Ghosts in the IM: Conversations With Writers


Sunil Patel

Sunil just recently sold his very first short story! He’s a playwright and an actor in the Bay Area and soon he will be reviewing books for Lightspeed Magazine. He can be found on the internet at and I highly recommend following him on Twitter.



Minerva Zimmerman: So you just sold your very first short story!

Sunil Patel: I did! I keep telling people this and I still don’t believe it.

MZ: That’s so awesome. It’s a big step.

SP: And I’m sharing a table of contents with some unbelievable names, like Ken Liu, Cat Rambo, Seanan McGuire, Andy Duncan…people with AWARDS AND SHIT.

MZ: And you just got back from LonCon

SP: My second Worldcon!

MZ: I really like following you on Twitter because you just get so exuberant about everything. It’s like getting the cliff notes about the stuff I care about

SP: I love turning people on to things I love. I always think about the mark I make on the world, and I want it to be a positive one. Even if I do nothing else before I die, if I was the reason you watched Avatar: The Last Airbender, then I did something good in this world.

MZ: 🙂 I feel like there’s a good chance that if you like something I’ll like something.

SP: And that’s good! It’s good to be aware of people’s tastes. I like to think my recommendations are the best, but they’re only the best if you agree with me and what I look for in things. I tend to be more positive in general than most people, I think, which means I even like things that are generally derided, like the first Transformers movie.

MZ: What was your favorite part about your trip. You seemed to be eating your way through Paris prior to the con

SP: And I just hope the fact that I like some things that may not be objectively good doesn’t invalidate my recommending genuinely amazing things. With regards to Paris, the dinner I had on my last night was definitely a highlight, one of the best meals I’ve ever had. Foie gras (I’M SORRY DUCKS I’M REALLY SORRY BUT OH MY GOD), roast duck, pain perdu, and…you know, I just had Subway. Sorry, stomach, please forgive me, I’ll put something wonderful in you again soon enough.

But another highlight was acquiring some single-serving travel buddies at the Eiffel Tower. Two 19-year-old girls, both from England, I believe, and one of Iranian descent. And they were the BIGGEST NERDS EVER. At one point they were singing the Pokémon theme song. On the Eiffel Tower.

I loved that our geekery bonded us strangers together for one night.

MZ: So random, but so awesome that geekery can bring people together. Though I am realizing that 19 year olds probably don’t remember a world in which Pokemon didn’t exist and that’s sort of weirding me out

SP: And there are so many kids who have never known a world without The Simpsons.

MZ: Yeah, I’ve been watching the marathon sitting here sick on the sofa.

SP: Kids? Adults. Shit.

MZ: And realizing that some of these episodes I remember airing, aired like 20+ years ago

SP: I feel really old all the time, even though I know I’m young. And I keep feeling like I should have started getting serious about writing and submitting years ago. I should have written FIFTEEN BOOKS at my age or whatever.

MZ: Yeah. I get that feeling too.

SP: I know every writer has a different path. There are plenty of stories of successful writers who started late in life, and they’re heartening. But then I hear the stories of people who wrote their first novels as teenagers and I’m like SHUT UP.

MZ: Well, I think there’s partly a thing where you can’t generally start too young because there’s some fundamental amount of work that needs to come first. I mean most people wrote young, but that doesn’t mean they’d learned yet

SP: I wrote a book called The Disastrous Dino War when I was nine. I also illustrated it. I’ll bet you can’t guess what it’s about.

MZ: clowns?

SP: Close! It’s about a dino war. It was disastrous.

MZ: Hehehehe

SP: I will never misspell that word. Never ever.

MZ: I’m on cold medicine, so that’s really funny to me today.

SP: Because the day before I was to submit that book for a contest, I realized I had “Disasterous” on the cover and title page and that was not the correct spelling and I had to redo them both. Disaster-ous! Like a disaster! IT MAKES SENSE. Goddammit, English language.

