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Spotlight On: Joe Monti

You’re launching a new SF imprint, Saga Press. What’s your vision? Do you have a mission statement, or a particular niche you hope to fill?

I’m working with editor Navah Wolfe on the imprint, so while I do not want to speak for her, I can say that Saga Press is taking the best practices of SF/F imprints, along with select general fiction imprints and children’s/YA publishing, and incorporating them into our business.

Personally, I always like backing a dark horse. I want to explore the challenges of the field and see if there is as much room to grow something in the in-between spaces as I think there may be. In my experience, so many of the greatest successes materialize out of that space that is a trend and taking it slant. My days as a buyer for B&N taught me pattern recognition. My time as an editor may well be spent looking for that one soft spot in the marketplace dragon that I can acquire with a black arrow, again and again.

I also feel fortunate to be here now, starting Saga, in these interesting times. There’s a movement towards change in whom and what we acquire and what our present readers want to see and whom we want to reach in the reading public. A gross generalization is that publishing largely sells fiction to women and teens – yet in SF/F I think there is a lot more to do in marketing outreach to these robust and welcoming readers. So I want to work on that and it’ll be reflected in my acquisitions. A full year in, and as far as frontlist goes – all of which are not announced – Navah and I have acquired parity in male-female authors. I am also very concerned with how our list reflects the demographics of the US and the world in terms of representation of people of color, and the LGBT community. There’s more work to be done, and continuing to be done, but on our first list of four titles, which is obviously too small a subset to extract data from, Navah and I have a wide range of authors and main characters represented. I’m very proud of that and am striving to have that continue to be reflected in my acquisitions going forward.

Before joining Saga, you were a literary agent. Why did you decide to switch from representing authors to publishing them?

You know what’s funny? I get called out now on thinking like an agent by editorial colleagues and agents! The honest answer is that this is my dream job. I really cared about and for my clients, and working with the Barry Goldblatt Agency; I was happy. But when I was 17, I thought, ‘Some day, I’d like to teach English Literature or be an editor.’ Then when I was 31/32, a handful of years on the job as a buyer, Harry Potter was still booming and some of my schemes for YA were panning out explosively well, I began to know enough about publishing and refined that thought to, ‘Some day I’d like to run an imprint.’ So I laid out a plan on how I thought I could get there with my skills and experiences, and started to try to make it happen. And the result was that I failed! My plan took right turns, jug handles (as we call them in New Jersey), full stops, and a u-turn, but then it happened. Anyone who has spoken to me about the industry for any length of time, especially when I get wonky, knows I often say ‘‘When I rule the world I’ll…’’, and here’s my chance to create something, whether it be Xanadu or some evil mad scientist’s lair under a volcano remains to be seen. Fortunately I have Navah’s and my publisher Justin Chanda’s help, not to mention a pair of sharpshooter designers in Michael McCartney and Mathew Kalamadias. So the follow-up statement to this being my dream job is that I now get to roll up my sleeves and try.

In addition to being an agent and editor, you’ve worked as a bookseller and in sales for a publisher, giving you an unusual industry-wide view. What particular challenges does the publishing industry face now, and what new opportunities do you see?

Call me Pollyanna, but I think the industry, including the small press and indie publishing divisions, is so very vibrant and some great works are emerging. Forcing the traditional side to be more savvy, and the indie side to be more professional, is an environment that I think can lead to great work. On the self-published side, I have acquired Linda Nagata’s brilliant The Red: First Light, the first in a trilogy of near-future military fiction that she originally published, as well as Cat Valente’s Six-Gun Snow White, which was published in a limited run of 750 print copies from the outstanding Subterranean Press. Both have racked up nominations as our industry is wise enough to acknowledge great works from a wide set of sources.

As far as other opportunities go, well, we won the war, so here come the boom years. By the war, I mean the perpetual forever war of science fiction and fantasy being respected as art and accepted by readers is over; some just don’t know it yet. The influence of SF/F is everywhere, in so many mediums that you can not deny it. The relatively recent success of Karen Joy Fowler, George R.R. Martin, Diana Galbaldon, Neil Gaiman, Erin Morgenstern, David Mitchell, and the science fiction of Margaret Atwood are the spoils of this war; not to mention children’s and YA SF/F, which is as much a foundation for this victory. Where would we be without Tamora Pierce, let alone Le Guin and Rowling? What will the next level of SF/F be? What will the next generations of SF/F writers achieve? Maybe our massive bestseller written by a woman of color is coming in 2015. It’s enthralling to think and scheme about.

What trends are you seeing in SF and fantasy? What are you (and other SF/F publishers) looking for now, and what are they sick of getting?

I have been laying down the gauntlet that space opera is coming back in 2015 into 2016. From the success James S.A. Corey has had with The Expanse series, Anne Leckie’s Ancillary Justice, John Scalzi’s dominance of all the things from his mainstream breakout in Redshirts to the television shows in development, for all three of these authors, you add a Star Wars movie every year for the next six years and the improbable success of the most space opera pulp film in decades in Guardians of the Galaxy, and you can argue that SF literature is behind the curve! Hand in hand, I think hard SF will also come around, and I’m eager for it, minus the misogyny please!

I also have never believed that Grimdark Fantasy was a real movement as much as a catch-all net that had a hole in it. Abercrombie’s brilliant – he’s our Quentin Tarantino – but this kind of fantasy never went out of fashion as writers like Glen Cook and, later, George R.R. Martin and Steven Erikson, have been doing great work. What we were seeing was a more noir blend of fantasy with nuanced protagonists that were varying shades of grey. Kameron Hurley, Brent Weeks, and of course the stupendously wonderful Scott Lynch are other great recent successes from this movement. But I do think the attention to grimdark fantasy after GRRM’s success has neglected what was a tremendously successful movement, the return of epic fantasy that was just fun, or heroic. I’m speaking of writers like Patrick Rothfuss, Naomi Novik, N.K. Jemison, Brandon Sanderson, Trudi Canavan, Cassandra Clare, and so on. We’re paying attention to this now, and one of the most exciting things around the horizon is (Fanboy alert!) Tad Williams’s return to Osten Ard.

I also hope more socially oriented SF, like Doctorow’s Little Brother and of course, Paolo Bacigalupi’s forthcoming The Water Knife will be coming my way, as I like tilting at windmills.

Is there anything else you’d like our readers to know about you or your work?

Saga Press announced that we’ll be publishing our new titles DRM-free when we launch in 2015! I’m so very excited and pleased that Simon & Schuster is supporting Saga in this experiment. We’re following the good work of Baen, Tor, Small Beer, Angry Robot, and others as the second of the major publishers to do so, and it pleases me to know that our Saga Press e-book readers will be served well by us from the get go.

I am looking forward to sharing the joy I have for this literature with our readers.


Kameron Hurley:
Publishing’s Not Dying, It’s Diversifying (And You Should Too)

In conversation with my agent about a potential project a few weeks ago, I said something to the effect of, ‘‘But what can they give me besides a cover and copyedit? They don’t have a strong distribution platform for this kind of fiction, and they don’t have a strong structural editing team. I have a large enough following online now that I could put it up myself and make back cover and copyedit costs in a month or two.’’

It was in this moment that I realized I’d gone from, ‘‘Oh please someone give me a publishing contract,’’ to a career writer with options. For all the doom and gloom about the publishing industry during the last 20 years (or more!), what the advent and proliferation of digital platforms has given us as creators are options.

I didn’t walk into publishing as a particularly business-minded person. I knew straight away that there were folks who knew more about the business than I did, and I needed to learn what I was doing and take the advice of agents and other writers along the way. With my first novel, I found myself in the all too common situation of signing on with a publisher that was already in the slow process of melting down when we inked my first contract, and things only got worse after that.

