Charlie Jane Anders’s novel All the Birds in the Sky came out earlier this year, and has been very well received. This unusual tale follows the lives of a witch and a super-scientist who were best friends in middle school, and raises lots of questions about science, magic, popular culture, and coming of age. Anders is well known for her short fiction and her work on the pop-culture website IO9. Anders recently read at a bookstore event in Petaluma, California, which Marion attended, and took some time to talk about the book, her influences, San Francisco, and Writers with Drinks.
One commenter with a USA or Canadian address will win a signed copy of All the Birds in the Sky.
Marion Deeds: You are a very well-known essayist and columnist with a track record with short fiction, but All the Birds in the Sky is your first novel in about ten years. Writing a novel is a unique endeavor. You have also said in other interviews that writing is “soul-crushingly hard.” What do you love the most about the novel-writing process? What is the hardest part for you?
Charlie Jane Anders: I actually wrote four other novels in between Choir Boy and All the Birds in the Sky. For one reason and another, those other books never saw the light of day — although one of them was revamped and became a three-part story in the APOCALYPSE TRYPTICH anthology series, edited by John Joseph Adams and Hugh Howey. I learned a ton from writing all four of those books, and that experience definitely came in handy when it came to writing All the Birds in the Sky. A big part of what I learned from writing those other four novels was the importance of keeping my eye on the ball, and not getting distracted by shiny objects. I had a tendency to get carried away with fun ideas and lose the laser focus on the main characters and storyline, and that made it harder to invest in a book for the long haul. The thing I love most about novel-writing is pretty much the main thing I love about reading novels: Finding out what happens next. The hardest part is doing the third or fourth draft, when I’m having to do major surgery and sacrifice big chunks of the book so that the rest of it has a chance at life.
Your first novel, Choir Boy, was published in 2005. Can you tell us a bit about it?
Choir Boy was a “realistic” novel, although it has a certain tinge of magical realism to it, actually. It’s about a choirboy named Berry who realizes his voice is going to change, and he decides to try and keep that from happening — which sets off a really insane exploration of gender and identity, in which there aren’t any easy answers. The thing that Choir Boy has in common with All the Birds in the Sky is that it tries to deconstruct the “coming of age” story and turn it sideways. I feel like the typical “coming of age” narrative is maybe too simple and clear-cut, and most people never actually finish coming of age or manage to declare victory over the demons of their young adulthood.
I’m not really sure where Theodolphus came from, to be honest! That scene where the two kids are sitting under the escalator at the mall, watching the feet of people passing the other direction on the escalator and making up stories about them, was one of the first things I came up with for the book — quite possibly the first thing that ended up sticking, anyway. I loved the idea of the kids inventing things about the people on the escalator, and then one of those things turns out to be true. And the notion of introducing this crazy assassin character early on in the book, when pretty much everything else is a bit more grounded and contained, seemed like a good way to hint at how crazy everything will get later on. But the character of Theodolphus sort of took on a life of his own, once I started writing him. It took a while to figure out what to do with him, and then he became a guidance counselor and that seemed to fit.
The Parliament of Birds is an engaging part of the book, and has a definitively eastern-European-magical feel to it. It is also one name of twelfth century epic poem by Farid al-dun Attar. Were you inspired at all by the poem?
I wasn’t, I’m afraid. It was all Geoffrey Chaucer. I’m pretty obsessed with Chaucer, and one of my original ideas for this book was to have huge Chaucer Easter eggs or shout-outs in every chapter. There were all sorts of things that I was going to work into the book — like there was going to be a weird clue where someone hears that “White is Dead,” and has to figure out what that means.
Yikes! Well, that would have been cool… and maybe a little overwhelming.
I quickly realized that was one gimmick too many. But the Parliament of Birds just fit — when Patricia wants help saving a wounded bird, who else is she going to go to?
I loved Peregrine, and I particularly loved the resolution to his story arc. (I’m trying to craft this question without spoilers.) Did that part of the story grow organically, so to speak, or did you know from the beginning what was going to happen with Peregrine and that other character?
