ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Su J. Sokol is an activist, a cyclist, and a writer of speculative and interstitial fiction. Originally from Brooklyn, Su studied law and philosophy before becoming a community lawyer specializing in housing. She immigrated to Canada in 2004 and now lives in Montréal with her family. Su works for a community organization as a social rights advocate. Her short stories have been published in The Future Fire, Spark: A Creative Anthology, TFF-X: A Speculative Fiction Anthology, and Glittership: An LGBTQ Science Fiction an Fantasy Podcast. Cycling to Asylum, published by Deux Voiliers Publishing in 2014, is her first novel. It was longlisted for the Sunburst Award for Excellence in Canadian Literature of the Fantastic.
Su also participates in and curates literary readings in Canada and abroad, and her reviews have been published in Matrix Magazine. Su has served as a panelist at the Conference on Canadian Content in Speculative Arts and Literature, and has curated the Belles Lettres readings for NDG Arts Week.
SAMPLE INTERVIEW QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS:
Can you tell us a little about yourself?
I am originally from Brooklyn, and like the family in Cycling to Asylum, my own family immigrated to Montréal largely for political reasons. Happily though, unlike that fictional family, it was not because our lives were in danger. In New York, I worked as a tenants’ rights lawyer. I do similar work now in Montréal as a social rights advocate, only I don’t have to go to court and I get to speak French as well as English. I love cycling, cooking, books, red wine and dark chocolate.
When did you first start writing?
I first started writing in the summer of 2011, after completing three years of working at my job full-time and having 25% of my pay set aside for a pre-paid sabbatical. During this sabbatical, I completed my first draft of Cycling to Asylum and I also had my first short story, “Je me souviens,” published.
What’s the story behind Cycling to Asylum?
Cycling to Asylum is a story about a family living in a near-future New York City in a United States whose government is very repressive. They cross the border into Québec by bicycle and apply for political asylum. They eventually reach Montréal, which has declared itself an international sanctuary city — something that actually happened five years after I wrote the novel.
One interesting thing about the book is that it is written from the first person, present tense perspective of four main characters, two of whom are children, so the reader gets to hear different voices and perspectives. The story itself also has many different elements: it’s a story about activism, it’s a family drama, it’s a cycling adventure, it’s speculative fiction, it’s a story about friendship, and it’s an outside-of-the-box love story. There are parts that are dark but the book also has humour, and ultimately, it is full of hope. I came up with the story one day while biking home from my job at a community organization that works with immigrants and refugees, among others. At it’s base, Cycling to Asylum is about crossing borders on many different levels
Are you interested in other forms of artistic expression besides writing? Why are you drawn to writing?
I also love music and have sung in a number of choral groups. I’ve played piano, cello, and most recently, I learned to play the glockenspiel for an anarchist marching band. I also enjoy visual art, theatre and dance, cooking, and gardening. Yet, aside from music, there is no artistic expression that has come close to moving me as much as writing. With words and stories, new worlds can be imagined, populated by characters, events, places, and emotions, and all this can grab hold of your heart and mind.
What draws you to novel writing? Do you write in other formats?
What draws me to novel writing is that you can take your characters the furthest, exploring their depths and complexities, as well as their relationships with others. It is not impossible to do this in shorter fiction, but it is more difficult. I love to imagine my characters in a variety of situations, watch them react, and especially, I love to listen to them talk to each other. With a novel, you have more time and space to do this.
I also write short fiction, trying to squeeze as much character development and storytelling as I can in this smaller container.
As a reader, what do you think makes a good story?
For me, what makes a good story are characters that are compelling. If I don’t care what happens to the characters, it is hard for me to get into the story. I also like stories that say something something new or in a new way.
What elements do you find are the most crucial to include in your stories? What are your strengths and weaknesses?
I think my strengths are character development and dialogue. I have also been told that my writing is smooth and rhythmic and tends to read fast. In addition, I find I have something to say and can sometimes manage to say it with a satisfying intensity. My weaknesses include a tendency to say too much, to use too many words, to “overwrite.” That last sentence is a good example. In my view, the grand purpose of writing is to communicate something, so I find it critical that my story contain at least one important message or thought. I don’t mean that writing should be preachy, but rather, that it should demonstrate an interesting idea in all its moral and human complexity.
