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Interview: Jeffrey Ford on “The Winter Wraith”

Jeffrey Ford, portrait by Gerard Wickham

 Portrait by Gerard Wickham

– Tell us a bit about “The Winter Wraith.”

The “Winter Wraith” is a winter holidays story, or I should say, just after holiday story, about a man in the middle of nowhere Ohio whose wife leaves right after Christmas to go on a 3 week long business trip to China. They don’t get a chance to take the Christmas tree down before she leaves and, because she likes to wrap the ornaments a certain way when storing them for the next year, she tells him to leave the tree up until she gets back. The tree becomes this forlorn presence in the hundred plus year old house of theirs out in the farm country. The loneliness and the brutal weather – polar vortex and plenty of snow – traps him inside with it, and a kind of haunting occurs.

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

Not what was the inspiration but who was the inspiration. The writer Kit Reed and I were online one day last year discussing how hard the winter sucked. If you remember it was a tough one in the East. Kit mentioned the “Winter Wraith” in one of her comments, and I said to her that I thought it would make a good title for a story. She told me, “OK, write that story.” So I did. People give me advice about what I should write all the time, and I usually ignore them, but Kit is one of my writing heroes, so a suggestion from her carries a lot of weight. There’s also a tuckerization in the story. Bothwell the dog, who is a character in the story, belongs to the writer Ysabeau Wilce, who made a donation to the Shirley Jackson Award fund raiser to have his name appear in one of my stories.

– Was “The Winter Wraith” personal to you in any way?

Well, I don’t want to put too fine a point on this because it isn’t completely autobiographical, but parts of it are. My wife and I live in an old old farmhouse out in the country in Ohio surrounded by farm fields. She does travel quite often, and last winter was pretty grim out here. Where it differs from real life is I don’t have 1 dog but 4, not 1 cat but 6, and presently my sons are at home, so it never gets hallucinatingly lonely. When we were young there were years where we left the Christmas tree up too long. The sight of it is so damn depressing after a while, though, I’ve learned to ship that shit out the door as soon as New Year’s Day arrives. I do know loneliness from other times in my life, and I wanted to capture how that condition can color one’s thoughts and make one’s feelings manifest in th
e world.

– What are you working on now?

I have a lot of projects going, but I won’t talk about them for fear of jinxing them. What I will tell you about is what’s finished and coming out. I’ll have a new collection out next year, 2016, in July, A Natural History of Hell, from Small Beer Press. There will be a story, “In Havana,” in License Expired, which is an anthology of new James Bond stories. That’s coming out from ChiZine and can only be purchased in Canada – edited by David Nickle and Madeline Ashby. I’ve got a new story, “The Three Snake Leaves,” in an anthology, Grimm Future (fairy tale meets science fiction), edited by Erin Underwood for NESFA. And there’ll be another new story, “The 1000 Eyes” in the anthology The Starlit Wood, edited by Navah Wolfe and Dominic Paresien for Saga Press.

“The Winter Wraith” appears in the November/December 2015 issue of F&SF.  You can buy it here:

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Interview: Robert Reed on “The City of Your Soul”

– Tell us a bit about “The City of Your Soul.”

Sometimes I make a bet with myself.  “Bob,” I say, “I bet you can’t figure out a story hanging this crazy-ass premise.”  And then I work the story until it hums.  Or I fail.  The failures get dumped in a digital drawer, and the others get sold.  Either way, I win the bet.


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

The Malaysian airliner went missing over the Indian Ocean.  Or Central Asia.  Or it and its hundreds of passengers were carried off to Proxima Centauri.  Whatever the true story, I was fascinated, investing far too much time studying the minimal evidence.  But crazy as my own stories might be, I crave the ordinary, the prosaic.  Paranoid fantasies have little chance with me.  For instance, my guess is that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone, and in the same spirit, the missing airliner suffered a catastrophic decompression or fire, flying as a ghost plane until the fuel ran out.

But my emotional enthusiasm…that was remarkable.  I might answer the current mystery to my satisfaction, but I still wanted that buzz.  Was there an even larger mystery that would galvanize the world?

How about an entire city going missing?


– Was “The City of your Soul” personal to you in any way?

Some readers would like to think so.  It’s appealing, the idea that every piece of fiction is meshed with the author, unmasking some element of his or her personality.

But that’s another fantastic idea.

Fiction is fiction.  At least in this case.


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

The quantum nature of the universe.  I’ve used that science before and I have no intention of stopping.  But then again, I believe in the Many Worlds scenario.  Yes, I am a doubter of paranoid plots and fantastic nonsense.  Yet the infinity of the universe is one of my keystone opinions, pragmatic through and through.


