, watching their nice fish faces, feeling their fish bodies with my hand as fish neighbor, sinking into fish world quiet.

 

 

– Was “Paradise and Trout” personal to you in any way, and if so, how?

I wonder if it’s possible to write a story that isn’t personal?

I’ve walked miles off-trail in New Mexico’s empty places, and taught for years among its unknowable deep cultures. For me, speculative fiction is the only medium that can embody this strange meeting of worlds.

This story brings together a canyon with a Spanish name; a Presbyterian great- grandfather; the burial of a Hopi friend; a trapped coyote that chewed its leg off—but on the wrong side of the trap. And trout. How the subconscious melds experience is both a mystery and the greatest hope for our planet’s blending cultures.

 

 

– What kind of research did you do for this story?

Um, hands-on.

The little trout had brown spotted skins, flat, neat eyes, and a rosy blush where their cheeks would be. They weren’t worried. They didn’t like being fondled the way a cat does, but fondling didn’t seem to bother them unless they were squeezed. They were archetypally slippery, but not slimy: I came to understand “slippery as a fish.”

 

 

– What would you want a reader to take away from “Paradise and Trout”?

In spec fic we talk about “other worlds.” Most of us can find some bit of stoniness, greenness, wildness or wateryness that’s close, and chances are there’s an alien culture in it. It might even be nicer there than paradise, and hey, no waiting.

 

 

– Anything else you’d like to add?

 I never did catch a fish.

 

“Paradise and Trout” appears in the July/August 2015 issue of F&SF, which can be bought here: https://www.sfsite.com/fsf/toc1507.htm

Interview: Richard Chwedyk on “Dixon’s Road”

– Tell us a bit about “Dixon’s Road.”

Alice works at an historic/cultural site, once the home of a poet named Laura Michel, on the terraformed planet of Alceste. One morning, she finds a visitor standing at the threshold of the place. It’s far too early for the regularly scheduled tour, but she offers him a cup of coffee and a personal walk-through of the house.

They move from room to room. Through the course of this tour we learn about the original inhabitants of this house: Michel, the honored poet, and Jim Dixon, the terraforming engineer responsible for the planet’s very existence. He is also the man who built the house. Alice believes it’s the “love story” between these two that really attracts tourists to the home. The visitor, of course, is Dixon himself, back from a century away on another terraforming project.

By the time Dixon leaves, we find out something more about the love story, love in particular and stories in general.

 

– What was the inspiration for this story?

It came, as most of my stories do, from a collision of ideas that blew up in my head while I was trying out a number of traditional science fiction themes. It was supposed to be a story about terraforming, then suddenly this poet shows up. It occurred to me that you could balance the making of planets and the making of poems. A poet and an engineer, good ones at least, are working toward the same ends, though I wonder how many would agree with me on that.

About this same time I ran into Joseph Brodsky’s Nobel lecture. I’m paraphrasing here (maybe I should look this up)* but he stated that if language is humanity’s defining attribute, poetry must be its highest achievement. I sort of believe that, though I’m not sure why. Poetry may be the most complex of our arts though it’s made with the simplest of tools. And yet there’s poetry in a beautiful building. There’s poetry in making a salad. There’s poetry in a piece of working plumbing. You can stop me right there and say that the poetry isn’t in those things, but in the poet – and that’s the point. We’re all poets, or we can be. I think that’s Brodsky’s point, too.

Also important: the notion of historical sites and “restored” homes of notable people. I live in Chicago – that should be “’nuff said,’” but in case you haven’t heard, we have a very bad record when it comes to preserving our history. The city propaganda tells you otherwise, but you can’t fool an old fool, and I’m about the oldest fool I know. As a cab driver once told me, “We’d bulldoze Christ’s tomb and put a Walgreens on it if there was a buck to be had.”

I have mixed feelings (maybe I should say I have complex feelings) about words like “heritage” and “restoration.” They are often used to mask the creation of fictions and myths. Perhaps that’s part of our nature. We’re creatures of language, as Brodsky might say, but we may even more be creatures of story. We make stories. It’s what we do. That the story is a lie or a truth matters less than whether we want to believe the story (what we mean by “believe” is a matter for a whole other conversation) or not.

Here in the States, we don’t have as many of these preserved homes, not like in other countries. We have some – mostly of statesmen and prominent rich people. Not so many writers and artists. So be it. We define ourselves in large part by what we revere.

