Mythologizing the Everyday: An Interview with Amal El-Mohtar

Mythologizing the Everyday: An Interview with Amal El-Mohtar

Amal El-Mohtar is currently pursuing a PhD in English literature at the Cornwall campus of the University of Exeter. Her short fiction and poetry have appeared in a range of publications both online and in print, including Strange Horizons, Shimmer, Cabinet des Fées, Sybil’s Garage, Mythic Delirium, and Ideomancer; her work has been broadcast on Podcastle, and The Honey Month, a collection of poetry and prose written to the taste of twenty-eight different honeys, is available from Papaveria Press. She won the 2009 Rhysling Award with her poem “Song for an Ancient City,” and co-edits Goblin Fruit, an online quarterly dedicated to fantastical poetry, with Jessica P. Wick. Find her online at http://tithenai.livejournal.com.

Her poem “Schehirrazade” appears in Sybil’s Garage No. 7.  I had the pleasure of speaking to Amal by email recently and got to ask her a few questions about her inspiration, her craft, and the supernatural.


Hi Amal!  Thanks for taking the time to speak with me.  I’ve read your various bios online.  But tell me in your own words, who is Amal?

Hi Matt! It’s a pleasure to be spoken with. Amal is someone who, upon being asked such a profoundly existential question, will wander up and down the sloping streets of her adopted Cornish village pondering it for at least a day, wondering if a reply questioning the question will be enough to spare her the dire consequences of having replied in the first place. For to reply is to commit! To reply is to put one’s own fluid self into a box, to phase-shift from liquid to solid! O noes, as they say on the internet!

To switch from third person to first, though — I’m a girl who defines herself by what she loves, and loves too many things to have sharp edges. I was never any good at colouring inside the lines. I’m a writer, an editor, a poet, a harpist, a grad student, an English major, a storyteller, a member of so many overlapping fandoms they make a sort of cake, an extrovert, an activist, a wanderer, a bisexual pagan Lebanese-Canadian who loves cats and tea and hummingbirds and singing in public places, a Sagittarius, the eldest of four children, the daughter of dear parents, possessed of a loud laugh and the tendency to run off at the mouth.

How many cities have you lived in?  Where is one place that you haven’t lived, but want to?

I’ve lived in four cities — Ottawa, Aylmer, Beirut, Al Ain — and two villages — Luskville, Penryn — throughout four different countries. I’ve visited many more, but would particularly love to live in Damascus, having fallen in love with only the taste of her twice over.

You’re currently pursuing a PhD in English from University of Exeter.  What is your dissertation about?

I’m looking at representations of fairies and other supernatural creatures in Romantic-era writing, arguing that those representations intersect with and inform constructions of national British identity at the turn of the nineteenth century.

Do you find it easier to write poems or prose, and what difference do you see between the two forms?

I’ve certainly written more poems than prose, but I’m not sure that means they’re easier to write — perhaps easier to complete, if that makes sense? I rarely start a poem without finishing it, while I may have the opening paragraph or central idea for a story for months before it’s finished. Ultimately I think it comes down to a time commitment: I might be able to write a poem in an hour (or ten minutes, depending), but it’ll take me at least a few hours to write a story, and if I don’t have those two hours stretching out ahead of me as free time, I find it difficult to sit and chip away at one.

That said, I think I’d find it equally hard to write long poems as I do to write short stories. Usually, in a poem, the logic and structure and rhythms suggest themselves to me as I’m writing, whereas there’s usually a bit more forethought needed for me to write a story. Not very much more, but enough to make a difference. Still, there’s been a long poem in my head that requires a great deal more research and forethought and hindthought before I can begin writing it in earnest, so it’s not quite so cut-and-dried, and I find that I need to plot out its structure as I plot out a story in order to do it justice.

I could try to fit a metaphor around this: poetry is like diving into a lake and surfacing, while prose is like trying to swim across. I find it difficult to even begin the dive without the prospect of surfacing, but when swimming, well, I can pause, turn onto my back, float there for a while without reaching the other shore.

