Interview: Rachel Swirsky

Rachel Swirsky is a writer whose work defies easy labels. She pushes the boundaries of science fiction and fantasy, weaving gorgeous language in new and unexpected, but always thought–provoking and beautiful, ways. She isn’t afraid to open a vein—whether it’s the readers’ or her own—and as a result, her stories capture raw emotion with a gossamer touch. A two–time Nebula Award winner, she has also been nominated for the Hugo, Locus, World Fantasy, and Sturgeon Awards. She is a passionate advocate for short fiction and a vicious editor of her own work, retooling and reshaping a story until it matches her exacting vision. “Love Is Never Still” is a captivating example of that vision.

Uncanny Magazine: The structure of “Love Is Never Still” is unusual in that almost no one, or thing, is left out of narrative. What inspired you to throw open the narrative doors and give everyone, and thing, a voice?

Rachel Swirsky: This story went through a large number of drafts so, in order to answer this question about inspiration, I had to go back to read the first one. In the first draft, the perspective switches happen almost immediately. The Sculptor speaks first, but after him, the next speaker is the Greek Chorus, then Galatea, then two scenes later, Aphrodite.

It seemed intuitive to me that, if the Sculptor was going to speak, then Galatea ought to as well. And once I’d made that concession—as a kid, I was not just a literature geek, but also a theater geek—it made sense for a Chorus to come in and do the narration.

In the next draft, I put the Chorus’ first few sections in iambic pentameter, a truly irritating process which I decided didn’t help at all, so I took it back out. Then, I decided the Chorus was mostly sapping energy, rather than giving energy, since it had a kind of objective, dry authority, when the rest of the piece was embedded in peoples’/gods’ subjective views of the world. So I subsumed some of the text into other perspectives, and then split it off into Summer, Winter, and The Fates.

The moment when I decided to extend a point of view to the ivory and the pedestal was just whimsy while I was working on the first draft. It seemed like, if I was presenting this picture of a story that was sprawling outward to include the workings of the universe, it might also be interesting to consider things at the smaller, mundane end.

Uncanny Magazine: Your stories are noted for their amazing imagery and this story is no exception. For example, the line “First I was an egg of ivory until he struck away the pieces that were not me and cracked me open,” is incredibly evocative both as a description and metaphor. When crafting a story, is it the imagery or the tale that comes to you first?

Rachel Swirsky: I think it’s a mix. Sometimes I start stories with ideas, and sometimes with images. Often the former is science fiction, but the latter is almost always fantasy. I started writing this as a poem, and then the imagery seemed to lend itself into expansion and prose.

Since this story went through a particularly long draft process, the imagery and the story heavily influenced each other as I worked the story into the shape I wanted. I was using imagery to convey metaphors that in turned conveyed character. When I put Hephaestus and Aphrodite into a basalt palace, that suggests desolation and things gone cold, which in turn creates the sense of alienation in their marriage. I looked up ancient Greek gold–working, and learned about techniques that could describe Hephaestus’s multi–faceted skills as a smith, and these in turn shape characterization.

On the other hand, the main core of my revision was about directing the story. I was trying to add, subtract, and condense point of view sections to make the plot the right shape, and to give the Aphrodite thread the weight it needed to counterpoint Galatea. (Draft one was mostly about Galatea.) When I was pursuing structural goals, which was much of the time, I needed to work with the imagery I could mine from the plot.

Uncanny Magazine: Re–imaginations of myths and fairy tales are a beloved SF/F trope and this particular story has a long history of re–imaginings. In your version, you show the destructive nature of desire and the selfishness of love, rather than seeing love as a gift or release. You also chose to keep it faithful to the time frame and landscape of the original myth. What was the impetus behind that decision? Were you ever tempted to give this story a modern, anti–My Fair Lady treatment?

Rachel Swirsky: I think love is a gift and a release in the story, too. It’s just lots of other things as well.

I wasn’t really thinking about My Fair Lady when I wrote the first draft. (I did go back and reread the play when I was done with the first draft, though, and it turns out I still have most of it memorized from many, many years of watching Audrey Hepburn.) I was just wondering about a reversal of the Galatea plotline—that bringing life to something beloved changes it fundamentally. Loving a creation and loving a person are not the same thing.

As I developed the story and it got more complex in structure, I described it to my friend Cat Rambo, and she said, “So, what’s the antelope you’re chasing?”—meaning, what is the point of the story that I’m hunting down. After a moment’s pondering, I told her that it was a rebuttal to Corinthians 13:4–8: “Love is patient. Love is kind…”

Love aspires to be those things, and it makes sense to invoke an idealized abstract of love in the spaces where that quote is usually used, like weddings. Still, it itches at me. I think love is many other things, too. Love is patient—and impatient. Love is kind—and unkind. Love is this huge tangle of different shades of emotion, twined with cultures and identities.

Maybe we could break love down into tiny categorical trees—type 1728: love that is impatient but kind; type 1821: love that is patient but cruel—but I suspect the subtypes would be promiscuous beyond our linguistic ability to keep up. As long as the same word refers to so many things, I don’t think it’s possible to lay a claim on “love is.”

Uncanny Magazine: “Love Is Never Still” is a very fluid story, both in narrative structure and in description, which makes the title particularly apt. Yet, Galatea describes movement with a kind of horror and sees it as a loss of perfection.  The descriptions of her unhappiness are incredibly poignant and echo our very human longing to capture a “perfect moment” as if in amber. Why do you think this feeling is so universal?

Rachel Swirsky: That’s actually a contradiction that almost ended up closer to the heart of the story. In the real myth, Hephaestus does bind Aphrodite and Ares in chains. I had initially wanted to contrast the moment when Aphrodite loses motion to the moment when Galatea is forced into it. Ultimately, the two women are experiencing the same coercion—they are being forced into a state that they did not choose, one that is unnatural for them.

The desire to stand still as if in amber doesn’t seem mysterious to me. Tomorrow, we may lose the joys we have now. Knowing that “this too will pass” may make it easier to get through hard times, but it also makes good ones bittersweet.

Uncanny Magazine: You are an extremely community–minded author, serving as vice–president of SFWA in 2013, as well as participating in charity anthologies and projects.  Why is this community building important to you? What positive (or negative) impact has it had on your work as a creator?

Rachel Swirsky: I grew up with a volunteer–minded ethos. My parents have always worked very hard to support their communities, from the high school where my mother worked as a librarian (where they would spend 3 nights a week and Saturdays keeping the fickle computer labs running), to their hobbies like square dancing and AMICA, an organization for automated musical instrument enthusiasts. Not everyone has time or resources (or inclination) to volunteer to help with professional or hobby organizations, but when I do, I like to pitch in.

When I say “organizations,” of course I mean things like SFWA, but I also mean the loose network of science fiction professionals that exists over social media, conventions, and various organizations. Volunteering is good, but so is offering individual or small group support and mentorship to people when they need it. That’s my favorite part, personally.

Uncanny Magazine:  Thank you for taking the time to speak with us and share your insights with our readers!

Deborah Stanish

Deborah Stanish is the co–editor of the Hugo Award–nominated Chicks Unravel Time: Women Journey Through Every Season of Doctor Who and Whedonistas: A Celebration of the Worlds of Joss Whedon by the Women Who Love Them. She’s had essays published in Chicks Dig Time Lords; Time, Unincorporated Volumes II and III; Outside In: 160 New Perspectives on 160 Classic Doctor Who Stories by 160 Writers; Famous Monsters of Filmland; Apex Magazine, and The Liverpool University Journal of Science Fiction, Film, and Television. Deborah is also the moderator of the Hugo Award–nominated podcast Verity! where six women from around the globe debate and discuss Doctor Who.

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