Interviewed by Katharine Eliska Kimbriel
Writer Amy Sterling Casil is simultaneously the most forthright and most deceptive person you may ever read. She’s highly intelligent, extremely well-educated and can turn heads in a room. She may sit silently, introverted, listening, and never speak throughout an entire evening. Then again, she may suddenly challenge you with an audacious idea, a conservative tenet, a bold statement of equality for every disenfranchised human on the planet. Casil is someone who can make exquisite art and teach a room full of people to start thinking. Casil is also a former child who “dug the wires out of Barbie’s legs and popped off her head, much to my dismay when I realized that head was never going to be quite right ever again even with ample glue and child-like blow-torching.”
A business consultant who teaches writing and composition at several Southern California colleges, Casil is the award-winning author of 23 nonfiction books, about a hundred short stories (primarily science fiction and fantasy), one fiction and poetry collection, and two novels.
Fascinated by nature, intoxicated by the possibilities of science, and both curious and believing in wonderful things, Amy Sterling Casil may capture your mind, or your heart…or both.
1.) The first thing that comes to mind for you is how personal some of your SF stories are. Also, you not only share and give back by teaching and raising an awesome daughter, you honor your mother by exploring your artistic gifts, and you help your business clients create their dreams. You’ve been inspiring others for years. But you’ve been quiet on the fiction front. What have you been doing for the past few years, creatively?
A) Gee, this is tough, because I’ve really just started working again from the science fiction perspective.
A lot of people aren’t aware, but I’m also a nonfiction writer, and have written a lot of fiction and poetry for academic publishers. I’ve written well over a million words for academic publishers. My short fiction has also been adopted into college texts and I would like to have poetry adopted as well. I have high hopes for the “Barbie Poem,” because I’d like to see that as a counter to Marge Piercy’s awful, depressing Barbie poem that’s in countless K-12 and college texts. “Perfect Stranger” is in the current edition of Literature for Composition (Pearson) edited by Sylvan Barnet and his late partner, William Burto. Right along with it is the Marge Piercy Barbie poem that catalogs every negative stereotype imaginable for young girls.
This is the “Barbie Poem”:
My idol was a Barbie doll
With pointy breasts and waist so small.
She really was a fancy thing
With soft blond hair in a sixties swing
We drank Tang, ate tasty filler
We listened to songs sung by Mitch Miller
Barbie’s legs, they bent just so
I couldn’t figure it out, you know
So, I took my trusty blade
To see of what stuff my Barbie was made
I showed my friends Hey look! A wire!
They refused to believe, called me a liar
Her wireless legs now all aflop
Her neat blond hair twisted in a tangled mop
My Barbie still was totally swell
Made special for me by Mister Mattel
For the past year and a half, I’ve been writing for Policymic, which is the top internet site for news and commentary on public policy and culture for Millennials. I am one of the top Pundits and have a large readership there. It offers the opportunity for positive dialog with countless others of all ages, and from all over the world. I have made a number of close friends and new readers.
So that said, I am working in the science fiction field again. I decided with the opportunity of the Clarion Write-A-Thon this year that I’d not only endeavor to raise money for Clarion, I’d see what it was like to go back to short fiction. When I wrote “Perfect Stranger” after my baby Anthony died in 2005, I felt that I had done everything I’d ever wanted to do with short fiction. To me, that was the perfect story. I even tagged 5,000 words on the nose with it. When it was done, I had no desire to do short fiction any longer.
Over the past five years, I’ve also been working on a 3-book fantasy series. I tend to be very stingy in who I’ll send my work out to, so the books were only considered by one major publisher (not in the SF/F field). Sherwood Smith read the first book for me and pointed out the serious infection I’d gotten from doing all the writing for educational publishers. I have a lot of work to do before it is ready for readers, to be honest. Through that process I did learn I could write big stories—encompassing stories—and deal with multiple plot threads on a broad scale over considerable time. And I invented this world. So, that was good.
