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Explaining Cthulhu to Grandma

February 1, 2015

Please welcome my friend and talented author Alex Shvartsman, whose short story collection “Explaining Cthulhu to Grandma and Other Stories” comes out today!  Alex is particularly known for his humor, and for good reason, but I can tell you that his serious fiction is pretty gripping.  You’ll find both in this collection.  To celebrate the release, I asked Alex a few questions to find out a little more about him.

Why do you write science fiction, as opposed to other genres?

I discovered science fiction when I was around ten years old, and I never looked back. With quality books of any genre being as difficult to procure as most other luxuries in the Soviet Union, I’d scoured our personal library, those of our friends, and every other source I could access for more books. By the time my family emigrated from the Soviet Union, I’ve read most of what was available in the genre at that time, and the embarrassment of riches in reading material became a strong incentive for me to learn English quickly.

I’ve written an occasional mystery, and I’ve certainly read widely outside of genre, but I have little interest in writing fiction that strays too far away from science fiction or fantasy. These are the stories I’ve always wanted to tell.

You’ve gained a reputation as a humor writer, but not all your stories are funny.  Do you think the reputation is accurate?  Do you prefer writing funny stories or serious ones?

I very much enjoy having developed the reputation as a humorist. Certainly not everything I write is humor, and some of my stories are really dark, but it’s nice to be able to have that range. Also, it doesn’t hurt that I edit the Unidentified Funny Objects annual anthology series of humorous SF/F. To that end, being recognized for my own humor writing is a huge boon!
When I set out to write fiction, I never pictured myself developing this sort of a reputation. However, when I tried writing humorous or sarcastic stories, I discovered those come more easily to me. While writing humor is generally more difficult, it is something I enjoy very much. Writing straight-up horror, on the other hand, is nearly incomprehensible to me.

You emigrated to the United States from the Soviet Union when you were 13 years old.  How have your experiences learning a new language and culture affected your writing?

There are both pluses and minuses to writing fiction in a language other than your native tongue.

On one hand, my English isn’t perfect, and it never will be. My friends beta read my stories and lovingly correct my numerous sins against the English language before any editor might see them. I also work harder on revisions and perhaps write slower than most of my colleagues. Not that I’m complaining — writing fiction had always been a dream of mine, but it was a dream I gave up on at a young age, because I never expected to learn the new language well enough to write fiction in it. Needless to say, I’m glad to have proven myself wrong.

On the other hand, growing up multilingual and multicultural can be a great boon when it comes to storytelling. I get to mine my background and experiences for story ideas and, hopefully, realistic portrayal of people who are transplanted to another culture. A number of my stories deal with such issues. Many of my other tales are set in Russia, or have Russian characters in them, as I believe I can write those with much greater degree of realism than the portrayal of Mr. Chekhov on Star Trek. Or at least I can give them more realistic Russian accents.
What’s your favorite story you’ve written?

You know that’s like asking a parent who his favorite child is, right?

I think the most powerful story I’ve ever written is “The Rumination on What Isn’t,” published in Nature. It’s a very short piece, so I’d rather link to it than spoil it for you.

Ken Liu, who’s one of the smartest people I know, feels my strongest story is to date is “Icarus Falls” (Daily Science Fiction.) It deals with space travel, memory loss, and the ethics of telling lies.

And then there’s, of course, “Explaining Cthulhu to Grandma” (Intergalactic Medicine Show), by far my most successful story, and a good example of the kind of humor I write. It’s set in the world’s oldest magical pawn shop. It won the 2014 WSFA Small Press Award for Short Fiction, an accomplishment I’m super-proud of.

Tell us about your new short story collection!

I’m so very excited about the release of “Explaining Cthulhu to Grandma and Other Stories,” my first short story collection which launches on February 1. The paperback edition contains 40 of my best short stories, but I’ve also included a bunch more in the e-book: it literally has all the stories I wrote since I began writing fiction in 2010 that have had their rights revert to me. I like the “completist” approach because as a reader I love collections that get me every possible story by authors whose fiction I enjoy.

The three stories I mentioned above are included, as well as two previously-unpublished stories. “The Hourglass Brigade” is an action-packed story that offers an unorthodox take on time travel and “Small Magics” is a fantasy tale about a clan of pixies under attack by the huge gnomes (because size is, of course, relative.)

Launching a short story collection by a relatively unknown author is always difficult, but I was fortunate enough to have a lot of much better-known friends who were willing to help. Ken Liu wrote an introduction so kind, I blush when reading it. Mike Resnick, Esther Friesner, Jody Lynn Nye, Gini Koch and Henry Gee were all kind enough to read the manuscript and write blurbs for the book. And the early reviews are starting to come in too; notably Tangent Online posted a very kind and favorable review of the book.

So all the pieces are now in place. Now it’s just a matter of whether the readers like it, which is the most important metric of all.
Thanks, Alex!  And good luck with the book!
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