Sunday, October 19, 2014

Life In The Blurbs

Being as I am a pillar pillock of the community pillock with many friends who are writers I am increasingly asked to read books wot they have wrote, whether as drafts or as near-completed works, on the cusp, as it may be, of publication, for the purposes of writing a blurb.

As you probably know, a blurb is one of those pithy epigrammatic apothegms, usually by some famous person, which, when inscribed on a book's cover or inside pages might induce the unsuspecting punter to delve into the said book's contents and maybe even part with yer actual money.

I am always flattened flattered to be asked to read a daft draft book, or contribute a blurb. Many is the occasion when I have asked other people for blurbs, and, usually, I have sent an electronic version of the manuscript, either as a word file or a pdf. Only now I've read a few myself, I know what it's like, and what a favour this is to ask of someone.

I love e-Books. I have four three four devices which serve me very well as e-Readers, and they are a boon, especially when I am travelling. But I look at screens an awful lot, so, when I am reading purely for pleasure, I prefer to read something printed out on paper.

And, no, not an unwieldy pile of A4 pages, but something that is properly bound, like a book. This is easier to handle, much kinder on my ageing eyes, and will give a much more authentic book-reading experience, so, hopefully will inform my blurb with a more accurate … er … accuracy.

So I'd like to make this request - please might I receive something that looks like an actual book?

It's very easy to do.

All you need to do is upload your book to a print-on-demand site such as Amazon's CreateSpace, or, (my preference because I've used it), Lulu.

It's very easy to upload a pdf (the program will even create the pdf for you, from a regular word-processing document); create a generic cover, and so on. The program is practically idiot-proof and will guide you at every stage.

At the end you'll have a book which people can buy for a modest sum and have mailed to them. You could, as an author, get a few made up and sent to yourself, which you can send to people you ask to provide a blurb.

You can set the program so that the title, when 'published', is searchable only by yourself or by people you invite, so that your not-quite-ready tome won't be visible to the general public. You can, of course, write some disclaimer in the text that this copy is for review only and not for sale, or some such.

Your home-made book will, with a little artfulness, look like a realio trulio book. All my books published by ReAnimus Press, if ordered as paperbacks, will have been printed on demand through CreateSpace. Before ReAnimus took them up, I'd self-published several of my titles - By The Sea and The Sigil trilogy, on Lulu. In fact, I still have one self-published title on Lulu, the adorable micro-epic Defiant The Guinea Pig: Firefighter! ('like Backdraft for pets' - Professor Trellis of North Wales) - order it now for Christmas.

Call me old fashioned. Go on, call me old fashioned. I won't mind. I'll have you know that my beard is dyed fluorescent purple.

Monday, October 13, 2014

The Benefits Of Knowing How To Spell

This weekend Mrs Crox and I were enjoying a bottle of Waitrose South African Merlot. Finding it to be a pretty decent drop, I of course scrutinised the label with an intense scrute (force of habit - years and years of scientific training) and this is what I saw.

On FB I wondered aloud whether we'd suffer lead poisoning, or if the proofreader had enjoyed the Merlot as much as we had, and was drunk.

On Twitter, though, I decided that Messrs Waitrose  et Cie. should know about this and wrote
@Waitrose Shurely Shome Mishtake?
Their response came at the very start of business today (Monday)

Oh no! Can you please DM me your address, shop where you bought it so I can raise this with our supplier? Thank you.

So I did, and the reply was just as quick.

Thanks, Henry. I've raised this with our merchandise complaints department who'll follow this up with our supplier so the next print should read plum, rather than plumb. I'm also sending you a Waitrose/John Lewis gift voucher in the post. Thanks for telling us about this. Ant.

This goes to show that companies can be extremely responsive to social media, especially Twitter, and you also get the sense that you are dealing with a real person. Thanks Ant! 

It's not just Waitrose of course. I once had cause to tweet about a problem with online booking with the airline KLM, and they were back to me within the hour. 

Notwithstanding inasmuch as which I've also had an entertaining discussion with Homebase about the design of lavatory seats (we know how to live, here in Norfolk.) 

But wait, there's more: the Twitstream of my rail service provider, Greater Anglia, is unfailingly helpful, useful and adds that personal touch which can mean all the difference between a dreadful commute and a tolerable one.

Social media might have its downsides but one of the benefits, I feel, is the instant communication it offers with companies and suppliers, and this can only be a good thing. It makes customers feel that their complaints and suggestions are being noted, and it keeps companies up to the mark.

And if you can spot a spelling mi$take, you might even get a gift voucher. I wonder if they sell that Merlot by the case?

