Thanks to everyone who’s supporting my Make Lemons into Jokes campaign! For those coming upon it for the first time, here’s my explanation of what it is and why I’m doing it. (Short version: A bigot is using the Hugo Awards to harass me and LGBTQ people, so fuck him. Let’s follow the Scalzi strategy–and raise money for something he hates. In this case, Lyon-Martin health services for LGBTQ folks.)
We have achieved the $400 stretch goal: “If You Were a Cuttlefish, My Love.” I showed it to Mary Robinette Kowal and a few other folks, and she gave me an unintentional blurb: “I LOVE THIS WITH THE LOVE OF A THOUSAND CUTTLEFISH EGGS.” I hope y’all enjoy it, too!
We’re partyway to the $500 stretch goal when Liz Argall will make an original comic in her series… Things Without Arms and Without Legs… and Without Butts?
And I’m thrilled to announce that John Chu and Adam-Troy Castro will be joining us for the $600 stretch goal — a round robin story about dinosaurs. The other authors include me, Brooke Bolander, Ann Leckie, Ken Liu, Juliette Wade, and Alyssa Wong!
Signal boosts appreciated.
Ken Liu came onto the short story scene a few years ago, and then dominated it, and has continued to dominate it since. If you’re interested in contemporary short science fiction, Ken is an author you can’t miss. One of my favorites: Mono no aware. And his first major award winner: Paper Menagerie.
RS: You have a full-time job, a family with young children, a career as a successful short story writer and novelist, and a career as a translator. How? What demonic trick of time have you unleashed? I must ask if you have a time turner of the kind from Harry Potter which allows you to move back six hours in time. Do you have a time turner?
KL: Ah, the “time turner,” that most wondrous of artifacts. Did you know that “time” is etymologically related to “tide”? And in fact, “tide” only acquired the sense of “flood and ebb of the sea” fairly recently (as in, less than seven centuries ago) …
Also, it seems to me that “time-turner” could be a kenning for “office drone”?
Speaking of time-turning, I have to thank you for your recent recommendation of “Ghost Trick” (available for the Nintendo DS and iOS). That game involves multiple sessions of reversing time’s flow for four minutes at a time and trying to change fate.
What was the question again?
RS: If you do not have a time turner, what magic time-traveling device do you have? I will not believe the answer “none” so you may as well be honest.
KL: Ahem. Yes, you got me…
So I practice the ancient magic of “Saying No.” Basically this involves being very careful about what projects I choose to work on. There are far too many interesting ideas for stories and far too many exciting anthology calls to say yes to all of them. I have to prioritize.
Because my writing time is so limited, I can’t afford to pursue all leads and just hope some of them work out. I have to be ruthless and say no to the vast majority of ideas and invitations I get so that I can focus on the few projects where I think my contributions will actually be unique, interesting, and artistically rewarding.
Many other writers write faster and write more than I do, but I think I have the advantage of picking a larger percentage of projects where my interests and talents are a good match for the projects’ needs.
RS: Speaking of Harry Potter, if you could send your kids to Hogwarts, would you?
KL: I’d have to ask my kids. Personally, I’m not a big fan of sending them away to boarding school because I want to spend more time with them. Parents get so little time with their children as is… But if they really want to go and learn magic, I’ll support them. And I hope they work hard to challenge the rather authoritarian system at Hogwarts and engage in campus activism.
And I’d have to do a lot of work to supplement their knowledge of the non-magical world.
Finally, I want them to bring a note to Hogwarts—more like a treatise—on how the rules of Quidditch make no sense.
RS: Many of your stories hook into important parts of East Asian history. I’m thinking of the ones that take place around World War II in particular. I know as a Jew the events of World War II were something that caught in my mind and stayed there. Was that an experience you had as well?
The terrible events around World War II in East Asia and Europe are searing experiences that should never be forgotten. Yet, in the years since, the forces of denial and repression have tried again and again to make us forget. In the case of East Asia, they base their arguments either on the needs of geopolitics or on high-minded (but false) claims that somehow forgetting is the same as reconciliation. Some have also resorted to despicable attempts to discredit survivors and to deny the facts of historical atrocities, thereby committing a fresh round of violence against the memory of the victims and the peoples of East Asia.
“Forgetting” history is a luxury that belongs to the privileged winners of history. The rest of us tread on bones and walk through ghosts, and we must not forget the past, which shapes the present and the future.
RS: I think of your stories as having an old-fashioned science fiction feel and structure, while being leavened with a modern approach toward emotion and character (and a broader idea of what constitutes interesting subjects). Does that ring true for you at all? How would you characterize your aesthetic?
KL: I like hearing you describe my stories that way. You’re, without a doubt, one of the sharpest readers of my work, and when you point out something about my fiction—whether positive or negative—I sit up and listen.
I think authors are often the least accurate summarizers of their own work, for they’re too close to it. Still, for what it’s worth, I think of what I write as primarily the fiction of rhetoric, of story-as-argument—not as persuasion, mind you, but as meditation.
