Cat Rambo is a Nebula-nominated writer, successful online writing teacher, current president of SFWA, and one of my Clarion West classmates–along with Ann Leckie, who I’m interviewing next week. I’m a great admirer of her short stories (I’ll be publishing some fan art of a few of them in a bit), like this one and this one. Her first novel came out this year, too, in the lovely and well-developed world of Tabat (I have a draft of the sequel in my inbox, and I can’t wait!) Also, she’s tons of fun to hang out with, and everyone should do so, but hopefully not all at once.
1. Although you write stories in other venues, you have at least two persistent worlds. One is Tabat where your novel takes place. Can you talk about the world and how it came to be?
Tabat started with a game concept. A friend was working on a MUD (a text-based multi-player game) where each administrator would create their own city, and I decided to do a seaport. One of the cool things about the game engine was that you could add tags onto room, so there were bits of description that only appeared under certain conditions, including things like time of day, season, moon phase, tide, and so forth, including things like if the player was carrying a specific object or had particular spells on them.
I went nuts with it. I built a city where you smelled fish when the tide was high and the wind was coming from the south, and where the tiles of the great Moonway shifted in color depending on whether the moon was full or lean. In the spring there was the smell of particular flowers when you descended the stairways leading from one terrace to another, and in the fall, storms sweeping in from the south-east brought the smell of rotting reeds from the marshes bordering the city on one side.
Alas, much of my work was lost in a server accident, and after that discouragement and the falling away of the other administrators, Tabat never got to see actual players.
Later, I tried to recreate it in another MUD. I had been working with Armageddon MUD, which had a period each Saturday where the game was inaccessible to players while the staff performed maintenance and additions. We planned to have a space available only on Saturdays, a mini-mud that would be a single city. However, we ended up doing away with the Saturday downtimes, and so this project also never saw light. (Armageddon still exists; enter at your own peril.)
So when I started writing fantasy stories, it was a logical place to set some. I knew it well, and it’s gotten even further fleshed out in my head over the decade I’ve been working with fiction in it. Writing a fantasy quartet in it has been fun, but the next volume, Exiles of Tabat, actually moves the reader outside the city, accompanying Bella and Teo.
2. Likewise, you have a space station (Twicefar, right?) where you’ve set a lot of stories. (I can link to some here.) How did that develop?
Twicefar grew out of a single story that I wrote while at Clarion West, Amid the Words of War, which is set in a brothel named The Little Teacup of the Soul aboard the station.
As characters emerged in one story, I ended up exploring them further in others. One of my favorites is “Kallakak’s Cousins,” which appeared in Asimov’s. The universe around that far-future setting has hosted some stories as well, such as TimeSnip, Angry Rose’s Lament (another Clarion West story), and Bots d’Amor.
3. What new writing skills have you learned from teaching regularly?
I’ve gotten better things like placing the reader inside the character’s head, rather than a spot about six inches behind it or, worse yet, hovering at a distance. A lot of it are little tricks, devices I wouldn’t have thought about if I hadn’t been thinking about the topic for a particular class.
And I’ve gotten much better at knowing how to get from “this would be nifty” to finished story. I keep getting people who tell me they want to learn how to tell the ideas that will turn into stories from the ones that will peter out. And that’s not actually a skill you pick up. Instead you learn how to reliably turn something into a story.
4. You and I have both attended a lot of workshops in different venues. In my experience, different workshop cultures have different strengths and weaknesses. Common, useful metaphors known in sci fi workshops might not be common in graduate programs that concentrate on realism. What did you learn in graduate school that doesn’t get included in most science fiction workshops?
Hmmm. I think one of the things that gets emphasized in grad workshops as opposed to SF workshops is a sense that you’re part of the overall conversation of literature, that anything you write is influenced by and in some ways a reply to the texts that have moved you in one way or another.
I wrote “Bus Ride to Mars” as a love poem to Geoffrey Chaucer, who I adore, for example. Do you need to have read The Canterbury Tales to appreciate it? I sure hope not. But there’s great pleasure in reading a text and seeing the layers of influence at work in it, and sometimes SF workshops don’t talk about that or even denigrate it as snooty literary stuff. That’s a shame and it’s something that hampers us.
I’m very happy to see efforts to keep genre history — particularly the pieces that end up dropping away often — preserved in projects like Kris Rusch’s Women in SF website.
5. How does your women’s studies background influence your writing at this point? Does that relationship continue to develop as you keep writing?
Always. I’ve got an undergrad certificate in Gender Studies from Notre Dame, plus I taught in the Women’s Studies department at Towson for a number of years. It shapes a lot of my reading as well as many of my approaches to life and acts as a goad to keep me trying to understand and learn about my own filters and blind spots.
Sometimes it overtly influences a story, as with “All the Pretty Little Mermaids,” another Asimov’s story, which actually also has a little tribute to one of my favorite professors from Notre Dame, Charlene Avallone, in it.
6. Is there a color that you would never dye your hair?
I probably would never bleach it again. I did that one year to go purple at World Fantasy and found the process alarmingly painful.
7. As president of SFWA, can you describe your plan for fixing all problems with the Hugo Awards?
Hahahahaha. I’m too busy with the SFWA mission of doing stuff that actually helps working writers. Lots of cool things lately, and more to come this year. For recent examples, see the Speakers Bureau and the SFWA Star Project program.
8. Upcoming projects and other news: take it away.
I just finished Hearts of Tabat, the sequel to Beasts of Tabat; it’s off with beta readers right now. Finishing up the second edition of Creating an Online Presence for Writerswith lots of interesting updates. Releasing two collections this year, one of steampunk stories on June 1 and another two-sided collection from Hydra House in August. Writing lots of stories, finishing up “The Wizards of West Seattle” for Patreon supporters later this month. Working on more on-demand classes, including both class and book version of Moving from Idea to Draft. Plenty of travel this year, including the Nebulas next week, Gencon, Worldcon, Westercon, Dragoncon, Orycon, and the Chinese Nebulas in Beijing in the fall. Whew!
Many thanks to Mary Robinette Kowal for hosting me at her place today to let me talk about Making Lemons into Jokes, my campaign for responding to harassment with support for LGBTQ healthcare.
Trying to think about why I’m doing the fundraiser, and what LGBTQ care and harassment mean to me, I ended up in a sort of non-linear meditative space, remembering many needle-like moments that form the sharp space where isms live.
If you read it, I hope you enjoy!
Yesterday, I put up an article about John Joseph Adams’ SFWA Bulletin article, “Zen in the Art of Short Fiction Titling.” The article was illustrated with a really interesting sidebar, publishing a list of the most common short story titles received by Clarkesworld Magazine.
“Shortly after Clarkesworld Magazine crossed the 50,000 submissions bar, they posted a list of the top ten story titles in their slush pile.” The list is online here.
Reproducing part of it:
The Gift, Home, Hunger, Homecoming
Lost and Found
Sacrifice, The Hunt, Flight
The list calculates out through the tenth place, which — including ties — comes out to a total of more than forty titles. The frequency is between eight and eighteen.
I’m taking for granted here that one wants to have unique titles. The argument is that if a story has the same title as lots of others, it will be harder to draw readers in, and harder for them to remember or refer to the story later. However, that doesn’t always have to be an author’s main priority.
Second, the rules for titling novels and short stories are different, so this is only about short fic.
Where Things Go Wrong
I’m sure there are a lot of ways to think about the list, but here’s what shows up to me:
1. A lot of people are using common phrases or cliches to create titles. I understand that. I used to do it a lot when I was working on fan fiction. I still do it sometimes. For instance, although the title isn’t on the Clarkesworld list, Ann Leckie and I published a story with the common title, “Maiden, Mother, Crone.”
The problem with this technique (IMO obviously) is twofold. First, sometimes it can be glib; sometimes it’s not the best title for the short story, just the easiest to come up with. Second, because everyone is familiar with common phrases and cliches, that means lots of the titles will be duplicated. Clarkesworld has, among others: “Skin Deep,” “Lost and Found,” “Perchance to Dream,” “Deus Ex Machina,” “Night Terrors.”
2. Writers use the format “The Noun,” when the noun in question is possibly intriguing, but not actually that unique. Some words have a tendency to be chosen more than others — when I taught poetry, I used to call them Poetic Words. Star, Candle, Love, Dream, etc. Clarkesworld notes: “The Git,” “The Box,” “The Hunt,” “The End,” “The Visit,” “The Collector,” “The Wall,” “The Prisoner,” “The Machine,” “The Tower,” “The Dark,” “The Door,” “The Choice,” “The Fall.” When I was at Clarion West, Michael Swanwick referred to this technique as “The Lump” titles. Picking truly unique words helps, of course.
3. Using reasonably evocative words… that are the same evocative words everyone else uses. This isn’t quite “The Lump” territory because, actually, including or omitting the article makes a pretty big difference in a phrase as short as a title.
Some of these are titles that could be genuinely lovely if they weren’t so common. “Red” could be a perfect title for something if the work were isolated — but in this populous world, “Red” scores 8th place on the list.
Some of them are words that are actually pretty boring. For instance, “Sacrifice.” The word “Red” can prime me for imagery and perhaps even mood. “Sacrifice” is telling me about the events and theme of the story. I’m not usually a show-don’t-tell person, but in this case, I think I am. If you’re giving me a title that’s only one word, I want it to be a really cool word. Others on the list include “Legacy” and “Rebirth.”
I say this as someone who gave up and called a story “Virgin Sacrifices” once. I may have lots of ideas about what I like in titles, but I am hardly a champion titler.
Regarding memorable words, I think it can be hard to guess which words are common. In my experience, instincts can sometimes lead you down the garden path on that one.
Everything Has Exceptions
No doubt, the things I’ve said don’t apply universally.
Also, I’m sure there’s a story out there whose perfect title is “Dust.”
Iiiiit’s time for an “If You Were a Butt, My Butt” update!
(By the way, that’s a tomato. If you’re at work, Liz Argall suggests that just in case you’re worried, you exclaim, “It’s a culinary vegetable!” whenever anyone passes by.)
Kermit arms and confetti! We reached the $600 stretch goal. Now I can continue to usher forth into the world the terrible brainchild that is the round robin short story about dinosaurs currently being written by me, Brooke Bolander, Adam-Troy Castro, John Chu, Alexandra Erin, Ann Leckie, Ken Liu, Juliette Wade, and Alyssa Wong!
Aaaaaaaaaaaaand we’re halfway to $700! Mary Robinette Kowal, of the sultry tweet-reading voice, will narrate the audio book if we hit the stretch goal, and I personally think that would be hilarious so I hope it happens.
At $800, Barry Deutsch will create original cover art — but skipping over him for a moment, because I have new announcements for the later stretch goals:
At $850, Greg Machlin will contribute EVEN MORE SATIRE with an essay detailing his argument that I, personally, have DESTROYED SCIENCE FICTION. (Confession: I had help.)
Have you ever wondered what it would be like if John Hodgman wrote a science fiction story? In a way, we could call that the first fiction authored by an artificial intelligence (because he’s a P.C…. thank you, I’ll see myself out). At this year’s Nebula banquet, John Hodgman proposed three science fiction concepts he felt SFWAns should get on writing.
If I can find a copy of his speech (I’m trying!) then at $900, I will be that SFWAn for one of his prompts. At $950, what the heck–I’ll just do all three.
And if we hit $1000, I will hire someone to make a professional, pretty package out of the whole thing, so that my poor subscribers are not burdened by my technologically unsophisticated hands.
I know that’s a long way to go — but what the heck, why not go for it, right? There’s nothing to lose, and only ridiculous things inspired by John Hodgman to gain.
John Joseph Adams recently published an article, “Zen in the Art of Short Fiction Titling,” in the SFWA Bulletin.
As someone who hates coming up with titles, I was excited to see what he had to say. So I thought I’d write up some impressions on his article which I’m illustrating with some examples from my own work.
Titles That Come From the Text
John starts the article by noting several titles that he suggested to authors that he’s published in his magazines and anthologies. He discovered these titles “right there in the text of the stories themselves. When I’m reading or editing a story, I frequently highlight evocative phrases I come across that I can later suggest to the author as a possible alternate title. Sometimes the phrasing isn’t quite right for the title, but it’s something that can be massaged, or combined together with another phrase from elsewhere in the story, that somehow captures the essence of what the story is about.”
I used to do the large majority of my titling this way until I started my MFA program at Mills, where the teacher told me what John Joseph Adams brings up next: “I should note that some writing professors—including notable literary giants—advise against this practice, largely because, they say, doing this puts too much emphasis and meaning on the eponymous phrase when the reader comes across it in the story.” I actually wonder whether I’m the one who called this to his attention — we were on a panel about titles together a few years ago, and I brought that up.
As John points out in the article, whether or not this works is a case-by-case thing. In general, I think I’m happier if the phrase would be marked anyway — for instance, if it’s part of a lyric one of the characters sings, or the title of a movie that exists in the text. (My story “The Sea of Trees” refers to a commonly used poetic name for the setting.) John brings up a short story that uses its last line, but I’d argue that’s a phrase that would be marked anyway.