Friday, October 10, 2014

Laughing Last

Perhaps it's because I live here, but I do tend to be rather sensitive to Norfolk being the butt of jokes emanating from the Great Wen. Norfolk people are characterised as being dim and inbred. 'I wouldn't live in Norfolk for all the toes in Wroxham,' said my friend Dr R. P. G. of Rotherhithe, albeit affectionately. It is a rather good line, I admit, though perhaps eclipsed by this characteristically brittle exchange from one of Noël Coward's plays, Private Lives:

ELYOT: I met her on a house party in Norfolk.
AMANDA: Very flat, Norfolk.
ELYOT: There's no need to be unpleasant.
AMANDA: That was no reflection on her, unless of course she made it flatter.
To say that Norfolk is in a different time zone from the rest of Britain - the 1950s - is a hoary comedy standby.

The disdain of the literati runs deep. In his otherwise excellent novel Never Let Me Go, Kazuo Ishiguro has some of the protagonists visit Cromer. The Cromer in the novel bears absolutely no relationship with the real Cromer, and it's plain that the author just stuck a pin in the map, never bothering to actually visit the town himself. He probably thought that nobody in Cromer would be literate enough to read his book. Well, the joke's on you, Mr Ishiguro - Never Let Me Go is a set text at GCSE, studied by pupils at Cromer Academy, who can - whisper it soft - read, and they are not happy at this obvious slur.

And, oh yeah, there's Nicholas Parsons and Sale Of The Century and 'And-Now-From-Norwich' and the ghastly Alan Partridge. But wait, there's more. Just in the past week we heard that Norwich is the capital of Y-fronts, the baggy and definitely untrendy style of male foundationwear; and heard the laughter on social meeja when two students at the University of East Anglia suggested that one might save water by peeing in the shower.

But we have the last laugh. Norfolk is one of the nicest and most crime-free counties in Britain in which to live. It has fresh air all the way down to the ground. Terrific sandy beaches that go on and on for miles. The beer is excellent and a lot cheaper than in London. Norwich is a beautiful city, with loads of great independent shops, cafés and other stuff. Norfolk can boast of being the home county of Horatio Nelson and Stephen Fry, national treasures both.

And, yes, Norfolk has quite a lot of very decent education. When seeking a good sixth-form college, for example, Crox Minor has been spoiled for choice, with at least three colleges in easy bus range competing for her custom. Crox Minor attends the Sir Isaac Newton Sixth Form, specialising in science and in which studying A-level maths is compulsory, and in which the nerdery in the after-school chess club is quite something to behold.

Isn't this a cuckoo in the nest, though? A diamond in the rough? Not at all. Norwich hosts not just a major University, but a large teaching hospital and several world-class scientific research institutes including the John Innes Centre. Norwich also has an international airport with easy connections to Amsterdam Schiphol and thence the world, so one can go abroad without having all the expense, overcrowding and hassle of having to do it through London.

But what really gets up the noses of the metropolitan chatterati is that we get all the best theatre before it comes to London. Some years ago, for example, Mrs Crox and I went to see a production of Samuel Beckett's pithy piece, Waiting for Godot, staged at the Theatre Royal in Norwich. It stared Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellen, Simon Callow and Ronald Pickup.

Tickets were plentiful and cheap. The theatre is forty minutes easy drive from home, and parking is a doddle, right next to the theatre itself. None of that expensive and uncomfortable business with tubes, taxis and London's rip-off prices.

The production was, as you'd expect, marvellous. And for months and months afterwards I was able to boast to my London friends that I'd seen it long before it transferred to the West End. Our wait for Godot was much, much shorter than theirs.

So that's why people make Norfolk the target of their sneering jokes - they are just jealous.

Monday, October 6, 2014

No Nobel for Radiolumbricometry

Once again, my ground-breaking work on how radioactivity can be neutralised by earthworms has been passed over.

Once again, my brilliant research, which posterity will rank alongside that of Galileo and Newton, Watson and Crick, Laurel and Hardy, notwithstanding inasmuch as which Professor Trellis of North Wales, has been blatantly ignored in favour of work by lesser scientists.

Once again, the long-distance call from Stockholm has, by some mischance, failed to connect.

It started like this. Many years ago, at school, my lab partner and I were doing some work on the radioactivity of everyday objects. Being proper scientists, and all, we were keen to establish controls, so measured the background radiation of our lead-shielded jam jar, empty of any other contents. Then we placed an ordinary garden earthworm in the jar and repeated the procedure.

