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Interview: David Gerrold on “The White Piano”

– Tell us a bit about “The White Piano.”

In one sense, the story is about love and loss, but the connecting theme is the love of great music. And we never lose that love. Music is about sharing feelings, it’s possibly the most profound experience that human beings can create — at least, with our clothes on. I spent as much time researching and listening to the music as I did researching the history of the period.


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

Sometimes I just start writing from an image or a scene and let that lead me into the story. The scene is a doorway into a new world, so the writing isn’t just about the story–it’s about discovering the world in which the story occurs. This one started with a dream about something scratching at a door, and somewhere in there was a smile as well. The story really came to life for me when I started researching the run-up to WWII. I needed the piano to have a special quality, it had to represent a joyous spirit.


– Was “The White Piano” personal to you in any way?  If so, how?

In one sense, it’s a love-letter to my own grandmother. She didn’t play the piano, but she was a maestro in the kitchen. Friday nights at her house were a great family gathering, the food never stopped coming, and neither my Mom nor my sister ever matched her recipe for stuffed cabbage. She was the most joyous and generous human being I’ve ever known in my life. She loved doing things for others. She was a short lady, a little bundle of energy, and she was always there, no matter what, and I still miss her — so “Gramma” in this story is my personal recreation of her spirit.


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

A smile — and a trip to the record store to discover previously unheard music. Some of the best times of my life have been spent browsing through the stacks at Tower Records, discovering adventures I would not have had otherwise. Maybe I’ll write a story about a used book and record store….

There is one observation that I might add — much of my short fiction is contemplative, a short step in a character’s transformation, not a big leap. Readers who expect a grand adventure will likely be disappointed, but I think the most profound adventure is the internal one — the discovery of self, and that’s been a theme in a lot of my recent work.


– What are you working on now?

I’ve got the first chapter written to “Joseph,” the sequel to “Jacob,” my vampire novel. (The first chapter was “Monsieur.”) I’ve got the first chapter written on a fantasy adventure, and I’m editing the fifth book in THAT series. (Yes, it’s finished.) Thanks for asking.


“The White Piano” appears in the January/February 2016 issue of F&SF.  You can buy that issue here:

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Interview: E. Lily Yu on “Braid of Days and Wake of Nights”

– What research did you do for “Braid of Days and Wake of Nights?”

Before I wrote a single word of the story, I spent a whole day with the tapestries and narwhal horns at the Cloisters, then another day walking the length and breadth of Central Park with the 1994 Colbert and Vollath map, which is a real beauty. While I was writing the story, Usman Malik advised me on drug regimens, and I turned repeatedly to Jay Lake’s blog for his depictions of cancer and chemo. I also read multiple papers and grammars of AAVE for a couple of pages of dialogue, because I didn’t trust my own ear to get it right, and Nisi Shawl very kindly looked my work over right before publication. My main difficulties were architectural, but thanks to the New York Landmarks Conservancy’s Brownstone Guide, I now know far more than I ever needed to know about historical sandstone restoration, and a similar dive into windows meant that for a brief time I could jaw your ear off about six-over-sixes and Juliet balconies.


– When and how did this story come about?

The premise came in a flash one day, and the idea struck me with its rightness, like a big neon OF COURSE! I wrote the first draft at Clarion West in 2013, the week that Margo Lanagan was teaching, and I benefited enormously from her comments, as well as those of my classmates. Usman’s medical expertise was invaluable. Nine or ten drafts later, C.C. Finlay helped me hammer out a decent title.


– What was your relationship to Jay Lake?

I met him at the 2012 Worldcon, exchanged several emails with him, and saw him at a few conventions afterwards. It was not a long acquaintance, but I gained a great deal by his advice and encouragement. The man radiated warmth and openness, and he gave and gave. Everywhere he went, he carried with him a zone of welcome at least eight feet in diameter. I think that in many ways he embodied the very best that the SF&F community had to offer, and if we could extend to each other the same kindness he did, and see each other as clearly as he saw people, we would have ourselves a small heaven.

