Rachel Swirsky is a Nebula award-winning author of short stories, novelettes, and novellas spanning speculative fiction to literary fiction. She attended the Iowa Writers Workshop at The University of Iowa, and during that time she also taught fiction writing classes. She is also a graduate of the 2005 Clarion West writers’ workshop and the founding editor of PodCastle, a podcast featuring fantasy fiction.
Her fiction has appeared in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Tor.com, Fantasy Magazine, and Weird Tales, among many others, including several Year’s Best anthologies. Her work has been nominated for many awards, including the Hugo, the James Tiptree Jr. Award, and won the third place Rhysling Award for her poem “The Oracle on River Street.” Her novelette, Fields of Gold, is currently nominated for this year’s Nebula award.
APEX MAGAZINE: “Decomposition” is a nasty (delightfully so) little tale about vengeance and obsession. When you wrote “Decomposition,” did you begin from an idea of the conflict? Or did that grow out of some other spark for the story?
RACHEL SWIRSKY: I actually wrote the story to a very specific prompt. Gabrielle Harbowy contacted me about writing a story for her anthology When the Villain Comes Home, which, as the title suggests, is about the villain of a (previous, untold) story coming back home. There was a word limit on the anthology submissions and this one turned out a bit long so I sent it to Apex and wrote another one for WTVCH, Broken Clouds. (Their TOC is here: https://www.gabrielle-edits.com/2012/04/05/when-the-villain-comes-home/)
As far as I can recall, the idea for “Decomposition” specifically started when I thought about the idea of a man carrying corpses on his back. A lot of it—the structure of scenes where each one represents a stage in the decomposition process, the backstory—came after that.
AM: You bring Vare’s world to life with the tiniest mention of odors, sights, and texture. How do you go about selecting the details that will evoke the strongest sense of place for your readers? Do you find your background in poetry aids in this process?
RS: Well, first off, thank you.
I don’t know that seeking details is a terribly conscious process for me at this point, but here are some of the things that influence me. Michael Swanwick was one of my Clarion instructors; he said that successfully evoking a scene depends on finding the right “telling details” that are so strong that it creates a sense of an entire scene, even though you’ve only really given a hint.
Samuel Delany says in About Writing that the process of character development works by putting together two contrasting details—that the space between them is where character lies. Like, if someone is an optimist and a smoker. There’s a slipperiness there, a contradiction, that might be the beginning of a person. I think this idea works for setting as well as character.
A third influence for me is, as you say, the poetry. I’m not a terribly accomplished poet, but I did take some poetry classes in college, and I found that learning to understand and work in the form was a great help to my prose. There’s an emphasis on creating concrete, specific detail in poetry that I think gets lost in discussions of prose. In prose, sometimes we get stuck on putting together very pretty words that don’t necessarily conjure a direct image in the mind; in (some kinds of) poetry, the descriptive emphasis is on locating images that have a direct, sensory impact.
Combining these pieces of advice gets somewhere interesting, I think. So, if I want to describe a retreat I stayed at last summer, I might give three details: “The flat eyes of taxidermied animals staring down from the walls, the buzzing heat, the elderly hostess in a frosted pink suit wishing you, ‘God bless.’”
Swanwick’s telling detail suggests that the decorative taxidermy will evoke the rest of the hunting lodge atmosphere. Delany’s contradiction suggests that the depth of the setting will be evoked by coming up with something that contrasts with the lodge—an elderly hostess in a pink suit. Poetry’s emphasis on concrete detail suggests evoking the senses in a concrete way—not just looking at the taxidermied heads, but feeling the gaze of their flat eyes (which connotatively implies judgment); palpably feeling the buzzing heat.
AM: The names in “Decomposition”—particularly “Bitterbite,” “Houndsmouth,” “Delira,” and “Rusk”—all have a Dickensian vibrancy that brings out the nature of the place or person’s character even without having to describe them. What drew you to the usage of these particular kind of names in this story?
RS: I usually try to come up with a naming system for places (and sometimes characters) when I’m approaching a story, if only to stop myself from just randomly putting letters together. This is more for my convenience than anyone else’s—if the possible names are endless, I’ll sit and recombine listlessly without ever getting anywhere.
In this one, I decided that most of the place names were going to be paired words and since the story is gruesome, I went with it. I don’t think I had anything much going on in my head with the character names.
