Dr. Shreeya Murrow can equally be seen as the protagonist or antagonist of Prism City Blues. Her Green Project could be an altruistic reclaiming of the planet for the greater good of humanity, or a wholly selfish act, one which doesn’t even seem to make her all that happy. How do you see her -- as a philanthropist, or a super villain?
I don’t want to interfere with whatever judgment the reader comes up with—as far as I’m concerned, if you think she’s a villain, she’s a villain. If you think she’s a hero, then she is.
What I will say is this: she’s human. A very old human. It’s a bit of a cliche to say that a person is just a product of their history and environment: but I really think that’s true here! She’s old, and in a place of high status. Somewhat detached from the younger population, and always, always missing ‘how it used to be’. Everyone’s always talking about how much hurt getting old will bring you, and—well, sometimes when you’re hurting you lash out hard and fast to get that hurt to stop.
Philadelphia seems to have attracted a natural confluence of speculative fiction authors, and you’re one of them. What are your favorite places to eat, read, and hang out in the city? What, if anything, do you find particularly speculative about Philly, or what would you say to recommend the city to someone who has never been here before?
When my wallet’s hanging heavier than usual I like to eat over at POD, which is a little like dining inside the 20th-century vision of a 23rd-century spaceship. Meal of choice? A bowl of rock shrimp glazed with something yellow and delicious with walnuts and a few slices of pineapple sprinkled all over. When I’m hurting for cash a food truck usually does the trick. Literally any truck down the line from 36th and Spruce to 38th will serve up something delicious—though I particularly enjoy New York’s Famous Gyro.
As for reading: back when I was still living around Rittenhouse, the Park was brilliant for just finding a bench and knocking back a novel. Then there are all the art shows, the performers, the extravagant set-ups during holidays. A beautiful piece of the city that lives and breathes over the year, in very familiar rhythms. Probably a bit of a common choice—but for good reason!
Speculative elements can be found in any city. In Philadelphia I’d pin feelings of the fantastical on the purple-pink night sky that I’ve never seen anywhere else. It takes on an even stranger tinge after a snow.
But the most important thing Philly has to offer to writers, I think, is the constant reminder that people can’t be put into neat boxes. Cultures can’t, either. There’s always one fest or another that takes up an entire city block—and the characters there can be strange, and new, and wonderful. It reminds you not to feel limited when you get down to filling up a page. It makes you think, Damn, the world I live in is crazy. Damn, the world I live in has all of these unique people, and all of these unique peoples.
And if the world as you know it—constrained by what already is—if that world is this crazy, think about all the worlds that could be! All the characters that could be!
Those reminders are important.
Authors are notorious for working strange jobs. Stephen King was a janitor and J.D. Salinger worked as the entertainment director on a luxury cruise line. What’s the weirdest job you’ve ever had, and did it inspire any stories or teach you anything you’ve used in your writing?
I once was a research assistant in a sleep lab, the kind that got contracts from NASA and the Office of Naval Intelligence. It didn’t inspire any stories directly, but it definitely informed my characters and their dynamic.
The job basically had me taking care of and observing a group of four strangers thrown together as they braced themselves to bear sometimes insurmountable challenges. They dealt with the hospital food together, the lack of entertainment, the several periods of long sleep deprivation that left them incoherent—and they started as strangers.
Sometimes you’d get shear lines in the group, sometimes they’d spot weld into the strongest bunch you’d ever see. It was amazing to watch these long studies unfold, and these friendships and animosities appear.
Strangers, thrown together to trump a challenge. Now that sounds like every good epic I’ve ever enjoyed.
One of the perennial points of contention in the world revolves around education -- who should get educated (and to what degree), what should be taught, who should be excluded. Meanwhile, children in their classrooms ask, “Why do I need to know this?” Tell us one obscure thing you learned in school that you think is important, and why.
I learned that Gregor Mendel worked to give us the first—though quite simplistic—model of trait heritability.
This was important.
Though I usually prefer reading about the actual facts discovered rather than the history of the discovery, this bit of history was important because it was different. While the other scientists in my textbooks were being praised for their genius and for their ripe-for-TV eureka moments, right there on the page was this humble man whose two specialties were gardening and beekeeping.
And he was always referred to as humble. He didn’t found Mendelian Genetics through genius or in-born brilliance, but through diligence. At the time he actually embodied the apex of discipline in my mind: he was a monk. Who could work harder than a monk?
That was just a first step to learning that our culture in the States, the kind that praises innate smarts, is all wrong. I’ve always been told I’m clever, but all that did was make me smug and too reliant on cunning-over-effort.
Over 22 years of living, I’ve learned that the most brilliant head on a set of lazy shoulders is going to do precisely jack shit in the real world. Hard work is always more important, always.
And Gregor Mendel, the hardworking monk who figured out how heritable smarts might be passed down, showed me that those same smarts don’t actually matter.
Not if you don’t have discipline.
It’s a lesson I’m still trying to fully understand.
We all have our favorite authors, some of whom everyone has heard of, and some of whom are relatively obscure. Who is one of the more obscure writers you love? What do you love about their work? Tell us which story or novel of theirs we should drop everything to read right now.
Paul Neilan. I don’t know if he’s obscure, but I do know that his bibliography totals exactly 1. A hilarious, page-turning 1.
The novel is Apathy and Other Small Victories, and it will split your sides and send them into stratosphere. Or, you know, make you chuckle a little to yourself.
I’ve always thought writing comedy was the hardest talent to hone, but Neilan’s book is just effortlessly funny, while still managing to tell a well-structured story. It’s an exemplar of what good situational comedy is, and I look to it whenever I need some help. Definitely pick it up.
We all start somewhere, and the learning curve from first publication is a steep one. What’s your first ever published work, and how do you feel about it now?
Haha, I’m still actually quite the new writer. I still consider myself a novice—and so I’m still actually riding the high of my first publication! It was “On The Origin of Song”, published by Beneath Ceaseless Skies. Even now I’m incredibly grateful to Scott H. Andrews for considering me and taking me on.
Speaking of which: I’m quite grateful to you, too. Thank you so much!
What else are you working on have coming up you want people to know about?
Currently working on a science fiction story set in a near-future Japan, with a societal twist—as well as a story set in a new surgical department that I’ve taken to calling ‘Neuroplastics’. I hope the latter finds a home soon, though I’m still polishing the former.
I’m also trying to get my debut novel completed, polished, and off the ground! I’m almost afraid to even say its name, like I’m afraid I’ll break it.
But I’ll say it anyway, because I like the way it sounds:
“Starshine For Whiskey Riser.”
Which… is a tale about a bunch of strangers thrown together to trump a challenge.