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Interview: Dale Bailey on “The Donner Party”

Dale BaileyTell us a bit about “The Donner Party.”

“The Donner Party” was written in part to see if I could pull off a conceit which contrasts the ultimate expression of a mannered society with the most horrible tradition I could imagine. I took a number of courses focused on the Victorian era in graduate school, so the setting seemed natural to me. It’s very much and very intentionally a story about the social order. And though the story is set in an era a century and more before our own, I wanted—without belaboring my own political beliefs—to write a story which could be seen as a kind of subtle commentary on class and class issues in our own day. I think that level of the story is there if you want to look for it, but it’s also possible to read it as a simple horror story, and I’m okay with that, too.


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

I can’t usually track down the inspiration for a story, but I can remember very clearly the moment this one came to me. I teach college English and my colleagues are always leaving random photocopies on the table beside the copier. It just so happened that someone was teaching a course on Victorian social customs, and he’d abandoned a copy of a chapter from some social history. The chapter was called “The Dinner Party” and it featured a picture of proper ladies and gentlemen of the Victorian era at table. At a glance, I misread the chapter title as “The Donner Party,” which reminded me of the American pioneers who ended up snowbound in the Sierra Nevadas and ended up, well, eating each other. This, contrasted with the picture of the decorous Victorian dinner party, set me on my way.


You’ve been writing and publishing stories for over twenty years.  Did you find any aspect of “The Donner Party” particularly difficult to write, and do you think this is a story you could have written as a younger writer?

I don’t think I could have written this when I was starting out. I grew up in West Virginia, and most of my early fiction was rooted in family lore and local history. But I took a five-year hiatus from writing starting around 2004 and when I came back, I found that I was writing a totally different kind of fiction—less personal, but, I think, richer and more complex and often set well outside of my comfort zone.

I think this is one reason I found the story very difficult to write. Fortunately, I didn’t have to go it entirely alone. My dissertation advisor, Don Cox, an expert in Victorian literature and culture, was there to help me with some of the Victorian details (and any mistakes are all mine, I can assure you). And Charlie Finlay, the editor of F&SF, was around to help me sort out some of the issues in the story itself. So, yeah, I think this one was unusually difficult for me to write.


What are you working on now?

I have a book called IN THE NIGHT WOOD coming out from Houghton Mifflin in October. Despite its contemporary setting, it too draws upon Victorian elements. And I have four or five short stories coming out in various places over the next year, as well.

Right now I’m working on a full-out Victorian fantasy novel—which has turned out to be a lot more difficult than I expected (and no, it’s not steampunk!). I don’t know when it will see the light of day. Someday in the not too distant future, I hope. We’ll see.


Anything else you’d like to add?

Thanks for taking the time to talk with me. I’m really glad the story is in F&SF, where my first story appeared all the way back in 1993. It’s nice to be back.


“The Donner Party” appears in the January/February 2018 issue of F&SF.

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Clicking on Mr. Bailey’s photo will take you to his website.

Interview: Ingrid Garcia on “Racing the Rings of Saturn”

Tell us a bit about “Racing the Rings of Saturn”

It’s a story about a convergence of unrelated events leading to an upheaval. Historical examples are the solar eclipse of AD 1133 that happened when King Henry I of England died, leading to chaos and civil war. The opposite happened during the Battle of Halys on May 28, 585 BC when a total solar eclipse took place during an indecisive battle between the Medes and the Lydians, leading both parties to halt the fighting and negotiate a peace treaty. Relatively recently—1970—there was the Football War between El Salvador and Honduras, where a FIFA World Cup qualifier—that stretched over three games—ignited a short war (it’s also called the 100 Hour War) between the two nations.

Keep in mind that the unrelated event did not cause the upheaval, but was basically the catalyst that ignited built-up tensions to erupt (or in case of the Medes and Lydians, possibly catalysed a pent-up desire for peace). Similarly, in “Racing the Rings of Saturn”, tensions have been building up as two resistance movements have been fighting oppressive regimes for years. Then, in order to increase the chances of a full-on uprising, they join forces against the weaker of the two regimes and decide to utilize a massively popular event as the catalyst.


