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Eugie Foster calls home a mildly haunted, fey-infested house in Metro Atlanta that she shares with her husband, Matthew, and her pet skunk, Hobkin. Her fiction has been translated into Greek, Hungarian, Polish, and French. She is a Phobos Award winner and has been nominated for the British Fantasy, Southeastern Science Fiction, and Pushcart Awards. Her publication credits include stories in Realms of Fantasy, The Third Alternative, Paradox, Cricket, Fantasy Magazine, Cicada, Orson Scott Card's Intergalactic Medicine Show, and anthologies Best New Fantasy (Wildside Press), Best New Romantic Fantasy (Juno Books), Heroes in Training (DAW Books), and Magic in the Mirrorstone (Mirrorstone Books). She pens a monthly column, "Writing for Young Readers," for Writing-world.com, and she's the Managing Editor of Tangent and the Assistant Managing Editor of the new zine The Town Drunk. Visit her online at www.eugiefoster.com.

Lynne Jamneck: Tell us a little bit about your background; has it in any way contributed to you wanting to become writer?

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Eugie Foster: Growing up, I was your classic nerdy kid: broken glasses fixed with tape, always the last to be picked to play kickball, precocious academically but a misfit socially, and I was perpetually nose-deep in a book. My mother was a librarian at the University of Illinois (in Champaign-Urbana), and I spent many summers holed up in either the undergraduate stacks or the two public libraries. One summer, I spent a month systematically going through all the books on Greek mythology in Champaign's public library. When school started up and the teacher asked us what we'd done over our vacations, all the other kids talked about their camping trips or playing baseball or their exciting time at Disneyland. I, of course, doomed myself to another year of schoolyard misery when I piped up—my enthusiasm only exceeded by my cluelessness—"mythology!" So yeah, I think that pretty much sealed my fate.

LJ: Which authors have had the biggest inspiration and influence on your own work?

EF: I'm a huge fan of Tanith Lee, Ray Bradbury, and Harlan Ellison. The lush prose and vivid imagery in their stories is so evocative; I can lose myself for days on end in their writing. It's probably not a coincidence that the first names I think of have all received acclaim for their short stories, being that it's the primary length I work in. I also adore Neil Gaiman and A.A. Milne—Winnie-the-Pooh remains one of my all time favorite books—as well as Roald Dahl and George Orwell. I also want to include Joss Whedon in that list, although he's not a literary writer; he's pretty much your classic Hollywood writer. But that man's ability to write brilliant dialogue is nothing short of genius. I'd spork babies to be able to write dialogue like that.

LJ: Folklore—fairy tales and myth—play integral parts in most of your fiction. Why do they appeal to you?

EF: I've always been fascinated by myths, fairy tales, and folklore. As a little girl I read and reread my favorite fairy- and folktales until the books fell apart. There's a certain basic and primal resonance to be found in the recurring archetypes within those stories—humanity and where we fit in with the natural world, the power of love, the influence and meaning of evil. These same themes and storylines recur in the root stories that underlie folktales and myths worldwide. They're very illustrative of how we're all so alike in a fundamental way. Plus, they usually end happily-ever-after, and they're chock full of passion, blood-and-guts, and magic.

LJ: Have you always been attracted to fantastic fiction?

EF: Most definitely. It was always the monsters and magic which drew me, stuff that fires the imagination and leaves you wandering around in a cloud of "what if" and "ooo" for the rest of the day. When I was little, I used to sneak books into my classes and sit in the back row, reading while the teacher droned on about geography or American history or something equally mundane. I got in a ton of trouble for it with one particular teacher. It annoyed him to no end that I always scored top marks on his tests even though I utterly ignored him and his lectures. During that year, I read The Mists of Avalon, The Picture of Dorian Gray, and Fahrenheit 451 during his class, which was without a doubt the most productive and educational use of my time to be had there.

LJ: In terms of genre fiction—what have been some of the combinations of different genre elements you have seen lately?

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EF: Multicultural fiction has been pretty popular for a while, a trend I've noticed particularly in children's literature markets. I've experienced the most success with my Asian stories and see a lot of pieces with Far Eastern settings in places like Realms of Fantasy, and there's a new anthology forthcoming by Wildside Press, Japanese Dreams, which is a collection of stories (including one by me) based upon Japanese folklore and legends.

LJ: Have you ever experienced negative backlash because of something you wrote? Are there subjects you consider taboo to write about?

EF: I've only received a single piece of hate email, and I think calling it "hate mail" is like calling Looney Toons cartoons too violent. There was no name calling or swearing in it, no death threats or promises of violent retaliation. It's probably more accurate to call it "grumble mail" or perhaps "somewhat-aggravated mail."

I've got strong views on a number of controversial issues, and my beliefs tend to make an appearance in the fiction I write. So the part of my brain that braces for unpleasantness while the rest of me goes bopping about, oblivious and optimistic, has been busily stacking sandbags, collecting canned goods, and making sure there are extra batteries for the flashlights. I've written erotic horror, penned a treatise on the existence of God (as put forth by a penguin balloon animal), and explored touchy themes including drug use, the morality of vengeance, euthanasia, homelessness, and rape, but I never would have expected flak over the one story that received it.

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It was Escape Pod's podcast of "My Friend is a Lesbian Zombie" and it's a tale that I consider to be completely lacking in anything remotely resembling a consequential theme. It was an homage to the sensationalism of classic pulp fiction, written utterly tongue-in-cheek. There's lighthearted implications of necrophilia, as well as flippant jabs at Republicans and New Agers, but my anti-fan accused me of negatively portraying lesbians, a complaint that I would be more sympathetic to if my depiction of the lesbian characters hadn't been leaps and bounds more positive than that of the straight characters—one of whom is a psychotic serial killer and the other is a shallow, borderline neurotic with profoundly skewed priorities. Really, if I have to take a stance on the matter, I'd consider "Lesbian Zombie" to be pro-gay. I mean, if I've got any agenda to push on GBLTQ issues, it would be decidedly pro, not anti. I've got a story forthcoming in Steve Berman's So Fey, an anthology of queer fairy fiction coming out later this year from Haworth Press, and I'm first in line to wave my "love who you want to" banner. But I wasn't trying to make a statement with "Lesbian Zombie;" my goal was to write a funny story. Go figure.

As far as taboo subjects, there are far fewer taboos in our society and therefore in our literary themes in general than there were, say, a decade ago. Subjects like cannibalism, incest, and child abuse are pretty prevalent in today's horror fiction. I don't want to say there's something I won't write about because I might find myself doing just that sometime down the road. But there are topics and subject matter that make me cringe to think about, much less consider writing about—female circumcision and the torture techniques of the Spanish Inquisition, for example—and so I probably won't, although having said that, I've found writing to be a great catharsis. Things that really disturb and upset me have certainly found their way into my writing as a sort of therapy in the past.

LJ: What is your working environment like? Do you have any specific rituals you like to keep to before, during, or after you've done a block of writing?

EF: My office/library, where I do most of my writing, is upstairs, away from the distractions of husband, pet skunk, or television. The room is jam-packed, floor to ceiling, with books and stuffed animals. We've got five full-length bookshelves—one of which has a fold-out front panel desk that I plunk my laptop on—and a couple smaller units, and they're all crammed full, with books and magazines piled on top of each other, some shelves two layers deep, and more books in stacks on the floor. Other people would probably think it's cluttered and messy; I find it soothing. After essentially growing up in libraries, I can't think of anything that's as restful or energizing as being surrounded by books.

Ritual-wise, there's not much to tell. I wake up in the morning, brew a pot of green tea, and haul self and laptop upstairs. Sometimes I play music while I write, but most times I end up gating out anything auditory—I'm very visually oriented, and often have to consciously remind myself to pay attention to sound stimuli—so I don't hear more than a snatch or two of whatever I have on. It's more a background drone to produce ambiance that can seep into my back brain than an integral part of my writing ritual. Then I work until husband or skunk start making plaintive "dinner now?" noises, and I plod self and laptop back downstairs, eat, and either read or try to catch up on email and/or editing tasks after dinner—usually with a skunk curled up beside me on the couch.

LJ: When you start out to write a new story, do you usually have the basic framework of an idea already mapped out?

EF: Sometimes. Sometimes not. A lot of times I sit down with only a rudimentary idea or even just a character sketch or a setting and let the voices in my head shape the story as I go along. That has the advantage of keeping me interested and engaged, as I don't know what's going to happen from page to page. It also has the drawback of stumping me and leaving me with half-finished writing projects, as I don't know what's going to happen from page to page.

I have used outlines, but I've got this noxious enthusiasm/antipathy thing going with them. Sometimes having the structure of an outline really helps because I know where I'm going and what I need to do to get there, and sometimes having an outline is the fastest way to ring a story's death knell. If I know exactly what's going to happen, it can kill any incentive to write it.

LJ: What are you working on right now, writing-wise?

EF: I've got several short stories in various stages of stuck, a YA novel that I keep getting bogged down on, and my agent is currently shopping around my middle-grade novel which is piling up some really glowing rejections. Ah, the glamorous and satisfying life of a writer. I'm also juggling several nonfiction projects—articles, pay-for-hire work, and a few ghostwriting assignments. Although I get the most satisfaction from writing fiction, nonfiction is hella easier, and it tends to pay better.

LJ: What is the attraction for you personally of the short story framework?

EF: You can afford to take more risks in short stories. Whenever you invest yourself in a big project like a novel, that's a lot of time and effort going into that single work. If you end up with something that's an utter failure, however you define failure—unreadable, incoherent, unpublishable, whatever—you've effectively spent that huge chunk of yourself and have nothing to show for it. But if your experimental short story fails, you're only out five thousand words or so, a couple weeks maybe. It's a lot easier to be philosophical about chalking up a failed short story to a learning experience and just moving on than it is to shrug off a novel.

