From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

Interview: Charlie Jane Anders

There’s so much we could talk about! Let’s start with your new collection, Even Greater Mistakes. One thing I love in anthologies and collections is that they can bring stories published in more obscure places to new audiences. You have pieces here from a real range of publications: Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, Flurb, Instant City, Zyzzyva, and many others; and one or two are from early in your career. How did the collection come about, and what was putting it together like?

When I heard that Tor was interested in doing a full-length collection of my stories, I was so thrilled—especially when I realized there would be room to include some “deep cuts” from my back catalogue. I went back and re-read a bunch of my old stories, including some which I barely remembered. (And I honestly didn’t remember how many stories I started and never finished.) Even though every story in Even Greater Mistakes is previously published, there are a bunch in there that only appeared in tiny literary magazines or defunct websites, which I’d be willing to bet absolutely nobody has read before. There were some stories which I had spent years wishing more people had seen, because I felt like they were much better than some stories of mine that had reached a wider audience.

With well over a hundred short stories out, you have so much short fiction to choose from. How were the stories selected? Is there an organizational principle at work behind which pieces are in the collection—do you see a theme, or underlying elements?

My main goal was to include the stories that I’m proudest of from my whole career, the ones which still give me the feels when I re-read them. But I also wanted to put together a single book that really represents all of the directions my writing has gone in, from hard science fiction to weird fantasy to literary fiction to queer lit. I even snuck in one story that has no speculative elements whatsoever: “This Is Why We Can’t Have Nasty Things.” And I wanted to include stories that are pure goofy comedy as well as ones which go to some pretty intense, serious places. As much as possible, I wanted to curate a sampler that contains a whole bunch of different flavors, including chocolates with cherries in them, truffles, and some hazelnuts. I wanted this to be a book where you turn the page at the end of a story and have no idea what you’re going to get next.

Looking at the earlier pieces, “My Breath is a Rudder” and “Power Couple,” coming all the way up to very recent “If You Take My Meaning” and “The Visitmothers,” do you feel like your writing has changed in important ways?

I ended up revising “My Breath is a Rudder” and “Power Couple” quite a bit, because I wrote both of them back in 2006-2007, and I felt like the writing wasn’t quite strong enough, I’m afraid. In general, there was a sea change with my writing around the time I published “Six Months, Three Days” in 2011, where I started to get a little deeper into the emotions of the characters. Sometime in 2011 I did the thing that you’re not supposed to do, and read Goodreads reviews of some of my short fiction output. I came across someone on Goodreads who said of one of my stories, “Once again, Anders is using humor and snark as a substitute for fully-developed characters.” And even though I knew that feedback wasn’t intended for me—it’s important to recognize that reviews are not aimed at the author or creator—it still hit home, and I resolved to try harder to get into the heads and hearts of my characters. I thought of “Six Months” as a story that wasn’t particularly funny until I read it out loud at an event in NYC, and people were laughing. It was sort of a relief to realize that I could be funny without going into full-on comedy, or throwing the characters under the clown car.

In the Locus review of your first collection, Six Months, Three Days, Five Others, Rachel Swirsky said, “Anders’s unique humor provides a uniting theme. Only some of the stories are explicitly comic, but all benefit from her linguistic wit and her quirky but generous characterization.” Are there any stories in the new collection which your fans might find surprising?

I always hope that I can keep surprising people—and, like I said above, I hope that not all of the chocolates in this box are going to be caramels. I feel like there are some stories in this book that are weirder and maybe more experimental than people are used to from me. What I really hope is that people will make connections between the different stories, because I do think some themes carry across from story to story—like the way Mab’s determination to avoid being the heroine in some cheesy love story in “Love Might Be Too Strong a Word” connects up with Rachel’s need to escape and remain herself in “Don’t Press Charges and I Won’t Sue.”

What, for you, are the top stories that you hope people will read in this book—the stories that you are most proud of, that were most challenging to write, or that are most important to you—and why?

As I said above, there are some stories in this book that I desperately want to expose to a bigger audience. I feel like the silliness of “Vampire Werewolf vs. Fairy Zombie” lives very close to my heart, and so does the space-opera comedy of “A Temporary Embarrassment in Spacetime.” (I would write more stories about Kango and Sharon in a heartbeat, if I felt like there was an audience for them.) In 2021, particularly, I really hope that some of the political stuff in this book hits home. A lot of the stories are about trans and queer people trying to survive and build communities in a world that is not always kind or trustworthy, and they get pretty dark in places, but I really hope you come away with a sense of hope and acceptance, especially after you get to “The Visitmothers.”

You also have recent nonfiction book Never Say You Can’t Survive. Many people may think of you as a fiction writer, but you are also a respected non-fictioneer. You have done a lot of work as a journalist, not to mention writing numerous essays and articles for tons of different venues, including Esquire, The Atlantic, and The Washington Post. What were the biggest challenges for you in writing Never Say You Can’t Survive?

Never Say You Can’t Survive was a uniquely challenging project in so, so many ways! I had been writing short pieces of writing advice since 2008 on io9—which felt incredibly presumptuous, since back then nobody even knew I wrote fiction, really. But a whole book of writing advice, with a cohesive idea and a through-line, was a very different beast. I really wanted Never Say You Can’t Survive to leave people feeling as if they could write their own stories, but also as if they had been given a bunch of tools that would help make those stories happen. I knew when I pitched the book that 2020 was likely to be a really tough year, which is why I wanted to post the essays online in realtime—but 2020 was so much worse than I’d expected, and there were definitely times when I struggled to find the friendly, encouraging tone that I knew this book needed. I was having a rough year myself, so a lot of these essays were me reassuring myself as much as anyone else. The revision process was also a huge undertaking: streamlining this material I’d been writing week by week, eliminating any repetition or excess fluff, and then adding a ton more material. Honestly, even though the “posting a new essay every week” plan sometimes meant a lot of pressure, it ended up helping a ton, because I got so much great feedback on the essays in realtime.

