by Alice Stephens
Reading Tara Campbell’s work is like a master class in the imagination. Her first publication was the eco-thriller TreeVolution which, as the title implies, tells the story of trees who stage a revolution against human (mis)management. Next came Circe’s Bicycle, a collection of poetry and flash fiction that tells of peanut butter babies and soul-snatching mermaids. Last month, she published a collection of freaky, funky, and jaw-droppingly inventive short stories, Midnight at the Organporium.
Tara’s work is characterized by beautifully written, taut, mesmerizing stories that start from startling premises: murderous houseplants; adventurous teeth that conspire to escape their human mouth; Little Red Riding Hood on an unending mission to rid the world of grandma-eating wolves; a spurned lover who will give her heart to her beloved by any means necessary.
Many writers revel in the acclaim that goes with publication, but Tara is not of that ilk. She writes for the craft, the creative outlet, and her own self-satisfaction. While others are chasing the limelight, she keeps her head down and works. Which is not to say that she is a recluse. If you are an aspiring writer in the Washington, DC, area, chances are you know who Tara is. She is an integral part of the writing community, and gives generously of her time and expertise.
In addition to her writing and community commitments, Tara earned an MFA in Creative Writing from American University in May. Just before graduating, she kindly made the time to answer some questions for Bloom.
Alice Stephens: Congratulations on the publication of your third book, the breathtakingly inventive short story collection Midnight at the Organporium. Your stories are so fantastically original, each one an architectural marvel of the imagination written in crisp, sparkling prose. Were the 11 stories of the collection written since your last publication, Circe’s Bicycle?
Tara Campbell: I only wish I were that prolific! There’s a good amount of overlap between when I wrote the works in Circe’s Bicycle, roughly between 2014 and 2017, and stories in Organporium, about 2015 to 2018. Lit Fest Press, the publisher for Circe’s Bicycle, was interested in poetry and short, fragmentary prose, so I began with that as the core, and added some flash and short stories. Organporium, on the other hand, includes some flash prose but is weighted toward short stories. I had the fortune of working with small publishers who are flexible and willing to publish unusual combinations of work.
AS: All three of your books are published by micro-indie presses. What are the advantages of publishing with small presses? Would you ever want to publish with a Big Five house?
TC: The presses I’ve worked with are Lillicat Publishers for TreeVolution, Lit Fest Press for Circe’s Bicycle, and Aqueduct Press for Midnight at the Organporium. They’ve all taken a chance with my work, which doesn’t fit neatly into a box, and tends to slide up and down the speculative spectrum. Each one provided a fantastic mix of editorial attention and authorial control, providing insightful suggestions, but leaving the last word in edits up to me. In addition, all of them kept the original titles of the books, and consulted me about the cover designs, which tends not to happen when working with major houses.
One thing a writer has to be mindful of is that many small presses run on the enthusiasm of a handful of people (sometimes just one!) who have a lot of things competing for their time. The publication schedule may be fluid—you may have to actually ask for one in the first place—and you might have to send a reminder for royalties. But if you ask questions and plan ahead (meaning don’t assume you’ll get books ahead of the launch date—ask), things will generally work out.
I’ve had one bad experience with an anthology (not with any of these publishers) for which most of the authors didn’t get paid. I only got my payment because I was persistent. And small publishers are vulnerable to shuttering, because they take chances with books they love but may not sell a ton of. So flexibility is the key to working with them. If I had the chance to work with a Big Five house, I’d try it. But with the oddball stuff I write, I feel at home in the small press world.
AS: In Midnight at the Organporium, none of the characters are described by their race. They are just people with physical characteristics unique to them, and readers can choose to assign race if they must. Is this a conscious choice on your part?
TC: I grew up reading science fiction, then drifted away from the genre for a while as I read more “literary” fiction. When I came back to reading genre a few years ago, it really struck me how white- and male-oriented the works I’d grown up with actually were. As I grew up and developed my own distinct identity, I became aware of the disconnect between who sci-fi was written by and for, and who I was as a reader. I mean, nobody was writing about women who got whisked off on interstellar adventures and had to figure out where to get tampons or find an alien hairdresser who actually knew what to do with their hair. That’s part of the reason I put a hair relaxing scene in TreeVolution—there’s this extra set of concerns that women and POC have to navigate every day, and these expectations and pressures around societally acceptable appearance don’t disappear when trees start talking.
That said, in shorter works my tendency is toward minimal physical description. I tend to leave my characters’ specific appearance as open as possible so readers can inhabit the storylines themselves. In short stories there’s little time to spend on description that isn’t relevant in some way, and if hair texture, for example, doesn’t play a role, then I tend not to worry about it. In “The Rapture,” the one story in Organporium where race is directly discussed, I only position white people as a generalized other, without specifying the narrator’s race. I don’t think about all this as I write, necessarily, but I find that leaving that space open can create openings for different interpretations and identities to enter the work.
AS: Your first book, the novel TreeVolution, features genetically modified trees who have had it with humans and fight back. The book defies a neat categorization of genre, as it encompasses sci-fi, cli-fi, and speculative fiction, as well as being a good old-fashioned thriller. How would you classify your writing?
TC: “Classification: Without.”
Nah, I like the term “speculative fiction,” because it encompasses so many modalities, embracing a wide spectrum of relationships between the real and the impossible. I also say I write “science-fiction for people who don’t think they read science fiction.” A lot of people’s eyes glaze over when they hear “science fiction” because they think it’s all about men in labs and robots in space and minimal character development, so I have to hurry up and get the second part of that phrase in before the glazing begins.
