The Aphelion Interview:
By Jeff Williams
McCamy Taylor's first story for Aphelion, "Becoming Estevan", was published in issue 15. Afterwards, there came a more or less constant supply of increasingly ambitious, increasingly enigmatic pieces. Now, new stories grace our pages nearly every month, challenging us to think and feel in new ways and to see the other side of the story, the voice previously unsung, the truth previously unstated.
Her approaches to writing have, I dare say, influenced and inspired a number of us to cross and combine genres and to blur the boundaries, all with the purpose of arriving at new ways of telling stories and at richer methods for portraying characters. So without further adieu, let me introduce you to one of the most unique voices in webfiction, McCamy Taylor...
Q: How did you discover Aphelion?
A: From Cary Semar.
Q: When and where was your first story published? Have you ever been paid for your work in any medium?
A: "Cora Dreams of Me" was my first published story. It appeared in Dragon's Lair. I got a 10 dollar check this spring for coming in second in a Valentine poetry contest. Other than that, I have not been paid for anything I have written
Q: About how long have you been writing?
A: I co-authored a book of poems and short stories called "Gleams and Dreams" with my best friend when I was in third grade, so at least since I was eight. I think I was telling stories and luring my friends into imaginary worlds of my own creation before I could write. I started writing as an exercise in artistic expression (i.e at home, not for a grade or teacher's approval) when I was around 12.
Q: What led you to start writing?
A: The sixty thousand dollar question. In my case, the southern story telling tradition is probably a major factor. Everyone in my family is a storyteller. The main difference between me and them--I was motivated to start writing the stories down.
Also, I like to write stories for myself. As in "I wish someone would write a story about that."
Q: Initially, what were the types of writing that held the greatest attraction to you? How have your tastes changed (if at all) since you began to write?
A: During my teenage years, I wrote poetry almost exclusively. Lots of poetry. Then, in college, I wrote this poem which seemed to sum up everything I was trying to say with poetry, so I made a more or less conscious decision to move on to fiction. I started backwards, writing and re-writing the same novels over the course of about 10 years. In the last two years or so, I found myself increasingly drawn to the short story, which in some ways seems to combine the best of poetry and long fiction.
I write speculative fiction, sci-fi and fantasy almost exclusively. Don't ask me why. Okay, you can ask me why. There is this game that literature pulls. It attempts to be "realistic." Why? Fiction (and even nonfiction, in a certain sense) is fiction. Why try to deny this fact? Why not revel in the freedom which is afforded by the ability to apply pen to paper or fingertips to key pad and create a new world?
Q: What subjects did your poetry tend to cover, and what was it about that one particular poem you mentioned that seemed to bring that area of writing to closure for you?
A: No particular topic. I still write poems from time to time, so it was not really my last poem, however, after I completed it, I decided that the genre would not take me any farther and I would not take the genre any farther. The poem was about different ways of looking at entropy/chaos/randomness. There is the "Oh dear, if we and our works cease to exist what becomes of us?"school of thought. However, I prefer the "If there is no Meaning then I am free to create meaning" viewpoint.
Q: Who would say were and are the greatest influences for you with your writing?
A: When I was 5, my aunt read me "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" and parts of "The Fellowship of the Ring" . I adored the Tolkien and liked the Lewis. When I was old enough to stumble through the Narnia Chronicles, I started reading them. A few years later, I read the Tolkien.
The next big influence came when I read "Ulysses" in High School. If Tolkien was literature as great story telling, Joyce was literature as art. From Joyce I moved on to Wolfe and Faulkner. One lesson I learned from these writers--write what you want to write, not what you are told to write. If you want to write it, chances are, someone wants to read it.
The biggest influence is William Blake. Blake is the greatest writer and philosopher who has ever lived. I have written two novels in which he is the inspiration as well as a character, and I would love to write more. The man can not be praised highly enough or read widely enough.
Q: What is it about William Blake that placed him in so lofty a position in your eyes?
A: Do you want the long answer or the short answer? The short answer is "Read his poetry." The "Marriage of Heaven and Hell" is a good place to start--very accessible, no elaborate mythology to decipher.
The long answer: Blake was a great philosopher who happened to be a great poet, as well. Therefore, he says important things succinctly, eloquently. Much like Lao Tsu. He was a mystic in the Age of Reason. He questioned everything. He was not afraid to take positions which made him appear ridiculous or even insane to others. He was intensely compassionate. He had incredible powers of perception that allowed him to cut straight to the heart of any subject. Fortunately for him, he also was a fine artist. I suspect that it was the recognition of his artistic talent in his own day that enabled him to keep writing so that people one hundred years after his birth could begin to appreciate his poetry.
