Interview: Liz Argall and Kenneth Schneyer

What happens when long–time friends and critique partners decide to write a story together? Magic! Liz Argall, whose art, poetry, and creative life have given a sense of complexity to her writing, teamed with Nebula nominee Kenneth Schneyer, a writer who throws down strong narrative voices while spinning tales of ambiguity, to create the delicious “The Sisters’ Line.” The sense of trust the writers have in each other is palpable even if their own interpretations of the tale may differ slightly. It’s exciting to see both of these writers bring their amazing and unique skills to the table to create this fresh and intriguing tale of family and the power of faith. We encourage readers to check out their individual works even as we hope to see future collaborations.

Uncanny Magazine: How did you decide to collaborate on a short story? Does the brevity of a short story challenge the collaborative process?

Kenneth Schneyer: Liz was staying at my house for a few days after Readercon, and I think we were both going through a bit of a writing slump at that moment. We went to a coffee shop with our notebooks (real notebooks, not computers), and Liz pointed to a painting on the wall and said, “That’s the prompt.” We both wrote nonstop for 20 minutes; then we traded notebooks and kept writing for another 20 minutes; then we traded back and kept writing for another 20. The next day we did it again, so that I think the notebooks had changed hands five or six times by the time we were finished. We ended up with two complete stories. Then each of us took one of the stories home (the one in her/his own notebook) and revised it; we sent the revisions to each other, and revised the revisions, and talked about places where we disagreed.

So, far from it being harder, it was actually easier to collaborate in short form, because we could each add our original portions in real time, in each other’s presence. We were roommates at Clarion in 2009, know each other pretty well, and have critiqued a lot of each other’s stories, and so it was also pretty easy to send suggestions and comments back and forth.

In the final version of this story, most of the protagonist’s voice, the missing sister, the letters, and the conception of the train are Liz’s. Most of Becky, and a lot of Stacy, are mine.

Uncanny Magazine: Familial relationships are fluid in this story as we look at how the protagonist relates to both her absent sister, her neighbor Stacy, and Stacy’s daughter Becky. Why did you choose this form of family to explore it?

Kenneth Schneyer: At first, I don’t think it happened on purpose. In Liz’s first passage, she introduced the missing sister, Stacy, and Becky. As we progressed, Becky began to seem more and more competent and wise, and in one of the scenes I wrote, Stacy began to behave as if she were the protagonist’s mother. When the smoke cleared and we did the last revisions, it was clear to me that Becky was metaphorically the protagonist’s sister too. I know this seems a bit haphazard, but for me, anyway, that’s the way first drafts often are—they grow on their own without complete volition from the writer.

But I think the reason we kept the fluid relationship once we had it is that it felt more like the sort of mutually protective, mutually loving extended family “tribe” that some of us Westerners wish we had. In a lot of traditional societies, the boundaries between “nuclear” families are blurred or nonexistent, and the roles of adults in raising children are a lot more fluid, and there’s an emotional need that’s fulfilled that way. It’s less lonely. For me, the most moving moment of the story is when Stacy begins touching the protagonist, putting sunscreen on her, and patting her; it’s the first tactile, gentle contact she’s had with another person in a long time.

Liz Argall: Sisterhood, female friendship, and the construction of communities are concepts I like to explore in my fiction. I think folks often play different categorical roles with one another, sisters might parent each other, friends may at times fill different roles in nurturing roles. I wanted to tell a story about an older sister who misses her sister in a palpable way, who is sort of passive, helpless, who would like to be a protagonist but doesn’t have the spunk. Her sister was the protagonist and nothing is as it should be. The sister is passively waiting for each train part time can pass without moving on from where she is… the train starts as a dream of movement that is actually stagnation. She is working, but stationary and hope is ephemeral at best.

