A Conversation with Paolo Bacigalupi

Paolo Bacigalupi has published a handful of stories in F&SF, including "The Fluted Girl", which appeared in more Best of the Year anthologies than any other single story from 2003. This year, "The People of Sand and Slag" appeared in F&SF and "The Pasho" in Asimov's.

Bacigalupi lives now in Colorado, where he grew up, but he has spent a lot of time traveling, particularly in Asia and India. In 1999, the same year he published his first story in F&SF, he had an essay at Salon.com about some of his experiences in China. He has worked as a writer and online editor for High Country News and has published essays and articles on conservation issues and politics.

But it's his fiction that intrigued me, and made me seek him out and see if he would be willing to answer some questions. He was, and his replies were fascinating, as you'll see below.

It is hard to describe Bacigalupi's stories effectively, to capture the disturbing oddness of them, the careful prose, the pacing, the imagination. When I first read "The Fluted Girl", I thought the central idea of a child genetically sculpted to be a flute to be a bit silly, but the story stayed with me, it lurked and lingered. "The People of Sand and Slag" made me pay more attention to Bacigalupi, because in some ways it made "The Fluted Girl" seem tame and run-of-the-mill, a considerable accomplishment. "The Pasho" is even more accomplished, and here, it seems to me, the different pieces of Bacigalupi's art all come together. For the benefit of readers unfamiliar with his work, here is one paragraph from "The Pasho":
Raphel ducked his head and stared at his hands, vaguely embarrassed at the women's sudden attention. On the back of his left hand were his first attainment marks: the old alphabet in tiny script. From there, lettering the color of dried blood marched up his arms and stole under his robes. Denotations of rising rank, ritually applied over the years, the chanted mnemonic devices of the ten thousand stanzas, hooks into the core of Pasho knowledge, each one a memory aid and mark of passage. They covered his body in the spiking calligraphy of the ancients, sometimes a mere symbol to hook a bound tome's worth of knowledge, something to recall, and ensure that all Pasho trained later might have access to an unchanging spring of wisdom.
And now to the conversation...

It's standard practice to ask authors about their influences, about what they read and such, and it can sometimes be tedious, but your work is so individual in its imagery that I can't help wondering, "What does this guy like to read?" When you are a reader, what do you find fulfilling?
Honestly, I'm not sure that much of what I write about comes fromreading, or at least, not directly. Sometimes something clicks for me:when I wrote "Sand and Slag", I ran across an article about a dog inButte, Montana that was surviving in the middle of a mine tailingsdump... and the image hung with me.

A lot of what I find interesting or fulfilling these days is actually non-fiction, some philosophy and political theory, some history... really, it's all over the map, and often I just pick at books, slowly, one after another in a pretty unplanned rotation.

Things I'm picking at right now are Out of Africa, coupled with a biography of Isak Dinesen; Sand Rivers, about a safari into a game reserve in Africa; Song of the Dodo, by David Quammen, which discusses the distribution of species on islands, and the implications for habitat fragmentation on continents; Walden. Some Wendell Berry. Hobbes' Leviathan. Marquis de Sade (he's always good for a no good view of the world). No Depression, the music magazine. The New Yorker. Those are the kinds of things that I pick up when I'm hunting, trying to find something that I'm still not clear on, trying to make my brain kick over.

In fiction, I honestly read very little of it these days, unless its something trashy and brainless. I just re-read the first five books in the Gor series by John Norman, and they were horrible. But I remember totally loving them when I was in high school, so it was fun to return to them. My dad gave them to me for safe-keeping to keep my step-mother from throwing them away. So they were horrible, but I wasn't really reading for ideas or to refill the well, more to shut everything down. Recently my life has actually been somewhat stressful. I've been juggling a new job, and a new baby, so my life has taken a lot of sharp turns recently, and I'm still trying to really settle into the new rhythms of my life. The fiction I read is really for escape, rather than for stimulation.

When I think about where some of my imagery really comes from, it's generally chance moments that for some reason stick, and make me look at the world differently. Mostly, those are things that I experience, rather than things I read. At least, that's the recollection that I have now. Honestly, in the making of a story, so much ends up getting layered into it, that by the time I'm reading it in final draft, I'm often surprised by the details and catch myself thinking "huh, that's not a bad. I wonder who thought that up?" (And then I get a terror that I've actually ripped it out of someone else's story and don't know it). Seriously, though, a lot of the result seems mysterious, even to me. Obviously, the ideas mulch in from somewhere, but it's hard to pick out specific influences. With something like the fluted girl, I was looking for a really nasty way to demonstrate Belari's power over other people, and reaming out people's bones seemed like a great way to go about it. Maybe de Sade helped with that. Maybe not. In the case of other individual images, a lot of them come from my own experience. I went to India a couple years ago with my wife and my mother-in-law (who are both Indian) and my mother-in-law noted the smell of dung smoke in the air. She took this deep breath and said something along the lines of "Do you smell it? It's dung, burning. I love that smell." This is a fairly elite woman, very proper, who runs a fuelcell technology company, and she's waxing nostalgic about dung. And that image stuck. It was a perspective that was new, and I tried to hold onto it. A couple years later, when I started working on the Pasho, and wanted to illustrate the initial homecoming, that image was there for me.

