Interview with the american writer Jason Sanford – Cristian Tamaș

    Jason Sanford

    Hi, Jason, thank you very much for this interview !
    You are a southerner as many other famous american writers, William Faulkner, Katherine Anne Porter, Thomas Wolfe, Robert Penn Warren, Tennessee Williams, Eudora Welty, Carson McCullers, Shirley Ann Grau, Walker Percy, Harper Lee (born in Alabama, too), Cormac McCarthy, Anne Tyler, etc. Do you think that there is a Southern Literature that has distinctiveness from the rest of the American Literature ? If yes, what could be its characteristics ? Do you consider yourself a southerner writer?

    Southern Literature has a long, distinct heritage in the United States and results from the region’s unique culture and history. At its most basic, Southern Literature is literature about and concerning the American South, and at its most complex is an attempt to capture a deeper truth about the region’s troubled mix of history, racial conflict, and conflicting ideals. There’s also a lyrical sense of storytelling and a deep sense of place associated with Southern Literature, although that doesn’t apply to all works in the genre. Absolutely. Even when I’m not writing about Southern topics or places–which is most of the time, since few of my SF stories are set in the South–my background growing up in Alabama still influences my stories.

    What had been your favourite books during your childhood ?

    During my childhood I read all the science fiction I could find. I loved novels and stories from the Golden Age of SF–thanks to my grandfather, a big SF fan, I had access to all the classic works and read everything I could find by Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov. I also loved the influential works of the 70s and 80s, such as the stories of Harlan Ellison, William Gibson’s Neuromancer, and David Brin’s space operas.

    How do you describe your childhood and teenage years ?
    Both painful and great. I grew up in the country, giving me time to explore and find myself in the forests and fields. I also had a loving family. That’s the great part. However, school was horrible. I never fit in and was subjected to what today we recognize as excessive bullying. Still, all of that made me who I am and I’m stronger for it.

    Why did you choose anthropology and archeology for your studies at the Auburn University ?

    Because science and history as so important in understanding humanity. Because of my love of science fiction, I wanted to study a science. But I was also fascinated by human history and how we all become human. Anthropology and archeology were a great match between my interests and my attempt to understand the human condition.

    Why did you decided to join the Peace Corps ? And why Thailand ?

    Since my teenage years I’d wanted to be a Peace Corps Volunteer. I wanted to give something back to humanity, and also broaden my understanding of the world and help build bridges between
    people. That said, I didn’t choose to go to Thailand–once you are accepted into the Peace Corps you are assigned to a particular county. But in hindsight I couldn’t have picked a better place to serve. I loved my time in Thailand.

    It’s relevant for a writer to have a “Third World” experience ?

    It’s hard to answer that question because I consider the term “Third World” to no longer have much validity. The term came into use during the Cold War to describe countries that were not aligned with the United States or the Soviet Union. Now, though, what does it mean for a country to be Third World? Is the term shorthand for a poor country? A term to describe a country which is still developing? All that said, I think it’s vitally important for writers to gain experience both living and travelling the world. But I’ve never been a fan of simple tourism, of turning a people or their country into a destination. To truly experience the world you must be a part of the world. Instead of touring another country, go there and do something. Make friendships. Build relationships. But experiencing a place merely to have the experience will leave you with very little.

    Is SF&F a passion for you or just a hobby ?

    A passion. Science fiction is how I see the world. It’s how I understand life. And if you look at how fast the world is changing, I don’t understand how anyone can understand life these days without a touch of science fiction.

    How did you start to write science fiction ? Why ?

    I’ve always loved science fiction and I’ve always known I wanted to be a writer. Naturally the first stories I wrote were SF since that’s what I was reading at the time.

    Should SF&F address or not, present day political, economical and social issues?

    Absolutely. In many ways SF&F are the perfect genres for addressing present day political, economical and social issues because you are able to step back and present these issues without their present entanglements. For example, if you write about racism on an alien planet, you can make the same point as if you’re writing about racism in the United States. However, because the story is a step removed from the present situation, readers may be able to read the story and understand its message without their blinders or filters predisposing them to certain already accepted viewpoints, which often happens when they deal with an issue set in the present day. But all that said, authors must be careful not to preach to their readers. The worst stories are those where the author is moralizing and preaching.

    Do you think that a writer should have a social role ?

