In co-ordination with the good folks over at EDGE Science Fiction and Fantasy Publishing–and as a small part of their online event 18 Days of Tesseracts (September 18 to October 7, more information here)–I hereby present Part Three of my new interview series Writing Gods, featuring email chats with a number of the many authors who’ve contributed to EDGE’s newest (and eighteenth[!]) Tesseracts anthology Wrestling with Gods.
Today’s interviewee: Janet Nicholson
Janet K. Nicolson was born in Regina and has lived in the ice and cold ever since. She currently works as a technical writer for a telecommunications firm. When she’s not watching her border collie herd her cat and husband around the house, she can be found searching the local book store for novels about Big Dumb Objects, rocking video games, or subjecting audiences to her piano compositions.
Nicholson’s work has previously appeared in On Spec Magazine, and will be appearing in two forthcoming issues.
Tell us about your story, “A Cut and a Prayer.”
Samar cannot overcome the depression that stifles both her emotions and her spiritual connection to Allah. Desperate to regain her faith and ability to focus on her doctoral studies, she visits the Barber for a very non-religious solution.
How did your story come about?
The original idea, of a woman going to a surgeon for invasive treatment for depression, came about in response to Neil Clarke’s call for cyborg stories. I wanted to tackle cyborg enhancements from a mental instead of physical perspective. A few weeks later, Tesseracts 18 was announced, and that helped me brainstorm the second half of the story: the protagonist’s real motivation for curing her depression. I wanted the story to have some meat to it, and by putting both Samar’s emotions and her faith at stake, I found the gravity I wanted. The story was rejected for Upgraded, and then went through the Live Action Slush at Pure Spec in Edmonton before I sent it to Tesseracts. Both Jerome and Liana appreciated the elements of the story I most wanted to highlight (how faith impacts depression, what it feels like to live with depression), so it was a great fit.
Why is genre writing such an effective avenue for theological discussions?
Two reasons, I think. The more obvious reason is you can create religions/theologies and then discuss faith in general within that framework. It frees the work from commenting too heavily on a real faith, and allows the reader to focus on more abstract concepts.
That said, my story does focus on a real faith. I think the second reason genre writing is an effective avenue for theological discussions is because it allows you to tell “extreme” stories. Stories where amazing, impossible things happen, where the everyday is stretched to something more than currently exists. It allows the writer a framework wherein they can present a real faith engaging with something new, different, to the degree that it is familiar but not “right now.” It allows some distance, and also allows questions to be asked to their full degree. For example, in my story, it’s not a story about “how does a Muslim woman react to depression” but “to what extreme would any person, who in this instance happens to be a Muslim woman, go to fix their depression, and how does Samar’s Muslim faith impact her decision making.” That “extreme” becomes much greater in a genre that pushes the bounds of technology.
When writing about theological subjects, do you ever worry about upsetting someone?
Contact is the quintessential story about how faith and science are different and yet explore many of the same things…both the novel and film very accurately show why it is almost impossible to write a story without theology: all societies have faith in something…it is one of the main drivers of the human experience.Yes and no. I want to respectfully and accurately represent the real faiths that I write about. For made-up faiths, I want to respectfully depict peoples who believe, who pray, who feel they sin, who feel they suffer from a lack of faith or under their god(s). I try and do this by researching a great deal: encyclopedia articles, books, travel blogs, online faith forums, and personal experience.
I also expect to upset some people because I choose to write about a traditionally non-western faith. Samar “became” Muslim very early in the story draft, in part because I wanted to write about a faith different then my own upbringing (United Church of Canada Christian), and in part because that was how I imagined her . I am against extremism and terrorism in all forms, but I also know those people represent a very small minority of the Muslim community. When I was a community college teacher, my classes were full of students of all ages and cultures. I had the students, as part of their public speaking requirement, present on themselves, their cooking, their hobbies, their culture – whatever they felt comfortable with. What I saw was an immense and beautiful diversity in thought and practice, with some common elements. Respect, love, community.
When I wrote Samar, then, I wrote her to respectfully reflect the Muslim students I knew in my classes, knowing that she would likely be an ambassador for the faith in the anthology. I am not afraid of upsetting readers via her inclusion in the anthology; in fact, in the conversations I’ve had since Tesseracts 18 was published, I’ve heard many individuals say the story made them think about faith and Samar’s experience in a good way. The media is full of portrayals of a few Muslims doing very awful things, and I was happy to write a story about a Muslim woman who, I think, is exceptionally brave and as human as any of us.
What’s the best novel/story you’ve read with theological over/undertones?
I’ll give you a novel and movie set—Carl Sagan’s Contact. It is, I think, the quintessential story about how faith and science and different, and yet, how they explore many of the same things. I watched the movie first when I was in my teens, and it very accurately tagged my own experience with faith. That of a researcher who wants to find out the truth, but who ends up with the niggling feeling that the truth is far greater, better, and unimaginable than she ever guessed. I thought both the novel and film very accurately show why it is almost impossible to write a story without theology: all societies have faith in something, whether it is in gods or science, and it is one of the main drivers of the human experience.