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Interview: Sarah Pinsker

Sarah Pinsker’s short fiction has won the Nebula and Sturgeon Awards, and she’s been a finalist for the Hugo and numerous other awards. Small Beer Press will publish her first collection, Sooner or Later Everything Falls Into the Sea, in March 2019, and her first novel, A Song For A New Day, will be published by Berkley in September. She lives in Baltimore with her wife, in a hundred-year-old house.

How does it feel to have your debut short story collection, Sooner or Later Everything Falls into the Sea, out there in the world?

AMAZING. As I say in the acknowledgements, this was always my goal. Novels are great, too, but I grew up reading more collections and anthologies and magazines than novels, and the idea of my very own collection still makes me giddy. And the fact that I got to do this with the wonderful Small Beer Press is the cream cheese frosting on this delicious cake.

So far, you’ve had forty-seven pro-sale short stories published, online and in print. How did you choose the ones that appear in this collection?

There were a few definite inclusions in my head, and a few I knew wouldn’t make it this time, with only a dozen slots, and then a bunch on the bubble. So, um, first I made a spreadsheet. The columns after the title of the story included where it was published, whether it was available online or not, how many words, point of view, genre, and a nebulous column called “tone.” Then I color-coded everything and set about picking a rainbow. I think Gavin Grant at Small Beer said nobody had ever sent him a spreadsheet like that before, which I’ll take as a dubious distinction. He then helped with the hard decisions, suggesting some and nixing others.

The spreadsheet also helped with the sequence, but before I sent my suggested sequence, I put the first and last lines onto recipe cards, and tried to find an order that had a good rhythm, similar to when I decide on an album’s tracklist by playing the beginnings and endings of songs and try to make everything feel like a cohesive whole without sounding repetitive. It ends up being a little science and a little art.

And despite all of that, there are a bunch of stories I wish we could have included that didn’t make the cut through no fault of their own.

Memory seems to be a running theme in most of these stories. Is this something you chose consciously to write about or have you discovered over time that this is a topic that’s appeared organically in your fiction?

Organic appearance. I didn’t notice that until people started pointing it out. That said, I think we all have our themes and obsessions that we return to, consciously or not.

I really love the premise of “Talking with Dead People,” where the main character Gwen and her college friend Eliza go into business selling scale models of murder houses programmed with AI to solve unsolved murders. By asking the AI voices guided questions about what happened at the scene of the crime, it’s like they’re resurrecting lost history. Would you say this premise is another way of exploring memory?

Sure! Memory, subjective or objective, and truth, relative or absolute. There’s obviously no way to really know in some of these cases if the AI is giving answers that are true, but I like ruthless interrogation of clues, like in Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time, where a laid-up twentieth-century cop investigates Richard III’s alleged murders. And like the Nutshell forensic dioramas, which were obviously an inspiration here. I went to see them last year with a bunch of writers, and we all stood around trying to solve the murders until we realized the point of them was actually to figure out which questions we should be asking.

You also write about how people choose to remember the past or how people choose to put together a collective memory. In “Talking with Dead People,” Eliza rewrites the way things happened to her and Gwen in her memoir or she leaves out parts of their history together. Then in “Wind Will Rove,” the folk musicians aboard the generation ship choose the songs and repertoire they want saved for one of their Memory Projects. Does this come from your background of having a degree in history? And if so, are you commenting on how, for all our good intentions, our sense of history can’t ever be impartial or total because we as humans are, by nature, biased and selective?

Yes, absolutely. We see that over and over and over in what winds up in history books and whose stories get left out. How do you decide what’s worth preserving, and what’s worth passing down?

Even if the generation ship had managed to hold on to everything they’d brought, they still picked and chose what went on the ship with them. They still decided which cultures would be represented, and what languages information would travel in. People brought instruments to play, but not historic instruments. Without communication with Earth, they’ll never know if someone back home found a primary source letter in a desk drawer or a queen under a parking garage. And, of course, they are stuck reconstructing much of what they do have, which means they are again at the mercy of selective memory and the subsequent generations’ waning familiarity with the source material.

You mention in your Locus Magazine author spotlight that you have a degree in history. What field of history did you study and how did you decide to study it?

American social history. I got through all the famous dates and famous people, but I mostly wanted to know how people lived. Women in the Civil War, rather than battles. I always wanted to be a writer—I always was a writer—and I developed a theory that if I studied English, I’d read a lot of fiction, whereas if I studied history, I’d learn how to do research and anchor my own stories. I absolutely adore primary source research. Hats off to all the professors who made history come alive for me.

Music is the other major theme in your stories. You write about it as a wandering presence, whether it’s in the form of a rock musician who washes up on an island shore in “Sooner or Later Everything Falls Into the Sea,” sirens who keep sailors landlocked on an island in the eighteenth century in “No Lonely Seafarer,” folk musicians jamming on a generation spaceship who won’t live to see their destination in “Wind Will Rove,” or a queer indie band eking out a living in their bus in “Our Lady of the Open Road.” How much of these stories stem from your experience as a singer/songwriter with a band and several albums released?

Maybe not so much “No Lonely Seafarer,” but all of the others you mention cannibalize some part of my experience or my feelings about music, both as a profession and a sustaining force, even if none of the characters are autobiographical. My favorite part of writing fiction about music is the challenge of evoking the feel of something, rather than the thing itself.

In “Our Lady of the Open Road,” you write about a future where technology is driving live music underground. StageHolos, holographs of performances projected onto a stage, are replacing flesh-and-blood bands. As a singer/songwriter, is this an aspect of music technology and the future of music that you’re worried about?

We’re already seeing holographic performers. I probably do worry a little bit that people would rather see a recreation of their favorite dead performer than discover new music, but also that the technologies in our homes are getting better and people go out less and less, so that awesome bands are playing their hearts out to nobody. We’re doing that to ourselves. It doesn’t help that insurance and rising rents and gentrification make it harder for venues to stay open, and harder for them to take chances on developing artists. That’s all at the same time as the democratization brought by the Internet, for good and for bad. There are platforms for bands to be heard without having to go through labels, but it’s hard to get paid when streaming revenues come in by the fraction of a penny. I think I’ve digressed! Advances in music and entertainment technologies are both wonderful and disconcerting. Thank you for coming to my TED talk.

Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band make a holographic cameo in this story. Which bands and musicians got you interested in writing music and forming your own bands, and what was their influence on you?

I’m not sure we have enough space for this answer.

I started my first band when I was thirteen, I think? I was a big stew of the stuff my parents had listened to (the Kinks, Leonard Cohen, Dylan, Springsteen, Joan Baez, the Beatles) and the stuff on the radio and the stuff that I bought, because Rolling Stone and Spin told me to (the La’s, Robert Johnson, Matthew Sweet, the Afghan Whigs, Fishbone), and the stuff my very perceptive piano teacher turned me on to, like Patti Smith and REM. The first show I went to was B.B. King, Dr. John, and Maceo Parker. I was there to see B.B. King, but Maceo—who played with James Brown and Parliament Funkadelic—and his band just blew my mind. So much energy. That was at the Beacon in New York; I saw them again years later in a giant room and they still commanded the whole space. I’m trying to write my way into an answer to “what got you interested in writing music and forming a band” and I have no idea. I just remember doing it. Like Matt Smith’s Doctor and his fez. I play guitar now. I have a band now. I just knew I wanted to play, and that playing with others was more fun than playing alone.

What other instruments did you play before you found out that guitar was the perfect fit?

I was terrible at wind instruments; I have no wind. We lived in Manhattan; I wanted to play drums and settled on keyboard. I took lessons from a great teacher who understood that I wasn’t looking for piano, and gave me a solid grounding in rock keyboard and songwriting instead, and just rock in general. Keyboard was okay, but I didn’t really feel it. It wasn’t until my cousin gave me an electric guitar when I turned thirteen that everything clicked.

Who are some bands that interest you now and what do you listen for in their music?

There are all these amazing queer bands around right now: Manners Manners, Santa Librada, the Shondes, Karen & the Sorrows . . . they’re all great performers and great songwriters. The Afghan Whigs are still probably my favorite live band. Brittany Howard from Alabama Shakes and Thunderbitch is just amazing. Big Joanie. Thalia Zedek.

What do I listen for? Passion. Something that stirs me up, because it stirs them up or vice versa. Crashing chords. Dramatic dynamics.

Do you write while listening to music, and if so, does the music have any influence on what you write?

If I’m in a coffeeshop with music, I can let music disappear into the background along with all the great coffeeshop white noise. Other than that, though, it takes up too much of my brain. I listen to music before and after writing, but not during.

I love your shout-out to Octavia Butler in “And Then There Were (N-One),” the story about the convention filled entirely with Sarah Pinskers from different multiverses. In the alternate reality of the story, Butler is alive to continue writing her Parables series and had Parable of the Trickster published. (A very bittersweet moment for me to read.) You listed her along with Ursula K. Le Guin, Kate Wilhelm, Karen Joy Fowler, and Kij Johnson and others as influences. What about their fiction captures your imagination and inspires you to write?

I remember reading Parable of the Sower on an interstate bus hurtling down I-95 in the dark, and just marveling at the existence of the social contract between everyone along for that journey.

The authors on that list are all people whose stories and novels I find absolutely delicious. I want to take apart stories like “26 Monkeys, Also the Abyss” and “Sur” and “Speech Sounds” and see what makes them tick, and read them out loud to savor every word, and at the same time, I want to swallow them whole. They’re precise with every word, but not in a way that makes you notice the language until they want you to. And I think the ultimate commonality on that list is that they all write fiction that is both challenging and humane. Characters and situations that give the reader a view into another life, true and fictional at the same time. I think you wanted me to break them out individually, but they all inspire the same thing in me in their own ways.

There’s a thing that happens when I’m at a really good show, listening to an amazing band, and I want to be there in that moment, but I also suddenly have an idea for a song that wasn’t there a second ago, and I want to be at home figuring out the song they just inspired. My favorite authors get me similarly abuzz.

You have one new story in the collection called “The Narwhal.” In this one, a young woman named Lynette takes an odd job to ride with a lawyer who’s driving her deceased mother’s art car, built to look like a narwhal, from Baltimore to Sacramento. How did the premise come together for you?

“The Narwhal” was actually inspired by the cover painting by Matt Muirhead, whose art I adore. The full painting includes a manipulated photo of a suburban strip mall multiplex. I think I started the story with that movie theater and the idea of someone driving an art car across the country, since I love art cars. Given the choice between getting picked up by a limo and a pterodactyl for a festival once, I picked the pterodactyl. Oh! And I love secret buttons, too, so I wanted whoever was in the car to not be the car’s designer. Then I got to figure out who was in the awesome car and why. I believe that if you put two people in a car together, you can find out a lot about them. Do they listen to music? Who gets to choose it? Does either have any habits that drive the other bonkers? Is there a power dynamic at work? I love the literal and figurative baggage that people carry into road trips.

What other new writing projects do you have coming up that you can tell us about?

The big one is my novel, A Song For A New Day, which will be published by Berkley in September. I’m starting a second novel right now, and trying to get in some stories around the margins. Stories are still my first love, but these deadlines are tight . . .

Christian A. Coleman

Christian A. Coleman

Christian A. Coleman is a 2013 graduate of the Clarion Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers’ Workshop. He lives and writes in the Boston area. He tweets at @coleman_II.