Bug Stew: Part 1

We, your humble guest-bloggers, are very pleased to present a group interview with several of the Journal of Unlikely Entomology’s authors. Not only were these fine wordsmiths foolish kind enough to let us publish their stories in the first place, they’ve extended the kindness by providing insight into the inspiration behind those stories, and indulging our odd questions about cooking and bugs.  I urge you to read their Journal of Unlikely Entomology tales, and seek out their work in general. They are a talented bunch! And now, without further ado, the first segment of our three-part interview, where our authors talk cooking, craft, and creepy-crawlies…

Tell us about the inspiration behind your Journal of Unlikely Entomology story. What inspires you in general, what recharges you when you’re drained or when you’re stuck on a plot point?

Forrest Aguirre: Zaar came to me in an ebay shopping frenzy, lusting after many things, when a beetle caught my eye. Well, not literally, but the image was firmly planted in my mind. Of course, my mind is much larger than, say Cascone’s, so there’s plenty of room for other things that normally reside in there to bump and grind with the image of the beetle. “Normal” is a relative term, though, isn’t it? My brain, at least the writing part of my brain, is *ahem* normally stimulated by music, art, and observing nature.

Amanda C. Davis: For Drift, I had been mulling over the weirder aspects of parenthood, trying to come up with new and interesting monsters, and–this is the critical part–living in a house that was in no way equipped with modern heating. It was wear-your-coat-to-bed cold all winter. No surprise when my “new and interesting” monster turned out to be, basically, snow. When I’m stuck, I take a bath. I get stuck a lot. Half my writing output is composed underwater.

Brenta Blevins: My story was inspired by Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis. I was interested in writing a story in a Twitter format and thought it would be helpful to work with a story readers already knew. A computer-mediated communication seemed appropriate for a story with bugs (get it? software bugs? I can’t believe I didn’t work into my story a pun about computer bugs).

Nathaniel Lee: My story is basically a mash-up of Nathan’s favorite motifs. The thematic ancestor was the fable of the frog and the scorpion. I consistently revisit the idea of inherent nature, the thing-ness of a thing, and the question (or illusion) of free will — what it means to defy your nature. So that’s Vincent and Eli’s conflict, with the symbolic assist from an actual scorpion. Cowboy imagery also scratches a particular itch in my mind, and the more stylized it is, the more I like it (Rango basically made my head explode with glee.) As for recharging, I like to go out at night and find a high place to watch the city lights from. I need solitude and quiet in which to sit and think. I don’t do any writing or plotting at these times; I just have a strong yen to be alone in a sleeping world, and after I feel better. Stereotypical introvert nonsense, basically.

Juliet Kemp: I always want to think walking the dog will recharge me, but then I get to the park and remember walking my dog is hard work and requires a lot of concentration (she’s lovely but what you might call *willful*) so if anything that drains me more. A bath and a trashy novel are good for [recharging] but doesn’t do much for the creativity. Bath without novel is better for tackling knotty plot points as I get bored very quickly and am forced to start thinking or get out of the bath, which would be a terrible waste of water.

Silvia Moreno-Garcia: I actually wanted an excuse to murder Orrin Grey. Well, not literally, but in fiction. Featuring your writer friends in your fiction is not a new thing: the Lovecraft circle did it (I am specifically thinking of Robert Bloch and The Haunter in the Dark). I felt it would be fun and wanted to write a bit of flash fiction, so why not put two and two together and kill my buddy? The rest is history.

E. Catherine Tobler: Being that my story was a submission for the Valentine’s issue of JoUE, I found myself thinking about bugs and romance. This led me to chocolates, but buggy chocolate wasn’t working for me, so I thought about flowers, which led me to bugs that could actually form themselves into flowers. How does part of a flower court another part of a flower?

Simon Kewin: My story Museum Beetles was inspired by hearing that phrase on the radio. It was a news program: museum beetles are real creatures, Latin name Anthrenus museorum. I ignored the science and wrote a story about what such creatures might be like, what they could do if they really began to take over. Incidentally, museum beetles shouldn’t be confused with the Beatles Museum, the building in Liverpool dedicated to the Fab Four. Although I’m willing to bet there are museum beetles at the Beatles Museum. Next time I go I’ll keep my eyes open.

Conor Powers-Smith: I can’t remember when the idea for My Day Came struck me, but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t in the midst of a scene similar to the one depicted in the story (I wasn’t in the bathroom). I know it was before I knew about the Journal, so I was very happy to find you. In general, if I don’t have a viable story idea, my strategy is to mope around and be as big of an asshole as possible. Luckily, this happens naturally. The only way I know how to get past a sticking place in a particular story is to leave it alone for a while. Sometimes something occurs to me, and I get back to it, and sometimes it doesn’t, and I don’t.

