Marie Vibbert is the multi-talented author of Galactic Hellcats (Vernacular Books), sixty short stories, more than thirty poems, six games, and four comics. She has been published by Analog, Fantasy & Science Fiction, Escape Pod, Apex Magazine, Daily Science Fiction, Flash Fiction Online, Little Blue Marble, Asimov’s, and many more. Discover her robust body of work at marievibbert.com.
S. Elizabeth Sigler has been published by Hobart, Re-Side Magazine, Fembot Magazine, and a few others.
I spend nearly all of my spare time reading, writing, or in writing classes. Marie taught a (virtual) class on Speculative Fiction through Literary Cleveland in the fall of 2020. You’ll see that I referenced my class notes when I thought of my questions for Marie. I was inspired by the things that she said in class and further inspired by the things she said in our interview.
ES: In the second week of your Speculative Fiction class, you talked about a study in which some participants were expected to churn out a number of vases and were graded on each one (quantity), while some other participants were graded on their best vase (quality). You referenced this study again in week four when you said that “the more individual things you write, the less precious each one is going to feel to you. You can always create another vase.”
Let’s talk more about the vase study, how you learned of it, and how it inspires your writing practices.
MV: That study comes from a book called Art & Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking by David Bayles and Ted Orland. (I looked it up because there is the problem, where you say, “I read a study once.” You absorb the anecdote, but your brain doesn’t have footnotes.) This one stuck with me; it was brought up by one of my Clarion instructors.
I use it because it rings true to my own journey as a writer. The moment that I went from the perpetual wannabe who was not going anywhere to what I can now see as the beginning of the path to publication is when I stopped being so precious about what I was writing and started churning out short story drafts. As I started churning them out, I started being able to layer in more characterization or change my voice.
It’s the same as learning to lift heavy objects. You can’t just pick up a one hundred pound barbell. You have to start with a five-pound. When I first started doing weight training for the football team, I was humiliated because the bar weight is forty-five pounds, and I had to lift the bar, just the empty bar. By the end of my first year, that bar had two twenty-pound weights on it. Then it had four. You don’t get there without putting in the work, without putting in the reps. I think that we make art harder than it is. We try to make it like it’s magic, like there has to be some secret, some trick. Once you put in the work, you will learn things by doing them.
ES: Kind of like the chart you showed us in class where you track how much you write every day- you map out your word count.
MV: Right, one of the things I had to learn, I learned this from a self-help book called Mastery by George Leonard- it was written by this man who became an aikido master at age seventy. He talked about how to set goals you can deliver on. Your goal cannot be something you haven’t done yet. Then you build on it, and you build small micro-goals.
But what he talked about more was not giving up on the plateau. All skills plateau. Learning isn’t a straight upward line, no matter how much you want it to be. You are learning even while you feel you are treading water. The important thing about my chart, if you look at it, is that there are plenty of days with zero words. It’s about consistency.
ES: Five thousand word days feel incredible. People get addicted to that feeling, and they want to do it all the time.
MV: It’s a great feeling. But you can’t force it. The way to go from being a hobbyist to a professional is to be able to produce on days when you’re not feeling great. I want to say it was Cory Doctorow at Clarion who said (I’m paraphrasing), “I had days where words poured out of me, and I thought they were brilliant, and I had days where I was pulling each one like a busted tooth from the back of my mouth, and when I look back on the output from those two days there’s no difference in quality. It is just a difference in how I felt; it was my mood.” It’s okay to have days when you feel like you’re writing trash because you’re writing.
ES: You talk a lot about Clarion. What was that like?
MV: Clarion was amazing. Here’s another quote. Kim Stanley Robinson said: “look around the room. Only the eighteen of you know what this experience was like. Other people, last year’s Clarion class, next year’s Clarion class -- they know by analogy.”
Eighteen students live on the campus of the University of California San Diego. For each of the six weeks, you have a different professional science fiction writer as your guest instructor. You write a story a week, and you read seventeen stories a week because you have to read everyone else’s story. Then we critique them- we all get together in a room, and we go in a circle. Each person gets three minutes to say anything they have to say about the story, and we hand each other our marked-up copies at the end.
