Shimmer 19 Interview: Alex Acks

Rachael Acks
Rachael Acks

Tell us how “List of Items Found in Leather Valise on Welby Crescent” came to be.
I was in the UK over Christmas two years ago with my husband, visiting his parents. They lived on a street named Welby Crescent at the time. I went out for a walk one night and found an empty, waterlogged leather valise abandoned on the sidewalk. The valise was empty (and slimy to the touch), but it got me thinking about what could have been in it, and what that would say about the owner…like if someone found my laptop bag, what would they learn about me and my life? With hard mode as my laptop bag with none of my notebooks in it. I decided I wanted to see if it was possible to tell an entire story just with items left behind. It took nearly two years (and several false starts) to figure out *how* to do it, but looks like it worked out in the end.

You are a geologist! What is it about rocks, and why aren’t there any rocks in this valise?
In an early attempt at the story there was actually garnet sand in the valise. But it just didn’t fit in with the narrative, so it had to go.

What is it about rocks?
Well, rocks are just really cool to begin with. I have this real thing about the idea of deep time and how the entire concept puts our lives into perspective. There’s something amazing about being able to touch something that may have existed, say, before life even evolved on Earth. (I’ve touched a piece of komatiite before that was over 3.5 billion years old.) But the kind of geology that I do in particular is sedimentary geology. The reason I find sedimentary rocks so fascinating is that they act as a record of what the surface of the Earth looked like at a given time far in the past. The idea that I’m able to touch a piece of history that deep, like being in the mountains of Colorado and reaching back into a time when there was an ocean, where there were trilobites, is like magic to me. It’s like touching a completely alien world.

Flash is a super hard sell with Elise – and yet, your story is one of the shortest she’s ever purchased. How did you pull that off?
I figure it’s because I managed to tell a story in a really weird way. One that didn’t involve a pun. Either that, or all those sacrifices to the dark god of cupcakes finally paid off.

You have an engaging series of steampunk novellas — what drew you to steampunk? What keeps you there?
What got me interested in steampunk is the gonzo cheekiness of it. These are stories that are just out there to have fun and go on adventures, which is something I’d really been missing. I loved reading the adventure stories, and that made me want to write some of my own. There’s more to it, though, or I wouldn’t have stayed. Steampunk is an incredibly hopeful genre. There’s this underlying belief that human ingenuity, inventiveness, and know-how can defeat any problem–even if it’s a problem originally created by human ingenuity. In steampunk, science and technology aren’t monolithic and terrifying or beyond our understanding, they’re tools and sources of creativity. I’ve fallen into serious dystopia fatigue over the last couple years, so finding something so fundamentally optimistic was just what I needed.

What’s in your itunes/Spotify/8-Track?
A lot of movie soundtracks. A loooooot of movie soundtracks. I do most of my writing to movie soundtracks. And a lot are from movies that aren’t even at all good, like Transformers or Man of Steel. But man the soundtracks from those movies are perfect. Other than that, it’s a weird mix across genres and time, going from Old Crow Medicine Show to Beyoncé to Genesis to the Moody Blues to Holst. Florence + the Machine is still my favorite though.

Can you share anything of what you’re working on now?
This is from the novel I’m currently working on, “King’s Hand”:

Two of the corpses, bandits both, had their throats torn open. Asher took a better look at one and found it was not, thankfully, the work of teeth, but inexpert work with a knife. The third corpse, some distance away, lay sprawled facedown across the sand. He heaved it over.

“Hah.” Asher had suspected this the moment he’d smelled death, but there it was. In life, she’d been a woman; in death she wore his mask. “Couldn’t resist putting it on, I suppose,” he said. “Just thought it was a pretty toy.”

I am quite pretty, the mask remarked. There was no blood painted properly on its lips, but crimson spray decorated its cheeks and forehead.

Asher saw no mark on this body. There didn’t need to be. He swallowed, then took refuge in a morbid sort of humor. “If I didn’t know better, I’d think you wanted to be stolen just for this reason.”

I am you. I would not seek to leave you. The mask laughed at the twist of discomfort and near-horror those words caused. But I am not averse to a bit of fun.

Asher shook his head, crouching down, and grabbed the mask. It came away easily in his hand. What lay beneath was a red ruin that must have once been a face, with skin and a nose and eyes. The underside of the mask was pale and pristine. Had the bandit tried to take off the mask, scratched at its smooth curves with fingernails now broken?

Only a fool seeks to wear a face not their own. He’d never heard the mask sound so self-satisfied before.

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