PART 2: ‘Odd, unexpected, and serendipitous connections’
This is Part 2 of Powder Scofield’s interview with Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone, authors of This Is How You Lose The Time War (Jo Fletcher, 2019). Part 1 can be read here. Special thanks to Robert Berg for his help with the interview.
Powder: We’ve been talking about your novella This Is How You Lose The Time War, which is an epistolary exploration of time and causality and privacy and intimacy and emotion and all of these things. And we’ve been talking a bit about the internet, and how the changing structures of the internet have maybe revealed different possibilities for solitude and togetherness.
For me, reading Time War also had this extra dimension of excitement because I was like, ‘Amal wrote that! Max wrote that!’ The three of us have odd, unexpected, and serendipitous connections. Max, I met you at university, we’ve known each other for — God! — over eighteen years now. And Amal, I met you online the first time I was living in the UK …
Amal: That was around 2007, through a game of Changeling: The Dreaming.
Powder: But when did you two first meet?
Amal: ReaderCon in 2014. I was vaguely aware of Max, because I had an ARC of Two Serpents Rise, but I hadn’t read it yet. I was on the programming committee, so I was responsible for taking ideas that people sent in and making panel items out of them. One panel was about magic and technology, and I was curious how that would go. So I went to the panel and I was like, ‘Oh, yeah, this is the guy whose book I have on my shelf.’ I sat down and I lasted about ten minutes of taking notes before I actually started vibrating with frustration that I wasn’t just having this conversation with him away from the rest of the panel. He was saying every single thing that I wanted someone to say about the stuff on this panel that I had put together, and it was irritating that I wasn’t on the panel too. So I actually at some point just got up and left! That’s how I actually met Steph first, because I think I ran into her in the hallway as I was leaving, and I was like, ‘Yeah, your husband’s really smart.’
Max: How did you know that she was my wife? Had you seen us together?
Amal: No, someone introduced us. Actually, I think she might have even said, ‘Hi, I’m Max Gladstone’s wife,’ and I was like, ‘WHAT…’
Amal: So later that night we’re both at a party. I was reviewing books for NPR at the time, and there are rules at NPR about reviewing books by friends. My NPR editor was literally in the room. So I walked up to Max, and I think what I said was, ‘Hello! I think if the two of us sat down together for a while we could maybe solve the world’s problems, but I can’t be friends with you because I want to review your books so … yeah.’
Max: Which, as an initial approach line, leaves you without a lot of obvious responses, I will say.
Juliet Kemp’s second novel Shadow and Storm is hot off the presses. Rivers Solomon calls it “the literary equivalent of sinking into the embrace of a dear friend.” Ali Baker caught up with them to chat all things writing and reading …
Let’s start with your new book! How would you describe it?
Shadow and Storm takes place a couple of months after the events of The Deep and Shining Dark. My protagonist Marcia is dealing with the aftermath of the first book, and the other political problems that inevitably appear. Then a sorcerer on the run from Teren arrives in Marek hoping they’ll be safe there, which might have worked, until a demon comes looking for them. And the demon may be more involved with the politics than everyone would prefer. So there’s more politics, more magic, and more queer, basically.
That sounds amazing!
I like writing politics — I have a background in it — but it’s hard to make it convincing. On the other hand, recent real-world events have demonstrated that sometimes people really do make very short-sighted political decisions for reasons that might not be the smartest, so …
Some might say that epic fantasy has very problematic roots, politically. Is that ever something you find yourself encountering when you write –that the material you’re working with tries to tug you in directions you don’t want to go?
That’s a really interesting question, and the answer is yes, definitely.I am consciously trying, in the Marek series, to write characters frommultiple backgrounds, but there’s definitely a tendency in epic fantasyto focus on the people at the top of the pile, and one of my maincharacters is in that position. I also find that I’m drawn towardsvarious forms of violence both as problem and as solution, simply Ithink because that’s one of the approaches I’m used to reading. Thestories we tell shape how we think about both stories and the world ingeneral. So I do try to push back against that — I want people tosolve problems in other ways — but I have noticed the pressure in what I expect a story to look like and have to consciously stop and rethink.With greater or lesser success…
Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone’s This Is How You Lose The Time War (Jo Fletcher, 2019) has been gathering a glowing reception. It’s an intense, lyrical, tragicomic novella about two elite warriors, Red and Blue, who strike up a correspondence across the millenia and across enemy lines. Adam Roberts, in his pick of SFF of the year, calls it ‘one of a kind.’ The novella has also made the shortlist for the 2019 BSFA Award. Late in 2019, Powder Scofield joined Amal and Max to shoot the breeze. This interview is a two-parter, with Part 2 dropping next week. Special thanks to Robert Berg for all his help with the interview.
PART I: ‘So we were in this gazebo …’
Powder: You’ve said one of the foundational premises of your friendship was writing physical letters to one another, and obviously that shows up in This Is How You Lose The Time War. Are there other bits of real life embedded in Time War? When you’re working on a project, how much are you intentionally processing past experience?
Max: Some of it’s intentional, but in my experience, intention is like a raft that’s on an ocean that’s in the middle of a storm. You’re aware of what you can see, but you’re not in control of it as much as you think you are. There’s a little rudder, and you can maybe try to paddle. But if a wave is driving you east, you’re going east. So I think when we sat down to write, we both knew that we were drawing on our experience of writing letters to each other, and of correspondence more generally, and the particular strange kind of time travel that you do when you’re writing a letter, especially a physical letter. But at the same time, there’s the raft, there’s the ocean, and there’s the storm.
Powder: There’s a line in the book, like, “There’s a kind of time travel in letters.” I can see that. The time it takes to write a letter, the time it takes to get there. The way letters can sometimes cross each other in transit.
Max: Exactly. You’re imagining who the other person is that will be receiving this, you’re imagining where you’ll be when they’re receiving the letter in a week or two. You’re wondering sometimes about the many forces that could stand between you dropping the small and very fragile piece of paper into a confusing and vast and twisty basically state system with the hope and trust that the $1.35 stamp will see it across the international border to someone else’s actual house just because you happen to put some words on it. So all of these steps create many different versions of yourself and of the recipient and of your respective spaces. I think that was the intent with Time War. But there are other things that I think were beneath and driving that intent.
Amal: And to answer really literally, when we were writing the book, we were also in a gazebo with no internet. So we were sitting across from each other and we only had recourse to our own bodies of knowledge. The book is built primarily out of no research, but instead what we both brought to the literal table between us in a literal gazebo as we wrote things! There’s so much in there built out of, for one thing, the surroundings. It was a gorgeous late June, early July in the Midwest. There were trees and birds and plants and things that were finding their ways into the things we were writing, for sure …
Chilling Effect, Valerie Valdes’s resplendent debut novel, was published last month in the UK by Orbit. It’s an action-packed space opera bursting with wit and wacky hijinks. Liz Lutgendorff caught up with Valerie Valdes to spill the space tea …
Right from the start, Chilling Effect throws you into the deep end. Was that a deliberate choice?
I do usually prefer novels that approach their stories through immersion rather than exposition. I like to create context while something is happening, rather than trying to explain everything up front. That’s how I tend to build my worlds as well: by having things be introduced as the character thinks about them or interacts with them, a very tight POV that can mean some things aren’t immediately clear and some readers will be frustrated by the lack of explicit description.
It can be a difficult approach to manage because you want the reader to be engaged, and sometimes starting on action or dialogue means the whole thing is occurring in a void and they have no reason to care about what’s happening yet. But also the first chapter, “Save the Cats”, is an allusion to the technique where you get the audience to empathize with your main character by having them do something noble like … save a cat! So I was not only beginning with as much immersion as I could manage, but also joking about the method usually used to get the buy-in from audiences.
That makes sense. Chilling Effect is filled with great worldbuilding, and a lot of action and intrigue, but it’s also very funny and silly! Did you worry about how silly you could be? Or did you leave that your editor if you went too far?
At the point where I started writing this book, I’d spent years trying to write “serious” sci-fi and fantasy and horror stories, because that seemed like the most important thing I could do with my time and energy. The world is a mess, and we need thoughtful fiction to help us find a way to deal with our problems meaningfully, both externally and internally. But as important as catharsis is, as important as it is to engage with contemporary issues, I think it’s also important to imagine a future where humanity has more or less transcended some of those problems.
A science fiction and fantasy author with a background in physics and finance, Stew Hotston is something of a Renaissance man (right down to the sword-wielding bit). Vector sent Robert S. Malan for a friendly duel of words …
Tell us a little about your work to date – are there distinct strands linking the stories you tell?
Yes, for sure. Despite moving around across SF, fantasy, horror and the just plain weird, there are a couple of themes which recur. One theme is family. Not always blood, but always who we choose to be vulnerable with, who we choose to have by our side when we’re facing challenging times. I think asking who those people are and what we’d do for them are interesting questions, no matter the setting.
