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PSTD INTERVIEW: MADELINE ASHBY

Hello Madeline, and thanks for agreeing to the interview. While many of our readers will likely be familiar with your fiction and work as an anthologist, could you begin by telling us a little about who you are, what you have written and are writing, and your work as a futurist and consultant?

Thank you for inviting me!

To summarize, I’m a science fiction writer and a futurist. I’m the author of the Machine Dynasty series from Angry Robot Books, and I have a novel called Company Town coming out from Tor this year, and another novel, tentatively titled Upstart, coming out from Tor next year. I also have a column in the Ottawa Citizen, although I live in Toronto. I’ve written what are called science fiction prototypes for Intel Labs, the Institute for the Future, SciFutures, Nesta, Data & Society, and others.

 

What was your initial impetus for writing speculative fiction?

I had always been a consumer of genre material — my parents were big nerds who encouraged me to watch ST: TNG and The X-Files and stuff like that. My dad also had a bunch of genre fiction around the house; I read his copies of the Dune novels when I was in high school. And I also read a lot of my mom’s Stephen King novels and short story collections long before that. So in a way it was very natural that I turned to spec fic. But I made a conscious decision to go for it after attending an Ursula K. LeGuin reading in Seattle, when I was doing a departmental honours project on her work. She read from “The Wave in Mind,” and I was lost.

Which came first, your career as a writer of spec fic or your career as a professional futurist? How have the two shaped one another since?

The former. I was already in a writers’ workshop, the Cecil Street Irregulars, when another workshop member, Karl Schroeder, suggested I get my second masters’ degree from the Strategic Foresight & Innovation program at OCADU. And it was there, thanks to Cory Doctorow, that I started working with Brian David Johnson and Genevieve Bell at Intel Labs. And the rest is history!

In your work as a professional futurist, what emerging technologies have
 recently awed or terrified you the most?

I could tell you, but I signed a non-disclosure agreement.

Your Machine Dynasty novels, set in an indeterminate, but seemingly not-too-distant, future focus on synthetic, self-replicating human(oid)s called von Neumann machines (vN), and their vexed relationship with the human society that created them. The first novel, vN, is largely from the point of view of a young vN named Amy, who is part of a mixed organic-synthetic family unit, her mother being vN, but her father an organic human. Why did you decide to use this “blended family” structure as the jumping-off point for the novel?

The prologue to vN, which is told from an organic human perspective, started out as a short story. It was going to be a story about this guy discovering that his wife and daughter were actually machines, and what that meant about him as a person. Then I realized that was sort of a Twilight Zone plot, and the really interesting story was about the robots themselves, interacting with other robots, and cutting the humans out of the conversation. So even after I decided to expand the story into a book, I maintained that original nucleus of the blended family structure.

As a reader of vN, in the early chapters of the novel I often found myself (like Amy’s father, and at least initially, Amy herself) having to resist a tendency to think about Amy in all-too-human developmental and cultural terms as “a child.” What inspirations, and difficulties, did you encounter in capturing Amy’s particular voice and psychology?

It was actually really tough. I didn’t quite love Amy until my third pass on the book. I wrestled with how “childish” she should be, how she should express herself, what she would know about the world, how she would see it. It was important to me that she be clever and resourceful, but also innocent. Until the events of the novel, Amy’s inhabited a fairly privileged position in society. She’s been insulated from a lot of the prejudices humans have against vN. But then she goes on the run, and experiences the wider world for the first time, and discovers how other vN are being treated. So I started thinking about innocence. And I tried to maintain Amy’s sense of innocence throughout. She’s a very naive person who shares headspace with a very jaded person. And that innocence means she doesn’t quite think through the consequences of her actions, sometimes.

You’re not a writer of horror fiction in a generic sense of the word, but some of your short fiction, as well as both vN and ID feature tremendously disturbing material – scenes of harrowing violence, unsettling grotesquerie, and an interrogation of cultural taboos and ontological limits, aspects often associated with horror fiction. How would you characterize your work’s relationship with horror as a genre, or its use of horror as a mode? Are there any horror writers, or fictions, that have made a particular mark on your own writing?

Wow, thanks! I’m glad you found it tremendously disturbing. People tell me that, but I like seeing it in writing.

