Sofia Samatar, Pocket Interview No. 7
Sofia Samatar lives in Virginia. Her 2014 debut novel, A Stranger in Olondria, won the World Fantasy and British Fantasy awards for Best Novel. Her most recent book, published in February of this year, is Monster Portraits, an autobiography threaded with accounts of fantastic creatures illustrated by her brother.
Last year, Sofia spoke with us about, among other things, jazz, identity, belonging, feeling lost in life and in stories, and how we might use language to build, and remember, home. Also, Enid Blyton.
"I think that's one of the functions of stories. One of the things that stories do is that they become the homeland. "
SOFIA SAMATAR: Well, I was born in Indiana. And then I lived there just for the first two years of my life. Moved to Illinois; lived there for two years. Then I lived in Tanzania for a year. Then I lived in London for a year. Then back to Indiana. Then I lived in Kentucky for two years. Then I moved to New Jersey. Then I went to high school in Pennsylvania; back to college in Indiana. Grad school in Wisconsin.
When I tell people this whole long string of things the question I usually get is, ‘was your dad in the military,’ because they're thinking why did somebody move every two years. And I have actually. The five years that I lived in New Jersey is the longest I've lived anywhere. Which is mostly why I always say I'm from New Jersey, because that's the place I lived the longest and I lived there as a kid.
My dad was an academic. I was born when he was in college in Indiana. And then he went to school, to graduate school, in African history at Northwestern, hence Illinois. And then he did some in East Africa. So I was in Tanzania at that point. And then the book was published, the book was published at Cambridge University Press and there was some—I need to actually go ask my mom and find out why we were in London. I'm guessing my dad had some kind of visiting position. And then his first teaching job was at Eastern Kentucky University. So we lived in Kentucky for a couple of years and then the rest of his career up until his death two years ago was at Rutgers University in Newark. So that's why we wound up in New Jersey. It's a weird thing; a lot of times people don't realize how much academics move around. There’s sort of this idea that you get a degree and then you get a job as a professor somewhere and that's it. You live there. But actually there can be a lot of travel involved.
STORYOLOGICAL: Yeah. I feel like it says something that most people hear that you traveled a lot and immediately think military. It reminds me of what you said about epic fantasy. You were talking I think about how a lot of the ways in fantasy that people travel, a lot of the movement that happens, it’s a matter conquest or conflict, as opposed to curiosity.
SOFIA: Yeah, absolutely.
That's one of the ways that I see epic fantasy as being very well named. I think that it's related to the form of the epic which is a form that is meant to define a society. It’s about how a group of people came to be who they are and came to have a group identity.
It's often an origin story of that. So, it has to do with large migrations of people, and it's quite triumphalist, because people are telling a story that they they want to be repeated. This is how they want to be remembered. And so a lot of times it has to do with all the people that they fought and overcame and how a great leader triumphed or something like that.
STORYO: Was religion a part of when you were a kid?
SOFIA: My mom is Mennonite. And that is how my brother and I were raised as well.
STORYO: I am always interested in what the spiritual background of people's lives are, in general, but in particular, in terms of epic fantasy—at least from my early reading of epic fantasy—it felt like good and evil had a very Christian kind of patina over everything. There was good and evil and good was going to triumph and there was a hell and a heaven. I don't know what evil looks like from a Mennonite perspective or what good it looks like.
SOFIA: That's a good question. And of course I can only give the perspective of the Mennonite who is talking to you right now. And so it's not going to be the same for everyone. But, in general, Mennonites are a Peace Church. So for most, and again this is not absolutely everyone, but for the majority of Mennonites historically evil has been war and violence and participation in violence and participation in the military.
STORYO: That seems about right
SOFIA: Yeah. I mean it's certainly there. I think it goes through all my work. There is no celebration of violence without dire consequences for the character.
I think what you say about fantasy and religion is really interesting, and it's something I've been thinking about recently.
