Speculative San Antonio: Science Fiction Author KB Rylander

San Antonio author KB Rylander has won the Jim Baen Memorial Award.

I met KB Rylander a couple years ago at Armadillcon, simply excited to run into yet another San Antonio author at the convention.

Turns out KB wasn’t just another emerging writer from the Alamo City, but a very good emerging writer from the Alamo City. By the time I sat down at the bar with her at the next Armadillocon, her short story “We Fly” had won the 2015 Jim Baen Memorial Short Story Award.

The work I’ve read from her so far explores some familiar sf tropes like uploaded consciousness and generation ships, but always with an engaging focus on the humanity of its characters. The people in her stories feel real and idiosyncratic — and as a result it’s easy to become absorbed in her prose.

Make no mistake, KB Rylander is a writer to watch.

In addition to being your first professional publication, your story “We Fly” won the Jim Baen Short Story Award. Could you talk a little about what the award is, about your story and why it appealed to the judges?

The Jim Baen Memorial Short Story Award is sponsored by Baen Books and the National Space Society and is for near-future science fiction involving manned space exploration. Anyone can enter who hasn’t already won and there is no entry fee, so check it out!

My story “We Fly” is about a woman whose consciousness was uploaded into an interstellar probe to search for habitable planets. After decades of travel she awakens at her destination but something is wrong. She has unknown errors in her processors and her memories are giving her contradictory clues.

My idea for this story came from the logistics of exploring planets outside our solar system and how probes make sense given the extraordinary travel times. That said, since communication with earth might take years those probes are going to have to be highly intelligent and self-sufficient. When I decided to use an uploaded human mind the central idea for this story popped into my head. I can’t say what that idea was because it spoils the ending, but it allowed me to have a lot of fun writing memories that the character experiences within the story and give clues within those flashbacks.

I think it appealed to the judges because the reader is anchored close to the human struggles of the characters while still having a cool science fiction premise. I suspect it also did well because of the strength of the last couple of lines. That last image you leave a reader makes a huge impact in their overall satisfaction of the piece. I lucked out on this one because “We Fly” was one of those stories that just gave me the right ending before I’d even finished the first draft.

Writing is sort of a family business, from what I understand, as your mom also wrote (or still writes) fiction. How did growing up around a writing parent prepare you for what you’re doing now?

My mother is a writer and was writing seriously when I was a kid. She has unfortunately taken a twenty year break but I’m trying to nudge her back into it!

Even though I wasn’t planning to be a writer myself, I often attended writing conferences and lectures with my mom and occasionally sat in on her writers group listening to everyone give critiques.

We were a family of readers and my mom always talked about what was good writing and what wasn’t, and I listened and learned.

Needless to say, she has been a huge influence on my writing.

I think part of my hesitance to pursue it myself was seeing how difficult it is to succeed, but that has also prepared me to have realistic expectations.

How long have you been writing and when did you start sending out work for publication?

I never thought I wanted to be a writer, but looking back all the signs were there. I’ve been writing stories for fun my whole life, but got serious about it five years ago after my daughter was born.

My whole childhood I thought I was going to be a scientist, but by college my interests had shifted to history and linguistics. I kept running into the same problem that I hated the idea of specializing in any one field. At some point I realized a writer can do All The Things.

That said, it felt like an impossible goal because there are so many people trying to make it in this field and so few people succeed. I decided to give it my all and gave myself permission to fail, which I needed.

I spent the first couple of years of serious writing working on novels and shifted over to short stories in 2013. I started submitting them in 2014.

So far, I’ve only read short work from you. Are you working on any novel-length projects?

I have a young adult novel in the works.  It’s near future science fiction about a genetically engineered teenage girl trying to keep her siblings alive after 99% of Earth’s population drops dead.

I wrote the zero draft in 2011 and 2012 and put it aside. I rewrote half of it in November and hope to get it ready for submission this year.

Do you only write science fiction or do you work in other genres as well?

Most of what I write is science fiction but I write some fantasy.  I dabble with non-speculative fiction as well.

