CONDUCTED AND TRANSCRIBED BY JACQULYN WEST
This semester, one of our artists in residents here at the Arkansas Writers MFA Program was Alexander Weinstein, author of the acclaimed collection of speculative fiction short stories, Children of the New World. During Weinstein’s visit to campus, members of our staff sat down with him to discuss the struggles and joys of speculative fiction and his personal experiences balancing life as a writer and teacher—being solitary while knowing that, as a writer struggling to get work written and published, you’re not alone.
Arkana: Let’s start with a question about your alma mater, Naropa University. What did you learn that was specific to that place?
AW: Naropa was a wild school. The name, The Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, set the stage for what to expect. We were encouraged again and again to work in avant-garde poetry, take risks, do things with fiction that I didn’t know you were allowed to do yet—push boundaries, experiment, and work in hybrid forms. Alongside that, I was taking classes in dance and performance art, so I was using voice and words performatively. I was interested in the idea of shamanic storytelling: the art of reciting incantations that could change the consciousness of the audience. I ended up giving up on that project because it seemed way beyond what I could figure out—but it was really interesting to me. I loved the notion that you could potentially create magic spells within your work that would change the mental state of the reader. You can see this element in the work I do now. I’m often playing with the consciousness of my characters or trying to shift their mental states in some way.
A: What role does research play in your process?
AW: Almost none! A lot of times, when I hear about some strange new technology, I don’t do research because I want my own take on it. For example, there’s the story “Migration” in the collection. I had just heard about this realm of technology called teledildonics – be careful with that Google search, it has to do with Bluetooth-controlled sex toys that link up to certain types of pornography. I was kind of baffled by it, and didn’t look it up, because I figured what I might come up with in my own mind would potentially be more interesting than what the reality of teledildonics would be.
It’s this state of mis-understanding which helps me write my stories. My story “Rocket Night” came from me passing a sign that said “Capsule Night” at the local high school. Later I found out this night is an “encapsulation” for parents/students of the coming semester of school. But my imagination had already conjured a rocket capsule, and this mis-understanding became “Rocket Night.” Letting my imagination go lets me find stories which otherwise become thwarted if I do research.
A: What are some of the challenges you faced in writing speculative fiction, particularly your collection, Children of the New World?
AW: One is that satirical technology quickly becomes outdated. The best example of this is a story I wrote a dozen years back called “How Your Father and I Met” which chronicled the horrors of a future where people would meet online and then trade video and music clips to show how much they liked each other. At the time, I thought it would be ghastly that we might find ourselves doing something so superficial. Of course, that’s simply how we date now.
So, the danger is that technology will catch up to the speculations you make. And the challenge is that you have to cast your predictions not so far that it becomes completely absurd or disconnected from reality, yet not so close that it just becomes realism.
The other mistake is the danger of the info dump. The info dump is when you create a reality, or in my case a technology, and spend a paragraph explaining how the technology works. When I teach this, I talk about how if you wrote in a story, “I answered my phone,” you wouldn’t spend a paragraph explaining, “The phone was a cell phone, which was a portable phone that was invented in…” That would be absurd! But a lot of early sci-fi or speculative writers will do that as a world-building technique. For me that’s incredibly boring, and when it happens in a story, it makes the writing clunky from a craft perspective. This raises the question of how to set future technology up. My approach is to leave a breadcrumb trail—you drop hints about what’s going on and you put them in context as the story moves forward so the reader understands what is happening retrospectively. This can create some confusion, but it’s okay to let the reader be confused for a page or two, as long as you know what the last breadcrumb was that you dropped and you can fill in the blanks. What you’re really doing is spreading the info dump, sometimes across the whole story. I learned this technique from reading George Saunders’s work, where he will leave you confused for quite a long time, but he gives you all the keys so that by the end of his story you fully understand the strange world he’s created.
A: What are the benefits of writing speculative fiction?
AW: You get to invent whatever you want. Of course, this can also be the challenge because you have to do all the world-building, and you have to figure out what your rules are. In speculative fiction you have to create the rules of your world then follow them as you go, working within the limitations you’ve set. But as long as you’re okay with that, you have the benefit of being able to create any landscape you want.
For me, speculative fiction also allows me to get at my emotions. Interestingly enough, if I write realism, I just completely fail. I find that it’s too raw, too naked, and it’s corny. If I was to write, for instance, about falling in love, or the joys of parenthood, or the struggles of being in a relationship—it feels very heavy and very corny for me to write about directly. However, if I create what I consider the bank-shot of a speculative world, then I can get at those emotions because they are twisted in a metaphorical way which helps reflect my emotions more accurately.
For example: the emotion of loving someone deeply. If I twist that through a world where there are psychic layers of technology and we allow people only into certain layers, as I do in my story “Openness,” then I can address what falling in love is like from a metaphorical angle. And so speculative fiction allows me to write about things I don’t yet know how to write about or emotions I haven’t fully figured out yet, because it allows me access to my subconscious through metaphor.
A: How do you achieve sympathetic characters without being overly obvious?
