I’ve been trying to do a “Thoughts on” for every story that gets published. I am behind because by doing “Brightest Star,” I’ve skipped over “Woman on the Rock,” and my “Thoughts on” for “Marley and Marley” will be published on the F&SF blog. But here is “I Set my Ship to the Brightest Star,” now available on NonBinary Review. I will warn you, these thoughts do give spoilers, so maybe listen or read the story first and then come back here.
This one was a painful and terrifying story to write. I started writing it years and years ago. First, it was a flash fantasy. Then it was a war story. When I heard the call for Hans Christian Andersen stories at NBR, I thought maybe that’s the home needed for this story: HCA’s world of the Snow Queen.
The thing that always stuck out to me about this story was the friendship and love between Kai and Gerda, and how for an emo-tastic sassafrass like HCA, this was a very hopeful story of good conquering the darkest and coldest of evils. The Snow Queen isn’t necessarily a bad person, she’s just the epitome of depression and loss.
And my story, about two lovers who had once been each other’s everything and now were strangers ... it seemed to fit perfectly. Not in a good way for the characters, but in a good way for the story.
The question I posed was: What if this heroic adventure had been for someone who Gerda perceived as her soul mate, but dangerously was nothing of the kind.
But I don’t think it’s the antithesis to HCA’s story of hope. I think our protagonist could have lived a fine life if she defined her goals in a different way. Giving our lives to those who don’t want them is maybe not the greatest of plans. Gerda could have lived out a fine life with a nice girl and made something of herself, maybe open up a candy shop somewhere on a rebel moon, who knows?
We don’t have to be alone. We don’t have to have closure for everyone who says goodbye. We don’t have to live in the past, but we can instead look to the future. Isn’t that what science fiction is all about?
TO READ OR LISTEN TO THIS STORY, CLICK HERE.
As I started thinking of how to combine these two ideas, I kept having this averse reaction to the idea of science making soul mates. The lack of agency in the articles that covered thirty minutes of staring at each other in order to program the brain to empathize/fall in love, and also the erasure of choice for Psyche in the myth both ran against my grain. Of course you can trick your brain into loving someone. But for a character who is intelligent, strong-willed, and wanting something deeper than a trick ... would it work then?
And I realized, while deciding what exactly this story was going to be, that I was so defensive and offended because of something weird that had happened to me.
In 2010, I saw a photograph of a man in a vest, thick curly hair, and big green blue eyes that held galaxies in them. I had no idea what his name was, where he came from, what flavor of cereal he ate growing up, none of it. But I said to my brother, "So I think I saw my soul mate today."
And when I met that man, and I hugged that man, it was like I'd been waiting my whole life to find him again. Whatever the hell that means.
After we were married, he told me he felt that weird feeling, too.
There's something deeper to all this love stuff. Love shouldn't be stressful or forced or forced upon or a scientific formula. It's something I can't explain. It's something I'm not sure an article or a myth can explain.
But we can try. I mean, that's one reason why we write about it, study it, remember it through lore.
Divya poses a very good question at the end of the recording. It's gotten me thinking in a whole new way about this story. And through her question, I realize, as it's now in the world and considered a finished product, I'm only starting to understand this one.
To read or listen "Nozizwe and Almahdi" on Escape Pod, click here.
So I've definitely already made this announcement in real life. But I haven't officially told my blog and the website what's going on.
Tonight, I watched Hasan Minhaj's Netflix special. Toward the end, he talks about his callbacks for The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. When he finally landed the gig, he wanted to say, "Jon ... this is the one thing I've gotten that my dad knows."
What comes out is, "Jon. My dad knows you!"
I lost it. I laughed and laughed. Because this is exactly the thought I had when I got the acceptance email from Charlie Finlay at Fantasy and Science Fiction.