– Anything else you’d like to add?


“The City of Your Soul” appears in the November/December 2015 issue of F&SF.  You can buy it here:

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Interview: Carter Scholz on “Gypsy”

– Tell us a bit about “Gypsy.”

The quintessential sf story, to me, is humanity’s first journey to the nearest star, Alpha Centauri.  As a kid I was an astronomy nerd, visiting Hayden Planetarium in New York City every chance I got; and I still am, now building my own telescopes.  So “Gypsy” goes back to, and continues, my deepest roots in sf: my teenage reading of so many canonical sf works, my fascination with the stars.

There’s a powerful element of romance and escapism in this story of exploration.  It draws from the idea of the frontier, of discovering new lands to live in.  But to compare interstellar travel to Earth exploration, or even solar system exploration, is a category error, I think.  The huge distances and energies involved are very hard to comprehend.  They make it a different kind of undertaking entirely.  Still, the idea of Earth-like planets out there, since there are no others in our own solar system, is so compelling it’s hard to let go of.

I stayed well away from this story till now, because it had been done so many times, from van Vogt to Vinge.  (I wanted to title it “Long Shot”; Vinge got there first.)  But something in our present moment called me to this, and I couldn’t resist.


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

Once I realized that, yes, I would have to write this, I decided to revisit this story in the light of the clear and present world crises we face — crises that sf has spoken of for decades, which are now upon us full force: climate change, resource depletion, economic austerity, oligarchic elites, ubiquitous surveillance, political intractability.  There’s an endgame urgency about the fate of humanity in our air, and it’s no longer theoretical or extrapolative.

I wanted to examine how humanity might manage to make this voyage in a fractured world where no government would ever fund it, but where the technology might be available by other means, and the desire to do it powerful enough to make it happen.

Most of all I wanted to see what would happen if I let the physical requirements of the mission drive the story, rather than the other way round.  No warp drives, no wormholes, no fortuitous inventions.


– Was “Gypsy” personal to you in any way?  If so, how?

I was going through a traumatic life change as I wrote the story.  There are no direct connections or allusions in the story, but my feelings of crisis and trauma drove the writing.  It felt like a matter of my own survival to finish it.  Let’s say I was deeply invested in the fate of my characters.  Like them, I needed to escape the intolerable.


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

Extensive.  I harvested everything I could find online about interstellar travel, and there’s a lot.  I selected technologies that seemed plausibly near to hand — as Roger says in the story, “off the shelf.”  Sure, things like my fusion engine don’t really exist, but I took that engine from published academic papers by a research group at Penn State University, and I respected their parameters.  I drew my basic hibernator design from ongoing research.  I got the numbers for my magsail from a published paper.  Where I had numbers, for things like the magsail, the thrust of the fusion engine, the amount of fuel it would require, for things like the orbital elements of the two Alpha C stars, I played fair with them.

I wanted everything to be physically and astronomically accurate.  I ran spreadsheets and simulations, and they largely determined the course of the story.  For instance, when Gypsy enters the Alpha C system, its trajectory and the positions of the two stars are accurate, verified as best as I could by a software gravity simulator.  (A video of the simulation is shallowly buried at  Click around.)

Of course I made many authorial choices along the way, but I was guided by what seemed to be most likely, given the realities.  So the ending is, I think, earned.


– What would you want a reader to take away from “Gypsy?”

That interstellar travel is really, really hard.  That even the nearest star to us is an unimaginable distance away, that the time and energy requirements are prohibitive, that everything about it is a huge stretch.  It’s probably impossible for humans.  And when our telescopes do find an Earth-like exoplanet (and they will), it will be much, much further away.  Unreachably so, for all our yearning.  Earth is our place, the place we evolved from and for — for better or worse, till death do us part.

This is not to say that we should stop exploring space, even interstellar space.  Our Voyager probes are already out that far.  Robot exploration of our solar system has been incredibly exciting, and we’re learning deeply important things.  We should fund much more of it.

But critical threats to our existence on Earth must be faced here and now.  Space is not an escape, as scientists know very well; it’s a harsh reality we need to understand on its terms, not ours.  Our planet’s crises are also harsh realities, with their own messy terms, the political and the physical intertwined.  We can’t rightly reckon the political, but we can and must reckon the physical.  Because physics always prevails.


– What are you working on now?

A few short stories and a novel, not sf, about 9/11.


– Anything else you’d like to add?

I realized about halfway through writing “Gypsy” that Roger Fry is a classic Theodore Sturgeon mad scientist.  I didn’t intend that, but Ted was one of my instructors at Clarion long ago, so here’s a shout out to his spirit, much missed.