So: thank you! But no, it wasn’t intentional. 😉
WRITING IN GENERAL
AM: Congratulations, by the way, on the Nebula nomination of your novelette Fields of Gold! In Fields of Gold you introduce readers to an afterlife in which the dead—ordinary as well as the famous—jump from one party to another, socializing, eating, and dancing the rest of eternity away. What struck me particularly about the story was the way you carefully pulled back the layers of Dennis’ understanding of his own life—what he thought it was, verses what it was in reality—and brought him to a carefully realized moment of clarity when he confronts his wife, Karen. There are no heroes and no villains in the story, only a tremendous sense of finding one’s place among those around you. What was it that first sparked this story?
RS: I had a dream in, like, 2005, where I was dead, and that wasn’t surprising for some reason, and the whole atmosphere was filtered through like a yellow lens, and everyone was wearing traditional party hats. I decided to write that as a story, although obviously it changed significantly by gaining, you know, a plot. Also, there was some weird stuff in the dream that didn’t make it in, like people who looked like someone I knew, but were in fact actually a different person entirely (who I also knew), so for instance, my mom might have been there, but wearing the body of a friend of mine from high school. I think that just seemed like a complication too far.
By the time I was finishing the first draft of the story, my grandfather had recently died, and he was sort of a terrible person in a lot of ways, but I mostly found my heart breaking for him in that I’m not sure he was ever really happy. I found myself really wishing there was some kind of afterlife—I don’t believe there is—not to redeem him or punish him or force him into any kind of revelation, but just to give him a chance to start a little fresh, to grow a little more, to get closer to who he wanted to be.
I don’t think it was conscious, but that probably influenced where I took Dennis in the story.
In my better moments, I wish I could view everyone with generosity; I wish we all had chances to grow, despite our limited, damaged selves, in a fundamentally gentle universe.
AM: You’ve mentioned in other interviews that you often spend a good deal of time revising your short story drafts, sometimes even retyping them over and over to get the right sound and flow to the words. How do you approach that first rough draft? Do you tend to have a firm plan in mind from the start, or do you prefer to let the story evolve from some beginning seed of an idea?
RS: I usually know what the story is going to be about. Sometimes I’ll start a rough draft with just a premise and see where some initial assays take me. That works best if I’ve just been struck with inspiration and I can do sort of a written exploration. I almost never (these days) get a full draft out of that, though, so at some point, I’ve got to think my way through the story. I always come up with a sense of the major turning points and where it ends. If I don’t know that, then the idea usually just gets abandoned as a witty paragraph or two that has no sense of purpose, and consequently rots in an abandoned document.
AM: Is there any part of the writing process that you find particularly challenging?
RS: I find laying down the words in the first place to be the most challenging thing. It always hurts a bit. Sometimes more, sometimes less. I don’t know why. When it’s going well, like I’m really inspired for some reason, I always feel a little cold and detached from my body. When I’m forcing myself to do it (and that’s most of the time because, hey, that lightning-inspiration thing doesn’t hang around eight hours a day), it’s a more a sort of hot, tearing thing.
The rewriting, the perfecting, is always a much more Zen-like. I love being in the words.
There’s often a point (or two or ten) during the process—which can happen anytime, but usually happens for me either during composition, or right before I’m done revising—where I feel like the story is terrible and not going anywhere and I have the urge to give up. That sucks.
AM: You’ve participated in both the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and Clarion West over the years. Is there any particular piece of advice that has stuck with you more than any other from one or both that deeply impacted the way you approached writing short fiction?
RS: I’m sure if you asked me this question multiple times, then on different days I’d give different answers. Right now, what strikes me is Marilynne Robinson’s advice to take the writing slowly. I think that in science fiction we spend a lot of time accelerating our way through stories to make sure that things happen fast-fast-fast. I was very word-count conscious when I took her class. She impressed upon me that it’s important to make sure that the moments are full, that they really have time to blossom and inhabit the page. Sometimes it’s good to slow down.
AM: You’ve also taught science fiction and revision while working on your MFA. What is the most common issue you find new writers struggle with during the revision process?
