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Tuesday, February 25, 2020

K. Tempest Bradford

This was a conversation I'd been looking forward to for a very long time! We were joined by the estimable K. Tempest Bradford, who spoke to us about her work, including her fiction and her work on Writing the Other. 

We began by discussing Tempest's short story, "Until Forgiveness Comes," which appeared at Strange Horizons in November of 2008. It's a great story, and a cool jumping-off point for a lot of really interesting issues. It reads like an alternative NPR story with an alternative Sylvia Poljoli. Tempest told us that she did design us to read like an NPR news report. She wrote it several years after the events of 9/11, once she got a handle on the emotions while she was observing a ceremony at ground zero five years after the attack. Survivors and their families were present, and the victims' names were read, and bells were struck at intervals. As Tempest describes it, "We had ritualized it."

The question of how we deal with mass grief is an important one. She observed that the grief had not necessarily been ritualized in a healthy way, and those elements are brought out in the short story. Tempest told us she lived in New York City, but wasn't there during the events themselves. She didn't want to address the issues directly but allegorically. Astutely, she tapped into the contrast between horrific events and the cool calm tone in which events are generally reported. It's a format where you can present multiple sides without taking a side, and people have different perspectives.

Tempest told us she spent a long time thinking about how to turn it into speculative fiction. In the end, she created a fantasy alternate history world where the dominant cultural force was Egypt. She's been researching Egypt for a long time. She told us about how she's been attempting to write a novel set in Egypt since college. In fact, it's a grouping of projects, not one (as is appropriate with a long and thorough research project of this nature!).  

She started with a novel based on the life of Pharaoh Akhenaten with links to Oedipus, and then decided she didn't have the skills to do it well and put it on the back burner. At that point she started learning a lot about the 18th dynasty. People know a lot about that period, she points out, and she has become very knowledgeable about it. Then she started writing a Steampunk story set in ancient Egypt, pushing boundaries. It started out as a short story and turned into a novel. That, she says, has been common for projects she's worked on since Clarion West. That piece is set at the start of the beginning of the 18th dynasty.

Tempest says she's thought about carrying forward the steampunk cultural elements into her other novel. Giant flying scarab beetles run by the heat of the sun for Akhenaten to ride in sounded pretty awesome to us!

She told us about a quote from China Miéville: "I think of a really cool monster, and then..." She had a monster, and then had to build a world around it to make it happen. She connected it to research, and to the show Ancient Aliens, which she describes as "OBVIOUSLY not good for nonfiction, but great for fiction." The idea of pipes in the pyramids connected up well with her idea of Egyptian Steampunk.

One thing she says is really frustrating about researching Egypt is how many of the innocuous-looking links you find end up taking you to places where people are shouting, "ALIENS! ATLANTIS!"

Tempest then told us about her Middle Grade novel, Ruby vs. the Big Red Bug. It's science fiction, set in a real-world setting. Ruby wants to be an entomologist, and finds a weird bug, catches it, then loses it, and then men in black appear saying "It's nothing; it's fine." She said she had an image of this super-smart black girl, who is very into science, fighting a giant red alien thing with a water gun. When looking for a setting, Tempest chose one of the neighborhoods she grew up in with the community she interacted with as a child. She sees it also as a hope for the future. Things were different there, and the community came together. Kids in the neighborhood were allowed to ride bikes alone up and down. There was a reason for that safety: "everybody in the neighborhood was up in our business." If you go somewhere you didn't promise, the neighborhood will know. Ruby gets up to shenanigans planning around that surveillance system. This is a really cool idea and Tempest says agents have shown interest in it.

Tempest told us she doesn't understand how people work on a lot of stuff at once. She's getting her middle grade revision done so she can go back to the Steampunk. She's also hoping to give more to her patrons on Patreon. Hallmark movie madness starts in September, and she picks from a bag of twelve tropes, and then lets her patrons pick the tropes for her to use in a Christmas story. This year's example is this: A woman runs a Santa theme park, but another woman wants to turn it into a co-working space and meditation center. It's an enemy-to-friends-to-lovers story. Also, woman #2 works for Adam Newman and his wacky wife. 

