An interview with Jerome Stueart by Derek Newman-Stille
There is nothing quite as fantastic as an interview that begins by thanking reviewers! It was truely a pleasure to talk to Jerome Stueart and I hope that all of you enjoy his insights as much as I did. I will let him introduce himself to you.
Spec Can: To begin this interview, can you tell us a little bit about yourself?
Jerome Stueart: Sure, Derek. First, thanks for interviewing me, and taking an interest in my work. Reviewers mean the world to writers!
I’m the son of a Texas Baptist preacher who grew up in a lot of small towns in the Midwest and Southwest US. My mom read me and my brother and sister myths, fairy tales, and the Chronicles of Narnia in our hallway between our bedrooms. I grew up loving Bradbury, Clarke, King, and Piers Anthony, and studying animals and science. I took a left turn away from science and into writing when I was a junior in the smallest high school in Texas because a teacher said she would mentor me. (Teachers make a difference). I went to college for literature and writing, attended Clarion in 2007 in San Diego, and then immigrated to the Yukon to write about science research here. Stayed because the people were awesome. I started out an English and Writing teacher, and became a marketer for an arts centre.
Spec Can: As an author from the Yukon, do you find that the environment of the Yukon influences your SF writing?
Jerome Stueart: You can’t help but see the Yukon’s exotic environment—light all day in the summer, darkness in the winter, extreme temps, strange wildlife, and a plethora of scientist all trying to find treasure up here. Geoscientists after marketable minerals; biologists after wilderness preservation. Passions run high here. I think I was surprised at how much my relationships, and the way the Yukon changes people quickly have both found their way into my writing. As I was working on my immigration in Texas, after having visited the Yukon for three years, I was yearning to come back to the Yukon—and now I find I have a lot of characters outside the Yukon yearning to get back in.
Spec Can: What is the SF community like in the Yukon? Has it been easy to create a community of authors and SF aficionados?
Jerome Stueart: There’s a healthy readership up here for scifi and fantasy, and there are several writers too—about 8 or 9. We formed a small group of SF/Fantasy writing adults, and then I started teaching a small group of high school students, and they stayed together for four years. Two of them are part of our adult group now. It’s not been easy to form the groups—as the Yukon is a very busy place, and writing is sometimes a very solitary profession—but we get together as often as we can.
Spec Can: Your short story One Nation Under Gods (from Tesseracts 14) speaks to your birthplace in the United States. What was the inspiration for this short story?
Jerome Stueart: My stories tend to be a hodgepodge of different things. Jeff VanderMeer at Clarion gave us an exercise that sparked the idea of imagining an alternate world. The young boy’s voice came out of that exercise. Two questions helped developed the story while I was at Clarion. I remembered some teen asked me while I was subbing a high school class, “Why do I need to know about history?”—hehe. Trying to convince her why history was important wasn’t easy. I found the answers too pat. The other question that helped develop the story was a question that many religious faiths grapple with: Why can’t God be more real? And what would that mean if we could actually see and touch our gods? My relationship with my younger sister and her dyslexia formed the emotional core of the story, and my feelings against a one-style fits all teaching method that favors memorization. I watched her struggle with a feeling of inadequacy because school didn’t “find” where she was brilliant.
Spec Can: One Nation Under Gods has a lot to say about the education system and its focus on memorization instead of developing a good questioning mindset. What could help to improve the education system? How important is speculation and the question ‘why’ to a healthy education system?
Jerome Stueart: It’s funny—I became a teacher—writing and literature—so I found myself having to deal with both sides of the issue. I had students who were not going to learn in the classic memorization way. I made my classes entertaining and engaging. But I still had to have standards of learning—and that’s where it broke down.
Everyone’s concerned with their grades. Students determine what they need to do to balance their lives and get just the grades they need to pass—or to get scholarships. It’s hard to generate an interest or love of reading if you are worried about your future. When it’s your Beowulf or their biology exam, biology wins.
Now, with the American government grading schools, schools have the same mindset. Schools want to pass—so out goes anything that’s not going to help them pass. Students are even more focused in high school on memorization to pass state exams to help the school out. We’ve turned schools into manufacturing plants with a QC officer standing at the door of the school waiting to lock it up if the “plant” doesn’t produce good enough product.
Society doesn’t back up any need to think as teachers might want their students to. Society wants skilled workers and consumers, not skilled thinkers and changers. We are a consumer culture. The most important day is not Election Day, but Black Friday.
Colleges have begun enhancing only programs that are funded by big business, and charging students a lot of money for tuition. [My student loans are crushing.] We’ve become training facilities for those businesses. Who’s gonna directly fund liberal arts courses—or provide jobs for thinkers? Imaginative students? We need them, but we don’t know where to put them in society. And burdening students with debt in college means that they only go into practical professions afterwards.
I think the current problems with getting the world to understand climate change is directly related to an inability to speculate—or see the future from the evidence you have. Society has equipped scientists to extrapolate from their research, but we don’t take their recommendations because we don’t trust science anymore, or intelligence. Unless the majority of the population respects knowledge, has a healthy speculative mind, they can’t see consequences.
I think this contributes to a rise in crime, a rise in mindless consent to whoever speaks the loudest, a rise in selfish individualism (rather than community), and a rise in a consumer culture.
Spec Can: What can speculative fiction do to help readers to question things and advocate for change?
Jerome Stueart: Speculation is about seeing natural consequences, about thinking about choices and figuring out where they will lead, and about large-scale societal consequences. I think speculative fiction is the reason we don’t condone cloning, or have nuclear war—science fiction showed us that there are no good ways of having those, and we believed them. Silent Spring is a “speculative novel” written as nonfiction by Rachel Carson with such an apocalyptic vision of the dangers of DDT and other chemicals we were putting on crops and in the air—with real evidence– that it scared people into regulation. Carson used speculative tools to give reason to turn the boat around.
Unfortunately, speculation in the wrong hands can just be fear-mongering. Recent commercials against Obama speculated a world four years from now full of apocalypse! Without any evidence. It was cheap scare tactics, but they worked on some people who couldn’t extrapolate from evidence, or who couldn’t question the premises or the evidence. I saw that in both political parties. If we don’t “produce” thinking minds—in every place in society—fear mongering will work, evidence won’t count. That scares me.
Climate Change has to find a way to alert people to change without becoming alarmist—but we have a society less-inclined to think for themselves now, and less-inclined to value knowledge and preventative measures. We’re all about reacting now. We’re all about consuming. We’re living like it’s the last days on Earth and we want our feast. Anyone who says we have to “cut back” which is the message of climate change—restraint—is taking away “our fun.” We are such a Mine Culture, not a Mind Culture. We may live together, but we don’t think together.
I would put MORE speculative literature in the classroom starting with Kim Stanley Robinson’s climate change series, Science in the Capital—or his Three Californias. I would teach kids to imagine their own futures—what will they be doing 20 years from now, and what will society be like. What do they WANT society to be like? And where do they see the forces in control trying to lead us? Kids can be taught to think speculatively and use it wisely.
Spec Can: In One Nation Under Gods you propose images of what American gods would be like if the United States were pantheistic. What gods would Canada have?
Jerome Stueart: Haha. I’m not going to tell you that! I really do want to do a sequel in Canada. But I’ll tell you this much—as an American living in Canada—it seems that Canadians think of themselves more regionally than Americans do. With larger “states”/provinces and territories, there’s more a chance for people to think regionally: Maritimers think of themselves very differently than Ontarians or Albertans, and I think their gods would have to reflect that. I think Canadian gods, too, would have less power over their people than what I’ve set up for the US. My point with One Nation is to say that the US has given too much power to their gods. I still treat the States as a “great experiment”, though, so the gods there did something very different than any other country’s gods.
Spec Can: Your story Lemmings in the Third Year (from Tesseracts Nine) deals with a group of researchers who are able to speak to animals – almost combining the fields of biology and anthropology. How would giving animals voice change the role of science and particularly the way biology sees the world?
Jerome Stueart: Wow. In the same way any culture changes outside perception of that culture when they start having their own “voice.” I did take a very anthropological angle with that story to explore how closely related those two sciences are—one is missing the voice. Anthropology realized that at the turn of the last century when they realized that the indigenous people—all over the world—had rights and had voices and couldn’t just be curiosities to be reported on. We’re only just starting, too, to accept those indigenous ideas and ways of seeing as just as valid as Western ideas of civilization, and we have a long to go before they are seen as equally valid ways of life.
Animal communication is being studied right now to determine what animals are communicating to each other. But I would think that biology would be turned on its head if animals ever started really talking. Apes using signs and symbol keyboards are just a first step—and really they can only communicate about their lab environment, not their philosophy of the jungle. But if we had insight into what animals are thinking about their environment—well, we’d have to start granting their wishes, thinking of their rights, their opinions, about the encroachment of humankind. Sometimes I wish the animals would speak to say “you can do so much to prevent some of the consequences of climate change.”
But, to paraphrase what God said to the rich man who wanted to go back and warn his brothers of the coming doom, “If I sent a talking polar bear to you to warn you, you still wouldn’t listen.”
