Sim Kern Interview on Real Sugar is Hard to Find
Sim Kern’s collection of short stories Real Sugar is Hard to Find is an unflinching look at the potential future(s) of climate change. With genres both the contemporary and the fantastical taking on topics from food shortages to reproductive rights to hazardous air conditions, this collection portrays a range of consequences that could be in our not-too-distant future.
What makes Real Sugar even more memorable is its mindfulness and responsibility within its dystopian consequences. Within these pages, Kern focuses on the human emotion that comes from such situations. With nearly every story, the impact is shown on the individual and their relationships with others, particularly relationships between children and parents.
There’s a carefully curated urgency here inspired by current world events without getting heavy-handed or preachy. The main ingredient for this collection isn’t fear, but heart. The focus of these stories doesn’t feel like trying to capitalize off anxieties about the future, but rather expressing the humanity of people and how they come together to help or support each other, even when everything seems hopeless.
MT: First off, I loved this collection. It takes on so much in such a small space, and expertly captures the varying dynamics of people and emotions during difficult times. Have you always been interested in stories centered around environment (and the future therein)? What drew you to this?
SK: I was in eighth grade when I put the pieces together that we were living through a mass extinction, and that Captain Planet was not, in fact, coming to save us. I’ve been fixated on climate change ever since—in a way that most people considered bizarre and insufferable until a few years ago. I started off majoring in environmental science in college, but quickly learned I didn’t have the disposition to be a scientist. I switched to a creative writing/English major with a vague idea that I could work in communicating climate science. But I wound up teaching middle school English for ten years, before I was able to switch to writing full-time. Living in Houston in the interim, I’d accumulated plenty of material—surviving many floods, hurricanes, and industrial accidents from the petrochemical industry that’s driving this crisis and is my next-door neighbor, here in “Chemical City.”
MT: It sounds like you know a lot of the scientific background of your collection’s topics. What was that balance between science and fiction like for you?
SK: Well first, I started off college thinking I’d major in environmental science. My first year of
teaching, I was hired by an environmental nonprofit to teach Marine Biology to elementary schoolers. So I’ve always been interested in ecology and climate science, and as a “cli-fi” author, I try to stay abreast of the latest climate predictions and mitigation efforts. I moved to Houston when I was 21, after living in the Midwest all my life, and so through my adulthood I’ve enjoyed discovering this totally new biome—learning as much as I can about the local ecology and wildlife, which I love to incorporate in my work. My spouse is also a NASA engineer, so I have him check my technobabble sometimes, in the more far future, techy stories, to make sure that they’re at least convincing enough to suspend his disbelief.
MT: There’s a wonderfully thought-provoking crossover in your collection between childbirth, parenting, and abuse (abuse of people, abuse of the planet). How intentional were these connections when you started writing these stories?
SK: That was a connection I discovered through the work! The stories about parenting and trauma come from a very personal place, which at first I thought of as totally distinct from the “climate stuff.” My spouse and I both come from families with long histories of abuse, and we’re trying to be the generation that ends that cycle of trauma. Working those feelings out on the page, I started to notice parallels between the way we treat children and the way we treat the non-human living world. The themes resonated, so I kept exploring that space.
MT: Do you have a favorite story in this collection?
SK: I always read “The Listener” at events, because the early part of the story gets laughs from the audience. Also, it’s the only story that consistently makes me tear up every time I read it through to the end. My favorite stories are those that balance humor and tragedy, and they’re the toughest to write! So yeah, that one.
MT: All of your stories complement each other wonderfully, but I also saw that many of them have been previously published. Congratulations on that! Was it your intention to create a curated collection when you began writing these stories, or did you realize later, “Oh hey! I’ve got a great thing going here!” and decide to put them together into one collection?
SK: I wrote all the stories in this collection while I was querying and then on sub with my YA novel, Seeds for the Swarm (out November 1st). That was a long book that I’d been working on for years, so I wanted freedom to try out other genres and ideas. The first few stories I wrote—”Tadpoles,” “Sister Fly-or-Die,” and “The Propagator” were all so wildly different that I didn’t foresee them fitting in one collection. Traditional publishing advice held that getting a short story collection published was nearly impossible, anyways, so I just wrote what I liked and relentlessly submitted them. Only once I’d written all eleven of the stories did I see the connections that tied them all together—climate change, reproductive justice, parenting, queer identity, trauma. I realized, hey, there’s a book here, if anyone’s willing to publish it! Thankfully, Android Press was!
MT: Ending the collection on “The Lost Roads” felt very purposeful. What was your thought process through the curation of your collection?
SK: I knew I wanted to end on the two utopian stories “The End of the Nuclear Era” and “The Lost Roads” to leave readers in an optimistic, energized place. Beyond that, I wanted to highlight the thematic or genre links that thread through the stories, so it wasn’t too jarring to transition from one to the next. “Real Sugar is Hard to Find” and “The Listener” have teenage POV characters and are more humorous stories, so I thought they’d be good together and start off the book on a lighter note. Then the tone gets darker with “The Propagator” and “The New Nomad,” which deal with two facets of reproductive justice (the right to abortion and the right to fertility). I honestly can’t remember why I stuck “Unwhole” in the middle, but it makes sense as a fulcrum, being the only horror story in the collection. Basically, I fiddled around with the order a lot, until I was happy with the flow!
MT: Do you feel your collection serves as a warning to people, a glimmer of hope, or both? Or perhaps neither?
SK: Both! All! We need all the climate stories! I get frustrated when I hear arguments over whether dystopian or utopian cli–fi is more “useful.” Living through a mass extinction makes me feel LOTS OF THINGS. Despair, grief, and fury come easily. Hope, joy, and courage have to be more purposefully sought out. Saying that art dealing with climate change should only engage with some of these emotions and not others will produce bland, lifeless art. We need stories that communicate climate science, and help us process climate grief, and teach us to survive, and hold our hands through the storm, and vent our fears, and give us a compass heading towards a brighter future, and so much more!
MT: That’s so well said. Sneaking in a comment here rather than a question, but thank you for the trans masculine representation in “The Propagator.” We’re often erased, especially with such matters as reproductive rights and access.
SK: I love trans guys! I thought I was one for a while and I may again later. Who knows? Life is long, and gender can be very fluid.
MT: So I’ve heard you have even more publications scheduled to debut after this one. Would you like to talk a little more about those?
SK: Yes! So as I mentioned earlier, my YA novel Seeds for the Swarm is out November 1st of this year. Set in 2075, a group of kids at an elite, secretive college, tasked with saving the world, wind up turning on their school’s billionaire backers. It’s the first book in an epic, eat-the-rich sci–fi trilogy, and it’s available for preorder now!
I also have an adult novel coming in Fall of 2023 with Levine Querido. The Free People’s Village is set in an alternate timeline 2020, where Al Gore won the 2000 election and declared “War on
Climate Change.” When a queer punk band tries to save their warehouse from demolition for a green “hyperway” out to the suburbs, they find themselves at the center of revolution demanding racial justice in the fight against climate change.
MT: Those sound awesome! So a question I like to ask at the end of interviews: If you could say only one thing to budding queer writers, what would it be?
SK: Courage! Keep at it. Your stories are so powerful. If they weren’t, the forces of fascism wouldn’t be so relentlessly trying to ban them.
MT: Thank you for being so generous with your time, Sim, especially with parenting and Real Sugar coming out and other exciting books on the way!
SK: Thank you for the great questions, Milo! And to Foglifter for hosting this interview!
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