Let’s start with an introduction: Who is R.B. Lemberg?
I am a queer, bigender immigrant writer, editor and academic originally from Ukraine, Russia, and Israel, now living in Kansas. My favorite genre is epic fantasy, but I write science fiction, magic realism, slipstream, and sometimes even horror. I also write poetry and non-fiction. I have a wide range, and I’m rarely bored!
Your debut novella, The Four Profound Weaves, is due to be published by Tachyon in September. It looks really interesting: How would you introduce it to a potential reader? Is it part of a series?
The Four Profound Weaves is a novella that follows two transgender elders on a journey of identity and adventure — they must learn to weave from Death itself to defeat a tyrant who hoards the bones and souls of his victims. The book is a stand-alone, set in my Birdverse universe. I’ve been publishing in this world since 2011, but only short work so far. Each story set in Birdverse stands alone, but together they add up to something greater — a rich tapestry of many perspectives, stories, and lives. The Four Profound Weaves is the first Birdverse book in print — the rest of the published pieces are online. It’s a good gateway into the world — you do not need to know anything else.
What inspired you to write the novella and series? And where do you draw your inspiration from in general?
I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t constructing worlds and languages in my mind. My first memory of inventing a fantastical world was at age four, my first fully-fledged constructed language I think at age six. I don’t know where the inspiration comes from — it’s always been there. Birdverse specifically came into being long before I wrote any fiction. I came up with a story of this character, a linguist, who journeys to a very large, mysterious forest to study the language of a shapechanging people who live there. Later, I began envisioning Birdverse as a place where countries and peoples are connected through trade routes, and I started writing stories about the Khana, a trading people who travel these routes. One of the protagonists of the novella is a Khana man. I wanted to specifically explore what happens when one transitions later in life, especially in a society where occupations and roles are very gendered. Among the Khana, only women trade. The nameless man has been a trader most of his life, before his transition.
How were you introduced to genre fiction?
I was into myth and folklore and mythic-inspired writing since I was a small child. My father used to recite Pushkin’s fairytale poems to me when I was a baby, and I can recite some of them myself. I got serious about science fiction at age eight. My parents had a copy of the Strugatsky brothers’ novel A Beetle in an Anthill, and I “borrowed” the book and read it after school while my parents were still at work. It’s a dark book, full of horror elements, including horror elements that involve children — I would not recommend it to an eight year old! But I read it, and I was in love.
How do you like being a writer and working within the publishing industry?
Being a writer and working within the publishing industry are two very different things. I love being a writer, even though I find it challenging at times — in the beginning, it was challenging to produce work in English as an ESL writer. And it’s always been hard to balance my demanding job, caregiving, and writing. But writing itself can feel exhilarating and expansive, and there’s nothing quite like it, even though I’ve done other arts. As for the publishing industry, I have often found it challenging at times, but I love working with Tachyon Press, and I love my new agent Mary C. Moore. I also enjoyed working with Scott Andrews at Beneath Ceaseless Skies, my short fiction editor. I think he is fantastic.
Do you have any specific working, writing, researching practices?
I like to work near a window where I can see birds, or in a coffeeshop (a challenge in this pandemic). As for research, I am a professor, so I am pretty much constantly researching something… I use a lot of my research in my fiction, and I use insights from fiction in my research, I find this combination very fruitful.
When did you realize you wanted to be an author, and what was your first foray into writing? Do you still look back on it fondly?
I briefly wanted to be a writer as a child (just before deciding that I wanted to be a geologist!), but I’ve immigrated many times, and became very confused about what language I was supposed to be writing in. I did not begin writing in earnest until my early 30s, when I settled on English as the language for my work.
What’s your opinion of the genre today, and where do you see your work fitting into it?
This is the new golden age. There are so many amazing transformative new voices from marginalized writers, so much exceptional LGBTQIA+ writing, such trailblazing and wonderful work from BIPoC writers, from immigrants, from disabled people. I think that my work fits very well in this new wave.
Do you have any other projects in the pipeline, and what are you working on at the moment?
I co-edited an anthology with Lisa M. Bradley, which is called Climbing Lightly through Forests: Poetry in Honor of Ursula K. Le Guin. It is coming out in January. I am working on two scholarly projects about SFF, one about Le Guin’s poetry, another about science fiction translations to and from Russian. Fiction-wise, I am working on a new Birdverse novella, and a space opera novel with a code name Space Putin. It’s about two nonbinary people on the run from, basically, Space Putin, and they are trying to reclaim their memories and inheritances against the backdrop of two clashing superpowers. I am also hoping to finish my Birdverse novel about revolution and linguistics.
What are you reading at the moment (fiction, non-fiction)?
Right now I am doing a Strugatsky brothers reread and a Le Guin reread for my nonfiction projects. In the last month, I reread Strugatsky’s The Snail on the Slope in Russian (twice) and both of its English translations, and I am about to begin a third reread in Russian. I am starting Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia, her writing is great. I just finished Nghi Vo’s The Empress of Salt and Fortune, which I adored, and I am looking forward to reading Darcie Little Badger’s Elatsoe. In terms of non-fiction, at the moment I am reading various books on translation theory.
If you could recommend only one novel or book to someone, what would it be?
Gah, that’s really hard. I don’t know. Bulgakov’s Master i Margarita in the original, translations just can’t measure up to that one. It’s a whole world, more than one world, and it’s spec.
What’s something readers might be surprised to learn about you?
I once almost died in a snowstorm in Vorkuta, in circumpolar Russia, as the Northern lights blazed above. It was a devastatingly beautiful, vast moment. I was not afraid.
What are you most looking forward to in the next twelve months?
I’m looking forward to more writing. I don’t feel alive unless I write.