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Interview: Paul M. Berger on “Subduction”

- Your story in the July/August issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction is about both literal and figurative “Subduction.” For readers unfamiliar with the term, what is subduction?

Subduction is a geological process, which means I can only explain it with a massive oversimplification: When two tectonic plates collide head-on, the denser one gets pushed downward. It eventually disappears into the Earth’s mantle, which is a layer where the pressures and temperatures are so great that solid rock flows like a slow liquid.

The friction and tension between the two tectonic plates causes earthquakes, and the collision can grow mountains. And when the edge of a plate encounters the mantle, it starts to melt, which leads to volcanoes. All this happens especially often where the plates under the Pacific Ocean meet the surrounding continents, which is why that area is called “the Ring of Fire.”

In an amazingly cool instance of synchronicity, on the day that this issue of F&SF first appeared in bookstores, xkcd ran a comic titled “Subduction License.”

subduction_license

That pretty much sums it up.

 

- This is a contemporary fantasy that takes place in the Pacific Northwest. Is it a spoiler if I mention that there are dragons in this story?

Yeah. Yeah it is. Thanks a lot.

 

- Oh. Sorry!

So how would you describe Oliver, the protagonist of “Subduction”?

When we first see Oliver, he is a damaged, fragile shell of a man. He can’t remember anything about himself, and he does a lot of watching and waiting because his conscious mind has no answers for him. He is, though, driven to act in odd ways by some other part of himself. His past and his personality are revealed to him in two or three stages throughout the story, until – just briefly – the whole situation is perfectly clear.

The inspiration for Oliver came from a couple of accounts of amnesia, one from someone I know personally, and in particular one news story that stuck in my mind from years ago: An American Fullbright scholar was traveling alone in India when he had a psychotic break caused by his anti-malarial medication, and he lost all memory of who he was and why he was there. He was taken in by people who assumed he was just another slacker drug addict, and because he was hungry for a persona he accepted that as his identity, until his memories started trickling back weeks later. Oliver is struggling with that same level of blank-slate vulnerability, and he is better than the people around him suspect.

 

- You’re a docent at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. How does that work connect with and inform your fiction writing, in this story and in general?

What appeals to me about speculative fiction is that I love asking, “What if?” and then seeing how weird and beautiful the world around us could get. The American Museum of Natural History fits right in with that because it’s a massive collection of things that demonstrate how weird and beautiful and thought-provoking the world already is. The tours I give go on far too long because the theme usually boils down to “Things That I Think Are Cool to Think About,” and my visitors and I get excited to discuss them.

Subduction and the other geology concepts I reference in this story are all material I had to master in order to give tours in the Gottesman Hall of Planet Earth. The creatures are inspired by ocean life exhibits. And to be honest, I was totally stuck on the ending of this story, until the 120-year-old transformational dance masks in the Hall of Northwest Coast Indians came to mind, and I found a way to incorporate that idea into the plot.

 

- “Subduction is included in the free edition of F&SF for Kindle (http://www.amazon.com/Fantasy-Science-Fiction-Exclusive-Digest/dp/B004ZFZCKY/) and Kindle UK (http://www.amazon.co.uk/Fantasy-Science-Fiction-Extended-Edition/dp/B004ZFZ4O8/), so people have the chance to read it even without buying the issue. (Editor’s note: you should totally still buy the issue.) Where can people go if they want to find some other stories by you?

My story “The Muse of Empires Lost” is reprinted in Rich Horton’s Space Opera, which just came out – I’m a little stunned to be included in such an impressive table of contents.

Most of my stories have appeared in print anthologies, but “Stereogram of the Gray Fort, in the Days of Her Glory,” which got some good critical attention, is online at Fantasy Magazine. There’s also a podcast of it on Podcastle. (Ann Leckie does one of the voices!)

I had a lot of fun with “Small Burdens,” which is on Strange Horizons.

A podcast of “Subduction” is currently in production by StarShipSofa.com.

And you can see a bit more about me at paulmberger.com.

 

- “Subduction” by Paul M. Berger appears in the July/August issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction. It’s available in both print and electronic formats.

Interview: Haddayr Copley-Woods on “Belly”

- The title of your story is “Belly” — whose belly is it?

