Q&A with Taimur Ahmad

Twice a finalist for the Dell Award, Taimur Ahmad has had a relationship with Asimov’s for a while, but “Tweak” [in the July/August issue, on sale now] is Taimur’s first publication in our pages! Read on for “Tweak”‘s backstory, some of Taimur’s own backstory, thoughts on Ursula K. Le Guin, an examination of the appeal of mentor/mentee dynamics, and more!

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

TA: I guess it started when my roommate brought home some chickens for a backyard flock. I wound up being the one who took care of them and just found them to be absurd and hilarious animals. They were interesting enough critters that I figured they’d make it into a story one day. So that’s where the chickens in the story came from.

Besides that, I really can’t remember where the idea for memory editing came from. I was curious what would happen to a person’s life if they had the ability to “change” their past, and the conclusion that I came to is that the truth of who someone is would still come out in their present. I was also interested in exploring toxic masculinity a bit—the male lead is, on the surface, not a very traditionally masculine sort of guy, but the broader social expectations of what he “should” be like are the impetus behind his ill-fated quest to rewrite his memories.

AE: What is your history with Asimov’s?

TA: This is my first story in Asimov’s, but my history with the magazine goes back to the Dell Award. I was a finalist twice and then won back in college, and before applying for the award (which is run by Asimov’s editor Sheila Williams and Rick Wilber) I had basically no idea that it was even possible to sell short SFF stories at all. Being a finalist for that award introduced me to the entire pro-SFF world, which was a revelation. Without Sheila, Rick, and Asimov’s, I wouldn’t have had that opportunity, so I’m forever grateful for that.

AE: Who or what are your greatest influences and inspirations?

TA: From a writing point of view, definitely Ursula K. Le Guin. For me, a truly great piece of fiction has three components: aesthetics, entertainment, and intellectual impact. Aesthetics refers to the prose itself—is it beautiful? Entertainment refers to plot, and whether the story grabs you and makes you want to read. The intellectual component is how much the story makes you think—does it challenge you, or introduce new ideas to you? Le Guin’s writing hits all three of those aspects, and was also just so far ahead of its time in several cases (Left Hand of Darkness, as an obvious example). Plus, I think the themes she explored were always powerful and compelling, and I’m also a huge fan of anthropological SFF, which she was the undisputed queen of. She had an incredible ability to interrogate our social norms through the lens of fiction while simultaneously telling an amazing story. I hope I can create something half as good as her work one day!

The one thing I can very clearly point to that impacts my writing is when I go on a new trip to some beautiful or striking place, and the idea/image for a story will just come right away, practically.

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

TA: Definitely. Themes around nature and the land are big for me: the smallness of humanity in comparison to nature, our dependence on the natural world, the way it will outlast us in the end, its beauty, and the way it defines cycles (i.e., turning death back into life over and over again). I’m also a sucker for a good odd couple or mentor/mentee relationship (think Gideon and Harrow in Gideon the Ninth, or Anakin/Obi-Wan/Ahsoka from Star Wars), and I like trying (and largely failing) to write those sorts of characters. I also make a point of making many of my characters have south Asian/Brown/Muslim backgrounds (if the story is set in this world), which is sometimes extremely important to the story, and sometimes totally irrelevant. There are certainly other themes I come back to as well.

As to the why. For the nature theme it’s simple—my entire life and career is based around the outdoors and it’s a core part of my identity, so it obviously takes up a lot of space in my brain! The mentor-mentee/odd couple one, I’m not sure. I just love seeing those sorts of relationships. It makes me really happy when very different people come to value each other and grow together. And finally, including characters who have an identity similar to mine is largely about representation—just one more small way of contributing to the diversification of spec fic. Sometimes though that identity piece is also a very fun way to explore huge swathes of culture and folklore that just don’t (or barely) exist in western spec—think, for example, some of Usman Malik’s stories, that rely on traditionally Islamic concepts like Jinn.

AE: What is your process?

TA: I wish I knew that myself! If someone has any suggestions I’m all ears. . . . I would like to be more consistent, and having a go-to process would help with that hugely. That said, there is a general track most of my stories follow. It all starts with the idea, which is usually a concept I want to explore but can occasionally also be a specific image. Then I brainstorm a bit—I make notes on very general, high level plot outlining and scenes I want to see, nothing detailed. Then I write, send it out to a friend or two for edits, revise, and submit. Pretty typical I assume.

AE: What inspired you to start writing?

TA: I don’t think there was a singular moment or event. I’ve just always enjoyed living in my head, always had my nose in a book, always enjoyed being in fantasy worlds (i.e. out in the mountains, the desert, the forest, etc., hiking and climbing). From a young age I always assumed I’d write one day—words have always been there for me, it feels very natural to build something out of them.

AE: If you could choose one SFnal universe to live in, what universe would it be, and why?

TA: Oh man that’s a tricky one . . . perhaps Earthsea, perhaps the Star Wars universe—though at first glance those two worlds are very different, the underlying spirituality of both actually has some commonality (i.e. the way life, death, magic, and identity are all wrapped up together. Both are very much influenced by certain Eastern philosophies, and have what I would call an elegant and logically consistent conception of what an afterlife could look like). Plus, the philosopher-mage/jedi-monk career path has always appealed to me, so if I could score a gig as a student at Roke or the Jedi Temple, that’d be pretty cool.

AE: What are you reading right now?

TA: I’m finishing up The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson, which at 1,000 pages has been a formidable journey. Sitting on my bedside table I’ve got the Binti stories by Nnedi Okorafor up next, followed by Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, followed by The City of Brass by S. A. Chakraborty, and at some point I’ll sneak some nonfiction in there in the form of The Land of Little Rain by Mary Austin, which is an early piece of nature writing about the region I live in.

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

TA: Nope! As a not quite up-and-coming writer myself, I feel totally unqualified to give anyone any advice whatsoever. However, if I had to give advice to MYSELF, I’d tell me to . . . just write more! Specifically, I’d tell me to figure out a structure that keeps myself consistently and regularly producing new stories, some sort of accountability and progress-tracking mechanism, something like that.

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

TA: Let’s see, I was a gardener throughout most of my high school summers, did academic research during my college years, worked as a lobbyist/policy person in DC for a big green nonprofit, have worked some retail in an outdoor gear shop, and now work as justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion professional for a small environmental nonprofit. But come to think of it, I honestly don’t think those jobs have affected my writing much or at all, or at least if they have it’s been subconscious. Or, they probably have, and the ways they have done so just haven’t manifested themselves in a way that’s obvious enough to me yet. The one thing I can very clearly point to that impacts my writing is when I go on a new trip to some beautiful or striking place, and the idea/image for a story will just come right away, practically. For example, I visited the Eureka Dunes in Death Valley National Park a few weeks ago and couldn’t stop thinking, “Wow, these things look like a whale’s back as it crests out of the ocean, but the ocean is made of sand.” So of course the sand whale story was born instantly. . . .

AE: How can our readers follow you and your writing?

TA: They can’t! I don’t really have an online presence besides a very lightly used Facebook account. This is intentional, though probably also extremely disadvantageous for success as a writer in our modern world. Oh well.

Taimur Ahmad is an environmentalist and rock climber working at the intersection of conservation, recreation, and social justice. Born and raised in New York City, Taimur currently lives in the small town of Bishop, California, in the eastern Sierra Nevada.

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