I first met Desirina Boskovich at World Fantasy Convention in 2014, when she was celebrating the release of The Steampunk User's Manual with Jeff VanderMeer. She seemed like an thoughtful, intelligent, and quiet person, and I thoroughly enjoyed having conversations with her. Even without having read her fiction, I could tell Desirina had a unique perspective on life.
Her novella Never Now Always has just come out from Broken Eye Books, and I was immediately captured by her prose style. It is an amazing, beautiful, and strange story that I'll concede might not be for everyone, but I found it to be very refreshing and eery, brutal yet comforting in a way. Desirina is a master at using language in a provocative way, plunging the reader directly into the story.
I recently had the opportunity to interview Desirina about her book and her writing. Please welcome her to Once and Future!
Melanie R. Meadors: You have a new novella available now from Broken Eye Books, called Never Now Always. Could you tell us a bit about it? How did the idea develop?
Desirina Boskovich: Never Now Always is a weird novella about children without memories. They are trapped in a vast structure with unemotional alien caretakers, but they don’t know how they came to be there or what happened before. The story centers on one girl named Lolo who begins to remember bits and pieces, and devises a way to hold onto these memories. She remembers her sister and this leads her on a journey to search for her.
The idea that’s central to this for me is not so much the trauma of having forgotten but the trauma of knowing you’ll forget. The loss of self that comes with memories you know you can’t hold. I started there and explored a few scenarios (which I might use in another story) before stumbling my way into this one.
MRM: You have a lot of short fiction out there in the world, on many websites and in magazines. Do you have a favorite piece?
DB: I don’t have one favorite piece, but there are a couple I do feel strongly about. “The Voice in the Cornfield, the Word Made Flesh” in F&SF. “Deus Ex Arca” in Lightspeed Magazine. Those stories feel closest to my authentic voice and the kind of work I aspire to do. My most popular story is “Heaven Is A Place on Planet X,” which has gotten more response than anything else I’ve written.
MRM: Never Now Always is your debut novella. Did you find that the shift to longer work needed a different writing mindset? Did you plan on this being a longer work or did it just turn out that way?
DB: It was always intended to be a novella. I have written novels before, although I haven’t sold any, and I think I approached it more as a short novel than as a long short story. Now if I could approach a novel like a long novella, I might actually have something.
MRM: Never Now Always is considered one part science fiction, one part horror, and all weird. Could you help readers understand what “weird” fiction is? What are some examples?
DB: It’s a good question. Of course, the answer is probably different for each person. For me, weird fiction challenges the boundaries of what is real and what is speculative. It takes the world I know and puts a strange filter on it. Or it takes a world totally unlike the world I know and makes it feel terribly, startlingly familiar.
Weird fiction explores the ragged edges of everything. And I tend to think it reflects a certain worldview: that there is no “real world.” The objective universe is bizarre and uncanny and stranger than we can possibly imagine. There are a million unseen currents flowing beneath and around and through the happenings of everyday.
Sometimes when we confront the strangeness shot through everything it’s horrifying and sometimes it’s beautiful, and it always makes us feel like we’re losing our footing, like we aren’t what we thought we were, and neither is this place. That’s the feeling I’m searching for whether I’m writing science fiction, fantasy or horror, and so it all tends to mix together.
Brian Evenson is one of my favorite writers of weird fiction and I think he has a particular skill for presenting a seemingly mundane scene, and infusing it with this outsized dread and horror and anxiety, a feeling so powerful it feels like it has to be caused by something supernatural. It’s like in a nightmare -- if you’ve ever had a nightmare where you’re just utterly gutted with horror and dread about something, and then you wake up and try to articulate why it was so scary, but it’s not the thing, it’s your feeling about the thing.
Other fantastic writers of weird fiction are Livia Llewellyn, M. John Harrison, Caitlin Kiernan and China Mieville.
MRM: Your novella, I would say, has a strong voice to it. Is this something that just comes naturally to you, or is it something you’ve worked to hone over the years?
DB: Actually, the most challenging part of writing this novel was developing the voice, which I think is different from the voice of much of my previous work.
The voice I’ve aspired to in much of my work tends to be factual and understated, evocative yet sparse. I want to write like an iceberg, 90 percent of it under the surface.
The novella is written in a much more stream-of-consciousness style. I felt the only to make it work was to put the reader as close to the mindset of my main character Lolo as possible and I wanted to pull the reader into that feeling of disorientation. It’s hard though because Lolo has very few reference points; her narrative resists chronology and she has so few metaphors to draw on. I kept trying to write and feeling the voice was too bland and too forced. I had a few false starts.
I wanted this stream-of-consciousness to be dense, vivid, lyrical, both sort of wise and naive, surreal and whimsical and also true, like Bjork concluding her explanation of how television works with the too-real remark “You shouldn’t let poets lie to you.”
I thought Lolo was like someone who learned lots of words from books but doesn’t exactly know how to use them. And in a way I unlocked it by thinking about how I feel when I have brain fog, which used to happen fairly often when I was dealing with a chronic illness; how I would mentally reach for a word or a phrase and come up with something close but off. Then just say it that way because I was too tired to keep trying to think of it. That’s how Lolo’s mind is working as she struggles to surface from the fog of false memory and achieve clarity.
