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Conversation with P.A. Cornell

P.A. delves into formative moments in her writing career, her grasp of online self-promotion, being the first Chilean nominee for a Nebula Award, full-time writing, and where the speculative community will go from here.

Conversation with P.A. Cornell

Nebula-nominated P.A. Cornell is a Chilean-Canadian Odyssey graduate who has published over thirty original pieces of short fiction in respected magazines, including Lightspeed, Apex, and Fantasy. Her work has also appeared in over twenty anthologies, including Year’s Best Canadian Fantasy & Science Fiction, Volumes 1 and 2, the former also listing her debut novella, Lost Cargo, as one of the best of 2022. In addition to becoming the first Chilean writer nominated for a Nebula Award in 2024, Cornell has been nominated for the Aurora Award, was longlisted for the 2023 BSFA Awards, and won Canada’s 2022 Short Works Prize. Visit to learn more.

P.A. is the author of “Decorative” from Radon Issue 7.

Q: You’ve written speculative stories since you were eight. Can you tell us about a formative moment in your long writing career—one that truly shaped what your writing has become?

Attending the Odyssey Writing Workshop in 2002 had a huge impact on me as a writer. I learned so much from that experience and from the feedback I received from Jeanne Cavelos and the other writers. Prior to this, I’d been entirely on my own as far as writing was concerned so all I knew I’d learned through reading fiction and craft books. I hadn’t really been around anyone who could give me personalized feedback before, so that experience was invaluable.

Q: “Decorative” explores the relationship between Dean, a human, and Annie, a robot. What sort of relationship dynamics does writing in the speculative mode—that Annie is a robot owned and maintained by Dean—open up for you to explore?

The idea for this story just came from relationships between human beings (be they romantic or otherwise) and thinking about how we so often take each other for granted. Dean isn’t a bad person, but he is a flawed person, as we all are to one extent or another. He means to take better care of Annie, but his priorities aren’t always aligned with that. The fact that Annie is Dean’s property in my story is of course different from a regular relationship, but all I intend this to mean is that he has a responsibility toward Annie, and that can still apply to relationships between humans. We aren’t responsible for other people’s feelings, exactly, but we still make real or implied promises to each other, and there’s a responsibility there.

Annie, being a machine, makes it really easy to point to what she needs, how Dean fails her, and just what happens when he does. It’s not always so obvious with living people, so it’s something we need to be aware of in our relationships. Annie also can’t get fed up and leave, so the fact that she’s a robot brings home the damage Dean is causing in a way that might be less stark if she were human and this were simply a piece of literary fiction. She depends on Dean, so his failure seems that much worse. But it’s really just meant to shine a light on the fact that we owe it to those we care for to show them they matter, before it’s too late.

Q: You are the first Chilean nominee for a Nebula award. How do you see the speculative fiction landscape changing for Chilean writers (and for South American writers at large) over the next decade?

I can’t say how things will change, but I would certainly like to see more stories from South American writers, and really, writers from elsewhere outside the English-speaking world. For something like the Nebulas though, these works must be published in English, which can be limiting for some authors. I’m happy to see venues like Samovar and Clarkesworld make an effort toward inclusivity from around the globe, and I’d just like to see more of that. I was involved a little with Constelación when they were around, because this is something I believe in. It’s just a shame they had to close. I’m hopeful that my nomination at least serves to inspire other authors from Chile and elsewhere to give publishing in English-language markets a shot. It's a little different for me since I’m based in Canada, and fluent in English, but I think just seeing yourself represented can open doors you didn’t realize were there.

Q: You are an excellent master of promotion online. What practices do you employ to stay sane balancing the demands of writing and the demands of self-promotion in the 2020s?

This made me laugh. I certainly don’t think of myself as a master of promotion. Like most artists, promotion is something I do reluctantly because it’s already so difficult to get eyes on stories even when you do promote. It’s definitely tough to balance both sides of this business though. For me, writing has to be my priority, because that’s the part of this business that I love. I try to do the promoting in the little pockets of time that are left between writing and my daily life’s demands. Some days leave more room for that than others.

I feel like what’s key though is to do the type of promotion that feels right for you. For instance, I hate recording video of myself so I don’t really do that. I’m not on TikTok mostly for that reason. But I do enjoy talking to other people so I’ve done a lot of interviews. I also come from a photography background so things like designing graphics, or shooting promotional images are something I’m okay with doing. You have to find your thing because if it’s something you’re going to be doing a lot of, it can’t feel too uncomfortable or unpleasant or you just won’t be able to do it consistently.

Q: What, if anything, do you attribute your current amazing string of successes (both story and award-wise)?

So much is out of our control in this business that all you can really do is focus on the parts you can control. Publishing, especially when it comes to short fiction, is largely a numbers game. If you just keep writing and submitting, you’re bound to raise those sale numbers too. And of course the more you write, the more your skills will improve—at least that’s the idea.

I forget who said that it’s not possible to write 365 bad stories—assuming you write a story a day for a year. I’ve said before that I don’t write every day, but I’m still fairly prolific because when I do write, I tend to write a lot, so that helps, but everyone’s circumstances are different.

