Q&A with Gord Sellar

Gord Sellar wrote the first version of “Winter Wheat” in our current issue [on sale now] more than 13 years ago. The idea gained importance in his mind after he heard a writer claim that “you can’t write SF about farmers.” Luckily, he took this as a challenge, and our readers will reap the rewards.


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

Gord Sellar: That goes back quite a long time. I actually wrote a draft of “Winter Wheat” a long time ago, back in the summer of 2006, while I was in Seattle for Clarion West. Unlike some of my classmates, I arrived without really having done much brainstorming in terms of what I planned to write for the workshop sessions. I’d basically just finished my teaching duties for the first semester of the teaching position I’d just started that March—and barely so: I’d had to get everything done a few days before the end of semester, and submit piles of paperwork just to get permission to leave a few days before the semester technically ended, so that I could arrive in Seattle on time. When I got to Seattle, I didn’t really know what I was going to write about, and had no outlines or notes or anything except what I’d scribbled into a notebook on the plane ride over from South Korea.

 


But of course, anyone who’s read the story also knows that it’s as much about the relationship of a son to his father: the failings of each, the struggle to understand one another, the love that is and isn’t expressed.


 

That said, the story is definitely a response to things that were on my mind at the time. I’d read Vandana Shiva’s book Stolen Harvest and, while I was (and continue to be) wary of some of her claims, the idea of global food security being imperiled by the policies of major corporations engaged in capitalist “business as usual”—and the question of who would stage the resistance to this, and by what means—felt like a really compelling idea.

But of course, anyone who’s read the story also knows that it’s as much about the relationship of a son to his father: the failings of each, the struggle to understand one another, the love that is and isn’t expressed. When I talked to Sheila about the story, one of the things she commented about was that relationship, and how recently becoming a father myself seemed to have had an effect on my writing . . . but in fact, the truth is that aside from small changes, the rendition of the father-son relationship in “Winter Wheat” remains pretty close to how I wrote it thirteen years ago, because it was in response to my own father passing away in February of that year, just months before I attended Clarion West. Continue reading “Q&A with Gord Sellar”

Q&A with Michael Libling

Michael Libing’s “At the Old Wooden Synagogue on Janower Street” [on sale now in our current issue] is a story very close to the author’s family history. Read on for more background on that, advice on keeping the process “secret,” and Michael’s gravitation to the themes of truth and guilt. When you’re done reading his story (and interview!) check out his new novel, just out: Hollywood North.


Asimov’s Editors: What is the story behind “At the Old Wooden Synagogue on Janower Street”?

Michael Libling: I first learned about the Holocaust thanks to the back cover of a comic book. I was seven or eight, and there was an ad from a stamp company advertising “FREE—while they last—Hitler Heads.” The ads were fairly ubiquitous back then, and the stamps offered were from the war years or prior, with Hitler the main attraction. When I asked my dad if I could order the stamps, he refused without explanation. It took some doing, but he finally opened up and told me why. Only then did I learn that his parents and youngest sister had, as my father put it, “been murdered by Hitler.” My grandfather, who was deaf, had been shot dead in the street after failing to hear a Nazi officer’s order to stop walking. My grandmother and aunt died in Auschwitz.

There are moments in everyone’s life that stick in memory. I can still see and hear my dad telling me, struggling to contain his emotions, his voice shaky as he searched for the right words. I blogged about it not long ago.

 


“If my father had never emigrated from Europe, how would his life have played out? And what would have become of me if, indeed, there was a me?”


 

AE: How did this story germinate?

ML: My parents owned a small diner in Trenton, Ontario—four or five tables, ten stools at the counter. My mother did the baking (pies, cakes, cinnamon twists!) and waited on tables, while my father worked the open kitchen. Must be at least twenty years ago now that a line popped into my head and I quickly jotted it down: “My father was at the grill when his dead parents walked into the restaurant.”

In the 1960s, my dad discovered a close cousin whom he believed had also died in a concentration camp. But the man had survived, and the two reunited to great joy. In the back of my mind, I wondered if the same thing could happen with his parents and sister. It did not, of course, as several witnesses had attested to their deaths. But I was young, and it wasn’t unusual for hope to override reality.

Anyhow, the story percolated inside for years, but I was never quite sure where to take it. And then one day, a year or so ago, as I was rereading Ambrose Bierce’s An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, the concept crystallized with questions racing through my brain.

