Thu 6 Mar 2014
by Susan Tepper
Stephen V. Ramey lives in beautiful New Castle, Pennsylvania, once the tin plating capitol of the world. His work has appeared in various places, including Strange Horizons, Daily Science Fiction, and Liquid Imagination. He edits the annual Triangulation anthology from Parsec Ink, and the speculative twitterzine, trapeze. Find him at http://www.stephenvramey.com.
Susan Tepper: “Glass Animals” is a provocative title for a story collection. Do you feel that we, as individuals, represent glass animals? The combining of the two words is compelling because it is somewhat of a contradiction, if you think of animals in terms of wild animals.
Stephen V. Ramey: Thanks, Susan! Provocative is good, right? “Glass Animals” is one of the stories collected in the anthology and my first impulse was to name the book Glass Animals and Other Stories. It struck me in that moment that the entire collection fits the bill. What I was creating was a glass menagerie, a display of unique characters miniaturized for flash, arranged carefully within their respective niches. Pick them up, though, turn them on your palm, and imperfections appear: fissures and lumps and tiny flaws of form. The figures might crack under scrutiny, or perhaps become even more beautiful, but, yes, I did look for ways to expose hidden truths, one by one by one.
ST: Provocative is very good, Stephen!
SVR: We are glass animals. A veneer of civilized behavior glossed over animal urge makes us fragile.
ST: Your answer here raises that issue of why people still engage in atrocious forms of behavior toward other humans. Such as genocides and ethnic cleansings. Some social scientists have written that it’s stamped into the DNA. Do you go along with that hypothesis?
SVR: Ah, nature or nurture. It’s never that simple, I think, but yes I do believe there is a genetic component to our behaviors. In the 90′s I attended a lecture by a Richard Alexander, a prominent Animal Behavior researcher. He looked into the audience, which consisted largely of young scientists, and said, “Whichever of you identifies the gene responsible for we-they thinking, will be famous.” He called the issue of tribalism the single biggest problem facing humanity, and encouraged young scientists to engage in research to identify its core causes and find ways to mitigate its impact in the world.
ST: It sounds like a fascinating lecture. I’m so interested in this sort of thing and how it impacts us, and of course then it impacts the art we make.
SVR: In an increasingly global, technologically advanced civilization, this tribal impulse can cause huge problems. The thinking that: My religion is right, my country is best, my skin color is more evolved. Troubling. To me, this is similar to addictive personality, in which the first step to overcoming the behavior is to recognize that it exists, with the goal of blunting the impulse before it can manifest.
ST: Speaking of troubling behavior, let’s discuss your story Sacred in This Light. This story is lyrical prose with legs, one that creeps up on the reader. It’s a story of a profound misdeed. You wrote:
The ground is a battlefield of shadow and light. Do worms worship flame? Will ants build monuments to this night?
Despite everything going on this story, I didn’t hate your character. I should have, but you turned me! And I still don’t know how you did. Rather, I found myself startled and absorbed by it all.
SVR: I think the attraction of this particular character is that he sees the wonder of the world around him; he feels the passion we long to feel in our lives. That’s an attractive quality, at least until we think through what he’s actually done, the real consequences of it. One of the things I try very hard to do in the stories I write is to understand the motives of my characters at a deep level. I need to love them before I can do them justice on the page.
ST: Yes! We need to ‘love’ our characters, whether they are good, bad or indifferent in their made up worlds. It’s the only way to move them through the pages as alive, believable, realistic beings— not cardboard cut-outs.
Another favorite of mine in the collection is Collision Course. It starts off straightforward, then keels into another realm. You wrote:
Ralph’s wife left him for a plumber. He did more than snake their shower drain, it turns out.
Did you, as its author, know the story would veer into this other zone? Sort of like The Twilight Zone.
SVR: Ah, poor Ralph… alas, I knew him well. I wrote this story to a visual prompt, as I do for so many of my short pieces. The prompt was a photograph of an outdoor seating area for one of those posh downtown restaurants with the table umbrellas and waiters in white uniforms carrying drinks on trays. I will never understand how this morphed into:
Ralph drives a bus for the city.
But it did, and the story just ignited after that. This is how it often works. I’ll throw a line onto the page and it will interest me, and I’ll follow it up with another that interests me, and all of a sudden I have this morbid philosopher bus driver taking down notes on the shadow forms of reality while he drives a bus through his normal route. It was the shadow forms that threw me onto a new course, and Ralph’s sense of victimization that drove the story to its almost inevitable conclusion from there. This was an intense writing experience. Ralph was just so real to me in his disconnect.
Back to your question, though. No, I had no idea this story would veer as it did. It just sort of took over.
Susan Tepper has authored 5 published books. The latest is a novel in stories called The Merrill Diaries, from Pure Slush Books. She is a named finalist in storySouth Million Writers Award for 2013, was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in fiction (2010), and nine times for the Pushcart Prize. Tepper is a staff editor at Flash Fiction Chronicles where she conducts the interview series UNCOV/rd. www.susantepper.com