Q&A with J.M. Swenson

Climate grief, the queerness of the Earth, and a little picture of a mushroom on some story dice—all these and more joined together in J.M. Swenson’s consciousness to become “Enter the Fungicene” [in our current issue, on sale now]. Read on for a glimpse of the story’s evolution, J.M.’s thoughts on the planet’s future, and a delightfully thorough guide to his “Fractal Method” of writing.  

Analog Editor: What is the story “Enter the Fungicene”?

JMS: I have a big bag of Rory’s Story Cubes— dice with cute pictures on each side—and whenever I need to spark my writing, I roll three or four of these dice and try to string together a new idea. A lot of times this practice teases out themes, characters, or world elements that have already been brewing for a while. That’s how this story started, with a little picture of a mushroom. I had recently read an article about some enormous, phallic fossils that archaeologists had finally decided were the remnants of giant mushrooms. The consensus they reached: at one time in the inscrutable past the Earth was covered by mushroom forests, while trees were no larger than a shrub. I found myself bewildered at how every age of life on Earth has been so wildly different than the last, as species evolve into greater complexity and stranger interrelationships. There was also something I had read about how mushrooms have an incredible capacity to process and extract toxic substances from the soil. If anything would thrive in the wake of this current iteration of civilization, it would be them!

AE: Is this piece part of a greater universe of stories?

JMS: Not exactly the same universe, more like a conceptual or thematic multiverse. I find that a lot of speculative fiction assumes that the human species will survive in its current form indefinitely. But I like to imagine that Homo sapiens is not done evolving, that we may branch into hundreds or thousands of different species that would be totally alien to anyone currently alive. I thought I would take a stab at trying to imagine what some of these Post-Humans would be like, and how they relate to the other species in their ecosystems. “Enter the Fungicene” was the first of those attempts, after which I wrote a novella about humans who evolve to live back in the oceans, forming symbiotic relationships with super-giant whales. Somewhere in my writer’s trunk there’s also a half-finished novel about Homo Floresiensis, the hobbit-sized “humans” who survived until relatively recently on an island in Southeast Asia alongside Komodo Dragons, Pygmy Elephants, and Giant Storks—a veritable fantasy world! I hope to continue to explore: what if Homo Sapiens hadn’t been the only hominids to survive into present day? What if our music, technology, language, and culture were shaped by a multispecies collaboration?

AE: Who or what are your greatest influences and inspirations?

JMS: Here follows a peculiar constellation of the writers, activists, scientists, and dreamers whose visions ply perpetually at my mind:

Octavia Butler. Bill Mollison. Jeff Vandermeer. Carolyn Merchant. Fritjof Capra. Terence McKenna. Paul Kingsnorth. adrienne maree brown. Bayo Akomalafe. Joanna Macy. David Abram. Lynn Margulis. Alan Watts. Donna Haraway!!! Herman Hesse. Adrian Tchaikovsky. Maria Mies. Frank Herbert. Charles Eisenstein. Toko-pa Turner. Bill Plotkin. Starhawk. Michael Meade. David Graeber. Robin Wall Kimmerer. Daniel Quinn. And the inimitable Ursula le Guin; for this quote alone, my daughter bears her name:

“I think hard times are coming, when we will be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now, and can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies, to other ways of being, and even imagine some real grounds for hope. We will need writers who can remember freedom—poets, visionaries, realists of a larger reality.”

I want to imagine biocultural encounters that bring this strangeness to the fore, as more and more intelligent and empathic species undergo transformations akin to those that sped our own cultural evolution; I want to imagine how we might contribute unique gifts and perceptual capacities to flourishing multispecies cultures. I want to imagine deep-time journeys, where species venture across geologic eras of the Earth’s unfolding and make first contact with the alien beings evolving on our own home.

AE: How much or little do current events impact your writing?

JMS: I feel like every one of my stories is trying to teach me something, or is some manifestation of my subconscious self trying to work through the inscrutable tangle of my thoughts and feelings—which are inevitably enmeshed with the crises compounding in both human and more-than-human realms of our world. I wrote “Enter the Fungicene” as I was participating in my first climate grief and anxiety support circle with the Good Grief Network. I think I was trying to find hope beyond the narrow confines of human culture, to convince myself that the Earth is resilient and creative beyond conception. I wanted to imagine that even if humans are swallowed up along with nearly everything else in the Sixth Mass Extinction, Life would survive in some form; the Earth might yet extemporize on what it has already done, and maybe create something even more wondrous than anything that has come before.

AE: Are there any themes that you find yourself returning to throughout your writing? If yes, what and why?

JMS: I already mentioned Post-(and Pre-)Humans. They’re tangled up with some of the other threads I find myself picking up again and again. I believe that the Earth is an unfathomably weird sort of entity, whose past is queer and whose future is even queerer. I wonder, how does the mythology of my human supremacist and hyper-materialist culture constrain my perceptions of what has been and what yet might be? I keep trying to imagine how other more-than-human beings might evolve complex consciousness and culture, and perhaps come into contact with the queer descendants of our own tenuous species. This planet is a perceptual multiverse, already replete with beings whose subjective experiences are entirely alien to our own. What is the world to a raven, an octopus, or an elephant—whose bodies and sensory capacities are so different from a human’s? What is the world to a mantis shrimp—who can see far beyond the narrow spectrum of light that makes it into my own eyes? I want to imagine biocultural encounters that bring this strangeness to the fore, as more and more intelligent and empathic species undergo transformations akin to those that sped our own cultural evolution; I want to imagine how we might contribute unique gifts and perceptual capacities to flourishing multispecies cultures. I want to imagine deep-time journeys, where species venture across geologic eras of the Earth’s unfolding and make first contact with the alien beings evolving on our own home.

