Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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InterGalactic Medicine Show Interviews

Interviews With The Fantastic
InterGalactic Interview With Ken Liu
    by Jamie Todd Rubin

Ken Liu (http://kenliu.name) is an author and translator of speculative fiction, as well as a lawyer and programmer. His fiction has appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Asimov's, Analog, Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, Strange Horizons, and InterGalactic Medicine Show among other places. He has won a Nebula, a Hugo, and a Science Fiction & Fantasy Translation Award, and been nominated for the Sturgeon, the Locus, and the World Fantasy Awards. He lives with his family near Boston, Massachusetts.

RUBIN: Ken, first I wanted to thank you for doing this interview. You already know I am a big fan of your work, which includes the Hugo and Nebula Award-winning "The Paper Menagerie." I'm not sure that I have read every story you've published (which by my count is now north of 55) but I've read a great many of them. You write a pretty wide variety of stories, but they are often centered around some common themes. Before we get into the specific stories, I wanted to ask you: what drew you to story-telling, and in particular, science fiction stories?

LIU: Thank you for doing this, Jamie, and for the kind words about my stories!

As far I can recall, I've always liked reading stories and telling them. I remember my grandmother telling me stories before I went to bed every night (this was back in China, where I was born and spent my childhood). I would then take those stories, make alterations, mash them up, and retell them to my friends to entertain them.

Once, when I was nine, I even wrote a little science fiction story that I illustrated myself and tried to get adults to read it. The only person who took me up on my offer was my aunt, and her reaction was: "I'm never going to ride in your rocket airplane. It's too dangerous!" (Just for the record, my invention there was powered by a giant spring and I estimated it to be 99% safe -- most accidents occurred on landing, when it would bounce a few times on the giant spring. It also was very environmentally friendly and used no fossil fuels. So if anyone's interested . . .)

As for the choice of science fiction in particular, I've always liked technology and thinking about how our lives have been altered by the use of technology. To get ideas for stories, I get to read science papers, so that makes the research even more fun.

RUBIN: Your grandmother must have been quite a storyteller for her stories to resonate with you so much as a child. Does her style of telling come through in your stories today?

LIU: I'd like to think so. She used to tell me Chinese folktales inflected with modern touches. Maybe my love of playing with tradition and modernity was in part inspired by her.

RUBIN: In addition to being a writer, you are also an attorney and an application developer. As a software developer and writer myself, I recognize some overlap, but what led you to such a diverse array of jobs?

LIU: You're really asking for my life story :-)

Like most people, I had no idea what I wanted to do when I went to college. My best subject was math, and I really liked plants (I studied wildflowers the way some studied baseball cards). So I thought I might major in math or biology. And then, as a freshman, I took a couple of introductory literature courses and got exposed to literary criticism, which transformed the way I thought about reading and writing. I became an English major.

At the same time, I didn't lose my love of math. I enjoyed the rigor of proofs and the elegance of mathematical reasoning. I got interested in Computer Science because it was a way to do some math as well as being able to construct virtual machines out of math that could perform real functions, solve real problems. (Some of my first AI programs generated poetry -- which I guess wasn't really solving a real problem. But it was fun . . .)

After college, my programming skills were of much more interest to employers than my skills in literary criticism, so I went to work at Microsoft. Later, I came back to Cambridge to join some friends in a startup. That's the best kind of experience you can have when you're young: all of you are poor and free to take risks, and it's fun to squeeze into a little apartment and work at all hours to make a dream come true. We did pretty well, and I loved being a software developer. This was also where I met my wife, Lisa.

At some point, though, I missed using my skill with words. So I went back to law school, and then became a law clerk for a federal judge and then a corporate lawyer specializing in tax cases. The work was fun and rewarding, but the hours were long.

When Lisa and I decided to start a family, I knew I didn't want to be one of those dads who never got to see his kids. So I changed jobs and became a litigation consultant for high-tech patent cases. This is a job in which I get to be technical and also to use my legal knowledge.

I think all these jobs have something in common: whether it's programming, drafting a contract, or writing a story, I'm always manipulating symbols to create structures that perform functions according to rules. I guess I just like the creative, playful nature shared by all these tasks.

