An Unlikely Kickstarter

As unlikely as it may seem, we have launched a Kickstarter. Actually, it’s not all that unlikely, really. We received so many incredible submissions for Issue #11.5: The Journal of Unlikely Coulrophobia, we couldn’t possibly contain them in one issue. Like clowns in a car, we couldn’t help wanting to fit in more. So we decided -- why not try to put together an anthology? Our very first! So that’s what we did.

If it’s funded, Clowns: The Unlikely Coulrophobia Remix will reprint the five stories from the current Unlikely Coulrophobia mini-issue, and bring you additional flash fiction stories by Mari Ness, Kristen Roupenian, Evan Dicken, Line Henriksen, Holly Schofield, and J.H. Pell. We’ll also re-open to submissions. The more funding we get, the more stories we can add. The anthology will feature cover art by Linda Saboe, and black and white interior illustrations by Bryan Prindiville. More funding means more illustrations, too.

That’s the short version. For more information, visit our Kickstater page. We have some fabulous rewards to offer -- microfictions by Sara K. McNeilly, limericks by Mari Ness, story critiques by Evan Dicken, and Bernie Mojzes and A.C. Wise, original art by Linda Saboe, and Bryan Prindiville, and, of course, copies of the anthology. If for no other reason, you should visit our Kickstarter page to watch the truly horrifying video we put together. If you ever wanted a mix of the Unlikely Story editors embarrassing themselves and clown imagery to keep you from sleeping, this is the video for you. Then maybe you could throw us some money out of pity? Or because you believe in this project (we sure do!) and because you want more heartbreaking, funny, horrifying, lovely, and gut-punching stories like the ones we just published in Issue 11.5. We promise not to let you down.

Journal of Unlikely Coulrophobia Issue 11.5, April 2015


Table of Contents

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

Stories illustrated by Bryan Prindiville.

Fact: Like magpies, clowns covet shiny objects.
Keep your eyes closed.

Editor’s Note:

Dear Reader:

It is with profound apologies that we bring you this mini-issue, Issue 11.5, known amongst the initiated as The Journal of Unlikely Coulrophobia. Last year on this date we launched our first April Fools issue, The Journal of Unlikely Story Acceptances: intentionally bad stories by good writers. We expected this year’s sacrifice offering to be likewise light-hearted.

It is not.

Clowns have proved to be an unexpectedly fertile ground for authors to explore not just silliness and horror, but so much more. In the exaggerated greasepaint features of the clown we find reflected none other than ourselves, the internal made external, both our internal beauty and our hidden evils.

Fact: Most species of clowns have teeth like sharks;
they go all the way back.
Rarer clowns have baleen, but it isn’t the krill they strain.

In 1970 my parents moved to the Philadelphia area. I was five. New house, new bedroom, new bedroom furniture. New school. New baby brother. A lot of upheaval and anxiety. Somewhere in there, my parents decided that I needed something fun for my room. They bought a huge picture of a brightly colored, grinning clown. I hated it. My parents didn’t believe me, and hung it anyway. I woke screaming throughout the night. My parents were not dissuaded: money was an issue, and this expensive picture was going to bring me joy whether I liked it or not.

Fact: Clowns can remove their bones at will.
That’s how they fit so many in cars,
and how they slip under your door.

After none of us slept for days on end, I won that argument. Still, I remember that damned thing watching me as I slept. Maybe that’s why this issue exists.

Despite this formative moment, we weren’t looking for generic evil-clown stories. Yes, we love Tim Curry, but it’s more for how he fills out a corset than for his greasepaint. We were, frankly, overwhelmed with the number of stories that came in that tickled our funny bone while simultaneously tearing out our hearts, that made us laugh and shudder at the same time. We couldn’t possibly publish them all here. But we also couldn’t bear to let these stories go.

Which is why we’re putting out an anthology. Yes, that’s right, an anthology of clown flash fiction. And by “we are” I mean, “we are trying to.” The Kickstarter project for this anthology is (hopefully) launching today, and running for 30 days. If it’s funded, we’ll have our first ever print book, possibly the first ever anthology of clown flash fiction in the history of the world, featuring these stories, the stories we love but couldn’t fit in the issue, and an open call for additional submissions.

You know you want this. Don’t listen to reason. Listen to the thing under the bed, the thing hiding in the closet, the thing that softly honks in the darkness, and visit our Kickstarter page now.

Cover art by Linda Saboe

An Unlikely Interview with Joseph Tomaras

There is a scene in Monty Python’s Life of Brian in which multiple rebel factions disagree and ultimately destroy each other arguing which follows the ideologically correct path to ending Roman occupation. We see this less humorously in revolutionary movements in the past and present. How do you see the revolutionary movement of The Joy of Sects overcoming these divisions long enough to overcome the established order? How did Lydia’s particular party position themselves as canonical?