What categories or genres of fiction do you write and why?
I refer to my writing as interstitial or liminal, which some would claim is just another way of saying that I cross genres or defy traditional genre borders. This leads to challenges in describing my writing, in finding appropriate markets for my work, and in being secure in identifying my community of readers. For example, science fiction markets may consider my writing to be literary rather than SF whereas literary markets may consider it to be too genre. I find that human beings have a tendency to oversimplify, to fit everything into a binary. This is understandable because it is an easier way to organize information about the world, but it is less accurate, and I would also argue, less interesting. On the other hand, I think people are beginning to move away from this and one consequence is that interstitial art, including writing, is becoming more and more popular.
What do you find is the most difficult aspect of writing and how do you cope with it?
There are a number of difficult aspects. One is finding enough time to write while leaving enough time and focus for the rest of my life. Another is figuring out the proper balance between caring what others think and doing what I think is right. This is a tough one because I want so much for others to appreciate my writing but of course not everyone will. Another thing that is hard for me is patience. The ways that I cope with these difficulties is by trusting in the process, by trying to be disciplined, and by having the wonderful, solid support of my family and my writer and non-writer friends — including two wonderful writing groups that are my anchor. Also, when things are difficult, I try to focus on how much I love writing and how lucky I am to be able to engage this love.
Who are your favourite writers and why?
My favourite writer for many years has been Ursula K. LeGuin. Her books are at home on the science fiction shelves as well as with the literary fiction selections. Her writing is infused with her values and this enhances rather than gets in the way of an engaging story, realistic characters, and beautiful prose. She is a SF writer with a social as well as a technological imagination. Reading her books is a pure pleasure. I like a lot of authors and read a variety of genres (and non-genres). Other long-time favourites include William Gibson, Marge Piercy, Octavia Butler, and Cory Doctorow.
What other projects are you working on?
I have completed a new novel manuscript tentatively titled Run J Run. It is about psychic injury and the treatment of mental illness in our society. It is also about different kinds of love and whether it is possible to reject the categories and limits placed on relationships (so another exploration of boundaries.) In addition, it is about non-traditional family, friendship, polyamory, and is an exploration of my main character’s relationship to truth and control. I should probably also mention that it has a lot of explicit sexual content.
In addition to this project, I am also working on some short fiction and a non-fiction book with two psychologists on a certain psycho-social issue facing an increasing number of young adults in our society.
What advice would you give to new writers?
Don’t write unless you love it and do it because you love it, not to get published. Find yourself a community—a writers’ organization, writers’ groups, workshops, friends who like to write, whatever works. Then try to give as much as you get, be open to feedback and change, don’t ever stop learning, and keep trying new things, even if they are scary
How can readers get into contact with you?
Visit my website at www.sujsokol.com.
Follow me on twitter @sujsokol
Find me on my author’s page on Facebook: facebook.com/cyclingtoasylum
Find me on my publishers website at http://www.deuxvoilierspublishing.com.
Readers can also buy my book in paper or ebook versions. Click here to see all of the options: http://www.sujsokol.com.
You can also find my short fiction here: http://futurefire.net/2012.24/fiction/jemesouviens.html
I would love to hear from readers! And thanks for this opportunity to talk about writing!
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Québec a safe haven for cycling family fleeing dystopian America –
Cycling to Asylum: a novel by Su J. Sokol
June 25, 2014 – A Brooklyn history teacher with a secret radical past, an activist lawyer, and their two kids struggle to lead a good life in a in a near-future New York subject to an increasingly authoritarian government. When events spin out of control, they are forced to flee from their beloved city and seek refuge in Canada.
Crossing the border by posing as eco-tourists and biking to Montréal is just one of the many challenges this family faces during its harrowing flight to freedom. Can they obtain refugee status? Can they integrate into Québec society? Will their past catch up with them?
Su J. Sokol tackles these issues and more in her debut novel of interstitial fiction told from the points of view of the four family members. The novel was published by Deux Voiliers Publishing in May and launched on June 19th in Montréal at Librarie Drawn & Quarterly Bookstore to standing-room-only crowds that spilled onto the sidewalk. Nearly 100 people attended the event, including members of the Quebec Writers Federation and Robert Silverman, a/k/a “Bicycle Bob,” who, with Claire Morissette (for whom the de Maisonneuve bike path is named), brought cycling activism to Montréal in the 70’s.
The New York launch of the novel, held at the Community Bookstore in Park Slope, Brooklyn on June 24th, was also greeted by standing-room-only crowds and all books were sold out before the evening was over.
Sokol followed a similar though less dramatic path as the characters in her novel. She is an activist, cyclist, and writer of speculative and interstitial fiction. Originally from Brooklyn, she studied law and philosophy before later working for Brooklyn Legal Services. Disenchanted with America’s drift to the right, she immigrated to Canada in 2004 and now lives in Montréal with her family. In her day job, Sokol works for a community organization as a social rights advocate.
Sokol’s short stories have been published in Spark: A Creative Anthology and the The Future Fire. Visit her website at http://www.sujsokol.com. For more information or for a review copy of the book, contact Su J. Sokol at 514-248-5266 or firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also contact the publisher at email@example.com.
CYCLING TO ASYLUM:
SUMMARY: In a near-future New York subject to an increasingly authoritarian and hostile government, Laek, a non-conformist history teacher, finds that he can no longer hide his radical past. After a brutal confrontation with the NYPD, he flees the United States with Janie, an activist lawyer, and their two kids, Siri and Simon. They cross the border by bicycle into Québec by posing as eco-tourists. In a Montréal that the future has also transformed, the family faces new challenges: convincing the authorities to grant them refugee status and integrating into Québec society. Will they find safety in their new home? Told from the points of view of the four family members, Cycling to Asylum is a unique work of interstitial fiction from an exciting new Montreal author.
LONGER DESCRIPTION: Cycling to Asylum is the story of a family that flees a near-future New York City and crosses the border into Québec by bicycle to demand political asylum. As such, the novel is the story of a voyage, both an actual and personal/metaphorical one. This voyage is experienced differently by each protagonist and it is for this reason that it is told in alternating chapters, using the unique voice and perspective of each of the four main characters. These characters include Laek, a history teacher with a mysterious, radical past; Janie, an activist lawyer and musician; Siri, a tomboy with secrets; and Simon, a dreamy child addicted to violent screen games.
An important aspect of this voyage is that it is a bicycle voyage. The pacing of the story reflects this — at times fast, frenetic and dangerous, like a bike messenger zipping through Manhattan during rush hour; at other times slower and more contemplative, making it possible to notice not only the big landmarks along the way but the road’s pitted surface and the unusually beautiful flowers growing just beside it. Traveling by bicycle makes you aware of your vulnerability as you seek out the sudden gaps and paths that open up between the traffic. You can feel the air on your skin, hot or cold, smell car exhausts and bitter asphalt as well as lilacs and baking bread. You’re free; you can get out of tight spots, but you have to rely on your strength as well as your reflexes. Biking is a very immediate, intimate experience and this is the kind of story that this is. It is why the story not only has four different points of view but is told in the present tense.
Cycling to Asylum is a work of interstitial fiction, embodying one of the story’s important themes: reaching across boundaries to find a way for hope to triumph over despair.
SAMPLE FROM CYCLING TO ASYLUM:
I’m counting American flags. Eleven regular-sized, five minis, three hanging sideways, fascist-style. A giant one suspended from a thick metal pole in front of the bank. And the two hanging from either side of the police car just ahead. I stop counting. Quickly switch lanes. Keep pedaling, Laek. Just keep pedaling.
I continue north on Fourth Avenue. There’s no need to check my screen or project a holo map. I know where I am. I know what time it is. My body can feel these things. So I sense that I’m not going exactly north, but more northeast. The convention is to say north, though, because of how the grid runs in this corner of Brooklyn.
My bike is moving fast. Slicing through the heat. Sweat streams down my shirtless back and under my arms. I don’t mind the sweat, the heat, and besides, it’s only 91 degrees. Not too bad for 6:58 a.m. on a late March morning. A heavy truck rattles by. I feel a whoosh of hot air as it whizzes past me, inches from my left elbow. I hold my ground. A car comes up on me from behind. Sounds its horn. Does it think I don’t know it’s there? That I can’t feel its heat on my bare neck? My eyes dart between the traffic on my left and the double- parked cars on my right, alert for opening doors. I’ve only been doored once, the slight asymmetry of my handlebars a constant reminder.
