Science Fiction & Fantasy

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Author Spotlight: Amal El-Mohtar

“Madeleine” is crafted around the exploration of psychology and neuroscience, two branches of science not as commonly discussed in SF as, say, astrophysics or genetic engineering. What made you decide to explore these fields?

Honestly, I initially thought I was writing a time-travel story! I found myself imagining a woman with the power to inadvertently travel back in time through sensory triggers, gradually developing the ability to change her past by changing her memories. I knew I wanted her to encounter someone in her memory-space who wasn’t actually part of her memories, and for her acquaintance with this stranger to catalyze that memory-changing/shaping skill. But I didn’t know where I wanted it to go from there — it was muddled with a lot of different Things I Wanted to Do, and it percolated for a long time before I decided to try and make it my submission to QDSF. When I focused on the relationship I was imagining instead of the time-travel MacGuffin, though, it started coming together — and it was in trying to figure out a frame for that relationship, and figuring out Madeleine’s character, loneliness, and motivation, that the story really emerged.

We learn that Madeleine has used the reading of dense, difficult nonfiction as a way of burying her feelings after her mother died, and then we see her using passages from these texts as a way to break out of her unwanted memories. Do you think intellectualism is a kind of emotional armor for her? And is that something you’ve seen in yourself or in others?

I don’t think Madeleine sees it as “intellectualism” per se — in my view she’s someone who suddenly has a lot of time on her hands, after her mother’s death, and is trying to fill up empty space with as much noise as possible. So it’s less outward-facing than armour; in the absence of emotional connections, she fills herself up with theory to structure that empty space inside her.

For myself — by the time this sees print I’ll have been living an ocean away from my fiancé for six months. The only thing that’s made the separation anywhere near to bearable has been filling every hour of every day with more work than I can feasibly deal with. Some of that work was for a graduate Canadian Literature course taught by Jennifer Henderson, called “Making Settler Colonial Modernity.” It was amazing, an utterly brain-breaking revelation of a course, and one of the ways in which I found myself processing the material was through fiction; since it was structuring so many of my own daily thoughts, I found myself using the theory to structure Madeleine’s as well.

Since this is a piece about involuntary memories, and you even quote Proust at the beginning, I have to ask: Have you read In Search of Lost Time? Also, how do you feel about madeleines?

To my shame, I haven’t. The Proust is all Michael Damien Thomas’ fault. Back when this was still a time-travel story, I was describing the idea to him, and he said “Oh! Like Proust and the time-travelling madeleine!” When I asked what he meant, he explained about the famous passage. I googled it and stared and stared and stared and decided on my protagonist’s name, and the story suddenly had a foundation in text.

I was uncertain about keeping the quote at the beginning of the story, but I’d kept it there as a sort of story-compass during the writing process and the story felt oddly incomplete without it.

You are a reviewer, a scholar, a writer of prose, and a poet. How do you wear all those hats?

With increasing difficulty! The hats are like Tupperware. At first they stack neatly, each has a lid and a space in which it fits. But then they change. They warp in the microwave or dish-washer. The lids don’t fit. You lose the lids. You start trying to keep the food in with foil and plastic wrap but the plastic wrap won’t stick to the sides and meantime your leftovers are going stale outside the fridge or mouldering at the back of the fridge because things no longer stack so stuff hid behind other stuff and you overdid the foil on one and couldn’t see inside it so didn’t realize it was a week overdue being eaten and the only solution seems to be to buy new containers but the old ones still have food inside them and there’s no room there’s never any room —

I guess what I’m saying is that I need a bigger fridge for my hats. Which are Tupperware. Sometimes.

Also I don’t sleep.

You also participated in Women Destroy Science Fiction!. For you, what does it mean to destroy science fiction?

It means grinding into a fine powder the conviction that I’m not smart or educated enough to write hard SF. It means obliterating the fear that men I respect will roll their eyes at my attempts. It means facing up to the fact that men who would do that don’t deserve my respect, and that indeed men for whom I care deeply rooted for and supported me throughout the process. It means standing up, shoulder to shoulder, with women and queer people and people of colour against the fiction that things are fine as they are, that nothing needs to be changed or addressed, that our voices are sufficiently loud at a whisper.

Do you have any up and coming projects we should be looking for?

I’m very excited that M Sereno has turned my very short story, “Wing,” into a tiny comic to be included in An Alphabet of Embers, edited by Rose Lemberg. I genuinely think that anthology will be one of the most exciting released this year — there are so many new voices in it, and the table of contents puts me in mind of hands heaped with colourful jewels. Those titles!

I’m also very slowly working on a novel set in the same world as “The Green Book,” a short story of mine that was nominated for a Nebula — here’s hoping there’s something like a draft by year’s end!

Scott Lynch, Liz M Myles, Michael Damien Thomas, and I are starting up a Blake 7 podcast, tentatively titled Down and Safe. I’ve never watched Blake 7 and know literally nothing about it. At the time of this writing it’s still possible that the show is about the seventh clone of poet William Blake. I’m really looking forward to it.

Finally, I’ve got a story coming out in Ann VanderMeer’s The Bestiary in August. My field notes on the Weialalaleia and insights into cryptohirudology are writ therein. It’s also the first book for which I’ve had to sign book-plates, making it the fanciest book production I’ve had the pleasure of seeing my work in, with the exception of Erzebet YellowBoy’s limited hand-bound editions of The Honey Month.

Wendy N. Wagner

Wendy-N.-Wagner

Wendy N. Wagner is the author of Starspawn and Skinwalkers, Pathfinder Tales novels inspired by Viking lore. Her novel An Oath of Dogs will be out from Angry Robot in Summer 2017. She’s published more than thirty short stories in anthologies like Cthulhu Fhtagn!, Armored, and The Way of the Wizard, and magazines like Beneath Ceaseless Skies and Farrago’s Wainscot. She serves as the managing/associate editor of Lightspeed and Nightmare magazines. She is also the non-fiction editor of Women Destroy Science Fiction!, which was named one of NPR’s Best Books of 2014, and the guest editor of Queers Destroy Horror! She lives in Oregon with her very understanding family.