My stories, as all fiction must, follow the logic of metaphors, and because I like to work with literalized metaphors, this practice draws me to employ the tropes and techniques of science fiction and fantasy. I enjoy working with literalized metaphors, exploring their nooks and crannies, finding shears and drops, bridging them and chaining them and laddering them into a structure that will reveal something of what we feel in our lives but cannot put into words.
At the same time, I have a deep ambivalence about our contemporary apparent-consensus over what makes a “good story”—despite all the aesthetic disagreements in the field, the science fiction and fantasy genres do seem to experience strong normative pressures concerning _how_ to tell a story. Characters need to be “real” and “deep” (by which we mean psychological interiority as popularized by the Modernists); points-of-view need to be consistent; exposition should be carefully blended into characterization and plot advancement; plots and characters need to arc and follow discernible shapes and patterns … and so on and so forth.
In a time when everyone is taught to appreciate oil paintings done in a classical European style, brush paintings in the style of Song Dynasty masters will seem spare, unrealistic, “flat,” unbelievable, … “not a good picture.” But I don’t believe there is just one way to tell a good story—we have had too much variation over time and across the globe in what narratives speak to particular peoples in particular contexts for me to accept that.
I like to construct stories in a way that evokes far older narrative traditions and techniques, and perhaps bring to bear tools learned from outside the core scifi/fantasy experience. Whether these efforts work for readers is not something I can control, but at least I enjoy telling stories the way I want to.
RS: You translated Three Body Problem whose author, Cixin Liu, seems to have definite opinions on this topic. (From his American author’s note: “The stories of science are far more magnificent, grand, involved, profound, thrilling, strange, terrifying, mysterious, and even emotional, compared to the stories told by literature.”) Is science more important than art?
KL: I like Liu Cixin’s work, and it is completely in line with his own aesthetic that prizes science and scientific speculation as the core of a good SF story.
While I enjoy reading stories written in this vein, I don’t always enjoy writing stories like that. I feel that the techniques of science fiction and fantasy can be used for many other types of stories, including stories in which the scientific speculation primarily serves as a literalized metaphor.
This isn’t to say science is more important than art, or vice versa. Both science and art are human enterprises, ways of knowing, and I don’t think it’s impossible to create compelling narratives that draw on both—and I also think there’s nothing wrong with creating stories that emphasize one over the other.
RS: I think a lot of us envy your ideas and how neatly you fit them into stories. Can you describe your process of developing a story from idea to draft?
KL: I don’t have a single process that applies for all stories. In a lot of cases, my stories begin from a single image or phrase that I find evocative. In other cases, they come from some scientific paper I read that I find particularly interesting.
I then take that story seed and let it sit in my head for a while. Once I begin thinking about something, I notice other things in my life that are related to it: books I read, web pages I come across, other papers cited in the first paper, illustrations and photographs that seem to speak to the seed, and so on. I let all of this churn in my head, and sometimes I discover that there’s no interesting story there, despite my best efforts, but at other times the seed grows into a sapling that I can envision as a tree someday.
That’s when actual drafting starts. I don’t outline or plan, but prefer to explore the idea as I write. This means that I tend to draft slowly (because I’m using the drafting process to think) and it also means that I have to do a lot of work in revisions. Overall, the way I write short stories is a bit like sculpting, where the story slowly emerges as I carve away the excess key by key.
RS: You love the video game Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney! Me, too. But you’re an actual lawyer. What do you enjoy about it?
KL: I love the way the law’s tendency as a game of rhetoric is highlighted in these games. The process of parsing words carefully to find “contradictions” is actually quite similar to the way lawyers craft their arguments—not in the details, of course, but in mindset and approach.
I also like the fact that Phoenix’s clients are always innocent and that he’s never had to defend someone who isn’t a good person. If only real lawyers are so lucky.
RS: Is there anything else you’re excited to share? Bonus points if it’s silly and/or a lie and/or a silly lie.
KL: I’ve been working on the copyedits of my second novel, The Wall of Storms, and I’m super excited to share this book with readers come October. There’s lots more intrigue and politics and crafty battle strategies and oodles of silkpunk technology. I literally dream about these machines some nights…
Okay, but more seriously, I have discovered the secret of time-turning, and I have a proof and a set of schematics that I’m excited to share. Okay, let me find it on my hard drive … Darn it, it is too lengthy to fit into the space allotted me here, and the pictures are too big to send through email. Next time?
Obligatory “If You Were a Butt, My Butt” Update: The fundraiser’s doing really well! And if we get to $600, Ken Liu will join authors Ann Leckie, Brooke Bolander, Juliette Wade, Alyssa Wong, and me, in writing a round robin story about dinosaurs. (I didn’t plan to run this interview to coincide with that; it just happened.)
Fan art! Yay!
The comic is called LitBrick: Sequential Comedies of Literature, I think it’s is a pretty neat idea: “The comic is an exploration (and a relentless send-up) of all the literature one might find in college. Lit Brick was initially founded upon the idea of reading the entire Norton Anthology of English Literature and making fun of it, but over the course of several years, the comic has taken a few forks in the road.”
John S. Troutman says the story “is a brilliant and heartbreaking short story, so of course I made really dumb Jurassic Park jokes about it. I feel like none of you should be surprised.”
…I’m not actually surprised by anything, I just wanted to put up a picture of a surprised dinosaur.
Obligatory Butts update:
We’re less than $30 from the next stretch goal! If we get there, I’ll add in “If You Were a Cuttlefish, My Love” which I wrote one night because I was amused, and cuttlefish are awesome. Let them be awesome in your life, too.
And if we get to the NEXT stretch goal after that, then there will be an original comic from the buoyant Liz Argall and her Things Without Arms and Without Legs… and Without Butts.
If you’re wondering what all this means — and/or about how and why I’m raising money through my Patreon for LGBTQIAA health care — lo, I give unto you the tale.
The dog Oscar had a costume including a tuxedo and hat. His owner says that depending on whether he wears that hat or not, sometimes it makes him look like a gentleman, and sometimes it makes him look like a gentleman hobo.
Then there was the hatting of the cats.
First, Pete, was convinced to wear the hat. Despite his skepticism, he did not view the hat as a threat. He is here pictured next to an iPad on which is playing the game To Be or Not to Be, the choose-your-own-adventure version of Hamlet designed by Ryan North.
Next, there was Clone, whose love of humans overwhelms all. If a human is within 20 yards, he purrs like a truck. A hat is a small price to pay.
Then, Alexi, who accepted the hat along with some ear scratches. He did not seem to have noticed at all that there was a hat.
He did, however, drool.
Not pictured: two cats who expressed their lack of enthusiasm for headwear by running away really quickly.
It’s halfway through my Making Lemons into Jokes campaign, and I wanted to give an update.
Among other things, I wanted to clarify why I’m doing this. For people in the know, the reasons are obvious–but obviously, most folks aren’t.
Let me start by repeating a modified version what I said in my original post:
In my family, humor has always been a way of putting crap into perspective. When life hands you lemons, make jokes. And then possibly lemonade, too. It is coming up on summer.
In that spirit, I’m trying a self-publishing experiment. And that experiment’s name is “If You Were a Butt, My Butt.”
If my Patreon reaches $100 by the end of the month [Note: it has!], I will write and send “If You Were a Butt, My Butt” to everyone who subscribes with at least $1.
I will be donating the first month’s Patreon funds to Lyon-Martin health services. Lyon-Martin is one of the only providers that focuses on caring for the LGBTQIAA community, especially low-income lesbian, bisexual, and trans people. They provide services regardless of the patient’s ability to pay.
You don’t have to keep on paying into my Patreon in order to participate! It’s just fine if you want to sign up, get your silly thing, and just support Lyon-Martin. I’ll send out a note after I release “If You Were a Butt, My Butt,” and remind folks to unsubscribe if they want to.
I also release a piece of original flash fiction or poetry to all my subscribers each month, so you’ll get June’s, too, along with the Butts, whether you keep on subscribing or not.
Humor can turn anything ridiculous. That’s part of its healing power. When that’s the aim, being mean-spirited or nasty defeats the point. I can’t promise I won’t make any metafictional jokes, but I’m not going to focus on it. The rare times I do, it will be silly.
That’s the plan! But I didn’t include the why of it all.
Short version: A bigot is using the Hugo Awards to harass me and LGBTQ people, so fuck him. Let’s follow the Scalzi strategy–and raise money for something he hates.
Long version: A few years ago, I wrote a short story called “If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love.” Sometimes stories take off, and this one did. I was honored by how many people it moved–people still come to me at conventions, and over social media, to tell me that the story was important to their lives.
“If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love” was nominated for the Hugo Award and the World Fantasy Award, and won the Nebula Award. For some folks in the science fiction world, this was cause for such a clash of sturm und drang that they aren’t over it years later. I admit I remain baffled as to why. There have been award winners throughout my life that I disliked for aesthetic or political reasons. The correct response–if you decide to respond at all (I usually don’t)–is talking about it, and mobilizing. It isn’t harassing authors.
Unfortunately, some of the folks who are in a snit have decided to go for the harassing. The white supremacist ring-leader has targeted minority writers before, including successful African American author N. K. Jemisin. He used our writers’ union’s resources to propagate his hateful, racial harassment, calling this accomplished writer a “half-savage” and implying she should be shot. The first, unmoderated comment on his post added that she should be gang raped as well.
I was one of the people on the union’s board at that time. So were other authors he has subsequently harassed, including John Scalzi and Ann Leckie. I am proud to have stood up for Nora against his harassment. But it put me on an enemy’s list–and here we are.
Although he and his followers are happy to use any excuse to harass me–anti-Semitism, sexism, fatphobia–mostly he’s gone after me and my readers for being queer. The bigoted rhetoric is especially nasty to trans people. And come on. Like they need more crap.
That’s where the Hugos come in. Since trolls gotta troll in order to justify their petty lives, they decided to troll the Hugo Awards. Want to know why? The same reason the neighborhood bully knocks over your Lego tower. They can’t figure out how to make one of their own. Using underhanded tactics, they nominated a “satire” of my work to the ballot, which the white supremacist posted on his own blog. As the publisher, he included a comment saying I should be killed. Sure, it’s phrased as a “joke.” But the dogs can hear the whistle.
Luckily, there’s a hilarious silver lining. Because he and his followers are the kind of juvenile people who assume “gay = porn” (apparently, the word “gay” causes them to compulsively think of gay sex, which must be alarming for a homophobe), they also nominated a piece of porn about a dude who has sex with dinosaurs. It’s called “Space Raptor Butt Invasion” and it’s hilarious because the story’s author, Chuck Tingle, is some sort of subversive, queer, meta-fictional performance artist. Remember when Stephen Colbert hosted the white house correspondence dinner because no one bothered to do their leg work? It’s like that.
It’s been a pleasure watching the trolls get trolled, but let’s be clear–there’s still harassment going on.
I deserve better, and so does the LGBTQ community. Let’s be fun. Let’s be silly. And let’s raise some fucking money for poor queer people who deserve the same medical care as everyone else.
Would I also like people to support my Patreon? Sure. Real talk: I’m an author, and no matter what you’ve seen on Castle, most of us don’t make much dosh. My household is looking at a 50-66% reduction in income over the next year, so I need a hustle or two. I’ve built my career writing art house short stories. Perfectionism takes time! And when you’re doing freelance piecework, more time means less pay.
But you don’t have to support me at all. You can still have fun, participate in something silly, and send all your support to Lyon-Martin. They deserve your help!
So far, I’ve collected enough money to write “If You Were a Butt, My Butt” and make an audio version, too. I’m very close to reaching $300. Help me get there!
- At $300, I’ll add another hundred dollars of my own to go to Lyon-Martin.
- At $400, I’ll also release a silly version of “If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love” about cuttlefish. Because cuttlefish are bizarre and awesome. You know it to be true.
- At $500, cartoonist Liz Argall — creator of the Things Without Arms and Without Legs — will do an original comic on the topic of butts. Check out her work here: http://www.
- At $600, I and several other authors will write a short story together about dinosaurs. Authors to be named later — believe me, they’re awesome.
- At $700, puppeteer, audio book narrator, and all around awesome person Mary Robinette Kowal will record the audio version of “If You Were a Butt, My Butt” in her professional studio–and she will be amazing. Here she is reading some tweets by John Scalzi. Erotically.
- I don’t have a goal yet for $800. Make me come up with one!
I hope you’ll consider donating. Because hate in the world is the worst, but we can counter it by doing good in the world. And by remembering to laugh.
And with butts.
Got back from the Nebula Awards last night. Had a lovely time — quite tired now. Jeremiah Tolbert said he hadn’t seen people so tired after a Nebulas in a long time. I think it may be because the programming was amazing, courtesy of Mary Robinette Kowal. From the user end, it’s the best experience I’ve ever had as a speaker.
Quick summaries of the programming I spoke on/attended:
Thanks to the new mentorship program, I was able to meet several new writers, and try to help them out. Hopefully I did, but even if I didn’t, I’m glad they have access to me as a resource in the future.
At the Ask an Expert village, no one came to my session on short stories (it was announced late, and was scheduled early, so I wasn’t surprised; it was fine). That gave me time to bug the experts who were there. I talked to representatives from indepedent publishing concerns, ACX, and Patreon, all of whom were able to give me great advice and information on how to move forward.
I spoke at three panels. The first one, on the reprint life of short stories, was relatively straight-forward, although Sarah Pinsker had good advice on how to sell foreign reprint rights. Think smart about where to spend your online reprint dollar; you may only get one chance per story. Doubly so if you are a very slow writer as I am.
The second–medicine at the end of the world–traversed many types of disability, from the obvious and severe, to the invisible and insidious. Most, though not all, of us on the panel had invisible disabilities. Someone in the audience pointed out we were all white, which did keep us from poking at some of the more complicated intersections. Something else I found interesting is that several years ago when I was attending a panel on apocalypses, someone said that writers and readers imagine themselves as the survivors. I don’t. My life is, as I said on the panel, a delicate balance of the technology we currently have available. Remove it, and I die. This gives me a slightly different perspective on the question of medicine in a post-apocalyptic scenario than some of the other folks seemed to have.
After that, I spoke on a panel about redefining aliens, moving from alien-as-metaphor-for-race to something that is — hopefully — more nuanced. I recommended a zillion writers, including Gwendolyn Clare, Will MicIntosh, Derek Kunsken… and of course the brilliant Octavia Butler. One of the other panelists pointed to James Tiptree as well. I think my ultiamte conclusion is that while weirder aliens have existed in SF texts a long time, and while alien-as-race still exists, the trend has been positive to favor the former rather than the latter. Also, I was surprised by how many people gasped and seemed shocked that I said the Ferengi were a stand-in for Jews. Do people really not notice that? I hope to put some of my notes from the panel online because it was really interesting.
I attended panels on dramaturgy, acting, and medieval warfare. I’d summarize those, too, but I’m getting to the limit of the time I allotted for this, so I may have to do that another time.
At the mass autographing, I was honored to meet lots of folks. It was very well organized, and it was a delight to sit next to an author I’d never met before. I came away with a copy of his book and hope to read it soon. (I’m still only partway through Jane Eyre at the moment.) I didn’t get any signatures, although in retrospect, I’m a bit sad I didn’t go over to talk to John Hodgeman. Sometimes when the world seems to be crushing, humor like his is the only balm.
The banquet itself was lovely, giving me a chance to catch up with Joe Monti and Ken Liu, as well as meet some folks and hang out with some other friends who I’d had a change to meet with over the cource of the weekend. I usually roam the room saying hi to people, but stayed still this time except for a quick jaunt to say hello to Scalzi.
There were several dazzling fashion displays, including Alyssa Wong’s glittery and spectacular black dress which used netting and negative space to create really interesting (and sparkly) effects. If she had not won the Nebula, I would have to give her one for knocking it out of the park. Tamara (forgive me for not looking up your last name; I am starting to migraine) wore a long silver gown with sparkly laces crossing over the back. Mary Robinette Kowal and Lynne Thomas wore dazzling necklaces — Mary’s in tones of amber, Lynne’s in dazzling cobalt that picked up the highlights of labradorite beads. Nnedi Okorafor slammed best hair, matched by her daughter. C. S. E. Cooney wore a long pink gown with fabric flowers which was delicate and feminine and made my inner rose-lover happy. I am doubtlessly forgetting people, but the point is, gorgeous.
My friend Henry Lien led a dance and singing routine which was odd and interesting and fun. Hodgeman hosted with aplomb and acute funniness.
Also, I spent lots of time with other folks. It was a long but excellent weekend.
And we flew Virgin America instead of United so the travel was even okay!
Sandra McDonald is one of my favorite working short story writers. Her humor is often both warm *and* sly, her satires sharp but empathetic. She has some amazing funny and irreverant stories about drag queen astronauts and sexy robot cowboys, but one of her other favorite topics to lampoon is Hollywood.
“Searching for Slave Leia”–as you might expect–is one of the latter. Sandra McDonald hits a perfect point where humor and metafiction let her really dig into human emotion. Also, Star Wars.
“Searching for Save Leia” by Sandra McDonald:
A slip, slide, falling through icy coldness, white noise like TV static. A breeze of hot buttery popcorn. Giddy laughter, sweaty bodies, fanfare music over the intercom, and what’s this? A ten-foot-wide movie poster of young, pale, undernourished Carrie Fisher, posed seductively in a gold metal bikini with a collar and chain around her neck.
You’d bet she didn’t have her period the day they took that picture. No Kotex pad safety-pinned to her underwear, no feeling bloated and yucky down there. You wish you’d taken more aspirin this morning. You hope you don’t stain your shorts in front of the hundreds of fangeeks jammed in the lobby of the Charles Cinema here in the middle of Boston. This is 1983, that is Slave Leia, and through some supernatural stroke of luck you have become a time traveler, because last you checked it was 2013 and you were perimenopausal and you were having a fight with Trevor, again, on the set of your latest series.
Your best friend Karen sloshes her soda against your arm and says, “Shit, hell, sorry!”
You look down at your white knee socks, cut-off shorts, and baby blue Empire Strikes Backt-shirt. It’s amazing the fashion police ever let you out of your house. Karen’s wearing a yellow Han Solo shirt and white shorts and wooden sandals, the kind that are supposed to tone your calves. Her hair is teased up two inches. You have a mullet.
“Sheila?” she asks, face creasing. “You okay?”
“Yes, fine,” you say, because the first rule of suddenly displaced time travelers is to fake it until you figure out what happened. It worked for Scott Bakula in every episode ofQuantum Leap except the mental hospital episode—always one of your favorites; speaking of which, there’s an awful possibility: maybe you’re in the psych ward. Goosebumps ripple under your white bra, the one that always chafes your back. After twenty years of working together, Trevor has finally driven you into a complete nervous breakdown.
Princess Leia cosplay photograph marked for reuse from Wikipedia.
Na’amen Tilahun has been around the science fiction scene for a long time — as a fan, a convention attendee, and a bookstore clerk. And now as a novelist! His debut novel, The Root, is coming out in June. I blurbed it:
“Na‘amen Tilahun‘s novel will make readers searching for variety in their SFF diets squeal with delight. The detailed world-building is strange and wondrous.”
Because we are both obsessed with the television show RuPaul’s Drag Race (or at least, he watches it and I’m obsessed), I asked him a ton of questions about drag queening. If you’d rather read a discussion of literature and toasters, just scroll down. We get to it.
