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Interview: Matthew Hughes on “The Curse of the Myrmelon”

- Tell us a bit about “The Curse of the Myrmelon.”

It’s the latest in a series of fantasy stories that began when Gardner Dozois and George R.R. Martin asked me to send them something for their cross-genre anthology, Rogues – which, by the way, just won the Locus Award for best antho.

I thought I’d like to do a Cugel-the-Clever type story, set in my Archonate universe, so I invented a rather unlucky thief named Raffalon who is starving in a forest at the end of an unsuccessful career.  The story, “The Inn of the Seven Blessings,” tells how his luck finally changes.

After I sold the story to Gardner and George, I decided the character had potential, so I began writing stories about him during his earlier years.  “Myrmelon” is the fifth one to appear in F&SF.  In each of them, I’ve tried to show a different element of the society in which Raffalon operates – kind of a thief’s-eye-view of a fantasy world.

In “Myrmelon,” a younger Raffalon actually plays a subordinate role to Cascor, a former provostman who was fired from the police force and has set up as a private detective.  He’s also begun to dabble in magic, for which he has a talent, although he will get into trouble with the Wizards Guild if he keeps it up.

 

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

I consider myself a crime writer trapped in an sff author’s career.  I like to write about criminals and detectives (see my Luff Imbry and Henghis Hapthorn stories).  I wanted to give Cascor the discriminator a good work-out and at the same time examine some of the world in which he lives.  It’s a faux-medieval world of guilds and autonomous city states, something like Italy as it emerged from the Dark Ages, but with wizards.

My general motivation is to write enough Raffalon and Cascor stories to make a decent-sized collection, which I will self-publish as an ebook and POD paperback.  I’ve found that selling my backlist on Amazon, Kobo, and my own webstore is the modern definition of “money for old rope.”

 

- The protagonist, Cascor the Discriminator, was a character spun off from the Raffalon story “Stones and Glass.” Do you often discover characters in this way, when writing your ‘Penultimate Earth’ stories?

Yes.  I’m an intuitive writer.  I can’t outline worth a damn.  In “Stones and Glass,” I originally brought Cascor in as a plot complication and foil for Raffalon.  As his backstory emerged, he began to develop some interesting qualities as a potential partner.

I always start with a character in his/her normal situation, add an event that triggers some kind of conflict, then see how it all evolves from there. When I started “Myrmelon,” I had Cascor answering the door to a little man who feared he was under a curse.  I had no idea what would happen next, but I find that if I just let my characters be who they are (or, I suppose, whom I’m discovering them to be), a story begins to unwind out of the back of my head.

 

- What are you working on now?

Thanks to a healthy grant from the Canada Council for the Arts, may their tribe increase, I’m working on a historical novel I’ve wanted to write for more than forty years, ever since I came across a footnote in a university text that told about how some African slaves, survivors of a shipwreck on the Ecuadorean coast, conquered the aboriginal peoples of the area and created a new society – the Zambo State – that remained independent of Spanish authorities for generations.

 

- Anything else you’d like to add?

I’m grateful to F&SF for having accepted so many of my stories over the past dozen years.  I used to buy the magazine for pennies a copy in second-hand bookstores when I was a poor kid in the sixties.  If I’d known then that someday I’d be a regular it would have made my penurious adolescence a happier time.

And, if I can be permitted a plug, this summer I’m going to self-publish a collection of my non-Archonate short stories and novelettes, almost all of them originally published in F&SF.  It will be titled Devil or Angel and Other Stories.  Anyone who’s interested can keep tabs on the book’s progress by checking my web page: www.matthewhughes.org

“The Curse of the Myrmelon” appears in the July/August 2015 issue of F&SF.

Interview: David Gerrold on “Entanglements”

- Tell us a bit about “Entanglements.”

Entanglements is about the roads not taken. If you could peek down those roads and see where those journeys might have gone, where they might have taken you, and where you might have ended up instead of where you are, what would you have become? Who would you be?

It’s about lost opportunities and lost loves — and what you did instead. But I made it personal and drew on my own past as the raw material for the story. That made it hurt more to write, but I think it also makes it more immediate for the reader, whether he or she knows me or not.

 

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

I was about to turn 70 and realized I hadn’t had a real birthday party in over half a century. I almost skipped this one until I realized it was a good excuse to hang out with all my favorite people. So I threw the biggest party I could afford and invited everyone who ever made me smile. I printed up a little book called “In Your Facebook” which had snippets of some of my best stuff from online and that was my gift to them, my thank-you for being my friend and putting up with me when others would have just weighted me down with bricks and tossed me off the Vincent Thomas bridge.

When you get to those turning points in life, you look back at how far you’ve come — and as I said above, you also get to consider where you didn’t go.

The story surprised me. It started out light-hearted, wandering peripatetically without apparent direction — then suddenly rearing up to bite me in the ass. Those last few pages were painful to write.

I wasn’t sure about the ending. Adam-Troy Castro and I sometimes trade stories, beta-reading for each other. He made a suggestion which was spot-on. I took his suggestion and amped it up a bit. But I won’t say what it was because I don’t want to spoil it for those who haven’t read the story yet.

 

- “Entanglements,” like several other stories you have penned lately for F&SF, feels strongly semi-autobiographical.  What appeals to you about mining the details of your own life for inspiration in such a seemingly open way? 

For me, much of the appeal is that this is my own unique writing voice. I’m not imitating or evoking or aspiring to anything other than myself. It’s that same candid sharing that informed the prose of my first two non-fiction books about the making of Star Trek and “The Trouble With Tribbles.” It’s an easy voice to slip into because it’s like writing a letter to my best and most trusted friend.

But I didn’t realize I could use that voice in fiction until I wrote about my son’s adoption. A few months after he was placed with me, I heard a conversation about a little girl who thought she was a Martian, and that appealed to me as a possible story idea. By the time I finally sat down to write it, Sean and I were playing the Martian game for real — and that was a good thing for both of us. It was a very useful piece in rebuilding his self-esteem. Now he had an identity.

One night, I sat down to write a story about how much I’d fallen in love with my little Martian — and the only way to tell it was to draw upon my personal experiences. I’d never done that before, but it was a whole new writing voice for me. “The Martian Child” was an authorial breakthrough and it was my first sale to F&SF.

After that, from time to time, I began exploring what else I could do in that voice. “The Strange Disappearance of David Gerrold” happened because I drove up the back roads of California to visit Spider and Jeanne Robinson in Canada. I saw a sign, “Private Hunting Preserve” and almost immediately, the entire story was obvious in my head. I wrote it while staying with Spider and Jeanne.

A couple of years ago, I was traveling in Europe. The result was “Night Train to Paris.” Apparently, when I travel, I don’t just see what’s there — I see the story that could be there.  That’s why F&SF has “The Thing on the Shelf” and “The Dunsmuir Horror” in the pipeline.

Eventually, I’m going to gather all of these various personal narratives into a collection called “The Further Adventures of David Gerrold.” Many of the sidebar narratives in the story, the dropped-in anecdotes are based on actual events.

 

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

Obviously, the first thing I want is for the reader to have a good time with the story. If he or she gets a sense of the joy that occurred at my birthday party, then he or she will have a sense of who I am — then, when the story unfolds to reveal the roads not taken, the other emotions will come into play.

What I realized in the writing, and what I hope is clear to the reader, is that we all have choices — and choices have consequences. If we can be conscious of the consequences, we can make better choices. In retrospect, I might regret some of the things I missed — but what I gained instead, especially my son, outvotes everything I missed.

 

- What are you working on now?

At the time of this writing, I am only a few weeks away from finishing A Method For Madness, the fifth book in the Chtorran cycle. It’s one of the most eagerly anticipated books I’ve ever written. And I think it’s one of my most ambitious. Parts of it have left me emotionally drained.

 

- Anything else you’d like to add?

Ray Bradbury demonstrated throughout his entire life that growing up is optional. He was right. I’m not leaving the sandbox until you drag me out, kicking and screaming.

