2019 Contest: Interview with Fiction Judge Rivers Solomon
Rivers Solomon is a dyke, an anarchist, a she-beast, an exile, a wound, a shiv, a wreck, and a refugee of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. They write about life in the margins, where they are much at home.
Rivers Solomon graduated from Stanford University with a degree in comparative studies in race and ethnicity and holds an MFA in fiction writing from the Michener Center for Writers. Though originally from the United States, they currently live in England, with their family. An Unkindness of Ghosts is their debut novel.
Interviewed by Lily Davenport
Black Warrior Review: Our readers have encountered your work in places ranging from BWR 44.2’s “Prior to Being Swallowed Up” to The Vela, a collaborative novel through Serial Box, to your debut novel, An Unkindness of Ghosts. What’s your writing process like these days, and how has it changed over time?
Rivers Solomon: My writing process at the moment involves a lot of frowning whilst I brood over the question, “Which precise geometry of words will bring my prose clarity, appeal, impact, and beauty?” Never once have I been accused of being underdramatic, so I feel it’s on brand to say that I sometimes I feel I might die if I don’t get the sentence right. I can’t bear it.
This hasn’t always been the case. Once upon a time I wrote the way a very young child draws, with absolute confidence that the work is genius. A splotch of colour there. A smear. Spirals and zigzags. Exploration and process are at the heart of art when we are only beginning. My writing has always been intentional. Both intensity of feeling and lushness of language have been primary goals of mine from the get go, but it did not always involve this level of anxiousness, of desperation.
I try not to see this increased disquietude as a flaw that needs rectifying, but I must take care that any distress arises from my own concerns and values as a writer rather than from those of readers, reviewers, and colleagues. Worrying over what people will think will kill a project dead. Being true to myself includes letting myself hem and haw over finding the just-right word and eschewing advice that focuses on spurting out drafts quickly and efficiently. Embracing the angst is paramount to my process these days.
BWR: “St. Juju,” your recent story at The Verge, involves (in addition to queer intimacy, a future built on our contemporary culture’s literal trash, and utopian communities) one of my favorite SFF fungi.What real-world fungi are you obsessed with?
RS: Oh, goodness. Fungi! What beautiful waste mongers. Who could favour one over the other? I’m not a scientist, so my knowledge largely comes from pop sci articles and abstracts in peer-reviewed journals. I will say that I believe fungus will play a crucial part in our future (as it has played in our past). It has the potential to remake the world.
BWR: Your debut novel, An Unkindness of Ghosts, is in many ways a rich collision of historical and speculative modes. It takes place on a generation ship in which physical space mirrors and enables social oppression and enslavement. Could you tell us about the process of writing those spaces, and their brutal cultural consequences? Do you draw maps while you work? Genealogies?
RS: It’s one of the great advantages of deeply speculative work – to be able to shape the reality of the world you’re writing in to fit snugly into metaphorical synch with the themes you’re most interested in exploring. There were many things I wanted from the world of “Unkindness,” to draw heavily from our past, as well as the lore of my family, to have an eye on what’s to come, to be insular (but not small), and when you put it all together. I don’t think any other setting could have fit the story. I certainly draw maps while I work—there are probably 4 or 5 very detailed attempts to map out Matilda hidden amongst my notes. Some of those were done during editing phases trying to establish consistency of places, travel times, etc but some amount of map making was part of the writing process, part of getting to know Matilda and imagining what might be possible there. I don’t think I ever did make a geneology – which is perhaps somewhat strange given that ancestry (and particularly motherhood) were such focal points of the book, but maybe rootlessness is part of the point. Who is anybody’s mother in this world?
BWR: Please tell us as much or as little as you’d like to about your new novel, The Deep! I’m especially curious about its relationship to the Clipping piece (you credit Daveed Diggs, William Hutson, and Jonathan Snipes on the cover, and have said elsewhere that the novel grew out of that song) and about your imaginative and research processes as you wrote into underwater spaces and the bodies of those who dwell there.
RS: It was actually something I was commissioned for, and I have to give credit to my wonderful editor Navah Wolfe for thinking of me for the project. As I understand it, Navah went to my agent all, “Hey, this song ‘The Deep’ by experimental hip-hop group clipping is dope as hell, and with their permission, I’d like to see a prose take on it. Does Rivers have any ideas?”
I listened to the song and was absolutely struck down by the beauty and intensity of it. Raw, angry, intertextual, poetic, ‘The Deep’ hits all my literary buttons. I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to be a part of it. Clipping’s song tells a really large, sweeping story, so the first task on my agenda was to narrow the scope a tiny bit (without losing that magical sense of breadth) and figure out whose story in this vast world I wanted to tell. I created Yetu, who is part of a people called the wajinru, water-breathing creatures descended from pregnant enslaved Africans thrown overboard. She is a historian, and she keeps all the memories of her people’s history so no one else has to bear the pain of what their past entails.
I went deep (hah!) into research about deep sea ocean life in order to expand the world further. I had to let go of so many of my writing tics. Do you know how distressing it is to write scenes without having characters stop to sip on tea or coffee? I had so much to learn. Do sea creatures blink? Cry? Do they drift off into unfamiliar waters when they sleep? How do their faces move? There’s a museum near where I was living at the time that has a collection of sea creture skeletons including a fin whale. The most important thing I learned from my research is that there are many species of whales that are huge. Really, really unfathomably big. Old tales of leviathans aren’t exageration or legend, most mythical leviathans don’t come close to imagining something as big as a blue whale, for example. Also that it’s cold, it’s dark, and it’s weird.
There’s so much about the deep sea we don’t know, and so many questions about deep sea creatures that we can’t answer.
BWR: You describe yourself as an “author of both literary and speculative fiction.” Are your writing processes distinct when you work in different generic modes?
RS: Yes and no. When I’m writing anything my main concern is: is this good? Is this really fucking good? Will it surprise, refresh, delight, intimidate? Is it gorgeous? Is it horrifying? Importantly, I don’t want to bore anyone. I don’t want to waste anyone’s time. I am a hungry, questioning creature who likes to work out my philosophical queries on the page, but I want it to be a fun ride for anyone who’s bought a ticket. I want everything I write to be striking, regardless of genre.But it’s more complicated than that, of course. If I’m writing horror, in addition to asking myself is it good and beautiful and thoughtful, I’m asking myself, is it terrifying? How do you make people’s heart race? If I’m writing something in a world where the science is different from our own world or speculative, I’m going to give some attention to those differences in away I’d never have to do in a piece of realist fiction.
Most stories I write begin with a single line that popped into my head, and that line tells me what kind of story it’s going to be, and I tend to conform to the rules of that story’s genre. The kind of absurdist logic of talking animals you find in fabulism and fairy tales doesn’t work in science fiction or fantasy, necessarily. The secondary worlds of fantasy, where everything is topsy turvy because it’s an alternate dimension, don’t make sense in a fairy tale, where the strangeness of the world simply is. Wolves talk and can play dress-up. Rabbits connive, of course they do, that’s just how it is, and you’ve suspected it all along.
BWR: How do you experience the boundaries between the speculative and the literary? Borders, margins, and liminality are recurring themes in your work, and I’m wondering how that informs your conception of genre.
RS: Right, so it probably won’t surprise anyone to hear me say that boundaries between genres are not borders to be respected so much as walls to tear down. I can’t imagine being a writer of only one genre, and I find that most of the time, even works that I’m writing to fit a particular genre are influenced by my experience of other genres. I think that everything I write is “literary,” but we also have to understand that these terms have marketing implications and so on. When someone wants to read a literary book, are they expecting that the story will take place in a space ship? Probably not! But I resent any implication that richly-told, deeply-human stories can’t take place on space ships.
BWR: One thing that I deeply appreciate about Aster as a neuroatypical character is that you don’t give us a window on her sensory sensitivities and leave it at that. Everything from which things she notices first in any given room, to the way she holds her body and moves through Matilda‘s many spaces, reflects her inner reality as an autistic person. You’ve said elsewhere that “how we move is intimately tied to how we think or what we’re thinking at a given time,” and that you often perform characters’ motions in order to better inhabit them on the page; could you speak more specifically about the process of creating neuroatypical interiority?
RS: With Aster and with all of my characters who are neurodivergent in one way or another, a large portion of that I draw from is my own experience, but when writing a character, I tend not to think in terms of diagnoses or identity. That’s to say, I’m less likely to write from the perspective that Aster is autistic and rather write from a place of: Aster experiences emotions deeply and intensely. Aster struggles to process information, which can make the world overwhelming. Aster is easily put off by certain sensory stimuli but deeply obsessed with seeking out others.
