In Trace Yulie and Rachel Swirsky’s story—in the current issue on sale now—you’ll find a determined woman who is “Seven Months Out, Two To Go.” Collaborative stories are exciting, because each team approaches their creation differently. Luckily, Trace & Rachel agreed to chat about their process!
Asimov’s Editors: Trace and Rachel—it is always a treat to publish a collaborative story. Every collaborative work seems to have its own process and style: How did you two approach coauthoring this piece?
Rachel Swirsky: In this case, I was having a lot of writer’s block where I just couldn’t generate the foundations of a story. My editorial/rewriting skills were still working, though. I asked Trace and some other friends of mine if they had short stories that they had a foundation for, but couldn’t wrestle into a form they felt satisfied with. Trace handed me this one, and I took a few months revising it, and then we passed it back and forth for a while after that to polish it up.
Trace Yulie: Collaborating is kind of a scary delight. Rachel saw the gaps in this idea of a grieving rancher who has a strange encounter, which wasn’t much more than a few solid scenes with imagery and a feeling when I passed it on. I’d felt that something was missing that made my draft unsatisfying. Our back and forth served to stitch things together thematically, in ways I couldn’t see when she began, and character interiority deepened. Rachel has a gift for that. More concretely, we worked on a shared document and talked through the draft periodically over the phone. The process taught me a lot about stepping back from the vision in my head to see what a story can become.
AE: Have either of you worked with another author (perhaps each other) before? In what ways was this experience different?
RS: I’ve published two stories with my former student, An Owomoyela, using this process where they wrote the foundation, I did heavy rewrites, and then we polished together. “Between Dragons and their Wrath” is up at Clarkesworld Magazine, and “Whose Drowned Face Sleeps” is online at Nightmare Magazine. I’ve also published stories with Katherine Sparrow and Ann Leckie.
TY: I’ve started a couple of collaborations with other writers, but this is the first to result in a finished product. It helped that we both seemed to know what we were going for.
AE: What is the story behind this piece?
RS: Trace and I will have really different answers to this because of the way we collaborated. Trace was with this story from the beginning when it was just germinating, but I only came in after there was a complete draft. My process began when I read Trace’s draft of the story and considered how I could help shape it. The story was already beautiful, with all its themes about grief and alienation. I got to work on structure and plot, trying to create a slightly more robust framework for Trace’s concepts and images.
TY: My earlier draft had its beginnings in my mother’s stories about growing up on a ranch. She even drew a map of her father’s farm, and showed me old photographs. I grew up in a rural area myself, so the scents of the farm, the intelligent eyes of cows, the feel of wet mud on boots are details I could readily ground myself in. I wanted to capture that sensibility of earth and sky and animal connection, and pull in a speculative element. Then I read “Lambing Season” by Molly Gloss (Asimov’s July 2002), and the story exploded in my head. The very first draft was written in three or four days at the Clarion West Writers Workshop, in 2010, and then I put the story down for a long while until Rachel asked about collaborating.
AE: What is your history with Asimov’s?
RS: My parents have a bookcase of science fiction novels and magazines that stands behind the door to their bedroom. It fell during the ’89 San Francisco Bay Area earthquake, and blocked their door so that my father had to inch through the crawlspace to get back into their bedroom. Its entire top shelf is full of issues of Asimov’s magazines from the days when Asimov himself was editor. I’ve subscribed to Asimov’s for a number of years, and have great respect for Sheila Williams as an editor. It’s an honor and a pleasure to appear in the magazine.
TY: My experience with Asimov’s stems from steamy summer Saturdays in the public library, and my high school art teacher who would lend copies of the magazine (and Anne McCaffrey books) to students. Thank goodness for those adults who passed the torch and exposed me to science fiction and fantasy. This is my first sale to Asimov’s, and I’m thrilled to appear in its pages.
AE: Who or what are your greatest influences and inspirations?
RS: This is a difficult question because there are so many. For this interview I’ll focus on one—Star Trek: The Next Generation. I first watched the show when I was age eleven or so, and the first episode I saw was one of the ones that feature Q, an omnipotent being who wanders around being annoying and kind of awesome. I loved the expanse of its universe, how many potential worlds and cultures were out there, how many alien ways of thinking and being. The aliens in this story are probably more inspired by work like Octavia Butler’s than Star Trek, but the TV show captured my desire for a glimpse of the unknown possibilities of sentience.
