Can you walk me through your writing process?
My writing process may be terribly inefficient; that’s still something I’m working on. I’ve tended to do my best work in response to specific prompts or challenges, and when I crack what I want to say, I’ll either have most of the whole story in my head and sit down to write it in a couple of sprints or I’ll sit on it, letting it germinate untouched, for years until I finally force myself to put it onto a document. This story was one of the former, thankfully.
Who are some writers that have influenced your work?
I always say that the writers I wish I could be, if I had half their talent, are C.S. Lewis and Neil Gaiman. Admittedly, you can’t see a ton of that in this particular piece, other than in that Lewis showed me what quiet and spiritual introspection can look like in an interplanetary tale (in Out of the Silent Planet and Perelanda) and Gaiman taught me what the modern short story can look like (as his Fragile Things was the first short story collection I explored after high school). The concept of this piece also owes a debt to Mary Shelley, if only by virtue of being epistolary science fiction.
The concept of an isolated deaf person on a floundering planet is both unique and poignant. What inspired you to explore the theme of isolation and relocation in a sci-fi setting, particularly through the intimate medium of letters from Uncle Cade to his niece, Laina?
To an extent, I think the choice of letters speaks to the way, as technology advances, isolation doesn’t necessarily have to be emotionally isolating. I was part of that generation that grew up on the Internet, and I did a lot of my high school through a program offered online to homeschoolers, so I’ve always had friends that were geographically remote. My sister and nieces live in another state, and we FaceTime. My job is remote, and most of my department is in other time zones. That’s meant that keeping in touch with my college friends, my internship friends or people I’ve traveled with by Facebook Messenger or text has never been weird—I honestly feel like I express myself better in writing anyway. So, in context of history, it’s maybe an unorthodox way of communing with others, but no less so than monks living in community under a vow of silence, which Cade’s hearing loss simply takes to a literal extreme.
Can you discuss the thought process behind creating a character who desires to go unnoticed and resist relocation, and how this choice influences the narrative arc of the story?
In all honesty, this piece began its life as a response to a specific anthology pitch that I discovered online. The “shared world” pitched there involved resettling another failed space colony and specifically posed the question of how different characters, written by different authors, would respond. But as I set to create my own version, I fell a little too in love with the planetary system I’d made up to put him in. I would have to have significantly changed a lot of that on rewrites to fit the constraints of the original call, so, instead, I rewrote it to remove the connections instead. I guess, in a way, I decided I’d found a home around THEIA-4b, no matter how small and unforgiving, even if it meant largely cutting ties to the original concept and being literally the only one in that world. And Cade’s choice—already made before I rewrote the story—was its own kind of inspiration for me too.
The choice of letter form adds a personal touch to the narrative. What led you to choose this format, and how did it enhance the storytelling, especially considering Uncle Cade’s isolation?
It was a personal choice, but also one of necessity. I know I tell a story differently when I’m setting out to write it hoping someone else will read it than I do if I were, say, journaling it. (Personally, I appreciate that I was to keep a journal as part of my curriculum as a homeschooler back in the day, but the idea of actually reading it would just be exceedingly boring, and I tend to find memoirist writing, both as writer and reader, kind of self-indulgent and off-putting.) But that’s not to say that writing to a specific person will involve a lot of two-way communication. Given that Urda V is in an entirely different star system, Cade knows it will be months or years before he can expect a reply, which makes the full length of the short story one narrative across a half-dozen letters.
Uncle Cade’s isolation is a central theme. How did you approach developing his character and the dynamics of his relationship with his niece, Laina, through the letters?
This is the most personal of choices here, but it’s also the simplest. I wanted to explore the idea of isolation that’s not entirely isolating, even when you’re literally the only man in the world, the same way I often joke about getting a “Monastic Area: Do Not Enter” sign for my front door. So I just put myself in Cade’s place, and my own paltry updates would be for family. He wrote to his niece to sign the letters “Uncle Cade” the same way texts call me “Unkatyler.”
The story touches on the theme of colonization, with Laina’s grandfather being a colonizer. How did you approach exploring this theme within the context of a sci-fi narrative and its impact on Uncle Cade’s perspective?
Personally, I would like to think of Cade and Laina’s family more as “colonists” than “colonizers,” since many of these worlds were uninhabited beyond creatures like the sea dragons on Innri; some of the more established worlds were likely lifeless prior to being terraformed. And I think that may be a big part of the appeal of space colonization in fiction—it allows for the grand feeling of “the new world” and “manifest destiny” without the imperialist baggage of those terms in our own history.
Can you discuss the symbolism or commentary on colonization and its consequences that you aimed to convey through Uncle Cade’s reflections on Laina’s grandfather and the broader setting of the story?