I feel most comfortable with middle grade and young adult because I’ve read so much more of it. I can’t picture myself writing a novel that isn’t MG or YA but you never know.

Who are some of the writers whose work inspired you, and what have you learned from them?

This is a tough question because there are so many wonderful books and short stories that have inspired me in different ways.

Honestly I think it’s teachers who inspired me more than anyone else.  My mother is one.  Another is my eighth grade English teacher Kim McIntire who introduced me to a ton of classic science fiction. We spent a whole semester just on Ray Bradbury works. We read The Martian Chronicles and Dandelion Wine and dozens of his short stories.

My high school English teacher Tess Morris was probably the best teacher I ever had, college included.  She challenged me and we read a lot of great literature.  My favorite was As I Lay Dying. I loved Faulkner’s use of POV and how he tossed rules out the window. One of our assignments was to write missing chapters of the novel. I had a lot of fun playing with strange POVs and stream-of-consciousness. From there I went on a Faulkner binge and was first introduced to the concept of a circular structure reading Light in August. Frankly, I hated that novel, but it started me thinking about writing in a different way.

In college I devoured the Harry Potter series and loved it much as I loved Lord of the Rings as a kid. In those books the writing just needs to get out of the way so the reader can immerse in the story.

The Book Thief is one of my favorite books and I put it right up there with To Kill a Mockingbird. The writing is just so darn beautiful. If I could write half that well one day I’ll die happy.

What’s next for KB Rylander? Where else can readers find your work?

I’ve got a short story coming out in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction sometime this year.  It’s called “Last One Out.”  It’s about the last woman on Earth and her robot companion and is set in Sweden, where I spend a lot time.  It’s one of my favorite things I’ve written.


Speculative San Antonio: Kij Johnson reading and signing at The Twig

Next weekend, The Twig Book Shop will host a reading and signing by one of contemporary sf and fantasy’s most respected authors.

Multi-award winning writer Kij Johnson will read from her short story collection At the Mouth of the River of Bees on Friday, Jan. 15, at 6 p.m. The Twig is located at 306 Pearl Parkway, Ste. 106, San Antonio TX 78215.

Kij Johnson is a winner of the Hugo, Nebula and World Fantasy Awards. In addition to her World Fantasy Award-nominated At the Mouth of the River of Bees, her books include the novels Fudoki and Fox Woman. Each summer, she teaches the prestigious Intensive Novel Workshop for the Center for the Study of Science Fiction; she has also taught at the summer science-fiction workshops Clarion, Clarion West and Odyssey. In the past, she has worked at Tor Books, Dark Horse Comics, Wizards of the Coast and TSR; currently she is an assistant professor of creative writing  at the University of Kansas.

In advance of her San Antonio appearance, I asked Kij to discuss her twin careers of writing and teaching writing.

You’ve spent quite some time teaching writing both in workshops and in university settings. What advice can you give emerging genre writers, and what are the most common mistakes you see them make?

There are lots, but here are a couple!

* Retreading other peoples’ work. Often we try to recreate a work we love understanding that what we should be doing is trying, not to reproduce the work but the way that work made us feel. Instead of trying to reproduce Peter Beagle’s Last Unicorn, or George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones, we would be better off analyzing what the original did for us — broke our hearts, made us yearn, made us feel vicariously wise or dangerous or full potential — and then write a different story that does the same thing emotionally, instead of the same thing as far as the plot or genre goes.

* Writing as though movies, TV, and comics are the same as books. In fact, everything about the experience is different: the tools, the process, the degree of autonomy, the scale, the strengths….

Can you pinpoint specific books or stories that were pivotal in you choosing to write fiction yourself? What were they?

Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey and Maturin books opened my eyes to just how much is possible in fiction, a sweeping narrative saga about complex characters behaving imperfectly in a gorgeous global setting.