RUBIN: There are two notable generalizations that can be made about your writing: you are a prolific writer of short fiction -- and your stories are always good. These two things are often inversely correlated, but in your case, you seem to work best at a high throughput. Given your consulting work, and the fact that you have a family that includes two small children (I know what that is like!) how do you manage to write so much and so well?

LIU: Well, first, thank you for the praise. I hope I live up to it! I find that writing is like any other skill, the more you practice, the better you get at it. I use writing as a way to work out my thoughts, and the more I write, the more ideas I get. I also learn a lot about the craft with each story I write, and so I think I'm improving with a sustained period of deliberate practice.

Also, none of this would be possible without the support from my wife. She works very hard for me to find time each week to focus on writing, and her feedback as first reader has been enormously helpful.

RUBIN: That "sustained period of deliberate practice" is the secret that I think many unpublished writers don't want to believe. Is your "deliberate practice" a habit? Do you find yourself writing at the same time every day? Or put another way, what does a typical day look like for Ken Liu?

LIU: If I were more disciplined, I probably can/should make writing regularly into a habit. Unfortunately, I've never been good at forming beneficial habits. Typical day consists of work, time with kids, and time for Lisa and me to be together. Writing tends to get squeezed in at the end, right before I fall asleep, and many days I'm just too tired to do it. I wish I were more of a morning person, then I could get up early and write, which seems to work well for many writers.

RUBIN: I'm somewhat relieved to hear you say that some nights, you are just too tired. I used to do my writing in the morning, but that got too complicated, what with getting the kids ready for school. Now I also do my writing after everyone has gone to bed, and sometimes, I'm too tired. It's a relief to know I'm not the only one. Has having kids changed what goes into your stories?

LIU: Having kids changes your life completely, doesn't it? I think having kids probably made me a better writer in many ways. Parenthood is an important part of the human experience, but the topic didn't factor into my fiction much until I had kids. There was definitely a shift in theme and emphasis in my stories after I had kids, and I think I also became much more efficient.

RUBIN: I want to talk about your stories, but first, I have to ask you if anyone has pointed out yet what you have in common with Harlan Ellison, Fritz Leiber, Clifford D. Simak, Greg Bear, Terry Bisson and Connie Willis?

LIU: Um, this is quite a list. I'm honored to have you mention me with these great writers, but I have no idea what you're referring to. Enlighten me, please.

RUBIN: Those folks -- and now you -- are the only people ever to win a Hugo and a Nebula award for a short story. In your case, it was for "The Paper Menagerie," a story which is also on my list of all-time favorite stories, regardless of genre. When did you start writing "The Paper Menagerie" and did you feel at the time like it was something special?

LIU: I wrote it back in March 2010. It was one of the first fantasy stories I wrote, and at the time I wanted to learn to write more fantasy. It's certainly a story that I worked hard on and like a lot, but I wouldn't say I thought it was qualitatively different from my other stories.

RUBIN: What was the motivation to write fantasy?

LIU: While I think both science fiction and fantasy are really about the logic of metaphors, in fantasy that becomes more explicit. I tend to enjoy fantasy that takes some metaphorical concept and then literalizes it, and I wanted to see if I could write something I would enjoy.

RUBIN: In "The Paper Menagerie" that literalized metaphor is a set of origami animals. But the story is about much more than paper animals coming to life. There is also a difficult relationship between a son and his mother. Some of those difficulties are differences in culture -- or the culture of their upbringing, at least. Cultural differences spanning generations is a recurring theme in your stories. Is this conscious? What is it about these differences that interests you?

LIU: I think you can argue that the literalized metaphor is the relationship between the mother and the son. The animals are literally animated by love. I'm of the opinion that we're all immigrants to some degree, and that cultural differences (across time or space) is a universal rather than an exception. My fiction tends to reflect that belief. I don't know if it's always conscious though. Sometimes I set out to write an adventure story or a space opera with no explicit goal of telling a story about cultural change and conflict, and maybe these themes show up then as an aspect of the shape of my mind.

RUBIN: Did "The Paper Menagerie" and "The Man Who Ended History: A Documentary" represent your first Nebula nominations?

LIU: Yes, they were my first.

RUBIN: How did you feel when you learned that you'd won the Nebula for "The Paper Menagerie"?

