An Unlikely Interview with Abra Staffin-Wiebe

The main character in And Other Definitions of Family uses sex work on a space station as a means of studying alien culture. Similar to Nicolette Barischoff’s story from this issue, you took something frequently portrayed negatively and seen as ‘unclean’, and put it front and center as a legitimate means of scientific study. Are there things that studying sex and attitudes surrounding it can reveal about society and culture that couldn’t be learned any other way? Overall, what led you to telling this particular story?

Using a different focus when studying a culture often reveals something new. Historically, there’s been an interesting tension between sex taboos in the researcher’s culture and the natural interest in something that’s so fundamental to the human experience. Imagine adding in nonhuman cultures and, well, there you go.

There are lots of “alien/demonic pregnancy” stories (if you want to lose a few hours from your life, go to TVTropes and start with “Mystical Pregnancy”), but they are almost always situations where the woman is impregnated without her knowledge, against her will, or through some kind of trickery. I wanted to write a different story, one where the woman agreed for practical, not mystical, reasons of her own.

On your website, you describe yourself as writing ‘cheerful horror’. That is just too intriguing to let go. What is cheerful horror and why do you enjoy writing it? Can you recommend other pieces of cheerful horror for those who may be interested in exploring the sub-genre?

There is of course a certain glee to be found in writing horror, like the enjoyment you can get from telling campfire stories. Part of cheerful horror is enjoying the chills and thrills. The real distinction for me, though, is how the story leaves you feeling about humanity after you’re done reading it. Cheerful horror avoids hopelessness, pointless degradation, and downward spiral stories. It may go to dark places, but the characters are still allowed to make the best choices possible under the circumstances, and there is usually at least a glimmer of light in the ending, if not a flat-out victory. Stephen King is a classic writer of this kind of horror book. John Wyndham wrote a lot of what the British call “cozy catastrophe” novels that also fit into this category.

Do you have a favorite magical school from literature? If that school offered you admission, do you see yourself gravitating toward a particular subject or specialty? If you were offered a teaching position at that school, is there anything new you’d add to the curriculum?

The magical school closest to my heart is Unseen University. Delicious food, good drink, an amazing library, advanced computing, paranoia as an avocation, and plenty of randomness to keep me on my toes. I would study--and eventually teach, assuming I survived--the flora and fauna inhabiting thaumaturgical waste dumps.

Whether it’s philosophy or quantum physics or economic theory, speculative fiction writers often draw from academic theory, research and new discoveries to inform their work, and it’s no surprise that an Academia-themed magazine will attract stories that do just that. Can you tell us a little about one such influence? Who are they? What aspect of their work resonated with you, and how has it influenced your own work?

The Merck Veterinary Manual. Let me explain! As an adolescent starved for reading material, I read this tome of veterinary medical science cover to cover, which meant I got some medicine, some biology, some chemistry … and a high tolerance for reading extremely specialized papers and absorbing interesting details and concepts from them even if their academic level was way over my head. So although I haven’t written a veterinary science-inspired story yet, it led me to a lot of other sources of inspiration.

Pick an author whose work you enjoy (past or present) and tell us about the book they never wrote, but you wish they had (e.g. Tolstoy’s long-awaited and even longer page count sequel to War and Peace.)

I wish Louis L’Amour had written a space opera. He dabbled in science fiction once; I think he could have done better.

What else are you working on or have coming up you want people to know about?

You can find more of my stories and bonus material for “And Other Definitions of Family” at Join my newsletter for discussion of new stories (not just mine) and other fun stuff every two months. Plus get a free ebook!

An Unlikely Interview with Julia August

Soteriology and Stephen Greenwood is a story told largely by implication. You don’t show us the big bad, or the heroes saving the world, but they’re there between the lines of the emails exchanged between your protagonist and a person seeking his help in translating an obscure fragment of mystical text. Did you always want to tell this story in an epistolary style? Do you think stories told through letters make for an more intimate experience for the reader? Does it make them more active participants in a story?

I always wanted to tell this particular story through a combination of emails, blog posts and online articles. I like playing around with formats and voices, in the first place; and in the second place, academics use the internet to communicate as much as anyone else these days. (Maybe more: research in the humanities tends to be a solitary business and it’s pretty comforting to be able to reach out to people through your computer. It’s not unusual to, for example, see people gossiping on Facebook about a faux pas on a mailing list.) Additionally, in this case I think the format does make readers more active participants in the story. My background is in history, where you bring a range of sources together to create a streamlined narrative; this story lays out the sources, but leaves it to the reader to fill in the gaps. I think most people will already know what usually happens in a story that starts with someone finding a long-lost prophecy, so I thought I could leave that side of it to the imagination. Unless you’ve actually used a critical edition, though, you may not know how much work it takes to turn a manuscript into a usable text; plus, of course, translation is rarely straightforward; plus there are certain ethical issues involved in dabbling in the antiquities black market… Our Heroes may not care very much about all this, because they have higher concerns (like saving the world), but academics definitely do. (Also they would be shocked to hear you say Lucia Lucilla is “obscure”. Next you’ll say you had to look Cicero up!)

