Q&A with Brittany Hause

An image of the Archaeopteryx fossil found in Berlin made a lasting impression on Brittany Hause when they were a child. Years later and inspired by that image, Brittany’s poem “billets-doux” [on sale now in our current issue] has made a lasting impression on us. Read on for a more in-depth look at the inspiration for “billets-doux” and to learn about Brittany’s works in progress.


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

BH: The first image sketched out in “billets-doux”—the establishing shot, I suppose—was also the first element of the poem to come to me. For a few days, that was all I had of the story that would later tell itself with little effort on my part: a static vision of the crisp, unmistakeable lines of a modern shoeprint pressed into rock alongside the equally unmistakeable contours of a pre-Cenozoic fossil. That said fossil happened to be Archaeopteryx, specifically, is unsurprising—pictures I saw in childhood of the famous full-skeleton specimen found in Berlin, the ur-bird with its head thrown back and limbs spasming out in a weird forever-dance, made an impression (pun intended) that’s never quite left me.

I let this anachronistic tableau rattle wordlessly around in my head for a while before I put it to paper. When I did finally scribble the idea down, it seemed to take the form of a three-line poem of its own accord.

At first pass, I considered that to be the finished product: a standalone haiku-like sci-fi piece (what many call “scifaiku”). But then some photos I’d seen years before in an art history textbook suddenly swam to mind—the stark shapes of ancient human hands with fingers outspread, empty spaces outlined in red and black on the cavern walls of Pech Merle, and I thought: It’s not an accident—it’s a message. I wrote the rest of the poem in the same sitting.

I’m a plodding sort of writer, generally. Fiction pieces, especially—whether poetry or prose—are in most cases only wrung out of my system in tiny, disordered fragments jotted down over the course of several noncontiguous days before being rearranged and severely edited. So to have a poem flow out all at once for me like that was a nice change of pace.

Something about the first stanza looked naggingly familiar, though. I couldn’t shake the idea that I’d seen similar imagery in someone else’s poetry before.

After some vague but determined googling, I finally tracked down the piece haunting the fringes of my memory. There are enough differences to put my fears of unmeaning plagiarism to rest, but I’m almost certain that the immediate inspiration for the fossilized sneakerprint of “billets-doux” is the second poem Tom Brinck gives as an example in his “SciFaiku Manifesto,” one of the places I turned for more information when I first heard of scifaiku a couple years back. Brinck’s “Digging up an ancient city” is probably the subconscious reason “billets-doux” came out in haiku-shaped stanzas to begin with, and the reason for the shout-out in the subtitle.

AE: What made you think of Asimov’s for “billets-doux”?

BH: The sci-fi elements of this poem are overt, and central to the piece. The time travel alluded to throughout is easily read (I think) as a literal plot point—not strictly as a metaphor for something else.

It’s also a fairly upbeat, optimistic poem. At least, that’s what I was going for.

I associate Asimov’s both with the explicit exploration of sci-fi tropes (like time travel!) and with a wide range in the tone emanated by the stories and poems making up each issue. Though I could be wrong about this, it seems to me that the editors make more room for lighthearted stuff than many other regular SFF publications, both nowadays and historically. (I’ve gone back to Lawrence Watt-Evans’s “Why I Left Harry’s All-Night Hamburgers,” a now fairly venerable Asimov’s-debuted short story, on several occasions when I wanted an emotional pick-me-up.)

As an unambiguously SFnal poem leaning toward the happy-go-lucky, I thought “billets-doux” might be a good fit for the magazine. I’m glad the editors agreed!

AE: What is your process?

BH: Poems and stories for me nearly always originate as a few bullet point notes hastily jotted down on whatever surface avails itself at the moment—my writing notebook, if the timing’s good, but more often than not, the back of a lecture handout, a napkin, or even my wrist. (My phone’s note-taking app is probably a more sensible option, I know, but somehow its existence seems to slip my mind in the instant inspiration strikes.)

Later, at a more convenient moment (ideas almost never announce themselves at convenient moments), I transfer to my writing notebook any notes not already contained therein. I revise and reorganize my notes by hand in the same notebook, and usually go through at least two drafts that way before transferring my work to a word processor. I edit as I type, too—editing at this point largely consisting of heavy pruning. Work I submit for publication is often only a third or a fourth the size of early drafts.

 


Long story short, as much as I love mentally escaping into sci-fi worlds for days or even weeks at a time, I believe I’m best off where I am, learning to better live in this world. In the immortal words of Sesame Street’s Ernie, “I’d like to visit the Moon, / but I don’t think I’d like to live there.”


 

AE: What other projects are you currently working on?

BH: More of my time is occupied with moving forward with my doctorate thesis (on linguistic borrowings in Spanish) than with fiction-writing, at the moment.

