Talking with Ti
with Ti Mikkel
Q&A with Mary Anne Mohanraj
TI: Hello Mary Anne! Thanks for taking the time to talk today. I want to jump right into WILD CARDS—specifically threesomes. *clutches pearls* You’ve said before that you knew immediately that your first story would center on the aforementioned. There must be a story here. For those of you who don’t know, Mary Anne functioned as the editor-in-chief for Clean Sheets, an online magazine of erotica, from 1998 to 2000.
MARY ANNE: Oh, I’ve been poly (non-monogamous) for almost as long as I’ve been dating, and at one point, was seriously involved in a threesome for three years. Unfortunately, Karina lived in Australia while Kevin and I were in the States, and the distance ended up being too much for us to manage. Kevin and I are married now, but not monogamously – we got married when I was diagnosed with breast cancer (I’m fine now), to make sure we didn’t run into any legal issues during treatment. I have another long-term partner, Jed Hartman. I see very little of my kinds of relationships represented in fiction, so I’m always looking for ways to include them.
TI: Can you tell us what you see as the differences between romance and erotica as genres, and why (I’m assuming) you prefer the latter?
MARY ANNE: I don’t prefer erotica for reading, necessarily – and I’ve actually written a romance, Perennial, which is a little story about a woman recently diagnosed with cancer who meets a handsome Scottish-Indian gent who runs a flower shop. I wrote and edited erotica all through my 20s more as a political move – it was a time (the 90s) when it was still very taboo to talk much about sex in public, and bookstores often didn’t carry erotica at all, beyond perhaps a volume by Anais Nin, or The Story of O.
I thought that lack of conversation and openness led to a lot of damage – date-rapes and miscommunications and just all kinds of ways for us to hurt each other; I wanted to help open up those conversations. I think Clean Sheets and my early erotica books, Torn Shapes of Desire, Aqua Erotica (a waterproof erotica anthology), Kathryn in the City (choose-your-own-erotic-adventure) helped a little; I hope so.
TI: You were born in Sri Lanka and moved to United States when you were two years old,so around 1973. What prompted your parents to leave?
MARY ANNE: They came for economic opportunity – my dad was a doctor, and back then, immigrants thought the streets of America were paved with gold. They planned to come here, work for a while, and then go back home, but as with many immigrants, it turned out to be harder to leave than they expected, especially once they and their daughters were enmeshed in the school system and community.
TI: For any who don’t know, Sri Lanka is home to a majority Sinhalese ethnic population,a minority Tamil population, and a few other groups. Tensions between them broke into open conflict in 1983, resulting in the riots of Black July. I’ll admit that I’d never even heard about them until reading Natya’s story in FORT FREAK. This is personal for you, though. Your family had planned on sending you back to Sri Lanka that summer to live with your grandparents, and it was called off at the last minute due to the violence. Did your family get out in time? Were they swept up in the violence?
MARY ANNE: My grandmother’s house was fire-bombed, but luckily, she had already taken refuge in a nearby convent, so wasn’t injured. None of my family were killed during the Black July riots, but many of them fled Sri Lanka as refugees, ending up mostly in Canada, which had more generous immigration and refugee policies at the time. Over time, we were able to help most of them move to join my parents in the U.S.
TI: That’s pretty incredible. You’re of Tamil ethnicity. The Tamil Tigers, the revolutionary group that fought for a separate Tamil homeland, were defeated in 2009. Since then, Sri Lanka has sought a fragile peace. Can you update us on the situation currently?
MARY ANNE: The country has been basically at peace, aside from the Easter Sunday bombings a few years ago. Conflicts continue to simmer quietly, and it will take a long time to truly grapple with the legacy of the conflict, but most people hope for peace to continue.
TI: As an adult, have you travelled back to Colombo?
MARY ANNE: Yes, I try to go back every few years, although it was harder during the conflict years.
TI: Have your children been able to visit?
MARY ANNE: The last time was in 2019, when I took my daughter there for the first time. We were supposed to go this past summer and take my son as well, but the pandemic intervened. For the trip with my daughter, I did my best to give her the Sri Lankan princess experience – feeding the baby elephants, elephant rides, afternoon tea at the Galle Face Hotel, incredibly delicious fresh fruit from roadside stands, climbing the ancient palace of Sigiriya. When I go on my own, I’m happy just living like the locals – dipping in the ocean every day if possible.
TI: Speaking of your children…any aspiring writers in the mix?
MARY ANNE: Both Kavi and Anand flirt with writing on occasion, and they like storytelling, but right now, they think Mommy’s job seems sort of hard.
TI: Spoiler alert: They’re right. Writing is hard. Very, very hard.
MARY ANNE: Anand is currently dreaming of being a game designer, and Kavi is more of an artist. But we’ll see!
TI: Your husband is a mathematician. Tell me about him and how you met.