In another interview you said you believe in the supernatural.  Do you see the world as inherently magical?  What do you say to those who adhere to the scientific materialist worldview that the supernatural doesn’t exist?

I do see the world as inherently magical. My definition of “magical” is rather diffuse, though.  There are many things perfectly mundane to a scientific materialist worldview that are miraculous to me, that I don’t see as less magical for all that they’re explicable: bread is as much a miracle to me as the stars. As to what I say to those who adhere to a different worldview — nothing, really, unless I feel like being soundly mocked. I’m not out to convince anyone of anything, except possibly the benefits of keeping an open mind — which isn’t at all incompatible with being a thorough skeptic.

I once saw a three-foot-tall pillar form out of whitish, swirly, ripply air in the corner of an Ottawa hostel, where it held its shape for about three minutes before dissipating into nothing again. I was, and remain, convinced that I saw a ghost. But what is a ghost? A psychic imprint left on an area that produces mass hallucinations in a consistently verifiable way? An atmospheric anomaly measured in drops or spikes in barometric pressure? The disembodied soul of a departed individual? I don’t know. It doesn’t change the fact that I saw a weird swirly pillar appear and disappear, and that I can’t account for it without reaching into the realm of the ooky. If someone were to come up to me tomorrow and explain it to my satisfaction, I’d be happy to say “ah, yes, in fact what I thought was a ghost was a combination of heat waves behaving peculiarly given variables x and y.” But in the absence of that, my cosmology’s plenty big enough to account for ghosts, and that’s the way I like it.

How did “Schehirrazade” come into being?  Tell me about the pun in the title.

TreasuresWhen I was first getting to know Cat Valente, I was living in the United Arab Emirates while she was living in Ohio. We would chat online just about every day. I knew that I’d be back in Canada soon, and was making plans to drive down to Cleveland for her birthday. Knowing that I’d be doing a lot of travelling in the interim — going to Syria and England before heading back to Ottawa — I asked her to send me on a quest to obtain a gift for her from each place I would be. She asked for a glass bottle of ocean water from the UAE, a ring from Damascus, and a comb from the UK. I went in search of these; whenever I found one, I wrote her a small fantasized story to explain how I’d obtained it.

I filled a bottle for her in Fujeirah, one of the Emirates. While there, I started reading Cat’s Apocrypha, which dazzled me, especially her “Virgil and the Bees.” The first few lines of “Schehirrazade” came out then, but little more; I was too overcome, I think, didn’t know what I was trying to say yet.

I went to Syria, I went to England, I found her other gifts. Once back in Canada, I matched story to object, threw in a couple of extra things, made a pile of them, but I still wanted to offer something more, something to tie them all together. I pulled out the few lines I’d written in Fujeirah, and hesitated over the audacity of writing my favourite poet a poem. I did it anyway, and figured that what it lacked in skill it made up for in sincerity.

As for the title? I love to be told stories, and in Apocrypha and The Orphan’s Tales and Labyrinth and The Grass-Cutting Sword she’d told me so many new ones, so originally it was titled “To Scheherezade, on the Occasion of Her Birthday.” But the most precious to me were the things she told me when it was just us speaking together, when we gave each other little names and shared secrets. The non-standard spelling of “Schehirrazade” is one such secret, an Easter Egg just for her.

Do you write on a schedule, or when inspired?

I find it easier to write to assignment — though whether that’s the same thing as “on a schedule” I leave in the air. If someone requests a piece, gives me a prompt, offers me a framework within which to work, I find it easier to complete things quickly than otherwise — although it’s entirely possible that I’ll think “hmm, mythpunk anthology? This thing I started writing on the train might fit that…” and continue to work on it with a venue in mind.

I feel incredibly blessed that right now I have enough requests for material that I need to write on a schedule, to perspire whether or not I’m inspired. It’s what I’ve always wanted.

Is it true you play the harp?  And sing?  Where can we hear you online?

