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Author Q&A: Charlie Jane Anders

Charlie Jane Anders is the author of All the Birds in the Sky. She organizes the Writers With Drinks reading series, and was a founding editor of io9, a site about science fiction, science and futurism. Her fiction has appeared in Tin House, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, ZYZZYVA, Pindeldyboz, Tor.com, Asimov’s Science Fiction, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Lightspeed, and a ton of anthologies. Her story “Six Months, Three Days” won a Hugo Award and her novel Choir Boy won a Lambda Literary Award.

TBL Author Q&A Series: Charlie Jane Anders

This is one in a series of brief interviews with a diverse array of writers, editors, and other industry professionals. Check back over the coming months for more!

How would you say your writing career began? Was there a certain event, person, or intuitive impulse that guided you to forge your own literary path?

I wrote about this a while ago for Buzzfeed, but there was one teacher who really inspired me to want to be a writer. When I was in elementary school, I had a really, really serious learning disability, which made it hard for me to put words on paper or do basic math at all. I had this one special ed. teacher, Ms. Pennington, who got me doing creative writing to get past my blocks—and that helped me realize that making up stories was a way out of being trapped.

Is there a particular achievement or experience that has opened up the most opportunity for your writing?

Probably getting hired to write about science fiction and fantasy for io9, which was a site that didn’t even exist when I was hired to work on it. That was an amazing opportunity to put my rant-y bloviating to good use, and also to spend more time thinking about why stories worked or didn’t work, and what I loved about storytelling. Plus I got to meet some of my writing heroes.

You’ve been published in a number of literary publications (“way over 100 short stories,” says your witty bio). What is the publication process like? When you first started this process, how did you begin to choose which ones to submit to?

When I was starting out, I tried to pay attention to where I had read stories that I had liked, but early on I was also kind of scattershot about it. I would go through the market listings and just try every magazine and publication, sending each story out again as soon as it got rejected. Even if I didn’t like the stories a magazine was publishing, I figured they would still like my stuff for some reason—it took me a long time to realize that of course, if I didn’t like the stuff they liked, they probably wouldn’t like my stuff, either. I learned to be pickier about where I sent stuff out to. And I realized it was really important to read magazines before sending them stuff.

Can a piece of writing be “finished?” How do you know when your work is done? You have experience as a writer and editor, so (how) does that critic/editor role come into play in this decision?

I hit a point where I just get sick of looking at something, and I no longer have that nagging feeling that it’s got a problem that needs to be fixed. That usually means it’s done. I try to put things aside for a few weeks and then look at them again, though, to make sure I didn’t miss something. Or, sometimes, an editor or beta reader will point out a problem that’s like “d’oh.” Once it’s been done for a year or so, then it’s like “hardened” and I can’t really go back and start screwing with it.

In an interview for Omnivoratious, you mentioned that you’ve “always been fascinated by stories of people who come from very different worlds and learn to understand each other.” Can you discuss the themes and topics that reoccur in your work?

I like to tell stories about relationships where there are sparks, I guess—and the most interesting sparks often come from people who have very different perspectives!

Your newest book, All the Birds in the Sky, has been called a genre-bender. We at TBL love the wonderfully weird and bendy. What are the new horizons and benefits to be gained from creating “bendy” pieces of writing? From genre writing? Finally, do you think genre categories could ever just… explode?

I have been interested in sort of warping the lines between different genres for a long time — in my “spare time,” I organize a series where writers of all types come together and read their work: Writers With Drinks. I like it when different expectations and ideas play off each other. But I also think that stories have a particular shape, and if you set out to just blow that up, you might end up with mush. In the end, we want conflict and resolution, rising action, incidents, and a story that feels like it took us somewhere. That’s part of what genres try to fulfill.

You’ve published a book before (Choir Boy). How would you evaluate your own experience with the publication process? How has that shifted over time?

Every situation is different, I guess. With Choir Boy it was a really small press and a lot of stuff was kind of random and seat-of-the-pants, but with All the Birds, there were a lot more steps. But every book and every publisher is totally different.

What would you say is the most important element or catalyst for discovering a new mode of creativity? What gets you fired up and wanting to create?

Coffee, mostly. But seriously, I think what seems to work for me a lot of the time is to find a cool idea that seems to have a lot of fascinating areas to explore—and then find what’s personal and emotional about it, for me. But that’s often easier said than done.

What guidance might you give to fledgling writers/artists?

Keep writing. Keep believing that you’ve got what it takes to be an amazing writer, but also be willing to listen to feedback from people who are telling you that you still need to improve. I still get feedback like that all the time, and I still have to grow a thick skin and pay attention to it. It never gets easy, but it can be super rewarding.

After having successfully accomplished so much, what are your goals? What direction do you see your writing taking now, in terms of both craft and publication?

Ha, thanks. I just want to keep having fun and writing stuff that makes me personally excited—and fingers crossed, convincing other people to be interested in it too. Thanks for the vote of confidence! Have an awesome week!

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