An hour-long conversation with R.B. Lemberg, a linguist, and author of many stories set in the Birdverse, an LGBTQIA+-focused secondary world, including The Four Profound Weaves, a novella just released by Tachyon Publications.
R.B. Lemberg is a queer, bigender immigrant from Ukraine, Russia, and Israel to the US. Their stories and poems have appeared in Lightspeed’s Queers Destroy Science Fiction, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Strange Horizons, Uncanny Magazine, Sisters of the Revolution: A Feminist Speculative Fiction Anthology, People of the Book: A Decade of Jewish Science Fiction and Fantasy, and more. R.B.’s work has been a finalist for the Nebula, Crawford, and other awards. Many of R.B.’s stories are situated in Birdverse, an LGBTQIA+-focused secondary world. Their Birdverse novella The Four Profound Weaves has just been released by Tachyon Publications.
In their academic life, R.B. is a sociolinguist working on immigrant discourse, identity, and gender. R.B. lives in Lawrence, KS with their spouse Bogi Takács, child Mati, and “an odd but cheerful community of books.”
The (Lightly Edited) Transcript
So, R.B., welcome to The Worldshapers.
Thank you so much for having me.
Now, we have not met in person, I don’t think, at all, but I’ve been talking to several Tachyon authors. Then I started doing the research, and you seemed like a really interesting person to talk to, so I’m looking forward to this.
Now, I always start off the same way, by taking the guests back into what I usually call the mists of time, more misty for some of us than others. And so, let’s start there, because Ukraine, Russia, Israel—where did you grow up and how did you get interested in science fiction and fantasy and writing?
Well, thank you so much for asking this question. As you can imagine, it is not an easy question for me to answer, because I’m from many places. So, I was born in Lviv, Ukraine, under the Soviet regime. So, I was born in the Soviet Union. My parents lived in Lviv for a while and then, due to a variety of reasons—some of them had to do with my father, who was an underground activist a little bit and had some trouble doing what he was doing. My father and my mother then went to Vorkuta, which is a circumpolar town in northern Russia. So, when you think about Fairbanks, Alaska, you know, the place, but up there in the north. It’s actually in northern Siberia. It’s on the European side of the Ural mountains, and it’s the only gulag site which was in Europe. My mother and my father had a relative there who said, “Well, it’s a place where you can actually come.” And they went there. And I lived there with them on and off. I lived with my grandmother in Lviv, and then I lived with my parents in Vorkuta until the Soviet Union started collapsing, and the situation became really, really dire, including for my family. And we sought to leave the Soviet Union as it was collapsing. And we wanted to go to the U.S., but the U.S. had quotas, as it always has, so we couldn’t actually go to the U.S., so we went to Israel. And from there, I received my undergraduate there in linguistics, and then one of my mentors said, “Well, you should go to the U.S. and study there for graduate school if you want to do graduate school.” So, I thought that was an interesting idea, and I applied to Berkeley, and they accepted me, which was really exciting. And so, I went to Berkeley, and I was in Berkeley for my Ph.D., and then I got a job. So, this is my trajectory.
As to what got me into fantasy and science fiction, I think with a background like this, you kind of almost have to. It’s not…you don’t necessarily have to, but if you do, nobody is going to be very surprised. So, my family, like for many geeks, nerds, or whatever you want to call us, my parents were into sci-fi, especially my dad. And so, when I was very little, my dad, first of all, also was into mythology and folklore, and so from a very early age, my dad, and my mom to a lesser degree, my dad would tell me fairy tales and read things to me from memory. It’s something that exists in Russian culture. A lot of people memorize poems. And with my father from, like, toddler age, I would memorize Pushkin’s fairy tale poems, I was really into them. And then, again, I remember, as a little child, I would read, I would get from my parents various mythology and folklore books. And I got also a lot of oral tradition from my family and from friends. And I was really into everything fantasy from as, you know, as young as I can remember myself. I was wandering around and I was making up worlds. I made my first constructed language at a very, very young age. I later found that it’s actually common among linguists specifically to invent constructed languages when they’re kids. So, when I started, you know, studying linguistics at the university, I met a lot of other people who had their own constructed languages and who wanted to become writers.