History is one (of many) things humans do with time – the concept of time. This fascinates (or should) science fiction writers because much of what we know of the road ahead has to do with how we understand the road behind. The home of Dickens is preserved, for example. But what would Dickens feel about the place were he granted the chance to see it now? Would he recognize it as home? Would it be his home? Or has the passage of time, by its sheer brute force, rendered the place different and strange?

There’s nothing particularly new here in terms of concepts or ideas, other than the notion that, maybe, after humanity has played with every toy it can invent, we come back to poetry, because that’s who we are.

Then, of course, the story is also about death but, as Major Calloway tells Holly Martins in The Third Man, “Death’s at the bottom of everything.”

 

– You’ve mentioned that it took you almost 25 years to write “Dixon’s Road;” could you talk about that struggle, and what it was like to finally finish it?

The first time around with “Dixon’s Road,” I did dozens of drafts, settled on a third-person p.o.v. looking over Dixon’s shoulder. I felt some was missing, so I rewrote it some more. Sent it out to dozens of places, presented it at readings – even a reading where I inadvertently left the last three pages at home. That’s the reading equivalent of driving right off the pier (Advice to writers doing readings: don’t leave home without counting your pages first).

Eventually, Kris Rusch accepted the story for Pulphouse, but the publication folded before “DR” saw print. I gave up on it after that. Every writer has many stories jamming the lower drawers of file cabinets and desks, and “DR” was one of mine.

End of story – almost.

I’d think about “DR” every now and then. Or someone would ask me about it – didn’t that story make print? I was glad it hadn’t – something about it still didn’t seem finished to me.

Years go by. I’m out of work, looking for stories I can quickly finish to get some work out in the market. I’m on summer break from one of my few paying gigs. Bills are coming due. A friend, Julie Stielstra, tells me how much she loved “Dixon’s Road.” Well, I think, Julie knows a thing or two. Maybe I should look at it again.

Then – I run into that quote from Louis H. Sullivan: “Behind every building you see is the image of a man you do not see.” I have to thank Roger Ebert for using that in one of his blogs. May he rest in peace.

Boom.

Something came together in a way it had not before. I completely rewrote the story – only glanced at the old typescript for some names. Changed the point of view. Found a first sentence and last sentence and tried my damndest to make everything else in the universe fit between them.

I sent it out, as most writers do, feeling mostly relief and exhaustion. When it was accepted, I began to feel, finally, that maybe I got it right this time.

 

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

I don’t know if I have any specific aims for what I want readers to take away. It would be pretty neat if they came away with feeling that human emotions can be as deep and mysterious as the universe in which they exist. We’re all co-authors of the universe, and it’s up to us whether we make a wasteland of it or, if not a paradise, at least a tolerable place to spend some time.

 

– What are you working on now?

I am currently furiously at work on a novella I’ve been promising people for years. It’s called “The Man Who Put the Bomp” and yes, it’s another saur story (at last!). Once it’s done, I hope to have enough wordage to put together a collection (again, at last).

If that’s not enough, I have another novella, a sort of prequel to the saur stories, currently called “Reggie Sent Us.” It may be the beginning of a novel – at least that’s what it started out as many years ago when I first came up with it. Not all the saurs are in it, but Agnes and Sluggo are featured.

I’m also at work on a novel called The Va-va-va VOOM! It all takes place on October 26, 1973, just that one day, and follows a teenager sent on a mission by an obscure-but-powerful office of the Inquisition in search of the greatest evil on the planet (the Chilean Coup, The Yom Kippur War and the Saturday Night Massacre, for examples, are all happening that month in that year). This, most obviously, takes her to the Southwest Side of Chicago, where I grew up. Kids are buying this weird green angel dust that glows in the dark, and once they’ve snorted up the stuff they grow tentacles out of their lower torsos. And all this horrid stuff comes from the lagoon in Marquette Park: the place where, in 1966, Martin Luther King said he felt more fear for his life than anywhere in the South.

I could never write about the old neighborhood before, and the only way I can do it now is by couching it in a kind of Lovecraftian horror – as interpreted by a bunch of proto-punk kids who hang around with a band called The Knuckles. I’m describing the novel as “Ulysses with tentacles.”

 

– Anything else you’d like to add?

I know some folks are going to read “DR” and think it’s retro or anachronistic. I’m not living in the Fifties, honest. I’m just trying something different and it doesn’t necessarily follow the script for the way science fiction writers are supposed to write about the future now.

