I met Sabrina Vourvoulias through the weekly Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers Chat (#sffwrtcht) on Twitter a bit more than a year ago. We clicked right away, sharing a sense of humor and a near-fatal dislike of outlining (which eventually led, with several other folks, to the formation of The League of Extraordinary Pantsers). We finally met in person at last year’s Readercon, just about the time the uncorrected proofs of her novel INK were available. We’ll be meeting up at Readercon again this July, and from the conversation below, it looks like there will be reading, writing, and … dancing??
INK is a novel set in the near future, in an America where immigrants (South/Central American in particular), whether they are legal citizens or not, are being “inked” as a method of population control and tracking. The novel follows a diverse set of characters as their lives are undone and remade, politically, socially, scientifically and magically, by these events.
ANTHONY: Sabrina, thanks for taking some time to chat. INK has been out for several months now. How has the reaction been?
SABRINA: It has been so positive. The vast majority of readers who’ve left comments on Amazon, Goodreads and Librarything have had lovely things to say, and I’ve been absolutely blown away by some of the attention it has garnered. That a review of it would appear in the Los Angeles Review of Books, for example, when I’m a first time novelist from a small press … I’m very, very gratified.
ANTHONY: What was the initial impetus for INK?
SABRINA: I had been interviewing and hearing stories from undocumented immigrants for a number of years when I ran across a small newspaper article tucked into the back pages of a Spanish-language newspaper. It was about an undocumented immigrant who worked with a landscaping company in the suburbs of New York who had been “given a ride” by a couple of guys on the way home from work one day. Except instead of taking him home they took him over the border with Connecticut and dumped him there without money, cell phone or any identification and warned him to stay out of their state. According to the article he wasn’t the first undocumented immigrant to experience this kind of “border dumping.” It was horrifying and fascinating enough to kick my imagination into overtime.
What if it was over an international border? I thought. And how bad would the tensions that already exist between immigrant and non-immigrant have to become to make it likely, or viable?
The other manifestations of the dystopia came about the same way — I looked at what has already has been happening, or has happened in the past, and nudged it over the edge.
ANTHONY: INK is set in the near-future, which makes it frightenginly real despite the magical elements that appear. How realistic, or perhaps I should ask how possible/probable, do think the socio-political events of the novel are?
SABRINA: Possible, but I hope not probable. On the other hand, some of what I describe is only one or two steps removed from what has been (or is being) proposed in some omnibus immigration bills in some states. And other things — the forcible sterilizations, for example, were part of U.S. programs in Puerto Rico and Peru as recently as the 1970s.
ANTHONY: Although INK is essentially near-future dystopian fiction, it’s also very much in the realm of magical realism. What’s your definition of magical realism, and how does it differ from, say, “urban fantasy?”
SABRINA: One of the foundational Latin American writers of magical realism called the genre lo real maravilloso, the marvelous reality, and so it is. For me it is about creating a world that reads true to our own and imbuing it with a type of magic that isn’t a learned system but something much more organic. Some manifestations of the magic in INK are culturally grounded, others are elemental, and still others are devotional or vocational.
Magic realism similar to urban fantasy, though without quite so many tropes. I always think of UF as requiring the setting to be as much a protagonist as the characters. Because I needed my characters to move — by choice or by force — to different locations, and because the feeling of being uprooted had to be a big part of things, I couldn’t afford to make either Hastings or Smithville as important as they would have had to be if INK were urban fantasy.
ANTHONY: The magic in INK works on a very personal/character-centric level. I wanted to ask about that choice. How did you decide which characters would have/recognize their personal magic, and why doesn’t magic seem to be more wide-spread in this world?
Character is what interests me most. I start and end everything with character.
Magic is tied intrinsically to “noticing” in my book. So Del’s magic is all about noticing what others wouldn’t in his woods. That “seeing what others don’t” becomes a dialogue and a knowing. All of the magicks in the book follow this same pattern, even Mari’s. So I created situations in which it is clear that while some people see, others don’t. Maybe they don’t want to. Or they see but deny.
Obviously, this applies as much to justice as it does to magic. In fact, the two have been tied together often in fiction, though more frequently in the sense of retribution being exacted magically (an aspect which doesn’t interest me in the least).
Meche, Mari, Del, Abbie, Chato, Chema and Remi all have magic of some kind in INK, and I have to say I’m glad it’s not more characters than that!
ANTHONY: There is a lot of Guatamalan folklore woven into the book. What, if any, liberties did you take in incorporating that folklore into the world of the novel?
SABRINA: The nahuales are a living belief — though probably not as widespread as it was at one time. The stories about them I remember are more like anecdotes. There was this girl named Margarita who was maybe four or five years older than me who told me that one of her relatives, whose nahual was a raccoon, woke up one morning with the injuries his nahual had incurred the night before. This always impressed me. I hate magic that is all-powerful and unassailable because it’s fundamentally boring. The really intriguing stuff always lives in the flaws.
I took liberties: imagining what it might be like to have a nahual, and what it might be like to be one, and then playing with the symbiosis.
ANTHONY: Thinking about the book months after reading it, it occurs to me that what I remember the most is the relationships. I feel like you took the macro (societal upheaval) and worked it at the micro (character) level, which made it all the more effective. The relationships also seem to be largely triangular: Del/Cassie/Meche, Abie/John/Tono … even the Finn/Mari relationship is essentially a triangle, with the third point alternately being the newspaper, the government and eventually the baby. Was this geometric pattern a conscious decision and if so how did it affect the plot development?
