Q&A with Lia Swope Mitchell

Lia Swope Mitchell’s “Rena in the Desert” [in our March/April issue, on sale now] explores the difficulty of transitions, a theme Lia identifies as resonant with both her own life and the current condition of the United States as a whole. She took the time to talk with us about the uncertainty of the future, editing with an eye toward connecting with readers, and her work as a translator.


 

Asimov’s Editor: How did this story germinate? Was there a spark of inspiration, or did it come to you slowly?

LSM: This story grew relatively quickly from its very prosaic title: “Rena in the Desert” is quite simply the story of Rena, who is crossing the arid landscape of the Great Basin, on the way from Chicago (in the now oppressive and authoritarian United States) to Tahoe (where refugees arrive in the newly independent Pacific Coast). Of course, driving through the desert isn’t as easy as she’d imagined. When she arrives at what seems like an oasis, she finds a little girl who lives, apparently alone, in an automated motel.

AE: What is the story behind this piece?

LSM: I wrote this story at the same time that I was working on the final chapter of my dissertation. It took me a long time to finish my PhD, in large part because I didn’t know what I would do after graduate school, and the conflict that I was feeling then is what I see now as the central theme of “Rena in the Desert.” It’s a story about the difficulty of making a transition, of leaving the situation you know—which may seem quite comfortable, or at least have the comfort of familiarity, even as it becomes less and less stable and sustaining. When you recognize that the status quo is no longer tenable, change—however difficult or unknowable it might seem—becomes the only real option.

AE: Is this story part of a larger universe, or is it stand-alone?

LSM: While “Rena in the Desert” is a stand-alone story, I can imagine writing more in this or a similar setting; it’s partly an extrapolation from certain currents in the culture of the United States today, as well as influenced by other things I’ve seen or read. So it may continue to feel relevant for future works.

AE: How much or little do current events impact your writing?

LSM: My writing certainly reflects my understanding of the state of the world. Continuing with the theme of transition in “Rena in the Desert,” and beyond my personal situation: while things are always changing, my impression is that the United States, and maybe the whole world, is in a more volatile transitional period than I have previously known. There’s a lot of competing visions of the future, and some of the potential roads look pretty rough. But it’s impossible to stand still, and equally impossible to return to the past—so all we can do is hope to find the best way forward.

AE: What is your process?

LSM: When I’m drafting a story, I try not to think too hard about anything outside of the story—I think about the characters, the plot, the prose, etc. But throughout the revision process, I usually ask myself: how does this relate to my life and my state of mind? What are its main questions and themes, and how can the story communicate those more clearly? This is less about transmitting a specific message and more about opening the story up for the reader, creating a sort of mental connection between them and me. My hope is that this process results in something that is, first and foremost, a good and satisfying story, but also a story with depth and resonance, that makes contact with the reader and leaves them with something more.


There’s a lot of competing visions of the future, and some of the potential roads look pretty rough. But it’s impossible to stand still, and equally impossible to return to the past—so all we can do is hope to find the best way forward.


 

AE: How do you deal with writers’ block?

LSM: Often if I’m stuck it’s because something isn’t working and I don’t know what. Sometimes it helps to change something up: add a character, switch perspectives, work on the setting, do some research. Other times it’s better to accept that I’m stuck and do something else, and come back to the work when I’m ready. This can slow things down a lot, to be honest. Maybe I don’t deal with it the best way!

AE: What other projects are you currently working on?

LSM: I have several projects lurking around. There’s an almost-done novella and a couple stories that I’ve completed but that need significant revisions. I’ve also written some new things recently that I want to ferment a while before I return to them. 2019 involved a lot of final work on my dissertation and a lot of translation work, so unfortunately my fiction was on the backburner more than I liked.

AE: What other careers have you had, and how have they affected your writing?

LSM: I work as a freelance translator, of mostly scholarly and literary works. Over the past year I’ve been working on a short novel by Antoine Volodine—in French it’s Alto Solo, and in English it may or may not be Solo Viola—which will come out from the University of Minnesota Press. I’ve also been working on some private commissions, works by a contemporary Belgian poet and a pacifist Jesuit priest from the mid-twentieth century. Very different voices, very different frames of reference, and all challenging in different ways. Translation is great writing practice, because it develops an attunement to all those different voices—and the varying registers they have—and how those differences can be conveyed through all the nuances of language. In fact, I’d recommend translation as practice for any writer with even just a reading knowledge of a second language.

AE: How can our readers follow you and your writing?

LSM: Website: http://www.liaswopemitchell.com. Twitter: @lswopemitchell.


Lia Swope Mitchell is a writer and translator from Minneapolis. She recently earned her PhD in French from the University of Minnesota by writing about visual technology and representations of the body in French speculative fiction from 1865 to 1926. Her short fiction includes appearances in Apex, Cosmos, Terraform, and Shimmer. Lia’s first book-length translation, Georges Didi-Huberman’s Survival of the Fireflies, appeared in 2018 from the University of Minnesota Press. In the turbulent future of her first story for Asimov’s, we learn of an odd encounter for . . . “Rena in the Desert.”

The Dell Magazines Award for Undergraduate Excellence in Science Fiction & Fantasy Writing – 2020

This year’s Dell Magazines presentation was held via Zoom on Saturday, March 21st at 7 p.m. EDT. Enjoy this video of award-winner Rona Wang reading her story “Imitation Game.”


 

The International Association for the Fantastic in the Arts and Asimov’s Science Fiction magazine have named Rona Wang of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology the winner of the 2020 Dell Magazines Award for Undergraduate Excellence in Science Fiction and Fantasy Writing, for the story, “Imitation Game.”

Rona Wang

Rona Wang

First Runner-up for the 2020 award is Cyrus Lloyd of Vanderbilt University for the story, “The Death of F209-5.”

Cyrus Lloyd big.jpg

Cyrus Lloyd

Second Runner-up for the 2020 is a tie between Kaley Mamo of Columbia University for her story, “The Bendix Diner,” and Wenmimareba Klobah Collins of the University of Puerto Rico–Rio Piedras Campus for the story, “Journey From Middle to Nowhere.”

Kaley Mamo

Kaley Mamo

Third Runner-up for the 2020 award is Grace Yang of Indiana University—Bloomington for the story, “Dragon Fall.”

GraceYangPic

Grace Yang

Honorable Mentions for the 2020 award go to Clair Spaulding of Columbia University for the story, “Halfsies,” Alexandra Rose Nagele of the University of Pennsylvania for the story, “Cell Culture,” Moe Kirkpatrick of the University of British Columbia for the story, “Ode to Andromeda,” C.E. McGill of North Carolina State University for the story, “Things to Bring, Things to Burn, Things Best Left Behind,” and M.H. Chau of Brown University for the story, “The Last Deer in Heaven.”

20200319_075450

Claire Spaulding

IMG_1978

Alexandra Rose Nagele

Charlie McGil

C.E. McGill

 


The deadline for submissions for the 2021 Dell Magazines Award is 11:59 p.m. on Tuesday, January 5, 2021. Submissions should be made through the award’s website at www.dellaward.com. The award also has a site on Facebook. For more information or submission guidelines contact Award Director Dr. Rick Wilber (Rickwilber@tampabay.rr.com) or see the magazine’s website.

The International Association for the Fantastic in the Arts is a worldwide network of scholars, educators, writers, artists, filmmakers, critics, editors, publishers, and performers who share an interest in studying and celebrating the fantastic in all artforms, disciplines and media: literature, art, film, drama, music, philosophy, religion, the sciences, popular culture, and interdisciplinary areas. IAFA publishes an interdisciplinary quarterly, Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts, the IAFA Newsletter, and an annual IAFA Membership Directory. IAFA also sponsors and organizes the annual International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts (ICFA), which hosts the world’s broadest and largest selection of scholarly papers on the fantastic and has become the major forum for the exchange of ideas and dissemination of scholarship on the fantastic.

The Dell Magazines Award for Undergraduate Excellence in Science Fiction and Fantasy Writing is co-sponsored by Asimov’s Science Fiction magazine and the International Association for the Fantastic in the Arts and supported by Western Colorado University’s Graduate Program in Creative Writing, Low-Residency MA and MFA, Genre Fiction Concentration.

 

 

Q&A with Garrett Ashley

Garrett Ashley counts mold and decomposition among his sources of writing inspiration. This is reflected in his unsettling story “Skin” [in our March/April issue on sale now]. Below, Garrett discusses his literary influences, “Skin”‘s origins, and its transformation into a longer manuscript.


Asimov’s Editor: How did “Skin” germinate? Was there a spark of inspiration, or did it come to you slowly?

GA: Normally, when I get the spark to write something, I’m able to do it quickly, but I’m currently teaching classes and finishing a PhD, so I’ll take any time I can get these days.

As for inspiration, I love working with prompts. Give me a weird prompt, and I can at the very least get words on paper—good or bad. “Skin” began with a prompt. I wish I could remember what it was exactly: something about a stranger on a bus. There’s a scene on a bus roughly midway through “Skin” that I had so much fun writing I decided to do more with it. That means I had to write in both directions from the original material I’d started with. This sort of thing is painful to me, so it took me a few months to get the story right.

AE: Do you particularly relate to any of the characters in this story?

GA: I think the characters in this story and many of the stories I write think as I would think, do as I’d do—maybe if I were a lot braver. I do try to push away from making my characters look/feel too much like myself, in any case. It gets boring writing about myself all the time.

AE: How did the title for this piece come to you?

GA: I’m really bad at titles. I remember hearing Ray Bradbury speak about planning his stories—he liked to start with titles. He’d make a list of them and create stories around his titles. I wish I could do that. This story is about synthetic “skin,” so I titled it that way because I had no idea what else to call it.

AE: Who or what are your greatest influences and inspirations?

GA: My favorite weird writer to ever blow my mind is Tatyana Tolstaya. I wish I had written The Slynx. Anyone who is able to inject weirdness into their work not just for the sake of weirdness, but to have it move the story the way Tolstaya does, is super inspiring. I’m also really into Romana Ausubel, although I haven’t been able to read her new collection of stories yet. Aside from reading inspirations, I love dioramas, models, maps, food, plants, mold, decomposition.

 


It took me a long time to realize that characterization doesn’t belong just to people.


 

AE: Are there any themes that you find yourself returning to throughout your writing?

GA: Animals, our relationship with the natural world, etc. To add to my list of inspirations, Sharona Muir’s Invisible Beasts really changed the way I wanted to incorporate non-humanity into my writing. It took me a long time to realize that characterization doesn’t belong just to people.

AE: How do you deal with writers’ block?

GA: I have a shelf with a dozen or so books that I’ll turn to for writing energy. Maybe I’ll pick up random books and read all the first sentences and get inspiration that way. I think my problem, too, is that slow days are usually rooted in the sentence level.

AE: What other projects are you currently working on?

GA: In addition to finishing my dissertation (hopefully it’ll be defended by the time this comes out), I’m turning “Skin” into a longer manuscript. To be honest, having this piece taken by Asimov’s was incredibly validating to me—I want to explore more of the world these characters inhabit, and I’ve always hated the feeling of being done with something once it’s gone through the submissions process. I’ve been able to stick with this manuscript the longest of all the work I’ve started, and I should be done with it by the summer. I wrote a scene recently featuring a colony of mold under a house: the mold is studying a woman living there, preparing to become human itself. This is some of the most fun writing I’ve ever done, and hopefully it’ll work for whomever I can trick into reading it first.

 AE: What are you reading right now? What do you want to read?

GA: Journals, mostly, when I’m not doing school-related reading. Recent fun reading includes Anne Carson’s Nox and Micah Hicks’s Break the Bodies, Haunt the Bones, which is an incredible book. In addition to my writer’s block shelf, I have a “to read” shelf, which includes Lavie Tidhar’s Central Station, Famous Men Who Never Lived by K. Chess, and Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s Roadside Picnic.

AE: Do you have any advice for up-and-coming writers?

GA: There are a couple things I wish I would have been told at an early stage: One, don’t get too hung up on subgenre, literary vs. speculative, etc. Write what you want to write, and if you have a reader or two that thinks it might be categorized as science fiction, or fantasy, or whatever, then you can try submitting it as such. I’ve never had much success with starting in on a project with a particular subgenre in mind.

And two, break the ice on submissions early, and get your first rejection out of the way. Don’t keep working on something until it’s dead and you’re out of energy and love. I know a few people who’ve done that.

AE: How can our readers follow you and your writing?

GA: I can be found on Twitter @GAAshley1. I’m also building a website at https://garrettashley0.wixsite.com/writer.


Garrett Ashley’s stories have appeared or are forthcoming at Asimov’s Science Fiction, Analog Science Fiction and Fact, Sonora Review, Reed Magazine, and DIAGRAM, among others. The short fiction collection in which “Skin” appears, My Grandfather Ran Off to the Woods, was a semifinalist at The Journal‘s 2019 Non/Fiction Collection Prize. He’s currently working on a novel.

Q&A with Nancy Kress

“Semper Augustus” [in our March/April issue on sale now] continues Nancy Kress’s decades-long tradition of writing about economic disturbances caused by automation. Read on to learn how the story also connects to tulips, how Nancy can tell when a story in progress has taken a wrong turn, and what her ideal society looks like.


 

Asimov’s Editor: How did “Semper Augustus” germinate? Was there a spark of inspiration, or did it come to you slowly?

NK: Any piece of fiction has multiple sources. In one way, everything a writer has ever experienced, read, seen, or heard is a source, in that these things stock the deep well of the mind from which stories flow. But that’s a pretty general statement, isn’t it? For this story specifically, I was concerned with the condition of the United States right now. We have greater, and nastier, political divides than I have ever seen before. We have enormous income inequality. We have increasing automation putting people out of well-paying jobs, and that is likely to increase.

I wanted to write a story about these things, and I wanted in particular to make the fictional situation as complex as real life can be. Revolution—as history shows us—can start by aiming for justice but also include leaders more interested in power than justice. Aristocrats, as history also shows us, may disdain and exploit those on the bottom of the socioeconomic heap, but exploiters are not one-dimensional: they have personal lives, affections, fears and failures. I don’t like fiction with unnuanced villains or heroic paragons. It feels false to reality.

As Jennie moves through various strata of society, she sees all of this complexity. She learns from it. Initially, I thought Cora might be the protagonist. But as the story grew—slowly—I learned more about what I wanted to say. Cora isn’t really capable of learning. Her daughter is. So Jennie became my focus.

And the tulips? I’m fascinated by the stock-market-like frenzy over trading tulip futures in 1600s Holland. It was so bizarre—future tulip bulbs, those that promised to be “broken” into new color patterns, sold for today’s equivalent of thousands of dollars. And the new colors were the result of a virus that eventually wrecked the plants! Unknowingly, the tulip madness was rewarding disease. There was my metaphor.

AE: Is this story part of a larger universe, or is it stand-alone?

NK: The novella is very much a stand-alone, but it does have an antecedent. In 2017 I published a story called “Dear Sarah,” in Jonathan Strahan’s anthology Infinity Wars. The background of that story was the same as that of “Semper Augustus:” a country whose economy becomes concentrated in the few who could exploit advanced alien technology, with a resulting revolution by the poor and militant. The protagonist of “Dear Sarah,” however, is a far different person from Jennie, and she makes far different choices.

