Switching Perspectives: A Conversation with Marie Vibbert
Marie Vibbert was born at Booth Charity Hospital in East Cleveland, Ohio. She has lived in the greater Cleveland area since. She earned a bachelor’s from Case Western Reserve University and has also received “some boring technology certifications.” Vibbert met Brian Crick at Case Western, and they were married in 2001 at his mother’s house in Vĩnh Long, Vietnam.
Vibbert’s childhood was not always bright and full of rainbows. Her family was kicked out of the projects, and they were also kicked out of a battered women’s shelter for being too violent. She only first experienced driving when she had been kidnapped. “It was this nasty gold Volvo with a VW engine, we were in the mountains of Idaho, and I only managed to get it into reverse and glide halfway across the parking lot, so not the thrilling escape I’d planned.”
Writing has always been an important part of her life, and Marie brings the events of her past to many of her stories. During high school she read that her favorite author—Isaac Asimov—published his first story by age eighteen. She wanted to beat his record. Within a few years she had amassed a short stack of novel rejections.
At age sixteen, Marie Vibbert met author Mary Turzillo at a writing conference, and told Turzillo that she’d written three novels. Turzillo brought Vibbert into her writing group, the Cajun Sushi Hamsters, also known as the Cleveland Science Fiction Writers Workshop. After learning about the Clarion Writers Workshop from her peers, in 2012, Vibbert decided that if she wanted to attend, she would have to create the funds to make it happen. She joined their “Write-a-Thon” to raise scholarship funds, pledging to write fifty short fiction drafts in six weeks—while also working full-time as a website programmer and administrator. She was accepted for the class of 2013, and she received a scholarship which nearly matched the funds she had raised.
Reflection’s Edge published Marie Vibbert’s “Brain Trust” in 2006, but her fiction career really took off in 2013 and 2014, with “Deshaun Stevens’ Ship Log” in Escape Pod, “Jupiter Wrestlerama” in Lightspeed, and more. By 2018 she was a regular in the Analog reader’s poll, and she became a regular in the Asimov’s poll not long after. Vibbert’s poetry has also been shortlisted several times for the Rhysling Award. In addition, Vibbert has been a finalist for the Jim Baen Memorial Short Story Award and a Neffy Award. Vibbert’s debut novel, Galactic Hellcats, was on the 2021 British Science Fiction and Fantasy Association’s longlist for Best Novel.
Marie Vibbert has published fiction and poetry consistently since 2013, including the novelette “We Built This City” in the June 2022 issue of Clarkesworld. Vibbert’s latest novel, The Gods Awoke, came out from Journey Press in September of 2022.
How did you first get into reading genre fiction, and how did reading genre fiction become writing genre fiction?
I grew up in poverty, and reading was a huge escape for me. My sister and I would get out eight books at a time from the library, because that was the maximum allowed, and always turned them in before the two weeks was up. I don’t remember a time when I didn’t prefer the books with little rocket ship stickers on the spines. My parents and grandparents liking Star Trek might have tilted me that way?
In second grade, our teacher had us make books as a project. We would get ten pages, max, stapled together with sheets from a wallpaper sample book for covers. Mine was called “Jimmy’s Planet,” and it was largely stolen from a Bugs Bunny book I’d read where Bugs Bunny builds a rocket, only to land on a construction site nearby and think it’s an alien world. Jimmy actually did go to space, and he encountered alien twin girls who looked like me and my twin sister, and a dinosaur-like monster. (This book was of course illustrated.) It was my favorite school assignment ever, and my book was the longest in the class.
Soon after that, I started stapling scraps of paper together at home and writing more books, which I carried around with me to try to get people to read. Mostly stuff about fairies and witches and aliens. In sixth grade, I grandiosely decided to write my memoir, but turned that into science fiction four pages in by giving myself an after-school job for an interdimensional spy agency and a sassy robot best friend.
The rest was history. I have not had a month since where I wasn’t working on a novel.
You went to the Clarion Workshop in 2013. Did the experience have a significant impact on your writing or your career?
It had a huge impact. Just the focus of studying stories for six weeks, worrying them back and forth, my classmate’s drafts more than my own, exposed a lot of the lies I’d been telling myself about fiction. It also exposed a lot of my emotional hang-ups about my writing, and ways I had been quietly sabotaging myself for years.
And even if I hadn’t learned a single tip or trick, the mere fact of sinking my entire savings and six weeks without a paycheck into this workshop meant that I HAD to make it worthwhile, so the good old sunk cost fallacy had me writing story drafts and submitting like mad, and I haven’t slacked off since. Well, much. (I’ve really slacked off the past two years.)
On your site, you mention selling “eighty-odd short stories, forty-some poems, and a few comics . . . ” and you’ve been publishing consistently since 2013. Do you feel that reading what’s current and new is important to selling fiction and staying in the game?
When I was younger, I had a misguided stage of worrying that my reading was going to “contaminate” my writing, and I tried to ween myself off my voracious reading habit. All I did was make myself miserable. The things I read join the experiences of life and the random ephemera in my head and create a lush compost heap to grow new ideas.
I’m definitely on team Read to Stay Abreast. I will even admit to studying magazines I want to break into, reading one magazine intently for a long period. But it’s not always a conscious effort. I just really like to read. Having been a slush reader, too, I can see how people who are not reading current SFF fail to join the conversation their intended audience is already having, with stories of the past, with current events, with the shared metaphors we build up and call language. You can’t jump in and say, “Hey what about green aliens?” when the talk has already moved on to what being green means to those aliens.
Has your writing changed in notable ways since 2013?
After I started regularly selling short stories that were around four to five thousand words long, I worked hard on writing shorter and shorter stories until I could confidently sell flash fiction. Then I went the other way, exploring longer lengths and slower paces. I sold my first novella last year and my first novelette this year. I still don’t feel I’ve quite got a feel for novelette length.
After 2016, my life got hella stressful, and I stopped being able to write dark fiction. My work got downright optimistic. Which was nice! I think I’m settling back into the mix of happy and sad I used to have these days.
Honestly, I feel like I’m just learning how to write? My latest goal is to write more heartfelt stories with more complex emotional arcs.
Looking at your body of work, are there ideas and themes in your fiction that you tend to come back to, that stand out as more important to you?
Sibling relationships, found families, economic and social class struggle. Subverting stereotypes.
For folks who have never read your short fiction, if they were to look at one or two pieces, which would you want them to look at, and why?
My most successful story is “Knit Three, Save Four” which plays to all my strengths—it’s a near-future space story with sassy characters and humor. That’s my comfort zone. You can find it in The Best Science Fiction of the Year: Volume 5 edited by Neil Clarke. It’s my first “best of” reprint, and I love that I wrote it on a bet—to show someone knitting a spaceship.
On the less humorous side, I’m proud of my novelette, “We Built This City,” in the June 2022 issue of Clarkesworld—it’s the culmination of decades of trying to write a science fiction story about a labor strike. My dad was a union laborer and so that’s very important to me.
The Gods Awoke is your third published novel. What did you learn from writing and publishing prior novels which you brought to this project?
I do everything out of order. I wrote the first draft of The Gods Awoke around 2001. I lost that draft when my laptop was stolen and wrote a brand-new version in 2004. So technically it was written well before Galactic Hellcats, though I wrote a juvenile version of that in 1989.
Megadeath, now, that was written on deadline, I pounded it out in six months. That required discipline that helped with the revisions of The Gods Awoke.
Galactic Hellcats, the adult version started in 2012, taught me it was okay to have fun, to use the plot twists and tropes I like, that no one (important) was going to judge me for them. I do think that helped me in revising The Gods Awoke, finding places where I’d been tiptoeing around what I really wanted to say.
The book centers on the journey of Hitra—a high priestess of Revestre. What are your favorite things about this character, and what were the biggest challenges in writing her?
I wanted to write someone very unlike me. She’s a politician at heart, charismatic, and confident. I’m about the most insecure person you’ll ever meet! I based her on a friend of mine and imagined what he would do in her situations.
I also wanted to be true to her spiritual side as a religious professional. I’d read a lot about higher church officials often not being believers, but early readers didn’t like that, so I had to make everyone a little more religious than I intended, and that was hard for me, because as an atheist I don’t really get it? But maybe I do? We all believe things without evidence. I believe that one day the Cleveland Browns will stop breaking my heart. (Not this year though. That ship has SAILED.) I have felt the wonder of nature and beauty and science and basked in that feeling of grand reality.
I talked to a lot of religious friends, from different faiths and communities, and of course I had first readers from different faiths, too.
What was the initial inspiration for the book, and how did the story develop?
The very first time I wrote it, it was so I could have a pretty boy in peril in a matriarchy and rescue him. (This also seems to be a recurring theme in my work.)
After losing the initial draft, and despairing that I would Never Write Anything As Good Again, I took a novel-writing class at Case Western Reserve University in early 2004. I pitched five different novels to the class, and The Gods Awoke was the one they were most interested in. (I don’t remember how I pitched it, something like “In a polytheistic matriarchy, miracles start occurring and people wonder if the gods are coming to life . . . and the gods turn out to not be gods.”)
In this version, the central questions of religion and faith became more important than just rescuing the boy. Illoe’s peril still plays a strong role in the plot, but he’s more of a self-rescuing princess.
What is important or special about this book for you? What would you like readers to know?
I struggled to start the new draft of The Gods Awoke back in 2004 until I hit upon the idea of writing it all from the goddess’s perspective, in first person omniscient. The technical challenge kept the work fresh to me through all the subsequent drafting and redrafting.
I’ve always enjoyed a true third person–omniscient narrative and will die on a hill of “Head-hopping is great!” This book let me write lots of scenes that explore multiple characters keeping secrets from each other and thinking of all the things they want to say but can’t.
What else are you working on, what do you have coming up that you’d like readers to know about?
I just finished a rough draft of Galactic Hellcats 2: Hellcats in Love! It picks up immediately after the events of Galactic Hellcats and introduces probably too many new characters, with large sections narrated by Andrei the sex robot, my new favorite narrator ever.
I have ten stories on submission right now, and a half-dozen in the works. Two stories are coming out in Analog soon—“Bumblebot” and “An Echo of a Will.”
And yet I feel like a total slacker? The kid is starting college! I’m hoping to dive into more projects as I empty-nest it up!
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.