I mentioned above that there’s a romantic sensibility (in the classical literary sense) to the idea of being a lone settler, making a homestand for yourself in the great unexplored wide open. Cade’s father would have seen the abbey and the high pasture as his forty acres, his parcel of the land rush, and the notion that it had never been anyone else’s is, in no small part, what drives Cade’s love for it. But, at the same time, the grand intentions of being more colonist than colonizer never run as smooth as we hope. We can see that in Innri’s settlements being defined by their failure to subjugate the tides in the tropics.
How did you navigate balancing the personal reflections on family history with the broader sci-fi elements of the narrative?
I had to stop myself from developing Devana and St. Cosmas more than what would directly impact Cade’s experience of them, because I can worldbuild for days without directly contributing to story. But once I lit on the idea of limiting Innri’s settlements to something inspired by the island chains in between the British Isles and Iceland (borrowing from my own trip, taken as a “solo adventure,” to Iceland a few years back), Innri’s whole history jumped almost fully formed into my head. And I loved it. Cade’s fondness for it grew out of that, and his history grew out of that in turn. So I just had to balance the genre-heavy history of the world with the history of his own family’s story by including just as much as you need to know to feel like you have a full understanding of both. There may be a few stray unnecessary elements here and there, but I’d like to think the overly long name of the derelict colony ship helps to add a sense of real specificity nonetheless.
Uncle Cade’s choice to name his island “Ashdown Abbey” is a powerful moment. Can you discuss the significance of this name and how it ties into the themes of isolation and the desire to be unnoticed?
This interview has mentioned the idea of monks a few times, which is the same way the nuns appeared on St. Cosmas in later revisions of this story. Cade’s little corner of the universe, separate even from New Hestur, needed a name that speaks to his hermitage, but, even beyond that, I like that it speaks to the idea not even necessarily of formal monasticism but of “monkishness.” I think modern society has lost an appreciation for monkishness. I know, in the Protestant church, the idea of “doing vocational ministry” has long meant full-time preaching or mission work, so we get this notion of monks as just being lifelong seminary students with bad haircuts, and their modern counterparts would only choose the solitary lifestyle because church-planting in [insert region here] is a dangerous business. It loses the understanding that monks were architects and pharmacists and historians and playwrights and vintners and bricklayers and welldiggers and “crazy” men who spent decades living on poles in the desert. During the later “Dark Ages,” it was Irish monasteries that copied and preserved most of the literature of classical antiquity, so Cade’s half-joking desire to be a “man of letters” falls in line with their legacy of doodling in the margins. Naming the abbey lets Cade reclaim the validity and the sense of legacy of living like the stylites (and that’s central enough to my thinking that a few readers may recognize that exact reference from being voiced “out loud” in another story I’ve written).
In the context of the story, what does the naming of Ashdown Abbey represent for Uncle Cade, and how does it contribute to his sense of identity in a world undergoing relocation and upheaval?
I think, more than anything, it speaks to Cade claiming his isolation as his own, and not as a bad thing. I know that, a lot of times, when someone favors doing his own thing or not seeking out the traditional settling-down narrative, it’s framed as a negative, a fear of change or a lack of initiative or withdrawal as a trauma response. Certainly, that last is what Cade’s sister has long assumed about Cade’s desire to strike out to the furthest corners of civilization and not get back on a spaceship. (And it really might be part of Cade’s desire not to seek out hearing aids in a future-set world where they may well be significantly smaller, easier and more effective.) But this story—specifically the ashfall of “Ashdown Abbey”—puts him squarely into facing his trauma again, and instead of what would perhaps be the more traditional lesson of choosing to stick with the neighbors who came to help stamp down the smoke—though he certainly does value them and makes his plans in concert with a couple of them—I think Cade’s confidence in making it out the other side alive and well, knowing he can depend on that peculiar extension of himself that is a good animal companion where his own senses may fail him, allows him to double down on his resolve to pursue his own peculiar legacy, and I’d like to think none of us reading can fault him for that.
What challenges did you encounter in depicting the sci-fi elements and the emotional complexities of Uncle Cade’s story within the confines of a short format, and how did you address them in your writing process?
The short form has actually been to my advantage the last few years, coming from my horribly inefficient writing process. Thinking in vignettes and snapshots lets me actually put an ending on the narrative. But you may have noticed from this interview that I can be a bit florid and longwinded, so the hard part becomes choosing what needs to be added to and what needs to be cut to make the story work when I’m already living in that murky space between short story and novelette.
As a writer, how do you navigate the balance between creating a rich sci-fi world and focusing on the personal, emotional experiences of the characters, particularly when dealing with themes of isolation and relocation?
This is my first published piece, so maybe I’ll let you know when I’ve gotten a little better and more practiced at doing it.