This week’s interview brings us to SWFA member & author, UI writer, tech writer, and occasional leather crafter Victoria “Torrey” Podmajersky. A constant source of insight into her chosen areas of interest, she is responsible for one of my favorite thoughts on Star Wars: The Last Jedi–that the Resistance could have really benefited from a better UI designer in the controls of their bombers.
In addition to your fiction work, you are also a specialist in writing/designing user interfaces (UI). How do those differ to you?
A person comes to a story in order to read; they want to be pleased, excited, entertained, enthralled, challenged, or otherwise affected by the words. In fiction, I hope that the story or the words or the characters will be memorable. I’m write characters who change and grow in a storyline that the reader is there to follow.
When a person comes to a user interface, they didn’t come there to read; the reader is the character, and they are leading their own story. When I write UI, I hope they don’t notice the words, they don’t remember the experience. If anything, I want them to remember its usefulness to the change they wanted to make.
Is there a medium you’ve never worked in that you’d love the freedom to play around in for a bit?
I’ve never worked to create mechanical objects, but I’m fascinated by them. Especially things that interact with their own internal parts to create stories. Like wind-up toys (see @maryrobinettekowal’s series of Christmas posts) or chirping-bird music boxes or elaborate play-stories where all the actors and scenes are enacted by a crank or motor.
How have your own life experiences and personal interests shaped your choice of projects.
Every project I can think of fits into one of these 3 categories:
- Going deeper into something I’ve experienced and seek to understand better. This is probably where I’ve spent most of my creative time. There are metaphysical experiences, the impact of ideas: with fiction, I find I can explore ideas, relationships, power dynamics, and motivations differently through a characters’ eyes than I can just through my own.
There are also physical experiences to understand better: as a patient, as a teacher, and as a home health aide, and more. There’s a lot that’s baffling about how our bodies work and don’t work in the world. Seeking to understand, process, and help with that has spawned programming projects like Twingio.com and a physical design project, a pill-sorting device that saves time and saves people from inaccurate dosages.
- Going broader into things my life experiences haven’t touched yet. This is the category that feels the most decadent, the most luxurious. When I choose a project for this, it’s generally for skill- or knowledge-collecting along some creative path I haven’t played with yet. These projects have recently included learning Islamic decorative pattern making, learning about glass enameling, and trying out Japanese-style woodblock printmaking. It’s also how I started writing fiction in the 2006 NaNoWriMo.
- Meeting a need, whether my own or the need of a loved one. For example, now I know how to make my own shoes. I pursued the skill because it’s hard to find shoes that don’t make my feet hurt. I started with a video tutorial that walked through creating a soft-soled shoe. Then I took a class where I learned how to make the stiff-soled “normal” looking shoes. I hope I never have to go back to shoes that hurt my feet.
Who are some of your strongest influences?
My parents and brother have been strong influences, but even they are not as strong as the aggregate of all the other people, in so many moments. Like Catherine S., who arched her eyebrow after my first lecture, on my first day of teaching, and asked: “Are you sure?” And my foster child D., a 60-lb four year old who had already experienced more grief than I may ever know, tore into bathtub playtime until giggles fell liquid down the walls. Then there was Mother C., who was 104 years old and gracious even when she was frustrated and in pain.
Is there anyone with whom you’d particularly love to collaborate on a project?
I love collaborating, especially with people who have skills I don’t, to whom I can contribute things they can’t. I’d fantasize about collaborating with an illustrator like Jon Morris, or with an artist like Kate Winchell, or with an animation team like the folks at Kurzgesagt.
I currently get to collaborate with Geof Miller, who owns, drives, and motivates the pill-sorting device project. We’ve drawn in my favorite collaborator to that project: my husband, Dietrich Podmajersky.
What do you think are the obligations of creators to address their culture and society, or is there value in fantasy and escapism?
I’ll push back on that being an “or” question. Sometimes, the best way to address our culture is to create fantasy and escapist fiction, creating a vantage point from which to perceive the culture in a new light. Culture is like glitter: it gets on everything. If a creator doesn’t acknowledge it, plan for it, understand it, the creation will still have glitter on it. While I feel a moral obligation to perform necessary maintenance and repair of our culture, not everybody does. Regardless of the moral obligation, there’s a professional obligation to acknowledge its effect on creative work, and to use it or mitigate it as necessary.
Crunch time! Big project appears on the horizon with a tight deadline. What is your process for success in wrangling the challenge?
Discipline and a calendar. I imagine the final project at the deadline in its best form, and work backward with reasonable time estimates. If that’s just not going to work, I imagine the final project in its 80% form, and work backward again. I push and squeeze the estimates down with compromises and trade-offs, and fit it all in.
If all that fails, I contact all the stakeholders as soon as possible, and work with them to move the deadline, change the project, set different expectations, or cancel the project. It comes down to this: I only get so much time on this planet, in this functional body, with this functional mind. If I am lucky, I’ll still die with projects undone. So if I can’t do a good thing with this project, there are other projects that are a better use of those precious minutes.
If you were given a budget and two years to work on any project you wanted, what would that look like?
I’d create a performance arts collective that would target lobbyists, representatives, appointed judges, and senators with ridicule and facts. Or perhaps I’d get working on those mechanical stories. Or maybe I’d be much more responsible, and begin a content consulting business for UI and fictional projects.
What other “invisible” creative works (like UI) do you think people should pay more attention to?
The kindness of intake nurses. The resourcefulness of maintenance staff. The curriculum differentiation created by classroom teachers. The structured environments created by excellent managers.