Always a pleasure.
Author Interview: Ann LeBlanc
2020-02-15 · by Hal Y. Zhang
Ann LeBlanc is a writer and gardener currently surviving the Long Winter in the Boston Area. She edits and writes for The Spectacles, where she talks about books and stories she loves. She is the author of the 2019 game jam-winning game, The Coffin Maker.
This interview was conducted over e-mail over January and February of 2020.
sub-Q magazine: I love the different people and stories in The Coffin Maker, and how they come together—regardless of your class or wealth, everyone meets their end in a coffin. How did the idea come to you?
I’ve been writing a lot about death lately, and I don’t know why. It certainly hasn’t been purposeful. In some ways, my recent works’ focus on death scares me because it forces me to confront the way in which the frightening realities of the world are infiltrating my craft.
I am so terribly afraid, and I think in some ways that my writing is a way to tell myself and my readers that everything will be ok. Several people have mentioned to me how hard it is to get a ‘good’ ending in The Coffin Maker, but I think in some ways all the endings are good. Either the elites are convinced to help the city, or the revolution comes and wipes away the coffins altogether.
sub-Q magazine: The descriptions of each coffin are sharp and vivid, as are the consequences against the backdrop of revolution. Were you inspired by any specific historical events? How did you decide on the choices and outcomes in the narrative?
Ann LeBlanc: The tight word-count requirement (1000 words across all play-throughs) helped to shape the way I handled the outcomes. Originally, I was over-ambitious and wanted to have the choice of coffin affect each of the characters’ endings. Halfway through writing the story, it became clear that wasn’t going to work within the word-count.
But I also realized that choice of coffin would only really matter 50 years later, when the Long Winter ended and the occupants would emerge. So in a way, which coffin to give to each character is a false choice. What really matters is whether you give a coffin or not. Who do you allow to escape the troubles of the present day?
Giving coffins to the rich and the powerful robs them of any incentive to aid society in the here and now. They’ll hoard their resources so that when they awaken at the dawning of spring they will retain their privileged position, having escaped the consequences of their exploitation of the commons. And yet, maybe society would be better off if they were out of the way for 50 years?
The question is different when applied to a dying widow. Is the world better off with her working alongside her fellows, or does the coffin maker have a duty to mercy? And for someone already marginalized, what sort of mercy is waking up alone in 50 years?
The widow’s daughter seems to be a favorite with readers. I think she’s both a bit of a Greek chorus, and the real protagonist of the story. I’ve already promised one of my Viable Paradise friends that I will write a sequel centering her character.
For all of the characters, the ending is often less about their personal outcome and more about how their life and death affect their loved ones and society at large. None of them are solitary figures—all exist within the web of the urban community.
sub-Q magazine: As someone who writes both non-interactive and interactive fiction, how does your work process differ between the two? For a story idea, how do you decide whether to take it down the interactive route?
Ann LeBlanc: I think one commonality between short stories and interactive fiction is the importance of choice. For short stories, it can be quite challenging to portray a full character arc in just a few thousand words. One way to do this is to focus on a singular dilemma and the protagonist’s choice—which often happens at the end of the story.
For me, what sets interactive fiction apart is its ability to make the reader complicit. By offloading the choice(s) to them, they are now partly responsible for whatever wonderful or terrible things happen in the narrative. This complicity can help the reader feel more connected to both the characters and the plot. It’s lovely when a reader gets to the end of a piece and gasps, “What have I done?” You don’t get that with non-interactive fiction as much.
I’m also deeply in love with multiple endings. Writing a good ending for a short story is incredibly hard. With interactive fiction, I can explore multiple endings not just to escape the burden of choosing one, but as a way to explore the central themes of the story.
sub-Q magazine: You edit and write for The Spectacles, a speculative fiction review site. What is the best part of deeply engaging with a work? What’s a piece of fiction you enjoyed recently?
Ann LeBlanc: One of my favorite pastimes is ranting with my reader friends about books we love. My series “What I Loved About…” is a way for me to do that on the internet, and to specifically focus on a specific part of the story I thought was well done—whether that’s a craft technique, work, characters, etc. It’s very much inspired by Jo Walton’s excellent “What Makes this Book So Great” series, which is now available in book form.
Recently, I absolutely loved Alexandra Rowland’s “A Conspiracy of Truths” and “A Choir of Lies“. Both are some of the best books I’ve read about the power of stories and the responsibility of the storyteller. The first book is one of the best uses of a story within a story, and it does an incredible job of showing the ambiguous consequences of each story told. The characters are all absolutely amazing, and the settings of both books do very cool things with queer world-building. Also the cover art is gorgeous—well worth searching for in the bookstore.