What writing is about for me right now is the intersection of this huge world we live in with the perceptions we have as individuals. It’s also about the intersection of the past, present and future. I think it’s very likely that time isn’t real; perhaps it is the mechanism that enables us to perceive our different paths in life as individuals.
I’m still the same little girl who performed exploratory surgery on her Barbie doll. I’ve started thinking deeply about the heroine’s journey. For me, “started” is like a decade ago. I consider myself very fortunate in my family and friends, and something that really clicked is the generational differences in my family. I wrote about this in “The Color of Time” (Zoetrope AllStory) not really understanding what I was writing about.
These newborn eyes, the color of old copper pots which have been left in the sun. The color of a nugget of turquoise taken straight from the earth, of the sea off Laguna at sunset, of what you are moving toward, of what will be as well as what was. Your eyes. Your child’s eyes. Your mother’s eyes. Shot with time’s arrow, melted, forged into a pot.
Algis Budrys told me years ago “Orphans is orphans and we understand each other.” I hadn’t even realized that he’d known I was an orphan; I believe he saw it in my writing. Not on purpose, but by default, because I am the only one, I’ve felt that I should be “keeper” of the memories of prior generations, like my mother (Sterling Sturtevant, Academy Award winning animation art director). Last fall, my niece Debbie Sterling Lewis launched her toy company, which makes GoldieBlox, engineering toys for girls. Debbie looks preternaturally like her grandmother Sterling. My mother went through considerable adversity to work as a woman in animation. Much of my lack of so-called creative output is a result of adversity in the science fiction field. And that’s real. Part of the problem is limitations I placed on myself; part of it is indeed systemic.
But Debbie didn’t have to operate on her Barbies in secret. She is enough younger that she wasn’t afraid that if she pursued engineering or design, she “wouldn’t get dates,” wouldn’t be thought to be feminine, and wouldn’t be “popular.” Those were my problems. I believe my mother had to use courage I cannot even imagine to do what she was able to accomplish. Before that, my maternal great-grandmother, who graduated from Stephens College in Columbia, Missouri at age 13 with a degree in math, eventually came to own an entire block in Riverside, California, designed clothing, and wrote stories under a man’s name for the Saturday Evening Post. My paternal grandmother graduated from Columbia University with a degree in pharmacy, was the first female pharmacist in New York City, and one of the six founding members of the American Communist Party.
So enough time and generations have passed that everyone loves Debbie and rightly-so. She’s no fish out of water, she is very much part of today’s generation of young men and women who are finding new ways of creating things, building things, and living. Even so, at present, only 10% of engineers are female. Young women want to build and make things, too—and they have their own ways of doing things.
I made the conscious decision this year that I was going to write primarily female protagonists from now on. And they’d be “real.” They’d be like my friends, my family—like me.
2.) Where do you start with writing short fiction? People who don’t understand the creative mind sometimes think that it’s shorter, hence, simpler. But writers know that’s far from true.
A) Short fiction is a hard master and it’s one that I willingly chose to work under in full knowledge that pay rate’s going to work out to be about 5 cents an hour as opposed to what I bill for other work: $100 an hour and up. Over time, I came to understand that certain ideas and certain characters fit naturally into various lengths. Each type or length of short story is similar to visual media. For example, the script for a ½ hour sitcom is going to be about 20 pages long; for a one-hour drama, 40 pages. Those who’ve written filmable scripts know they are looking at no more than 120 pages. When I write short fiction I have access to many more variations in time, sensory expression and verbal expression than screenwriters do. But the form still dictates what works and what doesn’t.
A novel is somewhat different; certainly a series of novels are. There’s more room for exploration of multiple characters and themes. I’ve been reading in-genre for the past few months. I was never the sort of reader who was ultra-critical of others’ work. John Ringo echoed an idea I’ve heard from many other writers in his most recent book, “Great writers steal.” Yet coming to novels as a hardened short fiction writer, what I see often is a sort of discursive nature that’s not always to the good–yet it’s clear that novel-readers enjoy this all the same. I’ve worked very hard on scene, sequel and language for impact. There shouldn’t be wasted words, whether the work is 1,500 words long or 150,000 words long.
I’ve always been a writer because I have never felt comfortable saying what I thought to others, despite my reputation as being outspoken. I always felt silenced, as if my ideas or interests weren’t going to go very well with the group, whether in a family situation, or in school, or in the workplace. Of course over time, I overcame this, but the real way that I did that was to write.
That’s why my stories are always personal. These are the things I think about. Even if they’re not “personal,” like “Mad for the Mints,” they are—because that’s the random fashion in which my mind works. I see connections on many different levels. So therefore of course Mad King George would have a talking horse (a houyhnhnm from Gulliver’s Travels) named Phutatorius (Tristram Shandy), and he would have lost the colonies due to an unfortunate friendship with mint-addicted aliens who gave him very bad advice. “Mad for the Mints” is really a homage to many great conversations following insanely forking paths with Jim Blaylock. He got me to read Tristram Shandy; we have a lot of the same favorite books and authors.
I do include abiding personal interests in my fiction. I knew at Baycon earlier this year that I should be doing a story for BVC’s Mad Scientist anthology for Deborah Ross. Deborah is someone I’ve known for a while, but we didn’t really cross paths in the Critters Los Angeles-area workshop (which was comprised primarily of Clarion graduates). So therefore I knew she hadn’t read anything I’d written.
At Baycon, my friend Christopher Hull and I were talking with Deborah Ross and Dave Trowbridge (aka world’s funniest man) and Dave and Chris were waxing poetic about strange early aircraft and aviation technology, like the wooden jet which supposedly incinerated itself upon takeoff.
Chris is a maker, and getting to know him has helped to cement the way I’m thinking now: “I was that little kid who operated on her Barbies and who was never happy unless she was making something or finding out how something worked” and—don’t forget it. At age six, I “made my own book.” This wasn’t a very good book. It was a very basic story about “Freddy the Freindly Butterfly” (yes, misspelled). What I was trying to do was “make a book” as in bind it, illustrate it, and put my very best six-year-old printing in it. Well, Chris at the same age wrote a story about the “Wrong Brothers.” They were early aviation pioneers from a mysterious foreign land who invented their own airplane. After several trials, they were ultimately successful, but the wicked ruler of the foreign land took the plane away, so they came to America, reinvented the plane, and became the Wright Brothers. I loved this idea for a story and wanted to write it, but since it has a positive emphasis of the little kid thrill with science, invention and flight, I knew it was all wrong for the Mad Scientist anthology. My God, I realized, back to the dark side again.
I read constantly, mostly nonfiction, and had read the story of Jill Pruetz, a primate researcher in Senegal who discovered chimps making and using spears to hunt bush babies. Jill had experienced the typical “They can’t do that” response and all the prejudice and hostility that comes toward anyone who challenges conventional wisdom, especially a female scientist. I’ve also always been interested in the Mayans, and one of the fascinating things I’d learned studying their culture was that the great hullabaloo surrounding the decipherment of Mayan hieroglyphs centered on one stubborn scientist’s resistance to the groundbreaking work of a Russian language expert, as well as his enmity toward female scientists and their efforts. I also came to realize that if western “experts” had just talked to contemporary Mayans at any point in the process, suddenly the mystery would have been resolved. Like, Mayans don’t know their own language? Or have some clue about it? Today the Mayan hieroglyphs are even used in Guatemala and Yucatan.
So, I wrote a story, “The Gods That Men Don’t See” for the BVC Mad Scientist anthology that is inspired by all of those things. The scientist is Ginny Baumann, and the creatures that are doing things far beyond their preconceived abilities are howler monkeys. It’s set on the famous Mosquito Coast, where the supposed “City of Gold,” Ciudad Blanca, has been uncovered by LIDAR, ground-penetrating radar that is discovering hidden cities and sites all over the world.
Chris was being particularly slow in providing airplane details (he’s come up with the “Flying Radial”—the radial engine rotates while the driveshaft is stationary), so I began another story, “No Dogs In Heaven,” that takes Gyla the wolf girl from “Chromosome Circus,” IMAGO and “Jonny Punkinhead” into her future, somewhat equivalent to the present day—and the changed people/ “freaks” as well. After working six years in downtown Los Angeles, I can do that world quite well–maybe a little more realistic than a television series like Ray Donovan (cannot watch, it is so exaggerated).
Gyla’s older self is now inspired by one of LA’s most notable characters, masterful defense attorney Johnny Cochran. I admire Johnny Cochran for many reasons—sure, he got O.J. off and O.J. very likely “did it,” but he accomplished the task with an enthymeme (“If the glove does not fit, you must acquit.”). Johnny Cochran was a thousand times greater an attorney than any other members of O.J.’s “Dream Team”—and if people want to think about racism, they should think that he is a hero to the black community and rightly-so, but no one else knows anything much about him except for the O.J. case and thinks only of him as “a black attorney” if that—instead of one of the greatest legal minds of his generation and a great humanitarian. The fact that someone like Paul Krugman, who has few, if any, original thoughts, receives such accolades and is constantly in the public eye with the ability to say whatever he wants, whenever he wants to an automatic audience of acolytes, while the work and values of people like Johnny Cochran are little-known, should indicate something is not right with the world.
In this story, Gyla and Joshie the clown are no longer together. Joshie is on disability due to mental instability, and he calls her 20 times a day, though she doesn’t answer. Their adopted son, Little Bear, died while climbing a waterfall with his father. So, ya know… no… I never write personal stories from my own experience.
I’ve written over 200 short stories and five novels and every single one of them has a piece of me in them.
3.) Are we going to see another novel from you someday?
A.) Yes, I am halfway through the novel version of “To Kiss the Star,” which is called Starfarer. It’s about what happens next to Mel Armstrong, the disabled young woman in “To Kiss the Star.” The book’s characters are all disabled teens who’ve received perfect, nearly-immortal cyber-bodies and their own starships. They are supposed to explore nearby solar systems in search of earthlike, potentially habitable planets. Mel gains a best friend, falls in love with yet another young man who’s all wrong for her, and must lead her friends to save the earth from his uncontrollable rage. She goes from blind and in a wheelchair, trapped in her room at the rehabilitation center, to fighting battle-bot style on a space station and using physics and her intuition to fight in space. Julie M. Jones, the inspiration behind Mel, will be gratified to know that given the opportunity, disabled people can kick butt. Literally.
4.) You strike me as a person who sees a map of the galaxy laid out before you, and fiction slots itself into places where you need it to live. Do you see themes that reoccur in your work?
A) Actually everything I have written does go together, it is all personal and it represents my response to what I see in the world. My prior themes were “creating a family,” “losing a family,” and mothers and daughters, fathers and sons. Now, I’m definitely working on a broader canvas, and I find the story possibilities limitless with female protagonists. I am interested in all science and technology but find I gravitate toward my childhood interests of biology, natural history and archaeology. And space.
5.) Have you decided yet what writing means to you?
A) I’ll quote myself: “Like light, like fire, like life.”
6.) Do you have a preference for writing science fiction over every other type of fiction?
A) Yes, I do prefer writing science fiction. It provides an essential structure for telling stories about the subjects that compel me to write.
It may interest readers to know that while I was in graduate school at Chapman University, a faculty member who had a doctorate in “Creative Writing” (think about that if you are familiar with the traditional meaning of “Doctoral” degree) asked me, in front of many other class members, “You’re a pretty good writer. You understand language. Why do you want to write that crap?”
As if science never happened. This is a curious 20th Century faux-intellectualism. I write science fiction because I not only want to push my mind into thinking about big problems and change, I want to write about what means something to people now, today. Science is one of the great human endeavors–it is a great pillar of how people understand the world and live in it. I won’t say “change the world,” because I don’t see people as primary drivers of life, the universe, and everything in it. What we know is a bacterium in our kitchen sponge. What we do not know is everything else. We live in the world; in a certain sense, our senses create the perceptions we have of it. But I don’t see the world in the hubristic way many do. I agree with George Carlin’s monologue about the planet. Eventually, if and when Earth tires of us, she will shake us off like so many fleas.
7.) Why writing to communicate your vision, and not art, drama, etc?
A) I’m a writer. Yes, I do artwork. One of my undergraduate degrees was in studio art. I have always done artwork, but it is for personal pleasure or money. What I want to say, I best-say as a writer. As to drama, I did take drama, against my better judgment, in high school. We had a great drama teacher, Billie Daniel, who recently passed away. I was assigned to be in a scene from “The Importance of Being Earnest.” After limping through this horrific experience and forgetting pretty much every line, she assessed our performance in her gravelly voice, “Oscar Wilde is rolling over in his grave.” Years later, she denied ever having said this–but the thing is–that was mild, pleasant and complimentary compared to what I thought and felt. I’m painfully shy and always have been. To put myself in public and do any of the things in front of others I am required to do, including teaching, requires me to “play a role,” at which I think I do a little better than whatever I did all those years ago to poor Oscar Wilde.
8.) Would you like to be a full time fiction writer? Why or why not?
A) Once we voice goals, this becomes much closer to reality. I can name a list of goals that I’ve set and achieved. Pertaining to writing, I have set a number of goals and achieved them. I spend approximately 60% of my time writing at present. However, not fiction. I work (fiction) every day, but sometimes it is only a half hour or less. If I said, “I would like to be a fiction writer 75% of the time,” I think that would be good. I have to do other things such as teaching or working with businesses to write fiction, if that makes any sense. Otherwise, I don’t have good stories to tell. I lose perspective.
9.) What have you learned from your own writing? To what concepts, intentionally or not, do you think you’ve exposed your readers?
A) I’ve learned that there’s a story in everything. Literally everything. In terms of concepts, I could mention the aspects of biotechnology, nanotechnology, space and research bias that I’ve written about. I’m not a luddite by any means, but I have a disregard for worship of science and technology in the absence of recognition of the human heart. I don’t worship my running shoes, though extensive technology and research in virtually every discipline has gone into making them. I think my work also speaks on behalf of the hidden heroes that are everywhere in life, in every country. People mistake fame and public attention for something worthwhile. I would rather be the man or woman who made the best running shoe ever, or who healed ten thousand children and was unsung. I would a thousand, thousand times rather be Wangari Maathai and a thousand million times rather be a completely unsung, unremembered Wangari Maathai who inspired the planting of a hundred million trees in Africa, than I would be any of today’s political or entertainment celebrities.
Today, we have more than ample reason to question everything. We are in a time where history’s lessons and the famous dictum: “Those who forget the lessons of history are doomed to repeat them” are no longer completely valid. Such a person as me was not possible in prior generations anywhere in the world. To prior generations, I would be an appalling monster. Another whole generation of young women have been born in which there are hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, who will live lives far more similar to mine than any women who have ever lived before.
The primary idea in nearly everything I write is an effort to understand the human heart and its weaknesses and its great strengths. Our hearts today must look to the future. We cannot take the easy answers provided at any time in the past. Each of us, men and women alike, must learn what it is today and moving forward–to be the heroes of our own lives.
10.) Has writing taught you anything you didn’t expect?
A) That would be “everything,” because I expect nothing. Expectations are always the root of disappointment, and they are also far too close to unexamined assumptions for my comfort. Every story is a new discovery. I learn many new things each time. For example, the oft-considered concept of immortality. This is an obsession with some people. I heard from Blaylock the hilarious story that Gregory Benford has arranged to have his head cryogenically frozen by the cryogenics people after his death. David Brin has posited that people are in the process of becoming like gods. If against my will I received the job of “god,” I’d resign.