TI: We met on campus – Kevin was a grad student at the University of Chicago; I was an undergrad.
MARY ANNE: Do you show him what you’re writing? Does he have permission to give notes?
TI: He’s a big genre reader, but doesn’t write himself. I don’t usually show him drafts, but I often talk through plot problems with him; he’s good at structural thinking. My other long-term partner, Jed, is a writer and editor himself, and was senior fiction editor at Strange Horizons (which I founded) for many years. He generally reads my drafts and offers great feedback; we sometimes co-teach together too.
TI: In your blog about the origins of Natya, you mention that you were raised in a traditional household. Did your parents encourage your creative pursuits? What did they do for a living?
MARY ANNE: My dad was a doctor; my mom was a housewife and mother of three; she married at 18, had me at 19, and left Sri Lanka at age 21; she never got a chance to complete her education, unfortunately. They expected that I’d become a doctor, but I always loved books and my English classes, and I struggled with science in college. They eventually accepted that you didn’t really want someone who got C’s in science to be your doctor, though I don’t think they really relaxed until I went to grad school and became an English professor, which has a more steady income stream than writing typically does.
TI: Let’s talk characters for a minute. Your first major joker character—Aarti—arrived on the pages of JOKER MOON. How did this character develop for you? Was she fully formed when you pitched to George?
MARY ANNE: This one, I think George actually came to me, and asked if I’d be interested in writing a Moon Maid. We threw some ideas back and forth; originally, I think he was envisioning a sexy nymph floating across the moon, and I questioned whether a woman who could look however she liked would actually bother making herself particularly sexy when she was all alone. He also pushed me to make her a little more violent – I think he was envisioning sort of a femme fatale, which isn’t really my kind of character. I don’t do wicked so much. But I’m very interested in how people end up committing violence, and in Aarti’s case, it was fascinating constructing a series of events that would leave her in a vulnerable (and violent) state of mind.
TI: You’ve taught at Clarion and are a Clinical Associate Professor of English at the University of Illinois at Chicago, so I’m eager to talk about the craft itself. Let’s start with aspiring writers. Any tips for them?
MARY ANNE: Actually, I’d love to direct you the podcast I do with Benjamin Rosenbaum, where we talk about writing craft (and speculative fiction) all the time – Mohanraj and Rosenbaum are Humans.
TI: Wonderful. Quickly, can you tell me what common mistakes new writers tend to make?
MARY ANNE: As for common mistakes – I think the most common mistake is probably not reading enough. If you don’t read, you generally end up drafting the same sorts of beginner stories everyone else is writing – and that’s not going to help you stand out in a submission pile. I’d also recommend you try to tell your own stories, about issues you care about; trying to follow the market and write copycat commercial fiction is rarely successful.
TI: Stephen King tries to hit six pages of writing a day. What’s your process?
MARY ANNE: I wish I were that disciplined – if I were, I’d have more books out! My process is to try to make deadlines for myself – self-imposed or writing workshop or contract, so that I’m forced to confront my writing avoidance behavior due to the rapidly approaching deadline. There are stretches when I’ve actually been super-disciplined about getting up at 5 a.m. and having coffee and starting the day with writing, but those rarely last more than a few months at best before life intervenes and it all breaks down. Then, after some months of frustration and Kevin telling me that I’m getting super-crabby because I haven’t written in a while, I try again, and so the cycle continues. There’s probably a better way.
TI: That’s hilarious. Writing is so difficult that we do everything we can to avoid it, yet we feel guilty for not putting words on the page. Alas. Did you always want to be a writer?
MARY ANNE: No – I hoped to be an English professor. I loved books, and couldn’t think of a better life than talking about them all the time. I kind of thought of writers as demi-gods, and wouldn’t have aspired to be one of them myself! But then in the early days of the internet, I got online and saw people posting stories they’d just written, and the spelling and grammar were often kind of a disaster, and I thought – hey, I can do better than that! And so I wrote a little erotica story, “American Airlines Cockpit,” which is exactly what it sounds like, and I put it online in the newsgroups (this was before the web existed), and I got a lot of praise (mostly because I could spell). I wrote something like twenty more stories in the next year, and ended up publishing most of them. I was hooked.
TI: Have you ever faced writer’s block? If so, please share your secrets in overcoming it.
MARY ANNE: I feel like people use the term ‘writer’s block’ for a whole host of different things. There’s ‘not having any ideas,’ which is more something that newer writers struggle with – at this point in my career, I have far more ideas than I’ll ever have time to do justice to. For a writer struggling with that, you need to ‘fill the well,’ generally – read fiction, go to museums, attend poetry readings, play music, walk in the woods or on the beach, research, page through the news…the world is full of ideas.
There’s ‘getting stuck on a story,’ which for me, usually means that there’s a plot or structure problem I’m having trouble working out. My best fix is to talk it out with someone, maybe several someones – even if they don’t have an answer for me, sometimes the process of verbalizing it helps me figure things out that I can’t get to in the silence of my head.