RS: Who is your favorite contestant from RuPaul’s Drag Race ever?
NT: This is a hard one. There are queens from each and every year that I adore and follow on social media long after the season is over. I love fashion queens, pageant queens, comedy queens, every kind of drag queen. Most of all though I love a queen that can make me laugh so Pandora Boxx, Latrice Royale, Bianca DelRio, Jujubee, Willam, Alaska Thunderfuck 5000 and Shangela all rank very highly with me.
RS: Which Queen should never have been allowed on the race? Keep it 100.
NT: Oooh this is mean. I could go safe and just name one of the girls who exited first or second in one of the seasons but you said to keep it 100 so: Tammie Brown. I love vintage and I love kooky but I just do not get her, ever. But you know I acknowledge that a lot of the queens that I love, love her. Her jokes just make no goddamn sense to me.
RS: If you were on the race, what would you wear, what name would you use, and who would you play on the Snatch game?
NT: I think I would rock a lot of superhero inspired bodysuits. I would probably be a combination cosplayer/drag queen like Dax ExclaimationPoint…but better. I’d enter the workroom in a whole Manhunter (Kate Spencer) inspired look.
My name would be Hateretha Kitt.
I think in Snatch Game I would try to follow in the footsteps of Kennedy Davenport and push the envelope by doing a man, in this case Prince.
NT: Well my novel The Root features two main characters. There’s Erik, a former child star who left the business after a scandal and now lives in San Francisco and has just discovered he isn’t completely human. And there’s Lil who is basically a magic-wielding assistant librarian in another world that is slowly being devoured. There are a lot of other characters that get into the mix – mentors, parents, rivals. The novel jumps between our San Francisco and the alternate world and there are secret societies, shady dealings, betrayal, revenge, all that good stuff.
RS: You’ve been an advocate for diversity in SF, particularly in regard to race and sexuality. How did that work affect what you wanted to write about?
NT: I think it’s always subconsciously in my writing. The reason I’m such an advocate for diversity is because it’s the world I live in, it’s the people I see on the street and interact with at work and for fun. I’ve never lived in a city where I only knew white people or straight people. I always have had a diverse group of folks in my life and in my circle of friends. So when I write a book it’s natural to me that the characters I write about resemble the people I know. I also didn’t want to write an issue book where the story centered around a crisis of identity or coming out. Don’t get me wrong those books can be done really well but I always love the books where the characters are just queer or brown or disabled and while it’s part of the story because that’s their life it’s not the focus of the story. I want action and adventure for people who look like me and my friends.
I’m also confused by people who build homogeneous worlds, where everyone looks the same, feels the same, and has the same kind of relationships. Especially in speculative fiction which arguably is more about wish fulfillment than any other genre, why is this the world that you imagine? There are authors who are willing to imagine what our society will look like in thousands of years but they won’t look at their own assumptions and write a world were people are brown or queer or disabled or marginalized in any way. That’s ridiculous to me, we’ve always been here and always will be here.
Then again maybe they have thought about it and that’s the world they want to build, that’s fine, I’m just not interested. It’s especially astonishing when the work is set in a hugely diverse city like Los Angeles or the Bay Area or New York or London but the cast of characters never includes diversity.
RS: For many years, you worked at Borderlands, the San Francisco bookstore that specializes in science fiction and fantasy. What are some of the best experiences you’ve had there?
NT: Yes, I love them and still do some freelance stuff with them. I think the best experience was cultivating relationships with readers who shared my reading sensibilities. There were certain customers who I just had an instant rapport with and for most part knew immediately what book I wanted to recommend to them. These were customers who knew if I suggested a book they weren’t going to find it dripping with rape culture or racism or sexism. Borderlands has been my bookstore since I moved to the Bay Area and they’re a great supportive community.
RS: And since you’ve worked in a bookstore–Who should we be reading who we aren’t reading?
NT: Well I love Martha Wells her Books of the Raksura series is my favorite fantasy series of the last few years and her novel Wheel of The Infinite is one of my go-to re-reads.
Nalo Hopkinson has such a gorgeous way with language, her sentences are beautiful and her novels deal with trauma without making it entertainment. Love, love, love Sister Mine.
Larissa Lai wrote Salt Fish Girl which I think is a criminally underrated novel, moving in time from the ancient past to the far future it’s a beautiful novel about family and identity.
Oh and in that vein The Fortunate Fall by Raphael Carter which was really popular when it came out but a lot of people seem to have forgotten it – that novel is one of my Cyberpunk holy trinity (the other two are Melissa Scott’s brilliant Trouble & Her Friends and When Gravity Falls by George Alec Effinger).
I would also add N.K. Jemisin & Ann Leckie to the list but I can’t imagine there are many people who haven’t read them – I feel sorry for those people if they exist.
I’ll stop here because I could go on and on.
