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Friday, November 27, 2009

Jack Skillingstead: Watchmaker

John Skillingstead was born in a working-class suburb of Seattle WA. He attended community college from 1974-76 before dropping out to work in a cannery in Alaska. He also lived a year in Maine, where he eventually returned to marry Kathy Scanlon in 1985; they later divorced, but have two children, aged 18 and 20. Skillingstead now lives in Seattle, and works for Boeing.

In 2000 Skillingstead entered a writing competition sponsored by Stephen King. A year later he learned he was one of five winners. In 2003 he began publishing stories in small-press magazines, but his first professional sale was Sturgeon Award finalist "Dead Worlds" to Asimov’s (2003). He has since published around 30 stories, most in Asimov's but also appearing in F&SF, Realms of Fantasy, assorted anthologies, On Spec, and Talebones. His first collection, Are You There and Other Stories, was published by Golden Gryphon this year, and Fairwood Press just published his first novel Harbinger.

Excerpts from the interview:

“I began writing about age 12, in a haphazard way. When I was a kid, I had the idea I'd like to write. Back then it was more of an optimistic idea. As for learning to write, I learned by doing. In my early twenties I tried to take stories apart like watches. I would find a story I kind of liked (but not one that I was in love with) and I would type it up so I could see what it looked like as it came out of the typewriter -- this was before computers. It looks crappy, right? That took a little bit of the mystery out of things, because it didn't look as perfect as it did in print. I think this is something students lose now. In fact, if I ever teach Clarion I'm going to make them write stories longhand! If your story looks perfect, like it's set in type, you might start thinking it is perfect. But if it looks crappy, like a line of typewriter type or something in a notebook, you're forced to really concentrate on what you're saying, word by word.

“I would do this, type out published stories, and then I would go through paragraph by paragraph, analyzing in very basic terms what the story was doing, and I'd think, 'Why did I like this so much?' Sort of like doing an autopsy on a body. Say there's some guy you like, your best friend, even, and you go to work at the morgue one day, and there he is on the table. You're cutting him up, removing his organs, weighing and measuring, but you can't figure it out -- why was he so magical, wonderful, intelligent yesterday, and now he's a corpse? Taking these stories apart had that effect. In some ways the exercise didn't really help, because I couldn't see where the magic was. I could see that some writers I was in awe of weren't writing sentences much better than mine. That helped.”


“I got serious about writing around the time I returned from Alaska. Twenty years old, I guess. I worked in a restaurant, bartended for a few years, while I wrote stories. Then I moved to Maine and I thought, 'I'm going to be a writer, no matter what.' Ten years later I was still saying that, only now I was married and had kids, and I had to make some money, so I joined the union, took these soulless factory jobs that grind you down over time in a serious way. Vonnegut said in one of his essays that such jobs aren't particularly soulless, and I guess he was right. Though I note he quit G.E. as soon as The Saturday Evening Post started paying him real money for his short stories. Anyway, I always had the belief, 'Eventually, I'm going to break through. I'm going to make it.' I mean, you have to believe that, right? Working at dead-head jobs forces you to construct a self-image based on who you believe you are inside as an artist or writer, and the rest of your life orbits around that. It's a matter of self-invention. I didn't want a real career outside of writing. I didn't want the distraction.

“I wrote eight novels, probably a million words or more, including the short stories, and I couldn't get anywhere. (I sold some of the stories later to On Spec, but they'd been bouncing around for years.) All but one of the novels were genre, but they weren't all science fiction. There were serial killer novels, detective novels. My best failed novel was a weird fantasy involving masturbation as a means of communicating between a Japanese barista in our world and a guy trapped in an alternate reality created inside the mind of a psychotic homeless man. That one I still have hope for! It's a love story.”


Harbinger is kind of a Rorschach novel. The way you see key elements depends on what you expect or want. That's deliberate, a design intention. And it's thematically consistent with the story. Is this going on, or is that going on? Do we have to know? What counts is, you're on board for the trip. The kiss at the end does mean something important. In so-called real life, it's the same thing, right? What the hell is going on here, do I really love my wife, do my kids really love me? Time seems to stretch or contract, depending on God knows what. Your job feels meaningless. You look at the people around you, all these people, and you wonder how can they be individual personalities? The chaos of the world. It seeps in. Then you have this human moment, this gentle little thing, a kiss, for instance, and the world falls into place around that and it's okay to go on, to get on with it all.

“My other book is Are You There and Other Stories. This collection contains most of my short fiction published since 2004. And the book is just wonderful -- I mean as a physical artifact, the binding, the cover art, the type and design. You crack it open and bury your nose in it, just smell the paper. How does this happen? Golden Gryphon was a long-shot for me, considering the short time I've been publishing. But here's the way reality can bend around your ambition. Some years ago I was in a local independent bookstore, and I was looking at Jim Kelly's Strange But Not A Stranger collection, and I thought, 'God damn that's a beautiful book. What if I had one of those?' Now I do. The big New York publishers, unless you're selling in really huge numbers, I don't think they give this kind of attention to detail anymore. I guess they can't, because of the expense or whatever.