TY: I’m a little embarrassed to admit it, but the angsty characters and space battles of the Robotech series for American television inspired tiny fifth-grade me to start writing fiction. I also read voraciously as a kid, so I absorbed a lot of myths and legends. These early influences were formative in terms of my later tastes, like comparative mythology, utopian narratives, and Star Trek. My greatest influences and inspirations are works by writers like Maureen McHugh, Molly Gloss, and Ursula Le Guin, evocative yet deeply personal, compassionate and somehow simultaneously controlled.
AE: Are there any themes that you find yourself returning to throughout your writing?
RS: I’ve always loved sequences that happen in a character’s mind, or in their dreams or hallucinations, where everything is surreal, and everything is meaningful. I think my fascination relates to the way one of my art teachers explained impressionism to me when I was young. (Please note that the following is reductive.) Realistic painting depicts what you see. Impressionism breaks down what you see, showing how your eye itself shapes the world. There’s another movement afterward called Symbolism which shows the world the way that the psyche has shaped it. That’s what I love—thinking about how our histories and desires and preoccupations are always overlain on our perceptions, and rendering that visible.
TY: I seem to return to the themes of memory and sorrow quite often. I’m intrigued by the mind’s capacity to tell itself into being, to shape new meaning or warp perception. Our stories are incredibly important to sense of self, and I find myself repeatedly grappling with the memories and the sense of the interior of character. The “someone comes to town, someone leaves town” conceit of story may at first appear to be all about newness and struggle, but on the interior, the real story is disruption, adjustment of self and what counts as normal. Digging into that interior is so much more interesting to me. Memory can be like a character in a story, someone the protagonist struggles against; the one leaving or arriving is a piece of the protagonist. I want to invite the reader to experience loss and recovery and even fill in spaces with bits of themselves, in a grounded, sensory way, to breathe into a scene or a moment of redemption.
AE: If you could choose one SFnal universe to live in, what universe would it be, and why?
RS: My answer to this question would probably change minute to minute, but at this second, I think I’d like to live in Star Trek: TNG because I mentioned it a couple of questions ago. I would have holodecks and replicators and transporters, and sometimes I could take trips to see alien worlds.
TY: I’m tempted to say that we already live in a science fictional universe, and I’d like to live in a parallel dimension to this one, where we’ve eliminated the occasion of all war, environmental destruction, and social inequity. But I could live in the universe of Ursula K. Le Guin’s Hainish novels, as a scholar, historian, or anthropologist traveling on slow ships between worlds, communicating via ansible with colleagues and friends from all over the universe. There would be an incredible variety of human experience to learn about and understand, in a society that values peace and knowledge.
AE: What are you reading right now?
RS: I am reading Her Body, and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado. She’s a breathtaking writer whose story “The Husband Stitch” (https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/25056903-the-husband-stitch) was my favorite of 2014. She’s conquering the literary world with her genre-bending brilliance.
TY: I’m reading Lesley Nneka Arimah’s startling debut collection, What it Means When a Man Falls from the Sky. Maybe Arimah wouldn’t say her work is SFF, but her story “Who Will Greet You at Home?” about a woman’s attempt to fashion a living child out of various materials made my hair stand on end: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/10/26/who-will-greet-you-at-home
AE: How can our readers follow you and your writing?
RS: I’m easy to find on most social media. Just type in my name! I’m @rachelswirsky on Twitter, Rachel Swirsky on Facebook, I run my Website at rachelswirsky.com, and you can probably figure out the rest. I have a Patreon page where readers pledging $1 or more get a new short story or poem each month. (patreon.com/rachelswirsky)
TY: I think I must be the last of the Facebook resisters, but I’m @traceyulie on Twitter. I post my publications, appearances and deep thoughts on my website, traceyulie.com.
Trace Yulie grew up barefoot in the rural South and has been fascinated by the solemn intelligence in the eyes of animals for as long as she can remember. This story, her first for Asimov’s, is dedicated to her mother, who spent her youth on a cattle ranch. Trace is a graduate of the 2010 Clarion West Writers Workshop. Her other publications include stories in Interzone, Crossed Genres, and The Future Fire. Trace can be found online at traceyulie.com.
Rachel Swirsky received her MFA in fiction from the Iowa Writers Workshop. She’s published over seventy short stories, and received nominations for the Hugo, Locus, World Fantasy, and Sturgeon Awards, as well as twice winning the Nebula Award, once for her novella “The Lady Who Plucked Red Flowers by the Queen’s Window,” and again for her short story “If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love.” Find her online at rachelswirsky.com, chat with her on social media, and help her keep writing stories at patreon.com/rachelswirsky.