So of course, Aster is autistic, but I find I can more access her personally when I think about what autism means to her as an individual.
It’s not always the case, but most of the time, most of the “symptoms” that my characters have are things I experience, though of course not always identical in severity/life impact/details.
For me, it’s writing the neurotypical mind that is probably more of a challenge – but then, neurodivergent people are required by society to deeply understand and empathise with neurotypical people and how their thoughts operate so I’m perhaps more prepared for writing neurotypical characters than the a neurotypical author who hasn’t made a very purposeful effort would be for writing neurodivergent characters.
BWR: What are you reading right now? And what are some of the books you’ve returned to over time?
RS: I’m currently reading Girls Made of Snow and Glass by Melissa Bashardoust and The Silent Companions by Laura Purcell, both of which I am absolutely adoring. Next, I’ll be reading The Hunger by Alma Katsu and after that A Prayer for the Dying by Stewart O’Nan. That’s what I have checked out from my library at the moment.
The book I’ve been returning to a lot recently is Hild. It’s so rich. I will sometimes open to a random page and see what the prose is doing. Nicola Griffith is just an absolute fucking master. Otherwise, I’m not much of a re-reader. I will often return to a book as an exploration of craft, but that doesn’t usually involve rereading the whole work, just taking a look at select passages.
BWR: How about books you tried to re-read but couldn’t get into? Books you wish you didn’t like as much as you do? What’s the book that you’re tired of telling everyone you know about, and just wish they’d get their lives together and read already?
RS: As mentioned, I’m generally not a re-reader of books (or a re-watcher of films), so all my loves are protected by the fact that I will never return to them. They will always be what they were to me.
Oh, the book everyone needs to read right this moment is Hurricane Child. Please! It’s gorgeous and haunting and it’s the book I needed as a child, and it’s the book I needed when I read it a year ago. It awakened aches and also soothed them.
I am always nervous to talk about books that I’m not fond of. I worry that the writer will stumble upon my words than promptly feel bad. Not every work is for everyone. I’ve read and completed thirteen books this year, but I started and dropped, oh, perhaps twice or thrice that number? Some of these I will come back to—I tried to read them when I was too weighed down by fatigue to be grabbed—but most were not my cuppa, and that’s okay. Obligation to finish anything I started is what kept me from reading for years. Just recently, there was a book I was about half way through, which seemed to long-through too quit, but I wasn’t loving it! I knew that I wouldn’t enjoy the experience of finishing it. I put it down. How freeing!
BWR: And now, the question our readers have doubtless been awaiting with bated breath: what kind of work are you hoping to see in our contest? What excites you? What do you want to see more of in the world, and what is your favorite kind of surprise on the page?
RS: Send me vortexes. I want to be drawn in—perhaps against my will. Please, writer, do not be gentle with me. I long to be shaken.
I like: quiet domesticity, approaching storms, kettles, tea, drying herbs, animals, cottages, wayward children, vigourous suffering, ecstasy beyond measure, lush language, sparse language, whimsy, absurdity, poison, winter, summer, anarchist utopias, languid descriptions of hometowns, first person plural, myths retold, family sagas, made up histories, people on the edge, cityscapes, social upheaval.
More personally, I’m really excited by stories that put women at the forefront, especially women in love or lust with one another. Intimacies between women. Struggles between women. Fights between women. Mothers and daughters, sisters, lovers, besties, enemies and competitors.
For me, woman is a broad category, and it’s for anyone who finds some affinity with the term, even if the relationship between you and womanhood is fraught and mostly marked by transgression.
I’d love to see stories by and about nonbinary people. Unapologetically queer stories. Queer sex. Queer revolution.
Lastly, I especially invite to submit those who’ve been systematically excluded from publishing, which includes but is not limited to people from underrep’d genders and sexes, lgbtq people, bipoc and non-Western people, and disabled people.
I couldn’t be more excited to see what you have to share. My only advice is to be absolutely fearless.
To read River’s debut novel, AN UNKINDNESS OF GHOSTS, pick up a copy from Akashic Books online store.