Science Fiction & Fantasy

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Author Spotlight: Saundra Mitchell

What inspired you to write “Starfall”?

“Why You Want a Physicist to Speak at Your Funeral” [a eulogy written by NPR commentator Aaron Freeman] resonated with me. It haunted me from the moment I read it. Then I watched a documentary about supernovae. In 1604, there was one so brilliant it lasted for months in the daytime sky. Johannes Kepler tracked it for over a year, and wrote his observations—which is why most people call SN 1604 “Kepler’s Supernova.”

I found it interesting that there are tons of stars with no names, just alphanumeric labels. (KV-62 is not a real star. I named it after Tutankhamun’s tomb designation.) Somehow in my head, the stardust left over from Kepler’s Supernova mingled with a physicist explaining that matter is never destroyed, stirred up the idea that we’re all made of stardust, and bam. I wondered, what would happen if we were unmade when the star that bore us went supernova?

I really liked the astronomical and mathematical details included in the story. Did you do any special research? Were there any neat facts that you weren’t able to include?

There was a lot of research involved. Math isn’t my strong suit, and I do much better at soft sciences (because of the math!) I’d heard about Kepler’s Supernova in a documentary. I had to learn more about that (and supernovae in general.) I’m a big history geek—that’s my initial attraction to the supernova idea.

Some of the facts I had to leave out was that there are supernovae immortalized in ancient Chinese writings, in indigenous Brazilian people’s stone carvings, in Anasazi Indian petroglyphs. There are Japanese, Egyptian, and Persian records of the same supernova in antiquity!

There was no way to include all of them, but I found it fascinating that as long as people have kept records, there are records of supernovae.

Amara Moore has an unusual background, with her history of abandonment and her isolation, and she’s profoundly affected by the supernova of KV-62. But a lot of people seem affected by Starfall, too. Were people affected because they and Amara shared some similarity, or was it random?

Jerusalem Syndrome is a real syndrome; I discovered there are other versions of it that occur only in particular cultures, or only in particular locations. It doesn’t matter your personal background—Jewish or Christian or Muslim, you can suffer Jerusalem Syndrome all the same. Or Stendahl Syndrome in Florence. Or Paris Syndrome, especially if you’re Japanese.

So I wondered, well, what if what ties those people together is the star their stardust came from? If the universal forces that built that star (and ultimately) those people out of the same bits and pieces, wouldn’t it be interesting if they ceased to exist in their current form together? More accurately, what if the people made out of KV-62 suffered from Starfall Syndrome? Faced with the realization that something as great and eternal as a star can be snuffed out, they convinced themselves they no longer existed . . . so they didn’t.

Is there any significance to Amara’s dissolution starting in her right index finger?

Leonardo da Vinci’s last painting of John the Baptist shows him pointing heavenward with one right index finger. Why? No one knows for sure; everyone has lots of theories. It’s a hermetic sign, it’s a Templar code, it’s an admission that John’s church is lesser than Jesus’ church, et cetera, et cetera. da Vinci originated it, and it became part of popular iconography in art. It’s discussed so often that it’s called The John Gesture. It later appears in gravestone iconography, remembering the deceased to heaven.

I don’t know the beginning or end of the universe, we’re all made of stardust, we live forever in pi, we live for an infinitesimally small blink of time . . . we all know, and we all don’t know. So that finger was a nod to that—and it was the easiest part of Amara’s body to erase. It would cause her troubles without being unnoticeable by others. (If it started with her pinkie toe, she couldn’t expect anyone to see it!)

What was the trickiest part of writing this story?

Keeping it active! There was a whole section that I told that I had to go back and show. When there’s only one character, and the story is about her inner workings, it’s easy to slip into static storytelling.

What are you working on now?

I just finished a piece of historical fiction about a Depression-era bank robber that will appear in Jessica Spotswood’s forthcoming Pistols and Petticoats anthology. And I’m currently working on an SF novel called Switch.

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Laurel Amberdine

Laurel Amberdine

Laurel Amberdine was raised by cats in the suburbs of Chicago. She’s good at naps, begging for food, and turning ordinary objects into toys. She currently lives in San Francisco where she works for Locus Magazine. Find her on Twitter at @amberdine.