A Moment with Sofia Samatar

Interview by Z.M. Quỳnh

When I first met Sofia Samatar, I felt transported to another world simply by being in her presence. She marked an undefined era of graceless eloquence, where life with all its pains and celebrations could be etched with complex yet humble brushstrokes. At that time, I had no idea about “A Stranger in Olondria” or any of Sofia’s work. She was simply someone who welcomed me with my newbie eyes to my first SFWA Nebula Awards Weekend.

That same weekend, I had cozied myself in the Con Suite to read the short stories that had been nominated for the 2014 Nebula Awards. Her short story, ‘‘Selkie Stories Are for Losers,” was up for a Nebula. I read the crazy imaginative story that touched upon love and loss with an unerring lightness that made the story both captivating and thought-provoking.  At that time I had not yet linked the immense talent and brilliance of the story to the humble person that had greeted me to the weekends’ festivities only hours earlier.

It was not until I heard her read later that weekend at Writers With Drinks that I began to feel the power of her story telling. I was mesmerized by her words. Her writing is so richly detailed and sensual. I can feel the prose possessing me. I asked Sofia with some veiled envy, “Does your pen naturally flow like this or do you take a great deal of care and time to craft each sentence you write?” Sofia Samatar

Thank you! I tend to write very fast–sometimes too fast–and then cut half of what I’ve written. I’ve taught myself to stop thinking of this as wasteful, since it’s really not: the process of writing each word is necessary, even if, in the end, many of those words are superfluous. I write for stretches without stopping, because I’m possessed by the language myself, immersed in it. If that comes through to readers, I’m very happy.

The story that unfolded in Sofia’s short reading in the five minutes or so that she was on stage suited my first impression of her — worldly — or rather, one who has been to and experienced different lands, different people, different lives in our world. People such as this have a combination of a twinkle and yet a tear in their eyes. There is memory there, a wish for things to be … not so hard, not so complex for those that struggle among us — or is that just me projecting? Curious and sharing somewhat of a nomadic tendency, I asked her what inspired her to create Olondria.

Olondria is a combination of places I visited or lived in around the time I wrote the novel: Spain, Portugal, Italy, Greece, Turkey, Egypt. Jevick’s home, the Tea Islands, draws heavily on the light and landscape of South Sudan, where I wrote the first draft of the book. And then there’s another equally important influence: the books I was reading, and the places in them. Tayeb Salih’s Wad Hamid, Marguerite Duras’ Sadec, Peake’s Gormenghast, Le Guin’s Earthsea, Proust’s Combray.

Her story also brought beauty and magic to that with which we use to record our lives — our existence — words and books. These symbols and items are the etchings and scribbles that narrate our lives and histories – often reflecting the slant of the author’s pen.

Not surprisingly, “A Stranger in Olondria” made its way onto my bookshelf where it collected my stained fingerprints in restless nights when I only had time to read because the word drew me out of sleep. Though the story started off slow to me as I struggled to find a connection with the main character, Jevick, a pepper merchant’s son — two things which are quite far from my own identity, I fell in love with the story the moment Jevick discovered the written word. I wondered if Sofia too felt challenged to create a voice different from her own (I’m just assuming that its different of course).

Looking back, I see two main reasons why I chose a male protagonist. One of them is simply the dominance of male characters and their stories. As a young writer inspired by J.R.R. Tolkien, Mervyn Peake, and the Ursula Le Guin of the Earthsea books, the tale of a young man taking off on an adventure seemed “natural.” This is super sad, and when I return to Stranger now, I see the ghost’s voice, the voice of this dead, silenced girl, and her demands, and her rage, as expressive of a tension I was working through without knowing it, and the pressure of a developing female voice.

The other reason a wealthy male protagonist worked for me is that I was wrestling with questions of neocolonialism at the time, as a US citizen teaching English in South Sudan. Those concerns are all over the book, especially in the central conflict between oral and written cultures. As a foreign English teacher, I inhabited an enormously privileged position, and so it wasn’t hard to get into the head of my elite young traveler, Jevick. I never felt like I had to struggle to understand him. I don’t know whether he’s a convincing male character or not. I think he’s a convincing young person, and a convincing student.

