Caroline M. Yoachim is one of my favorite short fiction writers (I highly recommend her collection Seven Wonders of a Once and Future World and Other Stories), so it is a big pleasure for me to team up with Leticia Lara to interview the author. Hope you enjoy it and remember that you can read the interview translated into Spanish at Fantástica Ficción.
Leticia Lara & Odo: When did you know you wanted to become a writer? Which authors have influenced you the most? Is there any current writer that you admire?
Caroline M. Yoachim: I wrote fiction when I was a kid, but quit when I started college. Back then I thought writing wasn't something ordinary people did--I knew books were written by people, obviously, but I didn't know any authors, so I figured I probably couldn't do it. Several years later a friend of mine casually mentioned that he was writing a book, and it dawned on me that if he could do it, maybe I could, too!
I grew up reading a lot of classic science fiction--Asimov, Clarke, Niven. I loved the vast scale and the sense of wonder they evoked, but I never really saw myself in any of the stories. At some point I discovered Octavia Butler, who is one of my all-time favorite authors. I love her ideas and her characters.
I admire too many current writers to list them all, but a few of my favorites are: N.K. Jemisin, Ken Liu, Nalo Hopkinson, and Ted Chiang.
LL&O: Does your background in psychology help you with your writing?
CMY: It does! I think the human mind is fascinating, and several of my story ideas are drawn from by background in Psychology. "Five Stages of Grief After the Alien Invasion" was inspired by the Kübler-Ross model, which was originally used to describe the emotions experienced by terminally ill patients. "Four Seasons in the Forest of Your Mind" incorporates detailed descriptions of neurons. I also have several stories that examine the nature of human identity-- what defines us as individuals and makes us who we are?
LL&O: Lots of your stories are about family and grieving. Has becoming a mother influenced your way of writing?
CMY: Even before I had children, family and grieving were themes that showed up in my work. I like to explore the relationships between characters, and how those relationships change over time. Having a baby is the beginning of a new relationship, one that is initially very asymmetrical because infants begin with such a limited understanding of the world around them. But as people age, children often become caregivers for elderly parents. Dealing with the loss of a loved one is almost an extension of that focus on relationships--a way of looking at what happens when a relationship ends.
Having children didn't introduce those themes in my writing, but I do think that being a parent gives me a deeper understanding of the parent-child relationship, because I've seen it from both sides now.
LL&O: You seem quite fond of using special structures in your stories, such as the flashmash or the “choose-your-own-adventure” format. Could you explain what a flashmash is and how you use it in your work? Does writing in a particular format influence the way you create your work? Or does the topic you want to write about lead you to a particular format?
CMY: My natural tendency is to write stories that are very short: flash-length stories of around 750 words. One of the things I sometimes do to write longer stories is to write a series of interrelated flash stories, which I can then mash together into one longer story. The first flashmash story I wrote was "Five Stages of Grief After the Alien Invasion," which is a series of five flash stories, each one focusing on a different stage of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance) told from the perspective of a different character.
When I'm writing a flashmash story, the structure usually comes first, and then I generate an idea to go with it. At one point I made a long list of things that I could use to divide a story into flashmash sections, many of which have since become stories: rock, paper, scissors; four seasons; five stages of grief; seven wonders of the world.
For most of my other stories, including my recent choose-your-own adventure story, the idea comes first and then I pick a structure that I think might suit the story I want to tell.
LL&O: In addition to writing, you also practice photography. Does seeing the world through the lens of a camera change your vision of the worlds you create (making them more visual, for instance)? Do you think that all arts are somehow related and that techniques can be borrowed techniques from one to another?
CMY: I think one of the reasons I'm so strongly drawn to photography is that I am not a visual person. The visual elements of my memories tend not to be particularly vivid or clear in my mind, and so photographs are sometimes a tool for me to recall the details that are not encoded in my memories. I'm not consciously aware of any ways that being a photographer influences my writing, but I don't have any way of knowing what my writing would look like if I didn't spend so much time looking through a camera lens. I've heard people say that short stories are like snapshots, and I definitely have a tendency to write things short.
I do think there are techniques that are similar between photography and writing. Perspective, for instance. A familiar subject viewed from an unusual perspective can work well in both a photograph and a story. Framing is important, too. What are the edges of your photograph/story--where does it start and end? How much of a photograph/story should the main subject fill and how much background should there be?
