Sarah Pinsker is the author of over fifty works of short fiction, two novels, and two collection. Her work has won four Nebula Awards, two Hugo Awards, the Philip K. Dick Award, the Locus Award, the Eugie Foster Award, and the Theodore Sturgeon Award, and been nominated for numerous Nebula, Hugo, Locus, and World Fantasy Awards. Sarah’s first collection, Sooner or Later Everything Falls Into the Sea: Stories, was published by Small Beer Press in March 2019, and her first novel, A Song For A New Day, was published by Penguin/Random House/Berkley in September 2019. Her latest novel is We Are Satellites, published in May 2021, and her second collection, Lost Places, will be published by Small Beer Press in May 2023. She lives in Baltimore, Maryland and can be found online at sarahpinsker.com and twitter.com/sarahpinsker.

Charlie Hope-D’Anieri: This new short story collection follows two novels you’ve published since your debut collection. What is your relationship between those two forms?

Sarah Pinsker: I wanted my first collection to come out before my first novel, partly because I had heard that your collection will always sell less than a mainstream novel. And so if you have your first collection come after your first novel, it will look like a big dip for your second book—whereas, an indie collection before the novel “doesn’t count” towards how they assess your numbers. Here I am doing another indie collection as my fourth book—I don’t know if that does matter, but I love Small Beer Press, and I wanted to work with them again, and I had enough good stuff to do another collection that I was proud of, so it felt like a thing to do.

CH: The stories in this collection range substantially, not only in what we might call genre, or style, but also more concrete attributes, such as length and form. How do they each come about? And then—how does that develop into a collection?

SP: For most of the stories, first I figure out what the story is, then I figure out how to tell it. I try to follow what it wants, rather than some set idea of what a story looks like, which has led to some fun stuff. I like playing with the mode a little bit, it’s fun to see what you can get away with in a story. Most stories tell you what length they want to be—I think that’s come to me over the years. I’ve got about sixty stories published now, and I can usually figure out from an idea how long it’s going to be. If there are more complicating factors, it might be longer, if the scope of the world I need to shine a light on is a little larger, then you give it room for the journey. If it’s a highly-concentrated idea, or moment—just a “what if”—then you can get in and get out.

All but one of these stories had other homes before they became this collection. First, the stories go to another magazine or an anthology, and then I pick through those and see what fits well together. Small Beer Press is very collaborative about it—I send them what I think goes in the collection, and they tell me what they think, and we kind of argue it out, and then argue out the sequence. And from knowing what else was in it, I knew it needed to have a noveltte, a 15,000 word story that’s an original. (This turned out to be the book’s final story, “Science Facts!”).

I’m a big spreadsheet person these days. I have this big Kanban spreadsheet. I don’t use it the way you’re supposed to, but in it you have a “to-do” list and a “doing” list—which has one thing on it—and then you have a “done” list. “To-do” is where I put everything; in “doing” I’ll put what I’m doing that day, and then I’ll transfer it all to “done” and let it collect there. By the end of the year there’s like 800 lines, but it shows me that I have accomplished stuff, and on the days that I’m like “I’ve done nothing!” I can look and say “no, you’re getting stuff done, it’s incremental.” I put everything on there, bills to coffee apointments and story ideas, including possible homes for those ideas.

CH: So if you have a novel going, you won’t focus on just that?

SP: If I have a deadline for a solicitation, then those things get bumped up, and they tend to get bumped up ahead of a novel—until I have a deadline on a novel. The novel I’m working on right now I specifically didn’t want to write to deadline. I wanted it to have room to breathe, and it’s doing a lot of breathing, and I’ve written a lot of stuff in the meantime. It isn’t the best way of getting a novel done, but it’s good for stories.

CH: Your work has been awarded some of the highest honors in the Science Fiction/Fantasy world. How do you relate to genre?

SP: I kind of dabble in all of the speculative genres—science fiction, fantasy, and horror. I like the name speculative fiction, as well as fantastica. To me it’s just a pallette with more colors. I love a good realist story, I love a story that has a window onto the human condition, or describes a place so perfectly I can see it, or describes a time so perfectly that I can be immersed in tenth-century England, or whatever it is. It’s a magic trick. And I feel like those are all speculative in some way. But those titles—like speculative fiction or fanastica—allow you a little bit of room to say, this is a truth, if not the truth.

Also—there’s so much weirdness in the world as it is. I don’t know what my dog is smelling when we go on a walk, but it’s clearly not the same thing I’m smelling—and I can’t imagine what color looks like to a mantis shrimp. The world we’re looking at isn’t an absolute value; it’s our limited perspective. So why not allow some of that weirdness, if it’ll make a story that says something that hasn’t been said before?

CH: Your stories often follow the young, as well as the elderly.

SP: That’s interesting. I don’t know if I do that on purpose. But there’s certain people who get a lot of stories told about them, and the elderly are definitely not that group. It’s fun to write stories from kid perspectives, also. It comes down to: what’s the right perspective for the story you want to tell?

