Amal El-Mohtar, Pocket Interview No. 3
Amal El-Mohtar lives in Ottawa and Glasgow. A writer of prose, poetry, and criticism, her stories and poems have appeared in such places as: Lightspeed, Uncanny, Strange Horizons, and Apex; her articles and reviews in such places as the Los Angeles Times and NPR Books. Her 2016 story “Seasons of Glass and Iron”— published in the Starlit Wood anthology —has so far this year won the Locus, Hugo, and Nebula awards for best short story. Recently, she sat down with us, as guest of honor at the feminist SciFi convention WisCon, to talk about, among other things, moons, musicals, orchards, friendship, Star Trek: The Next Generation, the wonderful wobbliness of time and space, and the little bits of magic you find as you travel along the way, there and back again.
"And so I decided to take it upon myself to apostrophize the moon..."
STORYOLOGICAL: Where did you grow up?
AMAL EL-MOHTAR: Well, so I was born in Canada and my family is from Lebanon. And when I was six—six-and-a-half (because these distinctions matter when you're six)—when I was six-and-a-half, we moved to Lebanon for two years.
And I really feel like a big part of my childhood was there.
That time in my life is actually where I discovered a lot of my current fandom's in as much as I read The Hobbit when I was in Lebanon, and fell in love with Tolkien there.
I discovered Doctor Who, via novelisations, that my dad's cousin Michael had. I think they were the Terrance Dick's novels and one of them was Planet of the Daleks. I didn't know it was a TV show. I thought these were books. I thought this up until the new reboot with Chris Eccleston where I genuinely said to actual other humans, “Oh I remember these books from my childhood I guess they're making them into a TV show.” And, I was very gently and lovingly corrected.
I discovered how to do research in Lebanon, too, because we lived in an apartment building in Ras Beirut. And down the hall from us there was this woman named Madame Beiruti, and she had a collection of Encyclopedia Britannica. And I was just flipping through it because I liked books. I liked anything with pages and I happened upon the entry for mythology, and it seemed really cool. And I was reading down and it was full of stories and at the end of the entry for mythology there was an alphabetical list of all the heroes, gods, all sorts of stuff. And I methodically—quite methodically, for a six-and-a-half or seven-year-old by this point—made a list and took every other Encyclopedia Britannica that had those listings in it and just read the entries for each one of the things in mythology and acquired a not too terrible education at a tender age about mythology from that and learned in a very interesting kind of piecemeal way.
So many of the things in which I kind of root and center my identity happened there. I wrote my first poem there.
STORYO: Do you remember what the poem was about?
AMAL: I know the poem by heart.
AMAL: It was about the moon and I had just recently read a sort of child's version of Midsummer Night's Dream but they had preserved all of the thees and the thou's in it. And so I had decided to take it upon myself to apostrophize the moon in this way so...
AMAL: *reciting poem from memory* Oh moon, Oh moon, why art thou so pale? The sun is large and gold and you are as white as hail. Art thou ill from the cold and dark of night? Or does your face turn pale, thinking of your plight? But whether you are golden or whether you are pale I think you are beautiful and not as harsh as hail. *end reciting poem from memory*
STORYO: That's. Yeah.
AMAL: That is the poem.
STORYO: Very beautiful.
AMAL: Oh my gosh, thank you.
STORYO: I'm imagining you at 7 speaking this out a window.
AMAL: I was a precocious child.
When my parents saw the poem they were very quick to tell me that I came from a long lineage of poets and my grandfather had been a poet and this was an important calling. To be a poet was to speak for those who couldn't speak, and use your power for love and justice and stuff like that. And I was very excited by this and I feel really grateful for that. That they gave me that idea of a poet instead of, I don't know, a slightly more British romantic, emo, sort of situation.
"...all my ups and downs, my hills and valleys emotionally, have had to do with friendships. With the formation of them, or the loss of them, or the complication of them. And it's baffling to me that this seems elided from representations of life. That this thing that can be such a mainstay of existence, you know, and joy and sadness and everything, is just not there in stories. "
STORYO: Do you consider yourself a romantic?
AMAL: What case of 'r' are we talking here?
STORYO: Whichever one you feel most strongly about.
AMAL: The kind of received aesthetic of romantic, I guess, I feel drawn to it very much. I admire it very much, especially in other people.
STORYO: Why did you decide to study it?
AMAL: Oh, because. So, many reasons.
Many of which are probably mistakes.
My father introduced me to a lot of romantic poetry. My father, in Lebanon, had been educated in poetry via a Norton anthology of some older edition.
STORYO: Kind of like you and the encyclopedias.
AMAL: Yes! Yeah. So, he was reading me the Rime of the Ancient Mariner kind of as a bedtime story. Not all of it.
STORYO: Like The Princess Bride. He just left out the boring parts.
AMAL: Yeah, the boring and the scary parts. The bit with the hermit never really made any sense to me. But he had lines that he really loved. So, his enthusiasm for some lines of poetry were romantic poetry, and they were also Shakespeare. So, from those two things, like those were two paths that I could follow with some guidance.
AMAL: And I really loved that. I loved that there was magic in these poems. And when I would then take myself to the library and look for more of the same, I think the things that were grouped together were largely romantic, as well. So, I think it's just they had more of a familiarity for me.
So, my interests went in that direction, but also I was always interested in magical things and in the occult and in the supernatural, and so I realized that that tends to get talked a lot about in the Victorian period or in the Renaissance, but there is a kind of interesting lacuna where the Romantic period is concerned, and so, that's where I ended up focusing graduate work.
STORYO: Do you know Sarah Waters?
AMAL: I haven't actually read her stuff, but I've had it recommended to me so often and I really would love to especially I think Fingersmith.
STORYO: Yes! Delia Sherman recommended to us, Fingersmith, at Clarion. It's amazing.
She wrote a book called Affinity, too, that we studied in a Gothic class I took in my MFA. The way we discussed the book was this idea that when you were in the occult you could sort of spot people that shared your beliefs. And this idea that if you were at a seance and someone didn't believe in it, didn't have the same affinity, it would mess up the magic. And we read it partly through a queer lens, as well, this affinity of identities.
Sometimes when I'm reading your stories there's a sense that there are certain things that bond people together that are really important to you, and that maybe aren't immediately expressible in words, but still there.
STORYO: Is that fair?
AMAL: Absolutely. I think that one of the quintessential fandom and con experiences is that just kind of click that you have with someone during a 3:00 a.m. conversation that you don't want to end because you're just so delighted to have found someone with whom you can speak about all the things dearest to your heart or things in which you're interested. And, that's an experience that I think we get less and less as we get older. But it's so formative and we take those formative friendships with us. And, so, there's just a kind of preciousness to them.
Preciousness in the sense of like a valued thing as opposed to a...
STORYO: A baby bear.
AMAL: So, that click can be very mysterious and numinous and wonderful, but everything that comes after that is also representable, you know, and is important, and is not less important than the click. It's like the click is the means, but then the friendship is the end.
And, I get this when I read C.S.E. Cooney's fiction a lot. She's one of my absolute favorite writers and favorite people, and it's just, she has this amazing knack for rewriting stories in order to have like, “What if this were actually realistic where the women are concerned?!” and I just, when I hear her read her work, or perform her work, she has this way of just making me imagine more women there, where a ballad will have, usually, you know, a singular wailing upset sad or fierce avenging angry woman.
STORYO: All of the emotions need to be in the one woman.
AMAL: I just find myself imagining, you know, imagine a woman in a ballad mourning, but having another woman standing next to her, holding her. And how completely that changes the dynamic.
There's such a vast disconnect between my experience of literally every important thing in my life, and the way that important things in people's lives get represented in stories where friendships don't seem to be there.