It is true that I play the harp, and sing! The one I am trained to do, the other I am not — although ironically I do a lot more singing than harping lately. I’m afraid you can’t hear me online unless you are a good friend who asks me for a half-baked home recording at a moment where I’m not quite shy enough to refuse. I hope to change that in this coming year, with the help of a production-savvy housemate, as well as perhaps talented magazine editors who possess hidden skills of their own…

Do you feel you have any recurring themes in your poems?  Your fiction?

I think they come in waves, the recurring themes, along with the language that lends itself to their treatment. I keep expecting someone to smack me upside the head and forbid me the naming of spices.

Since that hasn’t yet happened, I can’t help but write longing in terms of the senses, to write language and the ability to communicate as things that aren’t taken for granted, to mythologise the every-day and infuse myth with experience. Lately it’s become very important to me to write my culture and heritage, to shore up the gap between media representation of the Middle-East and my experience of it.

What are your plans after the PhD?

The PhD is something of a singularity for me right now; I don’t feel I can plan for what’s beyond it, as if making a plan will be a crutch, will mean being less prepared rather than more. But I can speak of wants: I want to be able to travel more freely again, to more easily visit friends and family wherever they may be. I want to write a novel or three, though I may not be able to wait until the PhD’s handed in before making a real start of it. I want to do everything I can to strengthen my ties with and give back to the community that’s sustained me throughout this degree.

Seven adjectives to describe Sybil’s Garage to someone who’s never heard of it:

Heartbreaking, luminous, scalding, teasing, sentient, rich, strange.

Anything else you’d like to add?

Yes! I’ve got this collection of poetry and prose out right now, called The Honey Month, and Jeff Vandermeer’s just said some exceptionally nice things about it, so I hope you’ll check it out! Other than that, I’d love for more people to peruse a new poetry venue called Stone Telling, which has just put out its first issue. I’ve got a piece in it that I feel is, in some ways, a companion to “Schehirrazade,” in that it’s a loving praise-poem for another beautiful, powerful woman I’m privileged to have in my life. But forget about me — there’s a shiny new poem by Ursula K. Le Guin in there, as well as gorgeous work by Shweta Narayan and Sonya Taaffe and Sam Henderson and Emily Jiang and so many others, and deserves to be trumpeted from the rooftops.

Thank you, Amal!  Always a pleasure!

Get your copy of Sybil’s Garage No. 7 at Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble, Powell’s Books or at Senses Five Press

Free Download of Sybil’s Garage No. 4

Sybil's Garage No. 4Sybil’s Garage No. 4 is now available as a free download.  Issue four contains stories from Richard Bowes, Ekaterina Sedia, Cat Rambo, Steve Rasnic Tem, Barbara Krasnoff and more, as well as poems from Rachel Swirsky, JoSelle Vanderhooft, Jaime Lee Moyer, and many others.  Not to mention an interview with Jeffrey Ford.  It’s one of my favorite issues.  I’m quite fond of the work I did on the cover.

You can download the full issue here.  (PDF, 26 Mb)

And if you like Sybil’s Garage, and this goes for any small press publisher you enjoy, please lend your support by purchasing their books and magazines.  Tell your friends about them.  Help spread the word.  The small presses operate on restricted budgets and can exist only with the continuous support of their readers and fans.

Interview at Bibliophile Stalker

Charles Tan over at Bibliophile Stalker interviews me about Sybil’s Garage, KGB, Senses Five Press, and my own fiction.  Here’s a little clip:

CT: What made you decide to include those cryptic marginalia, or music suggestions under each story/poem? (And wouldn’t it be cool if one day each magazine came packaged with a soundtrack?)

MK: For the latest issue, I created an iTunes playlist (http://www.sensesfive.com/2009/05/30/sybils-garage-no-6-playlist/), which is about 95% accurate to what appears in the magazine. I know iTunes isn’t available or convenient for parts of the world, but it’s a start.

For the musical suggestions, it’s simply because I love music. Music has always been very inspirational for me, and I thought it would be a fun way to see what others were listening to and inspired by. Kind of like peeking into someone’s record collection. Crap, I just dated myself. I should say “mp3 collection.”

