I Didn’t Break the Lamp: Interview with Sam Fleming

Today, we’re chatting with author Sam Fleming, who has a story in I Didn’t Break the Lamp!

DV: Tell us a bit about yourself!

Sam Fleming: I was born and raised in Scotland, spent almost two decades in various parts of England, and now live in a house built 130 years ago, along with my partner, my dog–an obstinate husky known as Floof–and Fingal, Shackleton, Max, Peregrine, Blackbird, Thokk, and Emily, who are all bicycles. I’m a multivariate egregore stacked up inside a human meat trenchcoat trying their best to pass well enough to avoid making people run screaming, and a highly trained scientist with a mutant brain who is employed to crack tough problems and negotiate complex solutions in the name of saving the world. I was on the British Junior Olympic archery squad until I damaged this entropic bag of bones and juices falling off a mountain. The armed services refused me admission when I was eleven years old and almost every year of asking thereafter. For a few years in the late nineties, I spent a lot of my time scaring fake Satanists away from an Oxfordshire stone circle. I collect fountain pen ink and hate having my hair cut. Some or all of the above may resemble the truth.

DV: What inspired you to write “Ludwig” for I Didn’t Break the Lamp?

SF: My first story for which an editor was prepared to pay, “What The Water Gave Her” in the Fish anthology from Dagan Books, was full of imaginary beings, all of them sea creatures. I had a story in Apex Magazine, which ended up in the Best of Apex Magazine Volume 1, in which there was an imaginary friend called Hedron. I love writing about them, and I love the ambiguity inherent in their existence. Are they real? What would it mean if they were? What does “real” mean? Something I randomly said in a conversation with a friend many many years ago has always stuck with me: “There are only two of us here, this is consensus reality.” So much of what we experience is generated inside the brain, and not all brains are the same. My own perception is somewhat awry and it’s impossible for me to step completely outside that frame of reference. I love having an excuse to show what the view is like from here.

“Ludwig” almost wrote itself in response to the prompt. A call for stories about imaginary friends! I couldn’t resist. There were a lot of little bits and pieces of things I’d stashed away in the back of my head, all swarming around in search of a tale to inhabit. I’ve been fascinated by the idea of felt presence since I first read about Shackleton’s epic crossing to the Stromness whaling station. Several years ago, I participated in a scientific study about imaginary friends, because they’ve been a big part of my life and formative experiences, and I suppose it continues to niggle that somewhere my experiences with such things are recorded in fairly comprehensive detail. Mad scientists … not so much, because I know plenty of scientists and not one of them is “mad” in the stereotypical sense of cackling “It’s ALIVE!” during thunderstorms, but shove an academic title on a villain and Bob’s your estranged relative.

DV: Your descriptions of the titular character, Ludwig, are both vivid and surreal. Did you have a visual inspiration for Ludwig, or was he concocted solely from your imagination?

SF: I’m synaesthetic. My senses are all cross wired into each other and especially my proprioception, which is the sense that tells you where your body is in space without you having to look. A lot of my descriptions are surreal, because I’m reverse engineering what I think might resonate with other people but keeping a certain synaesthetic gloss. As for Ludwig in particular, I first saw a short video of a featherstar on twitter a couple of years ago and was utterly mesmerised (you can see it here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rRej1VKDgcE, and there’s another good one here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OyketlthVWg). I’m not sure I could ever invent something that is weirder than creatures that already exist in the ocean. My first degree was in marine science, and I’ve done my fair share of peering at sea beasts, but I’ve never seen anything move like that, and dearly hope to see one in the flesh one day. I merely added the light and colour that, for me, inhabit that movement. And a bunch of extra arms.

DV: Your story includes descriptions of a handful of imaginary acquaintances. Were there any others that you would have liked to include that were cut for space, or others that you have thought of descriptions for now?

SF: There was a blobby, marshmallow thing called Henrietta that didn’t make the cut, and a flock of butterflies with razor-sharp wings that formed the shapes of other creatures, a bit like the fish in Finding Nemo. Honestly, I could probably talk about imaginary friends until my audience wandered off in search of a change of subject. I feel like I can reach out and open a door, somewhere off to my right and slightly up and in, and the next in line will step up. Maybe there’s a giant cosmic stash bag of creatures looking for a footprint in the world.
There have been a surprising number of studies into imaginary friends, and what they look like/what they mean. One child had an entire herd of nappy-wearing cows. Another had a group of pre-schoolers, with whom she shared a language and a birthday. None of the imaginary friends in Ludwig are too far removed from what has been reported by scientists working in the field. Except Ludwig himself, of course.

DV: If you had an imaginary friend growing up, what was their name, and what were they like?

SF: I had loads. I had a roster. I had two friends, one a seal and one a dolphin, who came swimming with me on Thursday afternoons after school and taught me how to hold my breath for longer and swim faster. For a while I believed I was a selkie. I experienced an array of beings who donned vaguely human forms and told me secrets, but I wasn’t allowed to say anything about them or they would be angry. I had one who didn’t even try to conform to the conventional laws of physics, and who was better at maths than I was. Sometimes I would look at a stuffed animal instead of this being when talking to them, because it was easier on the eye. I have had more imaginary friends in my life than I have had actual physical ones, probably, and not all of them were friendly. I don’t know why, or where they came from. I don’t remember deliberately inventing any of them. More often than not they didn’t have names, because I didn’t talk about them, and we knew when we were talking to each other or about each other, so what was the purpose of names? They were invariably older than me, and seemed to know more about everything except really simple things, like why anyone would put ketchup on food, and if we were prepared to eat stuff that didn’t taste nice without ketchup, then why not make everything taste nicer by putting ketchup on it? Or hats. Why hats? I remember that question. “Why are hats?” They probably wondered why we didn’t put ketchup on hats, given that apparently some people are prepared to eat them when reality diverges sufficiently from expectation. My imaginary friends were even weirder than I was!

DV: What’s on the horizon for you?

SF: I’m going to my first WorldCon this year, in Dublin, which is exciting. I have a story called “Pretty Little Vampires” in the Not All Monsters anthology from Rooster Republic Press, due for publication next year. There aren’t any imaginary friends in that one. I have a few other pieces looking for a home, including a novella, and am working on a couple of novels while collecting notes and research for a third. I have hypergraphia, which isn’t nearly as helpful for fiction as you might think, but which does mean I’m always writing. At least when I’m not saving the world.

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