Pausing to Think: A Conversation with Ada Hoffman
Ada Hoffmann was born in Kingston, Ontario—a university town about halfway between Toronto and Ottawa. Technically, they have been writing since they were five. “There was a little program on my school computer called ‘Word Processing for Kids,’ and I adored it and would just type away and write little nonsense stories about dinosaurs. I didn’t begin writing for publication until about 2008, but throughout elementary and high school, writing was something I was always kind of noodling around with in the background.”
Hoffmann went to Queen’s University, working as they studied, including a stint in music. “I had a part-time job singing in a church choir—the choir was mostly volunteers, but they paid a few trained singers from outside the congregation as leads, to try to beef up their sound. So, I got to call myself a ‘professional soprano’ for a while.” Hoffmann earned a Bachelor of Computing with honors, specializing in cognitive science. “I also did most, though not all, of the requirements for a minor in music, and I got a little medal for the highest standing in the cognitive science program, although this is less impressive when you consider that only six people graduated from the cognitive science program that year.”
After this, they earned a Master of Science from Queen’s University, and then a Doctor of Philosophy in Computing from the University of Waterloo, with a thesis on teaching computers to write poetry. After grad school they moved back to Kingston. “I like that the city is big enough to have amenities, but not too big. I like all the historical limestone buildings. I like the university, and I love the lake . . . ”
Ada Hoffmann’s first fiction publications came out in 2010, beginning with “The Chartreuse Monster” in Expanded Horizons. From here, they consistently sold fiction at a range of markets, many of them interesting or well-respected, such as Journal of Unlikely Entomology, AE: The Canadian Science Fiction Review, and Innsmouth. Hoffmann made a US landmark short fiction sale at Strange Horizons in 2013 with “You Have to Follow the Rules,” a story that was long-listed for a BSFA award. After landing on the Rhysling Award long list for poetry a couple of times, short story “I Sing Against the Silent Sun,” coauthored with Merc Fenn Wolfmoor and published at Lightspeed, was long-listed for a BSFA.
Besides a number of poetry award nods over the years, Hoffmann has received an honorable mention for the D Franklin Defying Doomsday Award for their Autistic Book Party review series, which is “devoted to in-depth discussions of autism representation in speculative fiction”; story “Fairest of Them All,” published in The Future Fire, was a finalist for a WSFA Small Press award; and “The Mother of All Squid Builds a Library,” published in Strange Horizons, won the Friends of the Merrill Collection Short Story Contest.
Hoffmann’s debut collection, Monsters in My Mind, came out from NeuroQueer Books in 2017. In 2019 Angry Robot published debut novel, The Outside, which was a Philip K. Dick as well as a Compton Crook Award nominee. The book also landed on the Locus Recommended Reading list, but this would not be the first, nor the last, time that they would have work on the list. Hoffmann’s follow-up novel The Fallen came out in 2021, along with poetry collection Million-Year Elegies.
Ada Hoffmann lives in a little house they are fixing up, with a cat named Ninja. They work as an adjunct professor of computer science. They have published eight papers and presented their work at conferences around the world. They are also a tabletop gaming enthusiast and LARPer. The Infinite, the third book in the series begun with The Outside, is due from Angry Robot books January 24, 2023. Hoffmann’s next collection, Resurrections, is due from Apex Books in December of 2023.
What were your favorite genre books, stories, or authors when you were a young reader, and do those works still hold up?
My parents got me into science fiction and fantasy early by reading it to me—first fanciful picture books like The Sneetches and The Paper Bag Princess, then classic series like Narnia, Oz, and Prydain. (I wrote a poem, a few years back, about how my dad got me into Tolkien, and about how things in the family were fraught but also full of a kind of warmth.)
I don’t tend to reread my childhood books, because I am cautious about rereading; when I’m under stress my habit-worn brain wants to read the same things again and again until they start to lose their magic and fall apart, and I don’t like how that process feels. There are definitely some childhood books that I remember with great fondness, some I’m more embarrassed about, and some that I know I liked but can barely remember the plot of at all.