But that forced me to interrogate exactly what I was getting from publishers going forward – and for exactly how long. Publishers, like employers or Hollywood folks or record executives, will tell you all sorts of things to get you to sign agreements with them. Their job is to get the most rights to your work for the least amount of money. I love a great many of the people in publishing, but at the end of the day, I recognize that publishers aren’t going to make me an offer on a work they don’t think they can make money from. It’s my job, as the creator of the work, to ensure I get a fair cut of that.

I’m going to say that again, for the cheap seats: it’s your job as a writer, as the president and owner of your own little writing company of one, to get the best possible deal for yourself. Radical, I know.

As the profile of my work has risen a bit the last couple of years, I’ve found myself approached by a lot more publishers and pros. I’m not running as madly after publishers, at least not so much, and it’s given me some perspective. I’ve been through the very worst publishing has to offer, with three books stuck at a publisher that isn’t quite sure how to promote them. I remember one long back-and-forth with them where I realized that if I had the license to the books back, I’d be able to sell far more of them on my own than the publisher had. And that’s an… odd feeling. Many of us are raised to respect power and authority, and to assume people in places farther up the food chain are smarter and know more than we do about our work. In some cases, that’s true, but in far too few of them. When you’ve leveled up your business sense enough to see the difference, it’s time to look at your options. You don’t have to take any offer just to say you have an offer. You don’t have to hitch your wagon to someone’s dying ox just to make a couple bucks as a writer.

I never thought I’d be in the place of turning down work, and maybe I never will be again, but for this narrow sliver of time, I find myself looking over what a publisher can give me that I can’t do myself. My work sells very well in the digital space – 60-70% of my sales are still e-book (some of this is because I have a strong online presence in genre, some of this is simply that I’ve been with publishers with a lower penetration in paper spaces so digital is often the only place folks can get my work reliably). That means that choosing a digital-only publisher does very little for me. I’d make far more money on my own mocking up a cover, hiring my own copyeditor, and posting it myself. Anyone who tells you that posting your work up online is a super complicated business (outside of iBooks, maybe) is being less than honest with you.

But publishers who can move my books into bookstores, provide strong structural editing, and pay for original covers (as opposed to the cut-and-paste stock photo type I can do myself) are giving me things I can’t do myself. They have access to book buyers in a way that I don’t.

When new writers come to me saying they signed a ‘‘book deal’’ for digital-only, I ask what editing, promotional, and marketing efforts are included in that. The reality is that as an author, you have sunk costs in this novel – a year of your life, in many cases. A publisher should have some sunk costs too, or you’re not a real partnership – you’re just paying them as a middle-man to work with Amazon and Barnes and Noble and iBooks for you. I don’t know about you, but a 75% cut of my royalties is not worth paying someone to upload a book to Amazon for me.

In a publishing environment where you can invest a few extra hours in publishing work on your own, hiring your own copy-editor, and putting together a decent cover yourself for anywhere from $500-800 instead of thousands of dollars, there should be no situation where an author loses.

Alas. We still make poor decisions sometimes.

I get the rush to publication. I know we all want to say we have a book deal, even if it’s a terrible one. But waiting for the right deal is going to save you a lot of pain later. A lot of angst. A lot of legal fees.

I suspect that if I’d come of age as a writer during a time where every midlist book was guaranteed a $20,000 advance and a $100,000 deal for a trilogy was normal, I’d feel pretty betrayed by the current state of the market, but my expectations of publishing are fairly low. My first book was accepted and then cancelled during the 2008 crash. It’s taken a tremendous amount of work and a lot of critical acclaim for me to hit what would have been considered a lower-tier advance 20 or 30 years ago. I’m okay with that.

Why?

The reason I’m okay with it is because I’ve diversified my work. I have a self-published essay collection and several pieces of short fiction. I have work in process from three different publishers, and I’m always looking for others (the more financially stable, the better).

I’ve also gotten better at deciding when a project is best for me to put up on my own and when it’s best to partner with a publisher for it. Does the publisher have a strong editorial team? Do they invest in covers? Do they have existing relationships with book buyers from major chains? Are they interested in paying for table placement of the book, and advertising it in various trade journals?

Diversification of publishing platforms also means publishers are going to need to step up and add more value. We’ve heard a lot about the death of editing, and about nonexistent marketing budgets. But with so many options available to writers now, either publishers need to re-invest in those things, or writers need to sit down and decide whether or not what they’re getting for 75% of the cut on their royalties is worth it.

I’ve been watching the self-pub/traditional publishing ‘‘wars’’ with bemusement for some time now, and the reality is most writers realize that the best approach is to invest in both. I feel fortunate to be in a position to do both. And to pick my partners wisely.


Linda Nagata: Adventure First

Linda Nagata was born Linda Webb on November 7, 1960 in San Diego CA. Her family moved to the Hawaiian island of Oahu when she was ten, and she graduated from the University of Hawaii with a bachelor’s degree in zoology in 1982. After graduation she moved to Maui and married Ron Nagata; they have two adult children.

Nagata’s first published story was ‘‘Spectral Expectations’’ in Analog (1987). Notable short works include Tiptree longlisted ‘‘Liberator’’ (1993), Nebula Award winner ‘‘Goddesses’’ (2000), and Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award runner-up ‘‘Nahiku West’’ (2012).

Debut novel The Bohr Maker (1995) won a Locus Award. Other books in the Nanotech Succession series include Tech-Heaven, Deception Well (1997), and Vast (1999). She followed those with standalone SF novels Limit of Vision (2001) and Memory (2003).

Nagata took a hiatus from writing novels for several years before embarking on her ‘‘second career,’’ self-publishing several titles through her own Mythic Island Press: YA SF Skye Object 3270a (2011); collection Goddesses & Other Stories (2011); fantasies The Dread Hammer (2011) and Hepen the Watcher (2012) in the Stories of the Puzzle Lands series (initially under pen name Trey Shiels); fantasy The Wild (2013); and military SF novel The Red: First Light (2013). The latter was a Nebula Award and Campbell Memorial Award finalist, and recently resold to Saga Press, which will reprint it as The Red and publish two sequels.


Excerpts from the interview:

‘‘The Red is a near-future military thriller, told in the voice of army infantry Lieutenant James Shelly, who commands a squad responsible for patrolling a remote district in the African Sahel. Shelley is very cynical about the reasons for war, but he’s also devoted to his duty and his squad – known as an LCS, a linked combat. The idea is that the squad is linked through a surveillance drone to what’s called Guidance, which is an office in the United States that provides background information and instant intelligence, and acts as another set of eyes on the terrain around them. They are also linked into the skullcaps they wear which communicate with a cyborg enhancement in their brains. The skullcap can pick up basic thoughts and translate them to voice which allows a very crude telepathy. The skullcaps are also used to moderate brain activity, helping to control and stabilize their emotional states. And, well, with all this cerebral enhancement, strange things begin to happen.”

*

‘‘Often writers seem to have intellectual or scholarly reasons for what they’re doing. My basic motive is, I like adventure stories. The military setting gave me a chance to write a fast-paced adventure story. That was my first priority. Beyond that I like to engage in a somewhat realistic technology that connects back to the world we live in. That’s where the skullnet/skullcap technology comes in. I read an article about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and it talked about using a drug to treat the condition. If the drug was administered near the time of the traumatic experience, it would help relieve long-term impacts from the stress that lingers in the brain and has repercussions for years down the line. There are also some studies on how neurons can be trained to react to light within the brain. I put these things together and thought, ‘If you want to keep your soldiers in top shape, you need to treat their stress immediately and guide their emotional state while they’re in the field.’ Everything grew out of that initial concept.”

*

‘‘This is the first science fiction novel of mine to see publication in ten years. I basically stopped writing for a very long time. I gradually got back into it with a couple of little fantasy novels that I self-published. With The Red I felt that I needed to get some new science fiction out in the world as soon as I could. I was enjoying self-publishing, both the speed of it, and the control, and I didn’t want to spend months shopping the novel around and then waiting a year on top of that for it to be published. As I mentioned, I had already put out a couple of short, original novels on my own, and had republished my entire backlist, and I was feeling confident. When it comes to self-publishing, I had some advantages because I had worked in website development and programming for many years. The company I worked for was tiny, so we basically did it all. So I was preadapted to do all the coding for the e-book, and I know how to do graphics work. I had taught myself basic InDesign – a page layout program – a few years before self-publishing took off, because I had always intended to republish my far-future novel Vast in a print edition. I had great plans to do a ten-year anniversary edition, which I totally missed, but the new edition is out there now with an updated cover by Bruce Jensen who did the art for the original Bantam edition. So I was able to do the work to put out my backlist myself. Other writers hire the job out, but of course that takes a bigger initial investment. When I started self-publishing, I had no idea if it would be worth the effort, if it’d be worthwhile, but I’ve really enjoyed the experience.

‘‘So with The Red, I didn’t shop the manuscript around at all. For the third time, I went straight to self publishing – and the novel did pretty well. The consensus is that it’s the first self-published novel to be a Nebula-award finalist – and now I’ve pulled it off the market! But only temporarily. The exciting news is that it’s been acquired by Joe Monti at Saga Press, who is re-publishing it along with the two sequels. So it’s been a long, roundabout road back to traditional publishing.”

*

‘‘I don’t read nearly as much as I want to. The truth is that I’m a very slow reader, and that cuts way back on what I can consume. It also makes me appreciate shorter novels. It was one of my goals, to bring The Red in at around 100,000 words. It ended up at about 116,000. I give some of my fantasy-writer friends a hard time: ‘Write shorter books!’ There are so many books I’d like to read, but they are just so long I’m put off – if I remember to check the length. With ebooks, it’s not obvious. Sometimes I start reading a book. Three or four nights go by and I realize I’m only ten percent in. It’s a frustrating feeling.”

*

‘‘Science fiction is my first love, but I like being able to do both science fiction and fantasy. In 1995 there was no self-publishing option for a career, and of course things have changed incredibly since then. I hesitate to give career advice, because everybody’s career is going to go in a different direction, but I’d say, consider all your options. I think people with the best chance of finding self-publishing success are those who can produce two or three novels a year. Some writers can do that consistently. My own rate of production is slowing down dramatically. The sequel to The Red took me most of a year to write. If you’re not a fast writer, you’re going to have a harder time self-publishing. And, definitely, if you’re going to self-publish, you need to self-publish quality work.’’


Hannu Rajaniemi: Posthuman Utopias

Hannu Jaakko Rajaniemi was born March 9, 1978 in Ylivieska, Finland, ‘‘a small town of about 13,000 people not too far from the Arctic Circle.’’ He lived there until he was 19, then went to study theoretical physics and mathematics at the University of Oulu, graduating with a science BA. He studied math at Cambridge, then returned to Finland to do his national service as a research scientist for the Finnish Defense Forces, and worked at Oulu University on cosmology. He then attended the University of Edinburgh and earned a PhD in string theory.

He lives in Edinburgh, where he is a member of the Writers Bloc spoken-word performance group, which also includes SF writer Charles Stross. A scientist and entrepreneur, Rajaniemi co-founded the ThinkTank Maths research firm in 2006, leaving the company in 2012. He has also worked with Singularity University, an organization devoted to using cutting-edge science to address major global problems.

Rajaniemi’s first SF story was ‘‘Deus Ex Homine’’ (2005). Other notable short works include Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award finalist ‘‘His Master’s Voice’’ (2008) and SF&F Translation Award winner ‘‘Elegy for a Young Elk’’ (2010, first published in Finnish in 2007, translated by Rajaniemi). A collection of linked fantasies were published as Worlds of Birth and Death (2006).

His debut novel The Quantum Thief (2011) was a John W. Campbell Memorial Award finalist, and began the Jean de Flambeur series, about a gentleman thief in a posthuman future. The series continued with Campbell Award finalist The Fractal Prince (2012) and concluded with The Causal Angel (2014). He has three standalone novels forthcoming from Gollancz.


Excerpts from the interview:

‘‘The Jean le Flambeur books have a few different inspirations. I encountered the work of Maurice Leblanc between ages eight and ten, which was my voracious reading period at the local public library in my home town. Besides the Sherlock Holmes stories, my favourite books were the Arséne Lupin books by Leblanc, which were translated into Finnish. There was a period around when I first moved to Edinburgh when I was interested in these post-singularity, posthuman ideas. Some sort of connection clicked. First of all, I read a book by Robert Axelrod called The Evolution of Cooperation, which is all about the prisoner’s dilemma, and how it turns out that certain kinds of altruistic strategies have something of an advantage. I started thinking, ‘Okay, what if there was a posthuman prison that tried to exploit that phenomenon by having this enormously large-scale simulated prisoner’s dilemma game, where prisoners would go through multiple iterations and evolve towards becoming altruistic cooperators?’ I started wondering what sort of criminals would be in the prison. Because I wanted a sympathetic character, I came back to Leblanc and his Arsène Lupin. I started thinking about Arsène Lupin in a bit more depth and realised that he’s, in a way, a posthuman. In the sense that Arsène Lupin is not his real name, it’s an identity he’s created for himself. He’s kind of superhuman in the Sherlock Holmes way, but what I’m referring to more is that in the Leblanc books he goes through one transformation after another. He assumes all these different identities. Across the course of the LeBlanc books he must have over a hundred pseudonyms of various kinds, including disguising himself at one point as the head of the police unit that investigates himself. He’s not a psychopath like his contemporary Fantomas, he’s a sympathetic character, but he does harm people by entangling them in his schemes, and it does tend to have negative results for his loved ones. When one of these schemes goes wrong and people get hurt he tries some sort of redemption, he joins the French Foreign Legion or tries to retire from a life of crime, but ends up always being trapped by the Arsène Lupin persona. Sherlock Holmes likes to describe himself as a cold inhuman thinking machine, although of course he’s not. The Lupin connection is that I started thinking about what these posthuman transformations would be like when you can edit your memories and change yourself at a much deeper level.”

*

“I read old science fiction like Verne and H.G. Wells before I read Asimov. That was also a function of what was available in Finland. Finland, for a small language group, has the benefit of quite a few translators who are very dedicated, and I’m quite happy with my Finnish translations. (I write in English.) I read Verne, Wells, Asimov, and some of the other ones that were available at the time. And Olaf Stapledon: there was a Finnish translation of Last and First Men that left a huge impression on me. Stapledon has these brain towers, for example, that engineer the next generation of human beings. I recently reread The Star Maker and I was just completely blown away. It’s an astonishing book. You can think of the universe itself as a character, ultimately. As I was getting to my teens and starting to know English a little bit better I started into Heinlein and the other classics, and Zelazny quite early on was an influence as well.”

*

‘‘I’ve always wanted to write a post-collapse story. I don’t like the way most of them are done – they’re just terrible cataclysms of disaster. We got used to this approach in The Road or The Parable of the Sower. I feel that’s a betrayal of the reality of the world and what human beings can do. In so many of these stories, within a few chapters you’ve got feral children roasting body parts by the side of the road. I’m trying to write a post-collapse story that feels more hopeful. When I was a kid I was struck by Engine Summer, which is far future but has a lovely lightness to it, even though you can see the character is living in the remnants of the modern world.

*

‘‘I’m really drawn to the intersection of mathematics and physics. Mathematics has this strange power to describe how the universe works even though it is an abstract set of concepts that can be created independently of the physical world. Doing my PhD, I teamed up with a friend of mine, Sam Halliday, who was also doing a PhD in string theory. We both realized that string theory wasn’t what we wanted to do. We wanted to explore this connection between mathematics and the real world. People we really admired were Alan Turing and John Von Neumann, who came from pure mathematical backgrounds but were able to tackle real-world problems. We started a company to do that called ThinkTank Maths, that basically specialized in solving industrial mathematics problems. We ended up doing a lot of work for Motorola, the European Space Agency, the BBC, the Royal Bank of Scotland, the UK Ministry of Defense, and other organizations like that. That was a big part of my life for seven years.”

*

‘‘Real science is an infinite source of fascinating ideas. You can come up with these interesting connections: the very reason the first book is called The Quantum Thief is that I started wondering what a futuristic gentleman thief would actually steal in a post-scarcity society. What is there to be stolen? Then I realized that quantum information can’t be copied. There’s something called the no-clone theorem in quantum mechanics stating that a quantum state can never be perfectly duplicated. If you try, you end up destroying it. Quantum information could potentially be a finite resource that could be valuable. And that’s also where the Zoku came from: the idea that their scarce resource is shared entanglement. I certainly want to leave that world alone for a while. Maybe not forever. There are many stories to be told in that universe but I think the themes I wanted to explore are so much projected into the structure of the universe that once I’ve dealt with those themes, I’m ready to move on. I have various short story ideas I’d like to explore at some point, other parts of that world that haven’t been shown in the books. But at the moment I’m working on completely different things and it feels quite exciting. I would like to write more short fiction, but time doesn’t really allow.”

*

‘‘I have a further three book contract with Gollancz, It won’t be a trilogy, but three standalone books which will all be quite different. I’m working on the first one right now. It doesn’t have a proper title yet. It is going to be an alternate history. I like to describe the genre as ectopunk, as in ectoplasm and steampunk, although it’s not really steampunk. I guess in the same way as the spacesuit story, I’ve found a very rich seam of historical facts from the 19th century, especially regarding the evolution of spiritualism and how it wasn’t just this pseudo-religious movement, but was also a theme of the thinking of 19th-century scientists, and how it sort of interacted with Darwin’s theory of evolution. Mathematicians got engaged with it and started speculating about the fourth dimension and the ether and the afterlife. There are fascinating historical characters.”


Cory Doctorow: Stories Are a Fuggly Hack

As I’ve mentioned before, stories are weird. I mean, really, really weird. Nothing that happens in a piece of fiction has any consequence in the real world. Romeo and Juliet did not live, did not die, and the ‘‘tragedy’’ they represent is objec­tively less important than the tragedy of the live yogurt culture I digested at the breakfast table this morning.

My theory is that the parts of our brains that keep track of other people and try to model them, the seats of our empathy, can be tricked into treating the adventures of imaginary people as though they were real. Even though your rational mind knows that imaginary people are inconsequential, the largely automatic, unconscious systems that organize information about the people around you in order to figure out what they’re likely to do – and that let you predict how they feel in given situations and sympathize with them – don’t differentiate between information about real people and imaginary people.

As a result, we can have profound aesthetic experiences by reading stories about imaginary people. This is a strange alchemy: combine a number of inconsequentialities and out pops something profound. It’s not gold from lead – it’s gold from wishful thinking.

These aesthetic effects, the gloriously muddled and contradictory feelings of horror and joy, of eros and terror, of rage and sweetness, are what makes art art. Art is stuff that trips those weird and complicated feelings and moves you through them.

Storytelling, then, is a fuggly (funky and ugly – that is, cool but also really weird and inefficient) hack to get you to feel stuff – make up a story about imaginary people in order to trick your naive empathy into believing that they exist so that you empathize with them and then feel some cool and difficult emotions. When you think about it, it’s weird. I mean, don’t get me wrong; I love a good story, and I tell them for a liv­ing, but it’s a very roundabout way to make your limbic system exhibit some exotic behavior.

There are other media, much more abstract media, that seemingly manage to jump straight to the feels: painting, photography, poetry, sculpture, music. Not always – all of these things can tell stories, but they don’t need to in order to make you feel things. Instead, they seem to reach right inside your skull and tickle the feeling parts of you, trig­gering cascades of intense emotion that are all the more powerful for their inexplicable nature.

Now, this stuff is all very primal and non-rational and is hard to taxonomize and rationalize and turn into something repeatable. If I can’t tell you why ‘‘Guernica’’ makes me feel Guernica-ey, then how are you supposed to improve on it in a future iteration to fine-tune the emotive effect? At least with stories, you know that if you tell a scary story, and it works, the audience will experience fear. But the emotional oomph of non-narrative art is much more mysterious, more of an art, really, and though it may be harder to systematize, when it gets in the groove, look out.

Which is why, as a ‘‘storyteller,’’ I sometimes get a little impatient with people who are really good at those other media – none of which I have any talent for, incidentally – when they rhapsodize about sto­rytelling as a way of practicing their art. That’s not because I want to jealously guard my preserve here in storyland, but because making someone feel something without all that tedious making-stuff-up is a hell of an accomplishment and it’s heartbreaking to see brilliant artists turn their back on it.

One of my favorite places to experience inchoate art is Disneyland. Readers of my books will know that I have a powerful interest in Dis­neyland and the other Disney parks as artistic expressions – immer­sive environments built to pull off that lovely non-narrative, visceral aesthetic trick. Disney itself often talks about the rides, especially the classics like Peter Pan, Small World, Haunted Mansion, and Pirates of the Caribbean as examples of storytell­ing. ‘‘Storytelling’’ is a touchstone within the company’s culture.

But the great value of these rides, the reason that they attract so many visitors for so many years, is that they are not stories. They are non­rational, non-narrative experiences that provide a kind of impressionis­tic, multisensory account of things that happened in movies that you may or may not have seen. For example, virtually no one who rides Mr Toad’s Wild Ride has seen that animated short, and Song of the South, on which Splash Mountain is based, has been suppressed for decades due to its racist themes.

If you had never seen Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, but you went to Disneyland and rode Snow White’s Scary Adventures a couple of times, there’s no way you’d be able to summarize the plot of the movie. But: I bet you’d be able to describe all the emotional beats of the movie, explaining in detail all the ways that you feel when you watch it. Because Snow White’s Scary Adventures is a fine-tuned machine for evincing emotion from its riders, using several senses and multiple media, in an immersive environment that is so effective it’s almost telepathic.

Compare this with Disney California Adventures’ Little Mermaid ride. It is an extremely rigorous, scene-for-scene retelling of the movie. Ride it even once and you’d be able to outline the whole plot. But for the most part, people who ride that one come away feeling nothing. It’s a ‘‘book report’’ ride, a sacrifice to the uncaring gods of story. On its face, I should love that ride, because it’s all animatronic robots and I love animatronics so much I’m practically a robosexual. But if you gave me a fistful of Fastpasses for it, I’d just hand them out to strangers and get in line for the Haunted Mansion.

Oh, the Haunted Mansion, my favorite. It couldn’t be built while Walt was alive – there were far too many differing and irreconcilable visions for the ride. On top of that, Walt insisted that Marc Davis (known for his character designs) and Claude Coats (known for his genius scenery design) collaborate on the ride. But Coats and Davis hated each other and couldn’t work together. When Walt died, the two men divided up the Mansion and each of them designed half; the first half, all moody and scenic, is Coats; the second half, beginning in the ballroom and absolutely, insanely crammed with characters, is Davis.

Many people have tried to graft stories onto the Mansion, and indeed there were many stories envisioned for it, dating back to the original prospectus for the ride. But it was the lack of story, and the magnificently executed atmospheric, comic, and character elements that made the Mansion into a skewer sharp enough to pierce the breast of so many who ride it (myself included) sending them back for ride after ride after ride.

I am proud and amazed to have found a niche in the world in which I get to make up fairy tales about imaginary people and get paid for it, because these apparently entertain people. I’m one of those people who loves story. But as a ‘‘storyteller,’’ I want to tell you, if you’re one of those people who can move people without all the stage business of Once Upon a Time, I envy you.


Kameron Hurley: Horror & Glory

Kameron Hurley was born January 12, 1980 in Battleground WA. She attended college at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks, then attended graduate school in Durban, South Africa, where she studied the history of resistance movements against Apartheid. After returning to the states, she lived in Chicago for four years before settling in Dayton OH. She did ‘‘all of the usual things that folks do as they’re struggling to get a real job,’’ including working at a movie theater, cleaning dog kennels, and working various admin positions. She began writing copy for a financial services company, moved into marketing copy, and is now senior copywriter at a software company. She attended the Clarion writer’s workshop in 2000.

First story ‘‘Brutal Women’’ appeared in 1998, and she has published a handful of stories since, including British Science Fiction Association finalist ‘‘Afterbirth’’ (2012). Gritty debut SF novel God’s War appeared in 2011, and was nominated for Clarke, Tiptree, BSFA, and Nebula Awards, and won a Golden Tentacle for best debut novel in the Kitschies as well as a Sydney J. Bounds Award for Best Newcomer. God’s War began the Bel Dame Apocrypha series, which continued in Infidel (2011) and Rapture (2012). Her new Worldbreaker Saga, a weird epic fantasy, began with The Mirror Empire (2014) and will continue in Empire Ascendant (2015).

Hurley is also well known for her essays, which appear in numerous venues, including Locus. ‘‘We Have Always Fought: Challenging the Women, Cattle and Slaves Narrative’’ (2013) recently won a Hugo Award for Best Related Work, and Hurley won the Best Fan Writer Hugo Award this year on the strength of her essays.


Excerpts from the interview:

‘‘All writing is practice. There’s this funny thing that ends up happening once you get published: a lot of editors and publishers will tell their authors, ‘You should blog, it’s great for your career and it’s good visibility.’ What people don’t realize is these are very different types of writing. Novel writing, blog writing, corporate copy writing. Writing a website is very different from writing a marketing e-mail. They’re specific types of writing done for specific purposes and they have their unique formulas. A lot of people think, ‘I’m a writer, I can write everything!’ Well, no, you gotta sit down and do the work. I wrote 800 marketing e-mails before I thought, ‘I’ve got this down!’ I’ve been writing novels since I was very young, for 20 years. I’m finally like, ‘Okay, I think I’ve got this down.’ ”

*

‘‘Bantam originally bought God’s War in early 2008, and then there was the whole publishing meltdown. A lot of contracts got canceled and God’s War was one of those. It’s cool, we got paid, I’m not going to knock it. We went out to sell it again and got an offer from Night Shade Books. There were some rumblings about problems at the time – they were selling e-books when they didn’t have the rights to sell e-books, stuff like that. I remember when I posted publicly that I had made the sale, I had a writer friend e-mail me and say, ‘You know they’re not paying people?’ I was like, ‘What?’ This is why I’m a big champion of people speaking to each other in the genre. Because that problem snuck up on me. The situation got worse and worse. By the time I finished my draft of the third book, I said, ‘You need to pay me what you owe me or I’m not delivering this book.’”

*

‘‘My background is the history of resistance movements, particularly women in resistance movements. That really fascinates me – how do we build different cultures that remember to put women in these positions? In the Bel Dame books, there is a lot of toxic masculinity that you recognize as toxic because women are doing those things. When you put that ‘80s action-hero mantle onto a woman, you can see the damage it does more easily. A lot of science fiction takes you out of your normal experience, and says, ‘Look. Look at how this is different.’ Maybe not the best, maybe not the worst, depending on what it is they’re reflecting back.”

*

‘‘People were really upset about how I could call it science fiction without explaining things, like, ‘How does the mass work with those shapeshifters?’ I’m not going to write a glossary. It’s an adventure story. Someone else do the science, I’m busy. I’m writing a story. Genre wars are cool, people like them – it gives people on the Internet something to do. I want to tell a story. I want to be weird and crazy and far out. If I go into a story limiting myself in any way, saying, ‘I can’t have shapeshifters because where does the mass go?’ I’m not going to write as good a story. Mine is much more of a New Weird, anything is possible, who knows what it could be? sort of approach. We forget you can have a secondary world fantasy with aliens and spaceships. The problem is, people don’t understand the difference between a secondary world fantasy with magic and spaceships, and science fiction. Because they always want an explanation. ‘Oh, what happened in our world to bring about this future?’ It’s interesting to watch people do those contortions.”

*

‘‘There’s the architects vs. gardeners approach to writing novels. I’m certainly a gardener. Throw some seeds everywhere. Who knows what will grow? The architects, that would freak them out. They could not write that way. I’m the same if I’m constrained by an outline that says, and then this, and then this, and then this. I have finally gotten to the point where I can write more quickly when I sit down and think, ‘Here are the three things that need to happen in this scene.’ Even that seems like a constraint. But I have deadlines. I’ve got a day job. I need to find ways to hack my process and work faster. I work from home two days a week, which helps. That way I can make my own schedule, which is especially nice with book promotion, podcast interviews, and so on. I write from about 7:30-9:30 in the evening. Try to do that every night. Unfortunately what ends up happening is I have a 1,500 words a day goal. If I don’t hit that I need to sit down and write 4,500 words on Saturday. That sounds very difficult, but my great dream is just to sit down for six or eight hours and write. Having an hour and a half or two at night instead of having a big block of time is hard. You really just have to find ways to hack your own process, even if you’d rather be doing it in a different way.”


Paul Park: Metafictional Demons

Paul Claiborne Park was born October 1, 1954 in North Adams MA. He attended Hampshire College in Amherst and worked in New York at various jobs – aide to city council members, construction worker, doorman, manager of a health club, and at an ad agency – while he worked on writing fiction.

He then spent two years traveling, mostly in India, Indonesia, and the South Seas, finishing first novel Soldiers of Paradise (1987), a Clarke Award finalist and first in his Starbridge Chronicles, which also includes Sugar Rain (1991) and The Cult of Loving Kindness (1991). Tiptree and Nebula Award finalist Coelestis (as Celestis in the US) appeared in 1993, followed by The Gospel of Corax (1996) and Three Marys (2003). His White Tyger fantasy series began with World Fantasy Award finalist A Princess of Roumania (2005) and continued with The Tourmaline (2006), The White Tyger (2007), and The Hidden World (2008). Sturgeon and Nebula Award-nominated novella ‘‘Ghosts Doing the Orange Dance’’ (2010) became part of All Those Vanished Engines (2014), a metafictional SF novel made of three linked novellas. Under the name Paulina Claiborne he wrote Dungeons & Dragons novel The Rose of Sarifal (2012); Claiborne also appears as a character in All Those Vanished Engines.

Other notable stories include World Fantasy and Sturgeon Award finalist ‘‘Get a Grip’’ (1997), British SF Award nominee ‘‘If Lions Could Speak’’ (2002), World Fantasy Award finalist ‘‘The Persistence of Memory, or This Space for Sale’’ (2009), and Shirley Jackson Award nominee ‘‘The Statue in the Garden’’ (2013). Some of his short fiction is collected in If Lions Could Speak and Other Stories (2002).

Park lives in Massachusetts with his wife, Deborah Brothers, married 1994; they have two children. He teaches literature and writing at Williams College.


Excerpts from the interview:

‘‘A lot of things happen in my fiction through a process of accumulation rather than design. For example, I had loose characters wandering around in my stories and I hadn’t named them yet, so I gave them the name Paul Park as a placeholder. For me, naming characters is almost the most artificial thing you do in fiction. You have a character and you think, ‘Is this Joe Doakes? Is this Francesco Bellesandro? Who is this?’ At a certain point I just called a lot of them Paul Park. I didn’t think much about it. Maybe that contradicts the possibility that this is a post-modern ploy. Stupid me! When I started to publish those stories it was natural for people to make some connection between the character and the author because we had the same name. It was something that happened by accident and turned into a pattern. As soon as there was a critical mass of those ‘Paul Park’ stories I found a way of making it into a meta text, creating a collection of stories about a mythical character who has the same name as myself. I had this character Paul Park, and for a long time his life was not at all like mine. There was some convergence, especially in the character’s written work, but the details of the life itself were very different.

‘‘From there, I got interested in the idea that you could see in somebody’s fiction, even in genre fiction or extremely mannered fiction, traces of that person’s actual life and experience. That someone could imagine they could see traces of my actual life and experience in my fiction. I found it interesting to invent another life, another experience that you could see in the same way, that you could see shadows of in the same text.

‘‘Some readers have already challenged the idea that All Those Vanished Engines is a science fiction novel, but I disagree. It’s not like every other Paul Park novel ever written, if that is even a sensible thing to say, but even so, certain elements are clearly genre elements. There are parts of it that are alternate history, parts set in the future, parts that partake of a diminished sense of the future that we’re familiar with through genre fiction. Even if, in some sense, those visions are qualified by the possibility that they’re made up, or they’re not real, or they’re constructs written by a character in the story, even so, they partake of the same tradition of science fiction. It’s more comfortable to read if you’re conversant with that tradition. I like the idea of it as a genre book. There should be a place in the genre that allows science fiction themes to express themselves in postmodern terms sometimes.”

*

‘‘Another example is the way I mixed in an actual text I wrote for an art installation in the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, on the campus of an old mill building in North Adams. The heating system of the entire complex of maybe 20 buildings was all in this one building, which was open to the weather and contained a series of enormously evocative steam generators and condensers, now liberally encrusted with rust. Instead of tearing that all out and using it as gallery space, the museum said, ‘These are astonishingly beautiful machines in their own right – what can we do with them?’ They hired a guy named Stephen Vitiello, a well-known sound artist, to figure out a sound installation as you wandered through these machines. He suggested there be some kind of story to go with it. He said, ‘There’s a writer I really like who lives in this little town of yours. I’ll do this project if I can get Paul Park to write the text.’ One of the sound elements is the narrator telling the story, in this case a made-up story, of the genesis of this particular collection of beautiful engines and what they’re really for. The Sprague Electric Company, housed in the mill, was filled with actual secret projects, especially during the second world war, that were connected to the Manhattan Project.

*

‘‘I’ve always wanted to write a post-collapse story. I don’t like the way most of them are done – they’re just terrible cataclysms of disaster. We got used to this approach in The Road or The Parable of the Sower. I feel that’s a betrayal of the reality of the world and what human beings can do. In so many of these stories, within a few chapters you’ve got feral children roasting body parts by the side of the road. I’m trying to write a post-collapse story that feels more hopeful. When I was a kid I was struck by Engine Summer, which is far future but has a lovely lightness to it, even though you can see the character is living in the remnants of the modern world.

*

‘‘All Those Vanished Engines is very much a one-off for me. There were a number of formal things I wanted to do. I wanted to involve actual stories of my family’s life, and in some sense my own life, to incorporate characters from my own life in an artificial piece of fiction. I’ve always loved the interlocking three-novella design, but I don’t think I’m going in this direction again. The story I’m working on now is much more conventional science fiction. Even in the most bizarrely metafictional sections of All Those Vanished Engines, there’s praise for the idea of the simple story simply told. That really is a desire of mine. I feel maybe I’ve exorcised the metafictional demons here.

‘‘But even so, even in a more conventionally-plotted narrative, I can tell I’ll find some room for ambiguity. One of the ways in which science fiction tends to depart from our own experience of the world is that often in a science fiction world the facts are too clear. We go to some planet and there’s an expository section that tells about the history of the place and how it works, because we need a clear sense of it in order for the story to develop correctly and make sense. But that’s different from the way we perceive the real world. The worlds of any two different people don’t really resemble each other. This is the problem with politics too. The perception of causes and effects are entirely different, there’s no agreement on what causes the same events, what the ramifications are, there is no sort of narrative that we can depend on. A lot of science fiction feels like it’s missing a level simply because we’re supposed to be able to understand the world of the story as it truly is. But there’s room for readers who question that, readers who want to add a level of perception where the characters in the story perceive the world in a way the reader of the story does not. That becomes part of the way the story is written. Not all genre readers are going to be interested in that because it requires a bit of separation from the delights of the narrative. But there is a type of reader who will appreciate something that feels closer to the way they look at their own lives. If readers are looking to science fiction as escapism, they like it because it’s separate from the way they perceive the world, or the way the world is. If they’re looking at science fiction as a series of signs and symbols that intersect with the world they actually know, then they’re open to other approaches. They’re open to metafiction.’’


Kameron Hurley:
The Status Quo Is Not a Neutral Position: Fiction and Politics

I often find myself getting asked tricky questions from new writers, but the trickiest of all is this: they want to know how I’ve managed to have a career while speaking so publicly about my beliefs and values online.

I’ve been writing on the internet since 2004, and publishing in more traditional venues since 1996. And I have a distinct set of values and politics and opinions that I bring to both my fiction and nonfiction work, of course.

Doesn’t everyone?

I explore a variety of topics quite boldly on the page, and make good use of tactical swearing. I’ve had my non-fiction work recognized with two Hugo Awards, and garnered a solid online following for speaking honestly and publicly about both my values and the realities of the writing and publishing life.

Yet one of the things I’ll hear from newer writers, and even my colleagues, is that they avoid potentially polarizing topics when writing both online and in more traditional print magazines like this one. They fear turning off a certain subset of readers. What many don’t realize is that our values are quite apparent even in our fiction – it’s in whether or not we choose to portray the status quo as heroic and normal, or challenge it. It’s in how we treat our male and female characters, and whether or not we acknowledge that there are people living between those two binary boxes. It’s in how we build future and imaginary worlds, and who we choose to put in charge of them, and how they organize themselves. It’s in whether we believe, or not, in good and evil, in a creator(s), or not. It’s in who we say our heroes should be. It’s all there, everything we believe, painted right into our stories, whether we like it or not.

Truth be told, the readers you will lose by saying all that out loud are likely going to be the same ones you would lose simply because they were turned off by your fiction.

The newer writers who approach me tend to be people who believe passionately and fervently in their sets of values, folks who feel that their work, specifically, has been called out as ‘‘political’’ while the work of their peers seems to not ruffle any feathers. I always found this strange, when people told me that the only ‘‘political’’ fiction out there was written by folks at the far left or right of the spectrum, and that somehow, the work that maintained, presented, or celebrated the status quo was free of icky sticky politics.

Oddly enough, it seems many consider fiction that upholds the status quo, that supports current politically acceptable or traditional views, as apolitical. It is, somehow, ‘‘normal,’’ and it’s the rest of us working around the margins of that that are making all the fuss. We’re muddying the clear waters. All our science fiction and fantasy should be ‘‘fun’’ people tell me. Free from anything outside the accepted norm.

Which, you know, for writers in genres which are supposedly ‘‘fantastic’’ is a deeply amusing assertion.

I expect these folks who think pure genre fiction is free from politics think we should just write about a post-racial capitalist utopia, where men are men and women are women. Because writing such a thing is not a statement of politics or morals or values, but of cold, objective fact.

Right?

But all writing is political. All art is political. If we choose to write from the viewpoint of the status quo, of ‘‘accepted’’ views of history, of gender roles, of economics, of race relations and commerce, that does not make our work any less political. It’s simply that those politics are less visible to us from where we’re sitting, because those are the politics the media feeds us, the ones the talking heads prop up, the ones the schools that were raising good little factory workers told us were not political at all, but human, and normal. They told us these views, these positions, were fact, and anything that veered from that was disruptive.

