How did “Salamander Patterns” start for you?
It started with the images in the ceiling. Sharon’s ceiling is pretty much an exact copy of the ceiling in my childhood bedroom. Projecting images on to abstract things like clouds or ceilings is something humans are wired to do, and which colors our experiences – especially if it’s something permanent like a ceiling and you’ll never unsee an image once you see it – and so I was wondering what something that wasn’t human would make of it. That led me to the conversation with the salamander, and the rest of the story fell out from there.
What was the hardest part about writing this story?
The ending was a bit hard for me to nail. From the instant I met Sharon’s mom I knew the story had to end with her deciding to leave her family, but getting that right was hard to do. I didn’t want the story to just be, “Abandon your parents when they’re problematic,” because that’s too simple and easy, and not actually realistic. It took me a little while to come up with the idea of having her change the ceiling to give us a sort of symbolic closure on the family front, even as she’s walking away.
“We want you to be happy. But if you’re a salamander host, how can that happen?”—this line, for me, summed up the relationship between Sharon and her parents; they seem to be oblivious to Sharon’s lived experience. How did you strike that balance between love and a fundamental misunderstanding? Do you think Sharon misunderstands her parents to a similar degree?
I’d argue that Sharon’s parents don’t actually love her, they love the Sharon-shaped person they think their daughter is, and that’s the whole problem – people make up versions of the people around them in order to make those people easier to like or love, then hold the actual person responsible for divergences between them and the made-up them. So I’d say I didn’t strike a balance, I just portrayed the delusion.
As far as Sharon’s perspective on them, I think she’s too occupied with her awareness of not understanding them to misunderstand them. She’s got a very keen sense of their patterns of behavior, but doesn’t have any idea what their internal lives are like, and the contradictions inherent in their claims about intent and their actions fuddles her.
What was it about this world that appealed to you? Will you write other stories in the same or similar settings?
It wasn’t the world that appealed to me—in my head it’s just our world, a few years from now, except that a benevolent alien showed up and tried to teach us some things about engineering. My draw was Sharon, as somebody whose emotional life is out of sync with the emotional life she’s expected to have. We seem to be going through a bit of a cultural fetish for the clinically emotionally aberrant—you can’t turn around without finding Asperger’s or psychopathy or other things pop culture interprets as abnormal on that front. I think it’s because our emotional lives frequently don’t follow the scripts they’re expected to, so when a sexy new diagnosis comes along we start using them to find our place: Oooh, let me identify with that person because they’re confused by social cues and sometimes I fail at social interactions, or Golly, that person is completely unfathomable and strange and I’m only a little off, so I must be fine.
But that’s not really what’s going on with those disorders, and using them that way puts people who are too far out of step with the typical expectations to fake “normalcy” but who are perfectly fine, functional people in a really awkward, isolating place. Sharon’s resentment at the assumptions around her ambitions about being an astronaut made her somebody I wanted to give time to.
As far as future stories, I’ll almost certainly write stories in similar settings. I don’t currently have any plans to write more stories in this particular setting, but I don’t really plan what I do much so for all I know, tomorrow I’ll feel compelled to write a story from the POV of the marker Sharon uses at the end.
What’s next for you?
Now that I’ve thought about it, I may be writing a story with a permanent marker as a protagonist. It occurs to me that they’re underrepresented in fiction. I’m also engaging in research on methods for deploying tactical nukes against a day of the week, so I may soon be removing Tuesday from the calendar. Apologies to any Tuesday partisans, but even though I didn’t start that particular war, I’m prepared to end it.
More seriously, I’m finishing up some revisions on a novel in preparation for agent hunting. I’m told that a sling loaded with cupcakes is the traditional weapon for this particular hunt, so this involves an awful lot of cake flour. I’ll also be making an appearance later this year at Writers of the Future to claim my glory for placing on the first quarter. After that it’s either world domination, or petting my cat. I’ll decide which later.
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