Beyond the Bounds of Realism:An Interview with Tara Campbell - Uncharted

Beyond the Bounds of Realism:An Interview with Tara Campbell

By Uncharted

Tara Campbell is a writer, teacher, Kimbilio Fellow, fiction co-editor at Barrelhouse Magazine, and graduate of American University’s MFA. Her award-winning work includes multiple short story and hybrid collections. Her sixth book, City of Dancing Gargoyles, will be released by SFWP in the fall of 2024. The novel is set in the parched, post-apocalyptic Western U.S. of the 22nd Century, where various climate refugees struggle against both climate change and the aftereffects of alchemical experimentation.

Thanks to Tara for talking with me about this exciting new novel and the speculative genre!

—Myna Chang

Myna Chang: I was thrilled to read an advance copy of City of Dancing Gargoyles. Can you give a quick overview of the story?

Tara Campbell: The stars of the show are E and M, two gargoyles who have come to life due to secret alchemical testing that has wreaked havoc across the western U.S. of the 22nd century. People and gargoyles alike are facing the double-whammy of climate change (flooding, forest fires, aridification) and various experimental outcomes like bleeding books and gun-toting trees in California, kissing dragons in an Oregon forest, and screaming ropes in a small Nevada town. As citizen scientists try to make sense of these changes, E and M search for water, forming a tentative alliance with a mother-daughter duo who may be able to help them find a fabled city of dancing gargoyles—but will finding this city spell disaster for the rest of the world?

MC: I have fallen in love with E and M. They have such distinct and unexpected personalities. How did these characters and their complex relationship come together for you? Have you read or written about gargoyles before this project?

Tara: This is my first foray into gargoyle fiction, though I’ve always had a weakness for non-human characters, having written stories from the perspective of plants, rings, dolls, fat cells, a spleen, etc. I think it’s healthy to decenter human beings because we’re not the only ones on the planet. If we could think a little more about beings other than ourselves and what they need to survive, the whole planet would be better off.

I came to realize as I was writing that E and M are two sides of my own personality, toggling between guarded optimism and abject pessimism about humanity. I initially used the two letters as placeholders, but in the end they just seemed to fit the characters. And together they spell “ME,” which is in a sense who they are.

MC: I was especially drawn to the “road trip” aspect of the novel. Do the characters’ journeys mirror your own travels? What prompted you to set the book in the Western US?

Tara: I was born and raised in Alaska and went to college in Oregon, and after decades of living in other places, I’m back in the Pacific Northwest again. I knew climate change was going to be a driver in this book, specifically aridification because that’s the inciting incident that causes the gargoyles to leave their home. And looking at where that’s happening, the southwest is the “hot spot,” so to speak. I have to say, the research was rather sobering.

As far as the road trip element goes, I initially thought I was just putting together a collection of stories about various imaginary cities. After the climate research, however, I was better able to visualize how the pieces might all fit together. I was still living back East at the time, so I spent a lot of time with Google Maps and environmental reports as I was imagining the characters moving up and down the West Coast. I’ve visited a lot of these cities in the past, but now that I’m in the West again, I’m looking forward to retracing the steps on my book tour!

MC: Can you expand on the idea of “alchemical experimentation?”

Tara: Secret alchemical testing initially appeared just as a footnote in one of the stories until a friend in one of my writing groups suggested that it might explain a lot of other things going on in the stories I’d been writing lately. Even though the actual alchemy happens offscreen, in the past of the novel’s timeline, it’s part of the glue that holds it together, along with climate change. So often, we plunge into experimentation without thinking about the outcomes (I’m looking at you, ChatGPT), so in this book, I wanted to keep the focus on outcomes.

MC: How did you find the inspiration for each city? Did they all make it into the book? Would you like to visit one yourself?

Tara: The cities began more as concepts: deliberate paradoxes based on a novel pre-writing technique from Michael Moorcock. I broke the technique down to a sentence level and began writing about different cities by randomly combining nouns and verbs that fascinated me: in the city of swearing dinos, for instance, and the city of scheming stones, and in the city of feasting banshees, and so on.

I wrote about 40 stories, and they all wound up making it into the book. Some survived in close to original form, others were completely altered, or used as setting rather than stories in themselves. In fact, the gargoyles became the main characters of the novel because “the city of digging gargoyles” hadn’t yet come together as a self-contained story. It turns out that E and M needed more time to solve the problem I’d given them, so I had to keep writing.

And wow, it’s hard to choose between my cities, but I’d definitely pop into the City of Glaring Chocolates (though I don’t know if I could eat any), the City of Drunk Butterflies, and the City of Flying Trumpets. I might even risk a trip to the City of Singing Bonfires or the City of Floating Wolves, but those would require some additional safety measures.

MC: Which parts of the book did you most enjoy writing? Any favorite scenes or locations or characters?

Tara: I have to say, I enjoyed writing the whole book because I didn’t initially conceive of it as a novel. I was able to experiment with each story, enjoying each little city without wondering where the narrative was going in some larger context. Then, after I figured out it was a novel, it was a fun challenge to see which pieces would fit together, knowing it was all right if they didn’t all make it.

As I mentioned, E and M became the main characters because they needed more time than one story. Two other main characters were inspired by the overprotective mother and rebellious daughter in another story—I found I wanted to dig more into that dynamic, which is how I wound up creating Rose and Dolores Baker.

