Protagonist problems

A review of Michael Kelly’s “Blink” in Imaginarium 2013: The Best Canadian Speculative Writing (ChiZine Publications, 2013).
By Derek Newman-Stille

Cover image of Imaginarium 2013 courtesy of ChiZine Publications

Cover image of Imaginarium 2013 courtesy of ChiZine Publications

Writing speculative fiction is pretty dangerous… your perceptions change to adapt to a world that is off-kilter from what we like to see as “the norm”, your understanding of the world shifts to adapt to a new worldview, and you create new worlds and new realities. But, what happens when your characters start to assert themselves, when, instead of being distorted by the reality you impose on them, they begin to impose their own reality on you, the author?

Michael Kelly’s short story “Blink” is an exploration of the distortions that come from writing. Writers explore other identities, other versions of themselves – “we all have some other version of ourselves, other identities” – and these parts, these little bits of ourselves that become our characters influence us, live within us. Michael Kelly explores what happens when a character assumes power in the author-character relationship and the author’s loss of control and focus of his thoughts. The story slips away as the character shifts, eludes narrative structure, and assumes dominance. This is a true horror for an author, when the character becomes the writer… after all, think about all of the horrors that authors regularly visit upon their characters….

To find out more about Michael Kelly, visit his website at http://www.undertowbooks.com/ . To read more about Imaginarium 2013, visit the ChiZine Publications website at http://chizinepub.com/books/imaginarium/imaginarium_2013.php .

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An Interview with James Alan Gardner

An Interview with James Alan Gardner
By Derek Newman-Stille

I have been very lucky to get in touch with James Alan Gardner. As a disability scholar and someone who is interested in portrayals in Science Fiction of people who are Othered, I was extremely pleased that Mr. Gardner agreed to do an interview with me. I hope that readers enjoy our conversation as much as I enjoyed participating in it. 

Spec Can: To begin our interview, could you tell me a little bit about yourself?

James Alan Gardner: I grew up in small-town Ontario, then went to the University of Waterloo to take math. Eventually I got my B.Math and M.Math in Applied Math, writing my master’s thesis on black holes. Just recently, I’ve gone back to UW part-time to study Earth Sciences. In my spare time, I meditate and do kung fu.

Spec Can: What role can Science Fiction have to push boundaries and help people to question the status quo?

James Alan Gardner: Science Fiction is always based on the question, “What would happen if things were different?” The differences can be technological, sociological, or even historical as in alternate history stories, but one way or another, SF deals with worlds that are not exactly like our own. The whole premise of SF is that the status quo is impermanent: it hasn’t always been what it is today, and it won’t be the same in future.

Spec Can: Your novels set in the League of Peoples universe question a lot of the traditions of human society and presents a future that both defies current assumptions about what is “normal” as well as presenting future worlds that continue with our assumptions. What interested you in questioning ideas of “normal” and traditions?

James Alan Gardner: I’m a straight white middle-class male, so the world has never hassled me about “normality”. Maybe that puts me in too privileged a position to say this, but I’ve never understood the concern about what is and isn’t normal. I meet people who are afraid that they’re weird or who brag about being weird, and my reaction is, “Who cares?” (Well, usually, my first reaction is, “You have no idea what weird really is.” Caring about weirdness is pretty darned mainstream.)

So I never deliberately set out to confront tradition or normality. Stuff like that just never occurs to me. Instead, I ask, “What would be interesting? What wouldn’t be cliché?” That may take me to non-traditional places, but not in the spirit of questioning tradition or addressing it at all. It’s just more interesting to do something that hasn’t been done to death.

For example, the whole idea of the League of Peoples comes out of a desire not to do warring interstellar societies. War in space is so old hat. How could I do space adventure stories without war? So I invented a universe where interstellar war was absolutely impossible. Then I followed all the implications to see what would happen.

Spec Can: As a disability scholar, I was fascinated by your novel Expendable and the concept of a universe in the future where people who are disabled or disfigured are treated as an expendable class because they are considered less aesthetically appealing. What inspired this novel? What are some of the issues around appearance and the body that you were hoping to attract attention to?Expendable

James Alan Gardner: For any Star Trek fan, it’s obvious that Expendable was inspired by the redshirts: the characters who got killed instead of the show’s stars. One night, I was writing impromptu—just improvising to see what came up—and Festina’s voice erupted with the first ten pages of the novel, pretty much exactly as they appear in the finished book. I had no prior ideas for any of that material; I don’t know why it was sitting in my subconscious. But once it was on the page, I had to deal with it and make a story around it.

A lot of what eventually appeared in Expendable was informed by issues of privilege. Except for the Explorer Corps, everyone else in the Technocracy navy is shallow and pampered. Later on in the series, I let the “pretty people” have more depth—they’re human, so they have their private pains, despite being born “lucky”—but Expendable was filtered through the eyes of Festina Ramos, and at that time, Festina had a huge chip on her shoulder.

Recently, John Scalzi has come up with a great way of expressing something I was talking about in Expendable. Scalzi said that being a straight white (non-disabled) male is like playing video games on the easiest setting. It’s not that life is problem-free, but that the bar you have to clear is lower. An ongoing issue in the League of Peoples stories is that Explorers are better prepared to deal with the unknown because they’ve faced more adversity than most of the other people in their time.

Spec Can: Commitment Hour presents people who change sex every year until they reach the age of 21. What was it like to conceive of an annual shift in sex for your characters? How did this question the rigidity of gender roles and gendered identities for you?

James Alan Gardner: I really like the alternating-sex set-up of Commitment Hour, but in retrospect I don’t think I used it as well as I could have.

The action was narrated by a character named Fullin who was male during the action of the novel, but who had occasional flashbacks to years when he was female. For the purpose of the story, Fullin’s culture had to differentiate between male and female gender roles—otherwise, there’s no drama when characters have to choose one sex over the other. So male Fullin had to have a different identity than female Fullin. But I went too far in making male Fullin a full-out sexist. If I could do the book over, I’d make Fullin’s male and female personalities different in some other way. That would have allowed me to address issues of gender with more nuance.

I might note that this highlights an important point about writing: the restrictions imposed by your viewpoint character. Writers aren’t 100% confined by the character’s viewpoint—there are tricks you can use to sneak past the character’s limitations—but you can only go so far. Every character is a collection of blind-spots, and that stops them from being able to tell certain types of stories.

Spec Can: In Vigilant, you examine what a society would be like where polygamous (group) marriages are traditional. What fascinated you with the idea of questioning the assumption that all relationships should be monogamous?

James Alan Gardner: I went into Vigilant wanting to write about a democracy. Too often, SF shows future societies that are monarchies or oligarchies; I wanted to write about a real democracy with institutions designed to keep it working well. This led to an interest in the relationship of individuals to groups…so it was a short step to making group marriage the standard family form. It’s more social, less claustrophobic.

The group marriage also gave the narrator Faye a social connection—she’s not a loner, like so many SF protagonists—while giving her more rope to play with, sexually. There are things she does in the novel which would be objectionable in a normal two-person marriage, but which are less so in a loose group marriage.

Spec Can: What is something that you hope that readers will take away from reading your novels?

James Alan Gardner: I hope my readers enjoy spending time with the characters. I also hope I’ve given people things to think about that they haven’t seen before. Finally, I hope that readers have had a few laughs; comedy matters a lot to me.

Spec Can: As an educator as well as science fiction author, in what ways do you see SF as being something that can be pedagogical?

James Alan Gardner: Science fiction and fantasy can deal with the world being changed to an extent that doesn’t happen in other branches of literature. I don’t just mean depicting different kinds of worlds; I mean the process of people actually changing the world. In other forms of literature, characters may make a difference on a small scale, but they can’t be world-changers.

For example, what would a literary novel about Einstein look like? It would be about his childhood, his home life, his psychology, and so on. It wouldn’t be about his big public accomplishments. SF can talk about the big stuff because SF worlds are always subject to change. That’s what we write about: different worlds. So it’s very easy for SF to show entire worlds being changed by the actions of people. That’s a lesson readers should learn.

Spec Can: What do you see as particularly Canadian about the SF you produce? Does your Canadian identity influence your work, and, if so, in what ways?

James Alan Gardner: Being Canadian affects everything I write, though seldom in any obvious way. For example, I think it makes me more quietly optimistic than American or British writers. Canada is far from perfect, but we have experience with peaceful coexistence between different types of people. In a lot of American SF, there’s a subtext that culture war is inevitable unless everyone melts together into the same pot. In Canada, we don’t see that as necessary—individuals can be very different, yet still get along.

Spec Can: Where do you see Canadian SF going from here? What is the future of Canadian SF?

James Alan Gardner: There are plenty of good Canadian SF writers, and more appearing each year. Just to name a few whom I make sure to follow: Robert J. Sawyer, Karl Schroeder, Julie Czerneda, Guy Gavriel Kay, Nalo Hopkinson, Tanya Huff, Peter Watts, and no doubt others who slip my mind at this moment. (You’ll notice that I don’t distinguish between science fiction and fantasy. To me, the family resemblances between science fiction and fantasy are more important than the differences.)

Spec Can: How can the figure of “the Alien” make us think more about ourselves and question the things that we do?

James Alan Gardner: In science fiction, aliens typically fall into one of three categories: totally alien, so we really can’t understand anything they do; pretty much human, in which case they’re mostly like us, except for cosmetic touches; and human reflections, where the aliens are like humans in many ways, but have some substantial difference (e.g. Star Trek Vulcans with their devotion to logic and attempted erasure of emotion).

Often, authors use the third category to make some point about the human condition by exaggerating or eliminating some ordinary human trait. When it’s done well, it can make us think about that trait’s role in our lives and society. Since I’ve already mentioned Vulcans, a great many Star Trek episodes played on the place of emotion in human existence. When is it good? When it is bad? What are its strengths and weaknesses? Spock’s presence made it possible to explore such questions. In fact, Spock’s presence almost forced the writers to keep coming back to the questions, and to make them a central part of the series. The writers had to keep digging, and to keep thinking about the role of emotion in our lives.

Spec Can: As a pacifist, I was fascinated by the idea of murderers being defined as “Dangerous Non-Sentients” by the League of Peoples in your novels – the idea that people who killed were considered not sentient by the League and unable to therefore travel from their solar system. What inspired this idea of the “Dangerous Non-Sentient”?