Much to our surprise, the radioactivity in the jar was less than that of the wormless jar!

The conclusion was clear - earthworms not only absorb radioactivity, but by some mechanism as yet unknown to science, neutralise it. We instantly named our jam-jar-Geiger-counter-combo the 'radiolumbricometer' and thought of a golden future in which nuclear waste could be rendered utterly harmless by feeding it to earthworms, and a completely hazard-free nuclear age could dawn.

It is a measure of the bigotry, shortsightedness and bias of the Nobel Committee that this work has been ignored.

Never mind that we never published it. Never mind that we didn't trouble ourselves to repeat the experiments exhaustively to determine whether the effect was real. Never mind that we didn't repeat the experiments on worms of different sizes and masses; with dead worms; with other garden invertebrates; with better-shielded and more sensitive equipment.

All such considerations are irrelevant.

Simply, what has happened is that the Nobel Committee has failed, as it often does, to appreciate our genius.

Cambridge: Its Part In My Downfall

This morning I was touched by this article in teh Grauniad reporting the collapse into eating disorders and depression of a Cambridge undergraduate who, arriving in that notorious goldfish bowl, discovered that she was no longer Little Miss Perfect, but just another small fish in a large pond of perfection. For the hard of linking, the message is clear - sometimes it's OK to fail.

The article (oh look - here it is again) struck a chord with me (A-flat diminished.) I had spent three wonderfully happy undergraduate years at the University of Leeds. Yes, I got a good degree. One of the best. But I also had a good time. I played in rock bands, hung out with Hell's Angels, lost my virginity, got high, lived in houses that could have served as inspiration for The Young Ones, and generally enjoyed being part of a gritty Northern city where the locals were friendly, hospitable and called a spade a fookin' spade.

Then, without pause, I went to study for my Ph.D. at Cambridge. So it was that in October 1984 I hit the ground running, but in a research group of one (me); with a supervisor conspicuous by his general uselessness; bereft of much any pastoral support; surrounded by people who were much more buttoned-up than they had been at Leeds; and no guidance to help me through the many layers, sliding panels and peculiar customs of Cambridge, I shut it all out by working as hard as possible. I became nocturnal, working in the basement of the Zoology Museum until the early hours, feeding myself on kebabs and off-licence whisky.

The following February they found me in the basement trying to slash my wrists.

The response of the University was, in total, this - to go away and come back when I felt better. I do hope they are better at this sort of thing nowadays.

So I went home. I did some schoolteaching, joined a dope-fuelled rock band led by a dope-fuelled Glaswegian whose utterances I could only understand when he was singing, went to Israel for a bit, sowed some oats, and came back to Cambridge. I joined another rock band, made friends and just got on with my life. Eventually I got my Ph.D.

Many years later the lessons are clear to me. First, joining a band is always a Good Thing. Second, sometimes you have to admit to yourself that you can't do everything. You can't run at a hundred percent all the time. If only - if only - someone had said to me, as I was starting my Ph. D., that I should spend the first year just chilling out, not trying to reprise the workaholic madness of the run-up to my finals.

I am now more than a little concerned for Crox Minor, who, having got ten A-stars at GCSE, is now studying at college, and, finding that everyone there is as bright as she is, seems to study half the night and all day at weekends, and is getting a bit stressed out. She's been at it for just a month...

Friday, October 3, 2014

Are Museums Turning Into Playgrounds?

I was struck earlier today, rather as one is struck, if glancingly, by an airborne haddock, by this article in which sociologist Tiffany Jenkins argues that museums and art galleries are turning into playgrounds, such that anyone who attends without a child in tow might be legitimately asked if they were lost, or even be mistaken for one of the exhibits (okay, I made up that last bit) and that this is a Bad Thing.

It's hard, Jenkins maintains, to get into that contemplative zone one requires to appreciate exhibits (she is particularly interested in art) in the congested hullaballoo of school parties and harrassed parents with strollers and screaming toddlers. Restaurant facilities and shops seem geared down, if not to nursery level, then, at least, well below the adult. Museums and art galleries were once decorous temples for cultural improvement, rather than a mosh pit to take the kids when it rains, a kind of do-it-yourself babysitting service.

'Today,' she says 
museums are not just child friendly; they are child centred, organised around every perceived need of the little ones. Science museums and natural history are especially bad, but art galleries want a piece of the childcare action too. All have a packed programme of activities devoted to under 5s; 5 to tens and the teenage crowd: treasure hunts, storytelling, touch zones (that’s touching an object or a dead animal), crafts, crayons and dressing up. And they encourage you, the adult in fawning attendance, to convince yourself that the visit is educational: the brats aren’t just playing – they are learning, as they mess about with paper mache [sic] in a gallery once devoted to Greek antiquities.
I have to admit she has a point, and it's a good one. However, I do not agree with it, or, at least, not all of it.

