We are truly very privileged to have the very prolific Jason Erik Lundberg with us today as we have a short chat about speculative fiction, the strangenesses of mammals, and finding one’s truth in writing.
Thank you dearest Jason for being our featured storyteller in GatheringBooks for our current reading theme: Black Holes and Parallel Universes: Marvels of Science and Speculative Fiction.
With all of your publications and edited works, I know that you’d be the perfect person to have a virtual conversation with about this genre, of which we here in GatheringBooks, know very little about.
Meet the Storyteller: Jason Erik Lundberg
In Jeff VanderMeer’s Steampunk Bible, he defined steampunk in this fashion:
STEAMPUNK = Mad Scientist Inventor [invention (steam x airship or metal man / baroque stylings) x (pseudo) Victorian setting] + progressive or reactionary politics x adventure plot
Which among your published books do you feel fit this particular definition to a T?
I’m guessing that there may be more than a little tongue-in-cheek reductivism going on in that definition, because none of my works fit it exactly (and I think that a lot of works that would be considered steampunk would fail to meet this criteria). However, if I take a broader approach to the genre, one that encompasses alchemy and phlogiston theory, then “Always a Risk,” a novelette in my collection The Alchemy of Happiness, would be a good example. Similarly, I just finished writing a quasi-steampunk novella which features airships and phlogiston cannons and Many Worlds theory.
Do you have your own way of defining Steampunk? Speculative Fiction? How different or how similar are they from each other?
My version of steampunk is decidedly fantastical; it may use elements of retro-futuristic technology, but there will almost assuredly be a strong magical or unexplainable element as well. Speculative fiction is an umbrella term that I use to mean any kind of non-realist fiction (science fiction, fantasy, horror, and any associated subgenres); other people use it to mean different things, but this is my personal definition. So steampunk, in this case, would be a subset of science fiction, which would itself be a subset of speculative fiction.
You have been living in Singapore in 2007. In your interview with Jaym Gates in SF Signal, you noted how some of the stories in Red Dot Irreal were inspired by the legends of the Bugis, “a seafaring ethnic group in the mid-1800s” – pirates, of all things! In the author’s note, you also wrote:
I first visited Singapore in 2003, and right away the place struck me as strange, with high technology comfortably existing beside ancient superstition. The possibilities for fictive estrangement also bloomed in my mind, leading to its subtle intrusion into my fiction. This collection is the result of that quiet invasion.
How much have your impressions changed since then? What are some of the new insights gleaned over the past eleven years? What about some of the more contemporary aspects about living in this country that feed into your writing, particularly the fantastical/surreal aspects of your narrative?
I think that the story I was specifically talking about there was “Bogeymen” from Red Dot Irreal, which takes place in the mid-1800s and involves a young ship’s scrivener from England, Bugis pirates, and a female bomoh.
Since moving to Singapore, my focus has been less on the “exotic” parts of this country and culture, and more on mundane everyday existence. When I first visited, everything was so new and different and shiny, but living here has just reinforced the similarities between this culture and that of the US. I can still find the strange in any situation, but my sense of wonder from living in Singapore has diminished, as it would in a place where you live every day.
Tell me more about The Time Traveler’s Son. I understand that it is a limited-edition 32-paged handbound book. What is the inspiration behind this short novel?
Partly, it was a riff on Audrey Niffenegger’s wonderful novel The Time Traveler’s Wife, in that it examines what happens to those left behind while one’s loved one is supposedly off traveling. John Kessel’s “Gulliver at Home” does this too. But I also wanted to look at the consequences of divorce on children, and how relations with one’s parents can become strained because of that.
The book itself was published by Papaveria Press, which is run by my friend Erzebet Carr, and was totally handmade (which is why she only produced twelve copies, each one slightly different); it sold out fairly quickly, from what I hear. However, the story can also be found in my collection Strange Mammals.
In your website, you mentioned that Embracing the Strange is largely based on a plenary lecture that you gave for the Creative Arts Seminar organized by the Gifted Education Branch. I am particularly interested to know how the students responded to your read-aloud? What were some of the more intriguing questions that have been asked of you during the Q and A session?
I was frankly terrified that the lecture would bore them to tears, and that I would look out onto a sea of kids intensely gazing at their phones instead of at me. But thankfully, I kept their attention rapt through the entire thing. I’ve done many literary readings in the past, but this was the first time that I felt such an intensity of attention, that they were soaking up every word; it was a pretty great feeling, although my introvert nature also simultaneously made me want to run away and hide.