Is writing fantasy and science fiction stories something you stumbled into, or is being an SF writer something you dreamed of being from, say, birth?
I didn't really think I would be a writer of any sort, for a long time. I read science fiction when I was a kid. My father introduced me to it. He was a big fan, and my grandfather also. I think the first "real" book that I ever read was Citizen of the Galaxy by Heinlein, and it was actually my grandfather's copy. I think I was eight or nine years old. I was really proud that I'd hacked my way through the whole 300-odd pages. So I grew up reading sci-fi, mostly by picking out of my father's collection (a lot of Anne McCaffrey, Heinlein, Poul Anderson, Niven, stuff like that). So it was always there in my mind, as a genre.

But you know, you grow up, you go to college, you get a dose of reality, you go get a job, and then another job, you make some money and you start to get a real life... and then you find out that that you don't like the life you're building at all, and you start writing, because it's the only thing that wards off depression. I started working on my first novel about ten years ago and at that time, I'm not quite sure why (maybe because I'd read so much of it), I had a real burning urge to write science fiction -- even though almost all the things I was reading at the time weren't. Around then, I think I was reading Cormac McCarthy, and J.G. Ballard, and Hemingway, stuff like that. But anyway, I wrote that sci-fi book, and managed to avoid selling it, and at the same time I also wrote "Pocketful of Dharma" which came out in F&SF. Harlan Ellison called me up soon after, and after sort of dressing me down and giving me a solid thump on the head about problems he perceived in the story, he told me not to get stuck in the science fiction genre, not to get labelled as an sf writer and to get out while I could. A "Save yourself while there's still time" kind of speech. It was a weird phone call, but in some ways it hung with me. I ended up writing three other novels, and none of them were sci-fi. One historical fiction piece. One contemporary "literary" (whatever) book. And one mystery. And then, at the end of all of that I sort of looked around, and decided that I actually liked writing science fiction quite a lot and went back to it.

So, here I am again, sort of the long way around to get here, but I'm feeling a little more focused because of it. And, I think those other writing projects were instructive for me. Sort of a self-study course in writing, where I got to work out a lot of the questions of craft that I had.

One of the things I like about writing science fiction is that I feel like it gives me a large enough palette to work with my ideas, without having to be constrained by "reality". For me, scif-fi means that I have a huge amount of control over every aspect of the story, and ideally, that means that the characters and plot which I create can then be reinforced, hopefully quite strikingly, with the settings and technologies that I choose for it. What I'm trying for, when the story is really working well, is to create a sort of feedback loop between the setting, the characters, and the plot so that they're mutually reinforcing. With science fiction I feel like I've got room to do that.

Do you think you'll try to publish the early novels you wrote, or are you moving on?
I did actually try to get them published. My agent shopped all of them, and I ended up getting a lot of interest, without any final commitment. Typically, I'd have one editor fall in love with the story, and then it would be killed by other editors, stuff like that. With my first sci-fi novel, I actually turned down a publishing offer, because my agent felt the advance was too low. Looking back, maybe it was, maybe it wasn't. At the time I was feeling pretty good about myself, and was confident that I'd write more novels, so I was able to walk away from the offer. Now, older and more bitter, I might go back and take it. Who knows?

At some point, I suspect that I will try again to get those stories out into the world. The rejections had less to do with the quality of the stories, and a lot to do with how they would categorize, and where they would fit into various market segments, and in one memorable case, I was rejected by an editor because, as she put it, "As a mother, this story disturbs me." All of that was a bit of an eye-opener for me, because when I started out writing, I was so sure that if I just wrote a great story, that was all that mattered. I didn't really understand the business end of the book-selling equation. These days, I'm mostly focused on writing new material, and I'm putting most of my energy into short stories, where editors seem to have a little more flexibility about what they buy.

