Eleanor Bluestein, the author of Tea and Other Ayama Na Tales, was kind enough to take some time out of her busy interview and PR schedule for her book tour to answer some questions. If you missed my review of Ms. Bluestein’s novel last week you can find it here.
Also, the winner of Wednesday’s contest is Kim V. – proud recipient of a free copy of Tea and Other Ayama Na Tales, courtesy of Ms. Bluestein and TLC Book Tours.
1979 SEMIFINALIST: Welcome Ms. Bluestein – thank you for taking the time to speak with me here on 1979 Semi-Finalist.
ELEANOR: Thank you for having me Kelly.
1979 SEMIFINALIST: While creating fictional countries, languages, and worlds are quite common in science fiction and fantasy short fiction, it tends to be more rare in traditional literary short fiction – what inspired you to create the fictional universe of Ayama Na where all the stories in Tea and Other Ayama Na Tales takes place?
ELEANOR: Some years ago I wrote a novel set in a futuristic world. It was never published, but an imagined universe isn’t unprecedented for me. The South East Asian setting, however, is new. I was inspired to write Tea and Other Ayama Na Tales by my travels to Thailand, Singapore, Viet Nam, and especially Cambodia, a country still recovering from a genocide and, at the same time, coping with rapid modernization. I wanted to try to imagine what that felt like. As the stories evolved, I saw that I was combining elements of settings from various countries, so it seemed natural at some point to create a new country.
1979 SEMIFINALIST: You even went so far in your creation of this country as to create an Ayama Na language and you use it in your stories – how did you come up with the language?
ELEANOR: The language was the easiest part, in a way. Idioms and epithets simply emerged when I needed them. They rolled off the tips of my fingertips onto the keyboard. Even the letters of the alphabet in “AIBO or Love at First Sight” came entirely effortlessly. What’s amazing about this is that I’m not a facile writer. I write slowly, rewrite a great deal, proceed with much trial and error. So the language seemed like a gift. Street and city names were harder. I poured over maps to get the right feel. The place names are ultimately invented, though.
1979 SEMIFINALIST: Ayama Na is a well-crafted and realistic world, what kind of research did you do? Did you travel to countries upon which you based Ayama Na? If so, are any of your characters inspired by people you met in your travels?
ELEANOR: I augmented what I learned on trips to South East Asia with research and reading. I hadn’t planned to write fiction with an Asian setting when I visited the countries, but I had photos and memories. I read books about Buddhism and I did specific research as I needed it on the economics, politics, history, and human rights issues in the various countries I’d visited, but especially Cambodia.
As to character inspiration, Rianna, the fortune teller in the story “North of the Faro,” is modeled physically on a fortune teller I met in Singapore. And the “Street of Intuitive Powers” is like the street she worked on, although that street name is fictitious. In feel, the hill tribes in the stories resemble those I saw in Thailand—but in a collective sense, not specific to character. Similarly Lake Sporee and the fishing community, described in “Skin Deep” and “The Blanks,” is like the fishing villages on Lake Tonle Sap in Cambodia, but the characters are imagined..
1979 SEMIFINALIST: One of my common complaints about short fiction collections is that the pieces are uneven and often do not feel like a cohesive collection, because of your common themes and the universal location (Ayama Na) you were able to avoid some of those pitfalls…was cohesiveness a concern of yours when writing the stories? Did the process of writing about only Ayama Na come about organically as you wrote, or did you always intend to write only tales from Ayama Na?
ELEANOR: I did not set out with certain themes in mind. I wanted to try to imagine lives in a country like Cambodia or in a hill tribe like the ones I saw in Thailand—to write something that felt true. Even after I set the stories in a fictional country and revised them to synchronize landscape and language, I still didn’t think about common themes. Only after the stories were pretty much done, did I see that many of the characters were coping with similar issues—recovery from war, modernization, graft and corruption, a divide in families as younger generations no longer adhered to tradition. Late in the game, I revved up the thematic content just a bit, but really it was already there. Thank you for this great question.
1979 SEMIFINALIST: What do you think the advantages were to creating an entirely fictional world? Were there any disadvantages?
ELEANOR: There were immediate advantages to creating a fictional country. I felt free to build in purely invented ingredients of landscape, climate, or commerce that served my plots. I also gained the confidence to write from the point of view of South East Asian characters and not worry so much that I would be untrue to the thoughts or feelings of an individual in say, Cambodia or Vietnam. From my point of view there were no disadvantages, but there might be disadvantages for some readers. I say this because a few readers have told me they would rather have known the real countries I had in mind.
1979 SEMIFINALIST: In your writing do you find yourself more motivated by character or by plot and story?
ELEANOR: This is hard to sort out. I tend to think (and I’d like to think) that I’m more motivated by character, but I’m not sure that’s true. I set the plot in motion, certainly, even if it’s simply through a question in my mind, such as: What happens when a subsistence farmer encounters modern technology for the first time? (“AIBO or Love at First Sight”). When I’m lucky, the characters come to life early, drive the plot, and determine how the story ends. “Tea,” the title story, has a very thin plot and I worried that the scant storyline would derail it, so I know that plot is important to me. I work at it as much as I work on character development, perhaps more, because character comes easier to me. This is a great question!
1979 SEMIFINALIST: Do you think your experience teaching influences the way you write?
ELEANOR: It might. This is a question I’ve not thought about before. I taught 7th , 8th, and 9th graders and then edited textbooks for the K-12 market. Clarity is critical, breaking things down to essentials, establishing ideas in logical order. When I write early drafts, I overwrite, over explain, use too many synonyms and too simple a style. I’m not sure there’s a cause and effect there. In rewrite, invariably, I’m paring the scaffolding away, aiming for more subtlety and more complex sentences.
1979 SEMIFINALIST: Do you have plans to write more Ayama Na stories? Or will you move on to a new universe?
ELEANOR: There is one more Ayama Na story I am still working on. I’ve been working on it for a long time. The working title is “The Perfect Man,” and it’s a story about the King and Queen. Ayama Na is a constitutional monarchy, and while the King and Queen have little real power, they are beloved by the population—they are young, good looking, and philanthropic. They are alluded to in various tales, and in one story (“AIBO or Love at First Sight”) they provide a plot resolution, but they are never the principle characters. Other than that story, I am in a new universe.
1979 SEMIFINALIST: I for one will be anxiously awaiting “The Perfect Man” as I found the King and Queen to be fascinating background characters. I think without realizing it I had hoped there would be a story about them in your collection. In general, do you find yourself more interested in creating new fictional countries and worlds to explore, or do you think you’ll try your hand at our pre-existing one?
ELEANOR: The novel I’m writing now takes place in the world I live in—contemporary San Diego, a landscape well-known to me. The streets and towns that provide the setting are close to where I live.
1979 SEMIFINALIST: And finally, do you have a favorite short story writer(s) or collection(s)?
ELEANOR: I love the stories in Haruki Murakami’s Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman.
1979 SEMIFINALIST: I haven’t read any of Murakami’s work yet, but his Wind Up Bird Chronicle and Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World and have slowly made their way from my ‘to read pile’ to my nightstand – so he’s officially on deck – I’ll have to add Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman as well!
ELEANOR: Kelly, thank you so much for giving me the opportunity to answer these questions.
1979 SEMIFINALIST: Absolutely Eleanor, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me and allowing me the opportunity to read and review your work – best of luck with your collection and I hope I’ll see more from you in the future!
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