Thursday, August 30, 2018

Aurora Interview #5: Westbrook-Trenholm

Liz is nominated for her story, Gone Flying, in the Short Fiction category for the 2018 Prix Aurora, the fan award for the best in Canadian Science Fiction and Fantasy. Gone Flying was published in The Sumof Us: Tales of the Bonded and Bound (Laksa Media).

Liz Westbrook-Trenholm has published or aired mainstream and speculative short fiction, most recently in Neo-Opsis, Prix Aurora-winning anthology Second Contacts (Bundoran Press), and the Prix Aurora nominated anthologies, The Sum of Us, (Laksa Media) and 49th Parallels (Bundoran Press). More stories are coming in fall: Critical Mass in Laksa Media’s Shades Within Us, and Fallen Angels, in Wild Musette. More stories are on the way once contracts are signed. She also writes comedic murder mysteries for Calgary entertainment company, Pegasus Performances, with over 80 scripts produced. She’s a founding member of Imaginative Fiction Writers Association and a member of the critique group, East Block Irregulars. A retired public servant, Liz lives in Ottawa with her husband, writer and publisher, Hayden Trenholm.

How long have you been writing SFF, and what forms have you explored besides the one you’re nominated for?

I’ve been writing SFF since the 90’s at least, when I had my first publications in On Spec, as well as some mainstream stories on CBC Radio, in the late, lamented days when the CBC One still offered drama and fiction. I tried writing a YA novel once, and it’s safely in a drawer where it belongs. I’ve also published book reviews and the above-mentioned comedic murder mystery scripts. However, the short story form is my greatest love – worlds distilled to the crucial core.   

Is this your first nomination?

Yes! First nomination! So honoured and excited to be among such great company!

Tell me about your process of creating this work: how long did it take to write? Speed bumps along the way?

Ah, well, the way I write stories is a bit circular and iterative – lots of second guessing. My husband Hayden says that I’d be one of those artists who sneak into the Louvre to touch up a painting.

The startup process was typical of how I create a piece. It began with a bit of scribble I did while watching a sunset on Rob Sawyer’s balcony, back in June 2014 or maybe 2015 at a write-off where my writing was getting nowhere. I imagined flying out into space, rising above the land, above cares, above frustrations, out into the vacuum. That simmered away on my laptop while I was still fitting writing into the corners of a demanding career (a set of speed bumps all on its own). 

At the same time, my 89-year-old mother, after a life of action and contribution, was losing her vigor and grieving over it. I felt empathetic indignation over the way our society, with the best intentions, shunts the elderly aside. Yet I also felt how weary a mind and body must get after more than 80 years on earth. So, two notions collided: escaping naked into the cosmos versus having to live out a tough life on earth when you’re old and tired. 

Summer of 2015, when I got a little writing time, I began spinning thoughts around the core idea. It's messy but it's how a story starts for me. I write scenes that may or may not end up in the story, conversations with my characters and musings on who, what, where, why and how, plus heaps of notes from research. Like planets forming in the disc of matter swirling around a new sun, the characters and scenes form.

The idea of raising children came up as I’d bumped off a significant part of the human race in the post-apocalyptic world I chose for the setting, so it made sense that the race had to restore itself as quickly as possible. I also imagined a world where everything had seemed in order, very technically advanced, and then wondered how it would cope in the face of a virulent, complex disease, as even the most advanced society is vulnerable to nature’s blows. I also thought how, if 80-year-old Sarah survived, it meant she might have a genetically based resistance, so clones made sense, since they’d have the same genetics. Then again, genetics isn’t deterministic, it’s probabilistic and affected by external factors we often don’t understand. So not all the children would survive. 

The same theme also offered opportunities to examine the complexities of Sarah’s character through the ways her identical selves turned out and became unique individuals in their own right.

While these thoughts wheeled around in my head, I’d stop off to do research and fact check. I always do that. It not only gives rise to additional story layers as I make discoveries, but it’s a great way to avoid buckling down to writing. Research is my kryptonite. But, finally, I had to back off all the dumpster-diving into epidemiology and genetics, weather patterns, nuclear power plant automation or whatever. Time to write. 

The world was established in my mind; I could see it, smell it, hear it, feel its wind on my skin and, most importantly, take it for granted, just as those living in it would. That way, I wouldn’t fall into that familiar sci-fi trap of wandering off into info-dump land. In my stories, I try really hard to evoke the world by having the characters move through and react to it the way people do, making toast, but not wondering at length how toasters work.

Anyhow, I zeroed in on what coalesced as the emotional essence of the story, which is senior Sarah’s growing love for the clone Sarahs despite her attempts not to be drawn into caring only to be hurt yet again. And she rediscovers her resilience in the face of adversity, just getting the job of survival done.

What’s your favourite thing about this nominated work: a character, a scene, a setting/world?

Oh, now, I’ve always loved my children equally, even when they’re in the throes of temper tantrums. Seriously, though, I think I captured the emotional intensity I felt the story deserved, and I liked celebrating how strong ordinary people are in the face of adversity as they get on with the tough act of survival. I like my characters very much.

Name a couple of authors you find inspiring, and tell me what calls to you about their works.

Only a couple? Two who leap to mind aren’t even genre writers:
Hilary Mantel (Wolf Hall and Bring Out Your Dead) fictionally evokes the mercurial time of Henry VIII’s reign through the very personalized eyes of Thomas Cromwell. Great events seen from a personal viewpoint.

Bryn Greenwood bowled me over with(All the Ugly, Wonderful Things, which boldly examines a tough, tough subject in a fresh and controversial manner with a skill that makes me want to write and write so I might just start to be a fraction that good.

Genre: I have so many friends who write so well and I struggle to imagine who I’d mention. So, here’s someone I’ve never met, and read about 4 or 5 years ago, (it won the 2013 World Fantasy Award); it’s G. Willow Wilson, Alif the Unseen. Wilson bursts open the fantasy genre in this colorful book and has gone on to work on Marvel comics, working, among other things, on the Ms. Marvel series.

And another is Lauren Beukes. Anything she writes.

Oh-oh, the floodgates are opening. I’ve read and listened to so many amazing stories. One that ambushed me big time this spring was Logistics by A.J. Fitzwater as read by Kate Baker 
(Clarkesworld, Issue 139)(I mean, where does a gal get a tampon at the end of the world?). 

And read just about any story by Rich Larson, raised in Africa and Alberta and based in Ottawa for now. Haven’t met any story of his I don’t love. There are more, many more, but I’ll make myself stop.

About the nominated story, Gone Flying:

I don’t have a book blurb, but here’s an excerpt from a review that really got what I was doing: a story so full of love, even woven inextricably with sorrow, and in the end, joy at the weary old persistence of life… 

[Jayne's note:  I'm trying to be really impartial with these interviews but this story is an epic saga of love and hope and mourning, beautifully condensed to a few vignettes that convey so much more than the words on the page. I wept, and weep again remembering]

Social media:
Canadian Science Fiction and Fantasy at
Laksa Media:
Wild Musette: a quirky lit press with a charming (and free!) e-zine at

For the complete ballot (including 'Maddie Hatter and the Gilded Gauge' in the YA section) see the CSFFA Prix Aurora site

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