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

For one, I was wondering how huge sports events almost always proceed, even if they’re held in countries run by dictators or countries that have no respect for human rights and use that event for their own propaganda. Obvious examples are the 1936 Olympic Games in Nazi Germany and the World Championships Football in Argentina in 1978 (during the Videla junta). Should an athlete attend such an event, or boycott it? Should Jesse Owens not have attended the 1936 Olympics? Should he have done an avant la lettre Black Power salute (which in reality happened at the 1968 Olympics)?

I wanted to take that dilemma a step further in an SF setting, for which I needed to invent a sport that would translate well on different planetary settings. First thing that came to mind was a Formula One race in space, basically with rockets instead of cars, the biggest race obviously being a fictional ‘Racing the Rings of Saturn’, where Saturn space is run by a junta.

Then present my racing heroine with an even bigger dilemma: boycott it—the single interplanetary Formula One race she hasn’t won, which is also the biggest of them all—or race it and win and ignore the political situation? Or maybe there’s a third way?

In that sense it’s classic SF: present your protagonist with the hardest choice of her life, on the biggest platform imaginable, with far-reaching consequences. I hope the story pulls that off.


Was “Racing the Rings of Saturn” personal to you in any way, If so, how?

There are no autobiographical elements in it, as I’m not a racer. I do empathize with Tsaraki in the sense that when you choose your vocation—Tsaraki’s racing, mine’s writing—you try to be as ambitious as possible, or fail utterly rather than being merely middling (cue to shouts of “Mediocre! Mediocre!” from Mad Max Fury Road).


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

A huge amount of calculations to check if my crazy idea—literally racing the rings of Saturn—was possible at all. Including, but not limited to the possible speed of the racers after a rocket boost and a gravitational slingshot from Mimas; the forces involved for changing course as the drivers dive through the A-ring and if superconducting coils can deliver those in Saturn’s magnetic field (barely—that’s why the car’s flip-flop wings are huge and the cars and the drivers are extremely light); the need for Faraday cage shielding in those immense electromagnetic fields; checking the maximum G-forces humans can endure, how often and how long; and probably some things I’m overlooking right now.

To the best of my knowledge—I do have an engineering degree—it all works out, it’s theoretically possible. Then—well after Charlie had accepted the story—I found out I made a simple mistake (using the radius of the A-ring rather than its diameter) through which the total racing time doubled from about four hours to about eight hours. Thankfully, we were able to fix that in the final edits. Long live final edits delivered well in time!

A nagging problem with that remains. Today’s Formula One’s racing time is two hours maximum where racers experience G-forces up to 8 G. So initially, I extrapolated that four hours racing time with G-forces up to 30 G should be possible in the future with drivers completely encapsulated in shock-absorbing foam in their cars and those drivers being genetically modified in combination with highly advanced medicine.

Extending the punishment experienced by the racers to eight hours is a bit of a leap of faith, but I preferred that over a simple miscalculation that any tech-savvy reader could easily find.


What are you working on now?

I’m busy writing, submitting, and promoting other stories set in the same solar system, let’s call it the ‘Inner Hotspot/Outer Cool’ solar system. Planet by planet:

—Inner Hotspot—

  • Mercury:

o   A story where Tsaraki and her rival Dougie Smouck face off as they race “The Mercurial Day/Night Scorcher”. To be written;

  • Venus:

o   A story called “Under Venusian Skies” about life and transformation, but not as we know it, that just appeared in Ride the Star Wind;

  • Earth:

o   A story called “Space Bike Zombies FTW” that appeared in EOS Quarterly (together with my very first interview);

o   A follow-up story called “Have Space Bike, Will Travel” that appeared in Futuristica Volume 2;

o   A follow-up novelette (title needs work) where the heroine of the previous two stories sets up a foundation to tackle the huge problems facing Earth such as pollution, environmental degradation, climate change and overpopulation. This one’s doing the rounds;

o   Moon:

  • A novella called “Jamal and the Jinnee in the Klein Bottle” about the future of interplanetary warfare, extrapolating extreme automation. Doing the rounds;
  • Mars:

o   A novelette called “In the Lap of the Gods” that’s both Tsaraki’s origin story where she rises through the ranks and races Olympus Mons, but that also covers terraforming Mars and its ‘lost generation’. Doing the rounds;

—Inner Hotspot—

  • Asteroid Belt: a story where Hermana experiences one of the skirmishes between the two faction as be tries to make a living as a prospector. To be written;