Are there stories or authors whose influence you see in your own work?
There are authors who I would love to be more influenced by—I read them and I think, “whew, I wish that were me.” I would love to capture the vivid inventiveness of Yoon Ha Lee, China Miéville, or Catherynne M. Valente; or Lois McMaster Bujold’s way with character; or even just Tamsyn Muir’s way of describing the inside of a room. I don’t know that I get there most of the time. But one of the trade reviews did recommend The Outside for fans of Bujold, which was very flattering, and I think another might have mentioned Lee.
What was “breaking in” for you, what was it like, and how did it happen?
I had this mistaken idea early on that I was supposed to submit to low paying markets first and work my way up. This isn’t actually the best way to do things, but it did mean that I first had a bunch of little sales in out-of-the-way places and then was able to gradually raise my profile. Rather than a single moment when I was suddenly in the big leagues, there was this little rain of smaller milestones.
When you wrote The Outside, did you have The Fallen and The Infinite planned out, or perhaps even written? Or did these come about only after you’d sold the first book?
I had a rough plan for all three books—on the level of a synopsis, a page or two for each. I didn’t start actually writing the second and third books until I had a contract with Angry Robot for them, which didn’t happen until they saw that the sales for the first book had been good. I do wonder a little what would have happened if I’d plowed right in with The Fallen immediately, while the momentum from The Outside was still strong. It might have been a very different book, both in good ways and in bad ones.
What was the initial inspiration for The Outside, and has that inspiration carried through to the end of The Infinite, or does the inspiration shift from book to book?
I have a very silly story about the inspiration for The Outside, which is that I had a crush on a Dungeons & Dragons character and wanted to write a book about them, but I was too proud to try to publish an obvious D&D knockoff book. My solution to this was to file off the serial numbers so hard that everybody ended up in space. This required some unexpectedly deep thoughts—the religious elements of the Dungeons & Dragons setting were very important to these characters, so how do we make those dynamics legible in a space opera? (With supercomputers that have turned into Gods, apparently.) What implications does that have for what the world is like?
The heroes of The Outside aren’t from D&D, but Akavi and several of the other angels are, and so is Ev. The heroes were the hardest part to come up with, because I needed to think of someone sympathetic who could be plausibly drawn into the weird-ass cosmological conflict I’d set up, and who’d have some means of actually doing something about it. Yasira wasn’t my first try at creating a protagonist for the story, but she was the first one that worked.
With The Fallen and The Infinite, my main goal was to continue the story I’d started in The Outside, but I started to branch out in terms of influences and research. For The Fallen, one of the problems I had early on was needing to decide what life was going to be like on the planet Jai’s surface after a massive disaster that befalls it in The Outside. I drew a lot of inspiration from Rebecca Solnit’s nonfiction book, A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster. It was one of a handful of books about disasters that I read, trying to get my head around the situation, and I realized quickly that a lot of what happened was going to need to be about ordinary people helping each other. The most useful jobs for the heroes were not about controlling the situation but more about coordinating these ordinary groups across distances or bringing in specific resources that no one else had.
With The Fallen, I also ended up in an odd situation midway through drafting. I’d planned for the climax of the story to involve mass protests coordinated in many places at once—and then by pure coincidence, I got to that point in the draft at the same time as the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests broke out all across North America. What made it into the book isn’t meant to be a direct representation or close allegory of any protests in the real world, but I was watching the real world with wide eyes while I wrote, and I think some of that feeling comes through.
