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An hour long conversation with Susan Forest, award-winning author of science fiction and fantasy that has appeared in Asimov’s Science Fiction, Analog Science Fiction and Fact, Intergalactic Medicine Show, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and OnSPEC Magazine, among others, and the new young-adult fantasy novel Bursts of Fire, the first in a seven-volume series, Addicted to Heaven, from Laksa Media.
Susan Forest’s short fiction has appeared in Asimov’s Science Fiction, Analog Science Fiction and Fact, Intergalactic Medicine Show, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and OnSPEC Magazine, among others. Her collection of short fiction, Immunity to Strange Tales, was published by Five Rivers Publishing, and her nonfiction has appeared in Legacy Magazine, Alberta Views Magazine, and the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America Blog. Her short stories, “Back,” “Turning It Off,” and “The Gift” were finalists for the Prix Aurora Award, and her novella, Lucy, won the Galaxy Project, juried by Robert Silverberg, David Drake, and Barry Malzburg. “For a Rich Man to Enter” is nominated for the Prix Aurora Award this year (2019).
Bursts of Fire, the first in a seven-volume young-adult epic fantasy series, Addicted to Heaven, came out in August from Laksa Media, and will be followed by Flights of Marigolds in 2020.
Susan was the editor for Technicolor Ultra Mall (Edge), a finalist for the Prix Aurora Award in 2013. Strangers Among Us, and The Sum of Us, both of which she edited for Laksa Media, each won the Prix Aurora Award, in 2017 and 2018. The third in Laksa Media’s social issues anthology series, Shades Within Us, was released in 2018 and is nominated for the 2019 Prix Aurora Award.
Susan served two terms as Secretary for the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (2015-2016). She has judged the Endeavor and Sunburst Awards, teaches creative writing in Calgary, and presents at international writing conventions several times each year.
Susan is also a painter and visual artist whose landscapes have been displayed as part of the Stampede Western Showcase in her hometown of Calgary, Alberta.
The (Lightly Edited) Transcript
Hello, hello, hello.
Now, we’ve known each other for a few years.
Because a science fiction convention in Calgary, which turned into When Words Collide in a roundabout sort of way, was what first started me going over to Calgary on a yearly basis. And I think probably the first time I went, I probably met you. And that’s been a long time ago now.
Probably. Yes, I remember.
Well, I always like to start these by taking guests…I usually say back into the mists of time, which is becoming almost a cliché on the show, but I’m going to say it anyway, because it fits…going back into the mists of time, how did you first become interested in science fiction and fantasy and how did you become interested in writing it? And you know, where did you grow up and all that kind of thing?
Yes. Well, I think the first books I really remember reading, like full novels, were Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Tarzan series. My dad, actually, was a big fan…oh, way back in the ‘30s, when they were super popular, and he would go to second-hand bookstores and bring them back from my older brother to read, actually. And so we didn’t necessarily start with Tarzan of the Apes. We started with whatever second-hand book he could find at the store. So, my brother would read them and then he would pass them on to me. So, that’s a huge memory as far as reading is concerned.
But, yeah, I always thought of myself as a writer from the time I was quite small, I think I was in Grade 2, and I wrote a book called Jimmy, the Fish that Couldn’t Swim. That’s the first thing I remember writing. And then, when I was in Grade 7, I used to…I was a very studious person, and I would…I had a big binder with all my subjects in it, and when the teacher was finished teaching, they’d usually give us some time to do some homework. So, I’d sit at the back, I’d get my homework done, and then I had a novel at the back of my binder, and I would just open that up and just work away on that a little bit at a time. So that’s my earliest writing that I can think of.
And did that continue as you went on through high school?
Oh, yeah, yeah. No, I never did stop writing. That’s for sure. I don’t know that it’s something that I pursued professionally for a long time, but I always had a book that I was working on.
Did you share it when you were young readers? Did you share your writing? I always ask that because I think it’s a valuable thing for young writers to do, to let other people read it and get an idea if you’re telling stories that other people will enjoy reading.
Only to a very small degree, maybe a very few close friends. It’s kind of interesting, Even today, like if I’m…I like to go skiing, and I’ll be on the ski lift, and people say, “Oh, well, what do you do?” And I say, “I’m a writer.” And they say, “Oh, yeah, what have you published?”, all this sort of stuff. But they say, “What do you write?” I say, “Science fiction,” and it tends to stop the conversation.
Yes, it does.
Because people don’t have anything to relate to. So, yeah.
Well, and I, of course, live in Regina, Saskatchewan, as you know, but listeners may not necessarily, and our professional football team here is called the Saskatchewan Roughriders, which are the Riders for short. So half the time if I say I’m a writer, people will look at me funny. “Aren’t you a little old to be a football player?” “No, a writer, it’s a wri-TER. So, around here you have to really careful how you pronounce it.
Yeah. Yeah, absolutely. Yeah.
