August 14th, 2012

Marshall Payne

An Interview with Marissa Lingen

An interview with Marissa Lingen

For the last dozen or so years, Marissa Lingen’s fiction has appeared in a host of many diverse places:, Analog, Strange Horizons, Lightspeed Magazine, Beneath Ceaseless Skies and Clarkesworld to name just a few. She’s also a reviewer at Marissa lives in Eagan, Minnesota, a south suburb of the Twin Cities. She blogs on LiveJournal as mrissa.

Could you tell us about your path to becoming a fiction writer? When did you begin and was it something you always knew you wanted to do?

I was one of those kids who was telling stories before I could actually write. My first few stories were dictated to my mom. Coming to it as a profession was another matter. I studied physics pretty seriously, even doing research as an undergrad. I kept writing in my spare time, though. I took writing classes in college partly to have writing time set aside in my schedule. Winning the Asimov Award—what they now call the Dell Award—was a huge deal for me. There's a big leap between writing stories and knowing other people will want them, and having Rick Wilber and the people at Asimov's saying yes, you are a real writer, you write real stories—that mattered a lot when I was 20 and trying to figure it all out. Grad school in nuclear physics turned out to be something I was not temperamentally suited for, and knowing that I actually could do this whole writing thing was really a good thing. I got some nonfiction freelancing work and kept sending out short stories. The rest is very, very gradual history.

In your story “Uncle Flower’s Homecoming Waltz” published earlier this year at, Zal is a century dreamer whose uncle has just come back from the war. What was it that inspired you to tell this unique coming-of-age story about a young girl who can see into the future?

That story is for my godfather in a sort of backwards way. He's only 14 years older than me, and I remember him moving out to California when I was a kid. I remember what a big deal it was at holidays when Dave came home. I wanted to get some of that down on the page, but it required a reason for it to be exciting, because just somebody getting off the plane wasn't going to be enough. The other thing is, at 14 years older than me, Dave was the youngest of the next generation up, so he was someone who always took me seriously and didn't treat me like a dumb kid even when I was being one. So in some ways Uncle Flower's relationship with Zal is a tribute to my godfather because it's an inversion, it's what he didn't make me go through. All the stuff about foreknowledge and dreams and war, that came from what emotional context I wanted for the relationships.

On your website you amusingly say, “Like the bar in the Blues Brothers that has both kinds of music, I write both kinds of fiction, science fiction and fantasy.” Do you have a different approach to each? Does one come more naturally than the other?

I have different moods for each, more than different approaches. They both come very naturally. The differences for me are small and weird. For example, I tend to use my physics training a lot more when I'm writing fantasy than when I'm writing SF. (No, I didn't say that backwards. Quantum mechanics is the best training I know for magic.) Up until recently, I was writing longer fantasy and shorter SF, but I've started to have some longer SF ideas again, and that's been fun. Mostly, though, I start from character relationship and character voice, whether I'm writing SF or fantasy. And I like to write about characters who are trying to figure things out, whether those things fit with our world or with a magical one.

When crafting a story, what elements do you find the easiest? The hardest?

I am terrible—no, really, terrible—at describing setting enough. I always have to go back and revise in setting-description if a piece needs any substantial amount. It's not something I connect to very much in other people's work, but I know that other people do, and I know sometimes it absolutely needs to be there. So that part is hardest for me. Easiest is character voice. That's how I interact best with other work, and it's where my own comes most smoothly and easily. It's actually how I find my way into the harder parts: if I can get a character talking about how they see the world, that's much more useful than how I would see it. Even if it's not a first-person story.

Could you name a few of your literary influences and how they’ve affected your work? Who do you like to read for pleasure, guilty or otherwise?

I try not to feel guilty about my pleasures. I just like the things I like. I read a lot. Really a lot. But you've asked me how, so—Octavia Butler was one of the people who taught me how short stories could really go. I love her Blood Child collection. On a very basic level, Ingri and Edgar D'Aulaire—their Norse Gods and Giants (which has been renamed D'Aulaire's Book of Norse Myths, probably for symmetry with their Greek thing) and Lloyd Alexander's The Kestrel shaped my brain when I was a small child. very bloody ways. People who object to exposing little kids to anything violent are probably recoiling in horror at that one. Emma Bull's War for the Oaks gave me a sense of rootedness in place, and then Pamela Dean's Tam Lin and Juniper, Gentian, and Rosemary really reinforced my sense of friendships (particularly female friendships) and their importance in fiction. There's all sorts of other stuff I love to read but can't articulate how it's affected me at the moment. My favorite new discovery is historian Lynne Olson. I would not describe myself as a WWII buff, but Olson's stuff really grabs my interest. I also love Barbara Hambly's Benjamin January mysteries and Colin Cotterill's Dr. Siri mysteries.

What’s the craziest thing that ever happened to you?

I don't tend to think of myself as leading a very zany life. This is entirely inaccurate. Last summer, for example, I went to pick Tim (timprov) up from the hotel where he was staying near his aunt and uncle's house in California, and while he was getting his things together, it developed into an armed hostage situation in another part of the hotel, and the police had to evacuate us, together with a Francophone family and a very fat dog, going through the back end of a car dealership, and there was a park ranger dispatched to take care of us, but they didn't actually give her tools, just her usual trail maps. This is the sort of thing my brain classifies as "not very zany really." (It's also the sort of answer that doesn't get me in trouble like answering with the name of one relative or another would.)

What are you working on now?

At the moment the big project is a young-adult spy fantasy. The main character is more into the direct spying stuff, and her little sister is the Q to her James Bond. I love to say this to tween and young teen girls, because so far every single one has lit up and bounced and told me which one they would want to be. That's a fun conversation to have. I also have short stuff going all the time. Probably the next thing I finish on that front will either be a science fiction thing called "The Curvature of Every Disorder" or else "The Salt Path," another short story in the universe of "Uncle Flower's Homecoming Waltz," but it's hard to be sure. Short stories mug me a lot. Also I can feel the next big project on the horizon like a prairie storm. It's going to be science fiction for adults, solar-system scale. I know several other pieces of what I'll need to know to make it work. I think it's going to be cool. So far I'm mostly turning over puzzle pieces for the research, though.