INTERVIEW: M. Rickert, Author of “Evidence of Love in a Case of Abandonment”

Tell us a bit about your story. What’s it about?

The actual inspiration came from the quote by Randall Terry. I wanted to write a story where the world imagined by Terry had come to pass. Though it’s been broadly read as science fiction, I consider it a fantasy, an imagined reality formed by the genesis of a particular desire rather than by the logical manifestations of an idea, which, in my mind, could not be contained by logical structure as the desire itself is based in a distressed foundation, which, upon extrapolation, reveals its internal flaws. It was also meant to take a sort of sideways look at what has already happened to women in countries where their freedom is denied.  At the same time as I came across this quote, there was a good deal of discussion about the feminist voice in genre and its ability to find publication. I set about to write a feminist story in response to that concern.

What is the appeal of dystopian fiction? Why do so many writers–or you yourself–write about it? Why do readers love it so much?

I do not feel qualified to speak to the broad appeal of dystopian fiction, as I have never been good at measuring the common quality, but I can speak to its personal appeal for me as a literature of the ultimate fear of what the worst aspect of being human can wrought if not balanced by the best aspect. The big struggle with good and evil, as it turns out, is not with a force outside ourselves, but a force within, which I think makes for frightening material, worthy of consideration within fiction, too often forgotten as a force in itself.

What are some of your favorite examples of dystopian fiction, and what makes them your favorites?

One of my favorite works of dystopian fiction is Carolyn See’s Golden Days. See’s story, more fantasy than science fiction, works for me because of its emotional resonance.

INTERVIEW: Joseph Paul Haines, Author of “Ten With a Flag”

Tell us a bit about your story. What’s it about?

“Ten With a Flag” is about a young mother-to-be caught in between the wishes of a meritocratic government and those of her husband, both of which are struggling to control the fate of her unborn child.  The government believes the child is a prodigy destined to enrich society while her husband believes the child a danger to both he and his wife.

What was the genesis of the story–what was the inspiration for it, or what prompted you to write it?

I’d love to tell you that this story was an act of anger or inspired by some great tragedy, but truth be told, I wrote this from the title.  I woke up one morning, grabbed a cup of coffee and centered the words, “Ten With a Flag,” on a blank manuscript page.  I stared at the page for a while, trying to determine just what the hell I was doing, then closed the file and moved on to other projects. The story sat like that in my computer for a couple of weeks.  As with all things in life, Nature abhors a vacuum.  I knew the story was sitting there, waiting for me to figure out what it was and what shape it would take.  I remembered an overheard conversation between a young couple–both of whom were communicating concerns about a medical appointment without once bothering to answer the other’s questions–and I started writing.  The story unfolded over the next couple of days.  As with most of my stories, I had no clue how it would turn out until I finished typing.

Was this story a particularly challenging one to write? If so, how?

Determining where the story would start was challenging.  Once I heard the characters speaking to each other, the story wrote itself.

Most authors say all their stories are personal.  If that’s true for you, in what way was this story personal to you?

I loathe apathy.  People have a tendency to ignore the suffering of others when their lifestyle is not in jeopardy.  We give power to others, praying that their good intentions will lead them down a path of righteous works, but once we imbue someone with the authority to take action we tend to forget them so long as we’re not personally discomforted.  Every dystopian vision, no matter how dark, has a flip side; those who allow the condition of society to exist because they are well fed.  It’s only when the eye of the state gazes upon you and decides that you are the anomalous agitant that you fight back.  Having been a police officer, I have witnessed how good intentions can quickly turn malevolent when viewed through the eyes of a victim.  While I firmly believe that to live well is the best revenge, I’m also acutely aware that to ensure that others live well is tyranny.

What is the appeal of dystopian fiction? Why do so many writers–or you yourself–write about it? Why do readers love it so much?