If my father had never emigrated from Europe, how would his life have played out? And what would have become of me if, indeed, there was a me? And his parents and sister, how would their lives have unfolded had they managed to escape? What would my family’s alternate history have been?

These days, when I think of the family members I never got to know, especially against the backdrop of rising anti-Semitism and anti-immigration sentiments, I can feel the rage building inside of me, not only over what could have been, but what should have been.

 

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

ML: Definitely. The son, Danny. I spent a lot of time in that restaurant, doing what Danny does in the story. Without giving anything way, I guess he’s the “Michael who almost wasn’t.”

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

ML: Kurt Vonnegut. Bruce Jay Friedman. Philip Roth. Jules Verne. Robert Silverberg. Philip José Farmer. Douglas Adams. Barry Malzberg. Stephen King. Ray Bradbury. Harlan Ellison. Richard Matheson. E.L. Doctorow. Mordecai Richler. . . . I can list any number of writers who have inspired or influenced me to one extent or the other. But the person who had the greatest influence on my approach to story would have to be my late older sister.

Back in fifth grade, for homework, our teacher asked us to write a story about a fire. I’d no sooner begun to write when my sister took a look at my page and said, “Everyone is going to write about a burning building. Burn something different.” I took her advice and, for the first time ever, a teacher read a story of mine aloud to the class. I have tried, in a manner of speaking, to burn something different ever since.

Yup, it was that simple. And that influential.

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

ML: I’d say a lot of my writing explores the nature of both truth and guilt. Not that “theme” is ever my priority. First and foremost, I want to tell an entertaining story. Inevitably, however, I find that one or both of these themes will emerge along the way, coloring part if not the whole.

With regards to truth, the old line about “perception is reality” has always intrigued me—how two people see the same event through different eyes and realities. You know, one person’s truth is another person’s lie and blah blah blah . . . Wow, the clichés are pouring out of me, eh? And it’s not particularly deep, either, I know, for which I apologize.

In terms of guilt, I guess it’s something I carry, whether justified in every case or not. The things I’ve done or might’ve done to other people. The things I failed to do or say until it was too late. Like that. By addressing this in my fiction, I suppose I’m looking to atone for sins, real or imagined. And therein lies another thing about my writing: I find the more I’m willing to expose myself, tell my truth, the better I believe my fiction is. Not that I don’t self-censor. Still, I try to take it as far as I can without hurting others or myself. As The Shadow always said, “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?” Or, I guess, some writers.

 

AE: How do you deal with writers’ block?

ML: Voice is everything to me. I need to hear my opening sentence and, then, the opening paragraph. Everything flows from there. To avoid blocks, I usually edit or retype what I wrote during my previous session and, for the most part, this works to keep me and the story moving forward. There is a BUT, however.

I am a slow writer. Painfully slow, at times. Indeed, I envy those who can sit and turn out quality fiction from beginning to end in a matter of hours or days—many of whom appear with amazing frequency in the pages of Asimov’s and elsewhere. Me, I edit continually as I write, and need to be satisfied with what’s on the page before I move onto the next. As obsessive and counter-productive as this will sound, I’ve been known to spend a morning on a single sentence. (A form of writers’ block in itself, no doubt.) There are few upsides to the approach, other than the fact I usually have less to edit when the story is done.

These days, the only time I find myself blocked is between stories, deciding on which concept to proceed with next. When the indecision continues for more than a couple of hours, I’ll take a break and read until my direction is clear. And there I’ll be, relieved to find that voice and opening sentence, yet again.

AE: What are you reading right now?

ML: One nonfiction. One fiction.

The first is The Great Escape: A Canadian Story by Ted Barris. It’s an account of the true story behind the classic Steve McQueen movie (1963). Prior to this, I had no idea so many Canadians had played key roles. And while I know the outcome of the story, Barris’s account is as surprising as it is riveting.

On the fiction side, it’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford by Ron Hansen. Published in 1983 and a Brad Pitt movie in 2007, I’m getting to it now thanks to a recommendation by my friend, Kurt Olsson. (He’s a compelling, award-winning poet, incidentally.) Recently, in an interview elsewhere, I risked public condemnation by acknowledging my three favorite novels are westerns: McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove, McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses, and deWitt’s The Sisters Brothers. Accordingly, Kurt figured the Hansen book would be right up my alley. So far, so good. The language. The structure. The style. The story. I am loving it.

