Interview: Sarah Pinsker

Sarah Pinsker is a writer and a musician. Her novelette, “Our Lady of the Open Road” won the Nebula Award in 2016, and her story, “In Joy, Knowing the Abyss Behind” won the Sturgeon Award in 2013. She lives in Baltimore, but does not work as a quantologist at Johns Hopkins. At least, not in this reality.

Uncanny Magazine: People talk a lot about the importance of representation, and of being able to see people like you represented in fiction, but you’ve taken this concept to a whole new level. What gave you the idea to write about a multitude of Sarah Pinskers?

Sarah Pinsker: It wasn’t originally a multitude of Sarah Pinskers, actually. I think the germ of the story went like this: 

A writing group I’m in was having a three-stage contest, the first stage of which involved entering only the opening paragraphs of a new story. Someone gave me a story seed involving a triptych of memories, so I had memories on the mind. 

I went off to the Uncanny Cabin weekend last spring knowing I needed to write the beginning of a story for the contest. (Uncanny Cabin was a reward level for the first two Uncanny Kickstarters, wherein one donor got a private workshop/writing retreat with a handful of authors.) On Saturday night of the weekend, we wrote a group Twitter fiction mashing up Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, Hamilton, and marshmallow peeps. 

The next morning, I woke up with the title “And Then There Were (N-One)” and the knowledge that it was a story about a murder at a convention of alternate selves. They were Darias at first, not Sarahs. I was picturing a room full of a character based on the sardonic 90s cartoon, but it didn’t quite click. 

A couple of weeks later, I was visiting my mother and ran across my childhood copy of the Dr. Seuss My Book About Me, with all of the blanks filled in by me around the age of seven or eight. There’s a double page spread speculating on things you might want to be when you grow up. I had circled a LOT of them (author, astronaut, horse trainer) and added my own, including “President’s Dog Trainer,” which I assume stemmed from a second grade field trip to LBJ’s ranch. And I started thinking from there about what had changed to make me abandon some of those career paths laid out by my seven year old self, and how my life would have been different if I had stayed on one of those paths. The next thing you know, I had search and replaced Daria with Sarah, and the short story had bloomed into a novella. It needed the personal to work thematically beyond the high-concept idea.  

I brought it to the Sycamore Hill workshop in June, where it was taken apart and put back together in all the best ways. Christopher Rowe mentioned it to his wife, YA author Gwenda Bond, who has written about authorial self-insertion stories before. She said that you very rarely see the technique used by women, and that this was a “vast overcorrection,” an assessment I adored and took as further proof I was on the right track. There are always people asking “So which parts were true?” about fiction no matter how removed from reality it is; this is my answer. Some of it is “real,” some of it isn’t, some of it could have been, under other circumstances, but if you put it all in a fictional setting, is it still true? 

Uncanny Magazine: If you received an invitation to a real SarahCon, would you attend, and if yes, what would you expect your role to be? Have you already attended? Is this nonfiction?

Sarah Pinsker: If it were real, we would probably sign a non-disclosure agreement. That’s all I’ll say. 

Uncanny Magazine: It’s always interesting to me to see what kinds of autobiographical information ends up in fiction. How much of your base Sarah info in “And Then There Were (N-One)” is based on your lived experience. Is the story about Flicker and the little girl real, for instance? What about your connection to Seattle?

Sarah Pinsker: There is a bunch of autobiographical information in here, mixed in with stuff that is not true, stuff that I wish was true, and stuff that I most definitely don’t wish was true. I don’t know if it matters which parts are which, other than the stipulation that I have no homicidal intent and I wish Seattle the best of all possible futures. 

With regard to your specific questions, the story about the horse and the girl is true. A friend did get me a job in Seattle, hoping I would stay. I absolutely adored it there, but chose not to stay. It’s still one of my favorite places in the world.

 It’s an interesting exercise to look at big turning points in your life in this way. Part of the fun was also in assuming that if this situation were real, I’d be in the minority of Sarahs on many of my decisions. Some of my experiences are theirs, but their reactions are different. 

The real me—this me you’re interviewing—has a mention but not even a walk-on part in the story. I haven’t run my Nebula under a blacklight.   

 The little alternate details were the most fun part to write. The Gina Torres Wonder Woman movie, the songs and books that don’t exist in our reality but should. 

Uncanny Magazine: In our reality, there’s a lot of talk about resistance these days, with such diverse entities as Corporations like Budweiser and Penzey’s Spices, U.S. Senators like Elizabeth Warren, and magazines like Teen Vogue (and yes, Uncanny) joining the fight. What are your thoughts on resistance, and how do you think other Sarahs in other realities would approach it?

Sarah Pinsker: This would be a very different story if I were writing it now as opposed to last summer. I’d feel an obligation to explore the political topics that Mabel keeps pushing for in the story. I had the privilege of writing it in a slightly different time.

I am so happy to see the ongoing resistance to normalization of the crap this administration is trying to pull. As a queer person, as a Jewish person, and as someone who has always been political, I’m gratified to see so many people turning out, over and over again, to refute the idea that a majority chose these policies. I believe in encouraging everyone to do so, and in giving people the tools to do so more efficiently. It’s great that Uncanny is looking for ways to do that as well. I’m sure all the Sarahs are doing their part in different ways, though hopefully maybe some of them got a different election result. I don’t think any of us expected to end up in this lousy timeline. 

Uncanny Magazine: This novella has a lot to do with conventions and with writing (even though the protagonist is not a writer). What are some conventions and projects you’re currently excited about? Are there any particular programming items you desperately want to be on, or stories you can’t wait to write?

Sarah Pinsker: As a writer, I love the Nebula weekend in May—I always learn a ton at that one, since it is geared toward writers. I’m still hoping to make it to Worldcon in Helsinki this summer. I went to China in September and it really opened my eyes to the larger SF/F community out in the world. I knew it was there in theory, but I hadn’t had a chance to see it first hand before. In the long term, I look forward to seeing more of the SF/F world. 

I’m on the second draft of a near future music and science fiction novel right now. That’s the project I’m most excited about, though I have to say my heart is still in short fiction. There are so many stories I want to write. Maybe I need to enlist some other Sarahs to get them all done.

Uncanny Magazine: Thank you, Sarah! We wish you the writing energy of several Sarahs combined so that we may reap the benefits of all the stories!

Julia Rios

Julia Rios is the reprint fiction/poetry editor and an interviewer for Uncanny Magazine. She is a writer, editor, podcaster, and narrator. Her fiction, nonfiction, and poetry have appeared in several places, including Daily Science Fiction, Apex Magazine, and Goblin Fruit. She was a fiction editor for Strange Horizons from 2012 to 2015, and is co-editor with Alisa Krasnostein of Kaleidoscope: Diverse YA Science Fiction and Fantasy Stories, and the Year’s Best YA Speculative Fiction series. She is also a co-host of the Hugo-nominated podcast, The Skiffy and Fanty Show, and has narrated stories for Podcastle, Pseudopod, and Cast of Wonders, and poems for the Strange Horizons podcast. To find out more, visit www.juliarios.com.

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment. You can register here.