It’s like they're just distractions from a plot, or grace notes. They're not integral. They're not narrative forces.
And I feel so strongly that so much of my life has been defined by my friendships. And all my ups and downs, my hills and valleys emotionally, have had to do with friendships. With the formation of them, or the loss of them, or the complication of them. And it's baffling to me that this seems elided from representations of life. That this thing that can be such a mainstay of existence, you know, and joy and sadness and everything, is just not there in stories.
STORYO: Did you form any theories as to why? Like is it just sexism?
AMAL: There is partly that. I have a theory sparked off by something Max Gladstone said at some point.
STORYO: Just. Um. Are you a Buffy the musical fan?
STORYO: You just said I've got a theory.
STORYO: And I'm hearing...
AMAL: ...that it's a demon!
AMAL: Yes. Oh man I love that. I do. It's so good.
The thing that I bounced off of Max Gladstone——who is a very, very dear friend—-we conclude together that friendship is sort of inherently anti-capitalist.
That, in a lot of senses, narrative and storytelling are kind of implicated in a really transactional mode of being. So, a lot of romance gets represented as transactional.
Whether it's something as crass as, you know, well I buy you dinner and you owe me sex--to something like, well I'm going to, you know, perform all of these actions and I'll get the girl at the end, you know?
Or I'll get the boy at the end. Or the boy will choose me or whatever.
There's something very heterosexist about it. But I do find that this can carry over sometimes into queer narratives in ways that I'd like to examine more but...
STORYO: Examine more academically or...?
AMAL: I'd like for us to examine them more, like to not basically just think that if you transpose the relationship from a heterosexual pairing into a queer one, that it's going to fix some of those problems. It fixes some problems. Narratively speaking. Not all. Like in terms of power imbalance and stuff like that, that can sometimes be different.
STORYO: Yeah, sometimes just having different genders interact messes with people.
AMAL: Exactly. Exactly. But, so there's a kind of transactional core to anything that is romantic. And I think that that's built into a lot of our expectations of how narratives go.
Friendship--I firmly believe--is not that way.
If you think of a transactional relationship as ultimately being about trying to eliminate debt——so someone does a nice thing for you, and you want to do a nice thing so that you're even——then that means that you're you're trying to eliminate debt, you're trying to sever connections between you.
You want to be in a state of kind of like equality.
But another way of thinking of it, and the way that I kind of default to thinking of it where friendship is concerned, is that you do nice things for each other because you want to reinforce a bond. You constantly want that idea of, not debt, but connection, to be reinforced.
And you reinforce this by giving each other of your time. You reinforce this by supporting each other even when you're not necessarily the prime partner in your life.
There is a sense in which friendship just operates in a way that can resist those ideas of tit-for-tat and have a sense of loyalty or support or community nourishment or, I don't know. All of these different things that are inimical to capitalism occur within friendship and capitalism hasn't quite sunk its teeth into friendship in the same way that it has into romance, where so many things are commercial.
So many things, you know.
And I think that's part of why it's doesn't it doesn't get seen as much. It's something that is antithetical to a lot of the ways that our ideas about narrative progress.
STORYO: Is that depressing? Or does it motivate you? Because in the speech you gave at the Nebulas, you talked about how in...
AMAL: “Seasons of Glass and Iron.”
STORYO: How you were trying to write a fairy tale, right? For your…
AMAL: For my niece. Yeah.
STORYO: And I guess you found fairytales wanting.
AMAL: I did.
I realized. I mean. I know a lot of fairy tales.
Like I cut my teeth on them. I grew up reading lots of fairy tale collections, and I realized I could only with difficulty think of fairytales where women were friends, where women talk to each other, and where they weren't antagonists to each other in some way. I know they're there, but the fact that I could reach for 10 stories of women waiting for rescue or women waiting to be chosen or women seeking husbands or, you know, that sort of thing instead of a story of women setting out together to have adventures—which is really what I wanted to tell my 7 year old niece who is asking me for a fairy tale— It was very disturbing to me, and I just remember in that moment thinking I'm just going to make something up. I'm gonna make something up because I really want her to know that there is room in fairytales for girls to be friends.
