Not too long after his return to writing, Zack Be struck gold with “True Jing,” which we were lucky to publish in the our current issue [on sale now]. Zack spoke with us about the story’s origins as well as his interests in music, transhumanism, and therapeutic counseling.
Asimov’s Editor: Before we get into the questions, Zack, we want to say how exciting it is to be your first professional sale! How long have you been submitting?
ZB: Thanks! “Excitement” only begins to describe how it feels for me to call Asimov’s the home of my first professional sale. There may or may not have been a few joyous leaps around my bedroom when I got the email from Sheila Williams expressing her interest in buying “True Jing.” I’m deeply honored by the sale. I’ve been reading the magazine off and on since middle school. My mom bought me an issue right off the newsstand (remember those?) because I had expressed interest in the cover art. Even though it wasn’t my first science fiction, it was definitely my introduction to a type of contemporary, forward-thinking short fiction that I had not been exposed to yet. All of that is too say I couldn’t think of a better market to break into!
As far as my submission history is concerned, before I sent “True Jing” to Asimov’s last year, I had been on a submission hiatus since I graduated from college in 2013. After a few years of consistent workshopping in my undergrad Creative Writing minor and a handful of rejected submissions, I felt the need to develop myself more on my own. I spent a lot of time producing music, playing in bands, and working on other forms of artistic expression until I was suddenly galvanized back into the prose writing habit by a few stellar issues of Clarkesworld and Asimov’s, etc. One month I wasn’t really writing at all, and the next month I was on a weekly routine of ~5000 words. “True Jing” was one of several stories that came out of that (still continuing) routine, and Asimov’s was the second place I sent it!
“If you had asked me a year ago which markets I thought would be most likely to give me a rewrite, I don’t think I would have picked any of the “big three” (Asimov’s, Analog, F&SF). They must be too busy, right? Wrong—in my experience, it would appear that Sheila and the rest of the editorial staff is just as devoted to developing new writers as they are to bringing readers fresh work by their old favorites.”
AE: How did your experience with Asimov’s differ from other markets?
ZB: “True Jing” happened to be a very early submission in the revival of my writer’s life, but since then I’ve been lucky enough to experience the usual deluge of rejection that almost every writer gets to enjoy. I’ve got a nice big folder full of everything from “we really like this, but we aren’t going to buy it” down to “this needs work” and even a harsh but understandable “never.” Sometimes if I’m having trouble falling asleep I’ll recite the texts of my favorite form rejections (not really).
What was so different in my experience with Asimov’s was Sheila’s decision to take a chance on my piece and ask for a rewrite. If you had asked me a year ago which markets I thought would be most likely to give me a rewrite, I don’t think I would have picked any of the “big three” (Asimov’s, Analog, F&SF). They must be too busy, right? Wrong—in my experience, it would appear that Sheila and the rest of the editorial staff is just as devoted to developing new writers as they are to bringing readers fresh work by their old favorites.
AE: Can you talk about the editing process with Sheila a bit?
ZB: Honestly, it was great! There was nothing prescriptive about Sheila’s comments. She pointed out her favorite aspects of the tale, highlighted a few minor logical inconsistencies, and then asked for a totally different ending. Instead of telling me how to “fix” the story, Sheila armed me with a new perspective and sent me back to the mines to dig.
By empowering me to find the answers myself, Sheila provided me a great learning experience, and without a doubt, led me to a better story. I came out of those rewrites with something I’m very proud of, and I can’t wait for people to read it.
AE: Obviously we snatched up “True Jing,” but did you have other nibbles?
ZB: Asimov’s was only the second place I sent the piece, so there wasn’t a lot of time for nibbles. That being said, my first stop was F&SF, and I have a very nice personal rejection from C.C. Finlay that I keep near the top of that folder I mentioned. Actually, I keep all the personals near the top, and they get their own special color code in my submission spreadsheet! There’s nothing like a good personal rejection to keep the submission train moving.
AE: How did “True Jing” germinate? Was there a spark of inspiration, or did it come to you slowly?
ZB: I love hearing authors and artists attempt to describe the inner-workings of their own imaginations. Though it borders on the edge of the impossible, it’s hard not to ask the creator to stare into the abyss and explain how the hell they came up with that idea.
Speaking generally, I almost always work off an image that’ll pop into my head, something strange and irresistible I can’t stop thinking about all day. In the case of “True Jing,” it was the image of a supermassive ship floating past schools of invisible, neon-veined porpoises in a gaseous cloud. I have no idea where that came from, but whenever I see things like it in a daydream (or just an old-fashioned dream) I have to write it down because I’m no good at drawing. From there I just start asking myself questions: who is there, and why, and what’s the next most interesting thing that can happen to them? Most of the time, I’m not asking myself these questions in front of the computer. I do it while I’m walking the dog, showering, soundchecking with a band at a venue, wherever. The next thing I know I’m halfway to building a universe.
So there was a spark, but I had to let the worldbuilding—the good stuff—come to me slowly as questions needed answering. On the grand spectrum between outlining and pantsing it, I think I fall more to the pantsing side of things in most of my writing, and definitely with “True Jing.”
AE: How much or little do current events impact your writing?
ZB: For the most part, I try not to let specific current events impact my writing. The easy answer here is simply to say that the traditional publishing industry is too slow by comparison to the modern 24-hour news cycle to be an effective form of contemporaneous commentary. Even the hottest of hot takes is likely well past its sell-by date when the words finally reach your audience.