Coming from Tyom where, I imagined, the culture of the people was defined by oral tradition, my own fingers tingled as if I, a shadow to Jevick, observed him discover the magic of words. After listening to his tutor explain to him that the “row of graceful figures he had written” was actually Jevick’s name, he concludes, “only when he had described all the signs several times, repeating my name, did I understand with a shock that I was in the presence of sorcery: that the signs were not numbers at all, but could speak, like the single-stringed Tyomish harp, which can mimic the human voice…”

By then, I fell and fell hard, understanding with intimacy the powerful invisible world Jevick had discovered. The world of words, language, story — and the fact that words flow differently through your ears than they would through anyone else’s – simply because we are each unique.

Even moreso, I was fascinated with Jevick’s relationship with Jissavet, an islander girl who had died and whose ghost was haunting Jevick. If, for no other reason than sensationalistic morbid curiosity, I asked Sofia if she has had any supernatural experiences with ghosts or spirits.

I have not. (I do teach at a university that’s supposed to be haunted…) The relationship between Jevick and Jissavet is inspired by the poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke, especially The Duino Elegies. The combination of beauty and terror represented by Jissavet, who is sometimes called a ghost and sometimes an angel, comes straight out of Rilke. In the “First Elegy,” for example, he writes: “Every angel is terrifying.”

Sofia had unfolded so fluidly and languidly in her debut novel, as if gently whispering in a lover’s ear, the world of Olondria, which, with every turn of the page, increasingly grew more complex in its cultural, folkloric, religious, and supernatural customs.

Small wonder that it took her a decade to coalesce her thoughts into a novel. When you live with a story for such a long period of time, how much of it becomes you, is you, I wondered? Sofia has created an entire world for herself within this span of time. She has in her possession sacred Olondrian writings, for example, and outlines of Olondrian folktales that did not end up in the final novel. I wanted to know if she found that the act of creating these items added to her creative or personal grown in some way.

What does playing add to a child’s life or personal growth? I think that’s another way of putting the question. I don’t know the answer, though I think a psychologist might. I wanted to create a world, so I did, and it was marvelously fulfilling and fun. I kept asking myself: why doesn’t everybody do this? Which is yet another way of putting the question, I guess! Why isn’t everybody creating an alternate world and all its folklore and sacred texts? What is the matter with people?

To give a more serious answer–I do think the desire to create another world is connected to a sense of not belonging in this one. I think a lot of fantasy and science fiction writers feel that way, on some level. And of course there are lots of different reasons for that feeling. In my case, being mixed, Somali and Swiss-German Mennonite, I have actually had people ask my ethnicity and then, when I tell them, say: “No!” Just “No!” right to my face. When that kind of experience is repeated often enough, you really wind up feeling like an alien. In Olondria, on the other hand, I fit in perfectly. I look like a native. I know all the dances. I’ve read all the books.

I mistakenly believed that Sofia’s published poetry and short stories (found on her website: www.sofiasamatar.com) were created at the same time she was writing “A Stranger in Olondria.” The push and tug of writing short stories versus a novel is a difficult beast for me — and perhaps other writers. I asked her what it was about “A Stranger in Olondria” that kept pulling her back during her writing process.

First, a tiny correction: I didn’t start writing poetry, short stories, or nonfiction until A Stranger in Olondria had found a publisher! While I was revising it, I wrote four other novels that are really terrible. I think one reason they’re so bad is that I wasn’t committed to them, in love with them, the way I was with Stranger. They are hopeless books, written during a period of constant rejection, produced by a feeling that since the world didn’t want what I really loved, I’d have to try something else. So rather than A Stranger in Olondria pulling me back, it was more that I never left, I couldn’t leave, I couldn’t abandon this book into which I’d put everything I had. And although it seemed like I’d never get it published, I couldn’t rid myself of the conviction that it was worth something.

What — wait a minute — you mean to tell me she struggled as much as I do on a regular basis — that there is hope out there for struggling writers? What is that old saying, something about sweat and talent; success is 90% sweat, 10% talent? Sofia too, like many of us, struggles to create a consistent flow in her creative process.

This definitely applies to my life now, as I’m currently working on a new book, as well as revising the sequel to Stranger and writing three essays, a short story, and the answers to this interview! How do I create a consistent flow? I don’t think I do! I’ll flow with one thing for a couple of days, then switch to another. It often feels chaotic, but it also gives each piece a chance to “rest,” and I return to it with fresh energy and a sharper eye. I mean, that’s what I tell myself. But a lot of the time it’s a huge mess. I’m surrounded by random little notebooks and scrawls on napkins and receipts. My computer freezes because I have too many windows open. 

And with a fury too — after finding a publisher, Sofia went on to publish around 30 or so poems and short fiction between 2012 and 2014!

Indeed, those among us whose tongues are tied up in prose may have a thing or two to learn from Sofia’s journey. She has managed to, in a sense, at least to me, break ground in this genre bringing us speculative fiction that flows evenly between literary fiction and fantasy. I guess if you are in my shoes, if critiques to your work vary from “this is too literary for my tastes” to “there’s too much sci-fi in this story,” you may just have to rely on faith and belief in your own work.

Well, if that’s what people are telling you, then you know all about it! I got those same comments from agent after agent during the five years I spent looking for one. “How lovely this is! I cannot sell it ever.” And in the end I sold the book myself, without an agent, by walking up to Gavin Grant at the Small Beer table at WisCon, introducing myself, and saying “I’ve written a book.” I wish I had some great advice here, but that’s really all I’ve got. If you can’t find an agent, try to make do without one. If you can somehow get your work out there, and people enjoy it, then the agents will come to you. I did finally sign with an agent–just last week!

Something else that comes up quite often in “A Stranger in Olondria” is language and the way in which words (and thoughts?) are pronounced. Language is something that is a personal passion and guilt of mine. The constant chasing of my own mother tongue, Vietnamese, which I have been divorced from for more than 30 years, speaking only the Americanized version of the language – looms over me constantly as if shaking its head in dismay. It’s a longing that won’t go away. The desire to reach the type of fluency that allows one an intimacy with a language that cannot be learned through Rosetta Stone or workbooks.  I marveled at Sofia’s fluency with multiple languages.

I’m only fluent in two languages: English and Arabic. At different times in my life, I’ve had fluent French and Kiswahili, and decent Zande (I’ve dreamt in all of them), but those are really rusty now! I love studying languages and always want to pick up a new one, but Arabic is the only language, other than my native one, that I “feel” in the way I think you mean. This intimacy with Arabic is one of the most precious gifts I’ve received in life. It’s all over the place in my writing: in my poems, in Jevick’s experience of learning to read–which was lifted directly from my own experience of learning to read Arabic–in the cadence of certain stories and passages, and in the role epic poetry plays in the Olondria sequel, The Winged Histories.

After a decade of pouring herself into the mold of “A Stranger in Olondria,” Sofia swept a series of awards for her work winning the World Fantasy Award for Best Novel, Crawford Award for Best Fantasy Debut, and the British Fantasy Award for Best Novel (the Robert Holdstock Award). She also won the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer.  She was also a finalist for either “A Strange in Olondria” and her short story “Selkie Stories Are for Losers” or both for multiple other awards: the Nebula, the Hugo, the Locus Award, and the Rhysling Award among others.

Now that’s what I call a warm reception.

Thank you for joining me in sharing this moment in time with author, Sofia Samatar.

Tananarive Due

A Moment with Tananarive Due

Interview by Z.M. Quynh

For this year’s horror issue, I thought it would be a good idea to sit down with Tananarive Due, who is an African American horror writer and one of my favorite authors. She’s known for such amazing stories as In the Night of the Heat (with Blair Underwood and Steven Barnes) for which she received the NAAACP Image Award and The Living Blood, for which she received the American Book Award.

Tananarive is a versatile writer with amazing range in the genres of supernatural thriller, horror, mystery, memoir, and historical non-fiction. Of all her works, my favorite is her civil rights memoir, Freedom in the Family: A Mother-Daughter Memoir of the Fight for Civil Rights, which documents her journey with her mother, Patricia Stephens Due, a leading African American civil rights activists, through the Civil Rights Movement.

Read more

Johnny Worthen on Dark Fiction and Horror

Before I begin to tell you why dark fiction and horror are so wonderful, perhaps you want to know who I am. Well, I’m going to tell you anyway.

