Anya Johanna DeNiro lives and writes in Minnesota. Her short fiction has appeared in Asimov’s, One Story, Strange Horizons, Persistent Visions and elsewhere, and she’s been a finalist for the Theodore Sturgeon Award. She currently writes YA novels about the adventures of trans women. She can be found online on Twitter, usually, at @adeniro.
Last year around this time, we were getting psyched for Hunger Makes the Wolf, the debut novel from Alex Wells (whom you might know from Shimmer pages as Alex Acks). THIS year, we’re psyched for the sequel, Blood Binds the Pack, wherein everything is turned up to at least eleven.
Blood Binds the Pack is out today from Angry Robot (well today in the UK, in the US it’s February 8th!), and Alex was awesome enough to share some thoughts with us about writing, workers’ unions, and hey, video games!
Blood Binds the Pack is the sequel to 2017’s Hunger Makes the Wolf; how is writing a book two different from writing a book one? What was easier? What was made more challenging?
Writing a second book was actually very intimidating. I’ve written a lot of first books before. This is the first time I’ve ever written a second book—discounting the novella series I did, which feels like a different thing since it was supposed to sort of episodic anyway. I was afraid that I’d have lost the voice, for example, because I wrote most of Hunger Makes the Wolf over five years ago. I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to make the second book as cool or fun as the first book. I was so intimidated by this that I put off writing for way longer than I should have, and all that kicked me into gear was my agent gently but implacably reminding me that I needed to have this thing ready to turn in by a due date. (I do work better to due dates, though. There’s a point where I know I have to stop procrastinating, and I calculate it out fairly precisely.) Once I got over the psychological hump, actually writing the book was a lot easier than I expected. I got my outline done first so all of the major plot mechanics issues were already hammered out, so then I could just write, and I knew exactly what I needed to be writing when. I finished the rough draft in about three months, which is the fastest I’ve ever completed a book.
Blood Binds the Pack deals heavily with workers’ rights, with the idea that workers are people and are entitled to, gasp, certain protections in the course of their work. Where/when did your interest in labor politics begin?
It’s something that’s always been with me, though largely dormant until I hit my late twenties or early thirties. I grew up in a union household—my dad was the Chief Steward for the CWA local 7750 for a while—and we went through one strike while I was pretty young. Then I was actually part of the CWA while I worked for AT&T, right after high school. At the time, I didn’t appreciate it as much as I should have—it was later, once I’d been through several jobs and started really noticing shady labor practices (my favorite bit of subtle ick: the way everyone is discouraged from discussing how much they’re paid with coworkers), that I began to realize how much power workers had lost because most don’t have access to unions. That personal experience and Colorado’s local labor history (see: Ludlow Massacre) were really the foundation that all this grew on.
For readers who might be interested in learning more about such topics, can you point them to any good non-fiction reads?
Here, let me just give you the bibliography that will be at the back of Blood Binds the Pack:
Andrews, Thomas G. Killing for Coal: America’s Deadliest Labor War. Harvard University Press, 2010.
Clyne, Rick J. Coal People: Life in Southern Colorado’s Company Towns, 1890-1930. Colorado Historical Society, 2000.
Green, James. Death in the Haymarket: A Story of Chicago, the First Labor Movements and the Bombing that Divided Gilded Age America. Anchor, 2007.
Jones, Mary Harris. The Autobiography of Mother Jones. Dover Publications, 2012.
Martelle, Scott. Blood Passion: The Ludlow Massacre and Class War in the American West. Rutgers University Press, 2008.
Papanikolas, Zeese. Buried Unsung: Louis Tikas and the Ludlow Massacre. University of Nebraska Press, 1991.
Was there anything fascinating you discovered in the course of research, but it still didn’t fit into the book?
Pretty much every real detail of the Colorado Coal Field War isn’t included, since I used the history as inspiration but didn’t want to get too precious about it. Some of the stories that Mary Harris Jones tells in her biography will simultaneously make you laugh and curl your hair. I think the book that made the biggest impression on me was actually the one about Louis Tikas, though. Since there isn’t that much information about Tikas in the records, a lot of the book is a history that examines more the general lives of the Greek immigrant miners, and the way they went from outsiders to the backbone of labor resistance.
What was the most fun scene to write in Blood Binds the Pack?
Definitely the heist scene. I had a ridiculous amount of fun writing all the dialog for that, particularly Dambala’s. (Also, the chapters leading up to the heist when the plan is conceived.) I don’t want to get into more detail than that because it’s major spoiler territory, but the whole thing was so fun and easy to write!
How the hell do you keep writing when the world is on metaphorical and literal fire, and have these fires changed the way you approach and continue your work?
It’s hard as hell. The only reason I got Blood Binds the Pack done in good time was that I had a deadline, and flogging myself through deadlines is what got me through both undergrad and graduate school so I’m still in the habit. But the amount of time I’ve wasted angrily reading Twitter is downright shameful, and sometimes it’s hard to focus after all that. So I’ve had to just set times where I have to write, and set myself pretty stringent goals just to keep from getting distracted. I’ve noticed that everything I’ve written lately has been a lot angrier, though, even when I don’t want it to be. And it’s made me more determined to write about workers saving themselves, and rich people being shitty, and queer people being everywhere.
I hear you’re good at trivia; what’s one fun bit of trivia you learned while writing Blood Binds the Pack?
The current fastest helicopter in the world is the CH-47F Chinook, which looks like something out of an Avengers film, can fly 315 kilometers per hour.
I also happen to know that you enjoy a good game, be it tabletop or video. What’ve you played lately that you think your readers might dig?
Video game-wise, I’m still eternally stuck on Destiny, since that’s the game of my heart. Titan for life, basically. For tabletop, I’m now in two different D&D Fifth Edition campaigns, and this is a big deal for me… I’ve never actually liked D&D until this edition. And now suddenly, I can understand the rules! It’s glorious. It also doesn’t hurt that I have two great DMs that I play under. I’ve also loved playing Mysterium, which is by the same people who made Dixit, and you can play using Dixit cards if you want. It’s a semi-cooperative sort-of board game, where someone playing a “ghost” tries to communicate with you using very abstract cards. It’s easy to enjoy because it gets silly, and the cards are beautiful.
What’s next for you?
I’ve done some work for Six to Start’s Racelink, so hopefully those will be out in the world soon! And I just finished writing a scifi novel (not related to Hob’s world) so I think something fantasy is definitely next on my list. Oh, and I owe this really cool anthology about Battle Bards a short story…
HEY, that’s probably Sword & Sonnet, which readers should also check out. But first, go grab a copy of Blood Binds the Pack, and if you aren’t already on the Hob and Mag train to Wonderland, get Hunger Makes the Wolf while you’re at it! Alex, thanks for coming by, and thanks too for an AWESOME book!
In 2015, Fran Wilde’s Updraft hit shelves and went on to win the Andre Norton Award and the Crompton Crook Award, as well as be nominated for the Nebula. Next week, the series concludes with Horizon (and don’t let us forget the middle volume, Cloudbound, on the Locus Recommended Reading list!).
Announcer’s Voice: I thought I knew where the story was going, but I didn’t really, until I wrote it: The Writing of A Trilogy By Fran Wilde.