Well, that’s the question, now, isn’t it? Obviously it’s the witch’s belly that imprisons the main character for her formative years. But the belly is also where you draw your strength. Your conviction. Your compassion, and your gut sense of right and wrong. So it might be someone else’s belly, too. I’ll leave that up to readers to decide.

 

- One of the things that I love about this story is that it feels like a fairy tale, but at the same time it feels brand new — like a fairy tale I’ve never read before. It’s a very grim story… and also very Grimm. What inspired the story?

Funny you should mention Grimm! One of the many good parenting decisions my mother made was to raise us on the original Grimm’s Brothers Fairy Tales, not the cleaned-up, Disneyfied versions. I will always be grateful for that. I still vividly remember the horrifying illustrations that came with the vicious, bloodthirsty, vengeful stories: they were made to look like old wood cutouts, but in vivid detail. Eyes rolling. Mouths agape in horror. They confirmed for me what I knew as a child to be true: monsters exist. People are wonderfully horrible. The stories never seemed old to me. They all seemed like they could have happened 100 years ago or yesterday.

That said, this was specifically inspired by a flashback I experienced when watching “Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters.”

 

- I want to ask about the flashback, but I think maybe it’s better to let people read the story, watch the movie, and wonder about it for themselves.

Fun flick.

 

- Thematically, this is a story about abuse and overcoming abuse. Did that make it difficult to write?

Yes. It tore me apart. I had to keep putting it down and coming back to it. I think all told it took me more than a year, even without working on any other fiction. It is also extremely disgusting and I had to plan writing it carefully so it wasn’t close to any meals. But since nearly every fairy tale from Europe I grew up on is also about child abuse, it felt right.

 

- I don’t want to spoil the ending for anyone, so without giving anything away, let me just say that it’s the ending that makes me love the story. Did you always know it would end that way, or did you have other endings in mind too?

Besides the fact that I write rather instinctively and don’t really map out how a story will go ahead of time, the story had to end that way. There was no other way I could countenance writing such a terrible thing, without that ending.

 

- What are some of the things you do besides write fiction?

I earn my keep as a freelance copywriter, and I write essays and commentaries, most recently for Minnesota Public Radio. I ride my bike, I parent, I folk dance, I blog. I try to be a good friend.

 

- Where can readers go to find more of your writing?

Visit haddayr.com. I’ve got nearly everything I’ve written linked from there. Most of it’s free to view online.

 

- “Belly” by Haddayr Copley-Woods appears in the July/August issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction. It’s available in both print and electronic formats.

Interview: Katie Boyer on “Bartleby the Scavenger”

- Tell us a bit about “Bartleby the Scavenger.”

It’s a re-telling in a different context of Herman Melville’s novella “Bartleby, the Scrivener.” Many elements are the same: the story is narrated by an employer who hires a man named Bartleby who, for reasons unknown, suddenly stops working. My story, though, is set in a future version of Birmingham, Alabama, after an apocalypse event, and the boss is a scavenger of resources from the former city, trying to save his crew from a bloodthirsty, sorority girl mayor.

 

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

As mentioned in the story notes, the idea for the title came from a student of mine who was having trouble with the unfamiliar word “scrivener” and so kept calling the Melville story “Bartleby the Scavenger.” I’d been wanting to write a dystopian tale, and I’d been wanting to write something set in my hometown, so the three things sort of collided—scavenger, dystopia, Birmingham. The rest was mostly working out the details of the world and the voice of the narrator.

 

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

I didn’t do a ton of focused research. I looked into some demographics for Birmingham, checked on how old the buildings are in certain areas, and investigated the kind of government currently in place in the neighborhood The Brook is based on. I did some reading on the firebombing of Dresden, Germany during WWII. A lot of the background, though, comes from what I might call “ambient research.” Much of what interests me about Birmingham in general found its way into the story. Plus, a few years ago, I went on a post-apocalypse spree and read a bunch of novels about the end of the world and/or oppressive government, so I felt familiar with the genre.

 

- Did you use the post-apocalypse, dystopian setting of your story to draw different conclusions about society than Melville did in “Bartleby the Scrivener?”

