Interview: Robin Wasserman

How did you first come to discover the Barsoom books by Edgar Rice Burroughs?

When I was a kid, I read my way through the library’s not-very-large science fiction shelves, and while I was willing to read pretty much anything (including the back of cereal boxes, when things got really desperate), I always gravitated toward the books from the early days of sci fi. For whatever reason, I had developed the theory that the older a book/author, the better. So I worked my way backward, and it was only a matter of time before I stumbled onto Burroughs.

What do you find appealing about the characters and milieu?

I grew up on original recipe Star Trek, so I can easily admit there’s an appeal to the idea of aliens who are basically just like us, with some funny facial bumps. But there’s also something wonderful about a universe filled with aliens who are thoroughly different from humanity, not just in the way they look but the way they think. Burroughs does a great job of creating several truly alien societies and mindsets. Even if he admittedly doesn’t do such a great job of tolerating ‘the other,’ he offers the reader a chance to grapple with the truly strange, and for me, that’s one of the joys of the genre.

What sort of an influence do you think the Barsoom books have had on the development of fantasy & science fiction?

Where to even begin? Aliens! Aliens on Mars! Cowboys in space battling aliens on Mars! Surely it can’t be a coincidence that UFOs are commonly imagined to be populated with “little green men,” though it strains the imagination to think of the Green Martians as little.

Who is your favorite character in the Barsoom canon? (And why?)

I’m a sucker for Sola, who unlike the other Green Martians, has a really good reason for sympathizing with John Carter and turning against her own people – I also think her backstory, along with Sarkoja’s (my other favorite character, because who doesn’t love a complex villain with a reasonable grudge) is far more interesting than that of John Carter’s slash and burn adventures, and I’ve always wanted to know more about it.

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

“Vengeance of Mars” is the story of what happens to Sarkoja, who we never see again after her exile. John Carter and Tars Tarkas destroy her life (not without reason) and then move on without a second thought—my story theorizes that Sarkoja, on the other hand, never stopped thinking about them, and never gave up on her lust for revenge. I almost always find villains more interesting than heroes, especially in this case, when the hero goes on to commit far more heinous crimes than the villain could ever imagine, and is valorized for every crime he commits. In “Vengeance of Mars,” Sarkoja does whatever she can to stop John Carter from decimating the fundamental principles of the Green Martians—but in doing so, finds herself compromising the very ideals she’s trying to protect.

What was the genesis of the story–where did the initial seed for the story come from?

Re-reading the Barsoom books as an adult, I was truly horrified by the violent swath John Carter cuts through Martian society. Everywhere he goes, he kills, without question or hesitation—and all for the absurd love of a woman he barely knows. In the early twenty-first century, knowing everything we do about the horrors of empire and the destruction that colonlialsm leaves in its wake, I think it’s impossible to read about John Carter and his disdain for the Martian ‘primitives’ without having significant sympathy for the world he so clumsily conquers. I couldn’t stop thinking about how Carter’s enemies would see him, not as a hero, but as a bloodthirsty monster, and that was the story I wanted to tell.

Was this story a particularly challenging one to write?

I worried that it might be, as it can often be difficult to take on a voice and characters that aren’t your own, especially when they’re so rooted in the past. But instead, as soon as I came up with the idea, the story flowed more easily than nearly anything else I’ve written in the last few years, maybe because it centers around a character, Sarkoja, who has one single, consuming passion that controls her every thought and action. She barreled her way through the story and dragged me along for the ride.

Any new work of yours just out or forthcoming you’d like to mention, or anything else you’d like to add?

My new novel, The Book of Blood and Shadow, comes out in April 2012. It’s a crypto-thriller that spans continents and centuries and, much like my story for this anthology, is about murder and vengeance and the question of how far you’re willing to go to protect the things you choose to believe in.