Episode 41: Mary Robinette Kowal

An hour-plus chat with Mary Robinette Kowal, Hugo, Nebula, and Locus Award-winning author of the Lady Astronaut trilogy (Tor Books) and many more novels and short stories, member of the Writing Excuses podcast, professional puppeteer, and audiobook narrator.

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The Introduction

Mary Robinette Kowal

Mary Robinette Kowal is the author of The Lady Astronaut trilogy and the historical fantasy novels The Glamourist History series and Ghost Talkers. She’s a member of the award-winning podcast Writing Excuses and has received the Astounding Award for Best New Writer, four Hugo Awards, the RT Reviews Award for Best Fantasy novel, and the Nebula and Locus Awards. Her stories have appeared in Strange HorizonsAsimov’s, several year’s best anthologies, and her collections Word Puppets and Scenting the Dark and Other Stories. Her novel Calculating Stars is one of only eighteen novels to win the Hugo, Nebula, and Locus Awards in a single year.

As a professional puppeteer and voice actor, Mary Robinette has performed for Lazy Town, the Center for Puppetry Arts, and Jim Henson Pictures, and founded Other Hand Productions. Her designs have garnered two Unima-USA Citations of Excellence, the highest award an American puppeteer can achieve, and she records fiction for authors such as Seanan McGuire, John Scalzi, and Cory Doctorow. Mary Robinette lives in Nashville with her husband, Rob, and over a dozen manual typewriters.

Welcome to The Worldshapers, Mary Robinette.

Thank you so much for having me.

I’m glad to have you. I have to confess, I haven’t quite finished Calculating Stars. I was working on it, so I’m about, I don’t know, three quarters of the way through. But you won’t give any spoilers anyway, because I’m going to get you to synopsize here in a little bit for people who haven’t read it.

Okay.

But I’m enjoying it very much. And not least because I’m married to an engineer…

Ah, yes.

…who identifies with some of the situations in the story.

Yes. Yes. I’ve found that the people in STEM have a strong connection to certain aspects, especially women in STEM.

Well, before we get to that, I’ll take you back into—I always say this, it’s becoming a cliché on the podcast—I will take you back into the mists of time, to find out how you, first of all, became interested in writing, and specifically writing science fiction. How you got started, in other words, and maybe a little bit about, you know, where you grew up and all that kind of stuff.

So, I grew up in North Carolina. My dad worked for IBM and he used to take me to visit him at work sometimes. They had the…it was in the days when the computers were still ginormous rooms and we didn’t yet have personal computers. There were gerbil tubes connecting the buildings. The first programming that I did was my name with punch cards. And so that was…it felt very science fictional. It felt very much like what you’d see on the Jetsons and things like that. And then we also would watch…like, I got connected to Doctor Who, you know, Tom Baker was my doctor. And we listened to Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy on the radio. So there is not a point in my life where I remember discovering science fiction, it was something that was just always present. Like, the earliest books that I read that I have concrete memories of are things like Enchantress from the Stars.

I remember that one.

Yeah, so good. And you know, of course, other things like A Wrinkle in Time, and all of these books, which were just shelved as books. But I gravitated to the ones that had a fantastic element. When I started writing, which I did pretty young, my mom sent me to a writing workshop camp. I was basically writing the things that I was reading, and since I was reading science fiction and fantasy, it seemed only natural that that’s what I was also writing. My friends also were into that.

So, some of the earliest stuff that I was writing was actually…we had this, we called it “The Note.” It was a notebook. And we would pass it to each other between classes and write a co-operative story and then pass it to the next person who would pick it up and continue on. So, it was very much a part of my life, but I was also one of those kids who wanted to do everything, so…

I was an art major—I went to school to be an art major—and I performed with a puppet company, a puppet troupe, in high school, and then my junior year of college left to do an internship at the Center for Puppetry Arts in Atlanta, Georgia, intending to go back…and never did, and then had a twenty-five-year career in puppetry. But the first ten of that, more or less, somewhere in there, I stopped writing because I was getting my creative jollies from puppetry. So for me, it’s all varying forms of storytelling.

You’re the first one I’ve talked to who’s done puppetry. I’ve talked to several authors, myself included, who have a theatrical background. And I always like to ask if that theatrical side, and I mean, puppetry is a form of theatre, it’s a little different than moving actors around on stage, but you’re still moving, you know, things in relationship to each other and characters interacting with each other. Have you found that your puppetry has helped you with your writing?

Yes, absolutely. It absolutely has. First of all, because puppeteers are actors and we are doing theatre. It’s just that the…rather than putting on a costume, we have an external manifestation. But we are still acting. We…the derogatory term that we have for poor people who do not do puppetry are “meat puppets,” or “meat actors.” Meat actors is what we usually go with, or a “fleshy” as opposed to a “plushy.”.

I’m going to remember that.

Yeah. But it is very much acting. I think of it as the Ginger Rogers of theatre. I have to do everything that you’d have to do, backwards in high heels. So, there’s multiple advantages to it, one of which is that, because I am working an inanimate object, my job as a puppeteer requires me to take the body language that we do naturally, that we often don’t even think about, we just do it, break it apart into its semantic components, and then reconstruct it in an inanimate object in a form that is human-readable.

That is essentially what I am doing as a writer, as well. I have to understand the basic components, semantic pieces of body language, and here I am, the tool that I’m using to reconstruct them, are words on a page. But the basic building blocks or components are the same. For instance, if someone is curious about something, they’ll do what we call an aggressive motion, which is a movement towards. If there’s something they don’t want to engage with, they’ll do a regressive motion. And while it’s very easy to do that with a puppet—and as an actor, you’ll do it without even thinking about it, very naturally—on the page, it also plays out the same way. There’s a very big difference between, “‘What did you say?” She leaned across the table,” and, “‘What did you say?’ She pushed back from the table.” One of those is the aggressive motion, one is the regressive, but it tells you a great deal about the character’s reaction without having to use a Tom-Swifty dialogue tag to denote tone.