MRM: Your writing tends toward the “anything but typical” side. Do you ever struggle with questioning, “What if this never sells?” or “What if this doesn’t reach anyone?” Do you have any advice for someone who has some self-doubt about their work?
DB: I do get frustrated sometimes because it seems that the stories I’m most proud of can be hardest to sell; of course when I do work that I like, I want people to read it.
The truth is I’ve tried to write novels that I think could be easy and commercially successful, but as soon as I start working on it and fall in love with it, I want to make it as good as I can, and I want to make it my own. And then it just gets weirder and weirder and stops being the easy thing I thought it could be. And then I’m like “I’m not a good enough writer to even do this” and in other news, I currently have zero published novels to my name.
But the good news is, I don’t depend on my fiction to pay the bills, so I have all the time in the world to write the best and truest story that I can, and I think that’s really the most important thing. Go to the core of yourself, face the things that terrify you, explore your deepest darkest places. Write from your heart and your gut and your scars. Write the story only you could write.
Because otherwise, why even bother?
MRM: You attended the Clarion Writer’s Workshop, which gets a lot of praise. What was your experience there? Is this something you’d recommend to budding writers?
DB: Oh, man. Yes. 100%. The experience was absolutely essential to my writing and my fiction career. I can still recall at least a half-dozen pieces of writing advice I received during those six weeks that probably saved me years of shitty drafts. I started writing fantasy because of Clarion; before I was solidly sci-fi. I sold three of the six stories I workshopped there, all to pro markets (my first sales). I learned about genre stuff like cons and fandom and what JJA’s rejection letters meant, all of which I had literally never heard about before (I knew nothing about fandom). And several of the teachers I met there have remained my supporters and mentors throughout the years and their help and kindness has been so, so valuable. Clarion was life-changing for me.
MRM: What would you consider to be your literary influences?
DB: YA science fiction and fantasy from the 70s and 80s, post-modern lit fic, cyberpunk SF, magic realism, supernatural horror, the Weird. Authors who’ve particularly influenced me include Don DeLillo, Mark Z. Danielewski, Jeanette Winterson, Leena Krohn, Kelly Link, David Mitchell, William Gibson, Jeff VanderMeer, China Mieville.
MRM: Do you have any writing rituals that help you get in the mood to create stories? What is your workspace like?
DB: My perfect writing ritual is this: wake up early in the morning as the sun is just rising, get my coffee, don’t look at email, and begin chipping away at the story as I sip my coffee and become awake. When I do this and it’s quiet and no one interrupts me I can get a couple thousand words down. Unfortunately I have a husband and two dogs and an addiction to email so this literally never happens.
I work from home as a communications consultant so I have to work hard to build a division between the creative work I do for pay and the creative work I do for myself. I find that when I’m working for a client I like to be sitting at a desk and generally being professional, but when I’m writing fiction I like to be very comfortable, like sitting in bed comfortable. Somehow that takes me out of a self-aware and environment-aware state and into the interior state where my fiction actually starts to flow.
During the winter I was having a bit of a breakdown and I built a blanket fort in my office, complete with a lamp and pillows and tissues and snacks. This was a really fantastic place to write. It was especially fantastic because it was very difficult to crawl in and out of, so if I turned off the router before I went in, I couldn’t get internet without going through a whole bunch of rigmarole. After a while I took it down because in my somewhat distraught state I had used very dirty blankets to build the fort and the interior stank very badly of musty dog.
This winter, when it gets cold again, I may have to re-build the blanket fort, but I also have a new puppy now so it might be a learning curve to teach her not to trash my writing tent on a daily basis. We’ll see.
MRM: Have you read anything recently you’d recommend to readers?
DB: “The Ice Twins” by S. K. Tremayne. Brilliant atmosphere and prose styling, disturbing plot. I’m still thinking about it and I’m not sure how I feel about it, but I consider that a sign of a worthwhile read.
Desirina Boskovich's short fiction has been published in Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, Nightmare, F&SF, Kaleidotrope, PodCastle, Drabblecast, and anthologies such as Aliens: Recent Encounters, The Apocalypse Triptych, and Tomorrow's Cthulhu. Her nonfiction pieces on music, literature, and culture have appeared in Lightspeed, Weird Fiction Review, the Huffington Post, Wonderbook, and The Steampunk Bible. She is also the editor of It Came From the North: An Anthology of Finnish Speculative Fiction (Cheeky Frawg, 2013), and together with Jeff VanderMeer, co-author of The Steampunk User's Manual (Abrams Image, 2014). Find her online at www.desirinaboskovich.com.
Melanie R. Meadors is an author of fantasy where heroes don't always carry swords and knights in shining armor often lose to nerds who study their weaknesses. She has edited two upcoming genre anthologies, MECH: Age of Steel and HATH NO FURY, and is the science, books, and pop culture blogger at The Once and Future Podcast. You can find her at her website, melaniermeadors.com, on Facebook, and Twitter, @melaniermeadors.