Dennis Danvers’s fiction has appeared in Strange Horizons, Intergalactic Medicine Show, Space and Time, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, F & SF, Realms of Fantasy, Electric Velocipede, Lightspeed, Tor.com; and in anthologies Tails of Wonder, Richmond Noir, The Best of Electric Velocipede, Remapping Richmond’s Hallowed Ground, and Nightmare Carnival. He recently published his eighth novel, Bad Angels. Not only does Dennis get to write science fiction, he is also lucky enough to teach science fiction and fantasy literature at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Virginia. To learn more about Dennis, his experiences in the classroom, and his fiction, visit him at dennisdanvers.com.

Dennis’s fiction often deals with the idea of Aliens of Among Us, with characters dealing with how to explain to their friends and family that they’ve been chatting with aliens, that they aren’t crazy, and no, they weren’t probed. I mean, come on, if your best friend told you they’d spent the weekend with aliens, would you believe it? Meeting aliens who are curious about humans is also a great environment for an author to force a character to answer questions like “why do you like living here?” or “why was that person mean? Why do humans lie to each other?” There is an unspoken language between humans, where you answer those kinds of questions in a casual avoid-the-actual-answer kind of way. If an alien who has just landed on Earth asked you those questions, you’d answer them in a very different way.

Here’s another alien question for you: What do aliens and The Odyssey have in common?

“Penelope Waits” is an easy to read, easy to get into story, featuring a protagonist you can’t help but adore. It’s easy to think of Cindy as a simple small town girl who loves her dead end job. She’s furthering her education and has no idea how bright she is. If she had an online dating profile, it would include the phrase “must love dogs.”

The first surprise of Cindy’s life was how much she’s enjoying her world literature class at the local college. The second surprise of her life is learning that aliens actually do exist.

But, as the best stories are, this is far more complicated than a woman who loves dogs, discovers a love for The Odyssey, and meets some aliens. Cindy needs to figure out what she wants for herself. She doesn’t want much, but she’s about to realize that yes, she can have it all. “Penelope Waits” is not an overly fantastical story, it’s told in a straightforward manner, from the point of view of a woman who never expected anything interesting to happen in her little corner of the world. And once Cindy figures out what she wants? Nothing will stand in her way.

Dennis was kind enough to chat with me about the genesis of this story, why writing stories about aliens among us is so satisfying, how his experiences in the classroom have influences his writing, and the lecture he gave at the Library of  Congress on the subject of teaching science fiction. After reading his blog post on his lecture, you are welcome to get in line behind me for the syllabus and lecture notes for his classes! I for one, am waiting for more Cindy and Butch adventures, and after reading “Penelope Waits,” I’m sure you’ll be itching for those too. If you haven’t yet flipped to “Penelope Waits” in this issue of Apex Magazine, perhaps this interview will inspire you to make that short story your next read.

APEX MAGAZINE: I love Cindy’s casual and authentic narrative voice. She knows who she is, and she doesn’t care that she enjoys her dead end job just as much as she enjoys her world lit class. How did you come up with and develop her character? Was her inner voice different in earlier drafts of this story?

DENNIS DANVERS: The first couple of paragraphs pretty much sprang full blown onto the page in Cindy’s voice.  I used to teach at a small college in southwest Virginia in the heart of Appalachia, and Cindy’s a composite of some of my favorite students I taught there, young women who had no idea how smart they were and were totally unpretentious.  I taught world lit survey in those days, and it was a great excuse to reread The Odyssey, which I taught in its entirety. Cindy’s voice and character propelled the story. Whenever I got stuck, I would read what I had aloud, and she would know what to say next. Jobs are scarce and modest in Appalachia, and for a dog lover, dog washer’s not a bad gig. It also gave me the chance to bring another terrestrial species besides human into the mix.

AM: Cindy is momentarily obsessed with Penelope and Odysseus. Yes, she just wrote a paper about Penelope for her lit class, but she also can’t get Penelope out of her head. What inspired you to write a story about alien abduction that had a connection to The Odyssey?

DD: The Odyssey’s all about meeting aliens—on Odysseus’s end anyway. Penelope’s story is every bit as compelling as Odysseus’s and shows us how they’re made for each other even though they spend most of the poem apart. Cindy’s drawn to Penelope because she’s a strong woman in a world that doesn’t give her a whole lot of choices, but she remains strong and relies on her intelligence. But Cindy doesn’t have some Odysseus on his way home, and she’s ready to take his role and have adventures.

AM: Cindy gets super brownie points for rescuing the dog. What do you think aliens will make of Butch the pit bull?

DD: They’ll think he’s quite wonderful, of course, dogs being such a delightful species. If only humans were so good-hearted. The aliens perhaps won’t harbor any prejudice against the breed. Like a girl from Appalachia, pits are often misunderstood. In an early draft of the story, Butch wasn’t rescued, but Cindy insisted he come along.

AM: Will we hear from Cindy again? Do you have plans to write more fiction starring her and Butch?

DD: I hadn’t, but now that you mention it, this would make a good first chapter for their further adventures.

AM: Your recent “Stan” trilogy of short fiction published at Tor.com also features aliens who secretly come to Earth. How did you get interested in writing fiction about aliens coming to Earth and hiding among us? What makes the ideas of how aliens might interact with humans so much fun to write?

DD: Like Ralph, few believe Stan’s claims of alien contact. Some commenters on the stories object there’s no fantastic content, only an old man’s fanciful delusions, though I intended the alien business to be outlandish but true. I remember reading Slan and other such stories as a young man and being on the lookout for aliens among us. I’ve always found it an appealing idea, partly because we can be so alien and mysterious to each other. Aliens would explain a lot. I see a connection to the way Homer often depicts the gods, taking on the form of ordinary, even humble folk, so that anyone you meet might be a god.

AM: I often get the chance to chat with speculative fiction authors, but it is a rare and wonderful opportunity to chat with a speculative fiction teacher! For your students of science fiction and fantasy literature, what fiction and or nonfiction is on their required reading list? Do you tend to get a lot of students who are already steeped in the genre? What preconceived notions do your students bring into the first day of class?

DD: I did a lecture at the Library of Congress a few years back called “What I’ve Learned Teaching Science Fiction” that’s a long answer to this question. I have wonderful students, but most aren’t SF fans coming into the class. Their sense of the genre comes from movies and TV. If there are no spaceships, they aren’t quite sure if it’s really SF, though this seems to be changing as TV SF gets better. The texts vary. Recently I did a political science fiction class with texts ranging from Herland to The Windup Girl, and a course in the fantastic short story with collections by Ford, Fowler, Link, McHugh, and Ballingrud, plus a sampling of stories from online publications such as Apex. One of the most successful assignments was to have them read the Nebula short story nominees and vote their choice, defending it in a short paper. In the political SF class we read The Dispossessed and they wrote about whether they’d rather be born on Anarres or Urras. (Anarres trounced Urras.) I’m thankful to be in an English department that encourages such courses and to have such terrific students.

AM: Have your experiences as a genre fiction teacher changed how or why you write science fiction?

DD: They feed one another. Nothing gets you thinking about a novel or story quite like teaching it to a lively class, and this exploration inspires my own treatment of SF tropes and themes.  Being in constant touch with the younger generation also inoculates me against “these kids today” propaganda. The young, our future, are doing quite well, thank you very much. If only we’d left them a better world to work with! I also teach fiction writing and often the majority of students will be interested in writing genre fiction—horror, fantasy, SF.

AM: Your recent novel, Bad Angels, takes place in Richmond, Virginia, and I notice a lot of your fiction takes place in and around Virginia. What’s your favorite Virginia landmark to feature in your fiction?

DD: I have to point out that Bad Angels is also an aliens among us story, though in this case the alien species are angels. I love Richmond. I moved here in 1987, having lived mostly in Texas before that. The James River runs beautifully through the heart of the city and makes an appearance in almost everything I’ve written since arriving here. There are places down by the river where you’d never know you were in the heart of a city. Bad Angels is something of a love letter to the city, and all the locations crucial to the plot are real places I visited many times while working on the book.  If you’re ever in Richmond, I’d be delighted to show you around.

AM: Thanks Dennis, I’ll be taking you up on that offer should I find myself in Richmond!

Andrea Johnson lives in southwestern Michigan with her husband and too many books. She reviews speculative fiction at her book review blog, Little Red Reviewer, and blogs recipes and other non-bookish stuff at Girl Stuff.  Most definitely not a hipster, Andrea cosplays characters you’ve never heard of, squees over authors you haven’t read yet, has access to craft beer breweries you’ve only dreamed of, and enjoys sipping whiskeys with names she can’t pronounce. Come say hi on Twitter (@redhead5318), Andrea would love to talk to you about speculative fiction, her cooking adventures, whatever she’s binge-watching on Netflix this week, and how awesome it is to live in Michigan.

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