That’s an interesting question. There really is a lot of tender sadness and pity at the end of Melville’s story—his Bartleby has “preferred not to” engage in life, until he meets his end in jail, his face to the wall, even though the story’s narrator has tried various ways to reach out to him. I think we’re supposed to understand Melville’s Bartleby as a person who has seen the potential emptiness of modern life (the rumor is that his last job was at the “dead letter office”), and his job as basically a human Xerox machine seems to indicate that his personhood is caught up in, and crushed by, the machine of Wall Street. I guess one of the things that really interested me about the character of Bartleby was the question of whether there is any other way to interact with a system that treats people as if they are components in a machine. So, my Bartleby became a person who sort of floats above or outside the system. He definitely “prefers not to” do a lot of things, but it’s because he’s too content or optimistic or “good, man.” My conclusion about society may not be much different from Melville’s—I definitely feel the daily pressure to be part of a machine—but maybe my conclusion about how to react to it is distinct from Melville’s. But, of course, Bartleby still dies at the end, so maybe I’m just as pessimistic as Melville after all.

 

- Was “Bartleby the Scavenger” personal to you in any way?  If so, how?

I think I have an inner Peighton who gives me a “productivity quota” for every day. Teaching at a community college means there are large classes, and several of them, and there are constant demands on my time. Then there’s writing and life and family and housekeeping to maintain. The feeling that something terrible will happen if I don’t get it all done stays with me. I guess you could say Bartleby’s sense of calm is something I wish I could achieve—but he’s just a little crazy, so maybe not the best role model. The constant battle between productivity and contentment does seem very personal to me.

 

- What are you working on now?

I’m actually working on a short story collection in which I take classic stories and give them a modern, often sci-fi, twist, much like what happens in “Bartleby.” In this collection, for example, I put a James Joyce heroine on a space station. I’m also working on a couple of other non-adapted short stories and am dabbling in screenwriting. A lot of my creative work is being channeled through the MFA work I’m completing with Spalding University’s Brief Residency program.

 

- Anything else you’d like to add?

Just that I’m very pleased “Bartleby the Scavenger” was included in this issue. I’ve long been a fan of the magazine and very much enjoyed the other stories for May / June. It’s great to be in such wonderful company.

“Bartleby the Scavenger” appears in the May/June 2014 issue of F&SF.

Interview: Sarah Pinsker on “A Stretch of Highway Two Lanes Wide”

- What was the inspiration for “A Stretch of Highway Two Lanes Wide,” or what prompted you to write it?

I’d been reading articles about new prosthetics that interface with the brains of amputees. I took mine a few extra steps. The first line popped into my head fully formed, and the first paragraph, and then the road. I’ve driven through Colorado many times, and I love the way the plains and the farms and ranchland give way to mountain, so I ran with that. The cool thing was that I picked Lori’s name arbitrarily, and didn’t realize what I could do with the tattoo until later.  My process is sort of like driving, too: I set out with a destination in mind, but the place I wind up isn’t always exactly the place I thought I was going.

 

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

When I was fifteen I was part of an exchange that took me to Saskatchewan. I went to a bonfire with my host, where the guys all drank beer and the girls mixed their beer with clamato, which is about the most disgusting mixer I can think of. I’ve been holding onto that detail for a long time waiting to use it in a story. Beyond that? I’ve never thought I was a road, but I’ve spent a lot of time on them. And I definitely know what it’s like to feel split between two places.

 

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

I did some research on prosthetics and occupational therapy, and on modern farm equipment and crops of Saskatchewan. Oh! And now I know how to make a homemade tattoo gun. I know horses and I know roads, and I’m pretty good at capturing the spirit of places that I’ve traveled, so those parts were easier.

 

- Could you speak at all to the juxtaposition in your story of high-tech sci-fi (bionic prosthetics) with a noticeably mundane setting (small-town farming community)?

First off, big farms like Andy’s parents’ are already very high tech. The equipment, the monitoring. I made Andy a more traditional farmer in order to widen the gap between the high-tech and the character. I think a lot of farmers are dealing with it on a non-metaphorical level. Small farmers struggle to make ends meet. Large farmers have to give up the practices that we think of as farming. Animals on commercial farms have it pretty rough, and people who want to farm food crops instead of commodity crops have it pretty rough. Even old-school Andy is farming canola. I guess all that is to say I don’t think it’s such a stretch to put bionic prosthetics onto a near-future farm.

