Q: Tongue dares Dorner to see who he really is—and for Rin to see that too. What he finds is disturbing to both of them, but ultimately (at least in my reading) liberating. You seem to suggest that self-knowledge, if it doesn’t kill you, might just set you free.

RS: They’re both committed to their course. They both seem to be energized and enthusiastic about it, even though there’s the recognition that there could be a dark end. That’s how it works, doesn’t it? People don’t want to be repressed. They want to throw off their strictures. They can’t feel desire unless they ignore and violate the rules. Things forbidden are important. I feel sorry for all of us, but especially for Rin and Dorner, that they have to endure what they do.

Q: And all for the sake of their love of fire.

RS: Fire has always been allied with uncontrolled desire, for a good reason. Fire is the sudden and destructive release of energy. It’s gorgeous. Beautiful.

Q: In Clemency, Vapos is on the furnace level. It provides heat, but the fire is protected and controlled.

RS: Yes, fire is hidden from view. People can’t go down there. But it’s raging beneath the dome.

Q: On the asteroid, fire is out in the open. From the vivid descriptions, we get the sense that you’ve spent some time observing fire.

RS: I love fire. I wanted to be a fireman when I was a kid. After graduating from college, the first job I applied for was with the Berkeley Fire Department. Those big red BFD trucks would go screaming down the streets, and I’d be screaming, "Take me with you." Doing research for this book gave me an excuse to go on some controlled burns. What an experience. Low-flying choppers dropping fire bombs on the forests. Walls of fire, tornadoes of fire. I was with the chief on one burn, and he was as hopped-up as I was. He turns to me and says, "In our hearts, we’re all pyromaniacs." Controlled burns are a pyromaniac’s dream, because you get to start the fires yourself.

Q: This is your first foray into outer space.

RS: Well— How different is Vapos from the molten realm of Animus, or the mineral sky of Hope? The domain of Dawn and the Dream man is extra-terrestrial, and so is the blue sea of the Polyp. For my purposes, all these places are unearthly.

Q: As in your other projects, the balance between inner and outer worlds is precarious.

RS: As in life, I think. For most of us, the way in which the balance is established is critical. And it’s often the source of trouble. To live on the outside means to be continually integrating new experiences—new places, new people, new ideas; and you assume a new identity when it pleases you. That’s healthful and rejuvenating. But it’s the life of a consumer, and it carries with it all the dangers of consumption: numbness, shallowness, indolence and triviality. Living on the inside is essential to the act of creation—using what was gleaned from outside to build something of your own. That’s a human ultimate. But it has its own set of dangers: solitude, arrogance, mental and emotional starvation, and paranoia.

Q: Once again, you take us into an ideational realm at odds with reality. And once again, your narrative voice celebrates the unreal side of the battle.

RS: Once again. Over the years I’ve learned that some readers can go there and some can’t. I have a theory that people who are disturbed by the thought of embracing a figmental reality are reacting to something traumatic in their past—a loved one who was an alcoholic or an addict or had mental problems. I don’t want to inflict my writing on people who find it troubling. Maybe we should put a warning on the cover.

Q: In Rin, Tongue and Dorner, the real is the world of Clemency, of Planning and family. The unreal is Tongue.

RS: My mission, it seems, is to explore the tug-of-war between powers that secure us to reality, and those that want to hurl us away, for good or ill. In that conflict, companionate love—the glue of society—is forever at war with passion. The two can’t be peaceably reconciled. When there’s coexistence, it’s a precarious one. And real resolution only comes with the annihilation of one state or the other.