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Interview: Richard Bowes on “The Queen and the Cambion”

Tell us a bit about “The Queen and the Cambion.” 

TQATC is about two British legends, Queen Victoria who reigned for most of the 19th century and Merlin, said to be the son of a demon and a nun, whose story emerged in the murky centuries after the fall of Roman Britain. One was a creature of history, the other a product of Welsh folklore later embellished by medieval minstrelsy and compiled by Mallory.

 In the story Merlin is obliged to come to the aid of whichever monarch in whatever year invokes the spell that binds him. The spell’s my invention and we get to see the four occasions on which Victoria summons him.

– What was the inspiration for “The Queen and the Cambion,” or what prompted you to write it?

– Why did you choose Queen Victoria as your protagonist as opposed to any other British monarch?

I’m going to answer these questions together:

I was invited to write a story for a themed anthology about magic and  Queen Victoria. At least that’s what I understood it to be about.  It seemed like an interesting change of pace from drugs, dark doings and gay Manhattan which I’d been writing about for the last few years.

My first problem was that Victoria was about as devoid of magic as any monarch who ever lived. But the magic didn’t have to be hers. Apparently, I’d had the Arthurian legend on my mind because out of nowhere I’d written a very short story, “Sir Morgravain Speaks of Night Dragons and Other Things” about a rather disgraceful member of the Round Table. F&SF was nice enough to buy and publish the story last year.

Sometimes with themed anthologies I can take a story that was kicking around in my back brain and twist it to the anthology theme. Sometimes the theme comes easily to hand – it’s something I would have written anyway. Other times it’s a story that never would have been written except for the invitation.

This was one of those last. But I liked the idea of  mixing Merlin and Victoria. The editors seemed to approve. However when I submitted the story the editors wanted something different – darker or lighter or dark in a lighter way. Or something. And editors, of course, are always right.

So I was left with this unsold story. Fortunately F&SF, Help of Writers, took it. This is my twentieth appearance in the magazine over the last twenty years – nineteen stories and one “Curiosities” column.

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

As a young kid I was given a book (I think it was titled “King Arthur and his Knights” – not a well known version of the tales – lines of Tennyson verse were interwoven with the prose and it had lots of vagueness about Lancelot and Guinevere, Morgan La Fey and Arthur and Mordred’s relationship – a book for kids) I’ve never been able to find a copy. The art was not by one of the canonical illustrators. But I remember it well. Especially the last color plate of the last moment of  Arthur’s last Battle – Camlann .Against a setting sun, with piles of dead knights all around, Mordred rushes to stick his lance through Arthur who is about to bring Excalibur down on Mordred’s – great stuff – lots of Merlin’s doings.

The Matter of Britain interested me from then on.

 Alfred Duggan was a British historical novelist of the mid-20th century. His “The Conscience of the King,” which I read in my teens is the story of an unscrupulous princeling, Cedric in post-Roman 6th Century Britain. This is the world in which the Arthur legend begins. Arturus, a fictional Roman cavalry mercenary, and a plausible guess as to the basis for the Arthur legends puts in an appearance.

I read The Once and Future King a year or two after it came out in 1958. My parents thought it would fascinate me and it did. In it along with much else including a clearer idea of the sexual underpinnings of the legends was a Merlin living backwards in time. When the musical Camelot tried out in Boston in late 1960, I skipped school, went to a matinee and got caught doing so.

Those are the ways I found Merlin. Queen Victoria came to me as a figure in history. And history to me is a long twisting tale out of which you make it a story reflecting your own ideas and interests. In truth people around Victoria like her uncle King William and her first Prime Minister Melbourne, fantastical 18th century men surviving into the 19th century interested me more than she did.

Writing the story I spent a few afternoons in NYU’s Bobst Library reading about her life and especially her youth. I found a human side of what had seemed a symbol, a statue. That gave me the story.

Would you say that “The Queen and the Cambion” is a kind of love story, and if so, at what point in the writing did you realize it?

I would. I think it’s the first love story I’ve ever written.

I was looking for a connection between a 19th century girl and woman and a half human cambion from a very dark age. The trick of the tale is that Victoria goes from youth to middle age and old age – the normal track of human life. The Merlin she encounters along the way is at various stages of his life – moments when he is available and she summons him. She’s young, he’s first mature and powerful, then dynamic but still older than she. She falls in love with him.  As a middle aged woman she summons and rescues a very young Merlin. He grows fond of her. Only at the end are their ages and experiences compatible. Love connects them.

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

Terry Weyna reviewing the story in Fantasy Literature says, “The story is nothing more than a bon bon, but it is a delicious one.”

I kind of like that but I think there’s more here – mythic wonder and historical characters and human need.

What are you working on now?

The story of a 15 year old lesbian telepath in a dystopian New York: it does have some love.

– Anything else you’d like to add?

The two writing groups to which I belong, Altered Fluid and Tabula Rasa were a great help. Especially AF. It was the first thing I showed that group.

“The Queen and the Cambion” appears in the March/April 2012 issue.

Interview: Alexander Jablokov on “The Comfort of Strangers”

– Tell us a bit about “The Comfort of Strangers.”

OK, so it’s an alien sex story. Or at least it started out that way, though it developed a bit more emotional subtext as it developed. While it seems pretty light and funny, it is also an actual hard SF story that struggles directly with the real fact that the more realistic the far-future hard Sfness of a story, the less likely it is to be emotionally engaging to a reader in 2011. So, like any writer in our genre, I bootleg current-day emotional content back in, and translate the incomprehensible emotional connections of that future into terms we can relate to, even though that translation would make no sense to the actual beings in the story.  That makes the story sounds more complicated than it is.  It’s supposed to be fun to read.

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

I’d read a few recent stories about sex with aliens. I found them too focused on human emotional reactions.  I thought, “well, how different could sexual drives be and still be understandable?” Plus, I just wanted to play the game of creating aliens based on specific biological constraints.

– What kind of research, if any, did you do for “The Comfort of Strangers?”

Everything is based on actual reproduction of species here on Earth.

– What would you want a reader to take away from this story? “That was pretty funny! No, wait, there was more to it than that…and how much of my way of relating to the world is derived from my underlying biology? Do I really understand what the other participant is getting out of it?”

– What are you working on now?

I am just finishing a young adult novel with the tentative title Timeslip. It is about a teenager whose father gets shanghaied into an alternate universe, and has to travel across various realities to figure out what happened to him.

– Anything else you’d like to add?

Sex is more complicated than it seems.

“The Comfort of Strangers” appears in the Jan./Feb. 2012 issue.

Interview: Felicity Shoulders on “Small Towns”

– Tell us a bit about “Small Towns.”
“Small Towns” takes place in France in the wake of World War I; it’s the story of a particularly small and sheltered child growing into a young woman, and of a middle-aged man trying to retreat into the world of his childhood.
I’ve never set a story in France before. My family is part French and we have strong ties there, but our relatives live in the Massif Central to the south, a long way from the Western Front. I decided when I was drafting the story that I’d write no sentence for which I couldn’t imagine the equivalent in French: essentially, I was translating it into English as I wrote it. This was a bizarre, experimental process for me, and I wasn’t sure how the result would strike people. My first readers were all non-French speakers though and the language just seemed appropriately old-fashioned to them, so I forged ahead and it seems to have succeeded.
– What was the inspiration for this story, or what prompted you to write it?
Years ago I read a story by Angela Carter called “The Lady of the House of Love.” It’s about a British soldier on leave in Europe encountering the last scion of a vampire line. While Angela Carter wrote many modern fairy tales herself, this particular story implies strongly that World War I was the end of magic, and I immediately, perversely, wanted to write a fairy tale set in the aftermath of the Great War. I had an idea that the protagonist would be literally small, but not much beyond that.
That idea remained in the back of my mind for several more years, until I was reading about some World War I battles on Wikipedia. I wasn’t doing research, just reading about battles in which my great-grandfather had fought. I was struck by British aerial photographs of the village of Passchendaele, in Belgium. They showed the village before and after the fighting there, and in the second photograph even the roads are barely discernible. The fields, the trees, every feature blasted away. That image gave me the opening paragraphs of “Small Towns” and enough of the story to start writing.
(Here are the wikipedia photos of Passchendaele which Ms. Shoulders references, if anyone cares to look: )
– What kind of research, if any, did you have to do for “Small Towns?”
I haven’t written a lot of historical fantasy, and this is the oldest setting I’ve tried: with more recent settings, I can do things like call up my grandmother and interrogate her about how they disposed of trash in Oregon in 1946. With this, I didn’t have any cheats.
I did a lot of photographic research online, looking at archival photographs of French and Belgian towns. I looked at pictures of women and girls and their clothing especially, since Fleur and her mother are seamstresses. I read up on the changes in fashion, in France in particular, over the period of the War.
Trying to research the life of civilians and especially refugees in France during the war was frustrating: my Oregon libraries didn’t have a great deal of information on the topic, and general books about World War I tended to focus their French homefront chapters more on the politically relevant topics of dissension and pacifism, and military matters like munitions manufacture, than on the probable experience of a displaced family. I found enough references to sketch out the Jaillets’ stories, and that was enough: the story is, after all, set after Jacques’s return home, not during his exile.
– Was this story personal for you in any way?
My great-grandfather lied about his age to join the Canadian Expeditionary Force at 17, and saw a lot of action. Canada was in the war from the beginning, of course, and the stories I heard from my family had some contrast with the stories of the American experience of the Great War, but fundamentally, the war was still “Over There”. I wonder about the recovery, what it’s like to be a “homefront” that’s not far from the warfront. I wondered about the lives of people who weren’t in the war, but were still scarred by it.
– Would you say that “Small Towns” is typical of the type of fiction you write, or unusual?
Unusual! Most of my published fiction is near-future science fiction with a social bent, and much of my unpublished work is mythic fantasy. While there’s a fable element to “Small Towns”, the voice and language isn’t the language of myth, and the setting is real and researched in a way much of my fantasy deliberately isn’t. 
– What are you working on now?
I’m revising a novel draft. It’s near-future science fiction, very far indeed from Fleur’s world, but perhaps still about the limitations of the body and striving to define the life you want.

