25 February 2016

The Interview of Doom

In the waning days of February, 2016, Jennifer Linsky consented to an interview with one of our staff.  She stipulated that the interview be conducted by text, and what follows was pieced together from several emails and gchat sessions.

Thanks for agreeing to talk with us.

Thank you.  I have often thought that one of the benefits of celebrity would be being interviewed by Charlie Rose or Terry Gross.  I've never managed that level of celebrity, and I'm not sure that I actually want to.  

Thanks also for agreeing to my conditions.  I often say that I'm not a fully functional human being.  I have a chronic, non-contagous physical illness which affects the way I look and the way I sound when speaking.  I also suffer from severe anxiety and depression, exacerbated by my physical illness, and by the way that I've sometimes been treated because of that illness.  Doing this interview in print allows me to stop when I start feeling anxious, and come back later, when I feel stronger.

Is it fair to call you a recluse?

Yes, I think that's an accurate statement, though I'm more likely to use the Japanese word hikikomori.

Why the preference for the Japanese word?

Well, in part, it's because I'm a weirdo.  Or as my friend Christiane more kindly puts it, "quirky."  But it's also because there's a stigma to being a recluse, and that stigma isn't as pronounced in the United States if you use a different word, even if it basically comes down to the same meaning.

Plus, I was born in Japan.  And my knowledge of that circumstance has led to a lifetime of trying to understand Japan, its language, its culture, its strengths and its weaknesses.  Hikikomori seems to be a kind of social anxiety, rather than, say, agoraphobia, or claustrophilia, or whatever other religious or philosophical reason someone might have for isolating themselves. I'm just afraid of people.  So I stay inside, with walls between me and them, and I feel... safer.

But you have a rather active web presence.  You're on Google Plus, and you play Massively Multiplayer Online games.  How do you reconcile that with your fear of people?

I'm in control of those interactions.  If I post on Google Plus, for example, I can choose not to let people comment on what I say, or I can ban people from interacting with me further.  I can choose who gets to see what I say.  

In the games I play, I can present myself however I want.  I can control what people see, and when I feel weak, I don't log in.

Recently, you've written about your experiences trying to find a literary agent. Would you share some of that with us?

I wrote a book, Flowers of Luna.  It started as a wish-fulfillment thing.  Before I became quite so crazy, I dated a woman, Michele.  To borrow a line from Madmartigan, she was my sun, my moon, my starlit sky.  But it turned out that I wasn't hers.  So I was spending a lot of time dwelling in darkness.  What do you do with that?  You can go mad... and I did, I suppose.  But you can also take that pain, and make something of it, and I did that, too.

So how does a relationship gone bad in the twenty-first century turn into a lesbian romance on the moon?

Well, they say that you should write what you know.  And one of the things that I know is science fiction.  One of the reasons Michele gave for breaking up with me, in fact, was that I was always looking for a better tomorrow, instead of living today.  I'm not sure that I agree with her assessment, but I will admit that I do believe in a better tomorrow, and one of the hardships of believing in a better tomorrow is that you have to live through the days between here and there.

One of my earliest memories is of being taken by my parents to see the movie 2001, A Space Odyssey.  My mother tells me I was four years old.  In the scene where the moonbus is gliding across that magnificent desolation, I gave voice to what a great many people in the cinema were apparently thinking, and said "Oh, wow!"  Since that moment, I've wanted to go to the moon; I've wanted to live on the moon.

And part of the job of science fiction is to inspire people.  To set a benchmark in the nebulous, and say, "this is something we can accomplish, if we work on it."  Star Trek is one of the most notable examples of this effect... you talk to any real world scientist or engineer, and chances are, they'll tell you about the inspirational effect Star Trek had in making them decide to follow their career path.

So the setting was also wish fulfillment?  Or a desire to inspire others?

Well, a little bit of both, I suppose.  It seems to me that a lot of the science fiction being written in recent years is very dreary.  The futures in those books are places I don't want to go live in.  And while the cautionary tale is also something that Science Fiction does, it seems to me that the pendulum has swung kind of far in that direction lately.  I want to write something more hopeful.

I also like to write things that will make young readers think "Ah, this is achievable."  So I prefer to write in a hard science fiction setting, a setting where the rules of the fictional world vary as little as possible from the world we actually live in.

So you would like to live on the moon, and you're a lesbian.  What about the fashion design college that your viewpoint character attends?

Well, I would like to live on the moon.  And I am a girl-type person who falls in love, and when I'm lucky, in bed, with girl-type people.  But I prefer the word sapphist to lesbian.  There has been a lot of political baggage wrapped up in the world "lesbian," and I'm not sure that all of it applies to me.  Honestly, I'm not sure that I'd be welcome in that category.  So I avoid a lot of the associations people have with the word by using a different one, just as I was talking about earlier with my use of the word hikikomori.

As for the college... One of the books I read in my formative years which had the greatest impact on me was Nancy Garden's Annie on my Mind, which told me that there were other people like me out there; people who were too attracted to people who looked too much like them for society's comfort.  It was very powerful for me.  And I wanted to... to pay that feeling on.  To tell young women that there will be people like them in the world to come, and that it won't be horrible.

But I couldn't do what Nancy Garden did, exactly; I couldn't write in a high school setting.  I have remarked to friends of mine in the past that you could not pay me enough to go back to high school.  I wouldn't do it, not ever.  But college?  Arrange for me to be young and healthy and able to afford it, and I'm back there whenever I can.

Fashion design was something that I had just started getting interested in when I started writing Flowers of Luna.  In part, that was because I was eagerly devouring any of Ai Yazawa's work that I could get my hands on, and two of her series have a huge fashion component to them.  Those works got me interested in the world of fashion, in where it comes from and how it percolates through the world.

Some readers have noted that your work reads like a manga.

I actually find that very flattering.  I'd love to be a mangaka, but the truth is, my artistic skill is barely above the level of stick figures, and XKCD excepted, there are very few people telling nuanced stories with stick figures.  I like to believe that, if I lived in Japan, I could get involved with a dojinshi circle, the way CLAMP started out, but where I actually live, it seems that writers are less valued than artists in the production of amateur comics.

I have been very inspired by manga and anime, by light novels, and visual novels... all the Japanese genres.  I think that the important thing about what I do is telling a story, and it doesn't really matter what media that story gets told in.  In a past world, I might have been a skjald, or a sennachie, or a kamishibaiya.  A hundred years from now, I might create holonovels.  Today, I write prose.  

We seem to have gotten away from your search for a literary agent, though.

Ah, yes; sorry.  Digression is me.  I'd very much like to be published by a traditional publisher, because the last time I checked, the Science Fiction Writers of America doesn't accept self-publication as a route to membership.  And perhaps it's silly of me, but joining the SFWA is a life-long dream of mine.  

And as it turns out, most traditional publishers no longer have their own slushpiles.  That aspect of the business has been off-loaded to the literary agencies.  So I've been seeking out agents who list that they are open to submissions of LGBT romance and science fiction.  That's a smaller group than you'd think.  And surprisingly, or at least, surprisingly to me, a fair number of agents who say that they handle LGBT romance really only handle male-male romance.

There seems to be a perception that women will buy and read male-male romance, but female-female romance is only bought and read by women who fall into bed with other women.  I don't know if that's true; I don't have access to those sales figures.  I do find it interesting, however, that if you look at news coverage of "gay marriage," most of the time what you see is two rather attractive women in white dresses.  Lesbians, it seems, are not as frightening to the world as a couple of leather bears would be.  

You've written guest reviews for the Okazu blog, which is focused on the Japanese genre of Yuri, or female-female romance.  So obviously there's a market for that kind of fiction.

I have written guest reviews for Okazu.  Erica Friedman has been very gracious about allowing me to blather on about series which I enjoyed, but which she had chosen not to cover for various reasons. And the existence of the blog, and of the genre on which the blog is focused, does suggest that there is a market... in Japan.  Since my native language is English, and I grew up in the United States, I have to struggle with market perceptions here, rather than there. 

Earlier, you mentioned Ai Yazawa and Nancy Garden.  Who are your favorite authors?  Do you want to emulate them, or are you doing something completely different?

Like a great many authors, I think, I'm an avid reader.  I read just about everything I can get my hands on, including cereal boxes and shampoo bottles when I'm trapped in places where there's nothing else to read.  So I've read a great many authors, in a great many genres over the years.  Who are my favorites?  Well, I'll admit that Heinlein early captured my imagination with his work for young readers.  Zelazny's short stories don't receive as much attention, these days, as his Amber series, but he wrote a little about his writing process in the introductions to each of them in a collected volume I read several times; those essays impacted me greatly. 

Aside from science fiction, though, I love Hemingway, and Steinbeck.  Those guys are like the Charles Schulzes of literature.  Perhaps you don't understand that reference, though, so let me unpack it a little bit for you.  Antoine de Saint Exupéry is reputed to have said that "perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away."  Schulz is a splendid example of that sort of deceptive simplicity... every line in a Peanuts strip is there because it has to be, because without it, you wouldn't have Charlie Brown or Snoopy.  Hemingway in particular did this with prose, and I love reading his short stories because they are so spare. But at the same time, I deeply adore Jane Austin and Charlotte Turner Smith, who were more generous with words, who, instead of minimalist cartoons, presented us with oil paintings in prose.

I think with my writing, I try to find a balance, to walk the middle path.  I've been complimented on my ability to capture detail, and I do believe that detail is important... details tell you things about settings, about characters, that it would take many awkward words to tell otherwise.  And I try to always write with my own voice, not to emulate.  

I recall, when I was in the Navy, I was in the mall one day, at a bookstore.  Yes, hard as it may be to imagine, there was a time when there were bookstores... sometimes more than one... in malls.  But I digress. This particular bookstore was hosting a book signing, and it was someone I'd never heard of.  He was sitting there, alone, behind a table full of books, and I stopped to talk with him.  His advice on becoming a published author was that you should find a wildly successful author... Dean Koontz was his example, if I recall correctly... and emulate what they did, how they did it.  I thought that was terrible advice, and still do.  I wanted to write in my voice, not someone else's... not even Jane Austin's.

You were in the Navy?  What did you do?

I was in the Navy.  Joining the Navy was a complicated decision, but eventually I made it and joined.  Mostly, I chipped paint, and then repainted whatever it was I'd just chipped paint off of.  I discovered I had an aptitude for deeply annoying senior enlisted by always asking "okay, but why?"  Not because I didn't respect them or their experience, but because I wanted them to share that experience, to help me understand why I had to chip paint off of something before putting new paint on it.  They, of course, just wanted me to go and do what they told me to do, mostly.  It was a very frustrating experience on both ends, so eventually, I got back out of the Navy.

You mentioned that you asked an author for advice on getting published, while you were in the Navy.  At what point in your life did you realize you wanted to be a writer?

I can't recall ever not wanting to be a writer.  I honestly don't remember a point when I discovered that stories originated with people, and that I wanted to be one of those people.  When I was very young, I was often the only person of my ethnicity in classes I was in... sometimes, the only person in the entire school.  And I discovered that one of the tools I had to avoid bullying was to tell stories, to keep the people who wanted to punish me for being different laughing, or at least off-balance.

You mentioned earlier that you wanted to tell girls like you that there was a place for them in the future.  And you've clearly given thought to the background of the characters in Flowers of Luna. Is your experience of being racially and culturally isolated the reason you've given your characters the particular heritage you have?

Yes, absolutely.  I was born in Japan, but grew up mostly in southern Arizona.  I've lived a fair amount of my adult life in the American South.  So the experiences which shape the stories that I have to tell are, in part, experiences of isolation, of otherness.  I have created characters which allow me to tell those stories, of having one foot in a world of belonging, and one foot in a world of not-belonging.

I think that everyone struggles with those things.  If you watch a lot of Japanese animation, for instance, you will run across the story of the outsider who is accepted into a group despite their difference.  Maybe they see ghosts, or maybe they're just convinced of their own abnormality, but they find friends and peers who help them and accept them, who tell them, "there are some things that only I can do, and some things only you can do."  And that's very Japanese.  But if you look at the real world of Japan, you find school children who commit suicide because of bullying, because they didn't fit in, because they didn't find those loving and accepting friends to help them along the way.  And that dichotomy between belonging and not-belonging, I think it's everywhere, but I think it's especially emphasized in Japanese culture.  Or maybe I just see it emphasized there because I pay more attention to Japanese culture, because of the circumstances of my birth.

Your book takes place in a future after a vague event, or series of events, referred to as "the upheavals."  Does that reflect your expectation for the real world?  Will you ever write more about that time in your world's history?

It absolutely reflects my expectation of what's coming in the real world.  It seems to me that our world is poised on a knife-edge between a hopeful future and a hopeless one.  And I very much hope that we choose the hopeful one, but I think that, even if we do, there are difficult times coming between where we are now, and where I hope we'll go.

All you have to do is look around at the modern world to see the roots of upheaval.  Rising income inequality, people who are working two and three jobs to take care of their children and still not making ends meet; politicians who are so far removed from that reality that they talk about working three jobs as "a uniquely American privilege."

I don't know that I'll ever write anything set in that time, or even flesh out in great detail what happened during it, because it's a very dark time.  And even though everything works out in the long run, and my characters live in a better world for having gone through that time, I don't know that I want to think that deeply about how things could go wrong, and then get better.  I, frankly, prefer to simply assert that there was a time when things were bad, and now they're better, and here we are living our lives in that better time.

Would you be interested in seeing Flowers of Luna turned into a film?  Do you have any actors you would particularly like to see portray your characters?

I would absolutely love to see my work translated into a performance medium.  I very rarely have a specific actor in mind when I write a character, but Teal Redmann's performance as Louise in Gilmore Girls was a strong influence on the character of Madeline.  I think that part of the fun of seeing Flowers, or any other piece of my work, translated to a performance medium would be getting to discover the tremendously talented people who would portray them.

Hollywood is just starting to realize that it has a race and gender problem.  I would fear that my work would get "white-washed," that my mixed-race and ethnic characters would get flattened into one more all-white production; I'd want an avoidance of that written into any release of theatrical rights.  But there's a potential there to find some great, under-exposed performers, and that does excite me.

At the same time, I'm not holding my breath.  The lunar setting of my story would involve expenses, and the story at the core of the work is niche.  While movies like Imagine Me and You or Anatomy of a Love Seen get made, they're contemporary, low-budget pieces.  I can't, off the top of my head, think of a single example of science fiction with an LGBT plotline getting filmed; I'm not arrogant enough to think that mine will be that breakthrough piece.


Anonymous said...

Maybe if you write screenplay and then joined the screenwriters guild before showing it to anyone. =) Crazier things are seen on TV than anything you've ever written, and in movies, too. There's actually more possible financial gain in a TV series, I think. I enjoyed your interview and the things you revealed about yourself and your attitudes, as well as your writing.

musevoices said...

Related to the comment above--A lot of interesting and non-traditional TV-type series are being made today and not necessarily on the big three US networks. All of the cable channels create original shows, and now Amazon is getting into the act. I would love to see Flowers of Luna appear on the SF Channel, for example.

I am so glad to have been able to read this interview! I enjoyed it very much.