Odyssey graduate Erin Roberts is a speculative fiction writer who tells stories across formats: her short fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in publications including The Best Science Fiction of the Year: Volume 4,The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy & Horror 2019, Asimov’s Science Fiction, Clarkesworld, The Dark, and THEN AGAIN: Vintage Photography Reimagined by One Artist and Thirty Writers; her interactive fiction has been published in Sub-Q Magazine and is forthcoming from Choice of Games; and her non-fiction essays and reviews have appeared on Tor.com and in Cascadia Subduction Zone, People of Colo(u)r Destroy Fantasy, and Strange Horizons, among others.
Erin is a 2015 graduate of the Odyssey Writers Workshop. She later earned an MFA from the Stonecoast program at the University of Southern Maine and was the recipient of a 2019 Individual Artist Award from the Maryland State Arts Council and the Speculative Literature Foundation’s 2017 Diverse Worlds and Diverse Writers awards.
You attended the Odyssey Writing Workshop in 2015. What made you decide to attend Odyssey?
The cocktail party version of my decision is that I met Odyssey Director Jeanne Cavelos at the Boston SFF convention Boskone and fell under her brilliant spell. The longer version is that I was in the right place at the right time at a moment when I was just figuring out I could call myself a writer. I was a bit of a writing late bloomer overall—I studied playwriting in college, but aside from a few NaNoWriMos, a soap opera writing class, and one general creative writing class, I didn’t write much of anything until my early 30s when I took a class in science fiction and fantasy writing at Gotham Writers’ Center with the wonderful Paul Witcover.
I immediately realized that I really enjoyed writing SFF and that it seemed like something I might be able to get better at. It was also clear that I had a long way to go. Luckily, that Gotham class introduced me to some writing buddies, including my future Odyssey classmate Golden Baker. He found out about Odyssey, applied early, got in, and then invited me on a trip to Boskone to get a sense of the broader SFF community. We went to a kaffeeklatsch Jeanne held to talk about the program and I was immediately hooked—she obviously knew her stuff and I immediately wanted to know/learn more. I applied as soon as I got home and the rest is history.
How do you feel your writing and writing process changed as a result of having attended Odyssey? What insights did you gain into your own work?
One of the reasons I enjoy writing about memory is that I have a pretty bad one myself, so it’s hard for me to pinpoint a specific writing trick or tip that I learned at Odyssey. And yet my work leveled up 1000%. It’s as if we were so immersed in the learning and writing and critiquing process of being at Odyssey that I became a better writer by osmosis. But of course, it was more than that—it was that we were taught by Jeanne how the craft of writing worked, got to put those craft lessons into practice immediately in our own writing and see how they were incorporated into our classmates’ stories, and meet and talk to expert writers who had put them into practice in unique and masterful ways. And we were able to talk to our friends and roommates about the process every step of the way. It’s hard, if not impossible, to get that kind of 360-degree perspective on craft anywhere else. It can’t help but make you better.
Can you describe your Odyssey experience? What surprised you most about Odyssey?
• having long conversations with new old friends about writing…
• and dancing at 4 AM to stay awake while finishing a story…
• and the moment when you completely get what someone was trying to do with their story or they do the same with yours…
• and learning how the pieces of the writing puzzle that you put together instinctively but sloppily can work for you with purpose and power…
• and meeting experienced writers whose work you to this day recommend to everyone you can…
• and hugs and late-night convos about life and the occasional singalong…
• and realizing that deciding to make this kind of commitment to writing means you are a writer, even if you are still learning and growing.
I’m not sure I expected any of that, and certainly not all at once and so magically.
On your website you say you “primarily write about worlds that don’t yet (quite) exist.” What draws you to write about the near future?
I like to think that phrase covers both fantasy and science fiction. Basically, I tend not to go too far from reality in any of my speculative fiction—my fantasy stories usually don’t have overt magic and my science fiction stories aren’t too heavy on technology. I like the worlds I create to be stranger and more complex than the one we live in, but not so much that they aren’t recognizable. They’re like a funhouse mirror—similar around the edges but warped when you try to compare them to our reality head-on—and, if I do things just right, designed to make certain aspects of our world seem just that much more clear, whether for good or for ill.