“Small Towns” appears in our Jan./Feb. 2012 issue.

Interview: Ted Kosmatka on “The Color Least Used By Nature”

*Tell us a bit about “The Color Least Used by Nature.”

From start to finish, this story probably took me longer to write than anything else I’ve ever written.  It took an insanely long time, in fact, for what was supposed to be a short little story.  While I was working on it, I kept thinking that I was only a few weeks away from finishing, so I’d burn the midnight oil in what I thought was the final push, working on it late at night after everyone in the house was asleep.  But it was like some crazy carnival fun room where the exit kept retreating from me the closer I got.  I was half afraid the darn thing was going to turn into a novel by the time I was finished.  It’s amazing how a small, simple idea can take on a life of its own.  

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

The story first came to me several years ago as an image: a man standing on a sandy shore watching his son sail away in a stolen boat.  I knew the son had stolen the boat from the father, and I knew that the father was secretly happy about it, though it was a bittersweet happiness.  I wasn’t sure what the idea meant, or how I might write a story so that the scene made sense to me, and I assumed that the need to write about it would fade eventually since I seemed to know so little about it.  But my mind kept returning to that single image again and again, so I knew there was something there.  Most of my story ideas don’t come to me in this way.  Usually, the kinds of ideas I get are what-if stories.  Or strange extrapolations from existing science.  But this felt totally different—more emotional at its core, less tied to the real world than my usual fiction.  Up till then I’d only written two types of stories: sci-fi, and semi-autobiographical literary stuff based on my time in the steel mills.  This felt like something new, and I was about five pages into it when I realized that I was writing my first fantasy story.  The idea for the walking trees came to me while I was on a hike in Hawaii, and I saw a tree with all these roots poking up out of the soil like little legs.  It seemed like the tree was ready to get up and walk.

*What kind of research went into the story?

A couple of years ago I wrote a story called “Divining Light” which extrapolates from a twist on a particular interpretation of quantum mechanics.  I had to do so much research for that story that my brain melted, and looking back now it seems like it might actually have been easier to become a real physicist than to write that darn story.  Okay, that’s totally a lie; the math required for a physics degree would have killed me.  (I still get mail from physicists and physics students, asking if the experiment in that story was actually performed.)  After finishing “Divining Light” I promised myself that my next couple of stories wouldn’t require any research at all.  Of course, it didn’t work out that way.  I can’t really help myself, and I ended up doing a ton of research for “Color Least Used,” which is part of what contributed to me taking so long to finish it.  I tried to get the details as right as I could. Even when you’re writing about a fictional island in the middle of the Pacific, it turns out that no island is an island unto itself, really, as it exists somewhere in the historical milieu of Polynesian expansion and Western colonialism.  So those are forces that have to constantly be taken into account.  I did a lot of historical research about island life in the late 1800’s, and I did my best to give as accurate a portrayal of the time period as I could.    

*Most authors say their stories are personal.  If that’s true for you, in what way is “The Color Least Used” personal?

 Oh, I’m not giving up the goods that easy.

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

I fall firmly in the “story belongs to the reader” camp, so I’d be disappointed if every reader came away with the same interpretation.  The best stories are like life in that they can be seen from many different perspectives.  No one is a villain in their own mind, right?  I have my own take on the story, of course, but that’s not to say that it is any more important than anyone else’s.  If a gun were put to my head, and I had to choose the thing that I personally took away from the story, it would be the idea that everyone is flawed in some way, and that our flaws are part of what makes us who we are.  Sometimes our greatest qualities are our flaws, and vice versa.

*What are you working on now?