There's an idea out there that fantasy, especially modern western fantasy, grows out of a Christian tradition. J.R.R. Tolkien. C.S. Lewis. And there was a time when I thought of that as being sort of limited. Like that only has to do with those people or that specific time and it's not something that flows and trickles throughout the genre as a whole. But, lately I’m not so sure about that.
I think that a lot of the literature that attracts me is not necessarily religious but there is a sense of mystery about it. That it's almost a literature written in the shadow of the death of God. Because it may be that you're making up gods and demons because you're actually not religious or because you're very aware that your culture is secular. But it's literature that's written in that shadow that I find really interesting.
STORYO: There was I think, maybe in "Fallow" and a few of the stories you've written this feeling that there is a paradise we can't reach or an idea or a thing that we can't have, and a lot of your characters are haunted by some time or place that has been lost. I wonder if you feel like stories and religion are all built on top of this immense longing.
SOFIA: I think so. Absolutely. And I think that's one of the functions of stories, or one of the things that stories do is that they become the homeland. As you speak of the lost homeland you create with language a sort of place to be.
STORYO: Is this something you feel yourself doing when you're writing stories? Are you inventing a place that you can belong, or that you can be, or is it not that personal really?
SOFIA: I think I would say it is, although I think it was more that way 20 years ago when I started writing A Stranger in Olondria. That was very much—I thought quite explicitly to myself that I’m making a place where I can be, and it didn't mean that it was going to be conflict free or anything like that because that would have been boring. But it did mean a place where I could drop down and I could walk around and there would be no surprise among any of the people I met. It would just be obvious that I was Olondrian. So I had this idea of creating that kind of place, but now I think of it in a different way. I think of it more as something that's embedded in the language itself, rather than the content of creating a specific kind of landscape or society.
STORYO: What do you mean is embedded in the language? The sense of home?
And I think, let's see, this is kind of hard to articulate. But what I'm thinking of is the strange kind of comfort and solace that comes out of singing and repeating lines like, by the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept when we remembered Zion.
This is people singing of someplace that is lost. But then the music and that language becomes in a strange way a place, or almost a substitute for a place. And I think a lot of literature of exile and a loss of places does that.
With fantasy it's kind of weird and different, right? Because you're making up another place. So it's kind of hard to tease out exactly how that's related, but I definitely think that there is, that you can belong to a language or that language can afford a sense of belonging.
"What needs to happen if you're going to write is that you need to internalize the language. It's the same thing with learning a foreign language. You study all the grammar and all that but at some point the the goal is to actually forget that you're speaking a foreign language, and it becomes yours and you speak it.
STORYO: There a thing in Olondria, a quote where someone, I don’t remember who, said: "Words are sublime and in books we may commune with the dead. Beyond this there is nothing true. No voices we can hear."
And it reminds me of what you were talking about with how language can bring back to us a sense of place or a sense of belonging. Or in the case of fantasy, it can invent a place that we can belong and a lot of your stories do that wonderfully. They invent a place that has been lost so that we can long for it along with your characters.
I feel like, though, there's also, especially in A Stranger in Olondria, this feeling that the characters in your stories, and the stories themselves, are both very celebratory and also a little mistrustful of stories.
I think also of Selkie Stories are for Losers where that character both clearly knows a lot of selkie stories but also they're not really having it as far as wanting to believe in them.1
STORYO: So, how do you think about that? That sense of celebration and that sense of mistrust.
SOFIA: I guess maybe I have problems with celebration that is 100%. It's great to celebrate things, but I always have kind of a check on that, or an impulse to temper that celebration, or to not to get to the point where you're so caught up in it that you can't get outside it and look at it and evaluate it.
And I think that as much as celebration with others is beautiful, it also is something that you need to kind of step back and look at every once in a while and say OK what direction are we going here. What are we celebrating? Maintain your critical eye and ear. I think that's really important. So that comes out, and you've seen that very accurately, in my work.