AW: Yes, that’s always the challenge. One technique is to constantly risk my own vulnerability. It’s essential. I figure out what I’m scared of sharing—then I share it. Of course, it’s not merely what I’m scared of, but also the things I hold most dear—what I’m joyful for, those parts of my life that I have great gratitude for, like parenthood and love.
So, I allow vulnerability to enter my characters. The moment I do that—1) I make the characters real because they have something I care about or struggle with, and 2) I don’t know what they’re going to say anymore. As a writer, I don’t try to control that aspect of my characters—their deeper emotional and spiritual lives. Sure, I can pretend to control the characters if I know exactly who I want them to be and what I want them to do—in other words, make them stereotypes who will help my plot progress. But I think that’s the wrong way to approach character because then you flatten your characters and make them pawns for plot. So, risking my own vulnerability within characters is one way to round them out and make them sympathetic.
And you do that with characters you don’t like, too. You figure out what emotional wound you yourself have that this “bad character” has—which is what’s making them act so poorly. And that can be a risk, because then you’re putting your dark side onto the page. That feeling of “Oh my God, I better not do this, this is really risky, I don’t know what’s going to happen, I’m making a mess, I’m making a fool of myself” is a really good place to be as a writer. Then you start to have characters who come alive on the page. When you find yourself worried that your characters will reveal intimate things about you, that’s precisely when they’ll start showing you things you never intended, which is, for me, the most exciting moment of writing.
A: What benefits do you find in both your roles as a writer and a teacher?
AW: They tend to be different in that the benefits – and I’ll change the word to joys—the joys of being a writer largely happen in the creation process. That moment when the story comes alive and you’re just holding onto your pen for dear life, or typing at the keys, and you’re in this tornado of creative expression, is really pleasurable and fun. And it’s also a solitary joy as a writer. You cannot really share that with other people at that moment. You have to go through this very long, painful stage of revision and struggle in order to make that fury of words into something that other people can understand and similarly experience—which is also an incredibly solitary process. So, in writing, there’s a kind of non-outreach going on. Even though eventually you will be sharing your story with the world, much of the process is both invisible and solitary.
That’s the opposite joy of teaching. When you are engaging with other writers as a teacher, you’re really collaborating in a certain way, sometimes it’s just getting out of the way of the student, giving them things to work with and ushering them onwards. There’s an external and empathetic act of collaboration and generosity, and that joy is communal rather than solitary. Of course, they are related in that, in both, you’re trying to create a space around the love for words, an intoxication around language, and a practice wherein you transform the struggle with words into art.
A: What would you tell us as prospective teachers? What about engaging with students in different genres, particularly outside our specialties?
AW: If you’re going to be a writer/teacher there’s a battle between the need to protect your personal writing time and the need to totally give your time to your students. There will come a moment when you’re going to get twenty short stories from your class, and you’ll spend the next days, weeks, months editing them and giving feedback. This is a vital kind of generosity, which comes with the role of teacher, and it means you won’t be writing during the time you’re doing that. Of course, you’re using all your writing skills while you’re editing, you’re using everything you’ve learned to try to give good feedback, but you’re also forgetting about your own projects during that time. A bad teacher is that old-school artist who thinks students are supposed to learn from simply being in their presence rather than from actual teaching. I don’t have a lot of respect for this brand of egotistical artist-teacher who doesn’t actually engage or generously give of their time.
The key, though, is that teaching can become a really efficient way to procrastinate against your own potential failure as a writer. You can be a great teacher—you spend every hour teaching and giving to your students—and, in this way, you never have to work on your own writing! You never have to worry about submitting or anything like that. And this is the danger of the generosity of teaching. So, you have to draw that line and figure out who to give your all to. Especially if you’re working with undergraduates who may be taking a class for no other reason than because they thought it’d be an easy A or it’s a required course. For these students, you do have to give less. Otherwise, you can spend a really long time editing their stories and poems, and it will end up in the trash. So, there’s a certain hardness one needs to learn as a writer/teacher in order to use your time well.
I also suggest bringing in the true facts about your own writing. Be honest about the struggles. I talk a lot in my classes about the process of submitting, of rejection, of the struggle to keep going, and I think students need to hear that. Because otherwise, when students start submitting their work and getting rejected, they’ll think they’ve failed—which, in fact, isn’t the case at all. Every writer has hundreds of rejections in their history. I remember meeting Joyce Carol Oates and asking her about rejection. She told me that even now, at this point in her success, she still struggles with the fear of failure. That was both depressing and wonderful to hear, because I thought, “Well, great—I’m not alone then.”
As for teaching outside your genre, or working with students who may be exploring themes you’re not as familiar with, I believe one can always look at work from a craft perspective. I always disliked when peers in workshop or even the teacher might say “well, this isn’t really my genre, so I don’t know what to say about it.” There are always plenty of things to look at: character development and believability, setting, dialogue, plot and conflict, deeper themes. Whether your students are writing about characters living in apartment buildings or on the rings of Saturn, the same questions will always remain: who are they, what do they dream of, how do they love, and what hopes and fears do they have which this story will force them to confront?