“The stories in Are You There form a picture of a certain type of personality, what my girlfriend calls 'tortured lonely guy' and I call 'the outsider.' Obviously that term is nothing I came up with. Meursault is an outsider, Raskolnikov -- these guys that have a little trouble connecting, right? At least my characters aren't estranged to the point of murder, unless it's self-murder, suicide.

“But now I feel I might be done with that approach, and it's very scary. What's next? I've been writing new stories, building up a backlog that eventually I'll get around to submitting. First I have to figure out what I'm doing all over again.”

Comments are welcome...

Photo by Amelia Beamer

Jack Skillingstead

Read the complete interview, and biographical profile, in the November 2009 issue of Locus Magazine.

november cover

US/Canada readers may purchase this issue for $6.95 + $3 shipping -- click the PayPal button to order.

Overseas readers -- please query, or phone at (510) 339-9198, to send a check or place a credit card order for this issue. (Or, Subscribe.)


Friday, November 20, 2009

Cory Doctorow: Riding the Wave

Cory Doctorow was born in Toronto, Canada. He made his first semi-pro sale at 17, and his first professional story, "Craphound", appeared in Science Fiction Age in 1998. He won the Campbell Award for Best New Writer in 1999, and novelette "0wnz0red" was nominated for a Nebula in 2004. "I, Robot" (2005) was a Hugo and British SF Award finalist, and won a Locus Award, as did "When Sysadmins Ruled the Earth" (2006) and "After the Siege" (2007).

First collection A Place So Foreign and Eight More (2003) won the Sunburst award in 2004, and more short work was collected Overclocked: Stories of the Future Present (2007). His next collection With a Little Help from My Friends is an experiment in self-publishing, coming in 2010. Other stories were adapted as comics in Cory Doctorow's Futuristic Tales of the Here and Now (2008).

Locus Award-winning first novel Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom appeared in 2003, followed by near-future SF Eastern Standard Tribe (2004) and urban fantasy Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town (2005). He achieved his greatest success with New York Times bestselling YA Little Brother (2008), which won the Campbell Memorial Award, Prometheus Award, and Sunburst Award, and was shortlisted for the Hugo and Nebula Awards. It was also adapted as a stage play. Adult novel Makers appeared in October 2009 (and was earlier serialized at, and YA novel For the Win (an expansion of story "Anda's Game") is forthcoming.

Some of his essays were collected in Content: Selected Essays on Technology, Creativity, Copyright, and the Future of the Future (2008). He is a contributor to popular blog Boing Boing, "a directory of wonderful things," and co-edited anthology Tesseracts Eleven with Holly Black (2007).

Doctorow was European Affairs Coordinator for the Electronic Frontier Foundation until 2006, when he quit to write full time. He remains a Fellow of the EFF, and acts in an advisory capacity. He was named the 2006-2007 Canadian Fulbright Chair in Public Diplomacy at the USC Center on Public Diplomacy, and did a one-year writing and teaching residency at USC (2006-07).

Doctorow lives in London with wife Alice Taylor (married 2008) and their daughter Poesy Emmeline Fibonacci Nautilus Taylor Doctorow.

Excerpts from the interview:

“In January of last year I looked at my wife and said, 'Do you realize, in the last 18 months we got married three times on two continents, had a baby, changed countries, you changed jobs, I wrote two books, published three books, went on a book tour, we went on our honeymoon, and I spent a month researching the next book in India and China?' Yeah, that was a busy 18 months!

“When I started at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, I told my boss, 'I'm only going to do this to the point where it doesn't interfere with writing. If -- when -- the writing expands to that point, I'm going to resign in good conscience, rather than come to a point where I'm either neglecting you or resenting you.' When I did resign, my boss was absolutely delighted, because it meant I was succeeding. I remained on board as a Fellow of the organization, which put me inside the confidentiality circle of attorney-client privilege, but I don't take a salary anymore. I continue to raise funds, make substantial donations, and work on campaigns and cases with them.”


“This mythological Edenic period in which all you do is write and the world ceases to hammer at your door never emerged, nor I think will it ever. I don't think anyone has that life -- at least not that I know of. If I want to be totally honest with myself, I don't know what I would write about if I didn't have all this other stuff going on in my life.”


“I'm going to be doing more YAs after Little Brother. I'm just finishing For the Win, basically a novelization of 'Anda's Game'. It's about union organizers and video games, set in Southern California, the Pearl River Delta of China, and Mumbai, India, along with bits of Singapore and Malaysia. Kids are forming a global union called the Industrial Workers of the World Wide Web. After that will be another YA called Pirate Cinema, about kids who decide the entertainment industry is an existential threat to democracy and set out to destroy it.

“My adult novel Makers came out recently. One of the things it's about is something I also wrote a Locus essay about: the idea that there's such a thing as progress. I think what there really is, is change; specifically, there really isn't technological progress, merely technological change. What that change does is disrupt status quos, and every status quo has its in-group and its out-group. There are always people who benefit from a different status quo than what we labor under at any given moment, and technology gives an advantage to people who want to undermine the status quo. The status quo is much harder to defend with technology than it is to disrupt with technology.”

Comments are welcome...