The Infinite doesn’t have any influences as big or as obvious as those two, but it has a lot of small ones. There’s a plot twist that might remind readers of the Star Wars prequels (of all things) and another that takes its concepts from some fairly old theology. There’s some climate change anxiety in obvious places, and there’s also a lot that has to do with my changing feelings about how we should handle AI tropes in the first place. When I started writing the AI Gods of this series, they were pure fantasy—literally fantasy, like I mentioned, and I was okay with hand-waving machine superintelligence as the fantasy it is. But by the time I sat down to write The Infinite, I’d had a lot more time to think about it, and to become familiar with AI ethicists, like Timnit Gebru, who are sharply critical of the ways that our worries about superintelligence distract us from the real and pressing ethical problems with how we use the not-especially-intelligent AI that we already have. I found that although the concept of AI Gods relies on pretty standard “AI takes over the world” tropes—and I couldn’t really change that at this point in the series—I wanted to complicate those tropes a little. I wanted to make the case that if AI did take over the world, it would be because there were humans somewhere in the pipeline who stood to benefit from the AI being able to do that. So, in The Infinite, you’ll meet those humans.
What were the biggest challenges for writing The Infinite, and how did you deal with those challenges?
The biggest challenge, honestly, was that I was going through a lot of big changes in my personal life while I wrote it. It was hard to focus on the writing, and I had to come to the publishers sheepishly asking for several extensions. The delay was frustrating, and I think I could have handled it better, but in the end, I think it made the book stronger. There are several characters who were originally going to have a more gloomy or ambiguous ending, but after working very hard to change my actual life for the better, I took another look at them, and I thought, you know what? Let’s give you some more agency here, let’s see if we can get you to a better place.
What are your favorite things about the central characters in this series—Tiv, Yasira, Evianna, for example—and what can you tell us about where this stage of the journey takes them?
My favorite thing about Yasira, Tiv, and the other hero characters is how devoted they are to each other. Not that there aren’t arguments or tensions, but even in spite of those things there is a sense of unwavering support, no matter how terrible the outside odds or how dire the characters’ mental health is internally. I find that very soothing to write. If you liked it in The Outside or The Fallen, then The Infinite will certainly have it too.
Meanwhile my favorite thing about Ev in particular is that she is always exactly as weird as she wants to be. She doesn’t mask. She drifts off on tangents, has fits of temper, remembers things backward, and always says exactly what she’s thinking. Ev also embodies a lot of anger about how neurodivergent people are treated, and I will say that, although I would not personally send a cosmic horror plague to decimate a planet, I relate to her a little more than people might think.
Ev was absent from The Fallen but has returned for The Infinite. Her arc in this book isn’t exactly a redemption arc, but it also isn’t exactly not one. I get impatient sometimes with the discourse around redemption arcs, and how readers try to put characters into a binary, either redeemable or irredeemable, without any space for things to be messy and contingent, ambiguous and ambivalent. Ev is in a place where she’s trying to be a better person but with mixed results. She’s also in a place where she passionately believes in many of the same things that the heroes do, and they’re going to have to work together if any of them want to survive—but they’re going to have to be very careful with their boundaries while they do that, and they’re not going to do it perfectly.
I’ve seen books in this series described by reviewers as “thrilling” and “exhilarating.” In terms of craft, what is the key to writing propulsive fiction?
It’s funny you should ask, because I find that my approach to pacing is a little divisive. Some people find the books very exciting and fast-paced and others are like, “Why are your characters pausing to think about their feelings again?” I’ve talked to other autistic authors, like R.B. Lemberg, about this. For many of us, this is actually a characteristic of our experience—we get overwhelmed, and we need to stop every so often to process.
In fact, in very action-packed stories there’s a point where the action stops mattering to me and my eyes glaze over, because there’s been action after action after action but not enough about what any of it means to the characters. So, my characters take pauses! They process! But meanwhile, the reason why they have to process is because things are blowing up and cosmic horrors are happening all over the place, quite urgently. Some readers love this way of doing it and some find it frustrating, but I’ve decided it’s not something I want to change.
As far as writing propulsive stories, my advice is just to keep putting the characters in situations where they’re going to need to do something big and dramatic.
