An Empire of Siobhan Carroll

As I said in my introduction to the previous interview I conducted, with Fran Wilde, I ran a small workshop a few years back called The Bridge. One of the other terrific participants in that workshop was author and professor Siobhan Carroll. Our interview follows:

Fantasy author-academic Siobhan Carroll

  1. Tell me about your amazing UPenn nonfiction book?

AN EMPIRE OF AIR AND WATER is a pre-history of science fiction. It examines a crucial historical period from 1750-1850, during which Europeans were penetrating the Arctic, descending into caves, and using air balloons to fly into the atmosphere for the first time. Spaces that had been off-limits to humanity were now more accessible than ever. And just as we’d see with the 20th century space race, this development put new pressures on authors who were used to using these spaces as settings for fantastic tales.

In EMPIRE I examine the reactions of authors like Mary Shelley to this new age of exploration. I argue that writers like her and Samuel T. Coleridge pushed back against exploration in texts like Frankenstein and Rime of the Ancient Mariner, trying to preserve a space for the imagination in an increasingly mapped world. Given that fiction and poetry were being used to promote exploration by government officials, British authors like Shelley also found themselves taking stands on the expansion of the British Empire. Would it really be a good thing to have even the North Pole come under British dominion? What would it mean to have generations of British subjects born outside the British Isles, but indoctrinated with loyalty to ‘England’s green fields’ thanks to the poetry they read? Authors associated resistance to empire with these unusual geographies, and the tropes they created around caves, oceans, atmospheres and the poles carry forward into modern fiction.

  1. What are your favorite classes to teach at UDelaware?

I have to pick just one? I like all the classes I teach, but I particularly get a kick out of courses like “Fantasy From Tolkien to Rowling,” which culminates in students putting on a research symposium on fantasy fiction. I like to teach courses in which students get to engage with fiction and poetry via more angles than just the traditional academic essay.

  1. Talk to me a little about the Wendigo story that Ellen Datlow published in Fearful Symmetries and that’s being reprinted in The Year’s Best Weird Fiction, edited by Kathe Koja and Michael Kelly?

The wendigo story Year's Best Weird Fiction 2grows out of my research on EMPIRE, so you might say it’s a fictional footnote to some of my book’s arguments. It’s about the stories we tell about Arctic space – about the Franklin expedition, climate change, and the fate of the poles – and the way that, if we’re not careful, such stories can dictate our futures. It’s a horror story, so it’s not very optimistic.


  1. What are your favorite SFnal topics?

Wow, there are so many. Right now I’m very interested in the new representations of ecology and humanity that we’re seeing in works like Vandermeer’s Annihilation and Paulo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl. I also really appreciate what texts like Leckie’s Ancillary Justice are doing with identity. In my own fiction I’m still very much engaged with the way individuals are shaped by their culture, but my definitions of what “individual” and what “culture” mean are shifting.

  1. Now that you’re five (or more) years out from your Clarion experience, what do you find is the thing that inspires you most about that time?

Probably the people I met at Clarion. <Waves to the class of 2009!> Over the course of five years I’ve got to see so many people develop as writers—not just in terms of their skill levels, but also in terms of their authorial identity and voice. We had so many talented people in my class—people like Rochita Loenen Ruiz, D. Elizabeth Wasden, J.M. Sidorva, Randy Henderson, and so on—some of whom you’ve heard from already and some of whom you’ll be hearing about over the next ten years. It’s a privilege to know them, and I continue to learn so much from their writing. My advice to any aspiring SF writer is, if you can go to Clarion, do!

  1. When are you going to finish your novel, Siobhan?


  1. Riiiight. Let’s talk about other works then. Some of your fiction is inspired by/spun off of classics—Jane Eyre comes to mind for one. This is a trait shared with other excellent writers, like John Kessel. Do you find yourself often imagining “further adventures of…” tales in literature and exploring those possibilities?

Well, first, thanks for the flattering comparison to John Kessel. He was my first week Clarion instructor and I think he’s an amazing writer. I only wish I could write in his league!

As for classics… I think I approach the “reworking of a classic story” from a different angle than most people. As a literary critic, I’m less interested in the “further adventures” of Jane Eyre than getting at what the story of Jane Eyre meant to us then, and what it means to us now.

So many powerful older stories are screened off from us by their language or reputation: people have difficulty connecting with Dickens now because they find his language difficult and because they believe they’re supposed to worship at the shrine of BLEAK HOUSE: The Very Important Book. I’m interested in fiction that solves that problem. In the case of Dickens, that means I’d rather write The Wire than The Further Adventures of Inspector Bucket. And I’d rather write something like Longbourn, which retells Pride & Prejudice with an eye to 21st century politics, than yet another P&P sequel.

That said, I think something very interesting happens when SF retells classic literature. Science fiction & fantasy has spent decades being roped off from “real literature,” so to take on the canon in an SF story is inherently a political act. But we’re now reaching a moment in which academia and the literary canon is increasingly open to SF. People like me get to teach it in English classes at university! So when it comes to retellings, I’d like to see more SF moving past the culture wars and retelling some of its own classics. So we have issues with the some of the racial and gender politics of the Golden Age? Why not address *that* in a retelling of Asimov’s “Nightfall”? Part of seeing SF as “good literature” is seeing our canon as open to reinterpretation. We have our literary history too.

Thanks, Siobhan.