LIU: Incredibly happy. My second daughter had been born a few days earlier, so I was rocking her when I got the text message from you that I had won. It made a very happy weekend even happier.

RUBIN: "The Man Who Ended History: A Documentary" was also nominated for the Hugo and the Nebula. It didn't win, but I found that to be an incredibly powerful story. Yet when I've spoken to others about the story, they seem to focus, initially, on how graphic the story is. So let me ask two questions: first, how do you describe this story to others? And second, was this a difficult story to write?

LIU: First, thank you. This is probably my favorite story I wrote in 2009. The novella is about Evan Wei, a historian, and Akemi Kirino, a physicist, who invent a method of observing the past. They use this technique to bring awareness to a historical atrocity, the human experiments performed by Unit 731 of the Japanese Imperial Army on Chinese and Russian prisoners and allied POWs in researching biological weapons. However, Evan and Akemi are soon embroiled in the politics of denial in the present as states fight over control of the past.

For readers who are not aware of the crimes of Unit 731, the story may seem graphic, but that is hardly the point. It is really a story about historiography, about our responsibility towards past atrocities, about how the ghosts of history have hold on the present, about how we can (or should) react to denial, to fresh acts of injustice being committed everyday in the service of expediency and the needs of short-term politics. It is, above all, a story about how to think about history, both personal and social.

The story draws as its inspiration the real-life experiences of Iris Chang, whose attempt to bring awareness to the Rape of Nanking also drew fierce opposition from denialists, ultimately ending in tragedy.

It was a very difficult story to write. During the research, I encountered much more graphical acts of atrocity than those recounted in the novella. I also engaged with some denialists to understand their psychology better. The vileness and hatred I experienced in the process are among the darkest emotions I've ever felt, and far exceed any fictional representation.

That period made me lose faith in humanity a little, and I do not wish to ever repeat those experiences again.

But many readers have told me that they found the story moving, thoughtful, and powerful. That restores my faith. No matter how dark the world appears, there is a glimmer of light.

RUBIN: The story is constructed as a documentary. The "scenes" are different interviews with people involved, or cuts that fill in back-story. I'm hard-pressed to think of another piece of fiction put constructed in just such a fashion. Was there a reason you chose to tell this story as a "documentary"?

LIU: Ah, actually, my notes to the story mention that this is the structure used by Ted Chiang in "Liking What You See: A Documentary," where I first saw it. I chose this format because it allowed me to present different viewpoints within an easy frame. As the story is very much about different viewpoints and perspectives, I think this is the most effective structure.

RUBIN: There is a fascinating concept within the story -- being able to look back into the past to see events unfold, but the very looking destroys the ability to see it again. So it can only be done once, and that has all kinds of implications, not the least of which is who "owns" the past. This played an important role in the examination of the atrocities committed by Unit 731. But it was also an elegant use of the time travel trope. I wondered if you've considered writing more stories using this time travel framework because it seems to me there is a lot to be explored in it?

LIU: I have thought often about the implications of this technique, and the way they echo our own relationship to the notion of truth embedded in time: how we consume memory in the act of recollection; how we erase the very thing that we wish to preserve by retracing and recounting; how, because time cannot be rewound, we obsess over whether the person saying something is credible rather than whether the something that's being said is true.

I think, in some way, I will never be able to escape from this story, because it is true that the ghosts of history are still with us, and the call for justice unsilenceable.

I have not thought about writing more stories using this framework because for me, it will always be linked to war crimes and the worst atrocities committed by our species against itself. I can only bear so much darkness. But echoes of the framework's implications do recur in my stories: they often deal with themes of memory, erasure, control of the past, responsibility to history, demand for the truth.

RUBIN: "The Man Who Ended History: A Documentary" appeared in Panverse 3. "The Paper Menagerie" appeared in F&SF. You've had storied in Asimov's, Apex Magazine, Lightspeed, Clarkesword, Interzone, Daily Science Fiction. I just read a short piece you had in Analog. Many writers find one market and stick with it. Your stories appear everywhere. Even places like Nature. These magazines make up a fairly broad audience. What do you think it is about your stories that make them appeal so widely?