James Alan Gardner: I’ve already mentioned my desire to write books without interstellar wars, just as a way to avoid doing the same old same-old. The other thing that the League’s influence did was separate humanity into two camps: those who left Earth were those who accepted the League’s version of pacifism; those who remained on Earth were essentially the people who couldn’t bear to put down their guns. As a result, those left on Earth went through a very turbulent time, and order was only restored when one group came out on top (with help from alien partners). This gave me a cake-and-eat-it arrangement: League-imposed pacifism in space, and a much more violent situation for those who stayed on Earth. I could play around with both strands of human culture, and eventually show what might happen if they were artificially separated.

Spec Can: Is there anything else you would like to add to this interview?

James Alan Gardner: Thanks for asking me to participate!

I want to thank James Alan Gardner for this incredible interview and for all of the insights that he has raised. If you are interested in reading more of his work, you can explore his website at http://www.thinkage.ca/~jim/english/index.shtml

Upcoming Interview with James Alan Gardner on Thursday, May 9

On Thursday May 9, Speculating Canada will be interviewing James Alan Gardner. Gardner is the author of The League of People’s Universe novels Expendable, ExpendableCommitment Hour, Vigilant, Hunted, Ascending, Trapped, and Radiant. I first encountered James Alan Gardner through the recommendation of Alissa Paxton (who has co-hosted several Speculating Canada programmed on Trent Radio). She had recommended Mr. Gardner as an author who would interest me because of my research on portrayals of disability in Canadian SF.

I was very lucky that Mr. Gardner was willing to do an interview and share his thoughts with readers. Check out our interview on May 9 and read about James Alan Gardner’s insights on the power of SF to open things to questions, trying to do SF that hasn’t been done before, the development of character voices, relationships between characters and power relationships, the difference in Canadian SF, and the figure of the alien.

Here are a few teasers from the upcoming interview:

James Alan Gardner: “Science Fiction is always based on the question, ‘What would happen if things were different?’”

James Alan Gardner: “The whole premise of SF is that the status quo is impermanent: it hasn’t always been what it is today, and it won’t be the same in future.”

James Alan Gardner: “The whole idea of the League of Peoples comes out of a desire not to do warring interstellar societies. War in space is so old hat. How could I do space adventure stories without war? So I invented a universe where interstellar war was absolutely impossible. Then I followed all the implications to see what would happen.”

James Alan Gardner: “Recently, John Scalzi has come up with a great way of expressing something I was talking about in Expendable. Scalzi said that being a straight white (non-disabled) male is like playing video games on the easiest setting. It’s not that life is problem-free, but that the bar you have to clear is lower. An ongoing issue in the League of Peoples stories is that Explorers are better prepared to deal with the unknown because they’ve faced more adversity than most of the other people in their time.”

James Alan Gardner: “Every character is a collection of blind-spots, and that stops them from being able to tell certain types of stories.”

James Alan Gardner: “I went into Vigilant wanting to write about a democracy. Too often, SF shows future societies that are monarchies or oligarchies; I wanted to write about a real democracy with institutions designed to keep it working well. This led to an interest in the relationship of individuals to groups…so it was a short step to making group marriage the standard family form. It’s more social, less claustrophobic.”

James Alan Gardner: “I hope my readers enjoy spending time with the characters. I also hope I’ve given people things to think about that they haven’t seen before.”

James Alan Gardner: “Science fiction and fantasy can deal with the world being changed to an extent that doesn’t happen in other branches of literature.”

I hope that you enjoy this conversation with Mr. Gardner as much as I did. The questions and ideas he brought up stimulate excellent discussion. Check out the full interview on May 9th.

If you have not yet had a chance to explore James Alan Gardner’s books, they are available in ebook format from his website at http://www.thinkage.ca/~jim/english/index.shtml

Characters in Books Become Real in the Otherworld

A Review of Charles de Lint’s Spirits in the Wires
By Derek Newman-Stille

In his Spirits in the Wires, Charles de Lint expresses something that I have wished to be true since I was a child: that the characters that we read in books become real through our collective imagination. De Lint’s Otherworld and the In-Between, standing between our world and the Otherworld is made up of the spirits and beings of myth, legend, and religion in addition to discarded parts of the human imagination and manifestations of belief. Within this realm are fairies, manitou, gnomes, dwarves, characters from novels that human beings have read, and even the discarded shadow of the self (the part of ourselves that we cast off as we develop ideas about what we want ourselves to be and what we don’t).  There is something absolutely comforting about the idea that your belief in the characters you read about in books makes them manifest and real in another realm – that warm feeling that by reading about them, you are sustaining these characters, feeding them with imagination and that there are hundreds of lives inside of you being created and maintained by your love of literature.

Spirits in the Wires focusses around a wide group of characters both human and otherworldly, including a woman who was created by a website as a way of learning about the world outside of the web, and the discarded shadow self of an author and preserver of urban myth. The internet itself has become a place that creates spirits from the imaginings of human beings, creating worlds between the wires, between computer systems. De Lint focusses on the Wordwood, an internet site that has been featured in several of de Lint’s books that was a repository for books and information which eventually gained sentience through the volume of stories running through it. The hodgepodge of stories, myths, and tales running through the Wordwood had a capacity to breathe life into it, grant it consciousness and personality as well as magic, which courses through the site.

Charles de Lint has often described the place of magic as a place in-between, to the corner, at the edge, and the internet is a logical place of magic, existing between computers in an ether of signals and wires. He disrupts the binary that often separates the magical from the technological, creating a story where the two interact, reinforce each other, and in doing so creates a new mythology for the cyber age.

Despite their separation from the human experience, there is something fundamentally human about the spirits that de Lint creates. They are figures in constant identity crises, trying to find out who they are and how their pasts have been formative in creating them. Saskia is a woman who suddenly appears with no tangible background, knowing things only as facts and not as direct experience. She is a creation of the Wordwood site, and has to face whether she is a simulacrum of humanity or if there is something intrinsically her about her existence. She is simultaneously self and stranger on the cusp between knowing herself and finding every experience new and challenging to her identity. Christianna, the discarded shadow self of urban fantasy author Christy, cast away in his youth, is forced to come to terms with her identity as a distinct being, trying to find herself while surrounded by the baggage of being a cast-off, abandoned. She explores whether there is something about her that is separate from Christy and whether there is value in her own existence. Even characters from books who have gained sentience and lives of their own separate from the novel that created them have identity issues, experiencing a grudge toward the authorial parents that created them from their imaginations. De Lint questions the nature of personhood and asks readers to look at whether origin is as significant in identity formation as we tend to think – whether we are created from the discarded parts of another person, manifest through a website’s desire to experience the world, a character from someone else’s imagination does that origin define us, or are we defined by what we do after we are conceived of?

De Lint asks the fundamental question that underlies a great deal of human experience: who am I? And, as a good author does, he doesn’t provide readers with an answer, but allows them to ponder what defined us, how we create ourselves, and what creates identity.

Spirits in the Wires is a novel about identity and self discovery, and particularly the power of a community to help in the process of identity development. Characters in this novel help each other to discover what is fundamentally separate and unique about them, and characters find some keys to their identity (though not an answer to this question that cannot be answered) in the process of a mythic quest. He reminds us that it often takes those around us to show us that we are unique and that we are fundamentally different from the primordial ooze that manifested us.

You can explore more about Charles de Lint and Spirits in the Wires at http://www.sfsite.com/charlesdelint/

Interview with Douglas Smith

An Interview with Douglas Smith
By Derek Newman-Stille

This week I had a great opportunity to chat with Toronto author Douglas Smith to

Author Photo Courtesy of Douglas Smith

discuss ideas about genre-crossing in SF, the ability of SF to challenge the status quo and propose new questions and ideas about how we can view our world, and the power of SF as a medium without boundaries. Interviewing Douglas Smith was an incredible experience because he has done so much introspection about his role as an author and is highly aware of his creative process. I hope that you enjoy hearing about his insights as much as I did.

I want to thank Mr. Smith for being willing to do an interview for Speculating Canada, and I will let him introduce himself and his work below.

Spec Can: Could you tell us a little bit about yourself to start of this interview?

Douglas Smith: I’ve been writing for about fifteen years and have over a hundred and fifty short story publications in thirty countries and two dozen languages. I have three published story collections: Chimerascope (ChiZine Publications, 2010), Impossibilia (PS Publishing, 2008), and a recently translated fantasy collection, La Danse des Esprits (France, 2011). My first novel, a shape-shifter fantasy set in Northern Ontario, The Wolf at the End of the World, will be released in 2013.

I’ve twice won the Aurora Award, and have been a finalist for the John W. Campbell Award, the CBC’s Bookies Award, the juried Sunburst Award, and France’s juried Prix Masterton and Prix Bob Morane.

A multi-award winning film based on my story “By Her Hand, She Draws You Down” will be released on DVD this year, and other films based on my stories are in the works.

I’m Toronto born and raised, and live in Markham with my wife. We have two grown sons and a beautiful granddaughter. By day, I’m an IT executive, and by night I fight crime in the streets of the city–no, wait–that’s Batman. By night, I try to find time to write.

My website is smithwriter.com  and I tweet at twitter.com/smithwritr.

Spec Can: Your work is extremely diverse. What is the key to being able to write in multiple genres of the speculative?

Douglas Smith: I’m not sure if there’s a single answer to that. For me, I read widely as a kid across genres, especially SF, fantasy, and mystery, but general fiction as well, so when I began writing, it just seemed natural to write across genres. I’m also an avid movie goer, so I’ve been exposed to storytelling (good and bad) across genres in that medium as well. As a reader, I’ve always enjoyed stories that mix genres. One of my favourite writers, Roger Zelazny, was a master of what I call “science fantasy”, stories which have the veneer or trappings of fantasy, but have a core logic of SF, stories like “Lord of Light” or “Jack of Shadows.”

Spec Can: What draws you to write Science Fiction? What can science fiction do that realist fiction can’t?

Douglas Smith: I think that the genre’s greatest power as a literature is, to paraphrase the great SF anthologist Damon Knight, to hold up a distorted mirror to our current reality, to focus on some aspect of our world which needs to change (in the writer’s opinion). It’s that “if this goes on…” type of story that allows SF to provide a social commentary in a way that mimetic fiction cannot.

That’s the power of SF and fantasy (and I’d put SF as a specific subset of fantasy)–there are fewer (no?) limitations to the types of stories that I can tell. The stories still need an internal logic and consistency, but I’m not bound by any concerns of matching current reality. That is wonderfully freeing for a writer.

Spec Can: What draws you to write horror?

Douglas Smith: I actually don’t consider myself a horror writer.  I have only consciously sat down to write one pure horror story ever, and that was “By Her Hand, She Draws You Down.” That being said, my work often gets tagged as horror in “Best of …” anthologies and reviews, and many of my SF and fantasy stories do have horror elements to them. I’ve always thought of horror as more of a mood rather than a genre, so when I include horror in my stories, it’s more that I think those elements fit with the broader character arcs or the plot, rather than that I’m aiming at a writing a horror story. I don’t read horror, beyond some of the classics and the occasional Steven King or Clive Barker.  I do tend to see a fair number of horror movies, but even those tend to the supernatural, rather than the slasher, real world horror stories. Serial killer or chain-saw massacre stories bore me. But I love werewolf or ghost movies, for example. I’ve written several shape-shifter stories, plus one vampire story that I didn’t realize was a vampire story until multiple reviewers began mentioning it as an unusual take on vampirism. And I’m currently working on a zombie story that really isn’t a zombie story.

Spec Can: What can speculative fiction tell us about ourselves as readers and as a society?

Douglas Smith: I’d go back to the “distorted mirror” analogy I mentioned above. Fantasy or SF can use other worlds–future or alternate–to focus on aspects of our real world, our shared beliefs, our conflicting beliefs, our humanity, our inhumanity, our potential, our failings, to let us view ourselves through a different lens, at a slightly different angle. Speculative fiction, by the very nature of its unreality, can make us see our reality in ways that mimetic fiction cannot. How we relate to those views, which messages resonate with us as individual readers, can then tell us something about ourselves.

Spec Can: Where do your ideas come from?

Douglas Smith: www.ideas’r_us.com. Just kidding.  Ah, that question. The one that every writer gets at some point.  It’s a very logical question for a reader to ask, but a difficult and often puzzling one for writers to answer, because, I think, readers and writers come at that question from very different perspectives. A reader sees a writer, and thinks “that person’s a writer. Therefore, they need ideas to write about. I wonder where they get those ideas.” This makes perfect sense, except that the experience for writers is exactly the reverse of that sequence.

Asking a writer where they get their ideas is like asking a beleaguered doctor in an under-staffed emergency room where she gets her patients. And you’ll get a similar response from both: I don’t know and I don’t care. I just try to fix them up as best I can and send them out into the world. But I do wish that whoever is sending them to me would slow down a bit.

Most writers are writers precisely because we are constantly getting ideas. And a lot of us would be quite happy to have fewer of them cluttering up our mental waiting rooms, thank you very much, because the only way to get those ideas out of our heads is to write them down into stories. Until we do that, they exist as nattering voices reminding us that they are waiting to be born onto the page.

Let me give one example: my story “The Red Bird” (which appeared in On Spec #45) is an epic fantasy that combines martial arts, a lonely beach, and a very singular bird into a fable set in what might or might not be late 14th century Japan. So where did I get the idea for the story? I’m not sure, but I can explain the events that led up to the idea arriving.

As a child, I spent many summers with my family at a rented cottage on Georgian Bay, just north of Wasaga Beach. My favourite memories are of early mornings, windy and overcast, walking on the wide sandy beach, alone except for the crashing of waves and the cries of the gulls. Many years later, I began studying karate with my oldest son, Mike. One summer, our club held a weekend camp at Georgian Bay. Much to my surprise, the location they chose was the same collection of cottages from my childhood summers, and I spent the weekend practising and sparring on that same beach. At the end of the weekend, I walked that beach again, remembering those mornings of long ago. Somewhere in that stroll, the story was born, initially no more than a strong image of a strange bird with burning plumage and god-like powers of life and death. I don’t know from where that image came, but just being in that physical environment with all of its past and recent memories stimulated the creative process for me, and influenced many of the elements that appear in the story.

How a writer takes a kernel of a story idea and develops it into a story, however, is something that most writers can answer, and I think that’s your next question.

Spec Can:  Great prediction! What sorts of things are the points of genesis for a story?

Douglas Smith: Sometimes it’s an unusual image, such as that strange red bird. Or a giant arch built from encased corpses (“Enlightenment”) or a house as big as the world (“Going Harvey in the Big House”). Sometimes it’s an opening line or a title, such as “By her hand, she draws you down” or “The universe ended at noon. Again.” Other times it will be an idea or situation, such as a drug that turns all emotions, even pain and sorrow, into joy (“Scream Angel”). I have also written several stories (and plan to write more) that were inspired by a line or situation in a Bruce Springsteen song (“Going Down to Lucky Town” and “Radio Nowhere”).

Finally, it can be a character who shows up, and you know you need to figure out their story, how they came to be where they are, and where they will go from there.  Or how they ended up where you’ve found them, because many of my story ideas start with the last image, the last scene. I rarely write a story in order, and often write the last scene before any other.