Seriously, though, a trilogy is an opportunity to really explore the evolution of issues – it’s a great chance to play in the world you’ve built. And – especially for me – it’s a chance to layer and expand and develop plotlines that I started in Updraft in the background. I really enjoyed that part.
Updraft was your first novel so does Horizon encompass the initial vision you had for the series and its world, or did it change as you wrote Updraft and Cloudbound?
It does, I believe! The progression of many things within the three books – including who gets to speak, who gets to lead, and what community means, was really important to me from the start. Also the progression of songs being inherited things turning into something one makes anew also was an initial theme. The progression of the skymouths and the bone eaters took me by surprise, as did some of the characters’ decisions. But I knew where I was going with the cities from the very beginning.
Did Kirit go where you expected, or were there surprises on the ground for you?
Writing Kirit – hah. There were a lot of surprises with her character! I liked that enormously, actually. I think when you build a character, and then they push back against the outline (ahem, for me that’s when the writing goes a lot slower) and kind of start deciding what they want to do in the narrative (I gave Kirit a free-form writing day-off to see what she’d do if she could do anything and she totally surprised me), then you may have a character with agency. It’s not convenient sometimes from a plot perspective, but it results in a lot of interesting turns.
Which came first: Kirit or the bone towers?
The towers! And Djonn (the artifex in Cloudbound), believe it or not! He’s in the very first story. And in the story that started everything, which was more of a world building document. Kirit and Nat came later.
Related, where do you begin when it comes to world building?
I begin with what fascinates and scares me most. In the case of the Bone Universe, I began with falling, and flying – which is sort of like failing to fall. Once I know what’s caught me up, I start researching and making lists of things I don’t know, and then I continue researching those things while I write.
You shared some of the research you did for this series on your blog–you flew in a wind tunnel! What was the most unexpected thing you learned in the course of your research for the trilogy?
The most unexpected things I learned were probably that echolocation works, but not exactly the way people outside the blind community think it does. The weirdest were the facts about lammergeiers – they rub their faces with clay to look fiercer, and they’re already huge and fierce. Also the different ways bone can smell. That was pretty weird. And cephalopods. So much weird there. And…
Yeah, I like weird.
You have an MFA in poetry; how has poetry influenced your work, and do you have favorite poets we should look up after we finish this interview?
I think poetry has always influenced my writing – mostly the sounds of words hitting together and weaving together. I get very caught up in sounds. I still write poems, but they’re quick things that I post on Instagram now and then.
Favorite poets – oh gosh I have so many. Rita Dove (one of my teachers), Larry Levis (another teacher – basically all of my teachers go on this list), Gerard Manley Hopkins, Elizabeth Bishop, Wyslawa Szymborska, Pablo Neruda, Mary Szybist, Tracy K. Smith (the newest US Poet Laureate), John Berryman, Eavan Boland, Seamus Heaney, Christina Rosetti, Sofia Samatar, Lynda Hull, Whitman… not to mention Amal El-Motar, Valya Dudycz Lupescu, CSE Cooney, Rose Lemberg, and more.
What is the worst piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?
“This isn’t good enough. You should stop working on this and start something new instead.” – from Past Me.
I am learning to not listen.
You have an affinity for fountain pens and ink. Do you have a favorite pen? A favorite ink?
YES I DO. I love TWSBI demonstrators. Except now I have more pens because people are lovely and are trying to educate me about them. My new favorite favorites are a Jinhao and a Boerer 8 Horses. Both fine nib.
My favorite inks right now are the really moody Sailors and iroshizukus, and the J. Herbin 1670s.
I’m not sure that ‘affinity’ is the most accurate word…. What’s the level up from that?
What came first, sketching or writing?
Writing was fir—no wait, it was sketchi—hmm. I’m not sure. I’ve always done both, usually together. I think it’s a pretty natural thing to draw and write at the same time… something we’ve lost due to the keyboard effect.
Cooking the Books is your blog about food in works of speculative fiction; do you have a favorite speculative food, a perhaps-fictional food that made you think “oh I want to go to there”?
I’m always interested in the coffee analogs – and the things people are willing to do for coffee and spices. So many foods in Aliette de Bodard’s worlds (she’s my Cooking the Books co-host, so maybe sometime we’ll get to cook together). I remember wondering what the foods in Alice and Wonderland tasted like, and how it felt to eat words in the Phantom Tollbooth, so it started pretty early.
While reading Updraft, I had a memory of reading the Pern books; for me, they share a sense of wonder and newness and strangeness and scope. And yes, flying! What authors/books do you remember loving in your childhood?
McCaffrey, for sure was a favorite, so that’s an honor you thought of Pern! The Ship Who Sang especially – Helva was my first and best ship. Natalie Babbitt (Tuck Everlasting), Norm Juster (The Phantom Tollbooth), Richard Adams (Watership Down). I had a copy of The Annotated Alice that I loved very much. And some very early science fiction…mostly out of Gardner Dozois’ Best Of collections. Ursula K. Le Guinn’s Earthsea. Madeline L’Engle.
Has the world of 2016/2017 changed the way you approach writing, or the kind of content you’re creating?
I have discovered I write better and more honestly when I allow myself to be angry. 2016 & 2017 have provided plenty of opportunities for writing better.
Are Kirit’s stories concluded?
I think so…. Maybe not everyone in the Bone Universe is ready to settle down yet, but I think Kirit’s pretty happy where she landed.
What’s next for you?
I’ve finished a middle grade novel that took me completely by surprise, and am working on the next two Gem Universe novellas for Tor.com as well as a number of short stories!
Fran, thank you so much for sharing your journey with us! Readers, grab Horizon if you haven’t already, and also be sure to check out Fran’s own interview with her cover artist Tommy Arnold — it contains sketches for the covers, and shows how author and artist work together to show you what you’re reading! Fran is also over at Scalzi’s The Big Idea today, so check that out, too.
Fran will be at Powell’s (Cedar Hills Crossing) to read and sign on October 18th.
Shimmer author Kristi DeMeester’s debut novel, Beneath, is out on April 30th from Word Horde. Kristi was kind enough to spend some time with us, pondering scary things and the nature of snakes…
Tell us how Beneath came to be.
Beneath started while I was in grad school as a very different book. I’d been reading far too much Pat Conroy and was trying to write a bastardization of The Prince of Tides. In order to graduate, you had to submit 150 pages of a novel to selected advisors, go through the critique and revision process, and then do a formal presentation. I got about fifty pages into that first book, when I realized I wasn’t telling the right story. The mother in that first book was Ruth McDowell, and her story—filled with snake handling and delusion—was infinitely more fun than the one I was writing, so I turned tail right then and started writing of the night Ruth gave birth to her daughter with the fleck of red in her eye. After that, I dutifully wrote 100 more pages, submitted it in dead exhaustion, and then didn’t touch it for another two years. It was only when an agent reached out to me, asking if I had a novel, that I dusted off Beneath and realized it wasn’t as terrible as I remembered. I made a pledge to myself that I would spend that summer finishing it, and so, slowly but surely, I added 1,000 words and then 2,000 words a day until it was finished. By that time, it had become something completely different: the story of a journalist facing what seems to be demonic possession but is actually the awakening of something much older. After that, it went through rounds and rounds of revisions until Ross Lockhart asked to take a peak, and he was kind enough to see something in it and agreed to publish it. Four years after I started it.
Do you have a favorite snake?
NOPE. I don’t like snakes. At all. I realize the irony in that, but I’m terrified of them.
What kind of research did Beneath entail? Was there anything fascinating you discovered in the course of research, but it still didn’t fit into the book?
I pulled quite a bit from my own background with fundamentalist religion, but I did research on the practicalities of snake handling. How the preachers will keep the snakes close to starving in order to keep them docile, which seems like the opposite of what you would want, but is true. A lethargic snake is less likely to bite or feel threatened than a lively one. Research about the flora and fauna of Appalachia itself was something I had to pare back but wasn’t that interesting. There’s a detail in there about how to siphon gasoline out of a car without using your mouth, which I thought was cool. It’s still in there. I don’t think anything fascinating didn’t make it in. I wish I did have a little nugget to share!
Beneath deals a lot with ritual, with belief. Do you have rituals when it comes to the writing process?
Right now, my ritual is firmly grounded in being flexible. I write most often upstairs, in my bedroom, in a little nook that has a chair. If I have quiet, I need ambient music, but usually the television is on in the background and someone is trying to talk to me. In the summer, when I have hours that belong only to me, the ritual is coffee, stare at the screen, type a little, check my email, more coffee, type some more. Minimum of 500 words a day. If I get more, great. If I don’t, that’s okay. Slow and steady.
When did you decide you wanted to be a writer?
I came to writing later than a lot of people, and for that I have some regrets, but I also think those years formed and shaped the fiction I was going to create. In 2008 I started writing semi-seriously. I had just gotten married, and I was going through some old folders when I found a story I’d written while I was student teaching. I remembered how I’d written it only for me, for the sheer enjoyment of doing it, and I thought yes, this is something I want to do. I applied for grad school and got in and then spent two and a half years writing terrible workshop pieces, but I learned a lot and find the experience invaluable. In 2010 I started submitting in earnest.
What is it about dark fiction that draws your interest? Was there a certain moment that you remember saying “oh yes, this is for me”?
I’ve always liked spooky stuff. I was the kid who got into trouble for the books I brought to school. I tried for a long time to write things that were not dark, but everything felt forced and stilted and when I finally came back to it, it was like coming home. The very first story I remember reading and wanting to emulate was Charlotte Perkins Gilman “The Yellow Wallpaper.” There was something that disturbed me so much about that story. Later, I realized it was the true horror of that quiet, little story. How things in our lives can morph and change into things we don’t understand, and I wanted my fiction to be like that.
Related to that, what’s the moment in a horror movie or book where you were really and truly scared? Whose work made you feel that?
That’s the hardest question ever for a horror fan. Because after a time, you aren’t really scared anymore. Perhaps unsettled or disturbed or uneasy, and, for me anyway, those emotions are more powerful than the jump scare. Stephen Graham Jones has been one whose writing has left me feeling that way lately. Laird Barron. Robert Shearman. Livia Llewellyn. Joyce Carol Oates. Michael Wehunt. For films it’s even narrower. Stoker left me both fascinated and terrified. I like my horror quiet and gentle. The kind that sneaks up behind you and whispers poison into your ear. Picnic at Hanging Rock and Lake Mungo did that for me.
You write both short stories and novels; how is the process different for you? How is it the same?
Novels can feel more defeating because the pay off of the end is so far away. The process is largely the same because I don’t outline, but I have to allow myself to stretch out and breathe, which is hard for me sometimes because I’m such a fan of ambiguity and brevity.
Do you have a favorite story among your own?
As of now it’s a tie between “The Language of Endings” which appeared in the April 2017 issue of The Dark and “Saints in Gold” which is forthcoming in a Ramsey Campbell tribute anthology titled Darker Companions.
Picture your own work as a compass; are there authors who make up north, south, east, and west for you? Authors who gave/give you guidance along the way?
Damien Angelica Walters. Michael Wehunt. These two always point north for me.
What challenges you?
The constant need to put out new work. To not settle for the same story I’ve always told.
What scares you?
Loss. Not living up to my own expectations. Failure.
Does Beneath have a soundtrack?
The Southern Gothic playlist on Spotify.
If we came to visit you in Georgia, where would you take us?
For a beer at one of our local breweries and then outside under the stars somewhere to experience what it smells like in Georgia when the sun sets.
What’s next for you?
My debut short fiction collection, Everything That’s Underneath, is forthcoming from Apex Publications this summer. My second novel, The Kingdom of Beasts, is out with agents currently. I’m at work on my third novel, currently titled Lessons in Vanishing.
Thanks, Kristi! Readers, you can get a signed copy of Beneath with the ebook directly from Word Horde when you buy the Beneath bundle! You can also find Beneath at the usual suspects, Amazon and B&N.
Shimmer has had the pleasure of publishing Erica L. Satifka’s short fiction twice, “We Take the Long View” (Shimmer 21) and “States of Emergency” (Shimmer 26).
Today, Erica’s debut novel, STAY CRAZY, arrives from Apex Book Company, and it’s probably quite unlike anything you’ve ever read — exactly like her short fiction is.
Erica dropped by to talk about the book, mental illness, and badgers in books.
Tell us how Stay Crazy came to be.
I had just graduated from college and I was working in a certain big-box store, frozen food aisle, night shift. The work was extremely tedious and to pass the time I started making up stories in my head, and eventually I’d built the story that would become Stay Crazy and I spent the next year thinking about it until I finally started writing it down. I’d also just discovered Philip K. Dick, so a lot of my story ideas were pulled in the direction of alternate realities. The story went through numerous mental revisions, and the only constant was a being that spoke through RFID chips.
Anyway, in 2005 I actually wrote the book, and then I revised it a decade later, because my writing process is counterproductive and makes absolutely no sense. However, I became a much better writer in the time that elapsed between the two drafts, so it’s a lot better for that period of abeyance.
Stay Crazy tackles some big themes, namely mental illness. How did you approach research?
In the year before I wrote it and while I was working on the revision (these two things happened almost a decade apart), I read upwards of two dozen memoirs written by people with schizophrenia. I read a few clinical books, too, but for the most part I stuck strictly to first-person narratives. Among the best of these were The Center Cannot Hold by Elyn Saks, The Eden Express by Mark Vonnegut, and The Day the Voices Stopped by Ken Steele.
But even more than striving for authenticity, I was striving for empathy. Fictional characters with schizophrenia typically only fill one role, that of a killer. In reality, someone like Em would be vastly more likely to be a victim of violent crime than a perpetrator. I also didn’t want the novel to be about mental illness; Stay Crazy isn’t meant to inform but to entertain. If it does happen to change someone’s perspective on people with schizophrenia, though, so much the better.
One of the things I like best about Stay Crazy is that Emmeline gets to be the hero–where normally someone with a mental illness would not be thrust into that role. She’s almost a Cassandra at times–with people not believing her because her illness has caused them to doubt even her normal reactions. Was that a challenge to write–everyone in the book may think Em is unreliable, but she knows her own truth?
