The opening paragraphs of “The Mars Convention” immediately set the tone for the story, a delicious blend of humor, scholastic fatigue, and cultural relations. When you sit down to write a story, how much thought do you give to the opening, the initial presentation? Are you conscious of attempting to capture a reader’s interest?
Since I often pick books to buy or read next using the First Paragraph Test, I am certainly conscious of the need to get things rolling right away. I tend to admire fiction with immersive first pages, pages that give you ten things to wonder about rather than just one. Also, in science fiction, that kind of approach lets you tell the reader, “Hey, this not only isn’t Kansas, it’s not any part of your world, so buckle up, put down the phone, and pay attention.”
Of course, these days they may be reading it on the phone, so this may need rethinking.
Can you tell us a bit about the inspiration behind this story?
The true origin is very mundane, in an SF-nal way. Confluence, the Pittsburgh-area SF convention, was being held in Mars, PA, one year, and they had a story contest. Mars was the theme. The prize was cash, and publication in the convention program book. I wrote this story for the contest. Providentially, perhaps, the US Postal Service took two weeks to get the story across town (I’m not kidding) so the story not only missed the deadline, it didn’t show up in the Confluence mailbox until after the judging and announcement of the winners. That meant I had to send it elsewhere, and settled for publication in Interzone, which was the most prestigious magazine of that era.
The Mars theme came with the contest, and I decided to add the basic elements of the purpose of the contest to the list: a convention, and science fiction itself. One of my common techniques is to twist the definitions of basic thematic terms, so I used more than one meaning of “convention” and I picked a Universe in which “science fiction” has unexpected extra meanings.
And if you want a good writing challenge, pick a POV character who sees the world in the opposite of your own view; so I picked a guy who was planning to shut SF down, once and for all.
Yeah, it kinda wrote itself.
Oh, and once I came up with the idea of a very small library of human works, I decided to make a list of the works, and refer to every single one at least once in the story. The references are often indirect, but all of the forty-four “sacred texts of Science Fiction” are in there somewhere.
One of the things I most appreciated about “The Mars Convention” was the casual lack of body awareness in the narrative. The characters have no more reason to think of their bodies than humans do to think of their bilateral symmetry. What is it about the challenge of differing perspectives that appeals to you as a writer?
Writing different POVs is one of the seductions of the writing life. Aliens, whether from inside or outside, can be an interesting challenge. The truth is that we are only one of the nearly infinite possibilities for seeing the world, and that we actually only take in a small amount of data from the world, upon which we build our sense of everything. Tweaking that just a little can give you a wildly different experience, and can make for a mind-altering experience.
One of the things that tends to disappoint me in SF is aliens that are really humans in a rubber suit. It’s as though the author doesn’t take their own premise seriously. I’ve paid attention to the tricks of making aliens alien, and one of them is that exactly what you pointed out: They won’t be any more aware of their bodies than we are (probably). The trick (and the fun) is that you can show the reader what they’re like when they interact with something in the environment in a way that is different from how we would do it. Having a Venusian being annoyed at the lack of sulfuric acid in the air, for instance, gets the reader’s attention.
“The Mars Convention” speaks to the lasting power of story, and the ongoing clash between the perceptions of science vs. science fiction. In your years of writing and teaching, how have opinions changed when it comes to the worth of genre stories?
A large part of the academic and literary world are still condescending to genre stories, but there’s actually been a huge shift in my lifetime. Many of our best writers have written what are really genre stories (and sometimes they admit it), and many of our most influential writers have come out of the genres. SF and fantasy have actually conquered the world, and much of the world now admits it.
In my own case, my initial prejudice has just been endlessly confirmed. I started out thinking of all stories as legitimate variations within the world of literature, and of science fiction as probably the richest metaphor-mine possible. You can do anything in SF, which is why it has penetrated the marketplace so thoroughly. I cut my teeth on Verne, Wells, 1984, Brave New World, Stanislaw Lem, and J. G. Ballard. All of those were, I was led to believe, legitimate Literature with the big L.
I should note that I write both “literary” fiction and science fiction, and I often sell what I thought of as one of those categories in the other category’s marketplace. In both directions.
From poetry to fiction to non-fiction, you are a prolific writer. Do you find one facet of your writing influences another? Does being an academic make you a better poet? Do the rhythms of poetry color your fiction?
What I teach, and feel, is that writing is writing, and each of the types of writing one engages in will influence the others. The teaching of writing, both poetry and prose, makes one a better writer, since needing to articulate explanations often makes one understand things that were just instincts before that. And yes, the rhythms of poetry help remind one that the best prose is music, too.
To be technical for a moment: I often deliberately make one facet of my writing influence another, by using the same material in more than one genre. (I’m reminded of William Gibson’s story “The Gernsback Continuum” having been a fictional rewriting of a book review.) I sometimes write a poem based on the story I’m working on, or a story based on a poem, or an essay based on a story idea. After they’re done, I mutate them to the point that they stand alone. I’ve often sold “the same idea” in several guises.
Story, as I tell my students, is a shapeshifter.
What’s next for Timons Esaias? What can readers look forward to in 2016?
My book-length poetry collection will be coming out in January or so, from Concrete Wolf, entitled Why Elephants No Longer Communicate in Greek. I’m working on some flash fictions based on Euclid’s axioms and postulates, and some difficult-to-explain short stories. I’m also, I hope, putting the finishing touches on my instructional work, Warfare for Writers.
Spread the word!