Q&A with Sean Monaghan

Sean Monaghan discusses his most recent—and fifth—story in the current issue of Asimov’s while also touching on the fantastic and imaginative worlds he creates for our readers. Read on to learn about his inspiration and influences.


Asimov’s Editors: How did “The Billows of Sarto” germinate? Was there a spark of inspiration, or did it come to you slowly?

Sean Monaghan: I love extreme environments. The Antarctic, the Atacama Desert, lush rainforests, the Grand Canyon. I studied geography and geology and have always been fond of volcanoes, especially collapsed calderas. A few years back I visited Crater Lake National Park in Oregon and loved seeing the tiny volcanic peak sticking up inside the caldera (and also had a flash of memory—when I’d been a little kid, I’d seen a photo and decided that I wanted to go there sometime . . . in the intervening decades I’d forgotten about that. That was cool).

When I came to write “The Billows of Sarto,” I started with the environment, the caldera with its microclimate. Things progressed from there.

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

SM: I suspect all of my stories are part of a larger universe, I just haven’t quite figured out how to join them all together. I’m sure Sarto is another world, just an easy starship jump from the planet Kaylee in “The Molenstraat Music Festival” or Ariosto in “Crimson Birds of Small Miracles” (both of which appeared in Asimov’s). I would certainly like to explore more of Sarto; the caldera is just a part of the landscape.


With “The Billows of Sarto” the environment is almost one of the characters, but it’s very much a character story, with an exotic setting, and so Asimov’s felt like a natural home.


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

SM: I guess I do relate to Jack. That quest for answers and for understanding, and looking in unusual (and often wrong) places for those. The moments of uncertainty in dealing with new people, and moments of simply becoming baffled by family.

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

SM: I enjoy a range of science fiction, from very hard sci-fi, through to outrageous pieces that don’t let good science get in the way of moving the story ahead. I feel that Asimov’s sits somewhere in the middle. The science is there, but the characters and situations are very much front and center. With “The Billows of Sarto” the environment is almost one of the characters, but it’s very much a character story, with an exotic setting, and so Asimov’s felt like a natural home.

“The Billows of Sarto” is my fifth appearance in Asimov’s, and I’m still honored every time. Since my teenage years I’ve read Isaac Asimov’s stories and novels, as well as the magazine.

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

SM: I find so many current events seem to repeat: bad storms, political upheaval, celebrity mischief and so on. What I do continue to find fascinating are current events in the science and technology field. Hey reusable rockets are finally a thing! We’ve invented a global supercomputer connected from everyone’s desk to everyone’s pocket, but we chose using it to watch videos of cats discovering there’s water in the tub.

I did like reading recently about researchers turning off their AI experiments because the AIs quickly developed their own efficient language and things got kind of scary. I’m putting stuff like that into my stories now.

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

SM: I find myself inventing alien worlds with extreme features. Vast canyons, ice caps that extend to within a few degrees of the equator, jungle oases in the middle of deserts. What’s it like to live in these places? To explore them? All a kind of wish-fulfillment on my part: I would love to explore a canyon ten kilometers deep and two thousand kilometers long.

AE: How did you break into writing?

SM: I was at university, studying the sciences, and some enthusiastic people in the humanities faculty decided to resurrect the university’s literary magazine. I must have been around 22. I sent a story in, and promptly forgot about it. A week or so before the end of semester, I received a copy of Musings in the post, with my story and a very nice letter from the editor.

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

SM: I love Karl Schoeder’s Virga. A gas balloon five thousand kilometers across, orbiting Vega. The weightless societies, with their steampunk sensibilities and heirarchies are simply extraordinary. The story sprawls over five books, and with each one the world grows. It’s a stunning work of imagination.

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

SM: Martin Shoemaker often repeats the phrase “Write! Write! Write!” I think that sums it up well. Someone aiming to play professional golf gets out on the course. They don’t always hit a hole in one, or even go under par, but just by playing they get better. For a writer there is no substitute for sitting down and writing. And write what you love to read.

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

SM: I’ve been a pin-spotter (as a kid at a bowling alley without the machines), sign-maker, travel-coordinator, perpetual student, secretary, frequent traveler, librarian and a digital programs coordinator. In terms of my writing, the thing that strikes me is the people from varied walks of life and cultures with whom I’ve crossed paths. I like to think that I borrow a little from individuals as my characters develop. Being a librarian has also meant that I’m surrounded by books all day—what better place for a writer?

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

SM: I blog infrequently at seanmonaghan.com, and I’m similarly infrequent on Facebook as seanmonaghanwriter, and twitter @seanmmonaghan. I’ve been told I should have a newsletter too. Perhaps one of these days.

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