LL&O: In many of your stories you explore the idea of identity and its relationship with our body, with our physical form, referring several times to philosophical problems such as the Theseus Paradox. Do you think that science fiction and fantasy are especially suitable for exploring this kind of questions?
CMY: The ship of Theseus is my favorite philosophical paradox. For anyone not familiar with the paradox, in its basic form it asks the question: If you have a ship and replace it, one board at a time, and all through these replacements it continues to sail, is it still the same ship? What if you take the boards you remove and build a second ship with those--which ship is the true ship of Theseus?
I like the paradox even when it involves ships, but where I think it gets really interesting is when you apply it to people. If you take someone and replace every one of their cells gradually over time, are they still the same person? What do we need to change about someone before we are forced to say "this is no longer the same person" or even "this is no longer a human"?
Science fiction and fantasy are well-suited to exploring these kinds of questions, because they allow me to transform my characters in a wide variety of ways. I've had sugar characters that dissolve and re-form, characters that transition from old bodies to new ones, characters that give up their bodies entirely. My goal is often to raise questions in the reader's mind, rather than to answer them. I hope my stories encourage people to think about what it is that makes us who we are.
LL&O: You write both science fiction and fantasy, and even some horror. Do you think that, nowadays, the frontiers between genres are blurring? Is there any genre that you feel more comfortable with?
CMY: I definitely think that the boundaries between the genres can be blurred. I sometimes play around with post-apocalyptic fantasy (which ends up being somewhere in between fantasy and science fiction), and some of my darker fantasy has a horror element. That said, I'm definitely more comfortable writing science fiction and fantasy than I am with writing horror.
LL&O: You have written humoristic stories for anthologies such as Alex Shvartman’s UFOs, for instance. Is it difficult to combine humor and science fiction?
For a long time I assumed that I couldn't write funny stories, but at some point Alex mentioned that some of the funniest stories he gets for his UFO anthology series have come from authors who didn't think they could write humor. So I decided to try my hand at it and submit a story for UFO3. Alex ended up accepting the story for the anthology, and since then I've written a handful of other humor stories.
Combining humor and science fiction was a lot easier than I expected, but only for a small subset of story topics--taxes, dissertation research, medical clinics. Overall I don't get very many ideas that lend themselves to humor, but I do enjoy writing them.
LL&O: What are your opinions about the situation of women and POC in genre fiction?
CMY: I tend to be a relatively optimistic person, and I'm encouraged by things that are currently happening in genre fiction. There are stories being published now that are told from a wide range of perspectives, and it is increasingly easy for people in marginalized groups to see themselves in stories, as protagonists and heroes.
I still see a tendency for white males to be the default, and everything else to be the exception. When people make reading lists, they tend not to be balanced. Reading lists that are all male authors will be labeled "top ten SF writers of all time," but a list with all female authors will generally be called "top ten women SF writers."
So overall I think we are making progress and moving in the right direction, but there is still work to do in embracing a more diverse range of characters and voices.
LL&O: Are social networks important for your relationships with other authors and with your readers?
CMY: Absolutely! Writing can be such a solitary endeavor, and social networks are a fantastic tool for connecting both with other writers and with readers. I am friends with authors around the world, and being able to stay connected with them online is immensely valuable to me. Things like fb and twitter also let me keep readers updated on what I'm working on. The main trick with social media is finding the right balance--I think it is good to spend some time there to stay connected with the online community, but if I spend too much time online I don't get as much writing done.
LL&O: What are you working on right now? Could you give us a sneak peek on your future projects?
CMY: My fantasy story "Carnival Nine" will be out in Beneath Ceaseless Skies later this spring--of the short stories I wrote in 2016, this one is my favorite.
I've also been writing a lot of stories for anthologies recently. I have a few where the table of contents haven't been announced yet, but one that I can tell you about is that my story "Dreams as Fragile as Glass" will appear in The Sum of Us (http://laksamedia.com/the-sum-of-us-an-anthology-for-a-cause-2/), a charity anthology featuring stories about caregivers.
LL&O: Where can our readers learn more about you and your work?
LL&O: Any other thing you'd like to add?
CMY: Thank you for inviting me to do an interview, these were fantastic questions!