My introduction to museums came at the age of three when I was wheeled around the Horniman Museum in southeast London, then very much a cabinet of curiosities with little concession to children. I loved it. At the age of five I graduated to the Natural History Museum, which, back then, was in the middle of a dusty and impecunious nadir, bereft of visitors or indeed anything shiny or kid-friendly. Not that this would have meant anything to the infant Gee. As far as I was concerned I had the whole glorious thing pretty much to myself, my own Secret Garden. It was me, alone, in vast spaces, in front of crocodiles, the whale shark, and - wonder of wonders - the Blue Whale (note capitals.)

I was, however, particularly attracted to the Hall of Fossil Fishes, and I have retained a love of fossil fishes to this day. The fact that my doctorate thesis was about fossil cows was no hindrance. Cows were simply highly evolved fishes adapted to living in water of negative depth. At my wedding, the Best Man said that he was 'the other nerdy kid' to have wandered the long-forgotten hall of extremely dead fish. Nowadays I am Bone-Botherer-In-Chief at the Submerged Log Company, and have a soft spot for fossil fishes; my Best Man is a distinguished professor who studies - you guessed it - fossil fishes.

The forbidding cabinets and incomprehensible labels in the old Fossil Fish gallery, then, pulled at least two children in, and held them for life. For palaeontology, two is presumably better than none. But consider this from the point of view of a public museum. The late twentieth century (such as it was, then) was not the late nineteenth - people no longer visited museums for educational improvement, but to be diverted, entertained. In the twenty-first century, even more so. That two nerdy kids back in the 1960s were educated, diverted and entertained was not enough: would that it were. People had to be pulled in who wouldn't necessarily end up as scholars in fossil fishes. The exhibits had to become interactive, tailored to school curricula, made 'relevant'.

There is no doubt that 'relevant' exhibits attract children of all kinds. I loved pushing the buttons and gawping and planes and boats in the Science Museum as much as the next child, without necessarily knowing why I was doing so, or what scientific points such gawpery was meant to inculcate. And that's just the point. If Museums are to pull people in who might lack the motivation to find out all by themselves, these people will expect to be welcomed as well as challenged. If at least some of them go out with more comprehension than when they went in, then that's a bonus.

One does wonder, however, whether the trend towards child-centredness in museums is not a symptom of the general infantilisation of society, in which people expect to be served everything in bite-sized portions without their having to make much of an effort; instant gratification is not so much desired as required; and nobody is expected to have an attention span much beyond that of a four-year-old. Perhaps. 

In the end, though, I think Jenkins protests too much, for I detect that museums and galleries are not just catering to children, but to everyone. Perhaps less well-advertised are lectures, seminars and exhibitions tailored to older people. Not every gallery in every museum always throngs with children - they tend to flock to some more than others. 

When I took Crox Minor (then aged four) to see a special exhibition at the Natural History Museum on the Feathered Dinosaurs of China, it was tucked away in a side-gallery (probably the old Fossil Fish hall), well away from the free public dinosaur exhibit, always rammed with children. We had to pay a little extra to get in - a mechanism ensuring that only those who really wanted to see the exhibit actually did so. Whether one agrees with such a policy is neither here nor there - the result was a quiet space in which one could appreciate the fossils without the jostle and hoopla of school parties.

And there are museums from which children are entirely banned.

One of my favourite museums is the Frick Collection on 5th Avenue in New York, which does not admit children under ten. And quite right too. This means that grown-ups can appreciate beautiful art, furniture and antiquities as they were meant to be viewed, without being corralled like cattle in a stockyard, and can get right up to the exhibits without fear of the priceless canvases being smeared with sticky fingers. (When I last went the lower age limit was fourteen - straitened times have presumably chipped away at the Frick's resolve.)

Why shouldn't children be admitted, though? Why can't they go in now? Well, for the reasons given above, and also for that rare thing nowadays - that there should still be the option to have things to look forward to, once one has attained a respectable tally of years, so that their eventual consummation will be all the sweeter. It's not as if children don't already have the run of plenty of other public educational spaces, now, is it?