Q: What types of experiences (personal and other) do you draw on when you are searching for ideas for your work?
A: Since I am a doctor, my sci-fi is heavily weighted towards medicine and biology. The intimacy between people and their physicians has also allowed me to learn a lot about human nature which helps when creating characters and thinking about their motivation and reactions. I am not very good at creating villains, probably because for family doctors, there are no villains, just patients who need help.
I have also had a fascination with archeology, anthropology, history, mythology and the occult since I was a child. Much of my writing has been influenced by my lifelong, informal study of these topics. For instance, I may approach a riddle of anthropology like "what happened to the neanderthal" as a starting point for a story.
Q: How long have you been a physician? Are there any other ways in which you feel your background has influenced your writing?
A: Fourteen years counting residency. At the moment, I can not think of any other influences.
Q: Authors have an almost infinite number of methods for writing. How would you say your writing process works?
A: I also have many different ways of writing. Most commonly, my fiction starts as a small kernel of an idea--say a character in conflict. Or even a title. Currently, my brain is mulling over a story that as yet has no plot, cast of characters, or even setting. All it has is the title, "Mother of Beauty" from the Wallace Stevens line "Death is the mother of beauty." I know myself well enough to be fairly certain that sometime next month or next year, this tiny seed will suddenly give birth to a story. However, the waiting process can be anywhere from a day or two to a year or two.
I find that mulling over an idea before I go to sleep often helps me to clarify it .
In the old days, I used to spend a lot of time writing and erasing, writing and erasing. Nowadays, I am more likely to have a clear idea of what I want to write before I sit down at the computer. I am also more ruthless about deleting prose that is not taking the story in the right direction.
Q: On your website, you call your writing "Millennium Fiction." For the benefit of Aphelion's readers, how do you define Millenium fiction, and what made you decide to take this route?
A: I liked the way "McCamy Taylor, Millenium Fiction" sounded. Also, most of my novels are set at the end of a millenium (first, second or third) and deal with the human urge to define the world and "old" and "new" as well as the human reaction to change. I like the way that people can adapt to almost anything. I also worry about the way they use this as an excuse to make enormous changes in the earth and in the way we live. Sure, we adapt to change. Does that mean that change is always better?
Q: You have mentioned in the Lettercol that you are fascinated by alternatives, and you have followed up on this with several of your writings, most recently "My Intended" where you revisited some of the ideas and settings from Heart of Darkness. You also allowed me to read "Psyche" [published in this issue] where you revisited Molly Bloom from Ulysses. Why are you so interested in alternatives, and when did you first become interested?
A: Growing up in the sixties, I learned that there are at least two sides to every argument. The more someone seems to be insisting that there is only one valid point of view, the more I search for another, equally valid point of view. Questioning authority was a virtue back then. As the children of the sixties assume political power, I suspect that questioning authority will become a virtue again. (From a practical point of view, taking a status quo position or character and turning it on its head is often an easy way to find new material. Speculative fiction requires novelty.)
Q: You also seem fascinated by issues of gender (focusing on Kurtz's intended for instance, and the genderless creatures in "Othello Jones"). Would you say this is true? If so, why?
A: As above, I like to present alternatives. There is more written by men than women. In "Othello Jones" the genderless creatures were really more a plot devise than anything else--I wanted Iago to be able to become Iaga, to provide the character with motivation.
I have been toying around with the idea of writing a first person story about a true hermaphrodite whose people have been destroyed through a deliberate act of genocide and who must now find a new place for him/herself in a two gender world. If I do it, the story will certainly involve a lot of exploration of gender issues.
Q: I asked this question of Kate Thornton and was thoroughly (though politely, LOL) chastised by her in her response. However, I feel I should ask this again! Do you feel there has been a certain gender inequality in science fiction/fantasy writing? Why aren't there more women writing in this genre?
A: There used to be very few women writer's period. Currently, fantasy seems to have as many women authors as any other genre (except romance which is almost entirely women) There is a lack of female voice in the "hard" sci-fi genre, but I wonder if this is due to the fact that women seem to stay away from "the hard sciences" and engineering in droves.
Q: Why do you feel that women are staying away from the hard sciences?
A: At the risk of offending some women, in my experience many females either have a 1)mental block against math and math related science--perhaps because of society's expectations or2)their brains are wired so that they excel in language skills but not in math skills. I think it is a combination of both. I had a pre-med friend in college who made great grades in everything except calculus in which she made a C. She took it over, tried really hard--and made a C.