Well, was it science fiction and fantasy from the start, or were some of your early…well, I guess The Fish that Couldn’t Swim could be considered a fantasy.
I suppose. Yeah, you know I really did enjoy reading the horse stories. So Alec Ramsay, The Black Stallion, was huge, absolutely. I remember one time going to visit my cousin, though. She would read the Tarzan books and she said, “Guess what? Edgar Rice Burroughs also write science fiction. He writes John Carter of Mars!” So, of course, I got into that whole series. A little bit later, I was really interested in Ursula K. LeGuin, you know, the whole Earthsea series, Left Hand of Darkness, some of those books I really enjoyed reading. And I have a really strong memory of first getting involved with Tolkien. Again, it was my older brother who came up with this book, and we had one copy and everybody in our family was reading it, so you had to look right and left to see who had the book, right? And one time he just got so mad at me, he was going out and I knew he was gonna take the book with him, and I grabbed the book and I ran to the local school, the local junior high school that I attended. It had a courtyard that was almost three-quarters blocked off from the street. And I had the book and I was walking around in there and reading it. And he came along and he just glared at me, grabbed the book, and left. He never yelled at me or anything, but I knew I was big trouble.
So, when you got on through high school and university, did you study writing or what did you focus on?
Actually, my first…well, I’ve got a couple of university degrees, but they’re both in education. I was a teacher for many years. I was interested in taking creative writing, but it was quite difficult because the university tended to stream people. If you were in certain fields, there were courses that you couldn’t take in other fields. It was actually after I was teaching for a while that I was able to go back and take a course at the university with Aretha van Herk, it was just an introduction to creative writing. And the way I got into it was kind of funny because it was August, and I wanted to take a course in September, and I went and I got on the website and I signed up, and it looked like a great course to take. And I showed up at the first class, it was an evening course, it was on a Thursday night, and it was absolutely crammed with people. I don’t know, there were like 40 people in this room, which I thought was a little odd. And the teacher, the professor, came in, and she was angry. She said, “Half of you don’t belong here. We vetted the people who were going to come into this course way back in the spring, and the registrar let a whole pile bunch of people in. And there’s only allowed to be a maximum of 16 people in this class, so half of you don’t belong here.” But then she turned around and said, “However, if you have a chapter in your bottom drawer and you send it to me in the next day, I might let somebody in.” And guess what, I had a chapter in the bottom of the drawer. I didn’t know anything, so I went ahead and just sent it in, and she let me in. And I think of those extra 20 people, I was the only person that got into the course. So, yeah.
So, I often ask writers who have taken any sort of formal creative writing whether they ran into a pushback on the genre that they wish to write in. Were you writing something in the speculative fiction genre for that, that chapter that you sent in, or was it something else?
Oh, yes, absolutely. It was a fantasy novel. I always thought of myself as a fantasy novelist, especially before I knew myself better. But I did write a variety of different things while I was in that class, so I was using it as an opportunity to experiment. I learned a lot in that course. I know that…if I can brag just a little bit, I have a daughter who got her Ph.D. in creative writing, and yes, it certainly was her experience that writing in the fantasy and science fiction genres, she did experience that. And I have in other circumstances, as well. But I think the issue for me was I knew so little at that time that I was just a sponge. I was just soaking up every, every possible thing that I could get. I think I wound up with a C on that course, and I really think I deserved it. I think it might even have been generous, I don’t know. But I continued to learn from that course for like two years after I took it, just because I knew so little, and there was so much. And I would go back and I would revisit in my mind and experiment and try new things. So it was a really good course for me.
Well, as I’ve mentioned previously on the podcast, my degree was in journalism. So, I only took one creative writing course in university, and the name of our textbook was actually Three Genres, and I thought, “Oh, wow,” you know, “what is it? Like romance, mystery, and science fiction?” But no, it was plays, short stories, and poetry. And I don’t recall what I wrote for fiction for that—it must have been science fiction or fantasy, because that’s all I wrote, but the one thing I got the highest praise on from the teacher was actually a piece of poetry, which really startled me.
You know, just the fact that you’re writing…because I’d never thought of, you know, writing poetry, but I had to for the course, and it just…those classes and things like that do expose you to different ideas and different writing. Even if they don’t like what you would like to write, you can often learn things from them, I think.
Oh, yeah, absolutely.
So when did you start seriously pursuing publication?
