Usman told us he'd had the idea for "Vaporization" en route to Clarion West. He was thinking about "something science-y" and a new state of matter. He wrote the story while Elizabeth Hand and John Clute were his instructors. It's about what happens to people, nations, and countries under pressure, and how chaos erupts. With horror, he says, you take characters to the point of no return and then squeeze.
He says he doesn't do a lot of secondary worldbuilding. He grew up reading horror fiction, and says that horror usually takes place in a contemporary setting, while dark fantasy usually takes place in a past setting. He feels that real life is the most scary. People often think of worldbuilding as secondary world only, but that is not the case. He mentioned how at one point, someone took Hemingway's work and reconstructed a map of the areas he was describing; it correlated perfectly with reality.
The more research you can do on your setting the better. He describes the setting of "Eucalyptus Jinn" as very critical to the story. He used his memory of the places described, but also requested a delay in the publication of the story until after he took a trip to Pakistan. One thing he said he'd forgotten was the tremendous amount of dust in the streets, which he made sure to include in the story afterward. He urges people to visit if they can.
When writing a story set in the Indus valley, at Mohenjo Daro, he wanted to go there but was told it was not safe to go. He had to rely on books, and was bothered by having to use inauthentic detail.
He expressed admiration for Ken Liu's The Grace of Kings, saying that Ken has done things no one has done before, taking techniques from the epics in Asia, and creating authenticity and reality. Usman said he'd wondered whether Liu memorized "The Art of War."
I asked about his interest in life practices as a subject for fiction. He explained that he has "no background in literature" which I take to mean no academic background, because Usman is exceedingly well read! His academic background is in the health sciences. He said no one had explained to him what setting was, but that he'd been inspired by Chip Delany's approach while at Clarion West. Delany criticized the white room syndrome. People tend to remember visual descriptions.
Usman criticizes the advice often given to new writers, "don't start with the setting," saying it should instead be "don't start with bad writing." He says the avoidance of setting makes things too brisk, too fast-paced, and turns everyone into the same John Grisham. He emphasizes the power of setting in Jeff Vandermeer's Annihilation. Setting does not necessarily have to slow you down. You can describe it distantly, or through character perception. With the former, you can take more authorial control of the description, while with the latter, you can play with the unreliability of memory. Usman said that in The Pauper Prince, he deliberately made the description of the protagonist's memory of his hometown very dreamlike, and also very different from the description of the town when he actually goes there. Memory uses the "lens of longing," while reality will not.
I asked which authors inspire him. He said that he reads all kinds of stories. He read in Urdu until the age of 10 or 11. Since he was at a colonial school in Pakistan, he also read Enid Blyton and other British authors. He mentioned Naiyer Masud, Kelly Link, Thomas Lugotti, Franz Kafka, Ken Liu and Shirley Jackson. He said that in science fiction, Ted Chiang had opened his mind to what the genre could do, when previously he'd thought of it in terms of Star Trek and robots. He says he reads works over and over, trying to break them down and figure out how they work. He also mentioned Don Langan, Laird Barron, Sarah Langan and Thomas Lugotti as standouts in the horror genre.
I asked him about the role of poetry in his his work. He told us about Urdu and Farsi poetry, and about the tradition in Iran and other nations of memorizing large amounts of poetry. Usman says that it's a useful exercise, because it gives you a sense of rhythm and lets you experiment with sentence structure. Usman reads Sufi poetry and translates it into English. Reggie asked him if he has written poetry, and he said yes, but described it as "it's impossible to become a writer without that awkward phase." He said Urdu poetry was his forte for quite a while. In grades 7 and 8 he would be asked to write an essay and use poetry to support his argument... and he would compose his own couplets, simply prefacing them with, "as the poet says..." He said he did it to fool the teachers because he found it hard to link existing poetry with the essay topics, like "the importance of a morning walk" or "a rainy day." "I did not know how to write essays," he said. "My mom would make me memorize them."
I asked him if he has ever worked at novel length, and he said he started writing seriously in 2012 with a novel but found he didn't have the skill to pull it off to his satisfaction. He hopes to return to novel writing eventually, however. He says, with his busy every day life, he might only be able to complete two more stories for the rest of the year.
Christie asked about settings that you can research but not visit, and whether that really bothers him; it bothers her, too, and she feels tied in knots about what she can't find out. She asked, "What is enough?"
Usman replied that not many people know about the details he writes about, so not as many people are likely to call him out. He spoke about Ted Chiang's research for "The Story of Your Life," which involved interviewing 20 women who had raised daughters. Apparently it took Chiang five years to write the story. Usman says, "instead of fictionalizing reality, realify your fiction." Do the best you can, get immersed, and try to be 99.999% accurate. How much time do you have to make every detail count? You can disappear in the research rabbit hole all the time, but the research still shows. "Pauper Prince" started at 27 thousand words, then came down to 21 thousand. He made three editorial passes before Ellen Datlow bought it, and then did his own further revisions after his trip to Pakistan. He was happy to see the research made a difference for people who read the story.
Thank you so much for visiting the show, Usman! This was a great discussion, and there is more detail in the video: