Fran Wilde: Faculty Spotlight

It has been said that writing for children is an exploration of liminal spaces: the gateways between early childhood and adolescence, adolescence to adulthood, and, beyond age group and into genre, between reality, fantasy, science fiction, and other creative liminal spaces ripe for exploration. If there’s one author who is unafraid to venture into the experimental–and with wonderful results–it is recent faculty addition, Fran Wilde. This talented author’s novels and short stories have been finalists for a World Fantasy Award, a Lodestar, four Hugo Awards, four Locus Awards, and six Nebula Awards (two of which they won.)

Tell us a bit about yourself and your work. What are you most proud of?

I write for kids, adults, and everyone in between. I’m a genre-jumper — I love slipstream, science fiction, fantasy, horror, nonfiction, science-adjacent fiction, anything with engineering, non-fiction, and poetry.  One of my goals for a while now has been to do one thing that scares me every week, and I’m pretty proud of doing that even when it’s tough — whether it’s taking creative risks with my writing, or trying something that’s completely new to me.

How has your experience been as a faculty member at VCFA? 

I was asked to give a visiting writer lecture in January 2022, and the joy apparent in the community both creatively and in support of one another was evident even then. I was so excited to join the faculty in the summer of 2022 and have loved every aspect of being faculty so far. One of my favorite moments is sitting with my students at the end of the semester and looking at all the work that’s happened, and all the things we’ve learned. Another favorite moment is meeting my new students at the start of the new semester. I still get incredibly nervous before readings and lectures because of all the talent that’s in the room at VCFA!

You have an MFA in poetry and an MA in information architecture and interaction design. Do you find that your expertise in these areas adds something unique to your writing?

I think that everyone’s expertise and life experiences add those unique textures and flavors to their work that make them distinctly their own. I have a tendency towards play with both language and structure that may possibly sit at the axis between poetry and programming, but that’s also central to story.

I still want to write a poem that compiles into a game while you read it, but that’s a long-term goal.


What is the book or creative project you’ve worked on that is dearest to your heart? Did you find that it was also your most successful project? Or is it currently in the works?

Riverland is one of the more important-to-me, and hardest, books I’ve worked on. The Ship of Stolen Words, which came out mid-pandemic, is one of my most whimsy-driven, and I think that the one dearest to my heart will always be that next project.

Success is a very ephemeral thing, isn’t it!


Tell us a little about your serial collections. They look really interesting!

These are adult science fiction and fantasy series. I’ve co-written three serials for Realm — Ninth Step Station I and II— which is a cyberpunk crime serial set in a post-semiapocalyptic Tokyo (created by Malka Older and co-written with Curtis Chen and J. Koyanagi) — it’s available on iTunes and being translated into Japanese, and Machina (created by me, and co-written by Malka Older, Martha Wells, and Curtis Chen) which is a high-tech engineering startup race to terraform Mars — kind of The Right Stuff meets Thelma and Louise meets The Expanse — also available on iTunes! I’ve also written series-novellas for, the third of which comes out in June — these are secondary-world fantasy mini-epics featuring hidden histories, magical gems, and the people who can hear them.


You also edit a speculative short fiction magazine?

Yes! It’s called The Sunday Morning Transport ( , and I’m the managing editor, along with EIC Julian Yap. We publish one short story each week that’s around 3500-4,000 words.

I’ve loved working with authors on their stories — including VCFA faculty Will Alexander, Sara Rees Brennan, Karen Lord, and others coming soon — and I am so happy to see a number of stories make the years’ best lists, and really connect with readers.


How would you define speculative fiction for those authors who are never quite sure if they’re writing fantasy, sci fi, horror, etc.? Do you see speculative ficti

on becoming a big thing in the world of kidlit?

I came to science fiction and fantasy as a young reader, and I keep extra copies of The Phantom Tollbooth, Earthsea, and my favorite new authors (including many VCFA faculty) to give to young friends who are readers, so I see speculative fiction continuing to win new audiences in coming generations, hopefully for a very long time.

I love talking about science fiction as the literature of the possible, and how it explores what it means to be human in the face of technology. For me, that means that fantasy is the literature of the impossible — whether that’s stories about fantastical worlds and creatures, or moments of absolute wonder and wildness intersecting with what we know and/or believe to be true. Horror is a bit more of a spooky feeling — especially with young readers — and ways to unpack feeling scared and worried. Those are important skills, for any age.


What do you feel your greatest strength is and how would you encourage others to achieve that strength? 

Resilience and curiosity are the muscles I work on the most, and I hope they help me level up both as a writer and a teacher — and mostly I encourage my students to try new things, and iterate.  Iteration is a big thing in writing and engineering — the try-fail-try process is how we get great stories and great bridges too (and both have a lot in common, I think).


You can learn more about Fran and her work at!

Martha Brockenbrough on AI, the Future, and Toast

As the national conversation turns toward AI and the unrelenting, onward march of technology, AI writing tools like ChatGPT are at the forefront of the list of concerns writers have about publishing in the time of artificial intelligence. To offer insight and advice (and a pretty delicious toast recipe) we’ve looked to an author who has never shied away from writing about daunting topics, faculty member and award-winning author Martha Brockenbrough, who has been studying the advancements of AI for her book, Future Tense: How We Made Artificial Intelligence and How It Will Change Everything (coming in 2024.) See what Martha has to say about this intimidating topic below.

Wild Things: There have been some incredible and nerve-wracking advancements in the realm of Artificial Intelligence as of late. You deal with this subject in your upcoming book Future Tense. Can you tell us a little about your new book and what you researched in writing it?

Martha Brockenbrough: I spent nearly four years researching and writing Future Tense: How We Made Artificial Intelligence and How It Will Change Everything. It’s the longest I’ve ever spent on a nonfiction project, and that’s because there was so much to learn. I wanted to put it into a human context. It didn’t sprout like a fungus overnight. Humans have dreamed about it literally for millennia, and it took contributions from around the globe over centuries to bring us where we are today: at the dawn of a brand-new technology that will eventually be able to beat humans on pretty much all cognitive tasks—and it will replicate many of our existing biases. I research history, neuroscience, technology, political science and more, and had the book checked not only by AI developers, but also by AI experts who come from communities typically marginalized by the same technology. I wanted to understand its entirely human roots and the effects of AI on humanity. This is not a technology book entirely; it’s much more of a human story.

WT: What was the most interesting thing you learned during your research?

MB: As much as we think of human beings as rational creatures, we aren’t. For the most part, we are driven by our emotions in ways we often fail to see and understand. Learning about the role of emotions in decision-making was fascinating, as well as learning about the role of emotion in computing, which is not the oxymoron you think it is. This plays out in a couple of significant ways. First, human experts are always sure AI can’t do the thing they can do. But it has proven people wrong with chess. With go. With Jeopardy! And with things like driving commercial trucks. We think our creativity is special—but it’s not. Meanwhile, many of us are going to develop deep attachments to the AI-powered bots in our lives. We’re used to seeing androids on TV wishing to be human and having attachments to us. The attachment is going to run the other direction, and it leaves us vulnerable to … a lot.

WT: What aspects of AI advancement do you feel are positive for the world as a whole?

MB: When I was a college student in the early 1990s, I took part in a paid experiment at Hewlett Packard, where they were trying to develop technology to recognize speech. I think I disappointed the tech, who really wanted me to stop punching my Ps as I spoke into their microphone. Now, though, we can talk into our phones and get directions or create reminders and our Ps can be perfectly percussive. It took a long time to arrive, but speech recognition is now everywhere. I also like the idea of loans in three minutes. I like the idea of medicine tailored to my genome. I like the way the world can become more accessible through various AI-powered applications.

WT: Are there aspects of AI that you feel are concerning?