The wonderful thing about “speculative” is that it has room for hard and soft sci-fi, military sci-fi, space opera, fantasy, urban fantasy, as well as fiction with magical or fabulist elements. Spec fic also pals around with alternative history, horror, superhero, gaming, and graphic novel culture: this wonderful lit-cloud of alternative fiction. And as recent developments indicate—I mean, just look at the Hugos and Nebulas and the Twilight Zone reboot and, of course, Black Panther—sci-fi and speculative fiction are opening way beyond the “white male, hard science only, please”-paradigm, and people are here for it.
AS: So far, you’ve published TreeVolution, a novel; Circe’s Bicycle, a collection of poetry and flash fiction; and Midnight at the Organporium, a short story collection. Do you have a literary form that you prefer above all others? Are there other literary forms that you would like to conquer?
TC: My favorite form is whichever one lets me answer the question, “What If?” Questions like, “What if you really did see all the people you loved when you died—how would that actually work?” or “What if elements like wind, fog, and frost were sentient?” or “What if an executioner starts to question the system?” or “What if people were controlled by zombie fungi?” It’s hard to say where all the ideas come from—sometimes it’s a news report on WAMU or an article from one of those fun science/technology sites like IFLScience. Sometimes it’s just thinking about a conversation I had years ago. This kind of wide-ranging speculation is really what tends to drive my stories, rather than setting out to write a specific length. And speculative fiction, of whatever length, gives me the most latitude to explore questions from the mundane to the bizarre.
In terms of new goals, for the past mumblemumble years I’ve been working on a historical fiction manuscript about a group of West Africans who traveled through Europe in the late 19th century as an ethnographic exhibition. I began looking into this history in response to Peter Altenberg’s collection of vignettes about an exhibition of Ashanti in Vienna in 1896 (part of my German MA studies years ago). It was pretty nauseating and voyeuristic, so I put it away for decades; but I’d still think about it from time to time, wondering how and why these human beings had wound up on display. Eventually I started researching the history of ethnographic exhibitions, which peaked in the mid-1800s and wound down in the early-1900s. Groups traveled from all over the world to Europe and the U.S. to take part in what I describe as an amalgam of the Smithsonian Folklife Festival and the National Zoo because, unfortunately, they were often housed in actual zoos.
What fascinated me in the case of the Ashanti is that they seemed to have some degree of agency in the relationship—at least the leaders did. These tours had ceased trying to position themselves as scientific endeavors, and became purely about entertainment, hiring “troupes” to perform their “cultures” for paying audiences. This gave rise to questions such as who got to choose, what drove them to participate, and under what promises and actual conditions? It’s a complex, daunting project, and it’s part of the reason I decided to enroll in an MFA program.
AS: Thanks for that neat segue into my next question. Big congratulations on graduating from American University’s MFA program in May. What inspired you to go for an MFA at this stage in your life and career?
TC: As I mentioned, one reason for wanting to pursue an MFA was that I was embarking on an ambitious project in a new genre, and wanted to enlist additional structure and support. Additionally, I felt I’d reached a bit of a plateau in my work in general. I’d done as much as I could to tap the multiple literary resources available in the DC area (read here and here), and I wanted to stretch myself with an even more intense education.
The opportunity to work with the amazing historical novelist Dolen Perkins-Valdez (Wench and Balm) is one of the many factors that drew me to the American University program in particular. And, importantly, the scholarship package they were able to offer brought the degree within financial reach. Honestly, I wouldn’t advise people to go into debt for a creative degree unless they’ve already exhausted all other resources. Depending on what you want to accomplish, an MFA may or may not be helpful—for example, if you’re looking to teach at a university, you may find you’ll need to go on for the relatively new PhD in Creative Writing to be more competitive. On the other hand, an MFA was not a prerequisite for my teaching interests, which lie more in community-based settings, but the coursework has greatly increased my confidence as an instructor.
Additionally, I really value the new community I’ve become part of as part of the AU MFA, and if/when I move, I’m sure those three little letters will help crack open the door in a new environment. Still, I’m glad I waited until I’d developed a certain sense of myself as a writer before pursuing an MFA, because if you go into a program looking for it to make you, or somehow define you, you might just get pulled in a million directions and come out confused. Waiting until my mid-40s to do a program like this, I felt in a stronger position to challenge myself and think about why I was doing what I was doing—and decide what and how to change.
AS: Do you have any advice for emerging writers of color?
TC: Just keep writing your truth, and don’t worry about what you (or publishers) think you’re supposed to be writing. As a half-black woman born and raised in Alaska, my experience is different from a Southern black experience, or the stereotypical “urban black” experience, or an African immigrant experience. It doesn’t really fit anywhere, and yet, it’s a black experience. And if you want to geek out about sci-fi, and not focus on race, you can do that too!
AS: What are your favorite and least favorite things about the writing life?
TC: Revision (yes, I’m one of those weirdos) and rejection, in that order.
AS: After the MFA and the publication of Midnight at the Organporium, what’s next for you?
TC: Even before the degree hit my hands, I began the post-MFA decompression process: sleeping, exercising, and catching up on some of the non-course reading I’ve been putting off. My TBR pile includes everything from Half of a Yellow Sun to Underground Railroad to the latest Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy. I’ve got online and in-person teaching gigs lined up through most of the summer (flash fiction and speculative fiction), and I’m slowly getting back into the submission swing. Oh, yeah, and I suppose I’ve got some more writing to do. I’m usually working on more than one thing at a time, so yes, I’ll be working on the manuscript, but I’ll also be channeling my energy into flash and short stories.
In other words, what’s next is more of the same!
Alice Stephens is the author of the novel Famous Adopted People.
Homepage photo credit: Anna Carson DeWitt