A lot of fairytales will allow us to imagine ourselves in adventures and allow us to imagine ourselves proverbially defeating dragons and all the important stuff that that brings us, but the fact that absent from a lot of the lessons that you can take from fairy tale—-not necessarily in a moralising sense but in a kind of imaginative participation sense——don't include friendship, really troubles me.
And the ones that have included friendship have stood out for me. I think of something like Ivan and the Firebird and Ivan’s relationship with the wolf is one of strong friendship, really.
STORYO: I have no idea what this is.
Well, so far as I remember, it was a youngest son of a Russian King who needs to go on this quest to find a Firebird in order to secure his place in the hierarchy. I'm going to misrepresent this and angry fairy tale scholars are going to write you emails.
STORYO: It's okay you can always record a better explanation.
AMAL: There's a wolf who is helping him. It turns out--spoilers!--after a series of adventures the wolf is another prince who has been transformed into the shape of a wolf. And, before he sets out to help Ivan with all the stuff, he says, “I will help you on the condition that when we are done you cut off my head and you cut off my feet and you do something else with them and stuff.”
And the prince is like okay dude whatevs.
But over the course of the adventures they become really good friends. And at the end the wolf still says you have to do this thing for me.
You have to do this very difficult terrible thing.
And Ivan weeps and doesn't want to and the wolf has to hold him to his promise and he does. And the act of cutting off the wolf’s head and hands and whatever and sprinkling them with holy water turns him back into a prince.
But, I was really really moved by the fact that he'd come to love this wolf and that he didn't want to kill him even though he sets out at the beginning to just want to accomplish his tasks.
And then there's another instance of that comes to mind of “The Snow Queen.” Gerda, who's the main character in the story, does actually meets a lot of women. And they're are amazing.
She meets the Robber Girl.
There's an older woman who has a rose garden.
That sort of thing.
Gerda talks to a lot of other girls. And in this way that is totally an exception, but she's doing all of this in order to rescue a boy. She sets out wanting do this because they are friends. She is friends with this boy and that's why she's setting out to do all of this stuff.
But if I'm not mistaken they end up married, and I was like OK, all right, that's fine. I'm not against marriage by any means.
It's just that that friendship has its place and is important, too, and so often I see narratives that validate the friendship by having it conclude in a marriage.
So, it's like you see it was important all along because in the end it became romantic.
And it's like the romance is not the point. Like all the other things are also the point.
So, it definitely motivates me. It's definitely something that makes me want to represent it more as well as I can. As well as I have experienced it. And for it to just be out there for all of the girls and women and also men and boys whose most important relationships in their lives are their friendships.
“That process of transformation. It's a metaphor that I feel I'm always reaching for, that has a lot of different applications, and I love to think about things in that way and it comes very naturally to me. ”
STORYO: Your writing, either prose or poetry, feels very exacting and detailed. How important is sensation to you, in your life and stories?
AMAL: It's very important. I'm a bit synesthetic so I've always associated some senses with other things.
There used to be an orchard near where I lived when I was growing up, and you could go into the orchard and pick apples and then come out and pay for what you picked. But they also sold preserves and stuff like that. And my sister and I called their preserves ‘Apple Sunshine’ because they were just so, so beautiful and this jar was absolutely like a jar of golden afternoon light. And I remember what it tasted like, but what stays in my memory the most is just the sight of it. That association between the way it looked and the fact that we called it light and that when we spread it on toast we felt like we were eating light, you know? That sort of thing. I honestly I think it's sort of a mode of composition for me to write f
rom the senses. And not just to write from the senses, but from the senses in translation. So, a sense of trying to create a kind of alchemy from what you see. I'm really, really interested, and I've always been really interested in, the transformation of one thing to another. In what we distill, what we imbue with things.