But I have been getting some sci-fi and fantasy work done here and there. I recently guest-edited an issue of online speculative poetry magazine Eye to the Telescope (“Tricksters,” October 2019), and I have three specpo collections of my own in the very, very slow making. The one I’m farthest along with, and hoping to publish within the next year or so, is a collection of SFF micropoetry—scifaiku, tanka, sijo, and other very short traditional forms of unrhymed verse. (As a series of linked scifaiku, “billets-doux” falls under this umbrella.)

I’ve also got an incipient collection of rhyming poems in the works. These are mostly sonnets, and mostly feature speakers drawn from European folklore and fairytales. I’ve been mentally calling the book-to-be Bluebeard’s First Wife and Other Poems, though that could change. You can read one of the sonnets, “La Belle a la Bête,” online at Abyss & Apex.

And, finally, I continue to gradually add to a series of erasure poems drawn from the text of Ray Bradbury’s classic sci-fi story collection The Martian Chronicles. One of these erasures, “The Martian Chronicles The Earth Men,” is currently available to read online, also at Abyss & Apex.

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

BH: There are a number of series of sci-fi novels featuring intricate world-building that I enjoy immersing myself in time and again. I love reconnecting periodically with the universe and characters of Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga, for instance.

Much as I find the physical and cultural settings of these books compelling platforms for stories that I care about, though, I doubt I would enjoy living in most of them, especially if making the choice to do so meant I could never return to this corner of spacetime.

As far as sci-fi universes in TV/movies go, I’m very attached to the settings and characters of Star Trek—as developed in Deep Space Nine in particular—despite taking a rather cynical view of the United Federation of Planets’s self-advertisement as a democratic, pacific utopia. Having watched shows set in the Star Trek universe since early childhood, I figure if I were suddenly plopped onto one of the member worlds of the UFP, I might have a fighting chance at working out how to get around and at navigating cultural differences. And physically, at least, I expect I would be okay, given the access to many necessary resources and the technological conveniences most Federation citizens in Star Trek shows take for granted.

But again, if moving to Risa or Vulcan or Andoria meant I could never come home, I’d turn down the offer.

Long story short, as much as I love mentally escaping into sci-fi worlds for days or even weeks at a time, I believe I’m best off where I am, learning to better live in this world. In the immortal words of Sesame Street’s Ernie, “I’d like to visit the Moon, / but I don’t think I’d like to live there.”

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

BH: Reliable, government-provided healthcare available free of charge to anyone who wants it, anytime.

AE: What are you reading right now?

BH: On the nonfiction side of things, I’m currently working my way through Stephen King’s On Writing, Don Kulick’s A Death in the Rainforest, selected chapters of The Cambridge Handbook of Spanish Linguistics, and scattered articles in old installments of the Folia Linguistica Historica. On the fiction side, I’m reading Arkady Martine’s sci-fi political thriller A Memory Called Empire; Dashiell Hammett’s classic hardboiled detective novel Red Harvest; and The Gunslinger, Book One of the sprawling Dark Tower series (Stephen King again).

My habit of jumping from book to book mid-read is a firmly entrenched one. I own probably around 15 bookmarks at this point, all put to frequent use.

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

BH: I can be found on Twitter: @BrittanyHause. I also blog occasionally about science fiction and fantasy poetry at specpotpourri, where I maintain a (usually) up-to-date list of my published poems and other SFF writing you can access by clicking here.


Brittany is a linguist; they also write SFF poetry. Their speculative verse has most recently appeared in Star*Line, Grievous Angel, Abyss & Apex, and Eye to the Telescope.

Exploring What’s Real in an Imaginary World

by Kali Wallace

 

The setting of “The River of Blood and Wine” [on sale in our current issue] is a world founded on the profitability of murder. That is not how its inhabitants see it: they believe themselves to be colonists taming a wild frontier, and that includes hunting and killing the animals that roam the land. They ignore, dismiss, and cover up evidence that the creatures they hunt are intelligent beings with a culture of their own—right up until they can’t hide it anymore, and their way of life must end.

That is the initial seed of an idea I had when I first began writing this story. I often begin my stories with little more than a vivid image and a “what if . . . ?” premise to hang onto. In this case, the images I had in mind were a broad, slow river snaking through a vast plain, a man returning to this troubled home after years away, and a native species so alien a society might choose to see them as mere animals.

Starting with that scenario and those three nexus points, I began to see the world growing and stretching, becoming more real in my mind, before I even knew how I would populate it. Even more than the geography, I began to get a feel for it—what kind of world this was, what it might feel like to walk beneath its sun, what dark memories a child of this society might take with him when he left. What it might mean for a person’s greatest act to be driven by personal demons as much as altruism.