Thursday, October 2, 2014

An Interview with Alex Shvartsman

I first came across the fiction of Alex Shvartsman when he started submitting stories to the Futures SF column in Nature. Alex has a story in the second Futures anthology, but the occasion of this interview is a collection of Alex's short stories, Explaining Cthulhu to Grandma and Other Stories, out on 1 February from UFO Publishing

I have had the immense privilege of a sneak preview of Explaining Cthulhu to Grandma. It's a joyous box of delights: all Alex's stories are short, sometimes very short, and they crackle with old-fashioned space opera, fantasy, and generous dollops of often very cheesy humour.

They are reminiscent of the early Asimov, and it might be no coincidence that Alex followed in the footsteps of the Good Doctor in more ways than one. Like Asimov, Alex was born to a Jewish family in the old Soviet Union. He arrived in the US in 1990, aged 14.

When I caught up with him thanks to the magic of teh interwebz we discussed the Asimov connection and many other things. Warning - do not drink hot liquids or operate heavy machinery while reading some of his answers.

What gets you up in the mornings?

A seven-year-old alarm clock by the name of Josh. Once he's up, so is the entire house. Seriously though, I'm a very competitive person. If I set my mind to doing something, I will work extra-hard to be good at it. I'll even go as far as getting up early in the morning, despite being a night owl.

Did you know that you were following in Isaac Asimov's footsteps? 

I'm aware of the similarities. Now all I've got to do to keep them up is to become a science fiction icon. No pressure, right? My love of science fiction predates the move to the United States. I discovered SF stories around the age of 10-11 and never looked back. I devoured books as a tween (and then as a teenager), finishing a book a day on average, and great many of those were science fiction. 

I had writerly aspirations back in the USSR, but gave them upon immigrating because I never expected my English to become good enough to write fiction. In fact, it wasn't even good enough to read it. I did my best to immerse myself in English television, and gave up reading for pleasure in Russian in order to concentrate on picking up the new language.

A little over a year and a half after moving to the United States I finally felt ready to read a book in English. On January 1, 1992 I began reading Starwolf by Edmond Hamilton, and finished it approximately two weeks later. I still own that paperback.

What stories did you read (or have read to you) as a child?

Lots of folklore and fairy tales from around the world. The Wizard of Oz. A series of YA SF stories very popular in Russia in the 1980s called Girl from the Future by Kir Bulychev. 

What turned you on to SF as a medium of expression?

I found a couple of science fiction short story collections in my father's library, and they blew my mind. Stories by Bob Silverberg, Robert Sheckley, Henry Kuttner, Fredric Brown and others, translated into Russian, really spoke to me. From very early on, I knew I wanted to be a storyteller like them. However, I didn't make a serious attempt at it until 2010. I kept putting writing off, seeing it as something I would do when I had free time. Eventually I came to realize that I'm not the sort of person who ever has free time -- I tend to find projects to do -- and so I made myself sit down in front of the keyboard and write. My only regret is not reaching this realization a decade sooner. Who knows where my writing career would be at this point?

Asimov was only two years old when he made landfall in the US, whereas you were fourteen. So you've brought quite a lot of cultural baggage he never had. How much of a Russian or Russian-Jewish influence is there in your fiction? 

I lean heavily on both my Russian and Jewish heritages in my writing. "Life at the Lake's Shore," one of my earliest stories, is a complicated metaphor about life in the Soviet Union. "The Golem of Deneb Seven," recently published in InterGalactic Medicine Show, is about Jewish immigrants offworld, caught in a civil war they want no part of. "The Race for Arcadia," forthcoming in the Mission: Tomorrow anthology from Baen is told from the point of view of the Russian astronaut involved in the rekindled space race. There are many other examples of this, other stories that use my background, but perhaps the most important to me is "Things We Leave Behind," which is a story of emigration from one's homeland and--barring a little bit of magic thrown in so I could sell the story to an SF/F market--it is almost entirely autobiographical. Conversations and entire scenes in this short story happened almost verbatim (though I was a couple of years older than the protagonist).

Describe the conditions in which you do your best writing. Obsessive neatness or crawling chaos? Quietness or noise? Do you have a perfect workspace but find you write best elsewhere? (I write best on trains.)

For me, total silence is optimal. Every once in a while I can write to instrumental music, but singing is distracting. It takes me a few minutes to get into the writing "mode" and the hardest part is to get started. But then, the words begin to flow. I write on the desktop computer in my small home office. It has two huge monitors and I have a word processor opened on one of them and a web browser with infinite research windows as well as Facebook and Twitter in another. Paradoxically, Twitter doesn't tend to distract me as much as music does!

