Genre Insights: Tara Campbell - Uncharted

Genre Insights: Tara Campbell

By Tara Campbell

What are your writerly obsessions? What theme, idea, or image do you often gravitate towards?

As a mixed-race writer (Black and white), I feel myself coming back to the idea of in-betweenness again and again. In fact, I think I gravitate toward the speculative because it allows me to grapple with human issues of love, fear, prejudice, violence, power, etc without having to limit myself to one specific real-world identity. I am neither-nor—or both-and—so writing from non-human perspectives based in irreal settings lets me get past all of the categorization that can be so confusing to those of us in liminal spaces.

What do you know now about writing speculative fiction that you wish you had known from the beginning?

Restraint and character-building aren’t just for literary fiction. I grew up reading the classics from the Golden Age in the 1950s and 60s, and when I started writing my own spec fic years later, I was using some of the same outdated diction: skies swirling with the resplendent light of a thousand, thousand stars and so on. Don’t get me wrong, some readers love that stuff, and folks like Bradbury could get away with it back then; but me, now, not so much.

Now I’m more about creating characters that readers can relate to, even if they’re not from the same species. If a reader feels enthralled by what’s happening with a character in my story, I won’t have to manipulate emotional crescendos with hyperbolic wording.

How important is it to establish setting, mood, tone, and character in the opening of a short story or novel? Are there different approaches for each form?

The thing I love about speculative, whether short story or novel, is that you get to dunk your reader right into the water—for them, part of the fun is figuring things out as they go. Readers of mainstream fiction tend to want to be situated in time, place, character, and situation at the outset, like standing on the shore and surveying conditions before stepping into the flow of narrative. Speculative readers are fine splashing about, making sense out of glimpses of the larger setting while they’re already swimming in the story.

What element or part of your “real life” do you think most influences your writing?

I’d have to say my sense of humor and my curiosity about pointless hypotheticals, like:

  • What if a fat cell had a diary?
  • What if the sky was blue because angels were addicted to blueberries?
  • What if we could actually hear what trees were thinking?
  • What if my broken skull-shaped novelty ring came back to haunt me because I still haven’t gotten around to fixing it?

One reviewer described my stories as “coupling a leisurely pace with horrifying tension,” and I think that’s pretty on brand because there is a certain lightness to my work even when it winds up going to a very dark place. Even though I don’t start with a “shit’s bad and let me tell you why” arc in mind, I can wind up there by the time I’m done.

Any advice for emerging writers?

Keep writing what brings you joy to write. Don’t feel that you need to reshape your voice to fit what you think litmags/zines want to publish. Now more than ever, there are so many potential markets out there, you’ll find those places that are eager to hear your unique take on the world.

A novel, a short story, and a poem go to a bar together. What happens?

Poem downs a shot and comes out swinging at everyone in the bar, but really at that one person in particular, they know who they are. Short story confounds the police with an edgy, non-linear account of the brawl. Novel stands by, interjecting with flashbacks for context.