Interview with Mary Turzillo (’70)

What an exciting time that was! What vivid memories! Unpacking the intricacies of language in P.K. Saha’s linguistics courses. . . . . Reading Man’s Rage for Chaos as part of a Roger Salomon course.

1. You were a professor of English at Kent State University. What was your field?

My dissertation was titled The Writer as Double Agent: Essays on the Conspiratorial Mode in Contemporary Fiction. It was basically a study of the use of unreliable narrator in Thomas Pynchon, John Barth, Vladimir Nabokov, Kurt Vonnegut, and others. So my field was 20th-century literature. All of these writers had a science-fictional—or let’s call it speculative— element to their work.

As to teaching, I was at Kent State’s Trumbull Campus, and taught just about every period of literature. They kept hiring other 20th-century lit specialists, so if I wanted to teach literature, and of course I did, I had to study like mad to teach other periods. I liked the survey courses, because I liked seeing young people discover writers they’d never heard of, or writers they had assumed were old and fusty. It was lots of fun.

Several of my students have become published writers, and several became college teachers. It also gives me great joy to know that my students learned to enjoy poetry and fiction.

2. Were you always a creative writer and science fiction aficionado?

I was six when I first scrawled my own childish doggerel. I discovered Poe early in my preteens and never really let him go. As to science fiction, I became a space exploration advocate early in life and wanted to become an astronaut or an astrophysicist. I believe in a human diaspora beyond Earth as firmly as many Christian fundamentalists believe in the Rapture. I hope my fiction will inspire young people to explore the universe, whether with scientific tools or with bootprints on another planet.

3. In reading Lovers & Killers, winner of the Elgin Award, it seemed that two approaches repeat throughout the book: science fiction tropes and the retelling of myths.

I think of Lovers & Killers as a series of meditations about killers. My sister, Jane Turzillo, was concurrently writing a true-crime book about women criminals in Northeast Ohio, and my parallel fascination with murderers drove me to write about Jack Enterweger and John Wayne Gacy. The other killers in the book include folkloric or fictional murderers like Seth and Lady Macbeth. Then I target other types of villains, like the clerical establishment which persecuted Galileo, . . . like the tormenters of St. Theresa, like the Tohoku tsunami, like Planet Earth itself (“Danse Macbre”), etc. Most of my killers are real, including Tatiana, the tiger who killed a young man on Christmas Day 2007 at the San Francisco Zoo.

I don’t write traditional D&D style fantasy. I read some of it, but I really don’t think I have anything to add to the world’s vast library of sword and sorcery. I have a few stories you could classify as traditional fantasy, but only using the faux medieval world as a backdrop to a new twist, as with “Kings,” a world in which female births exceed male births so greatly that the few boys born become kings of their own realms and women battle for their favor and to defend their kingdoms.

I do write horror, but mostly realistic horror. I try to stay away from the most popular supernatural tropes, but I admit I occasionally dip into vampire territory. Somebody told me my poem “I Have Drunk the Blood” is about vampires, and I guess it is. My writing collaborator, Marge Simon, has been luring me into vampire territory, and I don’t know where that will go. When I do readings, audiences love the blood and darkness.

I really am not enthralled with zombies, but we did have a cat who was trying to become a zombie. She joined her ancestors a few days ago. She was a brave little zombie-cat.

4. Do you think these two sets of parameters are similar?

Not really. I think science fiction is meant to inspire people to explore the universe. I think traditional fantasy is meant to—well, to entertain and maybe allow people to dream of being heroes. There are so many different types of fantasy. Right now I like Helen Wecker and Jo Walton.

5. Examine similar scenarios? View the real world through similar magnifying/focusing agents?

Again, not really. I’m not the first person to observe that science fiction has a democratic, liberal agenda, whereas fantasy tends to be conservative and authoritarian.

6. You write both fiction and poetry. And you’ve won awards in both genres. How do you make decisions about which way an idea or treatment is going?

I imagine how it would be to flesh out an idea. Poetry doesn’t have to be believable. It can be pure whimsy. Or it can be beyond any correlative in reality, pure language experimentation. That’s one part of my decision-tree. Poetry is much more about language and style than fiction is. I can spend hours fiddling with word choice in a sonnet, and maybe never really complete the poem to my satisfaction. With fiction, the core is STORY, and the language has to serve theme, characterization, setting, and story arc.

7. Do you have a preference?

At the moment, I’d like to write a novel that would capture the hearts of alternative life-style teens. But I don’t have to choose which muse to follow, thank heaven, so I do both. I wish I had more time. I want to live to be very old, so I can write all the things that come into my head.

8. NASA scientist Geoffrey Landis, your husband, is also a science fiction writer. How do you influence each other’s work?

We critique each other. We have two writing workshops, one for fiction, one for poetry. Geoff and I bounce ideas off each other about how space travel and artificial intelligence might shape people’s lives in the future, and he also helps me with the details. We speculate about how technology and science change lives for better and worse. And then I create characters whose lives are most impacted by technology and science.

I believe that the history of humankind is the history of science and technology.

9. Is there something about your time at Case that helped to make this book possible?

What an exciting time that was! What vivid memories! Unpacking the intricacies of language in P.K. Saha’s linguistics courses. Examining machine poetry generated by UNIVAC programmers who later helped create the first language translation applications. Spending a hundred dollars all at one time for the first time in my life on books at Zubal Book Store. Hearkening to the blast that mutilated the Rodin Thinker in front of the Cleveland Art Museum. Discussing Bradbury and Heinlein with physics students. Discovering that Tolkien was a Beowulf scholar. Unearthing two poems Roger Zelazny had published as an undergrad in Skyline, the literary publication of Cleveland College. Reading Man’s Rage for Chaos as part of a Roger Salomon course, the first lit crit book I ever read that spoke from the creator’s point of view. Reading the entire of Paradise Lost aloud in Dr. John S. Diekhoff’s home one Saturday and falling in love all over again with the music, not just of Milton, but of the English language. All of these experiences, from the violent political drama of the time to the glorious intricacy and art of language, all of these grew me as a writer. How amazing it was to be alive and to be a writer at that time.

And of course it is. It still is.

Mary Turzillo’s Nebula-winner, “Mars Is no Place for Children,” and her Analog novel An Old-Fashioned Martian Girl are recommended reading on the International Space Station. She has been a finalist on the British SFA, Pushcart, Stoker, Dwarf Stars, and Rhysling ballots. Her poetry collection Lovers & Killers won the 2013 Elgin Award for Best Collection. Her most recent book is Sweet Poison (Dark Renaissance, 2014) a collaboration with Marge Simon. Mary lives in Berea, Ohio, with her award-winning scientist-writer husband Geoffrey Landis.