Tara Campbell Doesn’t Need to Leave This Atmosphere Tell Her Out-of-This-World Stories

The author, teacher, and editor went from Anchorage to speculative fiction

Tara Campbell’s many things, including author, editor, musician, gardener, native Alaskan, and German speaker. You’d be correct to think those ingredients make up a writer who produces unique work. Campbell describes her writing as, “crossover sci-fi, or speculative fiction off the warp-drive path.”

Campbell’s the author of four books and many published short stories. She’s also the fiction editor at Barrelhouse Magazine and teaches writing. Campbell lives in Washington, DC.

You can buy Campbell’s books through her website or two of them are available on Bidwell Hollow’s Bookshop. And you can buy her book TreeVolution on Amazon. Buying through Bookshop supports independent booksellers and Bidwell Hollow. See the full disclosure at the bottom of this email.

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Interview with Tara Campbell

Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?

Yep, I was born and raised in Alaska, but consider DC home because I’ve lived here the longest. That said, I’ve been fortunate to have lived in a few different places, studying and working in Oregon, Ohio, and New York, as well as Germany and Austria. Austria was where I really got into downhill skiing—my husband and I usually try to get a couple of trips in to Colorado or Utah during the winter.

Other interests when I’m not writing (or teaching, or reading) are gardening and music—though “gardening” is a grand term for what I do. I have houseplants inside, and larger pots out on my balcony where I grow tomatoes, peppers, broccoli, etc. with mixed success. I simply enjoy digging in the dirt and coaxing plump, green shoots into the myriad of shapes plants take.

Music runs in my family—I’m the last of five kids and grew up in a house full of instruments from flute to drums to bass to trombone. I started on trumpet and played trombone through college. Then I moved on to cello for a while, and have recently begun clarinet. Getting into the weeds on an instrument is a great way to recalibrate and refresh, letting my brain focus on something completely different than whatever thoughts are churning at the forefront.

You have a Master of Arts in German. What does that entail?

Lots of glottal stops. 

But seriously folks… I lucked into this great program through Bowling Green State University in which you spend the first year of the MA in Austria, and the second year back on the home campus in Ohio. I’d had a German minor in college, spent a semester in Hamburg, and had even started to figure out Sächsisch (a dialect) from my time teaching English in Leipzig—but then I hit Austrian German and felt like I was starting all over!

Studying for an academic year Salzburg was an amazing privilege, and an experience I had there gave me the idea for my MA thesis about the image of the “Negro” in late 18th and early 19th century German-language literature. It also gave me the confidence to go back and work in Vienna for a couple of years after grad school, where I met many lovely people with whom I’m still in touch today.

How does someone from Anchorage get into German?

I wish I had a noble reason, but it was just because my sister was learning German, and when it came my time to choose a language in high school, I wanted us to be able to talk at the dinner table without anyone else understanding what we were saying.

That said, there was a family connection even farther back. My grandmother on my mother’s side was German, but when they moved to America, everybody only spoke English. It was a time of assimilation, so the language of my great-grandparents was lost in the effort to be welcomed into the American melting pot. It’s kind of sad that my sister and I had to relearn it in school. But I can’t really complain, because studying German opened up wonderful opportunities to live overseas. I wish every American had those opportunities because it’s truly eye-opening.

When and how did you start writing creatively?

My urge to write began with reading. I fell hard for science fiction in grade school and junior high, reading through bookshelves stuffed with Asimov, Bradbury, Clarke, Heinlein, and on down the alphabet, as well as writing and illustrating my own stories. There was an embarrassing novel in the works when I went away to college—a manuscript which has since been safely shredded.

I pretty much left creative writing behind when I went away to college. Then a graduate degree, a career in international education, and other creative outlets like music and painting occupied my time. I didn’t start writing again until my late thirties, when my husband and I started taking creative writing classes together at The Writer’s Center, community writing center, just for something new to do. 

Those classes rekindled my love of writing, and it was incredibly gratifying to read from my first book at an event at the very Center that had made the novel possible. I’ve since completed an MFA at American University, and become a teacher and a board member at the Writer’s Center, and am grateful for my husband’s support on this path.

You describe much of your writing as “crossover sci-fi, or speculative fiction off the warp-drive path.” What do you mean by that?

When I tell people I write science fiction, many of them start geeking out about space and Star Trek. Hey, I love me some Star Trek (Original Series fan), but there’s so much more to the wonders of the universe than the technology that gets us off the planet.

Like the way plants and trees communicate above and belowground, sharing food and information, even waging wars against one another while we’re blithely walking through clouds of chemical chatter and treading over webs of information. Or fungi that take over the nervous systems of other organisms and drive them toward certain death in order to continue their fungal reproductive cycle. Or, come on: disco cuttlefish! Tardigrades! There so many fascinating forms of life on earth before we even leave the atmosphere.

Speculative fiction often gets a bad rap for being full of interesting questions, but not written in a very interesting way. Sometimes the characters are more like a vehicle for the science or the myth, rather than being interesting in their own right. The gimmick won’t save the day—the story itself has to be compelling.

My approach to science fiction is to put the characters first because I’m interested in how real people react to how ecological changes and scientific advances are going to affect them. Ready or not, the future is coming, and I want to think about how we’re all going to react when it hits us.

You teach fiction. Is there a particular lesson or idea you find yourself giving most to students?

Don’t answer all of the questions! (And yes, I see the irony of saying this in an interview setting.)

When we workshop, we tend to ask a lot of questions in an effort to piece things together. It’s a human thing to want to understand the world around you, but in fiction, laying too much out for the reader can kill a story. It's important to know what readers are asking themselves while they're reading our work, but it's our task as writers to decide which things need to be clarified, and where we can leave a little ambiguity to haunt our readers into the wee hours.

You’re also a fiction editor at Barrelhouse Magazine. Is there something you often see in submissions from which you think writers can learn or improve their craft?

Knowing your market and tightening your prose seems to be two main lessons. Sometimes we get stories that are pretty much straight sci-fi because they know we like weird, but it’s not that kind of weird we’re looking for. It’s a broader, more relatable kind of weird, which you can pick up on by reading some of the stories we’ve published. 

We also get a number of stories with a hapless slacker just kind of floating through his day, meeting weird people in a way that never really coalesces into a narrative. Every writer I know loves character-building, and playing with voice is really fun, but those are the parts that need to be whittled down and shaped into a story.

Who are some of your favorite writers?

I often say I write science fiction for people who don’t think they read science fiction, and that’s what I like to read as well. My favorite speculative fiction considers possible futures while remembering that the science should be in service of the story, not the other way around. Margaret Atwood is a master of this, whether the primary focus is political, as in The Handmaid’s Tale, or our bioengineered world, as in her MaddAddam series. Station 11 by Emily St. John Mandel is another example of speculative fiction that crosses genres: dystopian with a lush, literary feel.

I’ve always read across genres, and all over the map: Ray Bradbury, Alice Munro, ZZ Packer, Barbara Kingsolver, Ursula le Guin, Mitchell S. Jackson, Octavia Butler, Joyce Carol Oates, N.K. Jemisin. And two of my perennial favorites are Amber Sparks and Rion Amilcar Scott—their stories always seem to find a way into my classes.

What are some of the best books you’ve read lately?

I loved N. K. Jemisin’s story collection How Long ‘Til Black Future Month because it was like a primer on how varied and playful speculative fiction can be. There’s traditional sci-fi, social sci-fi, mythology, fantasy—she’s giving us a taste of all of the things that make us wonder about the world. It’s a big, exciting cauldron of ideas and the kind of speculative fiction that inspires me to write my own!

I can say the same thing about the 2018 edition of Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy, which it just so happens Jemisin edited. It had the same sense of inventiveness and expansiveness and is a great window in to the state of speculative fiction today.

I just finished The Changeling, after years of hearing I need to read Victor LaValle, and yes, everyone was right. It’s an amazingly rich story, and even after 400+ pages, I wasn’t ready for it to end.

Anything else you’d like Bidwell Hollow readers to know about you or your work?

I actually love teaching, both online and in person. I teach a lot of flash fiction, as well as speculative fiction. In particular, I like to discuss diversity in speculative fiction and am excited about opening up the genre up to people who haven’t always felt welcome there, be it due to race, gender, disability—whatever runs counter to the norm.

I’m a mixed-race woman writing science fiction, so I know what it’s like to not see myself there. But science fiction is not just about white men in a lab, or robots in space–it’s also about us, all of us, our families and our communities. I love to hear the surprise in people’s voices when I tell them W. E. B. Dubois wrote science fiction—yes, that W. E. B. Dubois. My hope is for new writers to give the genre a chance, and decide it’s a place for them too.

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