Patterns of Orbit: Stories
(Baobab Press, 2023)
Chloe N. Clark’s Patterns of Orbit is a short story collection concerned with the terror, loneliness, and longing of deep space exploration, ancient folkloric magic, sentient nature, and climate change. Its characters face ghosts, disease, alien plant monsters, and devastating grief. They’re armed with science, but also with courage. As these stories reach toward the unknowable mysteries of the universe, they also reach toward each other, spiraling through far away galaxies, the deepest oceans, and the most ancient forests, but eventually landing (or crashing) in human bodies.
I was fortunate to talk with the writer about her fascination with outer space, how the natural world talks back, and the ways hope and despair battle for our human hearts.
Allison Wyss (Rail): Can we start by talking about space? What does space mean to you? Why are you drawn to writing about it?
Chloe N. Clark: Space has definitely captivated me since I was a child. I grew up in rural Wisconsin where we have wonderful sky, so at night there was always the darkness interrupted by stars. Plus, one of my favorite films as a child was Aliens and I remember being so drawn to the shots of space—as this infinite landscape. So I think that’s where it started, but as I grew older and learned about space, it took on deeper dimensions. We know so little of the expanse that surrounds Earth, and that’s just awesome in the original meaning of the word. I am filled with awe when I think about space. There’s so many hypotheses about space and planets outside our solar system, but it all comes down to a real push by scientists to understand based on what they think might be out there, what they can form in some way, which strikes me as what a writer does too.
Rail: Awesome is a good word for it. Space—as well as writing—is also terrifying.
Clark: I think space fits very neatly into one of the central tenets of horror—which is fear of the unknown. Space, like death and a few very specific spots on Earth, is one of our last truly unknown areas. We’re constantly trying to map and explore and figure it out, and we keep just touching at the edge of what it is. So I think it also lends itself as a canvas to exploring the unknown, exploring emptiness and loss and loneliness because of this.
Rail: Patterns of Orbit certainly grapples with that terror—and creates it, too. You also mention loss—these stories are very often about that.
Clark: I think loss is, unfortunately, a huge factor in so many lives—not just extreme loss, like a loved one, but the everyday losses of life (a job, a dream, a friendship, a relationship, a restaurant that deeply evokes your childhood). I’m interested in how we deal with loss and how that affects our own orbits of existence. Stories can offer us solace because they recognize a feeling inside of us, and so I want to try to do that for readers, too.
Rail: That makes me think about how Patterns of Orbit is not just about space as a concept, but characters reacting to space—in ways that are both emotional and tangible. Sometimes they’re literally there, or sometimes they’re thinking about it or studying it, but always interpreting. For example, I love this passage from “Simultaneity”: “But when her mother paints, she smiles, laughs, looks happier than at any other moment. It is like she is letting the darkness seep from inside her onto the canvas. Angeline makes the connection only years later, how space can also be a collection of darkness and shadows.” I wonder if there’s a difference in space as abstract idea versus being a place that is actually explored?
Clark: I love this question. I think it gets to a lot of what intrigues me in writing about space in the first place. I think the way that people interpret things and people and events around them is such a beautiful aspect of seeing something. I love to read widely because I love to see the way that others interpret the world. And writing is similar. When I’m understanding a character, I’m trying to get a grasp on their own interpretations.
Rail: In our un-spaced current lives, can we think about these ideas in the same ways that your characters do?
Clark: I think absolutely there is a difference in space as abstract versus space as place. Space can be terrifying if we don’t have an understanding or base of knowledge about it—it’s just this big empty void filled with all manner of possibilities. But it’s terrifying in different ways when we do have an understanding of it—because it’s this impossible environment, and astronauts have to be extremely well trained to survive while working in it.
I think anyone who isn’t involved with space, or particularly interested in it, can connect to the ideas and characters in the stories—because they’re emotions and issues all of us have experienced. We all know loss, and fear, or even the mundanity of a job that others find inspiring.