Photo by Amelia Beamer

Cory Doctorow's

Read the complete interview, and biographical profile, in the November 2009 issue of Locus Magazine.

november cover

US/Canada readers may purchase this issue for $6.95 + $3 shipping -- click the PayPal button to order.

Overseas readers -- please query, or phone at (510) 339-9198, to send a check or place a credit card order for this issue. (Or, Subscribe.)

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Friday, November 6, 2009

Cory Doctorow: Teen Sex

My first young adult novel, Little Brother, tells the story of a kid named Marcus Yallow who forms a guerilla army of young people dedicated to the reformation of the US government by any means necessary. He and his friends use cryptography and other technology to subvert security measures, to distribute revolutionary literature, to liberate and publish secret governmental memoes, and humiliate government officials. Every chapter includes some kind of how-to guide for accomplishing this kind of thing on your own, from tips on disabling radio-frequency ID tags to beating biometric identity system to defeating the censorware used by your school network to control what kind of things you can and can't see on the Internet. The book is a long hymn to personal liberty, free speech, the people's right to question and even overthrow their government, even during wartime.

Marcus is 17, and the book is intended to be read by young teens or even precocious tweens (as well as adults). Naturally, I anticipated that some of the politics and technology in the story would upset my readers. And it's true, a few of the reviewers were critical of this stuff. But not many, not overly so.

What I didn't expect was that I would receive a torrent of correspondence and entreaties from teachers, students, parents, and librarians who were angry, worried, or upset that Marcus loses his virginity about two-thirds of the way through the book (secondarily, some of them were also offended by the fact that Marcus drinks a beer at one point, and a smaller minority wanted to know why and how Marcus could get away with talking back to his elders).

Now, the sex-scene in the book is anything but explicit. Marcus and his girlfriend are kissing alone in her room after a climactic scene in the novel, and she hands him a condom. The scene ends. The next scene opens with Marcus reflecting that it wasn't what he thought it would be, but it was still very good, and better in some ways that he'd expected. He and his girlfriend have been together for quite some time at this point, and there's every indication that they'll go on being together for some time yet. There is no anatomy, no grunts or squeals, no smells or tastes. This isn't there to titillate. It's there because it makes plot-sense and story-sense and character-sense for these two characters to do this deed at this time.

I've spent enough time explaining what this "plot-sense and story-sense and character-sense" means to enough people that I find myself creating a "Teen transgression in YA literature FAQ."

There's really only one question: "Why have your characters done something that is likely to upset their parents, and why don't you punish them for doing this?"

Now, the answer.

First, because teenagers have sex and drink beer, and most of the time the worst thing that results from this is a few days of social awkwardness and a hangover, respectively. When I was a teenager, I drank sometimes. I had sex sometimes. I disobeyed authority figures sometimes.

Mostly, it was OK. Sometimes it was bad. Sometimes it was wonderful. Once or twice, it was terrible. And it was thus for everyone I knew. Teenagers take risks, even stupid risks, at times. But the chance on any given night that sneaking a beer will destroy your life is damned slim. Art isn't exactly like life, and science fiction asks the reader to accept the impossible, but unless your book is about a universe in which disapproving parents have cooked the physics so that every act of disobedience leads swiftly to destruction, it won't be very credible. The pathos that parents would like to see here become bathos: mawkish and
trivial, heavy-handed, and preachy.

Second, because it is good art.  Artists have included sex and sexual content in their general-audience material since cave-painting days. There's a reason the Vatican and the Louvre are full of nudes. Sex is part of what it means to be human, so art has sex in it.

Sex in YA stories usually comes naturally, as the literal climax of a coming-of-age story in which the adolescent characters have undertaken a series of leaps of faiths, doing consequential things (lying, telling the truth, being noble, subverting authority, etc.) for the first time, never knowing, really knowing, what the outcome will be. These figurative losses of virginity are one of the major themes of YA novels — and one of the major themes of adolescence — so it's artistically satisfying for the figurative to become literal in the course of the book. This is a common literary and artistic technique, and it's very effective.

I admit that I remain baffled by adults who object to the sex in this book. Not because it's prudish to object, but because the off-camera sex occurs in the middle of a story that features rioting, graphic torture, and detailed instructions for successful truancy.

As the parent of a young daughter, I feel strongly that every parent has the right and responsibility to decide how his or her kids are exposed to sex and sexually explicit material.

However, that right is limited by reality: the likelihood that a high-school student has made it to her 14th or 15th year without encountering the facts of life is pretty low. What's more, a kid who enters puberty without understanding the biological and emotional facts about her or his anatomy and what it's for is going to be (even more) confused.

Adolescents think about sex. All the time. Many of them have sex. Many of them experiment with sex. I don't believe that a fictional depiction of two young people who are in love and have sex is likely to impart any new knowledge to most teens — that is, the vast majority of teenagers are apt to be familiar with the existence of sexual liaisons between 17-year-olds.

So since the reader isn't apt to discover anything new about sex in reading the book I can't see how this ends up interfering with a parent's right to decide when and where their kids discover the existence of sex.

From the November 2009 issue of Locus Magazine


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