I'm not a very good knitter but for a while I would take knitting to lectures with me and knit a little bit during the lecture, and I always loved the idea that I was knitting the lecture up into the scarf. That I'm sitting there and I'm doing this thing and I'm listening, but part of me is taking the things that I'm hearing and transforming them into the scarf, encoding them into the scarf.
Just the idea of honey, or of making wine, or anything that involves taking something and transforming it into something else. That is what we do when we write. When we take any kind of experiences that we've had, and we filter them through our selves and we turn them into a story.
That process of transformation. It's a metaphor that I feel I'm always reaching for, that has a lot of different applications, and I love to think about things in that way and it comes very naturally to me.
So, yeah, the sensory is absolutely very important to me.
STORYO: There was a review of Binti by Nnedi Okorafor, and you mentioned this quote from Jo Walton about how pace is what defines genre.
STORYO: More than tropes.
STORYO: Do your stories have a pace? Do you feel yourself locking into it? Like now I know this is one of my stories because things are progressing in my mind or on the page in a way that feels like me?
AMAL: With every short story that I have written recently I think that I've tried to do something different. And each one is an opportunity I think to explore something that's different, but the thing that I keep on coming back to is that, what they have in common I think, is that I think I try to write out of poetry sometimes. The thing that leads me into writing prose, a lot of the time, is very sensory and I kind of feel like I write my way out...(sings)I write my way out(sings)... Sorry. It had to happen. At least one Hamilton quote in this interview.
STORYO: I've deliberately not listened to the soundtrack album because it's coming to London in January, and I'm one of those people I just really get excited to not--I mean it's totally cool for you to totally burst into a Hamilton song. I'm not going to connect it to anything.
AMAL: Do you have tickets?
STORYO: Yeah, we have tickets..
AMAL: Oh man. You might actually get to see Lin.
STORYO: You think? You think he will come London?
AMAL: Oh he's in London right now. He is living in London at the moment..
STORYO: Oh yeah. Oh yeah. I have not allowed myself. I'm just assuming that there'll be other people, but if Lin is there.
AMAL: He has strongly hinted that he may just turn up to play it for a night. So I would love to see it in London. I've only seen the New York production, but not with the original cast, and I loved it. We got to see two Hamiltons for the price of one, more or less, because Javier Munoz was ill, so he only made it to the end of the first act and they switched it up. In the second act, what's his name. I think it was Michael Luwoye.
STORYO: That's amazing. It's like Doctor Who.
AMAL: Yeah I know, right?
STORYO: Just re-incarnate.
AMAL: I have absorbed the soundtrack into my being. So, it was a little bit difficult for me to see how differently he played it from Miranda. Whereas Luwoye was much closer to Miranda's performance so I found myself sort of ret-conning him in my head into the first act which was very strange but very interesting especially because they look nothing alike. So, it's just like this completely different Hamilton on stage.
“You can't chop down a tree with a gun.”
STORYO: In “Madeleine,” there's that relationship that in some sense is imaginary, but then, really, it's completely not imaginary. But there's this decision that even if it's imaginary it doesn't matter.
STORYO: I wondered if this was something that you have experienced in your life. Because the way you talk about retcon-ing Hamilton, and, you know, the way fandom works where you love something so much that things are real. Like I used to daydream about taking Michael Scott from The Office to Disney World because it just felt like he would be so happy at Disney World and we’d have such a great time.
AMAL: Is this from the American Office?
STORYO: Yeah. The American Office.
AMAL: Oh, I never saw that one.
STORYO: Yeah I don't know if the British Office guy would be as much fun. But maybe it would be better for him because he deserves it.
Do you have a sense of when you began to watch stories and then to recreate them? Do you remember a sense of the characters in the stories being your friends?
AMAL: Oh totally. So, so much. When I was very small I loved the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles so much. And, you want to guess which one was my favorite? Try to hazard a guess.
STORYO: OK. Well now there's only two left.
STORYO: Was it a turtle?
