Interview with Author Naomi Kritzer

One of the reasons I love reading speculative fiction is because it is fantastical. In speculative fiction, I can run into everything from breaking the rules of physics to pure magic, to telepathy and fairies and aliens, to auto-correct that actually works as intended and AIs that help me be a better human. It’s fantastical; it’s things that can (probably) never be; it’s fun; it’s escapism.

And then there’s the kind of speculative fiction about things that could have happened, that might have happened, things that we can’t prove didn’t happen. I like to call those the “Tim Powers brand” of alternate history. Powers takes factual events and sort of fills in the blanks. Kage Baker did quite a lot of this, as well, mostly in her Company short stories, where fictional Company characters would get embroiled in all sorts of California shenanigans, often to the glee of the reader. 

In Naomi Kritzer’s short story “Field Biology of the Wee Fairies,” she deftly weaves together alternate history, fantasy, true fact, and her own family’s legacy. The protagonist of “Wee Fairies,” Amelia, is based on Kritzer’s late mother—a woman who was featured in the local newspaper for her science fair entry, and yet was still told that “girls aren’t allowed to join the school science club” at her school. A woman who then went on to get a doctorate.

I can hear you asking, “What’s this story doing in a magazine that features dark fantasy, horror, and science fiction?” That’s where the fairies come in! These straight-up fantasy fairies are the kind that flit around being cute and happy, and when caught, they grant a girl’s wish. I have pages and pages of my thoughts on the connection between hitting puberty and catching a fairy that will grant your wish. The fairies usually only appear to girls, so did Kritzer mean for “catching a fairy” to be a metaphor for getting a first period? For discovering boys? Does the fairy make you want to be desirable? For realizing that if you look and act a certain way, boys will want to talk to you? For realizing that knowing how to do your hair and makeup is a learned skill, not something that magically happens? Like I said, pages upon pages of notes and thoughts and questions and wonderings.

This line was especially striking for me:

“It will be fine,” her father had said to her mother. “Sooner or later, she will surely find her fairy and move on.” Move on to dresses and hairstyles and makeup and boys, was what he meant.

But Amelia doesn’t care about dresses or hairstyles or makeup. She cares about using her brain and being recognized for her ideas and her smarts. I was fascinated by her ideas and her questions about what fairies do. And, well, if I told you more, I’d be spoiling the story. I’ve probably said too much already.

You’re wondering why Naomi Kritzer’s name sounds so familiar, aren’t you? If you make a point of reading award-winning and nominated short stories, I’ll bet the title “Cat Pictures Please” rings a bell. Did that story help you be a better human? It did for me. The best news you’ll get today is that Kritzer is working on a novel-length version of that short story.

If you live in Minnesota, Naomi’s name will sound familiar because not only is she a mainstay in the Minneapolis sci-fi/fantasy convention scene, she also writes a wildly popular blog discussing local politics and why and how your local votes can truly change everything. Naomi was kind enough to chat with me about the origins of “Field Biology of the Wee Fairies,” her mother’s legacy, magical Minnesota locations, the AI who is now running CatNet, why local politics and local ballot measures are important to anyone who votes, and more. Stay tuned to the end for discussion of pie!

APEX MAGAZINE: This story explicitly takes place in the early 1960s. What are the advantages (or challenges?) of placing a story in a specific historical time?

NAOMI KRITZER: The biggest challenge was making sure readers realized quickly that it was set in the 1960s—I put in some really clear HI, WE ARE IN THE PAST signposts because otherwise people quickly get distracted wondering why no one’s filing a Title IX complaint about the dress code, the jerk teaching science, etc. When it’s a movie, you know instantly from the visuals, but with a short story, it’s much easier for people to just miss it.

AM: Fairies are great, science projects are even better, but what makes this story shine is Amelia. She is pure brilliance. How did you develop her character?

NK: The character of Amelia is based on my mother, Amelia (“Amy”) Kritzer, who died suddenly and unexpectedly in 2016.

Mom spent her teenage years in Springfield, Ohio, where her father taught history at her high school and her mother worked as a secretary at Wittenberg University. Some people are nostalgic about their teenage experiences; my mother was the opposite. She told me that she once fantasized about making enough money that she could simply pay the city of Springfield to let her bulldoze her old high school.

Many of the details about Amelia in the story are based on stories from my mother’s life. To start with, the West District Science Day is absolutely real (and still held annually). Here’s the newspaper piece that ran:

She was fifteen when she showed the project, after working on it for over two years.

I heard a number of stories about this project when I was growing up, including keeping the mice in large pickle jars (she mentions that in her paper), teaching them to run the maze, taking her former research subjects to the zoo to feed to the snakes, and asking to stay around to watch, much to the horror of the reptile house supervisor.

The blatantly sexist science teacher was also drawn from her life: he did, in fact, have a Science Club that was for boys only. Miss Leonard, fortunately, was also a real person and was one of the consolations and inspirations of my mother’s high school years. When my mother’s dissertation was published, she dedicated the book to Miss Leonard, along with “all teachers who seek to bring out the best in their students.”

