Author Joel Armstrong has always been more of a fantasy person than a science fiction person, he says. While his brain still reaches for dragons before robots, he discusses here why a graveyard walk helped inspire his new short story, “The Roots of Our Memories,” his first for Asimov’s, which appears [in our January/February issue, on sale now!]
Asimov’s Editor: How did this story come to be?
Joel Armstrong: I had recently moved and I was taking a walk around a graveyard down the street. For some reason I’ve always enjoyed walking around graveyards. I passed an open grave, freshly dug and ready for a casket, which I had never seen before. It got me thinking about who would be buried there, what their story was. My city historically has a large Dutch settler population, so I also noticed the generations of families that were buried together, many of whom had the same names of people I know today. Specific places have specific histories, and it made me curious what all stories belonged to the people buried there.
AE: Do you particularly relate to any of the characters in this story?
JA: I relate most strongly to Aiden, the narrator. I studied literature in graduate school, so I can also get grumpy about how little we seem to pay attention to the past, and how we may be dooming ourselves to repeat the mistakes of the past. I can also become obsessive about my work at the expense of the other relationships in my life. I am fortunate like Aiden to have a spouse who is good at reminding me that there’s more to me than my work.
AE: How did the title for this piece come to you?
JA: I have such trouble titling anything. Typically I’ll read through the finished piece, jotting down key words or ideas, and then I’ll play around with different combinations and word orders. Then I’ll ask my first readers which titles they like best from my brainstorm. Somehow they never pick the title I like best, but they’re usually right when I stop and think about it.
AE: Who or what are your greatest influences and inspirations?
JA: There’s a great page in Danielle Krysa’s children’s book How to Spot an Artist that says, “Artists can often be found turning ordinary stuff—like feathers, rocks, noodles, string, buttons, egg cartons, leaves, and even old socks—into art.” Writing isn’t so different. I feel like I pull bits and pieces of my stories from everywhere: a news article, a thought-provoking documentary, that conversation I had with my sibling ten years ago, that strange dream or interaction at a coffee shop. Inspirations can be found anywhere when I’m paying attention, and I think it’s important to be on the lookout for new-to-me influences.
I studied literature in graduate school, so I can also get grumpy about how little we seem to pay attention to the past, and how we may be dooming ourselves to repeat the mistakes of the past.
AE: Are there any themes that you find yourself returning to throughout your writing? If yes, what and why?
JA: Much of my writing has to do with trauma and responses to trauma. In my twenties, that meant a lot of war fiction with very blunt, physical traumas like family loss, displacement, and long-term injury. More and more I seem to be interested in less loud forms of trauma and grief. Everyone has lost something, and I think how we respond to loss—both in our own lives and in those around us—says a lot about how we’ll move forward.
AE: What is your process?
JA: I’m a planner and an outliner. In development, I like to write down everything I know about the characters, plot, theme, and setting. Then I try to arrange the different character moments and plot points into a recognizable story arc. Inevitably I make changes or come up with new ideas during drafting. I try to get first-reader feedback on multiple drafts, writing up their comments in my own words with specific action steps. Once the characters and plot are all behaving, I do a last pass for anything else I can delete and basic proofreading.
AE: What other projects are you currently working on?
JA: I have several other stories out with magazines right now, one about a new mom trying to learn how to parent her shapeshifting baby, and another about an FBI investigator who works on a historical magical objects unit in Chicago. I’m also drafting a short piece about a woman who’s had a full memory transplant. I’m eyeing up a novel-length project to work on in 2022, a near-future story that revolves around the legal case for trees to own their own land on Earth.
AE: What are you reading right now?
JA: I’m currently listening to Martha Well’s Network Effect. I’m thoroughly enjoying her narrative voice, and the questions she’s asking about what it means to be human (or not human). I also recently read Yan Ge’s Strange Beasts of China, which was simultaneously hilarious and horrifying. Her pacing and mystery-style plotting are enviable, as well as her deep senses of empathy and absurdity. Off genre, I finished Angeline Boulley’s Firekeeper’s Daughter, a page-turning thriller that was especially engrossing for me since it’s set in Michigan, in a city I grew up visiting almost every summer.
AE: What other careers have you had, and how have they affected your writing?
JA: I’ve been lucky to work in a lot of writing-adjacent spaces, mainly as a composition instructor and editor. Editing nonfiction definitely gives me a less romantic approach to building fiction: What’s the “argument” or primary change in the protagonist I want to show? What “evidence” or plot points does the reader need to see to believe me? Teaching rhetoric and genre awareness in college classrooms has also swayed me toward the analytical side of fiction writing. I’ve worked home renovation and retail as well, and customer service is its own kind of gold mine for characterization. You see a very specific side of human behavior, for instance, when you’re working the winter holiday season in a mall.
AE: What is something we should know about you that we haven’t thought to ask?
JA: I’m naturally more of a fantasy person than a sci-fi person. I’ve written some sci-fi alternate history before, and the novel I’m drafting now is near-future, but my brain usually reaches for dragons before it reaches for robots. Stretching myself to ask different what-if questions and think about different kinds of impossibilities has been rewarding, though.
AE: How can our readers follow you and your writing? (IE: Social media handles, website URL…)
JA: You can find me online at joeljarmstrong.com. On social media, I’m most active on Instagram @joelarmstrongwrites.