A Conversation with Sonya Taaffe

Sonya Taaffe is a young woman with an immensely bright future. Though she has only been publishing for a few years, her first collection of stories was recently accepted by Prime and is scheduled to be released in April. Earlier, she won a Rhysling Award for poetry, and this month the third issue of Flytrap came out, with Sonya as the first featured poet to be chosen by the magazine.

Sonya and I first met at WorldCon, when we happened to be part of a conversation and she read my nametag and said, "You wrote nice things about me!" We didn't get much time to talk then, but later we discovered we would both be at a reading in Cambridge, and I asked Sonya if she would be willing to be interviewed. She was, and so after the reading we got tea and sat out in Harvard Square and talked. During our conversation, a bunch of frat boys in Halloween costumes ran around where we were sitting and screamed and yelled at people, fire engines roared by with their sirens on, and various other noises made much of what I recorded difficult to figure out, so what follows is the result of editing by both Sonya and me as we tried to reconstruct our conversation. (I've also edited it for length and coherence, because we talked -- rapidly, firing ideas and allusions back and forth -- for an hour and a half.)

MC: How did you start writing?

ST: I always told stories, as soon as I could speak, as soon as I knew what language was for. My father provided me with great incidental training for this. We would play a game where he would tell the first half of a story and then ask me to finish it; and so I finished stories. Some of these would go on for weeks, these extended, episodic, operatic stories between me and my father. I must have been about eight when I learned to type. My handwriting was abysmal.

MC: Where did science fiction and fantasy come in?

ST: I don't know if it ever came in. It might just have been what was there, what I read. I learned to read somewhere around the age of four, and I read everything I could get my hands on, but what I chiefly remember from elementary school is a lot of mythology, a lot of folklore. In second grade, I had D'Aulaires' Norse Gods and Giants out from the school library for the whole year. I was obsessed with any stories of mermaids and the sea, whatever culture they came from. I think I started to read science fiction and fantasy simply because they drew me in.

MC: Was it just the imaginative qualities, or...?

ST: It might have been some kind of outgrowth from the myths and folklore. It wasn't that I didn't read my share of mainstream teenage novels, but I was so much less concerned with cheating boyfriends than what cats would say, if they could talk.

MC: So the real world didn't pull you in?

ST: Not so much. The real world interests me. Most mainstream-fictional treatments of it do not.

MC: How did you get interested in classics?

ST: I studied Latin in high school and loved it. (I had all that mythology floating around in my head anyway.) It helped that, in addition to finding the language itself fascinating, I had a fantastic teacher: I blame him fully for the path my academic life has taken. He would write the first five lines of the Odyssey on the board, in Greek, so that I had memorized how to say them phonetically long before I could actually read Greek. When I came to Brandeis, I was still under the delusion that I'd major in Music or English; but I started Greek my first semester there and kept up with Latin, and by the time I declared for Classics at the end of my first year, I don't think a single person in the department was surprised. Comparative Literature was the only other discipline that might possibly have seduced me away. I am much less interested in music theory than in performance.

MC: Is there any desire to combine your interests through your writing, or do you like them as separate entities?

ST: I don't have a specific desire to combine them, perhaps because I don't see why I would need to. There are definitely some places where they overlap: "Return on the Downward Road" was written while taking a magnificent class called "Night, Death, and the Devil" and derives directly from looking at aspects of the diabolic in literature, art, and music; "Like the Stars and the Sand" was sparked by the ballad "Thomas the Rhymer" and a poem by Catullus; "Etemmu" is the immediate result of a class last fall on Mesopotamian literature; I would not have written "Shade and Shadow" without reading Book XI of the Odyssey. But I don't feel that my poetry, for instance, needs to come straight out of my classical research. I love H.D.'s work, but I don't need to imitate her.

MC: It's interesting that you seem to be equally a poet and a fiction writer. And I wonder if the two feed off of each other, or distract each other, or...