A few years ago, I published a story called “Beyond the Naked Eye” in anthology of John’s, Oz Reimagined. That’s a phrase that appears in the story a number of times; seeing what’s beyond the naked eye is one of the character’s obsessions. Because of that, it’s already marked. Also, I like the title because it also implies there are things beyond the naked eye going on in the story in more than the literal sense.
Sometimes, you can pull a phrase out for the title, and then change the text of the story so that it’s no longer exactly the same. One of my recent stories is called “Love Is Never Still” — that’s not a line I used in any of the poetic sequences, but it could have been, and I could have changed the text later.
And I don’t mean to suggest the technique never works without any of those tricks. I’m sure it does, with finesse and luck. You just need to find a phrase or sentence that can bear the weight of also being a title without becoming a sledgehammer. Finding the right balance can be tricky.
That said, this really is the easiest way to come up with titles. And it’s nice when you’re stuck coming up with something, because it gives you clear steps for proceeding.
Short Can be Good
John brings up the title of Chuck Pahlaniuk’s horror story “Guts” as an example of short titles that work really well. In this case, “Guts” creates a sense of foreboding, building tension before the story even begins.
I really, really like one word titles. I feel like a single word can be sort of delicious to imagine. That sounds kind of absract and new agey, but I mean it literally. When I think of the word “Dust” — when I just let it settle in my head — it has a whole rich dimensions of sensory associations. “Dust” is a word that seems like it should settle, silent and alone, without a lot of fanfare or accompaniment.
But it’s not a great short story title. It is, in fact, first on the list of most common short story titles that were submitted to Clarkesworld (as of when they last ran statistics). Use the title “Dust” and, like a grain of dust, it becomes an anonymous one of many.
One-word titles are probably my weakness. My preference for them is not echoed by most people, especially most writers and publishers at the moment (at least in short stories). I also sometimes use them when I’m lazy and can’t think of what else to do. As a consequence, I have a number of them, especially recently. I hope some are in “Guts” territory, but probably some of them are more like “Dust.”
Looking at the two I published most recently:
“Endless” — I suspect this of being a Dust-like title. It refers to something that is endless, but doesn’t do a lot of work with mood or extra dimension. It rests on the hope that the word is intriguing. (Also, “The End” turns up as one of the 7th most common Clarkeworld titles, although hopefully “EndLESS” would be a little less ubiquitous.)
“Tender” — Hopefully this is more like “Guts.” The story is painful, and the title suggests what follows.
Some of my others: Decomposition, Memorium, Exodus, Extremes, Heartstrung, Silence, Skyscrapers. I continue to believe that “Decomposition” was the correct title for that story, and “Heartstrung” worked well. The others were probably lazy.
From John’s article: “If your story deals with a particular field, with its own unique terminology, you can also mine that for story titles.”
This is one of my favorite techniques. It’s usually specific and evocative, if you find the right way to do it. Like reading through your story to find a title already in it, this technique also gives you some clear directions on how to proceed when you’re stuck. I usually look up online glossaries.
My preference is to find terminology that will work on two levels, e.g. “Grand Jete” — both the leap in ballet, and a reference to the leap into death.
John again: “You can also title your story by referencing another work, or borrowing an evocative phrase that is applicable to your own story.”
I do this, but have started doing it less, and making sure what I’m referencing is older. “Dispersed by the Sun, Melting in the Wind” is a reference to a contemporary Israeli poem, and I probably wouldn’t use it now for that reason. Whereas “What Lies at the Edge of a Petal Is Love” is a riff on William Carlos Williams, and “Between Dragons and Their Wrath” references Shakespeare.
John adds that, “You can even “borrow” more directly and just reuse an exact title another author has already used,” and then lists several examples. That works if you have a particular fictional conversation you readers to be thinking of, I guess, but it seems to me like it’s a specialized use.
Also, the Clarkesworld List
I found the Clarkesworld list really interesting, and I think I’ll look at it in another post.
I use several techniques John doesn’t list here. Most of us probably have our own idiosyncratic strategies. I liked the article, especially its practical approach.
The real question is: what should I have titled this essay?
Ann Leckie was kind enough to let me borrow her blog to chat about ignoring bullies — how it didn’t work in elementary school, and continues not to work now.