An Empire of Air and Water

An Empire of Air and Water by Siobhan Carroll




Fran Wilde: Rising in the Updraft

Note: A few years back I ran a small workshop, The Bridge Workshop, in Narberth, PA, and as some of the extraordinary participants have subsequently begun placing stories and novels, I wanted to interview a few of them. Their success has far more to do with their perseverance and dedication to their craft than to anything I ever said or did (but I am nevertheless chuffed as hell to have been involved). -gf

I’m going to start with author Fran Wilde, who has already seen numerous short works of hers published across the SF and fantasy spectrum; and who now is about to make a splash with her first novel, Updraft.  

Fran Wilde

  1. Fran, you write both short and long fiction. Do you prefer one form over the other?

I love whichever form is better behaved at the time.

  1. What do you feel short stories and novels have in common, and what differentiates them—that is, what do you have to think about when writing a novel that you don’t when writing a short story?

When writing a short story, I can put as much time and effort into structure as I can a whole novel. Shorter doesn’t mean less effort. Sometimes it means more. I think short stories are often like complicated locking mechanisms, while novels are more like tapestries. What I love about writing a short story is the feeling of tumblers falling into place as I use a hairpin and a nail file to unlock it. What I love about writing a novel is the focus required to keep all the threads in my hands. Remembering all the threads that I’m weaving in is hard, especially when the world is complex, but it’s worth it.

  1. Talk a little about your upcoming story in Asimov’s (April/May 2015 issue). is it true what they’re saying about Tallulah Bankhead? And why is she suddenly appearing in genre fiction?

“How to Walk Through Historic Graveyards in the Digital Age”ASF515APRILMAY-web is set in one of the oldest churchyards on Maryland’s eastern shore. The main character has returned from a war zone and is dealing with PTSD and fubar-ed tech. And possibly something more.

One of the characters in the story is a shade of the actress and political activist Tallulah Bankhead. History’s remembered the actress part… and it’s certainly got a grasp on her… flirtier … side — but Bankhead’s politics, her advocacy for equal rights, and the fact that she had a very long career that spanned many forms of media has maybe been a bit buried by time and popular culture. Perhaps she’s reappearing because she refuses to be forgotten. I like to think that.

  1. You’re teaching a workshop at the Philadelphia Writers’ Conference this summer. Are you looking forward to that, and however you answer, why?

Oh yes.  I miss teaching quite a bit. Working with students — whether in a workshop setting or a classroom — is one way to pay forward the generosity I’ve been shown by my own mentors and teachers. I started classroom teaching when I was pretty young, at a public school for the arts in Baltimore, Loyola College, Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth, and University of Baltimore. More recently, I’ve worked in the writers’ workshops at Worldcons. Talking with other writers about their work and supporting them is an important part of being a writer for me. I’m not always going to say what someone wants to hear, especially in a class, but that’s part of the job too.

  1. You moved from Baltimore to the Philadelphia sff scene, and I believe have been folded into what are called “The Loud Philadelphians” … What’s the best part of the Philadelphia spectrum?

The Loud Philadelphians, from what I can tell, encompasses an incredibly generous set of people who are willing to answer my ridiculous questions, show me where the good watering holes are, and show up at readings, sometimes in distant cities. I think that’s part of what’s best about the Philadelphia scene — it’s got tremendous history, a wealth of knowledge, and a whole amazing set of new voices coming up in every section of the city.

  1. So, let’s get to your new novel, Updraft. This is the first book of a trilogy that as I recall began life as a short story. Can you talk about the evolution of this project—because I think at the point where it’s grown to these proportions, it isn’t just a story. It’s much more complex.

Updraft started as one short story about a fall from great height. It developed in response to a challenge at Viable Paradise. A second short story about a knife fight in a wind tunnel followed. I started wondering what kind of world would put its people in these kinds of situations. Meantime, friends who read the short stories gave me the “this isn’t a short story, it’s a novel,” critique. Those are wonderful to hear, even if I groaned at the time.

Updraft cover

At this point, the single novel has grown to at least three set in that world, as well as several short stories and at least one novella. They’re not all linked in traditional sequels, but some are. I love the idea that there’s so much more going on in the world than the POV characters can see; that many different people are out there having adventures, and we can see only pieces of them.

Sometimes I go to write a short story and end up with a novel. Sometimes I intend to write a novel and everyone should be very afraid.

  1. First of a trilogy… What can we expect in the sequels to Updraft?

Ahh the sequels! It’s so hard to talk about them in advance of Updraft coming out, but I’m really excited to watch them unfold. In Updraft, there are characters of all ages and physical capabilities who are important to the story. In the sequels, you can expect vastly new perspectives, more monsters, old friends, and several new characters who are a lot of fun to write. I hope they’re as fun to read.

Bio: Fran Wilde is an author and technology consultant. Her first novel, Updraft, is forthcoming from Tor/Macmillan in 2015. Her short stories have appeared or will shortly appear in publications including Asimov’s, Nature, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and Her interview series Cooking the Books–about the intersection between food and fiction–has appeared at Strange Horizons,, and on her website, You can find her on Twitter @fran_wilde and Facebook@franwildewrites.

KGB Bar reading with Andy Duncan

Because I am slow out of the gate, I’m probably the last person on the planet to point the way to this podcast: An evening of the fantastic at the KGB Bar in New York City with me and the irrepressible and brilliant Andy Duncan as your readers: