By Carl Slaughter: From Clarion West grad to SFWA President, Cat Rambo has an experience-filled resume and works hard at “paying it forward.”
CARL SLAUGHTER: You spent 10 years camping out in a speculative fiction bookstore. How did that affect you?
CAT RAMBO: Not just any speculative fiction bookstore, but the Griffon Bookstore in South Bend, Indiana, which holds the longest continuously running game room in the United States, and which still exists and is a major part of any visit home. I go down and do exactly what I did in high school: hang out for hours talking with its owners, Ken and Sarah, who I count as part of my extended family. I always figured I’d get my degree and then go work there for the rest of my life. It’s still a pretty appealing notion.
I was extremely lucky — I hit that bookstore when it had just opened and I was twelve, and I found a refuge where a smart, bookish kid could be with other smart, bookish kids — and also with grownups who treated us as peers. I was there gaming every Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday night, and all day on Saturday. Luckily the store closed on Sundays; otherwise my family might have never seen me.
As a result, I will always and ever be most comfortable when surrounded by books, although nowadays I’ve usually got my e-reader close at hand too. I can’t travel without reading material; it’s important to always have an emergency paperback handy. I was part of an experimental reading curriculum in kindergarten that apparently took particularly well with my brain, and I read very quickly. I also seem to exempt from something that happens to a lot of my author friends, who complain that writing has spoiled reading for them, because they end up focusing on the flaws. I still happily read and revel in all sorts of crap, along with the good stuff.
CS: You spent a lot of time in college and your curriculum emphasized writing. How much of this helped you later, how much of it hindered, and how much of it was a waste?
CR: Is “a lot of time” gentle phrasing for “you dropped out of college twice”? Because I did, each time taking time off to work in a bookstore, either the Griffon or Waldenbooks #882. I didn’t really start taking writing classes until I went back the second time and got really serious about things. I won some prizes for writing while there, but I don’t know that the undergrad writing classes were useful in the way they might have been. After that I went off to Hopkins and studied with John Barth and that was useful as could be, because Jack lives and breathes writing, and he’s an amazing teacher.
That was a great time in many ways: I got to learn from and interact with a lot of writers, poets, and scholars, including Madison Smartt Bell, Tom Disch, Steve Dixon, Allan Grossman, Hugh Kenner, Jean McGarry, Grace Paley, and Larzer Ziff, to name some of the people that were strong influences in one way or another. It was also my first teaching experience, and I loved it.
Time spent learning anything is never a waste, but I don’t know that the time I spent at Indiana University learning that I was not as well suited to academia as I thought was the best use of it that I could have made. I did learn a lot and produce papers ranging from an analysis of the virtual sublime in cyberpunk, the transformation of Tank Girl from comic to movie, and a Marxist reading of “Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer.” The latter involved watching the Christmas special enough times that I can never watch it again. But you would be amazed at the class and economic stuff in it once you start looking, starting right off the bat with Burl Ives the snowman caroling about silver and gold and proceeding to the implications of the Bumble being reformed and turned into a worker. All kidding aside, I learned a lot about literary analysis and theory, but I also learned that I wanted to hang with the writers.
CS: Your curriculum also emphasized gender studies. How much of that affected your career as a writer, editor, and SFWA administrator?
CR: I was part of the first group of students to come through the Gender Studies program at Notre Dame, and I owe a great deal of my success in my last two years there to the encouragement and mentoring of those professors. I referenced one, Charlene Avallone, in my story “All the Pretty Little Mermaids,” and will undoubtedly bring in others in future stories
Gender Studies taught me how to look at social structures and question them, how to look to see what power structures exist and what is supporting them, and most importantly, to look at language and what role it plays in that. I was at one point contemplating a linguistics major (other possibilities included economics and computer science; I’m not sure English was the most career-minded pick) and I’d read Dale Spender’s book Man-made Language, which ended shooting me down a reading path that I’ve never left. Later on I taught in the Women’s Studies department at Towson State University.
Teaching an Intro to WMST class there was a revelation, because in order to teach something, you’ve got to research and know it. I hadn’t read much 19th-century American history before then, but as a result of that class, the latter half of that century has become an era I love to write it, to the point where one figure from it, Victoria Woodhull, ends up traveling through time to appear in several far future stories.
Feminism has been a guiding principle throughout my life and one of the reasons that I agreed to run for SFWA President is that I think it’s important for women to lead and act as leaders and role models. I strongly believe that many of the artificial structures imposed on us from day one end up hurting people of all genders. And I think that we are often not aware how many of those artificial structures shape our perceptions. Look at the trope of “drinking liberal tears” that has surfaced repeatedly in recent years. There’s gender implications to that that start getting interesting once you pull them apart. And that, to me, is feminism’s greatest use – as a tool that helps me understand some of the underpinnings in a way that lets me not just think, but write about them.
As far as SFWA administration goes, feminist principles lead me to try to work to make sure voices that might not otherwise get heard do get listened to, and that’s a group that includes voices that are younger, independently-publishing, economically disenfranchised, QUILTBAG, differently-abled, and a whole slew of others. It also shapes my leadership style, which tends to work towards consensus, rather than being particularly authoritative.
CS: What did you learn from Clarion West from people like Octavia Butler, Connie Willis, and Michael Swanwick?
CR: I learned that I could write a story that people would enjoy reading. Octavia, to my unending sorrow, has left us, but Connie and Michael are both people who have continued cheerleading, supporting, and generally kept me going.
It wasn’t till I got to Clarion West that I got to hear people talking about the nuts and bolts of writing. Less philosophy than in the MFA program, much more peering under the hood. Tool after tool after tool for my writerly toolbox.
