Interview with Dell Magazines Award Winner on Found Family and Advice on Writing

Sam Wilson is the winner of the 2023 Dell Magazines Award. Read about the story that took the prize and their journey with writing!

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The Dell Magazines Award for Undergraduate Excellence in Science Fiction and Fantasy Writing is awarded once a year to the “best short story written in the science fiction or fantasy genres by a full-time undergraduate college student,” and the winner is showered with stipends and plaques. This award often kickstarts a promising career in the world of science fiction and fantasy for a young writer. The finalists are invited to the International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts: a four-day event with some of the biggest names in the field of speculative fiction, held in sunny Orlando, Florida.

The conference consists of author panels, readings, scholarly presentations, and even just casual talks around the poolside of the hotel. For an up-and-coming writer, these four days can make all the difference as you establish meaningful connections and learn from the best of the best.

The 2023 attendees of the International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts.

We here at Bookstr had the wonderful honor of speaking with the 2023 winner, Sam Wilson, about their experience with the Dell Magazines Award and the time spent at the conference!

Your story, ‘blooming beating hearts’, won first place at the Dell Magazines Awards and will be published in Asimov’s Science Fiction! Congrats! How did it feel when you learned that you won?

It was an incredible feeling. Honestly, it was surreal—it had been a while since we had submitted, and I had all but forgotten that it was still a possibility. It had felt like a long shot at the time, even, and suddenly hearing that I had won had come as a complete shock. I was in class at the time, and my friend texted me and told me to check my email. I had to stand up and leave after I saw the news so I could hyperventilate in the bathroom and then call my parents. 

The 2023 winner and finalists of the Dell Magazines Awards.

Can you tell me a bit about your story? What inspired it?

I’m a sucker for found-family dynamics, so blooming beating hearts was definitely inspired by all the incredible stories of that type that came before it. It also came a lot from feelings that I had during quarantine, from love of natural spaces and a desire to have greenery and fresh air and connection during that very isolated time. My mother is an incredible gardener, and my father is a lover of science fiction, and so those things taken together definitely gave me a good dose of inspiration for a story like this.

I’ve noticed many of your short stories center around space. What draws you to write about that specific setting in the stars?

I grew up on science fiction and space media, so I love it for that reason, but I think there’s always a lot to explore when it comes to people traveling into the stars and how we maintain humanity in such strange and otherworldly circumstances. It also really factors into my love of liminal spaces—being out there has an inherent feeling of in-betweenness to it that really speaks to me.

Because of your win, you were invited to attend the International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts, focusing on fantasy and science fiction. How have science fiction and fantasy overall influenced you as a writer? 

Those are, without a doubt, my favorite genres, so I would say they’ve influenced me quite a bit. I’ve found some of the most creative and most thought-provoking things I’ve ever read in science fiction and fantasy, and I think they really give a perfect opportunity to both entertain and to make us explore the possibilities of the world.

The logo from the International Association for the Fantastic in the Arts labeled "A scholarly organization devoted to the study of the fantastic (broadly defined) as it appears in literature, film, and the other arts".

Tell me a bit about your experience at the conference. What was it like being there?

It was an absolute trip. I was deeply unprepared for anything of this sort, and so going there felt like a dream—we were wandering around this hotel, famous authors all around us, people giving some of the most fascinating and unique talks that I can imagine. It was such a challenge because I wanted to see everything, but I was constantly having to choose between two [events] that were happening at the same time. I’m really lucky that I both had friends there and made some new friends who were great sources of support and joy during the whole experience.

An image of the Dell Magazine Awards winner, Sam Wilson.

When did you first start writing?

I’ve always made up stories—my mother likes to talk about a comic I (poorly) drew when I was very young called Mister Mister Milk. I think that the writing itself came about in elementary school, though, when I actually learned how to string words together into a sentence.

When you approach a new story, what does your writing process look like?

I tend to keep things in my head for a long time before I feel confident enough to put them down on paper. This has meant that there have been some story concepts that I’ve lost to time, unfortunately, but usually, I try and jot down at least some note to remind me—I have some friends who have much more robust writing processes than I do, and I’m trying to learn from them in order to strengthen my own.

What are you currently reading? Any recommendations?

Currently, I’m reading Trouble the Saints by Alaya Dawn Johnson, although I’ve had to put it on pause due to finals week—it’s an incredible book, though, and I absolutely recommend it.

Alaya Dawn Johnson's novel, 'Trouble the Saints'.

What advice would you give to new writers?

Don’t be afraid to throw yourself into it. I think that too often, we think of writing as something that has to be lucrative or has to support us, and while that is a good plus, you don’t want to lose the love of creation in that. So try not to worry about any of that—put ideas down, be weird, be funny, do what you want to do, and enjoy the process. There’s some incredible community out there, too, and I know there are gonna be people who are going to love your work, so make the things you make because you love them.

Be sure to keep an eye out for blooming beating hearts in an upcoming issue of Asimov’s Science Fiction! We can’t wait to see what Sam writes next!

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