Maria Haskins is a Swedish-Canadian writer, translator, and reviewer of speculative fiction. She’s well known in the community for her tireless support of genre work, publishing a monthly roundup of speculative fiction for her newsletter, as well as a quarterly roundup for Strange Horizons. She consistently profiles the very best new stories, and her Behind the Zines interview series focuses on leading speculative publications.
Maria’s latest book, Six Dreams About the Train and Other Stories (Trepidatio Publishing), features 23 lush, immersive stories. From the Introduction:
“In each of these tales, people and creatures are rarely quite what they seem. …reading a Maria Haskins story feels like ‘the unexpected dragon in the sky.’”
Thanks to Maria for taking the time to answer my questions!
Myna Chang: There are so many things I’d like to discuss with you! Let’s start with your latest collection, Six Dreams About the Train and Other Stories. How do you describe it? What themes and topics are explored? What sorts of characters do you feature?
Maria Haskins: My short story collection brings together several stories I wrote from 2015 and onwards, and they range from science fiction to fantasy to horror and points in between. I find it hard to describe it, partly because it is a mix of genres, but I would say it leans into the darker side of things, that there are a lot of wolves, dogs, and shapeshifters, and a lot of friends and siblings, girls and old women. I think, maybe, I tend to write stories where there’s darkness lurking in the light, and light lurking in the darkness. I hope it’s a collection that makes the reader feel something, and that it twists your expectations into something unexpected. I’m not sure I can say what themes and topics are explored, partly because I feel it’s so eclectic. Whether that’s a strength or a flaw, I don’t know. I just know that my writing has been eclectic these last few years, and that’s reflected in the collection.
MC: Which story is your favorite? Which character?
Maria: I love all my stories. I really do. There are two previously unpublished stories in the collection that hold a special place in my heart though. “Dragon Song” is my Viking/fantasy revenge-tale, with ties to Beowulf, and I really love the characters in that story. “Blackdog” which is about a relationship forged at the edge of death and despair, was also previously unpublished and it’s a story that has traveled with me for a very long time. I confess that I also have a particular fondness for all my dog stories, too.
MC: One of the readers in my speculative discussion group said your story “Silver and Shadow, Spruce and Pine” is the consummate Red Riding Hood retelling. Can you talk about your approach to this story?
Maria: Oh wow, that is high praise indeed! Red Riding Hood is my all-time favourite fairytale, and I’ve written several takes on it over the years. I keep coming back to it and approaching it from different angles because I love everything about that story. As a writer, I love how you can play around with the basic pieces of Red Riding Hood—a wolf, an old woman, a young girl, a quest to stay on the straight and narrow, and so on—and find new ways to tell it by choosing a different point of view or setting, by twisting the perspective and changing the relationships between the characters. I’ve read versions of Red Riding Hood by other writers that use those basic pieces to tell a zombie story, a story set in early communist China, and so on. It just lends itself so well to re-imaginings. “Silver and Shadow…” came to me when the opening scene popped into my head: an old woman, a grandmother, has disappeared from her nursing home, and her granddaughter thinks she knows what has happened. I wanted to tell a story about how we often assume that our parents and grandparents have always been old, that they’ve always been the way we see them. We forget that they were once kids, that they were young, and that the choices they made might have surprised us and that they might not be, at heart, the way we imagine them to be.
MC: Even though I’ve been a fan of zombie fiction for many years, I had decided the genre was overdone and past its prime. But then I read “Cleaver, Meat, and Block.” This is a fantastic story, and one of the best zombie-esque fics I’ve ever read. How did you manage to bring dignity back to zombie fiction? What was your inspiration? Does the story address any societal problems or opportunities? Were you worried that it would be difficult to place a zombie story?
Maria: Thanks so much for the good words about that story. It’s been interesting for me because I wrote that story before the pandemic, and then the pandemic hit right after it was published in Black Static. That was trippy, to have just written a story about a zombie pandemic that reshapes the world, and then see COVID hit. The inspiration for it came from a lot of different places. I’d read The Girl With All the Gifts and watched several seasons of The Walking Dead before I noped out of that show, so that was one source of inspiration. There’s also a story by Danny Lore called “The Last Exorcist” (published in Fiyah) that’s not about zombies, but about demonic possession. It’s an amazing story that made a huge impression on me and influenced how I approached writing “Cleaver…”
Fair warning: I can talk forever about the things I thought about as I wrote this story, and the things I’ve thought about since. About how zombies can be used as metaphors, and about how the speculative fiction trope of evil hordes that want to kill people for no good reason, is the lived reality for many people, and has been the lived reality for many groups in the world throughout history. But I’ll try to reign myself in.