Well, way back, actually, a number of years ago, I…although I didn’t belong to any writers’ groups, I would, you know, worry away at my little project—I would work during the day and come home and write at night—and I belonged to the Writers Guild of Alberta. That was a…I mean, the result of that was simply I got a magazine once every three months or something like that. But I would look at the back, and there would be markets listed, and this particular time I was looking Gage Educational Publishing was looking for novels. So, I had a novel, so I sent it off, and that was my first published book. It’s something I don’t tend to talk about very much because I’m really amazed when I look back at that work right now and think, “They published that? Really?” It was really a two-edged sword because on the one hand I now had a published book, so that put me into a whole other category, for all kinds of things. Because it was a young adult book, I’d been working with the Young Writers Conference for a number of years here in Calgary, it meant that I could apply for grants, it meant that I could do all kinds of things because I had a book. The flip side of it is, it’s a terrible book. You know how they say editors do you a great favor when they don’t buy your book that isn’t ready? Yeah, no, that’s a really true thing. So, on the one hand, I’m really glad I got it published. On the other hand, I’m kind of embarrassed by it.
But that was your first one.
That was the first one.
When did the second publication come around, and was it short fiction? Because you started with short fiction before you went back to novels, didn’t you?
Yes, absolutely. Well, a number of things came together. For one thing, I did start to meet other writers, I belonged to writers’ groups—we actually met face to face and critiqued each other’s work—I took a number of workshops, so my writing was really growing. And one of the things that I decided to do was to try short fiction, as I said. I always thought of myself…my image of myself was as a fantasy novelist. So, I didn’t think I could write short fiction. I didn’t think I could write science fiction: all these limitations that I placed on myself. But one of the things I discovered was that I was spending a lot of time at the beginning of long works and I was not learning, I guess, to write a full arc. And I thought, “Let’s work away with short stories and try to write a full arc.” And I would put them on the table for my critiques and they would say, “Yep, that’s Chapter 1 of another novel,” you know? So, definitely I had quite a learning curve as far as writing short stories was concerned, but I pursued and I persisted, and again…I know your mileage may vary and I know other people have found this does not necessarily work for them, but maybe it was because I just happened to belong to a very knowledgeable and supportive writers group, which…I’ll give them a little plug, it’s the Imaginative Fiction Writers Association of Calgary. Very large group. As long as you’re serious about writing, you can join it. You don’t have to be published. So, it goes from rank beginners right up to very well-published writers. Robert J. Sawyer is an honorary member. So, it was a really good place to learn a lot. And one of the things I learned was, when an editor is new to a publication or moves up within a publication to take a stronger editorial role, they may be trying to develop their own stable of authors. And I had a short story that I wanted to submit just about the time that Sheila Williams became editor for Asimov’s Magazine. She didn’t take the first story or even the second story that I submitted to her, but she did take the third story that I submitted to her. And so, that was my burst into what I would call really much more professional writing.
That’s one of the top markets in the field when it comes to short fiction, for sure, that one and Analog and Fantasy and Science Fiction used to be the big three. I mean, there’s a lot more stuff out there now.
Yeah, I’ve never got into F&SF. But my story about getting into Analog was kind of interesting. So, I mentioned that I went to a number of workshops and one of them was…the pro who ran it was Mike Resnick, and, oh, he was really tough on everybody around the table. One of the women, unfortunately…well, she did something that she probably shouldn’t have done. She took out an old trunk piece she hadn’t even looked at and put it on the table. And he kind of gave her a good tongue-lashing. He said. “You have 12 people around this table who have spent time and energy on your work and you didn’t care enough to give us your best.” So, he was pretty tough on us. But one of the things I remember was the absolute look of horror on his face when he looked around the table and he said, this is probably a direct quote, I remember it so well, “You all want to be professional writers and you don’t go to WorldCon?”, you know. So, one of the things that I did start doing was going to international conventions. And, you know, when you have friends like Robert J. Sawyer, who was able to make a few introductions, that really helped.
So, I met Stan from Analog, and I think making that connection maybe made a bit of a difference. But the other thing, too, was just, you know, talking to other writers, people would say, “If you want to get into Analog, try something short and funny.” So, I had sent something in that he called bleak. And then I sent in another one that was full of puns. And he really liked it. He said he laughed out loud, but it wasn’t a piece he thought that his readers would really think of as science fiction. And again, it was the third one that I sent in.
But, I’ll tell you a little story. I also go on a fairly regular basis to the Rainforest Writers’ Retreat in northwest Washington state. And I happened to be there one time, and just in a position to overhear the conversation between two editors, and one of them was saying to the other, “Do you know such and such a writer? Hs she submitted to your magazine?” And the other one said, “Yeah, yeah, she’s pretty good. Have you published anything by her?” “No, no, not yet.” “Well, have you heard anything about her recently?” “No, I haven’t heard anything.” I wonder if she stopped one sale, one story short of a sale. And, you know, it just really struck me that people in the business do know one another and are aware and in some ways, I think, are encouraging new writers…I mean, they have to have the best of the best for their publications…but that that they’re aware and are encouraging. At least, that’s been my experience anyway.
So you would recommend to new writers that they make an effort to get to these conventions and things like that, it sounds like?
Yes. I think…
I mean, it’s a lot of money to go to an international convention.
