Can you tell us a little bit about what inspired “The Master Conjurer”?
Usually when I start writing a short story, I start out with a particular “hook” or idea, and that ends up being jettisoned during the writing process, because I’ve wound up following some other thread that I got hooked onto. Or I’ll think of something about the world or backstory, and then I’ll wind up building a story that only incidentally uses that world as a setting, without delving into the aspects I originally obsessed about. This was kind of an unusual one in that the first thing that came to me was the notion of, “What if you did a magic spell with no ‘downside,’ and everybody got obsessed with that?” Even then, it only started to click for me when I started thinking of it as a story about dating.
Since 2001, you’ve hosted a monthly spoken word variety show, Writers With Drinks. Tell us a little about this.
Sure! Basically, Writers With Drinks started as a response to a few different issues: (1) I found some literary/spoken word events maybe a little too solemn. (2) There were events focusing on different sorts of writing, like poetry, “literary” fiction, science fiction, or science writing—but no event that combined them into one sort of variety show. (3) Because the readings I went to often featured just one type of writing, they tended to have a pretty homogenous audience, and I always prefer events that mix together different crowds or types of people. (4) I was involved with some struggling non-profits that needed money really badly. So I put together an event that featured as many different kinds of writing as possible, in a way that didn’t suggest one kind was any better than any other kind, and cultivated an emcee style that made the whole project as silly and tongue-in-cheek as possible. It’s pretty amazing to realize how long the event has gone on, and yet I’m still just making it up as I go along!
You are the co-editor of She’s Such a Geek and the managing editor at the popular science fiction blog io9. I’m curious about what a day in your writing life is like. How do you manage a routine that includes blogging, editing, and writing fiction?
I basically think having a good routine is the #1 secret to being successful at anything, but I’m kind of a creature of habit, so I would think that. In any case, my “usual” day, when I don’t have extra commitments, involves working on io9 stuff all morning and most of the afternoon. And then in the late afternoon/early evening, I take a really long walk, which clears my head and gets the blood flowing to my extremities, and I sit in a café and work on my fiction until dinnertime. On a good day, I can squeeze in two or three hours of writing before I grab dinner. And then maybe some more io9 stuff until late at night.
The tone of this story was very different from some other stories of yours I’ve read, like “Six Months, Three Days” (Tor.com, 2011) and “Love Might Be Too Strong A Word” (Lightspeed, August 2012). Did the style and humor come naturally, or was it something you had to work through on revision?
I feel like I come from a background of writing humor, and I’ve worked hard to delve more into emotion and character development and stuff. I always say that humor is texture. It adds some ridges or bumps to the surface of the text. I still really love writing humorous stuff—some of my stories at Strange Horizons, Monkeybicycle, McSweeney’s, or Flurb are more funny. Plus, when I read “Six Months” at an event in NYC last year, I was kind of startled by how much people laughed at it, when I had thought of it as more of a serious piece. These days, mostly I try to let the humor arise out of the characters and situations rather than leaning on the comedy too much, I guess.
This story had me thinking about the influence of the media, instant celebrity, and personal responsibility. Does your work tend to explore particular themes? What would you like an ideal reader to take away from this story?
I used to call myself an absurdist writer, back in the early 2000s—in keeping with the fact that I was doing more straight-up comic fiction. And I think that a lot of the goal of writing fiction, for me and maybe for other people too, is to point out how ridiculous and nonsensical a lot of stuff is. In this story, the media frenzy pretty quickly turns into a look at people’s unfulfilled yearning for the kind of power that they think Peter has. People fantasize about having the ability to change the world, without having to pay any price. Fantasy stories often revolve around the idea of paying a price for magic, and I wanted to approach that from a different direction.
Is there anything else you’d like to share about “The Master Conjurer”? What’s next for you?
I’m desperately trying to finish revising this novel. Fingers crossed!