MB: Oh, for sure. People will be radicalized by bots. They will be catfished and robbed. Racial bias that exists in the world is baked into the heart of AI that grabs vast amounts of data from the unscrubbed internet. Likewise gender bias. I’m not wild about the idea of being tracked and recognized everywhere I go. In truth, I live a pretty boring life. I don’t even break the speed limit. But we keep flirting with authoritarian governments in the US, and I am an outspoken critic of such things (my book Unpresidented is a case in point). Intellectuals and artists are often targeted by authoritarian regimes, AI will make surveillance a snap. And because I like thinking up plots, if I were writing such a world, I’d send out autonomous drones to eliminate those people, which they can do—including from great distances.

WT: Is AI-created art a novelty, a phase, or is it here to stay? What are the implications of that?

MB: It’s all of the above. The implications for artists, though, are bad. We live in a world that values and respects the accumulation of money. The best way to do this is to get things without paying for them. This is why companies pay as little as they must (except for the CEO, of course). This is why we have outsourced much of manufacturing. When I was starting out as a freelance journalist after I had my first kid (and with 10 years of experience under my belt), I earned $2 a word in magazines. That’s about what people in the sixties made for the same work—but not adjusted for inflation. By the time I stopped doing it, it was common to get 50 cents a word. This is because the internet changed the market for advertising, which meant that print media got hammered. And then on the internet, no one wanted to pay for content.

So life has already gotten harder for us. And it’s going to get harder.

AI-created art is going to meet the needs of a lot of people who would prefer to keep more of their money, which is a rational choice in a world where capitalism is the one true religion. Like, people will say things like, “the point of business is to make money” and not even think that’s weird. The point of business is to fill a need. The point of many businesses together is to build a community. If the point was to make money, we would all only ever be in the businesses that paid the most. And honestly, hedge fund managers—who are grossly overpaid—are pretty much only useful in an extremely narrow sense.

My guess is that fewer people will be able to make a living creating art. More people will need day jobs. But we can continue to distinguish our work from machine-made work by making beautiful things that are lavished with artifacts of our full humanity. Handmade things are beautiful and durable. Fresh-squeezed juice from oranges grown by a skilled farmer tastes better than Tang. It’s true that AI has become better at games like chess, Go, and Jeopardy! But art isn’t a game. There aren’t strategies for winning or losing, and while algorithms can analyze text and calculate mathematical similarities to bestselling work (or pop songs or whatever), that’s not necessarily the same path to work that resonates with real humans. Commercial and genre writing does tend to follow more distinct patterns than what we would consider literary fiction—but even with those categories, innovation sustained across the length of a novel is a hard problem for AI, which tends to forget what it was doing and wander off in a different direction.

WT: What would you say to writers who are worried about being replaced by writing AIs like ChatGPT?

MB: Right now, ChatGPT writes terrible endings. It’s the biggest tell. Everybody learns from each other and makes peace at the end. It’s a fever dream of the centrist mainstream media, but in story form. So there’s that. ChatGPT also can’t track narrative threads for the duration of a novel—yet. (It got much better during the time I conducted my research, from something laughably kooky to merely irritatingly unimaginative).

I’d also say this, though. A lot of people have lost their jobs to technology. All the Wheelers. The Millers. The Smiths. It is already almost impossible to make a living as a writer. If it becomes impossible, then we join a long line of people who’ve had their lives disrupted and changed. People who’ve had to adapt. We need to feel compassion for ourselves and compassion for all who’ve been made obsolete by human invention. We think we’re special because we’re artists—but Garry Kasparov thought he was special because he was for a time the world’s best chess player. He thought there was no way a machine could be more creative. There are going to be a lot of stories like that, where we realize what we’re doing with thinking and creating is following complex patterns we’ve internalized and can reproduce in compelling ways. We are not special because we’re artists. We’re special because we are living creatures. Life is an absolute miracle. We’re not sure where it comes from (although I describe one compelling theory in my book). With AI, it’s possible that it will someday turn into a life form of its own, which changes the game all over again.

