Mari Ness Author Interview
An intense feeling of isolation permeates Ink, yet it’s a story where information is passed through the intimate act of touch. Could you talk a bit about the seeming paradox in the story? Do you see your main character as typical within her profession, or is she more unique in her loneliness?
She’s pretty typical – all of the agents are generally loners. What she chooses is less typical.
On a related note, you imply far more to your main character’s story than revealed over the course of the tale. How much of her back story do you know? In writing a story with layers beneath the surface, do you ever write that back story for yourself, or does it exist only in your head?
That’s a hard question to answer. I know quite a bit about the people she’s working for, far more than she does, since that forms part of the overall background to a series of stories/novellas that I’m working on. Bits and pieces of that are written down in note form. I know a little more about her story – I needed some background info. But that part stayed mostly in my head.
What are you currently reading/what have you read recently that you’re excited about?
Plans for the restoration of the Florida Everglades. I keep hoping that we can keep that magic around for years to come, and that everyone will be able to watch blue herons flying into the cypress trees, just missing alligators.
What’s your favorite piece of cryptographic fiction (written, filmed, or otherwise)? Alternately, what real world cryptographic mystery (solved or unsolved) intrigues you the most?
Linear A! What language does this represent? And what might the words tell us? Lists of sheep and cows, or tales of myth and legend? Laws? Betrayal? I haven’t a clue. But it does hint at all kinds of intriguing possibilities.
Or maybe it will just end up being very dull laundry lists. Who knows?
What are you working on or do you have coming up you want people to know about?
My main work coming up that I’m very proud of is an epic poem – and I do mean very epic; the word count is equal to a novella – that retells the story of Helen of Troy in her own voice and song. It’s called Through Immortal Shadows Singing and should be out later this year.
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?
My thoughts first jumped to my strangest job interview, where the interviewer lit my backpack on fire. Deliberately. I did not take the job.
I’ve had other odd jobs here and there – working as a singer during several holiday seasons; working as a clown (I wasn’t good at it); a three day job with a fierce parrot; some amusing tutoring experiences; and the usual fast food things. But the longest running weirdest job was hands down the five years I spent with a wholesale travel company that sold customized tours around the world to various academic and religious groups. The job itself was a typical office job on the surface. Beneath the surface, it often involved trying to get corpses out of Russia, rescuing clients from various jails around the world, and trying to act as an intermediary between God and various worldwide airlines, who seemed to be in almost constant contention.
I have too many stories from that job to count, really – we usually had at least three or more bizarre things a week – so many that I’ve forgotten most of them. Which is to say I’m not sure just how many of them have crept into my stories. Probably quite a few.
So probably the only odd job that did sink into my stories was my work as a singer – quite a few of my characters are, like me, mediocre singers who occasionally turn to that work to get by.
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.
I went to a fairly unusual elementary school where I learned quite a bit about opera, chickens, building dragons in opera houses, the life of St. Catherine of Siena, and why you should not keep mommy and daddy canaries in the same cage unless you want a lot of little canaries and you have someone willing to adopt little canaries, which can be difficult since little canaries can make a lot of noise. I feel the canary part was a valuable lesson for the rest of my life, but is any of this obscure? I don’t know.
After I left that school, however, I’m not sure that I learned anything obscure in school until I got to college. In one class we did build little rockets, which was fun, and little wooden cars that we sent speeding through the hallways, and learned the very basics of home construction. That was all helpful later on, though I can’t call it obscure. In another class one of the teachers realized that he was as bored with math as we were with math homework, so instead of teaching math, he told us about his various attempts to become a professional comedian, tried out comedy bits on us, and gave us improv lessons. Again, helpful if not obscure. But the rest of the teachers generally stuck to the curriculum: general information drilled into our little heads, which is probably why I kept reading books in class instead.
And that’s where I learned obscure things: by digging through the library, bits and pieces leading to other bits and pieces, a mention of an interesting person in one biography leading to finding another biography and so on. I read books about weird things in space, dinosaurs, robots, military campaigns, Celtic mythology, Egyptian archaeology, the Opium Wars, and more. To this day I prefer reading non fiction to fiction.
My teachers, alas, were definitely less than enthralled that I preferred reading to finishing homework, but diagramming sentences and doing math exercises – pointless. Opium Wars? THAT was cool stuff.
But that I think highlights one of the problems within the educational system. Teach students practical stuff, like building houses, or fun stuff, like rockets, or trying to make a go at it as a professional comedian, and you can get kids invested and learning. Spend time drilling, and it’s “Why do I need to know this?” – Well, I’ll tell you. It’s so you can get to college, and learn enough about paleochristian sarcophagi to identify one at six paces thus convincing a person who needed to be convinced that yes, yes, you do know what you are talking about. And later, to get to grad school and learn enough about fecal coliform rates to get an annoying person hitting on you to flee, and fast.
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 very first ever ever published work was a little poem in the school newsletter about a clown that I was terribly proud of, published when I had just turned seven, so was now Very Big and Grown Up Enough To Write Poems. I am afraid that the poem did not generate universal applause from my friends: they said it was stupid. That taught me that the world will not always love your creations.
I haven’t seen it for years. If I saw it now, I would probably echo the concerns of my fellow students: find an easier word to rhyme than “clown,” and if you must write a poem about a clown, please let the clown do something more than fall down, down, down.
Mari Ness has often drawn pictures and letters on her skin, always in ink that can be washed off. Her fiction and poetry have appeared in Tor.com, Clarkesworld, Daily Science Fiction, Apex Magazine, Strange Horizons, Abyss and Apex, and numerous other print and online publications. For more details about her other work, check her blog at marikness.wordpress.com, or follow her on Twitter at mari_ness. She lives in central Florida.
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Clowns: The Unlikely Coulrophobia Remix is hot off the presses! So get your hot, pressed clowns today! Or if you prefer your clowns cold-pressed, never fear. A clown is nothing if not adaptable.
22 tales to horrify and delight, by authors Derek Manuel, T. Jane Berry, J.H. Pell, Jeff Wolf, Kristen Roupenian, Carolyn M. Yoachim, Mari Ness, Evan Dicken, Carlie St. George, Line Henriksen, Virginia M. Mohlere, Dayle A. Dermatis, Jason Arias, Joe Nazarre, Karlo Yeager-Rodruigez, Sara K. McNeilly, Chris Kuriata, Cassandra Khaw, Cate Gardner, Charles Payseur, Chillbear Latrigue, and Holly Schofield, with an introduction by Robin Blyn and illustrations by Bryan Prindiville.