Writing is a passion. Publishing is a business.


Interview with J.M. SIDOROVA

J.M. Sidorova is the author of science fiction and fantasy short stories and a novel THE AGE OF ICE (Scribner/Simon & Schuster, 2013), which blends history and magic realism. The novel was featured in Locus Magazine's recommended reading list and among Tor’s best books of 2013. J.M.’s short stories appeared in Clarkesworld, Asimov's, Abyss and Apex, and other venues. She is a 2009 Clarion West workshop graduate. She holds a Ph.D. in molecular genetics and does biomedical research at the University of Washington, Seattle.

What are you reading right now?

First of all, thank you for reaching out to me; I appreciate it. So, to begin: MAGIC PRAGUE by Angelo Maria Ripellino. As it often happens, it’s part of my research for the novel that I’m writing. The book is in a genre of its own — a city’s biography written by a hyperverbal, hyperbolic, gushing, excitable Italian literati who lived there in the nineteen sixties. Part history, part literary criticism, part a flight of fancy. Very useful. 
What first sparked your interest in writing?

I am one of those people who have been writing (or telling, anyway) stories for as long as they remember, so it is hard to pinpoint exactly how it happened or why. The usual “triggers” were in place, of course, like growing up with a lot of books.   

What do you love the most about writing? The least?

There are public and private, personal and professional aspects to writing that have good and bad facets. Let’s say we talk about writing as a private preoccupation. Love the most: isn’t it total fun? An introvert’s guilty pleasure. To go roaming in your head and make stuff up and put it into nicely arranged sentences. Love the least: I am terribly slow. I second-guess and self-doubt. I get in my own way. I can’t get out of my own head!   

Tell us a little about your writing process.

A pain in the gluteus maximus. I start out with an irrational need to write about a particular thing. I outline it in general strokes. As I actually write it, it changes, of course. My understanding of it grows. Characters grow. Sometimes there are whole paragraphs that I build one word at a time. In some ways it becomes a piece of installation art made of found objects. Those found objects are historical facts, or trivia, or memories, or images, or coincidences. It can become too cluttered of course, and then I need to clean it up.   

What are your passions?

A side note: I typically have difficulty answering the simplest questions (like this one pretends to be) — because I have a compulsion to complicate things. Let’s see…I guess I still, after twenty years of doing it, have a passion for science. I wish I could do more to promote it (Neil deGrasse Tyson is such an inspiration!). In general, learning stuff about the world and telling it in stories. I suppose I feel pretty passionate about that.

What inspires you?

Ah, another one of those deceptively simple questions. I am just going to rattle off one long example. A kid running in the field with his/her arms outstretched, imagining s/he is an airplane — that’s inspiring. That same kid, now a pilot, bombing the heck out of something — that’s not so inspiring, but it is complicated, so I won’t judge. The story of Charlie Brown, an American, and Franz Stigler, a German, two WW2 pilots, is inspiring: one is in a seriously wounded and barely limping bomber and in swoops another in a fighter, with orders to shoot, but instead of dispatching Brown Stigler escorts him out of harm’s way; and then decades later they connect and become friends, and then some more years later a man writes a book about them, and another man lovingly paints a painting for the book’s cover, and then a whole bunch of people read this book and keep writing heartfelt comments online — that whole thread is inspiring, I think.

Why speculative fiction? (If you consider THE AGE OF ICE as such. If not, why not?)

I do consider it speculative fiction. Though not fantasy. Magic realism. As to why — my latest explanation is that infusion of reality with magic is an almost inevitable byproduct of our minds. Our minds just kind of… sweat magic all the time. What we do with it —now that depends on us. It can help us parse reality, process and accept it, but it can also mislead us. In THE AGE OF ICE I was processing reality with the help of magic. The rest is realism.

How was THE AGE OF ICE born?

Five years of labor… then a C-section… just joking. I can tell you exactly how it was conceived: I read an article in The New Yorker called Ice Renaissance by Elif Batuman (who is inspiring, by the way). That’s how I learned about the Ice Palace built in the 18th century Russia and the wedding night that took place in it. And that was it: I wanted to write about the children conceived that night.

Did the story require a lot of research?

Oh, yes. Fortunately, I did not realize at the beginning how much research it would take. And when the realization hit me, it was too late.

What drew you to write about Russia in particular?

If the Ice Palace had been built in— I don’t know— New Zealand, I would have had to write about New Zealand. But it was like: hooray, I actually know a thing or two about the subject. I am of Russian extraction.

Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?

The other day I stumbled across something William Vollmann wrote in 1990 for the Conjunction magazine. In his article titled happily, American Writing today: a diagnosis of the disease, he says among other things, “We should never write without feeling.” I totally agree. It is, of course, a pledge rather than advice. But it does seem to me that an aspiring author’s first novel has a better chance (all other things being equal) of winning a publisher’s heart if it is written from the author’s heart.  

Is there anything else you would like to tell us about yourself?

Hmm. I can’t think of much. I grow grossly oversized vegetables in my backyard. I am a pessimistic humanist. A month ago I flew over the bar of my bicycle and hit the pavement because I was distracted by a need to fish something out of my pocket. Tells a story, doesn’t it?