Story Notes – “The Grays of Cestus V”

I love the Fall. The weather’s great, football season has begun, and this year I have a story out in the September/October Asimov’s! All I can say is wow! Asimov’s! You can buy it in bookstores and everything! I feel so honored to be part of a magazine that has left such an important, indelible, and ongoing mark on the SFF world.

My contribution to this wonderful publication is the story of an artist living in a mining colony (on Cestus V, as per the title) who has begun discovering new types of gray.

The story notes for this one will have tons of spoilers, so if you haven’t read the story yet, stop and get the issue and check it out. It’s a wonderful issue, with great stories (including one by my personal friend and fave Leah Cypess). Okay, all done?

Then let’s go – it’s notes time!

The Origin Story: A good friend and I were trying to come up with new ideas for stories way back in May of 2012 and decided to play a game – we’d go to (warning, it is a rabbit hole of interesting information) and hit random until we came up with three tropes – one that could be used for a person, one for a setting, and one for an action. We’d then combine all three into a story. After discarding a few that were too out there (or too alike) for our tastes, we ended up with ExtraOreDinary (the ability to control metal), Look Behind You (pretty much what it says on the tin), and Alien Kudzu (a plant-like alien lifeform that infests a planet). I used them as the inspiration for a piece of not-very-good flash fiction about a woman living in a mine who puts on a metal suit in an attempt to go to the surface, which is covered with an odd blue moss. On a side note, I’m pretty sure this is the first story I ever submitted anywhere and it was quickly and deservedly rejected. I’ve tried revising it since then, but after a few false starts, I essentially gave up on it.

And then one day I started wondering – how would the moss have gotten there in the first place? Somebody had to bring it there. But who? An artist, of course! And to be honest, that’s all I recall. I don’t remember how I came upon the idea of cataloguing grays, though I think it was during my first MFA residency in January 2016; the idea of the grays came to me in one of those flashes of inspiration that happen when I surround myself with writers and writing. It then took another two years or so to all come together, make the rounds, and be accepted to Asimov’s. So all in all, it took six years for this story to come to life, but I’m so glad it did. I really enjoyed writing it. Making up colors is a ton of fun.

Saying the Grays: The words for the grays are 100% made-up; any resemblance to Earth languages living or dead is purely coincidental. As I created each word, I tried to think like JK Rowling, who always does such a great job making names like Gryffindor and Slytherin echo their meaning. I’m not sure if it’s because or despite of this, but when I read the story aloud to myself, I say the name of each gray with a slight accent that doesn’t seem to come from anywhere in particular but is definitely different than my standard reading voice. I pronounce the rs in Skarra, for example, as a cross between a rolled r (as you might hear in Spanish) and a more guttural r (as you might hear in German). I’m curious how they sound in other people’s heads, but I guess there’s no way to know!

On The Cuting Room Floor: This story went through a lot of changes from first draft to last. The most significant? What happens to Sifa. One of my most trusted and talented writing friends, Kate, read an earlier version of the piece where Sifa is dead and her death is what Skarra (the word and the painting) is all about. Kate rightfully pointed out that all too often, mothers in fiction are driven either to protect or to avenge their children and challenged me to think of a way to make Sifa (and Laila’s motherhood) important to the storywithout physically harming the child. I did, and it worked! Laila’s relationship with her daughter is still an important throughline, but the change strengthened the story and helped to make some of the themes within the piece much clearer (I think). On a more minor note, the story originally took place on multiple planets, but now is all on Cestus V – a suggestion from the brilliant story doctor James Patrick Kelly that streamlined the piece and I think gave the grays that much more potency.

And that’s it. I hope you enjoy all the grays of Cestus V!

2 thoughts on “Story Notes – “The Grays of Cestus V””

  1. Just got finished listening to your story in Asimov’s, “The Grays of Cestus V”. I really liked it, and I plan on going back and listening to it again once I’m done with the rest of the magazine. I get Asimov’s on audio from the National Library Service, and I thought it was interesting that you were wondering what it would sound like if someone else read it out loud.
    The narrator is a professional, and it sounded fine to me, although who knows if that’s the way it sounds in your head!
    I liked the artistic flair in the writing, and the sense that something surreal was happening in the mind of the artist.

    1. Oh wow – thank you so much, and apologies for the delay in responding! Real comments often get lost in the waves of spam so I’m just seeing this. I’m so glad you enjoyed it, and so cool that there’s a narrated version out there. If my experience with my PodCastle story is anything to go by, the narrator definitely will sound different than the way I do when I read it to myself, but in really fun and unexpected ways!

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