Also that I was at home in a way I had never been among the literary writers. The F&SF writers are kinder and much more about supporting each other, about recognizing how people have helped them and paying it forward. That’s been an ethic that I embraced wholeheartedly.
CS: Describe a typical Cat Rambo story. Or is there such a thing as a typical Cat Rambo story?
CR: Man, I have had people say to me after they’ve heard a piece, “That’s such a Cat Rambo story,” and I am always mystified. I try to deliver something unexpected, and I try to do it with beautiful language that is clear. That’s the target, at least.
CS: Tell us about your time at Fantasy Magazine, good and bad.
CR: I really enjoyed working with Fantasy Magazine for a number of years. It was a great chance to get to see what the editorial side of things looks like, and I always urge my students to do a stint reading slush if they can.
It was always such a joy to find something good in the slush. I have a whole bunch of authors whose work I always look for because I was one of the first editors to publish them, like Genevieve Valentine and Lavie Tidhar. And it was fun to go after some stories as well, and be reading overall in the field, thinking, “I’m going to drop this author a line and see if they won’t send me something.”
I got to work with so many wonderful writers. It was pretty early on after I’d done Clarion West, and it was a great introduction to the field. I will always be grateful to Sean Wallace for giving me the chance to do it for a while, and I learned so much from doing it.
If there’s one story I really am proud of publishing, it’s “Superhero Girl,” by Jessica Lee, which actually had been rejected already by one of the slush readers. I had opened it because of the title and once I read it, I immediately mailed her and said, “Well, actually, hold on…”
Fantasy Magazine was bad in that I am very good at coming up with lots of clever ideas for things like upping circulation and raising numbers and all of that, and considerably less interested in implementing them. I found that it was a randomizing force in my life, and I was constantly biting off more than I could chew.
Which actually was a great lesson to keep in mind with SFWA, and I’ve been a lot better about it there.
CS: Why did you decide to get involved with the SFWA?
CR: In 2004, I went to the Writers Workshop at DragonCon, which was run by Ann Crispin. Ann informed the class in no uncertain terms that we were to write stories, pursue an associate member, join SFWA, and start volunteering. I heard and obeyed.
CS: What SFWA positions have you held and what did those positions involve?
CR: I was on the Copyright Committee assembled after the Great DMCA Takedown Disaster of 2007 and served on it until its dissolution. After that I was not particularly active until a number of years later, when I was asked to come in and take over moderating the boards when a volunteer stepped down.
I did that for a while, which was interesting, and something I was peculiarly well suited to, having administered a message board for an online game with very impassioned players. I started coming to the Nebulas, and then at some point Steve Gould asked if I’d consider running for VP. I said sure and gave it a shot. It was interesting enough that I stuck around to run for President, and I’m finishing out that term this year and running again.
CS: What was the SFWA’s state when you became president, what have you done while in office, and what has been the result of your work?
CR: SFWA President Russell Davis had started the process of reincorporating in California, and I reaped the benefit as well as curse of coming in towards the end of the long waiting period for that. Benefit in that I’ve been around at a point where we could finally act on some things, like admitting independently published authors, small press authors, and game writers.
That transition hadn’t been as smooth as it could have been. Some board members over the years had tried to keep doing things the old ways, others had tried new things, but there hadn’t been enough thought given to planning what would happen once the moment had arrived.
A sub-issue was that SFWA somehow never really evolved a good internal communication system that preserved institutional memory. I found some great stuff that had been forgotten, and a few situations that had, in my opinion, gone awry. In all of this, I had the benefit of having been a Microsoft manager, and having some idea of how to look at management issues, try to figure out what’s going on, and come up with possible solutions. There was a lot of people going in a number of different directions, and some gaps as a result of that.
I’ve pushed a number of efforts along, many of them started by other people. I also tried to make sure the independent people were represented and that SFWA had things to offer them. For example, I reached out to Jeff Bezos because I’d heard he was an SF fan. Nowadays we have a representative at Amazon who we can go to with issues and feedback from our members, and I’m looking forward to some of our other joint plans. Along the same lines, we’ve got two SFWA-specific Storybundles coming out this year. My hope is incorporate game writers and offer them useful resources in the same way.
But overall my main accomplishment is that I’ve tried to make it so the awesome people got a chance to shine and do the awesome things I knew they were capable of, and to fix some snags that were creating issues. As a result, SFWA is in a place where it’s doing some awesome things, with more yet to come.
CS: Why did you decide to run for another term as president?
CR: God, I am not sure. People kept coming and looking at me with hopeful looks in their eyes and I finally said okay. I had to spend a while talking about it with my spouse, because he worries that I put writing time into it. Which he’s absolutely right about. But last year I managed to finish a novel and a bunch of stories, teach, and keep running my Patreon, so it hasn’t killed my productivity entirely.
I wouldn’t have done it except I really love the team and trust them to help make it great. They have my back and they know I have theirs.
CS: What’s on the horizon for the SFWA?
CR: More outreach! A Nebula extravaganza that includes amazing programming and more music! Greater ability to give grants to the community in order to help promote F&SF writers! Greater outreach to gamewriters, continued looking at ways to serve them, and a Nebula for game writing. The “Preserve Your Legacy” campaign, aimed at educating authors how to set up their literary estate and dedicated to the memory of long-time volunteer Bud Webster. Continued and better recognition of our amazing volunteers. More going after people trying to take advantage of the writers. A continued pushing to help writers make a decent living from their work. We are exploring health care, but I don’t know what to expect from that so far. More partnering with other organizations. Temporary tattoos.
I’ve got a notebook full of ideas. And a team that will help me put some, at least, of that in place.