I didn’t actually want to become a writer for a while. I was content with, you know, thinking I would be a linguist. The problem with being a writer, it’s not that I didn’t want to because I know that I’ve written on and off—and there is also some trauma involved in this that I don’t want to get into—but I’ve written on and off. But it was really difficult for me to figure out in what language I wanted to write. And I’ve tried writing…so, the languages in which I’ve written something are varied, but they certainly include Russian. I’ve done a little bit in Ukrainian, not too much, but that was a very long time ago. I’ve done a lot in Hebrew, when I was 18, and then I’ve also written a bit in Yiddish and a bit in Czech and in Bulgarian, like, I’ve tried my hand in all the various languages that I’ve studied or felt close to at different points in my life. And then, uh, yeah, I started writing in English. When I moved to this country, I didn’t feel like I could ever write in English. I felt that my English was just not there, and I felt very self-conscious. And then, I met Shweta Narayan through Berkeley. Shweta also went through linguistics at Berkeley, and we had a mentor, who was the same mentor. So, we met through Eve, who was our mentor. And Shweta helped me. And she said things like, “It’s OK not to be a writer of a hegemonic English, and it’s OK to think about things from the perspective of a diaspora writer,” or, you know, multinational, or whatever it is that you call it. And together, we kind of explored this because Shweta also is multilingual and comes from various countries. And so, together, we started exploring the issues that kind of related to not being American, to writing in English while you’re not actually writing in your native tongue or even, you know, it’s not immediately your inheritance.
And so, we started exploring these issues. And Shweta went to Clarion. I did not do workshops for various reasons. So, we started editing this magazine called Stone Telling Magazine. I founded it, and Shweta joined me as a co-editor. And we edited a poetry magazine, which was subtitled A Magazine of Boundary-Crossing Poetry. And we looked for specifically multilingual queer, trans voices, voices of color, voices from many marginalized communities. And it kind of coalesced as it went on. And I started also publishing fiction at the time. Slightly earlier, before I started the magazine. I was publishing fiction for a short time before we started the magazine. So, doing the magazine and editing the magazine, I think, really helped me become braver about what I had to say. Because I saw the poets from all kinds of backgrounds, from all kinds of countries around the world, reach into kind of the deepest, most vulnerable place to speak about their experiences through the lens of speculative fiction. Well, speculative poetry in that case.
And that has just been extremely powerful for me, to witness how transformative the works of fantasy, science fiction, horror, magic realism, et cetera, that fall under the spec umbrella can be to express our identities and struggles and hopes and dreams as people who do not necessarily fit into the straight and narrow, so to speak, paradigm of who gets to write what. And then, it kind of, from that place where I was so uplifted by how much the poets and the essay writers who sent us their work were brave and vulnerable and brilliant, that my work itself changed. So, I was already writing fantasy. I love fantasy. So, I was already writing fantasy, but I began writing in Birdverse, which is the universe of my upcoming novella from Tachyon, which is coming out next week, and I’m really excited about it. So, that’s kind of the long and the short of it.
What drew you to linguistics?
Well, it’s awesome.
Just the love of language?
Well, I think linguistics…so, when we think about linguistics, we think about language having a fundamental place in human experience. Language is not a universal for everybody. Not everybody uses language the same way. Some people don’t use verbal language at all, they use other means of communication. But language is such a fundamental thing for human experience. For many social science and humanities disciplines, language underlies everything. So, when you want to answer questions like…
So, here’s a more nerdy answer. When I was 14, and I’d just migrated to Israel, I was very miserable. Immigration was really hard on my family. And so, I was really, really miserable. And a friend gave me a translation of Lord of the Rings, the first book, into Russian, which existed, but it was kind of rare, and I’ve never seen it before. This was in the mists of the early 1990s, now you can figure out how old I am, but it’s not hard. So, I read it in Russian translation and the preface, which Russian editions often do, there was a beefy preface which said, “J.R.R. Tolkien was a linguist and philologist and here were his interests and here’s how his interest shaped this world.” So, I read this with great interest because it really intrigued me that you could study ancient languages from a comparative perspective, which I already knew about, but I didn’t know about in detail. So, I read the book. I loved the book. There was no second or third translation into Russian that I knew about, and I couldn’t get my hands on it. So, I began teaching myself English, which was a really interesting process. I knew English a little bit already. I had some English in school, but I was not fluent, and I couldn’t read in it, it was really difficult. So, I began teaching myself English just to read this book. And I’m neurotypical. I’m also very stubborn. So, when I focus on something, I just go. And I learned English, and I read the books.
And by the time I finished, which was about a year later, I said to myself, “Actually, I’m really interested in all those works that Tolkien was inspired by, so I’m going to seek them out.” So, I began in high school, I began teaching myself, Old Norse, teaching myself Old English, teaching myself Old French. And by the time I started reading these texts and got to college and started learning them, I was so deeply in love with historical linguistics and felt, that’s the more interesting stuff than Tolkien. And I’m still interested in Tolkien. I don’t want to lambast Tolkien in any way. But I was just so intrigued by the actual ancient and medieval texts that I wanted to become a historical linguist.
And then, when I started in college, actually learning historical linguistics, I expanded my horizons beyond things that interested Tolkien to other things. And that’s kind of a lifelong journey. I’m not a historical linguist. I did not go in that direction in the end, but I still have an interest in how languages develop, in how kind of the history of languages can really be inspiring to think about in terms of world-building. I have a deep love of world-building. So, I think language is an integral part of world-building and to world-building, which is informed about cultures which are not all the same. Because languages are not all the same in how they shape how we think. And so, that’s the intersection that really interests me. And that’s where the connection between the linguistics that I do in my academic life and my fantasy writing is.
