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EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Paula R. Stiles

[Interviewer’s Note: This is a series of interviews featuring the contributors of Shine: An Anthology of Optimistic SF edited by Jetse de Vries.]

Possessing a quixotic fondness for difficult careers, Paula R Stiles has driven ambulances, taught fish farming for the Peace Corps in West Africa and earned a Scottish PhD in medieval history, studying Templars and non-Christians in Spain. She has also sold fiction to Strange Horizons, Writers of the Future, Jim Baen’s Universe, Futures, @outshine and other markets. She is Editor in Chief of the Lovecraft/Mythos ‘zine Innsmouth Free Press (www.innsmouthfreepress.com). You can find her on Twitter (@thesnowleopard) or on her website at: www.geocities.com/rpcv.geo/other.html.



Charles Tan: Hi! Thanks for agreeing to do the interview.

Paula R. Stiles: You’re welcome!

CT: First off, what’s the appeal of science fiction for you?

PRS: I’d say it’s two-fold. First, there’s the sensawunda you get in speculative (or even genre) writing in general, where you’re discovering a whole new world, whether that world is a 16th-century convent in Spain or Middle Earth or 1930s Los Angeles or the Andromeda Galaxy in the Year 3000. Second, I like the structure of it, that it’s “science” fiction, because I love the mystery of science. All science fiction is (or should be) based on scientific concepts and their extrapolation thereof. I’m pretty open-minded about what concepts you explore (you can expand into parapsychology, cryptozoology, even the supernatural or religion), but the idea behind the story needs to be based on at least one scientific concept. And I don’t mean as window-dressing.


CT: What made you decide to become a writer?

PRS: Well, I started drawing stick-figure stories about horses and prehistoric people when I was about two. By ten, I’d graduated to trying to write a sequel to “Star Wars” (which had just come out. I still have the thing somewhere. It’s fun, about 120 pages, with coloured-pencil drawings and everything). Got sidetracked for quite a while by laziness, which resulted in my first sale being for poetry and an inability to finish stories until writing fanfic for a while took care of that problem. Once I started finishing fic, I started selling it. And seven years later, here we are.

CT: What made you decide to contribute to the Shine anthology? Did you find the criteria difficult to write for?

PRS: Nope. I already had at least two stories that fulfilled all of Jetse’s criteria and I’d been complaining for quite a while that we needed more venues for optimistic fiction. It was just serendipity.

CT: “Sustainable Development” is one of the shorter pieces in the anthology. What would you say is the key to writing effective flash fiction?

PRS: Well, I’m sure some would say I didn’t write an effective flash story (Flash seems to be one of the most controversial fiction forms around), so take this with a grain of salt. But I would say that you need to get in, kick booty, take names, and get out before they can spot any holes. It also depends on the flash. For something over 100 words, keep it to a single scene/idea/image, your last one, if possible. You can jump around or have a progression of short scenes, but everything should lead up (quickly) to that last image and revolve around that final punchline. Almost a shaggy-dog story, but an effective one.

For Twitter fic (Jetse also used one of my OutShine pieces in Shine), it’s somewhat different. Basically, you want a single image (dialogue is good) couched in a non sequitur. In terms of Logic, think of it as a complete, single-sentence argument.

In fact, if there is one single piece of advice for all types of flash, I’d say you need to focus heavily on imagery, especially sensory imagery, and use it to tell the story. And don’t be afraid to infodump some judicious Tell because, if the story idea’s complicated, you won’t have time to Show it all.

As you can see, it probably takes longer to explain flash than to read (or write) it.

CT: Did your experience in the Peace Corps have any effect on your writing?

PRS: Oh, yeah. I did a lot of writing when I was there. But also, West Africa was a radically different place from the United States. Or Canada. I’ve since lived elsewhere (Canada, six years in Scotland), but while they were definitely different from the U.S., they weren’t nearly as different as Africa was. Rural West Africa is about as far as you can get from Middle America. I’m sure there are other cultures as far, but not much farther.