LIU: I think the stories that I have published in each market do fit with the aesthetics of that particular market. For example, most (if not all) of my F&SF stories would not be good fits for Analog, and my Clarkesworld stories would not be good fits for Daily Science Fiction. I try to write in a range of different styles so that I can learn more as a writer.

It's my hope that I have sufficient diversity within my output that even if particular editors or readers don't like some stories I write, they'll find other stories I write appealing.

RUBIN: Your stories do appear everywhere and it seems like you are in high demand. Are you at a point where you are eventually selling every story you write?

LIU: Oh, I get rejected all the time. Indeed, I probably get rejected more than average, because I submit so much. It's just part of the business. There are writers who have 100% hit rates, but I'm not one of them.

Because I like to experiment, sometimes the results are not effective as stories. I've written plenty of stories recently that are not sellable, and that's okay, because I feel I've learned something valuable in the process.

RUBIN: Have things changed for you since winning the Hugo and Nebula, either in terms of your writing or the demand for your writing?

LIU: Not really. I still try to maintain the same approach I've been using all along: try to read widely, put in the time for deliberate practice when I can, stick with a story until it's done.

I'm not someone who likes to linger over past accomplishments anyway. A writer is only as good as her next story. I prefer to look forward, and think of what else I can do to learn more and get better.

RUBIN: I seem to recall reading in another interview you did that you collect and repair old typewriters. Is this true?

LIU: Yes, this is true. I love old typewriters, and the way that they're so "transparent." Unlike much of our modern technology, built from opaque miniaturized digital components, you can take a typewriter apart and really understand how all the mechanical pieces work together. I think this "transparency" of mechanical technology may explain in part the appeal of steampunk as a genre.

Alas, I haven't been able to do much of this work recently. With two young children, space is at a premium in our home, and I didn't want to turn into a hoarder. So I've sold my beloved typewriter collection. Perhaps someday, when I have more space, I'll start it again.

RUBIN: That's too bad you had to sell your collection. (I have a circa 1950s Royal Quiet De Luxe manual typewriter.) When you had the collection, were you ever tempted to write on one of the typewriters to see if the experience was different?

LIU: Ha, funny you should ask. I did actually draft one of my short pieces on a 1953 Olivetti Lettera 22. I never got it to the point where I'm happy with it though, but someday I think I'll get back to it.

RUBIN: So far, all of the stories you've published have been in the category of "short fiction" -- understanding that a novella isn't necessarily "short." Have you written or do you have plans to write a novel?

LIU: My wife Lisa and I have been collaborating on a novel. We're hoping to finish it soon. I also have some other novel ideas that I've been playing with. But as I'm not a novelist, learning the craft of the longer form has been a struggle. I hope with more practice, I can gain more confidence and see more improvement.

RUBIN: I think I'm the same way. I've tried the novel form but never in any successful way and it wasn't fun for me. I think of myself as a short fiction writer and I'm glad that there are still writers like you out there who still like the form and are willing to push it.

We have plenty of examples of the type of fiction you write, but I'm curious, what do you enjoy reading? Do you even have time to read!?

LIU: I think it's true that some writers just work more naturally with the short form. But it's always good to stretch and try something new.

About half my reading these days consist of nonfiction: science, economics, history, etc. Of the fiction I read, I tend to read mainly novels outside the genres I write in: literary novels, so-called "chick lit," thrillers, 19th century classics. I also read a lot of short fiction, mainly in the genres I write in. There's a lot of very interesting work being done in short-form speculative fiction, and I often feel inspired by my fellow writers.

RUBIN: Is there something you've read recently, either inside or outside the genre that wowed you?

LIU: I very much enjoyed Gillian Flynn's GIRL GONE. I was blown away by how well she managed narrative tension, characterization, unreliable narrators, and many other technical aspects. But the overall story is also extremely compelling and fascinating.

RUBIN: Before we wrap up, I wanted to ask if you had any advice for readers looking to become writers?

LIU: I think the most important thing to remember is that every writer is different, and what works for one person won't necessarily work for another. Listen to lots of advice and try lots of things, but only keep what works.

RUBIN: Ken, thank you so much for doing this interview. It was a lot of fun.

LIU: And thank you very much for doing this with me. The questions were very thoughtful and I enjoyed thinking about them.

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