Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam’s fiction and poetry has appeared in over 90 publications such as Year’s Best Dark Fantasy & Horror, Lightspeed, and LeVar Burton Reads, as well as in six languages. By night, she has been a finalist for the Nebula Award. By day, she works as a Narrative Designer writing romance games for the mobile app Chapters. She lives in Texas with her partner and a mysterious number of cats. “Onward” is Stufflebeam’s third piece of fiction to appear in Uncanny, a wonderful exploration of relationships and careers, set against the backdrop of a whimsical fantasy world.
Uncanny Magazine: I love the fantasy elements in “Onward”—the cloud, the healing waters in the queen’s country, the equits, Root. What sources of inspiration did you draw from in creating the world?
Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam: The original seed of this story was planted on a trip to a hot springs a couple of years ago out in Colorado. I wanted to write a fantasy story that included a similar history of naturopathic healing springs as our own world. I was also inspired by my own experience with autonomy, particularly as it’s discussed in polyamorous circles. I wanted to explore autonomy of relationships and then take those same concepts and apply them to other aspects of the same fantasy world. I’m a long-time vegetarian, so exploring the element of choice in the lives of a fantastical creatures, in this case the equits and also Root, felt like a natural evolution of the idea.
Uncanny Magazine: “Onward” is a beautiful exploration of relationships and careers, and also how to bridge the gap between two worlds, on both a personal level and a societal level. What drew you to these themes?
Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam: Most everyone exists in multiple worlds, multiple selves. We’re different people when we speak to our parents, or our lovers, or our friends than we are when we’re at work or in a new country. And all those different selves are woven together to form our identity. As someone who has worked in a dozen different fields, but then always written alongside those other obligations, I feel keenly the career-oriented concept of living in and bridging gaps between different worlds.
I feel the same way about my younger self, the one who lived with parents, versus the person I am now. My childhood home was an alcoholic one, and it shaped my core. Then, moving into the world of adulthood, I’ve had to contend with how to bridge gaps between those two distinct places and unwind much of what that original world gave me to be healthy.
Uncanny Magazine: The ending, where Iris loads the carriage onto her own back after having freed the equits, is a powerful image. What elements do you think make for a powerful ending? Do you tend to gravitate more to endings that are ambiguous/open or endings that tie everything together?
Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam: I love an ambiguous ending, but I’ve written plenty that tie things up, too. It depends on what the story requires. When writing endings, I try to make them feel both inevitable and surprising. I pay close attention to my character arcs, as for me, some of the most powerful endings stop at the moment of true change—or, in a tragedy, at the moment one realizes that true change isn’t going to happen. I like to think of endings, too, as the knotting of several threads or themes throughout, as even in an ambiguous ending, there’s a coming together of story elements that makes it feel satisfying. When writing an ending, I also try to push beyond the space where one might easily conclude and see if I can push myself into a deeper, unexplored territory.
Uncanny Magazine: If you were one of the characters in this story, who would you be and why?
Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam: I would be Ximena, as she’s already come to the edge of her struggle with mental illness and has found a career and a life for herself that satisfies. She isn’t a jealous woman, and she’s so comfortable in herself that she knows what she wants and asks for it.
Uncanny Magazine: One focus of “Onward” is tradition—both clinging to it and pushing against it. As a writer, what literary traditions do you tend to embrace? What is something you try to push against?
Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam: I pay a lot of attention to character arc; I’m fairly traditional in my focus on that aspect of writing, but I do try to avoid easy answers and archetypes, which are of course a well-utilized feature of some forms. I like to acknowledge a complexity in relationships and characters that sometimes means I end up with convoluted drafts that need a lot of editing. I love sparse writing, and I love lush prose—and my favorite thing is to marry the two styles, to marry different genres, and to feature experimental elements if it fits the story.
Uncanny Magazine: What are you working on next?
Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam: I just finished a horror novel, which is now with my agent for edits. I’m working on a short story for a particular market, something monster-y with some queer and also classic vibes. Then, maybe a novel in a whole new genre, just to play around and see how I like it. We’ll see!
Uncanny Magazine: Thank you for sharing your thoughts with us!
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