I’m a full-time writer at Valve, so I’m doing a lot of video game writing.  I’m also working on another novel.

*Anything else you’d like to add?

My first novel, THE GAMES, comes out March 13th..  You can buy it in bookstores or here at Amazon:

“The Color Least Used By Nature” appears in our Jan./Feb. 2012 issue.

Interview: Naomi Kritzer on “Scrap Dragon”

-Tell us a bit about “Scrap Dragon.”

Back in the spring of 2010, there was an online fundraising auction to raise money to defray the expenses of a liver transplant for a woman I know through fandom. My contribution to the auction was the offer of a short story, written about the winning bidder or the person of their choice.  I would make them the hero (or the villain) of the story, I’d work in their interests and do my best to fulfill requests about storyline and genre. (So, for instance, if someone had a child who was obsessed with both unicorns and rocket ships, and they wanted a story in which their child was the captain of a rocket ship that discovered the Unicorn Planet, I’d do my best to write them a satisfying story with that premise.)

The auction was won by a college friend of mine, Fillard, who wanted me to write about his fiancee, Heather.  (They’ve since gotten married.)  He requested a number of themes, including dragons and scrapbooking, while leaving the actual plot and setting basically up to me.

I should note that I felt reasonably confident I could pull this off because I did something like this once before — as an 80th birthday present to my grandmother, I wrote a story in which she was the heroine.  That story, “Honest Man,” was published in Realms of Fantasy and turned into a podcast by PodCastle.  (The podcast is still available, if people are interested.)


– One of the most interesting aspects of this story is the interplay between the narrator and the child listening to the story.  How did you conceive of this narrative choice, and how difficult or easy was it for you to write?

The interplay came out of the dialogue I had with Fillard as I was trying to come up with a framework that satisfied him and that I thought I’d be able to write.  I tossed out the idea of making Heather a princess in a fairy tale and he immediately shot down the idea of a princess.  I imagined telling a bedtime story to someone really detail-oriented and exacting (like Fillard), and came up with the first two lines.  And those two lines hooked ME — I made myself laugh, and I knew instantly that THIS was a story I could write.  It’s partly a story about Heather and a dragon, and it’s partly a story about telling a story to someone with very strong opinions.

(The second voice in the story is not Fillard’s voice; it’s much more childlike and less analytical than Fillard is in real life, while also being a little more adult than a typical ten-year-old.)


– As it was an auction prize for someone to be written into a story of yours as either the protagonist or the villain, how did you find writing “Scrap Dragon” under these unusual circumstances?  Interesting or a challenge?

I found it interesting AND a challenge.  This auction prize was sort of a literary blank check; I wanted the winner to be satisfied with what they got, but there are subgenres I’ve never even read much of, and others I don’t know if I could re-create, so I was relieved that the auction was not won by someone who wanted, say, a comedy of manners starring themselves and Cthulhu.

It took me some time to come up with a framework, but once I came up with the two voices, the whole story basically clicked into place, and “Scrap Dragon” became really easy and fun to write.


– Most authors say their stories are personal.  If that’s true for you, in what way was this story personal?

Part the challenge of writing this story was that I was trying to write something intensely personal — for someone else.  The personal element for ME was the two voices: I have two daughters, who are currently 11 and 8 years old.  Both my girls are intensely curious and opinionated, so the experience of trying to tell a story while someone repeatedly interrupts to demand more detail about a tangential topic is DEFINITELY something I drew on while working on this.


– What are you working on now?

I’m working on a series of short stories (that may turn into a novel) about a teenage girl living on a seastead. Seasteading is a real thing, or at least real-ish — there are people trying to build sort of a do-it-yourself island out in the ocean somewhere so they can found their own country.  Many of these people are libertarians of the “all taxation is theft and should be illegal!” variety.  The stories are set about 50 years after the establishment of the seastead, and the protagonist, Rebecca, lives there with her father.  In the first story, “Liberty’s Daughter,” Rebecca gets asked to find a missing bond-worker (sort of an indentured servant) and it’s sort of a mystery with a dystopic setting.  This story will also be appearing in a future issue of F&SF, possibly this spring or summer, which I’m really excited about.


– Anything else you’d like to add?

I did some experimentation with self-publishing last year: I put together two short story collections and made them available for both Kindle and Nook.  They’re cheap!  If people liked my story, they might check them out.  (Most of the stories in them were previously published but there are also a couple of never-before-published stories in both.)  “Honest Man,” which is the story I wrote about my grandmother, is in the one called “Comrade Grandmother and Other Stories.”

“Scrap Dragon” appears in the Jan./Feb. 2012 issue of F&SF.

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