Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Feature: Interview with Ekaterina Sedia

Every Tuesday, I'll have a feature article posted.

Ekaterina Sedia is the author of the novels According to Crow, The Secret History of Moscow, and the upcoming The Alchemy of Stone. She also edited the anthology Paper Cities and co-edited Jigsaw Nation. Her short stories have been published in various magazines and publications.

Hi! Thanks for agreeing to do this interview. First off, in a
Fantasy Book Spot interview, you mentioned that you started writing when you were 33. What made you decide back then to pursue writing professionally? Why the speculative fiction genre?

I didn't decide to pursue it professionally, but rather after talking to a friend it occurred to me that I could write down some of the things I've been thinking about (well, stories I've been telling to myself, to be more accurate). And after I wrote stuff down, there didn't seem to be any reason not to send it out. I actually fell into writing semi-accidentally.

I ended up writing speculative fiction because this is the genre that allowed me to do things I wanted to do. Plus, mimetic fiction is just not that interesting for me to write – even though I read a fair amount of it. Somehow, the questions I'm most interested in exploring require actual monsters.

When you started sending out your material to publishers, did you experience much difficulty or was your acceptance pile taller than your rejection pile?

I got rejected like everyone else. A lot. It never bothered me, for some reason – or it was never a negative experience but rather a neutral one. Placing a story is a great rush, and rejection feels like a delay, not a denial, if that makes sense. So I don't really count my rejections; it's the acceptances that matter, and how many rejections you've accumulated is irrelevant.

In the Philippines, some authors feel guilt when they write stories that aren't written in the "local" language or don't have Filipino elements (protagonists, setting, folklore, etc.) in it. Do you ever experience that kind of pressure? Some of your work has many Russian elements in it. Do you write them because you're more familiar with them, simply enjoy them, or because of an agenda? (Or some combination.)

Not really – I have not lived in Russia in a while, and I've never written anything in Russian. So I don't see why anyone would expect me to. I do write about Russia quite a bit – this is partially familiarity, partially my attempts to make sense of the history, of the things we lived through in the late eighties-early nineties. There is of course an agenda (I mean, there's always an agenda, I'm just explicit about mine) – I think that there are stories that do not often reach Western readers for a variety of reasons; I feel that especially in the cultural narrative of the US Russia and Russians have been misrepresented for a very long time. I do not presume that I would be able to fix it, but I strive to offer another view for those who want it.

Who are some of your favorite authors or what are some of your favorite books?

I love Viktor Pelevin, Italo Calvino, Gunther Grass, Jorge Luis Borges (and Casares and Cortazar), Chinua Achebe, Ursula Le Guin, Octavia Butler, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Stanislav Lem, Karel ńĆapek, George Sand, and Kelly Link.

What's it like working as an editor, either for Jigsaw Nation or Paper Cities?

It was loads of fun! People whose writing I loved sent me stories and I arranged them. That's about it. Oh, and Jess Nevins kindly wrote an introduction, so for a while I felt… refined, literary even. But it was a great experience, getting to communicate with so many intelligent and talented writers.

Speaking of Paper Cities, how did that particular project come about? Was it something you pitched to the publisher or did they approach you?

Not to repeat myself too much, but I love cities and magic, and lament the narrowing of Urban Fantasy label. So I wanted to put together a book deliberately playing with definitions of magic and cities, and yet offering something unique. I solicited the stories from writers who wrote the kinds of stories I really enjoy reading. After I had the book, I approached a few publishers; Matt Kressel of Senses Five was looking to launch a book line, so here we are.

I really enjoyed your selection of stories in Paper Cities. What was your criteria in choosing the stories/authors?

I asked the writers who wrote the sort of thing that I loved reading, so that was easy. As for guidelines, I asked them to write something about magic (in a loose sense) and cities (in the loose sense). And then I chose the stories that I liked most. I wish I could tell you that I was paying attention to settings or characters, but in fact I was looking for stories that worked as a whole, that really impressed me. I read each story, and then if I caught myself still thinking about it days later, I bought it.

As an editor, what do you look for in a story?

I look for the overall gestalt, for things I haven't seen before. And not just situations, overall themes are very important. Stories with explicit and trivial morals are frequent, and I don't look for those. Any too-tidy endings, unambiguous answers that leave no question unresolved, retreads are all unlikely to get my attention. Horror is a hard sell, primarily because most of those are overly familiar and contain inordinate numbers of female corpses. So the short answer is – I look for stories that catch my attention and make me think.

With Prime Books, they seem to be publishing three of your novels. How did that come about?

I sold a few short stories to several Prime publications – Fantasy Magazine, Jabberwocky, Fantasy Anthology. Sean Wallace liked my writing, asked for a novel – and that novel was The Secret History of Moscow. When we both saw that it is likely to do well, we signed a contract for two more. I like working with Prime – I love their covers, and I certainly appreciate the promotion they mustered for my books. And since they are indie, Sean Wallace is easy to get a hold of any time I have a question.

The other two novels sold to Prime on half a page pitches, and both are quite different from Moscow, although I suspect both could be classified as Urban Fantasy.

For the novels, what's your writing process like? Do you work with an outline (did you have to submit one to the publisher?), a synopsis, or did you simply have free reign ("Write whatever you want, we trust you!")?

I don't usually work with an outline (although the book I am working on now has one), but I do have a general idea. I sent the publisher 1-2 paragraph pitches – summaries of ideas, sort of what you would see on the back cover of a book, giving a general feel of the story.

The original pitch for The Alchemy of Stone ended up being the back cover blurb; I think The House of Discarded Dreams deviated a lot more from the original idea – but that's to be expected when working with a new mythology. Too many exciting things pulling me in all different directions.

In an interview at Fantasy Magazine, you mention that some people have commented on the "translation" of your book. I assume this pertains to The Secret History of Moscow. Care to elaborate on that anecdote?

Oh, there's not much to elaborate on. Some reviews of Moscow popped up on blogs and peer reviewed sites, and some commented on the 'original version' or 'translation', which I thought was pretty funny and telling. Also telling was the fact that my first reaction was "Oh, let's make a literary hoax!" I resisted. But yes, I think it is interesting how assumptions sometimes override the evidence.

The Alchemy of Stone is quite different from The Secret History of Moscow in many aspects. Was that shift intentional? Will your third novel from Prime Books, The House of Discarded Dreams, also be different from your previous novels?

Well, I like a lot of different things. If I thought that I had to write books that were similar to each other forever, I would stop writing. I mean, I don't mind maybe doing a series at some point, but I don't feel that I HAVE to write the same book with slight variations. I write stuff I want to write, stuff that interests me. I could do things with Alchemy I could not do with a primary world fantasy, so I wrote it in a secondary world.

The House of Discarded Dreams is similar to Moscow because it is a wainscot novel – i.e., it starts in a real world and then moves into this small pocket world contained in a growing and mutating house. The mythology is different –the protagonist is a daughter of immigrants from Zimbabwe, so Africa (and the protagonist's idea of Africa) is very prominent. But then there's also New Jersey and its own weird mythology.

The Alchemy of Stone has quite a clockpunk feel to it. Are you a big fan of clockpunk?

Yes, I am. I'm a bit reluctant to say that though, because clockpunk is such a surface descriptor. I do like automatons and clockworks, sure, but I also want them to do something interesting. Also, I do like 'punk' in my clock- or steampunk – that is, the actual impact of the industrial revolution on people's lives, loss of livelihood to machines, pollution, that sort of thing. Luddites are always a bonus.

You mentioned in The Fix that you're working on a new anthology, Russian Winters. Do you foresee yourself establishing yourself as a prominent editor (in addition to being a prominent author) in the future? Will you ever consider including one of your stories in the books you edit?

I don't foresee myself as prominent anything, really, but I do enjoy editing. I was a reader long before I was a writer, and editing combines the pleasure of reading with this little thrill of discovery – oh man, I can be the person who brings this amazing story to everyone else! And it's a great feeling; it's similar to finding an amazing book and shoving it into your friends' hands, this desire to share the awesomeness, but even more thrilling.

And because of that I would not include my own story in a book I edited – it's a different impulse. Sure, the usual objections about quality control and conflict of interest apply, but also, when my story gets published, I kind of go 'look at what I made!' When I edit, it's more of 'look at what these cool folks made!' The latter is about other people.

Your blogs include the word monkey. Why monkeys? Would you want to have a pet monkey? Will you someday pioneer the genre monkey-punk? (Hey, monkeys are already prominent in comics...)

Will you laugh if I tell you that there is a pet monkey in According to Crow, my first published novel? Go ahead, laugh. Yes, I do love monkeys, both as animals and as the idea of an animal. Love their cartoon versions too.

And I believe there is already the Style Monkey movement. But I can only support the idea of more monkeys – actual and metaphorical – in literature.

Anything you'd like to share with us regarding your cool day job? (And does your current profession have any impact on you enjoying the comic xkcd?)

I teach biology at a state liberal arts college, and it is my dream job, which I love to death. And I enjoy xkcd because of my general geekiness, which has nothing to do with my day job!

Any advice for aspiring writers?

Read a lot, read outside of your chosen genre. Try to write things that mean something, don't be afraid, try harder. Pay attention to words. Don't obsess over rejections.

Anything else you'd like to plug?

Of course! There is a great YA anthology, Magic in the Mirrorstone, edited by Steve Berman, that came out in February and has a bunch of great stories form Cassandra Clare, Holly Black, Gregory Frost, and a number of other wonderful writers. It's just a great little book. Then there are online magazines everyone should be reading – Subterranean, Clarkesworld, Fantasy Magazine, Farrago's Wainscot, Lone Star Stories. And I probably should stop here, unless you want me to plug soap and perfume.


imago1 said...

*Crossposted from Charles's journal*


First, great interview. Overall, a nice, thoughtful Q & A.

However, this comment rubbed me the wrong way: "Horror is a hard sell, primarily because most of those are overly familiar and contain inordinate numbers of female corpses."

I preface my response by noting that a lack of horror content is not an issue in any way. However, her comment is an indictment that borders on the embarrassing. A significant amount of world class work is being done in the horror field. Considering the Paper Cities anthology was comprised of solicitations, her remark suggests a profound ignorance of the horror genre. Prior to such a sweeping indictment, next time Miss Sedia would do well to put on her reading glasses and actually take a look at what's going on in the genre.

Steve Berman said...

*Crossposted from Charles's journal*

First off-thanks for mentioning Magic in the Mirrorstone. I know that the Mirrorstone folks really do love your work in the book.

To what Laird said, I can only say that I think my story in Paper Cities could arguably be considered more horror than fantastical because of the extremely dark ending as well as the growing sense of unease and dismay at the world of the Fallen. But, labels are always tricky.

Charles said...

Thanks for the feedback!