Sylvia Spruck Wrigley: There was a prompt on a writer’s forum with penguins and I was trying to think of what to write. I didn’t quite manage to come up with a story on the spot but the line “I was nine the year the aliens came to Dünnendorf” came to me as a part of that exercise. It took quite some time for me to create the entire story but Frau Steigner stuck in my mind and I knew I wanted to do something with the scene in my head where she tries to explain what happened. If I’m feeling tired and just out of words, I retreat to the kitchen and cook. I love to cook. I love the fact that if you get good ingredients and you follow the instructions, you will get the right results. It works every time. I wish writing was like that.

Ada Hoffmann: Centipede Girl came to me after I had a bad experience with a centipede IRL. It was huge and it crawled onto my keyboard while I was typing! Then after I screamed and fell off my chair, it crawled down and started rustling around in the rest of my room. I could hear it, but not see it. I actually hate centipedes, and for the next several days I was so paranoid I kept imagining ‘pedes EVERYWHERE – even dropping down off of me to do little tasks like picking things up. Then I thought, “Actually, if I had a character who *did* have a swarm of ‘pedes to do her bidding, that would be kind of cool.” The rest of the story followed.

Steven L. Peck: Dragonfly Miscalculations came to me while working in Africa, trying to understand the ecology of tsetse fly. The fly carries a devastating disease, sleeping sickness, that affects both humans and the livestock that provide food and pull  plows. It’s called by many the poverty fly. Yet the ways used to kill the fly have created other harms. Pesticides that kill other species are used. In the past sensitive habitats have been destroyed. I spend a lot of time thinking how new technologies might get rid of the fly. This is where I started imagining mechanical dragonflies designed to hunt and kill tsetse flies. As I thought about it, however, I realized that even things like this would not easily be able to tell the target species from beneficial species. It is here the story was born — two people with competing interests (control harmful insects vs. conserve beneficial species) trying to come together and navigate the dangers of such technology.

Samantha Henderson: Such a Lovely Shade of Green was inspired by a cluster of green fly eggs I found when I was cleaning the bathroom. They really were beautiful, like tiny pale green gems, and instead of wiping them away I left them to hatch. That image crashed into several ideas I had going, like the casual brutality one can deal out to creatures so small they hardly register as alive, and the violence I think most people, even the most controlled, hold inside themselves.

Do you follow a recipe when you cook, or make it up as you go along? When writing, do you plot your stories in advance, or throw words at the page until you find ‘the end’?

DK Mok: I find the dish is more edible when I follow the recipe. I once made a Waldorf salad in which I substituted every ingredient for a similar one, and the salad looked very unhappy to be there. [With writing] the same principle applies. My stories are more coherent when I plot ahead, but I end up with some very surprising endings when I make it up as I go along. However, I generally prefer a satisfying ending to a surprising one.

Forrest Aguirre: I like to riff off of recipes when cooking. I’ll take a recipe and make it my own, using taste “themes” from the original recipe. I like to experiment when cooking, which drives my family crazy. They’re constantly asking me “how do you cook so-and-so?” to which I return a blank stare and a dreamlike “I don’t really know”. My stories are a little different, in that I usually know the beginning and the end when I begin writing. Connecting the dots between them is where the real work comes in. Sometimes, the middle of the story twists and turns enough to change my original idea of how the story ends, though, so I’m open to a bit of chance when writing.

Amanda C. Davis:
I used to follow recipes more than I do now. I usually pay at least mild attention to the recipe the first time I’m cooking it, but now that I’ve got a few years’ experience in substitutions, I don’t freak out if I’m missing an ingredient or avoiding garlic this month or something. But I’m not going to start with a cake recipe and end up with pie. My writing is similar. I always have a blueprint in my mind, and it stays more or less firm, but I’m not afraid to make substitutions as the need arises.

Brenta Blevins: I tend to follow the recipe as a guideline, rather than a binding contract. I’m particularly prone to make substitutions for recipes based on what ingredients are in the house, as well as household food sensitivities. That applies to my approach to writing: Take what works, throw out what doesn’t. I won’t stick to a particular formula or writing process if it leaves the end product unappetizing or “bugged.”

