Interview: Jenn Reese

Jenn Reese writes speculative fiction for readers of all ages. Her next book, A Game of Fox & Squirrels, is coming from Henry Holt BYR in 2020. Her short fiction has appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science FictionFireside MagazineStrange Horizons, and the World Fantasy Award-winning anthology Paper Cities, among others. Reese lives in Portland, OR, where she works as a graphic designer, plays video games, and revels in the trees. “A Mindreader’s Guide to Surviving Your First Year at the All-Girls Superhero Academy” is her first appearance in Uncanny, an uplifting story of identity, superpowers, and girls kissing each other.

Uncanny Magazine: What was the inspiration for this story?

Jenn Reese: The title was gifted to me by author Rachael K. Jones, who said she was hoping for something “super queer.” I did not want to disappoint her. I also knew I wanted something happy, because reading a lot of sad queer stories really gets me down. With those two guidelines but no other plan, I plunged in.

Uncanny Magazine: I love that the story ends on an uplifting note, with the quote “because if evil is a verb, so is hero.” Stories that inspire are so important, especially when the world is dark. What are some of the stories that have inspired you, as a writer or as a person?

Jenn Reese: I almost exclusively read stories with happy or uplifting endings, because I cannot handle anything darker than “bittersweet.” I need to know there’s a light at the end of the tunnel before I’ll go anywhere near the tunnel in the first place. Luckily, I read a lot of middle grade novels, which excel at shining lights into darkness. For example, each and every one of Stephanie Burgis’s books gives its reader a better world by the end of the story. Not a simpler world, certainly, but a world with more hope. I also loved Ted Chiang’s latest collection, Exhalation, and particularly the title story. Even when the world is provably ending, the story makes the case for being a good person and reveling in the remaining wonder.

Uncanny Magazine: “A Mindreader’s Guide to Surviving Your First Year at the All-Girls Superhero Academy” does a lovely job integrating the real-world concerns of fitting in at a new school and finding your identity into a world with superheroes. What was the most challenging part of writing the story? What was the most fun?

Jenn Reese: I love writing in second person, and I had great fun making up the names of superhero classes. The most challenging aspect was keeping this short… I enjoyed the voice so much that I was tempted to turn this into a novel. (And I do not need another novel project right now.) It was very easy to channel the anxiety one feels as an outsider because I’m not sure that ever goes away, at least for me. But at this particular school, it was fun to normalize being queer and keep the feelings of self-doubt related to superpowers.

Uncanny Magazine: If you could have a superpower, what would it be and why?

Jenn Reese: Ha, this is an easy one! Ever since I read T.H. White’s The Once and Future King as a kid, I’ve wanted to shapechange into animals. It’s so many superpowers in one: flying, swimming, running far and fast… there’s nothing you can’t do. At its core, though, this power is about freedom, which is a thing I desperately craved growing up.

Uncanny Magazine: In addition to fiction for adults, you also write middle grade—including your forthcoming novel A Game of Fox & Squirrels. What things do you do differently when writing for a middle grade audience? How easy (or difficult) do you find it to switch back and forth?

Jenn Reese: Writing for a different age group is similar to switching genres, in that the readership has a different set of expectations but as a writer, you’re still bringing all the same craft tools to work. One big difference is that I assume younger readers may not be aware of a lot of the tropes older speculative fiction readers have been exposed to for years. Experienced speculative fiction readers usually know what a “generation ship” is, might be able to name some famous dragons, know what a “Groundhog Day” plot looks like. For younger readers, I try not to make any assumptions at all. Your story could contain their first dragon! This has helped me become a better writer for adults as well, especially because so many assumptions about what “everyone knows” are tied to cultural upbringing.

Uncanny Magazine: What are you working on next?

Jenn Reese: More middle grade books! A Game of Fox & Squirrels has been a departure for me—a more contemporary story told with fairy tale underpinnings, rather than the post-collapse far-future of my first trilogy for kids. I’m excited to explore this new space.

Thanks for the great questions, Caroline!

Uncanny Magazine: Thanks for the great answers!

Caroline M. Yoachim

Caroline M. Yoachim is the author of the 2017 Hugo and Nebula finalist short story “Carnival Nine.” Her fiction has appeared in Lightspeed, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Uncanny, Fantasy & Science Fiction, Clarkesworld, and Asimov’s, among other places. Her debut short story collection, Seven Wonders of a Once and Future World & Other Stories, came out with Fairwood Press in 2016. For more about Caroline, check out her website at carolineyoachim.com.

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