What began as a child’s comment at the San Diego Zoo now lives, fully fleshed, in our May/June issue’s pages—as Annika Barranti Klein’s “Phosphor’s Circle” [on sale now]! First-time Asimov’s author Annika stopped by to discuss “Phosphor’s Circle”’s conception, what she’s reading and writing these days, the creative power of baths, and why she’d call her story’s acceptance “sort of an accident.”
Asimov’s Editor: What is the story behind this piece?
ABK: In the first few days of 2020, my family went to the San Diego Zoo for my younger son’s tenth birthday. His best friend came with us, and we spent some time watching one of the polar bears swim in this slow, lazy circle. One of them (there is some disagreement about which one) said, “That polar bear is stuck!” and then, pleased with themselves, both said it several more times. I wondered what would happen if a polar bear really did get “stuck” doing something like that—why would that happen? What would I do about it if I discovered it? I decided on holograms (spoiler!) because I happened to think about the time my father took me and my sister to the hologram museum in Soho (I cannot find any evidence of its existence, but I know it was there) in the ’80s.
Everything else just fell into place. I have no idea how the San Diego Zoo does tours, nor did I need the story to be accurate to real life, so I opted to have different workers at each area giving mini tours, loosely based on what I remembered from when my mom worked at Space Camp. I chose Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat for the school play because my husband was in a production of it in his youth and I like the opening number. The arctic fox was hiding the whole time we were there, so I don’t know for sure that it really exists. I had “Tiny Dancer” playing in the gift shop because it’s a great song and it just seems like something you’d hear playing in a gift shop. (Plus I often hear people singing along with the “Tony Danza” lyric—sometimes it’s me.)
I wrote the story fairly quickly, I think over two or three days, and sent it to my writing friend Lyndsie. She gave me some great ideas about expanding the ending a bit—the original draft did not have the final tour in it, just the discovery—and I added that, polished the language and punctuation up, and sent it off into the world by the end of the month.
There is a live webcam of the polar bear habitat here: https://zoo.sandiegozoo.org/cams/polar-cam
AE: Is this story part of a larger universe, or is it stand-alone?
ABK: It’s a standalone, but there are some themes that show up in my other work. I often reference musicals, for instance; I have written a handful of other stories narrated by irritated young hourly workers, and I just finished writing a very different story that is also set in a zoo. Everything I write is queer, unless there is a reason for something to be cisheteronormative. I imagine that many of my standalone near-future stories could work as part of the same universe, but I am not actively creating one at the moment.
AE: How did the title for this piece come to you?
ABK: I actually named the story “Glitch,” which I loved for it, but Sheila asked me to change it because she had recently accepted Alex Irvine’s fantastic novella “Glitch,” which was in the March/April issue. I texted Lyndsie (probably something like “help help bother help”) and she helped me go through the text and look for phrases we could pull out to use as a title. I sent Sheila a short list of ideas, including “Phosphor’s Cycle” and “Perfect Nuclear Family,” as well as “Phosphor’s Circle,” which she chose. (I was very relieved that she was willing to pick one! Naming stories is hard.)
AE: What made you think of Asimov’s for this story?
ABK: I probably shouldn’t admit this, but it was sort of an accident. I am truly terrible at gauging what editors like, and most of my story submissions are stabs in the dark. I wrote “Phosphor’s Circle” quickly and was feeling overly confident in it, so I wanted to get a quick rejection out of the way to temper the disappointment that is inherent in the long submission process of sending a story out over and over again until (hopefully) it lands at the right magazine. Sheila had sent very kind, very quick rejections to two of my more fantasy-leaning stories previously, and I thought a kind, quick rejection would be a good start for this story. Joke’s on me, I guess, since she bought it!
If I have an idea, I write it down—if it’s just a little snippet of an idea, it goes into a document in my notes app that is just a long list of ideas. My Google drive, notes app, and documents file on my computer look like the secret garden before Mary and Dickon start clearing out the weeds.
AE: What is your process?
ABK: I start projects constantly. If I have an idea, I write it down—if it’s just a little snippet of an idea, it goes into a document in my notes app that is just a long list of ideas. My Google drive, notes app, and documents file on my computer look like the secret garden before Mary and Dickon start clearing out the weeds. I have more ideas than I could possibly write if I live to 100 and never have another one, and I don’t know where they come from but I believe they multiply when I’m not looking.
If there’s more than a snippet, or if that snippet is a sentence or dialogue rather than just a concept, I start writing. I work on whatever project is on my mind, and so sometimes I have what feels like hundreds of half-finished stories, and sometimes I finish more than one story in a week. This approach might not work if I had deadlines, but no one is waiting for me to finish these stories, so it works very well for me, for now.
AE: How do you deal with writers’ block?
ABK: It depends. If the block is specific to the story I’m working on, I work on another one. If I am just feeling uninspired or unmotivated or can’t figure out how to make something work, I take a bath. Baths are extremely restorative, not to mention where I get some of my best ideas. (Don’t believe people who say writer’s block doesn’t exist. Of course it does.)
AE: How did you break into writing?
ABK: I’ll let you know when I’ve done it. (Does anyone ever feel that they’re “in”? I genuinely don’t know if it’s real, or just a concept.)
AE: What inspired you to start writing?
I started writing when I was five years old and my favorite book was The Tale of Mrs Tiggy-Wiggle. I wanted to be the next Beatrix Potter, but alas my painting skills are not up to par. As a young adult, my more “serious” writing began after I first read Shirley Jackson in the late ’90s. I’ve been trying to emulate her ever since. Somewhere along the way, I found my own writing style, but I very much credit both of them for inspiring me.
AE: What other projects are you currently working on?
ABK: I also write young adult contemporary novels, and I am currently querying agents with one (a queer, gender-bent retelling of The Three Musketeers), finishing another (a sapphic romance), and planning out a third (an old Hollywood mystery).
AE: What are you reading right now?
ABK: I recently finished My Sister, The Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite, which is brilliant. The Wide Starlight by Nicole Lesperance is an incredible, magical contemporary YA that I am reading very slowly in hopes that it will not end. I just bought a book of poetry (Wild Embers) by Nikita Gill that I am absolutely smitten with. And I am reading a handful of memoirs and biographies about movie stars of Hollywood’s golden age as book research. Olivia de Havilland and Veronica Lake’s memoirs (Every Frenchman Has One and Veronica Lake, respectively) are delightful, and Lauren Bacall’s (By Myself) is an old favorite that I am revisiting.
AE: What is something we should know about you that we haven’t thought to ask?
ABK: I am a knitter! I mostly make sweaters and socks for myself and hats for whoever in my household (I have two sons and a husband) wants to wear them. It is perhaps silly to have this much wool in Southern California, but it will come in handy if I ever move back to the northeast. Someday I hope to write a story that incorporates knitting in a meaningful way.
AE: What other careers have you had, and how have they affected your writing?
ABK: I’ve done a little bit of almost everything. I’ve worked retail, been an advertising sales assistant, was in catering, was a nanny, taught knitting, designed knitting patterns, was a roller derby referee (my derby name was Anna Mean Gables), reviewed horror movies, and worked as a copy editor, among other things. Plus I’m a parent. I think everything I’ve done affects my writing because it all goes into the big pool of knowledge I draw from. Every experience might end up on the page in some form or other.
AE: How can our readers follow you and your writing?
ABK: I keep a list of my published stories and a gallery of my photographs at annikaobscura.com. I’m on Twitter as @noirbettie. My personal Instagram is private and mostly pictures of my dinner, but I have a public account where I pair books and yarn: @prettygoodyarns.