“Gypsy” appears in the November/December 2015 issue of F&SF.  You can purchase it here:

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Interview: Naomi Kritzer on “Cleanout”

– Tell us a bit about “Cleanout.”

It’s a story about hoarding, family, and family secrets.


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

About ten years ago, my mother-in-law died, and my father-in-law was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. They had a huge house, a thousand miles from where my husband and I lived, and they never threw anything away. When we cleaned it out, we had to dig through mountains of junk mail, credit card statements from the early 1980s, decades of detailed records about dog food purchases… But we also found some wonderful family treasures, like art created by my husband’s grandmother.

In talking about this with friends, one of the things that really struck me was how universal this experience is for people with aging parents. Sometimes you clean out the house after a death, other times while parents are still alive, if they need residential care and the house has to be sold. It’s usually an incredibly fraught process. Sometimes people are under time pressure. Sometimes there’s conflict with siblings or other relatives. And even when everything else goes well, it is still a huge amount of work.

Also, sometimes you find objects that clearly have a story associated with them, but no explanation; other times, you uncover family secrets.


– This is your first non-Seastead story for us since “Scrap Dragon” in the Jan/Feb 2012 issue.  What are you working on now?

I’m working on a story about a Little Free Library that is a portal to another world. (Little Free Libraries are boxes of books that people put out in front of their houses to give away, sheltered in adorable tiny hand-crafted houses: There are hundreds in my city, though friends of mine from other states have sometimes never heard of them.) I’m also working on another story about Beck (the protagonist of the Seastead series).

“Cleanout” appears in the November/December 2015 issue of F&SF.  You can buy it here:

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Interview: Paolo Bacigalupi on “A Hot Day’s Night”

– Tell us a bit about “A Hot Day’s Night.”

A hot day’s night was a chance to look at near-future climate change and drought in the Southwest. Lucy Monroe, the main character is a journalist who has just come to Phoenix, a city that is collapsing due to its lack of planning, and Lucy is on the hunt for stories that illustrate the place that Phoenix is becoming.

One of the things that interesting to me about places when they break down is that they don’t simply turn into the stereotypical wastelands of roaming cycle gangs and hardy survivors–collapse is much more complex. There are losers, but there are also, oddly, winners when everything changes, and I’m interested in those people who find ways to adapt, and survive despite the fact that everything seems to be falling apart. Charlene is one of those people, and so it was interesting to have Lucy go on a sort of ride-along with Charlene, as to see the broken world of Phoenix through Charlene’s opportunistic eyes.


– “A Hot Day’s Night” gives us a glimpse into the world of your new novel, The Water Knife. Can you tell us a little of what the book is about?

Yes, “A Hot Day’s Night” is sort of a prequel to The Water Knife. Lucy is one of the main characters in the novel as well, and by the time of the novel, she’s much more experienced and hardened by life in Phoenix.  The Water Knife is really my attempt to get a grasp on the hazards of climate change coupled with the hazards of our seeming stubborn determination to do nothing to plan for it, or mitigate against it.  It’s the worst case scenario future, but again, there are winners and losers. Some people are profiting and thriving in the apocalypse, while others are hurting deeply. The story follows three characters, Lucy, plus a Texas drought refugee names Maria, and finally the “water knife” of the title,  Angel Velasquez, a sort of hired gun who acts to secure water rights and control for the city of Las Vegas, which is Phoenix’s main competitor for water on the Colorado River.  The story centers around a hunt for water rights, but overall is story of these three characters each trying to figure out what their moral and ethical obligations are in a broken world, even as they try to survive it.


– How is your writing shaped by your experience at High Country News?

High Country News had a huge impact on my early SF writing. The journalists I worked with there continue to provide inspiration and insight into our changing world, and I rely on them heavily.  Working with them meant that I always had access to the small details that have been harbingers of greater change. For a book like The Water Knife, people like Matt Jenkins and his reporting on the water politics of the Colorado River gave me insight into how fragile and vulnerable the Western U.S. was to drought. It inspired my first short story about climate change, “The Tamarisk Hunter,” and that also eventually grew in both “A Hot Day’s Night” and The Water Knife.  Numerous other stories were also deeply influenced by their reporting. Journalists like Michelle Nijhuis, Laura Paskus, Greg Hanscom, and many others continue to inspire new stories.  Really, without the reporting and experiences of working with those journalists, I would never have become the writer I am today.

“A Hot Day’s Night” appears in the September/October issue of F&SF, which you can purchase here:

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