Science Fiction & Fantasy

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Author Spotlight: Vylar Kaftan

This is the best representation of a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure format story that I have ever read, each section illuminating and brutally concise. What inspired this particular tale?

I was at Clarion West 2004, and I wanted to write something challenging in an unusual format. I wanted to see how much time I could cover in one story. And I’ve always adored CYOA books (I have literally the full collection of the original series, plus collections of some other series I enjoyed like Lone Wolf and Time Machine.)

So I sat on the couch and started scribbling snippets on index cards. Silly examples and elements of dysutopias (new word!) Eventually I shuffled the cards around and made the story. I designed it to read either chronologically (start to finish) or as an interactive adventure. It works either way.

When I showed it to my classmates, the reaction was split between “this is absolutely amazing” and “I want to burn this.” It was hilarious and educational. When your story pushes buttons like that, you know you’ve got something interesting. My teacher John Kessel suggested the improvement to the ending that made the story work.

The only specific “character” in the story is the reader him/herself, a specific person echoing the nebulous ideals of a culture. Some people may be uncomfortable with the presentation, while others insist that such discomfort is a necessary part of a writer’s works. When you set out to write “Civilization,” what did you hope readers would take away from the story?

I hoped people would see that despite the way humanity repeats the same damn mistakes over and over . . . we do make progress. A little, even when it seems hopeless. And that the best way to handle the utter chaos of the bigger world around us is to remember to love and connect to each other. Those deep connections are intensely meaningful.

I also hope readers will take away the feeling of, “Gosh, I liked that. I should go read more stories at vylarkaftan.net/bibliography right away!” And then they will write nice emails to me. I like emails.

Fiction has long been a mirror used to reflect both the grim realities and glorious fantasies that define our lives. What are your thoughts on the influence of fiction on the expectations of modern readers when it comes to war?

I’m a fan of war stories and conflict when they warn people about the real dangers of war. Not so crazy about the stuff that glorifies it all.

And I think there’s an importance place in the world for war stories. Fiction is way safer than war. War involves you or somebody else getting killed. Dying is a major downer and really not acceptable to a decent person. But the urge to kill each other is older than humanity; chimpanzees are known to conduct territory wars, and they even carry big sticks to hit each other with. (Sticks have many uses!)

Such primal urges can’t be crushed entirely. So a better idea is to channel the violence in more productive directions, or at least more hilarious ones. Just as sexual roleplaying can be a fun way to explore urges you wouldn’t act on . . . military fiction can offer release for the reader. It offers a safe way to see what happens when people are dehumanized, killed, and/or used by their governments — without actually hurting real people.

Did I mention how satisfying it is to hit things with sticks?

Format and structure — stories as lists, choose-your-own-adventures, letters, calendars — go a long way towards framing reader perceptions and expectations of a story. Are there any formats or styles that you would still like to try? Do you have a particular favorite story that takes advantage of an unusual format?

I have some cool format ideas that I haven’t explored yet. Look for more odd formatting from me in the future. Some ideas I’d rather keep as a surprise, but here’s one I’d like to explore.

I want to explore the idea of writing as performance art — something done to engage an audience, with audience participation. Sometime at a con, I’d like to do a solo presentation called Vylar Flashes the Audience. We have seventy-five minutes. I get a few suggestions from the crowd and work them up into a flash piece. The audience watches me draft, with my words projected on a screen. People can see exactly how I craft sentences and why I do what I do. After the draft, I answer some questions. Then I edit the draft on the spot to show how I fix things and tighten it up.

I’m a social person and my writing reflects that. My social nature improves my chances of not dying of consumption, alone in a garret. Well, I suppose contact with fans increases my chances of getting consumption . . .

You are a prolific author with a wide range of works in multiple genres. If you could write a letter to the Vylar just starting her writing career, what would you say?

Brush your goddamn teeth! You don’t want massive dental expenses just when you’re wanting to make a career of writing. Take care of your body and your health. You may feel young and immortal, but you’re not.

What can readers expect from Vylar Kaftan in the coming months? What tasty bits of fiction are in the making?

I’ve got a story in the September issue of Asimov’s. It’s called “Last Hunt,” and it’s about a transgender Inuit hunter. Just like in my Nebula-winning novella “The Weight of the Sunrise,” I focus on cultural details and people who are under-represented in science fiction. As always, I try my best to be respectful of the culture. I continue to sponsor micro-loans; see vylarkaftan.net/2012/07/26/giving-back-to-the-source-of-my-inspiration.

For more contact with me, I recommend Twitter, where I’m @Vylar_Kaftan.

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Xander Odell

Sandra Odell

Xander Odell is a 47-year old, happily married mother of two, an avid reader, compulsive writer, and rabid chocoholic. Their work has appeared in such venues as Jim Baen’s UNIVERSE, Daily Science Fiction, Crosssed Genres, Pseudopod, and The Drabblecast. They are hard at work plotting their second novel or world domination. Whichever comes first.