For the marginalia, I’m not sure I can answer that simply. I think part of the reason I pepper it throughout the pages has to do with my obsession with detail, a desire to fill in every nook and cranny. I also think it has to do with the joy I’ve felt in finding similar cryptic messages or imagery in song lyrics, album art, comics, books, films, and other media. And then, as I dig in further, discovering what they mean. I’m purposely trying to invoke that in Sybil’s, that unexpected frisson when you suddenly discover three quarters of the way through the magazine that there’s a story written in the margins, for example. It’s no secret that my favorite film is Blade Runner, and I’ve always admired Ridley Scott’s obsessive attention to detail, the intense layering of objects, so I guess in a way I’m emulating that too.

But yeah, a Sybil’s Garage soundtrack would be brilliant. I’m actually working on something related to that, interestingly enough.

You can read the full interview here.

Interview with Paul Tremblay

Interview with Paul Tremblay

by Devin Poore
to the sound of Bob Mould, Life and Times…

This interview appears in Sybil’s Garage No. 6.


Paul TremblayPAUL TREMBLAY IS a busy man.   He has had short stories published by the likes of ChiZine, Sybil’s Garage, Clarkesworld Magazine, Fantasy Magazine, LitHaven, Pseudopod, and Horror: Best of the Year 2007, just to name a few. He has also worked as editor at ChiZine, Fantasy Magazine, and the original anthology Bandersnatch.   He is the author of the short speculative fiction collection Compositions for the Young and Old and the dark fantasy novella CityPier: Above and Below.   When he isn’t seemingly taking over the world of the speculative short fiction market, he teaches math to high school boys and helps run the Shirley Jackson Awards.   His first novel, The Little Sleep, from Henry Holt Publishers, is out now and a sequel is in the works.

Last summer I grabbed a chair that had been tossed to the floor and sat down with Paul during a break at ReaderCon.   We covered the usual writing questions, touched on his obsession with a group role-playing game named Mafia (which you can Google and read all about; Wikipedia, too), and found that the difference between genre and literary stories isn’t all that great.   You can find Paul on the web at www.paulgtremblay.com —DP


Your upcoming novel, The Little Sleep, is about a narcoleptic private detective; unusual subject matter to be sure, but it’s a book with little or no speculative content. You’re principally known as a horror writer. Why a non-genre project for your first book?
You mean my first sold book. Heh. To be honest, I really didn’t give the lack of speculative element to the novel much thought. Although, and I hope this doesn’t sound trite, I think there is a speculative fiction attitude to the book with its underlying uncertainty; the idea that no one or nothing is safe and is to be questioned. The protagonist, Mark Genevich, is narcoleptic, and he suffers from a host of symptoms such as hypnogogic hallucinations, automatic behavior, blackouts, and cataplexy. For Mark (and for the reader) discerning reality, memory, and identity from his dreams is difficult at best.

Since the book deals with different perspectives on reality, did you set out to write a non-speculative story or did it come about in some other way?
I wrote the first chapter more than a year before I wrote the body of the novel. I used the stereotypical PI set up of a beautiful woman going to a PI’s office, but the woman has an outlandish story about someone stealing her fingers and replacing them with someone else’s digits. I originally imagined the novel was going to be a sci-fi urban fantasy detective stew, but I stalled after the first chapter, and put it away. Later, I happened to read about narcolepsy and that horrible disease seemed a perfect fit for my PI set up, then the title (The Little Sleep) occurred to me, and the novel took off from there.

Some of your short stories are also decidedly literary, with little or no speculative element. I take it that you enjoy a little genre hopping?
I became a better writer the day I stopped identifying myself as “horror writer,” and instead thought of myself as “a writer who sometimes writes horror.” Now I try to serve the needs of the story first instead of shoehorning every story kernel into a particular framework. If the story in question happens to work better as horror, fine, and if not that’s okay too.

So yeah, I do like a little genre hopping. I hope to be able to do it at novel length, going forward!

The Little Sleep by Paul Tremblay

Buy at Amazon.com

It sounds as if you do not consciously sit down with a mantra of “today I write horror”. Your story in Sybil’s Garage No. 3, “Holes” is also decidedly ambiguous in regards to its genre. Was that a conscious decision?
I think ambiguity is an undercurrent in almost all of my more recent work. As a reader, I enjoy stories that do not spoon feed and that can give even the most mundane scenes/occurrences multiple meanings or possibilities. Maybe it’s better put this way; I gravitate to stories with something to say, but that something to say always leads to more questions. To me, ambiguity is interesting, scary, and, well, real.

“Holes” was a very personal, auto-biographical story, one in which I wanted to have a heavy atmosphere of dread, even if the protagonist, or the reader (or the writer, for that matter) wasn’t exactly sure of the source or nature of the dread.

I think most of the best horror fiction takes advantage of ambiguity. Was Poe’s narrator in “The Tell-Tale Heart” just crazy or could he actually hear the heart, or neither; was the killer manipulating you, only trying to make you think he was crazy? Horror fails, most spectacularly, when our inherent state of ambiguity is ignored, when the lines of good and evil aren’t blurred or muddied.

While readers seem to have no problem reading Hemingway one day and Gaiman the next, writers tend to stay within their chosen camps. Sometimes militantly so. Have you come up against any roadblocks or issues since you are not writing in your usual field, in regards to acceptance, thoughts of marketability?
In my admittedly brief experience, I’ve found that it’s (at least with the major publishing houses) less the writer being militant about sticking to their genre than publishers being willing to take a chance on an author’s book that might be outside of their genre, or outside of the perceived comfort zone of their readers.

I’m still quite new to the process so I haven’t come up against any roadblocks yet. Both my agent and editor have been enthusiastic about my other published work, but the test will be later this year after I turn in my second contracted novel, and then start pitching a speculative fiction craziness!

A sequel?
I prefer “follow-up.” Heh. To be honest, I didn’t write The Little Sleep with any intention of doing a series, and my agent and I didn’t pitch Sleep as a series, but Holt offered a two-book deal (second to be the follow-up) and, needless to say, we weren’t about to turn it down. I think Mark Genevich is complex and interesting enough to have more to say. He’s got another story in him.

How much credit is due short fiction to your novel success? Do you consider yourself more of a short story or novel writer?
Knock on wood, there, with the talk of novel success!

I learned to write with short fiction, as is painfully evident in my older stories. Transitioning to a novel was a challenge, of course. The Little Sleep is my first sold novel, but it’s not my first novel; it’s my 4.5th. 1.5 are safely buried in the trunk, never again to see light of day. 1 is likely trunked, though it’s the novel that nabbed me agent representation (no sale, though), and 1 still hope to publish later. Keeping score at home?

Honestly I think I enjoy short stories more, but they feel a little harder to write now that I’ve been in “novel mode” for almost two-plus years. But, yes, short fiction has been good to me. I was fortunate enough to meet talented folks like Steve Eller (editor, writer, HWA mentor), Poppy Z. Brite, Stewart O’Nan and so many more who have been great friends and mentors to me.

When starting a story, do you plot and outline, or follow the organic approach of just seeing what turns up on the page?
With The Little Sleep and it’s follow up, I’ve had to to plot/outline more beforehand by necessity. I’m not good enough to make up the mystery element on the fly. I used to (and still enjoy writing this way) sketch out a character and plop the poor sap in a few scenes to see where the mess might take me. For The Little Sleep, I had wrote 10 page synopsis before going back to that first chapter and adding to it. I didn’t necessarily enjoy it. Ah, heck, I hate plotting and outlining. I’m much more interested in character building. But the outlining was a good exercise and extremely helpful for this particular project.

Did the novel conform to the synopsis?
It did, but not so rigidly that I didn’t tweak some scenes, add others, and the ending completely changed. I treated the outline as a rough map, one I could erase and move the longitude and latitude lines if I wanted.