Yeah, I was interested in the fact that you’ve written in multiple…I mean, I’m feeling very…I can speak English, and I learned a little bit of French because I live in Canada, and that’s kind of it. And so I always feel a little, you know, like I’m missing out on something and wish I was better on languages. But when you’re writing in different languages…like, as I understand it, there are some things you could say in one language that never really translate to another language because it’s so specific to the language and the culture. Is that a true statement?
That is absolutely a true statement.
And how would that affect this writing in various languages?
Well, thank you very much for that question. That’s actually a really important question. First of all, I want to say that knowing or studying more than one language is awesome. So, if you can do it, that’s great. Not everybody can. But I recommend that. I think it really opens up your world. It shows you how diverse human experiences are around the world in space and time. And it’s one way to see the incredible diversity of human experience—not the only way, but it’s a good way. But there are some writers who can do multiple languages at once in their writing. I’m not one of them. When I made the decision to write in English, I just gave it my all because…I think it would have to be either Russian or English at that point and, uh…and maybe, I don’t know, and maybe Hebrew. I’m not convinced.
But what English really opened up for me personally is the queer trans experience, because in English I had through friends who taught me the words and taught me the expressions, I had the vocabulary to express my queer non-binary trans experience in a way that I couldn’t really in either Hebrew or Russian, both languages which are very deeply grammatically gendered. So, you don’t only use pronouns which distinguish between genders, but you also do them with nouns, you do them with adjectives, you do them with verbs. And for many of them, certainly for Hebrew, you only get the feminine and masculine option. For Russian, you have a little bit more flexibility, but mostly for inanimate objects. So, it gets really fraught. And that’s something that I’m dealing with now also personally in my life. How do I talk about myself and my other languages? And also when we talk about translations. For example, I recently had a wonderful conversation with a translator who was interested in discussing with me what I want to do in Polish, not just for myself, but also for my characters.
And so, we had these discussions about how to work with these languages that have such deep grammatical gender that there are barriers which English doesn’t have. These barriers are surmountable. People do various things. But there’s just a very different approach than we have in English. And I felt liberated by English and also deeply sad that I can do it in a language which is not my native language. So, it’s created kind of like a bit of a struggle for me internally, and I express it in my fiction.
So, in The Four Profound Weaves, the main character, who is a trans man, transmasculine person, who grows up in a culture which is very binary. It’s not trans accepting. It’s queer accepting and queer normative, in fact, but it’s not trans accepting. And the language, which I built based on Semitic and Hebrew specifically, the language only has the binary options. So, that person feels alienated from his society because he needs to travel and seek help from different people whose language is more flexible, whose culture is more flexible. But that makes him feel an alienation from his own home culture, and he struggles with that. So, I feel that my fiction expresses some of these things that I think about when they think about language and the place of LGBTQIA writing specifically.
Then, I admire people, like, people who can do multiple languages at once and write bilingually. Actually, this is something that I’m exploring more and more now, having more code-switching, maybe not in Birdverse so much, but in my other works, which are kind of more magic realism, having more code-switching in there. I have supported poets and writers who want to have code-switching, which is untranslated, in their works. I think it’s really important.
So, one of the people that I published in Stone Telling, as well as in my collection that I edited called An Alphabet of Embers, who is better known as fan artist for her magnificent art. She wrote a series of these bilingual pieces where the translation is simply not offered. And I think that’s so powerful because I think I think we don’t need to control everything. Does that make sense? Like, we don’t need to understand every single word the other person is saying. It’s OK for them to have a way to voice their experiences which is not accessible to a reader who is not as familiar with those experiences. But it kind of, like, pushes against the paradigm that the editor needs to control everything the author produces. I don’t believe in that. And I also don’t believe that the reader necessarily needs to control everything that an author produces does. Does that make sense? Like, there has to be a space for partial understanding and just trust that the other person is giving you some of their experience, some of their experience which you won’t necessarily immediately understand. So, from that perspective…
Yeah, I think that does make perfect sense. I think whenever we’re…you know, even something that seems completely accessible, you are reading something that the author has things going on there that you’re not necessarily picking up on because of their background and their approach to the world. And so, I think even for something that seems on the surface to be completely accessible, there can sometimes be those kinds of hidden places where there’s something else going on. And that’s fine. And certainly, the more difficult text that we read that we don’t, you know, maybe don’t immediately penetrate what’s going on there quite the same way, that can be exciting. And I think in science fiction and fantasy in particular, it’s often that, encountering the strangeness and encountering those different ways of looking at things, that’s actually part of the appeal of the genre, at least to me.