There’s an intriguing photo on your website, which you also use as your twitter avatar, which begs for more explanation and seems sure to have an interesting story behind it. Is the scuba diver holding the human skull you? What is the context of that photo? Is it a snapshot from an archeological excavation? A poster for an underwater production of Hamlet? Inquiring minds must know!

I wish it was as interesting as that! I’m fascinated in a completely non-academic way by sunken cities and shipwrecks and all the creepy abandoned things on the bottom of the sea. (I went to the beach at Dunwich not long ago – we did not hear church bells ringing under the waves, sadly.) The photo’s just a picture I found somewhere of some underwater archaeology that I have nothing to do with. I think the most recent similar pictures are from Herakleion in Egypt. There are some wonderful photos here.

Whether it’s philosophy or quantum physics or economic theory, speculative fiction writers often draw from academic theory, research and new discoveries to inform their work, and it’s no surprise that an Academia-themed magazine will attract stories that do just that. Can you tell us a little about one such influence? Who are they? What aspect of their work resonated with you, and how has it influenced your own work?

Let me cheat and give you one particular section of online academia that was really influential for this story: those academic bloggers who talk about the international market in antiquities. If you followed the links within the story, you’ll probably know already that one particular episode I had in mind when I wrote this story was the discovery of new Sappho fragments, which caused quite a stir at the time for various reasons. Outside that particular incident, if you’re interested in issues involving archaeology, papyri, antiquities, etc., it’s worth looking up Roberta Mazzi, Paul Barford, Donna Yates, and Looting Matters, among others. This is a particularly hot topic given everything going on in Syria right now, where major archaeological sites like Palmyra are being systematically looted and then ostentatiously destroyed. If you want to know more about the ethics and practical aspects of black market antiquities, these blogs are a good place to start.

Authors are notorious for working strange jobs. Stephen King was a janitor and J.D. Salinger worked as the entertainment director on a luxury cruise line. What’s the weirdest job you’ve ever had, and did it inspire any stories or teach you anything you’ve used in your writing?

Funny you should mention J.D. Salinger. I actually spent a few months working on a cruise ship this summer (in a much less exalted role, though) and it was a very weird environment. You’re living two floors down from your work, you wake up in a different place every morning, your days start at 7am and end at 11pm rather too often, you don’t get weekends and you’re in contact with your customers (that is, passengers) practically all the time. There was no privacy and the internet was terrible. And then I got off the ship and felt as if I’d lost three months somewhere and the whole thing had just been a dream. It did inspire a story that’s currently looking for a home, but I think in the long run I learned some useful things about pressurized environments that will probably show up elsewhere.

Twenty years is a geological microsecond, but is a vast stretch for a person, no matter how quickly it seems to slip away, and it can be interesting to think about what one’s characters might be doing twenty years in their futures. Do you see anything interesting in any of your character’s futures that you’d be willing to share with us?

I see Stephen Greenwood sitting in his Oxford flat surrounded by priceless artefacts looted from various ruins and museums and palaces, sitting on countless drafts of articles he can’t publish because he can’t prove the provenance of anything Cara’s passed on to him and utterly terrified that one of his colleagues may one day come in and recognise something he definitely shouldn’t have. It’s a hard life, collaborating in saving the world.

What else are you working on or have coming up you want people to know about?

This autumn I have had or will have stories in The Sockdolager and Unsung Stories, and I should have stories coming up in the winter issue of Kaleidotrope and Lackington’s Magazine Issue 9 (another epistolary piece involving legal documents, radio plays and terraforming.

An Unlikely Interview with Eric Schwitzgebel

The Dauphin’s Metaphysics explores a classic and very interesting question -- if you replicate a person’s experiences exactly, can you replicate the person? What makes a person who they are, nature or nurture? It’s a story about characters reinventing themselves in multiple ways. What drew you to this particular question, and to taking the approach to it that you did in this story?

I’d been thinking about “singularity upload” stories, like Greg Egan’s Diaspora, where characters destroy their biological bodies to have their mental patterns instantiated in a computational device. These stories raise fascinating questions about personal identity, but they have an air of unreality about them because they aren’t currently technologically possible, and who knows if they ever will be. (One of the best known skeptics about computer consciousness is John Searle, who was one of my PhD supervisors at Berkeley.)

