AUTHOR INTERVIEW: Arula Ratnakar

"I always put my special interests into my stories, in fact, the combination of my set of special interests at any given point in time is always the foundation for my stories."

Arula Ratnakar is an autistic, bisexual scientist, artist and science fiction writer whose published stories can be found in Clarkesworld Magazine, and whose artwork can be found in Dark Matter Magazine. She is interested in the neuroscience of procedural and declarative memory, optogenetics inventions, and brain simulation science, and she hopes to become an astronaut in the future.

Tell me about a recent work you released - a short story, a poem, a book, a game. What one work of yours do you hope readers will go out and read today? What's it about?

My most recently published novella, “Submergence” is free to read in the March 2021 issue of Clarkesworld, is something I hope people will read. It’s a hard science fiction mystery story that explores the ethics of a disease cure which uses a living organism, and an exploration of what it would be like to live another person’s memories for an investigation, and also explores different socio-communicative strategies.

What do you enjoy most about writing?

I can combine all my special interests into a story, and make up and solve whatever problems I want! My favorite thing to do is problem-solve and find solutions to puzzles, and that satisfying feeling is what I get from designing story plots.That is very much my favorite part about writing! I can design buildings and experiments and people and plots all at the same time, and make full use of all parts of my architecture and science education to solve fascinating problems.

Tell me about a special interest of yours. Have you found yourself incorporating your special interests into your fiction?

I always put my special interests into my stories, in fact, the combination of my set of special interests at any given point in time is always the foundation for my stories. For my novella "Submergence", I put my special interest in deep sea ecology to use designing the sea sponge Panaceius meyeri, as well as my special interest in optogenetics and the neuroscience of memory, and my special interest in virology! I also designed a Fibonacci-music cipher when I was in high school, and I put messages encrypted through it into my architectural drawings. That cipher is in "Submergence" too, and if people read it, they might be able to decrypt my drawings! I have several special interests at a time, but some are more temporary while others are permanent. Fiction is the best medium for me to let all of my enthusiasm for these special interests out at once, and make them shine!

What one thing do you wish more speculative fiction readers knew about autism?

I wish more of them could see the difference between empathy and compassion. I really feel upset about the cold, emotionless autistic characters I always see onscreen and in older science fiction particularly. Autism (at least to me) isn’t an issue with feeling the correct thing at the correct time. It’s a disability that affects communication and being able to understand how other people who are different from you will react in a situation. This doesn’t mean we are cruel, or cold. And this also doesn’t excuse prejudices and discrimination against people, which I often see autistic characters onscreen display, which upsets me too. 

Do you have any writing advice for other autistic people?

I would advise them to consider using their special interests in fiction! They have a fantastic enthusiasm and passion for these topics, and that kind of determination to learn things can be beautifully exemplified through their stories. Again, fiction to me is amazing as an outlet for these special interests, and a way to get other people to learn about them and become excited about them too!