Q&A with Ray Nayler*
*First Appeared at From Earth to the Stars, The Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine Author & Editor Blog
Ray Nayler’s fourth story for Asimov’s, “A Threnody for Hazan,” is available now in the current issue. He graciously agreed to answer a few questions about living as a globe-trotter and his writing process. Get a peak inside his head with our newest interview!
Asimov’s Editor: Ray, if I’m remembering correctly, you do a lot of traveling—how has this affected your writing?
Ray Nayler: Yes, that’s an understatement! I’m a Foreign Service Officer, and so my job is to live and work overseas. And before joining the Foreign Service, I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Turkmenistan, and then worked overseas for several years. In all, since September of 2003, I’ve only lived in the United States for a total of about 2.5 years, mostly when I was back in the U.S. for language or other training for the Foreign Service in Washington, D.C.
This, of course, has a heavy influence on my writing. First of all, I read a lot of things in Russian, especially Russian science fiction, and Polish science fiction in Russian translation, such as Stanislaw Lem, but also classics and other things. That has a big influence on me. And of course I have a different set of locations and settings, since the cities I know best include Moscow, Istanbul, Ashgabat, Dushanbe, Almaty, Baku, and other places. So when I’m drawing on my experience, those are the places I’ve lived in most recently, and therefore the places that are freshest in my mind.
AE: How many languages (and which) have you mastered, and what countries have you lived in?
RN: My main foreign language is Russian, which is the lingua Franca of a number of the countries where I’ve lived and worked. I also speak some Azerbaijani Turkish—though I won’t claim to have mastered it—and spoke some Turkmen, Kyrgyz, Tajiki—which is related to Persian—and Vietnamese. Those languages are just fragments now—it’s hard to keep up on a language when you no longer live where it is spoken. That list of languages is pretty good indicator of the countries where I worked: Turkmenistan, Russia, Kazakhstan, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Vietnam, Kyrgyzstan, and Azerbaijan.
AE: What was the most challenging place to live?
RN: I think the most challenging place to live was Fremont, California – where I grew up. I always felt out of place there, but I never had a good excuse for feeling that way. At least now I feel out of place because I really am a foreigner.
AE: What about this background informs you as a writer?
RN: I spend the majority of my time as an “outsider” looking in on societies I don’t entirely understand, and also drifting further from my own society, in some ways. Living as a foreigner for so long, that also influences my outlook. I spend much of my time reading, speaking, and interacting in languages other than English, in societies very different from my own, and I think that sense of “alienation” is something I use in my writing. Being abstracted from my own culture also, I think, allows me to see it more clearly. I can bring an outside perspective to my own upbringing and culture that I could not have before I lived away from it for so long.
AE: How did this story germinate? Was there a spark of inspiration, or did it come to you slowly?
RN: The story began to germinate while I was reading The Connectome by Sebastian Seung. But usually just one idea isn’t enough—I need two or three ideas that are bouncing around in my head to collide. For me, an idea truly worthy of a story is a chimera composed of many different overlapping ideas. The ideas I picked up from The Connectome collided with other ideas I had about World War II, especially after reading an essay called “Losing the War” by Lee Sandlin—which is one of my personal favorite pieces of writing—and a story in the news about the death of a Moroccan fishmonger which moved me—he had been crushed to death in a garbage truck trying to reclaim fish that the police had illegally confiscated from him. And of course my own thoughts about the conundrums of time travel, consciousness, and my longing to return to Istanbul, the city I love most in the world. Disparate roots, but these things all started to slowly coalesce into what would become “A Threnody for Hazan.”
AE: What made you think of Asimov’s for this story and what is your history with Asimov’s?
RN: Asimov’s published “Mutability,” my first science fiction story, in 2015. I sent “Mutability” to Asimov’s because, as a kid, Asimov’s was the science fiction magazine my best friend’s father subscribed to, and we all read it. It shaped my childhood, and seemed the natural place to try to get published when I decided to start writing science fiction. Asimov’s also published my second science fiction story, “Do Not Forget Me,” and my third, “Winter Timeshare.” I feel a sense of loyalty to the magazine: I always think of submitting to Asimov’s first.
