Interview With Author Rachel Swirsky

Please introduce yourself and your book(s)!

Hi. I’m Rachel Swirsky.

I’ve been writing professionally since about 2006. The bulk of my work is science fiction and fantasy short stories. I write about feminism and queer people and the future and how we layer our consciousness onto our perception of the world. And robots and apocalypses and landmines and global warming. A lot of things, really. I like to play.

I attended the Clarion West Writers Workshop in 2005 which is a six-week program for new science fiction and fantasy writers. I was lucky enough to study with Octavia Butler there only months before she died. After Clarion, I went to the Iowa Writers Workshop where I earned my master’s degree in fiction.

Since then, I’ve published somewhere around 80 short stories and two collections, Through the Drowsy Dark (Aqueduct, 2010) and How the World Became Quiet (Subterranean, 2013). My work has been nominated for the Hugo Award, the World Fantasy Award, the Locus Award, and some others, and twice won the Nebula Award.

A few stories for the interested:

“The Lady Who Plucked Red Flowers Beneath the Queen’s Window,” published in Subterranean Magazine, an epic fantasy about magic, gender, and the span of the universe.

“If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love,” published in Apex Magazine, a brief piece about love, loss and dinosaurs.

“Eros, Philia, Agape,” published at, the story of a robot trying to discover whether he can truly love a woman who used to own him.

What inspires/inspired your creativity?

People. We’re really cool, and complicated, and weird, and unpredictable, and predictable, and everything else. We invented language, after all. I’m just sort of fascinated by the human condition. One of my undergraduate degrees was in Anthropology and it was a deep pleasure to spend hours delving into the ways other humans organize and experience their lives. It’s the same urge that drives me to writing, I think. Ways to learn about people, to understand them, and to communicate. I want to write about our dreams of ourselves and of the future.

Also, the world. As people, we see the world through various lenses, but none of those lenses is perfectly accurate. As much as I’m fascinated by human perceptions–sometimes what we want to believe, and what’s true, come into calamitous conflict. Most of us want to believe children are safe with their families, but often they’re not. Most of us want to believe people with disabilities are well-treated, when they are still subjected to things like involuntary electric shock in the United States, now.

And perhaps, the combination of the two — The subaltern. When we as a society turn away from uncomfortable truths about ourselves and the world, we are betraying both reality and people who in pain. We’re doing better as a culture talking about some things, like sexual harassment and police violence, but there’s still a long way to go. And there are still too many truths left unspoken.

Or, perhaps a different combination — Perception. We are creatures with the capacity for abstraction. We can meditate on the past, and imagine the future — and in doing both, we reveal our preoccupations in the present. If human perception distorts the view of the world — and it does — then I want to know what more about those distortions. Our minds take the external world and transform it into perceptions and ideas. The world in our head is not the world outside us.

Do you have tips on choosing titles and covers?

Choosing titles is difficult! I really appreciated this article by John Joseph Adams: He’s the editor of both Lightspeed Magazine and an imprint at Houghton Mifflin so he works with both short and long fiction. Neil Clarke of Clarkesworld Magazine also wrote some things about the titles he receives.You can get started on that series of articles with this list of the most common short story names he receives:

I wrote up some thoughts about these articles myself near the time they were published:

I think the major takeaways for me are that people usually derive (science fiction) titles from: 1) thematic words or phrases from the story, 2) specialized terminology related to something in the story, or 3) references to other work. I think each of these has its own benefits and drawbacks.

At this point in the internet, many people prefer titles that are unique so their works is easily searchable. Many titles employ elaborate, unusual phrases, things that sound like they could be lines in a poem. For instance: “Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand” (Samuel Delaney), or “Mermaids Singing, Each to Each” (Cat Rambo).

I think many people about my age (37) learned our title techniques from TV, but the kinds of titles that show up, for instance, in Star Trek, aren’t good models for titling literature. Unless there’s a particular reason to do it, generally it’s preferable to avoid puns, proverbs, and one- or two-word summaries.