SABRINA: Well, yes. Everything I write is really focused on our interactions and connection to each other individually or as groups and communities. Everything else is secondary.
Hah! I hadn’t even noticed the triangles. But it is interesting… I like threes. You put three elements in an arrangement on your mantel, or in the composition of a painting, and suddenly it becomes more aesthetically pleasing and more dynamic. It creates a lovely sort of tension, but at the same time there is a stability to it. It doesn’t teeter.
Look, romantic triangles are the stuff of a million books and even more lives. But none of the ones in my book are “Oh, the spark is gone, I’m bored of you” or “I just can’t decide between the werewolf and the vampire” type of triangles. The Del/Meche/Cassie one is on some level a triangle formed by the tensions between belief and disbelief. Or, on a more mundane level, lives sealed off from the cares of the world and those busted open by them.
Abbie/Toño/John are a triangle formed by socio-economic class and racial/ethnic expectations. But it’s funny, because that triangle could also be Abbie/Toño/Neto, in which case it is a triangle fraught with the tension of remembered versus actual.
In the last instance, I think you’ve got the triangulator (!) of Mari’s and Finn’s relationship wrong. It isn’t Finn’s job or their son that forms that third angle, but something much stranger: home. Mari’s really is the immigrant’s story over and over: have a home, leave a home, make a new home. Step and repeat.
So, what do you sacrifice when you stake a claim, put down roots, say no to yet another border crossing? For Mari the choice to not cross finally into Canada exacts a huge cost. And yet, when you see her with her son and the other character’s children later, you know she’s ultimately found a literal home (and a figurative one in her stories).
ANTHONY: You’ve said the main characters of INK are not based on real people, but your personal experiences growing up in Guatemala influenced the tone of the book and some of the choices the characters make, right?
SABRINA: Indeed. Growing up under a repressive government makes you wary and suspicious. It took me a long time to learn to trust — and I’m still painfully aware of those moments when our government takes away civil liberties, or tries to institute policy that controls the flow of information in the name of curbing piracy on the web, for example. All of that feeling — paranoia, wariness, mistrust — underpins the dystopic society I’ve created in INK.
The state of emergency, the civil patrols, the guns on the street and the siege-mentality and routine in the novel — all of that comes from my experiences living in a country at war with itself.
But there is much that is positive in this book that is informed by my life in Guatemala and my life here, as well. My understanding of community and the ways groups of people stand up to much greater powers, for one. The way networks of support are built for another.
But it is not only my experience that informs INK. It is the lives of the undocumented immigrants I know. And the people I know who live in towns like Smithville. And practically every young reporter at the small newsrooms I’ve worked in.
What informs a novel — or a life — is a menjurje, as we say in Central America. A mess of ingredients all macerated together until they cohere into something else: bitter medicine, enlivening draught, a soup that sustains.
ANTHONY: Since we’re both members of the League of Extraordinary Pantsers, I have to ask what the process for writing INK was like, and how (if at all) it differed from your other fiction.
SABRINA: I write a lot on a weekly basis — newspaper op-eds, columns, blogs — and yet I am such a slow fiction writer. I was more obsessive about my novel than I usually am with my short stories, but that’s really the only qualitative difference in how I write. In both forms I start with characters and perhaps only an inkling of what I’ll be putting them through. But as the characters reveal themselves (sometimes in quite astonishing ways) their trajectory through the novel or story changes too. So I don’t write to hit markers. Truthfully, I’m a slow writer because I enjoy the process of writing too much to want to zip through it. And the regimentation of X number of hours a day or Y number of words per week makes me want to run howling into the night.
You know I dance when I write, don’t you? I’m an utter writing hedonist — has somebody claimed that term yet? — if not, it’s mine.
ANTHONY: I love that about you. Haha. “Now is the time in writing when we dance!” We should have a “Dance-While-You-Write-A-Thon” at the next Readercon! Your other fiction is largely short stories. Are they the same sort of science fiction / magical realism mix, or do you veer into other genres?
SABRINA: I write everything. No genre is safe. And given my temperament, nothing is sacrosanct.
ANTHONY: What do you have coming up in the near (or not-so) future?
SABRINA: My story “Ember” appears in the Crossed Genres anthology Menial: Skilled Labor in Science Fiction which was just released in January. One of my short stories, “Collateral Memory” will be appearing in Strange Horizons in either June or July (don’t know yet), and my story “Paper Trail” will be appearing in a long-delayed issue of Greatest Uncommon Denominator magazine. A poem will be appearing in an upcoming issue of Bull Spec magazine, and a couple of short stories have been requested for anticipated anthologies.
But mostly I’m working on a collection of interconnected stories about monsters that cross the borders with us when we immigrate to a new country. It might turn into a novel … or not. Undoubtedly it’ll have lots of voices because I get bored with just one point of view. Typical Gemini.
ANTHONY: I’m looking forward to that set of stories. Now my usual closing question: What is your favorite book, and what would you say to someone who hasn’t read it to convince them that they should?
SABRINA: That’s a cruel question, I have to say. One favorite? One? Well, Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude is one of my all time favorites. It’s a generational saga rife with magic, history, social commentary and incredibly vivid imagery.
And it has a fantastic first line: “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.” Tell me, how can anyone resist a book that opens like that?