Refusing Categorization: A Conversation with Ray Nayler
Ray Nayler was born in Quebec and spoke French before he spoke English. The son of a hardware engineer, Nayler grew up in Fremont, California. “As a kid I once had so many overdue books that one of the librarians showed up at my house to get them back. I grew up skateboarding, and still snowboard with my best friend, who I’ve known since the seventh grade, every year.” Nayler studied modern literature with a focus on genre fiction and film noir at UC Santa Cruz, and later earned his master’s in global diplomacy from the Centre for International Studies and Diplomacy at SOAS, University of London. He lived in San Francisco at one point, working for a nonprofit that tore buildings apart to preserve the materials and keep them out of the waste stream, and before that did all kinds of work, from commercial driving to working in warehouses and factories and much more.
To say Ray Nayler has traveled would be an understatement: “When I was twenty-seven, I joined the Peace Corps, serving in Turkmenistan. I stayed overseas, and worked in Russia, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Afghanistan, and Tajikistan. I joined the Foreign Service in 2010 and served in Vietnam, Kyrgyzstan (my second time living there), Azerbaijan, and Kosovo.”
Nayler had a few SFF genre fiction sales in the late 90s and early 2000s, including “Because I Could Not Stop for Death” in Cemetery Dance. Things really picked up for him in 2015, with “Mutability” in the June issue of Asimov’s Science Fiction magazine. He continued to sell to Asimov’s, with fiction appearing every year in that venue, until finally branching out: his first (but certainly not last) appearance in Clarkesworld was the January 2019 issue, with story “Fire in the Bone.” Nayler quickly became a notable science fiction short story author, with work in several of the top venues of the field, stories reprinted in several year’s best anthologies, a number of appearances on the Asimov’s Readers Poll and the Locus Recommended Reading List, and a host of glowing responses from appreciative readers and industry reviewers. Novelette “Sarcophagus” from the April 2021 Clarkesworld was a Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award finalist. Nayler has also sold translations of Russian language fiction to Clarkesworld and Samovar.
Ray Nayler has lived nearly half his life outside the United States, “including a stint as Environment, Science, Technology, and Health Officer at the US consulate in Ho Chi Minh City.” He recently returned to the US, to Washington, DC, after nineteen years abroad. He currently works as international advisor to the Marine Protected Areas Center at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Nayler’s debut novel is The Mountain in the Sea, recently published by MCD x FSG.
Who were your science fiction heroes when you were a young reader, and do their works still hold up?
My mother taught me to read when I was three, and I was such a voracious reader when I was a kid that it’s hard to think of who my favorites authors were. I’m also not sure I had a clear sense of genre: I read a lot of Stephen King (I think almost everyone did) and I remember reading a good deal of Michael Moorcock, J. R. R. Tolkien, Philip K. Dick—but in general, I read anything I found in the library that I could put my hands on. I tore through books. It’s hard to say who was a favorite because I never sought out or stuck with, or even returned to, one author in particular—except Shakespeare—and I almost never reread a book. I was always looking for something else. And whatever it was I was after, it wasn’t confined to a single genre, or even to “genre” writ large. I read everything from X-Men comics to Joseph Conrad to Philip José Farmer to Shakespeare. And I watched movies. We had a crumbling, art-deco era movie theater on its last legs that showed second-run triple features for a couple of bucks, and I spent many a summer day there soaking up film after film. Movies have always been a major influence on me.
How did being a reader become being a writer?
I think I always wrote, in one sense or another. I wanted to create something I was always looking for in books, movies, comics, and role-playing games. I wanted to build worlds. But I started doing this from a very young age—as early, maybe, as eight or ten. I drew comics, made flip books, wrote little stories, and built a lot of worlds via D&D and other role-playing games. I got more serious about writing at sixteen, and have been serious about it ever sense, although I was not always consistently writing over that whole time.
You’ve been publishing short fiction since the nineties. Were there other books that didn’t make it to publication? What was the journey to writing and publishing The Mountain in the Sea?