So, I came back and I was seeing a lot of SF and fantasy (but much more SF) that read as very limited in imagination to me. People just assumed that everybody had running water and electricity; everybody spoke English; illiterate people were boring and dumb (if they existed in the author’s story at all); Muslims were bad; houses were all built the same way, with the same materials and design; everybody obsessed over high-tech and low-tech was useless. That sort of thing. Oh, and that most (if not all) people of any consequence were white. And men, of course.

I also realized that many of the writers and editors out there (and I’m sure this will get me flamed, but it’s true) hadn’t had as much life experience as they could have, because it really showed in their writing. The same old cliches, over and over and over again.

You can trash the likes of Robert Heinlein or Philip K. Dick or Isaac Asimov (and you’d find plenty of ammunition), but their stuff has endured because they wrote what they knew, not regurgitations of somebody else’s story, and what they knew was interesting. The same goes for writers like Samuel R. Delaney, Charles Saunders, Joanna Russ, Kate Wilhelm, Elizabeth Moon, Nalo Hopkinson, or Tanith Lee. Or the pulp likes of Lovecraft or Robert E. Howard, who converted lives of quiet desperation into indelible images of horror and heroism.

This dissatisfaction spurred me to start writing the fiction that I wasn’t seeing out there. I figured, if I couldn’t find it to read, I could at least write it. Though I like reading it when I can find it.

CT: Do you think science fiction is capable of changing the world? (For better or for worse.)

PRS: Absolutely, but you know, there are a lot of people out there changing the world, already, and we need more of them in the field, as writers and readers. Which means we need to be writing more of the kind of fiction that would attract them. I can tell you right now that post-apocalyptic retreads are not the kind of fiction that would attract them.

CT: Considering you’re the editor-in-chief of Innsmouth Free Press, how would you describe your outlook in life? Is it leaning more towards optimism or horror (or both)?

PRS: Let me tell you something–the world is a dark, dark place. Bad things happen in it all the time and if you really think you’re safe and secure, just wait until tomorrow comes.

But so what? Yeah, you’re going to die, someday, but today is bright and sunny. Yes, the world is dangerous and full of darkness, but it’s also full of light and laughter, and the danger and contrast make it more interesting. Yes, the monsters are going to get you in the end, but that’s no reason not to keep fighting on. You’ll just move on to a new adventure while they’re still snacking on you, anyway.

And there’s always room for a joke.

CT: What is it about optimistic fiction that appeals to you?

PRS: It’s fun, funnier, more realistic, more original, less circular (and yes, that can mean more linear, but so what?) than angsty sturm und drang, and it gives you more ideas (because it’s coming up with new ideas to solve old problems). Curiously, I’ve heard people say that the optimistic stuff is more “predictable” because it comes to a light conclusion when they were expecting a dark one. I don’t know what definition of “predictable” they’ve encountered, but in the one I know, “predictable” is what you were expecting and, when you don’t get it, that’s “unpredictable”.

But it’s also been my experience that people will often respond to what’s truly original and unpredictable to them by claiming it’s unoriginal and predictable, yet see the same old retread of what they like and expect as wildly original. I dunno. It’s just so subjective.

CT: How have your experiences an editor of Innsmouth Free Press influenced your writing?

PRS: I was going to say, “What writing?” But then I realized that wasn’t accurate. I haven’t been as motivated to write and send out stories because the ‘zine takes up so much time, but I do write a lot of articles and reviews.

Also because of the workload, I have been working on fiction but mostly on longer stuff. Novels, scripts, like that. Have I been influenced by Lovecraft and Mythos? In the non-fiction, sure, and some of the short fiction when I write it. In the longer fiction? Hmm…somewhat, but with longer stuff, I think other themes tend to bleed through. Maybe the scripts.

CT: Anything else you want to plug?

PRS: I’d encourage readers to check out IFP’s reviewers and column and MB writers like Mari Ness, Amanda Spedding and Carla Lee. They deserve more reader love.

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