Lightspeed: Edited by John Joseph Adams




Author Spotlight: Jeremiah Tolbert

Can you tell us a little bit about your writing process and what inspired “La Alma Perdida de Marguerite Espinoza?”

For a few years, I had been thinking that I wasn’t living up to the full potential of fantasy in my fantasy stories, as far as how far I was willing to push the speculative elements. In science fiction, you have an obligation to reality and believability, but in fantasy, what “reality” means is much more flexible.

I started to wonder why, for instance, people in fantasy novels are just flesh and blood like us; they might have magic, but biologically, they are subject to the same science of genetics that we are. They were still living organisms most of the time. But why?

The people in this story are not remotely like us except on the surface. If you cut them open, they “bleed” humors, not blood. Their souls, or vital essence, are an actual thing that can be trapped or transferred. In fact, although not discussed in the story, they have weight, substance.

Once I had this basic idea, I started to explore it further and wondered, what if their creator deity was a jerk? He is still unknowable, inscrutable like many deities, but rather than worship/fear him, what if his creations kind of hated him because of some direct decisions he made; namely, to allow the creation of very few new human souls?

From there, it was just a matter of asking, “Who does this whole situation hurt the most?” And that’s how I found my protagonist.

The world for this story is fascinating—from the religion, to the spring technology, to the Spanish influence. What can you tell us about the creation of this world? Do you have other works set in this universe?

As far as the spring technology and the Spanish influence, these are deliberate in an attempt to step away again from the typical fantasy comfort zones; basically medieval English settings (or lately, steampunk English settings). It’s not so much that I wanted to make the people literally Spanish, as this is intended to be a secondary world fantasy. But in the great multiverse of possibilities, the people of the story seemed more Spanish than say, French or English. As I wrote the story for an audience in our world, I drew allusions to a language they know in order to help them connect more with the characters and their plight.

Of course, you can’t just pilfer the language; language comes with certain cultural aspects as well. I’ve been fascinated with Spanish-speaking cultures since taking Spanish language classes in college, and having spent some time in Central America over the past several years, it was inevitable some of that would make its way into my stories.

I have another story in progress that looks at what war is like in this setting. How do we fight when people can have their souls taken from them and replaced with the souls of animals? Military recruiters have an entirely different role in this society, and it’s not a pretty one . . .

In this world, some people have animal souls implanted deliberately late in life for the unusual characteristics it brings out. If you were to have an animal alma implanted for its abilities, what animal would you choose?

This is very much like the “What super power would you like to have?” game, and I’m terrible at that one. I always want a power that lets me try on a lot of different ones. Luckily, there’s no rule saying I have to keep one animal soul either (although there are good reasons not to just keep putting new ones in yourself, as the side effects are cumulative).

I suppose I would go for speed over strength, so something like a cheetah or leopard would do nicely. My personality’s more cat-like anyway, so hopefully the change wouldn’t be too huge.

You are a writer, a photographer, and a web designer. Since these are all creative careers, how do you feel they affect each other?

Sometimes they blend together into interesting projects like Dr. Roundbottom, but those projects can take an enormous amount of work, so mostly they act as different aspects of my personality.

Photography is about observation and patience. You have to see the photograph you want and wait for it to become possible in the light, or wait for the animal to show itself to you, in the example of wildlife photography.

Web design appeals to the analytical, problem-solving side of me. I do a lot more development than design lately, but both are about solving concrete problems and helping clients achieve a certain goal. I’m not lying to say that this is the most lucrative of my pursuits, so this is the closest thing I have to a “job.”

Writing is where I get to free my creativity, let it run wild; I can write about anything, any place, anywhere. Photography, while creative, is mostly restrained to the real world, as I’m not the world’s best photo-manipulator. Mostly I write short stories, not novels, because of that lack of risk. If you’re going to keep someone’s attention for 300 pages, and even more, spend a year writing that much, you might take fewer risks. There’s a lot of time at stake. But a short story takes a day or two to write generally, and it doesn’t hurt as much if it fails; and the pay is not anything spectacular. So why not try the wildest things you can think of, write from the very core of your being? There’s so little to lose.

What advice do you have for aspiring writers?

When it comes to the practical side of things, you can listen to advice (how to format a manuscript). As far as creativity goes, do your own thing. You know better than anyone else how you’re going to do it. So much writing advice is bunk. There will be time for understanding how other people do things later. For now, read a lot and write a lot and everything else will probably fall into place.

Is there anything else you’d like to share about this piece? What’s next for you?

I just want to challenge other writers to write more fantasy that undermines the basic assumptions about our physical world. I want to see stories in which gravity doesn’t work the way it does here, or a story in which the sun is actually God watching over her creation. Tinker with reality itself. What profoundly weird worlds can you find that way? Deviate from the standard physical world model!

What’s next for me? I just moved back to my home state of Kansas for my wife’s new teaching job. Once I get settled, I’ll get back to work on my young adult time travel novel set in Western Kansas. 35 million years ago, Kansas was a great inland sea, home to the most deadly oceanic predators the world has ever known: mosasaurs and sharks the size of school buses, to name a couple. So what happens when you dump a bunch of Kansas teenagers who have never even seen the ocean into those waters? I am jokingly calling the book There Will Be Blood, but unfortunately, that title’s been taken. In the meanwhile, you can expect a few more short stories from me, because books are a high-risk investment, so I will break up the world with more stories like “La Alma.”

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Kevin McNeil

Kevin McNeil is a physical therapist, sports fanatic, and volunteer coach for the Special Olympics. He is a graduate of the Odyssey Writing Workshop and The Center for the Study of Science Fiction’s Intensive Novel Workshop, led by Kij Johnson. His fiction has appeared in Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show, Every Day Fiction, and The Dark. His short story, “The Ghost of You Lingers,” earned an honorable mention in The Best Horror of the Year, Volume Eight, edited by Ellen Datlow. Kevin is a New Englander currently living in California. Find him on Twitter @realkevinmcneil.