Monday, March 17, 2014

Q&A: Naomi Kritzer

Naomi Kritzer’s short stories have appeared in Asimov’s, the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Realms of Fantasy, and Strange Horizons. Her novels (Fires of the Faithful, Turning the Storm, Freedom’s Gate, Freedom’s Apprentice, and Freedom’s Sisters) are available from Bantam. Since her last novel came out, she has written an urban fantasy novel about a Minneapolis woman who unexpectedly inherits the Ark of the Covenant; a children’s science fictional shipwreck novel; a children’s portal fantasy; and a YA novel set on a dystopic seastead. She has two e-book short story collections out: Gift of the Winter King and Other Stories, and Comrade Grandmother and Other Stories.

Last year was a busy one for you on the short fiction front: “Solidarity,” the third story in your Seastead cycle, appeared in F&SF; your Cold War time travel story “The Wall” appeared in Asimov’s; and “Bits” (“a fun little story about the sex toy business,” as the reviewer for Tangent described it) appeared in Clarkesworld. Anything I’ve missed?

I also had two stories from 2012 in year’s best anthologies that came out in 2013. Year’s Best SF 18, edited by David Hartwell, reprinted “Liberty’s Daughter” (as well as Eleanor’s “Holmes Sherlock”), and The Year’s Best Science Fiction and Fantasy 2013, edited by Rich Horton, reprinted “Scrap Dragon.”

And what’s new and forthcoming from Naomi Kritzer in 2014?

The next Seastead story, “Containment Zone,” will be in the May/June F&SF. I’m also going to have a short story in a future issue of Analog, “Artifice,” and hopefully I’ll get a few more sales yet this year—the nice thing about short stories is that the turnaround tends to be pretty fast.

What’s “Artifice” about?

It’s a story about robotics and artificial intelligence. Years ago I read a fascinating article about robots used in war zones to clear mines, and how the soldiers who worked with these robots tended to name them, bond with them, and treat them as fellow soldiers, sometimes in ways that made the robotic designers pull out their hair. The whole point of using a robot for this sort of task is that if it gets blown up, it’s easily replaceable; the article mentioned a soldier who brought the shattered remains of “Scooby” to the technicians, and sobbed, “That’s not SCOOBY!” when they offered him a new robot off the shelf. (Worse, they mentioned soldiers who’d risked their lives to retrieve damaged robots.)

“Artifice” isn’t about bomb-clearing robots; the robots in the story are used for household tasks. But it’s a story about how we see robots, and what that says about us.

“Containment Zone” will be your fourth published Seastead story. How would you describe this ongoing project of yours?

When I explain these stories to people, I like to say that seasteading is real-ish. There’s a group called the Seasteading Institute which is trying to found a new country by creating sort of an island and declaring it independent. There are existing locations (such as the Principality of Sealand) that exist in a legally ambiguous space and consider themselves sovereign countries, and there have been various attempts in the past to do this.

The seastead in these stories was built by libertarians, and the stories are set about fifty years after it got set up. The protagonist is a teenage girl, Beck, who is the daughter of one of the powerful men on the stead. She gets an after-school job as a finder, hunting down odds and ends that people need for a fee. Most of what she gets asked to find is very mundane, but one day she gets asked to find a missing person—a debt slave whose contract got sold and whose sister has lost contact. So the first story is a mystery. The second involves a reality TV show being shot on the seastead, and union organizing. The third explores what happens to people who have nowhere to live in a location where there is no concept of public land. The fourth, which is coming out soon, involves an epidemic, and the story I’m working on now is about how you rebuild after a major crisis.

What was your original inspiration for these stories?

I do the weekly grocery shopping for my family. I usually go to the same grocery store on the same day at the same time of day, and that means that I tend to get to know the regular cashiers. There was a cashier at my grocery store who I chatted with regularly. I liked her a lot and would always stand in her line, if she was there. Then one week she was missing. And the next. When I asked about her, I was initially told that she was on vacation. Then, when she didn’t get back, people told me that they had no idea who I was talking about, no cashier by that name and description had ever worked at that grocery store. It was surreal and horrifying to get that sort of stonewalling, and I assumed that she had been fired and her coworkers forbidden from discussing it.

So that’s where the story came from. I imagined someone going missing from their job and another person defiantly tracking them down despite the stonewalling. Initially I imagined setting this on a space colony and then realized I could do a very near-future setting if I put it on a seastead. I had actually pondered a libertarian seastead setting a few times before, but had no real story; now I had a story.

There’s an important addition to this, though, which is that years later, I was chatting with my new favorite cashier and mentioned that I’d always wondered what had happened to that one lady. “Oh,” the cashier said, “She got moved to one of the suburban stores because a customer was stalking and threatening her.”

So the stonewalling? Was actually her coworkers protecting her from a real threat. They had no way to know that I was not connected to the person who was harassing her, so of course they stonewalled me.

Anyway, I was glad to hear that (a) she wasn’t fired, (b) her coworkers had not been intimidated into silence but were protecting her from danger, and (c) she was fine.

What’s next for Beck and the Seastead?

I’m working on some stories about the post-epidemic rebuilding. I’ve actually already written a story about Beck’s experience of living in California and attending a high school there, but I realized I’d skipped over some really interesting stuff.

Are you working on anything else currently?

I have been focusing on short stories, but I’m also revising my urban-fantasy-ish novel in which a Minneapolis resident has the Ark of the Covenant delivered to her duplex by UPS. I am probably going to self-publish it.

Seastead is science fiction, but you’ve also written fantasy, fairy tales, and other subgenres, including some mainstream fiction as well. What interests you about s.f. versus fantasy? Do you prefer one or the other?

I like exploring what-if questions, and I’ve done that both with s.f. and fantasy. With my fantasy stories I’ve also played with types of stories and ways to tell long-established stories—I retold the story of the Snow Queen in a sort of science-fictional, postapocalyptic landscape, because I love that story, but I also liked imagining a sort of “Snow Queen”/Blade Runner mash-up. I wrote “Comrade Grandmother” because I found Baba Yaga really interesting and wanted to write a Baba Yaga story.

I really like both fantasy and s.f. Occasionally I even have ideas for stories that take place entirely in the real world. Unfortunately I have no idea how to sell those.

Besides your many short stories, you’ve published five novels (Fires of the Faithful, Turning the Storm, and The Dead Rivers trilogy). What interests you about one form versus the other?

With a book-length project, I get to spend a whole lot more time with the same characters—that’s great if I like the characters, and a problem if I don’t. I’ve abandoned a couple of projects when I realized that I just could not stand to contemplate the idea of 300 to 400 pages with these people. (I will say that with the Beck stories I’ve been able to bring back characters I particularly liked and have them across multiple stories—they’ve kind of let me combine my favorite things about short stories and my favorite things about novels.)

The biggest challenge with novels as opposed to short stories, for me, is finding a publisher. When I write a short story, I feel very confident that I’ll be able to sell it. A novel is a lot of work with very uncertain reward. (I’ve written three novels that I was not able to sell: Bequest, which is the one about the Ark of the Covenant; Castaways, which is middle-grade adventure s.f. about a group of kids who get stranded on an alien world; and The House That Wasn’t There, a middle-grade portal fantasy where a house in Minneapolis is a door between worlds.)

Do you prefer reading one or the other?

I’ve read both some really good short stories and some really good novels in the last year.

What were your favorite childhood books?

I loved the Narnia books, A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett, fairy tale collections (particularly the ones that didn’t come from the children’s section and had fairy tales I was not already familiar with), The Witch of Blackbird Pond, by Elizabeth Speare (I read that one to pieces), A Wrinkle in Time (I read that one to pieces, too) and The Swiftly Tilting Planet (which held up better, despite being from a box set), the Little House books, H. M. Hoover’s postapocalyptic books like This Time of Darkness, all sorts of creepy fantasy and s.f.-ish books like The Girl with Silver Eyes and Anna to the Infinite Power, Robin McKinley’s The Hero and the Crown and The Blue Sword, as well as Beauty, the James Herriot series about being a vet in Yorkshire ...

I read a lot.

What’s your ideal reading experience?

In a really comfy chair, by a fire that someone else is maintaining for me, with a hassock or ottoman or something to put my feet on, under a cozy blanket, in a cabin with no internet connection, on my Kindle with a stack of really appealing library books on the table next to my chair.

(I really like reading on my Kindle because of the weight; it’s easier to hold.)

What are you reading now?

I read a lot of nonfiction, most of which is from the library. My current stack of checked-out books is:

Transparent: Love, Family, and Living the T with Transgender Teenagers, by Cris Beam; God’s Other Children: Personal Encounters with Faith, Love, and Holiness in Sacred India, by Bradley Malkovsky (I was actually put off by the title, then looked at the cover flap and saw it was a memoir by a Catholic scholar who went to India for academic reasons, fell in love, and married into a Muslim family. I like memoirs); Accidents of Nature, by Harriet McBryde Johnson (reread); Redefining Girly, by Melissa Atkins Wardy (I probably won’t finish it; I picked it up and realized that it is saturated with marketing for her company); The Commitment, by Dan Savage (reread); Too Late to Die Young, by Harriet McBryde Johnson (reread), and Beyond Belief: My Secret Life Inside Scientology and My Harrowing Escape, by Jenna Miscavige Hill.

What do you blog about, and where?

I blog at and (though I’m trying to phase out the LJ) about various random topics plus local politics.

No one outside of Minneapolis cares about my political blogging; within Minneapolis, apparently a lot of people read my blogging about the last mayoral race. (I wrote about each and every candidate on the incredibly lengthy ballot. Most of them, I made fun of. Conveniently, the serious candidates were spread out alphabetically.)

You’ve recently self-published two collections of your short stories as e-books, Gift of the Winter King and Comrade Grandmother. Any plans for more collections in the works?

I’ve tried without success to sell the novel version of Beck’s adventures on the seastead—so at some point I’m probably going to self-publish those. My other recent stories (since I put together the collections) are “Bits,” “The Wall,” “Scrap Dragon,” “Isabella’s Garden,” and ”What Happened at Blessing Creek.” That’s not quite enough to do a collection yet, but eventually I’ll hit critical mass, right?

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