Science Fiction & Fantasy

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Nonfiction

Interview: Lisa M. Bradley

A queer Tejana raised on the Texas-Mexico border, Lisa M. Bradley now lives in Iowa with her spouse and their teenager. Her speculative fiction and poetry explore boundaries and liminal spaces: real, imagined, and metaphorical. Her work has appeared in Sunvault: Stories of Solarpunk and Eco-Speculation, The Moment of Change: An Anthology of Feminist Speculative Poetry, and her first collection, The Haunted Girl. Online, her work has been published by Uncanny, Strange Horizons, and Fireside Magazine. In her debut novel, Exile, a determined antiheroine schemes to escape her quarantined border town.

Congratulations on your debut novel! Your poetry and short fiction have been published in magazines and anthologies, but what does it mean to you to have a book like Exile out in the world?

When I sell short stuff, I do a Snoopy dance. When it’s published, I tell my friends, and we do the Snoopy dance together. Then it’s someone else’s turn. With Exile, there’s been a series of dances: when the first ebooks were released earlier this year in a Storybundle; when I held the paperback at WisCon in May; when I sold copies from the Rosarium table at Readercon in July; then the official release date . . . Lots of moments to celebrate. Even when my collection, The Haunted Girl, came out in 2014, it wasn’t an extended party like this.

In Exile, Heidi Palermo lives in the small southwest Texas town of Exile, quarantined because a toxic spill poisoned residents with permanent rage. She’s itching to bust out for good but has to help keep her vengeful family’s blood feud from inciting a war with the feds who want to nuke the place. And she sides with and starts a relationship with Tank, an Outsider who moved to town post-spill and killed her abusive brother. Whew! What was the inspiration for the premise?

I wanted to write an antiheroine. A woman who was scary ambitious and unapologetically promiscuous, who looked out for herself before all else, who made men rightfully fearful. Writing Heidi was fun. She’s me on a bad day, in a bad week, in a particularly bad year of a rotten, alternate life.

Let’s talk about her and the life she’s been dealt. You said in a previous Q&A that characters in your poetry often inventory the body to impose order. Heidi appears to be doing this with her clinical cataloging of people’s faces and with her thesis on male celebrities’ faces. Is this her way to add structure to her life in an environment where she and everyone else around her can’t call the shots on their livelihood?

For sure, the thesis and her studies have helped Heidi order her world. She needs to channel her ambition in ways that maintain her fantasy of escape. The facial cataloging is deeper than that. It began as a coping mechanism for Heidi when her family started changing after the toxic spill. Her dad was always easier to read than her mom, so she feels more confident analyzing men than women. Over time, the coping mechanism became second nature and served as a useful shield against emotional trauma, like when her father disavows her because of her promiscuity.

Would you also say that sexuality is another way Heidi imposes order on her life? Even though she’s slut-shamed by many chauvinistic men throughout the book, she owns her desires and goes after what she wants unapologetically.

I think Heidi’s sexuality creates more chaos than order in her life.

There’s this part when Heidi is talking about another character, Rain, and says she “might have what used to be called Asperger’s.” Is this a future or alternate present where neurodiversity is no longer considered a disability? And do you think a dystopia is the kind of setting where this reality could happen?

Asperger’s syndrome is already being phased out as a clinically useful diagnosis. So in Exile, which is like five seconds into the future, I decided medically-minded Heidi would know the term but also know it wasn’t quite right anymore. In that world, neurodiversity is still marginalized, and most people in Exile accept that status quo, despite it working against them.

In order for Heidi to get out of Exile, she has to pass the feds’ 4-S test, proving that she’s strong, smart, sane, and sterile. All of these criteria, of course, are determined arbitrarily by the feds. She’s taken it numerous times, but passes only three out of four S’s. Where did the idea for this test come from?

Honestly, this sounds silly, but I think it’s because of all the state-mandated tests I had to take in school. In the “Gifted and Talented” classes, we were told we had to score high on the tests to bring the overall district scores up and maintain funding. Imagine putting that kind of pressure on children’s shoulders! Then there were the PSAT, SAT, and ACT tests, which we had to ace to get the scholarships we’d need to afford college. And I went through IQ tests and at least one psych eval for . . . reasons. I had to pass a lot of tests to get out of the Valley.

Speaking of the Valley, on the dedication page of the book, you wrote, “To the Rio Grande Valley. Fight the Wall!” What’s the story behind the dedication?

The RGV was my home, and it’s on the news all the time now. It’s where so many immigrants are stalled, metered, and turned away, or detained, separated from their families, abused, even killed. And my people are fighting these awful immigration policies, trying to help fellow human beings.

There’s been a border wall in the RGV for years. Border Patrol officers shoot Mexicans through or over it. Now the federal government is taking people’s land (again) to clear the way for Trump’s wall. They want to cut the National Butterfly Center in half, for chrissakes, and when people fight it legally, their families are subject to smear campaigns; people’s citizenship is called into question.

So hell yeah, I dedicated the book to the Valley. I want Valleyites to keep fighting. We don’t need walls. We need justice.

You grew up in deep South Texas before the construction of the Border Wall. Tell us a little about what growing up there was like and how that influenced the setting and story of Exile.

It was always hot, just like in Exile. Nowadays, the region is described as thorn forest. Back then, I just figured nature was trying to kill me—tarantulas, snakes, scorpions, cactus, thorns, fire ants, killer bees . . .

In South Texas, you can look up at the cloudless blue sky and tilt your head back and back and back and there’s always more sky. It feels limitless, but also heavy, like the sun and sky are flattening the land. All that possibility countered by such weight is pure Exile.

Our family lived below the poverty line, but some of my classmates had no hot water, so I thought myself middle class. There was a biker bar across the two-lane highway in front of my grandparents’ house (I lived with my grandparents on and off). We had dogs as outdoor pets, and when motorcycles zoomed down our street, the dogs would get loose and chase them, get hit by cars. We buried a lot of dogs.

I used to go to a park with my family, probably Anzalduas Park, which is right on the Rio Grande, and I could look across the water at Mexico. And I just never understood that—how the people, trees, goats on that side were Mexican, but on this side were American. It all looked exactly alike. So I’ve always distrusted borders and those trying to enforce them.

I was taught, by plenty of well-meaning adults, that I needed to escape the Valley. That my heritage was crime, poverty, and ignorance, and it would be a tragedy if I didn’t get out and “do something” with my life. And I believed that. Exile in a nutshell.

Your bio says that your speculative fiction and poetry explore boundaries and liminal spaces: real, imagined, and metaphorical. In Exile, the feds are caging in Heidi’s hometown because of the toxic spill. Reading this book during our current administration, it’s difficult to see it as dystopian fiction, because we’re watching the dystopia of the immigration crisis play out in real time at the US-Mexico border. What does it feel like to have your book published in this political climate?

It’s . . . distressing. What’s happening at the border isn’t really about immigration; it’s about white supremacy, control of brown bodies, and capitalism. These are the same forces that created Exile. Capitalism bankrupts a region’s human and natural resources. It creates political and environmental disasters, leaving the marginalized people in those regions to face the consequences. It doesn’t matter if the marginalized people are American citizens. So long as you’re Other, you are deemed disposable. That’s why I grew up in a town with not one, but two toxic sites requiring Superfund cleanup. And why the next town over has had a two-acre toxic plume contaminating its groundwater for decades.

Exile is fiction. But our government’s white supremacy is as real as the cages we’re putting people in, as real as the concrete they’re sleeping on. I wish that reality were fiction.

Does your poetry make a big imprint on your fiction? Or do you consider there to be a liminal boundary between these two writing modes?