If it’s any consolation, had you asked me this same question a week or a month ago, I would have said The War Beneath by Timothy S. Johnston and Experimental Film by Gemma Files. The Johnston book is an SF thriller that sets the pace early on and never lets up, while Files delivers a contemporary horror novel that burrows under your skin, depositing a brutal and an all-too-real sense of dread. One of the best horror novels I’ve read in a long time.

 

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

ML: The best advice I can offer is the best advice I ever received: shut the heck up! Stop talking about what you are writing. Do not share a word with anyone until you’ve put it down on paper, start to finish, and to your satisfaction. Why? Because the more you talk about your story—the plot, the characters, the brilliant scenes you have in mind—the more bored you’ll be when it comes to the actual writing and the more of a chore that writing will be. Keeping the story inside is also a great motivator, pushing you to complete the story so you can finally share your “genius” with others. Not even my first reader, my wife, knows what I’m working on until I’m ready to hand the completed pages over. The rule might not work for everyone, especially those inclined to workshop, but it’s proven critical for me.

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

ML: You should have asked if I owned a cat, to which I would have answered “no.” In fact, according to a recent survey conducted jointly by the A.R.F. (Author Research Foundation), W.A.G. (World Authors Group), and C.L.A.W. (Canadian League of Artists & Writers), I am one of only seven North American writers who does not own a cat.

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

ML: I’ve been a pedicab driver, a dishwasher, a busboy, a carpet cutter, and talk-radio host. I’ve referenced most of these jobs in one story or another. But the career that most influenced my writing was ad agency copywriter. It’s where I learned to self-edit, to judge my own work, though I doubt this particular skill is apparent in this current interview.

The other thing about working in an ad agency would be the stretches of downtime we’d experience. I’d use the free time to write opening sentences for stories. I must have come up with a couple of thousand, easy. All these years later, I continue to exploit that list. I’ve even used some sentences exactly as originally written way back when.

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

ML: My website and occasional blog: http://www.michaellibling.com

Twitter: @michaellibling

Instagram: michaelliblingwriter

Facebook, well, just search for me.

Feel free to follow or “friend” me. If you’ve made it to the end of this interview, it should be clear I need all the friends I can get.

Q&A with Mercurio D. Rivera

[PHOTO CREDIT: Jim Hines]

Damaged characters and unrequited love feature prominently in Mercurio D. Rivera’s stories, and “In the Stillness Between the Stars” is no different. These common themes, an article about living on Mars, and the recent destruction of Puerto Rico by Hurricane Maria all had a hand in creating his newest tale in the current issue [on sale now]. Read on to discover exactly how it all came together. 


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

Mercurio D. Rivera: I had read an article that a significant percentage of Americans would volunteer to relocate to Mars, even if it meant they could never return to Earth. I was surprised at the large number. It made me wonder whether those people would experience any guilt about leaving behind everything and everyone they knew, including their loved ones. That led me to wonder about the scenario where a space traveler takes their loved ones with them, especially in the case of small children who don’t have the legal capacity to consent. Wouldn’t there be guilt associated with that? And in the case of a generation ship, would it be ethical to subject children—and their descendants—to the dangers of such a mission? The story came out of the simple idea of exploring that guilt.

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

MR: At least initially I didn’t intend for it to be part of a larger universe, but the alien Library certainly lends itself to future stories. The company “EncelaCorp” has appeared in all my previous (and forthcoming) Asimov’s stories. It’s sort of my stand-in for the “big, evil corporation.” And while I didn’t intend for all of those stories to be in the same universe, EncelaCorp’s presence in all of them has made me start to think about various connections between the pieces. It may well be that I’m writing in the same universe and didn’t realize it. . . .

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

MR: Coming up with the right title can be difficult. And in the case of a short piece of fiction, it’s important. As editor John Joseph Adams has noted, short stories, unlike movies, don’t have a publicity department. They don’t get trailers or movie posters and rarely get artwork. As a result, the title is the author’s best opportunity to grab the reader. For this reason, I often agonize over them. Ideally, the title should evoke some feeling that draws the reader in. I try to use specific words that appear in the story, if possible. In this case, the danger that lurks in the stillness of the sleeping cityship lent itself to the title. “In the Stillness Between the Stars” evokes an eeriness that suits the story. I had initially come up with “In the Darkness Between the Stars,” but that one seemed a bit too common. As is often the case, I polled my writer’s group on a few different alternative titles before I settled on the final one.

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

MR: It’s surprising how current events have a way of sneaking into my writing. The news, and particularly shocking events, infiltrate the subconscious and then find an outlet in an author’s fiction. “In the Stillness Between the Stars” was written after Hurricane Maria ravaged Puerto Rico. The story features a damaged island-spaceship floating through interstellar space, battered by gravity waves—with a Puerto Rican protagonist. I didn’t sit down and plan that, but it’s funny how that worked out. Likewise, in a story I cowrote with Matthew Kressel (“The Walk to Distant Suns,” which appeared in Analog), our protag is trying to smuggle her family through a wormhole to a better life. It was only after we’d finished the first draft that we realized we’d written a story about immigration.

AE: Are there any themes that you find yourself returning to throughout your writing? If yes, what and why?

MR: I often come back to the theme of unrequited love. There’s something so sad and universally relatable about having intense romantic feelings that aren’t reciprocated. I’ve written a series of stories about some truly strange aliens, the Wergens, who have a weird biochemical reaction after First Contact with humanity. They find that they’re fascinated—to the point of obsession—with everything about humanity and call that reaction “love.” Humanity, in turn, is repulsed by the Wergens, but interested in their superior technology, so they form an uneasy alliance with them. It’s all one giant metaphor for unrequited love. With that cosmic backdrop, I was able to tell a series of very personal sci-fi stories about tortured characters struggling with different types of love: romantic, maternal, fraternal, friendship, etc. I’ve collected these stories into a mosaic novel, titled The Love War, which I’m shopping around.

AE: It sounds like you enjoy writing about tortured characters.

MR: Definitely. My characters tend to be damaged loners. Or in deeply dysfunctional relationships. This was certainly the case with “In the Stillness Between the Stars.” The two main characters are both recovering from failed marriages: Angie had been cheating on her husband, and Emilio was in the midst of an ugly divorce and custody dispute when he left Earth. In one of my previous Asimov’s stories, “Unreeled,” the two main characters are in a deteriorating marriage; they blame each other for their son’s tragic medical condition. They don’t trust each other anymore. So much so, he’s convinced her mind has been hijacked by an alien presence. Damaged characters make for more interesting stories.


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

MR: Downloading our consciousness sounds like a great antidote to mortality. Let’s do that! And I’m still waiting on those jet-packs. . . . The technology is there. We just need regulatory clearance.


AE: How do you deal with writer’s block?

MR: I’ll tell you how not to deal with it: sitting around, wringing your hands, and waiting for inspiration to strike you. The best cure for writer’s block is to sit down and write—anything! Even if what you’re writing is terrible, I’ve found that the very act of writing tends to generate ideas.

AE: What other projects are you currently working on?

MR: I’m incubating several short stories that are in various stages of development: a noir murder mystery with doppelgangers; an alien artifact, treasure-hunt story, which starts small and grows more and more cosmic; a post-apocalyptic Western with vampiric creatures. There are always four or five stories percolating at once. I tend to revise endlessly and have difficulty letting go.

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

MR: Take fiction-writing classes. Learn all the rules about craft, backward and forward—before you start breaking them. And join a writer’s group. Find other authors who write what you write and have them critique your work and vice versa. Authors tend to be blind to the flaws in their own work, but the process of critiquing another writer’s fiction can help to lift that blindfold. You’ll find that you can see all the problems—shifts in point of view, undeveloped characters, inconsistencies in plot, protagonists who are too passive, etc., etc.—in another author’s stories. And in the same way, other writers can help spot the problems in your stories. It helps make you more self-aware, but to this day I still find it invaluable to get input from a third party who’s less invested in the story than I am.

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

MR: You can follow me on Facebook (David Mercurio Rivera), Twitter (@MercurioRivera), and on my blog at mercuriorivera.com.