That’s very interesting. I hadn’t thought of it in that way, but yeah, I can…in a way, our characters are puppets, and we are making them come alive, something that is actually not alive. We are trying to communicate that to the reader.

Yeah. With theater, with writing, regardless of which form you’re using, I think that a lot of what we’re trying to do is to create an emotional response in our audience’s brain, whether they are reading or viewing. But the things that we have emotional responses to, those actually remain fairly consistent from medium to medium. It’s just the mechanical technique that you use to convey it. And that’s one of the things that I’m trained in as a puppeteer, that there are principles that make a puppet look alive, but the mechanics differ when you move from one style to another. Like, the mechanical movement that I will do with my arm for a regressive motion if I’m doing something that’s very much like a Muppet is completely different than the mechanical motion that I’m doing, also with my arms, but holding a marionette control. It’s mechanically very different. But the thing that I’m trying to create for the audience, that illusion, is still the same illusion. It’s still that regressive motion, or it’s still the sense of muscle, where I’m using a compress/expand to mimic the moment when you bend your knees to jump. All of those things are still there. It’s still trying to create that same effect for the audience. And I feel that way when I move to writing, it’s like I’m still trying to create that effect, it’s just I have a different mechanical tool now.

And when did you then move back into writing after your twenty-five years of puppetry? What brought that about?

Well, I moved back probably about fifteen years into the puppetry career because I had a severe puppet injury. And again, people don’t think about puppetry as being particularly dangerous, but I was doing  Little Shop of Horrors and working an eighty-pound puppet, and we had something go a tiny bit wrong onstage. We’d done it three months without any injuries, and just a little bit wrong and the puppet sheared to the side. Someone hit it on stage at a time that I had it up off the ground. No one should have touched it. And I tried to control it, and something in my wrist went pfft! I essentially popped the ligament. It was…for various reasons, it was complicated and I wound up in a cast for a year, and then did another year of physical therapy after that to regain range of motion.

During that time, kind of simultaneously with that, my brother had moved to China with his kids, working for the State Department, and I wanted to stay connected to the kids, but they are not really going to…it was before Skype was really a thing, so I started writing a serial for them, and remembered that I really enjoyed writing. In hindsight, I understand that what happened was…the reason I had stopped for a long time was because I was getting my creative jollies from the puppetry and that it uses, puppet design and construction uses, exactly the same parts of my brain as writing. It’s all worldbuilding, character creation, problem-solving. So when I could no longer do that, I had to take a substantial break from it, it gave me the energy to apply that in another form, one that I hadn’t visited for a while.

I often say that…it’s not quite the same thing, but it’s similar. I was a huge Dungeons and Dragons player in university and one reason I quit playing was because I looked at the stack of maps and, you know, characters and monsters and stuff that I had built up for my world in Dungeons and Dragons and said, “You know, that’s exactly the energy I should be putting into writing my fiction.” And I hardly ever played again after that.

Yeah.

It was the same thing. You’re using the same muscles, but it’s, if you use them all in one way, it’s harder sometimes to use it the other way.

Yeah, I used to play D&D with a group when I was in high school as well. Although, you know, in high school I would do anything to avoid doing homework. So, I would just write and play D&D. But now I will only do a one-off for exactly those reasons, because the, you know, the narrative is so seductive and interesting and fun. And I as I get older I have less and less energy.

And I think I’m ten years older than you, so I definitely identify. So, when did you break in? And how?

So, my first sale was 2005—I think that’s correct—to a small press magazine called The First Line. And I love this small press. They…the theory is that the first line of anything is so important. But if you hand the same first line to Mark Twain, you know, if you hand him, “Call me Ishmael,” he will not write Moby Dick. He will write something totally different. So, the first line gives you a first line, and then every story in that issue begins with the same first line, and they’re all wildly different. So, my first couple of sales were to them, and then I started selling to other markets, as well.

And you started with short fiction.

Mm-hmmm.

And did quite well at short fiction, looking at the awards and so forth. What did that…were you surprised by the level of acceptance and appreciation that your fiction begin to garner?

Oh, yeah, absolutely. And I should say that what I actually started writing were novels, but I had been told that if you wanted to break in, you needed to write short fiction, which it turns out is not true. Jim C. Hines did a survey, and it turns out that debut authors, when you ask them, “How did you break in?”, whether with short fiction first or just straight to novel sales, that it was actually 50/50. But I like short fiction quite a bit. And I think that it was very good for me because it allowed me to experiment with a lot of different things without having to commit so many words. So it’s like doing a bunch of, using the D&D metaphor again, it’s like doing a one-off campaign versus something that’s a multi-session campaign. So, doing a one-off, it was very easy to say, “Oh, this time I’m going to I’m going to focus on character and try to hone my character skills,” or, “This time I’m going to focus on description.” But I was also…I was surprised at how quickly I was able to start making sales, but also in hindsight, it’s not surprising, because by that point I had spent fifteen years coming to understand narrative and audience. And so much of what I know from theater translates over. Some of it doesn’t, but so much of it does. So. in hindsight, I had a leg up when I came back to prose.

So when did the novels start coming along, then?

