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Interview: Rachel Pollack on “Johnny Rev”

– Tell us a bit about “Johnny Rev.”

​”Johnny Rev” is the third Jack Shade story.  I find this amazing, since, it feels to me as if I’ve already done a whole series of them.  ​

​Each one is filled with lore and offhand references to the world of the “Travelers” (urban shamans, though very much their own tradition, not borrowed from any cultural history), so that for me it seems an existent universe.​  The series has two very disparate sources, the first being Vladimir Nabokov’s amazing novel Pale Fire, which begins with a 999 line poem written by a poet named John Shade.  In Nabokov’s book, Shade is murdered just after he finished his poem, which in part refers to his daughter’s interest in the occult.  The second source was a 60’s TV show called Have Gun, Will Travel, a noir Western.  Out of this came the idea of a sort of sorcerer for hire. Part of Jack’s backstory is that he once foolishly imposed a “Guest” on himself, an obligation that requires him to take on any client who has his business card.  He has always feared where this might lead, focusing mostly on jobs he might find immoral, but now he faces something worse.  His new client is his own duplicate, or “dupe,” that Jack created years ago and thought he’d gotten rid of.  In the world of the Travelers, if you dupe yourself, and then make sure to get rid of it, no harm can come.  But if you leave any trace it can reassemble itself and become a “revenant,” hence “Johnny Rev.” The Rev appears to Jack in a dream and presents Jack’s card.  The assignment is to get rid of the man who stands in the way of the dupe emerging into the world as a full person.  Of course, that man is Jack himself.

 

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

​To some extent, it was the title, a play on Johnny Reb, the term Union soldiers used for the Confederate enemy.  A feature of the Jack Shade stories is a whole series of nicknames that Jack has, such as Jack Sad, Scarface Johnny​, etc.  In the first story there is a brief scene with a dupe, and when I thought of the name Johnny Rev, I began to think of a revenant.  Meanwhile, the second story had introduced the idea of “dream hunters,” people who find things in other people’s dreams.  So this led me to think of Jack’s revenant coming to him in a dream, and what a problem that could pose for him.​

 

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

​It wasn’t personal to me except as a chance to explore some magical themes.  This story has the most lore in it, the most Traveler history, though focused on the idea of dupes.  We learn, for example, of “the strangest book in the Hidden Library, The Book of Duplicates: A Natural History of Replication,” and some of its wonders.​

​We also learn what happens when you have sex with the daughter of a “dispossessed” Sun god (dispossessed means that the tribe who worshiped him died out).​  I also got to include a scene I’d been wanting to do for some time, with the ghost of Elvis Presley appearing to someone in need (in this case, Jack). In the story, Elvis belongs to the Dead Quartet, a group of spirits who come to people in their greatest struggle.  The current line-up includes Joan of Arc (who took over from the Virgin Mary), Elvis, Nelson Mandela, and Princess Di (who took over from Eleanor Roosevelt).  I’d wanted to write about the Dead Quartet since the early 90’s, when I was writing a surreal comic book called Doom Patrol.  I did not get to do it then, and am happy to have had the chance to write the scene with Elvis and Jack.

 

– Can you talk at all about the themes of identity and transformation, and what “Johnny Rev” might have to say about them?

​The story is not so much about transformation as finding and holding onto your true self.  Jack has to ward off the imitation version, and he does this by discovering who he truly is.  I think many of us–maybe most of us–create a kind of duplicate version of our genuine selves, one that will match society’s, or family’s, expectations of us.  Then we convince ourselves that the dupe is real.  To really overcome the Rev, Jack has to find the part of him that is most true, and not let go of it.  I explored some of these themes way back when I wrote Doom Patrol.  I inherited “Robotman,” a character who was a human brain in a steel body, and invented the world’s first transsexual lesbian superhero.  In one issue Robotman discovers that someone has stolen some of his software and is making bootleg copies–dupes, in other words.  When he finds the factory and goes to smash it, the owner says to him, “What makes you better or different than any of these?”  Kate, the transwoman, helps him to look inside of him and find the part that is most true, that cannot be faked or copied.  Again, this is what Jack has to do in order to survive his final confrontation with the Dupe.

 

– What are you working on now?

​I’ve actually been struggling with illness for some time, but as I get better I’m hoping to return to a new Jack Shade story. Meanwhile, my novel, The Child Eater, which was published last year in Britain (and made The Guardian’s list of notable SF/F books of the year), comes out July 7 in the States.​

 

– Anything else you’d like to add?

​Writers often have their own favorite scene or moment in a story.  Mine is when Jack says “She asked her mother.”  People will have to read the story to find out just what that means.​

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

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, which you can order here: https://www.sfsite.com/fsf/toc1507.htm.

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.

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