Portrait by Philippe McNally
Phoebe Barton’s newest tale, “Midway on the Waves” appears in our May/June issue, on sale now. Get to know Phoebe in our newest Q&A and learn about her story inspirations and other current projects.
Analog Editor: What is your history with Analog?
Phoebe Barton: Analog started me off in my pro career, and I’ll always be thankful for that. Back in 2012 I was twenty-nine, living in Vancouver, and trying to squeeze whatever I could out of life. Writing was something I’d been focusing on for years at that point, but I knew very few other writers at the time and had no support network—but I’d been reading Analog for five years, to help sharpen my short fiction senses. When the acceptance email for “The Paragon of Animals” came in that summer from Stan Schmidt, I was bowled over. I was honored that the story ended up appearing in the last issue Stan edited. Since then I’ve returned to Analog a few more times; I guess people like these words of mine.
AE: Many of our Analog authors are interested in science. Do you have any scientific background, and does it impact your fiction?
PB: Unfortunately not! When I was young, I was very interested in astronomy; the oldest book I still have is a copy of Amazing Space Facts by Dinah L. Moché, and I keep it in one of the drawers of my writing desk. In retrospect I’m very surprised that I didn’t study astronomy or astrophysics, but when I was in school the idea of doing something like that really never did occur to me. I’ve tried to burnish my knowledge since then, and I suspect my drive to “get the scientific background as accurate as possible” comes partially from me feeling like I’m just a know-nothing history major that doesn’t really understand how things work. It’s an insidiously wrong feeling, sure, but it’s also hard to get rid of.
AE: What is the story behind this piece?
PB: It’s what comes from me squinting at an inconsequential scrap of narration in another story and scratching at it to see what’s behind it! In my earlier story “Where the Flock Wanders” (Analog, May/June 2017), I included a very minor reference to a city on Titan being “cracked,” but it wasn’t until later that I started really thinking about what that would entail, and how it would directly and indirectly affect an entire world. Titan may be welcoming in some respects—the atmospheric pressure and low-radiation environment, for starters—but it’s hardly Halifax either. The point of “Midway,” for me, was to take a look at the ways people deal with bolts from the blue.
AE: Do you particularly relate to any of the characters in this story?
PB: Naomi Moon resonates the most with me, which is one reason why I spent all of the story perched on her shoulder scribbling down notes! To me, Naomi really represents the experience of my generation as a whole: unmoored from what they were brought up to expect, living in a world that’s a radical transformation from its past self, and not knowing where to go. In particular, now that I think about it, there are additional resonances between my life and hers. Naomi was eighteen when an entire city was destroyed and Titan broke free of Earth, and I was eighteen on September 11, 2001. For both of us, it’s as if our childhood and adulthood took place in different worlds. I’m pretty sure that was an unconscious inclusion.
AE: Are there any themes that you find yourself returning to throughout your writing? If yes, what and why?
PB: Isolation is a really big one, even if I did have to have it pointed out by someone else first. I grew up in a small city on the ragged edge of a metropolitan region, close enough to hear it on the radio but too far away for me to actually get there. In addition, my home life wasn’t as great as it could have been and I didn’t have many friends, and so those themes just soaked deep down enough that I reproduce them without even thinking about it. It’s hardly unusual, though; isolation is a theme that recurs throughout Canadian literature, and when you’re talking about space it’s easy to be millions of kilometers away from anyone or anything else.
AE: How much or little do current events impact your writing?
PB: I’d love to say that my skull is a Faraday cage that can insulate me from all the bombarding news of the world whenever I want, but living in a world as intensely networked as ours, it’s hard to escape, and current events certainly influenced “Midway.” I wrote it in late 2017, when the latest U.S. election was far enough in the past that I could come to grips with some of the feelings it has brought up. To me, the core of “Midway” is the varied ways in which people cope with an event that transforms their sense of the world they live in, and the twenty-first century is shaping up to be nothing but a series of transformative events.
AE: Is this piece part of a greater universe of stories?
PB: It is! In fact, every story I’ve published is part of the same linked universe, to greater or lesser extents. This is the first one I’ve done that specifically picks up and explores implications I’ve established previously, though. That’s one reason I like writing linked stories; as you knit them together and a pattern forms, you’ll find serendipitous opportunities that you wouldn’t have thought to plan for, and which can have much greater resonance than something floating on its own.
AE: What other projects are you currently working on?
PB: Right now I’m hard at work on The Tunnel Crew, an interactive fiction game from Choice of Games, where it’s your job to keep a city’s subway system clear of daemons and other magical hazards. It’s a pretty significant divergence from the lens I use for my Analog stories, but it’s a great experience, too! Otherwise, I’m tapping away at short stories as ideas present themselves and pulling myself up, rung by rung.
AE: What are you reading right now?
PB: Recently I’ve started getting into comic books in big way. My current go-tos are Goddess Mode by Zoe Quinn and Robbi Rodriguez, which is just so lush and tactile and out-there, and Self/Made by Mat Groom, Marcelo Costa, and Eduardo Ferigato, which is a story with a lot of Analog-adjacent vibes! On the prose desk I’ve got Mahimata by Rati Mehrotra up next, which is something I’m looking forward to getting into!
AE: What is something we should know about you that we haven’t thought to ask?
PB: Well, since you put it like that . . . I’m a trans woman! It’s something that may be quickly evident to anyone who looks up my previous Analog works, as “Midway” is my first story not published under my deadname. Coming out as trans has, I think, been as transformative an event as the characters in “Midway” go through themselves. Still, I like to follow the evidence where it leads, and this is where it’s led me. “Midway” was the last thing I wrote before I came out publicly, and I’ll be interested to see later on if it marks a noticeable thematic divergence between my “closeted” and “out” works.
AE: How can our readers follow you and your writing?
PB: I’m most active on Twitter at @aphoebebarton, and I also keep a website at http://www.phoebebartonsf.com. That website, by the way, has some links to some of my previous Analog stories which are now up on Curious Fictions!
Phoebe Barton is a trans woman who has been making occasional appearances in Analog since March 2013, as well as On Spec, Persistent Visions, and multiple anthologies. Her desk is a mess of index cards scribbled with disconnected notes at ninety-degree angles to each other, which represents a truly frightening fraction of her writing process. She lives with a Roomba named WOPR and a small potted cactus named Xeri in the sky above Toronto.