First of all, congratulations on your Nebula nomination for “The Orangery”! The awards will have been handed out by the time this interview appears, but how did you feel upon receiving news of your nomination?
Thrilled, of course! I got the call late on my birthday. One of the best birthday gifts I’ve ever gotten. I did a little happy dance and then tried not to let the person on the phone hear how out-of-breath I was.
Every now and then there’s a dustup between the literary and genre fiction communities, with the former often being dismissive of the latter in some way. You have an MFA but also write speculative fiction—have you ever experienced this tension first hand?
Yes, and I’ve experienced it both ways. I got my MFA in Popular Fiction from University of Southern Maine’s Stonecoast Program, so my MFA experience was a little different than some people’s. Still, even in a program with a Popular Fiction focus, that tension existed. I also experience it every now and again in other various communities I’m part of. It boils down to a misunderstanding, I think; genre is more than Clarke and Tolkien (both of whom I love, but realize they’re not everyone’s cup of tea), but people don’t realize the breadth of genre. They may have read a few classic works that they didn’t relate to on a deeper level and dismissed genre altogether. Or an SFF fan may read a few stories from The New Yorker and think that all literary fiction is too introspective and slow-paced, never stumbling on the stories that contain the very elements of SFF that appeal to them. In reality, of course, literary fiction and genre fiction are distinctions that help booksellers and readers sort through the mass, but they don’t actually tell us much about whether a story will hit something personal in us.
I assume that “Secret Keeper” is a retelling of Phantom of the Opera? What is it about that story that resonated with you?
The Phantom’s outsider status has always appealed to that part of me who never felt like she belonged, mostly in high school, which is where I encountered the book and the musical. Plus, the music moves me on a visceral level; it’s so epic and tragic, with the characters of the Phantom and Christine both wanting the impossible from their relationship. Christine wants her father back, wants to believe that his spirit is still with her. The Phantom wants the love and acceptance he never got from the world. He’s a villain, but he’s a villain whose motivations we understand.
The story also says something interesting about creativity and the need of artists and art to be appreciated, to be heard, by others. The Phantom can’t perform his music himself; he doesn’t have the looks. But he needs his music to be heard. Christine gives that to him. In that respect, their relationship is beautiful. It’s when you get into the issues of consent and possessiveness that it takes a turn for the worst.
You have said that you like to ask interviewees about their favorite stories, so I’m going to ask you—what are yours?
I’m going to list seven contemporary stories that I love, because choosing among them pains me: “Magic for Beginners” by Kelly Link; “End of the Line” by Aimee Bender; “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang; “The Empire of Ice Cream” by Jeffrey Ford; “Light and the Sufferer” by Jonathan Lethem; “The Rose in Twelve Petals” by Theodora Goss; and “Wants” by Grace Paley.
You’ve written a novel based on one of your short stories, “The Siren,”—any plans to do that again? What are you working on at the moment?
Yep! I’ve written three novels, two of which are based on my short stories. Right now I’m working on editing one based on my story “The Stink of Horses.” It’s set in Imperial Russia, so I’m currently reading up on the time period in the interest of incorporating more scenic details. During the first draft, I glossed over a lot of the scenery due to gaps in my knowledge. I’m enjoying the research phase, mostly because I’m watching a lot of ballet—the novel’s about a cursed ballerina—and I love dance. I like expanding short stories because it gives me this sort of template, which is very freeing.
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