The other recurring theme for me is worlds on the edge of collapse. I like returning to the idea of how times and places, which at first appear idyllic, have nearly always required bad decisions to get there, and these will lie in wait, festering until their time comes again. It’s a little of dealing with the past, but also about asking what price we are willing to pay in order to get what we want.
Finally, you’ll see a lot of dreams in my books. Not in an ‘it was all a dream’ kind of way! But as ways of characters processing what’s going on, as ways of communication and, even in the hardest SF, to remind us there’s more out there than we’ve dreamed of (literally).
What motivates you when it comes to storytelling, which can be a hard and lonely craft at times?
When and why did you begin writing speculative fiction and where did you get your inspirations?
I’m not sure when exactly I started writing speculative fiction. I think I’ve always loved the genre. When I was about twelve, I thought about writing a story with a character inspired by ninjas. At that time, a certain type of shoe had become popular in my small town, Tororo. They called it North Star (I think), and it was fashioned like a boot made of cloth. It was a cheap shoe, maybe a pirated brand, but seeing something that looked like a ninja costume made me think about a ninja in the town. I did not get down to writing it. I only played with the idea, but every time I walked in the streets I saw my ninja running on the rusty iron-sheet roofs.
I wrote my first speculative story in my early twenties. At that time, speculative fiction from African writers was frowned upon. Writers like Amos Tutuola did not get as much attention as Chinua Achebe because the latter wrote ‘realistic’ stories, often those that could be taken as a social or political commentary. It became expected of African writer to tell stories that were anthropological in nature. Even today, some blurbs do not say what the story is, but rather tell how a book talks about this African city or that African culture or the other African country. Though the first stories I published were ‘realistic’, the pull to the fantastic was very strong, and elements of it kept slipping in. Like A Killing in the Sun, which I wrote sometime in 2001 or 2002. I wanted it to be a mundane story about uncontrollable soldiers, something that had scourged the country for decades, but it turned out to be a ghost story. Finding a home for these stories was very difficult, and it left me frustrated and hopeless.
Then I discovered the internet and its plethora of ezines willing to publish spec-fic, and that’s when I ditched everything my education had taught me about what it means to be an African writer.
I can’t say why I write speculative fiction. Maybe because I have an ‘overactive imagination.’ My brain is always cooking up fantastical things and creating magical backstories to every mundane thing I see. I love to daydream. It’s one of my favorite pastimes. Today, I love to spend hours in my bed, doing nothing, just staring at the ceiling and dreaming up fantastical worlds. When I was a little boy, I did not have this luxury. People would see me sitting idle somewhere and they would chase me to go and find other children to play with. Being a recluse was frowned upon, staying alone for long hours was frowned upon. Yet I loved to do it, to wander away to magical lands, and so I would look for any place that gave me absolute privacy to daydream. The bathroom was one such place, the only one I remember spending a lot of time in. It was a room at the back of the courtyard, and we shared it with four other families. Sometimes there was a long queue to use it. I avoided bathing in the evenings, when the queue would be long, and preferred afternoons. Whenever anyone saw me go into the bathroom, they would say, “Let me bathe first. If you go in, you won’t come out.” It was not a nice place. It had a broken water heater, and the window shutters were wooden, and the taps were not working, and the floor was a little bit slimy with dirt, but I loved it for the privacy it gave me to daydream, and I think allowing my brain to wander away in that bathroom was training ground for me to write speculative fiction.
Why do you think speculative fictions from Africa and the African diaspora have become more popular in recent times?
There’s been a push for diversity in fiction and in films. We all know the majority of readers are people of color, yet the majority of speculative fiction works are by white people, and so people wanted to see themselves in these artworks.
But I think many Africans are simply finding the stories they love to read in written form, and stories that are about them. Most people still enjoy oral stories, and these are often fantastical in nature. Not in the classic way of sitting around the fire and telling folk tales, but some of these stories end up in newspapers, with headlines like ‘Witchdoctor sues Parliament Speaker for failure to pay him.’ (This is a recent case, of a traditional healer who claimed the speaker of the Ugandan parliament owed her success to him, and she did not pay him for the charms he gave her to succeed). I think people on the continent are beginning to appreciate reading these kinds of things in good fiction, not just in hearsays.
You are both a writer and filmmaker — how do these creative processes feed into each other?
I am more than just a writer and filmmaker. With an overactive imagination, there’s always a story lurking in my subconscious, and if I stick to one media I wouldn’t cope. I’ve written radio plays, stage plays, poetry, and recently I went into digital arts and fell in love with it at once. I love telling stories and it does not make sense to stick to one format. Whether it’s a book, or a poem, or digital art, the uniting factor is story, and I believe I’m a storyteller.
From the idea stage, I know whether a story will be prose, or film, or radio play. Only recently have I started to think of multi-platform stories, like the one in AfroSF v3, “Safari Nyota,” which I want to be prose, a web series, a video game, and a graphic novel, each platform with a slightly different storyline.
I started as a writer, and it taught me a lot about developing characters, for with prose, you have a lot of freedom to give the reader a character’s backstory. Writing radio plays and stage plays helped me master dialog. When I went into film, I learned a lot about plotting, since films are time-bound. This kind of made my prose writing sparser than it used to be, and led me to develop a visual style. As I go more into digital arts, I’m beginning to pay a lot of attention to details. There are things I used to ignore in my writing, especially when describing characters, but now, when making a piece of digital art, I have to think about the minute details, and I find myself thinking about this when writing, and I believe it will help me grow.
Stu Jones and Gareth Worthington are authors of It Takes Death to Reach a Star(2018) and In the Shadow of a Valiant Moon (2020) — fast-paced, action-packed, post-apocalyptic thrillers set in the 23rd century — as well as various solo works. It Takes Death to Reach a Star was a Dragon Award Finalist, a Cygnus Award First Place Ribbon recipient, an IPPY Award Winner, a New York Book Festival Sci-Fi Award Winner, and a Feathered Quill Gold Award Winner. Vector caught up with Stu and Gareth to ask them about their collaboration …
In the Shadow of a Valiant Moon is out early next year, is that right? Tell us a little bit about it.
Gareth:Moon — as Stu and I refer to it — is the sequel to It Takes Death to Reach a Star. It’s set four years after the events in Star. Star was dark, but Moon is darker. Even the team at Boilermaker Entertainment — they’re the ones we’re working with to bring this series to the screen — commented on how much darker it is, compared with the first book.
Stu: And yet, even with all the bleakness and despair, there is this central thread of hope. Just the flicker of an idea that maybe, just maybe, humanity is worth saving.
Organized and translated by Emad El-Din Aysha. Emad comments:
This is a roundtable discussion among several members of لجمعية المصرية لأدب الخيال العلمي, the Egyptian Society for Science Fiction (ESSF). The ESSF was founded in 2012 shortly after the Egyptian January 2011 revolution. In that moment, a group of people who had largely lost hope of all change in Egyptian life—scientists, academics, artists, writers, poets—felt that everything had changed, and that they could now make a constructive contribution towards building the future. This conversation took place in late 2018, and was conducted predominantly in Arabic. Discussants were Manal Abd Al-Hamid, Ahmed Al-Mahdi, Emad El-Din Aysha, Hosam El-Zembely, Muhammad Naguib Matter, and Kadria Said.
Thank you all for participating. First off, how did you learn of the ESSF and the Shams Al-Ghad [‘Sun of Tomorrow’] series of anthologies?
Muhammad Naguib Matter: Via the internet! I saw an advert for an ESSF salon and I attended it, and since then I haven’t missed an event. For me, something like the ESSF, such a group, used to be pure fantasy. The literary scene here in Egypt is completely void of SF workshops. Yes, there are some cultural salons, like the one in Giza, dedicated to the memory of Nihad Sharif, the dearly departed pioneer of Egyptian science fiction. There’s also a salon for science fiction in Aswan, in southern Egypt. But these events are lacking: they essentially do one thing, which is to host big names in the world of literature to talk about their works. They leave no room at all to learn something. There are no workshops. So that’s what drew me straight away to the ESSF. It’s filling that gap.
Sandra Newman’s fourth novel, The Heavens, is just out from Granta and Grove Atlantic. We think it’s a remarkable book, and we’re not alone. The New York Times has called The Heavens “heady and elegant … a chameleon, a strange and beautiful hybrid.” Tor.com says, “How rare and wonderful it is to find a book that surpasses already high expectations.” The Washington Independent Review of Books praises the book for its humour and style, but above all for its knack for portraying the unstable reality of its two central characters. Vector recently got the chance to chat to Sandra about her writing …