Tell me about the Shirley Jackson awards.
During the winter of ‘07 a bunch of us currently associated with the award were discussing what they liked in horror, and how a lot of exciting dark fiction doesn’t market itself necessarily as horror. As we saw it, there was all this great fiction out there and it wasn’t necessarily being recognized by the horror/speculative fiction community. So with the blessing of the Shirley Jackson estate, we created the award to honor her name and the current crop of literary horror/dark fiction.

We’ve been so pleased and humbled by the overwhelming support offered from publishers, writers, editors, and readers.

Do check out our website for more info! www.shirleyjacksonawards.org

With the short stories, novels, and awards duties, how does your “real world” mesh with the world of a writer?
Being a high school math teach helps. Honest! No way could I be teaching English (grading essays and papers and vocab, oh my!) and get all my writing done. I generally teach Calculus and Geometry, have small classes, have a great comfort level with the material in those courses that, so I don’t have to spend a lot of time lesson planning. Bonus: if my kids are taking a test or there is a free period, my laptop is with me and I write as little or as much as I can. The Calculus classes are usually seniors and they get out early in the spring, so there’s more free time. While my fall and winter are very busy, the rest of the year I’m able to devote a good chunk of time to writing.

We’ve sat across each other many a time during a game of Mafia. What’s the appeal of that game to you, and what inspired you to take it to school and teach it to your students?
I love games. I hate losing, and I like arguing for the sake of arguing. I grew up in a very competitive family; it spanned the generations. Sundays were spent at my grandparents, playing cards with grandparents, aunts, uncles, and the games usually got heated.

I think my childhood was different than most writers, at least in terms of hobbies and interests. As a kid, I did well in school but didn’t read much for pleasure. I spent most of my time in the backyard, shooting hoops by myself, maybe playing catch with my younger brother. I was not big or strong enough to play basketball in school. I essentially wasted my youth fantasizing about baseball and basketball. Mafia appeals to that craven little boy, yearning for victory.

As for the students… we play Mafia because I get to lord my momentary psychological superiority over them. That and they enjoy accusing me of lying about being in the village. But I am a villager.

Between teaching and writing, it sounds like you have the best of both worlds.

I have to admit, with the release of The Little Sleep coming, this year especially has been crazy busy with the double-workload. But I love teaching. The students’ energy does help to motivate me in general. The good days far outnumber the bad. The only thing that could tear me away from school would be possibly a full-time fiction writer. Yeah, I know, don’t quit your day job…

Okay, now, at the end, is there anything that I should have asked you in this interview that I missed? Anything you want to add?
A few tid-bits: The stories of me throwing a chair during a game of mafia have been greatly exaggerated, although I did jump out of a window once (ground floor) after being killed in the night. Everyone should read Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle. I am a villager. Thanks so much, Devin and Sybil’s Garage!

© Copyright 2009 Devin Poore & Senses Five Press

Dinner with Lauren McLaughlin

Dinner with Lauren McLaughlin

Interview by Devin Poore
to the sound of “Haitian Fight Song” by Charles Mingus…

As published in Sybil’s Garage No. 5


Lauren McLaughlin is one of the new breed of authors who delve into the realms of Young Adult fiction. Young Adult has become a hot commodity recently with the obvious success of J.K. Rowling, Phillip Pullman, and many other authors who choose those of adolescent years for their subject matter and audience.

Lauren is a survivor of the film industry, a former Sybil’s Garage editor and contributor, and a member of the Altered Fluid writing group. Her short fiction has appeared in Sybil’s Garage, Interzone and Salon.com. She has recently completed her first novel, Cycler, which will be published by Random House in the fall of 2008. She is currently working on the sequel, Cycler-2, and the screenplay for Cycler.

My “significant other,” choreographer Kristen Mangione, and I had dinner with Lauren and her husband, photographer Andrew Woffinden, and discussed… well, everything. It was a table full of artists, after all. Afterwards Lauren and I collaborated to boil-down the writer-related topics, which I’ve compiled here. —Devin Poore


You started out writing screenplays and then moved onto fiction. Did you start with novels or short fiction first? And if short fiction, why?

