From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

Author Spotlight: Paul M. Berger

What inspired “Stereogram of the Gray Fort, in the Days of Her Glory”?

Two things, really. The first was a trip. About this time last year I was in India on business for my day job. I’ve done a fair amount of traveling, but everything people had been telling me about India turned out to be true, and I’ve never been anywhere that challenged me or inspired me so much in such a short time. I was cooped up in offices and hotels for most of my stay, but I managed to steal some time for myself and get out and look around.

The Gray Fort in my story is modeled loosely after complexes built by Mughal emperors in the 1500’s and 1600’s. They’re called “forts” today, but they’re the size of towns, surrounded by moats and immense walls, and they contain military garrisons, palaces, audience halls, gardens, harem’s quarters and mosques, all in various states of ruin and renovation. They’re big tourist attractions.

In Agra I hired a guide for a day, for about what a decent lunch would have cost me in New York. He was a high school teacher who moonlighted on weekends (and probably made more this way than from his regular salary). He had a master’s degree in History and spoke five languages well enough to conduct day-long tours in them, including Japanese, which he had taught himself. He had given his spiel so many times that he compacted every list of architectural features and souvenirs for sale into one long, sing-song word. He would occasionally lead me through areas crowded with hawkers, and each time he would instruct me beforehand that although he would appear to be encouraging me to buy from them, that was just because he had to interact with them on every tour, and I should under no circumstances conduct any transaction with them. It was a surprise to him that I didn’t want him to carry my camera and take snapshots of the scenery for me. Whether he intended it or not, every time he spoke he drew my attention to the fact that here was a talented, dignified man, from a culture that had achieved marvelous things, but the only way he could support his family was to show rich foreign idiots around the remnants of the era when his home town was a seat of power.

So in “Stereogram,” the humans’ relationship to the old fortress, and to the greatness they’ve lost, and to the colonial powers that rule them, are all extrapolated from this impression.

The other thing that inspired it was a dream. In this dream, two people were sharing a Victorian-era stereoscope. Each of them was looking through a different lens, which showed a slightly different picture, but somehow they both understood the combined 3D image. That got me wondering what a relationship in which people shared all their sensory input would be like. When I realized that a bond like that would probably be an uncomfortable one for at least one of the parties, I saw a chance to link it to my impressions of that trip.

Is the stereogram in the story a Faery creation or human creation appropriated by the Faery victors? Out of curiosity, do you have a favorite Magic Eye autostereogram?

I would love to be able to say the stereogram was an old human artifact, because then it would be another reason for Jessica to find her pride. However, I think it would take some convoluted justification to explain how someone without the Elves’ powers could create something like that. More likely, there was a famous human painting of the fort at the peak of its strength, and Faery artisans based their stereogram image on it.

I have a very mixed success rate with those Magic Eye things. Usually I can’t achieve the proper degree of cross-eyedness until the moment I give up, and so it becomes a vaguely Zen exercise of trying to give up for long periods of time.

At the end, Jessica predicts “Then my race will be pushed too far, and we shall rise up and have war again, to the terrible delight of both our peoples.” For the past few generations though her people have not engaged in large-scale warfare with the Faery. Do you find that people have a threshold for tolerance past which conflict becomes desirable? Or is conflict always tempting but limited by other forces?

I don’t think it takes any particular insight for me to say there are plenty of historical examples of oppressed or enslaved or exploited groups rising up when the opportunity presents itself or when they’ve been pushed too far, even if that oppression has lasted for generations. Maybe they respond with violence just because that’s the only tool available to them, or because it’s the only option that they can imagine by that point. It probably would have been smarter for the Elves in “Stereogram” to selectively breed humans for docility so that they would never reach that point, but then maybe they wouldn’t have been human any more.

The world of “Stereogram of the Gray Fort” appears most clearly when the reader has both viewpoints. Had you originally intended the story’s structure to mirror that of the stereogram in the story or did it result from the writing process?

Once I realized that this was about the relationship of two people bonded so that they shared all their senses, and that the plot hinged on the device of the stereogram, I felt that it obliged me to tell the same story twice, once from each point of view.

When I first started writing “Stereogram,” my goal was to include every little action and glance and word spoken during the story in both sections, with the idea that the different viewpoints would imbue them with different meanings each time they appeared. This quickly turned out to have more value as an academic exercise than as something you would read if you didn’t have to, so I learned to let each character focus on distinct things. The hardest adjustment for me to make was to give Jessica those extra few seconds of action at the end, but now I think the story wouldn’t be the same without them.

You are one of the founding members of Altered Fluid, the Manhattan based speculative fiction writing group. Could you give any advice to those who would like to form their own writing groups? How can a group provide the best support for its writers? What have you found works well when there are conflicts within the group?

I think once you have a great bunch of people, all the rest is easy. I don’t mean to sound glib about this. The challenge is finding dedicated members who take both writing and critiquing seriously. Luckily, Altered Fluid came nearly ready-made–a bunch of us were taking a workshop in writing speculative fiction taught by Terry Bisson at the New School in 2001, and when the class ended we decided to keep meeting in the same format. Over the following years we have been able to replenish our membership through referrals from writing teachers, and by reaching out to alums of writing programs like Clarion, and through our own networks in the writing community as we became more established.

We’ve learned to be very picky about making sure that new members are the right fit for us–choosing people who are serious about honing their craft, and whose critiques provide useful insight (you don’t have to agree with them; there’s no point in a roomful of people all saying the same thing, but you do want them to point out things you couldn’t see in your own work, and do it without grandstanding or vindictiveness) and who know how to leave their personal baggage outside the meeting room.

There was a point several years back when Altered Fluid realized how important this was, and very shortly after we focused on creating that type of environment things just gelled and we saw a noticeable jump in the quality of all our members’ work.

Also, it really helps to have formal rules that determine how each meeting is run. Pick the number of minutes each critique is allowed to last, and use a timer so you stick to that limit. Make sure everyone is confident they will be guaranteed equal time to speak. Determine the point at which the writer is allowed to respond, and don’t let him/her interrupt before then. Our meetings usually have about 10 attendees and we try to crit 2 stories at each meeting. The format that works best for us in critiquing short stories is very similar to the way it’s done in the Clarion workshops–we go around the table and limit each critique to 3 minutes. The writer can’t respond during critiques, but when they are all done he/she has unlimited time to speak, and that leads into a free discussion that generally runs until someone has to go to the bathroom. I’ve found that some of the best ideas come up in brainstorming sessions during those free discussions, because by that point we’ve been hearing different impressions of the story for half an hour and we’re excited about all the possibilities.

What’s next?

Well, I’ve got a couple of drafts of science fiction and fantasy short stories that Altered Fluid recently tore to shreds, and I’m cleaning those up now. Also, I’m one of the editors of a great ‘zine called Sybil’s Garage, published by Senses Five Press. We recently finished selecting the content for issue #7 and we’re really excited about the strong mix of writers and stories. It should be on sale by mid-July.

Jennifer Konieczny hails from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. An alumna of Villanova University, she now pursues her doctorate in medieval studies at the University of Toronto. She enjoys working with fourteenth-century latin legal texts, slushing for Fantasy Magazine, and scanning bookshelves for new authors to read.