Which isn't to say that I couldn't write elsewhere. When I travel, I write on planes using a laptop. In hotel rooms, too. I was stuck waiting for a friend for over two hours once, and wrote an entire story in one sitting, in Starbucks (a huge cliché, I know!), thereby proving that I can write almost anywhere. I just prefer not to.

I don't think I've ever written on a train yet. It's something I'd like to try. (Real train though, not the NYC subway cart!)

You are married with a young alarm clock child. Is family life a help or hindrance to a writer?

I've learned that anything can be a hindrance -- if you let it. It's so easy to find an excuse not to write -- be it family or work obligations, exhaustion, or your favorite program on TV. The important thing is to work around it and to find the time and the inspiration. I do have to say that my experience as a father has inspired several stories that wouldn't exist otherwise. "The Rumination on What Isn't" and "The Tinker Bell Problem" come to mind, and surely there are others.

Do your characters sometimes talk back at you?

They're an unruly bunch, so of course they do. The more involved and three-dimensional the character, the more likely they are to develop a mind of their own and do things I didn't quite plan for when brainstorming the story!

The stories in Explaining Cthulhu to Grandma are all quite short, and each one is followed by a short autobiographical note explaining how each story came to be written. Asimov did much the same in his collection The Early Asimov. Did you know that? And even if not, what prompted you to expose yourself to your readers?

I don't recall reading that collection, though I may have. But I do know that, as a reader, I've always enjoyed story notes. They're little window in the life and the creative process of the author. And, they are easy to ignore if you aren't into them -- simply flip the page to the next story. So when I began putting the collection together, I knew I wanted to include those notes!

You were a gamer and games designer before you wrote SF. How did you get into the games design field, and how do you think that's influenced your writing?

I started out as a gamer. In the late 90's - early 00's I played Magic: the Gathering for a living. I was ranked third in the world at one point, competed in over 30 countries, and set the world record for a number of Grand Prix top 8 finishes (a record that has been only beaten by one person since, almost a decade later.) Because I achieved some notoriety in the game, I was among the group of professional Magic players invited to work on the Vs System trading card game based on Marvel and DC comic book properties. We ended up scrapping the early design and creating the game from scratch, which has gone on to win awards and gain a very loyal following. I was involved in other game design projects since and have done a lot of consulting for various game companies as well.

As a competitive gamer, I approach stories as puzzles that need to be solved. I'm not quite sure how to best explain that, other than to say that I won't begin writing the story until I've come up with a clever and appealing (at least to me) solution to the protagonist's problem which I set up. Then I write each scene so it advances the story toward that conclusion in some way.

Who put the Benzedrine in Mrs Murphy's Ovaltine?

It was Colonel Mustard in the Library. With a Benzedrine inhaler, obviously.

For someone who learned English as a teenager, your written English is -- if I may say so -- excellent, very confident, and far better than that of many native speakers. Can you say anything about your journey from spoken to written English? Have you written for publication in Russian? How did you come to write stories in English for sale? Was they always going to be SF?

Thank you! I have to work very hard in order to make my work appear confident and smooth. I rely on my trusted beta reader to catch my typos and especially all the places where I used an incorrect variant of the past tense (varying past tenses are a bit of grammar hell that simply doesn't exist in Russian). My friend Zack Shepard went as far as to literally draw me a diagram -- and I still get the have-had's wrong!

I will also reiterate that whatever I'd write in either language was always going to be genre (I have a small number of mystery-type stories that lack the SF element, but they're few and far between, and I consider mystery to be genre, too). I have little interest in writing straight-up literary stories so much so that I will intentionally add fantastic elements just so I can submit a story to markets like F&SF and Clarkesworld rather than the New Yorker and the Atlantic.

Your stories are full of humor - and indeed you've put together some collections of deliberately humorous SF such as your Unidentified Funny Objects books. Humor is notoriously tricky to pull off. Has it ever gotten you into trouble?

No significant trouble yet, though I'm sure at some point it will -- it's impossible to be funny without upsetting a few people along the way.

I never thought of myself as a humor writer initially, but when I tried writing funny stories I found that they come together far more easily for me. And, more importantly, I have a blast writing them. So I started writing more of them until I gained somewhat of a reputation as a humorist. Of course, I mix things up by writing extremely dark pieces like "Nuclear Family" and "The Rumination on What Isn't." About the only thing I won't write is outright horror, because it frankly bores me.

For now, the most trouble I've gotten into with my humor is readers (and, God forbid, editors) not finding some of it funny. But that's the nature of humor -- you can't please everyone. I write stories that amuse me, and hope that enough readers out there will share my sense of humor to enjoy them.