My Making Lemons into Jokes campaign (details here) to retaliate against harassment by raising money for LGBTQ healthcare is doing great! We’re really close to the $600 stretch goal. Speaking of which, I have an announcement.
At $600, several other authors and I are going to write a round robin short story about dinosaurs. I’m excited to announce that Alexandra Erin is joining us! So, the current author list is: me, Brooke Bolander, John Chu, Adam-Troy Castro, Alexandra Erin, Ann Leckie, Ken Liu, Juliette Wade, and Alyssa Wong!
And another announcement — at $700, Mary Robinette Kowal will record the audio book of “If You Were a Butt, My Butt.” AND now National Book Award winner Will Alexander will also record, “If You Were a Cuttlefish, My Love.”
As I’ve previously announced, graphic novelist Barry Deutsch will create an original piece of cover art at $800, and I have something in the works for $900, too… announcement to come…
Yay! Thanks to everyone who has participated so far in the Making Lemons into Jokes campaign for me to write “If You Were a Butt, My Butt.” (Full story here.)
For the $500 stretch goal, Liz Argall will be creating a brand new Things Without Arms and Without Legs (and presumably butts).
Just a reminder about the upcoming stretch goals — At $600, Brooke Bolander, Adam-Troy Castro, John Chu, Ken Liu, Ann Leckie, Juliette Wade, Alyssa Wong, and I, will write a round robin story about dinosaurs.
At $700, Mary Robinette Kowal will record the audio book.
At $800, Barry Deutsch will create original cover art.
I have a few more things in the works, too!
Since we reached $500 before Monday, I have promised to release the beginning of “Butts.” And here it is:
If you were a butt, my butt, then you would be a butt. This is a tautology, but it’s still true.
Since you are a butt, my butt—being a butt—I regret to inform you that the set of duties you perform are not always tidy or delicate. To begin, you are frequently sat upon, which most people object to—if you doubt me, try it on the subway sometime. Secondly, you are on a not-infrequent basis required to be an excretory passage.
Being an excretory passage may be erotic for some butts—but you are not that kind of butt, my butt, because feces are really gross.
Frankly, I’m surprised you need an orientation. You have been my butt for thirty-four years. You should have a handle on it by now.
A digression aimed at my esteemed readers:
By far the most difficult part of this enterprise is that the framework requires metafictional authorial insertion.
(Yes, I said insertion. Let’s face it. Everything from the title forward is going to be riddled with double entendres.)
Luckily, I live a strange and magical life, as I have documented before. For instance, there is my familial relationship with the phoenix as documented in Dr. Thackery T. Lambshead’s Cabinet of Curiosities. Also, I have written of my journeys with the guidance counselor, a time traveling madman who pilots a milk crate.
My shield for these stories is the fact that readers will assume my accounts are fictional. After all, I am a short story writer. Why not believe I am making things up? Probably, you should. Yes.
Everything from this point on is fake. Believe at your own peril.
In a future where birds are extinct, genetically modified men take their motorcycles around the country to perform dances that remind people of the migrations that once took place.
Katherine Sparrow is one of my classmates from Clarion West 2005, and I’ve been a fan of her work ever since. In addition to her lovely and lyrical short stories, she also writes young adult novels which center on the theme of collective action. These days, she’s publishing urban fantasy on Amazon (though I must admit I haven’t read it — sorry, Katie!). Katie also conducted my wedding so I admit I’m rather partial to her. 😉
“The Migratory Patterns of Dancers” by Katherine Sparrow:
The inexorable pull to move south grows. The sun hums to me all day long that it’s time to go, go, go. The night sky is even more persistent–every constellation in the big Montana sky makes arrows pointing south. My appetite increases and I develop a layer of fat on my belly. My senses grow more intricate–smells carry layers of meaning, gnats and mosquitoes become visible everywhere I look, and the normal sounds of human civilization hurt my ears with all their chaos.
And now my eyes have changed. The cornea and pupil widen so that the white is barely visible. A mercy that the genetic modifications left me normal eyes for summer and winter, but when it changes, it is unsettling for everyone. My vision increases three-fold. It is the last sign that it is time.
“Your eyes look funny,” Marion says. My wife drops her fork onto her plate and starts to cry.
This is another sign, as real and inevitable as all the others.
“Josiah, don’t go this time. Stay here. Stay safe. We’ll manage, somehow.” She cries harder. Marion is beautiful when she cries. She breaks my heart every time. “Why won’t they ever leave you alone?”
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.)