An Unlikely Interview with Alvaro Zinos-Amaro

You have a talent for writing really nasty protagonists. Your main characters in both Miranda’s Wings and The Wall Garden (which appeared in a previous Unlikely Entomology Issue) seem to carry shades of Poe and Lovecraft. Your characters are not sympathetic, they do terrible things, and yet the reader ends up feeling for them based on the horror of their situations. Are you consciously influenced by either Poe or Lovecraft in your work?

Time for a confession. I have read very little by Poe or Lovecraft, maybe a handful of poems and stories for both authors combined. Or, said differently, I’m woefully under-read in these two canonical writers, which causes me to feel what I hope is an appropriate amount of shame. Based on your observation, though, maybe that’s not a bad thing--at least I can reasonably claim plausible deniability when it comes to them influencing my work! I’m sure I’ll get to them eventually.

Regarding unsympathetic protagonists: judging the actions of a character, I think, creates a relationship between the reader the character, and any relationship, in this case, is better than none. So I’ve never shied away from it. At times I’ve probably gone too far (in fact, an editor once told me so, using far kinder words). This is one aspect, by the way, that I enjoy about many of Joyce Carol Oates’ short stories. She often takes us inside the mind of damaged and damaging individuals, and while the horror of these stories tends to be non-supernatural or fantastic in origin, the overall mode or affect can be just as dark.

Not only are you an accomplished author, you hold a degree in Theoretical Physics. Do art and science ever clash for you, or does your educational background inform and enrich your writing?

No, I don’t see a tension there. I think it’s very much the latter, knowledge and awareness--be it of literature, physics, whatever--informing my worldview and hopefully broadening my horizon just a little. As Richard Feynman said in that famous 1981 interview, “science knowledge only adds to the excitement, the mystery and the awe of a flower. It only adds. I don’t understand how it subtracts.” I do think it does one more thing, too, which is constantly remind one of how little one really knows.

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 can’t say I have anything even remotely of note, by those standards. I did once work the night shift as a customer service rep for a roadside assistance company in Spain, and some pretty whacked out calls would occasionally come in. Telling the cooks or drunks from the genuinely distressed was sometimes an interesting challenge--particularly since the categories weren’t always mutually exclusive.

You’ve been the subject of our Unlikely Interview questions before. Is there anything you wish we’d asked last time around, but didn’t? And if so, what is your answer? If not, would you care to flip the tables and ask us anything?

Last year you asked me about holiday-themed works, and I replied: “I’m looking forward to reading the Gardner Dozois and Sheila Williams-edited anthology Isaac Asimov’s Christmas (1997). Every year I say, ‘This is the year.’ This is the year.” Let me set the record straight. This is the year.

Yes, I’d love to turn the tables and ask you a couple of things: 1) Have you and your editorial partner in crime considered putting together an anthology of stories originally published in the Journal of Unlikely Entomology (or one of its brethren)? 2) At what stage in the process of creating your magazine did you and Bernie realize that your aesthetics would be complementary, and that you could work well together? How long was it from inception of first issue?

[ACW responding…]

1) We have talked about the possibility of an anthology, or anthologies, either collecting previously-published Unlikely works, or as the next stage in our Unlikely evolution. No concrete plans yet, but we promise to keep you informed!

2) Bernie and I were in a critique group together for a while before starting the magazine, so we already knew our aesthetics would be complimentary from the beginning. To the best of my recollection (not always a thing to be relied upon), we started seriously talking about JUE in Fall 2010, we opened for submissions in January 2011, and our first issue appeared in May 2011.

[Bernie responding…]

2) I think it was actually Summer of 2010 that we started talking about it, and we put in a few months of serious thought and research before announced our intentions. It was important that we approached this in a way that was sustainable, not just financially, but from a work load perspective. We wanted to make sure both that we didn’t over-promise, and that we remained author- and story-focused, rather than editor-focused. It wasn’t until we convinced ourselves that we could do that that we announced our magazine.

1) Yes, of course. Mostly it hinges on sorting out the finances and modes of distribution. And time. Sorting out takes time.

When you’re not writing or theorizing about physics, what are your favorite ways to occupy your time?

My interest in science manifests in a strictly non-academic way these days, and has for a while. In my free time I tutor high-school students on calculus, physics, and so on, and I like to read all sorts of non-fiction and watch documentaries. I also enjoy movies, listening to music, and pursuing my fitness goals (as anemic as those are!).

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

I have some short stories slotted for publication:

“The Romance of Flying on Dead Languages” will be appearing in the first issue of Bahamut, edited by Rima Abunasser and Darin Bradley, with quite an extraordinary line-up of authors
“The Obvious Solution”, in which I resurrect a famous SF author, will appear in Buzzy Magazine
Mike Resnick bought “The Rose is Obsolete”, about time-travel and the challenges of old age, for Galaxy’s Edge
“Repeat After Me” is my first middle-grade SF short story, and will be included in the 2015 anthology Young Explorer’s Adventure Guide, edited by Corie and Sean Weaver
Rose Lemberg picked up my experimental piece “And Now You Are Alone Among the Stars” for the anthology she is editing, An Alphabet of Embers
“The Black Hole and the Entropy Collector” will appear in Nature Physics.

I’ve also been doing interviews for Clarkesworld magazine, and hope to be able to do more for them. Ditto for work on the Locus blog. I have a new review column called “Another Dimension” at InterGalactic Medicine Show (the first piece was just published in November).

I have a non-fiction book-length project on the horizon, but will only announce once the contract has been signed. And I’m looking for an agent to represent my first solo novel, an SF YA adventure called REYLA’S SONG.

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