I had a particularly productive period from when I was sixteen to when I was about twenty-five, in the late ’90s and early 2000s. I was writing mainstream fiction stories at first, then crime, noir, and detective stories. There is a novella from that period, American Graveyards, which was published by TTA Press in the UK. I published that when I was twenty-four. I also had short work in Ellery Queen and Crimewave and other places. Noir fiction really was my training ground. Those years of reading and studying noir were also the years when I learned to write, and my teachers were Patricia Highsmith, Dorothy B. Hughes, Cornell Woolrich, Charles Willeford, Ross MacDonald, Raymond Chandler, and Jim Thompson.
Then there was a long gap—from 2003, when I joined the Peace Corps, spending two years in Turkmenistan, to my first publication in Asimov’s in 2015. I was writing during those years, but it was more scattered: travelogues, poetry, an occasional short story, comics. It was hard to keep a routine, and hard to submit from overseas, when most magazines still insisted on paper submissions, which were impossible.
Then in 2014 I got an idea for a science fiction story. That idea became “Mutability,” which I sold to Asimov’s. Since then, I’ve had a lot of pro sales in the SF short story market—but also a few mainstream sales, and poetry, and horror. I’ll pursue any idea that seems worth pursuing, in any genre. But SF seems to have been the most fertile for me lately. The more SF I write, the more I think in a speculative fiction way, and so I suppose that led me down the pathways that led to The Mountain in the Sea. I started writing the book in June of 2019 and finished the draft I would send out to agents in December of 2020.
Has your writing changed in significant ways since your first few story sales, and if so, to what do you attribute that change?
It’s changed almost completely, but that makes sense. I am a very different person now than I was thirty years ago, at sixteen. I have thirty years of practice and craft, but I also speak Russian now, and have learned several other languages, and I lived outside the US for two of those decades. My concerns, my outlook—everything has changed. There is probably a thread that is the same—that stiches its way through the decades from those early noir stories to what I do now—but I’m not sure I could define what it is.
What was the initial inspiration for The Mountain in the Sea, and how did the book develop?
I spent a good deal of time working on the Con Dao archipelago in Vietnam, where the main storyline of the book is set. I also spent time in Astrakhan and Istanbul. Ideas often emerge for me out of a sense of place, and mood. Biosemiotics, the study of consciousness, and other elements of the book were all ideas I have been exploring in one way or another in my short work for a while now. The octopus is an animal whose curiosity and intelligence I’ve admired since I was a kid—I did a school report on octopuses when I was in fifth grade, I believe. Somehow, these all came together, and out of that amalgamation a book was started. Once the book is started, it ends up gaining its own momentum. The book begins to ask its own questions as it builds its own world, and the work of a writer is largely to find ways to allow that process to unfold. There’s no initial concept beyond the idea that I want to write about “X” and “Y” and “Z” —the rest of the concept is in that unfolding.
The Mountain in the Sea features a style where the environment is emphasized and important, utilizing effective, evocative imagery. Is this style consistent through your short fiction, especially going back to the nineties? Or is this particular to the novel?
Yes—this is probably one of the most consistent parts of my writing. I’ve always been a very visual thinker and a visual writer. As I said before, I am probably as influenced by film as I am by writing. When I write, I really “see” what is happening in my mind. I’m also very concerned with creating an atmosphere. When I was a kid, I didn’t look for stories to read: I looked for worlds to live in. The mood, the feeling of the piece, must continue from its opening moments to its closing scenes . . .You can have plot without a theme, amazing characters without a great plot, or a great idea without any of those, but atmosphere demands consistency: a total saturation of tone. That’s something I really learned from noir—the way the stories and films can carry this feeling-tone throughout the work, from the opening line to the closing sentence. That’s always what I am looking to do for my reader.
Craft wise, what is the key to effective imagery, especially with regards to setting?
If you can see the world you are creating, whether due to experience or the effective work of your imagination, you can get your reader to see it. If it’s a blur to you, if you are hand-waving parts of it, I think it will show in the writing. The places in The Mountain in the Sea are totally real to me. At any point, I could turn my head and see them. I had a diagram of the Sea Wolf to look at while I was writing that storyline and had researched so much about fishing vessels of that size that I felt like I had been on one. I know the islands of Con Dao well enough from my own explorations of them that I could turn my head in my mind and see what should be there. I know Istanbul that way too: I can return to these places in my mind, and so hopefully I can bring readers there too.
