German author Frank Habuold is a winner of the Kurd-Laßwitz Award. He is the author, with Gill Ainsworth, of the collection Seasons of Insanity, published by Apex Books.
Frank Haubold interviewed by Charles Tan
Hi Frank! Thanks for agreeing to do the interview. First off, how did you first become acquainted with science fiction and fantasy?
Oh, that was many years ago. I think it was in the early 70s, when I experienced first books by Ray Bradbury, Robert Sheckley and Stanislaw Lem in the library of my hometown. These books were rareties, which could not be bought in bookstores of former Eastern Germany. I’ve always fought with me in order to give them back. Fantasy as a genre did not exist at that time.
It was – I think – in 2006, when I sent one of my stories to several English-language magazines. Unfortunately I only got rejections, but the mail from Gill was very friendly and interested. So we stayed in contact. Gill revised the translation of another story, which later reached the shortlist of the Aeon Award, and I translated two of her stories for German anthologies. Sometime later, we had the idea for a joint collection in English.
That was a little difficult because the prerequisites were not optimal. Gill does not speak German and my English is rather poor. It is sufficient to translate English texts into German, but the reverse is much more difficult. So I translated my stories sentence by sentence in a kind of pidgin English, and then Gill brought the fragments into a readable form. It took many weeks and months, and of course there were sometimes misunderstandings. Against this background, 130 pages are a lot.
Of course I have selected only stories, that I particularly like. Therefore, the feeling when reading and Pretranslation was not so bad. If a story is a few years old, there are of course always little things one would write a little different today. Much more interesting and sometimes disturbing is the diversity of languages. A phrase that sounds good in German, can sound terrible in English and vice versa. Therefore, only a native speaker is able to assess and correct these subtleties. I am very grateful that Gill has taken this burden.
How did you come up with the concept of seasons for the book?
Gill had this idea. We had a few stories that are tied to specific data, such as Christmas or Halloween. And we had others where the weather plays a role and is typical for certain seasons. Therefore it was making sense to bring the stories to a chronology of the seasons. This works, of course, not perfect in every story, but it does bring some structure into the book. That’s why I like the idea.
How did Apex end up publishing Seasons of Insanity?
That was not an easy way. Fortunately, my role was confined to inquire every few weeks, wether the project is going on or not. Obviously, the U.S. market is difficult, and the few genre-publishers are inundated with manuscripts. That makes such projects not easier. But it worked in the end, still, and I am very grateful, that Apex Publications has published our book.
What’s the genre field in Germany like?
In Germany, the SF and horror scene is much smaller and more clearly. Everyone who deals intensively with the genre, knows the relevant publishers and publications. However, only few genre authors are able to earn their bread and red wine with writing. I’m not one of them, and that’s not because I drink too expensive wine …
On the other hand, there are a number of dedicated small publishers who are active in the scene, and also a loyal core audience, however only few young readers.
Who are some of the authors that interest you?
There are many authors, whose works have impressed me. Ray Bradbury, of course, James G. Ballard, Clifford Simak, Stanislav Lem or the Strugatsky brothers. Unfortunately most of them have already died. I like Dan Simmon’s “Hyperion” und the SF-novels of Sergei Lukyanenko. Some of the older novels by Stephen King are also fascinating.
Anything else you want to promote?
This is difficult because there are no English versions of my more recent novels and short stories. Currently I am writing the second part of a space opera called “Twilight of the Gods”, which keeps me busy for almost a year. That’s a pretty crazy story from a distant future in which also the poet Rilke and Jim Morrison will have an appearance. Science fiction purists will not like it.😉
Joan De La Haye writes horror and some very twisted thrillers. She invariably wakes up in the middle of the night, because she’s figured out yet another freaky way to mess with her already screwed up characters.Joan is interested in some seriously weird shit. That’s probably also one of the reasons she writes horror.
Hi Joan! Thanks for agreeing to do the interview. First off, how did you first become acquainted with fantasy, with horror, etc.?
I must admit I wasn’t a big horror fan growing up. I only found it in my twenties thanks to a friend handing me a copy of Stephen King’s Misery and telling me not to be such a literary snob. Then another friend got me reading Anne Rice and then I discovered my Dads collection of Dennis Wheatley books. I haven’t stopped reading genre fiction since.
What’s the appeal of fiction for you?
I think everybody loves to be swept away by a good story. We all want to escape from the mundane day to day of our daily lives and I think the best way to allow our imaginations to take flight is within the pages of a good book.
Since you write in a lot of genres, how would you describe your writing?
In a word, twisted. But if you need a longer explanation, I guess my writing is a little on the dark side. I explore the darker aspects of human nature and ask a few uncomfortable questions about that nature.
Is there a preferred format that you prefer, since you seem to write everything from short stories to novels?
I really enjoy writing shorter fiction. I’m not the most patient of people and quiet enjoy being able to thump out a story in a matter of days. But the long form also has a special place. There are some stories that need to be explored on a far deeper level that you just can’t do with short fiction. You also get to know a character far better in the novel format. So I guess that’s just the long way of saying that I like all the guises that fiction comes in. It’s important for a writer to be able to use all the tools at their disposal. It’s the story that dictates the length.
How did you end up getting published by Fox Spirit?
I’ve known Adele Wearing for a couple years now. I got to know her as a reviewer and after she reviewed my first book, Shadows, we became firm friends. Then when Shadows needed a new home and she was looking for books to publish for her new publishing company, Fox Spirit, I knew that it would be the perfect fit. Adele is a force of nature and will accomplish great things with Fox Spirit. I’m just proud that I can be a part of it.
What’s the field like there in South Africa?
The Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror fields here are still pretty small but they are growing. The genre writers are a small group and we all seem to know and support each other. It’s an emerging market.
What made you decide to set your novel in Pretoria?
I think it’s important to set a story in a place that you’re pretty intimate with. I set Shadows in Johannesburg because I was living there while I was writing it. I set Requiem in E Sharp in Pretoria because it’s my home town and where I now live once again. It’s an interesting city with a very high murder rate. It’s also a city I know better than any other and I discover new things about it every day.
Who are some of the authors or what books interest/inspired you?
The obvious one is Stephen King. Just the huge body of his work is inspiring. Then there’s Clive Barker, probably another obvious one. I also recently got to meet John Connolly in the flesh. The fluidity of his writing is inspirational. He’s also just a really nice guy, completely down to earth and easy to talk to. It’s always wonderful to meet a big name author like that.
Anything else you want to plug?
Readers can find out anything they need to know about my books on my website: http://joandelahaye.com/ and they can follow me on twitter: http://twitter.com/JoanDeLaHaye
They can also have a look at all the books published by Fox Spirit http://www.foxspirit.co.uk/. Adele has put together a fantastic collection of books and authors, all of which are worth checking out.
Hi Marian! Thanks for agreeing to do the interview. First off, how did you first become acquainted with speculative fiction?
Well, of course, on some level all fiction is speculative fiction, and one of the great developments that has taken place over the course of my life is that some of the themes and ideas that have been traditionally considered as “belonging” uniquely to what was called “science fiction” have expanded beyond their genre boundaries (of course, genres don´t have boundaries, but that is another question…). So, a lot of what I read when I was a child or a young woman was speculative fiction “without knowing it”, as it were. For example, some of Lovecraft’s purer horror stories are very much based on a speculative fiction premise: what if we could re-animate the dead? What if we could come into contact with creatures from other dimensions?
When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
It’s always been there in the background: I’ve always liked words, and putting words together, but there are a handful of key experiences that really led me to want to devote my life to it: reading Crime and Punishment for the first time at the age of thirteen or so, discovering Borges… In a way the idea that it is what I’d do has always been there, even amongst my family and friends. It was sort of understood I would work with books… And in fact I have been a librarian, I’ve done academic research, I translate, publish and write. Short of having my own bookshop, I think I have always been surrendered to books and have lived not only through them, but also from them… Or at least that’s what I try to do!
Who are some of your favorite writers or what are some of your favorite works?
I believe in a healthy reading diet, and my list of “favourites” is perhaps unmanageable… I am also very indecisive… A great many things: from Alice in Wonderland to An Awkward Age by Anna Starobinets.
Where can we find some of your fiction?
I have contributed to a number of anthologies and have published a novel, which I describe as “with a ghost included” rather than being a straight horror story, which is not. The anthologies I have contributed to tend to focus on speculative, fantasy or horror topics, and amongst them I am extremely proud to be one of the only three female authors featured in a seminal horror anthology recently published called Akelarre: Antología del cuento de terror español actual, full of incredibly amazing writers. I cannot tell you how many times I have complained to my publisher that he should have searched for more Spanish female horror writers! All these anthologies fall within the very Spanish trend now for “high-literary” genre writing… This need to specify-redefine can be sometimes a bit silly, in my view… Genre writing doesn’t need to be “saved” by straight literature. There is some amazing writing out there… But perhaps more in the Anglo-American scene than here, I guess.
How would you describe your writing?
I think I’ve got quite a dark mind, and that is reflected in what I write: I am fascinated by the obscure, the half-hidden, what you might in general call “the gothic”. A lot of my friends say that I write in quite an “English” way: perhaps what this means is that I am not as keen on baroque circumlocution as some Spanish prose writers.
How did you get involved with translation?
I was broke. I submitted a speculative translation (of a whole book) to a publisher. It was Lady into fox, by David Garnett, a book I have always been fascinated with… He didn’t take it, but things started coming my way.
What are the challenges in translating into Spanish, especially since you translate both English and Russian works?
More than other European languages, Spanish gets beautiful results on a fairly limited spectrum of emotional tone and nuances of vocabulary. I often feel when I am translating from English that I am trying to fit the Ocean into a bathtub. On the other hand, when something works in Spanish it works in a way that it is impossible to fake. Bad Spanish prose calls attention to its own inadequacies much more than bad English or bad Russian does. I should qualify here that when I translate from Russian it is as half of a translation team, of which I am the “native” Spanish speaker.
Who are some of the speculative fiction authors from Russia that we should be reading? From Spain?
Our Russian list is characterised by publishing gothic or science-fiction alongside more “traditional” Russian writers. One of the last books we have published is a collection of short stories by Anna Starobinets, published in English as An Awkward Age, which are speculative fiction-horror stories that really repay the Russian press’s description of her as “the Russian Stephen King”. Andrei Rubanov is also name to conjure with. In Spain I would highlight a recent anthology called Prospectivas: antología del cuento de ciencia ficción española actual. It’s got lots of major names in it, and it is a very well put together book.
What made you decide to pursue publishing?
We weren’t enjoying academia as much as we thought. We wanted a change of scene and decided to move to Madrid, a place neither of us knew, and to start a publishing house. We began with a list of about one hundred and fifty authors we liked and who weren’t published in Spanish, and went from there…
Could you tell us more about your press?
We started out publishing Russian fiction. We then decided to expand and open up an English Gothic line, so now we essentially have two distinct collections. We are hoping to open up even more to other literatures in the future. We have been going now for over three years, and have published about ten books a year. I don’t know how much longer we’ll keep this rhythm going, but at the moment we’re happy.
Could you tell us more about the anthology Steampunk: Antología retrofuturista?
This anthology has been in preparation for more than four years now: it is the first compilation of its kind in Spain. It was put together by Félix J. Palma, the writer of the bestselling The Map of Time and its sequels, and it aims to do two things: to familiarise Spanish readers with the genre, and also to provide them with an idea of what Steampunk could do in a Spanish environment.
What’s the speculative fiction scene in Spain like? The publishing scene?
I lived in England until recently, and so in some ways I feel like I am a newcomer to all of this, but my impression is that the speculative fiction scene in Spain is healthy: there is a good number of conventions and discussion groups online. The only thing I would suggest is that there is no obvious key figure around whom other authors congregate: not that this is a bad thing, just that the Speculative fiction community seems a little decentred sometimes, or over-focussed on Anglo-American developments. As far as publishing is concerned, the main development over the last few years has been the rise of small unaffiliated publishing houses, a group among which we are proud to count ourselves, which are willing to break down the previously rigid barriers between ‘popular’ and ‘literary’ fiction: the idea that a company such as ours might publish a Soviet novel about a journey to Mars in the same collection as the memoirs of Dostoevsky’s roommate is thinkable now in a way it wouldn’t have been five or ten years ago.
What are the challenges in juggling writing, translating, and publishing?
Everything is tidal: the publishing season in Spain runs from January to June and from September to November; the translation work I get tends to be required within the same period; my writing is something I can only do when the conditions are right (I don’t think I’m a diva, but I have found that unless I can get a good run at a piece of work, unless I know I have a solid week to do nothing apart from write, then I don’t get much done)… So we go from periods of inactivity to periods of immense and complex work, and all the time-management in the world isn’t enough to make everything go smoothly all of the time.
What projects are you currently working on?
We are currently launching the first Spanish translation of Gladys Mitchell, a jewel in the crown of Golden Age English detective fiction. I am working on a series of young adult steampunky novels with the Spanish fantasy writer Sofia Rhei, am preparing a compilation of my anthologised stories, and am starting to take the first steps in writing what promises to be an extremely large-scale literary project, but I don’t want to mention more than that, as it might be years before anything appears. Before that I hope that an anthology I am preparing now, sort of “Spanish-writers-Lovecraft-homage”, will be published. You wouldn’t imagine the number of writers here who are a bit obsessed with him, who worship his work. We are quite a substantial community!
Anything else you want to plug?
For everyone who reads Spanish, Steampunk is an indispensible anthology. We are also about to publish El vivo, a novel by Anna Starobinets, which is amazing. Please visit our website: www.nevsky.es, and thank you for the interview.
Sarah is a writer of science-fiction and fantasy roleplaying games and fiction, including the transhuman space opera novel “Mindjammer”, and the ENnie Award-winning RPG setting of the same name; the techno-fantasy RPG setting “The Chronicles of Future Earth”; and the “Legends of Anglerre” roleplaying game. She’s currently writing “Zero Point”, a series of globe-spanning World War 2 adventures for the “Achtung! Cthulhu” RPG setting, published by Modiphius; the “Great Game” campaign for the Steampunk “Leagues of Adventure” RPG from Triple Ace Games; and “The Worm Within”, the first “Chronicles of Future Earth” novel, to be published by Chaosium, Inc, in 2013. She lives in a field in rural France, surrounded by numerous farmyard animals.
Hi Sarah, thanks for agreeing to do the interview. First off, how did you first become acquainted with science fiction? With RPGs?
My first encounter with science-fiction happened when I was about 9 years old – back in 1977. Of course I’d been watching Star Trek before then, but Star Wars year was a huge thing for me – I lived in the sticks, and going to the cinema was a rarity. Star Wars just blew me away, awakened a love for stars, spaceships, and big bold space opera tales that has never gone away. Around the same time – maybe before or after, I’m not quite sure – I read my first “proper” scifi, in a book I borrowed from our local library. I now know it was a story from “Flight of the Horse” by Larry Niven – it tells the story of a dimensional traveller who travels *sideways* in time, and visits an alternate earth where people have evolved from wolves rather than primates. At the time, I remember being totally captivated not by spaceships and ray-guns, but by the sheer *strangeness* of what the universe could be like. After that I hunted down science-fiction wherever I saw it – I read the Star Wars tie-in fiction, I read Larry Niven, Asimov, M. John Harrison, Moorcock, a total science-fiction fan by the time I hit my teens.
Roleplaying games happened a couple of years later – I was about 11, my last day of first year high school, and I saw someone leafing through the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons softback Player’s Handbook. I blagged a look, and was captivated by the maps, the illustrations, the possibilities for stories. I went straight home that day and ordered “Buffalo Castle” from Flying Buffalo for the Tunnels & Trolls game – within a few months I discovered “Traveller” and the brilliant science-fantasy RPG “Metamorphosis Alpha”, both of which I played relentlessly in the years after, about the same time as I was discovering Harry Harrison’s “Stainless Steel Rat” and Niven’s “Ringworld” stories.
What’s the appeal of the genre for you?
To be honest, I think its optimism. No matter how dark or edgy science-fiction gets, the fact that we, human beings, are out there, in a hundred, a thousand, ten thousand years, exploring, evolving, achieving mighty feats, *being human*, is immensely encouraging. Even in the most desperate dystopias, there’s an element of hope – that we’re taking it on the chin, wrestling with huge issues, surviving…
Modern science-fiction, with its strong vein of transhumanism, fits me perfectly. Philosophically I rate thinkers like Nietzsche very highly, and I think I probably have a thoroughly Western, dialectic view of history. I’m not a millenarianist, I’m not looking for the perfectability of human beings or anything, but the eternal process of self-overcoming it’s possible to detect in history and extend into the future is something which transhumanism articulates in an immensely engaging way. I find so little of the vital discussion we really should be having at the dawn of the biotech age, about *what kind of* human beings we want to involve into, actually happening in the mainstream media or social arenas, that science-fiction sometimes seems the only open forum where we can properly debate these questions. In science-fiction, we can encounter how other writers have answered; and in transhuman scifi RPGs, we can actually play-out and stress-test our theories and ideas.
How did you end up writing for RPGs? For fiction?
I think like many other writers I’ve “always” written – my first attempt to write my own Lord of the Rings was when I was about 9 or 10 years old, my first attempt to write an RPG (of Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea!) was about 2 years later! But my writing for publication happened relatively recently – about 4 years ago, when I started to write for a setting I’d created called “The Chronicles of Future Earth”, which was a very far future science-fantasy, set perhaps a hundred millennia from now, when humankind had gone through its expansionary era, undergone massive evolutions and cataclysms, and had returned to Earth, wounded, stagnating, on the verge of extinction. In many ways it was inspired by the atmosphere in the paintings of Bruce Pennington – I was exposed to covers like The Pastel City and the Dune and New Sun series in the late seventies and early eighties, and their atmosphere of strangeness, familiarity, and haunting landscapes impressed me deeply. I wanted to write about a world in which those images were possible – that’s how Chronicles was born. I started writing the fiction and the RPG for The Chronicles of Future Earth roughly the same time – the RPG book was published first, and I’m finishing up the first Chronicles novel now, to be published in 2013 by Chaosium, Inc.
My published fiction notionally began with Cthulhu, I guess like many writers; writer and editor William Jones of Elder Signs Press edited my Chronicles of Future Earth RPG, and asked me to write some short stories for Cthulhu anthologies back in 2008. They were accepted, but ironically neither anthology has yet seen the light of day, for various reasons. “Disclosure”, which we’re showcasing on the Tuesday Fiction on the World SF Blog this week, was one of those stories.
My first published fiction piece is Mindjammer, the novel launched in August 2012…
How did the concept of Mindjammer develop?
I mentioned the Chronicles of Future Earth setting above. When I was writing the backstory for that, I envisaged a great interstellar civilisation which had somehow “fallen”, giving rise to the exotic far future science-fantasy of the Springtide Civilisations and the Venerable Autocracy of the Chronicles setting. At the time, I called this hyper-advanced civilisation “the Commonality of Worlds”. Over time, I got to wondering what it had been like – what the nature of an interstellar civilisation, tens of millennia in our future, would be. As far removed from us as the Stone Age, it occurred to me that in all likelihood such a civilisation would be so unimaginably post-human that it would be incomprehensible to us – even now, as we approach the Singularity, it’s clear that even the near future is going to be very strange indeed. But ten thousand years from now? Twenty thousand? How could that still be human enough for it to be able to collapse into the far future of the Venerable Autocracy?
That’s where the New Commonality of Humankind came from. It’s a massive sandpit for me to play around in – it’s extremely advanced, with technology which at its most sophisticated is unfathomable, magical; and yet parts of it are backward, sometimes deliberately so, like star-travelling Amish folk, refusing to participate in the galactic melee. Its interstellar, with faster-than-light travel and a nascent pseudo-wormhole technology; yet its recent past is slower-than-light, and filled with conservative cultures awash with culture shock. I wanted to design a setting where I could fathom out all of my favourite science-fiction questions – where the setting would respond to my poking and prodding and throw up even more questions and realisations as I went on. There’s so much to say about the New Commonality, both in fiction and in RPG, and it has that Golden Age optimistic feel, coupled with a post-cyberpunk transhuman ethos, that for me is proving very fertile ground. It constantly inspires me.
For those unfamiliar with the book, could you tell us more about the Mindjammer line?
The present-day of Mindjammer is seventeen millennia from now. For over ten thousand years, the conservative and tradition-bound Commonality of Humankind governed a slower-than-light civilisation centred on Old Earth and the densely-settled solar system of Manhome, and a small collection of near-Earth star systems known as the Core Worlds, all of which had been reached and now communicated slower-than-light. For ten millennia it had sent out slower-than-light colonisation vessels, most of which travelled too far to ever effectively communicate home. It was an extremely advanced society, with lifespans set by law at 500 years, sentient cities, starships, artificial lifeforms. But for all its riches and utopian visions, it was stagnating, dying; until, 200 years ago, it suddenly “discovered” faster-than-light travel, and set about “rediscovering” all of the lost colonies from its distant past.
The result is revitalisation, and chaos; cultural conflict on a galactic scale. The New Commonality is a new, outward-looking, optimistic, and yet somehow fascistic civilisation, determined to bring the “benefits” of its civilisation to all the many colonies it has seeded, whether they like it or not. Yet, at the same time, as it contacts those lost colonies, it often finds cultures very different from its own, which attempt to “infect” it with all manner to reverse colonial ideologies. The Security and Cultural Integrity Instrumentality is the Commonality agency tasked with managing cultural contact and integration – and one of its teams is the star of the first Mindjammer novel.
In the New Commonality, everyone is connected by biotech implant to a vast neural network called the “Mindscape”. Like a massive interstellar internet, it contains the sum total of humankind’s knowledge; but not just knowledge – memories, too. Using the Mindscape implant, Commonality citizens can upload their thoughts and memories to the Mindscape, and even download the memories uploaded by others – effectively “remembering” events experienced by other people. And, because memory is one of the cornerstones of identity, you get some very strange consequences. When a person dies, they’re able to upload the sum total of their memories, and perhaps even parts of their personalities, to the Mindscape – known as a “thanogram”; when synthetic intelligences are created (such as those piloting starships or running cities or planetary metroplexes), they’re often imbued with these thanograms as the basis for their own personalities. These “eidolons” know that they’re in no way the same person as their dead memory source – but they feel a close bond with their “donors”, sometimes verging on the spiritual.
In Mindjammer, a SCI Force team is investigating the breakout of something called the “Transmigration Heresy” in a newly rediscovered culture in the Solenine star cluster. The heresy is common among backward cultures, involving a mistaken belief that eidolons are the reincarnations of the dead, that identity can somehow persist after death into an artificial body – something the Commonality says is impossible. What the SCI Force team discovers is something far greater – and potentially far more destructive – than the Transmigration Heresy could ever be.
Mindjammer is the first novel in the setting – it’s standalone, but I’m working on a second book right now, Transcendence, which should see the light of day next year. I have a third book in the offing, and also two anthologies of short stories, one in the modern Commonality, and another tracing the ten millennia and more of its history. It’s a very fertile setting for creativity!
Could you share with us how the novels integrate with the campaign setting?
That’s a great question. When I play RPGs, I hate things to be too scripted; even more than fiction, when you hand a setting to a fellow gamer, you are abdicating all control over it. You simply can’t dictate what *must* happen in that setting, without stifling a lot of the creativity which kindles around a gaming table. When I write an RPG book, I try to provide everything a group of gamers will need to head off on wild flights of fancy, and nothing to hold them back. Obviously, that conflicts somewhat with the exigencies of fiction, the desire to tell great and epic stories. Very often, RPG tie-in fiction resolves this dichotomy with a simple device of requiring a “status quo” conclusion. In other words, a given piece of tie-in fiction can tell great and soaring stories, as long as it doesn’t destroy the underpinnings of the setting and as long as things return to “normal” at the end.
While that’s a viable approach, it’s not the one I’ve taken in Mindjammer. In the same way the Mindjammer setting is a springboard for my imagination, I hope it’ll be the same for those playing in it. The fiction is offered as a manifestation of those flights of fancy – my version, if you will, of how the story went. Without being too flippant, it’s my version of the “Many Worlds Interpretation” of the history of the New Commonality of Humankind; I hope you’ll enjoy it, be inspired by it, and, if you roleplay in the setting, only take from the novels what you want to take, and continue to let your RPG version of the Commonality forge its own story of our transhuman future!
How different and similar is writing a game supplement as opposed to a novel?
I touched upon this a little above – there are several approaches, some more similar than others. In physical, workaday terms, I often feel writing an RPG supplement is perhaps more like writing a movie or theatre script than a novel; or, better, writing the necessary foundation for a group of actors to conduct improv sessions in a theatre environment. You have the history of the setting, descriptions of its locations, bios of its characters, the precursor issues to the plot, “what has gone before”, and so on. You have the technology, the culture, its mores. But, then, you write the scenario; and that’s where I personally really focus on *not* providing a rigid script. Some RPG scenarios out there happily provide a “railroad” for players to follow, giving the players the illusion of freedom but all the time guiding them through a series of carefully prepared scenes. As a game story teller myself, I find that ultimately unsatisfying, frustrating, even boring: I like to sit down at a gaming table with *no idea* of what’s going to happen next. For that reason, I take care when writing a scenario not to provide a rigid plotline. It’s like a layer in the story is deliberately “missing” – I provide the story teller with a guide as to the events that would happen if the players weren’t playing, and then extensive guidance for how to deal with the players’ interventions into the plot. I structure my scenarios in episodes and scenes, again like a movie script, but at the same time provide decision nodes everywhere for players to run amok!
Obviously that’s radically different from writing fiction, but that awareness of divergent plotlines is at the same time a very fruitful thing for a writer. In the past, my scenario approach caused problems for my writing; I found myself being too loose when I approached a fiction plot, expecting it to “fall into place” at every node. Of course, that doesn’t happen, and you end up with all kinds of consistency issues and blatant plot holes! Like many writers, I suspect, I have a vast store of unpublished manuscripts in my attic – depending on how you count it, Mindjammer is as much as my seventh novel! – and these days I find myself outlining more and more before I ever put pencil to paper – quite the opposite of writing for roleplaying games!
What made you decide to start Mindjammer Press?
I guess we’re in a revolutionary time. The walls between publishing, small press, and self-publishing are falling down everywhere. These days, with cartographic and layout software very affordable, ebooks and print-on-demand accessible and cheap, and social media, it’s possible to do a great deal of the publishing legwork yourself. However, it’s important to say that’s not always desirable! Publishing takes skill and a huge amount of time – if you want to work as a writer, it will devour the time you want to devote to writing and force you to spend it on other tasks. For that reason I don’t think publishing companies are going to go away – however, they are in flux, as we all wrestle with the massive changes our new technologies and economic relations are forcing upon us. I think many of the publicist and distribution functions of agents and distributors are starting to merge with publishers, certainly in the roleplaying game space, and some of the tasks of publishers are starting to merge with writing – typesetting, for example, some elements of layout, mapmaking and indexing, etc, in the case of RPGs.
Mindjammer Press seemed a very logical step. It allows me, and hopefully a small number of other writers like me, to produce fiction and roleplaying manuscripts to ebook and print standard, ready for ebook release, and even print-on-demand distribution. We believe we’ll also be in a great position to distribute our products to the RPG and related fiction audience, either directly ourselves or in alliance with a larger publishing and distribution partner, several of whom we’re in discussions with already. The field is rapidly changing, however, and I believe that the process of fission we’re seeing on the small press and self-publishing side at the moment will soon be met by a new process of fusion on the representation, distribution, and promotion side. The biggest issue facing any writer these days is ironically not the physical process of writing and producing books, but their promotion and distribution, in being seen and heard in today’s vast creative melee. I think there’s a great big hole for a new kind of agent or publisher, who’ll represent writers and small press publishers and be an aggregator or gatekeeper of selected high-quality content for readers and gamers.
With Mindjammer Press, we’re starting small, aiming to produce purely the RPG and fiction products associated with the Mindjammer setting. We’re aiming one novel-length fiction piece and three RPG supplements per year. I’m still continuing my freelance fiction and RPG writing work – Mindjammer Press has a very specific focus, but personally I regard it as a very exciting project in a dynamic and rapidly changing field!
What were the challenges in writing the books? In running the press?
I’ve alluded to the time issue above; that really is the major challenge. I think all writers today feel the pressure of not being able to be simply a writer, but having to spend huge amounts of time on promotion, publicity, social media. Of course it’s a delight to connect with readers and gamers – one of the great pleasures of any kind of writing is receiving feedback – but at the same time, the time spent on these “additional” yet essential tasks takes you away from your passion – writing.
That touches on the next issue, perhaps less obvious, but equally critical – the financial one, the need to make enough money to survive. I live in a field in Normandy and am semi-self sufficient, so my financial needs are relatively low, but they still have to be met. With Mindjammer Press, I’m able in a small way to be remunerated for the time I spend on promotion and publicity. Writing isn’t a well-paid field, and RPGs far less so, so anything which increases one’s survival margin and allows one to continue writing is a great thing.
So far the signs are good. If Mindjammer Press can fund itself, which it looks likely to, then it’ll be great for the Mindjammer line. But it’s a very dynamic environment, and I’m sure the next twelve months will be eventful and challenging in many unexpected ways. Perhaps you’ll have me back in a year’s time to give you a report!
What’s in store for the future, for both the novel series and the RPG line?
I mentioned Transcendence, above, the second novel in the Mindjammer series, and the third novel, provisionally entitled Revelation. There’s also Songs of Old Earth, the anthology of short stories chronicling the history of the Commonality of Humankind; and Tales of the New Commonality, a collection of stories from all across Commonality Space and the Fringe Worlds beyond. On the RPG side, after the release of the second edition RPG Mindjammer – The Expansionary Era next spring, we have a schedule of 3 RPG products per year, beginning with the Solenine campaign pack, which allows you to play with the events of the first Mindjammer novel (and rewrite its entire plot!), followed by a vastly expanded Black Zone campaign pack, and the long-awaited Planeships and Slowboats starships supplement. Beyond that, we hope to release two campaign packs and one supplement per year, covering star atlases, culture books, and some seriously transhuman adventures, all sitting alongside and complimenting (and being complimented by) the fiction line. It looks to be a busy time for Mindjammer!
Anything else you want to plug?
Well, obviously all of the above depends entirely on the Mindjammer fans, and on people continuing to support the fiction and RPG lines. So, if you’re a transhuman space opera fan, please give Mindjammer a go – there are links at the bottom of this interview, and the Mindjammer novel is available in trade paperback and Kindle editions. And, if you have friends and colleagues who you think might like the Mindjammer setting, please help spread the word!
Beyond that, as you know, Charles, I’m fiction editor of the World SF Blog, and I’d like to give a massive plug for that. You and Lavie have done a sterling job creating a vibrant and enthusiastic genre fiction community here, and I’ve felt truly privileged to be involved and receive some great speculative fiction submissions as part of my World SF duties – inspiring for their scope and inventiveness, and also for their truly global perspective. Please check out our fiction section, the brand new Apex Book of World SF Fiction 2 short fiction anthology, and, if you feel inspired, send through your submissions!
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Athena Andreadis interviewed by Charles Tan
Hi Athena! Thanks for agreeing to do the interview.
First off, could you tell us about the SF anthology you’re working on now? What kind of stories are you looking for? So far, what are the challenges in producing the antho?
My pleasure, Charles! The SF anthology will almost certainly be titled The Other Half of the Sky, for reasons that will become obvious.-
My decision to edit an SF anthology came from the simple desire to read stories I like! As I wrote in The Persistent Neoteny of SF and The Cookie Cutter Self-Discovery Quest, almost all SF/F seems YA – and parochial YA at that – even if designated “adult”. Furthermore, the dominant tropes du jour (steampunk, grimdark, snarky meta, shallow mythic) make me break into hives. Additionally, women heroes are still peripheral in the genre: few are more than sidekicks, even fewer are protagonists in their own right (enough to be remembered like rare gems when they appear: Signy Mallory, Anzha liu Mitethe, Ellen Ripley, Xena…). So over a brief break on the Florida Keys during last winter’s solstice, I decided to apply Tom Waits’ dictum “You must risk something that matters.” First I wrote down a list of what I wanted:
— Space opera(ish) and/or mythic, but it has to be SF — not fantasy;
— female protagonist(s), who do not (nor are made to) feel guilty about career versus family;
— content and style geared to adult readers, not YA “finding one’s self/place”;
— no “big ideas” Leaden Age SF or near-future earthbound cyber/steampunk.
I also decided that 1) I would pay pro rates out of my own pocket and 2) the word limit would be 10k because I wanted to give people room to develop characters and worlds. Given my stamina and time limits, I decided on a K strategy: namely, to do this by invitation rather than open submissions. Then I sent 30 e-mails to writers who I know can write such stories. They all replied almost instantly: my e-mail pinged every few minutes for the next two days – it was scary and exhilarating. All who were not already overwhelmed with commitments accepted the assignment. I chose a co-editor whose abilities I trust, decided on a cover artist, and we were off to the races. It was a lagniappe that while “looking for the best” I ended up with women in the slots of co-editor, cover artist and co-publisher.
The major challenge was to find a publisher who understands why collections like this are important and is willing to accommodate the input I expect to have, since I’m the one bringing essentially everything to the table. Several publishers said that anthologies don’t sell. I won’t quarrel with ledgers, but that may be in part because most anthologies are reprints. With original collections, I know that many people (including myself) are partial to them, because they allow discovery and sampling of new writers without investment in entire novels. What amazed and amused me was how many of the small presses have taken on the mannerisms of big publishers without the commensurate perks (better visibility, higher profits) and how tribal the business is: for example, some said I was an unknown – unlikely, given the gadfly role I often find myself in, as a non-whiteAnglomale and one of the (too) few working biologists in the territory.
For you, how would you define/classify YA and the YA short story?
Most contemporary Western YA stories are about teenagers finding themselves – and in the SF/F genre it invariably involves ticking off the Campbel/lite quest checklist by way of video games (assembly of ally teams, special objects/powers, etc). It’s very much by the numbers even when written by talented authors; also, YA fantasy is awash in shallow magic, mostly there for dei-ex-machina plot assists. Add to that the demand for sequels and we have a perfect recipe for cookie-cutter products. This is a problem for me as a reader of the genre, because women authors and protagonists are strongly present in current SF/F YA.
“Finding one’s self” appears as a near-default trope for a culture obsessed with youth’s trappings that still believes in the libertarian myth of pulling yourself up by your bootstraps: the idea that you can become rich, famous and powerful provided you’re Chosen and that everyone has a near-infinity of choices for everything, from their breakfast cereal to their identity. In almost all contemporary Western SF/F YA works, we rarely if ever see full adults, especially women, doing the nuanced, shaded things adults do: work at things they care for and often are good at; love, hate and everything in between; create and preserve and sometimes destroy; grow old and experienced, if not always wise; but above all, go through the myriad small struggles and pleasures that constitute a full life.
Could you tell us more about your co-editor, and what your collaboration process is like so far?
My co-editor is Kay Holt, co-founder of Crossed Genres. I first met Kay when I received an e-mail from her, asking me if I was amenable to an interview about science in SF. I agreed readily and since she lives nearby, we did it over dimsum. I still recall my pleasure and excitement at how smart, well-prepared and deft she was and how similar our thought processes were, although that doesn’t mean we agree on everything: we both expect to have our first serious argument over this anthology’s story order!
This harmonious dialogue continued through our subsequent interactions, personal and professional (Crossed Genres published two of my stories, Dry Rivers and Planetfall). So when I thought of a co-editor for this anthology, Kay was my instinctive first choice. She said “Yes!” as soon as the first sentence about the venture had left my mouth. We’re sounding boards for each other. We read the stories separately, compare notes, discuss any divergences, then I prepare a distillation of our observations that serves as feedback to the author – though I’m the one who also scribbles the more detailed comments in the story file margins. It has worked beautifully so far.
Since you talked about the difficulties in finding a publisher, have you found one? Have you considered self-publishing?
I considered self-publishing as a last resort, although I wasn’t looking forward to reinventing the wheel – distributors, publicity, review copies, the works. But I got lucky: I knew Sam Montogomery-Blinn of Bull Spec because two of my poems appeared there (Spacetime Geodesics and Night Patrol, both reprinted in The Moment of Change). He unequivocally recommended Candlemark and Gleam, founded by Kate Sullivan. I sent the antho outline to Kate, who immediately declared she would do her best to help me bring it to fruition.
I promptly phoned her and we spent nearly an hour roaming over many topics. It was obvious from the start that this partnership would work: Kate is savvy, diplomatic, formidably organized and clearly takes great care of the books she publishes. She was also the only one of the publishers who offered me fair terms – and did so without my even having to ask. We signed our agreement at Readercon where we formally announced the anthology, accompanied by flyers that Kay had the forethought to create.
When do you plan on releasing the anthology?
We’re aiming for spring 2013. At this point, the major lag is no longer the typesetting for the print version but the four-plus months it takes to get to the front of the review queue.
Currently, how’s the progress of the anthology? Have there been any accepted stories or is it still in the process of submissions? Anything definitive so far?
The final participant roster was 20, and the submission deadline was July 31. I had expected mostly deafening silence and then an avalanche on August 1. Instead, to my pleased surprise, I received six submissions well before the deadline. At this point, thirteen stories have been accepted; two more are in final revision and I’ve given extensions to three more. So there was an avalanche on August 1, but a smaller one!
It is always a revelation to see how writers interpret framework parameters. The stories so far are completely distinct, as well as original and well-written. That last clause may be the fond editor talking but I’ve been a scientist long enough to be trained in objective assessment! Beyond their other merits, a neat bonus feature of the stories is that they pass the Bechdel test – broadly defined, since there are aliens and non-binary humans involved. They also demonstrate that you can have rousing space opera with a sense of limitations and consequences, and with “regular” people as protagonists, rather than Chosen Ones. Just as opera includes Puccini, Bizet and Weir, not just Wagner.
One of my aims with this collection was to show that imaginative extrapolation/sensawunda and high-quality writing are not mutually exclusive. I was delighted to see the stories effortlessly achieve this synthesis. Bottom line: ask people to write as complex, nuanced adults about equally complex, nuanced adults – and they do so beautifully.
What other projects are you currently working on?
I am still working at my own fiction, both short stories and novel-size works in the same universe as that of my Crossed Genres stories. They start in the Minoan era – an alternate timeline in which the civilization survives despite the Thera explosion – and reach far into the future, with the descendants on a distant earthlike planet. My science work is slow right now because I’m between grants – always a bottleneck for those of us who are experimental science bench slaves. And of course there’s always the Starship Reckless blog to keep me on my toes!
Over at International SF, Cheryl Morgan interviews Anne Leinonen, a Finnish writer and editor:
Cheryl: Anne, I know you mainly as a writer of excellent short stories, and also as a tireless promoter of your fellow Finnish writers through the Usva International magazine, but I gather now that you are starting to do very well with your novels.
Anne: I have been writing novels for ten years with my writing partner, Eija Lappalainen. We now have eight books published. We started with mainstream fiction, which is perhaps why you haven’t heard about my novels before. But we have been gradually introducing fantastical elements to the stories. For example, one book is set in Iceland, and has Icelandic elves in it.
Cheryl: Have you had any luck selling the books outside of Finland?
Anne: We’ve been with the same publisher all of the time, and they have been trying from the start to sell our books elsewhere in Europe, but until recently they haven’t had much money to invest in foreign rights sales. Now they have money and things are going much better.
Cheryl: Also you have been a finalist for a very major award, which must help. Tell me a bit about the book.
Anne: We had been adding more and more speculative elements to the books, and finally we came up with an idea for a science fiction trilogy, which we were able to sell to our publishers. The first book is called Routasisarukset, which means Frost Children. The book is set in Eurania, that‘s Europe 300 years in the future. There has been a golden age of machines, with humanity even traveling to the stars. But something went wrong. No one now knows what happened, but people are getting along as best they can in the ruins of civilization, trying to survive. – continue reading.
We continue our special Mexican Week feature this week with an interview with Mexican author and editor Federico Schaffler!
Federico Schaffler interview by Charles Tan
First off, how did you first get into science fiction and fantasy?
I think that the main reason for getting into these genres was that as a child I watched a bunch of great TV shows like Star Trek (when originally aired, so you can now guess my age), Twilight Zone, The Invaders, Land of the Giants, Time Tunnel, UFO, Voyage to the bottom of the sea, Lost in Space, Man from U.N.C.L.E. and the Six Million Dollar man, among others. Afterwards, when I was around 12 years old, I began to buy and read Spanish pulp pocketbooks that managed to get to Mexico. I think I must have read around some 400 of them.
But most importantly, when I was in my first year of secondary school, that would be 7th for the US education system, I had to turn in a book report every month to my Spanish teacher. Because I already read a lot, I asked him if I could just tell him what I read and instead turned in a short story to get my grade. He agreed and that was the beginning of my writing career.
What’s the appeal of the genre for you?
The fantastic, being able to visit strange worlds and new civilizations (I wonder where I picked up that). The freedom to write what my imagination comes up without restraining myself to the boring reality that most of the time surrounds us. Being able to share my stories with whoever might read them.
Regarding terminologies, do you have a preferred term for science fiction and fantasy? For example, what’s your reaction when you hear the term speculative fiction? Magic-realism?
I´m very fond of Science Fiction, but can live with speculative fiction. Magic-realism is another species, vaguely related to SF, which I find difficult to relate to, but nonetheless admire. Sometimes I find that “science fiction writer” sets me apart, but it can also be an obstacle when I write essays, history books, chronicles or mostly the yearly reports of some of the Mayors of my city, Nuevo Laredo, when I have worked in the city government. Journalists more than once used my SF background to label those state of municipal affairs reports as “unbelievable science fiction”. It did not matter much to me because I got paid anyway.
What’s the field there like?
Right now? Almost inexistent. We had a very strong movement during the nineties, when we founded the Mexican Association of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers, AMCYF, of which I was the first president. We also published magazines, held national short story awards, had several conventions and were recognized in national magazines, invited to international book fairs, published many books and were acknowledged in other countries. Sadly, this momentum came practically to a halt in 2000 after a fiercely fought campaign to preside AMCYF. After that, almost everyone went their own way and several authors kept the flame burning, but not me. I had a 10 year hiatus when I barely wrote because I had to work on other things.
But now I´m back and even though a part of me is strongly pushing me to once again put on the promoter and editor cap, as well to once again conduct a genre literary workshop (I coordinated the Terra Ignota literary workshop from 1990 to 2002), I think it´s time to do some serious writing of my own.
