Who says hard SF and mythology can’t coexist? Freya Marske discusses her current tale “What We Named the Needle,” [in our July/August issue on sale now] a story woven with allusion, in our newest Q&A below. Read on to hear about Freya’s other projects, influences, and advice for aspiring writers.
Analog Editor: What is the story behind this piece?
FM: Sitting on my shelf is a slim, battered, and cherished book from my childhood called The Kingdom Under the Sea, a collection of Eastern European fairy tale retellings by Joan Aiken, with intricate silhouette illustrations by Jan Pieńkowski. The story that always stuck with me in particular was “Baba Yaga’s Daughter”: I loved the tale of two lonely girls drawing strength and delight from a new friendship, and especially loved the image of the witch’s daughter turning Vasilissa into a needle in order to conceal her whenever Baba Yaga returned to the hut.
One day the image clicked perfectly with another story-seed that had been niggling at me for a while, which was an examination of dementia, and duty toward parents, and the ache of watching recognition drop out of the bottom of a relationship.
As soon as I knew that the witch’s daughter was also the chicken-leg hut, both spaceship habitat and sentient AI, the rest of the story unfolded from there.
“Learn to finish things. It’s incredibly easy to be distracted by the newer, sparklier idea, but you’ve got to be able to shove it aside and get to the end of the current idea so that you can then learn to do other important things, like ‘revise’ and, hopefully, ‘publish.'”
AE: How did the title for this piece come to you?
FM: This story has an emphasis on naming, and on the problems that can arise when the names of things are inexact, forgotten, or have multiple possible shades of meaning. As such, the title—“What We Named the Needle”—has a double significance to reflect the story’s two needles. Val introduces herself as the needle, initially, because of her society’s mythos around the stasis pods (which is, in turn, based on the tale of Koschei the Deathless, who turned his soul into a needle and hid it inside an egg).
The second needle is the physical one that injects a drug and sends a person to sleep—or kills them. Mari and Val have an argument at the end about whether their actions constitute murder or mercy; what is it that the needle represents? What name do they put to it?
AE: Who or what are your greatest influences and inspirations?
FM: I’m in awe of Diana Wynne Jones’s ability to mix recognizable characters with fantastical events, and to stop a story at exactly the right point. I adore Terry Pratchett’s Discworld for its combination of fun wordplay, intense creativity, and social commentary. I think Margo Lanagan is some kind of short-story-writing genius, for how much worldbuilding she can cram into a tiny space.
And if I can ever write something that brings someone as much sheer, visceral, effervescent, genre-bending joy as Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan series brought me when I first discovered it a few years ago, I’ll be very happy.
AE: Are there any themes that you find yourself returning to throughout your writing? If yes, what and why?
FM: I have a tendency to find myself writing characters for whom control is a central fascination, desire, or fear—with the interest then being in finding out what happens when that control is threatened. Recently I’ve also found myself writing a lot about the bargains we make with our habitats, and the responsibilities that we have within those bargains: whether that be a magical blood-pledge made with a piece of land, or administrative access to a sentient ship. The extent to which this is a manifestation of my anger about the human race’s failure to be responsible custodians of our own planet is . . . still to be determined.
AE: What is your process?
FM: A combination of being very motivated by guilt (not ideal) and spreadsheets (slightly more ideal?), and having writing friends to do “sprints” with—we set a half hour timer, and report back at the end of it with our word count. Some of my best writing days have been those where we alternate writing sprints with watching episodes of whatever TV show we’re currently into.
AE: What other projects are you currently working on?
FM: I’ve recently finished the final round of revisions with my agent on a historical fantasy novel about magicians and manor house parties in Edwardian England, and we’re about to go out on submission with that. The book I’m in the hellish middle of drafting is a high fantasy novel set on a magical island full of things that can kill you, because the Australian in me just can’t help herself sometimes.