What do we need to worry about? The health of the planet. Justice for all human beings. Ethical treatment for all living things. Children and other vulnerable people. Making life impossible for the oligarchs, who need much less power and money than they’ve accumulated. Work for justice and the rest will take care of itself.

WT: We’re familiar with the phrase “adapt or die.” What are ways that authors can use AI to their benefit?

MB: There are tools that will analyze complete novels for pacing, narrative shape, character analysis and more. It’s like having another set of eyes on your work. It doesn’t tell you how to change it, but when you can see your work with fresh eyes, you can figure out those changes yourself. I use one called Here’s a referral code for the one I use: Meet Marlowe.

I’ve also engaged ChatGPT in discussions of my works in progress, and it’s pretty good at analyzing stories using the Hero’s Journey or Save the Cat. I usually write multiple POV novels, and these formulas tend not to work as well for those—and sure enough, ChatGPT can’t handle it. But you might talk with a bot about what you’re working on. Anything that can help you understand what you’re trying to do and analyze what you’ve done is useful. This doesn’t have to replace human beta readers, agents, and editors. But sometimes we just don’t want to burden people with crappy work. AI doesn’t care if you suck. AI doesn’t feel.

WT: What do you see on the technological horizon that we (writers, teachers, readers, people in general) should be prepared for?

MB: There are already lousy little AI picture books for sale on Amazon. Writers should expect to see more of that. One funny thing, though, is that blank notebooks can cost more than books we write—books that many people have spent many hours producing. Now, people are using AI art for covers on those, and selling blank books with robot art for more money than novels. The world is messed up with how it values things already. We should be prepared for people to like some really questionable stuff.

People who don’t have the patience to write will try to take AI shortcuts. There’s an AI tool that you can give a prompt and it writes the next part of your story for you. I thought it was absolutely terrible when I tried it, but I did read about an indie author writing books really fast this way and I guess making a living. Seems like a terrible way to make a life, though. I mean, sell the blank notebooks already! You’ll make more!

Teachers need to watch out for people using chatbots to write their papers. This is where smart assignments that don’t necessarily make sense to chatbots—What do the Parthenon friezes have in common with the Velveteen Rabbit—might be a good idea. (Chatbots are trained on huge quantities of text and “think” in terms of probability. The probability of a paper containing these two things is very low, and possibly even a sample size of 1—a paper I wrote in college 30 years ago.)

WT: Is there legislation currently or in the works (that you know of) that would set ethical limitations for AI? If not, what ethical limitations would you use if you were writing the laws?

MB: There are organizations and universities (such as Stanford) with programs that consider ethical limitations. This is a good thing, of course, even if the ethics came later than they should’ve (companies hiring grads didn’t care if they were ethical—they wanted them to have certain skills, so that won out in the early days).

It’s a really hard problem because the same technology can have great uses and it can have evil ones. It’s also hard to get the genie back in the bottle once tech has been developed. And companies like Google, which originally aimed to “don’t be evil” have shrugged off that quaint idealism.

I’d actually focus on easier problems, like a just tax code optimized for public health and safety. Which you could probably figure out using AI. Once we stop letting people amass billions while committing evil deeds, and once we stop letting churches avoid taxes while engaging in the political divisions of this nation, we will have disincentivized evil. And we will have new bridges and high-speed trains and well-funded schools and well-fed children and healthcare for all.

People are going to do whatever it is that nets them power and money. Work for a more just system there, and evil becomes less tempting.

And on a practical level, I think any company that harvests data from users should pay those users for it. If data is the new oil, pay us like people pay landowners, who must consent and be compensated for that product.

WT: Your work often deals with daunting subjects, which you face head-on. How do you maintain realistic, non-toxic positivity day to day in the face of these increasingly unpresidented (sorry, I had to) times?