So, as I said, I had started with novels. So the thing, the serial, that I wrote for my niece and nephew was…it turned into a novel very quickly, which was actually the thing that made me go, “Huh.” Because I had started doing it just kind of for kicks. And then I got a little bit into it and thought, “I think I have something here. How do you write a novel?” and started trying to sort that out. And in the process of that, at some point, not long after I started doing this, I discovered NaNoWriMo and decided that this was a great thing, and I was very excited about it. And I did my first one and it was a murder mystery—and let me tell you that doing a murder mystery without outlining is questionable as a choice. And then the second one that I did was Shades of Milk and Honey, which was my first novel, first published novel. So…there was another novel I call Novel Zero. That was the novel that I wrote in high school through college and then finished on my second or third year on tour. But Shades of Milk and Honey was the, I guess the third…the second novel that I completed after I got serious about it.

But yeah, I did NaNoWriMo. And we, you know, I shopped that…I had shopped the thing that I wrote for my niece and nephew, but it has first-novel problems that I am not invested enough in the book now to go back and fix.

Did your niece and nephew enjoy it?

They did.

Well, that’s the main thing.

Yeah, exactly.

Well, of course, your novel that just won the Hugo Award and the Nebula and Locus, Calculating Stars, we’ll move on to talk about that as an example of your overall creative process. And you know… I know it’s a cliché, and I know writers hate to be asked it…the question is, “Where did the idea come from?” But, on a bigger scale, how do you generally generate ideas for stories? How does that work for you?

Sure. So, the funny thing is, actually, the...Calculating Stars began with a…

You know what? I skipped over one very important thing. You should give a quick description of Calculating Stars for people who haven’t read it…

Oh, sure.

…before we start talking about it.

OK. Calculating Stars is set in 1952. It’s Apollo-era science fiction, it’s women-centered. I slam an asteroid into Washington, D.C., and kick off the space program fast and early and with international cooperation. My main character, Elma York, is a mathematician and a pilot and she is working with her husband, who was the lead engineer, rocket designer, for the NACA—which was a real organization, it was NASA’s precursor—and becomes the lead engineer for the International Aerospace Coalition. And she realizes that the asteroid has caused a runaway greenhouse effect. So, we’re actually looking at an extinction event, which gives impetus to get people off the planet. As a side note, I will just let people know, the science…you know how you see those disaster films and there’s an asteroid coming at the Earth and they divert it into the ocean.

It would be a bad idea.

It turns out that’s a really bad idea, because when you have an asteroid come through, it tears a hole in the atmosphere. And then you get something called ejecta, which ejects part of the planet up into the upper atmosphere. And then, if it’s rocks, it’ll fall back down. If it’s water, what happens is the water vapor gets locked in the upper atmosphere. It doesn’t precipitate out, and you can trigger a runaway greenhouse effect. There is some speculation that this might be what happened to Venus. So, anyway…

I was just going to say, my feeling when that initially comes up and she does the math and realizes that’s what going to happen is, it felt very much like a Titanic: The Musical, which I’ve been in, and Titanic, the actual thing, which is that the engineer went down, took one look at what had happened and said, “This ship is going down,” even though there were still, you know, two or three hours of floating around and people not believing it.

Yeah.

It was inevitable at that point. And I had that same feeling when I got to that point in the book.

Yeah, that was a…like, when I started looking at it, and I will also say that I’m very cautious in this book to not tell you exactly how big the asteroid is, because the science on that is super complicated. And I decided that rather than being wrong about it, I was like, “Well, I know that this is how it works, and it is big enough to trigger these conditions. But I don’t know how big that is because I don’t have access to a university supercomputer modeling system to come up with something that’s exactly right.” And even there, it would still be…there’s still opportunity for error.

So, anyway, so that’s what the book is about. It’s basically getting into space in the 1950s. And it’s the push towards the moon. The idea came because I had written a novelette called “The Lady Astronaut of Mars,” which I wrote for an anthology called Rip-Off! It was an audio anthology. And the premise of Rip-Off! was actually very much like the First Line magazine, which was that the first line is so important. But instead of us all having the same first line, we each got to pick a first line, a famous classic first line, and then write a different story. And I picked the opening line of The Wizard of Oz, and wrote something that was…I wanted a Bradberry homage, something that reminded me of The Martian Chronicles, and that created the story of Elma York and her husband, Nathaniel, who were both in “Lady Astronaut of Mars,” older, Elma is in her 60s, Nathaniel is older than she is, he’s in his 70s, and the decisions that they have to make. And the backstory for this piece of fiction was this asteroid strike.

And the more I started thinking about it, the more I was like, “You know, it would be really interesting to know what she was doing when that happened.” And I had written a couple of other short pieces in this universe before I really decided to unpack it into a novel. It’s…I jokingly call it my punch-card-punk universe because they’re much…the computing is a little bit behind where the real timeline went.

I love the fact that the computers are having to check the work of the IBM machine.

Oh, yeah. Well, I mean, that was true.

Yeah, I read that.

Yeah. Yeah, that was really…they were not completely reliable. And we lost…oh was it the, one of the Voyagers? the name’s just gone out of my head…but we lost an early rocket because they had…the computers, who were women, had written the code, had written, you know, this is the plan, and then they had given it to the Air Force and they had keyed it into the punch-cards to load it onto the, you know, onto the rocket, and had transposed something. And so the rocket wound up crashing. So, it’s a really interesting era in computing, in rocketry. And I just got more and more…like, I’ve always been interested in space, but the longer I work in this universe and become versed in the early space program and the contemporary space program, the more interested I am in what we’re doing and how it affects people.

It’s…I find it very interesting because, of course, they’re doing all this, they’re heading to the moon and everything, but it’s ten years earlier than it actually happened, and the technology is that much more primitive, and yet it could have been done then. And it’s very much in that golden age of science fiction era, you know, with Heinlein and rockets being built by teenagers in the backyard, practically.

Yes! Well, and when you start, like, when you really start looking at the early history of spacecraft, of spaceflight…I recommend Breaking the Chains of Gravity by Amy Shira Teitel,, which is a history of pre-NASA spaceflight, the history of spaceflight up until NASA exists, basically. And the early days were actually teenagers and rockets in Germany, there was this whole Rocketry Club. That’s where Wernher von Braun came from, the V-2 is a descendant of that. And it was, you know, it was kids who were like, “I’d love to go to the moon. Can I build this thing?”

Now, you’ve talked about a couple of stories which started with first lines that came from elsewhere. When you’re not starting with the first line…

Yeah.

Where do story ideas tend to come to you from?

It’s random. The thing people always say is the idea is not the hard part. The challenge is turning it into a story. So, I will approach it in a couple of different ways, depending on the situation. Sometimes I will sit down, I’ll just free-write something, and then I will sort of do a diagnostic look at it to see where I’m going and what I need to do to continue this in a satisfying way. Other times, you know, if I’m writing for an anthology or I have an idea that I’m having trouble getting traction on, then I will do something that’s much more mechanical, where I will start breaking this story apart in different permutations to see where the idea could come from.

There’s an organizational theory called the MICE quotient, which holds that every story is basically made up of four components: milieu, which is setting, characters, inquiries, questions that you have, and events. Sorry, milieu, inquiry, character, event. And you can tell pretty much every story, you can reshape and refocus it, depending on which of those you want to be the driver. Most stories have more than one element in them. And so, what I will sometimes do if I’m having trouble kind of getting traction on a story is that I’ll start with what I call the gee-whiz idea, which is, you know, any story prompt you want to throw at me, and then, if I don’t have an immediate hit on it, then I start interrogating it to see, you know, what are the things that could go wrong with the environment, what are the things that, you know, how could I trap someone someplace around this idea? Because a milieu story is about trying to exit, a journey story.

What questions might they have or not be able to answer? Is my character angsting about something or is there something angsty that could be around this, which gives you a character story? Or is there something about this that disrupts the status quo, which is an event? And so, I’ll dig into those. And what I’m looking for is very Marie Kondo. I’m looking for that, you know, that moment like, “Oooh!”, whatever sparks joy. And then that’s the thing that I’ll chase.

And if nothing sparks joy, then there’s not a story there.

Yeah. I mean, there is a story there, but sometimes you have to scratch at it a little bit harder. There’s…you can…I mean, I really think you can tell a story about anything. And you can make it compelling. Like, the first novel, the first thing that I won a Hugo for, is a story called “For Want of a Nail.” And that story, the gee-whiz idea, literally, I mean, seriously, this is what’s…you know, when I came up with this, because this was one that I had to write at a workshop on a deadliney kind of thing, I was, I just, I did the whole mechanical thing to jumpstart me into it. But the gee-whiz idea was trouble plugging in a cable. Proprietary cable. That was, that was it, it was like when you don’t have the right cable…

A situation we’ve all been in.

Yeah. That was the gee-whiz idea. And what I wound up writing, which completely is about not being able to find the right proprietary cable, is a story about a family on a generation ship, and the AI, which they use to record their history from generation to generation, gets dropped. There’s a cable in a housing that’s damaged, so it can no longer store in long-term memory, it can only keep things for a couple of hours and then it’s going to have to start ditching memories, and there’s trouble finding this cable. And the process of finding it and getting it uncovers that the AI has been masking for a couple of different people who have Alzheimer’s, and it’s been covering for them because it can whisper in their ear. And so it’s…the story unpacks into something else. But the story seed is “can’t find the right proprietary cable.” Which is not a particularly compelling story seed. That’s where I’m like, “Ideas are everywhere. It’s just…you just have to scratch up for a little while, sometimes.

It’s something I say when I do school presentations about writing. You know, I can look around a school room and have twenty different story ideas just from what they’ve got stuck on the walls…

Yeah, absolutely.

…or on their desks or whatever So now, going back to Calculating Stars, once you have your story idea, what does your planning process look like for a novel. Are you a detailed outliner, or how does that work for you? And there must’ve been a lot of research involved in this one too, I would think.

It varies. So this one, I had a pretty good…I had a pretty solid outline for this one. And my general approach is that I’ll come up with kind of a what I call a thumbnail sketch, which is left over from my art days, which gives me sort of the basic compositional structure. And then I unpack that into a synopsis, which is like, you know, doing a rough sketch on the page. And then from there, I’ll unpack the synopsis into an outline, which is kind of my armature. And at each of those stages, things get adjusted and moved around as I come to understand the story a little bit more and what I want to get out of it. And I see opportunities, usually opportunities to make things worse for my characters. 

And then…at each phase, I’m also doing research, and it gets more specific the deeper into the process I get. So, with this one, I did fairly broad research on the early space program. I also, when I’m doing something that’s historical, always assume that there were women and people of color there in real life and that they’ve been written out of the narrative. So, one of the things that I actively do is go looking for them. And usually, those stories are significantly more interesting than the ones we’ve always heard, partly because we haven’t heard them. They’re newer stories. Like, when I was working on this was before Hidden Figures came out, so the involvement of women of color in the space industry was something that I became aware of and it was really cool and not something that I had heard of. And some the women…like, you know, Katherine Johnson, who basically wrote…that is how we knew how to get to the moon, because of the programs that she wrote, the math she did, the equations, excuse me. So I look for those and that helps me kind of shape the story.

And then I get more specific in the research. So, like, with these novels, my main character is a pilot. So she needs…so I need to know how rockets are flown. But she’s not an engineer, so I don’t need to know how they’re built. Or rather, I need to know just enough so that when something goes wrong, I can handle it. And this is why I kind of wait until I get an outline, because what I generally find is the stuff that I need to know is related to the things that my character directly interacts with. So, as I get more specific, I get a better idea about which things my character is going to need to interact with, which allows me to then hone my research.

