Mari Ness’s fiction often pulls from fairy tales and mythology, and then blends in themes of isolation, fierce love, unexpected methods of communication, and oftentimes regret. It makes for a heady recipe indeed. You’ve enjoyed her short fiction and poetry in publications such as Uncanny, Nightmare Magazine, Lackington’s, Clarkesworld, Daily Science Fiction, and Shimmer, among others.
Apex Magazine has been lucky enough to publish a number of Mari’s stories, including “Copper, Iron, Blood and Love” (issue 34), “Labyrinth” (issue 43), “An Assault of Color” (issue 53), and “Undone” (Issue 58). If this interview is the first you’re learning of Mari Ness, I highly suggest using the magazine’s archive to locate “Undone” and “Labyrinth,” which are two of my favorites. If your tastes lean more towards the experimental and avant garde, I suggest her short story “Twittering the Stars,” which is told as a series of tweets and can be read backwards and forwards, and can be found in the 2010 anthology Shine: An Anthology of Optimistic SF, or as a standalone ebook from Upper Rubber Boot Books.
This month, Apex Magazine is thrilled to present “Inhabiting Your Skin,” a near-future tale of dysfunctional romance. It’s one of those stories where the reader will figure out what’s going on faster than the protagonist, but rare in the way that every reader will realize what’s happening at a different moment, as the temperature slowly drops. There are some funny scenes at the beginning of the story, but you won’t be laughing by the end. What I enjoyed most about this story is that our technology is already so close to what Ness envisions in our near future. We already have cell phones that make restaurant recommendations, and algorithms that suggest purchases based on what you bought this month last year. How long until we completely trust our technology to know exactly what’s good for us?
Questions about “Inhabiting Your Skin”
APEX MAGAZINE: “Inhabiting Your Skin” takes dysfunctional relationships to a whole new level. As the story got darker and darker, I began to feel guilty about having laughed a little at the beginning. How did you come up with the idea for this story, and for the relationship between house and the person living there?
MARI NESS: Like many of my stories, this one just started off with a sentence—the first sentence of the story—and went on from there. I suspect quite a bit of it came from the frustration that hits me every summer, when the Florida heat and humidity arrive in full force, trapping many of us, and especially me, in air conditioned buildings, to the point where those buildings almost feel like our skin. Or prisons. Whichever. Those who live in upstate New York during winter probably know what I’m talking about. (I’ve done that, too.)
AM: It’s strange, that the house and its resident have such a human relationship, albeit dysfunctional. They need each other, they manipulate each other, they aren’t sure they can live without each other. Do you think the house understands what it’s doing? Or is the house just following what it’s been programmed to do?
MN: The house knows—or thinks it knows—that it’s fulfilling its main function: to take care of its owner. But that doesn’t mean that the house understands the relationship. I’ve seen that played out with many human caretakers as well. When you’re in a relationship—not just romantic ones, but work relationships, family relationships, caretaker relationships, spoiled cat relationships—it can be difficult to see those relationship dynamics clearly.
AM: After reading this story, I’m no longer jealous of my friends who can ask their smartphone to help them with things (Siri, find me a gas station! Siri, how do I get to the interstate?). Do you think we, as a society, are becoming too dependent on technology? How will we know we’ve become too dependent?
MN: I think it’s a bit more complicated than that. Not that you can tell from this story, but I’m actually pretty pro technology: it’s not just that I love my little Samsung Galaxy tablet and Twitter and various chat programs and the huge television, but that technology has brought me so many other great things: my glasses, my ultralight wheelchair, and my awesomely cool electric trike—all of which allow me to leave my house and live.
At the same time, I find myself frustrated when technology doesn’t solve problems—or makes them worse. To take what may seem a minor example: sidewalks, created by surveyors and concrete and people and machines, that keep our manufactured shoes away from the earth, show us clear pathways to walk with, and not at all incidentally are much easier for a standard wheelchair or mobility scooter to go over than grass and roots and ground. Sidewalks expand my life—
—and very often doesn’t offer ramps, but curbs that are difficult for me to manage without getting dizzy or sick, forcing me to spend time looking for a curb cut or ramp.
So I think the danger is not technology, but rather that the assumption that because technology solved X problem, it will easily be able to solve Y problem—instead of what so often happens: that solution leading us to Z problem.
AM: Would you ever live in a smart-house?
MN: I think I already kinda do? Even apart from the various computers and tablets, the house also has electronic locks instead of keys, a microwave/convection oven that has to be programmed in order to make toast, and a coffeemaker that could be programmed if I could figure it all out.