Amelia is based on my mother, but with key differences. My mother did not ever recruit Miss Leonard to start a Science Club for girls. She was also much less defiant towards the demands of femininity. As a teen, my mother had braces to straighten her extremely crooked teeth; she got contact lenses and set aside her glasses with the thick glass lenses; she wore makeup and styled her hair. As an adult, though, she spent years wearing no makeup, and there was never any hairspray around when I needed it as a drawing fixative.

In recent years, I’ve heard a number of friends observe that prettiness is a skill set, not an innate trait, and that’s part of what I was getting at with the fairy’s revelations. But beauty is also in the eye of the beholder. My parents met in college and fell quickly in love. My father never saw my mother as anything but beautiful.

AM: Where did the idea for this story come from?

NK: In the (now very outdated, maintained only to avoid breaking links) Strange Horizons list of Stories They (were at the time) Seeing Too Often, they mention “Twee little fairies with wings fly around being twee.” I misremembered it as “wee” rather than “twee” and it was one of those images that stuck with me. I thought I could do something interesting with it.

At some point, the idea of a fairy that you “caught” as sort of a rite-of-passage out of the awkward adolescent stage occurred to me.

AM: When Amelia realizes the answer to her ultimate question is “no,” she finds a workaround and accomplishes her goal from a different angle. You often write these kinds of twists into your fiction, where you give the reader the impression the character will go one direction to reach a goal, but then you take the reader on a completely different route to reach that same mentioned goal in what turns out to be a way more interesting way. When you’re working on a story, which comes first? The idea for the twist in the route? The goal? A character who has a problem to solve?

NK: When I first started writing as a teen, I used the “formula” suggested by Marion Zimmer Bradley in the forwards to her anthologies: “Joe has his fanny in a bear trap, and this is how he gets it out.” After a few years of writing stories this way, I realized that the key to a worthwhile story for me was the formula, “Joe has his fanny in a bear trap, and this is how he is changed by his struggles to get it out, whether or not he actually does.” (MZB was a deeply problematic person. But her books were very important to me as a teen, and there’s no way to talk about my evolution as a writer without acknowledging her influence.)

A lot of my stories start with something I want to say, and both the problem and the solution flow from that.

AM: I hope you are not sick of talking about your Hugo- and Locus-award-winning short story “Cat Pictures Please?” That story is everything I look for in short fiction—easy and enjoyable to read, poignant, funny, layered, humble. Thank you for giving the world “Cat Pictures Please.” I feel like that story helped me be a better human. Anyway, is it true that you are working on a novel-length version of this story? If yes, what can you tell us about this exciting project?

NK: Thank you! And yes, my still-untitled book for Tor Teen is coming out next August. It has two protagonists; one is the AI, of course. The other is Steph, a teenage girl who’s lived a very unstable life full of constant moves because her mother is on the run from her father.

The AI is now running a social network called CatNet. The AI assembles chat rooms it calls Clowders and stocks them with people who seem likely to get along. The AI is also in every Clowder and just pretends to be whatever everyone else is—in Steph’s Clowder, the AI pretends to be another teenager. Since Steph loses her real-life friends each time she moves, CatNet provides her with some stable connections.

It’s a story about online friendships and community, and all the weird things people will do with technology.

It’s set in the near future, so there’s technology in the book that’s on the horizon now, like self-driving cars, and increasing numbers of robots. Steph’s school has an “instructional robot” that’s used to teach Sex Ed. in part because the school can control exactly what it says to the students; in one of my favorite scenes, Steph hacks the robot so that the AI can teach the Sex Ed. class instead.

AM: You receive a lot of much-deserved attention for your incredible fiction writing. Recently, you’ve been getting positive attention for your political writing as well, especially for your coverage of local down-ballot races. How did you get interested in following local politics? What is your goal, with regard to talking about local politics?

NK: Here’s how I got started with political blogging: I went to vote and discovered there were a bunch of races on the ballot I didn’t know anything about. Non-partisan races, so I couldn’t just vote for the Democrat. I started to vote for the female-sounding name, and then stopped, because back in 1990, one of the people who won the Attorney General primary race was a woman who was very definitely not qualified to be Attorney General. (First of all, she’s not even a lawyer. Also, her website is an incoherent mix of conspiracy theories and randomly-generated paranoia—she runs for something every cycle. She’s currently running again for Attorney General, in fact! Her website is full of ranting about the “Muslin way of life,” yes, spelled like the cloth.)

My high school also once elected a non-existent student to the Student Council, thanks to a well-constructed prank. So, I have multiple reasons to be hesitant to vote for someone if I don’t know anything about them.

So, the next time around, I did research in advance. The Minnesota Secretary of State’s website lets you pull up your ballot and look at the races and I Googled all the people running in the down-ticket races to see which ones were viable and qualified candidates, and which ones were not. I was just doing this for myself, but I was on LiveJournal and had a couple of local friends, so I just took notes electronically and then pasted them into an LJ post, in case they were useful to others.

