Asimov’s newcomer Todd Dillard chats about his writing process and inspirations—whether for his current manuscript, which he describes as the most difficult project he’s ever worked on, or his debut science fiction poem, which you can find in our current issue.
Asimov’s Editors: What is the story behind this piece?
TD: I have always loved the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series. It’s such a delightful blend of spoof and adventure, fraught with rich scenes and characters and things so bizarre you have to laugh when you read them. I reread the first book over a year ago, during a period when I was dabbling with persona poems, and I kept returning to how genius and aberrant a creature like the Babel Fish is. How did they evolve? If they are the source of so much mayhem, why are they so prolific across the galaxy? More importantly: what is their agency? What do they want? This question serves as the foundation of the poem.
AE: How did the title for this piece come to you?
TD: “Palate of the Babel Fish” is the most useful title I could come up with; it describes the subject, the topic, and scans pleasantly. I like too how close to “ballad” the word “palate” is; if you were to only listen with half an ear, the title almost sounds like “Ballad of the Babel Fish.”
AE: What made you think of Asimov’s for this piece?
TD: I used to run a newsstand, and Asimov’s was one of the few science fiction titles I stocked. It was the first magazine to come to mind when I completed this, my first science fiction poem written as an adult.
AE: What is your process?
TD: For me, something impossible has to happen in a poem. There has to be some moment, some instance in the writing where the unrealized is realized. This manifests in my writing by how I often use myths, science fiction, fables, and fantasy and their intersection with otherwise quotidian living. So “my process” starts by reading everything—articles, stories from other cultures, versions of stories I may have first encountered in their Disney-fied forms, etc. and when something sticks, I write it down in a Google Doc. After that, it’s almost like swirling a cone through a cotton candy machine—the idea accrues tatters of other ideas, which form lines, which become stanzas, a narrative voice, and, ultimately, an entire body. It’s how I, for example, ended up with a poem that references Douglas Adams, the god Fenrir, and yokai from Japanese mythology.
This is just for the first draft, though. I edit 1–2 hours a day, every day. I am obsessed. I keep everything on my phone, and spend every free moment editing my writing. It is, occasionally, exhausting.
AE: How do you deal with writers’ block?
TD: I don’t believe in writers’ block. A couple of years ago, I saw a special on jury selection—I think it was fictional, but it might be based on real life—anyway, it was about how this guy was an expert at selecting jurors. He described his process, and one of the most important things he said to focus on were the shoes people were wearing. Shoes always tell a story. And this is so true! They project how much the wearer intends to walk that day, they often describe class, wealth, the way their heels wear hints at bodily ailments, fashion aesthetic (which has many cultural implications), etc. So, if I am truly stuck on writing, I just ride the subway and make up life stories about people based on their shoes. This is a long way to say there is always something to write about if you have the urge to write but are unsure what to put onto the paper, which is what I think of as “writer’s block.” When I “lose” the urge to write, it’s time to reassess my life. Am I sleeping enough? Am I eating poorly? How is my emotional wellbeing? Usually, I am able to figure out what’s wrong, and “fix” it, and the urge to write returns. I will say the three most common reasons why I lose the urge to write are: grief, poor dieting, and reading a bad book.
AE: How did you break into writing?
TD: By accident! My 7th grade English teacher made our class write some poems for an assignment. In 8th grade my English teacher made us submit to something called The Scholastic Arts and Writing Awards. I submitted my poems from 7th grade, and they made it to the contest’s national level. I’ve been writing poetry ever since (with a break to try my hand at novels), though I’ve only been seriously submitting to journals in the last year and a half.
AE: What other projects are you currently working on?
TD: I am in the middle of finishing a poetry manuscript, and it has been the most difficult writing project I have ever undertaken—harder even than writing a novel! I keep wanting the manuscript to unfold like a poem, to have a narrative arc the reader can follow, to have these bright moments of language and impossibility bridged by moments of introspection, all of it with a velocity that keeps the reader turning pages. Manuscripts of poems do not take to the poem’s architecture though. It’s been a difficult process learning this, because it seemed intuitive to think a manuscript should be able to mirror a poem. Every day I am tempted to just throw my favorite poems into a word doc, slap on some page numbers and a title, and send it off to contests. But part of writing poetry is wanting your poems to have a nice home—in a journal, or in a book. So, I work to give them the home they need, to share space with poems that would want them as neighbors. I started this in September, and as of this writing it’s the end of February. I am almost done, I think. Probably.
AE: What SFnal prediction would you like to see come true?
TD: Basically anything that improves healthcare cheaply and permanently and without negative consequences. For example: my brother and father are both experiencing difficulty with their bodies—my father has a degenerative bone disease in his spine, and my brother has structural issues with his feet—and it would be wonderful if there existed sustainable and affordable ways to help them, to make sure people are always living their best life, whether it be nanotechnology in the bloodstream, or cybernetic appendages, or the harvesting of new organs in a non-Jude-Law-in-Repo-Man kind of way.
AE: What are you reading right now?
TD: I’m reading Greg Sestero’s The Disaster Artist, a memoir about making the worst film of all time, and two poetry collections: Brigit Pegeen Kelly’s Song, a masterpiece of images and narrative poetry, and Erika Sanchez’s Lessons on Expulsion, a book that has mercurial narrators and touches on a broad range of topics, including life as a Mexican woman, family, and love. I’m also casually reading Maggie Smith’s Good Bones again, and before bed I read a few pages from the collected works of Tomas Tranströmer. The title poems from Kelly’s and Smith’s books should be required reading—they’re available online, I highly recommend checking them out!
AE: Do you have any advice for up-and-coming writers?
TD: Read like you need to read to live. Truly, truly relish in the words on the page. I think so often young writers want to turn their love of reading into a love of writing, but then they get lost in just how difficult it is to write—and it is very, very hard work! (And very boring too! I liken it most often to brick-laying, with the suspicion that brick-laying is likely more thrilling and fulfilling.) Reading beyond recreational enjoyment not only gives you insights to craft, it ferries joy into your work. It also lends itself to my other bit of advice: read everything and everyone. This is especially true for those outside of your demographic. Don’t get stuck in an intellectual or cultural silo; this is how a love of words dies. These last few years I have focused on reading a broad range of voices, and the joy with which I now read and the quality of work I now write is more and better than any other time in my life. I suppose I should put a caveat here: don’t read folks who target other demographics with their hate. Writing should be celebrated, you should be able and willing to celebrate what you are reading or writing. Racism, prejudice, bigotry, misogyny, homophobia—these never deserve praise.
AE: What other careers have you had, and how have they affected your writing?
TD: My first job was at The Gap. After, I worked in a Blockbuster. (For the kids, this was a place you went to pay money to borrow hard copies of films and video games to temporarily enjoy on a media-playing device.) I taught a high school marching band. I interned at an avant-garde dance studio. For a brief period of time, I was a horrible waiter at a steakhouse. I worked in two bookstores. I was a writing tutor, a fitness blogger, an editorial assistant, a bartender, and now I work in hospital administration. I like to think the influence of my myriad careers is part of the component of my writing: I write about anything and everything, in every single form. It’s also helpful for writing characters, as these and my other jobs/personal experience inform the day-to-day expectations, desires, histories, and relationships of any character I create.
AE: How can our readers follow you and your writing?
TD: I am very active on Twitter, and very friendly too! I mainly tweet about poetry and bugs and politics. My handle is @toddedillard. I hope to see you there!
Read Todd’s poem, which is currently in the spotlight on our website.
For reference, here is Brigit Pegeen Kelly’s “Song”: https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/song
And here is Maggie Smith’s “Good Bones”: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/89897/good-bones