For these particular books, there is so much math and science in there that I don’t have, and the level of understanding that I need to have in order to put sometimes a detail that is like three words long, but if it’s the wrong three words, it’s very apparent to anyone in the industry. Sometimes, it’s a ton of research to do that. So, I hired a science consultant and then I also found a number of people who were willing to…you know, subject-matter experts who are just willing to participate and help me. So I had, you know, I had literal rocket scientists for my science consultants. And then I had a couple of astronauts who were willing to read along and helped me with things. So, when I got, you know, when I would be writing, I would hit a thing, it was a really specific crunchy detail in a scene, but also kind of a grace note, right? It’s not something in spreading the plot, but it’s letting you know that my character is competent. It’s setting the stage. It’s that kind of thing. And so I would play what I call Astronaut Mad Libs. I would write it, and it would be something like, “As she jobbed the job,” or “’Jargon,’” the captain said, as he jargonned the jargon,” and then send it over to the astronauts, and I would say, “Could you just fill in the blanks? Could you just play Mad Libs?” So, technically, parts of these books are written by astronauts.

I was thinking as I was reading it that it’s a lot scarier and harder work actually to write an alternate history, especially that recent an alternate history, than writing a far-future handwavium sort of science, because there are so many opportunities for you to mess up something that people actually know.

Yeah. Yeah. It’s really fascinating. There are a couple of times where I am tempted to just, like, throw some random acronyms on the page, and, you know, just keep going. “That’s a thing.” But what I run into with my own brain is that I know how many people learn their science from fiction and if I have the opportunity to put the right science down on the page, then I will. If…and most of the time, the constraints of getting the science right cause me to have a better story. If I can’t get the science right, then I go vague, or don’t build a plot point around it. Which is why with, as I mentioned before, the asteroid, I know that a water strike, and particularly a shallow water strike, can cause the runaway greenhouse effect. But I didn’t…it was not important to the book to have the size of the asteroid be defined. It’s not a plot point.

We knew what it did. That’s all that matters, really.

That’s right. So again, it’s what she interacts with. So, I did just enough. There I hand-waved the math…let me rephrase it. The math, she’s…there’s a point where she’s trying to figure out how big it is, and she’s…so what she does is, she needs to figure out what it would take to heat up the Chesapeake Bay to the point that it got heated up. So I have them do the math for that, for heating up the Chesapeake Bay. And I had Steven Granade, my science consultant, I’m like, “What is…I found this formula for figuring out what it would take to heat something up a body of water like this, but I don’t do this math. Please help me.” And he did that and walked me through the steps that he had to go through to do the math. And then I took that and used sections of it as my character was kind of working through the problem. So I would have them hum a little bit and just talk out loud, so you just get these pieces of the equation, which…

Yeah, I remember that.

Yeah. So it really makes it look like I know what I’m doing.

It’s all an illusion.

I basically am treating math like a magic system. I established that my character can do magic using numbers. And then later when I say things like, “Elma did the equations,” you believe that she can do those equations.

Without having to specify what those equations were.

That’s correct. Because I was just like, oh, this is…this is a lot.

So, what did your actual writing process look like? I notice you say in your bio that you have a lot of manual typewriters. Do you write on a manual typewriter, or is that just something you’d like to collect?

We like to collect them. I will sometimes do short fiction on manual typewriters. But we just collect them. I predominantly write on my computer, either in Scrivener or…these days, my favorite thing is 4 the Words, 4thewords.com, which is a roleplaying game that…in which the metric for defeating monsters and going on quests is the number of words you write and the time in which you write them.

Oh…

It’s really good.

I should check that out, for sure.

It’s embarrassingly effective. I will write to earn a pair of wings with a dedication that I will not write for a paycheck. So it’s embarrassing how well it works, but it does.

That might be something I could use to motivate me, I admit.

There are quests. You have an avatar. There are little tiny pets that you can get. Yeah, it’s really good.

Hm. Do you work mostly, then, in a home office, or do you like to go out to other places, get away from the house, or what’s your…

All of the above. Since so much of my writing was done, early writing was done, in transit, I’m very comfortable writing kind of wherever I am. Sometimes I will go to a coffee shop because I just need to get out of the house because I’ve been there for so long. Sometimes I write at home in a chair, sometimes I write at a desk. I’m staying with friends right now and I’ve been writing…they have a solarium, so I’ve been sitting out there on a couch and their cat comes and sits with me. So it varies. The only things that are really super consistent are that if there is a conversation, a single conversation near me in which I can distinguish dialogue, I have difficulty concentrating, and I can’t write to music with lyrics. Or, actually, not just lyrics, I cannot write with the human voice. So even if it’s in another language, it will…there’s a part of my brain that’s trying to figure out what they’re saying.

It’s interesting, because I’m exactly the same way. In a coffee shop, I can write if it’s white noise, but otherwise…I have to put on headphones if somebody starts talking close enough to me to follow their conversation. Yeah. And I can’t listen to lyrics, either. I listen to classical or instrumental jazz. And it’s just background noise is just to block out the other noise.

Yeah. The thing that I figured out…so, I just finished writing Relentless Moon, which is Book Three in the Lady Astronaut series, or universe, and while I was in the process of writing it, I had had a flight in which I saw Captain Marvel and the soundtrack for that is so good and empowering and completely stuck in my head, but it’s full of all of these lyrics. So I assembled a Spotify list, which are instrumental versions. It’s an instrumental Captain Marvel playlist and it’s great. And I am now like, “Ah.” This is…because it’s all this really driving music and this is something that I will consider for future projects as well.