The non-fiction version is not always less humorous: Sometimes it is more so. Before I started writing fiction, I had spent more than a decade of my life as a cadre of a small and obscure Trotskyist grouping. With the exception of this story and one other that has yet to be published, those experiences do not factor directly into my fiction, because the most interesting of those experiences would seem implausible to anyone who had not undergone similar. You can tell the difference between those who have and those who haven’t during any screening of The Life of Brian: The latter laugh uproariously at what is patently absurd, the former laugh grimly at what is all-too-accurate.

When I started writing this story, I was in a rare period of my life when I did not believe I had the answers. I had lost faith in certain tenets in which I had ardently believed — for example, the necessity of “democratic centralist” “propaganda groups” as intermediaries in building toward the inevitable uprising — yet I was still broadly optimistic that humans would figure something new out in time to overcome capital’s dead hand. I meant the name “Workers’ Unity” sincerely, as a token of the possibility for fundamental unity to emerge from a variety of ideological strands and intersectional positions on the basis of clear confrontation around class exploitation. Lydia partakes of that optimism, and also the hard-won certainty of someone who has struggled through to victory out of confusion. In that respect, she is my most beloved Mary Sue, or was at the time of her emergence. (That my most beloved Mary Sue is a pansexual transwoman has implications that I leave to the reader to ponder.) Since then, the story has been through many edits—how many will have to be reconstructed out of the metadata by some future archivist. I lost that optimism along the way. I can pinpoint the date: May 14, 2013, when I wrote and published this blog entry.

While the story has allusions to ecological catastrophe, Lydia is still confident in humanity’s communist future in a way that I no longer am. I couldn’t rob her of that without her becoming a completely different character, and the story becoming even more grim. (Could you imagine someone enduring what she does for a cause in which she no longer believes?) Lydia, despite her evident exhaustion, still thinks things are going fairly well. I see some shadows she has not yet discerned. At the time of first writing, I could have written a very didactic pre-history of this story, with various strands, tendencies, affinity groups, etc., joining in the Unity. I am no longer a person capable of writing that story. So this answer is a very elaborate dodging of the question. I will say, though, that I consider this story, the story “Bonfires in Anacostia” that appeared in Clarkesworld 95, and two others still knocking about in slushpiles, to exist within the same timeline, one that I can only see through a fractured mirror.

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?

The weirdest job I have had is the one that I presently hold. I have been working in academic settings for 12 straight years now, at a variety of institutions, but always in roles that could be classified as having to do with “research administration”. I help college faculty compete for grant funding to support their research, in all conceivable disciplines. Once they get that funding, I help the accountants make sure that the professors don’t do anything flagrantly illegal with the money. Any job in academia, regardless of the role, will have a good deal of weirdness. The peculiar nature of the job, which combines high pressure and large stakes in an arena where the usual pace is dilatory and little but ego is at play, makes research administration peculiar even within academia.

This is my eighth story to be published, and there are hints of academia in nearly all. But I recall a moment that led to the development of my approach to fiction writing. At a previous position, I was being driven to an awards banquet with a group of faculty and administrators who had recently been successful in grant seeking. One person in the vehicle was a writer, so the scientists started asking, “What do you write?” “Creative non-fiction,” she answered. “Creative non-fiction!” they scoffed. “What the hell is that?” I butted in: “Grant proposals are creative non-fiction.” I had meant it as a joke, but it was one of those jokes that is more true than intended. At the time, I had been agonizing over a proposal in support of an administrator’s ideas that were total bullshit. The joke helped me get over the writer’s block. I realized that I had to engage the proposal science-fictionally, in Samuel Delaney’s sense. That is, I had to write it such that each sentence would evoke in a reader’s mind a world in which these bullshit ideas were actually working. I did that, and we got the grant. Several months later, using this technique, I wrote my first short story that did not totally suck. (“One-Sided,” which earned me an honorable mention in an obscure contest, a $5 paycheck, and a place in a Smashwords anthology.) This is my basic approach with all stories, even ones in a more realistic style.

The year-end reading list you posted on your blog covers a wide range of topics -- from vodun history in Brazil to family and class in post-industrial Chicago. Is your reading informed by your formal educational background, your current job, your personal interests, or a combination? To what degree does your non-fiction reading inform your fiction writing?

I probably read more fiction than non-fiction, but I am less likely to recommend fiction than non-fiction, more critical of what is out there. I have always been a voracious reader, but my highest degree is a B.A. in Philosophy. In retrospect I realize that it is because I was never able to stick to one subject for long. The universality of interests that made me well-rounded as an undergraduate was one of many things that turned my brief stint in graduate school into a season in hell. It took me a while, but I’ve found a position where being genuinely interested in everything is more an asset than a liability. I am referring here not to fiction writing, but to research administration. In fiction writing it means that my stories are jam-packed with references to obscure and disparate elements of our species’ varied cultural heritages, and thus very hard to sell. “The Joy of Sects” is a perfect example.