The sour stench of garbage combines with the delicious aroma of fresh muffins. Owners of local diners and bodegas are neutralizing alarms, unlocking gates and resetting their holo-boards. Homeless people still asleep are pushed away. Some with kicks and shouts. Some with phaser rods. A rod is raised. I slow, body taut, ready to intervene. It’s lowered. I move on.
I fill my lungs with the early morning air. Reach my arms above my head. The wheels of my bicycle vibrate on the warm pavement and, like a tuning fork, I respond with a sure, steady hum deep inside me. I stretch my gaze west, towards the piece of sky that’s visible beyond the urban landscape. There’s a greenish-brown stain around the edges, but it’s still beautiful, still fills my heart with the hope I always feel looking at the morning sky. Like the City’s beginning again. Like something good could happen.
At Ninth Street, I turn left towards the Gowanus. Once in Red Hook, cut off by the expressway, the walls of the neighborhood close in around me. I coast to a stop in front of my school. Dismount. We’ve started a new unit in ninth grade history: Citizenship, Patriotism, and the Social Contract. Should I mention the new anti-immigrant laws? Should I mention flags?
I slip on my shirt. Bound up the broad concrete stairs with my bike. Inside, I notice a new security guard. I hesitate. Then give her my best smile. She doesn’t ask for my wrist to scan my Uni. Relieved, I dig my hands deep into my pockets. Disappear into the distortion field of the elliptical security booth. I hold my breath as currents of metallic, tangerine air surround me.
Once I’m through security, I exhale slowly. Walk down the hallway towards the teachers’ lounge. I roll my bike beside me, the sweat drying under my shirt.
In the classroom, I get to work activating new holographic images. A security gate appears across the door. Stern-faced officers blink into existence. I add teeth-baring dogs. They snap at the air, barely restrained by their uniformed handlers. Nearby, I place other holos. Unified National Identity data being imbedded in wrist chips. Oaths being sworn. People marching. At the back corners of the room, adults and children of various races and nationalities, their possessions on their backs, wait patiently. The line of refugees disappears into the horizon. At the last minute, I add American flags of all types and sizes, waving disjointedly.
My ninth graders begin to file in. Some seem excited, their heads whipping around. Others are looking down and clutching their school screens tightly. I begin class, hoping I haven’t overdone it. Even after turning the lesson into a game, with the apples I’ve brought for prizes, a few of my students still sit in their seats, fidgety and tight-lipped.
A few minutes before the end of the period, when I’ve given out apples to most of the kids in my class, I smile at Sasha and ask, “Who’s hungry?”
“I am,” Sasha answers timidly. “But he hasn’t even answered one question!” Marcus complains. “He’s hungry,” Inez says.
“You already had an apple on top of your big-assed breakfast.”
Before Marcus has a chance to retaliate, I put my hand on his shoulder and squeeze.“It’s a good question the two of you raise. What’s more important in deciding who gets an apple—whether you’re hungry or whether you answered the question right?”
Hands dart into the air and I watch the fight resolve into an intellectual debate.
After a few minutes of discussion, I say: “OK, a good start. I want you all to think more about it while you’re doing the homework assignment I’ve beamed to your screens.”
I toss an apple to each student who hasn’t received one yet, starting with Sasha.
“You have enough for everyone?” Marcus asks, surprised.
“Of course I do. I love you guys too much to short you on apples.”
At lunchtime, I head over to the teachers’ lounge.
“There’s coffee,” Erin says, pushing dark bangs from her eyes as she studies her screen.
“Think I’ll pass.” I look around the teachers’ lounge. “You seen Philip?” “I saw him earlier, why?”
“He’s meeting with his ex tonight. Still trying to convince her to take him back.”
“Dana will never take him back.” “Yeah. That’s why I want to talk to him.”
“He’ll only get mad at you, Laek.”
“I don’t want to see him hurt again.”
“You can’t keep him from getting hurt.”
She takes a gulp of coffee. Grimaces. Returns to studying her screen.
“Is that sour look from the coffee or what you’re reading?” I ask.
“They’ve changed the English Comp exams again. Do they want these kids to fail?”
I bend over her chair. “Talk about a moving target. Want to raise it at the union meeting?”
“Maybe. You’re lucky you teach history. At least the past isn’t subject to change.”
“Guess you never heard of revisionism.” “OK, you have a point.”