What you quoted from A Stranger in Olondria, I'm pretty sure that it is some devotee of the Stone who is saying that—whether it’s the priest or his daughter—somebody who is part of a cult of writing that is murdering people. They have these beautiful ideas about reading books and connecting with the dead and living a purely literary life, and, at the same time, that celebration of Literature goes too far.
STORYO: You've said, in terms of your critical eye, that you feel like uncritical reading teaches you more how to write. What did you mean by that, considering it sounds like maybe you think the critical eye might help you—I don't know—be a better person?
SOFIA: Yeah. And I also think it helps you write. I think both are important and I guess I probably do, however, think that the uncritical reading, by which I mean a reading in which you're swept up—you're just completely transported and you are immersed in that work and you're not stepping outside and looking at structure and so on—is very important to keep in mind.
The reason that I emphasize that side is because it's a side that tends to get lost when people start talking about how to write and people start talking about craft and it all turns into this nuts and bolts thing where people are reading things, not critically as in criticizing, but critically as in analyzing structure. There's a place for that, and there are times when there are works that I love and I will go back and sort of diagram and really examine structure and say, "How did this person organize this story?” and then I might attempt something similar.
But the love is really the essential part, and I sometimes worry that that gets lost.
What needs to happen if you're going to write is that you need to internalize the language.
It's the same thing with learning a foreign language. You study all the grammar and all that, but at some point the goal is to actually forget that you're speaking a foreign language, and it becomes yours and you speak it. You speak it impulsively and naturally. And I think the same thing about writing.
So, when you read, if a book is going to help you to become a better writer you have to be completely absorbed. You have to be completely immersed in that work and then you start internalizing structures and language, and things that can't be taught with a critical view start happening. And, I think those things are essential.
I mean if you don't love to read, I don't know why you would write anything. That doesn't make any sense to me.
STORYO: Do you remember what stories as a kid might have been the earliest structures or forms that you internalized?
SOFIA: That is a good question. Earliest things that I was reading. I remember really loving Enid Blyton's Noddy books. Do you know the Noddy books?2
There's like this little elf and he's got a bell on his hat, and he has a gnome friend named Big Ears, and they go around and get in adventures. He's got a car. They're really weird. I read them when I was little, when we were living in England, and those are probably the earliest books that I can remember. I must've been maybe five.
Now was I internalizing the sculpture of Enid Blyton's storytelling? I hope not. I don't know.
But, no, it's not fair to say I hope not. I mean she's shaggy and rambling, but she's definitely got something because you know kids still adore her all these many years later.
Certainly the images and the idea of these little kinds of elves and gnomes and these little secret worlds and little secret houses and these toys that would come to life and all that kind of magical imagery I would say I definitely very much absorbed.
STORYO: It does feel like your stories have all these other stories inside them that come to life. Kind of like those toys.
Has that always been something that as a reader you've really adored? When the stories you read seemed to be made up of other stories?
SOFIA: It's maybe my favorite thing. I love it. That is a big influence of the Arabian Nights, or The Thousand and One Nights. Also something that I was reading pretty early in, in children's versions.
I love embedded narratives. I love that sense of deepening and opening and the sort of increasing complexity of the world and the material that I'm reading. I really love it.
I also really love what I think of as different textures in writing. This you find, maybe not in the kids versions, but in other versions for grownups of The Thousand and One Nights. Not only do you have the embedded stories but also all of a sudden there will be people will be reciting poetry. Or Tolkien. The Hobbit and The Lord Of The Rings. Something I loved about those books when I first read them, and ever since, was that suddenly you can come across a song; suddenly you can come across a poem. And the kind of collage feel that gives to the work, in terms of the language—one type of language pushed up against another—I think there's a lot of energy in that I really love that.
"I absorb language. I become saturated with it pretty deeply and that's part of what makes me good at foreign languages. I’m good at absorbing somebody else's language and living in it and giving it back. And I think I do that in writing, too."
