Interviewed by Katharine Eliska Kimbriel
Sue Lange’s eBook Uncategorized shows that future fiction can be synonymous with black humor, offering short stories that start out light-heartedly and then drag you under into darkness.
She has also written several novels, and her latest, The Textile Planet, is available from Book View Cafe. Her 2003 novel, Tritcheon Hash, was republished by Book View Café as an ebook in 2011. It was included in Kirkus’ Best of list for that year.
Q.) What drew you to science fiction? Are you a longtime fan of SF and fantasy?
A.) I was first introduced to science fiction in a high school English class devoted to the subject. I loved writers such as Asimov, Merrill, Vonnegut, Ellison, Clarke. When I went to college, I found I had little time to read any fiction at all and I fell out of the habit. Many years later, someone loaned me a copy of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. That pretty much brought me back to the fold. I remembered how much I enjoyed the genre with that book, which was uncharacteristically humorous. To this day, SF that is not overly earnest is my favorite. People like Stanislaw Lem come to mind. Even Vonnegut who is definitely earnest but serves up a good dose of dark humor with his work is notable.
Q.) How did you end up traveling from the nuclear industry, through the professional music business and then to writing science fiction?
A.) I got a job in a nuke plant right out of college. It was intense. I started a year or so after TMI (Three Mile Island) and the whole industry was in an upheaval. They were backpedaling for the most part, trying to beef up the staff both in numbers and qualifications. I found myself in the chemistry department with a lot of other college grads that were overqualified. And there were too many of us. It resulted in a sort of negative atmosphere full of backbiting whiners. It didn’t take long—about six years—for me to realize I wanted to do something else. I had always wanted to travel and I enjoy the arts so I moved to New York City, a place that I assumed was the center of the art world. It may or may not be that, but I certainly got a change of scene. I studied acting and music and eventually got involved with other musicians. Musicians are always putting together bands and taking them on the road so I sort of just swam along with that crowd. Performing music led to writing music which led to writing prose which led to publishing prose and that about brings us up to date.
Q.) Your novels Tritcheon Hash and We, Robots deal with some traditional SF concepts—gender stereotypes and obsession with technology. Your last work, The Textile Planet, starts out with humans under pressure when their technology can’t keep up with quotas, bad management, and department raiding of personnel. How do you start your novels? Does the plot come first? The characters? Or does it start with a corner of technology you want to examine?
A.) Certainly the plot and characters materialize first. The setting and scenario seem to just invent themselves. But plot and character have never been as interesting to me as theme. I try to figure out what I’m trying to say as soon as I get a picture of the story in my head. I ask myself what it means. Where did the idea come from and why did it come to me? Once I think I have the answer, I begin to write the story. I write the plot first, in outline form, just so I know where I’m going. Then I flesh it with meaning and dialog.
Q.) You have a gift for dashing off real 3-D characters in less than a paragraph. Did you start out writing short stories to learn this craft? Do your characters arrive as snapshots you merely need to describe for others to see?
A.) Yes, I did start with short stories. I’ve never consciously tried to write a full-bodied character, though. I’m not sure how I learned that. I think I just enjoy that kind of depiction. I like human beings and their psychology. I love movies and art that reveal characteristics without being obvious. I learned most of the craft of writing from reading Nancy Kress’ articles in Writer’s Digest. They made me watch for great writing and then try emulating it. I think a one-year subscription to Writer’s Digest is enough for anyone to get started. Get started, mind you. It might not result in greatness, but it does get you started in the right direction. Greatness comes from constant observation and evaluation of your own work and others’. IMHO.
Q.) Several of the stories in Uncategorized are about 20th century inventions that come back to haunt humanity. Where does this come from in you? Are you one of those people who is upset if you cannot recycle trash? Is this traditional SF paranoia, “if this goes on”? Or has your work with the nuclear industry made you sensitive to the tradeoffs that may have been chosen for ease or profit, as opposed to “first, do no harm”?