RS: DRAG RACE DRAG RACE DRAG RACE
NT: My top three this season are definitely – Bob the Drag Queen, Kim Chi and Chi Chi
The ones I just wish would go away are – Acid Betty, Robbie Turner and Derrick Barry
NT: I’ve been hoarding my own and intercepting everyone elses so that one day, one day, I can make a giant toaster Mecha that will not only allow me to take over the world but have the best mobile breakfast diner ever. I shall call it Papa Waffles and we will serve every breakfast food but waffles. Mwahahahahahaha! I shall rule all I see through a vast empire of toasted bread!
RS: This space left blank for you to say whatever you want about upcoming projects, things you’re excited about, which drag race contestants are going to win, how to raise Octavia Butler from the dead, roller derby, River Song, or whatever other topic you’d like to bring up.
NT: The main problem with trying to resurrect Octavia Butler is the question of consent. Does she want to be raised from the dead, maybe she’s happier not dealing with all these fools. We don’t want to fall into a Buffy situation. Although if we could get consent, whoo boy! The stories that woman wrote, the stories that were still inside her? There are few authors who can make me read trauma so deeply and still make the book exciting and almost fun. She had a skill for portraying life as it is, a series of intense ups and downs.
As for upcoming projects, I’m working on relaunching my podcast with my friend Chris Chinn The *New* Adventures of Yellow Peril & Magical Negro soon where we talk geek shit from a POC perspective. I also have a podcast called The Worst Queers with another friend that I’m working on getting up and running. After that’s done I’d love to work on a webcomic – I’ve had a couple pretty specific ideas for a few years now that I would love to see turned into a comic.
Also I’m in the midst of trying to invent a working Time-Turner so that I can have time to do all the projects I want to. Either that or becomes extremely rich so I don’t have to work full-time. Whichever comes first.
I will be at the Nebula Awards this weekend in Chicago, from May 12-15.
“The Nebula Awards ® are voted on, and presented by, active members of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, Inc… Our conference will also feature the prestigious 50th Annual Nebula Awards hosted by comedian John Hodgman and banquet along with exciting tours of the City Winery and Northern Illinois University. Receptions honoring SFWA’s newest Grand Master, C.J. Cherryh and the Nebula Award nominees will take place throughout the weekend along with a mass autographing session.”
The Nebulas are introducing a new feature this year (which sounds fun!) — Ask an Expert. Here’s the description from the site: “In the Ask an Expert Village, you can sit down for a one-on-one with an expert. Bring your questions. Sign up for these 10 minute sessions at the registration desk.” I really like this idea; I hope it catches on elsewhere, too.
Thursday, 4pm-5pm: Come visit me to discuss short stories: “Brainstorm a problem area, or ask questions about writing short fiction.”
I’m also on three panels:
Friday, 1pm: The Second Life of Stories: handling backlist and reprints. Panelists: Sarah Pinsker, Rachel Swirsky, Colleen Barr, Marco Palmieri, John Joseph Adams, Don Slater
Friday, 4pm: Medicine after the End of the World: managing chronic conditions and serious illness after the apocalypse. Panelists: Annallee Flower Home, Nick Kanas, Daniel Potter, Rachel Swirsky, Michael Damien Thomas, Fran Wilde
Saturday, 4pm: Redefining the Aliens of the Future. Panelists: Juliette Wade, Charles Ganon, Nick Kanas, Fonda Lee, PJ Schnyder, Rachel Swirsky.
I’m also participating in the mass autographing, Friday, 8-9pm.
Also, this site is a cool addition to the Nebula proceedings. You can sign in to peruse speakers, events, and participants, so you can look at events in a traditional program style (by day and time), or else look at what panels an author you’re interested in is doing. Mary Robinette Kowal and the other members of the programming team are doing a really stylish job this year.
Hope to see you there!
Spencer Ellsworth had been publishing short stories since 2009, and has work in PodCastle, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, F&SF and a number of other places. You can find his short story “Clockwork of Sorrow” in the anthology Ghost in the Cogs: Steam-Powered Ghost Stories (the cover of which you can see here).
Every time I see Spencer, I always ask the same question. You see, several years ago when Ann Leckie was running Giganotosaurus, I sometimes did first-round reading for her. And while Ann and I have very similar taste, we don’t have identical taste. So once in a while we’d come up against a story that I was jazzed about, but that didn’t quite cross her threshold. So every time I see Spencer, I ask about that one story that got away.
[Note: We conducted the interview a while ago, just after the Nebula ballot was released.]
RS: Haaave you sold the cool story about the alien kites yet? If not, perhaps we can leave a summary here to tempt an editor into opening their door.
I HAVE. IT SOLD. IT’LL BE UP AT TOR.COM… SOMETIME THIS YEAR HOPEFULLY OR MAYBE NEXT WHO KNOWS. THAT WAS A LITTLE ANTICLIMACTIC BUT WE’RE STILL KEEPING CAPS LOCK ON.
It’s called “When Stars Are Scattered,” and it tells the travails of a doctor on a homesteading planet, an atheist caught between Muslim missionaries, who have converted the quirky indigenous aliens, and homesteaders mostly of a Baptist stripe, who do not see the aliens as sentient, intelligent beings.
This story, man. I originally wrote a draft in 2006, scrapped it and rewrote in 2007, and that went everywhere and got nice notes from everyone, including you at GigaNotoSaurus. I took it to Viable Paradise in 2010, where it collected some nice comments and an invite to submit from Patrick Nielsen Hayden, then I took it home and sweated over the rewrites for four years, then finally sent it in and… they bought it.
Ten long years ago, when I conceived the story, I was really pushing myself to tackle some bigger issues in storytelling. My favorite writer is Octavia Butler, partially because I could never predict, or even start to predict, how her stories would end. They were always about these terrible moral dilemmas and vicious relationships. So I decided to write one of the real world’s unpredictable conflicts, about faith and land and morality, and put some aliens in it.
RS: Conan the Barbarian. It sounds like you both love it, and know it has problems. What do you see as today’s cultural heirs to the tradition?
You refer to “The Child Support of Cromdor The Condemned,” which was a very well-received piece on Podcastle, and AHEMAHEM made the Nebula recommended reading list.
I wrote that story about the terrible male role models presented to me as a young man. James Bond, Conan, The Man With No Name, etc–all those taciturn, violent guys who have a girl of the week, conveniently gone the next week. It was difficult for me to reconcile such role models, whom society held up as the paragons of “manliness,” with my dad, who relied on peace and compassion to solve problems, and (gasp) treated women like actual human beings.
I got fan mail for that one. I quote “All the notches on Cromdor’s bedposts get to be real people in your story, even when they’re not directly onscreen.” I was proud of that, especially considering there aren’t that many women onscreen in the story. It’s very distinctly a story about the women who have been left offscreen, and humanizing both Conan and Conan’s wenches.
RS: You recently sold a short story that you wrote in an hour. Is that normal for you? How was it different–if it was–from your normal writing process?
“About The Bear” was based on a true story, and that really fueled it. Writing all comes from unconscious processing, I think, but occasionally you hit a rich lode near the surface, and a real-life experience becomes great fiction. I really did know a guy who wrestled a bear and came out okay, although, as I learned upon pressing him, it was an adolescent bear. I plugged our conversation into my fantasy world, and boom: I had a flash piece that all came together, about one of my favorite themes: how stories change us.
RS: When you are teaching English, what’s the most basic thing you want to make sure all students leave knowing?
Ooh! Good question! And yet, I don’t really want them to “know” something, so much as I want them to love learning. A lot of students come into my classes at Northwest Indian College having had bad experiences in school. They were frustrated, stereotyped, endured racist microaggression either within or without the community, and their parents often went through the same or worse, especially if a residential school was involved. Many never received early intervention for dyslexia or farsightedness. They are turned off by academic learning, though most of them are very adept at learning and sharing traditional teachings.
I want them to leave with a love of books, a discovery that academic learning can be fun and empowering. When a student finds a body of knowledge that inspires them, that’s the best part of my job. A couple of cool experiences I’ve had lately: a student stayed up all night finishing the memoir of an American Indian Movement activist, a student shared with me his ideas for science fiction stories and we discussed creative writing for a while, and several students told me they loved my Developmental Reading class, which is not, in my mind, a Number One Fun Time Class. Oh, and we read “If You Were A Dinosaur, My Love,” in that class, and had a spirited discussion about subtext and genre. They liked the story, all the more so for discovering the subtext. BE PROUD RACHEL. YOU ARE MIGHTY IN READING 091
RS: Tell me about Pawnbroker.
Quality used musicians! Prices negotiable. Pawnbroker is my band and we try to marry the 90s and the 60s, our favorite musical decades. Try us out for free.
I’ve always played music along with writing–I find the intuitive, experiential nature of playing music live makes a good companion to the more structured, studied creativity in writing and revising. The band has actually been on a little hiatus, though I’m sure we’ll make it work again one of these days. In the meantime, I’m working on a solo project that is like unto Nick Cave or Elliott Smith, which is my way of saying I can’t really sing but the songs will one day be covered by Scarlett Johanssen for a vanity project. PROMISE
RS: Projects? Notes? Please put them here!
I’m currently working on a book called The Red Walker, which is SO MUCH COOL FUN TO WRITE. It’s about a girl whose brother dies halfway through his Epic Chosen One quest, so the little sister has to take up the quest, with the help/hindrance of a rogue sorcerer who is, um, a lot like Omar Little from The Wire. As in, if Omar lived in an epic fantasy novel, this would be him.
Everyone say it with me: “Oh, indeed?”
Our Lady Of The Open Road was one of my favorite stories of last year, aaaaand it’s on the Nebula ballot.
Why isn’t drywall reusable? That is so wasteful. Amiright?
Stop adding “punk” to things, writers! Cyberpunk IS punk; it’s an angry critique of materialist culture! Steampunk/dieselpunk/silkpunk/drywallpun
Thanks very much for this opportunity to rant and share some answers to excellent questions, Rachel. As I’ve said many times, if you were a dinosaur, you’d be this one.