Science Fiction & Fantasy

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Nonfiction

Author Spotlight: Christopher Barzak

How did you come up with Smoke City?

I was reading a book called The Point of Pittsburgh, which chronicles the life of that city from its geological formation, through its years as a vied-for settlement among colonial powers, until the present day. I read the book, about 450 pages, in two evenings, fascinated by the years when Pittsburgh became an industrial power, and then an industrial wasteland when the steel industry moved its work to developing nations. I was struck by the absolutely miserable conditions of life for the working class that made men like Carnegie wealthy, and how he attempted to assuage his guilt from taking advantage of the labor of others by providing public institutions like libraries and social clubs for the underprivileged. I was also trying to compare this aspect of the city’s past with its present day position as a city that has devoted itself to education, medicine, and green industries—the exact opposite of what it used to be. I knew I wanted to write a story that explored those differences, and wanted to write a story, too, that would have a character bound up with both the wreckage of the city’s past and the more privileged life of the present day.

Loss and sacrifice for the community runs rampant in this story—can you tell us more about this theme and how you see it working in this story?

I think for cities with a working class history like Pittsburgh—where the majority of its citizens were manual laborers for a great duration of the city’s existence—community and sacrifice for one’s community plays a big role. I grew up in a town in Ohio that grew out of Pittsburgh’s and Cleveland’s manufacturing industries, which has suffered a lot of economic losses (as those two cities have) as the manufacturing industry has left the U.S. Sacrifice is something people do when times are rough and the table of plenty has gone empty. Sharing, taking on more responsibility than usual. It’s also this self-sacrifice that leads many people from working class backgrounds to be easily taken advantage of in their dealings with others. They often take less pay than their employers can afford; they provide more labor than they’re compensated for; and they tend to be taken advantage of even in dealings with institutions like banks because they aren’t always as financially literate as people from white collar backgrounds. You can see an example of this in the recent past, with the predatory lending schemes many banks participated in. The majority of people who lost their homes were what politicians like to call “ordinary Americans,” which really translates into the lower middle class, the working class, and the working poor. Many of those working class families have had to arrange for very old-fashioned living arrangements in the wake of that debacle, multiple families living together, or people in their thirties having to live with their parents for longer periods of time, etc. Loss and sacrifice seem to be the essence of working people in America in general.

What’s a standard day of writing like for you?

I don’t have a standard writing day any longer, since I’ve started teaching full-time at Youngstown State University. My job makes it difficult to keep a regular schedule, so the best I can do is try to make use of my free time as much as possible. I tend to try to squeeze in a couple of hours each night, after classes have finished. Sometimes this consists of doing revision to works in progress, sometimes it’s generating new material to work on. If I can write a page or two a day, I’m happy. On days when I’ve not got an enormous amount of work to do for the day job, I like to write for four or five hours and really sink into that zone where everything else drops away from you except the page in front of you.

Can you tell us more about the Emily Dickinson quote and its connection to Smoke City?

The Dickinson quote worked its way into the story because of its theme, and because my grandmother, who was at varying times a factory worker or a farmer, liked Dickinson’s poetry, that poem in particular (“Because I could not stop for Death”). It’s a line that sort of functions as a reminder to the narrator of “Smoke City” that her obligations to the past—her past, as an inhabitant of Smoke City who has escaped into the future through a timeslip hidden in the Fourth River (a mythological river in Pittsburgh, which in the literal world is really an aquifer, or underground river, that flows beneath the city). I treated that river as a literal one for the purposes of the story and the mythic qualities I was developing within the world of the story. The Dickinson quote speaks to inevitability and obligation, too, I thought. Though we would not like to stop for Death, he will kindly stop for us when the time comes. The narrator, when she is returned periodically to Smoke City, is to some extent being returned to hell, Persephone-style, to live in the underworld and serve her time, as that myth functions.

How does the narrator leave Smoke City? Is it a natural ability of hers alone, or do others have it?

I think I alluded to this a bit in my previous answer. In the story, there’s a kind of timeslip hidden in the mythic Fourth River of Pittsburgh, which some of the inhabitants of Smoke City have found and use to escape, if they can find the strength to leave behind family and friends, their obligations and responsibilities. It’s not only my narrator who has done this, but some others. In the story, there’s mention of others coming and going from the mouth of the river’s cave entrance like she does. In this way, I’m sure the story feels a bit dystopic, which it should.

What’s next for you?

My first full-length collection of short fiction is being released in late March, 2013. It’s called Before and Afterlives, and a lot of the stories in it have won awards or been finalists for awards like the Nebula Award, the Spectrum Award, and the James Tiptree Jr. Award. It’s a mixed-genre collection—ghost stories, contemporary fantasy, and some science fiction—but it’s predominantly concerned with the supernatural more than any other mode.

I’m also working on my next novel, (tentatively titled Wonders of the Invisible World), which will be finished any year now! Also, my first novel, One for Sorrow, is being made into a movie under the title Jamie Marks is Dead by director Carter Smith (The Ruins) and producer Alex Orlovosky (Blue Valentine), with plans to release in 2014.

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Robyn Lupo

Robyn Lupo lives in Southwestern Ontario with her not-that-kind-of-doctor partner and three cats. She enjoys tiny things, and has wrangled flash for Women Destroy Science Fiction! as well as selected poetry for Queers Destroy Horror! She aspires to one day write many things.