Issue 041 Author Interview: Sarah Pauling and “Cloth Mother”

Saddle on up, pardners, and meet Issue 041 author Sarah Pauling as she discusses her story “Cloth Mother.”

LSQ: This story first appeared in Strange Horizons in 2015. Given it’s been five years, have some of your thoughts on the themes of this piece changed over half a decade? Why or why not?
Sarah: Half a decade! Wow.
This was my first serious attempt at writing original fiction. My interest in these themes (child psychology, AI, sacrificial relationships, hope for a barren Earth) has only intensified since then. There are elements of the story I’d approach differently now, but I also think the words would come more slowly: one of my current goals is to reconnect with the shameless, fearless writing process I had pre-publication. These days I have to beat back the internal editor with a broom.
LSQ: Child psychological development features heavily in this piece. Do you have a background in this or related sciences? What drew you to explore this concept in the isolation of an orbiting satellite? 
Sarah: I have a Master’s degree in educational sociology. In 2015, I did not. Therefore, this story functions more as a premonition than a thesis. Even then, I was interested in the ways love and social support shape our communities and our brains. I had read up on all of the groundbreaking, unethical experiments from when psychology was a younger field. Harlow and his monkeys fascinated and frightened me. Experiments like that required isolation of the subject, so outer space seemed like a natural fit.
Also: I’d watched a lot of Star Trek that year and couldn’t stop thinking about AI characters (this has not changed).
LSQ: As a reader, I felt relief when Mazie finally makes contact with Ian, leading me to realize I was at some level unaware of the tension building in the story. What was it like to build the character of Mazie as she works through her formative years? Was this challenging or did it come naturally? 
Sarah: Mazie’s character crystallized pretty quickly for me. I wanted her to be headstrong and precocious, but it didn’t take long to realize that this intelligence and capacity for self-reflection was going to make parts of her isolation even harder for her to bear. She’s not just lonely–she’s deeply afraid of what that loneliness is doing to her, and what that means for her ability to carry out the mission she was born for. That was an interesting complex to explore through the eyes of a child.
LSQ: Are you working on any other writing projects at the moment? If so, can you tell us about them?  
Sarah: I’m writing a surreal post-apocalyptic Michigan regional fantasy involving sentient pumpjacks. I’m also revising a retrofuturist story about a comedienne who accidentally disrupts a galactic antifascist rendezvous. (She mistakes it for a drug deal and heckles it from onstage. She is very sorry.)