Interview: José Pablo Iriarte

José Pablo Iriarte is a Cuban-American writer and teacher who lives in Central Florida. Their fiction can be found in magazines such as Lightspeed, Strange Horizons, Fireside Fiction, and others, and has been featured in multiple Year’s Best volumes. José’s novelette, “The Substance of My Lives, the Accidents of Our Births,” was a Nebula Award Finalist for 2018. “Proof by Induction” is their first appearance in Uncanny, a poignant story of mathematics, technology, and a need for parental approval that continues beyond death.

Uncanny Magazine: “Proof by Induction” is a lovely exploration of math, relationships, technology, and grief. What was the initial spark for this story, and how did you bring these different elements together?

José Iriarte: Thanks so much for that kind assessment, Caroline!

For me, the heart of this story is Paulie’s relationship with his father. I wrote a non-math-related story of Paulie interacting with his father repeatedly in the Coda in a white-hot blaze maybe a month or so after the death of my father. It was very much about how nothing I’d done had ever impressed him much, and I’d always hoped the next thing—getting nominated for an award, maybe, or landing a book deal—would be the trick, the proof that I hadn’t wasted my life and potential by pursuing a degree in literature, and later pursuing fiction publication, instead of a professorship in math. And then he died, and I had to reckon with the fact that this just wasn’t going to happen.

This story was way too raw. I never sent it to my usual beta readers, because the parts of it that were me were too close to the surface, too unobscured. I didn’t even give it to my spouse to read, and she is always my first reader. Instead, the story went into the trunk for about three years.

During that time, I came to believe that the main thing the story needed was, well, another story. I tend to mostly focus on what some other people call the “B Story.” My stories tend to be long on emotion but short on plot. I felt that if there were something Paulie could be trying to accomplish, some reason to keep going back into the Coda beside his emotional need, the story would be stronger for it.

Meanwhile, for close to a decade, my friend Pete has been insisting that I should write a story with math at its core, since I (also) have a degree in mathematics and I’m a high school math teacher, and I guess he thought that would make me able to write with a lot of authority on the topic. Unfortunately, the opposite is true. Having a bachelors in mathematics makes me knowledgeable enough to know how little I know. It would be easier for me to write about terraforming Mars, or about hacking the simulation that is reality, where I’d know that I was just making everything up and not writing anything remotely “hard,” than to write a math story, where I’d be incredibly conscious of people who know more math than I do reading it and thinking I’m a total fraud!

Still, the thought of writing about math kept calling to me, and at some point I realized that a search to solve a Millennium-Problem-style mystery could give me just the A Story that this story needed. Last summer I finally could dare to look at this story without cringing, and I wrote the math-and-tenure storyline, and reworked the existing Coda scenes to be able to integrate the two storylines together.

Uncanny Magazine: You are both a writer and a teacher—do you find that your writing is influenced by your experiences in the classroom?

José Iriarte: Ordinarily yes, but honestly less in this story than in most of my stories. Most of my stories are about teenagers, and I would say that my experiences as a teacher are a big part of my sense of who teenagers are and what they are experiencing. I would also describe myself, for better and for worse, as young at heart, and spending the bulk of my time around much younger people probably helps keep me that way.

I would say this story was much more heavily influenced by my experience of academia through my parents. Both of my parents were university professors of computer science. I lived through their attempts to gain promotion and tenure, I lurked on the periphery of those academic gatherings, I saw the university politics up close.

(I should also disclose that I immortalized a ton of my math teachers and professors through the peripheral mathematicians mentioned in this story!)

Uncanny Magazine: One of the things I really enjoyed was the depiction of Paulie and his father, and the way their past relationship is revealed through their interactions in the Coda. How much do you know about your characters before you start a story? Do your characters ever surprise you?

José Iriarte: I am a hardcore plotter, and my characters tend to be based on me and on people I know or have known. I don’t tend to fill out character sheets or make lists of physical attributes or details—though when I write novels I will write up prose backgrounds about what motivates side characters and what their goals are. In general, though, I just think of who my characters are inspired by and think, “What would so-and-so do?” So I don’t think I experience the phenomenon of being surprised by my characters as much as some other writers do.

That said, I do get surprised from time to time. In my story, “The Substance of My Lives, the Accidents of Our Births,” I didn’t realize Jamie was crushing on Alicia until Benjamin asked them, and then it was obvious. But the process of writing that wasn’t one where characters had a reality outside of my head, but more that this is exactly what Benjamin would have discerned. In this story, Maddie’s significance, the drive Paulie has to not replicate in her the sense of inadequacy that he has, was not something I was originally conscious of, but something that again seems obvious in hindsight. Also the conceit of the relationships—Paulie’s father, Paulie, and Maddie—mirroring the structure of a proof by induction was literally the last thing that came to me, well after I had completed two drafts.

Uncanny Magazine: How much research did you do for this story? Was there anything you wanted to include but weren’t able to?

José Iriarte: I did more research than usual for this story, but it was a weird kind of research-and-parallel process. I did a lot of digging into stories of mathematical discovery, and “collecting” names of mathematical structures and processes and subfields—into the sketchiest of outlines—and then tweaking those terms into things that do not exist (as far as I know), in order to create a vocabulary that sounded real, sounded authoritative, but where it would be harder to call me out on the fact that I was making stuff up. At one point I had a notepad document of real mathematical terms and their in-story counterparts, but, tragically, I seem to have deleted this!

Then I sought beta reads from a couple of spec fic authors I knew who were also knowledgeable in mathematics, S. L. Huang and Chris Degni, so they could help me find the spots where my mathebabble was too obviously nonsensical—or too close to making sense in a way I didn’t want! Chris, I believe, suggested that my description of tenure and promotion and academic life was also off, so I went and got a second bunch of readers, including authors Eric Schwitzgebel and Allan Dyen-Shapiro, to help me make that part more plausible. (Unfortunately, these reads sometimes contradicted each other, which just speaks to how different the process can be from university to university, I guess.)

Naturally, all infelicities and implausibilities that remain are on me, of course.

Uncanny Magazine: If the Coda technology was available in the real world, would you want to use it?

José Iriarte: I don’t have a lot of extended family. My parents both had much more family left behind in Cuba than in the United States. And my family was really damn dysfunctional. So I don’t have a lot of, like, deceased beloved mentor figures. On the other hand, I have a pathological need to ask questions where I am likely not to like the answers. It’s what keeps me checking my Google alerts and reading my reviews. *grin* So I think I’d feel compelled to use the Coda, whether it was healthy or not.

Uncanny Magazine: What are you working on next?

José Iriarte: Currently I am signed to a project I don’t have the go-ahead to name, but I think I’m okay to say that it’s a middle grade novel in somebody else’s IP. I miss writing short stories and want to get back to it, but I’m not sure when that’s going to happen.

Uncanny Magazine: Thank you for sharing your thoughts with us!

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. For more, check out her website at carolineyoachim.com.

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