What is important or special to you about The Infinite, what do you really want readers to know about this book?
It’s the end of the trilogy! All the big problems that I set up in The Outside and The Fallen, here’s where I get to make them bigger than ever and then resolve them for good. Endings are inherently appealing to me. I love endings, and I hope this one is as satisfying as any big fireworks-and-Ewoks-dancing finale.
Is your relationship to poetry different than your relationship to short fiction?
Yes, a bit. There’s a lot of feeling in both, but short fiction feels more like something I can plan and reason my way through. Poetry feels more like something that wings its way in at the behest of a capricious muse (although, really, the muse isn’t all that capricious—it shows up more often when I’m reading more poetry, for example).
There’s also a much closer attention in poetry to the cadences of specific words. That’s what I enjoy most about it. Short fiction can be stylized and voicey if it wants to, but poetry has to be—or what’s the point? It’s made out of voice.
Looking at your short fiction, are there themes and ideas that you consistently come back to, that stand out as more important to you?
I find that I go through phases—there will be a theme that I need to chew on for a few months or a few years. For a while there were a lot of troubled mother figures, a lot of glamorous evil boyfriends or girlfriends, and a lot of descents into madness. For a while there were a whole bunch of lost depressed lover figures who had to be dramatically rescued. There’s a lot of stories where the protagonist is in an oppressive or controlling situation, and at first, they just shrug and accept that that’s how life works, but by the end of the story they’ve changed their mind and found some way, big or small, to rebel. I also find I’ve been writing more about gender and trans characters lately, but there’s nothing publishable there yet—it’s for future work. 🙂
Was there a progression for you in terms of form—for example, did short fiction lead to novella length, which lead to novels? Did one form help prepare you for another?
This was more a question of phases than a progression. It’s not linear. Before I started writing for publication, I went through a phase where everything (fan fiction and so on) seemed to naturally fall into novelette or novella length. When I started writing for publication, short fiction felt more natural. Poetry was its own thing that kind of showed up very suddenly, in 2013, after reading Catherynne M. Valente’s A Guide to Folktales in Fragile Dialects.
It took some doing, and a couple of failed tries, to transition to writing novels. A lot of the skills I learned with short fiction served me well with novels too, but the big difference was pacing. Most of the time, short stories do things compactly. Novels don’t, and I had to rewrite the opening chapters of The Outside a whole bunch of times before I had any idea what the book was even doing, because at first, I was trying to cram the whole first act into one novelette-sized chapter.
You have an upcoming collection, scheduled for later this year. How were stories selected? Is there an organizational principle at work—is it a “best of” or do selections follow a theme?
That’s Resurrections, which is coming out from Apex Books (with an audio edition from Recorded Books) in December 2023—thank you for mentioning it! I haven’t done a ton of official announcing about this collection yet, but I’m delighted to talk about it a little now.
I love the process of making collections, and I like to organize the stories around a theme, but typically a very loose theme that can accommodate all sorts of different stories with contrasting settings and tones.
Monsters in My Mind, my first collection, was organized around the themes of monstrousness and belonging. It starts and ends with two contrasting stories about misfits who find a sense of belonging, in some mildly supernatural way, at a science fiction convention—one about an autistic child who finds a secret group of autistic fairies at the convention center, and the other about a teenager with minor psychic abilities who’s hoping to tell her favorite author what he means to her.
Between those two bookends it wends its way through a bunch of different stories where people feel monstrous and struggle to belong, or who find belonging with each other in the face of monstrous circumstances, or who engage with that pair of themes in all sorts of other ways. The nice thing about a theme this broad is that most of the short fiction I’d published, at that point, actually did have something to do with it; but there were a few stories from that era that I really loved but couldn’t include, simply because I couldn’t make them work with the rest thematically.
