In your interview at Debutwriter.com you talked about your insightful and complex short story, “Openness,” saying it was partly inspired by a break-up. “Destinations of Joy,” for me, has a cutting cynicism: Those who find joy inevitably crash from joy’s high. Is this story also inspired or derived from specific moments of your personal experience? How did it come about and how did it develop?
The story is part of a longer series of fantastical travelogues which began during traveling in Europe, and they’re based on both my own literal and emotional journeys. I was interested in exploring new ways to tell short stories, particularly fantastical tales, and I found that the “travel guide” form provided a great metaphor for the kinds of inner travels we take throughout our lives. And so these travel stories, for all their fantasy, are actually a kind of autobiography! For example, The Country of Solgläd came from my trip to Iceland, where locals went out of their way to make the journey welcoming and cozy. Arriving back to the baggage claim of NYC’s Kennedy Airport, I was greeted with a Buddy-Get-Your-Bag-And-Get-Out-Of-Here attitude. I realized then that, on a certain level, a city or country can be characterized by the way people hold their hearts. Solgläd is a kind of utopia—a place where we’re all cared for—a dream of what it might be like if we opened our hearts to one another fully.
I’m also very interested in this relationship that you point out, between joy and its crash—which is tied to my Buddhist leanings. There’s a humorous, cosmic entrapment inherent in our avid desire for joy. At the heart of this paradox is the question of how we deal with the non-peak experiences of life—how we might find or fail to find peace/enlightenment/joy within the mundane everyday routines of our “home” lives.
Both stories have a literary slant, in that the writing effectively captures mood and moment; that is to say, these elements are as important to the overall piece as the technological or fantastic aspects. Your forthcoming collection, Universal Love, is described as “a hypnotic collection of speculative fiction” but (arguably) you’ve received more recognition outside of genre circles, in literary or mainstream venues. Do you have thoughts about genre definitions, or around speculative fiction being differentiated from literary fiction? Do you consider yourself a genre writer?
It’s such an interesting question, because as writers, especially in the twenty-first century, we’re often forced to pick genre camps—which is a shame, because I think all stories (adventure tales, science fiction, fantasy, and realism) belong under the same umbrella of simply being called Fiction. And yet, when I was pursuing my BA and MFA in the ’90s, the lines were already drawn, and Literary Realism was king. To write speculative fiction back then was, often, to be placed on back shelves, and I sensed a general knee-jerk bias against certain genres. For this reason, I was hesitant to label my work as Science Fiction because the term was unfairly treated as a pejorative in some circles—akin to telling folks that I was writing beefcake romance. At the same time, I didn’t yet feel that I had a knowledge or background in SF literature to call myself an SF writer. I knew I wasn’t interested in scientifically “proving” my premises (which I understood to be a necessity for hard science fiction) and so I seemed to fall in some middle ground that was still being charted.
Thankfully, the landscape has changed a lot for speculative fiction writers. I think Harry Potter had a lot to do with this—we suddenly had adults and kids very interested in books about wizards and magic again. And writers like Karen Russell, Kelly Link, George Saunders, and many more, have helped break down the walls between literary and speculative fiction. TV shows like Black Mirror and films like Her have also helped broaden the landscape for science fiction and fantasy writers, which is great. And so it’s been really meaningful to me to have my stories embraced by both the literary fiction circles and the SFF community, because I’m always interested in broadening the definitions of genre, and the ongoing and evolving discussion of what’s considered “literary fiction.”
Both stories are also about pain or emotional suffering/loss, but in very different ways. Many writers feel that pain or emotionally difficult experiences are the best sources of inspiration for writing. Do you generally gravitate towards writing stories of loss and similar themes? Or does your writing tend to cover a spectrum of emotional states?
I think literature has always served a need to speak to our own personal pains/suffering as well as to the larger cultural and social suffering caused by prejudice and human injustice. And because our world is filled to the brim with struggle, it makes sense that literature emerges as a vehicle to address suffering. Such literature seems an imperative, particularly in this day and age, given the struggles for human rights and equality we face.
At the same time, I’m very aware that I was raised with a lineage of art/literature that dwells in conflict, cynicism, and violence. Many of the books I was given to read throughout public education were heavy, deeply depressing novels dealing with suicide and death—ones which often left me with a feeling of defeat or hopelessness rather than awe or wonder. And so, I do think that the conflict-based story has a history of dwelling in suffering/loss, and that this then becomes a reflection of and simultaneously shapes our collective consciousness as a society. With this in mind, is the predominance of the conflict-based story a philosophical hangover from the twentieth- and twenty-first-century malaise we’ve been living through?
In general, I think we accept sorrow as inherently artful but see joy/awe/wonder as a kind of frivolity. Consider that we can watch a two-hour film that mostly depicts shooting, murder, explosions, blood-soaked fights, cursing, and violence and consider it a wholly legitimate form of entertainment. Yet, the idea of a movie solely highlighting love, joy, care, and compassion is a genre which our culture would likely term “sappy.” So the question for me is whether there’s an unexplored genre of fiction/storytelling, lush with tones of awe and joy, awaiting artistic exploration. The idea harkens back to transcendentalism and more mystical forms of writing, and it’s one that I see poets exploring nowadays (Ross Gay’s poetry comes immediately to mind).
While my stories may be dystopian, it’s vital to me that, at their core, the stories have a sense of hope, and speak to the importance of human connection. One of the things I’m always trying to do is hint at a kind of transcendence which is still available to us as humans—a place often revealed through the gateways of human compassion, love, and wonder.
You had “Understanding Great Art and the People Who Make It” in Best American Experimental Writing 2018. This story is also somewhat experimental, being essentially a brochure—kind of a twist on an epistolary. But epistolary stories usually still lean on main character and plot. What makes a story like “Destinations of Joy” work, a piece without a protagonist or plot, a piece that still reads as interesting and satisfying?
The landscape of the non-narrative and formalist story is an ongoing learning process for me. I’m really fascinated by what happens when you leave the realm of plot-driven stories or forgo a traditional narrative arc or even a central protagonist. And if I have any regular rule, it’s that my non-narrative pieces can’t simply be descriptive (otherwise they fall flat). What they need is the tooth of a deeper metaphor that hints towards something larger than the description itself.
On the poetic side of things, I think the non-narrative story can utilize internal patterns and rhythms that assist the feeling of closure. For example, one can return to a repeated image to create a more circular feeling at the end of a story. One can also use a poetic “turn” near the end of the piece to create a feeling of closure (in fables this “turn” would be the revelation of the moral of the story).
Another approach is to envision structure as a series of concentric widening circles, like rings from a pebble thrown in a pond. For a fantastical story, this means that the structure will begin with a simple but fantastic premise. From there, the job is to keep increasing the fantastical with each new ring (these rings = new permutations of the original fantastical premise). In a story that builds like this, the structure of expanding circles requires that the final circle be the largest and most fantastical—and ideally something unexpected that will create a kind of rewarding surprise. Stephen Millhauser’s short story The Dream of the Consortium is a great example of this technique. The story opens with a mysterious new mall/emporium being unveiled in a city, and as the story continues to expand, the details become increasingly fantastical. First there are store windows with creepily realistic mannequins, and then inside are mysterious pavilions doused in fog to resemble Victorian London streets, and then, in an ever-widening circle, we begin to find stores selling the impossible: canyons and rivers, replicas of whole cities. The circles of fantasy continue to widen until the story reveals, at the end, that it’s impossible to know if you’ve actually left the mall or simply entered a new store. It’s this final twist that creates the conclusion—and so, if we compare this to the traditional Freytag pyramid, it’s a bit like ending the story on the epiphany.
Besides the aforementioned collection, Universal Love, what are you working on now; or what do you have coming up that new fans can look forward to? Is there a novel in the works?
I’m working on a new collection that explores magical realist/fairytale stories in the vein of Borges and Calvino. There are stories about working class trolls, aging witches living in rural Pennsylvania, monster snakes with appetites for right-wing politicians, and demons taking vacations. As for a novel—though I’ve always considered myself a short story writer, there’s suddenly the first draft of a novel emerging—that’s a secret, but it’s exciting.
For those intrigued by your writing, what story should they read next? Which is your favorite story you’ve sold (or story you are most proud of) and why?
“Saying Goodbye to Yang” (the first story in Children of the New World) is one of the favorites I’ve written. It was this story that launched me into the speculative realm of future technology, and I think it’s also one of my most tender-hearted stories—a place where I really got to explore compassion and the mysteries which make us human. It’s also the first story to be made into a movie! The film, After Yang, by the visionary director Kogonada and A24 Studios, is forthcoming and will star Colin Farrell and Jodie Turner-Smith. It’s been really amazing to watch my robotic child, Yang, make his way to Hollywood!
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