—Outer Cool—

  • Jupiter Space:

o   Europa:

  • A novelette called “In the Cracks of Europa” that’s both Hermana’s origin story and a mystery that shows part of the inner working at SyntMoon—the company that holds the secret to the extreme longevity serum—and how one of its new products will change the face of society. Doing the rounds;

o   Callisto & Jupiter Space at large:

  • A novella called “Cold Days in Hell” where the fates of Hermana and Feydar—who will become the sole ruler of the Outer Cool—intertwine, and where Hermana becomes the leader of the Resistance;

o   Ganymede:

  • A story/novelette (length & title TBD) where Hermana liberates a group of ‘sexual deviants’ ready to be sent to the secret concentration camp on Thebe, and where be meets Solarita. First draft being written;

o   Io:

  • A story (length & title TBD) where Tsaraki and Dougie Smouck race against each other in the “Io Erupting Pothole Spectacle” amidst a Jupiter Space that’s politically at least as volatile. To be written;
  • Saturn Space:

o   Saturn’s Rings and several of its moons:

  • A novelette called “Racing the Rings of Saturn” where Tsaraki has to make a life- and history-altering decision, and where Hermana’s Jupiter resistance joins the Saturn rebellions in an effort to liberate Saturn space. Just appeared in F&SF;

o   Just outside Saturn’s Rings:

  • a short story called“Pirates for Life” where bimorph artist and interplanetary choreographer Andro Gyne is kidnapped by pirates. Gyne converts to their cause, realising that SyntMoon’s immortality elixir is holding humanity back, composes ber masterpiece and uses the proceeds to (crowd)fund an interstellar project. Slated to appear on February 12, 2017 in Wild Musette;
  • Uranus:

o   A story where Tsaraki and her rival Dougie Smouck race the “U-Turn around Uranus”. To be written;

—Outer Cool—

(Note: Neptune’s neutral in the ongoing Inner Hotspot/Outer Cool war in a similar way that Switzerland was neutral during World War 2)

  • Neptune:

o   A novelette called “In Purple Purgatory” where Tsaraki scours Neptune Space in search of the mastermind of the ‘pop-up Buddha’ phenomenon. The sequel to “Racing the Rings of Saturn”, it ties up that story and “Jamal and the Jinnee in the Klein Bottle. Finished but kept on hold;

That’s all for now. Eventually, I’ll have to wrap everything up in the inevitable novel, whose title and main plotline I already have in my head, but which I probably won’t start until late 2018, early 2019.

Finally, a few pieces that are outside the whole Inner Hotspot/Outer Cool solar system:

  • A poem called “Signs of Life” that appeared in Ligature Works(my very first published piece);
  • A fantasy story called “The Taste of Things to Come” that’s doing the rounds;
  • A near-future story called “The Ethical Cloud” that’s doing the rounds;
  • An interplanetary story called “Five Wise Whiskies” that’s doing the rounds;

All that, and setting up a writing website very soon (in the meantime, I’m on twitter as @ingrid.garcia253 ). Too much to do, too little time.


“Racing the Rings of Saturn” appears in the November/December 2017 issue of F&SF.

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Interview: Nick Wolven on “Carbo”

Tell us a bit about “Carbo.”

“Carbo” is an ancient tale. One of the world’s oldest tales. It’s the tale of a boy and his car. Formerly known as the tale of a boy and his horse, and before that, as the tale of a boy and his dog. It’s a tale of the attachments young men form in the moody, wandering period before they’re entirely ready for human attachments. Or maybe it’s just a story about a robot who wants to be loved.


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

Gordon [Van Gelder, F&SF Publisher] had sent me an article about the apocalyptic implications of self-driving cars—something to do with our creeping surveillance state and Big Bad Data and Orwellian EZ-Pass systems—which I took to be a kind of editorial elbow in the ribs. So the topic had been on my mind. One day I was out driving and the concept simply appeared to me, in a weirdly explicit and literal fashion—I mean the words themselves actually manifested in my vision, like something from the Book of Exodus, like a screenplay pitch, like trails of marquee-neon laser-scripted on the windshield: MAN HAS MISOGYNIST CAR. Once a phrase like that has crawled its way across the cornea of your inner eye, it’s almost impossible not to write a story.