In another sense, even my novel Beggars in Spain is connected to these stories, in that since the 1990s I’ve been writing about economic disturbances caused by automation.

AE: Do you particularly relate to any of the characters in this story?

NK: Weirdly, I relate to Gran. She’s a bad mother (which I hope I was not), a marginally better grandmother, harsh and controlling. But she does the best she can in impossible circumstances, and the central piece of advice she gives Grace, Cora, and Jennie is as true as anything I know: “Do what you have to, but be prepared for the shit you get doing it.” A definition, in its own way, of heroism.

AE: How did the title for this piece come to you?

NK: I am not good at titles. Usually my husband, writer Jack Skillingstead, ends up titling my work for me. But in this case, the name of the most famous tulip in the 1600s frenzy, the red-streaked Semper Augustus, fit the story. “Always Augustus”—but nothing is forever. Especially not society as we think we know it at any given moment.


. . . the central piece of advice [Gran] gives Grace, Cora, and Jennie is as true as anything I know: “Do what you have to, but be prepared for the shit you get doing it.” A definition, in its own way, of heroism.


 

AE: What is your process?

NK: I usually start with just an initial scene and a general set-up, often involving some sort of technology. That might be genetic engineering (it often is), automation, some weird alien tech I’ve dreamed up. The first scene, with a character clear in my mind, comes to me all at once, and I write the scene very quickly. If I’m lucky, the second scene also occurs to me, and I write that equally quickly (this is what happened with “Semper Augustus.”) Then I pause and begin the real work of thinking through the implications of what I’ve written. Who are these people? What do they want? What do they have to do to get it? What effect would this tech have on their society? What ideas do I want to explore here?

Then I write, much more slowly, trying to feel my way through the story by feeling my way into the characters. I know the general direction I’m going, but not the specific ending. That occurs to me, usually, about half way through, which means extensive rewriting of the first half.

All this writing and rewriting, incidentally, takes place beginning early each morning. I am very much a morning person. If it doesn’t get written by noon, it doesn’t get written. At least, not that day.

AE: How do you deal with writers’ block?

NK: I don’t get blocked, per se. But sometimes I find that I’m reluctant to work on a story—oh! I must scrub the kitchen floor! Oh! I must write an email to my second cousin whom I haven’t seen in ten years! That’s usually a sign that the story has taken a wrong turn. I find the last scene where I felt no reluctance to write, because that’s where the story took a wrong turn. Then I replot from there, usually discarding what didn’t work. And cursing a lot at having to do so.

AE: How did you break into writing?

NK: The only way possible—by writing stories, sending them out, having them rejected, sending them out again, getting rejected . . . repeat until something sells. Meanwhile, I examined any personal note on a rejection slip with the scrutiny afforded a treasure map, trying to figure out what needed to be done differently. Feedback from a competent instructor can help this learning process go faster, which is why I now teach aspiring SF writers.

AE: If you could choose one SFnal universe to live in, what universe would it be, and why?

NK: I would like to live in Ursula LeGuin’s anarchistic society Anarres in her novel The Dispossessed. Not because I think anarchy can actually work (I don’t), but because in her novel it does work. Everything is shared, there is very little crime, and income inequality does not exist because income does not exist. Everyone can do their chosen work, or no work, without the energy-sucking distractions of juggling bills and time. The level of existence isn’t high, but it’s adequate, healthy, and technologically sophisticated. I would be willing to give up luxury for equality and solidarity.

Interestingly, when I taught The Dispossessed at the University of Leipzig, students in the former East Germany did not agree. When offered a hypothetical choice, only two students chose Anarres over the capitalistic and exploitive sister planet, Urras.

AE: What SFnal prediction would you like to see come true?

NK: Self-driving cars. I am not a particularly good driver and I don’t like driving. Also, I’m still waiting for my personal jet pack.

AE: What are you reading right now?

NK: Andrew Yang’s The War On Normal People. His idea of a universal basic income was something I explored in Beggars In Spain. Yang has brought together in his book an enormous number of statistics, some personal experiences, and trenchant insights into class differences in the contemporary United States. And he writes well. I don’t necessarily agree with everything he says, but I’m interested.

 AE: How can our readers follow you and your writing?

NK: I was on Facebook, but during a period of illness I got away from it, and somehow never went back. I have a website but am woefully bad at keeping it up to date. I need to do better. I will. Maybe. Meanwhile, there’s always Amazon for my two forthcoming works, both out in May, 2020: a stand-alone novella, Sea Change (Tachyon) and a space-opera novel, The Eleventh Gate (Baen).


