Today we'll be talking to Su J. Sokol.
Xe is a near-future author who has been writing fiction for about ten years.
-Su, what first attracted you to the genre?
Ever since I was a kid, I have been attracted to stories that showed a world that was different from the one I knew. Some of these stories were simply tales from other places, or of people who had very different life experiences. I was particularly attracted to stories about "others" -- those who are marginalized or have less power in mainstream society. At the same time, I thought a lot, even as a kid, about social justice and social change. Speculative fiction was exciting and reassuring in that it said that other worlds were possible; I thought that if this were true, maybe these other worlds could be better. I loved authors whose imaginations allowed them to show us such worlds.
-What kind of fiction did you grow up with, Su?
For speculative fiction, I grew up reading things like A Wrinkle in Time, Lord of the Rings, Stephen King (especially the Dark Tower series, which I loved as a kid), and Star Trek paperbacks. I also read Weird Western Tales and other comic books (like X-Men). In addition, I tended to read whatever my father was reading, which were things like John le Carré and Isaac Bachevis Singer. Plus, I read and enjoyed "classic" authors who were introduced to me in school, including William Shakespeare, the Bronté sisters, Jane Austen, William Faulkner, Franz Kafka, Anton Chekov, Willa Cather, Jean-Paul Sartre, Virginia Woolf, Greek tragedies, John Steinbeck, Toni Morrison, Harper Lee ... Basically, I read whatever I could get my hands on.
-Name three of your favourite books, and why they are your top picks.
Even though I have read a lot of more recent books that I love, I am choosing some older books because there has been sufficient time for them to be considered classics. I am going to cheat and give you four instead of three.
- Ursula K. Le Guin's The Dispossessed (1974): This book directly takes on the idea of how to create a near-utopian society or at least a more just society, and it is done with great attention to detail and with much beauty and wisdom. I also like how she shows the readers the challenges and imperfections in what is basically a good society, while also showing us the other, less just world it sprung from and the things that are arguably better there.
- Marge Piercy's Woman on the Edge of Time (1976): I guess I have a thing for books that have both utopian and dystopian elements, which is a bit like the hope punk that I, myself, write. Writing a dystopia is, while not easy, arguably easier than writing a utopia. I love authors who make the effort to also show us what a more utopian world might look like, and Piercy did just that. Not a science fiction writer, Piercy is often credited with writing cyberpunk before there even was cyberpunk. Like The Dispossessed, this novel is well-written, with lots of attention to worldbuilding, and presents ideas for a better world that are still relevant today.
- William Gibson's Neuromancer (1984): I love cyberpunk, and this is an early example of it and the first Gibson book that I read. It really blew me away! LIke the other authors listed here, Gibson is an amazing writer who also has a highly developed social consciousness. I love the aesthetic he basically invented here (which to me was the East Village in NYC in the eighties), plus I love the voice and writing style, which is unique and powerful.
- Octavia Butler's Parable of the Sower (1993) : Butler is another one of those authors who can do it all: character, plot, worldbuilding, social and political content, special sci-fi elements (in her case, science as biology rather than science and technology, the former being, in my opinion, more interesting.) It also involves paranormal empathy, an idea I love and also write about. This is a book that is often cited as prophetic, particularly during the Trump years, a claim that springs from the author's impressive ability to pay very close attention to the present and bring it alive as a near-future story. The key to predicting the future, of course, is understanding the present!
All four of these books were extremely influential to me both as a reader and as a writer.
-Are you a plotter or a pantser, Su?
I am a pantser, which would surprise the people who know me, especially at work. I am one of those folks who are constantly making lists and lists of lists and doing everything possible to plan ahead. My desk is impeccably clean and when I am to perform a task, I start by laying out my tools before me.
However, as a writer, I am incapable of plotting everything ahead. When I try to outline, my characters laugh at me and do what they want. Some of the best moments in my fiction are things that just suddenly happened as I was writing. I guess I am using a different part of my brain or something. That being said, I do generally know how a book is going to begin and more or less end before I embark on a project.
-What are the two worst traits you love giving a character?
- a bad temper, with a tendency to turn other negative emotions such as fear and sadness and helplessness into fury
- a blindspot when it comes to how one's admittedly brave and selfless actions end up hurting others
-What is your idea of happiness?
Being surrounded by love and solidarity, with a sense of community that stretches out very, very far, plus the ability (financially, time-wise, health-wise) to do the things that ignite joy and passion without hurting others
-What are your ideal writing conditions?
I like to be in a comfortable place where food and beverages are not far, surrounded by other people who are also quietly working on their own projects, with moments here and there to take breaks, socialize, and share, if possible.
-Where or when do you feel most inspired?
I am often inspired when I travel, and in general when I am in motion. I also feel inspired when in conversation with other writers, for instance, in my writing groups or at conferences and during panels.
-What do you appreciate most in your friends?
Being good listeners and supportive, and also being open and sharing their own thoughts and challenges. In addition, having good (which to me means left or progressive) values and being willing to act on those values.
-Where is your favourite thinking spot?
On the seat of my bicycle.
-Who are your greatest heroes/heroines?
I don't really have heroes or heroines. There are people whom I admire, but I think there is too much of an emphasis on heros in our society. No one individual is coming to save us. We need to do this collectively and in community.
-If there was one recommendation you could give to authors starting out, what would it be?
You need to love your craft enough to be open to learning from others and accepting critical feedback given constructively.
-What are the characteristics you believe make a great near-future story?
Making sure that your world-building is as broad as it can be, including not only technological or political changes, for example, but social, linguistic, and planetary changes; but in the end, you should admit to yourself that you are really writing about the present and are not there to predict the future.
-What is the title of your latest story?
My most recently published piece of fiction, not including the French translation of my first novel that came out this summer, is my third novel, Zee, which is also out in both English and French.
-Can you give us a synopsis of it?
Zee is the story of a child who is somehow able to read the thoughts and feel the emotions of those around her/them. In fact, the thoughts and feelings of others come through so strongly that it makes it hard for Zee (which is also the name of the main character) to understand and act on her/their own desires, identity, and path. Zee is a story about empathy, both its power and its limitations.
-What sparked the underlying theme?
When my daughter was very young, I was convinced that she had ESP. I have also had moments of, if not like ESP, at least extremely strong empathy with others, and know that sometimes my own judgements and well-being are affected but what I think other people are thinking or desiring.
-Are you working on anything else at the moment, or have the germ of an idea for another story you’d like to titillate your audience with?
Yes! I am almost ready to submit a manuscript for a new, stand-alone novel that takes place in the same world as my first novel, Cycling to Asylum. C2A told the story of two activists who have to flee a near-future, repressive U.S. and who bike across the border with their two young kids into Québec to make a claim for refugee status. The new book takes place three years later and is set in Montréal. The kids are teenagers now and into their own form of activism. I have also added a fifth point-of-view character as well as a whole ensemble of new supporting characters who, together, are struggling to build an off-the-grid community while trying to respond to the mysterious disappearance of teenagers who are either homeless or have a precarious immigration status. The new book is to be called Five Points on an Invisible Line and, like C2A, it's a hopepunk novel that addresses a variety of issues including borders, refugees, community, connection, cyber surveillance, human and animal rights, recovery from trauma, activism, ecology, polyamory, etc. I am very excited about it!
Thank you for you time and good luck in all your future writing!
- some links to buy Cycling to Asylum:
- link to buy Les lignes invisibles
- Social media:
- https://www.facebook.com/cyclingtoasylum/ (FB)
- @cyclingtoasylum (twitter)
- @cycling2asylum (instagram)