I agree, I agree. And I think in science fiction and fantasy is where you often have this very intricate worldbuilding that shows you different worlds, you know, it shows you different models of being, that experiments with, even with language. There were plenty of science fiction and fantasy writers who thought about what other languages would look like and how it would express culture. I mean, Ursula K. Le Guin is such an amazing example of this is, but there’s many other writers who experimented with meaning and worldbuilding. So, for me, that’s the pleasure of reading sci-fi and fantasy as opposed to, I don’t know, realism, you know, that you can actually be transported.
You mentioned a little bit about The Four Profound Weaves and kind of gave a little bit of a synopsis of it. So, let’s segue over to talk about that. Is there more of a synopsis of that you want to give or more of an explanation of the book before we talk about how it came about?
Sure, sure. Sure. So, in The Four Profound Weaves, it’s set in Birdverse, which is my secondary world, which I’ve written them before. And this novella is a standalone. In this novella, two transgender people who are in their 60s, there’s a trans man and a trans woman, they’re friends. They team together on a personal journey, and they end up learning…they want to learn how to weave from death. One of them is seeking the mastery of the four profound weaves, which is kind of a goal she had all her life and couldn’t quite accomplish. And they end up fighting an evil ruler who imprisons rebellious women and hoards their bones and souls. And they fight, they have to fight this ruler by the means of learning how to weave from death. And so, it’s kind of a novella about art and craft and waiting for very many years for something to start happening in your life that you desperately wanted and desperately waited for, and kind of getting another chance at truly figuring out who you are and embracing yourself. And it’s also a story of the transformative power of art to push against a dictatorship and tyranny. And I also feel that it’s both a story about grief, because both of these characters have a lot of a past that they have to deal with, past lovers, people who died, people who betrayed them, people who weren’t there for them, people who tried to constrain them. So, there’s a lot of grief and regret about what didn’t happen earlier in life. But it’s also a story of hope and what we can accomplish, no matter how old we are, that it’s never too late to embrace your identity and become fully yourself. So that’s, I guess, the longer synopsis.
Well, it’s set in the Birdverse universe. So, my first question at this point is always that that old hoary question, where do you get your ideas? But in this case, how did the Birdverse come about, now that this novella has grown out of it?
You know, this is also kind of a complicated question. There’s a simple answer and a complicated answer, but I’ll give you the complicated answer because I like complicated things, and I hope it’s OK. I remember when I was 16, I read, I was in Ursula Le Guin, which is pretty clear from my writing. I love her. And I also knew her a little bit personally. And I read…I don’t even remember where I read it, and I might misremember it, but I read that Le Guin said that when she was little she had, with a friend, invented a story, a kind of like a beginner’s story world, which came from a bird. And I started thinking about that because I love birds. So, I started thinking about this, this primordial egg, which is also actually mythologically widespread, there’s a lot of mythology about the world egg, the first egg. And so, I started thinking about this bird, this bird that gives birth to a world. And over the years, the thought kept percolating. I wanted to write about this bird. And I wasn’t even writing. I was not writing in any language. I was writing very little. And I was, you know, drawing. I was making worlds, but I wasn’t actually making stories at the time.
And then, somewhere in graduate school, I made up a story of a linguist character, who is not in any published works, but I’ve written two novel drafts in which she’s a character, that are not published and hopefully maybe one day will see light, but maybe not. So, there’s this linguist character who goes out to do linguistics fieldwork in some other place. And I thought, well, maybe these are connected, and maybe this is the world of the bird. And so, this is how Birdverse, roughly, was born. So, this was all before I was even writing. And then, I started writing in a completely different corner of this world just because I thought of a story.
And the story came to me, and I said, “Well, what if it’s in the same world?” So, I started writing it. I had a few of my Birdverse stories published in Beneath Ceaseless Skies. Scott Andrews has just been an amazing editor. I always praise him because he is awesome. And so, he has this really wonderful ability, both a deep interest in worldbuilding but also in character. So, he’s the kind of person who is always seeking experiences that are maybe, you know, maybe people like he doesn’t yet know or…and he’s published a lot of very diverse authors, which is wonderful. So, Scott is very encouraging to me. So, I’ve written a bunch of stories, and they became popular, people who were drawn to them. And one of those stories was my Nebula-nominated story called “Grandmother-nai-Leylit’s Cloth of Winds,” which was a Nebula finalist and also was on the Hugo shortlist—longlist, sorry, not shortlist. I wish!—longlist. It was on the Tiptree long list. So, it got some attention. And so, there was a side character…Uiziya, the trans woman, was a very minor character in that story. And the nameless man who is a character also in The Four Profound Weaves was the grandparent of the main character in that story.
And so, for many years after that, it kept nagging at me, “Hm, I want to know what happened to these characters. I want to know their story.” So, my dad passed away in late 2016, and I was thinking about death, as one does when a parent passes away. And I was unable to write for a few months, I was dealing with grief, and when I emerged and started writing again, I wrote a bunch of stories, and then I felt that, “The time has come for me to answer the question of what’s the story of those older people.” And so, I wrote The Four Profound Weaves, and then Tachyon bought it. And here we are.
So, once you decided to do that story, what did your planning process look like? Do you do a detailed outline? Do you just write? How does it work for you?
I do not do a detailed outline. Oh, my God. I wish! I admire people who can do that. That seems so orderly and so good to me. I wish I could do it. I like planning, in my nonfiction and my academic work, I plan, but in my fiction, I don’t. But I do a little…I’m not a complete pantser. That I cannot say. So, tI always need to know what is, first of all, where are we starting? And it might not be where we end up starting, but kind of, I know the first scene, and then I know the last scene. And then I start figuring out what are the touchstones. In between those Points A and B, what are the big emotional scenes where the reader really will get the payoff of following my characters, and very often, scenes along the way that are very vivid to me, that I know how they’re going to look like. I want to know what they’re going to feel like when I’m going to write them. I want to imagine them. So, it’s like a movie that’s playing in my head over and over. So, I walk around, and the movie plays, and I think about that and come up with more scenes. A lot of my thinking about fiction comes when I’m in motion. So, I love walking when I can. The pandemic’s been really difficult that way for me, but I love walking, sometimes driving even, things happen. So, I need to be in motion. And then once I figured out enough of my, “Here’s A, here’s B, here are some touchstones along the way.” I try to connect them, and I start writing, and I start asking myself, “How do I lead from this scene to the next scene that I know is a pivotal emotional scene?”
So, in The Four Profound Weaves, I knew the beginning, and I started writing there, and I knew that the next big emotional point would be meeting with Uiziya’s aunt, Benesret, which happens in the desert. And so, I was writing towards that and then towards the next point and then towards the next point and then towards the next point until I reach the end. So, I can say that I’m a complete pantster, but it’s not very orderly. But that’s what it is.
Do you write it sequentially, like beginning to end, or do you write scenes and then knit them together?
I always write sequentially. That I cannot break myself from. And my friends often told me, try to just write the big scenes and then connect them and I cannot do that. I write sequentially.
Yeah. I’ve you know, I’ve talked to a few people that do it that way, and it wouldn’t work for me. I just start, and then it has to just keep flowing out.
Exactly. Yeah. Yeah.
What’s your actual writing process? Do you write, you know, the same time every day? Do you go out, obviously not now, maybe, but go out to the coffee shop or something? Or do you sit under a tree with a quill pen? How do you like to write?
So, I have a laptop and I’m kind of attached to my laptop. You cannot separate me from my laptop. Um, like, it’s my arm, third arm or, I don’t know, third stomach, second stomach, I don’t know. So, I write on the laptop, and I wish I could write at the same time every day, but unfortunately, I can’t commit to that just because I’m an academic, I’m a parent, you know, I work full time, I parent full time, especially now in the pandemic. I am married to another writer who also needs access to…and is also academic, Bogi is an academic as well. So, we kind of play it by ear a lot of times, but I do write every day if I can, too. I mean, things happen, and you can’t really write every day reliably if you have a disability or pain or you have, you know…maybe other people can, but I can’t always, because caregiving job, pain, you know, all of those factors combine to make my commitment to everyday writing not as firm as I would like, but I do try to write every day. Sometimes I only write fiction, sometimes I only write my academic writing, because that’s also a thing I need to write. As to where, I love writing in coffee shops. That has gone away for me, and that has been such a rough adjustment for me because I love coffee shops, and I’ve written most, I think, of my work in coffee shops up until the pandemic.
So, now that I can no longer write in the coffee shop, it’s a blessing and a curse. It’s a blessing because lately, in coffee shops, I could not really be left alone. People recognize me, not necessarily because of my writing, but because they know me from various places. I’m in the college town, so it’s not huge, and I would always go to the same place. So, I would get interrupted, and I would talk to people, which is fine, I like talking to people, but I wouldn’t get as much done as I hoped for. So, being able to actually be in my room, which is my office, which was not set up at the beginning of the pandemic, but is now beautiful, it’s set up, and Bogi and I have worked out how are we going to divide the child care, and the kid is older, and he’s gotten into video games. That has been really cool because, while he’s playing video games, both of us can have some time to write. I prefer, my natural inclination is to write at night, late at night, when it’s quiet and dark. That’s when there’s no distraction, and that’s when I prefer to write. But honestly, I write whenever I can. So, if I have time, I try to do it. So, that’s my process.
Do you think of yourself as a fast writer or a slow writer?
OK, so I have two speeds, on and off. The off is when I don’t write. So, I told you I write every day, but I also can tell you that there are days when I don’t write. And by that, I mean I will write academic work. I will write nonfiction rather than fiction. And so, those days for me, I feel, “Oh, I haven’t written. I want to write.” Even though I’ve written. But when I really get…but these days are good days, when I’m not writing fiction, because I’m thinking about it and I’m planning and I’m strategizing and things are growing while I’m maybe not putting them to paper. But then, when I start writing, I begin writing, I can write things very fast because I’ve already thought about them so deeply. And I know sometimes even whole phrases that I’ve already made up in my mind, and I know them. I can write very fast. So, I think I’m neither slow nor fast. I just have variable speeds.
Once you have…you’ve started at the beginning, you’ve worked your way to the end. Then comes the revision process. What does that look like for you? Do you go back to the beginning, start the beginning, work your way through? Do you have beta readers? How does it all work?
So. immediately after I finish, I am tempted to immediately begin revising. All of my friends told me not to do it, and they’re all right, they’re all correct, and I’m not. But I can’t stop myself because usually, when I’m carried past the moment of the end, I have built so much momentum I am tempted to immediately start revising. So, I let myself do it. And in the first pass, I usually fix the issues that I already know are there. And I make the beginning work better with the end. And I fix sentence-level stuff, I fix some continuity issues. My drafts tend to be quite clean. This is my downfall because the fact that they’re are clean and readable doesn’t mean that they don’t need work. So, after I’ve done the second pass and I’ve completed the second pass, I usually do one of two things. Either I send it out to a beta reader, a friend who wants to read, and reads it for me. Sometimes it’s Bogi, sometimes it’s one of my other close friends. I mean, I just lost a very dear friend, Cory, who would read a lot of my stuff at that stage and…I’m sorry, it’s just still very raw. And after that, beta readers give me, or maybe they’re more alpha readers than beta readers at this point. They give me feedback, and they say, “Well, this worked, this didn’t work, or this is this is cool, or they didn’t understand. Then I usually put it away because it needs to bake a little bit. And then after a few weeks, sometimes a month, sometimes even more, but usually it’s a few weeks to a month, I come back to it, and I do a serious revision.
What sorts of things do you find yourself working on at that level, once it comes back for some serious revisions? Is it, like, characterization, plot, description, what sorts of things do you have to work on?
It’s always plot. It’s always plot. It’s always, always, always plot. I believe that each writer has a weakness or weaknesses and a strength or strengths. And so, I often when I give advice, I tell people, play to your strengths, emphasize the strong things, whatever it is, if it’s plot, work on plot, if it’s character, work on character, if it’s relationships, which is character work, too, work on relationships, if it’s world-building, work on that, just do what brings you joy. And then, in revision, you need to work on the things that you are less strong in. And my world-building, I think, is very strong. This is my strength. This is where I’m at home. This is what I want to do. My character work, I feel, I understand from other people, is strong. Like, people love my characters. People connect to my characters. So that’s all good. Plot, however, is not a strength for me. And I have put a lot of effort over the years into becoming better. A lot. But I’m not, and I’m not because I’m not into linear storytelling at all. I love a tapestry. I want worlds to be complicated. I want it to be interconnected. And I don’t like linear plots. However, people love linear plots, or at least A to B type of plots, and they’re easy to read, and they’re engaging. So, the bulk of my revision work is always plot, and it’s always pacing, like, knowing how to build pacing. That’s going to really make something pop. But it’s very rarely other things.
I was going to ask you about characterization. That sounds like something that you’ve got all worked out in your head before you start actually writing, then. How do you find your characters, and how do you go about building them?
Thank you. So, my characters. So, I think, over the years, I’ve talked to a fair amount of writers about characters and there are many very interesting approaches to building character. Some go a route that I think of as the D&D route, where you have a character sheet, and you kind of build the character on the sheet, which I think works. And it’s a great technique if you’re into it, where you write what they look like and their likes and dislikes and their strengths and weaknesses and all that. And from that, you build a character. For others, it is more like, this is a person. And for me, this is how it happens. I meet a person, and that person is a character in my world. Usually, they start out as secondary characters in my world, which is why people often feel, oh, it’s all connected. Yes, it’s all connected, but there’s no beginning. Like, there’s no canonical this is the first. I mean, The Four Profound Weaves is the debut, so I guess it’s going to be the first. But a lot of times, I write something, and there’s a secondary character, and I know very little about them. And when I finish writing, I start thinking, “Hmm, there was a little scene in the little place and that person was sitting somewhere in the corner, and the person said an interesting thing. I want to know that person a little bit better.” And so, I start, as I walk around before, long before, I start writing, as I walk around, I start imagining what the person is like. How do they move? Like, how do they speak? Like, what language do they speak? What are they wearing? Are they fat, thin, or maybe somewhere in between? Are they older or are they younger? What are their relationships like? Do they want something, to tell me something?
And then at some point, characters in my head start talking to me, and they start telling me a little bit. Usually, these are things that they don’t tell other people. Maybe nobody listens. Maybe it’s painful. Maybe it’s too personal. So I feel the storyteller, for me, how I see myself, the storyteller is the presence that, when you are alone, and you’re really conflicted or torn or in pain, and you want to tell something to somebody, the storyteller is that hovering presence in the empty room, who is listening to that voice, that then you say to an empty room, “OK, this hurts,” or “I want to tell a story from my childhood,” or “This is something I’ve never told anybody.”