We read dystopian fiction as a panacea for our fears, which strikes me as both healthy and perverse at the same time.  We comfort ourselves that such an oppressive place could never exist, while our fears are the very genesis of all such governments.  Sometimes the fears are irrational, such as the fear of foreigners or the proverbial, “others,” and sometimes they make perfect sense: “I don’t want to go hungry, but I can’t find a job.”  We fear and distrust government when our lives are good, but when fortune turns we look to the government to help us to our feet.  There’s nothing wrong with that.  Distrust of something more powerful than you is a survival mechanism and expecting help when needed is appropriate.  But again, that paving crew working on the road to hell can be a bitch.  We empower others in the hopes that they’ll resolve the issues that frighten us.  Dystopia at its heart is cautionary, but the caution itself shouldn’t be reserved to what others may do to you, but also to what you may end up doing to yourself.

As to why I write it?  I write dystopian fiction to find the balance between my hopes and fears.  You can’t have one without the other, but you should never have too much of either.

What are some of your favorite examples of dystopian fiction, and what makes them your favorites?

Orwell, obviously.  Particularly Room 101.  No doublespeak could ever be as difficult to live with as a face full of rat.   Harlan Ellison’s, “‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Tick-Tock Man,” is another favorite of mine.  You know the protagonist of the story has no chance in hell of winning, but you can’t help but be uplifted by his stubborn refusal to be a willing participant in the insanity.  To me, that sums up all great dystopian visions: Stubborn refusal in the face of insurmountable odds.  We might not win, but we’ll be damned if we lose.

INTERVIEW: S.L. Gilbow, Author of “Red Card”

Tell us a bit about your story.  What’s it about?

In “Red Card” Linda Jackson kills her husband in the opening line of the story:  Late one April evening, Linda Jackson pulled a revolver from her purse and shot her husband through a large mustard stain in the center of his T-shirt.  The rest of the story follows Linda and Sarah, her neighbor from across the street, as they go to turn in Linda’s “Red Card,” the license that makes her action not only legal but laudable.

What was the genesis of the story–what was the inspiration for it, or what prompted you to write it?

First, I need to explain that I am a very rational and sane person.  Just ask anyone who knows me, except my wife, of course.  Don’t ask her.

Anyway, the idea for “Red Card” actually came from a conversation I had with my daughter, Mandy.  One day after a driver cut me off in heavy traffic, I pointed to the driver, turned to my daughter and said, “Everyone should be allowed to shoot one person without going to prison.”  My daughter thought for a second then turned to me and said, “Dad, if that were true you would have been dead a long time ago.”

I hadn’t tried writing short stories for over twenty-years, but the idea stuck with me and I started to work on it.  The initial idea was that once in everyone’s life, they are allowed to kill someone without question or ramification, but only once.  As I thought about the idea, I realized the math didn’t work.  Pretty soon there would be no one left.  So I came up with the idea of the “Red Card” which permits a few “lucky” people the opportunity to kill with impunity.

I then put the red card in the hand of the sweetest, nicest person in town and watched what happened.

Was this story a particularly challenging one to write? If so, how?

Every story is a challenge while writing it and easy to write in retrospect.

I spent about six months on “Red Card,” writing in the evening after work, pausing when I got stuck, coming back when I had figured out an answer to whatever problem had stalled me.

Most authors say all their stories are personal.  If that’s true for you, in what way was this story personal to you?

Linda is based largely on my wife, Brenda.  I wanted Linda to be a sympathetic character and figured the easiest way to do that was base her on a person I truly care about.  Certainly I made a few changes to make the story work–Linda, for example, is much more submissive than Brenda.  But essentially they are the same person–in looks, character, and their love for Jane Austen.

However, don’t mistake me for Linda’s husband.  I make my appearance in the story as the driver shot by Sarah’s cousin.

And please don’t give Brenda a red card.

What kind of research did you have to do for the story?

I’m always surprised about what I have to research for a story.  This may sound strange, but I had to research “makeup.”  Linda’s looks make up (no pun intended) an important part of the story and I describe her looks in detail in several sections.  I researched makeup online and had Brenda help me through the scenes in which I describe Linda’s face.  I now know what “blush,” “eye shadow,” “mascara” and “taupe” are.

Even in the final draft I had mistaken eye shadow for mascara and had to make a correction right before the story was published.

What is the appeal of dystopian fiction? Why do so many writers–or you yourself–write about it? Why do readers love it so much?

For me, the power of dystopian literature is in its ability to make the ludicrous and bizarre seem familiar and possible.

As strange as a dystopian society might appear, we are always looking at some aspect of ourselves.  Dystopian literature holds up a mirror to our world and says:

That’s us if we’re not careful.

That’s us, even if we are careful.

That’s us, like it or not.

In a meeting once, I heard one of my fellow teachers say, “My God, it’s ‘Harrison Bergeron’ all over again.”  I knew exactly what she was talking about.  Read the story and you will too.

What are some of your favorite examples of dystopian fiction, and what makes them your favorites?

Every story takes place in a society and that society falls on a scale somewhere between a Utopia and a Dystopia.  Some of those societies fall so much closer to the latter mark that we tend to label them “dystopian.”

The first story I can remember reading (and actually liking) was Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” the mother of all dystopian short stories.

I’m a big fan of Jonathan Swift and believe much of his writing, to include large parts of Gulliver’s Travels, are dystopian as well as satirical (the two being difficult to distinguish at times).

I don’t believe the works of Flannery O’Conner are considered dystopian, but read “Good Country People” and “A Good Man is Hard to Find” and tell me those works don’t fall soundly on the dystopian side of the scale.

And of course my favorite writer, Kurt Vonnegut, has many works easily labeled as dystopian, “Harrison Bergeron” leading the way.

For me, the best dystopian works are strange and familiar at the same time.

INTERVIEW: Kim Stanley Robinson, Author of “The Lunatics”

Tell us a bit about your story. What’s it about?

“The Lunatics” is about miners inside the moon trying to escape the system.

What was the genesis of the story–what was the inspiration for it, or what prompted you to write it?

My wife and I were living in Zurich while she was doing a post-doc, and we hung out with all the other post-docs, most of them chemists.  One night I saw a periodic table in someone’s kitchen and noticed the element promethium.  The story came from that.

Was this story a particularly challenging one to write? If so, how?

No, it was a pleasure to write.  I had a desk facing out a window over the trees and rooftops of Zurich.  We had no kids and I was free to write every day.

Most authors say all their stories are personal.  If that’s true for you, in what way was this story personal to you?

This one is not very personal to me.  To the extent it is, I suppose it is a reflection of the impact of my South African student, Thabo Moeti, on my understanding of how the world works, how injustice is a real force.

What kind of research did you have to do for the story?

I read up on the element promethium, and a bit about mining.

What is the appeal of dystopian fiction? Why do so many writers–or you yourself–write about it? Why do readers love it so much?

I don’t know.  I suppose part of the appeal is the feeling “things in my world may be bad but they’re not this bad.”  So there is a reverse comfort going on.  Often writers write it as a warning, at other times because they haven’t the nerve to try to write a utopian story, so do it backwards.  I’ve only tried it a few times in my career.

What are some of your favorite examples of dystopian fiction, and what makes them your favorites?

My favorite dystopian fiction is the novel We by Yevgeny Zamiatin, because it is funny, beautiful, frightening, and thought-provoking in just the way one wants dystopia to be.

INTERVIEW: Jeremiah Tolbert, Author of “Arties Aren’t Stupid”

In your own words, please briefly describe the plot of the story.

Arties spend their time dodging the tin men and trying to Make.  The Arties’ leader, Niles, discovers a new way of Making, but ends up busted by the tin men.  With the help of a melodie named Boo, Mona must come up with a plan to save her friends, even if it means turning to the thicknecks and brainiacs.

Please talk about the genesis of the story, how you came to write it, where the idea came from, etc.

The genesis for the story was a news story about people making graffiti with moss by mixing blendered moss  in water and then using it as paint.  The idea of living graffiti struck me, and the story was born from that.

Please tell me about–or rather introduce the readers to–the protagonist.

Meet Mona. She’s a teenaged artie, just starting to grow up.  The most important thing in the world to her is Making.  The second most important thing is Niles, her group’s leader.

