Science Fiction & Fantasy

Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017

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Nonfiction

Author Spotlight: Emma Bull

How did “De La Tierra” come about?

I was on a writing date with my husband, Will Shetterly, and my friends Doselle and Janine Young. We used to get together at a coffee shop, sit at one table with our laptops open in front of us and our headphones on, and each of us write away at whatever our current projects were.

That’s how it was supposed to work, anyway. Janine was typing briskly away. Will was frowning at his screen and hitting bursts of keystrokes. Doselle was bobbing his head along with his music as he wrote.

I was staring at the file of whatever project I was supposed to be working on, and getting nothing. And trying not to hate my hard-working friends for having lots of useful words at their command.

Sometimes when you’re stuck, it helps to type anything at all, random nonsense, to keep your fingers moving and the inconsequential phrases and sentences squeezing out of your head and onto the screen until you break through your own barriers. I opened iTunes and called up Joni Mitchell’s Blue, which I consider easily one of the fifty best albums of the last century, and started typing any damned thing that came into my head.

Which, because of the music I’d chosen, was about the sound of a piano, about a woman playing it with fire and bravado.

All writing comes from a point of view; even an essay has a character behind the narrative, who shares the author’s name and some of her or his characteristics. Someone was watching this woman play piano. But not me. Someone who noticed and described it differently than I would.

I followed that point of view character. I listened to his voice in his head, used his eyes to tell me where he was. The character established the tone of the story and set it in motion. He was a noir character. He was a hitman. He was about to go to work.

When the first speculative fiction element showed up, I wasn’t sure if I was writing science fiction or fantasy, though I knew which genre’s language I’d written it in. But somewhere in the back of my head I heard an echo of a conversation I’d had previously with another friend.

“You couldn’t set a contemporary fantasy like War for the Oaks in Los Angeles,” he’d said. “The veil isn’t thin here.”

“Not thin?” I’d replied. “In Los Angeles, there’s barely any veil at all.”

The creatures of Faerie would love Los Angeles. They’re naturals for it. Shape-changing, fairy gold, illusions and wonders, lures of pleasure and riches that lead to death and ruin—surely half the inhabitants of the Hollywood Hills, Topanga Canyon, and the hidden houses along Mulholland Drive had ties to the fey folk on one side or another. It made perfect sense.

An hour or two later I noticed that what was supposed to be just a wedge to break up the block that kept me from my project was a whole new project. But at that point I needed to get home to the volume of Mexican folklore on my bookshelves, so there wasn’t time to worry about it.

How much, if at all, was the imagery of the opening scene inspired by your experience in Cats Laughing and The Flash Girls?

Not a bit, actually. Point of view is the shiny four-dimensional multitool in my writer’s toolkit; it’s the most useful and most demanding piece of craft I know. The point-of-view character in this story isn’t a musician. He’s in the audience, fantasizing about what he might do if he were a musician. The vision he has of what he might do isn’t the one a musician would have.

Instead, he lets the music affect him intellectually and emotionally without thinking about it critically. He’s just letting the music do its work.

Chisme, Magellan, Biblio: Is there a link between the names you chose and their contributions to the mission?

I had fun tagging the protagonist’s names. Chisme is “gossip” in Spanish. That’s the person, or being, or system, or group, in charge of personal information. Magellan’s the cartographer, providing spatial information. Biblio, short for biblioteca, is the library, the database of knowledge of the past. Again, point of view gives me the structure for how to use them. The protagonist doesn’t know the nature of the interface with his bosses; it’s imposed on him, and nobody’s going to explain it to him. But in order to feel as if he has some control over what’s going on, he gives names to the things that invade his awareness.

Why do you think humans around the world have stories about Others which share such striking similarities?

We’re storytelling animals. We impose narrative on everything, even random events. When something’s important to our survival, like water or the change of seasons, the first thing we’re going to do is turn it into narrative, because narrative makes sense. That’s also true of our own impulses and emotions. Anger, violence, romantic love, humor—sometimes we baffle ourselves, and in trying to explain the things about us we don’t understand, we tell stories about gods, demons, fairies, magicians. We make metaphors, because metaphors let us test our understanding of things we can’t hold in our hands. We even create metaphors to make sense of things we know can’t make sense: Trickster figures can embody the chaos and randomness we see around us.

Do you have any new projects you want to share with us?

I’m working on Claim, which is the sequel to Territory and will really truly contain the Gunfight in the Vacant Lot Behind the O.K. Corral, this time for sure. I’m also writing a contemporary fantasy short story, which, if the characters are nice to me, might become a series of stories. Along with Elizabeth Bear and the other creators of Shadow Unit, I’m helping assemble the last episodes of that contemporary science fiction serial thriller that we’ve been offering for free on the web. (See www.shadowunit.org for content.) And I’m hoping to write a mission for season three of the amazingly cool running app Zombies, Run!, about which I’m a huge fangirl.

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Jude Griffin

Jude Griffin

Jude Griffin is an envirogeek, writer, and photographer. She has trained llamas at the Bronx Zoo; was a volunteer EMT, firefighter, and HAZMAT responder; worked as a guide and translator for journalists covering combat in Central America; lived in a haunted village in Thailand; ran an international frog monitoring network; and loves happy endings. Bonus points for frolicking dogs and kisses backlit by a shimmering full moon.