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Interview: Caroline M. Yoachim

Caroline M. Yoachim is a two-time Hugo and four-time Nebula Award finalist. Her short stories have been translated into several languages and reprinted in multiple best-of anthologies, including three times in Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy. Yoachim’s short story collection Seven Wonders of a Once and Future World & Other Stories and the print chapbook of her novelette The Archronology of Love are available from Fairwood Press. “Colors of the Immortal Palette” is Caroline’s second appearance in Uncanny, a novelette that beautifully blends art, history, and creation to capture the elusive search to be truthfully seen.

 

Uncanny Magazine: I loved the way you’ve captured the changing times and locations in history, not just in the scene setting but in the evocative paintings you use to set each time and place. Your story folds neatly around existing art that I’m familiar with, and so when you describe both the real and imagined paintings they all feel exact for the time and place. Did you choose the time periods first and then look for appropriate paintings to reference, or were there cases where an existing painting inspired you to use that setting?

Caroline M. Yoachim: I love impressionist paintings, so the starting point—Paris in the 1870s—was selected because of the paintings. After that, though, I mostly picked the time periods based on historical events. Ultramarine, for instance, happens in 1927 because Victorine Meurent (a painter famous for being Manet’s model, who my character Victorine was based on) died that year. Some of the other scenes were based on the timing of events in World War II. One huge perk of writing this story is that I stumbled across some really excellent artists that I wasn’t familiar with beforehand. Chiura Obata is one example of that; he’s an artist whose work I discovered while I was researching the Japanese internment camps.

By the time I got to Emerald Green, I’d become rather focused on the concept of negative space—the things omitted from the painting, or in my case, the story. Since this is something of a self-insertion story on my part (to the point of giving the protagonist my own middle name: Mariko), I decided to omit my entire lifetime from the story. Emerald Green is set sometime around 1975, a few years before I was born. The next scene, Titanium White, is a huge jump forward in time and the timing of it is only vaguely specified by the mention of “mid-millennium arcologies”…I don’t even specify which millennium. I wanted to be sure I left myself plenty of time!

That said, there were definitely paintings that I knew I wanted to include. Monet’s Impression, Sunrise was one of the many inspirations for the story, and when I discovered during my research that Victorine Meurent had done a self-portrait I knew I wanted to reference that as well.

Uncanny Magazine: One of the facts that really stood out for me was in the Zinc White section, where we learn that Mariko makes her wedding dress out of a silk parachute. I had not known about that, and it is so poignant and thematically works so well with the story you’ve constructed. As you were digging into the art and culture scenes of all these different time periods, did you discover any other interesting facts that you could not use in your story?

Caroline M. Yoachim: This was a very research-dense story, and there are a lot of single lines or even just mentions of an artist’s name that were long research rabbit holes. For instance, I was able to reference the works of both Katsushika Ōi and Hokusai, but there were a lot of fascinating details about them that didn’t fit into the story. Ōi was Hokusai’s daughter, and as Hokusai got older she often assisted him with his paintings—though how much of the work was hers vs. his is unclear. After Ōi got divorced, the two of them lived together and by some accounts they were so focused on their art that instead of cleaning their house they’d just move anytime it got too messy!

Uncanny Magazine: I really like how the imagery evolves from Mariko being an artistic object, to an artist, to an artist fully in command of what she’s trying to say. I know that you have been doing photography for a long time as well as writing. Are there any experiences in particular that influenced your conception of Mariko or her artwork?

Caroline M. Yoachim: One of the things that draws me to impressionism is the way it relates to photography. The nineteenth century saw a big shift in the way that photography was viewed—initially it was more a means of documenting the world, but over time people came to see photographs as another kind of art. I think of impressionist paintings as being in conversation with photography, as painters think about what they can take from that other medium, what they can highlight better with paint, and just the general notion of being able to capture a moment in time.

More generally, I am fascinated by the way art interacts with other forms of art—fashions that are inspired by paintings, stories and novels translated into film, song lyrics influenced by poetry. Each format has its various strengths and weaknesses so it’s interesting to compare different forms that grapple with the same themes.

“Colors of the Immortal Palette” is a story inspired by (among other things) Sunday in the Park with George, a Sondheim musical which was in turn inspired by the Georges Seurat painting A Sunday on La Grande Jatte. Writers sometimes dream of having their stories made into movies, but my utterly unrealistic pie-in-the-sky dream is that this story (based on a musical based on a painting), will become the inspiration for a Broadway musical, and that that in turn inspires someone to create some of the paintings I’ve described 🙂

Uncanny Magazine: This story is structured so beautifully around the different colors you chose. There is history to when colors were invented, and in fashion, and, as you made good use of in the final section, there are colors which decay or change over time. Colors even continue to make current news (witness the frequently hilarious feud between Stuart Semple and Anish Kapoor over creating the blackest paint, for example). What were some of the decisions that went into creating your palette for this story?

Caroline M. Yoachim: One of the many things I mashed together as a starting point for this story was a listing of the colors in Monet’s post-1886 palette. I liked the idea of working with a limited set of colors, and when I started the story I thought that it would take place entirely in Impressionist-era Paris. The post-1886 palette omits black, which I felt was both characteristic of impressionism and had potential thematic parallels to negative space and what artists choose to omit. Plus there were eight colors in that palette, and I thought eight would be a good number of scenes.

As I was writing, I realized that (1) eight was not going to be enough scenes, and (2) I wanted to shift the color palette to reflect the types of paint being used at whatever time the scene was set. It ended up working well to be able to circle back to certain colors without ever repeating the exact pigment twice.

And also, with a couple of deliberate exceptions, structuring the story around specific pigments shows the way her palette grows as the story progresses. The opening scene, for instance, makes no mention of blue or crimson—it isn’t until she’s developed as an artist that she gradually uses more colors to describe her world.

Uncanny Magazine: One of my favorite (frustrating) moments is when the immortal artist explains to Mariko that Monet is relatable and she is not. Monet as European and male borrows from Japanese culture and filters it back to his audience. Mariko has to forge a different path, something that she spends her extra-long lifetime doing. I feel like your work often touches on similar themes. Did working with a protagonist who is also a creator give you the chance to explore this theme in a new way?

Caroline M. Yoachim: In many ways this is a hugely personal story for me. One of the core themes is Mariko’s struggle to figure out whether her work is overlooked because it comes from a marginalized perspective or whether she simply hasn’t executed the art well enough. I’ve gotten feedback on various projects over the years that I’ve mashed together too many elements, that the story is over-complicated or muddled. Representation, being able to see yourself in fiction, is hugely important, but it often feels like a no-win situation—if you try to do something ambitious from a marginalized perspective, the story is too complicated; if you put your spin on something familiar, it’s dismissed as derivative.

Uncanny Magazine: What’s next for you?

Caroline M. Yoachim: A blank white page, waiting for words.

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Tina Connolly

Tina Connolly’s books include the Ironskin and Seriously Wicked series, and the collection On the Eyeball Floor. She has been a finalist for the Hugo, Nebula, and World Fantasy awards, and her stories can be found all over, including in Uncanny. She co-hosts Escape Pod, runs the Toasted Cake podcast, and is at tinaconnolly.com.

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