But I don’t think I’d want to live in a house like the one in the story. We’re all monitored enough these days outside the house; the idea of the house monitoring me to that extent as well kinda freaks me out.
Questions about writing in general
AM: In many of your stories, the characters aren’t named. Why do you sometimes name characters, and other times leave them unnamed?
MN: Naming characters is a skill, and it’s one I don’t have. So when I can avoid it, I do.
And on another note, many of my stories deal with the issue of isolation. Not getting named, or in some cases not having a name, helps heighten that isolation.
AM: You’ve had a number of stories published in Apex Magazine, and two of my favorites are “Undone” (Issue 58) and “Labyrinth” (Issue 43). Both of these stories have connections to fairy tales or mythology, with “Undone” a retelling of the untold final chapter of the fairy tale “The Six Swans,” and “Labyrinth” having connections to the ancient labyrinth of Knossos. Why is it important to revisit myths and fairy tales and present them in new and different ways?
MN: The standard answer to this is usually something about how myths have survived for this long so they must be important and speak to needs within us, blah blah—
But to be honest, that’s not why I’m writing these tales. I write them because when I hear and read fairy tales and myths, I want more. I want to know all of the details that were left out—what did happen to that poor boy who was half swan, half boy, at the end of the story? Did Cinderella’s stepmother ever come to the palace, or did she stay back at the old house, shattering glass whenever she looked at it? What if something changed, just a little? What if the monster in the center of the labyrinth was not—quite—a monster? Does the labyrinth create the monster, or the monster the labyrinth?
So I could tell you that this is important, but honestly, it’s just a way to get an answer to my own questions.
AM: “An Assault of Color” (Apex Magazine Issue 53) has a synesthetic feel to it, the way colors pulse painfully behind the artist’s eyes, and how those colors push her to paint in different ways. In this story, the color’s brightness or dullness, its darkness or lightness, is almost used as a language unto itself. Can you tell us a little about how this story came about, and how you used the visuals to communicate so much about what was happening?
MN: I don’t remember writing this story. All I can say is that “An Assault of Color,” is, like “Labyrinth,” part of my “Stoneverse” world, and the issue of using color for communication and magic is an important part of that world, and will be explored in future stories and potentially a novel or two.
AM: You’ve been publishing short fiction and poetry steadily since 2007. What are some of your favorite stories that you’ve written? Which ones were the most challenging?
MN: Oooh, this is a tricky question. My favorites tend to be the fairy tales—both “The Princess and her Tale” and “The Fox Bride,” over on Daily Science Fiction made me grin, and of everything I’ve published in Apex before this story, my own favorite is “Copper, Iron, Blood and Love,” followed by “Undone.” Then there’s stories that I just like the ending of, like “The Dragon and the Bond.” But the stories I tend to be proudest of are the science fiction ones—especially “And the Hollow Space Inside,” so those end up being favorites for different reasons.
Challenging is also tricky to answer, since several—internal and external—can make a story challenging to write. And a few of my stories that might seem challenging were written in spurts of pure fury, making them not very difficult to write at all, while others were challenging because they seem deceptively simple.
So instead I’ll name three stories that were challenging to write for purely technical reasons: “Ink,” because I had to be very careful not to give too much away (it was one story where I knew far more than the protagonist did); “Stronger than the Wind, Stronger than the Sea,” a science fiction story wrapped in fairy tale; and “Twittering the Stars,” a story told entirely in tweets, which can be read either backwards or forwards, currently available through Upper Rubber Boot press.
AM: You also write a lot of flash fiction and poetry. When you come up with a story idea, how do you what it’s going to grow up to be? How do you know if it would be better told in prose or verse?
MN: One of the problems with starting a story from a single sentence, as I usually do, is that I rarely, if ever, know what the final thing will grow into. I’ve had things that I could have sworn would be just little flash fiction stories grow into long short stories, and things that I thought had the potential to go very long indeed end up extremely short. And that’s before the process of cutting down the story or adding needed missing scenes. I’ve also had poems grow into stories and fragments of stories turn into poems, and sometimes I end up writing both at once. “Undone,” for instance, was written while I was working on “Feather,” although they ended up being very different pieces.
I don’t tend to see a huge divide between poetry and prose: one may be more focused on the music of words, on image, on effect, and the other more focused on shaping a tale, but in the end, both are playing and shaping with words and sound. Probably why I end up writing both. I need both in my life, after all.