An Interview with Author Andy Dibble by Jean-Paul L. Garnier
Garnier: You often take on religious themes in your writing, and you’re currently editing an anthology of science fiction about religion, what challenges arise when working with these themes?
Dibble: The biggest challenge for me is that readers very quickly assume that the author shares the views of his characters when religious content appears in fiction. It’s not uncommon for my stories to get personally rejected by editors who feel I’m trying to advance a theological agenda, but I’ve never shared religious identity with any of my characters. In a couple cases editors have expressed significant admiration for a story but rejected it because they thought it was too prone to offend readers of particular religious identities.
This difficulty can be overcome if authors approach their topic with a light touch, engage with all sides of an issue in an even-handed way, and focus readers on the lived experience of their characters. This can be difficult for authors like me that like making arguments in fiction. I suppose it’s one place I can improve as a writer. But there’s also the question of what kind of reader I want to reach, and I’m more inclined to connect with readers that appreciate ideas for their own sake, like I do, rather than readers with a suspicious eye for what side the author is taking.
Another difficulty many writers have when dealing with religion—one I try to avoid whenever possible—is engaging with religion or religious traditions in a superficial or simplistic manner. Many people raised in predominately Christian cultures conceive of religion as a “belief system,” when outside of Christianity, and in particular Protestant Christianity, religion is much more commonly about what people do and how they solve problems. And even then, we need to realize that religion isn’t a concept that’s native to every culture, even if essentially every culture has elements we would call religious. About half of all languages don’t even have a word for religion.
Helping readers and writers avoid some of the fallacies above is one of the major goals of Strange Religion, the anthology of SFF stories I’m editing about religion.
Garnier: Tell us a bit about your academic background and how this had affected your writing?
Dibble: I had four majors as an undergraduate: computer science, religious studies, Asian studies, and philosophy. I went on to Harvard Divinity School where I focused on South Asian religion, primarily Hinduism and Buddhism. I had a little over three years of Sanskrit until I decided that wasn’t the career for me. Now I work in IT. Not sure if academia is in my future or not. I’ve toyed with the idea of doing a PhD in religion and science fiction.
My academic background has made me appreciate how complex topics like religion and philosophy are. Very few arguments in favor of a position are decisive, and often it’s our presuppositions that are controlling rather than the strength of our reasoning. When you study at a place like Harvard Div you learn that religion is a human activity integrated with every aspect of life, with all the messiness of politics and the diversity of human goals. You learn to pay more attention to particulars than to abstractions—an attitude that also serves fiction writers well.
My academic background has made me want to improve the treatment of religion in my own writing and in the community. Some writers engage with religious topics marvelously: I think of stories like “The Tower of Babylon” by Ted Chiang and “The Paper Menagerie” by Ken Liu or novels like Aleph the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson and The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell. I’m impressed by Ian McDonald’s stories about India of the future in Cyberabad Days. The magazine Mysterion really taps into what Christians believe and do and the wonder of Christian traditions. But it’s even more common to see religion dealt with dismissively or criticized on the level of abstractions that don’t bear out in the world. It’s exasperating how some writers feel this is sophisticated. I’ve occasionally seen significant factual errors in professionally published stories that take a dim view of one tradition or another.
There’s nothing wrong with criticizing religious traditions or religiously-motivated acts or having fun with source materials in ways that religious insiders may not always appreciate, but it needs to be done in a nuanced and even-handed way, by attending to what individual texts, people, and communities are saying rather than what textbooks say Buddhists or Jews or… believe. Consider James Marrow’s Bible Stories for Adults. Most every story in the collection pokes fun at a Biblical narrative, but he always pays close attention to what’s actually happening in the narrative or how Biblical figures can be faithfully reinterpreted in a new context.
Garnier: You were a winner of the Writers of the Future contest, what was that experience like, and how has this helped to get your career started?
Dibble: The workshop in Hollywood was great—like drinking out of a fire hose but great. Almost surreal. There was such a spectacular energy the night of the gala. It was my first time wearing a tux. The highlight might’ve been getting whisked away during dinner to get make-up done (another first for me) and then getting my picture taken with Nancy Kress. Tim Powers and David Farland are great instructors—they gave us so many weird nuggets about the publishing agency and agents. I’m so glad I got to learn from Dave before he passed. Getting tax advice from Dean Wesley Smith was a highlight. I really appreciated hearing from past winners that are a little less famous than the judges: Martin Shoemaker, Kary English, Wulf Moon, Eric James Stone, Darci Stone, and Steve Pantazis. It was easy to put myself in their place and see how I could succeed like they have.