John Myers Myers wrote a book that changed everything for me: Silverlock. It was written a lot of decades ago, and the general conceit is that there is a Commonwealth (of letters), where a shallow, embittered person can discover worlds of possibility. This doesn’t even touch the book’s charm and strength; but after reading it twenty years ago, I started to engage with works I loved as a writer — what would I do differently? How would I insert myself into the story?

Stylistically, your short stories range from the elegant to the disturbing. Do you decide to adopt a different narrative approach before you start a story, or is that more likely to evolve as you begin drafting the piece?

I often know from the very beginning that a work will have a specific stylistic aim: cool and elegant; classic and emotionally detached; angry and sexy; over-the-top lavish. However, that often changes as I go. The novella I just handed in to tor.com, The Dream-quest of Vellitt Boe, started out intending to be a Lovecraft pastiche as far as voice went and changed to something much more American-letters-y.

Your novels The Fox Woman and Fudoki take place in Medieval Japan. How difficult is it to research such a complex setting, and do you plan to return to that time and era in future work?

It was hard! I read everything — and I do mean everything — that was available in translation, in all available translations. I read a lot of scholarly papers, as well. I’m not sure whether I will return to the place and time: I have another book I could tell that takes place a couple of hundred years sooner, but it depends on some business-type stuff.

You’ve said you spend a lot of time working and reworking your stories. Why is that and how many incarnations is each story likely to see?

I seldom get everything right off the bat. Even if I am close, there is almost always something very delicate I can do to tweak it — basically, the equivalent of using not just the 220-grit sandpaper, but the 600. Rewrites can range from five or six to scores of rewrites of different levels of intensity.

What else are you working on right now? Any new books or stories you can tell us about?

I just turned in a novella for tor.com, The Dream-quest of Vellitt Boe, which will be out as part of their new novella line sometimes in 2016. I also have a novel coming out in 2017 from Small Beer Press. Thanks for asking!

Speculative San Antonio: Sanford Allen on the Public Axis Podcast

Shortly before the holidays, I participated in San Antonio comedy troupe Comedia A Go-Go’s Public Axis Podcast and the results are now live.

The discussion with my side-splitting hosts covered wrestling, writing, rock-n-roll, dueling holidays horror movies, superheroes, siblings and a whole slew of other topics. Be warned: it’s a loud, surreal and frequently funny ramble. Thanks to Regan Arevalos, Larry Garza and Jess Castro for a great time, some strange questions and many much-needed laughs.

Speculative San Antonio: Author R.L. Ugolini

R.L. Ugolini's horror stories grace several of the Demonic Visions anthologies.

Today marks the second installment in my Speculative San Antonio series, in which I highlight a South Texas creator of science fiction, fantasy or horror literature, film or art.

R.L. Ugolini jumps literary genres the way Evel Knievel used to jump obstacles: with frequency and in a way that inspires deep gasps.

Over the past few years, she’s published a string of short stories that span horror (check out her contributions to the Demonic Visions anthology series), magical realism, sf and literary fiction. And did I mention that her first published novel, Quakes, which came out earlier this year through Samhain Publishing, is a romance?

What’s even more remarkable is that Ugolini manages to keep a consistently strong and recognizable voice as she shifts literary gears. She’s a master at getting us into the heads of her often quirky characters, and her vivid, lyrical prose drops us into rural settings that can be at once beautiful and ominous.

If you haven’t yet checked out her work, do yourself the favor.

Samhain recently published your first novel Quakes, which is a romance, and you’ve also had a string of short story publications that tread in darker territory — some in horror and others a downbeat sort of magical realism. Talk a bit about the path that led you to pursue what might appear to be dichotomous styles.

When I think of love in terms of romance and horror genres, the only real difference is the end result. When you’re in love, things are great. Life is all roses and puppies and interminable phone calls (Hang up! No — you hang up!). Oh, the romance! But when you’re not in love — when you yearn for it, when you’ve lost it, when you’ve been denied it — then love can be a nightmare. Then, life becomes a series of diagnoses — paranoia, obsession, delusion. Horror.

A lot of your work seems to take place in rural settings, specifically farms. Why is that?