There is more to it than that, though. All current, past, and future events are outgrowths of the same basic human truths. You could write a fun tale about the consequences of the newest iPhone’s tech on society at large, but the whole thing will be outdated at the end of the fiscal year. On the flipside, an original story about the effect of some new technological evolution on society could potentially be relevant to any generation that might read it. Speculating in fiction about how the Trump / North Korea situation might pan out is a lot less interesting to me then speculating about future conflicts and letting the thematic refrains of life ring out. I want to read stories that show me something I’ve never seen before while conveying the motifs that I see expressed in my daily life. I want to write those stories, too.
AE: Are there any themes that you find yourself returning to throughout your writing? If yes, what and why?
ZB: Lately, the theme I’ve been returning to again and again in my writing is that of transhumanism, or the idea that humanity can evolve beyond its current physical or mental limitations. Many things I’ve been working on, “True Jing” included, heavily feature the opportunity for characters to drastically alter themselves physically, mentally, technologically, or otherwise. I have a fascination with the dichotomy between the desire to alter one’s state of being and the fear of going too far (or not going far enough). It instantly creates both internal and external drama for my characters. The struggle for identity and meaning rubs right up against the far-reaching consequences of a given transhumanist modification on society. Culture, politics, economics, religion—all of it is challenged in the face of what we can and will soon be able to do to make ourselves “better,” or perhaps more interestingly, make ourselves “different.”
As a rule, I know immediately that I’ve struck on a good idea when I can’t decide what I would do in a given speculative situation. To modify or not to modify? That is the question.
AE: What other projects are you currently working on?
ZB: I love to be busy. In fact, I start to get nervous that I’m losing valuable creative time when I’m trying to watch something on Netflix, so I fill most of my free hours with work.
For writing, I’m trying to pump out as many short stories and novelettes as I can. I try to have at least one new thing ready for beta reads at the end of every month, and usually I’m working on several stories at once. I don’t think I’m quite ready to go all out on a novel yet, but I am working on a series on interconnected short stories that I’m very excited about.
In music, I just wrapped up a really exciting project where one of the bands I play with (Staycation) put on a Radiohead tribute concert that doubled as a fundraiser for Planned Parenthood. We played two sets and about three hours of music, and every song featured a different female singer from the Washington, DC area in the role of Thom Yorke. In total there were about ~40 musicians, 500 attendees, and we raised over $6,000. And we’re going to do it again next year!
AE: How do you deal with writers’ block?
ZB: I’m a firm believer in the idea that the meme of writer’s block is more of an excuse than a reality. Whenever I feel completely unable to create, whether I’m working on prose or music, I do it anyway. I put something on the page, even if it’s terrible. The next day, when I come back to it, I get to be the editor rather than the author. In that moment, it’s often easy to see immediately where improvements can be made. You might even have a great idea! But you’ll never know unless you actually do it. There is no miracle cure for the feeling of writer’s block—the way to beat it is just to write, write, write.
There is a well-known quote from writer Ira Glass about the gap between skill and taste that I’ve always been a huge fan of, and I highly recommend anyone with writer’s block listen to the recording. Essentially, he makes the argument that people (artists, creators, and writers in particular) have an inherent sense of taste that is often interesting, powerful, and idiosyncratic. However, many artists’ perspectives never see the light of day because they give up before they’ve developed the necessary skills to actually create what they imagine in their mind’s eye. This idea has stuck with me for a long time and helped me through many of the usual bouts of self-doubt and so-called writer’s block that an artist will suffer from. The trick is to keep producing, even if you feel like you can’t, because every time you sit down to work you’re making another opportunity for yourself to create something amazing.
AE: What other careers have you had, and how have they affected your writing?
ZB: Aside from writing, I split my time between my primary career as a mental health specialist and my night life as a musician and music producer.
Looking back, I’ve basically been on the same career path since high school, which is kind of astounding to me. I just happened to fall into a professional niche in my first summer job and I’ve been steadily advancing in that field ever since. The same can be said for music. I recorded my first album in my senior year of high school (no, you don’t want to hear it), and I’ve been actively cultivating those skills ever since.
Both of these parts of my life have had significant effects on my writing. For the last five years I’ve been working as a rehabilitation counselor for people suffering from severe mental illnesses. Day in and day out I hear first-hand accounts of peoples’ traumas and daily life stressors. I help them learn to cope with depression, delusions, suicidal ideation, you name it. In turn, this proximity to raw emotion has helped me to be more empathetic with my characters. (I’m happy to say I’m doubling down on this career now and going to grad school in the fall for couple and family therapy!)
Music, on the other hand, has taught me a lot about how to be an artist in the world. Everything I’ve learned in the music scene—how to schedule your creative time, how to work with other artists, how to accept rejection—can be applied back to writing. I don’t think I’d be nearly as suited to handling the rougher side of the writing life without my experience in that same territory with music.
(Also, not for nothing, I wrote something like 235 stories for the University of Maryland’s daily student newspaper The Diamondback when I was an undergrad. I have to imagine that had some kind of effect on my writing skills. [I’ve also never been paid more for my writing.] )
AE: How can our readers follow you and your writing? (IE: Social media handles, website URL . . .)
ZB: My handle everywhere (Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, etc.) is @bezackbe. I’m most active on Instagram, so message me! My website is https://www.zackbe.com/.