At some point, I had this story seed idea: what would happen if you could cure zombies and they went back to being just normal people? And that idea rattled around in my head together with my anger at how society often asks victims of violence and abuse to live with the perpetrators of that violence. People go to work with their harassers and abusers, they even live in the same home as the perpetrators of violence, knowing they’ll never get justice. Victims of violence have to live in the same neighbourhoods as those who murdered their family members, and often, the victims are asked to “forgive and forget” in order to preserve the “peace” because rage, and the search for justice, can be very uncomfortable for people on the outside. This happens on a small scale in families and in workplaces, and on a larger scale in societies and the world. It happened after the Holocaust, it happened in Rwanda and Cambodia, it happened and happens everywhere, every day. And it’s infuriating that we put the burden of forgiveness on victims rather than mete out justice. Those were the kind of thoughts that were rattling around in my head that eventually became the story about Hannah and her cleaver, the zombies that were cured, and what happens when society asks Hannah to forgive and forget.
And yes, I was worried about placing a zombie story! I remember reading the submission guidelines for a few zines and running into either “no zombie stories”, or “no cannibalism”. My story had both, so I was struggling a bit with that. In the back of my mind, I had a feeling all along that this was a story for Black Static, and I was just over the moon when they took it.
MC: Your title story, “Six Dreams about The Train,” was a big hit, and was included in Best Small Fictions 2021. The story has a non-traditional structure and beautiful literary images. What drove this story? How does it fit within your body of work?
Maria: This is without a doubt one of the most personal stories I’ve ever written. It came out of a very specific situation, a very specific kind of pain, and it’s me trying to say something without actually saying it. I’m not sure it’s even speculative fiction, really. There’s a reference to a time machine, but the rest of it is very much me just trying to describe a very specific kind of sorrow and pain. I think that like some of my other flash fiction, it straddles a line between prose and poetry.
MC: What was it like writing, publishing, and launching a collection during the pandemic?
Maria: The last few years were tough for me in a lot of ways, pandemic-related and not, and I had some really dark days when I wasn’t sure I would ever be able to write again, or that anything I’d ever written mattered at all to anyone, or to me. Putting together my collection, and going through my body of work, helped pull me out of that dark place, and I could not have done it without the encouragement and help of Angela Slatter. She’s an outstanding writer, and one of those magical people who comes through, in a real and tangible way, when things are hard. When I was really low, she suggested I start working on my collection and that was like someone throwing me a lifeline when I was lost at sea. I’ll be forever grateful for that. Sometimes just doing the work, small bits of it every day, can help pull me through dark days.
MC: What draws you to speculative fiction, both reading it and writing it? Are there any specific sub-genres that you love?
Maria: I honestly don’t know because I’ve always loved speculative fiction, from as far back as I can remember. I love it all. Fantasy, science fiction, horror… I don’t just read speculative fiction, I read other kinds of fiction too, but speculative fiction definitely makes up the bulk of my reading material, partly because there’s just so much good stuff being written and published all the time.
MC: You’ve published novels, collections and poetry books, in addition to appearing in countless anthologies, in both English and Swedish. What are the highlights of this work? Are you still actively writing poetry? Still publishing in Swedish?
Maria: I feel like I’ve had two writing lives. One in Sweden, where I debuted as a writer of poetry when I was really young, and then I had a book of short stories and a litfic novel published there. Then there was a big gap when I was unable to write for several years. That lasted until 2015 when I made the conscious decision to start writing in English and since then it’s pretty much been all speculative fiction, all the time. As for highlights, I feel like everything published is always a highlight, but when Ellen Datlow chose my story “Cleaver, Meat, and Block” for her Best Horror of the Year, that was definitely a stand-out moment. I don’t write poetry anymore though I do think I channel a lot of my “poetry feels” into flash fiction these days. And I don’t write in Swedish anymore, at least not right now, though who knows? It might happen again in the future.
MC: Can you tell us about your work as a translator?
Maria: I’m a certified translator, translating between Swedish, which is my first language, and English. I mostly work on technical documentation and official documents of various kinds. It would be nice to work on some literary translations as well, but the technical translation work is a nice way to work out some other parts of my brain.
MC: How do you approach your writing? Do you have any routines? How do you stay motivated?
