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Author Spotlight: Brooke Bolander

Your story for Lightspeed, “Her Words Like Hunting Vixens Spring,” has quite a lyrical title—what came first, the title or the story? What was the inspiration?

My deep, dark secret: I began and finished this piece without a title, gave it an absolutely horrible placeholder during Clarion (don’t ask; bad enough eighteen other people in the world know), and pulled the final product out of my keister about three days before submitting to Fantasy. I’m not quite sure where it came from, but I do know I listened to a lot of Australian band The Dirty Three while pounding this out—their songs have titles like “Some Summers They Drop Like Flies” and “I Knew It Would Come To This,” really evocative stuff that tells a story by itself—so I’m reasonably sure that post-rock sensibility and rhythm seeped into my brain a bit. The idea for the short itself was a lot more cut-and-dry. It came from an illuminated manuscript my friend and fellow writer Alex D. MacFarlane found, which featured, among other things, a medieval lady with a fox scrambling out of her mouth. We came to the conclusion that she was either playing the poor thing like a bagpipe or horking it up, and either way there were stories screaming to be told there.

This is how my writing process usually goes. Some writers sit down with flow charts and whiteboards and map their stories out to the final detail before they begin; others strap themselves to a snippet of idea, light the fuse, and hope they land somewhere arable. I definitely fall into the latter category more often than I’d care to admit.

Your story first impressed me with its distinctive voice—very lyrical, at times tall tales / folkloric and bigger than life . . . Any major influences? Does this style come naturally to you, or is it something you aim for as you revise?

My influences are the usual suspects: Neil Gaiman for his storytelling chops, Peter S. Beagle for his musical prose and amazing character voices—The Innkeeper’s Song has something like seven different first-person narrators and all of them are distinct entities, it’s incredible—and Cat Valente, who showed me that lush, descriptive lyricism is not something to be ashamed of. This is naturally how I’ve always written, but early on I was a little afraid to just be myself, lest I wander into the Valley of the Shadow of Purple Prose (cross yourself and spit over your shoulder when you speak of it). Several people mentioned that Valente had a similar style, I picked up The Orphan’s Tales, and lo and behold, another writer was doing it and doing it well, with grace and skill intact. So yeah, I owe her an eternal debt for teaching me to let my lyricism flag fly. The Devil is in the details, and everybody knows the Devil is the most interesting guy at the party.

That said, I also have a huge love for minimalist storytelling. You can convey so much with a few well-chosen details. Look at the opening twenty minutes of WALL-E, the island scenes in Carroll Ballard’s The Black Stallion, or the sparse, windswept landscape of Team ICO’s video games. There’s a lot to be said for letting the reader fill in the gaps themselves. A good storyteller knows what to say, and just as importantly, what not to say.

You create a strong sense of place—the southwest and its border, with a dash of frontier wild wild west. How did you get such a good feel for the region? Are you a native of the southwest?

I spent my childhood in rural East Texas, around the border of Louisiana. When folks think of Texas, they think of a setting a lot like the one I’ve written about in this story, but East Texas is more aligned with the Deep South in both climate and culture, all magnolias and deep forests and stifling humidity. I took my inspiration here from several trips through New Mexico, which is, in some stretches at least, one of the most isolated, desolate places in the US. Highway 104 between Tucumcari and Las Vegas (not the one in Nevada) makes the surface of Mars look like your gran’s kitchen at Christmastime.

Without revealing any spoilers, your story also features quite a lot of action, lots of plot twists and turns. Did you have the story planned out beforehand? Know your ending?

I sort of knew where I was headed, in that it was a Bluebeard revenge story, and I also knew that Rosa had to be the one to pull the proverbial trigger. Otherwise I was flying by the seat of my trousers. The ending gave me fits for ages and I still don’t know if I’m entirely pleased with it, but I think it ends honestly and seems to work for most people. I’m at peace with it, anyway.

You are a recent graduate of Clarion UCSD. How does the workshop inform your writing? Is it difficult to produce after going through such an intense program?

I think the biggest lesson I learned at Clarion was that I’m the absolute worst judge of my own work. I’ve got the self-esteem of a mopey fifteen-year old; nothing I do is ever good enough. Having twenty-three talented writers slap me in the head with bricks every time I groused and moaned about what a talentless fraud I was was something of a wakeup call. In each of my personal conferences with the instructors I would ask what I was doing wrong, and each time the instructor in question would cock his or her head and say, “Uh . . . are you actually submitting anything?” Oops.

It sounds like such a simple thing, but when you are utterly convinced that your output is devoid of merit, having people whose opinions you respect reassure you that yes, you’re doing okay and yes, you are Real Writer is sort of a big deal. Living and working in a bubble with a group who completely believe in each other’s talents for six weeks is an amazing experience, and you carry it with you when the bubble finally bursts and you’re forcibly ejected back into the real world. And if you don’t remember, and don’t keep producing? They will come after you with sharp, pointy objects and make you remember. You don’t want Kij Johnson hunting you down with a morning star, believe me.

Clarion is completely deserving of all the legend that surrounds it. I highly recommend applying if you’ve been on the fence and are ready to get serious about things. It’s a crucible, and it’s not for everyone, but when it works it’s like roping the whirlwind.

I understand you attended this year’s World Fantasy Con and read an excerpt of your story. Can you comment on the experience?

Terrifying. I never read my stories aloud while I’m writing them. I hate the sound of my own voice and find it acutely embarrassing, like my thoughts are being pulled out through my nose and hung up naked for all the world to see. A mental gibbet, if you will. It’s an intensely personal thing that leaves me feeling pretty vulnerable, but readings are part and parcel of being an author so I figured I’d better learn sooner than later. And it worked out pretty okay! I wasn’t at all pleased with how I did, but then, like I said, I rarely am. I’ll keep striving to get better at it. If you come to one of my readings in the meantime, though, please be patient with me. I’m a work in progress in many ways.

My personal reading heroine is Wendy Wagner, one of the most amazing storytellers I’ve ever sat in on. When you go to one of her readings, you get a goddamned performance.

What are you working on right now? Anything else you’d like us to know about?

I’ve got several pieces circulating on the market right now that I intensely hope you will all get a look at very soon, a website (www.brookebolander.com) that I update on a fairly regular basis, and a novel idea I’ve been nursing for a few years now about a griffin that eats stories to survive. Don’t we all, though?

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Theodore Quester

Editorial Assistant

Theodore QuesterTheodore Quester spent three years after college in Europe and now speaks seven languages; he spends his days teaching two of them to high school students. He is obsessed with all things coffee–roasting, grinding, pulling espresso–and with food, especially organic and locally grown. He earned his geek street credentials decades ago, publishing an article in 2600 magazine as a young teenager, then writing reviews for SF Eye and interning at Omni magazine. In his spare time, he swims, bikes, runs, and reads a little bit of everything; when inspired, he writes fiction, mostly for children and young adults.