I started with writing a novel, but found I had to “unlearn” most of what I had learned while writing screenplays. I then tried short fiction as a way to get my name out there, and fell in love with the form. Quickly my ideas became unmanageable in that form, though, as I could not resolve them in the word limitations of the medium. My last short story was twelve-thousand words long, and there is no market for a story that length.

You fared fairly well with your short stories, though, selling a couple of them to large markets like Salon.com and Interzone. In the end do you believe that helped with getting your novel picked up and securing an agent?

I think my small successes in short fiction were useful in attracting editors to my novels. One editor, in particular, approached me after my story, “The Perfect Man” appeared in Salon. But not a single one of those editors ever acted. By that, I mean they neither rejected nor made an offer. In fact, they don’t even return my emails. So, in sum, I’d have to say that writing short fiction had absolutely no impact on selling my novel. To be honest, I became quite disenchanted with the novel submission process until I met my current agent, Jill Grinberg.

As for the usefulness of short stories to a writer’s career, I think it has to be artistic rather than opportunistic. You should write short stories because you love them. They have their own merit. There are things you can only do in a short story. Sadly, they do not reach the size of audience that a novel can reach, but I think they do impact their readership very strongly. People who love short stories, really love short stories.

From a bystander’s point of view, it seems you went from writing short stories, to having a novel ready, to picking up an agent, to getting a major book deal quickly. Seemingly within a matter of weeks. What was that like?

I quit my movie job in January of 2001 to begin writing fiction. I sold my novel Cycler in February of 2007. In the intervening six years I wrote two other novels and twenty or so short stories only three of which ever sold. So it definitely doesn’t feel like an overnight success to me. It feels like a long overdue break. But then, I’m impatient like that.

You mentioned that during the writing process it’s good to have a community of peers, like your former writers group Altered Fluid, or your new contemporaries in the YA field.

As a member of Altered Fluid it wasn’t merely the critiques, which were extremely helpful, and the writing tempo that really is above and beyond what almost all other writing groups have, but the shared experiences of colleagues that are going through the same things in the industry with submitting, editing, seeking out representation, etc. The community aspect is most valuable.

Talk about the process of writing. Do you enjoy longhand, typing, or other means of getting the words on the page/screen?

I had visions of writing Cycler by walking about Southstreet Seaport and dictating it into a tape recorder. At the end of the day I’d play that tape into a computer which would use voice recognition to put it all in a file, and then I would manually do line edits. The technology simply isn’t there, though.

Long hand writing and edits do indeed slow down the entire process and give your mind time to think of aspects that simply would not occur with the speed of editing on a computer.

Do you outline at all?

Initially I outline, I find that it helps to organize my thoughts, but once I start writing the outline goes to pot. I planned out Cycler-2, but the characters just refuse to follow the outline. After I begin writing, an outline is just a vain attempt to impose an order that just won’t hold.

How has the fact of a paid deadline altered any of your writing processes?

Other than the nagging sense of doom and failure, it’s had almost no impact. I basically try to forget about the deadline and just write. Thankfully, I’m writing faster and faster all the time, averaging about 3500 words a day. My deadlines, so far, have all been quite manageable. I’ve met writers who have to churn out whole novels in three months and that gives me the hives. I don’t think I could ever do that.

Cycler by Lauren McLaughlinYou have said that you are all about symmetry; you like to switch your mouse from left to right hand. You don’t like to play softball anymore because you’re limited to throwing with one hand. How does your need for symmetry translate into your writing?

There’s an inherent symmetry between the protagonist and antagonist, or at least there should be. A writer should love their antagonist as much as their protagonist so that both sides are well represented. I don’t believe in good and evil, but in misguided intention. As a writer, I take the main idea, the “good intentions” of the protagonist and develop a fully realized argument for the “bad intentions” of the antagonist. Only when both sides of the story are fully realized does the reader have the ability to make a conscious decision as to their loyalties to the characters.

Cycler deals with opposing ideas in that way, does it not, regarding gender?