STORYO: How important for you is seeing and listening as a person and as a writer?
SOFIA: You mean like in daily life kind of walking around seeing and listening?
STORYO: Well, I meant however those words happen to hit you, but yes, I was thinking about how much you as a person, when you're interacting with people, are thinking about seeing them or thinking about listening. Listening, in particular, because I feel like so often your stories are written from the point of view of someone who is writing to someone, or written from the point of view of someone who has failed to receive a letter. Somehow their ability to be heard, or to listen, is either cut off or paramount.
SOFIA: That's very observant.
Well, of course, I think that these things are extremely important.
I mean it sounds almost banal to say, ”It's very important to listen and to look at people.”
I get a lot of practice with that because I am a teacher. And so my job involves a lot of really careful listening to students to figure out where they are and then how we can go on. Or listening carefully to what they've said so that I can see what's missing and direct them, or push them, to think a little deeper and so on. So, there's really careful listening, and there's very careful reading.
And I try to be observant in my life. I journal. But I actually, what I'm good at is reading and foreign languages. Those are the two things I'm really good at. And, unfortunately, I'm often not that great at observation in daily life. And my memory is terrible. So note-booking, journaling helps with that. It helps me to remember what happened in my life, but I really wish that I was better at being where I am and at paying attention to what's going on. I have no sense of direction. I'm the person who's always lost. I'm really not naturally observant. I have to really concentrate. It's much easier for me to just read a book.
STORYO: Reading your collection of stories3, it struck me how varied they are. I never felt like I was reading someone else's work, but I did feel like there were all of these different kinds of writing in terms of genre and in terms of tone. I wondered how as a writer, and as a reader who loves books, you think about voice? Is that something you think about? Is that something you care about?
SOFIA: It's been something that I've been a little nervous about because I get the impression that one is supposed to have a voice. And I've always been a bit concerned that I don't.
So the first volume of Best American Fantasy and Science Fiction, the guest editor was Joe Hill, and he blind selected two of my stories4. He later wrote to me and said I can't believe the same person wrote both of these stories. No way did he think that he was picking two stories by the same person. And that can be seen as really cool—wow I'm doing this whole variety of things—but it can also make you a little bit anxious—do I not have an actual voice that is unique, and, at least to some extent, consistent?
It creates anxiety because when I think of the writers that I love, each of them has a very strong voice and their work is very recognizable. So, because I love those writers, it worries me that I am such a ventriloquist, and that in these intense bouts of reading I absorb voices so much that I wouldn't say that I'm able to reproduce them—I actually don't think that that's possible—but if I read two different things that each have a very different tone, then I will write two different things that are very, very different from each other and I won’t see a whole lot of connective tissue between those things. But maybe somebody else would.
I think this is one of those cases where the writer is not necessarily the best reader of their own work. And I hope that's true in this case, and that somebody else could say: No, no. I know a Sofia Samatar story when I see one.
But I do think that I absorb language. I become saturated with it pretty deeply and that's part of what makes me good at foreign languages. I’m good at absorbing somebody else's language and living in it and giving it back. And I think I do that in writing, too.
So is that bad? I don't know. Probably.
STORYO: I can, of course, not speak exactly to your anxiety. I can say that right now I certainly know what a Sophia story is. I think I will continue to know. I also remember what a teacher told me which was that voice is what you can't help doing.
SOFIA: Yeah. That's good.
STORYO: And so you don't notice it. Over time you just couldn't help doing it, and then people look at your work and see you did this same thing over and over again. That's your voice. And then people get anxious about that: I can't stop doing this one thing.
SOFIA: Well, that's true. That would be another problem.
STORYO: Yeah. On that. There was an interview that I heard you do with To the Best of Our Knowledge5. It was about an essay you had written. What was the essay called? Do you remember?
