Is there nice weather outside, as you read this? Magazine deadlines are funny things, which means I was reading this story, and working on these interview questions, when there were 13 inches of snow on the ground, my entire city was shut down, and the air had turned crisp and quiet. Winter seems to be a time of falling into your mind, of wondering why you think the things you do, of having insulated and quiet moments to take apart pieces of your own mind. I hope the ice skating scenes in Matthew Sanborn Smith’s “Stars so Sharp They Break the Skin” are as evocative in warm weather as they were in the cold, dark days of January, when I first experienced the perception and reality warps of this story.
“Stars so Sharp” is one of those rare finds, a story that is completely off-the-wall weird, where there are more questions than answers, where the reader may never be sure what exactly the characters are seeing, because all we are aware of is what they are perceiving. If Dominick Cobb recruited Siri Keeton instead of Ariadne, the movie Inception might have looked something like “Stars so Sharp They Break the Skin.”
This story plays with the kind of thought experiment I can’t get enough of—completely changing the reader’s reality by messing with how the characters perceive the world around them. Matthew could, I suppose, have done that in a nice, gentle, non-damaging fashion, but where is the fun in that? This story is a post-mortem, these characters, Cal and Ginny, are the victims, attempting to put their lives back together in some semblance of, well, anything. The more Cal puts his life together, the more he remembers, the more things fall apart. The true tragedy is that, one of these days, he’ll realize who Ginny is. One of these days, he’ll realize how much time has gone by. He’ll realize how shattered and destroyed he really is. The Warporation destroyed his perception of the world and his recovery could destroy his entire sense of self.
Matthew Sanborn Smith writes some of the weirdest fiction out there. He plays with ideas and pulls the threads of thoughts that are simply too strange for anyone else to mess with, and this story in particular, due to the unusual structure and chronology, was challenging and, at the same time, groundbreaking for the author. I’m interested to know what readers think—what is the actual chronology here? The bird with the egg, what is actually happening thing? What do you think the Warporation was thinking they’d accomplish? Let me know your thoughts in the comments or on Twitter. Let’s see if we can’t convince Smith to write more fiction around these questions.
Matthew Sanborn Smith resides in Florida. His fiction has appeared in at Tor.com, Aliterate, Diabolical Plots, GUD Magazine, Kaleidotrope, and See the Elephant, among others. You can occasionally hear him on the podcast StarshipSofa, and you can always hear him at his own podcast, Beware the Hairy Mango, which has evolved into Beware the Patronizing Mango. Matthew was kind enough to let me pick his brain about the development of this story and his writing process. Along the way, I got sucked into a thought experiment of duplicate dogs, terribly named baking podcasts, and the joy of taking metaphors literally.
APEX MAGAZINE: This is a complex, multi-layered story—what the Warporation put Cal through, what exactly Doctor3000 is repairing, how much time has gone by, how Cal views Ginny’s pet bird, and that is just the beginning. What parts of this story came to you first? What was your process for deciding how it would all be put together?
MATTHEW SANBORN SMITH: The first part that came to me was the basic idea: “A guy doesn’t believe his friend is in love with him, because he thinks he’s unlovable. He somehow wakes up to the truth.” This grew out of a recent personal experience that radically altered my own reality. I typed up a page or two of a garbage first draft. I came up with the personality damage at that point, but from a storytelling point of view this was shaping up to be the same, boring, scene-by-scene march that had made my last few failed stories a drag. When I went back to it a couple of days later, it went in a direction I’d never expected.
My daughter was visiting from college and I joined her in front of the TV with my netbook. I hardly ever watch TV, and I certainly don’t write while one is on, but I’m hanging with my kid here, so I binge watch The Carmichael Show with her and I have my netbook open, so maybe I’ll write one twelve-word sentence for the day and decide that’s better than no sentence at all. I think I was distracted enough that I wasn’t even attempting to pick up where I left off. I started somewhere new.
Suddenly, I was first-person in the head of this quiet, melancholic man, who was telling a friend he’d gone ice-skating in the middle of the night. Then I went to a third-person French-fry-eating scene. Then, for kicks, I went second-person. Once I trip over something weird and new to me, I have to use it because I want to see what it does. This was the first time I’d ever messed around with structure at this level and the first time I felt I was doing something truly non-linear. I realized, “Oh! This is how the story is supposed to go!” Not only is it interesting in and of itself, it reflects Cal’s disjointed connection to the world.
AM: I love how you played with how human perceptions work, and how Cal’s perceptions have been permanently warped. Perception is reality, in his case, literally. How might have this story gone if told from Ginny’s point of view? Is she patient? Frustrated? An exhausted care-giver? She was involved with the war, too; does she have any lingering perception issues?
MSS: If this was Ginny’s story, it wouldn’t be about inadequacy. It would be about guilt. In her mind, the love she and Cal share is so deep, they’re just a part of each other. But underneath it all, she knows she was the one who damaged Cal and she can’t find the courage to tell him. You see her guilt bubble up at the end of the bookstore scene. Ginny can’t express her love in a physically passionate way because she sees that as taking advantage of him. So, she has infinite patience with Cal and she’s frustrated, but for romantic reasons.