Spec Can: You have a passion and interest in the voice of animals in Speculative Fiction. What important things can animals in SF give voice to?
Jerome Stueart: My real interest in animals in fiction is asking how we’re using them in speculative fiction. Often times, I see authors going to animals to use them a bit as puppets to be the “truth” the author has. Putting it in an animal gives the author innocence and credibility, because there’s no sin in animals, no nuance. Their representation, as far as I can tell—and I’ve read a lot of talking animals in fiction—doesn’t have the character nuance that humans do, or the baggage. So they can get away with being wiser than the rest of us: ala Ishmael (via Daniel Quinn) or all of Rudyard Kipling’s animals (who are characterized more by their species than their particular character) or even Rafi Zabor’s Bear in The Bear Comes Home [which is the author in disguise and is a character more pure than the others in the novel]. More interesting characterizations are being done by Jonathan Lethem in his novel, Gun with Occasional Music, where he gives his animal characters the chance to make life choices with consequences. Joey, the Kangaroo in the Mafia, I think, is a brilliant character. Others have thought about dogs having their own culture.
I don’t think that animals should just give voice to “our wisdom” and become Animal Masks for us the author. We can’t hope readers will take our wisdom better from a non-human. We make them all into Shamans, and I don’t think that’s as interesting.
Instead, I look forward to more nuanced character in the animals you see in SF—animals with choices, pasts, agendas, and cultures that are wildly different than our own, languages and ways of seeing that are entirely new. I think they might be able to give us insight into a world of animals, so we can live like weasels as Annie Dillard talks about in her Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. They have the possibility of teaching us how to live more in harmony with the environment—or not. An overpopulation of any animal is bad for the environment. Check out the overpopulation of deer and elk in Yellowstone. So our being able to live in harmony may have more to do with our numbers than the way we treat it. Still, I think we’re smart animals. We can figure this out.
I do think we’ll always be fascinated by the mystery of animals speaking to us—because it’s the closest we get to something alien and new, and, in our minds, divine.
Spec Can: Speculative Fiction is often described as the “literature of change”. What important questions around transformation can SF raise for readers?
Jerome Stueart: I think SF can help us get ready for change, and see change as positive and desirable. We get in our ruts. If we want the Star Trek universe—we’re gonna have to work for it. LOL. But I think it can examine multiple paths for us—examining all possible scenarios and showing us a positive path.
The danger of SF, though, is that it inherently likes NOT so positive paths. They present more of what readers desire: conflict, danger, suspense. So we get much more apocalyptic SF which shows us what NOT to do, but rarely shows us HOW to get to the change.
The challenge for SF writers is to imagine us a path to get to the change and show it as a positive one. And that I think is the most fun. Star Trek cheated a bit by shooting so far in the future that all those things like poverty, greed, violence, were all gone by the 24th century. We’ve been spending the last 45 years trying to figure out how Gene thought that might happen! But at least it modeled diversity for us. I recall Nichelle Nichols’ wonderful story of her encounter with Martin Luther King, Jr. just before she was about to quit the show. He encourages her to stay on because he too believes that SF is the literature of change. He saw her presence on the bridge as a model for behavior and hope for a positive future beyond Race. So in this way, SF is a model for change—it models good behavior, even if it doesn’t have all the answers.
Spec Can: What do you see as a distinctive feature of Canadian SF? Has your work changed in a Canadian context?
Jerome Stueart: I think Canadian SF is darker and more experimental than mainstream American SF. I think the publishing industry allows for more kinds of individual author development—we have smaller publishers with greater weight in Canada. In the States, where every microgenre gets codified and calcified, I see a lot more of the same stuff coming out for consumers. I see a lot more undefinable genre in Canadian SF. A freedom because, partly, there’s not a lot of fame on the table, but also because there’s a desire to create a Canadian SF. It looks like we’re nowhere near nailing a specific kind of SF, though, more inviting people to play. Look at Evolve from Edge—the SF future of vampires; look at anything Chizine is doing, which is so out there! It massacres genre-expectations. It also gives authors so much freedom.
Canada has the opportunity to show what the future of Canada will be through SF, and use our regional identities as a way to forge a truly unique version of Canadian SF.
Spec Can: Your short story How Magnificent is the Universal Donor (from Evolve) features an LGBTQ2or queer-oriented protagonist. Could you talk a bit about the representation of LGBTQ2 characters in SF?
Jerome Stueart: Right now, there’s not a lot of queer characters in mainstream SF, and that’s sad. Writing about gay characters seem to relegate your fiction to only specialty bookstores and markets. I can see some of the reason why: When the LGBT community is looking at a permanent minority (at 10%), a marketer/publisher looks at this and says, wow, if gay characters are the main, or only, characters, then we have a small audience. Therefore, heterosexual main characters would “appeal” to more people—it’s “straight marketing math”. Even when a gay male main character is going to have a gay male love interest, you can’t even get half the LGBT community to read it—no female interest, or vice versa. I don’t read any lesbian SF. But I do read SF that happens to have lesbian characters in it if it’s good story. I don’t read for the LGBT. I read for the plot and interesting characters.
So there’s no reason to NOT write gay characters. If the plot is more than a romance novel, queer characters are just as valid and interesting for their choices, their agendas, their characters beyond their sexuality.
I grew up with strong male and female characters, and I identified with the men as men, and with the women emotionally, perhaps, and certainly on who they were in love with, so I found multiple ways of enjoying SF. But then I didn’t know I was gay till much, much later in life (lots of religious reasons why gay feelings go unrecognized).
But as I write now, I want to include more queer characters because if I’d had more of those characters present in literature I might have a) figured out who I was earlier, and b) found more role models in the literature I read. I write for me, and hope that having positive queer role models for younger queer men helps them too. The models of queer SF protagonists: Samual Delany, David Gerrold and Geoff Ryman—I want to read more of their work.
However, mainstream SF publishers and some editors are still not comfortable with queer characters. Star Trek, which I love, and would love to one day write for, needs queer characters, instead of relegating them to the Mirror Universe where every body is omnisexual and perverse. TV and movies still haven’t caught up, and that’s a shame. Granted, I still find strong male characters in SF, and those traits are universal for me.
I thank JK Rowling for giving us Dumbledore, a flawed, beautiful man that kids will hopefully be able to identify with whether they are straight or gay.
I’m working on stories with gay and straight characters right now, so, hey, I’ll do my part!
Spec Can: How Magnificent is the Universal Donor deals with the conflict of medical technology and the mixed blessing/danger of the medical world, particularly focusing on ideas of medical control of the body. What are some of the things SF can do to raise questions about the use of medical technologies, the medicalised treatment of the body and the health-crisis fear that is repeatedly raised by medical professionals?
Jerome Stueart: More stories and novels that take the medical profession to task. Not create a fear, but certainly raise a concern. I wrote How Magnificent after the Flu scare and what I noticed was that getting a flu shot was starting to be cast in a moral argument—you had a duty to others to get the shot. You were putting lives at risk. That’s when I said—that’s too far. 1) if YOU get the flu shot, me getting the flu isn’t going to affect you, and 2) it’s my body. I get to decide what goes in it. And guilt only makes the medical establishment sound like the Church.
We also need to see alternate medical technologies and treatments. Love to see more SF explore the medical treatment of terminal illness and of the way our society can’t look at death. Saw a beautiful documentary on the last rites/rights, palliative care requested by terminally ill patients. SF is the kind of literature that can tackle a societal issue.
Spec Can: What can Speculative Fiction do that realist fiction can’t?
Jerome Stueart: Maybe that’s the greatest strength of SF—it has a wide angled lens. SF is about commenting on societal problems more than character problems. Maybe that’s why the characters can be more universal, and sometimes flatter, because SF is interested in the “what if” of the story—the what if of the society. It can handle a universal character because the society is what we want to examine in SF, and the choices a society makes.
But again, it also has a chance to be more society-scaled prescriptive—and model societal behavior and model change that realistic fiction can’t. SF is the quantum reality of realistic fiction. While realistic fiction might concentrate on individuals and their changes, SF goes wide to take the choices and changes of a large group.
Spec Can: What projects are you currently working on?
Jerome Stueart: I’m finishing up a novella about a gay park ranger working at Sagamore Hill National Historic Site and trying to pick up tips on how to live right from Teddy Roosevelt. I’m turning One Nation into a novel, which is darn hard. I’m also working on other SF and fantasy short stories, trying to get some things finished by Christmas.
Spec Can: Is there anything further you would like to add to our interview?
Jerome Stueart: The importance of reviewers cannot be overstated. With the amount of novels and short fiction out there, just having one review increases your chances of being read, and that’s very important. Thank you for reviewing authors, especially short fiction, and taking the time to come up with good interview questions too!
I want to thank Jerome Stueart for this fantastic interview and all of his brilliant insights, and, selfishly, for his comments about reviewers – thanks Jerome!!
You can explore Jerome’s website at http://jeromestueart.com/ to find out more about his current projects and where to find his novels and short stories.