So I wanted to write an upload story that didn’t require magic or future technology. My father was (among many other things) a licensed hypnotist, and there’s a large psychological literature on how easy it is to implant false childhood memories into people even without hypnosis, so that seemed a natural direction to develop the idea.

The center of the story is the Dauphin’s upload – but I thought it would be interesting to contrast the case of the Dauphin’s putatively being one person across two bodies with another case arguably interpretable as two different identities in a single body. Hence the story of Fu Hao’s radical break from her childhood self. Chemistry Professor Zeng, though not as fully explored, presents a more ordinary case of slow character change over time.

In your day job, you’re a Professor of Philosophy, and the Dauphin’s Metaphysics isn’t the first story you’ve written exploring philosophical questions. Are there new approaches that fiction allows you to take in thinking about these questions and concepts that you don’t find in your academic life? Does your fiction ever inform your academic work similar to the way it seems your academic work informs your fiction?

I got into writing fiction through writing detailed philosophical thought experiments, some on my philosophy blog, some in articles in philosophy journals. It seems to me that speculative fiction is the natural extension of the philosophical thought experiment. The human mind doesn’t work well when dealing with pure abstractions – we need to engage with specific examples to really work through our ideas, and the dry paragraph-long examples that philosophers tend to use in journal articles don’t very effectively engage the imagination and the emotions. If we want to reflect philosophically while using the human mind in several of its areas of strength – imagination, emotion, social thinking, concrete thinking – there is no better resource than fiction.

Historically, many philosophers have written fiction or fables – Plato, Zhuangzi, Rousseau, Nietzsche, and Sartre, just to name a few. And writers of speculative fiction are often very philosophically interesting, for instance, Borges, Stapledon (who was also an academic philosopher), Dick, Le Guin, Egan, and Chiang. To me, it’s surprising and disappointing that there isn’t more interaction between professional philosophers and writers of speculative fiction.

The expository essay is only one way of doing philosophy. Fiction is another. Both approaches have advantages and disadvantages.

I find it interesting that you chose the title Dauphin for your title character (I can’t find it in me to call him either protagonist or antagonist, and no other readily available descriptor — love interest, partner, foil, etc. — seem to work properly either). ‘Dauphin’ is not only a very European term, its use as a royal title is quite specific to one country during a specific time period, all of which would pre-date (I _think_) the time period of this story. What made you choose this word over ‘Taizi’? There are some other hints in the story that indicate this is a world where history has played out differently. What does this particular linguistic import tell us about the larger world of your story?

I intended a world that mingles East and West, with some elements unambiguously Chinese – the characters’ names, the city of Beijing, the reference to Daoist poetry, the view of Russians as “barbarians” – and other elements very specifically European – the French “Dauphin” for the heir apparent, the English-style fox hunt, “High Table” from Oxford, and the peculiarly German academic ranking system in which “Ordinary” is higher than “Extraordinary”. The alternative history that I imagine is one in which centuries before Fu Hao, a European empire conquered China and seeded it with some European institutions, then collapsed.

I did this partly as a way to make the world clearly my own, while still being able to draw on some of the reader’s knowledge about Eastern and Western traditions. But also, the core ideas of Fu Hao’s philosophy are adapted from David Hume and Derek Parfit, who are sometimes regarded as having a Buddhist-influenced or quasi-Buddhist view of the self. Fu Hao’s book title Treatise on Human Nature is a near-miss of the title of Hume’s most important book, Treatise of Human Nature, written when he was similarly young. So I picture Fu Hao as a kind of female, Chinese, David Hume – though with the very different personality that women sometimes adopt as a way of coping with extremely sexist academic environments.

Twenty years is a geological microsecond, but is a vast stretch for a person, no matter how quickly it seems to slip away, and it can be interesting to think about what one’s characters might be doing twenty years in their futures. Do you see anything interesting in any of your character’s futures that you’d be willing to share with us?

In early drafts of “The Dauphin’s Metaphysics”, there was a final scene after Fu Hao drinks the hemlock: Fu Hao five years later, as a little girl, trying to make sense of who she is – a “great philosopher” who will “think and think and think about stuff” and who can’t quite keep track of whether Jisun Fei is her daddy or her husband. I imagine Fu Hao and Jisun Fei reincarnating in body after body over the centuries, sometimes parents to each other, sometimes intellectual partners, sometimes lovers.

What else are you working on or have coming up you want people to know about?