And so, I think a lot of my character building begins there and begins with a secret, with something the character didn’t want to talk about. I write a lot about characters who are traumatized, who are neurotypical and/or disabled in some way. Trauma plays a major role in my storytelling. I want my storytelling to be both gentle in its treatment of trauma and also not to shy away from the fact that people have trauma in their lives. And so, once I learn a person’s secret, it becomes something really deep for me and really meaningful. I want to give them gentleness and healing. So, a lot of my readers have really appreciated that even when my stories get really dark, and they often get really dark, there is a place for healing. I am not there to break the reader. I want to unbreak the reader. And often, the readers who most appreciate my work are readers who themselves have marginalization. They come from places that maybe they have struggled and they have trauma. And so, they appreciate that perspective of caring that I bring to my storytelling.
So, I would think that if I spent maybe half or maybe a third of the time that I spend on my characters and plot, I would be golden. But I don’t. So, that’s why plot takes second seat, and it really shouldn’t because we need plots. A plot is a skeleton of a story, and it shouldn’t fall down without the skeleton. But think I’m just really into characterization, and I really love my characters. And if I write about them for a while, they become people to me, and I care about them.
Once you have the actual draft, as far as you’re going to take it, then it goes to an editor. What does your editorial feedback tend to look like?
So, I worked with some amazing editors. I’ve had so much luck in terms of my editors, and I think that editors, editors who understand the writer’s work, and want to make it better, are golden. And there are many wonderful people in the industry who are like that. At Tachyon, I worked with Jaymee Goh, and I worked with Jill Roberts. Both of them have had an impact on how The Four Profound Weaves was shaped when they accepted the novella.
It was much shorter, and they wanted it longer. It was still a novella, but it was shorter. They wanted it longer. They felt it needed more room. And so, with the help of Jaymee, who gave me…Jaymee, she gave me kind of, like, here’s where it can go, here are some of the things that we feel needed more development. And so, I sat with it, and then I revised it. And Jamie gave me very detailed and very sensitive editorial instructions, which just made, I feel…and then, when Jaymee was done with it, Jill, who was the managing editor at Tachyon, who’s also fantastic, Jill read it, and Jill gave me actual comments. Some of them I took, some of them I didn’t take. And it was just the most collaborative, constructive, and respectful process. And so, that’s one of the reasons I say that I love working with Tachyon because the people there are good. They’re good people. They’re sensitive. They want the story to be the best it can be. They’re committed to working with the writers. I really love that process.
I also had so much luck with Scott Andrews, whom I already mentioned. I’ve worked with other editors who were golden, too. But I think Scott, especially. I learned so much from him, especially when I was a new writer. Scott would ask me questions and try to understand why I made the decisions that I made, even when he thought a scene is dragging too long or too short or, “I don’t understand why this is happening” or “I don’t understand this character.” Scott always tries to understand where you’re coming from with a story.
So, I remember I was sitting in my office at work, and I got my first rewrite request from Beneath Ceaseless Skies. And I was thinking, “Oh, my God, this could be my second professional sale. I’m on my way to becoming a SFWA member.” I was really into it at the time. I am a SFWA member now. And the more I read of it, it was so long, and I was getting this feeling of fear. “I am never going to be able to do this. I don’t understand how this works.” And so, my friends, bless them, walked me through it and said, “No, actually this is really sympathetic. Try to just respond to it.” And so, I sold the rewrite request. And after I’d done that, I felt like…I’ve learned that beyond my own revision processes, I also will work with an editor. And the editor that I want to work with is an editor who is hands-on. I love that. I love the back and forth. I love the dialogue. I love working with editors who are not the my-way-or-the-highway type of editor because that that cannot work for me. But I like—I love—working with editors who are collaborative, who want to make the manuscript the best it can be, who can give feedback, who are invested in the work. And I just hope that going forward in my career, I will work with other editors and/or the same editors, because I love my editors, who are hands-on.
Well, the novella will be out when this airs. It’s about to come out as we’re recording it. But you’ve had some pretty good reviews already, so it looks like…are you happy with the response you’re seeing from some of those reviewers?
I am so happy, I am just beyond thrilled with the response that I’ve been getting on the novella. I have gotten a starred review from Publishers Weekly. I’ve gotten a starred review from the Library Journal. I got one from Forward Literary, also a starred review, which is for indie titles. I’ve gotten a lot of advance praise. And I am just so…I mean, how can you not be happy with such a response? I did not anticipate that it would be so positive. I’m thrilled. I also know that some people, from the reviews I’ve seen here and there, I feel that some people felt that my language was too lyrical and that kind of was not their thing. And that’s OK. I am a very firm believer that not every book is for every reader. And the beautiful thing about science fiction, fantasy, and horror is that there is room for a variety of styles and approaches. And if not every reader is going to embrace it, that’s just fine. I just was most concerned about doing justice to my community.
