Q&A With Kelly Lagor

Kelly Lagor’s latest story for Analog, “Of Laboratories and Love Songs,” appears in our [May/June issue, on sale now!]. In this blog post, Lagor discusses the yoga class that helped inspire her latest work, her thoughts on heartbreak, as well as some advice for upcoming writers.

Analog Editor: What is the story behind “Of Laboratories and Love Songs”?
Kelly Lagor: I first got the idea during a yoga class, of all places. At the time, I was taking classes with an instructor who, instead of using the typical Anglicized pose names, she used more poetic translations. So instead of calling a backbend pose Wild Thing (Camatkarasana in Sanskrit), she called it “the ecstatic unfolding of the enraptured heart.” The phrase immediately got stuck in my head. It felt so over the top romantic, while also feeling distant and mechanical, I knew I wanted to turn the strange feeling the phrase gave me into a story. Later that day I started picking at the first draft.

AE: How did this story germinate?
KL: I’ve had stories that have fallen out of my head nearly finished, and I’ve had stories I’ve really had to work to get to come together, and this was definitely one of the latter. I got to the central concept pretty quickly—of a researcher throwing herself  into her work to better compensate for her disaster of a romantic life—but it was hard to get the balance between the personal and the scientific right. Once I got to the rough format of half scientific paper, half character study, it started coming together, but it took a lot of drafts, a lot of feedback, and a lot of starting from scratch to get it to its final form.

AE: Do you particularly relate to any of the characters in this story?
KL: I’ve had my fair share of romantic mishaps, and while the main character’s story is not identical to mine, the spirit of it is. Most people have struggled with a broken heart at least once in their life, and as a form of grief, it can be a profoundly painful and all-consuming experience. The temptation to close your heart off forever is something that can take a lot of strength to overcome, particularly if you’re a more frequent broken-hearted flyer. But love, in my experience, regardless of how ephemeral it proves to be in the end, is always worth it.

AE: Many of our Analog authors are interested in science. What’s your scientific background, and how does it inform your fiction?
KL: I did five years of a PhD in plant molecular and cell biology before I left with a terminal masters to better focus on writing. While I loved the intellectual atmosphere of academia, I was more interested in writing papers, teaching, and designing experiments than I was in the actual bench work. Since then, I’ve held a variety of different jobs in industry, and I’m currently working as a Field Applications Scientist for a genomics company. My day job involves teaching other scientists how to use DNA sequencers, consulting on projects, and troubleshooting when things go wrong. I really love my job, as I genuinely enjoy teaching, it keeps me on the cutting edge of research, and it helps me stay up to date on what’s going on in a lot of different research fields.
I’ve been a biologist for over twenty years now, and I definitely draw from my experience in both my fiction and non-fiction. While my broadest areas of expertise are plant and microbial biology and genomics, I also get a lot of inspiration from my friends, my partners, the researchers I work with, and the research journals I keep up with. For this story the inspiration came from one of my best friends from grad school who was researching heart stem cells at the time. He helped me make sure the scope of the research fit with the long-term goals of the field in the treatment of cardiovascular disease.

AE: Are there any themes that you find yourself returning to in your writing?
KL: Some of my favorite stories are those that tie the scientific to the personal, so those are the kinds of stories I like to write. While not all of my fiction involves hard science, it often involves a scientifically informed point of view. I’ve published stories about a scientist saying goodbye to their best friend; or about a scientist who’s planning to genetically engineer a triffid (which was inspired by The Day of the Triffids, 1951); or about someone making iterative versions of themself using skin samples in order to buy toilet paper. Even when I’m working with more fantastic angles, I like to get the science as right as I can within the bounds of what makes a good story. That way, readers might walk away with a deeper understanding of both themselves and the world.

The temptation to close your heart off forever is something that can take a lot of strength to overcome, particularly if you’re a more frequent broken-hearted flyer. But love, in my experience, regardless of how ephemeral it proves to be in the end, is always worth it.