Nancy Kress is the author of thirty-three books, including twenty-six novels, four collections of short stories, and three books on writing. Her work has won six Nebulas, two Hugos, a Sturgeon, and the John W. Campbell Memorial Award. Forthcoming in May, 2020, are a stand-alone novella, Sea Change (Tachyon) and an SF novel, The Eleventh Gate (Baen). Nancy’s fiction has been translated into Swedish, Danish, French, Italian, German, Spanish, Polish, Croatian, Chinese, Lithuanian, Romanian, Japanese, Korean, Hebrew, Russian, and Klingon, none of which she can read. In addition to writing, Kress often teaches at various venues around the country and abroad, including a semester as guest lecturer at the University of Leipzig, an intensive workshop in Beijing, and the annual two-week workshop Taos Toolbox, which she teaches with Walter Jon Williams. Kress lives in Seattle with her husband, writer Jack Skillingstead.

A Walk on Crete

by Neal Asher

 

I wake up early in the morning, put on my shorts and T-shirt, and head out into the kitchen living area. A glance out of the small window through the two-feet-thick stone wall reveals the bright lime-wash painted houses of the village, but only because the street lamp up at the top here seems to have a halogen bulb. It’s still dark beyond its reach. I make a cup of tea and sit at my desk. My body aches and I feel slightly nauseated. The former is because of the six-mile kayak run I did along the Cretan south coast through the Libyan Sea. The latter is because, at the best of times, ice cold Mythos beer served in a frozen glass is difficult to resist after such exercise, but I’d also got a nice email while down at the coast. It seems I not only have a story coming out in Asimov’s [“An Alien on Crete,” in our Jan/Feb issue on sale now] but now a novella in Analog. I count up, sip my tea. Is it four or five taken since I started again to write short stories?

With my present physical state I consider forgetting about the walk and making this a rest day—well, until the kayaking—but reject the idea. Finishing my tea, I check out the window again. A hint of division between sky and village now? Maybe. I make a cup of fresh coffee, sit down again, and pull on my walking trainers, puff on my e-cig. After that I pick up my iPad almost by instinct, but again remember I have no internet up here. I really don’t need the distraction, and am getting more done without it. Putting it down again, I look across at my other desk, my work desk. It’s empty of all but pens and stray paper because I hide the laptop away in case someone breaks in. Not that such stuff happens here very much. The danger of burglary is much greater in the UK. My present “short story” is not so short anymore, having just passed ten thousand words. I’ll need to think about what to do with it. I rattle my fingers on this desk—my dead wife’s desk where she used to do her thing—then stand up and check outside again. Maybe it will be light enough by the time I finish my coffee. Stupid to go stumbling about on the rocky tracks through the mountains in the dark. I fear the thought of twisting an ankle and not being able to walk.

I check my supplies: some tissues, and a plaster to go on one blistered toe should the one already on there come off. Even though I’ll be walking for eight plus miles with the temperature heading up to thirty, I don’t take water. Never really felt the need. I went gorge-walking with some people once who said I must carry litres of water. I took about half of what they suggested, and spent much of the gorge walk nipping behind rocks to urinate.

It’s a few minutes before 6:00 a.m. Something like OCD—or perhaps it is OCD—kicks in, and I gulp coffee, pick up my key, and am out of the door on the dot of 6:00. This is supposedly so I will know how long the walk has taken me, but I never check the time when I get back. I schlep up the path from my house, past where my car is parked by a big ugly new house being built, walk up a steep road with olive trees on my left and broom and fig on my right. Even as I reach the top of this, there is enough light for the dense yellow flowers of the broom to be painfully bright. At the top of the road I can see the lights of Sitia and the sea off the North coast. A track from the corner takes me down through olive groves, up past a market garden, then to the track up the hill. I’m warming up and the aches are fading, but still I feel some trepidation about what lies ahead. At the top of the mountain are wind turbines. The track going up has been concreted in places to stop it sliding away because it is so steep. I liken it to climbing about thirty staircases.

I stomp up, slowly, but never stopping. Lungs soon start going like a compressor even though I am walking slowly. Olive trees are everywhere; also the thorny scrub that is the reason for Cretan national dress including thick knee-high boots. By the time I reach halfway, I’m pouring sweat, and take off my shirt. At the top it is cooler below the steady whoomphing of the turbines. Leaning on his stick, a shepherd watches me from a promontory, and I see sheep coming down the track. I change course to take another route because the sheep will run away from me, and then he’ll have a bugger of a job rounding them up.

“Kalimera,” I say.

“Yaa,” he replies after a pause, as if speech is something that has escaped him up here.

After a long walk under turbines, the sun breaking over the mountains in clear blue sky, I come to the turning that will take me down. I remember seeing, in a glance, something bright green here and thinking some idiot had thrown down some rubbish. Closer inspection revealed a bright green lizard over a foot long with a snake wrapped around it. The lizard’s head was in its mouth. I watched for a while and the snake took fright, dropped its catch, and slid away. The lizard looked groggy but still alive. As I walked on I did not suppose he would live long, because surely the snake would be back.

 


Scribed in the white line at the edge of the road, in English, are the words “Never Stop Writing.”


 

I head down again. I can now see the landscape laid out below: the market gardens, vineyards, the clustered white houses of Handras, and the rocky mount with its ruins that is my turn around point. That’s Voila, pronounced “Voyla,” and the ruins are of the Tower of Tzen Ali—some Turkish bigwig of the Ottoman Empire. On the way down to the roads that lead there, I pass a monument: a flat slab of marble with a chain fence around it and a marble monolith at the centre. It is on a rough mountain slope with nothing else around but scrub and sheep. I read the words with my mediocre Greek, but only later hear the story. It’s for a guy who was a school teacher when the German army invaded. He became part of the Cretan resistance and was captured. The Nazis tortured him and buried him alive.