Did the writing of this story present you with any significant challenges (i.e., was it particularly difficult to write, etc.)? If so, please tell me about that.

Trying to capture the unique perspective of someone who is essentially autistic, and in fact, a society of people who are autistic.  Trying to understand how they would think as a group, and what would drive them.

Most authors say all their stories are personal.  If that’s true for you, in what way was this story personal to you?

As an artist of sorts myself, I know a little bit about what it’s like to be compelled to Make.

What kind of research did you have to do for the story?

The ideas for the story really just came from the daily research I do by reading a lot of weird news websites.  My daily information gathering functions as research for much of my work.

Anything else you’d like to add? Also, if there’s anything about your personal background that’s somehow relevant to the story, let me know.

In this case, I kind of doubt it, but who knows how the mind of a writer works?

I almost had enough credits in college to take a double major in biology and sculpting, but I would have had to cut back on anthropology classes, so I just stuck with the biology degree.

What is the appeal of dystopian fiction? Why do so many writers–or youyourself–write about it? Why do readers love it so much?

We write about it and read about it for the same reason we enjoy tragedies.  We love stories about people whose lives are worse off than our own.  It makes us feel better about our own problems.  I mean, hey, I might not have a job, but at least I’m not a star crossed lover who drinks poison or the face being stomped on by a boot forever.  There’s just something cathartic about it.  

The difference between dystopians and tragedies is that dystopian stories often end on an upbeat note, with a hope of change (but not always).  

What are some of your favorite examples of dystopian fiction, and what makesthem your favorites?

It’s kind of hard to beat 1984.  It practically established the dystopian subgenre.  Another favorite is Charles Coleman Finlay’s short story “Pervert” because it subverts gender roles and sexuality in really interesting ways.

INTERVIEW: Joe Mastroianni, Author of “Jordan’s Waterhammer”

Tell us a bit about your story. What’s it about?

A genetically engineered race of bipeds is bred and raised underground to perform hard labor too dangerous and difficult for the human race.  They have genetic roots in humanity, though they are considered soulless, thus expendable, and they believe as much themselves.  However, some time in the recent past one of their kind exhibited extreme intelligence, and progressed in the ranks until he was brought to the surface where he experienced a miraculous way of life, rich in sensory experience and inter-being communication.  A forbidden conversation channel becomes the medium of the tales of that adventurer, along with a book of poetry which the beings interpret as a form of instruction — as they do all writing. The poetry and lore that circulate amongst the creatures become their raison d’etre.  This sparks an awakening in the community that frees them from their moribund existence, albeit temporarily.

What was the genesis of the story–what was the inspiration for it, or what prompted you to write it?

About 15 years ago I was in the middle of my career in an unrewarding dead-end job with a confused future and few options. I felt very much like the possession of a faceless corporate entity that extracted value from my labor, but associated no value to myself as a human being.  After a year or so of that toil, I was very much becoming a soulless, sexless laborer whose primary purpose was to produce for others until expiration.

The bright light at the end of the tunnel for me was writing.  My agent was Virginia Kidd and I was extremely lucky she would have me and mentor me.  I felt writing would be my ticket out of the day to day silicon valley grind.

It wasn’t.

Was this story a particularly challenging one to write? If so, how?

It didn’t start out so.  In the original drafts of the story I called the creatures “androids” or some such subhuman designator.  Virginia was convinced the story would be more powerful if the creatures were actually human men.  She liked the possible homo-erotic context much better than the idea of sexless biological automata.  I fought her initially, and then realized it would be a growth path as a writer to stretch myself in that direction.  Thus, the creatures became a form of male human, and the story became that much more powerful.  Virginia was right, as always.

What kind of research did you have to do for the story?

Having Virginia as an agent gave me access to a living encyclopedia of American Science Fiction.  She made sure I steered clear of anything that smelled of classic prior work.  She didn’t like my original choice for the poetry — can’t remember who I picked, but next chose Blake, whom she disliked and initially vetoed.  Somehow I won that argument, probably because the copyright issues were nil.

What is the appeal of dystopian fiction? Why do so many writers–or you yourself–write about it? Why do readers love it so much?

Life is a series of intertwined trials. Some result in effects we like, but desire taints our vision, and we perceive undesirable effects occur more often.  Thus we often feel we’re living in a dystopian reality.  Fortunately, the beauty of life, probably the secret to life itself is in its underlying chaos.  Dystopia is crystalline, static, and almost perfect in its gray stasis. Love and life are amorphous, dynamic, and messy.  We want to believe that spark of chaos introduced by our free will can defy the laws of physics that drive us and our entire universe to some cold, future, death.

What are some of your favorite examples of dystopian fiction, and what makes them your favorites?

I can never forget reading Sheep Look Up by John Brunner as a teenager.  It’s detailed.  Precise in it’s motion.  Logical.

You put down that book in 1972 and said to yourself, “Watch out. Could happen.”

Here it is 2010.  Sort of is.

INTERVIEW: Alex Irvine, Author of “Peter Skilling”

Tell us a bit about your story. What’s it about?

Well, a guy falls into a hole, dies, and is revived decades later to find out that perfectly ordinary things he did when he was alive before are now capital offenses. Of course he didn’t know this, but as has been pointed out to all of us, ignorance of the law is no excuse.

What was the genesis of the story–what was the inspiration for it, or what prompted you to write it?

Well, as I write this I see a(nother) news story about how the FBI had Greenpeace members added to terrorist watch lists just because of their membership. But back in 2004 when I wrote this story, all of this was happening for the first time (well, since the 60s). I was working as a journalist, so I spent a lot of time reading about legislation, and I ran across some bills under consideration in Congress that would have had some hair-raising unintended consequences. Taking them literally, and imagining that they were passed, I decided to run with one possible future.

Was this story a particularly challenging one to write? If so, how?

It’s always hard writing a political story because it’s going to come across to some readers as didactic no matter what you do. So I decided to forget about that and run with the story as a political satire. It is political, and it does have a point. The worst thing you can do when you’re writing political fiction is pretend you’re not writing political fiction. It’s different than writing a story for purely aesthetic reasons (if that’s even possible).

Most authors say all their stories are personal.  If that’s true for you, in what way was this story personal to you?

I had not too long before writing this story been in contact with a guy who wanted to make all kinds of allegations about what he said were corrupt practices at a military installation here in Maine. He worked there, and kept putting off our meetings even though he swore that he had all this stuff to tell me. Eventually I tracked down his number at work, and then something weird happened. In the middle of the call another guy grabbed the phone and started demanding all kinds of information about me. I refused, and he started to make threats about what would happen to me if I called there again. Being a writer, I started wondering what would happen if he decided to follow through. What would I be able to do about it? Nothing. Now, it’s real unlikely that anything ever would have happened, but what if?

What kind of research did you have to do for the story?

Anyone who wants to write a future dystopia only needs to read the Congressional Record, The Economist, and the science web site of your choice.

What is the appeal of dystopian fiction? Why do so many writers–or you yourself–write about it? Why do readers love it so much?

Because we’re not there yet. Dystopias work like a lot of horror, I think, giving us a cathartic experience without subjecting us to the actual horrors. But dystopia is also a cultural warning flag, I think. Collectively a culture’s dystopias tell you all you need to know about what that culture feared. (Compare, for example, We and 1984 with The Road and, say, Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang…) And the truth is that no dystopia is as bad as the conditions under which some people on Earth are living right now.

What are some of your favorite examples of dystopian fiction, and what makes them your favorites?

The ones I just named would be up there. Also Stan Robinson’s The Gold Coast, The Handmaid’s Tale…all of the ones you’d expect, probably. I like dystopias that aren’t just scenery—by which I mean I love the scenery, but the great dystopias aren’t about that. They’re trying to figure out what it would be like to live under certain circumstances, and by inversion to show us why we need to keep certain institutions in place. (Also, of course, all (or most) utopias turn out to be dystopias…)

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