ST: Well, I didn't think of myself as any kind of poet for a very long time. I'd written god-awful reams of poetry throughout elementary school, but mercifully gave it up very soon. So I wrote stories all through middle school and high school, but I didn't even consider poetry -- although I liked to read it -- until my first year at Brandeis. That winter, a friend of mine gave me Inventions of the March Hare, a book of T.S. Eliot's early and unpublished poetry. I have no idea what relays that tripped in my brain, but I started writing poetry in the spring. Even so, up until this last year, I didn't think of myself as a poet. I was a fiction writer who occasionally wrote poems. But at this point I've published more than twice as many poems as I have short stories, so I should probably rethink that one . . .

MC: What can you do in poetry that you can't with fiction?

ST: You had to ask that! I think poems lend themselves more readily to single crystallized moments, mood set-pieces, than short stories do. You don't necessarily expect or demand plot from a poem; fiction tends to want more of a narrative. Personally, I also find that the different forms allow different kinds of language, different structures. You can write a poem consisting of one sentence only. It doesn't have to be a short sentence. With fiction, however, this approach tends to result in all sorts of red-ink editorial markings and comments like, "Punctuate, for God's sake!"

MC: What is the impulse, then, that causes you to make something into a story rather than a poem?

ST: How it comes out in the writing. I can have ideas, fine, but these go nowhere without language. The words are always first. Then sometimes what shows up is language with no backstory or discernible plot or clear ideas of character, so I write until I figure out what's going on (and if I'm lucky, these questions resolve themselves rather than collapsing halfway through and leaving me confused). When the language arrives with cadences to it and one immediate vision, that tends to mean I'm looking at a poem rather than a piece of fiction. When I have a distinct concept of characters and how they interact and where they might arrive, it's probably a story. Every now and then, a piece can go either way. I've had poems that have evolved into stories, and some of the flash fiction started its life as poetry and then discovered it was very unhappy doing that.

MC: How did you first discover markets for your work?

ST: Spicy Green Iguana saved my life. I had a Writer's Market, but after a couple of years it was completely obsolete for my purposes. I had subscriptions to Realms of Fantasy and F&SF, so I began with them, but I had much more success when I started looking for market guidelines online.

MC: When did you start sending things out?

ST: July 21, 1998. My first acceptance was in January 2001. That fall, September and November, I had my first publications: "Shade and Shadow" in Not One of Us, "Turn of the Century, Jack-in-the-Green" in Mythic Delirium, and "Constellations, Conjunctions" in Maelstrom Speculative Fiction -- which promptly died. I also had a poem, "Hallows," in Glyph #7, and that folded soon after.

MC: So you're the Typhoid Mary of the small press! Actually, I think that's one of the perils of writing for the small press -- the markets come and go, nothing's particularly stable. How did you discover the Science Fiction Poetry Association?

ST: I found Star*Line first, on Ralan.com, right around the time when Tim Pratt began editing it. I didn't join SFPA until "Matlacihuatl's Gift" had won a Rhysling Award and I thought it would be really tacky to win an award from an association and then not belong to it. Besides, I like having a subscription to Star*Line.

MC: Your poetry seems to be very carefully structured and shaped. One of the things that first attracted me to it, particularly when I read a few poems together, which is the best way, was that I noticed a real sense of the line as much as anything, and I wondered how much you think about that -- how much just comes out because that's the way it is, rather than premeditated?

ST: I don't think about meter in the sense of "long syllable, short syllable, spondee," but I do think a lot about cadence and rhythm -- not in the sense of plotting out words to fill a particular line, but does it sound right once I've written it? So I read back over the line, and the preceding line, and the line before that, to make sure. Not only do the images need to be right, the language has to suit. One doesn't work without the other.

MC: How did the collection come about? Did Sean Wallace (of Prime) approach you?

ST: I met Sean at NECON in July. Totally out of the blue. We talked at lunch, and he ended up reading some of my stories. (Reason #1087 why it's a good idea to carry one's laptop everywhere.)

MC: And he said, "Wow, you've got enough for a book"?

ST: More or less, actually. I don't think he had ever heard of me before.

MC: A question I always feel obligated to ask, but always dread, because writers never know quite what to make of it, is: What writers do you consider your influences?

ST: Angela Carter. She did something to my brain. I had read one story of hers, "The Lady of the House of Love," and never really looked her up; but then I reread the story in my first year at Brandeis and it amazed me, that someone could make language that voluptuous, overblown, and precise all at the same time. So I hunted down The Bloody Chamber, and promptly went out and read everything by Angela Carter that I could find. Even if I can't trace the effects, her work almost certainly influenced my ideas about language, how you can handle it, the ways you can create story. "The Erl-King" is one of the best evocations of autumn I have ever read, and it certainly tells a story, but it has nothing even resembling a traditional linear narrative.

People I like? The list goes on. Harlan Ellison, Theodore Sturgeon, Ursula K. Le Guin, Tanith Lee, Patricia McKillip, Susan Cooper, Diana Wynne Jones, Jane Yolen, Caitlin R. Kiernan, Kathe Koja. Without a doubt, many others that aren't coming to mind right now. And Peter Beagle. Absolutely Peter Beagle.

MC: What Ellison?

ST: Anything I could find. I ransacked used book stores. "Constellations, Conjunctions" was written while I was reading Slippage for the first time, so I can only assume there was some effect . . . Theodore Sturgeon was another crucial exposure to what people can do with words for character and detail, texturing scenes without handing the reader gigantic information dumps. Did I name Mary Gentle already? I really love her.

MC: I haven't read any Mary Gentle. Where should I start?

ST: Read Rats & Gargoyles. Read Ash: A Secret History. Her latest novel, 1610: A Sundial in a Grave, is extremely good. Also brick-thick.

MC: If language is something you prize, then, well, you're working in a field that is not known for people being overly attentive to language, it's often about setting, plot, ideas--

ST: Well, my immediate reaction to that is, "No, it's not!" because I read any number of genre writers whose attention to language and love for it is visible. But I also know that I don't read everyone.

MC: Are there writers outside the category of SF and fantasy that have had an effect for you?

ST: I'm sure they exist. Unfortunately, all my examples are people like E.T.A. Hoffmann, Edgar Allan Poe, and Mikhail Bulgakov (I love Master and Margarita.) Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy probably don't count as science fiction and fantasy. Yury Olyesha, who wrote Envy -- another novel that might be fantastic or might not, depending on how much you think is happening for real and how much inside the narrator's head. Marlowe's Doctor Faustus is one of my favorite plays, but that has to count as fantasy. I read a lot of Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw, Christopher Fry. The Lady's Not for Burning is amazing, and nobody I meet ever seems to have read it. Greer Gilman, apropos of nothing, is probably also a formative influence. She's one of those people-- "Whoa! Words can do that!"

MC: When did you first encounter her?

ST: Probably about four years ago. Moonwise was actually a windfall from a marvelous used book store up in New Hampshire. Admittedly, she can't be formative because I was already writing by that point; but she was definitely an education, as well as beautifully intricate to read.

For poetry, most of the people I read are dead: T.S. Eliot, W.H. Auden, Dylan Thomas, Robinson Jeffers, H.D. I recently acquired Sylvia Plath's The Colossus, and I like that immensely. She has a very tactile, textured approach to language, words with weight and heft and angles and hard corners, a sort of spatial feel. She seems as much concerned with the sounds and shapes of her poetry as with its visual effects. But I love Seamus Heaney, and he is still alive. Of Ursula Le Guin's poetry, I have read only Hard Words and Sixty Odd; some of it does nothing for me, and some of it I really like.

MC: Do you feel that way about her fiction, too?