Through a small pine grove, I reach the roads again and start heading round to Voila. As always, at the turning that takes me back there, I pause and look down at the white line beside the road. I believe in nothing supernatural, but sometimes things happen in your life that are weird, to say the least. After my wife died, I walked and walked. One day I felt particularly bad and decided to walk until I felt better or collapsed. The point when I did feel better was right here. I stopped and looked down. Scribed in the white line at the edge of the road, in English, are the words “Never Stop Writing.” I’m pretty sure it relates to white line writing, maybe a stencil in the machine, maybe something the people who paint the lines put down every now and again for whatever reason, maybe something someone else wrote—again for whatever reason. But bloody hell, they were some of the last words my wife said to me before she died.

I walk on, past more olive trees, vineyards, market gardens, past where a spring had been routed through ancient stonework like something straight out of C.S. Lewis, and then on past Voila itself. Ruins are ruins—fallen stone walls—but the tower itself is interesting. Off to one side is a church, the door always open, icons and other paraphernalia inside probably hundreds of years old. A dish scattered with money where people have paid for the candles they’ve lit. Not something I would see in Essex.

Next through Handras. Old Greek houses are here, many of them now stripped of their layer of concrete to expose the stone. Beautified. Narrow streets lead off in every direction. Dogs bark, trees are laden with oranges and lemons, and nearly every small garden or yard is a paradise of perfect plants. Another track beyond takes me past more of the local agriculture, past rusted water pump windmills devoid of their canvas sails, their water cisterns sitting nearby, past quince trees that produce rock hard fruit the size of apples. Along here, later in the year, I will be able to sample five to ten different varieties of grape as I walk. They grow in the edges like blackberries in the UK. Armeni is next, another quaint village. I walk out past a yard I remember. Here I saw a jolly fat woman in a frilly apron cradling a rabbit. It seemed a scene out of Beatrix Potter until she snapped the rabbit’s neck.

Another track, past fig trees that will later produce delicious black figs. The cicadas are screaming now. I once considered writing a book about adventures on Crete and titling it “Cicada Scream.” Double meaning there, because yes, it describes the noise, but it also describes just how crazy things can get here in the hot months. On further tracks I am glad of my sunglasses as cicadas bombard me and there are so many one is sure to hit me in the eye. I feel little splashes of liquid, too, as they piss on me.

Beautiful gorge on the left, winding tracks, careful now because I am tired and the loose rock on the tracks can be treacherous. I pass more gardens, low down. Someone is turning on the water for his olives. Black water pipes strew the ground in every direction. Pear trees on my right, but they are not ready yet. I go up past Agios Yorgos (Saint George’s) and am on the track for home. It is yet another beautiful little building on this island where you can point a camera and click in any direction and have a postcard picture.

Finally I stomp down the road to home, and again forget to check how long this walk took me. A frappe seems in order and I enjoy that while I cool down. Next a shower—sweat-soaked clothing into the washing basket—and in clean clothes, I consider the rest of my day. It will be the same as yesterday and the day before, and it will be the same tomorrow. I stoop down and take my laptop from its hiding place, put it on the desk and turn it on. Writerly procrastination sends me off to make a cup of tea, but then I sit down, open the laptop, and begin.

 


Neal Asher <http://theskinner.blogspot.com> has had numerous short stories and twenty-six books published. His most recent American publications include the first two volumes in his Rise of the Jain series: The Warship (2019) and The Soldier (2018). Both books are from Nightshade. Before becoming a full-time writer, Neal was an engineer, barman, skip lorry driver, coalman, boat window manufacturer, contract grass cutter, and builder. The author tells us, “I’ve been an SF and fantasy junky ever since having my mind distorted at an early age by J.R.R. Tolkien, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and E.C. Tubb.” He lives sometimes in England, sometimes in Crete. Neal’s last tale for Asimov’s, “Memories of Earth,” appeared in our October/November 2013 issue. After too long an absence, he’s back with an unsettling tale.

Q&A with B.S. Donovan

Self-driving cars may have been the spark of inspiration for B.S. Donovan’s first story for Asimov’s [in our Jan/Feb issue, on sale now], but “You’ll Live” itself is driven by its characters. Read on for B.S.’s thoughts on people-centered science fiction, the importance of plotting things out, and why “You’ll Live”’s title is key to the story.


Asimov’s Editor: How did this story germinate?

BSD: It started with self-driving cars, actually. And it veered off from there. I think that when we have real self-driving cars, our lives will be very different. And I don’t just mean that it will be easier to get to work. Since we won’t have anything to do when in the car, we will use it more like a living space. People will pass their time like they would anywhere else, if they’re stuck in the space together and have nothing else to do. A particularly friendly couple will use the opportunity to get busy. Kids will watch TV or play games. This led me to think about what it would be like to be a family together, living in a car. It all kind of went downhill from there.

AE: Do you particularly relate to any of the characters in this story?

BSD: Not exactly, but partly. I don’t think I could have written this story ten years ago. I relate to the protagonist indirectly through my children. I’m a father of two wonderful girls who fight and argue with each other. They also laugh and play together. And despite how much they annoy each other, there are moments when you can see just how fiercely they care for each other. When they were in elementary school, they’d share futons on the floor (we live in Japan), and one of them, usually the little one, would end up facing the wrong way and extending a foot into her sister’s armpit, or even under her chin. It wasn’t exactly that moment that inspired the story. But, as a father, I know what it’s like to see kids sprawled together like puppies under blankets, not knowing which hand belongs to which kid, and worrying whether someone is going to wake up with a bloody nose because of a heel to the face.

AE: How did the title for this piece come to you?

BSD: It came to me as I was writing the fourth paragraph. When I was a kid, like all kids, when I wanted something, I’d say, “I need it.” To which my parents would always answer, “Unless you’re about to die, you don’t need it. You just want it.” Which is true. As an adult with my own children, I can genuinely say that I’m glad that they took the time to reason with me. But to the kid me, it was not only annoying, but clearly false. Just listen to my voice and you’ll know that I might actually die in the next twenty seconds if I don’t actually get what I want because I need it so much. And yes, my folks did tell me, “You’ll live.” And they were right, as evidenced by the words you’re reading now.

Because the title really is the story. Without those words, the story is only just a commentary on a future that is all too possible and too sad to write about without some redemption. The title is the beginning. The title is in the middle. It is the end. It serves as bookmarks for how things change in the story. The end hopefully makes it worth enduring the pain that you imagine right along with them.

 


Nine times out of ten, if I just synopsize, then I can continue. I get tired, just like anyone. But if I can paint a simple picture in a few words, then it’s like I just have to color it in. Like sketching something before painting it.


 

AE: What made you think of Asimov’s for this story?

BSD: A very good friend of mine, who is also a writer and also one of my go-to alpha readers, gave me some feedback on the story early on. He is a hard science fiction fan, and he commented that the story could have been set in any time period or setting. While I disagree a little bit (the setting is another character, I think, perhaps more than the boyfriend/father figure of Rich), the comment told me I was on the right track, which is that the story is about the people. It is about our hero and his brother, Greg. That’s the story. Not the self-driving car, not the VR, nor the stims or seds. It’s about the characters.

What attracts me to Asimov’s is just that: the stories are about people. And how we struggle, or love, or fight, or deal with the fantastical worlds that the authors dream. And that’s why I thought of Asimov’s first.

AE: How much or little do current events impact your writing?

BSD: Interesting question; in this case, it impacted me a lot. The current political and economic situation in the states drove me to wonder what would happen if we continued on this trajectory. What would happen if the 1%-ers replaced all workers and we all went on welfare? That said, I believe that there’s a lot more to our subconscious than just current events. And I’m never sure what event (current or otherwise) is going to spark an idea.

AE: What is your process?

BSD: I am what they call a plotter. I discovered this after trying to be a pantser for a couple of years. For those of you who don’t know, a plotter is someone who plots out a story in advance. A pantser is someone who flies by the seat of their pants (thus pantser). As a pantser, I can get a thousand words onto a page without problems. Beyond that, my subconscious stops working. And if I don’t know where I’m going, then I get bogged down. I found that if I can write a synopsis of my story (of whatever length), then I can write much better, faster, stronger than I could otherwise. So now I plot (or at least synopsize).

I need to really know where I want to go with a story in order to start writing. I need to have a scene in my head, a character, a direction. And that is what allows me to let the words come out. From there, things come together—like the title I wrote about above, and the ending.

AE: How do you deal with writers’ block?

BSD: I plot. LOL. Seriously, though. Nine times out of ten, if I just synopsize, then I can continue. I get tired, just like anyone. But if I can paint a simple picture in a few words, then it’s like I just have to color it in. Like sketching something before painting it.

Also, I write longhand. I didn’t used to do that either. But I discovered that the words come out better with a pen in my hand. Yes, I can type. Pretty well, too. I save that for later drafts.

AE: What are you reading right now?

BSD: I’m reading a couple of things. I like science fiction, of course, but I also enjoy thriller, noir, horror, lots of stuff. Specifically, I’m reading Richard Stark’s Parker books, Stephen King’s 11/22/63, and Martha Wells’s Murderbot stories (awesome!).

AE: What other careers have you had, and how have they affected your writing?

BSD: I have been a bunch of things. A bartender, a high school teacher, a finance manager, and (even now) a logistics manager. How they affect my writing is simple, but not what you might imagine. My work life is driven by, well, work. And at some point there needs to be something else. I reached a point where if I had to write one more capital expenditure request, I thought I might explode. I started to study Japanese calligraphy, which is intensely rewarding and about as hard as it looks. And then I found a writers’ group with amazing people, and there you are.

AE: How can our readers follow you and your writing?

BSD: I dislike Twitter. I think it is a dark place. I rarely use Facebook. It is a falsely bright place. I have a blog, which is old-fashioned, and you are more than welcome to follow. You can see my calligraphy and read about me, my stories, and how great Japan is, at http://www.bsdonovan.com.


B.S. Donovan has been a bar tender, English teacher, finance controller, and logistics manager. But his passions are fiction and art. Born and raised in Boston, Massachusetts, USA, he currently resides in Chiba, Japan. In addition to writing fiction, he practices Japanese calligraphy. In his poignant first story for Asimov’s, two young boys learn to appreciate their mom’s sad, wry observations.

Q&A with Doug C. Souza

For Doug C. Souza, writing offers the opportunity to make connections. He took the time to talk to us about connecting with readers, writing connected stories within a larger universe, and how “The Kaleidoscope City” [in our Jan/Feb issue, on sale now] approaches familial connections in a world with lengthened lifespans.


Asimov’s Editor: What is the story behind this piece?

DCS: “The Kaleidoscope City” is about soaking up time with loved ones. Not just in quantity, but with more of a focus on quality. The first nugget of this came about when I started to give my characters the necessary medical adaptations so they could survive extended space travel and living on the moons of Jupiter and Saturn. Once the characters started interacting with the world I created, I noticed how much longer they lived, and I wondered how this would affect relationships within a family.

Would people put things off more frequently if they had more time to live? If so, how would they face the realization that they could’ve simply hung out more with friends and family instead of always looking down the road?

AE: Is this story part of a larger universe, or is it stand-alone?

DCS: My wife tells me most of my stories are connected whether I intend it or not. Looking at “The Kaleidoscope City,” I definitely see it existing in the same universe as “The Callisto Stakes” (a story that appeared in Asimov’s about a year ago). Fortunately, things have improved within my most recent story, so that’s good news for the folks living there. One of my most trusted beta readers continues to point out the shared universe of my stories whenever I mention putting an anthology together. It’s a fun puzzle to toy with.

AE: Do you particularly relate to any of the characters in this story?

DCS: The weird thing with “The Kaleidoscope City” is that I started it from the viewpoint of Lynette, as the kid hanging out with their father. Once I sent the first draft out to my beta readers, it was brought to my attention that the father in the story has a unique perspective. I was stoked when this facet connected with readers in a way I hadn’t anticipated. As a writer, it’s always my greatest hope to make that kind of connection.


If you sell one story a year, or twenty, it’s the connection you make by sharing something sacred that feeds the need to continue. Even if it’s just one person in a local writing group that pulls you aside to share what your story meant to them—that’s gotta be celebrated.


AE: Who or what are your greatest influences and inspirations?

DCS: I’m everywhere with influences and inspirations. One month, I might be hooked on Louis L’Amour, and the next jumping into some graphic novels. I tried A Man Called Ove by chance and had a blast. It’s outside my usual genre of interest.

Recently, I’ve gone back to Ray Bradbury to feel some heart in stories. I also like reading what he has to say about writing. I connect with writers that recommend writing a lot for the enjoyment while keeping the reader in mind. One of the biggest challenges a writer faces is staying focused on their purpose. Success in selling stories can be a double-edged sword in which you start examining your stories to see what made them marketable while others failed. Falling into that trap can mess with your head when you’re trying to write your next story. This might just be my own problem, who knows?

AE: Do you have any advice for up-and-coming writers?

DCS: It’s cliché, but I gotta say, “Don’t give up.” Or maybe, “You’re the only one that can stop you.” I’ve had some huge successes in my writing career that I never thought I’d enjoy. I’ve also had some low times, where a story sale felt like a lost cause. Nearly every successful writer I’ve met doesn’t have a secret to how they sold their stories—it’s mostly, “I just kept writing and submitting.”

Whenever I’m at a lull for story sales, I remind myself of the hot-streak that usually comes after the slow times. Now, for some, they may not call it a “hot-streak,” I can’t judge for others what a success is. Maybe the lack of sales allows me to get back to writing for myself and not lose focus. One constant is true: nothing happens until you put your butt in the chair and write.

If you sell one story a year, or twenty, it’s the connection you make by sharing something sacred that feeds the need to continue. Even if it’s just one person in a local writing group that pulls you aside to share what your story meant to them—that’s gotta be celebrated. I’ve had writers email me who were just starting out, and yes, their stories were a bit messy, that’s part of it. Some gave up; some kept hammering away. Those that put in the work to clear up their message—well, it’s so cool to see them reach new levels. I can’t share their personal details, but just last month one of them placed in an international contest for the second time.

So bottom line: stay at it!

AE: What is something we should know about you that we haven’t thought to ask?

DCS: As a teacher, I’ve noticed kids aren’t reading as much as they used to. Those that do love getting lost in a story the way one can only by reading. Since I don’t develop video games or make movies, I remind myself that writing is a privilege few take advantage of. The tools don’t cost much and the resources can be found at your local library or thrift store. Yeah, it’d be easier to have my stories made into the type of media that’s easier to consume, but then it’d lose something.

When a person takes the time to read a story of mine, I get the opportunity to pull them all the way in for the ride. Knowing that gives me the extra boost of energy when the words won’t come or the characters are stuck.

That being said, I’m not above a multi-million-dollar contract.


Doug C. Souza can be found at dougcsouza.com and on Facebook. He lives in California with his family.