Sunday, January 7, 2024

Novella Project: Phoebe Wagner Interview

Today for the novella project we're talking to our very own Phoebe Wagner:

Phoebe Wagner is an author, editor, and academic writing at the intersection of speculative fiction and climate change. Their debut novel A Shot of Gin is forthcoming from Parliament House Press (2023), and Publishers Weekly called their novella When We Hold Each Other Up a “fresh take on climate fiction.” She is the editor of three solarpunk anthologies, including Sunvault: Stories of Solarpunk & Eco-Speculation. They also blog about speculative literature here at Nerds of a Feather. Wagner holds a PhD in literature, and she is an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Lycoming College in Pennsylvania. Follow them at

What made you decide to write When We Hold Each Other Up as a novella? Is there a particular attraction for you of the form, or was it dictated by the content of the story you wanted to tell?

I chose the novella format partially due to time constraints. Android Press asked if I had any projects I was working on, and I knew a novel would just take too much time to draft. I also had a short story that I hadn't managed to get published but had received some great comments from editors at dream magazines, and I'd been itching to turn it into something longer. I have a few trunk novellas that I pull out and work on from time to time, and one thing I love about it is the length. I'm a longform writer, so a short story always feels too truncated, but not every story has legs for a novel. The novella really fills that gap, and it's a great size to spend a few months on and then be done with it (unlike a novel taking up multiple years).

Are there any differences you find in the process of writing for a novella, compared to when you're drafting a short story/novel, aside from the time it takes? What about when you're taking something that started short and is being worked up into something longer - what does that process look like for you?

The sense of scale was different in my head for sure. I'd get ideas for scenes and immediately toss them out because I simply had to be more direct. I remember writing this one scene that I liked, and I didn't even leave it in the document. I immediately cut it into my notes document because I knew there wasn't space for that kind of scene in the novella. I found I made a lot of these changes in the revision process. Usually when I revise, I add a lot of words--tens of thousands. I had to change my thinking to focus on keeping the plot and character arcs streamline, which in some ways was freeing. I could focus on the core ideas rather than the delightful sprawl of a novel. As for taking the short story and working it into something longer, I had it easy because I added onto the story--just kept writing. I knew there was more story for Eduardo and Rowan, the main characters, but I couldn't explore it in the short story. Continuing their travels was exciting and I loved the generative part, where I just focused on plotting out what would happen. Usually I'm a total pantser, but since this novella was solicited, I did take some time to really think through the steps of Eduardo and Rowan's journey before drafting the novella.

Looping back slightly - how did you come to be working with Android Press? And what are your thoughts on working with them/a small press more generally?

I heard of Android Press due to the success of Solarpunk Magazine. The first Kickstarter really took off, and I was pleased that solarpunk had gained that kind of interest from the broader SFF community! I submitted something to a different project that Justine was involved with, which is how we officially connected. They reached out to me about doing an anthology and a longform project, which is how When We Hold Each Other Up came to be. The anthology with Android Press was just published as well: Fighting for the Future: Cyberpunk and Solarpunk Tales. Working with a small press like Android has a lot of perks for sure. I feel like I can always reach out with questions and that I will be responded to. Probably my favorite part of the small press experience has been having a say on the cover art. At both small presses that have published my fiction, I've had a say on the cover, and that makes it so much easier to put my time and effort into marketing when I'm excited about the cover!

How much say did you get in the art? And what was it like being involved in that process?

For When We Hold Each Other Up, I suggested the artist, Bri Castagnozzi, who Android Press had used before, and I got to comment on initial drafts and sketches, helping to choose the direction for the cover. For A Shot of Gin, The Parliament House Press had me provide comp covers and then I had a lot of say on which covers I preferred. I also suggested the fangs on the H for A Shot of Gin, so if you think that's too campy, don't blame the wonderful designer Maria Spada!

I definitely don't think it's too campy - it looks like the title shot of a tv show I would 100% watch!

Moving away slightly - do you read novellas yourself? What's something you appreciate about them as a form as a reader? And are there any particular favourites or ones that have inspired you?

Yes, I do! I love them because I can finish them in a sitting or two. Sometimes, I just need the satisfaction of a longform piece of fiction but don't have a lot of headspace. A good short book is a special experience for me because I can be swept away but don't have the same time/energy investment as a novel. I also have different expectations in terms of plotting and worldbuilding. A tight novella can give me the excitement and joy of a novel in a fraction of the time. I really love Kai Ashante Wilson's Sorcerer of the Wildeeps duology. A more recent one I haven't stopped thinking about since I read it a year or so ago is The Necessity of Stars by E. Catherine Tobler. Currently, I'm reading Sordidez by E.G. Condé [link to review here], which I'm loving for the focus on community surviving and thriving. I've pre-ordered A Necessary Chaos [Roseanna's note: look out for Adri's review of this coming soon] by Brent Lambert!

Following on from this, can you elaborate a bit more on those different expectations? And do they make you more or less forgiving as a novella reader compared to other formats?

I think I'm more forgiving! Because I know the author is constricted by length, I am willing to wave off less worldbuilding or an ending that doesn't quite tie up all the loose ends. For a novella, I'm expecting to dive into a world, to go on an emotional or physical trip with a character, but I'm also aware this is just a part of their story, a glimpse of that world. I'm more interested in what the author chooses to show me in that glimpse than what is lacking. 

On the flip side of that - how do you manage that worldbuilding brevity in your own works? Do you tend to have more of it squirreled away in your head but just not on the page, or do you keep it loose for yourself as much as the reader?

For novellas, I focus on dropping the reader into the world. I risk losing the reader, of course, but I try to let the world unfold through the character's eyes rather than explain it. I'm a fan of Ursula K. Le Guin, and she's wonderful at dropping the reader in a world and allowing the reader to keep up. I did make it a little easier on myself for When We Hold Each Other Up as the protagonist, Rowan, is also exploring the world along with the reader. I do usually have more of the world in my head, but I function that way for my novels, too. It just can't all fit in a single story. I usually don't have the world figured out before I start drafting because I want the story to unfold the world for me, which helps me know what to focus on rather than trying to work in details that aren't necessary to the story.

As the next question - is there anything you learnt from writing When We Hold Each Other Up that you think you'll take forward in your writing?

A big takeaway from When We Hold Each Other Up was to trust my skills as a worldbuilder. I was worried I wouldn't be able to accomplish setting out these little visions of the future throughout the book, but one thing that's consistently come back from readers and reviewers was their enjoyment of the worldbuilding. One struggle with this book--and all my solarpunk writing--is trying to imagine that better future and push back against not just dystopia but "western" imaginaries. I want to keep growing in that area, and this novella really helped me solidify what that could look like for me as a writer.

And then final question - Can you tell us a little more about When We Hold Each Other Up and/or A Shot of Gin?

Happily! When We Hold Each Other Up is a novella growing out of my work in solarpunk and climate fiction. I was inspired by this old adage that there are two basic plots: a stranger comes to town or someone goes on a quest (which, if you think about it, are really the same story from different viewpoints). My main character Rowan is fascinated by this idea, so when a stranger named Eduardo, a Harmonizer with extraordinary powers, arrives with a warning, Rowan senses life is about to change. Eduardo warns that nearby Haven City is growing and all those living in the expansion zone are in danger, which sends both of them on a quest to warn others.

I'm lucky enough that I had two books come out in 2023. A Shot of Gin is my debut novel, an urban fantasy set in Reno, Nevada. Juniper “Gin” Cain is pretty sure she’s mostly human. Working security for the vampire-owned All Saints Casino, Gin’s got an edge on the others: vampires can’t drink her blood, making her perfect for the job. But when a radiated zombie staggers into the casino's club, she’s forced to expose the inhuman traits she’s kept hidden.

Thank you Phoebe!

POSTED BY: Roseanna Pendlebury, the humble servant of a very loud cat. @chloroform_tea