“Whose Drowned Face Sleeps” is an intricate, layered story with a myriad of sensory impressions both in the real world and memory. How do you feel in-depth sensory detail helps to draw readers into a story?
Rachel: I think sensory details are especially useful for horror, where part of the point is to evoke a mood. Different words and their connotations, different sensory stimuli and theirs, help create a palpable sense of mood in the body—at least that’s the hope! When you read the word “itch,” you probably feel a fleeting sense of itchiness—a horror writer is just tuning in to that inclination and turning up the dial.
An: Writing basically hands your brain a bunch of raw materials that your imagination can take and build rooms out of. Readers bring their own sets of raw materials with them, but those sets vary quite widely, and may or may not afford a lot of detail.
If I say “city alley,” you might get a vague, generic image, or an immersive cinematic experience, and that has more to do with the way your reading and imagination works than with the words I put down. But if I write about “an alley in a part of the city dominated by ‘For Rent’ and foreclosure signs, with no sounds except for the indifferent interstate traffic a few blocks away, grey and resigned in the late-night rain, with the smell of old cooking oil from a nearby diner hanging heavy in the air,” well, it offers a lot more building blocks for your mind to put together. Ideally, that means that the environment you construct in your mind is more vivid, more immersive, more palpable. The danger is that a reader might be trying to use all these building blocks to dutifully recreate the scene, and lose the flow of the story under the obligation of carrying all the detail.
We don’t experience the world around us through only factual data, or only visual data, or only any one thing. We expect to inhabit a space that’s rife with sights, sounds, scents, feelings, temperature, dynamism, taste, comfort or discomfort, etc. So, verisimilitude requires some attention paid to these things, as well.
This is not the first time you’ve worked together on a story. How did you come to write this particular tale?
Rachel: It actually was! We wrote and submitted this story in February 2015; it’s just taken a while to get published. Both An and I had been invited to the same anthology1, and were having trouble writing our stories. Mine exists in fragments on my hard drive, but An wrestled out a draft. Se handed the draft to me, and I worked on it a bit, and handed it back, and so forth. Our story “Between Dragons and Their Wrath,” which came out in Clarkesworld Magazine earlier this year, was a second project that followed on the success of this one. (We used the same methods.)
An: Every once in a while, we run into a situation where between the two of us, we make one functional author.
I have a fairly common failure mode in my writing where I’ll get 80% of the way through a story—or 100% of the way through a really broken story—and then not be able to figure out how to fix or finish it. Usually, what happens with these stories is that they get trunked either until I can find a way to fix them, I decide they’re not getting any better and I might as well toss them out into the uncaring wilds anyway, or I just stop caring about them. This one got to the 100% mark (and was really broken), and would probably have ended up languishing in the trunk, except that I’d promised it to an editor and I was on a deadline.
And through the magic of deadlines, a partnership was born!
As I recall, I threw the draft at Rachel, and basically went “I don’t want to look at this anymore.” And so Rachel read it, and asked insightful and clarifying questions, and I answered them by going “NOT LOOKIIIIIIIIING” and sticking my fingers in my ears and humming. And then Rachel fixed things—the ending, for example, and some essential structural elements—and sent it back to me, and I tweaked a couple of the emotional beats and went back to not looking at it as hard as I could.
It seems to have worked pretty well.
There are many readers and writers who insist that fiction should only be written from the point-of-view of an “average” character that suits a very narrow view of the world. One thing I appreciated about this story was the integration of certain character traits that only serve to enhance the reading experience: chest binding; the main character’s skin tone; R’s abusive relationship with a woman instead of a man; poverty. Do either of you give any thought to those who insist you’re not writing “real” SF/F/Horror? Why or why not?
Rachel: Well, since the anthology call (for What the #@&% is That?) was explicitly horror, we did think about genres. I don’t think either of us identifies as a horror writer, although we both write dark. Fantasy and science fiction can certainly edge into horror—the line between dark fantasy and horror is certainly contingent if not nonexistent. I follow the definition that horror is primarily about evoking that mood in the reader, and that’s not usually my intent—but with this story, that was foregrounded. An actually went through a number of horror stories and noted the commonalities se found there—including high-anxiety, destructive sex—and used that as part of the basis for their ideas.
An: I have this joke that 80% of my fiction is spite-based. So I’ll freely admit that one of the influences in writing this was, “Oh, so horror often leans heavily on destructive sex tropes? WELL, FINE, THEN.”
I don’t give much thought to people who say I’m not writing “real” whatever. When I’m invited to submit something to a magazine or anthology, I figure that the people doing the inviting probably have some familiarity with what I write, and wouldn’t have asked if they didn’t like what I was doing, to some extent or other. And in general, I write what I want to write—which is often the stuff I want to read, or just the stuff I have too much fun telling to myself—and cast it out into the world. If it sells, it sells; if it doesn’t, it doesn’t. I had fun, either way.
“Real” SF/F/Horror undoubtedly means something to the people who find it a useful distinction. It means very little to me, and what little it does mean is more academic than practical. It’s not a line which predicts my enjoyment of a piece, for example. Heck, a lot of the things I write aren’t even “real” stories—they’re bits and bobs and shreds of fiction which I’ll send to my friends and we’ll have a good time yelling at characters for their poor decision-making. If the little scraps I write coalesce into something that I can toss out into the wider world, and if people find it, and people like it, that’s more than enough for me. Whether it’s “real” or not doesn’t concern me.
This is a murder story, a love story, a ghost story. Are there any particular genres or story types that either of you would like to explore in your writings?
Rachel: I really want to write some actual space opera with some actual aliens. That’s one of my particular loves—I was a huge Star Trek fan growing up—but I haven’t done very much of it. I think as we’ve learned the prohibitive problems of space travel, the optimistic, “We will sail the Enterprise a billion miles away and meet zillions of cool aliens and eliminate scarcity!” future seems harder to invest in. But I’m excited by the way people are playing with aliens and space opera, like Ann Leckie and Yoon Ha Lee, and I hope to dabble myself sometime soon.
An: Every now and again, I’ll get this bull-headed idea that I can write in any genre I put my mind to, and set out to prove it to myself and usually not others. The results of these exercises are . . . inconsistent, let’s say. For example, I’ve learned that bizarro fiction is much harder to construct than I would ever have guessed, and that I am, in fact, far too asexual to grasp what makes erotica functional on any sort of visceral level. Though I’m not sure those projects are things I’d “like to explore” so much as things I’m “stubbornly ramming my head against until one force in the equation gives way.”
I’d really like to learn how to write at a novel length. Also, episodic serial fiction. I’d like to work on big projects with vast, sprawling plots, especially interwoven plots—I have ideas for stories which straddle two slowly diverging universes, and ones which have all sorts of timeline shenanigans. I’d like to explore projects with really unreliable narrators. I’d like to experiment with hyperfiction—wandering narratives like the Synthetic Journal over at Flightless Hummingbird, for example. And one day, when I have time, I’d like to do a long interactive piece—I’d write a chapter, put a poll up at the end of the chapter asking what the characters should do, have the readers weigh in, and then write the next chapter based on that. Like a Choose Your Own Adventure, but in 3rd person with a larger cast, and you never get the chance to go back and undo your mistakes—er, choices. Totally meant choices. Probably some of them won’t be mistakes.
And, also to shout out to Ann Leckie, I’m still rather envious of the ways in which she played with gender in her novels, and wish I had thought of that, and hope I can play with mechanics that cool.
You both have worn many hats—writer, editor, advocate, instigator of general shenanigans—and many up and coming writers look to the two of you for inspiration in both writing and pushing for inclusive fiction. How do you handle being seen as role models for the next generation of writers?
Rachel: Sometimes it’s fun and easy—like meeting new writers at a convention, who haven’t been to many cons before or who are just getting started. I love doing that, and helping people orient, if I can, to the professional world. Sometimes it’s disorienting—like when I realize that someone I’ve been thinking of as a peer just entered the industry two years ago, and may be seeing me as a role model instead. That’s not a problem; I just need to be aware of the power dynamics in the situation, and sometimes it makes me blink. To the extent that I am a role model, I think the vibe I’d like to model in our professional and social networks is support and paying kindnesses forward. I think we do that a lot already, in contrast to some other literary communities. But it’s something I find important to cultivate and dwell on.
An: Sometime in the past decade, people started regarding me as a responsible adult, and I’m still not sure how to react to that. This “role model” thing is right out.
But if there’s one thing I’ve learned from having had the chance to meet a lot of my own role models, it’s that they’re all—we’re all—just people, when it comes down to it. There’s no magic distinction. We’re not different species. There’s just a distinction of experience, maybe practice, maybe age, maybe some luck.
I will say—addressing the wider internet, here—that if you have me as your role model, there is probably not all that much distance between us. Just about everyone I know who writes has a hearty dose of impostor syndrome. Just about everyone I know is bewildered at how they got to where they’re at. I still frequently have no idea what I’m doing—which means that having no idea what you’re doing doesn’t seem to disqualify you from getting to where I’m at, so don’t worry about it too much. Yeah, I can point to a lot of specific actions I took to improve my craft, or to move forward in the publishing world, but to be honest a lot of them mostly boil down to “doing my best, even when I feel that my best is woefully inadequate.” I’m bumbling around and screwing things up and walking face-first into walls and dealing with all sorts of nonsense, and if somehow I manage to get something inspiring out of that general cacophony of life being life, then there’s hope for grace in other cacophonies, too. And that’s reassuring, to me.
What’s next for the two of you? Are there other joint projects in the works? Do either of you have any pending individual projects?
Rachel: I have another couple of story drafts from An which I hope to poke at and see if I can bring them into a space where An and I can finalize them together. Two in particular seem like they should work out, although I’m a terribly slow and scattered writer, so that certainly isn’t a forecast for the near future. I’ve been working on adding some new projects to my writing portfolio, such as articles, writing advice, tie-ins, editing, critiquing and teaching. Writing my own creative work is wonderful, but it also drains the brain, and I’m excited to be working on stuff that’s a little easier to chase down than the fog of inspiration. You can check out what I’m up to on rachelswirsky.com.
An: I’ve been dealing with a lot of heavy life stuff for the past little while, which has put almost all of my projects on one form of hiatus or other. But when I have time, energy, and brainpower, I’ve been poking at a number of things—experiments on the novels I mentioned earlier, sequels to various stories (like “Undermarket Data,” which appeared in Lightspeed, and “The Charge and the Storm,” which appeared in Asimov’s), and some short fiction bits for my Shared Worlds side project. But my writing process is somewhat capricious, so who knows what I’ll actually finish next?
1. The anthology in question is Nightmare editor John Joseph Adams’s new book, What the #@&% is That? (co-edited with Douglas Cohen), which is due out from Saga Press in August 2016. This story appears here in Nightmare as an original and will appear in the anthology as a reprint. In our August issue, you can see a second sneak peek at the anthology, with Amanda Downum’s story, “Fossil Heart.” –eds.
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