Despite Cal’s beliefs, Ginny was never his caregiver. This is why she’s totally thrown by Cal’s accusations at the intersection. They became soulmates in the last minute of the war that he can’t remember. When he was discharged from his post-war hospital stay, she was there to bring him home (because why wouldn’t she be?) and to help him start his new life. She doesn’t discuss Cal’s sessions with his therapist. She’s there for her own sessions. Why not schedule them back-to-back for convenience?
Ginny does have psychological baggage from the war, but I couldn’t say exactly what it might be. But how about that parakeet of hers? There’s something deeply weird there. Cal is seeing Styler as we would see Styler, were we to visit. Styler hints at Ginny’s own agreement with reality, which we’re not privy to.
AM: There is a short paragraph that gives a perfect overview of what is going on:
“The war was fought in twelve minutes between twenty-four people on thirty-six sides. Forty-eight was supposed to come into the mix, but the Warporation’s experts got scared and talked peace among themselves before it got that far. The whole thing had been an experiment in what could be done in the field of psychiatric warfare. They hadn’t taken seriously the idea that human consciousness shaped human reality.”
This paragraph struck me as a pivot to a much larger, far ranging story, in which this short story is one of many stories. Do you have plans to write more in the world of the Warporation?
MSS: I’m sorry to say, I have no such plans. This is just the way I do world-building. As I’m scooting along in the story, I throw in any weird idea that comes to me. The weirder it is, the larger the background world in your mind has to become in order to make room for it.
In a fantasy world where there’s a bunch of purple bananas sitting on the counter, all the reader will get out of that is this world is cosmetically different from our own world (and that the writer is lazy). Now, if the writer spent a single sentence to show that the bunch of purple bananas upped and dragged itself across the counter to beat the shit out of an onion, the reader has to assume there’s a slew of unfathomable differences behind the scenes, and will take a micro-second to fill in some of those blanks. She’s doing the writer’s work for him and giving him credit for ideas he never had. And no, he has no future stories set in the purple-bananaverse.
AM: And speaking of the Warporation, what in the world were they thinking? Like, did they have some lofty strategic goal / best case scenario that didn’t involve accidentally destroying their employees’ perceptions, and nearly ending the world? Did they really think, for one second, that this could have a happy ending?
MSS: Absolutely not. At the place where its heart is supposed to be, the Warporation is your average military-industrial machine, making billions by selling new ways for poor people to legally murder each other. The most outlandish aspect of this entire story is that they are actually paying out the benefits they promised to their employees. Then again, they may be afraid of angering said employees.
Incidentally, I came up with the name as a portmanteau of war + corporation. It was only some time later that I noticed the name of the company that unleashed the power to change reality began with the word “warp.”
AM: You are known for wonderfully weird science fiction, and that is something that I love about science fiction—there really are no limits. Where do your story ideas typically come from? What is your writing process like? When you come across an idea that is simply too weird, what do you do with it?
MSS: Ideas are my religion. I’ve made an effort to come up with story ideas since elementary school. All you have to do is purposely experience the world differently from boring people and you’re in business. At one of my jobs recently, a coworker was complaining to the boss that a troublesome regular was back. “He comes in with a dog and he always wants to make a million copies,” she said. Of the group that was present, I was the only one who stifled a laugh. How could you not picture the building filled with a million duplicate dogs?
I did a really terrible-looking, but informative, video series called the Idea Generator, in which I discuss different ways to come up with ideas. Play with words and phrases. Take metaphors and look at them literally. Experiment with altered states of consciousness. Combine two unrelated ideas. The most important thing to do is play. When’s the last time you just goofed around? And in the end, the most interesting stuff you come up with is the stuff you’re most afraid of other people seeing, whether it’s because you think it’s stupid, or they’ll think something about you that you don’t want them to think. Artists have to overcome their shame and expose themselves again and again.
My writing process is piecemeal. Besides working two jobs and taking classes, I’ve got to deal with ADD, so even if I had hours of free time, I wouldn’t use them effectively. The best writing advice I ever received came from a guitarist friend of mine when we were both teenagers. I was complaining that I couldn’t write a story because I didn’t know how to start it. He said, “Write what you’ve got.” Bam. I start by writing whatever is in my head at the moment. When I’m out of steam, even if that means I’m only one paragraph in, I call it a day and pick it up next time. Once I’ve come up with all the scenes necessary to tell the story, I call it a draft. Then I reread it. I list the scenes in single-sentence form and decide what my goal is for the story. Scenes then may be rearranged, added, or subtracted to serve that purpose. (Figuring out the order of the scenes for “Stars So Sharp” was difficult because I didn’t have the crutch of chronology to lean on.) Not every story goes like this, but enough do that I’m used to it.
