Your story “Mother Ship” has a particular voice, a peculiar narrator, and yet the primary focus is almost quintessentially the human experience. How did this story arise for you?
When I was pregnant with my daughter, I had a lot of weird nightmares that stemmed from the knowledge that newborns have very wobbly heads. In some of the dreams, I would pick up a baby and its head would fall off. There was even one where I accidentally ate a baby’s head. A full size baby head, in one bite! In the dream this was both completely possible and extremely distressing.
For some reason, these nightmares prompted me to read up on anencephaly. I got it into my head that I wanted to use it in a story, but didn’t know quite how. Then my daughter was born and I didn’t get much writing done for a while.
About a year later, I got a writing prompt that said “Write about a person who’s cut off contact with his/her former life and assumed an entirely new identity.” This led me to one of the key ideas for “Mother Ship”—using a healed anencephalic baby as a vessel for someone else’s mind.
There is some indication that the colonists recognize the ship as having some consciousness. What’s the story in the background here, with the ship gaining sentience?
When I was thinking about these colony ships, a couple of the key features were (1) that they were designed to interface with their cargo, and (2) they had enormous lifespans. It seemed natural to me that a complex organic entity that interacted with humans for thousands of years would develop consciousness.
I loosely modeled the colonists’ interactions with the ship on people’s relationships with their dogs—the colonists expect the ship to understand them, even if she doesn’t answer. Similarly, the ship has developed a dog-like fondness for her humans, even if she thinks they are a little strange.
Can you tell us what a day in your writing life is like?
I have two kinds of writing days. The first is when I get hit by an idea that I really like, and I sit down at my computer and words gush out. This is my preferred kind of writing, and was what happened with “Mother Ship.”
The second kind of writing day is when I’m stuck on a project and/or not feeling particularly inspired. If I have a story that needs revisions, I work on that. If not, I spend a little time sending out submissions or writing up critiques—anything that is vaguely productive but not actually writing. If I run out of other things to work on and still have time, I force myself to write something, even if it’s just a scene or two.
How is writing a story like composing a photograph?
Photography has changed a lot with the advent of digital cameras. Gone are the days where you take a limited number of carefully pre-planned shots and then wait for the film to develop before seeing your results. It’s not unusual for me to go out with my digital camera and take 400 shots in an afternoon, which gives me the freedom to make a lot of mistakes and try out pretty much any random idea that occurs to me during the shoot. Then I can pick out the best two or ten or fifty shots, and discard all the others.
I wish there was a digital photography equivalent for writing. I’d love to have the freedom to compose a story fifty different ways in an afternoon and then pick out the best one and submit it. Instead, writing is more like film photography, slower and more carefully planned.
That said, I do think there are some similar variables to play with in photography and in writing. Perspective is one. Approaching a familiar subject from an unusual angle can work well in either medium. Framing is important too—where should your story start, and where should it end? How much of the background do you need to include?
I could go on, but rather than focus on specific rules of photo composition, I think I’ll end with a broader parallel—if there is a subject you want to photograph, or a topic you want to write, there are an almost limitless number of approaches you can take and still get an interesting end result. I think that’s actually very important, given how much is out there that has already been done (and often done very well). It makes me feel like I can still contribute something.
What’s next for you?
I’ve read a lot of picture books since my daughter was born, so lately I’ve been trying my hand at writing books for preschool and early-grade kids. The one I’m most fond of is How Far is the Moon, the story of a little girl who wants to go to the moon, but doesn’t understand how far away it really is.
I’m working my way though several short stories in various states of completion and revision. Tina Connolly and I recently finished “Flash Bang Remember,” a collaboration that’s set to appear in an upcoming issue of Lightspeed. We had a lot of fun with it, and now we’re working on a second joint effort.
My natural comfort zone is short stories, but I’ve had a few ideas lately that seem better suited to YA novels, so that may be on my horizon as well.
Spread the word!