Interviews

An Interview with Aliette de Bodard

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Aliette de Bodard is a half-French, half-Vietnamese computer and history geek who lives in Paris. Her speculative fiction has appeared in Asimov’s, ClarkesworldInterzoneand the Year’s Best Science Fiction. Her trilogyObsidian and Blood is set in Ancient Mexico, and her novel House of Shattered Wings is set in a post-Apocalyptic Paris and features Fallen angels, a washed-out alchemist and a former Vietnamese immortal with a grudge. She has won almost every science fiction and fantasy award possible: a Nebula Award, a Locus Award, a BSFA Award, as well as Writers of the Future.

In this interview, de Bodard discusses mixed points of view, stories as social commentary, and the myth that technology and science are value neutral.

To read de Bodard’s story “Immersion” and an exercise on writing ideas into fiction, click here.

Michael Noll

Your story, “Immersion” is told from a mixed point of view: second person for the woman who cannot remove her immerser and third person for the woman who scorns the technology. The mix works: second person seems to really fit the dilemma faced by Agnes, and the third-person POV helps avoid confusion between the two narratives. But the mix also probably breaks one of those “rules” that occasionally pop up in writing workshops, something along the lines of “pick a point of view and stick with it.” How did you decide upon this mix? Was Agnes’ POV always told from second-person?

Aliette de Bodard

I’ve never been much of a person for following rules, actually—my motto is more “know why the rules exist so you can break them”. Seriously though, I think rules are very useful when you’re a beginner, mostly in order to leave you time to work on more “simple” things. I think of it as juggling. If you start out learning to juggle with six balls, you’re probably going to get discouraged; an easier way to go about it is to start with one ball, then add another one, etc. until you get to six. Rules are meant to “box” you in a bit, to make stories a little easier to write. But they can become strictures if you keep applying them without thinking on why they exist.

In this particular case, sticking with one POV makes sense in a short story, because you have little space, and shifting POVs too often risks making your story difficult to follow. It’s always been one of the more frustrating rules for me, though, because what you gain in clarify, you lose in subtlety: I think it makes for better, more balanced stories if you combine several points of view–it gives you several different views on the action or on things that characters might not be aware of. In the case of “Immersion”, it makes you understand the plight of Agnes better to see her both from within and from without. The story didn’t start out that way: I originally only had Quy’s point of view, but it wouldn’t gel until I found Agnes’s voice in second person.

Michael Noll

I recently read M. John Harrison’s Light trilogy, which features a character who is addicted to a chemically-induced dream reality. This same idea is present in “Immersion.” Agnes used the immerser to fit in with her husband’s social group but soon began to rely on it until she reached the point that removing it will kill her. Unlike in Harrison’s novels, though, the addiction in your story isn’t complete. The characters, even Agnes, are aware—if dimly—of their altered states. You capture this by showing Agnes half remembering phrases or caught between instincts that are truly remembered and those that are technology-induced. It’s a fine line that you must walk in almost every sentence—capturing warring impulses in a single mind. Did this voice simply come to you one day, or did you have to experiment to find a way to portray this dual state?

Aliette de Bodard

Agnes’s voice was pretty straightforward to write—though I’m not sure if I could sustain it for a full novel, since it’s a bit draining and a bit difficult to write a character like her, who’s not exactly sure which world she inhabits. I’ve always found it easier to write characters with a very large internal life, and she certainly fits the bill.

Michael Noll

You’ve written some high-powered social commentary in the story. This is probably my favorite line: “It takes a Galactic to believe that you can take a whole culture and reduce it to algorithms; that language and customs can be boiled to just a simple set of rules.” What I found impressive was how you integrated this commentary into the story. It doesn’t come out of nowhere or feel like the author intruding to tell the reader the moral. Instead, you attach it to the technology that is warping the characters’ lives. The technology, you write, “Takes existing cultural norms, and puts them into a cohesive, satisfying narrative…Just like immersers take a given culture and parcel it out to you in a form you can relate to: language, gestures, customs, the whole package.” I wonder what came first: the commentary or the story it’s embedded within. How do you strike the balance between story and the things you want to say?