STORYO: It was a turtle. OK.
AMAL: It wasn't a trick question.
AMAL: Although Splinter was pretty great.
STORYO: Yeah I was going to with Splinter next. I'll go with Michelangelo.
AMAL: Yes. It was Michelangelo.
AMAL: Michelangelo was my favorite. Michelangelo, was a party dude.
STORYO: Love of food.
AMAL: Love of food. Yeah. And there was actually to be fair no reason why he should be my favorite considering my other interests. Donatello would have been a fair pick. My sister's favorite was Raphael. I hated Raphael. I thought he was a jerk.
STORYO: Too sarcastic.
AMAL: He was just so mean.
AMAL: Whereas I think this is what it was. Michelangelo was always nice. He was always really kind. He was really kind and really fun. And he was always happy and he was always trying to be nice to people. And I really liked that, and I wanted to marry Michelangelo. I was like firmly convinced at the age of five that Michelangelo was going to be married to me.
And also, in allegiance to Michelangelo, I loved all things orange. So I always ate my carrots and I drank orange juice from an orange cup. I had a very rich fantasy life in which Michelangelo and I were going to be married and I mean, you know, by married here—like I was five—so I think really what I wanted was to be really good friends.
STORYO: Right. My sister and I have talked a lot about the movies we watched in the 80s like The Goonies.
STORYO: Where romance was there, but it was about the friendship. It seems so sad that only movies about children have that.
STORYO: And so it’s like you were five and, yet, you actually had more room to imagine.
AMAL: Yeah exactly. Star Trek: The Next Generation was a source of great comfort to me while I did not actually have friends in real life.
I totally imagined myself on the Enterprise and all of the cast being my friends, and I did that with most things that I loved I think.
I would imagine myself into those situations.
I would imagine myself into the Hobbit.
I'd imagine myself being useful in some way to these people in these books that I loved.
I was a very, I mean, in some ways, I was a very lonely kid.
I mean not that lonely. I had siblings who were all younger than me which is I think part of it. I always, always wanted a best friend, and I had a lot of books and things at the time to tell me that you know this is what a best friend looks like. It's really important for a girl to have a best friend and stuff. And then eventually I did.
Eventually, I did form really, really close friendships and that was great.
But. Definitely. High school was a bad scene and grade school was a bad scene. And also a lot of my close friendships were with people on the Internet. And...
STORYO: Which is somewhat.
AMAL: Yeah, which is like having imaginary friends, right? Until those magical moments where you get to meet them and stuff. And so that was a big part of how I started going to cons was that they were neutral territory on which to meet friends I knew from the internet while we were trying to ascertain the fact that neither of us were axe murderers.
AMAL: It's always axe murder.
STORYO: I know. Yes.
AMAL: It's never...
STORYO: I remember that. I don't understand why that's a cultural...
AMAL: Why is it axes as opposed to like guns or knives? Surely people are more likely to be killed by guns than they are by axes.
STORYO: I think so. There must be more guns than axes.
STORYO: Which is a sad state.
STORYO: I don't know why.
AMAL: You can't chop down a tree with a gun.
“So, you know, I write this thing that's just between me and the page and then it goes out into the world and affects people. It's startling.”
STORYO: Do you memorize things?
AMAL: I do. I memorize my poetry. I don't memorize. Well. No, I memorize poetry. I have twice memorized the first page of a book that I thought was very very very beautiful.
STORYO: Which books?
AMAL: This is actually a funny story. There was a book called, well I won’t tell you what the book was called. There was a book. The first page was so stunningly beautiful it was about a shining white city by the sea and it was so beautiful that I just I needed to learn it by heart. There was a market place in the shining city by the sea and it was talking about how you could buy kittens and blue glass beads things like that and there was a quality of light in what was being described that I found tremendously beautiful and I really loved it. And the book in question was called The Book of Flying by Keith Miller.
