Thursday, September 4, 2014

The gentle hopefulness of terrible disasters

 An interview with Seattle author Caren Gussoff

“Avinashi did what she considered her greatest work with the warm weight of her daughter against her back. That series, done while Lily was an infant, was less critically and commercially successful than her first series, ‘Horrible Ways to Die,’ but she herself preferred the gentle hopefulness of ‘Terrible Disasters.’”  

This is one of my favorite passages from The Birthday Problem (Pink Narcissus Press, July 2014), a novel by Caren Gussoff, a Seattle author, a colleague, and a friend (visit Caren's web site to learn more about Caren and her fiction).
Avinashi Gopal was a celebrated artist. Her mother, Malaya, created the nanobots that eradicated human disease. Her daughter Lily opened a bakery. Her granddaughter Chaaya recites Fibonacci numbers when stressed. She is or will have been a mathematician — if not for the nanobot plague.
The Gopal women are a few among many unforgettable characters one meets in The Birthday Problem, the novel that it about… well, very much about this— the gentle hopefulness of terrible disasters, much like Avinashi’s paintings.
I asked Caren a few questions about her novel and herself. Here is what she told me.

JS: You have come into speculative fiction from literary fiction What does spec fic let you do that literary doesn’t, and vice versa?
CG: My first two books, Homecoming and The Wave and Other Stories, were both driven by character and language over plot and idea. Yet I think you can see the seeds of my conversion to spec fic in both books; the settings are hyper-real, the coincidences are near-magical, and, in at least one story from The Wave, features characters of mythical origin.
I’ve always been a sci fi and fantasy fan, and for the first part of my life, was sure I was going to be some sort of scientist. I think of my time in lit fic as my apprenticeship to craft, since it was the genre most embraced in writing programs…and it was easier to get feedback on my work if I wasn’t always having to explain my ray guns and robots.
JS: And I thought you were a literary “plant” in the spec fic world. Turns out you’ve always been a spec fiction plant in the world of the literary!
CG: Yes, ray guns and robots, metaphorically speaking, are my interest, and I love how I can explore really, really divisive and touchy subjects (colonization, gender, race), as well as mushy subjects (memory, identity, redemption) with readers – and eliminate some of the resistance – by setting it on another planet, in alternative history, or played out by non-human beings.
JS: Oh, that’s interesting, about tough subjects. Why do you think this is? Is it like hiding a bitter pill in a cookie? Or is there something else going on, like we always need a mirror of the “other” to see ourselves?   
CG: I think it is exactly like hiding a pill in a cookie – it’s very human to resist change and to feel defensive when presented with data that clashes with what we do and how we live. No one likes being shown that they are a racist, for example, by directly pointing out how their specific actions stem from being raised inside an institutionally racist system. Most folks would immediately jump to wanting to defend their actions, as if their very goodness was what was in question.
I’ve found that using an analogy eases this…it lets readers safely draw the parallels between the fictional world and their own world themselves. It’s both gentler and more effective. It sinks in this way, and encourages dialogue.
JS:  If you were to pigeonhole yourself and your works, which one will you end up in? Do you consider yourself a genre-bender?

CG: I’m definitely a science fiction writer. I occasionally use fantastical elements, but even then, I find I’m weirdly scientific about it (for example, I have a vampire story, but I explain the vampirism as a function of a boutique-designed virus). The only true departure from plausible-but-nonexistent science I do is when I write ghost stories. Then, and only then, does logic go out the proverbial window.

JS: One thing that fascinates me in your work is your ability to bring to life people from different cultures and walks of life, people simple or smart, plain or complicated, straightforward or twisted. How do you create these Others and how do they affect you once they are alive on your pages?

CG: That’s so nice of you to say!
I think my portrayal of the “other” stems from feeling, myself, like an “other.” I’ve always felt like my environments have been slightly oppositional to some part of me: growing up poor in an upper-upper middle class neighborhood, being fat/Rom/Jewish/smart when any of those things were not desirable, and the like.
Even now, I think people are surprised to find out things like: I’m a science fiction writer who attends church (I’m a Unitarian Universalist), that I’m healthy-looking but am actually sick (I have psoriatic arthritis and ankylosing spondylitis), and that my father is as old as my peers’ grandparents.

JS: Thank you for sharing, I appreciate it. And jokingly, if I might: what does not kill us makes as a better writer. That’s what I believe.

CG: One thing I try and do when designing my “others” is to make them intersectional, real people, whose “otherness” serves the story, or affects the choices and outcomes of the story in a tangible, important way. While I love seeing as many diverse representations as possible in fiction and media, making an “other” just for the sake of having an “other” – as novelty or shorthand – doesn’t do anything for the reader.
JS: Your novel The Birthday Problem is set in the near future, in the time that is still recognizable and continuous with the present yet is a couple of steps ahead. Is this a coincidence or something that attracts your imagination? What are the aspects of the imagined near-future that are most fascinating to you?
CG: I find myself thinking 50 to 100 years in the future a lot. The seeds of what’s going to happen then are planted now, today, and it’s a really fun and terrifying exercise to extrapolate out what could happen based on what is happening.  Next book, though, I’m moving between the past (early Twentieth century) and far future (200+ years in the future).
JS:  It will be fun to move with you. Who is your favorite and least favorite character(s) in The Birthday Problem?  
CG: Ahhhhh! I love them all, in their own ways…even my psychopaths, Eliza and Eden. My favorite-favorite is Book, though, who is super-loosely based on my husband, in terms of personality and background. My other most fave is Mrs. Lopez, the barfing cat (the only one not named Ira).
JS: I concur. About Book. Not the cat. I’m, ahem, a cat-hater (There. I’ve said it). You have mentioned that the King of Seattle character is based on a real person. I’ve noticed that in the novel, the character does not fare very well. Is there a story hidden here?
CG: He is based on a real person, a family friend: singer/songwriter Frank Fuller, whose own “King of Seattle” tattoo inspired the crappy draft of the story (which led to the book). Frank’s tattoo, eyelashes, musicality, and romanticism were lifted whole for the King, however, the King quickly became his own megalomaniacal person. And the King’s tragic end, seriously, has nothing to do with Frank, who I’m happy to say is happy and hale.
JS:  And now that I’ve met the real King of Seattle, OMG, I do see the resemblance… Ok now, beg pardon, but I have to ask this one: what’s up with the masks?

CG: I became fascinated by the prevalence and decoration of face masks in Asia during the first outbreak of H5N1 (Avian Flu). I saw news footage of fashion-conscious young folks who’d really personalized their protective masks and gear, and something about it struck me.
Combined with how quickly clothing and body taboos come and go (it really didn’t take that long to move from covered ankles to bikinis) that started me thinking about a generation raised with masks, and how the function of the mask (to protect against disease) could lead to social mores about baring the lower half of your face. By the time of The Birthday Problem, the masks serve no protective purpose, but have, instead, become a social expectation.
I’m also interested in the “previous” older generations who have troubles adjusting/get left behind when new fads, customs, and technologies arise. Nani’s challenges with living with the masks, a requirement/custom that arose when she was already an adult – verses Chaaya, who’s always worn a mask – explores issues of aging and generational touch points.

JS: Thanks so much for talking with me! One last (but not the least) question: If you were a Queen of science fiction, what would you order it to be?
I think SF is going exactly where it needs to be. More diverse voices are expanding the genre, and there’s so many opportunities to tell stories, even though publishing has changed, and all writers have to wrestle with a high signal-to-noise ratio. But if I could order something genre-related, I’d pin down a team of TV execs to give Joss Whedon another series and prevent them from dumping it in a horrible, Friday night slot and cancelling it too soon (or ever).

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