MB: HA. Well, it’s not always easy. I worked so hard on Unpresidented that I literally became sick and had to spend almost a month in bed after I finished. (But we’d just gotten kittens, so there was a bright side!) I’ll tell you my secret to staying afloat. Every day, I think about the fact that I will die, and so will everyone I love. This is an inescapable truth, and it makes me unbearably sad. Being born in the first place is winning the hardest lottery in the universe. My job is to live the best life I can. To do the best I can for the world. To love my people. I can’t control much, but I can choose much of what I focus on and much of how I respond to things that happen. There’s plenty out there that’s frustrating, but I’m not going to give that more energy than I am to the stuff and souls I care about. I know my mission in this world: to love fiercely and tell the truth. And I’m doing that—so the joy and gratitude run deep.

WT: Let’s have a palate cleanser! Share a short recipe that always makes you happy.

MB: Toast is one of my favorite foods. I love it so much. If you want a really delicious slice and have a toaster oven, butter it first. It takes a long time to brown this way, but the butter caramelizes a bit. And then put on honey and some flaky sea salt. Cut it in half diagonally. Now you have a perfect slice of sweet-salty toast.


Learn more about Martha and her work at

The Fight for Intellectual Freedom: an Interview with Amy King and Tirzah Price

Throughout the past several months, challenges and outright bans of books (most frequently books with LGBTQIA+ themes and/or books by BIPOC authors)  have swept the nation, beginning in pockets of unrest and spreading like disease. According to PEN America, nearly 140 school districts in 32 states across the US have issued more than 2,500 book bans during the 2021-2022 school year alone. It is clear to us at VCFA that a simple week or month of awareness isn’t enough to fight against the attack on intellectual freedom. VCFA alumnx, author, and librarian Tirzah Price, and faculty member Amy King, interviewed over Zoom, gave their thoughts on why these bans and challenges seem to be growing in frequency and intensity, discussed their personal experiences with bans and challenges, and offered recommendations for joining the fight against book banning. (Video/audio coming soon.)


Ceredwyn Bagley: Hello everyone, and thank you for joining me to discuss this increasingly pressing topic, not just in kidlit but all over the US: the recent spate of book bans and challenges. Let’s start with introductions.

Tirzah Price: I’m Tirzah, I’m the author of the Jane Austen Murder Mysteries, I’m a former bookseller, and I’m the director of a small library in Iowa.

Amy King: Hi, I’m Amy King. I write books for a living and I love my job. I have been a literacy teacher since 1997 and do all kinds of other stuff but mostly I’m in the business of lifting children up and not limiting them.

It seems like we’re going to have a lot to talk about! So first, how have you seen the recent spate of book bans manifest in your area?

Tirzah: Iowa has recently been in the news. There have been libraries in Iowa that have literally shut down because there have been challenges. Not just challenges to the materials but also challenges to the staff and really horrible harassment campaigns against the staff who are queer, staff who support diversity of books, and what’s really insidious about these campaigns is that they happen on social media, they happen in the communities and not through official channels. So people quit, and I don’t blame them. If I were being harassed and doxed I wouldn’t want to go to work every day. So that has definitely been happening in my area. It’s very unsettling to see it happen in small towns that are an hour’s drive from me. You just don’t know if it’s going to hit you next.

Ceredwyn: What is the difference between a challenge and a ban?

Tirzah: A challenge is when someone comes to the library, says “I don’t think you should have this book,” and then there’s an official process for challenges. Every single library should have a democratic process by which challenges can be processed. A ban is a complete pull from the shelves after a challenge.

Amy: We’re finding here in my area that schools, who didn’t have a policy like libraries do, suddenly invent their own versions of the challenge process. So there are suddenly “panels” –and often it’s just a superintendent choosing one person as the head of the process after he’s already decided to ban the book—to address book challenges. We’ve seen special interest groups rallying against school libraries, basically just going for lists, lists of LGBTQIA books or books with diverse authors, without reading any of the books, and challenging all of them at once. So even instead of having “opt out” they’re trying to make everyone have to “opt in.” It’s political, it’s distracting, and it’s just sort of keeping people busy.


Some of the most commonly currently banned books across the US.

Ceredwyn: So why now, why all of this?