Cycler has strong ideas of gender; how it can be a prison where we are all forced by society to choose sides. In context of the fully developed antagonist, I had to have a character that sees gender as only black and white, male and female, right and wrong. I came to really love the character even though I despise what she stands for because by putting my beliefs up against hers the entire argument of gender in the book was better developed. I was then able to explore gender, how it could be both male and female and neither male or female, and figure out a way to exist in a black and white, opposing, world.

Was the duality of your character(s) in Cycler a problem for you at all? There are those who would say that a man can not convincingly write about a woman’s experiences, and conversely a woman can not know what a man goes through enough to write of it. Am I correct in guessing those notions are entirely too simplistic and had no bearing on the writing of the book?

It takes a bit more than male anatomy and psychology to scare me away. I’ve written from the point of view of aliens, of sentient software programs, of religious fanatics, of anthropomorphized cultural entities, all of whom were vastly more different from me than a man. But I’d be lying if I said that writing from a male point of view is identical to writing from a female point of view. Especially in Cycler, which is very much about gender, I am exploring what it feels like to be male and female. And I had so much fun doing that. What I’ve always tried to shy away from is any notion of an essentialized maleness or femaleness. That’s one of the challenges of Cycler, exploring gender without bogging down in boring dualities.

Was the idea initially to write a YA novel due to the popularity of the subject matter, or was it the best way to deal with your subject of gender roles — to set it in the young adult life when we are becoming aware of “how we should act” based on our gender?

I never knew the category of YA existed until I started meeting science fiction writers who were suddenly being shelved in the YA section. I’m not an expert in publishing, but my sense is that it’s a new category. My original idea for Cycler dealt with the main characters at age twenty-five. But as soon as I started writing it I realized all the juicy identity stuff was being shoved into the backstory, so I simply backed up and wrote it from the teenagers’ points of view. In the movie version, I’ve backed it up even further to show the first day that the cycling began.

From what you have said it sounds as if simply telling a story is not enough for you.

Storytelling is the foundation of any good novel and I think it’s actually a very rare talent. Plenty of writers get by on killer premises and witty style. But effective storytelling is all about structure. It’s very mechanical, almost architectural. When you can marry that structure to a framework of ideas, then the novel can transcend pure entertainment. The trick, in my opinion, is to weave these ideas invisibly into the story so that they are discovered, unraveled by the reader. My goal is to seduce my reader into a compelling narrative that whittles away at some preconceived idea and leaves them with an uncomfortable but somehow intriguing gap in their sense of the world. I want them to close the book and have a head full of questions. I’m not interested in merely diverting them for a while or helping them fall asleep. Nor do I want that from the books I read. I want to be unsettled, challenged. I want to close a book and say “I never thought of that before.”

What else do you have planned beyond Cycler and its sequel? More YA books? Will you delve more into gender, or are there other themes you wish to explore?

I always have a backlog of projects itching to be realized. First in the queue is a novel called Steal the Future, which is about teens and surveillance. I’ve written the first draft, but it needs to be put through its paces. Next in line is my long-festering science fiction musical, Upload/Download, for which I’ve written about ten songs but have yet to bang out a script. I’m also toying with the idea of fleshing out my short story, “The Perfect Man,” into a screenplay. And I’ve just begun making notes for a post-apocalyptic teen adventure set in Brooklyn. The thing is, by the time, I’ve moved on to my next project, I’ll have hatched several more potential projects. Most of them never make it out of the larval stage. My hard drive is clogged with larvae.

And finally, what is the one question I did not ask you that I should have, that you thought “Wow, he really missed the point and should have asked this!”? (and of course, what’s your answer?)

I think you asked some great questions. The one question people always ask me that you omitted is: “Why did you quit the film business?” And my answer would be because it’s boring, trite, and nobody makes good movies any more.

For more information about Lauren & Cycler, visit:
http://www.laurenmclaughlin.net/

Other interviews by Devin Poore:
A Conversation With Stephen Segal, Creative Director of Wildside Press

Devin Poore’s website:
http://www.devinjpoore.com/

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