Jack Skillingstead returns to Asimov’s with his imaginative new adventure “Straconia,” in the current issue [on sale now]. He let us in on his writing process, his first Asimov’s sale over a decade ago, and why he finds himself coming back to alienated characters.
Asimov’s Editor: How did the title for this piece come to you?
JS: “Stracony” is a Polish word meaning: “lost.” The story is about lost things and people, and parts of the story have a vaguely eastern European flavor—at least, they do in my mind if not actually on the page. “Straconia,” of course, is not a real word, and I pronounce it the way an American would, not a Polish person. Also, if it were an actual Polish word, the “c” would be a “k” as in: Strakonia. This will drive my Polish friend, Ania, crazy.
AE: How did this story germinate? Was there a spark of inspiration, or did it come to you slowly?
JS: Like most of my stories, it started with a core idea or situation. In this case, the situation was the estranged spouse of my protagonist disappears in the middle of the night to lead an alternate life in Straconia, where she works in a diner. The husband hides behind the seats of the car to find out where she’s been going, and winds up swapping places with her. He soon gets caught up in Straconia’s weird passive-aggressive justice system. From there, he has to figure out how to get back home, which involves defining what home is and why he has always felt shut off from it. That was the situation. The larger idea involved Straconia being a place where not only people but all the lost things wind up. You know, socks, pens, keys, etc. Estrangement is a theme I’ve written a lot about, so it was natural that I would land on that. The trick was not to be repetitive, to find something new to say. Once I started writing I discovered the story in the sentences—as it happened, too many sentences. Straconia came out to around fifteen thousand words. My editor asked me to cut five thousand of them! Naturally this was impossible, but I decided to give it a shot, just as an exercise in brevity. It became a very liberating experience. Every cut made the story better.
AE: What is your history with Asimov’s?
JS: My first professional sale was to Asimov’s and appeared in 2003. Since then, more than half of my forty-four story sales have been to the magazine. Without Asimov’s I wouldn’t be the writer I’ve become. I would undoubtedly be some kind of writer, since I’d been writing for many years before that first sale, but Asimov’s was my doorway into professional publication, and it changed my life in all the good ways you might imagine.
AE: Are there any themes that you find yourself returning to throughout your writing? If yes, what and why?
JS: Yes. But first I’d like to say that I never start with the theme. In fact, until I’d been publishing professionally for a while I wasn’t even aware of my themes. Recurring themes arise naturally through the long process of learning to tell your own stories. Anyway, I have frequently, but not exclusively, written about characters who have emotionally barricaded themselves off from other people. As an example I’ll point to Frank in “Straconia.” Here’s a guy who is married and holds down a full-time job and yet is as effectively isolated as an astronaut in a one-man capsule orbiting the moon. He is powerfully estranged from his wife and doesn’t even realize it until she starts disappearing into another life without him as a means of her own emotional survival. Why do I keep writing about out this character type? God knows.
AE: How do you deal with writers’ block?
JS: By redefining it as “writer-not-ready.” If I’m having trouble getting started or moving forward with a story that’s already rolling it’s always because I’ve lost, or at least misplaced, my faith. A writer’s faith arises from the inner conviction that he or she knows, at some level, conscious or not, that they are on the right track. And it works the other way, too. I might think I know exactly where I’m going, but my under mind knows I don’t know everything I need to know. If the story is solid at its core, eventually I will finish it (or start it in the first place). But forcing the process is pointless.
AE: How did you break into writing?
JS: The usual way, which is the way every writer I’ve ever talked to has broken in. I wrote for a long time in total obscurity (as opposed to the near-obscurity I now dwell in). I lost my way, found it, and lost it again—over and over. I kept trying, even in the face of continued failure. And I genuinely tried to analyze my work to figure out what I was doing wrong. If you do this long enough and with an open mind eventually you will see the path. I remember quite clearly the day I could see what I was doing wrong. I picked up a black marker pen and started lining out words and sentences on the first page of one of my better stories that had nevertheless failed repeatedly to sell. When I was done the page looked like one of those CIA redacted documents. But it worked.
AE: What other projects are you currently working on?
JS: I’m writing a follow-up novel to my science fiction thriller, The Chaos Function. Chaos is coming out in March 2019 from John Joseph Adams Books / Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. The new book is also a thriller, this time dealing with issues of immigration, the nature of memory, environmental catastrophe, and family relationships. It’s an alien invasion story of a very different stripe.
AE: What are you reading right now?
JS: I’m reading research books about nuclear power plant failures and how memory works as a physical process, as far as we understand it. I’m also reading a new, massive, biography of Leonardo Da Vinci. On the fiction side, I’ve finally gotten around to reading Kindred. It’s pretty great, just as everyone has been telling me forever.
AE: What inspired you to start writing?
JS: I was a reader from an early age, and of course I also watched a lot of television. When I was twelve or so I became entranced with Star Trek and wanted to somehow be part of it. I knew the way in would be through writing scripts (and it wouldn’t hurt to be older than twelve!). I watched for the writing credits, wrote down the names, then looked for those writers at the library. A lot of the writers were TV people, but there were a surprising number of “real” writers, too. This is how I first became acquainted with Bloch, Sturgeon, Matheson, Ellison, Bixby, and others. My TV dreams faded, but I became obsessed with writing fiction.
AE: Do you have any advice for up-and-coming writers?
JS: Some of the best advice I’ve come across was: “Get obsessed and stay obsessed.” I wish I could remember who said it. And it begs the question: can you deliberately become obsessed? I doubt it. How do you know if you’re obsessed? You won’t be able to stop, even when life and time tell you stopping would be a good idea. Beyond that, finish every story and novel you start. Don’t expect to be successful right away. It can and does take years, though of course how many years varies writer to writer. Exceptions prove the rule. Note, I’m not talking strictly about publishing. You can learn enough craft to get by if you are dogged and willing to take constructive criticism. But writing fiction is only worthwhile if you manage to excavate the material that is unique to yourself. That’s where voice comes from, and it’s your best shot at outlasting the initial appearance of your stories. Beyond that, don’t take rejection personally. You will, but try at least not to respond publically to rejection and criticism. It really isn’t personal, and if you can’t get past that your road will be a rocky one.
AE: How can our readers follow you and your writing?
Jack Skillingstead has been publishing in Asimov’s (and elsewhere) since 2003. His stories have been reprinted in various Year’s Best volumes and translated into French, Chinese, Spanish, Romanian, Russian, Vietnamese, and Polish. The collection Are You There and Other Stories appeared in 2009, as did Jack’s first novel, Harbinger. His 2013 novel Life On The Preservation, based on his Asimov’s story of the same title, was a finalist for the Philip K. Dick Award. He has also been shortlisted for the Sturgeon Award. In March 2019 John Joseph Adams Books / Houghton Mifflin Harcourt will publish The Chaos Function, a science fiction thriller. Jack lives in Seattle with his wife, writer Nancy Kress, and their toy poodle, the indomitable Cossette.