Mostly, though, writer’s block for me is about fear. It’s not that I can’t write – it’s that I don’t want to write, I’m afraid to write, afraid the idea in my head will be mangled by the time I get it down on the page. There’s no real solution for that other than to do the work, I’m afraid. At some point, I usually get so irritated by my own fear that I push myself to open the file, start reading the last paragraph I wrote, and generally, that’s enough to let me keep going.
TI: You’ve written as an individual and for two shared-world series. Which do you prefer?
MARY ANNE: It’s much easier writing in your own world, where you can control everything! It’s what I’d probably prefer to do most of the time. But it’s also a lot of fun, bouncing ideas of other writers, seeing what you can come up with together – sometimes it really is more than the sum of its parts, and when you write something better than you would have on your own, it’s very satisfying. I’d love to try working in a writer’s room for a TV series someday – it would be really fun, I think, having daily interaction on a project. If Star Trek ever wants to call me, I’m waiting by the phone….
TI: I have literally uttered that exact sentence. Do you have a favorite Trek series? I’m a Niner…a Niner who just last month purchased a life-size, cardboard cutout of Benjamin Sisko.
MARY ANNE: I hate to admit it, given his many flaws, but Jim Kirk is my captain. Or, rather, the captain I imagined being as a small kid watching classic Trek re-runs on our first black-and-white TV. I even have a video in the basement somewhere of me at Universal Studios, in front of a green screen, playing at being Captain Kirk. It’s very embarrassing.
From a writerly point of view, Deep Space 9 really shifted the series away from episodic limitations to longer-form storytelling, which I love – it gives so much more room for both character development and complex political arcs. I’ve been really interested in seeing what they’ve done with Discovery and Picard, and given that I’m currently binge-watching two British murder mystery series, I’d love to see what American TV could do if they made more space for 90-minute episodes, 8-episode-long season arcs, etc.
TI: Let’s pivot from watching to reading. Any books have your attention right now?
MARY ANNE: I just finished Becky Chambers’s A Psalm for the Wild Built, and am currently reading two books – Elizabeth Searle’s The Four-Sided Bed, and Michael Ruhlman’s The Making of a Chef, which centers on his experience at the Culinary Institute of America. When I’m not writing fiction, I’m often cooking, developing recipes, and writing food essays.
TI: Favorite thing to cook? Favorite spice to cook with?
MARY ANNE: Sri Lankan beef and potato curry was my favorite dish growing up, the one my mother always makes for me when I come home, and the first Sri Lankan dish I learned to cook, when I called home desperate from the dorms, begging her to teach me how to make it over the phone. It’s also the first Sri Lankan dish my husband, Kevin, learned to cook — I came home once from a long plane flight, walked into the house, smelled the scent of this curry, that I hadn’t even known he had learned how to make, and promptly burst into tears. Here’s the recipe!
As for spices, I make my own homemade slow-roasted curry powder, with coriander, cumin, fennel, fenugreek, cardamom, cloves, cinnamon, and curry leaves – you can find a recipe for that on the site above as well.
TI: Amazing. How about TV. Watching anything interesting?
MARY ANNE: For TV, I’m in the midst of Shetland, a slow-paced British murder mystery series, which does a terrific job with characterization and is just beautiful generally. I’m also watching Beechgrove, a Scottish gardening series – I need to watch with the subtitles on, because sometimes, I can’t quite parse the accents. But it’s lovely!
TI: George R. R. Martin has been a part of the genre fantasy community for years. Do you consider yourself a convention-goer?
MARY ANNE: Oh, of long-standing. My first con was a Star Trek mini-con that I went to when I was 10; I’m normally at a different convention every month these days, with WisCon, FogCon, and ICFA as my annual standbys. I try to make it to World Fantasy and WorldCon as well, whenever possible.
TI: I try to go to the Trek con in Vegas every August when I can. We should join forces!
MARY ANNE: I haven’t been to a specifically Trek con in forever – that sounds like a lot of fun. Let’s do it!
TI: Any interesting projects in the pipeline?
MARY ANNE: I’m mostly finishing up my first full-length stand-alone science fiction book, Jump Space. I’m not sure I can really call it a novel, since it’s a series of interlinked stories, but it should be sort of novel-like in feel? It’s coming out from Constellation Press and Riverdale Avenue Press probably in 2022, but the first story in the book is available here, if you want a taste: https://maryannemohanraj.com/science-fiction-fantasy/
I’m also finishing my second cookbook, Vegan Serendib, which is a follow-up to A Feast of Serendib; both are Sri Lankan American cookbooks, and you can learn more about them at my cooking blog, Serendib Kitchen: http://www.serendibkitchen.com.
TI: Thanks so much Mary Anne! May you live long and prosper.