AE: What is your process?

JMS: I love this question, and I love to jabber on about it. . . . So buckle up!

Forgot where I heard this, but one of the best pieces of writing advice that ever rooted into my brain goes something like, “Learning to write is mostly about figuring out your process.” Everyone’s process is unique. What works for me probably won’t work for you. But gathering ideas from what others are doing has definitely helped me along the way. And I finally feel like I’ve figured out something that works well for me, a process in which I am increasingly confident. I call it my Fractal Method.

First, and probably the most important: Show up. As often as you can, and as consistently as you are able. It doesn’t matter if you write zero “words” or 10,000 (What even is a word? And how do you know it’s good enough to go into your daily word count??? I usually “write” more when I can’t seem to find the thread of what I think I’m supposed to be writing—even though a lot of that is along the lines of “blah blah blah, what do I want to say today? What am I even doing here? The world is on fire and why the fuck is the sky orange, and I am a hack and I’ll never finish anything again!!! Feelings are hard. Oh wait, here’s something shiny. . . .”) Set a time and be there, or at least intend to be there. Sometimes I show up by napping at my desk. A lot of times I show up by crying over a scribbled page.

Second: You will need some tools. Five notebooks and three computers seem to be about right for me. And of course pens. Lots of pens! My current favorites are Paper Mate’s Ink Joy gel pens <3<3. I like to have as many colors as I can get. Think of the notebooks and computers as different workspaces, microverses through which different kinds of thinking and perceiving can emerge. One tiny notebook goes into my pocket, to catch images, words, metaphors, dialogue snippets that fly into my noggin-space while I’m out for a jog. Another notebook—preferably a nicer kind like a Moleskine—is for journaling, and recording my dreams and insights from visionary journeys. The third notebook I use for fleshing out ideas that are still germinating: story seeds, character nuggets, thoughts on the nature of consciousness and reality, that sort of thing. Then the final two are composition notebooks for active story/essay/whatever development: One is for Chaos and the other is for Order; one is for scribbling down the weirdest creatures that live in the dark corners of my brain, while the other is for parsing through potent Idea-threads and weaving them into the semblance of a story. When I am in active creation mode, and on the clock, I hop back and forth between those two workspaces as the piece takes shape and I search, listen, pray for its unique voice. Then when I am finally ready to draft—usually after about a week or two (or more! for particularly evasive ideas)—I bust out my Alphasmart, which is a piece of technology from the early 2000s whose tiny screen holds four lines of text, making it a total pain to even think about editing as I go; at the end of a drafting session, I upload my ugly word chunks to Scrivener. When I’m finished drafting all the parts, I edit on an old iPad with terrible internet connectivity. (Focus hacks, y’all!) Finishing touches and formatting I do on a desktop.

Finally, the Fractal Method in brief:

1. Explore your idea collections and figure out what excites you most right now.

2. Explain it to yourself in a sentence or two.

3. Expand and explore that Idea through mind-maps, trippy drawings, wearing an eye-patch while writing with your non-dominant hand, standing on your head, or whatever gets the magic flowing. Consider: Where are the tension points? Whose perspectives are the most engaging? What other worlds does this Idea open up?

4. Condense all your explorations into three-five main ideas/scenes/arcs, and describe each of those in a sentence or two. Now you have a one-paragraph summary! I like to think of this as a -1st draft.

5. Re-explore and re-expand each of those ideas, exploding everything that is inside them and everything that is remotely connected to them.

6. Then, condense again. Try to get a page-long outline for each of your main ideas.

7. Repeat and repeat and repeat until you just can’t hold onto the story anymore!

8. Draft, rewrite, edit, submit.

The last thing about the Fractal Method is that it is itself fractal—or I guess it is better to say that it is iterative. From the time I started answering this question to the time I finished it, I threw out a notebook I thought was essential. I also scrapped a story I had been working on, started working on something else, and then realized I really wanted to be working on the first thing; but now that I had abandoned it I could feel what it really meant to say, I could finally hear its voice. Sometimes an Idea leaps into your head fully formed. Other times it takes a little more coaxing, or a lot more coaxing. Listen, and be patient, and give up if you lose all hope.

Creativity is non-linear.

Sometimes creativity requires a death and resurrection, a Dark Night of the Soul, or even a sacrifice of your own blood under a full moon. Everything that blossoms upon the Earth must lie fallow for a season before it can blossom again. Some species take longer to gestate than others.

Read Wonderbook edited by Jeff Vandermeer, Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert, and Zen and the Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury.

AE: What are you reading right now?

JMS: Nature, Man and Woman by Alan Watts. Courting the Wild Twin by Martin Shaw. Cage of Souls by Adrian Tchaikovsky.

AE: How can our readers follow you and your writing?

JMS: I occasionally tweet @JM_Swenson.

J.M. Swenson considers his writing to be Weird Cli-Fi, Post-Science Fiction, or Mystical Realism. When he is not pondering the deep-time journeys of Life on Earth, what it’s like to be a raven or an octopus, or how Homo sapiens might continue to evolve into unfathomable new creatures, he can be found facilitating support groups for climate grief and anxiety. He lives in Berkeley, California, where he loves to boardgame and roleplay, hike, garden, and explore the more-than-human world.

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