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Interview with Ada Hoffmann

I know Ada Hoffmann through a group of spec fic writers. I don’t know Ada super well, so I thought this could be an opportunity to get know her better AND introduce her to many of you.

1 – Will you introduce yourself to us? What do you think we should know about you?

Hi! I’m Ada Hoffmann. I’m a writer of speculative fiction and poetry. My first collection, MONSTERS IN MY MIND, came out late last year from NeuroQueer books. I’m Canadian, queer, and autistic, and I like to review books with autistic characters or authors. In real life, I’m a graduate student, and I’m teaching computers to write their own poems.

Monsters In My Mind

2 – How do you feel your identities influence your writing?

That’s a complicated question. I feel like some of it is obvious, and some of it is so subtle that I might not even be aware of it myself.

The obvious part is that I write characters I can relate to. I write a lot of female protagonists, because I was assigned female at birth and I usually find women more relatable. I write a fair number of queer characters, especially lesbian characters, which is basically a sort of wish fulfillment, because I find women more attractive than men on average but in real life I seem to keep mostly dating men somehow. I often try to write autistic characters, which was actually the hardest one to figure out how to do, and I still struggle with aspects of it, but after all the reviewing I’ve done, I also know exactly why it’s so important. Of course, then I run off and write stories about sentient squid or centipede-people or women who are shacked up with anthropomorphic wolves, because whatever.

That brings us to the subtle part, which is that growing up with different experiences can make us interested in different emotional and social experiences in our writing. I often write characters who are different from most of the people around them. That’s the theme of MONSTERS IN MY MIND, and I doubt it’s a theme I’d be as attached to if not for my disability and my sexuality and who knows how many other things. It’s hard to say how I’d feel about almost any theme, in any story, if my identities were different; identity and privilege are so pervasive, and influence everything, whether you realize it or not.

3 – I know that you participate in LARP (live-action role playing). Can you tell us how you got started and how LARPing influences what you write?

I got dragged into LARPing by a former dating partner and then fell in love with it. I’m very shy, so I wasn’t sure how I would take to a hobby that involves a lot of interaction face to face in a big group. The social aspect – and the sheer exhaustion of keeping it up for a whole weekend – still presents challenges. But I love LARPing. I love how it’s basically a grown-up version of the pretend games we played as children. I love that it’s structured and based on rules. I love the costumes. I love the combination of social roleplay and very visceral, physical challenges (I get to hit people with fake foam swords!) Most of all, I love how everyone there, in one way or another, is about as weird as I am.

I’m not sure if LARPing influences my writing very much. I keep trying to think of a really good crossover (a story about LARPers! A thinly disguised story about someone’s LARP character! A story about post-apocalyptic LARPers who have turned their LARP into an entire functioning commune!!) but it never seems to work right. Mainly, I’m afraid that LARPing functions as a distraction from writing. But it’s a distraction that gives me a social support network and gets me out of the house, both of which are incredibly important for my mental health, so I’ll take it!

4 – In October I went to Sirens, and V.E. Schwab told us about her literary ancestry. Who are the people who influenced you and who do you find reaching for as you write?

I mean, I’ve been writing since I was five, and telling stories for longer than that. The earliest things I can remember writing were imitations of the children’s stories that I read and watched at the time. “Star Wars” and “The Lion King,” in particular, are childhood loves that remain etched on my psyche today. And for all its faults, I learned what plots were from a “Land Before Time” sequel. (I vividly remember acting out a part of the movie to myself, at the age of seven or eight, and then stopping in the middle of the hall, and thinking, “Wait – if they hadn’t done X then Y wouldn’t have happened, and without Y, Z wouldn’t have… It’s all connected!”)

In high school, I was consuming a lot of Terry Pratchett and Joss Whedon, which meant that most of what I wrote was very dryly silly and then I would horrifically kill everybody. I was also getting into tabletop roleplaying and wrote lengthy fanfiction about all my friends’ characters, much of which was never finished. That wasn’t wasted time: it taught me how to structure longer work and get deeply into characters’ minds, which I’d always struggled with. The decision to write for publication, in college, wasn’t inspired by a single influence, but was something that came organically out of my growing confidence at these silly roleplaying stories, and my growing sense that they were doing something wildly important for me.

These days, as I said in another interview recently, I would love to build worlds like China Miéville, develop characters like Lois McMaster Bujold, build up a sense of scale like Robert Charles Wilson, and tap into the depths of my id like Tanith Lee. I’m also inspired and challenged by other autistic writers, including friends of mine (particularly Rose Lemberg and A. Merc Rustad) and people I’ve never met except through their writing (Meda Kahn’s story “Difference of Opinion” completely blew my mind).

5 – In the last five years, what new belief, behavior, or habit has most improved your life?

Learning to look at personal situations carefully and make judgments about them by considering the available evidence. No one ever knows 100% of the things about everything, and it is possible my judgment could be revised if new evidence comes in – and that that’s okay. I am still allowed to analyze and act on the situation based on my current understanding.

That sounds very dry and scientific, but it’s been important to me. For a long time I would panic whenever anything seemed bad, and either push it away temporarily without any understanding of why I was doing so, or force myself to ignore the panic, tell myself it was just crazy brain stuff, stay happy, and do what was expected. This meant I stayed in bad situations because I couldn’t stay calm long enough to process what was bad about them and why. Working hard on this cognitive skill allowed me to sort out a lot of crap relatively fast. It’s related to the mindfulness skill where you work to view things as things that are, rather than leaping to judge them as good or bad.

6 – When you feel overwhelmed or unfocused, or have lost your focus temporarily, what do you do? (If helpful: What questions do you ask yourself?)

First, I temporarily remove myself from the situation so I can calm down. If I’m very overwhelmed, this might involve needing to sit in a quiet place for a while with something safe and distracting, and maybe eat a snack. (Yes, I comfort eat. I never said this was going to be GOOD advice.)

When I’m good and calm, I try to assess where the problem came from. Sometimes it was a momentary thing and I can sail back in. Sometimes a task in my life just seems too big, in which case I can break it down into subtasks that are as small as possible. Sometimes I can ask for help. Occasionally, especially if I woke up with low spoons, none of this stuff helps and I am just done for the day. In that case, as annoying as it is, I try to listen to my body and rest up so I can try again tomorrow.

7 – What is the book (or books) you’ve given most as a gift, and why? Or what are one to three books that have greatly influenced your life?

You know the thing where you’re talking to a dude? And he seems intelligent, well-read, funny, he’s into the same things you are. It’s going well. Then you ask about his favorite SFF authors, and he comes out with a list that’s 100% old white dudes.

When this happens, I don’t get mad. I just quietly hand them a copy of “Ancillary Justice” by Ann Leckie. For some reason, I’ve found this book works well as a gateway drug to contemporary women’s and feminist SF. It’s a rollicking space opera with cool technology and it questions gender stereotypes very gently, but in a way that’s impossible to ignore.

For non-fiction, I’ve had good results lending out “Aspergirls” by Rudy Simone. It’s not a perfect book, but it packs a lot of useful information into a small space, especially for people who are newly questioning their neurotype or who don’t know anything about autism apart from the stereotypes. It’s accessible for a general audience and not too academic or technical, and it’s also not too political, which is good for beginners. You need to know what a thing IS before you can really engage with the politics around it, I figure.

8 – Finally, in the style of Cameron Esposito, at the end of her Queery podcast, she asks people to tell her a queero. Do you have a writing hero? Someone who you feel showed you it was possible for you to write?

For fiction, I never needed to be shown it was possible for me to write. I was already doing it long before I understood I was disabled or queer.

For poetry, though, I have one big queero. I had dabbled in poetry and song lyrics before reading Catherynne M. Valente’s “A Guide to Folktales in Fragile Dialects,” but that collection turned a light on in me that I hadn’t known was there. I put it down and said “I want to learn to do THIS, dammit.” I’ve discovered more speculative poets since then, but Valente still is one of my faves.

Ada, thanks for answering all my questions so thoughtfully. I really appreciate the time and care you gave in your responses.

Go check out Ada’s book, Monsters in My Mind:

Parallel universes, fantasy quests, leather-clad mantises, velociraptors, merfolk, and the occasional cephalopod: Ada Hoffmann’s literary anthology collects the author’s best works from 2010 to 2017, including ten never-before-seen pieces of fiction and poetry. This richly-textured speculative fiction collection explores deeply human experiences like loss, grief, love, and courage within multitudinous universes, making it essential reading for anyone with a love of weird literature, queer theory, or monster studies.

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