Any author can tell a story with words. But one who tells it through song and rhythm and meter is building a world and an atmosphere in an entirely different way. In the generation spanning story “Folk Hero,” Mary Pletsch uses music to show the passing of time, the pain of a war, which side is winning, and how to end it all. This is a story about how important it is to follow your traditions and how important it is to forge new ones. And then, of course, there is the song that ties everything together.
Pletsch gives us only a few actual verses of the song, but what she gives us is just enough to show that this is a song with a heartbeat. It’s a song that defines the hope of an entire people, that tells them where they are and how far they have yet to go. I’m a fan of the musician Maluka, and I couldn’t help but hear her voice in my head, singing these verses alongside the melody of “Age of Aggression” (Search it on YouTube, you won’t be disappointed). I’m sure you’ll agree that the combination of song and history and tradition is a powerful elixir. This song put me in a mood for Maluka, but I want to know — what do you hear when you read the words and feel the rhythm? Whose voice do you hear? What melody? And most importantly, when you read the words of this song and this story, what do you hear?
When she’s not writing about the writer’s life and the craft of being a writer at The Fictorians, Mary enjoys writing in various genres such as science fiction, fantasy, horror, and steampunk, collecting toys, and piloting gliders. Her fiction has appeared in Shock Totem, Dark Bits, When the Hero Comes Home 2, Fossil Lake: An Anthology of the Aberrant, Tesseracts 18, and Steamed Up, among many other anthologies.
Mary was kind enough to answer my questions about everything that was happening behind the scenes in “Folk Hero,” what she sees through her character’s eyes, the business of writing, a very exciting upcoming project, and more.
APEX MAGAZINE: Another way to tell a story is through song. And the story of the Ardua County Sniper’s accomplishments is told through a folksong. Growing with the telling, and growing with time, the song gains verses as the sniper fights off more foes. Song is a fantastic way to tell a story — a catchy tune and easy meter helps people remember the words and themes, and it’s an ideal way of spreading information through a culture that may have a low literacy rate or no written method of recording their information. What can you tell us about the use of music in this story? Does music play a large role in a lot of your fiction?
MARY PLETSCH: I’m actually not very musically inclined, but when I was a little kid and I was somewhere in the truck with my dad, we would sing. Sometimes we’d sing along to the radio and sometimes we’d just sing whatever came into our heads. When I went to summer camp I’d always come home with new songs that I’d learned to sing around the fire. In both cases the songs I remember best are the ones that tell stories.
In my adult life, well, there’s a military song called “The North Atlantic Squadron” and when we ran out of verses we just started making new ones up on the fly, then everyone would join in the chorus. I’ve heard it exceed a hundred verses. We were on that bus a very long time …
The Sniper’s song draws heavily on those experiences. The Sundowner culture that passes on its history and ideals and hopes and sorrows in the form of music. Kids learn the verses when they’re too young to really understand what they mean, and they grow up learning about the world from the song. The enemy can’t destroy the song because it’s not written down and it doesn’t need instrumentation. It gets in your head and it propagates itself, verse after verse.
One of the early drafts of this story was narrated as though it were a story being told (and sung), but there’s differences between writing a work designed to be read, and writing a work designed to be performed. Writing a short story as though the narrator was an oral storyteller didn’t produce a result I was satisfied with, but I did enjoy harvesting verses from the folk song to work into the finished story.
AM: This is a multigenerational story. Carlisle wants to avenge his father’s death, and later in the story we meet Carlisle’s daughter, Carla. How has the political situation changed (if at all) during the years?
MP: It’s one of those conflicts in which tension simmers for a while, then suddenly erupts, there’s a period of fierce fighting, and then back to the uneasy peace. Neither side can maintain heavy operations all the time for decades on end; but neither side has managed to reach a definitive resolution, either. The Sundowners don’t have enough people or equipment to drive out the Terrans, and the Terrans don’t have enough troops to pacify the Sundowners for very long. I suspect there’s some Terrans (particularly those back on Earth) who see the value in a population of locals able to defend the place from aliens with minimal support, and of course, personnel and money to devote to settling this matter aren’t unlimited. For the Terrans on Solregit, it’s a matter of keeping the Sundowners as quiet as possible given the limitations of what they’ve got to work with. And from the Sundowner side, it’s been centuries since Earth abandoned its colonists in the face of the alien incursion, and that bitterness is still very much alive all these years later. It’s the fact that the hard feelings have passed on from generation to generation that makes the conflict so long-lasting, even if there isn’t open warfare all the time.
AM: Carlisle and Carla also mirror, in a way, the father and daughter we see in the abandoned village. Is the mirroring intentional? Carla does something unexpected, something her father and grandfather would never have done. Why did she choose to do something different?
