Sunday Shorts – Startling Sci-Fi: New Tales of the Beyond

Today’s the last of four Sundays where I’ve had the pleasure to run you through some of New Lit Salon Press‘s wonderful science fiction anthology Startling Sci-Fi: New Tales of the Beyond. After being lucky enough to get a sneak peak of it, and loving it, I knew I wanted to try to boost the signal on the collection. That link is where you can pre-order the book, by the way, which is something I hope you’ll do if you’re at all a lover of quality short science fiction.

I’ve already spoken with eight of the authors in the last three chats, and today I’m wrapping it up with one more author, the illustrator, and the editor himself. Onward to willing silence, fantastic imagery, and the challenges of organizing an anthology…

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Brian T. Hodges

Brian T. Hodges lives in the mossy forests of the Pacific Northwest, where he works as a lawyer, researcher, and non-fiction writer. He spends most of his free time exploring the woods, lakes, and creek beds with his Newfoundland dogs. His fiction has been published by The Strange Edge, received an Honorable Mention from the Writers of the Future contest (V31 Q1 2014), and was a finalist in the 2013 N3F Amateur Short Story Contest. His story in this collection is called “A Song Unheard” and was one of the most poignant – and for me, easiest to identify with – stories in the collection.

NB: Your story in Startling Sci-Fi was so incredibly easy to identify with – no small feat for a story featuring an alien on an alien world. The notion of an “outsider voice” was handled deftly, and I have to ask where it came from?

BH: As is often the case, the concept of an “outsider vice” arose from a bit of a self-reflection. I went through several, very big life changes over the past few years. I found myself having to face the world anew, stripped of my routines and comforts. I felt alien, ill-equipped, and crippled by damaged mental scaffolding. At times, I felt like I couldn’t speak without exposing the fact that I was terribly different, that my words couldn’t be truly understood. I wanted the main character, Patrek, to be a bit of an everyman, suffering from the same sense of otherness that I had been struggling with— an otherness that constantly threatens to breach the surface and expose oneself. But I didn’t want that story to wallow in a swamp of self-pity. Instead, I wanted to make the very attribute that marked Patrek as an outsider a key.

NS: How did you come to the choice of deciding that the character’s “otherness” would only be hidden by his silence?

BH: The decision to make Patrek’s otherness something that he could control was deliberate because I wanted to play with two ideas. I wanted to give him the ability to choose what to do his flaw—he could to accept it and expose himself to a hostile world, or he could choose to hide it and live behind a construct of lies (while at the same time struggling with the morality of those lies). At the same time, I wanted to use Patrek’s dilemma to expose the dynamics of social exclusion — that the act of identifying the so-called abnormal is an act of violence, whether at the heels of the bully-boys or due to Patrek’s inner voice.

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Stefanie Masciandaro

Stefanie Masciandaro is a New York based artist with a love of all things fuzzy and sugary, not at the same time though. Sometimes she likes to pretend she looks like an old Renaissance painting. You know, those Italian ones with the great noses. Often she can be found wandering the streets of Manhattan in a slightly dazed state, and will frequently ask questions like “What day is it?” or “Is three cups of coffee in one sitting too many?” or “Yes, but is it feminist?” When not doing those things, she is probably hunched over a laptop working in Photoshop or pretending no one can hear her sing in her studio. Stefanie created the beautiful – and varied – images that run throughout Startling Sci-Fi, which is fully illustrated.

NB: The stories in Startling Sci-Fi cover a wide range of styles. Some are funny, some grounded in a world very much like ours, and some aren’t even in a world at all, per se – how did balance so may different tones, and still end up with what I have to say is a lovely consistent whole?

SM: How lovely of you to call my body of work lovely! Style is one of those ever elusive creatures that’s just always hard to give an answer about, honestly. I spent four years of illustration school (freshly graduated as of May 2015!) contemplating style and have come to two conclusions: either you make enough work and it eventually finds you, or you just adapt to whatever kind of work you end up getting. Or sometimes neither of those things! I don’t mean to sound discouraged, but I’m so fresh and have so much to learn and I’m honestly very excited by it. My work four years ago looks nothing like my work now, and my current work will look nothing like what I make four years from now.

But back to your question, I know that I do have my own way of drawing that comes naturally to me. In the case of working on Startling Sci-Fi, I kind of cut loose! My body of work became a mix between both the style that found me and how I think modern book illustration is supposed to look. I tried to find a happy middle between incorporating patterns and graphic shapes and some of the deep spaces that pull me into other images that appeal to me.

Jordan was a lot of help! He really encouraged me to try a couple of different directions and help me stay connected. In fact I was a bit hesitant at first to include some of the funnier pieces, but Jordan convinced me it would be a nice breath of fresh air. That thinking led to the final illustrations for M.P. Diederich’s “Monkey Business” and Scott Lambridis’s “Almost John.” I really did try to capture a range of moods, but I’m really a huge fan of fun colors so I generally try to use that to unify things. It was a challenge knowing I couldn’t always rely on color since the book publications would all be black and white! I am still very excited by what I created and I hope everyone shares the feeling.

NB: Do you ever feel constrained by a story when you’re creating art to accompany it?

SM: So far, I don’t think I’ve ever felt constrained by a story itself, but rather my own abilities! I like to think I’m a pretty chill person, but sometimes I still go back and forth between wringing my hands over my current limitations as an artist and knowing that with time and effort, improvement comes. There are always multiple solutions to illustrating something, but some of them tend to work better for other people. That sounds like kind of a Captain Obvious answer though.

