Em Liu made her Analog debut in our March/April issue [on sale now] with her vividly drawn “The Halting Problem.” Read on to learn about the ways in which the story draws on real life, Em’s writing process, and the meaning of “punch-drunk syndrome.”
Analog Editor: How did this story germinate? Was there a spark of inspiration, or did it come to you slowly?
EL: I have a friend who traveled for work so often that the employee at the juice bar in the Charlotte Airport knew her order. That vignette inspired the two characters in this story, who have a traditional bartender-patron relationship in an unusual setting.
AE: Do you particularly relate to any of the characters in this story?
EL: I gave the main character symptoms similar to the ones I experienced when fighting panic disorder. I’ve recovered, but there was a period of time when I was afraid I would never be able to look at a screen again.
AE: This is Analog’s 90th year—what does that mean to you?
EL: This is the first time I’ve been published in Analog. To appear in the same publication as some of the greatest science fiction writers of all time is an incredible feeling. It connects me as an individual to a long tradition, even as we as a genre keep our eyes on the future.
AE: How much or little do current events impact your writing?
EL: I’m sure they do, although I never start out writing a story thinking, I’m going to write a story about issue X. It’s more during revision that I’ll realize, oh, I guess I had some emotions to work though about that.
AE: What is your process?
EL: I write new stories in fast-and-furious bursts and then spend a lot of time revising. I love revising. We’ve all heard of Chekhov’s principle—if you’re going to hang a gun on the wall in Act I, someone had better get shot by Act III. What I didn’t realize when I first started writing is that writers usually shoot first and plant the gun later. That’s the beauty of editing—the ability to go back in time and pull everything together. And it’s why I love short story writing, because it’s that much easier to maintain that level of control over the entire narrative.
AE: How do you deal with writers’ block?
EL: I have a kitchen timer. I set it for sixty minutes and put my phone out of reach. Sometimes just sitting there for that long is enough to break through any creative walls.
AE: What other projects are you currently working on?
EL: I’m working on a YA novel. Longer-form fiction does not come naturally to me, so it’s been a challenge. But I’ve also dedicated one day a week to working on anything besides the novel, because I think short stories will always feel the most creatively fulfilling to me.
We’ve all heard of Chekhov’s principle—if you’re going to hang a gun on the wall in Act I, someone had better get shot by Act III. What I didn’t realize when I first started writing is that writers usually shoot first and plant the gun later. That’s the beauty of editing—the ability to go back in time and pull everything together.
AE: What is the weirdest research rabbit-hole that working on a story has led you down?
EL: I was researching chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) for a story that I thought was going to be about football. I ended up learning a lot about boxing in the 1920s. Before CTE was formally identified by Dr. Bennet Omalu in the first part of this century, it was sometimes known as dementia pugilistica, or punch-drunk syndrome, which struck me as a scarily vivid way of describing a horrific disease.
AE: Many of our Analog authors are interested in science. Do you have any scientific background, and does it impact your fiction?
EL: My background is in economics. The social sciences, perhaps especially economics, emphasize data work, and as a result I’ve learned a handful of programming languages over my career. I do tend to write characters with an interest in computer science or data, I think because I understand the mindset. I’ve never written a story about an economist, though. I’d like to—there aren’t many stories about economists.
AE: What SFnal prediction would you like to see come true?
EL: I’m still waiting for the technology from Smart House (the Disney Channel Original Movie from the 90s). The convenience of the internet of things combined with AI both terrifies and enthralls me.
AE: How can our readers follow you and your writing?
EL: If anyone would like to follow me, I can be found on the web at http://www.emliuwriting.com and lurking on Twitter as @EmLiuWriting.