When I feel a story is nearly finished, I don’t even remember how to spell ADD. For some reason, I can edit a story for twelve hours straight and love every minute of it. I think it’s excitement about people seeing it that drives me at that point. It’s the only time in my life I can concentrate for hours.
I should add that my best stories don’t begin with a character or a plot point. They begin with a mood, as this one did when I finally got on track. I wish I could remember that, but I don’t always. The mood suggests the scene, which suggests the characters. Everything grows from that. The reason stories stick with us is emotion. It makes sense to start with emotion, doesn’t it?
When I come across an idea that is simply too weird, I put it in the story. I’m a great fan of idea machines like Jack Kirby, Philip K. Dick, Grant Morrison, China Miéville, and Catherynne M. Valente. Even if I don’t care for all of their work, their imaginations dazzle me. “Too weird” is not a high-voltage warning sign to people like us. It’s a holy grail. Every time one of my new stories cycles through my favorite markets with nothing but a pile of rejections, my instinct is to experiment even more. I have some stories that are practically unreadable and I love the hell out of them.
AM: This is not the first time our paths have crossed in the SFF-verse. Back in the day, we were both contributors at the Hugo award winning blog SFSignal. There was always so much on that site that I could barely keep up with the all content! But I vividly remember this bizarre image of a scribbled-on Mango, with the caption “Beware the Hairy Mango!”. I quickly learned that was your podcast, a ’cast that now has more than three hundred episodes. What is your podcast all about, where can we find it, and what’s up with the hairy mango?
MSS: Beware the Hairy Mango encapsulates my truest essence. I’ve never heard another podcast like it. Each episode stands alone, runs about five minutes long, and consists of an intro, an absurdist piece of flash fiction, and the credits, which are approached differently every time. It’s made of nonsense and humor, extreme wordplay, vulgarity, and every bodily function. The production values are nonexistent. I suspect most listeners try it for about thirty seconds, then say, “Nope!” and move on with their lives. But the people who really get the show have been rabid fans for years. The reason I was even allowed to play on SFSignal was that co-founder John De Nardo is one of those rabid fans.
Those hundreds of episodes you mention are all available at bewarethehairymango.com for free. I suggest starting several dozen episodes in, when I finally figured out the formula. New freebies are no longer being made, but folks can get new material for a buck a month with Beware the Patronizing Mango. Just look my name up on Patreon.
When I came up with the show, I wrote down title after title until I found the perfect one, about fifty-three titles in. Beware the Hairy Mango was inspired by the title of a mystery novel I saw long ago, called Beware the Tufted Duck (hilarious). You can hear the complete list of rejected titles in episode 2, including such gems as, “Seat Smackin’” and “Granny’s Crannies”
AM: “Granny’s Crannies” sounds like the world’s most inappropriate baking podcast. You’ve been podcasting for what, eight years now? What shifts have you seen the podcast-sphere go through? Where do you think it will be ten years from now?
MSS: It’s hard to wrap one’s mind around the field of podcasting. It’s like a single swimmer trying to map the Pacific Ocean. From my point of view, the field was nerdier and more hobbyist ten years ago. It feels like professional entertainers and radio stations came in and dominated it. We have a lot more ads, networks, and podcast professionals now.
I’m great at imagining the future, but terrible at predicting it. Given that, I’ll say that people are going to start dropping out and there will be consolidation in one or more senses. Ten years from now, I think there will be less diversity in subject matter, a smaller audience (as something cooler comes along), and it’ll be harder for the hobbyist in the bedroom to have their voice heard.
I think innovation in podcasting was stunted in the cradle because it had radio as a predecessor, so we were subconsciously locked into what radio had already done. What we need is a podcast messiah to take the technology and blow our minds with something we never imagined possible. That would extend podcasting’s relevance for many years, the way the Beatles took an already dead trend called Rock and Roll and breathed about thirty years more life into it.
AM: You are part of a writers’ collaboration called Cerberus. How did you get involved with this project, and what makes your collaborations successful? Any advice for writers who want to try something like this?
MSS: Speaking of the Beatles, I was inspired by the push and pull of cooperation/competition in that group that made them create such amazing music. The idea of a group of writers doing something similar bounced around in my head for years. I finally started hitting up some friends and the two who were interested were a couple of writers from New Zealand, Grant Stone and Dan Rabarts. I’m afraid we’ll never have that Lennon-and-McCartney fire, as we’re all too friendly and accommodating toward one another.
The way we’ve worked for most of our collaborations is one of us will bring a story to the group he’s not happy with, another will rewrite it with some substantial alterations, and the third will edit it. We’ve come up with some wonderfully crazy stories that way. We tried a different method last year, but weren’t able to follow through, because it’s impossible for all three of us to be free enough to work on a project together now. We will come together again when the universe needs us most.
My advice to others who want to try a group collaboration is to be open to trial and error. The possible iterations of personality dynamics are infinite and I expect it would have to fail more often than not, but what else did you have planned?
AM: Thanks Matthew! And thank you for the image of a million duplicate dogs doing a podcast about baking cranberry muffins. I think I have a story to go draft …