Nathaniel Lee:
When I cook, I have to follow a recipe, and very rigidly. I have no gift for cookery; the things I make burn, wither, melt, and sometimes catch fire. I measure everything twice and constantly double-check my instructions, and even so I might add two tablespoons of baking soda instead of teaspoons, or mistake olive oil for corn oil. Writing is a different fettle of kish entirely. I do no written plotting, although I do keep ideas in mind for anywhere between one week to ten years. Roger Zelazny described it as “living with ghosts.” I think of it as a gumbo; everything simmers away in my subconscious, and periodically one piece bobs to the surface, but you can’t pull it out and serve it until it’s ready. I often start to write an idea and get stuck, which is usually the sign it’s not done simmering yet. I thus scrap whatever I’ve written; there’s no point in trying to edit or repurpose writing that isn’t cooked yet. I’ll start from scratch when it’s ready to go, and it’ll be better.

Silvia Moreno-Garcia: I don’t plot much for stories. I do for novels, though I’ve only written two and I keep avoiding the third. For stories I generally get an image or idea (like let’s murder Orrin in flash fic format) and run with it. After I have a basic idea of what I’ll be doing, I polish the thing in my head. Like right now I’m starting on the story of a former Mexican wrestler who flies to Vancouver to solve a supernatural crime. So I have the basic concept (it’s a homage/parody of Mexican horror films of the 60s and 70s) but I’m not sure exactly what the villain is up to.

E. Catherine Tobler: It depends on what I’m cooking or writing. I started cooking seriously in 1999-ish and at this point, I feel fairly confident about tossing random things into a pot and seeing what happens. I started writing seriously in 1998, and still need to improve my confidence when it comes to throwing things on the page. I plot more than I used to, and am noticing an improvement in my writing; at the same time, I veer more from recipes, and see an improvement in what I eat, so…

Steve Barber: I stopped following recipes as soon as I learned that some of them included broccoli. Broccoli, as we all know, is anathema, and I learned fairly early in life to replace that vile, green, semi-flowered stalk of yuck with a more appealing vegetable. In my case that replacement vegetable is usually bacon. As far as I’m concerned, my cooking is all the better for it. My stories aren’t all that different. I’ll follow a recipe to a degree–hook, likable protagonist, conflict–but I’ll be damned if I’m going to outline the thing. I’m a pantser and proud to be one. I let my characters tell the story and I try to stay out of their way as much as I can. I will say, however, I find it interesting that so many of them share my love for bacon.

Conor Powers-Smith: I’m not a recipe person, either in cooking or writing. I never thought about it before, but I think there is a connection: I like to have a vague notion of where it’s supposed to end up (the general ending of the story, or whether I’m trying to make cookies or spaghetti sauce), but I don’t understand people who make elaborate outlines before they start. I’d never get anywhere that way. It’s the writing itself that makes it happen. Ideally, by the time you finish one paragraph, you know five or ten things about what comes next that you didn’t know before. That’s not just the best part, that’s pretty much the only part.

Sylvia Spruck Wrigley: I love new recipes, they excite me. They are an exploration. I reward myself with new cookbooks when I achieve word count goals and then read them end-to-end, thrilling myself with the promise of new recipes to try. I usually don’t follow them exactly; I treat cooking as a bit of a free-form exercise. Recipes are for learning from and they are inspiration. My writing varies. Sometimes I have a final scene — or even just a final line — in my head and I aiming for that. Sometimes I do a rough outline in advance, although I tend not to look at it again until I’m finished, I’m sure it has a sub-conscious effect. With some stories, I’m writing thousands of words, hoping to find my way out of the mess that I’ve gotten myself into. Plague of Locusts was like this, I must have written half a dozen versions of the story before I felt I’d found the story I wanted to tell.

Ada Hoffmann: I’m pretty orderly. When cooking, I follow a recipe. When writing, I use an outline, but the details and nuances of the draft often take me by surprise.

Steven L. Peck: My stories are very organic. In fact in my novel The Scholar of Moab I kept being surprised by what happened. As I write a story I can honestly say, quite often even, “I didn’t see that coming!”

Samantha Henderson: Re: recipes – I do both. For a while I had the idea that I was a really good improviser when it came to cooking, and then eventually I had to admit that no, really I wasn’t. That only works for me with mac ‘n’ cheese and stew. Regarding stories: unless the story jumps from my head full-fledged, it’s usually a matter of trying to work out on paper what’s really happening. Often I’ll find that three (three being a magic number) disparate ideas will hitchhike their way out of various notebooks, come together and make a story – that was the case with Such a Lovely Shade of Green. Sometimes it takes a long time for the three elements to find each other, until I catch them in a back alley, smoking Camels and looking furtive, and I’ll wonder why it wasn’t obvious to me from the start.

Check back on Wednesday for Part 2, and Friday for Part 3!

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