Tempest tells us she likes writing exercises. She enjoys starting a course with a writing exercise every day. She uses it as writing practice. She explained to us that she feels not enough writing teachers suggest the value of practicing writing. She was a music major in vocal performance, and was always practicing. Dancers practice, and artists practice. Saying "just sit down and write," she feels, is not helpful. She doesn't feel that saying something like "I wrote 10K words today" is a measure of something. Writing practice doesn't necessarily make you a better writer, and that's okay. She's leery of the idea that you have to sit and pump out words. She urges people to choose a writing exercise that challenges you to do something you're scared to do on the page. Or to look at a picture and write something to get your gears moving. You can also sit down and write a shitty description and then go back and make it better later.

Tempest has also been spending a lot of her time teaching lots of classes about Writing the Other. She tells us she finds lots of joy in it and wants more writers to have these skills so she doesn't have to read things that make her angry. The students in the program are awesome because they are great people who think hard about stuff. Tempest says it's very rewarding work and she's proud to know the people involved. They have a cycle of classes to give every year, and it has required lots of energy input to set up, but should require less energy going forward. It's nice to keep using tools that work!

Tempest says the description class may be the one she enjoys the most because she put so much personal effort into it, and developed all the material. Most classes are collaborations between her and Nisi Shawl and others. The one she feels she has the least footing in is the dialogue and dialect class, which is grounded in Nisi's concepts.

Tempest told us she used African American Vernacular English (AAVE) in the middle grade novel. This required digging back to how she talked as a kid. She asked her nephew, "Do people say rad any more? What do kids say?" and he said, "What are you even talking about?" Tempest said she considered tackling this language use as a result of the Writing the Other class. She learned things about how to make dialect work.

She also said she really enjoyed putting together the Worldbuilding class, because it brings together many different voices, among them Max Gladstone for ideology, Kate Elliott for analog cultures, Jaymee Goh for research, Andrea Hairston for cosmology. The material comes from different sources but comes together and people are saying things with the same sensibility. Sometime the same things get re-iterated across lectures. The students were highly engaged and asked good questions.

Writing the Other used to be a single class tackling everything together, but it exhausted students, so they broke the various topics out, and this gave the students more room to think and also more time to read and analyze fiction like Midnight Robber by Nalo Hopkinson. Tempest described trying to switch out the material used in the class and bring in some other works. However, Midnight Robber, while heavy, is amazing. Tempest and Tonya agreed that Nalo is a "goddess who was sent to us." Kate also said we needed a cabal to anoint Nisi Shawl as a goddess at Wiscon. The Writing the Other material and classes that have come together are 100% due to Nisi Shawl's founding efforts. Tempest brought in the skills for running classes online and getting stuff out there. She also continues to work on bringing in other voices to the WTO framework, including nonbinary, ace, etc.

Cliff asked what kind of effect the original book Writing the Other has had fifteen years after its publication. Tempest says she has seen a change in the public conversation surrounding how we write the Other. The effect is visible in books written by their students. It has made people pause and think, and seek out sensitivity readers. Tempest told us about an instance where she was contacted for a sensitivity read on an outline-stage book, where the main character was a black boy without a father. She asked, "Do you really need to do that?" When she spoke to the author, it turned out they wanted to dispel myths about the working class, so they talked about ways to bring in those issues in other ways. The resulting changes in the book were amazing. "This is happening," Tempest says. "We don't necessarily see all the steps." Slowly but surely, we are seeing more thought-out, respectful material in the field. That's good news for everyone.

Thank you so much, Tempest, for coming on the show! We can't wait to hear how your MG novel turns out.

Dive into Worldbuilding meets today, February 25th, 2020 at 4pm Pacific to talk with audiobook narrator Michael Crouch. I hope you can join us!