Spec Fic for the Revolution
This interview originally appeared in Issue the Second's print edition, but we feel so strongly about supporting Otter's work that we wanted to post about it here on the blog as well, so all our followers can enjoy! And please, go buy both of Otter's amazing books now!
For Issue the Second we wanted to start a new tradition of interviewing authors who are busting their butts in the indie world. We’re interviewing Otter Lieffe, author of Margins and Murmurations and Conserve and Control. Both out now and available for purchase via her website!
Otter is a working class, femme, trans woman in and out of Brussels and Berlin. She has been involved in grassroots activism for nearly two decades, in Latin America, the Middle East, Europe and North America. At various times Otter has found herself involved in queer community organising, land reclamation and language teaching in migrant worker communities. She speaks between 3 and 5 languages and rarely sits still long enough to watch the seasons change.
Wyrd & Wyse: So the very first question our readers nearly always want answered is: Do you consider yourself a witch (or witchy)?
Otter Lieffe: Let’s say that in my rare moments of rest I love to be outside, connecting. And when I don’t have time for that, I stare out of the window to watch my friends flitting from tree to tree. My writing is made out of those shared moments.
Brussels is basically a concrete slab with very few green areas which haven’t already been turned into café terraces for the European Institutions or some hideous new construction project. But even here, in one of the most industrialised parts of the planet, nature peeks through. There are peregrines who fly over our roof hunting pigeons. There are polyandrous dunnocks who sing in the last elder trees behind our house. They are probably witches.
I write characters who are involved in connection work because I also write about activism, politics and social change. When those things are separated from our landbase—from the wider community around us—I feel we quickly lose direction. This part of me, the side that yearns to be surrounded by non-humans, is also the force that demands I dedicate my life to protecting them.
W & W: Most writers are ardent readers. What have you been reading lately that you’d recommend?
O.L.: Right now, I’m deep in redrafting so the only thing I’m reading are my own words over and over. Living and breathing my work is a strange kind of tunnel vision and it feels wonderful to get out under the sky sometimes to put it all back into context.
W & W: Ooh, Lagoon is on my TBR! I love Okorafor’s work. Glad to have yet another glowing recommendation for it.
I am so excited to have just gotten my hands on Margins and Murmurations this week! It’s everything I dream of in terms of speculative fiction, so I’m really looking forward to digging into it. What are some of your favorite parts about writing in this genre?
O.L.: Thank you! I never planned to write a book—much less fiction, much less speculative fiction—but sometimes life takes us in unexpected directions. As Margins was growing and getting ready for the world, I went through a few realisations. One of the most important was that speculative fiction has this incredible power. It gives us a certain freedom to play with elements of our world and see what happens. It allows us to imagine changes in power structures, for example, and how we might respond as a community. It allows us to create characters who inspire us to keep fighting. There’s a reason that speculative fiction has this long feminist and queer history and I feel really proud to be a part of that.
W & W: Spec fic really does have an incredible power to change the world, and the way we think about how social change may play out -- and it’s certainly having a “moment” right now in popular culture. What spec fic has inspired you in the past?
O.L: The classics I guess. Ursula le Guin, Octavia Butler. I wish I’d had more access to it as a kid instead of all the mainstream science fiction about men flying spaceships and shooting each other.
W & W: I know you’re finishing your second book. What should Margins and Murmurations fans expect? Is this a sequel?
O.L.: I won’t give too much away but Conserve and Control is a companion to the first novel. Time-travel makes things like ‘sequel’ a little complicated, but fans will definitely find some continuity. It also stands on its own as a novel entwining such complex subjects as queerness and class, the Conservation Industry and financial domination. Let’s say it’s pretty unique.
As with Margins, it has been wonderfully fulfilling for me to give visibility to some of the life experiences that rarely make it out into the world. There are working-class trans women, a central non-binary character, ecologists, healers and sex workers. I love them all dearly.
W & W: One of the reasons I was so drawn to your work and your writing is that you are doing the thing that I think so many of us want: giving voice and visibility to characters that are often left out of popular sci-fi and fantasy genres -- though I think we’re seeing better and better representation, as readers demand better and indie publishing gains traction. Speaking of, you are pretty successfully navigating the indie publishing world. What advice would you give budding writers who are thinking about alternative publishing formats?
O.L.: Be prepared to work incredibly hard. I’ve been working seven-day weeks for two years and almost never take a day off.
But I also think it depends who you are and what you write about. My gender and class mean that what I write has a unique voice but it also creates challenges to getting a book distributed. And I still barely make rent.
As a friend once said, ‘If you want to be successful you should probably stop writing about traumatised elderly trans women and radical sex workers.’ Truer words were never spoken. But I think that ‘writing from the margins’ has made the journey so much more worthwhile and has led to all these new projects and connections that I couldn’t have imagined a year ago. In a way, precarity is at the heart of this project and self-publishing has been a big part of that. That said, I wouldn’t say no to a publishing contract and a holiday.
W & W: No kidding! It’s so much work, but it looks like people are responding really well -- and I know you’ve been traveling a lot, promoting the book. How has being on tour been for you?
O.L.: Life changing. I’ve already been on tour twice since last June and I have another three-continent tour coming up for the second book. I was terrified at first of public speaking or reading but somehow I really enjoy being in the limelight. My first stop was on a theatre stage in Marseilles reading to 150 sex workers so I really went in the deep end! After that, nothing has ever been so intimidating.
I love holding space for people to listen, think and chat about these big subjects. It’s a huge honour and I can’t wait to be doing it again.
W & W: You write prolifically on a number of subjects and genres on your blog, but I have to say the one I am most enamored with is your series on Queer Ecology. What inspired you to write about animals this way?
O.L.: I actually studied ecology many lives ago. I suffered a lot from the conservative teaching and the unspoken assumptions of the scientific method but I did learn how to process research data.
Biology is profoundly focused on cis-hetero relationships. As a queer human spending lots of time connecting with other species, I felt pretty sure that the world was a bit more interesting than that.
There’s this nature documentary narrative that shows straight male animals controlling straight female animals. If they don’t get eaten, they get to fuck and make little baby animals. And that’s the meaning of life. Very little of that resonated with my experience on this planet or the rich diversity I see around me. I got to researching and was very relieved to see it was all a lie.
W & W: I love that you went ahead and pushed through that narrative, because Queer Ecology is educational, fun and so utterly charming. Thanks so much for talking with me today. Before you go… In a war between zombies and unicorns, who wins?
O.L.: The elderly time-travelling trans women of course.
W&W: Of course. That makes perfect sense.