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Interview: Rachel Pollack on “Visible Cities”

Rachel PollackTell us a bit about “Visible Cities.”

“Visible Cities” belongs to the world of The Travelers, first ​featured in the story “Jack Shade In The Forest Of Souls,” published in F&SF in July/August 2012, so exactly 6 years ago.  The Travelers are the true sorcerers, shamans, magicians, witches, etc. of humanity, going back to our earliest beginnings, but always hidden from everyday human culture, which they call “linear.”  Up until now, all the stories have featured Jack, who is a noir character, based in part on an old television show called “Have Gun, Will Travel.”  For “Visible Cities” I decided to focus on Jack’s girl friend, the Dutch Traveler, Carolien Hounstra, first introduced in the second Traveler story, “The Queen Of Eyes” (which came in 7th in the Locus poll that year).  Carolien is a scholar and a thief as well as a magician, but for this story I decided to look at her origin.

 

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

I was actually asked by an editor if I wanted to write a story about cities.  I immediately thought of Italo Calvino’s great novel, Invisible Cities, and the title “Visible Cities’ was born.  The story quickly grew beyond the scope of the original suggestion–all the Traveler stories are novellas or novelettes–and since their “home,” in a sense, is F&SF I wanted to send it there.  Calvino wrote of magical wondrous cities described by Marco Polo to his master, Genghis Khan.  They were “invisible” because they were remote and mysterious.  I wanted to write of cities, places, known only to the Travelers, but in some special way “visible,” like The City Of Visible Shame, where people tattoo their sins and crimes all over their bodies.  But since I wanted this to be Carolien’s origin story I decided to send her on a quest to these strange places, in search of her teacher, who has mysteriously vanished.  Another fun inspiration was the address of a “pen pal” friend (I collect fountain pens, and many of us in that world write long letters to each other).  She lives on a street called Shadow Court, so that became one of the cities, a place where people believe that only their shadows are real, and they don’t exist without a shadow.

 

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

First of all, I was able to pay tribute to one of my heroes, Italo Calvino.  But I also lived for seventeen years in Amsterdam, so I enjoyed beginning the story there.  The character of Margarethe the Reader was based on the wife of the wonderful Nick Schors (long dead, sadly) who published my first Tarot book, 78 Degrees of Wisdom, in 1980 (and never out of print, with a third edition due out next year).  The Hebrew manuscript she has Carolien identify, The Book Of The Angel Raziel, is a real book, published, in Hebrew, in Amsterdam in 1701.  The English translation of some years ago was a main inspiration for The Raziel Tarot, a deck I co-created with artist Robert M. Place (the quotation Carolien “translates” is from the book).  And finally, the chant that begins “See what there is to see,” has appeared in one way or another in a good number of my stories, going back to the novel Unquenchable Fire in 1987.

 

Who do you consider to be your influences?

Oh, so many.  Calvino, Philip Dick, Octavia Butler, Nicola Grifith, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, more recently Nnedi Okorafor–and various non-fiction writers taking radical approaches to mythology and spirituality, such as Annie Dillard, Normandi Ellis, and Roberto Calasso –the list goes on and on!

 

What are you working on now?

I’m playing with ideas about human/animal transformations.  I’m at the exciting stage where a story is beginning to emerge from masses of material.

 

“Visible Cities” appears in the July/August 2018 issue of F&SF.

You can buy a copy of the issue here: https://www.sfsite.com/fsf/toc1807.htm

You can subscribe to the print edition of F&SF here: https://www.sfsite.com/fsf/subscribe.htm

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

Weightless Books (non-Kindle): https://weightlessbooks.com/category/publisher/spilogale-inc/

Amazon US (Kindle edition): http://www.amazon.com/dp/B004ZFZ4O8/

Amazon UK (Kindle edition): http://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B004ZFZ4O

Clicking on Ms. Pollack’s photo will take you to her blog.

Interview: Corey Flintoff on “The Queen of the Peri Takes Her Time”

Tell us a bit about “The Queen of the Peri Takes Her Time.”

The queen is drawn from various Middle-Eastern traditions, mostly Persian. The Peri are roughly equivalent to European fairies, although they lean to the darker side. The queen occasionally takes human lovers, because she’s excited by the humans’ ephemeral beauty and their desperate life force. Interactions between humans and immortals never go well.

The hero is the most recent of the queen’s lovers, and he’s terrified of her revenge, because he’s broken his promise to her. He enlists the help of an old revolutionary, a djinni and a skeptical young woman named Huda, but he discovers that the key to his survival really lies in his own greatest weakness.

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

I’ve always been fascinated by stories about hands, like The Red Hand of Ulster, The Hand of Fatima, etc. The hand is such a symbol of our power as humans. I had a scene in my mind about an old soldier with a missing hand, but I didn’t know how he’d lost it. I had to tell myself the prologue to the story, and that prompted the rest.

Corey FlintoffWas “The Queen of the Peri Takes Her Time” personal to you in any way?  If so, how?

The story is based on my experiences as a reporter in the Middle East. One of the models for the character of Faiz Mungummery Khan was a Kurdish health official I met in Erbil. He had a photo on his wall that showed him among a group of young Peshmerga rebels who were fighting Saddam Hussein. He shook his head sadly. “They’re all dead now.” Other models for Faiz were remarkable men I met in India, Pakistan and Afghanistan. The djinni, Shamhurish al-Tayyar, is modeled on a guy I used to play pool with in Baghdad (that’s you, Ahmed 2). Huda is drawn from several very brave and resourceful interpreters and fixers I worked with during various wars and civil convulsions.

Has your training in journalism shaped how you approach fiction writing, and why turn to writing fiction at all?

I was a radio reporter for many years, and that makes you sensitive to the cadences of people’s voices, even when they’re speaking other languages. Since radio has no visual component, you have to provide that for your listeners with crisp physical descriptions, so that’s something I think about a lot. Why write fiction? It’s a healing thing for me, a way to provide resolutions for things I’ve seen in the real world that seem too awful to ever be resolved.

What are you working on now?

As in “The Queen of the Peri,” I like stories where old traditions and fears intrude on modern life. I’m working on stories about a wood nymph in a college town, a demon who’s portrayed in one of Hieronymus Bosch’s paintings, and trickster animals who assume human form.

I also write literary short stories, including a flash fiction that appears on American Short Fiction’s website this month, and a piece in the next edition of Glimmer Train.

“The Queen of the Peri Takes Her Time” appears in the July/August 2018 issue of F&SF.

You can buy a copy of the issue here: https://www.sfsite.com/fsf/toc1807.htm

You can subscribe to the print edition of F&SF here: https://www.sfsite.com/fsf/subscribe.htm

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

Weightless Books (non-Kindle): https://weightlessbooks.com/category/publisher/spilogale-inc/

Amazon US (Kindle edition): http://www.amazon.com/dp/B004ZFZ4O8/

Amazon UK (Kindle edition): http://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B004ZFZ4O

Interview: Mary Robinette Kowal on “The Phobos Experience”

Tell us a bit about “The Phobos Experience.”

This is set in my Lady Astronaut universe after the events of Fated Sky, and is sort of my rollicking space adventure with pirates in a world where we settled Mars during the punchcard era.

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

It began when Charlie showed me a painting by Bob Eggleton — whose work I love — and said that he was looking for a story to go with it. I did this when once I was art director at Shimmer for the “art issue.” We commissioned writers to create stories to go with art that we loved. So when Charlie showed me the painting and passed along Bob’s thoughts on the painting. “When I painted it, I had in mind things like ROCKETSHIP X-M (which was made in 1949) and DESTINATION MOON. The theory being it was some secret mission early on to Mars. All covered up of course. I kind of miss those days of what people felt a mission like that would be like.”

I was so on board. That sense of the early days of space travel was exactly what had inspired me when I wrote Calculating Sky. We did so many amazing things when computers were in their infancy, and I wanted to catch that sense of adventure.  And then, of course, the fact that he had clearly set it on one of Mars’s moons…

The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette KowalCan you tell us about any of the research you may have done for “The Phobos Experience?”

Let’s talk about Mars’s moons, shall we? I’m pretty sure that surface that the ship is on in Bob’s painting is Deimos, because that a) looks like Phobos in the sky and b) Deimos is farther from Mars. So my apologies for completely ignoring that. My problem was that while both moons are tiny, I had serious concerns about gravity on Deimos. The escape velocity is about 13 miles per hour, which could offer some interesting fiction possibilities since a running jump could, potentially, put you into orbit. I thought about it for about ten minutes until I learned about the Phobos April Fool’s Joke. 

See there was this Russian astrophysicist Iosif Samuilovich Shklovsky, who around 1958 said that Phobos was artificial with a “thin sheet metal” surface. Now, his data was way, way off, but in 1959, Walter Scott Houston, published an April Fool’s joke article by the fictional Dr. Arthur Hayall of the equally fictional University of the Sierras and said that Phobos was an artificial satellite. 

THEN I found out that Phobos actually does have caves so… all of that seemed like a really natural fit for “secret mission.” So, I ignored poor Deimos and went with the larger twin.