AE: What inspired you to start writing?
KL: Writing is something I’ve always liked doing. As a kid, I read a lot and watched a lot of movies and TV, so my fictional tanks were always topped off. As such, I really enjoyed any writing assignments I got in school, since it gave me an outlet for my over-active imagination. Thankfully, I always got a lot of positive feedback from my family, teachers, friends and classmates and it helped keep writing fun for me.
I’ve gone through a lot of phases with my writing. I started off writing a lot of fiction in middle school, then a lot of (really awful) poetry in high school. In college I switched to blogging, then to social media in grad school, and back to fiction (and non-fiction) since then. Even with all that, I never considered writing seriously until grad school, since a lot of the adults in my life when I was a kid  told me writing should just be a hobby, and I should focus on getting into a career that would pay the bills, instead.

AE: How did you break into writing?
KL: Because of the above, I came at writing from a weird angle. When I was in grad school and realized I didn’t want to do bench work anymore, the first alternate career I considered was science journalist, but ultimately decided the freelance game wasn’t for me. When I switched my focus to writing fiction, I did a lot of reading to figure out how one becomes a writer, then started doing those things. I started writing and finishing stories again. I joined online and in person writing groups to practice giving and taking critique. I signed up to go to my first con. But my big breakthrough came when I was accepted into the Viable Paradise Workshop in 2011, which gave me not only a community of colleagues and dear friends, but also my first fiction sale. 

AE: What other projects are you currently working on?
KL: I’m currently writing a non-fiction series for Asimov’s Magazine called Speculative Screencraft, in which I take notable science fiction movies and examine not only the story behind their making, but also the history of their generic tropes. It’s been a super fun project, and so far I’ve written about La Voyage dans La Lune (1902) and the history of the Moon in fiction; Frankenstein (1931) and the history of monsters and horror; Metropolis and the history of the bit of writing advice, “Show don’t tell”; and my essay in the upcoming May/June 2023 issue is on William Shakespeare, Sigmund Freud and Forbidden Planet (1956). I’ve also always got a low level of short stories circulating, and I’m planning on starting a novel-length hard SF project with a biological focus later this year.

AE: If you could choose one SFnal universe to live in, what universe would it be and why?
KL: Back in the beforetimes, I spent a few years writing an essay series for Tor.com on the parallel histories of biology and science fiction. When I picked Iain Banks to write about alongside genetic engineering, I read all his Culture novels for the first time in less than a month. By the time I’d finished, I was completely smitten with the universe, and was totally bereft that we’d lost such a great author so young.
The Culture books really illustrate how a galactic society can incorporate human frailty and still be optimistic. Not only that, but there’s so much humanist optimism in the Culture universe (to say nothing of the delightfully snarky AIs)—it’s post-Capitalist, and post-scarcity, and so progressive in the way it allows people to be whatever kind of person they’d like to be, thanks to a limitless ability to remake yourself and exist anywhere (within the Culture) you’d like. It’s not, however, a utopia. The Culture is just one civilization amongst many with its own agenda, its own internal power struggles, and its own complicated relationships with its neighbors. It’s a universe that’s inspired me to try and take a more optimistic stance in my own fiction when I think about the future.

AE: Do you have any advice for up-and-coming writers?
KL: Absolutely. While it may seem like an obvious bit of advice, you have to write. Thinking about writing only gets you so far. I know it can often feel impossible when you’re starting out, with all the different moving pieces involved in telling a story, and you’d often prefer to be doing literally anything else, but you have to practice. You have to fail. You have to finish things and you have to be able to edit those finished things. You have to learn how to both give and take critiques. If you find yourself having a hard time sitting down to write, then you have to figure out how to become a version of yourself who can write. If you’re depressed, consider professional help. If you’re exhausted after work, consider a schedule or even a job change that gives you more headspace. If you’ve got health issues, get those as under control as you can, then figure out what your bandwidth for writing is and work with that. A little writing whenever you can moves the needle more than a lot of writing every once in a while, in my experience.
Finally, no writing advice is right for everyone, but it never hurts to try everything. Learning what doesn’t work for you is often as valuable as learning what does.

AE: How can our readers follow you and your writing?
KL: I’m not as active on social media as I once was, but I do currently maintain a presence on Mastodon (@klagor@waandering.shop) and Instagram (@klagor), both of which I use for writing announcements and random life ephemera. You can also find me periodically updating my personal blog, as well as maintaining an up-to-date list of my published and upcoming writing on my website (kellylagor.com).

Kelly Lagor is a scientist by day and science fiction writer by night. Her fiction and nonfiction have appeared in various places and she blogs about all kinds of nonsense at kellylagor.com.

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