That’s actually my favorite thing about the book, the layering of different types of unreality. Even Em doesn’t really know her own truth at first, and she backs off from it several times. And not to get too far into spoilers, but she isn’t always right – I wanted to make her both reliable and unreliable, sort of a broken Cassandra. One coping mechanism used by most people with schizophrenia is reality testing, the constant checking of one’s internal sense of what is real with the way other people are reacting to a stimulus. So there are two conflicting realities; on the one hand there’s definitely something supernatural going on since Em’s coworkers are dying in droves, and her internal senses tell her that Escodex and the entity are real, but she’s been wrong so many times before. And the stakes for her are so high; a neurotypical protagonist who uncovers a sinister plot against the universe might get brushed off, but Em is in real danger of getting locked up in a mental hospital if the people around her discover what she’s doing. This is the kind of ontological quandary that I eat up with a spoon.
I quite enjoyed Escodex, an interdimensional investigator who must’ve been often frustrated by the limitations placed on him in this case. Any plans to explore Escodex’s world?
This is a standalone novel, so probably not. Although I guess if people really wanted a short story from his perspective…
The artwork for Stay Crazy is amazing; who’s the artist? Did you have input on the art?
Isn’t it so great? The art is by Nick Brokenshire. He’s the artist for Amelia Cole, a comic that just finished its run and is available from IDW in 5 volumes. I met him because my friend Adam Knave co-wrote the story with his frequent collaborator, DJ Kirkbride. It also features a young woman in a contemporary setting who stumbles across a supernatural realm.
It was really difficult to find pre-existing art that worked, because a store doesn’t usually make for exciting subject matter. A lot of the potential art just seemed way too dark when paired with the title, so I asked Apex if we could pay for original art instead of licensing something, and Nick came up with some sketches based on the synopsis. So far people seem to really like it! I think it really fits with the tone of the novel, plus it ties into Em’s interest in alternative comic books.
Was there a particular scene in Stay Crazy that was especially challenging or fun to write?
Em’s hallucination scenes were the part of the book that required the most research but also flowed the best once I actually started writing them. The challenge was to always keep two seemingly opposing truths in mind: Em knows her hallucinations are not real, but at the same time they feel so real that she gets swept up anyway. So they had to come across as both true and false, be something that readers can tell is too bizarre to be real yet have them understand how and why a person would still be taken in by them.
Do you think Em has sworn off TV dinners forever?
Wouldn’t you? Of course, one can’t truly trust fresh foods either. Don’t trust anything!
Your fiction is often touching, but still always recognizable for the absolutely weird things going on: eyeballs in unexpected places, sentient forests, cyborg butlers, people selling actual pieces of themselves. Are there any specific writers who influenced your style?
Aside from the obvious influence of Philip K. Dick, I’m also a fan of James Tiptree, Jr., Cordwainer Smith, Samuel Delany, and J.G. Ballard. Among newer writers, Daryl Gregory and Kelly Link are two of my favorites. I’ve had a weird, uneven schooling in science fiction. Never read Asimov, only read one Heinlein and that was as an adult. So I don’t feel constrained at all by any Golden Age nostalgia. I think SF should be as weird as possible at all times.
Do you have a favorite short story among your own?
I’m pretty partial to “States of Emergency” (which appeared in Shimmer #26) just because it was an attempt to be as weird as possible without the hindrance of a cohesive plot. Down with plot! My current best story is still in a slush pile, and saying too much about the story will jinx it, but it may just have the strangest voice of anything I’ve ever written.
Will you put a badger in your next book?
No, but there’s a woodchuck that navigates the multiverse.
What do you want to be when you grow up?
When I figure it out you’ll be the first to know!
If Stay Crazy had a soundtrack, what would the first three tracks be?
I actually had a full soundtrack for the novel at one point, each song cued to a specific scene, but I don’t know where it is anymore. But the tracks that were most thematically apt (as opposed to just having the right tempo for the scene) were “Where Is My Mind?” by the Pixies, “Heimdalsgate Like a Promethean Curse” by Of Montreal, and “Sick of Goodbyes” by Sparklehorse.
What’s next for you?
In January I finished an alien abduction/sinister terraforming novel currently called Human After All, and once Stay Crazy is released I hope to get into editing the thing. I also want to write more short fiction, I haven’t written a single short story in 2016 and that’s way too big of a gap. I’ll be honest, getting this book out was a lot more stressful than I thought it would be, so I’m also looking forward to just relaxing a bit and working on some projects that don’t come with a timeline. Although I hope it doesn’t take me ten years to revise the next book!
Erica L. Satifka is a writer and/or friendly artificial construct, forged in a heady mix of iced coffee and sarcasm. She enjoys rainy days, questioning reality, ignoring her to-do list, and adding to her collection of tattoos. Her short fiction has appeared in Clarkesworld, Shimmer, Lightspeed, and Intergalactic Medicine Show, and her debut novel Stay Crazy will be released in August 2016 by Apex Publications. Originally from Pittsburgh, she now lives in Portland, Oregon with her spouse Rob and an indeterminate number of cats.
Queers Destroy Horror is a double-issue of Nightmare that’s written, edited, and illustrated by LGBTQUIA creators. There is a former Shimmer badger among them — not to mention a couple Shimmer authors in the mix, which we love to see. Today, we’re talking to guest editor Wendy N. Wagner about the project, monsterflails!
QDH is the newest member of the Destroy family. How did this amazing journey begin?
The Destroy projects really ARE amazing. Back in 2013, Christie Yant, one of our Lightspeed Assistant Editors, got fed up with the state of genre fiction. The genre’s main trade organization, SFWA, had included some articles that were disrespectful to women; bloggers and analysts (like Nicola Griffith) were putting together uncomfortable statistics about the ways women writers don’t make recommended reading lists or get reviewed in the same ways that men do. And then an article came out that claimed Lois McMaster Bujold’s books weren’t real science fiction, because they included romance and balls and court scenes with descriptions of people’s clothes. So Christie made a joke on Twitter about how women were just DESTROYING science fiction with all our icky girl germs, and the joke sort of snowballed.
The publisher of Lightspeed and Nightmare, John Joseph Adams, thought the joke could be used to make a positive difference in the industry, so invited Christie to do a special issue of the magazine that would celebrate women’s work in science fiction. They wanted to make it really special and really inclusive, so they decided to run a Kickstarter campaign to give them some extra funds to work with. The Kickstarter exploded! They (we, by that time, because John had brought me on as the Managing/Associate Editor of his magazines, and I immediately wanted to help with Women Destroy SF) raised ten times the amount of money they had hoped to make. And the feedback was phenomenal! People wanted us to destroy everything. And everybody wanted a chance to come out of the shadows and show the world how they could contribute to the field.
Last year, we published Women Destroy Science Fiction!, Women Destroy Horror!, and Women Destroy Fantasy!; this year we’ve asked gender and sexual minorities to smash up the genres. Next year we’ll be putting people of color in the driver’s seat.
Talk to us about this cover art — it’s amazing. How did this concept come about?
When the team was working on the cover for Queers Destroy Science Fiction!, they really struggled to find an image that meant “science fiction” for them. I was just a fly on the wall, listening to their conversation, and I found myself thinking that for me, nothing said horror like a skull. And I immediately had this vision of a skull with this black beetle crawling on it, and the beetle’s carapace had this wonderful rainbow shimmer on it.