I started reading F&SF in the mid-fifties — I searched the used book stores for every issue I’d missed, all the way back to the first issue and read every single one cover to cover and then I stayed current for decades. The magazine is special to me. And it has always been the one magazine I most wanted to be published in. So any time I get an acceptance letter from the editor, I glow for a week. Getting the cover story is icing on the cake. Because it’s like being told, “Okay, David, you get to play with the big kids today.”

Why is this important to me? Because science fiction and fantasy writers get to go anywhere in time and space, even to other dimensions and impossible possibilities. It’s the best job in the world. We are literary timelords. Who wouldn’t want to play in that sandbox?

“Engtanglements” appears in the May/June 2015 issue of F&SF.

Interview: Robert Grossbach on “Entrepreneurs”

- Tell us a bit about “Entrepreneurs.”

“Entrepreneurs” is about one man’s encounters, over a lifetime, with a number of technological entrepreneurs, including some not from this planet.  As for the latter, I wanted to have life-forms with goals and sensibilities very similar to ours, but physically so utterly different that it would create interesting inter-species interactions.

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

Quite some time ago, I wrote a fairly long novel with a similar setup, that is, a juxtaposition of Earthly and alien entrepreneurs, both enmeshed in corporate dogfights.  After the writer’s cooling-off period, however, I re-read it and judged it a failure: I had a mediocre techno-industrial story and a mediocre science fiction story combined under one cover.  And so I put it in the “Do not disturb” drawer, where it lay for thirty years.  Then – and I’m really hesitant to say this because it will likely sound unbearably pretentious and precious – I happened to be in the Pompidou Museum in Paris one day and saw an exhibition of Matisse paintings arranged in pairs.  Each pair consisted of (1) an early work, and (2) a re-visited version that he’d gone back and created years later.  So it just came to me that, hey! if Matisse thought that permissible, maybe I should or could do the same.  What emerged — after some time, of course, and many changes and additions — was a novella, not a novel, but something that was at least more tightly integrated than my first attempt.

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

As an RF/microwave engineer, I’ve worked for many small and large companies, the former generally founded, owned, and operated by individual entrepreneurs.  I’d written two “mainstream” novels about the big-company experience, both with the kind of black-humor, cynical, crabby sensibility that, I guess, constitutes my personality, but I’d not tried to capture the ambiance of the small operation.  As a lifelong science-fiction addict, it just amused me to think about alien entrepreneurs outsourcing to an Earth company operations they considered “third-world” in nature.

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

My life’s experience as an engineer made much of any formal research unnecessary.  I did a bit on Calabi-Yau manifolds and some on the chemistry of sulfur, since my aliens have a sulfur-based metabolism similar to that of tube worms.  I also consulted friends on street lingo, quantities, and prices for marijuana.

- What are you working on now?

I realized that the ending of my novella is not quite the ending of the story, so, with much trepidation at the risk of overstaying my welcome, I’m working on a sequel.

“Entrepreneurs” appears in the May/June 2015 issue of F&SF.

Interview: Sarah Pinsker on “Today’s Smarthouse in Love”

- What was the inspiration for “Today’s Smarthouse in Love,” or what prompted you to write it?

I’m part of an online writers’ community that occasionally does prompts and contests. As I recall, this story came from a title prompt. I didn’t end up using the title, but it knocked this story into my head. The original title had a list of mundane household items. I think I had also just read an article about a refrigerator that could remind you when a grocery item was running low and I started thinking about what would happen if you came to rely on automated appliances too much. In my experience, the really basic appliances outlast the fancy ones, and I love old houses. From there, I moved to the communication gap between a new house and its older neighbor, and since communication gaps make for good screwball romances, I went that route.

 

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

Very little. I’ll admit I was less concerned with the actual science in this particular story than with getting the tone right. I watched the Tex Avery “House of Tomorrow” cartoons, which are far more sexist than I remembered. But they’re also interesting because they did predict some things that we do have in our houses today, but they were colored by a 1949 view of what the future would look like. So he imagined automated dishwashers, but depicted them as robot arms scrubbing dishes in the sink. I decided to have fun with some very 2015 predictions, which will very likely look ridiculous in a few years, but that’s okay.