I like to write what I know. If I have to look something up, more than likely I’ll end up lying through my teeth — I mean, changing the specifics to something that resonates with me. And what that is often times is the outdoors. There is something about being outside that strips away all the artificiality — Instagram! Twitter! Pinterest! Oh my! — we wrap ourselves in every day. Take a moment to watch the clouds or watch the stars and none of that crap will matter anymore.

Author R.L. Ugolini often uses rural settings for her work.

Rural landscapes, and specifically farms, crop up (see what I did there) in my stories quite often, again because I like to write what I know. I grew up across a dusty country road from a cornfield (managed by something called a “prison farm” but that’s another story…). I was fascinated by that field.

In the spring, I watched melt water pool in the furrows and geese come to glean. In summer, crop dusters performed aerial acrobatics as they sprayed God knows what. In the fall, my friends and I stole ears of dried corn and hid in trees, waiting for the unsuspecting to walk below and fall prey to the sharp sting of corn kernels shot out of straws, something akin to redneck blow guns. And in winter, I watched the wind play with the snow, drifting it across fallow fields.

Rural life, farms and fields, have stayed with me, as have the places I’ve traveled. The wilds of Baja Mexico burn up the pages in Quakes. The dark woods and myriad lakes of Northern Wisconsin appear as common refrains in my short stories. I write what I know. But I also write what I love. It’s good when the two are one.

You originally trained to be a scientist. What inspired you to begin writing, and what’s been the biggest challenge as you’ve begun to grow your career?

R.L. Ugolini's first novel, Quakes, takes romance to a geological research camp in Baja Mexico.

As a teenager looking ahead to college, I may have been poorly advised. All my life I had wanted to write, but could see no means to make a living from my, albeit, fledgling craft, which at that time included one sci-fi novel written longhand in a spiral notebook and several scathing parodies of the 1988 presidential election. So, instead, I went where the big money was — science. Clearly. Yeah. Right.

But I loved all thing science, so that was okay. I enrolled at Caltech, where I studied physics, astronomy, math, chemistry and geology. I learned to integrate over n-space, navigate the steam tunnels, ride in dumbwaiters, plot world domination, lick rocks and scare off mountain lions. Basically, your standard undergraduate education.

But after all that, I still wanted to write. The only thing I lacked were English classes in general and creative writing courses in specific.

Thankfully, that didn’t stop me, though it did slow me down. Writing, I’ve discovered, is hard. But staring at a blank page is even worse.

So, I write.

You seem to move fairly freely between literary and genre fiction. Do you think the line between the two has grown increasingly fluid?

The line between genre and literary fiction exists only on bookstore shelves and in online search engines. Good writing is good writing. And when a writer shares her love of language, chooses words with exquisite affection, and relishes in the mouth-feel of the prose, good writing becomes great writing and the line — wherever it may wander — becomes meaningless.

Who are some of the writers’ whose work inspired you and what have you learned from them?

I don’t think anyone can do character better than Elizabeth Strout. Read Olive Ketteridge. Read Amy and Isabelle. Read the The Burgess Boys. These are works of living art, the characters so finely drawn you feel as if you are a voyeur looking in on your neighbors, your family, your hometown.

The way Margaret Atwood blends reality with the fantastic is, literally, amazing. The reader never doubts the handmaid’s tale, never questions the edible woman’s descent into madness. Her writing is fresh and stark and invigorating. There is much to be learned here.

Barbara Kingsolver knows what I mean when I talk about being outside. I would love to go hiking with her, or better yet, be her. Her work is lusty and loamy, full of foxes and hedgerows, chestnut trees, moss and honeysuckle. Read Prodigal Summer and experience Appalachia.

And then, there is yearning. Everyone knows — should know, should have read and fallen in love with — Colleen McCullough’s The Thornbirds. If not, what’s wrong with you? And yet, even better, even more heartbreaking and real, is the heartache found in Morgan’s Run. I long to write with such desperate and aching need.

What’s next for R.L. Ugolini?

