As our first Author Spotlight of 2008, Dreamtime is happy to welcome Jennifer Pelland who is joining us today. Jennifer is a talented Sci Fi short story creatrix (as someone who struggles writing short I got to give lots of props for that) and a feminist. A gal after my own heart *wink*
Jennifer: I'd let them know that I'm a tall, mouthy, Irish chick who was raised to be a feminist and a science fiction fan, and that I use my writing to express both. So far, I haven't figured out a way to express both with my bellydancing, but I'm still just a student, so I've got time.
If this unnamed someone didn't immediately start edging away, I'd probably whip out pictures of my niece and nephew, bore them with cute stories about my cats, mention that I'd qualified for the preliminary Nebula ballot, drop the hint that they might want to buy my forthcoming short story collection, and point out my husband sitting in a quiet corner, reading a book.
Moon: Is Sci Fi the primary genre you write in? What do you like most about it?
Jennifer: Yes, although I have ventured out into horror a few times as well. Science fiction allows me to play grand "what if?" games that are just impossible to do in mainstream fiction. I love envisioning potential futures and using them to play with issues that fascinate me, be it body modification, the entertainment economy, prejudice, attraction, helplessness, social stratification, genetic engineering, space travel, cyborgs, androids...
My imagination was hardwired by Star Trek and Star Wars as a young child, followed by an early adolescence dose of Heinlein, Asimov, and Clarke, with a Douglas Adams chaser. For better or for worse, science fiction is the language of my creative brain.
Moon: So were the TV shows you grew up on a big inspiration for what you do now, or are there books and authors that have really affected you creatively?
Jennifer: TV and movies definitely shaped my tastes in entertainment as a child, but at this point, I'm creatively much more affected by what I read. Octavia Butler has been a huge influence on me. She wrote tremendously imaginative novels in an incredibly sparse style, but no matter how fantastical the world she envisioned, she never lost sight of the fact that she was telling human stories. She delved deep into her character's emotions and let them drive the plot instead of the other way around. And she wasn't afraid to let her stories and the people in them get ugly. I really admire that about her work. It's unflinching. I've also been inspired by the short stories of James Patrick Kelly. His futures are cool and quirky, and people in them talk like nothing you've ever heard in today's world. I also like the gritty ugliness in China Miéville's writing. And when I'm feeling insufficiently creative, I ask myself, "What would Neil Gaiman do?" I never even come close to his level of whimsy, but it's a good way to goad myself out of the mundane.
Moon: When did you first know you wanted to write?
Jennifer: I think around junior high school. I wrote fanfic earlier without realizing it, but usually it was dictated into a tape recorder while I acted it out with action figures. But in junior high, about the same time I discovered Vonnegut, I started thinking, "Hey, I could do this." But I only wrote sporadically until I finished college. I spent my 20s writing tons of fanfic, and when I hit 30, I decided I was done playing in other people's universes and started creating my own. Sometimes I get annoyed with myself that I took so long to really buckle down, but honestly, I don't think I had enough maturity to write my own stories until my 30s.
Moon: What kinds of fanfic did you write, and did you post any of it online for other to see?
Jennifer: Alas, it was all posted online. The thing is, while I don't regret writing it, I feel funny about people looking at it now because I have improved so much as a writer since those days. So I'm going to be cagey and not give you any specifics. However, I will tell you what I miss about my fanfic days: the feedback. I got far more fan mail for my cruddiest fanfic than I've ever received for my best original fiction.
Moon: Fair enough. About the feedback, did you most response from your naughtier fan fiction, and have you considered writing erotic toned sci fi?
Jennifer: Actually, I got more response for my funny fanfic, although a lot of it was both funny *and* naughty. I have written and sold a couple of pieces of genre smut, but under a pseudonym (under the theory of "If my parents ever find this, I'll die"). And there's a good deal of sex in many of the stories I've sold under my own name. "Snow Day" is a comedy piece with human/android sex, "Captive Girl" is highly sexual and deals with issues of age and bondage and consent, "Dazz" is about a drug-addicted prostitute, "The Last Stand of the Elephant Man" takes place in a future where sex acts can be publicly displayed for the entertainment of the masses, and "Brushstrokes," which will be coming out in my short story collection, begins with two men having sex in an alley. So I haven't shied away from sex. But my sexual stories don't seem to engender more fan response than my non-sexual ones.
Moon: You mentioned you were raised to be a feminist. Does that viewpoint factor a lot in your fiction?
Jennifer: Very much so, both consciously and unconsciously, I'm sure. When I'm dealing with it consciously, it can show up in how I handle surnames in the future, or it can show up in a child-free female protagonist, or it can show up in a menstrual horror story, of all things. I do my best to avoid gender stereotypes unless I'm parodying them, and I try to avoid them not just for my female characters, but for my male characters to boot (and for those who are in between or something else altogether). And it's nice to be able to envision futures where the feminist battle has been won. If nothing else, it's an antidote to the "golden age" science fiction that I grew up on where women's roles were stuck in the 1950s even though the stories supposedly took place in our future.
Moon: You mentioned "child free", do you denote that as a feminist quality?
Jennifer: I think the ability for women to choose whether or not to have children is a direct result of feminism, yes. It used to be that women without children were either viewed with pity or suspicion, but now they're increasingly being viewed as having made a valid lifestyle choice. So when I write a child-free female character, I write her as a feminist statement. (For the record, I am deliberately child-free, but I'm also very proud of my sister for having two wonderful kids. It's all about choosing what's right for you.)
Moon: You said you avoid gender stereotypes, do you ever explore gender issues in your stories?
Jennifer: Yes, but I don't think I've ever dealt with modern-day gender issues (although I could easily be wrong--readers seem to understand stories better than their writers do). I think I deal more with issues about gender and sex itself. What will gender mean in a future where we can choose to live in intersexed bodies? What will it mean in a future where we can choose to live in bodies that are sexless? What does gender mean if you're living in a mechanical body? If you're a machine intelligence? I find these issues fascinating.
In the early 1990s, I was lucky enough to be part of a queer pagan group that had a strong transgendered community of the "gender-fuck" variety (a term that I don't believe is used anymore, but back then people used it to mean that they deliberately lived in such a way as to make their gender unreadable), so that gave me a wonderful education in just how limited the binary gender model is nowadays. Just imagine how much more limited it will be in the future as we move towards greater freedom of body modification. This, of course, presumes that things will continue along the same track that they're now on. Things could easily change. But this is the future I'm most interested in playing with right now.
Moon: Oh, that sounds like a fascinating group. Is it still active?
Jennifer: The last I heard, they'd devolved into a bowling league. I'm not kidding! I do still see some of them from time to time. One is highly active in the equal marriage movement in Massachusetts (a battle which I am very happy to say we have won!) and another couple were at my bellydance recital this spring.
Moon: Outside of your writing do you consider yourself an activist? Are there thing that drive you in that way to what to do or say something about it?
Jennifer: Sadly, no. I try to vote my conscience, and I try to make sure to live in a way that reflects my principles, but I'm not out marching on the White House or posting on radical blogs or making big contributions to various causes that are important to me (although if I'm ever in a financial position to, I will). I guess I just try to live the principle of "the personal is political."
For instance, I have a lot of issues around eating meat, so I became a vegetarian. I wasn't comfortable with the idea of being married unless *any* pairing of consenting adults could marry, so I didn't say "I do" until same-sex marriage was legal in my state. I'm not happy with the way humanity is contributing to global climate change, so I buy compact fluorescent light bulbs and walk places when the weather cooperates. And I try to have my principles show in my fiction. I suppose I could lie and say that I write that way because I want to help change the world, but really, I just write that way because it's how I think.
Mind you, I might feel the need to be an activist if I didn't live in such a liberal state.
Moon: I certainly don't think personal activism is any less worthwhile than public activism. You still have issues you are passionate about to make live changes to support. So, what are some of the things you've written you'd say you are most proud of? Things that affected the readers in a positive way?
Jennifer: One of my recent stories, "The Last Stand of the Elephant Man," plucks Joseph Merrick from Victorian England and sticks him in a future San Antonio where someone has swapped bodies with him for entertainment purposes. In doing my research for that story, I spent a lot of time emailing a friend of mine whose body is getting progressively more disabled over time to make sure I got the issues around disability right. And by issues, I mean internal as well as external issues. Very few of us can imagine what it must have been like to live in Merrick's body, but I wanted to get as close as I could, and I'm very happy with the results. My friend is as well, which is even more important to me.
I also got a lot of great feedback on "The Burning Bush," a tale of flaming public hair which pokes fun at the modern Catholic Church (the story, not the pubic hair). I had a lot of fun with that one. Honestly, I think I've gotten more positive feedback on that than on any other story. Flaming pubic hair. Go figure.
Moon: Do you do mostly short stories, or do you have novels you've published?
Jennifer: I haven't published any novels, no, although I have written two and shopped them around with no success. I'm currently in the process of rewriting one of them. It was the first novel I ever wrote, and I made the mistake of making the characters too one-dimensional and the protagonist too damned nice. The basic plot of the novel isn't changing, but the characters are getting a major overhaul, especially the protagonist. I'm pleased with the results so far, and maybe I'll be able to interest an agent in it this time around. We'll see. Once I'm done with it, I'm going to turn my attention to another novel I started and abandoned about a year ago. It's definitely got legs, but it stalled both because I wasn't sufficiently prepared to write it, and because I was too close to the characters.
Moon: What do you find easier to write, short stories or novels?
Jennifer: Short stories, no question. I don't tend to think in novel-sized plots. And then when I do, I don't always try to write them out because it seems so unlikely that I'll actually be able to get them published. If I manage to land an agent some day, then I'll probably start spending more time trying to flesh out novel ideas to see if they're worth trying to write. I don't like the idea of spending a couple of years working on something that no one will ever see.
Moon: For those of us who struggle with writing shorter pieces, what tips could you give?
Jennifer: I think what trips up novelists who are trying to write short is that they need to think of smaller stories to tell. It's very difficult to tell a grand, sweeping tale in 5,000 words. And a short story can't support a cast of thousands, detailed world-building, and a huge back-story. Think of the difference between Kurt Vonnegut's short story "Harrison Bergeron" and his novel "Slaughterhouse Five." The short story is about a future where everyone is made equal by handicapping anyone who is physically or mentally gifted, and it tells about the moment when Harrison Bergeron broke free of his handicapping devices and danced like a god on live television. The story is only 2,200 words long, and it packs a lot in, but it's about a single moment in time. The actions in the story take up maybe five minutes in real time, if that. Meanwhile, "Slaughterhouse Five" tells the story of a man who has become unstuck in time, and tells the story of Billy Pilgrim's entire life, from World War II through to his assassination as a much older man.
Using examples from my own fiction, my first novel is a space opera about a covert group of operatives trying to flush out the leaders of an anti-alien hate group. My second is about a woman whose wife divorces her when she's put into a medical replacement body, and the slow spiral into depression that she goes through in the attempt to either get her wife back or to excise her own humanity so she won't miss her so much. Both of those are big ideas that need a lot of room to be adequately explored. On the other hand, I've got short stories like "Captive Girl," which is about a handicapped young woman fighting to keep the lover who can no longer relate to her once her disabilities are gone, and "Clone Barbecue," about someone who is so rich and so decadent that he clones himself simply so he can see what he tastes like.
Both of those ideas are fairly small, and would wither if expanded to novel-length. "Captive Girl" does contain some back-story, but I did my best to only put in as much as the story needed for the readers to make sense of the world. There are only six, maybe seven important characters in the entire story. "Clone Barbecue" has zero back-story. It doesn't need it. There are four speaking characters in the entire piece. I've even got a story ("Sashenka Redux") where there's arguably only one character in the entire piece.
So, to sum up, think smaller. Try to write something that takes place in a single day. If you've got an idea that takes 12 characters, pull out half of them and see how that simplifies things. If you come up with a fascinating tangent to explore, don't do it in this story, do it in another one. And most importantly, read other people's short stories to see how they've managed to pull it off.
Moon: In what markets have your stories seemed to do best? Anths, magazines, online zines? What tips can you give writers trying to sell shorts? Places to go? Things to watch out for?
Jennifer: The two markets that I've done the best in are Apex Digest, which is a print magazine of science fiction horror, and Helix, which is an online genre magazine. For Apex, I've appeared in four issues of their print magazine, two issues of their Best of the Year anthology, one of their featured writer anthologies, and had one story on their website. And their book publishing wing is going to be putting out my short story collection in early 2008. As for Helix, I've had stories in three out of their six issues. All of them have collected Nebula recommendations, and one has gotten enough to qualify for the 2007 Preliminary Nebula Ballot.
Both were markets that I tried on a whim. With Apex, I had a story called "Big Sister/Little Sister" is that I'd been having a hell of a time placing anywhere. People kept telling me that it was horror, but I didn't believe them. Then I saw this magazine advertising itself as wanting "science fiction horror" and figured I'd give them a shot. They loved it. And now, because I gave this market a chance, I've got a short story collection coming out. Helix was similar. They were a new market, and I'd heard they were looking for stories that the major genre mags found too scary to touch. So when I got a rejection from Asimov's that essentially said that "Captive Girl" was too scary to touch, I did a little research on Helix and discovered that every single story in their inaugural issue had received at least one Nebula recommendation. So I gave them a shot, and now I've had three stories published by them that have garnered a good amount of critical attention.
So I guess one lesson I'd impart is that once you've exhausted the major markets, give newer semi-pro markets a try, but do it intelligently. Your research should start with sites like www.ralan.com and www.storypilot.com, but then if you decide to try a less-established market, you should hit Google and see what people are saying about them.
If they're an online market, read one of their issues. If they're a print market and it's feasible to get a copy of the magazine, do so. It's better to know that a magazine looks cheap before you send them a story than after they've accepted and published your story (yes, this happened to me). If the editor has a blog, check it out. You might find out, for example, that they're chronically behind in reading submissions and getting issues of the magazine out (yes, this happened to me). But know that there will always be circumstances beyond your control and that you'll need to make some submissions on faith. And keep sending that story out until you run out of good markets to try. Don't give up on the third or fourth try. It might take twenty tries before you find the editor who loves it.
Moon: All great advice. You mentioned doing quite a bit of research for "The Last Stand of the Elephant Man". Do you enjoy the process of research, and what story/stories you've written were the most research intensive?
Jennifer: I'm mixed on how I feel about research. Sometimes I love it, sometimes it drives me up the wall, and I can't honestly predict in advance which experience I'll have for a particular project. Other than "Elephant Man," my most research-intensive short story was "Immortal Sin," which required me to do a bit of genetics research (although a lot of the research involved pestering a pathologist friend of mine with questions). I also did a lot of research on future tech predictions for my novel "Machine," and I've already done quite a bit of research on various topics for the novel I started last year. It's an alternate future story of sorts that begins in the present day and then fissures off in a direction that (I hope) we won't ever go in.
Moon: What books that you've read in the past year or so have either really inpressed you or inspired you? Why?
Jennifer: I just finished reading Twyla Tharpe's "The Creative Habit," which was recommended to me by my friend Katherine. That was a great kick in the pants to get me motivated again. Uh, what else? I have a brain like a sieve when it comes to what I've read recently. Oh, I really liked Richard Bowes' novel "From the Files of the Time Rangers." It's a series of interconnected short stories that tell a larger tale. It's a hell of an accomplishment. I spent the beginning of the year re-reading a lot of Vonnegut, which is something I should do more often. I don't know. I don't recall having my socks knocked off by a novel recently. I suspect I'll remember something after this interview gets posted.
A couple of short stories that I really loved were "Last Contact" by Stephen Baxter and "A Report from the Near Future: Crystallization" by David Gerrold. The former is a lovely little personal piece about a mother and daughter dealing with the end of the world, and the latter is a future news report on the highways locking up completely in L.A. There were others that I really loved as well, but these two don't seem to be getting the attention they deserve.
Moon: Where can readers find "Last Contact" by Stephen Baxter and "A Report from the Near Future: Crystallization" by David Gerrold?
Jennifer: Yeah, that would be useful info to have, wouldn't it? The Baxter story appeared in The Solaris Book of New Science Fiction 2007, and the Gerrold story in Elemental: The Tsunami Relief Anthology.
Moon: What things in your life get you charged up creatively? Are there things you do before you write to get in the mood to work?
Jennifer: When things are going well, no. I just sit down and crank out the words. When I'm in a funk, I use my ambition to fuel me: "No one will ever know who you are if you don't keep writing!" And sometimes, I bribe myself with scotch.
Moon: What are the biggest challenges you have faced as a sci fi writer? Do you ever find being a woman brings its own challenges working in the spec fic genres?
Jennifer: Well, there's the challenge of coming up with something new in a genre that's already had so much innovation in it. Yes, there are only (two, three, twelve, whatever) plots in the world, but science fiction is about the shiny, cool, new trappings you put around those plots. And science fiction readers crave innovation. So you need to be well-read enough to avoid repetition, and you need a voice all your own so that if you do inadvertently tread old ground, people won't notice. So broadening my knowledge of the genre and developing my voice have been two major challenges for me.
As for being a woman in spec fic, I think most of the battles have already been fought and won by the women who came before me. Women are still underrepresented in the tables of contents of many of the major magazines, but some of that appears to be self-selecting, as submissions figures show that women don't try submitting those magazines as frequently as men do. But that brings up the whole chicken vs. egg question: do women submit less because they see that women don't appear very often in those TOCs and figure it's not worth the trouble, or do women not appear very often in their TOCs because not enough of us submit to those magazines? I still send stories to them, for what it's worth, even though they've been consistently rejected.
Moon: What future works can we expect from Jennifer Pelland?
Jennifer: Well, as I mentioned earlier, I have a short story collection coming out from Apex entitled "Unwelcome Bodies." I think we're currently looking at a late February/early March pub date. It's got three previously unpublished pieces in it, so that's the first chance folks will get to read something new from me. Other than that, I've got nothing forthcoming at the moment, although I have one short story in circulation right now, and another in the works that will be set free shortly. And if there are any agents or editors reading this, I've got a couple of novels that could use a home...
Moon: I've had a great time talking to you, Jennifer. One more question before we open up to Dreamtime's readers. What are some things you've learned after going pro with your writing you wished you'd been told before you started?
Jennifer: I wished I'd had a better idea of how long and difficult a journey this was for most authors. I've been at this for six years now, nearly seven, and I still have a long way to go. It would have been nice to have that reality check handed to me at the beginning of the process.
Come learn more about Jennifer Pelland at her website, and her lj blog.
Check out some of the great stories she is done.
"What to Expect When You're Expectorating" available at Apex Digest, issue 11.
"The Last Stand of the Elephant Man" can be found at Helix
"Immortal Sin," originally published by Tales of the Unanticipated can be found in MP3 format at Escape Pod
"Snow Day" can be found at both Escape pod and Strange Horizons
"Captive Girl" in Helix SF, issue 2
"Dazz" in Coyote Wild, Spring 2007, Volume 1, Issue 2
"Big Sister/Little Sister" was published in Apex SF and Horror Digest, issue 3, Fall 2005 and Reprinted in Best of Apex 2005
“Burning Bush” Here and Now, issue 5/6, May 2005 Reprinted in MP3 format at Escape Pod, September 22, 2005
"Clone Barbecue" Apex Online, issue 17, April 2006 Also printed in Space Squid, issue 2 May 2006
"When Science Fiction Clichés Go Bad," The Town Drunk, August 24, 2006
"Wedding Day," Neo-Opsis, issue 11, Spring 2007
"YY," Aegri Somnia: The Apex Featured Writers Anthology, December 2006
"Team Player," The Writer's Hood, August 2002
"Sashenka Redux" to appear in Electric Velocipede, issue 14, Spring 2008