This story breaks the fourth wall, with you, the writer, addressing the reader directly, and then you also inject an additional meta element into the tale as the narrative comments on the very story it is a part of. Why did you approach the story with that unusual style and structure?
I’d call it an authorial narrative voice, rather than the voice of Ken Schneyer, the singular guy sitting in the lobby at Balticon typing answers to these questions. The story repeatedly reminds the reader that it is an artifice, something created. At the same time, there are elements designed to submerge the reader in the story and feel like she’s there. So there’s an oscillation—you’re drawn in, then you’re jerked back, then you’re drawn in again. You are aware of your own vulnerability to manipulation and of the author’s intent to manipulate you, so that you must choose whether to allow that manipulation. It mirrors the central concern of the story: what it means to choose what you will and won’t do, what you will and won’t see or notice or say.
In the story, you write: “for all the good or evil, creation, or destruction, your living might have accomplished, you might just as well never have lived at all.” Is this intended to be a call to action for readers?
It’s a quotation from Charles G. Finney’s The Circus of Doctor Lao (1935), a prediction made by an overly truthful carnival fortuneteller. When I first read it as a teenager, I felt that it was about as awful a curse as it’s possible for someone to impose; partially as a result, I’ve spent my life looking for what I call “evidence of impact”—some sign that my passing through the world will leave some mark for good. Other quotations on the same theme are sprinkled throughout the story.
I wouldn’t go so far as to call that particular line (or, for that matter, the story) a call to action. But it does, maybe, ask what a call to action would be. One of the frustrations of art is that it does nothing immediately material for anyone, except maybe the author and publisher. But readers can consume a work of art that involves something important and imagine, through their reading/listening/viewing, that they’ve accomplished something. Part of what this story does is to ask: Is enlightenment enough? Is changed perception the goal, or is it a means to something else?
You attended the Clarion Writers’ Workshop, and some of the meta elements of the story are reminiscent of the kind of writing advice writers tend to get at such workshops. Was this story a direct response to your workshop experience—a way to apply the advice, yet also deconstruct it at the same time?
I loved Clarion, and indeed some of those lines came from my teachers. I actually believe in most of them and usually try to follow them. But this story plays with those principles. An early title was “The Passive Protagonist and the Wheel of Fire,” because I knew the protagonist wasn’t ultimately going to do anything, just Feel A Lot. Principles and rules of writing are useful—essential—for beginners; they help you recognize the dynamics of what you’re doing, to analyze problems and see patterns. They provide a vocabulary and even a technology for composition. But once you get to a certain level, you need to treat them as tools and devices, not as commandments. You have to know when to jettison a rule that you would otherwise use 90% of the time. So the absolutist voice of the critic is in conversation with the narrative voice telling the story, and they’re both in conversation with the reader. Stepping away from and examining the process of creation is also stepping away from and examining the process of reading. If I’m not always following the rules (and shouldn’t be), then maybe you shouldn’t either.
We labeled this story as “fantasy” when we published it, but it incorporates elements of both science fiction and fantasy. And though the fantasy element is the fact that the protagonist “was a man who was born, who lived, and who died” over and over again, it feels like it might be more appropriately thought of as science fiction. Which do you see it as, and do you think genre labels matter much?
The first draft actually contained the lines, “Ah, you say, now it’s a fantasy story!” and “Ah, you say, now it’s science fiction!” So I was certainly playing around with genre definitions, although, like a lot of the commentary in the story, those lines express some of my own perplexity about what I was doing.
I’m skeptical of genre boundaries, which usually break down upon close examination. I also don’t think they ultimately make much difference, because the impulse of the reader—to think beyond the limits of everyday experience—is similar in both fantasy and science fiction. To the extent that there is a difference, I think it lies in the epistemological assumptions behind the narrative voice: whether all things that we would want to know are knowable in principle, through reason, the senses, and such devices as we may someday create, or rather whether some crucial things are perpetually ineffable. I read some wonderful recent novels that were marketed as fantasy—Nicola Griffith’s Hild, Fran Wilde’s Updraft, N. K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season—and they all seem like science fiction to me, because of the habits of mind they convey.
What’s up next for you on the publishing horizon?
I have stories coming out in two anthologies: “A Lack of Congenial Solutions,” a bleak far-future science fiction tale, will appear in Alex Shvartsman’s Humanity 2.0. “You in the United States!,” which I guess I’d call “political speculative fiction,” will appear in Jeanne Thornton’s Procyon Science Fiction Anthology for 2016.
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