“Time Bomb Time” has a clean, immediate start with a series of sensory impressions — the “sharp scent of ozone,” the bump of a shoulder, the impressions of the smell of grunge, the “formaldehyde smell of stale Red Bull.” These things serve not only to establish the setting, but to establish the intimate intensity that will drive the story forward as time re-ravels and un-winds. As a writer, how conscious are you of creating such immediate impressions as a means to capturing the readers’ imaginations?
It’s important in every story. Any one of those things can be the detail that provides sensory resonance for a particular reader and draws them into the present moment of the story. But I think it’s especially important in a story like this one, which is mostly conversation, not just as a way to keep the story grounded and give it some physicality, but as a way to signal Hannah’s reactions and keep the reader connected with her experience.
Hannah is approachable, intelligent, and engaging. A young woman struggling with the dregs of a past relationship, a second-generation Arab, and running from the shackles of misconceptions and prejudice that people insist she wear. What are your thoughts on the ongoing cry for identity and inclusion in genre literature, and those voices intent on drowning it out?
We need more inclusiveness and representation in genre fiction as an accurate reflection of our world, not just as it is now, but the way it’s been and the way it’s going to be. Fighting against inclusiveness not only puts you on the wrong side of history, it also puts you on the wrong side of wrong.
In this story, Hannah’s not just an Arab-American, but an Arab-American Christian. Her experience is very freely based on a family of Syrian Christians that I knew. She doesn’t fit into one of America’s pernicious little identity slots. Having other people thrust their perceptions on her and not respect her own complex identity or desires is a problem she has to constantly deal with. Nolon says he cares about her, but both his needs and his politics say something else.
The story’s repetition of dialogue and descriptions are spectacular and subtle at once; in fact, they are the story. The flow is so natural that is invites the reader to step out of the story to put together the missing pieces. What inspired this play on words and perceptions?
I first got the idea for this story back in 2003 or 2004. I remember only because in the first drafts, the character who would become Nolon was protesting one of Bush’s re-election campaign speeches. That’s so long ago I don’t remember the exact origin of the idea any more. But it was one of those ideas that, once it got hold of me, wouldn’t let go.
Back then, I workshopped the story at OWW (the Online Writing Workshop for Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror) and I submitted it to a couple places, including Fantasy & Science Fiction, where I’m now the editor, but I didn’t have the skills yet to make it work. The first half of the story didn’t flow smoothly and nobody could tell what I was trying to do. It just confused people. So I put the story aside and every couple years I would pull it out of the trunk and take another run at it. At one point I put every paragraph on an index card and sorted the index cards different ways trying to find a sequence that worked. I don’t think there’s a single sentence in here that survived untouched from the first draft. Maybe “pop.” “Pop” is probably still the same.
Many of your books and stories are about subverting expectations and dominant paradigms, whether through the styles of writing or the nature of the plot. Traitor to the Crown is a wonderful example of taking the known and turning it upside down. What is it about turning the world on its ear that appeals to you as a writer?
On my best days, I want to change the world. To change the world, you have to change people’s perceptions. Fiction encourages empathy. If it’s done well, it gives fresh perspectives and undermines preconceptions and prejudices. It creates opportunities for people to reflect and have their own revelations. I can’t ever not think about that when I write.
Your short stories range from chilling and serious to the delightfully silly. If you could go back and offer the younger C.C. Finlay a spot of writing advice, what would it be?
Forget everything else and learn to write big commercial fantasy.
Congratulations on your recent appointment as the new editor of Fantasy & Science Fiction. Every editor has left his or her own mark on the magazine. What do you hope to add to F&SF that will carry it into the future?
F&SF has a unique position among genre magazines in that it has always published the widest range of stories. Not just fantasy and science fiction, like in the title, but horror and weird fiction and alternate history and stories that mix genres. No other magazine has been doing anything like that for nearly as long. The first thing I did as editor was introduce electronic submissions, reducing barriers and making it possible for the best writers anywhere in the world to send stories with a few clicks of a keyboard. Other magazines, especially online magazines, already do this, but it’s a new step for F&SF. In just the first few issues and months, we’ve already published or bought stories from writers in China, Mexico, the Netherlands, New Zealand, and South Africa, in addition to the usual suspects (US, Canada, and Great Britain). So I hope that I add a wider diversity of voices to go with the diversity of stories, and carry on the F&SF tradition that way.
What’s next for both C.C. Finlay the author, and C.C. Finlay the editor?
I’m writing the answers to this interview in early March. Analog will be publishing my new short story “The Empathy Vaccine” sometime soon. Besides that, I need to get cracking and finish some more work to send out into the world. By May, when this sees print, I better be on that. And my wife, Rae Carson, has a new historical fantasy about the California Gold Rush, called Walk on Earth a Stranger, coming out this fall; so I’ll also be helping her to get ready to travel and promote that. Meanwhile, getting up to speed as editor of F&SF has been taking most of my energy. By the time this is published, I’ll be finished putting together the July/August issue, working on September/October, and looking ahead to the cover stories and issues for early next year. That feels like plenty of next for now.
Spread the word!