ST: Less so: her fiction tends to be more on-target for me. My all-time favorite is probably the Orsinian Tales, which is not fantastic in any sense except that the country in which all the stories take place never existed. Malafrena doesn't have that effect, for whatever reason. I think it's because Malafrena reads like a nineteenth century novel without the excuse of the nineteenth century.

I should also mention Alfred Bester, someone else I read very early. The Demolished Man and The Stars My Destination were huge influences.

MC: And Cordwainer Smith?

ST: Oh, yes. Probably my last year of high school, we inherited a large box of books from a family friend; it contained, among other things, a paperback of Norstrilia. The cover illustration was clearly done by somebody who hadn't even bothered to open the book, but I read it anyway and was completely and instantly hooked. "The Ballad of Lost C'Mell" is still one of my all-time favorite short stories. The way he tells his stories and handles his audience, all the ellipses in the narrative and the skips over what is purportedly common knowledge -- "You already know this story, but..." -- and the sheer, total weirdness of everything he writes. I love his work. But Alfred Bester might have been the first writer who showed me that prose did not all have to look like a critical essay. Number signs were acceptable, text written backwards, letters growing psychedelically larger across a page...

MC: Are you ready for another unfair question?

ST: Sure.

MC: In a world where reality is itself often horrible, why does fantasy have any value?

ST: Well, let's see. I suppose if I said its value was escapist, I'd have to go home and shoot myself in the head. But I don't think that's the point. So the world is horrible; why should that mean that nothing other than the horrible world has any value?

MC: I read one very caustic review of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, I think, that called it the "Harry Potter effect for adults" and said that in a world like ours, adults don't have any right to be spending time on fantasy. It's childish, it's infantile.

ST: Don't have any right? Wow. I wonder if they had a paperback slapped out of their hands one too many times as a child... There may be a valid issue of what you can afford to spend time on at that minute, if you have work that needs doing, if you have projects that require your attention. But that's an entirely different question from, do you have a right to a world inside your head that is not the world outside? "A world like ours"? I don't know why there's this assumption that only that which is painful or difficult is real and thereby worthy of discussion or time.

Nor is the point that all fantasy is cheerful escapist stuff, because if anything is well written--at least from my perspective--it should contain complications and moral strangeness and problematic questions, because these are an accurate reflection of what happens in our world. Fantasy, however, permits these reflections to be explored in ways that would be impossible otherwise. But I don't know why this should be what people focus on when they're looking for a reason to read fantasy.

MC: It's a peculiarly American sentiment, I think, that realism is the highest goal, the highest level, and if you're aiming for that, hooray, and anything below that is somehow lesser in seriousness.

ST: Blame the Puritan work ethic. Where do you think it starts?

MC: In some ways the Puritans, but I think it really started with a push in the early part of the 20th century for a more industrial, scientific nation. In some ways we can just blame Hugo Gernsback. I blame him for a lot of things! For founding Amazing Stories and creating the term "science fiction" (well, "scientifiction") -- his timing was perfect. Technology was going to save everyone, and he was playing into that in a way that separated a specific sort of content from a mainstream that had existed since the dawn of writing and storytelling. (I'm generalizing horribly.) In many ways, Mark Twain was the last popular and respected American writer who delved into both the realistic and the fantastic whenever he damn well felt like it. From Twain we go to Theodore Dreiser and the rise of realism, which before then was a kind of cottage industry. Well, again, I'm generalizing.

ST: The realism ghetto. I really need to study more eras than the Romantic! I can talk about literature of the fantastic and the grotesque in the middle of the nineteenth century, sure, but after that? Er, there's now . . .

MC: I think now is a very interesting time, because realism has kind of run its course.

ST: Of course, now people need to keep finding names for the breakdown. It's interstitial, it's New Weird -- no! Stop genre-ing it! I have the same reaction when people ask me about prose poetry: I don't think you need to slap a taxonomy on everything. It's okay if it doesn't have a genus and species. You can just read it.

