Choose the Opposite: A Conversation with Linda D. Addison

By Matthew SorrentoMay 17, 2024

Choose the Opposite: A Conversation with Linda D. Addison
WELL-KNOWN IN the horror, science fiction, and fantasy communitiesin part for being the first African American woman writer to win a Bram Stoker Award from the Horror Writers Association (HWA)poet and fiction writer Linda D. Addison defied conventions from her early career. Her first collection, Animated Objects (Space and Time Books, 1997), featured her short fiction and journal entries spanning several years, alongside her poetry. Addison found a support system through a writer workshop, which led to a publishing situation open to her unique voice.

In the year of her debut collection, she received an honorable mention in The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror and placed her first of several poems in Asimov’s Science Fiction, “Why the Dinosaurs Died.” Her follow-up collection, Consumed, Reduced to Beautiful Grey Ashes (2001), won the first of her four Bram Stoker Awards for Best Poetry Collection. She has since worked as a journal editor (Space and Time Magazine) and, in one of her most inspiring roles, as an editor of collections, including Sycorax’s Daughters (co-edited with Kinitra Brooks and Susana Morris, Cedar Grove, 2017), which, Addison noted, “end[ed] the idea that only a few African American women were writing and publishing in the horror field.” She has since contributed to numerous anthologies, including Weird Tales: 100 Years of Weird (Blackstone, 2023) and Black Panther: Tales of Wakanda (Titan Books, 2021).

Addison caught up with Los Angeles Review of Books for a lively and inspiring interview about her roots in Philadelphia, approaches to creativity, and background in computer science that helped to shape her career.

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MATTHEW SORRENTO: The theme of transformation is prominent in your work. Does it appear naturally, or do you find yourself trying to introduce it?

LINDA ADDISON: Transformation is the journey of my life. I was always trying to understand why people did what they did around me. There was a lot of negativity out in the streets (of West Philadelphia) and in my childhood home. I didn’t understand it. And as a child I was very quiet. People who know me today struggle to understand that. [Laughs.] I didn’t start talking a lot until the 12th grade, and in college. I talk more now, but I still watch others a lot, including within my own mind. I’m always curious about why things happen, so transformation is so natural to me. It’s part of my learning process, trying to find the most authentic feelings and experiences.

You have spoken of the importance of hearing your mother’s storytelling when you were a child. I imagine that her stories encouraged your interests in myth and creativity.

Absolutely—her stories were takeoffs of tales she had heard, and popular ones, like The Wizard of Oz, with many magical creatures. My mother was a wonderful storyteller, even though there were no books in my home growing up. My mother didn’t finish high school, but she had a wonderful imagination. I was the oldest of nine, and more often than not, she was our evening entertainment—sometimes a lack of electricity prevented the TV from coming on. Her stories really shaped my imagination. But I’m unsure what came first: her tales or my daydreams.

Did you find yourself revising a myth that you heard?

I believe that, earlier in my career, I was heavily inspired by myths. But as I moved on, I was more content to work off them. It’s the same with developing writers, who tend to focus on their own experiences and where they live. But then, as time goes on, you expand on those, without losing it. I’d like to call it cosmic, the ability to expand from your own perspective to a greater one.

My earliest memories are of wondering something like, What if a cat could fly? When I got to school, the first time I heard a story like “Jack and Jill,” I knew I wanted to make something that someone could hold and read to other people. Plus, growing up in inner-city Philadelphia, rural imagery like hills was pretty mythical and imaginative! [Laughs.]

It’s great to see your commitment to poetry, when you have had success in fiction, which I imagine is more lucrative.

Poetry is a different kind of dance from fiction. But I have seen a progression for myself. In junior high and high school, I was focused mainly on stories since I loved movies so much. I was also obsessed with fables in elementary school, so I was very focused on writing stories. But once I graduated high school and got to college, poetry really became everything. It was what I heard all the time, and what I began to write (even while studying math). I ended up writing a lot of it, allowing me to make my career in the horror community with that. But from there, I moved to flash fiction, then fiction, and now I’m writing novels.

Do you like the term “speculative fiction”?

I do. I was so interested in science fiction and fantasy but didn’t get into horror until after college. After I did a deep dive in horror, I found myself working in all three together. I like the term “speculative” because it can cover so much—the “weird,” “dark,” “uncanny,” and so many other approaches. It’s really freeing.

Going back to your poetry, it seems that a lot of your poems resist being narratives and use voices for other approaches. Would you say that’s a goal of yours?

I really want to create an image that a reader can connect to. I’m happy to hear that, regardless of where my poems go, so many readers find them accessible, in the music and the imagery of the language. While I’m involved in long fiction now, poetry has always been my first voice and is still my main instinct as a writer.

You are now writing science fiction novels. Do you have to plot them out more carefully since you have worked so much in shorter forms?

At first, that was true, since I have a few trunk novels that felt more awkward and would need rewriting. But lately, writing in the novel form has become like poetry for me and has begun flowing with a sense of music to it. I have found that I need to allow my subconscious mind to pull it out, whereas verse or short fiction comes quicker.

Your debut collection, Animated Objects, is unique as far as its multiple genres. It’s fascinating to read “Unicorn Program” now, which, I imagine, reflects on your work in programming after college.

I spent my early career working in computer software development on Wall Street. I loved science and math and got a degree in mathematics. When I knew I couldn’t do much with that, I went back to school for programming. Then, as a programmer, I’d be sitting in meeting after meeting with my imagination running. I saw that poem while sitting in my cube one day, while looking at my screen, trying to write a new program. It just came alive during that work. I’ve always read so much, and with science, I find facts or extrapolations that inspire me.