The theme of the lecture, and the chapbook, is that good things can happen when you follow your passions, and several of the questions were in this vein. But the one that I still distinctly remember was from a junior college student who asked about my stance on reading genre fiction, which her teacher had told her was trash. I responded that many literature teachers, especially in Singapore, have the tendency to view any books not deemed as “classics” to be a waste of time, but that I strongly disagreed with this notion. Yes, you should push yourself in your reading habits, but if you love YA science fiction, or Harlequin romances, or superhero comics, nothing but good can come of you continuing to love them. Your media preferences help make you who you are, and nobody, not parents or teachers or administrators, has the right to dictate what things you will love.
One of the things that I always share with my students whenever I lecture about creativity is that it is important to look at the familiar with strange eyes. Is that one of the things that sustain your creative process as well? Can you share bits and pieces from your own work where the mundane is perceived as something fantastical?
This very concept is a core of my writing process, whether or not I’m writing about Singapore. Estrangement is an important factor in making sure that you don’t take the world around you for granted. Take for example my story “Kopi Luwak” in Red Dot Irreal; I wrote almost the entire thing while on vacation in Bali, after a guided trip to the north of the island, during which we visited a kopi luwak plantation. The idea of coffee beans being produced after passing through the digestive system of an anemic-looking civet cat was strange enough, but I wanted to marry this with the prevalent animism and everyday supernaturalism in Bali. I wanted to get at the root of the whole kopi luwak industry and why it even exists in the first place, but I felt I could only do that by introducing the fantastic into the equation.
You have also published a series of picture books illustrated by Patrick Yee:
There are two more forthcoming titles, as was mentioned in your website: A Close Encounter With Bo Bo and Cha Cha and Bo Bo and Cha Cha and the Lost Child. Do share with us how your creative process shifts as you write books for children. Do you sample your text with your own daughter to see whether it has a child’s stamp of approval?
I absolutely run each picture book by my daughter Anya; she’s always the first person (after my editor, Sheri Tan) to experience the text. She’s a very honest critic, so if part of the book is dragging, or using overly lofty vocabulary, or the plot doesn’t clearly move from one event to the other, she’ll let me know straight away. Before I even start writing, I’ll tell her the general story of the book, and sometimes she’ll jump in with suggestions, some of which I’ve used.
I write these books concurrently with my fiction for adults, so it’s sometimes difficult to switch from one mode to the other. But thankfully, I have a wonderful editor, with whom I’ve worked out the synopsis for each book months in advance, and who brings her decades of experience editing children’s books to the process. The biggest challenge so far has been walking the fine line between simplicity and sophistication; I want the story to be understandable for kids, but also enjoyable for the parents reading them aloud. In addition, I have to make sure that it’s entertaining all the way through in order to keep both kids and adults interested.
I’ve also gotten into the pattern of alternating between more serious themes and fun, entertaining romps. My latest book, Bo Bo and Cha Cha Cook Up a Storm, has all the slapstick elements of a Buster Keaton film, and was incredibly fun to write.
Do you visit the Singapore River Safari (and see Kai Kai and Jia Jia) often to find inspiration or to do some kind of research in your writing of these lovely books?
I’ve only been to the River Safari twice, and both times were after I began writing the series. It’s neat to see the pandas up close, but going there hasn’t really provided any inspiration or research.
You are also an editor of LONTAR, a fairly new quarterly literary journal that focuses on non-realist writing from and about Southeast Asia. Do share with us: what are some of the highlights (and horrors) of being an editor?
I love being an editor: working with authors to make their stories the best they can be, shaping an issue with a variety of contents, and generally being in charge putting a literary journal together. Prior to this, I had edited three original anthologies, so I had experience in this area, but editing a periodical adds the challenge of keeping to a schedule, and making sure that each issue is an improvement on the last.
In the same interview conducted by Jaym Gates, you mentioned that “drama and poetry are still the favored literary genres here.” Would you say that this is still accurate now? What do you find to be the most exciting in this collection of stories from the region?
Poetry is still very big in Singapore, thanks in large part to Math Paper Press and Ethos Books, but prose is experiencing a renaissance; I’m hoping that my work on LONTAR and my day job as Literary Fiction Editor at Epigram Books have contributed to this surge in prose publication.
There are lots of exciting collections being produced, but I’m very partial toward Amanda Lee Koe’s Ministry of Moral Panic, which I edited, and which has been shortlisted for the 2014 Singapore Literature Prize for English Fiction, and was longlisted for the 2014 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award. Amanda’s fiction pushes at a lot of boundaries in Singaporean society, and does so with captivating prose; I can see big things happening for her in the near future (she attended the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa in 2013, and is currently an MFA candidate at Columbia University).
