Seth Dickinson is the author of The Traitor Baru Cormorant and a lot of short stories. He wrote for Bungie Studios' smash hit Destiny and the open-source space opera Blue Planet. He likes to eat raw rhubarb.
Leo Mandel lives and works in the Pacific Northwest.
This interview was conducted by email in July 2016.
Seth Dickinson: I find your writing agonizing. I'll reach a certain sentence and it will evoke something precise, something I didn't know existed but which I recognize at once. Like nicking a finger on broken glass: in that first moment, it doesn't hurt yet, it feels clean. But you can tell the cut is there. Do you know what I mean?
Here, this is one: "And, taking the small, spare, worn face in her ageless hands, she drew their two painted mouths together, and breathed a long soft breath into her, ache and dissolution, fire crossing a field. The moment under the sky where the wind rises all around you, and you can’t speak for fury that you won’t have it for ever."
That fury that it will not be forever this, I've never seen it named so precisely. How do you arrive at moments like these?
Leo Mandel: Yikes. Thank you. I have never thought about most of this before, but when I was like twelve or thirteen or fourteen I used to put myself to sleep (and escape, whenever I didn't want to be wherever I was, which was most of the time) by mentally writing a sentence in a fictional world I had, and I would repeat the sentence over and over until I really liked it, until it gave me pleasure to "read," and then I'd add another sentence and work on that one and often change the first because of the second, and so on, and I would build up whole paragraphs suspended in my mind that I kept running through from the beginning over and over. I still do this a bit, though not as ceaselessly as I used to. But that obsessive recursiveness is still very much the functional method of how I write. It's not write one line and go on to the next; it's write a line and immediately reread it about six times in a row, rewrite it, reread, reread. By the time I finish writing a story I can, for a few days afterwards, recite the entire thing.
SD: An adjunct question. You pack so much detail into the very small gestures between speech. I've often despaired that every possible such gesture has already been written, and yet you seem to have an endless supply! How hard do you work at these? Do you fill them in after, or do they come on the first pass? (I think, in part, that you do well at them because you aren't directing the scene in your head like a movie, and you don't need to make them all specific puppetry. Am I wrong?)
LM: First pass. You are completely correct; I don't know and can't "see" what's happening until I write it. I don't even know what static objects look like until I describe them. It's like wandering around dowsing. Or like a Star Trek transporter. I have this sense of some other space where everything that could be in the story exists, and there's only one way to get the things I need from there to here, which is description; before that I have only the vaguest idea of what's on the other side. I can change things once they arrive, but they have to get here first.
SD: You are so precise with your commas! I admire it, because commas are the spaces where you don't say anything, they're part of the control of negative space. Sometimes it will come out in a flat rush, a sweep: "Suhela's stare is the stare of a tiger which has had its kill interfered with. Amrita has never actually seen a living tiger but this is no impediment to her imagination." And sometimes you will divide the thought, and put another thought within it, and another within that: "'We aren't going to throw dice for them,' says Amrita, watching for, then watching, a fine flicker of interest, like light, cross Suhela's face."
Do you have a concept of energy when you write? Do you decide that this will be a fast breathless rush, and here I will hit several beats, rapidly? I often think of a roller coaster, or a fighting plane, where you have to spend some passages building energy with straight and clear writing, and some passages spending that energy on complexity.
LM: Short answer: no-although-I-should. I don't think of it in terms of speed so much as I do a sense of drifting or looseness and of weaving in and out, of positioning via delicate touches, as the comma count increases; short sentences are flat or taut. I think actually what I am trying to balance most is vulnerability and a kind of dryness or briskness. I am forever reining myself in from, like, that weird h/c sensibility that betrays too much or goes too near or something else indecent (file under: things I love fandom for doing, things I dislike fandom for doing, things that make me nervous). Every so often I want to deal out sentences sharply like a hand of poker just to remind everybody that it is not all mush. This isn't as hard and fast a rule as I'm making it sound, but something I do think about is how to put in short sentences (or unexpected ends to longer ones) that sort of recover the story's composure. Like when Amrita sees Suhela's son for the first time, and there's been all this about her decision not to have children, and what it means to have heirs as a scientist, and her worry for Suhela; and then the left turn at calling him "probably beautiful" straight into "Amrita is not confident in her ability to tell one baby from the next." It's a kind of reassurance; it brings any wistfulness up short, keeps the reader company in a way. There's an interview with Barbara Guest where she talks about "saving laughter" that I think about all the time.
SD: Tell me about the magic, the way of making things real. The Sultana's Dream is entirely a dream, invoked by sleep and punctured by awakening, which is interesting, because it frames the story as the narrator's fantasy, right? It's her own plan for a feminist utopia, and when she asks questions, it's her own mind answering. She has a plan for how to get from the status quo to Ladyland, and she has expectations about how Ladyland will turn out.
But you everted the dream. Your Naaridesh is diegetically real. It's a place with complications and people within it; it can't all answer to one woman's will. (It's really cool how this echoes the change in central relationships—Sultana's Dream is a woman speaking to herself, united, but "Fifty Years" is about two women, complexly bound.)
What was it like making the dream real? What, to you, says, this is a real place and not a rhetorical device?
(For me I think the biggest was the critique in "Fifty Years" of gender essentialism, but also the threats pressed on Naaridesh by neighbors, the need for a deterrent, the absence of any suggestion that this was the right and proper end of society.)
LM: Everything I know about making the fantastical real I learned from A. S. Byatt. Short stories, specifically: "A Lamia in the Cévennes," "The Pink Ribbon," "A Stone Woman." Those are all rhetorical-device stories that sound heavy-handed in summary but will pull the rug out from under you if you just start reading. I've never formally tried to iterate how she does it, but thinking on it now: the deceptively trivial specific detail, for one (when the lamia assumes human form, there is a mention, if I'm not misremembering, that her toenails are painted, which of course they are, of course they just materialized like that. It's inherent to the sort of human woman she is invoked to become). The deceptively trivial emotion, for another; exasperation, petty jealousy, sheer "omfg would this bore stop talking I would like to go to bed." And also a particular quality of not ever letting the narrative doubt itself, or protest too much: no matter what the circumstances people don't boggle in Byatt, they just get on with it, or else they are not fit to be protagonists, is the implicit idea. This comes back to the second question in a way: trying always to have a kind of underlying pragmatism, a wryness, that keeps the localized action moving within a net or constellation of small details that collectively give the sense of the larger world (e.g. Amrita's specific refusing-to-have-a-thing-about-Barnali comes with the aside about Naaridesh society willfully misinterpreting the ambiguous lines about wine).
SD: Another writer taught me that fanfiction often explores narrative spaces that conventional work skips over. The practicalities of domestic life. Consequences of small actions. Recovery after trauma (no one seems to think well of Tehanu but I do, very much!). I think your work shines here—I don't know a damn thing about Homestuck, but "Watch the Roots" is a beautiful and very unconventional tale that's about, basically, a household plotting a coup. The tyrant who'll die is offscreen almost the whole story. I wouldn't write a coup that way, but you do, and it works.
What do you think is important about fan work in the artistic, technical sense? The sense of "what can this do for me that a conventional novel cannot?" Why do people turn to fanfiction to fill in the margins and lacunae of a story?
LM: Um um um um. I left this for last and now it's super late where I am but I can think of two things true for me (omitting things I know people do seek out in fandom that I don't understand or enjoy personally): (1) a finer mesh, in mathematical terms, of emotional subtlety—like, I just read a well-reviewed novel that was supposed to be about this complex relationship and it was surreally boring, posed dolls, not a single move I didn't see coming. That attraction/repulsion thing with vulnerability again, I can mark out an author who came from fandom a mile away. Weight in small gestures, terror, gentleness. Fandom has made me feel less alone, a hundred times, via the delayed, reflected, ghost-trace intimacy of "someone else is moved or disquieted by this hair-thin vein of pathos; someone else notices this nuance, which I thought no one else detected; somewhere out there in this world moves an intelligence like mine." (2) queerness! My household got a computer when I was 13 and I somehow came across the hpslash Yahoo group and it changed my life. I grew up in a liberal household but even so I had read like five books that year that had shock gay-predator twists (I still love Rumer Godden but I'm also still mad; still extremely grudgingly can't quit Madeleine L'Engle, still hella mad) and exactly zero that even had gay sympathetic characters, let alone gay protagonists, ever. So, suddenly this world where anyone, in fact everyone, whom the reader was already supposed to like and side with, was walking around being gay! And that was supposed to make you like them more, draw you to them, charge them with something charmed and unusual and special, rather than signal to you that you ought not to trust them or get attached. ASTONISHMENT. I stayed up all night for weeks. I don't think somebody who's thirteen now and has had a tumblr since they were ten or whatever can comprehend it. Fandom was the first queer space in my life; it's still the main, really the only queer space in my life. Obviously there are vast amounts of het work and plenty of homophobia in fandom also, but fandom as a whole feels queer to me in a particular "defiant, joyous, off-label use & doing it better" sort of way. So, commonalities—I think "subtleties in unusual experience" would be the theme, attention given to those subtleties, exactly as you suggested.
SD: One of the points constantly made and re-made in online discourse is the grand tradition of transformative work. You know, "we've been doing this forever, since the Greeks, since before!" It's a point long made, we don't need to make it again! But we're here for utopia, and "Sultana's Dream" and "Fifty Years" alike are maps to utopia, and I think, in that fanfiction and transformative work has the power to pin and twist the unexamined assumptions of the work's writer, that maybe fanfiction is in some ways the most utopian of all writing—because it's about taking an existing reality and amending it.
And "Fifty Years" fascinates me because it's an amendment of a map to utopia. It says, "This would be more complicated. From the inside, this would hurt. And it would not end with the men cloistered up and all problems solved by technological cornucopia."
How do you want readers to walk away from their visit to Naaridesh? God, there's this painful fallacy out there that writing-with-a-takeaway is didactic, dry, an Un-Story, and I feel that I have to disarm it. But you have disarmed it. "Fifty Years" is the farthest thing from didactic, it makes the utopian process about people and rivalries and political tensions, and at the end the utopian state has begun yet another utopian transformation.
So: How do you want readers to walk away from their visit to Naaridesh?
Along with that, I’m also wondering about the utopian citizen. What kind of person makes utopia, and what kind of person does a utopia make? Who is the utopian citizen?
We live in a society where gender is policed by the threat of shame or death for those who transgress their place. Where race is inculcated so deeply into our minds that we cannot even detect most of the attitudes we hold. Where economic ideology justifies plunder and violence by appeal to the market. These are facts of our world, and I think, to become utopian, we have to change them. Can we change them? How? As writers we like to think that stories have great power—do they? How do we change the stories inside us?
(It was suggested to me that I bring in some of my own work on the topic—enough to quote Junot Diaz on the black women who influenced him: "Why these sisters struck me as the most dangerous of artists was because in the work of, say, Morrison, or Octavia Butler, we are shown the awful radiant truth of how profoundly constituted we are of our oppressions. Or said differently: how indissolubly our identities are bound to the regimes that imprison us.")
"Do you think this is a thing that can be done?" Suhela asks. And Amrita says, "I think we can try."
LM: Here is what I want: I want the reader to walk away from Naaridesh and immediately miss it. I want them to think, "But wait: why is the world I live in not like this? How can I make it more like this?", whatever that means for their own lives. I want them to think of women, and especially women of color, as fiercely logical and political protagonists in the story of the actual world. I know you know the vast amount of conditioning every living reader receives to think of white men as the important ones, the characters that will really count for something; I want, on the most exasperatedly, exasperatingly basic level, to provide some counter-conditioning, where if the reader were shown a lineup of people and told "Find the climate physicist!" they would be just that little bit quicker or more likely to point at the older woman in the sari vs. the young blond dude. I want them to understand on a fundamental level that nobody smarter or better or in any way more important than Amrita or Suhela is ever going to show up: like, literally, there's a whole scene (straight from the original!) to say “That's it, they've won the country, everybody else go home.” That trope-inversion fakeout where the one Westerner who ever makes it onscreen gets killed off within the paragraph—"You, reader, are familiar with how in all those hero-explorer stories about white guys there's brief appearances of beautiful native women who meet tragic ends to add depth to the weathered, worldly manpain? Yeah, this is a story about the weathering of the native women: the explorer's whole life and death are just a plot device to move them forward." My favorite comment ever on the story was someone who said, as I recall, something like "I really thought Robert Jennings was going to be important, and then he exploded!" Yes, quite. He's important everywhere else. I don't think it's morally wrong to write stories about white guys, but in Naaridesh they are rats in the storeroom.
As to the responsibilities of the author—at the time of writing this I thought quite a lot about what I might have a genuine moral obligation to do, in or by writing, and eventually the answer I came to was: not perpetuate lies. That is still what I think the responsibility of every writer is, and the antidote to a lot of lazy writing besides. Past that there are no strictures, not for anyone.
SD: Really, though, this story is a romance. And it's about the way that transactions of power can harm romance (a preoccupation of yours, I think). And it's a romance that requires the enormous turmoil and war and diplomatic interchange which happens around it: for at the end, Amrita knows she could not have done the thing she does unless it had all happened.
Can you map for me the linkages between the political arc of the story and the personal one? God, that sounds dull! Why do I weigh this romance so heavily, feel it so fiercely, when it bears the weight of all that's happening around it, and when the consummation is so small and indirect?
LM: I'm glad you do feel it like that, since you are meant to. The consummation is not small for the two people involved. (I tend to write asexual-as-default but it was a very conscious decision here to make Amrita explicitly not very interested in sex, and especially not interested in children, because there are like fifteen million gross representations of ~lush sensual passionate fertile brown women whose somatic life is all~ and not a lot of representations of brown female nerds who are like "wait—what—you want to make out??? but we were having such a good conversation about the ozone layer! :U"). Amrita's relationship to or with Suhela is not separable, for either of them, from the relationship they have with their country (it is almost like a relationship with a personification of the country, or of the ideals they both hold about knowledge and justice and governance) and the influence each has had in building it. It is this principle. It is Amrita's instant of terror when she thinks Suhela has been hurt: the fear which she does not experience as for the body of her love, but for herself as a scientist—this idea that she won't be able to make accurate calculations any more, without this constant of her universe. It is absolutely a lifelong love story between two women, and it is also the very specific love story of "This is the single person I can look at and ask the immense, terrifying question, Have we done it? and trust her judgment as my own when she tells me, Yes."