I’m curious about the response to your first book, which included some of your journal entries.

I really wanted to include the best of everything I had done. So I decided it was worth it to put my journal entries in there, as examples of my earliest writing, going back to the 1970s. I knew it was unusual, but I didn’t feel exposed or vulnerable about it at all, since I had been working hard at not feeling that way for a long time. In a way, I must be vulnerable to write effectively. Some of the early responses were from readers who felt unsettled about how much my journal had revealed about me.

Once I had published poems in journals, Space & Time Books (whom I found through a writing workshop), was completely behind my collection and open to all my writing; the publisher just wanted to make sure the language and images were clear. Plus, getting Barry N. Malzberg to do the introduction was very special, even though a lot of people aren’t sure what he is going for in it. I tell them—well, that’s Barry Malzberg! [Laughs.]

With having a multigenre collection as your first book, do you think there is the same likelihood to publish a blend of fiction and poetry today?

There are so many collections coming out now that it’s hard to say. But what I have seen is that the large anthologies coming out today are more likely to include some poems with mostly stories, though sometimes I’ll be invited to contribute and will have the only poem, or mine will be one of just a few within many stories. I sense there is an appreciation for having them together.

When the HWA officially allowed poets to enter the organization and, later, allowed poetry to qualify for the Bram Stoker Award, I had enough fiction at one point to apply (for membership), but I held out since I wanted to enter as a poet. The HWA, along with the Science Fiction & Fantasy Poetry Association (SFPA), has heightened the concept and awareness of genre poetry.

My collection How to Recognize a Demon Has Become Your Friend (Crossroad Press, 2011) mixes poems and stories, one after another, with the intention of getting to a variety of readers, with a mix of science fiction, fantasy, and horror, mostly psychological horror. That book has done more for me than any other has. It drew in readers who wouldn’t have been keen on reading poetry. It actually consists of one more poem than story, which was why it won the Bram Stoker Award for poetry and not fiction.

Does your use of assonance in your poetry come naturally, and your use of paradox?

Sometimes it comes in my first draft, but for others it appears during revision when I’m trying to bring out the music in the language. I do try to join words that come off as harsh—not really to jar readers, but to snap them into attention.

When I mentor other writers, I encourage them to choose the opposite word [that they have in a first draft], in some cases. This often brings out something interesting and exciting, and I try the same exercise.

Your early free verse tends to have the lines at an even length, while your later poems are more open, as far as length goes.

I did write my poems very evenly in the beginning. Then I took a workshop by poet Veronica Golos, who had a very powerful performance style. She said my poems were publishable, but that she thought I could do better. After that, I began reading other poems closer for style and checking form more. I really began to experiment with styles.

I also like your incantatory approach in your poems. It’s a prominent element, especially in a poem like “Sycorax’s Daughters Unveiled.” Would you say that’s an effective way to channel ideas?

Looking back, I can see that happening, but while I’m writing, it’s a part of a natural rhythm I have. It emerges in my poems regularly, and I see it now in the fiction I am writing. When I sense it coming, it’s almost like music. My play with words comes naturally in this way, and they often take [an incantatory] shape. And during my editing process, which is very important, I’m always trying to find that music I was following when I was writing. At times, I’ll start with a word that I will focus on, and more words will flow, like breathing. And this type of exercise could become anything—something on violence against children, or people experiencing hunger.

Would such a starting point come naturally, or do you choose a word for such an exercise?

I have such a love for words, and I’m always journaling, ever since 1969, in my teens. I’ll write down words, feelings, a reaction to seeing someone—everything. I have folders full of pieces of paper. These are all seeds that I come across all the time. What I have been doing lately, for anthologies (of fiction or poetry), each collection will have a theme. This offers a wonderful starting position, as a seed for a new piece.

Your story “Shadow Dreams,” in Black Panther: Tales of Wakanda, comes to mind.

I’m always looking to write something different. And this project was such a rewarding one. It was also a challenging time since I was long-hauling (in COVID-19 recovery) and didn’t think I could do it. I knew writers would be drawn to certain aspects of the Wakanda universe. But I wondered what it would be like to be a 14-year-old going to the Golden City, training to be a Dora Milaje (the all-female special forces of Wakanda). That was my starting point. Soon, I found myself incorporating multiple realities, an approach I have been obsessed with for years.

What people call the “multiverse” now …

Yes—now everyone’s calling it the multiverse, but I have been thinking about this for a long time.

When editing other anthologies, have any stories or poems especially inspired you?

I’m always journaling and picking up ideas from other writers. When I attend readings or conferences, I have it with me, and inspiration is always coming.

With so much experience in science fiction, dark fantasy, and horror, do you sense that you will go in one direction in the future?

I’m happy with whatever tag people give me. If it attracts readers, I’m happy. Though I’d say that most of my work is non-supernatural horror, in the psychological horror territory. While I have been focusing on shorter works over the years, now I’m working on a hard science fiction novel, part of a planned series, which will put my work in one focus.

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For more on Linda D. Addison, visit her website.

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Featured image: Gustaw Gwozdecki. Head, circa 1926. Gift of Collection Société Anonyme. Yale University Art Gallery (1941.493). CC0, artgallery.yale.edu. Accessed January 18, 2024. 

LARB Contributor

Matthew Sorrento is editor-in-chief of Film International and Retreats from Oblivion: The Journal of NoirCon. He has published widely on genre cinema/television, documentary film, crime fiction, and genre poetry. He teaches film and media studies at Rutgers University in Camden, New Jersey.

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