Today, I am honored to have the wonderful Leticia Lara (from Fantástica Ficción) interviewing one my favorite authors: Benjanun Sriduangkaew. I am really grateful for the chance of publishing this interview on Sense of Wonder (you can read also its translation into Spanish). Hope you enjoy it!
Leticia Lara: When did you know you wanted to become a writer? Which other authors have influenced you? Is there any current writer that you admire?
Benjanun Sriduangkaew: Oh, that is tricky - I started writing in 2011 and started publishing in 2012; prior to that I didn't really consider writing as a thing I wanted to do, so I virtually stumbled into it? Influences are lifelong, though, as a reader. Jan Morris has expanded my worldview, Zadie Smith and Haruki Murakami are always wonderful, Junot Díaz is incisive and uncompromising. Current writers I admire include (but far from limited to!) Maria Dahvana Headley, Seth Dickinson, Yoon Ha Lee, and Rachel Swirsky.
LL: Why did you choose to write in English?
BS: At the start, it was just to practice my English. Then I was pointed to places that would take submissions, and broadly they have nice, clear instructions, which I like - I also like the idea of communicating with a broad audience; to do that one would write in Hindi, Spanish, Mandarin or English. Since I speak only one of those, English it is!
LL: What is your process of writing? Do you have the plot in your mind and let yourself go or do you plan every little step of your characters?
BS: I start with an idea of what I want to do with that story and a first line (usually the two come together). Otherwise I don't do any planning at all; beyond the initial idea it's all quite organic (or anarchic, maybe). I don't think I could plan every step of the way - it feels antithetical to how I work, and that includes even longer stories; Scale-Bright had no outline. The closest I come to outlining is thinking a few sections ahead, though I do generally have a clear idea of the beginning and the ending whenever I get started on something new. I would say that having a clear ending in mind is the most important.
The fantastic thing about the short form is that you can hold all of it at once in your head, a complete and powerful picture, and I often find that this wholeness communicates itself into the story even though I'm not conscious of it - so structure and theme tend to emerge and complete themselves. It's hard to explain, but I tend to plant cues for myself without really meaning to, so by the time I reach the last line I will find that the tricky parts have all already resolved themselves.
LL: You write both fantasy and science fiction. Do you approach these genres differently?
BS: Oddly, yes! I don't draw boundaries between the two, I find no hard lines or entrenched, intrinsic differences between science fiction and fantasy - so the differences tend to be down to my personal idiosyncrasies: my fantasy tends to be small-scale, my science fiction space operatic. Elements of the personal are heavy in both, though, as I don't think I could write stories that aren't about human relationships in some way. Still, SF feels bigger since you can have entire universes to play with, and I find the far future very exciting. Fantasy I find it easier to tell tightly focused personal stories with, so most of my fantasy tends to be self-contained.
LL: How long does it take you to write a story? Where do you draw inspiration from?
BS: This varies wildly. I've written stories in 2-4 days while others can take a month. Scale-Bright took only a couple months. I don't account for editing time much, as I don't do multiple drafts; stories tend to come out the way I want them the first go and the rest is minor line edits. Inspiration's tricky! I may have a hive of cybernetic bees that go out in the world and come back to me buzzing story fragments. In return, I feed them honey made from the spirit of cities.
LL: I find fascinating how you use Chinese mythology. Have you studied these traditions? How do you choose which myth to write about?
BS: I've done due research, as a matter of course, and around these parts I think everyone's watched wuxia shows growing up. Many of these myths permeate across the continent, in many forms - cartoons, TV shows, translations. I'm moved to say I didn't pick the myths so much as they picked me; some things you read and they stay with you. These specific stories drew me to retell them, as well, in particular ways: the legend of Chang'e and Houyi is a wonderful epic romance and I adore love stories, while the Legend of the White Snake has two women taking center stage. There's something luxuriant about taking old stories you love and working with them - both a familiar comfort and a wild joy in adding dimension, weaving them with your ideas, expanding them. It also helps that both stories, themselves, have had many adaptations down the centuries (and even the originals had variants; the Chang'e-Houyi story had several drastic permutations on the characters' personalities and origins, while the White Snake grew different endings).
LL: On your works you talk about the chance of rewriting memories. I find it terrifying. Do you think that kind of technology could be put to good use?
BS: In a project I'm currently working on, there's discussion of the same technology being used to erase combat trauma in soldiers (with implications that it could also be used for other types of trauma), but that runs up against questions of ethics and undesired side-effects. So even if it could be put to humane, benevolent use, I think the morality of it is always going to be questionable.
LL: What do you think about the new wave of authors who talk about postcolonialism, gender…? Are these new themes on science fiction or just new points of view?
BS: I'm very new to science fiction and not too familiar with what's considered the body of classics, so I can't really say - I have heard and read some of Tiptree and Russ, but they tend to be contextualized by their time and geography. I feel that I connect better with contemporary writers, as their concerns feel more current and in line with mine, especially writers considered part of the 'global' or 'international' wave.
LL: Have you ever been contacted by some Spanish publisher to translate your stories?
BS: One of my stories is getting translated next year and there's been interest in at least one more. But otherwise, I haven't been contacted as such. I'm very open to it, though!
BS: I have been asked about this semi-regularly, and that delights me very much - the interest in my fiction always surprises me, since I tend to work under the belief that about five people (or ten, to be generous!) read what I put out. I've collected my stories related to Scale-Bright in a sampler; some friends and readers have expressed interest in seeing all my Hegemony stories in one place.
LL: What are your opinions about the situation of women in genre fiction?
BS: I'd love to see more international women in the scene! There are already some like Aliette de Bodard, Silvia Moreno-Garcia, Xia Jia, Vandana Singh and those included in anthologies like Terra Nova and Kontakt, but more would be just brilliant.
LL: What can you tell us about your experience in being nominated for the John W. Campbell award?
BS: It has been a staggering honor - I technically 'lost', but personally I think just having been nominated is victory enough, and I have the distinction of being one of the few international names on the ballots this year. I was also very lucky to share the Campbell slate with folks who are wonderful writers and fabulous people, and was delighted to see Sofia Samatar take the tiara home. The nomination has put my name in front of more eyes, I think (literally, at the awards ceremony), but it's hard to measure the impact since I don't have a novel out; I expect Ramez Naam, Max Gladstone and Wesley Chu would have more insights into the business side of things. Altogether, though, the nomination has made me feel more in touch with the community - very welcome, and very comfortable.
BS: Oh, yes! I love that I can talk to the neatest, smartest folk on Twitter and have conversations with writers I admire. More experienced authors - that's to say, practically everybody! - never treat me like I'm an annoying greenhorn (even though I am); if anything they tend to treat me like an equal. Connecting with readers is something else again. I'm always grateful that they take the time to Tweet and let me know they enjoyed something I wrote, and I'm entirely indebted to them. Due to geographical distance, it can be tricky for writers like me, so social networks go some way to mitigate that - and of course it also connects me with other international writers and readers, such as the Spanish community, whom I appreciate to no end.
LL: What can you tell us about your new projects?
BS: I'm currently working on a Hegemony short story (novelette length, technically), and there are a few upcoming publications - stories in Phantasm Japan, Solaris Rising 3, and one in Tor.com January next year. Otherwise there's an SF novella on the backburner connected to one of my first stories, 'Courtship in the Country of Machine-Gods'. I don't tend to talk about works in progress, but I'll say that it involves brutal subjugation, liberation by main force, and an intense dysfunctional relationship between a soldier and a demagogue.
(You can also read this interview in Spanish at Fantástica Ficción/También puedes leer esta entrevista en español en Fantástica Ficción)