What's the best thing you've read in the past year?

I usually find these kinds of questions difficult, but not this time. It is definitely The Grace of Kings, the debut novel by Ken Liu, which is coming out in early 2015. I had the privilege of reading it early and it was awesome. Imagine the mix of Game of Thrones, The Three Kingdoms, and Avatar: the Last Airbender. Ken calls this fantasy sub-genre silkpunk but whatever the name it's a must-read. If it doesn't get some very serious award consideration next year, I'll eat my hat. And since I don't wear hats, I will buy one just for that purpose and then devour it with ketchup. But, trust me, I won't have to do that. Because The Grace of Kings is that good.

You've written a truly amazing number of short stories - around sixty in the past four or five years. I'm truly envious! How do you fuel such creativity?

It's actually more like 80 since 2010 -- I sold around 75 of them! My secret is, most of them are super short. I write lots and lots of flash because I'm very busy with my day job and don't have nearly enough time to write. A good flash story can be written in one or two sittings and it's easy to conceptualize -- I can keep the entire plot in my head.

My other secret is coffee. I didn't use to drink much of it before I began writing, but now I'm addicted. A cup clears my mind and lets the words flow. I like to joke that coffee deserves co-author credit on much of my work. Hey, I even co-wrote a coffee story with Alavro Zinos-Amaro which was published-where else? -- in Nature! And I also edited an entire coffee anthology.

I guess that like many writers you are always on the lookout for quirky ideas from everyday life you can turn into a story. Is everyday life a good source of stories, or do your best ideas come out of nowhere?

No idea appears in the vacuum. They all come from somewhere -- be it everyday life, another book, or magazine article you're reading. Personally I like to take a page from George R.R. Martin's playbook and use history in a lot of my stories. Especially the shorter, clever flash pieces where I can play with historical bits, like "True Love," "Notes on the Game in Progress, Played Almost to a Draw" or "The Epistolary History." I love history and constantly learn cool things from reading it that are more interesting than most fiction. Then I steal them and turn them into fiction.

What's on your iPod?

I no longer have one, what with all the streaming services and an extra-roomy micro SD card in my phone. My favorite music is by Queen, Billy Joel, the Beatles, Leonard Cohen, and Chris de Burgh, to name a few. But I'm happy to just turn on a classic rock, pop music, or even classical music station on the radio and just let the DJ pick for me.

Authors have their favourite lengths. I once commissioned some flash fiction from Kim Stanley Robinson - when he was overdue his response was 'my natural length is 800 pages, not 800 words!' (he delivered.) The sadly departed Iain M. Banks  didn't respond to my letters but when I met him in person at a con (he was the sweetest, nicest person you could meet)  he confessed that flash fiction wasn't something he could turn his mind to. Some authors, such as Charles Stross or Neil Gaiman, seem to be able to do the lot. The short story, even the short-short, seems to be your favourite format. Any chance of a novella? A novel? A galaxy-spanning occult horror magical space opera?

My natural length definitely tends to be a flash story, but I'm working on that! Lately I've been writing longer short stories (and by longer, I mean around 6000 words. That's really long for me.) I even have one novelette at 12,200 words, which is the longest complete thing I've written to date.

I'm working on a novel which I hope will be a bit under 100,000 words when it's done. It's called Eridani's Crown and I like to describe it as the character arc of Breaking Bad meets the political intrigue of Game of Thrones. It's about the woman who manages what Alexander the Great and Ghenghis Khan couldn't, and takes over her entire world. She's smart and she starts out doing things for all the right reasons, but over the course of the story she definitely transforms into a villain. There's lots of politics and intrigue. and an occasional battle or two -- but it's not military fantasy. Although she is a warlord, the story is about power and responsibility, and hard decisions. And it's grimdark with not even a little humor. Which might not have been the wisest move for me. My next novel will be funnier!

So, tell us - when will we be able to read it?

It might be finished before Hell freezes over, but I can't make any guarantees.

You are a world-famous, bestselling author with a cabinet full of Hugo and Nebula awards. You are on a plane on the way to a con when you overhear two passengers in the seats in front discuss your work. What do you do?

I would definitely butt in without introducing myself and proceed to discuss the book in question and analyze it, and bring up authors who might have written something similar but did it better. And at the end of the flight, I'd give them signed copies of whatever my latest book was and enjoy the expression on their faces.

I'm not writing for the money. In fact, I don't want it to be my full time job, because then I won't enjoy it as much. But I'm totally in it for the praise and nothing keeps me going better than a reader telling me they liked my story. So I would soak up whatever fame or recognition my writing can get me like a sponge, and not feel even a little bit self-conscious about it.