Oh, it certainly is. And I certainly have to watch which ones I’m able to go to. But, again, Rob Sawyer said something that kind of stuck with me a number of years ago. He said, “Always put your stories into the top markets first. If it gets rejected from there, there are the mid-tier markets and so forth that you can still try.” And his reasoning for this was, he said, “In your mind, you need to think of yourself as at that level,” right? If you think of yourself at that level, then you will write to that level and you will be at that level, which kind of makes sense. So I think the same thing with going to the conventions…by the fact that you attend—you can learn a lot from one thing, you can also meet people, which is helpful—but also, you see yourself at that level. I am a professional. This is what I do.
Well, certainly since those early sales, you’ve racked up a considerable number of short fiction sales. But now we’re going to talk about your novel, which is starting a pretty ambitious project, a seven-volume epic fantasy series.
So this…and this still goes back to the short fiction, as well. I mean, I know it’s a cliché, in these sorts of things, to ask, “Where do you get your ideas?” But it is a valid question. I know, ideas are everywhere, but at the same time we all have little things that tend to spark them in us, and spark story ideas. So, first of all…well, first of all, before we do that, let’s get a brief synopsis of Bursts of Fire, the first book. Without spoilers, because I’m only about halfway through it.
Okay. Well, Bursts of Fire, the first book, it’s the story of three sisters. Meg is the eldest…she’s 17 and she’s essentially the protagonist, but the other two sisters are very important as well…they are magic wielders. But they are very highly placed. They’re like princesses. They’ve grown up in a castle, with all of the benefits of that and very little life experience. Their mother is the magic wielder for the king, who has the second-most powerful prayer stone in this fantasy world. Their mother sees a glimpse of the future and she sees that war is coming. She wants to save her daughters. She also wants to save this magical prayer stone, and she wants to save the balance of the world, which is quite healthy at this point. So, yes, their castle is attacked, right away in Chapter 1, and the mother, because she has this bit of premonition, she is able to help her daughters flee. And so, the three daughters flee with their nurse, who is killed almost immediately, and the three sisters are in this world as refugees alone. You were going to say something?
I was going to say I knew the nurse was doomed because you have to get your young protagonists on their own as quickly as possible.
Yeah, exactly. So, they meet…of course, now when something huge like this happens in a world, things don’t stay static. You have people who are going to rise up and say, “Hey, this is wrong. We want to do something about it.” And so, a very nascent rebel group starts to form and the sisters get involved with that. So that’s how the story begins now.
Now, I can go back to the question, what was the seed for this story? Where did that seed come from for you? And is it typical of the way that you come up with story ideas?
You know, it’s been a very interesting process to work on this series, because…I think I heard somebody say this very recently, but I think it’s quite true, that fantasy in particular, I think it tends to take itself very seriously, and a lot of the writing that I had been doing in the fantasy genre, I think, really, I was feeling, “Oh, this is this is dark and getting darker,” and I have a very strong memory. I can’t place the memory in time, but a very strong memory of camping and being in a tent in the morning, waking up, it was so beautiful, it was warm in the tent, the sun was shining through, and just thinking, “Oh, my goodness, what I really want to do is, I want to write a heist romp. I want to do something light, something, just, you know, with maybe even some comic moments and what have you.” And that is actually where the idea came from. I think I had an image of a young female thief climbing up the outside of a castle tower, was kind of the image that I think this whole thing sprang from. And it does happen later in the series. It’s still there. But when I was when I was a teacher, one of the experiences that I was very fortunate to have was to take up a course that was called mini-counselling. It was, like, a three-day course in counselling, because teachers do have to counsel students all the time. And one of the gems that came out of that was, as a counselor, it’s not necessary to talk to a client and say, you know, “What is your deepest, darkest secret that you fear?” You can start anywhere, because whatever is bothering somebody is going to come out in its own good time. And I think that is also true in the writing process, that the themes and the ideas that you yourself are wrestling with may be very sub…you know, you’re not aware of them, they’re in your subconscious, but they’re going to come out in your themes and in your writing anyway. And so, yeah, I wanted to write a really lighthearted heist romp, but no…
I can’t say that’s the way it’s coming out.
No, the book gets into a whole lot of deeper issues because that’s just what’s bubbling up out of my subconscious.
So is that sort of seeing an image, is that a fairly typical way for you to latch on to a story idea? Just something in your mind that’s, “Oh, that would be cool!”
Oh, yeah, absolutely. I think there’s a lot of visualization, for sure, that happens in the early stages of my writing. Yeah, absolutely.
So, as you begin to develop this, what does your…I mean, there’s quite a bit of…a fairly complicated magical thing going on here.
And something…I don’t believe I’ve read anything quite like it before. So, was there are a lot of worldbuilding before you even begin plotting, or how did all that planning and synopsizing work for you?
Yeah. Well, I need a lot of people who are pantsers, and I understand that there’s some great advantages to writing by the seat of your pants. A friend of mine once said, “You know, when I’m writing by the seat of my pants, I can surprise myself. And if I can surprise myself, I can surprise the reader.” And, you know, surprise is a wonderful thing to be able to have in your stories, for sure. But I have never been a pantser. I’ve always plotted my stories, right from the very beginning. However, my process is a bit more complex than that, because I do tend to go back and forth in the initial stages between just writing scenes and planning and then writing some more scenes and planning. And I think it’s because I really don’t know enough about my world and I don’t know enough about my characters until I see them in action. So, I have to write some chapters or some scenes before I can really get deep into the planning. On the other hand, I don’t get too deep into the book before I do create a complete of…quite a detailed outline.
And do you follow that outline as you write or does it wander off occasionally?
I tend to follow it fairly closely in the broad strokes. Having said that, you know what? If your story is telling you you need to do something, you need to listen to that because, you know, that’s where the surprise comes from. I remember one time very clearly writing along, and I had two conmen—this was in the same series, it’s a little later on…and one of them said, “All we need is a miracle.” And I thought, “Yeah, that’s perfect.” And then I thought, “OK, now I have to come up with a miracle.” But, you know, as a writer, you have time, because…if you are a performing artist, as you know, because you’re a performing artist, when you’re on stage doing something, whatever comes out of your mouth, well, it’s out of your mouth, whether it’s good, bad, or indifferent, right? As a writer, we do have that to a degree. I mean, eventually there are deadlines, but to a degree, we have the opportunity to go back and rewrite. And if you need a miracle, you can do some research and you can come up with a miracle.
Well, how did you come up with the idea for this particular magic system? Maybe you should explain a little bit about what the magic is like in this book.
This…I’m really enjoying working with this magic system because it’s giving me so many tools to do so much in the books that I really enjoy. For your listeners, I’m sure they’re quite aware that magic systems always have to have a cost. And so, it’s important that the magic system does not allow your magic wielder to just do anything in the world. There have to be limitations. The magic is based on the manipulation of time. So, the people who have this ability can hold an object still in time, so it doesn’t move as the timestream moves around it, or they can take it back in time, or they can take it forward in time. But usually, just a very small object, maybe, I dunno, something the size of a pea is about all they can do. So, they can’t just take the entire world and stop it in time.
But also, let me just give an example, which is right away in the early part of the book, these three girls are trying to escape the city. The gate is locked. They’re able to find a time when that lock was open, and then they walk through the gate. So, it works in these very small ways. The cost of the magic is that once you have used magic, you have disturbed the timestream, and that therefore you live bits and pieces of your own life out of order. There’s no way of knowing how that’s going to happen. It’s quite random. You may suddenly find yourself at a time in your past, but only for a few seconds. Or you may find yourself at a time in your future, but again, only for a few seconds. And that is really important, because take, for instance, the fact that the three girls mother knows something bad is gonna happen, but she doesn’t know what, she doesn’t know when. So, she’s preparing for her girls to get out of the city, but the bad thing happens before the preparations are complete because she doesn’t know when. So it allows for a little bit more adventure, a little bit more, you know, surprise.
One of the things that you sometimes find in fantasy novels that I find quite irritating is the prophecy. Prophecies are very problematic. Either the prophecy is right, in which case it’s kind of boring because you’ve got the prophecy and then you get the adventure, and they’re the same, so there’s no surprise, or the prophecy is wrong, in which case it wasn’t a very good prophecy. So, people tend to write prophecies in very cryptic language that could be interpreted in a whole lot of different ways, which in my mind…I just find it kind of irritating.
It’s like, if you’re a prophet, why can’t you be clear?
Yeah, exactly. So, the advantage to this is that we can see bits and pieces of the future, just not enough to tell what the whole story is. So, you can get that foreshadowing, you can you can get the tool to use to help you to a degree, but without giving away the whole story.
So, once you actually start writing, what does your writing process look? Like, do you write longhand on a parchment out under the stars? How does it work for you?
Does anybody really? Maybe some people do. No, I’m very much…I think through my fingers. In fact, sometimes, you know, I might be helping somebody with something else, and I’ll say, “Just let me write this,” and then I’ll know what I want to say and then tell it to them. You know, I can really think through my fingers on the keyboard. I do tend to be a…I’ve planned it, I’m going to start with scene one, chapter one, and work my way through. But recently, I have been experimenting a little bit more with quilting. So, you’ve heard of writing by the seat of your pants or pantsing, planning, and then quilting is where you write a theme or chapter, and it could fit anywhere in the book or it may not be in the book at all. And then you string your quilted scenes together with the other scenes that you require. And I have been experimenting with that a little bit for a couple of reasons. One is, I love to ride on the back of my husband’s motorcycle, and especially on the winding, twisty roads, it’s like riding a roller coaster. It’s tons of fun. But, you know, not all riding on the motorcycle is hills and curves. Some of it is straight boring highway for hours at a stretch. And we don’t have the means to talk to each other in our helmets, so what I do is, I get a tape recorder and I’ve got a lovely little tiny microphone that I can stuff inside my helmet, and of course have to stuff a lot of padding in there so I don’t get any road noise, and I can write all usually about four scenes in a day of motorcycle riding, which is about 4,000 words. And you know what? If you go on a 10-day motorcycle trip, you can get a chunk of your book done that way.
