Nancy Kress is the author of 26 books, including the classic Beggars in Spain, which won the Hugo and Nebula awards for best novella in 1991.
Last month she deservedly won a 2013 Nebula award for her novella After the Fall, Before the Fall, During the Fall (Tachyon Publications). Nancy also teaches at Clarion and other writing festivals and is the author of several books on writing. You can find out more on her website.
Her contribution to Shadows of the New Sun is a delight – an exploration of the pain and pleasure of being lost in books, inspired by one of Gene’s earliest classic short stories. We wanted to find out more about the origins of her story and what she thinks about the author who inspired it and were therefore delighted when she agreed to answer our questions…
You’ve known Gene a long time, but how did you originally come across him? Did you encounter the man or his writing first?
I first read Gene when “The Island of Dr. Death And Other Stories” appeared in 1970. I was enchanted. By 1980, when The Shadow of the Torturer was released, I was a firm fan. At that time I was teaching at the State University of New York at Brockport, and the English Department was running a week-long summer writing workshop in various genres: poetry, fiction, journalism, science fiction. Each faculty member (I was adjunct faculty at the college) was asked to invite one co-teacher, and I was astonished and delighted when Gene accepted. We hadn’t met before, and I was an unknown, having published only a handful of stories. Gene stayed at my house for the week, and we had plenty of time to schmooze.
During that workshop, my young son broke his arm at Day Care and I rushed him to the ER. That happened to be the same night I had invited all our students, plus some faculty, to dinner. So I’m calling from the hospital to Gene: “Could you please put the ham in the oven at 325 degrees?” And later, “Do you think you could get my big pot from the lower left-hand cupboard by the stove, fill it with water, and set it boiling for the corn?” Later: “Gene–do you know how to shuck corn?” Gene did it all, and both the kid and the dinner were fine.
Tell us about your favourite story or novel by Gene and what it means to you.
My favorite is “The Island of Dr. Death and Other Stories,” which is why I leapt at the chance to add to the story for the Gene Wolfe tribute anthology. I loved it for two reasons. That little boy is so appealing, so clueless as to what is happening in his household, and so real. Creating a character that memorable in such a short space is not easy. Second, I was exactly that kind of child, bringing the characters from my favorite books into my “real” life—at least, in my mind.
Gene wrote a memorable introduction to your first collection back in 1985 (and it is reprinted in Castle of Days). If you were to introduce Gene, what would you try to say?
I would say that this is the science fiction writer that other SF writers aspire—or should aspire—to be. Incidentally, I am still touched and proud of that introduction he wrote for my first collection.
There’s also an extract from a letter to you in Castle of Days. Does Gene always write such wonderful letters?
Yes. We used to correspond regularly. Somehow when the Internet appeared and both our lives got much more complicated, we stopped doing that. It’s a shame, really.
How did you get involved in the Shadows of the New Sun collection?
I was thrilled to be asked to contribute a story.
Some of the stories in Shadows of the New Sun play with Wolfean conceits and themes or re-examine earlier stories, but yours, “… And Other Stories” takes this process to a new level. Can you tell us the origin of the story?
I can’t ever identify the origin of any of my stories. I did know that I wanted to somehow use “The Island of Dr. Death and Other Stories”, and so I reread it. And immediately my story popped into my head. There are gift stories, that come to you whole, and this was one. Although, of course, they’re not really unearned “gifts”—they come from years of unconscious fermenting of ideas, emotions, other authors’ work, daily experiences, imagined experiences, and everything else that roils away in the bottom of writers’ souls.
What is it about Gene and his work that has inspired so many other writers and readers?
Its complexity and simplicity combined. The complexity is in the ideas, the plots, and the wonderful language. The simplicity comes in the characters’ desires. You are always clear what Tackie or Severian or Candy Garth need, and their humanity leads you through their sometimes convoluted plots.