RS: I’m not sure they’re the most common issues, but two of the most frustrating that I see people falling into are complacency and magical thinking. Complacency: some new writers (and some later-career writers, too) think that revision is a kind of dinky thing where you just change a couple of words and let it go. This can be true for some groups of people, for instance, if they draft extremely cleanly or revise as they go along, especially if they have been working for long enough to have a strong sense of what their stories should look like. People who don’t fall into one of those categories can also sometimes produce something that only needs a gloss of revision, but it’s unusual. If you’re a new writer and you’re bringing something into workshop and you’re not getting feedback from people whose aesthetics you trust that it’s basically perfect…then it probably needs some down-and-dirty work, work that will require you to really break it down and rebuild it. Or, possibly, it’s a project that should be set aside. Not everything has to reach a finished form. But I find many new writers—although they genuinely, intellectually want to improve—erect enormous subconscious barriers that they can’t get past when it comes to really evaluating their aesthetic and breaking the fiction down and doing what amounts to difficult, emotional work.
That’s not to say that one should take all the advice one gets in workshop—please don’t—I usually tell people to take the advice offered by people whose critiques on other stories you think are really accurate and insightful. And sometimes things are Truly Brilliant and the workshop Really Didn’t Get It. But I’d encourage people to be skeptical when they find themselves thinking that way; I do often see people choosing the easy way out when they’ve got mediocre stories on their hands, because improving it would take them someplace uncomfortable. That’s not necessarily a problem in any individual case, but if it becomes a pattern, the writer’s got a lot of mediocre-at-best work on their hands and doesn’t make any progress.
Magical thinking: writing is a career that involves being out of control a lot of the time. That’s super uncomfortable. We want to have control over our successes. Unfortunately, there’s only so much agency you can exert—at a certain point, the work enters someone else’s court. Because writers want to be successful, and feel so out of control, and are in a high-competition field, I often (encounter) new writers indulging in magical thinking. Not superstitious thinking per se—”if I send the story in a red envelope it will sell because it did last time”—I think that’s relatively harmless, if only because I don’t think many people take it too seriously. But this sort of bizarre pseudo-craft-driven magical thinking wherein people will want to find “the best” way to do something.
Should stories be written in first person? How long should stories be? What’s the best type of first sentence to use? Well, the answer to all those is the same—it depends on the story. But the magical thinking can lead people to believing that writing is like a list of checkboxes, and if they could just figure out the right answers to give on the test, then they’ll automatically get A+ publication. Like publication is a vending machine and they have to punch in the right code. Writing isn’t like that. There isn’t a code. Developing a rule like “all stories have to be in third person, past tense” or “revise stories two times, never more and never less” is much more likely to get in a writer’s way than to behoove them because it robs them of the need to treat each story like its own, unique thing, that may be best told in one way or another, that may need more revisions than one normally gives pieces because it’s complex, or less because it’s precariously emotionally balanced, or whatever.
Falling into a pattern because it works for you is a different thing. Some people only write in third person because that’s where their voice is best. The problem is thinking that you have to write in third person because it’s The Best voice and It Will Lead to Publication and Success.
AM: How do you structure your writing time? Do you write every day, or only when you have a specific project in mind? Do you work on only one piece of fiction at a time, or do you juggle several?
RS: I juggle a zillion projects at once. I work totally erratically. I violate every piece of writing advice on the subject.
AM: What (if you’re at liberty to discuss!) are you currently working on now, and what might we be able to look for from you in the coming months?
RS: Subterranean Press is publishing a collection of my short stories, which should be out sometime in the next year or so. It’s very exciting.
I’ve also been working on a young adult novel called Swift, Grey, Wild which is about the tension between the kinds of werewolves you see on TV and what real wolves are like.
A bunch of high school kids turn into werewolves and they organize themselves into a really wolf-eat-wolf, go-for-the-throat society, with a strict, violent hierarchy. The real werewolf society—made up of people who are born as werewolves—is organized in a fashion that’s closer to how actual wolves behave—a small family grouping, more shy about threats than aggressive. The madeweres’ violence threatens to destabilize the already precarious bornwere society, which, the bornweres worry, will inspire humans to commit genocide against all the werewolves. A madewere boy and a bornwere girl ally with each other to try to stop that from happening.
I was inspired to write it when I read that werewolves have often been a metaphor for the racial other, especially Jews. That gave me a place to sink my teeth into when I thought about how werewolves work, what drives them as a monster.
AM: Thank you so much, Ms. Swirsky, for sharing “Decomposition” and this interview with us!