Well, you’re the first person I’ve talked to that writes on the back of a motorcycle. That’s a new one.
So, what I do is, I know what’s in the scene because I made the plan, I write a little point-form note that maybe has three or four things that I want to occur in this scene, and then I dictate the scene. When I get…you know, if we stay in a hotel, usually by the end of the day, my husband’s really tired because he did all the work, so he’ll have a nap, and then I can get out the tape recorder and I transcribe onto my iPad—you have to carry very small equipment on a motorcycle—and then, I usually just transcribe and I need to do it right away, because sometimes, you know, with the road noise, it’s hard to get some of the words.
I was going to ask you about that, yeah.
There’s no way I would ever try to use Dragon on a motorcycle ‘cause I would get complete gobbledygook. So, I transcribe it right away and maybe do a little bit of editing at that point. But because of this method, I need to be very clear in my mind about the scene that I’m doing. So I pick, like, the best scenes. I pick the most active ones, or the ones with the greatest interpersonal conflict, or the ones that are clearest in my mind, which means that the ones that are still a bit fuzzy in my head, those are the ones that I really need to have that focus and concentration to do my initial drafts.
Well, once you got this all assembled, and you have your first draft, what is your revision process look like? Do you go back to the very beginning and rewrite the whole thing? Or, by the time, you get to the end, have you sort of rewritten as you go along and it’s pretty much done.
Lots of times, there are going to be problems somewhere in the book. Usually multiple places in the book. So, my first go to is going to probably just be a complete read-through to see, “How is this whole thing hanging together?” And you know, the low-hanging fruit, capturing those things that are really obvious. I do a number of edits. I’m not…I think I do actually a fairly clean first draft, but…like, something that I’m dictating, for instance, is not gonna be a very clean first draft. It’s going to be…have all kinds of problems with it. So I revise, revise, revise, revise. And I’m looking for story arcs, I’m looking for character arcs, I’m looking for interweaving the worldbuilding. And worldbuilding is so important because it’s way more than just the physical description, right? It’s the technological development, it’s the social development, the attitudes of people toward everything that’s going on, that you never have—and this is a truism—an entire group that thinks the same way, there are going to be people who disagree within a group. So, ensuring that that layering in that complexity is in? And then, finally, of course, you do have to look at the words and the sentences and making it the best it can be.
And this is where I wanted to talk about your editing career. Because you…how did you get started editing other people, and how does your experience as an editor play into editing your own stuff?
Oh, it has been absolutely amazing. It is one of the best things that I ever could have done. I had…oh, I’m guessing, 20 years of critiquing other people’s works, because I’ve belonged to a couple of…three or four…different critique groups at different times. So, I got lots of practice with that. Between giving critiques and receiving critiques, you learn a lot, and you learn so much by critiquing other people’s work. Lots of times what you do yourself, the mistakes you make yourself, you can’t see them until you see them in somebody else’s work. So that was a, I think, a really solid basis. And then, when I stopped teaching, I was actually approached by Edge Science Fiction and Fantasy Publishing to edit for them. So, I edited, in total, three novels for them, one of which was nominated for the Prix Aurora Award, so I was really happy about that. And then, I also became a freelance editor as well. And then, when was it, I guess four or five years ago, when Laksa Media first got started, again, I was invited to edit for them. And that was a bit of a daunting experience because…I remember being at World Fantasy Convention one year and sitting with a bunch of editors at a table at various stages and saying, “I’m starting on this new project, the publisher has invited some really high-level authors, and it’s just making me a bit nervous.” And the advice I got back was, “The bigger the author, the more professional and the easier they are to work with.” And, you know, that was absolutely true. I have to say, I can remember one particular story I edited where the author was really busy with a deadline, and so we got the story a little bit late. And I went through it and I thought, “Oh, this is a really good story, but it’s got a couple of plot holes.” And I really didn’t want to write the letter saying, “Can you fix this and this?” But I did. And the author got back to me and said, “I’ve done all the things you wanted. Have a look.” I looked at it. Not only had this author done all the things I wanted, but way more. And it was an amazing story and I felt so good about it. But the best part was I ran into that author at a convention later, who said to me that that really appreciated my editing. And, oh, I was thrilled.
Well, it’s something that, and, you know, I do a lot of editing, too, and I find the same thing, that editing other people’s stuff and mentoring other writers and all that stuff that I do feeds right back into my own writing, and I start to see things that maybe I wouldn’t see if it weren’t for the fact that I’m seeing it in other people’s stuff.
