Q&A with Jason Sanford

While no longer a “shovel bum” for an archaeologist, Jason Sanford is deeply impacted by the knowledge that we’re surrounded by a million plus years of human history at all times. “The Eight-Thousanders” [in our current issue, on sale now] plays with this idea, focusing on two older-than-human subjects: Mt. Everest, and a vampire. Jason stopped by to share the story’s origins, thoughts on masculinity, a harrowing tale from his past, and the recent contents of his bookshelf—Read on!

Asimov’s Editor: What is the story behind this piece?

JS: I’ve long been strangely fascinated by mountain climbing, in particular how elite climbers push themselves to their physical limits and their willingness to enter a challenging environment which actively tries to kill them.

But climbing Mount Everest isn’t like climbing other mountains. You’re essentially queuing up with hundreds of other climbers as if at Disney World, with the catch that Everest is a tourist attraction which can kill you. And for the most part only the richest people in the world are able to pay to climb Everest. To reach the top, almost every climber relies on an extensive support system, including hundreds of guides from the Sherpa people who lay the grueling groundwork so some hedge fund manager can have their picture taken at Everest’s summit. 

Mount Everest today essentially presents a microcosm of our world’s problems, including extremes of wealth, entitlement, privilege, racism, class divisions, toxic masculinity, and environmental issues. 

So I figured I’d throw a vampire into all that and see where the story went. The result is “The Eight-Thousanders.”

AE: How did the title for this piece come to you?

JS: I love the term “eight-thousander,” which are the fourteen mountains in the world reaching more than 8,000 meters above sea level. The summits of these mountains are in what’s called the death zone, where the pressure of oxygen is so low the human body begins to die. This means there is only a limited about of time anyone can spend at the top of an eight-thousander.

Fewer than fifty people in history have climbed all of the world’s eight-thousanders, and less than half have done it without supplementary oxygen.

AE: What made you think of Asimov’s for this story?

JS: When I was young one of my favorite issues of Asimov’s was from October 1991. That issue featured a number of great stories including the Hugo-Award-winning “A Walk in the Sun” by Geoffrey A. Landis, plus excellent fiction by Gregory Benford, Tanith Lee, and others.

But the story which absolutely grabbed me was the Hugo-and-Nebula-nominated novella “Jack” by Connie Willis. Set in London during the blitz, the story follows the work of a rescue squad saving people from bombed out buildings and homes. Into this arrives a new volunteer named Jack, who only comes out at night and has an uncanny ability to find survivors in the rubble.

“Jack” isn’t your typical vampire story and is, in my opinion, one of the best ever written. When I finished “The Eight-Thousanders” I remembered how much I’d loved “Jack” and thought Asimov’s might be a natural for the story.

As an aside, I still have my original copy of the October 1991 Asimov’s and a few years ago at the Nebula Awards conference, I had it signed by Connie Willis, Gardner Dozois, Sheila Williams, and Geoffrey A. Landis. I also told Gardner how influential this issue was to me and thanked him for his work as editor. Glad I got to tell him that.

AE: Is this story part of a larger universe, or is it stand-alone?

JS: “The Eight-Thousanders” features the same vampire from my story “May Our Voices Sing Like Blood from Open Wounds,” originally published in Intergalactic Medicine Show. This earlier story is set during some of the darker aspects of the Italian Renaissance.

You don’t need to read the previous story to enjoy “The Eight-Thousanders,” which is structured as a stand-alone tale. But if you do, you’ll learn more about the vampire’s background.

AE: Are there any themes that you find yourself returning to throughout your writing? If yes, what and why?

JS: “The Eight-Thousanders” is one of a series of science fiction and fantasy short stories I’m writing around masculinity. One of the defining issues of our time is how our world deals with masculinity, be it the cultural and sociological aspects of masculinity or, alternately, how masculinity can be good, bad, or toxic depending on the person and expression.

Every single day we see how toxic displays of masculinity hurt people in our world. Perhaps the first step to changing this is to create stories about the issue.

“Mount Everest today essentially presents a microcosm of our world’s problems, including extremes of wealth, entitlement, privilege, racism, class divisions, toxic masculinity, and environmental issues.” 

AE: What is something we should know about you that we haven’t thought to ask?

JS: When I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Thailand, I was a passenger in a car which crashed through the railing on a bridge over a deep river and dangled up and down, half on and half off the bridge. It was like a bad scene in a bad movie or story, where the people in the car try not to move because the slightest motion will send them plummeting to their deaths. 

If I wrote that scene in one of my stories, readers would scream “cliché!” But it really happened. Funny how life can be like that.

AE: What other careers have you had, and how have they affected your writing?

JS: In college I majored in anthropology, with a specialization in archaeology. I also worked for a time as a low-level archaeologist, what they call a shovel bum. As a result archaeology deeply affects both how I see the world and how I write my stories. 

Every person alive today is surrounded by a million plus years of human history, yet we only see a tiny bit of this at any one time. Despite this limited view, that great expanse of history continually impacts our lives in both visible and invisible ways. 

It’s impossible to unearth all the hidden history around us. But if you want to understand humanity you must at least dig a little bit into all that came before us.

AE: What is your process?

JS: I tend to start my stories with the opening sentence or scene in mind, then brainstorm it from there. With my short fiction I almost always discover the story as I write, what some people call the “pantsing” method of writing.

However, when working on novella- or novel-length fiction, I tend to plot things out. Although even there, I leave room to follow new ideas as they hit me. A major part of my process is also rewriting my stories. Tons of rewriting. An almost endless amount of rewriting. If you want to be a writer, learn to rewrite!

AE: What are you reading right now?

JS: I’m currently reading or about to read Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia, The Only Good Indians by Stephen Graham Jones, and A Peculiar Peril by Jeff VanderMeer.

Other excellent novels I’ve read this year include The City We Became by N.K. Jemisin, Vagabonds by Hao Jingfang, Beneath the Rising by Premee Mohamed, Docile by K.M. Szpara, and A Song for a New Day by Sarah Pinsker.

AE: Do you have any advice for up-and-coming writers?

JS: Find the story only you can tell and tell it. This doesn’t mean your stories can’t be influenced or inspired by others—all fiction is created within a much larger world of stories. Instead, I mean to find the truth or voice or essence which only you can bring to a story. Then write that story!

It’s not often a story lands an award before it’s even published, but “The Eight-Thousanders” did just that, receiving an Ohio Arts Council Individual Excellence Award earlier this year. Jason Sanford says he has applied for these biennial arts grants before with no luck, but his chilling story of life and death on Mount Everest did the trick. “The Eight-Thousanders” is the author’s eighth appearance in Asimov’s, with his other stories having been published in magazines such as Apex, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Fireside Quarterly, and Interzone.

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