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Interview: Ken Liu & Caroline M. Yoachim

Ken Liu is an American author of speculative fiction. A winner of the Nebula, Hugo, and World Fantasy awards, he wrote the Dandelion Dynasty, a silkpunk epic fantasy series (starting with The Grace of Kings), as well as short story collections The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories and The Hidden Girl and Other Stories. He also penned the Star Wars novel The Legends of Luke Skywalker.

Prior to becoming a full-time writer, Liu worked as a software engineer, corporate lawyer, and litigation consultant. Liu frequently speaks at conferences and universities on a variety of topics, including futurism, cryptocurrency, history of technology, bookmaking, narrative futures, and the mathematics of origami.

Caroline M. Yoachim is a three-time Hugo and six-time Nebula Award finalist. Her short stories have been translated into several languages and reprinted in multiple best-of anthologies, including four times in Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy. Yoachim’s short story collection Seven Wonders of a Once and Future World and Other Stories and the print chapbook of her novelette The Archronology of Love are available from Fairwood Press. For more, check out her website at carolineyoachim.com.

“Collaboration?” is Ken Liu’s third appearance in Uncanny and Caroline M. Yoachim’s third appearance for new fiction.

Uncanny Magazine: Well! This is a delightful and intriguing story about a collaboration. It’s intricate and playful and it’s wildly creative in the variety of worlds it shows us. So it leaves me very interested to learn about what the collaboration process was like for the two of you. How did the collaboration process go for you? What did you find particularly interesting or fun about how you worked as a team?

Caroline M. Yoachim: Honestly, the entire collaboration was so much fun that I almost don’t know where to start!

I had the thought, several months ago, that it might be interesting to write a story that systematically deconstructs the concept of collaboration in much the way Ken has done with books (“The Bookmaking Habits of Select Species”) and time (“Timekeepers’ Symphony”). Then it occurred to me that doing a story about collaboration as a collaboration could be meta in a fun way, so I emailed Ken to ask if he’d be interested. 🙂

We immediately dove into discussions about the logistics of collaboration, and one of the key questions we discussed early on was “what elements do you need in order to start writing?” I start from ideas and structure, and characters don’t come in until later.

Ken Liu: I tend to be theme-driven. I like to start with a fairly abstract kernel (a word, a concept, a twist on something familiar), which I play with by embedding it in various concrete proto-stories until I find one that seizes my imagination. Then comes my favorite part of writing, when the story flows out of you in a feverish state of creative frenzy.

Given that Caroline and I both prefer to focus on the abstract first, we decided early on that the best structure for us was to write fragmentary vignettes in distinct voices and then weave them together. This would allow us to work in parallel while also influencing each other, and the vignettes would then build up into a grander, mythical meta-story. To generate the story kernels, we bounced ideas off of each other, examining various forms of “collaboration,” especially edge cases and extreme scenarios. Can there be a collaboration when one or both collaborators aren’t aware that they’re collaborating? Can there be a collaboration that takes place over eons and involves many agents working asynchronously? Can you collaborate with yourself? And so on. We went through so many ideas and imagined so many elaborate structures. That was such an amazing and fun experience, when it felt like story ideas were dropping out of the sky in a meteor shower.

Eventually, some kernels began to coalesce into concrete stories that really excited us. That was when we moved into drafting the vignettes.

Caroline M. Yoachim: I loved the brainstorming phase for this story, with sparks of ideas flying everywhere! Especially after really struggling to write for months on end during the pandemic, it was such a wonderful experience to finally have story ideas burning in my brain, barely contained—when we reached the point of drafting the first vignettes, the words just poured out onto the page. I think we really fed off each other’s energy and enthusiasm, and it was intense but also playful.

Drafting the vignettes was actually a bit of a departure from my usual process—I tend to be very linear when I’m writing, but here we were writing pieces of story without knowing exactly how they’d fit together. But it still worked well for me because I could write each vignette almost as a distinct flash fiction story. Stitching the vignettes together at the end was an absolute blast. Since my natural inclination is to create stories by mashing ideas together, the last bit of the process was like an extremely satisfying puzzle.

Ken Liu: A guiding image for this assembly/weaving phase was M.C. Escher’s Drawing Hands. We wanted the vignettes to mutually embed each other so that there is no longer a distinction between what is framed and what is doing the framing; all the created worlds are equally potent, productive, real.

Uncanny Magazine: I know both of you have done collaborations in the past. (In your case, Caroline, we’ve done several together and I know we’ve learned over the years how best to meld our very different processes!) Do you have any suggestions for other writers about good things to discuss or consider when deciding to collaborate with someone?

Caroline M. Yoachim: One of the things I was struck by is how different the process was for this collaboration than it was for the ones I’ve done (with you, Tina!) in the past. I think one really great feature of collaborations is that you can tailor them to the strengths of everyone involved, create a bespoke process as you go along. Ken and I talked about the specifics of our process in the previous question, but the logistics of how to blend your writing process with that of your collaborator is something I’ve definitely found helpful to consider.

There are also an assortment of other things to discuss—who will send the work out on submission, how will payments be split, is there a particular timeline for when you want the work to be finished, how will you decide which order the authors are listed (we flipped a coin).

Ken Liu: I think it’s really important to know your own process and to be able to articulate it to your partner. That’s the only way for you to figure out the best way to work together. To be a good partner, you need to be self-aware and recognize your own strengths and weaknesses.

Also, I want to echo Caroline that figuring out a bespoke process that works for you and your partner is the key. If you talk to a hundred authors who have enjoyed collaborations, they’ll describe for you a hundred different processes. There is no one “best way.” Some collaborations require the collaborators to feel like every word comes out of both of their brains; others require the collaborators to feel like they have their own distinct voices; still others need a blend. You’ll have to invent your own best process.

Above all, I think good communications is key. The less you leave in “guess-land” and the more you make explicit in terms of expectations and requirements, the smoother the process is likely to be.

Uncanny Magazine: Now that you’ve satisfied my curiosity about the nitty-gritty of the process, I’d love to hear more about the story itself! This story has a lot of interesting thematic elements that unite the vignettes into one cohesive story. I see discussions of the nature of collaborations, the role of inspiration and muses (or in the case of Diable the cat, perhaps a delightful anti-muse!), and the importance of art and story to make sense of the world. And of course, in a meta twist, the story opens with two creators deciding to be muses for each other. Can you tell us more about the themes running through this story?

Caroline M. Yoachim: Exploring the concept of collaboration was the starting point for the story, but as we were brainstorming ideas and discussing structure, we realized that it would work well to have another common thread to unite the individual vignettes, and Ken suggested we weave in references to the myth of the muse. I’d explored this to some degree in “Colors of the Immortal Palette,” from the side of rejecting the role of muse (“I want to be the artist, not the art.”), so here, particularly in “Ensō,” I decided to take the other side and have characters really embrace the role of muse.

Ken Liu: The muse-artist relationship is itself an interesting example of collaboration. One of the through lines in the vignettes is inspiration as a form of collaboration, and how the muse doesn’t have to be a disempowering role; it can also evolve to give the muse agency and power. In fact, we can be our own muses, and that allows us to see our own art in a different way.

I also opted to explore the flipside of the muse, the anti-muse, in the figure of Diable the cat. There is something very interesting to me in “unnamed opposites,” roles that occupy spaces opposite clichéd roles in our culture but don’t have a name. For instance, logically, there should be a name for the opposite of a muse, someone or something who actively suppresses creativity, who smothers new ideas. But we don’t seem to have a distinct name or mythology for that. Why not? Just having a name makes something easier to think about, to picture it—maybe that’s why the anti-muses have remained unnamed; their power in part lies in their unnamed state.

Caroline M. Yoachim: Unnamed opposites are fascinating to me as well, a juxtaposition of duality and negative space, both of which are concepts I love to play with when I’m writing. Inspired by “Stoichiometry // Stroke Me, Try,” I explored elements of the anti-muse in “Tasting Notes.” There are references to Echo (who is cursed by Hera to only repeat the words of others) and the sirens (whose seductive voices lead to destruction rather than creation).

Uncanny Magazine: This story uses a variety of playful formats and font choices to tell the mini stories within it. I particularly loved the way that was used to show the artwork in “The Singularity Triptych” and the cat intrusions in “Stoichiometry//Stroke Me, Try.” How did some of these fun structural ideas evolve for you while writing this?

Caroline M. Yoachim: First, a huge thank you to the Uncanny editors for putting in extra work to make our playful formatting happen in both web and ebook form!

One of the things Ken and I have in common as writers is a love of interesting structures, and we were both excited to try to push at the boundaries of what we could do with formatting. In “The Singularity Triptych,” I wanted to use the form of the story to give the reader a vague sense of something that is, for the untranscended human, not quite comprehensible. (As a side note, coming up with an artform that was sufficiently complex to be suitable for post-singularity humans was a really fun challenge.)

Ken Liu: We knew from the start that this story was going to be very challenging for production. I echo Caroline in expressing gratitude to the Uncanny team for the hard work they did to realize this story in the way we wanted. (Caroline and I also produced an accessible version of the story for screen readers and similar devices so that as many people as possible can enjoy the story.)

I think we both enjoy leaning into the medium of the written word, exploring all the ways its visual presentation can also be part of the message. Writing should have its own graphic mode of expression, just as speech is its own aural dimension, independent of the semantic content. For “Stoichiometry // Stroke Me, Try,” I wanted to visually give the reader a sense of how difficult it is to try to focus on a complicated thought when an anti-muse is at work, literally disrupting your reading experience, obscuring words and sense, forcing you to devote your energy to navigate mazy word streams and convoluted sentences. It’s commonplace to note that writing is just visible speech, but I’ve always found that description to not give writing its due. Writing is not merely visible speech—it can also be more, much more.