I’m actually a fairly avid fan of horror. I’ll watch horror films for comfort. I read horror novels fairly regularly. (I read both of Michael Rowe’s novels last year, and I’m currently reading Gemma Files’ Experimental Film. I also think you can classify Chuck Wendig’s Miriam Black series as sort of pop-adventure-horror, and I love those books.) This all started when I was an infant, and I chewed on my mother’s paperback copy of Stephen King’s Night Shift collection. (The one with the eyes.) “I cut my teeth on that book,” I told my husband, before we were together. “So did I,” he said, smirking. He’s a horror writer. For our wedding my mother gave us her first-edition illustrated copy of The Gunslinger.

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“The one with the eyes.”

I started reading King more seriously (and not literally eating his books) when I was in Grade 5. This other girl in my class told on me to the teacher and said I was reading things I shouldn’t. This was America, where they’re more concerned about that kind of thing, I guess. (Also she just hated me.) But the teacher didn’t have a problem with it, so that year I read The Shining and a bunch of other things. Mom drew the line at The Stand, for some reason, so I only read that when I hit fourteen.

But in terms of my own work, I think what horror brings to the table is a focus on emotion. It’s the only genre that’s named for the feeling it creates in the reader. And I think that ability to reach right inside the reader and grab her guts and twist them in your fingers, that’s priceless. Horror cuts through all the bullshit of daily life in a really important way. It wants to focus you, to strap you in and slap you around and get you to live in the moment. And that’s not just the sensation of terror that does that. Horror is mostly despair. If you read Straub’s Ghost Story, for example, that’s a novel about despair. Sure there’s a scary monster, but the heart of the book is really the friendship between these four elderly men, and how it’s changed over decades, and the bittersweet beauty of watching them age together but die alone. It’s a heartbreaking novel. The best horror fiction is always heartbreaking on some level. There’s always some tragic streak running through it, some element that reminds you of the transience of life, of all the things undone and unsaid. Real monsters never just devour a life. They devour the potential for a good life, well-lived.

Clowns are staple figures in horror fiction, as they cause unease in many people. Reading ID caused me to once again consider the reasons for this. The novel’s vN protagonist Javier, faced with a man clad in a Mump and Smoot t-shirt, justifies his hatred of clowns, thinking “They really threw the Turing process into all kinds of hell.” Can you elaborate on this? How do you, personally, feel about clowns? Were you, too, ever totally fucking weirded out by a Mump and Smoot performance?

I don’t really feel one way or the other about clowns. I think the creepiest thing about them is their stated mission to cheer you up no matter what. I think anybody that tries to force happiness or cheeriness on you is creepy. As for the t-shirt, my husband has one, and he told me about the performances, and it seemed like a good fit. So to speak.

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Editor’s note: I saw a Mump and Smoot show in Calgary in 2008, and thought I’d fallen into Ligotti’s story “Dr. Voke and Mr. Veech.”

One of the conceptual touchstones of the series is Mori’s hypothesis of the uncanny valley. How accurate do you think Mori’s theory is? How “hardwired” do you think our emotional response to synthetic humanoids is, and how malleable do you think it will prove to be with cultural and technological change?

As animals we have a real knack for picking out other animals that move and sound different from the way we do. And that’s caused a lot of prejudice: in the West, we used to see scoliosis — or indeed, any kind of physical difference — as a punishment from God, instead of a basic quirk of biology. But it’s really because we as a species have optimized ourselves to pick up on subtle differences that might tell us something vital about the people surrounding us, like whether they’re sick or healthy, or if they might suddenly attack us, or if they’re staring at us, or what have you. And part of the Uncanny Valley idea relates to that, that subtle differences can actually feel more important than big ones. We don’t despise robots that try to look like dogs, for example, but we do when they try to look like us.

But I do think it’ll end up being more malleable as humanoid-seeming interfaces become more common. No one cares that Siri and Cortana aren’t “humans.” No one cares that the algorithms that decide your day trades or your traffic flows aren’t humans.

It struck me as I read both vN and ID that the referentiality of the writing, and the culture of this speculative near-future reality, depends on a high degree of genre-competence from the reader. Would you say you are writing primarily for an already genre-savvy audience? Does the risk of losing or alienating readers who are not already well-versed in speculative fiction concern you?

I didn’t really worry about it. I mean, maybe I should have, now that you mention it. But I suppose I was also, in my first book, trying to establish my nerd cred. I wanted to show readers that I’d done my homework. I worry about that a little bit less, now, but it was a concern of mine with vN especially.