Within a year or two, I had friends who relied on my posts about the down-ticket races. And then they recommended my posts to their friends … and now I have a very large local audience and it’s kind of weird, honestly, because I’m not an expert, I’m not in policy, I’m just someone with a blog, a reasonably long political memory, and a facility with Google Search.

My biggest goal is to get people to vote in local races. People tend to be very aware of the importance of the President, the Governor, and their US Senators, and they very much underestimate how much it matters who represents them on the City Council and the County Board. Do you want to see police officers who shoot unarmed black people face real consequences? The County Attorneys in Minnesota are all elected. If someone is soft on police brutality, you can replace that person with someone who isn’t. Do you want to make sure that kids in your city get medically-accurate, evidence-based sex ed. that talks about consent? You’ll need school board members willing to stand up for the right of kids not to be slut-shamed in their health classes.

It’s not just Minnesota that lets you get your sample ballot online before you vote. (I’m not positive that it’s every state, but I’m pretty sure it’s most of them.) Before you go to the polls in November (or earlier, if you have primaries), pull up your ballot, look at the races, and research contested races where you don’t know anything about the candidates. And then talk to your friends! Because they probably don’t know anything about these races, either, and here’s another thing about the down-ticket races—they can sometimes be swung by a handful of votes.

AM: You live in the Twin Cities, home to CONvergence and MarsCon. You’ve been a panelist, a guest of honor, and a casual guest at numerous conventions. What was your favorite or most memorable panel? Any fun/funny convention stories to share?

NK: The Minnesota convention scene is amazing. It’s a terrific place to be a fan—whatever your particular interest, there’s probably a convention where you will find your people. My theory on why there are so many conventions here: Minnesotans love to see their friends, but they kind of hate having people over. (The local joke is, “Minnesotans will give you directions anywhere but their own house.”) I think there’s a sizable contingent that’s decided it’s easier to organize, plan, and run an entire science fiction convention to see their friends than it would be to clean their houses and throw a party.

One of my favorite panels ever was held at Minicon. I’d suggested a panel on Magical Places of the Twin Cities, and what I wanted—I explained this to the friend who was putting together the programming—was a panel where we would talk both about urban fantasy set in the Twin Cities (like War for the Oaks) and the places that we ourselves were on some level convinced were actually magic. This would require some careful staffing of the panel itself because it needed to be made up of people who would embrace the idea here and not get overly picky about whether any of us thought magic was actually real. Panels like this are best when the audience is also there for the premise. Anyway, this panel absolutely hit it out of the park. We talked about Mayday (this amazing artistic parade that happens every year, followed by a pageant where people row the sun across the lake—I have watched the clouds part and the sun shine down when the boat touched shore), about Milwaukee Avenue (a block of historic houses with no street), and the Lake Harriet Elf (there’s a doorway built into a tree near Lake Harriet with a tiny mailbox next to it, and if you leave a letter for the elf, you will get one in return—always signed, “I’ll believe in you, if you believe in me,” on elf-sized stationary). It was a great panel.

My favorite convention story is probably the British Invasion. This happened at MarsCon the year I was Guest of Honor, in 2008. The hotel we were in that year was near the airport and had a contract that involved housing flight crews and stranded passengers. A ConCom member found out that 150 young British soldiers (on their way to desert artillery training in Arizona) were going to be stranded at the hotel for the night and invited them all to the convention. After checking out the con, the military guy who was overseeing their travels let them do it, and they were all given one-day badges and allowed onto the party floor for the night.

It was a fascinating dynamic on a number of levels.

First, this was fandom at its best. I think the invitation was issued pretty impulsively, and an onslaught of British soldiers was the last thing anyone had expected for the weekend. Nonetheless, people were genuinely excited about the unexpected guests, and everyone was welcoming and friendly, kind, and respectful and tolerant of misunderstandings.

Second, there was a secret belief among many fans at the time that if mundanes would just relax and quit thinking about what nerds we all were and how much cooler they were than us, they would have a great time at a con. On Friday afternoon, I’d seen someone invite one of the airline pilots and get rebuffed with an eye-roll, so it was really interesting to see this actually play out: the soldiers clearly found fandom startling but also really fun.

AM: And now for the most important question of this interview! Should I be using vodka in my pie crust? Also, what thickener do you recommend for blueberry pies?

NK: I looked up the theory on vodka and it seems reasonable enough. I make pie crust using my mother’s recipe, though: Crisco, flour, salt, water. I use a pastry blender to cut in the Crisco and don’t really worry about whether it is the Best of All Possible Crusts, as my family is always happy to see pie show up and is a lot more concerned about whether I remember to buy ice cream than whether the crust could possibly be flakier.

For blueberry pie, probably cornstarch. I had some tapioca pearls around, so I tried them the last time I made peach pie and was not super impressed with them. Blueberry pie served warm will be super, super runny no matter what thickener you use, though.

AM: Yeah, I did tapioca once in a blueberry pie. Never again.

 

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 whiskies with names she can’t pronounce. Find her on Twitter at @redhead5318.

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