SOFIA: I believe it was “Skin feeling.”6
STORYO: You were talking about blackness and about visibility and one of the things that you talked about was jazz and how you had taken a model of jazz into that essay and you felt that the solutions you wanted for discussions of diversity were unpredictable solutions. And that was fascinating in its own right, thinking about unpredictable solutions in the world, but I wondered if that was something that you continue to carry into your own writing? If you're engaging with that idea? If there's even a way to—I don't know how you would do jazz as a writer because you're not on stage.
SOFIA: You're not on stage, but you have certain materials and you have certain parameters and you have certain constraints and you have to work within that and you have to find the solution to your problem in the material itself. So, if you're playing music and you're improvising and you're stuck and you don't know where to go, the solution to that problem, you have to find it in the chord—I mean you have to find it in in what's being played.
I think that writing is the same. When you get stuck then it's time to go back and look at what you've written already, and see where did the path fracture to the point where you lost your way in the marsh. Where’s the thread that you missed? Where is the possibility that you missed and go back and find it?
STORYO: Something else you were riffing on in that essay was about exposure. Maybe as a critic you’ve come across this, people tend to read books and want to read it as autobiography; they tend to want to read it as exposing who the author is. Yet I do feel like as a writer, I feel really powerful when I feel like I'm exposing myself through the veil of fiction in the same way that I think of jazz as being kind of scary because you're improvising, and almost in the improvisation, naturally exposing yourself because it's coming out of you a little bit uncontrollably maybe. Is that something you want as a writer? Do you want to surprise and scare yourself?
SOFIA: Absolutely. I also think the whole question of exposure that you raise is very interesting because it's one I'm thinking about more because I have a book coming out next year, called Monster Portraits which is a lot more autobiographical—although some of the stories in Tender get quite autobiographical. There's one story in there that is basically true.
The book that I'm working on now, it's not fantasy at all. It is memoir, and it is very self revealing I guess you could say. And the writing of this kind of work followed the “Skin Feeling” essay, in which I talked about my life and I talked about where I was at the time I wrote it and I talked about things that that happened to me. It was in a way the beginning of this more autobiographical trajectory in my work.
It's complicated isn't it? Because there is a desire to be real with people. And then there is also a fear, not just of reactions to that, I think, but also of being boxed in. Because whatever it is you're exposing, that’s true at that moment in time that you say or write that thing, but then on the receiving end things tend to become quite fixed, and you become the writer of this thing. And people feel like they know you now because of this thing that you said five years ago, but you're not that person anymore. There's a weird dynamic there that, I as a person who has published very little memoir at this point I'm still turning over in my mind how that works. I don't really get it.
STORYO: In the essay you discuss hyper-visibility. The idea that the more you're seen as black, or the more you're seen as something, the less you’re seen as an individual. It almost sounds like you're describing that the more that you're seen as Sofia Samatar, the less you are seen as an individual. It even sounds confusing when I say it.
SOFIA: Yeah, well, I think part of the reason it's confusing is because there are a couple of different layers of what’s going on. There's the basic level of every person who has a name is vulnerable to becoming a prisoner of that name. If I know you by name then I attach certain things to that name and then some of your complexity can disappear under that. So that's one layer.
And then there's the Ralph Ellison Invisible Man layer, which is the racial level, where the more you see the person's race the less you're able to see the person. You actually don't see the person at all, because all you do is fill up that race category with what's in your head and you actually can't see that person at all. And that one doesn't have to do with the name, that one has to do with the color. So having those things operating at the same time that gets really really complicated.
"I’m always fascinated by what happens, by the possibilities, of the margins. What can happen in the margins, what happens in the unofficial space, what happens in the footnotes, what happens, you know, at the conference not during the panel but when people go to the bathroom after and they have conversations after."
STORYO: What is the question of belonging for you? I'm not sure what I mean by that. But something about it made sense when I was saying it.
STORYO: Does it make sense?