A.) I like the recycling trash question you bring up. I moved to the country (I have a farm) a few years ago from New York City. NY is so easy when it comes to trash disposal. You pay high taxes (or high rent) and in exchange the City is happy to take care of your garbage. You sort out the commingles etc. and they come and take it away. The system is great. Except, where does it go? Staten Island. Pennsylvania (where I now live). We shouldn’t be burdening others with our offal but I acquired the habit from the big guys. So when we first bought our house in PA, we didn’t know what to do with our trash. There’s no automatic pickup three days a week there and we were only there on weekends. How do you hire someone to pick up your garbage when you’re not going to be there on Tuesdays to put it out? We figured out how to not accumulate garbage and what to do with it if we did. In other words we took a lot of it back to New York. We had completely stripped the inside of the PA house down to the outside walls and all that debris had to be disposed of. Imagine carting all that sheetrock and insulation in trash bags, 2 or 3 at a time, and leaving it on the curb for the garbage men. In the end I figure it was a fair exchange. NYC dumps their garbage in the Pennsylvania countryside. The PA countryside dumps its garbage in NYC.
So yes, some of what I write about is what I’m thinking and seeing. And the point of view is tainted by the typical SF fretting. But I also pay a lot of attention to technology debates. Some pro-tech, some anti-tech. It’s such great fodder. And a lot of what I write about is simply watching the political game. I don’t watch too closely, just enough to see the humor in it. And it is funny. Take this current health care issue…
Q.) Your books are from regional presses/PODs, and now you’ve launched your latest work through Book View Cafe. Do you have any interest in publishing through the big NYC houses, or are you more interested in following up on new technology, such as text messaging novels to phones, or connecting with RSS feeds and blogs?
A.) I would never say no to the NYC houses, but I don’t think I’m writing the kind of stuff that interests them. They are looking for broad stories, not necessarily focused and thought-provoking cultural comment. Not that they don’t publish big idea books, but most of what I enjoy reading comes from small presses, so I think that’s probably where my writing fits.
Q.) What drew you to the BVC concept?
A.) Sarah Zettel. She was a force. She is a true believer and she will have you believing as well. It is hard to not follow her when gets revved up. I love her.
Q.) Does the Internet mesh well with your current writing habits, or is it forcing you into new working territory?
A.) It’s forcing me to write non-fiction. That is not my forte, but it’s good for me. I’m also thinking about cross-pollination constantly. I never used to do that. I hadn’t thought much about multi-media in writing before. Now I see possibilities all over.
Q.) Has writing taught you anything you didn’t expect?
A.) Yes, it’s taught me how to observe better. To appreciate sensitivity. To enjoy the artistic process. It’s taught me that the seeking after fame is an empty exercise. I think I always knew that, but now I’ve actually experienced it. This constant chasing after reviews and attention just to sell a book has gotten me to the point where I’m not sure I care if I get work published. It’s so much more fun to write than to publicize. But one wants one’s stuff to be read by someone, after all, so one must carry on as best one can. And then tell people about it.
Writing has also taught me how large the world is and how wrong I can be. I think that might be a product of growing up which finally happened to me a few years ago. It’s been a painful process and I’m not sure I like it, but at 54, I really need to get beyond my adolescent self.
Q.) You’ve become the new technology promotion guru of Book View Café. Have you worked in advertising before? Does the rapidly evolving technology of Internet promotion excite you, or is this a problem-solving mission to benefit you and your fellow BVC writers?
A.) First of all, I’m not the new tech promo guru of BVC. I’m not sure anyone is, but if someone is, it might be Chris Dolley. He seems to really tear it up in the digital burbs. Me, I hate promotion and advertising and anything to do with getting the word out. But it is so important and it’s becoming more so as everything has moved to the Internet where things are fast, fast, fast. Unfortunately I seem to dislike it more every year. At the same time, though, I think I’m getting better at it. I’m able to weed through the claims of the latest, greatest Internet practices and figure out quickly what is actually going to pay off. Which is good, because it’s a big world in there and it’s easy to get caught up between the infinity of dots and dashes.