The biggest asset of winning the contest for my career is the relationships I’ve built. I made friends with some of the other winners even before the workshop. Since the workshop, several of us have banded together; we’re making an anthology of our work geared at educating new writers at how to write saleable fiction. When I need cover art done, there’s a crop of excellent illustrators I can reach out to. Now there are a lot of people I can look forward to meeting at conventions rather than arriving as an outsider.
I heartily recommend that all speculative fiction writers that still qualify submit and keep submitting to the contest. It’s an absolutely unparalleled experience.
Garnier: You’re also the non-fiction editor of Speculative North magazine, how did this come about, and can you tell us about your work with the magazine?
Dibble: I sold my “Bang the Drum” to Speculative North. It’s about karma and the birth of the Buddha. I drew heavily on the most famous classical biography of the Buddha, the Buddhacarita (“The Acts of the Buddha”). Selling that story, led me to joining the Toronto Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers group. David Shultz, the lead editor for SN, needed some copy editing done. I volunteered. He liked what I did well enough to offer me an editor position.
A lot of the work is the nuts-and-bolts of running a magazine. Copyediting hasn’t gone away. I read a fair amount of slush. But I’ve really liked the opportunities it’s afforded me for interviewing unique and talented writers: Brian Koukol, a writer with muscular dystrophy, whose “Twilight in the Autumn Light” appeared alongside my “Bang the Drum” in SN #3. And Linda Addison, who is the 2020 Science Fiction Poetry Association Grand Master and five-time Bram Stoker Award-Winning horror writer. Being an editor has also allowed me to graduate some of my writing craft pieces from blog post to published essay.
I think the lesson is that if an opportunity comes up to work with someone that you want to work with—and I’m quite pleased to work with David and the other editorial staff at Speculative North—seize it. If they ask you to take a bigger role in the project, find a way to pull it off because success breeds success. The hardest part is getting asked to be a part of the team in the first place.
Garnier: What brought you to wanting to tell your stories through a science fictional lens?
Dibble: When I made the decision to not pursue a PhD, I still wanted to publish. I didn’t feel I could publish nonfiction because I didn’t have academic credentials, so when I had some time off of work in 2017, I wrote a fantasy novel and then I started writing science fiction and fantasy stories. I had written a little fantasy when I was a kid, but never with the intent to publish.
I like writing science fiction and fantasy primarily because these genres offer so much flexibility in examining possibilities. Theology and religion work especially well in these genres because, no matter how religious insiders view their own traditions, we often think of religious worldviews—complete with angels, demons, djinn, asura, and the like—as “fantastic” and theological puzzles can acquire more depth when understood in a futuristic or alternate historical context.
For me, it was always more about the polyphony of ideas, than just about telling stories. Sometimes this means digging deep into the perspective of a protagonist with a problem, the resolution of which is also an examination of a collection ideas. That’s what happened with my Writers of the Future story, “A Word That Means Everything.” Sometimes I want to chain so many ideas together that the story ends up being more structural rather than character-driven. That’s what happened with “The Meaning of His Our Words,” my story about ancient Indus River Valley civilization and AI.
Garnier: You also write science fiction poetry, how does this process differ for you from writing fiction and non-fiction?
Dibble: I got into writing speculative poetry after reading F. J. Bergmann’s Elgin award-winning A Catalog of the Further Suns. Her YA fantasy story “A Prize in Every Box” won Writers of the Future the same quarter that my story won, and we both live in the same city, so I figured I’d try her work out. Reading her chapbook made me realize that speculative poetry is a place where I can hash out ideas without also having to develop characters and plot much.
I like the process of being able to sit down and write a whole piece I’m proud of before I stand up again. Poems are like one-shot stories. Even when I feel the poem isn’t all the way there, I want to come back to it and keep polishing those couple lines that don’t land quite right. What poets achieve, especially in shorter poems, is much more straightforward and condensed than what short story writers or novelists achieve, so the difficulties of writing poetry seem like they can be overcome more readily. This has favorable outcomes for my creativity.
Garnier: What are you currently working on, and what’s coming up next for you?
Dibble: Recently I’ve been writing nonfiction, primarily blog posts that I’m stitching together for the introduction to Strange Religion. I’m also writing some short stories in the same universe as “A Word That Means Everything.” One takes an opposite approach to “Word”: rather than discussing how Bible translation makes scripture relevant to diverse species, I’m discussing how the difficulty of Bible translation makes the text difficult to access. The other deals with curses in the Bible. It’s primarily for fun.
I have poems coming out in Space & Time and Star*Line. After that, we’ll see!
All my publications can be found at Andy Dibble.