Q&A with Robert Reed

Though it began  as “Riding the Growth Curve,” inspired by an image of “riding to the stars on an increasingly vast ball of meat and bone,” news junkie Robert Reed’s latest for Asimov’s comes to you, in our September/October issue, as “The Ossuary’s Passenger” [on sale now]. Read on to learn how the story was born, get Bob’s thoughts on writing in the midst of a pandemic, and benefit from his magic trick for dealing with stuck stories!

Asimov’s Editor: How did this story germinate?

RR: Someone else’s interesting idea. That where “The Ossuary’s Passenger” began. I don’t recall where I read it—probably online—and I certainly don’t care enough to chase down the source. But the subject was Scientology, and in particular, a bit of funeral nonsense involving an alien world that receives the dead. (A more energetic individual might chase down this theological reference. But I’m old and don’t care.) The critical point was that the universe is extraordinarily big, and bodies, no matter how small, take up space as well as mass. An influx of carcasses from millions of worlds will quickly transform the cemetery. And that’s where the story comes from: A what-if problem carried to its ultimate ends.

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

RR: Obviously, “The Ossuary’s Passenger” is part of a larger universe. But in this universe, Robert Reed writes only this much.

AE: Do you particularly relate to any of the characters in this story?

RR: The old hyena. That’s just self-evident.

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

RR: Oh, that is an interesting anecdote. Or it’s dull as hell.

My first and only title was “Riding the Growth Curve.” That stems from an earlier story idea where the expansion of bodies is so great that the cemetery’s surface expands at relativistic velocities. The editor, Sheila Williams, didn’t particularly like that title, and so I pulled words from the text that seemed to make both of us happy.

Still, it remains an intriguing image: Riding to the stars on an increasingly vast ball of meat and bone.

“If a story is stuck, I sleep with a cat on my legs or chest. Because cats are magical beasts.”

AE: What is your history with Asimov’s?

RR: Barely worth mentioning. A few titles are wearing my name.

AE: (That’s the understatement of the year!) How much or little do current events impact your writing?

RR: This is the Golden Age for news junkies.

I’m always feasting on current events. Multiple newspapers, magazines, network broadcasts and news conferences. Of course I love every flavor of science, which helps with my work. But I’m also blessed with a talent for expecting the worst, and an extremely high tolerance for awful news.

My family and I were vacationing in New York City when I read a little item about some respiratory virus in China, and being familiar with the science and horror of pandemics, my first thought was, “Oh shit, we just walked through Times Square.”

(I have strung together most of my pandemic stories and published them on Kindle. Pallbearer and Other Tales of Glorious Contagions.)

As fun as science can be, politics are just as amazing to me. Politics are where our apish nature becomes obvious, and these last four years constitute the most gripping reality TV show ever produced.

AE: What is your process?

RR: I used to write every day, often for many hours at a time. Now I try to make new words every weekday, but only for two or three hours. That’s partly because I don’t need to produce a river of words anymore. It’s also because the number of markets has diminished.

AE: How do you deal with writers’ block?

Slow times come, but I rarely feel blocked.

Naps are a good solution. If a story is stuck, I sleep with a cat on my legs or chest. Because cats are magical beasts.

AE: They certainly are. What inspired you to start writing?

RR: I thought freelance SF was the path to an easy life. And I sensed that I might be rather good at it.

AE: You were right! What are you reading right now?

RR: Roman histories by Adrian Goldsworthy. And everything that I can find about the pandemic and global warming.

Robert Reed tells us that his new tale began as the simplest of thought problems: What if all the citizens of a far-flung galactic empire decided to come home at once? “It doesn’t take long for the math to turn brutal. Which is exactly what amoral math loves to do. Turn brutal. And that’s a lesson we have learned daily in these corona times.” Bob has just published a collection of his old work on Kindle. “Pallbearer and Other Tales of Glorious Contagions is a grim read, I’ll grant you that. But it proves that R. Reed has always been studying this specific kind of awful.”

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