From the opening paragraph, “Here is My Thinking on a Situation That Affects Us All” establishes the setting, character, and the character’s amazing voice. What inspired such an incredible story?
You know, I don’t really know. According to my records, I wrote it over the course of two and a half hours on January 4th, 2015. I remember that I was at my parents’ house for the holidays, and I was in my childhood bedroom and the first draft of the story just came. The next day I spent about half an hour revising it, of which about twenty minutes were devoted to rewriting the final line. Even now, I’m still not sure the final line is perfect, but it’s okay. It’s done.
With regards to the voice and the first paragraph, the only thing that comes to mind is The Sweetest Thing, which was a 2002 movie starring Christina Applegate, Selma Blair, and Cameron Diaz (it was a female gross-out comedy that was something of a precursor to movies like Bridesmaids). I remember that when I was a teenager, this movie was on HBO all the time, and I watched it a few times, and the line that’s always stuck in my memory is when the three leads are singing a song about how you should always shower compliments on a guy’s penis, and a random woman says, “It’s oozy and green!” (bit.ly/oozygreen). I think that use of the word “oozy,” and the weird gelatinous quality that it gives to the voice, are something you can hear in the first line of my story.
Very few writers can capture such a distinctly non-human point of view as you have with the spaceship. Whether it is in the subtle mentions of physiology and physical form, or the commentary of “dogs and locusts and funguses” sharing the bond of awareness, you never once portray the spaceship as anything other than its own unique self. Why do you feel such changes in perspective appeal to genre readers?
I don’t know that it’s possible to really have a nonhuman point of view. No matter what we describe, we anthropomorphize it. For instance, would an alien spaceship really fall in love with a man? Probably not. However, it’s always tempting to try to capture something that’s other. Paradoxically, I think genre readers like non-human characters because we empathize with the outcaste and the alien. We see ourselves in them. There’s danger in that, I think, since it leads us to ignore the ways that we are powerful and oppressive. Maybe this spaceship is a perfect example. It’s an immense, alien spaceship, but it’s crafted a narrative wherein it’s stuck and powerless.
You make good use of sensory impressions throughout the story: cooling in a bath of molten iron; sizzling on the ocean floor; a journey into the dark; the precision of your visual descriptions. How do you feel such impressions draw readers into a story?
I’m glad you think so! I often feel like I’m the absolute worst at this. Prose fiction is so good at giving you the texture of another person’s thoughts. You really feel in some ways, like you are them. But I often think it’s not very good at putting us in their body and giving us the experience of what it must be like to see through their eyes. Oftentimes, when I write a novel or story, I feel like I’m writing a well-narrated shadow play—all the objects and places exist only in outline—and I have to tell myself that for the reader, all of this will feel much more real.
On your blog, you share your thoughts on rejections, becoming a worse writer, and the pleasure of an exquisitely formed narrative. If you could reach through time and talk to the younger Rahul about the ups and downs of writing, what would you say?
The main thing that’s surprised me in my writing life is how long it’s taken to get anywhere. I wrote and submitted my first story shortly after my eighteenth birthday, and I was certain that story was going to sell, be read widely, and win awards. That was twelve years ago! It took me four years to sell a story to a pro market. Six years to sell a second one. And even now I don’t sell everything I write (not even close). It’s tough, and it takes a very long time. But I really don’t think that would be a helpful thing to say to my younger self. Probably if I’d known, back then, how hard it would be, I’d have given up.
What I really wish I could tell him is how much there is to learn. Writing a story is so difficult! And even now, after selling a novel and dozens of stories, I am continually learning that there are very basic things which I don’t know (and I’m talking basic, basic things, like how to construct a plot that dramatizes a character’s core inner conflict). Writing is half instinct and half very careful thought, but for too many years I thought it was mostly instinct. If I were able to go back and talk to myself at a younger age, I’d tell Rahul to study craft and to pay attention to all the things he thinks he’s too good for (plot, sympathetic characters, symbolism, etc.). But, of course, people did tell me that stuff when I was younger, and I just didn’t listen.
Do you find that your writing process differs when writing novels versus writing shorter works?
My writing process is changing continually, and it’s gotten to the point where I no longer have any idea how I do things. Right now, in particular, it’s going through a lot of flux. I used to write without any outline. I’d just have a character, a situation, and a sense of where I wanted things to end up. But I’ve lately come to realize that when I did this, I’d often leave out very critical elements and end up with weak stories that didn’t have strong character arcs. Basically, with each story I’d set off hoping that it would be like “Here Is My Thinking . . .” (i.e. the kind of story that tells itself), but if it turned out to not be that sort of story, then I’d have zero idea how to turn it into something compelling.
So lately I’ve stepped back and become more analytical. Partly this has been a result of my novel writing. For the second book on my contract with my publisher, I have to submit a synopsis before I can start writing, and lately I’ve been going back and forth with my editor over the synopsis. This has led me to think more deeply about the kinds of stories that can be told. And these insights have, in turn, affected my short story writing. I’ve been trying to be more purposeful, with my stories, in thinking about what the core narrative and character arc are. Which is to say, I no longer really have any strong method for how I write.
Who do you turn to when you want to get your science fiction reading on?
I really like Maureen McHugh. After The Apocalypse is one of the best story collections I’ve read in any genre. It’s full of perfectly human stories about various apocalypses, both major and minor. Ken Liu’s The Grace of Kings was one of the most gripping books I’ve read in recent years: It restored to me the feeling I used to get, when I was a kid, from reading David Eddings or Mercedes Lackey. It’s one of the shames of growing up—the fact that old classics no longer have their power (because you see their flaws), and now it takes a much better writer to extract from you the same emotional reaction. But Ken Liu is that writer, and I’m really looking forward to his next. Similarly, Ferrett Steinmetz’s Flex was an amazingly compelling urban fantasy—I’ve rarely seen a better realized magic system, or a book where the personal conflicts were so well integrated with the broader thematic questions.
Finally, I think Jo Walton is one of the best writers working today. Earlier this year I read My Real Children and was absolutely blown away. The intertwined stories were beautiful and affecting, and the book had an interesting broader point to make about fate and about the possibility for human happiness even in the face of global misery. And then immediately afterwards I read Walton’s The Just City, which is a serious take on a premise that is absolutely bananas (the goddess Athena collects together three hundred philosophically minded individuals, from throughout time, for the purpose of creating the ideal state envisioned by Plato’s Republic). The book seems like it cannot possibly be good, but it is. Moreover, the two books are so different and are good in such dissimilar ways—zaniness and high energy of The Just City forms a stark contrast to the precise level of control and distance that makes My Real Children such a delight—that it’s difficult to believe they were written by the same author.
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