 

- “Today’s Smarthouse in Love” seems to share themes (the intersection of technology and humanity, for example) with your previous story for us, “A Stretch of Highway Two Lanes Wide,” albeit in a more humorous fashion.  Since that story is up for a Nebula Award this year, I was hoping you could talk about this theme in your work, or any other themes you recognize, and what draws you to explore them.

Oh! I never would have connected those stories, but now that you say it, I can see it. I guess I do come back to the intersection of technology and humanity a lot. That’s where we’re living now, isn’t it? Technologies we think we can’t live without, technologies we literally can’t live without, technologies we didn’t previously need but we’ve come to rely on. I think the easiest story to write on those topics is probably the “WE’VE GONE TOO FAR!” warning cry, but if you approach it head-on like that there’s not a lot of nuance. I like to explore the edges. Technologies that are useful but can lead to unexpected problems. I used to have a lot of phone numbers memorized, and now I have very few in my head, since they’re all in my phone. It’s very convenient – but every time I get a new phone, I find that some of my contacts are missing. It’s not bad or dangerous, but it’s an example of a convenience that can cause inconvenience. And then as SF writers our job is to carry things to the extremes, be they menacing or humorous. It was fun to explore the humorous side with this one.

 

- What are you working on now?

I have a feeling this will be the same line verbatim that I gave you last time, but I won’t peek to see if that’s true. I’m working on stories, as always. I love the form, and I always have ideas waiting to be explored. I poke at my novel sometimes, then go back to stories. Though now that you call my attention to it, my novel does also explore an aspect of the intersection of technology and humanity.

 

- Anything else you’d like to add?

By far my favorite part of writing this story was writing the fridge’s arc and dialogue. If any actual refrigerator makers are reading this and need someone to write scripts for their fancy new computerized fridges, I’m available.

“Today’s Smarthouse in Love” appears in the May/June 2015 issue of F&SF.

Interview: Lisa Mason on “Teardrop”

- Tell us a bit about “Teardrop.”

“Teardrop” is about love versus duty. Personal responsibility to respect a native culture versus official responsibility to carry out the imperatives of an organization.

What I love about science fiction is that SF, of all the genres including mainstream, is the literature of ideas. Science fiction entertains but also speculates, comments, inquires, challenges.

“Teardrop” is told from two points-of-view, that of NanaNini, a native of Bakdoor, and John W. Dixon, an Executive Director sent by the Network to “cultivate” her planet.

But Dixon has fallen in love with NanaNini. He’s encountered “the Sparkle,” a mysterious intelligence that shapes Bakdoor’s culture. He’s had a change of heart and of mind.

When a trio of Networkers arrive, planning to relieve him of his post, Dixon has plans of his own for them.

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

I love it when people ask this. Writers always have a flippant answer. “I got my inspiration in a brown paper bag.” Or, “At the bottom of a wine bottle.”

As for “Teardrop,” I was working in my office one day and listening to an oldies’ radio station. The station played what had become classic surfer tunes, “Teardrop” and “Sleepwalk.”

The strange, whiny sounds struck me as alien. An alien mother singing to her baby. Go figure science fiction writers.

In fact, those tunes were not played by Hawaiian surfers with bronzed biceps but by Santo and Johnny Farina, two Brooklyn brothers born in the 1930s and early 1940s. Santo bought a Fender and jerry-rigged the guitar to have three necks and eight strings so that it sounded like a manic steel guitar. Johnny accompanied him on a standard electric guitar.

The Farina brothers became so popular at local proms that the tunes were recorded in 1959. I can just imagine teenagers in New Jersey on the cusp of the 1960s slow-dancing in the school auditorium.

But to me, Teardrop sounds like an ocean beach with the surf pounding on the sand.

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

Yes. In a previous lifetime (so to speak), I was employed as a young lawyer in a one-hundred-male attorney, ten-female attorney law firm. It was a huge honor and an opportunity for a woman and I took my duties very seriously.

One day, a senior partner summoned me to his office and ordered me to cover up evidence in an ugly and contentious class-action lawsuit involving powerful interests.

I sort of feared for my life if I did what he asked. I also feared for the rest of my life if I didn’t get out of that game.

I submitted my resignation. No contest. And then went into law book publishing while I worked on my fiction career.