And not all ideas that show up are good ones, so a writer has to perform some sort of triage on the ideas sitting in their mental waiting room, to reuse my earlier analogy. I have to decide which ones need to be pulled into O/R now and written before they drive me crazy (crazier?); which ones need more time to diagnose and should be kept waiting; and which ones are the malingerers–ideas so incredibly stupid that I’ll try to ignore them and hope that they go away and stop bothering me until I see someone else resurrect them in a movie.

Once I’ve decided to develop an idea into a story, for me, I need to know my characters. I can’t tell any story unless I can tell it as a character’s journey. If I don’t understand my characters, who they are, what drives them, what they want, then I can’t tell the story. For me, everything in a story is character. Plot turns must be based on character decisions. Even setting is character, since what the reader learns about the story’s setting must be through the senses of the story’s point-of-view characters, so what that character notices and cares about in the setting is what the reader experiences as well.

I’ll give one detailed example of the genesis of a story, which also illustrates something else that I’ve discovered–that a single idea is often not enough. A story is stronger if it combines multiple, often seemingly disparate ideas.

Early in my novelette, “Bouquet of Flowers in a Vase, by Van Gogh,” the main character Maroch reads a plaque beside the painting of the story title:

“This still life is not mentioned in van Gogh’s letters and has puzzled scholars as to its place in his artistic production. Most certainly a late work and possibly the Museum’s first painting from his Auvers period (May-July1890).”

That is taken from the actual plaque in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City for the actual painting, “Bouquet of Flowers in a Vase” by van Gogh.

Art is a passion of mine (as a viewer, not a creator). When I travel, I try to visit the local art museums in that city, with a special interest in European art from the mid-1800’s through the surrealists. But my favorite artist has long been Vincent. I’ve seen (I think) every publicly viewable painting of his in every museum in every city I’ve ever visited. I’ve read his letters with his brother, Theo, and ever so many biographies.

I’d always wanted to write a story about Vincent. I’d tried to write that story many years ago, a story about a woman in our time in love with Vincent and who (somehow) actually managed to meet him. The “somehows” that I tried didn’t work for me, so that story stayed in my head as one of those annoying little voices tickling me every now and then to remind me that it was still waiting to be born, until I found myself in front of “Bouquet of Flowers in a Vase” in the MMoA.

I’d never seen the painting before, which was cool enough, but when I read the plaque, I knew that I had to use this somehow in my Vincent story. Van Gogh is one of the most researched artists of all time, and because of his extensive letter correspondence with his beloved brother, Theo, we have a running commentary of his entire artistic career, including what paintings he was working on at any time. For a painting to be unmentioned and undated was a wonderful mystery.

But I still didn’t have my time travel “somehow”. Then one evening, a writer friend was discussing remote viewing and how it had been used in the field of one of her own passions, archeology, to search for the lost tomb of Alexander the Great.

Somewhere in that conversation, the penny dropped, and I knew I had my time travel “somehow” to link my heroine in modern time to Vincent in the past. I did some research on remote viewing, from which came another part of my story: my main character, a former CIA operative. I added some tragedy in his past and a search for lost paintings, and the story (finally) started to take shape.

So sometimes a story idea has a very long stay in the waiting room.

Spec Can: Where do you think Canadian Speculative Fiction is going from here?

Douglas Smith: I have no idea, beyond bigger and better and more well known. We have an astoundingly talented array of speculative fiction writers, both established and emerging, all across the country, in all genres. At one time, I could give a list of recommended Canadian speculative fiction writers, but now I won’t even try because I know I’ll leave someone out and feel bad about it.

As a timely example of both Canadian writing and the themes that it can deal with, I’ll point to the brand new anthology, Blood and Water (Bundoran Press, 2012), edited by Hayden Trenholm and featuring stories from Canadian writers about “the new resource wars that will mark the next fifty years – stories of conflict and cooperation, of hope and despair – all told from a uniquely Canadian perspective.” Full disclosure: my shape-shifter, logging activism story “Spirit Dance,” which is the prequel to my novel The Wolf at the End of the World, is included.

Spec Can: What is distinctly Canadian about your work? What Canadian themes do you work with?

Douglas Smith: Another tough question. While I’m thinking up an answer, why don’t you check out Karen Bennett’s wonderful “Fantastic Toronto” web site (http://www.karenbennett.ca/FantasticToronto.html), which is an extensively researched bibliography of science fiction/speculative fiction, fantasy and horror that is set in (or has major mentions of) Toronto.

You’re back? Damn, I still need an answer. Well, beyond the Canadian and Toronto settings in many of my stories, now that I think of it, one of themes that recurs in my work, especially the Heroka shapeshifter stories, is that of the conflict between our civilization and the natural wilderness, as our resource-based industries, which feed our cities’ growing hunger for timber, water, power, minerals, and land, consumes more and more of the natural world and habitats of our wildlife. Our country has always been defined by its vast wilderness areas, and yet the huge majority of our population lives in only a few highly urbanized pockets of that vastness.  So there’s this destructive dichotomy between us and the land we live in–we live off of the land but we don’t really live in it. But for those who do live there and for the wildlife species that live there, we’re destroying more of that wilderness every year to feed the hunger of the cities. This is the central theme in The Wolf at the End of the World and in most of my other Heroka stories. The Heroka are a race of shape shifters whose vitality as a race is tied directly to the vitality of their totem animal species, species that are dwindling as their natural habitats are destroyed by logging or mining concerns, or flooded for hydro-electric projects.

