Do you have any advice for other writers?
No matter how great of a writer you are, not everyone is going to like what you do. This means that sometimes, the greatest skill you can have is patience.
At the time I first finished this story, Lightspeed wasn’t open. I sent it to a few really well-respected markets and got some very painful rejections, with the main suggestion being to cut most of the conversations and focus instead on the action.
I thought that was really fascinating, because for me those conversations are the linchpin. Everything else—the revolutionary action, the magic, the worldbuilding—they’re all there to support the tension created by these girls and women who are trying to communicate in these really stressful, oppressive circumstances—while also simultaneously coming to terms with what has happened to them and trying to figure out what they want for the future.
Everything important in the story is in the spaces between words and actions—the waiting and the dread—which means there needs to be a lot of breathing room. In that way, it’s a very queer story: at least when I was growing up, so much of the experience of being a young queer person was learning to navigate this kind of communication where nothing was solid and the outcome could either be extremely dangerous or very wonderful, and you had no way of knowing which was more likely.
I think a few years ago, I would’ve been so desperate for the sale that I would’ve automatically made those cuts, even though they felt fundamentally wrong for what I was trying to do. Even with my convictions, it was still agony trying to decide the right course of action. So, I just sat on the story for a long time—I think almost a year?—until I felt sure, and then I sent it, just as it was, to Lightspeed.
I don’t think financial compensation for a story is a metric for anything, but getting that check felt very rewarding; it was my largest compensation for a piece of short fiction to date. More importantly, when I read the story now, I’m proud of it.
What are you reading lately? What writers inspire you?
Over the last few years, the amount of reading I’ve been doing has really dropped off. Part of this is because of changes in my writing career—as you gain momentum, the giant stack of “required readings” gets bigger and bigger, to the point where I’d started to feel like reading had almost become a chore.
As a result, I’ve tried to expand my reading into different genres and formats. I read a lot more nonfiction now and find it really inspiring when it comes to idea-fodder for stories. When I’m really stressed, I usually move toward shorter works, because my brain can’t seem to handle following a narrative for too long.
However, I will say that one book that recently sucked me right into it was S.A. Barnes’s Dead Silence—it had that quick turn-key pacing and bigger themes that reminded me a lot of the best parts of early nineties SFthrillers, with just really excellent characterization and atmosphere. I inhaled that book.
I think the best thing I did lately, though, was join a book club. It’s composed almost entirely of badass older women that have all had really interesting careers and life experiences that they can bring into book discussions, and it has really gotten me fired up about reading again.
What trends in speculative fiction would you like to see gain popularity in the next few years?
This is maybe less about the writing itself than the commercial side of it—e.g., marketing, advertising, social media—but I have met an incredible number of brilliant femme-presenting writers and readers who absolutely love fantasy—and who will immediately throw up their hands when presented with the words “science fiction”, and particularly anything that looks futuristic or space-related.
Women purchase more books than men in every single fiction genre—except possibly science-fiction, where men may have a slight edge (bit.ly/3FiGERr), which further supports the idea that compared to other genres, women are shying away from science fiction. This has ramifications for the kind of books that are acquired as publishers try to balance pulling in more women SF readers with not alienating the men that have historically been their customer base. And for the record, I’m not necessarily even speaking about book content so much as how it’s marketed and packaged for consumers—and that’s regardless of whether that marketing/packaging is actually effective or not.
If this reluctance to engage with science fiction was truly a case of “I tried it and didn’t love it,” that would be one thing, but I think it’s largely the result of a deeply enculturated gender bias. There’s this worldview that kind of sees fantasy as more emotional and character-driven versus science-fiction’s cold, technical world—and many women my age were strongly discouraged by their peers away from anything involving math or science (myself included!). And this fallacy is continually propped up by the way some books, movies, etc., are advertised.
But I personally think there’s no environment more primed for deep character work than the isolation of space, no genre more capable of exploring the subversion of gender norms than one that looks to the future. We’ve already seen these numbers shifting, and I’m excited to see them shift further.
What are you working on lately? Where else can fans look for your work?
My debut novel, Liar, Dreamer, Thief, comes out January 10th—which dedicated Lightspeed fans may have already heard about, since there was an amazing review of it by Aigner Loren Wilson in issue #150. For those that haven’t, it’s a surreal psychological suspense with fantasy elements that dives deep into mental illness, obsession, and compulsion—while working in more expansive themes about capitalism, race, and family trauma. It’s still early days as far as reader reviews, but I’ve been really grateful and lucky to see that it’s done great in the trades, getting strong positive reviews from Kirkus, Booklist, Shelf Awareness, and a starred review from Publisher’s Weekly.
For short fiction, I have a story, “The Frankly Impossible Weight of Han,” included in the year’s Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy, which just hit bookstores. You can find the rest of my short fiction at mariadong.com.
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