Today I am interviewing Molly Tabachnikov, a science fiction writer whose work delves into current issues of gay marriages and educational hamstringing. And that is the job of good science fiction, wouldn’t you say? To create a futuristic tale that engages yet echoes current societal problems?
I couldn’t agree more.
As one science fiction writer to another, how do you choose names for your characters? Do you make them up so they will stand out? Do they need to be alien? Do you choose names for their meanings in Baby Name books?
Choosing characters’ names is never easy for me. As a writer of science fiction, I have to invent names that are different enough from current ones so that they seem to be either futuristic or alien. However, they also have to be accessible to my readers. I therefore grab names, either of friends, enemies or just those that appear in the news, and give them a twist. Checking Baby Name books is a useful tool.
My first novel was set in contemporary New York, though, so I didn’t have that difficulty. The name of the main character, Fox Monroe, was not one I chose. The story came from a writing workshop I attended in which the facilitator asked us to pick two slips of paper, one from each of two bowls. One slip had characters’ names, the other titles. We had to create stories based on that name and title. I selected the slip with Fox Monroe as the character, and the one with Whispers in the Night as the title. As soon as I read the name, I envisioned Fox, his red hair and golden eyes. His story unfolded from there.
In the novel I’m writing now, Lessons in Space, my main character is very different. Mylla is a teacher in the 26th century. Her name simply appeared in my head (perhaps a variation of my own first name). Other characters, like Jorey, Shan, or Vesta, were slight twists on contemporary names. But the characters on the planet Haven, which is closer in appearance and lifestyle to our own time, had to have names that are in use today. What people are called, whether in fiction or in real life, has to reflect when and where they live.
Interesting. I never thought of choosing names by using slips of paper in a bowl. Tell me about your settings. How do you choose those? Do you base your settings on real places? Do you research your settings to be sure they are scientifically plausible? Or do you simply make them up?
Most of my stories, whether short fiction or novel length, start as a vision that pops into my mind and won’t go away. That was the case with the short story, The Way It Should Be, in my collection of the same name. I saw the image of a woman in a futuristic pressure suit (very different from the ones we have today, sleeker and far more flexible) standing on a red planet. The story told itself.
That’s not to say that I don’t “research” my settings, although it’s not the kind of study we think of. Most of my imagined places are the result of almost sixty years of reading and watching sci-fi. But to make those places seem realistic does take true research. When building a world, as I do in Lessons in Space, I had to investigate the classification of stars and the kind of light we think they emit. This influences the colors of the sky and the vegetation, as well as how large the “sun” of that world looks to its inhabitants. Gravity is another factor¾how it affects the human body and psyche.
Isaac Asimov once said in an interview that to make an alien world seem real, the writer has to imagine the details. How does it smell? What does the air feel like? How does gravity affect the way a person walks? All of this has to be thought through and set down in an outline.
That’s what makes writing science fiction so exciting. You’ve written several stories. How do you choose that all-important title? Do you choose a title first and stick with it or do you write under a working title?
The title is supposed to be the first “grab” that entices a reader. I know that when I choose something to read for pleasure, that’s what hooks me. I’ve spent countless hours in bookstores or on the net perusing titles, like a kid in the bakery choosing exactly the right treat.
Nevertheless, I’ve never spent a lot of time working on my own. As I mentioned, the title of my first novel, WHISPERS IN THE NIGHT, was mandated in a workshop. I rather liked it, as it gives the correct air of mystery that suits a story of a telepath. Most of the time, the title of a story or novel suggests itself to me as I write it. In my short story collection, The Way It Should Be, most of the titles came to me that way, like Not of Woman Born or The Memory Machine.
Sometimes, though, the title evolves. The story Almost Paradise was originally What I Did on My Summer Vacation, and the short story Lessons started as Back to School. My current novel was first named Hey, Teach (in memory of my years of teaching in New York City) before it became Lessons in Space. In this case, I was hesitant to rename the work. The protagonist’s name is Mylla Lessons and she is, as I mentioned before, a teacher. I was afraid that Lessons in Space would be seen as too cutesy. The members of my writing group (Florida) assured me that it wouldn’t be, and so the new name stuck. I’m glad it did.
Now for my final question: What do you do about Writer’s Block?
Wow! Writer’s Block. We’ve all experienced it, the frustration, trying to pull the words out of your head or out of thin air and nothing seems to be right. I don’t think we can prevent it from happening. But there are ways I’ve found to cope with it.
Sometimes I just keep on writing. Usually, though, the stuff that appears on the computer screen under those circumstances is crap and has to be deleted. On occasion it offers some usable material, even if I have to rework it later.
There are times when a short break is useful. Going for a walk helps, or, my old standby, raiding the refrigerator (amazing how it can “feed” the creative process, but it has to be done in moderation). I always know that a story isn’t going well when the number of visits to the kitchen, and my waistline, increases.
Where I write is important. I like to write outside if the weather permits. When I’m in Florida, I set myself up on my patio (if it’s not too hot). I put my computer on the glass-topped table, make sure there are enough cushions on the folding chair to keep my backside comfortable, and make myself something to eat. I try to keep it healthy: a large tray of fresh veggies with a low-calorie dip.
In Massachusetts, my favorite venue is Matt Reilly’s Pub on Lake Pontoosuc. It’s a charming place, with a deck looking out over the hills and the oval lake which is often dotted with boats. There, also, my computer is in front of me and a snack next to it. Unfortunately, the snacks at Reilly’s tend to the bar food variety, heavy on grease, light on nutrition.
In both places, I find it useful to have a glass of Tanqueray gin on the rocks with a slice of lime near to hand. It lubricates the creative centers and relaxes the superego, giving the words an easy path from my brain to the screen. At which point I make sure my spell check app is enabled.
But that’s just me.
I think quite a few writers could relate to that. Thank you, Ms. Tabachnikov, for a fun and informative interview.
You can buy WHISPERS IN THE NIGHT at Amazon. If you are interested in telepathy at all, you should read her book. I loved it.
You can learn more about Molly Tabachnikov at her website.
She is also on Facebook.