Sometimes if I find a story where the perspective needs to be someone who has seen a lot, and recognizes that this is different, then that’s a mode of storytelling that lends itself to an older perspective. And then if I want to introduce something that is also going to be strange to the reader, it can be useful to use a character who has not experienced it, and will ask questions the reader would ask. Sometimes those are ways to get into the story in ways that won’t dump information on the reader.

CH: The endings of your stories often feel like they are also beginnings. Are you ever tempted to let them continue?

SP: I never write a story thinking, “this is going to be a novel.” That said, both of my novels came from short stories. In the case of A Song for a New Day, the story didn’t make it into the novel; in We Are Satellites, the story is in there, but I think it’s changed a little bit. But stories aren’t proof of concept for a novel to me. I like leaving a story at a place where people can imagine what happens next, like I’ve closed that out, but I’ve left possiblities open for the characters, because I want them to go on existing in my head. Writing “futher adventures of,” often feels unfair to me. The characters have gone through whatever they’ve gone through in the story, and then you’re going to have to upset them again by throwing more plot at them? Sometimes I feel like they deserve a rest. I think I have tendency to leave things in a place of “hopeful hopefully,” so I’d hate to upset that.

CH: You’re a musician. If there is a story that more closely approximates music itself than any other in this collection, it’s “I Hear Music in the Very Heart of Noise,” an experimental, relentless, historical-mythical tour through the apartments, hotels, and jazz clubs of 1920s Manhattan. Its narrative is disaggregated, so the drive and climax is largely energetic. Can you talk more about that story?

SP: I wrote that story when I needed something for a workshop I was going to and I was in a house with a really cool library. I said, I’m going to open myself up to find the story somewhere in this library, and I started pulling books down. What I pulled down that ended up working was someone’s walking tour of New York City. Walking tours are by nieghborhood, so it tends to be sort of contained. And when you’re doing that kind of tour, because it’s geographically fastened, it’s unmoored in time. So what I started thinking about was how to get that feeling, that unmooring.

This book isn’t as musical as my others, but I’ve come back to musical themes a lot. Stylistically that story is quite different. I wanted to write something that riffed on musical themes—words that repated, and lines and characters that came back, but then the story could go off again and then you would hear that thing that was familiar to you, like a hook. Where you’ve been away from it for a while—maybe you’ve had a chorus, and a verse, and a bridge, and then the song pauses for a second and you come into some really hooky riff. I wanted to get some experience of that.

I got a lot of excitement from the descriptions of jazz that were in primary sources. There are a lot of quotes in that story, because I wanted the actual feeling of being there, and not to imitate someone else’s slang, it could become almost a parody. I didn’t want it to sound like the movie version of the twenties, because it would become grainier. I like going back to primary sources. Ordinarily you do the research and then write the story in a way that hides the resaerch, but for this one I put the research front and center, and then added things that weren’t real.

A lot of people argue it’s not a story, because it’s a weird shape. Is it a plot? I dont know. I’ve done a couple of readings of that story where I numbered the sections and cut it up and let people shout out numbers. I started with the first section and ended with the last section, but they could shout out anything in between. It works in other orders, too, which is really interesting.

That research led to another story in this collection called “A Better Way of Saying,” about an actor who literally shot someone on 5th Avenue and got away with it. It was such an outlandish story that the challenge became that the fact of history often makes terrible fiction. Often truth doesn’t jibe with people’s ideas with something, to the point where they’ll argue.

CH: How long have you lived in Baltimore, and to what extent do you consider yourself a Baltimore writer?

SP: I’ve been here for about twenty years now. I went to school at Goucher College, and then I didn’t leave. I didn’t leave because I was playing music and this was a great location for that—it was affordable, there was good music happening here, and also you could go on tour for manageable amounts of time and still get back here. You can go up the East Coast, come back and do your laundry, then go South and come back and do your laundry. You can go as far as Chicago in your car; it’s a Southwest hub, and Southwest was good about handling guitars when nobody else was. So it felt like the right place to be. We moved around a lot when I was a kid, so I liked the idea of being in one place.

I don’t know if you’re ever allowed to be fully Baltimorean if you weren’t born here. But I’ve always liked it here, and as a writer, it’s got a wonderful scene. Readings come and go, but there have been wonderful reading series, a really supportive community, and great bookstores.

I’ll be reading at Bird in Hand Coffee & Books on Tuesday May 2nd when the book comes out.

CH: What are you working on now?

SP: The novel I’m working on is still a ways away. Having made my argument that I don’t use stories as proof of concept, it does riff of the jazz story we discussed. There will probably be other things that come before it. Hopefully that novel will finish telling me what it is at some point—it’s absolutely confounded me. Another piece I’m working on is literally about getting lost, and I’m utterly lost. I can’t tell if it’s a short story or novel. I think it’s longer—it may be a novella.

Charlie Hope-D’Anieri’s fiction is forthcoming in the Eunoia Review. His journalism has been published on websites including The Guardian and The New Republic and in the pages of Mother Jones, Sierra, and others. He lives in Baltimore. Find him on his website or on Twitter.

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