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Corie Ralston Interview

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    Posted: Mar-10-2015 at 9:31am
An interview with Corie Ralston
by Daniel E. Blackston

Corie Ralston, Grand Prize winner in SFReader.com’s 2005 fiction contest, is a staff scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Lab at a facility called the Advanced Light Source. She’s also a Clarion East grad (from 2001) and an editor-at-large at Internet Review of Science Fiction. I enjoyed our recent conversation about writing contests, scientific influences on genre fiction, and how she’s going to spend her prize money! Her website is located at http://www.sff.net/people/cyralston/

Obviously, the first question I have to ask you, given the theme of your Grand Prize winning story, "A Question of Faith," is: do you consider yourself a religious person?

No, I'm not a religious person, although I've often wished I could be. It must be wonderfully comforting to have complete faith in an all-powerful being. I would love to have "proof" the way the characters in my story experience it.

What I find fascinating about religion is that it can elicit such totally different reactions in people. Some people find comfort or learn to be better people through religion, others use it as an excuse to do terrible things, some feel tormented or trapped by it, others freed by it.  That's what I wanted to explore in this story: how people's lives can be either enhanced or ruined by religion. It's taken to an extreme in the story, because people have a reason to really believe.

You are a research scientist. Do you feel that being a SF writer allows you to bring any special or unusual perspectives to your scientific work?

It might make me a little more open-minded than other scientists. We are taught that science is a completely rational process and that scientists are impartial observers, but experimental results require interpretation, and scientists are just as influenced by peer pressure as any other group. Funding and publications are contingent on peer-review.

I've actually moved away from doing research these days - I'm in more of a management role at Berkeley Lab -- but I do still help other scientists with their research, and I think that reading science fiction keeps me sympathetic to differing points of view, and more willing to entertain "out there" ideas.

Opposite question: does being a research scientist help you in your creative work, particularly with science-fiction stories? The novel you're presently working on involves bio-tech and "rogue scientists;" I hope we aren't talking about autobiography here!

If I'm writing a "hard science" story it definitely helps. I can draw on my own background, or I know where and how to look things up. But I don't tend to write hard science fiction. I'm more interested in how technology or culture (especially when extrapolated) can affect people and relationships, than I am in the science itself.

My novel is also more about how science can affect people than about science. But it's in no way autobiographical!

Do you tend to approach your creative writing "scientifically," that is, methodically and with linear reasoning?

Yes, generally I have an idea, then come up with an outline, then try to write the story start to finish. However, in the last few years I've really begun to appreciate a more non-linear approach: writing what "feels" right, writing scenes without a context. I had a writing teacher who said that sometimes you just have to write what "resonates", even if you don't understand it. I struggle with trying to understand a story rationally all the time. I'm still learning how to turn that part of my brain off, at least for the first draft.

The short fiction of yours that I've read is interesting in that you address global themes and themes of personal transcendence, but you also wield a biting irony. Stories like "Looking Back" and "Piecemeal" are like two-sides of the transcendental coin, one that seems to represent the hope of an ever-expanding cosmos, while the other seems to refer to a more nihilistic cosmic vision. Are themes of rational response (or submission) to irrational phenomena important to you as a SF writer? If so, why?

I think it's a very human response to search for meaning in the face of irrational phenomena, to constantly try to make sense of the world around us. Humans are obsessed with the question of what it means to be human and about the nature of consciousness. Writing is a great way to explore these questions. I believe that writing itself is an attempt to impose meaning and order on the world, a way to better understand the world. Speculative fiction is particularly well suited to addressing questions of a transcendent nature because you aren't limited to reality and can imagine literally anything. I love the fact that in science fiction, the metaphor can become real. If you want to explore the human experience of alienation, then you can dump your character all alone on an alien planet.

What projects are you working on now; what do you have forthcoming?

I have an essay forthcoming in the "She's Such a Geek" anthology from Seal Press. I have many stories out there in various slush piles, and I'm currently a finalist in last quarter's Writers of the Future Contest. (It was a good year for contests!) I've written a draft of my novel and had it critiqued by my writing group. I've been meaning to get back to it, but I keep having ideas for short stories that won't let me go. Honestly, I don't feel as compelled by the ideas in my novel anymore as I'd like to be. So for now, it's just short stories.

Was "A Question of Faith" a story you wrote specifically for entry in the SFReader.com contest? Do you enter many fiction contests?

I didn't write it originally for SFReader. I did rewrite it, though, for SFReader. I had recently had it critiqued, and I used the deadline of the SFReader contest to spur me to finish it. I try to enter the Writers of the Future contest at least once a year. The deadlines are really good for me. I figure I'll just keep entering until I'm not qualified anymore, ie, either I actually win or I've had too many professionally published stories -- wouldn't that be a sad thing!

How are you going to spend the prize money?

My initial impulse was to go buy as many writing related things as possible: pens, paper, notebooks. Then I realized that even though I love those things, I never use them. I write almost completely on my computer these days. I think I'll probably use it to treat the important people in my life to a nice celebration dinner.

You recently joined the staff at Internet Review of Science Fiction. What's your position there and how has it been going so far?

At the moment I'm an "Editor-At-Large", which means I read some of the incoming submissions and work with writers on their articles. Soon, though, IFOSF is going to have a News section, and I'll be the editor of that section, which means I'll have to start keeping up a lot better with the science fiction community. Feel free to send any science fiction news and gossip my way!

What have you been reading lately?

I recently really enjoyed "The Midnight Disease", which is about the creative impulse and its connection with mental health. I read a lot of short fiction. I try to keep up with F&SF, Asimovs, and Strange Horizons. In the small press area I'm a fan of Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet and Turbocharged Fortune Cookie. Outside the genre I read Glimmer Train and ZYZZYVA.

Do you have any advice for aspiring SF writers? Any special advice for those looking to enter their fiction in contests? Here are the things that have helped me:

Set a daily date to write.

Find a writing critique group that isn't all praise but isn't mean-spirited, either. Get used to critique.

Set deadlines. I find contest deadlines are a really great way to make me actually finish something.

Finish stories and send those babies down the river.

Try to dissociate from the inevitable rejections. I find having a lot of stories out at once really helps with the rejections, because when I get one I can always say "but I've got three more out there that just might be accepted!"

Just keep writing, no matter what. 

copyright © 2006,  Dan Blackston

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