I do an exercise with my Columbia science fiction writing students where we look out a window and I ask them two questions: 1.) What do you see? and 2.) What don’t you see? Extrapolating “The Future,” or any science-fictional landscape, foreground or background, requires us to account for absence as well as presence. We can fill all the emptiness or empty all the fullness, where we need to, if we need to. “Can you do that?” I hear that from students every term. The whole point of science fiction, for me, is “It won’t be easy, but … why not? This is science fiction. We can do anything as long as we don’t suck.”

* “If what distinguishes us from other members of the animal kingdom is speech, then literature – and poetry in particular, being the highest form of locution – is, to put it bluntly, the goal of our species.” – Joseph Brodsky, “Uncommon Visage,” Nobel lecture, December 8, 1987

“Dixon’s Road” appears in the July/August 2015 issue of F&SF.  You can purchase it here: https://www.sfsite.com/fsf/toc1507.htm

Interview: James Patrick Kelly on “Oneness: A Triptych”

– Tell us a bit about “Oneness: A Triptych.”

I wrote it as three separate flash fiction pieces over the course of several years, first “Tryst,” then “Trick” and finally “Test.”  I submitted “Tryst” to Gordon and he suggested the idea of expanding it into a triptych.  It took me a while to make it happen.  Even though these are three different stories, I tried to link them thematically and to put my two characters through analogous but escalating relationships.

 

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

I’ve taught writing at a variety of venues, most notably at the Stonecoast Creative Writing MFA Program <usm.maine.edu/stonecoastmfa > and theClarion <clarion.ucsd.edu> and Clarion West <clarionwest.org> Writing Workshops.  These gigs usually last a week or so.  On occasion, I like to give my students what I call my “Flash Fiction Challenge.” Everyone in the workshop writes a story of approximately 1000 words – myself included – over the course of a couple of days and then submits their stories to the group anonymously.  On the day of the Challenge we workshop all of these new stories, with each workshopper addressing the strengths and weaknesses of each piece.  When it comes time for you to discuss the story you’ve written (and which nobody knows you’ve written!) you offer a critique as if it were written by someone else.  After all the stories have been critiqued, the workshoppers guess who wrote which stories.  There are two winners of the Challenge: the Sherlock, that workshopper/detective who most accurately deduces who wrote which story and the Loki, the author/shapeshifter who fools the most workshoppers.   It’s a fun and pedagogically rich exercise, although I must confess that I’ve never won either prize playing my own Challenge!  I have, however, got three stories out of the Challenge.  After I wrote “Tryst” I decided I would write another piece for the triptych whenever I played.

 

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

It’s not easy to write about sex, if for no other reason than that it’s embarrassing.  Readers may be tempted to map characters and actions onto the author – don’t!  Stop it right now!  But what makes one uncomfortable is often most worth exploring.

 

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

I hoped to write about sex as a metaphor for achieving a kind of oneness.   In the first story, oneness is achieved by a physical act, in the second, the oneness escalates into a more radical union and the third offers a kind of transcendent oneness, far removed from sex and yet more intimate.

 

– What are you working on now? 

I’ve just finished a new full length novel, my first in a long time.  Currently it’s called MOTHERSHIP; I’m soliciting comments from a few selected readers before I submit it for publication.

 

– Anything else you’d like to add?

I first published in F&SF in 1978 and I credit long time editor Edward Ferman with discovering me.  I’ve sold to every F&SF editor since except for Mr. Finlay (your turn is coming, Charlie!) — eighteen stories in all.  I hope to keep appearing in these pages as for as long as I continue typing.  I’d especially like to thank my friend Gordon Van Gelder for this story and salute him for preserving F&SF’s tradition of literary excellence over the last two (almost) decades.

“Oneness: A Triptych” appears in the July/August 2015 issue of F&SF, which you can order here: https://www.sfsite.com/fsf/toc1507.htm

Interview: Naomi Kritzer on “The Silicon Curtain”

– This is your 6th Seastead story in F&SF; could you talk about the stories and the world of the stead in general?

I like to describe seasteading as “real-ish,” because there really are people who are trying to do this — to set up human-made islands they can govern based on their pet political philosophy. (Most of them are small-l libertarians.) In the world of the stead, the stead was built about fifty years earlier; they’re small, but well-established. The protagonist, Beck, is a teenager who arrived on New Minerva with her father when she was young. She’s grown up in this environment, and is smart, stubborn, and extremely resourceful.

 

– Tell us a bit about “The Silicon Curtain.”