The research on Brazilian Candomblé found its way, through my usual process, into an alternate history epistolary story that I am about two-thirds of the way through writing. It also has Hasidic Judaism, slave revolts, multilingual puns, footnotes, and references to Walter Benjamin. I doubt it will be an easy sale.

In one of your recent blog posts, you mention a list of people some of your stories might offend. Who do you plan to offend next?

That all depends on which of my stories next emerges from the slush. I did get solicited to work on a project called Sirens, and if my contribution to it is accepted, it may already be out by the time this interview is published. That would most likely offend Greeks, cops, and fascists — the usual.

Pick an author whose work you enjoy (past or present) and tell us about the book they never wrote, but you wish they had.

One of my as-yet-unpublished pieces of slush involves an unwritten story by Isaak Babel, or rather an alternate version of a story he did in fact write and publish. In my story, he never even finishes the alternate version: “He makes several starts that he soon finds dissatisfying, for he cannot decide if the youth was in fact a spy, or perhaps some aphasic madman returned to Galicia from an ill-starred migration to New York. Other possibilities he senses not as conscious thoughts, but as a creeping dread that comes whenever he tries to read Pravda’s latest denunciations. He has not yet learned how to live or write with uncertainty, and tears the offending page out of his diary, locking it and his first jottings together in a bureau drawer.” A historian later finds these jottings in the archives of the Russian secret police, but even so they never come to human awareness.

There are in fact many such writings that disappeared into the archives of secret police the world over (including a novel by Victor Serge), not to mention the things that were never written because of lives cut short or, as in the quote above, unconscious self-censorship. The least modest of my aspirations is to bring all such writings back into existence.

An Unlikely Interview with Fiona Moore

The mash-up of self-aware AI, modern day information pirates, and traditional pirate ballads in The Confession of Whistling Dixie, works surprisingly well, not to mention being a lot of fun. Could you tell us a bit about how this story came to be, and how you wove the elements together?

The initial idea actually came from a more traditional call for submissions — the horror publisher Knightworks Press put out a call for stories for an anthology called “Dead Men’s Tales”, that were a) about pirates, but b) the narrator had to be dead. Straight away I had the idea of doing a story about data pirates, narrated by the AI they’d developed to help them (who, of course, had never strictly speaking been alive). What with one thing or another I missed the deadline, but I was having too much fun with the story to stop writing it.

The songs came in when I sat down to write. Straight away, the first line, “Fifteen million petabytes on a dead man’s chest. Yo ho ho and a botnet of RAM” came into my head, and that was the point when I got a handle on Dixie’s character — that it was intelligent, and had a sense of humour of sorts, but that its points of reference for how to interact with humans, and how to understand the human world, were largely derived from the sources it had contact with, and that one of these would be pirate ballads. This also determined the medium by which it would attack the agent from the CIA; music is the lens through which Dixie sees everything, but it’s also Dixie’s main weapon.

In the first draft, I also included a few modern songs on pirate themes, which I then went through and edited out for copyright reasons. I think the version focused on traditional ballads is better, but the one which I do slightly regret losing is that, in the original version of the segment where Dixie talks about how it understands the concept of pornography, it sang a couple of lines of “Frigging in the Rigging” by the Sex Pistols.

Speaking of pirates, which historical pirate do you consider the most intriguing, and why?

I’m fascinated by Anne Bonny and Mary Read. Particularly because there’s no record of what happened to Anne Bonny after she was captured; some think she took a new identity and went back to piracy, and I would like to think she did.

Your writing profile is quite diverse. In addition to short stories, you’ve also written non-fiction business books and articles from an anthropological standpoint, guidebooks to television shows such as Battlestar Galactica and Blake’s 7, plays, and audio dramas. Do all these different types of writing mesh for you and inform each other, or do you find yourself compartmentalizing each form in a separate part of your brain? What appeals to you about each type of writing?

On one level, they mesh and inform each other. I tend to work on different projects separately, but I’ll be working on an article and then I’ll get an idea for a story, or I’ll get an insight into a character on a television show from a story I’m writing. I tend to write a lot about artificial cultures — speculating about the sort of cultures that AIs might develop, once they become truly independent — which seems to me to be a logical outgrowth of my anthropological research; after studying real-life human cultures, I can go away and speculate on what a really non-human culture might be like.

On another, they’re more complementary. I tend to switch from one type of writing to another: I write fiction as a distraction from my more academic and analytical work, but on those moments when the creative juices aren’t flowing, I’ll work on a more academic or critical article instead.

The appeal of both fiction and non-fiction-writing is the same for me: it’s the joy of discovery, of seeing the data, or the elements of a story or play, come together to make something new.

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?

The strangest job I’ve had was as a historical interpreter in a living-history museum based at a Victorian fortress. I alternated between playing the fort’s schoolmistress and a soldier’s wife. I’ve never directly put anything from the experience into a story, but it did teach me a lot about storytelling and holding an audience.

Some authors require complete silence when they write, others need their desk arranged a certain way, or their favorite tea mug at hand. What does your ideal writing space look like — either the place where you actually write, or the imaginary place where you wish you could write?

I do most of my best writing on the sofa, feet up, with my laptop. It’s my favourite place to write, as long as the cats will let me anyway. I like to listen to music or have the radio on while I work; background noise helps me focus.

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’ve always regretted that Mervyn Peake never continued with the Gormenghast series; apparently he had lots of ideas of where Titus Groan would go next, but we’ll never know what happened to him in the end.

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.

As an undergraduate, I had a professor who subscribed to Freudian theory, in defiance of all the criticisms of it. So I had to learn a lot about Freud, which I didn’t think was much use at the time, but which turned out to be surprisingly important in terms of understanding mid-twentieth-century films, like Forbidden Planet and Vertigo. Once you get your head around the fact that they’re all operating from a Freudian basis, they make so much more sense.

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?

My first paid publication was a poem which appeared in On Spec magazine. I was really proud of it at the time — I still am — but I find I can’t really get my head around writing poetry these days.

When your creative brain needs recharging are there any particular hobbies you turn to, people you talk to, or places you go to refresh yourself?

I like to go for walks around Portobello Road, usually winding up in a cafe somewhere. Alan Stevens, who’s my collaborator on the guidebooks, plays and some of the articles, and I tend to use each other as sounding-boards for new ideas or problems we’ve come up with when writing.

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 think Dixie is going to take over the world. Seriously. I really think the end of human civilisation has begun with Dixie and Mister Langley, we just won’t know it for a while yet.

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.

A Scientific Romance by Roland Wright — he is well known as a nonfiction writer, but I haven’t met too many people, in the UK at least, who read his novels. I first read the book in graduate school; it’s a beautiful story, ostensibly about an archaeologist who travels in time to the future, and pieces together what happened to our civilisation, but as you get into it, and as you realise that the narrator is decidedly unreliable, you start to see different meanings to the story’s events.

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

I’m going to be giving a keynote talk at the Telefantasy and Society Symposium at Lincoln University on 6 May — it’s going to be a great conference, with people from TV, publishing and academia sharing their insights, and I’d encourage everyone to come along if you can. Also, keep an eye out for volume 2 of the Battlestar Galactica book, coming out any day now from Telos Publishing!

An Unlikely Interview with Barry King

The title of Those Who Gave Their Island to Survive is drawn from Peter Gabriel’s ‘Here Comes the Flood’. To what degree did the song inspire the writing of this story? In general, do you frequently turn to music for writing inspiration?

I was cheating, really. Copyright law doesn’t cover titles, so stealing a snippet of a song is sometimes a convenient way to set tone and content from the outset for a known audience. This is a story I wrote for that X-er generation that built Internet culture. Gabriel is and was very popular in that crowd. Is it “fair use” to appropriate a line like that? I think so. Culture is all about borrowing and modifying: repurposing meaning for new variants on a theme.

But to actually answer the question, I have a very over-active right brain, and I (usually to my wife’s annoyance and/or amusement) find associations too easily, especially quotes and lyrics. ‘Flood’ is the kind of song that acts as a signpost to a story. Towards the end of writing it, I found myself returning to the song, because it was subconsciously providing a window into a particular state of dramatic tension. Later on, I looked up the origin of the song and found that it was taken from a dream that resembles my story, so I used the key line as the title.

But stories, for me, come from stewing a lot of things together. In this stew, the main theme, the meat, was the incoercible nature of play, which was appropriated from James P. Carse. His Finite and Infinate Games was a big influence on me early in life, and it continues to shape how I look at issues like privacy and access to information.

Speaking of inspiration, you’re also somewhat of a photographer and a cook. Do those pursuits feed into the same creative place your writing comes from, or are they a way to switch gears when your brain is stuck?

Feed out from more like. I love emerging patterns and try to capture or participate in them. Sometimes this is a photo of an alien structure in a commonplace plant, sometimes it’s getting three impromptu dishes to be ready at the same time and complement each other in flavour, sometimes it’s getting rhyme, meter, meaning, and tone to work together in a poem, sometimes it’s an elegant solution in code to a complex data problem—they’re all whole-brain exercises in that you have to trust yourself to do them, and when you do, they arise apparently out of nothing.

So in reading and writing stories, I love watching complex plots that emerge from simple motivations that fugue together into an inevitable conclusion. Good art mimics life, and life is nothing if not complexity arising from simplicity and headed towards an inevitable conclusion.

A similar question, related to your background in programming — particularly for a story like this one, does your day job help your writing, or does being so familiar with the subject matter ever get in the way?

Following the same theme, I’d say computers are the most complex tools we’ve ever made, but they are also made up of simple parts, and the conceptual baggage you need to understand them is actually very small. Most of what I do in my day job is re-interpreting those basic concepts in whatever the flavour of jargon, framework, and platform marketers have convinced us is the acme of our time and finding ways to use those latest variants to accomplish my clients’ ends.

There’s help and hinderance in this. Cyberpunk is very jargon-heavy, and so there’s plenty of window-dressing to borrow, and not always for good reasons.

For example, 3DES is an encryption standard that is both very well known in cryptography circles, and also somewhat distrusted, because it was made early on by IBM for the U.S. Government, and it is suspected, although not independently proven, to have some hidden flaw that only *ahem* a certain agency knows about. So when an expert cryptographer, like Marvin, uses it, it implies a certain degree of naïveté… or does it?

Well, if you know this about 3DES, like most security professionals and cypherpunks, you’d understand this implicitly, and know that Marvin uses it as a decoy message to hide his true intentions. Should a writer limit his audience’s access to a story? Thomas Mann wrote essential parts of The Magic Mountain in French, and if you don’t speak French, you miss some of the juiciest parts of the book. But he’s Thomas Mann. I’m not Thomas Mann by any means, so I have to keep a rein on the jargon, while still using valid lingo.

But the biggest way understanding computers on a fundamental level gets in the way of this kind of story is that there are some hoary old chestnuts of the genre I simply can’t stomach using: the magic box that decrypts passwords (Sneakers), blurred physical and virtual reality (Inception), nerve-like networks with instant sensing (The Matrix), and organism-like programs freely moving from device to device without being copied (Max Headroom).

What would any of those films be without those bits of magical hand-wavery? Very dull indeed.

Recent Reviews

Unlikely Story #11: The Journal of Unlikely Cryptography has been getting some nice buzz lately. For your convenience, we’ve gathered up some recent reviews. Congratulations to all our authors!

SFRevu and Quick Sip Reviews both cover the entire issue of Unlikely Story #11.

In her latest Clavis Aurea column at Apex, Charlotte Ashley gives an in-depth review of Curtis C. Chen’s It’s Machine Code.

Over at Skiffy and Fanty, Cecily Kane includes The Confession of Whistling Dixie in her Short and Sublime: February 2015 Round-Up.

An Unlikely Interview with Curtis C. Chen

The character of Margaret Fisher in It’s Machine Code is slightly reminiscent of Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple (except on the other side of the law), the sweet, little old lady no one suspects, and thus everyone overlooks. Could you tell us a bit about the inspiration behind the character, and the story in general?

I watched a lot of “Murder, She Wrote” as a child for some reason. And I’ve always been a fan of elderly characters who have a lot of accumulated life experience and suddenly encounter a new situation to which they can apply their expertise.

This story started as a terrible pun: “CSI: Computer Science Investigation.” I wrote a flash piece with that title, then realized it had to be the start of a larger story. Plot-wise, I struggled for a
bit with the “movie hacking” problem--typing at a keyboard is hardly exciting on screen, and on paper there’s also the risk of falling into an infodump spiral. So I decided to make the central crime something more tangible and hardware-related, instead of purely a software issue.

3-D printing is a relatively new technology, still in its infancy, but the printable handgun is already creating controversy. The benefits ultimately appear extraordinary, but at the same time it creates significant complexity in many realms from manufacturing to product control to the very concept of the original. How do you see this playing out in the future?

Well, my hope is that we’ll eventually all have Star Trek replicators and live in a post-scarcity economy. But that probably won’t happen for a few more years.

I’m hesitant to make specific predictions, because things rarely go the way we expect them to, but I definitely expect more growing pains of the type you’ve described. When physical objects are as easy to
copy as a computer file, what rights does the original creator retain, and should we attempt to impose non-native restrictions on that technology? This is what’s happening with digital media and
anti-piracy laws right now, and I have no idea how that’s going to shake out. In the long term, I’m hoping that people will end up placing more value on experiences rather than things, which makes copy protection less of an issue for everyone.

In addition to your writing, you’re part of the podcasting team for SnoutCast, which focuses on puzzles, gaming, and interactive room escape and puzzle hunt games. For those who aren’t familiar with these type of games,could you talk a bit about puzzle hunts, and similar large-scale interactive games? Have you ever run/designed a puzzle hunt, or do you tend to stick to the player side of things?

There are lots of different flavors of puzzle hunts, and I encourage everyone to try them! My particular community creates original brain-teasers which “solve” to reveal hidden messages, usually linked to a central theme or overarching story for the event.

I’ve run dozens of puzzle events with my wife and different teams of friends, starting in 2001 with our version of “The Game,” a weekend-long driving hunt in the San Francisco bay area. Our biggest event was a Harry Potter-themed Game which included a train ride to get to “Hogwarts” (downtown Sacramento) and a custom-built “magic wand” (electronic device with motion sensing) for each team. Since July of 2010, we’ve helped organize Puzzled Pint events on the second Tuesday of every month — we started in Portland, Oregon, but have now expanded to twelve cities, including London and Montreal. You can find
out more about that at

There’s a lot of cool stuff happening with puzzle games these days. We just concluded SnoutCast after five years and 213 episodes, and our archives include interviews with many other creators. You can also
visit friends-of-the-show and for current puzzling news and event listings, respectively.

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?

Well, I used to be a software engineer, and I wrote this story called “It’s Machine Code”…

Seriously, though, I haven’t had too many strange jobs. The most unusual one, I suppose, was when a former tech industry co-worker hired me to write some articles for the Wired How-To Wiki as part of a
project sponsored by Intel. I got paid more per word on that gig than any other writing I’ve done before or since. I also did freelance tech blogging for a couple of years. That type of content production is very different from fiction writing; it was interesting and educational, but also split my focus too much, so I decided to stop. I have nothing but respect for my freelancer friends who can juggle a ton of different writing projects with different requirements all the time.

Some authors require complete silence when they write, others need their desk arranged a certain way, or their favorite tea mug at hand. What does your ideal writing space look like — either the place where you actually write, or the imaginary place where you wish you could write?

I personally don’t believe in writing rituals. For me, the greatest inspiration is a hard deadline and another person waiting for me to deliver. When I know someone is expecting a thing, I’ll finish it no
matter what; when my team has announced a date for a puzzle event, we’ll run that event, come hell or high water. I suppose my wish would be not for a specific writing space, but rather the ability to work in any environment regardless of the distractions which might be present!

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.

I have terribly mainstream tastes, so I’m afraid I don’t know a lot of very obscure authors. But here are three books I didn’t expect to love as much as I did, in no particular order:

-- THE HUNDRED THOUSAND KINGDOMS by N.K. Jemisin, which does everything right and then some. I don’t read a lot of fantasy, but this hooked me from page one and didn’t let go until the very end.

-- THE SUMMER PRINCE by Alaya Dawn Johnson, which plays on the surface like a YA novel but has the dark, resonant undertones of the best future dystopias.

-- A ROGUE BY ANY OTHER NAME by Sarah MacLean. I’m reading category romance as part of my continuing education in writing compelling
characters and relationships, and there’s plenty of both in here. Don’t judge.

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

I have a short story, “Ten Days Up,” in the Baen anthology MISSION: TOMORROW, which will be published in the fall of 2015. Follow me on Twitter (@curtiscchen) or bookmark my bibliography web page for further announcements!

An Unlikely Interview with Levi Sable

The idea of knitting code, which is central to Dropped Stitches, is a fascinating one. Are you a knitter? Could you tell us a bit about where the inspiration for the story came from, and how it developed?

I am a devoted ex-knitter. My aunt taught me when I was about twelve—I spent a lot of time in high school knitting in class. I liked starting projects but never finishing them; I bought fancy wool and bamboo needles and they just grew sadder and dustier and a few years ago I sold them all on craigslist for $20 or so. As far as Dropped Stitches, I think the original idea came from a conversation my partner and I had a long time ago. We were looking at knitting patterns and discussing how interesting and complicated they were. Traditionally feminine things like knitting can be so technically complicated, and often garner so little respect. It’s frustrating and intriguing. I wanted to explore a society where something traditionally “unimportant” like knitting is very important — and also to keep it within the feminine sphere.

In addition to your fiction, you also blog regularly for VillageQ and QueerDadsBlog. Does your non-fiction writing inform your fiction, or is it a way to engage a totally different part of your brain when you’re stuck on a scene or a plot point?

I think non-fiction is a great way to approach writing from a different angle. It helps me clarify what I want to say and what I mean to say in both non-fiction and fiction. At least, I hope it does! Non-fiction also makes me appreciate how easy and smooth fiction writing is. Fiction is like walking, and non-fiction is like learning to dance. They both use my feet but only one of them is for everyday use.

On a related note, you wrote about fostering raccoons for VillageQ. Color us intrigued. Is this an ongoing thing? Could you tell us more about the raccoon fostering experience?

I won’t be doing it this season because I have a lot of other things going on, so whether it’s ongoing is up in the air. Raccoon fostering was exhausting and difficult and gave me a lot of respect for folks who save wild animals. It was a lot of bottle feeding and snuggling cute and cuddly babies, until they weren’t bottle feeding all of a sudden, and then they weren’t generally snuggly, either. It was an excellent proof of nature/nurture, and the way that even sweet, well-treated wild animals are still, genetically, wild animals. Also, baby raccoons chirp and purr and kneed like kittens. Just about the cutest thing you can imagine. (You can see some adorable pictures on VillageQ at

Some authors require complete silence when they write, others need their desk arranged a certain way, or their favorite tea mug at hand. What does your ideal writing space look like — either the place where you actually write, or the imaginary place where you wish you could write?

My ideal writing place is a room full of lazy dogs and a vat full of always-fresh coffee. Lately, I’ve been writing at the dining table, watching the birds on my bird feeders and the squirrels in my backyard. It’s pretty ideal. There’s only one lazy dog, but I’m working on my partner on that one.

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?

Technically? I won first place in my grade level (fourth?) for an MLK-day essay. I’m pretty sure it was two paragraphs long. It’s been lost to history and I couldn’t be happier.

Aside from that, my first adult work was a short story in Spellbound. Looking back on it, I’m pretty happy, both in that it’s not terrible, and also in that I’ve improved quite a bit since then. It was a fun kids story and I’m so glad they took it!

When your creative brain needs recharging are there any particular hobbies you turn to, people you talk to, or places you go to refresh yourself?

Plants. I have a lot of houseplants and several outdoor gardens. Gardening is a very calming activity for me — it can be low-impact exercise and also lets my brain wander just enough to get reset and happy.

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?

Twenty years…Claudia and Jennifer are probably getting old. I feel like, no matter what happens with her expected baby, Jennifer’s not going to have changed much. She might be full of regrets but I don’t think she’s the type to learn from her mistakes. I think Claudia will have gotten more honestly bitter, in a way that’s really good for her. I think she’ll be all out of caring for what people think, and she’ll be happier for it.

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.

Aside from everyone who was published in the Long Hidden anthology? Everyone should read Better Girls from Broken Parts by Nino Cipri, and also keep an eye out for their story Shape of My Name coming on next month. Nino is a SUPER talented writer and I’m excited to see what they do next.

It’s Not Just Entertainment

There are a lot of reasons why we started Unlikely Story. Many of them were self-oriented (“This will be fun!”; “This will improve my writing!”; “This will help me understand the Other Side! (i.e. why editors and publishers make incomprehensible decisions like rejecting my unrevised manuscripts)”; “This will rid me of all that pesky excess cash that’s been lying around the house!”).

All good reasons.

But the real reason is this: It’s not just entertainment. Good fiction isn’t just a good tale, told well. It’s a sharing of ideas, and a sharing of worlds. A sharing of little bits of oneself out into the world. A sharing of ways of seeing, and of ways of being. Good fiction grows the world.

Merc Rustad’s essay this week shows just how important, how necessary, and how life-changing this can be.

The fact that we can contribute to this, even just a little bit? That’s why we’re doing this.

An Unlikely Interview with Lauren C. Teffeau

There’s a very visual, cinematic quality to Jump Cut, which is appropriate for a story about using film sequences as a drug, and you shared a Pinterest board on Twitter of images you drew on in writing the story. Do you gather pictures as inspiration for all your writing projects? What generally comes first, the images, or the story?

When researching my stories, I try to keep track of my sources, and Pinterest is a great tool for collecting visual inspiration. I maintain a board for each of my projects but they don’t go live until the project is sold/published — so needless to say I have a lot of “secret” boards as a result. As to which comes first, images or story, it depends. Sometimes I tell myself I’m going to write a story about x, and do so. Other times, I’ll envision some sort of scene or situation and have to determine what came before and after that moment to uncover the bigger story. Both methods have their pros and cons, but usually the Pinterest board comes in after I have a solid handle on the story. As a result, I’m usually chasing down pins that match the images in my head, not the other way around.

In this story, you invoke Paul Virilio, as well as innovators of cinematic montage, and draw strongly on many of the themes Virilio writes of. Additionally, Marek’s usage of the technologies of speed stand in stark contrast with Deseronto’s — speed as a means of violence and control as opposed to accident, anarchy and freedom -- essentially the contrast between Virilio and Filippo Marinetti’s Futurists. Can you tell us a little bit about the theories you drew on, especially those of speed and the accident, and how they informed the narrative?

Yikes. There’s a lot to unpack here so please bear with me. This story emerged out of a desire to leverage my master’s degree in mass communication where I studied film theory and cultural studies. I thought it would be an interesting challenge to try to incorporate some of those concepts into a speculative fiction milieu.

In a critical theory course, I was exposed to Virilio and his ideas on how the mind both perceives and is affected by the speed of modern life, as exemplified by cinema. Moving pictures are comprised of individual stills linked together, and our brains have to resolve the differences between frames when shown in succession to understand the visual information as motion. Virilio posits that people do this in their waking life as well, making sense of gaps in awareness and the passage of time, so it is perceived as a continuous whole. His insights continue to have a lot of relevance in our increasingly desynchronized, decoupled, modern world, for example: “[T]he more information flashes by the more aware we are of its incomplete fragmentary nature,” (The Aesthetics of Disappearance, Semiotext(e), 2009, p.55).

In developing my concept of vid-boosting for “Jump Cut,” I wanted expand on Virilio’s idea of cinema as speed by focusing on those gaps in awareness and between frames, which led me to film editing techniques.

Montage, generally speaking, is a way to manipulate space, visual information, and the passage of time in a film. In a training montage, for example, the viewer is expected to understand that the cross-cutting between different activities implies a longer sequence of training (and, by extension, time) that is skipped over. Hence, the viewer’s perception of time can be speeded up or slowed down as a result. Montage can also be employed by cutting to other images, sometimes only tangentially related to the primary story. In these cases, the linking of the two different images forces the viewer’s brain to resolve the competing information to make sense of the association, leading to Eisenstein’s assertion that the collision of two images creates a psychological effect (his 1942 The Film Sense is a seminal text on montage).

Back to Virilio. He extends his theory of speed to that of war, where the trajectory of modern warfare is determined by the speed of its technological developments (see his Speed and Politics: An Essay on Dromology). In that sense, Marek, who seeks control of the hover cross gambling circuit, is dependent on the speed by which he adopts new technologies like vid-boosting to help him and his players stay on top.

Marinetti’s Futurists saw speed as something to exult in and celebrate. This was part of a larger cultural movement that viewed the speed that came from advances in machinery, automotive technology, and other industrial achievements, as the embodiment of true freedom. This whole-hearted embrace of speed in all its permutations in both art and politics was combined with a rejection of the past in exchange for the future. The Futurists also saw war as the ultimate way to purge the world of outmoded concepts. (Counter-Currents Publishing’s profile on Filippo Marietti provides an accessible summary of the Futurists’ worldview.)

Ari and Jack, as hover cross athletes, are addicted to speed and revel in it, much like the Futurists did. Ari sees vid-boosting as the future of hover cross racing, rejecting tried-and-true practices in the wake of the new technology. Jack, though, particularly in his funk after his friend’s death, isn’t interested in all that. Instead, he’s more enamored of the freedom that comes from fully giving himself over to speed, and the vid-boosting techniques that amplifies those sensations.

But, of course, no technology is perfect. Virilio also believes that creating new technologies creates the potential for accidents related to those technologies as a matter of course. “Speed is a cause of death for which we’re not only responsible but of which we are also the creators and inventors,” (Aesthetics, p. 112). In the case of moving images, it comes back to those gaps between visual information that the brain has to resolve. These disruptions, regardless of how minor, still separate us from reality, and this distancing opens us up to the possibility of misunderstanding the meaning of the images if the brain can’t keep up or make sense of a transition. Similarly, the development of hover cross would by necessity include the possibility of hover cross accidents. I wanted both types of these “accidents” to feature in the story. The first, accidents in perception that the willful misuse of visual stimuli employs to create the boost. And second, the more straightforward hover cross crash, an accident that wouldn’t be possible without the existence of hover cross in the first place.

You’ve lived in a lot of different places across the United States. Has all the moving you’ve done informed your writing at all? Do you find different moods or tones creeping into your writing based on where you’re living at the time?

Moving to different parts of the country has helped me embrace my identity as a writer, something I’ve struggled with for a long time. The places I’ve lived correlate to different phases of my life: childhood, college, grad school, work, and now writing. When my husband and I moved to New Mexico, I had the unique opportunity to reinvent myself in a place far away from family, friends, employers, and expectations. No one was there to watch me fail, repeatedly, as I struggled to develop my craft. Now, I have a supportive group of writers in New Mexico and a life devoted to my stories. For me, writing and New Mexico are forever linked.

Some authors require complete silence when they write, others need their desk arranged a certain way, or their favorite tea mug at hand. What does your ideal writing space look like — either the place where you actually write, or the imaginary place where you wish you could write?

We’re in the process of revamping our home office to better accommodate my writing activities. In the meantime, my favorite place to work is a local coffee shop. The brew is average but the ambiance is welcoming to those needing a comfortable workspace with enough white noise to drown out the rest of the world. The caffeine doesn’t hurt either. 😉

When your creative brain needs recharging are there any particular hobbies you turn to, people you talk to, or places you go to refresh yourself?

Exercise helps jumpstart my day. But sometimes I need a little more creative headspace to work through things if I get stuck. Enter video games. I can just turn on my console and let the hindbrain take care of the rest. Action-adventure games are my favorite. First-person shooters can’t be too realistic, otherwise it stops being fun and starts feeling creepy. And I stay away from open-world environments—if I let them suck me in, I’d never write again.

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

This June, The Change: Tales of Downfall and Rebirth releases from Roc, and I’m honored my story “Against the Wind” will be included in the anthology. Stories are set in S.M. Stirling’s post-apocalyptic Emberverse, where all electronics, explosives, and internal combustion engines mysteriously cease working and humanity must find a way to survive. The anthology — with stories from Stirling, Harry Turtledove, Walter Jon Williams, John Birmingham, John Barnes, Jane Lindskold and others — is a great introduction to Steve’s world or a fun companion to his novels.

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