2016 Snapshot: Nick Tchan

Interview by Rivqa Rafael.

Nick Tchan (writing as Nick T. Chan) is an Australian  writer. He’s sold stories to LightspeedAliterate2nd and StarlightWriters of the FutureOrson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show, and Galaxy’s Edge. In addition to random and malicious acts of authoring, Nick works as an instructional designer. Because he does not own a cat, he has long doubted his legitimacy as a speculative fiction writer.

Your most recent publication was in Lightspeed’s People of Colo(u)r Destroy Science Fiction special issue. Can you tell us a bit about the story, and the magazine it’s published in?

My story, “Salto Mortal”, probably operates on two levels. The first level is a fairly simple tale about a wife who flees for her life from her abusive husband. Instead of successfully making it to the woman’s refuge, though, she encounters a nagual, one of the aliens who took over Mexico a number of years ago and turned it into a mysterious, uninhabitable realm.

The second level is about identity and disguises and the interplay between them. It is very much a story concerned with self-identity, cultural identity and the forces that seek to erase them. It deals with masks, lucha libre, domestic violence and shapeshifting aliens.

I play with the themes of identity in disguise throughout the story. The main character has both her identity and her culture stolen from her, there are aliens attempting to imitate human beings and luchadores use masks and personas in the ring.

Issue 73 of Lightspeed was called the People of Colo(u)r Destroy Science Fiction! and was 100% written and edited by people of colo(u)r. It was led by guest editors Nalo Hopkinson and Kristine Ong Muslim and had writers like Steven Barnes, Octavia Butler, Sofia Samatar, Malka Older and Samuel Delaney. The idea was to bring together a team of writers and editors from around the globe to present science fiction that explores the nuances of culture, race, and history.

It’s not very apparent from photos, but I’m half-Chinese. It was a difficult question whether I fit into the magazine, but after discussions with my writing group (which is a pretty diverse group), I gave it a go. The story itself is a clear representation of how culture and look can be erased by a dominant culture and part of the story’s genesis arose from thinking about race in my own context. My struggles are different to someone who looks ‘”obviously” Asian. At the same time, I’ve had my own struggles with both overt and covert racial prejudice. (I’m also capable of tremendous clumsiness when it comes to matters of race and identity.)

As well as your solo work, you write collaboratively – what’s that process like, and how does it differ from working alone? 

I do enjoy collaborative writing, but it’s a process that is different every single time. What usually happens is that I get really excited about a story or an idea that I’ve been discussing with someone else or vice versa. For example, one of my favourite co-writers is the talented Jennifer Campbell-Hicks. One day, I read a story by her in Every Day Fiction, “Father Francis and his Mechanical Bees”.

I really liked a lot of the ideas in this very short piece of flash fiction and I thought it was a story that really needed expanding. So I shot an email to Jennifer and said “Why don’t we write a story together on this?” From there, it became the exchange of a lot of emails, fleshing out the ideas and arguing about where the plot should go. Eventually we got to a point where we were pretty happy with the overall shape of what we wanted to do, although there were still a lot of gaps in the plot.

We then wrote by email, exchanging chunks of text at a time. I can’t remember how long it took, but it was a few weeks. There were times where I’d get on a roll and write quite a lot, and vice versa. Jennifer did most of the rewriting once the initial draft was done, but there wasn’t a huge amount of variation from first draft to second. Probably because we’d done most of the work in the email exchange, the writing itself was pretty painless. The other thing that made this lot easier is that we actually have fairly similar writing styles and it was a very heavily plot-driven story. I’ve written stories with other very talented co-writers, where the themes and ideas are much more introspective and that was a lot more difficult.

We submitted the story to Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show and it was accepted. The editor (Scott Roberts) wanted some rewrites. Here, the collaboration worked a little bit differently in that there was a very tight deadline, so we split up who did what and then sent it to the other person for approval.

Apart from Jennifer, I’ve done collaborative writing with a few other talented writers. It’s happened in many different ways. Sometimes, a writers read a story of mine and said I really liked that one, are you planning on doing anything more in that world? In most cases, I haven’t been planning on doing a further story in the same world, but talking to the other person gets me excited and we end up trying a collaboration. Sometimes, it’s just a writer whose style I really like and we’re already friends. Sometimes, someone requests help because they’re stuck with a story, I chat to someone about it and we end up co-writing. “Salto Mortal” actually started out as a collaborative story, but the other writer had to drop out early in the first draft. I then did a second draft which was nothing like the first story, but some of the thematic elements survived…

After your short fiction success, what comes next? Something longer, perhaps?

Funny you should ask that. Novels have always seemed too large and too daunting to actually tackle, so I’ve been noodling along, happily doing a bit on short stories every now and then when the day job and family permits. However, a fairly big name New York literary agent read “Salto Mortal” and cold contacted me to ask whether I had a novel written. Of course I hadn’t, but it was probably a sign that I should start tackling one. Within the next week, I’m going to start the outlining process…

What Australian work have you loved recently?

Most of my Australian fiction reading has been in the short story space. I recently read and loved Andrew J McKiernan’s Last Year When We Were Young, Cat Sparks’s The Bride Price and Rob Hood’s seminal ghost story collection Peripheral Visions.

Which author (living or dead) would you most like to sit next to on a long plane trip and why?

Dead authors would be highly unpleasant to sit next to on a long flight, especially since I can only afford economy flights. As such, I’d much prefer a living author. I’d probably like to pick Neil Gaiman’s brain, mostly because he has such a vast grasp of mythology. I don’t know how someone can find the time to read so much, especially when they have a very busy writing career at same time. I guess the main problem is that very few of my favourite authors seem like sane people. Would you really want to be stuck next Alan Moore on the 24 hour flight? Or James Elroy?

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