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

“Carbo” is a story for all men, for all time.


Can you tell us about any of the research you may have done for “Carbo?”

The trouble with talking about research is that I never know if I’m adding to my air of writerly authority or puncturing the illusion of writerly authority. When other writers are asked this question, they always say something like, “Oh, yes, I visited six obscure libraries, interviewed all the world’s leading experts, and now know everything there is to know about Mycenaean cuisine.” Whereas I’m afraid I’ll blurt something boneheaded and unglamorous like, “Yes, I finally looked up what a carburetor is.” I wish I could say I prowled in dusty archives, I pulled down crumbling tomes of yore, I accessed elusive bodies of knowledge. The truth is I’ve been watching a metric ton of car-jock YouTube videos.


What are you working on now?

I’m working on a novel of adventure and intrigue, romance and mystery, deceit and derring-do, about the sexy and crowd-pleasing subject of technological unemployment.


“Carbo” appears in the November/December 2017 issue of F&SF.

You can buy a copy of the issue here:

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Interview: John W. Sexton on “Down at the Goblin Boutique”

What was the inspiration for “Down at the Goblin Boutique,” or what prompted you to write it?

The basic concept is really a twist on something that occurs in many folktales and myths, where a series of warnings lulls the unwary into thinking that they are being aided and advised. Around the time that I was playing with this idea for a new poem I was leafing through the poems of Christina Rossetti and came across an old favourite, Goblin Market. The title immediately engendered another idea, not of a market that sold suspect fruit as in the original poem, but of a shop that sold something far more sophisticated, that catered to a more discerning and perhaps wealthier customer. Once I struck upon the notion of a coat with magical properties, the poem began to reveal itself to me bit by bit.


John W. SextonDo you see yourself as a fantasy and science fiction poet or as a poet who sometimes uses the tropes and language of fantasy and science fiction?

I see myself as a poet working within the tradition of the Fantastic. And as such a poet, practising the craft now for over forty years, I would identify with the Fabulist and Metaphoricist schools of thought.

Being a European my main influences in both would also obviously be largely European, so on the Fabulist side there would initially have been poets like Walter de la Mare, Tomas Tranströmer, W. B. Yeats, Vasko Popa and Lewis Carroll. However, when I started out as a young poet I was also reading a lot of fiction, and much of that was actually science fiction, and so I very quickly formed the opinion that the realm of the fantastic was a better way to express ideas. Even in the mainstream literature that I was reading in those days, and I’m talking now about the late ‘70s, there appeared to be a trend that confirmed this, for I was also reading Thomas Pynchon, Robert Coover, Borges, Emma Tennant, Angela Carter and Beckett, all of whom seemed to work aspects of the fantastic into what they did. J. G. Ballard’s short fiction, especially, had an elevated hallucinatory effect in terms of how he seemed to treat time and space in a psychological way. He brought you inside his fictions in such a subjective, interactive way that was truly subversive; and all this was achieved largely through the manipulation of language.

When I read that Ballard had said that “science fiction is the poetry of the 20th century” I bought completely into the idea. So, although I was writing fiction I still saw it as part of the poet’s vocation. This is when I discovered the short fictions of Harlan Ellison, who in those days frequently experimented with new ways of writing stories, many of which to me seemed to mimic techniques found in poetry, from repetitive patterning to prose poetry to concrete design of the page. So when I started out as a young poet the literature of the Fantastic was all-pervasive in what I was then reading. But Harlan Ellison had another significant influence on me. His often expressed complaints in those days that he had been ghettoised by the label “science fiction writer” always struck me as confused, for he seemed to confine himself to the very genre publications and publishers that he complained were limiting him. It seemed to me then that the only resort was to try and publish in the mainstream journals, so that’s what I did. And I’ve been publishing my fabulist poetry in the mainstream ever since. And believe me, it’s never been without resistance from the poetry marketplace.


In the United States, poetry doesn’t seem to be part of the mainstream consciousness today as much as it was, say, 100 years ago. Why do you think contemporary poetry has found a home among fantasy and science fiction readers?

