Baby Boomers and their culture informs much of “Interview: On Any Given Day.” What sort of challenges did writing about boomers present for you?
I was born in 1959, so writing about Baby Boomers isn’t really that difficult. The culture depicted is white straight male Baby Boomer culture. Pretty much right down the middle. I never felt like a Baby Boomer, although technically I fall within the demographic. My husband, who is six years older than I am, has a collection of nostalgias and emotional touchstones that are, for lack of a better way to put it, “historical” for me. But I do remember where I was when JFK was shot. I was sitting on the floor in the living room watching television.
How did this story start for you?
I have no idea. I can only say that I often start stories with a couple of ideas that I smash together. In this case it was the business of a therapy for extending life expectancy. I was working on a novel that explored that idea and I had worked out a lot of my bio-technology. Telomeres, which are involved in cell death and are also involved in protecting against the kind of errors that result in cancer. I had thought about what would happen if you could make your cells young but you still looked 70. It occurred to me that there would be a certain number of men who would prey on young girls. There was a news story about a medical treatment that had been contaminated by a virus in the lab, and I had a story. You know, every parent’s worst nightmare.
Was it easier or more difficult writing this story in interview format?
It was fun writing a story in interview format. I love NPR and I love This American Life and Radio Lab and Off-Ramp. I would very much love to produce a story for This American Life except a) I’m not a journalist and don’t really like the work of going out and getting a story because it involves aggressively talking to people I don’t know and b) have absolutely no producing skills and don’t really want to learn them. So being a writer I could do the next best thing, which is fake one. I wouldn’t do it twice, because it’s a kind of gimmick. It has an energy when done once that it doesn’t have when repeated.
You’ve written over 20 short stories—what do you think most people get wrong regarding writing short stories?
If you are asking me why most people don’t get published, that’s a different question; the answer to that is that most people don’t read short stories. Last time I actually checked the figures, which was in the ’90s, a magazine like Asimov’s got 800-1000 manuscripts a month, and published 8 to 10 stories a month. (The New Yorker gets 10,000 a month). It’s easier than being a professional baseball player, but the pay sucks.
First, you’ve got to get really good at the sheer level of technique. Malcolm Gladwell has a piece of the myth of prodigies that says that musical prodigies appear to have practiced about the same number of hours as adults who are really skilled, they just did it earlier. That number is about 10,000 hours. I don’t know if the number is actually accurate, but I use it as a short hand. First you have to put in your 10,000 hours. In the course of the 10,000 hours, you have to discover what it is you are inclined to do, either by temperament, accident of culture/geography/circumstance, or dumb luck that makes people want to read you. It’s not enough to just be really, really competent. When I finished grad school, I was really, really competent. I could do the thing. I was way more competent at the craft of writing short fiction than most of the people who got published in Asimov’s. But I couldn’t get published.
It took me several more years to find something that people wanted to actually read. I went to China, by the way. It was drastic, but it gave me some really interesting cultural/geographical thing that people found interesting. I didn’t just write about China. In fact, I didn’t write about China in my short fiction much at all. I wrote about “otherness” a lot. Science fiction is a fiction by people who often feel like they don’t really fit in, about “otherness.” It really would have been easier, though, if, for example, I had just been funny, like Terry Pratchet. The good thing was that because I found the combination of things that made me interesting, gender/third world/otherness, after I became really technically competent, I hit the SF world pretty solidly. I was a bit of an overnight sensation. I had my first novel and a novella on the 1993 Hugo ballot.
I didn’t feel like an overnight sensation. I’d been writing and writing and writing. I had enough rejection slips to wallpaper a bathroom. Anyone with any sense would have stopped. So remember there are two parts. Technique and what people want to read.
You’re award-winning, with many, many words behind you. Do you have any advice for those just starting out?
People say write what you know. I would say, write about the questions that you most want answered. The things that matter most to you. Write about the emotional issues that frighten you. These things tend to start in things you already know, but they very rarely stay there. One of the nice things about writing SF is I can hide the scary stuff from myself a bit. I can pretend I’m writing about the future when I’m really writing about my own fears. When I say that “Interview: On Any Given Day” is a parent’s worst nightmare, that’s true, but what it’s also about is my own unwillingness to think about people like Terry, the man in the story. I don’t believe in villains and I don’t write them in my fiction because everybody believes they’re the hero of their own story. Also, STDs are scary. I don’t want to give myself one, even in fiction. Inhabiting the experience of a teenager who has one is creepy. (Making the story an interview story, by the way, is a good distancing device . . . I can “interview” the character and give myself a little distance.)
What’s next for you?
Right now, I’m going through the whole process again, learning to write for television and film. It’s just as hard the second time as it was the first.