Something I didn’t ask you, but this is a good place to ask you because we’re getting to the point now…you’ve got a manuscript. What do you do next in the revision process? Do you have beta…well, you talked about some of the people who read it along the way, like astronauts and so forth.

Yes.

But, do you have more traditional beta readers? And when you were starting out, were there writing groups and  support groups like that that helped you along the way?

Yeah, I started with a writing group very, very early. And I…we recently moved to Nashville and I don’t have one in Nashville, and I miss having a writing group. But what I do with my beta readers is…this is very much influenced by the fact that I come from theater, in that I perform better for an audience. So, the only times I have gotten the stereotypical writer anxiety was the one novel where I decided not to use beta readers until I’d write the thing and then start showing it to people. And I got, I don’t know, ten chapters in and was having “this is a terrible book” reactions. And the thing that I do is, I use…so I’ll write, as I said, in Scrivener, and then I use Google Drive, Google Docs, and I’ll upload a chapter. And I have a list of beta readers who will read it. And I ask them to tell me just four basic things: awesome (so I don’t accidentally fix things); when they get bored, when their attention flags; when they’re confused; and when they don’t believe things. Then, I also tell them, like, stream-of-consciousness thoughts are great, and I enjoy those, but not to give me any kind of line notes at all, because all I’m interested in is whether or not the scene plays.

So, I think of it as inviting someone to a rehearsal. It’s like, it’s not even to a dress rehearsal stage, maybe, but I’ve just, you know, I’ve got the show up on its feet, I want to see if this plays. And then I’ll…just based on what they’re confused about, and that helps me kind of…so, I’m kind of doing a rolling revision as I go. I stay two chapters ahead of them. So, like, if I post Chapter One, that means I have finished writing Chapter Three. Then when I finish…and I should say that I usually talk through the outline with someone, like my writers’ group or with my agent or editor, so I’m pretty structurally solid by the time I start actually writing. And then this kind of rolling revision process means that I wind up with a fairly clean draft, though there’s usually things where I’ll have a retcon…and I just tell the readers, if I have a major retcon that I need to go back and do, I’ll just tell them like, you know, “In a previous scene, the evacuation is going to take place using a repelling line instead of the inflatable slide,” and then I just keep writing as if I’ve already made that change.

Then, when you have got that final draft, you do another revision just on your own?

Yeah.

And what do you look for in that pass?

I look for the same things that I ask my readers to look for. So, a lot of times I think a thing that writers will forget is that they have been thoroughly trained as readers for their entire life and that we can still have an emotional response to something, even if we know exactly what’s going to happen. There’s a piece of media that you’ve seen that you love, that, you know, you can probably recite lines from and you’ve seen multiple times. You know, like The Princess Bride. “Anybody got a peanut?” So, the fact that you know where something is going doesn’t stop you from having these emotional responses and  this cathartic satisfaction.

So, with my fiction, if I am not having reader responses, like if I find myself getting bored with something, it’s probably boring. It probably means that it’s not going to stand up to a reread. And, you know, as a writer, if people want to reread my stuff, that’s real good. So, I try to do a read through in which I am thinking about my own emotional responses to things. Usually when I finish it there’s some big-picture stuff that I know I need to do and I’ll do that. But then, like, when I have something, that’s pretty clean, I’ll do a reread and look for the problems. Look for the things where I get a little bored. You know, like, “Look, you just started skimming there. Maybe you should do something with that.” The number of times that I’m reading something that I’ve written, I’m like, “What does that even mean?” So, I’ll fix everything that I can identify. And these days, unless I have done a really major structural change, after that, I will send it off to my agent or editor. Before I was agented and had books that were for sale, or books that had been sold, I would run it through a different set of beta readers and see how it played for them, to see whether or not I had accidentally introduced a problem. If I’ve done a really big structural change, I will often run it through beta readers before turning it in, through another set of iterators, but not always. It depends.

And what does your agent and/or editor, what sorts of things do they most often flag for you to take another look at? If anything?

It depends on the book. A lot of times it’s a pacing issue. Sometimes they’ll flag that there’s a character opportunity that I missed, motivation is not clear, and those are the things where it’s most likely to have been in my head and to not hit the page. So, it’s usually something to do with the characters, in either the main character’s or a secondary character’s internal life. And those are usually pretty easy adjustments to make. But that’s for me the things that I’m usually getting flagged with. Sometimes it’s something else that’s more…fundamental, a large change. But since I have them involved from the outline phase, it’s usually pretty sound by the time we get in there.

Have you had the same editor for multiple books or have you worked with different editors?

So, the first…until Relentless Moon, it has all been Liz Gorinsky for the novels, and now Relentless Moon is Beth Meacham. I’m still with Tor, but Liz left and now has her own company, Erewhon, and is doing quite well. But it was an interesting process. switching editors. I’ve been edited, of course, by a lot of different short-fiction editors, but figuring out what the rhythms were and our communication style and things like that, it’s an interesting shift. And they flag different things. Each good, but it’s an interesting, interesting change.

My main publisher is DAW, I’m on my tenth novel with him and of course, that’s Sheila Gilbert, so I’m very, very familiar with Sheila’s style of editing. So, whenever I work with anybody else, it’s like, “Well, that’s different.”

Yeah. Right. Yeah.

’Cause it is kind of a…it’s not exactly a marriage, but it’s some sort of long-term relationship, anyway.

Yeah. Yeah, it really is. I mean it’s…in a lot of ways you’re business partners, because you’re building a product together. It sounds really crass, but it is a thing that is happening. Or, you know, theater, it’s…you’re putting on a show together now.

Now, you are…I would suspect…pleased with your response that the book has gotten.