But also, I like short stories because they're the perfect length for exploring a single idea, or the dynamics of a single relationship, or the quirks and personality of a single character. When done right, short stories are like a focused, intense burst of literary brilliance.

LJ: How much do you draw on your background in psychology when you are writing? It must be quite a handy tool to have in your writing kit.

EF: I rarely sit down and say, "Okay, there's this psychological premise or phenomenon I'd like to explore in this story . . . ready, go!" But yeah, I do think having an added bit of insight into interpersonal relationships and the mechanisms fueling people's behaviors and thought processes has been an asset. I've noticed it the most when I'm people watching, accumulating material for a story or doing character studies. The writer in me and the psychologist pair up and deliver more intuitive data to my subconscious note-taker than I suspect either could manage on their own.

On the other hand, there have been a few times when I have gone, "There's this psychological phenomenon I really want to explore," and then the scientist gets in the way of writing a decent story. I end up going into essay/term paper mode, which results in something about as entertaining as listening to someone recite pi.

LJ: Do you think that the advent of the Internet and online publishing has had an overall positive or negative effect on the quality of writing being published today?

EF: I don't think it's really had much of an impact either way. Or rather, I think the overall effect balances itself out in the end. Certainly there's a lot of schlock that gets published online, and self-publishing through do-it-yourself POD outfits has resulted in a flood of really badly written publications, but there's always been atrocious stuff that's seen its way to print. Electronic venues like Strange Horizons and the now-defunct SCI FICTION have proven that Internet publishing is a viable and valid medium for extraordinary, top-notch fiction, just as some small-press print publications have shown that traditional printing is no guarantee of quality writing.

LJ: As Managing Editor of Tangent Online, and Assistant Managing Editor of the fiction zine The Town Drunk, how has working on this side of the publishing coin helped you with your own writing?

EF: Hah. Actually, it totally hasn't. My editorial duties take up huge chunks of time I could use for writing instead. Working on The Town Drunk has provided me with an added appreciation of some of the vagaries and obstacles on the editorial side of publishing fiction, but it's not anything that I didn't have an inkling of already.

LJ: What are some of the most common mistakes aspiring writers make when they are trying to break into the field of writing?

EF: I think the biggest one is not knowing how the publishing biz works. How it's depicted in Hollywood and pop culture is so wrong: you rattle off a story or novel, it gets picked up by the New Yorker or one of the big publishing houses, you hit the best-seller list in a week and become a millionaire, and la, all your troubles are over. The reality is long waits, form rejections, interminable lead times, and really crappy pay.

I know of one would-be author who's just finished her first novel and expressed indignation that an agent asked for a one month exclusive to consider it, and so turned them down. One month is nothing in this industry. And she fully expects her novel to be picked up, published, and on the shelves of Barnes and Noble within a year. Even if her book is absolute genius, full of scintillating prose, fresh ideas, and fascinating characters, in all likelihood, it could take longer than that to make its way out of the slush pile, much less see print. All too often, unrealistic expectations result in unprofessional behavior or bad career decisions.

LJ: Tell us something about Eugie Foster no-one knows.

EF: Um . . . I think naked mole-rats are cute?

LJ: Do you find some genres more challenging to write than others?

EF: I'm not sure. I've been producing a lot less science fiction and horror recently, favoring fantasy almost exclusively. But I'm not sure if that's to do more with what I've been interested in and the projects I've been taking on of late than with the genres' challenging quotient. Since I stopped having to be an IT cubicle monkey, my urge to write really visceral, squick-inducing horror has taken a nosedive. And likewise, now that I've started writing more nonfiction articles, especially ones that tap into my background in psychology, my muse has stopped clamoring for me to crank out science fiction.

LJ: What has been your favorite read in 2007 thus far?

EF: Recently, I've particularly enjoyed Uglies by Scott Westerfeld, The Speed of Dark by Elizabeth Moon, and Pretending to be Normal: Living with Asperger's Syndrome by Liane Holliday Willey, and while not technically a "read," I was also really impressed by the recent audio podcast of "Start the Clock" by Benjamin Rosenbaum in Escape Pod.

LJ: In a nutshell—how would you rewrite "Puss in Boots"?

EF: I'd make Puss a skunk!

LJ: What's the best advice anyone has ever given you about the publishing industry?

EF: Anyone who can be discouraged from becoming a writer should be. I've got that tacked up in my office as a reminder and a challenge. Also, money flows to the writer.

LJ: Complete the sentence: A happy writer is a . . .

EF: Mythical creature.


Lynne Jamneck


Lynne Jamneck (email Lynne) is a South African expat living in Wellington, New Zealand. She's still getting used to the cold. You can read more by Lynne in So Fey: Queer Fairy Fiction, Sex in the System: Stories of Erotic Futures, Technological Stimulation, and the Sensual Life of Machines, Distant Horizons, and our archives.
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29 Nov 2021

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