Reality Skimming

Interview with Charlotte Ashley

Charlotte is a writer, editor, bookseller, book collector, book historian and Alexandre Dumas fanatic. She lives in Toronto with her husband, two daughters and books. She reviews speculative fiction short stories over at Apex Magazine, where she is also the Reprints Editor. Charlotte has several short stories published, the latest is "La Héron," which appeared in the March/April issue of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. You can find more about Charlotte at

Interview by Christel Bodenbender

Your short story "La Héron" has just been published in the March/April issue of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. What is the story about?

It’s the story of a duellist and her drunken-nun second competing in an illicit sword fighting tournament in 17th century France. A band of otherworldly folk crash the tourney and the organizers let them compete anyway. Shenanigans ensue!

You have written a wide selection of short stories. What is your inspiration for writing?

In general, I write what I want to read, but on a story-by-story level my inspiration comes from a lot of different places. I’m a big fan of starting from a prompt – preferably several unrelated prompts – and thinking creatively to press these disparate elements into a cohesive story. Somewhere along the way I start to notice patterns and themes emerging on their own. The subtext is usually where my personal concerns and politics start to come out, so I go back in with an awareness of what is being said there and try to shape the story into a good vehicle for the theme.

In a different interview you said you found your feet when you started writing short stories. What draws you to the shorter side of speculative fiction in contrast to the epic plot?

Mostly I find the shorter scale more manageable. Not only do you have the ability to tailor every last word to the plot and theme just the way you want, but if it doesn’t quite work out, you haven’t invested years of your life in the project. I suppose a good writer probably puts the same attention to minutia into a novel, but the scale of that undertaking is just boggling. With a short story, I can hold the whole of it in my mind at once. The shape and pace of it is something I can manipulate and examine. Do I have the processing power to do the same for a novel? I’m not sure. Maybe one day I’ll find out!

You have also published an online story called "Utopia: An Interactive Crisis" using the interactive game engine Twine. How did you like the process of creating a plot without a straight storyline? Where there particular strengths or weaknesses you encountered?

This was really interesting! You’re basically writing dozens of parallel stories using the same characters. I loved it as an exercise in getting to know my characters and what they would do in a wide variety of circumstances.

But on the other hand, I think ultimately I had trouble seeing the story from the player’s perspective. Some storylines were more boring than others, and if a player hit one of these slower lines without knowledge of the others, they might get bored and give up. I found myself being clever, revealing information in one storyline that meant more if you’d read another. But what good is that to the player if they never played the other storyline? I think I got a lot more out of writing the game than anyone could have gotten out of playing it.

What feedback did you get from readers regarding the Twine story, where readers can also steer the plot with their choices?

I actually messed up the feedback mechanism – I neglected to put a contact button in until quite a while after the game launched. But I noticed people take the easy or obvious route the first time through, getting the most generic ending. This was one of the least interesting storylines and a lot of these players wouldn’t play a second time. But the players who went way out there and chose riskier options got the crazier endings and liked the game a lot more!

What are your favorite kinds of stories to write?

Action-adventure alternative histories! I’m interested in utopias and happy endings. I’m well aware that the world is a messy place, but I think the most interesting question you can ask is “How could it be better? What does better look like? What needs to be changed in a world or a society or history in order to get a better outcome?”

A lot of my favourite things can be classified as “guilty pleasures” – things that stir hope and excitement in me, but which can be deeply problematic. I don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater. I want to show that you can have the thrill of exploration without the oppression of colonialism; the excitement of a battle without the othering of an enemy; the exceptionalism of a hero without creating a victim of everyone else.

You have also spent a lot of ink as fiction review blogger. How do you think you are able to shape the genre as a critic?

More than anything, I want to change the background noise. The status quo, I guess. I don’t have a particular mandate, but I want to help normalize unconventional stories by treating them as if they are conventional. No matter what you think needs to be changed about publishing or storytelling, it has to happen on all levels. You need not just stories and writers, but editors, critics, publishers, media outlets, networks. Whether you think we need more support for diverse stories, self-published stories, genre stories or whatever, you need people doing the grunt work. Reading those stories for more than just a challenge. Reviewing them as more than experiment. Talking about them as more than activism. If you want something to be the new normal, you need people to just be normal.

So that’s what I like to do. Find the stuff that isn’t getting the attention and give it some without making a big deal out of how little attention a thing is getting.

Could you tell us about some future projects?

My work has been creeping longer on me. I used to write to about 6000 words, but my last three stories have been 6500, 8500, and 8000 words. After a few months of panic, I’ve decided to just let it happen. My big work in progress is actually a novella: an alt-history murder mystery about an 18th century banker wooing investors for an aerocarriage venture. The whole thing takes place on the Isle of Logres, a nation of Ogres trying hard to figure out modernity. Murder gums up the works, as murder is wont to do.

Not that I’ve given up writing shorter short stories! I’ve a few of them in the pipe too.

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