Claire Phillips and I sip our morning cappuccinos at the ever-busy, ever-trendy Intelligentsia Café. I squint swollen-eyed over cappuccino steam and tell Claire how early 11 am feels to me. She laughs with the confidence of a woman who’s been wide-awake for hours. Her red lipstick is perfectly placed and her sleek, waved black hair does not frizz beneath the light February breeze. I suspect that she is the type who can stay up late, wake up early, and still look lively; possibly she is not human. Maybe she is a cyborg.
I’ve wanted to interview Claire since I first took her Science Fiction writing class at CalArts. Her syllabus offered a wide array of sci-fi names I’d seen, as well as many names I hadn’t. Claire opened the door to galaxies of fantastic worlds that any budding fantastical writer should have the opportunity to experience.
Now that I’ve sampled her brilliant reading list, I have the mastermind here in my presence, flocked by glancing hipsters who vacantly browse the web on their laptops. I wonder if they feel the telepathic vibrations of a genius among their ranks.
BLACK CLOCK: Are there any projects you’re currently working on? Are they science fiction related?
CLAIRE PHILLIPS: I’m finishing a novel called The Story of Dora that will appear in conjunction with the photographs of the Dutch artist Monica Nouwens. I’d call it a satire with science fiction tinges. I don’t think of myself as a straight science fiction writer because it’s not a mainstream work. It’s about a cyborg who predicts the stock market with her orgasms, and I based this on [international investment firm] D. E. Shaw’s stock market prediction machine from the ‘90’s.
I wrote the text on my own and Nouwens’ photographs interact with the text. It’s very much an artists’ book. We decided to collaborate because both my writing and her photography centered on Los Angeles. The Netherlands Architecture Institute picked it up and [the] publishing grants are still in the works.
Are you working on any science fiction related shorts?
I’m working on a couple of short pieces. I became very interested in some of the themes from the course I’m teaching at CalArts. One piece I’m writing is vampire-themed, another is sci-fi based, an homage to and mad rendering of James Tiptree*, you could say.
*James Tiptree, Jr. being one of the pseudonyms employed by author Alice Bradley Sheldon, who published speculative fiction via this male persona for nearly two decades. (eds.)
What initially sparked your interest in works of science fiction and “slipstream” fiction? Who inspires you?
My dad is a scientist, so I would read everything he had in his closet, namely Vonnegut and Asimov, all books he collected at airports in the ‘70’s. At age 16 I was sucked up into this sort of technocratic hysteria, the belief that you could predict the future with psychohistory and then save mankind, sort of messianic and elitist. I was really interested in Isaac Asimov’s The Foundation Trilogy. Maybe that’s something I needed to do, save the world, learn everything there was to know. Later on I became much more cynical, of course.
The Foundation Trilogy is actually related to The Story of Dora. Lots of physicists have entered Wall Street; they took their science and put it into predicting the market. If one scientist can own that, what does it mean for everyone else? Who would you want to give that power of prediction to, if it were possible? In the interview I read with one of the computer scientist’s working on the stock market black box, I sensed he knew it wasn’t morally right, but rationalized it, using Asimov’s “psychohistory”, which I found interesting and disturbing. It took me ten years to find my way into that story. Dora the cyborg is born of an interest in what is happening for physicists today, and my concern and interest is in how capitalist markets are run, and of course, the female orgasm. That dovetailed into teaching science fiction and slipstream.
On that note, how do you define “slipstream” fiction?
Well it’s not technically a sub-genre. Bruce Sterling coined the phrase to define what was happening in 1989 within the science fiction genre. Sci-fi is now moving into the mainstream, so in magazines there is still hard sci-fi, but the fantasy elements are taking center stage. I don’t know if that term will be very dated two years from now. People are trying to sell their anthologies and books, which I understand, it’s hard to sell books, but I think that students are interested in the tropes of the horror genre, fantasy.
I think everyone likes to write science fiction now. There is no such thing as sci-fi. We are no longer Future Shocked like in the ‘70’s when there was surprise over how quickly things were changing. Now people anticipate fast, technological change. If we start terraforming, then there will be nothing we haven’t done. Maybe we’ll get back to [Russell Hoban's] Riddley Walker eventually, back to where it’s post-apocalyptic, to the Stone Age and nature and reinventing the wheel. I think sci-fi is an important vehicle for our study in history in America of genius inventors, rags-to-riches tales, part of the American fabric that will always be interesting to study. I think that we’ve moved out of seeing scientists in the same god-fearing way, and they are not the giants in charge of the culture’s focus or progress. It’s more diluted than that and I’m still trying to figure out why. Maybe technology has been more democratized.
Your novella Black Market Babies is a staggering piece of work. It tweaks the reader’s sense of reality in sly, artful ways, so that when one finishes the novella, she realizes she’s been on a tumultuous journey. Who is your ideal reader?
That book was written at a very different time for me and I no longer have the same goals as a writer. An improvisational work. I began as a poet. That is more a part of that work than what I write now. What I write now is more dialogue- and plot-driven. I would never put the reader through such hair-raising turns ever again. I don’t think I could do it, so, Black Market Babies would have a very different reader than I want, maybe. My ideal reader would be all readers. If it’s a good book, it has that potential to be read by everyone. Not my father, though [laughs].
Tell me more about your publisher for Black Market Babies, 11th Hour Press. Do they have a history of publishing works that dance around the science fiction genre?
They’re really a group of people who decided they would support me. Artist and illustrator Jonathon Rosen designed the book and did the cover illustration. I was living in the Bay Area at that time, which is a great area for small presses. Small Press Traffic helped. Ron Turner, who runs Last Gasp [Books], he discovered R. Crumb. Ron Turner publishes transgressive stuff, cartoons, low-brow art. I called him up and said, “I have this book and I really wanted to be included on the table at Virgin Books”. He said, why don’t you come with me to the Chicago Book Expo and I’ll give you a badge, so I went to the big book expo and we did business there. By the end of that weekend he bought 250 of my books off the bat, which was exciting, because most distributors don’t pay upfront. I got a lot of distributors and then it went from there. He was really instrumental.
Which literary journals, in your opinion, are most receptive to works of fantastical fiction?
I don’t write short fiction very much, and it’s all so experimental, so I don’t usually submit to these magazines. But I’d say Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, McSweeney’s, Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, and Strange Horizons.
Do you like cats?
As much as Cordwainer Smith, maybe more.
Claire Phillips teaches writing and science fiction at the Southern California Institute for Architecture (SCI-Arc) and CalArts. She is a recipient of the American Academy of Poets Award. A podcast of her recent fiction can be found on the Writer’s Block at KQED.org.
by Courtney Johnson
a writer and an Associate Editor of Black Clock
photography by Monica Nouwens