 

- What are you working on now?

I’ve always got a couple of stories going, and I’m working on a novel that also deals with the consequences of small medical strides in the near future.

 

- Anything else you’d like to add?

I’ve been reading F&SF since I could first read. It’s a pleasure to have a story in the magazine.

“A Stretch of Highway Two Lanes Wide” appears in the March/April 2014 issue of F&SF.

Interview: Alyssa Wong on “The Fisher Queen”

- Tell us a bit about “The Fisher Queen.”

“The Fisher Queen” was the first story I wrote at the Clarion Writers’ Workshop of Science Fiction & Fantasy. My instructor Andy Duncan convinced me that if I really wanted to write a mermaid story, I should follow my impulses and write one, and Nalo Hopkinson was kind enough to give feedback on it.

I love fish. No, really. Fish are one of my favorite life forms to study and observe. I think they’re very cute, but I also eat them. A lot. That strange dichotomy definitely gave birth, in part, to “The Fisher Queen.”

 

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

I wrote “The Fisher Queen” as a wedding present for my friend, Katie. Since her favorite fairytale is “The Little Mermaid,” I really wanted to write her a mermaid story.

I think I wrote four other stories, none of which managed to contain mermaids, before I could figure this one out. The closest I got to mermaids before “The Fisher Queen” was a story about sand whales, which, uh, isn’t the same thing at all.

 

- Was “The Fisher Queen” personal for you in any way, and if so, how?

Absolutely. Two prominent themes in “The Fisher Queen” are the effects of systematic violence against women and the costs of not speaking up in the face of injustice. These are issues that impact us, our loved ones, and everyone around us, every single day, and have the power to destroy us–sometimes slowly over a lifetime, sometimes in a burst of passion and hate.

It is also a story about being young, full of wrath, and surrounded by atrocities that you can’t yet name but also can’t ignore. I was very much like that when I was fifteen years old, and sometimes even now.

 

- Did you do any research for “The Fisher Queen?”

I had to do a lot of research. I grew up in the desert and I’ve been on a boat once, maybe twice; the strongest memory I have of being on the water was clinging to a rope in a tiny fishing boat, bobbing through a Chinese harbor, seasick out of my wits. I was probably 10 years old.

For this project, I watched a lot of documentaries about the Mekong and about fishing. I also watched a lot of River Monsters. Like, three seasons of it.

 

- Would you say that you wrote a transgressive story?  Lily exacts a harsh retribution on her father and the other crewmen of their fishing boat, but one could say that the behavior they engaged in, i.e., raping captured mermaids, is also transgressive; perhaps not to the society described in your story, but certainly to the reader.  Could you expound on this at all?

Rape culture is a distressing reality in both our world and the world of the story. However, Lily’s demands for justice are enacted through personal violence rather than rallying her community for greater societal change. Her methods are presented as undeniably destructive, but somehow, personally acceptable… and hopefully, by the end of the story, very satisfying.

Lily is a kind, violent, selfless, and selfish young woman. Having her choose to destroy her family through her final actions in the story is transgressive, but one could also argue that the family was deteriorating already: her father is a rapist, her sister and her mother are victims… everyone is a victim of this system, including Lily and her father.

The first stories I heard about mermaids as a kid were about how sailors, homesick and horny, either mistook or imagined various ocean animals as part woman, part fish creatures. Is it really a huge stretch of the imagination to wonder if some of these men, ‘starved’ for female sexual attention that they thought they deserved, might have raped animals or each other?

The world of “The Fisher Queen” is strange, perhaps, and the crimes are sickening, but they are very firmly rooted in our own reality. If the idea that rape is evil and deserves punishment, even and especially violent punishment, seems absurd, then this story is indeed, and sadly, transgressive.

 

- What are you working on now?

I’m working on a biopunk, neo-noir novel, a Southern gothic horror story, and am buckling down for a hardcore revision session with a sci-fi piece from Clarion.

 

- Anything else you’d like to add?

I owe a lot to my instructors Kelly Link and Karen Joy Fowler for pushing me to send “The Fisher Queen” out into the world, and to Ellen Datlow for guiding me through the short story market to F&SF.

Also, thank you for reading my story. It means a lot to me.

“The Fisher Queen” appears in the May/June 2014 issue of F&SF.

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