Interview: Lane Waldman

Lane Waldman grew up in Rochester, NY and currently lives in Philadelphia, PA. They have a Bachelor’s from Connecticut College, and they previously worked as a First Reader for Strange Horizons. Their stories have appeared in Daily Science Fiction, Capricious, Betwixt, and the anthology Tales from the Lake Vol. 5.

Uncanny Magazine: “Tower” hits that sweet fantasy spot of imagery, reflection, sadness, and gentle humor. What led this story to the page?

Waldman: At the time I wrote it, I was thinking a lot about fairy tale retellings and how to make them into something new. The story of Rapunzel had always resonated with me—as a lonely kid with severe social anxiety, I could relate to feeling trapped and isolated and wishing for someone to rescue me. When I wrote “Tower,” I was also struggling with panic attacks when I went outside, so the whole “locked in a tower” thing didn’t feel that far from the truth. But the story didn’t really come into focus for me until I realized that the witch had to be in the tower with her daughter, the two of them trapped together. That mother-daughter relationship became the heart of the story.

I was also thinking about Tennessee Williams’s play The Glass Menagerie when I wrote this. I read the play when I was younger, and parts of it really stuck with me. There’s a somewhat similar family dynamic with a mother encouraging her reclusive daughter to get excited about a “gentleman caller.” At the end of the play, the daughter is left pretty much where she started out, and there’s this line telling her to “blow out her candles,” which I hated because it felt so hopeless to me. I think that’s why my story includes some optimism in its ending. Because there has to be hope.

Uncanny Magazine: I feel like “Tower” reflects much of what it means to be disabled. It is a deliberate mess, a tangle (if you will) of images and possibilities without a neat, perfect ending. How aware of this were you when laying out the story? Was this intentional or did those elements come about organically as the narrative progressed?

Waldman: My writing process tends to be kind of organic. I may have an image in my head of the climax of a story, or how it ends, but I often end up surprising myself in how I get there. I’m not sure how I hit on the idea of having alternate possibilities in the story—I think it might have been as simple as not having decided whether I wanted the witch to be the daughter’s real mother or not, and thinking, why not both? I’m fascinated by the variation we see in fairy tales, the same story told over and over slightly differently.

The ending of the story is just this whole complex mess of feelings: anger and despair and sadness and hope. I kept worrying when I was getting feedback that people would say there were too many endings and I needed to cut some, but to me it needed all of them.

Weirdly, I’m not sure if I was thinking of myself as disabled yet when I started writing the story. I definitely had that thing that so many people have where you think your own struggles must be inferior to the “real” struggles other people are dealing with. I was just trying to find metaphors that resonated for me.

Uncanny Magazine: While some readers may focus on the struggles of the witch’s daughter, I found myself drawn to the witch, the older woman trapped in a co-dependent relationship with her daughter. To me, she seems to want a better life for her daughter, wants to open the world, yet is equally trapped by the nature of the hair and existence. Why are young people with disabilities viewed with more sympathy than older people with the same conditions? Is it the disability or the years?

Waldman: This is a really good point. I chose to write the story from the daughter’s perspective because she was the one who resonated most strongly with me, but I hope I didn’t write the mother as unsympathetic. She’s a person doing the best she can in a difficult situation, and I hope readers can have compassion for her.

As a society, we definitely have a huge problem with ageism. The people we see portrayed in media are so often in their twenties or younger. I remember turning thirty a couple years ago, and what an adjustment it was to realize that I wasn’t one of those young people with their whole lives ahead of them anymore—even though of course thirty is still pretty young! Our whole view of aging is just warped. And that can combine with ableism in a really harmful way.

Uncanny Magazine: How did you become interested in writing? What was your first foray into planting your own words on the page to see what sprouted?

Waldman: I’ve always known that I wanted to be a writer. It probably helps that both of my parents are writers, so I never got any sense that it wasn’t a worthwhile thing to be. I wrote all kinds of little stories and poetry when I was younger. At some point, I started creating characters and daydreaming about their adventures, and that was when I started to write more things down—parts of what I thought of as larger stories. I don’t think I actually finished a story until right before I left for college, though. That was when I finally said to myself, okay, if I’m going to be serious about writing, I have to start finishing things. That story was only a few pages long, but it felt like a big achievement at the time. It was about someone with social anxiety who gets stuck on a bus because the cord to request a stop doesn’t work. I guess anxiety is something I’ve been writing about for a long time.

Uncanny Magazine: If you could speak directly to a young Lane about the hopes and trials of the future as a writer with a disability, what would you say?

Waldman: I guess I would have to tell them: Things are going to get worse before they get better, but they will get better. You’re a lot stronger than you think you are. Medication will help you, so don’t be afraid of it. I remember when I first went to college with my anxiety I had to develop a different way of thinking about my challenges—I’d draw these pictures of myself as a tiny person at the bottom of a huge flight of stairs while other people were normal sized. It was a way of telling myself that just because something “should” be easy for me, didn’t mean it was, and I had to give myself credit for the things I accomplished based on how hard they were for me.

So, don’t compare yourself to other people. That’s really important. And do what you can. Maybe I can’t send as many stories out as other people. The important thing is that I’m doing it. And when you can’t do something, be kind to yourself.

Actually, if I could go back in time and talk to my younger self, probably the first thing I would do is tell myself that social anxiety was a real disorder that other people also had and that I could get treatment for. Because I spent so long thinking I just wasn’t brave enough.

Uncanny Magazine: Tell us something about your writing process. How do you make space in your life for the creation of fantastic stories?

Waldman: I wish I could be one of those people who sits down every day at the same time and writes for hours, but I’m not. I do what I can. Sometimes that involves starting a story and then letting it sit for months before I finish it. Sometimes it involves unexpected spurts of productivity. I know that the longer I go without writing, the harder it gets, so I do try to keep things moving at least somewhat. I’m lucky in that I have a fair amount of free time to write, if I can just get myself to use it.

As I mentioned above, my writing process is usually pretty organic. I very rarely have all of something mapped out before I write it. I have to figure out a lot as I go, as I react to what I’ve already put down on the page. For short stories, I tend to start with some kind of kernel or seed, an image or a strong emotion or a line of dialogue… something that makes me feel something (I have a document where I keep a list of these for inspiration.) Then the rest of the story grows around that, as I figure out how to get to it. Or sometimes I start with a first line. I like to use things as metaphors for other things. One of the reasons I like speculative fiction is that it’s like poetry—if you have a really strong emotion, sometimes just saying “I was angry” doesn’t get the feeling across in the way that a metaphor does, and speculative fiction is full of these intense situations that have strong feelings associated with them. You can evoke certain feelings better when there are dragons involved. Just for example.

Uncanny Magazine: Thanks for sharing your thoughts with us!

Sandra Odell

Sandra M. Odell lives in Washington state with their partner, sons, and an Albanian miniature moose disguised as a dog. Their work has appeared in such venues as Jim Baen’s Universe, Crossed Genres, Galaxy’s Edge, and Daily Science Fiction. They are a Clarion West 2010 graduate. Their short story collection Godfall & Other Stories was released by Hydra House Books in 2018.

Sandra is currently hard at work on her novel or plotting world domination. Whichever comes first.

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