“Seriously, Erin, you know how to teach English. You don’t have to jump every time the current admin wants to try out the latest regressive educational theory.”
“And you need to be more careful, teaching a subject that’s so politically sensitive. We’re scrutinized enough as it is.”
“I’m teaching the required curriculum,” I tell her.
“I heard that for the citizenship unit, you were talking about civil disobedience.”
“They asked me about it. Wanted me to take them to a demo. The parents of a student apparently saw me at one. I had to explain it was too dangerous.”
“They also said you told them that borders aren’t real.”
“Where are you getting this?” I ask her. “Don’t worry about it. The students think you’re hyper, as they put it.”
“Well, it’s not what I meant, exactly. You know there are kids in my class who are undocumented. I wanted them to know they’re safe in our school. And that having papers and having human rights are two different things.”
“But borders exist,” she insists.
“Ever think about borders when you were a kid? I did—a lot. Maybe because of how much my mom and I had to move around. When we crossed into a new state, I’d stare at the road. Try to find the thick black line I saw on the map.”
Erin smiles but doesn’t say anything.
“Yeah, someone eventually explained that the lines on the map weren’t there in real life. Not between states and not between countries, either. It got me wondering. If borders are imaginary lines, why can’t people just step over them?”
“But you know the answer to that, Laek. You’re an adult now.” She says this like my transformation into adulthood happened just yesterday. As though I wasn’t a man of thirty-two, only one year younger than her.
“It’s not about being grown-up. I still wonder about this. And about what kind of world we’d have if that were allowed.”
“But in the meantime, we need to teach about the world as it really is,” Erin says.
“A bitter duty, sometimes.”
“JE ME SOUVIENS”
My short story “Je me souviens” is about activism, superheroes, friendship, courage, and hope. It was published in the September 2012 edition of The Future Fire.
There are nine police cars. I count them again just to be sure and because counting usually calms me.
Arielle watches to see if I’m freaking out. I smile but she’s not reassured. She reaches up to place her hand on my shoulder, asks if I want to leave. I tell her I’m OK. She’s still concerned so I try a sexy smile this time. If she would kiss me now, I’d have somewhere pleasant to channel my beating heart. She leans towards me and I see that she’s used her superpowers to read my mind again, but then another police car arrives, drawing her attention away….
Read the rest here: http://futurefire.net/2012.24/fiction/jemesouviens.html
Or read or listen to it as a podcast here: Episode 23, Glittership
Reviews and Contests:
- “Je me souviens” was on K. Tempest Bradford’s list of “My Favorite Fiction from September 2012”: http://tempest.fluidartist.com/my-favorite-fiction-from-september-2012/
- It was also on M. Bennardo’s list of favorite stories of 2012: http://www.mbennardo.com/blog/2012/12/my-favorite-stories-of-2012/
- The story finished second in the 2012 Preditors and Editors poll in the category Science Fiction & Fantasy short stories.
- Read a review of “Je me souviens” here: http://pickledthink.blogspot.ca/2013/02/the-365-project-stories-read-as-of.htmlcropped-copy-cropped-ss-jemesouviens2.jpg
“SLIP BACK, MOVE FOWARD”
When traumatic events refuse to loosen their hold on you, sometimes the only way to find forgiveness and redemption is by traveling through time.
“Slip Back, Move Forward” was published January 2014 in Volume IV of Spark: A Creative Anthology.
Two black arrows circled a big white face, anointing each point in turn. The points seemed equidistant, the movement regular and smooth, but this is an illusion. An arrow hesitates as though stuck, then jerks forward, trembling, only to begin its course again.
My sneakered feet slide down the icy slope towards the entrance. I read the time on the old white clock visible behind the plate glass window of the storefront. How can it already be 9:11? I checked the time just a minute ago while crossing Côte-Ste-Catherine and it was only 8:47. A time slip must have happened while I walked the few metres from the corner to the front door of the office. Or maybe when I crossed the street. Yeah, that’s probably it. People are more likely to slip time when crossing over something….
The anthology where this story appears can be ordered it directly from the publisher in e-book or paperback here: http://store.sparkanthology.org/products/volume-iv. You can also order it from Amazon here: http://www.amazon.com/dp/0988807297/
UPCOMING READINGS AND EVENTS: