Interview with Nancy Kress and Jack Skillingstead

Here’s one final interview from ICON 38, with two guests of honor, Nancy Kress and Jack Skillingstead.

[Alvaro Zinos-Amaro] What’s been the high point of ICON 38 for you?

[Jack Skillingstead] I liked DreamCon, the workshop for high school and college students. It was fun sitting there talking to the students. I also liked getting to know Ellen Datlow better. I’vet met her a few times, but hadn’t spent a lot of time talking to her.

[Nancy Kress] The high point of this convention was pretty much what it always is, which is hanging around talking to people: friends in the bar, in restaurants, and on panels. And I also enjoyed my kaffeklatsche. I had a really responsive group of people. It wasn’t just me talking. There was a real give-and-take. I enjoyed talking to Jim Hines, whom I’d never met before. I think it’s been a successful convention!

[AZA] Both of you had readings at this convention. How do you select what you’re going to read? Is it always just the latest story or novel? Does it depend on the audience?

[NK] I try to read something that hasn’t come out yet, if I have it, in the theory that I’m trying it out, and that people might then be interested in looking for it. So I read something that was coming out the day after the reading, the opening to my novella “Annabel Lee,” from my Stellar Guild team-up with Therese Pieczynski, New Under the Sun.

[JS] I usually try to read something that’s current. All summer I’ve been reading bits from Life on the Preservation, the novel version, because that’s the one that’s out, and that’s the one I’d like to encourage people to buy.

[AZA] But in your reading you went with the short story “Everyone Bleeds Through.”

[JS] Right. I was sort of tired of reading the same opening chapter from the novel. I wanted to read something that was complete, which would mean a short story. And I knew I had a few in my collection that I could read in a single sitting. I picked one that Nancy happens to like.

[NK] It’s one of my favorites of his stories.

[JS] I like some of my other stories a little bit more, but they’re longer.

[AZA] So for you, Nancy, that it’s a standalone piece isn’t a requirement? You just find a natural breaking point?

[NK] When I read for a whole hour, I try to pick something I can read all of. But I don’t write things short enough to read in half an hour.

[AZA] Could you tell us a little more about your Stellar Guild collaboration? And maybe any other recent or forthcoming stories you’d like to mention?

[NK] The Stellar Guild collaboration, published by Arc Manor, is part of a series edited by Mike Resnick in which a more well-known and established author and an up-and-coming, promising author, chosen by the more established author, publish stories that are either continuations of each other or are in some way connected. Very loosely connected, in my case. New Under the Sun contains my novella “Annabel Lee” and Therese Pieczynski’s novelette “Strange Attractor.” My novella is about alien parasites who have lain dormant in the Earth for a long time, until they find a human host to inhabit. I’ve never been happy with parasites-have-taken-over-the-humans and now they’re either monsters or they’re controlling them or they’re riding them and abusing them. It doesn’t really make sense, because parasites which badly abuse their hosts soon don’t have a host. So I wanted to do that theme, but in a different way, which I did.

Gardner Dozois selected two of my stories, “One” and “Pathways,” for inclusion in the The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Thirty-First Annual Collection. “One,” which appeared on, is about ultimate fighting. I’m not a fan of boxing, or wrestling, or ultimate fighting but I wanted to write about an ultimate fighter–who knows why? It took me a while to find the right way to present it. “Pathways” appeared in MIT Tech Review. It’s about optogenetics. I actually think it’s one of the best stories I’ve ever written.

[AZA] Why is it one of your favorite stories?

[NK] The voice and the character and the plot-line all came together quickly, and the science is very exciting. Optogenetics uses optically-sensitive genetically-engineered algae, attaching them to the brain, and then controlling them through light by fiber-optic cables. Doing this with mice they’ve been able to control their muscular movements so that they ran in circles, and all sorts of things. Obviously we can’t do these experiments in humans–yet. But it’s a really interesting way of mapping the brain, of studying what actions are controlled by what parts of the brain. They’re doing research on this at MIT. God knows why anyone ever gets interested in anything, but I got interested in this.

[JS] I’m not interested in anything.

[NK] I also have a story in the current issue of Asimov’s (January 2014) called “The Common Good”. It’s a sequel to “The Kindness of Strangers”, in which aliens destroyed all large cities on Earth. Now it’s several decades later and they’re back.

[AZA] Don’t you have novella coming out with Tachyon this year as well?

[NK] Yes, that’s right. But no title yet.

[AZA] Can you give us a hint of what it’s about?

[JS] Keanu Reeves meets The Big Lebowski.

[AZA] What stories or projects on the horizon would you like to discuss, Jack?