Rail: The danger, the unknown—it works so well to evoke all of that. But these stories, while terrifying, are playful too, especially in how they experiment with form and genre and also the hope that somehow lives inside them.
Clark: I’m also drawn to writing about space because I want to explore it. I find science and the natural world deeply fascinating and satisfying, and space is such a key component of that. I’ve always written stories about space, but as I’ve gotten a stronger grasp on reading technical and scientific articles, which helps me understand the concepts better, it’s only made me more curious. My partner actually works in the space industry, and it’s been an amazing glimpse into the intricacies of working in such a field, as well.
Rail: I noticed there are quite a few scientists in the book.
Clark: I love science! I’m a nerd in all senses. I love reading scientific journals, having conversations with people who work in science fields, trying out experiments—it makes my brain sing! But I also find it essential to understand what my characters do, both as their passion and as their day-to-day job. That’s a huge portion of our waking lives, so it seems such a crucial thing to know when writing. And for this collection in particular (and one I’m currently working on—which is very specifically about people working in the space industry), scientists were a great gateway to get towards the questions I wanted to be asking.
Rail: I was also wondering about the science itself. The book is speculative, of course, but is it rooted in real science?
Clark: I do spend a lot of time trying to get the science right. I read a lot, I watch interviews with people in specific science fields talking about their work so I can understand how they speak about what they do. I try to understand the roots of what’s going on. For me, speculative fiction works best when it clearly comes from some truth.
Rail: For me, there’s often inspiration in the strangeness of science and true stories. Is that true for you?
Clark: Yes. For example, the story title “Who Walks Beside You” was inspired by learning about Third Man Syndrome, which is a phenomena that’s been reported by explorers in the Antarctic. Shackleton wrote about the experience of feeling the presence of an additional person in his party, who wasn’t actually there. The story in the book has nothing related to Antarctic exploration, but in my mind there’s a kinship between the protagonist struggling against forces outside of their control while living this lonely, contained existence and Antarctic explorers struggling to survive in a treacherous and lonely landscape.
Rail: And that story is not set in space, but what a parallel to space exploration, in that sense. I love to hear about those echoes of strangeness from research to story. I also keep thinking about how you create vast worlds that feel fully realized. The stories themselves are often quite short, but somehow reach beyond their ending. I wonder if that’s related to what we’ve been talking about. Do you ever feel sad to leave these worlds after so (relatively) few words?
Clark: I’m constantly saddened to leave the world of a story—it’s probably why I love thinking about my stories existing in a kind of broader universe—because a character might show up in another piece, there might be a shared sense of something. I’m working on a novel-in-stories about a basketball team, and it started as just one story but I kept coming back to the characters because I’d feel like I was missing them and seeing where their narratives spiraled out to.
In Patterns of Orbit, the stories are in conversation with one another, and the structure of the book went through many drafts of what stories I included or didn’t. I wanted to intertwine the ideas of space and earth, and make it feel like every story is a part of this ecstatic universe of pieces.
Rail: There is such expansiveness to your universe, but the stories usually situate in physical bodies, inviting the reader to experience the body of a character and making the abstract into something physical. In “This Skin You Call Your Own,” a memory becomes a taste. In “A Sense of Taste,” that sense becomes deeper and more visceral. Another example is in “Accidental Girls,” when trauma can be transferred from one body to another as if it is a material substance. Many of these stories find ways to flip the cerebral into something more tangible and more sensory. Is that something you think about in your writing?
Clark: I think constantly about what it means to live inside of a body. My last poetry collection, Escaping the Body, was very much about the idea of the body being something we are inside of and what that means in a broader sense—what if your body isn’t the one you want in some sense, what if your body is antagonistic to you, what if you are in a body that statistically is more likely to be harmed by others…
It’s very hard to think about the body in cerebral terms because living inside of a body is a constant reminder of being a sensory part of the world. I’m very sensory sensitive, so certain frequencies of sound or textures of fabric are very NO to me. I’m very attuned to taste and smell and texture and how that influences the way we perceive food or the natural world, for example.
