Campbell nominee interview: Gord Sellar

Gord SellarGord Sellar was born in Malawi, raised in Canada, and now is living in South Korea, where he works as a professor and is researching the status and development of Korean SF. His writing has appeared in Asimov’s Science Fiction, Interzone, and Apex Magazine, among other places, and his story “Lester Young and the Jupiter’s Moons’ Blues” will be appearing in The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Twenty-Sixth Annual Collection edited by Gardner Dozois. He is a graduate of Clarion West 2006.

So what did you do when you were notified about the nomination?
Well, I was on my way to class, and I read the first paragraph of the email on my iPod just before I walked into the classroom. I let out a yelp and my students asked me what was up, so I said, “I got nominated for an award for my writing!” Then, as they regrouped and prepared for that afternoon’s discussion, I quickly read the rest of the email and realized it was a good thing I hadn’t mentioned which award I’d been nominated for. Not that any of those students are SF fans, as far as I know, but I did swear them to secrecy all the same.

Then I went crazy trying to keep it to myself until the official announcement!

How long have you been writing?
Since I was in elementary school, at least as far back as the third or fourth grade. I used to write these fantasy adventure stories based on RPG campaigns, set in worlds vaguely modeled on maps from D&D and my dad’s maps of colonial Africa. (I think I started writing fantasy because of all the weird, spooky stories my father told me from his days growing up in Malawi, and the myths and legends he remembered hearing when he lived there. He was a hell of a storyteller.) I also wrote some fanfic about Ghostbusters and Forgotten Realms characters. In elementary school, I was encouraged regarding some poems I’d written, and my father took me to a writing club at the local library. I was back into horror and fantasy stories (as well as poetry) by late middle school, and in university I discovered SF, via H.P. Lovecraft and the recommendations of a chemist/writer friend. I ended up doing a Creative Writing program in grad school in Montreal, and attending Clarion West in 2006; the former failed to drive me out of writing, and the latter helped me to really get a sense of my abilities and potential.

But along the way, writing has sometimes been set aside for music. When I was learning the saxophone, and studying music composition in undergrad, my writing was confined to occasional poems, and while I played in a rock band during my first few years in Korea, my fiction output really slowed down. But I’ve never quite stopped writing, and much as I love music, it’s more of a hobby for me now. And since attending Clarion West, it seems writing has won the tug-of-war for good, though I do have my mind set on getting a new tenor sax at some point.

Have your stints teaching and playing saxophone had any influence on your fiction?
Absolutely. I sometimes laughingly point at an interview Richard Morgan did where he credited the ultraviolence in his writing to his work in TESL — Teaching English as a Second Language — but to be honest, my work in the classroom, and my experience as an expat (since most of the teaching I’ve done has been in Korea, or in multicultural classrooms) have absolutely affected my writing in a positive way.

Living as an outsider in a society sometimes helps lay bare a lot of things: you notice stuff that might not be so apparent to you in your own society. Anyone who’s read my blog knows I take a dim view of the Korean political establishment, but it’s a view nuanced by the people I encounter on a daily basis who are living inside that same system, and see it from within. I think also that teaching language in a non-Anglophone country really affects how much attention you pay to how you use language yourself, how you tell stories and what you choose to include or leave out. (As does learning a foreign language, however poorly, that you need to use in everyday life.) Living abroad has ruined my ability to write poetry, but I think it’s made me a much more conscious and deliberate prose writer.

Music is a little harder to explain, except to say that playing jazz involves a lot of theme and variation, a lot of returning to themes and a sense of structure and rhythms. Jazz songs — even the wildest of atonal flights — have beginnings, middles, and ends, and in a way they tell a story too. They develop, they surprise, but they also have to have that familiar range of movement and a sense of arriving somewhere at the end. Also, playing sax gets you really familiar with breath, line, that sort of thing. It tunes up your ear. I think all of that comes in handy when you’re writing prose: one can learn it in other ways, but music is a really good way to get sensitized to those things — structures and details alike.

Is there a definable point when you realized that writing had changed from a hobby to an avocation?
Yeah, it was at Clarion West. I think it was when I was in the basement of the place we were staying, pounding out a draft of “Lester Young and the Jupiter’s Moons’ Blues” and suddenly feeling all my extraneous concerns drift away for a while. The anxiety about the fact that Vernor Vinge would be reading soon? The worry that my classmates would say, “What’s with all this jazz crap?” That the character’s voice might be taken the wrong way? All that sort of drifted away. It was just me and the story and it was going to get written, and shine, damn it!

What projects are you working on now?
Well, I just attained tenure track at the university where I work, just outside Seoul, so I’m really busy with classes, other work, and research for the paper I need to publish this year in order to hand onto my job. (I’m researching the role of fans, translators’ reputations, and publishers in the building of an SF canon in Korean translation, as part of a more long-range project looking at how Korean writers, translators, and fans are creating a native Korean form of SF, different from the foreign sources they’ve drawn upon up till recently.) Luckily, I was invited to be a founding member of a new Academic-focused SF group in Seoul, with some other people who are interested in the translation of Korean SF to English, and its academic study. That should help me somewhat in my research.

As for creative projects, I’m hammering away at a few short stories and novellas for different anthologies and other things I’ve been asked to contribute to,  including one that will be appearing in Korean translation later this year, and I have a whole stack of short stories in various stages of completion that I’d like to finish and send out. In a more long-range sense, I’m hoping to begin researching a novel about Russian circus jugglers and African-American communists, set in the same world as “Lester Young…” but that might take some time, and I have a couple of other novel ideas floating around too, one an alternate history involving the Opium Wars and the Taiping Rebellion, topics that fascinate me to no end. There’s this huge novella (or maybe it’s a short novel?) I’ve got half-written, dealing with a technological revolution in Burma, and it keeps beckoning to me, too. Finish me, it says. Hang on, I reply wistfully.

What are you currently reading?
I’m always reading a bunch of different things at once: Peter Watts’s Starfish, Minsoo Kang’s collection of short stories, The Starry Rift edited by Jonathan Strahan — what stories in there! — and The Life and Loves of Mr. Jiveass Nigger by Cecil Brown. Then there’s some academic work on media in Korea and on SF in general, John Steele Gordon’s book A Thread Across the Ocean about the first underwater transatlantic telegraph cable, and short stories in a number of different places online (Clarkesworld, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Apex, Tor, Fantasy, Strange Horizons — I’m behind on all of them!) and in magazines I’m still subscribed to, but have fallen behind on. Oh, and Lisa Randall’s Warped Passages: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Universe’s Hidden Dimensions, in the hope of getting my physics chops back up to a pathetic level, instead of their current utterly pitiable level. And I’m trying to get through the collection of short Korean SF in English translation over at Crossroads, and a few more as well as a few other books of English translations of SF from non-Anglophone countries.

Oh, and since starting in on a pretty intensive exercise routine, I’ve also begun listening daily to a number of podcasts, especially Starship Sofa and Escape Pod, among others that I link at my site.

What is it about speculative fiction, in general, that most appeals to you?
It’s the freedom to talk about stuff that matters — like ideas, like the future, like change, like power, and all sorts of things that don’t yet exist — in a way that is cognizant of how turbulent and unstable the present is, and that is also interesting and entertaining. And I think it’s the fact that SF seems, to me, to impose a duty on the reader to think, to imagine harder, to open up their heads for all kinds of unanticipated, sometimes befuddling surprises.

While I don’t think all SF has an obligation to be political, or serious, I think the fact that it’s really possible to do these things in a sensible and engaging way is what gives SF its special and unique power. Let’s be honest: people who read SF were not thrown for so much of a loop when Dolly the Sheep was cloned. Lots of non-SF people were shocked, horrified, or panicked, but most SF people I knew just shrugged, and said, “What took ’em so long?” They’d encountered the idea of cloning long before it ever happened, so whatever their feelings or attitudes, they were not really overrun by panic or shock. That reminds me how, long ago, I described literary SF as a kind of inoculation against future shock, and I think it really does work that way, to whatever degree such inoculation is possible. SF may not reveal the future, but it does build up an expectation of future weirdness and surprises, which many people who don’t read SF don’t really seem to develop.

As wonderfully as many mainstream-genre writers put words together, I often get this sense the fundamental basis of so-called “literary” novels is a sort of navel-gazing, an obsession with the minutae of a character’s experiences and emotions and choices. There’s nothing wrong with writing about experiences and emotions and choices, of course — we do that in good SF, too — but what about the context? I really get the sense that a lot of mainstream fiction has forgotten that there’s a world that its characters inhabit, which, if it’s anything like our world, is a place that is changing, and in which very important questions and decisions made by individuals and societies determine how that that change will unfold. Narratives of love and divorce and broken families (and so on) may help us to become more imaginative in how we look at the people around us — or so advocates of Great Literature claim — but they certainly don’t offer us much food for thought as we watch our climate spin out of control, watch the amphibians die out, watch our governments encroach more and more on our privacy and freedoms, watch companies snap up everything as their property, and watch our economies and societies get transformed time again by new technologies.

It’s not that I necessarily think SF should be tasked with exploring all this in a stuffy, serious way; what I like about SF is that there is room to talk about these things, whether in passing or as a major theme, and to shock, to entertain, to spin off adventures, or, if a writer wants, to delve deeply into these and other problems and their potential solutions. I love how SF invites readers to engage with these issues critically when authors write about them, something I noticed long ago when I was hanging out on SF mailing lists: people really do debate whether this or that approach to a problem, or technical feat, is actually plausible. I adore that, even if it means we writers need to think hard and research a lot when proposing speculative discoveries or technologies or phenomena.

To whatever degree authors who are marketed as mainstream are drawing on SF these days — whether they have the guts to admit it or not — I think it’s because the genre is unique in how its imaginings really do direct our attention to the world we’re about to tumble into, and how decisions we’re making are, at least partly, creating that world.

Also, I love to have my mind blown, and no fiction does that like good SF.

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