    Yes. In fact, I worry that an author’s fiction suffers when they remove themselves too much from society. While writing is a very isolated and personal art, the inspiration an author draws upon comes from the larger culture and society around us. So while I work in solitude on my stories, my writing is also part of a much larger cultural tapestry. If I remove myself from society I would be missing so much, and that loss would show up in my fiction.

    What is the status of a writer in the contemporary U.S. ? And of a SF&F writer ?

    A mixed bag. On the one hand, you have a few writers who are superstars and celebrities. On the other hand, most writers are unknown and struggle to make a living at their art. There’s not a lot of support for writers in the U.S. If you’re not a superstar, and not making a ton of money from your writing, there’s an attitude that there must be something wrong with you. In this country success means monetary success, and few writers ever achieve that.

    Being a genre writer represents something less than a mainstream writer ?

    It used to, but I think that distinction no longer matters. What you’re seeing today are many mainstream and “literary” authors writing genre fiction–Cormac McCarthy’s award-winning novel The Road is one great example–while many genre writers hit the tops of the bestseller lists with their works. There’s a blurring of the lines between the genres and this carries over into how genre writers are seen.

    The writer’s identity vs. the writer’s career ? Is it possible to have a career as genre writer ? Please, comment !

    Yes, it’s possible to have a career as a genre writer. If you mean a career in which you make enough money to support yourself purely from your genre writing, there are plenty of authors who do that (such as John Scalzi). But there are also genre writers who have a career in the field but do other things to supplement their writing income, such as through teaching and business writing.

    Are SF&F fictional commodities of the world’s global entertainment industry ?

    It’s amazing how integral SF&F has become to the world’s entertainment industry. The top films, books, and video games are almost always genre works, and this has been going on
    for nearly two decades. But the downside to this is that SF&F is then seen as little more than a commodity. And this is where some genre authors fail, in seeing their writing as nothing more than a commodity, as a means to make money or achieve success. If that’s your view of SF&F–if there’s no passion and love for what you’re creating–then you shouldn’t be a writer.

    The anglo-saxon SF&F is reflecting the world’s cultural mcdonaldization?

    Unfortunately, yes. Harry Potter. The Lord of the Rings. The standard American SF-style blockbuster film. To a large degree, Anglo-Saxon SF&F is the McDonalds buffet where genre lovers turn for their fast food fix. But the good news is that there are also other genre traditions and styles, serving stories which are not a McDonalds view of the world and the genre. You can find these stories if you search for them, and I hope that in the coming years they’ll having an increasingly growing audience.

    Had you read Paul Kincaid’s article “The Widening Gyre” and Jonathan McCalmont’s essay “Cowardice, Laziness and Irony: How Science Fiction Lost the Future” ? What do you think about their opinions ?

    I basically agree with their opinions. I’ve grown very disgusted with the limited outlook on both diversity and stories held by many in our genre. But I also know that this self-limiting outlook is also self-defeating. The world is an amazingly diverse place and over time SF can’t help but reflect this diversity–and if the genre doesn’t, then the genre will die.

    You are present within two european SF magazines, the british Interzone and the czech XB-1. Is it just a coincidence or there are some affinities ?

    I think that Interzone and XB-1 have a similar sensibility when it comes to fiction, which is why my stories have found a receptive audience in both places. Both magazines look for deeper SF, for stories which are not the same old stuff so often found in our genre. They’re also receptive to new voices and new styles of stories.

    You’re a co-founder of the the literary journal storySouth . Why did you started and what did you want to obtain ?

    I founded storySouth because I was disturbed by how hard it was for new voices to be published in the U.S., with this lack of access applying both to general fiction and to Southern Literature in particular (storySouth focuses on new styles of Southern Literature). I wanted to give new and upcoming authors exposure and the opportunity to find readers.

    What is the Million Writers Award and what it’s aim?

    The aim of the Million Writers Award was similar to my aim with storySouth. But where storySouth focused on giving writers of Southern Literature more exposure, the award aimed to do that for all types of online-published fiction. When I started the Million Writers Award too many people dismissed online published fiction as not being serious or truly “published.” That attitude has changed over the years and I think the award played a part in that change.

    What is SciFi Strange ?

    I’ve defined SciFi Strange as genre stories with high literary qualities, a strong sense of wonder, and an exploration of the boundaries of reality and experience. These are science fiction stories which flirt with the boundaries of what is scientifically–and therefore realistically–possible, without being bounded by the rigid frames of the world as we know it today. In some ways the stories feel a bit like fantasy, but they aren’t. Instead, they’re pure science fiction, an updated version of the literature of ideas. A science fiction for a world where the frontiers of scientific possibility are almost philosophical in nature.
    In my opinion, SciFi Strange is the type of genre fiction a number of new authors are writing these days (although mainly at the short story level). Authors I’d include in the SciFi Strange subgenre include Paolo Bacigalupi, Aliette de Bodard, Ted Chiang, Eugie Foster, Yoon Ha Lee, Ian McDonald, Nnedi Okorafor, Hannu Rajaniemi, Gareth L. Powell, Rachel Swirsky, Lavie Tidhar and Caroline M. Yoachim, among many others. Some of these authors are well established. Others barely known. Some exclusively write these types of stories. Others create these stories only on occasion.

    What are your specific themes and areas of interest ?

    Where is humanity going? What makes us truly human? Who are we when compared to the vast time
    frames and distances of the universe? Those are some of the themes I return to over and over.

    “Never Never Stories” is your short stories collection. Are you aware that the australians could consider it a journey report from the Never Never Land (not Peter Pan’s Land but the australian outback) ?

    I didn’t know that. I’ll have to look that up sometime.

    What do you know about european science fiction ?
    Before I published in Interzone I read and loved the British magazine–and I still do. I’ve also read a number of European stories in translation, including works from the Czech Republic and Russia, although that’s hard to do in the U.S. because so few translations are available here. I was also very influenced by the SF comics of Mœbius (Jean Giraud).

    Had you ever read an european science fiction novel or a story ?
    As many as I can find in the United States. Mainly short stories, which are available here in anthologies of translated stories.

    What are your favourite writers ?

    Clarke and Asimov were very important to me as a child, William Gibson and Neil Gaiman as I grew
    older. Now my favorite authors of novel-length fiction includes Gene Wolfe, Nnedi Okorafor, and Cormac McCarthy.

    Is culture important or not to the human species ? And the fiction’s role ? The habit of fiction reading will disappear ?

    Culture is absolutely important to the human species. Without our culture we wouldn’t be human; we can’t become human without how our culture shapes us from birth. Fiction plays an important role in our culture because one of the basic ways humans understand the world is through stories. We create stories to understand events and we exchange information through storytelling. Even if fiction reading passes away, humanity’s use of stories to process the universe will remain. Stories will remain.

    We live in a science fictional world. That’s why fantasy is so successful and the literary science fiction is losing it’s attractivity ?

    I think that for a long time science fiction has limited itself, has restricted itself in the stories
    it can tell. And if a genre’s stories don’t resonate with people then fewer people will read those stories. As a result, fantasy has taken SF’s place. But I also believe this is a temporary thing. I truly believe SF is poised for a big comeback. But it won’t be the same-old SF. It’ll be a new SF for a new age.

    In what kind of world your nephews will live ?

    It’s hard to say all the ways in which technology will change. But what we can know is that our descendents will still want live their lives, just as we do. They’ll want to make connections to other people and understand life and find a way make a difference. They’ll have desires and emotions and longings. While the technology may change, the essence of what makes us human remains the same.

    Please address some words to our readers !

    It’s been great talking with all of you. I hope you found something of what I said to be of interest.

    Thank you for your time, Jason, it was a pleasure to talk with you !

    Copyright© Cristian Tamaș & Jason Sanford


    Jason Sanford is an American science fiction author best known for his short story writing. His fiction has been published in Interzone, Asimov’s Science Fiction, Analog Science Fiction and Fact, Year’s Best SF 14, and other magazines and anthologies. He also founded the literary magazine storySouth and runs their annual Million Writers Award for best online short stories.

    Sanford is a three-time winner of the Interzone Readers’ Poll and his novella “Sublimation Angels” was a finalist for the 2009 Nebula Award for Best Novella. Interzone published a special issue on his fiction in 2010. His short story collection Never Never Stories was published in 2011.His fiction has been reprinted into a number of languages, including Czech, French, Russian, and Chinese.

    Jason Sanford is best known as a science fiction author, although he also writes fantasy and has been published in other literary genres. His fiction has been described as “new weird SF,” and compared to both the anime of Hayao Miyazaki and the early writings of Brian Aldiss.

    Sanford has described his writings and those of others as part of an emergent storytelling form called SciFi Strange, “which sets high literary standards, experiments with style, is infused with a sense of wonder, takes the idea of diverse sexuality for granted, focuses on human values and needs and explores the boundaries of reality and experience through philosophical speculation.”

    Be sure to check out Jason Sanford’s science fiction and fantasy stories at


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