I am Johnny Worthen. Next year I’ll release three different books from two different publishers and be a household name in some of my friend’s living rooms. “Why won’t Johnny leave?” they might be saying. “Has he been kicked out of his own house again?”

But now all my published works are dark.

My debut novel BEATRYSEL, an occult thriller/horror was released in 2013. It’s an adult look at the occult and the dark sides of love. If you don’t own it yet, rush on over to Amazon and get one. While you’re there, pick up DR. STUART’S HEART, it’s a little companion piece to BEATRYSEL. You’ll be glad you did. Go ahead. I’ll wait. Done? Good.

This year, my Young Adult Paranormal series, THE UNSEEN launched with the award winning, ELEANOR. It received a Gold Quill as the year’s best published young adult novel by the League of Utah Writers. The same group, having great taste but low standards, named me this year’s Writer of the Year. I got a plaque to prove it.Johnny Worthen

There is a monster in ELEANOR and thus it has found a horror following along with a young adult, literary, and familial audiences. It’s a great freaking book and if you don’t already own a copy, rush to a bookstore or back to Amazon and pick one up. I’ll wait. Go ahead. Do it. It’s a wonderful book and will go far to making you a better person for having read it. Got it? Good. I’ll continue.

I didn’t intend to be a horror writer when I wrote BEATRYSEL and ELEANOR. It just happened. I needed to push the bounds of fiction and horror was the way to do that. The edges of dark fiction are blurry and binding. Fear faced deeply, honestly, starkly and raw-ly must by definition be horror.

But that’s a lie. Horror is just a name. Genre is a completely made-up thing. It’s a label critics use to associate and book stores use to shelve. That’s it. Most bookstores I visit have actually taken horror out of its own shelf and put it with general fiction, science fiction, of if they’re really bright in ‘speculative fiction.’

Still we all must agree that horror is a thing, if only for the fact that it names a certain type of writing that has a physical effect on us. It and porno are the two types of fiction that can have measured physical responses to reading it. I’ve never tried writing porn; I’m no good at flash fiction (ba’da-ching!) but getting my heart rate up as tension builds and terrors — both real and imagined — seep into my consciousness is a thrilling experience I create and crave.

But horror goes beyond scares and tension. The best horror is an insidious stream of rationalization and twisted reality, a lingering feeling that is akin to a smothering blanket more than a knife edge. These are the dystopians (Hunger Games) and the invasions (War of the Worlds), the paranoids (Body Snatchers), the plagues (The Stand) and the hopelessnesses (The Road). These are the ones that seep into the imagination and linger. These are the ones where even after the victim has died, there is no respite.

These are intellectual horrors. Often and most pronounced, they are supernatural, but there are horrors enough in real life to go around. Disease, war and famine. The four horseman are as deadly and as present as ever. Perhaps it is these horrors we wish to escape in the pages of fictional ones.

In the ‘controlled’ context of a page, we can visit the dark stay and stay as long as we dare. We have only to look up to see the comfortable room around us to find security again, even if we see the colors are now a little darker than we remember them.

There’s an adage I know that compares one’s life to a tapestry. The dark threads are as important as the light ones in defining who we are. So too I believe is life and reality. Thus, dark fiction has its adherents rightfully so.

We can choose to shelter ourselves behind happy endings and uplifting fantasy, make a true escape from the world, or we can seize the darkness and make it a part of us. We can understand and recognize the yin and yang of the universe. We can celebrate the decay as we would growth, roil in fear to feel the life therein as acute as a joyful laugh. That is what dark fiction offers.

Someone, I think it was Chaplain, said that comedy is wide angle and tragedy is close-up. Horror is close-up.

That’s not to say that horror can’t have a happy ending, but it is decidedly optional and damn well better be deserved. Dark fiction with its open ends demands an honesty that other genres do not. Endings, good or bad, must be earned.

This is strange to say, I know. How can I, who write about demons and monsters, killers, and ghosts, argue for truth in these things? Well I can. And I am. A writer is one who tells the truth through lies, and in horror with its stretched realities and weird angles is really just exaggeration: close-ups.

