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!

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