China and the Chinese languages have been, it seems, an important part of your life. How did you develop an interest in China, and where has it led you?
I started studying Chinese in college. Originally I didn't actually have much interest in China, per se, but I had this idea that by the time I finished my liberal arts degree, I wanted to be fluent in a language. I was sick of studying Spanish from high school and thought it was too easy, so when I went through the school's course catalog and ran across Chinese as an option I said to myself, "Huh. Chinese. I've heard that's hard." So I picked it. And it turned out I was right. It was really hard. But that was really the only reason. I was so ignorant going into it that I think the full extent of my knowledge about China was that there'd been some kind of a protest there, and it maybe had a big wall... or maybe that was Mongolia. I really was that ignorant. Over time though, I ended up spending a couple years over in China, and it ended up informing a lot of the way I view the world.

If you spend enough time away from your own country, it sort of poisons your psyche. You never get to be a pure American again, because there's this foreign part of your brain that's been jammed in as well. It gives you a bit of double vision when you look at things. And I think that sort of experience, looking askew at the world, also helps me write, somewhat: that off-kilter sense that everyone else thinks something is normal, but you can't quite get on board. The classic example that I hear a lot from people who've been in the Peace Corps or spent a lot of time in a poorer country, is their first view of a supermarket when they return, with its aisles and aisles of food. It seemed so normal before, and yet suddenly it seems perverse.

For me, the first time I really felt off-kilter with home, I was just back from China, and I was walking through a park, and I kept coming across all these awful rodents, and I kept wondering why no one had put out traps or poison for them. And they were squirrels. You just don't see things like squirrels in parks in China, so I'd completely forgotten about them. It's trivial things like that. And also larger ones. Things like the assumptions we carry with us about what fairness is, or honesty, or family, or what human life is worth, or what responsibility means. Things that we take for granted often becuase of common cultural understanding, and yet can have very different meanings for people from other cultures. It's daunting to run up against because you can end up losing your sense of absolutes. And ultimately, when you come back, it makes you think about everything again, because you suddenly have a sense of how much of our life depends on everyone agreeing on certain baselines of behavior. But it's all made up. And absurd.

Every once in a while, I go back to China, and Southeast Asia, mostly in the hopes of having my ideas stirred around and confused again. That's a huge influence for me. Just to be reminded that the way I view the world isn't the way others view it.

"The Fluted Girl" has become, by virtue of being reprinted in three best-of-the-year anthologies, your most famous story so far, the one readers are most likely to know if they know your name. What was the genesis for that story?
It actually started out as the idea for a novel I had and which I then trimmed down, thinking that I'd go back later and write the full version if I ever got time. Originally the focus was more on the feudalism of the society. I'd been watching a lot of music stars and assorted richies buying up land around the town that I grew up in, and their paternalistic "we're going to help out these poor hick locals" attitude, along with the way they injected cash into the local economy, really got me thinking about a new sort of feudalism. People seem to read those feudalistic elements as fantasy, rather than sci-fi, but in my mind, I was trying to reflect a sense that we are moving in a feudal direction with our worship of music and film stars, and their increasing monetary clout. Out here in the rural West, these stars are buying huge ranches and really to my mind, setting up their own little feifs. So that was a lot of what I was thinking about when I first started working on the piece.

At the time, Belari was actually the main character, but by the time I finished polishing the story, I hated it, and I realized the biggest problem with the story was that the fluted girls were actually the most interesting thing in it. So I went back and rewrote the whole thing from scratch, from their perspective. And, as I worked on it, it opened up new ideas for me: the power relationships, the subservience and dominance, the hunt for self-realization, all that really came to life for me. I'm glad I forced myself to go back and tear up the first version of the story, because "The Fluted Girl" was better because of it, but it was scary and depressing to do, at the time.

Some of this is hindsight, too. Even when I finished the rewritten version, I still thought it was crap. I sent it to Gordon Van Gelder at F&SF and I spent the next month waiting for an insulting rejection. I was really embarrassed about it, because it felt like such a demented little piece, and I didn't think anyone would care for it. If Gordon hadn't taken it, I doubt I would have had the guts to send it out to a second market. I'd already given up on it, and only really sent it out because I try to make rules for myself about finishing stories and submitting them so that I won't chicken out. That's actually a problem I have with a lot of my writing: by the time I finish a story, I'm pretty certain its dumb, it's been done before, its obvious, its derivative, its boring. Then I force myself to send it in and find out if I'm right.

Have you ever had the opposite experience with a story: believing what you've written to be interesting and not being able to find anyone interested in it?
Not really. I've written a couple sub-par short stories, but I hated them just like I hate everything else when I finish writing, so it wasn't really a surprise when they got rejected. More of a feeling like, "Oh. I guess it really did suck. Bummer. I should work on that." With the really good editors, they sometimes take the time to point out some possibilities of why the story went wrong, but I've never had anything rejected because it was uninteresting. With my novels, I've sometimes felt that I had good material and that it wasn't being appreciated, but I never really got the feeling from the editor's rejections that I hadn't written good stuff, just that I hadn't written stuff that was a good monetary risk. The rejections ran more along the lines of "great writing, great story, I can't buy this, it's way too dark." Stuff like that. With short stories, I get the impression that editors evaluate stories more for their quality. With novels, it seems like it all comes down to the cash potential. How many units can we sell? How much for each unit?

With "The People of Sand and Slag" and "The Pasho", I felt like you were creating stories that not only worked well on their own terms, but that had a hard-to-pin-down, nearly-allegorical relationship with contemporary events and trends (political, environmental). Am I imposing my own inclinations on stories that are really just stories, nothing more?
I feel a little weird talking about this in some ways, because I don't like my politics to get in the way of my stories, but more and more I feel like I'm influenced by larger ideas that I'm wrestling with, and it's interesting to me to find ways to use fiction to gnaw away at those ideas-- political, social, environmental, what have you. The trick, in my mind, is to tell a compelling story that maybe carries an idea, but doesn't leave anyone with that awful "I've just been preached at" feeling. In large part, that means to me that I try hard to make things more complex, less clearcut, less explicitly confident of the conclusions, even if that means obscuring some of what I really wish people would take away from the story. At the end of the day, I feel like the story has to hold its own as escape, as entertainment, and then, if I can manage it, as a food for thought. I don't really know if I succeed at that, but that's what's on my mind when I sit down to work with an idea.

With "Sand and Slag", I had a beef with an old boss of mine, and his absolute belief that science would solve all our problems into the future. It's not a new belief, but we got into an argument about it, and I ended up mulling the question for years. Then, finally, this story about the Butte dog showed up and the pieces started to come together -- that I could make my argument by giving my boss' assumption free reign: Yes, we can solve every problem with technology. But there's no guarantee that we'll solve the right problem. What I desperately wanted to do was hold up a sign and say "HEY WE'VE ONLY GOT ONE PLANET, LET'S NOT FUCK IT UP" but that would have made a pretty boring story. I hope people ended up both entertained, and came away with something to think about, but I have no idea if it succeeded at that.

With "The Pasho", I'd been thinking a lot about cultural extinction, and the Pasho was my attempt to look at some of that. It came from spending so much time abroad and seeing the "Americanization" of these various places that I was travelling through. China has been interesting to watch over the last ten years as it's gotten progressively more open and leaned more and more toward a market economy. So China is, in some ways, because it's no longer insulated from outside influences, becoming less Chinese. Maybe. Does eating McDonald's take away your Chinese-ness? Does driving a car? Does playing Quake? Does a belief in freedom of the press? This is fertile ground for me, because there aren't any good answers to what we are as a culture, and what makes a culture alive or dead.

Down in southern China there are a bunch of minority cultures who are all dealing with encroachments not just of U.S. consumer culture, but also Han (the dominant cultural group in China) culture. They've got floods of Han tourists coming through, gawking at them, taking pictures, paying them to perform their festivals every day instead of just once a year, sort of theme-parking them to death. And the impacts are pretty acute: the sons don't want to be monks anymore, they just want to ride around on motor bikes, they don't want to wear their culture's traditional dress, etc. etc. It's a mess.

And more than anything, with "The Pasho", I couldn't come out with an answer to these problems. Cultural integrity is important, sure. But so is technology and comfort. So how do these things intertwine? As we interact more and more, it means that the diversity of things, people, viewpoints that makes life so interesting, are blended away. Maybe this didn't matter when we only had small cultural incursions like war. But when culture is globalised -- through media, branding, manufacturing, what have you -- the homogonization is apparent. I'm trying to figure out what my half-Indian kid is going to be like. How much of India is really going to survive the cultural mixing in him?

Do you think that writers have any responsibility, or even ability, to combat cultural homogenization?
I don't think we can combat it, really. Even by writing a book and publishing it in several languages on several continents, an author can be part of the phenomenon. And, I'm not even sure that we should try to combat it. Cultural interactions seem like a mixed bag to me. One one side, you learn new things, on another, those new things have the chance of wiping out your old ways. And that's a two-way street for both cultures. Coca-Cola's all over Asia, but at the same time, because of time I've spent over there, I take off my shoes in my own house. Am I more Asian because of this? Or am I a little more civilized because I don't track dirt around my home? These are trivial examples, but they're illustrative. China might not be discussing press freedom if there wasn't an interaction with the outside world. Taking my son as an example, he's not going to speak Hindi very well, and his understanding of Hinduism is probably going to be an outsider's view, but, on the other hand, he also isn't going to treat women the way they're treated in India. Cultural change and influence and homogenization are all extremely complex in my mind. What's interesting to me as a writer, in this particular case, is to look more critically at this phonemenon which is more and more pervasive, and which we also often seem to take for granted.

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