New Author Spotlight: John A. McColley
What drew you to writing stories that move across genres? Is this a new direction for your writing?
The story is more important than the tropes that define genres. Much like the arbitrary division of subjects in school, there are always stories which live at those blurry borders between science and fantasy. Fantasy, wonder, what could be but isn’t, these things drive the pursuit of real science, even if they have little place in the lab.
Interstitial/slipstream/genre crossing is a form of rebellion against boxes of all kinds. I like to think it’s the highest form of rebellion. One isn’t simply pushing back against an oppressive force, locked in a combat which defines both sides, but exploring and reaching for all the what ifs, which is what writing is all about. I would say while not everything I’ve written is genre-bending, it is my goal to write more and more consistently beyond genre.
The theme for this issue is Second Contact. Please talk a little about how your story reflects that. Did you write it for the theme, or was it something that you’d already completed that seemed to fit?
While I often end up taking themes at odd angles, I addressed this one head on. The story is about second contact with an alien species when we call them up on the ol’ space phone to ask them back to help us clean up their mess. I did write it for this theme. I find chasing themed issues gives me both a starting point and a deadline which keeps me on track.
The free use of laboratory jargon and medical terms in “All the Pretty Colors” suggests that you are a science enthusiast, either casually or professionally. What’s your science background?
I have always loved science. When I was young, I heard the phrase “knowledge is power” and it really stuck with me. Science is all about gaining knowledge. I studied jugs of pond water, watching the silt settle to the bottom, copepods in their jerky dance. When I learned about chemistry and how everything is made of atoms, biology and the cell, I was hooked and had to know more.
Despite many setbacks, I got a bachelor’s degree in Biology, though it could have easily been Chemistry, Physics or Computer Science, as those also interest me. Since school, I read books on all of the above as well as mysteries such as the Tunguska Explosion and alien abduction, one of the more famous and well documented cases of which, involving the Hills, happened in my home state.
In “All the Pretty Colors” your description of how the infectious agent looks under a microscope reminds me of 3D reconstructions of some viruses and molecules that fold amino acids into proteins. Did the inspiration for the kiji ‘germs’ come from seeing similar imagery? Or did you learn about those kinds of molecular machines afterward, while you were researching your ideas for the kiji?
I’m sure that some of those images stuck with me from my school days. I had cell biology, genetics and immunology courses in which I saw many of these images and read about the mechanisms in texts. I must admit that I often write first and ask questions (or do research) later.
Despite their massively advanced technology, the aliens in “All the Pretty Colors” don’t seem like the condescendingly omniscient entities that often turn up in stories like this one. How were you able to balance them between being relatable characters and truly alien?
In many cases, science is seen as eliminating religion in advanced cultures. Misconceptions about the how and why of the world are subsumed by the reality of heliocentricity and evolution. The Itke cultural beliefs survived and are very inclusive. Everything is a lesser, a part of a greater organism, a larger system, be it kiji or human, a planet or galaxy. We distance ourselves when we can’t see how we are the same, the same nation, the same tribe. To the Itke, we are all within the same universe, which is the greatest of known greaters. It all comes back to recognizing something as “alien” which they don’t do, as a cultural fact.
The humans and aliens in this story navigate a variety of obstacles in order to communicate, including some mismatching with regard to singular vs. plural and gendered pronouns. This seems to reflect the struggle between accommodating innate diversity and enforcing traditionally rigid identities in some human languages and cultures today. Did that element of the story emerge organically during development? Or did you intentionally include it to highlight that the way society frames reality informs how individuals relate to it?
In the first draft, the use of pronouns was a means of making the Itke seem more alien. Once I saw how it played though, it became a more important aspect of the culture and the story. The beauty of organic development is that one may find unexpected truth behind any tentacle, within any flower.
Where is your favorite writing place? Can you draw us a visual picture of the kind of space you create for yourself when you write?
My favorite places to write are the cafés where one can listen to the white noise of conversation, but not be overly distracted by it. If I have the television or radio on at home, I get caught up listening. In the myriad sounds of machinery, traffic, discussion, the door opening and closing, I find my subconscious latches onto useful phrases, idea seeds. The fragmentation limits my distraction from any one source, but offers up fodder for creativity.
What’s the question that you wish someone would ask, but no one ever has?
What would you do with an unlimited amount of money?
What’s the answer to the question in number 8?
I would build my own house-slash-school-slash-lab where I would direct various teams to follow up on my musings about physics and biology. The school part would be open to anyone who wanted to learn and provide hands on experience they could take to the job market. I would do my best to reignite the appreciation of science, knowledge and school that we seem to have lost.
Is there anything I didn’t ask that you think is important or that readers might want to know?
It’s important to support magazines like Crossed Genres. Only by allowing many voices to be heard do we get a full representation of the culture, the voice of our people. I am grateful for the opportunity to have my story seen by so many. Please drop by my facebook, twitter, or blog to let me know what you think.