You also have to make time to read. You learn so much from reading even without consciously trying to. When it comes to awards, I certainly didn’t send, “Once Upon a Time at The Oakmont,” out on submission with a nomination as my goal. I just hoped it would land somewhere where people could read it, and hopefully that these readers would enjoy it. The only control I had there was in deciding what places to submit to, but the acceptance from Fantasy Magazine was in all other respects out of my hands. Of course I was thrilled they wanted it and that this made it possible for enough people to read it that it did eventually garner these nominations.

Q: How has your journey been going from writing part-time before 2015 to full-time ever since?

I’m privileged to be able to do what I love full-time. That said, I’m also a mom of three, so “full-time” is relative. I definitely don’t have the luxury of writing from nine to five like it’s a full-time office job. And as mentioned above, there are also writing-related things that aren’t writing that can eat up a lot of time, such as promotion, research, etc.

That all said, it’s been immensely freeing for me to be able to do this when I’m able to carve out some time between my other daily obligations. When I had a regular “day job” it was much harder for me to write because I also still had all the same every day life stuff to deal with, plus a job that didn’t include my writing, and that left very little time to actually flex that creative muscle. People make it work but it was incredibly hard for me, which is why I wasn’t really publishing fiction then.

I’m in awe of people who manage to write entire book series with just fifteen minutes of time a day. I remember hearing John Grisham say that when he was a lawyer he’d scribble stories down on his yellow legal pads between court cases. That’s amazing to me. It takes me considerable time to really get into the flow state so I’m definitely the kind of writer that needs a bit more space in which to do that.

Q: Do you glue your Lego sets together when you finish building them?

No way. I still look at Lego from the point-of-view of a kid. To me it’s a toy. It’s meant to be something you can take apart and rebuild or reinvent. I do keep them assembled, but if they were to get knocked off a shelf by my cats (which is bound to happen one of these days) I’d be fine with starting over and building them again. I enjoy the process. It’s soothing to me. I’d never want them to permanently remain in that final form. It’s not what Lego is intended for.

Q: Do you have a published story that fans who meet you will routinely ask about? And how do you navigate the world of in-person appearances and story readings?

I don’t think there’s any one story that people routinely ask about. I have often been surprised by the ones that people consider their favorites though. It’s not that I think they’re bad, it’s just sometimes stories that maybe didn’t get a lot of attention when they were first published. It’s wonderful to learn that they resonated with someone and that they still think about that story. As for in-person appearances, I don’t do a lot of them, mostly because in Canada there aren’t as many opportunities for such things as there are in the U.S.

When my novella, Lost Cargo, came out, it was also still at the height of COVID concerns, so I wasn’t able to do something like an in-person book tour. My readings have thus far all been online. But I do try to get to at least one or two in-person events every year. This year, I’ll be attending the Nebula conference, as well as the award show. I’ll also be at the World Fantasy Convention. This will be my first time at both of these and I’m really looking forward to them. I didn’t sign up for panels in either case simply because I have a lot on my plate this year, but I’m happy just to be there as an attendee and get to see some of my writer friends in person, as well as meet new people.

Q: Do you consider yourself primarily a short-form writer, or forgo labels and simply write what you’re interested in?

I write my stories to whatever length seems right for them. I actually started out writing novel-length fiction, but I’ve published more short fiction simply because it’s a lot faster to write and a lot easier to get published. I also really enjoy the way short fiction lets me explore different themes and experiment with things like structure, pov, or whatever. It’s a lot of fun for me. I’ve never seen short fiction as a stepping stone toward writing books. First of all, they’re entirely different forms of writing. And second, I feel short fiction is just as valid as long-form fiction.

It bothers me that many people, including many writers, view short fiction as somehow lesser. It’s not. It’s incredibly difficult to tell a complete story in fewer words. I’ve enjoyed going shorter over my career as a challenge. I still haven’t got the hang of microfiction but I hope to one day. I have huge respect for people who write it and I feel flash and microfiction deserve greater recognition. I’m also working on some novel-length fiction these days, but I have no plans to give up short fiction. I just enjoy it too much to walk away.

Q: What are your thoughts on the short-form speculative community, from where it is now to where you hope it will end up?

I think people are publishing some really creative stories. One recent such story that comes to mind is Caroline M. Yoachim’s, “We Will Teach You How to Read | We Will Teach You How to Read,” which was published this May in Lightspeed. I was blown away by how unique that story is. I’d truly never read anything like it. And I feel a lot of authors are taking some big swings like that, which is awesome. So I hope to see more of that sort of thing. It’s inspiring.

As for what I hope, this again goes back to seeing more diversity in writing. We’ve made some strides in terms of what was available when I was growing up versus what we have now, but there’s always room for more. As I said earlier, I’d like more opportunities to read what’s being published elsewhere in other languages. I’d like to see less rigidity in terms of what’s considered proper story structure. I’d like to see stories by minority groups be about more than just our struggles, since we are complete people with more than one kind of story to tell.

We’ve come a long way, but it’s still just the first steps on a long journey and a journey that is always developing in unexpected ways. Our job as artists is to be open to that, and to welcome the changes with excitement. I look forward to participating in that process.

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