Weird Compost: A Conversation with Ruthanna Emrys
Ruthanna Emrys was born and raised on Cape Cod, Massachusetts. She moved for college, grad school, and academic positions, eventually landing in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed outside Washington, DC. “I love DC; it feels like home, and I hope to stay living there for the rest of my life. I love the free museums that you can duck into for half an hour if you need a quick fix of sculpture. I love that people come here from across the country to work on things that they care about passionately. I love that everyone reads on the Metro, and I love that the trains actually go into the suburbs.”
Emrys studied cognitive science at Hampshire College, where she met her wife—in a class on films about nuclear war—she also met the people who would become her friends and co-parents, “in a class about ‘making things up.’” She earned her PhD in cognitive psychology at Stony Brook University.
Ruthanna Emrys hit the genre scene in 2007 with stories in both Analog Science Fiction and Fact and Strange Horizons. By 2014, when Tor.com published novelette “The Litany of Earth,” Emrys already had a handful of short fiction out at notable venues. “The Litany of Earth” made a splash with readers and critics, landing on the Locus Recommended Reading list.
In 2017, Tordotcom published Winter Tide, book one of the Innsmouth Legacy. The book resonated with even more readers, making Emrys a Locus Awards finalist, a RUSA (Reference and User Services Association) Award finalist, a Romantic Times Reviewers’ Choice finalist, and a Crawford Award finalist. Book two, Deep Roots, published in 2018, was a Locus Awards finalist and a Dragon Awards finalist, and the series as a whole (including “The Litany of the Earth”) was a Mythopoeic Award finalist.
Ruthanna Emrys publishes a nonfiction series at Tor.com with Anne M. Pillsworth called Reading the Weird, in which they “get girl cooties all over weird fiction, cosmic horror, and Lovecraftiana.” Her collection Imperfect Commentaries came out with Lethe in 2019, and her latest book is A Half-Built Garden, just out from Tordotcom: “a novel of extraterrestrial diplomacy and urgent climate repair bursting with quiet, tenuous hope and an underlying warmth.”
You’ve described some of your work as “weird fiction.” What does this term mean for you, and what is the appeal of weird fiction in particular?
I once spent the entire weekend of Necronomicon going from one panel to another, with every single panel devolving into an attempt to define weird fiction! It’s a controversial topic. I prefer a broad definition that lets me cover as wide a range of stories as possible for the Reading the Weird column, and my co-blogger Anne M. Pillsworth and I have settled on:
- Contains some supernatural component that aims to undermine the reader’s assumptions about the world and confront them with the limits of their comprehension AND/OR
- Depicts a universe in which humanity is unimportant and the bulk of reality is disinterested in us or our comfort and has interests of its own that are likely to be deeply inconvenient for human existence AND/OR
- Plays with the tropes and creations of classic weird fiction authors such as H. P. Lovecraft and Robert Chambers AND/OR
- The ocean is awfully big and strange, isn’t it?
I’m particularly interested in exploring how people react to an unknowable, uncaring universe. Lovecraft’s answer was a fairly consistent mix of irresistible curiosity and terror, but people are often better—or differently bad—at handling things that turn their worldviews upside down. Some people even have worldviews that allow for an unknowable, uncaring universe!
In the Innsmouth Legacy series, Winter Tide and Deep Roots, I took an all-of-the-above approach with a story in which Lovecraft’s monsters (both the real ones like me and the made-up ones who are just metaphors for Jewish New Yorkers) get center stage. Then they have to deal with not only a scary universe full of things that can destroy them without even noticing, but scary bureaucracies full of humans who can destroy them without even noticing. Monsters everywhere, and sometimes you have to talk with them.
You’ve been publishing fiction since 2007, beginning with a few short stories at notable markets. Is your approach or process for short fiction different from longer fiction?
I enjoy writing short fiction, but I think I’m naturally a long-form writer. Not in the sense that I tend toward adding more words, because if anything I underwrite first drafts. But my idea of a good ending for a short story is frequently, “and then the protagonist made an interesting decision.” In a novel, that interesting decision can unfold properly into second and third order consequences—sequels are even better, because then you can deal with all the trouble that comes out of dramatic solutions to huge problems. I’m one of the few people who loves the final season of Babylon 5, because I really just want to know how everyone handles the sociopolitical consequences of eucatastrophe.
Right now, I’m playing around with novella-length works, which I haven’t done previously. I’m seriously appreciating the combination of constrained focus with room to play around. Possibly my novellas will be less likely to feel like incomplete novel openings than some of my short stories!
You also write poetry. What is your relationship to poetry like, compared to your relationship to short fiction; and what is your process for writing poetry?
I’m very much a hobbyist when it comes to poetry. I like the constraints of forms like sonnets and sestinas, and I can write them when I’m stuck on everything else. I like rhyme and scansion. My process is really to just get a line or couplet stuck in my head and play around for an hour until I’ve got the whole thing. Or to take a prompt from someone else and play around for an hour.
As a reader, my relationship to poetry is much the same as my relationship to chocolate. Which is to say that it’s a decadent treat that also provides a much-needed prod to neurotransmitter production, and which I keep on the side of my desk for easy access when my brain is feeling slow. Right now, my poetic truffle box includes Jarod K. Anderson’s Love Notes From The Hollow Tree, R.B. Lemberg’s Everything Thaws, Amelia Gorman’s Field Guide to Invasive Species of Minnesota, and Yaakov Moshe’s Is: Heretical Jewish Blessings and Poems.
From your first short pieces to your 2019 collection up to the Innsmouth Legacy duology and your latest book, what are the themes and motifs you tend to gravitate toward?
Found family, snarky aliens, and the importance of large bodies of water.
My agent also recently pointed out that almost every long-form thing I’ve written includes a scene in which the point of view character has to race through a storm to handle a crisis elsewhere and is not the person driving. I will, in fact, probably commit this scene again. I have no idea why.
Macmillan describes you as “A literary descendent of Ursula K. Le Guin.” What does this description mean in terms of your writing, and in particular, in terms of your latest book, A Half-Built Garden?
That description still makes me blush and hide behind the couch! But I do see what they were getting at: Le Guin is interested in complex societies that provide alternatives to the things we take for granted. At the same time, she doesn’t let big ideas distract her from the specific characters who have to wrestle with them. And even though many of her books have considerable action—revolutions and assassinations and dramatic glacial expeditions—she treats all drivers of social change as equally compelling.
A Half-Built Garden is similarly about alternative societies and the people shaped by them—and is itself very strongly shaped by Le Guin’s quote about the seeming inescapability of capitalism and the divine right of kings. After I got that Macmillan cover copy (and got out from behind the couch) I reread The Dispossessed, which I hadn’t gone back to since college. And yeah, it was definitely an influence on my writing! Along with Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time, Le Guin’s “ambiguous utopia” strongly shaped my thinking about better worlds—and the interesting ways in which they might be imperfect.
What was the inspiration for A Half-Built Garden and how did the book develop?
This was a book with many inspirations. There was the Le Guin quote I mentioned above, and the challenge of trying to imagine something as different from what we have now as nation-states are different from the divine right of kings—and the question of what old powers would remain, in the same way that the divine right of kings hasn’t actually entirely gone away. There were questions about the future of governance sparked by Malka Older’s Infomocracy series and Ada Palmer’s Terra Ignota series. There was my intense desire to write something in which middle-aged parents not only get to have adventures, but in which being a middle-aged parent is integral to the adventure. And there was the work I’d done in the DC citizen science and crowdsourcing world, and wanting to create speculative technologies around that whole approach to creating and acting on knowledge.
One of the book’s core questions—riffing on that first Le Guinian question—was around what happens when decision-making structures designed to address one set of giant societal problems run into existential problems that they aren’t well-suited for. Which is, alas, what seems to be happening right now. So first I had to imagine structures that could handle climate change, global pandemics, etc.—and then a problem that would shake them. Since this is me, that problem was aliens.
The aliens are of course encountering the same issue, since their social structures aren’t designed to handle a species that thinks planets are worth preserving. Humans are hard and confusing.
What are your favorite things about the central character, Judy Wallach-Stevens, and what were the most challenging aspects about writing her?
I loved actually writing a Jewish protagonist, something I haven’t done before. It took me a while to figure out that I could write people like myself! Judaism has a lot to say about applying old rules creatively to new situations, and Judy’s spirituality helped drive the way she thinks about the challenges of first contact. I also appreciated being able to put in familiar experiences that I don’t often see in genre fiction, like the stress of being at a high-stakes social event and having no idea if you can eat any of the food!
Judy has an anxiety disorder—mostly reasonably well-mitigated, but definitely something that shapes her responses in a crisis. One of the ways it plays out is that she has insomnia, which I did in part because of a point in the Deep Roots draft where the main character got a good night’s sleep before a tough day, and my editor’s marginal comment was, “but what if she didn’t?” And indeed, it added to the tension to have Aphra exhausted on top of everything else. I thought, wouldn’t it be good storytelling to have a character who never gets a good night’s sleep? As soon as I started writing Judy this way, I developed my own insomnia. Some people might blame this on perimenopause or incipient fascism, but next book I’m writing someone who sleeps really well.
What is the heart of A Half-Built Garden, what is important or special about this book for you?
We often describe science fiction in terms of speculation about the future—what if this goes on, what if that thing we take for granted changes, all the usual questions. For A Half-Built Garden, I tried to think about these questions in a personal way. Not just the world of 2083, but the world I would wish for my great-grandchildren. Not just what humans in general could do to start solving big existential problems, but what I need to do. Judy lives in my neighborhood, she inspects runoff mitigation structures that I’ve discussed in town meetings, she has a tree in her yard that’s a cutting from the food forest where I pick strawberries and sea kale.
I think this is a worthwhile exercise for a lot of science fiction, and indeed a lot of nonfictional foresight: to think consciously about the fact that if this future you’re proposing were to happen, it would happen to the people and things you’ve created that last beyond you. Your descendants, either literally related to you or related to people whose lives you’ve influenced, would live there. Piercy actually has that scene in Woman on the Edge of Time, someone deciding to accept and work for a world she finds discomfiting because she can imagine her children happier there.
You are several books into your career. What are your top bits of advice you’d offer for writers just starting out?
I’m cautious of writerly advice, because so many things that work for one writer don’t work for another. I don’t write every day, for example—I may have mentioned kids? I like adjectives. So that’s the first piece of advice: there’s no universal advice. Do what works for you, and don’t get angry or scared off because someone on the Internet said “always do X.” You don’t even need to spend your precious energy arguing, just ignore the hyperbole and throw in another wild dialogue tag.
That said, I’m a big fan of learning about anything but writing to improve your writing. Majoring in psychology helped my characterization tremendously. My settings got a lot more detailed after a few years of my now-wife pointing out plants and birds. I’ve toured water treatment plants and gone to a “future of sushi” restaurant and tried hang gliding. I didn’t do any of those things specifically to feed my writing, I did them because they were fun or interesting—but I still try to think afterward about how I’d describe the sensations and get everything settled into memory. Everything goes into the compost, and the richer the compost the more you can grow with it.
Is there anything else you’d like readers to know about A Half-Built Garden, your work in general, or you as a writer?
I live in a large collective household/small queer commune—basically a college role-playing group that decided to raise kids together. This has definitely influenced the families I write about! It’s extremely convenient to have the kids outnumbered when I’m on a deadline. I am infinitely grateful to my co-parents and household-mates for making my writing possible.
Arley Sorg is co-Editor-in-Chief at Fantasy Magazine and a 2021 World Fantasy Award Finalist. He is also a finalist for two 2022 Ignyte Awards, for his work as a critic as well as for his creative nonfiction. Arley is senior editor at Locus Magazine, associate editor at both Lightspeed & Nightmare, and a columnist for The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. He takes on multiple roles, including slush reader, movie reviewer, and book reviewer, and conducts interviews for multiple venues, including Clarkesworld Magazine and his own site: arleysorg.com. He has taught classes and run workshops for Clarion West, Augur Magazine, and more, and has been a guest speaker at a range of events. Arley grew up in England, Hawaii, and Colorado, and studied Asian Religions at Pitzer College. He lives in the SF Bay Area and writes in local coffee shops when he can. Arley is a 2014 Odyssey Writing Workshop graduate.