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September 16th, 2009

An Interview with Vylar Kaftan

Vylar Kaftan's short fiction has appeared in Realms of Fantasy, Strange Horizons, ChiZine, and Clarkesworld, to name a few. A graduate of Clarion West, she lives with her husband Shannon in northern California. Several of her fine stories are available online, along with her story "Break the Vessel," which is available in print at Transcriptase and on podcast at Pseudopod  She blogs at www.vylarkaftan.net and on Livejournal as vylar_kaftan
Your first name, Vylar, is uncommon. Is there a history behind it?
It's not the name I was born with.  When I was 18, I was changing a lot of things about myself--letting go of bad habits from the past.  I had a very powerful dream—the kind you don't ignore—and I was given this name.  When I woke up, I started to use it right away.  I legally changed it a few years later.
Since people ask, it can be pronounced to rhyme with either "Mylar" or "dialer."  I don't really care.  Friends call me Vy, but when I publish my work, I use my full name.
I'm told it means "sky visitor" in Hindi or some dialect of it, but I haven't been able to verify that.  But the only people that I know of who share the name are an Indian politician and an Indian musician—both of whom are men.  I've never gotten mail from the Selective Service, though.
Tell us a bit about yourself. What's life in California like?
Oh, it's pretty much like anywhere in the US.  We wake up by smoking pot every morning.  Then we consult our horoscopes and see whether it's a good day for ritual magick.  If it is, we head to the woods, slaughter a few goats, and go at it.  Luckily, it's usually warm here.  We eat organic raw tofu, smoke more pot, and forget why we're out here.  We finish the day by corrupting America's youth and pushing the gay agenda on unwilling conservatives.  There's an orgy before bedtime.  Then we move to New Mexico and ruin their property values.  How do you spend your day?
You started writing during elementary school and for the most part haven't stopped. Can you share with us a bit about your development to becoming a published writer
Well, I have an essay coming out in the Broad Universe newsletter next week that discusses this very subject.  The short form is, I was encouraged by my parents and my school.  But in the post-college slump, when so many people suffer a depressing life crisis, I quit for a while.  But eventually I started again.
Any time someone says the secret to success is "Don't quit," I always want to change that to, "Don't quit, but if you do, start again."
I found your story "Break the Vessel" unique in its combination of a scatology theme and a traditional fantasy setting. Could you tell us about why you chose this theme and about the reaction you've received from it?
Oh, there's probably a lot of fantastic poop stories locked away by shy spinsters living alone in garrets.  They just couldn't find publishers.
"Break the Vessel" came from some historical research I did for another project. Louis XIV, the Sun King, is possibly the closest thing European history has to a god-king.  The royal hands were too important to touch the royal butt, so a courtier took care of the dirty work.  Since the courtier would get a few minutes daily alone with the king, he could influence the king's decisions in private.  So this job was highly coveted.
Combined with my general contempt of authority, the story pretty much wrote itself.
Reactions have been almost entirely positive, aside from some people who are really grossed out by bodily functions.
When crafting a story, what elements do you find the easier? The hardest?
The easiest part is characters.  They just appear on the page and flesh themselves out like magic.  Possibly because I've been people-watching forever.  The hardest part is letting go of my own ridiculously high standards and accepting that things are always, always lost in translation from imagination to words—and that's just the nature of the beast.
In much of your writing you seem to prefer an unpretentious, straightforward style. Have you always written like this? Could you tell us your thoughts on the effect you’re trying to achieve on the page when crafting a story?
That's been my preference, though like any writer I've had to improve.
The story happens in the white space.  The words I write define the boundaries of creation.  Therefore my goal is to be as specific as possible in as few words as I can.  Put another way, every word in my stories should be doing three jobs, and if it's not, I fire it.
Ken Rand's book The 10% Solution, along with Nick Mamatas's editorial guidance, revolutionized my work.  Cut excess words.  Once I cut 10% or more from my stories, I started selling them.
Say less.  Do more with each word.  Let each sound resonate with the reader, so that every moment matters.
You write speculative fiction in several different genres. What authors have influenced you the most?
I adore Octavia Butler's commitment to telling stories from lesser-heard perspectives.  I still miss her.  Ray Bradbury taught me that it's okay to slaughter all your characters in a horrible tragedy if you get the reader to care about them first.  Guy Gavriel Kay's work is very different from mine, but I admire his worldbuilding and his passionate characters.  Plus there's some hot sex scenes in some of his books.  Vladimir Nabokov has an unbelievable gift for the English language, which is even more impressive considering that his first novels were in Russian.  None of my Russian efforts made it very far beyond "Where is the train station, please?" and "I find your stomach very attractive."
Many authors have influenced me in other ways, which can be summarized as, "Don't go like that."
What's the craziest thing that's ever happened to you? 
I was working at a small company of 11 people.  Through casual chat, we discovered that 10 of the 11 of us were gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgendered.  We wondered about our boss—a stunning blond woman—but no one wanted to ask her.  One night, I went to a lesbian bar with a friend.  I'd heard there would be a stripper that night.  When the stripper came out... it was my boss.
No joke. This happened.  
What are you working on now?
Not punching Glenn Beck in the face.  Also, worldbuilding for a novel which I plan to write during this fall and winter.  Plus a super-secret project that I can't talk about, but no one will get punched.

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