Story and Song: A Conversation with Sarah Pinsker

Nebula Award-winning author Sarah Pinsker is having a big year: Her short fiction collection, Sooner or Later Everything Falls Into the Sea, and her debut novel, A Song For a New Day, both arrive in bookstores in 2019.

The collection, released in March, is one of virtuosic range, imagination, and subtlety. Sarah Pinsker’s mastery works at a deep level, eschewing showy displays or baroque prose. Many of the stories are set in a dystopian, all-too-believable future not far removed from our own, with a tone and focus reminiscent of Alice Munro.

I caught up with Sarah to talk about the themes of music and dystopia that permeate her stories, how she balances the dual pursuits of music and writing, and more.

It seems clear from these stories that music is an important part of your life—and that making music is as important to you as writing fiction. Can you talk about how music and fiction complement one another in your artistic process—and where they may, at times, conflict?
Where they complement each other is on a prose level. I think writing music gives me a good ear for the rhythm of sentences and paragraphs. I think I’m also pretty good at writing about music, which can be a tricky thing, too. And about music-related technologies, which have given me some fun ideas for stories and novels.

There’s other stuff, too. The business of music taught me a lot about the business of writing. Being a musician taught me a lot about being an author. Little things like microphone technique, caring for your voice, adjusting levels or microphone stands, dynamic reading. How to be a good member of a community.

The most obvious conflict is in the fact that my fourth album is mixed, mastered, ready to go to press— I have everything but the cover art—and it has been that way for three or four years. The producer is ready to start handing out bootlegs. My music has definitely suffered from my fiction-writing. I still love to play, but I’m not putting time into booking or touring or getting that album out the door. I love it. I love every single song on it and everything we did with it. And I can’t seem to make it happen. I’m trying.

A wealth of varied lived experience comes through in these stories. At the same time, the focus is often on the future—an apocalyptic, post-climate change landscape. The result is what feels like an extended love song to the world, as it feels like much of what we know is about to slip away.
I can’t tell you how much I love this take on my stories. Also, this may be a short answer, because yes. I feel like anyone who is paying attention is scared right now. I can’t shake a feeling of decay, and yet I still see beauty everywhere. I meet wonderful people. I have a new dog who has invented the fifty cutest ways to sleep. I have nieces and nephews who bring me constant joy. I get to go amazing places and see amazing things. But there are also progresses that I would have said were permanent a few years ago that now feel fragile. There’s a combination of beauty and brokenness just permeates everything.

Not all of my stories are set in the future, but the futures I find most compelling to write are the ones where there are things that are broken, but also good people, and good things, and joys, writ small or large. So yes, what you said, an extended love song to the world. What’s the quote from Don Quixote? “Maddest of all: to see life as it is, not as it should be.” When I write I try to see what is, what should be, and what shouldn’t, and pick a path accordingly.

One thing that especially impresses me in your stories is their magnificent closing passages. Do you consciously make story endings a high priority?
Thank you! I take that as the highest of compliments. I love endings. You have to stick the landing, like a gymnast, or the bobble at the end is all that people remember of the story. I have several favorite endings that I read and reread, and those are the ones I return to when I need a reminder of my goals. I read them again, out loud, and then I read mine, and I see if I have the rhythms right. The list includes One Hundred Years of Solitude, The Great Gatsby, “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” and “Sur,” Sturgeon’s “The Man Who Lost the Sea,” Kij Johnson’s “At the Mouth of the River of Bees,” Butler’s “The Evening and the Morning and the Night.” Endings should resonate in your mind, in your heart, and on your tongue.

Sooner or Later Everything Falls Into the Sea has a distinct voice, while also seems to be in dialogue with classic authors of science fiction. Who are some of the authors that inspired you?
See above. I have read a lot of classic SF. I grew up surrounded by great fiction, and I don’t remember how I decided what to read. Lots of single author collections. Le Guin, Delany, Sturgeon, Simak, Wolfe, Merril, Kit Reed, Kate Wilhelm. Then the stuff that came later, Jonathan Carroll, Octavia Butler, Karen Joy Fowler, Lisa Goldstein, Elizabeth Hand, Geoff Ryman, Kathe Koja, Ted Chiang. All the Dozois year’s bests, and the Datlow/Windling ones, though I had to tread carefully—I can read dark fantasy, but I don’t have much tolerance for horror.

The concluding story of the collection, “And Then There Were (n-1)” on the surface pays homage to Agatha Christie’s mystery novel, with an undercurrent that is intensely introspective. And you fearlessly used your own name. What was the genesis of this story, and how did it take shape?
In April 2016 I was asked to attend the Uncanny retreat as a guest author. I arrived that weekend knowing I needed to get started on a story for the Sycamore Hill workshop in June. Every time I get asked to attend Sycamore Hill my brain starts telling me I have to write the best story I’ve ever written, which is a lot of pressure. Anyway, it was April, and somebody brought marshmallow Peeps, and on Saturday there were just ten of them sitting around on a plate. We somehow ended up turning them into a Peep retelling of And Then There Were None, killing each one off according to the novel, and posting the horrors on Twitter over the course of Saturday evening.

The next morning, I woke with the title “And Then There Were (n-1)” and the idea of an isolated convention of alternate-selves who would need to kill or be killed. They were all Darias at the time, like the cartoon character. I came up with a catchy enough beginning, but I couldn’t seem to find the story’s heart. At some point in the drafting process, it dawned on me in horror that I knew how to make the story work, but it was going to take some blood and introspection. The Sarahs in the story are not me, but there are truths hidden among the fictions. It was interesting finding the balance.

How did your background as a musician figure into the composition of “Wind Will Rove,” which uses music as the jumping-off point to explore universal themes?
Well, I wouldn’t have written this story if my aunt hadn’t invited me to an old-time music jam on New Year’s Eve 2014. I don’t know the tunes, but you can be an ignorant guitarist and still play along. Guitar is a rhythm instrument in old-time music, playing backdrop to the fiddle, so all I had to do was play the same handful of chords and watch for the changes. My hands were busy but my mind was wandering, so I started looking at the room ethnographically, watching the group dynamics. Marveling also at how you could get so many different melodies from the same three chords.

The jam took place in the house of someone who also makes and sells model trains, and his whole basement is an incredible model train town. Beyond the town, there are cliffs, and rivers, and they all look so real you could take a picture and say you were in West Virginia, and I think I started thinking about that as well, about faithful and not-so-faithful recreations, and the sun that wasn’t a sun, the water that wasn’t a water, the abundance of punny business signs.

It took me a few months before I had anything to write, and then the first scene came to me whole. I don’t know that I changed a word from the first draft of that scene other than to tighten it. That June was my first Sycamore Hill, and the first time I thought “I have to write the best story I’ve ever written.” I took that scene, and the New Year’s jam, and the artificial sun from the train town, and started thinking about the way songs evolve. I spent a lot of time listening to old time music and reading the origins of different songs, trying to write a realistic history of an imagined song. I know what it sounds like.

Eventually, I struggled through a first draft that I was proud of but not done with. The workshop was amazing but overwhelming, and I came home with notes from some of my favorite writers, each diagnosing my story differently. I sat on it for a year before I figured out how to internalize those edits and how to decide which ones I agreed with. I think the last paragraph stayed intact, but I unstitched the stuff that came before and rewrote some of it.

All of which is to say my background in music was certainly helpful for this story, but it was a combination of a lot of things, like most of my best stories.

You have a novel coming out soon. Can you tell us a bit about it?
My first novel, A Song For A New Day, will be published by Berkley in September. It’s a near-future story set in a soft apocalypse, where society is mostly still functioning, but fundamentally changed. It follows two characters, a musician who some may recognize from “Our Lady of the Open Road” who remembers what life was like before, and a young woman who has never known anything but the new status quo. It’s about music, and community, and found family.

Sooner or Later Everything Falls into the Sea is available now.

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