Q&A with Megan Engelhardt

Megan Engelhardt’s holiday-themed poem suits our November/December issue [on sale now] well. Get to know her and her writing in our newest Q&A.


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

ME: I’ve gone to church my entire life, and my entire life I’ve disliked the song “Silent Night.” A few Christmases ago I was attending our Christmas Eve service and, as always, we sang “Silent Night” with the lights turned off. Everyone in the congregation held a candle, and it struck me that it was worth singing the song to see the individual flames merging together to light up the sanctuary. It was a good feeling.

Then I put it into space.

AE: How did this story germinate?

ME: I wrote this poem all in one go, one wild rush from beginning to end. (I find it easier to do that with poems than with short stories.) It went through several rounds of edits before I was happy with the shape of it, but the core poem took maybe half an hour to get down.

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

ME: I’ve been trying to stop self-rejecting my pieces. Often I’ll write something that I feel good about, but not send it to my dream markets because I decide it’s not good enough. Asimov’s is absolutely one of my dream markets, and I am so thrilled I didn’t self-reject this one!


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

ME: My sister, Amanda C. Davis, is my best critic, biggest cheerleader, and my first influence and inspiration. I love C.S. Lewis and his work. If I could write something half as good, funny, meaningful, or influential as Terry Pratchett, I’ll count myself lucky.


AE: How do you deal with writers’ block?

ME: Sims 3, long showers, and ranting about the problem to my husband, who listens very patiently until I talk myself into a solution.

AE: What is your process?

ME: I don’t have a process! I have one kid in elementary school, one kid in preschool, and one baby at home, so my schedule is all over the place, which means I don’t have a chance to carve out “process” time. Mostly what happens is that I have an idea, grab a notebook, and then finish the story or poem over several days, either waiting at the bus stop or at midnight once everyone is finally asleep!

AE: How did you break into writing?

ME: My first sale was a twitfic to Tweet the Meat, so that tells you something right there. A lot of my early sales were to themed anthologies. It was nice, as I started submitting, to have something to guide my writing to until I learned how everything worked.

AE: What are you reading right now?

ME: I’m waiting desperately for the library to get me Binti: The Night Masquerade by Nnedi Okorafor so I can finish that fantastic series. I’m also reading The Woman Who Smashed Codes by Jason Fagone. Nonfiction is rare for me, but this is a very readable and fascinating biography.

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

ME: Read. Read in and out of your genre. Read fiction and nonfiction. Read short stories and poems. Read magazines. Read everything. Similarly, write everything down. Put it on a file on your desktop, or in a notebook you carry in your bag, or, as I did in college and grad school, on 3×5 cards that fit nicely in your pocket.

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

ME: I did my time as a cashier at a non-well-liked big box store, which really shows you a lot about human nature! I also spent time as a librarian and discovered a lot of fascinating reads that opened up my tastes. My coworkers were amazing and some of them were also writers, and on slow days it wasn’t unusual to find us all working on poems or stories together. It really taught me the value of creative community. Currently I’m a stay-at-home mom to three little wild things, which leaves surprisingly little time to write. I am becoming content with the idea that this is a period of literary rest in my life. When I do get a chance to write, though, I value the opportunity and the output more.


Megan Engelhardt is a lapsed librarian and the zaftig mother of three boys. She writes in the margins of the day and lives an hour north of the Sasquatch Triangle of Ohio. Wolves and Witches, a collection of fairy tale short stories and poems written with her sister, Amanda C. Davis, is available on Amazon. She can be found on Twitter @MadMerryMeg or on Facebook at Megan Engelhardt – Author.

All Fiction Is Speculative

by David Ebenbach

“Speculative Fiction” is one of those slippery terms that, for better or for worse, writers are always trying to pin down. The results have included elaborate Venn diagrams, massive databases, and unfortunate sentences such as “Like other cultural fields, speculative fiction is a domain of activity that exists not merely through texts but through their production and reception in multiple contexts.” Some people, meanwhile, have suggested that the “Speculative Fiction” label is mainly just a cover that can “allow the more pretentious to believe that their favorite work is a proper ‘literary’ work with no connection to, and thus obvious superiority over, that geeky science fiction or fantasy.”

Why are we so eager to pin this term down? Because otherwise, according to Lynn Reynolds of Liminal Pages we’ll be left with something “so loose that it can be stretched to include all fiction.”

But I think stretching would be a good thing. I think all fiction is “Speculative Fiction”—or at least “speculative fiction,” in lowercase.

The definition that Reynolds offers as too loose is this: “Often described as the ‘What if?’ genre, speculative fiction (spec-fic or SF) describes any work where the writer makes conjectures about a fictional scenario.” She prefers to zoom in a bit and think of it as an umbrella term for a number for sub-genres like SF, Fantasy, and Horror. Me, I think the definition does need a little tweak—I’d substitute “writer makes a fictional scenario that is a conjecture”—but, with that tweak, I actually think that, yes, it’s broad enough to include all fiction, and, furthermore, that it’s a really useful definition.

For example, when I wrote the short story “Pregnancy as a Location in Space-Time” [in the current issue on sale now] as part of my novel-in-stories How to Mars, I was full of conjecture. The whole project was in fact driven by conjecture.

I had been following the Mars One story, in which the Mars One corporation put out a call for volunteers to travel to Mars and live in small habitation units surrounded by an uninhabitable atmosphere for the rest of their lives, never seeing their loved ones up close again, never feeling fresh air on their faces, never getting to come back—and supposedly more than two hundred thousand people applied. Now, it’s quite possible that the whole Mars One story may itself be fiction, but even the idea of it took hold of me as a writer. It raised questions. Like: who would be willing to give up everything for a trip to Mars, and why? And what would it be like if/when two hundred thousand were narrowed down to a maximum of twenty-four people, and those two dozen adventurers got to Mars, a planet where those twenty-four people would be the entirety of the Martian social world, for the rest of their lives? Those are the questions that I tried to answer (for myself, first, but then hopefully also for readers) in writing How to Mars.

This was not a one-time, thing, though; it’s how I approach fiction. I’m always driven by questions. That’s certainly true in my weirder stuff: in my short story “Our Mothers Left Us” (from my collection The Guy We Didn’t Invite to the Orgy and other stories) I wonder what would happen if all the mothers in the world suddenly disappeared, and then just as abruptly came back; in “The Quiet House” I try to understand what the daily life of a serial abductor and killer might be like; “We’ll Finish When We’re Done” explores the results of a haircut that takes things impossibly far.

But the more important thing is that I’m still driven by questions even when I’m writing fiction set firmly on planet Earth and rooted entirely in realism. The story “Eleven Girls” asks: what if a teenaged boy who’s never really been noticed by girls suddenly finds out that eleven girls have a crush on him? “Vision Quest” puts a nature-phobic guy on a vacation in the woods (normal, unhaunted, serial-killer-free woods) to see how he’ll cope. My parenthood-themed short story collection Into the Wilderness basically asks what happens (in a variety of different situations) when a child enters a person’s life. I wrote my novel Miss Portland to understand better what can unfold when a person with bipolar disorder is caught in a manic episode.

No matter what kind of fiction I’m writing, it’s all born out of questions, questions, questions. What if a character had this experience, faced this challenge, crossed paths with that particular character? I write to see what will happen, and in doing so, to learn about people, and life, and the world.

This isn’t just me, of course; I think the fictional impulse is inherently speculative. In other words, I think we write because we have questions. As Grace Paley (who we don’t usually associate with “Speculative Fiction”) once suggested, “the writer . . . is nothing but a questioner.” Instead of “Write what you know,” she “would suggest something different . . . what are some of the things you don’t understand at all?” She wants us to “stay open and ignorant.”

From that place of openness and ignorance, you build a world—the right characters, the right situations, the right events and facts and possibilities—that will allow you to ask and answer your most pressing questions.

 


In this sense it’s not about genre loyalty, where some people are SF people and other people are literary people, and so on; it means that, no matter who you are, every time you set out (ignorantly) to write, you build the world you need.


 

To explore some questions, no matter what kind of writer you are, you have to build a world unlike our own in significant ways; you have to bring elves or vampires into the picture, put the characters on an interstellar journey or in a time machine, or bend the most basic laws of physics. When I was writing the story “Pregnancy as a Location in Space-Time,” I was interested in loss—the kind of loss that makes you want to run away from your life as far as you can get—and then what you do when you’re forced to face your life anyway. Creating a woman who was pregnant on Mars seemed like the best and most interesting way to dig into all that.

With other questions, you can work with the world we’ve got, more or less, and just give a realistic character a big job interview, a shaky love life, a party to go to, or a brush with illness or an accident. When I was writing Into the Wilderness I was interested in the way that parenthood impacts ordinary lives, so I needed to put ordinary lives on the page; Miss Portland came to be, in its realistic form, because I was wrestling with the way bipolar disorder plays out in our world.

You build the world you need, to answer the questions you have.

So—do you do horror? Science fantasy? Magic realism? Slice-of-life literary? On some level, it doesn’t matter; regardless, you’re a writer of speculative fiction. You have questions. There are things you don’t understand. You create the forum in which ignorance can lead to insight.


David Ebenbach PHOTO CREDIT JOE KING

David Ebenbach is the author of seven books of fiction, poetry, and non-fiction, including, most recently, the novel Miss Portland and the short story collection The Guy we Didn’t Invite to the Orgy and other stories. He lives with his family in Washington, DC, where he teaches creative writing and literature at Georgetown University. You can find out more at davidebenbach.com.

On “Joyride”

by Kristine Kathryn Rusch

I did not expect to write “Joyride” [on sale in the November/December issue now]. I was working on a very long novel in my Diving universe. I couldn’t find a way into the novel. By that, I mean, I would start it, and I would write with a lot of enthusiasm, and then, slowly, the enthusiasm would drain. I would get to the point where I couldn’t write any further.

Each time, I would pick different characters and a different starting point in the story. It didn’t matter. As I wrote, the story would falter.

Then Nadim Crowe walked into the novel. In the book, he’s an adult. And in each draft, he would hint at this horrible thing that had happened to him in his youth. This thing had an impact on his entire life.

Continue reading “On “Joyride””

Art & Words

by William Ledbetter

 

Like most writers, the ideas for my stories come from various sources. Many times, they are kernels that grow slowly in my mind. Sometimes I’ll see something out a window or on a walk that triggers an immediate story idea. On many occasions a piece of music sets up a cascade of thoughts that grow into a story. Since my muse is so scattered and inconsistent, it can often be difficult to answer the question “where did you get the idea for this story.” That’s not the case for “What I Am” [on sale in our current issue now and available as a podcast]. I can point to a very specific prompt and the process that gave birth to this particular tale.

Early in 2017 I applied to be in a collaborative art show which is run by my friend and fellow writer Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam and was thrilled to be accepted. Her Art & Words show has been running since 2012 and it pairs up eleven artists and eleven writers from around the world. Writers send in a story or poem, and then if chosen to participate we are given the image of a piece of art as a prompt to write a second story. The artists send in a piece of visual art and if chosen are given a story or poem as inspiration for a second piece of art. The result is twenty-two pieces of art and twenty-two stories or poems.

My prompt was a sculpture called Architeuthis, created by Texas artist Stacy Tompkins. This piece was both inspiring and quite challenging. Every time I looked at it I saw different things. Sometimes it resembled a macramé squid, which is where the sculpture gets its name, and other times it reminded me of a severed arm from a woven beast or possibly an alien exotic worm. Of course it was just for inspiration. My story didn’t have to be actually about this object, but I thought it was cool and wanted to include it in some way. I also knew from the very first glance that it needed to be alive and aquatic.

Being mostly a science fiction writer I didn’t want to bring this beast to life using magic, so that left only electronics. It would have to be a robot. That said, coming up with an even slightly plausible reason for a robot to be built in that form—at least by humans—left me scratching my head, until I embraced the idea of a future where everything was endowed with some level of intelligent automation. Then the idea kind of took off. The boy’s sweater wanted to make him feel better—as any intelligent sweater would—so it offered to help him find the ring.

