13 August 2014 ~ 0 Comments

Interview: Anatoly Belivosky

anatolybelilovskyAnatoly Belilovsky is a rising star in the steampunk subgenre. He was born in a city that went through six or seven owners in the last century, all of whom used it to do a lot more than drive to church on Sundays; he is old enough to remember tanks rolling through it on their way to Czechoslovakia in 1968. After being traded to the US for a shipload of grain and a defector to be named later (see wikipedia, Jackson-Vanik amendment), he learned English from Star Trek reruns and went on to become a pediatrician in an area of New York where English is only the 4th most commonly used language. He has neither cats nor dogs, but was admitted into SFWA in spite of this deficiency, having published stories in NATURE, Ideomancer, Immersion Book of Steampunk, Daily SF, Kasma, UFO, Stupefying Stories, Cast of Wonders, and other markets.

 

CARL SLAUGHTER: MOST WRITERS STRUGGLE TO BREAK INTO DAILY SCIENCE FICTION. YOU’VE SOLD STORIES TO THEM. WHAT APPEAL DO YOUR STORIES HAVE?

ANATOLY BELILOVSKY: A story unlocks its market the same way a key opens a door, by lining up its bits with lock pins. Some bits must match the publication’s needs , length, style, subject matter; some must, in some ineffable way, tickle the editor’s fancy. I’ve had excellent experience with DSF; they tend to publish what I like to read more often than not, and also more often than not they like what I send them. In fact, if you look at my bibliography, NATURE, Kasma, Stupefying Stories, Toasted Cake, and DSF bought 3 or more of my stories, each. That’s half of my entire output in only five markets. Granted, these are the five most flash-friendly publications, but there is also undoubtedly an excellent match between my sensibilities, and their editors’.

 

WHY STEAMPUNK? WHAT OTHER SUBGENRES DO YOU SPECIALIZE IN?

Steampunk is basically 19th century fanfic, and my homage to authors of that era who shaped my own writing: Poe, Verne, Pushkin, Gogol, Chekhov, Conan Doyle. And I’m a history buff, too, so it’s a natural fit. Other subgenres , alternate history, magic realism, humor. Or combos thereof. One of my own favorite stories will be reprinted soon by Fantasy Scroll magazine: “Hither and Yon,” wherein a nexus of alternate realities converges on… but why spoil it?

 

“KULTURKAMPF” HAS BEEN SELECTED BY THE IMMERSION BOOK OF STEAMPUNK. WHAT IS IT ABOUT “KULTURKAMPF” COMPARED TO YOUR OTHER STORIES THAT BROKE THE ANTHOLOGY BARRIER?

Must have been that immortal phrase I had my fictional Richard Wagner utter: “Fools! They seek to defeat me with Bizet!” Although at least one editor fell in love with the military rank I invented for the story, “Timpanenfuhrer.”

 

 

WASN’T “KULTURKAMPF” YOUR FIRST STORY? OR AT LEAST ONE OF YOUR EARLIEST STORIES? AGAIN, VERY FEW WRITERS SELL ANY OF THEIR EARLY WORK. HOW MUCH PREP WORK WENT INTO YOUR FICTION CAREER BEFORE YOU HIT THE PRINT BUTTON FOR THE FIRST TIME?

Not quite the first, but yes, very early. The editor of IMMERSION BOOK OF STEAMPUNK was actually one of its critiquers on the Critters workshop and asked for it specifically. “Prep work” — this reminds me of a literary agent I met once at a con almost 30 years ago. I told her I wanted to write, and about what was going on in med school – I had just started clinical rotations then. She nodded and said, “It’s all copy.” So here we are, 30 years’ worth of family, career, and other experiences later. Yes, from the viewpoint of my writer side, it’s prep work. From every other viewpoint, it’s life. A bit farther down I mention my favorite line from a Chekhov story – but it didn’t hit me how brilliant that line is, until I actually saw enough undemonstrative people under overwhelming pressure, and saw how small and subtle and poignant are the ways of their display of these pressures.

 

 

MOST OF YOUR STORIES HAVE BEEN FLASH PIECES. ANY PLANS TO INVADE THE NOVEL MARKET?

Yes! Of this I dream: to crank out my novels, see them sold before me, and hear the lamentations of their copyeditors. One of my literary heroes is Georges Simenon, he of the novel-a-week school of writing. I can pretty much manage a thousand words a week, two thousand if inspiration strikes. Now if only there were a niche for flash novels…

 

 

YOUR PROFESSION IS IN THE MEDICAL FIELD. ANY OF YOUR STORIES INSPIRED BY YOUR MEDICAL KNOWLEDGE/EXPERIENCE?

Inspired, yes: in the footsteps of Chekhov, Bulgakov, Conan Doyle (the usual physician writer suspects) in drawing upon that experience for knowledge of how people act under pressure. But I rarely write medical fiction: too many biomedical ideas get discarded because I know they wouldn’t work in real life, and can’t get past the shame of perpetrating a palpable falsehood in the one subject about which I may never be intentionally misleading , “Thus conscience does make cowards of us all.” (As you can see from QUANTUM MECHANICS, I have no such trouble with other sciences.) Two exceptions – NOR CUSTOM STALE, in NATURE, and DON’T LOOK DOWN, in Daily SF and Toasted Cake, both touch upon medical aspects of aging. A lot of what happens in medicine is a lot less exciting than it sounds. As a resident, I oversaw a voodoo exorcism of a dying boy in an intensive care unit. It was a last-ditch measure that the parents asked to try, and they brought their own practitioner, and everyone agreed that it could do no harm but no one wanted to be there when it happened, so I volunteered. So this quiet, unassuming gentleman in a business suit came to the ICU, whispered a prayer, sprinkled something on the child’s forehead, thanked me and left. That was that. Total anticlimax.

 

FOR THOSE WHO HAVE NOT READ ANATOLY BELIVOSKY’S LATEST DAILY SCIENCE FICTION STORY, SPOILERS IN THIS QUESTION AND ANSWER. In “Quantum Mechanics,” a man’s life is rewritten by, guess what, quantum physics. Was it the Mexican restaurant cook or the mechanic across the street who rewrote the main character’s life? Based on the implications of the next question, I’m guessing the cook. Why is the cook’s girlfriend alarmed when the customer asks about the shark bite that took the cook’s hand, and later, sad when she manned the cash register to take the customer’s money? Did the cook lose his hand saving his girlfriend’s life? Does he practice quantum mechanics on people who ask about the shark bite and the lost hand to prove to them that their life isn’t as bad as they think, ie, he lost his hand but it was worth losing and his life is still good because he has his girlfriend?

No, I was actually thinking of the mechanic: the unseen offstage presence, the actual hand that closes the lid on Schroedinger’s box, then opens it again to reveal the new reality – or at least “good as new.” Then again, once the story is out it belongs to the reader: one interpretation is as good as any other. Subject to the same caveat, this is my interpretation , and, again, not speaking ex cathedra: Here is the cook who, yes, lost his arm saving a woman from a shark. He lives across the street from “quantum mechanics” who, for a very modest fee, can rebranch the reality to where he got to keep his arm , good as new , and the shark got to keep its breakfast. Her anxiety, in part, is from her triggered recollections, and in part perhaps from a sense of insecurity , will he, or won’t he, reconsider his decision? He knows that will never happen; the answer to: “Did that hurt?” , is for the woman’s ears: “Not that much. Not really” , meaning: I’ve no regrets about the bargain I’ve made. And maybe for them, this is the second branch? Perhaps the cook first watched her die, then, with the mechanic’s help, went back to save her, and both of them remember both realities? And, knowing this, both look upon the story’s narrator with “countenance more in sorrow than in anger?” If you will allow a small digression, let me mention what I believe to be one of the most brilliant sentences ever written. It’s from Chekhov’s “A Lady with a Dog,” from the scene where the narrator sees the eponymous, and quite attractive, lady, with the eponymous dog, and approaches, ostensibly, to look at the dog. At which point: “He does not bite,” she said and blushed. I may be reading too much into it, and be wrong, but it’s my prerogative as a reader: I think this gives a wide-open view of her state of mind, of her desire to get the narrator to come closer, of her longing for, imagining, and blushing at the thought of the touch of the narrator’s hand. Analyzing my own line in retrospect: “Not that much. Not really.” It feels like it’s treading the middle ground, between: “Not in the least!” – which would have been a palpable lie, and: “Hurt like hell!” – which would have given the woman grounds for feelings of guilt on her part, or for thinking he might trade her back at some point when the sacrifice might seem not worth the outcome. Here he is both acknowledging her feelings, and tries to assuage her. This is all in retrospect, of course. Ultimately, it seemed the right thing to say at the moment and so I wrote it.

 

YOU’VE HAD A LOT OF YOUR STORIES PUBLISHED BY PODCAST SITES. THREE QUESTIONS ABOUT PODCASTING: WERE THESE ORIGINALS OR REPRINTS? DID YOU SUBMIT STORIES TO PODCAST SITES OR DID THEY TAP YOU ON THE SHOULDER? DO PODCASTS PAY MORE, LESS, OR THE SAME AS ZINES?

One original (NIGHT WITCH to Tales of Old,) the rest reprints. I love podcasting; my writing runs to storytelling, I have to hear the story in my head before I can write it, and the podcasts I’ve been on so far have done magnificent jobs with narration and sound engineering, and given both the higher expense of audio production, and the lack of revenue stream endemic to all Creative Commons endeavors, payments have ranged from token to low-semipro. But to hear the perfectly timed musical punchline to KULTURKAMPF as produced by Cast of Wonders, or Tina Connolly’s sublime Toasted Cake interpretation of LAST MAN STANDING, a zombie story that quotes Sartre and Camus, is a pleasure that overrides all other considerations. All stories audio produced so far have been submissions; the one “shoulder tap” was for a sequel to a story previously podcast. The sequel is written and first rights sold to its original market, but the publication of that anthology is woefully delayed, and so the podcast waits for its availability.

 

 

ENGLISH IS NOT YOUR NATIVE LANGUAGE. I have a degree in journalism and 25% of my freshmen class failed their first English department writing course. So I know from experience that even most native speakers don’t have good writing skills. I teach English as a Second Language and I’ve taught several writing classes to ESL students. So I also know from experience that most ESL students, even most of the English majors, can’t write a complex sentence completely and correctly, much less a polished, understandable, interesting manuscript. Even the English majors who specialize in translation make a lot of minor mistakes. You were not raised in America and it’s much harder to learn a second language as an adult than as child. How then did you not only master English but also master fiction?

Nabokov may have been too modest (or falsely so) when he wrote, in the preface to LOLITA: “My private tragedy, which cannot, and indeed should not, be anybody’s concern, is that I had to abandon my natural idiom, my untrammeled, rich, and infinitely docile Russian language for a second-rate brand of English.” Nabokov, of course, gets the medal for best literary command of English as a second language, with oak leaf clusters for French and German in which he had also wrote published stories while living in Europe. Starting in another language can make one more acutely aware of the fine structure of English, of how English sentences work, of how it compensates for lost declensions and abandoned conjugations; of how our first language’s classics had been translated (or mistranslated) into English, and vice versa. It certainly has not deterred the many amazing multilingual writers working now , I know for certain that Ken Liu and Alex Shvartsman both acquired English far later than they did their respective first languages, but the same is probably true of a number of others. Ken Liu, Alex Shvartsman, and James Beamon belong at the top of another relevant list – writers whose advice, encouragement and critique, all dispensed with unstinting generosity, brought me much farther than I ever would have gotten without them. To quote your question — “How then did you not only master English but also master fiction?” If “master” even remotely applies, as a verb, a noun, or an adjective, to any of my writing, it is to them that the credit is due. And then there is the subject of literary translation which a whole ‘nother bag of skills altogether, which I am trying to break into with variable success – the “uptick” of “variable” being my translation of WHITE CURTAIN by Pavel Amnuel, out in the May-June 2014 issue of F&SF to very encouraging reviews (all of which say nothing about the translation, a fact I find most flattering as it means I succeeded in making the translation seamless and invisible.)

IF ENGLISH IS THE 4TH MOST OFTEN SPOKEN LANGUAGE IN YOUR AREA OF NEW YORK, WHAT ARE THE FIRST THREE?

In my neighborhood, Russian, Spanish, and Urdu. In which I say, respectively, Spasibo, Gracias, and Shukriya.

 

Note: One of Anatoly Belilovsky’s Daily Science Fiction stories is a collaboration and was published under the pen name A.J. Barr.

 

Carl_eagleCarl Slaughter is a man of the world. For the last decade, he has traveled the globe as an ESL teacher in 17 countries on 3 continents, collecting souvenir paintings from China, Korea, Thailand, Vietnam, and Egypt, as well as dresses from Egypt, and masks from Kenya, along the way. He spends a ridiculous amount of time and an alarming amount of money in bookstores. He has a large ESL book review website, an exhaustive FAQ about teaching English in China, and a collection of 75 English language newspapers from 15 countries.

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