Yeah. Yeah. No, that’s been very nice. I mean, the…I’ll tell you that the awards are…I mean, it’s been amazing. And I…like, the whole hitting all three was…staggering, I would say. But the thing that has been really…I’m not sure…this is a…it’s a tricky thing to talk about because it was an unexpected thing…the discussions of anxiety and mental illness in the book. There are a lot of people for whom that hits very hard and that deal with anxiety and feel like they have never seen themselves on the page before. And so, the emails, the fan mail that I get with these books, is of a different sort than I’ve gotten with the other things I’ve written. And it is really humbling. Like, I am…again, you know, again, it’s a theater thing, and it’s a fiction thing, too, but there’s a thing that I create. And then there’s the thing that the audience sees. And a puppet…you know,  a puppet is an inanimate object, right? My job is to pick it up and move it. But the thing we say in puppet theater is that the difference between playing with dolls and putting on a puppet show is the audience. Because the audience has to invest part of their belief in the character in order for it to come alive. It doesn’t matter how skilled I am at manipulating it. If there’s not someone there to watch it and invest part of themselves, it’s still just a figure. And so, the puppet exists in this liminal space between the performer and the audience. And I feel like books are very much the same way. Like, I wrote a book that satisfied me and that I intended to have an emotional impact on my readers. But I did not set out to write a book that was going to speak directly to people with anxiety. Like, that was…the goal was to tell a story about getting to the moon. That was the goal. And I wrote a character that I loved and I connected with, but this thing that has happened, that exists in this liminal space between my book and the reader, is something that the reader is responsible for. Like, each reader who picks it up is bringing part of themselves to it. And so, it’s this humbling thing where I am involved in this act of discovery for these readers. And what I’m doing is that I am…I’ve given them a tool, but the discovery is generated by them.

Yeah, I often like to say that writing is, we think of it as a solo thing that we do on our own, but it is in fact a completely collaborative art form, because, it does not exist until it exists in the head of somebody who reads it. And every reader is going to craft, really, a different story out of the story that you created. It’s actually a different story for every individual that reads it in some way or other.

Yeah, yeah. I mean, certainly, I also get the people who have clearly never realized that there are people in their lives who have anxiety. “Why is Elma so whiny? She can fly a plane, but she can’t talk in front of a group of people. I don’t believe that.” I’m like, “Oh, yeah, yeah. Anyone who has anxiety, they’re the best people to have with you in a crisis, because they’re like, what, stress hormones? That’s Tuesday.”

And I would think that you’ve had some good response…I haven’t…okay, I mentioned to you before we started the show that my wife is an engineer and has long been involved in the efforts to get more women involved in engineering. And there’s an effort in Canada right now called 30 by 30, which is to try to increase the percentage of women in the profession to thirty percent by 2030. And her mother was a doctor who graduated from medical school in 1947 when there were not a lot of other women in her class with her at the University of Toronto. So I would think that there would be a segment of the population whom that part really speaks to as well.

Yeah, yeah, that’s really true. A lot of people in STEM, women in particular, contact me to tell me that it’s like, “Oh, yeah, my story was Elma’s.” But what’s horrifying, is, it’s really easy to read the book and go, “But that was the 1950s.” And the number of women who have had that experience in the 21st century, of being the only woman in their math class…the fact that there’s a campaign to get thirty percent women, that’s still not a lot.

And I will say, I think at the University of Toronto, where my daughter, she’s not in engineering, but she just started this year, and I was there for their…when the engineers were having their big thing that they do the first day, there are all these people in yellow shirts and hard hats running around. And I was watching them go by. And it was, it looked pretty much 50/50. And I think they’re pretty darn close at the University of Toronto and the engineering program right now. So…

So, I’m going to challenge you on that, when you say that it looks 50/50, to find out. Because there is a thing that happens, and this is real, this is like well-documented, that when there are thirty percent women in a room, or on a bookshelf, that it is perceived as being predominantly women, even though it’s not.

Well, in this case, I asked my wife and she believes that it is close…closer than 30 percent in the high 40s maybe. So, you know, pretty close. OK. I confess I haven’t looked at up myself, but I think the University of Toronto at least is certainly working hard…

Good.

…to make that happen. So I also wanted to touch, before I get to my big philosophical question here—we’re just about out of time, but I want to get those in…but I did just want to ask you about the audiobook narration. That’s another form of theater.

Yes.

And I’ve…I do some of that myself. I’m currently narrating my own books, but I’ve done a couple of other people’s, too. How did that come about?

I like to say it’s like puppetry, but without the pain. You know, I have this long career doing character voices and talking to myself because usually there’s two performers and you have to do the entire cast, so often you are in dialogue with yourself. So, I had that skill set and my minor in college was theater and speech, specifically doing radio performance. So, honestly, I like, I auditioned and audiobooks are just like trying to do any other form of, you know, any form of writing, where there’s submission guidelines and you go and you read the submission guidelines and then you follow those instructions and you turn in a tape. And then sometimes they’ll have you do what is essentially a callback, where they’ll say, “Yeah, we’re thinking about you for this audiobook. Here’s a page. Please read that page to us.” And then you see what happens. I got lucky. I did a couple of different things, but then started doing the Seanan Maguire series. I was just in the booth this morning to record the fixes on book thirteen in the series. So it’s nice to have a little bit of job security there. She keeps writing these.

But I have to ask, because, having done it…it’s an enormously time-consuming thing, recording books. Does that…how do you balance out writing your own stuff and recording the other stuff. You just have time for it? Because I find it’s a huge…you know, it just takes so much time.

Well, I don’t do self-producing. So I have an engineer, which means that I only have to do the recording part.

And true, I do my own engineering.