So John Dixon’s dilemma in “Teardrop” is pretty real to me.

- What kind of research, if any, did you do for this story?

After listening to “Teardrop” and “Sleepwalk,” I wanted to write a surfer story.

But this had to be set on an alien world. When you think about the Earth, we’re set upon a planet with two “atmospheres”: air (and land) and water. We human beings can’t breathe water, but we breathe air.

I did some research into planets’ ecosystems and Jupiter leapt immediately into view.

As for the surfing angle, I discovered the wonderful Surf’inary published by Ten Speed Press. I collect slang dictionaries. The Surf’inary was a real find and delight.

- This is your first story for us since 1992; what have you been up to for the past twenty-three years?

Ooh, that’s a long time, isn’t it? The good news is I’ve been writing books, stories, and screenplays.

“Destination,” published in F&SF in 1992, is a part of my 2013 collection, Strange Ladies: 7 Stories. The collection includes stories I published in Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, Unique Magazine, and anthologies such as Universe 2 (Bantam), Fantastic Alice (Ace), and Desire Burn: Women Writing from the Dark Side of Passion (Carrol & Graf).

I also published “The Sixty-third Anniversary of Hysteria” in Full Spectrum (Bantam), “Daughter of the Tao” in Peter S. Beagle’s Immortal Unicorn (HarperPrism), and “Every Mystery Unexplained” in David Copperfield’s Tales of the Impossible (HarperPrism). “Hummers” got chosen for Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror (St. Martin’s Press). “Arachne” was published in Omni magazine. I expanded a novelet, published as “Deus Ex Machina,” into a short science fiction thriller, Shaken, about the next great Earthquake to strike the San Francisco Bay Area.

Many writers go through a phase when concentrating on writing books becomes paramount, and so did I.

It took me two-and-a-half years to write Summer of Love, first published by Bantam, which became a Philip K. Dick Award finalist and a San Francisco Chronicle Recommended Book. And another two-and-a-half years to write The Gilded Age, also published by Bantam as The Golden Nineties, which became a New York Times Notable Book and New York Public Library Recommended Book.

Four more books in my backlist aren’t yet ebooks, my early cyberpunks Arachne and Cyberweb and my science fiction adventures Pangaea I and Pangaea II. I have plans!

For a slightly different readership, I wrote an historical romantic suspense miniseries, Celestial Girl (A Lily Modjeska Mystery), and an urban fantasy, The Garden of Abracadabra, Book 1 of the Abracadabra Series.

After one of my Omni stories, “Tomorrow’s Child,” optioned for four years and then sold outright to Universal Studios, I set off to learn how to write screenplays and wrote half a dozen. “U F uh-O, A Sci Fi Comedy,” is now a novella but started out as a screenplay for a producer looking for the next “Men in Black” meets “Galaxy Quest.” I spent a fulltime year researching and writing “Tesla: A Worthy of His Time,” an ambitious biopic about the eventful life of Nikola Tesla, the inventor of AC electricity (among many other things). That got read by the producer of “The Abyss” and is still under consideration.

But the truth is, for a prose author, there is nothing like being in print!

In the meantime, I’m committed to keeping fit, cooking healthy meals, and living with my husband, Tom Robinson, an acclaimed artist and studio jeweler in the San Francisco Bay Area.

- What are you working on now?

I’m working on Book 2 of the Abracadabra Series, a new suite of stories, and a high-concept science fiction.

When we left “Teardrop,” several major plotlines were brewing. I’m hoping to write more Bakdoor stories, as well.

- Anything else you’d like to add?

I love David Gerrold’s story, “Entanglements,” in the May-June 2015 F&SF issue. So laugh-out-loud funny and poignant at the same time.

By coincidence, I recently read a book that explores the quantum physics concept of “entanglement.” I know a little bit about quantum physics, but I’d never heard of entanglement before.

So I totally appreciated David’s story. But even if a reader isn’t conversant in quantum physics, he or she will surely understand and enjoy David’s wonderful story.

I truly hope everyone will enjoy another great issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction!

“Teardrop” appears in the May/June 2015 issue of F&SF.

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