Doug Souza is back in the current Asimov’s issue—on sale now—with his tale of derring-do. He was kind enough to answer a few questions about the story and his writing in general.
Asimov’s Editors: How did this story germinate? Was there a spark of inspiration, or did it come to you slowly?
Doug Souza: The first nugget came from wanting to set a story on one of the moons or dwarf planets within our solar system. Since the human body isn’t designed for micro-gravity, that’s always a problem. A friend of mine and I brainstormed some ideas on how to adapt the human body, and nanos came up. I started several versions of the story, and then found that the nanos were the most interesting protagonists since they had the toughest struggle. Then the thought struck me of how much tougher their job would be if their host didn’t care much for his own life.
I hadn’t read a story from the nanos’ POV, so I was stoked to write one. I’m sure I’ll get some emails listing titles of stories with this same idea, but honestly, it was original to me at the time. There are some great stories out there where the AI—whether in a fighter jet or interwebs—ends up making the moral choice in contrast to their human counterpart. As an optimist, this gives me hope that maybe the AI being developed will aid and guide humankind rather than travel back in time to terminate us.
I feel I chiseled my way into writing, rather than breaking in. Not to downplay where I’m at now, I’m super-stoked to have my stories published at the various venues and on podcasts, but it wasn’t an overnight thing.
AE: Do you particularly relate to any of the characters in this story?
DS: The main character is highly intelligent like my brother. Growing up two years younger than a genius is quite a unique experience. There was a shadow, but it wasn’t darkened with “You can’t do this . . .” or “You’ll never be able to . . .” Instead, my brother was always showing me how to do things with the expectation that I’d be able to grasp concepts with his guidance. Thank goodness my parents were good at homing in on each of their kids’ talents and focusing on that. I didn’t have that BS of, “He can, so why can’t you?”
It wasn’t until I was older that I learned my brother’s high intelligence made his life challenging in odd ways. A lot of people think that smart people have an edge in the world, but folks like me who are closer to average intelligence do a lot better juggling the mundane tasks requested of us. Hopefully, our culture will grow to recognize this discrepancy so we can help higher-level thinkers and utilize their gifts since they have a lot to offer.
AE: How did the title for this piece come to you?
DS: The title “The Callisto Stakes” came from the race the main characters take part in—and I loved how the word “Stakes” carries a deeper meaning. “Derby” didn’t have the same ring to it. The title also doubles for the struggles the nanos face while inside their host, who is frustrated with life and lives dangerously. Then as the reader progresses through the story, they learn there’s also a little girl in trouble. So, you see, there’s a lot at “stake.” See what I did there?
The story changed as I was writing it since I don’t like to nail down plot details and let the characters do their thing. I was really excited when the title came together to represent the story better than I imagined. Titles can be elusive little brats.
AE: How did you break into writing?
DS: I feel I chiseled my way into writing, rather than breaking in. Not to downplay where I’m at now, I’m super-stoked to have my stories published at the various venues and on podcasts, but it wasn’t an overnight thing.
The road started with the hard look in the mirror and saying, “Okay, you’ve written your stories . . . are you ready to take the next steps to getting them out there?” And then the next question was, “Uh, anyone have an idea how to do that?”
After that I joined a local writing group to get some information. Besides learning some good practices, I learned some paths to avoid.
I was extremely lucky that my first meeting in town was with some great people. Ironically, the third meeting was terrible and I might’ve thought less of writing groups had that been my initial experience. Now that I’m farther along on the experience spectrum, I try to help writers who have jumped down the rabbit hole and want to share their work.
AE: What are you reading right now?
DS: Louis L’Amour’s “The Rider of Lost Creek.” I also seek out other current scifi and fantasy short fiction wherever I can find it. I came across an old book of Ray Bradbury stories that I’ve been enjoying, but that’s like saying water is wet.
I have trouble putting down anything by Louis L’Amour, I’m so glad he wrote so much. He’s not really well respected in speculative fiction or literary circles, but dang, I just love his stuff!
AE: Do you have any advice for up-and-coming writers?
DS: If you’re excited by the idea of someone sitting down and getting pulled into your story, you’re on the right track. Like anyone, I’d love to have a publisher call me up and say, “Here’s your check for half a mil. Also, they’re making it a movie!” Who wouldn’t want that? I’ve been on this trek for nearly a decade—there have been peaks and valleys—and the best moments have surprised me. It could be a random email from a reader, or a comment from a friend or family, when I know they connected with what I was doing. I also enjoy when an element to a story really moves a reader in a way I didn’t intend.
I can’t say enough about the fun of diving headfirst into the cosmic and fantastic void. Don’t waste time hesitating with self-doubt. Stop overthinking and write your story. Then do another. And another.
AE: What is something we should know about you that we haven’t thought to ask?
DS: I like to leave “Easter eggs” in my stories from my personal life. Not that a random reader would care, but this is fun for me because whether or not a story gets published; I get to revisit these details within my fiction years down the road. Recently, a story of mine called “The Armor Embrace” did pretty well and ended up in the hands of my childhood friend. He noticed a tiny detail that had to do with a couple colors on a bracelet. The colors were orange and green, and although it was a minor thing in the story, these were the colors to our secret club when we were kids. He loved the story, but was also moved by the inclusion of the colors.
Most times, the Easter eggs are character traits. I love doing this because I get to go back in time and hang out with people that may not be as involved in my life as they used to be due to distance or other circumstances.
AE: What other careers have you had, and how have they affected your writing?
DS: Here’s the quick list:
Paperboy—Starting the day at 4:30 a.m. when you’re a kid and delivering papers while the rest of the world wakes up left an impression on me. There was a special peace to it I’ll never experience again. Plus, there was one time the papers were so heavy they snapped the frame of my mountain bike, so I had to stash my bike in some bushes while dragging the saddlebags and finish my route. It was freagin’ cold too! Memories like that hit me like they were yesterday.
Banquet server and bartender—The job was cool, but mostly it was the work environment of sink or swim that blew my mind. The method of training was “don’t fail.” This isn’t a jab at my managers and coworkers; some of the most intelligent and amazing people I worked with were in the service industry. Also, I got to see how the upper economical tier of society inhabited a world separate from our own.
Elementary teacher—It’s a great career for creative types. I’m terrible at teaching to the state tests though, and I am more interested in teaching kids to think for themselves and find a way to navigate through this crazy think called life. This doesn’t always go over well with management, but you can’t blame them, their job is one of the toughest out there.
I’ve been teaching long enough that I’ve had a chance to see my students grow up and start a career. Unfortunately, some get thrown some rough trials to overcome along the way. My main goal is to be cool to them while they’re in my class, and convey the message: “Never give up. You’ll be amazed at what you can do.”
AE: How can our readers follow you and your writing?
DS: My website is dougcsouza.com and I can be reached at email@example.com.
Doug C. Souza won first place in the Writers of the Future Contest—his story “The Armor Embrace” was included in the 2017 anthology. His novelette “Mountain Screamers” appeared in Asimov’s Science Fiction, August 2014. His short story “The Biting Sands” was featured in the 2017 “Young Explorers Adventure Guide.” You can visit him at dougcsouza.com.