Other Canadian themes in my work include a suspicion of both corporate and political power, a suspicion that I think is greater here in Canada than, for example, in the US.

Spec Can:  What are the values of writing short fiction?

Douglas Smith: I think that short fiction remains the best way to “break in” as a speculative fiction writer and to build a reputation with sales and awards. It’s also the best way to learn the craft of writing prose. Short stories allow a writer to write across genres, to learn different techniques, to try different approaches from one story to another that the novel form doesn’t permit (or rather, it would take longer to do over multiple novels).

And finally, quite frankly, if you’re a beginning writer, I think it’s wiser to invest your time in writing a few short stories and trying to sell them than in writing and marketing a novel. It’s a smaller hill to climb to find out if you can sell what you write. And to find out if you actually enjoy writing.

For me, at this point in my career, I’m spending most of my writing time on novels. But I love short stories, both to read and to write, and will (I hope) always continue to write them.

Spec Can: What inspired you to write the short story By Her Hand, She Draws You Down? What ideas did you deal with in this story?

Douglas Smith: I’ve always been fascinated by the creative process and have written several stories about other creative arts, such as music in “Symphony,” sculpture in “Enlightenment,” dance in “The Dancer at the Red Door” or art in “Bouquet of Flowers in a Vase, by Van Gogh” and “By Her Hand…”

The genesis of the story came while engaging in that favourite past-time of writers, staring out a window, this particular window being on the GO bus (Toronto commuter thingy) that I was riding home that evening. I’ve found that a flow of images in that sort of situation seems to trigger some sort of subconscious creative process. Anyway, the opening line to the poem that opens the story and forms the title to the story arrived from somewhere, and then Cath, the tortured artist of the story, showed up to audition for the lead role shortly thereafter.

This was the first pure horror story I ever wrote. It was an Aurora finalist and was selected for The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror #13. A movie adaptation of the story from TinyCore Pictures toured film festivals in 2010-2011 and is included on the horror anthology DVD, Gallery of Fear.

Spec Can: What social issues can Science Fiction and Horror explore?

Douglas Smith: I’ve touched on many of these in my answers to some of the earlier questions, regarding the power of SF and Canadian themes, so I’ll give a short answer here:

Anything. Literally, anything.

If there is a social issue that a writer wishes to explore and bring attention to, speculative fiction provides the freedom through its “distorted mirror” to let a writer bring whatever focus they desire to that issue. I really see no limits. Rather, I think that SF&F offer more options for doing so than within the restrictions of mainstream mimetic fiction.

Spec Can: What role does diversity play in your work?

Douglas Smith: I certainly aim at a good balance of gender diversity.  About half of my stories have females as the main character or a key point-of-view character. My upcoming novel, The Wolf at the End of the World, has three female and three male POV characters. Beyond a gender diversity, half of the main characters in that book are Anishinabe, both Cree and Ojibwa. Plus there’s a blind POV character (which was interesting to write). One of the characters is even dead, which is a sector of our society that is usually not given a voice, so I’m trying to do my part. My next novel, an urban fantasy set in Toronto, has a gay character. But I’m sure I could do more and plan on having even more diversity in my cast of characters in future stories.

Spec Can:  What is the virtue of creating characters outside of the mainstream?

Douglas Smith: I’m not sure how virtuous it is, but it’s certainly fun from a creative perspective. Aside from that, characters outside the norm, whether they be aliens in our universe, humans from our possible futures, or characters from an entirely different reality, alternate or fantasy, aid in bringing the distorted mirror into focus. These characters can look at our world, our societies, our problems with fresh eyes and fresh outlooks, and thereby show readers a different perspective.

Or they can just be freaking cool, giving a reader that sense of wonder that only speculative fiction can deliver.

Spec Can: Your stories deal with some mythical characteristics. What can myths teach people in the modern world? How are myths still active in our world?

Douglas Smith: The ancient myths were the way that humans tried to explain the unexplainable, and writers and artists are still trying to explain the universe and our place in it. Our myths simply change as we learn more. Science replaces a myth, but each answer we find simply leads to another area where we know nothing. Myths rush in to fill the void. We are story tellers and will always be story tellers. It’s part of being human–it’s hard-wired in us. We will always use stories to try to explain or to process our world and what it means to be human. So we will always be building myths–stories that try to explain, stories that everyone knows are myths but enjoy by pretending they’re real.  The best stories, like the best myths, contain an element of truth that helps to make it all make sense.

Here’s an extract from my upcoming novel, The Wolf at the End of the World, which has an animal habitat / environment destruction theme, and draws heavily on Cree and Ojibwa stories and myths. In this scene, the Cree spirit Wisakejack is explaining the Cree story about the creation of the world to a boy named Zach who will play a part in an impending and mysterious battle:

“In the beginning,” Wisakejack began, “Kitche Manitou, the Great Spirit of the People, dreamed of this world. Kitche Manitou knew that dreams are important, even for him, so he meditated on his dream and realized that he had to bring what he had dreamed into being.

