A few months ago in an editorial, I asked why we don’t often see as many comments on our fiction as we do on our non-fiction. The answers, opinions, and suggestions our readers offered were very illuminating and much appreciated. Since that time we’ve seen a rise in comments on fiction (which makes us very happy!) and we’re working on other ways to engage readers. One experiment we’re trying is to collect Author Spotlights together once a month or possibly every other week. Though fiction that appears in each month is not necessarily related, I do feel that the pieces and their authors are in conversation — with you, the reader, and with each other, if only by accident of placement. These spotlights are a continuation of that conversation — I hope readers enjoy them and are moved to ask questions, make connections, and think about the stories in different ways.
—K. Tempest Bradford
D. Elizabeth Wasden, author of Leningrad, is a volunteer coordinator at an environmental center nestled on one the Chesapeake Bay’s many tributaries. She feels fortunate to live on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, and to take advantage of the peace and quiet and the copious amounts of water, which means that fishing, crabbing, boating, and general enjoyment of the salt and the sand are high on the list of things to do. She is also a long-time PC and more recent XBox 360 gamer and is still waiting for the next TIE Fighter/Wing Commander/Independence War all wrapped into one pretty package game. She has a piece in the next issue of GUD, “Long Winter by Night,” that is also a mix of historical fiction and fantasy. She has no pets or children, but essentially cohabitates with thousands of Canada geese during this half of the year.
What are your favorite video games to play and why? Would you ever consider writing for a game?
Games with solid stories. RPGs in the style of Black Isle Studios and Bioware (e.g. Fallout and Baldur’s Gate). Space sims, including the aforementioned classics. There haven’t been many AAA titles the past ten years, and unfortunately, it’s considered a dead genre outside of Eastern Europe. I also enjoy meaty first person shooters (FPS), like System Shock, Bioshock, and stretching a bit, the Thief series.
Oh, yeah. I’m a sucker for Rock Band.
I’d definitely consider writing for a game, although it’d take time to get used to the limitations of that medium and the play between the members of a development team. There are games with interesting moral choices, but games still tend to suffer from a more simplistic design than I’d prefer. (I’m playing a good character. Gotta hit the top choice. Evil. Bottom. Neutral? Oh. Must be the middle choices.) The problems the player confronts could and should be more complex
Where did the idea for Leningrad come from? Were you more inspired by the history involved, the music, or a combination?
The initial idea sparked from the Time Magazine cover of Shostakovich in his fireman uniform (and after reading about his bust of Beethoven in an unremembered source). I have a keen interest in dystopian societies and the expressive, explosive cultures of such times and places. The great pressure of these environments tend to create beautiful monuments–whether tombstones or statues. Makes me almost understand geologists.
Definitely a combination. History is a complex beastie, and music is part of the story. Shostakovich’s place in the twentieth century is one of the most disputed in regards to his political mind and its bearing on the music. What does he mean? What stories does he relate through his works? Is he a Communist Party crony or a crafty antagonist who comments on the state of the (Soviet) Union? Is he something in between? Where does he stand? What’s he saying? We’re all trying to communicate something, right? The interpretive dance swirling around Shostakovich is intriguing and as with all things, there’s enough wiggle room and sources to build your own conclusions. The beauty of history, really.
Do you always/mostly prefer historically-based fiction, or do you have other types of writing that you switch between?
I’m definitely a sucker for alt history. It ensures that my history degree doesn’t get too dusty. But I’m also big on variety. Prevents stagnation. So I write science fiction (The Artificial Sunlight of Memory, for example), horror, and action/thriller. I tend to mix one genre with another, which I suppose also averts the dread rut.
What author do you most hope your work to be compared to? Are there any authors you enjoy reading, but hope to avoid similarities with?
This is a really tough set of questions. It’s hard to choose just one author when there are so many fantastic ones. I’d be completely happy with comparisons to Atwood, Dick, or Orwell. I really can’t think of any author I enjoy reading with whom I’d be terrified to share similarities.
Do you have any favorite words to use or to read in a story, or use in everyday conversation?
Some are unmentionable. I blame my Southern upbringing for my indulgence of naughty words, since there was/is something deliciously powerful about incanting the verboten. Cleaner faves include nebulous, fin de siècle, hegemony, Gullah, superfluous, odious, and gargantuan.
What was your first writing project?
Depends on how you mean “project.” I vaguely remember writing a rather long string of words having to do with space while in the sixth grade. It was for some national competition, akin to one of those annoying essay competitions that annoying teachers like to press gang students into entering. I couldn’t stop writing, although I have no memory of the end product, but I was pretty obsessed with the concept of being an astronaut at that time. Damn that Space Camp movie.