Your story “Thanks for the Memories,” an interactive story about a woman piecing her life together one memory at a time, came out in Sub-Q in December 2018. What were some of the challenges in writing a story structured that way?
I had so much fun writing “Thanks for the Memories,” and it’s based on a story I wrote for my last week of Odyssey. I could never make it quite work in prose, but making it interactive and letting the player/reader experience the feeling of trying to work out the main character’s past from within her shoes, using her memories, was the perfect fit of story and format. The hardest part of doing it, other than learning a new coding language to write the piece, was figuring out how to make the piece non-linear (so you could experience the memories in any order), but also structured (so there was a set beginning, middle, and end to drive the story). My solution was to create a frame narrative with a ticking clock and key moments that always happened when the player got through a certain number of memories. That way their experience of the memories could always be different, but the story would still have a shape and forward plot momentum. I like to think it worked out in the end.
You’ve written for the exergame Zombies, Run! What did you learn from writing scripts for the game that you’ve been able to apply to writing prose?
To go back to an earlier question, one of the things you learn at Odyssey, I think, is to better understand your natural strengths and weaknesses as a writer. You’re writing quickly and reacting to all the things you’re being taught, and you often end up drawing on the things that make you the writer you are when you first start, the things that feel as easy to you as breathing. That’s not to say that people don’t push themselves in new ways at Odyssey, but I think having such a concentrated writing experience helps you get to know yourself as a writer.
What I learned is that one of my greatest strengths as a writer is conveying character through voice and one of my biggest weaknesses is plot and structure. The Zombies, Run! writing experience has been wonderful for the latter. We plot out seasons at a time and individual missions within that season before we write them, and that process has helped me put some of the things that Jeanne mentioned a lot at Odyssey (like causal chain) into practice in a different way. Not only that, but Zombies, Run! uses a format that’s still all about storytelling, but still has to fit a specific structure, length, and pace. In writing for Zombies, Run! (and learning from the talented writing staff, led by writer Naomi Alderman), I’ve figured out how to work within a set plot structure to make my stories clearer and better. As I start moving into longer form work, that’s something I will absolutely be drawing on.
When and how did you make your first sale?
My first sale was a revision of another story I wrote at Odyssey: “Wolfy Things.” I had a tendency to turn in shorter pieces, and this was no exception—I think that first draft was about 1,000 words in total. The story really resonated with everyone, but there were a few questions and things I needed to flesh out, so I worked on it after I got back home and turned it in to the very first workshop at my MFA program the following January. I think I was encouraged to keep going with it in part by one of my Odyssey roommates, who had all of us sign the first page of her favorite story by us when we left. That was the story she picked, and since I love her writing, it made me want to make “Wolfy Things” even better.
After a few more tweaks of the story during my MFA workshop, I started sending the story out and collecting rejections. My Odyssey class had all made a pact to try to get 100 rejections in a year, and while I never got remotely close, the pact encouraged me to keep sending the story out and boosting my numbers. Eventually, instead of sending a rejection, the fine folks at PodCastle bought it, which was amazing.
What’s next on the writing-related horizon? Are you starting any new projects?
I’m working on a few different short stories at the moment, both on the fantasy and the science fiction side of the SFF genre. They include a fantasy story about an island where people are made into ink and bound to obey the things they read, a sci-fi piece about a human scholarship student trying to fit in at a finishing school for androids, and a story in my memory universe (where “Thanks for the Memories” and my story “Sour Milk Girls” are set) focused on life after prison for a woman whose memory has been erased as a condition of her parole. I’m also gearing up to write a novella about the ghostly protectors of a majority-black urban neighborhood in a rapidly gentrifying city. I look forward to finishing those, getting them out in the world, and continuing to try to do Odyssey proud!