Interview with Author Daniela Tomova9 min read

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Nature is beautiful, surreal, and harsh. Nature doesn’t much care about the safety or welfare of the people who live within it. It’s up to us to find or create our own safety and our own fortresses against the deafening chaos of a natural world that will never even notice us. If you can find some purpose in all of that, good for you. And if you can’t, well, you are welcome to travel the world until you find what you’re looking for.

Daniela Tomova’s “Behind Her, Trailing Like Butterfly Wings” doesn’t exactly pit city folk against traveling folk, but I think readers will immediately connect with one group or the other. I found myself romanticizing the traveling road people, seeing adventure where they see danger, and that told me I was a city person. In the world of this story, I’d be called an “Oasis” dweller. I’d live in a walled city, and I’d believe myself to be safe, which matches my current reality: I live in a small mid-western city, and I consider myself safe. At least the people who live out on the road know if they take just one step off the road, there’s a good chance they’ll die. As an Oasis dweller, I have my head in the sand.

What did we do to this future Earth that there are pockets of reversed gravity? That time and space stretch and smush, seemingly at random, killing anyone in their path? Do these freakish natural changes go after certain people? Who knows?  Are certain people immune to it? Maybe. This particular tribe of road travelers are following the Wandering Woman’s footsteps, believing if they don’t stray from her footsteps, they will be safe. These are people who left their families, their children, their jobs, the safety of the Oases, believing that there was something even better out there on the road. Their children, who were born on the road? This is just their life. They don’t know any different. Marrow has traveled out here, away from the safety of the Oases, to interview Frank, a man who has been on the road since the beginning.

At first, the story has a feel of investigative journalism, as Marrow understands the seriousness of conducting a proper interview. Marrow also has more than a few secrets up his sleeve. And then suddenly, everything takes a visceral, violent, horrifyingly surreal step away. Would you like to know what a reverse gravity pocket can do to a human being? Daniela Tomova knows. Soon, you’ll know, too. Frank, he’s known for years that nothing in life is safe. How does your worldview change when you know death could be around the corner?

If you like creepy, if you like visceral, if you like weird things that come out of nowhere, this is a story for you. Did you enjoy the television show Stranger Things? Yes, of course you did. If you enjoyed Stranger Things, you’ll like this story. Oh, you haven’t seen that television show? Read this story, and then go binge watch that show.

Daniela was kind enough to let me pick her brain about the spaces in between, how people and societies react to chaos and uncertainty, what fear can do to us, and her adventures at WorldCon, among other things. When Daniela isn’t writing stories about people fracturing and emergent species blended with the classics she grew up on, she’s peddling data, working with startups, speaking in technobabble (and various other languages), creating beautiful photographs, and enjoying the surreal beauty of northern Norway. I do hope we’ll see more fiction from her in the future. I for one am hoping for something with Machiavellian androids and monster storms.

APEX MAGAZINE: In this post-apocalyptic future, people either live in government build “Oases,” or out on the road, on their own. Which came first, the idea for the story or the idea for the environment and the disturbing “mouths?” How did the idea for the story and the idea for the environment come together?

DANIELA TOMOVA: First was the “what if”—what if there were a future where most people didn’t have permanent homes? I wanted to explore the idea of making a home in the spaces in between. As an immigrant to three different countries myself, and as someone who has been told since childhood she’d be an immigrant because she’d have no future in her home country, I am fascinated with the transient societies that form in temporary spaces, even in ordinary situations like buses or waiting rooms. There is something uncanny about the atmosphere in those places.

The phenomenon of displacement is also something we will see more of in the future when it will affect billions of people, maybe for the entirety of their lives. I hope fiction explores more of those stories. What kind of homes would people make and what kind of relationships? How would they relate to their environment?

Within the story, I wanted to explore what would keep people walking. I played around with fear (that is where the mouths came in) or with necessity, but it just didn’t feel right. They needed something to walk to, some hope. And that is where the woman came in.

AM: I can’t get the horrific mouths out of my mind. Seriously, these things are going to give me nightmares! How does it change a society to have horrific pockets of death randomly show up? Do people who live in the Oases view them differently than people who live on the road?

Ice Columns in Oslo -- Photo Credit Daniela Tomova
Ice Columns in Oslo — Photo Credit Daniela Tomova

DT: I’m glad to hear they translated well from the images in my head. I will happily admit that two of my favorite sci-fi works are Roadside Picnic and Tarkovsky’s Stalker. The mouths are heavily influenced by the irregularities in Roadside Picnic; the stalkers—by their movie namesakes.

I think randomness and insecurity tend to fragment society. We humans want to feel like we understand the world and its rules. When the rules get more complex, we have the tendency to shrink our world. I imagine when the mouths started showing up, people in the cities tried to understand and predict the pattern. When that failed, they retreated to smaller and smaller units of belonging: cities, neighborhoods, blocks—groups with more basic, binary rules to navigate.

I imagine the people in the Oases feel more like prey than the people on the road. It’s a different feeling, sitting and waiting for something to swallow your house versus being out on the hunt for the obstacles. Also, the people on the road encounter and survive the mouths every day. They have a very different way to relate to the monsters.

AM: Marrow is interviewing Frank, and in a way, the story is about Frank and what he’s searching for. But the underlying story is really about Marrow, more so as the story comes to a close. I do love how obsessed Marrow is with the things that interest him. As you were working through drafts of this story, how did Frank’s and Marrow’s characters change, if at all?

DT: Initially, I wrote this as a plain interview with Frank. Marrow was not meant to be much of a character. Then I noticed that Marrow was there in his observations and his emotions already—it was inevitable since this is a new world to him as much as it is to the readers. If I didn’t flesh him out, the reader wouldn’t be able to picture him. He had to be a character and he had to have motivation and growth, just like Frank. The obsessiveness I stole from myself—I just dialed it up a lot.

AM: What exactly is it that Marrow is searching for, and do you think he’s on the right path to find it?

DT: Marrow grew up in a very raw, shattered world. The way I see it, he is searching for ways to make sense of it. Whether he will—that I leave to the reader’s optimism.

AM: I enjoyed your tweets of when you were at WorldCon. How did you enjoy the convention and the Hugo Awards Ceremony? Any funny stories to share?

DT: I had a fantastic time. This was my first non-tech convention and I had no clue what to expect. But it felt like home. All the books! All the people talking about books! All the people writing books! You know that one friend you have that you can start talking to and the conversation gets progressively nerdier and funnier and more surreal? That is how pretty much everyone I met at WorldCon was.

I don’t know if it’s funny, but it’s my favorite story. At the Hugo Awards I was far back in the line and by the time I got into the auditorium, most seats were taken. I chose a lone, empty seat in the most optimal viewing position available and sat down. To my left was a friendly American guy, and after each of us stated our discomfort with talking to strangers about random stuff, we of course started talking about random stuff. After a while, he mentioned that he ran a small publishing company but I shrugged—I don’t even know the big ones. And then he said that he had published C.S.E Cooney.

“Oh, I know of her. I think she is friends with my instructor and friend, Carina Bissett?”

“I know Carina. I’ve published her,” he said. “I run Mythic Delirium.” (I apologize to Mike if I am misquoting his exact words.)

Out of the hundreds of people in the auditorium, I had sat next to Mike Allen.

AM: You are a writer and a photographer. You often hear the phrase that a writer paints a picture with their words and how a photo can be worth a thousand words. How have you experienced the intersection of writing and photography and storytelling?

DT: Both of them bleed into each other. Absolutely. Although each craft has its own internal logic and basic rules you have to learn, they serve the same purpose—storytelling. And the tools: things like framing, opening in the middle of the action, zooming in, choosing the right focal point, are the same. The difference I’ve noticed is that photography requires more of a physical application of these concepts. You have to adjust the camera, the lens, you have to move and look, hold your breath, wait for the right moment. In writing, you have to do all this and set the scene in your head. They are two different mindsets and two very different kinds of stories.

But you can use the habits from one to enrich the other. For example, I see that one key concept in photography – framing, is something I keep thinking about while I’m writing. And when I choose a moment to take a picture, I think about what I want to say about the moment after.

AM: What are your favorite themes to write about? What is your dream story to tell?

DT: I love to write about time breaking, people fracturing, emergent organisms—girls made out of bees, a road-world made out of dark matter where time flows in different directions. Also, I grew up with the European, Middle Eastern, and Asian classics, so I love writing new myths and monsters for our new world.

I madly envy people who can write delicate and heartbreaking stories. Stories like It’s Against the Law to Feed the Ducks or So Sings the Siren. I would love to tell a story like that. But I just know if I had one, I’d start throwing existential crises and Machiavellian androids and monster storms in it, so that’s not in the stars for me.

AM: What authors and/or artists have inspired your work? Why is their work important to you?

DT: I mentioned the Strugatsky brothers in a different answer. Roadside Picnic is one of those rare books which shows perfectly realistically how ordinary people can go on living in extreme circumstances—making a home, finding happiness. I don’t know precisely why it’s this book and not others that explore the same issues—it just resonates with me because I grew up behind the Iron Curtain. That time-space is its own very specific mood and the Strugatsky’s captured it perfectly.

Bradbury to me is autumn nostalgia, heartbreak, and lyricism. His short story collections introduced me to language as an elemental force, as a power over emotions that the reader is helpless against.

Gene Wolfe’s The Book of the New Sun is the fantasy epic for me. It drowned me in its very first scene and didn’t let me resurface until the very end of the very last book. Until I finished the books, I was basically living in a shadow land—halfway in reality, halfway in Wolfe’s world.

My beloved Master and Margarita is the most perfect novel I will ever read. If we had book soulmates, Master and Margarita would be mine. There is no rationalizing or explaining this feeling.

Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red is a transcendent interpretation of Greek myth. It is the kind of work I would like to tackle eventually—fearless, erudite, and layered.

Like demons you can’t exorcise, these are books I can’t stop thinking about even in my daily life. I have no doubt they all seep into my work.

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