This installment of the Author Showcase with Ada Hoffman. Ada Hoffmann is the author of the space opera novel THE OUTSIDE, the collection MONSTERS IN MY MIND, and dozens of speculative short stories and poems. Ada was diagnosed with Autism at the age of 13, and is passionate about autistic self-advocacy. Her Autistic Book Party review series is devoted to in-depth discussions of autism representation in speculative fiction. Much of her own work also features autistic characters.
Q. What made you decide to try your hand at becoming a published author?
A. I’ve been making up stories for basically as long as I knew what stories were. But I didn’t start trying to publish anything until university. I had this very vivid moment when I was writing the draft of something angsty and teenage. (This story never quite hung together enough to be publishable, but it had its moments: its name was “Posey’s Psychically Resonant Super-Plants.”) I had this flash of realization about what I was doing – that I was processing my feelings through writing in a way that I couldn’t do through more conventional methods, like talking about them. It was very intense. I thought, “I need to keep doing this if I want to live.”
After that moment, I figured that if writing was that important to me, I should try to be as successful with it as possible. So I started looking around at genre magazines, joining critique groups, and trying to write publishable short stories. Now here we are.
Q. I saw that in your day job you are a professor of computer science, for a personal question how does one teach a computer to write poetry?
A. There are a bunch of options! You can make template lines giving a grammatical structure, then fill in those lines with appropriate words. You can use a technique like a Hidden Markov Model (HMM), which studies a source text to find out which words are most likely to appear next in a sequence (this is similar to the autocomplete function on your phone). You can have it look on the Internet and create “found poetry” – for instance, a sonnet made out of tweets that happen to rhyme with each other.
These days, of course, you can just ask ChatGPT to do it. The models of AI writing that have everyone in a tizzy lately are called large language models (LMMs). They’re a type of neural network. Like HMMs, they’re trying to predict the next word in a sequence; but they’re much more advanced than an HMM because they use a structure with many layers to discover subtler patterns in their source data. (They also use various other neat tricks that help them deal with the structure of written text.) They’re also trained on a metric fuckton of data – basically everything that was ever posted to the Internet. ChatGPT doesn’t have any rules encoded that specifically tell it how to write poetry, but it’s seen poetry before, so if you ask it to make a poem, it can put one together based on the patterns it’s seen.
People are concerned about LLMs for a lot of good reasons. Their training sets include a lot of copyrighted work that was used without permission, and now they’re being used to try to replace the original artists and writers! (There are other ethical issues, but that’s the most glaring one.) So I want to stress that when I first started researching computer poetry, it wasn’t like that. A lot of the earliest practitioners were poets themselves who wanted to experiment with language and see what the arbitrary choices of a computer could add to their process. Then computer scientists picked up on that idea and tried to see how far we could take it. In graduate school I approached it almost as a game.
For people who have been in the field a long time, the way it all blew up when ChatGPT happened was kind of a shock! Some researchers have embraced it wholeheartedly, while others, like the writers I know, are pretty upset.
Q. Do you have time / organization tricks you have to keep your writing on track?
A. Not really. I think a lot about how I split my energy between my day job, my writing, and my everyday chores, and I’m always fiddling with my systems for doing that. But my most consistent finding is that no amount of organizational tricks will help if you’re too burned out to write anything. I am at my most prolific by far when I’m writing for fun and to get things off my chest, not out of any external or self-imposed pressure. This doesn’t always result in publishable work, but the better I treat myself and the better my mental health is, the more bandwidth I have to focus on publishable projects.
Q. Who are the authors who inspire you?
A. I’m inspired by authors with really wild imaginations, the ones where every page of the book is full of bright, weird, beautiful, mind-bending detail. Some of my favorites in this vein include Essa Hansen, Yoon Ha Lee, China Miéville, and Catherynne M. Valente. I’m also inspired by writers who show particular skills, either ones I don’t have enough of and wish I did, or ones that are just particularly important to me as a writer. I want to absorb more of the thoughtful nuance in R.B. Lemberg or Isaac Fellman’s stories, the sheer personality of Martha Wells or Tamsyn Muir, or the character work of Lois McMaster Bujold.