The setting is a distant planet in an equally distant future, but it’s a world that borrows a lot of its imagery and atmosphere from real places here on Earth. The savannas of East Africa, for example, or the plains of North America, these broad open spaces full of wildlife that have so often been used as shorthand for adventure, exploration, individualism, and rugged prowess. A place to prove one’s mettle against nature.


For incomers, that is. For colonists. For invaders.


It was part of a writer’s work to think not only about what we’re writing, but also to think very deeply about what kind of story we’re trying to tell. In this case, I had to take a step back from the imagery and science fictional ideas that captivated me and realize that my first emotional engagement with this idea was one that required some examination. I was wary of telling a story about invasion from the point of view of the invaders, which is what I was doing by centering the point of view of a human in this planetary colony.

This is where the “What if . . . ?” that formed the spark of my story idea had to expand and grow. It isn’t enough to think about a scenario humankind might encounter in a science fictional future, on a distant planet. It is often said that science fiction is the literature of ideas, but ideas cannot be separated from the people who hold them, and social systems cannot be separated from the people living within them. Of course, that doesn’t stop us from trying. See, for example, narratives about good slave owners, or loving domestic abusers, or promising and accomplished young rapists, or egalitarian billionaires. To live in our world is to expend a great deal of energy grappling with narratives that insist upon separation between flawed systems and the people who benefit from those flaws at the expense of others. It is, and always has been, a false division.

In the same way, stories cannot be separated from the world in which they are written. When I was turning my own ideas over in my mind, I realized that I could not separate the violence of the culture I was creating—both implicit and explicit—from the sort of people who would create and preserve that culture. It requires people thinking themselves superior, drawing lines around who deserves to live and who deserves to die, creating categories of who even gets to be called people and placing only themselves inside. It starts, as Granny Weatherwax said, with treating people as things. That is where systemic violence comes from.

I did not set out to write a story about the nature of evil. Nor did I set out to write a story about domestic violence. I started with nothing but an idea about what humans might encounter in a distant future, and the feeling of a world I could not quite define but wanted to capture. I wanted to describe big open spaces—because, indeed, sometimes a story is born out of an urge no more complex than wanting to explore a specific idea in a specific place, then searching for a way to bring it to life.

But that’s where it begins, not where it ends. A story only becomes a story when it turns toward the people in it and the forces that define their lives, then reaches out to the readers to urge them to consider those same forces in reality. It seems so obvious, so silly and mundane, but I often feel like I am reminding myself of this every time I sit down to write something new. When the sun shines on a character’s skin as they walk across an impossible world in an imagined future, what they feel, and why they feel it, are always going to be shaped by the experiences of readers in this one.

 


Kali Wallace studied geology and earned a PhD in geophysics before she realized she enjoyed inventing imaginary worlds more than she liked researching the real one. She is the author of the young adult novels Shallow Graves and The Memory Trees and the middle grade fantasy City of Islands. Her first novel for adults is the science fiction thriller Salvation Day. Her short fiction has appeared in Asimov’s, Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, F&SF, Tor.com, and other speculative fiction magazines. After spending most of her life in Colorado, she now lives in southern California.

Surfers at the End of Time

by Rudy Rucker

“Surfers at the End of Time” [on sale in our current issue now] is the seventh story that Marc Laidlaw and I have collaborated on. All but one of the tales are SF surfing stories that feature two guys called Zep and Del.

Often when I collaborate, I’ll do what I call a transreal move. That is, I’ll have the story be about two people, and one of the characters is somewhat like me, and the other is like my co-author. To some extent Zep is like me, and Del is like Marc. This said, we often ventriloquize each other’s characters, in that Marc might write Zep scenes and I might write Del.

rudyandmarchaena.jpg


We wanted to use Wells’s classic scene where the Time Traveler goes so far into the future that the sun is bloated and the Earth is nearly lifeless. Thus our title: “Surfers at the End of Time.” I like to pronounce the last word like I’m in an echo chamber: “Tiyiyiyiyiiiiiimmmme.” You know.


This time out, we wanted to do a time-travel story. We’d talked about this for a few years. At first we were focused on the notion of flooded cities, with the sea level halfway up on the skyscrapers. This theme was featured in the excellent 2001 Brian Aldiss-inspired movie A.I. Artificial Intelligence, and there’s a touch of it in Tomorrowland too. Marc had imagined surf contests amid the buildings. But in 2017, just as we were ready to start, Kim Stanley Robinson pretty much used up the trope with his New York 2140. Marc and I did write some nice flooded-San-Francisco scenes, but we needed more.

Continue reading “Surfers at the End of Time”

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.