I’m also dangling a contemporary romance series in front of myself as an enticing carrot, because I’m not allowed to start writing it until the first draft of the fantasy novel is done, but I’m having fun coming up with characters and outlines.
The most science fictional project on my backburner at the moment is an unpublished short story that I’m planning to adapt into a novella. It’s a space opera about wizard spies, featuring several deeply unreliable narrators (well, they are spies).
AE: If you could choose one SFnal universe to live in, what universe would it be, and why?
FM: Farscape: there’s something so gleefully colorful and bizarre and restless about its brand of space opera. Plus, everyone’s Australian, so I’d fit right in.
AE: What are you reading right now?
FM: My parents despaired of me, as a tiny child, for the number of books I stashed around the house and read simultaneously. I haven’t improved markedly from there. Right now I’m in the early stages of City of Blades, the second book in Robert Jackson Bennett’s incredible trilogy, and also K.A. Doore’s fantasy debut The Perfect Assassin. I’m also slowly making my way through Not For Use in Navigation, a short story collection by my friend Iona Datt Sharma, who is one of the best genre writers I know. And last night I dropped all of them to gleefully devour Proper English, the new historical F/F romance by K.J. Charles.
AE: Do you have any advice for up-and-coming writers?
FM: Learn to finish things. It’s incredibly easy to be distracted by the newer, sparklier idea, but you’ve got to be able to shove it aside and get to the end of the current idea so that you can then learn to do other important things, like “revise” and, hopefully, “publish.”
Also, I can’t overstate the importance of community. Whether it’s through a local critique group, an online fandom, a writing convention, or the NaNoWriMo forums, find some people who like the same genres and are at the same stage of their career as you, and then hold on to them. Grow together. Exchange feedback. Cheer one another’s successes. Provide venting space and sympathy cake during the low points, then brush one another off and keep going, because persistence is the only secret in this game.
AE: Many of our Analog authors are interested in science. Do you have any scientific background, and does it impact your fiction?
FM: I was a very sciencey child, and went through the requisite stages of fascination with rocks, weather, animals, and space; for a long time I wanted to be some kind of astrophysical researcher. However, at the end of high school I realized I’d mistaken “good at maths” for “should do maths as a career,” and went off to have an enjoyable undergraduate existential crisis where I ended up majoring in molecular biology and psychology. I became interested enough in infectious diseases and neurology that I then headed to medical school, where I quickly discovered that neither of those specialties actually appealed to me on a clinical level (though I remain deeply fascinated by plague narratives, and have one up my sleeve to be written in, uh, three books’ time). Now I work as both a doctor and a medical educator.
Some of these topics definitely show up in my writing, and I’m notorious for shouting about dubious medical realism as portrayed in fiction, especially if I’m at a convention and someone’s put a glass of wine in my hand. But even if I never drew on any of the content itself, I wouldn’t regret my studies for a moment. I think any writer in any genre can benefit from a habit of joyfully questioning, a willingness to be flexible and change your approach based on new evidence, and a love of digging your fingers into the universe’s nuts and bolts and mud and stardust.
AE: How can our readers follow you and your writing?
FM: I’m most active on Twitter, @freyamarske. You can find information about published short stories and my email newsletter on my website, freyamarske.com. And I’m also one of the co-hosts on the (recently Hugo-nominated!) podcast Be the Serpent, which is about literary tropes in SFF and fandom; I recommend giving us a listen if you want to hear me gushing excitedly about all sorts of topics and/or if you want your TBR pile to expand hideously every fortnight.
Freya Marske lives in Australia, and is yet to be killed by any form of wildlife. She writes novels full of swords, magic, fancy clothes, and heists, and she has been a nominee for Best Fantasy Short Story in the Aurealis Awards. She is one-third of the Hugo-nominated podcast Be the Serpent. Her hobbies include figure skating and discovering new art galleries, and she is on a quest to try all the gin in the world. Find her on Twitter at @freyamarske, or at freyamarske.com.