The only other time I encountered a book that had that kind of effect there was again this quality of light on the opening page. It was like poetry. And it was just that the light was what really kept getting me and this book was A Stranger in Olondria by Sofia Samatar. And I read this book and I loved it. And I got to the end and there was a bio of Sofia and it said Sofia Samatar is married to novelist Keith Miller.
I wrote to Sofia about this afterwards and went, “This is super weird because like I had this exact same reaction to the first page of each of your novels.”
And she said that's really funny because we were writing those books at the same time while we were both living in Sudan. And she said that that's why the light seemed like it was the same. And I was just blown away by it. I was thinking of The Book of Flying in a very specific way. The plots are nothing alike. Well, they’re a little bit. No, not really alike. They both maybe have a slightly picaresque quality.
STORYO: It was like the light moved with you through time and space.
AMAL: Yeah. And I literally read these books like--I think I read The Book of Flying when I was seventeen--almost ten years apart. Almost ten years apart I read these books.
STORYO: You know we talked about “Pockets” on the podcast and there's an element of that's about passing messages through time and space in a way that defies rational explanation. Rational is one of my least favorite words.
AMAL: Yeah. This is shorthand.
STORYO: And, I wondered, if this is how the magic of stories works for you? Do you feel like when you're writing stories, or reading stories, that they're these letters that are being passed back and forth?
AMAL: I do. I do.
I mean part of the reason I love studying literature is because I feel like you can be alone with these voices from the past and form your own relationship with them. And there's a very very beautiful part of a book by Diana Wynn Jones called The Merlin Conspiracy and there's a witch at some point who has all this lore of, this flower lore, that she can make into magic and stuff. But she is set upon by these villagers who both love her and hate her and they break her hip or something like that to immobilize her.
They make it so that she cannot leave their village and only serve them.
Witches in this world have the capacity to pass their power on and she decides she is not going to give it to anyone in this village. And instead what she does is she casts her mind far into the future from her time. But in that same place.
And the main characters of this book are these two kids and one of them is a girl who wanders into that place and it's like here's the witch in the past and here is the girl in the future. But they're in the same place. And because of this the witch finds her, finds this girl, and goes, "You! I'm giving you this." And she suddenly gets downloaded into her head this enormous lore of all these flowers and things and it's magnificent.
And I love this book.
I've forgotten most things about the book except for this thing that struck me so much and the fact that this book resists a trope that I really hate which is women losing their memories as soon as they're given any kind of enormous power which I hate so much.
STORYO: Or being crazy somehow.
Losing their identity once they receive any kind of power. I hate it so much.
I was really tense throughout this book worried that this was going to happen and it never happened. In spite of other cataclysmic things that do happen. You should read that book. I'm not going to spoil that one.
But, I feel like literature does that. You feel like you are receiving letters from the past which is even more wonderful when you're literally reading letters that people have written to each other from the past like Coleridge's letters and Keats's letters are stunningly beautiful artifacts, they're like a genre unto themselves.
I think about this a lot, too. I think about the little things that you can find here and there. Like the only tattoo I’ve ever really considered getting is of a tree that Tolkien drew that was supposed to be, was potentially going to be the cover for Tree and Leaf, I think, and or maybe I can't remember if it was or wasn't but it was a sketch he had done for it. And it was this kind of like arabesque ash tree. And he calls it the tree of Amalion.
I was flipping through this in a book about Tolkien's art, and I was like wait. That has my name in it!
And I was reading about it, and unlike basically every other thing that Tolkien ever named in his mythos, no one could find the origin of why he had chosen to name it this thing. Like there was no linguistic antecedent or thing that he was trying to do that anyone knew of, orthat his son knew of or that his other scholars knew of, and I was so struck by this. It felt like a kind of message. Like this is just for you, you know? I've put your name in it. Amal Lion.
My dad's name is Osama which means lion. I felt like there was a lineage there, you know?
AMAL: And I love that. It was just like, you know, it's totally made up.
But to feel like you could be in the right place at the right moment for the receipt of something from the past.
The novella that Max Gladstone and I have co-written together partakes of a lot of this because it's about time traveling super spies who are writing each other letters. It's pretty cool. I love it very very much and it's very fun.
But a big part of that is sort of taking this idea of what happens when you write someone a letter. You know you're essentially writing to a future self. Right? And once they've received that letter the self that will have written it will already be in the past.
We take so much for granted about the instantaneity of communication right now.
With “Pockets”, the letters that Warda is sending out, she doesn't know who's going to read them. And in the moment when she's writing it she has to conjure an idea of a person defined only by the fact that they're going to read this letter. And I love that.
I mean to me that's what readership is. When you're writing anything you don't know who's going to read it. You don't know how it's going to affect them.
Though, the fact that I've had people come up to me at this con or at other places and and who tell me very, very movingly of how much they were affected by my work, of how much it means to them, it's astonishing to me.
So, you know, I write this thing that's just between me and the page and then it goes out into the world and affects people. It's startling.
STORYO: It's definite magic.
AMAL: It is. It is. Yeah.
“The reason is Hamilton.”
AMAL: Let's do it.
STORYO: What is your favorite word?
STORYO: What is your least favorite word?
AMAL: Blarg. No. Smegma.
STORYO: What is your favorite smell?
AMAL: Oh baking bread and snow melt. These are supposed to be just like quick associative---I can't think about these too long, right?
STORYO: No. Yeah. I have to hold back from asking questions, too. No follow-up question. What is your least favorite smell?
AMAL: My superintendent's pot. Which is bad pot. It's just bad. There's like good pot. And then there's terrible farty smelling pot and this is just bad.
STORYO: What do you wish you knew more about?
STORYO: What do you wish you knew less about?
AMAL: No, I think I'm, I just want to know everything. What do I wish I knew less about. Man, that's such a good question. What do I wish I knew less about. Oh, yes. Some people's sex lives. I definitely wish I knew less about that.
STORYO: Let's pretend your life has a soundtrack. What song is playing at your happiest?
AMAL: This is a difficult question to answer. And let me tell you why. The reason is Hamilton. The problem is that when I started listening to Hamilton it obliterated all other music--which up until that point I had a very eclectic taste. And when I started listening to Hamilton it was literally like a disease. I stopped listening to anything else for about a year. And I feel like I'm still getting all of my music back. So it's going to take me a second here. What's playing when I'm at my happiest? Great Big Sea. Oh, which song, though. Uh. Um.
Probably "Consequence Free."
AMAL: *singing*. Yeah. Probably.
STORYO: What is your favorite kind of story?
AMAL: Of story.
AMAL: A bedtime story.
STORYO: What is your least favorite kind of story?
AMAL: Hrm. Grump. I just want to say horror. But that's not really a story. Um. My least favorite kind of story has no women in it. Which is funny because my favorite book of all time has no women in it. The Hobbit is my favorite book of all time, probably. And there are no women it. So that made a liar of myself. But. No. No. My least favorite kind of story is a lazy story. A mean story. I don't like mean spirited stories. Mean spirited stories I do not like.
STORYO: So, William Faulkner.
AMAL: Uh huh.
STORYO: He had this quote that the only story worth writing was the heart in conflict with itself. Which is good. I don't know how many women were in his books, well actually I do. I do. There were women there. But. If Faulkner came back from the dead to write your story---what I want to know is what that story would be about?
AMAL: So, in the sense of the heart in conflict with itself, it would be about someone who is trying to move through the world with a terrible fear of disappointing everyone and trying to do things while not disappointing the people who she loves. Probably.
AMAL: It's a very intimate question.
STORYO: Well. That's true.
AMAL: These are very sneaky intimate questions. They're very good questions but they're also...they feel like a spell.
STORYO: Yeah, you think of language as magic, yeah? Stories as magic?
STORYO: So that's kind of the idea.
AMAL: I see.