So, I wanted the work to speak first and foremost to the experience of trans people and queer people and people who have maybe lived long lives and struggled with coming out, or lived long lives and struggled with regret. So, I’ve had some sensitivity readers and beta readers and alpha readers from the community who’ve read the book and have given me their comments, and they all felt that the book is sensitive. So, that’s what was super important to me. And it’s as important as those starred reviews for me because I want to do justice to my people and I want to uplift my people. I actually want to uplift everybody because everybody deserves an experience of hope that’s coming out of some kind of personal darkness. I think that’s a beautiful thing, and that’s what I kind of try to achieve with this book. But it’s OK that there’s no universal adoration. I do not want that. I do not expect that. But I’m thrilled with the response, and I’m just hoping that people who need this book will find it.
I would say I never expect universal adulation. I wouldn’t say I don’t want universal adulation.
Hey, if it comes, it comes. But I don’t think it’s a thing I strive for. You can’t please everyone. You just can’t. People are so different.
Yeah, people are very different. One thing about the podcast here, you find out from talking to, you know, so many different writers, is how different everybody’s approach is to the craft. And that kind of brings me to my big philosophical question at the end, which you maybe kind of answered along the way a bit. But as I mentioned off the top, when we were setting this up, that question is, why do you do this? Why do you write? Why do you write this stuff? Why do you think any of us do, for that matter? What is it that makes us tell these stories?
OK. So, I don’t know. And I wish I did, but I think if I if I knew that would make me maybe not as human as I am for me personally. I just don’t feel that this…why are humans, some humans compelled to creativity, is a question about God, the universe, existence, and other things. But I often feel, I often think about the metaphor of the pearl for myself. And the metaphor of the pearl is that the pearl, you know, a mollusk exists with no problem up until a grain of sand lands, and you begin working around this grain of sand and wrapping it and wrapping it and wrapping it, and it feels really painful, and you don’t know why you’re doing it. Then, in the end, you hopefully created the pearl and not a pile of shit—so sorry, pardon me. So, for me, the process of a grain of sand has landed, and now we’re working around it. That’s the metaphor that I’m working with. Not a lot of… don’t know if everybody’s like this, but that’s what it is like for me. Something is bothering me that cannot be expressed through nonfiction, that cannot be expressed through not writing, and that something needs to be expressed. And that’s why I’m writing.
And what are you working on now?
So, I’m working on the few Birdverse longer pieces. I’m working on revising a novel that I’ve been working on for a long time that’s about revolution and linguistics, also set in Birdverse. There’s one other thing that I’m working on in Birdverse, which is a novella about a character about whom I also…who is a side character in some of my other works that I’ve known about for a long time, who needs to save her people from disaster and is not really managing to save her people from disaster. It is suddenly very, very current. It wasn’t as current as when I was starting it. So, that’s what I’m working on. And then I’m also working on a science fiction novel which is called, in my head, it’s called Space Putin because it is about Putin in space, or not Putin, but somebody who is like Putin maybe a little bit.
I suspect that title will change!
It’s not going to be the title. And hopefully, hopefully Putin is not going to get, the real Putin, is not going to get involved. But I am a big fan of the Brothers Strugatsky, who are Russian science fiction writers that were fundamental for most Russian-speaking people who write science fiction. Also, people in general, awesome writers. And so, I’ve been doing a long reread of Strugatsky work for a while now, and I decided to write a section novel. It’s about two people, from kind of different factions who…and one of them is a clone of a clone of a clone of a clone of somebody who is very important in the revolution and must be now on the run from space Putin. So, it’s kind of an adventure, but also has these themes and thoughts about the Soviet Union that I have and how it collapsed and other things.
Well, I’m going to remember Space Putin now, that’s for sure.
It is catchy, isn’t it?
It is, it is. And where can people find you online?
And I post a lot of things that I don’t want to publish, or I don’t get published, I publish on Patreon, which includes fiction, poetry, drawings, and other things. And I also have a website, rblemberg.net, where you can I can follow me. I am not on Facebook, I don’t like Facebook, not really. I mean, I’m kind of there, but I’m not there really. And I’m a little bit on Instagram, but those, those are not good outlets. I think I’m mainly on Twitter and on Patreon in those days.
I talk a lot of authors who are on Instagram, but I hardly ever do anything on Instagram. It’s a hard one to get a handle on for me.
I post flowers. So, if people want flowers they can go.
Cat pictures. Cat pictures are always good. Well, thanks so much for being on The Worldshapers. I enjoyed that, I hope you did, too.
Yes, I did. Thank you so much for your time and thank you for such great questions. I really enjoyed the conversation.
I did, too. OK, bye for now.