Interview with sci-fi writer David Erik Nelson

Sci-fi writer David Erik Nelson joins me today to talk about
a short serial with romantic leanings called Expiration Date,
a serial written as part of the Arbor
Teas Summer Reading Series
 (which just completed on Thurs, Aug 17, so you can read the entire story!)

David Erik Nelson is an award-winning science-fiction author
and essayist. His fiction has appeared in Asimov’s, Fantasy & Science
Fiction, and elsewhere. His non-fiction includes DIY books like Junkyard Jam
and Snip, Burn, Solder, Shred
What do you enjoy most about writing
short stories?
Narrative is what changes people’s minds. Not facts, not
arguments; stories. Once someone has a story in their head, they are going to
disproportionately favor the facts and arguments that support that story. So,
if I want to see the arc of the moral universe bend toward justice, then the
way to do that is in writing stories that encourage folks to consider where
they lie along that arc, where they want to be along that arc, and what they
have to do to assure that arc doesn’t relax toward its default state of *shrug*
it’s all relative, man
Can you give us a little insight into a few of your short
stories – perhaps some of your favorites?
Oof. That’s always a hard one, because it’s so difficult for
me to even look at a story I’ve written once it’s been published (all the
little places you could have made it better just jump out at you). That said, a
story I wrote a few years ago tends to land pretty well with folks who ask me
where they should start with my work, or what to read next after they’ve
stumbled across something of mine they like. That story, which was first
published in Asimov’s magazine in 2013 and has since been translated a
few times, is “The New Guys Always Work Overtime.” It’s pretty easy
to find online.
What genre are you inspired to write in the most? Why? I
like writing that’s triggered by Big Questions, and so science fiction is a
pretty natural place for me. But I’m also really interested in relationships in
general, and the emotional demands of peoples’ situations. Because of my
personality, this has mostly drawn me to horror–but as is the case in Expiration
, this can just as easily lend itself to romance. Those two genres are
opposite sides of the same coin.
What exciting story are you working on next? I’m
actually pretty excited about another novella, which is just hitting newsstands
now in the latest issue of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction (
It’s the cover story, titled “There Was a Crooked Man, He Flipped a
Crooked House.”
When did you first consider yourself
a writer?
When I was 15 years old I went on a big school hiking trip. It
was a long backcountry trip, with heavy packs (I think mine weighed 90 lbs when
we left camp–no joke), and I wasn’t in the best shape in the world, so I
couldn’t really talk while I was hiking. Because I was too out-of-breath to run
at the mouth, I spent a lot of time thinking, and what I was thinking
about–slowly, ponderously, step-by-step through the Smoky Mountains–was this
story I wanted to write. It was sort of an overblown, overly symbolic, overly
structurally clever thing, and I’m embarrassed by it now, but I had all that
time to think, and I needed to distract myself, and so I thought it through in
this very complete way that I hadn’t really thought an idea through before. When
I got home I started writing, and I worked on it basically everyday after
school for the next year, first very slowly drafting it, then very, very slowly
revising it, just sorta jazzed to be sunk into the story like that. Then I had
this story in hand, so I submitted it to the school literary magazine at the
last minute–the absolute last minute, maybe even a few minutes after the last
But they got really excited about it. That story seemed
gargantuan to me at the time–I mean, it took a whole year, right? And it
certainly struck them as a big and meaty piece of writing, a “real
story.” (Incidentally, I had call to look at it again recently, and had to
laugh: It’s hardly 4,000 words. It’s probably one of my shorter pieces that’s
been “published.”)
Anyway, when they put the issue out at the end of the
year–I hadn’t really thought ahead to that point, when folks would read this
story. That was terrifying. This story was the thing I’d been doing alone in my
bedroom for the last year. I challenge any 15-year-old boy to be excited about
anyone finding out what he’d been doing alone in his bedroom after school for
the last year.
But the thing was, people read that story and people liked
it (or, if they didn’t like it, they certainly didn’t bother seeking me out to
say so–there was no Internet yet, and thus the inclination to zoom up and yell
at someone for doing something that doesn’t perfectly please you was an
as-of-yet unexplored American pass time).
More importantly girls–girls I didn’t even really
know–read it and liked it and said that to me, their eyes wide.
Because they were impressed.
I could write a thing–I could work at it, in my room,
alone, typing and backspacing and typing again, pacing, reading aloud, crossing
out lines, revising, typing more–and the result would be that girls I didn’t
even know would be impressed with me.
That was pretty powerful motivation for a chubby, clumsy,
loudmouthed kid with no other real dating prospects.
How do you research markets for your work, perhaps as some
advice for writers?
I guess I’m sort of a traditionalist: Because I grew up reading
sci-fi in the library and staring at the magazine racks at Waldenbooks, and
because I like those sort of “golden age” Big Idea stories, I tend to
gravitate towards the older print publications, like Asimov’s and The
Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction
. But there is a lot of really
exciting stuff happening now, because of how the Internet flattens and
democratize the ability to distribute fiction. Online venus like Strange
and Clarkesworld and
publish great stuff, treat authors well, and work hard to really promote the
work they publish. Also, podcasts have created a new channel (and demand) for
old-style audio drama and oral/aural storytelling. I’ve not had a ton of luck
cracking those markets, but I love them. The Truth and Pseudopod
are consistently good, as is the podcast for Nightmare magazine. Finally,
now that ebooks have a solid foothold among the reading public, there are many
interesting anthologies being pulled together by both traditional processes
(i.e., an editor has an open call for submissions, selects pieces, puts
together a book) and less traditional means (authors team up on their own to
produce a huge multi-author genre anthology–things that run thousands of
pages, and would just be functionally impossible to print economically). Many
of these are wildly popular, and can be lucrative.
As for how to research markets: I’ve always worked with
paying markets, because that was important to me. But it not be as important to
other writers, who may have different goals (i.e., reaching a specific
audience, winning awards, etc.) When I’m looking for new markets, I look at
authors whose work I like, or who I feel an artistic kinship to, and see where
they’ve had pieces published. I also look out for publications where editors I
like are working (for example, I’ve never sold anything to Ellen Datlow, but I
like her taste in fiction, and so I keep pitching stuff her way). Finally, I
look at the Recommended Reading/Honorable Mention lists that accompany the
major awards (Hugo, Nebula, etc.), or that editors put out alongside their big
“Best Of” and “Years Best” anthologies; the places that
originally published those stories are the magazines these folks are looking
at, and so even if the pay is small, knowing that this magazine has an engaged
readership is valuable.
What would you say is your
interesting writing quirk?
I subvocalize almost constantly. Like, this sentence I’m
typing right now, I’m thinking about saying it as I’m typing it. I can feel it
on my tongue. It’s the same when I’m reading (and a big part of why I’m such a
slow reader). Almost every thought I have is composed as an imagined dialogue
with someone. Very little of what I say is spontaneous at all. I guess, for a
lot of people, their process of reading/writing as actually fairly divorced
from their process of speaking/hearing. For me they’re mashed into a single
As a child, what did you want to be
when you grew up?
The first thing I remember very clearly wanting to be–in a
job sense–was an archeologist. Part of that had to do with how big the world
is and how much has happened on it. The rest had to do with Indiana Jones.
Anything additional you want to
share with the readers?
Nope. They’ve been patient enough with me; it’s summer! Go
eat popsicles and throw water balloons are your kids!
Thank you for being here today, David!

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