Tuesday, January 16, 2024

Novella Project: Sarena Ulibarri Interview

Today for the novella project we're speaking to Sarena Ulibarri:

Sarena Ulibarri (she/her) is the author of two novellas: Another Life from Stelliform Press, set in a solarpunk community in Death Valley, and Steel Tree from Android Press, a science fiction retelling of The Nutcracker. Her short fiction has appeared in magazines such as Lightspeed, DreamForge, and Solarpunk Magazine, as well as anthologies such as Solar Flare, Bioluminescent, and Biketopia. When not writing, she battles a constant deluge of corgi fur, and volunteers at a rewilding project near the Rio Grande. Find more at www.SarenaUlibarri.com, or track her down on whatever social media platforms are still relevant.

Roseanna speaks to her about her experience as an author of small press novellas:

You've written in multiple formats, what goes into the decision for you to write something as a novella? Are there particular strengths to it, or things about it that appeal to you?

I've never set out with the intention of writing a novella. Another Life was originally a novel, and after it didn't get picked up by agents, I took a close look and realized it was full of superfluous subplots and meandering descriptions--things I had added to make it fit the length required of a novel! I took a (metaphorical) machete to the manuscript and cut out everything that wasn't essential to the heart of the story I was trying to tell. Instead of trying to pad it back out from there, I worked to keep it tight, investigating every scene and every sentence to see if it truly needed to be there.

Steel Tree was the opposite, though! I wrote it as a short story first, and my critique group told me it felt overstuffed, that it was trying to do too much. In revisions I let it spin out, giving the story more room to breathe. Steel Tree is based on The Nutcracker, and ETA Hoffman's original version "The Nutcracker and the Mouse King" was also a novella, so clearly it was meant to be.

Novellas offer more space to explore an idea than a short story, but they're not so long that I get lost or overwhelmed in their world. As a reader, I shy away from chunky books and long series; I tend to prefer a multitude of new worlds, rather than staying in one world for a long time. I suppose I'm that type of writer as well. A good novella can be just the right mix of concise and meaty. Something you read quickly, but that stays with you for a long time.

What does the process of cutting down or spinning out something of a different length look like for you? How do you go about re-evaluating what you've written that way, and is it something you find difficult to do, or a process you enjoy?

I much prefer re-writing to drafting. My critique partners are excellent at pointing out when something's underdeveloped or unnecessary, and the editors I've worked with also have an amazing eye. I'll sit with a critique or an edit letter for a couple of days before I try to tackle their suggestions. That time allows my ego and my idealized vision of the story to get out of the way so I can better see the potential of it the way they do. Sometimes I can do that myself by taking some time away from the story--there was a two year gap between when I queried Another Life to agents and when I rewrote it as a novella for Stelliform Press. I kept thinking about it during that time, though, and the story had reshaped itself in my mind already. The act of getting a story closer to that new vision is quite satisfying.

If something's longer than a short story--or I sense that it wants to be--I'll write a brief outline, and that's often where I figure out the scenes that should be there or the ones that I can cut. I tend to write skeletal first drafts, so the "spinning out" happens naturally as I continue to think about the story and fill in logic gaps, and as the characters come alive to me. The "cutting down" is far more intentional, and an outline is the most crucial tool for that. I also spend a lot of time looking at the language itself, cutting out filler words, but also making sure each line is doing at least two things. Like, this sentence needs to convey both characterization and setting at the same time. I keep a document where I copy and paste nearly everything I cut from a story. I call it the "button drawer"--occasionally I have to go rummage through and find something to sew back in. I usually revise in a patchwork, non-linear fashion, and then I'll read through the whole thing and tweak and re-write as I go. And then again.

You mention Stelliform here - how did you come to be working with them on this novella? What's it like working with a small press?

One of my critique partners brought to my attention that Stelliform Press was holding an open submission window in late 2021. I had loved the two books I'd read from them so far, Depart! Depart! by Sim Kern and The Impossible Resurrection of Grief by Octavia Cade, so I used that deadline to spur myself into doing the big revisions I'd been thinking about. The acceptance of Another Life was sort of conditional--Selena Middleton liked the story but had an issue with a scene near the end, and so she asked if I would be willing to change that before the book was officially accepted. It was a change that I felt would make the story stronger, so I agreed. We went back and forth on edits several times over the course of 2022 and early 2023. Small press is great because the book gets a lot of personal attention. The only downside is that brick-and-mortar bookstores are hesitant to stock it, though maybe that has as much to do with it being a novella as it being published by a small press!

That's definitely true - it's a real struggle to find novellas in physical bookshops, even if you're actively hunting for them. It's a particular shame when - like Another Life - they have great cover art that people are missing out on having when they go digital. Did you have a lot of input into your cover art, and were there any differences in that process working with Stelliform?

I didn't get much input on the cover art, but I trusted Stelliform to come up with something amazing. All of their covers are great! Selena asked me a few questions to clarify the descriptions of Galacia, the main character, but I don't think that influenced the cover much beyond the fact that she's depicted wearing a shawl and a red skirt. I was at the coffee shop where I often go to write when the email with the cover art came in, and I was very nervous to look at it. I had imagined the cover would depict the desert city of Otra Vida, but this is better. I especially appreciate the way the "explosion" emanates from the touch of Galacia's finger to the water, because that ties in to both an event that happens in the book, and the metaphorical turmoil caused by what she learns about her past life. 

Is there anything you've learned from working on this book - and with a smaller press - that you wish you knew before you started, or advice you'd give your younger writer self about the experience?

I was really nervous about asking other authors for blurbs and reviews, but nearly everyone I asked was very gracious about it. So that would be my advice: don't be afraid to ask!

Do you find there's a community of you that forms in the authors with a particular press at all?

The Stelliform Press authors are certainly supportive of each other, and many of us have crossed paths in other ways because we're all working in climate fiction. For example, I published one of Octavia Cade's stories in an anthology I edited a couple of years ago, and Sim Kern and I were both on a panel about solarpunk at ArmadilloCon earlier this year. Both of their Stelliform novellas are ones I highly recommend: The Impossible Resurrection of Grief by Octavia Cade is a haunting look at climate grief and trying to bring back extinct animals; Depart! Depart! by Sim Kern is an equally tragic and hopeful tale of a trans man surviving the aftermath of a hurricane, while being haunted by his grandfather's ghost.  

Are there any other novellas you've read that inspired you, or any you just particularly loved?

Two other novellas I've enjoyed recently are Tread of Angels by Rebecca Roanhorse--a Weird West story of a woman vying against angels and demons to clear her sister of a murder charge--and Rose/House by Arkady Martine--which is a locked-room mystery inside a house that is itself a sentient AI. 
Final question – can you tell us a little more about Another Life?

Another Life is a science fiction novella set in a climate-ravaged near future California. When a scientific method of uncovering past lives emerges, the founder of a peaceful ecovillage learns she’s the reincarnation of the previous generation’s greatest villain. Fearing a backlash from her community, she keeps the results secret while dealing with a rival who wants to use the reincarnation results for political gain, as well as outsiders who blame them for bombings that she is sure they had nothing to do with.

I also have a new novella coming out in December from Android Press! Steel Tree is a science fiction retelling of The Nutcracker. In the agricultural bread basket for humanity's new colony, there wasn't supposed to be any native animal life, but farmers have been going missing and rumors abound of something lurking in the shadows. At Klara Silber's winter harvest party, the introduction of a new android nutcracker should have been the big news--but that's before one of the guests transforms into a giant rat and goes on the attack.

Thank you Sarena!

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