The Peregrine thing definitely evolved as I was writing the book. Basically, I introduced the idea that Laurence was building a supercomputer in his bedroom closet early on, and it was one of a bunch of weird projects he was working on. (Most of the others got cut from the book during revisions.) And the more I thought about that supercomputer, the more it seemed like a different way to talk about how technology shapes us. And a way to develop the book’s running obsession with social pressure and the positive and negative ways that we’re connected to other people. But the ending — no spoilers — came from me obsessing about the science-and-magic thing of Laurence being a super-scientist and Patricia being a witch. Whenever I’m faced with a clear-cut dichotomy, I always want to find ways to pull it apart and complicate it, and maybe reconcile the contradictions inherent in it.
I loved the way All the Birds in the Sky captured San Francisco. What is your favorite thing about the Bay Area? What worries you the most about it?
Thanks! I set the book in San Francisco in part because I’m super lazy, and I wanted a strong sense of place in this book without having to do mountains of research. And there’s kind of no substitute for just knowing a place intimately, thanks to having lived there for a long time. My favorite thing about living in San Francisco is all the different scenes, and diverse communities, that are represented in one dense little city. There are all these amazing different groups of artists and creators and geeks and radicals here in the Bay Area.
The thing that worries me the most is the current onslaught of displacement and eviction — the people who do the most to make San Francisco great are being pushed out, and San Francisco’s transformation into a sterile shopping mall for the rich is going to be irreversible soon. We’re losing all our artists, and all our art spaces. There are a lot of things that need to happen to prevent this, but the most important is to stop the evictions.
Currently we are experiencing an explosion of scientific and technological discoveries; medicine, DNA, micro-and-nano tech, off-planet travel, prosthetics, machine intelligence and communication. These things are great. At the same time we experience cyber-bullying, the objectification of men and women, not to even mention identity theft, mass hacking and the kind of dust-up that happens on Twitter about once a day. While All the Birds in the Sky is not like William Gibson’s work in plot, it does seem that you, like Gibson, are curious about the intersection of tech and human behavior. I’m not going to ask for a prediction, but what nexus or overlap intrigues you the most right now?
The upsides as well as downsides of technology are endlessly fascinating, and you can spend hours speculating about how some technological advance would change human behavior. Right now, I’m especially hopeful about gene-sequencing and whether it’s going to yield some benefits in fighting cancer and other intractable conditions. I really, really hope so.
It’s certainly a field we can be optimistic about, at least.
Tell us a little bit about Writers With Drinks. What is it? What inspired you to start it?
I’ve been doing Writers With Drinks for years! It’s a spoken word “variety show” that includes literary fiction alongside poetry, stand-up comedy, science fiction, fantasy, erotica, and tons of other genres. I love putting those different kinds of spoken expression together and seeing the contrasts, as well as the things they have in common. On a really good night, you get some really memorable combinations. Like one recent show had a comedian, Aparna Nancherla, who made people basically piss themselves laughing, and then later we had a very dark and serious piece by Naomi Novik followed by an even more brutal selection from Colson Whitehead’s new novel. It was a great one-two punch. I wanted to start this show in part because I was tired of going to shows that were all literary writers, all poets, or all genre writers. I wanted to break down the walls between these different scenes, and hopefully expose audiences who come to see Colson Whitehead to a comedian, or a poet, that they might not have heard of. And I MC it in kind of a bonkers, over-the-top style that helps keep the show from taking itself too seriously.
It sounds awesome. I’ve included a link for our readers, in case it’s coming soon to a venue near them.
Speaking of drinks, at Fantasy Literature we always ask our writers to share a favorite, or signature, beverage; alcoholic or non-alcoholic. What is yours?
Lately, I’ve been pretty obsessed with fancy scotch, and I’m kind of hooked on Lagavulin.
Thank you for your time, and thank you for All the Birds in the Sky.
Thanks so much for reading my book!
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