MC: A poet I know, she's sort of a formalist, and she despairs of the inability to define poetry anymore. She says the last thing she's fallen back on is line breaks, that poetry has line breaks, and therefore she refuses to use the term prose poetry, because it finally shatters the last bit of taxonomy she has.

ST: I don't have a problem, I think, with poetry sans line breaks. Once you get past lines imposed by metrical form, anyway, people are going to say, "Well, that's just there for the hell of it." Which I find equally false, because you can still have rhythm and reason for separation of lines that is not based on whether you can finish a proper six feet of whatever meter before you run out of line. I think the definition of poetry is more about diction and the way the language is structured. But I admit, I have not thought very much about this.

MC: So where do you go from here? Have you planned a whole career path in your head, or do you just take it a day at a time? Do you have ambitions?

ST: I have not planned a whole career path! My ambitions? I have a pair of stories at Realms of Fantasy that I would like to see accepted... I would like to write well enough and consistently enough that, even if I cannot make a living from it, I can devote a large portion of my life to writing -- because, frankly, I will in any case, and I might as well have a structured space in which to do so.

Winning a Rhysling Award sort of blew the top off my head. I had never really thought about having a wide enough audience to win any kind of award. And now "Matlacihuatl's Gift" will be reprinted in the Nebula Awards Showcase 2005 in March, and I think that in some ways I'm still not acclimatized to the fact that maybe more people than my family, my friends, and three editors actually like my work. I really need to get over this soon.

MC: There are a lot of people who might think of killing you in your sleep for the amount of success you've had this early on in your life.

ST: Make me paranoid. Go ahead.

I'm sort of isolated, I think. Up until this year, I haven't had that much contact with other published writers. I have friends who write, and some of them are very good indeed. Jeannelle Ferreira, whom I met at Brandeis, just sold her first novel to Prime this fall. It's called A Verse from Babylon, I've seen it essentially from the first few paragraphs of fragmentary form to its final state, it's a wonderful book, and I recommend that you run out and purchase a copy as soon as humanly possible. But until very recently, she was the closest I had to an established writer to bounce ideas off of. So I don't know if mine is a normal trajectory, or if this is how the process is supposed to work, or how any of this works, because I don't have the right information.

MC: There's a density to your work that is rare. In a good way. Have you gotten interesting rejections? Have you found markets that are totally wrong for you, along with the markets that are totally right?

ST: Thank you! I had a piece of flash fiction rejected once because the editor thought I ended the story just when things were starting to get interesting . . . F&SF has never taken anything of mine, and I've never had a useful rejection letter from them. It doesn't help that two of the rejections made me think that somebody had just skimmed the story. I'm sure I'm maligning F&SF, but...

MC: When do you know when a piece is working?

ST: When there's language that feels like it's simply there, opposed to language that is being cranked out for the sake of putting something down on the page. If there are characters involved, when I feel that they are being true to themselves; when the actions arise out of the characters rather than from the characters being put through their paces for the sake of the plot.

MC: Do you think in terms of imagery?

ST: Language and imagery. A lot of my stories start--sometimes in the middle--and I have no idea where they're going to end up. Stories whose arc is entirely plotted are very rare for me. Usually I have a beginning and some idea of what happens along the way, but sometimes there's only a beginning and an end, or I have no clue what the end is. I can be relatively certain up to a point in the story, but after that, it's all up for grabs.

MC: How do you structure a story? Do you think of narrative arc or character arc?

ST: Character, I suppose, but often the structure develops as the story progresses. If I think of arc while writing, it's never in terms of where the characters should be at what given point in the story. I can't write outlines. For papers, yes; but they murder stories. Outlining is death. If a piece is really working, it pulls itself along, and I don't need to think about the mechanics.

MC: Do you think you'll be working on a novel?

ST: Everybody wants to know this! I don't think that I think in novel form. I feel very comfortable writing short stories. That said, I am working on a piece right now that I thought wanted to be a novella but has sort of spiraled off into another length--provided it doesn't die along the way, which happens all too often. But I'll follow it along until it stops and get back to you.

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