Before I turn this blog over to guest author Jennifer Pelland who has kindly taken time out of her busy writing/belly dancing schedule to spend time with us and field your questions about her dark SF collection, Unwelcome Bodies, I ‘d just like to remind everyone that –
Emmy award nominated Stargate: Atlantis Visual Effects Guru Mark Savela will be visiting with us next week and he’ll be bringing visual aids. Have some burning questions for the maestro? Start posting.
And – I hereby dedicate this blog entry to birthday girl Sheppynette.
Finally, if you’d like to get the update on all things Jennifer Pelland, check out: http://jenwrites.livejournal.com/
Over to Jennifer…
First off, I want to thank everyone who even attempted to get through my book. I’ve got to be honest with you, I don’t know if I could have read “Big Sister/Little Sister” if I hadn’t written it myself. My ick threshold is higher for writing than it is for reading, and higher for reading than it is for viewing. I was recently reading Matt Wallace’s collection The Fix and had to give up on one of the stories early on because the ick was just too well-done for my delicate sensibilities.
I can hear you all laughing at the thought that I have delicate sensibilities.
Anyhow, since you slogged through my work, I’m going to pay you back by doing my best to answer all of your questions.
I would like to be able to say that Octavia Butler influenced my serious writing, but I’m afraid that would come off as pretentious. I hope to some day be able to write with a fraction of her intensity and clarity. She was one of the masters of our field, and we lost her way too soon. I want to be influenced by Neil Gaiman, but so far, my imagination hasn’t gotten nearly as free as his, nor have I learned how to write a lyrical description (every time I try, it just comes out purple). My terseness is probably thanks to Kurt Vonnegut. Since I read Vonnegut earlier than Gaiman by about a decade, I suspect it’s too late for Gaiman to override my Vonnegut programming. As for my silly stuff, it owes a lot to Douglas Adams and Monty Python, both of which I was exposed to in my early teens as my sense of humor was maturing. But there’s little evidence of that in the collection. I decided not to put any funny stories in there because I was afraid the juxtaposition of silly and icky could cause brain sprains.
KellyK writes: “My question is a bit of cliche and given the horror quotient of your book, I’m almost afraid to ask it but…Where DO YOU get your ideas?”
Ah, that infamous question. The traditional answer is something flippant like “Cleveland” or “mail-order,” but the real answer pretty much involves a writer throwing their hands in the air and gibbering.
It’s so varied. Sometimes a pair of words come together in my head and a story follows (“Clone Barbecue” – my story about a rich guy who clones himself so he can see what he tastes like). Sometimes, frustration with the weather does it (“Snow Day” – my silly sex, snow, and androids piece). Other times, the news is enough (“For the Plague Thereof Was Exceeding Great” – that was sparked by my frustration with a newspaper report on a global AIDS conference). And sometimes, it just involves hard work. I will occasionally sit down with a pen and paper and make notes on what kind of story I’d like to write (“set in space,” “body issues,” “feminism,” “want to make reader laugh *and* cry”) and then see what starts coming together in my brain.
And for the record, I no longer recall what inspired “Big Sister/Little Sister.” It’s probably for the best.
My stories tend to organically find their intensity levels. I just try to bring the story to the place that will best serve it. Often times, when I’m working on a piece and it feels off, it’s because I’ve misjudged where I need to take it. For instance, I struggled with “Brushstrokes” for months because my protagonist was a total wide-eyed naïf. Things happened to him — he didn’t make things happen. So once I fixed that, the story got darker and sexier and finally felt like it worked. Meanwhile, in “The Last Stand of the Elephant Man,” I had plenty of opportunities to make the piece extremely dark, but I didn’t want to do that to poor Joseph Merrick, and I suspect my readers wouldn’t want to read that either. After all, the whole point of writing it was so I could do something to save him even though he’d been dead for a century.
As for mood-setting, I just sit on the bed, put the laptop on my lap, and surf the web until I get bored. Then I write. It also helps to have a cat curled up at my hip. My first writing cat was Titania, who died four years ago. Her position has been taken over by Callisto. And sometimes Antiope will sit at my other hip, but she’s much less reliable, because she’d rather be sitting on my husband.
I can’t do hard-core gore, because I can’t help but think about how it would feel if it happened to me or to someone I love. I can’t do awful things to cats in stories either, because it makes me cry. Actually, I prefer to stay away from as much violence to animals as I can. (Not surprisingly, I’m a vegetarian.) And this isn’t related to dark, but I won’t seriously lambaste religions that I’ve never been a part of. I may take light potshots at some of them, but I save my daggers for Catholicism (and by extension, other repressive Christian churches), which was the religion I was raised in, and earth religions/new agers (which I actually still feel warmly towards, but don’t believe in giving a free pass to), which is the religion I practiced in my twenties.