MZ: oh no. I wrote a book of poetry for a young writer’s contest at like 7, it’s terrible stuff like: “A bear makes tears, A Mom repairs”

SP: “Sandy ate pears”

MZ: but Dear Mr. Henshaw was my favorite book ever, and I HAD to go to the young author’s meeting

SP: “They fell on their derrieres” I loved that book!

MZ: and like you had to turn in a book to go!

SP: (There are so many books today where I say, “I loved that book!” but I was a kid and I have literally no memory of the book, I just know I read it.)

MZ: I was working at the kitchen table trying to come up with a story and I truly thought my life was ending when I couldn’t make anything work. At 7!

SP: What a tragedy!

MZ: I was like knocking back shots of apple juice in despair!

SP: Despair, see, that’s another good rhyme.

MZ: pretty sure I used that, also something about a goblin

SP: “The goblin scares”

MZ: yep, that was it

SP: I feel pretty good about being as talented as a 7-year-old.

MZ: 😀 So, I try to keep that in mind when everthing seems terrible and I’m never going to be a “real” writer.

SP: For me, it’s trying to put into perspective my writing path as opposed to other people’s. Some people just wrote and wrote and wrote continually since they were children, and then they wrote all the time, and they wrote books, and they couldn’t stop.

MZ: Yeah if you try to navigate by other people’s milestones, you’re going to end up lost.

SP: That wasn’t me. For me, I only wrote for contests as I was growing up. That was what motivated me to write something. The first major story I wrote just because I had an idea and I wanted to write it was called “Polter-Cow,” which I then adopted as my online persona, hence my Twitter handle of ghostwritingcow.

MZ: Heh, I really like the idea of Ghost Cows there is apparently a place here in Oregon that gets them

SP: It came from an enemy in the Sega Genesis game Toejam and Earl 2: Panic on Funkatron.

MZ: ohhhh yeah

SP: But anyway, after that first story I wrote just to write a story, I ended up taking creative writing courses in college, and I wrote a lot in college.

MZ: didn’t that have a really spooky sound effect?

SP: I remembered the other day that I even wrote a short screenplay.

MZ: You’re also really active in theater

SP: I don’t remember the sound effect! Possibly.

Right, I got hooked on theater in college and took a dramatic writing course, and once I got to the Bay Area, I started writing monologues and short plays. And I have to keep reminding myself: all of that, ALL OF THAT was writing. I didn’t just start writing last year and then sell a story nine months later.

MZ: Yeah, I don’t think anyone really does that. I mean everything has to be in your brain first.

SP: I’m in a weird paradoxical mode where it feels like I did that since I only started submitting to SFF magazines recently. But I’ve been writing for years and years, in so many different forms. I wrote a lot in online journals as well.

 MZ: Right, but I mean it’s kind of like making gumbo. First you make a roux, then you start cooking your onions and garlic, and then you start throwing in ingredients from all over and you have something sorta in mind, but it isn’t the same every time.

SP: That metaphor is going way over my head because the most complicated thing I can make is chili and that is dumping things into a pot.

MZ: hahahaha, so is this sorta, but in an order

SP: First you drop in your terrible dinosaur book, mix in a story about a ghost cow, sprinkle in some theater…

 MZ: I mean everyone has their basic writing skills, and then all the books and stuff they’ve ever read, then all their experiences

SP: Who even knows where words come from?

MZ: and then there’s so much writing that has to happen in all different kinds of things before you can put something together good enough to publish

SP: Every time I look at a story I’ve written I don’t really understand where it came from. Words are weird.

MZ: Words are weird. Brains too.

SP: I tried to add up if I’d written my million words of crap. I forget the total I came to but I hadn’t included all my online journal stuff and I think that counts because that was a lot of crap.

MZ: I have a weird question. Have you read a lot of plays?

SP: I have read a lot of plays! Both for class and for fun.

MZ: I had a weird TA gig where I had a lot of free time in the drama department, so I ended up reading all the plays starting with A. I think I got to about S

SP: What was your favorite?