“Braid of Days and Wake of Nights” appears in the January/February 2016 issue of F&SF. 

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Interview: Norman Birnbach on “It’s All Relative at the Space-Time Cafe”

– What was the inspiration for “It’s All Relative at the Space-Time Cafe?”

I’ve always been interested in physics but I wrote the first draft so long ago that I can’t remember what made me think of writing a speculative fiction mashup that’s part love story, part mystery, and full of jokes. I do know I came up with the idea before I found the quote from Einstein that serves as the epigraph — “Gravitation cannot be held responsible for people falling in love. How on earth can you explain in terms of chemistry and physics so important a biological phenomenon as first love?” — which was lucky because I do use physics to tell a love story. To make it fun, I decided to base all but one character on real physicists, making them writers and performance artists. (Later on, I turned some into detectives and CSI techs.) So Einstein is a writer who has published a number of short stories and a major novel, The Special Theory of Relativity. In the Space-Time Cafe world, the characters use terms associated with the real scientists but are oblivious to the actual physics. For example, commenting on Niels Bohr and Jenny, the love interests at the center of the story, Currie says she knew they were in love because, “You can see it on your faces. Both of you are glowing from it.” At some point, I put Space-Time Cafe aside to write humor articles that have appeared in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and other publications but I kept coming back to this story because it always made me laugh.


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

I can’t call myself a true physics geek because I only took one physics course in college.  It was a physics-for-poets type that required no math, which is a good thing for me. (And I don’t know why they said it was just for poets – we wrote papers for the class, not poems.)  But the professor, a teacher I liked named Schick, taught all the concepts. What especially fascinated me was the science around the origins of the universe.  I remember writing a long paper for Professor Schick about cosmology that included many of the physicists I used in the story — perhaps that was part of the inspiration for it.  To write the story, I read through a shelf of physics books because it was important to me that the jokes are accurate.


– How many physics jokes were you able to pack into this story?

I don’t have an exact count because — and I’m not proud of this — I’m not good in math.  My goal was to load up as many jokes and references as possible but they had to serve the love story. I especially didn’t want to appeal only to Ph.D. candidates since that would exclude me, and besides, I was concerned that they would write angry critiques that I wouldn’t understand. There are a lot of one-liners that don’t require any knowledge of physics because so many everyday words also have a scientific meaning that we overlook.  For example, “When our circle of friends accidentally discovered the Space-Time Café, only Newton found it disagreeable. Everyone else liked it because of its atmosphere: we went to the Space-Time not just for its drinks (which were out of this world) but because we could postulate solutions to our problems there.” Others require that you’ve at least heard of the scientists and only a couple are a bit subtle. And nothing that requires complicated equations or formulas.


– What are you working on now?

I don’t always know what’s next, which has nothing to do with Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle. I work on several different things at any time. One is a follow-up of sorts, principally because I like the Space-Time gang but the challenge is not to repeat jokes. (It might go faster if I could find another paper from Professor Schick’s class.) In the meantime, I’m working on other speculative fiction, some humorous and some serious, as well as continuing to write humor articles.

“It’s All Relative at the Space-Time Cafe” appears in the November/December 2015 issue of F&SF.  You can buy it here:

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Interview: Lisa Mason on “Tomorrow is a Lovely Day”

– Tell us a bit about “Tomorrow is a Lovely Day.”

Imagine a person from five hundred years ago observing how we live today. Indoor plumbing and air conditioning. Electricity and light bulbs. Radio and television. Cars and jets. Antibiotics and advanced surgery. Computers and home printers. Smart phones! The Internet!

I’m perhaps still best known for my two time travel novels, Summer of Love, a Philip K. Dick Award Finalist, and The Gilded Age, a New York Times Notable Book. In those books, I was determined to prove that in the far future, five hundred years from now, time travel and faster-than-light technology will be as feasible as the Internet.

