An Interview with Chloe Smith

Chloe Smith teaches middle school, moonlights as a proofreader for Locus and Fantasy magazines, and writes science fiction and fantasy stories whenever she can make the time. Her fiction has appeared in Metaphorosis, Three-Lobed Burning Eye, and Daily Science Fiction, among other places. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area in California.

We spoke to Chloe about ‘Going Through Customs’, her first story for IZ Digital, her writing, and her forthcoming novella from Luna Press Publishing, Virgin Land.

IZ Digital: How did ‘Going Through Customs’ come about? Was it a story you had been thinking about for a long time?

Chloe Smith: This story certainly had a long, ahem, gestation process: I took first stab at writing it back in 2019. I like Solar System-based space opera, and I wanted to play around in a world that looked a lot like the first few books of James S.A. Corey’s Expanse series. I also live in the United States, where government policies increasingly threaten the bodily autonomy of childbearing people. I hoped that I could use the funhouse-mirror qualities of science fiction to reflect back some the thorniest aspects of that issue: power, resources, right-to-healthcare, and personal freedoms. I had these ideas rattling around in my head, but I didn’t really know how to write an effective short story yet, so ‘Going Through Customs’ went through a LOT of drafts to bring Sally, Nyera, and Kirin into focus, so the story is about their struggles, not just about my ideas.

IZ Digital: You mentioned on Twitter that you had consulted a Nuclear Health Officer while you were writing ‘Going Through Customs’. What did you learn that most surprised you?

Chloe Smith: I’m so lucky to have friends with diverse expertise! One of them works for the EPA, assessing and mitigating environmental health risks posed by radiation and radioactive materials. I was able to pick his brain about realistic dosages for radiation exposures in space. I also wanted to ask him what units I should use to describe the amount radiation. It turns out this question is a lot more complicated than I thought, not only because there are different ways to measure radiation—activity, amount absorbed, level of risk from exposure, etc.—but also because there are SI units, conventional units, and units that have fallen out of current use. As with anything, there’s a lot history and politics embedded in the choices between those different measurement systems….

IZ Digital: What interesting non-fiction topics have you been reading up on lately? When you are thinking about short stories, do you first fix on characters and situations and then figure out what research is necessary? Or do you find that a particular scientific concept sometimes acts as the hook and then you build around that?

Chloe Smith: I’d like to be the kind of writer who pulls stories out of exhaustive non-fiction reading—and sometimes I get an idea from learning about cool real-world ideas or scenarios. I have a recent story out in Metaphorosis (May 2022) that was inspired by Merlin Sheldrake’s Entangled Life (I think every writer friend of mine who read that wrote a ‘mushroom story’ in response. It’s a very generative book). More often, though, two or more different ideas will bump up against each other until a story concept knocks loose, and those ideas come from all kinds of places—news articles, stories I hear from friends, some weird thing a kid says…. Usually, I end up doing research as the story demands it, so that the characters, situation, and world all grow in relationship to each other.

IZ Digital: Some writers have favourite pens or notebooks; others write on and with whatever is closest to hand. What tools, if any, are essential for you when you write? Do you have to be in a particular place, physically or mentally, before you are able to string words into sentences?

Chloe Smith: I like the idea of longhand writing, but I don’t have patience for it. I prefer to be able to type, delete, and retype, so I end up composing mostly on the computer. Beyond that, I’m not picky about my tools; what is more essential for me is mindset. My day job is teaching English and history to 14-year-olds, and it’s pretty consuming. I have to mentally recenter myself, so that I can shift focus to my own writing. I’m usually only able to write on weekends during the school year, but summer break is great—I can get into a routine where I write every day, and that feels really nourishing. The more I do it, the more my mind gets int the habit of running through those channels, and the more ideas I have.

IZ Digital: What would be your advice for other writers? How did you grow as a writer as you wrote and redrafted ‘Going Through Customs’?

Chloe Smith: The thing that has helped me the most is to have other writer friends, especially people who are more established or experienced with the industry and are able to offer advice, support, and reminders that things like rejections and self-doubt are part of the process (not a sign that you need to give up). I’m especially grateful to a couple of those people who read early drafts of ‘Going Through Customs,’ and reminded me that I need to establish personal stakes for the characters early on. Pacing is something I struggle with in my writing, and I think that the number of drafts this story went through really helped me improve on that element—although the work continues!

IZ Digital: Your novella Virgin Land (Luna Press Publishing, 2023) sounds fascinating. In the press release you say that you wanted to write it ‘as the story of someone who is waking up to the blind spots in her own upbringing.’ That is brilliant approach to telling a late-Anthropocene story about ‘the runaway consequences of human activity.’ Could you talk a little about it?

Chloe Smith: I’m happy to talk about Virgin Land—it’s a big deal for me, and I hope the world will receive it warmly! It’s funny to think of it as a late-Anthropocene story, since it’s set in a future even more distant than that of ‘Going Through Customs’, but of course it’s a product of the late Anthropocene (as we all are). I don’t think it’s very revolutionary to say that science fiction is less about prediction than it is about processing the concerns of the present moment, but I definitely see that in my own work. It doesn’t matter how distant and strange the idea is that I’m playing with, there’s always a moment when I realize, ‘Huh, this is really personal.’ That’s either because it’s about something widespread in the world, or something echoing from my own experience. It’s best when I can pull both kinds of truth into the story: the particular and the general.

IZ Digital: Which novels or short stories have left a big impression on you recently? When it comes to writers past and present, who do you admire most?

Chloe Smith: The short story that hit me the hardest in recent months is ‘An Important Failure’ by Rebecca Campbell (Clarkesworld, August 2020). It’s about persistence, craftsmanship, and letting go of the dreams you cherish in the face of a changing world. It’s so good. In terms of novels, I want to shout out the one I just finished: Trouble the Saints by Alaya Dawn Johnson, a fantasy novel set in New York’s gangster underworld of the 1940s. Johnson’s use of language is just stunning, as is the way that she evokes the weight of the past and the struggle against injustice(s). As far as who I admire most, that’s a tough question! There are so many talented people working right now, and so many great things to read. If I had to limit my list, it would be a challenge, but I know that Katherine Addison, N.K. Jemisin, and Martha Wells would definitely be on it.

IZ Digital: What can readers look out for next from Chloe Smith?

Chloe Smith: Well, the novella from Luna Press next year is the big one! I also have a story coming out in Kaleidotrope later in 2023, called ‘The Academy of Stories and the Ministry of Mines.’ It was inspired by HBO’s Chernobyl miniseries, so it’s not particularly feel-good, but I’m very proud of it. ∎

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