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Amy Sterling Casil: Wired For Words
By Scott Nicholson

Amy Sterling Casil's short fiction has appeared, among other places, in Talebones, the Writers of the Future anthologies, Zoetrope All Story Extra, and The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. Her novelettes were the cover stories of the January and July, 2000 issues of F & SF. Last year, she finished her first novel, The Golden Age, and is working on her next two books. She is the Science Fiction/Fantasy writing instructor for iUniverse's Writers Club University, Novel Advice site for writers, and She also teaches composition and literature at Chapman University, and is a staff member/content leader for iUniverse. She graduated from Scripps College with BAs in Studio Art and British/American Literature and received an MFA in Creative Writing from Chapman University. Oh, yeah, in her spare time, she is a book cover artist. (Tim Powers and Amy Sterling Casil at the 1999 Writers of the Future awards ceremony. -Photo by David W. Hill)

1. First of all, tell us about your new collection Without Absolution.

Casil: It's nine stories and four poems - mostly "early" work, and it has an introduction from my friend and guide Jim Blaylock. The book includes my two Writers of the Future stories. The title is taken from one of the poems. Readers may be surprised that the poems are essentially about art and history, not science fiction or fantasy. I guess I like to write about different subjects with poetry than I do with fiction. I saw that somebody called my work "cutting-edge science fiction." I don't mind that! People say my work "packs a punch." So, I think they'll be pleased with this book. It's not your run-of-the-mill stuff. An added "bonus" -- the cover art is one of my paintings.

2. Your stories often seem more akin to literary fiction than science fiction or fantasy. Do you think this helps set you apart, or does thisnarrow your potential markets?

Casil: Actually, the proper term is "cutting-edge science fiction." At least according to what that critic said! The truth is, I just write what I want to write the way it comes to me. In terms of "literary" or SF and so-on, well, I guess I'm interested in the people in my stories and what makes them tick, so maybe this is where that comes from. I've also read a lot, all different types of fiction, and I think this tends to have an impact on your work whether it's conscious or not. I've been told that "literary SF" is a tiny niche market and I'll never be a top-seller if I don't curtail all my bad habits like references to books like Tristram Shandy or Gulliver's Travels, and write some honest-to-goodness SF where somebody tries to reshape the future of the universe or gets kidnapped by dangerous, mad alien women in disguise (hey, I'm writing that right now!). I know, for instance, that I do a lot of research for nearly everything I write, and yet my work doesn't seem to fit in magazines like Analog that are supposed to feature "hard science fiction." I don't write a lot of fantasy, either, but what I've done seems to sell and go over well.

Readers are who are important to me. I want to give them their money's worth and make them feel happy that they've bought and read my work. As long as I keep that in mind, I think I've got the important stuff covered. People can call me any name they like as long as they keep reading.

So, no - it doesn't limit my markets except that my work isn't very formulaic, so any market looking for something like that wouldn't be much interested in me.

3. How has being a "cover girl" for the Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction helped you? What's it like having an influential editor like Gordon Van Gelder as a fan of your work?

Casil: I have two really cool pictures to frame and put on my bathroom wall, the way Gordon suggested I ought to do a while back. I have a wonderful new friend in Kent Bash, the artist who painted the January, 2000 cover for "Chromosome
Circus." I've gotten several dozen pieces of fan mail for each story and once I got my eyes back in my head and got to the point where I realized that every piece of incoming mail titled "Mad For the Mints" wasn't going to say, "my God, you stink so bad, you should go down to the docks and shoot yourself!" I was pretty happy about it. I wouldn't say that Gordon was a fan, but I would call him a friend. I trust his judgment completely. He's an amazing reader and one of the hardest-working (and most effective) people I know in this business. What I will say about F & SF is that it is an honor and a privilege to have my work appear in that magazine, because it represents the best in SF and F, as far as I'm concerned, and it always has. I think it's every writer's dream to be able to appear in their favorite publication, and in my case, that dream has come true.