SOFIA: It makes sense. The question of belonging. So, I grew up with two cultures, actually more than two, but in my house my dad, as I said, was Somali; my mom was a Mennonite of Swiss background from North Dakota. So those are two very different kinds of backgrounds. Although closer than you might think. My parents both grew up with livestock, for example. My mom on a dairy farm and my dad herding camels. They both grew up with large animals, and they both decided they never wanted to see a large animal again as long as they live. They were both very bookish people. They both love literature and writing and reading. And so life with large animals didn't work out for them at all. That's actually a lot of common ground.
But, you know, being from the type of background that I am, there's definitely often a sense that I don't belong in one way or another. Whatever group that I'm in, I might you know, tend to be kind of the odd one. If I'm in a group of Mennonites, I'm the one that's not quite like most of the other ones. Same thing if I'm in a group of Somalis, I'm the one that's mixed and doesn't speak Somali and is kind of an odd bird.
So, I think growing up with that and continuing to live with that does make belonging a question. It makes me interested in how people belong with each other and in what ways can people create a sense of belonging and how does community get created and where are the lines and where do borders get drawn and how can people get across. All of those are really important questions to me.
STORYO: There was a story. I think it's “Fallow,” which might be my favorite right now. My favorites change over time. I really love that story. There was an idea in there about story, or writing, as a project of rescue. Is that an idea that resonates with you? Or is that an idea that just was born out of that character?
SOFIA: I'm going to say both. But, thank you, also. I'm so glad you like that story. It's special to me. It was written for that book, so it wasn't something that was published elsewhere. And, it's my Anabaptist in space story which is exciting to me to have done that.
The idea of writing as a project of rescue I think that’s there all the way through. I mean A Stranger in Olondria is about this ghost, this dead girl, who wants to be rescued through writing, and in The Winged Histories there are all these questions about, especially women’s, history and what happens to it. What happens to people's memories, what happens to the people whose stories slip off the edge of that margin and are not recorded? And so there again writing and all the writing that the characters are doing in the text becomes this project of rescue.
STORYO: What is it that fascinates you about margins?
SOFIA: Well it's all connected to those questions of belonging isn't it? Because the margin is the edge. So it is that space which often seems invisible. It's sort of ignored. A border is there to mark an edge. It's not really supposed to have anything happening in it. But, because it is a place between two things and because it marks inclusion and exclusion it is a very interesting space to me. I’m always fascinated by what happens, by the possibilities, of the margins. What can happen in the margins, what happens in the unofficial space, what happens in the footnotes, what happens, you know, at the conference not during the panel but when people go to the bathroom after and they have conversations after. Those kinds of things.
It often has so much more life than the official version, or what is officially on the page. And so, okay, you could say, well I'm interested in the in-between because I'm this in-between person. I'm between these different ethnic groups. I'm between different religions. I'm between different cultural histories. And so on. Fine. You could also say that in my career, I’m between critical and creative writing. I teach literature. I don't have a degree in creative writing, but most of my work is creative writing—it’s novels and stories. In an academic sense I'm sort of in between. There's so many ways you can use it. You could also say talking about my work, for three years I edited Interfictions online. I was one of the co-editors of that online journal which was all about interstitial arts, a concept of work that sort of falls between the cracks of literary fiction and fantasy and science fiction. So, there’s another way that I'm in between.
So there are many reasons for me to be interested in margins, but I really would say that my passion for the margins goes beyond these things, and it comes down to where the life is and where the energy is and where the interesting stuff is. I'm interested in what's happening at the edge and in what often doesn't become official history.
STORYO: So, I imagine people would also say, or they might make something out of living on the margins, or living in between, as a kind of burden. But it sounds like you're drawn to it, as well. Is there something about being on the margins that gives you a way in that someone belonging wouldn't have? Or gives you a perspective that someone who just belonged wouldn't know is there? Are there times you feel grateful about the in betweeness ?
SOFIA: Yeah, I guess so. It's weird because it's strange for me to think of it as something to be grateful for, and it's also strange for me to think of it as a burden. Even though I've heard both of those things. There's the whole tragic mulatto narrative where you have to kill yourself because you can't belong in any group and then there’s the idea that you're actually a being from the future that has arrived here now to show us this post racial utopia that is coming.
So both of those are just really weird to me.
And those are extreme versions of saying it's a burden or it's something to be grateful for. But that's kind of where my mind goes when I hear it described in that way. Because I'm just not sure that identity—which I'm not saying it's not real; it's real because we make it real—but it is something that is developed among people, right? And so I'm not sure that it's firm enough to carry that much weight of saying this perspective that I have because of this identity is something that you could not have unless you have my identity. I just don't know. I don't know if it's strong enough to take all of that.
"I don't know. I might write like a meticulously plotted novel some day. You better cut that out of the interview."
STORYO: Do you have a sense now in your life if there are mountains you still want to climb? A wisdom that you're still seeking?
SOFIA: I always have experiments. I always have a thing that I haven't done that I want to do. And sometimes it will be related to a particular work as I was saying before that I love where I say I want to write something that is inspired by that or I want to write something in the space that I feel that work is creating. I want to work there.
Sometimes it's that, and then sometimes it's also sort of larger ideas. Having started out writing fantasy and writing fantasy novels and then getting more into essays after writing “Skin Feeling” and becoming interested in nonfiction, becoming interested in memoir. Lately, one of the things that I'm interested in is plot which has always been something that I have had a fraught relationship with and often don't like.
I don't like the way people usually think of plot or the way it's usually been expressed to me as a series of events that happens through stories. I really hate that you have to get a character from A to B, and the idea of planning. I never was somebody who makes outlines and plans what's going to happen in the book.
But, I guess partly because I've always disliked plot, I am coming to find it quite interesting, and I'm thinking about plot in genre fiction, in fantasy and science fiction. The role of plot and what plot looks like and what plot could look like. I don't know. I might write like a meticulously plotted novel some day. You better cut that out of the interview.
STORYO: I can do that.
SOFIA: I'm kidding. You can leave it there.
STORYO: There’s something that I really love in your writing which is I feel like occasionally you will break a scene, or a person, down into nouns.
STORYO: I don't remember now if it's in Winged Histories or Olondria. Maybe you'll recognize it. There is a description of a character, a moment, and it just says: the light from the window, the curve of his brow. His hands.
I'm a big fan of nouns. I like them. Or, at least, noun phrases.
When you were talking about plot, I do feel like, from my time brief time in academia of writing, there was a certain emphasis on the idea of characters were defined by action and that…
STORYO: …action is what made a story. And yet. When you break that scene down into those nouns, it's the feeling of what the character sees. You are showing me where emotion lives. There's some movement, there's some action just in the act of choosing what to see.
SOFIA: I am happy to hear that you think that. I definitely agree. I really love journals, or things that are in the form of notebooks or journals. I love to just go read somebody's diaries like Kafka's diaries, or something like that. Virginia Woolf's diaries. There is no plot. It's observation and it's how I feel today or how depressed I am about my writing today. I find it very sustaining. I love that kind of writing.
It is not typical of fantasy and science fiction. If you take that kind of umbrella, speculative fiction, if you take that as a genre, it is a genre in which stuff happens. And the first people to read A Stranger in Olondria, their biggest criticism, what was really annoying them, was that Jevvick was so passive. This guy's just wandering around, and he just falls into situations. He doesn't do anything. They were right, really. And I did work on it and he makes some decisions now. He does some things in the novel. But his character is that of a student. He is a student and he's basically a guy on study abroad who studied the language and now went to the country. He's pretty clueless about what's happening a lot of the time. He doesn't have really a deep sense of Olondrian culture. And so he is observing and he is taking in what's around him. And I think that's legitimate. And I think it's interesting to read about. Obviously not everyone agrees. But I find characters who are observing, fascinating. I find a character’s vision fascinating. It really intrigues me.