I’m a pantser, so I think more than specific locations or characters, it was solving problems (or my characters’ attempts to) that propelled me through the writing process.

MC: The cover art has a distinct vibe—very cool! How does the image fit with the narrative?

Tara: I love the cover! SFWP was wonderful about presenting multiple options and really listening to my input. I was wondering how the aridity of the desert could translate into a dynamic, eye-catching cover, but the artist threaded that needle perfectly!

I think the chunkiness of the design hints at the mosaic-like nature of the narrative, with each of the discrete cities and multiple characters coming together into a cohesive whole. The perspective gives me a sense of moving forward, traveling toward something bigger and brighter, imparting a sense of adventure and perhaps even optimism despite how dire everything around you might seem. There’s a dynamic interplay between light and dark to this cover that I also think exists in the book—I mean, the world has kind of gone to hell, but there’s still the possibility for love and trust between the characters. Dystopia doesn’t only have to be about despair.

MC: I’ve heard you describe your speculative writing as “crossover sci-fi.” What draws you to this type of writing? What excites you?

Tara: I am all about reading and writing across genres, not only in the poetry/fiction/nonfiction sense but also across genre lines. I love that the line between “literary” and “genre” fiction is blurring. I think people have realized that you can have it all: you can stray beyond the bounds of realism and still have well-developed characters, you can write with careful attention to language without losing momentum in terms of plot. This is what draws such wide audiences to work by Margaret Atwood and N.K. Jemisin, for example—their craft straddles those genre lines, giving everyone a reading experience they can really sink their teeth into.

Tara: In my classes, I’m more focused on craft and the internal logic of a piece than I am on how well it aligns with external genre conventions. Yes, it’s good to know what’s out there, but not to the extent that it becomes a kind of gatekeeping exercise. Bend and smash those genres together! You do you!

MC: What sorts of things do you read in your leisure time?

Tara: I’ve been having a lot of fun with my leisure reading lately. After a period of not really clicking with the books I picked up, I was thrilled to hit reader’s gold with Land of Milk and Honey by C. Pam Zhang, The Guest by Emma Cline, Yellowface by R.F. Kuang, and What We Fed to the Manticore by Talia Lakshmi Kolluri. The Pacific NW displays of local bookstores have yielded some wonderful treasures, too: the Hollow Kingdom by Kira Jane Buxton, The Sasquatch Hunter’s Almanac by Sharma Shields, Jewel Box by E. Lily Yu, and Cascadia Field Guide from Mountaineers Books, to name a few. I came back to Seattle primarily for family reasons, but with all these kickass authors and organizations like Hugo House and Clarion West, I’ve landed in a fantastic place to be a writer as well!

MC: You’re involved with various humanities and arts programs throughout the country, including AWP’s Writer to Writer mentorship Program and the Humanities Washington Speakers Bureau. What’s your favorite thing about this sort of work? Do you have any advice for someone who’d like to get involved with their own community programs?

Tara: This has been on my mind recently with my cross-country move in the summer of 2023. I’m not an extrovert, but I still find that balance for me includes a connection to a local arts community. So I planned ahead: I’d already been teaching with Clarion West before I got here, and I applied for the Humanities Washington Speakers Bureau, knowing I’d be based here when the program began. As soon as we arrived, I immersed myself in web searches, lilypadding from one arts org to another, and then going to readings and other events to meet other writers. The Seattle Literary Guide was a huge help, as were local bookstore calendars and, believe it or not, Meetup (yes, that’s still a thing!).

My husband and I also volunteered at local events over the summer, sampling everything from a food fair to a chocolate conference to Oktoberfest, and I’ve also been volunteering with local arts organizations trying my hand at murals and other arts projects. I feel like having wide and varied experiences, not only literary activities, provides perspective and inspiration, making both writing and “real life” even richer.

MC: Are you working on another novel? What’s next for you?

Tara: I’m currently twisting and turning around a potential sequel to City of Dancing Gargoyles. Even though I’ve published two novels, neither of them came about from a plan to sit down and write a whole-ass novel. So, I don’t know, don’t be surprised if there’s a fungus writing poetry in the next book. Anything can happen in the 22nd century!


TARA CAMPBELL is a writer, teacher, Kimbilio Fellow, fiction co-editor at Barrelhouse Magazine, and graduate of American University’s MFA. Publication credits include Masters Review, Wigleaf, Electric Literature, CRAFT Literary, Apparition Lit, and Strange Horizons. She’s the author of a novel, two hybrid collections of poetry and prose, and two short story collections from feminist sci-fi publisher Aqueduct Press. Her sixth book, City of Dancing Gargoyles, is forthcoming from SFWP in September 2024. Find her at

Pre-order City of Dancing Gargoyles here.


MYNA CHANG is the host of Electric Sheep SF and the author of the award-winning micro collection, The Potential of Radio and Rain. Her work has been selected for the Locus Recommended Reading List, Flash Fiction America (W.W. Norton), Best Small Fictions, and Best Microfiction. She has won the Lascaux Prize in Creative Nonfiction and the New Millennium Award in Flash Fiction. See more at or find her on Bluesky or Twitter at @MynaChang.