In a commentary on the io9 website, you’ve said your work is often described as “hard s-f with characters in it,” but that you think the distinction between hard and soft sf itself is an unhelpful one. You go on to say:

And when you look at other genres, they have a far wider spectrum of descriptions for sub-genres. High fantasy. Low fantasy. Epic fantasy. Grimdark. Noir. Psycho-thriller. Psycho-sexual thriller. Gothic. Gaslight. Those are just a few. I would argue that the rich array of descriptors is one of the reasons fantasy and other genres outsell SF on a consistent basis. Those genres have a bunch of avenues to offer an audience. SF has only a binary system. What reader doesn’t want more choice?

First, do you think that term “hard sf” is less useful now than when P. Schuyler Miller coined it nearly 60 years ago primarily because of the pace at which scientific knowledge and technological development have increased since then, or do you think it has more to do with changes in literary culture and the readership of sf, or other factors altogether?

It’s both. I do think it has to do with the fact that we live in a science fictional present. Technology is developing so quickly, and is so thoroughly enmeshed and embroidered into our daily lives, that it no longer feels like a whiz-bang McGuffin from a story about the future. So to make ideas about the future carry more weight in a narrative, you need to incorporate tropes and gestures from other genres. At the same time, readers are more familiar than ever before with those other genres.

Second, a question that likely reflects my curmudgeonly bias against literary labels like those you list above, which seem like little more than marketing brands to me, why do you think the diversity of such labels has such an appeal to readers? Do you think that the circulation of these terms actually corresponds to a greater literary diversity in the more fantastic realms of speculative fiction than in those grounded in a scientific and technological realist approach?

Well, I think in general we live in a saturated media environment where aggressive filtering is necessary. Think about how granular and specific Netflix can learn to be about your preferences. “Dark Mysteries With Strong Female Lead.” “Teen Reality Dramas.” And so on, and so forth. We live with huge bookstores both online and off, and cable packages with hundreds of channels, and streaming content for our eyes and ears, and the only way to sort through all that is to label and organize things. (Search engine optimization wouldn’t be the big deal that it is if this weren’t the case.)

As to whether that leads to actual diversity in terms of content, that’s another thing. I think one of the problems with that aggressive filtering and organization is that it slots readers (and all consumers) into a very narrow place. The market doesn’t care if your tastes are diverse, or if you feel challenged as a reader, or if your mind is expanding. The market cares only that you keep buying, and the easiest way for you to keep buying is to keep giving you a version of the thing you bought before. Amazon works this way, and so does most everyone else.

At the same time, there’s a growing trend toward curation at all levels. You see it in those subscription boxes full of samples of things. People very much want surprise and serendipity. They want to discover something new. But the act of discovery is almost impossible in a world where all knowledge is available at the tips of your fingers. So we have to plan for serendipity. We have to create it as a line item on the budget, or a tick-box on the agenda. I wouldn’t be surprised if we saw a “book of the month” clubs come back, via Amazon probably, for exactly this reason. Kindle Unlimited is halfway there, but there’s no curation and it’s not very user-friendly. (It’s also unavailable in Canada.)

Third, in terms of your own fiction, given that “hard sf” is characterized by close attention to technical detail and scientific plausibility, I wonder to what extent these criteria universally inform your fiction? What kind of research did you undertake toward achieving these goals, especially in the Machine Dynasty novels? Does your fiction ever deliberately depart from these criteria? How critical do you think fidelity to existing scientific principles and technology are for socially conscious speculative fiction in general?

We live in a very anti-intellectual era. Sure, our leaders carry phones that could run an Apollo mission, but the actual application of the scientific method to everyday life is lacking. We still have to convince legislators that global warming is a thing, and that we’re responsible as a species. So I try to stick to science in my fiction that’s at least plausible. I tried to get a little weirder in my latest book, Company Town, but that was a conscious decision — I wanted to talk about weird futures. I wanted to get more “Phildickian,” if you will.

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Ashby’s fourth novel, forthcoming from TOR later this year, is a more Phildickian fiction.

The Machine Dynasty novels carry on a critical dialogue with many earlier speculative imaginings of artificial intelligence and synthetic humanoid life. One example that struck me was the novels’ portrayal of the vN’s failsafe. This aspect of the book is, in many ways, a contemporary re-imagining of Asimov’s positronic brain. How centrally did you have Asimov’s fiction in mind while writing these novels? What kind of technological, philosophical and cultural developments in the intervening years were most important for your pretty radical re-conception of the relationship between the machines and humans?

I thought about Asimov’s work a lot, and the total absurdity of the Three Laws. Asimov’s stories about the Three Laws are basically programming story problems. They’re riddles. And I never really connected with them emotionally or aesthetically.

Another sci-fi touchstone for the Machine Dynasty novels is, of course, Philip K. Dick, especially his novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (which provides the name of an important machine-friendly bar in the novel, which also features machinic beverages named after other Dick novels.) How important has Dick’s work been for you personally? More broadly, why do you think it continues to have so much significance for contemporary speculative fiction?

I think Dick ended up nailing the future. Part of the reason his work endures is that a) he was a better prose writer than his contemporaries, and b) his worlds still feel like they could arrive tomorrow, and c) his characters feel like actual people. They’re small and petty and they get scared and they feel lust. They’re quotidian. And his futures feel really quotidian — they feel lived-in. So that aspect of realism helps you buy into the weirdness of what he’s selling.

But there’s also that weirdness. And I think the weirdness is crucial. I think what Dick did better than anybody was push into how weird the future can feel, how tomorrow can feel uncertain, not to mention five years or fifty or five hundred years from now.

Ridley Scott’s cinematic adaptation of Dick’s novel as Blade Runner remains a major cultural locus for the relationships between the machines and humans in this fictional world. Why did you decide to make the film such a central reference point, especially in VN? Was this decision based on its greater prominence in contemporary popular culture, or do you think the film stages questions of identity and artificial intelligence more powerfully than Dick’s novel itself?

Blade Runner is just really important to me. I saw it for the first time in the third grade, sitting in my basement with my dad, because my mom wouldn’t let me see Batman Returns. So it was a special occasion, and maybe I imprinted on it for that reason. But every time I see it I see something new. I wish Ridley Scott were still making really slow, meditative films like that. It has these great moments of visceral violence, so people think it’s an action film (in the same way they think Alien is an action film, when it’s really a horror film), but it’s this really thoughtful character study about the nature of humanity and empathy.

Your exploration of the way human sexuality informs the VN, and the way their own sexuality, largely divorced from reproduction, develops in response to this is worlds apart from both Asimov’s and Dick’s fiction. The novel’s focus on the often disturbingly predatory dimensions of human sexuality evoked the work of James Tiptree, Jr. for me. How important has her work been for you as a writer? What are some of the other influences (whether literary or social) that fed your imagining of the cultural and technological consequences of human sexuality with these novels?

I didn’t discover her until much later, actually. I was already at work on the book when I read my first Tiptree story. (At least, my first story of hers outside of a classroom environment.) But I read a collection of hers at a really difficult, chaotic time in my life. And her rage became a source of strength for me. I really grabbed onto it with both hands. It was something real at a time when nothing felt real.

But our language for describing sexuality has evolved a great deal, as well, so that I could find the words I needed to tell that story far more easily than I might have in other years. I think women are freer now to talk about things like micro-aggressions or other predatory behaviours, and how the world has geared itself to view us (and having sex with us) as a prize to be won (or even just a trophy for participation). So I felt perfectly justified telling the story of what it feels like to be vulnerable that way, and also to discover one’s own vulnerability. I think that’s part of the loss of innocence theme in the first novel. The first thing you lose as a girl growing up is the sense that your body is your own. You discover it’s not. You thought it was yours, but it wasn’t. It belongs to everyone else. It’s there for everyone else to comment on, or to touch, or to judge. And I think Amy’s discovery that the world thinks she’s just a doll to be played with is a good metaphor for that.

Sexuality is also vitally important for the vN, for whom it is largely divorced from both the reproductive process and from natal sex, and yet vN sexuality remains in certain respects conditioned by the sexuality of their human engineers. The phenomenology of vN sexuality is explored with startling intimacy and vividness, especially in ID. What can you tell us about how you conceived of this parallel sexuality? What were some of the greatest difficulties and inspirations you encountered in exploring this aspect of the vN protagonists’ experiences?

In vN I wanted to talk about that loss of innocence, but in iD I wanted to explore a sexuality that was already fully-formed. Part of Amy’s journey in vN is realizing that she’s queer for other robots. She doesn’t love or even like humans the way she’s supposed do. She may fall for a boy-shaped robot, but the fact that she even enjoys other robots is far more disturbing to the humans around her. It means she’ll choose her own kind over the humans that built her. So there’s a bit of the novel that’s her examining and accepting that “broken” piece within her.

Javier is on a different journey, though. He loves humans. But he also loves them without having any choice in the matter. We none of us can choose who we love, but we can choose how we deal with it, and Javier doesn’t have that latter choice. He’s just trapped in this loop of toxic relationships. And I wanted to explore what it’s like to see those relationships for what they are, and how tempting it can be to fall back into your old patterns. I think the robots in my stories have always been “self-aware,” to use an AI term, but what Javier gains in iD is true self-awareness. He’s always been conscious, but he becomes conscious of himself and his own choices. He stops running on auto-pilot and starts making meaningful decisions for himself.

You’ve commented elsewhere that the third Machine Dynasty novel is going to take place from the perspective of Portia, “the evil grandmother robot who gets eaten alive by the protagonist in the first novel.” Portia’s a fascinating, and frightening, character. Can you tell us a little about your inspirations in creating her, and perhaps give us a little teaser in terms of the directions Portia’s story will take in the third and final novel in the series?

Portia was actually quite simple for me to create. Her voice flowed from me all too easily. When I thought of her, I thought of Sian Phillips’ performance as Livia in I, Claudius. She’s that same devouring mother figure who views her children as extensions of herself rather than as their own people. So she’s also a bit of a Joan Crawford/Mommie Dearest figure. In general I tend to think of her as a kind of diva. She’s a Norma Desmond, for sure — controlling, vicious, needy, delusional. She just isn’t as glamourous. Then again, I don’t think she feels the need for glamour; she already knows she’s more beautiful than humans can ever be, and she knows she’s stronger. So she’s profoundly vain, but she also doesn’t feed that vanity with, say, clothes or jewelry. She feeds it by killing humans.

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Sian Philips as Livia in I, Claudius (1976), an inspiration for Ashby’s Portia.

Reading ID, it struck me that the architectural style of Holberton’s home, retrofuturism, works as a kind of metonym for the technological and cultural aesthetics of the Machine Dynasty’s setting as a whole. But it is a retrofuturism completely different from the Golden Age nostalgia that William Gibson evocatively captured in his early short story “The Gernsback Continuum.” My impression of the world of Machine Dynasty is one in which a 1980s and 1990s retro-craze is in full effect. Am I projecting my own youthful nostalgia, here, or is there more to this impression? If so, why these cultural epochs, specifically?

I hadn’t thought of it that way before, but it’s possible. Certainly we’re seeing that nostalgia for the 80’s and 90’s now, as people who were kids at the time have some buying power to invest in the Doc Martens they could never afford back then. And we’re seeing it in media, with the return of things like The X-Files and Twin Peaks. So on some level that’s already happening. As for how I felt while writing the books, I was definitely influenced by things like mid-to-late 90’s cyberpunk anime. Stuff like Evangelion, Serial Experiments Lain, Ghost in the Shell. They were all these stories about identity and technology and the relationship between the two, with really well-defined, memorable female characters who steered their own course throughout the story.

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Late 90s cyberpunk anima was a major influence on the Robot Dynasty novels. A still from Ghost in the Shell (1995.)

You’ve mentioned in previous interview that a viewing of Cronenberg’s film A History of Violence with your husband, Canadian horror writer David Nickle, led you to completely re-think vN’s opening. Can you tell us a little more about this?

A History of Violence has a great opening. It’s this very sweet, pastoral, small-town scene that explodes into terrible violence. It’s sort of like Twin Peaks, in that way — that juxtaposition of Gothic secrets against small-town life in America. The opening of vN doesn’t take place in a small town, but it does take place in a smallish community, where everybody knows each other — or they think they do.

This description of small­town reality brings back to mind the title of your forthcoming novel, Company Town. You’ve mentioned that it is something of a different, weirder, and more “Phildickian” kind of fiction. What more can you tell us about it, by way of giving our readers a teasing sense of what they can expect from it?

Company Town is the story of Go Jung-hwa, a bodyguard for the United Sex Workers of Canada Local 314. She lives in New Arcadia, a city of autonomous towers floating around a dead oil rig 500 km NE of St. John’s, Newfoundland. After she kicks the right guy in the face, she winds up working as a bodyguard for the heir apparent of the company that buys her city. The kid has been getting death threats from the future. So Hwa has to escort him everywhere he goes, including physics class. Hwa isn’t sure which is worse: posthuman nightmares intent on killing her and her client, or going back to the high school she dropped out of years ago. Until her friends start to die.

