By Salik Shah
Good Girls, the sequel to Glen Hirshberg‘s 2012 novel, Motherless Child, has just been published by Tor. Glen is also the author of two previous novels (The Snowman’s Children and The Book of Bunk) and three story collections (The Two Sams, American Morons, and The Janus Tree). He is a three-time International Horror Guild Award winner, five-time World Fantasy Award finalist, and has also won the Shirley Jackson Award. Glen writes, teaches, and lives in the Los Angeles area with his wife, son, daughter, and cats. Visit him online at www.glenhirshberg.com, and follow him on Twitter: @GlenHirshberg.
Where does the title of your story “Freedom is Space for the Spirit” come from?
While wandering St. Petersburg in 2009, I visited the little, tucked-away courtyard called Pushkinskaya 10 (thinly disguised as Malevichskaya in my story), which has sometimes been a symbol and even a hive of activity for “non-conformist” art and the Russian avant-garde, at least during the periods when such things have been tolerated. There was no one around on the day I dropped by, but stretched across the windows of one of the silent buildings was a banner that read, “Freedom is Space for the Spirit.” That phrase—in English, transmitting a silent message to absolutely no one–seemed so evocative and so anachronistic, somehow, that it stuck in me. The banner turns out to be an artifact from an exhibit brought to Pushkinskaya by the German artist Kurt Fleckenstein.
What kind of research or experiences did your draw from to construct such an eerie world of post-Soviet Russia? How much of Freedom is based on actual events?
Both of my first two books, The Snowman’s Children and The Two Sams, got translated into Russian about ten years ago and received a fair bit of positive attention and discussion, there. Hence the mini reading-tour and trip to St. Petersburg. I stayed with the enormously talented Larissa Zhitkova, who translated Snowman, and her husband Timofeev Alexander, then a scholar at the Pushkin Institute. As a result, a lot of the inspiration and initial research for what became “Freedom” happened organically, either through wandering the canals and museums and deserted courtyards and marketplaces, or during long conversations over schi and blini and coffee and, inevitably, wodka with my hosts and their friends and colleagues.
I also spent quite a bit of time on public transportation, and had some memorable experiences and conversations on buses and trains (at least, when people consented to talk to me; Russians really aren’t always comfortable with our “Western tones,” it turns out). One morning, a man—I assume it was a man—in the most realistic bear costume I have ever seen climbed onto my bus, sat down and stared silently out the window for the remainder of the trip, and no one so much as glanced his way, let alone commented or visibly reacted. That moment kept recurring in dreams until I found a way to make use of it.
As for the rest, I did research, of course, when the events of the story required it. But the suppression, vilification, and marginalization of non-conformist art and ideas isn’t just a Russian phenomenon, obviously. All my life, I’ve watched people scandalized, enraged, and sometimes stirred to frightening overreaction or cruelty by other people’s self-expression or the oppression of it. You can witness that in your very own home, every hour of your life, simply by opening up your Twitter or Facebook feed. I hope my story is about that, in the end, especially since I would never claim to know more than I do about life in Russia, whether in Soviet times or now.
You have won multiple awards, and clearly have a cult following. Still, why did Tor choose to publish Freedom on its website? What are your thoughts on open publishing models like Strange Horizons, Clarkesworld or Uncanny? How have they changed the field?
I’m very much a writer, not a publisher, and so I come at these issues mostly from the perspective of constantly seeking appropriate and hopefully visible outlets for my work. All I’ll say about publications such as Clarkesworld, then, is that they’ve published some excellent stories, by newcomers and established writers alike. The fact that independent publications like these are attracting top-quality contributors says great things about the opportunities to get deserving work of many kinds into print right now… and less great things about the viability of making any kind of living, for almost any artist.
As far as I know, Tor had nothing to do with how that story appeared on Tor.com (the publisher and website are run independently of each other). I sent “Freedom” to Ellen Datlow for her consideration, both because Ellen is a good editor and because Tor.com is one of the very few fiction venues paying a decent rate. Ellen liked and bought the story for Tor.com, and that’s how it wound up where it did.
How do you deal with the weight of expectations that follows each award? How difficult is it for you to begin a new story?
Hah. Well. Here’s the thing about awards:
They look good on book jackets. They provide fleeting moments of validation you secretly know you may or may not deserve, but that come rarely, and therefore deserve marking. They’re fun to post on your social media of choice so that your relatives and friends can Like them. They’re great excuses to go out and eat cake or drink whisky or visit an exotic neighborhood Pokemon gym or whatever it is you do when you celebrate, because we all need as many excuses as possible to do that.
And that is pretty much all they are. Winning one requires decent work (mostly), sure, but also timing, serendipity, a panel not previously predisposed, for whatever reason and however unconsciously, in some other direction for utterly human and often forgivable reasons.
No award I’ve been lucky enough to win has ever made me a better writer than I am. No award I’ve ever lost has made me less of one.
Only I can do that.
All of which is just to say, I’m honored to win awards, but I don’t write to win awards. I write because I love writing, and can’t imagine what my life would be if I didn’t. Honoring that impulse, and trying to do each new story justice, is the only “weight of expectation” that I will let myself bear. That one’s more than heavy enough.
You have taught creative writing for over two decades. How open and diverse is the American classroom? How do your students respond to the genre fiction?
I can’t speak for the American classroom. I can only speak for mine, and the answer to your question is: as open and alive to surprise and discovery and new perspectives as I can possibly make it. We tell stories. We make noise. We laugh a lot. I’ve always believed that anyone who sets out to teach this discipline thinking that they are the final authority on what good writing is, and what genres or techniques produce it, is automatically wrong. It is creative writing, after all. So the only way I know to teach it is to confront every new piece I encounter on its own terms, try to figure out what it’s doing or wants to do, discuss whether that thing is worth doing, and then see if I can help it do that better. I’ve been lucky enough, for the most part, to teach in schools that have let me run. As a result, my workshops—at least for me, I can’t speak for my students, either—feel like pretty lively, welcoming, passionate places. And we never ask or worry about what genre something is. We worry about whether it’s any good, and how it could be better.
Good Girls—the brilliant sequel to your novel Motherless Child—is now out. How is the final novel in the trilogy coming along? When can we expect it?
As usual—it’s just the way my process works, most of the time—the new novel wants to wrestle. Bat me around, some. Distract me at dinner and keep me up all night. But it’s coming. As a matter of fact, it’s not too far from there. I think. I was hoping to deliver it to Tor by the end of the year. I suppose that’s still possible. But I’m betting early next spring… which means it hopefully would hit the shelves in early 2018. In the meantime, though, I’ve also finished and sold a new story collection, which will include “Freedom is Space for the Spirit,” and the plan is to have that out next fall.
You can read “Freedom is Space for the Spirit” here on Tor.com.