The science of faster-than-light communication is speculative, true, but science nonetheless. For my two novels, I researched time travel and faster-than-light; a bit of that research has carried over into “Tomorrow Is A Lovely Day.” I consulted Paul J. Nahin’s highly regarded Time Machines published by the American Institute of Physics, John W. Macvey’s Time Travel published by Scarborough House, and Martin Gardner’s Time Travel published by W. H. Freeman.

One of the many paradoxes of FTL communication is that a faster-than-light answer sent to the past from the future about the future arrives before the questioner in the past poses the question. L.S. Schulman published technical papers about this theoretical phenomenon—“Correlating Arrows of Time” and “Tachyon Paradoxes”—in the American Journal of Physics in the 1970s, which are reprised in Nahin’s book.

I thought there was enough dramatic potential in that one paradox alone for an intriguing story.


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

Not faster-than-light physics at all, at least not at first.

One night I heard a pundit on a radio talk show discussing the medieval metaphysician Nostradamus and how, by gazing into a mirror or (by some accounts) in a bowl of water, he received communications from the future. He then composed a book of quatrains that purported to be predictions.

Predictions about the far future, not the price of eggs five hundred years ago. The pundit claimed that Nostradamus predicted, among other things, World War I, the rise of Hitler and Nazi Germany, World War II, the atomic bomb, and more. The quatrains he (the pundit) read on the radio sounded like implausible long shots to me but I wanted to read them for myself.

My husband, Tom Robinson, is a serious book collector going way back and has a supernatural ability to lay his hands on a specific book among the many thousands in our library. This must be what living with a water douser is like. I don’t even try to find the book. I just say, “Nostradamus,” and within moments Tom is pulling out The Predictions of Nostradamus from some stack.

I spent time with the book and had to conclude that the quatrains are, frankly, gibberish. I didn’t see how any of them accurately described anything in history, at least events that I could recognize.

Then ah-ha! There was the second theme of “Tomorrow Is A Lovely Day.”

What are we to make of any kind of prediction? When you listen, you hear predictions about everything under the sun on a daily basis. What the weather will be—well, they’ve got sophisticated satellite pictures and all kinds of scientific analysis, but they still don’t always get reality right. What will the economy do, how will the election turn out. “Authorities” are constantly predicting what the future will be and reality, when it arrives in the Now, can be tricky.


– Was this story personal to you in any way? If so, how?

Oh, I think everyone has their eyes on the future the moment your parents shove you out the door at the age of five to go to school. I know I certainly did. And focusing on the future doesn’t stop once you graduate, oh no. Then you have to get the job, succeed at the job, save up to buy a home, find a suitable mate, maybe have a family, save for retirement. And boom! You’re 70 years old . . . and then you have to think about your future ill health and dying.

There was a movement in the 1960s to Be Here Now. People took up meditation to be mindful of the moment. People dropped out the “rat race” to “live for today.” And they did have a point. Only when you attend to the moment can you perceive what forces are entrapping you, enslaving you. Only then can you take the first steps to free yourself. But first, you have to “wake up.”

Mind you, I realize it’s really important to plan for your future. But it’s also important to savor the moments of life that pass by only too quickly.

But what if a moment, a day, is really crappy? Just about everyone has had a day like that, what seems like the worst day of your life. You get into a fender bender, the boss yells at you, three checks bounce at the bank because you forgot to transfer funds, you burn dinner, and your spouse is in a lousy mood and yells at you, too.

What if that day somehow never ended?

And what if that day included the big, big transitions in life? Being born, giving birth or waiting for a birth, and dying are the most transitional moments of anyone’s life. What if those transitional moments were never consummated?

In “Tomorrow Is A Lovely Day,” Benjamin finds himself in that supremely crappy day. He’s understandably focused on his future, on what he hopes to achieve the next day. But he must focus on the moment, even though it’s a crappy moment. He must “wake up.” Only then can he perceive what is trapping him, enslaving him. And only then can he do what he does to free himself and, by the way, free all of space-time.


– Did you have in mind any other examples in the rich tradition of time travel stories while writing “Tomorrow is a Lovely Day,” or did the story come to you organically?

“Tomorrow is A Lovely Day” isn’t directly inspired by any other story. It’s definitely “organic,” a product of my own inspiration, the splicing together of two different themes, faster-than-light communication and Nostradamus’ medieval predictions.

I like the technique of splicing two disparate themes and finding a common ground. My Omni story, “Tomorrow’s Child,” which sold as the basis for a feature film to Universal Studios, weaves a succinct tale around burn wound healing technology and the purported crash of an alien spaceship at Roswell, New Mexico.

That said, I’m always up for a good time travel story. A rich tradition, indeed! Or perhaps a broader, if less elegant, term would be “time manipulation” stories.

In the classic tradition of traveling in time in the same geophysical location, there’s of course H. G. Welles’ classic Victorian novel The Time Machine. Of more recent vintage is C. L. Moore’s wonderful novella, “The Vintage Season,” which in 1946 explored time travel as tourism, traveling to a different time and a different geophysical location. Robert Silverberg has often played with time travel tropes and published in 1989 a sequel to Moore’s novella, “In Another Country.” [A peripatetic world traveler, Silverberg often uses tourism or traveling as a trope in his fiction. “Sailing to Byzantium” (not a time manipulation) from 1986 springs to mind.]

Even more intriguing is moving in time within your own life and attempting to alter your own past. That happens in “Tomorrow Is A Lovely Day.” My all-time favorite story in this subgenre (and maybe my all-time favorite SF story, period) is Robert Heinlein’s “All You Zombies—”. The story, so hilarious and fiendishly clever, could have been written yesterday. In fact, Heinlein published it in 1959. Silverberg weighs in with this subgenre, too, with “Needle in a Timestack.”

Finally, another fascinating subgenre within the time manipulation trope is traveling backwards in time within your own life. The classic tale in this subgenre is Fritz Leiber’s “The Man Who Never Grew Young,” published in 1947. F. Scott Fitzgerald tried his hand in “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” and Martin Amis in Time’s Arrow.

My major problem with these tales is that they’re all told from a man’s point-of-view. I think a woman protagonist would have quite a different take.

I’ve done just that in “Illyria, My Love,” in which a woman and man love each other, the woman a bit jealously so, against a horrific background of constant war on the planet they’ve immigrated to when life on Earth has become untenable. Only as they move backward in time does the reader discover the true nature of their relationship and, at the end, the shocking secret at its core. That story is still looking for a home.

Visit me at for all my books and stories, interviews and blogs, cute pet pictures, and forthcoming projects. Thank you for your readership!

“Tomorrow is a Lovely Day” appears in the November/December 2015 issue of F&SF.  You can buy that issue here:

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Interview: Maria Dahvana Headley on “The Thirteen Mercies”

– Tell us a bit about “The Thirteen Mercies.”

It’s a story about a group of soldiers who are convicted in a tribunal for war crimes, in this case torture using some really dark war magic. They’re sent to a jungle prison to rot, and to be punished by something that ends up being beyond their imaginations. It takes place in our world, sort of, but a bit worse. Only a bit. Our world is pretty damn bad right now. The soldiers are using a set of spells which are based on the 13 attributes of mercy, except that the way they’re using them is reversed. So, they are practicing anti-mercy. For me, that means they’re doing the worst thing I can imagine. The story comes from everything I’ve been seeing in the last few years in regard to war, refugees, and the concept of “enemy.” It continues. I continue to be disgusted, but for me the only way to survive rage and disgust is to try and understand. So, deep curiosity: I wanted to write a story from the POV of people I’d consider to be my own enemies. I want to understand my enemies. This is a story about that.


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

On a  lighter note! The Thirteen Mercies started on Twitter, because I’d impulse bought a Victorian taxidermied crocodile.

When I tweeted about finally hanging up my crocodile, there were instant clamors for a story based on the line I’d tweeted, “Today, we hang the crocodile.” So I started there. The poet Matthew Zapruder, one of my favorites, suggested that it sounded like the first line of a Gabriel Garcia-Marquez story, and I was off. I think someone else said it should have an unethical general. Mind, it got weirder and darker from there. As is usual with me, I added in all the things I’d been thinking about.  As I was writing the story, The Senate Intelligence Committee Report on Torture was published. I read it. It is worse than fiction.


– Was “The Thirteen Mercies” personal to you in any way?

Combination of my crocodile joy and my political rage, so yes. Everything I write is personal, because I tend to write from fury or love, and sometimes both at once. This was both. I wanted to make a world in which there was, at least at some point, actual justice.


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

I would’ve said, a few months ago, that most people in America weren’t pro-torture, but looking at it from November, 2015, I think I was wrong. Maybe not most people, but many people believe that torture works as a method for gaining information. It’s been proven and proven that it does not, but the climate in America tells me that we once again have urges to torture the people we’re frightened by. Mind, this is part of American culture from the beginning. Slavery is torture. All racist culture is torture, and America has been engaging in very deeply internally in the last couple of years. Thing is, a lot of our fright is artificially created by political pushers. I’m in a constant state of rage and sorrow, listening to much of the things people are saying about how America is supposed to be this homogenous thing, this place that accepts no refugees, this place that accepts nothing in the way of religious diversity, nothing in the way of ANY diversity. What exactly do we think that leaves us with? It is a lunatic assumption, the one that says “normal” is good, and then defines normal as “white.” I’m consistently disgusted. All of the current fearmongering radically ignores American history, and also American responsibility, and it infuriates me. This story, to my mind, is about what happens if we let the voices of fearmongers get loud enough to drown out compassion. The original version of the 13 mercies is a bullet pointed list of ways to forgive, attributes of God. It’s forgiveness and mercy all the way down. It’s beautiful and correct. I don’t happen to be a religious person, and I’m not a believer in God, but I am a fervent believer in mercy, compassion, and self-education.  So, if anyone leaves with any of that, I’m happy. They can also leave with some whoa, surrealist story involving crocodiles and hallucinatory warfare, and that’s good too. I do write fiction for entertainment purposes too. I think it can be used in lots of ways.


– You recently sold a book to Farrar, Straus and Giroux that you wrote in a month.  Tell us all about that – the book, what it was like writing it, the experience of FSG buying it at auction, etc.

I went to an artist’s colony in Italy for a month, with a ferocious goal to write a draft of a novel I’d been planning for a couple of years. I had about 30K of it written, and I wrote another 50K in about three weeks. I don’t know how I did that either, except that I’d been dying to write it. It’s based on Beowulf, and set in present day NY, both in the city and upstate. I woke up every morning, drank coffee, and wrote like a demon for 8 hours. The wifi was shaky on the mountaintop, and that was very useful. As well, there were other artists there, painters and musicians, and there were also a pack of wild-boar hunting dogs on the mountain opposite – it was a perfect location from which to write a story about the clash of remote and established life with a new and opinionated civilization, which is what I think Beowulf is about. The story focuses particularly on Grendel and Grendel’s mother, who are, as in the original, living in the wilderness and disturbed by loud noise from Herot Hall. I got back from Italy, sent it to my agent and she said “Okay, let’s send it out!” Which…I wasn’t expecting. Sometimes, though, to write something so quickly kills the internal editors, and those editors, at least for me, can be derailing. So, we sold the first draft a few weeks later. I know how crazy that sounds. But it was a first draft informed by two years of major thinking, and 20 years of writing other things. 38 years of living and roughly 35 years of reading. Everything makes everything. It comes out probably in Spring 2017, and I’m so damn excited to be at FSG, with Sean McDonald, who’s edited some of my favorite books, including Nicola Griffith’s HILD. I mean, come on. Life can be pretty great.


“The Thirteen Mercies” appears in the November/December 2015 issue.  You can buy that issue here:

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