So when Cory Skerry, our art director for QDH, asked if I had any ideas about the cover art, I shared that idea, and he thought it would be cool. Neither one of us was really prepared for AJ Jones to come back to us with this image. It’s so much more nightmarish and exhilarating than what we imagined!
Why horror? What draws you to the genre?
The strongest memories I have from early childhood are all about Halloween. My mom and my sisters always made these great costumes and we decorated the house and made a big fuss about it. It seemed like Halloween was made out of some kind of magic — the kind of stuff that let three-year-old kids turn into bats and made candy into an acceptable meal. I loved (and still love!) everything about Halloween. I can not get enough of it. So much of horror looks and feels like Halloween. I can’t resist that aesthetic!
On the other hand, I’m also a super emotional person. Unhappy things affect me deeply, and the heart of horror is unhappiness and darkness and the deep injustice of bad things happening to people. And reading about that stuff in a safe, fictional way helps me cope with the real world.
Plus, being scared when I know I can hide under the covers is the most delicious feeling possible!
After choosing the stories for this issue, what advice do you have for writers working in horror?
Worry less about being original and more about being meaningful. If you infuse your work with a feeling that comes from your core, you can make any situation, any trope, any monster interesting. Look at Let the Right One In. At a time when people were rolling their eyes about vampires, this story came along and hit them over the head. Why? Because it’s such a powerful story about being isolated and lonely and finding someone who gets you. It’s very meaningful and real.
I want to read stories that make me feel. So get out there and scrape up some feelings!
What makes for a great horror story?
A main character whose feelings and thoughts come clear in the prose. Every image and plot development is only as interesting as that character’s response to it, so if your character is a piece of cardboard being dragged along by the story, your story will fail.
In your QDH editorial, you mention falling in love/horror with “The Raft,” from Stephen King’s Skeleton Crew collection. What other authors and stories have influenced your writing (and perhaps editing)?
The unintentionally big influences on my writing are Margaret Mahy, Pamela Dean, Robin McKinley, and David Eddings. These are the writers I read and re-read as a kid and I absorbed them like I was a sponge. I don’t mind writing like the first three, but I am still trying to expunge David Eddings from my brain, because I don’t think I want to write like him. (His books are still fun — they’re just not me.) Some influences I’ve tried to cultivate are Octavia Butler, David Mitchell, Tana French, and Scott Fitzgerald.
But the person who has had the biggest effect on my work as a writer (and editor) is John Joseph Adams. He’s published me a couple of times and the edits he gave me were incredibly insightful—I learned a lot just working on them. And I’ve been his editorial assistant or assistant editor or associate editor on and off since 2010. I’m hoping some of his good taste has rubbed off on me.
You recently did an amazing thing–bringing home a Hugo for the work done on Lightspeed, Nightmare’s parent pub. Is that thing heavy, or what?
The Lightspeed team won the Hugo for Best Semiprozine, and the group included John Joseph Adams (our editor-in-chief/publisher), Stefan Rudnicki (our podcast producer), Rich Horton (our reprints editor), Christie Yant (head of special projects and Guest Editor of WDSF), and me, so there was rather a horde of us. It takes a lot of people to make the magazine come together!
The Hugo award this year weighs about 8 or 9 pounds. The base is also covered in metal triangles that are quite poky and sharp-edged. It looks like a medieval mace or something. It’s kind of terrifying.
Horror seems to be making something of a comeback with television series like Scream Queens, American Horror Story, and Hannibal. Do you think visual horror is more effective than written horror, or are they simply two sides of the same coin?
I think visual horror is a paper dollar bill and written horror is a gold one dollar coin — they’re equally effective, but most people seem to prefer using paper. Visual horror has a lot of advantages, like jump scares and musical scores, and I think it has the luxury of building on a visual language that has saturated our culture. I mean, even if you haven’t seen the movies, you’ve usually picked up some of the tropes and standard images coming out of popular horror movies. That can make a new horror film/show more accessible to new viewers.
I know a lot of people who say they don’t find themselves as frightened when they read horror as when they watch horror. But I also think that horror is about a lot more than just being scary, and that’s where writers get a chance to shine. Horror is the genre where we get to explore everything dark in the world. Fear is one part of that, but I think it’s just one corner of the playroom.
If you could invite one horror author (dead or alive, naturally) to tea and spider scones, who would it be?
Shirley Jackson! I just read Let Me Tell You, a new collection of shorts and essays by her, and I’m pretty sure we have a lot in common. Plus, I love her work. She’s the writer I most want to be when I grow up. I mean, if I have to grow up. 🙂
What’re you destroying next? What does the future hold?
I am currently revising a novel that is destroying science fiction with werewolves and philosophy. I am very excited about it. I also have a new novel coming out in August, which is a dark adventure set in the world of the Pathfinder role-playing game. It features the same main character as my first novel, Skinwalkers, although it’s not a sequel per se, and I think it’s going to be a really fun book.
Thanks, Wendy! Readers, you can get your mitts on QDH here. The issue is available online, in trade paper, and a variety of ebook formats!
She Walks in Shadows is the newest anthology from Innsmouth Free Press. Best dressed editor Silvia Moreno-Garcia was kind enough to sit down with me in this virtual space and talk about the project, which I and another badger have stories in.
How did She Walks in Shadows come about?
There was a discussion; it started on Facebook and trickled into some other spaces, which made it obvious most Lovecraft fans couldn’t name more than one woman Lovecraft writer (Kiernan), and some couldn’t even recall her. There was even a gross comment that women are biologically incapable of writing Lovecraftian fiction. As often happens in these discussions someone will pipe in and say “if you don’t like it why don’t you do something about it rather than whining,” so, since I actually tend to do things, we got together this anthology project to help showcase the work of women .
The cover art is striking and beautiful. Who did the art and what was the idea behind the image? Was it just “women and Lovecraft, go”?
That’s Sara K. Diesel‘s work. She did the cover for This Strange Way of Dying, my debut collection, and I contacted her for this. I asked her to do something inspired by a rather lousy movie with Barbara Steele called The Crimson Cult. Despite being kind of dull it features Steele in a distinctive headdress. I asked Sara to create a cultist or priestess inspired, but not identical, to the one in that movie. Her sketches were very good and I picked one with a profile pose because it seemed different than some of the other covers we’d done before.
With the anthology, what was it you most hoped to accomplish and what did you want to avoid?
We wanted to feature a wide variety of voices and characters. Not just women as heroes, but as villains, mothers and daughters, young and old. We didn’t want it to be too Mythos heavy. It’s always a delicate dance because some buyers love and only love the “monsters” and deities, but others want stuff that uses less places and people utilized by Lovecraft and is more about mood or ideas. So there’s that back and forth. We didn’t want to just have the Who’s Who of 1920s Lovecraft Mythos and I believe we avoided that. Cthulhu appears, but probably not the way you expect him, we get a kind of funky Asenath thanks to Molly Tanzer, and some people go ahead and spin stories like the opening one, about Lovecraft’s mother, which don’t namedrop any famous entity but are still preoccupied and responding to Lovecraft in some way. The anthology also features a good number of POC contributors, seven as I recall, and other writers who are not POC but are from outside the United States, which is obviously a dominant force in the Mythos market. So you get to meet people like Inkeri Kontro who is from Finland and I think it helps to show how widespread Lovecraft is nowadays.
After all these years, and all these beautiful anthologies from Innsmouth Free Press, why Lovecraft? What is it about him and his stories that continue to fascinate?.
To be honest I don’t know how much longer I’ll be dealing with Lovecraft. I am working on my thesis, and it involves Lovecraft and eugenic thought in the early 20th century, so I’m very much exhausted of reading about him by now. Next year, after that’s done, I think I’m going to take a long stretch of time without him, maybe I’ll even be done with him forever. I’ve had a long time to build a dialogue with him and I’ve worked hard to get more POCs and women noticed in this niche, but at some point I guess we all grow out of certain things and I’m at the point where this might be true for me and Lovecraft. On the other hand, my husband thinks I’ll never stop. I’ve been reading Lovecraft since he’s known me, which is a long time, and he can’t picture me without something vaguely related to him in my hands. We’ll see.
Do you have a favorite Lovecraft monster?
The Deep Ones. It’s not Lovecraft per se, but I liked Derleth’s Ithaqua. I live in Canada so part of the appeal is the snowy landscape.
How did you first discover Lovecraft?
Like most people, as a teenager. I read Poe and then moved onto Lovecraft, and from then on read quite a bit of pulp fiction and Gothic fiction for a while.
After reading, editing, and writing so much Lovecraftian fiction, what’s your advice for writers jumping into the genre?
Know your Lovecraft. There’s a lot out there and you want to know the original sources but also some of the newer stuff that’s been done. But knowing doesn’t meaning imitating. Trying to slavishly replicate Lovecraft’s style is not going to get you very far.
What’s next for you?
My second novel, Certain Dark Things, sold recently and will be out in 2016. It’s about a garbage collector in Mexico City who ends up involved with a narco vampire and they find themselves trying to outrun rival narcos, cops, and almost everybody.
A.C. Wise first hit Shimmer’s pages in issue #14, with her story “Trashman.” We’ve been lucky to have her four more times, including one of her Glitter Squadron stories, “How Bunny Came to Be.”
She hails from the land of poutine (Montreal) and currently resides in the land of cheesesteaks (Philadelphia), and today we’re helping her welcome THE ULTRA FABULOUS GLITTER SQUADRON SAVES THE WORLD AGAIN. This collection debuts tomorrow, and if you didn’t pre-order like we did, you can grab your copy from Lethe Press or Amazon!
A.C. was awesome enough to sit down and chat with us about this collection. Be sure to stick around, because at the end, you’ll find a Glitter Squadron Drink Generator and an opportunity to win some glittery swag!
What was the process for putting this glittery collection together and does it collect every Glitter Squadron story to date?
As far as collections go, The Ultra Fabulous Glitter Squadron Saves the World Again is a bit of an oddity. It all started with “Doctor Blood and the Ultra Fabulous Glitter Squadron,” the first story I wrote featuring the wonderful ladies of the Glitter Squadron, which was published at Ideomancer. I thought it was a fun one-and-done kind of thing, but then along came “How Bunny Came to Be,” a prequel story, which appeared in a wonderful publication you may have heard of called Shimmer. I briefly thought I might be done after those two stories, but as it turned out, the Glitter Squadron had strong opinions to the contrary. Aside from “Doctor Blood,” and “How Bunny Came to Be,” all the stories in the collection are original. The ladies (and M) had plenty more to say, and about the same time I started writing the rest of their stories, Steve Berman at Lethe Press approached me about doing a collection. The rest is history!
What can readers expect to find in this collection?
Sequins! Drink recipes! High heels! Ass-kicking! Friendship! Exclamation points! Okay, that last one might just apply to my answer to this question. What readers can expect is a series of inter-connected short stories about a group of queer, trans, agender, and gender fluid characters saving the world from various supernatural threats, all while looking terribly fabulous in glitter, lame, velvet, feathers, and so on. It’s a bit campy, a bit serious, a bit about gender, and hopefully a lot of fun. It is also about different ways of being strong, and about how glitter is the best thing ever and severely unappreciated when it comes to world-saving materials.
“Dr. Blood and the Ultra Fabulous Glitter Squadron” (Ideomancer, 2013) appears to be the first story in this universe; what sparked the initial idea for you?
The original story was sparked by a call for submissions for an anthology themed around B movies. I happened to see this call for submissions just over 24 hours before the deadline. Oops. My Unlikely Story co-editor and I dared each other to see what sort of story we could write within such a short time frame. And thus, the Ultra Fabulous Glitter Squadron was born.
We had the good fortune to publish “How Bunny Came to Be” (Shimmer #17); it is a story that speaks to being true to oneself, whatever that self may be. This feels, in some ways, to be the heart of the Glitter Squadron, but what other themes are in play?
Friendship, in particular, female friendship, to me is the heart of the Glitter Squadron. Too often we get dude-centric narratives where one, lone exceptional woman is allowed into the club. Said woman then has to stand for all women everywhere, because anyone outside the cis-het-white-able-bodied-male is not part of what is ‘normal’ and therefore has to answer for their entire gender/race/sexuality etc. They are not individuals. The one lone exceptional female ends up being criticized no matter what she does. If she’s too girly, she’s a stereotype. If she’s too tough, she’s just a guy with boobs. If she’s too needy, then she’s saying all women are needy. If she falls in love, well of course she does because all any woman cares about is getting married and having babies. Often times, said lone exceptional woman never even gets to speak to another woman the entire time she’s on the page or screen.
However, with more than one women, or even a whole group of women, you start to see that women are indeed human beings. They want different things. Some of may be interested in babies and relationships. Some may be worried about a bad hair day. Some may have PTSD from their time in the military. Some may know exactly who they are and carry themselves with confidence; others are insecure, and still trying to figure it out. But none of them are carrying the entire weight of their gender alone. Together, they’re stronger than they are apart. They support each other, and complement each other’s strengths and weaknesses. They don’t always get along, but ultimately they are family, and they love each other.
Aside from CeCe and M, the members of the Glitter Squadron are also very ‘girly’, which was another important theme I wanted to explore. They wear glittery dresses and high heels and makeup. They are fabulous and badass and they aren’t asked to shed the traditional trappings of femininity in order to be battle ready. Femininity isn’t demonized. In the end, the Glitter Squadron members are far from perfect. They have their insecurities and flaws, but together, when they aren’t asked to carry they entire weight of femininity on their shoulders alone they are fucking strong.
Do you have a favorite story in the collection?
Nope. I love them all for different reasons. The collection is anchored by two stories featuring the team as a whole, but most of the stories in-between take the time to explore some aspect of one of the individual characters. They were all fun to write in that they allowed me to get to know the Glitter Squadron as individuals and as a team along the way.
Picture it: Netflix wants to make a Glitter Squadron series. Any casting dreams?
Eeep. This is a hard question. Part of me thinks that largely unknown actors might be the way to go. I do have certain specific casting ‘rules’ I would insist on, presuming this is a magical world where the lowly author gets a say. Sapphire, Starlight, and Bunny would be played by trans actresses. No one would be white-washed, thin-washed, or straight-washed. Looking up various trans actresses make me think that appearance-wise, some combination of Estelle Asmodelle, Candis Cayne, Nina Arsenault, and the late Coccinelle would be perfect for Bunny. However, even though I saw Bunny as Caucasian while writing her, there’s no reason why she has to be, and I think Laverne Cox would be a brilliant Bunny. For Sapphire, someone like Ines Rau, but a bit older would be excellent. CeCe was actually directly inspired by photos of Marlene Dietrich in a tuxedo, and Renate Muller as the original star of Victor Victoria. In a modern show, I think Scarlett Johansson could totally rock that 1930s suave-butch look. Someone like Aidy Bryant would be good for Ruby. As for Penny, Starlight, and Esmeralada…I’m still thinking about those ones. And M? Well, maybe whoever wore the gimp suit in the first season of American Horror story?
Which would you rather have a squadron of: poutine or corgis?
Corgis. I love poutine, but I don’t think it would make a very good squadron. Corgis, on the other hand, can be pretty fierce (I say as my own corgi is passed out snoring beside me). People tend to think of them as small dogs, but secretly, they’re big dogs with no legs. And if you get between them and food…well you can forget about it.
Is there a soundtrack/playlist for the Glitter Squadron?
Funny you should ask! I was just thinking about what song each member of the squadron might listen to in order to get pumped up before a fight. So I went ahead and put one together, and you can find it here.
What does the future hold for the Glitter Squadron?
The Glitter Squadron fans out there (if there are any) may be pleased to know that there are at least three more stories rattling around in my head. I haven’t done anything with them yet, other than make tons of notes, so I’m not entirely sure whether they’re short story length things, longer pieces, or if any of them will ever see the light of day. I am quite enamored of my beautiful, glittering ladies however, and thrilled to keep chronicling their stories as long as they keep telling them to me.
Now that you’ve had a taste of what the Glitter Squadron is all about, don’t you want a customized cocktail recipe of your very own? All you have to do is use the Glitter Squadron name generator to create your drag name/cocktail name, and drop your results in the comments.
A winner will be chosen at random, and the Glitter Squadron’s bartender supreme, Sapphire, will create a drink recipe for you based on the name. But wait, there’s more! You’ll receive the recipe on a Glitter Squadron coaster along with a glittery flask so you can take the party with you wherever you go. Contest closes on Monday, October 26!
Tell us about your first fiction sale; what was that like? Did you spend the money on anything special?
I think my first sale was in late 2009 or early 2010 to Bards & Sages Quarterly. I know my first professional sale was in 2011 to Daily Science Fiction, and in both cases, I’m certain I spent the money on books.
You started publishing in 2011, but how long have you actually been writing?
Here is where I say ever since I was very young and everyone can roll their eyes, but I think most writers answer that question the same way because it’s true. I remember writing books in third grade and trying to sell them to my friends. Of course my friends had no money, but still.
I wrote tons of poetry and vignettes over the years and tried writing novels (including a mystery and an epic fantasy), but never finished the latter. In 2009, I started writing flash fiction, something which I find almost next to impossible to write now, and completed my first novel, a novel that will never see the light of day because it’s the most dreadful thing ever.
Do you consider your writing dark fantasy, horror, or does it exist in that place that simply is “speculative fiction”?
I tend to think of my work as speculative fiction. It’s quite a bit like cake — sometimes I cover it in science fiction frosting, other times I reach for the contemporary fantasy flour, and still other times, I spice it with the dark and horrific or weird.
You write and you also edit; you write short stories and also novels. Does one balance the other? Are they ever in conflict? Is it all just one beautiful, chaotic ball of creativity?
Editing occupies a very different headspace than writing, and on the plus side, editing work by other authors has strengthened my ability to edit my own work. Most of the time, juggling both editing and writing isn’t a problem, unless I’m working against simultaneous deadlines. Then it becomes a bit tricky because it’s hard for me to quickly flip from creative brain to analytical pick apart the sentences until they bleed brain.
Talk to us about process a little. Do you outline? Do you just write forward from a general idea of how a piece will go?
I used to get an idea, sit in front of the computer, and start writing. Now, though, I spend time thinking about my stories first. I jot ideas in a notebook, make notes on themes and sketch loose outlines, and start writing in longhand. I’ve written quite a few stories against deadlines recently and have found that more time spent thinking often results in a cleaner first draft.
How did you go about choosing the stories that would become your debut collection, Sing Me Your Scars?
Here is where I confess my love for spreadsheets. I made one with columns for everything from theme to grammatical tense to genre to word count, then I added in those details for each story I was considering. Once I came up with a likely table of contents, I put all the stories in a word document.
That first draft had several more reprints, but as I read it through, some didn’t seem to fit as well as others, so I cut here and there, making adjustments to my spreadsheet as well to keep track of everything. I hope that the end result is cohesive and enjoyable, but my work is done and it belongs to the readers now.
Do you have a favorite story in the collection?
That’s a hard one to answer because many of them mean different things. “Like Origami in Water” was my first professional sale so it holds a special place in my heart, and both “Melancholia in Bloom” and “Glass Boxes and Clockwork Gods” were influenced by my grandmother’s battle with Alzheimer’s disease. But I’m also very fond of the title story as it’s an homage to Mary Shelley.
What can you tell us about your novel, Paper Tigers, coming later this year from Dark House Press?
Paper Tigers is about a disfigured young woman and an old photo album she finds at a thrift store. It’s partly a haunted house story and partly a ghost story, but the ghosts are both external and internal. It’s very different from my first novel, Ink, and closer, I think, in flavor to my short fiction.
Favorite authors — both in and out of field in which you write? Do you think any one has overly influenced your work?
As far as novelists, off the top of my head I’ll say Joyce Carol Oates, Stephen King, Shirley Jackson, Margaret Atwood, Peter Straub, Jacqueline Carey, Ray Bradbury, Gillian Flynn, Laura Lippman, Alice Hoffman, and Cormac McCarthy. When it comes to short fiction, my favorites are Kij Johnson, Catherynne M. Valente, E. Catherine Tobler, Sunny Moraine, Ken Liu, Kelly Link, and Maria Dahvana Headley.
I’m certain they’ve all influenced my work in one form or another, but probably (hopefully) in more subtle than overt ways. And I know I’m missing names on both lists, names that I’ll remember as soon as I send these answers!
Picture it: you’re alone on the Nostromo…or are you? What weapon would you want if you were going up against an Alien? Flame thrower? Harpoon gun? Power loader?
I’m going to go with the flame thrower. It would keep me from having to get up close and personal with the Alien. Then again, the Alien is pretty tricksy. Look at what happened to poor Dallas in the air duct. Maybe I should pick the power loader instead.
Tell us about a great book you read recently.
The Wilds by Julia Elliott. It’s a short fiction collection that’s hard to classify. It’s literary, it’s genre, it’s dark and fantastical and the imagery is amazing. Like this:
“On a rancid summer dog day, when you’re dirty and scrawny and ugly and poor, when your fingernails sting from too much biting, when the kitchen stinks of unclean plates, when there’s nowhere to go, when punishment awaits you, when swarms of gnats flicker beyond bright windows, when heat sinks your mind into the syrupy filth of boredom…”
I want to marry that passage. It’s incredibly evocative. Regardless of what genre you’d shelve this collection under, I highly recommend it.
How do you take your coffee?
Preferably with soymilk and two packets of Truvia, but if milk and sugar are the only things available, I’ll make do. If the zombie apocalypse ever happens, I’m pretty sure it will be the lack of coffee that does me in. Then again, I’d make sure to add instant coffee and a spoon to one of my supply runs. Desperate times, desperate measures…
Ferrett appeared in Shimmer #13 with a story involving, of all things, a unicorn. And a magical mirror. He’s always been turning tropes on their head, and does so again in his debut novel from Angry Robot, Flex.
Tell us how and where Flex began for you.
True fact: When I sent this to Seanan McGuire to see if she’d blurb it, she called me up and asked, “So how much Mage: the Ascension did you play before you came up with this?” And I said, “Ya got me.”
But yes, my group was roleplaying, and someone joked about the idea of brewing magical drugs. I was hugely into Breaking Bad at the time, and I thought, “Wow, how much weirder would that be if it wasn’t just drug dealers, but magical drug dealers?” So the wheels started turning.
But the problem was that I generally don’t like magic. It’s got what I call “Doctor Strange syndrome” – what can’t Doctor Strange do? What are his limitations? All the guy has to do is wave his hands and chant about Agamotto and he can turn back time, he can erase the world’s memories, he teleport to other dimensions. And that’s fun for a while, but eventually you start struggling to find challenges that the audience can understand – it’s more fun if the audience knows when the hero’s about to crack.
So I thought a lot about what I thought magical drugs could do that no other drug could, and decided to explore the ramifications of Harry Potter’s luck potion. Seriously, why is anyone learning any other kind of magic? I know it’s difficult, but if you devote your life to brewing up batches of Felix Felicis, what else do you need to do? So I thought, “Well, if you get good luck for a while… you must get bad luck.” And then I started tying that into Unknown Armies’ obsession-based magic system, and the next thing you know I had a guy who was so devoted to getting his insurance paperwork right that he’s become this magical champion of the insurance company.
“That guy seems the least qualified person to make drugs,” said I, and a story was born.
Does Flex have a soundtrack? (If not, why not! Get cracking!)
It does! Sorta. I listen to one song over and over again when I write – it’s how I keep centered on the heart of the novel. When I’m stuck for what to do next, I just listen to The Song and everything unravels.
In this case? The Talking Heads’ “Burning Down The House.” (The live version off of Stop Making Sense.)
Interestingly, Stephen King lied to me. If you read Christine or any of his other early novels, you’d think it’d be super-easy to quote lyrics in your book. But these days you have to fill out forms and go through ASCAP, and it costs a fortune. I’m told by the publishers that Fleetwood Mac once wanted $4,000 to quote lyrics. That’s more than many advances, man. So you won’t find the lyrics quoted in the book, though I may scribble them in there at a signing if you ask me nicely.
Flex plays with a lot of tropes, but is notable for its use of video games, and their environments–literally plunging characters into the midst of games most SFF readers should be familiar with. If you could be thrust into any game, which would you choose?
I’d actually go with Mass Effect. I love Bioware games, but Dragon Age is such a crapsack world. Between mages and demon infestations, I would not want to go there. Mass Effect has the Reapers, natch, but large segments of it look pretty nice. And given that I’d rather chat than fight, there’s a lot of talking to be done.
(Fun fact: In any RPG, I’m the guy maxing out his speaking skills. If I can talk my way out of the final battle – *cough cough* Fallout *cough* – then I automatically love the game.
Paul’s magic stems from paperwork; where does your magic come from?
I think the reason I had a magic system based on obsession is because really, obsession is my writing superpower. I wasn’t the most talented writer in my Clarion class; I wasn’t the most charming. But I think I was the most dedicated, and so when Neil Gaiman told me that I wasn’t good enough yet and “You just have to write,” well, dammit, I wrote. Every day. Sick or well. Psychologically healthy, or in the throes of seasonal depression. I honed my knife as best I could, and now if Flex isn’t good enough, I’ll keep writing more.
The theme keeps turning up in my stories, though. “The Sturdy Bookshelves of Pawel Oliszewski” is about obsession-based magic. And my story for Shimmer, “A Window, Clear As A Mirror” is entirely about a man who can’t let go. So I kind of deal with that a lot.
Speaking of Magic, you work for Star City Games — what is your favorite Magic the Gathering card (or set) and why?
Magic has repeatedly disappointed me by failing to produce a viable ferret. Joven’s Ferrets and Repopulate? NOT GOOD ENOUGH, WIZARDS OF THE COAST.
That said, my favorite card is still probably Pernicious Deed. It’s in my favorite colors (black and green), it is a distinct Rattlesnake card in multiplayer to warn people off elsewhere, and it’s super-fun. For me. Not you. But hey, who wanted you to have a good time?
You attended both Viable Paradise and Clarion; did one workshop teach you something the other didn’t? How do you think both have changed your writing?
Clarion was what got my eyes pried open. My six weeks at that writer-intensive broke me down and reforged me, but the number-one lesson is that I Was Not Shooting High Enough. I thought my stories were pretty good, going into Clarion, and I came out thinking my stories were pretty good; the difference was that I had realized that pretty good wasn’t enough.
I had to knock the reader so far on her ass that she’d have to crawl back to the page.
So Clarion was where I really went, “Wow, you’ve got a lot of lazy habits that you thought you could get away with,” but man, I could not. If there’s anything you’re aware of in your story that’s not polished to a diamond-like shine, fix that. Because your story’s going to fall short in a hundred other areas that you’re not good enough to even see yet, so the smartest thing you can do is to amplify the stuff you know is good.
And if Clarion got me thinking about the guts of a story, Viable Paradise got me working on my prose.
Here’s a hint if you ever go to Viable Paradise: Ask Teresa Nielsen-Hayden to do her trick. She’ll say she doesn’t know what that trick is. “Edit me,” you tell her.
And she will sit down with your story, and begin to edit it. She will cross out whole sentences. She will eviscerate your words. She will show you just how flabby and redundant and awful your prose is, and eventually what’s left will be the barest minimum of words – so few you won’t be able to believe what’s left standing. And you’ll see how much quicker and bolder your story reads, and you’ll be enlightened.
Tell us about a fabulous book you recently finished reading.
I am currently reading Jo Walton’s The Just City, which is a fantastic hook: the Greek Gods, who are still alive today, have recreated Plato’s Republic, using everyone who ever prayed to Athene that it existed. It’s an amazing thought experiment, and considering that I’ve loved everything Jo’s written, I’m positive I’ll love it in all of its weirdness. She’s amazing. I’m so stoked every day to sit in my bathtub and read it.
What’s next for you? When can we expect FLUX?
I’m finishing up a new draft of Flux as we speak (literally, I’m switching back to answer a question between each chapter), and while I have no absolute date, I expect it’ll be out sometime in 2016. I’m also working on an as-yet-untitled science-fiction manuscript about a boy coming of age in the greatest restaurant in the universe – yes, yes, make your Douglas Adams joke now – and I have my sci-fi dystopia The Upterlife out on submission from my agent. So I’ve got lots coming up.
But seriously. Buy my book now, or I might not get to publish all these others!
Want to have Ferrett sign YOUR copy of Flex? Get thee to a bookstore: