Vikram Ramakrishnan is an alumnus of the University of Pennsylvania and enthusiastic member of the Odyssey Writing Workshop’s class of 2020, where he received the Walter & Kattie Metcalf Scholarship. He is the winner of the 17th Annual Gival Short Story Award. His stories have been published or are forthcoming in Meridian, Eclectica, and Asimov’s Science Fiction. He can be found at https://vikramramakrishnan.com.
You attended Odyssey in 2020, the first year it was held online due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Can you talk about your pre-Odyssey writing process? What kind of writing schedule, if any, did you keep?
I have a friend who is very good at learning languages. He ran a language learning program in Berlin a while back. One thing he mentioned that stuck with me is that language learners fit into two categories: aspirational or required. The latter kind are the ones that make the furthest progress. Maybe they have to learn a language because they moved to a new country, it’s a requirement for their job, and so on. There’s something about deadlines and requirements that get them moving. Thinking about writing this way made me realize I’d been spending a bit too much time on the aspirational side and less on the required side. I looked at my stack of writing books and they were squarely on aspirational, and I realized I needed some help on the craft side to move forward.
I attended Gotham Writers Workshop in New York City, where I was lucky to learn from authors like Robert Repino, Lev Rosen, and Seth Fried. Those guys helped me understand what goes in to a good story. After that, something clicked for me. I decided to make significant changes to my daily routine to take on writing seriously. I was lucky here, because I had a small group of other writers who wanted to keep our workshop going after Gotham so we could keep getting feedback. From there, I created a little schedule for myself: writing first thing in the morning, reading stories, and continued workshopping. This “write, review, get feedback” system inched me closer to my goal.
What made you decide to attend the Odyssey Writing Workshop?
The first time I heard of Odyssey was at a science fiction writing workshop in Boston run by Craig Shaw Gardner and Jeff Carver. After the workshop was over, I learned that one of the participants had attended Odyssey. She wrote us all an email with her detailed thoughts on her experience. She had lots of wonderful things to say: the program was intense and demanding, it was pivotal to her development, and so on. I immediately thought it was the kind of experience I wanted, but I felt like I wasn’t ready for it. I hadn’t written enough, I hadn’t published anything, and frankly, I wasn’t even sure I’d get as much as I could out of the experience.
A decade later, at Gotham, Robert Repino mentioned Odyssey during his workshop, and so I went back and read that email. It’s funny how events in life have all these connections. Years later, the email left even more of an effect on me, so I went on an adventure of listening to all of Odyssey’s podcasts, Director Jeanne Cavelos’s appearances on other podcasts, and reading all the testimonials. I decided I really wanted an immersive experience where I didn’t have to focus on anything else.
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?
I think the biggest change has gone from thinking of writing as a loose hobby to thinking of writing as a craft. I have a deep appreciation of words, particularly tying them together so they bring feeling and story into meaning. Of course, things like understanding the process of story creation and mechanics is important, what goes on behind the story itself. But there were two things that are kind of fundamental principles that I took away.
And they seem so obvious in retrospect, but it took a while for me to understand them: (1) is the idea of the leaf-mould put forth by J. R. R. Tolkien (“one writes such a story not out of the leaves of trees still to be observed, nor by means of botany and soil-science; but it grows like a seed in the dark out of the leaf-mold of the mind: out of all that has been seen or thought or read, that has long ago been forgotten, descending into the deeps.”); and (2) that the reader comes first. These two drive my stories. As part of my practice, I try to plan a leaf-mould for a story I want to tell. When I rewrote “Abacus and the Infinite Vessel,” I indulged in every Mars piece of media I could: YouTube videos, books, etc. I tried to put myself in the shoes of the characters, what their experience could be like, drawing on my own background. And to the second point about the reader coming first, it’s a matter of knowing what a reader is going to get out of my story. It’s simple enough to ask this question, but wildly helpful. Jeanne asks it this way: “What pleasure does a reader get out of this?” After I get some words of a story down, I think about this. If it isn’t clear to me, then I know there’s more work to be done.
Those two things drove my decision making all the way down, and I think they can be used fairly easily for anyone who wants to tell a story.
Can you describe your Odyssey experience? What surprised you most about Odyssey?
“Intense” is the best word to describe Odyssey. Every day was packed with Jeanne’s phenomenal lectures, my amazing classmates’ critiques, and outstanding guest lectures by authors and editors. The last few hours of the day, I’d scramble to get words of a story I had due soon. This intensity flowed into everything: whiteboarding ideas, mind-mapping story plots, trying the techniques that we learned earlier that day, and finally putting it all together into some semblance of coherence that would get torn apart during a critique.
What surprised me was finally understanding how much goes in to good storytelling. There’s a myth, and luckily I think this myth is fading, that writers plop into their seat and pump out story after story, novel after novel. And perhaps for the truly talented, it’s possible. But after Odyssey, I know myself better now, and have a better idea of how I best work. For me, it’s a lot of work: pre-planning, mind-mapping, willful leaf-moulding, and drafting. And lots and lots of revising. I think I understood this at a visceral level, but it was only after doing it at Odyssey that I understood it for real.
You were a recipient of The Walter & Kattie Metcalf Singing Spider Scholarship for a story that portrayed “strong worldbuilding” and an “intriguing magic system.” How do you typically go about worldbuilding? Do you do most of it before drafting your story, or does most of it occur during revisions?
Worldbuilding to me is intensely related to the purpose of the story. If my story is about X, I want setting, characters, and so on to be related to X. This is off the cuff, but say we wanted to write a story about water magic. If water is a key component of magic, and magic is a key component of the world, it would be easy enough to say that water is a highly desired substance. Now we can think about the world. Maybe we want some tension in this world. What stresses water? Or, rather, what strains our desire for water? Perhaps, it’s something to do with lack of rain, like in a desert. So, then we can set our story in a desert. Now we can think about characters. Maybe the main character is someone capable of magic, but they come from the desert, and are looking for water for some reason. From there, we can kind of make different assumptions about how the world works. There are probably people who guard wells, there are water thieves, and so on. The setting, the characters, and the plot should all be related to each other. It feels a bit contrived when a magic system is created without a plot or setting in mind. Having worldbuilding integrate with everything else is integral to telling a cohesive story. It should all be congruent. As far as how I do it, I do it at a very high level prior to the draft, and then figure out more of the details as I go along. It’s very easy for magic systems to grow unwieldy, so it’s worth containing things where you can.
Your story “The Abacus and the Infinite Vessel” is forthcoming in Asimov’s Science Fiction. How did this story come about? How many revisions did you go through before submitting to Asimov’s?
I knew that I wanted to tell a story about immigration, particularly around the tension of navigating roots and being in a new place. It’s something that has interested me for a long time: How did families treat each other when one side of the family was moving to a new place? How did families acclimate to a new place? When did that new place become home? In particular, I wanted to tell the story of a mother and daughter immigrating, effectively escaping, from their homeland.
The story went through multiple revisions. It surprised me how many. I was reading some contemporary non-fiction personal narratives at the time, and I loved the structure: a person simply telling you about their life. I decided I wanted to tell a short story in that style of personal narrative.
As a bit of background, in India, there’s a celebration called Chaturthi. It celebrates the elephant god, Ganesh. After the celebration, statues of Ganesh are thrown into water. In Hindu thought, there’s this idea of samsara: the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth. So this way, the idea is that the statue is created with clay and eventually becomes clay in the earth again.
It was around this time I was thinking about personal narratives. I went for a drive with my wife on the Long Island Sound. It’s a looping drive with water on one side and this beautiful cliff on the other. The tip of the cliff looks like an arm hanging over the water. My wife told me a story about how after the Chaturthis in New York, families would toss the Ganesh statues into the water.
That became the seed of the story, and I thought I could tell a story about a narrator who moved to the US from India in the 1970s. This was a period of large-scale immigration, and I drew on a lot of conversations I had with family about that time, particularly how some familial reactions to one side leaving and what it was like to adjust. I wrote that version and submitted it to a number of places and it was rejected everywhere, so I put it aside, thinking it needed more work. It did.
While at Odyssey, Barbara Campbell gave me a wonderful critique for it, with lots of helpful suggestions. While working through them, I suddenly had the idea that I should change the story dramatically. Instead of immigrating from India to New York in the 1970s, the mother and daughter would be immigrating to Mars in the future. And that’s where the rewrite came from. So that was one major revision, and then I got some feedback from my local writing group and went through another round of revisions. And when I was happy with it, I submitted it to Asimov’s. Some months later, I got an email from Sheila Williams that she wanted to buy it.
What is an outstanding short story you read recently? What made it stand out to you?
I will read anything by Greg Egan. He approaches science in his fiction with crystal clarity. On any topic, he is somehow able to pick the most mind-bending and coherent outcome, what the likely downstream case of a particular idea is. Earlier, I had mentioned that congruency in worldbuilding is paramount, and that’s what I’m consistently impressed about with Egan’s stories. The setting, the science, the plot, and the characters are all unified.
I recently enjoyed his “You And Whose Army” in Clarkesworld, which, while a story about brothers at a plot level, is also a story about shared experience, identity, and consciousness at a thematic level. When we are close to one another, say in a family or a relationship, we can often guess what another person is thinking. If we can gauge their thoughts, perhaps we can gauge their future actions. This phenomenon is a form of shared experience, and of course, Egan takes the story to the nth degree by making the very nugget of the story start out with the very real and technology-enabled shared consciousness among brothers. It’s textbook Egan while also textbook science fiction. It asks the question, “Given some scientific fact, how does it affect a particular aspect of the world?” And in this case, he’s able to get you to care about the characters too, which is truly amazing.
What’s next on the writing-related horizon? Are you starting any new projects?
I’m looking at a Google sheet with stories I’m drafting. I have a column titled “themes.” It occurs to me that most of these stories are focused around families: a story about a mother and daughter, about a brother and sister, two brothers, a found family. You get the picture. I don’t know that I set out with family as a focus, though I do sincerely believe that my writing is the byproduct of all my experiences. So perhaps it’s a side effect of my broader interest in families and their complex histories. I have a few more family-related shorts left, and then we’ll see in what thematic direction I head next.