4. You're working with iUniverse now. What do you think of its potential?

Casil: I'm getting raked over the coals for my involvement with an organization some people call a "vanity press." I've worked for a subsidiary organization of iUniverse for nearly four years, teaching and producing newsletters about science fiction and fantasy. In a way, my current job is just a continuation of that. iUniverse is not only a new company, it's a very new concept and there are a lot of "kinks" being worked out. It's also composed of a lot of different parts or partnerships, so in any organization like that, there'll be a lot of growing pains as everyone learns to work together and gets on the same page. I just looked through the iUniverse catalog and from what I see, there is both "treasure" and "trash" and quite a bit of both.

What iUniverse seems to be right now is a gateway for books, authors and independent publishers or publishing programs. They have many advantages, such as a partnership/subsidiary relationship with Barnes & Noble, and direct, well-established relationships with Ingram and Lightning Print, the Ingram subsidiary that pioneered the Print on Demand technology. iUniverse is well-capitalized and there are many talented people working for them, and they've managed to attract an impressive array of partners, from small presses to writers' organizations like ASJA and Authors Guild, and highly-respected University presses. My position right now is absolutely unique. I'm free to do many things -- the first big project is this anthology that will be developed through the input of writers and readers both -- I think there is a lot of potential and I'm looking forward to seeing how things develop in the coming months. One thing I can say for sure: change is incredibly rapid right now in publishing in general. iUniverse should not be discounted or counted out because it doesn't fit traditional models -- of course not -- it's a new "work in creation." I'm hoping that, eventually, this will mean greatly improved opportunities for all writers to see their work in print and make good money by selling books.

5. How different is it teaching fiction writing over the Internet as opposed to in the classroom?
Casil: In a real classroom, you get that all-important face to face contact. "Face time," I guess people call it. There's no substitute for that. The tradeoff with teaching on the Internet is that the quality of students I have online far exceeds any group I might get in a local writing class. I can draw from an international talent pool of interested, dedicated writers. So, teaching online, I'm able to work with incredibly talented writers -- the proof of that is that former students have won prizes in each of the last four quarters of the Writers of the Future Contest -- either first or second prizes, too. None of those pesky "thirds."

6. You were the world's longest-running bridesmaid in the Writers of the Future contest. Why did you keep entering, what happened to all those stories that didn't win (I know several of these should have been winners), and how did it feel to finally place in the contest?

Casil: Scott, I pretty much sold everything I entered in the contest after the first year or so. At some point during the first year, my first finalist story was "Jonny Punkinhead," which later became my first professional sale to F & SF. Each year after that (four total) I entered every quarter, winning finalist one time a year, and I sold those stories. The fourth finalist story I held aside and it was published in the book where we were both finalists. The last story was the third prize winner in last year's book, "My Son, My Self." I did not try to market that story, even though I was pretty sure I'd sell it. I sent it straight to the contest, because I knew that was my last quarter of eligibility. I guess I kept entering because being consistent and persistent is important to me, and I found out at a certain point that it was not "stories sold" but "stories in print" that determined eligibility. That was how I ran four years of entries. By that last quarter, I knew "time was running out" and I really wanted a prize -- just to say I'd done it. That was how it felt: I'd done it - met a goal I'd set forth for myself a long time before. Aside from the prize and workshop and the wonderful books, it was all well worth it in terms of the friendships I've made (such as you!) and the all-important support of Dave Wolverton. I owe what career I have to him and will always be grateful.

7. You recently modernized the Harlan Ellison trick of sitting in a store window and writing a story, except your "window" was electronic. What was that experience like?

Casil: Well, for once, I have the perfect word: grueling! I wrote for five hours total, producing a 13,000 word novelette that I'll turn into a short novel and publish with Wildside. People can read the draft of the novelette and see the log up to the point where I got punted offline permanently (at 9:10 p.m. Pacific time) at my iUniverse site.

8. From looking at the list of things you're involved with, I notice a lot of them seem to be in the field of electronic publishing or otherwise utilizing new technology. Is this the future of the written word, or just the easiest way to get work in front of readers?
Casil: Yes.

No, seriously - I was able to get my career as a writer established thanks to the "magic of the Internet." I'm well aware that my good friend Harlan Ellison is against the Internet and is suspicious of it, its "motives," and what it does to and for people. But I think, on the whole, the Internet is a very positive thing and -- most importantly -- I think it has helped to increase literacy and give more power to the written word than ever before in history. All interactivity, MacroMedia Players, WebTV and dancing web page widgets aside, the Internet is a text-based medium. Without really being aware (look at the explosion in e-mail vs. "snail mail" correspondence), people are reading and writing more than ever before. It also allows people with common interests to join together, such as writers, or "sci fi" writers or horror writers, and helps people make connections with others that, in pre-Internet days, they'd never know even existed.

The human connection part of the Internet is what interests me. That's why I do my online stuff. I can reach and teach more great writers via the Internet in one week than if I traveled 365 days a year hollering "free writing instruction!" off the back of a train or a semi. I think that the Internet, with the way it breaks boundaries and makes so much information available, combined with new publishing technologies like Print on Demand, is going to change the future of publishing and many other things in the years to come. By the way, I think real books will never go away. Nobody wants to sit in the bathtub or on the beach and read some electronic device. Not unless they change and improve greatly: and that, of course, is always possible. But the stuff inside is still a "book" and it's still writing. You know, in ancient Rome, they wrote on scrolls and stuck them in baskets for safe-keeping. What's the difference? A book is a book. If I write an essay or story and it's published online, what is the difference, also? As long as people read it.

9. You just wrote a novel last year and are busy with numerous projects. What do you have coming out this year, and where do you think all these projects will take you in five years?

Casil: The next biggest thing I have coming out is a novelette I'm really proud of, "To Kiss The Star," which I think is probably the best thing I've ever written. It will be in F & SF later this year. I'm thinking seriously of doing another collection for Wildside of newer stories, including my F & SF cover stories. I'll also be finishing this short novel that expands the online story, and publishing it with Wildside. I've been working on both a thriller novel and a so-called "big SF novel" and I'll finish those. I haven't really seriously marketed any of my novels, because from the limited early experience I had, plus all of these online/print on demand activities I've been doing, I think that the publishing business is going to change dramatically -- and not very far in the future. I'm waiting to see what will happen before I take any major steps like publishing a novel. Putting short fiction collections with Wildside, or something unusual like a short novel, is a different matter. I'm fortunate that I have this opportunity. You know, the standard wisdom is that not even the best-established writers can publish short fiction collections -- that such opportunities are like hen's teeth. That's going to change soon, as well. We'll see a lot more books similar to mine coming out. It's up to readers to decide whether they'll like them or not.

I'm long past the point where I wonder "can I write a novel?" My problem is the same as it's always been. I've got so much on my plate and I've got so many ideas percolating all the time, that focusing on one thing and making it the best I can be is the continual challenge. I am involved in a lot of writing-related activities right now, like teaching, iUniverse and Wildside, and I don't want my writing to take second place to those activities. I'm first and foremost a writer. My work has changed a lot, also, in the past year. So, future work that people see from me is likely to strike them differently than my earlier pieces. I'm also not tied to science fiction with an anchor. In five years' time, well, I had the old five-year plan five years ago, which was to be a professional writer. This one is to be a successful novelist; and that may be either within, or outside of the genre. I plan to write what feels right.

Scott, you remember how impressed Meredith (my daughter, for readers' benefit) was with your duck story? She's a tougher audience than any 2 a.m. Vegas lounge crowd. We were driving to school a few months back, and she turned to me and said, "Mama, you've been writing a long time now. How come you aren't a famous writer?" After I got my eyes to close a bit and pushed them back in my head, I said, "honey, I made a deal with God a while back. I asked Him if he knew how badly I wanted to write, and I asked him if that was what he really wanted me to do. I figured he said 'yes' and he made everything possible. What He asked me to do in return was to never, ever let him down and to always do the best I could."

She took some F & SF's down off the shelf in a bookstore a couple of weeks ago and carried them to the counter for me. You know we have to buy this stuff in as much quantity as we can to boost issue sales. And on the way out, she said, "you are a famous writer, aren't you?"

"No way, honey," I said. "But believe me when I tell you I've got everything I ever dreamed of and more. Some day when you're older, you'll understand that, or I'll explain to you."

-copyright 2000 by Scott Nicholson


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