[JS] I’ve published at least one story a year since I started publishing in 2003, usually more like three or four or five. But this year it’s just one. It’s called “Arlington” and it came out in the August 2013 issue of Asimov’s. I used my piloting experiences when I was very young. It’s the longest short story I’ve ever published–40,000 words almost. It was a lot of fun. I’ve agreed to contribute stories to a couple of Kickstarter anthologies once they get financing. One is Winter in the City, which is dark fantasy stories set in cities in winter. Marty Halpern is going to be editing that. I’m also going to contribute a hard sf story about the direction of space travel in NASA. That should be really interesting: I have no idea what I’m going to do, or how I’m going to do it. My friend, the writer Daryl Gregory, told me something once: “always say yes, if you’re offered something, and figure it out later.” This has always worked for me. Somebody offered to hire me to write these graphic novel scripts once, and I didn’t have any idea how to write a script or any of that stuff. But I said yes, and figured it out pretty quickly, and it was a fun experience and I made some money. I’ve been invited to some anthologies in the past, always said “yes,” and it’s always worked out.

Besides short stories, I’ve finished a novel, a reincarnation fantasy set in Las Vegas titled Vegas Apocalypse, which I’m currently shopping.

Other than that, I’m writing a new novel, kind of an expansion of my first story, “Dead Worlds”. The starting point is telepresence–in other words, not actually sending astronauts to other worlds, which takes too long, it’s impossible. In the short story version physical vehicles are launched decades ago (in the future), and they arrive in the Tau Boo system, and they land on a planet with robotic rovers, into which human consciousness is then projected. I was a little bit inspired for that story by a classic sf story, Poul Anderson’s “Call Me Joe”. Needless to say, though I tried to plan the novel to more or less follow the premise of my short story, the novel is turning out nothing like the short story. But I’m liking it, and the first draft is nearly done.

[AZA] So, over the years you’ve been on a lot of panels at various cons. If you could have a dream panel (including anyone, dead or alive, and not necessarily related to SF), who would be on it?

[NK] I like that question! I would love to talk to Jane Austen about the construction of her novels. I’d like sit on a panel with Ursula K. Le Guin, Bruce Sterling, Anne Tyler, and Ian McEwan. I’d love to discuss working methods, their approach to writing, what’s important to them. That would be a dream panel. I think Jack is going to want Charles Dickens on his dream panel.

[JS] No, thanks. He had a large ego and personality. It’s not so much the ego, but the huge personality would turn the panel into The Charles Dickens Panel.

[AZA] Are you saying you wouldn’t have Asimov on there either?

[JS] Nah. I’d have Roger Zelazny. He was a nice guy, and a really great writer. Ted Sturgeon.

[NK] I want Sturgeon on my panel.

[JS] And Fritz Leiber. Those three guys.

[NK] How come you don’t have any women on your dream panel? And I’d also like to make another amendment to my panel. I want to include Somerset Maugham.

[AZA] You want Maugham? We’ll see what we can do.

[NK] I’m a big admirer of Maugham, and he’s currently out of fashion, which I think is unfair, because he was brilliant.

[JS] If she has Maugham, I’d like Guy de Maupassant.

[NK] You can have him!

[JS] He was a great short story writer. And unlike your guy, he actually wrote something that could be classified if not as SF then at least horror, “The Horla”. A very famous story, in fact.

[NK] I thought we said we didn’t have to stick to sf or fantasy or horror writers.

[JS] We don’t have to, but I was just trying to make my dream panel interesting for the con audience.

[NK] Then I want Shakespeare on my panel!

[AZA] I’m surprised you didn’t pick him already. Or Jesus, or Buddha, or, say, Galileo.

[JS] Okay, I’ll have God on my panel.

[AZA] But you already have Theodore Sturgeon.

[JS] No, but seriously. If you could do that: Sturgeon, Zelazny, Leiber. I don’t know much about Leiber’s personality, but–

[NK] You’re not throwing a dinner party!

[JS] I know, but I’m trying to put together a panel of very very good short story writers who also have congenial personalities.

[NK] Don’t you want Hemingway on your panel?

[JS] No!

[NK] But you like Hemingway!

[JS] I don’t want to sit on a panel with him! He’d be cranky.

[AZA] Who would you pick as your dream panel moderator?

[JS] Sturgeon.

[NK] Le Guin.

[JS] And since we can do anything, here’s an idea. Instead of a panel with these people that you’re on with to discuss writing or whatever, what if you resurrect them from the grave, and then made them teenagers again, and had them attend DreamCon in Iowa? They’re still the same people, they just haven’t published anything yet and they’re high school students out in the Midwest, and they show up to DreamCon.

[NK] Jane Austen as a high school student in the Midwest? I’m not sure this is parsing for me.

[JS] She could have been.

[AZA] In an alternative universe, maybe. Thank you both!

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