You know, if you look at poetic tradition going back the last two hundred years, I think you’ll find that most cultures always had a healthy showing of fantasy amongst their poets. The Gothic tradition, for instance, seems to have sprung up everywhere. In America you had Poe and all those who followed after him. And in America the Gothic seems to have evolved into the Weird and in that way was kept alive and evolved further. But if you look at your mainstream you’ll find you also have poets who practise Fabulism as an integral part of what they do. You’ll find plenty of the elements of the Fantastic in poets like W. S. Merwin, John Ashberry, Slyvia Plath and Thomas Lux. And long before Lux you had Philip Lamantia.

In Ireland poets tend to write poems of the Fantastic as a matter of course, but they publish them in the mainstream journals because we have no tradition of science fiction poetry journals over here. In Ireland our solution seems to have been different to what happened in America. You created journals to accommodate your poetry, whereas we in Ireland seem to have stubbornly forced the existing journals to accommodate us! In Ireland this may have been somewhat inevitable, because in our culture the supernatural and the motifs of folktale and myth were often habitually used by writers here anyway, so the journals perhaps found it quite natural to continue publishing and encouraging such work.


Besides you, who are three other contemporary poets that our readers ought to go out and find right now?

At the risk of offending my fellow brothers in poetry, I’m going to recommend three women. To my mind the best poetry these days seems to be written by women anyway. It has emotion, resonance and passion, and that’s what I personally require as a reader. I’m also going to be partisan and choose three Irish poets, because I feel your readers will probably not be previously acquainted with them.

The first I’d like to suggest is Máighréad Medbh. When I first came across her over twenty years ago she was described largely as a performance poet; then she became political, and then confessional. Recently she emerged as a mystic and now, currently, she appears to be writing a kind of science fiction. What an absolutely marvellous and dynamic poet she is – always evolving, never still. That’s the kind of poet that inspires readers. Her most recent poetry collection is “Parvit Of Agelast” (Arlen House), an epic fantasy sequence in verse about a strange city and its equally strange inhabitants.

Next I’d recommend the poet Eileen Sheehan, whose poems even of the everyday are often imbued with the resonance of folktale. Her poems are often redolent with mysteries, and can be found in her collections “Song of the Midnight Fox” and “Down the Sunlit Hall” (Doghouse Books).

Finally I’d like to mention Eleanor Hooker, whose poetry vacillates between the haunting and the haunted, between terror and wonder, between the internal and the Other. Her two collections are “The Shadow Owner’s Companion” and “A Tug of Blue” (Dedalus Press).

(Photo of John W. Sexton courtesy of Niall Hartnett.)


“Down at the Goblin Boutique” appears in the November/December 2017 issue of F&SF.

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Interview: J.R. Dawson on “Marley and Marley”

Tell us a bit about “Marley and Marley.”

Marley is a girl who is orphaned at a young age. She also happens to be her only living relative. Old Marley returns to the past to take guardianship of Little Marley, and they’ve got some issues, to put it lightly.


J.R. DawsonWhat was the inspiration for the story, or what prompted you to write it?

I’m turning thirty this year. I had a weird decade of twenties. Sometimes I’d stop and look around and think, “What would my kid-self think of our adulthood? Would she be happy with the decisions I’ve made? Am I on track with my goals? Are there enough Disney movies and chocolate things and puppies in my house to make her proud?” These imagined conversations between the two of us started getting overwhelming, especially when I realized in some ways, I’d let her down, and in other ways, there’s no way an eleven-year-old could have fathomed adulthood in 2017.


Was “Marley and Marley” personal to you in any way? How?

It’s probably the most personal story I’ve ever written. Usually I make a bunch of fart jokes and give cool girls swords, but this story was quiet and close. It was about my marriage and my dog and my home and my childhood and my hometown and how a size 14 is a normal women’s pants size. Because it is.


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

Be kind to yourself. Reach out to loved ones, even when it’s scary. Especially now in these times, we need each other’s strength. People heal people.


What are you working on now?

I just finished a YA manuscript, a space opera with cool queer teens and David Bowie music. And I’m always writing new short stories. You can check out what I’m doing and receive updates by following me on Twitter (@j_r_dawson) and watching my website (


“Marley and Marley” appears in the November/December 2017 issue of F&SF.

You can buy a copy of the issue here:

You can subscribe to the print edition of F&SF here:

You can subscribe to the electronic edition of F&SF at the following links:

Weightless Books (non-Kindle):

Amazon US (Kindle edition):

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