In your story, “The Steam Dancer (1896),” there is an exoticism and eroticism in your main character’s organically incomplete body and its modification with mechanical prostheses. What prompted this unconventional portrait of the erotic and exotic?
That which any given person finds exotic or sexually unconventional, that’s not something that can be nailed down with a straightforward answer. These are things determined by the sum total of our life experiences, formative influences, particular cultures, etc. It so happens that I find cyborgs sexy, though I have no idea why. There’s a reason, or reasons, I’m certain, I just don’t dwell on what they might be. I sit down to write a story like this and I’m following unconscious impulse as much as conscious intention. But, there’s more here than what I find exotic and/or erotic. I’ve made a world that doesn’t exist. In that world, Missouri Banks—the eponymous “Steam Dancer”—she’s not unique. Unusual, maybe. Maybe even very rare. Still, there must be other alchemical marriages of machine and flesh in her world. The technology existed before her. What’s important is that she’s talented, and the way that she’s taken a terrible disability, being crippled, and turned it into this beautiful, amazing talent, that’s what makes her exotic and what makes her such an erotic creature. She thinks: Other women are only whole, she thinks. Other women are only born, not made. I have been crafted.
Authorial voice seems to play such a strong role in this story—a voice that allows the reader to suspend disbelief and accept a very fantastical premise. Did this voice come naturally to you, or did it require a lot of revision? Do you read your work out loud?
I always read my work aloud. As I’m writing it and afterwards. The sound of the words is as important to me as the story. I can’t really divide the one from the other, as the voice is the means by which I convey the story. But I didn’t craft a special or new voice to tell this story. My voice, my style, has evolved over about twenty years of writing, and whatever I’m writing at the moment is the current product of that ongoing evolution. I figure, if my style ever stops evolving, and if I ever stop caring about voice, it’s time to stop writing. As for revision, though few people ever believe me, I don’t revise. Almost without exception, what’s published is a “first draft.” Or maybe you can say I revise as I write. A sentence will be perfect, or as near as I can make it, before I proceed to the next. This is true of my short stories and novels. It’s the only way I know to write. And I find the idea of writing in drafts unutterably tedious. Then again, I’ve had people tell me how tedious my technique must be.
This story was originally published in Sirenia Digest. Do you find self-publishing your fiction gives you greater creative control? Do you rely on outside readers or editors who have more distance from your own work?
Though I write no less fiction for traditional publication—my novels and lots of the short stories—yes. Sirenia Digest, which began in December 2005, has allowed me to go places and experiment in ways that never would have been possible with the other markets open to me. As of the January 2012 issue, #74, I’ve written 105 stories and vignettes that originally appeared in Sirenia Digest, that were written for its subscribers. When I write these stories, I don’t have to be concerned with the likes and dislikes of readers, the needs of editors, or the fickle trends of the publishing industry. I just tell a story that occurs to me. I allow myself to go places I never would have been able to go before, both stylistically and thematically. A lot of it is erotica, but a lot of it isn’t. It’s whatever I feel like writing this month. I don’t have to stop and think, Yes, but where will I ever find a market for such a strange story? The digest’s readers seem to like this arrangement, which pleases me no end. They’ve given me this freedom, and I’m grateful for that. And having absolute creative control, that’s allowed my writing to evolve in ways I think it never would have, otherwise. I can explore literary territories often deemed taboo with no fear of having a story that won’t sell or that will be condemned by reviewers. I do always read the stories to Kathryn, my partner, and I might change some small thing, if she thinks I should. If I have a first reader, it’s her.
Your main character has mechanical and steam-based prostheses. What attracts you to this steampunk aesthetic? Is it a genre (or a time period) that interests you? Inspires you creatively?
I don’t think I am especially attracted to steampunk. Out of all the stories I’ve written, and we’re talking well over two-hundred short stories and eight novels, only four times have I done something that might be called steampunk—all set in Cherry Creek, same as “The Steam Dancer.” I have this idea that there’s a ten-piece story cycle here in Cherry Creek—my fictional Denver. The first would take place in 1801, and the last in 1900. But, since 2007, I’ve only written four of these stories, so it’s anyone’s guess if I’ll ever write the other six. And, I’m not really answering the question. I am very much interested in blending the American West and various aspects of science fiction, which I think was my major concern in writing “The Steam Dancer.” I’m fine with it being thought of as steampunk. It’s just that I didn’t sit down and think, I’m going to write a steampunk story. I wanted to do something gritty, dusty, hot, filled with smoke and pistons, oil, muddy streets, and have all this come together into beauty. But, more than anything, this is a story about a woman. Not a story about an alternate past. Not a story about technology. This is a story about the life of Missouri Banks. It’s not gears and steam that matter. It’s character.
What projects do you have coming down the pipeline?
Right now, a lot. An awful lot. My next novel, The Drowning Girl: A Memoir, will be released on March 6th. I’ve never been even half as happy with a book as I am with this one. Anyway, I have a new graphic-novel series, Alabaster, to be published by Dark Horse, and that begins in April. My next short-story collection, Confessions of a Five-Chambered Heart, will be released in May by Subterranean Press. I’ve finished another novel, a sort of spoof, subverting the whole “paranormal romance” thing, Blood Oranges. My agent just signed a deal for that book and two sequels. I expect Blood Oranges will be released in early 2013. I think that covers it. Mostly.
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