That’s just the story, though. The book is a hard-bitten noir on the one hand, and on the other it’s a deeply weird SF story, and also it’s sort of a bildungsroman of this young woman having to confront a lot of issues she’s grown up with. It’s also a big critique of corporate Singulitarianism. At least, it pokes fun at that kind of thinking. Hwa is one of the most profane, violent, funny characters I’ve ever written. I love her.

During the course of this interview, the international speculative fiction community was crushed by the sudden loss of genre-defining editor extraordinaire, David G. Hartwell. Had  you  worked with David at TOR on Company Town? Can you tell us a little about his role, his importance for you?

Actually, I didn’t work with David on this book. My editors were Patrick Nielsen Hayden, and Miriam Weinberg. I was lucky enough to have met and hung out with David a bunch of times, and I was featured in one of his Year’s Best anthologies, as well as 21st Century Science Fiction. I also worked closely with Kathryn Cramer on Project Hieroglyph, and on a narrative hackathon at ASU’s Centre for Science and the Imagination. (The results of that hackathon later on went to become a WorldBank project.) So while I never worked with him very closely, I got to know him a bit, and I’m very grateful for that. He was so welcoming to me, even at the start of my career. He always had time to listen. He was gracious, in a way that people these days often aren’t.

This interview accompanies PstD’s publication of your original short story, “Dreams In the Bitch House.” Can you tell our readers a little about the impetus that led to the story, the context in which you wrote it, and the relationship between this context and the story that finally emerged from it?

For the Institute for the Future, I had written a story called “Social Services,” which was a take-off on The Haunting of Hill House. It was about the future of networked matter and IoT. So when Chris Speed at Design in Action approached me about coming to Scotland and telling a story, I thought this would be a great opportunity to follow that up. (He also told me he really liked “Social Services,” and wanted a slightly creepy story to talk about the haunted-ness of IoT.) So I started thinking about uncanny architecture, and Lovecraft’s “The Dreams in the Witch House” came up, and I’d wanted to do a story called “The Dreams in the Bitch House” for just ever, and this was the best possible opportunity.

Beginning with the title itself, the story involves some very striking and inventive allusions to Lovecraft’s fiction. How did Lovecraft suppurate into this piece?

Oh, it was entirely intentional. I set out to do a pastiche very deliberately. I had done one earlier based on Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, for the Institute for the Future, in a story called “Social Services.” And so I wanted to follow that up. It meant reading Lovecraft’s “The Dreams in the Witch House,” which is just a slog to get through. But it was also a way for me to write about an apartment I had in Little Italy once.

Like vN, “Dreams in the Bitch House” features an inter-generational power struggle between an amoral matriarchal figure and a young female protagonist who must resist this figure in trying to maintain her own individuality and authority. Why is this conflict such a central concern in your fiction? Does this conflict have particular autobiographical, social, or literary roots?

Well, I think that dynamic is at the root of a lot of fairytales, really. The pure princess supplants the evil queen. That’s why Gaiman’s story “Snow, Glass, Apples,” is so amazing — it subverts that tradition so beautifully. It’s also something that plays out in one of my husband’s most popular stories, “The Sloan Men,” which is in his first story collection. But really it’s everywhere — hell, it’s the central plot of The Devil Wears Prada, for goodness’ sake.

Because of this conflict, one of the things that kept coming to mind for me while reading both vN and “Dreams in the Bitch House” is Jackson, especially The Haunting of Hill House – tonally, stylistically, worlds apart, but that resonance seems no less powerful for it. (How) has Jackson’s fiction been important for you?

Jackson is enormously important to me as a writer and a feminist and as someone living at the intersection of those two modes. I think Jackson deserves a lot of credit for acknowledging how hard it was for her to be a writer and a mother at the same time. She didn’t sugarcoat it. She made it funny, but I think that was as much a survival mechanism as anything else. (It was also a way for her to make money. If you’re going to suffer, at least get paid for it.) As with Tiptree, I think there’s this well of anger at the core of her work. It comes out more slyly; I think she had to be more careful, because of her time period and because she wasn’t behind a pseudonym. But it’s there. You can feel it informing all her observations of the world around her.

Thanks for your insightful responses, Madeline Ashby!

Readers, if you haven’t already done so, you can read “Dreams in the Bitch House,”in print for the first time, here.

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