In this Author Spotlight, we asked author John Crowley to tell us a bit about the background of his story for Lightspeed, “Snow.”
I actually can’t remember. Usually I can pinpoint what started me thinking about a book or a story—sometimes a tiny and unrelated thing I keep pondering—but in the case of this one I just can’t. The idea that memory both is and isn’t like a recording was probably part of it. I think in SF you sometimes think up a cool machine or futuristic thing and make it part of a story, and sometimes come up with a thought about the world, and create a machine (or a planet, or a whatever) that embodies it. But I can’t remember which it was in this case.
What’s your writing process like? Can you write a first draft of a story like this in one sitting?
I can’t write the first draft of any story in one sitting. I’m not the sort of writer who pours out drafts and then gradually pushes and pulls and modifies and tosses stuff out and pushes new stuff in. I tend to write until I don’t know what to do next, or how to write the next thing I have thought of (sentence, scene, notion) and stop till I can. My “first” drafts—if that’s what these are—are basically done except for minor editing.
Why did you choose snow as the connective tissue in this story?
Snow was the obvious metaphor for an image growing hazy—it’s interesting: On old televisions that received “broadcasts” through the air rather than on cable, interferences like buildings or rain or trees could cause a drifting of the image as though seen through sleet or snow, and “snow” was actually the technical term for this interference pattern. “You might be getting some snow,” the caretaker says—and he means that kind. (Of course that doesn’t happen with a modern cable or cell signal. And of course it won’t happen in the future. Oh well.) When I’d found the metaphor, I saw I could go back and forth from TV snow to real snow and make neat connections.
This line was incredible: “Once, hung over in a New York hotel, watching a sudden snowfall out the immense window, she said to me, ‘Charlie, I’m going to die of fun.’”It tells us almost everything we need to know about Georgie, and somehow we know what she says is true. Why was it important to you to make Georgie’s words prophetic?
Actually the reader knows first how Georgie died and then Charlie catches the glimpse of her saying this (twice). I think that in terms of the story it’s not so much prophetic as giving the feeling of stories that are told to visitors to the underworld by the ghosts there about how they came to die. In the Odyssey and in the Aeneid the visitor has to pour the blood of a sacrifice into a bowl so that the dead can drink and gain enough aliveness to be able to talk—otherwise they can’t be heard (as Georgie can’t be heard clearly). Charlie is in effect visiting the underworld, and trying to rescue Georgie. At bottom this is an Orpheus/Eurydice story of someone (a poet!) going under the earth to bring back a dead love, and failing. This only became clear to me as I was writing—I surprised myself by writing things like how Charlie actually has to go underground to reach the dead, and how the caretaker (who’s necessary to explain things) comes to resemble Minos.
There are hints about the world Georgie and Charlie live in—the plant-strewn highways, the molecular storage capabilities of the wasp. How different do you think their world is from ours? What do you think these differences mean for your characters? Were there other changes that didn’t make it into the story?
When I was writing it I thought I needed to set the story pretty far in the future in order to make the existence of a machine like the Wasp realistic. So the details of the freight airship and the closed highways were to suggest a world that’s changed greatly from ours. And in the state of my and the world’s knowledge when the story was written in the 1970s, things like the Wasp did seem a long way off. But you probably know that technology has very nearly created the Wasp already. Drones the size of hummingbirds are now capable of facial recognition, can hover and follow and transmit from an array of sensors, and bug-sized ones are coming. This happens a lot in SF: Writers come up with one thing that is not only possible but just about to appear, and insert it into an extraordinary world a long way off, or they leave stuff from their own time in the world they imagine: the first sentence of William Gibson’s Neuromancer, set at some far-off digital world, starts with a sentence (quoted from memory) “The sky was the color of a television tuned to a dead channel.” But that’s not how televisions look even today—that gray cloudy look is as old as the snow in my story—dead channels are bright blue. But how could he know that?