Similar to a lot of your short fiction, your novel incorporates a good number of science fictional ideas, some based on near-real concepts or cutting-edge real-life science. What are a few of your favorite science or science fictional ideas that you’ve put into the book that you don’t mind sharing with readers?
I think I came up with some interesting new ways to think about drones and drone-like systems, so people who enjoy that kind of thing will be interested. There are a few other AI developments I’m proud of, but I’d honestly like people to discover them for themselves. I don’t want to ruin their “oh, neat!” moment—a favorite of mine as a reader—by talking too much about those things. Speaking generally—I was always the kind of reader who wanted to know how things worked, and I am the kind of writer who wants my reader to understand how things work, so I put a good deal of time into making things convincing.
When Doctor Nguyen meets Evrim, “Her brain was trying to slot them into a category into which they would not fit without distortion.” This moment can represent, to a degree, what happens when an individual meets someone who they feel is very different from them: a struggle to fit the other person into familiar definitions. Is there subtext in Evrim’s story which is meant as a discussion of certain kinds of otherness?
Our brain is constantly taking shortcuts. The human brain seems designed to be disturbed by anything that does not fit neatly into its categories—though I hesitate to completely attribute these biases to something physiological: they could just as easily be cultural. Likely, they are both. The human brain has a built-in “difference engine” that recognizes when something is out of the ordinary (think of how much it can bother you when something in a room you know well has been moved, but you don’t know what) and society builds on that tendency to create simplifying prejudices that people use in the place of thinking—to make the other knowable and intelligible quickly—in essence “to slot them into a category into which they would not fit without distortion.” To categorize them.
But we refuse categorization—all of us humans—and in fact all of life is resistant to categorization, every living creature being a unique instance, and not generalizable beyond itself. How do we stop our brain from making false assumptions about others, then? I think it is by slowing down and listening to the actual interaction that is taking place rather than using past interactions or cultural prejudices to make judgements for you. Ha struggles with this, and in this scene a partial solution she finds is to use the tools of another language (Turkish) to fight against the gendered categories of English. But there are many methods for doing battle with our own prejudices—the first one, of course, is realizing that we have them—admitting that, desiring to change it, and opening ourselves to that change. After that comes constant work.
As someone who has moved through a variety of interactions around the globe, do you have thoughts on the best ways to handle the impulse to categorize and “slot them into a category” when it happens?
I gave a partial answer above, but yes—having lived about two decades outside of the US, I think there are a number of strategies for doing battle with our own tendencies to generalize other people. One is to be aware of the distortions of one’s own culture. To be able to think: this opinion is not my own. This opinion was forced upon me by my upbringing.
Another is to have been exposed to many ways of looking at the world. What that exposure teaches is that culture is very arbitrary. There are many ways of doing things, and many ways of looking at things. Once you see your own culture not as binding and absolute, but rather as arbitrary, a freedom starts to emerge. You can choose to act differently—to use what you have learned elsewhere to do better. But there is always a resistance: the mental habits of culture are strong—I’d say addictive, even, and especially when our decision-making is distorted by anger or hatred, we are so easily led astray.
AIs are among a number of prominent story elements, and throughout the narrative, occupy vastly different roles. What are some of the main inspirations behind your AIs, and what do you hope readers will get out of the way you’ve used them?
For me, what the AIs in the book represent most are ways of being in the world that differ from our own—just as the octopus at the center of the novel, the Shapesinger, differs from us in fundamental physical and neurological ways that make communication difficult.
What is important to you about The Mountain in the Sea, what would you like readers to know about it?
At its core I think this book is about the vast potential within us for communication, and the vast potential for miscommunication. There is a richness of perspective on this planet, but we largely turn away from it. Even most of the human race is not allowed to speak—yet we fantasize about our ability to communicate with alien species. Perhaps once we have learned to speak with and learn from the whole of humanity, those other fantasies will seem more believable to me.
What else are you working on, what do you have coming up that you’d like readers to know about?
As you know, I never speak about what I am currently working on. But there is a project completed after The Mountain in the Sea that will be revealed soon. I’m excited about that.
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.