Interview with Science Fiction Writer Nisi Shawl

Nisi Shawl

Sci-fi short story powerhouse Nisi Shawl, winner of the 2008 James Tiptree, Jr. Award, is co-editing the anthology, Stories for Chip: A Tribute to Samuel R. Delany. Midwest BSFA talked to her about the anthology, her writing and why representation is important.

MBSFA: How did you get into science fiction writing?
Shawl: Science fiction is mostly what I read, so it’s mostly what I wrote without even thinking about how or why. I tried doing it quite a while before I achieved the slightest success. Much of my inspiration for trying, for thinking I might actually pull it off, came from feminist authors of the 1970s such as Suzy McKee Charnass, Joanna Russ and Monique Wittig. What audacity they displayed! I wanted to show mine off, too.

MBSFA: Tell us how you came up with the idea for the Stories for Chip anthology. Why do this now?
Shawl: Actually, it was Bill Campbell, my co-editor on the project, who came up with the idea for a tribute to Delany. I know he has wanted to do something like this anthology for a long time. Why now? We have the resources, and Delany’s alive to appreciate it.

MBSFA: What stories/essays from the anthology are you most excited about?
Shawl: This will sound stupid and fake, but I honestly can’t pick just one. They all stir me up, pull me to the edge of my seat, make me go “Yeah, yeah, yeah!” I will say that the first story in the table of contents, Eileen Gunn’s “Michael Swanwick and Samuel R. Delany at the Joyce Kilmer Service Area, March 2005” is one I knew I wanted as soon as the anthology became a twinkle in my eye. It’s a reprint, and we had a strict limit on the number of those we wanted to include—which we surpassed, by the way—but it was absolutely perfect for what I wanted the book to do.

MBSFA: Where does Samuel Delany fit into the pantheon of speculative fiction writers?
Shawl: He’s foremost! The leader of the pack! Jove, Obatala, Odin—pick your mythos. He pwns them all!

MBSFA: How was/is your writing influenced by Samuel Delany’s work?
Shawl: That’s a 1,000-word answer you’re asking for right there. I studied what Delany did as closely as I could, got as much as I was able out of everything I laid my hands and eyes on. The Jewels of Aptor, his first published novel, for example, taught me how time makes legends, how science melts into magic and magic underlies our comprehension of science. Also, style, style, style, rigor, rigor, rigor, beauty, beauty, beauty.

Delany’s work has brought me so many epiphanic moments. Among my favorites: the description of “rult envy” in Tales of Neveryon, the depiction of Gorgik’s fecklessly naïve respect for the Empress’s headspace in Neveryona, the suffering of slaveowners in Empire Star, the honor accorded garbage collectors in Stars in my Pockets Like Grains of Sand. I could go on. Others have, more eloquently.

MBSFA: What sets Delany’s work apart from those who came after him?
Shawl: Probably what sets his work apart from that of others—those who came before and those coming after him—is the meticulous care he puts into everything he writes. I imagine him tapping each word of each sentence as if it’s a melon, the ripeness of which must be definitively determined. And then there’s the fact that he’s brilliant. He perceives so much more than most of us allow ourselves to and then, through his writing, shares not just his perceptions but the ability to experience them.

MBSFA: I read somewhere that you write book reviews for a local newspaper in Seattle, where you live. Is there anything about review writing that influences your work?
Shawl: Interesting question. No one has ever asked me that before. I don’t think reviewing per se has influenced my work, but being exposed to multitudes of other authors certainly has. I’ve read books for review coverage—for The Seattle Times, Ms. Magazine, The Stranger, and The Los Angeles Review of Books—I might very well never have gotten into without that incentive.

But the main thing I’ve noticed about the influence of reviewing on my writing is how efficient the practice of journalism makes me. I can shorten almost anything. Especially when you’re talking about print, word count is a real consideration. Often fewer words convey a concept more clearly, too.

MBSFA: Why did you feel it was necessary to co-author Writing the Other: Bridging Cultural Differences for Successful Fiction and run a workshop on the same topic?
Shawl: I created the workshop from which the book arose because one of my Clarion West classmates said stuff that forced me to realize she needed it. I knew if she needed it, probably others did, too. The book was written to meet demand the workshop couldn’t satisfy. Now K. Tempest Bradford and I have announced an online version of “Writing the Other.” We’ll teach six classes of two hours each on Thursday evenings starting June 25 (register at http://writingtheother.brownpapertickets.com/).

The book and the workshop, though, are one wing of a two-winged bird, and I hope everyone eventually understands this. While it’s totally necessary for writers with any sort of privilege—white privilege, straight privilege, and so on—to learn how to represent those without that privilege, it is also totally necessary for those without particular sorts of privilege to represent themselves. This is hugely important! Writing the Other is only half a fix and is meant to be complemented by programs like Con or Bust, which empowers people of color to participate in the networking taking place at science fiction conventions; and publishers like Rosarium and Aqueduct, who print the work of underrepresented communities; and awards like the Carl Brandon Parallax, which gives $1,000 to the year’s best work by a person of color; and all these other efforts to support the presence of minorities in our genre. Got to have both wings to fly.

MBSFA: What are your thoughts on the Hugo Awards debacle?
Shawl: My thoughts on the 2015 Hugo Awards debacle can be summed up in one word: “Euwww!”  If you’d like additional details you can search the Twitter hashtag I created, #NewHugoCategories.

MBSFA: What books/stories do you recommend to those who are new to science fiction writing?
Shawl:
Taste is so individual. I always tailor my recommendations based on what else a person has enjoyed. Books and stories I adore may well leave you cold.

MBSFA: Anything else you’d like readers to know about the anthology?
Shawl: In sooth, it bangeth!

There are only six more days to contribute to the Stories for Chip Indiegogo campaign. They’re soooo close to their goal! Help ’em out if you can!

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