The first thing I noticed when I started “Maybe Look Up” was its vivid sensory detail: sleet; the holes in the sneakers (a confession: I looked at my shoes to make certain there were no holes); the blaring of the SUV horn. The immediacy of the descriptions drew me in. How conscious are you of adding such details to a story?
In general, sensory details come to me pretty organically when I’m writing first drafts. If I don’t feel grounded enough in the world to access that sort of thing mostly unconsciously, the story is probably not “baked” enough for me to start writing it. As a reader, I also totally live for these moments. I think they’re almost like cheat codes. If a writer can tell me super precisely about a sensation I’m familiar with, I’m much more likely to believe them when they start telling me about something I’m unfamiliar with, whether that’s a physical sensation or a life experience or a philosophical hypothesis. So I’m really glad the sensory details worked for you in this story!
What inspired “Maybe Look Up”?
Well, predictably, navel-gazing about all the things that have gone wrong in my life and how I might have prevented them. This is definitely a conceit-first story. Everything else took a long time to gel, which is pretty typical for me, but once I did finally figure out how to write it the whole thing came pouring out in less than a week, which is always nice.
Authors often put something of themselves in their stories. How much of Jess Barber made it into “Maybe Look Up”? If you could go back and change any one decision, would you take that chance and reroll the dice?
I also always get holes in my shoes right beside my pinkie toes, and I definitely would not fuck with time travel. Any other resemblance to actual persons living or dead is entirely coincidental.
Not only are you a writer, you are also a founder of LeafLabs, an embedded electronics R&D firm. There has been a welcome surge of interest in getting girls and young women into STEM fields. How do you feel the SF genre can help support a healthy interest in the sciences?
Honestly, I don’t think lack of interest is the main factor contributing to the disappointing gender breakdown in the sciences right now. Studies have shown over and over that the vast majority of girls are both interested and show promise in STEM fields, and this decreases gradually over time: the “pipeline problem,” which arguably is in large part due to negative societal pressures, rather than any lack of passion or aptitude on the part of women. That’s not to say representation doesn’t matter; obviously it matters a great deal. But what I hope for, I guess, is that by having more and more representations of women, of people of color, of queer people working in STEM fields in media, not only will marginalized people be more likely to pursue these careers, but that there will be a shift in what feels normalized to people in privileged positions. I want CEOs and professors to look at their research groups and engineering teams and, if they’re seeing a breakdown that is predominantly male, predominantly white, etc., I want them to feel, at a gut level, that something is very, very off.
Also, right now I’m just as concerned, if not more so, by the devaluing of arts and humanities. Art has always been crucial for building empathy and helping us to remember—and learn from—history. I think the mentality that STEM fields are more valuable to us is not only wrong but frankly dangerous. And, of course, heavily gendered.
What’s next for Jess Barber? What projects can we look forward to in 2017?
I have a short story about deep water drills and direct action in Sunvault, which is an upcoming anthology of solarpunk and eco-speculation. I’m also working on a collaboration with one of my favorite short story writers in the world, Sara Saab. The story involves humanist utopias and socially awkward pining, and the collaboration process has been absolutely fantastic, so hopefully you’ll see that somewhere soon!
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