Maria: I see it as a craft, as something I love to do, and something that I feel I can always get better at. There are always a teeming multitude of story ideas in my head, and the problem is really finding the time to turn them into stories. I struggled with an inability to write for many years before 2015, but one good thing about that struggle is that I now know that not writing is not an option for me. It makes me miserable when I don’t, or can’t, write. The most useful writing routine I’ve found is to finish writing my stories. I’ve learned enough about my own writing process that I know that at some point while writing a story I will always feel that it’s no good and that I should probably write something else instead. That feeling usually doesn’t have anything to do with whether the story itself is good or bad, it’s just part of the process for me. And the trick is to push past that and finish the damn story. Not every story is perfect in the end, but I feel like I learn so much more by finishing something and then using whatever I learned the next time I write something.
MC: I struggle to read all the speculative publications each month. Your roundup columns are a huge help in my time management. You have a knack for recognizing the stories that will be the next year’s award winners, so I’m happy to let you guide my reading. How did you get started doing these roundups? What do you look for in the stories you feature? (How do you read so much??) Does this ever interfere with your own writing time?
Maria: I first started reading short fiction with more of a purpose in 2015 when I came back to writing after several years away from it. I wanted to learn about the various zines out there and see what kinds of stories and writers were out there. That was the rather selfish reason why I started doing the monthly roundups: I did it to keep myself motivated to read more, and to keep a record of stories I liked. Then I realized how much excellent speculative short fiction was out there and I felt like I could shout about what I loved and learn something from it at the same time. It was (and still is) a win-win. My monthly roundups got some attention when I was publishing them on my blog but writing for B&N’s Sci-Fi & Fantasy Blog got me noticed more, I think. It was a sad day when they ceased operations, but I am really happy to be writing a quarterly column for Strange Horizons now.
I read a lot, but I don’t necessarily read every story in every zine. I try to read widely, to read something new every month, whether it’s fiction by a new-to-me writer, a new zine, or a type of story I haven’t read before. It does probably interfere with my own writing time, but it also helps my writing in a multitude of ways so it’s definitely worth it.
As for what I look for, I don’t know. I look for stories that make me feel something, that stick with me, that do something unexpected, or just do something expected really, really well. It’s very hard to describe what I look for, but I know it when I see it.
MC: What sorts of changes have you seen in speculative fiction, both long-term and short-term? Are there any trends that you’ve noticed? What do you want to see in the future of genre fiction?
Maria: I’ve followed the speculative short fiction field closely since 2015, and I’ve seen a lot of fantastic zines disappear. I still mourn the passing of venues like Shimmer, Mythic Delirium, Liminal Stories, and Vulture Bones. I’ve also seen the birth of some amazing new zines like Fiyah, The Deadlands, Augur Magazine, khōréō, Constelación Magazine, Translunar Traveler’s Lounge, and others. As for trends, it’s a mixed bag, but one thing I hope to see is that stories that are published in smaller, newer, less well-known zines would get more attention both on a regular basis and at awards-time. Part of the problem is that there’s so much great short fiction out there that it can be hard for stories to get noticed, even when they’re spectacularly good. Name recognition, for the writer and the zine, definitely helps, but there is some terrific short fiction being written by people who have no name recognition, published in zines that sometimes have a hard time getting readers’ eyes on them.
MC: What are you working on now? What’s next for you?
Maria: For the last two years I’ve really struggled to write anything new. The pandemic and some other personal stress factors drained me of energy and creativity for a long time. Working on putting together my short story collection helped, and at the end of last year and into 2022, I’ve finally been able to shake loose some new stories. I have a story coming in out in The Deadlands this spring, and I just finished a story for The Bureau Dispatch. I’m also working on a couple of other short stories that I hope to be able to finish, and talk about!, later this year. Shockingly, for me, I’m also working on a novella, and I’m in the first stages of planning out a novel. All of that feels somewhat daunting, but I’m also really excited about those longer projects.
MARIA HASKINS is a Swedish-Canadian writer and reviewer of speculative fiction. She currently lives just outside Vancouver with a husband, two kids, a snake, several birds, and a very large black dog. Her short story collection Six Dreams About the Train is out now from Trepidatio Publishing. Maria’s work has appeared in The Best Horror of the Year Volume 13, Strange Horizons, Black Static, Interzone, Fireside, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Flash Fiction Online, Mythic Delirium, Shimmer, Cast of Wonders, and elsewhere.
MYNA CHANG (she/her) is the host of Electric Sheep SF. Her work has been selected for Flash Fiction America (W.W. Norton), Best Small Fictions, Best Indie Speculative Fiction, Daily Science Fiction, and MicroPodcast’s special science fiction edition. She has won the Lascaux Prize in Creative Nonfiction and the New Millennium Award in Flash Fiction. Connect with Myna on Twitter @MynaChang.