Aliette de Bodard

It really depends on the story! “Immersion” started out as mostly commentary: I wrote it after we came back from visiting my maternal family in Vietnam, and I saw firsthand the damages the Western mindset was still doing there. I always knew what I wanted to say with the story; and what took time was working out a setting and characters that would help me do this without seeming overly preachy (though every one has a different idea of what “preachy” means. I felt the story was very direct about postcolonial issues, perhaps too overtly so, but there are a lot of people who didn’t even see that aspect of it!).

Michael Noll

When I read about the immersers, I couldn’t help but think of our current technology, especially smart phones. Just as the immersers “take a whole culture and reduce it to algorithms,” so do smart phones take complex processes like navigating space or killing time and flatten them into simple interactions with a screen. I’ve read enough Jaron Lanier to know how much of what we take for granted as “the way we interact with technology” is founded on particular assumptions made by a handful of early programmers and developers, who may or may not have had problematic assumptions about culture. What do you think? Does technology force people and cultures to interact within the paradigm of the technologically dominant culture?

Aliette de Bodard

Aliette de Bodard has composed eight “rules” for writing fiction about cultures other than your own. The rules, along with a lot of other great essays and links, are available here at her website.

I think there is a persistent myth that technology, like science, is value neutral because it simply reflects the way the universe works. The thing is, they’re both tools, and they’re both created in a cultural matrix that makes them what they are (the pursuit of science, and the way science revolutionised the world at the end of the 19th Century, for instance, is inextricably bound up with the rise of massive colonial empires and the plundering of resources from said empires). Perhaps even more so than science, technology is dependent on who created it and how they thought people would interact with it: a very simple example is that, on a lot of webpages and forms, the encoding is ASCII or some variant that doesn’t handle diacritics. That’s because the people who coded it were Anglophones, and didn’t think anyone would have a need for letters like “é”, “è”, etc. So when you have to type in something, you strip it of diacritics rather than have it come out as garbage text. And that’s a very simple example: now imagine this kind of mindset in, say, the use of a GPS, the use of a personal assistant, the coding of an AI. You see that there is something at work there that goes beyond lines of codes and electronics and whatnot; a set of assumptions that remain unquestioned and perpetuate a status quo. So, yes, definitely, there’s a paradigm that gets enforced when dealing with technology; and it’s a self-reinforcing one because people will then reject, say, any smart phone that doesn’t behave “sort of like an iPhone”–unless there’s some massive shift.

I’m not saying we’re locked in this; there are game changers, and there are people providing technology beyond the dominant paradigm and being very successful at it–but just that we have to be aware of this.

profile-picMichael Noll is the Program Director for the Writers’ League of Texas and editor of the craft-of-writing blog Read to Write Stories. His book, In the Beginning, Middle, and End: A Field Guide to Writing Fiction, will be published by A Strange Object in 2017. His stories have appeared or are forthcoming in American Short Fiction, Chattahoochee Review, Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, Indiana Review, and The New Territory.

 

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An Interview with Julie Wernersbach

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Julie Wernersbach serves as the Literary Director for the Texas Book Festival. She has ten years of experience as an independent bookseller, most recently serving as marketing director for BookPeople, the largest independent bookstore in Texas and one of the most high-profile independent bookstores in the country. Before moving to Austin in 2011, Julie served as publicist and events coordinator for Book Revue, a large independent bookstore on Long Island. Julie is the author of the books Vegan Survival Guide to Austin andSwimming Holes of Texas (due out from University of Texas Press in 2017). Her short story, “Happiness” appears in the latest issue of Arcadia magazine.

To read an exercise on creating conflict in multiple point of view narratives based on Wernersbach’s story “Happiness,” click here.

In this interview, Wernersbach discusses finding the beginning of characters’ story arcs, moving back and forth between those arcs, and the tension that’s created in each moment of the story.

Michael Noll

The story follows three characters over the course of one day. Their storylines eventually intersect, of course, and that’s part of what we’re reading for. That said, one of the challenges of such a story is figuring out where to begin. Not all of the characters’ arcs can begin with a bang. How did you figure out where to begin each characters’ story?

Julie Wernersbach

The story began inside Leslie’s head. I saw a manicured house from the perspective of a woman preparing to leave for an appointment. I knew she wasn’t having a great day and that she was overall anxious and unhappy. Once I had her unhappiness pinned to two other people, I wanted to know what they were doing at that same exact moment. I can’t remember if I specify the day of the week in this story, but it definitely feels like a Tuesday. I figure, for the most part, Tuesday afternoons don’t typically have a whole lot of bang to them. It’s a pretty safe bet that if you’re generally miserable or obsessed about something, the misery and obsession are going to be humming along without a whole lot of deep distraction on a Tuesday afternoon. So I just sort of jumped into where her husband and sister might be in those cases on an average afternoon and went from there.

Michael Noll

The story moves quickly from character to character, never staying with one for more than a few paragraphs. Did you write the story with that structure, or did you write longer sections and then break them into smaller pieces?

Julie Wernersbach

Julie Wernersbach’s story, “Happiness,” appears in the latest issue of Arcadia.

Once I understood that the entire story wasn’t going to be told from Leslie’s perspective, I did write it with that structure. In the end, I actually went back and expanded sections. As a reader, I really like short hops from one character to another, whether those hops come in brief chapters in a novel or paragraphs in a story. As a writer, it was energizing to make brisk moves between the characters. It took some of the pressure off of figuring out exactly who they were and what the story needed to be, as I wrote. I could write a little bit, move on and have that character in the back of mind, developing as I wrote the next bit of someone else’s storyline, and then come back to him or her and do more.

Michael Noll

One of the cool things about the story is that, from a wide-lens view, not a great deal happens, yet in each section something occurs: slight but important moments concerning a package, a diet, a visit to the doctor. What was your approach to plot and action in the story?

Julie Wernersbach

It’s funny that Arcadia paired this story on their site with an image of potato chips, because I thought about the structure a bit that way. I wanted to make sure the reader couldn’t eat just one paragraph. I wanted a small hook in each section, a little something to keep each character intriguing and propel the reader forward. To me, the hook was (and probably always is) the small moments that string together a life. Those slight moments of discomfort and dissatisfaction add up to a lot, building pressure and tension little by little. I felt the action had to be incremental for Leslie to blow up in a believable way. Death by a thousand paper cuts! So to speak.

Michael Noll

You’ve spent your career around books and writers. You’re the Literary Director at the Texas Book Festival, and previously you were the marketing director at BookPeople. Great writing can inspire people to write, but it can also discourage them—make them think, “I’ll never write something that good.” How does your reading inform your writing?

Julie Wernersbach

There were definitely many years of believing that what I did was outside of the books I read and the authors I hosted; that those works and writers were legitimate and my work and identity as a writer never would be. But the thing about being exposed to so many books is that you’re exposed to so many books, good and bad, memorable and forgettable. It’s been reassuring to comprehend the volume of what’s published any given week and to acknowledge the multi-faceted reasons behind a publisher’s decision to put a work in print.

It’s also been heartening and reassuring to stand on the sidelines of hundreds (more than one thousand? probably more than one thousand) audience Q&As with authors. There’s always a process question and some version of a “what’s it like to be a writer” question. In addition to picking up a ton of great writing advice, I’ve also learned that virtually every author struggles to feel valid and successful, and that the authors who do have a strong sense of security in their work have one thing in common: they write their asses off. If I’ve felt inferior in the presence of phenomenal books and authors, it’s only stoked the fire to write my ass off. (And to read more really, really good books.)

profile-picMichael Noll is the Program Director for the Writers’ League of Texas and editor of the craft-of-writing blog Read to Write Stories. His book, In the Beginning, Middle, and End: A Field Guide to Writing Fiction, will be published by A Strange Object in 2017. His stories have appeared or are forthcoming in American Short Fiction, Chattahoochee Review, Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, Indiana Review, and The New Territory.