The stead includes a cluster of micronations: one of them, Sal, is set off a bit and used as a research lab. Prior to this story, I think Beck had visited every other micronation except Sal.

Most of the micronations have a minimalist government. The exceptions are Lib (which is anarcho-capitalist) and Sal (which isn’t run by a government, but owned by a business and run by someone who was hired to keep it running.) The previous stories featured a public health crisis and the fallout from that crisis; in this story you get to find out what’s been happening over on Sal.

Sal’s official name is Silicon Waters, and the title is a reference to the Iron Curtain, since Sal is much more rigidly controlled than the other micronations.

 

– What was the inspiration for this story, and what inspired the series overall?

I do the family grocery shopping every week, and since I shop on the same weekday, at about the same time, week after week, I see the same grocery store staff people week after week. There was this grocery store checker years ago who I bonded with, and I would always pick her line, and we’d chat. One day, I went grocery shopping and she was gone. The first week I just assumed she was sick, but when she didn’t come back, I asked about her and got stonewalled. Every other employee gave me a blank look and told me they had no idea who I was talking about. I assumed that she had been fired, and everyone else had been told they couldn’t talk about it.

There was literally nothing I could do about it other than stew. Even if I tracked her down somehow, it wasn’t like I had a new job to offer her. So I just let it go and hoped she was okay. But thinking about tracking her down — how you’d find someone you only knew in the most casual way possible, based on random details she’d shared while chatting — collided with the idea I’d had for a story set on a seastead, and that turned into the opening story, where Beck is hired to find a missing woman, one of the debt slaves the stead refers to as bond-workers.

Each subsequent story came from questions I found myself asking (or someone asked me) about the seastead. What if the bond-workers tried to unionize? What if Beck’s father got so mad he kicked her out — how does homelessness work in a place with no public land? What if there were a really serious crisis, like a public health crisis? The question this time was, what’s up with Sal, anyway? And what if some of the people who’ve previously seemed trustworthy are also up to something shady?

By the way, years after that grocery store checker went missing (and I’d written a whole series of stories that came partly out of my conviction that she’d been unjustly mistreated), I bonded with a new grocery store checker and I asked him what ever happened to her.

And it turned out… She wasn’t fired. She was transferred to a suburban branch of the grocery store chain because she had a stalker, and everyone at my store was warned not to breathe a word — to protect her. So in fact it was a very different story from what I’d imagined.

 

– Are the Seastead stories personal to you in any way?  If so, how?

Less so than some of the stories I write, actually. But everything is personal to some degree. For instance, I draw heavily on my memories of adolescence when writing about Beck.

 

– What kind of research, if any, do you do for these stories?

I live in Minnesota, which is pretty nearly as landlocked as you can possibly get. There are an awful lot of details regarding the practicalities of ocean life that are just foreign to me; that required a lot of research. I did a lot of reading on libertarianism when I was setting out to write these, and lurked on discussion boards filled with people who want to go live on a seastead.

One of these years I want to go to Ephemerisle. Ephermisle is an annual on-the-water gathering, founded by the Seasteading Institute and attended by lots of seasteading enthusiasts. It would be expensive to go (since I live nowhere near California). I’ve stuck with reading about it, because I can do that for free.

 

– What challenges and rewards do you find in writing a connected series of stories?

It’s been a lot of fun telling people I basically had a serialized novel published in F&SF, because how retro is that?

These stories have been really fun to write because some of the characters are just awesome. (Not just Beck; there are a bunch of really cool minor characters who I’ve gotten to bring back several times.) The biggest challenge has been not screwing up the continuity. I drew a map once of how all the steads were connected and laid out, and promptly misplaced it.

 

– What are you working on now?

I’m finishing a story in which a food blogger writes about a flu pandemic. (Complete with recipes.)

I’m also working on the next story about Beck. Back in California, her next big challenge is the petty fascism of public high school; I think her problem-solving skills will get her into just as much trouble off the stead as on.

 

– Anything else you’d like to add?

I’ve been asked a few times about whether I’m going to collect these stories into a book. I have, in fact, collected the stories into a book, and I’m tentatively planning to self-publish it this fall. I may do a Kickstarter to cover the costs of art and a print version. To keep up on that, people can follow me on Twitter at @naomikritzer or they can check in on my blog at naomikritzer.wordpress.com.

“The Silicon Curtain” appears in the July/August 2015 issue of F&SF, which you can order here: https://www.sfsite.com/fsf/toc1507.htm.

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