I think it is very useful. Well, OK, so now you’ve done your revisions. You’re actually an editor at Laksa Media, but presumably you’re not your own editor.
No, no, no. It’s unfortunate that it’s…it’s a little bit incestuous that way. I did start working as an editor with Laksa Media first, but I did have this novel that I was working on. And Lucas Law…for people who don’t know, Laksa Media is very small. So, it was Lucas law. And he said to me, “I’m interested in your novel, and can we talk about it?” We talked about it, actually, for at least a full year, probably closer to a year and a half, before we finally said, “Yeah, this novel would fit with Laksa Media.” And here’s something that I found really interesting. I found Lucas to be an excellent editor for my work, but one of the things he said early on that was really huge was he said, “I enjoy your story. I think you’ve got something here that we can work with, but Laksa Media has its niche. It is into social causes.” So, the first anthology they put out, Strangers Among Us, was about mental health and mental illness. The second one, The Sum of Us, was about caregivers and caregiving. The third one was about migrations, Shades Within Us. And so, he said, “What is the social cause that your book is really dealing with?” And it was interesting, because that was not something I had thought about up until that point. But, as you say, you know, what you’re wrestling with in your subconscious comes out, and I just took one look at him and I said, “Addictions.” That’s exactly what it’s dealing with. And as soon as he asked me that question, I knew the answer.
Now, having said that, sometimes thematic threads that are nascent that are in the book, but kind of bubbling under the surface, then you want to go back with your edit and say, “Okay, how am I developing this? What is it that I have to say and how is it coming through?” So, for instance, as you mentioned earlier, this is a seven-book series, and the topic of addictions is absolutely huge, which is a wonderful, wonderful way that these things work together, because Bursts of Fire is dealing…exactly like the title says. It’s first tastes. It’s a YA take on a novel. The girls are 17, 16 and 11, and they are out in this world where they have never seen or heard any of the stuff that’s going on around them. So, they get first taste of all kinds of different things, including spells that are…in our world the analogue would be like drugs…that give them all sorts of mystical experiences, as well as, you know, healing spells and curses and all of these sorts of things. So, they’re getting first tastes of alcohol, first case of love, all of these bursts of fire that are happening around them. So, that’s book one. Book two deals with interdependence…codependents, that’s what I’m trying to say. Codependents and enabling. Book three deals with the social conditions that may underlie why certain groups may become more at risk for addictions than other groups. One of the later books deals with Prohibition. You know, there’s issues of recovery and relapse. There’s seven books. You can you can really dig your teeth into a whole lot of different aspects of the theme.
Should probably say, though, that although those are the themes, it’s still a heck of an adventure story.
Yes, that’s primary. And that’s really important, because nobody wants to read a book that’s a) a downer. “Oh, my goodness, addictions, da-da-duh-da,” right? But b) you know, hitting you over the head with, “You should do this or you should do that,” or, you know, whatever. So, it is the thematic content, but there…it’s an epic saga. It is…it’s dealing with war and sword sorcery and magic and, you know, the fantasy.
How detailed is your plot for the entire series? Do you have, like, the future books get sort of a paragraph and you’ll figure that out later as you get there, or is it all figured out to great detail already?
Book two was submitted, so it’s completely written. Book three is completely plotted out and I’d say 85 to 90 percent written. I know it doesn’t come out until 2021, but it’s really nice to be ahead of the curve. The other thing is, by working further into the books, down the series, that makes sure that I can have the proper seeds planted in the earlier books. Books four, five and six, all have some writing in them. All are relatively plotted out, but in broad strokes—more than a paragraph, but still fairly broad strokes—and book seven is planned, and I know how the series ends, it’s definitely ending with book seven, but I haven’t done any of the writing on book seven yet.
Well, we’re getting close to our time being up—not that there’s exactly a firm deadline on these things. It’s not like it’s a live radio show—but this is the point where I ask the big philosophical questions, or question, which is basically, why do you write, first of all, and why do you write science fiction and fantasy, second of all, specifically. And I guess, why do you think any of us write this crazy stuff?
I think that there is a lot to be said for…you know, my initial idea, the fantasy heist romp, you know, just the fun book. I think there’s a lot to be said for that. But I don’t think we ever even write a very light book without some of that thematic stuff percolating away underneath. I think it always happens even if we’re not in control of it. But more important, I think all art is a type of leadership within our culture and within our society. If you look at politics, for instance, political leaders in a democracy need to satisfy the masses or they’re not going to get re-elected, right? The masses, on the other hand, feel kind of powerless because they’ll say, “Well, the leaders are deciding everything.” So I think you’ve got this kind of loop going back and forth between the electorate and the politicians. But where does change come from? It comes from the discourse. The major discourse will determine what both groups are going to pursue. And it is the artist who can influence the discourse. It is the artist who brings up new ideas, who brings up arguments, of ways of thinking, and gets people talking.
