The opening of “Alive, Alive Oh” is very visceral. The possibility of tangible pain—blood red shores and acidic waters—leads to the internal pain of leaving one’s home, and intrinsic fears resulting from the birth of Megan—what inspired this type of opening?
I wrote the first paragraph last. It was important to get the reader grounded quickly: This is genre, this is about women, this is not going to have a happy ending. I wanted to instil the reader with a sense of foreboding, because the narrator already knows what she’s about to tell you. She’s not withholding, she’s just telling it in order, but for that to work, she has to tell you what kind of story she’s telling. So that’s key in those first two sentences: This is off-world and dangerous and there’s no going home.
As a German-American being raised between Los Angeles and Mannheim, what (if any) images served as the foundation for that which would be missed on the colony?
Growing up in two places means that there’s always something missing. Homesickness was a confusing concept to me; I think because there was no place that was 100% home, there were always people and things that were in the other place. I first was able to explain this through food: California had corn dogs and burritos and popcorn. Germany had bratwurst and semmelknödel and Gummibears. I live in Spain but my partner and I have a flat in Swansea while he is doing business here. These days, I can get Gummibears and popcorn everywhere but I have a whole new list of interesting foods and shops and people that I can’t have all at once. Wherever I am, I’m giving something up.
The colony is the worst of this, where all the things that make a home are gone. And food remains a useful shorthand for trying to explain those tangible effects of being someplace else. It’s an immediately recogniseable symptom of longing, which I understand better than homesickness. So it was an obvious focus for the story, in terms of illustrating what is left behind and what we miss.
How long was it in writing “Alive, Alive Oh” before you came to the conclusion that the alien sea and that of Wales would feel the same? Was it the natural character progression, or was there something more intrinsic within the narrative about the dichotomy between “you can never go home again” and the idiom “home is where you make it”?
It was a sudden spark. Originally, I was thinking about teenage rebellion on a colony and how that would manifest itself, when everything was so shut down and closed. You can’t go out drinking with your mates, you can’t buy rock-star posters to cover your bedroom wall, you can’t run away from home.
Then I was walking along Swansea bay, which has one of the largest tidal ranges in the world. It was low tide and there was just this endless mud and seaweed, as far as the eye could see. It was cold out and there was no one on the beach but me. It felt otherworldly and I thought, this could be another planet, this could be what it is like. And when I tried to apply that to the story that I was creating, I found I could only do it from the adult viewpoint. I started recasting the story from the mother’s point of view and it became an altogether darker and more compelling story. I wrote the first notes of the story on the spot in my notebook and then rushed home to start drafting.
So the link between the two beaches was in my head very early on but it didn’t become explicit until much later in the writing process.
If you were in the situation, would you rather be like Megan, who had to hear about Wales from descriptions and would never experience Earth, or like her mother, who knew first-hand what her daughter was missing?
Megan. When I started writing the concept of a colony from her point of view it was much more light-hearted and full of teenaged frustration and angst. Even though everything about the story changed, I’m not sure Megan’s story is that different. Her death is tragic but her life had value to her and she was a product of her environment. Megan’s mother tried to do her best for her husband and then her daughter and in the end she lost everything.
You’ve written a wonderful article for the Science Fiction Writers of America (SFWA) titled “Raising the Curtain,” which gives solid advice for writers and the need to market their books. Could you offer some guidance on marketing short fiction?
Don’t sell yourself short. The best marketing for short fiction is to get the story published in prestigious magazines. I know a lot of short story writers who try to second-guess whether a magazine will take a story and whether it’s good enough. They end up self-rejecting rather than allowing the editor to decide. When I submitted “Alive, Alive Oh,” I had had eight form rejections from Lightspeed without a glimmer of interest in my writing. I enjoyed reading the magazine, but I was starting to convince myself that my stories were simply not a good match for Lightspeed. But that’s not my decision to make, that’s the editor’s decision—and I’m thrilled that in this case, JJA proved me wrong.
Give readers a chance to find more of your work. Your author’s bio should not be the same as your query letter—it’s a different audience and serves a different purpose. Even if you have only a very basic website, invest in a single publications page with links to your stories—and then be sure to link to the website in your author’s bio. If I’ve enjoyed a story, I often like to find out more about the writer and with online magazines, it should be only a click away.
Most of all, keep writing.