A Day at the Circus: An INKterview with E. Catherine Tobler

Cover of The Grand Tour by E. Catherine Tobler (a steam train in the dark)Hey everyone!

Bex here. Jaz is rather busy, so you’re stuck with me today. And our fabulous guest (getting to her in a moment).

Last fall I got the opportunity to read E. Catherine Tobler’s The Kraken Sea as part of Apex’s Back Catalog Blog Tour. I fell in love with the voice from the very first line. By the time I finished the novella, I was begging for more of the world. Then Lesley Conner told me that the related collection, The Grand Tour, would be coming in the spring.

After a few moments of running around screaming excitedly, I immediately started plotting– ehrm, I mean, dreaming of this interview. When my plans came to fruition and Lesley told me that E. Catherine Tobler agreed to “talk” to us, my brain ceased functioning in shock.

Luckily my INKubator family was happy to get involved in asking questions–many of our members are familiar with her from her time at Shimmer Magazine, as well as from having listened to me gush excessively over The Kraken Sea.

So, come one, come all. Join us in a little trip to the circus.

What has inspired Jackson’s Unreal Circus and Unreal Marmalade?

I talk about this a little in the acknowledgements for The Grand Tour, but the circus arrived in a winter where I was dreaming of getting away. I was also highly involved in an online RPG, where friends and I would tell endless stories. One new person in the group taught me a lot about voice, about how it can shape stories, and I thought I would try my hand at a distinctive voice. The first circus story, “Vanishing Act,” came from that exercise. The world ultimately came from wanting to try something new with my writing.

You’ve had a variety of stories from this world published all over and now the collection itself. Can you tell us a bit about your experiences with doing a number of pieces in the same world? Any tips or pitfalls to avoid for other writers hoping to do separate same-world shorts?

A writer definitely needs to take care with continuity. One example from my own experience is that I renamed a character in the course of two stories, and only noticed it when we’d come to copy edit The Grand Tour. The brain does weird things when you work in such a universe–so make yourself lists, of places and things and characters. And make a timeline–and never ever write about a time traveling circus with a shapeshifting train because you will make mistakes and find yourself time traveling to correct them…

From the information on your blog, you’ve been developing this world and writing stories in it for sixteen years. How much has the worldbuilding changed in that time frame?

I didn’t entirely plan this world before I started writing in it. I wanted to write one story. I never even planned on selling that story, but once I had finished, I thought maybe it would sell. And then when it sold to Ellen Datlow, and I was like “well maybe I could write more in this universe…?” Basically, the worldbuilding developed with every story I told, because of the nature of these stories.

Again looking at the time frame you’ve been developing these–how has your writing evolved over this time period? When you look at earlier stories, are you happy with them or do you feel a need to edit and revise them? Or perhaps did you edit and revise them for the collection?

Sixteen years is really a long time to have written one series of stories and characters, but the stories are very much as they were first published. I’m still delighted by each and every one, because I can see what I was working to develop with each story, and can see how each has pushed my writing toward another level.

Themes of characters who are shaped or broken and remade by others recurs in this world. Can you tell us a bit about why this is important to you?

Leonard Cohen wrote “There is a crack in everything / That’s how the light gets in.” I have felt this in my life and have tried to bring it to my writing. When I was sixteen years old, I was literally broken–I broke my femur in a motorcycle accident–and that one moment changed the rest of my life (based on what my body could do and could no longer do). People break in different ways, and are made stronger or weaker for it. I love exploring that.

From your experience as editor at Shimmer (and the presumed load of stories you read during that time), has that affected your writing style, the experiences you draw from, and the ideas and concepts you use in your own work?

Reading and editing for Shimmer taught me a lot about writing, but also about people. Mostly, it showed me how stories can work and how they don’t work. Reading slush taught me how to take risks. A lot of people say if you want to write, you should read slush somewhere, and I have to agree. You will instantly understand how to make your own work stronger.

Why badgers? What created the connection between Shimmer and badgers?

We can absolutely blame publisher Beth Wodzinski for the badgers. She published an undercover exposé about story rejections and how they are created, and why writers should not resent them–they’re written by badgers, after all. After that, Shimmer and badgers went hand in hand.

With a nod to this collection, do you prefer writing shorts or do you lust for longer projects?

I’m not convinced I’m a novelist, but I sure do keep trying. I love shorts–there is a feeling of accomplishment when you finish, whereas novels can go on for years, and you wonder when you will feel accomplished, despite the words you have racked up. Maybe this current book is The One that shows me the way? I’m not convinced I’m a novelist…but I sure do keep trying.

What advice do you have for authors who want to break into professional publication or get their own novella or collection to draw the eye of somewhere like Apex?

Drawing the eye sounds like wanting the attention of Sauron as one carries the One Ring across Mordor… I find the best advice is the simplest advice: write some stuff for sixteen years and then write some more stuff. Step two: read some stuff and then read some more stuff. Eventually you will have a feel for who is publishing what, and where your stuff may fit in. Don’t let rejections get you down–they’re part of the journey and the business, no matter how long you have been publishing. (Absolutely binge ice cream after a rejection, but after that, write some stuff.)

Do you ever suffer from imposter syndrome? How do you cope with those feelings?

I have the thing where I feel like I’ve never done enough, despite having written and sold an awful lot of fiction, and despite having been on the Hugo ballot and the World Fantasy ballot, and the Ditmar ballot, and the Sturgeon ballot. I feel like I haven’t done anything, and when I sit down to look at it, it’s absolutely not true. Is that imposter syndrome? I haven’t coped with it at all!

What kind of marmelade do you like best and how would you eat it? What does eating this provoke or remind you of?

I do like orange marmalade, likely because of Paddington bear. Bears like marmalade, but so do badgers. I like it on toast! And croissants! And spoons.

You are summoned to a large tent by the powers of Apex. Inside you find Lesley in a frilly dress with her face made up as a porcelain doll having a tea party with a large purple octopus and its various other dolls and stuffed animals. You sit in the front row, enthralled. She and the octopus bow and depart. Next up is Jason in a blood-red coat and tails and a tall black top hat. He performs as the “lion tamer” with an immense orange tabby the size of a bus. As he stops the cat from knocking Maurice Broaddus in a human helicopter outfit out of the air, he whispers that you’re up next. You try to demur, wanting to enjoy the show. But he insists that if you haven’t an act of your own, you get to play Pumpkin’s toy after the cat is done jumping through fiery hoops. What kind of show do you put on? Or do you roll in catnip and play with the oversized feline?

Given that I have been a cat toy in prior years, I will absolutely perform as such for the great and terrible Pumpkin, given I am not otherwise made for the circus. I dream of the circus, but fear it is not my arena at all. That’s why fiction is so fun.

inktopus divider

On behalf of all of INKubator, thank you, E. Catherine Tobler, for answering our serious and silly questions. We’ve named you an honorary INKling. I baked a coffee cake swirled with homemade blackberry marm–


ZOMBIE! No hot sauce skating until after the reception, remember?

“Was that today? Sorry, Bex.”

I think I can salvage some cake if you don’t mind slightly-used hot sauce on it?

DISCLAIMER: No authors, editors, housecats, or octopodes were injured during the creation of this INKterview. We do not advise trying these stunts at home.


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The Grand Tour by E. Catherine Tobler

Cover of The Grand TourStep right up! Come one, come all, to Jackson’s Unreal Circus and Mobile Marmalade. The steam train may look older than your great-grandmother’s’ china, but within her metal corridors are destinations you have only ever dreamed. They’re real, friends, each and every one—and yours for the taking.

Witness Rabi, Vanquisher and Vanisher Extraordinaire, who can make coins and the past vanish before your very eyes. Dare to visit the Beauty and the Beast, our conjoined twins who are terrible and tortured by turns. Sample Beth’s marmalade, the sticky sweetness containing the very memory of the day you turned sixteen, and your beloved’s lips touched yours once and never again.

It’s worth the price, traveler. Jackson’s Unreal Circus is where you can be whoever or whatever you want. Whether it be a ride on the Ferris wheel, slipping inside a skin that is not your own, or the opportunity to live as you never have before—it is all possible on this, the grandest of tours. The train beckons you—come, come!

The Grand Tour is available for preorder now directly from Apex Book Company.

About E. Catherine Tobler

E. Catherine ToblerE. Catherine Tobler has never run away with the circus, but there’s still time. Among others, her short fiction has appeared in Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, and Apex Magazine. She edited the World Fantasy and Hugo-finalist Shimmer Magazine, and co-edited the World Fantasy Award finalist anthology, Sword & Sonnet.

Website: www.ecatherine.com
Twitter: @ECtheTwit


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