Most of my poetry is narrative, and prosody is part of my fiction, so separating these modes is indeed tricky. “we come together we fall apart” is over 4,000 words long, as long as many short stories, and I’m still not sure why it insisted on being poetry rather than prose. My story “Revival” at Beneath Ceaseless Skies started as a poem, but that one turned into fiction without much of a fight. My poetic sensibilities inform my style choices in fiction, that much I know . . . but that doesn’t feel like much. It’s all very mysterious.

You reference many films in the novel, like Mad Max and Peeping Tom. Are these favorite films of yours and were they sources of inspiration for the novel?

I’ve always thought of Exile as a Mad Max romance, but when I called it that, my writer buddies would snort and repeat romance with air quotes around it. So, obviously, the original Mad Max was an influence. The movie’s long dusty roads, the salvage yard creativity, motorcycles, and random violence reinforced things I grew up with.

I don’t think I referenced any movies in Exile that are my actual favorites, mostly because Heidi would have no patience for my tastes (unless it involved Cillian Murphy; on that beautiful boy, we agree). I do watch It’s a Wonderful Life every Christmas, but that’s because I have a twisted sense of humor.

Were there any writers or other artists whose work influenced Exile?

The Doors provided much of the soundtrack for Exile; the story starts with “Peace Frog” and ends with “Roadhouse Blues.” Steven Spielberg movies like ET and Close Encounters of the Third Kind taught me that the authorities can’t be trusted, as did the Stephen King novels I read in junior high and high school, and The X-Files hammered it home. I didn’t think about it while writing, but there’s a lot of A Clockwork Orange and Mexican tabloid influence, too.

Wow! There are so many layers to this. What have reader reactions been like so far?

Readers comment on the sex and violence. They have to, maybe to signal to other folks, “Hey, this ain’t my usual thing. I’m just as shocked as you are!” Or because I’m a round, maternal, harmless-looking figure, they have to warn future readers not to judge the book by my cover. Some reviewers have commented that the sex scenes actually move the plot, reveal character, signpost just like any other scene. Even if the reader doesn’t enjoy the sex and violence, they seem to appreciate why it’s on the page.

In the acknowledgments, you thank your publisher, Bill Campbell of Rosarium Publishing, for taking on the book, because others said it was too dark, too violent, too sexy, and too difficult to market. What were these other publishers reacting to? I mean, aren’t dystopian novels supposed to be dark? And it seems like the other publishers didn’t pick up on the humor. Just saying!

It might be different if I were trying to sell Exile today, given the current news cycle, but who knows? The ratios (of sex to violence to SF to horror to humor) in Exile don’t meet traditional publishers’ formulas. Maybe people weren’t ready for such an angry, out-of-control book about minorities. Maybe they didn’t get my sense of humor, that specific combination of morbidity and bravado that I consider essentially Mexican. Whatever their reasons, they don’t matter anymore. Exile is where it belongs, because Bill groks me.

So what’s coming up next? Do you have any upcoming writing projects you can tell us about?

I have two novels at very different stages of the publishing process. I’m agent shopping for Border Blaster, a historical fantasy set on the US-Texas border in the 1930s, when American quacks built enormous radio stations in Mexico to circumvent American regulations about selling snake oil on the radio. And I’m doing research for my next novel about Mexican anarchists and werewolves. I have some poetry and short fiction pending publication. I’ve also become a poetry editor! I edited the poetry for Uncanny’s special issue “Disabled People Destroy Fantasy,” and with R.B. Lemberg I’m co-editing a tribute anthology to Ursula Le Guin, Climbing Lightly Through Forests, which will be published by Aqueduct Press.

Cool! Is there anything else you’d like your readers to know about Exile?

It’s fun. Despite the dystopic elements, it’s a fucking joyride.

Christian A. Coleman

Christian A. Coleman

Christian A. Coleman is a 2013 graduate of the Clarion Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers’ Workshop. He lives and writes in the Boston area. He tweets at @coleman_II.