Tirzah: It’s an escalation of what’s been going on politically for the past six years. People are getting organized, and basically issue hopping. I think it’s also a reaction to marriage equality, which is still recent in the US. I used to think “that’s safe,” we’re good, though now I don’t really think that anymore. But what do they go after if marriage equality is the law? They start targeting trans people. And it’s really easy to target trans kids because they don’t have as much agency and support as they ought to. So it’s all snowballing.

Amy: This is a smaller, louder minority. And from the down low, this is about dismantling public education. It’s been a goal for longer than the last six years, though that’s when it began being vocalized. It’s a very fraught time in American politics.

Ceredwyn: How is it affecting you personally in your various roles?

Tirzah: I’m taking the opportunity to make sure our policy language surrounding challenges and bans is very clear, and mentally preparing for when, if this happens. We’re having to really consider our process here. It’s hard not to be a little fearful. I mean, there was this case in Michigan recently where these special interest groups actually convinced voters to defund the library. And even though that library had a GoFundMe and Nora Roberts donated $50,000, that’s not sustainable. The problem is still there. And that is really scary! So far my books haven’t been challenged, but who knows? I try not to think about it because at the end of the day, I can’t write thinking of whether or not some random parent in Kansas is going to ban my book. I try to put my energy toward fighting this in my day job and as a citizen.

Amy: I’ve seen our school board meetings start to go four or five hours, with people being removed and police involvement. That means it’s not a safe place. I think it’s a very important thing to note that when you’re getting doxed, getting the police called on you as a librarian for ordering books, which happened in my community, or when teachers are being labeled groomers and pedophiles for having queer books—not even assigning them, just having them—it’s not a safe place anymore. The language surrounding the issue, “pedophile,” “groomer,” “pornography,” even “CRT.” It’s really incendiary and it’s doing its job. It’s drumming people up, and now we have teachers who can’t have classroom libraries, can’t have certain books on display. Even like Liz Garton Scanlon’s books, Varian’s books, biographies of important POC. Students fought back against that ban. Seniors.
As for me, I’ve seen a lot of my books get outright banned. Everyone Sees the Ants, though I don’t know why—maybe I say “vagina” too much. Of course Ask the Passengers due to sexuality, and Dig. That one’s been interesting. I’ve seen a lot of my books banned.

Ceredwyn: There’s the idea that any publicity is good publicity and that having a banned book is good for sales. What’s been your experience with that?

Amy: No, it doesn’t make you more money to have your book banned. Absolutely not.

Tirzah: And, related, Stephen King has this quote basically saying that if a library bans a book, you should go buy it and read it. And no shade to Stephen King, but it’s a really privileged idea to think that everyone has the access to just go buy a book after a library has banned it. I work in a town of 2000 people. If a book were to get banned in my library, students probably wouldn’t have the ability to access it, even online, because to buy a book online requires money they may or may not have. And I think that’s what kind of rankles me about Banned Books week sometimes. The reality is this: books get banned, kids lose access. Full stop.

Ceredwyn: So what are some ways we can be more active and fight against banning books?

Tirzah: Get involved. You don’t have to join a library board, but take the time to read meeting minutes online. Stay informed. Read the school board meeting minutes. Read the library meeting minutes. Sometimes it’s boring. It’s great when they’re boring. But you as a stakeholder owe it to yourself to use this public resource to know what’s going on in your community and to be able to offer support in early stages of challenges. It’s a very easy thing that all of us can do at any time.

Amy: Go to protests. Learn how to write a good letter. Say “I don’t like this.” Don’t say “that’s bullshit,” because that’s not nice, but make sure to encourage students to express themselves and use their own ability to fight. It also means a lot to students to see that people are fighting for them and that they are wanted. We have to keep talking about it, and we have to keep fighting for intellectual freedom.

You can learn more about Tirzah Price and Amy King at their respective websites,

Additional Resources – Censorship News Roundup

The National Coalition Against Censorship

NCAC Resource for Defending LGBTQIA+ Stories (link to printable pdf)

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