Mercurio D. Rivera’s short fiction has been nominated for the World Fantasy Award and has appeared in Asimov’s, Analog, Interzone, Lightspeed, Black Static, Nature, Abyss and Apex and numerous anthologies and collections, including Year’s Best SF 34, edited by Gardner Dozois, Year’s Best SF 17, edited by Hartwell & Cramer, Other Worlds Than These, edited by John Joseph Adams, and elsewhere. Tor.com called his collection, Across the Event Horizon (Newcon Press) “weird and wonderful” with “dizzying switchbacks.” His stories have been translated and published in Spain, China, Poland, and the Czech Republic.

Q&A with Megan Arkenberg

Megan Arkenberg doesn’t believe in creating artificial boundaries around her writing, and that belief has served her well. Her poetry and fiction are reader favorites, evidenced by her 2013 Readers’ Award. She took the time to explain to us how her writing philosophy developed, her many strategies for avoiding writers’ block, and how she relates to the characters in her newest short story, “All in Green Went My Love Riding,” in our September/October issue [on sale now]. Don’t miss the free podcast of this story, read by Dani Daly, available on Spotify, Apple, or here.


Asimov’s Editors: Is this “All in Green Went My Love Riding” part of a larger universe, or is it stand-alone?

Megan Arkenberg: One of the things I enjoy about reading and writing short stories is the ability to fully inhabit a world for a moment, then let it go. Some people consider “This could be a novel!” a compliment, but I’m very much the opposite; I like the sense of closure and completeness that comes from a precisely crafted short story. It’s not that I want my fictional worlds to be small, but I want to feel like the scale of the world matches the scale of the narrative—like the author has told the story she needs to tell in order to show the world at its fullest. All of which is to say “All in Green Went My Love Riding” is a stand-alone story.

That said, some readers may find Mrs. Morrow reminiscent of a certain insular doctor. . . .

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

MA: “All in Green” is about a group of young women at a rural boarding school and their uneasy relationship with the nearby village. The anxiety that haunts Margot and the other girls at Hunger Lake—that everyone outside their isolated community sees and recognizes something about them that they don’t understand about themselves—is deeply relatable to me (although less as I get older, fortunately). It’s a kind of social or even moral Imposter Syndrome.

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

MA: The title is from an e.e. cummings poem (https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/148503/all-in-green-went-my-love-riding) that plays with romantic conventions in the same way the girls at Hunger Lake do with their “love games.” The poem itself is about the draw of something fatal masquerading as something lovely.

 

AE: What is your history with Asimov’s?

MA: My first story for Asimov’s, “Final Exam,” tied for Best Short Story in the 2013 Readers’ Award and went on to be reprinted in several places, including Ellen Datlow’s Year’s Best Horror, Volume 5, Robert Silverberg’s This Way to the End Times: Classic Tales of the Apocalypse, and Hayakawa SF (translated into Japanese). My second Asimov’s story, “A Love Song Concerning His Vineyard,” was just read live on WFMU’s “Radiovert” program by Nicole Imthurn. I’ve also contributed a handful of poems to the magazine.


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

MA: I’m an academic and a writing teacher, so I spend my days surrounded by words. My inspiration tends to come from particularly evocative phrases—combinations of words that imply a narrative, or several possible narratives. Both of my most recent Asimov’s stories began with their titles and the questions those raised.


AE: Are there any themes that you find yourself returning to throughout your writing? If yes, what and why?

MA: I write a lot of stories from the perspective of a guilty conscience. It’s probably because I grew up Catholic. Okay, I joke—but in all seriousness, I‘m fascinated by the question of what we can or should do when we realize we were unintentionally, unknowingly, and often unavoidably complicit in a wrong. Complicity is also a clear motive for narration; many of my first-person narrators are telling their stories precisely because they need to make sense of the harm they’ve caused or failed to prevent.

AE: How do you deal with writers’ block?

MA: There are different kinds of block. If I’m working on a story and I know what I need to write next but I simply don’t feel like writing it, I take myself to a beer shop or brewery, grab a nice stout, and make myself write on the patio for an hour or two. (Living in the eerily predictable weather of Northern California has its benefits!)

If I genuinely don’t know what to write next, something has almost certainly gone wrong with the draft. I reread everything I have, preferably out loud, to diagnose the problem. Is there a plot hole I’ve been carpeting over? A scene that doesn’t belong in this story, or one that should be twice as long as it is? Am I tuning in and out of the narrator’s voice like a car radio under a high-tension wire? Sometimes the problem is easy to solve once it’s identified. Other times, I figure out how to write around it and still end up with a passable first draft. When all else fails, I set a kitchen timer for fifteen minutes and jot down some utter, utter crap until it goes off.

On the other hand, I’ve learned not to panic when I feel generally reluctant to write—not stalled on a single project, but less interested in writing fiction than in my teaching, relationships, travel, home improvement projects, etc. Sometimes my brain needs time to recuperate between stories. I know that when I find myself itching to write again, I can and will.

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

MA: That we can find a way to stall or reverse the effects of climate change. The looming fate of the planet is one of the things that keeps me up at night; I don’t even write about it because it’s too upsetting to think about.

AE: What are you reading right now?

MA: I’m in the middle of K. Chess’s Famous Men Who Never Lived; I love parallel universe stories, and this novel takes one of the most compelling approaches to the trope I’ve ever encountered. The next thing on my to-read list is Alanna McFall’s debut novel, The Traveling Triple-C Incorporeal Circus, which is about a trio of circus performers (two of them deceased) on an on-foot road trip from New York to California.

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

MA: Do the best work you can on the story in front of you. Don’t worry about how or whether it follows a trajectory with everything you’ve written and published before now. You can write and publish radically different stories back-to-back, or tell the same story again and again in different forms. There are no rules for what your career or oeuvre should look like—so don’t invent them for yourself!

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

MA: I’m on Twitter @meganarkenberg, and my website is www.meganarkenberg.com.

 


Megan Arkenberg’s work has appeared in over fifty magazines and anthologies, including Lightspeed, Asimov’s, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Shimmer, and Ellen Datlow’s Best Horror of the Year. She has edited the fantasy e-zine Mirror Dance since 2008. She currently lives in Northern California, where she’s pursuing a Ph.D. in English literature.

Q&A with Andy Duncan

[PHOTO CREDIT: Shaniya Johnson]

Andy Duncan suggests new authors get their start by modeling their greatest influences and working until they write stories that only they could write. In that vein, “Charlie Tells Another” in the current issue [on sale now] is a uniquely Andy Duncan story. He offers us more tricks of the trade and the inspiration behind this and other stories below.


Asimov’s Editor: Is this story part of a larger universe, or is it stand-alone?

AD: My Charlieverse, as you might call it, sprang from a conversation with Eileen Gunn in summer 1994. I was a student at Clarion West in Seattle, and Eileen was not only one of the local volunteers, but also one of my instant mentors. She picked me up at the airport and promptly lent me her magic typewriter, on which she had written her first published story and on which, that summer, I would write my first published story. During a classroom break, Eileen asked me, “Have you ever heard of Charlie Poole?” Oh, yes, I said; he was one of the first pioneer recording artists I heard about when I moved to his old neighborhood in North Carolina in 1986. “I’ve been thinking for some time,” Eileen continued, “that someone ought to write a story about Charlie Poole, and now I think it should be you.” I said something on the order of, thank you, I’ll get right on it—thus beginning decades of happy amateur musicology and associated research, and thousands of words of fiction revolving around what The Encyclopedia of Fantasy might call the Matter of Charlie Poole, which to me is also the Matter of the Carolinas and a lot of other Matters. While two short stories from this ever-evolving mass were published in small-press volumes years ago, “Charlie Tells Another One” is by far the biggest and most significant chunk to be published, and I’m very proud that it’s in Asimov’s. A huge thanks, again, to Eileen for initially pushing what looks like a perpetual-motion machine!

 

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

AD: Normally, titles come to me very early. Indeed, sometimes I settle on a title before I’ve settled on a story to go with it! That wasn’t the case with this story, though. When I brought the draft manuscript in June 2018 to the Sycamore Hill Writers Conference (held, coincidentally, in the North Carolina mountains, near where the story is set), it had only a placeholder title: “Banjo Lessons.” Everyone agreed, yep, it was a placeholder title, all right—one that might mislead the reader into expecting actual, you know, banjo lessons! But the ensuing discussion helped me realize the title should reflect the central theme of nested yarnspinning, and ultimately my wife and best reader, Sydney, helped me select the right one. Who knows? “Andy Tells Another One” might be the title of a Duncan collection one day.

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

AD: Well, for one thing, Asimov’s is an excellent magazine that regularly publishes many of my favorite writers and favorite stories. But it also exerts a strong emotional pull on me. My first fiction sale was to Asimov’s, in January 1995—though the story didn’t appear for more than two years, in the issue dated March 1997. That was “Beluthahatchie,” which I had written during the first week of the 1994 Clarion West workshop in Seattle, on Eileen Gunn’s magic typewriter, and which became a Hugo Award finalist in 1998. I will forever be grateful to Asimov’s for taking a chance on me and on so many other unknown writers through the years. I also owe quite a lot, personally, to the late Gardner Dozois, who pulled me from the slush pile and became a great friend, writing coach, and mentor, and to Sheila Williams, who treated me to a nice French dinner—with wine!—at the 2001 World Fantasy Convention in Montreal, just like I was Somebody, and has been extraordinarily generous with her time and encouragement ever since.

 


So I write about history, especially in the gaps, and on the margins. I write about race, and class and gender. I write about words and language. I write about the American South, about very specific times and places, and about place-ness—the crucial importance of being in this spot, rather than all those other spots.


 

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

AD: A top-of-my-head sampling, in alphabetical order, from a very long list: Continue reading “Q&A with Andy Duncan”

Q&A with Eric Del Carlo

Eric Del Carlo describes his most recent tale as a “portrait of nostalgia, given an SFnal spin” that combines the influences of two genre titans—Harlan Ellison and Robert Silverberg. Readers will understand what he means after reading “Then, When” in our September/October issue [on sale now].


Asimov’s Editors: Do you particularly relate to any of the characters in this story?

Eric Del Carlo: This was one of those hard-look-in-the-mirror stories to which writers occasionally subject themselves, not out of a masochistic impulse but because the deeper the personal truth conveyed, the stronger the outcome. The POV character is an even more cold-blooded version of myself from a specific—and thankfully, long ago—segment of my life. I don’t think it’s an accident that the digital clones depicted in my tale are called “mirrors.”

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

EDC: “Then, When” sprang forcefully to my mind early on in the conceiving stage. And it would—not—go—away. I knew it wasn’t a mechanically logical title. If anything, it might make a reader expect a time travel story. But this was also a portrait of nostalgia, one given an SFnal spin, and the singsong of the stark title fit the mood I wanted, if not the plot machinations. Sometimes titles are like that. Bob Dylan has a standout song on perhaps his most famous album entitled “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry.” He might have called this tune a hundred other things (and I’d be surprised if some more sober head didn’t encourage him to do so at the time), but I would warrant that the title felt right to him. It locked the piece into the proper cosmic niche where it belonged. In Dylan’s mind, after a certain point, it simply couldn’t have been called anything else.

 


I like to look at the emotional cost above all else, and “Then, When” offered a perfect opportunity for complication, reflection, and the possibility of redemption.


 

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

EDC: This seemed right in the magazine’s wheelhouse. You see a lot of different styles and approaches in Asimov’s, a staggering array in fact, but there is always a good swath of fiction that introduces some device or technique or other technological quirk into a recognizable near-future society and shows us the consequences. I like to look at the emotional cost above all else, and “Then, When” offered a perfect opportunity for complication, reflection, and the possibility of redemption. Continue reading “Q&A with Eric Del Carlo”

Q&A with Stephanie Feldman

“The Albatwitch Chorus” [on sale now] is Stephanie Feldman’s second witch-related story published in a September/October issue of our magazine, and we would gladly make this a regular tradition. She tells us in this interview, however, that she’s done with witches—at least for a while. Luckily, she’s got plenty more story ideas to play with.


Asimov’s Editors: How did “The Albatwitch Chorus” germinate?

Stephanie Feldman: This idea, like most of my ideas, came both quickly and slowly. When I learned about the albatwitch, a kind of mini-Sasquatch from Pennsylvania folklore, I knew I wanted to write about it. I like cryptids and have a weirdly specific phobia of uncanny, humanoid tricksters.

The albatwitch hung out in the back of my mind while I worked on other projects, and when I sat down to write, the story blossomed into something I hadn’t expected: the tale of a witch going through a midlife crisis.

Sonia’s small witchery business is thriving and she’s purchased her own cottage at the edge of her hometown; she has the life she always wanted. But then she hires Gina, her ex-husband’s teenage daughter, as an intern, and an albatwitch appears in her backyard—the first living albatwitch anyone has seen in decades. Sonia’s perfect life begins to unravel.

