An Unlikely Interview with Shira Lipkin

The Cartographer’s Requiem plays with the notion of representation transforming reality, as the drawing of a map and the singing of a song remake the world. The story is full of lush, gorgeous imagery, but color seems to play a particularly important role, with each cartographer having a color they consider ‘theirs’. Do you see color representing something fundamental about each cartographer, or are they transformed into who they are by the color associated with them?

Color was actually the first thing I knew about this story; I had the image of a red train on a parchment-colored background, and I thought “what is this train for?” and answered myself, “the cartographer’s funeral.”

And then tucked that into my hindbrain for years.

So there was a red train, to start with. But also, the entire time we “know” the cartographer, she’s been ill; at the end, she’s coughing blood. At the same time, what we know of the cartographer and her world is that the cartography, in part, makes the world. Someone’s maps are a look inside them. And, well, as Clive Barker said, wherever we’re opened, we’re red.

As far as the second cartographer’s color, I picked green just because it’s on the opposite side of the color wheel! Contrast. Maybe someday I’ll revisit and see how his maps might be different…

When you travel or visit a new area, are you the kind of person who likes to use a map (or GPS) to get to know the place, or do you prefer to explore and figure things out as you go along? Similarly, when it comes to fiction, do you outline, or do you start writing and find the story that way?

I most prefer to have a local guide! Both because I have terrible trouble with spatial relations, and because a map can’t tell me where the best ice cream is. 🙂

Generally I just start writing and find the story along the way, but it does tend to germinate for a while in the back of my head before I sit down to write it. With short stories I usually just set off on the adventure; with longer work, I always know what my endgame is, and I always know my final lines or paragraphs. But I leave myself open to surprises along the way.

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 did some exotic dancing when I lived in Vegas! It was indeed a fascinating window into the human psyche (no, really), and I’ve definitely used it in my writing. Working on something tangentially related to it right now.

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’m not really sure where the line of obscurity lies! I don’t see nearly enough people in genre talking about Nick Harkaway, for example, but he seems to be selling well. Can I talk nonfiction? If you like neuroscience, you absolutely need to be reading V.S. Ramachandran. Brilliant and funny. Start with Phantoms in the Brain. For history, Tom Standage covers topics as diverse as telegraphy as the Victorian internet (complete with long-distance romance!), the discovery of Neptune, and the history of the world through the lens of alcoholic beverages. Rebecca Solnit’s essays are pure poetry. But my favorite nonfiction book of the past howeverlong is Perfumes: The Guide by Luca Turin and Tania Sanchez. Obsessive, in-depth, often-hilarious analysis of the history of perfume and hundreds of reviews of modern perfumes. Wonderfully written. I was texting people quotes the whole time I was reading it.

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 poem “Wool and Silk and Wood”, in Electric Velocipede! It was the first poem I’d written since high school. I have no idea how it happened, it just fell out of me all poem-shaped, and I sent it to Klima, and he bought it. It is such an act of chutzpah to send out your first submission. I’m glad I did.

Now? Now I look at it and I know that I could do so much better! But Klima still likes it — he made a friend read it at Wiscon last year, and he’s reprinting it in The Best of Electric Velocipede. And that acceptance gave me the confidence to keep working and do better. So thank you, little poem.

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

My first- and second-ever stories, which sort of mirror each other, will be reprinted together in an ebook by Upper Rubber Boot! The second story was in a charity anthology and had yet to be reprinted, and has some of the weirdest-job stuff in it. I’ll be happy to get that where people can read it.

I am currently working on a novel and, apparently, three short stories at once.

Shira Lipkin’s short fiction and poetry have appeared in such marvelous places as Strange Horizons, Stone Telling, Clockwork Phoenix 4, Interfictions 2, and more (full bibliography at She won the Rhysling Award for best short poem in 2012; she co-edits Liminality, a magazine of speculative poetry, with Mat Joiner. She lives in Boston and, in her spare time, fights crime with the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center. Her cat is bigger than her dog.

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