“Mix Tapes From Dead Boys” immediately thrusts the reader into a tense setting filled with extraordinary sensory details. I was particularly struck by the description of how she moves through and around the tangle of cables. As a writer, what elements do you focus on when crafting the opening of a story? How do you write a story that would grab your attention as a reader?
Story openings are typically challenging for me. I find that if I don’t get the voice right, the story itself isn’t right and it stutters rather than flows. It can take a while to find that voice, and until I do, I often flounder about, trying different things. The structure of this story was immensely helpful, though, given I wanted to create a mix tape of sorts, with each section, or track, taking us deeper into this very strange story. How do you start a mix tape? What does the opening track need to do?
This story is disturbing and surreal, bringing to mind elements of Clarke, Dick, and Butler to mind. Tell us a little of the inspiration behind the story.
I had the title written in my notebook for a long time. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with it. Who were the dead boys? How can the dead send someone a mix tape? Was that literal or metaphorical or something else entirely? When I started noodling around with band names, I knew the story would deal with sound and perception, and that was when a friend led me to the idea of images embedded into songs (bit.ly/2s2w0K6). Which, on its own, sounds like fiction, but it’s something bands have actually done in our world—Aphex Twin, Nine Inch Nails, Disasterpeace. And that idea blended perfectly for me with the idea that someone was being sent messages from dead boys.
I appreciated the use of bands and song titles as chapter headers, particularly since these aren’t songs with twenty-first century references. It is easy to believe that these are real songs that have meaning to the characters. Stepping back from the orbit of Neptune, looking at the setting as a whole, what does this world look like to you? What do you imagine is happening elsewhere in the Sol system?
This story connects to others I have written; I call the series “Distances,” because I spend a lot of time exploring distance and what it means to different people. In this system, strange things are emerging from a very long and deep slumber, and these things (these beings?) are disrupting the natural order of things. In the orbit of Jupiter, a helium miner finds herself plunging into the planet’s clouds; on Europa, oceanographers are vanishing; on Mars, bones are discovered; and on Titan, something even stranger.
Not only do you write short fiction, you also have numerous novels under your belt, and are also the editor-in-chief and head badger at Shimmer Magazine. Do you find that these facets overlap, that elements from one influence the others? Does writing long fiction improve your short fiction, or does being a writer help you as an editor?
I find all creative work helps other creative work. Often, when I’m stuck on a story, I go work on my cross-stitch, or painting, and this allows my brain to work its story stuff out in the background. Being an editor definitely helps with being an writer; I can see clear approaches to stories now that I didn’t when I was only writing. Learning how to take a story apart and see what it’s doing has improved my work, too. I do think being a writer helps being an editor, too—I never want to change the meaning of a story I’m editing, because as a writer, I know how important that is. I’m not sure if writing long fiction has improved my short fiction; I have a lot to learn yet when it comes to novels.
Some writers liken the act of writing to the act of cooking, and you have been known to post photos of many a wondrous meal. Do you think there are any similarities between working your way through (or around) a recipe and writing?
Absolutely. In writing, as with cooking, it’s good to know the shape of the thing you want to make, but it’s also vital to know when to detour. It’s good to know what works together and what doesn’t. It’s also great to experiment en route to getting there!
What’s next for E. Catherine Tobler? What can eager fans look forward to in the second half of 2017?
The fourth adventure in my Folley & Mallory series, The Clockwork Tomb, is out from Apokrupha, and if all goes according to plan, the fifth may be out before the end of the year. I hope to be able to share more adventures in my traveling circus, too!
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