John Moran’s short fiction has been published in Escape Pod, Penumbra, and Nature. He spent some time owning an art gallery, which was perhaps one of the many inspirations of “The Sandbirds of Mirelle,” which Apex Magazine is thrilled to present this month. As I read “The Sandbirds of Mirelle,” which focuses around a defining moment in the lives of a priest, an assassin, an artist, and a businessman, I couldn’t help but be fascinated with its theme of impermanence, and of the human desire to document once–in–a–lifetime moments. John was kind enough to talk with me about the impetus behind “The Sandbirds of Mirelle,” and to discuss the immortal beauty of a specific C.S. Lewis scene, the future of creativity, what he’s learned from Ray Bradbury, and how the only true constant is that nothing stays the same.
Questions about the story:
Apex Magazine: This is a subtle and compelling story that brims with hidden complexities. Can you tell us a little about what inspired the lonesome beach setting and the sandbirds?
John Moran: Ray Bradbury describes a way of generating stories by making nouns work like reusable props. He generated hundreds of stories starting from words like “carnival,” “Mars,” and “rocket.” Like him, I keep coming back to my own list time and again: a barren landscape; an assassin; alien creatures; a priest; a struggle with faith. Maybe this is because I’ve always felt closest to God in lonely places, or maybe it’s because I’ve had some staggeringly lovely holidays in places like the Grand Canyon, Petra, and Israel. If you take those places, and add the sudden flutter of wings up from the sand, I think that’s the beginning to almost any story you’d care to tell.
AM: A continuing theme of “The Sandbirds of Mirelle” is that even though moments happen only once and are fleeting, it is very hard to be unique because these things happen all the time. And yet, you managed to immortalize these fleeting moments into a beautifully unique short story. What was your writing process like, to build a futuristic yet minimalist story out of such a complex theme?
JM: I’m a discovery writer, and I usually need an intriguing first line to grow into a story — but this one came as a piece. One moment I was lying in the bath, wondering whether I could create a story around the idea of impermanence, and the next it all arrived in a rush. Ray Bradbury has a story about Picasso drawing art onto sand, only for the narrator to see it all be washed away. I was thinking about that, and how sand might be shaped into something beautiful but impermanent by an alien creature, when I also saw pilgrims who travel to see it, despite, or maybe because it won’t last. I saw the way people’s lives are equally transient, and I saw two different types of people, both for their own reasons trying desperately to make something permanent out of it all. After that, it was just a matter of leaping out of the bath and starting to write!
AM: The assassin and the priest have a short conversation about passing on a truth, which connects to the very first sentence of the story. Tell us a little about that connection, and why you chose to open the story in that way.
JM: I rewrite obsessively, and only occasionally does a phrase arrive that works perfectly, opening out the story and suggesting things wider and deeper in all directions. I wish I could make it happen more often, but that line, together with its echo from the priest, were simply presents from the muse. Sometimes, you just have to feel fortunate and privileged and there’s not a lot else you can do about it.
AM: And speaking of the opening, that is quite a hook you’ve offered your readers! Where those always the opening sentences of this story? If they were, how did you figure out where the story would go from there?
JM: There’s a very true saying that all writing is rewriting. Usually, I start with a beginning and ending and have to work out what happens in between. In this case, though, I saw the whole story of an assassin joining a pilgrimage in order to define themselves right up front. But it took me a very long time before the beginning and ending felt just right. Maybe a year, from starting to write this story to being fully happy with it.
AM: Our killer’s first experience probably didn’t go as he expected. You know his character better than anyone else, where do you think his career will go from here?
JM: I think his first murder marks a turning point for him, but I doubt he’ll realise that immediately. There’s an image I remember from C.S. Lewis of a dusty room with a sunbeam slanting across it. You can look at it all you like from the outside, but once you step into the light, the view from the inside is radically different. Likewise, I think our assassin believes very strongly that he can predict how he’s going to react. Once over the threshold, however, the view from the inside won’t be at all what he expects.
Unfortunately, I think he also has a lot of lying to himself to surmount. So, while I think his eventual realisation will be sudden and desolate, I don’t think it will be fast, or that these are the last murders he’ll carry out.
General Questions on Writing
AM: We use photography, poetry, writing, and many types of artwork to capture the fleeting moments of our lives. Your story takes place 300 years in the future, and Catherine is famous for her holography artwork. Where do you see technology going? In what types of ways do you think future humans might immortalize the moments of their lives?
JM: Even though I work in IT, I have no idea how anyone can write near–future science fiction. Technology is changing so fast it would be out of date immediately. Viewed from a few hundred years away, however, the question of social unrest or the order any particular change arrives is probably irrelevant — and that actually makes the job of prediction easier.
Firstly, I’m betting that automation will remove all manual jobs, so unless we want a few rich people to end up owning everything, it seems probable that we’ll end up with a society of abundance. The only downer is the likelihood that the speed of light will remain a hard barrier. However, like most science fiction fans, I remain an optimist. It’s not over till it’s over, and we and our electronic children are going to be remarkably creative.
Secondly, assuming genetics is regulated, I don’t see the nature of humanity changing drastically. We’ve made art for fifty thousand years, and I expect that will continue. You only have to look at the twentieth century use of acrylics, followed by airbrushing, and finally digital media, to notice that artists adapt as fast as anyone. I can see art coming from mental images, holographic displays, and also playing with time. The Long Now foundation is currently playing a tune they expect to finish in a thousand years, for example.
Thirdly, art is to some degree an ongoing conversation. Although I’m sure that one day we’ll have computers writing books and painting landscapes, I think there’ll always be space for a human voice. So I’m sure there will be someone like Catherine in our future — and with a bit of luck she’ll be just as inspired by alien landscapes as I am with Earth’s. But I wouldn’t be surprised if some of her art involves holograms, and some of the “people” enjoying her art are in fact electronic.
AM: When you are writing, are there particular settings, themes, or ideas you find you often return to, or would like to return to?
JM: As well as my answer to the first question I read a lot of crime fiction, and I’m fascinated by the idea of discontinuity.
For example: Columbo asks his famous “one last question,” and the murderer crumbles. Just a moment before, they were rich, successful, and popular. Suddenly everything about their life is going to be different. For forty years, they’ve walked where they wanted, and other people looked up to them. Now they’ll be locked up in a small room and told what to do.
But really, this is just a metaphor for what we all go through all the time. People change jobs. Relatives die. Cars and planes crash. Life is this thing we think we have worked out and can plan for, but it’s also full of discontinuity. I find that terribly inspiring and terribly scary at the same time.
AM: Who are some of your favorite writers? What works inspired you to become a writer yourself?
JM: I grew up reading great science fiction authors from the forties and fifties: Henry Kuttner and John Wyndham, Robert Heinlein and Fritz Leiber. But two writers stand out as foundational: Roger Zelazny, for showing me it’s possible to write science fiction as beautiful as poetry, and Ursula Le Guin, for the magic that happened in my primary school when a teacher went off sick, and their replacement chose to read a class of impressionable ten year olds A Wizard of Earthsea.
AM: Thank you for the delightful conversation, and for giving us an inside view into how your fiction comes together.