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

SF: Sonia shares my conflicted feelings about the creature. She knows they can be dangerous—they live in large social groups that have attacked humans in the past—but she’s also drawn to them, their secrets, their singing, the ornaments and offerings they leave in her yard.

Sonia feels a similar ambivalence about Gina, who she views as a typical 16-year-old—sullen and entitled, someone who wants to be treated as an adult even though she acts like a child. But Gina has something that Sonia has lost, something primal that attracts the albatwitches. And Sonia is jealous.

Sonia realizes that in establishing a certain lifestyle she’s also established a way of thinking—reasonable and practical, disconnected from nature and mystery—and she begins to doubt her choices. Maybe I relate to that the most: the fear that in winning one kind of life you’ve lost the chance for another.

AE: What is your history with Asimov’s?

SF: Asimov’s published my story “The Witch of Osborne Park” in the Sept/Oct 2017 issue. I love that this story will appear in that same fall issue for 2019. I feel at home in Halloween-land, though I may be done with witches for a while.

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

SF: They affect me quite a bit. On a surface level, it’s hard to focus in the midst of turmoil. The ongoing crisis also makes me question my work. Art matters; that belief has never wavered. But does my art matter, even in a small way?

That question moved me to work with Nathaniel Popkin on the anthology Who Will Speak for America?, which came out last year. It collects poems, stories, essays, and visual art from over 40 contributors, all exploring American identity. We included a number of speculative pieces; science fiction authors can tell us so much about who we are and who we might become.

When it comes to my own fiction, I don’t sit down with the intention of addressing current events, but I do quickly find those issues pushing to the surface.

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

SF: One such issue that’s taken over my writing is climate anxiety. I’ve been writing a lot about nature—mysterious nature, dangerous nature, evolving and resilient nature. It’s an odd mix of optimism and apocalyptic fear.

I have also always been interested in hierarchy and power. In A Chorus of Albatwitches, there’s albatwitch society, which humans have been too afraid to investigate, preferring to pretend it doesn’t exist at all.

AE: How do you deal with writers’ block?

SF: I don’t get writers’ block—I have too many unwritten ideas and have developed tricks for attacking particular story knots. However, I do have lots of bad writing days. I’m tired and distracted and anxious that I’m doing a bad job.

I’m familiar with all of these feelings and how they get in the way, so they often slow me down, but they don’t stop me. I just keep going and try not to be too hard on myself. A bad writing day is a million times better than a no-writing day.

AE: What are you reading right now?

SF: I just came off of a really good reading month! I read Sarah Rose Etter’s first novel, The Book of X, about a woman whose body is shaped like a knot and whose family works in a meat mine; Han Kang’s Human Acts, about the aftermath of the 1980 massacre of South Korean protestors; and Michel Faber’s Under the Skin¸ which was so bizarre and absorbing and devastating—I don’t even want to sum it up because discovering the secrets of the protagonist’s nature and mission is part of the book’s power.

I recommend all three books, but don’t be like me and read them in a row. It was emotionally exhausting.

I’m currently reading a collection of Daphne du Maurier’s stories, which are frightening and a lot of fun. It’s interesting to read these older stories, which are longer and more patient than most short fiction today, and more suspenseful for it.

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

SF: Be a good literary citizen—keep up with what’s being published, attend readings and conferences, support other writers. (Of course, read a lot, write a lot, submit a lot . . .)

When I first started publishing, I was very attuned to the industry and promotional strategies. The longer I do this, though, the more I try to stay focused on the work itself. I worry less about what other people will think and more about my own vision. It’s the one thing that’s truly in my control and the reason why I write in the first place.


Stephanie Feldman’s novel, The Angel of Losses (Ecco/HarperCollins), is a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers selection, winner of the Crawford Fantasy Award, and finalist for the Mythopoeic Award. She is co-editor of the recent multi-genre anthology Who Will Speak for America? (Temple University Press) and her stories and essays have appeared in Asimov’s Science Fiction, Electric Literature, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, The Maine Review, The Rumpus, and Vol. 1 Brooklyn. She teaches fiction writing in the Arcadia University MFA program and lives outside Philadelphia with her family. She is online at www.stephaniefeldman.com and http://www.twitter.com/sbfeldman.