 MZ: I really liked the original Arsenic and Old Lace because all the Boris Karloff jokes make more sense in that character was actually portrayed by Boris Karloff

SP: That play is hilarious. The movie’s great too.

MZ: Auntie Mame too

SP: Really like those A plays, then.

MZ: I did apparently. I wish I’d kept better track of what I’d read

SP: I need to go back through time and ask my past self to update my Goodreads.

MZ: my past self is such a pain in my ass

SP: I like to think that I am currently the best version of me that has ever been because, hoo boy, some of my past selves.

MZ: ahahahaha I just wish I could delegate more or at least have them undo some of their mistakes. I work at a museum, and I’m always telling people to write the records and notes in the records as letters to their future selves telling them what they were thinking at the time. Cause your future self will curse you otherwise.

SP: I am so incredibly grateful for all the journaling I did because it was basically offloading my memory into digital form.

MZ: Yeah I’ve gotten out of the habit

SP: I can read past entries and there are so many details of good times I had with friends that I cannot access in my brain anymore. So I guess they happened. Probably. I can’t really trust what I wrote to be accurate though.

MZ: I wonder if it is a thing that happens in life or not

SP: I think it’s also because now there is so much more Internet. LiveJournal used to be The Place and then Facebook and Twitter sort of became the way people communicated instead. And now Tumblr.

MZ: it’s true. I remember when LJ was most of my internet. I prefer Twitter in a lot of ways, but I can’t deal with Facebook at all.

SP: I feel that I have been neglecting Facebook for Twitter, which is sad because I love Facebook. Facebook is where my friends are. Not that I don’t have friends on Twitter, but Facebook is where the people I have known for years in real life—mostly my college friends and theater friends—talk.

MZ: I never liked the user interface, so I never really got into it.

SP: The response to my Facebook post announcing that I sold my first short story was tremendous. I felt so supported, even by people I hadn’t actually talked to in years. Also being able to use more than 140 characters when communicating is a plus.

MZ: Yeah, I do miss LJ for that. But I feel like people just don’t really comment on journal posts anymore

SP: Which saddens me because it’s the only way I know someone has actually read it. Otherwise I feel like I’m shouting into the void.

MZ: Yeah, but I mean I guess that’s what writing is a lot of the time, so it isn’t necessarily bad… just feedback is nice.

SP: Writing—all art—is a form of communication, an expression of ideas, so it’s nice to know that you’ve reached someone in some way. Even if it’s simply “I have no reaction to this at all but I have heard you and internalized your words and I have no choice but to be irrevocably changed by this experience because that is how life works.”

MZ: I’m looking forward to reading your short

SP: I’m looking forward to you reading my short story! Also dreading. I’m excited/terrified.

MZ: Sounds about right 🙂

SP: I hear it never gets any easier.

MZ: nope, fraid not

SP: Lord, what fools these writers be.

MZ: Hark, but I do hear the morning lark

wait, no… that’s just a cold medicine hallucination

SP: Nay, ’tis the afternoon ibis.

MZ: /coughcoughcoughlaughcough

SP: That joke is only funny to me because we were all birds on Twitter earlier today because, you know, Twitter.

 MZ: Makes sense. I’m still sort of sneaking up on today. I really don’t recommend this cold.

SP: I resolve not to get it, and I will not recommend it to others.

MZ: Good plan. Well, I think that about wraps it up for this. Anything you want to make sure to talk about?

SP: I did want to put in a plug for Worldcon as a fantastic convention to go to, as last year’s Worldcon was what showed me how lovely and supportive the SFF community is and inspired me to officially join it as a writer.

MZ: Cool. That is a much stronger recommendation to go next year than a lot of things.

SP: I’ve already registered for next year. Hope to see you there!

MZ: Kind of curious how that’s going to go with it being not close to a hub airport

SP: Perhaps they will organize mammoth caravans or dragon rides.

MZ: ooo dragons. that would make it memorable

SP: Make it happen, George R.R. Martin.