Your short story, “Singing of Mount Abora,” won The World Fantasy Award for Best Short Fiction in 2008. Can you tell us a bit about it?
I’ve always been fascinated by the secondary or even tertiary characters in stories, the characters who don’t get written about. Who may not even get to speak. I have a tendency to write their stories, like the story of Anne de Bourgh from Pride and Prejudice in my story “Pug.” In this case, I was fascinated by a character in a poem: the Abyssinian maid in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan.” What was her story, I wondered. Why was she singing of Mount Abora? When John Klima told me that he was editing an anthology of spelling-bee inspired stories called Logorrhea and gave me a list of words to choose from that included “dulcimer,” I knew it was time to write her story. In case readers don’t remember, this is what Coleridge says:
A damsel with a dulcimer
In a vision once I saw:
It was an Abyssinian maid,
And on her dulcimer she played,
Singing of Mount Abora.
The structure of “Singing of Mount Abora” is delightful. Could you tell us about the process of writing it?
Thank you! I didn’t write it all that differently from how I write any other story. I just sat down, wrote a first draft, and then revised it. By the time I sit down to write a short story, I already have the story arc in my head, so it’s just a matter of writing. Even if the structure of the story is complicated, the writing of it is fairly linear. If only novels worked that way . . .
Earlier this year, you released a unique “accordion format” novella The Thorn and the Blossom. What attracted you to the format?
Actually, my editor Stephen Segal suggested the format and I wrote the story (or two interlocking stories, really) specifically for it. Once again, I was inspired by an editor. I think that’s something readers often don’t know: how much writers can be inspired by specific projects. I have ideas in my head, but hearing about a format, or a word I can use, or an anthology idea, will bring it out. Usually, I do already have the idea—somewhere in my head, I have a sort of file room of story ideas, and it contains many, many ideas—but having a specific project to write for brings them out.
I enjoyed that Sabra’s mother “approved of [her] studying literature, which was a decorative art.” How did your family influence your decision to pursue writing and literature?
I have an ancestor who was a famous Hungarian poet, and about half of my family is artistic, so perhaps it’s in the blood. The other half of my family is scientific, but I’m definitely in the artistic half. I did think about my own mother when I was writing that line. She’s in the scientific half (both of my parents are medical doctors and research scientists), and I think she would have much preferred me to be a scientist as well. She did regard literature as a sort of decorative art, something one could do in one’s spare time, on the side. Although she did realize relatively early on that she couldn’t fight my desire to write —I think when I announced that I wanted to be a poet! But it was a complicated influence, involving both support from my family and fighting to find my own path.
Michael introduces Sabra to Coleridge and says, “I can’t believe you’ve never read it before. I mean, I learned that in high school.” When were you first introduced to Coleridge? What was your reaction?
Oh, I’m pretty sure I first read Coleridge in middle or high school, and he blew me away. Completely. I think I memorized “Kubla Khan” back then, and I can still recite most of it. One of my favorite books of all time, which I read when I was young, is The Magic Circle by Louis Untermeyer. I still have it. It’s the perfect book of poems for children, and Untermeyer is a wonderful guide to poetry. It seems to be out of print, which is a real shame.
Last time we spoke you mentioned that you were hoping to work on a young adult novel. Could you tell us about that and the other things you’re currently working on?
I am in fact working on that novel! It’s based on a story I wrote called “The Mad Scientist’s Daughter,” which was originally published in Strange Horizons and will be reprinted in The Mad Scientist’s Guide to World Domination. It’s giving me fits because, while I know how to write short stories, poems, and essays, I don’t really know how to write a novel. I’ve never done it before. Even The Thorn and the Blossom was a novella. So I’m having a hard time adjusting. But once I get into it, I think it will go more smoothly. It’s just a matter of learning a different pace. I’m also working on some short stories, again because editors have asked me for specific projects. So there should be lots of stories coming out in the near future. It’s an exciting time!