Q. You were diagnosed with Aspergers at 13, do you think it is important that neurodiverse people be able tell their own stories?
A. Yes, absolutely. (It’s no longer called Asperger’s, by the way; they changed the diagnostic categories, so it’s all just autism now.) I think we’ve made strides – there are way more openly neurodivergent SFF authors now than when I started out. But it’s still almost a universal experience that if you’re autistic, editors and readers will bounce off of them and say they’re “unlikeable” and that they “couldn’t connect” – or, worse, that they’re not proper autistic characters because they don’t resemble the one that the editor saw on TV last week. It’s more difficult for most autistic authors to navigate the treacherous social waters of publicity, or the networking you’re supposed to do (often in a loud, crowded bar) at conventions.
So I think it’s extremely important to keep raising up and boosting neurodivergent voices. But I’m not exclusionist about it: people who aren’t openly neurodivergent can write excellent books about neurodivergent characters, too. Some of these people are neurodivergent but don’t know it yet, or don’t want to share it with the public; others are just respectful writers who’ve done the research. I also think that neurodivergent authors’ writing can be really important even if they’re not writing about neurodivergence. When we focus too narrowly on representing identities, we can miss the other worthy things that marginalized people have to say.
I have an ongoing, somewhat intermittent review series called Autistic Book Party where I review autistic science fiction and fantasy. My definition of “autistic books” includes any SFF book with autistic characters, regardless of who it’s written by; and any SFF book written by an openly autistic author, regardless of whether there’s any mention of autism. I like to define things as inclusively as possible.
Q. What is your next project you are working on? Do you have any plans for a new series like the Outside Trilogy?
A. I have a collection of shorter work, called RESURRECTIONS, coming out from Apex Books in December – keep your eyes peeled for more news about that soon. I’ve also got some WIP projects I can’t talk much about yet, but one (a secondary world fantasy with a lot of trans characters) is novel-length and well underway. I feel like, if I can get it to work, it’s going to really strike a chord for a lot of my readers.
Q. If people want more info about you or your books where should they go?
A. To my website, ada-hoffmann.com! It’s all there. If you want updates and news in your inbox, then you can also subscribe to my Substack, Everything Is True (adahoffmann.substack.com)! You can sign up for free to get updates, book reviews, and occasional essays about writing, neurodiversity, AI, and the nature of reality. If you want to read even more about that, or just support my work in general, there’s also a paid version.
Q. When the zombies take over the world where will you be?
A. Probably dead lol. My survival instincts are not the greatest.
(I did once write an “anti-zombie story,” by the way. I have mixed feelings about the style of violence in so many zombie stories, the way you’re supposed to just fight your way through a horde of bodies that it’s okay to do whatever to because they aren’t actual people. So I wrote about a non-violent survival class in a world that’s been overrun by vaguely zombie-like creatures. Also, one of the zombies is your mom. It’s called “And All The Fathomless Crowds”; you can find it in the anthology “Dead North: Canadian Zombie Stories,” or in my first collection, “Monsters In My Mind.’)
Q. What is your favorite fandom?
A. I’m a big Star Wars nerd. If you know me well, take me out for a drink sometime and ask me about the parallels between the Dark Side of the Force and the idea of the shadow self in psychoanalysis. I’ll go on for a while.
Q. What piece of art, be it in the form of music, a book, a film or picture, do you think people must experience before they die?
A. I don’t think there’s any one good answer to this question. Psychologists of art will tell you that the response to art involves the whole brain and is different for each person, or for the same person at different times in their lives. What’s powerful and profound and life-changing for me will be a total swing and a miss for someone else. I think the best thing a person can do as an appreciator of art is to learn to self-reference – to pay attention to what actually speaks to them and why and how, and not just what someone else thinks should speak to them.
Q. Give one fact that most people would not believe about you?
A. In 2014 I tried going off my meds and that turned out to be a bad idea, so I ended up writing one of the chapters of THE OUTSIDE while I was experiencing psychosis. It’s actually not the weirdest chapter in the book, although it’s one of the angstier ones.