You love stories of magic and wizardry, in a modern urban setting - urban fantasy I guess. I enjoy your stories about the magic-free wizard Conrad Brent, and your tales about the magical pawn shop, the location for the title story 'Explaining Cthulhu to Grandma'. Where do you get your influences for these stories?

Many people have told me that the Conrad Brent stories read just like Jim Butcher's Harry Dresden books. So, after being told this by at least a dozen readers, I finally read a Harry Dresden novel. It's good stuff, but I hadn't read any Butcher when I wrote those stories. Instead, they were heavily influenced by Simon R. Green's Nightside books and Sergey Lukyanenko's Night Watch (I even named Brent's organization The Watch in homage). They are exactly the kind of story I want to tell -- unpretentious, fun, adventurous romps with a healthy dose of humor thrown in.

The Magic Pawn Shop stories were inspired by watching Pawn Stars, a "reality" show about a Las Vegas pawn shop I enjoyed until I found out most (all?) of it was staged. The family dynamics on that show inspired the family dynamics between Sylvia and her somewhat overbearing grandmother.

When Gary Larson first drew a cartoon of a cow his reaction was that he had more than a cow, he had a career. Do you think that Conrad Brent, for example, or the pawn shop, could pay out in many more stories?

I've always envisioned the Conrad Brent stories as a series, and eventually a novel. In fact, I have much of the novel outlined and will likely write it once Eridani's Crown is finished (or I will go back to one of the other half-dozen projects that are rattling around in my brain!). "Explaining Cthulhu to Grandma" on the other hand, was a big surprise. I wrote most of it in one day and while I was pleased with the story, I never imagined it would become so successful and even lead to my first award nomination. On the other hand, some of the stories I thought were among my best work and would put me on some sort of map remain rather obscure. Writers are notoriously bad at judging their own work. That's why we have editors!

What's the most interesting thing in your fridge?

Three different kinds of milk. Yes, I realize this is an incredibly boring answer. But at least you didn't ask me about my walk-in freezer. (Which I actually don't have but it sounds far more interesting, doesn't it?)

Like many writers of horror and SF you tip your hat to H. P. Lovecraft. Some people shy away from Lovecraft on the grounds that he was the most appalling racist. Is that something that worries you, or can you separate an artist's creations from his or her life and views?

To be honest, I'm not at all a fan of H.P. Lovecraft's writing. I think his prose is tedious and his worldview depressing, even before you consider his racism. I respect his worldbuilding ability in creating a unique mythology that isn't just Greek or Egyptian or Japanese with serial numbers filed off, but that's about it. Part of the story is me trying to work out what the fascination is with Cthulhu, by mocking it with various indignities (Pawn it! Shove it into a snow globe! Suggest selling it off by the pound to the sushi chains!)

The title story of the collection and much of my humorous writing isn't about Cthulhu, it's about making fun of popular tropes and cultural phenomena, and Lovecraftian mythos is firmly in that category today. 

Have you ever had to explain Cthulhu to your Grandma?

Unfortunately neither of my grandmothers are with us, but I've had to try and explain Cthulhu to a few non-speculative readers and it was an interesting experience, and one I definitely drew upon when writing the scene where Sylvia actually has to do it.

I will say one thing; it's far preferable to having to explain Grandma to Cthulhu.

I'm writing to you in the Days of Awe, those ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur during, which in Jewish tradition, you have the chance to alter your fate in the Book of Life - the basis of your tale "Fate and Other Variables" [released in the November issue of Galaxy's Edge, and in the anthology]. If you could do just one thing to make the world a better place, what would it be?

Were it within my power, I would make it so people would become more open to considering and respecting opposing points of view. So many of our problems are caused by radicalization and refusal to talk to the opposite side. And although I don't have such power, I'd argue that the advent of the Internet was the best thing to happen to our civilization in recent decades. With unprecedented access to other cultures and other parts of the world, people have better opportunities to learn about each other, and individuals gain a voice. I posited this in "Notes on the Game in Progress, Played Almost to a Draw" and while I realize my view of the global communications network is more rosy than that of many, I will gladly debate this.

Have you anything to declare?

I feel incredibly fortunate to be a part of SF/F fandom, and to interact with authors I've read growing up who helped shape my worldview. I will never forget the sense of wonder instilled in me by reading them in translation. Now that I've become an author myself, the most important criteria I have for my stories is: would the thirteen-year-old me back in the Soviet Union enjoy reading this?