We are emotional creatures, we humans. We love and we hate, we hope and we fear. Writers deal with all these, exploring the dark along with the light, facing their fears as well as realizing their hopes. It’s all part of the wonderful experience of life. There is a season to each of these things, and Fall, Autumn, Halloween, Samhain, as the Wiccans call it, or the Season of Witch by others, is most definitely a time for fear and wonder. It is time for the dead to speak and for the unspeakable to teach, and words to cast shadows while illuminating.

I welcome you to Fiction Vortex’s celebration of dark fiction and horror – October, 2014. Go buy my books and enjoy the chills here there and wherever you find them.

Blessed be and Happy Halloween!


Johnny Worthen



Some of my links:








Twitter: @JohnnyWorthen


A Moment with Aliette de Bodard

Interview by Z.M. Quynh

I’m super juiced to present this interview with Aliette de Bodard, who was recently awarded the Nebula for Best Novelette for her story “The Waiting Stars” (also been nominated for the 2014 Locus Award as well as a Hugo award). You can read the story at Aliette’s website.

Fiction Vortex’s “A moment with…” series will highlight the author’s take on the creative process and views on some of the current issues in the genre. This first edition of “A moment with..” shares a private conversation with Aliette who, in addition to the winning the 2012 Nebula and 2013 Locus Award for her short story “Immersion,” and the 2014 Nebula for her novelette “The Waiting Stars”, was awarded the 2010 British Science Fiction Award for Best Short Fiction for “The Shipmaker.”

Read more

Haunted Heirlooms: Resurrecting the Past with Cherished Items

By Gail Z. Martin

Anything you keep for sentimental reasons has a hint of haunt to it.

The word “memento,” one we often use to mean sentimental knick-knack, actually means “remember death,” and described the Victorian penchant of making jewelry to memorialize their dead. While we no longer make death jewelry, the items that we keep for sentimental reasons are more similar than not to those old Victorian lockets — a memorial to memories and emotions that we don’t want to forget.

Deadly Curiosities, my new urban fantasy novel from Solaris Books, is centered on a 350 year-old antique and curio shop that exists to get dangerous magical items off the market and out of the wrong hands. The proprietor, Cassidy Kincaide, is a psychometric, someone who can read objects by touch and sense strong magic and memories.

Read more

Discount Books Daily, Discount Book Recommendation

dbd_logoIf you find books via the internet, you’ve probably already begun to use email recommendation services such as BookBub and Pixel of Ink to help you find deeply discounted ebooks (and sometimes paperbacks).

There are several of these services out there. From a writer’s point of view, I look for the ones with the largest subscriber base, to get the biggest bang for my buck. BookBub owns the title of largest with somewhere around 2 million subscribers. But, some users have become rather ho hum over the offerings provided.

See, if these services begin recommending books the subscribers buy and then find to be poorly written or wrongly recommended, the service looses its value and authority. Read more

The Best Question to Drive Your Story: What Does Your Character Want?

By Guest Author T. Eric Bakutis

When I sat down to write a few thoughts about what I learned while writing Glyphbinder, the first thing that came to mind was how much my book has changed over the years and why. I believe the more an author writes and workshops, the more they learn about what makes good characters and a good book. This is why writing groups are so important–the minds and insights of others fill in the cracks authors don’t notice, teaching simple lessons that influence everything that person writes or has written.

Regarding Glyphbinder, I must have rewritten the book from scratch at least eight times over the past 15 years, so it may be disingenuous to say what was published in August is the same book I started writing so long ago. Only a few characters from those earlier drafts and the bare bones of the plot remain. The final book came together in the last few years, built on the bones of what came before.

Read more

Why My Eighth Book is Different

DesertGodssmallYup. Eight. It’s been three years since I started writing full-time. During the first year I worked exclusively on my first book, Fistful of Reefer. The next year I hammered out The Austin Job, Twitch and Die! and a compilation of Lost DMB File shorts.

Over the last twelve months, I’ve written De Novo Syndrome, Desert Gods, The Green Ones: Season One, and now I’m polishing up First Relic. And you know what? I’m starting to learn the ropes as a professional writer.

The reason I’m most confident of this fact? My eighth book has been nothing but pure product. The kind of product you dip your pinky finger into and dab on your tongue. You smear it across the front of your teeth, turn to your peers and say, “It’s pure. Break it down, boys.” Read more