How do bad reviews and negative feedback affect you and how do you deal with them?

Before becoming a professional writer, I studied in a bunch of writing workshops. I got really used to trading critiques back and forth with other writers. I did it a few times a week for something like five years. When you’re in the middle of that process, you develop some degree of armor just to keep going.

Rigorous, insightful feedback is a huge gift. So are earnest, thorough reviews. It’s a generous thing for someone to spend that much time with your work. I’m honored when people come open-heartedly to my work–that’s what I write it for. Sometimes people will like your work and sometimes they won’t, but isn’t amazing to be involved in that process of communication about our lives and the world?

The problem is when feedback is disingenuous and the reader comes to the story with a preconceived antagonism. That can happen for a lot of reasons, some legitimate and others not, but it means communication — that hopeful purpose of fiction — has failed. Apart from the negative content of such a review, the fact of it is a fracture.

It can be worse if the reader is angry because of painful things at the heart of your work or existence, for instance if a reader looking at a story about domestic violence concludes that it doesn’t exist in the real world, or if a reader looking at a story by a trans woman just hates queer people. It’s just depressing sometimes to remember how many people just won’t like fiction that has an identifiably female name on it. It’s such a pointless belief.

I want to note that all of this stays the same basically no matter what your belief system. You may have to change some of the specifics, but the same dynamics are present. It’s hard when the reader is disingenuous wherever either of you stand on the spectrum. It’s frustrating when people won’t listen to you because of something you feel is fundamental, whatever the things you feel fundamental are.

Of course, it’s different if the writer is coming from a dishonest place, too. Luckily, disingenuous readers and dishonest writers are a minority. Most of us come to art because we want to communicate.

Do you tend towards personal satisfaction or aim to serve your readers? Do you balance the two and how?

I don’t think it’s possible to be a professional writer without balancing the two to some degree. Rather, there may be writers who are able to work solely towards their own personal satisfaction, without ever considering how to serve their readers, but I doubt there are many. They’d have to be lucky enough to pick up the zeitgeist, skilled enough that their own aesthetics are already reader-friendly (at least to some extent), able to read the marketplace enough to sell their work without accommodating audiences (or find an agent to do so), etc. It would be a lucky strike of lightning in a bottle, but those happen sometimes.

However, I also don’t think it’s possible to be a writer who does not incorporate personal satisfaction to any degree. This is not a good profession for people who want to make money, accumulate influence, or become famous. Sometimes those things happen, but if they’re your primary aims, you’re way more likely to achieve them elsewhere. So, if someone is choosing to write prose fiction, then they’ve got to be here at least partially because they want to be.

There’s a theory that if you’re writing things you’re not interested in at all, then the audience can tell. It comes up in science fiction writing circles because a lot of people end up doing work for hire. Writing primarily to make money is usually considered “hack” writing, but the thing is that it’s very hard to do. Many people argue — and it seems plausible to me — that you can only “hack” well if you are interested in what you’re doing. Otherwise, you’re bored, and the audience is bored. So, even if you can set yourself up to do fiction that you find no personal satisfaction in, it’s unlikely to be all that lucrative.

My balance between trying to write for an audience and trying to write for personal satisfaction changes a lot depending on the project I’m working on. Very often, if it’s a short or toss-off endeavor — a short story that just came to me one day, or something I don’t intend to spend much time on — I may favor either readers or myself. For longer projects, I definitely try to do both. I want something that I find personal satisfaction in, that I’m proud of, that means something to me and my beliefs about communicating the world. I also want something that the readers are interested in hearing, because I can only communicate if there’s someone on the other end.

I think, when things are working at their best for me, I am engaged with personal satisfaction in the conception and ideas, with both personal and reader interest during the process of writing, and focus on reader investment in the revisions. For me, I want the core of the story to be passionate. I want the result to be something that communicates effectively. So, I employ different emphases at different stages, hopefully creating a work that straddles the line in whatever way is most appropriate for that piece. Sometimes, that balance is about emphasizing the passionate core, even if it means making the audience somewhat smaller. Sometimes, it’s about making sure that more readers can hear what I’m saying, even if I won’t be able to get all of my ideas across to everyone.

While those are my intentions entering a project, I have not found that what I feel is aimed at my personal satisfaction, versus at reader satisfaction, can predict how people react to my work. When I’m writing for my own heart, often readers find their hearts in it, too. Which is an amazing feeling, and always makes me feel lucky to make that connection.

What role do emotions play in creativity?

I think that varies a lot by person. Some writers have a very intellectual approach toward constructing their work, and others do almost everything by feel. Although people do mix and match strategies, I feel like the very intellectual approach on one end requires a lot of meticulous organization, while the people who move by feel often do what’s sometimes called “pantsing” — making things up by the seat of their pants.

Science fiction (and to a large extent fantasy) tend to be intellectually motivated genres because they thrive on novelty. Speculative fiction readers tend to grab at shiny things they haven’t seen before — new technologies, or magic systems, or aliens. In this, they have a lot in common with experimental fiction which is also often about finding intellectual novelty.

Mainstream readers are looking for new things, too, of course, but the new things don’t necessarily have to do with that itch to see something unknown. There’s newness in experiencing the set of emotions that are distinct to each story; there’s newness in experiencing characters through this writer’s eyes. Those goals are often tied in more clearly to the emotional parts of literature.

However, those sweeping (and only broadly accurate, if that) genre pronouncements aside, I think most people tend to blend the intellectual and the emotional. I went into that long digression because I think there’s a definite duality in my approach toward fiction. Emotional and intellectual sides don’t have to be separate, but for me, I think they often do operate separately, even as I work to merge them.

Emotion is usually at the heart of my writing — it’s the alchemy that transforms everything else — but it’s also the unpredictable part, the incalcitrant one that doesn’t always work and is often out of my control. I think of myself as working through something similar to Method acting, where I try to inhabit parts of my characters’ emotional and sensory experiences. Sometimes, it’s hard to find the place in myself where that lives. But I think my best writing always contains it.

Do you have any creativity tricks?

Ideas are everywhere. Ask questions about everything. Put two things in comparison, or in contrast, and see what results. Pick up a book; eavesdrop on a conversation. Find the part that interests you.

What are your plans for future books?

Here are some of the things taking up my time right now:

The Gardener: I’ve been forming this for many years. It’s the novel of my heart. An agoraphobic telepath forms her first friendship with a bipolar teenager who’s experiencing her first manic cycle. As the teenager grows more brutally ill, the pair must decide how much someone can change to be more normal, and whether they should try.

Woman at the Tower Window: A feminist retelling of Rapunzel set near the dawning of modern American lesbian culture in 1920s New York.

The Essence of Triangles: Treasure-hunting among the space whales on a giant alien gas planet, written with Ann Leckie.

January Fifteenth: A novella due out from! What happens when the U.S. implements universal basic income?

Tell us some quirky facts about yourself.

I have four cats, all of whom came in from my backyard, because I used to live near a feral cat colony. I am very grateful that I no longer live in a place where furry, time-consuming, expensive, and helpless things periodically show up wide-eyed and mewing at my door.

I enjoy recreationally playing along with the intense British game show Only Connect, teamed up with my husband, and often my parents or some of our friends. It’s fun to see how many of the very difficult questions we can come up with an answer to. It’s not a whole lot–and that’s with the pause button.

My karaoke showpiece song is “The Ladies Who Lunch.”

My great-grandmother was afraid of grass.

My middle name, Virginia, comes through a relative who was the only civilian in the Battle of Gettysburg. She was shot while baking bread for the soldiers. Although some say the museum that was once her house is haunted, I met no ancestral ghosts while visiting. She was probably worried I’d embarrass her in interviews.


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