So, my 2019 story “The Fourth Trimester is the Strangest” has won the Sunburst Award– a Canadian prize for speculative fiction. This is a surprise. It first appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction‘s May/June issue last year, and it will also be in Paula Guran’s The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy and Horror.
Like everyone else, I write alone, and ninety percent (or ninety-nine? or ninety-nine-point-nine?) of my work is invisible: private, excised from a draft, or just a dead-end kind of story that’s best left on my hard drive. Of the stories that eventually make it to publication, most surface for a few moments, then disappear again. This is as it should be– there is always something new to read, and we are in a moment that’s rich with wonderful stories.
But every once in a while a story catches with people. An editor like CC Finlay at F&SF decides to publish it, and maybe a few readers take time to read it and respond to the strange thing I’ve made. It’s rewarding to see it happen because it means I’ve found a way to talk about something important or unusual, or maybe I’ve found a new(ish) way to say something familiar. I wrote this particular story to capture the disorientation of childbirth and newborns. That’s important to me, and it’s good to know it’s important to other people, too. And given the isolation of writing in general, and of our terrifying, exhausting moment in particular, I am so very very grateful to hear that someone, somewhere read the story and heard what I was trying to say. And valued it, too. That’s about the best I can hope for as a writer.
Well, and being on a list with Amal El-Mohtar and Richard van Camp, winning a prize that’s also been won by A.C. Wise and Nalo Hopkinson. That, also, is pretty wonderful.
(oh, and I get a medal. A MEDAL. Guys. I’m going to have a medal. Not since I got a silver Canada Fitness Badge in seventh grade have I had anything like a MEDAL)
While posting on facebook about my Sunburst nomination, I noticed that the two short stories I had forthcoming– “An Important Failure” and “The Bletted Woman” which will be in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction-– are both sad stories about the BC coast. Then a friend pointed out that “The Glad Hosts” falls into this category. As does “Such Thoughts Are Unproductive” and “Lares Familiares, 1981” and “Unearthly Landscape by a Lady.” Basically, I have a genre, wherein sad, weird, unpleasant things (magical, dystopian, alien) happen to people on the west coast. Or to people in some way related to the west coast. In this case, it’s about a luthier who’s collecting wood to build a violin in a poor, beat-down near-future version of Vancouver and Vancouver island.
So “An Important Failure” is another one of these sad stories about the coast. I started writing it while watching the bushfires in Australia back in January, and finished it in June, while in lockdown. The world seemed to transform several times in those months, and the story reflects my disorientation. It’s a story about processing change– how we do it, how we fail to do it. It’s also about the giant trees of BC– the “Champion Trees” of UBC’s big tree registry. The miraculous old growth they show you on fifth grade field trips to Cathedral Grove, or just off the road between Lake Cowichan and Port Renfrew. They’re vulnerable, of course: logging, poaching, climate change, wildfires. They’re so old, they belong, quite literally, to a different world.
Finally, it’s about what’s leftover when the world changes and what we do with trees after they’ve fallen. And it’s about making a violin, sort of, because though I love forests, I also love the things that come out of the forests: the people, the houses, the shakes, the paper, the stories, the colour of red cedar, the feeling you have walking into a wood-heated house in January, when it’s raining outside, the smell of fire fills all the rooms. I love the lives and afterlives of trees. I love the violin my main character is trying to make, and even the lengths he must go to to make it.
“An Important Failure” is available to read at Clarkesworld.
“The Fourth Trimester is the Strangest” came out last spring in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. I blogged briefly about it here. The infant I describe in the story (and the blogpost) is now a chatty three year old, and the story has been shortlisted for a Sunburst Award. This is a wonderful compliment, considering the strength of the long list. I’m also pleased to share the space with four other writers:
Rebecca Campbell, “The Fourth Trimester is the Strangest” [The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, May/June 2019]
Amal El-Mohtar, “Florilegia” [The Mythic Dream, Gallery/Saga Press]
Kate Heartfield, “The Inland Beacon” [Tesseracts Twenty-Two Alchemy and Artifacts, July 2019]
Richard Van Camp, “Wheetago War II: Summoners” [Moccasin Square Gardens, Douglas & McIntyre]
The story will also be available in Paula Guran’s anthology The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy and Horror, out in October. It’s nice to see a story do so well in the world, and connect with so many readers.
You should follow #creepiestobject on twitter, where curators post horrible and fascinating exhibits from museums around the world. Like a lot of culture in the last couple of months– at least in Canada– it’s full of anxiety and a kind of manic amusement at the weirdness and horror of the world, very much whistling-past-the-graveyard. Looking through the links with a friend, we decided to do our own whistling and started writing creepy microfiction about the exhibits. There are so many dolls, and desiccated animals, and bits of witchcraft, you can’t help but want more from them– an explanation for why there are pins in a pigeon’s heart, or what happened to that cat.