Q: Another common theme in your work seems to be death and rebirth. In "Marie Kelly", for instance, a prostitute has become Jack the Ripper so that the murdered women will be remembered. In "Sister Death", a person dies and then emerges in the afterlife with a new mission. In "Becoming Estevan", two lovers killed in an accident find themselves alive and well though changed, reborn in new artificial bodies. Why, do you think, is this theme so prevalent in your work?
A: "Marie Kelly" is actually one of the "alternative" stories I mentioned above. The others do indeed reflect an intense fascination with death. This started after I began to study Mexican Day of the Dead rituals and then attended Day of the Dead celebrations in Mexico City. Why, I asked myself, do Mexicans choose to bring death into life? After reflection, I realized that the real question is why do we north of the border insist upon excluding it? At this point my sixties "question authority" programming took over, and I thought "Is there anything to be gained by embracing death as St. Francis did when he said 'Welcome, Sister Death.'" The answer so far has been "yes." I have completed two more stories in the "Sister Death" series and plan to write more. When it is done, I envision it as a novel length collection of entertwined stories.
My most disturbing story about death is probably "Behold, I Come Quickly" which was published last year in "Little Read Writer's Hood."
Q: What are the Mexican Day of the Dead celebrations like? Is there anything at all that even comes close to it in the United States?
A: Day of the Dead is derived from pre-Colombian rituals in which the living remember the dead, offer them food, drink, etc. In essence, for two days, the living and the dead come together. It is not like Halloween. It is more like Christmas. Every business has its Day of the Dead altar the way businesses in the US all have a Christmas tree. People fix special dinners with special foods. Everyone tries to go home for the big celebration--it is a family holiday.
I attended a fabulous celebration in the town Mixqic (?spelling) which is about an hour south of Mexico City. This town goes all out for Day of the Dead. In addition to having a big carnival ( I swear it was attended by every single citizen of Mexico City. Talk about traffic jams) they have an exquisite cemetery display. Within the walls of the church cemetery, it was absolutely quiet (in contrast to the carnival outside). Every grave was completely covered with flowers and candles. Incense filled the air with perfume and a faint haze that made the candlelight diffuse, so that a golden glow seemed to bathe the earth. Most of the graves were the sites of family picnics/vigils. I have never seen anything manmade as beautiful as that church yard that night. In concept it was a bit like passing through one of those neighborhoods in which each house is decorated to the max with Christmas lights, the neighbors trying to outdo each other and in the process making a display that attracts visitors from all over.
Day of the Dead celebrations north of the border are beginning to receive more attention, esp. in southern California and Texas.
Q: Where do you see yourself going with your writing in the future?
A: How I wish I had a crystal ball! Then I would know which of the dozens of projects which are floating around inside my head are worthy of attention.
I am having so much fun working with the greater freedom of the short story genre that it is hard to imagine going back to the novel. As above, I want to work on the "Sister Death" series until I run out of ideas.lP>I have recently published a non-fiction work about HMOs under another name. I have considered writing more medical consumer books. I also would like to write one of those desktop calenders/daily meditations books/diaries using quotes from William Blake followed by brief discussions or meditations on his word with a blank section for people to write their own ideas.
Q: Do you find it harder to write fiction or nonfiction?
A: Nonfiction is easier because the audience is clearly defined. Fiction is more fun, because there are fewer rules.
Q: The world seems to be becoming more and more fantastic and unreal by the day. The pace of change now is greater than at any other time this side of Renaissance. Science-fiction/fantasy, by its definition, mines that fantastic and unreal territory. As the world changes, as technology evolves, as societies mature, in what directions do you think these genres will go in the future?
A: As I mentioned above, people create the changes, and we perceive them, sometimes when they are not really there. Why would we want the world to change? Presumably because we are dissatisfied with the way it is now. From this, I speculate that we will see more Utopian fiction and Apocalyptic fiction If the current technologic revolution ever sputters to a stop, I suspect that we'll see less technology based sci-fi. But if scientists keep inventing at their present furious pace, each new change in our lifestyle from a new invention will spawn more fiction about the possible consequences of this change. I think medical science is about to become extremely sophisticated and at that point we will see even more medical and biological based sci-fi.
Copyright 1999: Jeff Williams is attempting to forge in the smithy of his soul the uncreated
consciousness of all people. In the meantime, he watches airplanes and trains, listens to and plays
music, and tries to write a little as well. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org