I’m torn over the short story/novelist thing. I’ve actually written and tried to sell two novels already with no success, and I’m slowly writing a third novel right now. But there’s a strong temptation to stick to short stuff because I’ve proven that I can sell shorts. Plus, failure to sell a novel means failure of two years’ worth of effort, whereas short story failures represent much shorter chunks of wasted life.
As for authors, I’ve loved an eclectic mix over the years: Douglas Adams, Kurt Vonnegut, Octavia Butler, Neil Gaiman, Christopher Moore, Lyda Morehouse. And that’s just novelists. I’d start rattling off short story authors, but I know too many folks in that business and don’t want any of them to feel slighted. But I will mention James Patrick Kelly. I have very consciously tried to emulate him on occasion when writing really far-future stuff, because he’s got an incredible way of writing futures that skirt just at the edge of our comprehension, which is what I think the future should sound like.
Disturbing stuff…well, usually I just go with the ideas that come to me, which probably says rather unpleasant things about how my brain works. Sometimes I don’t know how nasty an idea will turn out, other times I do. I have a tendency to know two things about a story: the beginning and middle, or the beginning and ending. I never know all three. So sometimes when I don’t know the ending, I can be surprised by where I come realize the story needs to go. And sometimes I tailor my ending to the market I’m aiming for. Like when Jason Sizemore from Apex Digest requested a pair of stories from me — one for the magazine, one for an anthology. Those had to be dark. So I knew from the start that I had to do my best to steer down a particular icky path. (Neither story is in the collection, by the way. But “Blood Baby” is available in The Best of Apex Digest 2006 and “YY” is available in Aegri Somnia.) (Aside #2: Apex rocks!)
I answered some of the environment question above, but to answer the new bits, I generally like to write when the sun is up, and I need an environment without voices. My brain fixates on spoken words, so if the TV is on in the next room, or if the neighbors are being noisy, I’ll put on a CD I have of a brook in a forest (i.e. nature’s white noise) to drown it out. I should schedule writing, but I’m really bad about it. Since I’m generally writing on spec and not on contract, I write as the spirit moves me. On top of writing, I’ve got a full-time job, I’m taking belly dance (my teacher just talked me into my first public solo performance — eep!), plus I’ve got a spouse and a television that both need lovin’. So writing happens when it happens.
Body modification is just endlessly fascinating to me. I’m drawn to the extremes — from Pete Burns and Amanda Lepore’s deliberately freakish faces, to people who’ve used piercings, scarring, and implants to make their faces inhuman. I can’t look away, even when I’m looking between my fingers because I can’t stomach taking it all in at once. And then I can’t help but think what the future will bring as plastic surgery gets safer, cheaper, more extreme, and reversible. So I tend to play with that a lot in my work. (For the record, my body modifications are extremely mild — four tattoos and six ear piercings on my lobes.)
Thank you! And remember, it makes a lovely gift 😉
Let me go count the stories on my online bibliography…28 published stories. Well, 27 published, one coming out next year. Wait, no, 29. I’ve published one piece of smut under a pseudonym. If this collection sells well, I’ll happily entertain the idea of putting out another one if an editor asks me to. And this time, I’d probably do a collection of my wacky/lighter stuff. Seven of those published stories are humor.
See above for the answer on novel-length work. Some day, I hope to get lucky enough to con an agent into taking me on, but so far, they’ve all had the good sense to stay far, far away.
I do sometimes wonder if I there’s any way to learn how to write less icky stories. But I’m not going to force it. I’ve been told by many an editor that readers can tell when you’re writing something that you don’t love. Success? Guh, it seems to be a moving target for me. I’d hoped that the Nebula nomination would make me feel like a success, and it did for a little while, and then I realized that the movers and shakers in the industry cared more about long-term track records than they did about a lone award nomination. So that was sobering. I’d like to think that I’d feel successful if I managed to get a novel published, but I’m sure I’ll find some way to devalue that in my brain as well. Pessimism sucks sometimes, but it’s the way I’m wired, so I guess that only leaves me sweet, sweet liquor as my solace. Uh…did I say liquor? Oh, hell, guilty as charged. You can take the liquor away from the Irish girl, but you can’t stop her from whipping out a kitchen knife and demanding that you return it.
As I said in the note at the end of the story, it was a combination of seeing a painting in the art show at a convention and then going to a panel about writing what scares you. I also drew upon conversations I had with a couple of very large female friends about chubby chasers. One of them said that she’d be more than happy to date someone who found her body attractive, and the other said she would never in a million years want to be with someone who fetishized her body. And so I started thinking how that must apply to people whose bodies were even farther from the mythical norm — what if the only love you can get is from someone who gets off on the thing that makes your body unattractive to everyone else? So I played around with that idea. I’m very proud to say that I got a comment from a blind reader who said that I perfectly nailed the complexities of consent in caretaker/caretakee relationships. I didn’t do any research on that angle, so I simply lucked into getting it right.
