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Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Alvaro Zinos-Amaro and Traveler of Worlds

Alvaro Zinos-Amaro told us that he started out writing essays and reviews of science fiction, fantasy and horror. He's now a prolific author of short stories, and has published thirty stories since 2008! He says he likes to experiment in his stories, and to work from specific guidelines. Traveler of Worlds, which came out a week ago, is a book of interviews he conducted with author Robert Silverberg.

Because he has written in Sherlock Holmes and Jack the Ripper fictional universes, I asked him what it was like to work in other people's worlds. He told us about a story he wrote for the The Mammoth Book of the Adventures of Moriarty: The Secret Life of Sherlock Holmes's Nemesis, and says it's impossible to learn all of the things that have done in the case of a world like Sherlock Holmes, because the world has been so mined by others. That means you have to have a specific approach. His was to reread the canonical stories that featured Moriarty, and to research the main ways  he's been portrayed, including novels and popular spins on Moriarty. Then he tried to come up with something really bizarre and make it look natural.

He said he was inspired by the Nathaniel Hawthorne story about a man who leaves his home and lives in a house nearby, watching how his own life unfolds without him in it. He redid it as a Holmes-Moriarty story, and says the plot arose from trying to make the two worlds work together. He asked "How does the story have to end?" and "What is the character's journey?" and the world portrayal arose from that. In his story, he imagined that all the stories about Holmes and Moriarty that occurred after Reichenback Falls were actually flashbacks (life flashing before their eyes) in the minds of the two characters while they were falling from the waterfall. That meant that Moriarty had created a world for himself, and aspects of that world had to show him that something larger was wrong.

In the case of a story he wrote for the Mammoth Book of Jack the Ripper stories, he ended up making it science-fictional. Alvaro says that the commercial properties featuring Jack the Ripper are tame, and he wanted to get away from the legend and back to the brutal reality of this "nauseating character." He looked at newspaper clippings and articles from the period, as well as canonical stories and notes. He then blended this with an aspect of contemporary society he finds just as horrifying: the corporate interview. He says that he really connected with some recent articles which described the characteristics required for top corporate positions (like CEO) as corresponding closely with the characteristics of sociopaths and pscyhopaths. The story therefore featured different versions of Jack the Ripper murders, each from the perspective of a different sort of Jack the Ripper character - and [SPOILER!] these were all different people experiencing the stories as part of an interview process for CEO of a company. His intent was also to make readers wonder about how similar they themselves were to Jack the Ripper.

Alvaro is very good at creating conceptual mashups!

We then talked about his story, "WYSIOMG" which will appear in October in Cyberworld. The title is an acronym for "What You See Is Oh My God," bringing together the early concept of a graphic user interface with modern slang sensibilities. The story is a cyberpunk story. Alvaro says that there are many features of cyberpunk, such as tech, implants, cutthroat corporations, neon, and rain, that are mostly superficial, but that it's also important to include a degree of "stylistic audacity." He notes that postmodernism and cyberpunk arose at the same time.

The point of view he uses in this story is somewhat unusual. Alvaro says "worldbuilding is building the world as it is experienced by the character." His main character here comes from a poor background and was sold on using products which damaged his brain, something Alvaro does not consider a disability but a feature of his perspective, represented by his prose stylistics. He says that the story was inspired in part by a news story about villages in Spain being up for sale; in this story, the empty villages have been colonized by poor people who have found their way there from a worse place. He looked at genetic engineering, drones, and the use of information in the future.

I asked Alvaro to talk about the difference between character voice and narrator voice. The easiest way to identify narrator voice is if the story is not in first person - as in the Jack the Ripper story when the narrator was not first person and the reader is dealing with known events. The introduction of the consciousness of the character changes the voice. Alvaro says "everything betrays writer voice" on some level. He often thinks about the aesthetic he is trying to achieve in a story. If you look at writers from before the 20th century you often see longer sentences and formal language, so he used that in the Jack the Ripper story, but made style changes based on the four point of view characters. In the case of WYSIOMG, he used a cyberpunk aesthetic. There are many mentions of future technology, and the character's viewpoint uses run-on sentences, altered grammar, and mixes languages a lot. These stylistic features are meant to capture his multilinguistic background and also his brain injury.

Alvaro told us he was born in Madrid, so his use of Spanish in the story didn't require any research, but he did research on Brazilian Portuguese to capture that aspect of his character. Cyberpunk often uses existing words in a new way (including compound words) and I observed that internet language is also changing sentence structure.

Alvaro told us about a story of his in the forthcoming anthology This Way to the End Times, called "Prayers to the Sun by a Dying Person." This one required a lot of research because it was set in India as the future "crashes into the present." He said he looked deeply into linguistic questions, but also religion, culture, geography, rituals, etc. He takes the question of cultural appropriation very seriously and wants to use the material he learns in a way that is respectful yet innovative, and makes sense.

"Sometimes you spend the longest time on the smallest things," he said. He went back and forth over several drafts about whether to include a brief explanation of the word "ghat" in his first sentence, where the woman was sitting on a step by a lake. In the end, he took the explanation out. Alvaro says "get on with the story; just make it so the reader has enough."

I asked him about Traveler of Worlds, which has been available for about a week. Alvaro explained that he had been paired with Robert Silverberg for a project called When the Blue Shift Comes, where he wrote the second half of a piece with a very particular style that often makes direct address to the reader. Alvaro had to emulate that style "and have fun." The project went well, so Alvaro asked Silverberg to do a book of interviews about how he feels about things other than science fiction and fantasy. The key to successful interviews, Alvaro says, is making sure you can create a safe environment where someone feels they can talk about anything, and not to ask clichéd questions. It sounds like a really neat collection, and gave Silverberg a chance to talk about his early childhood as well as to analyze the work of some non-SFF authors. It sounds really cool.

Alvaro, thank you so much for coming on the show! Now, everyone go check out Traveler of Worlds...


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