MP: Yes, the mirroring’s intentional. It’s a shame I never found a place to explicitly show that the “leading lady” in the abandoned village was the daughter of the original Sniper, who actually did die when the Terrans burned the mountains. This conflict has caused generations of loss on both sides and we see three generations in the story: General Beckett and the original Sniper, Carlisle and the leading lady; Carla and the girl. By the end of the story Carla realizes that the cycle is perpetuating itself, and so does the young Sniper.
I’d say both of them choose to do something unexpected and different, and for the same reason: because they realize that re-enacting their parents’ and grandparents’ actions will not bring them victory, peace, or an ending. They have to try something else.
I wanted to be careful with the ending, in that it’s not so simple as a decision to put down the guns and be friends. Realistically there are limits as to just how “different” one can choose to be, given such factors as upbringing, culture, physical and mental ability, personal emotion, and understanding of the world. Nobody’s worldview changes entirely in a thunderclap instant. The old song can’t be forgotten at will in favour of a wholly new one.
Sometimes variations on a theme aren’t enough. But I think there’s hope to be found in the knowledge that they are even possible. That hope is a reason to try.
AM: You wrote an article at The Fictorians about how much of what you write is “semi-true.” Are any parts of “Folk Hero” based on people or places that you know, or events you’ve experienced? What do you see when you look through Carlisle and then Carla’s eyes?
MP: I set out to write a war story (partly inspired, I think, by my Irish History class at the University of Huron College), but in the end, the generational theme is what hits closest to home. I’ve been told I display mannerisms and behaviours like my grandfather — a man who died before I was born — and often not in a good way. I see people who grew up in troubled homes filled with anger at their parents and yet perpetuating similar behaviours with their children.
Carlisle frustrates me. I understand his fury, but he also believes he’s justified in doing whatever it takes in the name of righteous anger. He’s proud of his heritage, but he’s not willing to accept that his family, his culture, or his political allegiance could ever have done anything wrong. It’s very difficult trying to sort out right and wrong when love and hate are tangled up with them.
Carla and the youngest Sniper are my hopes that history is not destiny.
AM: Your writing career got off the ground with a little help from the 2010 Superstars Writing Seminar. How did that seminar change how you viewed your writing and how you viewed a career as a writer? What was the most important thing you got out of Superstars?
MP: Superstars is not a craft seminar — it will not teach you “how to write.” It’s a seminar about the business aspects of being a writer. Before I went to Superstars, I was a hobby writer who was interested in publishing my work, but I didn’t know how to conduct myself as a professional. I didn’t know what was normal in the industry. I didn’t know how royalty payments worked. I wrote “when I felt inspired,” which basically translates as “when it felt like a lot of fun,” which is perfectly fine for a hobby writer and not so fine when one’s trying to build a career.
The most important thing I got out of Superstars was the knowledge that when I’m interacting with publishers, editors, potential publishers, readers, and the general public, I know how to present myself as a professional. I’ve also gained from my connection to a network of other writers — because nobody understands like someone who’s been there themselves. I recommend this seminar to anyone who feels satisfied that they have the skills to tell stories, but don’t know how to sell those stories.
AM: You also write romance fiction. What’s the biggest difference between writing romance, and writing sci-fi/fantasy? What do the two genres have in common?
MP: I think the biggest difference is complexity of character arcs. In romance writing, readers are typically looking for a story that will evoke specific emotions and conclude with a happy ending; this is true even if the story includes speculative elements. The appeal of the story is following the characters as they struggle to realize their happiness. This is what readers want, and this is what writers in the romance genre need to deliver, without simply re-treading their previous books. When I’m writing sci-fi/fantasy, my lead characters can be involved in all manner of relationships, which may not include romance. If there is romance, it may not be the focus of the story, or it may not end happily. I feel that I have more options, because anything can happen, but that also means I have to create a satisfying story out of that wide-open field. Just because I can kill my lead character doesn’t necessarily mean I should, not unless I can deliver a satisfying story arc that makes sense for the character and provides the reader with resolution.
What both genres have in common is a sense of wonder. In romance, it’s the reader getting swept away by the dynamic between the lead characters. In speculative fiction, it’s the reader being brought into the characters’ world.
AM: What’s the best writing advice you ever received?
MP: Don’t spend your time looking in the rear-view mirror.
If you’re writing for a career, you can’t afford to spend the bulk of your writing time holding your breath waiting to hear back about a submission, or searching the Internet for reviews of your stuff, or wondering if you should’ve maybe took Project B instead of A when you didn’t have time to meet deadlines on both, or if you should’ve phrased your cover letter differently, or started writing seriously in college … No. Your attention needs to be on what you’re writing next. The past is behind you already. You want to be moving forward. That’s where your focus needs to be. By all means learn from the past, but don’t live in it.
AM: What projects do you have in the works that you can tell us about?
MP: I’m working on a novel for The Ed Greenwood Group, something with a space opera theme … Look for the official project announcement in 2017.
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