Why do you write?

Because I love to read and sometimes the story that I want to read isn’t there.

Who do you consider to be your influences?

There are the early career influences like Guy Gavriel Kay, Nancy Kress. These days, I’m inspired by authors like N.K. Jemisin, Rachel Swirsky, Zen Cho. The common thread is that when I read their work, I wish that I had written it or that I was capable of writing it.

What are you working on now?

I’m working on short fiction, including a moon story. At novel length, I’m working on a Hitchcockian suspense-thriller with dragons.

“The Phobos Experience” appears in the July/August 2018 issue of F&SF.

You can buy a copy of the issue here: https://www.sfsite.com/fsf/toc1807.htm

You can subscribe to the print edition of F&SF here: https://www.sfsite.com/fsf/subscribe.htm

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

Weightless Books (non-Kindle): https://weightlessbooks.com/category/publisher/spilogale-inc/

Amazon US (Kindle edition): http://www.amazon.com/dp/B004ZFZ4O8/

Amazon UK (Kindle edition): http://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B004ZFZ4O

Clicking on the image of Ms. Kowal’s latest book will take you to her website.

Interview: William Ledbetter on “Broken Wings”

William LedbetterTell us a bit about “Broken Wings.”

Marcie is a spacecraft traffic controller on Mars’s smallest moon, Deimos. Even though she likes the quiet and safe life she has built for herself, she has fantasies about one day accompanying her friend Bernard on what she sees as exciting mining missions. After Bernard returns to Deimos with a strange object he found in the asteroid belt, Marcie soon has more excitement than expected as she races the clock to save him from space pirates.

 

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

The simple answer is Bob Eggleton’s cover art. This story actually bounced around in my head for years, but I could never really make it work. I had a solid fix on the ice miner character and him finding a mysterious object in the asteroid belt, but that alone couldn’t compel me to leap into the story with both feet. But when I saw that cover things started to click into place. Bob’s space paintings always inspire adventure and excitement, so when I reexamined this story idea again with that in mind, I realized that Marcie, the quiet, disabled traffic controller was by far the more interesting character and she would make a terrific space adventure heroine.

 

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

Only in the sense that these are the kinds of characters l love to cheer for. Regular people, with everyday problems, who rise to meet some unimaginable challenge.

 

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

I didn’t do a huge amount of research for this one, but I did read up a bit on Deimos. It is such a tiny moon that the gravity is almost non-existent. It was hard for me to overcome my “gravity bias” and try to think of being on, or in, a moon as still being in micro-gravity. I did try to show that lack of gravity in various ways throughout the story, using things like magnetic boots, ships needing to be tethered, the personal tractors etc., but I still might have missed some things.

 

Why do you write?

I think most creative people look at the world differently and quite a few of us want to share our skewed perspective with everyone else. Some make movies or sculpture, but for me it has always been written stories. Trying to form coherent narratives about the things I imagine is a type of discovery for me. I think I learn new things about the world and myself with each story and novel I write. So thank you for letting me share that in your magazine sometimes.

 

Who do you consider to be your influences?

Frank Herbert was a big one. I read his “Dune” books while in high school and it forever reshaped my opinions of what science fiction could and should be. Over the years I’ve also read a lot of Larry Niven, Octavia Butler, Arthur C. Clarke, Kurt Vonnegut and Margret Atwood, so I’m sure their influences have shaped my writing as well.

SPECIAL STUFF
My science fiction novel “Level Five” is coming out on July 17th in audio format, from Audible Originals. The introductory note for this story in the July/August issue mentions it with the title of “Reset,” but due to the riptides and undertows of the publishing industry, we had to change that title at the last minute. More information about my novel and other forthcoming stories can be found at www.williamledbetter.com.

 

“Broken Wings” appears in the July/August 2018 issue of F&SF.

You can buy a copy of the issue here: https://www.sfsite.com/fsf/toc1807.htm

You can subscribe to the print edition of F&SF here: https://www.sfsite.com/fsf/subscribe.htm

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

Weightless Books (non-Kindle): https://weightlessbooks.com/category/publisher/spilogale-inc/

Amazon US (Kindle edition): http://www.amazon.com/dp/B004ZFZ4O8/

Amazon UK (Kindle edition): http://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B004ZFZ4O

Clicking on Mr. Ledbetter’s photo will take you to his website: williamledbetter.com

Interview: R. S. Benedict on “Morbier”

Tell us a bit about “Morbier.”