Resurrections is similar, only this time the theme is (real or metaphorical; usually metaphorical) death and journeys through the underworld. I actually have it divided into four sections to highlight how the theme progresses: stories about people making descents of various kinds; stories about people wanting to stay with each other in the underworld rather than leaving each other alone; a kind of odd, shorter, brighter third section, with stories about people having those little “aha” moments and realizing they can do something differently; and finally, stories about people doing the difficult work of actually rising up against their circumstances and ascending to something better. Each of these sections has a relatively large span in terms of genre—the collection includes contemporary fantasy, space opera, fairy-tales, near-future SF, mythic fantasy, horror, and so on.
Are there other major differences between this collection and earlier collections?
Aside from the theme, I think Resurrections shows a more mature picture of my abilities as an author. Which is not to say that there isn’t some early work thrown in for fun, where appropriate! But it’s been six years since the last collection, and I think I’ve grown up a lot.
In Resurrections, you’ll see more stories and poems that were nominated for awards, more complex treatments of some of the stories’ topics, and more stylistic risks. Mind you, I’m not repeating stories between the collections, so if you get both Resurrections and Monsters in My Mind, you will simply have double the fun.
If readers were to look at two stories in this collection, what would you want them to be, and why?
First, “Variations on a Theme From Turandot.” This is one of my most complex and difficult stories and also the one I feel proudest of. It got into The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2019. It’s not exactly fan fic, but it’s intensely metatextual. It’s about stories, acting, time loops, cycles of violence, the death of the author, and what the heck reality is in the first place. It took forever and a million revisions to get it right, and I love it, and I want all of you to read it, especially if you’ve ever seen an opera.
Second, “I Sing Against the Silent Sun,” which is actually a collaboration between me and Merc Fenn Wolfmoor set in Merc’s Principality Suns universe—I got their permission to put it in the collection. Really the story is mostly Merc’s, but it’s a story about a poet, where a really good poem recited at the right moment is what ends up saving the day, and they specifically brought me on board for the poetry. It was almost a poetry role-play, like getting recruited to step into this poet character’s shoes.
The Principality Suns series is just breathtakingly big and beautiful and unspeakably cruel, and I spent a while reading poets like Pablo Neruda, thinking what the poetry of protest would sound like in a universe like this. Full disclosure, I still have a daydream of reading this story with Merc to a live audience one day and getting to say some of these words dramatically to the whole room–God of silence, you have not silenced me!
Are there stories in here that you feel may challenge readers more in some ways?
Ironically, I feel like the two that I just mentioned are among the more challenging stories in the collection. They’re both very elaborate and also very dark, even if both end on a hopeful note. Descending into the underworld is a pretty grim thing, and sometimes getting out again is even harder! So, there are quite a lot of scary and gloomy moments in Resurrections, stories about death, oppression, toxic relationships, and some common forms of trauma—but there are also a lot of moments of lightness, beauty, victory, acceptance, and hope.
What else are you working on, what do you have coming up that readers should know about?
It’s funny, but between now and the time almost a decade ago when I first started putting together the notes for The Outside, I’ve been in full-on autistic burnout twice. And one of the silver linings of that experience is that I learned a lot about what writing actually means to me, and what place it naturally has, or needs to have, in my life. Writing sustains me, and I absolutely need it—but I also need it to be a thing that I do for myself, first and foremost, and for others second. Otherwise, it will almost immediately stop sustaining me, and then I’ll be in big trouble. This doesn’t mean I’m not responsible for the effect my work has in the world, but it does mean that I need to first write what sparks joy for me, and then find a place for it later.
All of which is a long-winded way of saying that, after Resurrections gets released in December, I don’t have any other official plans. I do have all sorts of little projects that I’m noodling around with and having a lot of fun with, but I’m keeping them private for now. When one of them gets finished and finds a publisher, I will be sure to let everyone know. For updates, you can also find me on my website and on my Substack newsletter, Everything Is True, where I review autistic books and go on tangents about writing, neurodivergence, queer issues, and the nature of reality.
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.