Issue 032 author interview: Emma Grygotis on “While It’s Still Beating”

We are continually psyched to announce the recent release of Issue 032! Last week you all met our cover artist and this week we have another treat: an interview with our featured story author, Emma Grygotis. Emma talked with us about her masterful piece “While It’s Still Beating“. Read on to see what she has to say.

LSQ: How did the idea for your story, “While It’s Still Beating,” come about? The insurance company — made an almost physical presence through the info packet — feels malevolent. Was there any influence from current politics and the battle over healthcare in U.S.? 

Emma: Absolutely. My day job is working as a research scientist, developing a technology that I hope will one day be used to design better materials to replace failing tissues and organs. While the possibility that these tools will one day be able to help real, living people is incredibly inspiring, the battles that we are fighting daily in the U.S. just to guarantee a basic level of healthcare access to all people make that dream seem downright impossible. Even when we look at healthcare technologies that have been around for years and are relatively inexpensive (for example, contraception), we as a society can’t seem to come to an agreement about who should have access to them, when, and for what cost. The core idea for the story came when I asked myself, “Under what conditions might engineered replacement organs actually be accessible to the average person?” and the only answer I could come up with was that it would have to be cheaper to replace a heart than allow a person to continue living with a failing one.

LSQ: Was there any part of this story that was challenging for you to write? 

Emma: It took me a long time to strike the right balance between providing enough information and context for the reader to figure out what was going on without detracting from the core story – two women just struggling to carve out a life for themselves in a world that is rigged against them.

LSQ: There’s a rich and haunting dichotomy in your story–the “miracle of medicine” whereby a blind woman can see again and a failing heart can be replaced… but not only do these things come at a cost, there’s also something unspoken in the trade-off — perhaps a loss of humanity, piece by piece? Could you speak to this? 

Emma: Don’t get me wrong – modern medicine gives us immense power over our own lives and destinies. That in itself seems to me like a good thing. Many of the technologies mentioned in the story already exist or are being developed (albeit in simpler, preliminary forms), and that’s incredibly exciting. But there is a trade-off, a line that could be crossed, and it’s just not something with a clear-cut boundary. It’s a question that every person will need to answer for themselves, over and over again, as each of us tries to not only survive, but to live a meaningful life in this rapidly changing world. So, the real danger, as I see it, is not the technology itself, but when we stop letting people making those decisions for themselves and instead hand it off to some third party, whether it’s a doctor, an insurance company, or society as a whole.

LSQ: What authors inspire you and why?

Emma: I love writing that tackles pressing, real-world issues while still providing the pure joy of reading an engaging, human story. The authors who achieve this time and time again for me are N. K. Jemisin and Margaret Atwood. I also really admire writers who can weave together complex scientific or technical ideas with personal, emotional narratives. Two books I’ve recently loved that do this are Hope Jahren’s memoir, Lab Girl, and Chemistry, a novel about a struggling graduate student by Weike Wang.

LSQ: What is it about speculative fiction that draws you in as a writer? 

Emma: Fiction in general, and especially speculative fiction, is such a wonderful and important playground. It can entertain, but it can also enlighten by communicating complex ideas and helping us see things from different perspectives. The stories I enjoy most do both, and I strive to achieve the same with my writing.

LSQ: What do you think are the biggest challenges for female-identifying authors in the genres of spec fic/sci-fi/fantasy right now?

Emma: I actually feel incredibly fortunate to be writing as woman right now, and I’m lucky to be early enough in my writing career that I haven’t had to confront gender bias in publishing head-on yet. I have experienced it in my scientific career though, and I’m acutely aware of the fact that publishing, speculative fiction in particular, has historically been a male-dominated space. That history, and the pressure I think many women put on themselves to succeed in spite of it, is a powerful motivating force, but it can also become toxic.

The positive side to all this is that there is still so much wide-open territory when comes to exploring what it means to write with and about a female identity in the speculative fiction genres. It’s wonderful that magazines like Luna Station Quarterly exist as a dedicated space to do exactly that!

LSQ: If there is one thing that you’d like for your readers to get out of this story, what is it? 

Emma: A lot of my own feelings of hopelessness about the state of the world went into writing “While It’s Still Beating,” but I hope that readers will also pick up on a glimmer of courage and resilience. I admire Alice and Lenore. They’re faced in this story with an impossible situation, but they’re still living, and therefore still fighting in spite of everything the world has thrown against them. That alone is heroic.