Are there stories that you have never been able to finish for whatever reason?
What kind of cats do you have? male/female? longhair/shorthair?”
I generally have something I can write on on my person, be it my composition notebook or my Palm Pilot or some random receipt that I’ve stuffed in my giant pockebook. But at this point, I generally don’t have any trouble holding onto ideas when they strike. Early in my career, I did, but I’m convinced that’s because they weren’t very good ideas.
And yes, I have a stack of unfinished stories, woe and alas. Usually, I stop working on something because I come to realize it’s crap and that I’d rather put the effort into starting something new and potentially better than to try to figure out how to turn crap into gold. I suppose that’s a perk of being a short-story writer — if you give up on a story, you’re probably only giving up on a few weeks, or perhaps months of work. If you give up on a novel, that could be over a year of work down the drain.
I have three female shorthairs. Hippolyta, aka the Grumpy Old Bitch, is a 10-year-old tabby with a white belly and a bad attitude. She was pulled out of a home with 85 cats and one little old man when she was 7 months old and 2 weeks pregnant. We met her at a shelter post-abortion/spay, where she seemed nice enough. Then we brought her home and she’s distained us ever since. But we still love her (which she wishes we wouldn’t) and feed her (which she appreciates a little too much). Antiope is a 4-year-old calico with serious amounts of white in her coat. She was found in the woods as a kitten. The shelter believes coyotes got the rest of her family. She’s aggressively a lap cat — specifically, my husband’s lap. If she can’t sit on him, she’s miserable. We also think she’s part-Siamese due to the volume of her misery. And finally, we’ve got 4-year-old Callisto, aka Callie, the tortoiseshell, who is one of the sweetest cats we’ve ever shared a house with, although no one else knows this, because she’s terrified of people who aren’t me or my husband. Her most unusual trait is self-suckling. She went into heat very young, and stayed in heat until she was spayed, whereupon she discovered the joy of her own nipples. We were disturbed at first, especially given the fervor of her devotion, but then we realized that nothing could be more pure and innocent than the love of a kitten for her own body, so we let her be. And like all journeys of self-discovery, her fervor died down over time, and now she only slurps on herself a couple of times a day instead of near-constantly.
Pictures for the curious: http://www.jenniferpelland.com/cats.html
And yes, bonus points to the folks who noticed that they all have Amazon names. We love our little Amazon tribe. Hell, Hippolyta took it a little too literally. She had to have a double mastectomy five or so years back, so now she has a mere six breasts instead of eight. But she has very luxurious belly fur, so she doesn’t need falsies.
I like short stories for several reasons. There’s the aforementioned reason of knowing that I can sell them. Also, the story ideas that tend to come to me are short-story or novelette length. I have to really work to find an idea that will sustain an entire novel. So yeah, I think short is my natural length. And while I bitch and moan about how annoying it is to have to create new worlds from scratch for every story, I clearly must be getting something out of it, because I’ve never written a story in the same universe twice. I actually feel like I’m cheating if I use a bit of invented lingo in more than one piece.
As for characters vs. ideas, I tend to come up with ideas first, characters second, but sometimes the characters come first. I have a much easier time populating an idea with characters than I do the other way around. This could explain why “Brushstrokes” took so damned long to come together. The characters definitely came first for that one. “Firebird” was one of the rare ones where I got both at the same time, although the character/plot that hit me was in the form of Kay. It took me a couple of months to figure out that Kay would not be the protagonist of the story. Thankfully, those were thinking months and not writing months.
And yes, I’m a fairly active dreamer, although I rarely get stuff out of my dreams that I can use in stories (with a few notable exceptions, like “Last Bus”). I’m really good at remembering my dreams if I wake up from them, but I never remember any that I have during other parts of the night. Oh, and you should be glad that I don’t generally tend to write what I dream about, because my dreams have a pretty strong fecal component. I won’t even tell you what I woke up from this morning (bleech!).
1. I really appreciate the notes you wrote for each story. I felt it added greatly to the whole piece. What inspired you to do this? Was it at the editor’s encouragement or are you merely a person who loves to talk about your work and ideas?
Thanks! I wrote them at the suggestion of a friend of mine who asked if I’d be doing that. I thought it sounded like a neat idea, and ran it by my editor, who agreed. And yes, I’m someone who loves to talk (and talk and talk)…
I started trying to write for publication when I turned 30. I’d been writing fanfic before that, which was a lot of fun, but 30 was a kick in the pants in many respects, and I decided I was done playing in other people’s universes and wanted to play in my own. It took a while to make the transition, and I was greatly helped by attending the Viable Paradise writing workshop (www.viableparadise.com). My first sale came in 2002 to the online magazine Strange Horizons, and then I sold them a second story two months later. Each story was published only a few months after being bought, which has generally been my experience with my short story sales. Every so often, it’ll take a year between the sale and the publication, and I hear that that’s actually a pretty standard wait for the big magazines (Asimov’s, Analog, F&SF), but I haven’t sold to any of them yet.
You’re right — the book did come out very quickly, but that’s the beauty of a small press. Also, I suspect that collections are easier to toss together than novels and non-reprint anthologies. There’s less editorial work involved, since the bulk of the stories have already been published, so all the editor needs to do is line-edits. They’re not going to send rewrite suggestions for a reprint.
I think my favorite is “Brushstrokes,” although “The Last Stand of the Elephant Man” comes close. I really like the emotional arcs at the hearts of both of them. But I also have a tendency to love my newer stories more than my older ones. (And if you didn’t notice, the stories in the book were in chronological order of publication, so the stuff at the end of the book was several years newer than the stuff at the beginning.)
Generally, I’m happy with my stories once they’re published, but there are a few that I look at and think, “What was the editor smoking when they bought this?” Thankfully, there aren’t many that fall in that camp.
As for urges to tweak the older stuff, yeah, I sometimes do have that urge, and every so often I get the opportunity to do so. I got rid of a few awkward bits in some of my older stories for this collection, and I’ve got another potential reprint in the works that I removed a forced bit from. But I don’t make major changes. I feel like it defeats the purpose of reprinting a piece.
If you can con a literary agent into taking me on as a client, then we can talk novels! I’ll be sure to let her/him know that I’ve already got one sale lined up 😉 As for new stories, the place to go is www.jenniferpelland.com. I’ve got a mailing list you can sign up for if you want news, or you can read my blog (jenwrites.livejournal.com) if you want news *and* whining! I had a couple of new pieces come out over the past few months, and I’ll have a story in The Solaris Book of New Science Fiction, Volume Three at the beginning of next year. That will be the first time I’ll be published in a book that you can expect to find at most major bookstores, plus they’re paying me in British pounds, which is pretty sweet right now. I just hope they pay me before the dollar recovers.
I have been in the past, but I’m more laid-back about stuff like that now. Of course, Star Wars ruled my childhood. I was seven when the first movie came out, and Han Solo in Jedi fueled my adolescent fantasies (I wasn’t quite sure what I wanted to do with him, but I knew I wanted to do it really badly!). My first organized fandom was Doctor Who, which made it to my local PBS station in the early 1980s. Then TNG came out when I was in college, which got me back into Trek love (I used to watch the repeats with my dad when I was a kid — he’s also the guy who got me into reading science fiction). DS9 got me into reading fanfic, and Voyager got me into writing it, plus I started going to conventions to see as many Trek actors as I could. Babylon 5 was my introduction to more sophisticated science fiction television, plus its actors were so approachable at conventions, unlike the Trek principles, who tended to be very professional during their scheduled appearances and then vanish. I watched a ton of other shows after that, but didn’t really get into another fandom until The Phantom Menace came out, despite the movie’s flaws. And then…I don’t know. Organized fandom lost its appeal, and I simply became a consumer of media again. I suspect all the fandom wank I had to endure in my Voyager days didn’t help anything. And I got sick of convention wank as well. There seems to be less of it in lit cons than media cons, although some of that could simply be a perception issue on my part, because I haven’t been as involved in the backstage stuff at lit cons as I was with media cons.
Actually, I lie. I do have one new fandom activity. I am addicted to Doctor Who macros. I adore cat macros, I adore Doctor Who (both new and old), so http://ihasatardis.livejournal.com/ is probably funnier to me than it has any right to be.
And I think that’s it for the question answering. Thank you, everyone! I’ve had a blast writing up my answers, and reading the flattery hasn’t hurt any either. Now I’ve got to go practice reading “Captive Girl” out loud. I was invited to read it at the Boston Fetish Fair Flea Market on Saturday. I have to say, that’s the most unusual and entertaining offer I’ve ever gotten for a reading, and I couldn’t pass it up. Of course, Readercon is this weekend as well, so I’ll be splitting my time on Saturday between the two. I’d originally intended to head right back to Readercon when I was done at the Flea, but an hour after my reading is the pony demo. I can’t not stay for the ponies! (And no, not ponies the animals, but ponies the people whose fetish it is to pretend to be ponies with grooms.) I’ve also got a reading scheduled for Readercon on Sunday, where there will sadly be no ponies. I have no idea what I’ll be reading there, but I guarantee it’ll be less challenging than “Captive Girl.” I’m still not quite sure how I’m going to read Jayna’s vowel-less typing, but I’ll figure it out by Saturday. And then, it’s on to working out my belly dance performance for Thursday. Did I say eep? Eep!