Uncanny Magazine: One of the great things about this story is that we got glimpses of so many fascinating worlds. I was particularly intrigued by the mirror world in “A Vision Bare,” with its duplicated injuries, and the implications of that. I also really loved the final story, “Ensō,” and the way that Riku deals with both parental expectations and with the poet she is hoping to inspire. And finally, I enjoyed seeing the same images and thoughts appear and disappear throughout all the mini stories, like ideas being batted around. What were some of your favorite moments or worlds you came up with while working on this piece?

Caroline M. Yoachim: This story is denser with references than probably anything I’ve ever written, and it was so much fun to weave things through the story. One place that I really love to tuck references is the names of characters. In “Ensō,” for instance, Riku can be written in Japanese as 陸玖, which combines 陸 “land” and 玖 “nine” (not the common character for nine, but the formal character sometimes used in documents because it is harder to forge). Nine is a reference to the nine Greek muses, and land struck me as a good fit for someone who creates worlds.

Along those same lines, “The Singularity Triptych” consists of image descriptions that are generated by a program called CYRANO 9.0, but attributed to Chris de Somme (a play on Christian de Neuvillette from Cyrano de Bergerac; Somme is a département in France that contains Neuvillette). Depending on how far one wants to push the parallels between the stories, CYRANO 9.0 could even be in love with the transcended photographer, Roxane.

I find these sorts of references particularly appealing in this story because it ties so nicely into the theme: the story itself is a collaboration between the writer and the reader, and different readers will connect with different references, they will connect with the references in different ways, and they will bring in references that aren’t on the page at all. In the end, each reader creates their own understanding, a version of the story that could never have existed otherwise.

Ken Liu: One of the joys of working on this was that we encouraged each other to go deep with the weaving, to really make the text pull on as many threads in the web of signifiers as possible. Since the structure of the story relies on the vignettes to reference each other, to establish a fictional reality by cross-links (a literary version of how links as first-class objects give reality to everything on the web), during drafting, it naturally led to a kind of playful ecstasy in linkage, a push for both of us toward an abundance of allusions and references to other texts. I felt we were writing a Barthesian texte scriptible. Some of my favorite bits:

I really liked weaving in the New Orleans streets named after the Muses. These street names are pronounced by locals in a way that completely baffles visitors. It’s an example of the kind of localism, rootedness, deeply embodied existence that represents an ideal for me, something to uphold against the flattening effects of “globalization.” I think we get inspired to tell the most universal stories only when we can live the most local and rooted lives.

The mirror-world was also so much fun. I could write a whole novel in it. The Lacanian idea that we cannot form an integrated ego without the mirror image is deeply evocative, and in a move very typical of me, I made that metaphor literally true in a fictional world and followed where it led. I’m still thinking about it.

I also really enjoyed the alternate-medieval world in “Stoichiometry // Stroke Me, Try.” Sometimes I feel that I’m a medieval person at heart, and I loved writing a vignette that referenced some of the medieval pre-scientific theories that, step by step, led to modernity (the role of the muse in science is truly underexplored). Plus, I got to make a Latin joke that high-school me would have absolutely loved. Those opportunities don’t come around very often.

Uncanny Magazine: And finally, I’d love to hear about what you’re each working on next!

Caroline M. Yoachim: I’m currently working on an assortment of short fiction projects, including a couple things that were strongly influenced by this story. The first is a collaborative murder mystery that I’m writing with our fabulous interviewer, Tina Connolly, which we are approaching with a process we came up with that lets each of us focus on our respective strengths as writers. The second was inspired by the structure and content of “The Singularity Triptych” (and a lengthy subsequent discussion of ideas with Ken)—that one is called “We Will Teach You How To Read | We Will Teach You How To Read” and it is forthcoming in Lightspeed.

Ken Liu: I’m working on a bunch of short fiction commissions as well as a few essays. But I’m also working on something purely on spec, which has been influenced by this collaboration with Caroline. It’s a story about the collaboration between the artist and the audience, as every work of art comes alive only in that interplay. Some theories of interpretation, influenced by modernism’s insistence on detaching signifiers from their roots, try to cut the artist out of that collaboration and make the reader/viewer/audience the primary agent and even sole creator of meaning. But I’ve found those theories too often lead to readings that are deeply unempathetic, flawed, and narcissistic. My story is about the magic that we lose when we refuse to engage with artworks as communicative acts, as fragments of the artist’s soul. I hope the story finds a good home.

Uncanny Magazine: Oh, gosh, I love hearing that you are both working on things inspired by this story! (And please note that I am having an amazing time with that collaborative murder mystery!)

Many thanks to both of you for sharing your thoughts with us today!

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Tina Connolly

Tina Connolly’s books include the Ironskin and Seriously Wicked series, and the collection On the Eyeball Floor. She has been a finalist for the Hugo, Nebula, and World Fantasy awards. She co-hosts Escape Pod, runs the Toasted Cake podcast, and is at tinaconnolly.com.

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