Fantasy & scifi, Fiction, writing

Peter Ball Interviews Me

By this point, many of you have probably already soon this meme running around the Internet. Just in case you haven’t seen it yet, here are the Rules:
1. Leave me a comment saying, “Interview me!”
2. I will respond by asking you five questions. I get to pick the questions.
3. You will post the answers to the questions (and the questions themselves) on your blog or journal.
4. You will include this explanation and an offer to interview someone else in the same post.
5. When others comment asking to be interviewed, you will ask them five questions. And thus the endless cycle of the meme goes on and on and on and on…

This interview of me is courtesy of friend and scholar-writer Peter M. Ball. Feel free to ask me to interview you – but be warned, I ask tough questions!

1) You’ve recently signed on as a columnist for Fantasy Magazine – what can we expect in upcoming columns?
Much the same type of stuff you see here – a bit of bread, a bit of magic. I’ll definitely cover prose fiction and comics quite a bit. And with Joss Whedon’s Dollhouse starting up, The Sarah Connor Chronicles heating up, and Battlestar Galactica wrapping up, it’ll be hard to resist the occasional foray into television. One column I have planned will be titled something like “Battle of the Comic Book Mega-Crossovers: Final Crisis vs. Secret Invasion.” Another likely column will look at Boy Meets Boy and how its treatment of LGBT issues makes it, to some extent, a speculative novel, despite its lack of any overt fantastic element. Some will be light; others will delve deeper into the So what? of our fiction.

2) You write Spec-fic, which has a long history of being a very white, hetero kind of genre. How does that history affect your reading and writing within the SF genre?
Some people get taken out of a story when, say, the physics of a cannonball is handled inaccurately. The same thing happens to me when I see the treatment (or invisibility) of a character that’s queer, of color, or female colored by some sort of prejudice. I recently watched Night of the Living Dead (the original) for the first time, and while it was probably ahead of its time in featuring a Black protagonist, the helpless screaming female characters were pretty non-credible to me. I feel the same way when I re-read classic Heinlein novels, where the women are all secretaries waiting to transcribe Jubal Harshaw’s stories while posing naked (or some-such). When that sort of thing happens, the writer has allowed a learned prejudice to make his or her characters less human. That not only contributes to a certain group’s marginalization, it also makes the story a weaker story – less true-to-life, less complex, and less interesting.

As a writer, my cast of characters tends to be more diverse than much of SF has been. Part of that is because of my own experiences as a gay, multi-ethnic Puerto Rican guy, and because the world I know is a diverse one. But partly it’s also because the themes that interest me connect to issues of identity and marginalization, which touch so deeply on the core of our humanity. A lot of early, golden-age SF is less interesting to me because it largely misses those big themes. In more recent decades – starting with the New Wave, really – we’ve seen SF go into that territory – which seems a natural fit, really. What better way to explore gender than by looking at an alien culture that doesn’t have gender in the human sense (as LeGuin does in The Left Hand of Darkness)? What better way to explore race and class than by extrapolating to a near future where racial and class divides have deteriorated to the point of violent anarchy across the country (as Butler does in Parable of the Sower)? What better way to look at monstrous adolescent bullying than through a monster story (as Kelly Link does in “Monster”)? That’s the sort of stuff I’m most interested in, as both a reader and a writer.

(King of the world, sparkly vampires, and “the gay question” below the fold…)

3) You’ve been named king of the world for a day, and you get to pick one book you can make everyone in the world read. What’s your choice, and why are we all reading it?
First I’d try to figure out how the world had spontaneously erupted into a medieval monarchy on the global scale, and I’d set up a task force to find the best way to transition to a more transparent and democratic system – ideally before the end of the day, before some other, less enlightened dude is made King for the day and forces everybody to read Ayn Rand. Am I taking the question too literally? Okay, I would have everyone read Taylor Branch’s Parting the Waters, an amazing history of the U.S. civil rights movement, because it not only teaches us about our history, but about our humanity. Wait, no, then the entire world would resent me for assigning them a 1,000-page history book. How about Manuel Puig’s Kiss of the Spider Woman, because it says pretty much everything that needs to be said about love and revolution – and what else is there?

4) You’ve expressed disappointment over Twilight after initially hearing about the new “sparkly vampire romance” subgenre. What was it that appealed to you about the version of that subgenre that existed in your head and why do you think it was missing in the book/film?
Recently, my IQ has been questioned because of my failure to appreciate the complexities of Twilight, so for the record, I actually found much of the book quite entertaining, especially the details about Cullens vampire family, e.g., their super-powered baseball games played during thunderstorms. I also liked the fact that Bella was quite nonplussed about many of the fantastic things she encountered – I’m a big fan of nonplussed. But there were two big things that disappointed me: (1) Despite living in the post-Buffy era, Bella was a largely passive female heroine; and (2) Somehow the term “sparkly vampire” made me think there would be irony.

5) I’ll admit that I came up with a bunch of questions about sexuality while putting this list together, though I discarded many of them as unsuitable because I didn’t want your sexuality to overshadow other aspects of your writing and personality. It does, however, bring me to the final question (in which I hope I’m not being condescendingly straight and muddleheaded, but probably am) – as an out, politically active gay man, would you prefer to have your sexuality at the forefront of any discussion about your work or leave it as one aspect of your life that informs what you do?
(Some time you’ll have to show me those other questions you self-censored, I’ll bet they were pretty interesting.) Basically you’re asking a sophisticated version of the question, “Are you a gay writer or a writer who happens to be gay?” I am totally a gay writer, dude; there’s nothing that “happened to” about it. My experiences as a gay man – of homophobia, of coming out, of having to question and overcome the assumptions and norms of a heterosexual world in order to self-actualize and even just to exist – have all had a profound impact on my life, and that’s something I draw on frequently in my work. In nearly every story, really, whether by overtly exploring gay themes or in more subtle ways.

Of course, I don’t want people to only think of me like, “Oh, Ben Francisco? Oh yeah, he’s that gay writer guy, right?” mainly because that’s not terribly interesting. But if they say, “Oh yeah, he’s that gay writer who does the weird surrealist stuff with the wry humor and the subtle social commentary,” then that would be perfectly fine by me.

All fiction is really just a long conversation. I definitely see myself as being in conversation with – and drawing upon – lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender fiction, as well as mainstream SF and Hispanic literatures from both the U.S. and Latin America (especially the magic realism stuff). Which is just a fancy way of saying that when I’m writing, I have a lot of toys to play with.

14 thoughts on “Peter Ball Interviews Me”

  1. Huzzah, now Interview me. 🙂

    Generally the stuff I discarded was pretty light – often they’re just vague notes like “Are there Star Trek characters that seem like they’re in-the-closet?” and “Most unlikely gay icons in SF cinema?” that I hand’t bothered fleshing out. The rest were just variants on 2 & 5.

  2. Cool. Congrats on becoming a columnist for Fantasy — I hadn’t realised it was an ongoing position (I’m slowly educating myself on all the nooks and crannies of the online specfic world, starting with Clarionites).

    Any plans to write a Golden Age SF story? A queer outbreak in a retro story would be interesting if done right.

    Okay, go ahead and hit me with those so-called tough questions. 🙂

    p.s. Oh, and fingers crossed for Tio — that’s bitter news.

  3. Excellent! Two victims already. Peter, do not get me started on gay issues and Trek, I may never stop rambling about it.

    Questions to come in a few hours – I have to run to that place called “work.”

  4. Gudday Ben, sign me up for the tough questions! Have been following your Fantasy columns, that’s a pretty sweet gig. Hope you’re well mate, and that the ROF fiasco translates into an even better sale for you. And it will!

  5. Dr. Ball:

    1. You were once somewhat active with the Goth community, and your stories are still often influenced by Gothic tropes (and noir tropes) just as much as they are by spec fic tropes. What is it about these other, darker genres that attracts you? Is it just the make-up and sexy black outfits, or is it something deeper?

    2. Could you share an anecdote (drawn from Real Life) that has all the essential elements of a story, in no more than one paragraph?

    3. Drawing on your academic studies in literary criticism, could you please now share a brief analysis of the above story, also in no more than one paragraph?

    4. Spec fic often features big ideas on the grandest of scales – galactic federations, epic quests and the like. Many of your stories seem to draw on these same big-idea tropes, but focusing on their smaller dimensions: mythological women and break-up blues, or a dragon story from the perspective of a bystander who was baking cookies when the dragon invaded the city. Do you think this is a pattern in your work, and what do you think might be behind it?

    5. You’re known for reading non-noir stories out loud in a husky, noir-style voice. What are the top three non-noir stories or novels that seem ripe for being subjected to this somewhat humiliating process?

  6. Mr. Chris Lynch:

    1. The “So what?” factor in the stuff you write (both fiction and nonfiction) is pretty high, and you often explore big philosophical questions. Is there a particular philosopher(s) or school of philosophy that you’re drawn to, and how does that influence your life and work?

    2. You write not only in many genres, but in many forms: short stories, longer fictions, dramatic plays, haikus, blog posts, and nonfiction. Some of these modes (e.g., the haiku and the drama) have tight structural constraints. Do you feel you learn something from writing in these modes that you can then carry over to the more free-for-all forms?

    3. You’re working on a book about your experience walking across the entire length of Japan. Are you looking for a narrative arc in your journey, or a philosophical framework, or some other way to bring your experiences together in a cohesive way?

    4. Among the many kernels of wisdom you shared during your hike across Japan, you said, “I should be spending most of my time doing the things that are most important to me.” Being back in Australia, going through the process of reacculturation, do you feel you’re able to integrate that advice to yourself, and other learnings, into your day-to-day life?

    5. Please share a haiku that incorporates at least one spec fic trope and at least one line of dialogue.

  7. Mr. Jason(i) Fischer:

    1. You’ve recently signed on as a reader for the Last Short Story blog, so you must be reading quite a lot of short stories, and of great variety. Is reading such a wide range of short fiction leading you to stretch your own writing in any interesting, unexpected directions?

    2. In your short-short contributions to the online Daily Kabal, you’ve used a number of unusual story formats, including a Wikipedia entry, a media briefing, a pamphlet, and, most recently, a 1980s-style text adventure game. What are the joys and challenges of writing stories in these distinctive formats?

    3. You’re known for frequently using humor in your work. What do you feel is the key to using humor to achieve a bigger emotional impact – or even a profound effect – in fiction? Are there any role models you look to for this technique?

    4. You’ve said that lately you’ve been revising your work more extensively. Is this change in your writing process having any impact on the substance and style of your writing?

    5. Please share with us your personal zombie contingency plan. I expect a serious answer, no funny stuff. Your life depends on it.

  8. Bored enough to ask 5 more questions? I’ll trade ya, if you’re REALLY bored…

  9. Definitely up for a trade, Mr. Green:

    1. Some have said that there are two types of horror stories: those where many characters meet ill fates but others survive because they are smart and/or noble, and other stories where – smarts and moral standing aside – everybody gets fucked. What are your thoughts on this suggested taxonomy, and how do you see your stories fitting into it?

    2. Your writing style has been described by some as “sparse.” What has led you to work in your particular style of writing over others?

    3. You’ve declared your intentions to write a Zombie novel. What sort of process are you using as you begin this longer work? Are you outlining intensely in advance, free-writing to see where the story takes you, or some other set of methods to enter into the story? Does this differ at all from your process for writing short stories?

    4. In your life, you have crossed many borders and lived in a fair number of worlds, including Anglo-American culture, Australian culture, Native American culture, and World-of-Warcraft culture. How do these different cultures and, more generally, your experience crossing borders influence your work?

    5. Since you are Mr. Green, are you ready to confess to the world with what weapon, and in what room, you murdered Mr. Boddy?

  10. Here’s my trade:

    1. You have an idea for a story with all of the “Ben” hallmarks except for one. It is touching, funny in all the right places, the ends of the scenes hit you like a hammer, and it says something about the world around us that needs to be said. It has, however, no speculative element whatsoever. Do you right the story as you see it in your head, or find a spec element to tease out, and why?
    2. Is there magic in your world? Does a street shimmer like a pool and ask you to include it, or does a happy place seek contrast with one of ties and fiscal avalanche and make you make your own magic?
    3. What is the single most important writing lesson you learned at Clarion South? (No cheating and going the “family of writers” route. Writing lesson only, please.)
    4. Did your trip to Australia show you another culture, or another side to the culture you already live amongst?
    5. What would you like Ben Francisco’s legacy to be, in nine words or less?

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