I’m so excited about my work – both expository philosophy and philosophical fiction! There just aren’t enough hours to do all the things I’m bursting to do. Here’s some of it:

Stories: My two favorite stories in draft are “THE TURING MACHINES OF BABEL” (all-caps sic), in which boy who lives in an infinite library follows a rabbit down into the stacks, hoping to discover the nature of his universe; and “Fafnir and Jackie”, in which a toy dragon repeatedly has his memory erased and starts anew, programmed to fall utterly in love with whoever he sees first upon waking.

I’ve also got stories in the works featuring a society’s singularity upload that goes wrong; the ethics of creating a robot who wants nothing more than to die on a mission to the sun; a giant alien who falls in love with the United States viewed as a group intelligence; a man given the choice between and ordinary life and a billion years of repetitive bliss on a seeming dance floor; and a bored superintelligence the size of the solar system.

Expository philosophy: For this, check out my academic website. I have forthcoming essays arguing that if we someday create human-grade AIs we will likely owe more to them than we owe to human strangers, because we would have parent-like or god-like responsibility for their existence and features; arguing that we shouldn’t entirely dismiss the possibility that the cosmos is radically different than we think it is (for example, that we might actually be AIs living in a small, simulated world); celebrating the ancient Chinese philosopher Zhuangzi’s contradictory views on death and self; and systematically exploring the moral behavior of ethics professors.

Editorial work: I’m working on a special issue of Midwest Studies in Philosophy on science fiction and philosophy, with essays from philosophers plus a couple of awesome new stories by prominent SF writers who’ve done graduate work in philosophy (Eric Linus Kaplan and R. Scott Bakker). I’ve also put together a list of 41 professional philosophers’ recommendations of “philosophical SF” – ten recommendations from each philosopher, along with brief pitches pointing to the interest of each work. (Full version here, abbreviated versions forthcoming in The Philosophers’ Magazine and Susan Schneider’s Science Fiction and Philosophy).

Blog: Readers might also want to check out my blog, The Splintered Mind, where I post at least weekly on issues in philosophy, psychology, and speculative fiction.

An Unlikely Interview with E. Saxey

The Librarian’s Dilemma deals with that tricky question of whether some information should be restricted ‘for our own good’, or whether all information should be free. You explore a similar theme in your story Melioration, which looks at free speech versus hate speech and ponders whether we’d be better off if people simply had hateful words plucked from their vocabulary entirely. What interests you about these questions? What led you to the varying approaches you took on the idea in these two stories?

It is tricky! I’ve been very influenced by writers like Foucault, and I think that power often works in the world through words. (An obvious recent example is the UK dispute over the terms ‘migrant’, ‘asylum seeker’ and ‘refugee’ – these terms impose identities, imply histories, and prompt specific responses.)
Melioration was a fantasy exploration of a desire I sometimes have, to stop people using certain words. A slur word gets charged up, made more concrete and powerful, whenever it’s used, and it also releases energy into the debate. Sometimes you just want to break that circuit.

Similarly, with The Librarian’s Dilemma: I’m sometimes furious at a book. At that moment, I want an omniscient wise person to wade in and whisk the book out of circulation/existence. But that’s, of course, rubbish: there’s no such person; there’s no objective answer to many ethical issues; any whisking will hurt vulnerable people first. And I don’t have a decent alternative suggestion for action.

These stories are both akin to worrying at a loose tooth – they’re not proposed solutions!

On your blog, you frequently write about sexuality, gender, and narrative theory. In a recent post, you talk about the classic coming out story and how it become the sole template for queer stories for a while. You point out the way it frequently shuts out identities that are not cis-white-males. Do you see a shift in the kind of queer stories that are being told today? What are the stories that aren’t being told that you’d like to see more often? What are some examples of narratives dealing with gender and sexuality that you would recommend?

I do see more stories with not-straight or not-cis characters, which aren’t about the fact of their ‘difference’ itself (e.g. coming out for queer individuals, transition narratives for trans people – I think these are valuable stories but can become limiting).

Recent reads: Tom Pollock’s Skyscraper Throne trilogy, and Philip Reeve’s Railhead both take advantage of SF/Fantasy rules to have gender-ambiguous characters living intriguing lives, and pushing along the plot. I’ve just started Mary Anne Mohanraj’s The Stars Change, which is both raunchy and lovely, and I’m dipping into the anthology Long Hidden.

Do you have a favorite magical school from literature? If that school offered you admission, do you see yourself gravitating toward a particular subject or specialty? If you were offered a teaching position at that school, is there anything new you’d add to the curriculum?

