Wed
Aug 13 2014 2:00pm

The Pop Quiz at the End of the Universe: Heather Masri

Welcome back to The Pop Quiz at the End of the Universe, a recurring series here on Tor.com featuring some of our favorite science fiction and fantasy authors, artists, and others!

Today we’re joined by Heather Masri, a full-time faculty member at New York University, where she earned her Ph.D. in literature and has served as assistant dean in the General Studies Program, an interdisciplinary liberal arts program. Science Fiction: Stories and Contexts grows out of her popular seminar on science fiction and technology, one of a series of writing intensive courses she’s taught on literature and critical theory. The compact edition of the textbook arrives August 15th from Bedford St. Martin’s.

Join us!

Please relate one fact about yourself that has never appeared anywhere else in print or on the Internet.

When I’m having trouble sleeping I plan utopian communities instead of counting sheep.

Do you have a favorite word?

I’ve always been fascinated by words and their origins. I’m intrigued by unusual words like haruspicy (divination by examining entrails) and apophenia (the illusion of perceiving meaningful patterns in random events). But I especially like common words and phrases whose origins we don’t usually think about. Like being caught “red handed” or “freelance”—both of which you can figure out if you think about it.

Name your favorite monster from fiction, film, TV, or any other pop culture source.

I am fond of monsters in general, especially dragons and other reptilian flying creatures, so it’s hard to choose. Of course the scariest monsters are the ones who look like us. Vampires and werewolves used to be scary for that reason, but they’ve been domesticated by overuse in pop culture. The scariest monster I can think of is Gene Wolfe’s Alzabo from The Shadow of the Torturer, which acquires the memories of those it eats and can call to potential victims in the voices of their loved ones.

What’s your favorite sandwich?

Anything my husband makes me.

What literary or film science fiction technology do you wish existed in our world right now?

FTL drive is not very plausible, but I really wish it were possible to travel to other stars or galaxies. I would like to meet some aliens.

What was your gateway to SF/Fantasy, as a child or young adult?

When I was in third grade, I asked my mother why people kissed under mistletoe, so she handed me Bullfinch’s Mythology and said “I’m sure the answer is in here somewhere.” I didn’t know how to skim or read selectively, so I read the whole volume. I didn’t find an answer to my question there (the closest I got was Loki shooting Baldur with a mistletoe arrow) but the experience of reading that book (which was pretty arduous for a eight year old) inspired a lifelong interest in mythology and folklore. From there it was a short trip to fantasy literature, like Lloyd Alexander’s wonderful Prydain Chronicles. My father was a scientist who was a huge Star Trek fan, so science fiction was soon added to the mix. My big brother turned me on to Isaac Asimov, and I discovered Andre Norton on my own—I was devoted to her.

What kind of apocalypse (zombie, robot, environmental, etc.) is most compatible with your survival skills? And what kind of apocalypse would you like to avoid at all costs?

I think I would do best in a disaster that involved the collapse of technology. I completed a month-long wilderness survival course in Death Valley when I was a teenager, and I know a lot about edible and medicinal plants. I would not do as well in an apocalypse that required strong interpersonal skills.

List three things you’d like our readers to know about you and your work.

Science Fiction Stories and Context Heather Masri(1) Editing an anthology is challenging, kind of like putting together a puzzle. Since my book is designed primarily as a textbook for introductory courses, I tried to balance a variety of factors in addition to the foremost one of literary quality. It was important to me that the collection reflect the diversity of the field in terms of gender and ethnicity as well time period, subject, and style. I also wanted to include stories by younger, lesser-known writers as well as classics by well-known authors (I’m particularly proud to have chosen an early story by Ken Liu, who has since won two Hugos, a Nebula, and a World Fantasy Award). And of course there are always practical considerations in terms of getting reprint permissions.

(2) Sometimes people express misgivings about the idea of a science fiction textbook or studying science fiction in school. I can understand that, because sf is first and foremost a pleasure for me, and I never want to lose that by making it a chore or an obligation. At the same time, I believe in teaching and studying what you love. If a teacher comes to the subject with a love of the genre and an openness and interest in students’ ideas and viewpoints, it should be an exciting experience for everyone.

(3) I know that being a writer isn’t easy. It takes courage and hard work as well as talent. I am enormously grateful to all the writers of speculative fiction, past and present, who have given me so much joy.

What is your ideal pet (real or fictional)?

I’ve had a lot of pets: dogs, cats, parakeets, finches, horses, a rabbit, a tortoise, snakes, frogs, salamanders, gerbils, rats, hermit crabs, even a butterfly that followed me around.

I always wanted a pet dragon, but after owning a parrot who lived up to her name Quetzalcoatl for 15 years, I realized that you should be careful what you wish for. Right now I am thinking about getting a couple of rats, which make wonderful pets but unfortunately have very short life spans.

What’s your favorite fairy tale retelling?

My favorite fairy tale retelling is Jane Yolen’s Briar Rose, which interweaves the story of Sleeping Beauty with the memories of a Holocaust survivor. I think that one of the special things about speculative fiction is that it gives writers a way to tell stories that are difficult to convey in ordinary realistic fiction. Briar Rose is not really a fantasy novel, but it makes use of myth and metaphor to tell a horrible story in a beautiful way.

3 comments
Eugene R.
1. Eugene R.
Uh-oh, Dr. Masri wants rats as pets. Another NYRSF staffer falls under the persuasive sway of Kevin "Rat Man" Maroney, it seems.
Eugene R.
2. Allan M.
It was the elder Dr. Masri, our father, who got the family interested in rats. Lots and lots of rats. Our sister, Corinne, won a science fair while conducting an experiment on nutrician. During the experiment, both females had litters.

btw, don't subsist on a diet of big macs and french fries. The results are not pretty...
Eugene R.
3. Nancy Tyler
Facinating interview about one of the world's most creative, intelligent, compassionate, and imaginative humans and authors - Heather Masri!

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