Here in the Philippines, there’s a predisposition for short stories rather than novels. Is that also the case there?
Yes, even though it is common knowledge that novels are easier to sell to the publishing houses and many have been able to appear to wider markets, but not with a SF label. Short stories can be found in personal collections, very few anthologies, electronic and printed magazines and blogs. Several novels have been published in Spain and that has opened up some doors that still are difficult to cross. Others prefer not to be labeled and have managed to publish in general collections.
Could you tell us more about the Mexican SF anthology that you edited, Mas alla de lo imaginado?
It was the first anthology published in Mexico that had only stories from Mexican writers. The National Council of the Arts, CONACULTA, by way of the Tierra Adentro Cultural Program, commissioned me in 1990 to prepare what eventually came to be three volumes, with 42 different authors, the youngest of whom was 17 and the eldest 72. The first two volumes appeared in 1991 and immediately sold out. The third appeared in 1994 and the fourth and fifth volumes never were published.
Mas alla de lo imaginado, or MADLI, as we call it, served as a loud wakeup call that motivated new writers, at the same time that it served as a common ground for those of us who already wrote and published but were not widely known about.
Many of the authors in MADLI later on garnered national or international literary awards, were published in Mexico and other countries and became household names for the SF community.
What was your criteria in selecting the stories for all three volumes?
I wanted to show a wide range of well written stories, most of them dealing directly with Mexican themes or characteristics. Many stories were intimate, other galaxy spanning and several very well could be included in other non-genre anthologies. I tried to balance new voices with established writers and sought stories from many sources, among them the Premio Puebla, a well known SF short story competition that began in 1984.
How would you describe Mexican science fiction and fantasy?
Mexican science fiction is more about how people react or is affected by technology, mainly because we have a very poor scientific education level and we are consumers and not developers of scientific advancements or technological innovations. There are more SF stories with Mexican space heroes written by non-Mexicans than those that are written in our country.
Who are some of the Mexican writers we should be reading?
Alberto Chimal, José Luis Zárate, Gerardo Porcayo, Pepe Rojo and Bernardo “Bef” Fernandez have been publishing widely and have a strong group of followers. Some of the lesser know authors beyond our borders are also very good, among them Hector Chavarria, Irving Roffe, Guillermo Lavin, Jose Luis Velarde and Gabriel Trujillo. You can search for stories by them and many others mainly in the Axxon webpage, an Argentinian SF electronic magazine that has been publishing since the early nineties and has over 225 issues at their website (axxon.com.ar) with Spanish speaking authors from many countries around the world.
When it comes to your writing, what’s the appeal of the short story format for you?
I originally found it a lot easier to tell a story that had the appeal of its short length. Now, I have to force myself to go back to the basics, regarding the scope and length of the story, because they started getting longer and longer. This makes me think that I might be ready to finish one of the several novels I have begun over the years and that remain unfinished.
How would you describe your own fiction?
First of all, I want it to entertain, to surprise the reader, to leave them sometimes with a smile and other times thinking. I try to find and use humorous or unexpected twists, some time even being cruel to the characters. I almost always see that the story, while universal, contains particular aspects of Mexican culture, ideology, traditions or customs that try to make it different from others.
What’s the publishing industry in Mexico like?
I think it´s the same as in other countries of Latin America. Publishers want sure-fire bets, mostly with books from well recognized authors. That is why it is easier to find new books (at least because of their publication date and not because of when they were written) by Isaac Asimov, Orson Scot Card, Ray Bradbury, Stephen King, Arthur C. Clarke and other authors instead of books by Mexican authors who do not have a wide fan base. Magazines, on the other hand, are more open to publish stories from new authors or from those with at least some name value.
What’s your opinion on the upcoming anthology Three Messages and a Warning (http://smallbeerpress.com/forthcoming/2011/03/23/three-messages-and-a-warning/#more-8815)?
I just got it a few days ago, when I attended a book presentation in San Antonio, Texas, when I finally got to personally meet one of the editors, Eduardo Jimenez Mayo, as well as five of the authors, two of whom were already friends of mine. I finished the book in a couple of days and highly recommend it for anyone who wants to have a broad panorama of current Mexican fantastic fiction. I also hope that Eduardo and Chris N. Brown can soon publish a follow-up volume because there are many more authors that were not included who should be well known to English readers.
What projects are you currently working on?
I´m working in translating into English some of my stories, as well as and writing new ones directly in this language. I am also outlining two novels that I expect to begin soon (I still do not know which one will be first). I am also trying to finish a space opera novella that I started and left unconcluded a dozen years ago. I recently finished a book of flash fiction, called “From Zero to a Hundred” that has stories that have a word count between 0 and 100 and I have a pet project of writing this year twelve stories, ranging from one to twelve pages long, on January 1, February 2, March 3 and so on (1/1, 2/2, 3/3…) so I can finish with a 78 page chapbook. But most importantly I will try to break into international markets, by publishing in the US, Canada, Spain and Argentina, among other countries.
Federico Schaffler was founding president of the Mexican Association of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers, AMCyF, in 1992. He also edited the first anthology of original SF stories from Mexico, “Mas Alla de lo Imaginado” (3 volumes, 1991-1993), as well as another 22 books that range from essays to short story collections and chronicles. In 2011 he was designated Emeritus creator of the State of Tamaulipas, Mexico, due to his writing and editorial work for over 28 years. He was once a member of Science Fiction Writers of America, in the early 1990´s, when he gained admission after successfully arguing that America is the whole continent, and not only the USA, and that as a Mexican national he was eligible to be a member. After that, the SFFWA eventually changed their admission guidelines.
Charles Tan interviews Spanish author Rodolfo Martinez, whose novel The Queen’s Adept is now available for the Kindle in an English translation by Jordi Balcells.
An Interview with Rodolfo Martinez
By Charles Tan
Hi Rodolfo! Thanks for agreeing to do the interview. First off, how did you first become acquainted with speculative fiction?
I was very young, 9-10 years old. My father was an avid reader of science fiction and I was very curious about those books he read, with those striking covers of space ships and stars and nebula and so forth. Then one day I took one of his books and began to read it. It was a short stories compilation (from F&SF, if I recall correctly) and there was too much there I didn’t understand, but I was fascinated with the material. My father caught me reading, he smiled, and said he would give me something more suitable.
So he gave me The Early Asimov and shortly after that the Foundation Trilogy, both by Asimov, and The City and the Stars by Arthur C. Clarke…
That was the beginning. And, after that first contact I became… well, a fan. We could almost say an addict.
That was a long time ago (before the Internet, but after The Beatles, we could say, paraphrasing William Goldman) and, as time went by, another literary universe and genres appeared for me to discover: fantasy, and noir novel, and 19th Century adventure novel, and historic novel, and the classics, both Spanish and abroad. And… well, almost everything. But genre literature (popular literature, as the one 19th English and American writers wrote: Conan Doyle, Stevenson, London, Twain…) was always my favorite. But my first love was science fiction and I never really left it, both as a reader and as a writer. We could say I sometimes visit other rooms of the same house but, sooner or later I go back to the SF room.
Who are some of your favorite authors or favorite books?
Well, it’s hard, there are so many. But, let’s try.
In science fiction: Isaac Asimov, Philip K. Dick, the first Orson Scott Card (Ender’s Game, Hart’s Hope, Wyrms… those first novels, I mean), Frank Herbert, Richard Morgan, Connie Willis…
In fantasy: Borges, Cortázar, John Crowley, Clive Barker, Tolkien, Lovecraft…
In other genres: Robert Graves, Raymond Chandler, John le Carré, García Márquez, Alexandre Dumas, Mark Twain, Arthur Conan Doyle…
As you can see, the list could be endless.
There a few books that mark in a special way some moments of my life: Watership Down, Cien años de soledad, I, Claudius, The Mote in God’s Eye, The Lord of the Rings, The End of Eternity, Tinker, Taylor, Soldier Spy, At the Mountains of Madness, Little, Big…
And let’s not talk about comics because then I had to mention Watchmen and Swamp Thing and From Hell by Alan Moore, or Sandman by Gaiman, or Thor by Simonson or Fantastic Four by Byrne, or…
Well, I believe you can get an idea of my literary tastes, more or less.
How did you get involved with writing fiction?