Stacy came to the story because our protagonist needed neighbors, and I felt like down to earth single mums were under celebrated, so in she went. One of the interesting tensions for me is that this is an area where Ken and I have different reads of the story and how we perceive the development of these characters. For Ken I feel that Becky becomes a sister, whereas for me Becky becomes a weird other–creature that knows a lot and has an agenda of her own! At one time Ken suggested “Becky’s Engine” as a title and my body recoiled from it as to me that kind of implies the murdering of the sister that is out there. I think there are sections that Ken finds tender that I find vulnerable yes, but perhaps a little bit more creepy and dissociated. Both are legit reads! The protagonist needs to hide behind/taken over by a child role to step over the threshold, which shuffles relationships around, but for me the true intimacy comes with the letter and holding the hand of another human being while in being in her own body and not flinching.

Collaboration requires compromise and one of the nice things about a layered text is that there are multiple correct readings!

Uncanny Magazine: The idea of a trans–dimensional train is a fascinating and distinctive, if unwieldy, form of transportation. What inspired you to feature this type of vehicle in the story?

Liz Argall: The painting we had on the wall contained many wonderful and weird images, but I immediately latched on to the train. Trains have a magical power, whether they follow tracks or decide to set themselves free. At times when I was writing the story, I imagined the train was actually connected to a skeletal train made of bones that was growing under the grass. Part of the power of the train is its scale and a certain amount of futility. The protagonist has a job that she’s methodically pursuing, but the job is so huge, it makes her isolation and how stuck she is more palpable. Trains contain a nostalgia for the past, but in a more contemporary setting I find a certain sadness as so many of the stories are about stations torn down and tracks torn up. Trains tap into a certain kind of mythical magic, they take folks to hell, they are friends with totoro, they are big enough to have a bestial intelligence… and steam powered engines are cool.

Uncanny Magazine: Ken, you said in a 2014 interview at Short Story Review “It’s easier to create an atmosphere of mystery and radical uncertainty with fantasy, because you can make up whatever rules fit the mood.” “The Sisters’ Line” is very much a story filled with uncertainty. What is it about this aspect of fantasy that speaks to you so strongly?

Kenneth Schneyer: As I said back then, there are certain things I just can’t do well in SF, and other things I can’t do well in fantasy. SF assumes that all that needs to be known can ultimately be known through human senses, the human mind, and those devices we can contrive. Fantasy assumes that there are some important things that are ultimately ineffable.

But to answer your question more directly: I like uncertainty and mystery in narrative because they force the reader to take a more active role in the process. If things are not laid out for you, you must supply them or interpret them, and the story becomes your own creation as much as the writer’s. Significantly, it also implicates you morally in the story, because the ways in which you choose to fill in those blanks gives you responsibility for its outcome. Where is the sister? How does the train work? Why does Becky understand some of this better than the protagonist? How can Stacy just let her daughter go to places unknown? The answers say as much about you as about us.

Uncanny Magazine: Liz, this is a very visual story with train parts that transform and a sense of loneliness and despair described by the placement, or lack of placement, of things in the protagonist’s life. As an artist, you’re transforming emotion into pictures, as a writer you’re transforming words into emotion. How is the creative process similar and how is it different with these different mediums?

Liz Argall: Weirdly enough I’m a kinesthetic and verbal thinker! Visuals do not come to me naturally, instead I need to be like an actor on a stage, be in the body and then scan out and out until I’m at the right level. If it’s a complicated visual I’ll grab a whole lot of visual references and play with them in my hands or virtual hands until I know what I want the comic to look like. I started out as a comics writer and it was a long time before I was brave enough to move into visual art.

This is a really hard question to answer! I think the biggest difference is that working visually I’m more of a plotter, art is hard! When I’m writing stories I’m a pantster. I don’t know how many times I’ve wished I could bring my visual medium plotting skills to my prose!

Uncanny Magazine: Ken, your initial foray into fiction writing was by writing fan fiction. While this form of creative expression is becoming more mainstream, for a long time there was a sense of stigma attached to fanfic from outside the fanfic community. How, and why, do you think that has changed? What do you feel are the positives, and negatives, of writing fanfic?

Kenneth Schneyer: For me, fanfic was initially a safe environment where I could write for a relatively small audience who shared my enthusiasms—and because I didn’t think it would ever be “published” in the grander sense of the word, it felt like it was low–risk, which meant that I could experiment a lot with form and structure. It built up my confidence as a writer. But I don’t think I used fanfic the way some other fanfic writers did—I was writing pretty much original stories, but borrowing people and places to do it. My readers eventually told me that I ought to be writing original stories for publication.

I’ve gone on record as questioning the boundaries between fanfic and “original” fiction. Fanfic employs characters, settings, and/or tropes from pre–existing works to create something new. But what else is Greg Maguire’s Wicked? What is Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead? Robert Reed’s “A Woman’s Best Friend”? Theodora Goss’s “Pug”? I think people draw a line between referential original fiction and fan fiction that simply isn’t there. I believe that the fading stigma is largely a recognition of that fact. I would also point, in particular, to the influence of Henry Jenkins on the corporate decision–making of several large media companies, convincing them that encouraging fan fiction was more profitable, in the long run, than discouraging it.

The chief advantage of fan fiction, then (or of referential original fiction) is the fact that its readers will recognize the characters and settings that it employs; reader and writer share a common matrix.  This permits an astonishing economy of language, where you can write a word or a phrase that will call up oceans of backstory and strong emotional resonance for the reader. There are compositional and thematic gymnastics you can achieve in such a context that would be impossible without the shared background. The other advantage is the friendliness and supportiveness of the readership; they are predisposed to like it. It’s great for the ego.

These advantages are, of course, also the disadvantages. The economy that comes from shared reference points can make you lazy: why bother coming up with a backstory and evocative details when I can make my reader weepy by reciting the right three words? The most wrenching thing when I stopped writing fanfic was the need to create characters and settings from scratch, and the loss of those easy emotional talismans. Similarly, the cheerleading readership can become addictive, and one can become shy of the big, bad world of readers who don’t know you and don’t care if they hurt your feelings. Having already read Stephen King’s On Writing before I made the switch to original fiction, I was prepared for the multiple rejections and sometimes cruel reviews that you just don’t experience (or not often) in fanfic.

Uncanny Magazine: Liz, as with many artistic people, you’ve had a diverse career: artist, poet, writer, model and community organizer. While it may be painting a group with a very broad brush, do you feel this craving for diversity to be part of the DNA of the creative or do you think having a creative nature draws you to a diversity of experience?

Liz Argall: When I was seven years old I told my dad I was going to be a writer, he said “Do things with your life, there are too many writers writing about being writers.” It was good advice and a little bit startling to my dad that a piece of advice he doesn’t even remember giving left such a deep imprint.

I think people can be creative in very different ways that are legit. I certainly meet the more traditional criteria of the jack–of–all–trades who wants to know and learn everything. I don’t know how many times I’ve willed myself to do something brave by thinking, “Well this will be material.”

I was raised in an eclectic household where we were encouraged to explore many different creative outlets. (As long as we didn’t fool ourselves into thinking we could make a living at it!) We were strongly encouraged to follow our own path and many of my own moments of familial rebellion were saying, “I am going to be inspired and influenced by others! Technique is not selling out to the man!”

I’ve often been frustrated by my diversity, if only I was more focused more I would be more successful! I also love how that diversity has informed my work. When I’m struggling to create I feel like forward momentum in any creative medium is better than nothing. Whatever you have to do to consistently attend to the work.

Uncanny Magazine: Thanks to both of you for taking the time to give us a peek into your creative processes!

Deborah Stanish

Deborah Stanish is the co–editor of the Hugo Award–nominated Chicks Unravel Time: Women Journey Through Every Season of Doctor Who and Whedonistas: A Celebration of the Worlds of Joss Whedon by the Women Who Love Them. She’s had essays published in Chicks Dig Time Lords; Time, Unincorporated Volumes II and III; Outside In: 160 New Perspectives on 160 Classic Doctor Who Stories by 160 Writers; Famous Monsters of Filmland; Apex Magazine, and The Liverpool University Journal of Science Fiction, Film, and Television. Deborah is also the moderator of the Hugo Award–nominated podcast Verity! where six women from around the globe debate and discuss Doctor Who.

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