Rail: That makes me think about the way you describe objects and the sensations they inspire—it makes them feel alive. There’s a line from the story “Static” (one of my favorites): “But he was small and didn’t know how to hold things and the egg was smaller and didn’t know how to be held.” I find a sense throughout the collection of a relationship with the greater world that it is NOT just people acting on the planet or space or the objects they study scientifically. Rather, those supposedly inanimate things have agency somehow. There is a strange and wondrous reciprocity. What do you think that speaks to?
Clark: I love how you’ve phrased this! I don’t think I consciously do this, but it’s certainly my own worldview. I have always felt deeply a part of the natural world and am equally in love with the natural world. I remember in grad school, one of my peers mentioned that she liked living in cities without trees and it blew my mind. Like there were people who didn’t want trees! I think a lot of the created human world is finding ways to distance ourselves from the natural world, and that’s not a good thing. That divide is a crucial component of why we allow and engage in destruction often.
Rail: I want to talk more about destruction, but first I simply have to ask about trees. I love them too. But trees are often a source of terror in this book! Especially in “Even the Veins of Leaves” and “Static,” but also in smaller ways in other stories, such as “Who Walks Beside You” and “Wearing the Body.” Can you talk about that? Are forests like space? Or could this be linked to the idea of nature’s reciprocity?
Clark: On some level forests can be super spooky. And I say this as someone who loves walking in forests, even at night! There’s a stillness to forests, especially deep ones, where the noises and chaos of humanity just fall away and instead you have the noises and chaos of the natural world—which is just nicer, frankly, but can also seem overwhelming or empty in its own way. It’s definitely akin to space in that many of us (probably all of us at some level though certainly botanists and arborists have a better grasp) can’t understand everything about a forest that we’re walking through.
One thing I try to do is play on that fear of these natural landscapes that we can’t fully understand, while also emphasizing that they can and do have their own agency (like the lake in “The Waves Hear Every Promise You Make,” as well). I didn’t want to make the trees themselves seem villainous though, so I was very careful about making the scary things in the forests separate—even if, at first, there’s a fear of the woods. It’s like, oh no, actually, there’s something other here that’s worse.
Rail: I know you also do critical scholarship on Monster Theory. Does your approach to terrifying forests and terrifying space relate to that?
Clark: Monstrosity influences all of my work on some level, whether it’s through the lens of how we create monsters or through the lens of how othering is used in malicious ways throughout history. One thing that often I try to write towards is how we make nature monstrous, which lends itself to humans’ own desires to control nature. Look at reports of shark attacks. They use very specific language, like “shark hunts person” or whatever, that immediately demonizes and gives antagonistic agency to this amazing animal in its natural habitat that we as people have invaded. I think understanding the ways in which we construct language to cause harm to things we don’t understand is really crucial to unpack and try to avoid.
Rail: Humanity’s relationship with nature, of course, gets us to climate disaster—an important theme of Patterns of Orbit. Characters are often dealing with the fallout of climate change or researching ways to live despite the state of the earth, perhaps leaving the earth because it’s no longer habitable. This truth is so important. It would be a lie to write a futuristic story that doesn’t acknowledge the bleakness we’re hurtling toward. Do you write about climate disaster from a place of hope or despair?
Clark: This definitely goes along with the idea of reciprocity. I think the idea of being part and reciprocal to the natural world and our environment is directly linked to the way that we’ve allowed the world to turn into a place of disaster (and not just environmentally, systemic violences are intrinsically linked to this as well).
I want to write from a place of hope. So I think my characters are ultimately hopeful. But I am always fighting the side of me that despairs. But, maybe, despair and hope are equally important, if we didn’t despair maybe we wouldn’t fight for something to hope for.