Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Midweek Fiction: Kat Howard, "Sweet Sixteen"

Editor's note: Our apologies--this post originally ran without the interview section.  Our technical difficulties have been fixed, and we thank you for your patience.

Last week, we launched a new weekly feature where we highlight a speculative short story that is available on the Internet.  Our first feature was Kelly Link's "Valley of the Girls," and this week, we feature a story by Kat Howard, our own content editor!

Howard's story is entitled "Sweet Sixteen," and can be found in the July 2011 issue of Lightspeed magazine, which is edited by John Joseph Adams.  The issue also features an interview with Howard, in which she talks about some of the things that influenced her as she was writing.

Howard was also generous enough to answer some questions for us about her story and about writing speculative fiction in general:

Most of your fiction so far fits into the category of fantasy literature, even dark fantasy. What made you try your hand at science fiction? Were there particular challenges that you didn't expect to face?

The real catalyst for writing "Sweet Sixteen" was the editor of Lightspeed, John Joseph Adams. I'd worked with John before, when he bought "Choose Your Own Adventure" for Fantasy, and during that process, he asked if I ever wrote any science fiction, and said if I did, I should send it to Lightspeed. I had been toying with the idea of trying to write SF before he asked, but the request was enough to make me think seriously about what kind of story I might tell that fit in with the different set of conventions. So I'm very grateful to him, not only for buying the story, but for nudging me outside of my writerly comfort zone enough that I wrote it in the first place.

But once I'd done that, I don't think writing SF gave me a set of challenges any different from those I face when I write fantasy. Very often when I write, the story begins with a character. Once I had Star, I knew the way I needed to tell her story.

Some of the names in "Sweet Sixteen" have obvious associations with famous women from our world--Julia Child, for example, Virginia Woolf, Hillary Clinton, and Martha from the Bible. What are some of the less-obvious allusions?

One of the things I've learned from reaction to the story is that I couldn't predict which women people would be able to identify and which they wouldn't. And they are all drawn from historical women, so, in order of appearance: Tiffany is from a late 80s pop singer, Tiffany, who later posed for Playboy, and was recently in the Syfy movie, "Mega Python vs. Gatoroid." Martha is for Martha Stewart. Hillary is for Hillary Rodham Clinton (because of her role as Secretary of State). Caroline is for Caroline Herschel, an 18th/19th century astronomer, who was the first woman to discover a comet. Elizabeth is for Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman to graduate from medical school in the United States. Anna is for Anna Freud, the founder of child psychoanalysis. Meryl is for Meryl Streep. Theresa includes my own spelling error, and is based on Mother Teresa of Calcutta. Marie is for Marie Curie, the two-time Nobel Prize winning physicist and chemist. Sandra is for Sandra Day O'Connor, the first woman to sit on the US Supreme Court. Julia is for Julia Child. Virginia is for Virginia Woolf (although I went back and forth in early drafts, and almost named her Aphra, for Aphra Behn). Scholastica is for the 6th century Scholastica, who founded one of the earliest women's monastic communities. And Rosalind is for Rosalind Franklin, the British biophysicist whose work on x-ray diffraction images of DNA lead to the discovery of DNA's double helix structure.

Were there particular people from your life that you had in mind when you wrote this story?

I'm at an age where many of my close friends have recently become parents. And I watch as they try to balance their desires for their children with the realization that their children may not want the same things - the struggle between wanting to keep them safe, and wanting them to be their own people. Watching that - and watching it through the remove of not having children of my own - really played a role in the way the story was constructed.

One of your characters makes the comment, "the choice is the price we pay for happiness." Does this comment in some way reflect your own thoughts about happiness, responsibility, and becoming an adult?

Honestly, it really doesn't. I find that statement appalling on a personal level. I think that we lose a lot by telling people they can't be something that they're not good at because it won't make them happy, or by limiting choices based on how useful a career or a calling is. I would tell someone to push against what they're told they're not good enough for, to fail gloriously rather than to not try, to take risks and be brave.

What three names would you write on your tablet?

I've been an Elizabeth and a Sandra. And I'm really enjoying being a Virginia right now.