I also enjoyed creating a story arc where the protagonist didn’t change. The boy in the story was a vague stand-in for so many of us who are feeling lost, bitter, and sad in today’s chaotic world. The robot was a steadfast companion, who despite being hacked, rearranged and forced into a role it didn’t want, stayed true to its original purpose and was there for the boy when needed. Couldn’t we all use a friend like that?


datauri-file

William Ledbetter is a Nebula Award winning author with more than sixty speculative fiction stories and non-fiction articles published in markets such as Asimov’s, Fantasy & Science Fiction, Analog, Escape Pod, Baen.com, Daily SF, the SFWA blog, and Ad Astra. His new novel “Level Five” is available from Audible Originals.

He’s been a space and technology geek since childhood and spent most of his non-writing career in the aerospace and defense industry. He administers the Jim Baen Memorial Short Story Award contest for Baen Books and the National Space Society, is a member of SFWA, the National Space Society of North Texas, a Launch Pad Astronomy workshop graduate, and is the Science Track coordinator for the Fencon convention. He lives near Dallas with his wife, a needy dog and two spoiled cats.

Worlds to Live In: Atmosphere

Ray Nayler, whose story “Incident at San Juan Bautista” is on sale in our current issue now, visits the blog with insight—invaluable to emerging science fiction writers—on how to achieve that je ne sais quoi that is the atmosphere of a good science fiction story.


When I was a kid, I didn’t look for stories to read: I looked for worlds to live in.

We were feral kids, girls and boys with parents too caught up in their own slow-motion disaster marriages to notice or care what we were doing. So my friends and I spent long summer days and after-school afternoons walking around our sprawling town of Fremont, California, scraping together change to buy comic books and reading them in our “clubhouse”—an abandoned van down by the railroad tracks that sliced through the town. We watched two-dollar triple features of second run science fiction, horror, and action films at the crumbling old movie theater downtown, an art-deco cave that was almost empty most days: during quiet scenes, you could sometimes hear rats battling over ancient Milk Duds up on the balcony.

What we wanted most from the books and comics we read, and from the films we watched, were worlds to escape into. When I began writing, I didn’t start with writing stories: I started with trying to make up worlds for my friends. I started with describing the places we fantasized about living in—haunted forests, space stations, moon bases, drowned cities beneath the waves.


I think Sheila Williams puts it best when she says: “In science fiction the backdrop you work against is the size of the Universe.” That endlessly vast backdrop is what attracted me to the genre as a writer—the opportunity to work on a canvas as large or as small as I want it to be.

For me, short story writing is world-building in miniature, something like the Persian and Central Asian art of miniature painting: In a constrained space, I want to create the impression of a whole world, of which the reader is being offered just a glimpse.

I think of it this way: the reader and I are in a car together, moving down a road. The road is the plot. The reader is the driver, not me. But the secret is this: I built the road. I constructed the buildings, and all of the scenery along the route. Most of my work was done before the reader got here. All that remains is for the reader’s eye to take in the details of the landscape along the way: for them to turn their head a bit from the main plot and glimpse an alleyway where figures converse in semi-darkness, a plane passing overhead, a boat on the river, something moving behind the curtains of a house we pass. The plot is not enough: as the reader moves down the road of the plot, they have to feel like they are traveling through a real world. They need to feel they could turn the car off the main plot and drive elsewhere, knock on any door they pass along the way and have someone answer.

This illusion is accomplished through atmosphere. It can be hard to put your finger on what great atmosphere is, but we know it when we read or watch it. When I think of atmosphere done right in science fiction films, I think of Blade Runner, Alien, and Brazil. In the science fiction novel, I think George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four is one of the greatest examples. In horror fiction, the two novels by William Sloane, To Walk the Night and The Edge of Running Water are, for me, the absolute pinnacle. In horror films, The Shining, Suspiria, and Vertigo are my top choices. In short stories, I find myself returning to Joyce Carol Oates’ menacing masterpiece “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been.” In crime fiction, Patricia Highsmith’s The Cry of the Owl is an extraordinary piece of paranoid world-building. In television, Twin Peaks does it perfectly. In nonfiction, it’s Joan Didion’s The White Album. I can give you a longer list, if you ask me for it, but these are my top choices.