The experience was amazing, not because of any techniques that the instructors gave, though they gave great techniques. It’s the emotional experience of focusing on your writing so much for so long. Tearing apart the idea of story until you get down to its bones. Learning that you have to come face to face with the ugly truth of your ego and your emotional baggage while you’ve got to write six stories in six weeks and critique the stories of seventeen brilliant peers. You learn a lot about yourself.
ES: Sounds like a fantastic opportunity!
MV: I still hang out with my Clarionauts. Every day I do a workout at Noon with two of my Clarion classmates- Patrick lives in Pittsburgh, and Gabby lives in Saint Paul, Minnesota.
ES: Speaking of location… one of your stories takes place in Tremont. One takes place at Case Western. An interactive game of yours takes place in East Cleveland. Another interactive game of yours features Cleveland history. I love that one! How long have you lived in Cleveland? How does your city influence your writing- is it intentional or something that just happens as you write?
MV: Thank you, I had a lot of fun with that game. My husband’s art makes it live; his art is so beautiful. We’re working on another game together. It was supposed to come out last year. It may come out next year. If you saw his art, you would cry.
Cleveland is very important to me. I was born in East Cleveland. I’ve lived in the Cleveland area my entire life, went to Case Western. In a lot of my stories, I sneak the Cleveland in there, or I sneak in a reference. The time traveler in “The Time Mechanic”  is from Cleveland. Why not?
At some point in the future, Cleveland is going to be the place that everyone says they’re from, even though they’re not. In my novel Galactic Hellcats, the parts on Earth are in Cleveland. I don’t think I name the city, but everyone who reads it who’s from Cleveland is like, “that’s Cleveland.”
ES: I have a love/hate relationship with my day job. Sometimes I feel like it gets in the way of my writing. It was refreshing to hear you describe your day job as something that inspires your writing. You said that coding stimulates a similar part of your brain, right?
MV: It’s all about problem-solving. When I’m coding or troubleshooting a software problem, it still takes creativity; it takes imagining the different ways things could happen, figuring out the parts I can’t see because this bit is hosted on a vendor’s site, and I can’t access that chunk of code. Imagining where the problem might be keeps you flexible; it keeps your brain working.
If my day job were writing, it would probably burn me out. I know a lot of writers who go to college, get an MFA, start working in tech writing, or business writing or manual writing, and then their fiction writing dies because they don’t want to do what they did all day. The human mind, the human body needs variety in inputs. To go from the unemotional problem-y world of computer programming and then take the problem solving, but in emotional ways, to writing, it helps me stay fresh. It helps me get on my second shift.
A big part of being able to hold down two jobs is having a partner who’s willing to put in a lot of extra time taking care of the house. Props to Brian. He’s a good guy. He does a lot of the laundry and the cleaning and the cooking.
ES: Seven of your stories were published by Analog, six of them were published by Daily Science Fiction. When you have that many publications at one outlet, do you get to be on a first-name basis with the Editors? What’s it like to work with someone more than once?
MV: I’m going to let you in on a secret- I’ve sold ten to Analog, three are still to come out, and I’ve sold eight stories to Daily Science Fiction.
I have a feel for Trevor Quachri at Analog. He likes humor, he likes it to be funny. He’s okay with aliens that speak English. A lot of things that the neckbeards at the science fiction conventions tell you that “you can’t do, actually” he’s fine with. People have this idea that Analog is super stuffy, but no, he wants the stories to be fun more than some other editors and Analog in general because of their emphasis on science and appealing to a nerd audience. Not a geek audience, but a nerd audience. Your hero has to be good at something.
ES: What is the difference between a nerd and a geek audience?
MV: Geeks are quirky, and they want to be different from the mainstream. Nerds are all about the mind because their most powerful tool is their mind. They have a high IQ, not such great social skills. Just like how the geek has had to deal with people pushing down the geek for nonconforming, the nerd has had to deal with people pushing down the nerd for not excelling in nonmental ways like social ways or physical ways. It’s hard for me to balance my nerdy geekiness with having been an athlete- I see the pain on both sides.
One of the cool things about joining the football team was meeting all of these women who grew up as jocks. I didn’t have friends who were jocks, and I see a similar kind of trauma in the jock girl that I see in the geek girl- of people telling you not to be into what you’re into.
ES: What else did football teach you?
MV: Football taught me a lot. It taught me that I didn’t know my physical capabilities. You can move further along on any path or journey than you realize. When I started, I could do ten push-ups a day, but by the end of the year, I was doing one hundred push-ups in one set. There’s a power and a joy in being able to conquer your own body.
It taught me a little bit about awareness. In football, especially when you play defense, you have to be constantly- aware --not just of where the ball is but of where the other players are and how things are developing in space. It helped me with describing action, being aware of what’s important in a scene.
ES: The submission process is a lot of work and waiting. How did Galactic Hellcats end up at Vernacular Books?
MV: Magic. Pure magic. I sent thirty-six queries to agents. I received three or four partial requests and two full requests. I submitted the novel itself to Bane when they had an open series, to Apex when they had an open call, to Angry Robot when they had an open call, and I got nothing. Just rejection rejection rejection. I met agents at events, I had friends give my name to their agent, and their agent rejected me.
One day I just happened to tweet, “I know I should be working on so many other projects, but I keep going back and revising the space biker girl gang novel.” J.M. McDermott, the Editor in chief at Vernacular Books, immediately responded with, “could you send me that?” Within two weeks he was like, “can I buy this book please?”
That was February of twenty-twenty, fast for the publishing industry. They didn’t edit me much, just a couple of sentences that were awkward. There were no major edits to the manuscript. I revised it eighty times; I wrote it a long time ago.
ES: In High School?
MV: Junior High School. I was in eighth grade when I wrote the first draft. Don’t get me wrong; this has nothing to do with that draft. In the first draft, their names were Liz, Cleopatra, and Margi. Ki went by klepto because she was a kleptomaniac. That’s the kind of subtlety you have when you’re fifteen.
ES: Has anything about the process been a surprise in the past year?
MV: To see that selling a novel lends legitimacy that selling short stories doesn’t. Remember, I’ve sold sixty short stories in print, and I still get people who say, “oh, I thought you said you’re a writer? What’s your book?” There’s a double standard there. Short stories take work too.
ES: Would you ever put your short stories in a collection?
MV: I have always wanted to do a collection, it would be called Rustbelt and Robots, and it would be all of my most grungy, Cleveland-y centric stories.
ES: The three main characters in Galactic Hellcats are different but equally badass. Can you tell me more about the real-life inspirations behind them?
MV: They all have specific inspirations. The most direct is Margot; Margot was in the drawing that Gracie  did back in nineteen-eighty-six. One of the girls looked just like our friend Margi Peterson, so Margot started out being based on Margi Peterson. In this version, she’s very much her own person. I based her on some girls on the football team who were military veterans. A lot of her mannerisms were based on them.
Ki was the main character in the first draft, but I tried to make it more balanced. Ki is me if I had no self-control and all of my filters turned off. That makes her a source of mischief and drama and terribleness. There are parts of my little sister Lizzie in Zuleikah, just in the mannerisms.
Lizzie is taciturn and quiet, so Zuleikah is taciturn and quiet. I imagine there’s a lot of thinking on the backend, but there’s not a lot coming out of her mouth.
ES: That’s a fun combination!
MV: Yeah, I ended up changing their names for various reasons. I liked the idea of a thief being named Ki, but then Ki and Margi both ended in i, so I changed Margi to Margot, and I decided that everybody on planet Ratana would have a name that somehow meant royal or royalty or nobility. Zuleikah is from an African language.
ES: Let’s say that someone reading this interview wants to preorder Galactic Hellcats. Which local bookstore would you point them to?
MV: I would one thousand percent point them towards Mac’s Backs on Coventry Road. Mac’s Backs has been there a long time, and Suzanne has been very supportive of local authors. I can’t wait until I can sit in the beanbag chair in the science fiction balcony again.
1. In “The Time Mechanic,” which was originally published by Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show in September of 2014
2. Gracie is Vibbert’s twin