You also made mention of self-censorship in local literature, how do you imagine the literary output would be like with an unfettered sensibility, a mind free of self-imposed sanctions or actual censorship?
I think that a hell of a lot more writing would be produced without Big Brother looking over our shoulders. Censorship is a detriment to creative productivity, period, and the fact that Singapore has no guaranteed freedom of expression is still extremely troubling. Writing is inherently political, and much of publishing in Singapore is reliant on grants from the National Arts Council, which means that there are some lines that writers here are not allowed to cross if they want to be published in Singapore. This situation has gotten better in the nearly eight years that I’ve lived here, but words are still dangerous, and this has an impact on how much writers internally police themselves.
In your description of your book Strange Mammals in all things keith brooke and infinity plus, you described the title story in this fashion:
The central animals that the protagonist encounters over the course of the narrative—a wombat, an ocelot, a fictional Borgesian catoblepas—can be seen as various aspects of the narrator’s psyche, but the wonderful (and, yes, noble) thing about this kind of story is the ambiguity that allows for all these bizarre animals, and others besides, to exist independent of mere mental projection.
It sounded to me that these animals or creatures could be archetypes that exist from within a single individual – pushing and pulling in various directions – and reified in beautifully-bizarre ways. In the same post, you mentioned that speculative fiction affords a space where the reader is able to transcend mere fact and approach truth – how does writing speculative fiction help you arrive at your own truths – or at least versions of it?
Speculative fiction allows for the literalization of metaphor. The reason that Kafka’s story “The Metamorphosis” resonates so powerfully a hundred years after it was published is because of the way Gregor Samsa is treated after he transforms unexpectedly and against his will into a giant beetle. If the story had been about how overworked he was, and stressed out by the fact that his entire family depended on his soul-deadening livelihood and salary in order to survive, it would have been important, but scarcely differentiated from any other story of that type. Kafka’s story is one of body horror, and is immediately memorable because of it, and Samsa’s transformation and then death by starvation are all the more tragic. One feels the truth of it much more intensely.
I try to approach my own fiction in the same way, although it’s not up to me to pronounce whether or not I’ve succeeded. All I can do is keep trying and hope that I get there.
What are some of the things that we should look forward to in your writing?
Nothing is on the immediate publication horizon, I’m afraid, although a paperback edition of my anthology Fish Eats Lion will soon be available from my UK publisher, Infinity Plus Books, who released the ebook earlier this year. My agent is currently shopping around my first novel, A Fickle and Restless Weapon; I’m hoping that it will be out in the next year or two, but these things are very hard to predict. As mentioned, the first draft of my novella, The Diary of One Who Disappeared, has been finished, and I’ll spend the next several months revising it and making it better; there are no exact plans for it as yet, and I’ll need to talk to my agent about publishing it on its own, or as part of a collection. I’m also working on a flash fiction collection called Lots of Things, which I hope to finish next year.
Do share with us your upcoming conferences/conventions/literary festivals and your participation in the Singapore Literature Festival in NYC.
Here’s where you can find me in the near future:
Singapore Literature Festival in NYC
Reading: What Writing Means in Singapore
WORD Bookstore (Brooklyn), 09 Oct, 700-830pm
Panel: The Local Cosmopolitan
Book Culture, 10 Oct, 700-900pm
92nd Street Y, 11 Oct, 600-630pm
Panel: Reading Culture
Book Culture, 12 Oct, 200-400pm
Reading: Encore (Closing Party)
McNally Jackson Books, 12 Oct, 700-900pm
Singapore Writers Festival
Panel: Worthy Failure vs Mediocre Success
Singapore Art Museum, Glass Hall, 01 Nov, 530-630pm
Brand New Books: Epigram Books Presents Literary Translations
SMU Campus Green, Festival Pavilion, 02 Nov, 1000-1100am
Brand New Books: Epigram Books Presents New Literary Fiction (moderator)
SMU Campus Green, Festival Pavilion, 02 Nov, 1130am-1230pm
Meet the Author: Karen Joy Fowler (moderator)
National Museum of Singapore, Gallery Theatre, 08 Nov, 1000-1100am
Little Lit: Epigram Books Presents New Picture Books
(Launch of Bo Bo and Cha Cha Cook Up a Storm)
SMU Campus Green, Festival Pavilion, 08 Nov, 230-330pm