STORYO: One of my favorite bits of writing advice came from a writer named Michael Knight who said that what was more important than what a character was thinking was what they were seeing. It’s something I enjoy when I see other writers do it. How the careful choosing of some detail gives me more than anything else.
SOFIA: That's good. I like that.
"Every time I start to write something, not only is it as if I've never written anything before, but it's like no one has ever written anything in the history of time."
STORYO: I always like to end these interviews with a questionnaire that I encountered through James Lipton. He had a show called Inside the Actors Studio. He took it from a French talk show hosted by somebody named Bernard Pivot.
STORYO: So, I will ask 10 questions. Just whatever comes to mind. Go for it.
STORYO: So first question. What is your favorite word?
STORYO: What is your least favorite word?
SOFIA: Oh my least favorite word. Well. This is bad. But diversity.
STORYO: What is your favorite smell?
STORYO: What is your least favorite smell?
STORYO: What do you wish that you knew more about?
SOFIA: I wish I knew more about quantum physics.
STORYO: What do you wish that you knew less about?
SOFIA: This isn't really about, but I feel like I don't need to know this many song lyrics. Of every song I've ever heard. I could definitely afford to lose some of those.
STORYO: That is an amazing lead in to the next question. That's never happened before. Let's let's pretend your life has a soundtrack.
STORYO: What song is playing when you're at your happiest?
SOFIA: This is so hard because I'm so bad with music. What song is playing when I'm at my happiest. There just isn’t. There is no song. It's quiet.
STORYO: What is your favorite kind of story?
SOFIA: My favorite kind of story is taut and impassioned and unexpected. Unpredictable.
STORYO: What is your least favorite kind of story?
SOFIA: My least favorite kind of story tells me too much.
STORYO: So, last question. William Faulkner. I actually thought of him when I was reading Winged Histories. Something about Winged Histories kind of reminded me of The Sound and the Fury. I think maybe the division into four points of view and the sense that time and history were pleasantly obscured, but then made clear by the end.
SOFIA: It's definitely an influence. Siskie is also a total Caddie character.
STORYO: Oh, yeah.
STORYO: I love The Sound and the Fury. So, Faulkner had a quote. He said that the only thing worth writing about was the heart in conflict with itself. If Faulkner came back from the dead to write your story what do you think that story would be about?
SOFIA: If Faulkner came back from the dead to write my story, I would be like step back Bill. This is not yours. You can't. I don't believe that William Faulkner could write my story in any way that I would find acceptable, actually.
But. To address the question. Say the last part one more time.
STORYO: The part where he comes back from the dead.
SOFIA: Yeah he comes back from the dead. No say his quote. The only thing worth writing about is the heart...
STORYO: The human heart in conflict with itself.
SOFIA: Yes. And so if he came back to write the story of my life what would he write about? What would be that central conflict of the heart?
SOFIA: He would have to write about writing which is something people say you should never do. Everybody says people don't want to read books about writers. I think that's false. I love to read books about writers. And it would be about constantly becoming a writer and always having to approach everything you write as if you'd never written anything before. That's how I always feel. I'm like, why can't I learn? Why isn't there progress? Where you've done something and then you do the next thing and you're like yes I learned this and I know how to do this.
Every time I start to write something, not only is it as if I've never written anything before, but it's like no one has ever written anything in the history of time. I'm writing the first thing ever written. That's how hard it is.
STORYO: That sounds familiar. Maybe that's why you bring so many passages with you, when you go into a writing project.
SOFIA: Maybe. I don't know.
STORYO: This has been amazing .Thank you very much.
SOFIA: Well, thank you so much for the great readings and the great conversation and if you ever come to the states it would be great actually meet to in person. It would be very cool.