And to be disruptive, to stand out, was a grave crime indeed.

That’s us. The disruptors.

What we choose to write about – violent matriarchies, benevolent patriarchies, anarchist utopias, capitalist dystopias – cannot help but take a political position. Hierarchy is good. Capitalism is bad. Binary gender is natural. Bisexuality is natural. Or not. Freedom of information is bad. Freedom of information leads to terrorism. The state is benevolent and should be trusted to protect its citizens. The state is corrupt and must be abolished.

Intentional or not, our work expresses a certain set of values. The more they tilt away from the accepted cultural ‘‘norm’’ of values, the more visible they will be, but they’re no more or less valid expressions.

It turns out that science fiction and fantasy writers have a long and glorious tradition of political rambling, political writing, and both challenging and propping up the status quo. Heinlein’s work was deeply political, as was the work of Ursula K. Le Guin, Samuel R. Delany, Joe Haldeman, Joanna Russ, Octavia E. Butler – throw a dart at a book in your library or swipe through your e-book selections and you’ll find a writer who expresses a certain view of the world, whether it’s in conversation with or directly challenging the society they’re writing from.

New writers tend to have a deep fear of saying something wrong on the internet, and I don’t blame them – things can escalate quickly. But it is not so much the flame wars or hater comments they seem to fear, but the idea that particular editors, or publishing professionals, or colleagues won’t work with them if they know what their politics are.

And to that, I say, well, you know, as long as your ‘‘politics’’ aren’t about kicking puppies and taking away women’s right to vote and stomping on all other races and countries but your own and stripping people of their human rights, you’ll probably do fine. There is a long history of writers who have done all those things, and still managed to have careers. So you’ll be all right.

It’s true that sharing certain values with the people you work with would be nice, but at the end of the day, if you write compelling stories that people want to read, folks will work with you, even if you’re a jerk online. I know quite a few jerks online who continue to do very well for themselves. Better, however, are those with strong political opinions who are still deeply gracious, thoughtful, and compassionate human beings whom I can respect despite our differing opinion on social services and tax law.

As writers, all we have is our unique voices, views of the world, and, importantly, our passion. I write with passion. It powers everything I write. If I fear to give voice to that passion because people disagree with me, then I’m finished before I’ve ever begun, because, let me tell you, new writers – if you cannot endure criticism of your opinions, you will not be able to stand up to the criticism of even one scathing review which calls you a gutless hack. And you will get those reviews. Again and again. No matter how many awards you win or copies you sell or how much or how little you speak honestly about your politics.

So speak up. Speak loudly. But recognize that when you choose your position, you must choose it wisely. Because there’s a very good chance that we’re all going to be listening.

What have you got to say?


Nicola Griffith: The Body & the World

Nicola Jane Griffith was born September 30, 1960 in Leeds, Yorkshire, England. She went to college to study science but did not graduate, dropping out and moving to Hull, where she played in a band. She has also worked as a women’s self-defense instructor, and often teaches writing. She attended Clarion in 1988. At the workshop she met fellow writer Kelley Eskridge, and they were married in 1993, though the marriage wasn’t legally recognized at the time due to laws against same-sex unions. They were legally married in 2013, on the 20th anniversary of their original ceremony.

Griffith’s first story of SF interest was ‘‘An Other Winter’s Tale’’ in Network (1987), followed by ‘‘Mirrors and Burnstone’’ in Interzone (1988). Other notable stories include BSFA Award finalist and Tiptree Honor story ‘‘Touching Fire’’ (1993), Nebula Award nominee ‘‘Yaguara’’ (1995), and Hugo Award and Locus Award finalist ‘‘It Takes Two’’ (2009). Three of her stories were collected in With Her Body (2004).

Griffith’s debut novel Ammonite (1992) won the James Tiptree Jr. Memorial Award and a Lambda Literary Award, and was a finalist for the Arthur C. Clarke and British SF Association Awards. Slow River (1995) won a Nebula Award and another a Lambda Award. Literary crime novel The Blue Place (1998) began the Aud Torvingen series, which continued in Stay (2002) and Always (2007), all of which won awards. Her latest book Hild (2013) is a historical novel about Saint Hilda of Whitby, and was a Tiptree Honor Book, and finalist for the Nebula Award, John W. Campbell Memorial, Lambda Literary, and Bisexual Book Awards.

Griffith wrote a memoir, And Now We Are Going to Have a Party: Liner Notes to a Writer’s Early Life (2007), another Lambda winner, and edited three award-winning anthologies with Stephen Pagel: Bending the Landscape: Fantasy (1997), Bending the Landscape: Science Fiction (1998), and Bending the Landscape: Horror (2001).

Griffith and Eskridge live in Seattle WA.


Excerpts from the interview:

‘‘I like to write about women who are the subject, not objects. I like to write about women who do rather than have done to them. They might do bad things – a lot of my women do bad things – but they do them because they seem like efficient ways to deal with what’s going on. I’m very much a creature of the body. In my books, physical violence is not cartoon violence; it’s about what the body does and how it works, and sometimes how good it feels to use the power of your body. I don’t see too many people being relaxed and enjoying their bodies in that way, in real life or books. Which reminds me of one of the very first panels I was ever on, at a Worldcon in 1989. It was about sex in fiction. What happened was that everyone on the panel except me was saying, ‘Sex is embarrassing, it’s messy, and people never talk about that in fiction and we should talk about that.’ For the whole panel I sat there smiling benignly thinking, ‘You must be doing it wrong.’

‘‘A lot of my work is about the body, and how we feel, and how the world works on our bodies and our bodies work on the world. Setting is my primary joy as a writer: the world and the body in it. I think story comes from that interface, where body meets world. Sort of the way some people think mind is born at the interface of world and brain. Whether you want to call it the problem, or the circumstance, or the situation, or the setup, the place a story begins is the world.”

*

‘‘Hild was real, St. Hilda of Whitby. She founded Whitby Abbey. It wasn’t called Whitby back in the day, it was something unpronounceable in old English, Streanæshalch. Bede translates it as ‘Bay of the Beacon’ – there used to be a Roman beacon there, apparently. The more I discovered about the abbey and its role in history, the Synod of Whitby and so forth, the more I thought, ‘Who was this woman? How did she do that?’ There were no books about her, no non-fiction, no novel, fucking nothing. I couldn’t find anything much about her. So I thought, ‘Okay, I’ll write an alternate history about the Synod of Whitby.’ The Synod of Whitby really did change the course of British history and therefore all our world history. I kept coming back to this woman, though. The more I found out about the meeting that she facilitated and basically hosted, presided over, the more important I realized that was. I thought, ‘Fuck it, I’m going to have to write a book about her.’”

*

‘‘All religion is political. One’s belief is not necessarily political, but religion is. Religion is a group thing, people moving and acting, and so it has to be orchestrated. That’s politics. So all my priests, priestesses, seers, they operate politically. They have to. They’re all spin-meisters. That’s basically Hild’s job: she’s a political spin-meister. She’s really good at predicting the future because she watches how the world is, what direction people might move in when something happens. She can make well-informed guesses. Today I suppose it’s someone like Nate Silver with the blog Five Thirty Eight, who called all the election stuff, and did it by crunching the numbers. Essentially, that’s what Hild does. Instead of raw numbers she uses bits of information she pieces together from all over the place. A lot of it is such second nature to her, so instinctive – the way expertise always is – that she’s not always sure where she got the information. She sees this flight of birds and so she knows the weather must have been bad over there for them to be flocking here. She puts that together with a report she had from a spy about the crops somewhere else. She puts it all together and says, ‘Yep, there’s going to be war in about three months.’ In fact, she deliberately uses the notion of magic, people’s belief in it. She knows that to get what she wants, the results she needs, she has to use the tools at hand.”