My dad has never read a word of what I've written. I've published a book. I've been in an anthology. I've gotten enough sales where I'm now Active SFWA. Even back when I lived in Chicago and wrote plays, he never came and saw them. And I guess that's a good thing, because my mom got mad at my portrayal of a dad character in my junior year project.
But Dad knows what F&SF is.
When I quit my dayjob to be a writer, he worried. He told me, "Can't you at least sub for the district?" And I said, "No. I'm cutting this off completely."
But when I got this sale. My dream sale. The one I'd been working for ... he took me out to eat. He said, "They sell that in real bookstores!" He said, "That's where Dark Tower was." He said, "When I was a kid, I had F&SF all over my room. It got me through my childhood."
There are still miles to go. There are a million things I haven't done. But Charlie ... my dad knows you.
Since 2000-whatever, we've been heading to the mountains, Kaitlin and Jeff and me, to write a bunch of cool stuff. The little town of Estes Park is where I first read The Hobbit (I know, it was late in life). It's where I finished the last scene of my book. It's where I came up with some ideas for some cool short stories. It's home.
So this year, when I knew we would return to the mountains, and since our writing family had grown, I thought it would be cool to make the retreat bigger.
So we invited a few people to join us. Five of us drove out/flew out/waited for the rest of us to drive out or fly out, and we met up in a beautiful cabin.
We went downtown to some great adventures. We went to the bookstore for Independent Bookstore Day. We went to the haunted Stanley Hotel! We saw ghosts and we saw elk and we saw the tops of tall peaks. It was all very magical indeed.
It was 2003. Order of the Phoenix had dropped and I was not a fan how it ended. So I told my brothers I was going to write them a story we could read every night.
Eventually, it was less about reading it to my brothers and more about me finishing a gigantic project. I wanted to see if I could do it. I did it.
This all might sound really juvenile, but it was my first foray into noveling, and tracking characters, and working towards plots, and pacing, and all of the things you have to do as an actual writer. And it worked well as a training ground, because a lot of that plot was already in place by Rowling, the characters already existed. My world-building was cut in half because there was the HP Lexicon available in 2003. It took me a year to write Forever Alive, and I came out of it with a way better understanding of how I work, how my writing works, and how to craft a big epic story.
The other thing that came out of it was an audience. I learned how to take criticism. I learned how to work with a dramaturg. I learned how to listen to some comments and let the other comments go. And weirdly enough, I learned how to deal with fan mail. Because yeah, Forever Alive did gather a following. I still get things in the inbox about it, usually every other day. Some of it is great. Like "This really helped me in a bad situation" or "I really hope you're writing professionally now" or "Thank you for this story." And some other ones are creepy, like "Please marry me." And others are weird, like, "Actually, James has five hundred eyebrow hairs, not four hundred and ninety nine."
And the fun thing about it is ... it's low stakes. It was a fanfiction about the Marauders. It meant so much to me to write it, and it's meant a lot to others, but it's not my career. It's not my own world creation. If they don't like the way Remus is treated, welp, that's Rowling's circus, not mine. It was just special enough to keep me invested, and it was just removed enough to not make it personal. I knew it was never going to be for real published. So it was fine. Whatever happened with it was great.
And a lot happened with it. A couple of awards. It spread to a wide audience. Translations. Facebook buttons. Fanart. It was great.
It got me into college, this story. It showed my advisors I could write something long form and keep people invested. That was cool. And there was one kid in my college class who made fun of me for it. But the thing is ... fanfiction has taught a lot of great contemporary writers how to write.
So go out. Write your Supernatural Harry Potter Twilight Percy Jackson Wind in the Willows one shot. Do a crossover between Full House and Fullmetal Alchemist. Play in others' sandboxes in a safe space. And then go out into the world.
Oh, and if you want to read my old high school fanfiction from 2003, here's the link:
Forever Alive by Mordred
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Dawson is a writer. This is her blog. In it, you shall read about reading. And writing. And cheeseburgers. Sometimes there are tangents. Huzzah.