In your story in this month’s issue, “Always True to Thee, in My Fashion,” there’s the line: “The models’ knees trembled with nervous anticipation.” This contrasts delightfully with what a Galliano or Vera Wang model’s knees would do on a Paris catwalk in our own day. What was your inspiration for this intriguing future world of designer emotions?
I think that even today models might be nervous—not on the catwalk, but as they prepare backstage—or, at least, new and inexperienced models might be. Since I wrote the story, the TV reality show America’s Next Top Model seems to confirm that. But I was working mostly from the experience of my sister, an actress, who says (despite a lot of stage experience) that she is nervous before a performance, but nervousness evaporates as soon as she is out on stage.
“Always True to Thee” was a lot of fun to read aloud, in part because the characters’ voices (and the narrative) transform with each season’s fashionable drugs and emotions. What challenges did you encounter in trying to balance these seasonal changes while maintaining your characters’ core identities?
For me, the characters always come first. I sort of inhabit them, and it’s natural that they then move through successive scenes, whether seasonal or not. For me, writing is very akin to Method acting, in which the actor tries to become the role. This is not a very efficient way to write, in that it makes plot, which is primary to most readers, secondary during the writing. But it’s the only way I can work.
Suzanne and Cade are remarkably vivid characters, and for me, evoked not only people I know in real life, but also characters in a Fitzgerald or Maugham story. Did you have any particular characters in mind while you were writing this story? Also, did the dynamic between Suzanne and Cade play out exactly the way you imagined when you started writing, or did they surprise you in any way?
I didn’t have any particular real people in mind, no. The dynamic between them sort of developed as I wrote. I knew at the start that she would embrace fashion completely—even to making sure her personality matched the season’s trends—and he would have doubts, but that’s all I knew. The rest developed as I went along. But Maugham is one of my very favorite authors, and favorite and oft-read authors always influence the unconscious in ways we (or at least I) don’t understand directly.
We catch occasional bleak glimpses of the impoverished world outside of Suzanne and Cade’s expensive towers and VR bubble. What do these windows reveal about the setting and about the characters? Towards the end of “Always True to Thee,” Suzanne expresses surprise at her emotional reaction when “she hadn’t yet taken this season’s pills.” She and Cade are aware (in different ways) of how their fashion drugs influence who they are and how they appear to others. How much do you think fashion influences who we are?
Fashion—like alcohol, drugs, gambling, exercise, anything pursued obsessively—can be used to keep reality at bay, pushing away having to face problems both in the world and in ourselves. This is what Suzanne is doing. If she takes fashion to the extreme, altering her personality (including sexual thrills) to match her outfits, she does not have to deal with who she is underneath, or with what the world is. That’s basically what the story is about. The glimpses of a world in deep economic trouble show some of the things she is using fashion to avoid having to see. Some—not all—of the super-rich are not so different today.
I hope it’s okay to say that you have a great sense of color and style yourself. Do you see a bit of the fashion-loving Suzanne in yourself? Or do you share some of Cade’s sense of exasperation?
Thank you for the compliment! I like clothes but I am not fashion-forward; my taste is more classic than trendy, and my budget limited by choice. There are more interesting things to spend money on (books, for instance. Or SF cons!)
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