            “So, out of nothing–the nothing that we’re floating in right now–he made four elements–rock, water, fire, and wind. Into each, he breathed the breath of life, giving each its own spirit.”

            Zach suddenly felt solid ground under his feet. Rain wet his face, and a breeze moved his hair. He felt the heat of flames and smelled smoke. He still could see nothing but mist.

            “From these four elements,” Wisakejack said, “he created the four things that form the physical world: the sun, stars, moon, and earth.”

            Zach gasped. The grey mist was gone. A red sun sank over a broad bare plain of gray rock cut by a winding river, while a full moon peeked yellow-white over a tall, barren mountain under a canopy of stars in a black sky.

            “Then Kitche Manitou made the plant beings in four kinds: flowers, grasses, trees, vegetables.”

            From the bare expanse of rock, a forest of huge trees and undergrowth suddenly arose. Zach sensed something primal about this place. Something old–very, very old–and yet, at the same time, something still new, virgin.

            “And to the plants, he gave four spirits–life, growth, healing, and beauty.”

            “He liked to do things in fours, didn’t he?” Zach said, looking around in wonder.

            Wisakejack grinned. “See? You are learning. Next he created animals, each with special powers–two-legged, four-legged, winged, and swimmers–yep, four again.”

            Zach heard chirping and looked up to see a blue jay on a tree branch. When he looked back down, the coyote from his first dream sat beside him.

            “Wisakejack?”

            The coyote’s outline shimmered, and Wisakejack took its place. He stood up, brushing himself off. “Last, Kitche Manitou made the People. Humans.” He raised a finger. “Last–not first. That’s your most important lesson tonight. The plants came after the physical world, cuz they needed the earth, air, rain, and sun to live. The animals came after the plants, cuz the meat-eaters needed the plant-eaters, and the plant-eaters, well, they needed the plants.”

            “And people came last,” Zach said slowly, “because we depend on everything–sun, water, earth, air, plants, animals.”

            Wisakejack grinned. “Yep. None of the other orders of life needs humans to survive, but people depend on everything. You’re the weakest of the four orders–something the white man has never figured out. But Kitche Manitou wasn’t finished. Because the People were the weakest of his creations, he gave them the greatest of all his gifts–the power to dream.” He looked at Zach hard, his grin gone. “You believe that, kid? That dreaming is a power?”

Spec Can: You are able to really get into the minds of your characters. How do you get into the minds of alien or other than human characters?

Douglas Smith: I don’t really differentiate between the human and non-human characters. Writing a story for me means understanding my characters and telling the story via their journeys through it. An alien may be completely different from us in physiology, intelligence, culture, spiritual beliefs, and moral code, but all sentient creatures will be motivated by something, both as a race and as individuals. It’s just a matter of understanding what is important to a character.

And when I say understanding a character, I don’t mean completing one of those ridiculous “character sheets” that often get foisted on beginning writers. I couldn’t care less what my character’s favourite colour is or what they like for breakfast. If those details are needed in a story, fine, I’ll figure them out when I need to. But that isn’t understanding a character. Understanding a character means knowing what makes them tick. What gets them out of bed each morning? Or why do they dread getting out of bed? What are their passions? Or maybe they don’t have any. What do they truly fear more than anything? What do they want more than anything? What would they die for? What would they kill for? And most important for any story, what are they are missing in their lives right now that will drive all their decisions in their story?

Spec Can: What is the role of the urban in your work? What can SF teach us about the city and cityscapes?

Douglas Smith: I’d say that I have always enjoyed stories set in our modern cities where something of the other intrudes, unnoticed by most except (of course) by the story’s main character who is brought to a close encounter with the strangeness, either by chance or by intent. It’s one of the reasons that I enjoy the work of Charles de Lint so much. Other works that come to mind are the openings in the first books of Zelazny’s Amber series, Andre Norton’s Witchworld series, and Farmer’s World of Tiers series.

Regarding what spec fic can teach us about urban life, it’s back to the distorted mirror again. We are becoming increasingly dependent on technology to make our complex urban civilizations run. But at what cost? SF contains multitudinous extrapolations of what our cities and city-dwellers might become. We’ve gone from the fanciful city of flying cars in early SF to darker and dystopic views, and I’d include my own “Going Harvey in the Big House” in the latter category.

Spec Can: Is there anything else that you would like to mention to our readers?

Douglas Smith: Just that I hope they’ll visit my web site at http://smithwriter.com and take a tour. If any of your readers would like to check out any of the stories I mention here, they are all available as individual ebooks at all major etailers or from the store on my web site, and are also included in one of my collections, Chimerascope or Impossibilia.  And please look for my urban fantasy, The Wolf at the End of the World, in early 2013.

Thanks for the invitation to be interviewed here and for the thought-provoking questions.

I want to thank Douglas Smith for sharing his insights with us and provoking new thoughts and ideas about the future of SF and of human beings. To read more about Douglas Smith, check out his website at smithwriter.com. Click on Douglas Smith in the Tags on the left of this website to read some of my reviews.