Yeah. And that’s the part that I’m just like, no. if I had to do that, yeah, then the balancing of those two things would be, I think, well-nigh impossible. But balancing just narrating and writing is not bad. Usually it’s, you know, six to eight hours a day of the narration, depending on the book and who I’m recording for. And then I’ll get in an hour or so of writing before or after, depending again on the book and where I am. Sometimes, I’m doing it…like, editing and narration. I will often do my edits on my lunch break or something. So it’s…I don’t find it any different than balancing writing with any other day job. And I don’t do it often. Like…I mean, I’ve done seventy-some books, but I’m not recording every day.

I could be if I did, if I were willing to do, home records or self-records. But I…most of my career has been trying to turn down the gigs I don’t want to do. And it’s not something I’m interested in doing. So I don’t, even though that means I have less audiobook work. And then there’s also books that I don’t want to record. There was a series that I was recording for a company and the books were very rapey and I recorded the second one and said, “I can’t, I can’t record these. I’m so sorry. I know that you don’t want to change narrators mid-series, but I just, I don’t want to be involved with these books.” I was already using a pseudonym for them and…which, like, they don’t…I don’t do a lot of. But I’m like, I don’t need to do these books and I don’t want to. So I don’t. Which makes it significantly easier to balance.

Yeah. Well, it’s you, when you’re reading something out loud it’s…yeah, if you’re not comfortable with the narrative, it would be very difficult, I would think, to…

I mean…yeah, I can do it. Like, I can turn in a good performance. It’s compelling and all of that. But I’m just like, “But I don’t want to participate in that.”

I’m just gonna back up for a minute. I was listening, but I was also checking the enrollment at the University of Toronto, and they’re at…I did overestimate. They are apparently at about thirty-five percent women at this point.

Yep. Thank you for checking. And that was what I, sorry, that was what I guessed.

I had heard a higher number than that, but clearly that was incorrect. So, just to finish up here, with the sort of the big philosophical question, and you sort of touched on this already, with the sort of reaction and, you know, talking about the collaboration with readers. But, the first question is, “Why do you do this? Why do you tell stories?”, and then the second question is, “And what do you hope to accomplish by telling stories?” So, why do you write, and specifically, why do you write science fiction? Why do you write this crazy stuff?

So I write, and I write, I guess, science fiction, because…for the same reasons that I do puppetry. It is the theater of the possible. It allows me to take the natural world, tip it on its side, and look at the interconnective tissue, which helps me understand the real world more. The reason I write instead of just doing daydreams is so that I can share those things with other people. It’s also, I think…I mean, I am a storyteller and it’s something that gives me satisfaction. I like the give and take. I like that conversation with the reader. So, really, I guess, ultimately, I write because it’s fun. I enjoy it. As I said, I am working to turn down gigs I don’t want to do, so ultimately and selfishly, I write because I enjoy it.

But the goal with each book is to provoke an emotional response in the reader and usually to have them share the same emotional journey that I have had when I’ve been thinking about a character. But each book is different. Each short story is different. Like, the specifics of what that emotional response is vary. With the Lady Astronaut books, a lot of what I am thinking about kind of consciously are ways in which to demonstrate a different path. Because we do learn so much from fiction. We use it as a means of cathartic experimentation, trying on different selves. And…as a reader, I mean, not as a writer. We do that as writers, too, but as readers, that’s what…we’re trying on these different lives and these thought experiments. And sometimes the thing we want to try on is just escaping the stuff that’s going on around us. Sometimes it is purely just for fun, which I think is also a valuable and important thing. But it is…each book we pick up, we pick up for a reason, to have this journey of some sort. And so I am, as a writer, wanting to create the experience that I have as a reader.

Something that…I always say that the reason I write is because I want to give to other people the experience I had as a reader.

Yeah.

You know, and create something that people will enjoy as much as I’ve enjoyed the stuff that I’ve read.

Yeah.

I think that’s a common thread. And what are you working on now?

I am doing the final edits for Relentless Moon. It was actually due day before yesterday, but I’m…one of my astronauts got back to me with notes at 10:30 the night before it was due, which is…fortunately, my editor was like, “Wait, you got astronaut notes? You get some extra days.” So I am actually rewriting a scene based on those notes right now. That is literally what I was doing right before this interview and what I’m going to do immediately when we’re done. And then, once I turn that in, I get to start working on a book that is not in the Lady Astronaut universe that I’m very excited about. It’s the next book that’s gonna come out from Tor. So, Relentless Moon comes out in 2020. The book after that is called The Spare Man, and it is a locked-room murder mystery on an interplanetary cruise ship. And it’s basically The Thin Man in space. It’s, you know, retired detective and a socialite and sparkling witty banter, but on a cruise ship going from the moon to Mars.

That sounds like fun.

It’s…I have written the first three chapters of it and the outline. I’m so excited to be writing this book. I cannot tell you. It is frolicking.

And where can people find you online?

The easiest way is to go to my Web site, maryrobinettekowal.com. And you can check out the Web site, but actually, signing up for my newsletter is probably the best thing, because I’ll tell you when I’m teaching classes, when I’m going to be traveling, and I will sometimes put out calls for beta readers and invite people to read my stuff while I’m working on it.

And are you active on Twitter?

Yes. @MaryRobinette, and on Instagram @MaryRobinetteKowal. Generally speaking, if you type in my name, Mary Robinette, I will pop up.

Yes, I think you’re the only one I’ve ever heard of.

So, funny thing, I actually met another Mary Robinette. But it was her last name. And that was very funny. But it’s…and Joe Biden’s middle name is also Robinette. But there’s not a lot of us.

I did not know that about Joe Biden, so that says…you learn something new every day. I knew it was Joe R. Biden, but I know that was his middle name.

Yeah, my double take on Inauguration Day was pretty epic.

Well, thanks so much for being on The Worldshapers.

Thank you for having me.

I enjoyed it. Hope you did, too.

I did.

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