*

‘‘I’m already working on the second book. I think there are going to be three volumes. Right now the plan is for them to fall neatly into the three parts of her life. So we have Hild until she’s 18 or 19. And then Hild from that age until she reappears in the historical record when she’s 32. The last book will be all about her life in the church and her official, recorded-as-history politics. Originally, though, this was meant to be all one book. But I got to 100,000 words and Hild was only 12, and I thought, ‘Well, that’s not going to work.’ So I’m hesitant about saying for sure. But I’m not going to go delta. I’m not going to spread the story thinner and thinner and wider and wider until it’s this vast shallow lake that doesn’t go anywhere. I’m going to keep it deep and fast-moving and cut right through the story until the end. I know what the last line is….”

*

‘‘I think science fiction is changing. Again. There’s definitely fresh air sweeping in. I like it. It’s not a bunch of white men sitting around eating white bread and talking about Leave it to Beaver anymore. The clubhouse doors are open. Science fiction no longer belongs to the same people. Who does it belong to now? Science fiction, the culture, the genre, the marketing label, whatever, was created and it can be uncreated. It can be changed. I think that’s what’s happening. Look at the ballot for the Nebula Award. Eight novels and at least two of them are not science fiction or fantasy in any accepted sense. And there are six women out of eight. The next ten years are going to be incredibly interesting. When William Gibson was inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame, he said something which really resonated with me: ‘I’m a native of science fiction but no longer a resident.’ Science fiction is the first stuff I wrote as an adult. I’m a native, it’s my native language, I just don’t always live there. I’m of it, but I’m a citizen of the whole literary world. Just as I’m no longer just a UK citizen, I’m a dual US/UK citizen, I feel like science fiction is one of my identities, and not my only one. We’re all more than one thing.’’


Yoon Ha Lee: Axions & Theorems

Yoon Ha Lee was born January 26, 1979 in Houston TX. Her family moved back and forth between Texas and South Korea, where she attended high school at Seoul Foreign School, an English-language international school. She went to college at Cornell University, majoring in Mathematics, and earned a Master’s degree in secondary math education at Stanford. She has worked as an analyst for an energy market intelligence company, done web design, and taught math.

Lee began publishing SF with ‘‘The Hundredth Question’’ in F&SF (1999), and has since published more than 40 stories, including WSFA Small Press Award finalist ‘‘The Pirate Captain’s Daughter’’ (2009), Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award nominees ‘‘Flower, Mercy, Needle, Chain’’ (2010) and ‘‘Ghostweight’’ (2012), and World Fantasy Award finalist ‘‘Effigy Nights’’ (2013). Many of her stories have appeared in Year’s Best anthologies, and several are gathered in debut collection Conservation of Shadows (2013), a finalist for the William L. Crawford Award. She also creates and writes games, most recently the browser-based game Winterstrike.

Lee lives in Louisiana with her husband and daughter.


Excerpts from the interview:

‘‘I originally wanted to be a composer. Then, in third grade, my teacher Mr. McCracken would change into a superhero costume, Story Man, and pretend to be a completely different person. I would say, ‘This is not real,’ and he would say, ‘You’re ruining the illusion.’ He had us do creative writing. Before that, I knew that everyone obviously composed music, because I composed music (though I learned later that was not actually the case), but I didn’t realize stories came from somewhere. Stories were these things that came in books, and books magically dropped into the library. They didn’t come from anywhere. Nobody made them. Mr. McCracken made me realize people wrote stories, and I thought, if people wrote stories, maybe I could write a story. I changed my mind and decided I wanted to be a writer instead of a composer.

‘‘I sold ‘The Hundredth Question’ to F&SF when I was in college, but I’ve been writing since third grade. I started submitting in sixth grade. Marion Zimmer Bradley received many of my efforts. As you may imagine, some of the stories were really terrible. Some of them I still have. But my parents divorced, and my dad remarried a woman who threw out all my stuff. I think of it as cleansing the world of really bad stories. I kept everything my sister salvaged from that situation. I’m not going to throw it out now. Between sixth and eighth grades I wrote my first novel. It was terrible Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles fanfic. I took Leonardo’s name and wrote it backwards, and that was the name of one of the characters. I thought I was so clever. It was a terrible novel, but I only have a 5,000 word snippet of it, because all the rest of it got thrown out.

‘‘I was going to write fantasy – I was really into Dragonlance and the Anne McCaffrey’s Pern stories. I know they are technically science fiction but they had dragons in them. I wrote a total ripoff of Anne McCaffrey when I was in fifth grade, except it was unicorn riders instead of dragon riders. I know. Then I read Ender’s Game. I have lots of objections to Orson Scott Card’s political views, but at the time I didn’t know any of that. I was in a tiny school library in South Korea and we only had access to a limited pool of English-language books, let alone SF and fantasy books. I read Ender’s Game and realized I wanted to write about military ethics. I was always interested in military history. I would clean out the books in the library on trebuchets and claymores and siege engines.”

*

‘‘I approach writing like it’s an equation. What is the… moral is maybe too loaded a term… but what is the thing at the end that the reader should come away with? What is the final conclusion? What is the theorem that I am trying to prove, and what are the axioms that will get me there, and how do I show the steps? I often wonder if my math professors would approve of what I’m doing with what they taught me, because it’s something I learned as a math major, how to think in that manner. A lot of people think that math is about computation, or arithmetic. It’s not just arithmetic, it’s about argumentation. It’s about forming an argument. Certain kinds of stories, especially if you write didactic stories, are a kind of argument too. You can transfer the methods from math to fiction.”

*

‘‘For my collection Conservation of Shadows, my editor Sean Wallace at Prime said, ‘Send me your list of the stories you think will work best together.’ He made his own list, and when we compared them, they were almost the same. We went with his list, because I figured he is the experienced editor, so I would defer to his expertise. I’ve seen reviews of the collection. My favorite review was on Goodreads, where someone thought the first three stories were the first three chapters of a novel. They were all excited, thinking these characters would come together and interact. Then they figured out that it was a short story collection, and they were very disappointed.”

*

‘‘I sometimes feel like readers have certain expectations because I’m an Asian-American writer. I got one Amazon review where it said that the stories had an Oriental flavor of seeking harmony instead of more traditional Western style conflict resolution. I’m like, ‘Really?’ I have pretty much not read Korean literature. I grew up with the folktales. I wouldn’t say Korean folktales are hugely different from Western folktales. There is a Korean version of Cinderella that goes pretty much the same way. The tiger stories, the seductive fox ladies. But yeah, he was talking about how conflict resolution was toward something that’s harmonious rather than logical. That’s not what I was trying to do, but if you see it, you see it. I sometimes wonder if that reader had seen those stories but with a non-Asian name on them, would they have seen the same things?”

*

‘‘I have a couple of ideas for what’s next. I’m sure my agent wants to know. I want to write a combat system based on musicology and music theory. Given my usual difficulties in explaining things clearly, this may not be the best idea. I like to compose as a hobby. People will tell me they’re really impressed that I compose, but composing is not hard. It’s like anything else, you have to practice it. Composing well is hard, but it’s hard for everyone. You have to practice until you are good at it. Everyone has an opinion about music, as they know what kind of music they like. They can hum along to things, they can find the beat. They have a relationship to music but not necessary a technical vocabulary to go along with that. The interesting challenge would be to do the space combat system in a way that the language would be approachable without going into really technical musicology terminology. Even though I like musicology. It’s still in development. I haven’t done more than exploratory work. I get bored easily. People think I am being ambitious with all these weird ideas, but the truth is I get bored, so I want to do something different from what I did before. People will ask me, ‘Will you ever write a sequel to Story X?’ I’ll think, ‘Not on your life!’ I don’t want to go back because I said everything I wanted to say. I want to go on and do something new. The trilogy was odd because I had something I wanted to say after the first book. I broke the world and thought, well, there are consequences to doing that, so maybe I can break some different things.’’



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