A few people have posted their stories, so I wanted to collect the links:
…and I wrote “Mine” about Rat Kings.
After he fell asleep, she collected the things he brought to bed: books, cars, a noseless bear. When he played, he curated his toys by rules she did not understand. This dinosaur, not that. This bunny. That block. When he slept in her arms, his hair a fluffy nimbus after his bath, she still found rocks in his hands, smuggled into the bedroom.
She emptied his pockets after every walk: a bottlecap; a crumpled leaf. He wanted to bring worms home from the park. “No,” she said. “They’re dirty. Dirty.” Her face full of exaggerated disgust which she hoped he’d mimic, even if he didn’t understand her shudder. She still found them wriggling in his pocket. By July, a knot of fur. The exuviae of snakes and cicada. After a long day in the sun, he smelled of earth, mud in his teeth, his hugs damp and sour.
On a night in August she collected rocks, dinosaurs, his dad’s right shoe. As she dug about his sleeping body she found nails bent into a cross. A greasy yellow bone. A handful of hazelnuts.
And then— a knot of dark hair beneath his cheek. That was the first rat. After that another. Another. Another, all bound by their tails, desiccated, but warm from the heat of his body.
At her feet, their paws clattered as though alive.
He woke, then. He did not smile.
“What—” She asked. “What have you done?”
Now available to read. You should check out all the other work, too. It’s a good issue.
For a few months, my partner worked in a call centre. I made notes. This sounds mercenary, considering the very very long hours he put in, but at this point he knows bits of his life will show up in my work. I try to be respectful, but some of his anecdotes about call centre life were so absurd, they snuck into a(nother) story about disaster. I’m really hard on Canada’s west coast, which I love, and which I continually destroy in one way or another.
Re-reading the story I’m surprised to see feelings I am now intimately familiar with: a slow-moving disaster traveling inexorably toward us; total helplessness; a combination of loneliness and intimacy that comes with hearing voices from far away. I think, though, this has a speck of hope in its ending– not that the disaster can be averted, but that we can help one another across those distances.
I was dealing with this woman on Vancouver Island who couldn’t generate invoices. We’d been at it for two hours and I could feel her getting upset when I told her to wipe the whole system and start again. I can help you do that, but she was like no we’ll lose two weeks of work, and there’s nothing I can say to that, so we keep troubleshooting even though it’s pointless.
“Okay, I said, can you go back to the root invoice and try—“
“—oh,” she said, “what—“
And that was it, I didn’t hear anything but the line itself, which just went dead, that kind of absence you get when someone hangs up on you.
I have long admired Undertow Publications. They’re a small Canadian press that publishes beautiful books in that narrow category of literary-weird-horror. It’s the same country as Daphne du Maurier, Robert Aickman, and Alberto Manguel’s Black Water anthologies: precise, elegant, and uncomfortable. I particularly recommend Aickman’s Heirs which contains “The Underground Economy” a story that will scare you in a deep and absurd way. They also have a regular anthology series called Shadows & Tall Trees, and I’m pleased that it includes one of my stories, “Child of Shower and Gleam.” It’s about pregnancy, motherhood, and childbirth, so part of the same family as “Uterus Abscondita” in Shimmer, and “The Fourth Trimester is the Strangest” in F&SF. It’s darker than those, I think, not about the terror & hope of transformation, but a changeling story, a story about vulnerability in the everyday world.
When we moved to this neighbourhood– shortly before our son was born– I liked how busy it was, mostly with students, but also with kids. They traveled in packs on bikes and scooters, shouting up and down the street to the park at the end with the swimming pool, draped in beach towels, with the occasional supervising adult or older sister. There were a few children, though, who seemed out of step with the others, a little behind the group, more often alone, and never accompanied by adults. Sometimes they knocked on our door, asking for treats and glasses of water and just for the attention of a friendly adult who would listen to their strange stories and watch their somersaults. Sometimes I had the time. More often I did not, with a baby and a wholly transformed life to figure out.
Then– as is often the case in a neighbourhood full of rental houses– they were gone. I still think about them.
A very long time ago I used to write literary fiction. These were populated by a lot of young women who had feelings and watched loons fly across evening skies after days of unspecified sadness (not exactly that, but it gives you a sense of what I mean). They also had failed relationships, and drank coffee, and sometimes something a little uncanny happened, like they wandered into a cornfield, or someone lit themselves on fire. I’m being glib, of course, though I did learn a lot about writing producing those stories, and I even published a few of the more interesting ones in Canadian magazines like Grain and Geist and Room of One’s Own. They were best when they slid into the literary weird, which I think happens naturally if you’re trying to describe your experiences of the world in a precise and granular way– deep focus and precision makes everything seem weird, doesn’t it?