Is there such a thing as “farm noir”? Give me a couple more months and there will be. In the project I’m working on now, I’m exploring the darker side of (cue campy mood lighting) field corn in a new full-length novel and I’m so excited about how it’s unfolding.



Talking research this week with the San Antonio Writers Guild

It's a horror novel, but it's also historical fiction.

Alamo City friends, I’ll be speaking at the San Antonio Writers Guild’s next meeting, Thursday, Sept. 3.

My talk is titled “Lessons from an accidental historical writer: Getting the details right when you’re a scribe, not a scholar.” I’ll describe the research that went into my horror novel Deadly Passage, which is set on a slave ship shortly after the Revolutionary War.

During the talk, I’ll share tips for other writers on how to use research to bring authenticity to historical works — even when historical writing isn’t your primary focus. Additionally, we’ll discuss ways to ensure dialogue and language fit the period, how to know when particular inventions and technology came into existence and when to know you’ve done enough research to actually start writing your book.

The meeting gets underway at 7 p.m. at Bethany Congregational Church at 500 Pilgrim Drive in San Antonio. The talk will last about half an hour with time afterward for a Q&A session.

And you can bet I’ll have books to sell and sign. Hope to see you there.

Speculative San Antonio: Artist Alfredo Lopez Jr.

Freddy Lopez has been a ubiquitous presence at San Antonio conventions, film festivals and comic shops.

Today marks the launch of a new feature on my blog, Speculative San Antonio, in which I highlight a South Texas creator of science fiction, fantasy or horror literature, film or art.

My first real interaction with artist Alfredo ”Freddy” Lopez Jr. came more than a year ago when he illustrated the front cover of my novel Deadly Passage and that of Dog Days, the Joe McKinney novel it was published back-to-back with.

Freddy turned the covers around fast, working closely with myself, Joe and our publisher to accommodate a myriad of suggestions. He was an enthusiastic, patient collaborator and one I’d work with again in a heartbeat. The covers still gets numerous compliments.

Based on that experience, it comes as no surprise that Freddy has emerged as a go-to talent for comic cover art, concept, game and sketch card work. He’s collaborated with some of the top names in comics as a colorist, and he recently launched a Patreon page to free himself to pursue more work outside of comics.

Freddy’s work is recognizable for its vibrant, painterly use of color and for its clever humor. He’s a fan of mash-ups, frequently juxtaposing characters from different comic and movie franchises.

A Freddy Lopez illustration for an RPG rulebook.

I see from your Patreon page you’re trying to make the shift from the comic genre to do more fantasy, horror and concept art. What’s prompting that and what do you mean when you say “concept art?”

Freddy: Yeah it’s a shift that I’ve been talking about for a while but finally putting into action. When I was younger, my goal was to be a fantasy artist along the lines of Boris, Elmore, Bernie Wrightson, Frazetta, the Brothers Hildebrandt, etc. I dreamt of being a book illustrator like other kids dreamt of being athletes. I promised myself when I grew up, I’d be the next Frazetta. Of course, like every kid, I also grew up on superheros. So along with my drawings of knights and dragons, I had drawings of Batman and Superman.

As i grew older, I met more friends with similar goals. At the risk of sounding old, the internet was evolving as I was entering the scene and gave me a new way to get in contact with creative people all over. Forums and online portfolio sites helped get my work out and eventually, as friends broke into the business, they were kind enough to contact me and ask if I’d like to help. So that’s what got me into comic work. Friends like Nate Piekos, Chris Mills, Howard Wong and others really helped open doors for me. My first love was still illustration work, though, and I found what I enjoyed most was doing illustration style comic work like covers, pinups, coloring and painting. I soon discovered trading card work, which helps satisfy that aspect for me. Now I’ve had the chance to work for some of my fave companies and properties like Upper Deck, Walking Dead and Marvel Comics , where I’ve been part of the team of artists doing cards for Ant-Man, Avengers Age of Ultron, Guardians of the Galaxy and others.

Freddy Lopez's "Goblin Party."

Over time, I’ve also been getting back into more traditional illustration projects by doing work for books and games. I’ve had the opportunity to work with a couple of amazingly talented local authors doing covers for them. I’ve also been getting more work in RPG games and event posters.

The concept art is tied to the RPG projects in fantasy and sci-fi. Aside from cover and spot illustrations, I’ve had the chance to work with some great art directors on concept pieces. The general difference is that while illustrations are final pieces that are used in print, concept is usually higher level work used to get the basic ideas or concepts of a project down. It helps establish color palettes, mood and tone or the design of characters, creatures, ships and environments.

Part of this move to illustration has also included doing more prints for convention signings and appearances. I’ve built up a porfolio of convention poster/exclusives for a wide range of celebrity guests and appearances that have included Gunnar Hansen (Leatherface), Ricou Browning (Creature from the Black Lagoon), Michael Rooker and both Boba Fetts, Jeremy Bulloch and Daniel Logan. Most recently I did the signing for Dave Bautista (Guardians of the Galaxy’s Drax) for a new comic store, Alamo City Comics. I even did the poster for the upcoming Horrific Film Fest, which includes celebs such as Elvira, the cast from The Warriors and Buck Rogers.

Freddy Lopez's "Guardians on the Run"

The Patreon page is a new concept for me but sounded like a fun way to reach out to fans and reward backers with behind-the-scenes items (tutorials and source files) as well as helping me to stay on track as I make the transition.

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Armadillocon wrap-up: Where’d all these durned San Antonians come from?

$5 if you can spot the San Antonian at the Montreal in '17 room party.

Writing blog entries about recent cons is tough. Mainly, I worry I’ll forget to mention the names of the fascinating people I drank with, who said smart stuff on panels or whose readings really floored me.

So in the interest of not driving myself crazy trying to remember every person I owe a mention from last weekend’s Armadillocon, let me just say this: It was good to see all of you. You’re a great bunch — talented, smart, entertaining and, for the most part, friendly and inviting.

Instead of the usual laundry list, I’d rather give a collective shout-out to all the San Antonians who attended. If I’m not mistaken, this year’s show boasted the biggest Alamo City contingent I’ve yet seen at the con. And that’s invigorating for me, because our city — while rich in character and history — often lives in the creative shadow of hipper, more-affluent places like Austin and Dallas.

My fellow blogger Scott A. Cupp was there, as usual, slinging books at Willie Siros’ table, but it was a delight to see Max Booth III and Lori Michelle of Perpetual Motion Machine Publishing and Dark Moon Digest also haunting the dealer’s room. It was hard to miss John Picacio’s amazing display of Game of Thrones prints, but how cool was it that fellow illustrator Sherlock also had an hour-long program on how to draw dragons? And was anybody else impressed with New Braunfels’ Jayme Lynn Blaschke moderating the panel on spirituality in sf/fantasy/horror, maintaining a civil tone as atheists and people of faith hashed out some prickly questions?

Cool stuff, all.

During the con, I got to spend quality bar time with K.B. Rylander, fresh off her win of the Jim Baen Memorial Short Story Award (read her winning “We Fly” here), and with fan/writer/raconteur Clayton Hackett. I saw the familiar faces of San Antonio Writers Guild stalwarts James and Doris Frazar and Stewart Smith during my reading, and I caught up with power couple Scott and Sara Cooper during the autograph session. I spent a little time (too little, sadly) talking Chupacabra poetry with South Texans Dr. Malia A. Perez and Juan Manuel Perez. And, as things wound down Saturday, I ran into Eugene Fischer, a sometimes-San Antonian who helped develop the sf track at the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

And then there were the new Alamo City faces — or new to me, anyway. I broke bread (literally, we were served an entire loaf at Black’s BBQ) with Justin Landon, a Hugo-nominated editor, podcaster and blogger for Tor.com, and I panelized with YA author Peni Griffin. A pleasure to meet you both. I hope we cross paths again soon.

Viva Armadillocon! Viva San Antonio!