“Morbier” focuses on a social relationship that fascinates me: the strange power dynamic between server and customer. On one hand, the customer has all the economic and social power: the customer orders the server around, frequently insults or harasses the server, and can punish the server’s perceived disobedience by leaving a lousy tip or complaining to the manager. But on the other hand, the server has all the physical power: the server has control over the customer’s food, and is often younger and stronger. It is only a thin layer of artificial social norms that puts the customer above the server. This is the case for so many hierarchical relationships involving assistants and their employers: a secretary could totally ruin her boss’s career if she ever decided to, a servant could rob her employer with no trouble at all, and a nanny could easily do something horrible to her client’s children. It amazes me that these disasters don’t happen more often, considering how badly most people treat service staff.

 

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

“Morbier” was my attempt to grapple with the madness of 2017. It was a difficult year for me, filled with major personal tragedies. I began to feel as if I’d stumbled into an alternate timeline.

I drew a lot of inspiration from my experience working in the dining room at an expensive resort in my early 20s. The characters aren’t directly based on any particular person I knew, but some of their traits–the quirky staff, the creepy customers, and the irate chefs–were definitely drawn from real life. And everything I said about chocolate fountains is true. Those things are an abomination against good cuisine and public health.

I loved incorporating my memories from that awful job; I think I exorcised a lot of pent-up anger from it. It’s important to me to show characters, even in fantastic fiction, working. It drives me crazy in movies or television shows when characters seem to have an endless supply of money with no apparent source. Most of us work for a living, and our adventures are shoved into what little free time we have to spare. And when disasters happen, they often creep in quietly in the background while we’re going about our daily lives trying to pay the rent.

 

What was the most difficult aspect of writing this story, and what was the most fun?

Originally, I organized the narrative in a straightforward way, but when it wasn’t working I started playing with the flow of time. It’s a story about trauma, in a lot of ways, and PTSD often involves flashbacks, so using non-linear time made perfect sense.

I also struggled with the viewpoint character. Originally, I pictured the character as a chunky, bearded guy named Patrick. But as I wrote it, I realized the character’s voice was a woman’s–she sounded nothing like the brash male chefs I’ve worked with. So Patrick became Trish.

I was very happy with how the side characters turned out, and the goofy relationships between them. I loved Jacob especially; he embodied all of the roly-poly party dudes I worked with in the dining room, guys who steadfastly refused to take our tyrannical managers seriously and proudly ruined every single can of whipped cream in the giant walk-in cooler by sucking out all the nitrous oxide. I put most of the characters in this story through absolute hell, but on some subconscious level I must have known I had to spare Jacob. I just couldn’t harsh the man’s buzz.

I realize that the central premise of the story treads on well-explored territory, but I love looking at old tropes from a different angle. In almost every movie about a fantastic menace, there’s a scene where the hero unsuccessfully goes to the authorities to ask for help defeating the vampire/zombie/alien/chupacabra, and the audience is supposed to get angry at the authorities for refusing to believe him. But I imagine most of us would be pretty skeptical if a frantic man in strange clothes came up to us and started shouting about pod people. Most of us would think the guy was crazy, though some imaginative part of our minds might still ask, “What if…?” 

I deliberately avoided answering the question as to whether or not the character of Mara is really crazy. I want it to remain ambiguous. Like Trish, we don’t have the benefit of hindsight; we can only stumble blindly into an increasingly uncertain future.

 

Why do you write?

I write because I couldn’t seem to find exactly the kind of reading material I was hungry for, so I decided to start making it myself.

 

Who do you consider to be your influences?

Kurt Vonnegut’s use of time in Slaughterhouse Five was a huge influence on this particular story. I also like to think that I draw inspiration from Shirley Jackson’s anxious heroines–there’s always something desperately wrong in every story, but none of the characters feel like it’s appropriate to come out and say it. And I love Kafka’s use of the uncanny and the bizarre, coupled with a sense of bleak, absurdist humor that runs alongside the strange and terrible things in his stories.

 

What are you working on now?

Right now, I’m wrapping up a story about Rita Hayworth. I’m also trying to make myself finish the first draft of a novel I’ve been working on for years now. God only knows if it will ever be published.

 

“Morbier” appears in the July/August 2018 issue of F&SF.

You can buy a copy of the issue here: https://www.sfsite.com/fsf/toc1807.htm

You can subscribe to the print edition of F&SF here: https://www.sfsite.com/fsf/subscribe.htm

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

Weightless Books (non-Kindle): https://weightlessbooks.com/category/publisher/spilogale-inc/

Amazon US (Kindle edition): http://www.amazon.com/dp/B004ZFZ4O8/

Amazon UK (Kindle edition): http://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B004ZFZ4O

R. S. Benedict’s website: https://rs-benedict.com/

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