Anyway. One of places I used to send stories was a magazine called subTerrain. I think I might have also sent them some pretty dire poetry, as well, poor editors. They never took anything, though. And who can blame them, what with the loons and the feelings.
So, you can imagine my great, gleeful pleasure that finally I have a story appearing in subTerrain. And while it’s about feelings, and forest fires, and there are no loons, there is systemic forgetting, on both the institutional and personal level. And there’s dystopia. Please check it out and buy if you can. There’s a lot of good & relevant stuff in here, and it’s a beautiful magazine.
Three stories came out in 2019 that are eligible for things like awards or year end lists or whatever else there is. This is still weird to write, but I also enjoy other people’s lists when I’m trying to catch up with everything I missed. Here’s mine, in case you want to know:
“Our Fathers Find Their Graves in Our Short Memories” appeared in Interzone 281 (May/June 2019). It’s about memory (nonhuman memory) in a climate change apocalypse.
“The Fourth Trimester is the Strangest” was in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction (May/June 2019). This is Obstetrical Horror, the first couple of weeks home with an infant.
“Such Thoughts are Unproductive” in Clarkesworld (December 2019). More climate change, but this time it’s an authoritarian police-state kind of apocalypse. Or maybe not yet an apocalypse. It’s about surveillance and deep fakes and what happens to intimate relationships in such a world.
It’s been an odd and wonderful year. I feel like I’m catching up to where I was before I had my son, as he’s more independent (after a fashion… I mean he can feed himself and walk and things) and I have more time to write. My ongoing resolution has been to write 200 words a day, and I’ve kept that since January 2018, barring one day last month when I had to finish edits on “Such Thoughts are Unproductive.” I’ll keep it up in 2020, too. I’ve written a lot of dross, but the momentum and the discipline have been good for me. I just hope I can finish (and maybe publish?) a few more of the things I’ve written this year.
I wrote this story in a fit last August, one of those inspirational writing sprints that poets are supposed to feel. I wrote it after months listening to stories about the Uighurs in China, violence and state surveillance. Which made me think of the Stasi, and our own Canadian brand of Cold War surveillance in PROFUNC, the Fruit Machine, the Lavender Scare.
The list doesn’t end there, of course. But these examples are particularly horrifying (to me, I mean) for their intimacy, the way they evaluate a citizen’s behaviour in their most private, internal moments. There’s no privacy, no recourse, no escape from that evaluating gaze, which seeks out imperfect citizens, deems then internal enemies, and destroys them.
I was on a panel once, talking about the DEWline (a paper that I revised into this article), when Karl Jirgens, a Canadian writer, argued that the technologies of the Cold War– surveillance, proxy wars, MAD– have become standard operating procedure for all the world’s super powers. We might have celebrated the end of history and the fall of the Berlin Wall, but we still live within the structures of that era. When I look at Uighurs, I believe Karl, and I am nauseated, and terrified, by how effectively those technologies have been refined, enhanced, rendered more perfect. Implacable.
So, as usual, I wrote a story about it, trying to capture the intimate violations of state surveillance.
This is a dark story. I wrote it about my own climate change anxiety, as a kind of exorcism. I don’t know if it worked to exorcise anything, though, since I am still in turns terrified and exhausted, haunted by low-grade anxiety, and ready to scream. I often wonder if this is what it was like to live through other slow disasters: the fall of Rome, maybe? Or the Black Death?
Slow, until it’s fast, of course. And what “fast” will look like I have no idea.
The title comes from Sir Thomas Browne’s Hydriotaphia. A lot in my life comes from Sir Thomas Browne. I even wrote a novelette (near-novella) about a TB-like character meeting aliens because he struck me as a perfect person to hang out with aliens. Hydriotaphia is about memorialization and failures of memory. It’s about the impossibility of resisting the Opium of time, which temporally considereth all things. There’s something soothing about Hydriotaphia, for me living through this slow disaster, because it is a record of other people’s responses to the end, in whatever form it came to them.
“Our Fathers Find Their Graves in Our Short Memories” is about memorialization, mostly because that’s how I understand disasters best, given my work on war and memory. What does memory look like after the end? My answer was the Ossuary, a virtual urn containing the information we leave behind.
But you would still like to know who started the Ossuary. An elderly woman, contrite after a career in politics spent dismantling the welfare state. A philosopher. A global artist collective. A disappointed coder with a background in conceptual art. A theologian with a lab full of grad students hired to name the dead. Conspiracy theorists liked to present evidence that it was the second website created in September 1991, by an ancient organization that recognized the value of the emergent technology. There is no evidence for this. More recently, people have begun to believe that the Ossuary was generated by the internet itself, sentience emerging from the noise of panic as the anthropogenic end-times pass from theory to reality. There are others who observe earlier memorials—one thinks of the Somme, or Verdun– and reject the suggestion, because the convention is too familiar, its history too long.