My first creative work was a short ditty I wrote called “Juicy Fruit” when I was three in response to my dislike of salmon stew. Eww. Still can’t stand the stuff.
Darren Speegle, author of The Moon, A Roman Token, is technically a resident of Alaska but has spent much of the past ten years in Germany. He gave up his apartment in Heidelberg a year or so ago to take a federal job in Iraq and he’s still there now, working as a private contractor. He didn’t make any new year’s resolutions this year because “It’s difficult from here. You have to be adaptable.”
How did The Moon come together as a story? Did you have the idea down from the start or did it take a few tries?
I usually have the basic idea down from the start, and this piece was no different. The Moon was originally intended to be a novella, but somewhere along the way I realized it would work better treated sparely, for the sake of mystery. The setting of Trier, Germany, an ancient city built by the Romans, is one I often return to in my fiction. I love the city and derive inspiration from it every time I visit.
What is it about the city that inspires you? Is it just the history, is it something about the aesthetic? What’s your most memorable visit there?
The history is extremely compelling. The Roman city was built as an imperial capitol to complement Constantinople and Rome itself. Some of the edifices were built for Constantine the Great. Many of the artifacts are to do with him or his mother. But the single relic that makes you stop and gape in awe is the Porta Nigra, largest surviving gate of the Roman empire. Though only a few sections of the wall that surrounded the Old City remain, the massive, weather-blackened gate still stands intact. Aside from the wonderful architecture, there is a dark and sinister quality about it that has inspired its appearance or mention in several of my stories, including The Moon, a Roman Token. One of my earlier stories, in fact, takes its title from it. The overall sense you get of the city is that it is cosmopolitan, cultural, hip, historical, etc. etc., but the tone and atmosphere start with the gate.
What author do you hope to have your work compared to? Are there any writers you enjoy reading, but don’t want to have similarities with?
I’m not interested in being compared to anyone else, though I’d say the two writers I read more than any other are John LeCarre and Lucius Shepard. While I’m sure various writers have contributed to my “voice,” I don’t consciously emulate the styles of authors whose work I admire.
When did you first begin writing, and what was your first project?
The first story I can recall writing was as a boy…a three-page Old West affair, full of smoking revenge. In adolescence I wrote a lot of poetry, but I didn’t get serious with fiction until a few years before the publication of my first story, The Wholesome Scent of Cedar, in 2001 in The Edge: Tales of Suspense. Cedar deals with a pychopath who builds what a helpful employee at a do-it-yourself wood shop thinks is a tree blind until he finds himself inside it, playing the role of priest to his deranged captor’s confessions.
If you could live anyone else’s life, real or imaginary, who would you want to be?
‘Be careful what you ask for’ I say to this question. As a wise fellow author once told me, no one knows the pain inside another. As far as interaction with the world around me is concerned, I’ve had, and continue to have, an adventurous life. I’d rather let my imagination run with the lives of my characters.
Do you have any favorite or particularly memorable characters from your work?
Well, I’m very much into the protagonist of the novel I’m currently working on, The Third Twin. I like to address existential pain in my work and so have a lot of tortured, anguished, angry, and guilt-ridden characters. But often there is an inevitability about their situations (because that’s the way I tend to see things) that Barry Ocason simply won’t bow to. In the face of the worse sort of tragedies a father could endure, he keeps his poise about him (better than I would do), and I find it fascinating watching his reactions as events unfold.
On the short story side, I really like the main character in my story, The Horticulturist’s Daughter, just out in Cemetery Dance #59. I see a lot of myself in him, emotionally speaking. His, too, are tragic circumstances, and he, too, comes to terms with them, though perhaps without the necessary depth of conviction, as a single uncontrollable action on his part suggests. I like the quirkiness of the character in my story Buoyancy who eats wedges he cuts out of cork trees to make himself buoyant so he can float back to Australia. I love both Ursula and Laila, both strong female characters, in the novelettes I’ve set in the world of my novel, Relics. One of those novelettes was just published in Electric Velocipede. Another will soon be coming out in Subterranean magazine.
Chantel Tattoli, author of The Gnomes Are Coast Guards, is a senior undergraduate student at Rollins College, majoring in cultural anthropology. She lives in the Sunshine State. For fun, she likes to rent little-known indie and foreign films, do lots of Yoga, read books (when she should be reading the books on her syllabi), and stay up until obscene hours making go-to-sleep playlists. She keeps a Moleskin notebook to jot in at all times. Recently, her piece of flash fiction, “How Barbie Came to Live in Our Barn”, appeared in Wigleaf; She also has a story, “Antique Babies,” in PANK Magazine #3, due out this month.
Tell me a little about where your Fantasy story came from.
When I got to college some professors told me to take the flowers out of my academic papers. I did that. Then I had this class with my advisor, looking at the blurred space between anthropology and writing: Everyone in the class was paired with an elderly friend/informant at an independent-living apartments in Orlando; we collected life histories from their oral accounts and used their “facts” to inform a piece of fiction. I was hooked. My advisor, Dr. Rachel Newcomb, is a wonderful writer and anthropologist; she’s a mentionable influencing force.
What does cultural anthropology consist of, and why did you chose it for a major?
Cultural anthropology is a comparative study of human societies and cultures. I wanted to be an archaeologist as a kid and eventually came around to wanting to study extant humans. I grew up in a small, parochial town; the flavor of narrow-mindedness there caused me to respect differences, cross-cultural and otherwise, from an early age. I’m a proponent of the applied camp of anthropology, which insists that anthropologists should play active roles in solving real-world issues on the ground. Outsiders can’t just swoop down and “fix it.”
The top-down, high-tech projects headed by the likes of the World Bank and UN, they don’t (hardly ever) work; but grass roots, locally leveled initiatives do, and those kinds of initiatives are necessarily informed with anthropologists’ work, who act as all sorts of go-between’s. And when it comes to domestic anthropology, our problems are usually and literally too close to home to stand back, take in, and handle accordingly. I’m soapboxing now…
What was your first writing project?
The Gnome story is old, kind of. (It’s also the first rounded story I got around to “saying” on paper.) Driving back from a vacation in Sanibel once with my family, I wrote some vignette-type paragraphs about the sea glass I’d just collected. I was about fifteen and very into Virginia Woolf. It wasn’t very good, but I came across it last spring and ran with it. It snowballed into the Gnome story. When I couldn’t fall asleep, I’d stay up and write/re-write it.
How did The Gnomes come together? Did you have a lot of drafts, or was it essentially the same from start to finish? Is this story all fiction, or autobiographical at all?
What I said about the story being an allegorical autobiography or a psychedelic bildungsroman for Nessa is true for me. That’s not to say that Nessa is me, however. I’m interested in the nature-nurture debate. I wanted to write about how things happen to people in the course of our lives that can make or break us, about the little ways we are all handicapped. When Nessa grows up and sees the gnomes around, she’s not crazy. It’s metaphorical for those ways we are handicapped.
I also had something to say about the maturation process, which is something we all know about. Sanibel is my version of Neverland. Wanting to “come back to Sanibel” is like missing childhood as an adult. I appreciate color and beautiful words, like Diane. My brother started calling me Green Sea Turtle after he saw them migrating in the Keys once, so there’s that personal symbology too. But no, both my grandmothers are alive, I don’t know anyone from Seychelles, do not speak French — but there are a couple of garden gnomes outside this restaurant (The Bubble Room) in Captiva Island, the next island over from Sanibel.
I have a vague memory of watching the cartoon David the Gnome (adapted from Wil Huygen’s book Gnomes) — that’s what I really drew on. I once did build a sandcastle and queen and king hermit crabs in Sanibel. The hermit crabs have since really disappeared from the beaches.
What are some of your favorite words to use in writing or in everyday conversation?
In real life, I probably cite the words “context” and “marginalized” too much. I dare not utter them in my stories, but I tap dance around those topics. I like to say that the people in ethnography and the characters in literature are both rendered by authors seeking to establish a place were strange Others make sense. People everywhere (always) make sense in their context — if you don’t get them, you just don’t know the context. The word hullabaloo is fun.
What author do you hope to have your work compared to? Are there any authors you read who you would NOT want to be compared to?
Being compared to Virginia Woolf would be nice. When is comes to word selection, or using modifiers, I wouldn’t want to be too Hemmingway or too Faulkner, those are opposite ends of the spectrum which I’d like to stay far away from.
Do you have any favorite or particularly memorable characters from your work?
I like Walt Belhomme, the doctor in my story Antique Babies due out this month in PANK Magazine #3. I had fun letting him explore the concepts of sacred and profane, and flouting taboo. The story involves pickled fetuses!
What are your favorite and least-favorite parts of the writing process?
All writers are anthropologists. I love finding idiosyncratic -isms, the intimate ways that humanity is manifest — I come across one and think, “That’s so human, that should go in a story.” I hate coming to the realization that a sentence or a passage needs to go. And when you come to the point that you don’t know what’s good or what’s bad writing. And when you know that you need to step away from a piece for a bit and wait for it to tell you where it’s going. Also, The alarm sounding after you got in 3.5 hours of sleep because you stayed up until 6am writing, that is hellish.