And I’ll give you an example of this. I think that for many, many, many years…okay, I’m in Alberta, right? Oh, my goodness. we love our oil in Alberta. If there’s going to be any kind of a development project, oh, yeah, maybe there are some hoops to jump through, but it’s going to go through. You know it’s gonna go through, right? In recent years, the assurance of that has been wavering. It’s not necessarily for sure anymore that these big mega-dams are going to go through. And it’s because the discourse is changing. It’s because other voices are coming forward and saying, “Hey, you know, we need to pay attention to climate change. We need to pay attention to the farmland that’s gonna be flooded by that dam.” And those voices are coming forward, and now the major discourse is starting to shift. So, our voices coming forward…and I think artists are a key component of that.
I guess that kind of answers the other question I often ask, which is, because this program is called The Worldshapers, if you think…I mean, shaping the world is perhaps a bit grand, but if you are at least shaping the way that individuals think about things in your writing, and is that something you hope you are accomplishing, that you hope that you’re having some impact on the way individuals think about the world and everything. Life, the universe, and everything.
Life, the universe, and everything. Yes, absolutely. I think that is the purpose and function of art, and as writers, we are artists, and I think it’s important to be aware of and in control, as much as we can, of the thematic elements that we’re putting forward. But at the same time, the story is primary. I mean, you may have ideas that you need, that you want to bring forward, but, yeah, that is always the under-layer, that is always something that just percolates up. It’s story that has to be first and foremost.
And you’ve said something about things percolating up, whether you know they’re there or not. And there is a story…I’ve told it before, but I always like to, that Isaac Asimov put in his Opus 100, I think, one of his autobiographical books, how he had gone to a university class in science fiction at some university—it would been in New York since he barely traveled—and he heard the professor talking about his story “Nightfall.” And he sat at the back and he listened to him going on about it, then at the end, he went up the professor and he said, “That was a very interesting class, but, you know, I’m Isaac Asimov and I wrote that story and I didn’t put any of that stuff in there.” And the professor said, “Well, I’m very glad to meet you, but just because you wrote the story, what makes you think you know what’s in it?”
You know what? I had heard that story, but I did not realize it was Isaac Asimov’s “Nightfall.”
Yeah, definitely “Nightfall,” and I think it’s in Opus 100.
Yeah. Oh, I learned something new. That’s cool.
So, what are you working on next? I think I know the answer to that—it’s probably the next book in this series—but are there other things as well?
Yes. Absolutely. Actually I’m really excited about a book project that I’ve got on the go. One reason I’m kind of glad to be already at book three in this series is because I think, over the winter, if there’s not too many edits, I’ve got still a year and a half before it’s due, I’m working on one that is a World War Two fantasy, and it’s kind of a mystery thriller as well. The magical element is a character who can step outside of his body for brief periods to see and hear things without being seen and heard. So he would make a great spy, right? Except that he’s had some bad experiences and he is in hiding. He’s living on a small farm in rural Alberta. And I’m doing tons of research on rural Alberta in the 1940s, it’s really interesting. The book is actually from his wife’s point of view, and he gets kidnapped and she does not know where he’s gone. So, it is her journey to find and rescue her husband, it does take her over to Europe, but also to find and learn about magic. And it also deals with disabilities and mental illness. Now, I don’t have a publisher for this book. It’s not even written. But I’m really excited about working on it.
Are you still writing short fiction?
You know what? I wish I was. I have, like, one short fiction story that is out circulating right now, and I really should be doing more short fiction. But yeah, no, I’m just so busy with so many other things, I have not been getting to it this year. Maybe it’ll come up in the winter. Maybe I’ll get something done this winter.
And you’re still doing freelance editing as well?
Yes. Yeah. All of the above. And teaching at the Alexandra Writers Center.
So, one or two things going on.
Yeah. Keeps me busy.
So, where can people find you online?
Well, my website is called speculative-fiction.ca.
Yeah. How’d you get that?
Oh, yeah, I was very lucky. And then, let’s see, I’m on Instagram, @SusanForestWrites, I’m on Twitter @SusanJForest, and Facebook @SusanForest, and, oh, can I just mention, we just put out a wonderful video to support the first book, Bursts of Fire, and it’s on YouTube, just look up Susan Forest, and you’ll find me there.
All right. Good stuff. And so thanks so much for being a guest on The Worldshapers. I enjoyed it. I hope you did, too.
And I’m sure I’ll see you in…probably in Calgary at When Words Collide next year, if not before.
Yep. And I’m going to see you in Ottawa this fall.
Oh, you’re gonna be a Can*Con for the Auroras, so I’ll see you there. Because, of course, this podcast is also nominated for an Aurora this year.
Yeah, good luck.
Yeah. Looking forward to that. And my editor, Sheila Gilbert from DAW Books, will be there again this year. So that’ll be great as well. All right, so I’ll let you go now. Thanks again for being a guest.