So here is the thing, and this is what I’m writing about in the current story (“No Dogs In Heaven”): scientists have just now “noticed” that after a century of studying pathogens or “bad” bacteria that makes us ill, despite the fact they’ve also “noticed” that mitochondria are bacterium-like organs within our cells, there are millions and possibly billions of non-pathenogenic bacteria living in every structure in our body and they might not make us sick at all, they may be the key to genuine good health and longer lives. I’m not very interested in “immortality” personally, but I can accept and think about longevity, which I think will produce very different people who live past 100 years of age with good health and mental acuity. I think it’s possible that if the bacteria of which we are comprised–we are walking sacks of flesh filled with intimate bacterial friends–can be kept healthy and strong–we will live longer and in better health as well.
I’ve written about similar ideas before. Carol Myers in “The Renascence of Memory” is dying of Alzheimer’s in a long-term care home when she receives an experimental nanotechnology treatment that rejuvenates her body and her mind. As the healing process occurs, the memories of a life she wishes she had lived better return as her body becomes that of the young woman she once was. This is an example of how I think. I would not care to be 30 again. But myself, now, with what I know and think now? I don’t share Carol’s great regrets about her life choices. And what about someone considerably older? What would an 85 year old do with the body of a 30 year-old and a healthy 85 year-old mind? This is the stuff stories are made of. For me.
Writing hasn’t made me humble, but it humbles me. Every time I write, every time a voice speaks to me, I realize how alone all of us are. How small, how frail. There are people who write grand stories about archetypal heroes. There will always be a place for such stories. I want to tell the stories about real heroes, which seldom are heard and even if heard, are imperfectly understood.
Having been offered immortality of a sort, Gyla the wolf girl tells Mad Dr. Matt Mason (this is “mad scientist” story #2 as well), who cannot resist asking in his blithe, tone-deaf Aspergery way if she has fur “everywhere”–i.e. all over her body, including intimate locations:
“Do you want to see me?” she asked. There was nothing nice in her tone. “Lots of men have. That’s what I did for a living, Dr. Mason. I danced naked in front of men for money. Before I became what you see today. Every dollar that put me through school came from the dirty fingers of a john. You’re just another one, only cheaper than average. You want it for free.”
If I was one of the traditional, old school sci-fi writers, or even if this was a movie today, these two would have to obey the conventions. Gyla, a former prostitute and stripper, would always have to live that way. Mad Dr. Matt Mason would somehow have to “save” her in one type of story, or would have to turn on her in another. But that isn’t what happens to either one of them. It isn’t anything like what either chooses to do. Gyla isn’t defined by what she did (“Chromosome Circus”), a thing that millions of women do to make a living and provide for themselves and their families. She’s a hero and a gentlewoman. What will Gyla do with the key to immortality and a possible cure for the changed people like her? What would I do? What would Jonny Cochran do? Who thinks like that? I do.
I was given a little “exercise” by Alan Rodgers when developing the book that eventually became the three-book fantasy series (The Fire Gryphon) which I still need to do a lot of work on: read at least a dozen “big science fiction” novels. These ranged from Eon by Greg Bear to The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester to Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein. I did Dan Simmons. I re-read Startide Rising by David Brin. Alan had a great editorial mind and unerring taste for what readers would like and for big books. He correctly identified the manuscripts for Interview With the Vampire (Anne Rice) and Hyperion (originally a “fix-up” book of combined stories by Dan Simmons) prior to publication or early in publication as big bestsellers. A couple of weeks ago, John Ringo informed me that if I wanted his level of readership, I’d have to tell stories that hit the “sweet spot” among committed male readers. Stories they wanted to read, that compelled them.
While I greatly admire all of these authors and enjoy their work, I’m not close to being any of them. Heinlein was quite right about birth control pills in Stranger in a Strange Land. But he never really got in the head of any of the women who were freed by taking them.
The main thing I’ve learned, I believe, and it’s been a brutal lesson and why I will continue to write, is how to tell my own stories. The main message I will always have for people is: “Free your mind.” None of us “has to be” any certain way. We are all free to tell our own stories, and must follow only the dictates of our hearts and minds.