I began to write when I was twelve, three years after having begun to read SF. It was 1977, the year the first Star Wars movie was released and, shortly after that, Close Encounters of the 3rd Kind. 2001: a Space Odyssey was re-released by that time in Spain, and there were a handful of American SF TV series as well on Spanish TV, so there was science fiction not only in books, but everywhere. And, when I began to write, I wrote SF, the genre I love reading and watching in movies and in TV (series like Star Trek, TOS and Space 1999, and U.F.O. and Thunderbirds…)
Why did I begin to write? I really don’t know. I remember when I was a kid I used to create (just for myself, never told anyone) new adventures of my favorite comic-book characters or my favorite TV series. And one day, I suppose, I just decided to put them on paper. So I wrote a… well, we can call it a hard space opera, I guess, or the idea a 12-year-old kid could have of what space opera and hard SF were.
And, once I began I just couldn’t stop. If I was an addict to reading I soon became an addict to writing.
As a writer, my first works where SF, but I soon began to write fantasy as well, and mystery stories and, in the end, what I was doing was a half-breed literature that had ingredients from every genre I love: SF, fantasy, mystery, adventure. My novels usually are a strange cocktail where things that, at a first glance, seem impossible to blend but go hand in hand. Though there always is some SF element in almost every one of them: a rationalist point of view that, in the same way, makes even my fantasy to be some kind of science fiction.
A good example is my four Sherlock Holmes novels, where the detective becomes a swivel upon which I create a universe where Lovecraft myths and pulp literature, and western and even superheroes, can exist. The first one, La sabiduría de los muertos (The Wisdom of Deadmen) was published in 1996 and the last one in 2007… a long and satisfactory journey for me as an author.
Could you tell us about your novel, the Queen’s Adept?
Like most of my work, it was born from the desire of blending two things that, at first glance, do not seem very much… “blendable”, so to say. One day I told myself: “What would a James Bond adventure be like in an epic fantasy scenario?” I began to play with the idea, and the more I did it, the more I liked it. So I designed the main character, the plot, the pseudo-historical setting (I took some Historical moments I liked, such as the Renaissance, the 19th Century, the Middle Ages and the 20th Century Cold War and put them all together). And I began to write.
And, as I was writing, the story grew, and so did the main character; everything began to be more complex and I soon realized I was creating a character and a scenario that I could not put in just one novel. In fact, there are now two novels about Yáxtor Brandan (the main character) and three short (or rather medium-large) stories; and a third novel is on the way.
In your acknowledgements, you mention the importance of maps. Could you elaborate on this?
Well, it’s more or less as I say in the acknowledgements. There were elements that I put in the map that, at first, had no more role than to give the lands a realistic aspect: some mountains and rivers and forests, for instance. But then I took a second look at the map, I saw those large woods I had created and thought: “Well, yes, menialbodies could be born there, why not?” From that thought, Darkwoods were created and became a pivotal element, not only for this novel but for the entire scenario and its development.
It was originally published in 2009. What made you decide to translate it into English?
I had been considering for some time the idea of trying the English/American market. Some years before, it had been very hard (you had to find a publisher interested in translating and publishing your work, a thing that, unless you were a big best-seller in your homeland, it was very unlikely to happen), but electronic publication and print on demand had eased things. In paper there is still the big issue of distribution, but in ebook you can reach almost the entire world with no effort.
So I began to translate some of my works. Short stories, at first, and one day I decided it was time for me to try a full novel. The Queen’s Adept series was my most recent work (and one of my best, at least that’s what I think) so I tried it.
What was the translation process like, since you translated it yourself? What was the role of Jordi Balcells?
It was hard, almost exhausting sometimes, but at the same time it was refreshing and fascinating. In some ways I was not translating myself, but writing again the same story from a new and fresh point of view. And I discovered I liked very much how my work sounded in English.
Jordi was an invaluable part of the process. Not matter how good my English was (if in fact was any good), I needed someone else to revise what I had done. My eyes were too close to the text, we could say. Jordi is a professional translator and he jumped aboard the project with enthusiasm: he translates from English to Spanish, so to revise and correct a translation from Spanish to English was a challenge for him, in a way.
What were the challenges, both in writing, publishing, and translating the book?
As I began to write as a very young boy, I was never aware that there was any challenge at all. I mean, at that age, you really don’t think about those things: you just want to do it, so you do it. As time went by, of course, things change and you begin to think about what you do and how you do it and why you do it. The main challenge, for me as a writer, is to be able to make things real to the reader: while he’s reading my book he must forget the world outside the pages he reads, he must feel he’s there, inside the book, and the characters seem real to him or her.
Above all, the thing that worries me most when I begin to write new material is: who is telling it? Who tells the tale? Seeking a narrator suitable for the story you want to tell is sometimes hard, but when you find him, when you feel the voice you have chosen to tell the tale, it’s the voice the tale is demanding, you know everything will be fine. In The Queen’s Adept it soon became obvious to me that third-person narrator wasn’t enough, I needed something more. From there arose the quotations that begin every chapter, and that helped me, in some ways, to feel that the material was more real, more plausible. It was a way of giving the novel a denser background.
I began to publish (first myself and then other people) three years ago, after having been publishing with others for fifteen years (my first novel was released in 1995, so do the math). It was something I wanted to do, specially because there was some material I could not find a publisher for. I’m talking about my SF written and published in the Nineties: short stories, novelettes, novellas and novels that had been published many years ago in many different places and were sold out. All of them shared a common scenario (my Drímar universe) and I wanted to bring all that material together and publish it in three of four chronologically ordered volumes. And I wanted to try electronic publication also. So, Sportula, my very-very-very-very small press, was born that way: it began with a couple of books in paper (printed in POD) and half a dozen ebooks. Things went well and the project began to grow and sometime later I found myself publishing other people.
It’s a work I enjoy, not only the, well, “intellectual” part of the process but the physical as well: composing the book, working with the illustrator and the designer, sometimes designing the cover myself, those things. The real challenge is to reach an audience, specially in paper publications and working without a professional distribution, but little by little, with patience and thinking long-term, we are getting it. Translating into English is just one step more in the same direction.
And about the translation, we can say my main fear is that I’m not really sure if it will be good enough for the potential readers. I mean: it’s those people’s language, for heaven’s sake! And there I am, daring to translate without being a native.
How would you describe your fiction?
The word that suits it the best is “half-breed”, “mestiza”, as we say in Spanish. I write a “mestiza” literature that picks from here and there, everything I like, and put all those things together fearless of the possible results. With a special predilection for popular genres: SF, mystery, fantasy, adventure… Though as I said, there is always, or almost, some SF element. The Queen’s Adept, for instance, can seem fantasy at first glance, but it could be SF too, just switching your point of view. The novel (and the entire scenario, in fact) is deliberately in a kind of no man’s land that can be F or SF depending on the reader’s choice.
Have you considered translating your other novels, novellas, and short stories?
Yes, of course I have. I’ve translated a couple of short stories and surely in the future I’ll translate a few more. Another novel? Hard to say: it takes time, it’s hard and… well I have to write new novels as well, and time is limited. When I can afford, I guess I will hire a professional translator for the second novel of The Queen’s Adept series. And, from there… well, we’ll see.
How would you describe the genre scene there?
In Spain, the SF market is a very tiny one. If your book sells 1,500 copies you’re doing good, and if it sells 5,000 you’re almost a best-seller. So Spanish science-fiction landscape is full of small and medium-size presses and a couple of big publishers. It’s very difficult to earn a living just writing SF.
On the other hand, there are certain writers that are successful writing SF (or novels that have SF elements) for the mainstream… but without saying that’s SF. People like José Carlos Somoza or Félix J. Palma, for instance.
It’s a perception problem, we could say. SF label is discredited and it’s hard to fight against prejudice. But if you’re smart enough you can disguise your SF as… well, tecno-thriller, cyber-fantasy… things like that, and you can get the mainstream reader to read your book.
There are a dozen authors that, like me, began to publish in the ’90s, and in time they had fled from pure SF to less “problematic” genres, like historical fantasy. Juan Miguel Aguilera, for instances, has done well there and, in fact, has succeeded beyond our borders and achieved success in France with his Historical fantasy.
New generations of writers prefer horror, dark fantasy or just fantasy and SF is maybe a little abandoned. In fact, I haven’t write pure SF since 2005, with my cyberpunk novel El sueño del Rey Rojo (Red King’s Dream). I’ve moved from there to that half-breed literature I mentioned before that contains elements of several genres. And many of my colleagues have done the same.
My experience says that the audience, the mainstream audience, likes certain kinds of SF… when they’re not aware they’re reading SF.
Anything else you want to plug?
Just thank you this chance to make a first contact with American audience. I hope you’ll enjoy The Queen’s Adept and I hope this will be just the first of my books published in English.
Cheryl Morgan interviews Egyptian writer Ahmed Khaled Towfik. Originally published in Locus.
Ahmed Khaled Towfik Interview
By Cheryl Morgan
Ahmed Khaled Towfik is one of the most prolific authors in Egypt, having written over 500 books. A trained doctor himself, he specializes in medical thrillers and horror, but he has also written science fiction and it is his latest foray into that field, Utopia, that has been published in English translation by BloomsburyQatar.
Can you tell us a little bit about the book?
If you want to divide science fiction into genres then I’d call it a post-apocalyptic dystopia. The vision of a near futureEgyptthat it paints is something that has been very real recently. The rich are becoming richer, the poor are becoming poorer, and the rich are sequestrating themselves in colonies on the north coast. One of them is even called Utopia.. When I found that out I had to put a disclaimer in the front of the book to make it clear I wasn’t writing about them.
The major innovation I have made, for theEgyptof 2023, is to make a rite of passage for young men from the enclaves to go out and hunt one of the poor, and take his hand for a trophy. So the hero and his girlfriend go out amongst the poor in search of someone to kill.
I based this in part on a true story. A young man from a relatively poor family had got into university to study engineering. His parents had saved a lot of money to give him this start in life. He was invited by fellow students to visit one of these enclaves. They were out swimming, and some rich people were playing on jet skis. The student was hit by one of these jet skis and killed. There was no investigation or trial. The rich are above that.
This sort of setting is the basis of a lot of cyberpunk.
That’s not really what I’m doing here. I have written a cyberpunk trilogy. It is called WWW, and it is about the adventures of a computer virus as it moves from one computer system to another. There’s nothing like that in Utopia.
How did the book come to be translated?
First of all it was very successful in Egypt.. Everyone who reads fiction was talking about it. So Bloomsburyapproached me and asked for a translation. I don’t think it is a masterpiece as such, but it is essential for understanding how people are thinking in Egyptat the moment. There is another book called Whatever Happened to the Egyptians? by Galal A. Amin, he’s an economist at the American University in Cairo. You won’t understand what happened in Egypt, and how the revolution came about, unless you read this book. And I see my Utopia as telling the same story, but in novel form.
There are some horrible things in Whatever Happened to the Egyptians? and indeed in the revolution as a whole. There was the brutal murder, by the police, of a young man called Khaled Saeed. I think he was one of my readers for sure. You can Google the story. He was beaten to death in a cyber café in front of many people. I think this was one of the events that helped spark the revolution.
How well known is science fiction in Egypt?
I have translated a lot of science fiction. Young people in Egypttoday can read Ray Bradbury, Arthur Clarke, Isaac Asimov. I am very proud to have done this. But science fiction is a relatively new innovation in Egypt. People there have only been writing novels for just over 100 years, starting with Francis Fathallah in Syriaor Haikal in Egypt. Before that we had very little fantastical literature, except for the Arabian Nights. Sophisticated new inventions such as science fiction are very rare. Most people still are not aware of it, or don’t understand it. It will take 50 to 100 years before it is respected.
There are works in English from Tawfiq al-Hakim and Mustafa Mahmud, but they date from the late 1940s. What has happened since?
Only one writer has concentrated exclusively on science fiction in Egypt. That was Nihad Sherif, who died recently.. He wrote several important works, including The Olive Pearls, The Conqueror of Time, which was made into a movie, and Number Four Orders You. There are a number of other authors as well, such as Nabil Farouq and Raouf Wasfi. But there is one thing we all have in common, myself included: we have all depended on what we read in Western literature. I have yet to see any genuinely original Egyptian SF. Possibly the closest we have come is a story called “The Spider” by Mustafa Mahmud, which I think is available in translation.
Of course some people have identified the Epic of Gilgamesh as the first science fiction work in history, and then you have the Arabian Nights. But their connection to SF is tenuous. Even the early writers such as al-Hakim did not see themselves as producing SF. The idea of specifically sitting down to write science fiction in the manner of Asimov and Clarke developed, forEgypt, with Nihad Sherif.
What about fantasy – is there anything like George Martin or Tolkien in Egypt
No. We are very impressed with those writers, Tolkien has a lot of fans in Egypt, but we don’t write anything like them. For us everything refers back to the Arabian Nights, as indeed it does for many Western writers. H.P. Lovecraft and Stephen King have mentioned them as inspiration. But the reputation of the Arabian Nights is so enormous that no one wants to try to write like that.
Do people write novels set in the time of the Pharaohs?
I have tried that a few times, but there is one author who works exclusively in that period. His name Muhamed Soleman and he is very good.
What about the rest of the Arab world. Do other countries where Arabic is spoken produce science fiction?
There was a very good science fiction writer fromSaudi Arabiacalled Ihsan Al Faqeeh, but he met with no success there so he emigrated toCanada, where he is doing very well.Syriahas a thriving science fiction community. They have held conferences and they give an award for science fiction in Arabic, the Assad Prize, named after President Assad. The first winner was Nihad Sherif.
Is a work written in one Arab country understandable in all other Arab countries, all across North Africa and Arabia?
The language varies somewhat from country to country, especially the slang. And the accents are very different. If they show an Algerian movie on Egyptian TV they provide subtitles. But there is a traditional form of the language called Fosha that should be understandable everywhere. Also most people understand Egyptian slang as we produce the most movies in the Arab world.
You have written a huge number of books.
Yes, but I write mainly very short forms, usually novellas from maybe 17,000 words. Even Utopia is only between 35,000 and 40,000 words. I think short books are less effort. Also I have a very hungry audience. They are always wanting more books from me.
And your audience is mainly young people, college students?
That’s right. They are the only people who read fiction. There are statistics that say that the average Arabic reader reads only 20 pages a year, whereas the average Japanese reads 40 books a year. We have newspapers, of course, but they are full of nonsense. People should read more books.
Is there anything we can do to help get more Arabic science fiction translated?
I think there is a growing interest in Arabic literature, ever since Naguib Mahfouz won the Nobel Prize. That was very important. And also The Yacoubian Building by Alaa Al Aswany, which is a very famous novel, translated into many languages. These things have drawn the attention of the world to Egyptian contemporary literature. Hopefully if Utopia sells well then Bloomsbury will translate my next book.
Over at Strange Horizons, Dustin Monk interviews Swedish writer Karin Tidbeck:
Swedish writer Karin Tidbeck attended Clarion Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers’ Workshop in 2010, and there was much discussion of writing gnomes. A short story collection, Vem är Arvid Pekon? was published in Sweden in September 2010, and another is set to be released later this year from Cheeky Frawg Books; her short story “Jagganath” first published in Weird Tales #358—was featured on Drabblecast in March. It was great to catch up with Ms. Tidbeck; in this interview we discuss the speculative fiction market overseas, LARPing, the dark and dangerous worlds of Tove Jansson, and, of course, those gnomes.
Dustin Monk: Your first published story in English was “Augusta Prima,” in Weird Tales. It concerns the titular character’s curiosity about the nature of her world and time which, as she points out, “can’t be measured properly here.” Sweden has several months of perpetual darkness and several months of perpetual light; did this influence the story at all and how does it affect your own sense of time, if at all?
Karin Tidbeck: I grew up in Stockholm, which is in the south, so no total darkness or light. However, a midwinter day is maybe six or seven hours long, and summer nights are so short that it never gets completely dark. Sunrise and sunset is a slow, very gradual process that can last for hours. I suppose the way this affects my own sense of time is that I’m always a little jet-lagged. Midday isn’t the same time as it was last week; or, suddenly dusk starts at five p.m. and not seven. It can be hell on your sleep cycle. We spend a lot of time in twilight, which is a liminal condition, a no-man’s land. The light has an eerie and melancholy quality. I suppose this has carried over into my writing as well, both in the sense of the eerie and melancholy, but also the sensation of having stepped sideways into another world where the sun has stopped in its course.
DM: You’re working on an English translation of your short story collection, Vem är Arvid Pekon. What do you find to be the most difficult aspect of translating a work, even your own?
KT: The main challenge is that you don’t have the same intuitive grasp of a second language as you do with your first. I’m not talking about skill, but about how words resonate with you. Swedish is the language in which my brain has been programmed; the meaning of words is instinctive and immediate. I can manipulate that language with precision and find the words that feel right. With English, it’s sometimes like writing with gloves on because the language isn’t hard-wired into me. I must be getting better, though, because I started out with mittens.
Dialect and register is another issue. Some of my Swedish stories are a little troublesome because I’ve written them in a specific dialect, for example a story in phonetic working-class Stockholm dialect. On another level, there’s vocabulary or turns of phrase that identify the speaker’s geographical or social origin. Then there’s using sentence structure and punctuation to convey the general feel of the story. All of these need an English analogue. It can only be an approximation, because the two languages come with different cultural baggage and worldview. So what I’m really doing is a re-imagining, not a translation. I’ve ended up with two voices as a writer: a Swedish and an English one. – continue reading.