Eric Del Carlo describes his most recent tale as a “portrait of nostalgia, given an SFnal spin” that combines the influences of two genre titans—Harlan Ellison and Robert Silverberg. Readers will understand what he means after reading “Then, When” in our September/October issue [on sale now].
Asimov’s Editors: Do you particularly relate to any of the characters in this story?
Eric Del Carlo: This was one of those hard-look-in-the-mirror stories to which writers occasionally subject themselves, not out of a masochistic impulse but because the deeper the personal truth conveyed, the stronger the outcome. The POV character is an even more cold-blooded version of myself from a specific—and thankfully, long ago—segment of my life. I don’t think it’s an accident that the digital clones depicted in my tale are called “mirrors.”
AE: How did the title for this piece come to you?
EDC: “Then, When” sprang forcefully to my mind early on in the conceiving stage. And it would—not—go—away. I knew it wasn’t a mechanically logical title. If anything, it might make a reader expect a time travel story. But this was also a portrait of nostalgia, one given an SFnal spin, and the singsong of the stark title fit the mood I wanted, if not the plot machinations. Sometimes titles are like that. Bob Dylan has a standout song on perhaps his most famous album entitled “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry.” He might have called this tune a hundred other things (and I’d be surprised if some more sober head didn’t encourage him to do so at the time), but I would warrant that the title felt right to him. It locked the piece into the proper cosmic niche where it belonged. In Dylan’s mind, after a certain point, it simply couldn’t have been called anything else.
I like to look at the emotional cost above all else, and “Then, When” offered a perfect opportunity for complication, reflection, and the possibility of redemption.
AE: What made you think of Asimov’s for this story?
EDC: This seemed right in the magazine’s wheelhouse. You see a lot of different styles and approaches in Asimov’s, a staggering array in fact, but there is always a good swath of fiction that introduces some device or technique or other technological quirk into a recognizable near-future society and shows us the consequences. I like to look at the emotional cost above all else, and “Then, When” offered a perfect opportunity for complication, reflection, and the possibility of redemption.
AE: What is your history with Asimov’s?
EDC: This is my third appearance. These pages still feel hallowed to me, and I don’t think that will ever wear off entirely. Asimov’s was the Grail when I was a youngster, when I had no idea how I could get from fervent reader/clumsy amateur to pro-level author. But I knew that if I could ever—ever—place a story here, it would be the most significant milestone since my very first fiction sale to a small press magazine. When that glorious initial sale to Asimov’s came along, for a story called “Friendlessness,” my wife came home to find me walking around the back yard, dazed, holding my head. She thought someone had died.
AE: Who or what are your greatest influences and inspirations?
EDC: The two writers fighting unbeknownst for dominion over my literary soul are Harlan Ellison and Robert Silverberg. Both are luminous talents, having created fiction that will loom over the genre for ages to come. Ellison, through his blistering stories, tells me to push it to the wall, tell spittle-flying tales of raw honesty and brutal truth, no matter the personal price. Silverberg, with a cooler eye toward literature, reminds me to add deliberate texture, to let the words breathe, to allow in meditative melancholy. In “Then, When” the influence of these two titans is boldly apparent to me.
AE: Are there any themes that you find yourself returning to throughout your writing? If yes, what and why?
EDC: I am drawn to the concept of disposable people, for one thing. These are beings who possess some level of sentience but who, for whatever reason, are not acknowledged by the social structure as having a full range of rights. It is an inherently dramatic and fraught scenario. The digital clones in “Then, When” touch on this. I also used this theme in, among other stories, “Zero’s Hour,” where the police produce clones from murder victims to help solve the crime; the catch is that they only live for one hour. I adapted that for a podcast, and Earbud Theater produced it. You can listen to it here: https://earbudtheater.com/zeros-hour/. I think Earbud did a superb job.
AE: How do you deal with writers’ block?
EDC: Not to be glib, but I deal with it by not believing in it. Long, long ago I could get into funks where I couldn’t words to the page. (But back then nobody much cared what I wrote.) Since then, however, I’ve applied years of unsympathetic discipline to myself, so that I can now sit down and write under just about any circumstances. If you can work when work is the last thing in the world you feel like doing, you’ve reached a good and useful place.
AE: What are you reading right now?
EDC: Just finishing up Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine, which is thinly plotted and charming and chockablock full of small town vignettes and homespun observations and trademark magical texturing. It reads like an album of good outtakes cobbled together to resemble an actual record.
AE: Do you have any advice for up-and-coming writers?
EDC: Do not hold onto any idea. Do not hoard it. Do not save it up for a nine-book cycle. Your ideas, when you are starting out, might gleam for you like burnished copper in Saharan sunlight. It’s good to get excited about these concepts. They may seem achingly original to you and fire your imagination as nothing before. But chances are they are not so magnificent, or rich, or blazingly unique. Mind you, they might be decent ideas, workable starting points for a tale. So . . . write that tale. Now. Put the idea into a short story and air it out. Find out if it works or not. Play around with it. You might bend it into a useful shape. If not, you’ll still be exercising your creative sinews. And when you do that, other ideas will come. They will get slowly better. You will evolve. But not if you clutch that one supposed literary nugget to your breast, assured and smug that you’re holding onto a treasure trove.
AE: What is something we should know about you that we haven’t thought to ask?
EDC: I don’t belong to any workshops. I don’t have first readers or beta readers. My wife usually peruses my stuff before I submit it (because she likes my work), but she’s also proofing it. Once in a great while she’ll find a typo. So editors are receiving my unbiased efforts. I don’t knock writers who workshop their stories. We are a results-oriented industry. Whatever gets you to the sale. But I want to own my successes and failures, wholly.