Your intro to Even Greater Mistakes begins, “I swore I would never write a novel. My first allegiance, my deepest loyalty, was to short fiction . . . “ You had Victories Greater Than Death out earlier this year (your 4th novel I believe . . . ?) plus a nonfiction book! What was the drive behind writing Never Say You Can’t Survive? What was the inspiration for the project, and how did it develop?

Actually, Victories Greater Than Death is (counts on fingers) my eighth novel—but four of those novels never got published. (Except that I whittled “Rock Manning Goes For Broke” down to a novella and it saw the light of day in that form.) Never Say You Can’t Survive started out as a talk that I was giving at writing conferences and book festivals, back in 2017 and 2018—that talk, in a very different form, became the introduction to the book. I had been wanting to publish a book of my writing advice ever since I left io9, and for a while there had been talk of me doing a “science fiction writing 101” type book. But there are already a lot of books along those lines, and it became clear to me that I’d be better off doing a book with a stronger “hook” to it. And throughout 2019, I kept thinking that so many people I knew were struggling and feeling lost, and I kept being reminded that getting into that headspace of storytelling and creation was a balm and a huge source of consolation.

What is your favorite thing about Never Say You Can’t Survive, and what do you really want readers to know about it, beyond the blurbs and reviews?

My favorite thing about Never Say You Can’t Survive at this point is the response I’ve gotten from readers so far—every time I hear from someone that they had been struggling to write, or just having a rough time generally, and the book helped them to center themselves and reconnect with the inner storyteller that we all have inside us. The thing I’d really like more people to know is that this book is not prescriptive, or rules-based. I offer lots of ideas and suggestions for writing, and I express my opinions here and there—but I’m pretty careful not to tell anyone the “right” way to create characters and a world and string a plot together. If anything, I’m pretty down on the idea that there are rules or that there’s a template or formula for a good story.

Going back to fiction, and probably mostly for short stories, what is important for you when you write fiction—what are you focused on the most?

Like I talk about in Never Say You Can’t Survive, when I write a short story, I often tend to focus on one relationship, or one cluster of relationships, that I can track throughout the story. I feel like it’s more interesting to watch people change through their relationships to other people than to see them go through changes in a vacuum. I feel like one thing the stories in Even Greater Mistakes have in common is that you can usually identify one or two relationships that power them. Even in my novels, this is usually the case for me, and I feel like my novels are firing on all cylinders when you can track a particular relationship from beginning to end.

Is there anything else you want readers to know about Even Greater Mistakes or Never Say You Can’t Survive—or, for that matter, Victories Greater Than Death?

I feel like, if someone reads all three of my 2021 books together, you’ll come away with a sense of what I’d call constructive absurdism, or “absurdity with feels.” I have spent my entire life trying to find ways to talk about how bizarre and nonsensical the “real world” actually is, and how much we need human connection to help us survive the nonsense. I feel like these three books, taken together, are the clearest expression of that theme.

For a while you were reviewing books, and you took the role seriously: you didn’t want to praise works which you felt didn’t deserve praise. As busy as you are, do you still have time to read? Are there any new works or authors you feel people should check out?

I try to read every day, because I feel like if I’m not reading, my writing suffers. And so does my general outlook on life. Right now, I’m devouring the works of Shruti Swamy, who’s an absolute genius. Her acclaimed short story collection A House Is a Body is full of strange, unsettling situations, but she peppers them with beautiful turns of phrase and arresting details that make them feel lived-in. Some of the stories in A House Is a Body would definitely count as speculative fiction, including “Earthly Pleasures,” in which a photographer who’s descending into alcoholism launches a complicated relationship with the god Krishna. But every story in that book is an incredible triumph. And I’m in the middle of Swamy’s debut novel, The Archer, the story of a girl in 1960s Mumbai who becomes a dancer. The Archer keeps taking my breath away, and it’s a truly dazzling performance. Other recent books I’ve loved have included Ryka Aoki’s Light From Uncommon Stars, Khadija Abdalla Bajaber’s The House of Rust, and Cheer Up!: Love and Pompoms by Crystal Frazier and Val Wise, a lovely graphic novel about a trans girl who joins a cheerleading squad. By the time this interview is published, I’ll probably have read and loved several more books, so please check my Goodreads page for more recommendations.

What else do you have coming up that you’d like readers to know about?

The second book of the Unstoppable trilogy, Dreams Bigger Than Heartbreak, comes out April 2022, and I’m working hard on the third book now. And I have a new adult novel that hasn’t been announced yet, which I’m having a total blast working on.

Arley Sorg

Arley Sorg is a senior editor at Locus Magazine, where he’s been on staff since 2014. He joined the Lightspeed family in 2014 to work on the Queers Destroy Science Fiction! special issue, starting as a slush reader. He eventually worked his way up to associate editor at both Lightspeed and Nightmare. He also reviews books for LocusLightspeed, and Cascadia Subduction Zone and is an interviewer for Clarkesworld Magazine. Arley grew up in England, Hawaii, and Colorado, and studied Asian Religions at Pitzer College. He lives in Oakland, and, in non-pandemic times, usually writes in local coffee shops. He is a 2014 Odyssey Writing Workshop graduate.