AE: Who or what are your greatest influences and inspirations?
RN: If we’re talking about science fiction directly, my greatest influences are James Tiptree, Jr. and Stanislaw Lem, as well as Dick, Sturgeon, Le Guin, Leiber, and Wolfe. Extending further, I think Patricia Highsmith has had an outsized influence on me as a writer, but William Shakespeare looms behind it all: I grew up on Shakespeare, thanks to my mother, who began taking me to plays when I was just five or six, explaining the plots to me beforehand and reading me children’s versions of the plays so I could follow the action offstage. I’ve had a lifelong dedication to Shakespeare, and a few years ago I took time off from everything else to read his work in its entirety. It was wonderful. Everything is there.
AE: How much or little do current events impact your writing?
RN: Very much. I think science fiction has always been, to a large degree, a commentary about our own time and our own current human condition. In “A Threnody for Hazan” this material is, perhaps, more in the background—Hazan is an immigrant from North Africa, brought up in poverty, who has had to build herself up from nothing. That lends her a certain outlook on the world. But in “Winter Timeshare,” contemporary issues were more at the forefront: I was definitely writing about things of immediate concern to me: the global security apparatus, technocrats and analysts, terrorism and resistance, tourism and class disparity: these are issues I confront in my everyday life in the Foreign Service, and they are reflected in my work. But they don’t define it: science fiction is about the present, but it is also always about dreaming something different. It’s a kaleidoscope to see the world through, a way to alter its shape to see the way things might be different.
AE: What is your writing process?
RN: I get up every morning and write for an hour before going to work. Sometimes, I’m able to write in the evening as well, or on weekends—but the core of my process is that hour in the morning. I don’t do word counts or anything like that—I just make sure I get that hour in. I often begin writing by going back over what I wrote the day before, reshaping sentences, adjusting rhythms, getting back into the world I was trying to create. This seems, also, to help me avoid writer’s block. I’m not concerned with speed, and I’m not at all prolific: what I want is to do my best for the reader. I want to give them an immersive, absorbing world that they can be in. So I take my time, and because I enjoy being in that world myself, I’m in no rush to finish the story and leave.
AE: What are you reading right now?
RN: Right now I’m reading Otkrytie Sebia — Self-Discovery by Soviet Ukrainian science fiction author Volodymyr Savchenko. I’m enjoying it a lot. At the same time, I’m working my way through Baudrillard’s Symbolic Exchange and Death.
AE: Do you have any advice for up-and-coming writers?
RN: Just two things:
- Writing is an action. To write is a verb. Don’t worry about being a writer, or about how it is done, or when you should write, or what comes first, or any of that. Simply write. Conduct the action. The rest will fall into place around that.
- It’s good to ignore unwarranted criticism and rejection. It’s better, though, to ignore praise and publication. Just continue on your way.
AE: What is something we should know about you that we haven’t thought to ask?
RN: My name isn’t really “Ray Nayler”—that’s just a short form. Nor is it “Raymond” or anything like that. It’s Raynald Patrice Desmeules Nayler. I was born in the northern part of Quebec, in a small town called Alma. My mother is from California, but my birth father is French Canadian. French was my first language: I spoke it until we moved to California.
Oh, and the book being referenced in “Mutability” is J.D. Salinger’s Franny and Zooey. Somehow, everybody forgets to ask what book it is.
AE: How can our readers keep track of you?
RN: You can keep track of me at raynayler.net, you can follow my Instagram account (it’s just raynayler, I make it easy) if you like pictures of cats, ruins, and woods in the Caucasus or wherever I happen to be, snowboarding, and more cats. You can also find me on Facebook and friend me, if you want, or contact me on Facebook Messenger: there, I’m Raynald Nayler.