Atmosphere is an interconnected system and escapes easy definition. But there are a few elements I think are worth noting:

  • The suggestive detail: This is something that the reader’s mind is drawn to that gives them the feeling of a larger world just beyond the page. Sometimes seeming extraneous to the main storyline, it tugs at their attention, briefly distracting them and causing their mind to follow, like a deer glimpsed darting through the woods along the road. In Blade Runner, think of the eerie billboard advertisements hovering in the background: a piece of atmosphere so effective it has been imitated until it is now just a tattered dystopian trope. In Alien, think of the long initial sequence of images we are given of the Nostromo: the silent corridors, the empty space suits, the computer screen reflected in a helmet face shield, the isolated human details of a coffee cup, a good luck charm, a notebook: this is followed by a long, quiet sequence of the crew as they wake up unexpectedly, far from their destination. These scenes are, I will argue, the most important ones in the film, setting the tone for everything to come.
  • The Uncanny: The uncanny is hard to define, but you know it when you see it. It makes the mind recoil slightly, then come back again like a tongue probing a damaged tooth. Think of the automatons in Blade Runner (home again, home again, jiggity-jig!) that greet Sebastian at his door, or the mechanical robin in Blue Velvet. Twin Peaks is filled with uncanny moments, which is perhaps why it has become such a cult—but some of its most effective moments of the uncanny are its most subtle: the fish in the coffee pot, the lingering shots of the forest or the waterfall pouring into the abyss, the Roadhouse torch-song. These moments stick in the reader’s (or viewer’s) mind and follow her—sometimes for a lifetime.
  • Saturation: What all of the works above share as well is saturation: the mood, the feeling of the piece, continues from its opening moments to its closing scenes. In every case, the word feels complete, whole. Think again of Blade Runner or Alien. The soundtrack of Blade Runner is as essential to its atmosphere as the visuals. In Alien, the sound engineering is a masterpiece: in that opening sequence of Nostromo waking up, the sounds may be even more unsettling than the images. You can have plot without a theme, amazing characters without a great plot, or a great idea without any of those, but atmosphere demands consistency: a total saturation of tone.

 

  • Condensation: This is a very personal definition, but for me what it means is a metaphor, image, or sign that, much like the symbols in dreams, has multiple meanings and implications, and is an amalgamation of many of the underlying themes of the work. In T.S. Eliot’s “Prufrock” there are many moments, but certainly the opening lines are a perfect example: “Let us go then, you and I, / When the evening is spread out against the sky / Like a patient etherized upon a table.” Or think of the owl in Twin Peaks, or the backward-talking dwarf. Think of the nursery rhyme in Nineteen Eighty-Four, or of the song the working-class woman sings while Winston Smith and Julia are meeting in their secret room. Or the mission and the bell tower in Hitchcock’s Vertigo. These symbols don’t resolve themselves: they just hang, forever, in the reader’s or viewer’s consciousness.

 

What you will notice about the above four elements is that they are not only common to all fiction and nonfiction stories: they are also common to memories and dreams. This is, I believe, at the core of their power. All of us have probably said to someone on waking up from a nightmare: “nothing happened, but it just felt like a nightmare.” That’s atmosphere.

This barely scrapes the surface of atmosphere, but what I’d like to do is just get you thinking of it, as my story in this issue of Asimov’s [on sale now], “Incident at San Jaun Bautista” is all about atmosphere. I began writing the story while on a long road trip through the American West. Toward the end of the road trip, we stayed in San Juan Bautista, a small town south of San Francisco and my hometown of Fremont. San Juan Bautista was briefly made famous as the location of the mission where Alfred Hitchcock filmed the climactic scenes of Vertigo. But perhaps more striking for me is the town’s history as a stop on the stagecoach lines heading from San Francisco to Los Angeles, and its saloon and hotel, still saturated with the gloomy, violent atmosphere of the Californian West of the 19th century. I’d wanted for a long time to write a science fiction story set in the period of American Western expansion, and to try to capture the surreal, brutal feel of that time, as well as the feel of William Sloane’s masterpieces of cosmic terror and Patricia Highsmith’s psychological labyrinths. I hope I’ve been able to do that here, and I hope you enjoy the tale. If you do, there are more stories you can read up at Raynayler.net, or come find me on Instagram or Facebook, where I’d love to continue the conversation.

I sincerely hope you enjoy the story, and that it gives you, however briefly, another world to live in.

—Ray Nayler


 Ray Nayler

“Incident at San Juan Bautista” is Ray Nayler’s fifth story in Asimov’s. His story “Winter Timeshare,” which appeared in Asimov’s January/February 2017 issue, was selected for inclusion in Volume 35 of The Year’s Best Science Fiction, edited by Gardner Dozois, in Gardner Dozois’ The Very Best of the Best: 35 Years of the Year’s Best Science Fiction, and in The Year’s Best Science Fiction and Fantasy 2018, edited by Rich Horton. “Mutability,” Ray’s first science fiction story, appeared in Asimov’s June 2015 issue and was subsequently published in The Year’s Best Science Fiction and Fantasy 2016. Ray’s poetry has appeared in the Beloit Poetry Journal, Sentence, and many other magazines. His detective novel, American Graveyards, was published in the UK by Third Alternative Press, and he has had short stories in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, Cemetery Dance, Deathrealm, Hardboiled and Crimewave, among others. A Foreign Service Officer,  Ray speaks Russian and Azerbaijani Turkish, and has lived and worked in Russia, Central Asia and the Caucasus for over a decade. His most recent post was as Press Attaché at the United States Embassy in Baku, Azerbaijan. He is currently studying Albanian at the Foreign Service Institute in Arlington, Virginia in preparation for his posting to Pristina, Kosovo.

Everybody Wants to Live Forever . . .

by Julie Novakova

What would you do if you could live forever? I recently got into a debate on the personal consequences of immortality with a friend of mine. For me, seeking change and novelty seemed natural; after all, if you stack in years after years, don’t you become bored with things that remain the same? For him, almost the opposite rang true—he imagined perfecting one art and yourself with it. Meditating, getting to know yourself deeply, and becoming better still through it. I found it interesting. If taking these approaches to the extremes, you would find running from yourself on one end, and contemplating yourself on the other.


What would most people choose—deliberately or not—if given the chance to become immortal?


Immortality is by far not a new topic in speculative fiction. Already in its roots such as myths or fairy tales, we see immortal beings of all kinds. We’ve got countless depictions of vampires, elves, ghosts, gods, and demigods each dealing with eternal life in their own way. Some struggle because of loss, boredom, or on the other hand unwelcome change; some simply “enjoy the ride”; some are as constant as Earth revolving around the Sun; some experience personality shifts to the extent where they practically become a new being. In popular culture, I especially liked the different takes on immortality in Doctor Who—the Doctor him/herself, Jack Harkness, Lady Me . . . Each represents a different way to deal with eternity, and each also possesses a different kind of “immortality”—the ability to regenerate into another person retaining the previous one’s memories, indestructibility, and eternal youth and health, but with the potential to succumb to deadly injury.

Continue reading “Everybody Wants to Live Forever . . .”

An Accidental Poet

by William Shunn

 

     I never set out to be a poet. Everything that led to poems like “The Golem” [on sale in our September/October issue now] appearing in print happened by accident.

     All right, sure, I did have ambitions to publish my poems when I was in high school in the early ’80s. I even submitted a few to Asimov’s. But looking back over those early efforts, it would appear that my technique consisted mostly of flipping through a thesaurus in search of ten-dollar words I didn’t quite understand and cramming them into sentences where they didn’t quite fit. Those poems still languish, deservedly, in the darkest recesses of my filing cabinet.

     I did always intend to publish fiction. From college on, that was my main focus, and poetry fell by the wayside. I started selling stories here and there, including one to Washed by a Wave of Wind, an anthology of science fiction from the Intermountain West, edited by M. Shayne Bell. When the anthology was published in December 1993, Shayne and I and several other contributors set out in a big van on a book tour to obscure corners of Utah.

Continue reading “An Accidental Poet”