Some surprises tend to come from when the story in question is deliberately vague about characterization or setting. The debate is then to either to keep up the air of mystery, or to try and answer some of those questions by making decisions in the process of image making. That was definitely the hardest part for a couple of cases in Startling Sci-Fi! I didn’t want to lose the ambiguity that permeated Charlotte Unsworth’s Killed By Shadows, so I tried to show as little as possible by literally just drawing an eyeball. On the other hand, Rob Hartzell’s The Dead and Eternal featured two characters who seemed to exist only in cyberspace, but I still wanted to try and depict a figure to go along with the five iterations of Soleil.

Every artist has something they love to draw most, and I think in most cases, that thing can be worked into any illustration to make it a fun process no matter what story it’s accompanying.

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Casey Ellis

Casey Ellis graduated from Manhattanville College in 2004, where he wrote a senior thesis on ethical issues in Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. He received a Masters in English from the University at Buffalo in 2006, with a thesis on the language of the fool characters in Shakespeare’s major tragedies. He is currently an adjunct with the English departments of Westchester Community College and Berkeley College, and a verbal skills tutor with Huntington Learning Center. Whenever possible, Casey updates his literary blog “Tolle, lege!” Before becoming the editor of Startling Sci-Fi: New Tales of the Beyond, Casey was the line editor of three previous New Lit Salon Press collections: Southern Gothic: New Tales of the South, Behind the Yellow Wallpaper: New Tales of Madness, and Salon Style: Fiction Poetry & Art which featured his short story “The Creature from the Lake.”

NB: I really enjoyed this collection, and when it comes to anthologies by multiple authors, I always wonder how editors choose a line-up. I have a background in book-selling, and I know that when the book is left to sell itself, the back cover, the cover, and the first few paragraphs/pages are the silent sellers that might get a book purchased. I imagine you put a lot of thought into the order of the titles – what was that like for this collection?

CE: First off, thanks so much for your kind words! Yes, we certainly did spend a long time on the ordering, for the very reasons you mentioned. While I personally see the editor’s position as that of a kind of guiding servant, there are certainly matters that are up to the editor, especially in a mixed collection. Obviously all the stories stand on their own, but I wanted there to be a vague though discernible logic to the collection as a whole. Part of that is accomplished by the theme of unambiguously science fiction, but still literary, fiction. In terms of ordering, I thought back to my days as an anthology-loving teenager. Dirty little secret, when the first story was too long, I felt intimidated. Therefore, I thought it important to open this book with a shorter piece. Picking a “stronger one” was impossible since I love them all! Still, I settled on “Almost John” since it’s one of our shorter stories. Also however, it has a sharp yet ambiguous feel to it that I thought made for a good opening flourish. Finally, that very ambiguity is of the “literary” variety that I wanted readers to know would predominate throughout the book. There ARE many ways to be literary of course, but many people will only buy in if they see the kind they’re familiar with. I decided to end with “A Song Unheard” because it’s one of our most hopeful stories. Not to sound too Pollyannaish, but I liked the idea of closing on an affirmative note. While by no means always true (just look at some of our other stories), science fiction is frequently something we use to reaffirm our own humanity. In a piece on Ray Bradbury, Harold Bloom dismissed Bradbury’s and pretty much all science fiction authors’ art only to give them patronizing, back-handed praise for their morals. He called Bradbury “a belated apostle of the Enlightenment.” It didn’t seem to occur to him that such apostles may fill a crucial place in the literary firmament of our scattered times. I think they do and, even though I don’t always share the story’s optimism, I wanted to bow out with one.

NB: There’s a lot of diverse narratives in this collection, in the sense that the tales are very different from each other, and yet the theme of the collection itself is still prevalent. How hard was it to balance the two with the stories you received?

CE: It was actually of the utmost importance to me to have wildly different kinds of narratives in the anthology. As I said before, “literary” can mean so many different things. I staunchly believe there is such a thing as true literature. However, I’m suspicious of attempts to define the word.”literature.” Recently, I read an article about controversies surrounding creative writing graduate programs. Some people have slammed the emergence of a kind of subgenre called “program fiction.” That’s probably an oversimplification, but I get the frustration with the idea that real literature always has to involve stories of four, upper-middle class, white characters coming to terms with their childhoods in clipped, irony-heavy, Hemingwayesque prose. For the record, I have no objections to that kind of writing! My only objection is to the idea that great art is the product of carefully defined rules. With science fiction, a number of people are going to reject any possibility of the work being art right off the bat. More subtly, many of them are going to assume they already know what they’re going to get. A major goal was to explode those ideas. Therefore, I was drawn to stories that startled me and that seemed to pull in all different directions. That being said, there were some practical considerations. You’ll notice throughout that some of the more unorthodox narrative forms come up a bit later. I wanted readers to get hooked before they encountered something like “The Japanese Rice Cooker”! Still, the diversity is clear pretty early on, and that’s part of the theme. In effect, the theme was no theme, except of course the simple idea of challenging the reader with literary science fiction.

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Well folks, that’s the end of what I hope was a successfully teasing tour of Startling Sci-Fi: New Tales of the Beyond. Let me know if you enjoyed these little chats – I certainly enjoyed having them – and I can try to do so again with new anthologies.

And until next time, keep it short!

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