I’d go to the university in Year of the Griffin (Dianna Wynne Jones). It’s trying to re-invent itself after years of being a training school for naff magical quests – the students and staff have been bogged down in very flimsy, showy magic. So it would be an exciting time to be on the staff: research going on, big debates in the early hours.

I’d like to work in the library, actually – I’d try to expand it, and bring in new ideas from different parts of the world. I’d keep it open late, have a kettle and some biscuits in the corner.

Authors are notorious for working strange jobs. Stephen King was a janitor and J.D. Salinger worked as the entertainment director on a luxury cruise line. What’s the weirdest job you’ve ever had, and did it inspire any stories or teach you anything you’ve used in your writing?

I worked for six months in a convent, a Victorian redbrick place built for hundreds of nuns. There were only a few sisters left, which left empty corridors round huge courtyards. I was lucky to stay there; after I left, it was turned into luxury flats, and the sisters went to live with another order. I helped with retreats. Guests came along to meditate and pray and be calm, and I did practical stuff to support that -- the paddling under the swan.

I’ve not yet written anything set in a convent but I do keep coming back to nuns. They’ve got a spiritual calling to live together, and a constant prayerful routine to their lives -- but then they’re still just cohabiting humans, sharing space 24/7 and getting on each other’s nerves. It’s a fascinating negotiation.

An Unlikely Interview with Sean Robinson

Minotaur: An Analysis of the Species takes minotaurs beyond Greek mythology, and posits them as essential to every culture. Are monsters and stories about monsters an essential part of humanity? What do a culture’s monsters tell us about that culture, what they value and what they feel? Why did you choose minotaurs in particular for your story?

From my perspective, monsters are what looks back at us when we look in the mirror. They’re a reflection of ourselves stripped bare. It’s the face that we would see if we didn’t wrap ourselves up in the packaging of society’s rules. It’s somehow both exceptionally beautiful, and exceptionally terrifying. So yes, I think stories about monsters are essential to what it means to be human. Whether it’s a child-eating lamia, or a shiny vampire, monsters speak in a voice that’s so often otherwise silent. I think monsters say the things the culture is afraid of, gives voice to its honest truths and fears (which aren’t always different). It’s letting go. I came to the idea of minotaurs because they’re always depicted as singular. There’s only one, and its trapped in the center of a labyrinth…waiting. Waiting for the Atheneans to feed it. Waiting for Theseus to slay it. Waiting for Minor to love him, or Pasiphaë to save him. I think all of that speaks so much to the human experience.

On your website, you state that a particular area of interest in scholarly research for you is queer themes in fairy tales. Many people tend to think of fairy tales in their sanitized versions, stripped of the majority of their violence and sexuality. What queer themes and stories can be reclaimed by going back to older versions of these tales? Do you have any plans for your scholarly research, such as a non-fiction book somewhere down the road?

Oh gosh. You went to my website! Ack. Faerie Tales are such a rich place when you go looking. As you said, the stories we’re told by Disney in modern day have been scrubbed of its incest, cannibalism, and creative murders. Which is sort of a shame. If you look at the history of stories, you see depictions of relationships between people that don’t have labels but are--from my perspective--queer. Gilgamesh and Enkidu in Mesopotamian mythology, Achilles and Patroclus in Greek mythos. More modern stories, like Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid” also echo some of these themes. Andersen wrote “The Little Mermaid” in response to the marriage of his long time, unrequited, love Edvard Collin. I think they’re all interesting places to go. I’ve had the fortune of presenting at MythCon, the annual convention of the Mythopoeic Society. They were kind enough to let me read a paper on queer themes in CS Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. It was profoundly humbling. My day job keeps me busy, so no non-fiction book that I can think of at the moment. But I’ll keep puttering.

Do you have a favorite magical school from literature? If that school offered you admission, do you see yourself gravitating toward a particular subject or specialty? If you were offered a teaching position at that school, is there anything new you’d add to the curriculum?

Amelia Atwater-Rhodes, in her Nyeusigrube series wrote about a place called Ramsa High School, in a town that borders the seat of government for vampires (non-sparkly, and written before that other series came out). As a teenager, I wanted to go there, so as one of the characters did, I could become a vampire. It’s not Hogwarts or Brakebills, but I’d be game.

One of the perennial points of contention in the world revolves around education -- who should get educated (and to what degree), what should be taught, who should be excluded. Meanwhile, children in their classrooms ask, “Why do I need to know this?” Tell us one obscure thing you learned in school that you think is important, and why.

It is possible to pass out from laughing too hard. I learned this from personal experience while playing a game called “Telephone Pictionary”. I went to stand up and woke up on the floor about a minute later.

Authors are notorious for working strange jobs. Stephen King was a janitor and J.D. Salinger worked as the entertainment director on a luxury cruise line. What’s the weirdest job you’ve ever had, and did it inspire any stories or teach you anything you’ve used in your writing?

I have been a professional firebreather for a couple of years, does that count? I’ve given the talent (craziness?) to one character that I’ve written. It got her out of a tough scene that neither of us could figure out a different way out of.

We all have our favorite authors, some of whom everyone has heard of, and some of whom are relatively obscure. Who is one of the more obscure writers you love? What do you love about their work? Tell us which story or novel of theirs we should drop everything to read right now.

So, I am a very mainstream kind of reader. But! Sharon Green did a series called “The Blending” and I love them. It’s eight books and while they are my dirty pleasure, I don’t know if they’re what you should drop into your TBR pile. The characters are really well realized, the world building is great. There is a major romantic plot line that is threaded through each of the (exceptionally) large cast and it maintains its structure throughout all eight books., the characters are distinct and I re-read the whole series a couple times a year.

What else are you working on have coming up you want people to know about?

I’ve always got stuff on the burner. At the moment, my only solid publication dates are in 2016. I’ve got a short story about a drowning sailor coming out in Kaleidatrope and a fairy tale re-imagining coming out through Mirror Dance. You can always check out my site though about upcoming releases!

An Unlikely Interview with Nicolette Barischoff

In Follow Me Down, your characters’ field of study is preternatural obstetrics. You’re tackling ideas that don’t necessarily get a lot of play in fiction, particularly the idea of childbirth as a formal academic subject. Childbirth, and specifically women helping other women give birth, is often depicted as an oral tradition passed down from generation to generation. It’s something for women to work out among themselves, and not a worthy subject for the hallowed halls of academia, which don’t concern themselves with messy things like the birthing process. Were any of those things you set out to consciously explore in your story? If not, what drew you to writing this tale?

I didn’t specifically set out to write a story that addressed these things (though I’m obviously gratified to realize I’ve done so.) I suppose I considered the College of Theogony to be very Greek in its sensibilities and its attitudes towards learning, especially as regards the practice of medicine. We know that female doctors were a regular presence during birth, acting as “cutter of the cord” alongside less generally educated midwives, so childbirth in antiquity wasn’t ghettoized from the rest of formalized medicine as it later became. The ins and outs of safe childbirth were part of the formal education of the female doctor.

I also think the Greeks were a people who liked textbooks. They liked to have their wisdom written down: How to Write a Good Play. How to Form a Utopian Society. Why are Men Hairier than Women?. I tend to believe that if a skilled practitioner of any discipline thought something was worth passing down, he had a scribe put it on paper and called it So And So’s Complete Treatise on Something Or Rather. It just made sense to me that a tradition of formalized education would have sprung up around the birthing of demi-gods, at a time and place when certain gods had a reputation for getting frisky with mortals. I sort of imagine that the tradition was brought to Europe (and then the New World) via the spread of Christianity and its own signally important Superum birth.

Incidentally, I also did not set out to write a story with an all-female cast. One of the (many) characters who ended up on the cutting room floor was a male colleague of Ramona’s who took a more relaxed, amused attitude toward Kora Gillespie’s exploits.

But in the end, the story was about Kora and Ramona, and what to do with your fear when the thing that you fear cannot help but be what it is. Everything else had to go.

You recently wrote a blog post about the natural fit between speculative fiction and academic settings. As you say, it’s the perfect place for authors to test rules, build worlds, and explore the hows and whys behind the way things happen events in their stories. Now that you’ve laid the groundwork for their base of knowledge, do you foresee taking Kora and Ramona out into the wider world to apply their skills in future stories?

Hm. Perhaps. I think Kora would have to grow up a little bit for that to happen, though. I don’t see Kora’s “mischievous imp” antics continuing to be entertaining for the length of multiple stories. Sooner rather than later, she is going to have to grow up (already has begun to grow up by the time we leave her in Follow Me Down) so the question then becomes, would we still find Kora compelling if she wasn’t a troubled (and troubling) vulnerable little girl anymore? I’d have to think about what growing up would mean for a personality like Kora Gillespie’s, what her journey to adulthood would look like, what such a person would have to offer a wider world… which I suppose would be quite fun to do… so, yes. Absolutely. Why not?

Do you have a favorite magical school from literature? If that school offered you admission, do you see yourself gravitating toward a particular subject or specialty? If you were offered a teaching position at that school, is there anything new you’d add to the curriculum?

Jordan College (part of Philip Pullman’s alternate Oxford in the His Dark Materials series) was definitely tugging on me when I created the New York College of Theogony and Preternatural Obstetrics (I don’t think it’s a secret that there’s quite a bit of Lyra Belacqua in Kora Gillespie). I’ve always thought Jordan College was a perfect example of that inherent contradiction within all academic institutions: It is a place dedicated to learning, something which in its purest form requires free exploration, and the challenging of accepted rules and boundaries. And yet, Lyra is actively discouraged from wandering its expansive grounds, or from asking inappropriate questions. In other words, she’s expected to stay put, and to only desire to learn what she’s told she must learn.

I love the atmosphere of a place that offers so many lofty nooks and crannies in which to break its own rules. It’s hard to imagine studying anything in particular at Jordan College. I think most learning in that universe comes from the conversations you shouldn’t hear, and the books you shouldn’t open, and the costly-looking golden trinkets you shouldn’t mess with. I see myself more engaging in that purer form of learning, scrabbling up into towers and down into ancient tombs with my daemon familiar at my side. (A North American box turtle, in case you were wondering. I’m sure you were.)

Of course, the two institutions have spiritually very little to do with each other. Jordan College is a very severe, restrictive, patriarchally-centered environment, almost fearing the learning to which it has devoted itself. In Theogony, I think I found something which captured the same kind of vivid, old world adventure-rich milieu, while being a much more progressive, inherently optimistic and well-intentioned place. Theogony does not actually intend to be fearful or restrictive. But these differences in intention mean little to someone like Kora, who still finds herself in trouble more often than not. In a sense, I think I wanted to show the limitations of even the most well-intentioned academic institution in dealing with any sort of unstructured learning.

Pick an author whose work you enjoy (past or present) and tell us about the book they never wrote, but you wish they had (e.g. Tolstoy’s long-awaited and even longer page count sequel to War and Peace.)

Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden is, and ever will be, one of my favorite novels. It’s a story about all things that can make a human heart anemic and hard and ungracious, and unlikable. And it’s a story about renewal, and coming alive after spending so long thinking you were dead, the strange things that end up drawing us out of the dark, and saving our lives. So I’m always frustrated when I come to the end and remember there’s not more of it.

It might just be that I love it so much that I would live in it for weeks on end if I could, shut away in a garden with an unpleasant, lonely little girl and her creepily prescient bird (there’s a little bit of Mary Lennox in Kora Gillespie, too). But I always imagined there was a much longer work in there that more thoroughly explored the story’s magical overtones, and perhaps gave us a chance to see what kind of adult Mary became. Sometimes I think what I want is a fantasy novel set on the dark, sprawling grounds of Misselthwaite Manor, with Mary as a mature sort of gothic fantasy heroine. I’ll have to see if anyone’s writing something like that.

We all start somewhere, and the learning curve from first publication is a steep one. What’s your first ever published work, and how do you feel about it now?

It wasn’t that long ago, actually. My first sale was just last year, to Long Hidden. So, I don’t really have enough distance from it to have a radically different perspective. It was the beginning of me as a genre writer. I used to think I was a “Capital L” Literature writer, even though almost everything I read and loved was fantasy. Other people’s expectations are a hard thing to break free of, and most people in my life kept nudging me in the direction of Classical Literature. A good friend and mentor told me about LH, and I was still picking at an idea I developed during a Chinese Folk Religion class, so I thought I’d give it a try. It was my first attempt at genre, save for some college assignments. But when the book came out, I found myself in a Table of Contents with such beautiful, dazzling stories, and I knew I’d found my people. I haven’t looked back since.

Twenty years is a geological microsecond, but is a vast stretch for a person, no matter how quickly it seems to slip away, and it can be interesting to think about what one’s characters might be doing twenty years in their futures. Do you see anything interesting in any of your character’s futures that you’d be willing to share with us?

Ramona might object to the idea now, but looking ahead, I see absolutely no reason why she wouldn’t take a more mature Kora abroad with her as her assistant. Kora has a unique and valuable gift that allows her to know when a woman’s dreams are disturbed by supernatural visitors, and to offer direct emotional support then and there. I don’t see Ramona allowing that to go to waste. Perhaps the two of them are destined to become a sort of traveling practice, assisting on a sort of emergency basis when crises arise in places like Chiloe.

What else are you working on have coming up you want people to know about?

God willing, a benefit anthology I contributed a short piece to called Angels of the Meanwhile should be out before the end of the year. It’s full of poems and stories by such amazing authors as Ellen Kushner, Catherynne M. Valente, Amal El-Mohtar, and my Academia ToC buddy Rose Lemberg.

I’m currently working on a few things, one of which is a sort of Canterbury Tales collection of stories imagined up by a bunch of cousins quarantined together with chickenpox. I don’t know what I’m going to do with it, though.

Oh, and you should all read Accessing the Future. It’s a seriously good and important anthology.

Journal of Unlikely Academia Issue 12, October 2015

stone.egg by Patricio Beteo

Table of Contents

Follow Me Down by Nicolette Barischoff
Minotaur: An Analysis of the Species by Sean Robinson
The Librarian’s Dilemma by E. Saxey
The Dauphin’s Metaphysics by Eric Schwitzgebel
Soteriology and Stephen Greenwood by Julia August
And Other Definitions of Family by Abra Staffin-Wiebe
Candidate 45, Pensri Suesat by Pear Nuallak
The Shapes of Us, Translucent to Your Eye by Rose Lemberg

Editors’ Note:

Welcome, dear readers, to Unlikely Story #12: The Journal of Unlikely Academia. This time around, rather than offering you a specialized subject, we are exploring the pursuit of knowledge itself. From the hallowed halls of venerable supernatural institutions, to fieldwork on an alien space station, and the shelves of your university library and beyond, the authors in this issue are celebrating learning in all its forms.

Here you will find scholars searching for the truth behind monsters, and monsters searching for the truth within themselves. You’ll find librarians struggling to set information free, and teachers struggling to open the doors of learning to everyone equally, especially those society most often overlooks and forgets. You’ll find metaphysical questions, the place where art and myth intersect, issues of translation, and an unorthodox and extremely personal method of studying alien culture.

So sit up straight, tuck in your shirt, spit out that gum, and pay attention. Yes, this will be on the test. Luckily, the test only has one question — did you enjoy these stories? If so, please tell your family, your neighbors, your friends, and random strangers on the street. There’s always room for a few more bodies in the Unlikely Story classroom.

Cover art by Patricio Beteo

An Unexpectedly Unlikely Announcement

We’re happy to announce that Unlikely Story is now a SFWA qualifying market.

I can either babble on incoherently about this, or shut up now, and the latter option seems the wiser.

To see the full list of SFWA qualifying markets, visit:

Announcing… Clowns: The Unlikely Coulrophobia Remix

As you may remember, a few months back we ran a Kickstarter to fund an expanded version of our April Fool’s mini issue, The Journal of Unlikely Coulrophobia. The Kickstarter was successful, and we opened the floodgates to another round of clown submissions. It took some time, but we diligently worked our way through the many excellent stories sent to us, and made some tough choices along the way. Now, we’re thrilled to announce the full line up for Clowns: The Unlikely Coulrophobia Remix!

The Table of Contents will include the five stories originally published in Unlikely Story #11.5: The Journal of Unlikely Coulrophobia.

Five Things Every Successful Clown Must Do by Derek Manuel
Perfect Mime by Sara K. McNeilly
A Million Tiny Ropes by Virginia M. Mohlere
Everyone’s A Clown by Caroline M. Yoachim
Break the Face in the Jar by the Door by Carlie St. George

Joining those stories are seventeen brand new pieces of flash fiction, plus a smattering of new clown facts (still to be determined -- we haven’t forgotten about the authors who submitted them, we promise!). Those new stories, in no particular order, are:

The Game by Mari Ness
Thou Antic Death by Kristen Roupenian
Mr. Boingo Saves the World by J.H. Pell
Melpomene’s Heirs by Evan Dicken
Stilts by Line Henriksen
A Distant Honk by Holly Schofield
Gags, Bits, and Business by T. Jane Berry
Clown’s Syndrome by Joe Nazare
A Silent Comedy by Cate Gardner
Queen and Fool by Dayle A. Dermatis
Clowns of the Creosote Plains by Chillbear Latrigue
Pushpin and Pullpin by Charles Payseur
An Argument for Clowning on the Sabbath by Jeff Wolf
Whaling with Clowns by Chris Kuriata
Clown Shoes by Cassandra Khaw
God’s Children by Jason Arias
Clown Car, Driven Once, Never Emptied by Karlo Yeager Rodriguez

We can’t wait to share this amazing anthology with you! In the meantime, keep an eye on twitter and this blog. More details about the anthology, Kickstarter rewards, and our upcoming Unlikely Academia issue, will be coming soon.

Congratulations, Kat Howard!

We’re thrilled to see Kat Howard’s All of Our Past Places from Unlikely Story #9: The Journal of Unlikely Cartography included among the finalists for this year’s WSFA Small Press Award. Congratulations to Kat and all her fellow nominees. We’re proud to have published such a wonderful story, and happy to see it gain wider recognition. The winner will be announced this October at Capclave. We’ll be keeping our fingers crossed until then!

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