“Not By Wardrobe, Tornado, or Looking Glass” starts with a wonderfully surreal mix of magic and the mundane and only gets better from there. Can you tell us a little about the inspiration for the story?
I began working on the story nine years ago, sparked by a long-forgotten blog comment from a friend—I don’t remember what it was about, but only that it got me thinking about rabbit holes and what I could say about portal fantasies and how they work. That led me to wondering what kind of person would be most interesting to me in a world where everyone has their own portal to another world. That’s where Louisa and her frustrations came into play.
Early drafts had me insisting that Louisa could never find a portal for herself, and I couldn’t find a way toward any sort of happiness by denying my character what she most desired. It took almost ten years of life experiences (most important among them, probably, being having a child) for me to realize that it wasn’t a change in circumstances that Louisa needed but instead a change in perspective.
I’ve been learning a lot about the magic of a shift in perspective since becoming a parent, because your whole worldview shifts when it happens. The parts were in the early drafts all along—I just couldn’t see how they fit together yet.
Louisa is the perfect blend of fannish dreamer and sensible everywoman, a blend of the ordinary and wistful. Catherine is both poignant and bitter, caught in the tug of war between her dreams and her upbringing. How important is it to you in your writing to create characters readers can relate to?
I try to write people the way I see them in the real world and hope for the best. Louisa reminds me of so many amazing women I know. And if I can’t relate to the characters, I can’t expect the reader to, but I’ve always found it’s a bit of a leap of faith to think that just because I’m relating to a character, that means a reader will, too. Sometimes what I’m struggling to convey comes through, and sometimes it doesn’t. But it matters a lot to me that my intent of empathy comes through. I love all my characters; even the bad ones. They’re not bad, anyway, as Jessica Rabbit would say; sometimes they’re just written that way.
At some point in their lives, everyone wants to run away: to a friend’s house; to a bar; to a difference city or country; to a fantastical land. What is it about the different, the fantastic, that draws us to want for something more?
Dissatisfaction, mostly. I think at some level, most fantasy fans are optimists and idealists who are dissatsified. Then again, I might just be projecting . . .
Your writing is filled with the tics and tremors that define characters. Louisa keeps a careful record of rabbit holes. Catherine fiddles with her soup, absently stirring. Annabelle’s dwindling phone calls. Are you a people watcher?
These are the kinds of habits and details that speak to me most in people—the deeper stuff comes much harder to me than noticing these surface-level things. When I write, it’s often the physical performances of the characters that come to me before their inner monologues. Probably too many years of watching movies in which characters’ inner thoughts are never shared. I do enjoy watching people, but I think it’s the subconscious me that understands them better and feeds back the little details.
What writers tickle your fancy when it comes to reading fantasy? Who stirs your imagination?
China Miéville hits my sweet spot like nobody else excerpt Kameron Hurley. Intricate, Byzantine worldbuilding seems to turn my crank more than just about anything else (which is kind of funny, given that my own stories almost never achieve that complexity). They both excel at it.
Then there’s the more folksy, Americana stuff that I just adore from writers like Andy Duncan, Howard Waldrop, and for some reason I think of Kelly Link here, although she’s not quite in the same category. I’m also a sucker for fantasy noir, such as the works of Richard Kadrey or Mike Carey.
The main thing I don’t read much of these days is high fantasy. Many years of playing Dungeons and Dragons satiated my desire for that sort of material. When it comes to epic, heroic stuff, I would just rather live it, even if by “living it” I mean rolling some dice and laughing with friends.
What’s next for Jeremiah Tolbert? What can eager readers look forward to in 2016?
I have another fantasy story coming from Lightspeed sometime this year, I think, called “The Cavern of the Screaming Eye,” and a science fiction story about food trucks and the singularity also scheduled to appear in Lightspeed soon-ish. I’ve also written a story that will appear in an anthology called Swords vs. Cthulhu that I think will come out in 2016. While those are making their way into the world, I’ll be busy writing new stories when I can squeeze writing time in with my freelance web developer and parenting duties. “Cavern” takes place in a setting that I hope will be a sequence of stories and possibly even novels, and the next one is my current focus.
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